Patrick Cockburn on the war we are losing in Iraq.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the leader of one of the Kurdish parties, confidently told a meeting in Brasilia last week that there is war in only three or four out of 18 Iraqi provinces. Back in Baghdad Mr Talabani, an experienced guerrilla leader, has deployed no fewer than 3,000 Kurdish soldiers or peshmerga around his residence in case of attack. One visitor was amused to hear the newly elected President interrupt his own relentlessly upbeat account of government achievements to snap orders to his aides on the correct positioning of troops and heavy weapons around his house.
There is no doubt that the US has failed to win the war. Much of Iraq is a bloody no man’s land. The army has not been able to secure the short highway to the airport, though it is the most important road in the country, linking the US civil headquarters in the Green Zone with its military HQ at Camp Victory.
Embedded journalism fosters false optimism. It means reporters are only present where American troops are active, though US forces seldom venture into much of Iraq. Embedded correspondents bravely covered the storming of Fallujah by US marines last November and rightly portrayed it as a US military success. But the outside world remained largely unaware, because no reporters were present with US forces, that at the same moment an insurgent offensive had captured most of Mosul, a city five times larger than Fallujah.
The failure was in part political. Immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein polls showed that Iraqis were evenly divided on whether they had been liberated or occupied. Eighteen months later the great majority both of Sunni and Shia said they had been occupied, and they did not like it. Every time I visited a spot where an American soldier had been killed or a US vehicle destroyed there were crowds of young men and children screaming their delight. “I am a poor man but I am going home to cook a chicken to celebrate,” said one man as he stood by the spot marked with the blood of an American soldier who had just been shot to death.
From the start, there was something dysfunctional about the American armed forces. They could not adapt themselves to Iraq. Their massive firepower meant they won any set-piece battle, but it also meant that they accidentally killed so many Iraqi civilians that they were the recruiting sergeants of the resistance. The army denied counting Iraqi civilian dead, which might be helpful in dealing with American public opinion. But Iraqis knew how many of their people were dying.
The US war machine was over-armed. I once saw a unit trying to restore order at a petrol station where there was a fist fight between Iraqi drivers over queue-jumping (given that people sometimes sleep two nights in their cars waiting to fill a tank, tempers were understandably frayed). In one corner was a massive howitzer, its barrel capable of hurling a shell 30km, which the soldiers had brought along for this minor policing exercise.
The US army was also too thin on the ground. It has 145,000 men in Iraq, but reportedly only half of these are combat troops. During the heavily publicised assault on Fallujah the US forces drained the rest of Iraq of its soldiers. “We discovered the US troops had suddenly abandoned the main road between Kirkuk and Baghdad without telling anybody,” said one indignant observer. “It promptly fell under the control of the insurgents.”
The army acts as a sort of fire brigade, briefly effective in dousing the flames, but always moving on before they are fully extinguished. There are only about 6,000 US soldiers in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital and which has a population of three million. For the election on 30 January, US reserves arriving in Iraq were all sent to Mosul to raise the level to 15,000 to prevent any uprising in the city. They succeeded in doing so but were then promptly withdrawn.
The solution for the White House has been to build up an Iraqi force to take the place of US soldiers. This has been the policy since the autumn of 2003 and it has repeatedly failed. In April 2004, during the first fight for Fallujah, the Iraqi army battalions either mutinied before going to the city or refused to fight against fellow Iraqis once there. In Mosul in November 2004 the 14,000 police force melted away during the insurgent offensive, abandoning 30 police stations and $40m in equipment.
Almost exactly a century ago the Russian empire fought a war with Japan in the belief that a swift victory would strengthen the powers-that-be in St Petersburg. Instead the Tsar’s armies met defeat. Russian generals, who said that their tactic of charging Japanese machine guns with sabre-wielding cavalry had failed only because their men had attacked with insufficient brio, held their jobs. In Iraq, American generals and their political masters of demonstrable incompetence are not fired. The US is turning out to be much less of a military and political superpower than the rest of the world had supposed.