When 'Staying The Course' Means Defeat: I. Iraq

10/12/2006 05:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Note: Fred Branfman spent over 4 years on the ground in Indochina as a volunteer and journalist between 1967 and 1973, and was co-director of the Indochina Resource Center in Washington, D.C., which U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin blamed for the loss of Indochina.

This is the first of a two-part series. The second is entitled "WHEN 'STAYING THE COURSE': MEANS DEFEAT: 2. IINDOCHINA."

Democrats would do far better to attack Republicans for trying to "stay the course" in an Iraq war that has clearly been lost, rather than continuing to stay on the defensive against Rove's attacks that they favor "cutting and running." It has become clear beyond any serious doubt that attempting to "stay the course" will prove even more disastrous in Iraq than it did in Indochina. Mr. Bush has clearly failed in Iraq, and "staying the course" will not only lead to more mass murder but to further victories for America's enemies. As proven in Indochina, attempting to "stay the course" in a war that has already been lost is the deepest possible betrayal of both America and young Americans being sent to pointless deaths, not to mention the people of Iraq who overwhelmingly favor an end to the U.S. occupation.

The issue is no longer whether one thinks our occupation of Iraq was justified. Rights and wrongs aside, the Bush's Administration present policy simply cannot succeed in the future. The issue is not what "should" the U.S. do, but what it "can" do. And from a rational point of view, as the intelligence agencies on which we spend hundreds of billions a year have concluded, Mr. Bush's policies of seeking to maintain high U.S. troop levels and continue war-making in Iraq are harming America's national security interests and helping those who wish to do us harm.

General John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Middle East forces, announced on September 25 that present U.S. troop levels of 140,000 will remain in Iraq until at least next spring, and Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker said yesterday the military is planning to be able to maintain these levels until 2010. A new John Hopkins study has reported that civilian deaths are dramatically rising, and that over 600,000 Iraqi civilians have died since Mr. Bush occupied Iraq. With at least 40 U.S. soldiers having died in the first 11 days of October alone, and a U.N.-estimated 100 Iraqi civilians dying daily just in and around Baghdad, it is clear that Mr. Bush's determination to "stay the course" in Iraq will lead to ever-increasing Iraqi and U.S. deaths.

And despite Mr. Bush's assertion at yesterday's press conference that "we're on the move; we're taking action; we're helping this young democracy succeed", the evidence is mounting that these deaths will not lead to his stated goal of creating a viable pro-American democracy.

Mr. Bush stated at his press conference, for example, that "amid the violence, important political developments are also taking place. The Iraqi legislature reached a compromise and set up a process for addressing the difficult issues of federalism and constitutional reform." Incredibly, on the very day Mr. Bush asserted this, Shiite members in Parliament passed a federalism measure allowing them to seize the rich oilfields of the south, by 141-0 without Sunni participation, making increasing civil war far more likely than a viable democracy.

Perhaps the most flagrant recent example of Mr. Bush's ongoing cluelessness about Iraq is Bob Woodward's report that Henry Kissinger has become Mr. Bush's main outside advisor on Iraq, and that Kissinger believes the U.S. would have won in Indochina had it not lost its "will" on the home front. Kissinger's contention is factually untrue, a grotesque revision of basic historical fact that has no basis in reality. The U.S. lost in Indochina because of Mr. Kissinger's disastrous mismanagement, and he is the very last person Mr. Bush - who is repeating many of his mistakes - should be listening to on Iraq. (Please see "When 'Staying the Course' Means Defeat: 2. Indochina")

The John Hopkins study chillingly reports that "excess" civilian deaths (i.e., deaths due to violence) have risen from 5.5 per 1,000 pre-invasion, to 13.3 in the post-invasion aftermath, to 19.8 in the year ending in June 2006. While its overall numbers may be controversial, its finding that the U.S. occupation has failed to contain a rising level of violence has been echoed by many other sources - including the U.S. military.

The U.S. military today reported that violence in Baghdad is at an "all-time high", despite having moved U.S. troops to Baghdad in an effort to contain it. USA Today reports that "the number of sectarian killings each month in Baghdad has more than tripled since February, and the violence has not slowed despite a major offensive in the capital. Death squads killed 1,450 people in September, up from 450 in February, according to U.S. military statistics. In the first 10 days of October, death squads have killed about 770 Iraqis. Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman, acknowledged violence in Baghdad is at an 'all-time high'". The latest Pentagon report to Congress, on September 1, stated that "overall attack levels are higher than last quarter. Extremists seeking to stoke ethno-sectarian strife have increasingly focused their efforts on civilians, inciting a cycle of retribution killings and driving civilian casualties to new highs".

The U.N. has reported has reported that 137,862 people became refugees between February and August of this year, and that 3,590 civilians died in July, the highest monthly total to date. In August, 3,009 were killed and 4,309 wounded, the latter a 14 percent increase from July. ("U.N. Finds Baghdad Toll Far Higher Than Cited", N.Y. Times, 9/21/06.) The Brookings Institute's Iraq Index reports that largely Sunni "insurgents" fighting the U.S. increased by more than 25%, from 16,000 to 20,000+ between May 2005 and May 2006. Killing by Shiite militias has increased by an even greater amount. The index also reported that daily attacks had risen from 70 in July 2005 to 90 a year later, an increase of 28%, constituting an attack every 15 minutes as Woodward has also reported.

The real meaning of the National Intelligence Estimate's conclusion that "the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders" is that the balance of forces does not favor the U.S. in Iraq, and can only grow worse in coming years as pressure inevitably grows to withdraw U.S. forces. Even centrist voices like Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, who has supported U.S. war-making in Iraq, now writes that "it is time to call an end to the tests, the six-month trials, the waiting and watching, and to recognize that the Iraqi government has failed. It is also time to face the terrible reality that America's mission in Iraq has substantially failed. More waiting is unlikely to turn things around, nor will more troops." (10/16/06)

As domestic pressure grows to withdraw U.S. ground troops, the U.S. military will have even less leverage in Iraq. It will be increasingly unable to contain the growing civil war, and ongoing U.S. occupation will continue to feed an increased cycle of killing that can only be brought to an end by the Iraqis themselves. This is the judgment reached by the Iraqi people, 71% of whom favor a U.S. withdrawal within a year, and 61% of whom approve of attacks on Americans. Were Iraq truly a democracy today, these wishes by its people for a U.S. withdrawal would be honored rather than ignored.

And even if the Iraqi people are wrong and the civil war expands following a U.S. withdrawal, there is little the U.S. can do about it. Even in the inconceivable event that the U.S. was willing to reinstitute the draft, double U.S. troops in Iraq, and seek to eliminate both the Shiite Islamo-fascist militias that it empowered and Sunni insurgents, it would be unlikely to prevail given the strength of the militias and the likelihood of increased Iranian support for them. As in Indochina, the U.S. can at best delay - not prevent - the inevitable.

The central reason why "staying the course" cannot work is simple: it is as absurd to suggest today that "Iraqization" can work as it was in 1969 for Mr. Kissinger to assert that "Vietnamization" could succeed against the far stronger and more motivated North Vietnamese.

There are numerous indications from the field that the Iraqi army is not an effective fighting force, including reports of its high desertion and absentee rate ("An Army of Some", NYT, 8/20/06, restricted/ article?res= F30F17FA3C5A0C738EDDA10894DE404482), lack of motivation and morale ("U.S. Military Is Still Waiting For Iraqi Forces to 'Stand Up'", WP, 10/01/06, http://www. article/2006/09/30/ AR2006093000492.html) and lack of resources ("Inside the Iraqi forces fiasco", Salon, 8/14/06 http://www. feature/2006/08/14/military_ advisors/index1.html)

But even were the Iraqi military more effective, can anyone in their right mind seriously suggest that it can do what the U.S. military cannot? And the fact that the present Iraqi government is dependent for support on Islamo-fascist militias engaged in a genocidal civil war makes it even less likely that it can create a viable political, military or police force than could the Thieu regime in South Vietnam.

As in Vietnam, however, the political debate at home has not yet caught up with the reality of the balance of forces on the ground abroad. Republicans can still argue that "staying the course" is a serious option. Politicians of both parties are terrified of a "who lost Iraq?" debate that will blame them for its loss. And, unless that dynamic changes, the prospects are only for more gains by Islamic militants until - as in Indochina - the U.S. is forced to withdraw in a far more humiliating manner than if it conducts a planned, orderly, and rational withdrawal as soon as possible.

Although they do not want to muddy the Rove "cut and run" attack on Democrats prior to November, Congressional Republicans are reportedly likely to move toward gradually withdrawing U.S. forces after the upcoming elections. Senator Biden has reportedly been told by Congressional Republicans that Donald Rumsfeld will be toast post-November. Senator Warner has suggested a change of course if the situation does not soon improve. James Baker has implied he will recommend an alternative to either "cutting and running" or "staying the course."

As indicated by Baker's talk of a middle ground in Iraq, however, Republican support for gradually withdrawing U.S. ground troops from Iraq will not necessarily mean an end to U.S. war-making. On the contrary. Republicans in the post-election era, particularly if the Democrats control the House and/or Senate, will be even more determined to try and pin the blame for "the loss of Iraq" on their opponents.

What this could mean is simple - and frightening. If Mr. Bush follows Mr. Kissinger's model, he could well turn to increased bombing to compensate for a reduction in U.S. ground troops. There are already indications that he is preparing for a massive bombing campaign against Iran. And he may well increase his bombing in Iraq as well, especially in the likely event that the Iraqi army cannot achieve its objectives on its own.

Next: "When 'Staying The Course' Means Defeat: 2. Indochina"