The New York Times published an internal memo by Colonel Timothy Reese yesterday. Colonel Reese is Chief of the Baghdad Operations Command Advisory Team, and as such has been heavily involved in the training and development of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).
His memorandum—never designed to be leaked to the general public—is remarkable for its unvarnished and objective look at the security situation in Iraq. Some of the remarkable statements in the memo:
• Prime Minister (PM) Maliki hailed June 30th as a “great victory,” implying the victory was over the US.
• Remaining in Iraq through the end of December 2011 will yield little in the way of improving the abilities of the ISF or the functioning of the GOI. Furthermore, in light of the GOI’s current interpretation of the limitations imposed by the 30 June milestones of the 2008 Security Agreement, the security of US forces are at risk.
• The ineffectiveness and corruption of GOI Ministries is the stuff of legend.
• The military culture of the Baathist-Soviet model under Saddam Hussein remains entrenched and will not change. The senior leadership of the ISF is incapable of change in the current environment.
a) Corruption among officers is widespread
b) Neglect and mistreatment of enlisted men is the norm
c) The unwillingness to accept a role for the NCO corps continues
d) Cronyism and nepotism are rampant in the assignment and promotion system
e) Laziness is endemic
f) Extreme centralization of C2 is the norm
g) Lack of initiative is legion
h) Unwillingness to change, do anything new blocks progress
i) Near total ineffectiveness of the Iraq Army and National Police institutional organizations and systems prevents the ISF from becoming self-sustaining
j) For every positive story about a good ISF junior officer with initiative, or an ISF commander who conducts a rehearsal or an after action review or some individual MOS training event, there are ten examples of the most basic lack of military understanding despite the massive partnership efforts by our combat forces and advisory efforts by MiTT and NPTT teams.
There is little reason to doubt this assessment: It corresponds to every other objective assessment of the situation that has been coming out of Iraq.
It’s a good time, therefore, to reflect on what has occurred:
• Iraq was invaded in 2003 under a falsified claim of possessing weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda by the Bush Administration. Every one of the pre-war claims have been proven false, in many cases even before the date of the invasion. Yet the story of aluminium tubes, Prague meetings or Niger yellowcake have been forgotten. George Bush builds his library and gives the occasional speech; Tony Blair’s name has obscenely been put forward as the next President of the European Council.
• The occupation of Iraq was blatantly misplanned, leading to thousands of American and Allied deaths, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths. Paul Bremmer was awarded the Medal of Freedom; Donald Rumsfeld has retired into obscurity, for which we are grateful.
• At this time, Iraq, is essentially divided into three statelets: The Shia-controlled centre, east and south; the Sunni-controlled west; and the Kurdish-controlled north.
• Iranian influence over the Shia statelet continues to grow. Reports of Iranian control over militias and government ministries alike has been corroborated from several sources.
• The Sunni détente that was achieved by creating the “Sons of Iraq” is in the process of unravelling, as the Shia-dominated government reneges on promises made and begins to slowly disarm and disenfranchise the Sunni militias, and withhold their pay.
• The US promise to withdraw from combat operations and urban areas has fundamentally weakened the deterent threat of US power. This in turns makes any pretense of political reconciliation impossible.
• Whatever benefits won by the “surge” have been effectively lost by the Obama Administration’s decision—which was fully consistent with pledges made by the Bush Administration—to withdraw from Iraq.
If we accept these conclusions, which I believe are objective and evidence for all to see, then the incoherence and failure of American policy is simply breath-taking:
• Iraq was invaded on patently false pretences;
• The occupation was mismanaged, at tremendous cost in blood and treasure;
• Once a new strategy—the “surge” was finally put into effect and worked—both the Bush and Obama administrations literally pulled the rug out from other the feet of the US military by ordering a phased withdrawal.
America is withdrawing, leaving a broken state, where external political interference from Iran, Syria and other anti-US powers is increasing. We leave behind us another foul dictatorship and the prospect of years of low-level warfare that will inevitably draw us into renewed conflict.
In fact, there has been one clear winner in Iraq. Iran has managed to tie down US forces and broken American political will for an attack on its nuclear facilities. It has consolidated control over its ancient enemy-Iraq, and particularly over Basra and the oil-rich east of the country. It has learned how to combat American ground and air forces, and has extended its sphere of influence in the Middle East.
There are also a number of collateral winners: China has been able to continue its military and economic build-up unimpeded. Together with Russia, it emerges strengthened as America weakens. Although Russia will never recover its greatness, it’s clear that it’s room for manoeuvre has increased as it consolidates control over economic assets and neighbouring countries.
In the meantime, American combat fatalities number over 4,000, while permanently disabled and injured veterans number over 25,000. The cost so far in direct military expenditure as well as the cost of replacing worn-down equipment is probably at the $ 1 trillion mark. Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimate that the true cost of the war is over $ 3 trillion.
The American public appears to have forgotten about Iraq. Lulled by the Obama Administration’s promise to withdraw, the war no longer dominates the headlines. The geostrategic implications of America’s defeat—for defeat is what we are talking about—are rarely to be seen in public fora. Instead, the American public sinks deeper into its hedonistic morass of the next big sensation, the next You Tube hit, and the next irrelevant public debate.
As the summer of 2009 draws to a close, we are confronted with a debilitating strategic failure in Iraq. This failure leaves the United States less secure economically and politically that it was in 2003, and has created new opportunities for strategic enemies.
Absent a radical and fundamental re-think of US foreign, military and economic policy, we appear doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. As our national debt skyrockets and political incoherence grips Washington, you can sense the headlines of American decline being written.
Instead of thinking, and preparing for the future, we are being drawn into another pointless conflict—that of Iraq and Pakistan—which military arms alone cannot hope to win, in which we are unaware of the true cost that will be incurred, and in which we appear to refuse to deploy the socio-economic tools are necessary for victory.
I write this post with sadness. I was opposed to the Iraq war from the start, and predicted the failure of the US occupation. Yet its failure has been beyond my grimmest forecasts. The human cost has been tremendous: the sacrifices of American troops and their families perhaps not meaningless, but certainly in vain. The economic cost is still being counted. The strategic consequences are emerging, but as yet unknown.
Napoleon Bonaparte said that “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” I regret that it’s never the politicians who pay for their stupidity.