The Guardian 19 November, 2008
An era of peace?
Barack Obama’s arrival should speed up the US withdrawal from Iraq. But, even though Obama’s election represents a massive shift among voters, it isn’t the main influence on the generals.
The push factors and pull factors in Iraq are not generated by who sits in the White House.
The US wants to leave because occupying Iraq costs too much blood and treasure. It wants to pull out before its army begins to crack in the desert sun.
It wants to stay because it wants to keep the influence provided by having a great big army slap bang in the middle of one of the world’s most strategic regions. It wants to use its big guns to push around the Middle East.
The pushing and pulling between the military losses and the strategic gains decides how long the US army stays in Iraq. Obama will make the same calculation, but his election does mean that one figure has been removed from the sum.
The US elite needs to worry less about losing face, because George Bush’s face has just been wiped off the screen. The US political elite would be willing to sacrifice lives to avoid humiliating the commander-in-chief, because its strategic influence and its reputation in the world’s schoolyard was unfortunately invested in grinning George.
Obama can lead a more ragged withdrawal without looking as bad as Bush, because he never stood on an aircraft carrier dressed like Action Man and declared victory.
Then there is the small matter of Obama promising to get combat troops out of Iraq in 18 months.
The new president has lots of wriggle room here.
He could just pretend that the thousands of soldiers remaining in vast US bases are not "combat" troops, but some other kind of killer. However, his landslide shows that expectations are high in the US and disappointed voters can soon become angry protesters.
While votes are the last thing on the war planners’ minds, they can be shifted by protest. If the anti-war protesters start to look like they are correct, principled, numerous and representative, while the pro-war planners look shifty, devious and isolated, then the generals get itchy.
They fear that the political system as a whole will lose legitimacy and that the argument will spread to soldiers, who will lose respect for military authority.
That’s what happened in Vietnam and, if Obama’s administration turns out to be more enthusiastic for war than advertised, that is the task facing the US anti-war lobby.
How many US troops leave Iraq and how fast they do so depend a lot on what is happening inside the country. This is not an easy question to answer, because honest reporting of the Iraq war and occupation has been smothered in a blanker of official lies and dishonest journalism.
The big question is, what happened in the US "surge?"
According to the official story, the surge involved extra troops guaranteeing security so that the new Iraqi government could build political reconciliation. However, this clearly has not happened. The Iraqis have not settled who owns their oil or how the country votes. And the US has tried to weaken and humiliate the Iraqi government with an onerous "status of forces" agreement, not build up the new Iraqi administration.
Another version of the surge can be found in General Petraeus’s counter-insurgency manual. Petraeus recommended a strategy based on the British in Malaya or the US Operation Phoenix in Vietnam.
This Malaysian recipe has three ingredients, which were also stirred into the Vietnam version.
First, put the population into "strategic hamlets" to separate the population from insurgents. Second, hire local militias to shore up the occupying forces. Third, run an assassination program against the enemy.
There is strong evidence that Washington has tried all three in Iraq.
The US has rubber-stamped ethnic cleansing in Baghdad and stuffed the segregated populations behind blast walls and checkpoints. They have hired the sectarian Sons of Iraq militias, ignoring the protests of Iraq’s elected government. There is also significant evidence of an assassination program.
In his latest volume on the Bush White House, The War Within, veteran US journalist Bob Woodward says that US officials credit a "special program" with being the most effective part of the surge. This is a euphemism for an assassination program.
However, you need neither the investigative powers of Woodward nor the ability to understand military code words to see a US scheme of selective killing in Iraq. The army barely denies it.
Last month’s US helicopter raid on Syria was an admitted "targeted killing." The US claims that it was hitting an al-Qaida bad guy and seems completely unapologetic about the eight others, including four children, that it killed in the raid.
We also have strong circumstantial evidence that British troops are helping the US in "targeted killings." This evidence shows that British soldiers are as likely as the US to cause innocents to get killed.
Incredibly, the evidence comes from the streets of Lambeth, not Baghdad.
Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead after a soldier from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment who was working for the police misidentified him as a "terrorist."
The same British regiment helps US troops on undercover missions. If they identify innocent men in London as the enemy, leading to their murder, it seems likely that they are doing the same in Iraq.
If this analysis is right, then the slow drawdown of troops from Iraq is likely to be ugly. The relative decrease of violence in Iraq has been bought by ethnic cleansing, state-sponsored militias and selective murders. The US has created all the conditions for a Lebanon-style violent fragmentation of the country.
Obama begins his presidency with a tremendous wave of goodwill. Just not being Bush is a fantastic advantage. Managing the closure of Guantánamo would gain him international praise. So, I suspect that he can deal with the flak from Iraqi failures, which will mostly be blamed on his predecessor.
However, looking at the grim ground in Iraq, it is shocking to realise that Obama plans similar "surge" tactics for Afghanistan.
The anti-war movement may first run up against the new president over US strategy in Kabul rather than Baghdad.