Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Yet if the commander’s estimate of the situation was changing, his approach to the war remained fixed: Keep the pressure on. His subordinate commanders were doing just that. As the senior Marine commander in Iraq put it, when attacked, “our methods [are] always to respond to force with even greater force.”
Army and Marine Corps commanders alike persuaded themselves that this approach was working. In Anbar Province, Major General Charles H. Swannack, commanding the 82nd Airborne Division, declared, “We’re doing a great job. We’re on the glide path to go ahead and get the security situation under control.”
General Odierno agreed. In October, he issued an upbeat progress report virtually identical to the one that he had offered in July. “As you all know,” he remarked,
our soldiers are involved in almost daily contact with terrorists, former regime members and common criminals. To defeat these attacks and continue to improve the security and stability within our area, we are conducting search and attack missions, crisis patrols and a series of aggressive operations to disarm, defeat and destroy hostile forces, as well as to capture mid-level former regime members responsible for organizing anti-coalition activities. These efforts have been highly successful, producing a stabilizing effect throughout the region.
If in the midst of these highly successful operations violence persisted, Odierno chalked it up to the enemy being on the ropes. The insurgents were “becoming more and more desperate each day,” he asserted. The general downplayed reports of foreign fighters entering Iraq in growing numbers, remarking without apparent irony that “what I’ve found is Iraqis do not like people from other countries fooling in Iraqi business.”
For his part, Abizaid was beginning to entertain a more nuanced view. He described an increasingly diverse group of “extremists” who drew their inspiration from a variety of sources not necessarily related to the former regime:
They represent religious extremists, they represent national extremists that may or may not have been associated with the Ba’athists, yet nevertheless desire to fight the coalition….There are a small, yet important and well-organized, group of foreign fighters, some of whom have been operating in Iraq for a long time, many of whom are infiltrating across various borders….[And] it is also true that there are some anti-coalition Shi’a movements that also aim to destabilize any moderate government that would form in Baghdad.
In other words, Abizaid had now concluded, the war had crosscutting ethnic, sectarian, religious, and nationalist dimensions. The enemy’s main aim was not to restore Saddam Hussein but to expel the foreign occupiers. The goal was “not to defeat us militarily,” he said, but “to break the will of the United States of America. It’s clear, it’s simple, it’s straightforward. Break our will, make us leave….That’s their goal. That’s what they’re trying to do.” By implication, Saddam Hussein, wherever he was, had become irrelevant.
Even so, when U.S. forces finally pulled the bedraggled former Iraqi dictator out of a hole on December 13, Sanchez spied another turning point. “The capture of Saddam Hussein is a defining moment in the new Iraq,” he assured reporters in Baghdad. Although the previous month had seen 82 Americans killed and another 336 wounded, Sanchez now glimpsed better days ahead.
“I expect that the detention of Saddam Hussein will be regarded as the beginning of reconciliation for the people of Iraq and as a sign of Iraq’s rebirth.”
His subordinates duly echoed those expectations. “We have turned the corner, and now we can accelerate down the straightaway,” remarked General Swannack the following month. “With the capture of Saddam Hussein, we have moved forward because those who had hope for his return no longer have that hope, and those who feared his return no longer have that fear.”
Odierno shared that view. “The former regime elements we have been combating have been brought to their knees,” he said. “Capturing Saddam was a major operational and psychological defeat for the enemy.”
In fact, Saddam’s capture was beside the point, as events soon demonstrated. The insurgency not only persisted, it intensified, thanks in part to the actions of U.S. forces.
By framing the adversary as a Ba’athist cabal, Sanchez and his fellow commanders had committed a grievous error. But once having done so, they found it difficult to recant, at least in part because doing so would call into question the larger strategic rationale for invading Iraq in the first place—that Iraqis would willingly embrace President Bush’s Freedom Agenda, thereby paving the way for a broader transformation of the Greater Middle East.
Imagine if at the end of 1965, just months after U.S. combat troops had arrived in South Vietnam, the American high command in Saigon had come to the realization that nationalism rather than international communism defined the nexus of the ongoing conflict—that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese were fighting not to spread a totalitarian ideology around the world but simply to unite an arbitrarily divided country, thereby exercising their right to self-determination. Even to entertain such a heresy would have been to demolish the basis for U.S. intervention.
So too with Iraq. To allow that motives other than restoring Saddam to power were fueling the insurgency would undermine the rationale for continuing the war. This was especially true after the failure to locate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had discredited that ostensible casus belli. Hence, the doggedness with which senior U.S. military officers clung to the hypothesis that even with Saddam gone the ongoing Iraq War still somehow centered on the deposed dictator.
Just days after Saddam’s capture, General Richard Myers visited Baghdad. A reporter asked the JCS chairman to reflect on the possibility that “the people who are killing American soldiers today are not Ba’athists, are not pro-Saddam, are simply nationalists who think you’re here as occupiers.” Myers was having none of it. “I think that the facts don’t support that,” he replied. “I think the facts support the people that we’ve been engaging, the people that we detain—and as you know, we detain hundreds a week—they’re not nationalists. These are former regime elements….These are terrorists. These are former regime elements.”
To admit to other alternatives was to suggest that the entire war might have been a mistake. Hence, the mantra-like recitation of catchphrases that bore scant relation to on-the-ground realities.
That said, Myers was certainly correct in claiming that U.S. forces were incarcerating hundreds of Iraqis every week. Tactically, the detention of military-age males formed the centerpiece of Sanchez’s campaign to eradicate the putative Ba’athist threat. Here was Rumsfeld’s dictum—“Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”—put fully into actual practice. The undisguised aim was to cow the population rather than to win hearts and minds. A report issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross issued in early 2004 succinctly described the methods used. Arrests “tended to follow a pattern,” it began.
Arresting authorities entered houses usually after dark, breaking down doors, waking up residents roughly, yelling orders, forcing family members into one room under military guard while searching the rest of the house and further breaking doors, cabinets and other property. They arrested suspects, tying their hands in the back with flexi-cuffs, hooding them, and taking them away. Sometimes they arrested all adult males present in a house, including elderly, handicapped or sick people. Treatment often included pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles. Individuals were often led away in whatever they happened to be wearing at the time of arrest—sometimes in pyjamas or underwear—and were denied the opportunity to gather a few essential belongings, such as clothing, hygiene items, medicine or eyeglasses. Those who surrendered with a suitcase often had their belongings confiscated. In many cases personal belongings were seized during the arrest, with no receipt being issued.
Dispatches appearing in mainstream U.S. publications told a similar story. Methods employed by U.S. forces invited comparison with the tactics of intimidation that Israeli troops used in policing the West Bank.
These included the destruction of homes belonging to families of anyone suspected of being an insurgent.
In a scathing op-ed that appeared in
The New York Times
shortly after Saddam’s capture, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Carl E. Mundy III, an Iraq War veteran, wrote that “the ‘get tough’ approach” employed by Sanchez “resembles tactics used by Israelis in the occupied territories” and was not likely to endear the Americans to Arab Iraqis.
Parallel methods suggested parallel aims. The “get tough” posture of Israel Defense Forces reflected an Israeli determination to maintain a permanent grip on the West Bank. That U.S. forces were taking a similar approach raised the specter of the United States maintaining permanent control of Iraq, Washington’s insistence to the contrary notwithstanding. In sum, heavy-handed U.S. pacification techniques were inflaming rather than squelching resistance. “Americans are frequently guilty of excesses that are turning ordinary Iraqis into foes,”
magazine bluntly concluded.
The apprehend-detain-interrogate approach was creating a cancer that had already begun to metastasize. To house the growing population of prisoners collared in cordon-and-search operations, U.S. forces had established a network of detention facilities. One such facility was Abu Ghraib, notorious as a prison and torture chamber during the Saddam Hussein era, now holding well over seven thousand Iraqis that U.S. forces had taken into custody. Beginning in October 2003 at the very latest, Abu Ghraib became the scene of “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” perpetrated by American soldiers, with Iraqi detainees their victims. By December, senior U.S. Army leaders knew that they had a problem.
An investigation begun the following month by Major General Antonio Taguba documented misconduct that included, in the words of his report:
• Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; jumping on their naked feet;
• Videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees;
• Forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing;
• Forcing detainees to remove their clothing and keeping them naked for several days at a time;
• Forcing naked male detainees to wear women’s underwear;
• Forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped;
• Arranging naked male detainees in a pile and then jumping on them;
• Positioning a naked detainee on a [ration] Box, with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes, and penis to simulate electric torture;
• Writing “I am a Rapest” [
] on the leg of a detainee alleged to have forcibly raped a 15-year old fellow detainee, and then photographing him naked;
• Placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee’s neck and having a female Soldier pose for a picture;
• A male MP guard having sex with a female detainee;
• Using military working dogs (without muzzles) to intimidate and frighten detainees, and in at least one case biting and severely injuring a detainee;
• Taking photographs of dead Iraqi detainees.
Undertaken shortly after Saddam Hussein’s capture, Taguba’s investigation described the abuse as “systematic.” Hoping to dispose of the matter quietly and without undue embarrassment, the U.S. Army classified his report as SECRET.
This effort at problem solving through concealment was doomed from the start. The Taguba report leaked, and in April 2004 the CBS television program
broke the Abu Ghraib story, broadcasting to the world the photographic evidence on which General Taguba had based his findings.
American authorities in Washington and Baghdad immediately launched into damage control mode. They condemned the lapses in discipline even while insisting that the misbehavior of a few bad apples represented neither the United States military nor U.S. policy in Iraq. They might have saved their breath.
Fair or not, Abu Ghraib affirmed what many Muslims in the Greater Middle East already suspected about American purposes and American culture. Much as a Muslim committing an act of terror thereby affirms for many in the West what they know they know about Islam, the pictorial evidence accompanying the Abu Ghraib scandal affirmed for many Muslims their preexisting impression of the United States as a sinkhole of wantonness, decadence, and sexual perversity.
War is inherently a political act. Abu Ghraib represented a political setback of monumental proportions, so much so that we may date the failure of the Third Gulf War from this point. That is, after Abu Ghraib, U.S. authorities could no longer credibly depict America’s War for the Greater Middle East as a benign enterprise informed by sympathy for the people of the Islamic world. Needless to say, the war continued, but the likelihood of Iraq serving as a launch pad from which to pursue a larger strategy of transformation now shrank to zero. Even if the United States somehow managed to eke out a win of sorts in Iraq, that victory would be devoid of any larger purpose. In Baghdad, the road to the Middle East had reached a dead end. Barely out of the starting block, the Bush administration strategy of remaking the Greater Middle East had collapsed.