Three Years Down – More to Come?

As the U.S. administration is struggling to find a subtle way out of the grim Iraqi reality, it seems a once well-liked president who launched two initially popular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, cannot avoid anymore harsh, sometimes sarcastic, criticism.

At the beginning of the fourth year of the war some tend to forget the U.S. initiated this campaign with wide-open eyes but at the same time with limited thought given to its aftermath.

The idea to oust a dictator supposedly armed with WMDs, the expectation to secure the Middle East and as a matter of fact the whole world as well, is long forgotten.

Three years after the Shock and Awe attack Saddam Hussein is performing in an operetta-like court procedure and the Iraqi government, sponsored and financed by the U.S., is beginning to hint that the U.S. role should be coming to an end. The U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a man well acquainted with bazaar politics, seems to be preparing the beginning of a dignified U.S. withdrawal based on an Iraqi sovereign decision to ask the U.S. and her few left coalition partners to exit Iraq and to let the Iraqi people fare for themselves.

There are 130,000 U.S. service men and women stationed in Iraq and thousands more are stationed in Kuwait and Bahrain. Large U.S. Naval task forces patrol the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean with permanent bases as far as Djibouti on the Horn of Africa bordering the Red Sea. Coalition troops and at least 160,000 new Iraqi soldiers, police officers and ministry of the interior commandos, are all tightly linked to the U.S. logistical system and to the generosity of Uncle Sam.

In this continuously expanding military operation, where to date more than 2,320 U.S. service men were killed and many thousands more wounded, the empire from time to time demonstrates its military superiority by using a whole array of super tech attach capabilities. Air raids launched from unmanned aircraft are directed from a control room in Colorado and long range round trips of heavy B52 and B2 bombers take off with their bomb loads from U.S. continental bases, flying to and from Iraq and Afghanistan with mid air refueling.

The total number of troops is comparable to the previous, what the Pentagon now calls long war, the U.S. fought in Vietnam. At the peak of that war in 1968 U.S. troops amounted to half a million with active coalition partners on the ground, including the South Vietnamese, South Koreans, Thais, Australians and New Zealanders who, as the war became more and more unpopular withdrew their troops and left the U.S. to struggle against the Vietcong and later the North Vietnamese army with the South Vietnamese.

Following the U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1973, it took less than two years for the south to collapse and to be over run by the northern Communist regime. A similar phenomena, albeit with different characteristics, is now emerging in Iraq. Pressure groups in the U.S. and among her allies, but first and foremost those in the Middle East, especially the Iranian dominated Iraqi Shiite block, will determine the future outcome of the war.

Those who for nearly two years pointed to the Sunni insurgents under the command of Musab al-Zarqawi now point to the Shiite militias and their Iranian supporters as the major force behind the on-going carnage. With a poorly demarcated differentiation between the two major rival groups and with an extended list of smaller, often ad hoc, insurgency cells, constructing a clear, definable, picture of who-is-who in this all around shifting turbulent, mostly urban guerrilla war, is practically impossible.

The U.S., the new Iraqi government and military and their coalition partners, have failed to end what have become daily horrific terrorist attacks, usually belittled by using the term “insurgency” or, as the Pentagon describes it in the sanitized term “the long war.”

The individual personality of a top guerrilla terrorist is not important anymore; whether Musab al-Zarqawi lives or dies has little significance for the ultimate outcome of the conflict. Experts believe that to defeat the insurgency the U.S. would need a fighting force of at least 450,000 troops in addition to the few well functioning Iraqi divisions. Without such a force the tide of violence and extreme anti-American attitudes cannot be stemmed. Those who dreamed of a Hollywood style “shock and awe” war conducted by super heroes have already learned the bitter reality of a war where there is hardly a way to differentiate between friend and foe.

Like many other empires in history the U.S. is learning that a “long war” following a so-called “short war” has no glory and in most cases no future. Many nations learned this lesson in recent history such as Israel, the U.K. in Northern Ireland, France in North Africa and Portugal in Africa. In Myanmar ethnic guerrilla terrorists have been active for over 50 years and Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) have also been active for decades. Relatively new guerrilla campaigns such as those in the northern Caucasus and in the Indian sub-continent are already well entrenched and proving just as hard to defeat as the older guerrilla groups.

When a super power decides to take on a guerrilla war it will never be able to do what the local governments can in terms of determining the methods of war or the conditions to end it. It is bitterly ironic that in the case of Iraq the U.S. and her allies are sacrificing their men and women in a futile war to liberate a nation from a cruel despot only to become captives of that very country. The only practical solution left will be to adhere to the Iraqis’ wishes and yield to the pressure exercised by Iraq’s neighbors.

For the U.S. it is no more “a war for oil and energy,” as some analysts defined it, nor is it anymore a war for democracy; what is left is basically a fight for the survival of a super power’s declining image amidst the need to pull out with as little loss of face as possible.

Yoram East
Yoram East is a retired Israeli colonel born in Jerusalem, who writes about foreign policy and goings-on in the Middle East. Sadly, Yoram passed away in October 2010.