Coalition stumbles into quagmire in Iraq in aftermath of war

WASHINGTON: “I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators,” US Vice-President Dick Cheney declared on television just as US troops were massing along the border between Kuwait and Iraq on the eve of Washington’s march to Baghdad.

“Wildly off the mark,” declared Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, when asked by senators just before the war whether he agreed with then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki’s estimate that more than 200,000 troops would be needed as an occupation force after the war.

“I believe it is definitely more likely than not that some degree of common knowledge between (Al-Qaeda and Iraq) was involved (in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon), former CIA chief and Defense Policy Board member, James Woolsey, testified before a federal court just before the war.

“We know where they are,” Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld assured television viewers about the location of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) at the end of March, two weeks into the war.

“They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad, and east, west, south, and north somewhat,” he said. Now, almost three months after US troops established control over the area around Tikrit and Baghdad, not only have no WMDs been discovered, but evidence of ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda has been officially dismissed by a special UN panel, and public sentiment in Iraq ­ at least as registered by even the compliant US press ­ appears increasingly ungrateful about its “liberation.”

That last observation is bolstered by the fact that even Wolfowitz now publicly concedes that the approximately 150,000 US troops ­ actually closer to 200,000 with the support units in Kuwait ­ in Iraq will not be drawn down any time soon. He is now frantically trying to get friendly countries, such as India and Pakistan, to contribute thousands more of their own soldiers ­ albeit at US taxpayer expense ­ to an increasingly multinational “stabilization” force to police an occupation that looks increasingly open-ended.

Meanwhile, US lawmakers, including Republicans, are becoming distinctly uneasy as the gap between the confident predictions made at the start of the war by top US officials, particularly those most closely associated with Rumsfeld and Cheney, and the grim reality of the actual situation ­  in which US allies and soldiers face what could be a nasty and protracted guerrilla war ­ grows steadily worse.

“The forces of reality are going to eventually set in, if they haven’t already, to make those who have been reluctant to bring in the UN, NATO and others, (face) reality,” said Republican Senator Chuck Hagel Sunday in a not-so-subtle swipe at the Cheney-Rumsfeld forces. “In fact, that’s going to happen; that must happen.” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist even conceded that ­ God forbid ­ the perfidious French may even have to be invited.

“There is, among my constituents, tremendous support for the president and what our men and women in the military did,” said Republican Senator John McCain, a long promoter of invading Iraq, Sunday. “But there’s a growing sense of unease.”

The “Q” word ­ for quagmire ­ is back in mainstream discourse as each day appears to bring the killing of at least one other US or British soldier, and US troops and officers in Iraq tell television cameras that they are stretched far too thinly to impose order on a country the size of California with a population that not only grows less and less appreciative of their presence, but also appears to harbor people who actually want them dead.

“The army is getting bogged down in a morale-numbing fourth-generation war in Iraq that is now taking on some appearances of the Palestinian intifada,” according to one recent comment on an all-military website, while even some conventional media have suggested that Iraq could turn into a US Chechnya.

The question: How did such obviously smart people get things so badly wrong? The most obvious reason is ideological, particularly because regional specialists, particularly in the State Department and the CIA, had long predicted that the likely outcome of a quick war is precisely what the US is facing now: quagmire.

These were the same specialists ­ whose analysis and advice were systematically ridiculed, circumvented or ignored by the zealots around Rumsfeld and Cheney.

These professionals were seen by the hawks as apologists for Arab dictators, Israel-haters, Saudi-lovers, shills for Big Oil, intellectually incurious and slaves to traditional thinking. As Rumsfeld once complained about US intelligence: “We tend to hear what we expect to hear, whether it’s bad or good. Human nature is that way. Unless something is jarring, you tend to stay on your track and get it reinforced rather than recalibrated.”

So certain was Rumsfeld that the professionals were wrong, that he set up his own shop to “recalibrate” the intelligence, staffing it with people hand-picked by and ideologically campatible with Wolfowitz. At the same time, Cheney and his deputy, I. Scooter Libby, made frequent visits to CIA headquarters in what was taken as an effort to intimidate the analysts (and presumably CIA Director George Tenet). It never occurred to the hawks, of course, that they might be as susceptible to human nature’s failings as the professionals.

When the professionals argued in the administration’s inner councils that US troops would face as much apprehension and hostility as gratitude from key sectors of the Iraqi population, the hawks replied that they underestimated the attraction and political skills of a man like Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress, who told them of his far-reaching network of informants and supporters inside Iraq. Indeed, it was his information which assured them of the existence of WMDs and ties between Baghdad and Al-Qaeda.

“Why was the Pentagon so unprepared for the Day After?” asked Trudy Rubin, foreign-affairs analyst for The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Back in November,” she wrote last week, “Wolfowitz told me he believed that the London-based Iraqi opposition (headed by Chalabi) would return to Baghdad and assume the reins of power, just as General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French returned triumphantly to post-war France.”

So the hawks saw Westernized Chalabi, who had not been in Baghdad since he was a teenager, as the man of destiny whom US military forces had merely to install in the capital. The professionals, who had worked him in the early 1990s, on the other hand, saw his as a con man.

“What he did was pander to the dreams of a group of powerful men centered in the Pentagon, the Defense Policy Board, the Vice-President’s Office, and various think tanks scattered around Washington,” said Thomas Engelhardt, a New York writer associated with The Nation weekly. “The thing that needs to be grasped here is that since 1991 these men have been dreaming up a storm about reconfiguring the Middle East, while scaling the heavens (via various Star Wars programs for the militarization of space), and so nailing down an American Earth for eternity. Their dreams were utopian and so, by definition, unrealizable. Theirs were lava dreams, and they were dreamt, like all such burning dreams, without much reference to the world out there. They were perfect pickings for a Chalabi.”

Of course, the fact that Chalabi is now scarcely mentioned as a possible political force in Iraq is barely acknowledged by the hawks, who still insist that things are going their way and that there is no reason to panic.

Jim Lobe, Washington-based journalist, contributed this commentary to THE DAILY STAR





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