I'm not going to vouch for claims made by American commanders in Iraq. There have been so many promises, so many arguments, assurances and assertions from the succession of these types and so few of them have come to pass. However there was one yesterday from the current commander in theatre, General George Casey, that deserves to be considered. Despite evidence of the ongoing insurgency, growing civil war and instability of the Iraqi government, General Casey pronounced yesterday that American forces might be able to be out of Iraq within a year. Really? What are we to read into Casey's claims?
American forces have been in Iraq for three years and victory continues to stay out of their reach. General Casey points to a supposed drop in the number of deaths in Baghdad due to suicide bombers following redeployment of American forces into the capital as clear evidence of success. I'll tell you who doesn't believe that, General Casey.
General Casey knows that fighting an insurgency with a conventional military force is like herding cats. He also knows that conventional military forces have an awful track record in defeating insurgencies. The terrorists that the U.S. forces are grappling with are really mostly insurgents. Suicide bombers are terrorists, sure. They aren't the insurgency, that's home grown. Insurgents are in it for the long run. Against their conventional enemy the insurgents can't hope to match them in numbers, certainly not in firepower, or in mobility, artillery or air support. Insurgents have to take maximum advantage of what they do have going for them and their greatest edge comes from holding the initiative. Because the insurgents are locals, they can vanish into the civilian population. That allows them to decide when and where they will offer combat and when they will refuse combat and disappear. Every now and then the other side gets lucky or gets a useful tip and tracks down some of the insurgents but delivering an outright defeat to them is as challenging as alchemy. So General Casey knows that throwing out body counts as evidence of victory over the insurgents is essentially meaningless.
What then are we to make of Casey's claim that American troops might be out of Iraq within a year? This is when it can be really useful to cast around for other snippets of information that may shed a bit of light.
Start with the "Guns or Butter" dilemma that seems to be catching up with the Bush administration. This refers to the choice all leaders must make between spending their treasury on civil programmes or on the military. Since he became president, Shrub has been trying to play this both ways. He wants his guns and he wants his butter in the form of tax cuts. No other wartime president has ever cut taxes in the midst of conflict. Iraq has become a great hole into which the U.S. treasury is hemorrhaging. Meanwhile, the military is getting squeezed.
Michael Hirsh, in an article in the online version of Newsweek, reports that three years of sand and heat have worn out a lot of the American army's tanks and humvees and other vehicles. Now the military is having to resort to cannibalizing the vehicles remaining stateside to furnish spares to keep the stuff in Iraq operating. It's pretty obvious this sort of thing is a band aid solution at best. Meanwhile, some of the troops now being sent to Iraq are on their third tours there. Their level of mission fatigue is growing. At the same time, Pentagon officials are beginning to worry about the vaunted "Green Zone", the fortification behind which the American command and the wobbly Iraqi government shelter from the insurgency,and whether it can hold. It's said that some are now calling it the "Yellow Zone."
There is one thing, perhaps only one, you can count on from Incurious George: he won't rescind his tax cuts. That means he won't open the money taps for the treasury. That also means he will have to fund this enormously costly adventure on debt. That little obligation will be left to future generations to repay. Patriotism or lunacy?
Times may be getting tougher for the American military in Iraq but they still have a few good fights left in them. The question is how best to use that remaining capability? Do you deplete it in Iraq which may already be a lost cause? Do you use it elsewhere?
Washington's focus on Iran has increased mightily over the past few months. It is widely reported that Bush wants his presidential legacy to be the defanging of Iran through the destruction of that country's nuclear programme and the toppling of its theocratic rulers. The spin mills are going flat out. The intelligence is being fixed and spoonfed to Congress and the American people. The juggernaut is picking up speed.
At first, Don Rumsfeld wanted to eliminate Iran's nuclear capability by strategic bombing. He even mused about using mini-nuclear bombs to take out underground facilities. The trouble is that the pentagon just doesn't have enough intelligence as to what Iran has and where to pull that off. The alternative is to use America's awesome air power to support a land intervention.
One of the strongest arguments about attacking Iran has been the peril that could be faced by U.S. forces in Iraq from a popular uprising against them. One way to safeguard American forces from that threat would be for them not to be in Iraq but, perhaps, in Iran. Using the already deployed troops and equipment against neighbouring Iran makes a lot more sense than raising a fresh force in the U.S. and then shipping the troops and vehicles over. Besides, Bush is nearing his 2-year countdown. He doesn't have enough time remaining in his presidency to start this all over from scratch. There is also the very real risk of Congress falling to the Democrats this November and seeing his plans thwarted from Capital Hill.
If Bush really does want to build his legacy on Iran, he doesn't have time to lose. Wars don't just start overnight, unannounced. That nonsense pretty much ended with Pearl Harbour. There are plenty of signs that war is coming. One of these is the insertion of special forces teams into the intended battlefield to collect intelligence, establish contact with dissidents and identify targets. It's a poorly held secret that U.S. special forces teams, possibly British also, have been roaming around Iran for several months already.
The U.S. President has put himself inside a reality bubble from which he can spin some pretty wild fantasies. One of them is the belief that an attack on Iran will trigger a popular uprising by local, pro-democracy dissidents. Unfortunately that too seems to be a fantasy. Dissidents who have spoken out have made clear that they are Iranians first and any foreign intervention will only drive them back into the arms of the government to resist the invaders. That doesn't mean that Little Georgie will accept this reality.
My guess is that Bush doesn't know which route to go but he wants to keep the military option very much open. He's going to do the Security Council theatre again but he's already shown that he's not willing to be constrained by international law.
Iran presents Bush with a number of bad options and no good options. He has pretty much squandered his political capital as far as the Middle East is concerned and the Israeli debacle in Lebanon has undercut his military influence also. America's best option is to negotiate with Iran and yet Bush's many blunders have undermined his bargaining power and just when he needs it most.
Bush may view attacking Iran as the only route to saving Israel from nuclear attack. He certainly believes that he is the only one with the courage to take on Iran and that whoever succeeds him won't be willing to do it. Iraq has proven to be an utter shambles and Shrub doesn't want that to be his legacy. To avoid that shame, he'll have to pull a rabbit out of his hat and Iran is probably the only bunny on his radar.
We still can't tell where George is going to go with this but we can focus on his options and look for the little signs that give all away. I'm guessing but I think we'll know within the next few months pretty much how this is going to play out. To use the American's own scale, I'd put us at Condition Orange - Elevated right now.
By the way, keep an eye on Britain's force redeployment from last week. Where did they go when they abandoned their base in Amara? Down into the oil fields and Iranian border areas of Maysan province. It could all be coincidence but it's worth watching.