SecDef/CIA/Chief of All Washington Leon Panetta and Admiral Mullen testify today before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and will in part answer the question of what any American troops left in Iraq next year will do there. My answer to that question appeared on HuffPo last week; let’s see how close my answer and theirs are in the end.
If you’re at home, please feel free to invent a drinking game of your own while watching the testimony on C-Span. Maybe a shot for every point of agreement, or two shots for every disagreement, or maybe just get depressed that this war will never end and kill the fucking bottle.
In Iraq today, diplomats, military officials, and Washington busybodies are involved in a complex game of maneuvering into place American troops meant to remain in Iraq long past the previously 12/31/2011 negotiated deadline for full withdrawal. Iraq will eventually agree, probably in some semi-passive way, such as calling them trainers, or visiting students, or temps. There will be endless argument over numbers — should it be 3000 soldiers or 10,000? The debate over whether troops should stay on, or how many should stay, begs the real question: What will all those soldiers do in Iraq?
The U.S. has already tipped its hand on the most obvious thing some of them will be doing: Special Forces operations. Vice Admiral William McRaven, who heads up JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, told a Senate committee that a “small force” of special operations types should remain in Iraq after the end of the year. Some Iraqis, specifically Iraqi special forces who don’t want to face the bad guys alone, have asked that the US operators stick around as well.
So what will all those bad boys be doing in Iraq? They would undoubtedly just keep on keeping on with what they are already doing — hunting down individuals and killing them. The bin Laden raid was a varsity-level operation of this type, but night after night such raids, albeit on a much smaller scale, are taking place in Iraq (as in Afghanistan) to pop bomb makers and local cell leaders. Why do you think we’ve had no new prisoners found for Gitmo recently? Dead men tell no tales.
Estimates are that almost two thousand targeted killing missions have been conducted over the last couple of years, to the point that one DOD official likened the routine of evening raids to “mowing the lawn.” On May 1 alone, the night of the bin Laden raid, special-operations forces conducted twelve other missions.
The fighting in Iraq has moved from mass operations to very specific killings on both sides. A Shiite militia has no need to target a marketplace when what they really want to do is whack one specific Sunni police captain hassling them. The US, with its vast, frightening and ever-growing electronic search and surveillance machine, doesn’t need to carpet bomb a village when a ten man special ops team can motor in one night, knowing the Shiite militia commander they want to whack is at home, second floor, back bedroom, on the phone to his Qods Force controller (also being whacked simultaneously somewhere else). The array of electronics needed to do this kind of thing will stay with the special forces in Iraq and/or be quietly slipping through the night sky far, far above the whacking.
Such whacky hijinks will continue post-12/31/2011 whether Iraq and the US work out a deal for a permanent troop presence or not, as special ops seem to find their own way to where they want to go. The targeted killings will be much, much easier however if the guys can be based locally, and if there is less need for the Iraqis to look the other way. Now as in the future, sometimes the Iraqis are involved, sometimes the Iraqis know about what’s going down but conveniently look the other way, and sometimes our guys just go out and do it whether the Iraqis like it or not. Call it privilege of empire.
Since for political purposes (can you imagine a Malaki-Obama conversation? “Barack, my brother, my domestic numbers are killing me; can we just call them trainers?” “I agree, I agree Nouri my friend, every time I call them ‘troops’ Fox jumps my ass.”) many if not all of the Americans in uniform will be labeled “trainers,” it is a good thing that in fact some large subset will indeed train Iraqis.
Trainers are the hand-maidens of sales of military equipment abroad, not unique to Iraq. The US loves to earn more money for its defense contractors by selling second-tier technology abroad (we keep the good stuff for ourselves, thank you). This technology requires training: one does not just jump into a jet or a tank and motor off.
To be clear, US officials have already suggested that whether troops stay in Iraq or not, a significant number of uniformed advisors will be attached to the US embassy in Baghdad to oversee foreign military sales to Iraq. Experience suggests that number will be about 200. These guys are essentially salespeople — a crude term, they prefer liaison or attaché–who do not dirty their hands with training or killing. These folks are attached to the Embassy, technically report to the Ambassador, not through the military chain of command, and exist right now in Embassies from Tokyo to Cairo.
Foreign military sales are a huge business. The numbers are fuzzy, but in-process sales for top of the line items to Iraq (primarily M1A1 tanks at present) will certainly run into the tens of billions of dollars. If Iraq buys some F-16s, as is in the deal process, even more money and training will change hands.
Like any good car salesman will admit, the basic car is one thing, but you make your real money on the service contract and upgrades. Same for military stuff. Follow-on purchases of maintenance contracts, spare parts, ammunition, electronics upgrades, who knows, maybe even fuzzy dice and a snazzy gangsta paint job, mean the sky is literally the limit – or rather the oil being siphoned out of Iraqi wells will be the limit — on how much money Iraq will spend on US arms. These things are complicated toys, and the more soldiers in-country to help train Iraqis, the happier arms buyers they will be and the more likely they will be to buy more.
But why does this training and sales require soldiers? It seems like the US could hire contractors, TV pitchmen or cheaper civilian tank mechanics to do the training and sales. Well, it turns out that all this “training” done by our soldiers has some neat ancillary benefits. First of all, soldiers tend to like to work with soldiers, so the Iraqi army men will feel more comfortable with our army men. Better yet, especially in Third World armies like Iraq, today’s junior officers tend to end up as tomorrow’s senior officers rather quickly. By having US troops in constant, friendly contact, our military builds relationships that will pay off for years to come.
Of course another feature of Third World armies is that they tend to be used for military coups, and having our guys hanging around their guys often means the US knows about (and can support or deflect) a foreign military coup early on. This happens all the time across Central America, and happened in the 1960′s and 70′s in Vietnam and Korea. Very convenient for an aging American Empire to have the inside track on whether or not the Iraqi military plans to take over some sunny day.
It’s All About Bases
But the most important job for most of those troops in Iraq will simply be to keep several current American bases nice and warm and in American hands.
With the other US goals in Iraq having long ago evaporated, having land bases is more or less what’s left, geopolitical justification of a sort for all the money and lives squandered (“the investment”). This is not an insignificant thing. Geographically, Iraq borders Iran and Syria, two countries one way or another on America’s to-do list. As the Arab Spring has shown, allies in the Middle East can come and go, and having been chased out of ground bases in Saudi Arabia years ago, America could do with something low rent in a decent neighborhood. That’s Iraq. We may never launch ground invasions of Syria or Iran (hey, Cheney couldn’t kick off a war with Tehran, how could a future President Perry?), but having the American Army sitting on the border could come in handy someday in persuading Damascus or Tehran. It’s still a useful bargaining chip with Pyongyang after all.
Bases like those in Iraq take a lot of time and plenty of taxpayer dollars to build, but like any real estate, they have a tendency to start to crumble once responsible tenants move out. Washington has no doubt that particularly centrally located land bases in the Middle East will be a future need. What better way to make sure they are available than to park up soldiers on a few choice bases you’ve built and want to keep, let them do some teaching with the locals, kill the odd terrorist, and get a little extra training of their own in a desert environment? Best of all, should the US ever need to start killing large numbers of Iraqis again for some reason or anyone else in the neighborhood, the first responder guys are already there, ready to roll while the bases are available to receive any new soldiers needed to finish the job at hand.
The choice of which bases to keep will require some back-and-forth with the Iraqis, but based on my time in the country, here are some reasonable predictions.
Forward Operating Base Hammer
Out in the eastern desert, a low-key, off-the-radar-screen sort of spot (but only 20 minutes from Baghdad by helicopter), easy to defend, handy to Iran, and across the street from the Besmyiah Firing Range. Besmyiah was built by Saddam, to function as kind of a low-tech version of the US’ National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California.
Like NTC, Besmyiah provides a huge expanse of empty desert, big enough for whole tank battalions to maneuver and shoot stuff in relative safety, far away from the media and local population. The US and Iraqi forces have used Besmyiah this way for years, and keeping possession of nearby FOB Hammer will allow the US a handy living space for potentially thousands of troops that could rotate in and out of Iraq, taking advantage of Besmyiah’s training opportunity. Such training also creates the need for repair and refit facilities in Iraq, either US-specific or something joint with the Iraqis, as tanks break down often in the desert. As an added double-bonus if you occupy before midnight tonight, sending in a few thousand soldiers for “training” makes a dandy excuse to staff up if you want to put a little pressure on the regime in Baghdad for whatever reason.
In addition, FOB Hammer already sports a good-sized infrastructure, and has room for an airstrip if anyone wants to build one. A lot of the experts will favor giant Balad Air Base about 80 kilometers north of the capital or Camp Taji, but the fact that Hammer is next to Besmyiah will make it the winner in the first round of Iraqi base bingo.
This mega-airbase is located w-a-y out in the middle of nowhere in Anbar Province, once the heartland of the Sunni insurgency. The base has a huge ready-to-go infrastructure that’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from Syria and other Middle Eastern garden spots we may wish to “kinetically” influence in the future. It’s the perfect Sunni-Land location for those special operation forces chasing down the local al-Qaeda franchisees. Moreover, most Sunnis in the area are likely to tolerate such an American presence, however grudgingly, as a buffer against Shia nationalism.
Basra Air Base
Southern Iraq is where Iraq’s easy-to-get-at oil is largely located. The city of Basra controls both access to those reserves and Iraq’s only functional port on the Persian Gulf. Washington is going to want to keep an eye on both and an air base is always so useful if reinforcements are needed. The State Department recently opened a consulate in Basra for oil-watching as well.
Despite the need for a southern base, southern Iraq is also, as the GI’s like to say, “Indian country,” which, of course, calls out for a Fort Apache. Basra and the other current bases down under are not isolated and thus not far enough under the radar and defensible enough to fit our needs. The US may need to forego a southern base because of this, and station troops in nearby Kuwait instead. They could then commute to next spring’s Shia uprisings. It is only 160 miles all the way to Baghdad, and the US already pays bribes to keep the route open and safe.
What They Won’t Be Doing in Iraq
With all this talk about what those troops will be doing in Iraq, it’s worth noting what they won’t be doing.
The troops will not be intervening in intra-Iraqi warfare (except possibly in the Kurdish areas only long enough to break up the fights). This precondition — that the US stand aside while Sunnis and Shias kill each other or Shia militias turn on each other — has to be Item One on Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki’s secret list of talking points. His prime directive is undoubtedly to be free to use militia violence to consolidate his power, and that means killing. Any deal that needs to be made to keep Sadr happy with the American being around will also need to shield the Shia forces from American retribution. Not a problem really. Washington won’t be interested in being embroiled in any of the next round of the suspended civil war, just as long as whoever emerges on top allows us to keep our troops in Iraq until the end of time.
This is to stress that these troops will not be occupying Iraq in the sense that “occupation” means controlling or influencing the political state of affairs. The troops while indeed squat on Iraqi territory as they hold on to the bases, but their role politically will be similar to that performed by our military in Japan, Korea or Germany. The work of telling the Iraqis what we want them to do is officially going to be handed over to the State Department and its 5,500 hired mercenaries as of October 1.
The military will be happy to be done with the political job. The Pentagon is surely looking forward to settling into a familiar pattern, one well-established elsewhere in the world, where it does its best to ignore the sleazy local politics run by local thugs and dictators and focuses – for decades to come — on Army stuff.
While publically pledged to help defend Iraq’s borders, it is unlikely that our soldiers will ever be called to do so. Seriously, who is going to invade Iraq? The Turks get cranky about their border tensions with Kurdistan, but absent some skirmishes the US has already chosen to ignore (Turkey is a NATO-ally don’t forget), not much will happen there. Iran would hardly need to launch an invasion force. It’s already the most significant external player in Iraqi politics — consider that George W’s great gift to the mullahs in Tehran — and has its killing needs well-serviced by proxy militias and its own Qods Force special operations soldiers all over the ground in Iraq. Iran does a lot of business with Iraq and hopes to do more, but an invasion? Not so likely. Iraq does not have a real air force, and any aerial needs will be covered by the US for the foreseeable future. These planes and their pilots and crews are already strewn around the Middle East, either on carriers or in places like Kuwait, so there is no need to make them more vulnerable by physically locating them inside Iraq’s own borders.
The US’ war in Iraq, started in 1991 with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, extended through the Clinton years of no-fly zones and brought back to full-go life by the invasion of 2003, is finally ending. Started and continued for all sorts of reasons, the war’s end will have little to do with blood for oil, or pretend WMDs, or as a kick starter to democracy and freedom anywhere. It has been a long road in Iraq, this round some eight tough years, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel: it’s a sign that reads “US Permanent Bases, Next Right,” brought to you by the ever-growing American Empire and secured, as it is in dozens of other countries, by our Army.
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