WASHINGTON, DC -- It is an "open secret" in Washington US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "wants to extricate himself from Iraq" but President George W. Bush "remains resolute," thus the US hangs on, a US investigative reporter has written.
The result is a military posture in limbo somewhere between aggressiveness and withdrawal that could bog the US down in Iraq for years. Tragically, it opens the door to escalation of the horrific violence which in Baghdad on kills around 50 people daily and wounds many times more.
The Pentagon has largely switched from rooting out and killing insurgents, as in the first two years of the war (2003-4), to hunkering its troops down in "isolated mega-bases," said George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and author of The Assassins' Gate (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This approach, known in Washington as an "exit strategy," has put the much victimized Iraqi public at increased risk.
"Commanders are under tremendous pressure to keep [military] casualties low, and combat deaths have been declining for several months, as patrols are reduced and the Americans rely more and more on air power," Packer wrote in the magazine April 10 in words that sound prescient four months later as civilian killed and wounded overflow Iraqi morgues and hospitals.
"The retreat to enduring FOBs [forward operating bases] seems like an acknowledgment that counterinsurgency is just too hard," Packer wrote. He quoted Kalev Sepp, a retired Special Forces officer, who stated, "If you really want to reduce your casualties go back to Fort Riley. It's absurd to think that you can protect the population from armed insurgents without putting your men's lives at risk."
Concentrating forces at large bases, Sepp added, "is old Army thinking - centralization of resources, of people, of control. Counterinsurgency requires decentralization."
Soldiers who rarely, if ever, leave their FOBs are derisively referred to as "fobbits," Packer said, adding he spent two days at 62-square-kilometer (24-square-mile) FOB Speicher, a few kilometers north of Tikrit, "without seeing an Iraqi." ("Fobbits" are a play on the word "Hobbits," a race in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth fantasy The Hobbit.)
Speicher is home to at least 9,000 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division. It resembles a Midwestern city with "a bus system, a cavernous dining hall that serves four flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, a couple of gyms, and several movie theaters," Packer writes.
As US troops regroup in defensive pockets, a senior Iraqi official told Packard, the insurgents are shifting their tactics from attacking US and Iraqi forces, at great risk to themselves, "toward killings of local officials and ordinary citizens, intended to undermine the public's confidence that the government can protect it." These killings "have created an atmosphere of sectarian hysteria that residents of Baghdad have never known before," Packer writes.
A State Department official told Packer, "Certain people in the Pentagon want to get out of Iraq at all costs" and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Rumsfeld have battled over how best to protect Iraq's infrastructure. Rumsfeld has rejected assigning soldiers to provide security for the small reconstruction teams US Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad wants to establish in provincial capitals. Rumsfeld prefers to use contractors.
"Insurgents have become so adept at hitting pipelines, power stations, and refineries that fuel and electricity shortages have become nationwide crises; meanwhile, some Iraqi army units and tribes that are being paid to guard these facilities are collaborating in their destruction," Packer writes.
He goes on to say an American withdrawal "would leave behind killings on a larger scale than anything yet seen," a war in which Baghdad and other mixed cities "would be divided up into barricaded sectors, and a civil war in the center of the country might spread into a regional war."
A former US administration official told Packer the Iraq war has been characterized by "an intellectual failure at the start ... an implementation failure after that ... and now there's a failure of political will." "I'm afraid we're going to cut," he added. "We're unwilling to make the sacrifice and spend the political capital."
As for the Pentagon policy of turning the fighting over to the Iraqi army, a sergeant in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, observed, "We'll be here for 10 years in some form, but boots-on-the-ground-wise? We're really almost done." A field-grade officer in the 101st Airborne described the policy as "handing a shit sandwich over to someone else."
The US dilemma was summed up by Baghdad doctor who told Packer, "Not one of the Iraqis believes that you Americans should leave tomorrow," [even if they say otherwise for public consumption.] "They know that we can't have the US Army leaving the country right now, because, excuse me to say, George Bush did a mess, he must clean it."
But what if, instead, the Pentagon's "fobbits" are concentrated in the safety of their secure bases outside the big cities to lick their ice cream cones while Iraq burns?