US officers fear Vietnam-style defeat

Issue 

The March 1 British Guardian reported that an "elite team of officers advising the US commander, General David Petraeus, in Baghdad has concluded that they have six months to win the war in Iraq — or face a Vietnam-style collapse in political and public support that could force the military into a hasty retreat".

The article explained: "The officers — combat veterans who are experts in counter-insurgency — are charged with implementing the 'new way forward' strategy announced by George Bush on January 10. The plan includes a controversial 'surge' of 21,500 additional American troops to establish security in the Iraqi capital and Anbar province."

According to a mid-February Associated Press poll, 56% of US voters surveyed said they believe the US war in Iraq is "a hopeless cause". A March 3-11 Bloomberg-Los Angeles Times poll found that 55% of voters want all US troops withdrawn from Iraq by at least March 2008. Seven out 10 oppose Bush's Iraq strategy.

The Guardian reported that Petraeus's team of advisers, "known as the 'Baghdad brains trust' and ensconced in the heavily fortified Green Zone, is struggling to overcome a range of entrenched problems in what has become a race against time, according to a former senior administration official familiar with their deliberations ..."

The paper listed the problems facing the occupation forces as insufficient forces on the ground; morale problems for US forces because of increasing casualties; a "'disintegrating' international coalition"; an "anticipated increase in violence in the south as the British leave"; and a lack of "political will" in "Washington and/or Baghdad".

The biggest problem for Petraeus, the Guardian reported the former Bush administration official had claimed, is insufficient forces on the ground. According to the Pentagon's counterinsurgency manual, which Petraeus wrote, there should be 120,000 US troops in the Iraqi capital to meet the "optimum 'troop-to-task' ratio", the paper explained.

"Current totals, even including often unreliable Iraqi units, fall short and the deficit is even greater in conflict areas outside Baghdad ..." The White House's decision to hold talks with Iran and Syria is "seen as an indication of the administration's growing alarm at the possibility of a historic strategic failure".

On March 12, Associated Press reported that the Pentagon is "struggling to identify enough units to keep up to 20 brigade combat teams in Iraq" into next year. A US combat brigade usually has 3500 combat troops.

The wire service reported that, as of March 12, "two of the [extra six] brigades have arrived in Iraq. The latest estimates indicate that up to 7000 support troops may also be needed, including more than 2000 military police."

However, the White House is trying to keep to a minimum the number of support troops — playing medical, communications, engineering, intelligence and other support roles — that will join the extra 21,5000 combat troops. On March 10, Bush authorised the sending of an extra 4700 support troops to Iraq as part of the military buildup.

The March 12 AP report noted that Pentagon "officials said it is beginning to appear likely that Petraeus will ask to maintain much of the buildup at least through the end of the year, and possibly into 2008 ...

"The likely result will be extending the deployments of brigades scheduled to come home at the end of the [northern] summer, and sending others earlier than scheduled ... the Pentagon can't fulfill its commitment to give soldiers two years at home for every year they spend deployed" in Iraq. Last year, the Pentagon halved US soldiers' time at home between deployments.

In a February 2 United Press International article, David Isenberg, a analyst at the Washington-based Independent Institute, pointed out that the Bush plan "is to increase [US] troop levels [in Iraq] to roughly 150,000". Isenberg argued that this will put enormous strain on the US Army: "For a professional volunteer military force to be able to retain soldiers over time, the rule of thumb for active duty units is a three to one rotation ratio, meaning three units are needed to keep one unit fielded. So keeping 150,000 troops in Iraq requires an additional 300,000 for rotation or a total of 450,000 soldiers. This number is precariously close to the total size of the active duty Army, about 500,000 troops. Moreover, the US Army has another 64,000 troops deployed elsewhere overseas that requires a total of 192,000 troops to sustain it. So when you do the math, the Army is about 142,000 soldiers shy of being able to keep up the current deployments."

Based on newly obtained national security archives material, the February 15 New York Times reported that a week after the invading US forces entered Baghdad on April 9, 2003, US commander General Tommy Franks "issued a directive to his officers that they should be prepared to reduce the number of US soldiers in Iraq to a little more than a division by September 2003 — some 30,000 troops".

The NYT reported that the original Pentagon plan, drawn up in August 2002, envisaged that within four years of the 2003 invasion by 120,000 US and 30,000 allied troops, there would be as few as 5000 US soldiers in Iraq.

The emergence in June 2003, and the persistent growth since then, of the armed Iraqi resistance to the US-led occupation has completely derailed the Pentagon's plans. According to a September 2006 survey of Iraqi public opinion by the University of Maryland, armed attacks on the occupation forces are approved of by 61% of Iraq's 28 million people, including 92% of Iraqi Sunnis — giving resistance groups a huge base of popular support to draw on.

To get 150,000 US troops deployed in Iraq for a sustained period, the US military is having to resort to increasingly desperate measures. A March 11 Salon.com article by Mark Benjamin reported that as the US "military scrambles to pour more soldiers into Iraq, a unit of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Georgia, is deploying troops with serious injuries and other medical problems, including GIs who doctors have said are medically unfit for battle ..." The article reported on cases of doctors downgrading soldiers' conditions without even conducting a medical examination in order for them to be deployed to Iraq.

Salon.com gave an example of a female soldier "with psychiatric issues and a spine problem has been in the Army for nearly 20 years. 'My [health] is deteriorating', she said ... 'My spine is separating. I can't carry gear.' Her medical records include the note 'unable to deploy overseas'. Her status was also reviewed on Feb. 15. And she has been ordered to Iraq this week ...

"Other soldiers slated to leave for Iraq with injuries said they wonder whether the same thing is happening in other units in the Army. 'You have to ask where else this might be happening and who is dictating it', one female soldier told me."

Steve Robinson, director of veterans affairs at Veterans for America, told Benjamin: "It smacks of an overstretched military that is in crisis mode to get people onto the battlefield."