Petraeus! Is Baghdad Burning?
Editor’s note: In this piece, a retired U.S. Special Forces soldier takes an oil-filtered look at Bush’s “surge” plan for Iraq.
“Jodl! Is Paris burning?”
— Adolf Hitler
Aug. 25, 1944
The United States makes up about 5 percent of the Earth’s population, but as an aggregate we burn more than 25 percent of its fossil energy. That’s roughly true of all three main forms of fossil energy — oil, natural gas and coal.
The coal we get mainly by having West Virginians surrender their mountains, where coal operators now lop the tops off those mountains to get at the seams of coal and dump the rubble into nearby watercourses. That’s what we do for most of our electricity. Canada sells us most of the natural gas we use … nearly 90 percent in fact.
The problem we have is that our nation’s transportation fleet is almost completely dependent on that other store of ancient sunlight, petroleum. Neither natural gas nor coal can feasibly run fleets of tractor-trailer trucks, trains, airplanes and a quarter-billion passenger vehicles (around 98 million of which are SUVs and larger). Neither coal nor natural gas can run ships, tanks and attack helicopters either.
The other thing we need oil for is food … more than people realize. In Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” he traces the U.S. food chain back to the oil fields through corn, which is now the basis of most of our other foods, then back to the oil field. It is widely known that each calorie of food consumed in the world today represents an expenditure of 10 calories of fossil energy, but Pollan’s remarks while observing a cattle feed lot, where the beef-on-the-hoof was being force-fed corn produced by Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, are more to the point than any statistical review:
I don’t have a sufficiently vivid imagination to look at my steer and see a barrel of oil, but petroleum is one of the most important ingredients in the production of modern meat, and the Persian Gulf is surely a link in the food chain that passes through this (or any) feedlot. Steer 534 started his life part of a food chain that derived all of its energy from the sun, which nourished the grasses that nourished him and his mother. When 534 moved from ranch to feedlot, from grass to corn, he joined an industrial food chain powered by fossil fuel — and therefore defended by the U.S. military, another never counted cost of cheap food.
Empty gas tanks and empty bellies are not the basis of political stability, or profit, here in the United States of America, where the appropriation of immense amounts of time and space, using this store of ancient sunlight, is considered almost our birthright.
The Hydrocarbon Law
The reason I lead into a discussion of the Bush administration’s military “surge” plan for Iraq by talking about fossil fuels is that neither the government nor the media seem inclined to talk about the subject. The desperation of the coming escalation of criminal lunacy is based not on some fantasy but on a real and coming competition between the U.S. and basically everyone else for these energy stores, even as most honest experts agree that world production of oil has now peaked and will begin an inexorable and irreversible decline. The reason for attempting to implant permanent U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf area and install compliant governments (the real reason for the war from the very beginning) has everything to do with securing control over the region.
The surge plan is a painfully twisted military option, but what is twisting it is not well understood. Stability in Iraq could be achieved relatively easily, even now, in conjunction with a precipitous redeployment of Anglo-American military forces. The strange attractor — strange mostly because the media never mention it — is Iraq’s “first postwar draft hydrocarbon law,” which would “set up a committee consisting of highly qualified experts to speed up the process of issuing tenders and signing contracts with international oil companies to develop Iraq’s untapped oilfields.” This law, which is tantamount to privatization with an Anglo-American franchise in perpetuity, is the bottom line for the U.S., as evidenced by the fact that this is the one, absolute, bottom-line point of agreement between the Bush administration and the so-called Iraq Study Group. The rhetorical scuffle between these two entities is not the what, but the how.
Before any assessment of the balance of forces in Iraq can be undertaken from a purely military perspective (never possible, since military success is always measured against political objectives), it is essential to survey the major Iraqi military and political actors on where they stand with regard to the proposed Iraqi “oil law.” If the top priority is to salvage U.S. access to future hydrocarbon mining in Iraq, then the fundamental requirement is a comparatively “stable” Iraqi government that supports this access. The fundamental show-stopper is any leader or set of leaders who reject this plan.
The catch for the U.S. is that, as we shall see, the Iraqi leaders who support the hydrocarbon law have no legitimacy upon which to establish stability, and the leaders who have the popular legitimacy to establish stability support neither the occupation nor the hydrocarbon law.
When the situation is looked at in this way, we can bypass all the chatter from government and media mystigogues about regional stability for the sake of the people, democracy, terrorism, et cetera. These rhetorical smoke screens are concealing two inescapable facts: (1) The U.S. has lost the Iraq war and (2) the best retrenchment position possible now is to salvage the draft hydrocarbon law.
The Shiite “Government”
This explains, to a large degree, why the U.S. is harassing Iranian diplomats, even as it courts Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), as Dawa Party leader and putative Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s replacement. Hakim, after all, is practically an Iranian citizen. Why would the Bush administration court the most pro-Iranian leader among the diverse Shiite factions as successor in the event that Maliki fails to live up to U.S. expectations? Hakim has been a consistent and strong supporter of the hydrocarbon law.
The Shiite leader who has most vehemently opposed this law, and the U.S. occupation, has been Muqtada al-Sadr. The press has frequently portrayed Sadr as pro-Iranian, and nothing could be further from the truth. The SCIRI has been most aggressive in the demand to divide Iraq into a very loose federation and transform southeastern Iraq into an Iranian rump state. Sadr has called for Iraqi unification, left the door open to Sunnis for an anti-occupation alliance, denounced the hydrocarbon law, and modeled his political and military leadership on Hezbollah.
Here is where we come to the nub of The Surge, and why it is probably the political death knell of Nouri al-Maliki. The principle aim of The Surge is to break the power of Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr not only has the seats in the Potemkin parliament of Iraq that put Maliki (a leader in a relatively small Shiite party, the Dawa) into power against the SCIRI (the largest parliamentary faction); he commands the ferocious loyalty of two and a half million people and has an 80,000-strong militia concentrated a stone’s throw from the U.S.-protected Green Zone in Baghdad. Baghdad has about 6 million people; New York City has 8 million, just by way of comparison. The population of Sadr City, the “neighborhood” under the leadership of Sadr, is approximately that of Brooklyn.
To realize this helps in understanding the considerations that go into planning a military operation. We need some kind of comparative scale to really comprehend the dangerous lunacy of The Surge.
There is, in reality, no such thing as an Iraqi government now. There is this formation inside the Green Zone. Maliki cannot leave the Green Zone without an escort of armored vehicles and attack helicopters. If anyone can explain how this constitutes governance, I’m all ears.
Congressional and media accounts constantly refer to the Iraqi government as the entity that requires U.S. military assistance to become the guarantor of Iraqi security. But the Maliki government — or any other government that relies on U.S. military protection to survive for a week — commands the loyalty of only a fraction of the armed actors in Iraq, and it positions itself tactically against most other armed actors. The armed forces being trained for that “government” are themselves loyal to factions with agendas, and these forces are filled with opportunists and infiltrators. Consider these facts: Seventy percent of Iraqis now are asking for an end to the Anglo-American occupation (that number goes up dramatically when the Kurds are subtracted). And the Iraqis themselves are not merely Sunni or Shiite (as simplified accounts have it) but are identified with three major armed Shiite factions, two major Sunni armed factions, or a Kurdish militia of 100,000 that resides in the north and itself is divided into two camps. In light of those realities there is no possibility of one faction gaining the acquiescence of the whole Iraqi population and the various armed expressions of populations. The Bush surge plan is designed to eliminate Maliki’s Shiite opposition inside Baghdad, i.e., Sadr and his Mahdi Army.
Next page: If the Americans proceed with what appears to be a cruel and mindless plan (surely emanating from Dick Cheney’s lair) there will be a possibility of igniting the Mother of All Tactical Nightmares for the U.S.: a general armed Shiite uprising in the southeast.
That Baghdad has become the concentrated focus of most U.S. military efforts in Iraq now is material evidence of the scale of the U.S. defeat there; it is also an indication of exactly how desperate the surge notion really is.
While the U.S. gross troop numbers are about 130,000 (with around 25,000 mercenaries as an augmentative force), the actual number of combat troops is about 70,000. Before we can begin to subdivide these forces for any possible operation to slaughter and raze Sadr City, we have to account for basic operations and force protection at nine major permanent U.S. bases across Iraq, at least five large contingency bases, and an unknown number of smaller forward operating bases. Camp Anaconda in Balad alone has at least 25,000 troops.
According to Globalsecurity.org:
The base is so large it has its own “neighborhoods”. These include: “KBR-land” (a Halliburton subsidiary company); “CJSOTF” which is home to a special operations unit, the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force and is surrounded by especially high walls that is, according to The Washington Post, so secretive that even the base Army public affairs chief has never been inside. There is a Subway sandwich shop, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye’s, a 24-hour Burger King, two post exchanges which sell an impressive array of goods, four mess halls, a miniature golf course and a hospital. The base has a strictly enforced on-base speed limit of 10 MPH.
The Surge would inject fewer troops than are required to maintain one “camp.” If the entire surge figure of 21,400 troops is compared with the number of hostile residents in Sadr City, the ratio is about 112 hostiles for every American. This can mean only one thing: airstrikes, followed by a ruthless house-to-house slaughter. Sadr City is targeted to be the next Fallujah.
For those who are susceptible to the personification of war, that is, the reduction of whole populations to a single leader — as in, “we are going to take out Saddam” — I will remind readers that Sadr City is half men and half women, with 40 percent of the population under 14 years of age. A million children. Sadr City is approximately 33 million square feet. That is a population density of one child per 33 square feet — less than a 6-foot-by-6-foot room. The very smallest lethality radius from so-called precision weapons delivered by aircraft is about 20 meters. Even the humble infantry grenade launcher fires an M406, characterized this way in the manual:
The HE [high-explosive] round has an olive drab aluminum skirt with a steel projectile attached, gold markings, and a yellow tip. It arms between 14 and 27 meters, produces a ground burst that causes casualties within a 130-meter radius, and has a kill radius of 5 meters.
Do the math.
In Fallujah, a mass evacuation was organized before the general assault on the city. The mandatory mass evacuation went through checkpoints in the American cordon sanitaire. While women and children and very old people were allowed out, all “military-aged males” were turned back into the city, which, once the assault started, became a free-fire zone, and those men were dealt with like the Jews of Warsaw. Thousands of people refused to evacuate for a variety of reasons. They were subsequently caught up in the general slaughter. This is the likely operational template for Sadr City.
The Other Math
There is another calculation associated with these kinds of “surge” operations: the aftermath. Muqtada al-Sadr has been effectively demonized in the U.S., but he is wildly popular and influential in Iraq, especially in southeastern Iraq, which has heretofore shown the least resistance to the Anglo-American occupation. In an attack on Sadr City, according to powerful rumors, Kurdish peshmerga troops will be used to do some of the fighting, an insane political gambit. If the Americans proceed with what appears to be a cruel and mindless plan (surely emanating from Dick Cheney’s lair) there will be a possibility of igniting the Mother of All Tactical Nightmares for the U.S.: a general armed Shiite uprising in the southeast.
Maliki, of course, knows this, and has objected strenuously — only to be blown off like a gnat by the Bush administration and its fresh coterie of compliant generals. Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, author of yet another U.S. military manual on counterinsurgency (none of which has ever worked — ever), is the designated paladin for this disgraceful enterprise; he’s getting his fourth star for this, making him a real general.
“Petraeus is being given a losing hand,” notes former Gen. Barry McCaffrey. “I say that reluctantly. The war is unmistakably going in the wrong direction. The only good news in all this is that Petraeus is so incredibly intelligent and creative…. I’m sure he’ll say to himself, ‘I’m not going to be the last soldier off the roof of the embassy in the Green Zone.’ “
This is the most encouraging thing that can be said by a colleague?
McCaffrey’s main concern, of course, lies with a number of other generals. The war in Iraq is lost, but the outcome of that loss has also been the severe degradation of U.S. ground forces in the Army and Marine Corps. The last Baghdad “surge” was in August, when 10,000 troops were re-positioned from elsewhere in Iraq to put the lid back on the city, and U.S. casualties increased. Troops there now are being extended, and troops on rest-and-refit cycles have been called up for early redeployment. Morale has been steadily ground down; divorce rates are up; National Guard troops have just been told that the president has overwritten their 24-month combat deployment limit; and material across the board is being used up or seriously overused.
Reps. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee, and Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, chairman of the Air-Land Subcommittee, wrote on Dec. 17:
The military readiness crisis is far broader and deeper than the number of men and women in uniform. Simply increasing the size of the Army, which, by the way, was authorized by Congress several years ago but never carried out, is a necessary step. Yet, by itself, it does nothing to address the quality, level of training or equipment condition of the total force.
The impact of the war in Iraq on the Army and Marine Corps has been terribly and unnecessarily destructive. It began with military planning that allowed the invasion to be used as a test drive for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “transformational” force….
— Two-thirds of Army units in the United States are not combat ready because of severe shortages in equipment, training and troops.
— Not one brigade combat team in the United States is fully trained and equipped to meet all potential deployments.
— The Army has had to extend combat deployments in Iraq just to maintain the current force level.
— The Marine Corps had to call 2,500 reservists back to active duty so their units in Iraq could be fully manned. These were reservists who had already served on active duty and were trying to return to their civilian lives.
— The Army has had to pay up to $40,000 re-enlistment bonuses to keep highly trained military personnel from walking away.
— The Iraqi climate, marked by extreme temperatures and frequent sandstorms, causes abnormal wear on precision components, such as high-speed turbines in helicopter and tank engines. To complicate matters, when many units rotate back to the United States, they have to leave their equipment behind for the units rotating in. As a result, 40 percent of the Army’s total ground equipment is now in Iraq or Afghanistan. That means even longer continuous use and less opportunity for maintenance and refit.
I am not advocating increased readiness to attack more foreigners in the future; I do not think anyone poses a credible conventional military threat to the U.S.; and I believe the “global war on terrorism” is a dangerous sham. But these concerns by generals and politicians reflect a real situation. U.S. ground forces are being (no pun intended) ground down by a losing war in Iraq. The reason that neither the public nor many of the troops themselves see this defeat is that we have been indoctrinated to see defeat as synonymous with surrender. It is not. Defeat is failure to achieve the political objectives of a war. This happened long ago.
The surge is a criminal last stand that will cost the lives of soldiers on both sides of this occupation and the lives of countless civilians, and it very well could lead to scenes as humiliating as that at the Saigon Embassy in 1975.
On Aug. 25, 1944, crushed between the Red Army smashing across the Danube and the Free French, American and Senegalese troops marching through the Champs Elysee, Hitler knew the end of the Third Reich was approaching. He had given the order to Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, the German “governor” of Paris, to destroy Paris rather than let it fall into the hands of the Allies. As word of the Allied entry into Paris reached Hitler, he is reputed to have called his chief of staff, Gen. Alfred Jodl, and demanded: “Jodl! Is Paris burning?”
I can almost hear the echo now from Cheney’s office, the curtains pulled, the malignant presence glowering in the dark, “Petraeus! Is Baghdad burning?”
Stan Goff is a retired veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces. During an active-duty career that spanned 1970 to 1996, he served with the elite Delta Force and Rangers, and in Vietnam, Guatemala, Grenada, El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, Somalia and Haiti.
He is a veteran of the Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama and also taught military science at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Goff is the author of the books “Hideous Dream — A Soldier’s Memoir of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti,” “Full Spectrum Disorder — The Military in the New American Century” and “Sex & War.”