Monday, September 03, 2007

Perspective: On this day in Iraq -- September 3rd edition

September 3, 2006: U.S. Army soldiers move to their next objective during a morning raid in the Tameem district of Ramadi.

September 3, 2002:

Whether all is fair in the war on terror

Whether, as some critics contend, it was merely a grand rhetorical flourish to a blunt vow of revenge, the US declaration of a global "war on terrorism" turned defence and security thinking upside down.

Since then the Bush doctrine of "pre-emptive self-defence" has become a euphemism for an attack on Iraq. No firm evidence links the al-Qaeda terrorist network to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but "regime change" in Baghdad appears to have become the priority in Washington's war on terrorism.

While debate rages over whether the US has moral and legal justification to unilaterally wage war on Iraq, governments, legal experts and human rights groups are locked in a broader and more complex discourse about the very concept, rules and conduct of modern warfare.

From questions such as the treatment of battlefield detainees to the erosion of civil liberties, the arguments are rooted in decades-old treaties and often couched in arcane legal terms. As profound as they are confusing, the issues straddle an era in which there was no concept of a global, al-Qaeda style terrorist network - a time when law enforcement and criminality were generally separate from military action and the rules of warfare.

"These days there isn't a legal definition of war - there used to be, but now one talks about the law of armed conflict," Louise Doswald-Beck, secretary-general of the International Commission of Jurists, said at a recent conference held by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"The concept of a 'war against terrorism' actually involves two emotional terms which don't actually mean anything legally. Terrorism has never been defined. Attempts have been made since 1937...and they've all come up against problems."

The rules of modern warfare lie in a body of international law with the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Hague Conventions of 1899 and early 1900s at its core. Legally binding but technically unenforceable, despite recognition by nearly all states, including Iraq, the conventions detail standards for conduct of armed conflict and treatment of prisoners. The terms of the Geneva Conventions were extended in 1977 to apply to wars of national liberation and civil wars.

Since September 11, however, controversy has engulfed nearly every aspect of the US-led campaign, from its treatment of battlefield detainees and alleged civil liberties infringements to whether Washington would require a Security Council resolution to declare war on Iraq.

In a related issue, critics accuse the US of undermining efforts to strengthen international humanitarian law through its manoueverings over the new International Criminal Court, the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal. Warning that the court could be used as a political weapon against the world's only superpower, the US has pressured countries to sign bilateral deals exempting US personnel from the court's jurisdiction. But critics say a supra-sovereign authority is more essential than ever to enforce international law in the post-September 11 world.

"The big question is where crime ends and war begins," said Michael Glennon, professor of international law at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was commenting on the case of John Walker Lindh, a young American caught fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In the broader US war on terrorism the case seemed more of a sideshow. But the arguments, about whether Mr Lindh as a US citizen should enjoy the same rights as criminal defendants in America's courts, highlighted the increasingly grey area between law enforcement and military action.

It also showed up the inadequacy of existing rules set up to regulate conflict and protect victims and combatants. Most striking is the unresolved fate of hundreds of foreign detainees captured on Afghan battlefields and held at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay. Although no formal charges have been laid nor tribunals set up, the Bush administration continues to insist they are "illegal" or "unlawful" combatants, excluded from the Geneva Conventions.

The debate has led to discreet and informal discussions between US government lawyers and legal experts from international organisations and other governments about "modernising" international codes of warfare. An academic conference of international experts is planned later this year in Boston.

"What troubles us is the legal vacuum developing over issues like the handling of prisoners - and the fact that the US has its own reading of international law while the rest of the world has theirs," said one European expert in international law.

Others have put it more baldly. Pierre-Richard Prosper, President George W. Bush's ambassador for war crimes, recently said the Geneva Conventions were obsolete and should be rewritten. "The war on terror is a new type of war not envisaged when the Geneva Conventions were negotiated and signed. We now have organisations that... do not conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war," he said in February.

Ruth Wedgwood, professor of international law at Yale and Johns Hopkins University, warns that any move to "overhaul" the Geneva Conventions and other treaties on war would take years to achieve. "But, yes, there needs at least to be a conversation on how to adapt the existing rules, whether through interpretation or protocol."

Another aspect fast outstripping existing legal frameworks is the growing number of non-military "weapons" in the war on terrorism - some of which, critics say, already transcend the boundaries of international law. "In reality, while using the term 'war', the US is essentially talking about a comprehensive global strategy to confront and defeat terrorism," noted Robert Kogod Goldman, of American University's Washington College of Law. "In that campaign, military force is only one - and not the dominant - tool." Such "weapons" include the aggressive extraterritorial application of US laws, such as blocking foreign accounts and assets of suspected terrorists and front organisations, he said.

The use of regional organisations and financial insitutions can also be a powerful lever. "One can reasonably expect that the US and other G7 members will adapt a common policy to block loans and other forms of financial assistance from the World Bank and IMF, as well as bilateral aid, to states whose governments 'sponsor' terrorism," he noted.

Within the US, legal groups have raised many other concerns about steps by the Bush administration to deal with terrorist suspects. Measures such as surveillance, detention without charges and interrogation of immigrants have prompted critics to question the limits and protections afforded by US constitutional and humanitarian law.

On this front, however, some see the US as disadvantaged. "One of the attractions of terror as a strategic weapon is that actual attacks involve very small groups whose support structure can be disguised," Jeremy Rabkin, political scientist at Cornell University, wrote in the summer issue of The National Interest.

"Human rights groups do not have intelligence services that allow them to shed light on these connections. But they can publicise what they regard as American abuses...Similarly, advocacy groups can hope to affect American opinion, while their influence on dictatorial states like Iraq is effectively nil."

Read the rest at the Financial Times

September 3, 2003:

Army Lacks Forces for Iraq Mission, CBO Warns

The Congressional Budget Office warned yesterday that the Army lacks sufficient active-duty forces to maintain its current level of nearly 150,000 troops in Iraq beyond next spring.

In a report that underscores the stress being placed on the military by the occupation of Iraq, the CBO said the Army's goals of keeping the same number of troops in Iraq and limiting tours of duty there to a year while maintaining its current presence elsewhere in the world were impossible to sustain without activating more National Guard or Reserve units.

"The Army does not have enough active-duty component forces to simultaneously maintain the occupation at its current size, limit deployments to one year, and sustain all of its other commitments," the CBO said in the first detailed analysis of the likely future cost of the Iraqi occupation.

Guard and Reserve units are playing a major role in the occupation, and additional Guard and Reserve units are being activated to take over more of the Iraq mission early next year, the report noted. But it added that unless even more Guard and Reserve units are mobilized, "an occupation force of the present size could not be maintained past March 2004"...

The study said that if circumstances permit the size of the U.S. occupation force to be radically reduced, the active-duty Army could indefinitely maintain a presence of roughly 40,000 to 65,000 troops at an annual cost of $8 billion to $12 billion.

If the Bush administration calls up more Guard and Reserve units, the military could indefinitely support the even larger presence of a force of about 100,000 troops at a cost of as much as $19 billion a year, the study said.

The study undermines the idea of boosting the size of the Army as a fix for the manpower problems in Iraq. While some lawmakers have cited the situation in Iraq in calling for an increase in the size of the Army beyond its current 10 active-duty divisions, or about 480,000 troops, the study estimates that it would take five years to create and staff two new divisions that would permit the deployment of an additional 20,000 troops. It also would cost nearly $20 billion to start up those divisions and outfit them with new equipment, and about another $10 billion annually to keep them running.

Given the U.S. government's plan to train Iraqis to take over security functions, the study said, "efforts to create new Army divisions might not provide a timely response."

The cost to the Treasury may be the silver lining in the CBO's otherwise bleak assessment. Even at the high end of the CBO's cost estimate, $19 billion a year, a constrained military force would cost taxpayers considerably less than the $3.9 billion a month being spent for the current force in and around Iraq.

Read the rest at the Washington Post

September 3, 2004:

U.S. troops death toll mounts as Iraq danger persists

WASHINGTON – The U.S. military death toll in Iraq is approaching 1,000, with the danger faced by American troops undiminished in the two months since the formation of an interim government.

The United States transferred sovereignty to the interim Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi on June 28, officially ending the occupation. But more than 137,000 U.S. troops and 23,000 allied foreign soldiers remain in Iraq protecting Allawi's government and fighting a persistent insurgency that has left much of the country a battleground.

Since the March 2003 invasion to topple President Saddam Hussein, 976 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, the Pentagon said Friday, while another 6,916 have been wounded.

The average monthly U.S. military death toll has been about 55 troops in the 17-1/2 months of war. Forty-two U.S. troops died in Iraq in June. After the hand-over, 54 were killed in July and 66 in August.

"The hand-over to the Iraqis of political authority had virtually no impact on the military balance," said retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University international relations professor.

"It didn't make the forces of order substantially stronger because Iraqi government forces did not somehow materialize instantly just because there was a new government. We basically have the same number of forces, mostly U.S. forces, and the same number, if not a larger number, of insurgents."

The worst months this year were April (135 U.S. military dead) and May (80 dead), when violence flared simultaneously in the Shi'ite Muslim south and in the Sunni city Falluja.

But August still ranked among the deadliest months of the war as U.S. forces battled fighters loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf while continuing to face dangers around Baghdad and in the Sunni Triangle.

"Casualties are a fact of warfare. We are a nation at war," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "We are safer today because of the sacrifices and the brave service of our men and women in uniform."

Whitman said the milestone of 1,000 troops dead in Iraq, which could be reached in two weeks if the current daily average of two U.S. military deaths persists, must be viewed in the broader context of American deaths either in terrorist incidents or in fighting terrorism.

"I would say that we passed that milestone in America a long time ago. Since 1970, we've had more than 5,000 Americans who have died in terrorist bombings, hijackings, shootings and other attacks," Whitman said.

Brookings Institution defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon said insurgents appear firmly entrenched, while for Iraqis quality of life is stagnant and anti-American feelings commonplace.

"There's a vicious cycle where if you have too much violence both in terms of the insurgency and in terms of routine street crime and then sabotage to infrastructure, the economy cannot be easily improved," O'Hanlon said.

"And if the economy can't be improved, then there's more disaffection and more anger and more potential recruits for the insurgency."

Whitman said Iraq's police forces and fledgling military eventually will be able to provide security, and "U.S. and coalition forces won't be needed."

Read the rest at the San Diego Tribune

September 3, 2005:

U.S. Lowers Number of Troops To Be Added for Iraqi Elections

The U.S. military has dropped plans to boost its presence in Iraq by more than 20,000 troops to safeguard elections, a senior U.S. commander indicated Friday, with Hurricane Katrina putting demands on a force already stretched thin by the conflicts here and in Afghanistan.

The United States now plans to deploy about 2,000 extra troops for the Oct. 15 referendum on Iraq's constitution, bringing the U.S. total here "pretty close" to 140,000, Lt. Gen. John Vines told reporters in Washington during a video news conference.

The United States has 138,000 troops in Iraq. Pentagon officials said in late August that they expected to temporarily boost that number to 160,000 as part of U.S. and Iraqi efforts to block an expected increase in insurgent attacks timed to the October vote and December parliamentary elections. Pentagon officials said at the time that the troop increase would be accomplished mainly by delaying the return home of some units and speeding the arrival of others slated to replace them.

The overlap, combined with extra deployments, would have increased the U.S. presence to roughly the level of January, when Iraq held national elections. Vines said on Friday, however, that more Iraqi troops were now available.

Vines made no mention of the 160,000 figure that Pentagon officials gave late last month. Vines's aides could not be reached for comment Friday night, and a senior military spokesman in Iraq had no explanation for the lower number.

"Plans may have changed," said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, the spokesman, who said he had not known of the Pentagon's plans to have 160,000 troops on hand for the elections.

Vines's announcement came as complaints grew in the United States that deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan had slowed the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. "I just completely disagree," President Bush said when asked about the assertions Friday as he toured areas hit by the hurricane. "We've got a job to defend the country in the war on terror" and to aid Americans at home, Bush said. "We have plenty of resources to do both."

Read the rest at the Washington Post

September 3, 2006:

No civil war in Iraq, insists Bush - but Pentagon differs

President Bush yesterday denied that Iraq was plunging into civil war, just a day after the Pentagon painted a bloody picture of a nation caught in a spiral of increasing violence.

His statement appears to widen the gap between the political message coming from a White House concerned about upcoming mid-term elections and a military establishment fearful of getting caught in another Vietnam.

In his weekly radio address to the nation, Bush lashed out at critics of the war and portrayed the conflict in Iraq as an integral part of the war on terror. He said the country was not sliding into civil war.

'Our commanders and diplomats on the ground believe that Iraq has not descended into a civil war. They report that only a small number of Iraqis are engaged in sectarian violence,' he said.

Read the rest at the Guardian

I no longer have power to save Iraq from civil war, warns Shia leader

The most influential moderate Shia leader in Iraq has abandoned attempts to restrain his followers, admitting that there is nothing he can do to prevent the country sliding towards civil war.

Aides say Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is angry and disappointed that Shias are ignoring his calls for calm and are switching their allegiance in their thousands to more militant groups which promise protection from Sunni violence and revenge for attacks.

"I will not be a political leader any more," he told aides. "I am only happy to receive questions about religious matters."

It is a devastating blow to the remaining hopes for a peaceful solution in Iraq and spells trouble for British forces, who are based in and around the Shia stronghold of Basra.

The cleric is regarded as the most important Shia religious leader in Iraq and has been a moderating influence since the invasion of 2003. He ended the fighting in Najaf between Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi army and American forces in 2004 and was instrumental in persuading the Shia factions to fight the 2005 elections under the single banner of the United Alliance.

However, the extent to which he has become marginalised was demonstrated last week when fighting broke out in Diwaniya between Iraqi soldiers and al-Sadr's Mehdi army. With dozens dead, al-Sistani's appeals for calm were ignored. Instead, the provincial governor had to travel to Najaf to see al-Sadr, who ended the fighting with one telephone call.

Al-Sistani's aides say that he has chosen to stay silent rather than suffer the ignominy of being ignored. Ali al-Jaberi, a spokesman for the cleric in Khadamiyah, said that he was furious that his followers had turned away from him and ignored his calls for moderation.

Asked whether Ayatollah al-Sistani could prevent a civil war, Mr al-Jaberi replied: "Honestly, I think not. He is very angry, very disappointed."

Read the rest at the Telegraph

The spoils of war

When future historians sift through the wreckage of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, they will rely in large part on a handful of books by brilliant reporters who watched the debacle unfold. George Packer's The Assassins' Gate is one such book, and Thomas E. Ricks's Fiasco is certain to be another. To this short list of indispensable accounts detailing how what was supposed to be a liberation became a quagmire, I would now add T. Christian Miller's Blood Money .

Most accounts have focused on the political and military mistakes made in invading and occupying Iraq. These errors have become somewhat familiar: the failure to plan for an occupation, even a short-term one; the U.S. proconsul L. Paul Bremer's careless destruction of all that remained of order in Iraq -- the Baath Party and the army -- in one fell swoop; and above all, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's persistent refusal to acknowledge that an Iraqi insurgency was growing and to raise U.S. troop levels accordingly.

Miller, an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, fills in the missing piece: the staggering incompetence and corruption of the U.S.-led reconstruction effort, which may have done almost as much as anything else to turn the Iraqi population against its occupiers. Despite headlines in recent years about Halliburton's hefty revenues, this has been, in general, the less-covered dimension of the Iraq adventure. At its heart, Blood Money is the tale of how Washington left a country desperately in need of rebuilding to the whims of money-hungry private contractors, and of how the lack of clear lines of authority doomed efficiency, effectiveness and accountability from the start.

The result? "In almost every way the rebuilding has fallen short," Miller writes, despite some successes, such as the reconstruction of thousands of Iraqi schools and the vaccination of tens of thousands of Iraqi children. "After three years Iraqis have less power in their homes than under Saddam. Hospital neonatal units lose electricity, and doctors watch children die . . . . Oil production is far below its prewar peak. Poor Iraqis in Baghdad slums suffer through outbreaks of easily preventable diseases like hepatitis for lack of clean water or health care." And what bothers him most now, he says, is that the Bush administration seems about to give up on the reconstruction, slashing its funding even as it extends the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

How did the country that authored the Marshall Plan botch Iraq? By way of explanation, Miller brings to life the villains and heroes of the often arcane reconstruction effort. His villains include politically connected contractors such as Mike Battles and Scott Custer, whom the former inspector general of the U.S. Army's Fifth Corps calls "rip-off artists" and who, Miller reports, never endured "any serious effort" from the Bush administration to recover the taxpayer dollars they were responsible for; senators such as Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who, Miller writes, inserted language into the $18.4-billion Iraq-reconstruction bill of November 2003 guaranteeing "special contracting privileges for a group of constituents [the Alaska Native Corporations] that supplied Stevens . . . with votes" ; Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator Bremer, whom Miller accuses of simply not paying attention while such depredations were happening under his nose; and even Laura Bush, who championed an extravagant showcase hospital on the outskirts of Basra that Miller reports drained money and attention away from the small-scale health clinics that Iraqis really needed.

Miller's heroes are the ordinary soldiers and administrators who went to Iraq with the best intentions and tried desperately to make life better for the Iraqis -- and almost always failed. Some, Miller writes, such as Army Lt. Col. Ted Westhusing, a security trainer assigned to oversee one suspect U.S. contractor, may have been driven to suicide because of it. None of these stories is more engrossing -- and as full of the high drama that only true-life villainy and heroism can supply -- than Miller's account of the outrageous tale of Jack Shaw, a senior Pentagon official who brazenly interfered with the creation of Iraq's mobile-phone network. Miller writes that even though contracts had already been handed out, Shaw, a deputy undersecretary of defense described as someone who "could have been a caricature of the Beltway insider," sought to benefit a company linked to a friend of his. According to a November 2003 e-mail from Shaw that Miller cites, the Pentagon official tried to use a new contract for a police mobile network as a "back door" for his friend's company to set up its own commercial cellphone network. Then, Miller adds, Shaw used Sen. Stevens's legal loophole, intended to award Iraq contracts to "native Alaskans" on a no-bid basis, to sneak in his favored consortium.

When a brave and honest CPA official, Daniel Sudnick, tried to blow the whistle, Miller reports that Shaw spread stories around the Pentagon suggesting that Sudnick was corrupt, resulting in the latter's being forced to resign. Shaw's actions were finally exposed, but because of the confusion he created, it took more than two years before a police mobile-phone network was installed in Iraq. "During that time thousands of American soldiers and Iraqi police officers were killed, at least some of whom could have been saved had they been able to pick up a phone and call for help," Miller notes. Shaw was finally fired in December 2004, but Miller reports that -- in keeping with the Bush administration's unblemished record of never holding a senior official responsible for any lapse of judgment -- his departure was not explained and he was never held accountable.

Miller also tells the inspiring story of Shaw's mirror opposite, Stuart Bowen, the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, who, despite his own insider GOP connections, turned into an indefatigable investigator and truth-teller. And the book provides the best account yet of the pitfalls of contracting security out to private companies. Miller obtained documents from the Army Corps of Engineers that show that "private security contractors played a leading role in the daily violence of Iraq" but never faced the penalties served up to, say, the military abusers at Abu Ghraib prison. Often acting without any coordination with U.S. forces, Miller writes, contractors would fire at Iraqi cars even when they hadn't been obviously provoked. This arbitrary treatment enraged Iraqis, especially since the contractors were effectively immune from criminal or civil charges.

Miller doesn't always give us the full picture: His chapter on Iraq's electricity problem, probably the single biggest setback to reconstruction, seems like an afterthought. It is also hard not to feel sympathy for contractors who worked in horrific conditions: About 500 of them have lost their lives in Iraq. But one of the many virtues of Miller's book is its balance. Halliburton, for example, comes off better than you might expect: The firm almost unfailingly supplied the promised services to troops (as anyone who has eaten at one of its subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root's well-stocked dining facilities can attest) even as it gouged taxpayers for oil profits. "The company delivered, but wasted a lot of money doing it," Miller says. That, sadly, is more than one can say about the rest of the reconstruction effort, which for the most part didn't deliver at all.

Read the rest at the Washington Post