Each day brings fresh evidence that the Bush administration is planning to keep American soldiers in Iraq for a long time—lots of soldiers, for several years—and that it’s doing stunningly little to get other countries, from our supposedly vast “coalition,” to chip in.
The case goes well beyond today’s testimony by Gen. Tommy Franks, the outgoing head of U.S. Central Command, who told the House Armed Services Committee, “I anticipate we’ll be involved in Iraq in the future. Whether that means two years or four years, I don’t know.” This was an only slightly more specific variation on his testimony Wednesday, before the Senate committee, that our troops would be in Iraq “for the foreseeable future.” (He made this open-ended remark at the same hearing where Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, after repeated questioning on the subject, that the monthly cost of our stay there has risen from $2 billion to $3.9 billion, not counting reconstruction.)
The median number of Franks’ two to four years—three years—is how long Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith said last Monday it would take to train the New Iraqi Army’s first 40,000 troops, or just over one-quarter the number of U.S. troops currently in Iraq.
Rumsfeld has recently suggested the commitment might be longer still. At a Pentagon press conference on June 30, he recalled America’s own spate of violence in its period of early independence and noted that, following the failed Articles of Confederation, “it took eight years before the Founders finally adopted our Constitution and inaugurated our first President.” He added, “That history is worth remembering as we consider the difficulties that the Afghans and Iraqis face.”
If that is now the measuring gauge, eight years is probably a conservative estimate. Unlike Saddam and Osama, Benedict Arnold wasn’t roaming the countryside after the Revolutionary War. Shay’s Rebellion, which Rumsfeld cited as an example of America’s post-colonial chaos, was put down by a well-established militia and judiciary, the likes of which don’t remotely exist in today’s Iraq.
A prolonged occupation has been in the game plan since at least June 13, when, according to the trade journal Inside the Army, the Pentagon signed a $200 million contract with Kellogg Brown & Root—a subsidiary of (guess what) the Halliburton Corp.—to build barracks for 100,000 troops in Iraq, or, as the contract puts it, “the set-up and operation of all housing and logistics to sustain task force personnel.” (The journal is available online only by subscription, but a summary of the article can be found here.)
In a disturbing, if unwitting, bit of symbolism, these barracks—which Halliburton has also constructed in Kosovo and Bosnia—are known as “SEAhuts,” an abbreviation for “South East Asia huts,” since they are similar to the quarters that were built for U.S. troops in Vietnam. (In a move that indicates that Halliburton employs some image-savvy executives, the name has recently been changed to “SWAhuts,” for South West Asia.)
Gen. Franks said at yesterday’s hearing that 19 countries have forces in Iraq, with another 19 preparing to send some and 11 discussing the possibility. But nobody is telling just which 19—much less 38, or 49—countries Franks is talking about. Consider this Hellerian conversation I had today with a Pentagon public-affairs spokesman:
ME: How many countries have, or soon will have, forces on the ground in Iraq?
PENTAGON: There’s a dozen nations now, a dozen more very shortly, and a dozen more considering it.
ME: How many people does this add up to?
PENTAGON: You’ll have to talk with the individual countries about that.
ME: Which countries are they?
PENTAGON: We can’t go into that.
ME: How can I talk with the countries if you won’t tell me who they are?
PENTAGON: Well, Britain, of course. Poland has publicized its involvement. But, as I’m sure you understand, this is a very discreet subject for many of the others.
Let’s ignore for the moment that the spokesman’s three dozen nations amount to a baker’s dozen fewer than Franks’$2 49. (They also differ from Feith’s remark on Monday, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that 18 foreign nations have “military capabilities on the ground in Iraq” and over 41 have “made offers of military support.”)
Let’s also flit over the dubious merits of a coalition whose members do not want their participation known.
Let us focus instead on Franks’ base number of nations, 19, an awfully suspicious number. Could these be the 19 nations of NATO? Rumsfeld said at yesterday’s Senate hearings that NATO was assisting Poland with the division that it’s sending to Iraq. On June 30, a NATO force-review conference did decide to aid Poland “in a variety of supporting roles,” including “communications, logistics and movement.” However, it would be very misleading to tag NATO, much less to count every member-nation in NATO, as a participant in this plan. NATO Secretary General George Robertson has emphasized, “We are not talking about a NATO presence in Iraq. We are talking purely and simply about NATO help to Poland.”
Poland’s plan is to send a multinational force of 7,000 personnel to patrol central Iraq, in an area between the U.S. and British zones. Warsaw is contributing 2,000 of this force. Other NATO nations will fill in the other 5,000 slots, on a negotiated bilateral basis. But which countries these are, and how many will come from each, has not been announced, and may not have yet been decided.
Whichever countries are involved, it also remains a mystery just what they will be doing. The example of Australia may provide some clues. The Bush and Blair administrations always cited Australia as a strong coalition partner during the war. However, on May 15, Australian Prime Minister John Howard told his country’s Parliament, “Now that the major combat phase is over … we have begun to bring home our defence personnel. … The government has made clear all along that Australia would not be in a position to provide peacekeeping forces in Iraq. Our coalition partners clearly understood and accepted our position.”
Even so, Howard noted that Australia would keep in the Iraqi theater a naval task group, an Army commando element (“for a brief period”), two PC-3 patrol planes, two C-130 transport planes, some air-traffic controllers, security for the Australian mission in Baghdad, and a team of experts hunting for weapons of mass destruction. Together, these elements add up to 1,200 personnel. Even though they are not for peacekeeping as the term is commonly understood—even though Howard has explicitly bowed out of the coalition—we can be sure that Bush and Rumsfeld will count them among the faceless total of those still in.
In any case, Rumsfeld seems firmly footed in his prewar mode of insistent unilateralism. During a break in yesterday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, a reporter asked him to clarify the administration’s position on “reaching out to NATO to provide troops” for Iraq. Rummy’s first response was to act as if that was outside his jurisdiction. “The Department of State has been the instrument through which the United States of America has been consulting with many, many dozens of nations and organizations around the world,” he said. “They deal with NATO, they deal with the U.N., they have been doing it.” He added:
I tend to be very precise when I answer a question and I don’t answer what I don’t know. Can I say precisely what the request was made—or requests, plural, made—by the United States of NATO? No. You may think it’s something I ought to know, but I happen not to. That’s life and that’s a very honest answer.
There was also this typically rambunctious exchange:
QUESTION: Do you welcome the participation of France?
RUMSFELD: We would be happy to have them.
Q: Will you ask them?
R: I’ve answered that question four times this morning, Charles. Really. Isn’t there a limit?
Q: On France?
R: You keep repeating yourself. I have said that we would be happy to have troops from a wide variety of countries, including France. How’s that?
R: Does that really nail it for you?
Q: It does.
R: Great! Let’s hear it for him!
There! That’s the attitude that’ll get the allies onboard.