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250,000 Are Not Enough

President George Bush's decision to increase US troop strength in Iraq has found few supporters and will only make things worse.

Letter from America

250,000 Are Not Enough

President George Bush’s decision to increase US troop strength in Iraq has found few supporters and will only make things worse.


n two months time, on March 20, the United States will have been at war in Iraq for four years. Increasingly embattled, a desperate president George Bush has decided to send another 21,500 American troops to join the 150,000 US soldiers already stationed in Iraq. In his speech on January 10, explaining his decision, President Bush argued in almost apocalyptic terms that “failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States”. He claimed, The consequences of failure are clear:Radical Islamic extremists would grow instrength and gain new recruits. They wouldbe in a better position to topple moderategovernments, create chaos in the regionand use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Our enemieswould have a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the Americanpeople. On September 11, 2001, we sawwhat a refuge for extremists on the otherside of the world could bring to the streetsof our own cities. For the safety of ourpeople, America must succeed in Iraq.

The echoes of America’s war in Vietnam are hard to miss. In March 1967, president Lyndon Johnson was arguing that

As our commitment in Vietnam requiredmore men and more equipment, somevoices were raised in opposition. The administration was urged to disengage, tofind an excuse to abandon the effort… But if we faltered, the forces of chaos would scent victory and decades of strife andaggression would stretch endlessly beforeus. The choice was clear. We would staythe course. And we shall stay the course.

American forces in Iraq are still far short of the military deployment the US had in Vietnam. The number of American troops in Vietnam increased from less than 20,000 in early 1964 to more than half a million by 1969. But the difference is a lot less than most people think.

America has a second army in Iraq. In December 2006, The Washington Post reported, “There are about 100,000 government contractors operating in Iraq, not counting subcontractors, a total that is approaching the size of the US military force there, according to the military’s first census of the growing population of civilians operating in the battlefield.” The figure of 100,000 did not include subcontractors, which could substantially increase it.

These contractors, many run by former soldiers, provide essential services for the US military, including interpreters who go out with military patrols, intelligence analysis, security guards, interrogating prisoners (including during the torture at Abu Ghraib prison), maintaining and even operating military equipment, constructing military bases, cooking and cleaning for soldiers. These are all jobs that are otherwise done by soldiers. Many contractor-employees live with US troops on military bases and at least 650 of them have been killed so far. This suggests that a better measure of the effective US military commitment to Iraq is already about 250,000 and may be significantly larger.

While private military contractors are paid for by the US government, and are an increasingly important part of the US occupation in Iraq (and its military activities elsewhere) they have not been and are not accountable to anyone. They were neither subject to local law nor US military law. To take but one example, some of the American soldiers involved in torture at Abu Ghraib were tried and sentenced by a US military court, but the civilian interrogators involved, employed by US contractors, faced no punishment.

Peter Singer, an expert on US private military contractors, has observed that “Not one contractor of the entire military industry in Iraq has been charged with any crime over the last three and a half years, let alone prosecuted or punished. Given the raw numbers of contractors, let alone the incidents we know about, it boggles the mind.” This may be about to change. A little noted clause in the 2007 defence bill, enacted last October, placed contractors under the uniform code of military justice, the military laws that govern the US armed forces.

It is hard to see how adding a few tens of thousands of soldiers will make much difference to an American force of about a quarter of million already in Iraq. It is likely only to make things worse, and many people realise that. Recent polls show that a clear majority of Americans are against Bush’s decision to send yet more troops to Iraq – a CNN poll found 66 per cent of Americans in opposition. About half (53 per cent) of Americans think the new Congress should block the Bush plan. This should come as no surprise. More than half of Americans (57 per cent) now think that the US is losing the war in Iraq (up from 34 per cent in December 2005).

Bush’s decision has also attracted a lot of opposition and criticism from insiders. The highest levels of the US military, the officers who make up the joint chiefs of staff, representing the army, navy, marines, and air force, were opposed to it. The Washington Post reported that “White House officials [are] aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the joint chiefs of staff”. Colin Powell, who served as national security adviser, and as a general was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, before serving as Bush’s secretary of state from 2001-05, said that “I am not persuaded that another surge of troops into Baghdad for the purposes of suppressing this communitarian violence, this civil war, will work”. Zbigniew Brzezinski, another former US national security adviser, passed a harsher verdict. Writing in the Washington Post, Brzezinski called the Bush plan “a political gimmick of limited tactical significance and of no strategic benefit. It is insufficient to win the war militarily. It will engage US forces in bloody street fighting that will not resolve with finality the ongoing turmoil and the sectarian and ethnic strife, not to mention the anti-American insurgency.” For Brzezinski, “America is acting like a colonial power in Iraq. But the age of colonialism is over. Waging a colonial war in the post-colonial age is self-defeating. That is the fatal flaw of Bush’s policy.” Email:


Economic and Political Weekly January 20, 2007

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