Iraq: US Imperialism on the path to certain defeat
20th March this year marked the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and 9th April the overthrow of the regime of President Saddam Hussein, by the predatory armies of Anglo-American imperialism. So excited were the political and ideological spokesmen of US and British imperialism by the prospects of an easy victory over Iraq, and the resultant hoped-for domination of the entire Middle East by the US and its junior partner Britain, that they became infatuated with the idea of establishing an American global empire the like of which had never been seen since Rome. They felt as if the invisible hand of the Almighty was propelling American imperialism in its predatory imperial designs. Shortly after the conquest of Baghdad in 2003, US vice-president Dick Cheney sent a Christmas card to his friends which read: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”
Others of Cheney’s ilk were far more blatant in their advocacy of an American empire. Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations penned an article with the title: ‘The Case for American Empire’. Charles Krauthammer bragged that America “is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. America is in a position to … create new realities”, recommending that this be achieved by “unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will”. For his part, Niall Ferguson, a British historian, while attempting to present the blood-soaked British Empire in the prettiest of bright colours, went on to argue that liberal US imperialism “makes sense today in terms of both American self-interest and altruism” (the quotations reproduced above are taken from the article ‘America loses faith in imperialism’, written by Gideon Rachman to mark the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Financial Times, 20 March 2007).
Five years on, things could not look more different. The imperial eagles are being sent back to the cupboard. As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been nothing short of catastrophic for US imperialism, the intellectual climate in the US, keeping pace with these developments, has changed diametrically. Instead of building an American Empire rivalling the old Roman Empire, the talk now is of the danger of US emulating Rome’s decline through overstretch, corruption and arrogance. US generals openly give vent to their anxiety that their allegedly all-powerful military machine could be “broken” in Iraq.
On 19 March 2003, George W Bush, announcing from the Oval Office that the US forces had invaded Iraq, declared that he would accept “no outcome but victory”. A few weeks later, posing in front of a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, he told sailors on the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln that “major combat operations in Iraq had ended”. The euphoria was to end shortly thereafter. Today, the Bush administration is busy grappling with the problem of whether the troop levels should be sustained beyond the end of July – after the ‘surge’ has been unwound.
The mounting fiscal and current accounts deficits, the falling dollar, the credit crunch, the looming recession, and competition from the rising rival centres of power – are all converging in to turn the dreams of the most reactionary representatives of US imperialism (the neo-conservatives) into a hellish nightmare.
In a desperate bid to rescue his predatory venture in Iraq from shipwreck, US president Bush announced in January last year a ‘surge’ of US troops in Iraq, despatching an extra 30,000 US soldiers. Speaking on 19 March, the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, Bush asserted that the one-year-old US troop surge had turned Iraq around and “opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terrorism”. Characterising Bush’s triumphalist claims as a fantasy, the Financial Times, in its leading article of 20 March, correctly observed that his assertions “… merely add another sorry chapter to this saga of delusion and epic bungling” (‘Today’s task is to mend broken Iraq’).
So as not to lag behind and add his own sorry chapter to the saga of delusion, David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, stated: “I think the war itself was a remarkable victory … building the peace [through wholesale destruction and genocide – LALKAR] has been more difficult but indications over the last year or two have been more encouraging about change”.
Three days later, the resistance gave its reply to the fatuous assertions of Messrs Bush and Miliband by blowing up four US soldiers and bringing the total of US soldiers killed in Iraq to 4,000. Judging from the assertions of the likes of Bush and Miliband, one is compelled to conclude that either these gentlemen are in the business of lying through their teeth, or are so disengaged from reality as to be certifiably insane. The reality in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, flatly contradicts their boastful claims, for the truth is that notwithstanding the decline in violence in the second half, the first six months of 2007 were unprecedentedly deadly for US troops. With 900 US soldiers reported killed, 2007 was the bloodiest year of the Iraq war for the US military.
As to the decline in violence in the second half of 2007, it is only partly attributable to the US troop surge. The more important factors have been the ceasefire by al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and the 90,000 strong “concerned local citizens” paid for by the US army to protect neighbourhoods in Anbar province. All the same, progress in this area, in the words of the senior US Commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus “is tenuous in many areas and could be reversed”. For one thing, the troop surge is merely temporary and would be over by the end of July. The recourse to the above-mentioned tribal militia is bound in the end to rebound, with this militia once again turning its guns on the occupation forces. And the ceasefire by al-Sadr’s Mahdi army is under heavy strain as US forces and militias belonging to Sadr’s rivals pick off and eliminate Sadr’s cadres.
Charge of the Knights – a fiasco
The Mahdi army’s ceasefire came to a near collapse when Nouri al-Maliki, with the encouragement and full support of the Bush administration, and the US army of occupation in Iraq, ordered the puppet Iraqi army, on 25 March, to launch an assault on the Mahdi army in the port city of Basra, which has been more or less under the control of Sadr’s forces since they drove the British occupation troops out of the city in mid-December last year to their base at the airport on the outskirts of the city. While launching this assault, dubbed as Sawlat al-Fursan (Charge of the Knights), Maliki gave the Mahdi army three days in which to lay down its arms or be wiped out. The latter’s response to Maliki’s provocation and ultimatum was to launch a fierce counter-offensive and to spread the fight from Basra to Baghdad. Within hours of Maliki’s assault, the Mahdi army seized control of the centre of Nasiriya, the southern provincial capital, as heavy fighting, in solidarity with the Mahdi fighters in Basra, spread to Kut, Amara, Diwaniya, Hilla and the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City – a prominently working-class stronghold of al-Sadr. The Mahdi army also maintained a formidable barrage of rocket and mortar fire on the militarised Green Zone, which houses the US and British embassies, as well as the puppet government.
On the third day (27 March) of the government’s operation in Basra, saboteurs attacked Iraq’s southern pipeline system and destroyed an important bridge linking Basra to the north, while tens of thousands of protesters marched in Baghdad demanding the overthrow of the puppet government. On Saturday 29 March, a defiant al-Sadr called for the withdrawal of US forces and international recognition of the “Iraqi resistance”.
The fierce resistance by the Mahdi army took the puppet government by surprise and forced on it a humiliating retreat. “We supposed that this operation would be a normal operation, but we were surprised by this resistance and have been obliged to change our plans and tactics”, said Abd al-Qader Jassim, the puppet Iraqi defence minister. In response to resistance by Sadr’s forces, the Maliki government first extended the deadline for the surrender of Mahdi fighters to 8 April and then negotiated a peace agreement on 30 March, under which the Mahdi army could after all keep its heavy weapons, nor was it being required to disband itself. After six days of unprecedented fighting, which left 240 dead, Sadr emerged with a creditable claim to have faced, and survived, superior forces, including the US and British air forces, which attacked Sadrist positions in Basra in an effort to help Maliki’s puppet army. In the same measure as Sadr gained in stature and his reputation was bolstered, Maliki’s stock hit a new low as a result of this armed encounter in Basra. Launched to revive the flagging leadership of Maliki and his puppet government, the assault on the Mahdi army achieved just the opposite and, into the bargain, destroyed the main shopping street in Basra.
The latest fighting in Basra and elsewhere, not only humiliated the puppet Iraqi government, but also its masters in Washington. Bush had greeted the assault of 25 March on the Mahdi army as “a defining moment” and his administration welcomed it as a “bold decision” and as evidence of the capability of the puppet security forces in fighting “terrorists”. White House spokesperson, Dana Perino, exultantly told the media: “This is what we have been wanting to see the Iraqis do. This is one of the first times that they’ve had such an entrenched battle and we’ll be there to support them if they need it”. And, by God they needed it. But with all that support, the puppet army lost in the face of resistance from the Mahdi army combatants, who took the surrender of 1,300 puppet soldiers and captured several US troops. Rather than go to battle against their brothers, these 1,300 preferred to hand over their weapons to the Mahdi army in Basra and the central town of Kut, clearly showing which side their sympathies were on. These 1,300 have now been sacked by the puppet authorities, and in some cases have been referred to a military court.
In spite, and in violation, of the peace agreement, the US and puppet security forces are continuing operations against the Mahdi army strongholds. At least a dozen people were killed on 9 April in Sadr City in clashes between Sadr’s fighters and Iraqi puppet forces. On the same day an unmanned US drone aircraft fired a Hellfire missile at gunmen attacking puppet and US troops in Sadr City, killing two. Smarting from the defeat in Basra and elsewhere, the US and its puppets have continued with their provocations in an attempt to wipe out the humiliation and shame that was their lot consequent upon the fiasco that was the operation ‘Charge of the Knights’.
Although fully coordinated with the occupation forces, General Petraeus, in his testimony before a Congressional Committee, all but denied responsibility for Maliki’s assault on the Mahdi army and the subsequent defeat of the puppet forces. He told the Congress that Nouri al-Maliki’s military offensive in Basra had been disappointing, that the operation had been poorly planned and that Mr Maliki had not followed his advice.
In a further act of provocation, Maliki has stated that the Sadrists would be barred from taking part in elections unless the Mahdi army was disbanded. Coming from someone who has just received a drubbing at the hands of Sadr’s followers, Maliki’s threats ring hollow. All the same they are provocative and, combined with continuing fighting, albeit less intensified than before, it is very probable that a larger confrontation will erupt once again in the near future. In that event, Sadr is only too likely to emerge victorious for he, unlike his opponents – Maliki’s Da’awa (Call) and Abdelaziz al-Hakim’s SCIRI (Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) – represents the angry, disposed Shia masses. Unlike his opponents, who have the dubious reputation of being backed by Tehran as well as Washington, Sadr is backed by a vast swathe of the poor, the hungry and the destitute. The recent clashes in Basra and elsewhere, the continuing armed clashes between the two opposing forces, have served to lay bare a deepening chasm, a real class struggle, at the heart of the Shia community of Iraq. There is no means of bridging this gap except through the total victory of one side and the utter defeat of the other. Unlike his opponents, Sadr ardently desires, not merely to be a paramount Shia leader, but also an Arab nationalist leader of a united Iraq through the expulsion of the US-led imperialist occupation forces. He is seen as a deadly threat by the Maliki puppet government and the US occupation alike.
Probably the most important reason for the relative lull in fighting in the second half of 2007 has been the ceasefire by the Mahdi army since last August. Notwithstanding the ceasefire, correctly regarding him as a threat to the occupation regime, the US forces and their militia allies have been picking off Sadr’s followers and attacking Sadr’s strongholds. Although he did not end the ceasefire, even during the intense fighting in Basra at the end of March, through the blowing up of one of Iraq’s main export pipelines and subjecting Baghdad’s Green Zone to heavy rocket and mortar fire, Sadr issued a warning that he may end the truce if the fighting spreads further.
Sadr has staged three rebellions against the occupation and its puppets, each time emerging much strengthened. He represents in Iraq “The majority of the majority – the Shia poor – and cannot be eliminated militarily” as the Financial Times leading article of 28 March observed correctly (‘The Basra fight for the Shia supremacy’). This is particularly so, considering that he faces not a united national government but a coalition of cynical factions, mainly Maliki’s faction of the Da’awa party and Hakim’s SCIRI. Sadr’s Mahdi army is confronted, not by a national Iraqi army, but by rebadged militia – mostly from the sectarian Badr brigades of SCIRI. In the final trial of strength, even though backed by the occupation forces, the government’s sectarian militia do not stand much of a chance when faced with the Mahdi army and the wider Iraqi resistance.
The peace agreement of 30 March between Sadr and the Maliki government has been succeeded by a wave of fierce fighting in anticipation of the end of the troop surge by the end of July, by which time the five surge brigades should have left Iraq, leaving behind the 15 combat brigades which were already there prior to the surge.
Surge – a failure
Although last September, Robert Gates, US Defence Secretary, had hoped that it would be possible to reduce US troop levels in Iraq to 100,000 this year, he admitted that he no longer believed that to be possible. Appearing before a Congressional Committee, General Petraeus recommended a 45-day pause in the reduction of troop numbers following the unwinding of the surge. The security situation in Iraq “remains fragile”, says Mr Gates. The “war is unpredictable”, echoes Admiral Mike Mullen the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On 10 April, Bush endorsed the recommendation of General Petraeus by halting troop reduction in Iraq this summer, pledging to give his general “all the time he needs”.
Thus it is clear that the troop surge, while making a limited contribution to the alleviation of the desperate plight in which the occupation forces found themselves at the beginning of 2007, has made no lasting impression. For that, the US would have to introduce at least another 200,000 troops. As the US military is already stretched to breaking point consequent upon the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to press such a large force into Iraq the US government would either have to rely on the National Guard or resort to conscription. Both these measures would prove highly unpopular and doubtless will serve to spread the anti-war sentiment further still among the US population.
The perception that the surge was succeeding is, to a considerable extent, attributable to the imperialist media, especially in the US, changing the subject. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, since the announcement of the surge by US president Bush, Iraq coverage by the media has fallen four-fifths and become more optimistic. With the surge over, the termination of the truce by the Mahdi army in the offing and the increasingly fierce fighting between the occupation forces and the resistance, all this is about to change.
Afghanistan and inter-imperialist contradictions
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan the 66,000-strong imperialist armies of occupation are losing the war. To have any chance of success, imperialist troops would have to number 400,000 – a number simply not available. Both the Iraq and Afghan wars are stoking up inter-imperialist contradictions. Whereas Germany and France refused to participate in the Iraq war, in Afghanistan these two countries won’t send their soldiers to the dangerous fighting areas, leaving US Defence Secretary Robert Gates to plead for “a fair distribution of burden” and to impotently whinge about NATO being “a two-tiered alliance” whereby some countries fought actively and others “had the luxury of opting for stability and civilian operations” – a state of affairs likely to undermine this neo-Nazi military alliance. NATO’s failure in the first out-of-area predatory war is bound to further intensify the inter-imperialist contradictions and destroy this war-mongering alliance – NATO.
The Three Trillion Dollar War
While there is no end to these wars in sight, the crippling costs of these wars are mounting to unbearable levels. Six months prior to the start of the US-led imperialist war, Larry Lindsey, White House economic advisor at that time, estimated that the war against Iraq could cost to the tune of $200 billion. The claim, which cost Mr Lindsey his job, was contemptuously dismissed as baloney by Donald Rumsfeld, the then Defence Secretary, whose own estimate stood at $50 billion to $60 billion.
Five years on, serious studies suggest that, apart from the Second World War, the Iraq war will be the most expensive in US history. In their book The Three Trillion Dollar War, Joseph Stiglitz, a Noble Prize winning economist, and Linda Bilmes, a senior official during the Clinton presidency, estimate that the US is spending $12 billion a month in Iraq, while the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) of Congress states that the war has thus far cost a US family of four $16,900 – a cost that could rise to $37,000 by 2017.
The most conservative estimate of the Iraq war’s cost comes from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), according to which, up to 30 September 2007 (the end of the fiscal year), $413 billion had been spent on it. Further, according to the CBO, from 1 October 2007 to the end of 2017, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would add up to $570 billion – $1,055 billion, depending on the speed in the reduction of troop levels. On the assumption that three-quarters of these costs would be accounted for by Iraq, as in the recent years, future costs of the Iraq war would be between $428 billion and $788 billion.
Interest payments on the debt incurred up to now for the Iraq war would carry a cost tag of $290 billion up to 2017, with an additional $131 billion to $218 billion to cover spending over the coming ten years – bringing the total US government expenditure on the Iraq war until 2017 to $1,300 billion – $2,000 billion.
The JEC adds to these figures the economic costs, such as displacement of productive investment, increases in the price of oil, interest paid to foreigners, all of which amount to another $700 billion so far. By 2017, on the assumption that US troop levels in Iraq come down to 55,000 by 2013 and remain at that level, the cost of the Iraq war mounts to $2,800 billion in 2007 dollars.
The estimate made by Stiglitz, of Columbia university and Bilmes, of Harvard university, is higher than that of the CBO for a number of reasons. First, they argue, more soldiers are surviving than in previous wars thanks to advances in medicine and armour. While over 4,000 US soldiers have died in Iraq, another 70,000 have returned home with serious injuries or illness. Whereas the ratio of injuries to combat deaths was 2.6:1 in Vietnam; in Iraq and Afghanistan it is 7:1 and, if non-combat injuries are included, it rises to 15:1. Basing themselves on the fact that 39 per cent of the 700,000 soldiers who fought in the 1991 Gulf war claim disability, Stiglitz and Bilmes project that 791,000 troops involved in the Iraq and Afghan wars (out of the total deployment of 1.6 million troops) will claim disability compensation and benefits. For Iraq alone, these costs will be $371 billion to $630 billion. Added to these are the costs of replenishment of military equipment estimated at $66 billion to $267 billion. Then there are the social costs not paid by the government, for example, the loss of productive capacity through death and injuries, amounting to $295 billion – $415 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan. The macroeconomic costs from higher oil prices and the impact of higher interest costs on the economy would add a further $187 billion.
According to Stiglitz and Bilmes, the government spending on the war will be between £1,292 billion and $2,039 billion, rising to $1,754 billion – $2,655 billion if interest is added.
Adding up all the above estimated figures, the authors characterise their book’s ‘Three trillion’ headline number as very conservative.
As regards the UK, which supplied the second largest contingent for the Iraq war, it has already spent £9 billion in Iraq alone. This figure excludes such items as caring for the disabled, disability allowances and lump sum payments for quality of life impairments, replenishing equipment and restoring the forces to pre-war strength. In 2007 alone, the UK spent £3.5 billion on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 400 British soldiers have been killed or seriously wounded in Iraq, another 2,663 hospitalised in the field and then cared for at home. Taking these into account, the cost of the UK’s share of the Iraq war adds up to £14 billion – £16 billion, while Afghanistan will amount to another £5 billion.
So, what have been the achievements of US imperialism after five years of brutal war against the people of Iraq? The twin aims of the imperialist forces led by the US, namely, to deter, and to subdue, all opponents by the brutal demonstration of US military force; and, through the conquest of Baghdad, to establish unchallenged US hegemony in the Gulf as a means of dominating the entire Middle East and the region stretching all the way to Central Asia – lie in ruins. Instead, the Iraq war has been nothing short of a catastrophe, exposed the limits of US power and made a bonfire of US imperialism’s project for an American Century.
In particular, its nefarious achievements may be listed thus:
§ Over 4,000 US soldiers dead;
§ 70,000 US soldiers wounded, or suffering from serious illness;
§ 300 troops of the US’s allies killed;
§ $450 billion already spent on the war;
§ $3 trillion – the likely cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars;
§ $12 billion – monthly costs of the war in 2008;
§ $16,900 – the cost of the war so far to an average US family of four;
§ $106 – the current price of a barrel of oil as compared with $30 a barrel at the start of the war;
§ 1.5 million Iraqis slaughtered since March 2003;
§ 2 million Iraqis forced to flee the country;
§ 2.5 million Iraqis internally displaced;
§ Iraqi infrastructure – health, education, sewage system, electricity – in a state of near collapse.
Consequent upon the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prestige of Anglo-American imperialism, in the Middle East and everywhere else, has sunk to rock bottom; these wars have strained the morale of the US and British armies to breaking point, depleted military arsenals and exposed the national scandal in both countries over the poor treatment of wounded soldiers returning home. In Britain, Sir Richard Dannatt, the army’s chief of general staff, in a 2007 report described how underfunding and an overstretched military had left troops feeling “devalued, angry and suffering from Iraq fatigue”, with many seriously considering quitting the force.
Having used mainly working-class kids as cannon fodder in its predatory war for domination, imperialism casts them aside as so much disposable garbage fit only for a landfill. While the monopoly capitalists, especially the oil giants, the armament manufacturers, construction companies and the robber barons of finance capital, rake in fabulous war profits, and the rich get enormous tax breaks, services for the poor are drastically cut. Wars against the oppressed peoples are accompanied by draconian repressive laws at home – all in the name of security and the ‘war on terror’. In this context one cannot but be reminded of the following words of Lenin, in which he warns against contrasting ‘foreign politics’ to home politics – emphasising that imperialism strives towards reaction at home as well as abroad:
“To separate ‘foreign politics’ from politics in general, or, worse still, to contrast foreign politics to home politics, is fundamentally wrong, un-Marxian and unscientific. Imperialism strives to violate democracy, strives towards reaction both in foreign politics and in home politics. In this sense, imperialism is, undoubtedly the ‘negation’ of democracy in general, democracy as a whole, and not only one of the demands of democracy, namely, self-determination of nations” (‘A caricature of Marxism and ‘Imperialist Economism’’, 1916).
No longer are US and British imperialist spokesmen talking about accepting nothing short of a complete victory, seeking instead only a sustainable level of violence. No longer are they seeking a quick, and relatively bloodless, victory. When British troops were first sent to Afghanistan, the then British defence secretary, John Reid, asserted that the British soldiers were on a peace-keeping mission for a few months and would return without firing a shot. His successor, Des Browne, now says that the war in Afghanistan “could last decades”. John McCain, the Republican US presidential nominee, ominously talks about the war in Iraq lasting a hundred years.
Thus is can be seen that imperialism has nothing to offer to humanity except endless wars aboard and ceaseless oppression at home. But “… humanity will not be broken by the imperialist butchers; on the contrary, it will get the upper hand of it” (‘Letter to American workers’, Lenin, 20 August 1918). Iraqi and Afghan people, through their heroic struggle against Anglo-American imperialist butchery and genocidal wars for domination, and the Palestinian people through their decades-long steadfast struggle against zionist colonialism, with all its accompanying racism and brutality, are providing fresh proof of the above observation of Lenin’s. People all over the world are increasingly becoming aware that only the successes of national liberation and proletarian socialist revolution can extricate humanity from “… the deadlock created by imperialism and imperialist wars” (‘Materials relating to the Revision of the Party Programme’, Lenin, April-May 1917).
The masses everywhere are becoming aware that all talk of eliminating war is futile as long as imperialism continues to exist; that only through the overthrow of imperialism can war be eliminated; that it is impossible to escape the inferno of the imperialist world, “which inevitably engenders imperialist war, … except by a Bolshevik struggle and a Bolshevik revolution” (‘The Fourth Anniversary of the October Revolution’, Lenin, 14 October 1921).
Notwithstanding all the difficulties that the revolutionary struggles may encounter, despite all the zigzags and vicissitudes of struggle, in spite of the temporary defeats or “waves of counter-revolution” the victory of the national liberation struggles and proletariat revolution is inevitable.