Alexander Cockburn | War Without End?

The last American combat brigade in Iraq has left the country, so the Pentagon has announced. The 40,000 personnel from 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division began crossing into Kuwait on Aug. 19. The U.S. combat mission in Iraq — Operation Iraqi Freedom — is scheduled to end Aug. 31. But the U.S. State Department feels it necessary to emphasize that U.S. involvement in Iraq is far from over.

The least credible human in America is a president or a general guaranteeing imminent victory, plus withdrawal of troops from the quagmire of the day.
The rhetorical embroidery decorating this pledge changes little from decade to decade. In 1970, President Richard Nixon declared that the Vietnam War was proceeding so auspiciously that he was planning to pull out 150,000 American troops. The South Vietnamese forces, he asserted, were now of sufficient military competence to carry the brunt of the fighting.

The truth was that the South Vietnamese forces were ill trained, averse to battle and led by corrupt officers booking their flights to America. The war was lost, but it dragged on for another five years.

In Iraq in 2007, Gen. Petraeus famously announced his “surge” strategy and confided to visiting journalists that the strategy was working well, with “astonishing signs of normalcy” in Baghdad. Monica Crowley of Fox News nominated Petraeus for the “most honest person of the year.”

The truth was that in substantive terms, for reasons entirely unrelated to the fictive “surge,” the Sunni had given up fighting the Americans. Baghdad was in ruins; the war, in terms of the objectives declared in 2003, was a disaster.
In 2008, Obama campaigned on pledges of withdrawal from Iraq and escalation in Afghanistan. Addressing cadets at West Point military academy on Aug. 2, 2010, he said that the war in Iraq had been won: “This is what success looks like.” Departing U.S. troops will leave behind a “democratic” and “sovereign” Iraq, one that is now “no haven” for “the kind of violent extremists who attacked America on 9/11.”

It’s a bizarre definition of success. The Shia-dominated government of Iraq is backed by America’s demon of the hour, Iran. If this really was a “war for oil,” it scarcely went well for the United States. Run your eye down the list of contracts the Iraqi government awarded in June and December 2009. Prominent is Russia’s Lukoil and Gazprom, Malaysia’s Petronas, BP and the China National Petroleum Corporation.

Only two U.S.-based oil companies came away with contracts: ExxonMobil and Occidental.

Meanwhile, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, emphasized earlier this month that at least 50,000 U.S. troops will be in Iraq for the near term. Odierno said the United States will keep a “significant civilian presence,” as well as the troops to “ensure that this government can be formed by the Iraqis, and that all the other nations respect their sovereignty as they go about forming their government.”

The left in the U.S. is furious, lashing out at Obama and the Pentagon for stretching the withdrawal deadline indefinitely, determined to control Iraq for the foreseeable future. This is manifest nonsense. The State Department and the Pentagon’s commanders who dominate Obama don’t want to see U.S. influence in Iraq go wholly to zilch as troops withdraw. They therefore have to assert that their power in Iraq is only a little affected by reduction of troop numbers from 150,000 to less than a third of that number.

But what about Obama’s pledge, when he was selling his Afghan surge last year, that withdrawal there would begin in 2011? Here’s where serious domestic politics — always the driver of foreign policy — takes over. The Democrats feel they cannot go into any election in either 2010 or 2012 and be accused of “losing” in Afghanistan. This, unlike Iraq, is Obama’s war.

The Obama administration has said the U.S. would begin to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. Last Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Petraeus, now in command of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, said the withdrawal date was “conditions-based” and that it was possible it could be pushed back further.

“Conditions-based,” cynically but accurately defined, means what Obama can tout as “mission accomplished”. That’s a tough sell for the foreseeable future, since there’s zero evidence that the U.S.-led coalition is achieving anything that can be sold as “success” in Afghanistan.

But the Pentagon is trying to push “success” nonetheless. In an interview last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said “everybody — all of our partner nations and I think everybody in this government — would agree that two things are central to success. One is building up the Afghan National Security Forces, which is going pretty well, and governance, which is going, but not as well. It’s still moving in the right direction, but a lot slower than we would like.”

No credible reporter would endorse Gates’ opinion on the zeal and efficiency of the ANSF, and every credible reporter notes the utter corruption of “governance” in Afghanistan. In terms of domestic politics here in the Homeland, the U.S. cannot quit — and will not do so by 2012 because there is zero evidence for any substantive achievement. Unlike Iraq, a victorious “surge” is not a saleable proposition as Petraeus acknowledges.

The Afghan War, launched covertly three decades ago, will be with us for at least two more years, and maybe four.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

Copyright 2010