The phantom occupation of Iraq

Coalition leaders are not fighting a war with Iraqi insurgents; they are fighting a war among themselves, with Iraq as the unlucky backdrop.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Will America and Britain ‘cut and run’ from Iraq? That is the question everyone seems to be asking, following recent handwringing debates in Washington and London.

First, the top British General Richard Dannatt caused an international stink when he said British forces are exacerbating rather than diminishing the violence, and should aim to withdraw ‘sometime soon’. Then President George W Bush held a video conference with US generals in Iraq to discuss a change of tactics. In a TV interview, when pressed on whether America will ‘cut and run or stay the course’, Bush said: ‘We have never been “stay the course”.’ Now the commander of US forces in Iraq claims that responsibility for security will be handed over to Iraqis within 12 to 18 months, giving rise to concern among Iraq’s beleaguered government ministers that ‘[we are] being abandoned by the international community’ (1).

What this debate overlooks is that America and Britain left Iraq long ago – in spirit anyway. Politically and emotionally, if not physically, the Coalition of the Willing has already ‘cut and run’. Now, some want to make Western withdrawal a formal as well as a political reality, especially those who have been left behind in Iraq: military men such as Dannatt, and soldiers on the ground, many of whom keep blogs or even give interviews to the press in which they state their desire to leave (2). Iraq is a bloody mess, with a daily toll of horrific suicide and car bombings – but it was rising tensions between political and military officials in the US and the UK, rather than rising violence in Iraq, that precipitated the latest crisis.

Increasingly, the West’s own profound sense of moral uncertainty – its doubt about what it stands for and why, and the palpable disarray among both political and military leaders – is being played out over Iraq, and within Iraq. And Iraqis are paying a very high price for it.

There may still be over 100,000 American troops and around 8,000 British troops in Iraq, but essentially America and Britain got out of Iraq in May 2003. Then, when Bush declared an end to hostilities, coalition officials made every effort to disavow political or sovereign responsibility for Iraq. They outlawed the flying of American and British flags. In 2003, The Times (London) reported that ‘American forces have been told not to fly the Stars and Stripes for fear of wrecking President Bush’s carefully crafted message that America is fighting the Iraq war to liberate, not conquer.’ Troops were advised to avoid not only flag-waving but also other ‘displays of triumphalism’. Coalition officials even demanded the redesign of postwar Iraq’s new currency, after complaints that the notes looked a bit too much like the US dollar (3).

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which governed Iraq from May 2003 until the end of June 2004, was nothing like your usual force of occupation, shaping the nation in its own image or interests. It was headed by Paul Bremner, an ‘administrator’ rather than a High Representative, who, strikingly, was guarded by private security guards rather than US soldiers. The CPA described itself as ‘the temporary governing body which has been designated by the UN as the lawful government of Iraq until such time as Iraq is politically and socially stable enough to assume its sovereignty’. The CPA couldn’t wait for ‘such time’ to arrive: its website came complete with a ‘Countdown to Sovereignty’ ticker, which anticipated, by the second, the moment when postwar Iraq would become Iraqis’ permanent responsibility rather than the CPA’s temporary responsibility.

In June 2004, Bremner signed control of Iraq over to interim Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, and again the coalition took a step back from proceedings. Bush denied playing any role in the selection of Allawi: ‘I had no role. I mean, occasionally somebody said, “This person may be interested, or that person”, but I had no role in picking. Zero.’ (4) Before leaving Iraq, Bremner gave Allawi a letter from Bush asking for diplomatic ties with the new regime – a highly unusual thing for an occupying power to do. The aim was to present the new Iraq and America as two distinct entities, tied merely by diplomatic niceties rather than shared military, political or economic interests, or, for that matter, the war that had occurred only a year previously.

When, last year, Iraq held its first elections to select a new government, Western officials affected to be hands-off observers. The US State Department insisted that the election planning and execution were being done ‘by Iraqis for Iraqis’, and argued that America’s role was ‘limited, [consisting] primarily of providing financial support for the costs of the mechanics of the election’ (5). Costs and mechanics, you understand, nothing political.

No doubt some will have viewed all of this as the usual old Western doublespeak, with coalition officials making a pretence that Iraqis controlled the new Iraq when in fact they were running everything behind the scenes. In fact, the banning of flag-waving, the self-obliterating CPA, and the hurrying of national elections in January 2005 (before the population was ready, according to interim PM Allawi) were all part of an attempt by coalition leaders to distance themselves from political authority over Iraq, and to wash their hands of the mess their war created. The coalition withdrew in spirit, and handed authority over to ill-prepared Iraqi groups. The end result is something of a phantom state overseen by phantom authorities: by Iraqi ministers whose writ often does not extend outside of the Baghdad green zone, and Iraqi police and security officials who, according to reports, sometimes refuse to get involved in heated situations and have even been known to abandon their posts when violence breaks out. That is not really surprising. Why should they feel any real loyalty to a vacuous state conjured more out of coalition expediency than the needs and desires of the Iraqi population?

In this phantom state, there remain thousands of coalition troops – and they should properly be seen as a phantom army of occupation. They do not patrol or control Iraq in the way occupying forces normally do; instead they tend to spend most of their time inside their barracks or within the heavily fortified green zone in Baghdad. Over the past two years, more and more private security guards (or mercenaries) have been employed by the American military to execute particularly risky or time-consuming operations (6). In 2004, a poll asked Iraqis what they thought of the coalition forces; strikingly, 77 per cent said they had never encountered a member of the coalition forces (7). Recent death tolls from Iraq – where the number of Iraqi civilians killed has risen to hundreds a week while the number of coalition, especially British, forces killed continues to decline – is testament to the increasing invisibility of American and British military men. Indeed, it is inaccurate to say that America and Britain are fighting a war with Iraqi insurgents; they are doing no such thing, and they certainly are not engaged in a Vietnam-style conflict, as many commentators now claim. At most there is a civil war in Iraq, between Shias and Sunnis, in which coalition troops occasionally get caught up. More realistically, Iraq can be seen as a ‘suicide state’, with various incoherent groups launching media-oriented spectaculars of death, which again sometimes hit the phantom army of occupation (see Iraq: the world’s first Suicide State, by Brendan O’Neill).

Why do American and British forces remain when American and British political leaders left long ago? The thousands of soldiers, even though they do little of note, have become a kind of prop for the coalition, physical evidence that it remains steadfast and committed over Iraq where no political evidence for such steadfastness exists. Indeed, the more that coalition leaders have politically and spiritually cut and run from Iraq, the more important the brute presence of the soldiers has become, as a sign that America and Britain haven’t given up and remain committed to ‘developing democracy’. Just as shock and awe was a media stunt intended to send a message about the coalition’s purpose and power, so the continued deployment of thousands of soldiers is also a kind of stunt, meant to show that America and Britain do not easily ‘give up’.

So UK prime minister Tony Blair, in response to General Dannatt’s comments, says Britain will ‘hold its nerve’ by not withdrawing troops too soon. Despite the fact that Britain has little interest or stomach for staying in Iraq, Blair can still use the soldiers’ presence for a bit of political mileage. The Bush administration, likewise, says it will ‘finish the job’ and ‘stay until we need to’ (8). Even though American soldiers are not doing a great deal, their physical presence there has become key to the Bush administration. What we have is a new kind of Western occupation – one which is not pursuing a specific interest or fighting against a hated or dangerous enemy, or shaping a nation in order to suit the needs of Western officialdom, but which rather is about making Western officials feel a bit better. This is an opportunist rather than an interested occupation, with thousands of troops sitting around in Iraq in order give at least an impression of moral certainty in America and Britain.

Not surprisingly, this tactic is heightening tensions between political and military leaders in the US and the UK. Military men want to formalise the political reality: which is that the coalition has already withdrawn from Iraq. Instead they are being asked to stay indefinitely, not to achieve any clear aim but simply to prove a point. This has led senior generals in America to complain that ‘[we do] not have a clearly defined strategy’, and Britain’s Dannatt to break ranks and accuse Blair’s government of using the military for political ends (9). If you read soldiers’ blogs, many of them complain of ‘just hanging around’ and having nothing useful or purposeful to do. Yet this seems to be current American and British government strategy – to leave the soldiers ‘hanging around’ for as long as possible.

These latest spats show that the real ‘Iraqi crisis’ is in the West, among dithering and divided officials. America and Britain are effectively projecting their political and moral uncertainties on to the Iraqi stage: elected leaders cling to the military presence in Iraq as proof of their vision and purpose, while military leaders complain that remaining in Iraq is denting their prestige and morale and insist on returning home. Meanwhile, Iraq becomes an increasingly unstable state, overseen by no convincingly legitimate force and reduced to little more than the plaything of Western bickerers.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Straight-talking, and more to come, Guardian, 14 October 2006; Bush: ‘We’ve never been stay the course’, Think Progress, 22 October 2006

(2) Soldiers’ blogs detail life in Iraq, Associated Press, September 2004

(3) Waging politically correct war: the inoffensive offensive, Brendan O’Neill, Christian Science Monitor, 26 March 2003

(4) Bombs welcome new Iraqi president, Guardian, 2 June 2004

(5) Iraq elections: a vote for democracy, US State Department, January 2005

(6) See A new kind of private war, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) See A new kind of private war, by Brendan O’Neill

(8) We’ll hold Iraq nerve, says Blair, BBC News, 23 October 2006

(9) Straight-talking, and more to come, Guardian, 14 October 2006

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Topics Politics


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