Back in June, during one of his press briefings, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was getting needled with sharp questions about the increasing number of American casualties in Iraq. Though President Bush had announced May 1 that major combat was over, nearly four dozen soldiers had died in the weeks that followed. But Rumsfeld waved off the concern, comparing occupied Baghdad to Washington, and suggesting the Iraq capital was safer than its American counterpart, given Washington's sky-high murder rate.
Rumsfeld shouldn't have been so glib. Last year there were 262 murders in the city of Washington. As of Monday afternoon, 262 coalition troops had died in the six months since Bush's May 1 proclamation. (One hundred and seventy-three soldiers have died since July 2, when Bush sent a much-criticized message to Iraqi resistance fighters: "Bring 'em on.") To be fair, that casualty figure is for all of Iraq, not just for Baghdad. But there's no accurate count of how many Iraqis have perished in that same period, and it's safe to say conditions in Baghdad have only gotten worse since Rumsfeld made his unfortunate comparison.
In the last 10 days, the security situation throughout much of Iraq has raced from bad to disastrous, with an increasingly brazen, yet unknown enemy (Baath loyalists, al-Qaida guerrillas, foreign jihadis?) unleashing deadly hit (the al-Rashid hotel), after hit (the International Red Cross), after hit (a U.S. transport helicopter).
This, while Iraqi pipelines continue to be sabotaged, disbanded Iraqi soldiers roam the country instead of defending it, the constitutional process that was supposed to usher in free elections remains months, if not years, behind schedule, and at the center stands a crumbling Iraqi infrastructure that administration officials concede is far worse than they anticipated. Not surprisingly Iraqis themselves are turning more and more anti-American. A recent poll conducted by the Iraqi Centre for Research and Strategic Studies on behalf of the U.S. State Department showed just 15 percent of Iraqis see U.S. forces as liberators, down from 43 percent six months ago.
Meanwhile, a new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that the military costs for the occupation of Iraq going forward could reach an additional $200 billion over the next decade, even if the Pentagon sharply cuts its forces.
"We're stuck in a real no-win situation," says Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.
After months of scrutinizing how U.S. intelligence about Iraq's arsenal could have been so far off the mark prior to the war, the unraveling reconstruction fiasco makes the weapons-intelligence project seem like a sober, fair-minded endeavor. Incredibly, several of the same people responsible for staking out dubious rationales for the war, like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, were also in charge of planning the so-called reconstruction of Iraq. The only question now, with weapons of mass destruction nowhere to be found and GI's getting picked off at an alarming rate, is which of those two tasks did the White House and Pentagon officials fail more miserably at?
Before the war, Wolfowitz said the cost of rebuilding Iraq could range anywhere from "$10 billion to $100 billion." The total to date is already approaching $170 billion. This summer he conceded, "Some of our assumptions turned out to be wrong."
"The administration walked itself right into this problem," says Pena. "Despite all their talk, the trend -- and that's what it is, a trend -- is moving in the wrong direction. Ever since Bush said, 'Bring 'em on,' the hostilities have gotten worse."
Right now, the most glaring problem for the administration is the daily drumbeat of U.S. casualties, as the military faces off against a coordinated, sophisticated and increasingly aggressive resistance. Sixty-two percent of Americans think there's been an unacceptable rate of U.S. casualties in Iraq, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll. And that was before news of the downed copter Sunday, which took the lives of 16 GI's, making it the single deadliest attack against U.S. forces since the war began on March 20. Bush has remained surprisingly silent on the topic of the dramatic helicopter attack, declining to issue a statement on Sunday, and only vaguely referring to the deadly incident during a speech in Alabama on Monday.
Like so many things that have gone wrong in Iraq, it seems few inside the administration were prepared for such deadly or dedicated resistance. That's because the postwar was never supposed to be a hostile occupation, but a welcomed liberation. And once Saddam fell, grateful Iraqis were going to put in place a Western-style democracy. At least that's what Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the exiled Iraq National Congress was telling administration hawks, who at times relied nearly exclusively on his rosy, if out-of-touch, pro-Western scenarios. The State Department and the CIA often dismissed Chalabi, but the agencies in turn were dismissed by the postwar Pentagon planners.
At the center of those plans was a unique brand of neocon wishful thinking that bordered on the fanciful, even delusional. As Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, told Salon this summer, "There doesn't appear to have been a contingency plan. It's scary but true. An underlying assumption of this whole campaign against Iraq and the larger campaign to remake the whole Middle East was that all we had to do is knock off Saddam Hussein and everything else would fall down obediently at our feet. The Iraqis themselves would welcome being liberated, the Syrians and Iranians would be cowed and start doing what we want, and all will be for the best in this best of all possible worlds."
That arrogance was the reason the Pentagon ignored the State Department's eight-month-long "Future of Iraq" project, which involved Iraqi exiles and government agencies preparing strategies for all sorts of postwar contingency plans. Virtually none of the Future of Iraq project's work was used once Saddam fell. And according to an August report in the Boston Globe, last February "the CIA gave a formal briefing to the National Security Council, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and President Bush himself." Its predictions: "A quick military victory in Iraq will likely be followed by armed resistance from remnants of the Ba'ath Party and Fedayeen Saddam irregulars." The Globe reported, "The administration seemed unmoved."
That same arrogance was precisely why the White House and Pentagon refused to follow the Army's advice to send in hundreds of thousands of troops to both defeat Saddam Hussein and then to bring order to the country. "That was the most serious misstep of the war," says Pena. "We could win the war with a relatively light ground force, but you cannot occupy a country with light ground forces and hope to create a stable security environment. I don't doubt we're making progress, opening schools and rebuilding infrastructure. But until the security situation is resolved, none of that matters."
In February, former Army Chief of Staff Eric K. Shinseki testified before Congress that "several hundred thousand" U.S. soldiers would be needed to keep Iraq subdued after the war. Wolfowitz and other Pentagon hawks mocked the suggestions as being "wildly off the mark," and insisted because U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators, not that many troops would be needed inside the country.
Today, experts suggest 100,000 additional troops are needed to really secure the country, on top of the approximate 116,000 currently serving in Iraq. But the White House won't budge. "It's doable if they're willing to make hard choices. But politically the administration has said there are enough troops. And they're trying to avoid all comparisons to Vietnam," says Pena. "But if you ramp up to almost a quarter of a million troops, suddenly Vietnam comparisons become impossible to avoid."
This story has been corrected since it was first published.