The war that could destroy both armies

Henry C K Liu

This article appeared in AToL on October 23, 2003

The undeclared US war on Iraq ended some six months ago in a matter of weeks, mostly through bribery of an Iraqi high command infiltrated by US special operations that had been embedded during years of better relations in the Iran-Iraq War and military cooperation with its US counterpart, making treasonous plots possible. That may explain why the US high command had been so confident of a quick victory in defiance of mainstream military logic.

The Iraqi rank and file had also been demoralized by psychological pressure from relentless "shock and awe" strikes launched from locations safely beyond retaliatory range. Yet like Napoleon Bonaparte, who upon entering Moscow was astounded by his inability to find the czar to confirm an honorable victory, US President George W Bush, by his dubious war policy to assassinate an opponent chief of state by smart bombs, was unable to find Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in Baghdad from whom to accept an honorable surrender. It is now plain for all to see that while the world's sole superpower may be able to topple a foreign government by the use of less-than-honorable force and force its leader to go underground, it is another matter to occupy a nation one-tenth its size to set up a puppet government to bring peace and order, even for a country the allegedly oppressed population of which US "experts" on Iraqi politics had predicted would welcome a US invasion with flowers and hugs instead of rocket-propelled grenades.

It is interesting and instructive to compare the 19th-century British subjugation of India, a country 10 times the size of Britain, with a mere 75,000 expeditionary troops transported across oceans with slow sailing ships, with the quagmire the United States is facing in Iraq with 100,000 air-lifted combat soldiers. The British did not claim to liberate India from its numerous principalities ruled by maharajas. Instead, it built a political unit in the British Empire to incorporate the separate princely states that had existed in pre-British India. There was no sudden regime change. The British did not face resistance until decades later, when the adverse effect of being non-white subjects of the British Empire dawned on thinking Indians, who gradually took up the European concept of nationalism as an anti-imperialism ideology. Britain solved the problem by having Queen Victoria assume the title of Empress of India (she was never Empress of the British Empire) and kept India for another century.

The new proponents of "empire" would do well to note that the world has changed since the Victorian era. Arab nationalism, promoted first by Western imperialism during World War I as a destabilizing force against the Ottoman Dominion, is a genie that cannot be forced back into the bottle at the pleasure of neo-imperialism in the 21st century.

The Iraqi army has been destroyed by the second Iraq War, with its treasonous high command sheltered by a secret US protection program, and its common soldiers joining the ranks of the unemployed at home under US occupation. Resistance in the form of guerrilla attacks against foreign occupation is now being waged by an aroused civilian population. Not only Sunni loyalists to Saddam, but Shi'ites, who constitute some 60 percent of the population and were expected by US "experts" on Iraq to be tolerant, if not ecstatic, about a US "presence", if not liberation, have formed guerrilla cells of armed resistance against US occupation forces. This is understandable, since the United States has made clear that it will not permit a Shi'ite majority to dominate any new Iraqi government, democracy or no democracy. Theocratic democracy is only tolerated in Christian nations.

Last Friday, four more US soldiers were killed in one of the latest clashes with militant Shi'ite clerics working for Mahmoud al-Hassani. Mahmoud is an ally of Muqtada al-Sadr - the son of a revered Shi'ite cleric who was killed in 1999 - whose forces clashed a week earlier with US soldiers and killed two of them. Muqtada proclaimed his own government in Iraq during his weekly sermon on the previous Friday, October 10, in Kufa, near Najaf, a city south of Baghdad considered holy by the Shi'ites. This pattern of attack on US occupation forces can be expected to escalate. If the Shi'ites turned in large numbers against US occupation, the effect could be explosive both in Iraq and in domestic US politics.

The Associated Press has started a report on the number of daily US deaths in Iraq. According to the Department of Defense, as of Friday, October 17, a total of 336 US service members had died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq, up from 326 a week earlier. Since May 1, when Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, at least 198 US soldiers have died in Iraq, 63 more than the 132 killed in war combat. Since the start of military operations, at least 1,536 US service members have been injured as a result of hostile action, according to US Central Command. Non-hostile injured numbered 335. At the rate of 10 war deaths per week, the US military is looking at a death rate of 520 per year of occupation, not counting likely catastrophic incidents as the resistance gains experience and support.

The United States faces a lengthy, open-ended military occupation of Iraq, requiring more than 100,000 troops. In a mid-August briefing, General Tommy Franks, then head of the Central Command, suggested that the length of the US military presence in Afghanistan could end up rivaling the 50-year US presence in South Korea. As Iraqi and Afghan resistance mounts as a natural reaction to foreign occupation, more US troops will inevitably be needed in response, increasing the statistical prospect for higher casualties.

The United States possesses the best-trained and best-equipped offensive force in the world, which it spends about US$400 billion annually to sustain, more than the combined total of all other major military powers. Yet there is no more eroding effect on an offensive force than duties of occupation. Soldiers are ideally non-thinking, order-taking killing machines, and as such cannot be effective police officers. Good policing requires members of the police force to think, evaluate and make moral judgments, which in turn makes them ineffective soldiers. Killing opponent soldiers on the battlefield is honorable by military code, while killing civilians by armed police, even in self-defense, turns any police force into a tool of oppression. This has been a military truism from the time of the Roman legions down to the German Wehrmacht.

The United States maintains 1.5 million active troops, with a reserve of 2 million. There are more than 300,000 US troops currently deployed around the world in 120 countries. Incoming National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told the New York Times shortly after the 2000 election, "The United States is the only power that can handle a showdown in the [Persian] Gulf, mount the kind of force that is needed to protect Saudi Arabia, and deter a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. And extended peacekeeping detracts from our readiness for these kinds of global missions." Incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell also weighed in, stating that "our plan is to undertake a review right after the president is inaugurated and take a look not only at our deployments in Bosnia but in Kosovo and many other places around the world, and make sure those deployments are proper. Our armed forces are stretched rather thin, and there is a limit to how many of these deployments we can sustain."

Since World War II, the United States has gradually set up a global military "base network" backed by locally based military bases. In order to push its global strategy, the total number of such military bases (facilities), big and small, exceeded 5,000 at their peak, half of which were located overseas, with troops surpassing 610,000. The US military has also formed an overseas base layout featuring a combination of points with lines and multi-level disposition, the control of main strategic points and vital passages on the sea. After the Cold War, because of the limitation of its national defense expenses and popular opposition in the host countries, the United States repeatedly reduced its troops stationed overseas. US troops abroad had shrunk to 247,000 people before the second Iraq War. At the end of the Iraq War, the US Army announced its plan to set up four military bases in Iraq. Up to now it still has more than 100,000 troops stationed in Iraq and it will keep a considerable scale of forces there for a long time to come.

Since the events of September 11, 2001, the United States has looked upon terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as the greatest threats to its national security, thinking that the main threat comes from the "unstable arc-shaped region" encompassing the coastal areas of the Caribbean Sea, Africa, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, South Asia and the Korean Peninsula. The US Defense Department has drastically adjusted the disposition of its overseas troops around this "unstable arc-shaped region" to cope effectively with a global "preventive" war.

Advance disposition is a deployment concept of positioning in advance a considerable number of weapons and equipment in overseas bases, doing the defense and garrison work with very small forces. When a crisis erupts, US forces will be sent by quick transport to the crisis region and, by relying on the advance installed weapons and equipment, quickly generate combat effectiveness in the crisis region and carry out operational tasks. Currently, US forces have deployed equipment and materials for two army divisions in Europe and four marine expeditionary brigades each in Norway, Guam, Diego Garcia and the Atlantic. In addition, US forces have 12 mobile advance-storage ships in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean regions.

In recent years, the United States has notably increased its input in key bases by constantly rebuilding and expanding. US forces transferred part of the facilities originally positioned in the Philippines' Subic Base to Guam, and built the largest US ammunition-storing facility, strategic bombers and strategic missile nuclear submarines base in the Far East. The US Navy's Northeast Asian bases group centered on Yokosuka, Japan, has been strengthened continuously. The expanded Diego Garcia Base now serves B-2 strategic bombers. US forces have drafted a plan for constructing a marine "floating island", one formula of which is to construct a joint movable ocean base (JMOB). The JMOB can reduce existing army units' dependence on forward bases and can reduce onshore military logistic facilities to the minimum. It can also selectively provide assistance to shore army units. And JMOB can provide an all-directional joint operational platform for the expeditionary troops. Under the circumstance of no combat task, the different modules of the JMOB can be used separately. In the unstable and constantly changing security environment, its separate parts can provide low-risk yet very strong mobile capacity for US troops.

Judging from the plan for the adjustment of the disposition of forces recently released by the Defense Department, US overseas military presence has witnessed the trend of development in the direction from the "forward-leaning presence" to the "in-depth presence" or to the "elasticity presence". For example, after the eruption of the Korean nuclear crisis, the United States began to reconsider the question of stationing troops in Northeast Asia. The United States moved its 37,000 troops stationed in the Republic of Korea (ROK) out of the long-range-artillery attacking scope of the North Korean army and plan to cut further the scale of the entire US troop contingent in the ROK.

The New York Times in an October 5 editorial titled "An overstretched army in Iraq" began with the sentence: "Now that it is clear the United States faces a lengthy military occupation of Iraq, requiring perhaps 100,000 troops for the foreseeable future, it is possible to begin calculating how the war may damage the American armed forces." It went on to warn that "the burden of occupation will start to strain severely the army's capacity to deploy trained and rested combat forces worldwide in a matter of months".

For the long term, not only will the lives of thousands of military families be disrupted, the army reserve system behind the United States' move to a smaller, volunteer army three decades ago will be put at severe risk and "the global reach of American foreign policy will almost inevitably be diminished", said the Times. Nearly half of the army's 33 combat brigades are now in continuous harm's way in the Persian Gulf region. Replacing all of them with fresh units would leave the army hard-pressed to meet its obligations elsewhere, including Afghanistan and the Korean Peninsula.

A congressional study last month found that unless major adjustments are made, the army will be forced to shrink its occupation force to less than half, including cutting "other international commitments". The Iraq War shows that a superpower empire cannot be maintained without a massive occupational force, something that the US lacks. The Times observed that this is "another regrettable consequence of the unilateral way America went to war in Iraq".

A reader wrote on April 7: "If you want Asia Times Online to be taken seriously, you might want to consider not using any more items from Henry C K Liu [The war that may end the age of superpower
, Apr 5]...Suggestion: Reread his article six months from now as a test of his ability to prognosticate."

Six months have passed and I repeat: This war may end the age of superpower.