The always must-read Sy Hersh
is back, and this time he's claiming that we shouldn't judge the book of expected troop pullouts in Iraq next year by its cover:
In recent weeks, there has been widespread speculation that President George W. Bush, confronted by diminishing approval ratings and dissent within his own party, will begin pulling American troops out of Iraq next year... One sign of the political pressure on the Administration to prepare for a withdrawal came last week, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News that the current level of American troops would not have to be maintained “for very much longer,” because the Iraqis were getting better at fighting the insurgency [...]
A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units. The danger, military experts have told me, is that, while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground troops are withdrawn, the over-all level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what.
Since there is no Iraqi air force, supporting their troops with air power sounds like a good idea in one respect; it gets American soldiers out of harm's way. Of course, it only expands the war at a point where our presence is supposed to be lowering. And then you read this:
Within the military, the prospect of using airpower as a substitute for American troops on the ground has caused great unease. For one thing, Air Force commanders, in particular, have deep-seated objections to the possibility that Iraqis eventually will be responsible for target selection. “Will the Iraqis call in air strikes in order to snuff rivals, or other warlords, or to snuff members of your own sect and blame someone else?” another senior military planner now on assignment in the Pentagon asked. “Will some Iraqis be targeting on behalf of Al Qaeda, or the insurgency, or the Iranians?”
If we don't have a presence on the ground, the aircraft will fly blind based on whatever whims the Iraqis in charge dream up, and the Sunni areas will simply be sliced to ribbons. We'd be the air component of the Iraqi civil war. And there's no guarantee that firing from the air would even work against an insurgency that lives underground anyway.
By the way, according to Hersh, we're already up to our necks in sorties and bombing missions inside Iraq. During the Vietnam War there would be reports about the tonnage dropped on North Vietnam, daily updates about how many flights and how many bombs. There's none of that in this war. They're hitting stuff hard and without much in the way of strategy. They're just bombing Iraq back to the Stone Age, which, given their predicament, means they're bombing Iraq back three years.
Meanwhile, there's this disturbing bit of news about the man in charge. Basically, he's a prisoner to the policy:
Current and former military and intelligence officials have told me that the President remains convinced that it is his personal mission to bring democracy to Iraq, and that he is impervious to political pressure, even from fellow Republicans. They also say that he disparages any information that conflicts with his view of how the war is proceeding.
Bush’s closest advisers have long been aware of the religious nature of his policy commitments. In recent interviews, one former senior official, who served in Bush’s first term, spoke extensively about the connection between the President’s religious faith and his view of the war in Iraq. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the former official said, he was told that Bush felt that “God put me here” to deal with the war on terror. The President’s belief was fortified by the Republican sweep in the 2002 congressional elections; Bush saw the victory as a purposeful message from God that “he’s the man,” the former official said. Publicly, Bush depicted his reëlection as a referendum on the war; privately, he spoke of it as another manifestation of divine purpose [...]
“The President is more determined than ever to stay the course,” the former defense official said. “He doesn’t feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage ‘People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.’ ” He said that the President had become more detached, leaving more issues to Karl Rove and Vice-President Cheney. “They keep him in the gray world of religious idealism, where he wants to be anyway,” the former defense official said. Bush’s public appearances, for example, are generally scheduled in front of friendly audiences, most often at military bases. Four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson, who was also confronted with an increasingly unpopular war, was limited to similar public forums. “Johnson knew he was a prisoner in the White House,” the former official said, “but Bush has no idea.”
That's just so dangerous on so many levels. Nobody should be that utterly convinced of their own infallibility. Especially went it's contradicted by the preponderance of the evidence.
There are other great tidbits in the article, about Jack Murtha being the confidant for a lot of top Pentagon commanders (in other words, he was speaking for them), about how the Army cannot keep up the force levels that go along with staying the course (which is what's really driving the policy), about how Iyad Allawi is being tapped (again) to become the permanent Prime Minister (and how the British and Americans will do everything they can to make that happen), about how the civil war in Iraq has really already begun, and this, about how the Iraq war isn't even limited to Iraq any longer:
Meanwhile, as the debate over troop reductions continues, the covert war in Iraq has expanded in recent months to Syria. A composite American Special Forces team, known as an S.M.U., for “special-mission unit,” has been ordered, under stringent cover, to target suspected supporters of the Iraqi insurgency across the border. (The Pentagon had no comment.) “It’s a powder keg,” the Pentagon consultant said of the tactic. “But, if we hit an insurgent network in Iraq without hitting the guys in Syria who are part of it, the guys in Syria would get away. When you’re fighting an insurgency, you have to strike everywhere—and at once.”
All in all, this is another fascinating and saddening article by Hersh, whose sources are impeccable and who has gotten a whole lot right throughout his career and particularly during this war.
UPDATE: This story at Booman Tribune
puts the air war strategy in its historical perspective. It didn't really work in Vietnam or Cambodia either.