The withdrawal that isn’t

August 17, 2010

Michael Schwartz, the author of War Without End: The Iraq War in Context and a commentator on U.S. wars and occupations for Web sites such as Huffington Post and TomDispatch, talked with Ashley Smith about the Obama administration's announcement that the withdrawal of "combat troops" is on schedule--and what its plans for Iraq really are.

PRESIDENT OBAMA recently announced that he was fulfilling his promise to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Is the U.S. really bringing the occupation to an end?

ON THE surface, that appears to be case, but it's not in fact true. Obama plans to retain 50,000 soldiers in Iraq after the supposed withdrawal of combat troops. He is merely re-branding these remaining combat troops as advisers and trainers.

These remaining forces will be doing exactly what they have been doing since the occupation began. They will be fighting, attacking various insurgent strongholds and calling in aerial strikes, as well as artillery and tank strikes.

While the level of U.S. military action has dropped in the last couple years, they still do fight and will retain their ability to do so after the so-called withdrawal. Since they have been fighting recently--and will be fighting in the future--alongside Iraqi soldiers, their mission is now defined as "advice and training," even though they're still fighting.

The big mystery is what will happen at the end of next year with the approach of the deadline for complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops, which the U.S. agreed to in its "status of forces agreement" (SOFA) with Iraq.

A battalion of U.S. soldiers boards a plane leaving Baghdad
A battalion of U.S. soldiers boards a plane leaving Baghdad (Perry Aston)

We have seen a lot of coverage about the amount of materiel, armaments and troops being taken out of Iraq. Obviously in the last year, there has been a reduction of about 70,000 troops, so what's left is approaching 50,000. The question is whether that number will actually go down to zero, and what kind of American presence will remain in Iraq.

The U.S. has three forces that it will use to replace those troops that it has withdrawn. First, the number of contractors in Iraq is very high. Jeremy Scahill, author of the book Blackwater, recently estimated that there are about 150,000 contractors in Iraq. A large number of these are armed mercenaries. So the U.S. has a surrogate armed force different from the military in the country.

Secondly, the State Department actually has a small military force of its own. It has made public pronouncements that it's going to increase that military force to a tremendous size to protect all of the American civilians in Iraq. It made requests to take over the five major military posts that remain in Iraq, each of which is meant to accommodate about 10,000 soldiers.

Third, the U.S. has flooded Iraq with civilian contractors and bureaucrats--what U.S. officials call their "civilian presence." They built the largest embassy in world history, and they plan to expand it quite considerably to accommodate almost twice the 1,000 diplomats it was built to hold. These civilians will constitute a very important presence for the U.S., different from the military, but nevertheless constituting pressure on the Iraqis to conform to U.S. policies.

But even with these surrogates, the U.S. military leadership has repeatedly said that it expects a modification of the SOFA that will permit a continued American military presence. The fact that it isn't dismantling the five major bases suggests that it expects to get some kind of agreement to retain a significant military force to control the country.

U.S. officials are determined to do so because the Iraqi government has not been compliant with American wishes. When the current political impasse since the election gets resolved, we should not expect the next Iraqi government to be any more compliant. Therefore, the U.S. will need a military force to discipline the Iraqi government.

WHAT IS the character and function of the private contractors hired by the U.S.?

IT'S HARD to get a complete picture of these contractors, because each time the U.S. uses them for various kinds of projects and missions, they meet with frustration and failure. So they keep changing how they are using the contractors. Nevertheless, we can get a partial picture of them. Too often, when we hear about 150,00 private contractors in Iraq, we think they are all mercenary soldiers.

While the U.S. has hired a large number of such private soldiers, it also has employed real civilian contractors. They are administrators, construction personnel and all sorts of officials.

For example, when the U.S. hires a company to construct something, it counts the company as a civilian contractor. It hired such a civilian contractor to build a huge complex just outside of Basra to store machinery and house the various contractors to service the Ramallah oil field. It's the size of a small city, with almost only foreigners inside--a Euro-American island in Iraq.

In other places, the U.S. uses contractors to build roads to facilitate oil extraction or to mobilize troops from one place to another. In other cases, it's establishing commercial sites that contractors can use.

The U.S. often hires civilian contractors to oversee strategic areas of Iraqi life. For example, the Iranians recently built an airport in Karbala to allow pilgrims to visit Iraq. The U.S. hired American contractors to "advise" Iraqis how to run the airport. Or in another example, an American adviser was hired to coach Iraq's oil minister how to negotiate with international oil companies.

You have a checkerboard of many different kinds of activities, but in every one of these situations, the U.S. runs into problems. There is always resistance.

In Basra, there was tremendous resistance from the local government against that huge complex the U.S. built. The local government wanted to use the area, which was an abandoned military base from the Saddam era, for public housing for all the refugees it is trying to re-house. The U.S. and the Maliki government overruled the local government, since the servicing of oil mattered more to them than housing refugees.

In another example of resistance to these civilian contractors, there is a big struggle right now over who will work in the oil industry--Iraqis or international contractors. So far, the Iraqi oil workers have managed to get the manual labor jobs, but not the professional jobs, which have gone to foreign personnel from the international oil companies.

So the use of civilian contractors is complex. But essentially, the U.S. is creating a network of control, segregated from Iraqi society and unaccountable to the Iraqi government and people, to invade Iraq with big multinational corporations and incorporate them and the country as a whole into the global system that the U.S. dominates.

WHAT DOES Obama's partial withdrawal of troops from Iraq mean for U.S. ambitions to dominate the rest of the Middle East and its strategic oil reserves?

THE OBAMA administration has certainly not abandoned the goal of establishing such hegemony, but it has changed some of the tactics.

It has scaled back from the most ambitious hopes for Iraq. It has retreated from Bush's plan to transform Iraq into a ferocious ally of the U.S. and Israel, and use it to attack Iran. But administration officials still want to have 50,000 troops in Iraq as a strike force in the Middle East. They also retain the desire, maybe a desperate one, for Iraq to be a linchpin of American control over oil production.

But they continue to encounter real challenges, even in their attempt to remake the Iraqi oil industry. The goal remains to pump 12 million barrels a day out of Iraq to break OPEC's control of the international oil system. The oil contracts, in particular, reveal the difficulties the U.S. face. While private international oil companies are involved in the negotiations, the big winners have been national oil companies owned or controlled by various governments.

The biggest winners of all have been the Chinese national oil companies--something the U.S. can't be happy about. As a result, the U.S. can't expect the oil companies to be the kind of instrument of American policy it was hoping for. The Chinese companies are not going to be simple allies of the U.S. But the U.S. may be able to salvage the situation. It seems that in the partnership agreements, the international oil companies are the dominant partners.

The U.S. also has to overcome the pledges of Iraq's Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani to honor OPEC agreements. But he isn't really in control--he may be ousted when a new Iraqi government finally emerges, and the oil contracts may be ripped up. The contracts have never been approved by parliament, and they violate all sorts of laws.

A new government could easily renege on the contracts. We will see if the U.S. is able to establish new ones on its terms and in its interests. But international oil companies are very worried about Iraq's instability, and are consequently hesitant to invest money in Iraqi oil right now.

Nevertheless, U.S. government policy has been consistent. U.S. officials want an oil industry, administered by private, not Iraqi government, oil companies, that will have the ability to make the decision about how much oil will be pumped out of Iraq. They want the decisions removed from the Iraqi government.

With the U.S. effectively opening up Iraq's immense oil resources in this manner, they would terminally wound OPEC. OPEC would not be able to set prices and wield any kind of power. That's always been the U.S. goal.

WHAT DO these difficulties mean for asserting American power in the region, especially against Iran?

THE U.S. is really at a loss about what to do about Iran. It fears Iran as a rising regional power that could forge a block with other powers in the region and internationally. Iran could set out an independent path in managing its politics and economy.

Iraq could join that path with OPEC or by establishing a political and economic pact with Iran. Those two countries then might come to lead OPEC or make alliances with other powers like China.

Because of U.S. failures in Iraq, Iran pursues such a strategy with a greater degree of confidence. Obama has used the campaign to stop Iran's nuclear program as a smokescreen for stopping Iran from pursuing this path and becoming an independent regional power. The U.S. is trying one thing after another to stop the rise of Iran.

I thought it was very interesting that the U.S. announced recently that the new sanctions against Iran were working. Now, everyone must realize that it's impossible for sanctions to have had such an impact on Iran this quickly. The Obama administration seemed desperate for a public statement to make it seem like it had a working policy, when it is, in fact, just floundering around.

Almost everything the U.S. has done has actually bolstered Iran. And it has opened space for China to solidify its relationship with Iran. The Chinese are collaborating with Iran on three or four different levels, also effectively strengthening Iran. The U.S. doesn't have much of a shot at controlling Iran. In this context, the American saber-rattling is scary, and we shouldn't dismiss the possibility of some kind of attack on Iran.

One possibility is that Israel will attack Iran, then Iran will retaliate against Israel, and the U.S. would use the conflict to justify an aerial attack--another "shock and awe" military attack. That's a scary scenario because millions of people could suffer. Yet I don't think the Obama administration really intends to launch such an attack or approve of Israel conducting one. It would be a disaster.

For the last nine years now, the U.S. has been failing in its project to remake the Middle East in its interests. Despite this, it refuses to develop a new strategy that might be more humane.

Its overarching goals remain the same: Obama and his policy advisers aim to transform the Middle East into a capitalist paradise integrated into the global economy and, most importantly, complementary to U.S. needs. Of course, it has different language for this, and the rhetoric shifts quite frequently, but the reality is that it is still pursuing the same imperial goal.

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