Wednesday, March 16, 2005

I Read The News Today, Oh Boy

Some days you start by intending to profile one illustrative news story and its ramifications, and the next thing you know, you're following a daisy chain of briefs from Turkish Press. But let's begin at the beginning here.

Two years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, the coalition is unraveling amid mounting casualties and kidnappings that have stoked anti-war sentiment and sapped leaders' resolve to keep troops in harm's way.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who confirmed he would seek re-election next year, alluded to the rising public discontent and said he had spoken with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, another strong Washington ally. "We need to construct a precise exit strategy, also because our publics' opinions expect this communication and we agree to talk about it soon."

Berlusconi and Blair, of course, are Bush's primary international friends, now that Putin's soul has suddenly turned opaque. They deserve credit for hanging in as long as they have, against the wishes of their people. One can actually give them credit and not assume base motives, because it can't possibly have been worth it for them on any material level.

Thirty-eight countries have provided troops in Iraq at one point or another. But 14 nations have permanently withdrawn since the March 2003 invasion, and today's coalition stands at 24. Excluding U.S. forces, there are 22,750 foreign soldiers still in Iraq.

The scramble to get out has taken the multinational force from a high of about 300,000 soldiers in the region early in 2003 to 172,750 and falling. About 150,000 U.S. troops shoulder the bulk of the responsibility and suffer the most casualties.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Venable, said the decisions by some nations to reduce or end their presence in Iraq was not a threat to security. "The coalition is strong," he said.

Venable said the reductions are part of the natural process of turning security over to Iraq's government. "The plan is to have the Iraqis fill in everywhere," he said.

It's to be expected that the "coalition" talk keeps going (though US forces account for just under 87% of the troop presence), and always will, long after they've all come home and this is long forgotten generations down the road. The military, even more so than the rest of the government, is a blunt instrument, which makes it so much easier to just stay on message and pull the standard "la la la we can't heeeeaaar you" bit.

But whatever; bureaucrats do what bureaucrats do. From a practical standpoint, the most telling stat here is the one the article doesn't mention -- how many Iraqi troops have been trained thus far, what is the overall goal, and what's the timeline. This is not some sort of "if we say our timeline, the insurgents will just wait us out" situation; this is fundamental as to the nature and completion of the mission at hand.

Among the nations that withdrew last year were Spain, which pulled out 1,300 soldiers; Tonga, 44; New Zealand, 60; Thailand, 423; the Philippines, 51; Honduras, 370; the Dominican Republic, 302; Nicaragua, 115; and Hungary, 300. Norway withdrew 150 troops but left 16 liaison officers, and Singapore withdrew 160, but later provided a landing ship tank and crew.

Last month, Portugal withdrew its 127 soldiers, and Moldova pulled out its 12.


America's top two allies in Iraq — Britain, with about 8,000 soldiers, and South Korea with 3,600 — are standing firm. Australia, Albania and Georgia are boosting their presence, and NATO is expanding its training mission in Baghdad.

Yet surveys suggest opposition is running at roughly two-thirds in most coalition countries.

We appreciate the sacrifice our allies are making for us in this cause, really. As pointed out earlier, there's really not much in it for, say, Albania -- they're never going to have a 9/11 of their own, and they certainly don't have a corporate industrial infrastructure to contract in Iraq and make a buck somewhere. Maybe we're doling out more aid, who knows. Regardless, sometimes it's the thought that counts.

Nonetheless, what with all this talk of democracy, here is a clear-cut situation where the populations of most of these nations opposed participation vociferously, yet were overruled by their leaders. I'm just saying.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch....

The deputy commander of the Iraqi army in western Al-Anbar province was shot dead by US troops at a checkpoint Tuesday night, a police officer said.

"The US forces opened fire at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT) on Brigadier General Ismail Swayed al-Obeid, who had left his base in Baghdadi to head home," police Captain Amin al-Hitti said.

"They spotted him on the road after the curfew, which goes into effect at 6 pm," the officer said in Baghdadi, 185 kilometres (142 miles) west of the capital.

No immediate reaction was available from the US military.

US forces have struggled to build up Iraqi security forces in Al-Anbar, where the country's insurgency is at its strongest, and many police and national guard units are suspected of having been infiltrated by rebels.

Surprisingly enough, they didn't reflexively accuse the general of bum-rushing the checkpoint at 100 mph. But that's what he gets for being out, uh, late. Can "Sgrena" be used as a verb yet? Do we need to print up another deck of cards with the good guys on them this time? We've had ongoing trouble getting, training, and retaining solid recruits for the Iraqi defense force; this is one of the main guys that was helping us do just that.

When this sort of stupid shit stops happening, then we can crow about demonstrations in Lebanon, or Hosni Mubarak saying "someday". Freedom is still crawling; he's not quite marching up and down the square. It could be generations before that happens, so let's dispense with the notion that Bush knew something the rest of the planet didn't, m'kay? Even if he had known, the notion that this was the best way to go about it is repellent.

Since Bono turned the job down, noted comb-licker Paul Wolfowitz has been tapped to replace James Wolfensohn as head of the World Bank. This seems to be the same cooperative dynamic that got John "Does the carpet match the drapes or the blinds?" Bolton nominated as ambassador to the UN. We trust that Wolfowitz will bring the same expertise and zeal to the World Bank, that he and Doug Feith and Steve Hadley and Steve Cambone brought to the intel-stovepiping division of the Pentagon. Look out, Botswana!

The US president highlighted Wolfowitz's experience at the US State Department and the Pentagon and as a previous ambassador to Indonesia.

"Paul is committed to development," said Bush, describing his nominee as a "compassionate, decent man who will do a fine job at the World Bank and that's why I called leaders of countries and that's why I put him up."

In other news, Ashlee Simpson will be the next head of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Finally, in Western Hemisphere oil-related news, Venezuela has lobbed what sounds like a threat.

If Venezuela is the subject of a new attack against its democracy and President Chavez, the distortion in the oil will be gigantic," Rafael Ramirez told reporters here.

"We would not sell a single barrel to the United States," added Ramirez, in Iran for a meeting of OPEC ministers.

Since the US accounts for half of Venezuela's oil exports, the only way they could pull this off and keep their own economy intact is if China has already expressed interest in stepping up its purchase rate, which it has. With oil prices back up to record highs, and Americans bracing themselves for $2.50 or even $3.00 per gallon this summer, Venezuela's newfound intestinal fortitude may be the hidden story with the most potential impact right now.

Back to your regularly scheduled coverage of Michael Jackson's sartorial habits.


vonKreedon said...

A fascinating and under reported component of the Coalition of the Dwindling is that, at least as of last year, the second largest contingent is NOT British, but rather private security forces. In fact even if you take all the non-US national forces together there are, or were last year, more private forces. See Washington Post article from April 2004 claiming:
There are about 20,000 private security contractors in Iraq now, including Americans, Iraqis and other foreigners. That number is expected to grow to 30,000 in the near future when the U.S. troop presence is drawn down after the June 30 handover to Iraqi authorities.

Heywood J. said...

That's true, and in fact, some of the torture and even homicide allegations from Abu Ghraib et al have actually been leveled at people who work for private firms like CACI and Titan.

I'm not sure what the legal dynamic is for a corporate entity acting as a US government agent, but no doubt it's not pretty if you're on the business end of their truncheon or glow-stick. There doesn't seem to be any recourse against these guys; if you got disappeared by a Titan worker (who is probably an ex-SEAL to begin with), your family can't do any more about it than if you had been disappeared by a member of the US military.

There is something fundamentally foul about giving a private corporate contractor such immediate decision-making power over the life and death of individuals. It's despicable.

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