David Coates

“Turning the Page” in Iraq and Afghanistan


Obama envisions no major changes in Afghan strategy.

Despite discouraging news from Afghanistan and growing doubts in Congress and among the American public, the Obama administration has concluded that its war strategy is sound and that a December review, once seen as a pivotal moment, is unlikely to yield any major changes”

(The Washington Post, September 18, 2010)

When announcing the end of the American combat mission in Iraq on August 31, the President suggested that it was time to “turn the page”. The image is a powerful one because it invokes closure. It implies that a new page can be opened – that some kind of fresh start is possible – and that the new page, the fresh start, will be one untarnished by the legacies of the page now closing behind it.

But the image of “page-turning” in the context of the American combat mission in Iraq begs two huge questions that we now desperately need to confront. The first is whether an untarnished page is possible in the wake of an illegitimate war? The second is whether much page-turning is actually being done?

The Iraq War has left at least two huge and indelible imprints that no page-turning can easily eradicate, and the Afghan War seems poised to leave a third.

  • The Iraq War has done immense and long-term damage to American prestige, power and internal prosperity. This was a war initiated on false grounds and pursued in the absence of international legitimation.[1] It was a war initially presented to the American people as one without length or cost: we were to be welcomed as liberators and recompensed for our efforts by the sale of liberated oil. In the event, neither the welcome nor the recompense materialized. Instead, our military presence in Iraq since 2003 has left more than 4,400 American service personnel dead and 35,000 permanently and seriously wounded. It has cost the U.S. taxpayer the staggering sum of at least $750 billion,[2] money which if not spent in Iraq might have been put to better purpose at home. It has drawn clandestine American agencies into the systematic use of torture, so undermining the moral standing of America in the world. It has bogged down the bulk of America’s fighting forces, combating an invisible enemy whose ranks are perpetually reinforced by the presence of foreign troops on Islamic soil. The war in Iraq, as Ted Koppel so rightly said,[3] has done bin Laden’s work for him, and done it on a scale which probably even he could never have anticipated. The decision to use the events of 9/11 to justify the invasion of Iraq, when its governing regime (however internally brutal) played no part in those events,  was an appalling blunder. We can announce that the invasion is now over and behind us, if we like, but its consequences live on.
  • Nowhere do they live on more painfully than in Iraq itself. The number of American dead, appalling as that number is, palls into insignificance when set against the number of Iraqis killed or forced into exile by the invasion and its consequences. Numbers vary. They can hardly be precise. The U.S. army only counted some of them. But at least 100,000 Iraqi’s are now dead who would otherwise be alive.[4] Add to that the more than two million Iraqis who have left the country, and the more than one million Iraqis who have been internally displaced, forced to move from their homes and businesses to escape the sectarian violence that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein; and you get some preliminary sense of the scale of the economic and social turmoil suffered in Iraq after the invasion.[5] These are numbers, we must remember, in a population which is only one-seventh the size of ours. Perhaps there would be some way of justifying the number of the Iraqi dead and dislocated if their distress had not been so visibly in vain. But the country from which U.S. combat forces have now been formally withdrawn remains economically desolate, politically stalled and vulnerable to new rounds of sectarian terror. Currently the unemployment rate in Iraq hovers between 25 and 50 percent. The proportion of Iraqi’s urban population living in slums has risen from 20 to 53 percent during the occupation that was meant to liberate them.[6] Electricity supplies remain erratic[7] and the insurgency undefeated. At least 85 Iraqis died in daily attacks on soldiers and police in the first three weeks of August alone, and 50 more were killed in a series of apparently coordinated bombings on a single day, August 25.[8] The killing simply goes on and on. Slowed by the much publicized “surge” before the U.S. military officially withdrew, violence re-escalated as the surge was wound down.[9] Surges do that, of course. They slow. They delay, but ultimately they do not end the resistance they were designed to stop.
  • Now the surge is apparently to be repeated in Afghanistan, using Iraqi “success” as the justification and model.[10] What could be more disastrous than that? A war of necessity, widely supported across the international community in 2002, is morphing into a war of choice, much like Iraq before it, and with the same likely scenario of military and civilian deaths,[11] political stalemate and mission failure. The Obama administration concedes the depth of corruption in the Afghan government. Even its military commanders concede the intensification of resistance to NATO/American military forces – 1,353 attacks in August 2010, as against 630 a year before – as aid organizations report the increasing dangers they face in larger and larger parts of Afghanistan.[12] A country that has defeated imperial powers before – from Britain and Russia in the pre-Soviet era to the Soviets themselves before the Taliban – looks set to add another imperial scalp to its belt. And yet we go on – increasing our troop strength, talking the language of military surge and civilian nation-building, and pretending to ourselves and others that an al Qaeda that was once predominantly based in Afghanistan can best be weakened now by fighting it predominantly only there. Yet even the CIA concedes that there are probably no more than 100 al Qaeda operatives left in Afghanistan these days.[13] Al Qaeda has moved on, but we apparently have not.

Which raises the second question: have we really turned a page?  Have we really left Iraq? Will we ever really leave Afghanistan?

Probably not.

Fifty thousand U.S. troops will still remain in Iraq through to the end of 2011, and the place of so many of the departing soldiers is now being taken not by Iraqis but by U.S. civilian contractors. We have not so much run down our military presence in that troubled country as privatized it. The President was clear in his August 31 Address that one important job for the troops left behind in Iraq is that of “protecting our civilians.” “As our military draws down,” he said, “our dedicated civilians – diplomats, aid workers, and advisors – are moving into the lead to support Iraq as it strengthens its government.” Well, we are leaving behind a remarkably large number of those “dedicated civilians” – the State Department will apparently need at least 6-7000 of them, all private contractors, for the defense of its Iraqi embassy alone![14] And we have built, and are continuing to build, ever more impregnable embassies and larger new military bases from which to protect them – embassies and bases taking up vast swathes of Iraqi land. Iraqi land and Afghan land: because the model is both countries is the same.[15] Create and prop up a pro-American government, one that is more or less democratic, more or less corrupt, depending on the circumstances. Withdraw some troops, declaring their mission complete, but leave behind a mass of civilians in some “aid and support” role. Then reinforce those civilians with soldiers, bases, equipment and funds – lots of soldiers, lots of bases, and lots of funds. This is not old fashioned imperialism. It is, as Chalmers Johnson rightly labeled it, “stealth imperialism”.[16] But it is imperialism nonetheless.

The pressure is now on in Washington from both military and Republican sources to intensify the “surge” in Afghanistan. It is a pressure than must be powerfully resisted. Spreading our military forces out globally in pursuit of al Qaeda plays directly into al Qaeda’s hands. The best defense we can mount against al Qaeda is a defense built on strength at home. The enormous costs that accrue to the countries we “liberate” and to us as “liberators” are in no way commensurate to the meager benefits such “liberation” brings either to the “liberated” or to us. The long-term security of this country requires an immediate pull-back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a longer-term diminution in the number of our overseas bases and the size and cost of our military. I, for one, am with William Grieber, when he says this:

Come home, America. Instead of trying to run the world, let us tend our own wounded society. Let go of inflated claims to global dominance. Instead, redeem the fundamental values and sacred principles of the national inheritance. Do not resign from the world. Rejoin it on more practical and promising terms.”[17]

Advice does not come much sounder than that. Let us hope that there are those in Washington who might yet heed it.


[1] For the data on this, see chapter  9 of David Coates, Answering Back, New York: Continuum Books, 2010

[2] The total comes to at least a straight trillion dollars if you add in the cost of the Afghan war; perhaps even  to $3 trillion over the long haul, if the calculations of  Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes hold. For those, see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article3419840.ece

[3] Ted Koppel, “Nine Years after 9/11, let’s stop fulfilling bin Laden’s goals”,  The Washington Post September 12, 2011

[4] For the numbers, see Iraqi Body Count at http://www.iraqbodycount.org/

[5] See http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/24/world/africa/24iht-24displaced.7237836.html

[6] This data is from Adil E. Shamoo, U.S. Occupation of Iraq More than Doubles Poverty, Sickness – Leaves Country a Total Disaster, posted on Alternet.org on August 22, 2010: available at http://www.alternet.org/story/147928

[7] The “electricity demand that cannot be met” was 15% in early 2003. It is now 42%. See Andrew England, “Uniform Unease: Iraq,” The Financial Times, August 26, 2010

[8] BBC News: Middle East, August 25, 2010

[9] See Martin Chulove, ‘Fears of al-Qaida return in Iraq as US-backed fighters defect,” The Guardian, August 11, 2010

[10] Not least by John McCain. See his “The Surge and Afghanistan”, The Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2010

[11] U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan now exceed 1,200, with an additional 7000 seriously injured military personnel. The growing scale of civilian deaths and injuries was revealed in the files released in July by Wikileaks, and in reports released by the UN’s Kabul mission. They found civilian deaths up 31% in 2010. (See the London-based Observer newspaper, August 11, 2010)

[12] See, for example, Rod Nordland, “Security in Afghanistan is Deteriorating, Aid Groups Say”, The New York Times, September 11, 2010, reporting 30% of Afghanistan now no longer safe for travel. The number of attacks, August-August, is also from this source.

[13] CIA Director Leon Panetta said this when asked how many al Qaeda operatives were left in Afghanistan. “At most, we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less.” (cited by Arianna Huffington in her The Afghan Paradox posted on The Huffington Post, June 28, 2010: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/the-afghanistan-paradox-w_b_628581.html

[14] See Michael Gordon, ‘Civilians To Take U.S. Lead After Military Leaves Iraq,” The New York Times, August 18, 2010

[15] For the sheer scale of all this base-building and spending, see Tom Englehardt, America’s Tragic Descent into Empire posted on Alternet. Org on July 7, 2010: available at http://www.alternet.org/story/147428;

Chalmers Johnson, 10 Needed Steps for Obama to Start Dismantling America’s Gigantic Destructive Military Empire, posted on Alternet.org on August 25, 2010: available at http://www.alternet.org/story/147964; and Tom Englehardt and Nick Turse, So You Think You Know About the American Empire? posted on Alternet. Org on September 14, 2010: available at http://www.alternet.org/story/148179;

[16] Chalmers Johnson, Blowback, New York: Henry Holt, 2000. For details, see http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Blowback_CJohnson/Stealth_BCJ.html

[17] William Gieber, Come Home America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of our Country, New York: Rodale, 2009, p. 9

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

One Response to ““Turning the Page” in Iraq and Afghanistan”

  1. Gr. William says:

    different book different page..

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