Doubt Cast on Dire Exit Scenarios & Pentagon Hides Full Impact of the War Toll

January 28th, 2007 - by admin

Carolyn Lochhead / San Francisco Chronicle & Stephen Koff / Cleveland Plain Dealer – 2007-01-28 23:47:20

Doubt Cast on Dire Exit Scenarios
Carolyn Lochhead / San Francisco Chronicle

WASHINGTON (January 28, 2007) — The case for adding troops in Iraq — and keeping them there — rests on one basic assumption: As bad as things are now, they would become catastrophic if the United States leaves.

President Bush in his State of the Union address Tuesday warned that an early US exit would create “a nightmare scenario” for America.

In his Jan. 10 address explaining his order of 21,500 more US troops to Iraq, Bush said a retreat would “force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear that country apart, and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale. Such a scenario would result in our troops being forced to stay in Iraq even longer, and confront an enemy that is even more lethal.”

Not everyone is convinced. Some analysts say the apocalyptic scenarios of US withdrawal mirror arguments the administration and many others made for the US invasion in 2003. The premise of the invasion — flawed as it turned out — was that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, posing a direct threat to the United States and the world.

“It’s remarkable how little time people have spent examining the assumptions,” said Kurt Campbell, a former national security official in the Clinton administration, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But the administration is not alone. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, laid out a “Pandora’s box” of dire scenarios of US failure in Iraq:

Sectarian war in Iraq spreads across the Middle East. Neighboring regimes are destabilized, and populations radicalized. A humanitarian catastrophe of refugees and ethnic cleansing follows. Iranian influence rises. Regional war erupts. Oil supplies are disrupted. Al Qaeda claims victory, gains recruits and money and is emboldened to strike again. American credibility is damaged.

“If we get run off, there’s no reason to say it would be a positive thing, OK?” said retired Gen. William Nash, US commander in Bosnia from 1995 to 1997. “But just think of the dire predictions that were made in 1975 when the helicopters were leaving the embassy grounds of Saigon and everybody thinking that the dominoes would begin to fall. Lo and behold, the dominoes not only didn’t fall, but a number of the regional actors started taking some responsibilities for some things.”

Bush said Tuesday night that if the United States withdraws, the result will be an “epic battle” between Sunni and Shiite extremists and the creation of a haven for oil-fueled al Qaeda terrorists. Out of the chaos, Bush said, “would emerge an emboldened enemy with new safe havens, new recruits, new resources and an even greater determination to harm America. To allow this to happen would be to ignore the lessons of Sept. 11 and invite tragedy.”

Terrible things cannot be ruled out, said Michael Mandelbaum, head of the foreign policy program at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies. “But the relevant question for American foreign policy is, would they be terrible for us? Would we be worse off than we are now? And I don’t think that goes without saying.”

Many of the dark scenarios sketched as future prospects already exist, even critics of a withdrawal readily acknowledge.

Refugee flows are large and growing — nearly 4 million Iraqis have either been internally displaced or have fled abroad. Ethnic cleansing is altering the makeup of Baghdad. A civil war is underway. Populations have become radicalized. Al Qaeda terrorists have established a base in Anbar province.

Iran is intervening, aiding Shiite militias. Syria is allowing militants over its border. American standing is damaged.
But there is no reason to automatically assume, many experts said, that the situation will improve if US troops stay — or get worse if they leave.

“When you go through the analysis — even though I am prepared to concede that there can be dark scenarios coming out of a withdrawal from Iraq — it’s not at all clear to me that they are any worse than staying,” said Rand Beers, a former national security official through the last four administrations, including the current Bush administration.

Regional war is the scariest of the scenarios, with the assumption that it would be accompanied by an oil shock.
That assumes all the neighboring countries would look into the abyss, and jump in. Yet it is not clear why they would do so.

“When you sit down and scrub that carefully, it’s not a certainty by any means,” said Bruce Riedel, a former Bush national security official now at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Take Iran. “Iran has very close ties to every single Shia and Kurdish politician, militia and political group in Iraq,” Riedel said. “They’re already in there. They have a huge intelligence presence inside of Iraq. It’s hard for me to see why, after we left, they would need to put in ground troops. They’ve already got their influence there, and their side of the civil war, the Shia, is likely to prevail in the long run.”

What about the Sunni Arab states, especially US ally Saudi Arabia? Saudi officials have warned loudly that they would come to the aid of Iraq’s minority Sunnis if they were threatened with annihilation.

“The reality is that none of them have the military capability to do anything serious,” Riedel said. “Saudi Arabia doesn’t have an army that can advance into Anbar province. It just doesn’t have that military capability, nor does Jordan, nor does Kuwait. These are countries that can barely defend themselves, let alone project military power.”

They can provide arms, money and volunteers, he said, but Sunni insurgents already have ample supplies of those.
That leaves the Turks. Turkey is seen as the state most likely to enter Iraq if it breaks up and a new, independent Kurdistan emerges. Turkey has for decades been battling a Kurdish resistance in its eastern provinces that border Iraq.

Turkey also wants to join the European Union. Kurdish northern Iraq also is a notoriously difficult area to control.
“If the United States is insistent, I think Turkey would stand back,” said Edward Walker, former US ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. “I don’t think the Turks are interested in breaking their links to the US or to Europeans just to get themselves into the middle of a civil war.”

Riedel agreed. “I think when Turkey looks hard at this problem, it’s very unlikely that what the Turkish military is going to want to do is occupy a very difficult-to-control area and just expand the number of Kurds that are shooting at Turkish soldiers,” he said. “I don’t dismiss it. There is a risk of regional conflict. But I think that a skillful policy of containment and diplomatic action could minimize it after we go, and it does not become a rationale for young American men and women to give down their lives indefinitely.”
In fact, it is not all that easy to see exactly how an Iraqi civil war would spread past its borders, Beers said.

“How do you get the violence outside of the country?” he asked. “Iraqis are not going to invade another country. Scenarios are that Iran might march in to protect the Shias, that Turkey might march in because the Kurds are destabilizing Turkey. The Saudis might at least be prepared to arm the Sunnis. Those are all adding fuel to the fire in Iraq — not expanding conflict outside of Iraq.”

Apocalyptic scenarios of regional war also were floated by Clinton administration officials during the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts in the 1990s, said John Mueller, chairman of national security studies at Ohio State University. The term used by then-CIA director James Woolsey was that the civil war would “metastasize” across Europe.

In Iraq, Mueller said, “The most likely scenario, and it’s still a fairly bad one, is that the other countries would contain Iraq and there would be a civil war that would gradually work its way out. The idea of it spreading throughout the Middle East and all over the world strikes me as a considerable stretch. Not that it’s impossible. But the best analogy would be the long civil war in Lebanon. Other countries meddled in various ways, but they also kept it there, as much as possible.”

A regional war would be terrible for the region, Mandelbaum said. “But as cynical, as cold-blooded as it may sound, we have to ask what interests of ours would be jeopardized. … It seems to me it’s worth taking a look at our options and not assuming that all options are worse than this one.”
Ethnic cleansing would probably get worse after a US withdrawal, most believe. It has become worse with each year of the US occupation. The troop increase is designed to provide “breathing space” for the warring parties to reconcile. But there is little indication of any desire to do so.

“People might draw back from the brink or it may be that the civil war has to play itself out,” Mandelbaum said. “In any event, if the United States withdrew or drew back, at least our troops wouldn’t be getting killed and surely the first obligation of the American government is to the people of the United States, and that includes the US armed forces.”

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, GOP presidential hopeful and Vietnam War hero who supports sending more troops to Iraq, said the difference between Vietnam and Iraq is that the North Vietnamese didn’t “follow us home.”

“They’re going to follow us home no matter what, so the idea that if we prevail in Iraq that suddenly our situation at home in the United States is going to improve dramatically, I think is a very questionable proposition,” said Campbell, the former Clinton national security official. “That does not mean that I don’t and everyone else doesn’t want to win in Iraq. But I think that the more logical consequences of failure are really not so much in potential terrorist threats at home. That’s something we’re going to live with for decades.”

What about oil? None of the neighboring states, including Iran, want to see their oil revenues disrupted. If Iran sponsored small-scale terrorist attacks on oil tankers, analysts said, the United States retains enormous naval capacity to protect Persian Gulf shipping lanes with convoys — as it did in the Gulf War. As for Iraq’s oil, its production today is below what it was before the invasion.

“I guess my bottom line comes down to this,” Riedel said. “Yes, this situation is likely to be uglier and messier after we go, but it is already a catastrophe.”

‘Nightmare Scenario’
President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others have argued that a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq will lead to a cataclysmic situation. Some of their recent remarks:

“If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country — and in time, the entire region could be drawn in to the conflict.”

“For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective. Chaos is their greatest ally in this struggle.”
— President Bush, State of the Union address Tuesday

“Whatever one’s views on how we got to this point in Iraq, there is widespread agreement that failure there would be a calamity that would haunt our nation in the future and in the region. The violence in Iraq, if unchecked, could spread outside its borders and draw other states into a regional conflagration. In addition, one would see an emboldened and strengthened Iran, a safe haven and base of operations for jihadist networks in the heart of the Middle East, a humiliating defeat in the overall campaign against violent extremism worldwide, and an undermining of the credibility of the United States.”
— Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Jan. 11

“But the biggest problem we face right now is the danger that the United States will validate the terrorist strategy, that, in fact, what will happen here with all of the debate over whether or not we ought to stay in Iraq, with the pressures from some quarters to get out of Iraq, if we were to do that, we would simply validate the terrorists’ strategy that says the Americans will not stay to complete the task — that we don’t have the stomach for the fight.”
— Vice President Dick Cheney, CNN interview Wednesday

Injury Count in Iraq Disputed
Some Say Pentagon Hides Full Impact of the War Toll

WASHINGTON (January 28, 2007) — Officially, more than 23,000 U.S. troops have been wounded in combat in Iraq. But more than double that number have fallen ill or been injured in what the Pentagon considers “nonhostile” action, a way of counting that critics say hides the war’s full toll.

If the Pentagon also counted soldiers who were hurt in crashes or circumstances not directly involving skirmishes with the enemy, and those so sick that they required air transport, the figure would come to about 50,000, the Pentagon’s own figures show.

Either figure represents a historically high injury rate for Americans in any war, although both also are testament to the fact that military medical care is better than ever and saves more lives. Even so, more than 3,000 American troops have died from wounds or injuries in Iraq, fighting a war that has dragged down President Bush’s approval ratings, cost Republicans control of Congress and prompted anti-war demonstrations such as the one in Washington on Saturday.

But which figure of the wounded accurately reflects the war’s human cost?

The Pentagon keeps records on all wounds, all injuries that require air transport and all cases of disease that likewise require medical transport by helicopter or plane. But when it gives figures on the number of soldiers “wounded in hostile action,” it excludes the sick and those whose injuries weren’t directly caused by bullets or bombs. That’s how it gets the figure of 23,000-plus, a figure cited in most media reports.

To some, that’s misleading.

“It doesn’t make a difference whether you were hit by enemy fire or injured because your vehicle crashed, or got sick because of serving in a war zone,” Sen. Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, said in a statement Friday. “The effects on the soldiers and their families are the same.”

Stephen Robinson, a Washington-based veterans advocate and former Army officer, said the Pentagon purposely misleads the public with its counting methods. For example, he said, the Pentagon has not counted some injuries from chain-reaction crashes as combat-related, even when the crashes resulted from an insurgent’s attack on another vehicle in a convoy. By counting them as motor-vehicle accidents, Robinson said, the Pentagon avoids adding injuries to the war’s combat toll.

“It might be semantics to the Department of Defense, but it masks the full extent of the consequences of the war and who’s getting hurt,” said Robinson, director of veterans affairs for the group Veterans for America.

A Pentagon spokesman, responding via e-mail, provided a list of injury classifications but did not respond to questions about crashes such as those cited by Robinson.

Harvard researcher Linda Bilmes, who with Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz has done research on the cost of the war, insists the 50,000-wounded figure is the most accurate. That’s a ratio of 16 wounded service member for every death.

“That’s the highest killed-to-wounded ratio in U.S. history,” she said in a research paper this month.

The Pentagon clearly is displeased with the use of this number, which Bilmes also cited in a guest column in the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 5. Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith called it a “gross distortion” of the extent of war wounds.

“On a month-to-month basis, between 55-70 percent of the personnel wounded in action are returned to duty within three days,” she said in an e-mail Friday.

Yet an even bigger number can be used to cite the human and economic impact of the Iraq war on U.S. soldiers. Thirty-two percent of all veterans of the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan – 205,097 of the 631,174 troops who had returned and been discharged as of November – have sought medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

This comes from the VA itself.

Mental disorders accounted for nearly 36 percent of the VA cases, and diseases related to muscle, joints and bones for another 43 percent, according to the VA.

A full 25 percent of the returning veterans have filed claims for some level of disability benefits, and they have been approved so far at a rate of 88 percent, says Bilmes. The VA already has a backlog of claims, and it is likely to grow much worse as many more troops return.

“I’m very concerned what this means, not just in the next five years, but in the next 50,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “It’s going to be very expensive, and there’s been no looking into the future on what we ought to do on taking care of these benefits.”

Bilmes, speaking at a luncheon last week sponsored by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said it is nearly certain that there will be a “surge” in disability claims that will tax the VA physically and financially.

The Pentagon maintains that this exaggerates the severity of claims and future strains. Smith cited the number of service members suffering from brain or spinal cord injuries as of Dec. 2: 1,705. Of those, she said, 65 percent of the injuries were considered mild.

“Personnel with massive injuries such as amputations number in the hundreds, not the thousands,” Smith said.

With polls showing deep public skepticism about the war, the Pentagon could soon find itself having to explain its numbers not only to researchers and reporters but also to Congress.

Obama, a Democrat with presidential aspirations and a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, and Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe have introduced a bill to improve veterans’ benefits and better track the war’s impact on returning soldiers. Brown, the Ohio senator on the committee, said he and colleagues have intense interest in the subject.

“The Pentagon and VA,” said Obama, “need to come clean on the true costs of the Iraq war on our troops.”

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