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19 March 2008 Blog Home : March 2008 : Permalink

John Simpson - Anti-American and Clueless

I haven't done a good fisking in months, to be honest I couldn't work up the venom. But reading the BBC's John Simposon spout off about the US and Iraq as part of the round of fifth aniversary retrospectives gets me going again just nicely so here goes.

Iraq war shows limits of US power

By John Simpson World affairs editor, BBC News

Iraq war shows the limits if the BBC's ability to understand military affairs

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 I have spent almost a year of my life here, reporting on the conflict.

I have witnessed a disturbing amount of death and injury, and several of my friends have lost their lives. Others have become refugees and asylum-seekers.

I admit Mr Simpson is ahead of me there. I have not spent a minute in Iraq. No doubt this limits my comprehension, although I cannot help but note that Mr Simpson's view seems somewhat different to people such as Micheal Yon who has spent at least as long, if not longer, there. Oddly enough one can't help but notice that Mr Simpson is somewhat reticent about who precisely caused the death and injury etc. Could it perhaps be the "insurgents" that the US is battling?

It has lasted almost as long as World War II and cost almost as much.

Oh forgot. The BBC can't grasp basic economics either. Between 1943 and 2003 60 years elapsed. There is this thing called inflation that economists get worked up about. What it means is that a million dollars in 1943 ends up having a similar purchasing power as a million dollars would today. Another thing has also occured in the last 60 years, its called economic growth. 60 years ago Europe pretty much bankrupted itself and destroyed itself in WWII. The US did better but WWII caused considerable strain there too. Even if, in relative terms the Iraq war cost the same as WWII relative to the size of the US (or world) GDP it is a lot smaller. You can tell this by the fact that until last summer more or less the world (and US and UK) economy was going gangbusters despite the war in Iraq. Even in the light of the "credit crunch" and the "sub-prime loan crisis" the world, US, UK etc economies are remarkably healthy and expenditure on the war in Iraq (or even the "War on Terror" as a whole) has barely impinged.

Only one of its original aims, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, has been achieved.

Of the other aims, one was unobtainable because Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction to be destroyed, and the other - bringing democracy to the Middle East - has been indefinitely postponed.

Good to see you peddling the anti-war party line Mr Simpson, pity it isn't based on fact. The point of the invasion with regards to WMD was that there was this UN resolution passed in 1991 that Saddam Hussein was flouting. Even when threatened with war in 2002 he failed to come clean. Not only did Saddam Hussein deliberately and continuously obfuscate the state of his WMD program, he also, and equally deliberately, maintained the core research teams and equipment for it. It wasn't just about destroying WMD, it was also about stopping Iraq from making and using more.

As for democracy in the Middle East. It is true there has been no sudden conversion of regimes towards democratic rule but Iraq itself has become considerably more democratially governed. Lebanon has to some degree overthrown the yoke of the Syrians and even in Saudi Arabia there is slightly more representative government than before

Nothing new in any of this, of course. Anti-war commentators have repeated it all again and again, while pro-war commentators mostly avoid mentioning any of it.

And anti-war commentators still fail to note the anti-terrorism part of the invasion. It may not have been entirely deliberate but opinion polls throughout the Middle East show far lower support for suicide bombing than they did before the invasion, perhaps because they have seen how such tactics hurt their fellow (mostly Sunni) Arabs.

More importantly, the war has shown the limits of American power. It is clear the United States can only manage to fight two small wars at a time.

Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the US armed forces almost to breaking point. America after the invasion of Iraq is no longer the superpower it was before.

Really? Breaking point? Two small wars? umm no. The US has decided not to simply kill large numbers of civilians to get at its enemies and their supporters. If the US wanted to it could quite literally bomb these places back into the stone age (some might argue that Afghanistan has barely graduated from it) and leave the surviving inhabitants to starve to death. The reason why the US military is stretched is that it is not fighting a war it is occupying conquered but not completely pacified territory. Occupation is not a war even if soldiers are used for both. If a major conflict (China say) were to occur the US could simply leave Iraq and Afghanistan to fester under some kind of blockade, it isn't doing so because it can afford not to.

Rearguard action

Yet American resilience and inventive power seem to have turned the corner here, at least in military terms. Tactics which were losing the war have been abandoned, and new, more intelligent tactics have taken their place.

Now, the American forces are engaged in fighting a rearguard action, winning time during which the long-term decisions can be taken about withdrawal or some form of continuing presence here.

Gosh it has to hurt to admit that actually the "surge" is working and that Iraq is better. No doubt that is why Mr Simpson calls success a "rearguard action", thereby demonstrating, yet again, his military cluelessness. Rearguards are used for defense when you are being driven out. If Iraq is peaceful then by definition the US isn't being driven out and hence this isn't a rearguard action. Soldiers leaving once peace has been achieved is more usually called "Victory" or "Mission Accomplished". Either that or the 1990s drawdown of UK troops in Germany was a rearguard action against the forces of Nazism and/or Soviet Communism.

Some people - for instance Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate for the White House - will no doubt call this rearguard action a success. He may even be tempted to call it a victory.

Yet at present it is hard to think of it as particularly successful.

So "Tactics which were losing the war have been abandoned, and new, more intelligent tactics have taken their place" but yet this is not a success. Fair enough we are not yet completely victorious but the trends seem to be heading that way.

On Monday, Vice-President Dick Cheney came to Baghdad and talked about "the phenomenal improvement in security". That day more than 60 Iraqis were killed in bomb attacks.

He had to travel with unprecedented numbers of bodyguards, even though he never left the heavily defended Green Zone. Two mortar rounds hit the Zone while he was there.

None of this feels like a phenomenal improvement in security.

Leave aside the mere possibility that, you know, the 'insurgents' might deliberately notch up their attacks when they know Cheney and the media circus is in town, John Simpson either skipped mid 2006 - mid 2007 in Iraq or he is a liar. The Brookings Institute has a series of graphs in this PDF that show just how much of an improvement there has been since a year ago. Consider this graph of "multi-fatality bombings" as an example - it is not the only graph that shows a drop but its a pretty good one.
Brookings Institute Killed and Wounded in Multiple Fatality Bombings (Iraq)
In December 2006 to February 2007 (Jan to Mar?) we have totals of 1254,862 and 1690 wounded and 574, 429 and 704 killed respectively for grand totals of 3806 and 1707 for wounded and killed. In the same three months December 2007 - February 2008 the numbers are 459, 466 and 406 wounded and 211, 211 and 281 killed for totals of 1331
and 703 respectively. My maths says than this is roughly a third the number of wounded and about 40% of the number killed. If that isn't a "phenomenal improvement in security" then what is?

Elementary errors

Still, ever since the start of 2007, when Gen David Petraeus started introducing radically new tactics, the war has entered a different phase.

The various elements in the insurgency have been divided, the Mehdi Army has been persuaded to keep its head down, and the American and Iraqi forces have gone on the offensive, denying their enemy the chance to dig in and control territory.

The heading here is almost as misleading as the "rearguard" one above the previous section. Tactics have changed and things are getting better, this is not an elementary error.

Before Gen Petraeus took over, American military tactics were negative, and sometimes seemed almost defeatist.

The insurgents were able to operate at will along the main roads in Baghdad. They took over entire suburbs and towns.

Well Duh. This is why they didn't work and why they changed.

At the same time there was a breathtaking lack of political understanding.

In the first year after the invasion, Iraqi politicians found the American proconsul, Paul Bremer, both arrogant and silly. He made a number of elementary errors which have caused lasting damage.

Nowadays, by contrast, the face of American policy here is Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq. He speaks good Arabic and has a sympathetic understanding of the country and its people.

Altogether, the American military and diplomatic presence here has much more professionalism and intellectual seriousness to it.

Oddly enough Bremer seemed to be more popular with the BBC at the time (see this bio at his appointment). No doubt one of those elementary errors.

Long-term danger

Iraqi friends of mine who once hated the fact that the Americans were here now praise them for driving the militants from the streets. That is a real success.

But it is small compared with the damage which the war has done to America's reputation. The US state department finds it much harder nowadays to be taken seriously when it criticises other countries for their use of torture and arbitrary arrest.

People the world over have been repelled by things that have been done here: things that are now associated with place-names like Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and Falluja.

So umm the elementary errors and rearguard action has driven the militants from the streets. Good to hear that it is a real success. Even more amazing that a rearguard action chock full of elementary errors could have such an effect. As for the US state department being taken seriously by torturers and tyrants. I somehow doubt the US state department has ever been taken seriously by these people. While there is no doubt that Abu Ghraib was a disgrace it has to be pointed out that Haditha and Falluja are far more examples of the media actively cooperating with the terrorists than anything else. IIRC in neither case have the more lurid accusations stuck to the US while in Falluja at least the behaviour of the "militants", something that the BBC hasn't covered in detail, helped turn the local Sheiks away from the militants and into the arms of the USA. If people the world over are repelled by US actions in Falluja then that is in large part due to the biased coverage of organizations like the BBC which has failed to cover the situation properly.

Above all, we have seen how hard it is for the Americans to deal with a few thousand lightly armed volunteers.

Germany's 19th-Century Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, said that great powers had to be very careful when they put their military strength to the test. Unless they are overwhelmingly successful, he meant, the perception will be that they have been defeated.

In spite of the new successes on the ground here, that is the long-term danger America faces.

Really? No doubt this is different to Britain's stellar record against a few hundred lightly armed Irishmen? Or for that matter how many troops were involved in the (successful) Malaya emergency? And perhaps John Simpson should listen to some of the whining from Al Qaeda? If he thinks the US hasn't succeeded perhaps he needs to look at the dissarray and lack of popular support of its oponents. In most situations when one side kills or captures 90% of the effectives of the other side and takes, on average, casualties at a ridiculously low rate in historical terms then that is called being "overwhelmingly successful" aka "winning". What Mr Simpson forgets is that Osama and others claimed that the USA had no stamina for a protracted struggle with multiple deaths. This was, in fact, a common belief in the late 1990s. It isn't such a belief today because President Bush has stayed the course in Iraq and allowed his troops to remain there long enough to beat the crap out of the various opposing forces instead of turning tail and coming home with their opponents still alive and causing trouble.