In the months that followed President Bush's "mission accomplished" speech, the U.S. military began constructing bases in remarkable profusion. By late 2003, Lieutenant Colonel David Holt, "tasked with facilities development" in Iraq, was quoted in an engineering magazine speaking proudly of several billion dollars already having been sunk into base construction. ("The numbers," he said, "are staggering.") By 2005, as the country disintegrated into Sunni and Shiite insurgencies and chaos ensued, there were 105 U.S. bases in the country, ranging from tiny combat outposts to monster facilities like Balad Air Base with its own Pizza Hut, Subway, and Popeye's franchises, "an ersatz Starbucks," a 24-hour Burger King, two post exchanges, and four mess halls. By the height of the occupation, Washington had reportedly constructed a mind-boggling 505 bases without any kind of public accounting of what was being spent on them. By 2011, when the last U.S. troops slipped out of the country, every one of them (except the 506th base, the giant three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar American Embassy that the Bush administration built in Baghdad) had been abandoned to the Iraqi military, to looters, or to the ravages of time.
And that was that... or was it?
When the Obama administration launched Iraq War 3.0 last year, sending in 3,000 American advisers, trainers, and other personnel, it garrisoned some of them on familiar bases reoccupied for the occasion. Last week, as it was preparing to dispatch the next round of trainers and other personnel to Iraq, it also announced the "opening" of a brand-new "lily pad" (or bare-bones) base for them at Taqaddam in al-Anbar Province, nearer to the front lines of the conflict with the forces of the Islamic State. At the same time, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey began to talk up the possibility of building additional "lily pads" -- a "network" of new bases -- for more U.S. personnel elsewhere in Iraq. (Such a lily-pad strategy was, by the way, tried in Afghanistan and essentially failed.) Soon after, the New York Times reported that President Obama was "open" to such a strategy. In other words, in Washington's Groundhog Day-style conflict in Iraq, round two of base building was now underway.
And here's one strange thing: no newspaper reporting on any of this mentioned that there had been a previous history of base building in Iraq -- not even the Times, whose reporters first covered the story back in April 2003. That crucial history has, it seems, simply vanished. In this country, it's as if it never happened. And yet the minute you consider the proposed lily-pad strategy in the context of those 505 abandoned bases, it seems risible.
TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich turns to this very combination of collective amnesia and repetitive madness today, so feel free to follow him down the Washington rabbit hole. Tom
Washington in Wonderland
Down the Iraqi Rabbit Hole (Again)
By Andrew J. Bacevich
There is a peculiar form of insanity in which a veneer of rationality distracts attention from the madness lurking just beneath the surface. When Alice dove down her rabbit hole to enter a place where smirking cats offered directions, ill-mannered caterpillars dispensed advice, and Mock Turtles constituted the principal ingredient in Mock Turtle soup, she experienced something of the sort.- Advertisement -
Yet, as the old adage goes, truth can be even stranger than fiction. For a real-life illustration of this phenomenon, one need look no further than Washington and its approach to national security policy. Viewed up close, it all seems to hang together. Peer out of the rabbit hole and the sheer lunacy quickly becomes apparent.
Consider this recent headline: "U.S. to Ship 2,000 Anti-Tank Missiles To Iraq To Help Fight ISIS." The accompanying article describes a Pentagon initiative to reinforce Iraq's battered army with a rush order of AT-4s. A souped-up version of the old bazooka, the AT-4 is designed to punch holes through armored vehicles.
Taken on its own terms, the decision makes considerable sense. Iraqi forces need something to counter a fearsome new tactic of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS): suicide bombers mounted in heavily armored wheeled vehicles. Improved antitank capabilities certainly could help Iraqi troops take out such bombers before they reach their intended targets. The logic is airtight. The sooner these weapons get into the hands of Iraqi personnel, the better for them -- and so the better for us.
As it turns out, however, the vehicle of choice for ISIS suicide bombers these days is the up-armored Humvee. In June 2014, when the Iraqi Army abandoned the country's second largest city, Mosul, ISIS acquired 2,300 made-in-the-U.S.A. Humvees. Since then, it's captured even more of them.
As U.S. forces were themselves withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, they bequeathed a huge fleet of Humvees to the "new" Iraqi army it had built to the tune of $25 billion. Again, the logic of doing so was impeccable: Iraqi troops needed equipment; shipping used Humvees back to the U.S. was going to cost more than they were worth. Better to give them to those who could put them to good use. Who could quarrel with that?- Advertisement -
Before they handed over the used equipment, U.S. troops had spent years trying to pacify Iraq, where order had pretty much collapsed after the invasion of 2003. American troops in Iraq had plenty of tanks and other heavy equipment, but once the country fell into insurgency and civil war, patrolling Iraqi cities required something akin to a hopped-up cop car. The readily available Humvee filled the bill. When it turned out that troops driving around in what was essentially an oversized jeep were vulnerable to sniper fire and roadside bombs, "hardening" those vehicles to protect the occupants became a no-brainer -- as even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld eventually recognized.
At each step along the way, the decisions made possessed a certain obvious logic. It's only when you get to the end -- giving Iraqis American-made weapons to destroy specially hardened American-made military vehicles previously provided to those same Iraqis -- that the strangely circular and seriously cuckoo Alice-in-Wonderland nature of the entire enterprise becomes apparent.
AT-4s blowing up those Humvees -- with fingers crossed that the anti-tank weapons don't also fall into the hands of ISIS militants -- illustrates in microcosm the larger madness of Washington's policies concealed by the superficial logic of each immediate situation.
The Promotion of Policies That Have Manifestly Failed