DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Surging past the gates of hell
By Tom Engelhardt
Sometimes, numbers can strip human beings of just about everything that makes
us what we are. Numbers can silence pain, erase love, obliterate emotion, and
blur individuality. But sometimes numbers can also tell a necessary story in
ways nothing else can.
This January, US President George W Bush announced his "surge" plan for Iraq,
which he called his "new way forward". It was, when you think about it, all
about numbers. Since then, 28,500 new US troops have surged into that country,
and around Baghdad; and, according to the Washington Post, there has also been
a hidden surge of private armed contractors - hired guns, if you will - who
free up troops by taking over many mundane military positions from guarding
convoys to guarding envoys. In the meantime, other telltale numbers in Iraq
have surged as well.
Now, Americans are theoretically waiting for the commander of US forces in
Iraq, General David Petraeus, to "report" to Congress in September on the
"progress" of Bush's surge strategy. But there really is no reason to wait for
September. An interim report - "Iraq by the Numbers" - can be prepared now (as
it could have been prepared last month, or last year). The trajectory of horror
in Iraq has long been clear; the fact that the US military is a motor driving
the Iraqi cataclysm has been no less clear for years now. So here is my own
early version of the "September Report".
A caveat about numbers: in the bloody chaos that is Iraq, as tens of thousands
die or are wounded, as millions uproot themselves or are uprooted, and as the
influence of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's national government remains
largely confined to the 10-square-kilometer fortified Green Zone in the Iraqi
capital, numbers, even as they pour out of that hemorrhaging land, are
eternally up for grabs. There is no way most of them can be accurate. They are,
at best, a set of approximate notations in a nightmare that is beyond
Here, nonetheless, is an attempt to tell a little of the Iraqi story by those
Iraq is now widely considered No 1 when it comes to being the ideal jihadist
training ground on the planet. "If Afghanistan was a Pandora's box which when
opened created problems in many countries, Iraq is a much bigger box, and
what's inside much more dangerous," commented Mohammed al-Masri, a researcher
at Amman's Center for Strategic Studies.
CIA analysts predicted just this in a May 2005 report leaked to the press. ("A
new classified assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency says Iraq may
prove to be an even more effective training ground for Islamic extremists than
Afghanistan was in al-Qaeda's early days, because it is serving as a real-world
laboratory for urban combat.")
Iraq is also No 2: it now ranks as the world's second-most-unstable country,
ahead of war-ravaged or poverty-stricken nations such as Somalia, Zimbabwe, the
Democratic Republic of Congo and North Korea, according to the 2007 Failed
States Index, issued recently by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy
magazine. (Afghanistan, the site of America's other little war, ranked eighth.)
Last year and the year before, Iraq held fourth place on the list. Next year,
it could surge to No 1.
Number of US troops in Iraq, June 2007: approximately 156,000.
Number of US troops in Iraq, May 1, 2003, the day President Bush declared
"major combat operations" in that country "ended": approximately 130,000.
Number of Sunni insurgents in Iraq, May 2007: at least 100,000, according to
Asia Times Online correspondent Pepe Escobar on his most recent visit to the
country (see The
man who might save Iraq, May 5).
American military dead in the surge months, February 1-June 26, 2007: 481.
American military dead, February-June 2006: 292.
Number of contractors killed in the first three months of 2007: at least 146, a
significant surge over previous years. (Contractor deaths sometimes go
unreported and so these figures are likely to be incomplete.)
Number of US troops then-deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz and other
Pentagon civilian strategists were convinced would be stationed in Iraq in
August 2003, four months after Baghdad fell: 30,000-40,000, according to
Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks in his best-selling book Fiasco.
Number of armed "private contractors" now in Iraq: at least 20,000-30,000,
according to the Washington Post. (Jeremy Scahill, author of the best-seller Blackwater,
puts the figure for all private contractors in Iraq at 126,000.)
Number of attacks on US troops and allied Iraqi forces, April 2007: 4,900.
Percentage of US deaths from roadside bombs (IEDs, for improvised explosive
devices): 70.9% in May 2007; 35% in February 2007 as the "surge" was beginning.
Percentage of registered US supply convoys (guarded by private contractors)
attacked: 14.7% in 2007 (through May 10); 9.1% in 2006; 5.4% in 2005.
Percentage of Baghdad not controlled by US (and Iraqi) security forces more
than four months into the "surge": 60%, according to the US military.
Number of attacks on the Green Zone, the fortified heart of Baghdad where the
new US$600 million US Embassy is rising and the Iraqi government largely
resides: more than 80 between March and the beginning of June 2007, according
to a United Nations report. (These attacks, by mortar or rocket, from
"pacified" Red Zone Baghdad, are on the rise and now occur nearly daily.)
Size of US Embassy staff in Baghdad: more than 1,000 Americans and 4,000
Staff US Ambassador Ryan Crocker considers appropriate to the "diplomatic" job:
the ambassador recently sent "an urgent plea" to Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice for more personnel. "The people here are heroic," he wrote. "I need more
people, and that's the thing, not that the people who are here shouldn't be
here or couldn't do it."
According to the Washington Post, the Baghdad embassy, previously assigned 15
political officers, now will get 11 more; the economic staff will go from nine
to 21. This may involve "direct assignments" to Baghdad in which, against
precedent, State Department officers, some reputedly against the war, will
simply be ordered to take up "unaccompanied posts" (too dangerous for families
to go along).
Air strikes in Iraq during the "surge" months: US Air Force (USAF) planes are
dropping bombs at more than twice the rate of a year ago, according to the
Associated Press. "Close support missions" are up 30-40%. And this surge of air
power seems, from recent news reports, still to be on the rise.
In the early stages of the recent "surge" operation against the city of Baquba
in Diyala province, for instance, Michael R Gordon of the New York Times
reported that "American forces ... fired more than 20 satellite-guided rockets
into western Baquba", while Apache helicopters attacked "enemy fighters". ABC
(American Broadcasting Co) News recently reported that the USAF has brought B-1
bombers in for missions on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Number of years General David Petraeus, commander of the "surge" operation,
predicts that the US will have to be engaged in counterinsurgency operations in
Iraq to have hopes of achieving success: nine to 10 years. ("In fact,
typically, I think historically, counterinsurgency operations have gone at
least nine or 10 years.")
Number of years Bush administration officials are now suggesting that
30,000-40,000 US troops might have to remain garrisoned at US bases in Iraq:
54, according to the "Korea model" now being considered. (US troops have
garrisoned South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953.)
Number of Iraqi police, trained by Americans, who were not on duty as of
January 2007, just before the "surge" plan was put into operation: about 32,000
out of a force of 188,000, according to the Associated Press. About one in six
Iraqi policemen has been killed, has been wounded, has deserted, or has just
disappeared. About 5,000 probably have deserted; and 7,000-8,000 are simply
"unaccounted for". (Recall here Bush's old jingle of 2005: "As Iraqis stand up,
we will stand down.")
Number of years before the Iraqi security forces are capable of taking charge
of their country's security: "a couple of years", according to US Army
Brigadier-General Dana Pittard, commander of the Iraq Assistance Group.
Amount of "reconstruction" money invested in the CIA's key asset in the new
Iraq, the Iraqi National Intelligence Service: $3 billion, according to Escobar
(see We build
walls, not nations, April 24).
Number of Iraqi "Kit Carson scouts" being trained in the just-captured western
part of Baquba: more than 100. (There were thousands of "Kit Carsons" in the
Vietnam War - former enemy fighters employed by US forces; the name derives
from 19th-century American frontiersman Christopher Houston Carson.) In fact,
Vietnam-era plans, ranging from Strategic Hamlets (dubbed, in the Iraqi urban
context, "gated communities") to the "oil spot" counterinsurgency strategy,
have been recycled for use in Iraq, as has a US penchant for applying names
from America's Indian Wars to counterinsurgency situations abroad, including,
for instance, dubbing an embattled supply depot near Abu Ghraib "Fort Apache".
Number of Iraqis who have fled their country since 2003: estimated to be
between 2 million and 2.2 million, or nearly one in 10 Iraqis. According to
independent reporter Dahr Jamail, at least 50,000 more refugees are fleeing the
country every month.
Number of Iraqi refugees who have been accepted by the United States: Fewer
than 500, according to Bob Woodruff of ABC News; 701, according to Agence
France-Presse. (Under international and congressional pressure, the Bush
administration has finally agreed to admit another 7,000 Iraqis by year's end.)
Number of Iraqis who are now internal refugees in Iraq, largely because of
sectarian violence since 2003: at least 1.9 million, according to the UN. (A
recent Red Crescent Society report, based on a survey taken in Iraq, indicates
that internal refugees have quadrupled since January 2007, and are up eightfold
since June 2006.)
Percentage of refugees, internal and external, under 12: 55%, according to the
president of the Red Crescent Society.
Percentage of Baghdadi children, 3 to 10, exposed to a major traumatic event in
the past two years: 47%, according to a World Health Organization survey of 600
children. Fourteen percent of them showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress
disorder. In another study of 1,090 adolescents in Mosul, that figure reached
Number of Iraqi doctors who have fled the country since 2003: an estimated
12,000 of the country's 34,000 registered doctors since 2003, according to the
Iraqi Medical Association. The association reports that another 2,000 doctors
have been slain in those years.
Number of Iraqi refugees created since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon
declared a "humanitarian crisis" for Iraq in January 2007: an estimated
Percentage of Iraqis now living on less than $1 a day, according to the UN:
Iraq's per capita annual income: $3,600 in 1980; $860 in 2001 (after a decade
of UN sanctions); $530 at the end of 2003, according to Escobar, who estimates
that the number may now have fallen below $400 (see
Baghdad up close and personal, May 2). Unemployment in Iraq is about
Percentage of Iraqis who do not have regular access to clean water: 70%,
according to the World Health Organization. (Eighty percent "lack effective
Rate of chronic child malnutrition: 21%, according to the WHO. (Rates of child
malnutrition had already nearly doubled by 2004, only 20 months after the
invasion.) According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), "about one
in 10 children under five in Iraq [is] underweight".
Number of Iraqis held in US prisons in their own country: 17,000 by March 2007,
almost 20,000 by May 2007 and surging.
Number of Iraqis detained in Baquba alone in one week this month in Operation
Phantom Thunder: more than 700.
Average number of Iraqis who died violently each day in 2006: 100 - and this is
undoubtedly an underestimate, since not all deaths are reported.
Number of Iraqis who have died violently (based on the above average) since
Secretary General Ban declared a "humanitarian crisis" for Iraq in January
2007: 15,000 - again certainly an undercount.
Number of Iraqis who died (in what Juan Cole terms Iraq's "everyday
apocalypse") during the week of June 17-23, 2007, according to the careful
daily tally from media reports offered at the website Antiwar.com: 763, or an
average of 109 media-reported deaths a day. (June 17: 74; June 18: 149; June
19: 169; June 20: 116; June 21: 58; June 22: 122; June 23: 75.)
Percentage of seriously wounded who don't survive in emergency rooms and
intensive-care units, because of lack of drugs, equipment, and staff: nearly
70%, according to the WHO.
Number of university professors who have been killed since the invasion of
2003: more than 200, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education.
The value of an Iraqi life: a maximum of $2,500 in "consolation" or "solatia"
payments made by the US military to Iraqi civilians who died "as a result of US
and coalition forces' actions during combat", according to a Government
Accountability Office (GAO) report. These payments imply no legal
responsibility for the killings.
For rare "extraordinary cases" (and let's not even imagine what these might
be), payments of up to $10,000 were approved last year, with the authorization
of a division commander. According to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, "We
are not talking big condolence payouts thus far. In 2005, the sums distributed
in Iraq reached $21.5 million and - with violence on the upswing - dropped to
$7.3 million last year, the GAO reported."
The value of an Iraqi car, destroyed by US forces: $2,500 would not be unusual,
and conceivably the full value of the car, according to the same GAO report. A
former US Army judge advocate, who served in Iraq, has commented: "The full
market value may be paid for a Toyota run over by a tank in the course of a
non-combat related accident, but only $2,500 may be paid for the death of a
child shot in the crossfire."
Percentage of Americans who approve of Bush's actions in Iraq: 23%, according
to the latest post-"surge" Newsweek poll. The president's overall approval
rating stood at 26% in this poll, just 3 points above those of only one
president, Richard Nixon at his Watergate worst, and Bush's polling figures are
threatening to head into that territory. In the latest, now-two-week-old
National Broadcasting Corp/Wall Street Journal poll, 10% of Americans think the
"surge" has made things better in Iraq, 54% worse.
The question is: What word best describes the situation these Iraqi numbers
hint at? The answer would probably be: no such word exists. "Genocide" has been
beaten into the ground and doesn't apply. "Civil war", which shifts all blame
to the Iraqis (withdrawing Americans from a country its troops have not yet
begun to leave), doesn't faintly cover the matter.
If anything catches the carnage and mayhem that were once the nation of Iraq,
it might be a comment by the head of the Arab League, Amr Mussa, in 2004. He
warned: "The gates of hell are open in Iraq." At the very least, the "gates of
hell" should now officially be considered miles behind us on the
half-destroyed, well-mined highway of Iraqi life. Who knows what IEDs lie
ahead? We are, after all, in the underworld.
Tom Engelhardt is editor
Tomdispatch and the
author of The End of Victory Culture. His
novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback.
Most recently, he is the author of
Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American
Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch