America’s Summer of Discontent

One grieving mother camping outside the ranch where President Bush is on vacation has made her countrymen sit up and introspect about the war the US is waging in Iraq. Cindy Sheehan, mother of army specialist Casey Sheehan who died in the Sadr City section of Baghdad on April 4, 2004, and other family members who too have lost their loved ones, have become the new face of opposition to the war in Iraq. 
A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans now feel that it was a mistake to have gone into Iraq. Over two years after the President declared victory and flashed the V-sign in a flying suit aboard an aircraft carrier, the insurgents appear to be on the ascendant and the war is going badly for America, its president and the Republican Party. 

 
The unremitting pace of casualties, that have touched an all time peak of over 60 soldiers killed in August, have focussed sharp attention on America’s war plans and exit strategy. Over 1,860 American servicemen have died and 13,000 have been wounded, many of them maimed for life, since the US and Coalition forces entered Iraq in March 2003. Psychiatric casualties are also rising at an alarming rate. Many soldiers who have lost their buddies to sniper gunfire or IED blasts are filled with guilt for having survived and are struggling to cope. 
Others who have survived one or more near-death incidents are plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder and are being treated for depression. When these men and women are discharged from military hospitals and go home to their families, their pitiable sight overcomes their loved ones too with despair. Many of those who were told to kill terrorists in close combat and have inadvertently killed innocent Iraqi civilians suffer turbulent emotions. The deaths of approximately 25,000 Iraqi civilians have also begun to weigh heavy on the collective conscience of the US. 
Iraq’s political leaders are finding it difficult to break the deadlock over the country’s nascent constitution and the newly raised Iraqi army and police are still light years away from taking over security duties independently. Not only is the US grand strategy failing to deliver results, at the tactical level too stabilisation operations are floundering. 
The insurgents have enhanced the quality of their improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by packing in more explosives and improving their strike rates. The poorly fitted Humvees, armoured personnel carriers used to transport troops, are proving to be no match. For over a year now soldiers have been bolting scrap metal to their Humvees in a self-help effort to improve survival rates against shoulder-fired rocket launchers. 
Iraqi and foreign terrorist snipers are also scoring more accurate hits while the Pentagon is struggling to speed up the production and dispatch of better quality bulletproof jackets. With court-martials against those who misused their authority to torture and abuse prisoners now in progress, embarrassing new revelations are emerging almost every day and the battle of ‘‘perception management’’ is not going well either. Commentators are talking about a ‘‘sacrifice gap’’ between the soldiers doing their duty in Iraq and their families vis-à-vis the rest of the nation for which it is business and holiday season as usual. 
The US army has been falling short in meeting its recruitment quotas for several months now. In fact, even non-US citizens are being recruited into the army. In a ceremony in late July inside one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Baghdad, 143 soldiers from 46 countries took the oath of American citizenship. When the present fighting units finish their tour of duty, the downsized US army will be hard put to find replacements that have not served a tenure in either Iraq or Afghanistan. 
The people want the president to level with them and are now demanding a fuller, more honest discussion about long-term US objectives in Iraq, the progress being made, how success is to be measured, and the time frame the administration has in mind for winding down operations. The people feel that the administration does not have a coherent plan that has a reasonable chance of success and a workable exit strategy. President Bush has often declared that US troops will ‘‘Stay the course; we will complete the job in Iraq.’’ His administration is neither willing to commit the troops necessary to make an all-out effort to break the back of the insurgency nor prepared to announce a time table for disengagement and eventual withdrawal as that would be tantamount to accepting that the initial decision to intervene was wrong. Nor does it support a plan for a broad-based United Nations peacekeeping force to take over the effort. 
The conservatives and the neo-cons, who have a major say in the framing of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, oppose premature withdrawal, presumably on the grounds that it would amount to a loss of face and would dent America’s military supremacy and standing as the lone superpower. Military officials in the Pentagon are known to be of the view that Iraq’s political and military leaders are unlikely to be ready to lead the counter-insurgency effort till the summer of 2006. The need to send more troops to Iraq for the December elections is another planning parameter that has not been addressed squarely yet. The only reasonable deduction that can be drawn is that the present strategy is flawed and may lead to a permanent American military presence in Iraq, with attendant catastrophic consequences. 
America is not so traumatised by guilt and the opprobrium of the international community that it is unable to acknowledge its own suffering. Slowly but surely, a defeatist refrain is now gathering momentum: bring the troops home. Though the problem is not so acute as it was in Vietnam and public passions are not yet so inflamed, echoes of that ignominious war are beginning to be heard. When the next round of elections comes around, the politicians will move in for the kill. 
The writer is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.