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Monday, April 24, 2006

Chu Lai was built to last

We could have stayed forever

Stuck in the Hot Zone
Don't dream about full exits. The military is in Iraq for the long haul.

By Michael Hirsh


If you want an image of what America's long-term plans for Iraq look like, it's right here at Balad. Tucked away in a rural no man's land 43 miles north of Baghdad, this 15-square-mile mini-city of thousands of trailers and vehicle depots is one of four "superbases" where the Pentagon plans to consolidate U.S. forces, taking them gradually from the front lines of the Iraq war. (Two other bases are slated for the British and Iraqi military.) The shift is part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's plan to draw down U.S. ground forces in Iraq significantly by the end of 2006. Pentagon planners hope that this partial withdrawal will, in turn, help take the edge off rising opposition to the war at home—long enough to secure Iraq's nascent democracy.

But the vast base being built up at Balad is also hard evidence that, despite all the political debate in Washington about a quick U.S. pullout, the Pentagon is planning to stay in Iraq for a long time—at least a decade or so, according to military strategists. Sovereignty issues still need to be worked out by mutual, legal agreement. But even as Iraqi politicians settle on a new government after four months of stalemate—on Saturday, they agreed on a new prime minister, Jawad al-Maliki—they also are welcoming the long-term U.S. presence. Sectarian conflict here has worsened in recent months, outstripping the anti-American insurgency in significance, and many Iraqis know there is no alternative to U.S. troops for the foreseeable future. "I think the presence of the American forces can be seen as an insurance policy for the unity of Iraq," says national-security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie.

True, most Iraqis don't like the U.S. occupation today any better than they did a year ago, or two, or three. But with the exception of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, no major politician is calling for U.S. withdrawal. "Even guys who want Americans to leave, they know it will be civil war if they do," says Ahmed al-Jobory, an unemployed chemical engineer working at Balad. What is emerging is a sense of psychological dependency. Even the new Iraqi Army, on which Washington is spending billions, is designed to be weak. The Army just received its first armor from the United States: light-skinned Humvees. But the Pentagon won't be giving up any tanks. "The goal is to have them equipped to fight a counterinsurgency, not to defend against external threats," says Lt. Col. Michael Negard, public-affairs officer for the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq. (The military says it needs to help the Iraqi Army win the fight it's in now, not the battles of the future.)

U.S. officials routinely deny that America intends to put down permanent bases. "A key planning factor in our basing strategy is that there will be no bases in Iraq following Operation Iraqi Freedom," says Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for CENTCOM in Baghdad. "What we have in Iraq are 'contingency bases,' intended to support our operations in Iraq on a temporary basis until OIF is complete." But according to the Congressional Research Service, the Bush administration has asked for more than $1.1 billion for new military construction in Iraq, roughly double what it plans to spend in Kuwait, Qatar and United Arab Emirates combined. Of that, the single biggest share is intended for Balad ($231 million).


In fact, the plans for Balad fit in with Rumsfeld's larger designs for a dramatic reconfiguring of U.S. forces overseas. Big cold-war bases, with tens of thousands of permanently garrisoned troops, are on the way out. On the way in: giant "lily pads" for expeditionary U.S. forces to use only when needed, with ready equipment warehoused there. Balad, with its huge offramps and aprons, is a testing ground for that concept, according to several Pentagon officials. Major Morgan, for one, describes the deployment of Predators that are piloted from the United States as a "perfect example of being expeditionary."

One big question is whether a reduced but long-term U.S. presence in Iraq can be effective. Counterinsurgency experts say that sectarian conflict and insurgencies simply can't be fought from the air. And the Air Force officers at Balad say that, at long last, they're getting that message. The result is that, rather than dropping bombs, F-16s in Iraq today are doing police work from 15,000 feet, using brand-new advanced targeting pods, which can pick up activity on the ground day or night. Since January, says F-16 squadron commander Pete (Guns) Gersten, he has been feeding the info to his Army "brothers" rather than bombing the targets. "The Army said, 'Every time you blow stuff up, we get it back five times [in reprisals]'," he says. "So now we just do a lot of surveillance for the Army. They say it's time to start building. It's time to quit blowing things up."

But Gersten adds that, when it comes to preventing all-out civil war, control of the skies is crucial. "When I show up at a firefight, it stops," he says. "We're the big brother." Bristle-headed and lean in his tan flight suit, Gersten looks very much like a character out of "Top Gun." Is he a tad overconfident? Perhaps. But he fairly well sums up how Washington sees its role in Iraq today—and for a long time to come
No matter how we build bases in Iraq, no Iraqi government can survive a continual US occupation. My bet is that Sadr pushes the issue this summer. At the behest of his Iranian friends.

posted by Steve @ 12:03:00 AM

12:03:00 AM

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