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(DV) Petras: Open Letter to General Petraeus







Open Letter to General Petraeus
by James Petras
March 11, 2007

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I am told by the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post that you have impeccable academic and battlefield credentials. President Bush has appointed you “Commander of the Multinational Forces in Iraq,” and so you have the power to implement your highly publicized counterinsurgency theories. You are nearly my namesake -- having a Romanized version of my Hellenized name (Petraeus/Petras). You are dubbed a ‘warrior’ or ‘counterinsurgency intellectual’. I hold credentials as an ‘insurgency intellectual’ or as Alex Cockburn calls it ‘a fifty-year membership in the class struggle.’ Your publicists have billed you as ‘America’s last best hope for salvation [of the empire] in Iraq.’ Predictably the Democrats in Congress, led by Senator Clinton, went down on their knees in praise and support of your professionalism and war record in Northern Iraq. So let it be recognized that you enjoy an advantage: the support of both parties, the White House, Congress and the mass media, but still being an insurgent intellectual, I am not convinced that you will or should succeed in saving Iraq for the empire. Better still, I think you undoubtedly will fail, because your military assumptions and strategies are based on fundamentally flawed political analyses, which have profound military consequences.

Let us start with your much-vaunted military successes in North Iraq -- especially in Nineveh province. North Iraq, particularly, Nineveh, is dominated by the Kurdish military and tribal leaders and party bosses. The relative stability of the region has little or nothing to do with your counterinsurgency prowess and more to do with the high degree of Kurdish ‘independence’ or ‘separatism’ in the region. Put bluntly, the US and Israeli military and financial backing of Kurdish separatism has created a de facto independent Kurdish state, one based on the brutal ethnic purging of large concentrations of Turkmen and Arab citizens. General Petraeus, by giving license to Kurdish irredentist aspirations for an ethnically purified ‘Greater Kurdistan,’ encroaching on Turkey, Iran and Syria, you secured the loyalty of the Kurdish militias and especially the deadly Peshmerga ‘special forces’ in eliminating resistance to the US occupation in Nineveh. Moreover, the Peshmerga has provided the US with special units to infiltrate the Iraqi resistance groups, to provoke intra-communal strife through incidents of terrorism against the civilian population. In other words, your ‘success’ in Northern Iraq is not replicable in the rest of Iraq. In fact your very success in carving off Kurd-dominated Iraq has heightened hostilities in the rest of the country.

Your theory of ‘securing and holding’ territory presumes a highly motivated and reliable military force capable of withstanding hostility from at least eighty percent of the colonized population. The fact of the matter is that the morale of US soldiers in Iraq and those scheduled to be sent to Iraq is very low. The ranks of those who are seeking a quick exit from military service now include career soldiers and non-commissioned officers -- the backbone of the military (Financial Times, March 3-4, 2007, p.2) Unauthorized absences (AWOLs) have shot up -- 14,000 between 2000-2005 (FT, ibid). In March over a thousand active duty and reserve soldiers and marines petitioned Congress for a US withdrawal from Iraq. The opposition of retired and active Generals to Bush’s escalation of troops percolates down the ranks to the ‘grunts’ on the ground, especially among reservists on active duty whose tours of duty in Iraq have been repeatedly extended (the ‘backdoor draft’). Demoralizing prolonged stays or rapid rotation undermines any effort of ‘consolidating ties’ between US and Iraqi officers and certainly undermines most efforts to win the confidence of the local population. If the US troops are deeply troubled by the war in Iraq and increasingly subject to desertion and demoralization, how less reliable is the Iraqi mercenary army. Iraqis recruited on the basis of hunger and unemployment (caused by the US war), with kinship, ethnic and national ties to a free and independent Iraq do not make reliable soldiers. Every serious expert has concluded that the divisions in Iraqi society are reflected in the loyalties of the soldiers. 

General Petraeus, count your troops everyday, because a few more will stray and perhaps in the future you will face an empty drill field or, worse, a barrack revolt. The continued high casualty rates among US soldiers and Iraqi civilians, during your first month as Commander suggests that ‘holding and securing’ Baghdad failed to alter the overall situation.

Your ‘rule book’ prioritizes “security and task sharing as a means of empowering civilians and prompting national reconciliation.” ‘Security’ is elusive because what the US Commander considers ‘security’ is the free movement of US troops and collaborators based on the insecurity of the colonized Iraqi majority. They are subject to arbitrary house-to-house searches, break-ins and humiliating searches and arrests. ‘Task Sharing’ under a US General and his military forces is a euphemism for Iraqi collaboration in ‘administrating’ your orders. ‘Sharing’ involves a highly asymmetrical relation of power: the US orders and the Iraqis comply. The US defines the ‘task’ as informing on insurgents and the population is supposed to provide ‘information’ on their families, friends and compatriots, in other words betraying their own people. It reads more feasible in your manual than on the ground.

‘Empowering civilians,’ as you argue, assumes that those who ‘empower’ give up power to the ‘others’. In other words, the US military cedes territory, security, financial resource management and allocation to a colonized people. Yet it is precisely these people who protect and support insurgents and oppose the US occupation and its puppet regime. Otherwise, Commander, what you really mean is ‘empowering’ a small minority of civilians who are willing collaborators of an occupying army. The civilian minority ‘empowered’ by you will require heavy US military protection to withstand retaliation. So far nothing of the sort has occurred: no neighborhood civilian collaborators have been delegated real power and those who have, are dead, hiding or on the run. 

Your goal of ‘national reconciliation’ presumes that Iraq exists as a free sovereign nation. That is a precondition for reconciliation between warring parties. But US colonization of Iraq is a blatant denial of the conditions for reconciliation. Only when Iraq frees itself of you, Commander Petraeus, and your army and the dictates of the White House can the warring parties negotiate and seek ‘conciliation’. Only political groups who base themselves on Iraqi popular sovereignty can be part of that process. Otherwise what you are really writing about is the military imposition of ‘reconciliation’ among warring collaborator groups with no legitimacy among the Iraqi electorate.

Former Clintonite Sarah Sewall (ex-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and Harvard-based ‘foreign affairs expert’) was ecstatic over your appointment. She claims the ‘inadequate troop to task ratio’ may undermine your strategy (Guardian, March 6, 2007). The ‘troop to task ratio’ forms the entire basis of Democratic Senators’ Hilary Clinton and Charles Schumer’s ‘critique’ of Bush’s Iraq policy. Their solution is ‘send more troops.’ This argument begs the question: Inadequate numbers of troops reflects the massiveness of popular opposition to the US occupation. The need to improve the ‘ratio’ (greater number of troops) is due to the level of mass opposition and is directly related to increasing neighborhood support for the Iraqi resistance. If the majority of the population and the resistance did not oppose the imperial armies, then any ratio would be adequate -- down to a few hundred soldiers hanging out in the Green Zone, the US Embassy or some local brothels.

Your handbook’s prescriptions borrow heavily from the Vietnam War era, especially General Creighton Abram’s ‘Clear and Hold’ counterinsurgency doctrine. Abrams ordered a vast campaign of chemical warfare, spraying thousands of hectares with the deadly Agent Orange to ‘clear’ contested terrain. He approved of the Phoenix Plan -- the systematic assassination of 25,000 village leaders to ‘clear’ out local insurgents. Abrams implemented the program of ‘strategic hamlets,’ the forced relocation of millions of Vietnamese peasants into concentration camps. In the end Abram’s plans to ‘clear and hold’ failed because each measure extended and deepened popular hostility and increased the number of recruits to the Vietnamese national liberation army.

General Petraeus, you are following the Abram’s doctrine. Large-scale bombing of densely populated Sunni neighborhoods took place between March 5-7 (2007); mass arrests of suspected local leaders is accompanied by the tight military encirclement of entire neighborhoods while arbitrary, abusive house-to-house searches turn Baghdad into one big concentration camp. Like your predecessor, General Abrams, you want to destroy Baghdad in order to save it. In fact your policy is merely punishing the civilians and deepening the hostility of the Baghdad population, while the insurgents blend into the population or into the surrounding provinces of Al-Anbar, Diyala, and Salah and Din. Petraeus, you forget that you can ‘hold’ a people hostage with armored vehicles but you cannot rule with guns. The failure of General Abrams was not due to the lack of ‘political will’ in the US, as he complained, but that ‘clearing’ a region is temporary, because the insurgency is founded on its capacity to blend in with the people.

Your fundamental (and false) assumptions are that the ‘people’ and the ‘insurgents’ are two distinct and opposing groups, that your ground forces and Iraqi mercenaries can distinguish and exploit this divergence and ‘clear out’ the insurgents and ‘hold’ the people. The four-year history of the US invasion, occupation and imperial war provides ample evidence to the contrary. With upward of 140,000 US troops and close to 200,000 Iraqi and over 50,000 foreign mercenaries unable to defeat the insurgency for the entire four years of the colonial war, the evidence points to very strong, extensive and sustained civilian support for the insurgency. The high ratio of civilian to insurgent killings by the combined US-mercenary armies suggests that your own troops have not been able to distinguish (nor are interested in the difference) between civilians and insurgents. The insurgency draws strong support from extended kin ties, neighborhood friends and neighbors, religious leaders, nationalists and patriots: these primary, secondary and tertiary ties bind the insurgency to the population in a way which can not be replicated by the US military or its puppet politicians.

General, you have already recognized after only one month as Commander that your plan to ‘protect and secure the civilian population’ is failing. While you flood the streets of Baghdad with armored vehicles, you acknowledge that the ‘anti-government . . . forces are regrouping north of the capital.’ You are condemned to play what Lt. General Robert Gaid un-poetically called ‘whack-a-mole: Insurgents will be suppressed in one area only to re-emerge somewhere else.’ 

It is presumptuous to assume, General, that the Iraqi civilian population does not know that the ‘special operations’ forces of the Occupation, with whom you are rather intimately connected, is responsible for much of the ethno-religious conflict. Investigative reporter Max Fuller in his detailed examination of documents, stresses that the vast majority of atrocities attributed to ‘rogue’ Shiite or Sunni militias, “were in fact the work of government-controlled commandos of ‘special forces’, trained by the Americans, ‘advised’ by Americans and run largely by former CIA agents.” (Chris Floyd, ‘Ulster on the Euphrates: The Anglo-American Dirty War’) Your attempt to play ‘Good Cop/Bad Cop’ in order to ‘divide and rule’ hasn’t gone well, nor will it succeed now. 

You have recognized the broader political context of the war! “There is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq, to the insurgency . . . In Iraq, military action is necessary to help improve security . . . but it is insufficient. There needs to be a political aspect.” (BBC 3/8/2007) Yet the key ‘political aspect’ as you put it, is the reduction, not escalation, of US troops, the ending of the endless assaults on civilian neighborhoods, the termination of the special operations and assassinations designed to foment ethnic-religious conflict, and above all a timetable to withdraw US troops and dismantle the chain of US military bases. General Petraeus, you are not willing or in a position to implement or design the appropriate political context for ending the conflict. Your reference to the “need to engage in talks with some groups of insurgents” will fall on deaf ears, or be seen as a continuation of the divide and conquer (or ‘salami’) tactics, which have thus far failed to attract any sector of the insurgency. Contrary to your impeccable Princeton/West Point academic counterinsurgency credentials, you are mainly a tactician, wise on technique, but rather mediocre in coming to grips with the ‘decolonization’ political framework in which your tactics might work.

General Petraeus, you are quick to grasp the difficulty of your colonial mission. Just a month after taking command, you are engaging in the same sophistry and double discourse of any ‘bush’ colonel. To keep the flow of funds and troops from Washington you talk of the “reduction of killings and discontent in Baghdad,” cleverly omitting the increase of civilian and US deaths elsewhere. You mention ‘a few encouraging signs’ but also admit that it is “too early to discern significant trends.” (Aljazeera, 3/8/2007). In other words the ‘encouraging signs’ are of no importance!

Already you have given yourself an open-ended mission by extending the time frame for your Baghdad security crackdown from days and weeks to ‘months’ (and beyond?). Isn’t that a coy way to prepare US politicians for prolonged warfare -- with few positive results? There is nothing wrong with a philosopher warrior covering his ass in anticipation of failure.

General, I am sure as a military intellectual you have read George Orwell’s 1984 because you are so fluent in doublespeak. In one breath you speak of “no immediate need to request more US troops to be sent to Iraq” (other than the 21,500 on their way); on the other hand you request an extra 2,200 military policemen to deal with the forthcoming massive incarceration of Baghdad civilian suspects. 

By ‘honest talk,’ about troop numbers in the present tense for your war, you prepare the ground for a greater escalation in the proximate future. “Right now we do not see other requests (for troops) looming out there. That’s not to say that some emerging mission or emerging task will not require that, and if it does then we will ask for that (my emphasis)” (Aljazeera, 3/8/2006). First there’s a ‘surge’ then there is an ‘emerging mission’ and before we know it, there are another fifty thousand troops on the ground and in the meat-grinder that is Iraq. 

Yes, General, you are a fine master of doublespeak -- but beyond that you are, with your colleagues in the White House and Congress, doomed to go down the same road of political-military defeat as your predecessors in Indochina. Your military police will jail thousands of civilians and perhaps many more. They will be interrogated, tortured and perhaps some will be ‘broken’. But many more will take their place. Your policy of security through intimidation will ‘hold’ only as long as the armored cars in each neighborhood point their cannons at every building. But how long can you sustain it? As soon as you move, the insurgents will return: they can continue for months and years because they live and work there. You can’t. You run a costly colonial army, which suffers endless casualties. Sooner or later, the folks back home will force you to leave. 

Your ambitions, General Petraeus, exceed your abilities. Best start preparing your farewell to arms and look toward a higher post in Washington. Remember your chances are slim: Only winning generals or draft dodgers are elected President. There is always a professorship at the Kennedy School at Harvard for the ‘warrior intellectual’ who is good at the books but a failure in the field. 

James Petras' latest book is The Power of Israel in the United States (Clarity Press, 2006). His articles in English can be found at the website, and in Spanish at He can be reached at:

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