The Cole report

As this paper goes to press, Gen. David Petraeus is set to provide Congress with his long-awaited report on the U.S. troop "surge" in Iraq. But George Bush didn't wait to hear what Petraeus had to say before offering his views on how the war's going.

"We're kicking ass," the president reportedly told a high-ranking Australian official last week after dropping into the war zone for a Labor Day visit with the troops.

Like Bush, the Metro Times didn't wait to hear what Petraeus has to say either. In advance of the general's presentation, we talked with Juan Cole, the University of Michigan history professor whose Informed Comment blog is must-read material for those interested in getting an alternative take on the war. As a specialist on the Middle East, Cole scours the media daily — going online to read news reports in Arabic as well as English — to keep track of military and political events in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in their troubled part of the world. Also a frequent contributor to the online publication Salon, Cole has been a consistent critic of the Bush administration and its handling of the war.

We talked with Cole last year for an extensive interview ("Juan's world," Feb. 22, 2006), then checked in again recently to get an update.


Metro Times: If you were giving Congress a report instead of Petraeus, what would you say?

Juan Cole: These things are always a mixed picture. The surge was intended to bestow more security on the capital, Baghdad, in the hopes that the government could take advantage of that, allowing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the chance to get something done in Parliament in terms of national reconciliation. Is the security situation in Baghdad better? It's better than it was last winter, and about what it was last summer. And since nobody remembers the summer of 2006 as paradise, it raises real questions as to really what ultimately has been accomplished. That achievement in Baghdad, such as it is, has been achieved at the expense of the rest of the country, where violence is way up. The Associated Press has crunched the numbers, and it is very clear things are much worse. The average number of daily attacks in June was up to 177.5, which is the highest it has ever been since the invasion. The numbers being spun by the military and the Bush administration, they are being spun in ways that are dishonest. I don't want to dismiss the achievement in Baghdad, but it hasn't given the al-Maliki government the breathing space needed to achieve national reconciliation.

MT: Is Iraq's government functioning?

Cole: The national unity government has collapsed. Al-Maliki, who is a Shiite, doesn't even have a lot of Shiites with him; the secular Shiites have all resigned, and he's lost the Sunnis. Not only is there no political progress, things have gone backward in regard to political goals. There's a huge public health catastrophe because of a lack of water and electricity. I think electricity in Baghdad is down to an hour or two a day, and because electricity runs water purification plants, the tap water is dirty. About a third of the population is lacking potable water, and there's widespread hunger. There's just been an outbreak of cholera in the north. Cholera breaks out in Fourth World countries, in the poorest countries where there's really no health infrastructure. That's the point where Iraq is now. There are 2 million internally displaced people, and another 2 million abroad in Jordan and Syria.

MT: When we talked to you last year, you suggested that the way to provide stability was to have an independent force of outside peacekeepers come in and replace U.S. troops. Do you still think that is a viable solution?

Cole: I think it is out of anybody's hands at this point. It is not clear who could plausibly come in. Who could do more than the U.S.? But I do think the U.S. is certainly going to be withdrawing militarily over the next few years. And that's going to be scary. All hell will break loose when the United States withdraws. My expectation is that, whoever is the president in 2009 will not want this albatross around his neck. It is clear the American public doesn't want this stuff. The politicians who are saying we have to stand tough are getting booed, and I think that will get worse. The American public opinion has never supported a war for more than four or five years. And I don't know anybody who believes that they will come here [to attack us] if we leave; I don't think people feel threatened by Iraq. It's not going well, and we keep spending $100 billion there every six months when there are schools here in the U.S. that need to be maintained. In the short term, and even in the mid-term, there are no happy endings in Iraq that I can see.

MT: Are we afraid to fully arm and train Iraqi troops?

Cole: That's been alleged by reporters who have been in Iraq. It can also be deduced by looking at the way that Saddam Hussein controlled that country, which was with armored divisions. At his height of power, Saddam had over 6,000 tanks. Now I'm not sure the Iraqi army even has 100 tanks. I see that as a lack of seriousness. It also seems clear to me that the reason an armored corps hasn't been established is that we're afraid they will turn it on us. We're basically training infantry divisions, and that isn't going to do the trick. Also, the Iraqi army has all these problems with morale and loyalty because they see their government as a puppet government installed by the United States. There are some people who say that the hope lies in the Iraqi army, but I haven't seen any evidence of them being able to take up the slack.

What you are going to hear in the mainstream press is that the military side of the surge has gone well, but that the Iraqi politicians have not done their part and stepped up. They're going to say it is a good news/bad news situation. I'm going to say it is bad news and bad news. The surge is supposed to be a mechanism for political progress, but if they admit that there is no political progress, then they are admitting that the surge is a failure.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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