They kept asking him as if they didn’t believe him. Earlier in the day President Barack Obama had met with his national security team - generals included - to discuss Iraq’s condition, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs spent much of Wednesday’s press briefing defending Obama’s withdrawal plans. Reporters returned to the question again and again, probing for the subtlest hint that US forces would postpone their exit.
Each time Gibbs shot them down: “Nothing was brought up with the President that would necessitate us needing to turn back.”
He then refuted each potential cause for delay. The political situation is advancing he says, and the White House expected all along that a new government would likely take six months to form. This is normal for Iraq’s history and has little effect on its security. Gibbs also denied Iraqi claims that the White House has checked out of Iraq and into Afghanistan, saying US officials have been extremely active in pushing Iraqi leaders towards a political solution.
He didn’t mention Obama’s letter to Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, nor did he confront the wider Iraqi concerns that America has redirected its entire political and military focus to Afghanistan.
Gibbs, in going for the kill, overkills himself by repeating on multiple occasions, “the level of violence observed over the past two weeks had been among the lowest in number of incidents that the coalition has seen since record-keeping on those incidences began.” Where Gibbs gets the facts for such a statement isn’t mentioned - just like when the Pentagon objected to Iraq’s July death toll and released half the total as its own figure.
Without an explanation.
According to iCasualties, which tracks Iraqi and media figures, April and May saw 21 and 28 Iraqi Security Forces casualties respectively, in addition to 240 and 231 civilian casualties. June “lulled” to 49 ISF and 127 civilians deaths, only to spike in July at 37 ISF and 497 civilian deaths. The first 11 days of August have witnessed 28 ISF casualties with 94 civilians dead, and hundreds more wounded.
“I'd say, obviously, that is a positive development,” Gibbs urges of an obviously violent month, and a callous lie at that. He adds, “The President was satisfied with the progress that we continue to see on the security side.” Surely there was a better way to phrase this response. No one can dispute casualties have dropped from their peak 2006 level, but the present violence is something to be deeply concerned about with Iraq’s government stalled in power brokering. Not satisfied with.
Many military analysts predicted that the fragments of Iraq’s insurgency would heal and resurface once US troops neared the exit.
Gibbs isn’t even guilty of poor counterinsurgency, which he isn’t expected to know, but poor public relations and communication. Over in the State Department spokesman Philip Crowley admitted, “Is there a spike in violence? There is... But there are – there is an ongoing level of violence in Iraq. That said, it is lower than the height of the conflict in 2005, 2006.” And later on, "is there still a – more violence in Iraq than we’d like to see? Yes. Is there a risk of greater violence? I would say probably yes."
The generals’ assessment is that the spike has already begun. Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone, the deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters on August 9th, "We've seen in the last few days an increase in attacks here, particularly the Basra attack that we saw yesterday, which involved significant casualties and was of significant concern.”
US generals are also competing with reports that al-Qaeda is luring back Sunni tribesmen with higher pay, coupled with increasing uncertainty over government wages.
Gibbs actually returns to cover up the evidence: “Again, the report that the President got, though, was clear in the progress that was being made. The level of violence at a rate over the course of the past two weeks, as General Odierno said, which was among the lowest that had been recorded since they had kept records on this may all of - has made the transition possible.”
So if Gibbs is lying about casualties, why wouldn’t he be lying about withdrawal deadlines? US officials including Obama have reaffirmed December 2011 in the past weeks, taking advantage of public apathy. CNN recently polled Iraq and Afghanistan as 5th in terms of importance, buried beneath economic and other domestic issues. But not only do rumors persist that the final deadline will be delayed, Americans won’t be able to say they haven’t been warned publicly.
The Los Angeles Times reported after Gibbs’ briefing, “Commanders say they are reasonably confident in the Iraqi security forces' ability to keep order while facing insurgents or other internal threats. But when it comes to their capacity to protect against attacks from other nations, it is inconceivable that the Iraqi army will be able to stand alone by the time U.S. troops go home, said Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, commander of the U.S. military training program in Iraq.”
An Iraqi Ministry of Defense strategy survey recently determined that Iraq won't be capable of defending its borders for a decade, which not only affects regional security but the more immediate concern of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Gen. Babakir Zebari, chief of staff of the Iraqi armed forces, tried his best to beautify an ugly appeal to Americans: "In general, Iraqi soldiers and officers would like the American forces to stay in Iraq until they're capable of doing the job 100%. Not a huge force, just three or four bases."
It’s like there’s two reports, the one from Iraq that got shredded on its way to Washington and its substitute.
Iraq’s top general said as Gibbs desperately held onto December 2011, "At this point, the withdrawal (of US forces) is going well, because they are still here. But the problem will start after 2011 – the politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011. If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020."
And what else aren’t they telling us? State Dept. planning to field a small army in Iraq? Gibbs will almost certainly be forced to respond today, but it’s hard to believe anything out of Washington regarding Afghanistan or Iraq.
This is not a foreign policy that will convince the world of America’s honesty, intelligence, or power.