Not So Great Expectations: Paying the Price of Hubris in Iraq, Afghanistan

Developments over the past few days on several different fronts are coming together in a way that outlines just how arrogantly the US conducted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how the consequences of that hubris are now diminishing the previously dominant role for the US in the region going into the future. At the same time, these developments drive home the message of the terrible waste of lives and money the war efforts have been.

In today’s New York Times, we learn that the staff at the gargantuan US embassy in Baghdad is about to be cut in half. It appears that one of the driving forces behind these cuts is that the Iraqis are not making it easy for embassy personnel to move freely into and out of the country:

At every turn, the Americans say, the Iraqi government has interfered with the activities of the diplomatic mission, one they grant that the Iraqis never asked for or agreed upon. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s office — and sometimes even the prime minister himself — now must approve visas for all Americans, resulting in lengthy delays. American diplomats have had trouble setting up meetings with Iraqi officials.

Perhaps Mr. al-Maliki should study the activities of the US Customs Service if he really wants to learn how to make it even clearer to selected foreigners that he doesn’t want them in his country.

But al-Maliki is not the only elected Iraqi official who sees an opportunity to repay the US for the hubris it has shown the region, as the Times quoted Nahida al-Dayni, whom they described as “a lawmaker and member of Iraqiya, a largely Sunni bloc in Parliament” with regard to the embassy compound:

The U.S. had something on their mind when they made it so big. Perhaps they want to run the Middle East from Iraq, and their embassy will be a base for them here.

That US actions in the Middle East would have prompted such an attitude among local officials should have been foreseen, but the Times article informs us that the State Department seems to have been hit by a bit of shock and awe:

The swift realization among some top officials that the diplomatic buildup may have been ill advised represents a remarkable pivot for the State Department, in that officials spent more than a year planning the expansion and that many of the thousands of additional personnel have only recently arrived.

The “realization among some top officials that the diplomatic buildup may have been ill advised” seems to be one of the largest understatements of our time. And that the Times would describe that realization as “swift” boggles the mind, in that all US actions in Iraq going back to the groundwork for the 2003 invasion were ill advised.

Given the decimation of Iraq, with hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, a hotbed of depleted-uranium induced birth defects in Fallujah and nearly a decade spent under an occupying US military presence, it’s just very difficult to work up sympathy for the poor souls in the embassy who are so hassled by the Iraqis that their salad bar sometimes runs low or that they are forced to ration chicken wings at six per person on wing night.

But the realization by our geniuses at the State Department that perhaps we are not all that welcome in Baghdad comes at the same time that the myth of US “progress” in Afghanistan is being openly challenged  and as the realization is sinking in that our decade of war there will not prevent the Taliban re-taking the country once we leave.

Even the planning for the role of special forces and the CIA in Afghanistan after withdrawal of combat troops reflects diminished expectations:

As a result, more territory may be ceded to the Taliban. “We can lose the countryside, but I don’t think we’re going to lose Kabul and Bagram,” said the former senior CIA officer, who added that the agency could end up adding paramilitary personnel in Afghanistan as the size of the U.S. military deployment shrinks.

So even if the Taliban take most of the country, it appears that the US aim now is to maintain a puppet government in Kabul as long as possible and to protect, at all costs, the Bagram prison that is the not-so-secret Guantanamo on steroids.

In what should add even more pain to those who claimed all these military actions by the US were vital to protect us from the terrible scourge of radical Islam and even the threat of such gaining a foothold inside the US, we also learn today that radical Islam is virtually a non-existent threat here:

A feared wave of homegrown terrorism by radicalized Muslim Americans has not materialized, with plots and arrests dropping sharply over the two years since an unusual peak in 2009, according to a new study by a North Carolina research group.

The study, to be released on Wednesday, found that 20 Muslim Americans were charged in violent plots or attacks in 2011, down from 26 in 2010 and a spike of 47 in 2009.

Charles Kurzman, the author of the report for the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, called terrorism by Muslim Americans “a minuscule threat to public safety.” Of about 14,000 murders in the United States last year, not a single one resulted from Islamic extremism, said Mr. Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina.

But, somehow, Peter King and Joe Lieberman will still find a way for us to keep wasting billions of dollars month to fight this “minuscule threat to public safety”. Maybe they can increase funding for the agents provocateurs who help to move these “suspects” into action against the US, even though, as Kurzman noted, among those who do try to take action “very few of these people are competent”.

It would appear that very few of the people on the US government side of this battle are competent, as well.


Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
27 replies
  1. emptywheel says:


    Perhaps Mr. al-Maliki should study the activities of the US Customs Service if he really wants to learn how to make it even clearer to selected foreigners that he doesn’t want them in his country.

  2. Bob Schacht says:

    The tragedy is that all this was readily foreseeable by anyone with even a passing knowledge of what happened to the colonial empires of Britain, France, Spain, the Dutch, and others in the 19th and 20th centuries as they let go of their colonies. Each always aimed to maintain an influential foothold that proved to be unsustainable. Each was sustained by imperial hubris that turned out to be hollow. But then, history has not been our strong suit.

    Bob in AZ

  3. jerryy says:

    Quite a few travelers reported, from time to time, that while the Soviets were there, Afghanistan had a fairly modernistic society. After the Taliban and warlords took over, the place went back to, basically a pre-industrial society, albeit with rifles and grenade launchers.

    So how did a group of what you might as well call remnants of Stone Age life manage to outlast people that supposedly have the best training and equipment? Laser guided drones and aircraft … heavily armored vehicles … the list goes on.

    Before these wars started, the US military held a war games session in which one side was low-tech (literally limited to almost only bows and arrows) while the other side had the ‘works’ . The low tech gang won so badly the referees had to interven to stop the embarassment. So why did the folks running this war not use the lessons?

  4. Benjamin Franklin says:

    They may not want our people but they don’t feel insulted when we offer yet more cash and goodies.

    When this edifice called an embassy was being built, what was the thinking? The question presumes
    any thinking takes place, of course.

    Instead of pouring billions more into training their police, may be we should send them an invoice or two.

  5. Jim White says:

    @Benjamin Franklin: Seriously? An invoice after we kill about a million of their citizens, contaminate Fallujah beyond livability and occupy for almost ten years? Just what will we bill them for? I’d say the balance is on the order of trillions we owe them.

    The “training” of their police is just one of Petraeus’ propaganda ploys set up for him to claim success. A total sham that wasted every penny spent. Trust me, Iraq got zero benefit from that.

  6. eCAHNomics says:

    BTW the most hubristic moment was not building the embassy. It was when the U.S. moved into Saddam’s palace 3 weeks after the invasion.

  7. bittersweet says:

    @PeasantParty: The qoute beside the photo of the pool in the New York Times article: “An embassy employee took a break from swimming laps. The Americans are now largely confined to the embassy because of security concerns, unable to interact enough with ordinary Iraqis to justify the $6 billion annual price tag.”
    6 BILLION a year? Is this correct? One quarter of the entire Foreclosure Fraud Settlement amount that is s’posed to “help” an entire country of homeowners, is being spent every year to maintain a luxury hotel for US Ambassador staffers in Iraq? Really?
    When the bankers take my home, can I go to Iraq? s/

  8. rosalind says:

    ot: sobering news re. the San Onofre Nuclear Reactors, both of which are currently off-line:

    Trouble began at San Onofre on Tuesday when a leak from a tube at one unit released a small amount of radiation, prompting operators to shut down the reactor.

    On Thursday, at a second unit that was shut down for maintenance, nuclear regulation officials found extensive wear on tubes that carry radioactive water in a steam generator. The tubes were installed less than two years ago after they were delivered by the Japanese manufacturer of the generators, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

    (emphasis mine)

    sooo, extensive wear on tubes 2 years old in one reactor
    a radioactive release in another
    and to cap off the week:

    On Friday, a local newspaper reported a third incident involving a veteran worker at the plant who lost his balance while trying to retrieve a flashlight and tumbled into a reactor pool.

  9. PeasantParty says:

    @bittersweet: @bittersweet: LOL! I’m sure it is only a small percentage. Ya know they never tell the REAL figures because everything is top secret.

    Don’t let the banks take your home. Contact the closest OWS group and they will help you. Go to the Register of Deeds office and have them put a cloud on your Deed. DO whatever you have to do, even if it means squatting. Just don’t let them throw you out. All of us American’s have already paid the banks for your mortgage, 11 times over what you have left owed!

  10. BeccaM says:

    Y’know, when you invade a country, bomb the hell out of them, subject their citizens to indignities and death, attempt to install a corrupt puppet government, and generally treat the people like subjects and inferiors, it should come as no surprise they will not love you for all the things you’ve done to them. Not even if you deposed a government they weren’t crazy about before.

    They may fear you, perhaps if you’re lucky even have a grudging respect for you — but they will never love you.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The US has been in Okinawa for more than half a century and shows no signs of leaving, despite occupying the choicest parcels of land in an over-populated island. A temporary decline in the government employee and mercenary population of the world’s largest embassy-cum-military base – a form of presence straight from the Roman empire – may not augur a permanent decline.

  12. rugger9 says:

    @rosalind: #16
    Wow, just wow that tubes designed for essentially permanent service died after two years, it must be a severe material flaw [MHI’s issue], galvanic corrosion [another MHI issue] or a design issue [doubtful, we’d have seen something before this as long as SO has been on line]. It might finish off the reactor like Rancho Seco was closed due to SMUD mismanagement. This is what happens when revolving door management defers things until after they leave.

  13. rugger9 says:

    @rosalind: #23
    I will say it is extremely unusual to replace tubes, it’s a colossal PITA. Radiation tends to cause embrittlement, but this is more of a chemical attack issue I would think due to the speed of the problem and notes of corrosion. In short, the chemistry in the SG doesn’t match the materials used to build it, and not knowing whether SO uses COPHOS or AVT or something else I’d need some more info.

    Since these are new tubes, there isn’t enough time for serious sludge [or the worse scale] buildup. Perhaps the crew screwed up and let the tubes go dry, which will create temperature gradients and possible damage.

  14. P J Evans says:

    I suspect it’s a problem with MHI’s tubes, or it would have happened with the previous ones also. I think that would have been conspicuously noticed, given how much of the regional power comes out of those reactors.

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