The Perils & Absurdity of Iraq War 4.0

Danny Sjursen says more deaths of those once-invisible contractors could end up pulling the U.S.  into yet another phase of hopeless, wasteful war. 

Nov. 8, 2004: U.S. soldiers searching for the origins of rocket attacks against the Anaconda Base in Iraq. (U.S. National Archives, Scott Reed)

By Danny Sjursen

President Joe Biden  launched a strike on Iranian backed militia in Syria, reportedly in reprisal for rocket attacks on U.S. forces. 

Such attacks should not have caught the White House by surprise. After all, it’s the muddled U.S.  military mission and ongoing troop presence itself that creates nearly all the conditions for the current crisis. That this particular truth tablet might be rather uncomfortable to swallow doesn’t make it any less so. 

If Biden needs proof, he might consider applying what we could call his very own “Biden Rule:” that staffers should avoid overly academic or elitist language in memos or policy papers. “Pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me,” he reportedly tells aides – “If she understands, we can keep talking.”

Well, does Joe really think most American mothers, or fathers, or other lay citizens, could honestly explain just what the heck U.S.  troops are doing — and may well die doing — in Iraq, almost 18 years after George W. Bush’s initial invasion? Give us a break! All that Washington wish-wash about avoiding ISIS-resurgence, “building partner capacity,” and balancing Iran, is liable to get even a hometown boy like Biden laughed out of a Scranton pub.

Nevertheless, the attacks could very well derail Biden’s announced intent to reestablish Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, or even lead to a military escalation. After all, earlier this week, NATO agreed to an eight-fold increase in troops for its training and advisory mission in Iraq, and Secretary Antony Blinken has himself begun a review America’s Iraq policy — to include feedback from the Pentagon — which may reach the White House as early as next month.

There’ve  been three separate rocket attacks on U.S.  bases in Iraq over the last week, one targeting each of country’s distinct communal regions — Erbil in semi-autonomous Kurdistan, another on Balad in mostly Sunni Salah al-Din Province, and lastly on the Green Zone in Shia-heavy (especially since the 2005-08 civil war’s ethnic cleansings) Baghdad. It seems American troops and — more on this soon — contractors still aren’t safe anywhere inside Iraq. 

Odd, that, since I recall plenty past (premature) pronouncements that “the surge worked,” and that “we have defeated ISIS.” Well, the first [surge success] bit was always a farce, and, while the second suggestion is basically true — despite mop-up-ops that Iraqi, and invested regional, forces can handle — it ain’t ISIS that’s set to take the blame for the recently raining rockets. No, that supervillain stature shall — as ever — belong to Iran.

Bogus Boogyman Iran

Iranophobia and Tehran-alarmism are gifts that keep on giving — if mostly to the likes of Lockheed and Raytheon — in Washington. Only there’s hardly any basis to the threat. The whole thing’s political theater, a false binary blame game meant for domestic consumption and signal-sending to America’s Israeli and Gulf Monarchy mates. Thing is, real people die behind such drama.

It all starts with what should be suspicious certainty of bipartisan policymakers and media pundits that Tehran’s tugging all the rocket-flingers’ strings. Take Ned Price, spokesman for Biden’s polite liberal State Department. He said, after Monday’s attack on Baghdad’s Green Zone that the U.S.  holds Iran responsible for the recent rocket spurt.

Then there’s Trump’s former assistant secretary of state for Middle East policy, David Schenker, who was sure — after the initial Erbil attack — that: “Ultimately, this is all about Iran – the missiles, the weaponry, the funding, the direction all comes from Tehran.” Then again, it’s always worth considering the source.

In this case, Mr. Schenker is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — which is known for its fiercely and uncritically pro-Israel stance, and was initially funded by the Israel Lobby-top dog AIPAC’s donors, staffed by AIPAC employees, and originally located just one door away from AIPAC’s D.C. headquarters.

David Schenker with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Aug. 29, 2019. (State Department, Ron Przysucha)

Then throw in Douglas Silliman, formerly U.S.  ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019, who asserted after the Erbil attack: “I have no doubt who’s behind it. It is the Iranian-supported Iraqi Shia militias who are behind this.”

Only here again an astute observer must channel the street-wisdom of Queens’ own rapper 50 Cent and thus – “step up in” the Washington “club” and ask “Who you wit?”

In Silliman’s case, it isn’t “G-Unit” but the Arab Gulf States Institute that’s now his post-government service “clique.” In fact, he’s president of the damn thing. Keep an eye on that, it might matter — seeing as from the think tank’s 2015 inception, it was funded entirely by UAE and Saudi sources. You know, it’s enough to make you wonder whether Silliman’s Gulf autocrat paymasters – locked as they are in perennial quasi-war with Iran – might have some investment (pun intended) in having ole Doug pin the latest bombs-over-Baghdad squarely on Tehran.

April 4, 2017: Douglas Silliman, at left, while U.S. ambassador to Iraq, with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford in Baghdad. (DoD, Dominique A. Pineiro)

Still, setting such conflicts of interest aside for the sake of argument, both Schenker’s and Silliman’s Iran-the-omniscient assertions strike as just a little too neat, too convenient for Washington’s hovering hawks.

Maybe these specific guns did flow from Iran; maybe they didn’t. However, Tehran’s aren’t the only tools available. Iraq has long been awash with weapons, as anyone who ever walked a Baghdad beat — or frightened a few families with aggressive late-night house searches — knows all too well.

Furthermore, despite Washington’s bipartisan propensity to “create the enemies it needs” [in order to reap profits and power, that is] — by fabricating foes that seem 10-feet-tall and bulletproof — the truth is Iran hasn’t half the armed strength, or clear control over Iraqi proxies, as the hawks would have you believe.

On the military side, Tehran’s mostly weak and unable to project any real power very far at all. Furthermore, as I noted in a 2019 Defense Priorities analysis, Iran’s American-allied regional antagonists — Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE, for example — militarily outspend Tehran by a factor of 10!

As for Iran’s ostensibly ironclad grip on the Iraqi militias allegedly launching all them rockets — if not exactly a mirage, the situation is definitely far more complex and ambiguous than all that. This much even some senior military officers occasionally admit.

For example, after the Erbil attack, the U.S.-led coalition’s counter-ISIS mission deputy commander for strategy, British Army Major General Kevin Copsey, surmised that the fusillade was likely the work of an offshoot, not the core, of the mainline militias typically linked to Tehran. He also noted the crucial – if oft-ignored – concept of local agency: that paramilitaries and their associated politicians pursue personal motives and interests when deciding whether to take violent action. 

Copsey described it thus: “You have your main militia groups, which arguably have their influence back into Tehran, and then you have these splinter groups that are self-interested. And they’re unpredictable and they’re out of control.” Allow me to surmise that the key words there are “arguably,” “self-interested,” and “unpredictable.” In rebellions, proxy conflicts, and civil wars, matters are rarely clear, and always contingent.

June 16, 2006: U.S. Marines clear a house in Al Anbar Governorate in Iraq. (DoD, Roe F. Seigle)

Here’s the basic rub: The ill-advised and illegal 2003 U.S.  military invasion caused most of the current madness; Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions and saber-rattling predictably and demonstrably backfired; Iran’s offensive military capacity is actually rather limited and wildly exaggerated. Yet the one weapon it does have — as do the militias Tehran may or may not have sway over — are several variants of ballistic and cruise missiles. 

To review, then: America’s murky, no-exit, mission plays right into Tehran’s only viable military hands — not only strengthening the hardliners in their government, but turning our ever-adulated soldiers into little more than bewildered rocket-magnets.

Context Counts

If Biden bolsters the U.S.  military’s anti-Iran proxy combat mission — which masquerades as ISIS-elimination — it will, by my count, constitute the fourth phase of America’s 30+ year war on or in Iraq. Call it “Iraq War V. Kind.” Kind of has a nice ring to it, and ask any movie producer — sequels sell, even if they usually make for awful art (Godfather II aside, naturally). The cost of the running franchise has been fatal for some 2.5 million Iraqis — bombed, shot, starved, or diseased — over those three old school-imperial decades. 

Here on the tail end, in January 2020, the Iraqi government’s American friends went so far as to assassinate the top Iranian political and military figure Qasem Suleimani – on Iraqi soil, without informing the Baghdad government – thereby challenging and insulting Iraqi sovereignty. This triggered (imagine that) a not yet broken wave of political fury within both neighboring countries. In response, the Iraqi parliament voted to require the government to “end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil and prevent the use of Iraqi airspace, soil and water for any reason” by foreign troops. 

Washington promptly ignored the democratic will of the Iraqi democracy it claimed to have built via its absurdly titled “Operation Iraqi Freedom” 2003 invasion. There may (for now) be only 2,500 uniformed Americans in country, but these days, a big part of what’s long-bothered average Iraqis is Washington’s use of sundry – and often unhinged – civilian security contractors to do much of the occupying. 

Mercenary Camouflage

December 2004: Blackwater Security Company helicopter over the site of a car bomb explosion in Baghdad. (U.S. Air Force, Michael E. Best)

Given the tortured track record of America’s mercenary misadventures, perhaps Iraqis can be forgiven their frustration with the ongoing U.S.  presence in their country. Anger tends to come in waves and flared again last month, when dear Donald pardoned four American security contractors — from the infamous Blackwater outfit — for their roles in massacring 17 Iraqi civilians around Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007.

I was in town for that sick show, and we in uniform sure felt some of the understandable blowback. Clearly, American policymakers aren’t exactly known for their self-awareness. Still, it hardly seems as outrageous as Secretary Blinken claimed that some locals might fling a few rockets at a few foreigner bases — and many more countrymen view it as legitimate resistance — when their own government’s Washingtonian “friends” just let four Iraqi-child-killers off the hook. I don’t know, call me crazy.

Either way, all this raises the not-so-minor matter of America’s shadowy security contracting apparatus in Iraq – an occupation-outsourcing as old as the adventure itself. The combat and logistics privatization factor is exposed in the composition of casualties in these ubiquitous rocket attacks. Over the last few years, more often than not the majority of the dead and injured have been contractors. For example, Saturday night’s strike on Balad airbase reportedly wounded a South African – I know, a bit on the nose for the mercenary game – employee of the U.S.  defense company Sallyport. 

This subsidiary of Caliburn International LLC – which has no less than five retired generals and admirals on its board, including former Trump White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and former Bush-era CIA Director Michael Hayden — had been contracted to provide base services supporting Iraq’s F-16 fighter program.

Caliburn is perhaps better known for another of its subsidiaries operating America’s largest facility for unaccompanied migrant children. However, as of 2018, the U.S.  government had reportedly paid Sallyport itself over $1 billion since 2014 to provide security, life support, and various training at Balad Air Base. 

Joint Base Balad, Iraq, shortly after all U.S. forces departed the base on Nov. 8, 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

There, Sallyport has been mired in past scandal. In 2019, a Daily Beast report indicated that The Department of Justice was investigating the company’s earlier alleged role in bribing Iraqi government officials in exchange for contracts costing American taxpayers billions. The Daily Beast’s earlier 2017 investigation also exposed that a clique of white South African security guards — the very nationality of the employee reportedly wounded in the recent rocket strike — had been promoting apartheid and abusing Sallyport’s minority members (along, apparently, with the base’s local dogs).

By the way, the irony of Washington — amidst an era of renewed racial turmoil at home — hiring thousands of ex-apartheid soldiers to man its conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa: well, it almost defies imagination.

So sure, there are key — if rarely reported — contractor connections to the recent rocket attacks. Yet, widening the aperture reveals the far broader and systemic mercenary madness masking — and underpinning — America’s entire enterprise in Iraq and the Greater Middle East. And unless Status Quo Joe, and a largely bought&sold (by military industry campaign contributions) Congress, address this invisible enemy, then messing at the margins with uniformed boots-on-the-ground counts won’t measurably alter America’s two-decade-old regional adventure-fiasco.

Oh, and speaking of those masters of the military-industrial complex contributions to the very congressional representatives with the power to end this entire hopeless crusade — recall that the F-16s Sallyport secures for the Iraqi Air Force are produced by Lockheed Martin. In the 2018 midterm elections alone, Lockheed bestowed $2,865,014 in blood money on the Capitol Hill crew.

Only that ain’t the half of it. Consider the scale of the U.S.  contractor apparatus, by-the-numbers: In 2019, the Pentagon spent $370 billion on contracting — in other words, more than half its total discretionary spending. By the DOD’s own reckoning — during first  quarter of FY21 –— that translates to 38,164 contractor personnel supporting Pentagon operations in just the U.S.  Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR – from essentially Egypt to Afghanistan). That includes 4,677 in the Iraq-Syria sub-theater — 2,300 of them American citizens. Which is to say, contractors now maintain more than a 2 to 1 ratio over U.S.  military members in the CENTCOM sphere.

There’s a design, and a cost, to all this. According to her June 2020 report, what Heidi Peltier of Brown University’s Cost of War Initiative called the contracting “Camo Economy,” has been used by the U.S.  government to conceal the costs — in cash, killing, and American blood — of its endless, meandering, military missions. The proof is in the mortality pudding: since 2001, some 8,000 U.S.  contractors have died in America’s Greater Mideast adventures — that’s actually more than the Pentagon’s official tally of 7,056 uniformed troop deaths. 

That few people know this, exposes its enduring political utility. A one minute Google search offers precise, to-a-man and up-to-date, statistics on U.S.  military deaths — but I wouldn’t wish the required Department of Labor archive-mining to find contractor casualty details on my worst enemy. Take it from me, it’s a maddening enough rabbit-hole-spiral to garner a grin from Kafka. And, as matters now stand, more deaths of those once invisible contractors could end up pulling the U.S.  into yet another phase of hopeless, wasteful war in Iraq. Now that’d deserve the American foreign policy tragicomedy award for 2021.

Look, I like context and nuance as much as the next guy, but sometimes the simplicity of “Sutton’s Law” — a medical mantra that, when diagnosing, one should first test for the obvious — is the best policy prescription. The dictate derives from real-life famed criminal folk hero Willie Sutton, who when asked why he robbed banks, replied — perhaps apocryphally — “Because that’s where the money is!” It’s a hell of a story, the sort Biden’s sure to like.

And in a sense, it tracks today’s mess. Ask an ayatollah or a local militiaman why he allegedly attacks U.S.  bases in Iraq — and a clever one might accurately quip: “Because that’s where the Americans are!”

In other words…because we’re there.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His latest book is Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War.  Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.

The original version of the article appeared on

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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8 comments for “The Perils & Absurdity of Iraq War 4.0

  1. dolores cordell
    February 28, 2021 at 15:11

    As always, Sjursen is totally on target. That’s why I make it a point to read everything he publishes.

    As for Papa Joe Stallin’: No $2,000. No $15 minimum wage. No student debt relief. But how many millions spent on this bit of murderous Syrian pique?

    My contempt for the Demo-rats is begining to exceed even my contempt for the Rethuglicans, who at least don’t lie about their intent to screw you.

  2. February 28, 2021 at 12:33

    Danny Sjursen begs the question, why are we still in Iraq. Ignore we should have never been there in the first place. Why are we in hundreds of places? To protect America’s freedom? You hear that a lot. It’s a mix of paranoia, insecurity about ill-gotten gains, cynicism and greed.

    Does China really threaten America militarily? Does Russia? Does Iran? We certainly act as if we want to provoke China into doing so. Russia the same. That we threaten them, not that they threaten us, is a more logical conclusion based on their and our actions.

    Regarding Iran, things have never really been the same since we overthrew the leader of Iran in the fifties, and it seems that our propping up the Shah made ordinary Iranians hate us even more. We did our best to make things worse by supporting Iraq in their war against Iran, and now joining the Sunnis and the Israeli in trying to destroy their country.

    Thanks, Danny Sjursen for the article and for CN publishing it.

    • dolores cordell
      February 28, 2021 at 15:12

      Yes, and isn’t it telling that you won’t see Sjursen in the allegedly MSM.

  3. Ma Laoshi
    February 28, 2021 at 11:08

    Yeah, all this Middle East escalation might get a lot of Americans killed, but for now that’s a “maybe”. And, as the author notes and by design, even if a bunch of heroes come home in a box, most of those will probably be mercs, in which case it still won’t matter. Iraqis still seems to hate each other just a little bit more than they hate the Yanks, so the ones that matter can be bribed and otherwise ignored. Iranians are a macho people, but after years of “maximum pressure” their economy (never impressive under the theocracy) is in tatters, and that is the basis of real strength. The Europeans are desperate to prove their servility now that Bad Man Trump is gone.

    The Russki’s have completely lost the plot: they just won’t play a double game when they can play a triple game, but after all that Byzantine cleverness they’re stuck with a mini-Syria they can’t afford to rebuild, and that can’t rebuild itself without control over its borders, airspace, or oil. Most of the time they seem content to sell weapons to their enemies, feebly pleading with Biden that it’d be nicer if they could be “partners” instead.

    Of course the Dark Throne can’t stand up stable, prosperous democracies in the Middle East–hell, they stopped trying even at home. But divide-and-conquer, keeping everyone else down, is a well-practiced art, and the rest of the world continues to underestimate them. The machine is visibly ramshackle, but it still has the dollar press and for now that buys the narrative and a lot of firepower. Bottom line the Empire is once again pouring into the Middle East because for now they’re getting away with it, so hey why not? By following the sheepdogs’ siren song “Vote blue no matter who”, any domestic opposition has pretty much declared itself irrelevant; they’re getting what their wanted and deserve good and hard. So full speed ahead while the going is good.

    P.S.: “Arab Gulf States Institute” in itself is an interesting sign of the times: no waffling with “Middle East Studies”, “Center for Arab Security” or some such. No, proudly wearing their sponsor’s logo NASCAR style. No need to bother with appearances any more; Trump wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

  4. Jeff Harrison
    February 27, 2021 at 12:42

    Spot on, Danny. When will we ever learn?

  5. Jim Shannon
    February 27, 2021 at 00:33

    It would be nice if more modern Americans could remember what the original patriots, circa 1776-1783, thought of mercenaries; the battles of Bennington and Trenton displayed that contempt in full.

    Then maybe modern armchair, and frequently chicken hawk, warriors would understand why Iraqi’s and Syrians want to kill them so.

    • Anne
      February 27, 2021 at 13:21

      Moreover, one can only conclude that, more than voluntary enlistees (eager to enlist and kill according to NPR re-Transgender enlistees – not that NPR explicated their “eagerness”), they really want to control, kill people (darker hued, of course) while being paid for doing so…Now if that happened within their own country, wouldn’t that be considered murder, a crime? (Oh, yeah, in the USA those mercenaries known as cops – filth back in the UK – they easily get away with murdering people of darker skin… Might there be some link?)

      • Ma Laoshi
        February 28, 2021 at 13:25

        Not being American, I don’t want to reflexively make this about race again. But one could probably do worse than go with MLK. In his later years he understood that as long as the slaughter continues abroad you will be a violent culture, which will manifest itself at home as well. He lost allies over this principled stand, got whacked for it of course, and the Establishment heirs of his killers appropriated his image with everything but his blackness (the least relevant part) Photoshopped out.

        Anyway, aren’t the links you inquire about right in front of our eyes? Military vets get priority admission into US police forces–because it’s all guns anyway, right? Police recruits who somehow missed out on the fun in Iraq get remedial training in Israel in the fine art of being an occupying army. Military surplus gear gets pawned off to the cops, who are giddy with excitement at their new toys–I guess 155mm artillery pieces next?

        From my distance it seems pretty clear that TPTB went all-in on the BLM clown show precisely not to discuss any of these. Enabling considerable mayhem throughout American cities in the longer run will only support the argument that we need militarized police; wait for that pendulum to swing. Sadly, it seems progressives have nothing useful to offer here: any honest discussion of who commits street crime would offend their voters, and for white-collar crime it would offend their donors. The Right might break the former taboo but not the latter, for their donors are by and large the same. I just don’t see much change on the horizon.

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