President Obama said Monday in a speech before the Disabled American Veterans national convention in Atlanta that the US military is on target to withdraw all its combat troops from Iraq by the end of August. We speak with independent journalist Jeremy Scahill, who says this instead marks the beginning of a downsized and rebranded occupation that will rely heavily on private military forces. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama said Monday the US military is on target to withdraw all its combat troops from Iraq by the end of this month. Speaking before the Disabled American Veterans national convention in Atlanta, the President pledged the American presence in Iraq would soon transform from a primarily military to a diplomatic one.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I made it clear that by August 31st, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end. And that is exactly what we are doing, as promised and on schedule. Already, we have closed or turned over to Iraq hundreds of bases. We’re moving out millions of pieces of equipment in one of the largest logistics operations that we’ve seen in decades. By the end of this month, we’ll have brought more than 90,000 of our troops home from Iraq since I took office. More than 90,000 have come home. Today, even as terrorists try to derail Iraq’s progress, because of the sacrifices of our troops and their Iraqi partners, violence in Iraq continues to be near the lowest it’s been in years.
And next month we will change our military mission from combat to supporting and training Iraqi security forces. These are dangerous tasks. There are still those with bombs and bullets who will try to stop Iraq’s progress. And the hard truth is, we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq. But make no mistake, our commitment in Iraq is changing from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama, promising major changes to the US-led war in Iraq.
But Iraqi government figures refute Obama’s statement that violence in Iraq is near the lowest it’s been in years. The latest numbers from Iraq show that July was the deadliest month in Iraq in well over a year, with over 500 people killed last month. The US military has rejected those figures, saying some 200 people were killed in July.
Well, for more on what the promised drawdown of forces and the official end of the US combat mission in Iraq looks like, I’m joined here in New York by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, Puffin Foundation writing fellow at the Nation Institute and author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He blogs at thenation.com.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jeremy.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Thanks, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Respond to President Obama’s announcement.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, first of all, what President Obama is doing is implementing the policy that was on the desk of George W. Bush when he left the White House. This is essentially the Petraeus-Bush Iraq plan. So, the idea that Obama is making good on a campaign pledge to end the war is sort of playing with words, because the reality is he just implemented what was current US policy when he came into the White House.
What I think is more important for people to understand is, when President Obama talks about how the war is going to be shifted over to the diplomats, that doesn’t just mean that all of a sudden there’s going to be negotiations by pencil pushers. The fact is that Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, last month submitted a request to the Pentagon for an incredible beefing up of the State Department’s own paramilitary force. And what the State Department is saying is, when you take out all these combat troops, we want to have a replacement for that capacity. So Clinton, who as a candidate for president said she would ban Blackwater and other mercenary firms, is now presiding over what is going to be a radical expansion of the use of these companies and private soldiers in Iraq. The US embassy is the size of eighty football fields; you know, it’s the size of Vatican City. The Vatican has embassies around the world. Our embassy is the size of the Vatican, in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it the largest US embassy in the world?
JEREMY SCAHILL: It’s the largest embassy of any country in the history of civilization. I mean, it’s a city unto itself. And it necessitates, Hillary Clinton believes, between 6,000 and 7,000 private security operatives. Just to put this in perspective, there are 4,000 special forces operators deployed in seventy-five countries around the world. That is the US special forces deployment under Obama. Hillary Clinton wants 7,000 of these guys just in Baghdad alone to protect the US embassy.
There are also — the State Department also has plans to remake some US bases into what they call "enduring presence posts," EPPs. And so, you’ll have these outposts around the country that are essentially —- what is essentially unfolding here is a downsized and rebranded occupation, Obama-style, that is going to necessitate a surge in private forces. The State Department is asking for MRAP vehicles, armored vehicles, for Black Hawk helicopters and for these paramilitary forces. So, yes, you can say that officially combat has ended, but in reality you’re continuing it through the back door by bringing in these paramilitary forces and classifying them as diplomatic security, which was Bush’s game from the very beginning.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the level of violence currently in Iraq?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, you know, as you said in the intro to this segment, we heard President Obama say that violence is at an all-time low. The Iraqi government says it’s at an all-time high, since 2008 'til now, July, 500 people being killed. The fact is that the situation in Iraq right now is as unstable as it's ever been. They can’t form a government. You have Ayad Allawi, who is a CIA asset, who’s accused of murdering unarmed prisoners, who was a Baathist and one of Saddam’s top people early on in his political career. And then you have Nouri al-Maliki, who has been a pliant sort of US puppet. Those two, it’s the CIA guy versus the White House’s guy kind of fighting for control of Iraq right now.
The vast majority of people don’t have consistent access to potable water, to electricity, to gasoline, in one of the richest, oil-richest countries in the world. Oil production levels are below the Saddam-era level right now. And under Saddam’s Iraq, there were crippling sanctions led by the United States that were classified as UN sanctions. I mean, Iraq is a disaster right now. It’s an utter disaster and a humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of people are internally displaced or have fled to Syria or Jordan. Most Iraqis think it was better under Saddam Hussein. You know -—
AMY GOODMAN: Although they didn’t like him.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, no, of course no. I mean, but that’s the point, is for Iraqi — anyone who was in Iraq under Saddam and saw people who had their tongues cut out for saying something, you know, negative, mildly negative, about Saddam Hussein, for Iraqis to say it was better under Saddam is a devastating commentary on the failure of the United States to do anything except make it worse in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Level of even electricity in the city?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, it was — well, I spent a lot of time in Saddam’s Iraq, and, you know, there were electrical outages, but electricity was pretty consistent. Now in Iraq, I mean, people fear for their lives at times, having to go out to try to seek clean drinking water, to get gasoline. You know, you had an ethnic cleansing that took place in Baghdad, where Sunnis and other minorities were expelled from the city. I mean, it’s been an utter shameful operation, utterly shameful operation.
AMY GOODMAN: The nine —- what, more than $9 billion of money -—
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, in satchels of a million dollars.
AMY GOODMAN: — gone.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean — but remember, this is — in a way, this is an old story. Iraq was a money pit from the very beginning. Tons of people made off as millionaires out of this thing. They were giving all this cash to pay bribes. We’re seeing it happen in Afghanistan, too. US taxpayers are funding massive amounts of money that have no accountability trail whatsoever. I think it’s much greater than the figures that we’re seeing right now in Iraq. And in Afghanistan, we’re funding both sides of the war. We’re funding, you know, US forces — and "we" meaning taxpayers in the United States — and we’re also funding the Taliban, because they’re paying bribes in Pakistan and in Afghanistan to get US military supplies to fight the Taliban. I mean, it’s incredible. And Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s very similar in that way. We can have a crisis in this country — you know, education, healthcare, all of the problems that we’re facing right now in the United States — and $9 billion goes missing in Iraq. And who knows how many millions go missing every month in Afghanistan? You saw the stories about all this money leaving on crates going out of the airport in Kabul. What is going on? How can the Democrats not raise this issue, not make this, you know, one of the key points? A hundred of them say — you know, they vote against the war funding. Why are the other Democrats even voting for this anymore? Who’s representing the people here?
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, we’re going to be speaking with Julian Assange in a minute, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks. US government is really amping up going after WikiLeaks, him personally, Bradley Manning. Some remarkable statements have been made. One of the exposés in the tens of thousands of documents was Task Force 373, something you’ve been talking about before.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, we actually discussed this on Democracy Now! earlier this year, these task forces that are operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan. They operated in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia. Task Force 373 was a task force that was hunting, essentially, people that were determined to be high-value targets. They had a list of some 2,000 people that were going to be targeted for either assassination or some kind of an abduction, you know, or incarceration. And this task force has since been — it then was transferred into a different designation where it was Task Force 714, and now it’s under another designation that’s classified right now. And these task forces are being portrayed by the New York Times and other media outlets as sort of a permanent standing thing. They talk about Task Force 373. There are scores of these task forces that are formed around the world that are made up of different elements of US special forces. They’ll take 160th Aviation people from the Night Stalkers, the specialized paramilitary pilots of the US military. They’ll take people from Navy SEAL Team 6 or from Delta Force. And they form these task forces, and then they go out with a specific set of missions.
This is not about Task Force 373. What we learned from the documents about Task Force 373 is what some of us have been observing for quite some time, that in Afghanistan there are two wars that the US is fighting. One is the publicly available or accessible war. Journalists go and they embed with Marines or other sort of conventional forces. And then you have the special forces war, which is the real war — night raids, kicking down doors, a lot of civilians being killed, very little regard for the value of civilian life if they’re near someone that these task forces consider to be a high-value target. And there are reports that are emerging now that are coming out, studies showing that for every civilian the US kills in Afghanistan, that there is a — there are six attacks that take place then over the ensuing months after that attack. So what we’re seeing is a public rhetoric about reducing civilian casualties and then these task forces literally hunting human beings, killing them, and not caring about the civilians that are killed, and, in fact, actively covering it up and issuing false press releases and blaming other forces, when in reality it’s been US special forces.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, I want to thank you for being with us. Jeremy Scahill, Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation, he’s a correspondent for Democracy Now!
and author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Check out his blog at thenation.com.