Hey everyone, Happy bin Laden Day! It was five years ago May 2 that “we” got bin Laden. How did you celebrate?
For the CIA, marking the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden was as simple as fake live tweeting the raid by SEAL Team Six on the Al-Qaeda founder’s compound in Pakistan. Using the hashtag #UBLRaid, the CIA blasted out updates of the May 2011 strike as if it was unfolding in real time, all so we could savor the sweet, sweet taste of revenge which brought back to life everyone killed on 9/11.
Tweets included the now famous picture of President Barack Obama and other high-ranking U.S. officials watching matters unfold from the White House’s Situation Room.
1:51 pm EDT – Helicopters depart from Afghanistan for compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, read one tweet.
3:30 pm EDT – 2 helicopters descend on compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. 1 crashes, but assault continues without delay or injury, read another.
That was followed just minutes later by: 3:39 pm EDT – Usama Bin Ladin found on third floor and killed.
Think about how much has changed since that momentous day. In 2011 the U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, facing the threat of a vicious global terror organization that had already killed Americans. Oh, wait, that looks just like 2016, only now we are also at war in Syria, too, still at war in Afghanistan (16 years in!) and back at war in Iraq. And al Qaeda is known as ISIS, and the Homeland remains a jittery mess on the verge of electing either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, both of whom have enthusiastically endorsed lots more war in the Middle East.
It’s as if Nothing. Has. Changed.
Anyway, the CIA’s anniversary tweets open up the idea of live tweeting other American victories. How about a minute-by-minute live tweet of a waterboarding session? Or maybe, for a really special date, a live tweet on August 6 of the Hiroshima bombing?
BONUS: Proving we have learned absolutely nothing, amid the bin Laden tweetstorm, CIA chief John Brennan said Sunday that taking out the head of Islamic State would have a “great impact.”
“If we got Baghdadi, I think it would have a great impact on the organization. And it will be felt by them,” he said.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Like about 90% of the news today, this would be terrific satire, if it wasn’t true.
America is dropping so many bombs on ISIS that the country is in danger of running out.
“We’re expending munitions faster than we can replenish them,” said Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has asked Congress to include funding for 45,000 “smart bombs” in the Defense Department’s 2017 budget. But it could take a while to rebuild the stockpile.
“The U.S. maintains a pretty steady inventory of bombs and missiles,” says one aerospace and defense policy analyst. “But 2.5 years of fighting ISIS and continued bombing in Afghanistan have exceeded weapons-use projections.”
Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.’ military intervention against Islamic State, strikes ISIS targets with laser- and GPS-guided bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs, Joint Standoff Weapons, and air-to-ground missiles, such as the Hellfire. Per unit price tags on these munitions range from around $25,000 to close to $400,000. In the early days of the Syrian campaign the Navy fired multiple Tomahawk cruise missiles, which go for about $1 million a piece.
But bombs away, the overall cost of the fight against Islamic State in dollars is staggering; more than $2.7 billion so far, with the average daily cost around $11 million.
Since the June 2014 start of Inherent Resolve, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run.
Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.”
The CIA estimated Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 began.
Somebody in Washington better do the math on this one.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Heading into its sixteenth year, with no endpoint in sight, America’s longest war is its least talked about.
Afghanistan has not come up in any Republican or Democratic debate, except perhaps as one of a list of countries where Islamic State must be destroyed (left out is the reality that no Islamic State existed in 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, who, by the way, are still not defeated.)
For her part, the only mention of Afghanistan from Hillary Clinton is a vague statement last year of support for Barack Obama’s decision to keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan when he leaves the White House in 2017. Bernie Sanders’ web site has a long series of statement-lets that generally say things have not worked out well in Afghanistan, but stays away from much of a stance.
Republican front runner Donald Trump, least at first, was more honest on the situation. “We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place. We had real brilliant thinkers that didn’t know what the hell they were doing. And it’s a mess. It’s a mess. And at this point, you probably have to stay because that thing will collapse about two seconds after they leave. Just as I said that Iraq was going to collapse after we leave.”
However, once it was clear no one wanted to handle the truth, Trump quickly walked his statement back, denying that he had characterized U.S. entry into Afghanistan as a mistake and said he had only talked about Iraq.
As the United States appears prepared for an indefinite presence in Afghanistan, what really is the situation on the ground 15 years in?
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, had a few thoughts on what has been achieved in those years, all at the cost of an estimated 149,000 Afghan deaths, alongside 3,515 American/Coalition deaths. No one really knows how much the U.S. has spent in dollars on the war, but one reasonable guess is $685 billion.
Sopko, in remarks recently at Harvard University “The Perilous State of Afghan Reconstruction: Lessons from Fifteen Years” said:
— Conditions are not, to put it mildly, what we would hope to see 15 years into a counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign.
— Large parts of Afghanistan are effectively off-limits to foreign personnel.
— Other consequences of insecurity are less headline-grabbing, but are still evil omens for the future of a desperately poor and largely illiterate country. Late last month, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Education was quoted as saying 714 schools have been closed and more than 2.5 million children were being denied schooling, mainly because of the war.
— Bombings, raids, ambushes, land mines, and temporary seizures of key points can all serve to undermine the government’s credibility and affect security force and popular morale.
— Security is where most of the U.S. reconstruction funding has gone, about 61% of the $113 billion Congress has appropriated since fiscal year 2002, or $68 billion.
— As a result of the U.S. military draw down in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense has lost much of its ability to collect reliable information on Afghan security capability and effectiveness. We continue to rely on Afghan reporting on unit strengths, a concern because the rolls may contain thousands of “ghost” personnel whose costs we pay and whose absence distorts realistic assessments of Afghan capabilities.
— Fifteen years into an unfinished work of funding and fighting, we must indeed ask, “What went wrong?” Citing instances of full or partial failures, is part of the answer. But no catalog of imperfections captures the full palette of pathologies or root causes.
A lot of chew on there. Perhaps at some point the media, the voters, or the next debate moderators might inquire of the candidates what their current thoughts are.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Iraq, the failed state that over 4,600 (and counting…) Americans died to free from some evil tyrant 13 years ago, is still ranking high internationally in something. Unfortunately, that something is corruption.
A couple of other places where America has been intervening for freedom also made the list.
Germany’s Transparency International released its newest corruption index for 2015, and as usual Iraq was on the list. The ten worst countries in its new study were Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Libya, Iraq, Venezuela, and Guinea-Bissau.
Seven of those nations held the same worst ranks last year. Iraq received the same score that it had for the last two years.
Most Corrupt Countries On Transparency International Corruption Index 2015:
2. North Korea
5. South Sudan
In Iraq, corruption is rampant throughout the state. The ruling elite use graft and bribes to maintain their patronage systems, their militias, and to enrich themselves. That’s also the reason why there is no real push to end it; if one top official was taken down it would threaten all the rest.
According to experts, that’s despite repeated promises by the prime ministers, the complaints of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and protests that occur almost every year demanding action on the issue. Current U.S.-chosen Prime Minister Haidar Abadi, for example, announced a reform program in August 2015 that was supposed to address corruption, but he was focused more on building up his own base and going after his rivals than actually addressing the problem, and nothing substantive was done. No one, including America, wants to seriously touch the golden goose that keeps the Iraqi good times going.
BONUS: See who else is on the top ten corruption list? U.S. occupied Afghanistan is No. 3. Libya, where the U.S. overthrew another evil tyrant with no follow-on plan, is No. 7. Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan are all places with active U.S.-led miniwars afoot.
It is almost as if there is a pattern here…
Your State Department loves loves loves #socialmedia. They will use it now to defeat ISIS, maybe also the Taliban, by making a #TeeVee show for Afghans saying ISIS, and maybe the Taliban, is bad.
It will only cost $1.5 million of your taxpayer dineros, so be sure to pay the IRS on time this year.
And the show will star Taylor Swift.
No, no, just kidding about Taylor Swift, but the other stuff is sadly, pathetically true.
To understand this, you need to understand the State Department. The Department is made up of a few old people in senior positions, and lots of young people (“millennials.”) Think of the old people as your sad, old dad after a divorce, bugging you to explain to him stuff like Tindr and Molly that wasn’t around when he was “dating” but now suddenly seems like something he needs to “get down with.”
So that’s what happens inside State. Old people are told to stop ISIS somehow. They ask the young staffers about this social media gadget they read about in AARP magazine and the young people, none of whom have a rat’s butt worth of overseas knowledge but have lived their whole lives within a media bubble, tells the olds “Let’s do something social media, or make a TV thing we can show on YouTube. We’ll get, like, seriously, a zillion hits. Anti-ISIS will go, literally, viral, you know.”
The State Department old people will not understand any of that, but it will brief well when they talk to their even older bosses, and BOOM! policy is made. And the great thing is that no one else has figured out how to defeat ISIS, so when this latest venture fails, no one will be too upset with State.
But back to the details of this latest innovation.
The day after the attacks in Brussels (timing is everything), the State Department posted a $1.5 million grant proposal to develop “a television drama series that addresses the issue of countering violent extremism among young people in contemporary Afghan society.”
The rest of the proposal:
This grant will fund the development and broadcast of a television drama series in which young people grapple with everyday frustrations and lack of opportunity, while growing and learning through new experiences. The drama will be grounded in reality but will also contain compelling creative content (i.e. storytelling, resonant narratives, strong characters, sophisticated production, etc.). In short, it will strive to be entertaining while challenging viewers to engage in critical thinking by placing characters in situations where they are faced with a choice: support universal values of tolerance and peace or be drawn into the dark world of extremism. The characters will be aspirational and will provide positive role models for young people facing similar dilemmas. The program will be amplified through social media and other means.
The same day the State Department dove into the soap opera business, Hillary Clinton said at Stanford University that beating ISIS “means waging online battles with extremists. To discredit their ideology, expose their lies and counter their appeals to potential recruits in the West and around the world.”
Ok, sure. This is the same State Department that spent $630,000 of your money buying “likes” for its own Facebook pages. Or dropped an unspecified amount making Gangnam video tributes when that was a thing.
The overall problem with these ventures is that the State Department believes at its core that most/all young Muslims are simply sold on jihad as if it was just another clever online meme, or maybe a product. Why, if that is the case, one can simply make a better Tweet, a cooler hashtag or a better commercial and everything will be better. See, it’s the medium, not the message.
In essence, instead of seeing young Muslims reacting to the American destruction around them with deeply held feelings, State thinks they are just as shallow and empty-headed as its own staff. #Fail
Think what it must be like to be one of America’s allies.
You enjoy some trade, watch Beyonce and Brad Pitt at the movies, and visit Disneyland on holiday. But then there’s America again at your cubicle, asking again that you join some coalition, get some troops into another wacky American overseas intervention for freedom, or regime change, or to stop another impending genocide only American can see or stop. What can you do? It’s hard to say no knowing what a big bully the U.S. is, but given how poorly the last one worked out, and the one before that, and the one before that, nobody at home is in favor of another round. Still, you’re stuck giving something, so maybe a few special forces, or a couple of airstrikes, as a token…
And then you get blamed for being a freeloader when things don’t work out, or America loses interest and expected you to pick up the slack. And why not? America has a lot of coalitions and freedom to look after globally, and just can’t take care of everything.
The Obama Doctrine
That bit of sarcasm unfortuately seems to describe the “Obama Doctrine,” as laid out in a legacy-killing interview with the president in Atlantic magazine.
Specifically, Obama was referring to the 2011 conflict in Libya. Coming on the heels of the fading Arab Spring, Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s 34 year stable reign appeared to be weakening. The U.S., after decades of hostility with Libya, had reopened diplomatic relations in 2006. As part of that deal, Qaddafi rid himself of a nascent nuclear program. As unrest, however, spread in 2011, Qaddafi threatened a violent crackdown.
Obama (all quotes are from Atlantic): “At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”
While there is no doubt many nations expressed concern (who wouldn’t?), it appears only the United States wanted to drive those thoughts into armed conflict. While Obama was allegedly wary of another U.S. military action in the Middle East, his advisors, lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, invoked that magic Washington, DC word “genocide,” claiming Qaddafi was about to “slaughter his own people,” and stopping that was a foreign policy “to-do” item for the United States.
Obama: “So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight.”
But, according to Obama, that is where the good news ended.
Obama: “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up… [French leader] Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was making in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure for the intervention.”
As for the UK, British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things,” according to Obama. The basic idea was having arranged the intervention in Libya, and having proceeded with a very small coalition that for practical purposes included no Arab nations, it was going to be up to France and the UK to take over the messy part of the operation, which was ill-defined by the U.S. except as “whatever happened next.”
And when France and Britain did not jump to achieve America’s goals, what was Obama’s characterization of them?
“Free riders,” he said.
The Audacity of Ignorance
What that Obama Doctrine omits is that the coalition, such as it was, was formed to prevent Qaddafi from harming large numbers of Libyans. However, the mission quickly and without any outside mandate morphed into regime change, with the goal now set to kill Qaddafi and replace him with, well, the U.S. would find someone. As could have been easily foreseen given the failure of a similar policy in Iraq, and as subsequent events proved all too clearly in Libya, the result was chaos. Libya is now a failed state, home to its own Islamic State franchise.
The audacity of the American president to blame even part of that outcome on other nations speaks to dark things in the American character, and American foreign policy, which will continue to plague the world for some time. And while many globally fear a President Trump, they will be advised to recall Hillary Clinton’s leading role in the Libyan disaster as well.
Washington lives and works in a bubble, of its own making, of its own ignorance.
Inside that bubble, American goals are deemed, de facto, to be world goals, and coalitions should form like crystals around them. America alone is the arbiter of what “genocides” need or need not be stopped, and at what point the United States should start something, and then back away, and then perhaps return. The American foreign policy establishment never seems to notice that for all the genocides that need stopping, all the evil dictators that need toppling, and regimes that need changing, few if any nations seem to share America’s zeal for military intervention. Few countries seem so committed to bypassing other tools of foreign policy (diplomacy, trade) and jumping to the literal attack. In fact, few countries seem to want to put skin into the game, to use Obama’s expression, perhaps in large part because it is not their game.
History is Not Generous
If Libya was an isolated example, history might be more generous to 21st century America.
But one must look to Afghanistan, where a shell of the original coalition sent to bust up the Taliban now acts to maintain some-sort of American vassal state. Iraq of course is the uber-example, a war to stop another evil dictator (formerly supported by the United States) that changed under its coalition’s nose into creating a whole new nation-state in America’s image. The same is happening in real-time in Syria, where the U.S. State Department still believes a coalition of 62 nations is furthering whatever America’s goal there might be.
Obama and all of the presidential candidates also keep saying much the same thing about how the Sunnis and Kurds need to “step up” to fight ISIS.
Standing above them all is the grandest of American coalitions at present, that one that seeks to smite Islamic State, in the many countries it has metastasized into. But funny, one hears little any more about any coalition against al Qaeda. Meh, times change, gotta move on.
One foreign commentator said the United States has “turned into a nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries.”
That, perhaps, is the clearest statement of the Obama Doctrine yet.
The nuances of foreign policy do not feature heavily in the ongoing presidential campaign. Every candidate intends to “destroy” the Islamic State; each has concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea, and China; every one of them will defend Israel; and no one wants to talk much about anything else — except, in the case of the Republicans, who rattle their sabers against Iran.
In that light, here’s a little trip down memory lane: in October 2012, I considered five critical foreign policy questions — they form the section headings below — that were not being discussed by then-candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Romney today is a sideshow act for the current Republican circus, and Obama has started packing up his tent at the White House and producing his own foreign policy obituary.
And sadly, those five questions of 2012 remain as pertinent and unraised today as they were four years ago. Unlike then, however, answers may be at hand, and believe me, that’s not good news. Now, let’s consider them four years later, one by one.
Is there an endgame for the global war on terror?
That was the first question I asked back in 2012. In the ensuing years, no such endgame has either been proposed or found, and these days no one’s even talking about looking for one. Instead, a state of perpetual conflict in the Greater Middle East and Africa has become so much the norm that most of us don’t even notice.
In 2012, I wrote, “The current president, elected on the promise of change, altered very little when it came to George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror (other than dropping the name). That jewel-in-the-crown of Bush-era offshore imprisonment, Guantanamo, still houses over 160 prisoners held without trial. While the U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq… the war in Afghanistan stumbles on. Drone strikes and other forms of conflict continue in the same places Bush tormented: Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan (and it’s clear that northern Mali is heading our way).”
Well, candidates of 2016? Guantanamo remains open for business, with 91 men still left. Five others were expeditiously traded away by executive decision to retrieve runaway American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan, but somehow President Obama feels he can’t release most of the others without lots of approvals by… well, someone. The Republicans running for president are howling to expand Gitmo, and the two Democratic candidates are in favor of whatever sort of not-a-plan plan Obama has been pushing around his plate for eight years.
Iraq took a bad bounce when the same president who withdrew U.S. troops in 2011 let loose the planes and drones and started putting those boots back on that same old ground in 2014. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to morph that conflict from a rescue mission to a training mission to bombing to Special Operations forces in ongoing contact with the enemy, and not just in Iraq, but Syria, too. No candidate has said that s/he will pull out.
As for the war in Afghanistan, it now features an indefinite, “generational” American troop commitment. Think of that country as the third rail of campaign 2016 — no candidate dares touch it for fear of instant electrocution, though (since the American public seems to have forgotten the place) by whom exactly is unclear. There’s still plenty of fighting going on in Yemen — albeit now mostly via America’s well-armed proxies the Saudis — and Africa is more militarized than ever.
As for the most common “American” someone in what used to be called the third world is likely to encounter, it’s no longer a diplomat, a missionary, a tourist, or even a soldier — it’s a drone. The United States claims the right to fly into any nation’s airspace and kill anyone it wishes. Add it all together and when it comes to that war on terror across significant parts of the globe, the once-reluctant heir to the Bush legacy leaves behind a twenty-first century mechanism for perpetual war and eternal assassination missions. And no candidate in either party is willing to even suggest that such a situation needs to end.
In 2012, I also wrote, “Washington seems able to come up with nothing more than a whack-a-mole strategy for ridding itself of the scourge of terror, an endless succession of killings of ‘al-Qaeda Number 3’ guys. Counterterrorism tsar John Brennan, Obama’s drone-meister, has put it this way: ‘We’re not going to rest until al-Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas.’”
Four years later, whack-a-mole seems to still be as polite a way as possible of categorizing America’s strategy. In 2013, the top whacker John Brennan got an upgrade to director of the CIA, but strangely — despite so many drones sent off, Special Operations teams sent in, and bombers let loose — the moles keep burrowing and he’s gotten none of the rest he was seeking in 2012. Al-Qaeda is still around, but more significantly, the Islamic State (IS) has replaced that outfit as the signature terrorist organization for the 2016 election.
And speaking of IS, the 2011 war in Libya, midwifed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, led to the elimination of autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, which in turn led to chaos, which in turn led to the spread of IS there big time, which appears on its way to leading to a new American war in Libya seeking the kind of stability that, for all his terrors, Qaddafi had indeed brought to that country during his 34 years in power and the U.S. military will never find.
So an end to the Global War on Terror? Nope.
Do today’s foreign policy challenges mean that it’s time to retire the Constitution?
In 2012 I wrote, “Starting on September 12, 2001, challenges, threats, and risks abroad have been used to justify abandoning core beliefs enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That bill, we are told, can’t accommodate terror threats to the Homeland.”
At the time, however, our concerns about unconstitutionality were mostly based on limited information from early whistleblowers like Tom Drake and Bill Binney, and what some then called conspiracy theories. That was before National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden confirmed our worst nightmares in June 2013 by leaking a trove of NSA documents about the overwhelming American surveillance state. Snowden summed it up this way: “You see programs and policies that were publicly justified on the basis of preventing terrorism — which we all want — in fact being used for very different purposes.”
Now, here’s the strange thing: since Rand Paul dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, no candidate seems to find it worth his or her while to discuss protecting the Bill of Rights or the Constitution from the national security state. (Only the Second Amendment, it turns out, is still sacred.) And speaking of rights, things had already grown so extreme by 2013 that Attorney General Eric Holder felt forced to publicly insist that the government did not plan to torture or kill Edward Snowden, should he end up in its hands. Given the tone of this election, someone may want to update that promise.
In 2012, of course, the Obama administration had only managed to put two whistleblowers in jail for violating the Espionage Act. Since then, such prosecutions have grown almost commonplace, with five more convictions (including that of Chelsea Manning) and with whatever penalties short of torture and murder are planned for Edward Snowden still pending. No one then mentioned the use of the draconian World War I-era Espionage Act, but that wasn’t surprising. Its moment was still coming.
Four years later, still not a peep out of any candidate about the uses of that act, once aimed at spying for foreign powers in wartime, or a serious discussion of government surveillance and the loss of privacy in American life. (And we just learned that the Pentagon’s spy drones have been released over “the homeland,” too, but don’t expect to hear anything about that or its implications either.) Of course, Snowden has come up in the debates of both parties. He has been labeled a traitor as part of the blood sport that the Republican debates have devolved into, and denounced as a thief by Hillary Clinton, while Bernie Sanders gave him credit for “educating the American people” but still thought he deserved prison time.
If the question in 2012 was: “Candidates, have we walked away from the Constitution? If so, shouldn’t we publish some sort of notice or bulletin?” In 2016, the answer seems to be: “Yes, we’ve walked away, and accept that or else… you traitor!”
What do we want from the Middle East?
In 2012, considering the wreckage of the post-9/11 policies of two administrations in the Middle East, I wondered what the goal of America’s presence there could possibly be. Washington had just ended its war in Iraq, walked away from the chaos in Libya, and yet continued to launch a seemingly never-ending series of drone strikes in the region. “Is it all about oil?” I asked. “Israel? Old-fashioned hegemony and containment? History suggests that we should make up our mind on what America’s goals in the Middle East might actually be. No cheating now — having no policy is a policy of its own.”
Four years later, Washington is desperately trying to destroy an Islamic State “caliphate” that wasn’t even on its radar in 2012. Of course, that brings up the question of whether IS can be militarily destroyed at all, as we watch its spread to places as far-flung as Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. And then there’s the question no one would have thought to ask back then: If we destroy that movement in Iraq and Syria, will another even more brutish group simply take its place, as the Islamic State did with al-Qaeda in Iraq? No candidate this time around even seems to grasp that these groups aren’t just problems in themselves, but symptoms of a broader Sunni-Shi’ite problem.
In the meantime, the one broad policy consensus to emerge is that we shouldn’t hesitate to unleash our air power and Special Operations forces and, with the help of local proxies, wreck as much stuff as possible. America has welcomed all comers to take their best shots in Syria and Iraq in the name of fighting the Islamic State. The ongoing effort to bomb it away has resulted in the destruction of cities that were still in decent shape in 2012, like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs, and evidently at some future moment Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, “in order to save” them. Four American presidents have made war in the region without success, and whoever follows Obama into the Oval Office will be number five. No questions asked.
What is your plan to right-size our military and what about downsizing the global mission?
Plan? Right-size? Here’s the reality four years after I asked that question: Absolutely no candidate, including the most progressive one, is talking about cutting or in any way seriously curtailing the U.S. military.
Not surprisingly, in response to the ongoing question of the year, “So how will you pay for that?” (in other words, any project being discussed from massive border security and mass deportations to free public college tuition), no candidate has said: “Let’s spend less than 54% of our discretionary budget on defense.”
Call me sentimental, but as I wrote in 2012, I’d still like to know from the candidates, “What will you do to right-size the military and downsize its global mission? Secondly, did this country’s founders really intend for the president to have unchecked personal war-making powers?”
Such questions would at least provide a little comic relief, as all the candidates except Bernie Sanders lock horns to see who will be the one to increase the defense budget the most.
Since no one outside our borders buys American exceptionalism anymore, what’s next? What is America’s point these days?
In 2012, I laid out the reality of twenty-first-century America this way: “We keep the old myth alive that America is a special, good place, the most ‘exceptional’ of places in fact, but in our foreign policy we’re more like some mean old man, reduced to feeling good about himself by yelling at the kids to get off the lawn (or simply taking potshots at them). Now, who we are and what we are abroad seems so much grimmer… America the Exceptional, has, it seems, run its course. Saber rattling… feels angry, unproductive, and without any doubt unbelievably expensive.”
Yet in 2016 most of the candidates are still barking about America the Exceptional despite another four years of rust on the chrome. Donald Trump may be the exceptional exception in that he appears to think America’s exceptional greatness is still to come, though quite soon under his guidance.
The question for the candidates in 2012 was and in 2016 remains “Who exactly are we in the world and who do you want us to be? Are you ready to promote a policy of fighting to be planetary top dog — and we all know where that leads — or can we find a place in the global community? Without resorting to the usual ‘shining city on a hill’ metaphors, can you tell us your vision for America in the world?”
The answer is a resounding no.
See You Again in 2020
The candidates have made it clear that the struggle against terror is a forever war, the U.S. military can never be big enough, bombing and missiling the Greater Middle East is now the American Way of Life, and the Constitution is indeed a pain and should get the hell out of the way.
Above all, no politician dares or cares to tell us anything but what they think we want to hear: America is exceptional, military power can solve problems, the U.S. military isn’t big enough, and it is necessary to give up our freedoms to protect our freedoms. Are we, in the perhaps slightly exaggerated words of one foreign commentator, now just a “nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries”?
Bookmark this page. I’ll be back before the 2020 elections to see how we’re doing.
“No one left behind” sounds nice, but in America’s wars it usually only refers to Americans. Foreigners who risked their own and their family’s lives to help the United States are optional.
But a small victory. After extraordinary outside pressure from Congress and veterans’ groups, the State Department agreed to undo a change to visa procedure that would have condemned even more Afghan translators to their deaths.
The idea was that Afghans translators who loyally served the United States and who were at risk in their own country could apply for visas for themselves, their spouses and their children, to live in the U.S. These were never called refugee visas or anything that might imply our freedom war was not fully successful, but were pitched as a kind of parting gift for good work.
And so we learn that the latest blunder in the government’s management of a special visa program for Afghan interpreters was fixed this week.
In recent months, Afghan interpreters were told, without warning, that their visa applications were denied as a result of the way officials at the State Department were implementing a change to the eligibility criteria set by Congress. Lawmakers said that as of September 30, in order to qualify for resettlement in the United States, interpreters would need to provide evidence that they had worked for American personnel in Afghanistan for at least two years. In the past, they had to prove only one year of service.
Inexplicably, the government began applying the two-year standard to applicants who had submitted petitions long before the rule changed. Applying laws retroactively is not how things generally work in America. Not that that stopped the State Department from unilaterally just doing that. The State decision slam dunked hundreds of the more than 10,000 applicants with pending cases.
As they learned of State’s action, various Congressional leaders demanded change, and hauled John Kerry up to the Hill to answer for his Department’s decision. Kerry “conferred” with this underlings and this week State reversed itself, and will not apply the new rules retroactively.
New applicants are still screwed, but then again, this is Afghanistan.
Apparently a new feature of the modern war of terror is the shameless, blameless, overt targeting of hospitals, doctors and bed-ridden patients, all without the means of even modest self-defense.
Following the American destruction of a Doctors Without Borders facility in Afghanistan, the Saudi targeting, using American weapons, of hospitals in Yemen, the Israeli destruction, using American weapons, of Palestian hospitals in Gaza, and the Russia/Syrian destruction of a Doctors Without Borders facility in Syria, we now have another case, perpetrated against the rules of war, international treaties and simple humanity.
(The child shown above was injured in Gaza, 2014. Serves her right for choosing to live among terrorists, amiright?)
Afghan security forces, possibly accompanied by NATO advisers, raided a hospital south of Kabul and abducted and then killed at least three men suspected of being insurgents.
The raid began in Wardak Province, 100 miles from Kabul, at a hospital run by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, an international aid agency. Initial reports differed about whether the units involved in the four-hour raid, whose members descended from helicopters, belonged to the Afghan Army or the police. The number of casualties was also not clear, with different accounts suggesting that between three and five people had been killed.
The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan denounced the raid, which it said the Afghan Army had conducted, as a gross violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Yeah, whatever, how quaint.
“Medical facilities and medical staff are to provide treatment to anyone in need, and patients are to be granted safety according to humanitarian law,” Jörgen Holmström, the Swedish group’s country director, said in a statement. “We will further investigate this violation and let those responsible be held accountable.”
“Held accountable.” How quaint.
A spokesman for Wardak Province’s police chief said elite police units, who were possibly accompanied by Americans, had conducted the operation.
“Those killed in the hospital were all terrorists,” he said, adding that he was “happy that they were killed.”
A spokesman for the American-led NATO coalition denied involvement. “At this point, we have no reports of any coalition operations near a hospital,” said Col. Michael T. Lawhorn.
BONUS: The UN states Afghanistan chalked up record civilian casualties in 2015.
America’s mercenaries smell the blood (and the money) and are returning to Iraq.
Mercs are a great thing for the U.S. government, in that they aren’t counted as “troops,” or as “boots on the ground,” even while they are both. The Defense Department can disavow any mischief the contractors get up like, such as murdering civilians, and keep the headcount low and the body count low when things are going well, or bad. It only costs money, and that America has a bottomless pool of, as long as it being spent on something violent abroad instead of helping Americans at home (which is socialism, sonny.)
So let’s look at some numbers.
The number of private contractors working for the U.S. Defense Department in Iraq grew eight-fold over the past year, a rate that far outpaces the growing number of American troops training and advising Iraqi soldiers battling Islamic State militants.
As of January, 2,028 military contractors were in Iraq, up from just 250 one year earlier, according to the Pentagon. There are another another 5,800 State Department contractors in Iraq, plus an unknown number of Americans working as trainers and repairpeople who are employed by the U.S. weapons manufacturers themselves.
So that’s 7,828 known U.S. government contractors with their boots on the ground in Iraq. There are roughly 3,700 American troops there now alongside them.
(But let’s keep it real — there are 30,455 contractors for the U.S. government in Afghanistan playing their Mad Max games)
Many of the contractors in Iraq are from well-known warzone profiteers like KBR, DynCorp, and Fluor Corporation, the three firms hired by the Army’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program.
The State Department still employs personnel from whatever Blackwater is now known as. The company changes names more often than a stripper.
What job could be worse these days than having to be the foreign ministry official from some so-called American ally who has to listen to the latest American begging effort for them to join up with the “coalition” to defeat ISIS.
Those poor diplomatic bastards have been suffering through American pleas to join various failed coalitions for more than a decade, as evil bad guys intent on world domination come and go. Think back — the Taliban, al Qaeda, Saddam, Gaddafi and now ISIS. There’s almost a sort of pattern there.
So this week U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (above) offered a glimpse of his own apparent frustration at all this coalition fun last week when he referred to “our so-called coalition” and suggested the slackers need to step up and support the American Empire Project.
“We need everybody, and that’s all the Europeans, the Persian Gulf states, Turkey, which is right there on the border. So there are a lot that need to make more contributions,” he said. Carter appeared totally ignorant of why nobody wants to hop in and help fight America’s wars.
Carter left Tuesday for Brussels, where he will convene a meeting of defense chiefs from about two dozen countries, including most NATO members, Iraq and the Gulf states.
“What I’m going to do is sit down and say, here is the campaign plan. If you’re thinking World War II newsreel pictures, you think of an arrow going north to take Mosul and another arrow coming south to take Raqqa,” he said, as if the organized nation state ground combat of WWII had anything at all to do with the current multi-dimensional firestorm in the Middle East.
“And I’m going to say, ‘OK, guys. Let’s match up what is needed to win with what you have, and kind of give everybody the opportunity to make an assignment for themselves,'” Carter said. “The United States will lead this and we’re determined, but other people have to do their part because civilization has to fight for itself.”
Sure thing boss, will say the would-be coalition members before doing nothing of substance.
A few coalition countries have made promises of increased support in recent days. The Netherlands, also known as Sparta, which has been carrying out very, very limited airstrikes in Iraq, said it would expand its efforts to Syria. Saudi Arabia indicated last week it could send ground troops into Syria. Canada announced it will quit conducting airstrikes in Syria and Iraq but will expand its contributions to training Kurdish and other local forces and provide more humanitarian and developmental aid.
Over the course of a decade and a half of coalition warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials have frequently found themselves pleading and cajoling with the Europeans to contribute more, and they generally have responded with pledges to do just a little bit more. The pattern may be repeated in Brussels.
There are two ways to look at the video below, and they are both right. It shows the remains of a soldier and his K-9 coming home for the last time from Afghanistan. The circumstances of their deaths are unknown.
If you can get through the video with dry eyes, you may not be human, or may not at least deserve the title. Someone replaced your heart with dry meat. Despite the sappy music, the expression of utter emotion packed into a mundane activity — unloading “cargo” from an airplane — is raw and undeniable and good. Each set of remains is brought from overseas into Dover, Delaware, where the U.S. military operates its largest mortuary and receiving facility. Each container is flag-draped and accompanied by military members, so the soldier is never alone on the long trip off the battlefield.
At Dover, s/he is cleaned up if possible for an open casket viewing by the family, and the body dressed in uniform with all decorations displayed. At that point, commercial air transport brings the deceased back to his or her home, in this case, Atlanta. Each serviceperson is escorted on the last flight by uniformed military personnel. The process is designed to show respect, and it does. It is only fitting and appropriate that it does so.
Delta Airlines’ staff at Atlanta have taken things further, organizing their own an honor guard, to add that much more to a final step.
No. no, the other way has nothing to do with not having this ceremony, or not honoring those who lost their lives.
This “other way” of looking at all this is to stop turning healthy young men and women into “remains” for causes of unclear purposes. After coming into office promising to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as begun with the darkest of hearts by his predecessor George W. Bush, President Barack Obama will leave eight years later having accomplished neither task. After overseeing an “end” to what some now call Iraq War 2.0 in 2011, Obama reinserted American forces back into that country in 2014 for Iraq War 3.0. There is no end in sight.
Now, in Afghanistan, conditions are such that top U.S. military commanders, who only a few months ago were planning to pull the last American troops out of Afghanistan by year’s end, are now discussing a commitment that could keep thousands of troops in the country for decades, an “enduring presence.”
Bring them home, Mr. President. Alive.
Hey, did you wake up today wondering what was going on in Afghanistan, America’s 51st state, you know, the one we’ve been occupying for over 14 years, that one where thousands of Americans have died and where thousands still serve? Yeah, that Afghanistan.
The truth? Things kinda suck donkey over there.
Sure, of course, I can be more specific. But better let the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) tell the tale, via it released its thirtieth Quarterly Report to Congress. The quarterly report notes:
— Despite more than a decade of reconstruction and development efforts, the Afghan economy remains in fragile and worsening condition. Intractable insurgents, cutbacks in foreign military personnel, persistent emigration of people and capital, and a slowing global economy are shifting Afghanistan’s economic prospects from troubling to bleak.
— Afghanistan is even more dangerous than it was a year ago. The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.
— The lack of security has made it almost impossible for many U.S. and even some Afghan officials to get out to manage and inspect U.S.-funded reconstruction projects. The dangers of absent oversight were exposed when a task force appointed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani found millions of dollars were being embezzled while Afghanistan pays for numerous nonexistent “ghost” schools, “ghost” teachers, and “ghost” students.
— Members of Congress have asked SIGAR to conduct an inquiry into the U.S. government’s experience with allegations of sexual abuse of children committed by members of the Afghan security forces the U.S. is paying for.
— Afghanistan’s domestic revenues paid for only 40% of the nation’s budget expenditures. The country’s large budget deficits and trade imbalances will require substantial donor aid for the foreseeable future.
— Cumulative funding for Afghanistan reconstruction increased to approximately $113.1 billion, with approximately $11.5 billion more in the pipeline for disbursement. A total of $8.4 billion of the reconstruction funding has been provided for counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan.
— This quarter, Afghan National Defense and Security Forces assigned force strength was 322,638 (including civilians). This reflects a decrease of 2,078 since July 2015 and 9,306 since May 2015.
— Since 2003, USAID has spent at least $2.3 billion on stability programs in Afghanistan. The findings of a USAID-contracted, third-party evaluation program on the impacts of its stabilization projects raise worrying questions. They reported, for example, that villages receiving USAID stability projects scored lower on stability than similar villages that received no such assistance.
— Some villages under Taliban control that received USAID stability projects subsequently showed greater pro-Taliban support. USAID appears to be largely indifferent to the implications of these findings.
Short answer: the Pentagon spent $800 million of your tax dollars to try and get businesses started in Afghanistan. They didn’t get any businesses started.
Nobody spent a f*cking penny to help Americans at home start businesses like that.
Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Brian McKeon told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support that maybe all that money wasn’t wasted. McKeon said that the costly effort “had mixed results, with some successes and some failures.” He urged patience before branding the whole project as entirely misguided. “It’s a little early to say,” he offered, adding that “the jury is still out” on the fate of various projects.
McKeon, however, listed no specific projects that succeeded and gave no information on why it may be too early to tell how things will work out in Afghanistan. He did not say out loud, but knew, that this sh*t has been going on in Afghanistan for more than 14 years already, so how can it still be too early to tell? Dude, you’re not aging whiskey here.
McKeon faced off before the subcommittee against John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), who described the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, known as TFBSO, the folks who spent that $800 million because they could not find a match to simply set fire to it, as a “scattershot approach.”
“It sounded like they just got together and they said, ‘Hey, this sounds like a great idea, and we have an unlimited budget. Let’s just do it and see if it works.’ And that’s why no one could really say with any credibility that the programs were effective,” Sopko remarked.
Sopko’s office has unleashed critical reports about Pentagon spending in Afghanistan — especially TFBSO, which was finally disbanded in a mercy killing last year. Financial records show that the task force spent $43 million on a compressed natural gas filling station that has been widely mocked as the world’s most expensive. It also spent upwards of $150 million on private villas and associated security, bankrolled a multi-million dollar Afghan start-up incubator that is now defunct, and even paid to import Italian goats in order to jumpstart the country’s cashmere industry.
“Now what I want to know, Secretary McKeon, is who made this decision?” Senator Claire McCaskill asked. “Who decided it was a brilliant idea when the people of a country make $690 a year that we’re going to spend — I don’t care if it was $2.9 million or $200 million — who made the brilliant decision that this is a good idea, to put a natural gas gas station in Afghanistan?”
McKeon wasn’t prepared to answer that question, though he added “I’m not a businessman. You make a lot of valid points.”
The U.S. government was nice enough to gift our loyal friends the Afghans $17 billion of your tax money, and, in the true spirit of giving, asked nothing in return for itself.
What that means in actual dollars and nonsense is that the U.S. government wasted $17 billion in taxpayer money in Afghanistan on various projects that never made it off the ground or were doomed to fail because of incompetence or lack of maintenance, according to a new report.
ProPublica looked at over 200 audits conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) over the last six years and tallied up the costs for the wide range of failed efforts to reach the $17 billion price tag. This greatest hits study only scratched the surface of the estimated $110 billion spent to rebuild the country (the U.S. spent some $47 billion in rebuilding Iraq, and how’d that work out?)
The new study touches on only the most egregious examples of waste, including:
— $8 million to end Afghanistan’s drug trade, which is flourishing today as never before;
— $2 billion for roads that the Afghan government is unlikely to maintain due to lack of funds and security concerns;
— $1 billion for unrealized criminal justice reform efforts;
— $936 million for aircraft that can’t be maintained;
— $486 million for cargo planes that can’t fly;
— $470 million on the Afghan Police;
— $43 million for a gas station that doesn’t work.
The timing of the report couldn’t be better. The chief of the watchdog office is slated to appear before a Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel shortly after lawmakers return from their extended holiday break.
That January 20 hearing was originally set to scrutinize only the work of the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, which spent $700-$800 million (no one knows the exact amount) on economic redevelopment in Afghanistan, as well as $150 million on villas and private security for the group’s staffers. The agenda will now likely expand to a whole-of-government waste review.
This story makes me so angry that I can’t even come up with my usual snarky introduction. I only weep.
The Guantánamo parole board approved the release of a Yemeni “forever prisoner,” dismissing intelligence that imprisoned the man for 13 years without trial. And if that level of evil and scorn for justice doesn’t radicalize a 100 people to join ISIS, then nothing can.
The so-called Gitmo Periodic Review Board heard the case of Mustafa al Shamiri, 37. Intelligence analysts, I’ll say it again, 13 years ago, wrongly labeled him as a high level al-Qaida guy, because his name was similar to actual extremists. For 13 years of hell, like some modern-day Jean Valjean, he was known only as Detainee 434 by his American jailers.
“In making this determination, the board noted that the most derogatory prior assessments regarding the detainee’s activities before detention have been discredited, and the current information shows that the detainee has low-level military capability.”
The military says the U.S. “ally” Northern Alliance captured Shamiri in Afghanistan in late November 2001 and held him for a time in a crammed fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif. He was then rendered over to the U.S. Such renditions were typically paid for in cash bounty by the U.S. to stock up its offshore penal colony.
Now look at him, Detainee 434 Mustafa al Shamiri:
How can we stop the Islamic State?
Imagine yourself shaken awake, rushed off to a strategy meeting with your presidential candidate of choice, and told: “Come up with a plan for me to do something about ISIS!” What would you say?
What Hasn’t Worked
You’d need to start with a persuasive review of what hasn’t worked over the past 14-plus years. American actions against terrorism — the Islamic State being just the latest flavor — have flopped on a remarkable scale, yet remain remarkably attractive to our present crew of candidates. (Bernie Sanders might be the only exception, though he supports forming yet another coalition to defeat ISIS.)
Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.
Since the June 2014 start of Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run. Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.” The CIA estimates that the Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 begins.
How about the capture of cities then? Well, the U.S. and its partners have already gone a few rounds when it comes to taking cities. After all, U.S. troops claimed Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, in 2003, only to see the American-trained Iraqi army lose it to ISIS in May 2015, and U.S-trained Iraqi special operations troops backed by U.S. air power retake it (in almost completely destroyed condition) as 2015 ended. As one pundit put it, the destruction and the cost of rebuilding make Ramadi “a victory in the worst possible sense.” Yet the battle cry in Washington and Baghdad remains “On to Mosul!”
Similar “successes” have regularly been invoked when it came to ridding the world of evil tyrants, whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, only to see years of blowback follow. Same for terrorist masterminds, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as minor-minds (Jihadi John in Syria), only to see others pop up and terror outfits spread. The sum of all this activity, 14-plus years of it, has been ever more failed states and ungoverned spaces.
If your candidate needs a what-hasn’t-worked summary statement, it’s simple: everything.
How Dangerous Is Islamic Terrorism for Americans?
To any argument you make to your preferred presidential candidate about what did not “work,” you need to add a sober assessment of the real impact of terrorism on the United States in order to ask the question: Why exactly are we engaged in this war on this scale?
Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11. Argue about the number if you want. In fact, double or triple it and it still adds up to a tragic but undeniable drop in the bucket. To gain some perspective, pick your favorite comparison: number of Americans killed since 9/11 by guns (more than 400,000) or by drunk drivers in 2012 alone (more than 10,000).
And spare us the tired trope about how security measures at our airports and elsewhere have saved us from who knows how many attacks. A recent test by the Department of Homeland’s own Inspector General’s Office showed that 95% of contraband, including weapons and explosives, got through airport screening without being detected. Could it be that there just aren’t as many bad guys out there aiming to take down our country as candidates on the campaign trail would like to imagine?
Or take a look at the National Security Agency’s Fourth Amendment-smothering blanket surveillance. How’d that do against the Boston bombing or the attacks in San Bernardino? There’s no evidence it has ever uncovered a real terror plot against this country.
Islamic terrorism in the United States is less a serious danger than a carefully curated fear.
Introduce Your Candidate to the Real World
You should have your candidate’s attention by now. Time to remind him or her that Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.
So start advising your candidate that a proper response to the Islamic State has to be proportional to the real threat. After all, we have fire departments always on call, but they don’t ride around spraying water on homes 24/7 out of “an abundance of caution.”
We Have to Do Something
So here’s what you might suggest that your candidate do, because you know that s/he will demand to “do something.”
Start by suggesting that, as a society, we take a deep look at ourselves, our leaders, and our media, and stop fanning everyone’s flames. It’s time, among other things, to stop harassing and discriminating against our own Muslim population, only to stand by slack-jawed as a few of them become radicalized, and Washington then blames Twitter. As president, you need to opt out of all this, and dissuade others from buying into it.
As for the Islamic State itself, it can’t survive, never mind fight, without funds. So candidate, it’s time to man/woman up, and go after the real sources of funding.
As long as the U.S. insists on flying air attack sorties (and your candidate may unfortunately need to do so to cover his/her right flank), direct them far more intensely than at present against one of ISIS’s main sources of cash: oil exports. Blow up trucks moving oil. Blow up wellheads in ISIS-dominated areas. Finding targets is not hard. The Russians released reconnaissance photos showing what they claimed were 12,000 trucks loaded with smuggled oil, backed up near the Turkish border.
But remind your candidate that this would not be an expansion of the air war or a shifting from one bombing campaign to a new one. It would be a short-term move, with a defined end point of shutting down the flow of oil. It would only be one part of a far larger effort to shut down ISIS’s sources of funds.
Next, use whatever diplomatic and economic pressure is available to make it clear to whomever in Turkey that it’s time to stop facilitating the flow of that ISIS oil onto the black market. Then wield that same diplomatic and economic pressure to force buyers to stop purchasing it. Some reports suggest that Israel, cut off from most Arab sources of oil, has become a major buyer of ISIS’s supplies. If so, step on some allied toes. C’mon, someone is buying all that black-market black gold.
The same should go for Turkey’s behavior toward ISIS. That would extend from its determination to fight Kurdish forces fighting ISIS to the way it’s allowed jihadis to enter Syria through its territory to the way it’s funneled arms to various extreme Islamic groups in that country. Engage Turkey’s fellow NATO members. Let them do some of the heavy lifting. They have a dog in this fight, too.
And speaking of stepping on allied toes, make it clear to the Saudis and other Sunni Persian Gulf states that they must stop sending money to ISIS. Yes, we’re told that this flow of “donations” comes from private citizens, not the Saudi government or those of its neighbors. Even so, they should be capable of exerting pressure to close the valve. Forget a “no-fly zone” over northern Syria — another fruitless “solution” to the problem of the Islamic State that various presidential candidates are now plugging — and use the international banking system to create a no-flow zone.
You may not be able to stop every buck from reaching ISIS, but most of it will do in a situation where every dollar counts.
Your candidate will obviously then ask you, “What else? There must be more we can do, mustn’t there?”
To this, your answer should be blunt: Get out. Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.
In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.
This is history talking to us.
That Darn History Thing
Sometimes things change visibly at a specific moment: December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, or the morning of September 11, 2001. Sometimes the change is harder to pinpoint, like the start of the social upheaval that, in the U.S., came to be known as “the Sixties.”
In the Middle East after World War I, representatives of the victorious British and French drew up national boundaries without regard for ethnic, sectarian, religious, tribal, resource, or other realities. Their goal was to divvy up the defeated Ottoman Empire. Later, as their imperial systems collapsed, Washington moved in (though rejecting outright colonies for empire by proxy). Secular dictatorships were imposed on the region and supported by the West past their due dates. Any urge toward popular self-government was undermined or destroyed, as with the coup against elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, or the way the Obama administration manipulated the Arab Spring in Egypt, leading to the displacement of a democratically chosen government by a military coup in 2013.
In this larger context, the Islamic State is only a symptom, not the disease. Washington’s problem has been its desire to preserve a collapsing nation-state system at the heart of the Middle East. The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq certainly sped up the process in a particularly disastrous fashion. Twelve years later, there can’t be any question that the tide has turned in the Middle East — forever.
It’s time for the U.S. to stand back and let local actors deal with the present situation. ISIS’s threat to us is actually minimal. Its threat to those in the region is another matter entirely. Without Washington further roiling the situation, it’s a movement whose limits will quickly enough become apparent.
The war with ISIS is, in fact, a struggle of ideas, anti-western and anti-imperialist, suffused with religious feeling. You can’t bomb an idea or a religion away. Whatever Washington may want, much of the Middle East is heading toward non-secular governments, and toward the destruction of the monarchies and the military thugs still trying to preserve updated versions of the post-World War I system. In the process, borders, already dissolving, will sooner or later be redrawn in ways that reflect how people on the ground actually see themselves.
There is little use in questioning whether this is the right or wrong thing because there is little Washington can do to stop it. However, as we should have learned in these last 14 years, there is much it can do to make things far worse than they ever needed to be. The grim question today is simply how long this painful process takes and how high a cost it extracts. To take former President George W. Bush’s phrase and twist it a bit, you’re either with the flow of history or against it.
Initially, Washington’s military withdrawal from the heart of the Middle East will undoubtedly further upset the current precarious balances of power in the region. New vacuums will develop and unsavory characters will rush in. But the U.S. has a long history of either working pragmatically with less than charming figures (think: the Shah of Iran, Anwar Sadat, or Saddam Hussein before he became an enemy) or isolating them. Iran, currently the up-and-coming power in the area absent the United States, will no doubt benefit, but its reentry into the global system is equally inevitable.
And the oil will keep flowing; it has to. The countries of the Middle East have only one mighty export and need to import nearly everything else. You can’t eat oil, so you must sell it, and a large percentage of that oil is already sold to the highest bidder on world markets.
It’s true that, even in the wake of an American withdrawal, the Islamic State might still try to launch Paris-style attacks or encourage San Bernardino-style rampages because, from a recruitment and propaganda point of view, it’s advantageous to have the U.S. and the former colonial powers as your number one enemies. This was something Osama bin Laden realized early on vis-à-vis Washington. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in drawing the U.S. deeply into the quagmire and tricking Washington into doing much of his work for him. But the dangers of such attacks remain limited and can be lived with. As a nation, we survived World War II, decades of potential nuclear annihilation, and scores of threats larger than ISIS. It’s disingenuous to believe terrorism is a greater threat to our survival.
And here’s a simple reality to explain to your candidate: we can’t defend everything, not without losing everything in the process. We can try to lock down airports and federal buildings, but there is no way, nor should there be, to secure every San Bernardino holiday party, every school, and every bus stop. We should, in fact, be ashamed to be such a fear-based society here in the home of the brave. Today, sadly enough, the most salient example of American exceptionalism is being the world’s most scared country. Only in that sense could it be said that the terrorists are “winning” in America.
At this point, your candidate will undoubtedly say: “Wait! Won’t these ideas be hard to sell to the American people? Won’t our allies object?”
And the reply to that, at least for a candidate not convinced that more of the same is the only way to go, might be: “After more than 14 years of the wrong answers and the disasters that followed, do you have anything better to suggest?”
This one’s so funny that it must be some kind of U.S.-led initiative; I can’t believe the Afghans have this kind of a sense of humor.
But whatever the origin, Afghanistan banned the sale of imitation Kalashnikovs and other toy guns after they caused injuries to more than 100 people during the last Eid celebrations. Children toting toy guns that fire rubber or plastic pellets are a common sight in the country during Eid al-Fitr, with sales surging every year amid festivities marking the end of Ramadan.
More than 100 children and teenagers suffered eye injuries during the last round of celebrations, the interior ministry said. “We have ordered police forces to confiscate all toy guns which can lead to physical and psychological damage among people,” a ministry statement said.
Now of course the hilarity is that Afghanistan remains one of the most heavily-armed places on earth. It is more than likely that every kid with a toy gun either has his own AK at home, or lives in a house with a real AK (or two, or four…) Meanwhile, the countryside is strewn with land mines dating back to the British 19th century defeat, buried under Soviet mines from the 1980s, buried under American munitions of more recent vintage. Car bombs are not infrequent interruptions to Taliban firefights and if none of that puts a kid’s eye out, there are always “accidental” U.S. drone strikes to help paint the landscape with Afghan kid splat.
Nonetheless, while the Afghan government can do nothing about any of that, it does claim it wants to reduce the influence of war toys on impressionable young minds.
But every action has a consequence. The toy gun ban, if vigorously enforced by the lazy, corrupt Afghan police who can’t stop car bombs, never mind plastic guns, would impact the booming toy business in the country. That, along with opium production, are possibly the last two for-profit enterprises functioning in Afghanistan.
The ban follows an earlier increase on import tax for toy guns from 10 percent to 50 percent to discourage it. The move could lead to an emergence of adults’ black markets and smuggling networks for children’s toys, the Interior Ministry warned. That situation will then mirror the lucrative black market for real firearms. Hey kids, just like daddy!
According to the AFP news agency, the toy gun ban was widely welcomed on social media, with some calling for extending the crackdown to include sales of real weapons in the war-torn country. “This is a positive step that will stop children from taking up real arms when they grow up,” one Afghani wrote on Facebook. “Militancy and war has promoted a brutal culture of violence in our society that is impacting children.”
Like I said, those wacky Afghans. Who knew after centuries of war against foreign invaders they still have their sense of humor?
In an Op-Ed printed in the Washington Post, former General David Petraeus says it is time to “unleash our airpower in support of our Afghan partners in the same way that we support our Iraqi and Syrian partners against extremists.”
Petraeus went on to claim:
At present, U.S. and NATO airpower in Afghanistan is used only to attack validated al-Qaeda targets, to counter specific individuals or groups who have attacked coalition forces previously and to respond directly to attacks on coalition forces. According to leaders on the ground, U.S. and NATO forces are otherwise not allowed to attack Taliban targets. The situation appears to be in flux in regard to Islamic State elements, but through 2015, they too could be targeted only under narrow circumstances.
The former general, who lead the failed Surge in Iraq, and former head of the CIA, who was thrown out of the job after his extra-marital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, and after his being convicted of exposing classified information, went on to say:
We have the tools in place to step up our game considerably. When combined with a motivated and competent ground force, airpower can be quite effective. This was witnessed in 2001, when U.S. airpower and special operatives worked with the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban from power.
So at this point one must ask the key question: has Petraeus had a stroke or is he on Acid, because otherwise his statements ignore reality, perhaps the laws of time and space themselves.
To begin, Petraeus’ statement that airpower in 2001 “ousted the Taliban,” a statement made without apparent irony, would be hilarious if it was not utterly tragic. Petraeus seems to have missed a few meetings, at which he would have learned that since those victories in 2001 the Taliban has been doing just fine, thanks. The U.S. has remained inside the Afghan quagmire for more than 14 more years, and currently has no end game planned for the war. Air power, with or without “a motivated and competent ground force” (as if such a thing can ever exist in Afghanistan, we’ve been training and equipping there for 14 years), never is enough. There are examples to draw from going back into WWI.
It is also unclear on what information Petraeus is basing his statements that the U.S. is broadly “not allowed to attack Taliban targets.” Petraeus only refers to “leaders on the ground” as his source. We’d sure like to hear more about that.
And, David, how the hell did ISIS come into existence anyway, and how did they get into Afghanistan? U.S. have anything to do with that?
I get it. I get why the failed options are still so attractive. Bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground. A handful of Special Forces troops, American boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will turn the tide. Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” to abet the task at hand. It all sounds good, even though it is not.
Petraeus failed in Iraq (that war is still going on and on) and he failed at CIA. Oh, and yes, in 2010 Petraeus served as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, a period in which insurgent attacks on coalition forces spiked to record levels, and violence metastasized to previously stable areas.
So the most important question of all is why anyone is still listening to David Petraeus?
Iranians may have learned how to disrupt and spoof American encrypted GPS systems, and that new ability is connected to the downing of an American drone a few years ago, and also to the capture of two American Navy craft earlier this month.
If true, this new tech is a potential global game changer. Here’s some additional information on what might have happened recently in the Persian Gulf.
To recap, after some bumbling false explanation about engine failure, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter explained that the captured American sailors “made a navigational error that mistakenly took them into Iranian territorial waters.” He added that they “obviously had misnavigated” as they came within a few miles of Farsi Island, where Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has a naval base. The LA Times added “a sailor may have punched the wrong coordinates into the GPS and they wound up off course.”
All that “misnavigation” would have meant two boats making the identical error in some of the world’s most volatile waters, and that no backup systems as simple as those in your cell phone were available. Armed boats inside the Persian Gulf nosing around a foreign military base usually drive very, very carefully. Measure twice, cut once.
In 2011, when Iran downed an American drone that had “drifted” more than 100 miles into that nation from its flight path in Afghanistan, Iranian General Moharam Gholizadeh, the deputy for electronic warfare at the air defense headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, stated publicaly “We have a project on hand that is one step ahead of jamming, meaning ‘deception’ of the aggressive systems… we can define our own desired information for it so the path of the missile would change to our desired destination… all the movements of these [enemy drones are being watched]” and “obstructing” their work was “always on our agenda.”
Technology site Daily Tech explains how this might work:
A team uses a technique known as “spoofing” — sending a false signal for the purposes of obfuscation or other gain. In this case the signal in questions was the GPS feed, commonly acquired from several satellites [pictured above]. By spoofing the GPS feed, Iranian officials were able to convince the drone that it was in Afghanistan, close to its home base. At that point the drone’s autopilot functionality kicked in and triggered the landing. But rather than landing at a U.S. military base, the drone victim instead found itself captured at an Iranian military landing zone. Spoofing the GPS is a clever method, as it allows hackers to land on its own where they wanted it to, without having to crack the [encrypted] remote-control signals and communications.
What May Have Happened
If the Iranians have such technology, what happened in the Gulf with those two U.S. Navy boats is easy to explain. As they came close to Iranian territorial waters, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) spoofed both crafts’ GPS system simultaneously. The navigation systems were told the boats were outside of the line, when in fact they were inside the line by about a mile. Two systems with the same information displayed at the same time are unlikely to be questioned.
If the Iranians had such technology since 2011, and assuming they have not used it before against the U.S. in any undisclosed incidents, why did they employ it now, and against such meaningless targets as two small patrol boats?
Timing is everything. The nuclear deal the U.S. made with Iran was not popular among its own conservatives. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard represents a conservative body of thought in general, and are specifically in charge of much of the weapons-side of the nuclear program. That opens the door to two potential “why now” answers.
The first may have been to try and postpone or trash the nuclear deal at the last minute by sparking an international incident. Imagine if the more liberal, secular elements of the Iranian government had failed to get the American sailors released so quickly, and the whole mess developed into a full-blown hostage “crisis.” American war drums would have beat hard.
The second may be more subtle. The United States uses GPS technology to guide most of its long range weapons, the weapons that would play a significant role in any U.S. attacks on Iran. The Guards’ overt use of the spoofing tech may have been a warning shot to the U.S., a signal that any American aggression towards a non-nuclear Iran (as happened to non-nuclear Saddam, or in Libya soon after that nation abandoned its nuclear ambitions under U.S. pressure) would be complex, and possibly a failure. And if that wasn’t enough, the IRG may have sent a note via its actions that such tech could easily find its way into other unfriendly hands.
Speculation, of course. There may be an explanation for the boats’ misnavigation as simple as a young sailor’s human error. But the science suggests at least one other reason, with significant repercussions for years to come.
One of the unique things surrounding America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the extraordinary number of books written by servicemen and women.
Unlike in previous wars, the best telling of the soldiers’ stories has come from the soldiers themselves, and not from traditional journalists. Many of these books add to our understanding of people at war, while a few are just macho battle stories.
Some seek to reach into a war’s soul.
Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire is one from the latter category. Randy Brown, who blogs as “Charlie Sherpa,” is a 20-year Army veteran and the author. FOB Haiku (a FOB is a Forward Operating Base in mil-speak), via a series of short poems, takes the reader from boot camp through Afghanistan, to homecoming.
While Brown’s book-length work is the only one available now that demands we understand the Afghan War through poetry, the use of verse to express things often otherwise unsayable about war has a long history. From Homer’s Iliad through Walt Whitman’s plaintive descriptions of the American Civil War, the collision of something beautiful with something terrible has been an important part of war literature.
Brown’s writing is a worthy addition. For example, saying grace over a prepackaged meal (MRE), Brown is funny, but with an edge:
Forgive us our trespasses, for we have trespassed a lot today — kinda goes with the territory, and the job. And deliver us from evil, particularly that which we have done unto others. See also: “trespasses,” above.
Warning a new trooper too anxious to get into the fight:
War is often more boring than not. Then, it is scalding. Do not covet action.
Brown wistfully recalls his days as a National Guardsman, when training was laughed off as “summer camp.” Headed to Afghanistan post-military retirement as a reporter, Brown has to buy his own body armor online, noting it is part of a land of no refunds and no returns, as true for Afghanistan as it is for Internet commerce. He remembers his grandfather’s musket over the fireplace mantle as a proud symbol, and wonders if he could do the same with that armor. Should he make it home, of course.
A Vietnamese cab driver enroute to the airport asks too many questions about Afghanistan, leaving a hole in Brown, the irony — a Vietnamese asking about another American war — noted. In that same airport, Brown observes well-traveled suits confuse boots with heroes and buy us sandwiches, knowing they do not understand the shallowness of such a gesture, Brown bitter and generous in forgiving at the same time.
Speaking of other wars, or perhaps of all wars, Brown reaches for more epic tones:
Let all diffuse, dissolve and disappear in time. Because we are not dust, but water – moving in spaces between nations. We are not ashes, but waves.
But the strongest writing here is in the final section, Homecoming. Brown remembers the blessed smell of earth at his farm, experiences shock at the fried-food excesses of a county fair, and expresses a soldier’s sense of wonder reuniting with his family. He is frustrated with the difficulty of re-establishing relationships with his children, begging a too-young daughter to cling to a turn looking at the night sky with him, finally saying to her:
Wars and presidents will come and go. So, too, will parents and children and other first loves. All will be eclipsed in memory, leaving you. Remember this.
We are the stories we tell ourselves, Brown writes near the end of Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. These poems are the stories he brought home to tell us.
Ho, ho, ho, can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. That might as well be America’s war of terror slogan (copyright, 2001-2015.)
So see if you can sort out the Good from the Bad. Pretend you’re Secretary of State and this is a puzzle Barack has asked you to solve. Here are the facts:
Afghan militiamen loyal to no government but currently used by Haji Zahir, deputy speaker of the U.S.-created Afghan parliament, beheaded four Islamic State fighters and publicly displayed their severed heads. This ultra-violence highlights an increasingly brutal conflict as ISIS makes inroads in Afghanistan.
The beheadings by the Afghans of ISIS are in retaliation for ISIS earlier beheading four of Zahir’s own Afghan fighters. In what is a great statement, Zahir said “If they behead you, behead your son, do you expect us to cook sweets for them? Sweets are not distributed during war. People die.”
To make his point crystal clear, Zahir’s men placed the severed heads of the four ISIS fighters atop stacks of stones on the side of a main road.
ISIS, for its part, continues to scoop up disaffected Taliban fighters, who are unhappy with their own group’s level of violence and are increasingly lured by ISIS’ signature brutality.
— ISIS is now a thing in Afghanistan, after 14+ years of American occupation and nation building there. Fun facts: ISIS did not even exist when the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and the younger American soldiers now deployed there were in First Grade when the initial U.S. invasion kicked off;
— The deputy speaker of the U.S.-created Afghan parliament has his own militia;
— People sort of on the good Afghan side are doing the same brutal things such as beheadings without U.S. condemnation, as ISIS is doing elsewhere with U.S. condemnation, but that’s OK;
— Afghanistan is so f*cked;
— And so sorry to the 3,512 American and coalition deaths expended to create that free Afghanistan! Things will work out better in Syria, we promise.
Here’s what happened:
The three Navy SEALs stomped on bound Afghan detainees and dropped heavy stones on their chests. They stood on the prisoners’ heads and poured bottles of water on their faces in an improvised form of waterboarding.
A bomb had exploded at an Afghan Local Police checkpoint where the SEALs were conducting training. Angered by the death of one of their comrades, the police rounded up half a dozen or more “suspects” from a nearby village. Along the way, they beat them with rifle butts and car antennas. The men from SEAL Team 2 joined in, jump-kicking a man kneeling on the ground. They beat one detainee to death.
Four American soldiers working with the SEALs reported the episode. In a Navy criminal investigation, two American support personnel said they had witnessed the abuse by the SEALs, as did a local police officer. Another Afghan provided a detailed account to investigators.
SEAL command cleared the Team 2 members of any wrongdoing in a closed disciplinary process that is typically used only for minor infractions, disregarding a Navy lawyer’s recommendation that the troops face assault charges. Three of the SEALs have since been promoted, even though their commander in Afghanistan recommended that they be forced out of the elite teams.
Should we care? Yes, we should care.
The moral high ground is about all we have left on our side in the failed war of terror. The beating is horrific, and will echo through Afghan society and beyond. The lack of penalty against the SEALS is almost worse, because, like what happens all too often here in the Homeland everytime a cop gets away with the murder or beating of one of us, it simply sends the signal to the troops that their behavior is OK. Maybe the message is war justifies everything, or simply boys will be boys, or, like the Blue Line, thugs need to stick together and cover each others’ backs, right or wrong.
A man who had no reason to die is dead in Afghanistan (and Baltimore, and New York, and…) and no one is held responsible. See the pattern?
Just like their Sugar Daddy America bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan “by accident,” the Saudis bombed for the second time this year a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Yemen.
But it’s OK — just like the U.S., the Saudis will conduct an investigation of themselves, no doubt leading to the conclusion that as in Afghanistan, it was all a mistake.
Under any variant of the rules of war, international law and just plain humanity, it is illegal, wrong and immoral to bomb a medical facility. Doctors Without Borders, an international nongovernmental organization, is however an attractive target in modern war, because they treat all people who need medical care equally. That means they may be bandaging up a civilian child in one bed while working on a “rebel” fighter in the next bed. They believe strongly in helping those who require help.
That bothers folks like the United States and Saudi. Big countries have their own medical facilities for their soldiers. They have the air assets to whisk wounded soldiers off the battlefield to trauma care centers located safely behind friendly lines. In their minds, Doctors Without Borders exist primarily to give aid to the enemy. Boom!
Back to the Saudis. They have said they will form a “fact-finding committee” to investigate “allegations” that coalition warplanes had bombed a clinic in Yemen operated by Doctors Without Borders. Doctors Without Borders routinely and repeatedly provides all sides in conflict with their clinics’ coordinates to avoid such attacks. In an era of GPS-controlled weapons, that should be sufficient.
The photo above shows the hospital in Yemen. Note that like in Kunduz, it is a large structure somewhat separated from surrounding buildings. Hard to miss.
As in Afghanistan, only one side has airpower. The Saudi “coalition” has been fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen since March and controls the airspace over the country. The strikes on Wednesday were the second Saudi attack on a Doctors Without Borders medical site in Yemen in less than two months.
The Saudis were quite blunt: They urged aid agencies to “remain away from the places where the Houthi militias are present.”
If you are in the New York City area, Monday, December 7 at 7 pm, please join me and several other writers for a series of book readings and some good discussion.
The event, organized by Words After War, will be held at The Folly, a nice bar located at 92 W Houston St, New York, NY 10012. Get there a little early and catch the end of happy hour.
I’ll be reading from my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, as well as offering a sneak preview of my next book, Hooper’s War, a novel set in World War II Japan.
I will share the stage with three other writers.
Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose creative nonfiction focuses on the intersections of history, memory, and family. Her essays have previously appeared online for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Narratively, and Saveur, among others. She is currently at work on a book project about World War II and the lasting consequences of trauma.
Adrian Bonenberger is an author, essayist, and journalist currently studying at SUNY Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA program for creative writing. He is lecturing at Yale University Fall 2015, a course titled “Memoir and the War on Terror,” following an Army career that included two tours to Afghanistan. His war memoirs, Afghan Post, were released in January 2014.
Brandon Caro is the author of the debut novel, Old Silk Road (It is excellent; I’ll have a review here soon.) He was a Navy corpsman/combat medic and advisor to the Afghan National Army in Afghanistan from 2006-2007. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, and elsewhere.
See you on Monday, December 7!
Mustafa Abd-al-Qawi Abd-al-Aziz al-Shamiri was captured in 2002 and believed then to be a major al Qaeda facilitator or courier, or maybe a trainer, according to the Department of Defense.
He was interrogated “vigorously” and when he did not admit to those activities and did not supply detailed, high level information on al Qaeda, was thrown away, without charge, into America’s offshore penal colony at Guantanamo Bay.
For 13 years.
Now, desiring after 13 years to reduce the prison population at Gitmo, the Department of Defense says al-Shamiri’s imprisonment was all a simply mistake of confused identity. In the Kafkaesque world America created post-9/11, al-Shamiri could not answer his torturers because he had no knowledge of what they were demanding from him. His silence was taken as insolence, and he was punished accordingly.
For 13 years.
Al-Shamiri is now age 37. He spent about one third of his entire life in Gitmo because of a mistake. And if somehow you are not human enough to be moved by that alone, perhaps you can care about the $2.7 million per prisoner per year it costs the U.S. to keep a person in Guantanamo.
For 13 years, the cost was $35 million (+ a life.)
“We now judge that these activities [first attributed to al-Shamiri] were carried out by other known extremists” with similar names or aliases, the Department of Defense stated as part of its plan to finally release al-Shamiri.
“Fragmentary reporting” did link the al-Shamiri to fighting in Bosnia in 1995. He also told interrogators that he fought in Afghanistan with the Taliban from 2000 to 2001. He was at worst one of tens of thousands of foot soldiers, never a mastermind or significant threat. He did not belong in the high-security confines of Gitmo. But he was left there.
For 13 years.
With more than a little irony, al-Shamiri will not be returned to his native Yemen. Following a U.S.-led change of government there, and years of American anti-terror actions in the country, civil war broke out. American aid to Saudi Arabia enabled a bombing campaign against civilian targets. Iranian proxy fighters moving into the power vacuum completed the transition of Yemen into a fully-failed state.
Al-Shamiri’s representative stated “He wants to make a life for himself. He is aware that Yemen is not an option and he is willing to go to any country that will accept him.”
There have been no plans announced to offer any form of restitution to al-Shamiri to help him restart his life.
After 13 years. Shame, shame on us.
So file this one under “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” subcategory, “Everything.”
American ally the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has dispatched hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to Yemen to fight in that country’s raging conflict, adding a volatile new element in a complex proxy war that has drawn in the United States and Iran, reports the New York Times.
It is the first combat deployment for the mercenary army that the Emirates has built up over the past five years. And — small world –the army was raised and for its few years run by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater. The mercs are presently controlled by the small Emirati military while Prince presumably has moved on to create private merc armies for others we’ll someday learn about.
The arrival in Yemen of 450 Latin American troops — among them are also Panamanian, Salvadoran and Chilean soldiers — adds to the volatile stew of government armies, armed tribes, terrorist networks and Yemeni militias currently at war in the country. Earlier this year, a coalition of Sunni countries led by Saudi Arabia, including the United States, began a military campaign in Yemen against Shia Houthi rebels supported by Iran. So, in theory, the merc army is semi-on the same side as the U.S.
As background, we all do remember that the U.S. government previously employed Erik Prince’s Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq as security for the American embassy and State Department diplomats.
After Blackwater imploded, killing 14 innocent Iraqi civilians and wounding 17 others, in Nisour Square and after a few name changes (Xe, Academi) to hide the fact that Blackwater was still employed by the State Department long after, the mercenary contracts moved to other similar but unrelated companies. Those companies in turn employed mercenaries from various countries in service to the USG. In addition to many mercs from Central and South America, popular hired guns also were recruited from Africa, where child soldiers and constant warfare created a steady pool of trained recruits.
“Mercenaries are an attractive option for rich countries who wish to wage war yet whose citizens may not want to fight,” said Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order.
“The private military industry is global now,” said McFate, adding that the United States essentially “legitimized” the industry with its heavy reliance on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan over more than a decade of war.
BONUS: Erik Prince is now chairman of another security firm, Frontier Services Group. It focuses heavily on providing logistics and aviation support in Africa. The company has a fleet of Cessna aircraft and “holds important customer approvals from the United Nations, the British government and the U.S. government.”
And what could possibly go wrong with all that?
Should Islamic State take things further and strike an American civilian target, President Barack Obama would be all but forced to “do something.” What would that “something” likely look like, and what might be the pitfalls?
Post-Paris, France and the United States immediately increased their air campaign in Syria. The visuals play well on television, as American audiences have seen over the last 24 years of airstrikes on Iraq. For an Obama appeared wary of deeper involvement in Syria, this may be enough to tamp down the pressure assuming no future attack on American civilians. France may also find a short and sharp set of revenge attacks enough for the near term, as Jordan did in at the beginning of this year, after the horrific burning alive of one its pilots captured by Islamic State. Things could settle back into a more routine fight.
However, if Islamic State were to strike against Americans, President Obama would almost be required to escalate, and more of the same airstrikes and colorful missile launches would not satisfy demands for vengeance. They would not have been sufficient a year ago, and certainly not in the midst of a presidential campaign. Any perceived lack of resolve would hand the Republicans a red, white and blue issue to take them through the next 12 months, and Hillary Clinton would be forced to break with the White House.
America’s escalation could take only one form: many more American boots on the ground.
No one would call it an invasion, but that is what it would be, regardless of scale. The most likely paths into Syria would be through Turkey if that government blessed it (and remember, Turkey refused to open their borders for the 2003 American invasion of Iraq), or, most likely, via Jordan, with a smaller force from the northeast, across the Iraqi border.
The United States has a notably infrastructure and a compliant government in place in Jordan. In May of this year, thousands of soldiers from 18 countries took part in war games in Jordan, overseen by the American Army. The Jordanians themselves are already considering a militarized “humanitarian corridor” into Syria that could easily morph into an invasion route.
Since 2013, the United States has been growing its military presence in Jordan, to include strike aircraft, missle defenses and strategic planners, lots of planners, the infrastructure of war. An attack against Islamic State from the south might also isolate Damascus for follow-on action against Assad. From a military point of view, Israel and the Golan Heights it controls provide neat protection on the invasion’s left flank. Lastly, Jordanian involvement would help dress up the American invasion by giving it something of an Arab face.
Sending large numbers of troops into Syria from the northeast, via Iraq, would likely encouch on Islamic State’s strongholds in northern Iraq and sandwich the United States between them and Islamic State fighters in northern Syria. Foreign fighters could also find their way in across the Turkish border. Still, moving airborne and special operations troops through Kurdish-held areas would be possible and necessary to reach Islamic State from another front.
It would very surprising to see any significant American escalation in Iraq proper, absent perhaps inside the Kurdish confederacy. Americans dying once again in the Iraqi desert would be a tough sell domestically, the Iraqi government in Baghdad and its Iranian partners would be less than receptive, and militarily dividing Islamic State into a Syrian force and an Iraqi force would accomplish much on its own without re-inserting American troops into the Iraqi civil war.
The problem with all this chess playing is the identical one that bred Islamic State into existence in the first place.
As the United States saw in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, winning on the battlefield is the easy part. Assuming Islamic State could be physically destroyed (a big assumption itself given its diffuse nature and political support among many Sunnis), what follows? Who will govern “liberated” areas? How much land will the Kurds seize for themselves in northern Syria and how will Turkey react to that? Syria is a wrecked wasteland flooded with internally displaced persons. Who will pay for reconstruction, and why would anyone think it would work any better in Syria than it did in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will the Russians simply stand aside?
Scenarios that put boots on the ground are easy to foresee, and the possible on-the-ground strategies are clear enough to speculate on. How to deal with the aftermath is what really matters, and what’s the plan for that?
You don’t want to read this, and I take no pleasure in writing it, and no one really wants to hear it right now. But I believe it needs to be said.
I join the world in grieving for the dead in Paris. I have grieved for the dead from 9/11 forward — the Australians who died in terror attacks on Bali in 2002, Londoners who died in terror attacks in 2005, the French citizens who died in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January of this year, the Russians whose plane went down over the Sinai a week or so ago. So many more non-Western deaths barely noticed in the U.S. media. I grieve also for those killed in smaller attacks already smuggled deep into the obscurity of our memory.
And so we Tweet hashtags and phrases in high school French and post GIFs to Facebook. We know what to do; we’ve done this before.
But it has to be said, especially looking at the sick repetition of the same story, that despite fourteen plus years of a war on terror, terror seems to be with us as much as ever, maybe even more. It is time to rethink what we have done and are doing.
Since that day in 2001, the one with those terrible sparkling blue skies in New York, we have spied on the world, Americans at home and foreigners abroad, yet no one detected anything that stopped the Paris attacks. We gave up much to that spying and got nothing in return.
Since 2001, the United States has led nations like Britain, France, Australia and others into wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, with drone attacks on people from the Philippines to Pakistan to all parts of Africa. We have little to nothing to show for all that.
Since 2001 the U.S. has expended enormous efforts to kill a handful of men — bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, al-Awlaki, and this weekend, Jihadi John. Others, many without names, were killed outside of media attention, or were tortured to death, or are still rotting in the offshore penal colony of Guantanamo, or the dark hell of the Salt Pit in Afghanistan.
And it has not worked, and Paris this weekend, and the next one somewhere else sometime soon, are the proof.
We gave up many of our freedoms in America to defeat the terrorists. It did not work. We gave the lives of over 4,000 American men and women in Iraq, and thousands more in Afghanistan, to defeat the terrorists, and refuse to ask what they died for. We killed tens of thousands or more in those countries. It did not work. We went to war again in Iraq, and now in Syria, before in Libya, and only created more failed states and ungoverned spaces that provide havens for terrorists and spilled terror like dropped paint across borders. We harass and discriminate against our own Muslim populations and then stand slack-jawed as they become radicalized, and all we do then is blame ISIS for Tweeting.
Note that it is the strategy of Islamic terror to generate a crackdown in France in order to radicalise French Muslims. Hundreds of French citizens have already traveled to Syria to fight with groups including ISIS.
As one of the most intelligent commentators on all this, Bill Johnson, said, terrorism is about killing pawns to affect the king. The attacks in Paris are not about the murder of 150 innocent people. Hell, that many die nearly every day in Iraq and Syria. The true test for France is how they respond to the terror attacks in the long-game — that’s the king in all this. America failed this test post-9/11; yet it does not sound like France understands anything more than America. “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless,” French president Hollande said outside the Bataclan concert hall, scene of the most bloodshed.
If I had exactly the right strategy, I’d tell you what it is, and I’d try and tell the people in Washington and Paris and everywhere else. But I don’t have the exact thing to do, and I doubt they’d listen to me anyway.
But I do have this: stop what we have been doing for the last 14 years. It has not worked. There is nothing at all to suggest it ever will work. Whack-a-mole is a game, not a plan. Leave the Middle East alone. Stop creating more failed states. Stop throwing away our freedoms at home on falsehoods. Stop disenfranchising the Muslims who live with us. Understand the war, such as it is, is against a set of ideas — religious, anti-western, anti-imperialist — and you cannot bomb an idea. Putting western soldiers on the ground in the MidEast and western planes overhead fans the flames. Vengeance does not and cannot extinguish an idea.
Start with those things and see, even if you won’t give it 14 years to succeed, if things improve. Other than the death tolls scaling up further, I can’t imagine we could be doing anything worse.
A guest article today by Tom Englehardt, orginally published on his own website, TomDispatch.com, as “The American Way of War in the Twenty-First Century”
Let’s begin with the $12 billion in shrink-wrapped $100 bills, Iraqi oil money held in the U.S. The Bush administration began flying it into Baghdad on C-130s soon after U.S. troops entered that city in April 2003. Essentially dumped into the void that had once been the Iraqi state, at least $1.2 to $1.6 billion of it was stolen and ended up years later in a mysterious bunker in Lebanon. And that’s just what happened as the starting gun went off.
It’s never ended. In 2011, the final report of the congressionally mandated Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated that somewhere between $31 billion and $60 billion taxpayer dollars had been lost to fraud and waste in the American “reconstruction” of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, for instance, there was that $75 million police academy, initially hailed “as crucial to U.S. efforts to prepare Iraqis to take control of the country’s security.” It was, however, so poorly constructed that it proved a health hazard. In 2006, “feces and urine rained from the ceilings in [its] student barracks” and that was only the beginning of its problems.
When the bad press started, Parsons Corporation, the private contractor that built it, agreed to fix it for nothing more than the princely sum already paid. A year later, a New York Times reporter visited and found that “the ceilings are still stained with excrement, parts of the structures are crumbling, and sections of the buildings are unusable because the toilets are filthy and nonfunctioning.” This seems to have been par for the course. Typically enough, the Khan Bani Saad Correctional Facility, a $40 million prison Parsons also contracted to build, was never even finished.
And these were hardly isolated cases or problems specific to Iraq. Consider, for instance, those police stations in Afghanistan believed to be crucial to “standing up” a new security force in that country. Despite the money poured into them and endless cost overruns, many were either never completed or never built, leaving new Afghan police recruits camping out. And the police were hardly alone. Take the $3.4 million unfinished teacher-training center in Sheberghan, Afghanistan, that an Iraqi company was contracted to build (using, of course, American dollars) and from which it walked away, money in hand.
And why stick to buildings, when there were those Iraqi roads to nowhere paid for by American dollars? At least one of them did at least prove useful to insurgent groups moving their guerrillas around (like the $37 million bridge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built between Afghanistan and Tajikistan that helped facilitate the region’s booming drug trade in opium and heroin). In Afghanistan, Highway 1 between the capital Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar, unofficially dubbed the “highway to nowhere,” was so poorly constructed that it began crumbling in its first Afghan winter.
And don’t think that this was an aberration. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) hired an American nonprofit, International Relief and Development (IRD), to oversee an ambitious road-building program meant to gain the support of rural villagers. Almost $300 million later, it could point to “less than 100 miles of gravel road completed.” Each mile of road had, by then, cost U.S. taxpayers $2.8 million, instead of the expected $290,000, while a quarter of the road-building funds reportedly went directly to IRD for administrative and staff costs. Needless to say, as the road program failed, USAID hired IRD to oversee other non-transportation projects.
In these years, the cost of reconstruction never stopped growing. In 2011, McClatchy News reported that “U.S. government funding for at least 15 large-scale programs and projects grew from just over $1 billion to nearly $3 billion despite the government’s questions about their effectiveness or cost.”
The Gas Station to Nowhere
So much construction and reconstruction — and so many failures. There was the chicken-processing plant built in Iraq for $2.58 million that, except in a few Potemkin-Village-like moments, never plucked a chicken and sent it to market. There was the sparkling new, 64,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, $25 million headquarters for the U.S. military in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, that doubled in cost as it was being built and that three generals tried to stop. They were overruled because Congress had already allotted the money for it, so why not spend it, even though it would never be used? And don’t forget the $20 million that went into constructing roads and utilities for the base that was to hold it, or the $8.4 billion that went into Afghan opium-poppy-suppression and anti-drug programs and resulted in… bumper poppy crops and record opium yields, or the aid funds that somehow made their way directly into the hands of the Taliban (reputedly its second-largest funding source after those poppies).
There were the billions of dollars in aid that no one could account for, and a significant percentage of the 465,000 small arms (rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and the like) that the U.S. shipped to Afghanistan and simply lost track of. Most recently, there was the Task Force for Business Stability Operations, an $800-million Pentagon project to help jump-start the Afghan economy. It was shut down only six months ago and yet, in response to requests from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Pentagon swears that there are “no Defense Department personnel who can answer questions about” what the task force did with its money. As ProPublica’s Megan McCloskey writes, “The Pentagon’s claims are particularly surprising since Joseph Catalino, the former acting director of the task force who was with the program for two years, is still employed by the Pentagon as Senior Advisor for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism.”
Still, from that pile of unaccountable taxpayer dollars, one nearly $43 million chunk did prove traceable to a single project: the building of a compressed natural gas station. (The cost of constructing a similar gas station in neighboring Pakistan: $300,000.) Located in an area that seems to have had no infrastructure for delivering natural gas and no cars converted for the use of such fuel, it represented the only example on record in those years of a gas station to nowhere.
All of this just scratches the surface when it comes to the piles of money that were poured into an increasingly privatized version of the American way of war and, in the form of overcharges and abuses of every sort, often simply disappeared into the pockets of the warrior corporations that entered America’s war zones. In a sense, a surprising amount of the money that the Pentagon and U.S. civilian agencies “invested” in Iraq and Afghanistan never left the United States, since it went directly into the coffers of those companies.
Clearly, Washington had gone to war like a drunk on a bender, while the domestic infrastructure began to fray. At $109 billion by 2014, the American reconstruction program in Afghanistan was already, in today’s dollars, larger than the Marshall Plan (which helped put all of devastated Western Europe back on its feet after World War II) and still the country was a shambles. In Iraq, a mere $60 billion was squandered on the failed rebuilding of the country. Keep in mind that none of this takes into account the staggering billions spent by the Pentagon in both countries to build strings of bases, ranging in size from American towns (with all the amenities of home) to tiny outposts. There would be 505 of them in Iraq and at least 550 in Afghanistan. Most were, in the end, abandoned, dismantled, or sometimes simply looted. And don’t forget the vast quantities of fuel imported into Afghanistan to run the U.S. military machine in those years, some of which was siphoned off by American soldiers, to the tune of at least $15 million, and sold to local Afghans on the sly.
In other words, in the post-9/11 years, “reconstruction” and “war” have really been euphemisms for what, in other countries, we would recognize as a massive system of corruption.
And let’s not forget another kind of “reconstruction” then underway. In both countries, the U.S. was creating enormous militaries and police forces essentially from scratch to the tune of at least $25 billion in Iraq and $65 billion in Afghanistan. What’s striking about both of these security forces, once constructed, is how similar they turned out to be to those police academies, the unfinished schools, and that natural gas station. It can’t be purely coincidental that both of the forces Americans proudly “stood up” have turned out to be the definition of corrupt: that is, they were filled not just with genuine recruits but with serried ranks of “ghost personnel.”
In June 2014, after whole divisions of the Iraqi army collapsed and fled before modest numbers of Islamic State militants, abandoning much of their weaponry and equipment, it became clear that they had been significantly smaller in reality than on paper. And no wonder, as that army had enlisted 50,000 “ghost soldiers” (who existed only on paper and whose salaries were lining the pockets of commanders and others). In Afghanistan, the U.S. is still evidently helping to pay for similarly stunning numbers of phantom personnel, though no specific figures are available. (In 2009, an estimated more than 25% of the police force consisted of such ghosts.) As John Sopko, the U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan, warned last June: “We are paying a lot of money for ghosts in Afghanistan… whether they are ghost teachers, ghost doctors or ghost policeman or ghost soldiers.”
And lest you imagine that the U.S. military has learned its lesson, rest assured that it’s still quite capable of producing nonexistent proxy forces. Take the Pentagon-CIA program to train thousands of carefully vetted “moderate” Syrian rebels, equip them, arm them, and put them in the field to fight the Islamic State. Congress ponied up $500 million for it, $384 million of which was spent before that project was shut down as an abject failure. By then, less than 200 American-backed rebels had been trained and even less put into the field in Syria — and they were almost instantly kidnapped or killed, or they simply handed over their equipment to the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. At one point, according to the congressional testimony of the top American commander in the Middle East, only four or five American-produced rebels were left “in the field.” The cost-per-rebel sent into Syria, by the way, is now estimated at approximately $2 million.
A final footnote: the general who oversaw this program is, according to the New York Times, still a “rising star” in the Pentagon and in line for a promotion.
You’ve just revisited the privatized, twenty-first-century version of the American way of war, which proved to be a smorgasbord of scandal, mismanagement, and corruption as far as the eye could see. In the tradition of Watergate, perhaps the whole system could be dubbed Profli-gate, since American war making across the Greater Middle East has represented perhaps the most profligate and least effective use of funds in the history of modern warfare. In fact, here’s a word not usually associated with the U.S. military: the war system of this era seems to function remarkably like a monumental scam, a swindle, a fraud.
The evidence is in: the U.S. military can win battles, but not a war, not even against minimally armed minority insurgencies; it can “stand up” foreign militaries, but only if they are filled with phantom feet and if the forces themselves are as hollow as tombs; it can pour funds into the reconstruction of countries, a process guaranteed to leave them more prostrate than before; it can bomb, missile, and drone-kill significant numbers of terrorists and other enemies, even as their terror outfits and insurgent movements continue to grow stronger under the shadow of American air power. Fourteen years and five failed states later in the Greater Middle East, all of that seems irrefutable.
And here’s something else irrefutable: amid the defeats, corruption, and disappointments, there lurks a kind of success. After all, every disaster in which the U.S. military takes part only brings more bounty to the Pentagon. Domestically, every failure results in calls for yet more military interventions around the world. As a result, the military is so much bigger and better funded than it was on September 10, 2001. The commanders who led our forces into such failures have repeatedly been rewarded and much of the top brass, civilian and military, though they should have retired in shame, have taken ever more golden parachutes into the lucrative worlds of defense contractors, lobbyists, and consultancies.
All of this couldn’t be more obvious, though it’s seldom said. In short, there turns out to be much good fortune in the disaster business, a fact which gives the whole process the look of a classic swindle in which the patsies lose their shirts but the scam artists make out like bandits.
Add in one more thing: these days, the only part of the state held in great esteem by conservatives and the present batch of Republican presidential candidates is the U.S. military. All of them, with the exception of Rand Paul, swear that on entering the Oval Office they will let that military loose, sending in more troops, or special ops forces, or air power, and funding the various services even more lavishly; all of this despite overwhelming evidence that the U.S. military is incapable of spending a dollar responsibly or effectively monitoring what it’s done with the taxpayer funds in its possession. (If you don’t believe me, forget everything in this piece and just check out the finances of the most expensive weapons system in history, the F-35 Lightning II, which should really be redubbed the F-35 Overrun for its madly spiraling costs.)
But no matter. If a system works (particularly for those in it), why change it?