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?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
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.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
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?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Brandon Caro’s debut novel, Old Silk Road, is an important, tough read, both for the dirt-under-its-nails portrayal of soldiers at war, and for a complex plot that rewards a reader with insights into America’s longest war, in Afghanistan.
But be careful. This is not a typical book by another soldier (though Caro spent a year in Afghanistan as a combat medic.) Almost every one of those books follows an outline you’d think they issue to servicepeople as they muster out: get energized following 9/11, throw in a boot camp montage and then drop into Iraq or Afghanistan all wide-eyed. The death of a buddy and/or local child changes everything. Wrap it up with some angst and ship it off to the bestseller list.
Caro instead gives us three distinct but overlapping stories, the first two only lightly fictionalized.
The first portion of the book is the one soldiers will want to hand to friends who ask “what was it like over there.” Caro captures two of the most common aspects of modern war: endless tension about what might happen next, and endless boredom between occasional acts of horror. The narrator, Specialist Norman Rogers, himself a combat medic, and his small team, drift among America’s archipelago of bases in Afghanistan, at one point setting off on a “mission” to eat Mongolian BBQ at a Forward Operating Base.
The details are carefully rendered. It’s a travelogue of sorts, but pay attention; scenes that seem to drift past play tightly into the book’s conclusion. One detail disclosed early on is that Rogers is addicted to the morphine he is issued to use as a painkiller on wounded soldiers.
Caro offers us something of a training sequence in the second part of his book, but with a twist. He lays things bare in a seminal chapter called The Goat School (excerpt). The reference is to a controversial military training technique, in which medics practice on wounded goats (pigs are also used in real life.) This is not PETA-friendly. The animals are shot at close range, and left in the care of would-be medics to treat. About half-way through, the instructor shoots the animal again.
The final story told in the book is the most compelling. Rogers’ addiction turns him deeper and deeper into the drug, to the point where his hallucinations take over his life, and thus the story. He is guided through his visions by a shaman, appropriately and ironically in the guise of Pat Tillman.
(Tillman was America’s once-walking propaganda dream. A pro football player making a $3.6 million salary, he gave that all up and volunteered for combat. When he died in Afghanistan, his family was told he’d been killed by enemy fire charging up a hill. After media interest tapered off, the Pentagon notified Tillman’s family he had actually died as a result of friendly fire.)
Through his drugs and his shaman, Rogers (and author Caro) present a deeply sad meditation on America’s war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires, and America’s longest war is held up alongside others who failed earlier: the Greeks, the Mongols, the British and the Soviets. Echoes of the questions many Americans should be asking are present – Why did we invade? 14+ years later why are still occupying? Why do we believe we will win when everyone else failed? Rogers unwinding as a human being mirrors America’s own efforts at war.
Criticisms are few. The book shifts in time, in narrator and between the character’s world in and out of his morphine haze. The reader must pay careful attention. Some passages meant to show the hurry-up-and-wait nature of Army life may themselves drag a bit.
But no matter. Old Silk Road is an important addition to post-9/11 war literature. While the message in the hands of others could have been pedantic or whining, Caro is a skilled writer and presents a statement that is not anti-soldier and not anti-American, but clearly anti-war.
We are all lucky that the U.S. just wasted $43 million on a natural gas filling station in Afghanistan rather than here in Das Homeland. In America, the money would have likely just been pissed away on schools, roads, bridges or healthcare for the elderly, instead of helping promote freedom among the freaking
Taliban Afghans. Well done, Skippy.
Oh, the details. The sad, nearly-suicidally depressed staff at the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report this week on the Department of Defense’s Task Force for Stability and Business Operations (TFBSO) project to construct a compressed natural gas (CNG) automobile filling station in Afghanistan at a cost of $43 million to the American taxpayer.
That SIGAR report noted:
— The CNG station was built at a crazy exorbitant cost to U.S. taxpayers. In comparison to the $43 million spent in Afghanistan, a CNG station in Pakistan costs no more than $500,000 to construct. That makes it about 84 times as expensive in the Afghan edition.
— The Pentagon claimed to SIGAR it is unable to provide an explanation for the high cost of the project or answer any questions about the project. Sure, why not. SIGAR: So why’d this cost $43 million? Pentagon: F*ck, we don’t know. Go away.
— In addition, SIGAR “finds it both shocking and incredible” that the Pentagon asserts it no longer has any knowledge about its own Task Force for Stability and Business Operations (TFBSO) project, an $800 million program that reported directly to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Nope, just don’t know, brother, sorry, wish we could help you.
— But just before the Pentagon stopped knowing anything about its own program, the former program head said, “We do capitalism. We’re about helping companies make money.” Indeed.
— No evidence exists that TFBSO conducted a feasibility study before spending $43 million on the station. If TFBSO had conducted a feasibility study of the project, they might have noted that Afghanistan lacks the natural gas transmission and distribution infrastructure necessary to support a viable market for CNG vehicles.
— Additionally, it appears the cost of converting a car to run on CNG may be prohibitive for the average Afghan. TFBSO’s contractor stated that conversion to CNG costs $700 per car in Afghanistan, where the average annual income is $690. Oh, so close, assuming the average Afghan family did not wish to eat or purchase ammunition for a full year.
What if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003? How would things be different in the Middle East today? Was Iraq, in the words of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the “worst foreign policy blunder” in American history?
Let’s take a big-picture tour of the Middle East and try to answer those questions. But first, a request: after each paragraph that follows, could you make sure to add the question “What could possibly go wrong?”
Let the History Begin
In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering “terrorists” to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.
Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran’s decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran’s leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.
The Precipitating Event
Nailing down causation is a tricky thing. But like the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that kicked off the Great War, the one to end all others, America’s 2003 invasion was what novelists refer to as “the precipitating event,” the thing that may not actively cause every plot twist to come, but that certainly sets them in motion.
There hadn’t been such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East since, well, World War I, when Great Britain and France secretly reached the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Because the national boundaries created then did not respect on-the-ground tribal, political, ethnic, and religious realities, they could be said to have set the stage for much that was to come.
Now, fast forward to 2003, as the Middle East we had come to know began to unravel. Those U.S. troops had rolled into Baghdad only to find themselves standing there, slack-jawed, gazing at the chaos. Now, fast forward one more time to 2015 and let the grand tour of the unraveling begin!
The Sick Men of the Middle East: It’s easy enough to hustle through three countries in the region in various states of decay before heading into the heart of the chaos: Libya is a failed state, bleeding mayhem into northern Africa; Egypt failed its Arab Spring test and relies on the United States to support its anti-democratic (as well as anti-Islamic fundamentalist) militarized government; and Yemen is a disastrously failed state, now the scene of a proxy war between U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels (with a thriving al-Qaeda outfit and a small but growing arm of the Islamic State [ISIS] thrown into the bargain).
Iraq: Obama is now the fourth American president in a row to have ordered the bombing of Iraq and his successor will almost certainly be the fifth. If ever a post-Vietnam American adventure deserved to inherit the moniker of quagmire, Iraq is it.
And here’s the saddest part of the tale: the forces loosed there in 2003 have yet to reach their natural end point. Your money should be on the Shias, but imagining that there is only one Shia horse to bet on means missing just how broad the field really is. What passes for a Shia “government” in Baghdad today is a collection of interest groups, each with its own militia. Having replaced the old strongman prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, with a weak one, Haider al-Abadi, and with ISIS chased from the gates of Baghdad, each Shia faction is now free to jockey for position. The full impact of the cleaving of Iraq has yet to be felt. At some point expect a civil war inside a civil war.
Iran: If there is any unifying authority left in Iraq, it is Iran. After the initial 2003 blitzkrieg, the Bush administration’s version of neocolonial management in Iraq resulted in the rise of Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, and an influx of determined foreign fighters. Tehran rushed into the power vacuum, and, in 2011, in an agreement brokered by the departing Bush administration and carried out by President Obama, the Americans ran for the exits. The Iranians stayed. Now, they have entered an odd-couple marriage with the U.S. against what Washington pretends is a common foe — ISIS — but which the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad see as a war against the Sunnis in general. At this point, Washington has all but ceded Iraq to the new Persian Empire; everyone is just waiting for the paperwork to clear.
The Iranians continue to meddle in Syria as well, supporting Bashar al-Assad. Under Russian air cover, Iran is increasing its troop presence there, too. According to a recent report, Tehran is sending 2,000 troops to Syria, along with 5,000 Iraqi and Afghan Shia fighters. Perhaps they’re already calling it “the Surge” in Farsi.
The Kurds: The idea of creating a “Kurdistan” was crossed off the post-World War I “to do” list. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres at first left an opening for a referendum on whether the Kurds wanted to remain part of what remained of the Ottoman Empire or become independent. Problem one: the referendum did not include plans for the Kurds in what became Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of the so-called Turkish War of Independence. The result: some 20 million angry Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
That American invasion of 2003, however, opened the way for the Kurds to form a virtual independent statelet, a confederacy if you will, even if still confined within Iraq’s borders. At the time, the Kurds were labeled America’s only true friends in Iraq and rewarded with many weapons and much looking the other way, even as Bush administration officials blathered on about the goal of a united Iraq.
In 2014, the Kurds benefited from U.S. power a second time. Desperate for someone to fight ISIS after Iraq’s American-trained army turned tail (and before the Iranians and the Shia militias entered the fight in significant force), the Obama administration once again began sending arms and equipment to the Kurds while flying close air support for their militia, the peshmerga. The Kurds responded by fighting well, at least in what they considered the Kurdish part of Iraq. However, their interest in getting involved in the greater Sunni-Shia civil war was minimal. In a good turn for them, the U.S. military helped Kurdish forces move into northern Syria, right along the Turkish border. While fighting ISIS, the Kurds also began retaking territory they traditionally considered their own. They may yet be the true winners in all this, unless Turkey stands in their way.
Turkey: Relations between the Turks and the Kurds have never been rosy, both inside Turkey and along the Iraqi-Turkish border.
Inside Turkey, the primary Kurdish group calling for an independent state is the Kurdistan Workers party (also known as the PKK). Its first insurgency ran from 1984 until 1999, when the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire. The armed conflict broke out again in 2004, ending in a ceasefire in 2013, which was, in turn, broken recently. Over the years, the Turkish military also carried out repeated ground incursions and artillery strikes against the PKK inside Iraq.
As for ISIS, the Turks long had a kind of one-way “open-door policy” on their border with Syria, allowing Islamic State fighters and foreign volunteers to transit into that country. ISIS also brokered significant amounts of black market oil in Turkey to fund itself, perhaps with the tacit support, or at least the willful ignorance, of the Turkish authorities. While the Turks claimed to see ISIS as an anti-Assad force, some felt Turkey’s generous stance toward the movement reflected the government’s preference for having anything but an expanded Kurdish presence on its border. In June of this year, Turkish President Recep Erdogan went as far as to say that he would “never allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria.”
In light of all that, it’s hardly surprising that early Obama administration efforts to draw Turkey into the fight against ISIS were unsuccessful. Things changed in August 2015, when a supposedly anti-ISIS cooperation deal was reached with Washington. The Turks agreed to allow the Americans to fly strike missions from two air bases in Turkey against ISIS in Syria. However, there appeared to be an unpublicized quid pro quo: the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Turkish military action against its allies the Kurds. On the same day that Turkey announced that it would fight the Islamic State in earnest, it also began an air campaign against the PKK.
Washington, for its part, claimed that it had been “tricked” by the wily Turks, while adding, “We fully respect our ally Turkey’s right to self-defense.” In the process, the Kurds found themselves supported by the U.S. in the struggle with ISIS, even as they were being thrown to the (Turkish) wolves. There is a Kurdish expression suggesting that Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.” Should they ever achieve a trans-border Kurdistan, they will certainly have earned it.
Syria: Through a series of events almost impossible to sort out, having essentially supported the Arab Spring nowhere else, the Obama administration chose to do so in Syria, attempting to use it to turn President Bashar al-Assad out of office. In the process, the Obama administration found itself ever deeper in a conflict it couldn’t control and eternally in search of that unicorn, the moderate Syrian rebel who could be trained to push Assad out without allowing Islamic fundamentalists in. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda spin-offs, including the Islamic State, found haven in the dissolving borderlands between Iraq and Syria, and in that country’s Sunni heartlands.
An indecisive Barack Obama allowed America’s involvement in Syria to ebb and flow. In September 2013, on the verge of a massive strike against the forces of the Assad regime, Obama suddenly punted the decision to Congress, which, of course, proved capable of deciding nothing at all. In November 2013, again on the verge of attacking Syria, the president allowed himself to be talked down after a gaffe by Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to Russian diplomatic intercession. In September 2014, in a relatively sudden reversal, Obama launched a war against ISIS in Syria, which has proved at best indecisive.
Russia: That brings us to Vladimir Putin, the Syrian game-changer of the moment. In September, the Russian president sent a small but powerful military force into a neglected airfield in Latakia, Syria. With “fighting ISIS” little more than their cover story, the Russians are now serving as Assad’s air force, as well as his chief weapons supplier and possible source of “volunteer” soldiers.
The thing that matters most, however, is those Russian planes. They have essentially been given a guarantee of immunity to being shot down by the more powerful U.S. Air Force presence in the region (as Washington has nothing to gain and much to worry about when it comes to entering into open conflict with the Russians). That allows them near-impunity to strike when and where they wish in support of whom they wish. It also negates any chance of the U.S. setting up a no-fly zone in parts of Syria.
The Russians have little incentive to depart, given the free pass handed them by the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the Russian military is growing closer to the Iranians with whom they share common cause in Syria, and also the Shia government in Baghdad, which may soon invite them to join the fight there against ISIS. One can almost hear Putin chortling. He may not, in fact, be the most skilled strategist in the world, but he’s certainly the luckiest. When someone hands you the keys, you take the car.
World War I
As in imperial Europe in the period leading up to the First World War, the collapse of an entire order in the Middle East is in process, while forces long held in check are being released. In response, the former superpowers of the Cold War era have once again mobilized, at least modestly, even though both are fearful of a spark that could push them into direct conflict. Each has entangling regional relationships that could easily exacerbate the fight: Russia with Syria, the U.S. with Saudi Arabia and Israel, plus NATO obligations to Turkey. (The Russians have already probed Turkish airspace and the Turks recently shot down a drone coyly labeled of “unknown origin.”)
Imagine a scenario that pulls any of those allies deeper into the mess: some Iranian move in Syria, which prompts a response by Israel in the Golan Heights, which prompts a Russian move in relation to Turkey, which prompts a call to NATO for help… you get the picture. Or imagine another scenario: with nearly every candidate running for president in the United States growling about the chance to confront Putin, what would happen if the Russians accidentally shot down an American plane? Could Obama resist calls for retaliation?
As before World War I, the risk of setting something in motion that can’t be stopped does exist.
What Is This All About Again?
What if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003? Things would undoubtedly be very different in the Middle East today. America’s war in Afghanistan was unlikely to have been a big enough spark to set off the range of changes Iraq let loose. There were only some 10,000 America soldiers in Afghanistan in 2003 (5,200 in 2002) and there had not been any Abu Ghraib-like indiscriminate torture, no equivalent to the scorched earth policy in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, nothing to spark a trans-border Sunni-Shia-Kurd struggle, no room for Iran to meddle. The Americans were killing Muslims in Afghanistan, but they were not killing Arabs, and they were not occupying Arab lands.
The invasion of Iraq, however, did happen. Now, some 12 years later, the most troubling thing about the current war in the Middle East, from an American perspective, is that no one here really knows why the country is still fighting. The commonly stated reason — “defeat ISIS” — is hardly either convincing or self-explanatory. Defeat ISIS why?
The best Washington can come up with are the same vague threats of terrorism against the homeland that have fueled its disastrous wars since 9/11. The White House can stipulate that Assad is a bad guy and that the ISIS crew are really, really bad guys, but bad guys are hardly in short supply, including in countries the U.S. supports. In reality, the U.S. has few clear goals in the region, but is escalating anyway.
Whatever world order the U.S. may be fighting for in the Middle East, it seems at least an empire or two out of date. Washington refuses to admit to itself that the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism resonate with vast numbers of people. At this point, even as U.S. TOW missiles are becoming as ubiquitous as iPads in the region, American military power can only delay changes, not stop them. Unless a rebalancing of power that would likely favor some version of Islamic fundamentalism takes hold and creates some measure of stability in the Middle East, count on one thing: the U.S. will be fighting the sons of ISIS years from now.
Back to World War I. The last time Russia and the U.S. both had a powerful presence in the Middle East, the fate of their proxies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War almost brought on a nuclear exchange. No one is predicting a world war or a nuclear war from the mess in Syria. However, like those final days before the Great War, one finds a lot of pieces in play inside a tinderbox.
Now, all together: What could possibly go wrong?
Shaker Aamer was just released, after 13 years in captivity, from Guantanamo, and returned to Britain. His wife lives there, and he has permanent residence there. He was never charged with anything by the United States, simply kept. Here is what was done to him over the course of his 13 years at Gitmo.
Bush denied, and Obama helped hide, the nasty stuff even existed, then used an ever-so-compliant media to call it all necessary for our security and very survival, then shaping dumb-cow public opinion with ersatz terms like enhanced interrogation to keep the word torture out of the discourse, then having the CIA destroy videos of the brutality, then imprisoning officials, such as John Kiriakou, who sought to expose it all, then refusing to hold hearings or conduct investigations, then employing black ops to try and derail even a cursory Senate report and finally allowing the torturers at the CIA themselves the final word on the watered-down public version of a Senate report on torture.
The Torture of Shaker Aamer by the United States
Yet, like a water leak that must find it’s way out from inside the dark place within your walls, some things become known. Now, we can read a psychiatrist’s report which includes, in detail, the torture enacted on just one prisoner of the United States, Shaker Aamer.
The once-U.S. ally Northern Alliance captured Aamer in Afghanistan and sold him to the United States as an al Qaeda member. Who knows at this point who Aamer was at that time, or what he did or did not do. If you think any of that matters, and perhaps justifies what was done to him, stop reading now. This article cannot reach you.
What was Done to One Human
In his own words, Aamer describes the casual way his Western jailers accepted his physical presence, and skinny confessions made under Afghan torture, as all the proof necessary to imprison him in U.S. custody from 2002 until 2015. The U.S. created a world of hell that only had an entrance, not caring to conceive of an exit. In no particular order (though the full report dispassionately chronicles every act by time and location), the United States of America did the following to Aamer:
— On more than one occasion an official of the United States threatened to rape Aamer’s five year old daughter, with one interrogator describing in explicit sexual detail his plans to destroy the child;
— “Welcoming Parties” and “Goodbye Parties” as Aamer was transferred among U.S. facilities. Soldiers at these “parties” were encouraged and allowed to beat and kick detainees as their proclivities and desires dictated. Here’s a video of what a beating under the eyes of American soldiers looks like.
— Aamer was made to stand for days, not allowed to sleep for days, not allowed to use the toilet and made to shit and piss on himself for days, not fed or fed minimally for days, doused with freezing water for days, over and over again. For 13 years.
— Aamer was denied medical care as his interrogators controlled his access to doctors and made care for the wounds they inflicted dependent on Aamer’s ongoing compliance and repeated “confessions.”
— Aamer was often kept naked, and his faith exploited to humiliate him in culturally-specific ways. He witnessed a 17-year-old captive of America sodomized with a rifle, and was threatened with the same.
— At times the brutality took place for its own sake, disconnected from interrogations. At times it was the centerpiece of interrogation.
— The torture of Aamer continued at Gitmo, for as an occasional hunger striker he was brutally force-fed.
The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. Torture is invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control, not gathering information. Even when left alone (especially when left alone) the torture victim is punished to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, almost always in the process assuming responsibility for creating his own terror.
And there you have the take-away point, as briefers in Washington like to say. The real point of the torture was to torture. Over twelve years, even the thinnest rationale that Aamer was a dangerous terrorist, or had valuable information to disclose, could not exist and his abusers knew it. The only goal was to destroy Shaker Aamer.
The combination of raw brutality, the careful, educated use of medical doctors to fine-tune the pain, the skills of psychiatrists and cultural advisors to enhance the impact of what was done worked exactly as it was intended. According to the psychiatrist who examined Aamer in detail at Guantanamo, there is little left of the man. He suffers from a broad range of psychiatric and physical horrors. In that sense, by the calculus his torturers employ, the torture was indeed successful.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed at great cost, al Qaeda has been reborn in Africa and greater parts of the Middle East and the U.S. has willingly transformed itself into at best a bully abroad, and a police state at home. But no mind; the full force and credit of the United States of America destroyed Shaker Aamer as revenge for all the rest, bloody proof of all the good we failed to do.
Never Again, Always Again
Despite the horrors of World War II, the mantra– never again– becomes today a sad joke. The scale is different this time, what, 600? 6000? men destroyed by torture not six million, but not the intent. The desire to inflict purposeful suffering by government order, the belief that such inhuman actions are legal, even necessary, differs little from one set of fascists to more modern ones. Given the secrecy the Nazis enjoyed for years, how full would the American camps be today? Kill them all, and let God sort them out is never far from the lips.
Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. The ghosts don’t disappear the way the flesh and bone can be made to go away.
The people who did this, whether the ones in the torture cell using their fists, or the ones in the White House ordering it with their pens, walk free among us. They’ll never see justice done. There will be no Nuremberg Trials for America’s evils, just a collapsing bunker in Berlin. But unlike Shaker Aamer, you are sentenced to live to see it forever in your nightmares.
When I was a kid, three presidents told us we had to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, because if we didn’t fight them over there, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of California. We believed. It was a lie.
I was a teenager during the Cold War, and several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, invade Cuba, fight in odd little places and use the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments and replace them with dictators, or the Russians would destroy us. We believed. It was a lie.
When I was in college our president told us that we needed to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua or the Sandinistas would come to the United States. He told us Managua was closer to Washington DC than LA was. He told us we needed to fight in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.
When I was a little older our president told us how evil Saddam Hussein was, how his soldiers bayoneted babies in Kuwait. He told us Saddam was a threat to America. He told us we needed to invade Panama to oust a dictator to protect America. We believed. It was a lie.
The next president told us we had to fight terrorists in Somalia, as well as bomb Iraq, to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.
The one after him told us that because a group of Saudis from a group loosely tied to Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11, we needed to occupy that country and destroy the Taliban, who had not attacked us, for our own safety. The Taliban are still there. But we believed. It was a lie.
After that we were told that Saddam Hussein threatened every one of us with weapons of mass destruction, that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. We believed. It was a lie.
In 2011 the president and his secretary of state told us we needed regime change in Libya, to protect us from an evil dictator. We believed. It was a lie.
In August 2014 the same president told us we needed to intervene again in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple act of humanness that only the United States could conduct, and then leave. We believed. It was a lie.
Now we are told by that same president that Americans will again fight on the ground in Iraq, and Syria, and that Americans have and will die. He says that this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland.
We want to believe, Mr. President. We want to know it is not a lie.
So please address us, explain why what you are doing in Iraq is different than everything listed above. Tell us why we should believe you — this time — because history says you lie.
America’s presidential candidates go on TV and brag about killing a man with their own hands (one guy) and froth over the idea of starting even more wars (all the others.) In Canada, they get a supermodel as their new king, who speaks French, looks like a young Matthew McConaughey, and who tells America to shove its stupid wars up its overweight *ss.
Canada’s prime minister-elect, Justin Trudeau, pictured looking fabulous, said Tuesday he told Barack Obama that Canadian fighter jets would withdraw from fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Western nations only go to war when coerced by the United States in joining some coalition. No other nation on the planet makes war as often and as unsuccessfully as the United States. No other nation makes war its business.
So you can imagine the huge hassle it is for Canada to have to suck up to its war-loving, gluten-free neighbor to the south, tossing in a few planes or troops whenever America has another hissy fit and has to invade somewhere. Canada famously refused to be sucked into the 2003 Iraq invasion, for example (though did play in Afghanistan.)
Quick question: what about Mexico? They also share a border and NAFTA with America, plus America graciously buys up 99 percent of its dope crop, and thus has the same need to suck up, but they also always seem to duck these war calls. Hmmm.
Anyway, Trudeau said “while Canada remains a strong member of the coalition against ISIL,” he made clear to Obama “the commitments I have made around ending the combat mission.”
It was not immediately clear if Trudeau added “you warmongering bastard” and/or said he’d nail Michelle with his old man’s “moves like Jagger” at the next state dinner.
America and its allies make modern war in a way that assures “mistakes” destroy hospitals, and civilian lives are taken by drones. These horrors are all too often strategic decisions, or the result of the profligate use of needlessly destructive weapons. They are typically far from accidents.
The destruction of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, including the deaths of physicians from Doctors Without Borders, has become the celebrity example of America’s conduct of war. It is the one that made the news, much like a single child dead on the beach stood in for five years of unabated refugee flows out of the Middle East. But Kunduz is more important than just a dramatic news story, in that it stands as a clear example of a sordid policy.
After a series of cascading explanations, the United States settled on blaming the Afghan military for demanding a strike on the building which was the hospital. There is truth in that — the request likely did initiate with the Afghans — but it ignores the larger story of how “accidents” really happen.
The strike was conducted by an American AC-130, a flying gunship. A retired Air Force Special Operations officer explained to me that the AC-130 is considered a “first hit” weapon; its ordnance hits where it is designated to hit on the first try. The targeted hospital was marked by a U.S. Special Forces operator alongside the Afghans, using a laser. The AC-130 fired on the hospital for over one hour, in 15 minute paced barrages.
How could the U.S. have known the target was a hospital? Easily. Kunduz had been controlled by the Afghans alongside their embedded Americans for some time. It was a mature battlefield, with landmarks such as the hospital well-known on the ground. In addition, NGOs employ organizations such as The International NGO Safety and Security Association (INSSA) specifically to coordinate with armed forces working around their sites, to include providing precise GPS coordinates to avoid “accidental” targeting. Doctors Without Borders also directly provides combatants their locations; in Kunduz, as recently as September 29.
The latter details are especially important in evaluating strikes against hospitals and other civilian targets. Unlike in WWII when thousands of planes flew over cities hoping to hit a target only as precisely defined as “Tokyo,” modern ordnance is delivered by computer, using laser designation, satellite coordination, GPS systems and classified mapping tools.
America blew up exactly what it aimed at in Kunduz.
America’s Other Hospitals
Kunduz was not America’s first hospital. The U.S. bombed a maternity hospital in Baghdad in 2003, a hospital in Rutbah, and stormed a hospital in Nasiriya. Shells hit the large Al Yarmuk Hospital in Baghdad. A hospital in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia, was bombed in the 1990s. In Hanoi, the United States struck the Bach Mai hospital — twice — during the 1972 “Christmas Bombing.” The United States also destroyed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, citing inaccurate maps as the cause.
There are always investigations following such incidents, though in the history of modern American warfare none have ever been deemed such strikes as having been planned. Hospitals make attractive targets. Destroying them results in fighters dying of their wounds, and increases the burden on healthy soldiers, pulling them from the battlefield to care for their own wounded. In military terms that is known as a “soft kill.” Accidents emerge in war, but so do patterns.
Civilian Deaths and the Drone War
The killing of civilians as a result of American war is not limited to attacks on hospitals. The global drone war continues to take innocent lives, in what has come to be known without shame or irony as collateral damage.
Even conservative estimates of the number of civilians killed by drone attacks targeted on others are suspect, given the secrecy under which the U.S. drone program operates. The analytically conservative Council on Foreign Relations tally assesses that 500 drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 3,674 civilians as of 2014. The count measures kills outside of Iraq and Afghanistan specifically because only those places are considered active war zones per se by the United States (known U.S. attacks inside Syria had not yet begun.)
In Yemen, in just one example, American drone strikes aimed at 17 named men actually killed 273 people, at least seven of them children, including the American Citizen son of alleged al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki.
But the killing of civilians as a result of American war is not limited to attacks on hospitals, or by drone.
Tools of Destruction
There is a commonality to the growing death count created by America and its allies: the inevitable civilian deaths caused by the profligate use of horrifically destructive weapons, especially inside urban areas.
Civilian casualties overall in America’s 2003-2011 Iraq War were anywhere from 140,000 dead to upwards of 500,000, many by artillery, cluster munitions, and depleted uranium munitions, indiscriminate weapons unique to American forces.
For its drone strikes, the U.S. uses Hellfire missiles, armed with warheads originally designed to burn through the heaviest tank armor. Aiming them at a person inevitably will kill others nearby; the U.S. claimed al-Awlaki’s son was killed inside a car, seated next to the actual target. Such deaths are also closely tied to America’s policy of “signature drone strikes,” where a missile is aimed at a “profile:” a suspect cell phone, a car matching some description, a suspicious gathering outside a home.
America’s allies, equipped with American weapons, follow a similar pattern in their making of war.
The U.S. throughout the Middle and Near East, the Saudis in Yemen and Israel in Gaza, employ cluster munitions in urban areas. Such munitions are known as “area denial weapons,” which cause massive, indiscriminate destruction over wide swaths of territory. Documented inside Yemen have been American-made CBU-52 cluster bombs, each loaded with 220 “anti-material” bomblets. Imagine the use of such weapons inside central London, or on a Manhattan street.
Though not confined to cluster munitions alone, the deployment of U.S.-made weapons by the Saudis in Yemen has only added to the carnage. Almost 4,000 people have been killed, with 19,000 injured and more than a million displaced from their homes.
In Gaza in 2009, the Israelis used cluster munitions, white phosphorus (a burning agent also used by the U.S. in Iraq), as well as standard artillery, rockets and airstrikes, all against dense urban areas. The UN estimates over 1,400 civilians, of whom 495 were children, were killed in the attacks. The Israelis also destroyed a hospital in Gaza, attacked two others, and shelled UN-run schools in 2014.
The U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia are among the countries that have refused to sign The Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty banning the use of such weapons.
The Cost of Modern War
Accountability remains in the hands of those with the weapons. America and Israel conduct self-investigations, and stymie independent ones, to clear their military of blame (the Saudi do not even appear to bother.) At the UN, the United States blocks action critical of Israel. In Yemen, the U.S. claims it cannot control how the Saudis choose to employ American weapons, and has stated the Saudi actions only “border on” violations of international law. NATO and the EU are deathly silent on the substantive issues, even in places where their own forces are on the ground.
It is clear that modern war as conducted by the United States and its allies in the Middle East has as a known outcome massive civilian casualties. The sites purposefully targeted can be civilian when needed, in violation of all known standards of international law. The steady flow of “accidents” and collateral kills are fully-expected, inevitable and foreseeable consequences of the choice of weapons used.
The civilian deaths are not accidental, but policy. Kunduz was no accident. It was simply another example.
As Obama fails on another campaign promise, this one to end the war in Afghanistan, and as that war moves into its 15th year, it is important to remember the U.S. has spent around $110 billion (no one knows the exact amount due to poor record keeping) to “rebuild” that beleaguered nation, so far.
We say “so far” in that the spending continues, and like the end of the war itself, as no foreseeable end date.
So how is that rebuilding thingee going?
Not well, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which issued a report saying “The Afghan private sector has thus far failed to fulfill its potential as an engine of economic growth or an instrument of social inclusion.”
In addition to America tossing that $110 billion of taxpayer money into the hole, foreign aid groups have been flushing away $15.7 billion a year. Taken together, all that money now accounts for around 98 percent of the entire Afghan gross domestic product.
In something of an understatement, the Stockholm report notes “Popular dissatisfaction with unequal access to economic resources, flawed public services and goods, the adverse security situation, and predatory government activity undermine an effective and sustainable private sector.”
Among its other findings, the report blames foreign governments and aid groups for giving Afghans too much money, which they couldn’t spend wisely even if the country weren’t riddled with corruption. Intended to improve government and grow businesses, the report concludes the aid instead merely sustains kleptocrats.
As for what the $110 billion of U.S. money could have purchased had it been spent to rebuild America, VICE notes it is enough to dig a new train tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan, lay a high-speed rail link from San Diego to Sacramento, reconstruct New Orleans’ levees after a storm like Hurricane Katrina, and still have around $10 billion left over to construct a few hundred schools from Chicago to Houston.
In 2012 I published a book all about how the United States squandered billions of dollars on the reconstruction of Iraq. The main point was that we had no plan on what to do and simply spent money willy-nilly, on stupid things and vanity projects and stuff that made someone’s boss in Washington briefly happy. We had absolutely no plan on how to measure our successes or failures, and then acted surprised when it all turned out to be a steaming pile of sh*t that did little but create the breeding ground for Islamic State.
The idea of the book was to try and lessen the chance the United States would do exactly, precisely and completely the exact same f*cking thing in Afghanistan.
Now, I just read a speech given by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), entitled “Ground Truths: Honestly Assessing Reconstruction in Afghanistan” which says the United States has done exactly, precisely and completely the exact same f*cking thing in Afghanistan.
And like me, Sopko concludes if we do not learn the lessons from Afghanistan “we will miss out on a crucial learning opportunity that will affect U.S. foreign policy for generations to come.” To which I can only say, “Good Luck” with that John.
Here’s some more of what Sopko pointed out, all his quotes from the same speech:
— There is a strong need for evidence-based policymaking, because if you don’t have a means of knowing whether or not your programs are succeeding, the policymaker’s job is that much harder.
— In a conflict-affected environment such as Afghanistan, the challenge of setting realistic standards is amplified. That said, perhaps constructing buildings to U.S. standards across the board in such an environment might be unwise, especially if we expect the Afghans to maintain and sustain what we give them.
— If after 13 years and so much blood and treasure invested in Afghanistan, we cannot be honest with ourselves about our successes and failures, we are not only leaving the Afghans in a precarious position, but also putting our entire mission there at risk.
— Incredibly, for the first nine years of CERP’s existence [an Army funding program for reconstruction], a single, clearly articulated mention of the program’s true objectives could not be found in any official document beyond the generic inputs of “humanitarian relief and reconstruction.”
— It becomes really difficult for SIGAR to assess reconstruction projects and programs if agencies don’t set clear criteria or project management standards.
— USAID spent almost $15 million to build a hospital in Gardez, but USAID did not fully assess the Afghan Ministry of Public Health’s ability to operate and maintain the hospital once completed. It seems that time and again, people have to be reminded that Afghanistan is not Kansas.
— It is hard to give people the benefit of the doubt when we build multi-billion dollar roads to U.S. weight standards in a country that has no ability to enforce weight limitations, or when a military official suggested that we spend millions building high-tech bus stops in Afghanistan, complete with solar-powered lighting. This is not Bethesda.
— Two and a half years ago, SIGAR sent the Departments of State and Defense, as well as USAID, a letter requesting that they identify, by their own judgement, their ten most and least successful reconstruction programs, and why they selected those programs. We still have not received a straight answer from any of them. A USAID official even said that asking him to identify his agency’s top successes and failures was like asking him to choose which of his children he loved more.
— Almost fourteen years into our trillion dollar effort, with over 2,000 American lives sacrificed, if we can’t honestly point to some actual, measurable accomplishments from that massive investment, we will miss out on a crucial learning opportunity that will affect U.S. foreign policy for generations to come. In short, we risk failing to understand the conditions necessary not only to produce peace and prosperity, but to sustain them.
The world finally noticed that one Syrian refugee kid drowned on a beach, after failing to notice the Middle East refugee crisis has been an ongoing disaster for almost five years now.
Same for the U.S.; Obama just announced he wants America to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, so this is all fixed now, we can go back to Miley and Katy, right? No.
The Day Before
Here was the state of affairs as of the day before Obama’s announcement.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees referred 15,000 Syrians to Washington for resettlement over the last four years; the United States accepted 1,500, with formally announced plans to take in only another 1,800 by next year, citing, among other issues, concerns over terrorists hiding among the groups.
With no apparent irony, United States Senator Patrick Leahy stated the refugee crisis “warrants a response commensurate with our nation’s role as a humanitarian leader.” Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is “looking hard at the number” of additional Syrian refugees it might accommodate, given America’s “leadership role with respect to humanitarian issues and particularly refugees.”
Many in Washington likely felt that was enough. A token increase, some nice, high-flying language, a little sprinkle of freedom and respect. I think we’re done here.
The Day After
But, after seeing that it was a slow week and the media was still showing sad pictures of refugees on the TV box, it seemed more (rhetoric) was needed. So, on September 10, President Obama announced, per the New York Times headline, he will “Increase Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement to 10,000.”
Well, that’s good, right? I mean, the estimates are that there are some four million Syrian refugees already out there, with another 10 million internally displaced, so even if it is 10,000 that’s hardly anything but still, better than nothing.
What He Said, What He Meant
Maybe. But let’s dig down one level deeper.
To be precise, Obama did not say the U.S. is taking 10,000 Syrian refugees in FY2016. He did not say if the 10k were part of the U.S.’ overall 70k refugee cap, or in addition to it, meaning other refugees could be left behind to favor the flavor-of-the-moment out of Syria. Obama also did not explain that the United States processes refugees abroad (if the person is somehow in the U.S. physically, that’s asylum, different thing, done while the person is in the U.S.)
Actually, have a look at the exact wording from the White House spokesperson (emphasis added): “The president has… informed his team that he would like them to accept, at least make preparations to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees.”
Refugees are processed, not accepted. That processing can take years, indefinite if enough information on a person’s security background cannot be amassed; there remains great fear in the U.S. government about terrorists sneaking into refugee flows, and so if a positive “up” decision cannot be made that a person is “safe,” then the default is indefinite pending status. Such a conundrum has, for example, stymied the applications of many Iraqis and Afghanis who served as translators for the American military and fear for their lives, only to have been stuck left behind.
As Representative Peter King said “Our enemy now is Islamic terrorism, and these people are coming from a country filled with Islamic terrorists. We don’t want another Boston Marathon bombing situation.”
There are also medical and other checks before a refugee is approved. With all the variables, there is no average processing time, but post-9/11 we can say the average is s-l-o-w. In the world of suffering, slow can often mean death.
It appears the White House is taking full advantage of the media’s ignorance of how refugee processing works to create the appearance of doing something when little of a practical nature is being done, all sizzle and no meat. There is little help coming from the United States for any significant number of Syrian refugees. Sorry guys!
The advice is valid. Most military schools teach their students to read the enemy’s manifestos, study his propaganda, learn as much about him as possible to better know how to defeat him. During World War II, British soldiers and scholars studied Hitler’s Mein Kampf and other Nazi documents. Martial needs aside, a basic principle of scholars is open access to information, and for libraries, to collect primary source documents while they are still available.
Yet fear now controls us, not thought.
The British Library
A decision by the British Library not to host a huge collection of Taliban-related documents, despite years of close involvement with the project, has added to concerns about Britain’s sweeping anti-terrorism legislation.
Over nearly a decade, the researchers behind the Taliban Sources Project have painstakingly collected and translated into English more than a thousand newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts, military and administrative documents, as well as handwritten poetry by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The group’s aim is to digitize the primary material, shedding light on the Taliban’s organization and the insurgency in Afghanistan. Altogether, the project’s ten-member team translated more than two million words of material.
The researchers took the project to the British Library (and for those not familiar with that institution, consider it in lay terms on par with the Library of Congress in the United States) in 2012. After first accepting the collection three years ago, the library has now declined to take on the project, saying it had been legally advised it contains material that could be in breach of Britain’s anti-terrorism laws.
The library recognizes the archive’s research value. But “it was judged that it contained some material which could contravene the Terrorism Act,” it said in a <a href="http://statement“>statement, “which would present restrictions on the library’s ability to provide access to the archive for researchers.”
The UK Terrorism Act “places specific responsibilities on anyone in Britain who might provide access to terrorist publications,” the statement added, “and the legal advice received jointly by the British Library and other similar institutions advises against making this type of material accessible.”
Knowing the Taliban
The Taliban Sources Project focuses on material from 1994 to 2001 that “gives a unique window into the Taliban’s world views, their negotiations with foreign governments, how they viewed history,” said Felix Kuehn, an organizer of the project, adding that the material could help provide a more complete picture about the organization in the run-up to the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan.
“Our knowledge of the Taliban in the 1990s is dominated by Western media coverage that was highly politicized, in part because information was not easily accessible,” Kuehn said.
David Anderson, the independent reviewer for Britain’s anti-terrorism laws, said the Terrorism Act was a broad law that could be even more broadly interpreted “by police and lawyers who want to give cautious advice.” Such interpretations could easily impinge on academic freedom, he warned. “If this law were interpreted to prevent researchers from accessing Taliban-related material that would impact their academic work, it would be very regrettable,” he said. “That’s not how academics work.”
Knowing the Enemy
The Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006 make it an offense “to collect material which could be used by a person committing or preparing for an act of terrorism” and criminalize the circulation of terrorist propaganda. But under the laws, the police must show evidence that the owners intend to use the publication for terrorist purposes, and that they have a reasonable excuse to possess it, Anderson said.
Know thy enemy? What happens when the enemy is us?
Are American analysts skewing intelligence reporting and assessments to provide a rosier outlook of U.S. progress against Islamic State?
At least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst says so, and has convinced the Pentagon’s Inspector General to look into it. The analyst says he had evidence officials at United States Central Command, overseeing the American campaign against Islamic State, were improperly rewriting conclusions of intelligence assessments prepared for policy makers, including President Obama.
While legitimate differences of opinion are common in intel reporting, to be of value those differences must be presented to policy makers, and played off one another in an intellectually vigorous check-and-balance fashion. There is a wide gap between that, and what it appears the Inspector General is now looking at.
Cooking the intel to match policy makers’ expectations has a sordid history in the annals of American warfare. Analysis during the Vietnam War pushed forward a steady but false narrative of victory. In the run-up to Iraq War 2.0, State Department analysis claiming Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction was buried in favor of obvious falsehoods.
Jokes about the oxymoron of “military intelligence” aside, bad intel leads to bad decisions. Bad intel created purposefully suggests a war that is being lost, with the people in charge loathe to admit it.
A guest blog, by Rory Fanning. Fanning walked across the United States for the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2008-2009, following two deployments to Afghanistan with the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion. Fanning became a conscientious objector after his second tour. He is the author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America.
Dear Aspiring Ranger,
You’ve probably just graduated from high school and you’ve undoubtedly already signed an Option 40 contract guaranteeing you a shot at the Ranger indoctrination program (R.I.P.). If you make it through R.I.P. you’ll surely be sent off to fight in the Global War on Terror. You’ll be part of what I often heard called “the tip of the spear.”
The war you’re heading into has been going on for a remarkably long time. Imagine this: you were five years old when I was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2002. Now I’m graying a bit, losing a little up top, and I have a family. Believe me, it goes faster than you expect.
Once you get to a certain age, you can’t help thinking about the decisions you made (or that, in a sense, were made for you) when you were younger. I do that and someday you will, too. Reflecting on my own years in the 75th Ranger regiment, at a moment when the war you’ll find yourself immersed in was just beginning, I’ve tried to jot down a few of the things they don’t tell you at the recruiting office or in the pro-military Hollywood movies that may have influenced your decision to join. Maybe my experience will give you a perspective you haven’t considered.
I imagine you’re entering the military for the same reason just about everyone volunteers: it felt like your only option. Maybe it was money, or a judge, or a need for a rite of passage, or the end of athletic stardom. Maybe you still believe that the U.S. is fighting for freedom and democracy around the world and in existential danger from “the terrorists.” Maybe it seems like the only reasonable thing to do: defend our country against terrorism.
The media has been a powerful propaganda tool when it comes to promoting that image, despite the fact that, as a civilian, you were more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist. I trust you don’t want regrets when you’re older and that you commendably want to do something meaningful with your life. I’m sure you hope to be the best at something. That’s why you signed up to be a Ranger.
Make no mistake: whatever the news may say about the changing cast of characters the U.S. is fighting and the changing motivations behind the changing names of our military “operations” around the world, you and I will have fought in the same war. It’s hard to believe that you will be taking us into the 14th year of the Global War on Terror (whatever they may be calling it now). I wonder which one of the 668 U.S. military bases worldwide you’ll be sent to.
In its basics, our global war is less complicated to understand than you might think, despite the difficult-to-keep-track-of enemies you will be sent after — whether al-Qaeda (“central,” al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Magreb, etc.), or the Taliban, or al-Shabab in Somalia, or ISIS (aka ISIL, or the Islamic State), or Iran, or the al-Nusra Front, or Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Admittedly, it’s a little hard to keep a reasonable scorecard. Are the Shia or the Sunnis our allies? Is it Islam we’re at war with? Are we against ISIS or the Assad regime or both of them?
Just who these groups are matters, but there’s an underlying point that it’s been too easy to overlook in recent years: ever since this country’s first Afghan War in the 1980s (that spurred the formation of the original al-Qaeda), our foreign and military policies have played a crucial role in creating those you will be sent to fight. Once you are in one of the three battalions of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the chain-of-command will do its best to reduce global politics and the long-term good of the planet to the smallest of matters and replace them with the largest of tasks: boot polishing, perfectly made beds, tight shot groupings at the firing range, and your bonds with the Rangers to your right and left.
In such circumstances, it’s difficult — I know that well — but not impossible to keep in mind that your actions in the military involve far more than whatever’s in front of you or in your gun sights at any given moment. Our military operations around the world — and soon that will mean you — have produced all kinds of blowback. Thought about a certain way, I was being sent out in 2002 to respond to the blowback created by the first Afghan War and you’re about to be sent out to deal with the blowback created by my version of the second one.
I’m writing this letter in the hope that offering you a little of my own story might help frame the bigger picture for you.
Let me start with my first day “on the job.” I remember dropping my canvas duffle bag at the foot of my bunk in Charlie Company, and almost immediately being called into my platoon sergeant’s office. I sprinted down a well-buffed hallway, shadowed by the platoon’s “mascot”: a Grim-Reaper-style figure with the battalion’s red and black scroll beneath it. It hovered like something you’d see in a haunted house on the cinder block wall adjoining the sergeant’s office. It seemed to be watching me as I snapped to attention in his doorway, beads of sweat on my forehead. “At ease… Why are you here, Fanning? Why do you think you should be a Ranger?” All this he said with an air of suspicion.
Shaken, after being screamed out of a bus with all my gear, across an expansive lawn in front of the company’s barracks, and up three flights of stairs to my new home, I responded hesitantly, “Umm, I want to help prevent another 9/11, First Sergeant.” It must have sounded almost like a question.
“There is only one answer to what I just asked you, son. That is: you want to feel the warm red blood of your enemy run down your knife blade.”
Taking in his military awards, the multiple tall stacks of manila folders on his desk, and the photos of what turned out to be his platoon in Afghanistan, I said in a loud voice that rang remarkably hollowly, at least to me, “Roger, First Sergeant!”
He dropped his head and started filling out a form. “We’re done here,” he said without even bothering to look up again.
The platoon sergeant’s answer had a distinct hint of lust in it but, surrounded by all those folders, he also looked to me like a bureaucrat. Surely such a question deserved something more than the few impersonal and sociopathic seconds I spent in that doorway.
Nonetheless, I spun around and ran back to my bunk to unpack, not just my gear but also his disturbing answer to his own question and my sheepish, “Roger, First Sergeant!” reply. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought of killing in such an intimate way. I had indeed signed on with the idea of preventing another 9/11. Killing was still an abstract idea to me, something I didn’t look forward to. He undoubtedly knew this. So what was he doing?
As you head into your new life, let me try to unpack his answer and my experience as a Ranger for you.
Let’s start that unpacking process with racism: That was the first and one of the last times I heard the word “enemy” in battalion. The usual word in my unit was “Hajji.” Now, Hajji is a word of honor among Muslims, referring to someone who has successfully completed a pilgrimage to the Holy Site of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In the U.S. military, however, it was a slur that implied something so much bigger.
The soldiers in my unit just assumed that the mission of the small band of people who took down the Twin Towers and put a hole in the Pentagon could be applied to any religious person among the more than 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet. The platoon sergeant would soon help usher me into group-blame mode with that “enemy.” I was to be taught instrumental aggression. The pain caused by 9/11 was to be tied to the everyday group dynamics of our unit. This is how they would get me to fight effectively. I was about to be cut off from my previous life and psychological manipulation of a radical sort would be involved. This is something you should prepare yourself for.
When you start hearing the same type of language from your chain-of-command in its attempt to dehumanize the people you are off to fight, remember that 93 percent of all Muslims condemned the attacks on 9/11. And those who sympathized claimed they feared a U.S. occupation and cited political not religious reasons for their support.
But, to be blunt, as George W. Bush said early on (and then never repeated), the war on terror was indeed imagined in the highest of places as a “crusade.” When I was in the Rangers, that was a given. The formula was simple enough: al-Qaeda and the Taliban represented all of Islam, which was our enemy. Now, in that group-blame game, ISIS, with its mini-terror state in Iraq and Syria, has taken over the role. Be clear again that nearly all Muslims reject its tactics. Even Sunnis in the region where ISIS is operating are increasingly rejecting the group. And it is those Sunnis who may indeed take down ISIS when the time is right.
If you want to be true to yourself, don’t be swept up in the racism of the moment. Your job should be to end war, not perpetuate it. Never forget that.
The second stop in that unpacking process should be poverty: After a few months, I was finally shipped off to Afghanistan. We landed in the middle of the night. As the doors on our C-5 opened, the smell of dust, clay, and old fruit rolled into the belly of that transport plane. I was expecting the bullets to start whizzing by me as I left it, but we were at Bagram Air Base, a largely secure place in 2002.
Jump ahead two weeks and a three-hour helicopter ride and we were at our forward operating base. The morning after we arrived I noticed an Afghan woman pounding at the hard yellow dirt with a shovel, trying to dig up a gaunt little shrub just outside the stone walls of the base. Through the eye-slit of her burqa I could just catch a hint of her aged face. My unit took off from that base, marching along a road, hoping (I suspect) to stir up a little trouble. We were presenting ourselves as bait, but there were no bites.
When we returned a few hours later, that woman was still digging and gathering firewood, undoubtedly to cook her family’s dinner that night. We had our grenade launchers, our M242 machine guns that fired 200 rounds a minute, our night-vision goggles, and plenty of food — all vacuum-sealed and all of it tasting the same. We were so much better equipped to deal with the mountains of Afghanistan than that woman — or so it seemed to us then. But it was, of course, her country, not ours, and its poverty, like that of so many places you may find yourself in, will, I assure you, be unlike anything you have ever seen. You will be part of the most technologically advanced military on Earth and you will be greeted by the poorest of the poor. Your weaponry in such an impoverished society will feel obscene on many levels. Personally, I felt like a bully much of my time in Afghanistan.
Now, it’s the moment to unpack “the enemy”: Most of my time in Afghanistan was quiet and calm. Yes, rockets occasionally landed in our bases, but most of the Taliban had surrendered by the time I entered the country. I didn’t know it then, but as Anand Gopal has reported in his groundbreaking book, No Good Men Among the Living, our war on terror warriors weren’t satisfied with reports of the unconditional surrender of the Taliban. So units like mine were sent out looking for “the enemy.” Our job was to draw the Taliban — or anyone really — back into the fight.
Believe me, it was ugly. We were often enough targeting innocent people based on bad intelligence and in some cases even seizing Afghans who had actually pledged allegiance to the U.S. mission. For many former Taliban members, it became an obvious choice: fight or starve, take up arms again or be randomly seized and possibly killed anyway. Eventually the Taliban did regroup and today they are resurgent. I know now that if our country’s leadership had truly had peace on its mind, it could have all been over in Afghanistan in early 2002.
If you are shipped off to Iraq for our latest war there, remember that the Sunni population you will be targeting is reacting to a U.S.-backed Shia regime in Baghdad that’s done them dirty for years. ISIS exists to a significant degree because the largely secular members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were labeled the enemy as they tried to surrender after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Many of them had the urge to be reincorporated into a functioning society, but no such luck; and then, of course, the key official the Bush administration sent to Baghdad simply disbanded Saddam Hussein’s army and tossed its 400,000 troops out onto the streets at a time of mass unemployment.
It was a remarkable formula for creating resistance in another country where surrender wasn’t good enough. The Americans of that moment wanted to control Iraq (and its oil reserves). To this end, in 2006, they backed the Shia autocrat Nouri al-Maliki for prime minister in a situation where Shia militias were increasingly intent on ethnically cleansing the Sunni population of the Iraqi capital.
Given the reign of terror that followed, it’s hardly surprising to find former Baathist army officers in key positions in ISIS and the Sunnis choosing that grim outfit as the lesser of the two evils in its world. Again, the enemy you are being shipped off to fight is, at least in part, a product of your chain-of-command’s meddling in a sovereign country. And remember that, whatever its grim acts, this enemy presents no existential threat to American security, at least so says Vice President Joe Biden. Let that sink in for a while and then ask yourself whether you really can take your marching orders seriously.
Next, in that unpacking process, consider noncombatants: When unidentified Afghans would shoot at our tents with old Russian rocket launchers, we would guesstimate where the rockets had come from and then call in air strikes. You’re talking 500-pound bombs. And so civilians would die. Believe me, that’s really what’s at the heart of our ongoing war. Any American like you heading into a war zone in any of these years was likely to witness what we call “collateral damage.” That’s dead civilians.
The number of non-combatants killed since 9/11 across the Greater Middle East in our ongoing war has been breathtaking and horrifying. Be prepared, when you fight, to take out more civilians than actual gun-toting or bomb-wielding “militants.” At the least, an estimated 174,000 civilians died violent deaths as a result of U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan between 2001 and April 2014. In Iraq, over 70 percent of those who died are estimated to have been civilians. So get ready to contend with needless deaths and think about all those who have lost friends and family members in these wars, and themselves are now scarred for life. A lot of people who once would never have thought about fighting any type of war or attacking Americans now entertain the idea. In other words, you will be perpetuating war, handing it off to the future.
Finally, there’s freedom and democracy to unpack, if we’re really going to empty that duffel bag: Here’s an interesting fact that you might consider, if spreading freedom and democracy around the world was on your mind. Though records are incomplete on the subject, the police have killed something like 5,000 people in this country since 9/11 — more, in other words, than the number of American soldiers killed by “insurgents” in the same period. In those same years, outfits like the Rangers and the rest of the U.S. military have killed countless numbers of people worldwide, targeting the poorest people on the planet. And are there fewer terrorists around? Does all this really make a lot of sense to you?
When I signed up for the military, I was hoping to make a better world. Instead I helped make it more dangerous. I had recently graduated from college. I was also hoping that, in volunteering, I would get some of my student loans paid for. Like you, I was looking for practical help, but also for meaning. I wanted to do right by my family and my country. Looking back, it’s clear enough to me that my lack of knowledge about the actual mission we were undertaking betrayed me — and you and us.
I’m writing to you especially because I just want you to know that it’s not too late to change your mind. I did. I became a war resister after my second deployment in Afghanistan for all the reasons I mention above. I finally unpacked, so to speak. Leaving the military was one of the most difficult but rewarding experiences of my life. My own goal is to take what I learned in the military and bring it to high school and college students as a kind of counter-recruiter. There’s so much work to be done, given the 10,000 military recruiters in the U.S. working with an almost $700 million advertising budget. After all, kids do need to hear both sides.
I hope this letter is a jumping off point for you. And if, by any chance, you haven’t signed that Option 40 contract yet, you don’t have to. You can be an effective counter-recruiter without being an ex-military guy. Young people across this country desperately need your energy, your desire to be the best, your pursuit of meaning. Don’t waste it in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or Somalia or anywhere else the Global War on Terror is likely to send you.
As we used to say in the Rangers…
Lead the Way,
General Ray Odierno, the Army’s most senior leader as Chief of Staff, told reporters the fight against Islamic State (IS) will last “10 to 20 years.”
That means if we take the General at his word, some of the American soldiers who will be fighting IS two decades from now haven’t even been born yet.
Just a Bit Longer Than Expected
“In my mind, ISIS is a ten to twenty year problem, it’s not a two year problem,” Odierno said. “Now, I don’t know what level it will be a problem, but it’s a long term problem.” Odierno is pictured above, when he was the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, a war which he did not help to win and a war which birthed IS right under America’s nose.
“The Obama administration has said ‘three to five’ years. I think in order to defeat IS, it’s going to take longer than that,” Odierno said. “This movement is growing right now, and so I think it’s going to take us a bit longer than we originally thought.”
Apparently in Odierno’s world, “a bit longer” can mean 15 additional years of conflict.
But Maybe, Sort Of, Possibly, Someone Else will Fight IS for Us
But don’t worry, the Army isn’t going to win the fight against IS any more than it won the fight in Iraq, or Afghanistan. See, it is not really their job. Odierno again:
“To defeat IS is not just a military issue. It is an economic issue. It is a diplomatic issue. It is an issue of moderate versus extremists and it is about also, potentially, having the capability to root them out of the places they now hold in Iraq and Syria. Others should do this. I believe the nations in the Middle East need to solve this problem. We should be helping them to solve this problem.”
Apparently word on how Odierno and the United States are not going to win the war has not yet filtered down to the nations of the Middle East.
About a year ago, the U.S. formed a make-believe coalition of 62 nations to fight IS. Where are they all now? The U.S. conducts 85 percent of all air strikes against IS, with most of the rest handled by western allies like Canada, France and the UK. None of the Arab ground troops expected ever showed up.
So far the only two Middle Eastern entities robustly fighting IS are Shiite militias under the control of Iran, and Iran. Neither is particularly interested in American-style goals; their focus is on eliminating a Sunni armed presence in Iraq, including IS, to secure that country as a client state for Tehran. One of those “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” types of situation.
There have been even fewer takers for the American request to fight IS in Syria. Or in Yemen, Libya and everywhere else IS is making inroads in the wake of clumsy American policy.
I’ll check back in on the situation after another two decades or so has passed, and update this article.
I had a chance to sit down with RT.com to talk about the peace talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban that are expected to start again after Ramadan ends. The negotiations are taking place after more than a decade of war. Here’s what we said.
RT: Why is the Afghan government negotiating with Taliban terrorists in the first place?
PVB:As a former diplomat, I think it’s critical people do talk. Look, this war has gone on for fourteen years between the US, the Taliban, the Pakistanis, the Afghans – the whole gang. There has got to be a way to bring it to a conclusion, and since the US has failed militarily to bring it to a conclusion, really the only answer now is some form of negotiation. Terrorist or not, the labels are less important than the idea of stopping this war.
RT: The talks in Pakistan were said to have been very constructive, with negotiators reportedly even hugging each other afterwards. Can this diplomacy really bring peace to Afghanistan?
PVB: I think the word “peace” is a little ambitious at this point of time. I prefer the word “resolution”. We are going to have a hard time saying this is a war that was won, or a war that settled something. But I think what we need now is to speak of resolution, a way for the US to disengage, a way for the Afghan government and the Afghans in the Taliban to talk to one another and try to work something out that will benefit the Afghan people.
RT: US-led occupation forces ran the show in Afghanistan for 13 years. Were they even trying to make peace with the Taliban?
PVB: It’s a good question and one I think people like you and people like me have been asking for all these years. We’re going to have to take a deep breath and say that it’s good that the negotiations have started, even though history would judge poorly the fact that it took all these years and all these deaths to get us to this point.
RT: What about a military solution here? Has the US finally understood it’s not going to work?
PVB: It took Washington a good part of those years to realize there is no military solution, but I’m sad to say it took Washington even more time to understand that it was going to have to negotiate with the people who are on the battlefield. I think that mindset of having to negotiate with “the enemy” was really a harder victory to achieve in Washington than the idea that the military solution wasn’t going to work.
RT: Could talks with the militants have started sooner?
PVB: Absolutely. They could have started much sooner, they could have started back in 2001. The US initial push into Afghanistan was actually very successful. The Taliban was driven out of all the major cities, they were driven up into the mountains, into the caves, into hiding and at that point of time I think there was in fact a negotiated political solution that might have avoided all the years of war. There were points no doubt along the way when some type of negotiations may have been possible. That’s all water under the bridge; it’s blood on everyone’s hands but again we are going to take a deep breath and say “Thank goodness, we finally got to the point where we are sitting down at a table rather than facing off across the battlefield.”
RT: There’s also the threat posed by Islamic State in the region. There are reports that the group’s leader for Afghanistan and Pakistan has been killed in a US drone strike. The terrorist organization has said it wants to expand in the area. Who’s there to stop them?
PVB: Islamic State has something to do with it, but perhaps in a different way. Certainly no one wants to see IS entering the conflict in Afghanistan. More people with more guns are not going to make anything better. But I suspect part of the motivation is to allow the US to focus more on IS in Iraq, in Syria and other places. The Afghan war is over; everyone knows that, it’s a matter of figuring out the right way to bring America’s role to some form of resolution.
RT: Could IS be possibly welcomed in Afghanistan?
PVB: IS has the potential to establish a foothold there. Keep in mind Afghanistan shares a huge border with Pakistan, so infiltration is not going to be physically a very difficult thing, and the Taliban have often welcomed outside help in their struggle. But at the end of the day I don’t think the Taliban have much interest in sharing power with IS, I don’t think the Taliban would have much tolerance for IS setting up any kind of permanent shelter there and I don’t think the Taliban at this point see themselves wanting to give away their successes against the US by giving America yet another reason to kick the war in Afghanistan up a notch. I suspect IS’s welcome in Afghanistan would be relatively short.
Talk about creating your own job opportunities!
Former president George W. not only started a bunch of wars that produced a bunch of wounded veterans, he pulled in mucho dinero making a speech for a wounded vets’ charity group. Hey, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade! (Unless you lost both hands in Iraq or something like former Marine Eddie Wright, below, and can’t.)
Bush Bills $100k
Class act and former president George W. Bush, who still has all his limbs, billed a charity for wounded military veterans $100,000 in speaking fees in 2012. Bush charged Texas-based Helping a Hero that amount in 2012. The organization also provided Bush with private jet travel to Houston at a cost of $20,000.
And in a gesture that would make a Clinton proud, Laura Bush pocketed $50,000 after appearing for the group in 2011.
“It was great because Bush reduced his normal fee of $250,000 down to $100,000,” said Meredith Iler, Helping a Hero’s former chairwoman. That’s actually not even true; a recent report by Politico said Bush’s fees typically ranged between $100,000 and $175,000 during those years.
Helping a Hero, when it is not paying out six figure speaking fees, also fundraises for homes for military veterans. It focuses on men and women who suffered in Bush’s own two signature wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. But be sure to see more on how the wealthy charity folks don’t help veterans while enriching themselves, below.
Former Marine Eddie Wright, a former member of Helping a Hero’s board, criticized the payout.
“For him to be paid to raise money for veterans that were wounded in combat under his orders, I don’t think that’s right,” Wright said. “You sent me to war. I was doing what you told me to do, gladly for you and our country and I have no regrets.”
George W., too, has few regrets. He told one reporter he plans to “replenish the ol’ coffers” on the lecture circuit. A spokesperson for Bush confirmed the payment and added, “President Bush has made helping veterans one of his highest priorities in his post presidency.”
“But it is kind of a slap in the face,” added Wright, who lost both hands during a rocket attack in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004.
BONUS: Fallujah is now fully-controlled by Islamic State. Speaking opportunities for Bush are limited there, but in other ways I’m sure IS would love to see him drop by.
Wealthy Hero Charity Mostly Helps Themselves, Not Vets
The great Americans at Helping a Hero have come under criticism for, well, helping themselves.
In the last seven years, Helping A Hero provided 65 homes across the nation for wounded war veterans. So that’s a little better than nine a year. They must also be nice homes — the charity pulled in $4 million in donations just last year. A little math says each home must either be worth close to $450,000, or the money is going somewhere else, maybe to speeches and private jets.
Also, a number of veterans who have received these homes, as well as former board members and workers in the organization, have complained about a lack of financial transparency. They have cited mortgage contracts with special stipulations such as requiring new homeowners to promote the organization over a 10-year period or risk losing their houses. And they say Meredith Iler, Helping a Hero’s now-former chairwoman, pressured veterans and their wives to sell chemical-free beauty and health care products made by a company called Arbonne International.
Arbonne uses home parties to sell products through direct sales, like Mary Kay or Avon. And guess what — the company awarded Meredith Iler a free Mercedes-Benz after she rose from sales consultant to regional vice president in 90 days based on her “team’s” sales.
Helping a Hero is also now the subject of a pending lawsuit to stop the charity from reclaiming a house from the family of a blind soldier who died after receiving the property.
Retired Army Colonel Karen Lloyd, the organization’s former public relations chairman who resigned from the board, questioned $7,500 in expenses listed on the balance sheet for the 2011 “Rodeo Queens for the Troops” Christmas party that she helped organize. She said the venue, barbecue, pies and candy canes were all donated, but she didn’t know who paid for the expensive Arbonne gift bags handed out. Lloyd further alleges “waste, fraud and abuse” of charity funds, “illegal raffle ticket sales” by the charity, and Iler “benefiting personally from the charity’s credit card.”
Iler denies everything. Of course she does.
No one knows — literally, geographically, physically — what happened to $210 million in American taxpayer money spent by USAID, a part of your U.S. Department of State, on Afghan health programs.
This is not a case of “well, it went to buy a heck of a lot of filing cabinets,” or “it was flushed down the toilet,” though those things are indeed possible. No, it appears that by using geospatial imagery, the Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; slogan: “Can we please go home now?”) determined that 80 percent of the health facilities that were supposed to have been built never were.
Worse yet, USAID accepted hilariously inaccurate data as proof of construction, including coordinates that would have located a medical facility in the middle of the Mediterranean.
But the real wackiness is, as always, in the details:
— Thirteen coordinates for funded Afghan projects were not even located in Afghanistan, with one located in the Mediterranean Sea.
— Coordinates for 30 facilities were located in a province different from the one USAID reported.
— In 13 cases, USAID reported two different funded facilities at the same coordinates.
— 189 sets of coordinates showed no physical structure within 400 feet of the reported coordinates, and a subset of 81, or just under half of these locations, showed no physical structure within a half mile of the reported coordinates.
— 154 coordinates did not identify a specific building.
Takeaways? The buffoons running the USAID programs are just phoning it in. They are not even trying anymore to hide their own corruption, sloth, stupidity or lack of even the slightest concern for oversight. Any bonehead with Google Maps could have discovered with four mouse clicks USAID was being fed bogus data by its contractors, though apparently USAID is short of boneheads at present to do that work.
As the inspectors at SIGAR sum it all up, “To provide meaningful oversight of these facilities, USAID needs to know where they are.”
Play the USAID Game at Home, Kids! Based on coordinates provided, pictured is one supposed clinic, perched on a glacial peak:
So here we skip over to Afghanistan.
As the UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador, important actress Emma Watson (pictured above in traditional Afghan garb) has spent the last year trying to convince men that women’s equality is more than just a women’s issue. In the U.S., her “He for She” campaign gained the support of celebs like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who tweeted about it, and Steve Carell, who wore the campaign logo on his cufflink at the Oscars. Because of that tweet, and those now-famous cufflinks, women’s equality has been forever fixed in the Homeland.
Ambassador Watson now has set out to complete her journey by taking the “He for She” struggle to Afghanistan. Apparently the Taliban, whom the U.S. is almost done defeating after 14 years of war, are not nice to their female property, and Emma is so on that thing.
To kick off the UN campaign’s launch in Afghanistan last week, “local activists,” (i.e., a few women rounded up and paid taxi fare to attend) government officials (i.e., a few thugs who live off foreign graft rounded up and paid taxi fare to attend), and foreign dignitaries (i.e., a few UN interns rounded up and paid taxi fare to attend) met at a Kabul high school to demonstrate how men play an integral role in the fight for women’s rights. Using the slogan “A brave man stands for women,” activists took the stage and shared stories that attempted to reposition the fight for women’s rights as a courageous and valiant undertaking.
The underlying message was that gender equality can’t be achieved unless men change the way they view women. It’s a major shift in tactics considering that up until recently, gender equality in Afghanistan has been framed largely as a cause taken up by women.
Super quick reality check: So this has been the problem all along! The Taliban, and the thugs who preceded them, as well as the corrupt men who have been running Afghanistan for the last fourteen years of freedom under the direct supervision of the United States, just didn’t know that it was “a guy thing.” All those “honor killings” and rapes and child brides and murder of women, or that thing last month when a mob in downtown Kabul lynched a 27-year-old woman for allegedly burning a Quran, are just a perception issue.
Easy fix. Ambassador Watson and the UN have set a lofty goal of acquiring signatures from 3,000 Afghan men and boys pledging to stand up for women’s rights on the “He for She” website (it is unclear 3,000 Afghans of any gender have access to the Internet.) It’s part of a broader aim to acquire pledges from one billion men and boys worldwide by the time the UN General Assembly convenes in September.
This is all off to a great start — Emma’s website currently boasts 327,488 signatures! The bad news: the majority of them originated in the United States. Only 325 signatures came from Afghanistan, most likely from people rounded up and paid taxi fare to visit one of Kabul’s fine Internet cafes.
But the program is not just sitting on its hands. It will fix all gender problems further in Afghanistan by gaining endorsements from “Afghan celebrities,” and screening a documentary film telling human-interest stories depicting the plight of Afghan women.
And if all that fails, Ambassador Watson, who starred in the Harry Potter movies as empowered wizard Hermione Granger, will just wave her wand and shout “Reparo!” Come to think of it, that might have a better chance of helping than the rest of this silliness.
Five points to Gryffindor!
In one form or another, the U.S. has been at war with Iraq since 1990, including a sort-of invasion in 1991 and a full-scale one in 2003.
During that quarter-century, Washington imposed several changes of government, spent trillions of dollars, and was involved in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. None of those efforts were a success by any conceivable definition of the term Washington has been capable of offering.
Nonetheless, it’s the American Way to believe with all our hearts that every problem is ours to solve and every problem must have a solution, which simply must be found. As a result, the indispensable nation faces a new round of calls for ideas on what “we” should do next in Iraq.
With that in mind, here are five possible “strategies” for that country on which only one thing is guaranteed: none of them will work.
1. Send in the Trainers
In May, in the wake of the fall of the Sunni city of Ramadi to Islamic State (IS) fighters, President Obama announced a change of course in Iraq. After less than a year of not defeating, degrading, or destroying the Islamic State, the administration will now send in hundreds more military personnel to set up a new training base at Taqaddum in Anbar Province. There are already five training sites running in Iraq, staffed by most of the 3,100 military personnel the Obama administration has sent in. Yet after nine months of work, not a single trained Iraqi trooper has managed to make it into a combat situation in a country embroiled in armed chaos.
The base at Taqaddum may only represent the beginning of a new “surge.” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has begun to talk up what he calls “lily pads,” American baselets set up close to the front lines, from which trainers would work with Iraqi security forces. Of course, such lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, waiting for a hungry Islamic State frog.
Leaving aside the all-too-obvious joke — that Dempsey is proposing the creation of a literal swamp, a desert quagmire of the lilypad sort — this idea has been tried. It failed over the eight years of the occupation of Iraq, when the U.S. maintained an archipelago of 505 bases in the country. (It also failed in Afghanistan.) At the peak of Iraq War 2.0, 166,000 troops staffed those American bases, conducting some $25 billion worth of training and arming of Iraqis, the non-results of which are on display daily. The question then is: How could more American trainers accomplish in a shorter period of time what so many failed to do over so many years?
There is also the American belief that if you offer it, they will come. The results of American training so far, as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made clear recently, have fallen far short of expectations. By now, U.S. trainers were to have whipped 24,000 Iraqi soldiers into shape. The actual number to date is claimed to be some 9,000 and the description of a recent “graduation” ceremony for some of them couldn’t have been more dispiriting. (“The volunteers seemed to range in age from late teens to close to 60.” Given how much training the U.S. has made available in Iraq since 2003, it’s hard to imagine that too many young men have not given the option some thought. Simply because Washington opens more training camps, there is no reason to assume that Iraqis will show up.
Oddly enough, just before announcing his new policy, President Obama seemed to pre-agree with critics that it wasn’t likely to work. “We’ve got more training capacity than we’ve got recruits,” he said at the close of the G7 summit in Germany. “It’s not happening as fast as it needs to.” Obama was on the mark. At the al-Asad training facility, the only one in Sunni territory, for instance, the Iraqi government has not sent a single new recruit to be trained by those American advisers for the past six weeks.
And here’s some bonus information: for each U.S. soldier in Iraq, there are already two American contractors. Currently some 6,300 of them are in the country. Any additional trainers mean yet more contractors, ensuring that the U.S. “footprint” made by this no-boots-on-the-ground strategy will only grow and General Dempsey’s lilypad quagmire will come closer to realization.
2. Boots on the Ground
Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the most vocal proponent of America’s classic national security go-to move: send in U.S. troops. McCain, who witnessed the Vietnam War unfold, knows better than to expect Special Forces operatives, trainers, advisers, and combat air traffic controllers, along with U.S. air power, to turn the tide of any strategic situation. His response is to call for more — and he’s not alone. On the campaign trail recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for instance, suggested that, were he president, he would consider a full-scale “re-invasion” of Iraq. Similarly, General Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command, urged the sending in of many boots: “I can tell you, you could put ground forces on the ground now and we can destroy ISIS.”
Among the boots-on-the-ground crowd are also some former soldiers who fought in Iraq in the Bush years, lost friends, and suffered themselves. Blinking through the disillusion of it all, they prefer to believe that we actually won in Iraq (or should have, or would have, if only the Bush and Obama administrations hadn’t squandered the “victory”). Needed now, they claim, are more U.S. troops back on the ground to win the latest version of their war. Some are even volunteering as private citizens to continue the fight. Can there be a sadder argument than the “it can’t all have been a waste” one?
The more-troops option is so easy to dismiss it’s hardly worth another line: if over eight years of effort, 166,000 troops and the full weight of American military power couldn’t do the trick in Iraq, what could you possibly expect even fewer resources to accomplish?
3. Partnering with Iran
As hesitancy within the U.S. military to deploy ground forces in Iraq runs into chicken-hawk drum-pounding in the political arena, working ever more closely with Iran has become the default escalation move. If not American boots, that is, what about Iranian boots?
The backstory for this approach is as odd a Middle Eastern tale as you can find.
The original Obama administration plan was to use Arab, not Iranian, forces as proxy infantry. However, the much-ballyhooed 60-nation pan-Arab coalition proved little more than a short-lived photo op. Few, if any, of their planes are in the air anymore. America flies roughly 85% of all missions against Islamic State targets, with Western allies filling in a good part of the rest. No Arab ground troops ever showed up and key coalition countries are now openly snubbing Washington over its possible nuclear deal with Iran.
Washington has, of course, been in a Cold War-ish relationship with Iran since 1979 when the Shah fell and radical students took over the American Embassy in Tehran. In the 1980s, the U.S. aided Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, while in the years after the invasion of 2003 Iran effectively supported Iraqi Shiite militias against American forces occupying the country. Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, currently directing his country’s efforts in Iraq, was once one of the most wanted men on America’s kill list.
In the wake of the 2014 Islamic State capture of Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities, Iran ramped up its role, sending in trainers, advisers, arms, and its own forces to support the Shiite militias that Baghdad saw as its only hope. The U.S. initially turned a blind eye on all this, even as Iranian-led militias, and possibly the Iranians themselves, became consumers of close American air support.
In Washington right now, there is a growing, if quiet, acknowledgment that Iranian help is one of the few things that might push IS back without the need for U.S. ground troops. Small but telling escalations are occurring regularly. In the battle to retake the northern Sunni city of Tikrit, for example, the United States flew air missions supporting Shiite militias; the fig leaf of an explanation: that they operated under Iraqi government, not Iranian, control.
“We’re going to provide air cover to all forces that are under the command and control of the government of Iraq,” a U.S. Central Command spokesperson similarly noted in reference to the coming fight to retake the city of Ramadi. That signals a significant shift, former State Department official Ramzy Mardini points out. “The U.S. has effectively changed its position, coming to the realization that Shiite militias are a necessary evil in the fight against IS.” Such thinking may extend to Iranian ground troops now evidently fighting outside the strategic Beiji oil refinery.
Things may be even cozier between the U.S. and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias than we previously thought. Bloomberg reports that U.S. soldiers and Shiite militia groups are both already using the Taqaddum military base, the very place where President Obama is sending the latest 450 U.S. military personnel.
The downside? Help to Iran only sets up the next struggle the U.S. is likely to bumble into due to a growing Iranian hegemony in the region. Syria, perhaps?
4. Arm the Kurds
The Kurds represent Washington’s Great Hope for Iraq, a dream that plays perfectly into an American foreign policy trope about needing to be “liked” by someone. (Try Facebook.) These days, glance at just about any conservative website or check out right-wing pundits and enjoy the propaganda about the Kurds: they are plucky fighters, loyal to America, tough bastards who know how to stand and deliver. If only we gave them more weapons, they would kill more Islamic State bad guys just for us. To the right-wing crowd, they are the twenty-first-century equivalent of Winston Churchill in World War II, crying out, “Just give us the tools and we’ll defeat Hitler!”
There is some slight truth in all this. The Kurds have indeed done a good job of pushing IS militants out of swaths of northern Iraq and were happy for U.S. assistance in getting their Peshmerga fighters to the Turkish border when the locus of fighting was the city of Kobane. They remain thankful for the continuing air support the U.S. is providing their front-line troops and for the limited weapons Washington has already sent.
For Washington, the problem is that Kurdish interests are distinctly limited when it comes to fighting Islamic State forces. When the de facto borders of Kurdistan were directly threatened, they fought like caffeinated badgers. When the chance to seize the disputed town of Erbil came up — the government in Baghdad was eager to keep it within its sphere of control — the Kurds beat the breath out of IS.
But when it comes to the Sunni population, the Kurds don’t give a hoot, as long as they stay away from Kurdistan. Has anyone seen Kurdish fighters in Ramadi or anywhere else in heavily Sunni al-Anbar Province? Those strategic areas, now held by the Islamic State, are hundreds of actual miles and millions of political miles from Kurdistan. So, sure, arm the Kurds. But don’t expect them to play a strategic role against IS outside their own neighborhood. A winning strategy for the Kurds involving Washington doesn’t necessarily translate into a winning strategy for Washington in Iraq.
5. That Political Solution
Washington’s current man in Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Abadi, hasn’t moved his country any closer to Sunni-Shiite reconciliation than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, did. In fact, because Abadi has little choice but to rely on those Shiite militias, which will fight when his corrupt, inept army won’t, he has only drawn closer to Iran. This has ensured that any (American) hope of bringing Sunnis into the process in a meaningful way as part of a unified government in a unified state will prove to be a pipe dream.
A balance of forces is a prerequisite for a Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish federal Iraq. With no side strong enough to achieve victory or weak enough to lose, negotiations could follow. When then-Senator Joe Biden first proposed the idea of a three-state Iraq in 2006, it just might have been possible. However, once the Iranians had built a Shiite Iraqi client state in Baghdad and then, in 2014, unleashed the militias as an instrument of national power, that chance was lost.
Many Sunnis see no other choice but to support the Islamic State, as they did al-Qaeda in Iraq in the years after the American invasion of 2003. They fear those Shiite militias — and with good reason. Stories from the largely Sunni city of Tikrit, where militia-led forces defeated Islamic State fighters, describe “a ghost town ruled by gunmen.” In the Euphrates Valley town of Jurf al-Sakhar, there were reports of ethnic cleansing. Similarly, the mainly Sunni population of the city of Nukhayb, which sits at a strategic crossroad between Sunni and Shiite areas, has accused the militias of taking over while pretending to fight the extremists.
There remains great fear in Sunni-dominated Anbar of massacres and “cleansing” if Shiite militias enter the province in force. In such a situation, there will always be a place for an al-Qaeda, an Islamic State, or some similar movement, no matter how brutal, to defend the beleaguered Sunni population. What everyone in Iraq understands, and apparently almost everyone in America does not, is that the Islamic State is a symptom of civil war, not a standalone threat.
One lingering hope of the Obama administration has no support in Baghdad and so has remained a non-starter: defeating IS by arming Sunni tribes directly in the style of the “Anbar Awakening” movement of the occupation years. Indeed, the central government fears arming them, absent a few token units to keep the Americans quiet. The Shiites know better than most what an insurgency can do to help defeat a larger, better-armed, power.
Yet despite the risk of escalating Iraq’s shadow civil war, the U.S. now is moving to directly arm the Sunnis. Current plans are to import weapons into the newest lilypad base in Anbar and pass them on to local Sunni tribes, whether Baghdad likes that or not (and yes, the break with Baghdad is worth noting). The weapons themselves are as likely to be wielded against Shiite militias as against the Islamic State, assuming they aren’t just handed over to IS fighters.
The loss of equipment to those militants is no small thing. No one talking about sending more new weaponry to Iraq, no matter who the recipient is, should ignore the ease with which Islamic State militants have taken U.S.-supplied heavy weapons. Washington has been forced to direct air strikes against such captured equipment — even as it ships yet more in. In Mosul, some 2,300 Humvees were abandoned to IS fighters in June 2014; more were left to them when Iraqi army forces suddenly fled Ramadi in May. This pattern of supply, capture, and resupply would be comically absurd, had it not turned tragic when some of those Humvees were used by IS as rolling, armored suicide bombs and Washington had to rush AT-4 anti-tank missiles to the Iraqi army to destroy them.
The Real Reason Nothing Is Going to Work
The fundamental problem underlying nearly every facet of U.S. policy toward Iraq is that “success,” as defined in Washington, requires all the players to act against their own wills, motivations, and goals in order to achieve U.S. aims. The Sunnis need a protector as they struggle for a political place, if not basic survival, in some new type of Iraq. The Shiite government in Baghdad seeks to conquer and control the Sunni regions. Iran wants to secure Iraq as a client state and use it for easier access to Syria. The Kurds want an independent homeland.
When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter remarked, “What apparently happened [in Ramadi] was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” what he really meant was that the many flavors of forces in Iraq showed no will to fight for America’s goals. In the Washington mind-set, Iraq is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving problems that were either created by or exacerbated by the U.S. in the first place, even as America once again assumes an ever-greater role in that country’s increasingly grim fate.
For America’s “plan” to work, Sunni tribesmen would have to fight Sunnis from the Islamic State in support of a Shiite government that suppressed their peaceful Arab-Spring-style protests, and that, backed by Iran, has been ostracizing, harassing, and murdering them. The Kurds would have to fight for an Iraqi nation-state from which they wish to be independent. It can’t work.
Go back to 2011 and it’s unlikely anyone could have imagined that the same guy who defeated Hillary Clinton and gained the White House based on his opposition to the last Iraq War would send the U.S. tumbling back into that chaotic country. If ever there was an avoidable American crisis, Iraq War 3.0 is it. If ever there was a war, whatever its chosen strategies, in which the U.S. has no hopes of achieving its goals, this is it.
By now, you’re undoubtedly shaking your head and asking, “How did this happen?” Historians will do the same.
USAID just got caught wasting $769 million not supporting Afghanistan’s education sector.
How could this happen?!? As a public service, here are your step-by-step instructions.
— Start with the premise that schools in a wasteland like Afghanistan in support of a failed American policy are more important uses of American taxpayer money than schools in America (which is socialism, or a handout, or whatever, Ayn Rand.)
— Send incompetent people (see below) to Afghanistan with a lot of money, say $769 million. Tell them to build schools. If you don’t have enough in-house incompetent people, like USAID, hire contractors, like USAID did.
— Make sure those people never travel to where the schools are being built. Instead, have them rely on a known corrupt government to tell them where to spend the money. In our instant case, former ministry officials who served under President Hamid Karzai provided false data to USAID regarding the number of active schools in Afghanistan.
— Make sure, as USAID, while spending all that money, not to ask if there are any schools actually being built. Instead, sit back and look the other way as Afghan officials doctored statistics, embezzled money, and interfered with university entrance exams to make it seem schools existed. These allegations suggest that the U.S. and other donors may have paid for ghost schools that ghost students do not attend and for the salaries of ghost teachers who do not teach.
— Despite this, as USAID, announce at every opportunity that education programs are among your most successful work in Afghanistan. For example, USAID cited a jump in students enrolled in schools from an estimated 900,000 in 2002 to more than eight million in 2013 as a clear indicator of progress.
— Make sure all your data supporting these successes is unverifiable, coming only from the Afghan Ministry of Education. Appear surprised when you learn, years and $769 million later, that the data has been falsified. Do not conduct any investigation of your own. Wait and see if some inspector general notices. You know most of the media won’t.
— Ignore the fact that accurate data is essential for gauging progress and for making future funding decisions. Congress will help with this.
— Make sure you have bosses in the field and at the State Department in Washington who do not care about accurate metrics or real results.
— Repeat this process for fourteen years of the Afghan War.
Since I already have a full-time job and can’t do it, luckily the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) does document the waste as a full-time job.
Here are just a few updates.
Kandahar Industrial Park
The U.S. paid for a number of industrial parks in Afghanistan. The idea was if water, electricity and roads were established, businesses would somehow pop up spontaneously and the bleak landscape of Afghanistan would soon resemble the bleak landscape surrounding many small American cities. Such was the plan for Kandahar.
However, during the inspection of one such “industrial park,” SIGAR found only one active Afghan business at the facility, which was originally planned to accommodate 48 businesses. Better yet, due to missing contract files and the lack of electricity at the time of their site visit, SIGAR was not able to fully inspect and assess whether construction met contract requirements.
Of interest, Kandahar was not the first time missing contract documents prevented SIGAR from conducting a full inspection of a USAID-funded facility. In January 2015, missing contract documents limited the inspection of the no doubt otherwise scenic Gorimar Industrial Park in Balkh province. That inspection also noted that a lack of electricity and water left the $7.7 million U.S.-funded industrial park largely vacant.
Undaunted by the lack of progress on 14 years of bringing electricity to these areas of Afghanistan, USAID officials intend to solicit bids within the next few months on a contract for a solar power system.
Afghan Army Slaughterhouse
Everyone’s gotta eat, right? So, the U.S. decided to spend $12 million of your tax money to construct an animal slaughterhouse to supply meat to the Afghan National Army.
The good news is that no animals were harmed in the construction of this slaughterhouse.
Why? Because, as SIGAR tells us, before it was completed, the slaughterhouse project was canceled. However the contractor not building the facility was paid $1.54 million anyway, even though the project was no more than 10 percent complete.
But because the taxpayer teat is a plump one, the contractor has requested $4.23 million in additional payments. Consequently, the cost to terminate the slaughterhouse project could rise to as much as $5.77 million.
The project was originally designated as a “high priority” by the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A). However, 15 months after the project started, CSTC-A determined that an existing facility would meet the need. Hence, the (expensive) termination.
Afghan Government Bailout
You thought we were done? Hah. The U.S. just received a formal request from the Afghan government for a $537 million budget bailout, just kinda because they needed more money for, um, whatever they spend money on.
Your State Department, ever on the job, already handed over $100 million of your money, even while warning the budget shortfall could be as much as $400 million this year unless the Afghan government’s revenue generation increases significantly.
No one has any idea how the Afghan government might increase revenue generation significantly, except perhaps if they use all of that $100 million to buy Lotto tickets.
Ho ho, ho, this one has all the hallmarks of the amazing waste and stupidity I enjoyed while participating in the reconstruction of Iraq, documented in my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released with a straight face its inquiry into U.S. government’s “Downstream Gas Utilization Project” in Afghanistan, the sum total accomplishment of which was the erection of a single compressed natural gas (CNG) station at a cost of nearly $43 million to the taxpayers.
Here’s why this was such a hallmark waste:
— The limited ability to transport CNG to the location of the single station in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif limits the practicality of expanding the CNG industry in that city. There is only one natural gas pipeline providing gas to Mazar-e-Sharif and it is only safe to operate at minimal pressure.
Hallmark: The people who conceived the project to build the compressed gas station never thought for a second where the gas would come from. They just built the station for the hell of it.
— Construction on a planned new gas pipeline has not started and about $6.5 million worth of new pipe is apparently sitting in storage in Afghanistan.
Hallmark: The people who built the station, the people who ordered the pipe and the people who organize construction did not speak to one another. They may have worked for different contractors. They may not have even known the others existed. They may have done their work in different years. By the time anyone figures all that out, the pipe in storage will have been pilfered, and likely melted down by the Taliban to make mortar shells.
— The gas project may never be completed unless the state-owned Afghan Gas Enterprise pays up to $16 million for its completion.
Hallmark: Leaving some part of a reconstruction project for the host government to pay for was a plan designed to promote “buy in.” In reality, the host government is far too busy sucking up American money via every possible channel of corruption available, and could care less about buy-in on whatever dumb ass thing the Americans are building now.
— The process for converting automobiles in Afghanistan to CNG appears to be cost prohibitive for all but the wealthiest of Afghans.
Hallmark: And here’s the money shot — even if all of the above factors could somehow be fixed by magic, the project would still be a complete waste. Nobody in Afghanistan wanted what the U.S. was building to begin with. If we built this compressed natural gas station for anyone, it is at best as a financial mastubatory device for ourselves.
Bookmark this page so in a few years when Afghanistan devolves into the mess Iraq is today, you’ll know why!
This is how you really support the troops. By not listening to them, and wasting taxpayer money in their name. Also, not punishing the willfully, joyously, incompetent and corrupt people who committed those acts.
Once again the depressed people at the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; new slogan: “Documenting the Fall of Empire, 24/7/365”) released the results of an investigation into the construction of a 64,000 square foot command and control facility (cleverly known as “64K,” perhaps after the amount of computer memory used to think this through) at Camp Leatherneck in scenic Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 64K (which would also be a good rapper name) was intended to support the military Surge in Afghanistan. FYI: The Surge was intended to support defeating the Taliban (slogan: we’re here forever and you’re not, b*itches!)
Instead, the construction of 64K resulted in the waste of $36 million in U.S. taxpayer funds, and corrupt forces within the Pentagon tried to hide the results.
SIGAR found the following:
— While a request to Congress for funding the 64K facility was pending and a year before construction even started, multiple generals on the ground in Afghanistan requested cancellation of the facility. This included the general in charge of the surge in Helmand, who recommended cancellation because existing facilities were “more than sufficient.” No one cared what he had to say, him being only the guy on the ground and all.
— The request to cancel was denied by another general who believed that it would not be “prudent” to cancel a project for which funds had already been appropriated by Congress. Because that made sense.
— While the building was intended to support the 2010 surge, construction did not begin until May 2011, just two months before the drawdown of the Surge began. About seven months after the conclusion of the Surge, construction of the 64K facility was still only 98 percent complete. Fun Fact: “Surges” used to be known as “escalations,” until everyone in Washington figured out that was a bad word and The Surge sounded like the name of a cool MMA dude. Americans like that.
— A military investigation into the 64K facility stated that the findings were based on “interviews with key individuals.” However, the head of the investigation acknowledged he did not interview any witnesses and never spoke to the general who overruled the commanders in Afghanistan and ordered the 64K facility to be built.
— During the course of SIGAR’s investigation, there were a number of instances in which military officials apparently decided to “slow roll” or discourage candid responses to SIGAR’s requests for documents and information.
— Evidence uncovered by SIGAR indicates a senior officer serving as a legal advisor attempted to coach witnesses involved in an active investigation and encouraged military personnel not to cooperate with SIGAR. SIGAR believes these actions constituted both misconduct and mismanagement, and violated his professional and ethical responsibilities as an Army lawyer. There is no confirmation that lawyer now works on Wall Street, but I think we can see that coming.
–The report recommended the Department of Defense discipline the senior officers involved in the 64K mess and coverup. DOD did not concur with this recommendation, for freedom.
To be continued…
What all whistleblowers have in common is the same government that gives lip service to the ideas of transparency and free speech aggressively goes after each and every one of them.
Meet Lieutenant Colonel Jason Amerine
We all know Snowden; who is Lieutenant Colonel Jason Amerine?
Amerine was one of the first Green Berets to enter Afghanistan in 2001, leading a joint U.S.-Afghan team in firefights in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Yet in January the Army escorted Amerine out of his office at the Pentagon office, cut off his pay, refused to allow him to retire, and opened a criminal investigation after the FBI discovered he was sharing information with Congress on policies for freeing American hostages.
Guilty of what? Talking to Congress.
Failed Hostage Rescue Policy
Amerine grew increasingly concerned over the course of his work that the U.S. government process for freeing American hostages abroad was flawed.
Amerine worked behind the scenes with Representative Duncan Hunter to try an fix it. The congressman crafted a bill that would create a single office to coordinate hostage-freeing efforts; the current process is a bureaucratic tangle involving the FBI, the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence agencies. Amerine was particularly concerned about Caitlan Coleman, an American who was traveling in Afghanistan while pregnant when she was kidnapped in 2012.
Members of Congress have security clearances, and are charged with oversight roles. Amerine did not go to the media, put documents on the internet or otherwise come close to violating any secrecy laws. He just p*ssed off the wrong people.
As if cutting off his pay (Amerine claims retaliation, the Army has no comment) was not enough, Amerine wanted to retire but was kept on active duty against his will by Army Secretary John McHugh while the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command probes his activities. The active duty status is significant, as it allows the government to try Amerine through the military justice system, which does not afford a defendant the same rights and privileges the civil courts do. It also makes it easier for the government to keep the proceedings secret, as was done with whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
After staying silent and going through channels as whistleblowers are always told to do, Amerine is now fighting back. He has retained legal counsel, and filed a complaint with the Army’s Inspector General. The soldier’s Class of 1993 West Point colleagues created a White House “We the People” petition. Reaching 100,000 signatures would obligate the White House to respond to a request that it provide whistleblower protection and end the investigation. You can sign the petition yourself. Amerine also has a Facebook page where you can show support for him.
The Bureaucracy is Broken
“This bill helps to resolve the FBI’s impotence to help our hostages overseas as well as our government’s disorganized efforts across all agencies,” Amerine wrote. “The bureaucracy is broken… But the Army somehow thought it made sense to initiate a CID investigation into me executing both my duty and my right to speak to Congress.”
There may not be money available to fix America’s own crumbling infrastructure (Amtrak!), but there is lots of money available to waste on not fixing Afghanistan’s infrastructure.
In today’s incidence of atrocity and obscenity, specifically not fixing Afghanistan’s civil aviation sector.
Civil aviation, of course, means regular airplanes painted white, not green or gray, happily flying from city to city full of happy tourists and spunky businesspeople. Just like your last smooth flight from Albany to Detroit. Only in this case, it is all supposed to take place in the happy land of Afghanistan, where looking like Detroit would be a step up for most cities.
America’s most depressed bureaucrats, the people in the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released an audit of the $562.2 million in U.S. assistance to Afghanistan’s civil aviation sector, administered by the Department of Defense ($500 million) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA; $56.5 million.)
The audit revealed:
— Despite some strengthening of Afghanistan’s civil aviation capabilities over the past 12 years (law of probability suggests after starting from a base of zero, something had to work after over a decade of banging away) the U.S. could not transfer airspace management operations to the Afghan government as it had originally planned, due to a lack of trained Afghan air traffic controllers.
— Despite its efforts, the FAA was not able to train enough air traffic controllers for Afghanistan to operate airspace management services. The majority of FAA-trained Afghan personnel never completed the required on-the-job training.
— The FAA attempted to train Afghan students abroad, but faced problems obtaining passports and visas for the students, and some students did not return to Afghanistan after being sent for training in other countries, including the U.S.
— Due to security concerns, Afghan students could not access the facilities they needed for on-the-job training.
— The Afghan government’s failure to award an airspace management contract resulted in the U.S. paying $29.5 million for an interim contract. The Afghan government didn’t award a contract because of what it said were the excessive costs (which did not bother the U.S., who paid up for them.) Unless the Afghan government awards a follow-on contract before the interim contract expires, the U.S. government will be called upon to fund another interim contract.
— The Afghan government uses only a portion of the $34.5 million in revenue collected from airspace over-flight fees for civil aviation purposes, despite the government’s stated commitment of using its civil aviation revenue to finance aviation services and infrastructure development. One does wonder where all the rest of the money is going to.
If you can stomach it, read the full SIGAR report online.
Hello American people, your friend Haider al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq, writing to you here from Baghdad, which is the capital of Iraq since many Americans I heard are ignorant of basic geography.
Go ahead, check the Wikipedia, as Google is the friend of us all. Me, my English not so good, you forgive, OK.
I meeting this good day with my old friends the Iranians. I had a few minutes here and wanted to drop you in America a line to say “hi.”
I started thinking about you when I was reading a book about what you call the “Vietnam War.” People over there call it the Third Indochina War, as they fought the Japanese, the French and then you Americans in succession. Your wonderful naivete about history just amuses me. We in Iraq call the most recent invasion by you the Third and a Half Gulf War, after Saddam fought the Iranians in the 1980’s (you were on Iraq’s side), then Iraq fought the U.S. in 1991 and of course then you invaded us because of 9/11 in 2003. Now your troops are back in my country, but without their boots on my ground, so I call it half a new war for you.
You know, in Vietnam your government convinced generations of Americans to fight and die for something bigger than themselves, to struggle for democracy they believed, to fight Communism in Vietnam before it toppled countries like dominoes (we also love this dominoes game in Iraq!) and you ended up fighting Communism in your California beaches. Everyone believed this but it was all a lie. Then in 2003 the George W. Bush (blessed be his name) told the exact same lie and everyone believed it again– he just changed the word “Communism” to “Terrorism” and again your American youth went off to die for something greater than themselves but it was a lie.
How you fooled twice? Hah hah, don’t haggle in the marketplace, we say. Soon of course the Obama will say something similar and you’ll do it again. Maybe in Syria, maybe in Iran, maybe somewhere else. As you say, it’s a big world!
But I am rude. I need to say now “Thank You” to the parents of the 4491 Americans who died in this Iraq invasion so that I could become leader of Iraq. Really guys and the girls, I could not have achieved this without you. See in March 2010 you had another American election festival for us in Iraq, and my good friend, boss and mentor al-Maliki lost by the counting of votes. However, because your State Department was desperate for some government to form here and they could not broker a deal themselves, they allowed the Iranian government to come and help us.
My Iraq is good friends with my Iran thanks to you. “If Tehran and Baghdad are powerful, then there will be no place for the presence of enemies of nations in this region, including the U.S. and the Zionist regime,” the official Iranian news agency IRNA quoted Ahmadinejad as telling al-Maliki.
Anyway, I gotta run my bitches. But yes, my thanks again for sacrificing 4491 of your young men and women for me. I can never repay this debt, not that I would even think of seeking to repay you anything you ignorant pigs.
Haider al-Abadi (follow me on Twitter!)
Iraq? On another Memorial Day, we’re still talking about Iraq?
I attended the 2015 commencement ceremonies at Fordham University in New York. The otherwise typical ritual (future, global, passion, do what you love, you’ll never forget this place) began oddly, with an admonition to pause for a moment in honor of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a special congratulations to veterans among the graduating class. No other group was so singled out.
At William and Mary, a university that counts Thomas Jefferson as an alumnus, Condoleezza Rice was granted this spring an honorary degree in public service; William and Mary’s chancellor is former head of the CIA and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
The ongoing news features “gaffs” by various Republican candidates about whether they would invade Iraq then knowing now, or maybe then invade now knowing then, or tomorrow knowing less. Pundits recycle the old arguments about imperfect decisions, mistakes being made, and a new trope, that Obama “lost” Iraq.
The mother of the first Navy Seal killed in Iraq wrote an open letter to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Dempsey responded to reports that Ramadi, Iraq fell to Islamic State by describing the city as “not symbolic in any way.” The mother asked a version of the familiar question, “so what did he die for?”
Remembering the Dead
Yes, it is another Memorial Day and we are still talking about Iraq.
The facts are in front of us. The Iraq War of 2003-2011 killed 4491 Americans. The Pentagon states 32,226 Americans were wounded “in action,” a number which does not include an estimated 200,000 soldiers who will suffer PTSD or major depression, or the 285,000 of them who experienced a probable traumatic brain injury.
On the Iraqi side of the equation, no one knows. Most of the Iraqis died more of the war — well-after then-president Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” and an end of major hostilities — than in the war per se. Estimates run from some 200,000 up to a million dead.
Argue with any of the numbers you like. Agree that the “real” numbers are big.
There are similar sets of numbers for Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and many other places America makes war, overtly, covertly and via drone.
Lessons from Iraq
And that is why we should, on Memorial Day, still be talking about Iraq. We haven’t learned anything from our mistakes there and it is time we did.
The lessons of Iraq are not limited to bad decision making, falsifying intelligence reports, and exaggerated claims about smoking guns and mushroom clouds.
Those are just details, and they come and go with wars: the Gulf of Tonkin incident that brought America into the Vietnam War was false. So were the stories out of Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing Kuwaiti infants from their incubators. Same for the “we’re just on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidi people” that reopened American involvement in Iraq less than a year ago. Just as false are the “we are invading ______ (fill in the blank with any number of locations) to liberate the people” there from a thug government, an evil dictator, another bad guy.
We’ve eliminated a lot of Qaddafi’s and Saddam’s, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone on the ground in their old countries happy about what resulted from that. War after war we need to fight back against barbarians who seek to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region (Communism? Terrorism?) War after war we need to fight “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here.
Maybe as late as the Vietnam War we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. Most hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” But we of the September 12 group of Americans have no excuse.
The lies and fudges and mistakes that took us to war in Iraq in 2003 were not unique; they were policy. There is a template for every American war since 1945, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. Unless and until we talk about that on some Memorial Day, we will be talking about Iraq, or wherever next year’s war is, on another Memorial Day.
Alone at Night
I think about that mom who wonders what her son died for in Ramadi. She is not alone; there are lots of moms whose sons died in Ramadi, and Fallujah, and Helmand Province, and Hue and Danang, even Grenada. Late at night, perhaps after a third glass of white wine failed again to let them sleep, those moms may try and console themselves thinking their sons and daughters died for “something.” I can’t criticize or begrudge them for that, they having lost a child. Ghosts are terrible things to follow you through life.
The kids who will serve in our military into the “commitment” to Afghanistan that extends into 2024 are currently in elementary school. They are out on the lawn right now this Memorial Day, playing at being ghosts.
What I would like to do on this Memorial Day is ask all the mom’s who have not yet lost a child in a war that does not matter to think about those unthinkable things while they are waving a flag, and while their kids are still alive.
If we think about that this Memorial Day, maybe we can start to learn the real lesson of Iraq.