It is widely reported that the U.S. would like to keep additional troops in Afghanistan past the previously announced withdrawal date. Secretary of Defense Carter is now in Afghanistan negotiating.
We listened in:
Afghanistan: Hey, thanks for the invasion and for staying these 14 years. It’s been fun and I hope we can still be friends and all…
Carter: We can invade anyone we want to you know, but hey, we picked you. You’re special to us and we want everyone to know that. Here, take this permanent base full of troops as a sign of our commitment.
Afghanistan: But that’s what you said to all the other countries you invaded! And even while you’re saying these nice things to us, you still have bases in Japan, Germany and Italy, and they’re like 70-years-old.
Carter: Sure, I have other… friends… but I have to keep those bases there for family reasons. You’re my new bestest friend. How about a base? Just one, a little one?
Afghanistan: But I saw on Facebook that you are flirting with Yemen and Syria and even Somalia. And don’t think I don’t know what you did in Sudan! And please, Iraq again? You guys broke up, “for forevers” Obama said on Instagram, and now look at you, back involved again. That bitch.
Carter: Hey, that’s not fair. Iraq is a just a friend with benefits. It doesn’t mean anything. I love you. Didn’t I promise you freedom and democracy in 2001? And then in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015? Besides, you were asking for it.
Afghanistan: You made a lot of promises, but I think you only like me for my big bases. You say nice things to me, but you really just want your hands on a base for when you are ready for Iran.
Carter: Aw, you know Iran and I are just good friends. I might fool around a bit with Syria, and yeah, Yemen looks pretty hot some days, but you’re the real one for me.
Afghanistan: OK, maybe you can have just one. But do you promise to pull out?
Carter: Of course baby. Would I lie to you?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The U.S. is running around in circles in the Middle East, patching together coalitions here, acquiring strange bedfellows there, and in location after location trying to figure out who the enemy of its enemy actually is. The result is just what you’d expect: chaos further undermining whatever’s left of the nations whose frailty birthed the jihadism America is trying to squash.
And in a classic tale of unintended consequences, just about every time Washington has committed another blunder in the Middle East, Iran has stepped in to take advantage. Consider that country the rising power in the region and credit American clumsiness for the new Iranian ascendancy.
Today’s News — and Some History
The U.S. recently concluded air strikes in support of the Iraqi militias that Iran favors as they took back the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, Washington began supplying intelligence and aerial refueling on demand for a Saudi bombing campaign against the militias Iran favors in Yemen. Iran continues to advise and assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Washington would still like to depose and, as part of its Syrian strategy, continues to supply and direct Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group the U.S. considers a terror outfit.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has successfully negotiated the outlines of an agreement with Iran in which progress on severely constricting its nuclear program would be traded for an eventual lifting of sanctions and the granting of diplomatic recognition. This is sure to further bolster Tehran’s status as a regional power, while weakening long-time American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States.
A clever pundit could undoubtedly paint all of the above as a realpolitik ballet on Washington’s part, but the truth seems so much simpler and more painful. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. policy in the region has combined confusion on an immense scale with awkward bursts of ill-coordinated and exceedingly short-term acts of expediency. The country that has most benefited is Iran. No place illustrates this better than Iraq.
Iraq Redux (Yet Again)
On April 9, 2003, just over 12 years ago, U.S. troops pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, symbolically marking what George W. Bush hoped was the beginning of a campaign to remake the Middle East in America’s image by bringing not just Iraq but Syria and Iran to heel. And there can be no question that the invasion of Iraq did indeed set events in motion that are still remaking the region in ways once unimaginable.
In the wake of the Iraq invasion and occupation, the Arab Spring blossomed and failed. (The recent Obama administration decision to resume arms exports to the military government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt could be considered its coup de grâce.) Today, fighting ripples through Libya, Syria, Yemen, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa, and other parts of the Greater Middle East. Terrorists attack in once relatively peaceful places like Tunisia. There is now a de facto independent Kurdistan — last a reality in the sixteenth century — that includes the city of Kirkuk. Previously stable countries have become roiling failed states and home to terrorist groups that didn’t even exist when the U.S. military rolled across the Iraqi border in 2003.
And, of course, 12 years later in Iraq itself the fighting roars on. Who now remembers President Obama declaring victory in 2011 and praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of the pile of sticky brown sand that was Bush’s Iraq. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but as with Vietnam decades earlier, the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for the dream of a successful Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.
You know what happened next. Unlike in Vietnam, Washington did go back, quickly turning a humanitarian gesture in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people from destruction at the hands of the Islamic State into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 62 nations was formed. (Where are they all now while the U.S. conducts 85% of all air strikes against IS?) The tap on a massive arms flow was turned on. The architect of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq and a leaker of top secret documents, retired general and former CIA Director David Petraeus, was brought back in for advice. Twenty-four-seven bombing became the order of the day and several thousand U.S. military advisors returned to familiar bases to retrain some part of an American-created army that had only recently collapsed and abandoned four key northern cities to Islamic State militants. Iraq War 3.0 was officially underway and many pundits — including me — predicted a steady escalation with the usual quagmire to follow.
Such a result can hardly be ruled out yet, but at the moment it’s as if Barack Obama had stepped to the edge of the Iraqi abyss, peered over, and then shrugged his shoulders. Both his administration and the U.S. military appear content for the moment neither to pull back nor press harder.
The American people seem to feel much the same way. Except in the Republican Congress (and even there in less shrill form than usual), there are few calls for… well, anything. The ongoing air strikes remain “surgical” in domestic politics, if not in Iraq and Syria. Hardly noticed and little reported on here, they have had next to no effect on Americans. Yet they remain sufficient to assure the right wing that the American military is still the best tool to solve problems abroad, while encouraging liberals who want to show that they can be as tough as anyone going into 2016.
At first glance, the American version of Iraq War 3.0 has the feel of the Libyan air intervention — the same lack of concern, that is, for the long game. But Iraq 2015 is no Libya 2011, because this time while America sits back, Iran rises.
The Middle East was ripe for change. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the last major transformational event in the area was the fall of that classic American stooge, the Shah of Iran, in 1979. Otherwise, many of the thug regimes in power since the 1960s, the height of the Cold War, had stayed in place, and so had most of the borders set even earlier, in the aftermath of World War I.
Iran should send America a fruit basket to thank it for setting the stage so perfectly for its ascent. As a start, in 2003 the United States eliminated Iran’s major border threats: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to the west and the Taliban in Afghanistan to the east. (The Taliban are back of course, but diligently focused on America’s puppet Afghan government.) The long slog of Washington’s wars in both those countries dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for yet more of the same, and cooled off Bush-era plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. (After all, if even Vice President Dick Cheney couldn’t pull the trigger on Iran before leaving office in 2008, who in 2015 America is going to do so?)
Better yet for the Iranians, when Saddam was hanged in 2006, they not only lost an enemy who had invaded their country in 1980, launching a bitter war against them that didn’t end for eight years, but gained an ally in the new Iraq. As U.S. influence withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi elections to produce a broadly representative government, Iran stepped in to broker a thoroughly partisan settlement leading to a sectarian Shia government in Baghdad bent on ensuring that the country’s minority Sunni population would remain out of power forever. The Obama administration seemed nearly oblivious to Iran’s gains in Iraq in 2010 — and seems so again in 2015.
Iran in Iraq
In Tikrit, Iranian-led Shia forces recently drove the Islamic State from the city. In charge was Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Qods Force (a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards), who had previously led the brutally effective efforts of Iranian special forces against U.S. soldiers in Iraq War 2.0. He returned to that country and assembled his own coalition of Shia militias to take Tikrit. All of them have long benefited from Iranian support, as has the increasingly Shia-dominated Iraqi army.
In addition, the Iranians seem to have brought in their own tanks and possibly even ground troops for the assault on the city. They also moved advanced rocket systems into Iraq, the same weapons Hamas has used against Israel in recent conflicts.
Only one thing was lacking: air power. After much hemming and hawing, when it looked like the assault on Tikrit had been blunted by well-dug-in Islamic State fighters in a heavily booby-trapped city, the Obama administration agreed to provide it.
On the U.S. side, the air of desperation around the decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit was palpable. You could feel it, for instance, in this statement by a Pentagon spokesperson almost pleading for the Iraqi government to favor Washington over Tehran: “I think it’s important that the Iraqis understand that what would be most helpful to them is a reliable partner in this fight against IS. Reliable, professional, advanced military capabilities are something that very clearly and very squarely reside with the coalition.”
Imagine if you had told an American soldier — or general — leaving Iraq in 2011 that, just a few years later in the country where he or she had watched friends die, the U.S. would be serving as Iran’s close air support. Imagine if you had told him that Washington would be helping some of the same Shia militias who planted IEDs to kill Americans go after Sunnis — and essentially begging for the chance to do so. Who would’ve thunk it?
The Limits of Air Power 101
The White House no doubt imagined that U.S. bombs would be seen as the decisive factor in Tikrit and that the sectarian government in Baghdad would naturally come to… What? Like us better than the Iranians?
Bizarre as such a “strategy” might seem on the face of it, it has proven even stranger in practice. The biggest problem with air power is that, while it’s good at breaking things, it isn’t decisive. It cannot determine who moves into the governor’s mansion after the dust settles. Only ground forces can do that, so a victory over the Islamic State in Tikrit, no matter what role air strikes played, can only further empower those Iranian-backed Shia militias. You don’t have to be a military expert to know that this is the nature of air power, which makes it all the more surprising that American strategists seem so blind to it.
As for liking Washington better for its helping hand, there are few signs of that. Baghdad officials have largely been silent on America’s contribution, praising only the “air coverage of the Iraqi air force and the international coalition.” Shia militia forces on the ground have been angered by and scornful of the United States for — as they see it — interfering in their efforts to take Tikrit on their own.
The victory in that city will only increase the government’s reliance on the militias, whom Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi now refers to as “popular volunteers,” rather than the still-limited number of soldiers the Americans have so far been capable of training. (The Pentagon might, by the way, want to see if Iran can pass along any training tips, as their militias, unlike the American-backed Iraqi army, seem to be doing just fine.) That also means that the government will have no choice but to tolerate the Shia militia atrocities and acts of ethnic cleansing that have already taken place in Sunni Tikrit and will surely follow in any other Sunni areas similarly “liberated.” Claims coming out of Washington that the U.S. will be carefully monitoring the acts of Iraqi forces ring increasingly hollow.
What Tikrit has, in fact, done is solidify Iran’s influence over Prime Minister al-Abadi, currently little more than the acting mayor of Baghdad, who claimed the victory in Tikrit as a way to increase his own prestige. The win also allows his Shia-run government to seize control of the ruins of that previously Sunni enclave. And no one should miss the obvious symbolism that lies in the fact that the first major city retaken from the Islamic State in a Sunni area is also the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
The best the Obama administration can do is watch helplessly as Tehran and Baghdad take their bows. A template has been created for a future in which other Sunni areas, including the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and Sunni cities in Anbar Province will be similarly retaken, perhaps with the help of American air power but almost certainly with little credit to Washington.
Iran in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen
Tehran is now playing a similarly important role in other places where U.S. policy stumbles have left voids, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
In Syria, Iranian forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Qods Force, and their intelligence services, advise and assist Bashar al-Assad’s military. They also support Hezbollah elements from Lebanon fighting on Assad’s side. At best, Washington is again playing second fiddle, using its air power against the Islamic State and training “moderate” Syrian fighters, the first of whom refused to even show up for their initial battle.
In Yemen, a U.S.-supported regime, backed by Special Forces advisers and a full-scale drone targeted assassination campaign, recently crumbled. The American Embassy was evacuated in February, the last of those advisers in March. The takeover of the capital, Sana’a, and later significant parts of the rest of the country by the Houthis, a rebel Shiite minority group, represents, in the words of one Foreign Policy writer, “a huge victory for Iran… the Houthis’ decision to tie their fate to Tehran’s regional machinations risks tearing Yemen apart and throwing the country into chaos.”
The panicked Saudis promptly intervened and were quickly backed by the Obama administration’s insertion of the United States in yet another conflict by executive order. Relentless Saudi air strikes (perhaps using some of the $640 million worth of cluster bombs the U.S. sold them last year) are supported by yet another coalition, this time of Sudan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and other Sunni powers in the region. The threat of an invasion, possibly using Egyptian troops, looms. The Iranians have moved ships into the area in response to a Saudi naval blockade of Yemen.
No matter what happens, Iran will be strengthened. Either it will find itself in a client relationship with a Houthi movement that has advanced to the Saudi border or, should they be driven back, a chaotic state in Yemen with an ever-strengthening al-Qaeda offshoot. Either outcome would undoubtedly discombobulate the Saudis (and the Americans) and so sit well with Iran.
To make things even livelier in a fragmenting region, Sunni rebels infiltrating from neighboring Pakistan recently killed eight Iranian border guards. This probably represented a retaliatory attack in response to an earlier skirmish in which Iranian Revolutionary Guards killed three suspected Pakistani Sunni militants. Once started, fires do tend to spread.
For those keeping score at home, the Iranians now hold significant positions in three Middle Eastern countries (or at least fragments of former countries) in addition to Iraq.
Iran Ascending and the Nuclear Question
Iran is well positioned to ascend. Geopolitically, alone in the region it is a nation that has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years. It is almost completely ethnically stable and religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous, with its minorities comparatively under control. While still governed in large part by its clerics, Iran has seen evolving democratic electoral transitions at the secular level. Politically, history is on Iran’s side. If you set aside the 1953 CIA-backed coup that ousted the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and put the U.S.-backed Shah in power for a quarter of a century, Iran has sorted out its governance on its own for some time.
Somehow, despite decades of sanctions, Iran, with the fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves on the planet, has managed to hold its economy together, selling what oil it can primarily to Asia. It is ready to sell more oil as soon as sanctions lift. It has a decent conventional military by local standards. Its young reportedly yearn for greater engagement with the West. Unlike nearly every other nation in the Middle East, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one — 36 years ago.
Recently, the U.S., Iran, and the P5 (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) reached a preliminary agreement to significantly constrain that country’s nuclear program and lift sanctions. It appears that both the Obama administration and Tehran are eager to turn it into an official document by the end of June. A deal isn’t a deal until signed on the dotted line, and the congressional Republicans are sharpening their knives, but the intent is clearly there.
To keep the talks on track, by the end of June the Obama administration will have released to the Islamic Republic a total of $11.9 billion in previously frozen assets, dating back to the 1979 Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. In addition to the straight-up flood of cash, the U.S. agreed that Iran may sell $4.2 billion worth of oil, free from any sanctions. The U.S. will also allow Iran approximately $1.5 billion in gold sales, as well as easier access to “humanitarian transactions.” Put another way, someone in Washington wanted this badly enough to pay for it.
For President Obama and his advisers, this agreement is clearly a late grasp (or perhaps last gasp) at legacy building, and maybe even a guilty stab at justifying that 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. The urge to etch some kind of foreign policy success into future history books that, at the moment, threaten to be grim reading is easy enough to understand. So it should have surprised no one that John Kerry, Obama’s once globetrotting secretary of state, basically took up residence in Switzerland to negotiate with the Iranians. He sat at the table in Lausanne bargaining while Tikrit burned, Syria simmered, his country was chased out of Yemen, and the Saudis launched their own war in that beleaguered country. That he had hardly a word to say about any of those events, or much of anything else going on in the world at the time, is an indication of just how much value the Obama administration puts on those nuclear negotiations.
For the Iranians, trading progress on developing nuclear weapons for the full-scale lifting of sanctions was an attractive offer. After all, its leaders know that the country could never go fully nuclear without ensuring devastating Israeli strikes, and so lost little with the present agreement while gaining much. Being accepted as a peer by Washington in such negotiations only further establishes their country’s status as a regional power. Moreover, a nuclear agreement that widens any rift between the U.S., Israel, and the Saudis plays to Tehran’s new strength. Finally, the stronger economy likely to blossom once sanctions are lifted will offer the nation the possibility of new revenues and renewed foreign investment. (It’s easy to imagine Chinese businesspeople on Orbitz making air reservations as you read this.) The big winner in the nuclear deal is not difficult to suss out.
What Lies Ahead
In these last months, despite the angry, fearful cries and demands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Saudi royals, and neo- and other conservatives in Congress, Iran has shown few signs of aspiring to the sort of self-destruction going nuclear would entail. (If Iran had created a bomb every time Netanyahu claimed they were on the verge of having one in the past two decades, Tehran would be littered with them.) In fact, trading mushroom clouds with Israel and possibly the U.S. never looked like an appealing goal to the Iranian leadership. Instead, they preferred to seek a more conventional kind of influence throughout the Middle East. They were hardly alone in that, but their success has been singular in the region in these years.
The U.S. provided free tutorials in Afghanistan and Iraq on why actually occupying territory in the neighborhood isn’t the road to such influence. Iran’s leaders have not ignored the advice. Instead, Iran’s rise has been stoked by a collection of client states, aligned governments, sympathetic and/or beholden militias, and — when all else fails — chaotic non-states that promise less trouble and harm to Tehran than to its various potential enemies.
Despite Iran’s gains, the U.S. will still be the biggest kid on the block for years, possibly decades, to come. One hopes that America will not use that military and economic strength to lash out at the new regional power it inadvertently helped midwife. And if any of this does presage some future U.S. conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a great irony, a great tragedy, and a damn waste of American blood and resources.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
(Today we feature, with permission, a guest post by Daniel N. White. The post originally appeared on Contrary Perspective. All opinions are the author’s.)
James Fallows, a noted journalist and author of National Defense (1981), is tits on a boar useless these days.
That’s my conclusion after reading his Atlantic Monthly cover story, The Tragedy of the American Military, in which he asks, “Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?” It is a truly terrible article that, regrettably, is mainstream U.S. journalism’s best effort by one of their better talents to answer a vitally important question.
Right off the bat, I’m going to have to say that the U.S. Army doesn’t produce “the world’s best soldiers” — and it never has. We Americans don’t do infantry as well as others do. This is reasonably well known. Anyone who wants to dispute the point has to dispute not me but General George Patton, who in 1944 said: “According to Napoleon, the weaker the infantry the stronger the artillery must be. Thank God we’ve got the world’s best artillery.” Operational analysis of us by the German Wehrmacht and the PLA (China) said the same thing. We should know that about ourselves by now and we don’t, and the fact that we don’t, particularly after a chain of military defeats by lesser powers, says a good deal bad about us as a people and society. The Atlantic and James Fallows are both professionally derelict to continue printing these canards about our infantry prowess. “The world’s best” — there is no excuse for such hyperbolic boasting.
Why the U.S. keeps losing its wars, and why James Fallows has no clue as to why, is revealing of the American moment. It’s painfully obvious the U.S. has lost its most recent wars because it has lacked coherent and achievable objectives for them. (Or no objectives that our ruling elites were willing to share with us.)
Just what, exactly, was the end result supposed to be from invading Iraq in 2003? If the Taliban were willing as they stated to hand over Osama Bin Laden to us, why did we invade Afghanistan? Why did we then start a new war in Afghanistan once we overthrew the Taliban?
Of course, this isn’t the first time in recent history that the U.S. has fought wars with no coherent rationale. Vietnam had the same problem. The Pentagon Papers showed that insofar as we had a rationale it was to continue the war for sufficiently long enough to show the rest of the world we weren’t to be trifled with, even if we didn’t actually win it. Dick Nixon was quite upfront in private about this too; that’s documented in the Nixon tapes.
Not having clear and achievable political objectives in a war or major military campaign is a guarantee of military failure. Here’s what arguably the best Allied general in WWII had to say about this, William Slim, from his superlative memoirs, Defeat into Victory, writing of the Allied defeat in Burma, 1942:
Of these causes [of the defeat], one affected all our efforts and contributed much to turning our defeat into disaster — the failure, after the fall of Rangoon, to give the forces in the field a clear strategic object for the campaign… Yet a realistic assessment of possibilities there and a firm, clear directive would have made a great deal of difference to us and to the way we fought. Burma was not the first, nor was it to be the last, campaign that had been launched on no very clear realization of its political or military objects. A study of such campaigns points emphatically to the almost inevitable disaster that must follow. Commanders in the field, in fairness to them and their troops, must be clear and definitely told what is the object they are locally to attain.
Anyone who wishes to dispute the lack of clear and achievable objectives for America’s wars should try to answer the question of what a U.S. victory in Iraq or Afghanistan would look like. What would be different in the two countries from a U.S. victory? How would the application of force by the U.S. military have yielded these desired results, whatever they were?
I invite anyone to answer these questions. They should have been asked, and answered, a long time ago. All the parties concerned — the political class, the intelligentsia, the moral leadership, and the military’s senior officer corps — in America have failed, stupendously, by not doing so.
Indeed, the lack of coherent objectives for these wars stems from the fraudulence of our pretenses for starting them. Even senior U.S. and UK leaders have acknowledged the stage-management of falsehoods about weapons of mass destruction for a rationale for war with Iraq. When wars are started on falsehoods, it isn’t reasonable to expect them to have honest (or moral) objectives.
The question then arises: What were the real objectives of these wars? Economic determinists/Marxists look to oil as the underlying reason, but this can’t be it. None of the economic determinist explanations for the Vietnam War made a lick of sense then or now, and any arguments about war for oil make an assumption, admittedly a remotely possible one, about the ruling elites in the U.S. and UK not being able to read a financial balance sheet. The most cursory run of the financials under the best possible assumptions of the promoters of the wars showed Iraq as a giant money loser, world’s third largest oil reserves or not. Economic reasons for a war in Afghanistan? Nobody could ever be that dumb, not even broadcast journalists.
Judging from the results, the real intent of our political leadership was to create a state of permanent war, for narrow, behind the scenes, domestic political reasons. The wars were/are stage-managed domestic political theater for current political ruling elites. The main domestic objective sought was a Cold-War like freezing of political power and authority in current form by both locking up large areas of political debate as off-limits and increasing the current distribution of societal resources toward economic elites. This was the real objective of both sides in the Cold War, Americans and Russians both, once things settled out after 1953, and most historians just lack the ability and perspective to see it.
A related factor Americans aren’t supposed to discuss is how much of the drive to war was neo-con war promotion manipulated by Israel. There’s no getting around the high percentage of Jewish neo-cons inside the Beltway. There’s a seven decade-long history of American country-cousin Jews being manipulated by their Israeli city-slicker relations, too, but I’d call this a contributing factor and not a causative one. But the willingness of American neo-cons to do Israel’s bidding and launch a war against Iraq is most disturbing and does require more research. (They all seem to be willing to do it again in Iran – was there ever a neo-con ever against an Iran war ever? Just look at the current situation vis-à-vis Iran, and the direct intervention by the Israeli Prime Minister into American foreign policy.)
There is one other possibility: that America’s leaders actually believed their own PR about spreading democracy. That’s been known to happen, but under present circumstances, their coming to believe their own PR knowing it was false from the git-go would be something truly unique and horrifying. But not impossible, I’m afraid.
Cui Bono? (To whose benefit) is always the question we need to ask and with 13 years of war the beneficiaries should be obvious enough. Just follow the money, and follow those whose powers get increased. James Fallows, and everyone else in the mainstream news media, hasn’t.
But the most pressing issue isn’t any of the above. The most pressing issue is moral, and most importantly of all our society’s unwillingness to face the hard moral questions of war.
Above all else, war is a moral issue; undoubtedly the most profound one a society has to face. Wars are the acme of moral obscenity. Terrible moral bills inevitably accrue from the vile actions that warfare entails. It has always been so. As long as there has been civilization there has always been great debate as to what political or social wrongs warrant the commission of the crimes and horrors of war. About the only definitively conceded moral rationale for war is self-defense against external attack. Domestic political theater is nothing new as a reason for war, but it has been universally condemned as grotesquely immoral throughout recorded history.
Our country is ostrich-like in its refusal to acknowledge the moral obscenity of war and its moral costs. Insofar as your average American is willing to engage with these moral issues, it is at the level of “I support our troops” to each other, combined with the “Thank you for your service” to anyone in uniform. Moral engagement on the biggest moral issue there is, war, with these tiresome tropes is profoundly infantile. It isn’t moral engagement; it is a (partially subconscious) willful evasion.
The Hollywood sugarcoated picture of what war is hasn’t helped here; blindness due to American Exceptionalism hasn’t helped either. Our intellectual and moral leadership—churches in particular—have been entirely AWOL on the moral failings of our wars and the moral debts and bills from them we have accrued and continue to accrue. And these bills will come due some day, with terrible interest accrued. Anyone paying attention to how the rest of the world thinks knows that we currently incur the world’s contumely for our failings here on this issue.
Mr. Fallows and the Atlantic are both equally blind and AWOL on the moral issues of our wars. The moral issues, and failings, of the wars are paramount and are completely undiscussed in the article, and the magazine, and always have been since before the wars began. Mr. Fallows, and the Atlantic, by framing the war issue in terms of “why the best (sic) soldiers in the world keep losing our wars” are avoiding them in a somewhat more sophisticated way than the “Thank you for your service” simpletons are. They should know better and they don’t, and they lack the situational- and self-awareness to understand that they are doing this. They deserve our contempt for it. They certainly have mine.
The issue isn’t why the world’s best (sic) soldiers keep losing our wars. The issue is why we started and fought wars this stupid and wrong and show every sign of continuing to do so in the future. Why do we learn nothing from our military defeats? How can we remain so willfully and morally blind? Well, types like James Fallows and The Atlantic Monthly are a large part of why.
Missing the biggest political and moral question in our lifetimes, for this many years, well, hell, The Atlantic Monthly and James Fallows are just tits on a boar useless these days.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
I am excited that the University of North Carolina, Asheville, will host me for an afternoon of speaking, reading and book signing, in connection with my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. I’ll also be discussing the current mess in Iraq, as well the whistleblowing and the ideas of patriotism and courage in a post-9/11 world.
The event is free, at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, April 14, in UNC Asheville’s Humanities Lecture Hall. There will be a Q&A session. Everyone is welcome.
Things are sponsored by UNC Asheville’s Department of Political Science and the Belk Distinguished Professor. For more information, contact Mona Moore at 828.251.6634.
Please come join me!
The United States will most likely suffer defeat in Mosul, even if it “wins” against IS. And you can pretty much substitute “Tikrit” in the story below anywhere you see “Mosul.”
The reasons will be much the same as those that caused the defeat of American strategy in Iraq War 2.0: a failure to force reconciliation among the Iraqi Shia, Sunni and Kurds.
Some History of Mosul
A little history, repeating itself. In April 2003, an entire Iraqi Army Corps in Mosul surrendered to a small U.S. Special Forces group. The city fell into disorder, with the Central Bank plundered and the university library pillaged. Sound familiar? Chaos ensued as Kurds fought both Sunni and Shia Arabs. The Sunnis, tribally dominant in the area, fought hard against the rise of Shia power emanating from the new government in Baghdad.
During the occupation by the U.S. 101st Airborne Division in 2003, a 21,000-strong force under General David Petraeus pushed the Kurdish militias largely out of Mosul and created an uneasy peace with the Sunni tribes (Petraeus would revisit the idea as part of the Anbar Awakening.) Via his own military muscle and the skillful use of American reconstruction money, Petraeus tried to foster a governing structure that integrated Kurdish parties without alienating Sunni Arab constituencies. After Petraeus left, and as the war worn on and Kurdish influence began to exert itself in Mosul, the Sunnis turned to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI; the precursor to IS) for support. Multi-sided fighting continued in Mosul, as the fundamental issue of which group truly controlled the city — as it was for Iraq as a whole — was left unresolved as the U.S. pulled out in 2011.
Assault on Mosul
Sometime this year (maybe in the autumn or later) the U.S. hopes to organize 25,000 Iraqi troops, 12 full brigades, at least five of which have not even begun training yet, for the assault. Three Kurdish brigades will also join the attack, as well as an unspecified number of non-government Shia militias aided by whatever Iranian assets may be supporting them (now acknowledged to include elements of Hezbollah.) U.S. officials say there would also be Sunni force of former Mosul police and tribesmen who would enter the city once the Islamic State fighters are cleared out.
Boots on the Ground
U.S. forces on the ground will almost certainly be required to coordinate the many disparate elements on the “Iraq” side, as well as to call in close air support. Secretary of State John Kerry initiated the process of walking back the president’s pledge about no boots on the ground, speaking to the Senate Appropriations Committee in support of Obama’s request for authorization for use of military force against IS. Kerry said American soldiers embedded with Iraqi troops would not be in violation of the ban on enduring ground offensive operations. “If you’re going in for weeks and weeks of combat, that’s enduring. If you’re going in to assist somebody and [do] fire control and you’re embedded in an overnight deal, or you’re in a rescue operation or whatever, that is not enduring.”
Assuming the logistics of moving 25,000 troops across the desert, as well as training, equipping, and sustaining them with food and water (difficult, and fully impossible without direct U.S. assistance and cargo flights) can be solved, the real questions about the upcoming Battle of Mosul are twofold.
The Key Questions
The tactical question. Will it become necessary to destroy Mosul in order to save it. Look at the victory in Kobane over ISIS. By all accounts, the over 700 airstrikes the U.S. conducted on a round-the-clock basis on Kobane devastated the town. The civilian death toll has never been calculated. No plans to rebuild the city have been announced. It is unclear what entity governs the remains. Some 230,000 refugees have fled. Photos of the place make it look like Stalingrad. As an activist in the ISIS capital of Raqqa wrote, “People don’t look at Kobani and see a defeat, because everyone had to leave and the Americans bombed it to rubble to win.”
The greater strategic question. Who will control whatever is left of Mosul after IS is driven out? The American command and control efforts, plus American air power, needed to ensure the physical destruction of IS will be welcomed by all sides, as they are in greater Iraq. Less clear will be the reaction to follow-on U.S. demands that some of the victorious forces withdraw in favor of the others. The Sunnis controlled Mosul before 2003, and contested the space with the Kurds after that. The Baghdad Shia government then forfeited its claim to the city when the Iraqi Army cut and ran in 2014. It seems highly unlikely that the Peshmerga, especially after shedding blood to retake the city, will simply walk away and see the small paramilitary police force of Sunnis move in. The role the Iranians will choose to play is unclear. A fair number of Mosul’s one million residents support IS, leaving open the question of ethnic cleansing and score-settling.
The United States continues to dig the same hole deeper in Iraq. It sees problems in a wholly-military light, focusing on an urban assault rivaling set-piece battles of WWII while paying little attention to the underlying political factors that will surely snatch defeat from any “victory.”
So U.S. counter-surveillance gets whooped by Israel, who then uses information gathered on Iran nuclear talks so that Netanyahu can try and convince Congress to torpedo Obama’s negotiations with Iran so that Israel can remain America’s bestie in the Middle East and shove Iran off to the side like a B-level Kardashian. And some people still prefer professional sports to watching politics?
Israel spied on Iran’s nuclear talks with the United States — and used the information to undermine the Obama administration’s position with the GOP-led Congress, according to an explosive report in The Wall Street Journal. While Israeli officials deny the accusations, claiming they got the info by spying on the Iranians, the White House found out about the operation while it was spying on Israel. U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted messages among Israeli officials containing details that U.S. officials believed could only have come from inside the top-secret negotiations.
The anonymous officials say that classified information, such as the number of centrifuges that Iran might be able to keep operating as part of a final accord, were then shared with GOP lawmakers in an effort to derail the talks.
Now why would Israel want to undermine U.S. attempts to reach some sort of nuclear agreement with the Iranians that, if successful, would lessen the chance that Iran would become a nuclear state?
Israel wants to accomplish two things. Well, three, if they could.
Israel wants to remain the only nuclear power in the Middle East (and yes, of course they have nukes, c’mon.) They may be afraid the U.S.-Iran deal is 99 percent Obama-Kerry legacy grab and will be weak enough that Iran will remain a nuclear threshold state. The Iranians are unlikely to upset things by testing a device, but they’ll hover as close to the line as they think they can. That’s pretty much how the Republicans see the deal as well, so the Israeli connection is hand in glove.
Israel is also concerned about any U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. Iran has all the makings of a regional power to rival Israel and the Sunni states which quietly more or less support at least some Israeli goals. About the only thing that keeps Iran in check is U.S. sanctions that cripple the country economically. A nuclear deal could pave the way for reopening of relations with the U.S. and the lifting of sanctions.
The third Israeli aim is kind of a long shot. Israel would love to send Iran back to the Stone Age, nuclear development-wise. It would be most convenient for them if the U.S. were to bomb Iran, though Israel would be more than happy to do the job itself with U.S. permission and support. The bombing is very, very unlikely to take place. After all, if Dick Cheney couldn’t get Bush to sign off on it during eight years of near-constant saber rattling over Iran, who is going to get it pushed through in 2015?
Yet despite all the spying and bad vibes these days between the U.S. and Israel, remember, money talks and bullsh*t walks. U.S. military aid alone to Israel exceeds $100 billion, with lots and lots of other official money flowing in around the edges. So smile whenever you read about diplomatic rifts in the relationship.
Cited by Obama as a model for fighting extremism as he sent the U.S. back into Iraq last summer, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen has all but collapsed as the country has all but collapsed. Yemen has no government now, and joins a growing list of places where American handiwork has midwifed a new failed state.
In Yemen, where al-Qaeda vies for supremacy with the home-grown Shiite Houthi rebels supported by Iran, the Pentagon cannot $500 million worth of military equipment the U.S. donated to Yemen since 2007. U.S. officials said instability in Yemen has made it impossible to keep tabs on donated equipment.
It. Is. Just. Gone.
“We have to assume it’s completely compromised and gone,” a legislative aide on Capitol Hill, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Washington Post.
Missing in Action
Here’s a taste of the equipment no one can find:
1,250,000 rounds of ammunition
200 Glock 9 mm pistols
200 M-4 rifles
4 Huey II helicopters
2 Cessna 208 transport and surveillance aircraft
2 coastal patrol boats
1 CN-235 transport and surveillance aircraft
4 hand-launched Raven drones
Take another look. Over a million rounds of ammunition? How can one misplace coastal patrol boats, never mind airplanes and helicopters?
Lebanon, Iraq, and…
Not that it is related to the mess in Yemen in any way, but the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon recently announced a new shipment of weapons and ammunition have arrived in Beirut. The Ambassador said the equipment includes more than 70 M198 howitzers and over 26 million rounds of ammunition and artillery “of all shapes and sizes, including heavy artillery… I know that in a matter of days it’s going to be what your brave soldiers are using in the battle to defeat terrorism and extremism.” Lebanon has become the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military assistance. Weapons worth more than $100 million were given to Lebanon last year and over a $1 billion worth in the last eight years.
And also not that it is related to the mess in Yemen in any way, but here’s part of what is on the way into Iraq from the U.S.: 175 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, 15 Hercules tank recovery vehicles, and 55,000 rounds of main gun ammunition for the tanks, about $3 billion worth. In July, General Dynamics received a $65.3 million contract to support the existing Iraq M1A1 Abrams program. In October, the U.S. approved the sale of $600 million in M1 tank ammunition to that country. There have also been sales of all sorts of other weaponry, from $579 million worth of Humvees and $600 million in howitzers and trucks to $700 million worth of Hellfire missiles. With the collapse of the Iraqi army and the abandonment of piles of its American weaponry, including at least 40 M1s, to IS militants.
Looking Down the Barrell of a Gun
And so, one must ask the snarky question “So how’s that working out for you?” The current U.S. war “against IS” has spread around like spilled paint around the Middle East, and along with it, the weapons America supplies to one side that often end up in the hands of the other side. Like that spilled paint, once you let go of the guns and bullets, you cannot control where they end up. Whether they go “missing,” are outright sold on the black market for non-sectarian, good old fashioned profit, left on the battlefield for whoever to pick up, or carried over as groups switch side, they can easily end up pointed the wrong way: back at America.
BONUS: Thanks to American aid, Yemen is estimated to have the second-highest per capita gun ownership rate in the world, ranking behind only the United States.
Negotiations require some back and forth, demonstrations of good will and good intent, and massive pay offs.
The Obama administration in January handed over $490 million in cash to Iran, and will have released a total of $11.9 billion to the Islamic Republic by the time nuclear talks are scheduled to end in June, according to the State Department. The January release is the third such payment. The release of funds was agreed to by the Obama administration in November as part of another extension in negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Iran will receive an additional ten payments from the United States through June 22, when talks are currently scheduled to end.
Iran received $4.2 billion in similar payments under the 2013 interim agreement with the United States, and was then given another $2.8 billion by the Obama administration last year in a bid to keep Iran committed to the talks through November, when negotiators parted ways without reaching an agreement. The deal also gives Iran access to $4.2 billion from oil sales, with approximately $1.5 billion more from imports of gold and other precious metals, as well as easier access to “humanitarian transactions.”
The money does not come from taxpayers’ pockets, but rather represents Iranian assets frozen in the U.S. as part of various sanctions imposed on Tehran. Most of the money was frozen in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that saw Iranians storm the U.S. Embassy and capture 52 American hostages.
Not everyone outside of Tehran is happy about the arrangement. Some Republican lawmakers tried, but failed, to pass legislation last year to prevent the release of cash due to a lack of restrictions on how Iran can spend the money. They were concerned Iran could use the funds to finance terror or purchase weapons. Several Senators unsuccessfully asked the White House to certify Iran was not using the money to support terrorism.
Republican statements aside, in negotiations the rule of thumb is to get something for everything you give. As best we can tell, what the U.S. has gotten for all that money so far is not much more than Iran’s willingness to keep sitting at the table. After all, there are ten payments left to be handed out before the negotiating process is considered a failure. The old adage may be worth remembering: if you’re not sure who the sucker at the table is, it’s you.
The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon announced a new shipment of weapons and ammunition have arrived in Beirut, the latest American assistance to Lebanon’s army as it fights ISIS along its border with Syria. The Ambassador said the equipment includes more than 70 M198 howitzers and over 26 million rounds of ammunition and artillery “of all shapes and sizes, including heavy artillery.”
“We are very proud of this top-of-the-line equipment. This is the best that there is in the marketplace. It’s what our soldiers use,” the Ambassador continued. “I know that in a matter of days it’s going to be what your brave soldiers are using in the battle to defeat terrorism and extremism.”
Hale told reporters that Lebanon has become the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military assistance. He added that weapons worth more than $100 million were given to Lebanon last year and over a $1 billion worth in the last eight years. In November, France and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to provide the Lebanese army with $3 billion worth of weapons paid for by Riyadh.
So How’s that Working Out for You?
And so, one must ask the snarky question “So how’s that working out for you?”
The current U.S. war “against ISIS,” (aka Iraq War 3.0) has spread around like spilled paint into Syria, Iraq and threatens Turkey. It has drawn into its sucking vortex Lebanon, Jordan, Iran (a very happy participant as every victory against ISIS is a double win for Tehran), Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Britain, France, Canada and bits and pieces overt and covert of other nations.
In Iraq, the U.S. war has solidified Shia control of the government in general, and reestablished the Shia militias as the government’s bully boys and the vanguard of ethnic cleansing even now underway. The war midwifed an independent Kurdish nation-state in every sense but name; that toothpaste is never going back into the tube. The need to play nice with Iran inside Iraq has weakened the U.S. in nuclear negotiations. Syria’s Assad, a year and a half ago the man in America’s crosshairs for crimes against humanity, is now allowed to sit comfortably in power in Damascus, his name barely even mentioned by the White House.
America at War!
The move to overt combat by U.S. forces in Iraq is one incident away, assuming you don’t count defensive operations, getting mortared, and flying ground attack helicopters as “combat.” Fun prediction: some incident will indeed occur, maybe a hostage rescue scenario, right about the time the Kurds/Iraq Forces run into trouble this spring retaking Mosul from ISIS. Cynical? Remember the current round of U.S. intervention in Iraq began with a rescue mission for the Yazidi people.
So in the shadow of all that, what possible harm could come out of sending another 26 million rounds of ammunition into Lebanon?
When I was in Iraq, learning to recognize “celebratory gunfire” by sound was a useful skill. First, you did not want to shoot back and kill innocent people. Second, you did not want to show up where people were all excited and shooting guns.
But mostly, you wanted to avoid the gravity thing. Rounds shot into the air to celebrate a wedding or a sports victory had to come back down. Especially when Iraqis fired off entire clips at a time, you just didn’t want to be under that stuff when it came falling back to earth.
The captain of Iraq’s football team agrees. On Sunday he urged fans to refrain from shooting after celebratory gunfire wounded 89 revelers following a dramatic penalty “shoot-out” victory against arch-rival Iran.
“I urge you to express your happiness in a dignified way because I think the shooting is hurting people,” he said. “This shooting could hurt a family and this family will not have fun with us, it will be prevented from celebrating with us. I urge you all to stop firing.”
Reports have surfaced of at least two children killed by falling bullets.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised to crack down on any further celebratory gunfire in Iraq, which is awash with weapons, but such pledges have been made before with little effect. “I have ordered the security forces to prevent celebratory gunfire and punish violators,” he said in a statement. He urged the security forces, the sport, health and tribal authorities as well as civil society to “play an active role in spreading awareness and contribute to ending this uncivilised behavior.”
BONUS: The image above actually shows an American in trouble with Tampa, Florida authorities for letting off celebratory gunfire.
The current American war in Iraq is a struggle in search of a goal. It began in August as a humanitarian intervention, morphed into a campaign to protect Americans in-country, became a plan to defend the Kurds, followed by a full-on crusade to defeat the new Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS, aka ISIL), and then… well, something in Syria to be determined at a later date.
At the moment, Iraq War 3.0 simply drones on, part bombing campaign, part mission to train the collapsed army the U.S. military created for Iraq War 2.0, all amid a miasma of incoherent mainstream media coverage. American troops are tiptoeing closer to combat (assuming you don’t count defensive operations, getting mortared, and flying ground attack helicopters as “combat”), even as they act like archaeologists of America’s warring past, exploring the ruins of abandoned U.S. bases. Meanwhile, Shia militias are using the conflict for the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis and Iran has become an ever-more significant player in Iraq’s affairs. Key issues of the previous American occupation of the country — corruption, representative government, oil revenue-sharing — remain largely unresolved. The Kurds still keep “winning” against the militants of IS in the city of Kobani on the Turkish border without having “won.”
In the meantime, Washington’s rallying cry now seems to be: “Wait for the spring offensive!” In translation that means: wait for the Iraqi army to get enough newly American-trained and -armed troops into action to make a move on Mosul. That city is, of course, the country’s second largest and still ruled by the new “caliphate” proclaimed by Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. All in all, not exactly inspiring stuff.
You can’t have victory if you have no idea where the finish line is. But there is one bright side to the situation. If you can’t create Victory in Iraq for future VI Day parades, you can at least make a profit from the disintegrating situation there.
Team America’s Arms Sales Force
In the midst of the December holiday news-dumping zone, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) quietly notified Congress of several pending arms deals for Iraq. DSCA is the Pentagon office responsible for coordinating arms agreements between American defense contractors and foreign buyers.
Before those thousands of not-boots-on-the-ground troops started hemorrhaging back into Iraq late last year, DSCA personnel made up a significant portion of all U.S. military personnel still there. Its staff members are, in fact, common in U.S. embassies in general. This shouldn’t be surprising, since the sales of weaponry and other kinds of war equipment are big business for a range of American companies, and the U.S. government is more than happy to assist. In fact, there is even a handbook to guide foreign governments through the buying process.
The DSCA operates under a mission statement which says the “U.S. may sell defense articles and services to foreign countries and international organizations when the President formally finds that to do so will strengthen the security of the U.S. and promote world peace.” While the Pentagon carries out the heavy lifting, actual recommendations on which countries can buy U.S. gear are made by the secretary of state, and then rubber-stamped by Congress.
As for countries that can’t afford U.S. weaponry, Washington has the Foreign Military Finance program up its sleeve. This opens the way for the U.S. government to pay for weapons for other countries — only to “promote world peace,” of course — using your tax dollars, which are then recycled into the hands of military-industrial-complex corporations.
Iraq’s Shopping List
Here’s part of what the U.S. is getting ready to sell to Iraq right now:
* 175 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks;
* 15 Hercules tank recovery vehicles (you can’t have a tank without the tow truck);
* 55,000 rounds of main gun ammunition for the tanks (the ammo needed to get the biggest bang for your bucks)
And what will all that firepower cost? Just under $3 billion.
Keep in mind that these are only the most recent proposed sales when it comes to tanks. In July, for example, General Dynamics received a $65.3 million contract to support the existing Iraq M1A1 Abrams program. In October, the U.S. approved the sale of $600 million in M1 tank ammunition to that country. There have also been sales of all sorts of other weaponry, from $579 million worth of Humvees and $600 million in howitzers and trucks to $700 million worth of Hellfire missiles. There are many more examples. Business is good.
While the collapse of the Iraqi army and the abandonment of piles of its American weaponry, including at least 40 M1s, to IS militants, helped create this new business opportunity for weapons-makers like General Dynamics, the plan to cash in on Iraq can be traced back to America’s occupation of that country. Forward Operating Base Hammer, where both Private Chelsea Manning (she collecting State Department cables for WikiLeaks) and I (supervising State Department reconstruction efforts) lived for a year or so, was built across the street from the Besmaya Firing Range. That testing grounds was U.S.-outfitted not just for the live firing of artillery, but for — you guessed it — M1 tanks. It was to be part of the pipeline that would keep an expensive weapons system heading into Iraq forever. In 2011, as U.S. troops left the country, both facilities were “gifted” to the Iraqis to serve as logistics bases for training in, and the repair of, U.S.-sold weapons.
As I write this, American contractors still live on the remnants of Hammer, supporting the Iraqi army’s use of whatever M1 tanks they didn’t turn over to the Islamic State. On a contractor job-review site, “job work/life balance” at the base gets an acceptable 3.5 stars from those working there and one American trainer even praises the fact that work starts and ends before the heat of the day (even if another complains that the only toilets available are still port-a-potties).
The new tank sales to Iraq will, of course, keep Besmaya humming and are significant enough that the Motley Fool, an investment advice website, offers this background information:
“This is about more than just immediate sales and profits for General Dynamics. Currently, the U.S. Army has all the M1A1 tanks it needs… Last year, General Dynamics successfully lobbied Congress to provide $120 million for upgrading Abrams tanks, just to ensure the factory remains at least partially open (and avoid having to pay the expense of restarting production from zero at a later date). In 2012, similar logic caused Congress to spend about $180 million on the tanks, despite Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno telling lawmakers at the time: ‘…these are additional tanks that we don’t need.’ Luckily for General Dynamics, though, Iraq does need tanks. And at the Lima plant’s recent production rate of 10 tanks per month, the Iraq order should keep General Dynamics’ tank business running well into 2016.”
Would You Like the Extended Warranty?
Iraqis have a saying: “The rug is never sold.” It means that there’s always more money to be made from any transaction. General Dynamics would agree. Arms sales work remarkably like consumer electronics (and Iraqi carpets). Want the extended warranty for your new smartphone? Extra battery? Accessories? Insurance against loss or damage? Suddenly the cost of your phone doubles.
Same for tanks. The M1 is a complex beast. You’ll need to pay General Dynamics for trainers to teach your guys to operate its systems. You’ll need lots of spare parts, especially operating in the desert. And it won’t be long before you’ll want to do some upgrades — maybe better computers or a faster engine. The U.S. is currently working on “urban warfare” upgrades for the 140 M1s the Iraqis have hung onto. In the defense world, these after-sales are known as the “tail.” And the longer the tail, the bigger the profits.
For example, built into the contract for the new M1 tank sale is the provision that “approximately five U.S. Government and one hundred contractor representatives [will] travel to Iraq for a period of up to five years for delivery, system checkout, program support, and training.” And that isn’t going to come cheap from General Dynamics, though the five government employees may be a bargain financed by American taxpayers.
None of this even touches on the potential for repeat sales. After all, most of the Islamic State’s heavy gear comes from stuff the Iraqi army abandoned or somehow lost in their headlong flight from the country’s northern cities. And keep in mind that every tank and shell IS pulls out of that inventory means more business for General Dynamics and similar firms. Essentially selling weapons to both sides of a conflict is smart business.
Big, heavy military equipment, however, takes months to manufacture. So even a quick order placed today doesn’t mean your gear will arrive in time for that promised spring offensive. So why not buy, or have gifted to you, something pre-owned and ready for immediate delivery? If you’re the government of Iraq, the U.S. military is already way ahead of you on this.
Since June, the U.S. has been stockpiling massive amounts of gear coming out of Afghanistan at Shuaiba, a port in Kuwait, in preparation for ultimately shipping at least some of it across the border into Iraq. The depot already houses 3,100 vehicles, mostly the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles ubiquitous in America’s wars. MRAPs are useful for protecting troops from roadside bombs, including the Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) versions made in Iran that took the lives of many Americans during Iraq War 2.0. That must take a weight off Iraqi minds.
Another thing that may help: The United States has already donated 250 MRAPs to Iraq as well as $300 million in weapons handed over free-of-charge by the Department of Defense in 2014. And don’t forget: Into an omnibus spending bill Congress passed last month is tucked $1.2 billion in future training and equipment for Iraq. And let’s not forget either all those need-to-be-replaced bombs being regularly dropped on Iraq by the U.S. Air Force at a cost of up to one billion dollars and counting.
Are Tanks Good for Anything Other Than Profits?
For Congress to approve the DSCA arms deals, the Department of Defense must certify that “the proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region.” So the tanks to fight IS will have to be certified in writing not to affect the regional situation.
Whatever the Iraqis think they need the tanks for, America’s nine-year-long slog through Iraq War 2.0 should have offered a lesson in how relatively useless heavy armor is for the kind of urban fighting and counter-insurgency warfare usually seen against a foe like IS. In fact, the logistics needed to maintain an M1 in combat can actually slow an advance, while the steel beasts are relatively easy targets in the confines of a Middle Eastern city like Mosul.
Maybe, in the end, some of those M1s will even land in Iranian hands, given the robust role that country is playing in the current Iraq war. America’s front-line military technology could, in other words, find its way into the hands of people capable of a little reverse engineering to mine technology for Iran’s own tank corps or to sell on the world market. It seems Baghdad is already sharing other U.S.-supplied weapons with Iranian-influenced Shia militias, so why not tanks?
Let’s put it this way: From any point of view except General Dynamics’s, the Islamic State’s, or maybe the Iranians’, these tank sales don’t add up.
Call Your Broker
It’s easy enough to toss around terms like “military-industrial complex” and equally easy to slip from there into what some might consider blood-for-oil conspiracy theories or suggestions that Iraq War 2.0 was all about the mega-contractor Halliburton’s bottom line. While oil and Halliburton were certainly part of that past war’s calculus, they can no more account for it than the piles of money General Dynamics is about to make selling tanks can alone account for Iraq War 3.0.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the way defense companies find themselves buried in cash from selling weapons that aren’t needed to people who can’t use them, sales that are, in the end, likely to harm, not help, America’s geopolitical interests. Perhaps it is better to see the immediate profits from such deals as just a part of a much bigger process, one that demands America have enemies to crusade against to ensure the survival of the national security state.
To such a “wartime” paradigm one just needs to plug in new bad guys from time to time, which is proving an ever-easier venture, since each of our previous wars and conflicts seems to offer a remarkably helpful hand in creating them. In this way, radical Islam has proven, with Washington’s help, a worthy successor to the Soviet Union, itself once a superb money-making venture and a great way to build a monumental national security state.
Even as the Obama administration stumbles and bumbles along in search of a magical political strategy in Iraq that would make sense of everything, American weapons-makers can expect a bountiful future. In the meantime, Washington is putting forces in place that, by doing more of the same for the third time in a disintegrating Iraq in the middle of a fracturing region, guarantee more of the same. In that sense, you might say that American forces are partly in place to help promote the investment. If one needed an example of how the military-industrial complex works today, that might be it. Every mistake by Washington is a boon for future arms sales.
So if you’ve got money to invest in General Dynamics, you might want to call your broker.
One of the latest stories from Iraq is that some 50,000 “ghost soldiers” haunt the rolls of the Iraqi Army.
They have been added to the rosters so that someone can skim away all or part of their salaries. The story has been played for Daily Show-like laughs, has been cited as a cause for the collapse of the Iraqi Army in the face of ISIS, has been used as an example of corruption in Iraq and conversely, acknowledging it used as an example of how the new Prime Minister, Haider Abadi, is fighting corruption. It may in truth be a little of all of those things, but is most of all a brief flash of light in the darkness of how the Iraq Army works.
The Iraqi Army of today is a U.S. construct. As one of the very first acts of the Occupation in 2003, the United States famously disbanded the Saddam-era Iraqi Army (and thus helped supply armed, trained men to the blossoming insurgency.) At some point American strategy shifted toward the Bush Administration’s proclamation of “As They Stand Up, We’ll Stand Down,” a mantra that meant the U.S. would take it upon itself to create a new Iraqi Army to take over internal security and border protection. This would need to be done quickly, as Americans grew bored and/or weary of the seemingly endless war in Iraq. The standing up of this army cost American taxpayers over $20 billion dollars.
What did they get for their money? Not much, except for the seeds of the present mess in Iraq.
The Iraqi Army America wrought was by definition created within the climate of the insurgency. It was thus never really a national army, but rather a loose collection of regional forces and fiefdoms divided along mostly religious and sectarian lines. Sunni units were based in Sunni areas and led by Sunni generals, Shia were in their areas and of course the Kurds and their peshmerga were off on their own (the peshmerga also benefited greatly from never having been disbanded in the first place.) America accepted these divisions out of expediency; the non-starter of an alternative was to wait until all sectarian problems were resolved first, and then reconstitute the army.
Disbanding Saddam’s army meant throwing away most of the senior, experienced military leadership. These generals and mid-level officers were Iraq’s professional soldiers. Many melted away or immigrated to neighboring Sunni countries, while some took up with the Sunni insurgency. Lacking experienced leadership, the U.S. was left with creating an officer corps from scratch. Experience matters in most things in life, and really matters in jobs that require leadership. Even under the best of circumstances that all takes time (leaders are made, not born), and the U.S. was creating the new Iraqi Army under anything but the best of circumstances.
Napoleon famously said that an army travels on its belly; another general reminded that it is logistics, not tactics, that win battles. From its early days, the factors that “miscreated” the new Iraqi Army doomed its ability to police and supply itself. Central authority was lacking; the combination of a weak central government and a force divided along sectarian lines meant resources were never allocated based on need, and that the kind of oversight necessary to avoid “ghost soldiers” did not exist. The problems were masked by U.S. expedient acts: an Iraqi unit desperate for spare parts could either fight a long battle with baghdad for what it needed, or appeal to the local U.S. military commander for help. The commander, under pressure himself to report success, typically gave in. The Iraqi system never was forced to mature or allowed to fail, at least until the Americans departed and ISIS appeared.
Procurement became an excuse for plunder. Soldiers in the Iraqi army basically pay for their own food via a salary deduction. In practice, officers pocket most of this money instead of buying supplies for the troops themselves. Soldiers in Mosul often had to purchase their own food and water from civilian markets. When the markets close under ISIS attack, the soldiers have no choice but to flee.
A system such as that seen as ineffective to some meant opportunities to others. In 2009, a lucrative appointment as an army colonel required a $20,000 bribe. The same job today costs $200,000. Divisional commander positions run about two million dollars. Why would such military jobs be worth that much money?
As an investment. Iraqi commanders purchased for their bribe money opportunities to skim budgets, withhold salaries from their own troops, or even create the ghost troops to justify budget increases. The ghost troops likely served another goal, covering soldier absences. During my own time in Iraq embedded with the U.S. Army, it was a given that any Iraqi unit we worked with would be missing a percentage of its soldiers. Some American advisors used a 10 percent rule of thumb, others pegged it as high as thirty percent. Where were the Iraqi troops? Some shuttled between their unit and their home towns. Lacking a reliable banking system, soldiers needed to physically carry their salaries home to their families. Because food budgets and the salaries themselves were often skimmed by their commanders, some troops kept working at outside, part-time jobs. With variable unit discipline, some soldiers just took time off as they saw fit, often bribing their own commanders to avoid punishment. Soldiers would sell off Army gas and spare parts, create unsanctioned checkpoints to harvest bribes from motorists, sell electricity if they controlled a large generator, or even their own weapons, to raise extra cash for themselves.
As for the thought that uncovering these ghost soldiers shows a commitment by Prime Minister Abadi to fight corruption, the real proof is in what he does next. Likely under U.S. pressure, Abadi took this first step to expose a limited dollop of corruption inside his failed army. But watch what does, or doesn’t, happen next. How many senior commanders’ heads will roll? How many will be fired or publicly demoted? What if any central and systematic auditing procedures will be put in place?
Answers to questions such as those will answer the most important question: will Abadi and the U.S. really seek to fix the Iraqi Army, or is the latest move simply another short-term expedient, meant to create the appearance of change ahead of more U.S. money pouring down the same dry well?
If the United States was looking for the surest way to lose Iraq War 3.0, it might start by retraining the failed Iraqi Army to send — alongside ruthless Shi’ite militias — into Sunni-majority territory and hope that the Sunnis will welcome them with open arms, throwing out the evil Islamic State.
Maybe it’s time for a better plan. The way to find one is by understanding how we lost Iraq War 2.0. We need a plan to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide, or the current war will fail as surely as the previous one.
A critical first step is, of course, to remove Islamic State from the equation, but not how the Obama administration envisions. The way to drive Islamic State out of Iraq is to remove the reason Islamic State has been able to remain in Iraq: as a protector of the Sunnis. In Iraq War 2.0, the Iraqi Sunnis never melded politically with al Qaeda; they allied out of expediency, against the Shi’ite militias and the Shi’ite central government. The same situation applies to Islamic State, the new al Qaeda in Iraq.
The United States is acting nearly 180 degrees counter to this strategy, enabling Shi’ite militia and Iranian forces’ entry into Anbar and other Sunni-majority areas to fight Islamic State. The more Shi’ite influence, the more Sunnis feel they need Islamic State muscle. More Iranian fighters also solidify Iran’s grip on the Shi’ite government in Baghdad, and weakens America’s. The presence of additional Sunni players, like the Gulf States, will simply grow the violence indecisively, with the various local factions manipulated as armed proxies.
Iraq in 2007 was, on the surface, a struggle between insurgents and the United States. However, the real fight was happening in parallel, as the minority Sunnis sought a place in the new Shi’ite-dominated Iraq. The solution was supposedly the Anbar Awakening. Indigenous Iraqi Sunnis would be pried lose from al Qaeda under American protection (that word again), along with the brokered promise that the Shi’ites would grant them a substantive role in governance. The Shi’ites balked almost from day one, and the deal fell apart even before America’s 2011 withdrawal — I was in Iraq with the Department of State and saw it myself. The myth that “we won” only to have the victory thrown away by the Iraqis — a favorite among 2.0 apologists — is very dangerous. It suggests repeating the strategy will result in something other than repeating the results.
The Sunnis are Who fans; they won’t be fooled again.
Progress otherwise in Iraq? The new prime minister has accomplished little toward unity, selecting a Badr militia politician to head the Interior Ministry, for example. The Badr group has been a key player in sectarian violence.
Islamic State still controls 80 percent of Anbar Province, the key city of Mosul and is attacking in Ramadi. U.S. air strikes cannot seize ground. The Iraqi Army will never rise to the fullness of the challenge. One can only imagine the thoughts of the American trainers, retraining some of the same Iraqi troops from War 2.0.
Military vehicles of the Kurdish security forces are seen during an intensive security deployment in Diyala province north of Baghdad. Elsewhere, the Kurds are already a de facto separate state. Their ownership of Arbil, the new agreement to allow the overt export of some of their own oil, and the spread of the peshmerga to link up with Kurdish forces in Syria, are genies that won’t go back into the bottle. America need only restrain Kurdish ambitions to ensure stability.
Present Iraq strategy delays, at great cost — in every definition of that word — the necessary long-term tri-state solution. It is time to hasten it. The United States must use its influence with the Shi’ites to have their forces, along with the Iranians, withdraw to Baghdad. America would create a buffer zone, encompassing the strategically critical international airport as a “peacekeeping base.” Using air power, America would seal the Iraq-Syria border in western Anbar, at least against any medium-to-large scale Islamic State resupply effort. Arm the Sunni tribes if they will push Islamic State out of their towns. Support goes to those tribes who hold territory, a measurable, ground-truth based policy, not an ideological one. Implementing the plan in northwest Iraq can also succeed, but will be complicated by Kurd ambitions, greater ethnic diversity among the Iraqis and a stronger Islamic State tactical hold on cities like Mosul.
There’ll be another tough challenge, the sharing of oil revenues between the new Sunni and Shi’ite states, so this plan is by no means a slam-dunk.
The broad outline is not new; in 2006 then-Senator Joe Biden proposed a federal partition of Iraq along the Bosnian model. Bush-era zeal kept the idea from getting a full review. But much has transpired since 2006.
If the tri-state plan works, it will deny Islamic State sanctuary where it is now most powerful, and a strategy for northwest Iraq may emerge. America will realize its long-sought enduring bases in Iraq as a check on Iranian ambitions and an assurance of security for the embassy. The president can decouple Syrian policy from Iraq. An indefinite American presence in Iraq will not be fully welcomed, though one hastens to add it basically is evolving anyway.
I Hate Myself
For advocates of disengagement like myself, this is bitter medicine. But we are where we are in Iraq, and wishful thinking, on my part or the White House’s, is no longer practical. A divided Iraq, maintained by an American presence, is the only hope for long-term stability. Otherwise, stay tuned for Iraq War 4.0.
— U.S. Embassy Baghdad (@USEmbBaghdad) October 18, 2014
A key part of America’s strategy in Iraq is the creation of an “inclusive” government in Baghdad, one that will pull together the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. This has been a persistent American myth since the 2003 invasion, one that is impossible realize and thus a single point of failure for Obama’s war.
History of the Myth
First, in 2003, as symbol of the democracy the U.S. sought to create in Iraq, then again in 2006 (remember the purple finger photos?) that the war was not actually already lost, and then forever after as the solution to the internecine fighting that America’s Occupation unleashed, the myth has had a long run. As you can see from Embassy Baghdad’s Tweet above, America again imagines it has achieved its interim goal of a balanced government; peace and prosperity is just around the corner.
A big part of the problem is that the United States thinks creating an Iraqi government is like picking players for a sports team. If things don’t work out, try again in next season’s draft. That was the thought behind America’s 180 on former Prime Minister Maliki. In power since 2006 with strong U.S. support, Maliki stayed in office from January to August 2014, even as ISIS had its first successes in Iraq. But as Obama launched the newest Iraq war, Maliki was out and a new player moved up the roster.
But since Haider al-Abadi, the latest prime minister and thus the great inclusivist hope, is a Shia and a former colleague of the once-anointed, now disappointed former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as a member of the same political party, little changed at the top. So hopes for “inclusiveness” fell to the choices to lead the key ministries of defense and the interior. Both have been tools of repression against the country’s Sunnis for years.
And now we know the winners of that odd contest.
Anti-Inclusionary Choice for Interior Ministry
A Sunni was chosen to lead Defense, a ministry currently in charge of a decrepit Iraqi Army best known for running away at first contact, leaving behind American-supplied weapons for ISIS to repurpose. Not so much joy in that job for now.
More significant choice is Abadi’s new Interior Minister, Mohammed Ghabban, a little-known Shiite politician with the Badr Organization. You remember the Badr folks, or should, because every Sunni in Iraq does. During the American Occupation, the Badr militia ran the notorious Shiite death squads, after infiltrating the same Interior Ministry it basically now heads to ensure the government would not interfere in their grim work.
Human Rights Watch quoted a doctor in the Health Ministry: “Sunnis are a minority in Baghdad, but they’re the majority in our morgue.”
Back in 2009, a SECRET Wikileaked State Department cable had this to say about the Badr militia’s leader, and the man Ghabban still answers to, Hadi al-Amiri:
Amiri is widely known to have played a leading role in organizing attacks by the Badr Corps militia (the strongest, most disciplined Shia militia at the time and precursor to the current Badr Organization) against Sunnis during the sectarian violence of 2004-2006. Sources indicate that he may have personally ordered attacks on up to 2000 Sunnis. One of his preferred methods of killing allegedly involved using a power drill to pierce the skulls of his adversaries.
Amiri was also previously rejected by Sunnis as a negotiating partner. Again, from the State Department:
Given his role in sectarian violence and prominent position in the dominant Shia coalition, it is understandable that Sunni leaders were hesitant to view him as a viable negotiating partner when he proposed a compromise parliamentary seat distribution after the November 23 Shia-Kurd backed electoral amendment was adopted.
Anti-Inclusionary Rise of the Shia Militias
The elevation of a Badr organization leader to perhaps the most significant cabinet position vis-vis the Sunnis is in line with the broader increasing influence of the Shia militias.
As much out of necessity given the limp Iraqi Army as sectarian politics, the Baghdad government has increasingly called upon Shia militias to defend the city. While they currently seem to be holding off ISIS advances past the already-Sunni controlled territory west of Baghdad Airport, Shia militias have also abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians in recent months and enjoy total impunity for these crimes, according to Amnesty International. These attacks, as an anti-inclusionary act as can be, are apparently in revenge for Sunni support of ISIS. Scores of unidentified bodies have been discovered across the country handcuffed and with gunshot wounds to the head, deliberate execution-style killings that send a message.
“By granting its blessing to militias who routinely commit such abhorrent abuses, the Iraqi government is sanctioning war crimes and fuelling a dangerous cycle of sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart,” concluded Amnesty.
Two more points about the Badr group: They were responsible for the deaths of many American military personnel during the Occupation and they remain closely allied with Iran. There is no good news with this one.
“To give the Interior Ministry to a direct Iranian proxy is huge,” said one researcher specializing in Shiite groups. “It shows who the Iraqis are throwing their lot in with.”
The inclusionary government America’s strategy for Iraq rests on is an illusion, a governmental fantasy in 2014 as it was 2003-2011. Everyone with eyes– except the U.S. government– can see where this one ends.
You know the joke? You describe something obviously heading for disaster — a friend crossing Death Valley with next to no gas in his car — and then add, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Such is the Middle East today. The U.S. is again at war there, bombing freely across Iraq and Syria, advising here, droning there, coalition-building in the region to loop in a little more firepower from a collection of recalcitrant allies, and searching desperately for some non-American boots to put on the ground.
Here, then, are seven worst-case scenarios in a part of the world where the worst case has regularly been the best that’s on offer. After all, with all that military power being brought to bear on the planet’s most volatile region, what could possibly go wrong?
1. The Kurds
The lands the Kurds generally consider their own have long been divided among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. None of those countries wish to give up any territory to an independence-minded ethnic minority, no less find a powerful, oil-fueled Kurdish state on their borders.
In Turkey, the Kurdish-inhabited border area with Iraq has for years been a low-level war zone, with the powerful Turkish military shelling, bombing, and occasionally sending in its army to attack rebels there. In Iran, the Kurdish population is smaller than in Iraq and the border area between the two countries more open for accommodation and trade. (The Iranians, for instance, reportedly refine oil for the Iraqi Kurds, who put it on the black market and also buy natural gas from Iran.) That country has nonetheless shelled the Kurdish border area from time to time.
The Kurds have been fighting for a state of their own since at least 1923. Inside Iraq today, they are in every practical sense a de facto independent state with their own government and military. Since 2003, they have been strong enough to challenge the Shia government in Baghdad far more aggressively than they have. Their desire to do so has been constrained by pressure from Washington to keep Iraq whole. In June, however, their military, the Peshmerga, seized the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the wake of the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul and other northern cities in the face of the militants of the Islamic State (IS). Lacking any alternative, the Obama administration let the Kurds move in.
The Peshmerga are a big part of the current problem. In a near-desperate need for some semi-competent proxy force, the U.S. and its NATO allies are now arming and training them, serving as their air force in a big way, and backing them as they inch into territory still in dispute with Baghdad as an expedient response to the new “caliphate.” This only means that, in the future, Washington will have to face the problem of how to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle if the Islamic State is ever pushed back or broken.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and now under the control of the Islamic State, is the most obvious example. Given the woeful state of the Iraqi army, the Kurds may someday take it. That will not go down well in Baghdad and the result could be massive sectarian violence long after IS is gone. We were given a small-scale preview of what might happen in the town of Hassan Sham. The Kurds took it back last month. In the process, some Shia residents reportedly sided with their enemies, the Sunni militants of IS, rather than support the advancing Peshmerga.
Worst-case scenario: A powerful Kurdistan emerges from the present mess of American policy, fueling another major sectarian war in Iraq that will have the potential to spill across borders. Whether or not Kurdistan is recognized as a country with a U.N. seat, or simply becomes a Taiwan-like state (real in all but name), it will change the power dynamic in the region in ways that could put present problems in the shade. Changing a long-held balance of power always has unintended consequences, especially in the Middle East. Ask George W. Bush about his 2003 invasion of Iraq, which kicked off most of the present mess.
You can’t, of course, talk about the Kurds without discussing Turkey, a country caught in a vise. Its forces have battled for years against a Kurdish separatist movement, personified by the PKK, a group Turkey, NATO, the European Union, and the United States all classify as a terrorist organization. Strife between the Turks and the PKK took 37,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s before being reduced from a boil to a simmer thanks to European Union diplomacy. The “problem” in Turkey is no small thing — its Kurdish minority, some 15 million people, makes up nearly 20% of the population.
When it comes to taking action in Syria, the Turks exist in a conflicted realm because Washington has anointed the Kurds its boots on the ground. Whatever it may think it’s doing, the U.S. is helping empower the Kurdish minority in Syria, including PKK elements arrayed along the Turkish border, with new weapons and training.
The Turkish ruling party has no particular love for those who run the Islamic State, but its loathing for Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad is such that its leaders have long been willing to assist IS largely by looking the other way. For some time, Turkey has been the obvious point of entry for “foreign fighters” en route to Syria to join IS ranks. Turkey has also served as the exit point for much of the black-market oil — $1.2 to $2 million a day — that IS has used to fund itself. Perhaps in return, the Islamic State released 49 Turkish hostages it was holding, including diplomats without the usual inflammatory beheading videos. In response to U.S. requests to “do something,” Turkey is now issuing fines to oil smugglers, though these have totaled only $5.7 million over the past 15 months, which shows the nature of Turkey’s commitment to the coalition.
The situation in the IS-besieged town of Kobani illustrates the problem. The Turks have refused to intervene to aid the Syrian Kurds. Turkish tanks sit idle on hills overlooking the hand-to-hand combat less than a mile away. Turkish riot police have prevented Turkish Kurds from reaching the town to help. Turkish jets have bombed PKK rebels inside Turkey, near the Iraqi border.
American bombs can slow IS, but can’t recapture parts of a city. Short of destroying Kobani by air to save it, U.S. power is limited without Turkish ground forces.
On the other hand, Washington’s present policy essentially requires Turkey to put aside its national goals to help us achieve ours. We’ve seen how such a scenario has worked out in the past. (Google “Pakistan and the Taliban.”) But with Kobani in the news, the U.S. may yet succeed in pressuring the Turks into limited gestures, such as allowing American warplanes to use Turkish airbases or letting the U.S. train some Syrian rebels on its territory. That will not change the reality that Turkey will ultimately focus on its own goals independent of the many more Kobanis to come.
Worst-case scenario: Chaos in Eastern Turkey’s future, while the sun shines on Assad and the Kurds. An influx of refugees are already taxing the Turks. Present sectarian rumblings inside Turkey could turn white hot, with the Turks finding themselves in open conflict with Kurdish forces as the U.S. sits dumbly on the sidelines watching one ally fight another, an unintended consequence of its Middle Eastern meddling. If the buffer zone comes to pass, throw in the possibility of direct fighting between the U.S. and Assad, with Russian President Vladimir Putin potentially finding an opening to reengage in the area.
Think of Syria as the American war that never should have happened. Despite years of calls for U.S. intervention and some training flirtations with Syrian rebel groups, the Obama administration had managed (just barely) to stay clear of this particular quagmire. In September 2013, President Obama walked right up to the edge of sending bombers and cruise missiles against Assad’s military over the purported use of chemical weapons. He then used an uncooperative Congress and a clever Putin-gambit as an excuse to back down.
This year’s model — ignore Assad, attack IS — evolved over just a few weeks as a limited humanitarian action morphed into a fight to the finish against IS in Iraq and then into bombing Syria itself. As with any magician’s trick, we all watched it happen but still can’t quite figure out quite how the sleight of hand was done.
Syria today is a country in ruins. But somewhere loose in that land are unicorns — creatures often spoken of but never seen — the Obama administration’s much publicized “moderate Syrian rebels.” Who are they? The working definition seems to be something like: people who oppose Assad, won’t fight him for now, but may in the meantime fight the Islamic State, and aren’t too “fundamentalist.” The U.S. plans to throw arms and training at them as soon as it can find some of them, vet them, and transport them to Saudi Arabia. If you are buying stock in the Syrian market, look for anyone labeled “moderate warlord.”
While the U.S. and its coalition attacks IS, some states (or at least wealthy individuals) in that same band of brothers continue to funnel money to the new caliphate to support its self-appointed role as a protector of Sunnis and handy proxy against Shia empowerment in Iraq. Vice President Joe Biden recently called out some of America’s partners on this in what was billed as another of his famous gaffes, requiring apologies all around. If you want to see the best-case scenario for Syria’s future, have a look at Libya, a post-U.S. intervention country in chaos, carved up by militias.
Worst-case scenario: Syria as an ungoverned space, a new haven for terrorists and warring groups fueled by outsiders. (The Pakistani Taliban has already vowed to send fighters to help IS.) Throw in the potential for some group to grab any leftover chemical weapons or SCUD-like surface-to-surface missiles from Assad’s closet, and the potential for death and destruction is unending. It might even spread to Israel.
Israel’s border with Syria, marked by the Golan Heights, has been its quietest frontier since the 1967 war, but that’s now changing. Syrian insurgents of some flavor recently seized border villages and a crossing point in those heights. United Nations peacekeepers, who once patrolled the area, have mostly been evacuated for their own safety. Last month, Israel shot down a Syrian plane that entered its airspace, no doubt a warning to Assad to mind his own business rather than a matter of military necessity.
Assumedly, the Obama administration has been in behind-the-scenes efforts, reminiscent of the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi SCUDS began raining down on Israeli cities, to keep that country out of the larger fight. It is not 1991, however. Relations between the U.S. and Israel are far more volatile and much testier. Israel is better armed and U.S. constraints on Israeli desires have proven significantly weaker of late.
Worst-case scenario: An Israeli move, either to ensure that the war stays far from its Golan Heights frontier or of a more offensive nature aimed at securing some Syrian territory, could blow the region apart. “It’s like a huge bottle with gas surrounded by candles. You just need to push one candle and everything can blow up in a minute,” said one retired Israeli general. Still, if you think Israel worries about Syria, that’s nothing compared to how its leadership must be fuming over the emergence of Iran as an ever-stronger regional power.
What can go wrong for Iran in the current conflict? While in the Middle East something unexpected can always arise, at present that country looks like the potential big winner in the IS sweepstakes. Will a pro-Iranian Shia government remain in power in Baghdad? You bet. Has Iran been given carte blanche to move ground forces into Iraq? Check. Will the American air force fly bombing runs for Iranian ground troops engaged in combat with IS (in a purely unofficial capacity, of course)? Not a doubt. Might Washington try to edge back a bit from its nuclear tough-guy negotiations? A likelihood. Might the door be left ajar when it comes to an off-the-books easing of economic sanctions if the Americans need something more from Iran in Iraq? Why not?
Worst-case scenario: Someday, there’ll be a statue of Barack Obama in central Tehran, not in Iraq.
Iraq is America’s official “graveyard of empire.” Washington’s “new” plan for that country hinges on the success of a handful of initiatives that already failed when tried between 2003-2011, a time when there were infinitely more resources available to American “nation builders” and so much less in the way of regional chaos, bad as it then was.
The first step in the latest American master plan is the creation of an “inclusive” government in Baghdad, which the U.S. dreams will drive a wedge between a rebellious and dissatisfied Sunni population and the Islamic state. After that has happened, a (re)trained Iraqi army will head back into the field to drive the forces of the new caliphate from the northern parts of the country and retake Mosul.
All of this is unrealistic, if not simply unreal. After all, Washington has already sunk $25 billion dollars into training and equipping that same army, and several billion more on the paramilitary police. The result: little more than IS seizing arsenals of top-notch Americans weaponry once the Iraqi forces fled the country’s northern cities in June.
Now, about that inclusive government. The United States seems to think creating an Iraqi government is like picking players for a fantasy football team. You know, win some, lose some, make a few trades, and if none of that works out, you still have a shot at a new roster and a winning record next year. Since Haider al-Abadi, the latest prime minister and great inclusivist hope, is a Shia and a former colleague of the once-anointed, now disappointed Nouri al-Maliki, as well as a member of the same political party, nothing much has really changed at the top. Really, what could possibly go wrong?
As for the Sunnis, American strategy rests on the assumption that they can be bribed and coerced into breaking with IS, no matter the shape of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine, unless they lack all memory. As with al-Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. Starting in 2007, U.S. officials did indeed bribe and coerce some Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting insurgent outfits, including al-Qaeda. That deal, then called the Anbar Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them. (General John Allen, now coordinating America’s newest war in Iraq, was a key figure in brokering that “awakening.”) America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked “exit.” The Shias promptly reneged on the deal.
Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for what seems to be essentially the same bad deal? In addition, this one appears to have a particularly counterproductive wrinkle from the American point of view. According to present plans, the U.S. is to form Sunni “national guard units” — up-armored Sunni militias with a more marketable name — to fight IS by paying and arming them to do so. These militias are to fight only on Sunni territory under Sunni leadership. They will have no more connection to the Baghdad government than you do. How will that help make Iraq an inclusive, unitary state? What will happen, in the long run, once even more sectarian armed militias are let loose? What could possibly go wrong?
Despite its unambiguous history of failure, the “success” of the Anbar Awakening remains a persistent myth among American conservative thinkers. So don’t be fooled in the short term by media-trumpeted local examples of Sunni-Shia cooperation against IS. Consider them temporary alliances of convenience on a tribe-by-tribe basis that might not outlast the next attack. That is nowhere near a strategy for national victory. Wasn’t then, isn’t now.
Worst-case scenario: Sunni-Shia violence reaches a new level, one which draws in outside third parties, perhaps the Sunni Gulf states, seeking to prevent a massacre. Would the Shia Iranians, with forces already in-country, stand idle? Who can predict how much blood will be spilled, all caused by another foolish American war in Iraq?
7. The United States
If Iran could be the big geopolitical winner in this multi-state conflict, then the U.S. will be the big loser. President Obama (or his successor) will, in the end, undoubtedly have to choose between war to the horizon and committing U.S. ground forces to the conflict. Neither approach is likely to bring the results desired, but those “boots on the ground” will scale up the nature of the ensuing tragedy.
Washington’s post-9/11 fantasy has always been that military power — whether at the level of full-scale invasions or “surgical” drone strikes — can change the geopolitical landscape in predictable ways. In fact, the only certainty is more death. Everything else, as the last 13 years have made clear, is up for grabs, and in ways Washington is guaranteed not to expect.
Among the likely scenarios: IS forces are currently only miles from Baghdad International Airport, itself only nine miles from the Green Zone in the heart of the capital. (Note that the M198 howitzers IS captured from the retreating Iraqis have a range of 14 miles.) The airport is a critical portal for the evacuation of embassy personnel in the face of a future potential mega-Benghazi and for flying in more personnel like the Marine Quick Reaction Force recently moved into nearby Kuwait. The airport is already protected by 300-500 American troops, backed by Apache attack helicopters and drones. The Apache helicopters recently sent into combat in nearby Anbar province probably flew out of there. If IS militants were to assault the airport, the U.S. would essentially have to defend it, which means combat between the two forces. If so, IS will lose on the ground, but will win by drawing America deeper into the quagmire.
In the bigger picture, the current anti-Islamic State coalition of “more than 60 countries” that the U.S. patched together cannot last. It’s fated to collapse in a heap of conflicting long-term goals. Sooner or later, the U.S. is likely to once again find itself alone, as it eventually did in the last Iraq war.
The most likely outcome of all this killing, whatever the fate of the Islamic State, is worsening chaos across Iraq, Syria, and other countries in the region, including possibly Turkey. As Andrew Bacevich observed, “Even if we win, we lose. Defeating the Islamic State would only commit the United States more deeply to a decades-old enterprise that has proved costly and counterproductive.” The loss of control over the real costs of this war will beg the question: Was the U.S. ever in control?
In September, Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, or bombed since 1980. During these many years of American war-making, goals have shifted endlessly, while the situation in the Greater Middle East only worsened. Democracy building? You’re not going to hear that much any more. Oil? The U.S. is set to become a net exporter. Defeating terrorism? That’s today’s go-to explanation, but the evidence is already in that picking fights in the region only fosters terror and terrorism. At home, the soundtrack of fear-mongering grows louder, leading to an amplified national security state and ever-expanding justifications for the monitoring of our society.
Worst-case scenario: America’s pan-Middle Eastern war marches into its third decade with no end in sight, a vortex that sucks in lives, national treasure, and Washington’s mental breathing room, even as other important issues are ignored. And what could possibly go wrong with that?
1) “Inclusive” Government
A cornerstone of solving Iraq, however defined, is the formation of an inclusive government, one that addresses the needs of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, gives each a sense of substantive participation, creates safety for each and allows decision-making to take place while assuring the Shias do not slink back into dominance. Since the new prime minister, handmaiden to the U.S. and approved by Iran, is a Shia and former colleague of Maliki and member of the same political party, inclusiveness falls to appointments to key ministries and the powers delegated to those ministers.
The big ones to watch are Defense and Interior. Both ministries have been used as tools of repression against Sunnis since at least 2006. A key Sunni in one or both is good. A “for show” Sunni is bad. It is highly unlikely the U.S. will allow two Shias to be chosen, but leaving the posts empty, as they are now, is nearly as bad.
2) For-Show Sunnis
Of the many mistakes the U.S. made during the Occupation, one was the empowerment of not powerful Sunnis, many of whom were simply carpetbaggers out for a buck or a million bucks, or just lesser leaders hoping to move up with U.S. help. This undermined broader support, as the Sunni people knew who the fakes were even if the U.S. didn’t, or didn’t care. Information on individual Sunnis who come to some power will be hard to find, but look for it, as it will make clearer whether such men will add to or help mask the truth about inclusiveness.
Most gestures are just that, empty statements. Any real progress in Iraq requires concrete, substantive action by the Shia government; they have a lot of distrust to overcome among their Sunni and Kurd populations.
Simple statements, however trumpeted by the U.S. as signs of progress, typically framed as “you have to walk before you run,” are likely just propaganda. A trick employed by the Iraqi government during the Occupation was to announce one thing in English to the Western media, and say nothing, or say something quite different, in their own media. If possible, check news sources with Arabic speakers on the ground in Iraq closely. I recommend @prashantrao, @JoelWing2, @reidarvisser, @berendvh, @IraqDaily, @iraqbiznews, @tarangoNYT, @LizSly, @AJEnglish, @iraqoilreport and just for laffs, @USEmbBaghdad.
One big deal but unlikely gesture: Allow the former Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, now in exile under a death warrant, to return. Huge deal: give him a place in the new government. He’s no angel, but it will get the Sunnis’ attention.
Any signs that Shia militia are being reigned in off the battlefield are good. Examples of them targeting Sunnis in Baghdad or elsewhere are bad things. Examples of whatever remains of the Iraqi military proper really fighting with the peshmerga, as opposed to fighting nearby while the Americans make everyone fight nice together, are good. Sunni units fighting in one place, Shia in another and Kurds in a third are bad signs. Don’t be fooled by showcase episodes, such as when CNN just happens to be embedded just as a Shia unit happens to help out a Kurd unit.
Of course, when ISIS overruns an Iraqi Army base near Baghdad and executes 300 government troops as they did recently, and somehow U.S. airpower is unable to intervene, that is a bad turn. Same for reported ISIS bombings inside Baghdad city.
Watch claims of victory carefully. Many small towns will change hands, especially if ISIS follows Insurgency 101 tactics of just temporarily melting away when faced with bad odds. Unless and until the Iraqi government actually controls Mosul and especially Fallujah, there is still a l-o-n-g way to go in this struggle.
5) U.S. Bombing
More U.S. “successes” closer and closer to Baghdad are bad, especially south of the city where Sunni-Shia seams still exist. How the inevitable “collateral damage” and/or bombing mistake that takes out a school or hospital is handled will be very important. The Shia government has to keep a wary population at least neutral toward the Americans. There is a large group of people inside Iraq who believe ISIS is a CIA creation designed to create a causa belli for American forces to re-enter Iraq.
More war porn video of smart bombs snuffing ISIS Toyotas or individual mortars is bad, signs that there is little to blow up that makes any difference. More U.S. aircraft being based inside Iraq is a sign that the U.S. may get those permanent bases it has always wanted, and likely has little to do with the conflict per se.
Another bad news thing: basing American aircraft in-country, as is happening now near Erbil and with a small number of helicopters inside Baghdad International Airport, means a long “tail.” That tail includes U.S. maintenance and armorers on the ground, staff to feed and protect them, and shipments in of bombs and spare parts. Every persn becomes a target that can expand the conflict. Yep, it is that slippery slope thing again.
6) That Coalition
If the U.S. insists on any of its Arab “partners” doing any bombing outside western Iraq near Syria, bad news. No one inside Iraq wants Arab forces loose inside the country. The Shia government would be especially troubled, given how much of the local coalition comes from Sunni nations. It is unlikely even the U.S. is clumsy enough to push for this, but then again, you never know.
Keep an eye on Turkey, who is shaping up to really get the dirty end of the stick because of U.S. efforts. The Turks fear a powerful Kurdish entity on its disputed border with Kurdistan/Iraq, fear internal strife from its own restive Kurdish population and are wary of U.S. efforts to further arm and empower Kurds, and move them deeper into Syria as proxy boots on the ground. That would put the Kurds on two Turkish borders. The Turks are also bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis the U.S. is creating by bombing Syria. Anything the U.S. does to alleviate Turkish concerns is good, anything else is bad.
Iran of course is the place where all the lines intersect in Iraq, as well as Syria and throughout the parts of the Middle East the U.S. is most concerned about, never mind the nuclear issue.
But sticking to Iraq, watch everything Iran says, does, or has said about it. Right now, the U.S.’ influence in Baghdad is mostly being bought with “aid” money (the Kurds have more needs, primarily U.S. assurances of their de facto autonomous status vis-vis Baghdad.) The foreign power with the most influence throughout Iraq, and especially with the central government, is Iran. The prime minister and his party have deep ties to Iran, and won’t make a significant move without at least tacit approval. Iran has funded and retains connections into many Shia militias and can reel them in or push them out into the war.
Iran has overtly committed those elusive boots on the ground to the struggle. Iran, as the power that did not leave Iraq, has credibility on the ground with the Shia, and scares the sweat out of Sunnis and Kurds, who know the U.S. will again depart someday while the Iranians will share at least a border with them forever.
While there is no doubt the U.S. and Iran are speaking via some back channel, a very good sign would be overt discussions. A bad sign would be pop ups of anger over the nuclear issue. The U.S. may, for domestic political reasons, foolishly try and separate the issues of Iran-Iraq and Iran-Nukes, but inside Iran there is no such divide; both are part of the uber-issue of U.S.-Iran relations.
What Iran does will affect the struggle in Iraq as much as any other single factor. Watch for it.
“Dude, I grew up on the classic U.S. sound, you remember, democracy, equality, promotion of freedom. My favorite was ‘The Peace Corps,’ but ‘We Won’t Invade You This Month’ got me through some rough times in college. But this new stuff, meh,” said one long-time fan, sweeping aside his gray ponytail.
“We Will Bomb You, Because” opened big inside the United States, where the United States still enjoys a steady following. A recent track, “Who Cares What You Think, Featuring al Qaeda,” saw over one million downloads its first week alone. “The addition of al Qaeda to the tune pumped new life into an old franchise,” stated Rolling Stone in its review, “but subsequent attempts to roll in ISIS and Khorasan just did not work when al Qaeda balked at joining the U.S. in touring the new material. “Just isn’t the same,” said Stone. “America has gone to the well too many times with the same material. They’re just phoning this new wave of terror stuff in.”
When reached for comment, lead singer of the United States Barack Yeezus Obama remained hopeful. “Any time the group moves in a new direction, you risk losing some old time fans. We saw that just after we dropped the “NSA” album. But many times the old timers just give up and come to reluctantly accept what you are shoveling out, and of course new material also brings in new fans.”
“For example,” chimed in backup singer George The W Bush, “look at what happened with our seminal ‘It’s 9/11, Bitch’ multi-platinum work. Not only did we rope in millions and millions of fans worldwide, but after sales tapered off following the disastrous Iraq tour, our old fans sucked it up and started taking their shoes off at the airport without a complaint. We even spun off the mega-platinum group DHS from all that. And when a small group of former fans started making too many negative comments online, we just had them tortured and imprisoned indefinitely. Let’s see Beyonce do that.”
“And,” said Obama hopefully, “the recent tours in Yemen and Somalia have been huge successes. We have high hopes for Syria and the new material as well. We da’ bomb ya’all!”
The band also acknowledged the growing popularity of long-time rival group Iran, but shrugged off any notion that the United States would not continue to dominate the market in the long-run.
A spokesperson for the United States did quietly add that the group is not totally unaware of its falling image abroad. She hinted that the current tour will work in additional classic material, and a greatest hits collection will be out in time for Christmas. The United States plans also to donate a percentage of sales to the Wounded Warrior charity.
“You gotta give back,” said the spokesperson.
Here I am on the Dutch television program “Nieuwsuur,” with former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, discussing the futility of air strikes to resolve the Iraq/Syria/ISIS mess.
After a setup in Dutch by the anchor, and an Obama speech clip, the interview (about three minutes in) is in English.
Obama said a week ago he did not have a strategy to combat ISIS, and that now he does. He was right the first time.
The United States ignored ISIS for months. Then out of nowhere a complex situation morphed into a struggle to save the Yazidis from so-called genocide, requiring special forces and air strikes. The Yazidis disappeared from view, perhaps saved, certainly no longer needed as an emotional excuse to re-enter a war we had been told ended for America in 2011.
ISIS beheaded journalist James Foley’s and another tail wagged its dog as surveillance flights commenced over Syria. It was a year ago that Obama asked Congress to approve air strikes there. They didn’t, largely in reply to a war-weary public. With the the subsequent beheading of another American journalist, an attack is back on deck.
So finally action to dethrone Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, himself once accused of near-genocide by the United States? No. Now as we fight ISIS together, Assad has been rebranded. The issue of how action against ISIS will only strengthen Assad is set aside. Assad is supported by the Russians, whose interests in Syria are thus tacitly upheld by Washington even as a mini-Cold War rises in the Ukraine from the ashes of the last great struggle the United States claimed to have won.
In Libya, site of a much-trumpeted Obama-Clinton lite-war success once upon a time, Islamic militants took over the abandoned American embassy and published photos of themselves swimming in the mission’s pool.
The United States issued Maliki’s replacement the same to-do list the United States issued Maliki since 2006– unite Iraq, and make it snappy, even as more troops are sent in. The blind man in the dark search for moderate Sunnis in Iraq to create a political solution will likely work out as well as it has in Syria. Iran, who won the 2003-2011 Iraq War with the installation of a pro-Tehran Shia government in Baghdad, is holding on to its victory, now with United States air power on its side.
Only a few weeks ago the United States feared the Kurds might take advantage of the chaos in Iraq and declare themselves an independent nation. One strategy to forestall this was to choke off “illegal” Kurdish oil exports (on paper, Iraq’s oil profits are shared among Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, though the Shia government in Baghdad has not fairly divided the money.) In July, a court decision in Texas led to United States Marshals seizing $100 million worth of Kurdish crude. The Kurds are presently in such need of United States military help that they have shut up (for now) about independence. So, on August 25, the Texas court threw out the seizure order so as to allow the oil to be delivered. The Kurds also appear to have resumed direct oil sales to Israel. Independent sales weaken the central Baghdad government the United States claims to support, strengthen de facto Kurdish independence the United States does not want, and create a model for a someday autonomous Sunni state that learns to manipulate its own limited oil reserves.
Ahead is a United States-brokered linking of Iraqi Kurd fighters with Syrian Kurd fighters, aimed at ISIS. This is of great concern to NATO-ally Turkey, who fears a pan-national Kurdish state.
Lastly, there are all those weapons the United States continues to scatter into the conflict. The fact that many of the current air strikes into Iraq are aimed at our own military equipment previously given to the Iraqi Army might in itself give pause to sending over more stuff. The shoulder-fired anti-air missiles ISIS captured inside Syria to use against American warplanes may have been slipped into “moderate” Syrian hands by the CIA, or were just picked up on the open market as weapons flooded out in the post-Qaddafi chaos the United States midwifed in Libya.
Digging It Deeper
Grasping at expediency is not a policy. Shifting to the greater-evil-of-the-day is a downward spiral. Not being able to articulate an end-game is a poor start. Obama did not create all these problems, but he certainly has done his part to make them worse.
A canon of diplomacy is that nations act in their own self-interest. America is once again exceptional, as the Obama Doctrine for foreign policy reveals itself: There is no hole that can’t be dug deeper.
A critical part of America’s plan to resolve all issues left unresolved after nine years of war and occupation is to divide the indigenous Sunnis from the “foreign” Sunnis, i.e., ISIS, and “unite” Iraq.
As counter-insurgency theory teaches, bad guys can only thrive when they have local support, what Mao called the “water we swim in.”
There is a familiar ring to the plan.
Unity Plan, 2006
In 2006 the U.S. brokered the ascension (remember the purple fingers?) of a new Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, hand-picked to unite Iraq. A bright, shining lie of a plan followed. The U.S., applying vast amounts of money, created the Sahwa, the Sons of Iraq, the Anbar Awakening, a loose grouping of Sunnis who agreed to break with al Qaeda in return for a promised place at the table in the New(er) Iraq. The “political space” for this would be created by a massive escalation of the American military effort, called by its the more marketable name, The Surge. In the end the Shia government in Baghdad ignored American entreaties to be inclusive, effectively ending the effort.
Unity Plan, 2014
And so to 2014. The U.S. brokered the ascension (no purple fingers needed this time for visuals) of a new Shia Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, hand-picked to unite Iraq. His play so far along these lines? Asking his military to stop bombing and shelling his own-citizen Sunni civilians.
Al-Abadi said on Saturday, after he held talks with travelin’ man U.S. Secretary of State Kerry in Baghdad, that he ordered his air force to halt strikes on civilian areas occupied by Iraqi citizens, albeit Sunnis. He also asked his Iraqi security forces to stop “the indiscriminate shelling” of civilian Sunni communities occupied by ISIS.
The hearts and minds moves by al-Abadi follow several incidents which may yet have an effect for indigenous Sunni feelings toward unity.
Senior Iraqi officials acknowledged in recent days that shelling by their armed forces has killed innocent civilians in the course of the battle against ISIS. Attacks on Sunni towns have been part of what many Sunnis call a pattern of sectarian bias by the Shiite-dominated security forces. Human Rights Watch reports one Iraqi government airstrike targeted a school near Tikrit housing displaced Sunni families fleeing ISIS. That strike killed at least 31 civilians, including 24 children. Human Rights Watch also reported earlier Iraqi government airstrikes, including six with the type of barrel bombs commonly used by Syrian leader Assad to kill his own people, had killed at least 75 civilians and wounded hundreds more in mainly Sunni areas.
(Despite the incessant playing of the ISIS beheading videos of three Westerners, no images of the dead Sunni children have made it to American media.)
Earlier this year the Iraqi Shia government also employed barrel bombs, U.S.-supplied Hellfire missiles as well as some of the 11 million rounds of ammunition the U.S. shipped in, against Sunni targets in Fallujah, itself the scene of some of the most intense U.S.-Sunni fighting during the previous Iraq War.
Government-backed Shia militias have also been kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians throughout Iraq’s Baghdad, Diyala, and Hilla provinces over the past five months. Human Rights Watch documented the killings of 61 Sunni men early this summer, and the killing of at least 48 Sunni men in March and April.
Memories are Long
Many Sunnis see their own government as more of a threat than any ISIS occupation, given the record of the past eight years of Shia control. The Sunnis are also aware that the Shia government purportedly now seeks some measure of unity only after it was prompted by the United States. The Sunnis most clearly do remember being abandoned by the U.S. and the Shia government after they last agreed to break with a foreign Sunni group, al Qaeda, in 2007. You have the watch, but we have the time, says an Iraqi expression.
Memories are long in the Middle East.
Any sane human being welcomes a decision to not bomb and shell civilians, particularly if it is actually carried out. However, in the broader strategic context of Iraq, especially vis-a-vis American claims that Sunni-Shia unity is the key to stability, one wonders how much of the statement by the new Iraqi prime minister is based on the need to throw another bone to Americans always ready to proclaim another short term success, even as they speed walk down the road to Hell.
For if Iran is the 500 pound gorilla in the room with Iraq, it is the 800 pound monster in the Middle East. No real stability can be achieved without Iran. It is time for the president to go to Tehran.
Boots on the Ground
For all the talk about boots on the ground for America’s air offensive in Iraq and Syria, Obama ignored the ground truth: Iranian forces are already there. The Iranians also command enough attention in Baghdad to significantly enable or stall filling the cabinet positions of Defense and Interior (Maliki held both portfolios personally) that are key components of any sort of “inclusive” government. Tehran’s real advantage? Everyone in Iraq remembers it is the Iranians who never really withdrew after 2011.
The Iranians truly understand the cross-border nature of the Middle East. An Iran that works closely with America will yield some version of stability in Iraq, affect the war in Syria (Iran, through its many proxies, including Hezbollah, has supported Assad by fighting his Sunni rebel enemies, moderate and radical alike), perhaps reduce pressure on Israel, and could calm the entire region by acting less bellicose toward a less bellicose United States. This would enable the comprehensive actions needed in the Middle East to slam shut the doors the United States blew open in 2003. Obama’s Iraq plan has already failed in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia to produce any but the most fleeting “successes.” The Brits and Germans won’t fight in Syria, and Turkey is reluctant to go in deeper, weakening any talk of coalitions. As Obama becomes the fourth president in a row to order war in Iraq, a new solution is needed.
Obama Should Go to Tehran
There is little to lose. After the midterms, he will be a true lame duck. Candidates can run against his failure, or bask in his success. With a dramatic gesture, Obama can start the process of re-balancing the Middle East. Too many genies are out of the bottle to put things back where they were.
Tough realities will need to be acknowledged regarding nukes. Having watched America’s serial wars across the region, and the sort of odd deference shown to North Korea after it went nuclear, the Iranians will never back away completely. Tehran also watched closely what happened in Libya. Qaddafi gave up his nukes and ended up dead, while the Secretary of State laughed about it on TV. Obama cannot move forward without accepting that he cannot paint himself into a corner over Persian nukes. Israel has had the Bomb for a long time without creating a Middle East arms race. Let the Iranians stay comfortable, albeit in the threshold stage of nuclear weaponry.
To begin, follow the China model — set up the diplomatic machinery, create some fluid back channels, maybe try a cultural exchange or two. They don’t play ping-pong over there, but they are damn good at chess. Offer to bring Iran into the world system, slowly, and see if they don’t follow. Give the good guys in Tehran something to work with, something to go to their bosses with. Iran has reasons to play. Regional stability can benefit its own goals. Removal of sanctions can grow its economy, and allow it to sell oil in global markets. Calmer borders allow Iran to focus limited resources on domestic problems.
Change in Iran, like anywhere, has to come from within. Think China again. With prosperity comes a desire by the newly-rich to enjoy their money. They demand better education, more opportunities and a future for their kids. A repressive government yields to those demands for its own survival and before you know it, you’ve got iPads and McDonald’s. Despite some tough talk aimed at both sides’ domestic constituencies, America and China are trading partners, and have shared interests in regional stability. In a way, as China was to the Soviet Union, Iran can counter-balance undue Saudi influence on American actions. There will be friction, but it can be managed, what President Kennedy called during the Cold War the “precarious rules of the status quo.”
Islamic nationalism is a powerful force in the Middle East, and the defining mover of world events in our time. It is not going away. American attempts to create “good” governments failed in the Middle East. The new world order created a place for countries that are not a puppet of the United States, and not always an ally, but typically someone the nation can work with, maybe even influence occasionally. That’s statesmanship, and a chance at stability in the Middle East. Perhaps even a chance for a beleaguered and exhausted American president to finally earn his Nobel Peace Prize.
The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Obama for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in announcing the award, cited Obama’s promotion of nuclear nonproliferation and a “new climate” in international relations, especially in reaching out to the Muslim world.
In an exclusive interview, for the first time ever the actual Peace Prize, a large, coin-like object, speaks out.
“At first, it was an amazing time. Like the Committee, I too was all caught up in hope and change. Sure, some cynics said from the beginning that Obama just got awarded me because he wasn’t George Bush, but that just wasn’t what it felt like, honestly. We all believed. The man took me into his home and at first displayed me on his mantel in his private office. It was the same office Clinton got busy with Monica in, so I was on hallowed ground. Really, it was hashtag Proud. At the same time, Obama had his kids’ pictures on the same mantel, which felt cool at first then became kinda creepy. I should have taken the hint. I guess I was in love, and love can make you naive.”
“Looking back, I can almost pinpoint the moment things started to fall apart. At first Barack would come in to the office, alone, and just look at me. One night, very late and after a well-deserved Scotch or two, he said to me ‘I don’t have a birth certificate, but I’ve got you my Peace Prize.’ I never felt closer to him. Then after he dropped his college transcripts behind the file cabinet and was trying to fish them out to shred, he came upon a Post-It note George Bush left behind. It read ‘They’ll believe anything, just do whatever the hell you want.’ The next day he turned me toward the wall, and a few days after that he shoved me into the junk drawer of his desk.”
“Bang, on December 1, less than two months after getting me, Barack announces he is surging 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. He even used that filthy word, surge, whereas a real man would just call it an escalation and take the heat. I still wanted to believe, so I rationalized it as something he had to hold his nose and do to clean up that mess Bush started, but looking back I now wonder how I could have been that stupid. I guess I wasn’t alone in that, but shut away in the dark drawer, I felt I could only blame myself. Sure I was being mistreated, but I somehow felt it must have been something I had done, you know, somehow my fault. If only I had been more supportive, maybe a little warmer to him after those hard days he had. I knew about Michelle, and of course knew he’d never leave her, but still.”
“Once Barack had taken that first step, the rest just tumbled out. Drone strikes everywhere, then Libya, denying the Arab Spring, Special Ops all over Africa, whatever happened between him and Putin that one crazy weekend to ruin things, Syria, Ukraine, it just went on and on. Sometimes he’d open the drawer for a stapler or something and I’d swear his eyes were glowing bright red in the dark.”
“But the real end for us was Iraq. Barack got elected on the fact that he was one of a very few Senators who voted against that awful war, and beat Hillary using that against her own yes vote for Iraq. He took some heat in 2011 for the pull out of the last troops from Iraq but stuck it out. So you can imagine how I felt when he announced 300 advisors being sent in, then unlimited months of air strikes, then more advisors, then whatever that Yazidi thing was, and on and on. Now the U.S. is back in Iraq on another open-ended campaign that seems to have no goal, no endpoint, no definition of ‘victory.’ Meanwhile, we are still in Afghanistan and Gitmo is still an open sore. So where have we seen this movie before, right? I keep asking myself, is this 2014, or 2006?”
“Anyway, I begged him to just let me go. I said he should give me away to Bono or Sean Penn, or just send me off to the Carter Foundation, but he said no, I was his and always would be. I even snuck out and called the Nobel Committee, but man, if you could hear a shrug over the phone that described it.”
It looks like some of the stuff the U.S. is now blowing up in Iraq is some of the stuff the U.S. first brought to Iraq to blow up Iraqis in 2003, then gave to the Iraqis after we were done blowing them up and left in 2011, only to see those same Iraqis abandon the gear on the battlefield last month so it could be picked up by ISIS this week, which led to the U.S. bombing it today.
It’s Our Own Stuff
When the Iraqi Army’s 2nd Division broke and fled ahead of the advancing columns of ISIS fighters near Mosul earlier this summer, they left behind a mountain of U.S.-supplied military equipment. Included were were hundreds of Humvees, small arms and ammunition (including 4,000 machine guns that can fire upwards of 800 rounds per minute), and as many as 52 American M-198 howitzer mobile gun systems – the same guns that two US Navy F/A-18s most likely pounded with 500 pound laser guided bombs on Friday.
Obama gave the green light for strikes anywhere in Iraq where U.S. citizens were in danger, so CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin gave the order to strike on Friday when it was determined that the city of Erbil was in range of the American-lost guns. All of the Americans being protected in Erbil are there because the U.S. government put them there, including U.S. Consulate staff and Special Forces. Presumably those personnel could have been moved out, thus avoiding this whole thing.
Now the good news here is for the U.S. defense industry, which has achieved the state of karmic perfection. The weapons they once sold to the U.S. are now being destroyed by other weapons they sold to the U.S., which will need to be replenished. Why, it’s a win-win situation for nearly everybody!
We Told You So
The U.S. knew ISIS had control of the howitzers from at least mid-July. But it is not like any of this couldn’t have been foretold long before mid-July.
Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University Chris Coyne, in an interview with me, predicted this exact scenario much earlier this summer:
The U.S. government provided significant amounts of military hardware to the Iraqi government with the intention that it would be used for good (national security, policing, etc.). However, during the ISIS offensive many of the Iraqis turned and ran, leaving behind the U.S.-supplied hardware. ISIS promptly picked up this equipment and are now using it as part of their broader offensive effort. This weapons windfall may further alter the dynamics in Syria.
Now the U.S. government wants to provide more military supplies to the Iraqi government to combat ISIS. But I haven’t heard many people recognizing, let alone discussing, the potential negative unintended consequences of doing so. How do we know how the weapons and supplies will be used as desired? What if the recipients turn and run as they have recently and leave behind the weapons? What if the weapons are stolen? In sum, why should we have any confidence that supplying more military hardware into a country with a dysfunctional and ineffective government will lead to a good outcome either in Iraq or in the broader region?
As America goes back to war in Iraq with airstrikes, here’s what to know and do instead:
— This is a slippery slope if those words have any meaning left. Airstrikes are in part to protect American advisors sent earlier to Erbil to support Kurds there because Iraqi central government won’t. The U.S. is assuming the role of the de facto Iraqi Air Force. What happens next week, next crisis, next “genocide?” Tell me how that ends.
— Understand how deep the U.S. is already in. It is highly likely that U.S. Special Forces are active on the ground, conducting reconnaissance missions and laser-designating targets for circling U.S. aircraft. If U.S. planes are overhead, U.S. search and rescue assets are not far away, perhaps in desert forward operating positions. Protecting/evacuating Americans from Erbil will be a major military operation. This is how bigger wars begin. Go Google “Vietnam War,” say starting about 1963.
— The U.S. media is playing the meme that the U.S. is worried about Christian minority in Iraq, as a way to engorge the American people with blood. But the media fails to note that over half of Iraq’s Christians were killed or fled during the U.S. occupation. The play in the Arab world that the U.S. cares more about a limited number of Christians now than untold thousands of Muslim lives will not aid U.S. long-term goals.
— The questions of why what is happening in Iraq is “genocide” and why what is happening in Gaza is not remains unaddressed by the United States. Even if Americans are not asking for an answer, many others are.
— Wait a tic– are we again “buying time” by putting American lives at risk so the Iraqis can form a government and reconcile in some short-term thing? Isn’t that what America had been doing since 2003? Wasn’t that what the “success of the Surge” in 2007 was all about? We have seen this movie already friends.
— The only realistic hope to derail ISIS is to alienate them from Iraq Sunnis, who provide the on-the-ground support any insurgency must have to succeed. Mao called a sympathetic population “the water the fish swims in.” Separating the people from the insurgents is CounterInsurgency 101. Instead, via airstrikes, the U.S. has gone all-in on side of Iraqi Shias and Kurds. You cannot bomb away a political movement. You cannot kill an idea that motivates millions of people with a Hellfire missile.
— Sunnis are not confined by the borders of Iraq and this is not a chessboard. U.S. actions toward Sunnis in Iraq (or Syria, or wherever) resonate throughout the Sunni world. There is no better recruitment tool for Sunni extremists than showing their fight is actually against the Americans. ISIS seems to be playing to this, calling the Americans “defenders of the cross.”
— Throughout the broader Islamic world, the takeaway is that again the U.S. unleashes war against Muslims. Nothing can inspire jihad like seeing the struggle in Iraq as one against the Crusaders. ISIS seems to know this, and taunts America into deeper involvement with statements such as “the flag of Allah will fly over the White House.”
— Precise, Surgical Strikes: Sure, just ask those wedding parties in Yemen and Afghanistan how that has worked out. It is near-evitable that mistakes will be made and innocents will die at American hands.
— ISIS’ connections to al Qaeda are tenuous at present. However, just like when Sunnis felt threatened during the U.S. occupation, fear and military needs will inevitably drive them closer to al Qaeda.
— Irony: Back to the Future: U.S. airstrikes on Iraq are being launched from an aircraft carrier named after George H.W. Bush, who first involved the U.S. in a shooting war against Iraq in 1991’s Desert Storm.
— Air strikes will not resolve anything significant. The short answer is through nine years of war and occupation U.S. air power in Iraq, employed on an unfettered scale, combined with the full-weight of the U.S. military on the ground plus billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, failed to resolve the issues now playing out in Iraq. Why would anyone think a lesser series of strikes would work any better? We also have a recent Iraqi example of the pointlessness of air strikes. The Maliki government employed them with great vigor against Sunnis in western Iraq, including in Fallujah, only six months ago, and here we are again, with an even more powerful Sunni force in the field.
— Oh, but what should we do?!?!? The U.S. lost the war in Iraq years ago, probably as early as 2003. It is time to accept that.
Step One: Stop digging the hole deeper (see above, Sunni-Shia-Kurd problem);
Step Two: 2: Demand the Iraqi government stop persecuting and alienating their own Sunni population, the root of these insurgent problems;
Step Three: Demand the Saudis and others stop funding ISIS in hopes of choking back their strength;
Step Four: Demand the Iraqi government launch airstrikes in support of the Kurds as a show of support;
Step Five: Deliver humanitarian aid only through the UN and the Red Crescent. In Vietnam, this mistake was colloquially expressed as “F*ck ‘em, then Feed ‘em.” So instead, divorce the good U.S. stuff from the bad U.S. stuff.
Those things will be a good start. Airstrikes are a terrible start that begs a tragic finish.
Be sure to also see Ten Reasons Airstrikes in Iraq are a Terrible Idea.
Show of hands: anybody out there who heard much of the Yazidi in Iraq before a day or two ago? Because our president is going to re-engage in combat in Iraq to save them. Airstrikes are now authorized!
Save Our Yazidi
Once upon a time placing America’s service people in harm’s way, spending America’s money and laying America’s credibility on the line required at least the pretext that some national interest was at stake. Not any more. Anytime some group we don’t like threatens a group we could care not so much about, America must act to save a proud people, stop a humanitarian crisis, take down a brutal leader, put an end to genocide, whatever will briefly engage the sodden minds of the public between innings and spin up some new war fever. Some of these crisis’ get a brief moment in the #media (Save our girls!), some fizzle and fade (The Syrian people!) and some never even made sense (Somebody in the Ukraine!)
With some irony, “freeing the Iraqi people from an evil dictator” was one of the many justifications for the 2003 invasion.
And so this week, apparently it is the Yazidis in northern Iraq. These people consider themselves a distinct ethnic and religious group from the Kurds with whom they live in Iraq, though the Kurds consider them Kurdish. Their religion combines elements of Zoroastrianism with Sufi Islam. One of their important angels is represented on earth in peacock form, and was flung out of paradise for refusing to bow down to Adam. While the Yazidis see that as a sign of goodness, many Muslims view the figure as a fallen angel and regard the Yazidis as devil-worshippers. Fun Facts: the Yadzidi don’t eat lettuce, either, and also boast a long tradition of kidnapping their wives. The photo above shows them slaughtering a sheep, which they do eat.
Between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians (kind of a big spread of an estimate given how important these people are now to the U.S.) are currently stranded on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq without food and water, having been driven out of town by ISIS earlier this week.
So, in response to this humanitarian crisis, or this genocide as the New Yorker called it, Obama’s answer is pretty much the same answer (the only answer?) to any unfolding world event, more U.S. military intervention.
With no apparent irony, the White House spokesperson, surnamed Earnest (honestly, Orwell must be laughing in his grave) said on the same day “We can’t solve these problems for them. These problems can only be solved with Iraqi political solutions.”
Obama also has said U.S. airstrikes on Iraq aim to protect U.S. military advisers in Iraq who one guesses are not part of that political solution by definition.
I feel for anyone suffering, and I have no doubt the Yazidis are suffering. But as we start bombing things in Iraq again, let’s invite Obama to answer a few questions; White House journalists, pens at the ready please:
— Since this is happening in Iraq, and the U.S. spent $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army and sold it some serious weaponry, why isn’t it the Iraqis who will be doing any needed bombing? Is it because they are incompetent, or is it because the Baghdad government is either afraid to operate in Kurdish territory and/or wholly unconcerned what the hell happens up there?
Yep, might be those things. The Yazidis have long complained that neither Iraq’s Arabs nor Kurds protect them. In 2007, in what remains one of the most lethal attacks during the American Occupation, suicide bombers driving trucks packed with explosives attacked a Yazidi village in northwestern Iraq, killing almost 800 people.
— At the same time, since this is happening in defacto Kurdistan, and the U.S. has spent billions there since 1991 and supplied it some serious weaponry, why isn’t it the Kurds who will be doing any needed bombing to protect those they consider their own people? Hmm, just an idea, but the U.S. has recently imposed an economic oil embargo on Kurds to force them to stay with Iraq and they might be unhappy with American ‘stuff right now.
— Outside Kurdistan/Iraq, the other major Yazidi population centers are in Turkey and Iran. So why aren’t they doing any needed bombing?
— If indeed this Yazidi issue is a genocide, why isn’t the U.S. seeking UN action or sanction? The UN has, after all, started safely extracting small number of Yazidis. Could anyone help with that?
— If indeed this Yazidi issue is a genocide, why aren’t any of America’s allies jumping in to assist in any needed bombing? Seriously, if all this is really so important, how come it is just the U.S. involved, always?
— While saving the Yazidis is the stated goal, in fact any U.S. airstrikes are technically and officially acts of war on behalf of the Government of Iraq. And we’re also cool with that, yes?
— And c’mon, isn’t this just a cynical excuse to tug on some American heartstrings, crank up the war fever and get us back into the Iraq war? ‘Cause even if that’s not the intention, it is a likely result.
— And Obama, we’re gonna be cool announcing the loss of American life, again, in Iraq, this time to save the Yazidi? ‘Cause even though there are supposedly no boots on the ground, there is no way you are going to drop bombs near civilians you are trying to protect without Special Forces laying their boots on the ground to guide in the airstrikes. We are not Israelis, after all.
The mistakes of U.S. foreign policy are mostly based on the same flawed idea: that the world is a chessboard on which the U.S. makes moves, or manipulates proxies to make moves, that either defeat, counter or occasionally face setbacks from the single opponent across the table.
The game held up for a fair amount of time; the U.S. versus the Nazis (D-Day = checkmate!), the U.S. versus Japan (Lose an important piece at Pearl Harbor, grab pawns island by island across the Pacific, and so forth). Most of the Cold War seemed to work this way.
And so into Iraq in 2003. The Bush administration seemed to believe they could invade Iraq, topple Saddam and little would be left to do but put away the unused chessmen and move on to the next game. In reality, world affairs do not (any longer?) exist in a bipolar game. Things are complex, and things fall apart. Here is a quick tour of that new form of game in Iraq.
— Iranian transport planes are making two daily flights of military equipment into Baghdad, 70 tons per flight, to resupply Iraqi security forces.
— Iran is flying Ababil surveillance drones over Iraq from Al Rashid airfield near Baghdad. Tehran also deployed an intelligence unit to intercept communications. General Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, visited Iraq at least twice to help Iraqi military advisers plot strategy. Iran has also deployed about a dozen other Quds Force officers to advise Iraqi commanders, and help mobilize more than 2,000 Shiite militiamen from southern Iraq.
— As many as ten divisions of Iranian military and Quds Force troops are massed on the border, ready to intevene if Baghdad comes under assault or if important Shiite shrines in cities like Samarra are threatened, American officials say.
— Suleimani was a presence in Iraq during the U.S. Occupation and helped direct attacks against American troops. In particular, Iraqi Shiite militias under the tutelage of Suleimani attacked American troops with powerful explosive devices supplied by Tehran. These shaped charges were among the very few weapons used toward the end of the U.S. Occupation that could pierce U.S. armor, and were directly responsible for the deaths of Americans.
— General Suleimani is also the current architect of Iranian military support in Syria for President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. calls for Assad to give up power, and was steps away from war in Syria to remove Assad only months ago.
— Should America conduct air strikes in Iraq (some claim they are already stealthily underway), those strikes would be in direct support of Iranian efforts, and perhaps Iranian troops, on the ground.
— The United States has increased its manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq, and is now flying about 30 to 35 missions a day. The American flights include F-18s and P-3 surveillance planes, as well as drones.
— ISIS, currently seen as a direct threat to both Iraq, Syria and the Homeland, is a disparate group of mostly Sunni-affiliated fighters with strong ties to Syria. The U.S. is now at war with them, though it appears that as recently as 2012 the U.S. may have had Special Forces arming and training them at a secret base in Safawi, in Jordan’s northern desert region. There are reports that the U.S. also trained fighters at locations in Turkey, feeding them into the Syrian conflict against Assad.
— ISIS has been funded for years by wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, three supposed U.S. allies. “The U.S. Treasury is aware of this activity and has expressed concern about this flow of private financing. But Western diplomats’ and officials’ general response has been a collective shrug,” a Brookings Institute report states.
— ISIS itself is a international group, though added 1,500 Sunni Iraqis it liberated from a Shia prison near Mosul. A senior U.S. intelligence official said there are approximately 10,000 ISIS fighters — roughly 7,000 in Syria and 3,000 in Iraq. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 foreign fighters who have been incorporated into ISIS ranks.
— The New York Times reports Turkey allowed rebel groups of any stripe easy access across its borders to the battlefields in Syria in an effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad. An unknown number of Turks are now hostages in Iraq, and Turkey continues its tussles with the Kurds to (re)fine that border.
— “The fall of Mosul was the epitome of the failure of Turkish foreign policy over the last four years,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. “I can’t disassociate what happened in Mosul from what happened in Syria.”
— With the official Iraqi Army in disarray, Prime Minister Maliki is increasingly reliant on Shiite militias primarily loyal to individual warlords and clerics, such as the Madhi Army. Despite nine years of Occupation, the U.S. never defeated the Madhi Army. Prime Minister Maliki never had the group surrender its weapons, and now, with the Baghdad government too weak to disarm them, they exist as the private muscle of Iraq’s hardline Shias. Once loosed onto the battlefield, Maliki will not be able to control the militias. The Mahdi Army has also sworn to attack American “advisors” sent to Iraq, believing them to be a vanguard for a second U.S. occupation. Many of the most powerful militias owe their ultimate loyalty not to the Iraqi state, but to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr has much blood on his hands left over from the Occupation.
Syria and Israel
— Syrian government aircraft bombed Sunni targets inside Iraq on Tuesday, killing at least 57 civilians and wounding 120. Syrian warplanes also killed at least 12 people in the eastern Iraqi city of Raqqa Wednesday morning. A U.S. official said it was not clear whether the Iraqi government requested or authorized Syrian air strikes in Iraqi territory.
— Israeli warplanes and rockets struck targets inside Syria the same day as Syria struck Iraq.
It should be clear that there is no such thing as simply “doing something” in this crisis for the U.S. As with the 2003 invasion itself, no action by the United States can stand alone, and every action by the United States will have regional, if not global, repercussions apparently far beyond America’s ability to even understand.
A chess game? Maybe, of sorts. While American interest in Iraq seems to parallel American interest in soccer, popping up when world events intrude before fading again, the other players in Iraq have been planning moves over the long game. In the blink of an eye, U.S. efforts in Syria have been exposed as fully-counterproductive toward greater U.S. goals, the U.S. has been drawn back into Iraq, with troops again on the ground in a Muslim war we thought we’d backed out of. The U.S. finds itself supporting Iranian ground forces, and partnering with militias well outside of any government control, with Special Forces working alongside potential suicide bombers who only a few years ago committed themselves to killing Americans in Iraq. What appears to be the U.S. “plan,” some sort of unity government, belies the fact that such unity has eluded U.S. efforts for almost eleven years of war in Iraq.
In such a complex, multiplayer game it can be hard to tell who is winning, but it is easy in this case to tell who is losing. Checkmate.
The smell of blood is once again in the air in Washington, this week for airstrikes and other forms of violent intervention in Iraq (reference: many of the same people– McCain and Graham in particular– were only recently calling for airstrikes or other military action in the Ukraine, and before that Syria, and before that…)
Here are some of the many reasons airstrikes (or any other form of U.S. military action) in Iraq are just a terrible idea.
1) Air strikes will not resolve anything significant.
The short answer is through nine years of war and occupation U.S. air power in Iraq, employed on an unfettered scale, combined with the full-weight of the U.S. military on the ground plus billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, failed to resolve the issues now playing out in Iraq. Why would anyone think a lesser series of strikes would work any better?
We also have a recent Iraqi example of the pointlessness of air strikes. The Maliki government employed them with great vigor against Sunnis in western Iraq, including in Fallujah, only six months ago, and here we are again, with an even more powerful Sunni force in the field.
2) But air strikes now are crucial to buying the Iraqi government time to seek a political solution.
See above about nine years of ineffectiveness. Today’s crisis is not new; Iraqi PM Maliki has been in power since 2006 and has done nothing to create an inclusive government. Indeed, he has done much to actively ostracize, alienate, jail and destroy his Sunni opposition. Maliki currently is his non-inclusionary own Minister of the Interior and Minister of Defense. Replacing Maliki, another regime change the U.S. now apparently supports, is no magic cure. Maliki’s successor will most likely come from his own majority party, and inherit his own ties to Iran and the many Shia groups needed to stay in power. Even with good intentions, a new Prime Minister will walk into office in the midst of a raging, open war against Sunni forces, not exactly the best place to start towards a more inclusive government. This argument of buying the Iraqis time is the same falsehood that fueled the unsuccessful Surges in Iraq (2007) and Afghanistan (2009). History matters, and it is time to accept that despite arguable tactical progress, in the longer view, the Surges did not work. And long views are what matter.
Even David Petraeus, once America’s golden boy as architect of the Iraq Surge, warns against military intervention now in Iraq.
3) John Kerry flying around the world diplomizing on Iraq is an air strike of its own.
Worth noting is also the uselessness of American diplomacy. Since 2006 the U.S. has maintained its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, with thousands of State Department and military personnel, alongside no doubt a healthy intelligence presence. It is clear that all those diplomats have not accomplished much in service to Iraqi reconciliation under even the more peaceful conditions in the past. It is unrealistic to expect more now.
As for recruiting allies to intercede somehow with America in Iraq, that seems equally unlikely. The British, America’s former stalwart companion in global adventures, refused to get involved in American action last September in Syria. British involvement in the 2003 invasion remains controversial at home, and it is hard to see the Brits getting fooled again.
— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) June 23, 2014
4) Air strikes are surgical.
Oh please. Check with the wedding parties in Yemen destroyed, and funeral gatherings massacred in Pakistan. Bombs and missiles are not surgical tools. They blow stuff up. It is impossible to avoid killing people near the other people you set out to kill, what the U.S. blithely refers to as collateral damage. And even that assumes you are aiming the weapons even close to the right place to begin with. Bad info that identifies the wrong house means you kill an innocent family, not a ISIS command cell.
And even if you take the coldest American view possible that collateral damage is just an unavoidable cost of war, you fail to understand the real cost. Every innocent killed sets the population further against the U.S. and the people the U.S. seeks to support, both in Iraq and throughout the greater Middle East. Videos of dead children propagate well over social media.
5) Air strikes are not a counterinsurgency tool.
See nine years of war and occupation in Iraq, or forever years of war in places like Vietnam. You cannot bomb away a political movement. You cannot kill an idea that motivates millions of people with a Hellfire missile.
6) Air strikes mean the U.S. is taking sides in a pit bull fight.
The U.S. strikes would presumably be in an attempt to support the “Iraqi government and army.” The problem is that those entities are elusive. The Maliki government enjoys uneven public support, so supporting it alienates swaths of the Iraqi population and nearly requires them to take up arms against the U.S. and its puppets. The forces Maliki is putting into the field include a growing number of Shia militias under the control, such as that even is, of individual warlords and religious leaders. These are fighters who actively killed Americans just a few years ago, but somehow we’re on their side now. Maliki’s collection of forces are also bolstered in various ways by Iran. Somehow we’re on their side now too. Air strikes are part of a pattern of failed short-term thinking by the U.S.
7) Air strikes are just more of “whack-a-mole” foreign policy.
These entanglements are much more serious than to be dismissed as “well, politics makes for strange bedfellows” or “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Such trite phrases are typical of a U.S. foreign policy that only sees discrete crises within clear geopolitical borders. As long as the U.S. fantasizes that it can support Sunni fighters in Syria while striking them in Iraq, and as long as the U.S. believes it can bolster Iranian goals and credibility in Iraq while pushing back against it elsewhere in the Gulf, the worse things will get in the broader region.
The same applies to the U.S.’ global “whack-a-mole” geopolitical strategy. Russia invades the Ukraine? A devoted by Washington to that. Boko Harem kidnaps girls? Ten days of Twitter memes. Iraq simmers for years? Let’s act now (and only now) before the next shiny object distracts our leaders.
8 ) But air strikes are necessary because the U.S. must “do something.”
Nope. There is nothing that says the U.S. must “do something” in response to all world events. There are many reasons to say even if we are compelled to do something, a military “solution” is not necessarily, or even often, the right thing to do. Imagine if you are outside a burning house, with a can of gasoline in your hand. With the compulsion to do something, is it better to throw the gas can into the flames, or stand back. Sometimes the best answer is indeed to stand back.
9) ISIS is a threat to the U.S. and has to be air struck to stop another 9/11.
ISIS is far from the Super Villains the U.S. media has seen necessary to depict them as. The groups fighting on the “Sunni” side, such as it is, are a collection of tribal, Baathist, religious, warlord and other conglomerations. Their loosely organized goal is to hold territory that criss-crosses the borders of Iraq and Syria. Absent some odd event, they are likely to withdraw or be chased out of central Iraq and hold on out west, where they have existed as a state-like thing for some time now. Central Iraq is way too far from their home base to retain supply lines (though they have been doing well capturing weapons from the retreating Iraqi forces), and Shia militia strength is more powerful the closer ISIS, et al, get to Baghdad.
The threat line is most ardently espoused by who else, Dick Cheney, who brought out his own go-to scary thing, saying “One of the things I worried about 12 years ago – and that I worry about today – is that there will be another 9/11 attack and that the next time it’ll be with weapons far deadlier than airline tickets and box cutters.”
ISIS and/or its Sunni supporters in Iraq have held territory in western Iraq for years without being a threat to the U.S. Homeland. Little changes if they hold a bit more, or less territory.
ISIS is not a transnational terror group, and unless the U.S. drives them into an alliance with al Qaeda (as the U.S. did in the early years of the 2003 invasion with the Sunnis), they are unlikely to be. They fight with small arms in small groups under loose leadership. They will not be invading the U.S.
10) Bottom line why air strikes are a terrible waste.
The U.S. lost the war in Iraq years ago, probably as early as 2003. It is time to accept that.
The focus of the interview is how the 2003 invasion of Iraq upset a fragile but workable balance of power in the Middle East, unleashing the chaos we are witnessing today playing out in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. So the short version: yes, it is all our fault, and more airstrikes and drone killings will work out in current Iraq about as well as they have in Yemen, Libya and all the other places where lacking any alternative besides getting out, the U.S. just lashes out.
Between The Lines describes itself as “a weekly syndicated half-hour news magazine featuring progressive perspectives on national and international political, economic and social issues” which seems about right. Have a listen to the interview!
Selfie at CNN studios today in NYC.
Taped a segment on Iraq, not sure if/when it will air. I explained U.S. military intervention in Iraq, as opposed to “doing nothing,” would be like choosing between throwing gas into a fire versus “doing nothing.”
That said, consensus among the anchors and other guests was that “we have to do something.” OK, sure, but how’d that work out for ya’ last time?
For those (I’m talking to you here CNN) who seem surprised about events unfolding now in Iraq, here’s an excerpt from something I wrote almost four years ago. At that time pretty much everyone disagreed with these conclusions, but can you hear me now?
When wars end, usually there is a winner and a loser. Greeks burn down the city for the win; Trojans accept a dummy horse for the epic loss, like that. As we near the end of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, and note the beginning of the State Department occupation (the formal mission handover is Oct. 1), it is a good time to decide who lost and who won, and what that means for the future of Iraq.
For the minority, all-around Washington guy (now stopping off briefly to be Secretary of Defense) Leon Panetta thinks we and the Iraqis sort of won. Leon said, “But the bottom line is, whether it’s diplomatic or whether it’s military, we’ve got a long-term relationship with Iraq. We’ve invested a lot of blood in (Iraq). And regardless of whether you agree or disagree as to how we got into it, the bottom line is that we now have, through a lot of sacrifice, established a … relatively stable democracy that’s trying to work together to lead that country.”
Tune into your favorite right-wing blog, and there is lots of mumbo-jumbo about the surge and sacrifices and all that false patriotism stuff that no longer even makes for a good country and western song. On firmer ground, it is less clear that the United States or Iraq won anything. The United States lost 4474 soldiers (and counting), with thousands more crippled or wounded, spent a couple of trillion dollars that helped wreck our economy at home, and did not get much in return.
Blood for Oil?
Only in the sense that one of out of every eight U.S. casualties in Iraq died guarding a fuel convoy. Iraqi oil output is stuck at pre-war levels and will be for some time. A drop in world oil prices would wreck the Iraqi economy. Despite Panetta’s patter about Iraq being a country willing to work with the United States, Iraq as a political entity follows its own path, virtually allied with Iran and unsupportive of American geopolitical dreams. The U.S. government will sell some military gear to the Iraqis and make some money, but in the end George Bush went to war and all we got was a low-rent dictatorship turned into a low-rent semi-police state.
As for Iraq being any sort of winner after being stomped on by the U.S. military, no. Iraq had its civil society shredded, underwent eight years of sectarian civil war, saw over 100,000 killed and is home now to a small but bustling al Qaeda franchise. The United States left without brokering a deal between the Kurds and the Arab Iraqis, leaving that kettle on full boil. The United States also failed to establish stable borders for the Kurds, such that the Iranians shell “Kurdistan” from the east, while Turkish jets drop bombs in the west. Turkey is part of NATO — imagine the U.S. government sitting silently if Germany bombed Poland next week.
What many people do not know is that one reason for the drop in sectarian violence in 2008 was that both sides had done much of the killing they needed to do. The fighting then was a civil war, Shia versus Sunni, and the death toll was high enough on both sides to achieve the level of segregation and redistribution of power desired at that time– they temporarily ran out of reasons for the war to continue at that level of intensity. Ominously, however, the Sunnis and Shias did not fully settle the score and so that pot sits bubbling on the stove as well.
Sectarian tensions do still run high in Iraq, and the United States has been left powerless to do anything about it. Except for some technical assistance and perhaps some very low-key special operations help, the U.S. government has taken a sideline seat to the sectarian violence over the last few months, leaving the fight to the Iraqis. Whether zero or 3,000 or 10,000 U.S. troops stay on in Iraq, it is unlikely that such a smaller U.S. force will intervene, given that a larger one declined to do so.
The tinderbox nature of things is such that the Iraqi government is seeking to ban a television drama about events leading up to the historic split in Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects hundreds of years ago. The Iraqi parliament asked that the Communication and Media Commission, a media regulator, ban “Al Hassan and Al Hussein” on the grounds it incites sectarian tensions and misrepresents historical facts. “This TV serial includes sensitive issues in Islamic history. Presenting them in a TV series leads to agitated strife,” said Ali Al Alaq, a politician who heads the religious affairs committee.
Needless to say, a glance at the daily news from Iraq will reveal the ongoing steady low hum of suicide bombings and targeted killings that is now all too much a normal part of life. The occasional spectacular attacks (instantly blamed on al Qaeda by the United States) make headlines, but every Iraqi knows it is the regular nature of these killings as much as the death toll itself that is most disruptive to society. Iraq is hardly a winner.
Who won the war? Iran…
Iran sat patiently on its hands while the United States hacked away at its two major enemies, Saddam, and the Taliban, clearing both its east and west borders at no cost to Tehran. (Iran apparently reached out to the U.S. government in 2003, seeking some sort of diplomatic relationship but, after being rebuffed by the engorged Bush Administration, decided to wait and watch the quagmire envelope America). The long slog both wars morphed into dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for another war, and cooled off plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for airstrikes against Iran’s nukes (if Cheney couldn’t edge the United States into that fight, who can?).
The Iranians also came to see that Iraq, like Lebanon, made for a nice proxy battleground. By the time my tour in Iraq was wrapping up, the mine resistant vehicles we traveled in could take a solid hit from pretty much anything out there and get us home alive, except for one thing: Iranian-made roadside bombs ealled EFPs. These shaped “explosively formed penetrating devices” fired a liquefied white hot slug of molten copper that was about the only weapon that really scared us. The Iranians were players in all parts of Iraqi society post-2003, including the daily violence. (Iranian proxy warfare in Lebanon is well documented in Robert Baer’s excellent book, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower which also advances the United States vs. Iran proxy theory in general.)
Iran not only lost an enemy when Saddam was hanged, it gained an ally in the new Iraq. When the United States’ last election surge withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi contest to produce a government, Iran stepped in to broker a settlement involving current PM Malaki (Malaki also serves as Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior but is not a dictator) and the jolly Sadrists. Malaki, a Shia, happily recalls his days in exile in Iraq during the Saddam reign while Sadr hid out as a religious “student” in Qom when he was on the U.S. military’s capture or kill list post-2003. Both men remain beholden to Iran and continue to shift Iraq closer and closer to Tehran’s policy positions. Iran has its own proconsul in Baghdad, well-known locally but not discussed much in the west. The guy moved into the job after a tour as head of the Iranian special ops Qods Force.
Iran Ascendant in Iraq
Yet while strategic and political relationships are very important between Iraq and Iran, it is the growing economic and social-religious ties that cement the relationship and signify Iran as the real winner of the U.S. invasion. The raw numbers tell a big part of the story: the two countries’ current annual trade is valued at $4 billion to $5 billion and growing, with much more money changing hands on the black market.
On more formal terms, Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi kicked off the most recent round of goodwill on July 6, when he traveled to Baghdad to join the Iran-Iraq Joint Supreme Economic Committee. Better yet, Iran agreed to supply 9,400 barrels of “gasoil” a day to Iraq for power generation. Iraq also signed a $365 million agreement to install a pipeline network to import natural gas from Iran for power stations in the country. The pipelines will eventually supply 25 million cubic meters of Iranian natural gas a day to the Sadr, al-Quds and South Baghdad power stations in the Iraqi capital.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshiar Zibary said that Iran and Iraq would soon sign an agreement to overcome “all the suspended problems between both countries.” “Iran is playing a positive role in Iraq and there is no objection for the strengthening of relations between the two countries,” Zibary said.
But while trade is good, and oil is necessary, the real money is in tourism. More specifically, religious tourism. Iranian Shia pilgrims traveling to previously off-limits shrines in Iraq, is a huge source of economic exchange. It also creates significant people-to-people ties that Iran will be able to exploit long into the future.
Iranian travel agencies control religious tourism to the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The Iranian companies are associated with local hotels, also owned by Iranians. The control by Iranian companies extends to tourists from Lebanon who combine a visit to Iraq with one to the religious site Mashhad, in Iran. The Iranian domination also extends to security arrangement for protecting the tourists. That role is filled by one company owned by one of the religious parties in Karbala.
Business is Booming
Najaf is in the midst of a hotel building frenzy in a bid to ramp up the number of visiting pilgrims. While thousands of mostly Iranian religious tourists already pass through Najaf every day on what are marketed as nine-day tours of Iraq’s holy Shiite sites, hoteliers and business groups in the city expect hotel capacity, currently at breaking point, to double in the next three years.
Elsewhere, markets in rural Iraq are filled with Iranian goods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. While the knitwear market is dominated by cheap Chinese stuff, other household goods are conspicuously marked “Made in Iran” and are snapped up by consumers.
I saw a little slice of this during my own time in Iraq. My Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) covered an area that included the city and mosque of Salman Pak. Once a center for chemical weapons production and secret police training under Saddam, Salman Pak is better known to most Iraqis and Iranians as a historical and recreational area, approximately 15 miles south of Baghdad near a peninsula formed by a broad eastward bend of the Tigris River. It is named after Salman the Persian, a companion of Mohammad, who is buried there.
Salman Pak is also site of the Arch of Ctesiphon, the remains of the once majestic Persian Sassanid capital. Ctesiphon is one of the largest and oldest freestanding arches in the world. Before the U.S. invasion of 2003, the area was a popular day trip out of Baghdad, and even sported a floating casino and villas for select friends of Saddam. My translator recalled family trips to the area the way my daughters remember a visit to Disney, leaving me a bit nostalgic for a time and place I never knew. The attraction now for Iranian pilgrims is the mosque, once a well-known Shia shrine, converted to a well-known Sunni shrine by Saddam and now once again a well-known Shia shrine after sectarian violence post-2003 blew away most of the Sunnis in the area.
On routine patrols through the area, my PRT and Army would frequently see giant tour buses with Iranian license plates and markings hauling tourists around the city. The Iranian tourists would take pictures of our military vehicles and gesture at us as we drove past, even as our soldiers scowled at them and pantomimed “no photos.” Nothing weirder than to be spending one’s days freeing Iraq only to run into Iranian tour agencies being the most obvious beneficiaries of that freedom. We didn’t know it then, but our tourists were offering us a glimpse of the future, a picture of who the winners, and losers, were to be in our war.
Adding it Up
As for Iraq, add it up:
–no resolution to the Arab-Kurd issue,
–no resolution to the Sunni-Shia issue,
–no significant growth in the oil industry,
–a weakened U.S. presence more interested in a Middle East land base and profitable arm sales than internal affairs,
–and an increasingly influential Iran seeking a proxy battleground against the United States and a nicely weak buffer state on its formerly troublesome western border.
None of that tallies toward a stable Iraq. Indeed, quite the opposite. Worst case scenario might look a lot like the darkest days in Lebanon, with many of the same players at the table.
Here’s the full article.