One of the most popular apps these days is Snapchat. It allows the sender to set a timer for any photo dispatched via the app, so that a few seconds after the recipient opens the message, the photo is automatically deleted.
The evidence of what you did at that party last night is seen and then disappears. POOF!
I hope you’ll forgive me if I suggest that the Iraq-Syria War against the Islamic State (ISIS) is being conveyed to us via Snapchat. Important things happen, they appear in front of us, and then… POOF!… they’re gone. No one seems to remember them. Who cares that they’ve happened at all, when there’s a new snap already arriving for your attention? As with most of what flows through the real Snapchat, what’s of some interest at first makes no difference in the long run.
Just because we now have terrifyingly short memories does not, however, mean that things did not happen. Despite the POOF! effect, events that genuinely mattered when it comes to the region in which Washington has, since the 1980s, been embroiled in four wars, actually did occur last week, last month, a war or two ago, or, in some cases, more than half a century in the past. What follows are just some of the things we’ve forgotten that couldn’t matter more.
It’s a Limited Mission — POOF!
Perhaps General David Petraeus’s all-time sharpest comment came in the earliest days of Iraq War 2.0. “Tell me how this ends,” he said, referring to the Bush administration’s invasion. At the time, he was already worried that there was no endgame.
That question should be asked daily in Washington. It and the underlying assumption that there must be a clear scope and duration to America’s wars are too easily forgotten. It took eight long years until the last American combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Though there were no ticker tape parades or iconic photos of sailors smooching their gals in Times Square in 2011, the war was indeed finally over and Barack Obama’s campaign promise fulfilled…
Until, of course, it wasn’t, and in 2014 the same president restarted the war, claiming that a genocide against the Yazidis, a group hitherto unknown to most of us and since largely forgotten, was in process. Air strikes were authorized to support a “limited” rescue mission. Then, more — limited — American military power was needed to stop the Islamic State from conquering Iraq. Then more air strikes, along with limited numbers of military advisers and trainers, were sure to wrap things up, and somehow, by May 2016, the U.S. has 5,400 military personnel, including Special Operations forces, on the ground across Iraq and Syria, with expectations that more would soon be needed, even as a massive regional air campaign drags on. That’s how Washington’s wars seem to go these days, with no real debate, no Congressional declaration, just, if we’re lucky, a news item announcing what’s happened.
Starting wars under murky circumstances and then watching limited commitments expand exponentially is by now so ingrained in America’s global strategy that it’s barely noticed. Recall, for instance, those weapons of mass destruction that justified George W. Bush’s initial invasion of Iraq, the one that turned into eight years of occupation and “nation-building”? Or to step a couple of no-less-forgettable years further into the past, bring to mind the 2001 U.S. mission that was to quickly defeat the ragged Taliban and kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. That’s now heading into its 16th year as the situation there only continues to disintegrate.
For those who prefer an even more forgotten view of history, America’s war in Vietnam kicked into high gear thanks to then-President Lyndon Johnson’s false claim about an attack on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. The early stages of that war followed a path somewhat similar to the one on which we now seem to be staggering along in Iraq War 3.0 — from a limited number of advisers to the full deployment of almost all the available tools of war.
Or for those who like to look ahead, the U.S. has just put troops back on the ground in Yemen, part of what the Pentagon is describing as “limited support” for the U.S.-backed war the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates launched in that country.
The new story is also the old story: just as you can’t be a little pregnant, the mission never really turns out to be “limited,” and if Washington doesn’t know where the exit is, it’s going to be trapped yet again inside its own war, spinning in unpredictable and disturbing directions.
No Boots on the Ground — POOF!
Having steadfastly maintained since the beginning of Iraq War 3.0 that it would never put “American boots on the ground,” the Obama administration has deepened its military campaign against the Islamic State by increasing the number of Special Operations forces in Syria from 50 to 300. The administration also recently authorized the use of Apache attack helicopters, long stationed in Iraq to protect U.S. troops, as offensive weapons.
American advisers are increasingly involved in actual fighting in Iraq, even as the U.S. deployed B-52 bombers to an air base in Qatar before promptly sending them into combat over Iraq and Syria. Another group of Marines was dispatched to help defend the American Embassy in Baghdad after the Green Zone, in the heart of that city, was recently breached by masses of protesters. Of all those moves, at least some have to qualify as “boots on the ground.”
The word play involved in maintaining the official no-boots fiction has been a high-wire act. Following the loss of an American in Iraqi Kurdistan recently, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter labeled it a “combat death.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest then tried to explain how an American who was not on a combat mission could be killed in combat. “He was killed, and he was killed in combat. But that was not part of his mission,” Earnest told reporters.
Much more quietly, the U.S. surged — “surge” being the replacement word for the Vietnam-era “escalate” — the number of private contractors working in Iraq; their ranks have grown eight-fold over the past year, to the point where there are an estimated 2,000 of them working directly for the Department of Defense and 5,800 working for the Department of State inside Iraq. And don’t be too sanguine about those State Department contractors. While some of them are undoubtedly cleaning diplomatic toilets and preparing elegant receptions, many are working as military trainers, paramilitary police advisers, and force protection personnel. Even some aircraft maintenance crews and CIA paramilitaries fall under the State Department’s organizational chart.
The new story in Iraq and Syria when it comes to boots on the ground is the old story: air power alone has never won wars, advisers and trainers never turn out to be just that, and for every soldier in the fight you need five or more support people behind him.
We’re Winning — POOF!
We’ve been winning in Iraq for some time now — a quarter-century of successes, from 1991’s triumphant Operation Desert Storm to 2003’s soaring Mission Accomplished moment to just about right now in the upbeat third iteration of America’s Iraq wars. But in each case, in a Snapchat version of victory, success has never seemed to catch on.
At the end of April, for instance, Army Colonel Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesperson, hailed the way American air power had set fire to $500 million of ISIS’s money, actual cash that its militants had apparently forgotten to disperse or hide in some reasonable place. He was similarly positive about other recent gains, including the taking of the Iraqi city of Hit, which, he swore, was “a linchpin for ISIL.” In this, he echoed the language used when ISIS-occupied Ramadi (and Baiji and Sinjar and…) fell, language undoubtedly no less useful when the next town is liberated. In the same fashion, USA Today quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying that American actions had cut ISIS’s oil revenues by an estimated 50%, forcing them to ration fuel in some areas, while cutting pay to its fighters and support staff.
Only a month ago, National Security Adviser Susan Rice let us know that, “day by day, mile by mile, strike by strike, we are making substantial progress. Every few days, we’re taking out another key ISIL leader, hampering ISIL’s ability to plan attacks or launch new offensives.” She even cited a poll indicating that nearly 80% of young Muslims across the Middle East are strongly opposed to that group and its caliphate.
In the early spring, Brett McGurk, U.S. special envoy to the global coalition to counter the Islamic State, took to Twitter to assure everyone that “terrorists are now trapped and desperate on Mosul fronts.” Speaking at a security forum I attended, retired general Chuck Jacoby, the last multinational force commander for Iraq 2.0, described another sign of progress, insisting that Iraq today is a “maturing state.” On the same panel, Douglas Ollivant, a member of former Iraq commander General David Petraeus’s “brain trust of warrior-intellectuals,” talked about “streams of hope” in Iraq.
Above all, however, there is one sign of success often invoked in relation to the war in Iraq and Syria: the body count, an infamous supposed measure of success in the Vietnam War. Washington spokespeople regularly offer stunning figures on the deaths of ISIS members, claiming that 10,000 to 25,000 Islamic State fighters have been wiped out via air strikes. The CIA has estimated that, in 2014, the Islamic State had only perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms. If such victory statistics are accurate, somewhere between a third and all of them should now be gone.
Other U.S. intelligence reports, clearly working off a different set of data, suggest that there once were more than 30,000 foreign fighters in the Islamic State’s ranks. Now, the Pentagon tells us, the flow of new foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria has been staunched, dropping over the past year from roughly 2,000 to 200 a month, further incontrovertible proof of the Islamic State’s declining stature. One anonymous American official typically insisted: “We’re actually a little bit ahead of where we wanted to be.”
Yet despite success after American success, ISIS evidently isn’t broke, or running out of fighters, or too desperate to stay in the fray, and despite all the upbeat news there are few signs of hope in the Iraqi body politic or its military.
The new story is again a very old story: when you have to repeatedly explain how much you’re winning, you’re likely not winning much of anything at all.
It’s Up to the Iraqis — POOF!
From the early days of Iraq War 2.0, one key to success for Washington has been assigning the Iraqis a to-do list based on America’s foreign policy goals. They were to hold decisive elections, write a unifying Constitution, take charge of their future, share their oil with each other, share their government with each other, and then defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, and later, the Islamic State.
As each item failed to get done properly, it became the Iraqis’ fault that Washington hadn’t achieved its goals. A classic example was “the surge” of 2007, when the Bush administration sent in a significant number of additional troops to whip the Iraqis into shape and just plain whip al-Qaeda, and so open up the space for Shiites and Sunnis to come together in an American-sponsored state of national unity. The Iraqis, of course, screwed up the works with their sectarian politics and so lost the stunning potential gains in freedom we had won them, leaving the Americans heading for the exit.
In Iraq War 3.0, the Obama administration again began shuffling leaders in Baghdad to suit its purposes, helping force aside once-golden boy Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and pushing forward new golden boy Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to — you guessed it — unify Iraq. “Today, Iraqis took another major step forward in uniting their country,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said as Abadi took office.
Of course, unity did not transpire, thanks to Abadi, not us. “It would be disastrous,” editorialized the New York Times, “if Americans, Iraqis, and their partners were to succeed in the military campaign against the Islamic State only to have the politicians in Baghdad squander another chance to build a better future.” The Times added: “More than 13 years since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, there’s less and less reason to be optimistic.”
The latest Iraqi “screw-up” came on April 30th, when dissident Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters broke into the previously sacrosanct Green Zone established by the Americans in Iraq War 2.0 and stormed Iraq’s parliament. Sadr clearly remembers his history better than most Americans. In 2004, he emboldened his militias, then fighting the U.S. military, by reminding them of how irregular forces had defeated the Americans in Vietnam. This time, he was apparently diplomatic enough not to mention that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese 41 years ago on the day of the Green Zone incursion.
Sadr’s supporters crossed into the enclave to protest Prime Minister Abadi’s failure to reform a disastrous government, rein in corruption (you can buy command of an entire army division and plunder its budget indefinitely for about $2 million), and provide basic services like water and electricity to Baghdadis. The tens of billions of dollars that U.S. officials spent “reconstructing” Iraq during the American occupation of 2003 to 2011 were supposed to make such services effective, but did not.
And anything said about Iraqi governmental failures might be applied no less accurately to the Iraqi army.
Despite the estimated $26 billion the U.S. spent training and equipping that military between 2003 and 2011, whole units broke, shed their uniforms, ditched their American equipment, and fled when faced with relatively small numbers of ISIS militants in June 2014, abandoning four northern cities, including Mosul. This, of course, created the need for yet more training, the ostensible role of many of the U.S. troops now in Iraq. Since most of the new Iraqi units are still only almost ready to fight, however, those American ground troops and generals and Special Operations forces and forward air controllers and planners and logistics personnel and close air support pilots are still needed for the fight to come.
The inability of the U.S. to midwife a popularly supported government or a confident citizen’s army, Washington’s twin critical failures of Iraq War 2.0, may once again ensure that its latest efforts implode. Few Iraqis are left who imagine that the U.S. can be an honest broker in their country. A recent State Department report found that one-third of Iraqis believe the United States is actually supporting ISIS, while 40% are convinced that the United States is trying to destabilize Iraq for its own purposes.
The new story is again the old story: corrupt governments imposed by an outside power fail. And in the Iraq case, every problem that can’t be remedied by aerial bombardment and Special Forces must be the Iraqis’ fault.
Same Leadership, Same Results — POOF!
With the last four presidents all having made war in Iraq, and little doubt that the next president will dive in, keep another forgotten aspect of Washington’s Iraq in mind: some of the same American leadership figures have been in place under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and they will initially still be in place when Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump enters the Oval Office.
Start with Brett McGurk, the current special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS. His résumé is practically a Wikipedia page for America’s Iraq, 2003-2016: Deputy Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran from August 2013 until his current appointment. Before that, Senior Advisor in the State Department for Iraq, a special advisor to the National Security Staff, Senior Advisor to Ambassadors to Iraq Ryan Crocker, Christopher Hill, and James Jeffrey. McGurk participated in President Obama’s 2009 review of Iraq policy and the transition following the U.S. military departure from Iraq. During the Bush administration, McGurk served as Director for Iraq, then as Special Assistant to the President, and also Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008 McGurk was the lead negotiator with the Iraqi Government on both a long-term Strategic Framework Agreement and a Security Agreement to govern the presence of U.S. forces. He was also one of the chief Washington-based architects of The Surge, having earlier served as a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority from nearly the first shots of 2003.
A little lower down the chain of command is Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland. He is now leading Sunni “tribal coordination” to help defeat ISIS, as well as serving as commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force. As a colonel back in 2006, MacFarland similarly helped organize the surge’s Anbar Sunni Awakening movement against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
And on the ground level, you can be sure that some of the current colonels were majors in Iraq War 2.0, and some of their subordinates put their boots on the same ground they’re on now.
In other words, the new story is the old story: some of the same people have been losing this war for Washington since 2003, with neither accountability nor culpability in play.
What If They Gave a War and No One Remembered?
All those American memories lost to oblivion. Such forgetfulness only allows our war makers to do yet more of the same things in Iraq and Syria, acts that someone on the ground will be forced to remember forever, perhaps under the shadow of a drone overhead.
Placing our service people in harm’s way, spending our money in prodigious amounts, and laying the country’s credibility on the line once 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 care not so much about, the United States 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 public and spin up some vague facsimile of war fever.
But back to Snapchat. It turns out that while the app was carefully designed to make whatever is transmitted quickly disappear, some clever folks have since found ways to preserve the information. If only the same could be said of our Snapchat wars. How soon we forget. Until the next time…
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
There’s no past in Washington. There is no sense that actions taken today will exist past today, even though in reality they often echo for decades.
A video making the rounds online shows a fighter from a Kurdish group known as Kurdish Workers Party, or, more commonly, the PKK. Using what appears to be a Russian model shoulder fired portable air-to-air missile, the fighter is shooting down a Turkish military, American-made Cobra attack helicopter.
The attack helo is made by the United States and supplied to NATO ally Turkey;
The missile is of Russian design but could have been made and could have come from nearly anywhere in Eastern Europe. However, such weapons were flooded into the Middle East after the United States deposed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Many such weapons simply entered the black market when the Libyan army more or less dissolved, but many appear to have been sent into the Middle East by the CIA as part of a broader anti-ISIS strategy. Some say one of the functions of the CIA station overrun in Benghazi was to a facilitate that process.
Turkey and the United States official consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Many believe the U.S. surreptitiously supplies the PKK weapons in their fight against Islamic State. Turkey is a U.S. NATO ally who is engaged in active war against PKK.
The U.S. supports Kurdish forces in their fight against Islamic State. The PKK is not officially supported, but anyone who believes the PKK and the “official” Kurdish militias are not coordinated parts of the same entity is either a fool or works in Washington. Or both; the Venn diagram is nearly two overlapping circles.
The primary motivator of the Kurdish fight against ISIS is to push them out of northern Iraq and Syria to help create an independent nation of Kurdistan. This would dissolve the nation now known as Iraq. One of America’s stated goals is to preserve a unified Iraq.
The U.S. supports NATO ally Turkey in a fight against Islamic State. Turkey allows the U.S. to fly drones and other aircraft out of its air bases, but also allows ISIS foreign fighters to cross its border into Syria one way, and ISIS oil to reach market by crossing the border the other way.
If you can understand how all of those things can be simultaneously both true acts of the foreign policy of the United States, you are not a fool and you do not work in Washington. Or both; the Venn diagram is nearly two overlapping circles.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
It is perhaps the most vexing of questions: why is it that whenever you see photos or video of ISIS driving around in their Mad Max-esque technicals with black flags, the vehicle seems to always be a Toyota?
Does Uber require its drivers moonlighting for ISIS to use Toyotas instead of black town cars? Does Toyota pay ISIS a promotional/product placement fee? Does Craigslist Iraq (no freaking way, there is a Craigslist for Iraq) just have a huge Toyota subsection? Is Toyota secretly supporting ISIS?
Those very questions are on the minds of America’s crack anti-terror warriors.
U.S. officials are indeed inquiring why ISIS has acquired a large number of Toyota vehicles, ABC News reports on a slow day when no one on TV at least is calling the president the N-word. Toyota-made pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles have been featured prominently in a number of ISIS propaganda videos used in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, according to ABC. Vehicles shown include the Hilux and the Land Cruiser.
“ISIS has used these vehicles in order to engage in military-type activities, terror activities, and the like,” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Mark Wallace, apparently the only ex-government official who picked up over the weekend for a quote, told ABC News. “But in nearly every ISIS video, they show a fleet – a convoy of Toyota vehicles and that’s very concerning to us.”
Is Wallace saying to ISIS they better “buy American?” Is Wallace in the tank for ISIS? I don’t know.
Anyway, Toyota said in a statement to Autoblog that it has a strict policy not to sell vehicles to groups who may use them for terrorism, but notes that it can’t control if its vehicles are re-sold, stolen, or repurposed after they leave dealerships.
So, jot that down, ISIS people reading this. If you roll into your local Toyota dealership and, along with the rustproofing, extended warranty and upgraded sound system, you also ask for a 20mm cannon to be mounted in the back, the dealer may balk, or at least try and talk you into the Bitcoin payment plan.
“We are committed to complying fully with the laws and regulations of each country or region where we operate, and require our dealers and distributors to do the same,” Toyota’s statement says. “We are supporting the U.S. Treasury Department’s broader inquiry into international supply chains and the flow of capital and goods in the Middle East.”
BONUS: The actual answer is there are just a whole lot of Japanese vehicles in the Middle East. The Japanese have opened a bunch of dealerships there for one. The other reason is that people in Japan trade-in vehicles regularly on newer models, and the used car market there is weak. So, Japanese cars are exported en masse to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, even North Korea, to basically dump them for at least some profit. And so now you know…
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Hey everyone, Happy bin Laden Day! It was five years ago May 2 that “we” got bin Laden. How did you celebrate?
For the CIA, marking the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden was as simple as fake live tweeting the raid by SEAL Team Six on the Al-Qaeda founder’s compound in Pakistan. Using the hashtag #UBLRaid, the CIA blasted out updates of the May 2011 strike as if it was unfolding in real time, all so we could savor the sweet, sweet taste of revenge which brought back to life everyone killed on 9/11.
Tweets included the now famous picture of President Barack Obama and other high-ranking U.S. officials watching matters unfold from the White House’s Situation Room.
1:51 pm EDT – Helicopters depart from Afghanistan for compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, read one tweet.
3:30 pm EDT – 2 helicopters descend on compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. 1 crashes, but assault continues without delay or injury, read another.
That was followed just minutes later by: 3:39 pm EDT – Usama Bin Ladin found on third floor and killed.
Think about how much has changed since that momentous day. In 2011 the U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, facing the threat of a vicious global terror organization that had already killed Americans. Oh, wait, that looks just like 2016, only now we are also at war in Syria, too, still at war in Afghanistan (16 years in!) and back at war in Iraq. And al Qaeda is known as ISIS, and the Homeland remains a jittery mess on the verge of electing either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, both of whom have enthusiastically endorsed lots more war in the Middle East.
It’s as if Nothing. Has. Changed.
Anyway, the CIA’s anniversary tweets open up the idea of live tweeting other American victories. How about a minute-by-minute live tweet of a waterboarding session? Or maybe, for a really special date, a live tweet on August 6 of the Hiroshima bombing?
BONUS: Proving we have learned absolutely nothing, amid the bin Laden tweetstorm, CIA chief John Brennan said Sunday that taking out the head of Islamic State would have a “great impact.”
“If we got Baghdadi, I think it would have a great impact on the organization. And it will be felt by them,” he said.
Like about 90% of the news today, this would be terrific satire, if it wasn’t true.
America is dropping so many bombs on ISIS that the country is in danger of running out.
“We’re expending munitions faster than we can replenish them,” said Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has asked Congress to include funding for 45,000 “smart bombs” in the Defense Department’s 2017 budget. But it could take a while to rebuild the stockpile.
“The U.S. maintains a pretty steady inventory of bombs and missiles,” says one aerospace and defense policy analyst. “But 2.5 years of fighting ISIS and continued bombing in Afghanistan have exceeded weapons-use projections.”
Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.’ military intervention against Islamic State, strikes ISIS targets with laser- and GPS-guided bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs, Joint Standoff Weapons, and air-to-ground missiles, such as the Hellfire. Per unit price tags on these munitions range from around $25,000 to close to $400,000. In the early days of the Syrian campaign the Navy fired multiple Tomahawk cruise missiles, which go for about $1 million a piece.
But bombs away, the overall cost of the fight against Islamic State in dollars is staggering; more than $2.7 billion so far, with the average daily cost around $11 million.
Since the June 2014 start of Inherent Resolve, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run.
Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.”
The CIA estimated Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 began.
Somebody in Washington better do the math on this one.
A defense contractor hired mercenaries from Africa for $16 a day to guard American bases in Iraq, with one of the company’s former directors saying no checks were made on whether those hired were former child soldiers.
The director of Aegis Defense Services between 2005 and 2015, said contractors recruited from countries such as Sierra Leone to reduce costs for the U.S. occupation in Iraq. He said none of the estimated 2,500 boys recruited from Sierra Leone were checked to see if they were former child soldiers who had been forced to fight in the country’s civil war.
They were considered merely cheaper options to fulfill contracts to defend U.S. bases in Iraq, enabling Aegis to realize higher profits.
Aegis had contracts from the U.S. government worth hundreds of millions of dollars to protect bases in Iraq. It originally employed UK, U.S. and Nepalese mercenaries, but broadened its recruitment in 2011 to include Africans as a cost-cutting/profit raising measure.
I am saddened to say the use of children in this capacity in Iraq was an open secret. The guards at the forward operating base where I was located in 2009-2010 were obviously very, very young, often carrying weapons nearly their own height. They were kept isolated and segregated from the Americans so the two groups could not speak, ensuring the secret was nominally kept as everyone looked the other way.
That child soldiers were present in this capacity was (to my knowledge, first) mentioned in my 2011 book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (in the chapter titled “Tribes.”) Our military children happened to be from Uganda, not Sierra Leone, suggesting the practice was wide spread.
In some happy news, in 2010, the mercs guarding the U.S. embassy in Baghdad were primarily from Peru, and appeared to be all adults.
BONUS: The recruitment of African mercenaries and, more specifically, former child soldiers, is the subject of a new documentary (video clip, below) by Mads Ellesoe, a Danish journalist who spent two years researching the subject.
Candidates, one of you will be the fifth consecutive American president to make war inside Iraq. What will you face on day one of your administration?
You learned with us recently of the death of a Marine in Iraq, which exposed that the United States set up a fire base in that country, which exposed that the Pentagon used a twist of words to misrepresent the number of personnel in Iraq by as many as 2,000. It appears a second fire base exists, set up on the grounds of one of America’s largest installations from the last Iraq war. Special forces range across the landscape. The Pentagon is planning for even more troops. There can be no more wordplay — America now has boots on the ground in Iraq.
The regional picture is dismal. In Syria, militias backed by the Central Intelligence Agency are fighting those backed by the Pentagon. British, Jordanian and American special forces are fighting various enemies in Libya; that failed state is little more than a latent Iraq, likely to metastasize into its neighbors. There may be a worrisome note about Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Lebanon waiting for you under the Oval Office desk blotter.
But candidates, your focus must remain on Iraq; that is where what the Jordanian king now refers to as the Third World War began, and where Islamic State was birthed, and where the United States seems to be digging in for the long run.
Though arguably the story of Islamic State, Iraq and the United States can be traced to the lazy division of the Ottoman Empire after the Second World War, for your purposes candidates, things popped out of place in 2003, when the American invasion of Iraq unleashed the forces now playing out across the Middle East. The garbled post-invasion strategy installed a Shi’ite-dominated, Iranian-supported government in Baghdad, with limited Sunni buy-in.
Sectarian fighting and central government corruption which favored the Shi’ites drove non-ideologues without jobs, and religious zealots with an agenda, together. Clumsy policy cemented the relationship – a senior Islamic State commander explained the prison at Camp Bucca operated by the United States was directly responsible for the rise of the violent, theocratic state inside the divided, but then still largely secular, Iraq. “It made it all, it built our ideology,” he said. “We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else.” So first came al-Qaeda in Iraq, followed by its successor, Islamic State.
Fast-forward through about a year and half of Washington’s fear-mongering and wagging the dog, and America’s re-entry into Iraq moved quickly from a Yazidi rescue mission, to advisors, to air power, to special forces, to today’s boots on the ground. That is your starting point on day one in office.
As your strategy, every one of you candidates has promised to destroy Islamic State.
Even if that destruction comes to be, the problems in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere (space precludes drawing the Turk-Kurd conflict into this article, though the war itself has no such restrictions) would still be there. Islamic State is a response, and its absence will only leave a void to be filled by something else. Your root problem is the disruption of the balance of power in the Middle East, brought on by a couple of regime changes too many.
The primary forces the United States are supporting to attack Islamic State in Iraq Sunni territories are Shi’ite militias. Though they have been given a new name in Washington, Popular Mobilization Units, that does not change what they are; have a look at a popular Instagram, where a Shi’ite fighter asked for viewers to vote on whether or not he should execute a Sunni prisoner. Washington clings to the hope that the militias and it are united against a common foe – the bad Sunnis in Islamic State – while what the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad also supporting the militias more likely see is a war against the Sunnis in general.
Oh, and candidates, that Iraqi national army, trained at great cost until 2011, then re-trained for the past 18 months, is still little more than a sinkhole of corruption, cowardice and lethargy.
As for any sort of brokered settlement among the non-Islamic State actors in Iraq, if 170,000 American troops could not accomplish that over almost nine years of trying, re-trying it on a tighter timetable with fewer resources is highly unlikely to work. It is unclear what solutions the United States has left to peddle anyway, or with what credibility it would sell them, but many groups will play along to gain access to American military power for their own ends.
What you will be inheriting, in the words of one commentator, is a “bold new decade-old strategy” that relies on enormous expenditures for minimal gains. The question for you is: if war in Iraq didn’t work last time, why will it work this time?
The hole is deep and being dug deeper as we speak.
Perhaps the most fundamental flaw in the flailing U.S. anti-ISIS strategy is the belief that any group willing to fight ISIS must support at least some U.S. goals, and that any group not ISIS is better in the long run than ISIS.
Such a viewpoint ignores the near-infinite complexities of Middle East alliances and politics, ignores the well-known reality that any group that does, in part, support the U.S. also needs to simultaneously prepare for when the U.S. one day suddenly picks up and leaves, and allows very dangerous weapons to exfiltrate out of the semi-right hands into the really wrong hands.
The video below shows the Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuda (KSS), which is also known as the Battalion of the Sayyid’s Martyrs, cruising around in an American-made M1 Abrams tank (at around the 16-second mark of the video). The video surfaced on SOFREP, a very pro-U.S. military website that states it is run by Special Ops veterans.
About those KSS guys with our tank.
Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS) are an Iraqi Shia militia formed in 2013 to protect “Shia shrines across the globe” among other fun things. It militarily supports the Assad Government in Syria, and has close ties to the Badr Organization. The Badr’s are some nasty people who excelled at killing Americans, with Iranian help, during the 2003-2010 Iraq War 2.0.
The U.S. has since 2010 been supplying the government of Iraq with M-1 tanks. The Iraqi government is denying their involvement with KSS, and claims “not to know” how they obtained the U.S.-made tank. Tanks, of course, are just darned hard things to keep track of.
According to the U.S. Defense Department, “We have received assurances from the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces that they will use U.S. equipment in accordance with U.S. law and our bilateral agreements. If we receive reports that U.S.-origin equipment is being misused or provided to unauthorized users, we engage the Iraqi government in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy to address any confirmed issues — up to the highest levels, if necessary.”
The best news of all (it is not the best news) is that if Iranian-connected militia loyal to Assad have M-1 tanks, that means the Iranians, the Syrians and the Russians, at a minimum, have access to any M-1 technology they might wish to inspect or reverse engineer, or sell on the global black market.
This war just keeps getting better (it is not getting better.)
The next time a candidate or reporter asks during a debate about education or healthcare “But how are you going to pay for that?” I would like the person being questioned to respond “The same way we find money to pay for Iraq.”
So maybe it would just be better for Flint, Michigan to claim it is under attack by ISIS instead of just being poisoned because no one has the money to fix America’s infrastructure.
See, each month, Iraq’s government pays out nearly $4 billion in salaries and pensions to the military and a bloated array of corrupt public-sector workers. But with more than 90 percent of government revenue coming from oil, it is bringing in only about half that as crude prices plunge. Some Iraqi officials and analysts say the government might struggle later this year to pay the seven million people on the public payroll, which could trigger mass unrest.
As a sign of the times, Iraqis are facing more nominal charges every day. Hospitals, which have long treated Iraqis free of charge, have introduced fees, for example, even for those visiting sick relatives.
For Iraq, the decline comes in the midst of an already destabilizing war. There are bills for reconstructing flattened cities destroyed for freedom, and assistance for the 3.3 million Iraqis who have been internally displaced over the past two years, with more expected to come.
So — good news, at least for Iraq — the United States is stepping in with U.S. taxpayer money to make sure the country can continue military spending while it seeks international loans.
So, while there is apparently no way anyone can conceive of to pay for fixing America’s infrastructure, making higher education affordable, reducing healthcare costs or any of those other icky socialist thingies, there is money for Iraq!
BONUS: No one really knows how much money the U.S. has already spent in Iraq, but it is way over two trillion dollars.
BONUS BONUS: The golden eagle shown above was paid for by the American taxpayers in 2010 as part of the reconstruction of Iraq. The area where it is shown is now devastated by the current fighting. I took the photo myself.
Iraq, the failed state that over 4,600 (and counting…) Americans died to free from some evil tyrant 13 years ago, is still ranking high internationally in something. Unfortunately, that something is corruption.
A couple of other places where America has been intervening for freedom also made the list.
Germany’s Transparency International released its newest corruption index for 2015, and as usual Iraq was on the list. The ten worst countries in its new study were Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Libya, Iraq, Venezuela, and Guinea-Bissau.
Seven of those nations held the same worst ranks last year. Iraq received the same score that it had for the last two years.
Most Corrupt Countries On Transparency International Corruption Index 2015:
2. North Korea
5. South Sudan
In Iraq, corruption is rampant throughout the state. The ruling elite use graft and bribes to maintain their patronage systems, their militias, and to enrich themselves. That’s also the reason why there is no real push to end it; if one top official was taken down it would threaten all the rest.
According to experts, that’s despite repeated promises by the prime ministers, the complaints of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and protests that occur almost every year demanding action on the issue. Current U.S.-chosen Prime Minister Haidar Abadi, for example, announced a reform program in August 2015 that was supposed to address corruption, but he was focused more on building up his own base and going after his rivals than actually addressing the problem, and nothing substantive was done. No one, including America, wants to seriously touch the golden goose that keeps the Iraqi good times going.
BONUS: See who else is on the top ten corruption list? U.S. occupied Afghanistan is No. 3. Libya, where the U.S. overthrew another evil tyrant with no follow-on plan, is No. 7. Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan are all places with active U.S.-led miniwars afoot.
It is almost as if there is a pattern here…
Think what it must be like to be one of America’s allies.
You enjoy some trade, watch Beyonce and Brad Pitt at the movies, and visit Disneyland on holiday. But then there’s America again at your cubicle, asking again that you join some coalition, get some troops into another wacky American overseas intervention for freedom, or regime change, or to stop another impending genocide only American can see or stop. What can you do? It’s hard to say no knowing what a big bully the U.S. is, but given how poorly the last one worked out, and the one before that, and the one before that, nobody at home is in favor of another round. Still, you’re stuck giving something, so maybe a few special forces, or a couple of airstrikes, as a token…
And then you get blamed for being a freeloader when things don’t work out, or America loses interest and expected you to pick up the slack. And why not? America has a lot of coalitions and freedom to look after globally, and just can’t take care of everything.
The Obama Doctrine
That bit of sarcasm unfortuately seems to describe the “Obama Doctrine,” as laid out in a legacy-killing interview with the president in Atlantic magazine.
Specifically, Obama was referring to the 2011 conflict in Libya. Coming on the heels of the fading Arab Spring, Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s 34 year stable reign appeared to be weakening. The U.S., after decades of hostility with Libya, had reopened diplomatic relations in 2006. As part of that deal, Qaddafi rid himself of a nascent nuclear program. As unrest, however, spread in 2011, Qaddafi threatened a violent crackdown.
Obama (all quotes are from Atlantic): “At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”
While there is no doubt many nations expressed concern (who wouldn’t?), it appears only the United States wanted to drive those thoughts into armed conflict. While Obama was allegedly wary of another U.S. military action in the Middle East, his advisors, lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, invoked that magic Washington, DC word “genocide,” claiming Qaddafi was about to “slaughter his own people,” and stopping that was a foreign policy “to-do” item for the United States.
Obama: “So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight.”
But, according to Obama, that is where the good news ended.
Obama: “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up… [French leader] Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was making in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure for the intervention.”
As for the UK, British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things,” according to Obama. The basic idea was having arranged the intervention in Libya, and having proceeded with a very small coalition that for practical purposes included no Arab nations, it was going to be up to France and the UK to take over the messy part of the operation, which was ill-defined by the U.S. except as “whatever happened next.”
And when France and Britain did not jump to achieve America’s goals, what was Obama’s characterization of them?
“Free riders,” he said.
The Audacity of Ignorance
What that Obama Doctrine omits is that the coalition, such as it was, was formed to prevent Qaddafi from harming large numbers of Libyans. However, the mission quickly and without any outside mandate morphed into regime change, with the goal now set to kill Qaddafi and replace him with, well, the U.S. would find someone. As could have been easily foreseen given the failure of a similar policy in Iraq, and as subsequent events proved all too clearly in Libya, the result was chaos. Libya is now a failed state, home to its own Islamic State franchise.
The audacity of the American president to blame even part of that outcome on other nations speaks to dark things in the American character, and American foreign policy, which will continue to plague the world for some time. And while many globally fear a President Trump, they will be advised to recall Hillary Clinton’s leading role in the Libyan disaster as well.
Washington lives and works in a bubble, of its own making, of its own ignorance.
Inside that bubble, American goals are deemed, de facto, to be world goals, and coalitions should form like crystals around them. America alone is the arbiter of what “genocides” need or need not be stopped, and at what point the United States should start something, and then back away, and then perhaps return. The American foreign policy establishment never seems to notice that for all the genocides that need stopping, all the evil dictators that need toppling, and regimes that need changing, few if any nations seem to share America’s zeal for military intervention. Few countries seem so committed to bypassing other tools of foreign policy (diplomacy, trade) and jumping to the literal attack. In fact, few countries seem to want to put skin into the game, to use Obama’s expression, perhaps in large part because it is not their game.
History is Not Generous
If Libya was an isolated example, history might be more generous to 21st century America.
But one must look to Afghanistan, where a shell of the original coalition sent to bust up the Taliban now acts to maintain some-sort of American vassal state. Iraq of course is the uber-example, a war to stop another evil dictator (formerly supported by the United States) that changed under its coalition’s nose into creating a whole new nation-state in America’s image. The same is happening in real-time in Syria, where the U.S. State Department still believes a coalition of 62 nations is furthering whatever America’s goal there might be.
Obama and all of the presidential candidates also keep saying much the same thing about how the Sunnis and Kurds need to “step up” to fight ISIS.
Standing above them all is the grandest of American coalitions at present, that one that seeks to smite Islamic State, in the many countries it has metastasized into. But funny, one hears little any more about any coalition against al Qaeda. Meh, times change, gotta move on.
One foreign commentator said the United States has “turned into a nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries.”
That, perhaps, is the clearest statement of the Obama Doctrine yet.
The nuances of foreign policy do not feature heavily in the ongoing presidential campaign. Every candidate intends to “destroy” the Islamic State; each has concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea, and China; every one of them will defend Israel; and no one wants to talk much about anything else — except, in the case of the Republicans, who rattle their sabers against Iran.
In that light, here’s a little trip down memory lane: in October 2012, I considered five critical foreign policy questions — they form the section headings below — that were not being discussed by then-candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Romney today is a sideshow act for the current Republican circus, and Obama has started packing up his tent at the White House and producing his own foreign policy obituary.
And sadly, those five questions of 2012 remain as pertinent and unraised today as they were four years ago. Unlike then, however, answers may be at hand, and believe me, that’s not good news. Now, let’s consider them four years later, one by one.
Is there an endgame for the global war on terror?
That was the first question I asked back in 2012. In the ensuing years, no such endgame has either been proposed or found, and these days no one’s even talking about looking for one. Instead, a state of perpetual conflict in the Greater Middle East and Africa has become so much the norm that most of us don’t even notice.
In 2012, I wrote, “The current president, elected on the promise of change, altered very little when it came to George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror (other than dropping the name). That jewel-in-the-crown of Bush-era offshore imprisonment, Guantanamo, still houses over 160 prisoners held without trial. While the U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq… the war in Afghanistan stumbles on. Drone strikes and other forms of conflict continue in the same places Bush tormented: Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan (and it’s clear that northern Mali is heading our way).”
Well, candidates of 2016? Guantanamo remains open for business, with 91 men still left. Five others were expeditiously traded away by executive decision to retrieve runaway American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan, but somehow President Obama feels he can’t release most of the others without lots of approvals by… well, someone. The Republicans running for president are howling to expand Gitmo, and the two Democratic candidates are in favor of whatever sort of not-a-plan plan Obama has been pushing around his plate for eight years.
Iraq took a bad bounce when the same president who withdrew U.S. troops in 2011 let loose the planes and drones and started putting those boots back on that same old ground in 2014. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to morph that conflict from a rescue mission to a training mission to bombing to Special Operations forces in ongoing contact with the enemy, and not just in Iraq, but Syria, too. No candidate has said that s/he will pull out.
As for the war in Afghanistan, it now features an indefinite, “generational” American troop commitment. Think of that country as the third rail of campaign 2016 — no candidate dares touch it for fear of instant electrocution, though (since the American public seems to have forgotten the place) by whom exactly is unclear. There’s still plenty of fighting going on in Yemen — albeit now mostly via America’s well-armed proxies the Saudis — and Africa is more militarized than ever.
As for the most common “American” someone in what used to be called the third world is likely to encounter, it’s no longer a diplomat, a missionary, a tourist, or even a soldier — it’s a drone. The United States claims the right to fly into any nation’s airspace and kill anyone it wishes. Add it all together and when it comes to that war on terror across significant parts of the globe, the once-reluctant heir to the Bush legacy leaves behind a twenty-first century mechanism for perpetual war and eternal assassination missions. And no candidate in either party is willing to even suggest that such a situation needs to end.
In 2012, I also wrote, “Washington seems able to come up with nothing more than a whack-a-mole strategy for ridding itself of the scourge of terror, an endless succession of killings of ‘al-Qaeda Number 3’ guys. Counterterrorism tsar John Brennan, Obama’s drone-meister, has put it this way: ‘We’re not going to rest until al-Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas.’”
Four years later, whack-a-mole seems to still be as polite a way as possible of categorizing America’s strategy. In 2013, the top whacker John Brennan got an upgrade to director of the CIA, but strangely — despite so many drones sent off, Special Operations teams sent in, and bombers let loose — the moles keep burrowing and he’s gotten none of the rest he was seeking in 2012. Al-Qaeda is still around, but more significantly, the Islamic State (IS) has replaced that outfit as the signature terrorist organization for the 2016 election.
And speaking of IS, the 2011 war in Libya, midwifed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, led to the elimination of autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, which in turn led to chaos, which in turn led to the spread of IS there big time, which appears on its way to leading to a new American war in Libya seeking the kind of stability that, for all his terrors, Qaddafi had indeed brought to that country during his 34 years in power and the U.S. military will never find.
So an end to the Global War on Terror? Nope.
Do today’s foreign policy challenges mean that it’s time to retire the Constitution?
In 2012 I wrote, “Starting on September 12, 2001, challenges, threats, and risks abroad have been used to justify abandoning core beliefs enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That bill, we are told, can’t accommodate terror threats to the Homeland.”
At the time, however, our concerns about unconstitutionality were mostly based on limited information from early whistleblowers like Tom Drake and Bill Binney, and what some then called conspiracy theories. That was before National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden confirmed our worst nightmares in June 2013 by leaking a trove of NSA documents about the overwhelming American surveillance state. Snowden summed it up this way: “You see programs and policies that were publicly justified on the basis of preventing terrorism — which we all want — in fact being used for very different purposes.”
Now, here’s the strange thing: since Rand Paul dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, no candidate seems to find it worth his or her while to discuss protecting the Bill of Rights or the Constitution from the national security state. (Only the Second Amendment, it turns out, is still sacred.) And speaking of rights, things had already grown so extreme by 2013 that Attorney General Eric Holder felt forced to publicly insist that the government did not plan to torture or kill Edward Snowden, should he end up in its hands. Given the tone of this election, someone may want to update that promise.
In 2012, of course, the Obama administration had only managed to put two whistleblowers in jail for violating the Espionage Act. Since then, such prosecutions have grown almost commonplace, with five more convictions (including that of Chelsea Manning) and with whatever penalties short of torture and murder are planned for Edward Snowden still pending. No one then mentioned the use of the draconian World War I-era Espionage Act, but that wasn’t surprising. Its moment was still coming.
Four years later, still not a peep out of any candidate about the uses of that act, once aimed at spying for foreign powers in wartime, or a serious discussion of government surveillance and the loss of privacy in American life. (And we just learned that the Pentagon’s spy drones have been released over “the homeland,” too, but don’t expect to hear anything about that or its implications either.) Of course, Snowden has come up in the debates of both parties. He has been labeled a traitor as part of the blood sport that the Republican debates have devolved into, and denounced as a thief by Hillary Clinton, while Bernie Sanders gave him credit for “educating the American people” but still thought he deserved prison time.
If the question in 2012 was: “Candidates, have we walked away from the Constitution? If so, shouldn’t we publish some sort of notice or bulletin?” In 2016, the answer seems to be: “Yes, we’ve walked away, and accept that or else… you traitor!”
What do we want from the Middle East?
In 2012, considering the wreckage of the post-9/11 policies of two administrations in the Middle East, I wondered what the goal of America’s presence there could possibly be. Washington had just ended its war in Iraq, walked away from the chaos in Libya, and yet continued to launch a seemingly never-ending series of drone strikes in the region. “Is it all about oil?” I asked. “Israel? Old-fashioned hegemony and containment? History suggests that we should make up our mind on what America’s goals in the Middle East might actually be. No cheating now — having no policy is a policy of its own.”
Four years later, Washington is desperately trying to destroy an Islamic State “caliphate” that wasn’t even on its radar in 2012. Of course, that brings up the question of whether IS can be militarily destroyed at all, as we watch its spread to places as far-flung as Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. And then there’s the question no one would have thought to ask back then: If we destroy that movement in Iraq and Syria, will another even more brutish group simply take its place, as the Islamic State did with al-Qaeda in Iraq? No candidate this time around even seems to grasp that these groups aren’t just problems in themselves, but symptoms of a broader Sunni-Shi’ite problem.
In the meantime, the one broad policy consensus to emerge is that we shouldn’t hesitate to unleash our air power and Special Operations forces and, with the help of local proxies, wreck as much stuff as possible. America has welcomed all comers to take their best shots in Syria and Iraq in the name of fighting the Islamic State. The ongoing effort to bomb it away has resulted in the destruction of cities that were still in decent shape in 2012, like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs, and evidently at some future moment Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, “in order to save” them. Four American presidents have made war in the region without success, and whoever follows Obama into the Oval Office will be number five. No questions asked.
What is your plan to right-size our military and what about downsizing the global mission?
Plan? Right-size? Here’s the reality four years after I asked that question: Absolutely no candidate, including the most progressive one, is talking about cutting or in any way seriously curtailing the U.S. military.
Not surprisingly, in response to the ongoing question of the year, “So how will you pay for that?” (in other words, any project being discussed from massive border security and mass deportations to free public college tuition), no candidate has said: “Let’s spend less than 54% of our discretionary budget on defense.”
Call me sentimental, but as I wrote in 2012, I’d still like to know from the candidates, “What will you do to right-size the military and downsize its global mission? Secondly, did this country’s founders really intend for the president to have unchecked personal war-making powers?”
Such questions would at least provide a little comic relief, as all the candidates except Bernie Sanders lock horns to see who will be the one to increase the defense budget the most.
Since no one outside our borders buys American exceptionalism anymore, what’s next? What is America’s point these days?
In 2012, I laid out the reality of twenty-first-century America this way: “We keep the old myth alive that America is a special, good place, the most ‘exceptional’ of places in fact, but in our foreign policy we’re more like some mean old man, reduced to feeling good about himself by yelling at the kids to get off the lawn (or simply taking potshots at them). Now, who we are and what we are abroad seems so much grimmer… America the Exceptional, has, it seems, run its course. Saber rattling… feels angry, unproductive, and without any doubt unbelievably expensive.”
Yet in 2016 most of the candidates are still barking about America the Exceptional despite another four years of rust on the chrome. Donald Trump may be the exceptional exception in that he appears to think America’s exceptional greatness is still to come, though quite soon under his guidance.
The question for the candidates in 2012 was and in 2016 remains “Who exactly are we in the world and who do you want us to be? Are you ready to promote a policy of fighting to be planetary top dog — and we all know where that leads — or can we find a place in the global community? Without resorting to the usual ‘shining city on a hill’ metaphors, can you tell us your vision for America in the world?”
The answer is a resounding no.
See You Again in 2020
The candidates have made it clear that the struggle against terror is a forever war, the U.S. military can never be big enough, bombing and missiling the Greater Middle East is now the American Way of Life, and the Constitution is indeed a pain and should get the hell out of the way.
Above all, no politician dares or cares to tell us anything but what they think we want to hear: America is exceptional, military power can solve problems, the U.S. military isn’t big enough, and it is necessary to give up our freedoms to protect our freedoms. Are we, in the perhaps slightly exaggerated words of one foreign commentator, now just a “nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries”?
Bookmark this page. I’ll be back before the 2020 elections to see how we’re doing.
OK, I’m going to skate out on some very thin ice here.
Of course I do not in any way condone ISIS, rape, terrorism, violence, victim shaming or slavery. But I do have what I believe are legitimate questions about a New York Times story involving those topics, and hope I can ask them here without being accused of supporting things I find abhorrent.
I ask these questions only because while rape is tragically used all-to-often as a tool of war, claims by people or groups in war can sometimes be untrue, exaggerated, or reported erroneously for political aims. Iraqi defectors lied about WMDs to help draw America into the 2003 invasion. Claims in 1991 that Iraqi invaders bayoneted Kuwaiti children in their incubators were completely fabricated. In 2011 Susan Rice announced Libya’s Qaddafi was handing out Viagra, so that his soldiers could commit more rapes, it was a lie.
The Times article was scary, inflammatory, designed to incite. But was it responsible journalism?
The Times’ story last Sunday reported Islamic State leaders have made sexual slavery as they believe it was practiced during the Prophet Muhammad’s time integral to the group’s operations, preying on the women and girls the group captured from the Yazidi religious minority almost two years ago. To keep the sex trade running, the fighters have aggressively pushed birth control on their victims so they can continue the abuse unabated while the women are passed among them.
The New York Times story was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Rukmini Callimachi, and front-paged, so these things should have easy answers. You can read the whole story yourself, to better understand my questions.
1) How did the reporter make contact with the 36 escaped Yazidi sex slaves she interviewed? What organization made the connection? She states in the article “Many of the women interviewed for this article were initially reached through Yazidi community leaders.” Was one of the group Yazda or its founder Murad Ismael (see below)?
2) Does the reporter speak Arabic? Most Yazidis speak Kurmanji as their primary tongue; if the reporter used a translator for either language, what steps did she take to verify the translation? Who supplied and paid for the translator?
3) Did the ISIS rapists who explained the purposes of the birth control to their victims speak Kurmanji, a language generally limited to Kurdish areas off-limits to ISIS? If not, did the reporter verify that the victims had sufficient Arabic vocabulary to understand what they were being told, including some limited medical and drug terms?
4) Was the reporter contacted by a group or organization inviting her to interview the victims, or did she uncover the story fully independently?
5) The young women interviewed appeared to have specific and detailed knowledge that they were being given birth control. Did their ISIS captors explain this to them and if so, can she explain why? As most Yazidis are unlikely to have first-hand knowledge of chemical birth control, how did the young women learn so much about the pills they were being forced to take?
6) The article states “Some described how they knew they were about to be sold when they were driven to a hospital to give a urine sample to be tested for the hCG hormone, whose presence indicates pregnancy.” How did the women know what hormone they were being tested for?
7) The article states “The teenager feared she was about to be raped. Instead he [the rapist] pulled out a syringe and gave her a shot on her upper thigh. It was a 150-milligram dose of Depo-Provera, an injectable contraceptive, a box of which she showed to a reporter.” How did she know the chemical and dosage she was given? Did her rapist allow her to keep the box? Did the victim hold on to the box throughout the ordeal of her escape from ISIS captivity until her contact with the reporter? Was the victim asked these questions?
8) Chemical birth control is not generally available in the Middle East. Did the reporter make any inquiries as to where the ISIS-supplied birth control pills and injections came from? Is it her belief that ISIS has established an international smuggling route to bring such substances into the Middle East?
9) The reporter references a “manual” that describes how rape of slaves under the circumstances of birth control is allowed under ISIS’ interpretation of sharia law. Is this manual openly available? When and how did the reporter access it, and verify its authenticity?
10) The New York Times article encourage readers to donate to a charity for Yazidi victims, Yazda. The charity is contactable by mail only through a post office box. Standard charity verification site Charity Watch had no listing for the group under the name “Yazda.” Charity Navigator lists the group only as “unrated.” I have been unable to find much independent information on Yazda founder Murad Ismael.
Did/how did the New York Times verify the legitimacy of the Yazda charity?
11) The reporter quotes a local Yazidi doctor as saying “With more than 700 cases of rape recorded so far, Dr. Taib’s center has treated only 35 pregnancies. He expected to see at least 140. ‘Even higher than that, if you consider that these women had multiple partners and were raped every day over many months,’ Dr. Taib said.” The doctor’s statement is offered as verification of the widespread use of birth control; i.e., without birth control, there would be more pregnancies.
A 1996 study by the American Journal of Obstetrics stated that the national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5% per rape among victims of reproductive age (aged 12 to 45). That 5% would match with what the doctor found, 35 pregnancies out of 700 cases. The doctor’s estimate of 140 cases is 20%.
Statistics can be imprecise. However, given that the reporter cited the local doctor’s count of pregnancies as evidence supporting the claims of the Yazidi women, did she not ask him, or why did she not raise in her article, that other evidence may contradict his assertion?
I don’t like having to write about rape. I am sorry for every victim of rape, and every woman who was enslaved. My concerns are not about ISIS, which remains a terrible organization, but about journalism. I hope someone very quickly refutes or answers every one of my questions and makes me look foolish and embarrassed for even asking. Please do that.
I have emailed this to the New York Times Ombudsman several days ago (“public editor“) and will publish any reply I receive.
It’s time to renegotiate the contract that put this whole thing together.
The “whole thing” is the Middle East, and the “contract” is the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The world those documents created no longer exists except on yellowed maps, and the issues left unsettled, primarily the Sunni-Shi’ite divide and a Kurdish homeland, have now come home begging. War is not fixing this; diplomacy might.
In November 2014, I wrote the only solution to Islamic State, and mess of greater Iraq, was to use American/Coalition peacekeepers to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide.
However, in the intervening 15 months the problems swept in Turkey and Russia, and perhaps soon the Saudis. The United States, Iraq, Islamic State, and Iran never left. Only a massive diplomatic effort, involving all parties now on the playing field, including Islamic State, has any potential of ending the bloodshed and refugee crisis. That means a redivision of the region along current ethnic, tribal, religious and political lines.
A new Sykes-Picot Agreement if you will.
The old Sykes-Picot divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in 1916. The Agreement was enforced by the superpowers of that moment, Britain and France with buy-in from the Russians. The immediate goal was colonialism, not independent states, but the unspoken end point was a form of stability. Following the massive realignment of the balance of power that was World War I, the lines were literally drawn for the next eight decades. The lines themselves did not cause all the problems per se; the lines codified the problems on the ground.
The other important event of the era was that the idea of creating a “Kurdistan” was crossed off the post-World War I “to do” list. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres at first left an opening for a referendum on whether the Kurds wanted to remain part of what remained of the Ottoman Empire or become independent. Problem one: the referendum did not include plans for the Kurds in what became Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of the so-called Turkish War of Independence. The result: some 20 million Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
Zoom to some more modern history. In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, and the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire.
From a geopolitical perspective, here’s what you have right now: The invasion of Iraq blew open the power struggle among the Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. Forces unleashed led to some of the Arab Spring-driven chaos in Syria, and drew Iran into the Iraqi conflict.
Shi’ite militia and Iraqi government threats and attacks on Iraqi Sunnis opened the door for Islamic State to step in as a protector. The struggle metastasized into Syria. The Kurds, aided by the U.S. military, are seeking to create new transnational borders out of their current confederacy by displacing Islamic State and Turkish forces. The Turks are looking to repel that, and perhaps seize some territory to tidy up their own borders. Russia has re-entered the region as a military force. The Saudis may yet send troops into Syria. Iran is already there via proxy forces. Assad still holds territory in Syria, as does Islamic State. There are many local players as well.
In short, many forces are redrawing the borders, as violently as their weapons allow, creating massive human suffering, to include refugee flows into Europe that no one seem sure how to handle.
A New Struggle
The struggle has shifted from a semi-ideological one (Islamic extremism) that could not be bombed away to one of seizing and holding territory. The effort now ongoing to bomb that problem away has resulted primarily in repeatedly destroying cities like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs and soon Mosul in order to save them.
With the realignment of borders a process that can only be delayed — at great cost in every definition of that word — the answer is only to negotiate a conclusion. That conclusion will be ugly and distasteful, though if it is any help, it will be distasteful to everyone participated. It will need to be enforced by military power (we’ll call them peacekeepers) that is coordinated by the U.S., Russia and Iran, with each speaking for, and controlling, its proxies. The U.S. is basically doing something like that with Jordan, forming a military dam against the mess in Syria, and Israel has done it for years.
It will mean giving Islamic State a seat at the table, as the British were forced to do with the Irish Republican Army, to resolve “troubles.”
Out of the negotiations will have to emerge a Kurdistan, with some land from Turkey and the former-Syria. Assad will stay in power as a Russian proxy. Iran’s hold on Shi’ite Iraq will be stronger. A Sunni homeland state, to include what Islamic State will morph into, will need to be assured, with a strict hands-off policy by Baghdad. At the same time, that Sunni homeland offers the first real framework to contain Islamic State.
The World’s Policeman
American efforts will shift from fanning the flames (purloined HUMVEES are as ubiquitous as iPads in the region) to putting out fires. You want to be the world’s policeman? This is the neighborhood to prove it, because this now needs cops of a sort, not warfighters. There is no quick fix. There isn’t really a medium-term fix. Four America presidents have bombed the region, and Obama‘s successor will be number five.
Yes, I hate it too. And of course I understand the difficulties of an imperfect resolution. But solution is no longer a viable term I am afraid.
After you’ve soiled the bed, you do your best to clean it up. The process will be messy. But it is too late for elegant solutions. So with the Middle East.
Think what it must be like to be one of America’s allies.
You enjoy some trade, groove on uber-Americanos like Beyonce and Brad Pitt, and visit Disneyland. But then there’s America again at your cubicle, asking again that you join some coalition, get some troops into another wacky American overseas intervention for freedom, or regime change, or to stop another impending genocide only American can stop. What can you do? It’s hard to say no, but given how poorly the last one worked out, and the one before that, and the one before that, nobody at home is in favor of another round. Still, you’re stuck giving something…
And so it is with Canada, that big snowy place near the U.S. that is not Mexico (why doesn’t Mexico have to join these coalitions anyway?)
New Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fulfilled one of his most contentious election campaign promises, as Canadian military airstrikes on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria ceased in mid-February. Canada is still indirectly involved in the aerial campaign, and in training Iraqi security forces.
“I’m very happy that the government has decided that there may be more productive things that they can focus on than bombing,” said one independent research and advocacy group based in Ottawa. “They’re indirectly continuing to participate in the air campaign, but at least they’re not directly participating and I think that’s an important step forward.”
Canada formally announced it had stopped all air strikes in Iraq and Syria on 15 February. They will continue to fly aerial refueling missions, and conduct reconnaissance from the air. More significantly, Canada will up its small ground forces, who are engaged in what has to be the longest and most thorough training mission in human history, inside Iraq.
As a side note, somebody from the West has been training Iraqi and Kurdish troops since around 2005. After 11 years, you’d think they would be the best-trained soldiers in the world (HINT: They are not.)
The motion presented to the House of Commons about changing the Iraq mission stipulates that Canada will work to engage with political leaders in the Middle East in the aim of “finding political solutions” in the region. No one in Canada has elaborated on how it plans to aid Iraq establish good governance. That process, too, has been ongoing since 2003, without much to show for it.
America’s mercenaries smell the blood (and the money) and are returning to Iraq.
Mercs are a great thing for the U.S. government, in that they aren’t counted as “troops,” or as “boots on the ground,” even while they are both. The Defense Department can disavow any mischief the contractors get up like, such as murdering civilians, and keep the headcount low and the body count low when things are going well, or bad. It only costs money, and that America has a bottomless pool of, as long as it being spent on something violent abroad instead of helping Americans at home (which is socialism, sonny.)
So let’s look at some numbers.
The number of private contractors working for the U.S. Defense Department in Iraq grew eight-fold over the past year, a rate that far outpaces the growing number of American troops training and advising Iraqi soldiers battling Islamic State militants.
As of January, 2,028 military contractors were in Iraq, up from just 250 one year earlier, according to the Pentagon. There are another another 5,800 State Department contractors in Iraq, plus an unknown number of Americans working as trainers and repairpeople who are employed by the U.S. weapons manufacturers themselves.
So that’s 7,828 known U.S. government contractors with their boots on the ground in Iraq. There are roughly 3,700 American troops there now alongside them.
(But let’s keep it real — there are 30,455 contractors for the U.S. government in Afghanistan playing their Mad Max games)
Many of the contractors in Iraq are from well-known warzone profiteers like KBR, DynCorp, and Fluor Corporation, the three firms hired by the Army’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program.
The State Department still employs personnel from whatever Blackwater is now known as. The company changes names more often than a stripper.
Clinton supporters, erroneously, make much out of the idea that of the many, many emails that passed through her private server, none were “marked” classified. They claim that, when in fact thousands of those same emails are indeed now marked classified, that is just after-the-fact Washington squabbling.
So this new information — that America’s intelligence agencies now say the contents of some of those unmarked emails match the contents of their own classified documents — is a big deal. It also suggests just how Clinton’s unclassified server came to be loaded up with classified material.
Several agencies have told Congress that Hillary Clinton’s home server contained some emails that should have been treated as TOP SECRET because their wording matched sections of some of the government’s most highly classified documents. These reports are the first formal declarations by intel agencies detailing how they believe Clinton violated government rules when highly classified information in at least 22 email messages passed through her unsecured home server.
So how this all work?
There is no physical connection between the U.S. government’s unclassified and classified systems; you absolutely cannot email a document from the dark side to the light. Properly configured, classified systems should not allow for removable media, to lessen the chance for information transfer (one of the reasons Chelsea Manning was able to smuggle out so much classified was because his computer was not properly set up, and included a DVD burner. We still don’t know how Ed Snowden got his documents out.)
Given these restrictions, the way anyone can move information from one system to the other is what’s called “sneakernet,” after the athletic shoes. You print out a marked, classified document, and then retype the parts you like into the unclassified system. You of course do not add the marking — TOP SECRET — because that would be like robbing a bank and then sticking a sign on your chest saying “Attention Cops, I’m the Guy Who Just Robbed a Bank.” Including the classification markings would be admitting to a crime.
So that is why Clinton’s emails had no classification marking on them even though the contents of those emails contained information that was indeed classified at the time it was transmitted. That is why the emails are a big deal, no matter what smokescreen Hillary wants to throw up.
As secretary of state, Clinton had access to America’s most sensitive information, the same things on her server now with their classification restored.
If the Department of Justice allows it that no one goes to jail over this, then someone should go to jail over that.
While Secretary of State John Kerry (personal slogan: “Did you know I was still Secretary of State?”) bleats about reaching some sort of imaginary ceasefire with the Russians during negotiations in Munich (optics, John, optics: you don’t negotiate a peace thing in Munich), what is basically a small version of world war continues unabated in Syria.
Because the war, entering its sixth year, is so confusing, and the on-the-ground situation so complex, let’s look at it in simple digest form:
Russian warplanes are bombing away, primarily in support of Syrian president Assad against a plethora of militias including ISIS, but also against Turkish proxy forces likely trying to slice off some tasty Syrian border territory.
Iraqi and Lebanese militias aided by Iranian special forces are on the ground. An assortment of Syrian rebels backed by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are fighting to hold them back.
Various Kurdish forces working with Washington and/or Moscow are taking advantage of the chaos to extend Kurdish territories, in Syria, Iraq and odd bits of Turkey. The Islamic State has snatched land while all the focus was on the other groups, and still holds substantial territory in Syria and Iraq. The Saudis have threatened to invade Syria with ground troops, which the Iranians say they will respond to militarily.
Ahead of Kerry’s supposed ceasefire, the conflict is escalating. Turkey joined in over the weekend, firing artillery across its border at Kurdish positions, prompting appeals from the Obama administration to both Turks and Kurds to back down.
The U.S. is supporting both sides as part of its anti-ISIS clusterfutz campaign.
The current locus of the struggle is around the city of Aleppo, in Syria. As the Washington Post’s most excellent reporter Liz Sly describes it, “The Aleppo offensive is affirming Moscow’s stature as a dominant regional power across the heart of the Middle East. The advances by Shiite Iraqi and Lebanese militias are extending the sway of Iran far beyond the traditional Shiite axis of influence into Sunni areas of northern Syria. Although Syria’s army is claiming the victories, rebels, military experts and videos by the fighters themselves say almost all of the advances are being made by the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, the Iraqi Badr Brigade, Harakat al-Nujaba and other Iraqi Shiite militias that are sponsored by Iran.”
Back to those Russian airstrikes. With that help, Syrian government forces and Iran-backed militias are trying to besiege the rebel-held section of Aleppo to starve the rebels into submission. Using starvation as a weapon is a war crime, but it has been widely used in the Syrian war. Government-aligned forces have also severed the main supply route to Turkey that delivered food, weapons and aid to rebel-held areas, leaving one remaining route. The United Nations is warning that about 300,000 people in the rebel-held part of Aleppo could be at risk of starvation.
Got it? If you think you do, please drop the White House a line and explain it to them.
Oh, yes, and also civil war. Here’s a preview of what to expect in Iraq after ISIS is mostly run out of the country.
Set the scene: the country formerly known as Iraq was basically an steaming pile of ethnic/religious tension in 2003 when the U.S. invaded. It was divided among three broad groups we didn’t seem to know much about then, but damn well do now: Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. The Kurds, who always wanted to be independent, like from nearly the time of the dinosaurs always, saw their opportunity and broke away and are now essentially their own country. The Sunnis and Shia both wanted the same land and resources and freaking hate each other, and so have been fighting one another since 2003 when the post-U.S. invasion chaos unleashed them.
Among the many reasons the U.S. plans for Iraq failed was that it took the United States years to realize they were sitting squat in the middle of a civil war, hated by both sides as much as both sides hated them. The U.S. exit strategy, as it was, was a last gasp (The Surge) try to balance the power between Sunni and Shia and when that failed, run for the exit and allow Iran to push the Shias into power. The Sunnis took the bait from ISIS to be their protector from the Shias and zowie! it’s Mad Max in 2016.
A bit simplified, (duh) but that’s basically the outline.
When a couple of years ago the U.S. woke up and decided ISIS was the worst thingie ever, the U.S. also leaped into bed with Iran and the Shias to smite Islamic State. The reason was that the U.S.-paid for Iraqi National “Army” collapsed overnight and the Americans were desperate for someone to fight ISIS. The Shia were more than happy to help chase ISIS, and along the way, any other Sunnies they could find, out of Iraq.
So it is no surprise in any way that we learn since Shia militias recaptured most of (Sunni) Diyala from ISIS in 2015, they have dominated the province, with minimal oversight from the Iraqi state. As a result, the ultra-sectarian Shia groups have been free to attack Sunni civilians with impunity. The effect has been quite clear: Diyala has been depopulated of Sunnis.
Anywhere else in the world the U.S. would label this ethnic cleansing, and say it was a forerunner of genocide. It is, and likely will be, we just don’t want to call it that for PR purposes. You know, one person’s evil thugs are another’s freedom fighters.
And Diyala’s problems point to something bigger: While the militias are especially powerful in Diyala, they wield enormous influence throughout Iraq due to their role in the fight on ISIS. Their influence is doing serious harm to the prospects of Sunni-Shia reconciliation in Iraq — which is the only way to ensure ISIS’s long-term defeat and will happen only after pigs fly over a frozen Hell.
So in a way, if ISIS is not defeated in Iraq, that will be the good news in the long view. As Forrest Gump, who appears to be running American foreign policy at present, once said “Stupid is what stupid does.”
What job could be worse these days than having to be the foreign ministry official from some so-called American ally who has to listen to the latest American begging effort for them to join up with the “coalition” to defeat ISIS.
Those poor diplomatic bastards have been suffering through American pleas to join various failed coalitions for more than a decade, as evil bad guys intent on world domination come and go. Think back — the Taliban, al Qaeda, Saddam, Gaddafi and now ISIS. There’s almost a sort of pattern there.
So this week U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (above) offered a glimpse of his own apparent frustration at all this coalition fun last week when he referred to “our so-called coalition” and suggested the slackers need to step up and support the American Empire Project.
“We need everybody, and that’s all the Europeans, the Persian Gulf states, Turkey, which is right there on the border. So there are a lot that need to make more contributions,” he said. Carter appeared totally ignorant of why nobody wants to hop in and help fight America’s wars.
Carter left Tuesday for Brussels, where he will convene a meeting of defense chiefs from about two dozen countries, including most NATO members, Iraq and the Gulf states.
“What I’m going to do is sit down and say, here is the campaign plan. If you’re thinking World War II newsreel pictures, you think of an arrow going north to take Mosul and another arrow coming south to take Raqqa,” he said, as if the organized nation state ground combat of WWII had anything at all to do with the current multi-dimensional firestorm in the Middle East.
“And I’m going to say, ‘OK, guys. Let’s match up what is needed to win with what you have, and kind of give everybody the opportunity to make an assignment for themselves,'” Carter said. “The United States will lead this and we’re determined, but other people have to do their part because civilization has to fight for itself.”
Sure thing boss, will say the would-be coalition members before doing nothing of substance.
A few coalition countries have made promises of increased support in recent days. The Netherlands, also known as Sparta, which has been carrying out very, very limited airstrikes in Iraq, said it would expand its efforts to Syria. Saudi Arabia indicated last week it could send ground troops into Syria. Canada announced it will quit conducting airstrikes in Syria and Iraq but will expand its contributions to training Kurdish and other local forces and provide more humanitarian and developmental aid.
Over the course of a decade and a half of coalition warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials have frequently found themselves pleading and cajoling with the Europeans to contribute more, and they generally have responded with pledges to do just a little bit more. The pattern may be repeated in Brussels.
In medieval times, cities were walled. At night the gates were locked, the towers guarded, and thieves and brigands were kept outside. At least in theory, because walls could be scaled, or blown up, or tunnels dug, or guards bribed.
And so in what may turn out to be the ultimate 21st century Renaissance Faire, the Iraqi government, no doubt with the support of, if not the checkbook of, the United States, is building a wall around the city of Baghdad in hopes that that will stop ISIS where nothing else has.
An interior ministry’s spokesman explained that work began this week on a 65 mile stretch of a wall and trench on the northern and northwestern approaches of the capital. The wall will be 10 feet high and partially made up of concrete barriers already in use across much of the capital. The spokesman declined to specify the measurements of the trench, possibly out of embarrassment.
While a wall is about the dumbest idea yet in a nation plagued by dumb ideas, something is needed. On Wednesday alone, roadside bombings in various parts of the capital and a drive-by shooting killed eight people and wounded 28. Last month, according to UN figures, 490 civilians were killed and 1,157 were wounded in Iraq. Baghdad was the worst affected, with 299 civilians killed and 785 wounded.
Of course not all of those were killed by ISIS, and many of the killers, ISIS and not, are already living inside the city and thus will not be affected by the new wall, but meh.
The thing is that since 2003 Baghdad has always been a city of walls. As one facet of its failed strategy to prevent sectarian violence in the city, the U.S. erected a labyrinth of blast walls, eventually walling off entire neighborhoods and nearly every government office, bank, police station, school, hospital, market, gas station, and university campus. The boundaries of the Green Zone itself are defined in places by blast walls.
The fact that all of those walls having failed to stop ISIS does not appear to have been factored into the Iraqi government’s plans.
Youngblood, a new novel by Matt Gallagher set in the late stages of the Iraq War, is a powerful fiction debut from an author already known for his nonfiction portrayal of that conflict in Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. Youngblood is a gritty, tragic, realistic look inside the failures of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq told by someone who lived it as a young infantry lieutenant.
Youngblood presents three different themes intermingled. They work symbiotically with one another to create an image of what happened in the underbelly of a war poorly reported on by the American media.
The first theme tells the story of American Army Lieutenant Jack Porter, and his complex battlefield relationship with his platoon sergeant, Dan Chambers, and the host of Iraqis they encounter. In seeking a literary vehicle to his tale, Gallagher bypassed the traditional Saving Private Ryan-like choices in favor of a murder mystery of sorts. Actually multiple murders, killings and assassinations, whose connections unfold slowly as different characters divulge and withhold information, almost Rashomon-like. Lieutenant Porter is often times faced with choices of who to believe, and often gets it wrong, often with tragic consequences. Along the way the reader is introduced to the cast of the Iraq War: slimy sheiks, nasty terrorists, game-playing interpreters, innocent victims, not-so-innocent victims, and American soldiers stuck inside a world they cannot possibly understand.
Having spent a year in Iraq embedded with the U.S. Army has part of my State Department job, these portrayals ring true. Nearly on a one-to-one basis, I could match up a real person I interacted with for every one of Gallagher’s “fictional” characters.
Those soldiers’ stories and the events of their “workdays” are the second theme of Youngblood. For those who want to look behind the one-dimensional portrayals on TV, here is life on the ground for a counterinsurgency army. As the best novels do, Gallagher’s story drags you deep into a new and unfamiliar world, showing you the food the troops ate, the conditions under which they lived, the lies and boasts they told each other, and the motivations noble, and mundane, that sent them into service. If you enjoyed Kaboom, a minor criticism of Youngblood may be that you’ve read some of this before. That, however, does not take away from the realism; Gallagher really makes you smell the streets of war-torn Baghdad, and you can feel the grit of its back alleys in your own mouth as you turn the pages.
The final theme in Youngblood is the most subtle, and the most interesting. Through his broader story, that murder mystery and its eventual resolution, Gallagher deftly offers an allegorical view of the whole war. His soldiers try and do the right things in nearly every instance, but both their disparate personal motivations and the fact that right and wrong in war are never anything but gray in search of black and white, often means the best intentions turn to mud (Gallagher’s characters might use a stronger term.) When that happens in war, people die, sometimes the wrong people. The Iraqis, beaten down by years of occupation, play along with the Americans, but with the knowledge that in the end the soldiers will leave them with the mess to attend to.
In the end the message is clear for both sides: there was no way to win in Iraq, only to survive. Youngblood tells that tale, and tells it well.
There are two ways to look at the video below, and they are both right. It shows the remains of a soldier and his K-9 coming home for the last time from Afghanistan. The circumstances of their deaths are unknown.
If you can get through the video with dry eyes, you may not be human, or may not at least deserve the title. Someone replaced your heart with dry meat. Despite the sappy music, the expression of utter emotion packed into a mundane activity — unloading “cargo” from an airplane — is raw and undeniable and good. Each set of remains is brought from overseas into Dover, Delaware, where the U.S. military operates its largest mortuary and receiving facility. Each container is flag-draped and accompanied by military members, so the soldier is never alone on the long trip off the battlefield.
At Dover, s/he is cleaned up if possible for an open casket viewing by the family, and the body dressed in uniform with all decorations displayed. At that point, commercial air transport brings the deceased back to his or her home, in this case, Atlanta. Each serviceperson is escorted on the last flight by uniformed military personnel. The process is designed to show respect, and it does. It is only fitting and appropriate that it does so.
Delta Airlines’ staff at Atlanta have taken things further, organizing their own an honor guard, to add that much more to a final step.
No. no, the other way has nothing to do with not having this ceremony, or not honoring those who lost their lives.
This “other way” of looking at all this is to stop turning healthy young men and women into “remains” for causes of unclear purposes. After coming into office promising to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as begun with the darkest of hearts by his predecessor George W. Bush, President Barack Obama will leave eight years later having accomplished neither task. After overseeing an “end” to what some now call Iraq War 2.0 in 2011, Obama reinserted American forces back into that country in 2014 for Iraq War 3.0. There is no end in sight.
Now, in Afghanistan, conditions are such that top U.S. military commanders, who only a few months ago were planning to pull the last American troops out of Afghanistan by year’s end, are now discussing a commitment that could keep thousands of troops in the country for decades, an “enduring presence.”
Bring them home, Mr. President. Alive.
So, yep, thanks for asking, this war is going well.
Especially now, as we learn some Sunnis are far more afraid of Iraqi government-supported Shiite militias than they are of anyone from Islamic State. This will not end well, especially since the United States still hopes to get those same Sunnis to turn on ISIS and support the same goals as the Shiite Iraqi government.
Fear of those Shiite Muslim militias is driving many locals in Diyala Province, where the population is mixed, to change their names to more neutral formulations.
The reason is simple survival. “Just over the past two months our department has received between 150 and 200 applications for a name change,” said an official working for Diyala’s Directorate of Nationality. “Most of the applications are being submitted by people whose names reveal their sect or the areas from where their family or tribe comes.”
In the Middle East, a name can tell a lot about its bearer. A surname may indicate which tribe one comes from originally, and thereby which part of the country. A first name or father’s name can indicate which sect one belongs to, especially if one is given a name specific to either Shiite or Sunni Muslims.
In Diyala, a province with a population where Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and a variety of ethnicities are thrown together, locals say that they fear being targeted for their Sunni religious background, even though they may not actually be very religious. They specifically fear the Shiite Muslim militias, supported by the United States, Iran, and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, who are ostensibly fighting Islamic State. The militias are also engaged in some serious ethnic cleansing directed against the Sunni population.
Iraq’s Shiite-controlled Ministry of the Interior issued an order two months ago to put a stop to the Sunni name changes, stating that only those who have the name “Saddam” would be allowed to change their names. However, the responsible (Sunni-controlled) department in Diyala has resumed its work in defiance of Baghdad.
…that works out to about 28 dead every day.
It is also an estimate, given that many areas of the country are not readily accessible, and because the death toll from the siege of Ramadi is not accounted for in the figures. More than 3.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced and/or homeless.
Iraq is now an ungoverned, failed state, a killing field on the scale of genocide.
At least 18,802 civilians were killed and 36,245 wounded in Iraq over the last 22 months, according to the UN’s Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Armed Conflict in Iraq. Another 3,206,736 Iraqis are internally displaced, including more than one million children. The study emphasizes that these are conservative estimates. The UN also is careful to note that the number of civilians killed by secondary effects of the violence, such as lack of access to food, water or medical care, is unknown. In many areas of Iraq schools are closed and basic infrastructure is not functioning.
All that is in addition to the more than one million people already killed during the American occupation period.
These horrors are directly caused by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation. In addition to unleashing near-total chaos in the nation, the U.S. invasion led directly to the rise of Islamic State, which found the consuming violence fertile soil for growth. ISIS went on to see a new role to emerge, protector of the Sunni population, which was being slaughtered and impoverished by the Shiite majority empowered by the Americans and Iran.
“Armed violence continues to take an obscene toll on Iraqi civilians and their communities,” remarked the UN high commissioner for human rights. “The so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ continues to commit systematic and widespread violence and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian law. These acts may, in some instances, amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.”
ISIS is targeting non-Sunni ethnic and religious communities, “systematically persecuting” them, subjecting them to violent repression and crimes, the UN notes. Women and children are particularly affected by these atrocities. Women face extreme sexual violence and even sexual slavery. Children are being forcibly recruited as fighters.
In addition to ISIS violence, the UN notes that civilians have been killed and kidnapped, and that civilian infrastructure has been destroyed by pro-government forces, militias and tribal fighters. Moreover, civilians are being killed by U.S. airstrikes.
Adding to the depth of horror in Iraq, many Iraqi refugees have sought asylum in the West, but have been largely unwelcome. In a time of heightened Islamophobia, some European countries and many right-wing American politicians — including more than half of the U.S. governors — have made it clear they do not want to accept Muslim refugees.
How can we stop the Islamic State?
Imagine yourself shaken awake, rushed off to a strategy meeting with your presidential candidate of choice, and told: “Come up with a plan for me to do something about ISIS!” What would you say?
What Hasn’t Worked
You’d need to start with a persuasive review of what hasn’t worked over the past 14-plus years. American actions against terrorism — the Islamic State being just the latest flavor — have flopped on a remarkable scale, yet remain remarkably attractive to our present crew of candidates. (Bernie Sanders might be the only exception, though he supports forming yet another coalition to defeat ISIS.)
Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.
Since the June 2014 start of Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run. Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.” The CIA estimates that the Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 begins.
How about the capture of cities then? Well, the U.S. and its partners have already gone a few rounds when it comes to taking cities. After all, U.S. troops claimed Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, in 2003, only to see the American-trained Iraqi army lose it to ISIS in May 2015, and U.S-trained Iraqi special operations troops backed by U.S. air power retake it (in almost completely destroyed condition) as 2015 ended. As one pundit put it, the destruction and the cost of rebuilding make Ramadi “a victory in the worst possible sense.” Yet the battle cry in Washington and Baghdad remains “On to Mosul!”
Similar “successes” have regularly been invoked when it came to ridding the world of evil tyrants, whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, only to see years of blowback follow. Same for terrorist masterminds, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as minor-minds (Jihadi John in Syria), only to see others pop up and terror outfits spread. The sum of all this activity, 14-plus years of it, has been ever more failed states and ungoverned spaces.
If your candidate needs a what-hasn’t-worked summary statement, it’s simple: everything.
How Dangerous Is Islamic Terrorism for Americans?
To any argument you make to your preferred presidential candidate about what did not “work,” you need to add a sober assessment of the real impact of terrorism on the United States in order to ask the question: Why exactly are we engaged in this war on this scale?
Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11. Argue about the number if you want. In fact, double or triple it and it still adds up to a tragic but undeniable drop in the bucket. To gain some perspective, pick your favorite comparison: number of Americans killed since 9/11 by guns (more than 400,000) or by drunk drivers in 2012 alone (more than 10,000).
And spare us the tired trope about how security measures at our airports and elsewhere have saved us from who knows how many attacks. A recent test by the Department of Homeland’s own Inspector General’s Office showed that 95% of contraband, including weapons and explosives, got through airport screening without being detected. Could it be that there just aren’t as many bad guys out there aiming to take down our country as candidates on the campaign trail would like to imagine?
Or take a look at the National Security Agency’s Fourth Amendment-smothering blanket surveillance. How’d that do against the Boston bombing or the attacks in San Bernardino? There’s no evidence it has ever uncovered a real terror plot against this country.
Islamic terrorism in the United States is less a serious danger than a carefully curated fear.
Introduce Your Candidate to the Real World
You should have your candidate’s attention by now. Time to remind him or her that Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.
So start advising your candidate that a proper response to the Islamic State has to be proportional to the real threat. After all, we have fire departments always on call, but they don’t ride around spraying water on homes 24/7 out of “an abundance of caution.”
We Have to Do Something
So here’s what you might suggest that your candidate do, because you know that s/he will demand to “do something.”
Start by suggesting that, as a society, we take a deep look at ourselves, our leaders, and our media, and stop fanning everyone’s flames. It’s time, among other things, to stop harassing and discriminating against our own Muslim population, only to stand by slack-jawed as a few of them become radicalized, and Washington then blames Twitter. As president, you need to opt out of all this, and dissuade others from buying into it.
As for the Islamic State itself, it can’t survive, never mind fight, without funds. So candidate, it’s time to man/woman up, and go after the real sources of funding.
As long as the U.S. insists on flying air attack sorties (and your candidate may unfortunately need to do so to cover his/her right flank), direct them far more intensely than at present against one of ISIS’s main sources of cash: oil exports. Blow up trucks moving oil. Blow up wellheads in ISIS-dominated areas. Finding targets is not hard. The Russians released reconnaissance photos showing what they claimed were 12,000 trucks loaded with smuggled oil, backed up near the Turkish border.
But remind your candidate that this would not be an expansion of the air war or a shifting from one bombing campaign to a new one. It would be a short-term move, with a defined end point of shutting down the flow of oil. It would only be one part of a far larger effort to shut down ISIS’s sources of funds.
Next, use whatever diplomatic and economic pressure is available to make it clear to whomever in Turkey that it’s time to stop facilitating the flow of that ISIS oil onto the black market. Then wield that same diplomatic and economic pressure to force buyers to stop purchasing it. Some reports suggest that Israel, cut off from most Arab sources of oil, has become a major buyer of ISIS’s supplies. If so, step on some allied toes. C’mon, someone is buying all that black-market black gold.
The same should go for Turkey’s behavior toward ISIS. That would extend from its determination to fight Kurdish forces fighting ISIS to the way it’s allowed jihadis to enter Syria through its territory to the way it’s funneled arms to various extreme Islamic groups in that country. Engage Turkey’s fellow NATO members. Let them do some of the heavy lifting. They have a dog in this fight, too.
And speaking of stepping on allied toes, make it clear to the Saudis and other Sunni Persian Gulf states that they must stop sending money to ISIS. Yes, we’re told that this flow of “donations” comes from private citizens, not the Saudi government or those of its neighbors. Even so, they should be capable of exerting pressure to close the valve. Forget a “no-fly zone” over northern Syria — another fruitless “solution” to the problem of the Islamic State that various presidential candidates are now plugging — and use the international banking system to create a no-flow zone.
You may not be able to stop every buck from reaching ISIS, but most of it will do in a situation where every dollar counts.
Your candidate will obviously then ask you, “What else? There must be more we can do, mustn’t there?”
To this, your answer should be blunt: Get out. Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.
In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.
This is history talking to us.
That Darn History Thing
Sometimes things change visibly at a specific moment: December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, or the morning of September 11, 2001. Sometimes the change is harder to pinpoint, like the start of the social upheaval that, in the U.S., came to be known as “the Sixties.”
In the Middle East after World War I, representatives of the victorious British and French drew up national boundaries without regard for ethnic, sectarian, religious, tribal, resource, or other realities. Their goal was to divvy up the defeated Ottoman Empire. Later, as their imperial systems collapsed, Washington moved in (though rejecting outright colonies for empire by proxy). Secular dictatorships were imposed on the region and supported by the West past their due dates. Any urge toward popular self-government was undermined or destroyed, as with the coup against elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, or the way the Obama administration manipulated the Arab Spring in Egypt, leading to the displacement of a democratically chosen government by a military coup in 2013.
In this larger context, the Islamic State is only a symptom, not the disease. Washington’s problem has been its desire to preserve a collapsing nation-state system at the heart of the Middle East. The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq certainly sped up the process in a particularly disastrous fashion. Twelve years later, there can’t be any question that the tide has turned in the Middle East — forever.
It’s time for the U.S. to stand back and let local actors deal with the present situation. ISIS’s threat to us is actually minimal. Its threat to those in the region is another matter entirely. Without Washington further roiling the situation, it’s a movement whose limits will quickly enough become apparent.
The war with ISIS is, in fact, a struggle of ideas, anti-western and anti-imperialist, suffused with religious feeling. You can’t bomb an idea or a religion away. Whatever Washington may want, much of the Middle East is heading toward non-secular governments, and toward the destruction of the monarchies and the military thugs still trying to preserve updated versions of the post-World War I system. In the process, borders, already dissolving, will sooner or later be redrawn in ways that reflect how people on the ground actually see themselves.
There is little use in questioning whether this is the right or wrong thing because there is little Washington can do to stop it. However, as we should have learned in these last 14 years, there is much it can do to make things far worse than they ever needed to be. The grim question today is simply how long this painful process takes and how high a cost it extracts. To take former President George W. Bush’s phrase and twist it a bit, you’re either with the flow of history or against it.
Initially, Washington’s military withdrawal from the heart of the Middle East will undoubtedly further upset the current precarious balances of power in the region. New vacuums will develop and unsavory characters will rush in. But the U.S. has a long history of either working pragmatically with less than charming figures (think: the Shah of Iran, Anwar Sadat, or Saddam Hussein before he became an enemy) or isolating them. Iran, currently the up-and-coming power in the area absent the United States, will no doubt benefit, but its reentry into the global system is equally inevitable.
And the oil will keep flowing; it has to. The countries of the Middle East have only one mighty export and need to import nearly everything else. You can’t eat oil, so you must sell it, and a large percentage of that oil is already sold to the highest bidder on world markets.
It’s true that, even in the wake of an American withdrawal, the Islamic State might still try to launch Paris-style attacks or encourage San Bernardino-style rampages because, from a recruitment and propaganda point of view, it’s advantageous to have the U.S. and the former colonial powers as your number one enemies. This was something Osama bin Laden realized early on vis-à-vis Washington. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in drawing the U.S. deeply into the quagmire and tricking Washington into doing much of his work for him. But the dangers of such attacks remain limited and can be lived with. As a nation, we survived World War II, decades of potential nuclear annihilation, and scores of threats larger than ISIS. It’s disingenuous to believe terrorism is a greater threat to our survival.
And here’s a simple reality to explain to your candidate: we can’t defend everything, not without losing everything in the process. We can try to lock down airports and federal buildings, but there is no way, nor should there be, to secure every San Bernardino holiday party, every school, and every bus stop. We should, in fact, be ashamed to be such a fear-based society here in the home of the brave. Today, sadly enough, the most salient example of American exceptionalism is being the world’s most scared country. Only in that sense could it be said that the terrorists are “winning” in America.
At this point, your candidate will undoubtedly say: “Wait! Won’t these ideas be hard to sell to the American people? Won’t our allies object?”
And the reply to that, at least for a candidate not convinced that more of the same is the only way to go, might be: “After more than 14 years of the wrong answers and the disasters that followed, do you have anything better to suggest?”
In an Op-Ed printed in the Washington Post, former General David Petraeus says it is time to “unleash our airpower in support of our Afghan partners in the same way that we support our Iraqi and Syrian partners against extremists.”
Petraeus went on to claim:
At present, U.S. and NATO airpower in Afghanistan is used only to attack validated al-Qaeda targets, to counter specific individuals or groups who have attacked coalition forces previously and to respond directly to attacks on coalition forces. According to leaders on the ground, U.S. and NATO forces are otherwise not allowed to attack Taliban targets. The situation appears to be in flux in regard to Islamic State elements, but through 2015, they too could be targeted only under narrow circumstances.
The former general, who lead the failed Surge in Iraq, and former head of the CIA, who was thrown out of the job after his extra-marital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, and after his being convicted of exposing classified information, went on to say:
We have the tools in place to step up our game considerably. When combined with a motivated and competent ground force, airpower can be quite effective. This was witnessed in 2001, when U.S. airpower and special operatives worked with the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban from power.
So at this point one must ask the key question: has Petraeus had a stroke or is he on Acid, because otherwise his statements ignore reality, perhaps the laws of time and space themselves.
To begin, Petraeus’ statement that airpower in 2001 “ousted the Taliban,” a statement made without apparent irony, would be hilarious if it was not utterly tragic. Petraeus seems to have missed a few meetings, at which he would have learned that since those victories in 2001 the Taliban has been doing just fine, thanks. The U.S. has remained inside the Afghan quagmire for more than 14 more years, and currently has no end game planned for the war. Air power, with or without “a motivated and competent ground force” (as if such a thing can ever exist in Afghanistan, we’ve been training and equipping there for 14 years), never is enough. There are examples to draw from going back into WWI.
It is also unclear on what information Petraeus is basing his statements that the U.S. is broadly “not allowed to attack Taliban targets.” Petraeus only refers to “leaders on the ground” as his source. We’d sure like to hear more about that.
And, David, how the hell did ISIS come into existence anyway, and how did they get into Afghanistan? U.S. have anything to do with that?
I get it. I get why the failed options are still so attractive. Bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground. A handful of Special Forces troops, American boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will turn the tide. Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” to abet the task at hand. It all sounds good, even though it is not.
Petraeus failed in Iraq (that war is still going on and on) and he failed at CIA. Oh, and yes, in 2010 Petraeus served as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, a period in which insurgent attacks on coalition forces spiked to record levels, and violence metastasized to previously stable areas.
So the most important question of all is why anyone is still listening to David Petraeus?
I joined host Joshua Holland on Politics and Reality Radio to talk about Islamic State, the refugee crisis in Syria and concerns about the gap between on-the-ground reality in Iraq and what might be being reported up the chain by military intelligence analysts intent on cooking the books to suggest we are winning.
My portion of the show starts at 7:05 in.
Also featured are Ed Kilgore from The Washington Monthly on U.S. politics and the 2016 campaign, and The New Republic‘s Rebecca Leber talking about the horrific shootings broadcast live out of Virginia this week.
Check out the interview online.
The execution of Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and 46 convicted al-Qaeda members by the Saudis triggered a still-unfolding crisis between the Kingdom and Iran. Protesters in Tehran set fire to the Saudi embassy, and the Iranian government threatened that the Saudis will face “divine” revenge.
Riyadh responded by severing diplomatic relations and ordering Iran’s ambassador to depart the Kingdom, followed by the cutting off of all commercial ties with Iran. Saudi allies Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates made formal diplomatic protests to Iran. Additional acts of retaliation in a region that embraces the concept will no doubt follow, likely inside the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen or Syria. There will be blood.
But why execute al-Nimr now?
The cleric has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family for some years. In 2009 he went as far as threatening Shi’ite secession, provoking a government crackdown in the minority’s eastern heartland. The Saudis have had al-Nimr in custody since 2012, and he was sentenced to death in 2014.
While there are external factors, particularly the broader Saudi-Iranian struggle for power in the Persian Gulf, those are secondary. The execution of al-Nimr was a signal sent by the new King to his supporters and adversaries at home.
The crucial point in understanding any part of Saudi politics is that the Kingdom has not had its Islamic revolution, a transition from a largely secular rule to a theocratic one, as in Iran in 1979 and as is fumbling forward in other nearby locations, such as Syria. Saudi has also not seen the unpredictable upheaval of an Arab Spring. It instead has been ruled by the al-Saud family for decades. The family’s rule has been made possible in part by fundamentalist Sunni Wahhabi clerics, who provide religious legitimacy to the al-Saud family. Alongside all this were a series of strong, patriarchal Saudi kings to keep control of the military and security forces.
Times have changed.
Shi’ite Islam is on the move regionally, perhaps most significantly in Iraq. Following the American invasion of 2003, Iraq changed from a secular regime under Saddam that waged open war against Shi’ite Iran, to the largely Shi’ite regime now in power in Baghdad that openly welcomes Iranian special forces. Saudi Arabia’s steadiest partner, the United States, has become prone to erratic acts, naively bumbling into Iraq in 2003, demanding regime changes here and there, and unofficially partnering with the Iranians to defeat Islamic State.
The U.S. is also far more energy independent than a decade ago and is slowly moving toward some form of new diplomatic relationship with Iran. Oil prices have also been falling. Many disgruntled Saudi Sunnis support Islamic State, an organization that has sworn to take down the al-Saud monarchy. These are all potentially destabilizing factors for the Saudis.
But perhaps most significantly, the al-Saud family’s rule is facing succession issues in the form of the deceased King Salman’s newly empowered 30-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman. It is the first time since the country’s modern founder, King Abdulaziz, died in 1953 that power has been concentrated in the hands of just one branch of the family. This was done by the deceased King’s decision to bypass one of his brothers, the traditional successor, in favor of a nephew, who has set up his son as successor. There have been thus not surprisingly rumors of opposition to the son, even of a coup.
It was also the son, who, as defense minister, oversaw the decision to go to war in Yemen, launching his country into an open-ended struggle he may sometime face the need to defend.
The execution of al-Nimr send multiple signals. The most significant is a get-tough message to all inside the Kingdom, coupled with an assurance to the Iranians that Salman is firmly in charge and able to further prosecute the war in Yemen. The execution appeases the Wahhabists, and gives the government a chance to crackdown on Shi’ite dissent.
Al-Nimr’s crime was described using terms normally reserved for jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, to include plotting to overthrow the Saudi government. In a region that pays particular attention to symbolism, executing al-Nimr as a terrorist, alongside 46 al-Qaeda members, is a crystalline example of how the Saudi authorities view a man seen by many Shi’ites inside the Kingdom as a freedom fighter of sorts, and as a religious figure in greater the Shi’ite world.
And in case anyone still did not get the message, the Saudi government did not give al-Nimr’s body to his family, saying that they already buried all of the corpses.
The burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran plays right into this, though was unlikely to have been anticipated. But what better way to wag the dog for the war in Yemen and perhaps beyond then another example of the “out of control” Iranians, and the threat Shi’ites pose. It doesn’t hurt Saudi relations vis-a-vis the United States to see an embassy burn once again in the heart of Tehran, or for local Saudis angered by a 40 percent rise in gas prices to have an external enemy to distract them.
Events set in motion are difficult to control, and things may yet spin out of Salman’s control, and the ploy backfire; for example, al-Nimr is now a martyr with an international profile.
But for the time being, it appears Salman has moved ahead a few spaces in a real-life Game of Thrones.
One of the unique things surrounding America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the extraordinary number of books written by servicemen and women.
Unlike in previous wars, the best telling of the soldiers’ stories has come from the soldiers themselves, and not from traditional journalists. Many of these books add to our understanding of people at war, while a few are just macho battle stories.
Some seek to reach into a war’s soul.
Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire is one from the latter category. Randy Brown, who blogs as “Charlie Sherpa,” is a 20-year Army veteran and the author. FOB Haiku (a FOB is a Forward Operating Base in mil-speak), via a series of short poems, takes the reader from boot camp through Afghanistan, to homecoming.
While Brown’s book-length work is the only one available now that demands we understand the Afghan War through poetry, the use of verse to express things often otherwise unsayable about war has a long history. From Homer’s Iliad through Walt Whitman’s plaintive descriptions of the American Civil War, the collision of something beautiful with something terrible has been an important part of war literature.
Brown’s writing is a worthy addition. For example, saying grace over a prepackaged meal (MRE), Brown is funny, but with an edge:
Forgive us our trespasses, for we have trespassed a lot today — kinda goes with the territory, and the job. And deliver us from evil, particularly that which we have done unto others. See also: “trespasses,” above.
Warning a new trooper too anxious to get into the fight:
War is often more boring than not. Then, it is scalding. Do not covet action.
Brown wistfully recalls his days as a National Guardsman, when training was laughed off as “summer camp.” Headed to Afghanistan post-military retirement as a reporter, Brown has to buy his own body armor online, noting it is part of a land of no refunds and no returns, as true for Afghanistan as it is for Internet commerce. He remembers his grandfather’s musket over the fireplace mantle as a proud symbol, and wonders if he could do the same with that armor. Should he make it home, of course.
A Vietnamese cab driver enroute to the airport asks too many questions about Afghanistan, leaving a hole in Brown, the irony — a Vietnamese asking about another American war — noted. In that same airport, Brown observes well-traveled suits confuse boots with heroes and buy us sandwiches, knowing they do not understand the shallowness of such a gesture, Brown bitter and generous in forgiving at the same time.
Speaking of other wars, or perhaps of all wars, Brown reaches for more epic tones:
Let all diffuse, dissolve and disappear in time. Because we are not dust, but water – moving in spaces between nations. We are not ashes, but waves.
But the strongest writing here is in the final section, Homecoming. Brown remembers the blessed smell of earth at his farm, experiences shock at the fried-food excesses of a county fair, and expresses a soldier’s sense of wonder reuniting with his family. He is frustrated with the difficulty of re-establishing relationships with his children, begging a too-young daughter to cling to a turn looking at the night sky with him, finally saying to her:
Wars and presidents will come and go. So, too, will parents and children and other first loves. All will be eclipsed in memory, leaving you. Remember this.
We are the stories we tell ourselves, Brown writes near the end of Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. These poems are the stories he brought home to tell us.