(Today we feature, with permission, a guest post by Daniel N. White. The post originally appeared on Contrary Perspective. All opinions are the author’s.)
James Fallows, a noted journalist and author of National Defense (1981), is tits on a boar useless these days.
That’s my conclusion after reading his Atlantic Monthly cover story, The Tragedy of the American Military, in which he asks, “Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?” It is a truly terrible article that, regrettably, is mainstream U.S. journalism’s best effort by one of their better talents to answer a vitally important question.
Right off the bat, I’m going to have to say that the U.S. Army doesn’t produce “the world’s best soldiers” — and it never has. We Americans don’t do infantry as well as others do. This is reasonably well known. Anyone who wants to dispute the point has to dispute not me but General George Patton, who in 1944 said: “According to Napoleon, the weaker the infantry the stronger the artillery must be. Thank God we’ve got the world’s best artillery.” Operational analysis of us by the German Wehrmacht and the PLA (China) said the same thing. We should know that about ourselves by now and we don’t, and the fact that we don’t, particularly after a chain of military defeats by lesser powers, says a good deal bad about us as a people and society. The Atlantic and James Fallows are both professionally derelict to continue printing these canards about our infantry prowess. “The world’s best” — there is no excuse for such hyperbolic boasting.
Why the U.S. keeps losing its wars, and why James Fallows has no clue as to why, is revealing of the American moment. It’s painfully obvious the U.S. has lost its most recent wars because it has lacked coherent and achievable objectives for them. (Or no objectives that our ruling elites were willing to share with us.)
Just what, exactly, was the end result supposed to be from invading Iraq in 2003? If the Taliban were willing as they stated to hand over Osama Bin Laden to us, why did we invade Afghanistan? Why did we then start a new war in Afghanistan once we overthrew the Taliban?
Of course, this isn’t the first time in recent history that the U.S. has fought wars with no coherent rationale. Vietnam had the same problem. The Pentagon Papers showed that insofar as we had a rationale it was to continue the war for sufficiently long enough to show the rest of the world we weren’t to be trifled with, even if we didn’t actually win it. Dick Nixon was quite upfront in private about this too; that’s documented in the Nixon tapes.
Not having clear and achievable political objectives in a war or major military campaign is a guarantee of military failure. Here’s what arguably the best Allied general in WWII had to say about this, William Slim, from his superlative memoirs, Defeat into Victory, writing of the Allied defeat in Burma, 1942:
Of these causes [of the defeat], one affected all our efforts and contributed much to turning our defeat into disaster — the failure, after the fall of Rangoon, to give the forces in the field a clear strategic object for the campaign… Yet a realistic assessment of possibilities there and a firm, clear directive would have made a great deal of difference to us and to the way we fought. Burma was not the first, nor was it to be the last, campaign that had been launched on no very clear realization of its political or military objects. A study of such campaigns points emphatically to the almost inevitable disaster that must follow. Commanders in the field, in fairness to them and their troops, must be clear and definitely told what is the object they are locally to attain.
Anyone who wishes to dispute the lack of clear and achievable objectives for America’s wars should try to answer the question of what a U.S. victory in Iraq or Afghanistan would look like. What would be different in the two countries from a U.S. victory? How would the application of force by the U.S. military have yielded these desired results, whatever they were?
I invite anyone to answer these questions. They should have been asked, and answered, a long time ago. All the parties concerned — the political class, the intelligentsia, the moral leadership, and the military’s senior officer corps — in America have failed, stupendously, by not doing so.
Indeed, the lack of coherent objectives for these wars stems from the fraudulence of our pretenses for starting them. Even senior U.S. and UK leaders have acknowledged the stage-management of falsehoods about weapons of mass destruction for a rationale for war with Iraq. When wars are started on falsehoods, it isn’t reasonable to expect them to have honest (or moral) objectives.
The question then arises: What were the real objectives of these wars? Economic determinists/Marxists look to oil as the underlying reason, but this can’t be it. None of the economic determinist explanations for the Vietnam War made a lick of sense then or now, and any arguments about war for oil make an assumption, admittedly a remotely possible one, about the ruling elites in the U.S. and UK not being able to read a financial balance sheet. The most cursory run of the financials under the best possible assumptions of the promoters of the wars showed Iraq as a giant money loser, world’s third largest oil reserves or not. Economic reasons for a war in Afghanistan? Nobody could ever be that dumb, not even broadcast journalists.
Judging from the results, the real intent of our political leadership was to create a state of permanent war, for narrow, behind the scenes, domestic political reasons. The wars were/are stage-managed domestic political theater for current political ruling elites. The main domestic objective sought was a Cold-War like freezing of political power and authority in current form by both locking up large areas of political debate as off-limits and increasing the current distribution of societal resources toward economic elites. This was the real objective of both sides in the Cold War, Americans and Russians both, once things settled out after 1953, and most historians just lack the ability and perspective to see it.
A related factor Americans aren’t supposed to discuss is how much of the drive to war was neo-con war promotion manipulated by Israel. There’s no getting around the high percentage of Jewish neo-cons inside the Beltway. There’s a seven decade-long history of American country-cousin Jews being manipulated by their Israeli city-slicker relations, too, but I’d call this a contributing factor and not a causative one. But the willingness of American neo-cons to do Israel’s bidding and launch a war against Iraq is most disturbing and does require more research. (They all seem to be willing to do it again in Iran – was there ever a neo-con ever against an Iran war ever? Just look at the current situation vis-à-vis Iran, and the direct intervention by the Israeli Prime Minister into American foreign policy.)
There is one other possibility: that America’s leaders actually believed their own PR about spreading democracy. That’s been known to happen, but under present circumstances, their coming to believe their own PR knowing it was false from the git-go would be something truly unique and horrifying. But not impossible, I’m afraid.
Cui Bono? (To whose benefit) is always the question we need to ask and with 13 years of war the beneficiaries should be obvious enough. Just follow the money, and follow those whose powers get increased. James Fallows, and everyone else in the mainstream news media, hasn’t.
But the most pressing issue isn’t any of the above. The most pressing issue is moral, and most importantly of all our society’s unwillingness to face the hard moral questions of war.
Above all else, war is a moral issue; undoubtedly the most profound one a society has to face. Wars are the acme of moral obscenity. Terrible moral bills inevitably accrue from the vile actions that warfare entails. It has always been so. As long as there has been civilization there has always been great debate as to what political or social wrongs warrant the commission of the crimes and horrors of war. About the only definitively conceded moral rationale for war is self-defense against external attack. Domestic political theater is nothing new as a reason for war, but it has been universally condemned as grotesquely immoral throughout recorded history.
Our country is ostrich-like in its refusal to acknowledge the moral obscenity of war and its moral costs. Insofar as your average American is willing to engage with these moral issues, it is at the level of “I support our troops” to each other, combined with the “Thank you for your service” to anyone in uniform. Moral engagement on the biggest moral issue there is, war, with these tiresome tropes is profoundly infantile. It isn’t moral engagement; it is a (partially subconscious) willful evasion.
The Hollywood sugarcoated picture of what war is hasn’t helped here; blindness due to American Exceptionalism hasn’t helped either. Our intellectual and moral leadership—churches in particular—have been entirely AWOL on the moral failings of our wars and the moral debts and bills from them we have accrued and continue to accrue. And these bills will come due some day, with terrible interest accrued. Anyone paying attention to how the rest of the world thinks knows that we currently incur the world’s contumely for our failings here on this issue.
Mr. Fallows and the Atlantic are both equally blind and AWOL on the moral issues of our wars. The moral issues, and failings, of the wars are paramount and are completely undiscussed in the article, and the magazine, and always have been since before the wars began. Mr. Fallows, and the Atlantic, by framing the war issue in terms of “why the best (sic) soldiers in the world keep losing our wars” are avoiding them in a somewhat more sophisticated way than the “Thank you for your service” simpletons are. They should know better and they don’t, and they lack the situational- and self-awareness to understand that they are doing this. They deserve our contempt for it. They certainly have mine.
The issue isn’t why the world’s best (sic) soldiers keep losing our wars. The issue is why we started and fought wars this stupid and wrong and show every sign of continuing to do so in the future. Why do we learn nothing from our military defeats? How can we remain so willfully and morally blind? Well, types like James Fallows and The Atlantic Monthly are a large part of why.
Missing the biggest political and moral question in our lifetimes, for this many years, well, hell, The Atlantic Monthly and James Fallows are just tits on a boar useless these days.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
I am excited that the University of North Carolina, Asheville, will host me for an afternoon of speaking, reading and book signing, in connection with my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. I’ll also be discussing the current mess in Iraq, as well the whistleblowing and the ideas of patriotism and courage in a post-9/11 world.
The event is free, at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, April 14, in UNC Asheville’s Humanities Lecture Hall. There will be a Q&A session. Everyone is welcome.
Things are sponsored by UNC Asheville’s Department of Political Science and the Belk Distinguished Professor. For more information, contact Mona Moore at 828.251.6634.
Please come join me!
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Estimates are that 20,000-30,000 foreigners, many from the west, have joined IS. The numbers are likely wrong, could be double, might be half.
A number of politicians and security analysts believe one of the greatest threats facing the United States is from so-called “lone wolf” attacks. These would be perpetrated by western foreigners returning from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq radicalized and weaponized.
The U.S. devotes significant resources to identifying these wolves, though often to results more comic than anything else. Nonetheless, it is illegal for Americans to join and fight for groups such as IS — that is called conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism, and is prosecuted with vigor.
Yet it seems less of an issue when it is good Christian Americans zooming off to the Middle East to join Christian militias.
Reuters reports idealistic Westerners are enlisting in Christian militias now fighting in Iraq, citing frustration their governments are not doing more to combat the Islamists. The militia they joined is called Dwekh Nawsha, meaning “self-sacrifice” in the ancient Aramaic language spoken by Christ and still used by Assyrian Christians in Iraq.
A map on the wall in the office of the Assyrian political party affiliated with Dwekh Nawsha marks the Christian towns in northern Iraq, fanning out around the city of Mosul. The majority are now under control of IS, which overran Mosul last summer and issued an ultimatum to Christians to pay a tax, convert to Islam, or die by the sword.
Dwekh Nawsha operates alongside very non-Christian Kurdish peshmerga forces to protect Christian villages on the frontline in Nineveh province. “These are some of the only towns in Nineveh where church bells ring. In every other town the bells have gone silent, and that’s unacceptable,” said American citizen “Brett,” who has “The King of Nineveh” written in Arabic on the front of his army vest.
Another fighter is “Tim,” who shut down his construction business in Britain last year, sold his house and bought two plane tickets to Iraq: one for himself and another for a 44-year-old American software engineer he met through the internet. “I’m here to make a difference and hopefully put a stop to some atrocities,” said the 38-year-old Tim. “I’m just an average guy from England really.”
“Scott,” a software engineer, served in the U.S. Army in the 1990’s. He was mesmerized by images of ISIS hounding Iraq’s Yazidi minority and became fixated on the struggle for the Syrian border town of Kobani. Scott had planned to join the YPG, which has drawn a flurry of foreign recruits, but changed his mind four days before heading to the Middle East after growing suspicious of the group’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). See, he was worried he would not be allowed home if he associated with the PKK, which the United States and Europe consider a terrorist organization.
The only foreign woman in Dwekh Nawsha’s ranks said she had been inspired by the role of women in the YPG, but identified more closely with the “traditional” values of the Christian militia. Wearing a baseball cap over her balaclava, she said radical Islam was at the root of many conflicts and had to be contained.
“Everyone dies,” said Brett, asked about the prospect of being killed. “One of my favorite verses in the Bible says: be faithful unto death, and I shall give you the crown of life.”
The chances of any of these westerners becoming radicalized and weaponized and returning home to commit violent acts against a U.S. government they perceive as not doing enough “to combat the ultra-radical Islamists” is of course nil. That their very presence will fuel ISIS propaganda efforts to portray America’s war in the Middle East as a modern-day crusade is also nil.
Also, there is no doubt that The Prince of Peace would love to see Americans traveling half way around the world to add to the death toll in Iraq.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The American reconstruction campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have, and continue, to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on pointless projects seemingly designed solely to funnel money into the pockets of U.S. government contractors.
These projects (Iraq War examples are detailed in my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People seem to bounce between the merely pointless, such as dams that are never completed and roads to nowhere, to the absurdly pointless.
One ongoing theme under the absurdly pointless category has been the “empowerment of women.” In both countries, the U.S. has acted on the assumption that the women there want to throw off their hijabs and burkas and become entrepreneurs, if… only… they knew how. Leaving aside the idea that many women throughout the Middle East and beyond prefer the life they have been living for some 2000 years before the arrival of the United States, the empowerment concept has become a standard.
However you may feel about these things, and the programs are in some part designed as “feel good” but cynical gestures to domestic American politics, the way “empowerment” is implemented is absurd. Lacking any meaningful ideas, women are “empowered” by holding endless rounds of training sessions, seminars, roundtables and hotel gatherings where Western experts are flown in laden with Powerpoint slides to preach the gospel. Over time, in my personal experience in Iraq at least, these proved so unpopular that the only way we could draw a crowd (so we could take pictures to send to our bosses) was to offer a nice, free lunch and to pay “taxi fare” far in excess of any reasonable transportation costs; bribes.
One Army colonel I worked with was so into the goals of the program that he called these things “chick events.”
Women’s Empowerment in Afghanistan
So much for Iraq. How’s it going for women’s empowerment in Afghanistan?
Not well, at least according to the latest report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Some highlights from that report include an inquiry into USAID’s Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority Programs (Promote), which has been highlighted as USAID’s largest women’s empowerment program in the world. Promote has left SIGAR with a number of “troubling concerns and questions,” to wit:
–SIGAR is concerned that some very basic programmatic issues remain unresolved and that the Afghan women engaged in the program may be left without any tangible benefit upon completion. SIGAR is also concerned about whether USAID will be able to effectively implement, monitor, and assess the impact of Promote.
–Many of SIGAR’s concerns echo those of Afghanistan’s First Lady. To quote Mrs. Ghani, “I do hope that we are not going to fall again into the game of contracting and sub-contracting and the routine of workshops and training sessions generating a lot of certificates on paper and little else.”
–Promote has been awarded to three contractors: Chemonics International, Development Alternatives, Inc., and Tetra Tech, Inc. The overall value of the contracts is $416 million, of which USAID is funding $216 million and other—still unidentified—international donors are expected to fund $200 million.
–USAID does not have any memoranda of understanding between any of the three Promote contractors and the Afghan government.
Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
The few photos publicly seen of the abuses American soldiers committed inside the Abu Ghraib prison are only a tiny portion of the whole (former Senator Joe Lieberman said in 2009 that there were nearly 2,100 more photographs.)
The photos, such as the ones you see here, were released by a whistleblower. A significant number of photos, said to show acts of sodomy and brutality far worse than what is already known, have been kept from the public by the U.S. government for eleven years now, ostensibly to protect American forces from retaliation. Since the American Civil Liberties Union first filed a lawsuit against the government in 2004 seeking the release of the photographs, the government has been successful in blocking them. That may — may — change.
A federal judge ruled March 20 that the U.S. government must release photographs showing the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and other sites. However, Judge Alvin Hellerstein in Manhattan ruled that his order would not take effect for 60 days to give the U.S. Department of Defense time to decide whether to appeal.
“The photos are crucial to the public record,” ACLU’s deputy legal director said. “They’re the best evidence of what took place in the military’s detention centers, and their disclosure would help the public better understand the implications of some of the Bush administration’s policies.”
Keep in mind Hellerstein first ordered the government to turn over the photographs in 2005, but while that order was being appealed, Congress passed a law allowing the Secretary of Defense to withhold the photographs by certifying their release would endanger U.S. citizens. Then remember Hellerstein already ruled last August that the government had failed to show why releasing the photographs would endanger American soldiers and workers abroad, but then immediately gave the government until March 20 a chance to submit more evidence. The judge’s most recent order said the additional evidence had failed to change his decision. Yet Hellerstein has still left open a further appeal.
Meanwhile, the horrors of Abu Ghraib done in our names, and well-known to the Iraqi victims, remain shielded from only the American public by their own government.
So how’s that war on terror going? Well, it may not be very successful in actually stopping any terrorism, but it sure as hell has been profitable for America’s arms manufacturers. I was on Chinese CCTV recently to discuss the issue.
The United States will most likely suffer defeat in Mosul, even if it “wins” against IS. And you can pretty much substitute “Tikrit” in the story below anywhere you see “Mosul.”
The reasons will be much the same as those that caused the defeat of American strategy in Iraq War 2.0: a failure to force reconciliation among the Iraqi Shia, Sunni and Kurds.
Some History of Mosul
A little history, repeating itself. In April 2003, an entire Iraqi Army Corps in Mosul surrendered to a small U.S. Special Forces group. The city fell into disorder, with the Central Bank plundered and the university library pillaged. Sound familiar? Chaos ensued as Kurds fought both Sunni and Shia Arabs. The Sunnis, tribally dominant in the area, fought hard against the rise of Shia power emanating from the new government in Baghdad.
During the occupation by the U.S. 101st Airborne Division in 2003, a 21,000-strong force under General David Petraeus pushed the Kurdish militias largely out of Mosul and created an uneasy peace with the Sunni tribes (Petraeus would revisit the idea as part of the Anbar Awakening.) Via his own military muscle and the skillful use of American reconstruction money, Petraeus tried to foster a governing structure that integrated Kurdish parties without alienating Sunni Arab constituencies. After Petraeus left, and as the war worn on and Kurdish influence began to exert itself in Mosul, the Sunnis turned to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI; the precursor to IS) for support. Multi-sided fighting continued in Mosul, as the fundamental issue of which group truly controlled the city — as it was for Iraq as a whole — was left unresolved as the U.S. pulled out in 2011.
Assault on Mosul
Sometime this year (maybe in the autumn or later) the U.S. hopes to organize 25,000 Iraqi troops, 12 full brigades, at least five of which have not even begun training yet, for the assault. Three Kurdish brigades will also join the attack, as well as an unspecified number of non-government Shia militias aided by whatever Iranian assets may be supporting them (now acknowledged to include elements of Hezbollah.) U.S. officials say there would also be Sunni force of former Mosul police and tribesmen who would enter the city once the Islamic State fighters are cleared out.
Boots on the Ground
U.S. forces on the ground will almost certainly be required to coordinate the many disparate elements on the “Iraq” side, as well as to call in close air support. Secretary of State John Kerry initiated the process of walking back the president’s pledge about no boots on the ground, speaking to the Senate Appropriations Committee in support of Obama’s request for authorization for use of military force against IS. Kerry said American soldiers embedded with Iraqi troops would not be in violation of the ban on enduring ground offensive operations. “If you’re going in for weeks and weeks of combat, that’s enduring. If you’re going in to assist somebody and [do] fire control and you’re embedded in an overnight deal, or you’re in a rescue operation or whatever, that is not enduring.”
Assuming the logistics of moving 25,000 troops across the desert, as well as training, equipping, and sustaining them with food and water (difficult, and fully impossible without direct U.S. assistance and cargo flights) can be solved, the real questions about the upcoming Battle of Mosul are twofold.
The Key Questions
The tactical question. Will it become necessary to destroy Mosul in order to save it. Look at the victory in Kobane over ISIS. By all accounts, the over 700 airstrikes the U.S. conducted on a round-the-clock basis on Kobane devastated the town. The civilian death toll has never been calculated. No plans to rebuild the city have been announced. It is unclear what entity governs the remains. Some 230,000 refugees have fled. Photos of the place make it look like Stalingrad. As an activist in the ISIS capital of Raqqa wrote, “People don’t look at Kobani and see a defeat, because everyone had to leave and the Americans bombed it to rubble to win.”
The greater strategic question. Who will control whatever is left of Mosul after IS is driven out? The American command and control efforts, plus American air power, needed to ensure the physical destruction of IS will be welcomed by all sides, as they are in greater Iraq. Less clear will be the reaction to follow-on U.S. demands that some of the victorious forces withdraw in favor of the others. The Sunnis controlled Mosul before 2003, and contested the space with the Kurds after that. The Baghdad Shia government then forfeited its claim to the city when the Iraqi Army cut and ran in 2014. It seems highly unlikely that the Peshmerga, especially after shedding blood to retake the city, will simply walk away and see the small paramilitary police force of Sunnis move in. The role the Iranians will choose to play is unclear. A fair number of Mosul’s one million residents support IS, leaving open the question of ethnic cleansing and score-settling.
The United States continues to dig the same hole deeper in Iraq. It sees problems in a wholly-military light, focusing on an urban assault rivaling set-piece battles of WWII while paying little attention to the underlying political factors that will surely snatch defeat from any “victory.”
Cited by Obama as a model for fighting extremism as he sent the U.S. back into Iraq last summer, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen has all but collapsed as the country has all but collapsed. Yemen has no government now, and joins a growing list of places where American handiwork has midwifed a new failed state.
In Yemen, where al-Qaeda vies for supremacy with the home-grown Shiite Houthi rebels supported by Iran, the Pentagon cannot $500 million worth of military equipment the U.S. donated to Yemen since 2007. U.S. officials said instability in Yemen has made it impossible to keep tabs on donated equipment.
It. Is. Just. Gone.
“We have to assume it’s completely compromised and gone,” a legislative aide on Capitol Hill, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Washington Post.
Missing in Action
Here’s a taste of the equipment no one can find:
1,250,000 rounds of ammunition
200 Glock 9 mm pistols
200 M-4 rifles
4 Huey II helicopters
2 Cessna 208 transport and surveillance aircraft
2 coastal patrol boats
1 CN-235 transport and surveillance aircraft
4 hand-launched Raven drones
Take another look. Over a million rounds of ammunition? How can one misplace coastal patrol boats, never mind airplanes and helicopters?
Lebanon, Iraq, and…
Not that it is related to the mess in Yemen in any way, but the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon recently announced a new shipment of weapons and ammunition have arrived in Beirut. The Ambassador said the equipment includes more than 70 M198 howitzers and over 26 million rounds of ammunition and artillery “of all shapes and sizes, including heavy artillery… I know that in a matter of days it’s going to be what your brave soldiers are using in the battle to defeat terrorism and extremism.” Lebanon has become the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military assistance. Weapons worth more than $100 million were given to Lebanon last year and over a $1 billion worth in the last eight years.
And also not that it is related to the mess in Yemen in any way, but here’s part of what is on the way into Iraq from the U.S.: 175 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, 15 Hercules tank recovery vehicles, and 55,000 rounds of main gun ammunition for the tanks, about $3 billion worth. In July, General Dynamics received a $65.3 million contract to support the existing Iraq M1A1 Abrams program. In October, the U.S. approved the sale of $600 million in M1 tank ammunition to that country. There have also been sales of all sorts of other weaponry, from $579 million worth of Humvees and $600 million in howitzers and trucks to $700 million worth of Hellfire missiles. With the collapse of the Iraqi army and the abandonment of piles of its American weaponry, including at least 40 M1s, to IS militants.
Looking Down the Barrell of a Gun
And so, one must ask the snarky question “So how’s that working out for you?” The current U.S. war “against IS” has spread around like spilled paint around the Middle East, and along with it, the weapons America supplies to one side that often end up in the hands of the other side. Like that spilled paint, once you let go of the guns and bullets, you cannot control where they end up. Whether they go “missing,” are outright sold on the black market for non-sectarian, good old fashioned profit, left on the battlefield for whoever to pick up, or carried over as groups switch side, they can easily end up pointed the wrong way: back at America.
BONUS: Thanks to American aid, Yemen is estimated to have the second-highest per capita gun ownership rate in the world, ranking behind only the United States.
Rap star Nelly became the first American artist to perform live in Erbil,
Kurdistan Iraq in the city’s 8,000 year history.
Nelly and Motocross Rock Erbil
Nelly’s March 13 performance occurred during Erbil’s annual Xoli Raperin soccer tournament. Although the stands weren’t jam-packed, the crowd of 15,000 seemed, according to reports, to enjoy the show as they waved
their country’s the unofficial Kurdish flag in the air. The show was billed as an effort to raise funds for the peshmerga. Nelly sang all the hits, including “Dilemma”, “Hey Porsche”, and “Just A Dream.”
Following Nelly’s encore, there was also a motocross show.
Follow the Money
That said, questions remain. It is unclear how any money could have been raised. One source claims Nelly received $650,000 for the show. An online booking agent says Nelly’s fee for an international concert ranges $500,000 and up.
At $650k, each Kurdish spectator would have had to pay $44 to have the event break even.
Given that the Kurds have not paid most government salaries since December, that seems unlikely. In addition, oil money promised by the central Iraqi government to the Kurds has been long delayed. A Baghdad spokesperson told Reuters the delay in what is meant to be a monthly transfer of over $1 billion in exchange for oil was due to a fiscal crisis rather than political factors. Cited were factors of poor fiscal management, the costly battle against Islamic State, and the sharp fall in oil prices, as reasons for the federal government’s cash shortfall. The Kurds have been battling a financial crisis of their own since Baghdad authorities cut budget payments in January 2014 as punishment for their attempts to export oil independently.
So with that said, how did the Kurds raise the lucre for Nelly?
Nelly’s visit was sponsored by the Rwanga Foundation, a non-profit whose stated mission is “to assist the most vulnerable people residing in Kurdistan.” The group’s website lists no sources of funding, and Internet resources could turn up no sources of funding.
Wonder who paid? And why?
In the age of the all-volunteer military and an endless stream of war zone losses and ties, it can be hard to keep Homeland enthusiasm up for perpetual war. After all, you don’t get a 9/11 every year to refresh those images of the barbarians at the airport departure gates.
In the meantime, Americans are clearly finding it difficult to remain emotionally roiled up about our confusing wars in Syria and Iraq, the sputtering one in Afghanistan, and various raids, drone attacks, and minor conflicts elsewhere. Fortunately, we have just the ticket, one that has been punched again and again for close to a century: Hollywood war movies, what I have called “war porn.”
It was necessary to destroy the Syrian town of Kobane (above) in order to save it from ISIS. The rubble and ruin of what was once a place more than 200,000 people lived is now free. Want to know the future of Mosul? Look to Kobane.
Kobane once mattered nearly nothing at all, at least when ISIS was winning there in the face of NATO-ally Turkey choosing not to intervene. In October 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry, said preventing the fall of Kobani was not a strategic U.S. objective. “As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobane, you have to step back and understand the strategic objective.” That objective was something about destroying ISIS’ command centers.
After the U.S. abandoned the goal of bringing Turkey into the fight, and, against Turkey’s wishes, facilitated the movement of Kurdish forces across Iraq to attack Kobane, the city suddenly did become a U.S. strategic objective. Speaking a little over two months after his earlier dismissive statement, Kerry said with the recapture of the Kurdish city of Kobane, ISIS was “forced to acknowledge its own defeat. Daesh – ISIL as some know it – has said all along that Kobane was a real symbolic and strategic objective.” Kerry continued to say that pushing ISIS out of Kobane was “a big deal.”
By all accounts, the over 700 airstrikes the U.S. conducted on a round-the-clock basis on Kobane devastated the town. The civilian death toll has never been calculated. No plans to rebuild the city have been announced. Kobane was saved from ISIS by destroying it.
Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam
A famous quote from the Vietnam War was a statement attributed to an unnamed U.S. officer by correspondent Peter Arnett, writing about Bến Tre city in February 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The officer was talking about the decision to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong. The quote became garbled over time, eventually becoming the familiar, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
The meaning of the phrase, as applied to Vietnam and to Kobane, is the same. What absurd value can be found in decimating a town in the cause of freeing it?
Kobane is Free
“Winning” in Kobane accomplishes nothing really. The city is destroyed. Over 200,000 refugees have been forced out, with questions about how they can ever return to resume their lives given such devastation. The decision not to intervene by the Turks exposed the fragility of the hastily assembled U.S. coalition, setting up future confrontations among allies with very different goals and agendas for this war.
As an activist in the ISIS capital of Raqqa wrote, “People don’t look at Kobani and see a defeat, because everyone had to leave and the Americans bombed it to rubble to win.”
Meanwhile, as attention and limited resources were tied up in a battle of questionable strategic import, ISIS gains ground in Anbar, and continues to gather recruits from around the world. Kobane may very well end up as an example from this war noted by historians, as was Ben Tre from the Vietnam War, though perhaps not the one the U.S. intended it to be.
American forces in Afghanistan (“The Other War, The One Not About ISIS”) produce an extraordinary amount of garbage.
War is a Waste
Waste, after all, is a cornerstone of the same American Way we have been trying to hammer into the Afghan’s heads now for over thirteen years. There is human waste, medical waste, food waste, chemical waste, never mind old batteries, toxic electronics and all the rest. It all has to go somewhere, and often times the easiest way to get rid of it is just to burn it all. To avoid contaminating further the entire country, never mind endangering the health of Americans and Afghans nearby, a proper incinerator is the right tool for the job. It also seems to be one of the most expensive, especially when it is not used.
It is thus hard to choose which part of the latest pile of garbage to come out of Afghanistan to focus on, so here are all three:
(A) Is it that $20.1 million was wasted because four U.S. military installations in Afghanistan never used their incinerators? Trash was merely dumped nearby, often within sight of the expensive incinerators.
(B) Or is it that the U.S. spent $81.9 million on incinerator systems and only equipped a total of nine military installations in Afghanistan?
(C) Or is it that despite all of the above, there are still over 200 active, open-air, burn pits in Afghanistan?
Trick question students! The correct answer is (D), All of the Above.
The most recent Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report (“The Catalog of Horrors”) blithely informs us that prohibited items such as tires and batteries continue to be disposed of in open-air burn pits even after Congress passed legislation to restrict that practice. SIGAR also tells us that the Department of Defense paid the full contract amount for incinerators that were never used because they contained deficiencies that were not corrected, and that U.S. military personnel and others were exposed to the emissions from open-air burn pits that could have lasting negative health consequences.
SIGAR also adds that a “common theme” throughout 30 inspection reports over a period of years is that contractors who installed the incinerators did not deliver according to the specified requirements but were still paid the full contract amount and released without further obligation.
Beyond the Monetary Waste
The saddest part of all is not the monetary waste, but the human one. The dangers of open air burning of toxic substances has long been known, and the practice outlawed, across the United States. More specifically, the effects of such practices in Iraq and Afghanistan on the soldiers ordered to carry out the burning are well-documented.
A federal registry of U.S. troops and veterans possibly sickened by toxic smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan has gathered nearly 11,000 eligible names since it was established in 2013. The airman who inspired the registry to be created contracted constrictive bronchiolitis, a potentially progressive, terminal disease, due to burn pit exposure.
In only one example, explored in Senate hearings on toxic burn sites, it was revealed that the carcinogen Sodium Dichromate was spread across a ruined water-injection facility in Qarmat Ali, Iraq, exposing thousands of individuals.
So much for supporting the troops when it counts.
Chris Appy’s American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity is a book-length essay on the Vietnam War and how it changed the way Americans think of ourselves and our foreign policy. This is required reading for anyone interested in foreign policy and America’s place in the world, showing how events influence attitudes, which turn to influence events.
Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam
Appy’s book is valuable to its readers in showing how Vietnam became the template for every American war since, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. But before all that, there was Vietnam, and, larger lessons aside, Appy’s book is a fascinating, insightful, infuriating and thought-provoking study of that conflict, from its earliest days when America bankrolled the French defeat, to the final, frantic evacuation of Saigon. This is a history, yes, but one where events are presented not as isolated factoids but toward building a larger argument. Drawing from movies, songs, and novels, as well as official documents, example after example shows how America was lied to and manipulated.
We begin with Tom Dooley, a Navy physician who had one of the best-selling books of 1956, Deliver Us from Evil. Presented as fact, the book was wholly a lie, painting a picture of Vietnam as a struggling Catholic nation under attack by Communists, with only America as a possible Saviour. Despite Dooley’s garbage selling millions of copies in its day, few have ever heard of it since. It did however establish a forward-leaning pattern of lies to engage and enrage the American public in support of pointless wars.
The Dooley line runs through the faux Gulf of Tonkin Incident to fake stories from Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing infants from their incubators to Gulf War 2.0’s non-existent WMDs to Gulf War 3.0’s “Save the Yazidi’s” rationale for America re-entering a war already lost twice. “Saving” things was a common sub-theme, just as Vietnam was to be saved from Communism. It was no surprise that one of the last American acts of the Vietnam War was “Operation Babylift,” where thousands of children were flown to the U.S. to “save” them.
Vietnam as a Template
Vietnam set the template in other ways as well.
— The 1960’s infamous domino theory was raised from the grave not only in the 1980’s to frighten Americans into tacit support for America’s wars in Central America, but then again in regards to the 1991 model of Saddam, never mind the near-constant invocations of tumbling playing pieces as al Qaeda and/or ISIS seeks world domination.
— Conflicts that could not stand on their own post-WWII would be wrapped in the flag of American Exceptionalism, buttressed by the belief the United States is a force for good/freedom/democracy/self-determination against a communist/dictator/terrorist evil. Indigenous struggles, where the U.S. sides with a non-democratic government (Vietnam, the Contras), can never be seen any other way, truth be damned to hell. Wars for resources become struggles for freedom, or perhaps self-preservation, as we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.
— A sidestory to such memes is the invocation of “Munich.” If we don’t stop _____ (Putin?) now, he’ll just go on to demand more. Better to stand and fight than commit the cardinal sin of appeasement. That “appeasement” and “diplomacy” are often confused is no matter. We are not dealing in subtleties here.
— Killing becomes mechanical, clean, nearly sterile (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Gulf War 1.0?) Our atrocities — My Lai in Vietnam is the best known, but there were many more — are the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities are evil genius, fanaticism or campaigns of horror.
No More Vietnams
Appy accurately charts the changes to the American psyche brought on by the war. Never before had such a broad range of Americans come to doubt their government. The faith most citizens had in their leaders coming out of WWII was so near complete that the realization that they had been lied to about Vietnam represents the most significant change in the relationship between a people and their leaders America, perhaps much of history, has ever seen.
The aftermath — No More Vietnams — is well-covered in Appy’s work. The No More Vietnam mantra is usually presented as avoiding quagmires, focusing on quick, sharp wins. Instead, Appy shows politicians have manipulated No More Vietnams into meaning greater secrecy (think Central America in the 1980’s), more over-the-top justifications (“You don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”) and an emphasis on keeping American deaths inside the acceptable limits of the day to tamp down any public anti-war sentiment.
Throw in increasingly clever manipulation of the media (“Pat Tillman was a hero,” “Malaki/Karzai is a democratic leader with wide support”) and indeed there will be no more Vietnams per se, even as conflicts that bear all the hallmarks continue unabated. Americans may have developed an intolerance for Vietnam-like wars, but failed to become intolerant of war.
For readers of the 9/11 era, explaining the changes America underwent because of Vietnam seems near-impossible, though American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity succeeds as well as anything else I have read.
Before Vietnam, we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. We hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” Our education was very expensive in the form of that blood and treasure commentators love to refer to.
You finish with the feeling that Appy wishes the lesson of Vietnam would be for the American people to rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but close the book sharing with Appy the thought that we have, and will. “There remains,” concludes Appy, “a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain… the institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy.”
How did we reach such a state? Better read this book to find, in Appy’s words, what our record is, and who we now are.
A few weeks ago, did the majority of the world know the Japanese prime minister pledged $200 million in “humanitarian aid” in the war against ISIS? Or that two Japanese citizens had been held as hostages for months? Or that ISIS also held a Jordanian pilot? Or, since 2005, Jordan had been holding a failed al Qaeda female suicide bomber on death row?
The world knows now. With three killings, the Islamic State sent its messages viral, and watched them pay off in strategic gains.
What ISIS Accomplished
Last month in Iraq, 2,287 people were killed. No one knows how many died in the same time span in Syria and other “war on terror” hot spots. Little seems to have changed for it all. Yet, via skillful manipulation of the global media, here is some of what Islamic State accomplished via taking three lives in such a gruesome manner:
– Islamic State humiliated two U.S. allies. Both sought to negotiate with the militants and both were shown to be weak and ineffectual.
— The United States, which remained silent, absent the usual tropes about evil, was shown as ineffectual in being able to help its allies.
— A key U.S. partner, the United Arab Emirates, announced — based on the Jordanian pilot’s capture alone — that it was suspending airstrikes unless the U.S. stationed search and rescue teams inside Iraq. The U.S. quickly announced it was doing just that, raising its on-the-ground footprint. Keeping partners in the game is crucial to maintaining the dubious claim that efforts against Islamic State are anything but an American campaign. Even with the UAE, estimates are that the U.S. conducts some 80 percent of the airstrikes itself.
— The Japanese and Jordanian governments have vowed revenge, drawing them deeper into the conflict while bringing their domestic debates over the propriety of supporting what many see as America’s war into the open. Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seizing this moment to try and push through a controversial change to Japan’s pacifist constitution. Blood always runs hot at first; it remains to be seen how many additional deaths of its own citizens a society will tolerate in the name of revenge. Will the hyper-macho images of Jordan’s king wearing a flight suit come to be seen in the same way that George W. Bush’s images of himself in a flight suit now are?
— The Jordanians executed a Sunni Muslim woman, martyring her and giving new voice to her cause.
— ISIS successfully kicked off another cycle of revenge in an area of the world where such cycles can become perpetual motion engines. America cannot help but be drawn deeper into this quagmire as it struggles to hold its limited coalition together. President Barack Obama has already announced an increase in annual aid to Jordan from $660 million to $1 billion.
— To its core recruitment audience, who believes in violent jihad, Islamic State saw one of its most barbaric videos broadcast globally. Islamic State is far less concerned about those shocked by the video than it is about those who will join its struggle because of the video.
War of ideas
— Islamic State understands that it is waging a war of ideas, and that ideas cannot be bombed away. There is no victory or defeat per se in such a war, just struggle in epic terms.
The Charlie Hebdo killers appeared to have been inspired by American citizen cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whom the U.S. assassinated in 2011. And for all that al Qaeda has been degraded, Islamic State has arisen as its spawn. That dead men inspire living acts of horror shows that unless the fundamental ideas driving Islamic militants are addressed, there will be no end.
The Heisenberg Effect
Absent Jordan, the bulk of the Arab world reacted to the Islamic State video with firm statements, and no action. Somehow, that remains primarily in the hands of an America that cannot seem to understand how its very presence in the Middle East exacerbates conflict.
Robert Pape and James Feldman, in Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It reviewed 2,100 suicide bombings in the Middle East from 1980 to 2009. They conclude most were fueled by U.S. intervention.
And there has been plenty of fuel for those who fan the flames. Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces invaded, occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have publicly killed or been killed, since 1980. This history suggests what one Marine officer called in the Small Wars Journal the Heisenberg Effect, after the physics theorem that states the presence of an observer affects the event being observed.
America’s track record in the “war on terror” is a poor one, the ISIS video only the latest bit of evidence. You can’t shoot an idea. You defeat a bad idea with a better one. Islamic State has proven terribly effective with its bad ideas; on the American side, more than 13 years after 9/11, we need to ask, so what do you have to offer?
Libya is the perfect storm example of the failure of U.S. interventionist policy in the Middle East.
The Obama-Clinton Model
In 2011, Libya was to be the centerpiece of Middle East Intervention 2.0, the Obama-Clinton version.
Unlike the Bush model, that of Texas-sized land armies, multi-year campaigns and expensive reconstruction efforts, the Obama-Clinton version would use American air power above, special forces and CIA on the ground, and coordinate local “freedom fighters” to overthrow the evil dictator/terrorist/super-villain of the moment. “We Came, We Saw, He Died,” cackled then-Secretary of State Clinton as Libyan leader Moamar Quaddafi was sodomized by rebels on TV.
The idea was that the U.S. would dip in, unleash hell, and dip out, leaving it to the local folks to create a new government from scratch. So how’d that strategy work out in Libya?
Benghazi Only A Sign
Benghazi was only a sign of the chaos to come.
Here’s the state of Libya today. Several Islamist groups vying for control in Libya have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and carried out barbaric executions, as in Iraq and Syria. The growth and radicalization of Islamist groups raise the possibility that large parts of Libya could become a satellite of the Islamic State where one never previously existed.
Libya’s official government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, has only tenuous authority, having been run out of Tripoli last summer amid fighting between rival militias formed during the 2011 civil war.
The shell government Thinni leads, pathetically still recognized by the international community, operates out of the eastern city of Bayda. The Libya Dawn movement, a coalition of militias and political factions, has wrested control of the capital and established a rival government.
Fighters who identify themselves as part of the Islamic State have killed journalists and many other civilians. They took credit for the November 13 bombings targeting the Egyptian and United Arab Emirates embassies in Tripoli. Last month, fighters linked to the Islamic State kidnapped Egyptian Coptic Christians and bombed the Corinthia Hotel in the capital, killing ten people.
And according to the New York Times, the chaos in Libya has paralyzed the economy. The one industry that is booming is human smuggling. Taking advantage of the lawlessness, smugglers who use Libya as a way station in moving impoverished sub-Saharan Africans and Syrian refugees to Europe have become increasingly brazen and reckless in their tactics, sending hundreds to their deaths.
Egypt Bombs Libya after 21 Beheaded
In what is only the latest evidence of the failure of the 2011 intervention, Egyptian jets bombed Islamic State targets in Libya recently, a day after the group there released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians. That forced Cairo directly into the conflict across its border. While Cairo is believed to have provided clandestine support to some former-Libyan general fighting the rogue government in Tripoli with his own militia, the mass killings pushed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi into open action.
The Obama-Clinton Model
While Libya is the perfect storm example of what happens when the U.S. clumsily intervenes in a Middle Eastern country, it is certainly not the only example. The evacuation of the American embassy in Yemen is the marker for America’s policy failure there. The U.S. is again at war in Iraq, trying the new interventionist model as a recipe to rescue the old one. That conflict alone threatens to inflame the entire region, pulling in Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others.
Want to see the future? Look to the recent past. Look at Libya.
Brian Williams was seduced.
He is a liar of course, someone who did not tell the truth no matter the reason or excuse, a bad trait for a journalist. Williams lied about being RPG’ed in a helicopter over Iraq; he did not see any variant of what you can see in the photo above. And that’s not a hard thing to “misremember.”
But if there is any reason to forgive Williams, it was that he was seduced by both his own conflation of his sad little life as a talking head and the “brave troops,” and, more clearly, by the process of embedding with the military. I know. I saw it.
Journalists into Liars
What is it about the military that turns many normally thoughtful journalists into liars? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.
I’m neither a soldier nor a journalist. I was a diplomat who spent 12 months as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader, embedded with the military in Iraq, and let me tell you that nobody laughed harder at the turgid prose reporters used to describe their lives than the soldiers themselves. They knew they were trading hours of boredom for maybe minutes of craziness that only in retrospect seemed “exciting,” as opposed to scary, confusing, and chaotic. That said, the laziest private knew from growing up watching TV exactly what flavor to feed a visiting reporter.
In trying to figure out why journalists and assorted militarized intellectuals from inside the Beltway lose it around the military, I remembered a long afternoon spent with a gaggle of “fellows” from a prominent national security think tank who had flown into Iraq. These scholars wrote serious articles and books that important people read; they appeared on important Sunday morning talk shows; and they served as consultants to even more important people who made decisions about the Iraq War and assumedly other conflicts to come.
One of them had been on the staff of a general whose name he dropped more often than Jesus’s at a Southern Baptist A.A. meeting. He was a real live neocon. A quick Google search showed he had strongly supported going to war in Iraq, wrote apology pieces after no one could find any weapons of mass destruction there (“It was still the right thing to do”), and was back to check out just how well democracy was working out for a paper he was writing to further justify the war. He liked military high-tech, wielded words like “awesome,” “superb,” and “extraordinary” (pronounced EXTRA-ordinary) without irony to describe tanks and guns, and said in reference to the Israeli Army, “They give me a hard-on.”
Fearing the Media vs. Using the Media
Such figures are not alone. Nerds, academics, and journalists have had trouble finding ways to talk, write, or think about the military in a reasonably objective way. A minority of them have spun off into the dark side, focused on the My Lai, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon-style psycho killers. But most spin in the other direction, portraying our men and women in uniform as regularly, daily, hourly saving Private Ryan, stepping once more into the breach, and sacking out each night knowing they are abed with brothers.
I sort of did it, too. As a State Department Foreign Service Officer embedded with the military in Iraq, I walked in… er, deployed, unprepared. I had never served in the military and had rarely fired a weapon (and never at anything bigger than a beer can on a rock ledge). The last time I punched someone was in ninth grade. Yet over the course of a year, I found myself living and working with the 82nd Airborne, followed by the 10th Mountain Division, and finally the 3rd Infantry Division, three of the most can-do units in the Army. It was… seductive.
The military raised a lot of eyebrows in my part of the world early in the Iraq invasion with their policy of embedding journalists with front-line troops. Other than preserving OpSec (Operational Security for those of you who have never had The Experience) and not giving away positions and plans to the bad guys, journalists were free to see and report on anything. No restrictions, no holding back.
So, in 2003, we diplomats sat back and smugly speculated that the military didn’t mean it, that they’d stage-manage what embedded journalists would see and who they would be allowed to speak to. After all, if someone screwed up and the reporter saw the real thing, it would end up in disaster, as in fact happened when Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings got Afghan War commander Stanley McCrystal axed as a “runaway general.”
We were, however, dead wrong. As everyone now agrees, journalists saw what they saw and talked to whomever they chose and the military facilitated the process. Other than McCrystal (who was redeemed by the same president who fired him), can anyone name another military person whacked by reporting?
Embed in Action
I saw it myself in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commander of all troops in Iraq, would routinely arrive at some desert dump where I happened to be, reporters in tow. I saw for myself that they would be free to speak about anything to anyone on that Forward Operating Base (which, in acronym-mad Iraq, we all just called a FOB, rhymes with “cob”). The only exception would be me: State had a long-standing policy that on-the-record interviews with its officials had to be pre-approved by the Embassy or often by the Washington Mothership itself.
Getting such an approval before a typical reporter’s deadline ran out was invariably near impossible, which assumedly was the whole point of the system. In fact, the rules got even tougher over the course of my year in the desert. When I arrived, the SOP (standard operating procedure) allowed Provincial Reconstruction Team leaders to talk to foreign media without preapproval (on the assumption that no one in Washington read their pieces in other languages anyway and thus no one in the field could get into trouble). This was soon rescinded countrywide and preapproval was required even for these media interactions.
Detouring around me, the reporters would ask soldiers their opinions on the war, the Army, or even controversial policies. The reporters would sit through the briefings the general received, listening in as he asked questions. They were exposed to classified material, and trusted not to reveal it in print. They would go out on patrols led by 24-year-old lieutenants, where life-and-death decisions were often made, and were free to report on whatever they saw. It always amazed me — like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything suddenly changes from black and white into color.
Fear Not: The Force Is With You
But the military wasn’t worried. Why? Because its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was — not to mince words — seductive. The world, it turns out, is divided into two groups, those who served in the military and those who didn’t. For the rare journalists with service time, this would be homecoming, a chance to relive their youth filtered through memory. For the others, like me, embedding with the military felt like being invited in — no, welcomed — for the first time by the cool kids.
You arrive and, of course, you feel awkward, out of place. Everyone has a uniform on and you’re wearing something inappropriate you bought at L.L. Bean. You don’t know how to wear your body-armor vest and helmet, which means that someone has to show you how to dress yourself. When was the last time that happened? Instead of making fun of you, though, the soldier is cool with it and just helps.
Then, you start out not knowing what the hell anyone is saying, because they throw around terms like FOB and DFAC and POS and LT and BLUF and say Hoo-ah, but sooner or later someone begins to explain them to you one by one, and after a while you start to feel pretty cool saying them yourself and better yet, repeating them to people at home in emails and, if you’re a journalist, during live reports. (“Sorry Wolf, that’s an insider military term. Let me explain it to our viewers…”)
You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you’re riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You’re the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they’re cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can’t believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen — and you want to tell them.
Even though you may be only a few years older than many of them, you feel fatherly. For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you’re treated as the most beautiful female they’ve seen in the last six months — and it’s probably true.
The same way one year in a dog’s life equals seven human years, every day spent in a war zone is the equivalent of a month relationship-wise. You quickly grow close to the military people you’re with, and though you may never see any of them again after next week, you bond with them.
You arrived a stranger and a geek. Now, you eat their food, watch their TV, and sleep, pee, and work together every day. These are your friends, at least for the time you’re together, and you’re never going to betray them. Under those circumstances, it’s harder than hell to say anything bad about the organization whose lowest ranking member just gave up his sleeping bag without prompting because you were too green and dumb to bring one with you.
Why It Matters
So, take my word for it, it’s really, really hard to write about the military objectively, even if you try. That’s not to say that all journalists are shills; it’s just a warning for you to take care when you’re hanging out with, or reading, our warrior-pundits.
It is also to say that journalists who embed and do write objective pieces are to be read, revered and respected.
And yet having some perspective on the military and what it does matters as we threaten to slip into yet more multigenerational wars without purpose, watch the further militarization of foreign affairs, and devote ever more of our national budget to the military. War lovers and war pornographers can’t offer us an objective look at a world in which more and more foreigners only run into Americans when they are wearing green and carrying weapons.
I respect my military colleagues, at least the ones who took it all seriously enough to deserve that respect, and would not speak ill of them. Some do indeed make enormous sacrifices, including of their own lives, even if for reasons that are ambiguous at best to a majority of Americans. But in order to understand these men and women and the tasks they are set to, we need journalists who are willing to type with both hands, not just pass on their own wet dreams to a gullible public.
Civilian control of our military is a cornerstone of our republic, and we the people need to base our decisions on something better than Sergeant Rock comic rewrites.
The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon announced a new shipment of weapons and ammunition have arrived in Beirut, the latest American assistance to Lebanon’s army as it fights ISIS along its border with Syria. The Ambassador said the equipment includes more than 70 M198 howitzers and over 26 million rounds of ammunition and artillery “of all shapes and sizes, including heavy artillery.”
“We are very proud of this top-of-the-line equipment. This is the best that there is in the marketplace. It’s what our soldiers use,” the Ambassador continued. “I know that in a matter of days it’s going to be what your brave soldiers are using in the battle to defeat terrorism and extremism.”
Hale told reporters that Lebanon has become the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military assistance. He added that weapons worth more than $100 million were given to Lebanon last year and over a $1 billion worth in the last eight years. In November, France and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to provide the Lebanese army with $3 billion worth of weapons paid for by Riyadh.
So How’s that Working Out for You?
And so, one must ask the snarky question “So how’s that working out for you?”
The current U.S. war “against ISIS,” (aka Iraq War 3.0) has spread around like spilled paint into Syria, Iraq and threatens Turkey. It has drawn into its sucking vortex Lebanon, Jordan, Iran (a very happy participant as every victory against ISIS is a double win for Tehran), Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Britain, France, Canada and bits and pieces overt and covert of other nations.
In Iraq, the U.S. war has solidified Shia control of the government in general, and reestablished the Shia militias as the government’s bully boys and the vanguard of ethnic cleansing even now underway. The war midwifed an independent Kurdish nation-state in every sense but name; that toothpaste is never going back into the tube. The need to play nice with Iran inside Iraq has weakened the U.S. in nuclear negotiations. Syria’s Assad, a year and a half ago the man in America’s crosshairs for crimes against humanity, is now allowed to sit comfortably in power in Damascus, his name barely even mentioned by the White House.
America at War!
The move to overt combat by U.S. forces in Iraq is one incident away, assuming you don’t count defensive operations, getting mortared, and flying ground attack helicopters as “combat.” Fun prediction: some incident will indeed occur, maybe a hostage rescue scenario, right about the time the Kurds/Iraq Forces run into trouble this spring retaking Mosul from ISIS. Cynical? Remember the current round of U.S. intervention in Iraq began with a rescue mission for the Yazidi people.
So in the shadow of all that, what possible harm could come out of sending another 26 million rounds of ammunition into Lebanon?
The picture above comes from a U.S. napalm strike on a village in Vietnam.
This image is from a U.S. white phosphorus strike on Fallujah, Iraq.
This image is from the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Wrongs don’t make rights, and one horror does not excuse or justify another. But do be careful slinging the term barbarian around, or decrying the murder of defenseless innocents too freely, lest it come back and bite you.
When I was in Iraq, learning to recognize “celebratory gunfire” by sound was a useful skill. First, you did not want to shoot back and kill innocent people. Second, you did not want to show up where people were all excited and shooting guns.
But mostly, you wanted to avoid the gravity thing. Rounds shot into the air to celebrate a wedding or a sports victory had to come back down. Especially when Iraqis fired off entire clips at a time, you just didn’t want to be under that stuff when it came falling back to earth.
The captain of Iraq’s football team agrees. On Sunday he urged fans to refrain from shooting after celebratory gunfire wounded 89 revelers following a dramatic penalty “shoot-out” victory against arch-rival Iran.
“I urge you to express your happiness in a dignified way because I think the shooting is hurting people,” he said. “This shooting could hurt a family and this family will not have fun with us, it will be prevented from celebrating with us. I urge you all to stop firing.”
Reports have surfaced of at least two children killed by falling bullets.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised to crack down on any further celebratory gunfire in Iraq, which is awash with weapons, but such pledges have been made before with little effect. “I have ordered the security forces to prevent celebratory gunfire and punish violators,” he said in a statement. He urged the security forces, the sport, health and tribal authorities as well as civil society to “play an active role in spreading awareness and contribute to ending this uncivilised behavior.”
BONUS: The image above actually shows an American in trouble with Tampa, Florida authorities for letting off celebratory gunfire.
The current American war in Iraq is a struggle in search of a goal. It began in August as a humanitarian intervention, morphed into a campaign to protect Americans in-country, became a plan to defend the Kurds, followed by a full-on crusade to defeat the new Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS, aka ISIL), and then… well, something in Syria to be determined at a later date.
At the moment, Iraq War 3.0 simply drones on, part bombing campaign, part mission to train the collapsed army the U.S. military created for Iraq War 2.0, all amid a miasma of incoherent mainstream media coverage. American troops are tiptoeing closer to combat (assuming you don’t count defensive operations, getting mortared, and flying ground attack helicopters as “combat”), even as they act like archaeologists of America’s warring past, exploring the ruins of abandoned U.S. bases. Meanwhile, Shia militias are using the conflict for the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis and Iran has become an ever-more significant player in Iraq’s affairs. Key issues of the previous American occupation of the country — corruption, representative government, oil revenue-sharing — remain largely unresolved. The Kurds still keep “winning” against the militants of IS in the city of Kobani on the Turkish border without having “won.”
In the meantime, Washington’s rallying cry now seems to be: “Wait for the spring offensive!” In translation that means: wait for the Iraqi army to get enough newly American-trained and -armed troops into action to make a move on Mosul. That city is, of course, the country’s second largest and still ruled by the new “caliphate” proclaimed by Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. All in all, not exactly inspiring stuff.
You can’t have victory if you have no idea where the finish line is. But there is one bright side to the situation. If you can’t create Victory in Iraq for future VI Day parades, you can at least make a profit from the disintegrating situation there.
Team America’s Arms Sales Force
In the midst of the December holiday news-dumping zone, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) quietly notified Congress of several pending arms deals for Iraq. DSCA is the Pentagon office responsible for coordinating arms agreements between American defense contractors and foreign buyers.
Before those thousands of not-boots-on-the-ground troops started hemorrhaging back into Iraq late last year, DSCA personnel made up a significant portion of all U.S. military personnel still there. Its staff members are, in fact, common in U.S. embassies in general. This shouldn’t be surprising, since the sales of weaponry and other kinds of war equipment are big business for a range of American companies, and the U.S. government is more than happy to assist. In fact, there is even a handbook to guide foreign governments through the buying process.
The DSCA operates under a mission statement which says the “U.S. may sell defense articles and services to foreign countries and international organizations when the President formally finds that to do so will strengthen the security of the U.S. and promote world peace.” While the Pentagon carries out the heavy lifting, actual recommendations on which countries can buy U.S. gear are made by the secretary of state, and then rubber-stamped by Congress.
As for countries that can’t afford U.S. weaponry, Washington has the Foreign Military Finance program up its sleeve. This opens the way for the U.S. government to pay for weapons for other countries — only to “promote world peace,” of course — using your tax dollars, which are then recycled into the hands of military-industrial-complex corporations.
Iraq’s Shopping List
Here’s part of what the U.S. is getting ready to sell to Iraq right now:
* 175 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks;
* 15 Hercules tank recovery vehicles (you can’t have a tank without the tow truck);
* 55,000 rounds of main gun ammunition for the tanks (the ammo needed to get the biggest bang for your bucks)
And what will all that firepower cost? Just under $3 billion.
Keep in mind that these are only the most recent proposed sales when it comes to tanks. In July, for example, General Dynamics received a $65.3 million contract to support the existing Iraq M1A1 Abrams program. In October, the U.S. approved the sale of $600 million in M1 tank ammunition to that country. There have also been sales of all sorts of other weaponry, from $579 million worth of Humvees and $600 million in howitzers and trucks to $700 million worth of Hellfire missiles. There are many more examples. Business is good.
While the collapse of the Iraqi army and the abandonment of piles of its American weaponry, including at least 40 M1s, to IS militants, helped create this new business opportunity for weapons-makers like General Dynamics, the plan to cash in on Iraq can be traced back to America’s occupation of that country. Forward Operating Base Hammer, where both Private Chelsea Manning (she collecting State Department cables for WikiLeaks) and I (supervising State Department reconstruction efforts) lived for a year or so, was built across the street from the Besmaya Firing Range. That testing grounds was U.S.-outfitted not just for the live firing of artillery, but for — you guessed it — M1 tanks. It was to be part of the pipeline that would keep an expensive weapons system heading into Iraq forever. In 2011, as U.S. troops left the country, both facilities were “gifted” to the Iraqis to serve as logistics bases for training in, and the repair of, U.S.-sold weapons.
As I write this, American contractors still live on the remnants of Hammer, supporting the Iraqi army’s use of whatever M1 tanks they didn’t turn over to the Islamic State. On a contractor job-review site, “job work/life balance” at the base gets an acceptable 3.5 stars from those working there and one American trainer even praises the fact that work starts and ends before the heat of the day (even if another complains that the only toilets available are still port-a-potties).
The new tank sales to Iraq will, of course, keep Besmaya humming and are significant enough that the Motley Fool, an investment advice website, offers this background information:
“This is about more than just immediate sales and profits for General Dynamics. Currently, the U.S. Army has all the M1A1 tanks it needs… Last year, General Dynamics successfully lobbied Congress to provide $120 million for upgrading Abrams tanks, just to ensure the factory remains at least partially open (and avoid having to pay the expense of restarting production from zero at a later date). In 2012, similar logic caused Congress to spend about $180 million on the tanks, despite Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno telling lawmakers at the time: ‘…these are additional tanks that we don’t need.’ Luckily for General Dynamics, though, Iraq does need tanks. And at the Lima plant’s recent production rate of 10 tanks per month, the Iraq order should keep General Dynamics’ tank business running well into 2016.”
Would You Like the Extended Warranty?
Iraqis have a saying: “The rug is never sold.” It means that there’s always more money to be made from any transaction. General Dynamics would agree. Arms sales work remarkably like consumer electronics (and Iraqi carpets). Want the extended warranty for your new smartphone? Extra battery? Accessories? Insurance against loss or damage? Suddenly the cost of your phone doubles.
Same for tanks. The M1 is a complex beast. You’ll need to pay General Dynamics for trainers to teach your guys to operate its systems. You’ll need lots of spare parts, especially operating in the desert. And it won’t be long before you’ll want to do some upgrades — maybe better computers or a faster engine. The U.S. is currently working on “urban warfare” upgrades for the 140 M1s the Iraqis have hung onto. In the defense world, these after-sales are known as the “tail.” And the longer the tail, the bigger the profits.
For example, built into the contract for the new M1 tank sale is the provision that “approximately five U.S. Government and one hundred contractor representatives [will] travel to Iraq for a period of up to five years for delivery, system checkout, program support, and training.” And that isn’t going to come cheap from General Dynamics, though the five government employees may be a bargain financed by American taxpayers.
None of this even touches on the potential for repeat sales. After all, most of the Islamic State’s heavy gear comes from stuff the Iraqi army abandoned or somehow lost in their headlong flight from the country’s northern cities. And keep in mind that every tank and shell IS pulls out of that inventory means more business for General Dynamics and similar firms. Essentially selling weapons to both sides of a conflict is smart business.
Big, heavy military equipment, however, takes months to manufacture. So even a quick order placed today doesn’t mean your gear will arrive in time for that promised spring offensive. So why not buy, or have gifted to you, something pre-owned and ready for immediate delivery? If you’re the government of Iraq, the U.S. military is already way ahead of you on this.
Since June, the U.S. has been stockpiling massive amounts of gear coming out of Afghanistan at Shuaiba, a port in Kuwait, in preparation for ultimately shipping at least some of it across the border into Iraq. The depot already houses 3,100 vehicles, mostly the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles ubiquitous in America’s wars. MRAPs are useful for protecting troops from roadside bombs, including the Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) versions made in Iran that took the lives of many Americans during Iraq War 2.0. That must take a weight off Iraqi minds.
Another thing that may help: The United States has already donated 250 MRAPs to Iraq as well as $300 million in weapons handed over free-of-charge by the Department of Defense in 2014. And don’t forget: Into an omnibus spending bill Congress passed last month is tucked $1.2 billion in future training and equipment for Iraq. And let’s not forget either all those need-to-be-replaced bombs being regularly dropped on Iraq by the U.S. Air Force at a cost of up to one billion dollars and counting.
Are Tanks Good for Anything Other Than Profits?
For Congress to approve the DSCA arms deals, the Department of Defense must certify that “the proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region.” So the tanks to fight IS will have to be certified in writing not to affect the regional situation.
Whatever the Iraqis think they need the tanks for, America’s nine-year-long slog through Iraq War 2.0 should have offered a lesson in how relatively useless heavy armor is for the kind of urban fighting and counter-insurgency warfare usually seen against a foe like IS. In fact, the logistics needed to maintain an M1 in combat can actually slow an advance, while the steel beasts are relatively easy targets in the confines of a Middle Eastern city like Mosul.
Maybe, in the end, some of those M1s will even land in Iranian hands, given the robust role that country is playing in the current Iraq war. America’s front-line military technology could, in other words, find its way into the hands of people capable of a little reverse engineering to mine technology for Iran’s own tank corps or to sell on the world market. It seems Baghdad is already sharing other U.S.-supplied weapons with Iranian-influenced Shia militias, so why not tanks?
Let’s put it this way: From any point of view except General Dynamics’s, the Islamic State’s, or maybe the Iranians’, these tank sales don’t add up.
Call Your Broker
It’s easy enough to toss around terms like “military-industrial complex” and equally easy to slip from there into what some might consider blood-for-oil conspiracy theories or suggestions that Iraq War 2.0 was all about the mega-contractor Halliburton’s bottom line. While oil and Halliburton were certainly part of that past war’s calculus, they can no more account for it than the piles of money General Dynamics is about to make selling tanks can alone account for Iraq War 3.0.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the way defense companies find themselves buried in cash from selling weapons that aren’t needed to people who can’t use them, sales that are, in the end, likely to harm, not help, America’s geopolitical interests. Perhaps it is better to see the immediate profits from such deals as just a part of a much bigger process, one that demands America have enemies to crusade against to ensure the survival of the national security state.
To such a “wartime” paradigm one just needs to plug in new bad guys from time to time, which is proving an ever-easier venture, since each of our previous wars and conflicts seems to offer a remarkably helpful hand in creating them. In this way, radical Islam has proven, with Washington’s help, a worthy successor to the Soviet Union, itself once a superb money-making venture and a great way to build a monumental national security state.
Even as the Obama administration stumbles and bumbles along in search of a magical political strategy in Iraq that would make sense of everything, American weapons-makers can expect a bountiful future. In the meantime, Washington is putting forces in place that, by doing more of the same for the third time in a disintegrating Iraq in the middle of a fracturing region, guarantee more of the same. In that sense, you might say that American forces are partly in place to help promote the investment. If one needed an example of how the military-industrial complex works today, that might be it. Every mistake by Washington is a boon for future arms sales.
So if you’ve got money to invest in General Dynamics, you might want to call your broker.
Walter Stewart (Major General, U.S. Army, retired) has some pretty good ideas why America keeps losing its wars. Arguably, allowing for some “ties” as in Korea, since WWII America’s unambiguous wins have really been only in one-sided contests like Grenada and Panama. You might want to argue Iraq War 1.0, in 1991, but you better figure out a way to account for 12 years of following sanctions, bombing and missile attacks, never mind Iraq Wars 2.0 and the current 3.0.
Stewart says there are three basic reasons for the loses:
— America is losing its wars because they are unconstitutional to begin with. They are unconstitutional because they are undeclared.
If America’s wars are not worth formal Congressional declarations, which act to unite the American people, they are by that fact not worth fighting. However, in the classic definition of insanity, America’s leaders keep doing the same thing over and over – fighting undeclared and unnecessary wars without rallying the support of the people – expecting different results.
— Strategic-level commissioned officers who swear an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution have an obligation to protest these wars. However, none have. Indeed, our most senior officers have even misstated their oaths, suggesting they are sworn to obey the president rather than to defend the Constitution. In the process, they fall prey to a version of the Nuremberg Defense of “I was just following orders.”
Even when senior officers recognize the folly and illegality of America’s wars, they refuse to resign in protest. Why? Because they convince themselves they can better effect change within the system. Or they conclude they are beholden by civilian authority to follow orders. Or they believe that resignation would be disruptive and disloyal. But such excuses are corrosive to their oath of office, an oath that officers – especially the most senior – must find the personal integrity and moral courage to follow.
— Until America returns to declared wars by Congress that have the support of the people, America will continue to lose its wars, further weakening itself while sowing the seeds for even more unconstitutional — and unwinnable — wars.
His whole argument is a worthwhile read.
Former U.S. ambassador Chas Freeman, hit the nail on the head when recently describing America’s failed strategy in the Middle East: “If at first we don’t succeed, we do the same thing again harder, with better technology, and at greater expense. The patch provides a cogent – if uncouth – summary of the results of this approach so far this century.”
Freeman’s remark was my inspiration in responding to questions in this episode of Crosstalk.
So how’s 2015 so far?
Outside playing on your hoverboard while Dad brings in the family helicopter? Mom inside serving up a hearty meal, all in pill form? Planning a trip to the Lunar Grand Hyatt? Enjoying a life free from all disease, war and hunger, courtesy of the alien overlord world government?
With 2015 underway, let’s take a quick look back at the highlights of government paranoia from 2014.
America’s War of Terror requires all of us (do your part!) to maintain a high state of fear while at the same time trusting our government to keep us safe. This means we need to be spoon-fed a constant stream of faux threats to Der Homeland to justify, whatever, without any of the threats coming true so we are pleased with what we are giving up in return for this faux security.
Got it? So here we go:
Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks: Julian Assange, evil mastermind of Wikileaks, remains trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Chelsea Manning remains in prison. The dire predictions of what the leaked information was going to do to national security, blood on Chelsea’s hands when soldiers got killed and all, never happened.
Edward Snowden: Snowden remains in exile in Russia. The dire predictions of what the leaked information were going to do to national security, blood on Snowden’s hands when soldiers got killed and terrorists ran amok and all, never happened.
Boko Haram: Remember these guys and #SaveOurGirls? Nobody saved them. Boko never got on planes and flew to the U.S. as we were warned they might.
Kim Jong Un: Wow, he may have lessened the chance we ever have to see another Seth Rogen movie. We owe the guy a Starbucks gift card or something. He otherwise did not transform America into a sea of flames. Oh, and hey, those hacks of Target, Home Depot and others that caused millions of dollars in lost revenues, nope, that wasn’t cyberterrorism, no, not at all.
Ebola: OHMYGOD WE’REALLGONNA FREAKINGDIE. Quarantine the airports, nobody breathe on the east coast, get ready to nuke West Africa. Except nothing happened.
Putin: We… are… seconds away from nuclear annihilation if
Crimea eastern Ukraine the rest of Ukraine falls. Except nothing happened.
Iran: We… are… seconds away from nuclear annihilation because they will get the Bomb. Except nothing happened.
Home-Grown Terrorists: Yep, they are everywhere, no doubt rooming with the North Korean and ISIS sleeper cells that are also everywhere. Absent two clown-like kids in Boston that every single spying thing missed completely, not much. And oh, all those mass shootings, please note they are not home grown terrorists even though they mowed down more Americans since 9/11 than anything else. Grand juries are also not home-grown terrorists.
Al Qaeda: Nope, nothing out of them this year either but You Never Know (c) We’ll keep killing their Number Two guys. But dammit, we were promised a Butt Bomb!
Taliban: Nope, nothing out of them this year either but You Never Know (c) We better keep 10,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Syria’s Assad: He gassed his own people! He is close to nuclear weaponization! He harbors terrorists who’ll take over our fast food franchises! Except he didn’t, and now we sort of passively support him because he does not care for ISIS.
ISIS: 2014’s big winner in the paranoia sweepstakes. They never showed up at our shopping malls or our July 4th parades, but, what the hell, let’s invade Iraq again anyway.
Also, everything that FOX, Lindsey Graham and John McCain said.
BONUS: That thing on your shoulder, the red thing with the weird hair growing out of it? You probably should be worried about that.
But hey, did you know we won the war in Afghanistan this past weekend? Or, at least we ended the war in Afghanistan this weekend? It is true. America’s longest war, clocking in at more than 13 years, (fun fact: the U.S. involvement in WWII, when we defeated the Nazis and the Japanese, only lasted three and a half years), is over.
Live from Hawaii
Seriously. While you were eating your Christmas roast beast, Your President was in Hawaii. From that forward deployment, Obama announced that “thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion… We are safer, and our nation is more secure, because of their service. [We] have helped the Afghan people reclaim their communities, take the lead for their own security, hold historic elections and complete the first democratic transfer of power in their country’s history.”
USA! USA! USA!
Now, there is no journalism without fact-checking, so let’s dig in on the president’s statement. Afghanistan no longer is under threat from the Taliban, and all terrorism has been taken care of. Instead of an economy based on corruption, smuggling and opium production, Afghanistan is a thriving consumer society. Women walk the streets in mini-skirts, and elections happen without incident. An American can stroll among Kabul’s cafes and quaint bazaars with his head held high and his safety guaranteed by grateful Afghans. America and its allies’ investment of over 3,400 lives and four trillion dollars has paid off. Also, all the dead Afghans, whatever.
Oh, wait, none of that is true.
It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over
And for a war that is over, the U.S. has over 10,000 troops stationed and still fighting in Afghanistan under a legacy defined as a “transition from a combat mission to a ‘noncombat mission in a combat environment’ with a definition that “remains as unclear as Afghanistan’s future.”
The Taliban have obviously not heard all the good news out of Hawaii. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid characterized a hand-over event in Kabul as a “defeat ceremony” and added “We will fight until there is not one foreign soldier on Afghan soil and we have established an Islamic state.”
Despite such gloom, it is obvious that America’s accomplishments in Afghanistan rank alongside its accomplishments in Iraq.
One of the latest stories from Iraq is that some 50,000 “ghost soldiers” haunt the rolls of the Iraqi Army.
They have been added to the rosters so that someone can skim away all or part of their salaries. The story has been played for Daily Show-like laughs, has been cited as a cause for the collapse of the Iraqi Army in the face of ISIS, has been used as an example of corruption in Iraq and conversely, acknowledging it used as an example of how the new Prime Minister, Haider Abadi, is fighting corruption. It may in truth be a little of all of those things, but is most of all a brief flash of light in the darkness of how the Iraq Army works.
The Iraqi Army of today is a U.S. construct. As one of the very first acts of the Occupation in 2003, the United States famously disbanded the Saddam-era Iraqi Army (and thus helped supply armed, trained men to the blossoming insurgency.) At some point American strategy shifted toward the Bush Administration’s proclamation of “As They Stand Up, We’ll Stand Down,” a mantra that meant the U.S. would take it upon itself to create a new Iraqi Army to take over internal security and border protection. This would need to be done quickly, as Americans grew bored and/or weary of the seemingly endless war in Iraq. The standing up of this army cost American taxpayers over $20 billion dollars.
What did they get for their money? Not much, except for the seeds of the present mess in Iraq.
The Iraqi Army America wrought was by definition created within the climate of the insurgency. It was thus never really a national army, but rather a loose collection of regional forces and fiefdoms divided along mostly religious and sectarian lines. Sunni units were based in Sunni areas and led by Sunni generals, Shia were in their areas and of course the Kurds and their peshmerga were off on their own (the peshmerga also benefited greatly from never having been disbanded in the first place.) America accepted these divisions out of expediency; the non-starter of an alternative was to wait until all sectarian problems were resolved first, and then reconstitute the army.
Disbanding Saddam’s army meant throwing away most of the senior, experienced military leadership. These generals and mid-level officers were Iraq’s professional soldiers. Many melted away or immigrated to neighboring Sunni countries, while some took up with the Sunni insurgency. Lacking experienced leadership, the U.S. was left with creating an officer corps from scratch. Experience matters in most things in life, and really matters in jobs that require leadership. Even under the best of circumstances that all takes time (leaders are made, not born), and the U.S. was creating the new Iraqi Army under anything but the best of circumstances.
Napoleon famously said that an army travels on its belly; another general reminded that it is logistics, not tactics, that win battles. From its early days, the factors that “miscreated” the new Iraqi Army doomed its ability to police and supply itself. Central authority was lacking; the combination of a weak central government and a force divided along sectarian lines meant resources were never allocated based on need, and that the kind of oversight necessary to avoid “ghost soldiers” did not exist. The problems were masked by U.S. expedient acts: an Iraqi unit desperate for spare parts could either fight a long battle with baghdad for what it needed, or appeal to the local U.S. military commander for help. The commander, under pressure himself to report success, typically gave in. The Iraqi system never was forced to mature or allowed to fail, at least until the Americans departed and ISIS appeared.
Procurement became an excuse for plunder. Soldiers in the Iraqi army basically pay for their own food via a salary deduction. In practice, officers pocket most of this money instead of buying supplies for the troops themselves. Soldiers in Mosul often had to purchase their own food and water from civilian markets. When the markets close under ISIS attack, the soldiers have no choice but to flee.
A system such as that seen as ineffective to some meant opportunities to others. In 2009, a lucrative appointment as an army colonel required a $20,000 bribe. The same job today costs $200,000. Divisional commander positions run about two million dollars. Why would such military jobs be worth that much money?
As an investment. Iraqi commanders purchased for their bribe money opportunities to skim budgets, withhold salaries from their own troops, or even create the ghost troops to justify budget increases. The ghost troops likely served another goal, covering soldier absences. During my own time in Iraq embedded with the U.S. Army, it was a given that any Iraqi unit we worked with would be missing a percentage of its soldiers. Some American advisors used a 10 percent rule of thumb, others pegged it as high as thirty percent. Where were the Iraqi troops? Some shuttled between their unit and their home towns. Lacking a reliable banking system, soldiers needed to physically carry their salaries home to their families. Because food budgets and the salaries themselves were often skimmed by their commanders, some troops kept working at outside, part-time jobs. With variable unit discipline, some soldiers just took time off as they saw fit, often bribing their own commanders to avoid punishment. Soldiers would sell off Army gas and spare parts, create unsanctioned checkpoints to harvest bribes from motorists, sell electricity if they controlled a large generator, or even their own weapons, to raise extra cash for themselves.
As for the thought that uncovering these ghost soldiers shows a commitment by Prime Minister Abadi to fight corruption, the real proof is in what he does next. Likely under U.S. pressure, Abadi took this first step to expose a limited dollop of corruption inside his failed army. But watch what does, or doesn’t, happen next. How many senior commanders’ heads will roll? How many will be fired or publicly demoted? What if any central and systematic auditing procedures will be put in place?
Answers to questions such as those will answer the most important question: will Abadi and the U.S. really seek to fix the Iraqi Army, or is the latest move simply another short-term expedient, meant to create the appearance of change ahead of more U.S. money pouring down the same dry well?
If the United States was looking for the surest way to lose Iraq War 3.0, it might start by retraining the failed Iraqi Army to send — alongside ruthless Shi’ite militias — into Sunni-majority territory and hope that the Sunnis will welcome them with open arms, throwing out the evil Islamic State.
Maybe it’s time for a better plan. The way to find one is by understanding how we lost Iraq War 2.0. We need a plan to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide, or the current war will fail as surely as the previous one.
A critical first step is, of course, to remove Islamic State from the equation, but not how the Obama administration envisions. The way to drive Islamic State out of Iraq is to remove the reason Islamic State has been able to remain in Iraq: as a protector of the Sunnis. In Iraq War 2.0, the Iraqi Sunnis never melded politically with al Qaeda; they allied out of expediency, against the Shi’ite militias and the Shi’ite central government. The same situation applies to Islamic State, the new al Qaeda in Iraq.
The United States is acting nearly 180 degrees counter to this strategy, enabling Shi’ite militia and Iranian forces’ entry into Anbar and other Sunni-majority areas to fight Islamic State. The more Shi’ite influence, the more Sunnis feel they need Islamic State muscle. More Iranian fighters also solidify Iran’s grip on the Shi’ite government in Baghdad, and weakens America’s. The presence of additional Sunni players, like the Gulf States, will simply grow the violence indecisively, with the various local factions manipulated as armed proxies.
Iraq in 2007 was, on the surface, a struggle between insurgents and the United States. However, the real fight was happening in parallel, as the minority Sunnis sought a place in the new Shi’ite-dominated Iraq. The solution was supposedly the Anbar Awakening. Indigenous Iraqi Sunnis would be pried lose from al Qaeda under American protection (that word again), along with the brokered promise that the Shi’ites would grant them a substantive role in governance. The Shi’ites balked almost from day one, and the deal fell apart even before America’s 2011 withdrawal — I was in Iraq with the Department of State and saw it myself. The myth that “we won” only to have the victory thrown away by the Iraqis — a favorite among 2.0 apologists — is very dangerous. It suggests repeating the strategy will result in something other than repeating the results.
The Sunnis are Who fans; they won’t be fooled again.
Progress otherwise in Iraq? The new prime minister has accomplished little toward unity, selecting a Badr militia politician to head the Interior Ministry, for example. The Badr group has been a key player in sectarian violence.
Islamic State still controls 80 percent of Anbar Province, the key city of Mosul and is attacking in Ramadi. U.S. air strikes cannot seize ground. The Iraqi Army will never rise to the fullness of the challenge. One can only imagine the thoughts of the American trainers, retraining some of the same Iraqi troops from War 2.0.
Military vehicles of the Kurdish security forces are seen during an intensive security deployment in Diyala province north of Baghdad. Elsewhere, the Kurds are already a de facto separate state. Their ownership of Arbil, the new agreement to allow the overt export of some of their own oil, and the spread of the peshmerga to link up with Kurdish forces in Syria, are genies that won’t go back into the bottle. America need only restrain Kurdish ambitions to ensure stability.
Present Iraq strategy delays, at great cost — in every definition of that word — the necessary long-term tri-state solution. It is time to hasten it. The United States must use its influence with the Shi’ites to have their forces, along with the Iranians, withdraw to Baghdad. America would create a buffer zone, encompassing the strategically critical international airport as a “peacekeeping base.” Using air power, America would seal the Iraq-Syria border in western Anbar, at least against any medium-to-large scale Islamic State resupply effort. Arm the Sunni tribes if they will push Islamic State out of their towns. Support goes to those tribes who hold territory, a measurable, ground-truth based policy, not an ideological one. Implementing the plan in northwest Iraq can also succeed, but will be complicated by Kurd ambitions, greater ethnic diversity among the Iraqis and a stronger Islamic State tactical hold on cities like Mosul.
There’ll be another tough challenge, the sharing of oil revenues between the new Sunni and Shi’ite states, so this plan is by no means a slam-dunk.
The broad outline is not new; in 2006 then-Senator Joe Biden proposed a federal partition of Iraq along the Bosnian model. Bush-era zeal kept the idea from getting a full review. But much has transpired since 2006.
If the tri-state plan works, it will deny Islamic State sanctuary where it is now most powerful, and a strategy for northwest Iraq may emerge. America will realize its long-sought enduring bases in Iraq as a check on Iranian ambitions and an assurance of security for the embassy. The president can decouple Syrian policy from Iraq. An indefinite American presence in Iraq will not be fully welcomed, though one hastens to add it basically is evolving anyway.
I Hate Myself
For advocates of disengagement like myself, this is bitter medicine. But we are where we are in Iraq, and wishful thinking, on my part or the White House’s, is no longer practical. A divided Iraq, maintained by an American presence, is the only hope for long-term stability. Otherwise, stay tuned for Iraq War 4.0.
As part of the 2014 Louisville Idea Festival, I spoke with Bill Goodman of KET, Kentucky Educational Television, the PBS station in Louisville about both of my books, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.
No one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.
In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
The United States sanctioned acts of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency and others. The acts took place in secret prisons (“black sites”) against persons detained indefinitely without trial. They were described in detail and explicitly authorized in a series of secret torture memos drafted by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury, senior lawyers in the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. (Office of Legal Counsel attorneys technically answer directly to the DOJ, which is supposed to be independent from the White House, but obviously was not in this case.) Not one of those men, or their Justice Department bosses, has been held accountable for their actions.
Some tortured prisoners were killed by the CIA. Attorney General Eric Holder announced recently that no one would be held accountable for those murders either. “Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths,” he said, “the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Jose Rodriguez, a senior CIA official, admitted destroying videotapes of potentially admissible evidence, showing the torture of captives by operatives of the U.S. government at a secret prison thought to be located at a Vietnam-War-era airbase in Thailand. He was not held accountable for deep-sixing this evidence, nor for his role in the torture of human beings.
John Kiriakou Alone
The one man in the whole archipelago of America’s secret horrors who went to jail is former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Of the untold numbers of men and women involved in the whole nightmare show of those years, only one.
And of course, he didn’t torture anyone.
The charges against Kiriakou alleged that in answering questions from reporters about suspicions that the CIA tortured detainees in its custody, he violated the Espionage Act, once an obscure World War I-era law that aimed at punishing Americans who gave aid to the enemy. It was passed in 1917 and has been the subject of much judicial and Congressional doubt ever since. Kiriakou is one of six government whistleblowers who have been charged under the Act by the Obama administration. From 1917 until Obama came into office, only three people had ever charged in this way.
The Obama Justice Department claimed the former CIA officer “disclosed classified information to journalists, including the name of a covert CIA officer and information revealing the role of another CIA employee in classified activities.”
The charges resulted from a CIA investigation. That investigation was triggered by a filing in January 2009 on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo that contained classified information the defense had not been given through government channels, and by the discovery in the spring of 2009 of photographs of alleged CIA employees among the legal materials of some detainees at Guantanamo. According to one description, Kiriakou gave several interviews about the CIA in 2008. Court documents charge that he provided names of covert Agency officials to a journalist, who allegedly in turn passed them on to a Guantanamo legal team. The team sought to have detainees identify specific CIA officials who participated in their renditions and torture. Kiriakou was accused of providing the identities of CIA officers that may have allowed names to be linked to photographs.
The real “offense” in the eyes of the Obama administration was quite different. In 2007, Kiriakou became a whistleblower. He went on record as the first (albeit by then, former) CIA official to confirm the use of waterboarding of al-Qaeda prisoners as an interrogation technique, and then to condemn it as torture. He specifically mentioned the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah in that secret prison in Thailand. Kiriakou also ran afoul of the CIA over efforts to clear for publication a book he had written about the Agency’s counterterrorism work.
If Kiriakou had actually tortured someone himself, even to death, there is no possibility that he would be in trouble. In the national security state that rules the roost in Washington, talking out of turn about a crime has become the only possible crime.
Facing decades away from his family and young children, Kiriakou agreed to a plea bargain and is still in prison serving a 30-month sentence.
For years it was the policy of the United States of America to torture and abuse its enemies or, in some cases, simply suspected enemies. It has remained a U.S. policy, even under the Obama administration, to employ “extraordinary rendition” — that is, the sending of captured terror suspects to the jails of countries that are known for torture and abuse, an outsourcing of what we no longer want to do.
Techniques that the U.S. hanged men for at Nuremburg and in post-war Japan were employed and declared lawful. To embark on such a program with the oversight of the Bush administration, learned men and women had to have long discussions, with staffers running in and out of rooms with snippets of research to buttress the justifications being so laboriously developed. The CIA undoubtedly used some cumbersome bureaucratic process to hire contractors for its torture staff. The old manuals needed to be updated, psychiatrists consulted, military survival experts interviewed, training classes set up.
Videotapes were made of the torture sessions and no doubt DVDs full of real horror were reviewed back at headquarters.
Torture techniques were even reportedly demonstrated to top officials inside the White House. Individual torturers who were considered particularly effective were no doubt identified, probably rewarded, and sent on to new secret sites to harm more people.
America just didn’t wake up one day and start slapping around some Islamic punk. These were not the torture equivalents of rogue cops. A system, a mechanism, was created. That we now can only speculate about many of the details involved and the extent of all this is a tribute to the thousands who continue to remain silent about what they did, saw, heard about, or were associated with. Many of them work now at the same organizations, remaining a part of the same contracting firms, the CIA, and the military. Our torturers.
What is it that allows all those people to remain silent? How many are simply scared, watched what happening to John Kiriakou and thought: not me, I’m not sticking my neck out to see it get chopped off. They’re almost pathetically forgivable, even if they are placing their own self-interest above that of their country.
But what about the others, the ones who remain silent about what they did or saw or aided and abetted in some fashion because they still think it was the right thing to do? The ones who will do it again when another frightened president asks them to? Or even the ones who enjoyed doing it?
The same Department of Justice that hunted down the one man who spoke against torture from the inside still maintains a special unit, 60 years after the end of WWII, dedicated to hunting down the last few at-large Nazis. They do that under the rubric of “never again.” The truth is that same team needs to be turned loose on our national security state. Otherwise, until we have a full accounting of what was done in our names by our government, the pieces are all in place for it to happen again. There, if you want to know, is the real horror.
Lebanese security forces have detained a wife and nine-year-old child of Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The pair were picked up after entering Lebanon with forged passports ten days ago, and are being interrogated at the defence ministry. Baghdadi is the leader of the “caliphate” created by ISIS in the parts of Syria and Iraq it controls.
Describing them as “a valuable catch”, the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir said that the IS leader’s wife and child had been detained in coordination with foreign intelligence services. Indeed, CNN cites a “source” with knowledge of the arrest, describing the wife as a “powerful figure who is heavily involved in ISIS.”
So let’s drill down a bit into this story.
Given that ISIS is a strict, conservative, fundamentalist Islamic organization that follows Sharia law and uses captive women for rape and as slaves, the statement that one of Baghdadi’s three wives is indeed a “powerful figure who is heavily involved in ISIS,” seems suspect at best. She would be in fact the only woman ever connected with ISIS with any known power at all. Her role as an ISIS leader has certainly not been discussed before. It is not common anywhere in the conservative Muslim world for powerful men to share responsibilities with their spouses; among the reasons, other men would be unlikely to take orders from a woman, regardless of who she was married to. In addition, having one’s wife play such as role would certainly weaken the status of the husband.
Given that, and given that a child was also arrested, one cannot avoid the term hostage. By coincidence, Lebanon is deeply engaged in negotiations to free more than 20 Lebanese Army soldiers held hostage since August by ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.
In a better world, one would expect to hear the United States condemning the arrest of a woman and a child simply because she is married to a bad guy. Even more so when there is the appearance that her arrest has some connection to ongoing hostage negotiations, and that it involved a young child.
I will update this story when the U.S. issues its condemnation of the hostage taking…
A Different Update: An Iraqi official denied that a woman detained in Lebanon is a wife of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claiming she is the sister of a terror suspect being held in Iraq. Same church, different pew.
And guess where the weapons came from?
A new report prepared for the United Nations Security Council warns ISIS possesses sufficient reserves of small arms, ammunition and vehicles to wage its war in Syria and Iraq for up to two years. And that is assuming they do not capture more weapons, including heavy weapons, from the Iraqi Army, their accidental, primary supplier to date.
The UN report has even more bad news to share: the size and breadth of the ISIS arsenal provides the group with durable mobility, range and even a limited defense against low-flying aircraft (ISIS has already shot down Iraqi helicopters.) Even if the U.S. bombing campaign continues to destroy the group’s vehicles and heavier weapons, the UN report states, it “cannot mitigate the effect of the significant volume of light weapons” ISIS possesses.
Where to Begin
So maybe someone should cut off the flow of weapons to ISIS? Here’s where to start: Almost 20 percent of the small arms ammunition used by ISIS could be traced to U.S. manufacturers. Additionally, the Islamic State appears to use “significant quantities” of ammunition manufactured in Russia under the Wolf brand and distributed by the U.S. to its own allied states in the Middle East. Hmmm.
Meanwhile, ISIS seems to be getting weapons supplied by air, possibly from Russia, but who really can say.
Anti-tank weapons that were likely once owned by moderate Syrian rebels have also landed in ISIS hands. In addition to U.S.-supplied arms, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been funneling weaponry to various rebel factions in the conflict.
Who’s Number 1?
The ISIS arsenal, according to the UN, includes older T-55 and modern, front-line T-72 tanks, anti-aircraft artillery, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets captured from Iraqi and Syrian military stocks, and “extensive supplies of ammunition,” as well as some 250 light vehicles.
The UN report does have a sense of humor embedded, noting that much of the ISIS weapons stock stolen from the U.S.-backed Iraqi military was “unused” before ISIS seized it.
The weapons as a whole, the UN report finds, make ISIS not only the world’s best-funded terrorist group but among its best armed. ISIS is sufficiently armed to threaten the region “even without holding territory”, the report concludes.
The report recommends the UN adopt new sanctions designed to disrupt the well-financed ISIS’ economic health. Significant among them is a call for states bordering ISIS-controlled territory (a diplomatic way of saying mostly Turkey) to “promptly seize all oil tanker trucks and their loads” coming in or going out. While the report warns ISIS has alternate revenue sources, primarily ransom payments, and does not predict that truck seizures can eliminate ISIS’ oil smuggling money, it holds out hope that raising the costs to smuggling networks and trucking companies will deter them from bringing ISIS oil to market.
The report comes on the heels of an October report to the Security Council assessing that 15,000 fighters from 80 countries have flooded into Syria and Iraq to fight alongside ISIS.
So yeah, things seem to be going well for ISIS now, four months into the U.S. bombing campaign.