Here I am on the Dutch television program “Nieuwsuur,” with former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, discussing the futility of air strikes to resolve the Iraq/Syria/ISIS mess.
After a setup in Dutch by the anchor, and an Obama speech clip, the interview (about three minutes in) is in English.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Obama said a week ago he did not have a strategy to combat ISIS, and that now he does. He was right the first time.
The United States ignored ISIS for months. Then out of nowhere a complex situation morphed into a struggle to save the Yazidis from so-called genocide, requiring special forces and air strikes. The Yazidis disappeared from view, perhaps saved, certainly no longer needed as an emotional excuse to re-enter a war we had been told ended for America in 2011.
ISIS beheaded journalist James Foley’s and another tail wagged its dog as surveillance flights commenced over Syria. It was a year ago that Obama asked Congress to approve air strikes there. They didn’t, largely in reply to a war-weary public. With the the subsequent beheading of another American journalist, an attack is back on deck.
So finally action to dethrone Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, himself once accused of near-genocide by the United States? No. Now as we fight ISIS together, Assad has been rebranded. The issue of how action against ISIS will only strengthen Assad is set aside. Assad is supported by the Russians, whose interests in Syria are thus tacitly upheld by Washington even as a mini-Cold War rises in the Ukraine from the ashes of the last great struggle the United States claimed to have won.
In Libya, site of a much-trumpeted Obama-Clinton lite-war success once upon a time, Islamic militants took over the abandoned American embassy and published photos of themselves swimming in the mission’s pool.
The United States issued Maliki’s replacement the same to-do list the United States issued Maliki since 2006– unite Iraq, and make it snappy, even as more troops are sent in. The blind man in the dark search for moderate Sunnis in Iraq to create a political solution will likely work out as well as it has in Syria. Iran, who won the 2003-2011 Iraq War with the installation of a pro-Tehran Shia government in Baghdad, is holding on to its victory, now with United States air power on its side.
Only a few weeks ago the United States feared the Kurds might take advantage of the chaos in Iraq and declare themselves an independent nation. One strategy to forestall this was to choke off “illegal” Kurdish oil exports (on paper, Iraq’s oil profits are shared among Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, though the Shia government in Baghdad has not fairly divided the money.) In July, a court decision in Texas led to United States Marshals seizing $100 million worth of Kurdish crude. The Kurds are presently in such need of United States military help that they have shut up (for now) about independence. So, on August 25, the Texas court threw out the seizure order so as to allow the oil to be delivered. The Kurds also appear to have resumed direct oil sales to Israel. Independent sales weaken the central Baghdad government the United States claims to support, strengthen de facto Kurdish independence the United States does not want, and create a model for a someday autonomous Sunni state that learns to manipulate its own limited oil reserves.
Ahead is a United States-brokered linking of Iraqi Kurd fighters with Syrian Kurd fighters, aimed at ISIS. This is of great concern to NATO-ally Turkey, who fears a pan-national Kurdish state.
Lastly, there are all those weapons the United States continues to scatter into the conflict. The fact that many of the current air strikes into Iraq are aimed at our own military equipment previously given to the Iraqi Army might in itself give pause to sending over more stuff. The shoulder-fired anti-air missiles ISIS captured inside Syria to use against American warplanes may have been slipped into “moderate” Syrian hands by the CIA, or were just picked up on the open market as weapons flooded out in the post-Qaddafi chaos the United States midwifed in Libya.
Digging It Deeper
Grasping at expediency is not a policy. Shifting to the greater-evil-of-the-day is a downward spiral. Not being able to articulate an end-game is a poor start. Obama did not create all these problems, but he certainly has done his part to make them worse.
A canon of diplomacy is that nations act in their own self-interest. America is once again exceptional, as the Obama Doctrine for foreign policy reveals itself: There is no hole that can’t be dug deeper.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
A critical part of America’s plan to resolve all issues left unresolved after nine years of war and occupation is to divide the indigenous Sunnis from the “foreign” Sunnis, i.e., ISIS, and “unite” Iraq.
As counter-insurgency theory teaches, bad guys can only thrive when they have local support, what Mao called the “water we swim in.”
There is a familiar ring to the plan.
Unity Plan, 2006
In 2006 the U.S. brokered the ascension (remember the purple fingers?) of a new Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, hand-picked to unite Iraq. A bright, shining lie of a plan followed. The U.S., applying vast amounts of money, created the Sahwa, the Sons of Iraq, the Anbar Awakening, a loose grouping of Sunnis who agreed to break with al Qaeda in return for a promised place at the table in the New(er) Iraq. The “political space” for this would be created by a massive escalation of the American military effort, called by its the more marketable name, The Surge. In the end the Shia government in Baghdad ignored American entreaties to be inclusive, effectively ending the effort.
Unity Plan, 2014
And so to 2014. The U.S. brokered the ascension (no purple fingers needed this time for visuals) of a new Shia Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, hand-picked to unite Iraq. His play so far along these lines? Asking his military to stop bombing and shelling his own-citizen Sunni civilians.
Al-Abadi said on Saturday, after he held talks with travelin’ man U.S. Secretary of State Kerry in Baghdad, that he ordered his air force to halt strikes on civilian areas occupied by Iraqi citizens, albeit Sunnis. He also asked his Iraqi security forces to stop “the indiscriminate shelling” of civilian Sunni communities occupied by ISIS.
The hearts and minds moves by al-Abadi follow several incidents which may yet have an effect for indigenous Sunni feelings toward unity.
Senior Iraqi officials acknowledged in recent days that shelling by their armed forces has killed innocent civilians in the course of the battle against ISIS. Attacks on Sunni towns have been part of what many Sunnis call a pattern of sectarian bias by the Shiite-dominated security forces. Human Rights Watch reports one Iraqi government airstrike targeted a school near Tikrit housing displaced Sunni families fleeing ISIS. That strike killed at least 31 civilians, including 24 children. Human Rights Watch also reported earlier Iraqi government airstrikes, including six with the type of barrel bombs commonly used by Syrian leader Assad to kill his own people, had killed at least 75 civilians and wounded hundreds more in mainly Sunni areas.
(Despite the incessant playing of the ISIS beheading videos of three Westerners, no images of the dead Sunni children have made it to American media.)
Earlier this year the Iraqi Shia government also employed barrel bombs, U.S.-supplied Hellfire missiles as well as some of the 11 million rounds of ammunition the U.S. shipped in, against Sunni targets in Fallujah, itself the scene of some of the most intense U.S.-Sunni fighting during the previous Iraq War.
Government-backed Shia militias have also been kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians throughout Iraq’s Baghdad, Diyala, and Hilla provinces over the past five months. Human Rights Watch documented the killings of 61 Sunni men early this summer, and the killing of at least 48 Sunni men in March and April.
Memories are Long
Many Sunnis see their own government as more of a threat than any ISIS occupation, given the record of the past eight years of Shia control. The Sunnis are also aware that the Shia government purportedly now seeks some measure of unity only after it was prompted by the United States. The Sunnis most clearly do remember being abandoned by the U.S. and the Shia government after they last agreed to break with a foreign Sunni group, al Qaeda, in 2007. You have the watch, but we have the time, says an Iraqi expression.
Memories are long in the Middle East.
Any sane human being welcomes a decision to not bomb and shell civilians, particularly if it is actually carried out. However, in the broader strategic context of Iraq, especially vis-a-vis American claims that Sunni-Shia unity is the key to stability, one wonders how much of the statement by the new Iraqi prime minister is based on the need to throw another bone to Americans always ready to proclaim another short term success, even as they speed walk down the road to Hell.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
For if Iran is the 500 pound gorilla in the room with Iraq, it is the 800 pound monster in the Middle East. No real stability can be achieved without Iran. It is time for the president to go to Tehran.
Boots on the Ground
For all the talk about boots on the ground for America’s air offensive in Iraq and Syria, Obama ignored the ground truth: Iranian forces are already there. The Iranians also command enough attention in Baghdad to significantly enable or stall filling the cabinet positions of Defense and Interior (Maliki held both portfolios personally) that are key components of any sort of “inclusive” government. Tehran’s real advantage? Everyone in Iraq remembers it is the Iranians who never really withdrew after 2011.
The Iranians truly understand the cross-border nature of the Middle East. An Iran that works closely with America will yield some version of stability in Iraq, affect the war in Syria (Iran, through its many proxies, including Hezbollah, has supported Assad by fighting his Sunni rebel enemies, moderate and radical alike), perhaps reduce pressure on Israel, and could calm the entire region by acting less bellicose toward a less bellicose United States. This would enable the comprehensive actions needed in the Middle East to slam shut the doors the United States blew open in 2003. Obama’s Iraq plan has already failed in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia to produce any but the most fleeting “successes.” The Brits and Germans won’t fight in Syria, and Turkey is reluctant to go in deeper, weakening any talk of coalitions. As Obama becomes the fourth president in a row to order war in Iraq, a new solution is needed.
Obama Should Go to Tehran
There is little to lose. After the midterms, he will be a true lame duck. Candidates can run against his failure, or bask in his success. With a dramatic gesture, Obama can start the process of re-balancing the Middle East. Too many genies are out of the bottle to put things back where they were.
Tough realities will need to be acknowledged regarding nukes. Having watched America’s serial wars across the region, and the sort of odd deference shown to North Korea after it went nuclear, the Iranians will never back away completely. Tehran also watched closely what happened in Libya. Qaddafi gave up his nukes and ended up dead, while the Secretary of State laughed about it on TV. Obama cannot move forward without accepting that he cannot paint himself into a corner over Persian nukes. Israel has had the Bomb for a long time without creating a Middle East arms race. Let the Iranians stay comfortable, albeit in the threshold stage of nuclear weaponry.
To begin, follow the China model — set up the diplomatic machinery, create some fluid back channels, maybe try a cultural exchange or two. They don’t play ping-pong over there, but they are damn good at chess. Offer to bring Iran into the world system, slowly, and see if they don’t follow. Give the good guys in Tehran something to work with, something to go to their bosses with. Iran has reasons to play. Regional stability can benefit its own goals. Removal of sanctions can grow its economy, and allow it to sell oil in global markets. Calmer borders allow Iran to focus limited resources on domestic problems.
Change in Iran, like anywhere, has to come from within. Think China again. With prosperity comes a desire by the newly-rich to enjoy their money. They demand better education, more opportunities and a future for their kids. A repressive government yields to those demands for its own survival and before you know it, you’ve got iPads and McDonald’s. Despite some tough talk aimed at both sides’ domestic constituencies, America and China are trading partners, and have shared interests in regional stability. In a way, as China was to the Soviet Union, Iran can counter-balance undue Saudi influence on American actions. There will be friction, but it can be managed, what President Kennedy called during the Cold War the “precarious rules of the status quo.”
Islamic nationalism is a powerful force in the Middle East, and the defining mover of world events in our time. It is not going away. American attempts to create “good” governments failed in the Middle East. The new world order created a place for countries that are not a puppet of the United States, and not always an ally, but typically someone the nation can work with, maybe even influence occasionally. That’s statesmanship, and a chance at stability in the Middle East. Perhaps even a chance for a beleaguered and exhausted American president to finally earn his Nobel Peace Prize.
Following Obama’s address to the nation Wednesday, America’s psychiatrists and liquor stores stocked up on anti-depressants and massive amounts of alcohol. States allowing for legal marijuana report booming sales.
President Obama announced an expansion of the current war with Iraq (not to be confused with the previous war with Iraq he claimed to have ended in 2011) as well as a Cheney-like giddy eagerness to bomb Syria “just as soon as Congress wimps out and gets out of my way.” Despite their general glee about bombing any brown person anywhere anytime on the planet, many Americans are expected to complain of depression.
“I support 9/11 and all that, but really, another freaking war?” said one college undergrad waken for comment. “My neighbor’s cousin’s son has PTSD or STD or something from that last war I like saw online and so I plan to feel sad about this before the pre-game on Saturday.”
Psychiatrists take a more serious tone. “People will be eating Prozac and Cymbalta like candy,” said one doctor. I’m stocking up, not just for myself, but for the new patients I am expecting to flood in. I’ll be double-billing the insurance companies as usual, so I guess there is an upside. Also, 9/11.”
“Upside?” commented the owner of local store Booze-a-Palooza, We Don’t Card. “Hell, I’ve already booked a luxury cruise on the profits from this thing. You had the drinking games. Kids online were saying they took shots every time the president mentioned ‘moderate rebels’ or ‘degrade and destroy.’ I quietly trolled for a full water glass of bourbon to be drunk every time the idiot said ‘no boots on the ground.’ And of course depressed people are my bread and butter audience every day, so there’s also that. And 9/11. Never forget.”
Colorado state officials, congratulating themselves on the timing of legalizing marijuana, could not be happier. “The taxes on weed sales just funded our school systems through 2019, with an overflow of cash into the coffers to buy enough blow to near kill us all here at the office. Weed is for light weights, especially after this speech. Dude, 9/11. Don’t forget.”
When reached for comment at a Colorado medical marijuana dispensary, Obama was characteristically calm and cool about the issue.
“Americans understand our constant state of pointless war is necessary to, what is it this week Reggie? Right, to protect the country. Some may say by making this speech exactly one year after I said we’d bomb Syria to oust Assad only to now plan on bombing Syria in tacit support of Assad, and choosing 9/11 eve for the speech, I increased the weary nation’s sense of complete and devastating cynicism. Well, folks have got to understand that war means sacrifice. Hey, did you hear about this drinking game where every time I said ‘no boots on the ground’ people had to shotgun a water glass of bourbon? I told my speechwriters to throw that line in about a million times. I think the whole address went down better with the American people drunk off their ass when they heard it. Now, watch this drive.”
The Hillary Clinton not-a-campaign, located in Oprah’s guest house, declined comment on the entire everything, pending the outcome of polling to see what opinion the not-a-candidate should hold deeply.
Reached at his luxury villa in Riyadh, an ISIS spokesperson just laughed. “ISIS lacks the ability to strike directly into your Homeland– I mean, who even says words like ‘Homeland,’ seriously man, outside of Leni Riefenstahl and Fox anymore? Anyway, we can’t whack you infidels at home, so we rely on the American government to do the job for us. And I must say, they are superb. Declaring ISIS a direct threat to Americans in Iowa, man, that sent ISIS stock futures soaring. Making all Americans depressed over our successes and the needlessly dumb acts their government plans to take? Man, you can’t buy that kind of PR. I’d say I was happy as a pig in poop right now if I did not consider pigs filthy creatures under my religion. Oh heck, why not? This is a great day!”
For those who argued with the theory about a month ago that interceding in Iraq for “humanitarian purposes” to help the Yazidis was just a subterfuge to have the U.S. re-enter a messy war that supposedly ended for us in 2011, well, you were wrong.
It was. Enjoy that slippery slope.
This Means War
Just hours ahead of the president’s speech where he is expected to widen the current Iraq War, possibly expand the war into Syria, all the while pledging there will be “no American boots on the ground,” Secretary of State John Kerry got ahead of his boss when he raised the possibility U.S. troops could be committed to ground operations in Iraq in extreme circumstances, the first hedging by an Obama administration official on the president’s pledge that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground to battle the Islamic State.
Kerry made the comment during a news conference after a day of meeting with Iraqi officials.
While Kerry reiterated that Obama has indeed said that no U.S. combat troops would be deployed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, he adding “unless, obviously, something very, very dramatic changes.”
No U.S. official has previously used those words in discussing the growing U.S. confrontation with the Islamic State.
Doomed to Repeat It
Just as a reminder of the last few weeks, here’s some history:
– From 2011 until early August, the U.S. was not involved overtly, militarily, in Iraq.
– In announcing U.S. airstrikes in Iraq in August, Obama said they would be limited to preventing Islamic State genocide of the Yazidi religious minority, a tasking quickly expanded to stopping the ISIS advance on the Kurdish capital of Irbil. Special Forces’ boots were on the ground.
– As Obama deployed upwards of 1000 American troops as “advisors” into Iraq, the air mission was widened into protecting them and the embassy.
– The Yazidi’s forgotten, the U.S. moved into providing close air support for Kurdish troops fighting,bombing near the Mosul Dam, being the air force for Iranians and Iranian-trained Shiite militia breaking the Islamic State siege of Amerli, and forces of whoever is fighting around the Haditha dam.
While in Baghdad, Kerry also said “Every single [Iraqi] leader I talked with today in the strongest terms possible affirmed that they had learned the lessons of the past years” and were determined “to move in a different direction from the direction of years past,” he said.
Ah, if only American leaders would do the same.
Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a worthy read; if it was fiction it might be called “a good yarn.” The book is instead straight-up non-fiction, making it all the more interesting as a window into the world of modern espionage.
An Enthusiastic Muslim
The book is the “as told to” autobiography of Morten Storm. Storm grew up on the dark side of Denmark, a tough, a brawler, a street gang member who always looked for a fight and usually found one. He did some jail time, and lived on the outskirts of society, surviving well enough off Denmark’s generous social welfare system. Socially and spiritually adrift, he was a quick convert to Islam, driven into his new faith by a chance encounter with a library book on the life of The Prophet. The descriptions of the built-in camaraderie of the mosques shows their appeal to disenfranchised youth.
Storm quickly found a way to combine his street smarts with his new faith, gravitating into the growing European jihadi underground. He soon moved to the UK, taking up life in “Londonistan,” the slang term for England’s dark underbelly of Muslim immigrants. Like them, Storm felt marginalized, left out, looked down on and began moving in ever-more radical circles. Despite his over six foot height and bright red hair, he found himself well-accepted. An encounter with a fellow Muslim, who died almost in his arms, propelled Storm to Yemen in search of meaning for his own life. His devotion to Islamic studies and his tough attitude saw him befriended not just by his classmates, but soon by Anwar al-Awlaki himself. Storm takes on all sorts of courier missions for the cleric and becomes a member of his trusted inner circle.
Another chance event suddenly has Storm again reverse course. He falls in with Danish intelligence and Britain’s MI5/MI6 and becomes a double-agent. His second conversion is marked by a bacon sandwich and a beer with his new intel friends to seal the deal. He begins accepting money and taskings from both the British and the Danes.
Storm quickly becomes invaluable, exploiting his connections with al-Awlaki and apparently nearly every significant jihadi in Europe to the advantage of his handlers. He finally attracts the attention of the CIA, which dispatches case officers to work with him toward one goal: pinpoint the location of al-Awlaki so the Americans can assassinate him. Storm agrees and over a series of events, the American citizen cleric is indeed assassinated by an American drone (along with his 16 year old son, also a U.S. citizen.) The CIA, however, double-crosses Storm, denies him the $250,000 payment promised for his work and eventually drives the big Dane in from the cold. His last conversion is to go to the media with his tale, and leave the world of espionage behind.
Without a doubt the very best parts of the book expose a bit of intelligence tradecraft. Unlike what one sees in movies and reads in (fictional) spy books, “spying” is 90 percent working patiently with people, with just a little high-tech thrown in. The book portrays this accurately, showing the best spies are more like skilled psychiatrists than hardened killers. A few details of the recruitment process appear to have been left out, perhaps for security reasons, perhaps because of the unusual three-way sharing of Storm. In real life, case officers of the CIA (the KGB, the Danish security services, MI5/MI6…) spend a lot of time seeking out people (“agents”) who can be convinced to betray their organization or nation. Motives vary, and a smart case officer will pay close attention to what his/her agent really wants– money, adventure, sex, etc. We watch as Storm is cleverly manipulated with both money and the lure of adrenaline rushes, and as his failed fervor for Islam and desire to provide for his family is worked against him.
Of equal interest are the contrasts drawn among the three services involved in handling Storm. The Danes are friendly, clubby, out for a good time even as they subtly draw Storm in and play him off against the Brits and the Yanks. The British impress with their professionalism and appeal to Storm’s sense of adventure, setting him up for sessions in arctic survival with an ex-Royal Marine and shooting lessons with an SAS man.
Then there is the CIA. Storm saves the Americans for his most unflattering portrayal, painting them as impatient, and ready to hand over obscene amounts of money when needed, only then to double-cross their “man” inside al Qaeda when needed. The CIA has another agent, secretly, alongside Storm and never even feigns to trust either of them. The CIA’s simplistic and crude handling is one of the main drivers behind Storm’s break with the intel world.
A Few Criticisms
A few criticisms mark an otherwise decent read. Storm is not shy about his own accomplishments, taking personal credit for a number of significant intelligence successes during the years he worked as a double-agent. One does wonder how accurate such an accounting is, suggesting as it does that the combined European and U.S. spy agencies had very few other people on the inside. Storm is also quite casual, almost dismissive, about how easy it was for him to gain the complete trust of hardened terrorists, despite his very recent infidel past and quick conversion to Islam. The bad guys never really put his allegiance to the test absent a few word games, leaving the question of if al Qaeda’s operational security is really so lame why the intel agencies did not have hundreds of inside men and women. Apparently one need only send the average red-haired European Viking into Yemen claiming he is a recent Muslim convert and bam! you have infiltrated the world of terror.
Storm’s own blustery self-image and the bit of unrealness noted aside, Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a decent read for anyone watching the world of intelligence who also appreciates a good story.
The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Obama for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in announcing the award, cited Obama’s promotion of nuclear nonproliferation and a “new climate” in international relations, especially in reaching out to the Muslim world.
In an exclusive interview, for the first time ever the actual Peace Prize, a large, coin-like object, speaks out.
“At first, it was an amazing time. Like the Committee, I too was all caught up in hope and change. Sure, some cynics said from the beginning that Obama just got awarded me because he wasn’t George Bush, but that just wasn’t what it felt like, honestly. We all believed. The man took me into his home and at first displayed me on his mantel in his private office. It was the same office Clinton got busy with Monica in, so I was on hallowed ground. Really, it was hashtag Proud. At the same time, Obama had his kids’ pictures on the same mantel, which felt cool at first then became kinda creepy. I should have taken the hint. I guess I was in love, and love can make you naive.”
“Looking back, I can almost pinpoint the moment things started to fall apart. At first Barack would come in to the office, alone, and just look at me. One night, very late and after a well-deserved Scotch or two, he said to me ‘I don’t have a birth certificate, but I’ve got you my Peace Prize.’ I never felt closer to him. Then after he dropped his college transcripts behind the file cabinet and was trying to fish them out to shred, he came upon a Post-It note George Bush left behind. It read ‘They’ll believe anything, just do whatever the hell you want.’ The next day he turned me toward the wall, and a few days after that he shoved me into the junk drawer of his desk.”
“Bang, on December 1, less than two months after getting me, Barack announces he is surging 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. He even used that filthy word, surge, whereas a real man would just call it an escalation and take the heat. I still wanted to believe, so I rationalized it as something he had to hold his nose and do to clean up that mess Bush started, but looking back I now wonder how I could have been that stupid. I guess I wasn’t alone in that, but shut away in the dark drawer, I felt I could only blame myself. Sure I was being mistreated, but I somehow felt it must have been something I had done, you know, somehow my fault. If only I had been more supportive, maybe a little warmer to him after those hard days he had. I knew about Michelle, and of course knew he’d never leave her, but still.”
“Once Barack had taken that first step, the rest just tumbled out. Drone strikes everywhere, then Libya, denying the Arab Spring, Special Ops all over Africa, whatever happened between him and Putin that one crazy weekend to ruin things, Syria, Ukraine, it just went on and on. Sometimes he’d open the drawer for a stapler or something and I’d swear his eyes were glowing bright red in the dark.”
“But the real end for us was Iraq. Barack got elected on the fact that he was one of a very few Senators who voted against that awful war, and beat Hillary using that against her own yes vote for Iraq. He took some heat in 2011 for the pull out of the last troops from Iraq but stuck it out. So you can imagine how I felt when he announced 300 advisors being sent in, then unlimited months of air strikes, then more advisors, then whatever that Yazidi thing was, and on and on. Now the U.S. is back in Iraq on another open-ended campaign that seems to have no goal, no endpoint, no definition of ‘victory.’ Meanwhile, we are still in Afghanistan and Gitmo is still an open sore. So where have we seen this movie before, right? I keep asking myself, is this 2014, or 2006?”
“Anyway, I begged him to just let me go. I said he should give me away to Bono or Sean Penn, or just send me off to the Carter Foundation, but he said no, I was his and always would be. I even snuck out and called the Nobel Committee, but man, if you could hear a shrug over the phone that described it.”
“Old Mr. ISIS is a clever fighter,” said the hardened veteran, “but even though Uncle Sam has been fighting him for the last 11 years continuously, long past my failed first and second marriages but I ain’t bitter, we still have a couple of tricks up our sleeve. Yes, sir, this time around we’re getting on the inside to unleash hell.”
The Sergeant shuffled nervously from foot to foot as he spoke, reminding this reporter that he was told to avoid placing both feet on the ground at the same time in front of anyone so that the president could honestly claim there were no American “boots on the ground.”
“Yeah, it gets tiring, but we’re trained for it,” said the Sergeant.
“Last round of fighting in Iraq, we tried bombing and artillery, some rockets, even knives and rocks, but nothing really stuck. Even whatever the Surge was didn’t seem to do the trick, and I’d heard from some buddies of mine up the chain that most people liked that back home. Oh well, this time is the charm. Hey, back in the U.S. do people still do that yellow ribbon thing? Kinda liked that. I once was thanked for my service losing these three fingers here near Mosul with a two-for-one coupon at Taco Bell.”
The secret weapon to defeat ISIS?
“Actually it is a three-part strategy to take down ISIS. And no, it’s not involving Chuck Norris! A little inside joke among us Green Beanie types. Anyway, the first part of the plan is already in play. We have secretly wanted all along for ISIS to capture some of our old military equipment. American stuff needs regular and careful maintenance. When we gave it to the Iraqis on our way out of the country, I guess that was ‘temporarily’ now, we knew the Iraqis would never take care of it. I mean, have you seen this country? People say they’re poor and all, and then everywhere you look there are mountains of trash. How can people who say they don’t have anything create that much garbage every day?”
“Hey, you see that little hill over there? I took a round in my left thigh over there in 1991 during Operation Provide Comfort when we saved the Kurds. And that way? By that well, near the sheep pen, that’s where I got hit in 2003 saving the Kurds again. Lotta stuff up here needs saving it seems, so after this intervention I’m gonna leave behind some shirts and socks so I don’t have to pack so much stuff in next time.”
“So anyway, we knew the Iraqi so-called Army would gank up everything we left behind that they didn’t sell off for scrap metal first. No oil changes, no swapped out parts, hell, they’d sooner leave a truck on the side of the road then tighten a few bolts to keep it running. So the ole’ US of A laid that trap out in 2011 nice and quiet like, just waiting for ISIS to bite. Now, ISIS is stuck with all that junk. They might get a few miles out of some of those HUMVEES, but not much more. Our old rifles are clogging with sand as we speak, and nothing meant to fly is ever gonna again. When they call in for tech support, as some of the stuff is so new it is still under warranty, they’ll be on hold and pushing button one for hours, destroying their forward momentum. Sure hope they speak Spanish, too, because the call center is in Costa Rica. Done and done. We’re only in trouble if they stumble on to some old Russian gear from Saddam’s time.”
“The second part of the plan is Powerpoint. Anybody who has served in the U.S. military knows we plan trips to the porta-potty with a dozen Powerpoint slides, all with animated GIFs. In fact, the Army is the world’s number one consumer of animated GIFs, along with really awful fonts. Another little known fact: 67% of the military is engaged, on average, with creating a Powerpoint presentation somewhere in the world right now. Of course I can’t tell you their exact location, but I know for a fact that SEAL Team Six is on a far-away beach at this moment building a slide deck using only a portable laptop and their night vision gear. The point is simple: we have a couple of guys on the inside of ISIS explaining that all the smart jihadis use Powerpoint. This will slow their planning cycle down by 100 percent. The two hundred Microsoft Office licenses we bought yesterday off New Egg will save American blood today, absolutely. We even had the NSA gin up some fake academic email addresses for us, so we got the four year license cheap so we’re ready for the next intervention, too.”
“Funny thing is when I went into this in 2003 to get rid of Saddam, I told myself that I was doing it so my son would never have to. Thing is that he’s now 23, and deployed to Afghanistan. Now I’m probably shooting at the older brothers of the people I shot at last war. Small world, huh? By the way, speaking of kids, because of all this intervention I’ve been deployed almost continuously for nine years. Your kids forgive you for missing nine birthdays, right? Hey, freedom ain’t free.”
“The last sneaky Pete thing we have ‘cooked up’ is, literally, the killer. We have purposefully overshot our drop zones for some of that humanitarian aid we are delivering by air. The stuff is all MREs, Meals Ready to Eat officially, but Joe Troop calls them Meals Rejected by Everyone. The stuff inside is nasty. During our Special Forces training we have to live in the wild, using only our knives and our cunning to survive. Me, I ate snakes and insects for two weeks. After finally being allowed back in camp and given some MREs, the only thing I could do with them was use the ‘food’ inside as bait for more snakes and insects. Pretty soon the snakes wouldn’t eat it either.”
“So we ‘accidentally’ allowed a bunch of the MREs to fall into ISIS hands. Sooner or later they’ll get hungry enough to push some down their throats. That, my friend, will end this campaign. Can you imagine a fighting force of 100,000 jihadis, everyone of which has to hit the toilet at the same time? Our planes overhead will just roll them up, like fish in a barrell. Actually, come to think of it, fish in a barrel sounds pretty good compared to an MRE.”
“And yeah, those 72 virgins supposedly waiting in heaven for Mr. ISIS? Well, rumor has it Saint Peter made a mistake and misdirected a couple of Marines into Muslim heaven. Let’s just say there are no longer any virgins available, if you get my meaning.”
“Bottom line: if we don’t fight them over here, we’ll just have to come back in a few years and still fight them over here.”
General Ray Odierno lives in the third person regarding Iraq. “Mistakes were made” for sure, but not by him, even when he was in charge. Somehow the mistakes happened temporally on his watch, but by someone, never named. Certainly not by General Ray Odierno.
Continuing a media-led open sucking chest wound process of giving a platform to those who were responsible for the current disaster in Iraq to explain anew to us what happened in Iraq (short version: they didn’t do it), the Aspen Security Forum featured a long, sad dirge by Odierno on Iraq.
One could presume Odierno knows something about Iraq; he spent a lot of time there in key positions of responsibility and built up quite a resume: From October 2001 to June 2004, General Odierno commanded the 4th Infantry Division, leading the division in combat. He was Commanding General of the Multi-National Corps in during the famous Surge that was fantasized as ending the war. Odierno was also Commander of United States Joint Forces Command, meaning he was in charge of every American service member in the country. It was during this time that Odierno had personal responsibility for implementing General Petraeus’ counter-insurgency doctrine, overseeing the 2010 Iraqi elections that gave Prime Minister Maliki his second term, and working hand-in-hand with the American embassy in Baghdad to ensure the training of the Iraqi police and army before the U.S. retreat from Iraq at the end of 2010. Odierno is currently Chief of Staff of the Army. Tragically, Odierno’s son, an Army captain, was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in Baghdad in August 2004 and lost his left arm.
So it is with some sad amusement (think slowing down to gawk at a car wreck on the side of the road) to read Odierno’s comments from the Aspen Security Forum. The general was led through his comments by David Sanger of The New York Times. Sanger himself in 2003 was part of the Times’ wholesale acceptance of the Bush White House’s falsehoods on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so the two make quite a pair.
But no matter; that was in the hard air of then, this is now.
Here are some key points Odierno made at the 2014 Forum:
– “The country was going in the right direction when the United States left in 2011, but Iraqi leaders overestimated the progress made by their military and government institutions.”
– “The problem in Iraq was not the training of the Iraqi security forces, although their ability to sustain their own training was ‘disappointing.’ The problem was a lack of confidence, trust and loyalty between troops and their leaders because of politicization of Iraq’s military leadership.”
– “Leaders were changed out. Many of them weren’t qualified. There was some sectarian nature to the changes that were made. Members of the Iraqi security forces were unwilling to fight for a government that they perceived as not standing up for all the different peoples of Iraq, so when they were challenged, you saw them very quickly fade away.”
– “But military power isn’t enough to solve the problems in Iraq, or elsewhere in the Middle East for that matter. The lesson here is [that] you’ve got to stand up an institution. And that includes not just a military, but also a functioning government. Iraq will continue to disintegrate if the unity government doesn’t re-form… The good thing about this is they are in the process of forming a new government. They just had an election. The hope is that the government that would come out would be one that clearly supports a unity government as we go forward. Will that solve the problem?” My guess is not completely. But that’s the first step.”
Odierno has rehearsed his lines– from 2010. Here’s what he claimed after the 2010 elections in Iraq: “”Iraqi security forces performed superbly… I think it was very much a success for the Iraqi people yesterday.” He said earlier that same year “Iraq presents a solid opportunity to help in stabilizing the Middle East.” The Washington Post, never a stranger to hagiography, said on Odierno’s departure from Iraq: “He leaves behind a war not yet won, not yet lost and not yet over. The gap has narrowed in one notable way: Iraq’s security forces, trained, equipped and to a large extent designed by the U.S. military, are increasingly professional and competent.”
The very factors Odierno speaks today of almost as if he was an independent third party dispassionately looking back are the same ones he was responsible for resolving over his many years of command in Iraq. Odierno watched as the United States poured $25 billion into training the gleefully third world standard Iraqi Army he now says was not properly trained. He was handmaiden to the 2010 elections that saw the Iranians broker a Maliki victory and the installation of a Shia-based non-representative government. He oversaw the military reconstruction efforts over years of the Occupation that failed (alongside the State Department’s efforts) to create the very institutions whose absence he now decries. Despite all this, the best Odierno can come up with as an explanation for why everything is a mess in 2014 is the Iraqi’s messed up his good work.
But if Maliki is anything more than a talisman for the whole mess of post-2003 Iraq, he was certainly America’s choice (twice) for the role, and it is unfair to simply fob current events off on him, or assume things will turn around when he is sent off-stage like a modern day Ngo Dinh Diem. Same for “the Iraqis,” whoever they are in this context, who have been designated as a group the responsible party for failing to reassemble the broken country the U.S. created, uninvited, and then left for them.
Odierno is far from alone in absolving himself of responsibility for all the good he failed to do. The big difference is that Odierno likely knows better.
While in Iraq, I met Odierno several times. He traveled tirelessly and spoke to everyone. Addressing small groups of his field officers, the general was often more considered in his remarks, and more aware of the nuanced ground truth, than in his photo-op statements. Yet for all his McNamara of 1965-like public optimism during the war, Odierno does not now seem able to rise to the McNamara of 1995 in admitting his shortcomings, and those of his war. In not doing so– as McNamara did when he remained silent over Vietnam for so long– he blocks the lessons of the past from informing the present. Odierno, like all of Washington vis-vis Iraq, seems to believe he is exempt from history.
Is ISIS a Direct Threat to the U.S.? Doubtful.
First, a few samples of the fear-mongering rhetoric.
“The militant Islamic State group could launch a direct attack on U.S. soil,” warned South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who claimed the militants are a “direct threat to our homeland… They are coming.” Graham, and his running dog accomplice John McCain, have never found a threat they could not exaggerate.
“In reality, ISIS represents the most virulent form of Islamic jihad the planet has ever seen. These folks are not Muslims, they are animals, frankly… another 9/11 is imminent.” said Ali Khedery, who, as an advisor to five U.S. ambassadors in Iraq, is personally responsible for much of the mess there.
“Every day that goes by, ISIS… becomes a direct threat to the United States of America. They are more powerful now than al Qaeda was on 9/11,” Representative Peter King said.
R U Scared Yet?
Well, that is all pretty terrifying. While the fear mongers depend on the idea that there is no way to prove a negative (i.e., ISIS will never attack the U.S., or Paraguay, or Bermuda), there is still room for rational thought. Here are a few of such thoughts:
– ISIS has been in existence in some form since perhaps 2004, as part of Al Qaeda in Iraq. They formed their own organization, such as it is, in 2013. In the nine years of the U.S. Occupation of Iraq, no Mideast group launched an attack on the U.S. Nobody from the Taliban has shown up here since whenever, same for the groups unleashed after the U.S. attacked Libya. No Yemeni or Pakistani terrorists yet either. No Boko Haram, no Abu Sayyaf. Not even al Qaeda after 9/11. What’s different about ISIS?
– Oh, the money? Yep, they seemed to have gotten ahold of a huge amount of Iraqi and U.S. currency, and American weapons, after the Iraqi Army gave up and ran away. Money can help, but in fact the 9/11 attacks may have cost about $400,000, and that included all that expensive flight training. Not small change, but certainly the kind of money that an international terror group could raise. Nope, no big change there either.
– Many/most of the ISIS fighters are unsophisticated people with limited formal education, likely with no English skills and little if any experience outside their own areas. It seems unlikely they are the kind of people who will successfully obtain passports, travel to international airports, blend in, hop on planes, wander into the U.S., acquire weapons and navigate around America to strike important targets.
– But what about the foreign fighters with ISIS? Aren’t there Americans among them who will return to the Homeland and carry out lone wolf attacks? Sure, that it always possible. But again, since 9/11, almost 13 years, it hasn’t happened. Is there something different about the ISIS Americans? Meanwhile, the very few acts of terrorism in the U.S. have been carried out by people already here, such as the hapless Boston kids, likely the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, and Major Hasan, a serving U.S. Army officer who shot up Fort Hood. We’ll leave aside the heavy death toll in America in the meantime by our own army of school mass shooters and workplace psychos.
– And speaking of those Americans who have joined ISIS, perhaps the fear mongers might pause and consider what might encourage a young person to do that, and perhaps tackle the problem from the perspective.
– Thinking ISIS will jump from the battlefields of Iraq to New York fails to understand the point of terrorism. ISIS has exactly what it wants already, and achieved its goal vis-vis the U.S. at almost no cost: they lured the Americans back into Iraq. What had been a struggle for territory among indigenous groups turned overnight into a jihad against the American crusaders, you know, the ones who promised to leave Iraq in 2011 and then instead came back?
Nothing could be more helpful to ISIS in terms of recruitment, raising money and inspiring its forces than to recharacterize the conflict as something broader, with ISIS in the role of protector of Islam. If ISIS wants to kill Americans, they can do it right there at home.
So sleep well America. ISIS is killing us over there because it is more convenient for them than killing us here. The rest is just fear mongering.
No one wants to see anyone suffer, Yazidi or otherwise. What we do want is to know the truth about what is going on in Iraq even as Obama continues airstrikes, and prepares to send in 130 more American troops. The 130 additional advisers brings the number of American military personnel in Iraq to more than 1,000.
U.S. officials said they believed that some type of ground force would be necessary to secure the passage of the stranded members of the Yazidi group. The military is drawing up plans for consideration by President Obama that could include American ground troops.
So a couple of questions here.
Long before U.S. airstrikes, the defenseless Yazidi people climbed up that mountain for refuge from ISIS, who supposedly wanted to slaughter them. Why didn’t ISIS just also climb up and then slaughter them? We know ISIS had mortars and actual artillery, because the U.S. later bombed those. Why didn’t ISIS use those weapons to slaughter the Yazidis from afar?
Also, after one or two airstrikes, ISIS became so easy to defeat that the Kurds made it possible for 24,000 Yazidis to walk off the mountain, walk into Syria and then U-turn walk back into Iraq and settle in safely. It begs the question about how surrounded by determined ISIS fighters that mountain really was. It takes a long time for 24,000 people to do anything, and they’d need to be walking a long way during which time they would be vulnerable to ISIS. How could ISIS go from being such a threat that U.S. airpower was essential, to be pushed aside by Kurds who otherwise were having their hats handed to them by ISIS everywhere else?
And after all that, plus more airstrikes, why are there still people up on that mountain without food or water? How was it that 24,000 people could walk away but not everyone? The air strikes are ongoing, and those same Kurds that cleared a path once are still there.
The Iraqi government claims ISIS killed at least 500 Yazidis, burying some alive and taking hundreds of women as slaves. The Iraqi government claimed “Some of the victims, including women and children, were buried alive in scattered mass graves in and around Sinjar.” This was reported by western media, at least one of whom was still ethical enough to add “no independent confirmation was available.” Recent mass graves in a desert area should stand out. This seems like something worth confirming instead of just repeating. What efforts are being made to confirm the information?
If every seat on every helicopter will save a Yazidi child’s life via evacuation, why are seats being allotted to CNN camera crews and other journalists? What is the priority?
What is the thinking about a group the U.S. has long-designated as a terrorist organization playing an active part in rescuing the Yazidis under American air cover? Shouldn’t the U.S. be bombing known terrorist organizations instead of working with them? Isn’t that sort of the actual point of a war on terror, to kill terrorists wherever they are?
Maybe there are good answers to these questions (please share below, with links) but is it at all possible that we’re being sold an emotionally compelling story to justify U.S. military intervention in Iraq? Perhaps that mountain the Yazidis are on has a slippery slope for the U.S.?
It looks like some of the stuff the U.S. is now blowing up in Iraq is some of the stuff the U.S. first brought to Iraq to blow up Iraqis in 2003, then gave to the Iraqis after we were done blowing them up and left in 2011, only to see those same Iraqis abandon the gear on the battlefield last month so it could be picked up by ISIS this week, which led to the U.S. bombing it today.
It’s Our Own Stuff
When the Iraqi Army’s 2nd Division broke and fled ahead of the advancing columns of ISIS fighters near Mosul earlier this summer, they left behind a mountain of U.S.-supplied military equipment. Included were were hundreds of Humvees, small arms and ammunition (including 4,000 machine guns that can fire upwards of 800 rounds per minute), and as many as 52 American M-198 howitzer mobile gun systems – the same guns that two US Navy F/A-18s most likely pounded with 500 pound laser guided bombs on Friday.
Obama gave the green light for strikes anywhere in Iraq where U.S. citizens were in danger, so CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin gave the order to strike on Friday when it was determined that the city of Erbil was in range of the American-lost guns. All of the Americans being protected in Erbil are there because the U.S. government put them there, including U.S. Consulate staff and Special Forces. Presumably those personnel could have been moved out, thus avoiding this whole thing.
Now the good news here is for the U.S. defense industry, which has achieved the state of karmic perfection. The weapons they once sold to the U.S. are now being destroyed by other weapons they sold to the U.S., which will need to be replenished. Why, it’s a win-win situation for nearly everybody!
We Told You So
The U.S. knew ISIS had control of the howitzers from at least mid-July. But it is not like any of this couldn’t have been foretold long before mid-July.
Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University Chris Coyne, in an interview with me, predicted this exact scenario much earlier this summer:
The U.S. government provided significant amounts of military hardware to the Iraqi government with the intention that it would be used for good (national security, policing, etc.). However, during the ISIS offensive many of the Iraqis turned and ran, leaving behind the U.S.-supplied hardware. ISIS promptly picked up this equipment and are now using it as part of their broader offensive effort. This weapons windfall may further alter the dynamics in Syria.
Now the U.S. government wants to provide more military supplies to the Iraqi government to combat ISIS. But I haven’t heard many people recognizing, let alone discussing, the potential negative unintended consequences of doing so. How do we know how the weapons and supplies will be used as desired? What if the recipients turn and run as they have recently and leave behind the weapons? What if the weapons are stolen? In sum, why should we have any confidence that supplying more military hardware into a country with a dysfunctional and ineffective government will lead to a good outcome either in Iraq or in the broader region?
As America goes back to war in Iraq with airstrikes, here’s what to know and do instead:
– This is a slippery slope if those words have any meaning left. Airstrikes are in part to protect American advisors sent earlier to Erbil to support Kurds there because Iraqi central government won’t. The U.S. is assuming the role of the de facto Iraqi Air Force. What happens next week, next crisis, next “genocide?” Tell me how that ends.
– Understand how deep the U.S. is already in. It is highly likely that U.S. Special Forces are active on the ground, conducting reconnaissance missions and laser-designating targets for circling U.S. aircraft. If U.S. planes are overhead, U.S. search and rescue assets are not far away, perhaps in desert forward operating positions. Protecting/evacuating Americans from Erbil will be a major military operation. This is how bigger wars begin. Go Google “Vietnam War,” say starting about 1963.
– The U.S. media is playing the meme that the U.S. is worried about Christian minority in Iraq, as a way to engorge the American people with blood. But the media fails to note that over half of Iraq’s Christians were killed or fled during the U.S. occupation. The play in the Arab world that the U.S. cares more about a limited number of Christians now than untold thousands of Muslim lives will not aid U.S. long-term goals.
– The questions of why what is happening in Iraq is “genocide” and why what is happening in Gaza is not remains unaddressed by the United States. Even if Americans are not asking for an answer, many others are.
– Wait a tic– are we again “buying time” by putting American lives at risk so the Iraqis can form a government and reconcile in some short-term thing? Isn’t that what America had been doing since 2003? Wasn’t that what the “success of the Surge” in 2007 was all about? We have seen this movie already friends.
– The only realistic hope to derail ISIS is to alienate them from Iraq Sunnis, who provide the on-the-ground support any insurgency must have to succeed. Mao called a sympathetic population “the water the fish swims in.” Separating the people from the insurgents is CounterInsurgency 101. Instead, via airstrikes, the U.S. has gone all-in on side of Iraqi Shias and Kurds. You cannot bomb away a political movement. You cannot kill an idea that motivates millions of people with a Hellfire missile.
– Sunnis are not confined by the borders of Iraq and this is not a chessboard. U.S. actions toward Sunnis in Iraq (or Syria, or wherever) resonate throughout the Sunni world. There is no better recruitment tool for Sunni extremists than showing their fight is actually against the Americans. ISIS seems to be playing to this, calling the Americans “defenders of the cross.”
– Throughout the broader Islamic world, the takeaway is that again the U.S. unleashes war against Muslims. Nothing can inspire jihad like seeing the struggle in Iraq as one against the Crusaders. ISIS seems to know this, and taunts America into deeper involvement with statements such as “the flag of Allah will fly over the White House.”
– Precise, Surgical Strikes: Sure, just ask those wedding parties in Yemen and Afghanistan how that has worked out. It is near-evitable that mistakes will be made and innocents will die at American hands.
– ISIS’ connections to al Qaeda are tenuous at present. However, just like when Sunnis felt threatened during the U.S. occupation, fear and military needs will inevitably drive them closer to al Qaeda.
– Irony: Back to the Future: U.S. airstrikes on Iraq are being launched from an aircraft carrier named after George H.W. Bush, who first involved the U.S. in a shooting war against Iraq in 1991′s Desert Storm.
– Air strikes will not resolve anything significant. The short answer is through nine years of war and occupation U.S. air power in Iraq, employed on an unfettered scale, combined with the full-weight of the U.S. military on the ground plus billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, failed to resolve the issues now playing out in Iraq. Why would anyone think a lesser series of strikes would work any better? We also have a recent Iraqi example of the pointlessness of air strikes. The Maliki government employed them with great vigor against Sunnis in western Iraq, including in Fallujah, only six months ago, and here we are again, with an even more powerful Sunni force in the field.
– Oh, but what should we do?!?!? The U.S. lost the war in Iraq years ago, probably as early as 2003. It is time to accept that.
Step One: Stop digging the hole deeper (see above, Sunni-Shia-Kurd problem);
Step Two: 2: Demand the Iraqi government stop persecuting and alienating their own Sunni population, the root of these insurgent problems;
Step Three: Demand the Saudis and others stop funding ISIS in hopes of choking back their strength;
Step Four: Demand the Iraqi government launch airstrikes in support of the Kurds as a show of support;
Step Five: Deliver humanitarian aid only through the UN and the Red Crescent. In Vietnam, this mistake was colloquially expressed as “F*ck ‘em, then Feed ‘em.” So instead, divorce the good U.S. stuff from the bad U.S. stuff.
Those things will be a good start. Airstrikes are a terrible start that begs a tragic finish.
Be sure to also see Ten Reasons Airstrikes in Iraq are a Terrible Idea.
Show of hands: anybody out there who heard much of the Yazidi in Iraq before a day or two ago? Because our president is going to re-engage in combat in Iraq to save them. Airstrikes are now authorized!
Save Our Yazidi
Once upon a time placing America’s service people in harm’s way, spending America’s money and laying America’s credibility on the line required at least the pretext that some national interest was at stake. Not any more. Anytime some group we don’t like threatens a group we could care not so much about, America must act to save a proud people, stop a humanitarian crisis, take down a brutal leader, put an end to genocide, whatever will briefly engage the sodden minds of the public between innings and spin up some new war fever. Some of these crisis’ get a brief moment in the #media (Save our girls!), some fizzle and fade (The Syrian people!) and some never even made sense (Somebody in the Ukraine!)
With some irony, “freeing the Iraqi people from an evil dictator” was one of the many justifications for the 2003 invasion.
And so this week, apparently it is the Yazidis in northern Iraq. These people consider themselves a distinct ethnic and religious group from the Kurds with whom they live in Iraq, though the Kurds consider them Kurdish. Their religion combines elements of Zoroastrianism with Sufi Islam. One of their important angels is represented on earth in peacock form, and was flung out of paradise for refusing to bow down to Adam. While the Yazidis see that as a sign of goodness, many Muslims view the figure as a fallen angel and regard the Yazidis as devil-worshippers. Fun Facts: the Yadzidi don’t eat lettuce, either, and also boast a long tradition of kidnapping their wives. The photo above shows them slaughtering a sheep, which they do eat.
Between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians (kind of a big spread of an estimate given how important these people are now to the U.S.) are currently stranded on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq without food and water, having been driven out of town by ISIS earlier this week.
So, in response to this humanitarian crisis, or this genocide as the New Yorker called it, Obama’s answer is pretty much the same answer (the only answer?) to any unfolding world event, more U.S. military intervention.
With no apparent irony, the White House spokesperson, surnamed Earnest (honestly, Orwell must be laughing in his grave) said on the same day “We can’t solve these problems for them. These problems can only be solved with Iraqi political solutions.”
Obama also has said U.S. airstrikes on Iraq aim to protect U.S. military advisers in Iraq who one guesses are not part of that political solution by definition.
I feel for anyone suffering, and I have no doubt the Yazidis are suffering. But as we start bombing things in Iraq again, let’s invite Obama to answer a few questions; White House journalists, pens at the ready please:
– Since this is happening in Iraq, and the U.S. spent $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army and sold it some serious weaponry, why isn’t it the Iraqis who will be doing any needed bombing? Is it because they are incompetent, or is it because the Baghdad government is either afraid to operate in Kurdish territory and/or wholly unconcerned what the hell happens up there?
Yep, might be those things. The Yazidis have long complained that neither Iraq’s Arabs nor Kurds protect them. In 2007, in what remains one of the most lethal attacks during the American Occupation, suicide bombers driving trucks packed with explosives attacked a Yazidi village in northwestern Iraq, killing almost 800 people.
– At the same time, since this is happening in defacto Kurdistan, and the U.S. has spent billions there since 1991 and supplied it some serious weaponry, why isn’t it the Kurds who will be doing any needed bombing to protect those they consider their own people? Hmm, just an idea, but the U.S. has recently imposed an economic oil embargo on Kurds to force them to stay with Iraq and they might be unhappy with American ‘stuff right now.
– Outside Kurdistan/Iraq, the other major Yazidi population centers are in Turkey and Iran. So why aren’t they doing any needed bombing?
– If indeed this Yazidi issue is a genocide, why isn’t the U.S. seeking UN action or sanction? The UN has, after all, started safely extracting small number of Yazidis. Could anyone help with that?
– If indeed this Yazidi issue is a genocide, why aren’t any of America’s allies jumping in to assist in any needed bombing? Seriously, if all this is really so important, how come it is just the U.S. involved, always?
– While saving the Yazidis is the stated goal, in fact any U.S. airstrikes are technically and officially acts of war on behalf of the Government of Iraq. And we’re also cool with that, yes?
– And c’mon, isn’t this just a cynical excuse to tug on some American heartstrings, crank up the war fever and get us back into the Iraq war? ‘Cause even if that’s not the intention, it is a likely result.
– And Obama, we’re gonna be cool announcing the loss of American life, again, in Iraq, this time to save the Yazidi? ‘Cause even though there are supposedly no boots on the ground, there is no way you are going to drop bombs near civilians you are trying to protect without Special Forces laying their boots on the ground to guide in the airstrikes. We are not Israelis, after all.
I am quite pleased to have joined the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.org.
The group’s message is clear: encourage more government officials to blow the whistle. As said on their website, “ExposeFacts.org represents a new approach for encouraging whistleblowers to disclose information that citizens need to make truly informed decisions in a democracy. From the outset, our message is clear: “Whistleblowers Welcome at ExposeFacts.org.”
I’m sort of amazed I fit in alongside the others working with ExposeFacts: Barbara Ehrenreich, Dan Ellsberg, Tom Drake, Jesselyn Radack, Michael Ratner, Matt Hoh, Coleen Rowley, Ann Wright and Ray McGovern. So there’s yer humble brag for today.
I am also quite pleased that half a block from the State Department in Washington, at a bus stop used by America’s diplomats, ExposeFacts erected its first outdoor advertisement encouraging government employees to blow the whistle (photo above; that’s Matt Hoh there, not me). The ad shows Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg alongside the words “Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until a new war has started, don’t wait until thousands more have died, before you tell the truth with documents that reveal lies or crimes or internal projections of costs and dangers. You might save a war’s worth of lives.”
ExposeFacts will erect more such ads at other prominent locations in Washington and beyond. As an advisory board member, I’m glad to report that outreach to potential whistleblowers is just getting started.
(For those new to the blog, I am a State Department whistleblower, so this all resonates with me personally as well as a concerned American. Learn more in my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project))
“I’m still not sure exactly what happened,” said gaffe-prone, beleaguered Secretary of State John Kerry, “but I’m told I agreed to sanctions on myself.”
In an exclusive, Kerry explained his mistake.
“So there we were in the Middle East. I travel almost constantly, and at my age, even with a large staff, it can get hard to keep track. I mean, have you ever been to the MidEast? Every place looks like every other place. It’s hot, sandy, and each country seems to have some sort of odd headgear. Look, I’m not the first to get confused by all this.”
“Anyway, so I’m tired. We’re in West-Somewhere-Stan, some forsaken patch of garbage with no oil, where the national export is dust, and I’m shaking hands for a photo op with what seems like the same orphan I shook hands in Baghdad, Kabul, Cairo and Tunis. Does that kid travel on the plane with me? We had had some local food for lunch which did not agree with me, and so I proposed sanctioning humus. Maybe it was sort of a joke, maybe I meant Hamas, maybe it was the Ambien talking. Next thing I know, the State Department spokesperson in Washington is telling reporters I have imposed a sanction on a beloved food product.”
“It really hits the fan then. Half the Middle East turns around and imposes retaliatory sanctions on me. Those people can’t agree on something simple like not killing each others’ kids, and bang! overnight they band together on some silly food thing. I had hoped it was going to blow over after another suicide bombing like always, but then Israel joins in the sanctions against me. Cray cray, amiright?”
Kerry leaned over to an aide, who confirmed for him that he had read his printed talking points correctly.
“Can’t be too careful, right?” joked Kerry, now chewing on the edge of the note card.
“So once Israel agreed to join every Arab nation on the planet in sanctioning me, my hands were tied. I mean, when Israel barks, I’m there with a Scooby treat, often a multi-million dollar treat. So, in a show of solidarity with Israel– who indeed has the right to defend itself against me, which I strongly support– I agreed to join the sanctions regime against myself. I even explained that the United States views the situation with concern to make it all official. Tomorrow I’ll add ‘grave concern.’ That’ll show me I mean business about myself.”
“Next thing I know, everybody in the U.S. is on TV about it. I thought nobody actually watched those Sunday morning news shows, but it turns out that Fox has an intern who takes notes if she’s up early. Pretty soon all of the media has opinions on this, some former Ambassador is writing an Op-Ed and then Barack orders me to come home and not leave my room.”
“So we get on the plane and I’m relaxing with a stiff drink when out the window I see three F-18′s escorting us. My pilot tells me they’re trying to force us to land somewhere, saying I’m violating my own sanctions by flying, plus I’m on the No-Fly list now. Guess what? I end up in Moscow! Nearest airport somehow. You’d think they had a lot of places to stay there with capitalism and all, but I found out all the VIPs are stuck in the same place, which was booked solid for the Ukrainian National Day celebration, and I get stuck on Edward Snowden’s couch for the night. Awkward.”
“At least the guy is pretty quiet, though he leaves his towels on the floor in the shower. And who doesn’t flush? But we got along OK and he even helped me with my laptop. The State Department still runs some software thingie I’m told is called “Windows XP” and Snowden told me it hadn’t been ‘patched’ since ‘like when the first Matrix came out.’ I had left the paper with all my passwords on the plane, but he knew mine somehow. He even said he installed a free ‘keylogger’ for me and some other good stuff. I asked him if I needed a new laptop and he was adamant that I should never, ever stop using the one he had installed all that magic stuff on. What could I say? Hah hah, I can’t even program my VCR I told Ed.”
“That was apparently funny, because my aide had to explain to Ed what a VCR was. Ed said ‘LOL,’ which made me feel good after all those sanctions.”
“How it could the day get worse? One word– Vladimir Putin. Really, what is that guy’s problem? Putin shows up on TV opposing sanctions against me. C’mon, does that dude have to oppose everything we do? Yeah, apparently he does. So I have to throw together a press conference where I call out Putin for opposing sanctions on me, and call on the international community to robustly support even greater sanctions against me. The EU issues a statement saying they resolutely aren’t sure what their position is, and the press sniping starts all over. I’m stuck ‘accidentally’ saying into an open mic I’m personally really angry at myself for not upholding the sanctions. What a mess.”
“Next thing I know, my own State Department starts Tweeting about the sanctions, hashtagging my sorry self with junk like #SaveALifeSanctionKerry. Worse yet, they’re sending me emails asking me to approve the Tweets about myself, something about policies come and go but bureaucracy remains. Man, me and Snowden had a laugh about that one. He knew my password for Netflix and so we just chilled after that.”
“So here I am stuck in Russia with all these sanctions on me. I hear Obama is threatening to ‘ratchet down’ the sanctions on me if China doesn’t lower tariffs. I’d like to fly there and sort that out, but with the sanctions I’m really over a barrell. I can’t even use my card at the ATM. At this point I’m not sure what to do next. I’m thinking of calling up Jon Stewart and seeing if he’ll weigh in for me. He’s about the only guy left Barack really listens to. Wish me luck.”
In the case of Stingray, a cell phone spying device used against Americans, the government does have something to hide and they fear the release of more information. Meanwhile, the Fourth Amendment weeps quietly in the corner.
Cell phone technology is very useful to the cops to locate you and to track your movements. In addition to whatever as-yet undisclosed things the NSA may be up to on its own, the FBI acknowledges a device called Stingray to create electronic, “fake,” cell phone towers and track people via their phones in the U.S. without their knowledge. The tech does not require a phone’s GPS. This technology was first known to have been deployed against America’s enemies in Iraq, and it has come home to be used against a new enemy– you.
Stingray, also known as an International Mobile Subscriber Identity, or IMSI, catcher, works like this. The cell network is designed around triangulation and whenever possible your phone is in constant contact with at least three towers. As you move, one tower “hands off” your signal to the next one in your line of motion. Stingray electronically inserts itself into this process as if it was a (fake; “spoofed”) cell tower itself to grab location data before passing your legitimate signal back to the real cell network. The handoffs in and out of Stingray are invisible to you. Stingrays also “inadvertently” scoop up the cell phone data of anyone within several kilometers of the designated target person. Though typically used to collect location metadata, Stingray can also capture conversations, texts and mobile web use if needed.
Stingray offers some unique advantages to a national security state: it bypasses the phone company entirely, which is handy if laws change and phone companies no longer must cooperate with the government, or simply if the cops don’t want the phone company or anyone else to know they’re snooping.
This has led the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to warn “A Stingray— which could potentially be beamed into all the houses in one neighborhood looking for a particular signal— is the digital version of the pre-Revolutionary war practice of British soldiers going door-to-door, searching Americans’ homes without rationale or suspicion, let alone judicial approval… [Stingray is ] the biggest technological threat to cell phone privacy.”
Trying to Learn about Stingray
Learning how Stingray works is difficult.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a FOIA request for more information on Stingrays, but the FBI is sitting on 25,000 pages of documents explaining the device that it won’t release.
The device itself is made by the Harris Corporation. Harris makes electronics for commercial use and is a significant defense contractor. For Stingray, available only to law enforcement agencies, Harris requires a non-disclosure agreement that police departments around the country have been signing for years explicitly prohibiting them from telling anyone, including other government bodies, about their use of the equipment “without the prior written consent of Harris.”
A price list of Harris’ spying technology, along with limited technical details, was leaked online, but that’s about all we know.
Though the non-disclosure agreement includes an exception for “judicially mandated disclosures,” there are no mechanisms for judges even to learn that the equipment was used at all, thus cutting off any possibility they could know enough demand disclosure. In at least one case in Florida, a police department revealed that it had decided not to seek a warrant to use the technology explicitly to avoid telling a judge about the equipment. It subsequently kept the information hidden from the defendant as well. The agreement with Harris goes further to require law enforcement to notify Harris any time journalists or anyone else files a public records request to obtain information about Stingray and also demands the police department assist Harris in deciding what information to release.
Something to Hide
An evolving situation in Florida shows how hard the government is working to keep the details of its Stingray spying on Americans secret.
The ACLU originally sought Stingray records in Sarasota, Florida after they learned a detective there obtained permission to use the device simply by filing an application with a local court, instead of obtaining a probable-cause warrant as once was required by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. It became clear that the Sarasota police had additionally used Stingray at least 200 times since 2010 without even the minimal step of even notifying a judge. In line with the non-disclosure agreement, very rarely were arrested persons advised that Stingray data was used to locate and prosecute them.
The ACLU, which earlier in 2014 filed a Florida state-level FOIA-type request with the Sarasota police department for information detailing its use of Stingray, had an appointment with the local cops to review documents. The local police agreed to the review. However, the June 2014 morning of the ACLU’s appointment, U.S. Marshals arrived ahead of them and physically took possession of the files. The Marshals barred the Sarasota police from releasing them. The rationale used by the federal government was that having quickly deputized a Sarasota cop, all Sarasota records became federal property.
“This is consistent with what we’ve seen around the country with federal agencies trying to meddle with public requests for Stingray information,” an ACLU spokesperson said, noting that federal authorities have in other cases invoked the Homeland Security Act to prevent the release of such records. “The feds are working very hard to block any release of this information to the public.”
A Court Says the Feds Can Hide the Records
Following the feds’ seizure of the Stingray records, the ACLU filed an emergency motion with a Florida court that would require Sarasota to make its Stingray records available. However, in a decision issued June 17, 2014, a Florida state circuit court judge found that his court lacked jurisdiction over a federal agency, allowing the transfer of the Stingray documents to the feds and de facto blocking their release.
The ACLU plans further appeals. Unless and until they succeed, details of another way of spying on Americans will remain secret. The government does indeed have something to hide.
I again join the Alex Jones Show, with guest host Dave Knight, to discuss the devolving situation in Iraq, and my new book Ghosts of Tom Joad. My portion of the show begins about two hours and eight minutes in, so feel free to fast forward to the good stuff below, or jump right to it with this link.
Over this July 4th weekend, and as I see the images of Iraq’s unfolding civil war, sometimes I think I even recognize a place I had been, having spent a year in the midst of America’s Occupation there, 2009-2010. I was a State Department civilian, embedded with an Army brigade of some 3000 men and women far from the embassy and the pronouncements of victory and whatever bright lights Iraq might have had. I grow weary now of hearing people talk about America’s sacrifices, our investment, the need for more troops or air strikes, our blood and treasure spent to free Iraq, or whatever it was we were supposed to have gone there to do.
So many people say those things. But before another one says another thing, I wish they could have seen what I saw in Iraq. This.
Private First Class (PFC) Brian Edward Hutson (name changed), in Iraq, put the barrel of his M-4 assault rifle into his mouth, with the weapon set for a three-round burst, and blew out the back of his skull. He was college- aged but had not gone and would never go to college. Notice appeared in the newspapers a week after his death, listed as “non-combat related.” Of the 4,486 American military deaths in Iraq, 911 were considered “non-combat related,” that is, non-accidents, suicides. In 2010, as in 2009, the years I was in Iraq with PFC Hutson, more soldiers died by their own hand than in combat. Mental disorders in those years outpaced injuries as a cause for hospitalization. The Army reported a record number of suicides in a single month for June 2010. Thirty- two soldiers in all, more than one a day for the whole month, around the time PFC Hutson took his life.
The M-4 rifle PFC Hutson used to kill himself, successor to the M-16 of Vietnam fame, allows the shooter, with the flip of a switch, to choose to fire one bullet per trigger pull or three. Nobody knows whether PFC Hutson spent a long time or no time with the rifle barrel in his mouth, but he must have really wanted to be dead, because he chose three shots. The bullets exploded through his brain in sequence. He left his toilet kit in the shower trailer. He still had Clearasil in the bag. Rumor was he’d had trouble sleeping. I didn’t know him.
I heard about his death at breakfast and walked over to his sleeping trailer along with some others. I took a quick look inside and saw the fan spray of blood and brain on the wall, already being washed off by the Bangladeshi contractor cleaning crew KBR had brought to Iraq for the war. The bleach solution they used was smearing more than cleaning, and the Bangladeshis had little stomach to wring out the mop heads all that often. Blood like this smells coppery. Even if you’d never smelled pooled blood before, you didn’t have to learn what it was, you already knew something was wrong in this place, this trailer, this Iraq.
Death does not redeem or disgrace. It is just a mess and no one who deals with it thinks otherwise. Don’t ask poets or pastors, because they do not know that pieces of people still look a lot like people and that extreme violence leaves bodies looking nothing like the bodies you see in open caskets or on TV. In Iraq I saw a girl crushed when a wall collapsed, her face looking like a Halloween pumpkin a few days too late. There was a drowned man in an irrigation ditch, gray and bloated, no eyes. Fish had nibbled them. You saw that stuff in Iraq. It was how war works.
A week before Hutson’s suicide, another soldier lost his life. This soldier, a turret gunner, was killed when his vehicle unsuccessfully tried to pass at thirty-five miles per hour under a too-low bridge. The Army counted deaths by accident as “combat deaths,” while suicides were not. Under a policy followed by George W. Bush and in part by Barack Obama, the families of suicides did not receive a condolence letter from the President. Suicides do not pertain to freedom. They died of the war, but not in the war.
But if distinctions between causes of death were made at the Pentagon, that was not the case on the ground in Iraq. The death of any soldier reverberated through the base This was, after all, a small town, and nobody was left untouched. The comfort of ritual stood in for public expressions of actual feelings, which were kept private and close. And the ritual prescribed by regulation was the same, whether the death
was by suicide or in combat. The chapel had rows of chairs set up, much as it would in Hamilton, Ohio, or Marietta, Georgia for a wedding, only at the front of the room was a wooden box, made and brought to Iraq for this purpose, with holes for the US and the unit flag and a slot to stand the deceased’s rifle.
The remains of the deceased were likely already on their way home and not with us. This was not for PFC Hutson anyway, it was for us. The box holding the flags was made of plywood, stained and varnished like paneling, and reminded everyone of a B+ high school wood shop project. The dead man’s boots stood on either side of the rifle, with his helmet on top. It was fitting no one had cleaned the boots, because the presence of the dust and dirt wiped away a lot of the standardization of the ritual. Before the event started, the hum in the room was about future meetings, upcoming operations, food in the chow hall, the workaday talk of soldiers.
There was a program, done up on a word processor, with the official Army photo of the deceased, wearing a clean uniform, posed in front of an American flag— young, so young, you could see a few red pockmarks on the side of his face, a chicken pox scar on his forehead. All these photos showed a vacant stare, same as every high school graduation photo. The printed program was standard fare— some speeches, the chaplain leading the 23rd Psalm, and a final good-bye.
The speeches were strained because the senior officers who feel it important to speak at these events rarely knew, or could know among the many troops under them, the deceased. As with every other briefing they gave, the officers read words someone else wrote for them to give the impression of authority and familiarity. The dead man’s job had something minor to do with radios and most present couldn’t say much beyond that. The eulogy thus rang a bit hollow, but you reminded yourself that the words were not necessarily intended for you alone and that the Colonel may not have been the best man for the job. He was a responsible man, trying hard to do something impossible, and he probably felt bad for his lack of conviction. He did understand more of why we were all here, in Iraq, and that a task had to be done, and that he need not be
Pericles or Lincoln to do a decent job of it.
The last speaker was by tradition someone acquainted personally with the deceased, a friend if one could be found, a junior leader or coworker if not. In today’s ceremony, things were especially awkward. The dead man had taken his life and had done so after only a few months in the Army and even less time at this forward operating base in Iraq. Nobody really had befriended him, and this being the third suicide on the base made the whole thing especially grim. The ceremony felt rushed, like an over-rehearsed school play where the best performance had taken place the night before. Not a surprise really; many of the soldiers present were not long from their high schools.
The Army is a simple organization, a vast group of disparate people who come together for their own reasons, live in austere conditions, and exist to commit violence under bewildering circumstances. These ceremonies were how the Army healed itself, left alone in the desert with only a vague idea why any of us were there in a war that had already been going on for seven years. Some of the soldiers in the chapel were eleven years old when the Iraq war started, nine years old when 9/11 happened. This is how wars work.
But sometimes things surprised you, maybe because of low expectations, maybe because every once in a while somebody stood up and said just what needed to be said. A young Captain rose without notes. “I was his team leader but I never really knew him. Brian was new here. He didn’t have no nickname and he didn’t spend much time with us. He played Xbox a lot. We don’t know why he committed suicide. We miss him anyway because he was one of us. That’s all I have to say.”
The word that raised the sentence beyond simple declaration was “anyway.” It was important to believe we all meant something to one another because we were part of this. When it rained, we all got wet. We could hate the war, hate the president, hate the Iraqis, and we did, but we could not hate one another.
A longer occupation, more troops, air strikes or anything else won’t bring PFC Hutson back. He– we– will never know what he died for, but we can say with certainty what he did not die for. He did not die for freedom, he did not die for WMDs, he did not die for a politician’s re-election. Like the 4500 Americans and uncounted Iraqis who died, and continue to die, he died for a mistake. Wars work like that, cost like that.
The ceremony for PFC Hutson that day ended with the senior enlisted person calling the roll for the dead man’s unit. Each member answered, “Here, Sergeant Major” after his name was called. That was until the name called was the dead man’s. “Brian Hutson?” Silence. “Brian E. Hutson?” Silence. “Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson?” Silence. Brian was not there and almost none of us had known him but yes, today, at this place, we all missed him anyway.
The above is based in part on an excerpt from Peter Van Buren’s book about his year of the Iraq War, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project). The story is true, thought the name of the deceased has been changed.
Film Director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, Untold History of the United States, W., Nixon, Salvador) endorsed We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
Have a look:
The mistakes of U.S. foreign policy are mostly based on the same flawed idea: that the world is a chessboard on which the U.S. makes moves, or manipulates proxies to make moves, that either defeat, counter or occasionally face setbacks from the single opponent across the table.
The game held up for a fair amount of time; the U.S. versus the Nazis (D-Day = checkmate!), the U.S. versus Japan (Lose an important piece at Pearl Harbor, grab pawns island by island across the Pacific, and so forth). Most of the Cold War seemed to work this way.
And so into Iraq in 2003. The Bush administration seemed to believe they could invade Iraq, topple Saddam and little would be left to do but put away the unused chessmen and move on to the next game. In reality, world affairs do not (any longer?) exist in a bipolar game. Things are complex, and things fall apart. Here is a quick tour of that new form of game in Iraq.
– Iranian transport planes are making two daily flights of military equipment into Baghdad, 70 tons per flight, to resupply Iraqi security forces.
– Iran is flying Ababil surveillance drones over Iraq from Al Rashid airfield near Baghdad. Tehran also deployed an intelligence unit to intercept communications. General Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, visited Iraq at least twice to help Iraqi military advisers plot strategy. Iran has also deployed about a dozen other Quds Force officers to advise Iraqi commanders, and help mobilize more than 2,000 Shiite militiamen from southern Iraq.
– As many as ten divisions of Iranian military and Quds Force troops are massed on the border, ready to intevene if Baghdad comes under assault or if important Shiite shrines in cities like Samarra are threatened, American officials say.
– Suleimani was a presence in Iraq during the U.S. Occupation and helped direct attacks against American troops. In particular, Iraqi Shiite militias under the tutelage of Suleimani attacked American troops with powerful explosive devices supplied by Tehran. These shaped charges were among the very few weapons used toward the end of the U.S. Occupation that could pierce U.S. armor, and were directly responsible for the deaths of Americans.
– General Suleimani is also the current architect of Iranian military support in Syria for President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. calls for Assad to give up power, and was steps away from war in Syria to remove Assad only months ago.
– Should America conduct air strikes in Iraq (some claim they are already stealthily underway), those strikes would be in direct support of Iranian efforts, and perhaps Iranian troops, on the ground.
– The United States has increased its manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq, and is now flying about 30 to 35 missions a day. The American flights include F-18s and P-3 surveillance planes, as well as drones.
– ISIS, currently seen as a direct threat to both Iraq, Syria and the Homeland, is a disparate group of mostly Sunni-affiliated fighters with strong ties to Syria. The U.S. is now at war with them, though it appears that as recently as 2012 the U.S. may have had Special Forces arming and training them at a secret base in Safawi, in Jordan’s northern desert region. There are reports that the U.S. also trained fighters at locations in Turkey, feeding them into the Syrian conflict against Assad.
– ISIS has been funded for years by wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, three supposed U.S. allies. “The U.S. Treasury is aware of this activity and has expressed concern about this flow of private financing. But Western diplomats’ and officials’ general response has been a collective shrug,” a Brookings Institute report states.
– ISIS itself is a international group, though added 1,500 Sunni Iraqis it liberated from a Shia prison near Mosul. A senior U.S. intelligence official said there are approximately 10,000 ISIS fighters — roughly 7,000 in Syria and 3,000 in Iraq. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 foreign fighters who have been incorporated into ISIS ranks.
– The New York Times reports Turkey allowed rebel groups of any stripe easy access across its borders to the battlefields in Syria in an effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad. An unknown number of Turks are now hostages in Iraq, and Turkey continues its tussles with the Kurds to (re)fine that border.
– “The fall of Mosul was the epitome of the failure of Turkish foreign policy over the last four years,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. “I can’t disassociate what happened in Mosul from what happened in Syria.”
– With the official Iraqi Army in disarray, Prime Minister Maliki is increasingly reliant on Shiite militias primarily loyal to individual warlords and clerics, such as the Madhi Army. Despite nine years of Occupation, the U.S. never defeated the Madhi Army. Prime Minister Maliki never had the group surrender its weapons, and now, with the Baghdad government too weak to disarm them, they exist as the private muscle of Iraq’s hardline Shias. Once loosed onto the battlefield, Maliki will not be able to control the militias. The Mahdi Army has also sworn to attack American “advisors” sent to Iraq, believing them to be a vanguard for a second U.S. occupation. Many of the most powerful militias owe their ultimate loyalty not to the Iraqi state, but to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr has much blood on his hands left over from the Occupation.
Syria and Israel
– Syrian government aircraft bombed Sunni targets inside Iraq on Tuesday, killing at least 57 civilians and wounding 120. Syrian warplanes also killed at least 12 people in the eastern Iraqi city of Raqqa Wednesday morning. A U.S. official said it was not clear whether the Iraqi government requested or authorized Syrian air strikes in Iraqi territory.
– Israeli warplanes and rockets struck targets inside Syria the same day as Syria struck Iraq.
It should be clear that there is no such thing as simply “doing something” in this crisis for the U.S. As with the 2003 invasion itself, no action by the United States can stand alone, and every action by the United States will have regional, if not global, repercussions apparently far beyond America’s ability to even understand.
A chess game? Maybe, of sorts. While American interest in Iraq seems to parallel American interest in soccer, popping up when world events intrude before fading again, the other players in Iraq have been planning moves over the long game. In the blink of an eye, U.S. efforts in Syria have been exposed as fully-counterproductive toward greater U.S. goals, the U.S. has been drawn back into Iraq, with troops again on the ground in a Muslim war we thought we’d backed out of. The U.S. finds itself supporting Iranian ground forces, and partnering with militias well outside of any government control, with Special Forces working alongside potential suicide bombers who only a few years ago committed themselves to killing Americans in Iraq. What appears to be the U.S. “plan,” some sort of unity government, belies the fact that such unity has eluded U.S. efforts for almost eleven years of war in Iraq.
In such a complex, multiplayer game it can be hard to tell who is winning, but it is easy in this case to tell who is losing. Checkmate.
The smell of blood is once again in the air in Washington, this week for airstrikes and other forms of violent intervention in Iraq (reference: many of the same people– McCain and Graham in particular– were only recently calling for airstrikes or other military action in the Ukraine, and before that Syria, and before that…)
Here are some of the many reasons airstrikes (or any other form of U.S. military action) in Iraq are just a terrible idea.
1) Air strikes will not resolve anything significant.
The short answer is through nine years of war and occupation U.S. air power in Iraq, employed on an unfettered scale, combined with the full-weight of the U.S. military on the ground plus billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, failed to resolve the issues now playing out in Iraq. Why would anyone think a lesser series of strikes would work any better?
We also have a recent Iraqi example of the pointlessness of air strikes. The Maliki government employed them with great vigor against Sunnis in western Iraq, including in Fallujah, only six months ago, and here we are again, with an even more powerful Sunni force in the field.
2) But air strikes now are crucial to buying the Iraqi government time to seek a political solution.
See above about nine years of ineffectiveness. Today’s crisis is not new; Iraqi PM Maliki has been in power since 2006 and has done nothing to create an inclusive government. Indeed, he has done much to actively ostracize, alienate, jail and destroy his Sunni opposition. Maliki currently is his non-inclusionary own Minister of the Interior and Minister of Defense. Replacing Maliki, another regime change the U.S. now apparently supports, is no magic cure. Maliki’s successor will most likely come from his own majority party, and inherit his own ties to Iran and the many Shia groups needed to stay in power. Even with good intentions, a new Prime Minister will walk into office in the midst of a raging, open war against Sunni forces, not exactly the best place to start towards a more inclusive government. This argument of buying the Iraqis time is the same falsehood that fueled the unsuccessful Surges in Iraq (2007) and Afghanistan (2009). History matters, and it is time to accept that despite arguable tactical progress, in the longer view, the Surges did not work. And long views are what matter.
Even David Petraeus, once America’s golden boy as architect of the Iraq Surge, warns against military intervention now in Iraq.
3) John Kerry flying around the world diplomizing on Iraq is an air strike of its own.
Worth noting is also the uselessness of American diplomacy. Since 2006 the U.S. has maintained its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, with thousands of State Department and military personnel, alongside no doubt a healthy intelligence presence. It is clear that all those diplomats have not accomplished much in service to Iraqi reconciliation under even the more peaceful conditions in the past. It is unrealistic to expect more now.
As for recruiting allies to intercede somehow with America in Iraq, that seems equally unlikely. The British, America’s former stalwart companion in global adventures, refused to get involved in American action last September in Syria. British involvement in the 2003 invasion remains controversial at home, and it is hard to see the Brits getting fooled again.
— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) June 23, 2014
4) Air strikes are surgical.
Oh please. Check with the wedding parties in Yemen destroyed, and funeral gatherings massacred in Pakistan. Bombs and missiles are not surgical tools. They blow stuff up. It is impossible to avoid killing people near the other people you set out to kill, what the U.S. blithely refers to as collateral damage. And even that assumes you are aiming the weapons even close to the right place to begin with. Bad info that identifies the wrong house means you kill an innocent family, not a ISIS command cell.
And even if you take the coldest American view possible that collateral damage is just an unavoidable cost of war, you fail to understand the real cost. Every innocent killed sets the population further against the U.S. and the people the U.S. seeks to support, both in Iraq and throughout the greater Middle East. Videos of dead children propagate well over social media.
5) Air strikes are not a counterinsurgency tool.
See nine years of war and occupation in Iraq, or forever years of war in places like Vietnam. You cannot bomb away a political movement. You cannot kill an idea that motivates millions of people with a Hellfire missile.
6) Air strikes mean the U.S. is taking sides in a pit bull fight.
The U.S. strikes would presumably be in an attempt to support the “Iraqi government and army.” The problem is that those entities are elusive. The Maliki government enjoys uneven public support, so supporting it alienates swaths of the Iraqi population and nearly requires them to take up arms against the U.S. and its puppets. The forces Maliki is putting into the field include a growing number of Shia militias under the control, such as that even is, of individual warlords and religious leaders. These are fighters who actively killed Americans just a few years ago, but somehow we’re on their side now. Maliki’s collection of forces are also bolstered in various ways by Iran. Somehow we’re on their side now too. Air strikes are part of a pattern of failed short-term thinking by the U.S.
7) Air strikes are just more of “whack-a-mole” foreign policy.
These entanglements are much more serious than to be dismissed as “well, politics makes for strange bedfellows” or “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Such trite phrases are typical of a U.S. foreign policy that only sees discrete crises within clear geopolitical borders. As long as the U.S. fantasizes that it can support Sunni fighters in Syria while striking them in Iraq, and as long as the U.S. believes it can bolster Iranian goals and credibility in Iraq while pushing back against it elsewhere in the Gulf, the worse things will get in the broader region.
The same applies to the U.S.’ global “whack-a-mole” geopolitical strategy. Russia invades the Ukraine? A devoted by Washington to that. Boko Harem kidnaps girls? Ten days of Twitter memes. Iraq simmers for years? Let’s act now (and only now) before the next shiny object distracts our leaders.
8 ) But air strikes are necessary because the U.S. must “do something.”
Nope. There is nothing that says the U.S. must “do something” in response to all world events. There are many reasons to say even if we are compelled to do something, a military “solution” is not necessarily, or even often, the right thing to do. Imagine if you are outside a burning house, with a can of gasoline in your hand. With the compulsion to do something, is it better to throw the gas can into the flames, or stand back. Sometimes the best answer is indeed to stand back.
9) ISIS is a threat to the U.S. and has to be air struck to stop another 9/11.
ISIS is far from the Super Villains the U.S. media has seen necessary to depict them as. The groups fighting on the “Sunni” side, such as it is, are a collection of tribal, Baathist, religious, warlord and other conglomerations. Their loosely organized goal is to hold territory that criss-crosses the borders of Iraq and Syria. Absent some odd event, they are likely to withdraw or be chased out of central Iraq and hold on out west, where they have existed as a state-like thing for some time now. Central Iraq is way too far from their home base to retain supply lines (though they have been doing well capturing weapons from the retreating Iraqi forces), and Shia militia strength is more powerful the closer ISIS, et al, get to Baghdad.
The threat line is most ardently espoused by who else, Dick Cheney, who brought out his own go-to scary thing, saying “One of the things I worried about 12 years ago – and that I worry about today – is that there will be another 9/11 attack and that the next time it’ll be with weapons far deadlier than airline tickets and box cutters.”
ISIS and/or its Sunni supporters in Iraq have held territory in western Iraq for years without being a threat to the U.S. Homeland. Little changes if they hold a bit more, or less territory.
ISIS is not a transnational terror group, and unless the U.S. drives them into an alliance with al Qaeda (as the U.S. did in the early years of the 2003 invasion with the Sunnis), they are unlikely to be. They fight with small arms in small groups under loose leadership. They will not be invading the U.S.
10) Bottom line why air strikes are a terrible waste.
The U.S. lost the war in Iraq years ago, probably as early as 2003. It is time to accept that.
The focus of the interview is how the 2003 invasion of Iraq upset a fragile but workable balance of power in the Middle East, unleashing the chaos we are witnessing today playing out in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. So the short version: yes, it is all our fault, and more airstrikes and drone killings will work out in current Iraq about as well as they have in Yemen, Libya and all the other places where lacking any alternative besides getting out, the U.S. just lashes out.
Between The Lines describes itself as “a weekly syndicated half-hour news magazine featuring progressive perspectives on national and international political, economic and social issues” which seems about right. Have a listen to the interview!
Selfie at CNN studios today in NYC.
Taped a segment on Iraq, not sure if/when it will air. I explained U.S. military intervention in Iraq, as opposed to “doing nothing,” would be like choosing between throwing gas into a fire versus “doing nothing.”
That said, consensus among the anchors and other guests was that “we have to do something.” OK, sure, but how’d that work out for ya’ last time?
As the U.S. “relocates” personnel (it’s not an “evacuation”) out of the World’s Largest Embassy in Baghdad, it is valuable to look at that one billion dollar monument to American hubris.
Though likely tens of thousands of people have been inside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and a great many of them have scattered photos of the place across the social media landscape, actual official photos of the embassy have been limited to a handle of narrow views. The stated reason for all this is “security.”
Still, what has been missing is a really nice color shot of the lawn. We have that now, posted online by someone:
There is a very interesting backstory to that nice lawn you see pictured above. If you’ve read my book about Iraq, We Meant Well, you may already know the story:
The World’s Biggest Embassy (104 acres, 22 buildings, thousands of staff, a $116 million vehicle inventory), physically larger than the Vatican, was a sign of our commitment to Iraq, at least our commitment to excess. “Along with the Great Wall of China,” said the ambassador, Chris Hill at the time, “the Baghdad Embassy is one of those things you can see with the naked eye from outer space.” The newly-opened embassy was made up of large office buildings, the main one built around a four-story atrium, with overhead lights that resembled sails. If someone told us there was a Bath and Body Works in there, we would not have thought it odd. The embassy itself, including juicy cost overruns, cost the American taxpayer about one billion dollars.
The World’s Biggest Embassy sat in, or perhaps defined, the Green Zone. Called the Emerald City by some, the Green Zone represented the World’s Largest Public Relations Failure. In the process of deposing Saddam, we placed our new seat of power right on top of his old one, just as the ancient Sumerians built their strongholds on top of fallen ones out in the desert. In addition to the new buildings, Saddam’s old palaces in the Zone were repurposed as offices, and Saddam’s old jails became our new jails. Conveniently for Iraqis, the overlords might have changed, but the address had not. The place you went to visit political prisoners who opposed Saddam was still the place you went to look for relatives who opposed the Americans.
The new Embassy compound isolated American leadership at first physically, and, soon after, mentally as well. The air of otherworldliness started right with the design of the place. American architects had planned for the Embassy grounds to have all sorts of trees, grassy areas and outdoor benches; the original drawings made it look like a leafy college campus. For a place in the desert, the design could not have been more impractical. But in 2003, no projection into the future was too outlandish. One building at the compound was purpose-built to be the international school to educate the diplomats’ happy children who accompanied their parents on assignment. It was now used only for offices. Each embassy apartment offered a full-size American range, refrigerator, and dishwasher, as if staffers might someday take their families to shop at a future Baghdad Safeway like they do in Seoul or Brussels. In fact, all food was trucked in directly from Kuwait, along with American office supplies, souvenir mugs, and T-shirts (“My father was assigned to Embassy Baghdad and all I got was…”, “I’d Walk a Mile for a Camel”) and embassy staff were prohibited from buying anything to eat locally. The Embassy generated its own electricity, purified its own water from the nearby Tigris and processed its own sewage, hermetically sealed off from Iraq.
The ambassador, who fancied himself a sportsman, ordered grass to grow on the large sandy area in front of the main Embassy building, a spot at one time designated as a helicopter landing zone, since relocated. Gardeners brought in tons of dirt and planted grass seed. A nearly endless amount of water was used, but despite clear orders to do so, the grass would not grow. Huge flocks of birds arrived. The birds had never seen so much seed on the ground in one place and ate passionately. No grass grew. The ambassador would not admit defeat. He ordered sod be imported into Kuwait, and then brought by armored convoy to the embassy. No one confessed to what it cost to import, but estimates varied between two and five million dollars. The sod was put down and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water were used to make it live in what was practically a crime against nature. Whole job positions existed to hydrate and tend the grass. No matter what Iraq and nature wanted, the American Embassy spent whatever it took to have green grass in the desert. Later full grown palm trees were trucked in and planted to line the grassy square.
We made things in Iraq look the way we wanted them to look, water shortages throughout the rest of Iraq be dammed. The grass was the perfect allegory for the whole war.
BONUS: Long-time friend of the blog Rich submitted this poem by Carl Sandburg as a coda to the green grass of the Baghdad Embassy:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
For those (I’m talking to you here CNN) who seem surprised about events unfolding now in Iraq, here’s an excerpt from something I wrote almost four years ago. At that time pretty much everyone disagreed with these conclusions, but can you hear me now?
When wars end, usually there is a winner and a loser. Greeks burn down the city for the win; Trojans accept a dummy horse for the epic loss, like that. As we near the end of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, and note the beginning of the State Department occupation (the formal mission handover is Oct. 1), it is a good time to decide who lost and who won, and what that means for the future of Iraq.
For the minority, all-around Washington guy (now stopping off briefly to be Secretary of Defense) Leon Panetta thinks we and the Iraqis sort of won. Leon said, “But the bottom line is, whether it’s diplomatic or whether it’s military, we’ve got a long-term relationship with Iraq. We’ve invested a lot of blood in (Iraq). And regardless of whether you agree or disagree as to how we got into it, the bottom line is that we now have, through a lot of sacrifice, established a … relatively stable democracy that’s trying to work together to lead that country.”
Tune into your favorite right-wing blog, and there is lots of mumbo-jumbo about the surge and sacrifices and all that false patriotism stuff that no longer even makes for a good country and western song. On firmer ground, it is less clear that the United States or Iraq won anything. The United States lost 4474 soldiers (and counting), with thousands more crippled or wounded, spent a couple of trillion dollars that helped wreck our economy at home, and did not get much in return.
Blood for Oil?
Only in the sense that one of out of every eight U.S. casualties in Iraq died guarding a fuel convoy. Iraqi oil output is stuck at pre-war levels and will be for some time. A drop in world oil prices would wreck the Iraqi economy. Despite Panetta’s patter about Iraq being a country willing to work with the United States, Iraq as a political entity follows its own path, virtually allied with Iran and unsupportive of American geopolitical dreams. The U.S. government will sell some military gear to the Iraqis and make some money, but in the end George Bush went to war and all we got was a low-rent dictatorship turned into a low-rent semi-police state.
As for Iraq being any sort of winner after being stomped on by the U.S. military, no. Iraq had its civil society shredded, underwent eight years of sectarian civil war, saw over 100,000 killed and is home now to a small but bustling al Qaeda franchise. The United States left without brokering a deal between the Kurds and the Arab Iraqis, leaving that kettle on full boil. The United States also failed to establish stable borders for the Kurds, such that the Iranians shell “Kurdistan” from the east, while Turkish jets drop bombs in the west. Turkey is part of NATO — imagine the U.S. government sitting silently if Germany bombed Poland next week.
What many people do not know is that one reason for the drop in sectarian violence in 2008 was that both sides had done much of the killing they needed to do. The fighting then was a civil war, Shia versus Sunni, and the death toll was high enough on both sides to achieve the level of segregation and redistribution of power desired at that time– they temporarily ran out of reasons for the war to continue at that level of intensity. Ominously, however, the Sunnis and Shias did not fully settle the score and so that pot sits bubbling on the stove as well.
Sectarian tensions do still run high in Iraq, and the United States has been left powerless to do anything about it. Except for some technical assistance and perhaps some very low-key special operations help, the U.S. government has taken a sideline seat to the sectarian violence over the last few months, leaving the fight to the Iraqis. Whether zero or 3,000 or 10,000 U.S. troops stay on in Iraq, it is unlikely that such a smaller U.S. force will intervene, given that a larger one declined to do so.
The tinderbox nature of things is such that the Iraqi government is seeking to ban a television drama about events leading up to the historic split in Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects hundreds of years ago. The Iraqi parliament asked that the Communication and Media Commission, a media regulator, ban “Al Hassan and Al Hussein” on the grounds it incites sectarian tensions and misrepresents historical facts. “This TV serial includes sensitive issues in Islamic history. Presenting them in a TV series leads to agitated strife,” said Ali Al Alaq, a politician who heads the religious affairs committee.
Needless to say, a glance at the daily news from Iraq will reveal the ongoing steady low hum of suicide bombings and targeted killings that is now all too much a normal part of life. The occasional spectacular attacks (instantly blamed on al Qaeda by the United States) make headlines, but every Iraqi knows it is the regular nature of these killings as much as the death toll itself that is most disruptive to society. Iraq is hardly a winner.
Who won the war? Iran…
Iran sat patiently on its hands while the United States hacked away at its two major enemies, Saddam, and the Taliban, clearing both its east and west borders at no cost to Tehran. (Iran apparently reached out to the U.S. government in 2003, seeking some sort of diplomatic relationship but, after being rebuffed by the engorged Bush Administration, decided to wait and watch the quagmire envelope America). The long slog both wars morphed into dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for another war, and cooled off plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for airstrikes against Iran’s nukes (if Cheney couldn’t edge the United States into that fight, who can?).
The Iranians also came to see that Iraq, like Lebanon, made for a nice proxy battleground. By the time my tour in Iraq was wrapping up, the mine resistant vehicles we traveled in could take a solid hit from pretty much anything out there and get us home alive, except for one thing: Iranian-made roadside bombs ealled EFPs. These shaped “explosively formed penetrating devices” fired a liquefied white hot slug of molten copper that was about the only weapon that really scared us. The Iranians were players in all parts of Iraqi society post-2003, including the daily violence. (Iranian proxy warfare in Lebanon is well documented in Robert Baer’s excellent book, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower which also advances the United States vs. Iran proxy theory in general.)
Iran not only lost an enemy when Saddam was hanged, it gained an ally in the new Iraq. When the United States’ last election surge withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi contest to produce a government, Iran stepped in to broker a settlement involving current PM Malaki (Malaki also serves as Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior but is not a dictator) and the jolly Sadrists. Malaki, a Shia, happily recalls his days in exile in Iraq during the Saddam reign while Sadr hid out as a religious “student” in Qom when he was on the U.S. military’s capture or kill list post-2003. Both men remain beholden to Iran and continue to shift Iraq closer and closer to Tehran’s policy positions. Iran has its own proconsul in Baghdad, well-known locally but not discussed much in the west. The guy moved into the job after a tour as head of the Iranian special ops Qods Force.
Iran Ascendant in Iraq
Yet while strategic and political relationships are very important between Iraq and Iran, it is the growing economic and social-religious ties that cement the relationship and signify Iran as the real winner of the U.S. invasion. The raw numbers tell a big part of the story: the two countries’ current annual trade is valued at $4 billion to $5 billion and growing, with much more money changing hands on the black market.
On more formal terms, Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi kicked off the most recent round of goodwill on July 6, when he traveled to Baghdad to join the Iran-Iraq Joint Supreme Economic Committee. Better yet, Iran agreed to supply 9,400 barrels of “gasoil” a day to Iraq for power generation. Iraq also signed a $365 million agreement to install a pipeline network to import natural gas from Iran for power stations in the country. The pipelines will eventually supply 25 million cubic meters of Iranian natural gas a day to the Sadr, al-Quds and South Baghdad power stations in the Iraqi capital.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshiar Zibary said that Iran and Iraq would soon sign an agreement to overcome “all the suspended problems between both countries.” “Iran is playing a positive role in Iraq and there is no objection for the strengthening of relations between the two countries,” Zibary said.
But while trade is good, and oil is necessary, the real money is in tourism. More specifically, religious tourism. Iranian Shia pilgrims traveling to previously off-limits shrines in Iraq, is a huge source of economic exchange. It also creates significant people-to-people ties that Iran will be able to exploit long into the future.
Iranian travel agencies control religious tourism to the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The Iranian companies are associated with local hotels, also owned by Iranians. The control by Iranian companies extends to tourists from Lebanon who combine a visit to Iraq with one to the religious site Mashhad, in Iran. The Iranian domination also extends to security arrangement for protecting the tourists. That role is filled by one company owned by one of the religious parties in Karbala.
Business is Booming
Najaf is in the midst of a hotel building frenzy in a bid to ramp up the number of visiting pilgrims. While thousands of mostly Iranian religious tourists already pass through Najaf every day on what are marketed as nine-day tours of Iraq’s holy Shiite sites, hoteliers and business groups in the city expect hotel capacity, currently at breaking point, to double in the next three years.
Elsewhere, markets in rural Iraq are filled with Iranian goods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. While the knitwear market is dominated by cheap Chinese stuff, other household goods are conspicuously marked “Made in Iran” and are snapped up by consumers.
I saw a little slice of this during my own time in Iraq. My Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) covered an area that included the city and mosque of Salman Pak. Once a center for chemical weapons production and secret police training under Saddam, Salman Pak is better known to most Iraqis and Iranians as a historical and recreational area, approximately 15 miles south of Baghdad near a peninsula formed by a broad eastward bend of the Tigris River. It is named after Salman the Persian, a companion of Mohammad, who is buried there.
Salman Pak is also site of the Arch of Ctesiphon, the remains of the once majestic Persian Sassanid capital. Ctesiphon is one of the largest and oldest freestanding arches in the world. Before the U.S. invasion of 2003, the area was a popular day trip out of Baghdad, and even sported a floating casino and villas for select friends of Saddam. My translator recalled family trips to the area the way my daughters remember a visit to Disney, leaving me a bit nostalgic for a time and place I never knew. The attraction now for Iranian pilgrims is the mosque, once a well-known Shia shrine, converted to a well-known Sunni shrine by Saddam and now once again a well-known Shia shrine after sectarian violence post-2003 blew away most of the Sunnis in the area.
On routine patrols through the area, my PRT and Army would frequently see giant tour buses with Iranian license plates and markings hauling tourists around the city. The Iranian tourists would take pictures of our military vehicles and gesture at us as we drove past, even as our soldiers scowled at them and pantomimed “no photos.” Nothing weirder than to be spending one’s days freeing Iraq only to run into Iranian tour agencies being the most obvious beneficiaries of that freedom. We didn’t know it then, but our tourists were offering us a glimpse of the future, a picture of who the winners, and losers, were to be in our war.
Adding it Up
As for Iraq, add it up:
–no resolution to the Arab-Kurd issue,
–no resolution to the Sunni-Shia issue,
–no significant growth in the oil industry,
–a weakened U.S. presence more interested in a Middle East land base and profitable arm sales than internal affairs,
–and an increasingly influential Iran seeking a proxy battleground against the United States and a nicely weak buffer state on its formerly troublesome western border.
None of that tallies toward a stable Iraq. Indeed, quite the opposite. Worst case scenario might look a lot like the darkest days in Lebanon, with many of the same players at the table.
Here’s the full article.
Our government classifies a lot of documents, some 92 million in 2011 alone.
The ostensible point of all that classification is protect the nation’s secrets. Some of it even makes sense. Troop movements, nuclear things, identities of spies, traditional stuff you want to keep from your enemies. The purpose of classification is not to hide government mistakes or prevent embarrassing things from coming into daylight.
The president even said so. Obama’s 2009 Executive Order on National Security Information made clear “In no case shall information be classified, continue to be maintained as classified, or fail to be declassified in order to conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error, or “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency.”
More Irony in a Nation Awash with It
Yes, more irony in a nation awash with it. But seriously, when the point of classification is keeping the realities of America’s wars from Americans, that says we are the enemy. Today’s case in point:
The top official in charge of the classification system decided that it was legitimate for the Marines to classify photographs that showed American forces posing with corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, and urinating on them. Many of the photos have already been published, but no matter, whatever hasn’t leaked out is now a secret. A kicker is that the “top official” who decides these things is some guy at the National Archives you’ve never heard of.
That top official is allowed to be the final arbiter of what Americans can see of their wars because of Executive Order 13526, Section 5.5, which grants him alone the authority to make a report to the head of an agency, or to the designated senior agency official for classified national security information, if any members of the agency knowingly, willfully, or negligently classify or continue the classification of information in violation of the Order. So, in this case, he just did that, confirming in a simple letter that the Marines can keep the photos a secret.
Support the Troops!
The stated reason for the secrecy? To support the troops, of course. The rationale is that the release of additional images would make the Taliban somehow even angrier at the U.S. for occupying Afghanistan for 13 years and provoke more attacks. The same rationale, though a different legal manipulation, was used to keep additional photos of American torture at Abu Ghraib and images from the bin Laden kill locked up.
A video of the Marines’ now-classified act is still on YouTube:
Unless the Taliban can’t see YouTube from Afghanistan, they already know what happened.
Another thing the Taliban also know is that the Marine Corps sniper captured on a YouTube video urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan was only reduced in rank after a court-martial. So, an act by a Marine that supposedly could cost American lives is punished merely by a reduction in rank. And even that mild rebuke took two years to happen. That couldn’t possibly stir anyone up in Afghanistan.
We Got This
The Taliban, as the Iraqis before them, know darn well what happened. It is even possible they know of atrocities by American troops that weren’t photographed as trophies of war and are thus unknown to Americans. Classifying the photos does not change the fact that the atrocities happened. It only tries (albeit crudely and stupidly) to hide those atrocities from the American people.
BONUS: For anyone offended by the images above, or who thinks I should label this article NSFW because of the pee pee thing, please stop for a moment and acknowledge what you see here was done by Americans to people they just killed. In that sense only is it offensive and obscene.
Sometimes I think I even recognize a place on TV I had been, having spent a year in the midst of America’s Occupation in Iraq, 2009-2010. I was a State Department civilian, embedded in turn with two Army brigades of some 3000 men and women each, far from the embassy and the pronouncements of victory and whatever bright lights Iraq might have had.
Why We Lost
I grow weary of the drumbeat for the U.S. to return to Iraq and blow more stuff up. Drones, airstrikes, Special Forces on the ground who are somehow not really “boots on the ground,” the whole bloodlust redux. As a human being I decry the loss of more life. As someone who cares about America’s foreign policy, I cannot believe (while believing) that we are continuing to misunderstand the larger picture, what might be called the strategic or long-term, once again for the tactical, the expedient, the short-term.
Of all the many reasons why American could not win its Iraq War (and I wrote about one of the most significant, the failure of Occupation and Reconstruction, in my first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People perhaps the one that is most applicable now is the most basic.
America’s wars in the Middle East exist in a hallucinatory space that imagines Blue Forces fighting Red Forces, Saving Private Ryan but with more sand. Instead, in Iraq right now, there are multiple layers of war going on. For those who like to look ahead a bit, you may feel free to substitute “Syria” for “Iraq” in the rest of this article. Most of this also applies to Libya, Afghanistan and pretty much the rest of the post-9/11 conflicts.
A War of Layers
Instead of a good old fashioned and simple Our Side vs. Their Side, Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, the Iraq War is one comprised of many layers. They intermingle and overlap, kind of like the multiverse of conflict. Some of this is painted here in quibbly broad strokes, but the core is solid:
– On the surface you have our media-view war: Jihadists vs. The Iraqi Government. This is the dominant view in Washington, because it is the easiest to understand in bullet points, the easiest to sell to the American people through an ever-compliant media, and the one that fuels the most defense spending. These sorts of wars need plenty of hardware for the U.S. military, and lots of stuff to sell to whichever side we support. You can imagine these sorts of wars as winnable with brave-but-Spartan-like-expendable Special Forces, drones and intel. Blue-on-Red wars also lend themselves well to demonizing the enemy (Terrorists! Who kill people! Who want Sharia law!)
– Another layer down in Iraq you have one group dominated by Sunnis vs. another Shia one fighting a political civil war for actual control of territory. The U.S. willingness to devote extraordinary amounts of money and military power to keeping “Iraq” from not separating on its historical boundaries (the present national borders were drawn up by British cartographers after WWI) over eight years of Occupation and for four years of pretend democracy left this one on long-term simmer awaiting today’s boil. Enough power and money can reduce it again to a simmer, maybe, but it won’t go away.
– Below that layer are intra-Sunni and intra-Shiite struggles for turf and power. There is no such thing as a Sunni Corporate Structure, or a Shia one, with privates reporting to colonels who report to a white house. Instead you have religious allegiances, tribal allegiances, warlord allegiances, paid for allegiances, allegiances of convenience and so forth. At some point they turn on each or dissolve, for awhile, then often reassemble. During the Occupation the U.S. thought they could play off various groups against each other, but the Iraqis had been doing that long before any Americans got there, and knew the game so well that it was like putting the U.S. soccer team up against the Brazilians.
– Laying under it all is the much larger proxy war, including Iran’s support for the Shiites/Malaki government and Saudi/Kuwaiti support for the Sunnis. To zoom out for a moment, this is why invading Afghanistan without dealing with Pakistan failed as well. Failure to focus on the proxy war means things like America supporting the same side as the Iranians in Iraq. Inevitably, this results in adding to Iran’s regional power with every drone flight and Special Forces action undertaken. That Iranian regional power will end up projecting itself elsewhere, such as in Syria, where the U.S. and Iran are not on the same side.
– And just because many Americans don’t see/know this, the people in the region sure do: should airstrikes occur,or even just more military aid into Iraq, once again America is at war in an Islamic country. You cannot win the hearts and minds of dead people, but you sure can help recruit their friends and relatives against you. Worse, in that the U.S. promised to leave forever in 2011. America is also supporting Shias against Sunnis, which does not go unnoticed outside of Iraq.
Why the U.S. Cannot Win
The reason why America can never win the war in Iraq, et al, is because to win the war you have to somehow win all the layers of wars, and to win all the wars involves impossible to resolve paradoxes such as siding with the Iranians here while opposing them there. Here and there are often in reality the same place, such as along the Syrian-Iraqi border. It can’t be done. It is a trick, like a carnival ring toss game. The only way to win is not to play. Otherwise, you’re just another sucker with a fist full of quarters to trade for a cheap stuffed animal.
BONUS: Not convinced yet? The aircraft carrier being sent into the Persian Gulf to launch any air strikes the U.S. deems necessary is the USS George H.W. Bush. Construction of the ship began in 2003, planning and funding well before that. I know irony is not a government thing, but using a carrier named after the president who first got us deep into Iraq is one level of it, and then realizing we have been in Iraq so long that we now have an aircraft carrier named after the president who started the adventure is another.
BONUS BONUS: And for goodness sakes, stop saying this is all PM Maliki’s fault. It is, of course, but only after the U.S. slipped him into power in the 2006 elections, allowed him to cut deals with the Iranians to stay in power in 2010 elections and then has maintained him in power with money, weapons and support since then (including now).
Iraq before our invasion was three separate pseudo-states held together by a powerful security apparatus under Saddam. If you like historical explanations, this disparate collection was midwifed by the British following WWI, as they drew borders in the MidEast to their own liking, with often no connection to the ground-truth of the real ethnic, religious and tribal boundaries.
That mess held together more or less until the U.S. foolishly broke it apart in 2003 with no real understanding of what it did. As Saddam was removed, and his security regime dissolved alongside most of civilian society, the seams broke open.
The Kurds quickly created a de facto state of their own, with its own military (the pesh merga), government and borders. U.S. money and pressure restrained them from proclaiming themselves independent, even as they waged border wars with Turkey and signed their own oil contracts.
The Sunni-Shia rift fueled everything that happened in Iraq, and is happening now. The U.S. never had a long game for this, but never stopped meddling in the short-term. The Surge was one example. The U.S. bought off the Sunni bulk with actual cash “salaries” to their fighters (the U.S. first called them the Orwellian “Concerned Local Citizens” and then switched to “Sons of Iraq,” which sounded like an old Bob Hope road movie title.) The U.S. then also used Special Forces to assassinate Sunni internal enemies– a favored sheik need only point at a rival, label him al-Qaeda, and the night raids happened. A lull in the killing did occur as a result of the Surge, but was only sustained as long as U.S. money flowed in. As the pay-off program was “transitioned” to the majority Shia central government, it quickly fell apart.
The Shias got their part of the deal when, in 2010, in a rush to conclude a Prime Ministerial election that would open the door to a U.S. excuse to pack up and leave Iraq, America allowed the Iranians to broker a deal where we failed. The Sunnis were marginalized, a Shia government was falsely legitimized and set about pushing aside the Sunni minority from the political process, Iranian influence increased, the U.S. claimed victory, and then scooted our military home. Everything since then between the U.S. and Iraq– pretending Maliki was a legitimate leader, the billions in aid, the military and police training, the World’s Largest Embassy– has been pantomime.
But the departure of the U.S. military, and the handing over of relations to the ever-limp fortress American embassy, left Iraq’s core problems intact. Last year’s Sunni siege of Fallujah only underscored the naughty secret that western Iraq had been and still is largely under Sunni control with very little (Shia) central government influence. That part of Iraq flows seamlessly over the artificial border with Syria, and the successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in a war zone that now takes in both countries should not be a surprise.
The titular head of Iraq now, Nuri al-Maliki, is watching it all unravel in real-time. He has become scared enough to call for U.S. airstrikes to protect his power. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will comply, though covert strikes and some level of Special Forces action may happen behind the scenes. That won’t work of course. What the full weight of the U.S. military could not do over nine years, a few drone killings cannot do. It’s like using a can opener to try and catch fish.
What Might Happen Next
Things are evolving quickly in Iraq, but for now, here are some possible scenarios. The Kurds are the easy ones; they will keep on doing what they have been doing. They will fight back effectively and keep their oil flowing. They’ll see Baghdad’s influence only in the rear-view mirror.
The Sunnis will at least retain de facto control of western Iraq, maybe more. They are unlikely to be set up to govern in any formal way, but may create some sort of informal structure to collect taxes, enforce parts of the law and chase away as many Shias as they can. Violence will continue, sometimes hot and nasty, sometimes low-level score settling.
The Shias are the big variable. Maliki’s army seems in disarray, but if he only needs it to punish the Sunnis with violence it may prove up to that. Baghdad will not “fall.” The city is a Shia bastion now, and the militias will not give up their homes. A lot of blood may be spilled, but Baghdad will remain Shia-controlled and Maliki will remain in charge in some sort of limited way.
The U.S. will almost certainly pour arms and money into Iraq in the same drunken fashion we always have. Special Forces will quietly arrive to train and advise. It’ll be enough to keep Maliki in power but not much more than that. Domestically we’ll have to endure a barrage of “who lost Iraq?” and the Republicans will try and blast away at Obama for not “doing enough.” United States is poised to order an evacuation of the embassy, Fox News reported, but that is unlikely. “Unessential” personnel will be withdrawn, many of those slated to join the embassy out of Washington will be delayed or canceled, but the embarrassment of closing Fort Apache down would be too much for Washington to bear. The U.S. will use airstrike and drones if necessary to protect the embassy so that there will be no Benghazi scenario.
What is Unlikely to Happen
The U.S. will not intervene in any big way, absent protecting the embassy. Obama has cited many times the ending of the U.S. portion of the Iraq war as one of his few foreign policy successes and he won’t throw that under the bus. The U.S. backed off from significant involvement in Syria, and has all but ignored Libya following Benghazi, and that won’t change.
The U.S. must also be aware that intervening to save Maliki puts us on the same side in this mess as the Iranians.
Almost none of this has to do with al Qaeda or international terrorism, though those forces always profit from chaos.
The Turks may continue to snipe at the Kurds on their disputed border, but that conflict won’t turn hot. The U.S. will keep the pressure on to prevent that, and everyone benefits if the oil continues to flow.
The Iranians will not intervene any more than the Americans might. A little help to Malaki here (there are reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the fighting), some weapons there, but Iran is only interested in a secure western border and the Sunni Surge should not threaten that significantly enough to require a response. Iran also has no interest in giving the U.S. an excuse to fuss around in the area. A mild level of chaos in Iraq suits Iran’s needs just fine for now.
There are still many fools at loose in the castle. Here’s what Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics said: “There is hope… that this really scary, dangerous moment will serve as a catalyst to bring Iraqis together, to begin the process of reconciliation.”
Brett McGurk, the State Department’s point man on Iraq, brought out a tired trope, on Twitter no less: “The U.S. has a permanent Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. We have suffered and bled together, and we will help in time of crisis.”
The war in Iraq was lost as it started. There was no way for America to win it given all of the above, whether the troops stayed forever or not. The forces bubbling inside Iraq might have been contained a bit, or a bit longer, but that’s about all that could have been expected. Much of the general chaos throughout the Middle East now is related to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and how that upset multiple balances of power and uneasy relationships. The Iraq war will be seen as one of the most significant foreign policy failures of recent American history. That too is inevitable.
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