A well-done article in the New York Times reminds us that four years after the United States assassinated American citizen and Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (and his teenage son) in a drone strike, his influence on jihadists is greater than ever.
At the same time, the UK’s Guardian tells us about William Bradford, an assistant law professor at West Point, who argued in a peer-reviewed paper that attacks on Muslim scholars’ homes and offices, Middle Eastern media outlets and Islamic holy sites are legitimate and necessary to “win” the war on terrorism.
Bradford threatens “Islamic holy sites” as part of a war against radicalism. That war ought to be prosecuted vigorously, he wrote, “even if it means great destruction, innumerable enemy casualties, and civilian collateral damage. Other ‘lawful targets’ for the U.S. military in its war on terrorism,” Bradford argues, “include law school facilities, scholars’ home offices and media outlets where they give interviews, all civilian areas, but places where a causal connection between the content disseminated and Islamist crimes incited exist.”
Illustrations of Failure
The two articles illustrate as sharply as can be the failures of America in the last 14 years. Not only has the United States failed to blunt terrorism, Islamic State and radical hegemony, it has made them worse. Indeed, the foreign terror attacks so many Americans live in fear of have morphed into Americans themselves committing terror attacks. That is not progress.
But that’s how the articles in the Times and the Guardian show the WHAT of failure. The WHY is also revealed: terror is an idea, not a thing.
You can bomb a thing into oblivion, but you cannot blow up an idea. An idea can only be defeated by another, better, idea. So killing al-Awlaki had no more chance of truly silencing him than turning off the radio and hoping the broadcast never exists elsewhere. At the same time the U.S. runs social media campaigns claiming we are not at war with Islam, allowing an instructor at America’s military academy to justify attacks on the institutions of Islam simply reinforces the belief around the world that we are indeed trying to destroy a religion.
In an environment where martyrdom is prized, America might begin to turn around its failures first by creating fewer martyrs. In an environment where radicalism and support for groups like Islamic State are fostered by fear that the full weight of the world’s most powerful army is aimed at destroying a way of life, America might want to stop teaching just that doctrine at West Point.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The old adage, “follow the money,” is still not a bad way to suss out wrongdoing. Originated during the Watergate era, the term says if you follow the trail of money through an organization or a caper, you’ll find the guilty people at the end.
With the State Department and Hillary Clinton, the advice should read: “Follow Pat Kennedy.”
Meet Pat Kennedy
The name of long-time State Department Under Secretary for Management, Patrick Kennedy, pictured, is unknown to most journalists and nearly all of the public, but he in fact is present at every significant public issue State confronts. Take a look…
Kennedy and Manning
Do a little Googling around, and there’s Pat helping drive nails into Chelsea Manning’s coffin, testifying at his trial about the “grave damage” done to America’s national security. Kennedy in September 2013 admitted his testimony “contained misstatements,” which he said were “inadvertent.” Kennedy also oversaw State’s internal report on Wikileaks’ impact and ran the working group that was supposed to identify people at risk because their names appeared in the State Department cables online.
Kennedy and Benghazi
And at the Congressional Benghazi hearings, there’s Pat testifying Clinton did no wrong, that State as an institution did no wrong, and helping throw a few lesser officials under the bus in hopes of making it all go away.
Kennedy also was the one who hand-picked the members of State’s internal Accountability Review Board that failed in December 2012 to find any senior official at fault for any wrongdoing in the run-up to Benghazi. That Review Board chose not to interview Secretary of State Clinton about her role in Benghazi.
Kennedy and Child Prostitution Cover-Up
It was Pat who helped former American Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman retire in order to curtail a public investigation.
A State Department investigator asserted Gutman solicited “sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children.” Howard Gutman and members of Clinton’s security detail were also accused of hiring prostitutes. According to an internal memo prepared by the State Department Inspector General in October 2013, Kennedy personally called off an investigation.
Kennedy and Iraq
Kennedy was also the central figure in the First Amendment struggle over my Iraq book critical of the State Department, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
There’s more, but you get the picture. When dirty deeds need to be done dirt cheap to protect Clinton and State, Pat’s your man.
So it is little surprise that media reports now tell us that the Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy is now in charge of running interference on Capitol Hill regarding the Clinton email controversy.
Kennedy reportedly visited lawmakers in July and argued that the Abedin email along with another one sent in 2012 by another Clinton aide, Jake Sullivan, are not classified. The Under Secretary also argued that the information in the emails was already public.
However, one source said that it was odd that Kennedy wanted to discuss the matter in a secure facility for classified information while simultaneously arguing that the Abedin email was not classified.
The source also said that Kennedy cited a report from the Irish Times in 2011 as evidence, but that the details were not comparable. Kennedy also said that someone from the CIA agreed with his conclusion. However, the CIA was not the agency that sent the email.
Kennedy likely has more in the fire with the Clinton emails than his usual dollops of blind institutional loyalty.
Given his role at State, Pat Kennedy is very likely to be the most senior official below the Secretary of State’s own staff to have either signed off on Hillary’s email server or passively fended off concerns from the rank and file about it. There are no doubt interesting emails with his name on them to be FOIAed or subpoenaed about all that. Pat no doubt hopes like hell a Democrat wins the presidential election or he is toast.
So, mark this down: when Pat Kennedy steps into the picture, State/Clinton knows it is in real trouble and is calling in its Fixer of Last Resort. Journalists would be wise to keep on eye on Kennedy’s schedule over the coming months.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Are American analysts skewing intelligence reporting and assessments to provide a rosier outlook of U.S. progress against Islamic State?
At least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst says so, and has convinced the Pentagon’s Inspector General to look into it. The analyst says he had evidence officials at United States Central Command, overseeing the American campaign against Islamic State, were improperly rewriting conclusions of intelligence assessments prepared for policy makers, including President Obama.
While legitimate differences of opinion are common in intel reporting, to be of value those differences must be presented to policy makers, and played off one another in an intellectually vigorous check-and-balance fashion. There is a wide gap between that, and what it appears the Inspector General is now looking at.
Cooking the intel to match policy makers’ expectations has a sordid history in the annals of American warfare. Analysis during the Vietnam War pushed forward a steady but false narrative of victory. In the run-up to Iraq War 2.0, State Department analysis claiming Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction was buried in favor of obvious falsehoods.
Jokes about the oxymoron of “military intelligence” aside, bad intel leads to bad decisions. Bad intel created purposefully suggests a war that is being lost, with the people in charge loathe to admit it.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
A guest blog, by Rory Fanning. Fanning walked across the United States for the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2008-2009, following two deployments to Afghanistan with the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion. Fanning became a conscientious objector after his second tour. He is the author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America.
Dear Aspiring Ranger,
You’ve probably just graduated from high school and you’ve undoubtedly already signed an Option 40 contract guaranteeing you a shot at the Ranger indoctrination program (R.I.P.). If you make it through R.I.P. you’ll surely be sent off to fight in the Global War on Terror. You’ll be part of what I often heard called “the tip of the spear.”
The war you’re heading into has been going on for a remarkably long time. Imagine this: you were five years old when I was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2002. Now I’m graying a bit, losing a little up top, and I have a family. Believe me, it goes faster than you expect.
Once you get to a certain age, you can’t help thinking about the decisions you made (or that, in a sense, were made for you) when you were younger. I do that and someday you will, too. Reflecting on my own years in the 75th Ranger regiment, at a moment when the war you’ll find yourself immersed in was just beginning, I’ve tried to jot down a few of the things they don’t tell you at the recruiting office or in the pro-military Hollywood movies that may have influenced your decision to join. Maybe my experience will give you a perspective you haven’t considered.
I imagine you’re entering the military for the same reason just about everyone volunteers: it felt like your only option. Maybe it was money, or a judge, or a need for a rite of passage, or the end of athletic stardom. Maybe you still believe that the U.S. is fighting for freedom and democracy around the world and in existential danger from “the terrorists.” Maybe it seems like the only reasonable thing to do: defend our country against terrorism.
The media has been a powerful propaganda tool when it comes to promoting that image, despite the fact that, as a civilian, you were more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist. I trust you don’t want regrets when you’re older and that you commendably want to do something meaningful with your life. I’m sure you hope to be the best at something. That’s why you signed up to be a Ranger.
Make no mistake: whatever the news may say about the changing cast of characters the U.S. is fighting and the changing motivations behind the changing names of our military “operations” around the world, you and I will have fought in the same war. It’s hard to believe that you will be taking us into the 14th year of the Global War on Terror (whatever they may be calling it now). I wonder which one of the 668 U.S. military bases worldwide you’ll be sent to.
In its basics, our global war is less complicated to understand than you might think, despite the difficult-to-keep-track-of enemies you will be sent after — whether al-Qaeda (“central,” al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Magreb, etc.), or the Taliban, or al-Shabab in Somalia, or ISIS (aka ISIL, or the Islamic State), or Iran, or the al-Nusra Front, or Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Admittedly, it’s a little hard to keep a reasonable scorecard. Are the Shia or the Sunnis our allies? Is it Islam we’re at war with? Are we against ISIS or the Assad regime or both of them?
Just who these groups are matters, but there’s an underlying point that it’s been too easy to overlook in recent years: ever since this country’s first Afghan War in the 1980s (that spurred the formation of the original al-Qaeda), our foreign and military policies have played a crucial role in creating those you will be sent to fight. Once you are in one of the three battalions of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the chain-of-command will do its best to reduce global politics and the long-term good of the planet to the smallest of matters and replace them with the largest of tasks: boot polishing, perfectly made beds, tight shot groupings at the firing range, and your bonds with the Rangers to your right and left.
In such circumstances, it’s difficult — I know that well — but not impossible to keep in mind that your actions in the military involve far more than whatever’s in front of you or in your gun sights at any given moment. Our military operations around the world — and soon that will mean you — have produced all kinds of blowback. Thought about a certain way, I was being sent out in 2002 to respond to the blowback created by the first Afghan War and you’re about to be sent out to deal with the blowback created by my version of the second one.
I’m writing this letter in the hope that offering you a little of my own story might help frame the bigger picture for you.
Let me start with my first day “on the job.” I remember dropping my canvas duffle bag at the foot of my bunk in Charlie Company, and almost immediately being called into my platoon sergeant’s office. I sprinted down a well-buffed hallway, shadowed by the platoon’s “mascot”: a Grim-Reaper-style figure with the battalion’s red and black scroll beneath it. It hovered like something you’d see in a haunted house on the cinder block wall adjoining the sergeant’s office. It seemed to be watching me as I snapped to attention in his doorway, beads of sweat on my forehead. “At ease… Why are you here, Fanning? Why do you think you should be a Ranger?” All this he said with an air of suspicion.
Shaken, after being screamed out of a bus with all my gear, across an expansive lawn in front of the company’s barracks, and up three flights of stairs to my new home, I responded hesitantly, “Umm, I want to help prevent another 9/11, First Sergeant.” It must have sounded almost like a question.
“There is only one answer to what I just asked you, son. That is: you want to feel the warm red blood of your enemy run down your knife blade.”
Taking in his military awards, the multiple tall stacks of manila folders on his desk, and the photos of what turned out to be his platoon in Afghanistan, I said in a loud voice that rang remarkably hollowly, at least to me, “Roger, First Sergeant!”
He dropped his head and started filling out a form. “We’re done here,” he said without even bothering to look up again.
The platoon sergeant’s answer had a distinct hint of lust in it but, surrounded by all those folders, he also looked to me like a bureaucrat. Surely such a question deserved something more than the few impersonal and sociopathic seconds I spent in that doorway.
Nonetheless, I spun around and ran back to my bunk to unpack, not just my gear but also his disturbing answer to his own question and my sheepish, “Roger, First Sergeant!” reply. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought of killing in such an intimate way. I had indeed signed on with the idea of preventing another 9/11. Killing was still an abstract idea to me, something I didn’t look forward to. He undoubtedly knew this. So what was he doing?
As you head into your new life, let me try to unpack his answer and my experience as a Ranger for you.
Let’s start that unpacking process with racism: That was the first and one of the last times I heard the word “enemy” in battalion. The usual word in my unit was “Hajji.” Now, Hajji is a word of honor among Muslims, referring to someone who has successfully completed a pilgrimage to the Holy Site of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In the U.S. military, however, it was a slur that implied something so much bigger.
The soldiers in my unit just assumed that the mission of the small band of people who took down the Twin Towers and put a hole in the Pentagon could be applied to any religious person among the more than 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet. The platoon sergeant would soon help usher me into group-blame mode with that “enemy.” I was to be taught instrumental aggression. The pain caused by 9/11 was to be tied to the everyday group dynamics of our unit. This is how they would get me to fight effectively. I was about to be cut off from my previous life and psychological manipulation of a radical sort would be involved. This is something you should prepare yourself for.
When you start hearing the same type of language from your chain-of-command in its attempt to dehumanize the people you are off to fight, remember that 93 percent of all Muslims condemned the attacks on 9/11. And those who sympathized claimed they feared a U.S. occupation and cited political not religious reasons for their support.
But, to be blunt, as George W. Bush said early on (and then never repeated), the war on terror was indeed imagined in the highest of places as a “crusade.” When I was in the Rangers, that was a given. The formula was simple enough: al-Qaeda and the Taliban represented all of Islam, which was our enemy. Now, in that group-blame game, ISIS, with its mini-terror state in Iraq and Syria, has taken over the role. Be clear again that nearly all Muslims reject its tactics. Even Sunnis in the region where ISIS is operating are increasingly rejecting the group. And it is those Sunnis who may indeed take down ISIS when the time is right.
If you want to be true to yourself, don’t be swept up in the racism of the moment. Your job should be to end war, not perpetuate it. Never forget that.
The second stop in that unpacking process should be poverty: After a few months, I was finally shipped off to Afghanistan. We landed in the middle of the night. As the doors on our C-5 opened, the smell of dust, clay, and old fruit rolled into the belly of that transport plane. I was expecting the bullets to start whizzing by me as I left it, but we were at Bagram Air Base, a largely secure place in 2002.
Jump ahead two weeks and a three-hour helicopter ride and we were at our forward operating base. The morning after we arrived I noticed an Afghan woman pounding at the hard yellow dirt with a shovel, trying to dig up a gaunt little shrub just outside the stone walls of the base. Through the eye-slit of her burqa I could just catch a hint of her aged face. My unit took off from that base, marching along a road, hoping (I suspect) to stir up a little trouble. We were presenting ourselves as bait, but there were no bites.
When we returned a few hours later, that woman was still digging and gathering firewood, undoubtedly to cook her family’s dinner that night. We had our grenade launchers, our M242 machine guns that fired 200 rounds a minute, our night-vision goggles, and plenty of food — all vacuum-sealed and all of it tasting the same. We were so much better equipped to deal with the mountains of Afghanistan than that woman — or so it seemed to us then. But it was, of course, her country, not ours, and its poverty, like that of so many places you may find yourself in, will, I assure you, be unlike anything you have ever seen. You will be part of the most technologically advanced military on Earth and you will be greeted by the poorest of the poor. Your weaponry in such an impoverished society will feel obscene on many levels. Personally, I felt like a bully much of my time in Afghanistan.
Now, it’s the moment to unpack “the enemy”: Most of my time in Afghanistan was quiet and calm. Yes, rockets occasionally landed in our bases, but most of the Taliban had surrendered by the time I entered the country. I didn’t know it then, but as Anand Gopal has reported in his groundbreaking book, No Good Men Among the Living, our war on terror warriors weren’t satisfied with reports of the unconditional surrender of the Taliban. So units like mine were sent out looking for “the enemy.” Our job was to draw the Taliban — or anyone really — back into the fight.
Believe me, it was ugly. We were often enough targeting innocent people based on bad intelligence and in some cases even seizing Afghans who had actually pledged allegiance to the U.S. mission. For many former Taliban members, it became an obvious choice: fight or starve, take up arms again or be randomly seized and possibly killed anyway. Eventually the Taliban did regroup and today they are resurgent. I know now that if our country’s leadership had truly had peace on its mind, it could have all been over in Afghanistan in early 2002.
If you are shipped off to Iraq for our latest war there, remember that the Sunni population you will be targeting is reacting to a U.S.-backed Shia regime in Baghdad that’s done them dirty for years. ISIS exists to a significant degree because the largely secular members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were labeled the enemy as they tried to surrender after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Many of them had the urge to be reincorporated into a functioning society, but no such luck; and then, of course, the key official the Bush administration sent to Baghdad simply disbanded Saddam Hussein’s army and tossed its 400,000 troops out onto the streets at a time of mass unemployment.
It was a remarkable formula for creating resistance in another country where surrender wasn’t good enough. The Americans of that moment wanted to control Iraq (and its oil reserves). To this end, in 2006, they backed the Shia autocrat Nouri al-Maliki for prime minister in a situation where Shia militias were increasingly intent on ethnically cleansing the Sunni population of the Iraqi capital.
Given the reign of terror that followed, it’s hardly surprising to find former Baathist army officers in key positions in ISIS and the Sunnis choosing that grim outfit as the lesser of the two evils in its world. Again, the enemy you are being shipped off to fight is, at least in part, a product of your chain-of-command’s meddling in a sovereign country. And remember that, whatever its grim acts, this enemy presents no existential threat to American security, at least so says Vice President Joe Biden. Let that sink in for a while and then ask yourself whether you really can take your marching orders seriously.
Next, in that unpacking process, consider noncombatants: When unidentified Afghans would shoot at our tents with old Russian rocket launchers, we would guesstimate where the rockets had come from and then call in air strikes. You’re talking 500-pound bombs. And so civilians would die. Believe me, that’s really what’s at the heart of our ongoing war. Any American like you heading into a war zone in any of these years was likely to witness what we call “collateral damage.” That’s dead civilians.
The number of non-combatants killed since 9/11 across the Greater Middle East in our ongoing war has been breathtaking and horrifying. Be prepared, when you fight, to take out more civilians than actual gun-toting or bomb-wielding “militants.” At the least, an estimated 174,000 civilians died violent deaths as a result of U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan between 2001 and April 2014. In Iraq, over 70 percent of those who died are estimated to have been civilians. So get ready to contend with needless deaths and think about all those who have lost friends and family members in these wars, and themselves are now scarred for life. A lot of people who once would never have thought about fighting any type of war or attacking Americans now entertain the idea. In other words, you will be perpetuating war, handing it off to the future.
Finally, there’s freedom and democracy to unpack, if we’re really going to empty that duffel bag: Here’s an interesting fact that you might consider, if spreading freedom and democracy around the world was on your mind. Though records are incomplete on the subject, the police have killed something like 5,000 people in this country since 9/11 — more, in other words, than the number of American soldiers killed by “insurgents” in the same period. In those same years, outfits like the Rangers and the rest of the U.S. military have killed countless numbers of people worldwide, targeting the poorest people on the planet. And are there fewer terrorists around? Does all this really make a lot of sense to you?
When I signed up for the military, I was hoping to make a better world. Instead I helped make it more dangerous. I had recently graduated from college. I was also hoping that, in volunteering, I would get some of my student loans paid for. Like you, I was looking for practical help, but also for meaning. I wanted to do right by my family and my country. Looking back, it’s clear enough to me that my lack of knowledge about the actual mission we were undertaking betrayed me — and you and us.
I’m writing to you especially because I just want you to know that it’s not too late to change your mind. I did. I became a war resister after my second deployment in Afghanistan for all the reasons I mention above. I finally unpacked, so to speak. Leaving the military was one of the most difficult but rewarding experiences of my life. My own goal is to take what I learned in the military and bring it to high school and college students as a kind of counter-recruiter. There’s so much work to be done, given the 10,000 military recruiters in the U.S. working with an almost $700 million advertising budget. After all, kids do need to hear both sides.
I hope this letter is a jumping off point for you. And if, by any chance, you haven’t signed that Option 40 contract yet, you don’t have to. You can be an effective counter-recruiter without being an ex-military guy. Young people across this country desperately need your energy, your desire to be the best, your pursuit of meaning. Don’t waste it in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or Somalia or anywhere else the Global War on Terror is likely to send you.
As we used to say in the Rangers…
Lead the Way,
Don’t sweat the details of the July nuclear accord between the United States and Iran. What matters is that the calculus of power in the Middle East just changed in significant ways.
Washington and Tehran announced their nuclear agreement on July 14th and yes, some of the details are still classified. Of course the Obama administration negotiated alongside China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany, which means Iran and five other governments must approve the detailed 159-page “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” The U.N., which also had to sign off on the deal, has already agreed to measures to end its sanctions against Iran.
If we’re not all yet insta-experts on centrifuges and enrichment ratios, the media will ensure that in the next two months — during which Congress will debate and weigh approving the agreement — we’ll become so. Verification strategies will be debated. The Israelis will claim that the apocalypse is nigh. And everyone who is anyone will swear to the skies that the devil is in the details. On Sunday talk shows, war hawks will fuss endlessly about the nightmare to come, as well as the weak-kneedness of the president and his “delusional” secretary of state, John Kerry. (No one of note, however, will ask why the president’s past decisions to launch or continue wars in the Middle East were not greeted with at least the same sort of skepticism as his present efforts to forestall one.)
There are two crucial points to take away from all the angry chatter to come: first, none of this matters and second, the devil is not in the details, though he may indeed appear on those Sunday talk shows.
Here’s what actually matters most: at a crucial moment and without a shot being fired, the United States and Iran have come to a turning point away from an era of outright hostility. The nuclear accord binds the two nations to years of engagement and leaves the door open to a far fuller relationship. Understanding how significant that is requires a look backward.
A Very Quick History of U.S.-Iranian Relations
The short version: relations have been terrible for almost four decades. A slightly longer version would, however, begin in 1953 when the CIA helped orchestrate a coup to oust Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. A secular leader — just the sort of guy U.S. officials have dreamed about ever since the ayatollahs took power in 1979 — Mosaddegh sought to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. That, at the time, was a total no-no for Washington and London. Hence, he had to go.
In his place, Washington installed a puppet leader worthy of the sleaziest of banana republics, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The U.S. assisted him in maintaining a particularly grim secret police force, the Savak, which he aimed directly at his political opponents, democratic and otherwise, including the ones who espoused a brand of Islamic fundamentalism unfamiliar to the West at the time. Washington lapped up the Shah’s oil and, in return, sold him the modern weapons he fetishized. Through the 1970s, the U.S. also supplied nuclear fuel and reactor technology to Iran to build on President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, which had kicked off Iran’s nuclear program in 1957.
In 1979, following months of demonstrations and seeing his fate in the streets of Tehran, the Shah fled. Religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to take control of the nation in what became known as the Islamic Revolution. Iranian “students” channeled decades of anti-American rage over the Shah and his secret police into a takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. In an event that few Americans of a certain age are likely to forget, 52 American staffers were held hostage there for some 15 months.
In retaliation, the U.S. would, among other things, assist Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein (remember him?) in his war with Iran in the 1980s, and in 1988, an American guided missile cruiser in the Persian Gulf would shoot down a civilian Iran Air flight, killing all 290 people on board. (Washington claimed it was an accident.) In 2003, when Iran reached out to Washington, following American military successes in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush declared that country part of the “Axis of Evil.”
Iran later funded, trained, and helped lead a Shiite insurgency against the United States in Iraq. In tit-for-tat fashion, U.S. forces raided an Iranian diplomatic office there and arrested several staffers. As Washington slowly withdrew its military from that country, Iran increased its support for pro-Tehran leaders in Baghdad. When Iran’s nuclear program grew, the U.S. attacked its computers with malware, launching what was in effect the first cyberwar in history. At the same time, Washington imposed economic sanctions on the country and its crucial energy production sector.
In short, for the last 36 years, the U.S.-Iranian relationship has been hostile, antagonistic, unproductive, and often just plain mean. Neither country seems to have benefited, even as both remained committed to the fight.
Despite the best efforts of the United States, Iran is now the co-dominant power in the Middle East. And rising. (Washington remains the other half of that “co.”)
Another quick plunge into largely forgotten history: the U.S. stumbled into the post-9/11 era with two invasions that neatly eliminated Iran’s key enemies on its eastern and western borders — Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. (The former is, of course, gone for good; the latter is doing better these days, though unlikely to threaten Iran for some time.) As those wars bled on without the promised victories, America’s military weariness sapped the desire in the Bush administration for military strikes against Iran. Jump almost a decade ahead and Washington now quietly supports at least some of that country’s military efforts in Iraq against the insurgent Islamic State. The Obama administration is seemingly at least half-resigned to looking the other way while Tehran ensures that it will have a puppet regime in Baghdad. In its serially failing strategies in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria, Washington has all but begged the Iranians to assume a leading role in those places. They have.
And that only scratches the surface of the new Iranian ascendancy in the region. Despite the damage done by U.S.-led economic sanctions, Iran’s real strength lies at home. It is probably the most stable Muslim nation in the Middle East. It has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years. It is almost completely ethnically, religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous, with its minorities comparatively under control. While still governed in large part by its clerics, the country has nonetheless experienced a series of increasingly democratic electoral transitions since the 1979 revolution. Most significantly, unlike nearly every other nation in the Middle East, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one.
Why Iran Won’t Have Nuclear Weapons
Now, about those nukes. It would take a blind man in the dark not to notice one obvious fact about the Greater Middle East: regimes the U.S. opposes tend to find themselves blasted into chaos once they lose their nuclear programs. The Israelis destroyed Saddam’s program, as they did Syria’s, from the air. Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya went down the drain thanks to American/NATO-inspired regime change after he voluntarily gave up his nuclear ambitions. At the same time, no one in Tehran could miss how North Korea’s membership in the regime-change club wasn’t renewed once that country went nuclear. Consider those pretty good reasons for Iran to develop a robust nuclear weapons program — and not give it up entirely.
While, since 2002, Washington hasn’t taken a day off in its saber-rattling toward Iran, it isn’t the only country the clerics fear. They are quite convinced that Israel, with its unacknowledged but all too real nuclear arsenal, is capable and might someday be willing to deliver a strike via missile, aircraft, or submarine.
Now, here’s the added irony: American sabers and Israeli nukes also explain why Iran will always remain a nuclear threshold state — one that holds most or all of the technology and materials needed to make such a weapon, but chooses not to take the final steps. Just exactly how close a country is at any given moment to having a working nuclear weapon is called “breakout time.” If Iran were to get too close, with too short a breakout time, or actually went nuclear, a devastating attack by Israel and/or the United States would be a near inevitability. Iran is not a third world society. Its urban areas and infrastructure are exactly the kinds of things bombing campaigns are designed to blow away. So call Iran’s nuclear program a game of chicken, but one in which all the players involved always knew who would blink first.
The U.S.-Iran Nuclear Accord
So if Iran was never going to be a true nuclear power and if the world has lived with Iran as a threshold state for some time now, does the July accord matter?
There are two answers to that question: it doesn’t and it does.
It doesn’t really matter because the deal changes so little on the ground. If the provisions of the accord are implemented as best we currently understand them, with no cheating, then Iran will slowly move from its current two- to three-month breakout time to a year or more. Iran doesn’t have nukes now, it would not have nukes if there were no accord, and it won’t have nukes with the accord. In other words, the Vienna agreement successfully eliminated weapons of mass destruction that never existed.
It does really matter because, for the first time in decades, the two major powers in the Middle East have opened the door to relations. Without the political cover of the accord, the White House could never envisage taking a second step forward.
It’s a breakthrough because through it the U.S. and Iran acknowledge shared interests for the first time, even as they recognize their ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. That’s how adversaries work together: you don’t have to make deals like the July accord with your friends. Indeed, President Obama’s description of how the deal will be implemented — based on verification, not trust — represents a precise choice of words. The reference is to President Ronald Reagan, who used the phrase “trust but verify” in 1987 when signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Russians.
The agreement was reached the old-school way, by sitting down at a table over many months and negotiating. Diplomats consulted experts. Men and women in suits, not in uniform, did most of the talking. The process, perhaps unfamiliar to a post-9/11 generation raised on the machismo of “you’re either with us or against us,” is called compromise. It’s an essential part of a skill that is increasingly unfamiliar to Americans: diplomacy. The goal is not to defeat an enemy, find quick fixes, solve every bilateral issue, or even gain the release of the four Americans held in Iran. The goal is to achieve a mutually agreeable resolution to a specific problem. Such deft statecraft demonstrates the sort of foreign policy dexterity American voters have seldom seen exercised since Barack Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize (Cuba being the sole exception).
It’s All About the Money
While diplomacy brought the United States and Iran to this point, cash is what will expand and sustain the relationship.
Iran, with the fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves on the planet, is ready to start selling on world markets as soon as sanctions lift. Its young people reportedly yearn for greater engagement with the West. The lifting of sanctions will allow Iranian businesses access to global capital and outside businesses access to starved Iranian commercial markets.
Since November 2014, the Chinese, for example, have already doubled their investment in Iran. European companies, including Shell and Peugeot, are now holding talks with Iranian officials. Apple is contacting Iranian distributors. Germany sent a trade delegation to Tehran. Ads for European cars and luxury goods are starting to reappear in the Iranian capital. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of foreign technology and expertise will need to be acquired if the country is to update its frayed oil and natural gas infrastructure. Many of its airliners are decades old and need replacement. Airlines in Dubai are fast adding new Iran routes to meet growing demand. The money will flow. After that, it will be very hard for the war hawks in Washington, Tel Aviv, or Riyadh to put the toothpaste back in the tube, which is why you hear such screaming and grinding of teeth now.
The Real Fears of the Israelis and the Saudis
Neither Israel nor the Saudis ever really expected to trade missile volleys with a nuclear-armed Iran, nor do their other primary objections to the accord hold much water. Critics have said the deal will only last 10 years. (The key provisions scale in over 10 years, then taper off.) Leaving aside that a decade is a lifetime in politics, this line of thinking also presumes that, as the calendar rolls over to 10 years and a day, Iran will bolt from the deal and go rogue. It’s a curious argument to make.
Similarly, any talk of the accord touching off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is long out of date. Israel has long had the bomb, with no arms race triggered. Latent fears that Iran will create “the Islamic Bomb” ignore the fact that Pakistan, with own hands dirty from abetting terror and plenty of Islamic extremists on hand, has been a nuclear power since at least 1998.
No, what fundamentally worries the Israelis and the Saudis is that Iran will rejoin the community of nations as a diplomatic and trading partner of the United States, Asia, and Europe. Embarking on a diplomatic offensive in the wake of its nuclear deal, Iranian officials assured fellow Muslim countries in the region that they hoped the accord would pave the way for greater cooperation. American policy in the Persian Gulf, once reliably focused only on its own security and energy needs, may (finally) start to line up with an increasingly multifaceted Eurasian reality. A powerful Iran is indeed a threat to the status quo — hence the upset in Tel Aviv and Riyadh — just not a military one. Real power in the twenty-first century, short of total war, rests with money.
The July accord acknowledges the real-world power map of the Middle East. It does not make Iran and the United States friends. It does, however, open the door for the two biggest regional players to talk to each other and develop the kinds of financial and trade ties that will make conflict more impractical. After more than three decades of U.S.-Iranian hostility in the world’s most volatile region, that is no small accomplishment.
Getting ready for that free update to Windows 10? Using the latest OS on your iPhone-Apple Watch-MacBook setup? Smart enough to have moved to a full-on Linux system?
If you answered YES to any of the questions above, you are not the U.S. Navy. The Navy is still running Windows XP, a decent enough system when it came out in 2001, fourteen years ago. Fourteen years in computer time is like twenty million people years, FYI. Dinosaurs still roamed the earth when Xp came out. You probably aren’t driving the same car you had in 2001, are you?
The choice to use the obsolete operating system costs the Navy $9 million every year, as Microsoft stopped providing free technical support and security updates for Windows XP over a year ago. Never one to leave a buck on the table, especially when it is a taxpayer dollars, Microsoft provided the option of continued support for XP for a price. That’s what the Navy has to pay for.
For those keeping track, there are four versions of Windows that are newer than XP – Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8 and the soon-to-be released Windows 10. The Navy said it has plans to upgrade to one of those (oh sure, go for Vista!) by July 2016, but there’s a chance it will take even longer. Consequently, the Navy’s contract with Microsoft includes an option to extend the agreement until June 2017.
“The Navy relies on a number of applications and programs that are reliant on legacy Windows products,” a spokesman for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command told CNN. “Until those applications and programs are modernized or phased out, this continuity of services is required to maintain operational effectiveness.”
ProTip: Never accept a piece of custom software that is reliant on features in a current operating system. That is not smart management. Failure to future-proof software (remember the Y2K thingie?) is great news for contractors and poor planning on the part of government and business.
And good news, while most of the Navy’s land-based computers have already been upgraded to newer versions of Windows, the 100,000 computers located on ships are the ones that still rely on XP. So sleep safe, America, your sons and daughters at sea are safe in the arms of the mighty XP.
“Ah, Alpha two niner, this is Nimitz control. Any chance you can ask the Chinese to hold off that missile attack on our fleet? We have to reboot the air defense system, and you know how damn long XP takes.”
General Ray Odierno, the Army’s most senior leader as Chief of Staff, told reporters the fight against Islamic State (IS) will last “10 to 20 years.”
That means if we take the General at his word, some of the American soldiers who will be fighting IS two decades from now haven’t even been born yet.
Just a Bit Longer Than Expected
“In my mind, ISIS is a ten to twenty year problem, it’s not a two year problem,” Odierno said. “Now, I don’t know what level it will be a problem, but it’s a long term problem.” Odierno is pictured above, when he was the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, a war which he did not help to win and a war which birthed IS right under America’s nose.
“The Obama administration has said ‘three to five’ years. I think in order to defeat IS, it’s going to take longer than that,” Odierno said. “This movement is growing right now, and so I think it’s going to take us a bit longer than we originally thought.”
Apparently in Odierno’s world, “a bit longer” can mean 15 additional years of conflict.
But Maybe, Sort Of, Possibly, Someone Else will Fight IS for Us
But don’t worry, the Army isn’t going to win the fight against IS any more than it won the fight in Iraq, or Afghanistan. See, it is not really their job. Odierno again:
“To defeat IS is not just a military issue. It is an economic issue. It is a diplomatic issue. It is an issue of moderate versus extremists and it is about also, potentially, having the capability to root them out of the places they now hold in Iraq and Syria. Others should do this. I believe the nations in the Middle East need to solve this problem. We should be helping them to solve this problem.”
Apparently word on how Odierno and the United States are not going to win the war has not yet filtered down to the nations of the Middle East.
About a year ago, the U.S. formed a make-believe coalition of 62 nations to fight IS. Where are they all now? The U.S. conducts 85 percent of all air strikes against IS, with most of the rest handled by western allies like Canada, France and the UK. None of the Arab ground troops expected ever showed up.
So far the only two Middle Eastern entities robustly fighting IS are Shiite militias under the control of Iran, and Iran. Neither is particularly interested in American-style goals; their focus is on eliminating a Sunni armed presence in Iraq, including IS, to secure that country as a client state for Tehran. One of those “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” types of situation.
There have been even fewer takers for the American request to fight IS in Syria. Or in Yemen, Libya and everywhere else IS is making inroads in the wake of clumsy American policy.
I’ll check back in on the situation after another two decades or so has passed, and update this article.
I write and speak about Iraq frequently, and strongly oppose U.S. military (re-)intervention there. People often respond by saying “But we have to do something, shouldn’t we do something?”
I now have a good answer: stop this. The flood of internally displaced people into Iraqi Kurdistan is increasing human trafficking and illegal organ sales.
“The increase in the number of displaced people in the Iraqi Kurdish region is the main reason why the amount of human trafficking and trafficking of human organs is increasing,” Tafkah Omar, who heads the legal department of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Human Rights Commission, told NIQASH. “The displaced people here are marginalized and they may be more willing to accept the fact that they could sell their own organs, or their relatives’ organs, in order to cover costs of their basic needs,” she noted, before adding that it was also important to consider all forms of human trafficking brought on by the ongoing conflicts in the area, including forced prostitution and child labor.
“There are fears that gangs might take more advantage of displaced people here,” she said. “The security situation is such that it is still very difficult to prevent human trafficking of all kinds.”
The sale of a kidney requires middlemen, who must both know a seller and a buyer. It is thought that middlemen for the buyers travel from Baghdad and contact middle men for the sellers in Iraqi Kurdistan. The sellers will typically receive around US$4,100 for a kidney. The middleman then sells the kidney for about $20,000 or more.
“Over the last couple of months the police haven’t managed to arrest anyone on these kinds of charges,” stated an activist.
“When we don’t have any clear evidence, we cannot do anything about the organ sales,” a police spokesperson responded. “It is highly likely that these middlemen have found alternative ways of doing business.”
(Image is representative and is not from Iraq)
I had a chance to sit down with RT.com to talk about the peace talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban that are expected to start again after Ramadan ends. The negotiations are taking place after more than a decade of war. Here’s what we said.
RT: Why is the Afghan government negotiating with Taliban terrorists in the first place?
PVB:As a former diplomat, I think it’s critical people do talk. Look, this war has gone on for fourteen years between the US, the Taliban, the Pakistanis, the Afghans – the whole gang. There has got to be a way to bring it to a conclusion, and since the US has failed militarily to bring it to a conclusion, really the only answer now is some form of negotiation. Terrorist or not, the labels are less important than the idea of stopping this war.
RT: The talks in Pakistan were said to have been very constructive, with negotiators reportedly even hugging each other afterwards. Can this diplomacy really bring peace to Afghanistan?
PVB: I think the word “peace” is a little ambitious at this point of time. I prefer the word “resolution”. We are going to have a hard time saying this is a war that was won, or a war that settled something. But I think what we need now is to speak of resolution, a way for the US to disengage, a way for the Afghan government and the Afghans in the Taliban to talk to one another and try to work something out that will benefit the Afghan people.
RT: US-led occupation forces ran the show in Afghanistan for 13 years. Were they even trying to make peace with the Taliban?
PVB: It’s a good question and one I think people like you and people like me have been asking for all these years. We’re going to have to take a deep breath and say that it’s good that the negotiations have started, even though history would judge poorly the fact that it took all these years and all these deaths to get us to this point.
RT: What about a military solution here? Has the US finally understood it’s not going to work?
PVB: It took Washington a good part of those years to realize there is no military solution, but I’m sad to say it took Washington even more time to understand that it was going to have to negotiate with the people who are on the battlefield. I think that mindset of having to negotiate with “the enemy” was really a harder victory to achieve in Washington than the idea that the military solution wasn’t going to work.
RT: Could talks with the militants have started sooner?
PVB: Absolutely. They could have started much sooner, they could have started back in 2001. The US initial push into Afghanistan was actually very successful. The Taliban was driven out of all the major cities, they were driven up into the mountains, into the caves, into hiding and at that point of time I think there was in fact a negotiated political solution that might have avoided all the years of war. There were points no doubt along the way when some type of negotiations may have been possible. That’s all water under the bridge; it’s blood on everyone’s hands but again we are going to take a deep breath and say “Thank goodness, we finally got to the point where we are sitting down at a table rather than facing off across the battlefield.”
RT: There’s also the threat posed by Islamic State in the region. There are reports that the group’s leader for Afghanistan and Pakistan has been killed in a US drone strike. The terrorist organization has said it wants to expand in the area. Who’s there to stop them?
PVB: Islamic State has something to do with it, but perhaps in a different way. Certainly no one wants to see IS entering the conflict in Afghanistan. More people with more guns are not going to make anything better. But I suspect part of the motivation is to allow the US to focus more on IS in Iraq, in Syria and other places. The Afghan war is over; everyone knows that, it’s a matter of figuring out the right way to bring America’s role to some form of resolution.
RT: Could IS be possibly welcomed in Afghanistan?
PVB: IS has the potential to establish a foothold there. Keep in mind Afghanistan shares a huge border with Pakistan, so infiltration is not going to be physically a very difficult thing, and the Taliban have often welcomed outside help in their struggle. But at the end of the day I don’t think the Taliban have much interest in sharing power with IS, I don’t think the Taliban would have much tolerance for IS setting up any kind of permanent shelter there and I don’t think the Taliban at this point see themselves wanting to give away their successes against the US by giving America yet another reason to kick the war in Afghanistan up a notch. I suspect IS’s welcome in Afghanistan would be relatively short.
Talk about creating your own job opportunities!
Former president George W. not only started a bunch of wars that produced a bunch of wounded veterans, he pulled in mucho dinero making a speech for a wounded vets’ charity group. Hey, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade! (Unless you lost both hands in Iraq or something like former Marine Eddie Wright, below, and can’t.)
Bush Bills $100k
Class act and former president George W. Bush, who still has all his limbs, billed a charity for wounded military veterans $100,000 in speaking fees in 2012. Bush charged Texas-based Helping a Hero that amount in 2012. The organization also provided Bush with private jet travel to Houston at a cost of $20,000.
And in a gesture that would make a Clinton proud, Laura Bush pocketed $50,000 after appearing for the group in 2011.
“It was great because Bush reduced his normal fee of $250,000 down to $100,000,” said Meredith Iler, Helping a Hero’s former chairwoman. That’s actually not even true; a recent report by Politico said Bush’s fees typically ranged between $100,000 and $175,000 during those years.
Helping a Hero, when it is not paying out six figure speaking fees, also fundraises for homes for military veterans. It focuses on men and women who suffered in Bush’s own two signature wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. But be sure to see more on how the wealthy charity folks don’t help veterans while enriching themselves, below.
Former Marine Eddie Wright, a former member of Helping a Hero’s board, criticized the payout.
“For him to be paid to raise money for veterans that were wounded in combat under his orders, I don’t think that’s right,” Wright said. “You sent me to war. I was doing what you told me to do, gladly for you and our country and I have no regrets.”
George W., too, has few regrets. He told one reporter he plans to “replenish the ol’ coffers” on the lecture circuit. A spokesperson for Bush confirmed the payment and added, “President Bush has made helping veterans one of his highest priorities in his post presidency.”
“But it is kind of a slap in the face,” added Wright, who lost both hands during a rocket attack in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004.
BONUS: Fallujah is now fully-controlled by Islamic State. Speaking opportunities for Bush are limited there, but in other ways I’m sure IS would love to see him drop by.
Wealthy Hero Charity Mostly Helps Themselves, Not Vets
The great Americans at Helping a Hero have come under criticism for, well, helping themselves.
In the last seven years, Helping A Hero provided 65 homes across the nation for wounded war veterans. So that’s a little better than nine a year. They must also be nice homes — the charity pulled in $4 million in donations just last year. A little math says each home must either be worth close to $450,000, or the money is going somewhere else, maybe to speeches and private jets.
Also, a number of veterans who have received these homes, as well as former board members and workers in the organization, have complained about a lack of financial transparency. They have cited mortgage contracts with special stipulations such as requiring new homeowners to promote the organization over a 10-year period or risk losing their houses. And they say Meredith Iler, Helping a Hero’s now-former chairwoman, pressured veterans and their wives to sell chemical-free beauty and health care products made by a company called Arbonne International.
Arbonne uses home parties to sell products through direct sales, like Mary Kay or Avon. And guess what — the company awarded Meredith Iler a free Mercedes-Benz after she rose from sales consultant to regional vice president in 90 days based on her “team’s” sales.
Helping a Hero is also now the subject of a pending lawsuit to stop the charity from reclaiming a house from the family of a blind soldier who died after receiving the property.
Retired Army Colonel Karen Lloyd, the organization’s former public relations chairman who resigned from the board, questioned $7,500 in expenses listed on the balance sheet for the 2011 “Rodeo Queens for the Troops” Christmas party that she helped organize. She said the venue, barbecue, pies and candy canes were all donated, but she didn’t know who paid for the expensive Arbonne gift bags handed out. Lloyd further alleges “waste, fraud and abuse” of charity funds, “illegal raffle ticket sales” by the charity, and Iler “benefiting personally from the charity’s credit card.”
Iler denies everything. Of course she does.
While the U.S. media panders to its audience via the blood sport of calling for more airstrikes, more weapons, more boots on the ground and overall more killing to “win” this time in Iraq, alternative sources of news seek out alternative voices. In this case, mine. Here’s what I had to say on Chinese television (CCTV) on the subject.
In one form or another, the U.S. has been at war with Iraq since 1990, including a sort-of invasion in 1991 and a full-scale one in 2003.
During that quarter-century, Washington imposed several changes of government, spent trillions of dollars, and was involved in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. None of those efforts were a success by any conceivable definition of the term Washington has been capable of offering.
Nonetheless, it’s the American Way to believe with all our hearts that every problem is ours to solve and every problem must have a solution, which simply must be found. As a result, the indispensable nation faces a new round of calls for ideas on what “we” should do next in Iraq.
With that in mind, here are five possible “strategies” for that country on which only one thing is guaranteed: none of them will work.
1. Send in the Trainers
In May, in the wake of the fall of the Sunni city of Ramadi to Islamic State (IS) fighters, President Obama announced a change of course in Iraq. After less than a year of not defeating, degrading, or destroying the Islamic State, the administration will now send in hundreds more military personnel to set up a new training base at Taqaddum in Anbar Province. There are already five training sites running in Iraq, staffed by most of the 3,100 military personnel the Obama administration has sent in. Yet after nine months of work, not a single trained Iraqi trooper has managed to make it into a combat situation in a country embroiled in armed chaos.
The base at Taqaddum may only represent the beginning of a new “surge.” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has begun to talk up what he calls “lily pads,” American baselets set up close to the front lines, from which trainers would work with Iraqi security forces. Of course, such lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, waiting for a hungry Islamic State frog.
Leaving aside the all-too-obvious joke — that Dempsey is proposing the creation of a literal swamp, a desert quagmire of the lilypad sort — this idea has been tried. It failed over the eight years of the occupation of Iraq, when the U.S. maintained an archipelago of 505 bases in the country. (It also failed in Afghanistan.) At the peak of Iraq War 2.0, 166,000 troops staffed those American bases, conducting some $25 billion worth of training and arming of Iraqis, the non-results of which are on display daily. The question then is: How could more American trainers accomplish in a shorter period of time what so many failed to do over so many years?
There is also the American belief that if you offer it, they will come. The results of American training so far, as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made clear recently, have fallen far short of expectations. By now, U.S. trainers were to have whipped 24,000 Iraqi soldiers into shape. The actual number to date is claimed to be some 9,000 and the description of a recent “graduation” ceremony for some of them couldn’t have been more dispiriting. (“The volunteers seemed to range in age from late teens to close to 60.” Given how much training the U.S. has made available in Iraq since 2003, it’s hard to imagine that too many young men have not given the option some thought. Simply because Washington opens more training camps, there is no reason to assume that Iraqis will show up.
Oddly enough, just before announcing his new policy, President Obama seemed to pre-agree with critics that it wasn’t likely to work. “We’ve got more training capacity than we’ve got recruits,” he said at the close of the G7 summit in Germany. “It’s not happening as fast as it needs to.” Obama was on the mark. At the al-Asad training facility, the only one in Sunni territory, for instance, the Iraqi government has not sent a single new recruit to be trained by those American advisers for the past six weeks.
And here’s some bonus information: for each U.S. soldier in Iraq, there are already two American contractors. Currently some 6,300 of them are in the country. Any additional trainers mean yet more contractors, ensuring that the U.S. “footprint” made by this no-boots-on-the-ground strategy will only grow and General Dempsey’s lilypad quagmire will come closer to realization.
2. Boots on the Ground
Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the most vocal proponent of America’s classic national security go-to move: send in U.S. troops. McCain, who witnessed the Vietnam War unfold, knows better than to expect Special Forces operatives, trainers, advisers, and combat air traffic controllers, along with U.S. air power, to turn the tide of any strategic situation. His response is to call for more — and he’s not alone. On the campaign trail recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for instance, suggested that, were he president, he would consider a full-scale “re-invasion” of Iraq. Similarly, General Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command, urged the sending in of many boots: “I can tell you, you could put ground forces on the ground now and we can destroy ISIS.”
Among the boots-on-the-ground crowd are also some former soldiers who fought in Iraq in the Bush years, lost friends, and suffered themselves. Blinking through the disillusion of it all, they prefer to believe that we actually won in Iraq (or should have, or would have, if only the Bush and Obama administrations hadn’t squandered the “victory”). Needed now, they claim, are more U.S. troops back on the ground to win the latest version of their war. Some are even volunteering as private citizens to continue the fight. Can there be a sadder argument than the “it can’t all have been a waste” one?
The more-troops option is so easy to dismiss it’s hardly worth another line: if over eight years of effort, 166,000 troops and the full weight of American military power couldn’t do the trick in Iraq, what could you possibly expect even fewer resources to accomplish?
3. Partnering with Iran
As hesitancy within the U.S. military to deploy ground forces in Iraq runs into chicken-hawk drum-pounding in the political arena, working ever more closely with Iran has become the default escalation move. If not American boots, that is, what about Iranian boots?
The backstory for this approach is as odd a Middle Eastern tale as you can find.
The original Obama administration plan was to use Arab, not Iranian, forces as proxy infantry. However, the much-ballyhooed 60-nation pan-Arab coalition proved little more than a short-lived photo op. Few, if any, of their planes are in the air anymore. America flies roughly 85% of all missions against Islamic State targets, with Western allies filling in a good part of the rest. No Arab ground troops ever showed up and key coalition countries are now openly snubbing Washington over its possible nuclear deal with Iran.
Washington has, of course, been in a Cold War-ish relationship with Iran since 1979 when the Shah fell and radical students took over the American Embassy in Tehran. In the 1980s, the U.S. aided Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, while in the years after the invasion of 2003 Iran effectively supported Iraqi Shiite militias against American forces occupying the country. Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, currently directing his country’s efforts in Iraq, was once one of the most wanted men on America’s kill list.
In the wake of the 2014 Islamic State capture of Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities, Iran ramped up its role, sending in trainers, advisers, arms, and its own forces to support the Shiite militias that Baghdad saw as its only hope. The U.S. initially turned a blind eye on all this, even as Iranian-led militias, and possibly the Iranians themselves, became consumers of close American air support.
In Washington right now, there is a growing, if quiet, acknowledgment that Iranian help is one of the few things that might push IS back without the need for U.S. ground troops. Small but telling escalations are occurring regularly. In the battle to retake the northern Sunni city of Tikrit, for example, the United States flew air missions supporting Shiite militias; the fig leaf of an explanation: that they operated under Iraqi government, not Iranian, control.
“We’re going to provide air cover to all forces that are under the command and control of the government of Iraq,” a U.S. Central Command spokesperson similarly noted in reference to the coming fight to retake the city of Ramadi. That signals a significant shift, former State Department official Ramzy Mardini points out. “The U.S. has effectively changed its position, coming to the realization that Shiite militias are a necessary evil in the fight against IS.” Such thinking may extend to Iranian ground troops now evidently fighting outside the strategic Beiji oil refinery.
Things may be even cozier between the U.S. and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias than we previously thought. Bloomberg reports that U.S. soldiers and Shiite militia groups are both already using the Taqaddum military base, the very place where President Obama is sending the latest 450 U.S. military personnel.
The downside? Help to Iran only sets up the next struggle the U.S. is likely to bumble into due to a growing Iranian hegemony in the region. Syria, perhaps?
4. Arm the Kurds
The Kurds represent Washington’s Great Hope for Iraq, a dream that plays perfectly into an American foreign policy trope about needing to be “liked” by someone. (Try Facebook.) These days, glance at just about any conservative website or check out right-wing pundits and enjoy the propaganda about the Kurds: they are plucky fighters, loyal to America, tough bastards who know how to stand and deliver. If only we gave them more weapons, they would kill more Islamic State bad guys just for us. To the right-wing crowd, they are the twenty-first-century equivalent of Winston Churchill in World War II, crying out, “Just give us the tools and we’ll defeat Hitler!”
There is some slight truth in all this. The Kurds have indeed done a good job of pushing IS militants out of swaths of northern Iraq and were happy for U.S. assistance in getting their Peshmerga fighters to the Turkish border when the locus of fighting was the city of Kobane. They remain thankful for the continuing air support the U.S. is providing their front-line troops and for the limited weapons Washington has already sent.
For Washington, the problem is that Kurdish interests are distinctly limited when it comes to fighting Islamic State forces. When the de facto borders of Kurdistan were directly threatened, they fought like caffeinated badgers. When the chance to seize the disputed town of Erbil came up — the government in Baghdad was eager to keep it within its sphere of control — the Kurds beat the breath out of IS.
But when it comes to the Sunni population, the Kurds don’t give a hoot, as long as they stay away from Kurdistan. Has anyone seen Kurdish fighters in Ramadi or anywhere else in heavily Sunni al-Anbar Province? Those strategic areas, now held by the Islamic State, are hundreds of actual miles and millions of political miles from Kurdistan. So, sure, arm the Kurds. But don’t expect them to play a strategic role against IS outside their own neighborhood. A winning strategy for the Kurds involving Washington doesn’t necessarily translate into a winning strategy for Washington in Iraq.
5. That Political Solution
Washington’s current man in Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Abadi, hasn’t moved his country any closer to Sunni-Shiite reconciliation than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, did. In fact, because Abadi has little choice but to rely on those Shiite militias, which will fight when his corrupt, inept army won’t, he has only drawn closer to Iran. This has ensured that any (American) hope of bringing Sunnis into the process in a meaningful way as part of a unified government in a unified state will prove to be a pipe dream.
A balance of forces is a prerequisite for a Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish federal Iraq. With no side strong enough to achieve victory or weak enough to lose, negotiations could follow. When then-Senator Joe Biden first proposed the idea of a three-state Iraq in 2006, it just might have been possible. However, once the Iranians had built a Shiite Iraqi client state in Baghdad and then, in 2014, unleashed the militias as an instrument of national power, that chance was lost.
Many Sunnis see no other choice but to support the Islamic State, as they did al-Qaeda in Iraq in the years after the American invasion of 2003. They fear those Shiite militias — and with good reason. Stories from the largely Sunni city of Tikrit, where militia-led forces defeated Islamic State fighters, describe “a ghost town ruled by gunmen.” In the Euphrates Valley town of Jurf al-Sakhar, there were reports of ethnic cleansing. Similarly, the mainly Sunni population of the city of Nukhayb, which sits at a strategic crossroad between Sunni and Shiite areas, has accused the militias of taking over while pretending to fight the extremists.
There remains great fear in Sunni-dominated Anbar of massacres and “cleansing” if Shiite militias enter the province in force. In such a situation, there will always be a place for an al-Qaeda, an Islamic State, or some similar movement, no matter how brutal, to defend the beleaguered Sunni population. What everyone in Iraq understands, and apparently almost everyone in America does not, is that the Islamic State is a symptom of civil war, not a standalone threat.
One lingering hope of the Obama administration has no support in Baghdad and so has remained a non-starter: defeating IS by arming Sunni tribes directly in the style of the “Anbar Awakening” movement of the occupation years. Indeed, the central government fears arming them, absent a few token units to keep the Americans quiet. The Shiites know better than most what an insurgency can do to help defeat a larger, better-armed, power.
Yet despite the risk of escalating Iraq’s shadow civil war, the U.S. now is moving to directly arm the Sunnis. Current plans are to import weapons into the newest lilypad base in Anbar and pass them on to local Sunni tribes, whether Baghdad likes that or not (and yes, the break with Baghdad is worth noting). The weapons themselves are as likely to be wielded against Shiite militias as against the Islamic State, assuming they aren’t just handed over to IS fighters.
The loss of equipment to those militants is no small thing. No one talking about sending more new weaponry to Iraq, no matter who the recipient is, should ignore the ease with which Islamic State militants have taken U.S.-supplied heavy weapons. Washington has been forced to direct air strikes against such captured equipment — even as it ships yet more in. In Mosul, some 2,300 Humvees were abandoned to IS fighters in June 2014; more were left to them when Iraqi army forces suddenly fled Ramadi in May. This pattern of supply, capture, and resupply would be comically absurd, had it not turned tragic when some of those Humvees were used by IS as rolling, armored suicide bombs and Washington had to rush AT-4 anti-tank missiles to the Iraqi army to destroy them.
The Real Reason Nothing Is Going to Work
The fundamental problem underlying nearly every facet of U.S. policy toward Iraq is that “success,” as defined in Washington, requires all the players to act against their own wills, motivations, and goals in order to achieve U.S. aims. The Sunnis need a protector as they struggle for a political place, if not basic survival, in some new type of Iraq. The Shiite government in Baghdad seeks to conquer and control the Sunni regions. Iran wants to secure Iraq as a client state and use it for easier access to Syria. The Kurds want an independent homeland.
When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter remarked, “What apparently happened [in Ramadi] was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” what he really meant was that the many flavors of forces in Iraq showed no will to fight for America’s goals. In the Washington mind-set, Iraq is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving problems that were either created by or exacerbated by the U.S. in the first place, even as America once again assumes an ever-greater role in that country’s increasingly grim fate.
For America’s “plan” to work, Sunni tribesmen would have to fight Sunnis from the Islamic State in support of a Shiite government that suppressed their peaceful Arab-Spring-style protests, and that, backed by Iran, has been ostracizing, harassing, and murdering them. The Kurds would have to fight for an Iraqi nation-state from which they wish to be independent. It can’t work.
Go back to 2011 and it’s unlikely anyone could have imagined that the same guy who defeated Hillary Clinton and gained the White House based on his opposition to the last Iraq War would send the U.S. tumbling back into that chaotic country. If ever there was an avoidable American crisis, Iraq War 3.0 is it. If ever there was a war, whatever its chosen strategies, in which the U.S. has no hopes of achieving its goals, this is it.
By now, you’re undoubtedly shaking your head and asking, “How did this happen?” Historians will do the same.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be planning to invade northern Syria to prevent Kurds from forming their own state there.
Turkey to Invade Syria
In a speech last Friday, Erdogan vowed that Turkey would not accept a move by Syrian Kurds to set up their own state in Syria following gains against Islamic State (IS). “We will never allow the establishment of a state on our southern border in the north of Syria,” Erdogan said. “We will continue our fight in that respect whatever the cost may be.” He accused Syrian Kurds of ethnic cleansing in Syrian areas under their control.
Reports are Erdogan will send the Turkish army into Syria. Up to 18,000 soldiers would take and hold a strip of territory up to 20 miles deep and 60 miles long that currently is held by IS. It stretches from close to the Kurdish-controlled city of Kobani in the east to an area further west held by the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups, beginning around the town of Mare. The “Mare Line” is to be secured with Turkish ground troops, artillery and air cover.
Why This Matters
— Turkey is entering the fighting in a big way. Turkey, a NATO country, is unilaterally and under dubious “defensive” standards invading another nation. Yeah, it’s 2015 that kind of thing happens pretty much all the time now, but it is still sort of worth noting.
— Turkey is fighting the Kurds, a group whom the U.S. arms and supports as an anti-IS force. Anything Turkey does to weaken the Kurdish forces is in opposition to U.S. policy, may strengthen IS in the long run and may provoke some sort of political mess between Turkey and the U.S.
— Turkish troops could easily get caught up in the general fighting now going on among IS, the Kurds and Syrian government troops, stepping smartly thus into the Syrian quagmire. Retaliation attacks by IS and/or Kurdish militants on Turkish territory may follow.
— Kurdish forces supported by the U.S. elsewhere in Iraq may move against Turkey. This will weaken their efforts against IS in Iraq (a U.S. goal) and place additional pressure on the U.S. over whether or not to further arm, train and support them with air power.
— NATO troops operating U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles near the Syrian border to shield member country Turkey against air attacks from Syria will be forced to either stand down completely, or try and discriminate in shooting back at an increasing crowded sky full of ambiguous good guys and bad guys.
— Short version: a very messy situation will be getting worse.
I know a fair number of State Department employees peak at this blog, so I have a favor to ask.
Would someone please tell the “social media gurus” at the State Department young people join Islamic State for a number of very serious and often deeply-held reasons — religion, disillusionment with the west, anger at American policy — and not because they saw an IS tweet? And that you can’t dissuade people from their beliefs simply with a clever hashtag and 140 characters of propaganda pablum?
Yet the idea that the State Department can use social media to “counter program” IS’ message persists, even as its uselessness stares everyone but the State Department in the face.
A Little Background on YouTube
The State Department’s propaganda uses a negative message to try and counter the attraction of Islamic State. Started in 2011, State’s blather was only in foreign languages, moving into English in 2013. In 2014 year the work started showing up on YouTube. The theme then was “Think Again, Turn Away; the messaging was found on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even on the sides of buses in New York City as posters. One YouTube video includes subtitles such as “learn useful skills, such as blowing up mosques” and “crucifying Muslims.” Another features oil being poured on the ground framed as “squandering public resources.
The content is seemingly written more to appeal to Washington than potential jihadis, as you can see in this example. A lot of the messaging mocks potential recruits, claiming, for example, they read “Islam for Dummies” before heading to Syria. Those efforts cost between $5 million and $6.8 million a year.
When in Doubt, Hire a Consultant
With the clear failure of that messaging to stop the flow of western recruits to IS (State does like to point to proving the negative, suggesting they cannot measure people who did not join), the State Department is now trying a new version of the old strategy.
EdVenture Partners, a company whose self-described mission is to connect clients with the “valuable and powerful millennial market” to sell junk to dumbasses, was hired to enlist student teams to combat violent extremism with some kind of digital effort — an app, a website or an online initiative. It was to be a contest; State would pick the winners and fund those as U.S. government propaganda, er, counter messaging.
Because, see, up until now, the problem has been that those dang young people just weren’t “getting down” with the messages old people at State were “putting out there.” For real. Ya’all.
“Millennials can speak better to millennials, there’s no question about that,” State Department Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Keiderling, who was a judge in the competition, said, sounding like some 1950s educational film narrator.
How to Defeat Islamic State
So here’s how the young will be stopping other youngsters from joining Islamic State.
— Australia’s Curtin University developed an app called 52Jumaa, which to support young Muslims. The app sends daily positive affirmations about Islam to users’ smartphones, allows them to connect with other Muslims and asks them to complete a selfless act of kindness every Friday.
— Students at Texas A&M came up with a website idea called The Funny Militant, which would run jihadi-centric parodies, including a hilarious app for finding a jihadi bride and one called Who’s Your Bagdaddy?
— Missouri State’s product, which won the competition, is a website about the dangers of violent extremism. The site provides English-language curriculum for teaching about the extreme ideological ideas on social media and how to recognize them. It also includes trivia, community boards and videos from people who have been directly affected by terrorism.
Wait — the winner sounds almost exactly like the lame stuff the State Department already spews out, basically saying “IS is bad, so don’t do that,” the war on terror’s reboot of the 1980s anti-drug message “Just Say No.” The winning group also created a hashtag, so you know they are like super-serious: #EndViolentExtremism
Here are all the winners of the competition. Looks can obviously be deceiving, but one does wonder how many Muslims are in a group seeking to speak directly to Muslims in a voice that doesn’t sound like a bunch of know-it-all white kids from the ‘burbs:
Today is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
In honor of the victims and with hatred for the torturers, including the United States of America, I am re-running an older article that speaks to the real horrors of what has been and is being done to other human beings.
There’s one particular nightmare that Americans need to face: in the first decade of the twenty-first century we tortured people as national policy. One day, we’re going to have to confront the reality of what that meant, of what effect it had on its victims and on us, too, we who condoned, supported, or at least allowed it to happen, either passively or with guilty (or guiltless) gusto. If not, torture won’t go away. It can’t be disappeared like the body of a political prisoner, or conveniently deep-sixed simply by wishing it elsewhere or pretending it never happened or closing our bureaucratic eyes. After the fact, torture can only be dealt with by staring directly into the nightmare that changed us — that, like it or not, helped make us who we now are.
The president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has made it clear that no further investigations or inquiries will be made into America’s decade of torture. His Justice Department failed to prosecute a single torturer or any of those who helped cover up evidence of the torture practices. But it did deliver a jail sentence to one ex-CIA officer who refused to be trained to torture and was among the first at the CIA to publicly admit that the torture program was real.
At what passes for trials at our prison camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, disclosure of the details of torture is forbidden, effectively preventing anyone from learning anything about what the CIA did with its victims. We are encouraged to do what’s best for America and, as Barack Obama put it, “look forward, not backward,” with the same zeal as, after 9/11, we were encouraged to save America by going shopping.
Looking into the Eyes of the Tortured
Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. As an act, it is all about pain, but even more about degradation and humiliation. It destroys its victims, but also demeans those who perpetrate it. I know, because in the course of my 24 years as a State Department officer, I spoke with two men who had been tortured, both by allies of the United States and with at least the tacit approval of Washington. While these men were tortured, Americans in a position to know chose to look the other way for reasons of politics. These men were not movie characters, but complex flesh-and-blood human beings. Meet just one of them once and, I assure you, you’ll never follow the president’s guidance and move forward trying to forget.
The Korean Poet
The first victim was a Korean poet. I was in Korea at the time as a visa officer working for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. Persons with serious criminal records are normally ineligible to travel to the United States. There is, however, an exception in the law for political crimes. It was initially carved out for Soviet dissidents during the Cold War years. I spoke to the poet as he applied for a visa to determine if his arrest had indeed been “political” and so not a disqualification for his trip to the U.S.
Under the brutal military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee, the poet was tortured for writing anti-government verse. To younger Americans, South Korea is the land of “Gangnam Style,” of fashionable clothing and cool, cool electronics. However, within Psy’s lifetime, his nation was ruled by a series of military autocrats, supported by the United States in the interest of “national security.”
The poet quietly explained to me that, after his work came to the notice of the powers that be, he was taken from his apartment to a small underground cell. Soon, two men arrived and beat him repeatedly on his testicles and sodomized him with one of the tools they had used for the beating. They asked him no questions. In fact, he said, they barely spoke to him at all. Though the pain was beyond his ability to describe, even as a poet, he said that the humiliation of being left so utterly helpless was what remained with him for life, destroyed his marriage, sent him to the repeated empty comfort of alcohol, and kept him from ever putting pen to paper again.
The men who destroyed him, he told me, entered the room, did their work, and then departed, as if they had many others to visit that day and needed to get on with things. The Poet was released a few days later and politely driven back to his apartment by the police in a forward-looking gesture, as if the episode of torture was over and to be forgotten.
The Iraqi Tribal Leader
The second torture victim I met while I was stationed at a forward operating base in Iraq. He was a well-known SOI leader. The SOI, or Sons of Iraq, were Sunni tribesmen who, as part of Iraq War commander General David Petraeus’s much-discussed “Anbar Awakening” agreed to stop killing Americans and, in return for money we paid them, take up arms against al-Qaeda. That was 2007. By 2010, when I met the man, the Sons of Iraq, as Sunnis, had no friends in the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and the U.S. was expediently allowing its Sunni friendships to fade away.
Over dessert one sticky afternoon, the SOI leader told me that he had recently been released from prison. He explained that the government had wanted him off the street in the run-up to a recent election, so that he would not use his political pull to get in the way of a Shia victory. The prison that held him was a secret one, he told me, under the control of some shadowy part of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces.
He had been tortured by agents of the Maliki government, supported by the United States in the interest of national security. Masked men bound him at the wrists and ankles and hung him upside-down. He said that they neither asked him any questions nor demanded any information. They whipped his testicles with a leather strap, then beat the bottoms of his feet and the area around his kidneys. They slapped him. They broke the bones in his right foot with a steel rod, a piece of rebar that would ordinarily have been used to reinforce concrete.
It was painful, he told me, but he had felt pain before. What truly wounded him was the feeling of utter helplessness. A man like himself, he stated with an echo of pride, had never felt helpless. His strength was his ability to control things, to stand up to enemies, to fight, and if necessary, to order men to their deaths. Now, he no longer slept well at night, was less interested in life and its activities, and felt little pleasure. He showed me his blackened toenails, as well as the caved in portion of his foot, which still bore a rod-like indentation with faint signs of metal grooves. When he paused and looked across the room, I thought I could almost see the movie running in his head.
Alone in the Dark
I encountered those two tortured men, who described their experiences so similarly, several years and thousands of miles apart. All they really had in common was being tortured and meeting me. They could, of course, have been lying about, or exaggerating, what had happened to them. I have no way to verify their stories because in neither country were their torturers ever brought to justice. One man was tortured because he was considered a threat to South Korea, the other to Iraq. Those “threatened” governments were among the company the U.S. keeps, and they were known torturers, regularly justifying such horrific acts, as we would also do in the first years of the twenty-first century, in the name of security. In our case, actual torture techniques would reportedly be demonstrated to some of the highest officials in the land in the White House itself, then “legalized,” and carried out in global “black sites” and foreign prisons.
A widely praised movie about the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, opens with a series of torture scenes. The victims are various Muslims and al-Qaeda suspects, and the torturers are members of the U.S. government working for the CIA. We see a prisoner strapped to the wall, bloody, with his pants pulled down in front of a female CIA officer. We see another having water poured into his mouth and lungs until he wretches in agony (in what during the Middle Ages was bluntly called “the Water Torture,” later “the water cure,” or more recently “waterboarding”). We see men shoved forcibly into tiny confinement boxes that do not allow them to sit, stand, or lie down.
These are were among the techniques of torture “lawfully” laid out in a CIA Inspector General’s report, some of which would have been alarmingly familiar to the tortured men I spoke with, as they might be to Bradley Manning, held isolated, naked, and without sleep in U.S. military prisons in a bid to break his spirit.
The movie scenes are brutal, yet sanitized. As difficult to watch as the images are, they show nothing beyond the infliction of pain. Horrific as it may be, pain fades, bones mend, bruises heal. No, don’t for a second think that the essence of torture is physical pain, no matter what Zero Dark Thirty implies. If, in many cases, the body heals, mental wounds are a far more difficult matter. Memory persists.
The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. After all, it’s not just about eliciting information — sometimes, as in the case of the two men I met, it’s not about information at all. Torture is, however, invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control. We’re just slapping you now, but we control you and who knows what will happen next, what we’re capable of? “You lie to me, I hurt you,” says a CIA torturer in Zero Dark Thirty to his victim. The torture victim is left to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, almost always in the process assuming responsibility for creating his own terror. Yes, torture “works” — to destroy people.
Khalid Sheik Mohammed, accused 9/11 “mastermind,” was waterboarded 183 times. Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj spent six years in the Guantanamo Bay prison, stating, “They used dogs on us, they beat me, sometimes they hung me from the ceiling and didn’t allow me to sleep for six days.” Brandon Neely, a U.S. military policeman and former Guantanamo guard, watched a medic there beat an inmate he was supposed to treat. CIA agents tortured a German citizen, a car salesman named Khaled el-Masri, who was picked up in a case of mistaken identity, sodomizing, shackling, and beating him, holding him in total sensory deprivation, as Macedonian state police looked on, so the European Court of Human Rights found last week.
Others, such as the Court of Human Rights or the Senate Intelligence Committee, may give us glimpses into the nightmare of official American policy in the first years of this century. Still, our president refuses to look backward and fully expose the deeds of that near-decade to sunlight; he refuses to truly look forward and unambiguously renounce forever the use of anything that could be seen as an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Since he also continues to support robustly the precursors to torture — the “extraordinary rendition” of captured terror suspects to allied countries that are perfectly happy to torture them and indefinite detention by decree — we cannot fully understand what men like the Korean poet and the Iraqi tribal leader already know on our behalf: we are torturers and unless we awaken to confront the nightmare of what we are continuing to become, it will eventually transform and so consume us.
Words seem to mean different things in the Middle East. “Training” is a new term for escalation, and “Iraq” seems more and more like the Arabic word for Vietnam.
But the terms “slippery slope” and “quagmire” still mean what they have always meant.
In 2011, making good on a campaign promise that helped land him in the White House, President Barack Obama closed out America’s eight-year war in Iraq. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed.
Then America went back. In August 2014, Obama turned an emotional appeal to save the Yazidi people from Islamic State into a bombing campaign. A massive tap was turned and arms flowed into the region. The number of American soldiers in Iraq zoomed up to 3,100, quietly joined by some 6,300 civilian contractors. The reputed mission was training – or whipping the Iraqi Army into shape.
After another inglorious retreat of the Iraqi Army, this time in Ramadi, the Obama administration last week announced a change: America will send 450 more troops to establish a new base at al Taqaddum, Anbar Province.
It is clear the United States no longer believes the Iraqi Army exists. What is left of it is largely a politically correct distribution tool for American weapons, and a fiction for the media. America will instead work directly with three sectarian militias in their separate de facto states (current bases in America’s Iraqi archipelago include one in Sunni Anbar, another in Kurdish territory and three in Shi’ite-controlled areas). The hope is that the militias will divert their attention from one another long enough to focus on Islamic State. It is, of course, impossible; everyone in Iraq — except the Americans — knows Islamic State is a symptom of a broader civil war, not a stand-alone threat to anyone’s homeland.
It is also significant that the United States will circumvent Baghdad’s objections to arming and training Sunni tribes. Baghdad has not sent any new recruits to the U.S. training facility at Ain al-Asad, in Sunni territory, for about six weeks; the United States will instead engage directly with Sunni recruits at Taqaddum. Obama’s new plan will also bring U.S. arms for the Sunnis straight into the new base, bypassing Baghdad’s control.
This is likely only the beginning of Obama’s surge. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the establishment of what he called “lily pads” — American base-lets scattered around the country. Of course, like Taqaddum, these lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, at risk of being snapped up by an Islamic State frog. Any attack on U.S. troops would require a response, a cycle that could draw the U.S. deeper into open conflict.
The new strategy also revises the role of American troops in Iraq. “Advise and assist” is the new “training.” While careful to say Americans would not engage in combat per se, signals suggest advice and assistance will be dispensed quite close to the front.
In sum: More troops, more bases, more forward-leaning roles, all operating at times against the will of a host government the United States appears to have lost patience with. The bright light of victory is years down a long tunnel.
We’ve seen this before. It was Vietnam.
Some details are different. The jumps from air power to trainers to advisors to combat troops took years in the Vietnam War. Obama has reached the advisor stage in just months. The Iranians fighting in Iraq do share a short-term goal with the United States in pushing back Islamic State, but like the Russians and Chinese in Vietnam, ultimately have an agenda in conflict with American policy.
Meanwhile, similarities scream. As in Vietnam, a series of U.S.-midwifed governments in Baghdad have failed to follow Washington’s orders; they have proceeded independently amid incompetence and corruption. Both wars are characterized as good versus evil (baby killers in Vietnam, jihadis chopping off heads with swords in Iraq); both were sold under questionable pretenses (humanitarian intervention in Iraq, reaction to an alleged but doubtful attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964) and as part of a great global struggle (against communism, against Islamic extremism). Despite the stakes claimed, few allies, if any, join in. In each war, the titular national army — trained, advised and retrained at great cost — would not fight for its country. The host country is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving its (American-created) problems, even as America assumes a greater role.
In Vietnam, Americans were caught between two sides of a civil war. Iraq has at least three but, once again, America sits in the center, used by all, trusted by none. One even sees in Obama a touch of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In its obituary, the New York Times wrote, “[McNamara] concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life. In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was ‘wrong, terribly wrong.’ ” Like McNamara, Obama’s years-long uncertain approach to Iraq may suggest he privately knows the war can’t be won, but publicly escalates it anyway, caught in the roller-coaster of his times and its politics
One difference between Iraq and Vietnam, however, is sharp as a razor. The United States eventually left Vietnam. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed. But unlike in Iraq, the United States was not foolish enough to go back.
USAID just got caught wasting $769 million not supporting Afghanistan’s education sector.
How could this happen?!? As a public service, here are your step-by-step instructions.
— Start with the premise that schools in a wasteland like Afghanistan in support of a failed American policy are more important uses of American taxpayer money than schools in America (which is socialism, or a handout, or whatever, Ayn Rand.)
— Send incompetent people (see below) to Afghanistan with a lot of money, say $769 million. Tell them to build schools. If you don’t have enough in-house incompetent people, like USAID, hire contractors, like USAID did.
— Make sure those people never travel to where the schools are being built. Instead, have them rely on a known corrupt government to tell them where to spend the money. In our instant case, former ministry officials who served under President Hamid Karzai provided false data to USAID regarding the number of active schools in Afghanistan.
— Make sure, as USAID, while spending all that money, not to ask if there are any schools actually being built. Instead, sit back and look the other way as Afghan officials doctored statistics, embezzled money, and interfered with university entrance exams to make it seem schools existed. These allegations suggest that the U.S. and other donors may have paid for ghost schools that ghost students do not attend and for the salaries of ghost teachers who do not teach.
— Despite this, as USAID, announce at every opportunity that education programs are among your most successful work in Afghanistan. For example, USAID cited a jump in students enrolled in schools from an estimated 900,000 in 2002 to more than eight million in 2013 as a clear indicator of progress.
— Make sure all your data supporting these successes is unverifiable, coming only from the Afghan Ministry of Education. Appear surprised when you learn, years and $769 million later, that the data has been falsified. Do not conduct any investigation of your own. Wait and see if some inspector general notices. You know most of the media won’t.
— Ignore the fact that accurate data is essential for gauging progress and for making future funding decisions. Congress will help with this.
— Make sure you have bosses in the field and at the State Department in Washington who do not care about accurate metrics or real results.
— Repeat this process for fourteen years of the Afghan War.
When at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again.
And with that, we woke up Wednesday to see the Obama administration ready to announce a change of course in Iraq, one that is very much a back to the future kind of event. Following about a year of not defeating, degrading or destroying Islamic State (IS; in fact, they are doing quite well, thank you), the administration let slip it’s planning to send hundreds or more new U.S. military personnel to set up a new training base in Anbar Province, Western Iraq. The facility will be located at Al Taqqadum, an Iraqi base near the town of Habbaniya.
American plans are to somehow use, what, magic powder, to double the number of Sunni tribesmen willing to fight IS, while at the same time recruiting and training some 3,000 new Iraqi Army personnel to fight specifically in Anbar. Such plans remind one of an eight-year-old, who proclaims she plans to make a billion zillion dollars selling lemonade in front of the house.
The 450 new military trainers would boost the American presence in Iraq; there are currently 3,080 U.S. military personnel in the country, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Journal notes this latest dumbass move “would expose American forces to greater risk of being drawn into direct combat with Islamic State forces that already control territory around likely sites for a planned U.S. training base.”
But that’s actually the least thing wrong with all this. The biggest problem is the latest American escalation won’t work any better than any of the previous ones, going as far back at 2006 and The Surge.
Apart from the possibility U.S. troops will engage in combat, lead ground combat missions, or act as forward air controllers for U.S. warplanes, their most likely mission will be to try and train Sunni militias to fight IS. The U.S. has been pestering the Shiite Iraqi government for years to arm and train the Sunnis. That government, fearful of an armed insurrection among its own people and dead set on conquering Iraqi Sunni-controlled territory in Anbar (IS is a sideshow, dangerous and annoying, but in the long-term politics of Iraq, a sideshow nonetheless), has shown about as much enthusiasm for the idea as a Muslim at a pork roast, wrapped in bacon, enroute to a Quran burning. You get it.
Without the support of the central government, in particular concrete moves toward moving Shiite militias and their Iranian trainers out of Anbar, coupled with concrete moves to a bring Sunnis into actual government roles that affect the daily lives and political future of the Sunnis, the U.S. plan will fail. Basically, the same plan already failed in 2009 when the central government refused to support the U.S.-initiated Sahwa, the Sons of Iraq, and allowed the Sunnis to flounder. Remember one definition of mental illness is doing the same thing over and over, each time hoping for different results.
Baghdad has no interest in empowering its Sunni minority. It is playing a long-game for control of Iraq, not going deep with the United States in some short-term temper tantrum against the latest terror group we helped create that has spun out of control. To the U.S., the battle is toward the east, as Anbar is just 70 miles from Baghdad. To the Iraqi government, the battlefield is west, from Anbar deeper into Sunni turf.
Now take a look at this snapshot: The Iranians are training and equipping Shiite militias. The U.S. is seeking to train and equip Sunni militias. Long after IS retreats, retires to Florida or whatever, what could possibly go wrong with that kind of a scenario?
Ho ho, ho, this one has all the hallmarks of the amazing waste and stupidity I enjoyed while participating in the reconstruction of Iraq, documented in my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released with a straight face its inquiry into U.S. government’s “Downstream Gas Utilization Project” in Afghanistan, the sum total accomplishment of which was the erection of a single compressed natural gas (CNG) station at a cost of nearly $43 million to the taxpayers.
Here’s why this was such a hallmark waste:
— The limited ability to transport CNG to the location of the single station in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif limits the practicality of expanding the CNG industry in that city. There is only one natural gas pipeline providing gas to Mazar-e-Sharif and it is only safe to operate at minimal pressure.
Hallmark: The people who conceived the project to build the compressed gas station never thought for a second where the gas would come from. They just built the station for the hell of it.
— Construction on a planned new gas pipeline has not started and about $6.5 million worth of new pipe is apparently sitting in storage in Afghanistan.
Hallmark: The people who built the station, the people who ordered the pipe and the people who organize construction did not speak to one another. They may have worked for different contractors. They may not have even known the others existed. They may have done their work in different years. By the time anyone figures all that out, the pipe in storage will have been pilfered, and likely melted down by the Taliban to make mortar shells.
— The gas project may never be completed unless the state-owned Afghan Gas Enterprise pays up to $16 million for its completion.
Hallmark: Leaving some part of a reconstruction project for the host government to pay for was a plan designed to promote “buy in.” In reality, the host government is far too busy sucking up American money via every possible channel of corruption available, and could care less about buy-in on whatever dumb ass thing the Americans are building now.
— The process for converting automobiles in Afghanistan to CNG appears to be cost prohibitive for all but the wealthiest of Afghans.
Hallmark: And here’s the money shot — even if all of the above factors could somehow be fixed by magic, the project would still be a complete waste. Nobody in Afghanistan wanted what the U.S. was building to begin with. If we built this compressed natural gas station for anyone, it is at best as a financial mastubatory device for ourselves.
Bookmark this page so in a few years when Afghanistan devolves into the mess Iraq is today, you’ll know why!
Iraqi security forces lost 2,300 Humvee armored vehicles when the Islamic State jihadist group overran the northern city of Mosul, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Sunday.
U.S. Weapons Already Lost to Islamic State
Iraqi forces have previously abandoned significant types and number of heavy weapons Islamic State could not have otherwise acquired. For example, losses to IS include at least 40 M-1A1 main battle tanks. IS also picked up in Mosul and elsewhere American 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.
“In the collapse of Mosul, we lost a lot of weapons,” Abadi said in an interview with Iraqiya state TV. Clashes began in Mosul, Iraq’s second city, late on June 9, 2014, and Iraqi forces lost it the following day to IS, less than 24 hours later.
More U.S. Weapons on the Way
To help replenish Iraq’s arms, last year the State Department approved a sale to Iraq of 1,000 Humvees with increased armor, machine guns, and grenade launchers. The U.S. is currently in the process of sending/has already sent to Iraq 175 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, 55,000 rounds of main gun ammunition for the tanks, $600 million in howitzers and trucks, and $700 million worth of Hellfire missiles.
Some $1.2 billion in future training funds for Iraq was tucked into an omnibus spending bill Congress passed earlier this year.
For those keeping score, between 2003-2011, the United States spent $25 billion training the Iraqi Army. Some 3,000 American soldiers are currently in Iraq, re-training the Iraqi Army to re-fight Islamic State. The previously trained Iraqi army had 30,000 soldiers in Mosul, who ran away in the face of about 1,000 Islamic State fighters. The same thing happened in Ramadi, where 10,000 Iraqi soldiers fled ahead of 400 IS fighters.
Could This Have Been Predicted?
Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University Chris Coyne, in an interview with me about a year ago even before the U.S. again sent troops into Iraq, predicted this exact scenario:
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 IS offensive many of the Iraqis turned and ran, leaving behind the U.S.-supplied hardware. 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 IS. 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?
Impact on American Policy
And hey: A report prepared for the United Nations Security Council warns IS possesses sufficient reserves of small arms, ammunition and vehicles to wage its war in Syria and Iraq for up to two more years. And that presumes the U.S. won’t be sending more to them.
The United States remains the world’s largest exporter of weapons.
Is there hope for Iraq? It depends on what you are hoping for.
It is becoming clearer that there is little hope of destroying Islamic State in Iraq. Islamic State has no shortage of new recruits. Its fighters capture heavy weapons with such ease that the United States is forced to direct air strikes against equipment abandoned by the Iraqis — even as it ships in more. Islamic State holds territory that will allow it to trade land for time, morph into an insurgency and preserve its forces by pulling back into Syrian territory it controls even if Iraq’s government, with Iranian and American help, launches a major assault.
Islamic State maintains support among Iraq’s Sunnis. The more the Shi’ites align against it, the more Sunnis see no other choice but to support Islamic State, as they did al Qaeda after the American invasion in 2003. Stories from Tikrit, where Shi’ite militia-led forces defeated Islamic State, describe “a ghost town ruled by gunmen.” There are other reports of ethnic cleansing in the Euphrates Valley town of Jurf al-Sakhar. Absent a unified Iraq, there will always be an al Qaeda, an Islamic State or another iteration of it to defend the Sunnis.
The only way for Iraq to remain unified was a stalemate of force, with no side having the might to win nor weak enough to lose, with negotiations to follow. As the United States passively watched the Iranians become its proxy boots on the ground against Islamic State, all the while knowing Tehran’s broader agenda was a Shi’ite Iraqi client, that possibility was lost.
It’s possible to pin down the failure to a single battle. The last hope that Iraq would not become an Iranian client was dashed after Islamic State’s defeat in Tikrit. The victory triggered the Iraqi central government to dismiss American and Kurdish support for a drive toward strategically important Mosul. The government all but abandoned the idea of a nonsectarian national army; it turned instead to a gang of Iranian-supported Shi’ite militias with a bundle of anti-Sunni agendas. Baghdad pointed those forces toward Ramadi.
Islamic State is also in Ramadi, but it had already poked into most of the city over the past year. It needed only 400 fighters for the final push last week. The threat was not new. The move by Baghdad on Ramadi is thus more long-term political than short-term tactical: think of Ramadi not as a gate through which Islamic State must pass moving east toward Baghdad (Islamic State cannot occupy the Shi’ite city of four million, defended by untold militia, any more than the German army could capture Stalingrad) but as a gate the Shi’ite militias must traverse headed west to control the Sunni homeland of Anbar.
The Kurds, America’s great loyalist hope, were energetic fighters against Islamic State in the north, at least as long as their peshmerga was reclaiming territory — such as the city of Arbil — from the central government in Baghdad. The Kurds are nowhere to be seen now that fighting has shifted to Anbar. Kurdistan cares little about the Sunnis other than to keep them away from its territory. Baghdad, with Islamic State on its plate, under political pressure from Washington to keep the peace with the Kurds and facing a powerful peshmerga, is unlikely to make any near- to mid-term moves against Kurdistan.
So, besides simply hoping for the best, what can the United States do? Not much. Most of the possible game changers have already failed.
Ever more air power and raids by Special Operations forces cannot hold ground or do more than dilute Iranian influence in spots, assuming they are not actually assisting the Iranians. President Barack Obama has ruled out large numbers of U.S. ground forces. (Not that troops matter; the 166,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq at the surge’s peak failed to win anything lasting, and Obama’s final pullout in 2011 was numerically meaningless.) The training the United States is doing with the Iraqi Army in 2015 will accomplish about the same as the training the United States did with the Iraqi Army from 2005 to 2011. Even the U.S. secretary of defense was reduced to near-mockery when describing Iraq’s army in Ramadi; it lacked the will to fight, he said.
America’s latest man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Hader al-Abadi, has no more moved his country toward any kind of reconciliation than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, did. Abadi’s reliance on Shi’ite militias only draws him closer to Iran.
Obama’s post-Ramadi hope is once again to try to attract and train an anti-Islamic State Sunni force. There’s no support for that idea in Baghdad itself. The central government fears arming domestic Sunnis, besides a few token “federal police” units. It seems unlikely the Sunnis will be fooled by another U.S.-sponsored “awakening,” like the one in 2006 that helped root out insurgents in Anbar province. Baghdad left the fighters without paychecks from — or meaningful representation in — the government. As America watched, Maliki’s failure to capitalize on the original awakening is a large part of why Iraq is falling apart now.
The much-ballyhooed pan-Arab coalition against Islamic State proved to be a short-lived photo op. America flies roughly 85 percent of the missions against Islamic State, with Western allies filling in a good part of the remaining percentage. No Arab ground troops ever showed up, and key coalition countries are now openly snubbing Washington over its possible nuclear deal with Iran.
The United States appears to have run out of hope any of its cards will play in the long game.
Iraq’s Sunnis can, at best, hope to be pushed into an Islamic State-protected enclave on the fuzzy Syrian border, a development Washington would likely quietly support to avoid a politically embarrassing ethnic cleansing. Iraq would remain an Iranian client state, dependent on its patron to keep Islamic State in check. Iranian and Iraqi political needs would mostly be aligned at that point, though more Islamic State fighters nearer to Syria would pose its own problems. This would expose what might be the key flaw in American policy in Iraq: The people America thinks are its allies don’t actually want what America wants.
The Iraq of 2003 is gone. The Iraq of 2014 is gone. America’s mistakes made in between have had consequences because, as everyone knows, hope alone is a poor strategy.
Hello American people, your friend Haider al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq, writing to you here from Baghdad, which is the capital of Iraq since many Americans I heard are ignorant of basic geography.
Go ahead, check the Wikipedia, as Google is the friend of us all. Me, my English not so good, you forgive, OK.
I meeting this good day with my old friends the Iranians. I had a few minutes here and wanted to drop you in America a line to say “hi.”
I started thinking about you when I was reading a book about what you call the “Vietnam War.” People over there call it the Third Indochina War, as they fought the Japanese, the French and then you Americans in succession. Your wonderful naivete about history just amuses me. We in Iraq call the most recent invasion by you the Third and a Half Gulf War, after Saddam fought the Iranians in the 1980’s (you were on Iraq’s side), then Iraq fought the U.S. in 1991 and of course then you invaded us because of 9/11 in 2003. Now your troops are back in my country, but without their boots on my ground, so I call it half a new war for you.
You know, in Vietnam your government convinced generations of Americans to fight and die for something bigger than themselves, to struggle for democracy they believed, to fight Communism in Vietnam before it toppled countries like dominoes (we also love this dominoes game in Iraq!) and you ended up fighting Communism in your California beaches. Everyone believed this but it was all a lie. Then in 2003 the George W. Bush (blessed be his name) told the exact same lie and everyone believed it again– he just changed the word “Communism” to “Terrorism” and again your American youth went off to die for something greater than themselves but it was a lie.
How you fooled twice? Hah hah, don’t haggle in the marketplace, we say. Soon of course the Obama will say something similar and you’ll do it again. Maybe in Syria, maybe in Iran, maybe somewhere else. As you say, it’s a big world!
But I am rude. I need to say now “Thank You” to the parents of the 4491 Americans who died in this Iraq invasion so that I could become leader of Iraq. Really guys and the girls, I could not have achieved this without you. See in March 2010 you had another American election festival for us in Iraq, and my good friend, boss and mentor al-Maliki lost by the counting of votes. However, because your State Department was desperate for some government to form here and they could not broker a deal themselves, they allowed the Iranian government to come and help us.
My Iraq is good friends with my Iran thanks to you. “If Tehran and Baghdad are powerful, then there will be no place for the presence of enemies of nations in this region, including the U.S. and the Zionist regime,” the official Iranian news agency IRNA quoted Ahmadinejad as telling al-Maliki.
Anyway, I gotta run my bitches. But yes, my thanks again for sacrificing 4491 of your young men and women for me. I can never repay this debt, not that I would even think of seeking to repay you anything you ignorant pigs.
Haider al-Abadi (follow me on Twitter!)
Iraqi officials are investigating reports that Islamic State militants destroyed Hatra, an archaeological site that dates to the First Century B.C., two days after the group bulldozed another nearby site, the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud.
Destruction of such important historical sites is indefensible. Like an extinct species, once they are gone, they are gone forever. The casual destruction of the world’s heritage is too often a byproduct of war, as well as a symbol of its senselessness.
The IS act reminded me of another example, however, one from my own time in Iraq with the American Army, in 2009.
On the edge of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hammer where I lived were several small hills, lumps of raised dirt on the otherwise frying-pan-flat desert. These were “tells,” ancient garbage dumps and fallen buildings. For thousands of years, people in Iraq, as throughout the Middle East, used sun-dried bricks to build homes and walls. The bricks lasted about twenty years before crumbling under the strain of erosion, at which point the people rebuilt on top of the old foundation. After a couple of rounds, the buildings sat on a small hill. There had been so much erosion over the years, along with the digging the Army had done, that an entire area two football fields in size was covered with pottery shards.
In a few minutes of wandering around, you could find pieces commingled that were handworked (old), spun on a wheel with grooves (less old), and glazed with blue color (newest). They were just laying on the ground. Where hold has been dug, you could see larger pieces, even most of a large pot or two. The problem for history was that the large, mostly flat area attracted soldiers, who would sometimes drive the SUVs used to get around on the base around, doing “donuts” and enjoying kicking up dust plumes. No one officially seemed to mind much — kids blowing off steam — until one reservist Lieutenant Colonel took it upon himself to personally try and preserve what was left of the site. He set up posts with red streamers on them, both as a warning and as a way to make driving impossible, and the donuts stopped. At least during his one year deployment.
People said that when the American Army first built the FOB and dug up truckloads of dirt, they found ancient skulls and long bones. You could sometimes spot very old bones in the dirt inside the earthen Hesco barriers that protected the base. The Army used one nearby ancient hill for artillery practice, blowing off most of the top. As one soldier said, “If it’s old and already broken, why does it matter if we shoot at it?” That same area was turned over to the Iraqis, who use it still today as a live fire exercise zone.
The American Army digging also exposed an old village perimeter wall, short-lasting sun-dried bricks on the bottom with a row or two of longer-lasting kiln-dried bricks on top for sturdiness. There was little wood in the desert for kilns, so the inhabitants could not build the whole wall out of the sturdier fired brick. There was still a large brick factory in the area, a few miles from the FOB, that made bricks with local mud. With only a little water added, the mud turned thick and sticky, bad for walking when it rained in winter, great for bricks.
Some ten thousand tells are scattered all over the Middle East. You could see them in the desert from the helicopter, especially in the late afternoon when the sun was low, as they were the only things that cast a significant shadow. An ancient river once flowed through this area, with the village adjacent. A band of greenery marked where the river had been, suggesting there was still water deep underneath. Some of the pottery and bricks were likely Sumerian. It was possible the dust we dug out of our ears at night might have been part of an ancient wall around a Sumerian city.
At night the tell area was very dark so as to avoid giving the insurgents an easy aiming point, and you could imagine how the earliest inhabitants of what was now FOB Hammer must have seen the night sky. It was beautiful, deserving of he over-used expression “awe-inspiring,” with stars down to nearly the horizon. It was all a reminder that we were not the first to move into Iraq from afar, and a promise across time that someone might sit atop our own ruins and wonder what ever happened to the Americans.
(Partially excerpted from my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
Iraq? On another Memorial Day, we’re still talking about Iraq?
I attended the 2015 commencement ceremonies at Fordham University in New York. The otherwise typical ritual (future, global, passion, do what you love, you’ll never forget this place) began oddly, with an admonition to pause for a moment in honor of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a special congratulations to veterans among the graduating class. No other group was so singled out.
At William and Mary, a university that counts Thomas Jefferson as an alumnus, Condoleezza Rice was granted this spring an honorary degree in public service; William and Mary’s chancellor is former head of the CIA and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
The ongoing news features “gaffs” by various Republican candidates about whether they would invade Iraq then knowing now, or maybe then invade now knowing then, or tomorrow knowing less. Pundits recycle the old arguments about imperfect decisions, mistakes being made, and a new trope, that Obama “lost” Iraq.
The mother of the first Navy Seal killed in Iraq wrote an open letter to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Dempsey responded to reports that Ramadi, Iraq fell to Islamic State by describing the city as “not symbolic in any way.” The mother asked a version of the familiar question, “so what did he die for?”
Remembering the Dead
Yes, it is another Memorial Day and we are still talking about Iraq.
The facts are in front of us. The Iraq War of 2003-2011 killed 4491 Americans. The Pentagon states 32,226 Americans were wounded “in action,” a number which does not include an estimated 200,000 soldiers who will suffer PTSD or major depression, or the 285,000 of them who experienced a probable traumatic brain injury.
On the Iraqi side of the equation, no one knows. Most of the Iraqis died more of the war — well-after then-president Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” and an end of major hostilities — than in the war per se. Estimates run from some 200,000 up to a million dead.
Argue with any of the numbers you like. Agree that the “real” numbers are big.
There are similar sets of numbers for Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and many other places America makes war, overtly, covertly and via drone.
Lessons from Iraq
And that is why we should, on Memorial Day, still be talking about Iraq. We haven’t learned anything from our mistakes there and it is time we did.
The lessons of Iraq are not limited to bad decision making, falsifying intelligence reports, and exaggerated claims about smoking guns and mushroom clouds.
Those are just details, and they come and go with wars: the Gulf of Tonkin incident that brought America into the Vietnam War was false. So were the stories out of Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing Kuwaiti infants from their incubators. Same for the “we’re just on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidi people” that reopened American involvement in Iraq less than a year ago. Just as false are the “we are invading ______ (fill in the blank with any number of locations) to liberate the people” there from a thug government, an evil dictator, another bad guy.
We’ve eliminated a lot of Qaddafi’s and Saddam’s, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone on the ground in their old countries happy about what resulted from that. War after war we need to fight back against barbarians who seek to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region (Communism? Terrorism?) War after war we need to fight “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here.
Maybe as late as the Vietnam War we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. Most hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” But we of the September 12 group of Americans have no excuse.
The lies and fudges and mistakes that took us to war in Iraq in 2003 were not unique; they were policy. There is a template for every American war since 1945, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. Unless and until we talk about that on some Memorial Day, we will be talking about Iraq, or wherever next year’s war is, on another Memorial Day.
Alone at Night
I think about that mom who wonders what her son died for in Ramadi. She is not alone; there are lots of moms whose sons died in Ramadi, and Fallujah, and Helmand Province, and Hue and Danang, even Grenada. Late at night, perhaps after a third glass of white wine failed again to let them sleep, those moms may try and console themselves thinking their sons and daughters died for “something.” I can’t criticize or begrudge them for that, they having lost a child. Ghosts are terrible things to follow you through life.
The kids who will serve in our military into the “commitment” to Afghanistan that extends into 2024 are currently in elementary school. They are out on the lawn right now this Memorial Day, playing at being ghosts.
What I would like to do on this Memorial Day is ask all the mom’s who have not yet lost a child in a war that does not matter to think about those unthinkable things while they are waving a flag, and while their kids are still alive.
If we think about that this Memorial Day, maybe we can start to learn the real lesson of Iraq.
The Wall Street Journal reports while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, scrutinized politically sensitive documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and sometimes blocked their release.
Keystone, Bill and the Foundation
The Journal cites two examples. In one, Mills told State Department records specialists she wanted to see all documents requested on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and later demanded that some be held back (The Clinton Foundation received millions from proponents of Keystone XL.)
In the other case, Mills’s staff negotiated with the records specialists over the release of documents about Bill Clinton’s speaking engagements, many on behalf of the Clinton Foundation, also holding some back (During Hillary’s tenure as secretary, the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser gave near-blanket approval to at least 330 requests for Bill Clinton’s appearance at speeches, dinners and events both in the U.S. and around the globe. More than 220 paid events earned the family nearly $50 million.)
Mills interfering with the FOIA process at State to shield the Clinton’s politically would be a clear ethical and likely legal violation. But is it the only instance of her intercession in this way? Let’s ask Ray Maxwell.
Ray Maxwell has a helluva story: Hillary Clinton’s most senior aides participated in a Benghazi cover-up. Maxwell says he knows because he was there.
Raymond Maxwell was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, covering Libya. Soon after Ambassador Chris Stevens and others were killed in Benghazi, Maxwell says he participated in a secret Sunday session where Clinton aides Cheryl Mills and Jake Sullivan oversaw a document review with the aim to “pull out anything that might put anybody in the front office or the seventh floor in a bad light” (“Seventh floor” is slang for the Secretary of State.)
When Maxwell first made his allegations in September 2014, he was dismissed by most as a disgruntled employee with an agenda. There was no collaborating evidence.
But what we now appear to know about Cheryl Mills and her desire to shield Clinton from document searches adds a little more fuel to the fire.
BONUS: After Hillary left the State Department, Mills joined the Board of Directors for the Clinton Foundation.
The United States remains the world’s largest exporter of weapons.
The Middle East and North Africa are among America’s most lucrative arms markets, and U.S. defense companies and contractors have opened local offices as the demand shows no sign of abating.
I sat down with VICE News to discuss the (lack of) controls on U.S. arms exports. The focus is on how arms sales were built into our war efforts in Iraq, and how the “controls” on selling weapons to regimes that violate human rights are bypassed via a compliant State Department.
One highlight of this documentary is VICE News traveling to the International Defense Exhibition and Conference in the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi, to examine the competition between arms manufacturers vying for a greater portion of the lucrative market.
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While hosting the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Washington and at Camp David last week, Obama faced a hard sell: assuring the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that the United States has an Iran policy that encompasses their security needs.
He also tried to encourage the six countries to work together for their own collective security, but in a way that dovetails with American strategic goals.
It did not work.
Only two of the six GCC nations even bothered to send heads of state. Three of the missing leaders pleaded health issues as their excuses to stay home; Saudi Arabia said its ruler, King Salman, didn’t travel due to humanitarian commitments to Yemen. The Saudi snub in particular reflects the concern, among America’s Sunni Arab allies, that the United States isn’t taking a hard enough stance toward Iran and its proxies.
The Saudis’ commitment to ensuring that the United States is ready to oppose Iranian-proxy forces even as rapprochement moves forward is clearly seen in Yemen. After tamping down the Arab Spring in Sana’a and easing a sympathetic government into power with Saudi support, America militarized Yemen. This approach was intended to be a model for a new “small footprint” strategy, where a compliant local government would be paired with drones and Special Forces to conduct joint strikes against Islamic militants fueled by intelligence from the United States. Obama cited Yemen as a successful example of this strategy as recently as September 2014. Yet the dissolution of that country, and the chaos that followed a tail-between-the-legs evacuation of American diplomats and Special Forces, instead planted an Iranian-supported rebellion on Saudi Arabia’s border.
When Washington did not decisively move to counter Iranian gains in Yemen, the Saudis lashed out in late March of this year. The recent Saudi royal succession, which concentrated power in a smaller circle, may have also put pressure on the new king to act aggressively. Though the Saudi attacks in Yemen are tactically aimed at securing its southern border, strategically they send a message to Iran to step back. They signal to the United States that Saudi Arabia wants Washington to become more engaged in the situation and perhaps use air strikes and covert forces, similar to what it is doing in other parts of the Middle East.
Increasing hostilities, including the Saudi use of American-supplied cluster bombs, forced Obama into that rock-and-a-hard-place that increasingly defines Washington’s policy in the region. He needed to ensure Saudi military action did not bleed over into open conflict with Iran, while demonstrating the United States would stand up for its allies. Obama’s tepid answer — saber rattling in the form of an aircraft carrier moved into the area — seemed to back down the Iranians for now, but said very little about long-term strategy.
The Saudis demonstrated in Yemen what might be called unilateral collective defense; though they could not assemble a robust pan-Arab force and have conducted most of the bombing themselves, they acted with regional assistance in the form of limited air strikes, reconnaissance help and statements of support. This is very much at odds with Washington’s idea of what pan-Arab collective defense should look like. After all, how far can relations with Iran progress — never mind the goal of regional stability — when America’s allies start new wars against Iranian proxies?
No matter who showed up for last week’s conference, Obama could only propose his own version of collective defense, a region-wide missile defense system. This was a significant step down from the NATO-like agreement with the United States the GCC would have prefered. (Stated plans to create an “Arab NATO” are still in process.) Obama included new arms sales to GCC states that, while afraid of Iran, still remain wary of one another. The United States wants to be the glue that holds the arrangement together. That would seem to be an optimistic goal since American glue failed to hold together any substantive pan-Arab force in Iraq and Syria, and tens of billions of dollars in arms sales over the years apparently have not been reassuring enough.
If Washington doesn’t reassure the GCC countries that it will oppose Iran in proxy wars across the region, expect more independent action from America’s allies in the Gulf. America cannot walk away from these countries; oil, long-standing alliances and U.S. strategic facilities and bases housed across the GCC are factors. This may lead to Washington finding itself dragged into any number of fights it does not want, or stuck playing intermediary between the Saudis and Iran, as it is now doing to help broker a short cease-fire in Yemen. Think Syria next, where the Saudis are already working on a deal with Turkey that is at odds with American policy.
Obama and the GCC nations concluded last week’s meetings with little resolved, even as all sides know they must ideally find some resolution ahead of the June 30 deadline for the U.S.-Iran nuclear treaty.
The old order is in flux. Iran is no doubt watching traditional allies snap at each other over its ascendancy with some satisfaction; discord only plays to its advantage. All three sides — the United States, the GCC and the Iranians — are watching the clock. What will be their next moves if time runs out?
As official United States forges ahead with its controversial 13-year Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, which, incredibly, extends from May 28, 2012 to November 11, 2025, and the world celebrates the 40th anniversary of the end of the American War in Vietnam this month, here’s a simple exercise that will help you comprehend the horrific magnitude of the loss of human and, more specifically, Vietnamese life during that war.
The next time you’re standing at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. thinking about the 58,000+ Americans who died in what was essentially a war of national liberation, perhaps including friends or family members, reach out, touch the black granite, close your eyes and multiply The Wall by 65.
Let that sink in for a moment: 58,300 times 65.
Let’s call it the Vietnamese Monument, the Ultimate Wall, inscribed with the names of 3.8 million mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, grandmothers and grandfathers, nearly nine percent of the population at the time, including two million civilians, who were murdered by the U.S. military, its client state and various allies, e.g. Australia and South Korea. A U.S. veteran friend had this to say about one of the 1.8 million Vietnamese souls who perished fighting to rid their country of yet another foreign invader: “One of our victims was searched when the shooting stopped and the bleeding continued and was found to be in possession of a medal. Our interpreter told us it was for heroism at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ fourteen years previous. While we were sent to war to fight communism, he had fought his whole life for his country’s right to self-determination. We traveled 12,000 miles to kill him for that.” (From I Would Rather Die Alone — for Peace: A Soldier’s Dream by Steve Banko, 2003)
The 3.8 million is not a statistic pulled out of thin air; it is the number of violent war deaths, according to researchers from the Harvard Medical School and the University of Washington. It does not include Vietnamese who died as a result of war-related disease, hunger or lack of medical care.
3.8 million lives snuffed out, 3.8 million family members become memories, ancestral spirits and pictures on family altars, 3.8 million fates frozen in time. In case you’re counting, that’s the current equivalent of 28.87 million Americans (as of 4/24/15) or the combined populations of Delaware, New Mexico and South Dakota. To put it in historical perspective that’s over 60 percent of the number of Jews generally thought to have been exterminated during the Holocaust. Commemorate that.
If you want to begin to grasp how it’s humanly (or inhumanly) possible for so many people to be killed in such a short window of time and why so many U.S. veterans of that ill-begotten war suffer from PTSD, are disproportionately represented among America’s legion of homeless and continue to take their lives at an alarming rate, read Nick Turse’s best selling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. [NOTE: See We Meant Well’s review of that book.]
If the truth sometimes hurts, this particular truth — in all of its technicolor brutality — will devastate and haunt you. It will also set you free, as in no more illusions and no place to hide, both essential prerequisites to overcoming an inglorious past.
Now close your eyes again and let a much larger and longer polished black granite monument take shape in your mind’s eye, the Vietnamese Monument, which extends from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument to The White House and back to the Capitol. It’s not all about U.S., is it?
Originally published in the Huffington Post
Because America does not have enough war in the Middle East at present, and because more American arms introduced into any situation always make things better, Senator Joni Ernst introduced on Wednesday legislation to provide arms directly to the Kurds in Iraq, ostensibly so they could fight Islamic State (IS).
Cosponsors include Senators Barbara Boxer, Lindsey Graham, Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio.
A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives and has some bipartisan support.
The Current Situation
For those who accidentally landed here thinking this was a Game of Thrones fan fiction site, a quick recap of what is going on with the Kurds, Iraq and IS.
Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country’s three major ethnic/religious groups — the Sunni, Shia and Kurds — were held in rough togetherness by Saddam and his police state. The U.S. broke all that, but failed to replace the police state with a functioning nation state. Hilarity ensued, plus 13+ years of internecine violence.
IS moved into Iraqi territory more or less on the side of the Sunnis in 2014. The Shia-led central government, supported and armed by the U.S. and Iran, along with the Kurds, went to war against IS.
The U.S. likes the Kurds, because they are non-Arab Muslims and have supported the many U.S. interventions in Iraq over the years. The Iranians do not really care for the Kurds, as they fear Kurdish independence inside Iraq will enflame their own Kurd minority.
The Kurds, who are essentially a de facto independent nation inside the rotting shell of “Iraq,” made common cause with the Shia’s against the threat of IS. The Kurds, however, have big plans for their own state, and are kept in check in part by the U.S.
One tool for that is making sure (most of) their weapons flow through the central Shia government.
Why This New Legislation is a Bad Idea
Not supplying weapons directly to the Kurds is not much of a policy, but it is what Obama went to war with, and it is not altogether bad. A balance of power in Iraq serves American interests and gives the U.S. leverage over the Shias.
The new Senate legislation will not likely pass, and even if it does, it will not force Obama to do anything. The actual on-the-ground policy toward the Kurds and their weapons is unlikely to change in the near-to-midterm. Only another collapse of Shia forces in the face of a new IS advance will alter policy.
Still, the action by the Senate reveals how clueless some Senators are toward the complex reality on the ground in Iraq (the Democratic supporters) and how willing to play politics with global events some are (the Republicans, especially Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, both presidential contenders.)
Just because we already know nothing good is going to come out of this latest Iraq War does not mean we still can’t find ways to make it even worse.
I had the chance to talk about all this on RT.com (the announcer says I am in Baghdad, not true. I am happily thousands of miles away, in New York):
If there was a single, overriding lesson to crawl out of America’s failure in Iraq War 2.0, it is that destroying a government/leader is the easy part. Replacing what you have destroyed with a functioning government is the key to lasting victory. If you do not, all you get is chaos and, eventually, more conflict. That’s what paved the way for IS into Iraq, and is the real test of “victories” over the Islamic State (IS) such as Tikrit.
The much-hailed victory over IS is seen by many in the west as a model for the eventual defeat of IS throughout Iraq. It may indeed be such a model, but, once again, not the one America thinks it will be.
A Quick Tikrit Primer
The Islamic State occupied and controlled the city of Tikrit from June 2014 until last month. IS is largely a Sunni entity, and was generally welcomed by the majority Sunnis in Tikrit as a bulwark against the Shia forces of the Iraqi government, the Iranian forces on the ground and especially the Shia militias unleashed by both. The United States assisted in the Iranian-led take over of Tikrit in April 2015 in part by providing close air and tactical bombing support to the Iranian and militia forces.
With the declaration of victory, American forces were distracted by some other shiny object elsewhere in Iraq, and the media which followed the fight as if it was a sporting event, moved on. No one seems to be paying much attention to what is happening in Tikrit now that the shooting has stopped. However, if the Iraqi government fails to secure control of the city in an equitable way that is inclusive of the Sunni residents, and if someone cannot stop the Shia militias from taking bloody revenge on the Sunnis, the schedule ahead will be simply more war.
So let’s visit Tikrit, alongside the one journalist that has bothered to go there.
Revenge and Disarray
A reporter for NIQASH (a network of Iraqi correspondents managed by an international team of editors at Media in Cooperation and Transition, a non-profit media organization based in Berlin, is a generally reliable and non-sectarian news source) had this to say (excerpted) after making his way into Tikrit:
It’s been almost a month since the Islamic State group was expelled from Tikrit. NIQASH went there and found a graffiti-covered ghost town ruled by opposing groups of gunmen, none of whom trust one another.
In Basha Street in the centre of the Iraqi city of Tikrit, there are several buildings that have been completely destroyed. On the walls that remain there is graffiti: “These houses belonged to members of Daash,” the writing says, referring to the extremist group known as the Islamic State by their Arabic acronym. Their destruction was clearly punishment for membership of the extremist group.
One of the houses belonged to Nasser al-Amounah, a well known local and a leading member of the extremist group. His house has been almost completely levelled. Only one wall of the building remains standing and on it is written: “This is the house of the criminal, Nasser al-Amounah”.
As yet there’s no real civilian life here, no schools open, hospitals, courts of justice or police stations active. Residents of the city who fled their homes some time ago – the city was largely empty when the security forces arrived to fight the IS group – remain displaced, in cities around Iraq waiting for an official decision as to whether they should return. In fact, the city is more like a ghost town at the moment, populated only by wraiths from the various kinds of security forces in charge of different areas around the city.
Getting to Tikrit is hardly fun at the moment either. The soldiers deployed along the highways leading from Baghdad to Tikrit look terribly tired and they all seem to be in a bad mood. They certainly don’t trust strangers. They act as though everyone coming through here may as well as be a member of the IS group, until they can prove otherwise.
Once inside Tikrit, it’s not particularly easy to move around. There are three types of security forces inside the city and each controls its own areas. The first and most powerful is composed of members of the unofficial Shiite Muslim militias, composed of volunteers who took up arms to fight the IS group. The second strongest organisation in Tikrit is the official Iraqi army. And the third group here are the local police, who appear to have only limited resources and powers.
It’s difficult to travel around the city, even for members of the different groups. The security forces in charge of one area don’t trust those in charge of the other areas and any movement between neighbourhoods needs to be coordinated by their leaders. In some cases coordination hasn’t happened and threats have been made; there have even been some minor skirmishes apparently.
“Every now and then there are clashes between the Iraqi army and the Shiite militias,” one senior police officer said. “There are conflicts about who is in charge of what. And the army have been ordered by the government to search for vandals and thieves but there are huge problems in completing this mission. We don’t actually know who is in charge of Tikrit.”
As one travels around Tikrit some of the loudest sounds come from the vehicles belonging to the Shiite militias who tour the streets; they have religious songs blaring from their vehicles continuously. You also see other vehicles who distribute food to fighters all over the city; the food is prepared in large pots on makeshift, road side kitchens and the cost of the meals is paid for with donations from Shiite Muslim tribes in southern Iraq. Rumour has it that the Iraqi government hasn’t been able to deliver food to the soldiers and the militias’ fighters in some cases because of corruption.
One of the most famous parts of Tikrit is the area where many palaces are located. As the BBC reports: “Tikrit’s palaces have a somewhat mythical status. The city is widely cited as having the highest number of luxurious palaces built during Saddam’s time”. After passing through various hands – from Hussein to the U.S. military to the Iraqi government and then to the IS group – the palaces have now become a base for the Shiite militias. Nobody can even approach the area without express permission from the militia leaders.
Elsewhere in the city, houses and buildings and even mosque walls are covered in graffiti, often of a religious nature, or praising the heroism of the fighters from the Shiite militias who participated in the fight against the IS group here. They say things like: “The soldiers of Karbala were here”. And: “The heroes of Basra defeated terrorism here”. Some of the slogans have apparently been removed on orders from the Iraqi government because they were written in Persian, a reflection of the Iraqi government’s growing unease at Iranian influence among the Shiite militias.
The former administrators of the city remain in Baghdad or Samarra and they organise anything they need to from there. “The Shiite factions want revenge and they believe that we are traitors,” one of the officials from the provincial administration told NIQASH anonymously.
If civilians do start to return they would not only face threats of vengeance from Shiite militias and even from local police (who were also endangered by the IS fighters in Tikrit) but also from tribal conflicts. There have already been some retaliatory murders apparently – local police acted against residents who had been affiliated with the IS group, who they say were part of IS sleeper cells inside Tikrit even before the city fell to the extremists.