Chris Appy’s American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity is a book-length essay on the Vietnam War and how it changed the way Americans think of ourselves and our foreign policy. This is required reading for anyone interested in foreign policy and America’s place in the world, showing how events influence attitudes, which turn to influence events.
Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam
Appy’s book is valuable to its readers in showing how Vietnam became the template for every American war since, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. But before all that, there was Vietnam, and, larger lessons aside, Appy’s book is a fascinating, insightful, infuriating and thought-provoking study of that conflict, from its earliest days when America bankrolled the French defeat, to the final, frantic evacuation of Saigon. This is a history, yes, but one where events are presented not as isolated factoids but toward building a larger argument. Drawing from movies, songs, and novels, as well as official documents, example after example shows how America was lied to and manipulated.
We begin with Tom Dooley, a Navy physician who had one of the best-selling books of 1956, Deliver Us from Evil. Presented as fact, the book was wholly a lie, painting a picture of Vietnam as a struggling Catholic nation under attack by Communists, with only America as a possible Saviour. Despite Dooley’s garbage selling millions of copies in its day, few have ever heard of it since. It did however establish a forward-leaning pattern of lies to engage and enrage the American public in support of pointless wars.
The Dooley line runs through the faux Gulf of Tonkin Incident to fake stories from Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing infants from their incubators to Gulf War 2.0’s non-existent WMDs to Gulf War 3.0’s “Save the Yazidi’s” rationale for America re-entering a war already lost twice. “Saving” things was a common sub-theme, just as Vietnam was to be saved from Communism. It was no surprise that one of the last American acts of the Vietnam War was “Operation Babylift,” where thousands of children were flown to the U.S. to “save” them.
Vietnam as a Template
Vietnam set the template in other ways as well.
— The 1960’s infamous domino theory was raised from the grave not only in the 1980’s to frighten Americans into tacit support for America’s wars in Central America, but then again in regards to the 1991 model of Saddam, never mind the near-constant invocations of tumbling playing pieces as al Qaeda and/or ISIS seeks world domination.
— Conflicts that could not stand on their own post-WWII would be wrapped in the flag of American Exceptionalism, buttressed by the belief the United States is a force for good/freedom/democracy/self-determination against a communist/dictator/terrorist evil. Indigenous struggles, where the U.S. sides with a non-democratic government (Vietnam, the Contras), can never be seen any other way, truth be damned to hell. Wars for resources become struggles for freedom, or perhaps self-preservation, as we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.
— A sidestory to such memes is the invocation of “Munich.” If we don’t stop _____ (Putin?) now, he’ll just go on to demand more. Better to stand and fight than commit the cardinal sin of appeasement. That “appeasement” and “diplomacy” are often confused is no matter. We are not dealing in subtleties here.
— Killing becomes mechanical, clean, nearly sterile (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Gulf War 1.0?) Our atrocities — My Lai in Vietnam is the best known, but there were many more — are the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities are evil genius, fanaticism or campaigns of horror.
No More Vietnams
Appy accurately charts the changes to the American psyche brought on by the war. Never before had such a broad range of Americans come to doubt their government. The faith most citizens had in their leaders coming out of WWII was so near complete that the realization that they had been lied to about Vietnam represents the most significant change in the relationship between a people and their leaders America, perhaps much of history, has ever seen.
The aftermath — No More Vietnams — is well-covered in Appy’s work. The No More Vietnam mantra is usually presented as avoiding quagmires, focusing on quick, sharp wins. Instead, Appy shows politicians have manipulated No More Vietnams into meaning greater secrecy (think Central America in the 1980’s), more over-the-top justifications (“You don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”) and an emphasis on keeping American deaths inside the acceptable limits of the day to tamp down any public anti-war sentiment.
Throw in increasingly clever manipulation of the media (“Pat Tillman was a hero,” “Malaki/Karzai is a democratic leader with wide support”) and indeed there will be no more Vietnams per se, even as conflicts that bear all the hallmarks continue unabated. Americans may have developed an intolerance for Vietnam-like wars, but failed to become intolerant of war.
For readers of the 9/11 era, explaining the changes America underwent because of Vietnam seems near-impossible, though American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity succeeds as well as anything else I have read.
Before Vietnam, we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. We hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” Our education was very expensive in the form of that blood and treasure commentators love to refer to.
You finish with the feeling that Appy wishes the lesson of Vietnam would be for the American people to rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but close the book sharing with Appy the thought that we have, and will. “There remains,” concludes Appy, “a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain… the institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy.”
How did we reach such a state? Better read this book to find, in Appy’s words, what our record is, and who we now are.
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 few weeks ago, did the majority of the world know the Japanese prime minister pledged $200 million in “humanitarian aid” in the war against ISIS? Or that two Japanese citizens had been held as hostages for months? Or that ISIS also held a Jordanian pilot? Or, since 2005, Jordan had been holding a failed al Qaeda female suicide bomber on death row?
The world knows now. With three killings, the Islamic State sent its messages viral, and watched them pay off in strategic gains.
What ISIS Accomplished
Last month in Iraq, 2,287 people were killed. No one knows how many died in the same time span in Syria and other “war on terror” hot spots. Little seems to have changed for it all. Yet, via skillful manipulation of the global media, here is some of what Islamic State accomplished via taking three lives in such a gruesome manner:
– Islamic State humiliated two U.S. allies. Both sought to negotiate with the militants and both were shown to be weak and ineffectual.
— The United States, which remained silent, absent the usual tropes about evil, was shown as ineffectual in being able to help its allies.
— A key U.S. partner, the United Arab Emirates, announced — based on the Jordanian pilot’s capture alone — that it was suspending airstrikes unless the U.S. stationed search and rescue teams inside Iraq. The U.S. quickly announced it was doing just that, raising its on-the-ground footprint. Keeping partners in the game is crucial to maintaining the dubious claim that efforts against Islamic State are anything but an American campaign. Even with the UAE, estimates are that the U.S. conducts some 80 percent of the airstrikes itself.
— The Japanese and Jordanian governments have vowed revenge, drawing them deeper into the conflict while bringing their domestic debates over the propriety of supporting what many see as America’s war into the open. Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seizing this moment to try and push through a controversial change to Japan’s pacifist constitution. Blood always runs hot at first; it remains to be seen how many additional deaths of its own citizens a society will tolerate in the name of revenge. Will the hyper-macho images of Jordan’s king wearing a flight suit come to be seen in the same way that George W. Bush’s images of himself in a flight suit now are?
— The Jordanians executed a Sunni Muslim woman, martyring her and giving new voice to her cause.
— ISIS successfully kicked off another cycle of revenge in an area of the world where such cycles can become perpetual motion engines. America cannot help but be drawn deeper into this quagmire as it struggles to hold its limited coalition together. President Barack Obama has already announced an increase in annual aid to Jordan from $660 million to $1 billion.
— To its core recruitment audience, who believes in violent jihad, Islamic State saw one of its most barbaric videos broadcast globally. Islamic State is far less concerned about those shocked by the video than it is about those who will join its struggle because of the video.
War of ideas
— Islamic State understands that it is waging a war of ideas, and that ideas cannot be bombed away. There is no victory or defeat per se in such a war, just struggle in epic terms.
The Charlie Hebdo killers appeared to have been inspired by American citizen cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whom the U.S. assassinated in 2011. And for all that al Qaeda has been degraded, Islamic State has arisen as its spawn. That dead men inspire living acts of horror shows that unless the fundamental ideas driving Islamic militants are addressed, there will be no end.
The Heisenberg Effect
Absent Jordan, the bulk of the Arab world reacted to the Islamic State video with firm statements, and no action. Somehow, that remains primarily in the hands of an America that cannot seem to understand how its very presence in the Middle East exacerbates conflict.
Robert Pape and James Feldman, in Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It reviewed 2,100 suicide bombings in the Middle East from 1980 to 2009. They conclude most were fueled by U.S. intervention.
And there has been plenty of fuel for those who fan the flames. Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces invaded, occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have publicly killed or been killed, since 1980. This history suggests what one Marine officer called in the Small Wars Journal the Heisenberg Effect, after the physics theorem that states the presence of an observer affects the event being observed.
America’s track record in the “war on terror” is a poor one, the ISIS video only the latest bit of evidence. You can’t shoot an idea. You defeat a bad idea with a better one. Islamic State has proven terribly effective with its bad ideas; on the American side, more than 13 years after 9/11, we need to ask, so what do you have to offer?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Libya is the perfect storm example of the failure of U.S. interventionist policy in the Middle East.
The Obama-Clinton Model
In 2011, Libya was to be the centerpiece of Middle East Intervention 2.0, the Obama-Clinton version.
Unlike the Bush model, that of Texas-sized land armies, multi-year campaigns and expensive reconstruction efforts, the Obama-Clinton version would use American air power above, special forces and CIA on the ground, and coordinate local “freedom fighters” to overthrow the evil dictator/terrorist/super-villain of the moment. “We Came, We Saw, He Died,” cackled then-Secretary of State Clinton as Libyan leader Moamar Quaddafi was sodomized by rebels on TV.
The idea was that the U.S. would dip in, unleash hell, and dip out, leaving it to the local folks to create a new government from scratch. So how’d that strategy work out in Libya?
Benghazi Only A Sign
Benghazi was only a sign of the chaos to come.
Here’s the state of Libya today. Several Islamist groups vying for control in Libya have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and carried out barbaric executions, as in Iraq and Syria. The growth and radicalization of Islamist groups raise the possibility that large parts of Libya could become a satellite of the Islamic State where one never previously existed.
Libya’s official government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, has only tenuous authority, having been run out of Tripoli last summer amid fighting between rival militias formed during the 2011 civil war.
The shell government Thinni leads, pathetically still recognized by the international community, operates out of the eastern city of Bayda. The Libya Dawn movement, a coalition of militias and political factions, has wrested control of the capital and established a rival government.
Fighters who identify themselves as part of the Islamic State have killed journalists and many other civilians. They took credit for the November 13 bombings targeting the Egyptian and United Arab Emirates embassies in Tripoli. Last month, fighters linked to the Islamic State kidnapped Egyptian Coptic Christians and bombed the Corinthia Hotel in the capital, killing ten people.
And according to the New York Times, the chaos in Libya has paralyzed the economy. The one industry that is booming is human smuggling. Taking advantage of the lawlessness, smugglers who use Libya as a way station in moving impoverished sub-Saharan Africans and Syrian refugees to Europe have become increasingly brazen and reckless in their tactics, sending hundreds to their deaths.
Egypt Bombs Libya after 21 Beheaded
In what is only the latest evidence of the failure of the 2011 intervention, Egyptian jets bombed Islamic State targets in Libya recently, a day after the group there released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians. That forced Cairo directly into the conflict across its border. While Cairo is believed to have provided clandestine support to some former-Libyan general fighting the rogue government in Tripoli with his own militia, the mass killings pushed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi into open action.
The Obama-Clinton Model
While Libya is the perfect storm example of what happens when the U.S. clumsily intervenes in a Middle Eastern country, it is certainly not the only example. The evacuation of the American embassy in Yemen is the marker for America’s policy failure there. The U.S. is again at war in Iraq, trying the new interventionist model as a recipe to rescue the old one. That conflict alone threatens to inflame the entire region, pulling in Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others.
Want to see the future? Look to the recent past. Look at Libya.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Brian Williams was seduced.
He is a liar of course, someone who did not tell the truth no matter the reason or excuse, a bad trait for a journalist. Williams lied about being RPG’ed in a helicopter over Iraq; he did not see any variant of what you can see in the photo above. And that’s not a hard thing to “misremember.”
But if there is any reason to forgive Williams, it was that he was seduced by both his own conflation of his sad little life as a talking head and the “brave troops,” and, more clearly, by the process of embedding with the military. I know. I saw it.
Journalists into Liars
What is it about the military that turns many normally thoughtful journalists into liars? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.
I’m neither a soldier nor a journalist. I was a diplomat who spent 12 months as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader, embedded with the military in Iraq, and let me tell you that nobody laughed harder at the turgid prose reporters used to describe their lives than the soldiers themselves. They knew they were trading hours of boredom for maybe minutes of craziness that only in retrospect seemed “exciting,” as opposed to scary, confusing, and chaotic. That said, the laziest private knew from growing up watching TV exactly what flavor to feed a visiting reporter.
In trying to figure out why journalists and assorted militarized intellectuals from inside the Beltway lose it around the military, I remembered a long afternoon spent with a gaggle of “fellows” from a prominent national security think tank who had flown into Iraq. These scholars wrote serious articles and books that important people read; they appeared on important Sunday morning talk shows; and they served as consultants to even more important people who made decisions about the Iraq War and assumedly other conflicts to come.
One of them had been on the staff of a general whose name he dropped more often than Jesus’s at a Southern Baptist A.A. meeting. He was a real live neocon. A quick Google search showed he had strongly supported going to war in Iraq, wrote apology pieces after no one could find any weapons of mass destruction there (“It was still the right thing to do”), and was back to check out just how well democracy was working out for a paper he was writing to further justify the war. He liked military high-tech, wielded words like “awesome,” “superb,” and “extraordinary” (pronounced EXTRA-ordinary) without irony to describe tanks and guns, and said in reference to the Israeli Army, “They give me a hard-on.”
Fearing the Media vs. Using the Media
Such figures are not alone. Nerds, academics, and journalists have had trouble finding ways to talk, write, or think about the military in a reasonably objective way. A minority of them have spun off into the dark side, focused on the My Lai, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon-style psycho killers. But most spin in the other direction, portraying our men and women in uniform as regularly, daily, hourly saving Private Ryan, stepping once more into the breach, and sacking out each night knowing they are abed with brothers.
I sort of did it, too. As a State Department Foreign Service Officer embedded with the military in Iraq, I walked in… er, deployed, unprepared. I had never served in the military and had rarely fired a weapon (and never at anything bigger than a beer can on a rock ledge). The last time I punched someone was in ninth grade. Yet over the course of a year, I found myself living and working with the 82nd Airborne, followed by the 10th Mountain Division, and finally the 3rd Infantry Division, three of the most can-do units in the Army. It was… seductive.
The military raised a lot of eyebrows in my part of the world early in the Iraq invasion with their policy of embedding journalists with front-line troops. Other than preserving OpSec (Operational Security for those of you who have never had The Experience) and not giving away positions and plans to the bad guys, journalists were free to see and report on anything. No restrictions, no holding back.
So, in 2003, we diplomats sat back and smugly speculated that the military didn’t mean it, that they’d stage-manage what embedded journalists would see and who they would be allowed to speak to. After all, if someone screwed up and the reporter saw the real thing, it would end up in disaster, as in fact happened when Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings got Afghan War commander Stanley McCrystal axed as a “runaway general.”
We were, however, dead wrong. As everyone now agrees, journalists saw what they saw and talked to whomever they chose and the military facilitated the process. Other than McCrystal (who was redeemed by the same president who fired him), can anyone name another military person whacked by reporting?
Embed in Action
I saw it myself in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commander of all troops in Iraq, would routinely arrive at some desert dump where I happened to be, reporters in tow. I saw for myself that they would be free to speak about anything to anyone on that Forward Operating Base (which, in acronym-mad Iraq, we all just called a FOB, rhymes with “cob”). The only exception would be me: State had a long-standing policy that on-the-record interviews with its officials had to be pre-approved by the Embassy or often by the Washington Mothership itself.
Getting such an approval before a typical reporter’s deadline ran out was invariably near impossible, which assumedly was the whole point of the system. In fact, the rules got even tougher over the course of my year in the desert. When I arrived, the SOP (standard operating procedure) allowed Provincial Reconstruction Team leaders to talk to foreign media without preapproval (on the assumption that no one in Washington read their pieces in other languages anyway and thus no one in the field could get into trouble). This was soon rescinded countrywide and preapproval was required even for these media interactions.
Detouring around me, the reporters would ask soldiers their opinions on the war, the Army, or even controversial policies. The reporters would sit through the briefings the general received, listening in as he asked questions. They were exposed to classified material, and trusted not to reveal it in print. They would go out on patrols led by 24-year-old lieutenants, where life-and-death decisions were often made, and were free to report on whatever they saw. It always amazed me — like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything suddenly changes from black and white into color.
Fear Not: The Force Is With You
But the military wasn’t worried. Why? Because its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was — not to mince words — seductive. The world, it turns out, is divided into two groups, those who served in the military and those who didn’t. For the rare journalists with service time, this would be homecoming, a chance to relive their youth filtered through memory. For the others, like me, embedding with the military felt like being invited in — no, welcomed — for the first time by the cool kids.
You arrive and, of course, you feel awkward, out of place. Everyone has a uniform on and you’re wearing something inappropriate you bought at L.L. Bean. You don’t know how to wear your body-armor vest and helmet, which means that someone has to show you how to dress yourself. When was the last time that happened? Instead of making fun of you, though, the soldier is cool with it and just helps.
Then, you start out not knowing what the hell anyone is saying, because they throw around terms like FOB and DFAC and POS and LT and BLUF and say Hoo-ah, but sooner or later someone begins to explain them to you one by one, and after a while you start to feel pretty cool saying them yourself and better yet, repeating them to people at home in emails and, if you’re a journalist, during live reports. (“Sorry Wolf, that’s an insider military term. Let me explain it to our viewers…”)
You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you’re riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You’re the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they’re cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can’t believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen — and you want to tell them.
Even though you may be only a few years older than many of them, you feel fatherly. For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you’re treated as the most beautiful female they’ve seen in the last six months — and it’s probably true.
The same way one year in a dog’s life equals seven human years, every day spent in a war zone is the equivalent of a month relationship-wise. You quickly grow close to the military people you’re with, and though you may never see any of them again after next week, you bond with them.
You arrived a stranger and a geek. Now, you eat their food, watch their TV, and sleep, pee, and work together every day. These are your friends, at least for the time you’re together, and you’re never going to betray them. Under those circumstances, it’s harder than hell to say anything bad about the organization whose lowest ranking member just gave up his sleeping bag without prompting because you were too green and dumb to bring one with you.
Why It Matters
So, take my word for it, it’s really, really hard to write about the military objectively, even if you try. That’s not to say that all journalists are shills; it’s just a warning for you to take care when you’re hanging out with, or reading, our warrior-pundits.
It is also to say that journalists who embed and do write objective pieces are to be read, revered and respected.
And yet having some perspective on the military and what it does matters as we threaten to slip into yet more multigenerational wars without purpose, watch the further militarization of foreign affairs, and devote ever more of our national budget to the military. War lovers and war pornographers can’t offer us an objective look at a world in which more and more foreigners only run into Americans when they are wearing green and carrying weapons.
I respect my military colleagues, at least the ones who took it all seriously enough to deserve that respect, and would not speak ill of them. Some do indeed make enormous sacrifices, including of their own lives, even if for reasons that are ambiguous at best to a majority of Americans. But in order to understand these men and women and the tasks they are set to, we need journalists who are willing to type with both hands, not just pass on their own wet dreams to a gullible public.
Civilian control of our military is a cornerstone of our republic, and we the people need to base our decisions on something better than Sergeant Rock comic rewrites.
The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon announced a new shipment of weapons and ammunition have arrived in Beirut, the latest American assistance to Lebanon’s army as it fights ISIS along its border with Syria. The Ambassador said the equipment includes more than 70 M198 howitzers and over 26 million rounds of ammunition and artillery “of all shapes and sizes, including heavy artillery.”
“We are very proud of this top-of-the-line equipment. This is the best that there is in the marketplace. It’s what our soldiers use,” the Ambassador continued. “I know that in a matter of days it’s going to be what your brave soldiers are using in the battle to defeat terrorism and extremism.”
Hale told reporters that Lebanon has become the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military assistance. He added that weapons worth more than $100 million were given to Lebanon last year and over a $1 billion worth in the last eight years. In November, France and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to provide the Lebanese army with $3 billion worth of weapons paid for by Riyadh.
So How’s that Working Out for You?
And so, one must ask the snarky question “So how’s that working out for you?”
The current U.S. war “against ISIS,” (aka Iraq War 3.0) has spread around like spilled paint into Syria, Iraq and threatens Turkey. It has drawn into its sucking vortex Lebanon, Jordan, Iran (a very happy participant as every victory against ISIS is a double win for Tehran), Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Britain, France, Canada and bits and pieces overt and covert of other nations.
In Iraq, the U.S. war has solidified Shia control of the government in general, and reestablished the Shia militias as the government’s bully boys and the vanguard of ethnic cleansing even now underway. The war midwifed an independent Kurdish nation-state in every sense but name; that toothpaste is never going back into the tube. The need to play nice with Iran inside Iraq has weakened the U.S. in nuclear negotiations. Syria’s Assad, a year and a half ago the man in America’s crosshairs for crimes against humanity, is now allowed to sit comfortably in power in Damascus, his name barely even mentioned by the White House.
America at War!
The move to overt combat by U.S. forces in Iraq is one incident away, assuming you don’t count defensive operations, getting mortared, and flying ground attack helicopters as “combat.” Fun prediction: some incident will indeed occur, maybe a hostage rescue scenario, right about the time the Kurds/Iraq Forces run into trouble this spring retaking Mosul from ISIS. Cynical? Remember the current round of U.S. intervention in Iraq began with a rescue mission for the Yazidi people.
So in the shadow of all that, what possible harm could come out of sending another 26 million rounds of ammunition into Lebanon?
The picture above comes from a U.S. napalm strike on a village in Vietnam.
This image is from a U.S. white phosphorus strike on Fallujah, Iraq.
This image is from the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Wrongs don’t make rights, and one horror does not excuse or justify another. But do be careful slinging the term barbarian around, or decrying the murder of defenseless innocents too freely, lest it come back and bite you.
When I was in Iraq, learning to recognize “celebratory gunfire” by sound was a useful skill. First, you did not want to shoot back and kill innocent people. Second, you did not want to show up where people were all excited and shooting guns.
But mostly, you wanted to avoid the gravity thing. Rounds shot into the air to celebrate a wedding or a sports victory had to come back down. Especially when Iraqis fired off entire clips at a time, you just didn’t want to be under that stuff when it came falling back to earth.
The captain of Iraq’s football team agrees. On Sunday he urged fans to refrain from shooting after celebratory gunfire wounded 89 revelers following a dramatic penalty “shoot-out” victory against arch-rival Iran.
“I urge you to express your happiness in a dignified way because I think the shooting is hurting people,” he said. “This shooting could hurt a family and this family will not have fun with us, it will be prevented from celebrating with us. I urge you all to stop firing.”
Reports have surfaced of at least two children killed by falling bullets.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised to crack down on any further celebratory gunfire in Iraq, which is awash with weapons, but such pledges have been made before with little effect. “I have ordered the security forces to prevent celebratory gunfire and punish violators,” he said in a statement. He urged the security forces, the sport, health and tribal authorities as well as civil society to “play an active role in spreading awareness and contribute to ending this uncivilised behavior.”
BONUS: The image above actually shows an American in trouble with Tampa, Florida authorities for letting off celebratory gunfire.
The current American war in Iraq is a struggle in search of a goal. It began in August as a humanitarian intervention, morphed into a campaign to protect Americans in-country, became a plan to defend the Kurds, followed by a full-on crusade to defeat the new Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS, aka ISIL), and then… well, something in Syria to be determined at a later date.
At the moment, Iraq War 3.0 simply drones on, part bombing campaign, part mission to train the collapsed army the U.S. military created for Iraq War 2.0, all amid a miasma of incoherent mainstream media coverage. American troops are tiptoeing closer to combat (assuming you don’t count defensive operations, getting mortared, and flying ground attack helicopters as “combat”), even as they act like archaeologists of America’s warring past, exploring the ruins of abandoned U.S. bases. Meanwhile, Shia militias are using the conflict for the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis and Iran has become an ever-more significant player in Iraq’s affairs. Key issues of the previous American occupation of the country — corruption, representative government, oil revenue-sharing — remain largely unresolved. The Kurds still keep “winning” against the militants of IS in the city of Kobani on the Turkish border without having “won.”
In the meantime, Washington’s rallying cry now seems to be: “Wait for the spring offensive!” In translation that means: wait for the Iraqi army to get enough newly American-trained and -armed troops into action to make a move on Mosul. That city is, of course, the country’s second largest and still ruled by the new “caliphate” proclaimed by Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. All in all, not exactly inspiring stuff.
You can’t have victory if you have no idea where the finish line is. But there is one bright side to the situation. If you can’t create Victory in Iraq for future VI Day parades, you can at least make a profit from the disintegrating situation there.
Team America’s Arms Sales Force
In the midst of the December holiday news-dumping zone, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) quietly notified Congress of several pending arms deals for Iraq. DSCA is the Pentagon office responsible for coordinating arms agreements between American defense contractors and foreign buyers.
Before those thousands of not-boots-on-the-ground troops started hemorrhaging back into Iraq late last year, DSCA personnel made up a significant portion of all U.S. military personnel still there. Its staff members are, in fact, common in U.S. embassies in general. This shouldn’t be surprising, since the sales of weaponry and other kinds of war equipment are big business for a range of American companies, and the U.S. government is more than happy to assist. In fact, there is even a handbook to guide foreign governments through the buying process.
The DSCA operates under a mission statement which says the “U.S. may sell defense articles and services to foreign countries and international organizations when the President formally finds that to do so will strengthen the security of the U.S. and promote world peace.” While the Pentagon carries out the heavy lifting, actual recommendations on which countries can buy U.S. gear are made by the secretary of state, and then rubber-stamped by Congress.
As for countries that can’t afford U.S. weaponry, Washington has the Foreign Military Finance program up its sleeve. This opens the way for the U.S. government to pay for weapons for other countries — only to “promote world peace,” of course — using your tax dollars, which are then recycled into the hands of military-industrial-complex corporations.
Iraq’s Shopping List
Here’s part of what the U.S. is getting ready to sell to Iraq right now:
* 175 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks;
* 15 Hercules tank recovery vehicles (you can’t have a tank without the tow truck);
* 55,000 rounds of main gun ammunition for the tanks (the ammo needed to get the biggest bang for your bucks)
And what will all that firepower cost? Just under $3 billion.
Keep in mind that these are only the most recent proposed sales when it comes to tanks. In July, for example, General Dynamics received a $65.3 million contract to support the existing Iraq M1A1 Abrams program. In October, the U.S. approved the sale of $600 million in M1 tank ammunition to that country. There have also been sales of all sorts of other weaponry, from $579 million worth of Humvees and $600 million in howitzers and trucks to $700 million worth of Hellfire missiles. There are many more examples. Business is good.
While the collapse of the Iraqi army and the abandonment of piles of its American weaponry, including at least 40 M1s, to IS militants, helped create this new business opportunity for weapons-makers like General Dynamics, the plan to cash in on Iraq can be traced back to America’s occupation of that country. Forward Operating Base Hammer, where both Private Chelsea Manning (she collecting State Department cables for WikiLeaks) and I (supervising State Department reconstruction efforts) lived for a year or so, was built across the street from the Besmaya Firing Range. That testing grounds was U.S.-outfitted not just for the live firing of artillery, but for — you guessed it — M1 tanks. It was to be part of the pipeline that would keep an expensive weapons system heading into Iraq forever. In 2011, as U.S. troops left the country, both facilities were “gifted” to the Iraqis to serve as logistics bases for training in, and the repair of, U.S.-sold weapons.
As I write this, American contractors still live on the remnants of Hammer, supporting the Iraqi army’s use of whatever M1 tanks they didn’t turn over to the Islamic State. On a contractor job-review site, “job work/life balance” at the base gets an acceptable 3.5 stars from those working there and one American trainer even praises the fact that work starts and ends before the heat of the day (even if another complains that the only toilets available are still port-a-potties).
The new tank sales to Iraq will, of course, keep Besmaya humming and are significant enough that the Motley Fool, an investment advice website, offers this background information:
“This is about more than just immediate sales and profits for General Dynamics. Currently, the U.S. Army has all the M1A1 tanks it needs… Last year, General Dynamics successfully lobbied Congress to provide $120 million for upgrading Abrams tanks, just to ensure the factory remains at least partially open (and avoid having to pay the expense of restarting production from zero at a later date). In 2012, similar logic caused Congress to spend about $180 million on the tanks, despite Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno telling lawmakers at the time: ‘…these are additional tanks that we don’t need.’ Luckily for General Dynamics, though, Iraq does need tanks. And at the Lima plant’s recent production rate of 10 tanks per month, the Iraq order should keep General Dynamics’ tank business running well into 2016.”
Would You Like the Extended Warranty?
Iraqis have a saying: “The rug is never sold.” It means that there’s always more money to be made from any transaction. General Dynamics would agree. Arms sales work remarkably like consumer electronics (and Iraqi carpets). Want the extended warranty for your new smartphone? Extra battery? Accessories? Insurance against loss or damage? Suddenly the cost of your phone doubles.
Same for tanks. The M1 is a complex beast. You’ll need to pay General Dynamics for trainers to teach your guys to operate its systems. You’ll need lots of spare parts, especially operating in the desert. And it won’t be long before you’ll want to do some upgrades — maybe better computers or a faster engine. The U.S. is currently working on “urban warfare” upgrades for the 140 M1s the Iraqis have hung onto. In the defense world, these after-sales are known as the “tail.” And the longer the tail, the bigger the profits.
For example, built into the contract for the new M1 tank sale is the provision that “approximately five U.S. Government and one hundred contractor representatives [will] travel to Iraq for a period of up to five years for delivery, system checkout, program support, and training.” And that isn’t going to come cheap from General Dynamics, though the five government employees may be a bargain financed by American taxpayers.
None of this even touches on the potential for repeat sales. After all, most of the Islamic State’s heavy gear comes from stuff the Iraqi army abandoned or somehow lost in their headlong flight from the country’s northern cities. And keep in mind that every tank and shell IS pulls out of that inventory means more business for General Dynamics and similar firms. Essentially selling weapons to both sides of a conflict is smart business.
Big, heavy military equipment, however, takes months to manufacture. So even a quick order placed today doesn’t mean your gear will arrive in time for that promised spring offensive. So why not buy, or have gifted to you, something pre-owned and ready for immediate delivery? If you’re the government of Iraq, the U.S. military is already way ahead of you on this.
Since June, the U.S. has been stockpiling massive amounts of gear coming out of Afghanistan at Shuaiba, a port in Kuwait, in preparation for ultimately shipping at least some of it across the border into Iraq. The depot already houses 3,100 vehicles, mostly the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles ubiquitous in America’s wars. MRAPs are useful for protecting troops from roadside bombs, including the Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) versions made in Iran that took the lives of many Americans during Iraq War 2.0. That must take a weight off Iraqi minds.
Another thing that may help: The United States has already donated 250 MRAPs to Iraq as well as $300 million in weapons handed over free-of-charge by the Department of Defense in 2014. And don’t forget: Into an omnibus spending bill Congress passed last month is tucked $1.2 billion in future training and equipment for Iraq. And let’s not forget either all those need-to-be-replaced bombs being regularly dropped on Iraq by the U.S. Air Force at a cost of up to one billion dollars and counting.
Are Tanks Good for Anything Other Than Profits?
For Congress to approve the DSCA arms deals, the Department of Defense must certify that “the proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region.” So the tanks to fight IS will have to be certified in writing not to affect the regional situation.
Whatever the Iraqis think they need the tanks for, America’s nine-year-long slog through Iraq War 2.0 should have offered a lesson in how relatively useless heavy armor is for the kind of urban fighting and counter-insurgency warfare usually seen against a foe like IS. In fact, the logistics needed to maintain an M1 in combat can actually slow an advance, while the steel beasts are relatively easy targets in the confines of a Middle Eastern city like Mosul.
Maybe, in the end, some of those M1s will even land in Iranian hands, given the robust role that country is playing in the current Iraq war. America’s front-line military technology could, in other words, find its way into the hands of people capable of a little reverse engineering to mine technology for Iran’s own tank corps or to sell on the world market. It seems Baghdad is already sharing other U.S.-supplied weapons with Iranian-influenced Shia militias, so why not tanks?
Let’s put it this way: From any point of view except General Dynamics’s, the Islamic State’s, or maybe the Iranians’, these tank sales don’t add up.
Call Your Broker
It’s easy enough to toss around terms like “military-industrial complex” and equally easy to slip from there into what some might consider blood-for-oil conspiracy theories or suggestions that Iraq War 2.0 was all about the mega-contractor Halliburton’s bottom line. While oil and Halliburton were certainly part of that past war’s calculus, they can no more account for it than the piles of money General Dynamics is about to make selling tanks can alone account for Iraq War 3.0.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the way defense companies find themselves buried in cash from selling weapons that aren’t needed to people who can’t use them, sales that are, in the end, likely to harm, not help, America’s geopolitical interests. Perhaps it is better to see the immediate profits from such deals as just a part of a much bigger process, one that demands America have enemies to crusade against to ensure the survival of the national security state.
To such a “wartime” paradigm one just needs to plug in new bad guys from time to time, which is proving an ever-easier venture, since each of our previous wars and conflicts seems to offer a remarkably helpful hand in creating them. In this way, radical Islam has proven, with Washington’s help, a worthy successor to the Soviet Union, itself once a superb money-making venture and a great way to build a monumental national security state.
Even as the Obama administration stumbles and bumbles along in search of a magical political strategy in Iraq that would make sense of everything, American weapons-makers can expect a bountiful future. In the meantime, Washington is putting forces in place that, by doing more of the same for the third time in a disintegrating Iraq in the middle of a fracturing region, guarantee more of the same. In that sense, you might say that American forces are partly in place to help promote the investment. If one needed an example of how the military-industrial complex works today, that might be it. Every mistake by Washington is a boon for future arms sales.
So if you’ve got money to invest in General Dynamics, you might want to call your broker.
Walter Stewart (Major General, U.S. Army, retired) has some pretty good ideas why America keeps losing its wars. Arguably, allowing for some “ties” as in Korea, since WWII America’s unambiguous wins have really been only in one-sided contests like Grenada and Panama. You might want to argue Iraq War 1.0, in 1991, but you better figure out a way to account for 12 years of following sanctions, bombing and missile attacks, never mind Iraq Wars 2.0 and the current 3.0.
Stewart says there are three basic reasons for the loses:
— America is losing its wars because they are unconstitutional to begin with. They are unconstitutional because they are undeclared.
If America’s wars are not worth formal Congressional declarations, which act to unite the American people, they are by that fact not worth fighting. However, in the classic definition of insanity, America’s leaders keep doing the same thing over and over – fighting undeclared and unnecessary wars without rallying the support of the people – expecting different results.
— Strategic-level commissioned officers who swear an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution have an obligation to protest these wars. However, none have. Indeed, our most senior officers have even misstated their oaths, suggesting they are sworn to obey the president rather than to defend the Constitution. In the process, they fall prey to a version of the Nuremberg Defense of “I was just following orders.”
Even when senior officers recognize the folly and illegality of America’s wars, they refuse to resign in protest. Why? Because they convince themselves they can better effect change within the system. Or they conclude they are beholden by civilian authority to follow orders. Or they believe that resignation would be disruptive and disloyal. But such excuses are corrosive to their oath of office, an oath that officers – especially the most senior – must find the personal integrity and moral courage to follow.
— Until America returns to declared wars by Congress that have the support of the people, America will continue to lose its wars, further weakening itself while sowing the seeds for even more unconstitutional — and unwinnable — wars.
His whole argument is a worthwhile read.
Former U.S. ambassador Chas Freeman, hit the nail on the head when recently describing America’s failed strategy in the Middle East: “If at first we don’t succeed, we do the same thing again harder, with better technology, and at greater expense. The patch provides a cogent – if uncouth – summary of the results of this approach so far this century.”
Freeman’s remark was my inspiration in responding to questions in this episode of Crosstalk.
So how’s 2015 so far?
Outside playing on your hoverboard while Dad brings in the family helicopter? Mom inside serving up a hearty meal, all in pill form? Planning a trip to the Lunar Grand Hyatt? Enjoying a life free from all disease, war and hunger, courtesy of the alien overlord world government?
With 2015 underway, let’s take a quick look back at the highlights of government paranoia from 2014.
America’s War of Terror requires all of us (do your part!) to maintain a high state of fear while at the same time trusting our government to keep us safe. This means we need to be spoon-fed a constant stream of faux threats to Der Homeland to justify, whatever, without any of the threats coming true so we are pleased with what we are giving up in return for this faux security.
Got it? So here we go:
Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks: Julian Assange, evil mastermind of Wikileaks, remains trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Chelsea Manning remains in prison. The dire predictions of what the leaked information was going to do to national security, blood on Chelsea’s hands when soldiers got killed and all, never happened.
Edward Snowden: Snowden remains in exile in Russia. The dire predictions of what the leaked information were going to do to national security, blood on Snowden’s hands when soldiers got killed and terrorists ran amok and all, never happened.
Boko Haram: Remember these guys and #SaveOurGirls? Nobody saved them. Boko never got on planes and flew to the U.S. as we were warned they might.
Kim Jong Un: Wow, he may have lessened the chance we ever have to see another Seth Rogen movie. We owe the guy a Starbucks gift card or something. He otherwise did not transform America into a sea of flames. Oh, and hey, those hacks of Target, Home Depot and others that caused millions of dollars in lost revenues, nope, that wasn’t cyberterrorism, no, not at all.
Ebola: OHMYGOD WE’REALLGONNA FREAKINGDIE. Quarantine the airports, nobody breathe on the east coast, get ready to nuke West Africa. Except nothing happened.
Putin: We… are… seconds away from nuclear annihilation if
Crimea eastern Ukraine the rest of Ukraine falls. Except nothing happened.
Iran: We… are… seconds away from nuclear annihilation because they will get the Bomb. Except nothing happened.
Home-Grown Terrorists: Yep, they are everywhere, no doubt rooming with the North Korean and ISIS sleeper cells that are also everywhere. Absent two clown-like kids in Boston that every single spying thing missed completely, not much. And oh, all those mass shootings, please note they are not home grown terrorists even though they mowed down more Americans since 9/11 than anything else. Grand juries are also not home-grown terrorists.
Al Qaeda: Nope, nothing out of them this year either but You Never Know (c) We’ll keep killing their Number Two guys. But dammit, we were promised a Butt Bomb!
Taliban: Nope, nothing out of them this year either but You Never Know (c) We better keep 10,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Syria’s Assad: He gassed his own people! He is close to nuclear weaponization! He harbors terrorists who’ll take over our fast food franchises! Except he didn’t, and now we sort of passively support him because he does not care for ISIS.
ISIS: 2014’s big winner in the paranoia sweepstakes. They never showed up at our shopping malls or our July 4th parades, but, what the hell, let’s invade Iraq again anyway.
Also, everything that FOX, Lindsey Graham and John McCain said.
BONUS: That thing on your shoulder, the red thing with the weird hair growing out of it? You probably should be worried about that.
But hey, did you know we won the war in Afghanistan this past weekend? Or, at least we ended the war in Afghanistan this weekend? It is true. America’s longest war, clocking in at more than 13 years, (fun fact: the U.S. involvement in WWII, when we defeated the Nazis and the Japanese, only lasted three and a half years), is over.
Live from Hawaii
Seriously. While you were eating your Christmas roast beast, Your President was in Hawaii. From that forward deployment, Obama announced that “thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion… We are safer, and our nation is more secure, because of their service. [We] have helped the Afghan people reclaim their communities, take the lead for their own security, hold historic elections and complete the first democratic transfer of power in their country’s history.”
USA! USA! USA!
Now, there is no journalism without fact-checking, so let’s dig in on the president’s statement. Afghanistan no longer is under threat from the Taliban, and all terrorism has been taken care of. Instead of an economy based on corruption, smuggling and opium production, Afghanistan is a thriving consumer society. Women walk the streets in mini-skirts, and elections happen without incident. An American can stroll among Kabul’s cafes and quaint bazaars with his head held high and his safety guaranteed by grateful Afghans. America and its allies’ investment of over 3,400 lives and four trillion dollars has paid off. Also, all the dead Afghans, whatever.
Oh, wait, none of that is true.
It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over
And for a war that is over, the U.S. has over 10,000 troops stationed and still fighting in Afghanistan under a legacy defined as a “transition from a combat mission to a ‘noncombat mission in a combat environment’ with a definition that “remains as unclear as Afghanistan’s future.”
The Taliban have obviously not heard all the good news out of Hawaii. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid characterized a hand-over event in Kabul as a “defeat ceremony” and added “We will fight until there is not one foreign soldier on Afghan soil and we have established an Islamic state.”
Despite such gloom, it is obvious that America’s accomplishments in Afghanistan rank alongside its accomplishments in Iraq.
One of the latest stories from Iraq is that some 50,000 “ghost soldiers” haunt the rolls of the Iraqi Army.
They have been added to the rosters so that someone can skim away all or part of their salaries. The story has been played for Daily Show-like laughs, has been cited as a cause for the collapse of the Iraqi Army in the face of ISIS, has been used as an example of corruption in Iraq and conversely, acknowledging it used as an example of how the new Prime Minister, Haider Abadi, is fighting corruption. It may in truth be a little of all of those things, but is most of all a brief flash of light in the darkness of how the Iraq Army works.
The Iraqi Army of today is a U.S. construct. As one of the very first acts of the Occupation in 2003, the United States famously disbanded the Saddam-era Iraqi Army (and thus helped supply armed, trained men to the blossoming insurgency.) At some point American strategy shifted toward the Bush Administration’s proclamation of “As They Stand Up, We’ll Stand Down,” a mantra that meant the U.S. would take it upon itself to create a new Iraqi Army to take over internal security and border protection. This would need to be done quickly, as Americans grew bored and/or weary of the seemingly endless war in Iraq. The standing up of this army cost American taxpayers over $20 billion dollars.
What did they get for their money? Not much, except for the seeds of the present mess in Iraq.
The Iraqi Army America wrought was by definition created within the climate of the insurgency. It was thus never really a national army, but rather a loose collection of regional forces and fiefdoms divided along mostly religious and sectarian lines. Sunni units were based in Sunni areas and led by Sunni generals, Shia were in their areas and of course the Kurds and their peshmerga were off on their own (the peshmerga also benefited greatly from never having been disbanded in the first place.) America accepted these divisions out of expediency; the non-starter of an alternative was to wait until all sectarian problems were resolved first, and then reconstitute the army.
Disbanding Saddam’s army meant throwing away most of the senior, experienced military leadership. These generals and mid-level officers were Iraq’s professional soldiers. Many melted away or immigrated to neighboring Sunni countries, while some took up with the Sunni insurgency. Lacking experienced leadership, the U.S. was left with creating an officer corps from scratch. Experience matters in most things in life, and really matters in jobs that require leadership. Even under the best of circumstances that all takes time (leaders are made, not born), and the U.S. was creating the new Iraqi Army under anything but the best of circumstances.
Napoleon famously said that an army travels on its belly; another general reminded that it is logistics, not tactics, that win battles. From its early days, the factors that “miscreated” the new Iraqi Army doomed its ability to police and supply itself. Central authority was lacking; the combination of a weak central government and a force divided along sectarian lines meant resources were never allocated based on need, and that the kind of oversight necessary to avoid “ghost soldiers” did not exist. The problems were masked by U.S. expedient acts: an Iraqi unit desperate for spare parts could either fight a long battle with baghdad for what it needed, or appeal to the local U.S. military commander for help. The commander, under pressure himself to report success, typically gave in. The Iraqi system never was forced to mature or allowed to fail, at least until the Americans departed and ISIS appeared.
Procurement became an excuse for plunder. Soldiers in the Iraqi army basically pay for their own food via a salary deduction. In practice, officers pocket most of this money instead of buying supplies for the troops themselves. Soldiers in Mosul often had to purchase their own food and water from civilian markets. When the markets close under ISIS attack, the soldiers have no choice but to flee.
A system such as that seen as ineffective to some meant opportunities to others. In 2009, a lucrative appointment as an army colonel required a $20,000 bribe. The same job today costs $200,000. Divisional commander positions run about two million dollars. Why would such military jobs be worth that much money?
As an investment. Iraqi commanders purchased for their bribe money opportunities to skim budgets, withhold salaries from their own troops, or even create the ghost troops to justify budget increases. The ghost troops likely served another goal, covering soldier absences. During my own time in Iraq embedded with the U.S. Army, it was a given that any Iraqi unit we worked with would be missing a percentage of its soldiers. Some American advisors used a 10 percent rule of thumb, others pegged it as high as thirty percent. Where were the Iraqi troops? Some shuttled between their unit and their home towns. Lacking a reliable banking system, soldiers needed to physically carry their salaries home to their families. Because food budgets and the salaries themselves were often skimmed by their commanders, some troops kept working at outside, part-time jobs. With variable unit discipline, some soldiers just took time off as they saw fit, often bribing their own commanders to avoid punishment. Soldiers would sell off Army gas and spare parts, create unsanctioned checkpoints to harvest bribes from motorists, sell electricity if they controlled a large generator, or even their own weapons, to raise extra cash for themselves.
As for the thought that uncovering these ghost soldiers shows a commitment by Prime Minister Abadi to fight corruption, the real proof is in what he does next. Likely under U.S. pressure, Abadi took this first step to expose a limited dollop of corruption inside his failed army. But watch what does, or doesn’t, happen next. How many senior commanders’ heads will roll? How many will be fired or publicly demoted? What if any central and systematic auditing procedures will be put in place?
Answers to questions such as those will answer the most important question: will Abadi and the U.S. really seek to fix the Iraqi Army, or is the latest move simply another short-term expedient, meant to create the appearance of change ahead of more U.S. money pouring down the same dry well?
If the United States was looking for the surest way to lose Iraq War 3.0, it might start by retraining the failed Iraqi Army to send — alongside ruthless Shi’ite militias — into Sunni-majority territory and hope that the Sunnis will welcome them with open arms, throwing out the evil Islamic State.
Maybe it’s time for a better plan. The way to find one is by understanding how we lost Iraq War 2.0. We need a plan to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide, or the current war will fail as surely as the previous one.
A critical first step is, of course, to remove Islamic State from the equation, but not how the Obama administration envisions. The way to drive Islamic State out of Iraq is to remove the reason Islamic State has been able to remain in Iraq: as a protector of the Sunnis. In Iraq War 2.0, the Iraqi Sunnis never melded politically with al Qaeda; they allied out of expediency, against the Shi’ite militias and the Shi’ite central government. The same situation applies to Islamic State, the new al Qaeda in Iraq.
The United States is acting nearly 180 degrees counter to this strategy, enabling Shi’ite militia and Iranian forces’ entry into Anbar and other Sunni-majority areas to fight Islamic State. The more Shi’ite influence, the more Sunnis feel they need Islamic State muscle. More Iranian fighters also solidify Iran’s grip on the Shi’ite government in Baghdad, and weakens America’s. The presence of additional Sunni players, like the Gulf States, will simply grow the violence indecisively, with the various local factions manipulated as armed proxies.
Iraq in 2007 was, on the surface, a struggle between insurgents and the United States. However, the real fight was happening in parallel, as the minority Sunnis sought a place in the new Shi’ite-dominated Iraq. The solution was supposedly the Anbar Awakening. Indigenous Iraqi Sunnis would be pried lose from al Qaeda under American protection (that word again), along with the brokered promise that the Shi’ites would grant them a substantive role in governance. The Shi’ites balked almost from day one, and the deal fell apart even before America’s 2011 withdrawal — I was in Iraq with the Department of State and saw it myself. The myth that “we won” only to have the victory thrown away by the Iraqis — a favorite among 2.0 apologists — is very dangerous. It suggests repeating the strategy will result in something other than repeating the results.
The Sunnis are Who fans; they won’t be fooled again.
Progress otherwise in Iraq? The new prime minister has accomplished little toward unity, selecting a Badr militia politician to head the Interior Ministry, for example. The Badr group has been a key player in sectarian violence.
Islamic State still controls 80 percent of Anbar Province, the key city of Mosul and is attacking in Ramadi. U.S. air strikes cannot seize ground. The Iraqi Army will never rise to the fullness of the challenge. One can only imagine the thoughts of the American trainers, retraining some of the same Iraqi troops from War 2.0.
Military vehicles of the Kurdish security forces are seen during an intensive security deployment in Diyala province north of Baghdad. Elsewhere, the Kurds are already a de facto separate state. Their ownership of Arbil, the new agreement to allow the overt export of some of their own oil, and the spread of the peshmerga to link up with Kurdish forces in Syria, are genies that won’t go back into the bottle. America need only restrain Kurdish ambitions to ensure stability.
Present Iraq strategy delays, at great cost — in every definition of that word — the necessary long-term tri-state solution. It is time to hasten it. The United States must use its influence with the Shi’ites to have their forces, along with the Iranians, withdraw to Baghdad. America would create a buffer zone, encompassing the strategically critical international airport as a “peacekeeping base.” Using air power, America would seal the Iraq-Syria border in western Anbar, at least against any medium-to-large scale Islamic State resupply effort. Arm the Sunni tribes if they will push Islamic State out of their towns. Support goes to those tribes who hold territory, a measurable, ground-truth based policy, not an ideological one. Implementing the plan in northwest Iraq can also succeed, but will be complicated by Kurd ambitions, greater ethnic diversity among the Iraqis and a stronger Islamic State tactical hold on cities like Mosul.
There’ll be another tough challenge, the sharing of oil revenues between the new Sunni and Shi’ite states, so this plan is by no means a slam-dunk.
The broad outline is not new; in 2006 then-Senator Joe Biden proposed a federal partition of Iraq along the Bosnian model. Bush-era zeal kept the idea from getting a full review. But much has transpired since 2006.
If the tri-state plan works, it will deny Islamic State sanctuary where it is now most powerful, and a strategy for northwest Iraq may emerge. America will realize its long-sought enduring bases in Iraq as a check on Iranian ambitions and an assurance of security for the embassy. The president can decouple Syrian policy from Iraq. An indefinite American presence in Iraq will not be fully welcomed, though one hastens to add it basically is evolving anyway.
I Hate Myself
For advocates of disengagement like myself, this is bitter medicine. But we are where we are in Iraq, and wishful thinking, on my part or the White House’s, is no longer practical. A divided Iraq, maintained by an American presence, is the only hope for long-term stability. Otherwise, stay tuned for Iraq War 4.0.
As part of the 2014 Louisville Idea Festival, I spoke with Bill Goodman of KET, Kentucky Educational Television, the PBS station in Louisville about both of my books, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.
No one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.
In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
The United States sanctioned acts of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency and others. The acts took place in secret prisons (“black sites”) against persons detained indefinitely without trial. They were described in detail and explicitly authorized in a series of secret torture memos drafted by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury, senior lawyers in the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. (Office of Legal Counsel attorneys technically answer directly to the DOJ, which is supposed to be independent from the White House, but obviously was not in this case.) Not one of those men, or their Justice Department bosses, has been held accountable for their actions.
Some tortured prisoners were killed by the CIA. Attorney General Eric Holder announced recently that no one would be held accountable for those murders either. “Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths,” he said, “the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Jose Rodriguez, a senior CIA official, admitted destroying videotapes of potentially admissible evidence, showing the torture of captives by operatives of the U.S. government at a secret prison thought to be located at a Vietnam-War-era airbase in Thailand. He was not held accountable for deep-sixing this evidence, nor for his role in the torture of human beings.
John Kiriakou Alone
The one man in the whole archipelago of America’s secret horrors who went to jail is former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Of the untold numbers of men and women involved in the whole nightmare show of those years, only one.
And of course, he didn’t torture anyone.
The charges against Kiriakou alleged that in answering questions from reporters about suspicions that the CIA tortured detainees in its custody, he violated the Espionage Act, once an obscure World War I-era law that aimed at punishing Americans who gave aid to the enemy. It was passed in 1917 and has been the subject of much judicial and Congressional doubt ever since. Kiriakou is one of six government whistleblowers who have been charged under the Act by the Obama administration. From 1917 until Obama came into office, only three people had ever charged in this way.
The Obama Justice Department claimed the former CIA officer “disclosed classified information to journalists, including the name of a covert CIA officer and information revealing the role of another CIA employee in classified activities.”
The charges resulted from a CIA investigation. That investigation was triggered by a filing in January 2009 on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo that contained classified information the defense had not been given through government channels, and by the discovery in the spring of 2009 of photographs of alleged CIA employees among the legal materials of some detainees at Guantanamo. According to one description, Kiriakou gave several interviews about the CIA in 2008. Court documents charge that he provided names of covert Agency officials to a journalist, who allegedly in turn passed them on to a Guantanamo legal team. The team sought to have detainees identify specific CIA officials who participated in their renditions and torture. Kiriakou was accused of providing the identities of CIA officers that may have allowed names to be linked to photographs.
The real “offense” in the eyes of the Obama administration was quite different. In 2007, Kiriakou became a whistleblower. He went on record as the first (albeit by then, former) CIA official to confirm the use of waterboarding of al-Qaeda prisoners as an interrogation technique, and then to condemn it as torture. He specifically mentioned the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah in that secret prison in Thailand. Kiriakou also ran afoul of the CIA over efforts to clear for publication a book he had written about the Agency’s counterterrorism work.
If Kiriakou had actually tortured someone himself, even to death, there is no possibility that he would be in trouble. In the national security state that rules the roost in Washington, talking out of turn about a crime has become the only possible crime.
Facing decades away from his family and young children, Kiriakou agreed to a plea bargain and is still in prison serving a 30-month sentence.
For years it was the policy of the United States of America to torture and abuse its enemies or, in some cases, simply suspected enemies. It has remained a U.S. policy, even under the Obama administration, to employ “extraordinary rendition” — that is, the sending of captured terror suspects to the jails of countries that are known for torture and abuse, an outsourcing of what we no longer want to do.
Techniques that the U.S. hanged men for at Nuremburg and in post-war Japan were employed and declared lawful. To embark on such a program with the oversight of the Bush administration, learned men and women had to have long discussions, with staffers running in and out of rooms with snippets of research to buttress the justifications being so laboriously developed. The CIA undoubtedly used some cumbersome bureaucratic process to hire contractors for its torture staff. The old manuals needed to be updated, psychiatrists consulted, military survival experts interviewed, training classes set up.
Videotapes were made of the torture sessions and no doubt DVDs full of real horror were reviewed back at headquarters.
Torture techniques were even reportedly demonstrated to top officials inside the White House. Individual torturers who were considered particularly effective were no doubt identified, probably rewarded, and sent on to new secret sites to harm more people.
America just didn’t wake up one day and start slapping around some Islamic punk. These were not the torture equivalents of rogue cops. A system, a mechanism, was created. That we now can only speculate about many of the details involved and the extent of all this is a tribute to the thousands who continue to remain silent about what they did, saw, heard about, or were associated with. Many of them work now at the same organizations, remaining a part of the same contracting firms, the CIA, and the military. Our torturers.
What is it that allows all those people to remain silent? How many are simply scared, watched what happening to John Kiriakou and thought: not me, I’m not sticking my neck out to see it get chopped off. They’re almost pathetically forgivable, even if they are placing their own self-interest above that of their country.
But what about the others, the ones who remain silent about what they did or saw or aided and abetted in some fashion because they still think it was the right thing to do? The ones who will do it again when another frightened president asks them to? Or even the ones who enjoyed doing it?
The same Department of Justice that hunted down the one man who spoke against torture from the inside still maintains a special unit, 60 years after the end of WWII, dedicated to hunting down the last few at-large Nazis. They do that under the rubric of “never again.” The truth is that same team needs to be turned loose on our national security state. Otherwise, until we have a full accounting of what was done in our names by our government, the pieces are all in place for it to happen again. There, if you want to know, is the real horror.
Lebanese security forces have detained a wife and nine-year-old child of Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The pair were picked up after entering Lebanon with forged passports ten days ago, and are being interrogated at the defence ministry. Baghdadi is the leader of the “caliphate” created by ISIS in the parts of Syria and Iraq it controls.
Describing them as “a valuable catch”, the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir said that the IS leader’s wife and child had been detained in coordination with foreign intelligence services. Indeed, CNN cites a “source” with knowledge of the arrest, describing the wife as a “powerful figure who is heavily involved in ISIS.”
So let’s drill down a bit into this story.
Given that ISIS is a strict, conservative, fundamentalist Islamic organization that follows Sharia law and uses captive women for rape and as slaves, the statement that one of Baghdadi’s three wives is indeed a “powerful figure who is heavily involved in ISIS,” seems suspect at best. She would be in fact the only woman ever connected with ISIS with any known power at all. Her role as an ISIS leader has certainly not been discussed before. It is not common anywhere in the conservative Muslim world for powerful men to share responsibilities with their spouses; among the reasons, other men would be unlikely to take orders from a woman, regardless of who she was married to. In addition, having one’s wife play such as role would certainly weaken the status of the husband.
Given that, and given that a child was also arrested, one cannot avoid the term hostage. By coincidence, Lebanon is deeply engaged in negotiations to free more than 20 Lebanese Army soldiers held hostage since August by ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.
In a better world, one would expect to hear the United States condemning the arrest of a woman and a child simply because she is married to a bad guy. Even more so when there is the appearance that her arrest has some connection to ongoing hostage negotiations, and that it involved a young child.
I will update this story when the U.S. issues its condemnation of the hostage taking…
A Different Update: An Iraqi official denied that a woman detained in Lebanon is a wife of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claiming she is the sister of a terror suspect being held in Iraq. Same church, different pew.
And guess where the weapons came from?
A new report prepared for the United Nations Security Council warns ISIS possesses sufficient reserves of small arms, ammunition and vehicles to wage its war in Syria and Iraq for up to two years. And that is assuming they do not capture more weapons, including heavy weapons, from the Iraqi Army, their accidental, primary supplier to date.
The UN report has even more bad news to share: the size and breadth of the ISIS arsenal provides the group with durable mobility, range and even a limited defense against low-flying aircraft (ISIS has already shot down Iraqi helicopters.) Even if the U.S. bombing campaign continues to destroy the group’s vehicles and heavier weapons, the UN report states, it “cannot mitigate the effect of the significant volume of light weapons” ISIS possesses.
Where to Begin
So maybe someone should cut off the flow of weapons to ISIS? Here’s where to start: Almost 20 percent of the small arms ammunition used by ISIS could be traced to U.S. manufacturers. Additionally, the Islamic State appears to use “significant quantities” of ammunition manufactured in Russia under the Wolf brand and distributed by the U.S. to its own allied states in the Middle East. Hmmm.
Meanwhile, ISIS seems to be getting weapons supplied by air, possibly from Russia, but who really can say.
Anti-tank weapons that were likely once owned by moderate Syrian rebels have also landed in ISIS hands. In addition to U.S.-supplied arms, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been funneling weaponry to various rebel factions in the conflict.
Who’s Number 1?
The ISIS arsenal, according to the UN, includes older T-55 and modern, front-line T-72 tanks, anti-aircraft artillery, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets captured from Iraqi and Syrian military stocks, and “extensive supplies of ammunition,” as well as some 250 light vehicles.
The UN report does have a sense of humor embedded, noting that much of the ISIS weapons stock stolen from the U.S.-backed Iraqi military was “unused” before ISIS seized it.
The weapons as a whole, the UN report finds, make ISIS not only the world’s best-funded terrorist group but among its best armed. ISIS is sufficiently armed to threaten the region “even without holding territory”, the report concludes.
The report recommends the UN adopt new sanctions designed to disrupt the well-financed ISIS’ economic health. Significant among them is a call for states bordering ISIS-controlled territory (a diplomatic way of saying mostly Turkey) to “promptly seize all oil tanker trucks and their loads” coming in or going out. While the report warns ISIS has alternate revenue sources, primarily ransom payments, and does not predict that truck seizures can eliminate ISIS’ oil smuggling money, it holds out hope that raising the costs to smuggling networks and trucking companies will deter them from bringing ISIS oil to market.
The report comes on the heels of an October report to the Security Council assessing that 15,000 fighters from 80 countries have flooded into Syria and Iraq to fight alongside ISIS.
So yeah, things seem to be going well for ISIS now, four months into the U.S. bombing campaign.
The Army has a renewed interest in Iraq, to include what went wrong in Iraq War 2.0 as Iraq War 3.0 metastasizes. Who knew, right?
Unlike many other parts of government involved in the Iraq swamp, the Army is a learning institution. Unlike my former employer, the Department of State, who prefers to stay warmly inside the bubble of agreeing with itself, I have found the Army is very interested in a range of opinions, and open to hearing a side of the story that some may disagree with. Indeed, they often seek out sides of the story they may disagree with.
To this end, I’ll be speaking on November 19, 7:15 pm, at the Army Heritage Center, Carlisle Barracks, at the Army War College outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The event is free and open to the public. There will be a Q&A and a book signing as well.
Any possibility of any definition of “success” in the current war in Iraq demands an understanding of how we lost the last time. The myth that “we won” only to have the victory messed up by the Iraqis because we left is very dangerous, and of course fully untrue. This uber myth plays out specifically in the belief, still a favorite among 2.0 apologists, that the Anbar Awakening/Surge was a strategic success.
The two apparent pillars of America’s current strategy — that a unity government can be formed and that indigenous Sunnis can be split from ISIS — are exactly the two pillars that failed the last time (ISIS was al Qaeda then.) Repeating the strategy will result in repeating the mistakes. And that does little but sacrifice more at great cost in every definition of that word.
It also sets up the inevitability of Iraq War 4.0, same as the failure in 2.0 begat 3.0. See the pattern?
If you are in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania area, please come out and see what I have to say!
You know what cruises are, right? A couple of days at sea, a day or two in some cheesy port, mostly time spent eating madly at buffets, sucking down booze, laying in the sun in between turns at the buffet and the bar, that kind of thing. Other than regular occurrences of alcohol poisoning, heart attacks on the massage tables and the occasional passenger overboard, cruises are pretty laid back vacations.
(Cue ominous music) Until. Now.
Proving overreaction to terrorism is not merely an American hobby anymore, Interpol has said some of those jihadis trying to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria are using cruise lines now to get to countries like Turkey to infiltrate in. The answer? More invasive security with more secret watch lists of course, this time in the form of new name checks on passenger lists extended from airlines to cruise operators before, Interpol warns, “the issue became more of a problem.” This is not satire and is actually true. The BBC reported it.
Unfortunately, Interpol could provide no figures on how many militants have travelled in this way.
Interpol’s director of counterterrorism, Pierre St. Hilaire, a Bond-villain name if there ever was one, said Turkish authorities said they have deported hundreds of “suspected” jihadists in recent months after detaining them at airports and bus stations. This has led prospective fighters to make alternative travel arrangements in an effort to avoid detection. Regular stops at ports in the region would allow fighters to disembark undetected and make their onward journey to Syria or Iraq untracked by security agencies.
Interpol officials said the militants’ use of cruise ships had emerged only in the “past three months or so.”
Those cruise ships are big, but may need to add more capacity for the jihadi surge. A recent United Nations report estimated there were 15,000 foreign jihadists from more than 80 countries already fighting with Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.
Leaving aside the fact that you can walk or take a taxi into Turkey, let’s examine this cruise ship idea. For it to work, jihadis would of course first need to pay the hefty fares. But they seem well-funded, in large part via black market oil smuggled onto international markets via Turkey, so the money’s covered. But the jihadis would also have to blend in with the rest of the Love Boat passengers. So with that in mind, we now segue into the See Something, Say Something advice of this article.
Recognizing A Jihadi Aboard a Cruise Ship
– Look for skinny people among your fellow cruisers. The vast majority of cruise passengers are obscenely obese Americans, Germans or rich Russians. A skinny jihadi is going to stand out like a McRib sandwich at a vegetarian restaurant.
— Be very suspicious of sober people. Most cruisers are drunk off their butts even before boarding the ship, and maintain a state of constant drunkenness throughout. Bloodies at breakfast, buckets of beer by the pool, wine and champagne in the evenings, IV drips of vodka overnight, are all the norm. That flinty-eyed sneak nursing a Diet Coke is trouble.
— Dress aboard a cruise ship is casual. Wear-your-bathrobe-without-underwear to dinner kind of casual. Keep a sharp eye out for passengers wearing head coverings and those checked scarves over their bathrobes. Exception: Hipsters and Russell Brand, who also wear those scarves but if either are thrown into Guantanamo by accident, no great loss.
— Conversation aboard a cruise ship is largely about when to drink next and crude attempts to pick up men/women. Some passengers also chat about sexually harassing the staff or how much they ate at the all-you-can-eat lard bar. If someone keeps switching the topic to how many infidels can fit into the hot tub, be wary.
Eternal vigilance is the price of cruising freedom. Don’t leave home without it!
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, as Commander-in-Chief of the belittled Iraqi Army, fired 26 military commanders on November 12 for corruption and incompetence.
“The military leadership should have competence, and this is an important thing, as it is not possible for someone who is not efficient to do his work properly,” Abadi said in comments to army officers broadcast on state television. “The second thing is integrity, as efficiency without integrity produces a vacuum. The third is courage, so that the soldier will fight in a proper way when he sees his commander has such qualifications.”
Abadi did not elaborate on his timing or the decision itself, and officials in his office did specify which commanders were removed.
Timing is Everything
The timing is however interesting. Iraq’s most influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said during Friday prayers that it was corruption in the armed forces which enabled ISIS to seize large amounts of Iraqi territory. Sistani has become increasingly critical of Iraqi leaders since ISIS’ advances spiraled the country into a crisis in general, and in particular how that crisis reinserted American troops into Iraq. Shia militias, with whom Sistani maintains links, have increasingly replaced the remnants of the Iraqi Army in the fight against ISIS. The militias have also, however, also continued the persecution and outright murder of Iraq’s indigenous Sunnis under the guise of fighting ISIS.
Who Got the Axe?
The other issues regarding the firing of those 26 military commanders are also of great importance.
Until the affiliations of all 26 are known, Sunni or Shia, Abadi’s real intent is unknown. If a significant number of Sunni commanders were sacked, the action will be seen inside Iraq as more of a purge than any sort of reform. Same for the location of the commanders; if many are in Sunni-held areas to the west of Baghdad, suspicions that Abadi is looking to install more of his own adherents into power will arise. Another issue to watch is rank. If many of the commanders are senior leaders, that bodes well for reform. However, if the firings come from the lower ranks, most inside Iraq will see them simply as a show-event to please the Americans calling for reform. Finally, the disposition of the fired commanders will need to be watched closely. If some resurface in the near future in other jobs or locations, or remain attached to the government, Abadi’s reforms will need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Keep in mind firing commanders is nothing new in Iraq. As recently as June, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fired four senior officers after the collapse of Army north of Baghdad. He also fired the commander of the Third Infantry Division after he “fled the battle scene.”
But It’s Progress, Right?
The U.S. spent $25 billion and several years training the Iraqi Army prior to its near-total collapse at first-blood when ISIS moved into northern Iraq. The weapons abandoned by the Iraqi Army have also supplied ISIS with some of its heaviest artillery and armor. There most certainly is room for improvement.
But whatever the ground truth of the firings in Iraq really turns out to be, expect Abadi’s actions to be much-praised by an Obama Administration obsessed with “doing something” as another sign of “progress.”
Karl von Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military thinker, is best known for his aphorism “War is the continuation of state policy by other means.” But what happens to a war in the absence of coherent state policy?
Actually, we now know. Washington’s Iraq War 3.0, Operation Inherent Resolve, is what happens. In its early stages, I asked sarcastically, “What could possibly go wrong?” As the mission enters its fourth month, the answer to that question is already grimly clear: just about everything. It may be time to ask, in all seriousness: What could possibly go right?
Knowing Right from Wrong
The latest American war was launched as a humanitarian mission. The goal of its first bombing runs was to save the Yazidis, a group few Americans had heard of until then, from genocide at the hands of the Islamic State (IS). Within weeks, however, a full-scale bombing campaign was underway against IS across Iraq and Syria with its own “coalition of the willing” and 1,600 U.S. military personnel on the ground. Slippery slope? It was Teflon-coated. Think of what transpired as several years of early Vietnam-era escalation compressed into a semester.
And in that time, what’s gone right? Short answer: Almost nothing. Squint really, really hard and maybe the “good news” is that IS has not yet taken control of much of the rest of Iraq and Syria, and that Baghdad hasn’t been lost. These possibilities, however, were unlikely even without U.S. intervention.
And there might just possibly be one “victory” on the horizon, though the outcome still remains unclear. Washington might “win” in the IS-besieged Kurdish town of Kobane, right on the Turkish border. If so, it will be a faux victory guaranteed to accomplish nothing of substance. After all, amid the bombing and the fighting, the town has nearly been destroyed. What comes to mind is a Vietnam War-era remark by an anonymous American officer about the bombed provincial capital of Ben Tre: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
More than 200,000 refugees have already fled Kobane, many with doubts that they will ever be able to return, given the devastation. The U.S. has gone to great pains to point out just how many IS fighters its air strikes have killed there. Exactly 464, according to a U.K.-based human rights group, a number so specific as to be suspect, but no matter. As history suggests, body counts in this kind of war mean little.
And that, folks, is the “good news.” Now, hold on, because here’s the bad news.
The U.S. Department of State lists 60 participants in the coalition of nations behind the U.S. efforts against the Islamic State. Many of those countries (Somalia, Iceland, Croatia, and Taiwan, among them) have never been heard from again outside the halls of Foggy Bottom. There is no evidence that America’s Arab “allies” like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, whose funding had long-helped extreme Syrian rebel groups, including IS, and whose early participation in a handful of air strikes was trumpeted as a triumph, are still flying.
Absent the few nations that often make an appearance at America’s geopolitical parties (Canada, the Brits, the Aussies, and increasingly these days, the French), this international mess has quickly morphed into Washington’s mess. Worse yet, nations like Turkey that might actually have taken on an important role in defeating the Islamic State seem to be largely sitting this one out. Despite the way it’s being reported in the U.S., the new war in the Middle East looks, to most of the world, like another case of American unilateralism, which plays right into the radical Islamic narrative.
The ultimate political solution to fighting the war in Iraq, a much-ballyhooed “inclusive” Iraqi government uniting Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds, has taken no time at all to fizzle out. Though Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi chose a Sunni to head the country’s Defense Ministry and direct a collapsed Iraqi army, his far more-telling choice was for Interior Minister. He picked Mohammed Ghabban, a little-known Shia politician who just happens to be allied with the Badr Organization.
Even if few in the U.S. remember the Badr folks, every Sunni in Iraq does. During the American occupation, the Badr militia ran notorious death squads, after infiltrating the same Interior Ministry they basically now head. The elevation of a Badr leader to — for Sunnis — perhaps the most significant cabinet position of all represents several nails in the coffin of Iraqi unity. It is also in line with the increasing influence of the Shia militias the Baghdad government has called on to defend the capital at a time when the Iraqi Army is incapable of doing the job.
Those militias have used the situation as an excuse to ramp up a campaign of atrocities against Sunnis whom they tag as “IS,” much as in Iraq War 2.0 most Sunnis killed were quickly labeled “al-Qaeda.” In addition, the Iraqi military has refused to stop shelling and carrying out air strikes on civilian Sunni areas despite a prime ministerial promise that they would do so. That makes al-Abadi look both ineffectual and disingenuous. An example? This week, Iraq renamed a town on the banks of the Euphrates River to reflect a triumph over IS. Jurf al-Sakhar, or “rocky bank,” became Jurf al-Nasr, or “victory bank.” However, the once-Sunni town is now emptied of its 80,000 residents, and building after building has been flattened by air strikes, bombings, and artillery fire coordinated by the Badr militia.
Meanwhile, Washington clings to the most deceptive trope of Iraq War 2.0: the claim that the Anbar Awakening — the U.S. military’s strategy to arm Sunni tribes and bring them into the new Iraq while chasing out al-Qaeda-in-Iraq (the “old” IS) — really worked on the ground. By now, this is a bedrock truth of American politics. The failure that followed was, of course, the fault of those darned Iraqis, specifically a Shia government in Baghdad that messed up all the good the U.S. military had done. Having deluded itself into believing this myth, Washington now hopes to recreate the Anbar Awakening and bring the same old Sunnis into the new, new Iraq while chasing out IS (the “new” al-Qaeda).
To convince yourself that this will work, you have to ignore the nature of the government in Baghdad and believe that Iraqi Sunnis have no memory of being abandoned by the U.S. the first time around. What comes to mind is one commentator’s view of the present war: if at first we don’t succeed, do the same thing harder, with better technology, and at greater expense.
Understanding that Sunnis may not be fooled twice by the same con, the State Department is now playing up the idea of creating a whole new military force, a Sunni “national guard.” Think of this as the backup plan from hell. These units would, after all, be nothing more than renamed Sunni militias and would in no way be integrated into the Iraqi Army. Instead, they would remain in Sunni territory under the command of local leaders. So much for unity.
And therein lies another can’t-possibly-go-right aspect of U.S. strategy.
The forces in Iraq potentially aligned against the Islamic State include the Iraqi army, Shia militias, some Sunni tribal militias, the Kurdish peshmerga, and the Iranians. These groups are, at best, only in intermittent contact with each other, and often have no contact at all. Each has its own goals, in conflict with those of the other groups. And yet they represent coherence when compared to the mix of fighters in Syria, regularly as ready to slaughter each other as to attack the regime of Bashar al-Assad and/or IS.
Washington generally acts as if these various chaotically conflicting outfits can be coordinated across borders like so many chess pieces. President Obama, however, is no Dwight Eisenhower on D-Day at Normandy pointing the British to one objective, the Canadians to another, ultimately linking up with the French resistance en route to the liberation of Paris. For example, the Iranians and the Shia militias won’t even pretend to follow American orders, while domestic U.S. politics puts a crimp in any Obama administration attempts to coordinate with the Iranians. If you had to pick just one reason why, in the end, the U.S. will either have to withdraw from Iraq yet again, or cede the western part of the country to IS, or place many, many boots on the ground, you need look no further than the strategic incoherence of its various fractious “coalitions” in Iraq, Syria, and globally.
The Islamic State
Unlike the U.S., the Islamic State has a coherent strategy and it has the initiative. Its militants have successfully held and administered territory over time. When faced with air power they can’t counter, as at Iraq’s giant Mosul Dam in August, its fighters have, in classic insurgent fashion, retreated and regrouped. The movement is conducting a truly brutal and bloody hearts and minds-type campaign, massacring Sunnis who oppose them and Shias they capture. In one particularly horrific incident, IS killed over 300 Sunnis and threw their bodies down a well. It has also recently made significant advances toward the Kurdish capital, Erbil, reversing earlier gains by the peshmerga. IS leaders are effectively deploying their own version of air strikes — suicide bombers — into the heart of Baghdad and have already loosed the first mortars into the capital’s Green Zone, home of the Iraqi government and the American Embassy, to gnaw away at morale.
IS’s chief sources of funding, smuggled oil and ransom payments, remain reasonably secure, though the U.S. bombing campaign and a drop in global oil prices have noticeably cut into its oil revenues. The movement continues to recruit remarkably effectively both in and outside the Middle East. Every American attack, every escalatory act, every inflated statement about terrorist threats validates IS to its core radical Islamic audience.
Things are trending poorly in Syria as well. The Islamic State profits from the power vacuum created by the Assad regime’s long-term attempt to suppress a native Sunni “moderate” uprising. Al-Qaeda-linked fighters have just recently overrun key northern bastions previously controlled by U.S.-backed Syrian rebel groups and once again, as in Iraq, captured U.S. weapons have landed in the hands of extremists. Nothing has gone right for American hopes that moderate Syrian factions will provide significant aid in any imaginable future in the broader battle against IS.
Trouble on the Potomac
While American strategy may be lacking on the battlefield, it’s alive and well at the Pentagon. A report in the Daily Beast, quoting a generous spurt of leaks, has recently made it all too clear that the Pentagon brass “are getting fed up with the short leash the White House put them on.” Senior leaders criticize the war’s decision-making process, overseen by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, as “manic and obsessed.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wrote a quickly leaked memo to Rice warning that the president’s Syria strategy was already unraveling thanks to its fogginess about the nature of its opposition to Assad and because it has no “endgame.” Meanwhile, the military’s “intellectual” supporters are already beginning to talk — shades of Vietnam — about “Obama’s quagmire.”
Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey has twice made public statements revealing his dissatisfaction with White House policy. In September, he said it would take 12,000 to 15,000 ground troops to effectively go after the Islamic State. Last month, he suggested that American ground troops might, in the future, be necessary to fight IS. Those statements contrast sharply with Obama’s insistence that there will never be U.S. combat troops in this war.
In another direct challenge, this time to the plan to create those Sunni National Guard units, Dempsey laid down his own conditions: no training and advising the tribes will begin until the Iraqi government agrees to arm the units themselves — an unlikely outcome. Meanwhile, despite the White House’s priority on training a new Syrian moderate force of 5,000 fighters, senior military leaders have yet to even select an officer to head up the vetting process that’s supposed to weed out less than moderate insurgents.
Taken as a whole, the military’s near-mutinous posture is eerily reminiscent of MacArthur’s refusal to submit to President Harry Truman’s political will during the Korean War. But don’t hold your breath for a Trumanesque dismissal of Dempsey any time soon. In the meantime, the Pentagon’s sights seem set on a fall guy, likely Susan Rice, who is particularly close to the president.
The Pentagon has laid down its cards and they are clear enough: the White House is mismanaging the war. And its message is even clearer: given the refusal to consider sending in those ground-touching boots, Operation Inherent Resolve will fail. And when that happens, don’t blame us; we warned you.
The U.S. military came out of the Vietnam War vowing one thing: when Washington went looking for someone to blame, it would never again be left holding the bag. According to a prominent school of historical thinking inside the Pentagon, the military successfully did what it was asked to do in Vietnam, only to find that a lack of global strategy and an over-abundance of micromanagement from America’s political leaders made it seem like the military had failed. This grew from wartime mythology into bedrock Pentagon strategic thinking and was reflected in both the Powell Doctrine and the Weinberger Doctrine. The short version of that thinking demands politicians make thoughtful decisions on when, where, and why the military needs to fight. When a fight is chosen, they should then allow the military to go all in with overwhelming force, win, and come home.
The idea worked almost too well, reaching its peak in Iraq War 1.0, Operation Desert Storm. In the minds of politicians from president George H.W. Bush on down, that “victory” wiped the slate clean of Vietnam, only to set up every disaster that would follow from the Bush 43 wars to Obama’s air strikes today. You don’t have to have a crystal ball to see the writing in the sand in Iraq and Syria. The military can already sense the coming failure that hangs like a miasma over Washington.
In or out, boots or not, whatever its own mistakes and follies, those who run the Pentagon and the U.S. military are already campaigning strategically to win at least one battle: when Iraq 3.0 collapses, as it most surely will, they will not be the ones hung out to dry. Of the very short list of what could go right, the smart money is on the Pentagon emerging victorious — but only in Washington, not the Middle East.
They are decent and sincere men and women who joined believing they would serve their nation, or were looking for a job, an education, college money or some adventure, or all of the above. They then get sucked into America’s political wars. Civilians start wars, not soldiers.
That said, because of the emphasis our society places on military service, sadly, many people who were never in the military now pretend that they did serve. This has come to be called “stolen valor.”
But on this Veteran’s Day, it is worth not just scorning those pretenders, but trying to see what they are really after. They claim a right to things that they did not earn via service.
While a few want to score airline upgrades and the like, many of the stolen valor-ilk are hoping to displace legitimate homeless veterans seeking your spare change. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates there are 50,000 veterans homeless on any given night. The Veterans Administration cites much higher numbers: VA’s specialized homelessness programs provide health care to almost 150,000 homeless vets. Additionally, more than 40,000 homeless veterans receive compensation or pension benefits each month.
In addition to looking to lap up all that spare change real vets are entitled to, many fake veterans also want to not be able to access decent health care in a timely fashion. Military veterans are dying needlessly because of long waits and delayed care at U.S. veterans hospitals, a CNN investigation found, and many of the “stolen valor” vets are pretending they served so they too cannot access life saving care.
Another thing many pretend servicemembers want to take away is Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). About 460,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars have PTSD; another 260,000 have Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). Statistics are hard to come by from America’s other wars, particularly from Vietnam, but since the working figure from Iraq and Afghanistan is about 20 percent, that would leave millions of Vietnam vets suffering. Lousy stolen valor people want a piece of that too they’re not entitled to.
Vets of our modern wars suffer alcohol-related problems stolen valor thieves can’t legitimately claim either. A sample of Iraq and Afghan veterans showed drinking problems in some 40 percent.
Finally, stolen valor losers have no claim to the horrific suicide rates among veterans. Having been in the military doubles the risk of suicide. An estimated 5,000 veterans die by suicide each year. That number sadly outpaces combat deaths in even the worst of modern times.
So maybe at this point the semi-satire of this article is clear. We will hear a lot this Veterans Day about supporting the troops and thanking them for their service. Please do those things; they deserve it.
But don’t accept any bullsh*t this Veterans Day either. For all the talk by politicians and actors and musicians and media heads about how much we owe, not one will demand that it is time to pay up. If our nation insists on being so quick to send men and women into harm’s way, then it damn well better face up to its obligation to take care of them when they get home. They don’t need yellow ribbons and speeches. Food, shelter, health care, counseling– that’s how you support the troops on Veterans Day and every other day.
Put up or shut up America.
The U.S., via the State Department, is spending considerable effort and money producing anti-ISIS videos and other media (actual example, left), the goal of which is to convince American and other would-be jihadis not to join ISIS. The efforts won’t work, almost can’t work. They fail to understand the way ISIS recruits and as such, can’t counter it.
The starting point is oddly Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA does not recruit per se; instead, they rely on attraction, not promotion. The difference is subtle but crucial. Long experience suggests people lured in any spur-of-the-moment, impulse decisions that actually require long-term commitment will almost certainly fail. AA won’t create a commitment, but rather relies on you to make a commitment. Ads for the organization never try to seduce or seek out members. Instead, the focus is on what AA is, and what it does for you if you participate. If you want what we have, sobriety, they say, then join us. Otherwise, thanks for listening.
And so ISIS. ISIS propaganda (and FYI, this is not an endorsement of anything ISIS does, just an explanation) pulls no punches. Beheading videos (NSFW), boasts about enslaving women, promises of extremely austere Sharia-led lives, there it is. You want what we have? Come along, because ISIS knows they want people with commitment, people who make a positive choice to join, not a negative one to stay away. The presentation is professional and serious, particularly in its Al Hayat Media Center (there is an unaffiliated Egyptian TV channel with a similar name), aimed specifically at non-Arabic speakers via videos and a weekly magazine.
The strategy seems to be working; recruitment from both inside and outside of the Arab world is strong. Some even claim that ISIS has been so successful they are drawing away foreign recruits from the Taliban. And in the duality of everything the American government says about terrorism, between 12 (we’ve got this, you’re safe) and 300 (panic! run now!) Americans have also left Walmartland for ISIS.
The State Department
And so the U.S. State Department. State Department propaganda (and FYI, this is not an endorsement of anything State does, just an explanation) is designed to counter the attraction of ISIS media with the promotion of a negative message. The theme of State’s efforts is “Think Again, Turn Away” and features anti-ISIS accounts on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even on the sides of buses in New York. The YouTube products are graphic and sarcastic; one includes subtitles such as “learn useful skills, such as blowing up mosques” and “crucifying Muslims.” One also features an odd shot of oil being poured on the ground framed as “squandering public resources.”
The quality of much of the interaction is poor, seemingly written more to appeal to Washington bosses than would-be jihadis. Have a look at one example. A lot mocks potential recruits, claiming for example that they read “Islam for Dummies” before heading to Syria.
The anti-ISIS messaging campaign is keeping disaffected youth from joining the extremist group, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel told CNN. “We have evidence that there are young people who are not joining because we have somehow interceded. They’re reading the messages, they’re hearing the messages, not just from us but from the hundreds of Islamic clerics who have said that this is a perversion of Islam.” State’s description of its work is that they are “contesting the space,” fighting back on social media against the ISIS message. State’s coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which runs the program, has called it “participating in the marketplace of ideas.”
Richard Stengel and the State Department have not provided any evidence or metrics that they have in fact dissuaded anyone from joining ISIS, nor will they discuss the budget for their work. A request to State for comment has gone unanswered.
We’re Not All That Different, You and I(SIS)
The odd thing is that State’s messaging and ISIS’ messaging are not all that different in content, per se. Both stress that recruits are unlikely to survive. State paints that as a terrible choice, while ISIS categorizes it as martyrdom, a chance to help save Islam and achieve Paradise.
Both show photos of Christian churches ISIS destroyed, with obviously different views of the act. Both talk about Western life, State showing its good side, ISIS claiming it is empty and vapid; one ISIS piece features a recruit saying “We don’t need any democracy, we don’t need any communism or anything like that, all we need is Sharia.”
Both sides agree that Muslims are killing Muslims; State takes the one-size-fits-all approach, with one Muslim being the same as any other. ISIS says some (i.e., Shias and other pretenders to the faith that abandoned Sharia) are not sincere and pious and it is not a violation of the Koranic imperative against internecine violence to kill them (one report says 92 percent of Saudi Sunnis see the ISIS activities as religiously legal.) “It’s a message frequently posted by ISIS on social media: “You have to join. It’s your religious duty,” said one terrorism analyst.
Who is Winning?
To be fair, State’s messaging is hard to quantify, requiring one to prove a negative. On the other hand, while ISIS seems to be chock-a-block with foreign recruits, one can never tell how many were driven to jihad by ISIS propaganda, or how many shyed away.
But looking at the U.S.’ messaging, one is reminded of the anti-drug “Just Say No” campaign, which quickly morphed into fodder for comedians. As with AA, offering people already committed a positive message– you can have what we have– seems to work. To a disgruntled young person already looking askance at a western society he perceives as hollow, what ISIS offers seems more attractive in many ways than the crude, negative message of the State Department. It appears that many ISIS recruits wan to give their lives for jihad.
At the end of the day, State says you’re going to hell, ISIS says you’re headed to heaven. Which strategy seems to offer more?
While the American war(s) in Iraq and Syria are the Kardashian’s of geopolitics– can’t get them out of the news, don’t want to look but you do anyway– America’s longest war trudges on. We have been fighting in Afghanistan for over thirteen years now. The young soldiers currently deployed there were barely in elementary school when their dad’s and mom’s kicked off the fighting.
And we still haven’t won anything. The Taliban are still there and very potent and dangerous, a corrupt government still runs the country as a kleptocracy, “ally” Pakistan is still playing all sides against one another and the Afghan economy still relies heavily on opium production that finds its way back home here to America. Al Qaeda may have departed Afghanistan, but the franchise is still strong in its new home(s). Defeated? No, just relocated.
SIGAR and Reconstruction
A lot of the factors of mediocre results are America’s own doing, and many are chronicled by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
“Reconstruction” is a strategy to win the war in Afghanistan that now has all the cache of last year’s high fashion outfits, though unlike those old clothes, reconstruction– and the insane cost of it– is still around. The once-fashionable idea of reconstruction was that military force alone could not win the fight against the Taliban. The U.S. needed to win over the people, that hearts and mind thing that also failed in Iraq and long ago in Vietnam.
The idea was that America would build the Afghans schools and bridges at the local level, and dams and hydroelectric power plants at the national level. They’d love us, abandon the Taliban, and replace their poppy-based economy with a modern, sustainable one. Pundits and academics may argue whether the theory of all that makes sense, but no one outside of Washington still believes it is working on the ground in Afghanistan.
Latest SIGAR Report
So along comes SIGAR with their latest report on how things are going in Afghanistan. Here’s what they have to say:
— SIGAR is “deeply troubled” by the U.S. decision to classify the summary of the report that assesses the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces. The summaries have before all been unclassified prior to this quarter. The classification of the report summary deprives the American people of an essential tool to measure the success or failure of the single most costly feature of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort.
— The U.S. Army’s refusal to suspend or debar supporters of the insurgency (the bad guys we are fighting) from receiving government contracts is not only legally wrong, but contrary to sound policy and national-security goals.
— Approximately $104.1 billion of your tax money has been appropriated for Afghanistan reconstruction so far, with about $14.5 billion still remaining to be spent. It will likely be spent.
— Afghanistan’s opium economy directly provides up to 411,000 full-time-equivalent jobs, more than the entire Afghan military.
— Irrigation projects paid for by the American taxpayer in Afghanistan may have facilitated increased opium-poppy cultivation after periods of significant reductions. Irrigation improvements funded by the American Good Performer’s Initiative were definitely used to cultivate opium poppy in both 2013 and 2014.
Previous SIGAR reports chronicle similar actions and results.
Other Examples of Waste
Not in the SIGAR report but worth mentioning are a few other prominent examples of American waste of our taxpayer dollars:
— A five-year-old State Department effort to upgrade Afghanistan’s largest prison has been halted with only half the contracted work performed. Some $18 million was wasted on a project that will never be finished and will never serve any need.
— For unclear reasons, the U.S. Air Force destroyed $468 million of aircraft purchased for the Afghan military by America’s taxpayers, and sold off the scrapped metal for all of $32,000.
— The U.S. spent $34 million on a “Regional Command and Control Facility” that will never be used. The Marines this week forever abandoned/withdrew from the base that houses that facility.
— The U.S. spent another $771.8 million on aircraft the Afghans cannot operate or maintain.
— Some 285 buildings, including barracks, medical clinics and even fire stations built by the Army are lined with substandard spray insulation so prone to ignition that they don’t meet international building codes.
— A USAID program designed to promote stability in Afghanistan spent its entire $47 million budget on conferences and none on grants to accomplish its aim.
The Biggest Waste of All
The list of financial failures could go on and on such that it might take you thirteen years to read through it all. But here is the biggest waste of resources of all: 2,350 Americans have lost their lives in the Afghan war, with untold tens of thousands wounded, disabled or wracked by the mental scars of war. What shall we tell them and their loved ones about why they suffered?
Iraq’s Sunnis won’t fight ISIS for the U.S. says NIQASH, a non-profit media organization operating out of Berlin. Without Sunni support, America’s war in Iraq cannot succeed. Here’s why.
According to NIQASH, a source at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said there have been secret negotiations between various Sunni Muslim armed factions, via Arab and Iraqi Kurdish intermediaries, for the past three months. At the request of U.S. diplomats and military personnel, Shia officials from the Iraqi government have also been meeting with the leaders of these groups in Erbil, Kurdistan and Amman, Jordan.
At the same time General John Allen, the Obama’s appointed coordinator of U.S. efforts in Iraq, has been trying to contact the Sunni tribal leaders he worked with in Anbar during the previous war’s “Awakening.” “But it was surprising,” a NIQASH source reported, “Most of General Allen’s former allies refused to cooperate with us. And some of them are actually now living outside of Iraq because of the Iraqi government’s policies.”
Oops. With some irony, America’s failure to secure the 2006 Awakening caused those Sunnis sympathetic to America’s aims to flee Shia persecution. Those “good guys” are thus not available in 2014 to help out America in the current war.
ISIS and the Sunnis
When ISIS first took control of Sunni areas in western Iraq, anger towards the Shia government in Baghdad caused many to see them as liberators from the Iraqi army. The army, along with paramilitary police from the Interior Ministry, had engaged in a multi-year campaign of beating, imprisoning and arresting Sunnis, to the point where many felt that Baghdad was occupying, not governing, the Sunni majority areas. For the Sunnis and ISIS, the Baghdad government was a common enemy, and a marriage of convenience formed.
Recent events in Baghdad do little to assuage Sunni fears. A recent report suggests the new Iraqi Prime Minister may nominate a Shia Badr Militia leader as Interior Minister. Since the Shias took control of Iraq following the American invasion of 2003, the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and the prisons, has been a prime tool of repression and punishment.
Still, cracks in the ISIS-Sunni relationship have started to form. Many of the Sunni groups, especially those led by former Baathists, are largely secular in nature, seeing their Sunni ties more as broadly cultural than strictly religious. ISIS’ requests to pledge allegiance to its cause, coupled with demands to implement Sharia law, have created friction. Some internecine fighting has taken place. The U.S. has sought to exploit these issues to break the indigenous Sunnis away from ISIS, and ultimately to turn the Sunnis into American proxy boots on the ground as was done with the Kurds.
America’s problem is that most Sunnis are fearful about cooperating via America with the Shia government in Baghdad. They fear history will repeat itself and the Americans and the Shia government will betray them, exactly as they betrayed them only a few years ago when the Awakening movement collapsed. Quite a pickle.
The Sunnis seem to be choosing a middle ground, one which does not serve America’s interests.
According to a 1920s Revolution Brigades (Sunni militia) leader, various militias came to the decision “not to support the international coalition against ISIS. They also decided not to cooperate with ISIS either. If the [Iraqi] army or the [Shia] militias attack [Sunni] areas they control though, they will fight both groups.”
“We are against the acts of the hardline Islamic State. And we are also against bombed cars exploding randomly in Baghdad,” Abu Samir al-Jumaili, one of the Sunni Mujahideen Army’s leaders in the Anbar province, told NIQASH. “However we are also opposed to the government’s sectarian policies against Sunnis… In 2006 we cooperated with the government to expel al Qaeda from Sunni cities but the government did not keep its end of the bargain. They chased our leaders and arrested us… The ISIS group are terrorists but so are the Shia militias.”
History is a Witch
There is no way America can succeed in its goals in Iraq– repel ISIS and keep the country together– without the active participation of the Sunnis. It is very unlikely that that will happen. American strategy rests on the assumption that the Sunnis can be bribed and coerced into breaking with ISIS, no matter the shape of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine. As with al Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. Starting in 2006, U.S. officials did indeed bribe and coerce some Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting insurgent outfits, including al-Qaeda. That deal, then called the Anbar Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them.
America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked exit. The Shias promptly reneged on the deal.
Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for what seems to be essentially the same bad deal? It appears they will not, and that by itself suggests the current Iraq war will end much the same as the previous one. It is foolish for America to expect otherwise.
— U.S. Embassy Baghdad (@USEmbBaghdad) October 18, 2014
A key part of America’s strategy in Iraq is the creation of an “inclusive” government in Baghdad, one that will pull together the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. This has been a persistent American myth since the 2003 invasion, one that is impossible realize and thus a single point of failure for Obama’s war.
History of the Myth
First, in 2003, as symbol of the democracy the U.S. sought to create in Iraq, then again in 2006 (remember the purple finger photos?) that the war was not actually already lost, and then forever after as the solution to the internecine fighting that America’s Occupation unleashed, the myth has had a long run. As you can see from Embassy Baghdad’s Tweet above, America again imagines it has achieved its interim goal of a balanced government; peace and prosperity is just around the corner.
A big part of the problem is that the United States thinks creating an Iraqi government is like picking players for a sports team. If things don’t work out, try again in next season’s draft. That was the thought behind America’s 180 on former Prime Minister Maliki. In power since 2006 with strong U.S. support, Maliki stayed in office from January to August 2014, even as ISIS had its first successes in Iraq. But as Obama launched the newest Iraq war, Maliki was out and a new player moved up the roster.
But since Haider al-Abadi, the latest prime minister and thus the great inclusivist hope, is a Shia and a former colleague of the once-anointed, now disappointed former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as a member of the same political party, little changed at the top. So hopes for “inclusiveness” fell to the choices to lead the key ministries of defense and the interior. Both have been tools of repression against the country’s Sunnis for years.
And now we know the winners of that odd contest.
Anti-Inclusionary Choice for Interior Ministry
A Sunni was chosen to lead Defense, a ministry currently in charge of a decrepit Iraqi Army best known for running away at first contact, leaving behind American-supplied weapons for ISIS to repurpose. Not so much joy in that job for now.
More significant choice is Abadi’s new Interior Minister, Mohammed Ghabban, a little-known Shiite politician with the Badr Organization. You remember the Badr folks, or should, because every Sunni in Iraq does. During the American Occupation, the Badr militia ran the notorious Shiite death squads, after infiltrating the same Interior Ministry it basically now heads to ensure the government would not interfere in their grim work.
Human Rights Watch quoted a doctor in the Health Ministry: “Sunnis are a minority in Baghdad, but they’re the majority in our morgue.”
Back in 2009, a SECRET Wikileaked State Department cable had this to say about the Badr militia’s leader, and the man Ghabban still answers to, Hadi al-Amiri:
Amiri is widely known to have played a leading role in organizing attacks by the Badr Corps militia (the strongest, most disciplined Shia militia at the time and precursor to the current Badr Organization) against Sunnis during the sectarian violence of 2004-2006. Sources indicate that he may have personally ordered attacks on up to 2000 Sunnis. One of his preferred methods of killing allegedly involved using a power drill to pierce the skulls of his adversaries.
Amiri was also previously rejected by Sunnis as a negotiating partner. Again, from the State Department:
Given his role in sectarian violence and prominent position in the dominant Shia coalition, it is understandable that Sunni leaders were hesitant to view him as a viable negotiating partner when he proposed a compromise parliamentary seat distribution after the November 23 Shia-Kurd backed electoral amendment was adopted.
Anti-Inclusionary Rise of the Shia Militias
The elevation of a Badr organization leader to perhaps the most significant cabinet position vis-vis the Sunnis is in line with the broader increasing influence of the Shia militias.
As much out of necessity given the limp Iraqi Army as sectarian politics, the Baghdad government has increasingly called upon Shia militias to defend the city. While they currently seem to be holding off ISIS advances past the already-Sunni controlled territory west of Baghdad Airport, Shia militias have also abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians in recent months and enjoy total impunity for these crimes, according to Amnesty International. These attacks, as an anti-inclusionary act as can be, are apparently in revenge for Sunni support of ISIS. Scores of unidentified bodies have been discovered across the country handcuffed and with gunshot wounds to the head, deliberate execution-style killings that send a message.
“By granting its blessing to militias who routinely commit such abhorrent abuses, the Iraqi government is sanctioning war crimes and fuelling a dangerous cycle of sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart,” concluded Amnesty.
Two more points about the Badr group: They were responsible for the deaths of many American military personnel during the Occupation and they remain closely allied with Iran. There is no good news with this one.
“To give the Interior Ministry to a direct Iranian proxy is huge,” said one researcher specializing in Shiite groups. “It shows who the Iraqis are throwing their lot in with.”
The inclusionary government America’s strategy for Iraq rests on is an illusion, a governmental fantasy in 2014 as it was 2003-2011. Everyone with eyes– except the U.S. government– can see where this one ends.
Only last week, when Turkey refused to assist Kurdish fighters in the Syrian city of Kobane, even as those Kurds were losing ground to ISIS fighters, and the U.S. was directing its airstrikes against far-away targets in Iraq, Secretary of State John Kerry said while the U.S. was deeply concerned about the tragedy in Kobane, Kobane did not define the strategy for the coalition with regard to ISIS.
As the U.S. sensed Kobane would fall, it tried then to distance itself from the failure. However, after domestic media and opinion started to criticise what appeared to be a failure of the Obama plan for Iraq and Syria, air resources were suddenly shifted away from Iraq and onto Kobane. ISIS seemed to have pulled back, the Kurds seemed to have moved forward, and the U.S. began hinting at victory.
Part of the U.S. strategy has been to resupply the Kurds from the air, necessary because Turkey will not allow resupply overland across its border. Such supply drops don’t always go right, and ISIS fighters seized at least one cache of weapons airdropped by U.S.-led coalition forces that were meant to supply Kurdish militiamen. The cache of weapons included hand grenades, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
On Tuesday, Islamic State loyalists on social media posted sarcastic thank you notes to the United States, including one image that said, “Team USA.”
And So What?
The badly-aimed weapons drop can be seen as more of a small embarrassment than any great strategic loss. True enough, but looking too closely at a single failed airdrop obscures the larger picture.
Though small in scale, the weapons ISIS received from the United States underscore that the group’s most sophisticated arms, and deadliest weapons, come from the U.S. Unless and until America can get control of the weapons it is pushing into battle (it can’t), the reality of Americans and their allies being killed by their own tools of war is not something to ignore.
Destroy Kobane to Save It
“Winning” in Kobane accomplishes nothing really. The city is nearly destroyed, reminding one of the Vietnam war-era remark that it was necessary to destroy the village of Ben Tre to “save it.” Over 200,000 refugees have left the city, with questions about how they can ever return to resume their lives given such devastation. The decision not to intervene by the Turks exposed the fragility of the hastily assembled U.S. coalition, setting up future confrontations among allies with very different goals and agendas for this war.
Meanwhile, as attention and limited resources are tied up in a battle of questionable strategic import, ISIS launched fifteen near-simultaneous attacks on Kurdish forces in northern Iraq on Monday in what Kurdish government officials said was a fierce and renewed push for territory. ISIS also launched attacks against Mosul Dam, a strategic prize, and also renewed its offensive on the Sinjar mountain range in northern Iraq. This is an organization aware of broader goals, and not focused on symbolic “victories.”
So be suspect if at some future date the U.S. declares Kobane a victory, an example of how ISIS can be beat. The city may very well end up as an example from this war, though perhaps not the one the U.S. intends it to be.
Long-time readers of this blog will remember the name Brett McGurk. Embarrassing emails he sent using a U.S. government computer system in Iraq surfaced in 2012, just as he was heading into confirmation hearings to become America’s ambassador to Baghdad. We now learn that the State Department’s efforts to investigate the incident were quashed, in part by some of the same people involved in State’s handling of the post-Benghazi fall out.
The McGurk Story
McGurk worked in Iraq under multiple U.S. ambassadors and through both the Bush and Obama administrations. He was present at nearly every mistake the U.S. made during the years of Occupation. In return for such poor handling of so many delicate issues, McGurk was declared “uniquely qualified” and Obama nominated him as America’s ambassador to Baghdad in 2012.
Unfortunately, around that same time a series of near-obscene emails appeared online, showing a sexual relationship between the then-married-to-someone else McGurk, and a then-married-to-someone else female reporter assigned to Baghdad. The emails suggested a) that official U.S. government communications were being used to arrange nooky encounters; b) that McGurk may have shared sensitive information exclusively with this one reporter as pillow talk; c) that he may have ditched his security detail to engage in his affair and d) rumors circulated that a McGurk sex tape, featuring a different woman, existed.
McGurk withdrew his nomination for ambassador and was promptly appointed by the State Department as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, a position without the title of ambassador but one with a significant role in policy making. Conveniently, the position was not competed and did not require any confirmation process. McGurk just walked in to it with the thanks of a grateful nation.
Still, senior officials behaving poorly can damage the credibility of a nation, and so State’s Office of Diplomatic Security (DS) was asked to investigate McGurk’s actions. State’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) later stepped in to look at the question of whether or not “undue influence” was applied by senior Clinton officials to that Diplomatic Security investigation so as to allow McGurk to emerge squeaky clean.
It seems we now know what may have happened with that investigation. It was, in the words of CBS News, quashed.
The third DS internal investigation in which OIG found an appearance of undue influence and favoritism involved the unauthorized release in mid-2012 of internal Department communications from 2008 concerning an individual who was nominated in early-2012 to serve as a U.S. Ambassador. (The nominee’s name was withdrawn following the unauthorized release.) DS commenced an internal investigation related to the unauthorized release of the internal communications. The then Chief of Staff and Counselor to the Secretary of State [Cheryl Mills] was alleged to have unduly influenced that investigation.
OIG found no evidence of any undue influence by the Chief of Staff/Counselor. However, OIG did find that the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of DS [Eric Boswell] had delayed for four months, without adequate justification, DS’s interview of the nominee, and that delay brought the investigation to a temporary standstill. OIG concluded that the delay created the appearance of undue influence and favoritism. The case was ultimately closed in July 2013, after the nominee was interviewed and after DS conducted additional investigative work.
Some are More Equal Than Others
Small world: Both Cheryl Mills and Eric Boswell of the McGurk case were deeply involved in State’s post-Benghazi actions.
Now, let’s break down some important parts of the OIG report. First, Diplomatic Security commenced its work by trying to track down the person who released the naughty emails, claiming they were “internal Department communications” even though they dealt with purely personal matters. Never mind what the emails revealed, DS’ first move was to try and hunt down the whistleblower.
While OIG could not find evidence of undue influence per se, they certainly found an “appearance” of such. Finally, we learn that the center of all this, the man seeking a senior position inside State, McGurk, was never even interviewed for four months by Diplomatic Security, and no adequate reason was given for why that delay was allowed to take place. In the short-attention span of Washington and the media, four months might as well be four years.
Where are They Now?
It would be easy to dismiss all this as business as usual in Washington (it is), or sour grapes on my part (a little) or even an I-Told-You-So on my part given the role I played in seeing McGurk’s indiscretions reach a wide audience (guilty).
But this is not just about me, no matter how much that was part of my motivation to write about the topic. It is, at the end of the day, about how our nation’s policies are created, managed an enacted, because the people and systems I’ve written about here do that.
So where are they all now? McGurk, as we know, is deeply involved in America’s new war in Iraq. The reporter who appeared to have slept with her source still works for a major media outlet. Eric Boswell, who quashed the investigation into McGurk, was reassigned and then allowed to retire post-Benghazi. Cheryl Mills remains one of Hillary’s closest advisors and is expected to play a significant role in any Clinton administration.
BONUS: The OIG report cited above was first surfaced by the best State Department blog out there, Diplopundit.
You know the joke? You describe something obviously heading for disaster — a friend crossing Death Valley with next to no gas in his car — and then add, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Such is the Middle East today. The U.S. is again at war there, bombing freely across Iraq and Syria, advising here, droning there, coalition-building in the region to loop in a little more firepower from a collection of recalcitrant allies, and searching desperately for some non-American boots to put on the ground.
Here, then, are seven worst-case scenarios in a part of the world where the worst case has regularly been the best that’s on offer. After all, with all that military power being brought to bear on the planet’s most volatile region, what could possibly go wrong?
1. The Kurds
The lands the Kurds generally consider their own have long been divided among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. None of those countries wish to give up any territory to an independence-minded ethnic minority, no less find a powerful, oil-fueled Kurdish state on their borders.
In Turkey, the Kurdish-inhabited border area with Iraq has for years been a low-level war zone, with the powerful Turkish military shelling, bombing, and occasionally sending in its army to attack rebels there. In Iran, the Kurdish population is smaller than in Iraq and the border area between the two countries more open for accommodation and trade. (The Iranians, for instance, reportedly refine oil for the Iraqi Kurds, who put it on the black market and also buy natural gas from Iran.) That country has nonetheless shelled the Kurdish border area from time to time.
The Kurds have been fighting for a state of their own since at least 1923. Inside Iraq today, they are in every practical sense a de facto independent state with their own government and military. Since 2003, they have been strong enough to challenge the Shia government in Baghdad far more aggressively than they have. Their desire to do so has been constrained by pressure from Washington to keep Iraq whole. In June, however, their military, the Peshmerga, seized the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the wake of the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul and other northern cities in the face of the militants of the Islamic State (IS). Lacking any alternative, the Obama administration let the Kurds move in.
The Peshmerga are a big part of the current problem. In a near-desperate need for some semi-competent proxy force, the U.S. and its NATO allies are now arming and training them, serving as their air force in a big way, and backing them as they inch into territory still in dispute with Baghdad as an expedient response to the new “caliphate.” This only means that, in the future, Washington will have to face the problem of how to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle if the Islamic State is ever pushed back or broken.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and now under the control of the Islamic State, is the most obvious example. Given the woeful state of the Iraqi army, the Kurds may someday take it. That will not go down well in Baghdad and the result could be massive sectarian violence long after IS is gone. We were given a small-scale preview of what might happen in the town of Hassan Sham. The Kurds took it back last month. In the process, some Shia residents reportedly sided with their enemies, the Sunni militants of IS, rather than support the advancing Peshmerga.
Worst-case scenario: A powerful Kurdistan emerges from the present mess of American policy, fueling another major sectarian war in Iraq that will have the potential to spill across borders. Whether or not Kurdistan is recognized as a country with a U.N. seat, or simply becomes a Taiwan-like state (real in all but name), it will change the power dynamic in the region in ways that could put present problems in the shade. Changing a long-held balance of power always has unintended consequences, especially in the Middle East. Ask George W. Bush about his 2003 invasion of Iraq, which kicked off most of the present mess.
You can’t, of course, talk about the Kurds without discussing Turkey, a country caught in a vise. Its forces have battled for years against a Kurdish separatist movement, personified by the PKK, a group Turkey, NATO, the European Union, and the United States all classify as a terrorist organization. Strife between the Turks and the PKK took 37,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s before being reduced from a boil to a simmer thanks to European Union diplomacy. The “problem” in Turkey is no small thing — its Kurdish minority, some 15 million people, makes up nearly 20% of the population.
When it comes to taking action in Syria, the Turks exist in a conflicted realm because Washington has anointed the Kurds its boots on the ground. Whatever it may think it’s doing, the U.S. is helping empower the Kurdish minority in Syria, including PKK elements arrayed along the Turkish border, with new weapons and training.
The Turkish ruling party has no particular love for those who run the Islamic State, but its loathing for Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad is such that its leaders have long been willing to assist IS largely by looking the other way. For some time, Turkey has been the obvious point of entry for “foreign fighters” en route to Syria to join IS ranks. Turkey has also served as the exit point for much of the black-market oil — $1.2 to $2 million a day — that IS has used to fund itself. Perhaps in return, the Islamic State released 49 Turkish hostages it was holding, including diplomats without the usual inflammatory beheading videos. In response to U.S. requests to “do something,” Turkey is now issuing fines to oil smugglers, though these have totaled only $5.7 million over the past 15 months, which shows the nature of Turkey’s commitment to the coalition.
The situation in the IS-besieged town of Kobani illustrates the problem. The Turks have refused to intervene to aid the Syrian Kurds. Turkish tanks sit idle on hills overlooking the hand-to-hand combat less than a mile away. Turkish riot police have prevented Turkish Kurds from reaching the town to help. Turkish jets have bombed PKK rebels inside Turkey, near the Iraqi border.
American bombs can slow IS, but can’t recapture parts of a city. Short of destroying Kobani by air to save it, U.S. power is limited without Turkish ground forces.
On the other hand, Washington’s present policy essentially requires Turkey to put aside its national goals to help us achieve ours. We’ve seen how such a scenario has worked out in the past. (Google “Pakistan and the Taliban.”) But with Kobani in the news, the U.S. may yet succeed in pressuring the Turks into limited gestures, such as allowing American warplanes to use Turkish airbases or letting the U.S. train some Syrian rebels on its territory. That will not change the reality that Turkey will ultimately focus on its own goals independent of the many more Kobanis to come.
Worst-case scenario: Chaos in Eastern Turkey’s future, while the sun shines on Assad and the Kurds. An influx of refugees are already taxing the Turks. Present sectarian rumblings inside Turkey could turn white hot, with the Turks finding themselves in open conflict with Kurdish forces as the U.S. sits dumbly on the sidelines watching one ally fight another, an unintended consequence of its Middle Eastern meddling. If the buffer zone comes to pass, throw in the possibility of direct fighting between the U.S. and Assad, with Russian President Vladimir Putin potentially finding an opening to reengage in the area.
Think of Syria as the American war that never should have happened. Despite years of calls for U.S. intervention and some training flirtations with Syrian rebel groups, the Obama administration had managed (just barely) to stay clear of this particular quagmire. In September 2013, President Obama walked right up to the edge of sending bombers and cruise missiles against Assad’s military over the purported use of chemical weapons. He then used an uncooperative Congress and a clever Putin-gambit as an excuse to back down.
This year’s model — ignore Assad, attack IS — evolved over just a few weeks as a limited humanitarian action morphed into a fight to the finish against IS in Iraq and then into bombing Syria itself. As with any magician’s trick, we all watched it happen but still can’t quite figure out quite how the sleight of hand was done.
Syria today is a country in ruins. But somewhere loose in that land are unicorns — creatures often spoken of but never seen — the Obama administration’s much publicized “moderate Syrian rebels.” Who are they? The working definition seems to be something like: people who oppose Assad, won’t fight him for now, but may in the meantime fight the Islamic State, and aren’t too “fundamentalist.” The U.S. plans to throw arms and training at them as soon as it can find some of them, vet them, and transport them to Saudi Arabia. If you are buying stock in the Syrian market, look for anyone labeled “moderate warlord.”
While the U.S. and its coalition attacks IS, some states (or at least wealthy individuals) in that same band of brothers continue to funnel money to the new caliphate to support its self-appointed role as a protector of Sunnis and handy proxy against Shia empowerment in Iraq. Vice President Joe Biden recently called out some of America’s partners on this in what was billed as another of his famous gaffes, requiring apologies all around. If you want to see the best-case scenario for Syria’s future, have a look at Libya, a post-U.S. intervention country in chaos, carved up by militias.
Worst-case scenario: Syria as an ungoverned space, a new haven for terrorists and warring groups fueled by outsiders. (The Pakistani Taliban has already vowed to send fighters to help IS.) Throw in the potential for some group to grab any leftover chemical weapons or SCUD-like surface-to-surface missiles from Assad’s closet, and the potential for death and destruction is unending. It might even spread to Israel.
Israel’s border with Syria, marked by the Golan Heights, has been its quietest frontier since the 1967 war, but that’s now changing. Syrian insurgents of some flavor recently seized border villages and a crossing point in those heights. United Nations peacekeepers, who once patrolled the area, have mostly been evacuated for their own safety. Last month, Israel shot down a Syrian plane that entered its airspace, no doubt a warning to Assad to mind his own business rather than a matter of military necessity.
Assumedly, the Obama administration has been in behind-the-scenes efforts, reminiscent of the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi SCUDS began raining down on Israeli cities, to keep that country out of the larger fight. It is not 1991, however. Relations between the U.S. and Israel are far more volatile and much testier. Israel is better armed and U.S. constraints on Israeli desires have proven significantly weaker of late.
Worst-case scenario: An Israeli move, either to ensure that the war stays far from its Golan Heights frontier or of a more offensive nature aimed at securing some Syrian territory, could blow the region apart. “It’s like a huge bottle with gas surrounded by candles. You just need to push one candle and everything can blow up in a minute,” said one retired Israeli general. Still, if you think Israel worries about Syria, that’s nothing compared to how its leadership must be fuming over the emergence of Iran as an ever-stronger regional power.
What can go wrong for Iran in the current conflict? While in the Middle East something unexpected can always arise, at present that country looks like the potential big winner in the IS sweepstakes. Will a pro-Iranian Shia government remain in power in Baghdad? You bet. Has Iran been given carte blanche to move ground forces into Iraq? Check. Will the American air force fly bombing runs for Iranian ground troops engaged in combat with IS (in a purely unofficial capacity, of course)? Not a doubt. Might Washington try to edge back a bit from its nuclear tough-guy negotiations? A likelihood. Might the door be left ajar when it comes to an off-the-books easing of economic sanctions if the Americans need something more from Iran in Iraq? Why not?
Worst-case scenario: Someday, there’ll be a statue of Barack Obama in central Tehran, not in Iraq.
Iraq is America’s official “graveyard of empire.” Washington’s “new” plan for that country hinges on the success of a handful of initiatives that already failed when tried between 2003-2011, a time when there were infinitely more resources available to American “nation builders” and so much less in the way of regional chaos, bad as it then was.
The first step in the latest American master plan is the creation of an “inclusive” government in Baghdad, which the U.S. dreams will drive a wedge between a rebellious and dissatisfied Sunni population and the Islamic state. After that has happened, a (re)trained Iraqi army will head back into the field to drive the forces of the new caliphate from the northern parts of the country and retake Mosul.
All of this is unrealistic, if not simply unreal. After all, Washington has already sunk $25 billion dollars into training and equipping that same army, and several billion more on the paramilitary police. The result: little more than IS seizing arsenals of top-notch Americans weaponry once the Iraqi forces fled the country’s northern cities in June.
Now, about that inclusive government. The United States seems to think creating an Iraqi government is like picking players for a fantasy football team. You know, win some, lose some, make a few trades, and if none of that works out, you still have a shot at a new roster and a winning record next year. Since Haider al-Abadi, the latest prime minister and great inclusivist hope, is a Shia and a former colleague of the once-anointed, now disappointed Nouri al-Maliki, as well as a member of the same political party, nothing much has really changed at the top. Really, what could possibly go wrong?
As for the Sunnis, American strategy rests on the assumption that they can be bribed and coerced into breaking with IS, no matter the shape of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine, unless they lack all memory. As with al-Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. Starting in 2007, U.S. officials did indeed bribe and coerce some Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting insurgent outfits, including al-Qaeda. That deal, then called the Anbar Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them. (General John Allen, now coordinating America’s newest war in Iraq, was a key figure in brokering that “awakening.”) America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked “exit.” The Shias promptly reneged on the deal.
Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for what seems to be essentially the same bad deal? In addition, this one appears to have a particularly counterproductive wrinkle from the American point of view. According to present plans, the U.S. is to form Sunni “national guard units” — up-armored Sunni militias with a more marketable name — to fight IS by paying and arming them to do so. These militias are to fight only on Sunni territory under Sunni leadership. They will have no more connection to the Baghdad government than you do. How will that help make Iraq an inclusive, unitary state? What will happen, in the long run, once even more sectarian armed militias are let loose? What could possibly go wrong?
Despite its unambiguous history of failure, the “success” of the Anbar Awakening remains a persistent myth among American conservative thinkers. So don’t be fooled in the short term by media-trumpeted local examples of Sunni-Shia cooperation against IS. Consider them temporary alliances of convenience on a tribe-by-tribe basis that might not outlast the next attack. That is nowhere near a strategy for national victory. Wasn’t then, isn’t now.
Worst-case scenario: Sunni-Shia violence reaches a new level, one which draws in outside third parties, perhaps the Sunni Gulf states, seeking to prevent a massacre. Would the Shia Iranians, with forces already in-country, stand idle? Who can predict how much blood will be spilled, all caused by another foolish American war in Iraq?
7. The United States
If Iran could be the big geopolitical winner in this multi-state conflict, then the U.S. will be the big loser. President Obama (or his successor) will, in the end, undoubtedly have to choose between war to the horizon and committing U.S. ground forces to the conflict. Neither approach is likely to bring the results desired, but those “boots on the ground” will scale up the nature of the ensuing tragedy.
Washington’s post-9/11 fantasy has always been that military power — whether at the level of full-scale invasions or “surgical” drone strikes — can change the geopolitical landscape in predictable ways. In fact, the only certainty is more death. Everything else, as the last 13 years have made clear, is up for grabs, and in ways Washington is guaranteed not to expect.
Among the likely scenarios: IS forces are currently only miles from Baghdad International Airport, itself only nine miles from the Green Zone in the heart of the capital. (Note that the M198 howitzers IS captured from the retreating Iraqis have a range of 14 miles.) The airport is a critical portal for the evacuation of embassy personnel in the face of a future potential mega-Benghazi and for flying in more personnel like the Marine Quick Reaction Force recently moved into nearby Kuwait. The airport is already protected by 300-500 American troops, backed by Apache attack helicopters and drones. The Apache helicopters recently sent into combat in nearby Anbar province probably flew out of there. If IS militants were to assault the airport, the U.S. would essentially have to defend it, which means combat between the two forces. If so, IS will lose on the ground, but will win by drawing America deeper into the quagmire.
In the bigger picture, the current anti-Islamic State coalition of “more than 60 countries” that the U.S. patched together cannot last. It’s fated to collapse in a heap of conflicting long-term goals. Sooner or later, the U.S. is likely to once again find itself alone, as it eventually did in the last Iraq war.
The most likely outcome of all this killing, whatever the fate of the Islamic State, is worsening chaos across Iraq, Syria, and other countries in the region, including possibly Turkey. As Andrew Bacevich observed, “Even if we win, we lose. Defeating the Islamic State would only commit the United States more deeply to a decades-old enterprise that has proved costly and counterproductive.” The loss of control over the real costs of this war will beg the question: Was the U.S. ever in control?
In September, Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, or bombed since 1980. During these many years of American war-making, goals have shifted endlessly, while the situation in the Greater Middle East only worsened. Democracy building? You’re not going to hear that much any more. Oil? The U.S. is set to become a net exporter. Defeating terrorism? That’s today’s go-to explanation, but the evidence is already in that picking fights in the region only fosters terror and terrorism. At home, the soundtrack of fear-mongering grows louder, leading to an amplified national security state and ever-expanding justifications for the monitoring of our society.
Worst-case scenario: America’s pan-Middle Eastern war marches into its third decade with no end in sight, a vortex that sucks in lives, national treasure, and Washington’s mental breathing room, even as other important issues are ignored. And what could possibly go wrong with that?