What job could be worse these days than having to be the foreign ministry official from some so-called American ally who has to listen to the latest American begging effort for them to join up with the “coalition” to defeat ISIS.
Those poor diplomatic bastards have been suffering through American pleas to join various failed coalitions for more than a decade, as evil bad guys intent on world domination come and go. Think back — the Taliban, al Qaeda, Saddam, Gaddafi and now ISIS. There’s almost a sort of pattern there.
So this week U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (above) offered a glimpse of his own apparent frustration at all this coalition fun last week when he referred to “our so-called coalition” and suggested the slackers need to step up and support the American Empire Project.
“We need everybody, and that’s all the Europeans, the Persian Gulf states, Turkey, which is right there on the border. So there are a lot that need to make more contributions,” he said. Carter appeared totally ignorant of why nobody wants to hop in and help fight America’s wars.
Carter left Tuesday for Brussels, where he will convene a meeting of defense chiefs from about two dozen countries, including most NATO members, Iraq and the Gulf states.
“What I’m going to do is sit down and say, here is the campaign plan. If you’re thinking World War II newsreel pictures, you think of an arrow going north to take Mosul and another arrow coming south to take Raqqa,” he said, as if the organized nation state ground combat of WWII had anything at all to do with the current multi-dimensional firestorm in the Middle East.
“And I’m going to say, ‘OK, guys. Let’s match up what is needed to win with what you have, and kind of give everybody the opportunity to make an assignment for themselves,'” Carter said. “The United States will lead this and we’re determined, but other people have to do their part because civilization has to fight for itself.”
Sure thing boss, will say the would-be coalition members before doing nothing of substance.
A few coalition countries have made promises of increased support in recent days. The Netherlands, also known as Sparta, which has been carrying out very, very limited airstrikes in Iraq, said it would expand its efforts to Syria. Saudi Arabia indicated last week it could send ground troops into Syria. Canada announced it will quit conducting airstrikes in Syria and Iraq but will expand its contributions to training Kurdish and other local forces and provide more humanitarian and developmental aid.
Over the course of a decade and a half of coalition warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials have frequently found themselves pleading and cajoling with the Europeans to contribute more, and they generally have responded with pledges to do just a little bit more. The pattern may be repeated in Brussels.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
In medieval times, cities were walled. At night the gates were locked, the towers guarded, and thieves and brigands were kept outside. At least in theory, because walls could be scaled, or blown up, or tunnels dug, or guards bribed.
And so in what may turn out to be the ultimate 21st century Renaissance Faire, the Iraqi government, no doubt with the support of, if not the checkbook of, the United States, is building a wall around the city of Baghdad in hopes that that will stop ISIS where nothing else has.
An interior ministry’s spokesman explained that work began this week on a 65 mile stretch of a wall and trench on the northern and northwestern approaches of the capital. The wall will be 10 feet high and partially made up of concrete barriers already in use across much of the capital. The spokesman declined to specify the measurements of the trench, possibly out of embarrassment.
While a wall is about the dumbest idea yet in a nation plagued by dumb ideas, something is needed. On Wednesday alone, roadside bombings in various parts of the capital and a drive-by shooting killed eight people and wounded 28. Last month, according to UN figures, 490 civilians were killed and 1,157 were wounded in Iraq. Baghdad was the worst affected, with 299 civilians killed and 785 wounded.
Of course not all of those were killed by ISIS, and many of the killers, ISIS and not, are already living inside the city and thus will not be affected by the new wall, but meh.
The thing is that since 2003 Baghdad has always been a city of walls. As one facet of its failed strategy to prevent sectarian violence in the city, the U.S. erected a labyrinth of blast walls, eventually walling off entire neighborhoods and nearly every government office, bank, police station, school, hospital, market, gas station, and university campus. The boundaries of the Green Zone itself are defined in places by blast walls.
The fact that all of those walls having failed to stop ISIS does not appear to have been factored into the Iraqi government’s plans.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Youngblood, a new novel by Matt Gallagher set in the late stages of the Iraq War, is a powerful fiction debut from an author already known for his nonfiction portrayal of that conflict in Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. Youngblood is a gritty, tragic, realistic look inside the failures of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq told by someone who lived it as a young infantry lieutenant.
Youngblood presents three different themes intermingled. They work symbiotically with one another to create an image of what happened in the underbelly of a war poorly reported on by the American media.
The first theme tells the story of American Army Lieutenant Jack Porter, and his complex battlefield relationship with his platoon sergeant, Dan Chambers, and the host of Iraqis they encounter. In seeking a literary vehicle to his tale, Gallagher bypassed the traditional Saving Private Ryan-like choices in favor of a murder mystery of sorts. Actually multiple murders, killings and assassinations, whose connections unfold slowly as different characters divulge and withhold information, almost Rashomon-like. Lieutenant Porter is often times faced with choices of who to believe, and often gets it wrong, often with tragic consequences. Along the way the reader is introduced to the cast of the Iraq War: slimy sheiks, nasty terrorists, game-playing interpreters, innocent victims, not-so-innocent victims, and American soldiers stuck inside a world they cannot possibly understand.
Having spent a year in Iraq embedded with the U.S. Army has part of my State Department job, these portrayals ring true. Nearly on a one-to-one basis, I could match up a real person I interacted with for every one of Gallagher’s “fictional” characters.
Those soldiers’ stories and the events of their “workdays” are the second theme of Youngblood. For those who want to look behind the one-dimensional portrayals on TV, here is life on the ground for a counterinsurgency army. As the best novels do, Gallagher’s story drags you deep into a new and unfamiliar world, showing you the food the troops ate, the conditions under which they lived, the lies and boasts they told each other, and the motivations noble, and mundane, that sent them into service. If you enjoyed Kaboom, a minor criticism of Youngblood may be that you’ve read some of this before. That, however, does not take away from the realism; Gallagher really makes you smell the streets of war-torn Baghdad, and you can feel the grit of its back alleys in your own mouth as you turn the pages.
The final theme in Youngblood is the most subtle, and the most interesting. Through his broader story, that murder mystery and its eventual resolution, Gallagher deftly offers an allegorical view of the whole war. His soldiers try and do the right things in nearly every instance, but both their disparate personal motivations and the fact that right and wrong in war are never anything but gray in search of black and white, often means the best intentions turn to mud (Gallagher’s characters might use a stronger term.) When that happens in war, people die, sometimes the wrong people. The Iraqis, beaten down by years of occupation, play along with the Americans, but with the knowledge that in the end the soldiers will leave them with the mess to attend to.
In the end the message is clear for both sides: there was no way to win in Iraq, only to survive. Youngblood tells that tale, and tells it well.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
There are two ways to look at the video below, and they are both right. It shows the remains of a soldier and his K-9 coming home for the last time from Afghanistan. The circumstances of their deaths are unknown.
If you can get through the video with dry eyes, you may not be human, or may not at least deserve the title. Someone replaced your heart with dry meat. Despite the sappy music, the expression of utter emotion packed into a mundane activity — unloading “cargo” from an airplane — is raw and undeniable and good. Each set of remains is brought from overseas into Dover, Delaware, where the U.S. military operates its largest mortuary and receiving facility. Each container is flag-draped and accompanied by military members, so the soldier is never alone on the long trip off the battlefield.
At Dover, s/he is cleaned up if possible for an open casket viewing by the family, and the body dressed in uniform with all decorations displayed. At that point, commercial air transport brings the deceased back to his or her home, in this case, Atlanta. Each serviceperson is escorted on the last flight by uniformed military personnel. The process is designed to show respect, and it does. It is only fitting and appropriate that it does so.
Delta Airlines’ staff at Atlanta have taken things further, organizing their own an honor guard, to add that much more to a final step.
No. no, the other way has nothing to do with not having this ceremony, or not honoring those who lost their lives.
This “other way” of looking at all this is to stop turning healthy young men and women into “remains” for causes of unclear purposes. After coming into office promising to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as begun with the darkest of hearts by his predecessor George W. Bush, President Barack Obama will leave eight years later having accomplished neither task. After overseeing an “end” to what some now call Iraq War 2.0 in 2011, Obama reinserted American forces back into that country in 2014 for Iraq War 3.0. There is no end in sight.
Now, in Afghanistan, conditions are such that top U.S. military commanders, who only a few months ago were planning to pull the last American troops out of Afghanistan by year’s end, are now discussing a commitment that could keep thousands of troops in the country for decades, an “enduring presence.”
Bring them home, Mr. President. Alive.
So, yep, thanks for asking, this war is going well.
Especially now, as we learn some Sunnis are far more afraid of Iraqi government-supported Shiite militias than they are of anyone from Islamic State. This will not end well, especially since the United States still hopes to get those same Sunnis to turn on ISIS and support the same goals as the Shiite Iraqi government.
Fear of those Shiite Muslim militias is driving many locals in Diyala Province, where the population is mixed, to change their names to more neutral formulations.
The reason is simple survival. “Just over the past two months our department has received between 150 and 200 applications for a name change,” said an official working for Diyala’s Directorate of Nationality. “Most of the applications are being submitted by people whose names reveal their sect or the areas from where their family or tribe comes.”
In the Middle East, a name can tell a lot about its bearer. A surname may indicate which tribe one comes from originally, and thereby which part of the country. A first name or father’s name can indicate which sect one belongs to, especially if one is given a name specific to either Shiite or Sunni Muslims.
In Diyala, a province with a population where Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and a variety of ethnicities are thrown together, locals say that they fear being targeted for their Sunni religious background, even though they may not actually be very religious. They specifically fear the Shiite Muslim militias, supported by the United States, Iran, and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, who are ostensibly fighting Islamic State. The militias are also engaged in some serious ethnic cleansing directed against the Sunni population.
Iraq’s Shiite-controlled Ministry of the Interior issued an order two months ago to put a stop to the Sunni name changes, stating that only those who have the name “Saddam” would be allowed to change their names. However, the responsible (Sunni-controlled) department in Diyala has resumed its work in defiance of Baghdad.
…that works out to about 28 dead every day.
It is also an estimate, given that many areas of the country are not readily accessible, and because the death toll from the siege of Ramadi is not accounted for in the figures. More than 3.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced and/or homeless.
Iraq is now an ungoverned, failed state, a killing field on the scale of genocide.
At least 18,802 civilians were killed and 36,245 wounded in Iraq over the last 22 months, according to the UN’s Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Armed Conflict in Iraq. Another 3,206,736 Iraqis are internally displaced, including more than one million children. The study emphasizes that these are conservative estimates. The UN also is careful to note that the number of civilians killed by secondary effects of the violence, such as lack of access to food, water or medical care, is unknown. In many areas of Iraq schools are closed and basic infrastructure is not functioning.
All that is in addition to the more than one million people already killed during the American occupation period.
These horrors are directly caused by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation. In addition to unleashing near-total chaos in the nation, the U.S. invasion led directly to the rise of Islamic State, which found the consuming violence fertile soil for growth. ISIS went on to see a new role to emerge, protector of the Sunni population, which was being slaughtered and impoverished by the Shiite majority empowered by the Americans and Iran.
“Armed violence continues to take an obscene toll on Iraqi civilians and their communities,” remarked the UN high commissioner for human rights. “The so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ continues to commit systematic and widespread violence and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian law. These acts may, in some instances, amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.”
ISIS is targeting non-Sunni ethnic and religious communities, “systematically persecuting” them, subjecting them to violent repression and crimes, the UN notes. Women and children are particularly affected by these atrocities. Women face extreme sexual violence and even sexual slavery. Children are being forcibly recruited as fighters.
In addition to ISIS violence, the UN notes that civilians have been killed and kidnapped, and that civilian infrastructure has been destroyed by pro-government forces, militias and tribal fighters. Moreover, civilians are being killed by U.S. airstrikes.
Adding to the depth of horror in Iraq, many Iraqi refugees have sought asylum in the West, but have been largely unwelcome. In a time of heightened Islamophobia, some European countries and many right-wing American politicians — including more than half of the U.S. governors — have made it clear they do not want to accept Muslim refugees.
How can we stop the Islamic State?
Imagine yourself shaken awake, rushed off to a strategy meeting with your presidential candidate of choice, and told: “Come up with a plan for me to do something about ISIS!” What would you say?
What Hasn’t Worked
You’d need to start with a persuasive review of what hasn’t worked over the past 14-plus years. American actions against terrorism — the Islamic State being just the latest flavor — have flopped on a remarkable scale, yet remain remarkably attractive to our present crew of candidates. (Bernie Sanders might be the only exception, though he supports forming yet another coalition to defeat ISIS.)
Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.
Since the June 2014 start of Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run. Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.” The CIA estimates that the Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 begins.
How about the capture of cities then? Well, the U.S. and its partners have already gone a few rounds when it comes to taking cities. After all, U.S. troops claimed Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, in 2003, only to see the American-trained Iraqi army lose it to ISIS in May 2015, and U.S-trained Iraqi special operations troops backed by U.S. air power retake it (in almost completely destroyed condition) as 2015 ended. As one pundit put it, the destruction and the cost of rebuilding make Ramadi “a victory in the worst possible sense.” Yet the battle cry in Washington and Baghdad remains “On to Mosul!”
Similar “successes” have regularly been invoked when it came to ridding the world of evil tyrants, whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, only to see years of blowback follow. Same for terrorist masterminds, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as minor-minds (Jihadi John in Syria), only to see others pop up and terror outfits spread. The sum of all this activity, 14-plus years of it, has been ever more failed states and ungoverned spaces.
If your candidate needs a what-hasn’t-worked summary statement, it’s simple: everything.
How Dangerous Is Islamic Terrorism for Americans?
To any argument you make to your preferred presidential candidate about what did not “work,” you need to add a sober assessment of the real impact of terrorism on the United States in order to ask the question: Why exactly are we engaged in this war on this scale?
Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11. Argue about the number if you want. In fact, double or triple it and it still adds up to a tragic but undeniable drop in the bucket. To gain some perspective, pick your favorite comparison: number of Americans killed since 9/11 by guns (more than 400,000) or by drunk drivers in 2012 alone (more than 10,000).
And spare us the tired trope about how security measures at our airports and elsewhere have saved us from who knows how many attacks. A recent test by the Department of Homeland’s own Inspector General’s Office showed that 95% of contraband, including weapons and explosives, got through airport screening without being detected. Could it be that there just aren’t as many bad guys out there aiming to take down our country as candidates on the campaign trail would like to imagine?
Or take a look at the National Security Agency’s Fourth Amendment-smothering blanket surveillance. How’d that do against the Boston bombing or the attacks in San Bernardino? There’s no evidence it has ever uncovered a real terror plot against this country.
Islamic terrorism in the United States is less a serious danger than a carefully curated fear.
Introduce Your Candidate to the Real World
You should have your candidate’s attention by now. Time to remind him or her that Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.
So start advising your candidate that a proper response to the Islamic State has to be proportional to the real threat. After all, we have fire departments always on call, but they don’t ride around spraying water on homes 24/7 out of “an abundance of caution.”
We Have to Do Something
So here’s what you might suggest that your candidate do, because you know that s/he will demand to “do something.”
Start by suggesting that, as a society, we take a deep look at ourselves, our leaders, and our media, and stop fanning everyone’s flames. It’s time, among other things, to stop harassing and discriminating against our own Muslim population, only to stand by slack-jawed as a few of them become radicalized, and Washington then blames Twitter. As president, you need to opt out of all this, and dissuade others from buying into it.
As for the Islamic State itself, it can’t survive, never mind fight, without funds. So candidate, it’s time to man/woman up, and go after the real sources of funding.
As long as the U.S. insists on flying air attack sorties (and your candidate may unfortunately need to do so to cover his/her right flank), direct them far more intensely than at present against one of ISIS’s main sources of cash: oil exports. Blow up trucks moving oil. Blow up wellheads in ISIS-dominated areas. Finding targets is not hard. The Russians released reconnaissance photos showing what they claimed were 12,000 trucks loaded with smuggled oil, backed up near the Turkish border.
But remind your candidate that this would not be an expansion of the air war or a shifting from one bombing campaign to a new one. It would be a short-term move, with a defined end point of shutting down the flow of oil. It would only be one part of a far larger effort to shut down ISIS’s sources of funds.
Next, use whatever diplomatic and economic pressure is available to make it clear to whomever in Turkey that it’s time to stop facilitating the flow of that ISIS oil onto the black market. Then wield that same diplomatic and economic pressure to force buyers to stop purchasing it. Some reports suggest that Israel, cut off from most Arab sources of oil, has become a major buyer of ISIS’s supplies. If so, step on some allied toes. C’mon, someone is buying all that black-market black gold.
The same should go for Turkey’s behavior toward ISIS. That would extend from its determination to fight Kurdish forces fighting ISIS to the way it’s allowed jihadis to enter Syria through its territory to the way it’s funneled arms to various extreme Islamic groups in that country. Engage Turkey’s fellow NATO members. Let them do some of the heavy lifting. They have a dog in this fight, too.
And speaking of stepping on allied toes, make it clear to the Saudis and other Sunni Persian Gulf states that they must stop sending money to ISIS. Yes, we’re told that this flow of “donations” comes from private citizens, not the Saudi government or those of its neighbors. Even so, they should be capable of exerting pressure to close the valve. Forget a “no-fly zone” over northern Syria — another fruitless “solution” to the problem of the Islamic State that various presidential candidates are now plugging — and use the international banking system to create a no-flow zone.
You may not be able to stop every buck from reaching ISIS, but most of it will do in a situation where every dollar counts.
Your candidate will obviously then ask you, “What else? There must be more we can do, mustn’t there?”
To this, your answer should be blunt: Get out. Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.
In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.
This is history talking to us.
That Darn History Thing
Sometimes things change visibly at a specific moment: December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, or the morning of September 11, 2001. Sometimes the change is harder to pinpoint, like the start of the social upheaval that, in the U.S., came to be known as “the Sixties.”
In the Middle East after World War I, representatives of the victorious British and French drew up national boundaries without regard for ethnic, sectarian, religious, tribal, resource, or other realities. Their goal was to divvy up the defeated Ottoman Empire. Later, as their imperial systems collapsed, Washington moved in (though rejecting outright colonies for empire by proxy). Secular dictatorships were imposed on the region and supported by the West past their due dates. Any urge toward popular self-government was undermined or destroyed, as with the coup against elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, or the way the Obama administration manipulated the Arab Spring in Egypt, leading to the displacement of a democratically chosen government by a military coup in 2013.
In this larger context, the Islamic State is only a symptom, not the disease. Washington’s problem has been its desire to preserve a collapsing nation-state system at the heart of the Middle East. The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq certainly sped up the process in a particularly disastrous fashion. Twelve years later, there can’t be any question that the tide has turned in the Middle East — forever.
It’s time for the U.S. to stand back and let local actors deal with the present situation. ISIS’s threat to us is actually minimal. Its threat to those in the region is another matter entirely. Without Washington further roiling the situation, it’s a movement whose limits will quickly enough become apparent.
The war with ISIS is, in fact, a struggle of ideas, anti-western and anti-imperialist, suffused with religious feeling. You can’t bomb an idea or a religion away. Whatever Washington may want, much of the Middle East is heading toward non-secular governments, and toward the destruction of the monarchies and the military thugs still trying to preserve updated versions of the post-World War I system. In the process, borders, already dissolving, will sooner or later be redrawn in ways that reflect how people on the ground actually see themselves.
There is little use in questioning whether this is the right or wrong thing because there is little Washington can do to stop it. However, as we should have learned in these last 14 years, there is much it can do to make things far worse than they ever needed to be. The grim question today is simply how long this painful process takes and how high a cost it extracts. To take former President George W. Bush’s phrase and twist it a bit, you’re either with the flow of history or against it.
Initially, Washington’s military withdrawal from the heart of the Middle East will undoubtedly further upset the current precarious balances of power in the region. New vacuums will develop and unsavory characters will rush in. But the U.S. has a long history of either working pragmatically with less than charming figures (think: the Shah of Iran, Anwar Sadat, or Saddam Hussein before he became an enemy) or isolating them. Iran, currently the up-and-coming power in the area absent the United States, will no doubt benefit, but its reentry into the global system is equally inevitable.
And the oil will keep flowing; it has to. The countries of the Middle East have only one mighty export and need to import nearly everything else. You can’t eat oil, so you must sell it, and a large percentage of that oil is already sold to the highest bidder on world markets.
It’s true that, even in the wake of an American withdrawal, the Islamic State might still try to launch Paris-style attacks or encourage San Bernardino-style rampages because, from a recruitment and propaganda point of view, it’s advantageous to have the U.S. and the former colonial powers as your number one enemies. This was something Osama bin Laden realized early on vis-à-vis Washington. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in drawing the U.S. deeply into the quagmire and tricking Washington into doing much of his work for him. But the dangers of such attacks remain limited and can be lived with. As a nation, we survived World War II, decades of potential nuclear annihilation, and scores of threats larger than ISIS. It’s disingenuous to believe terrorism is a greater threat to our survival.
And here’s a simple reality to explain to your candidate: we can’t defend everything, not without losing everything in the process. We can try to lock down airports and federal buildings, but there is no way, nor should there be, to secure every San Bernardino holiday party, every school, and every bus stop. We should, in fact, be ashamed to be such a fear-based society here in the home of the brave. Today, sadly enough, the most salient example of American exceptionalism is being the world’s most scared country. Only in that sense could it be said that the terrorists are “winning” in America.
At this point, your candidate will undoubtedly say: “Wait! Won’t these ideas be hard to sell to the American people? Won’t our allies object?”
And the reply to that, at least for a candidate not convinced that more of the same is the only way to go, might be: “After more than 14 years of the wrong answers and the disasters that followed, do you have anything better to suggest?”
In an Op-Ed printed in the Washington Post, former General David Petraeus says it is time to “unleash our airpower in support of our Afghan partners in the same way that we support our Iraqi and Syrian partners against extremists.”
Petraeus went on to claim:
At present, U.S. and NATO airpower in Afghanistan is used only to attack validated al-Qaeda targets, to counter specific individuals or groups who have attacked coalition forces previously and to respond directly to attacks on coalition forces. According to leaders on the ground, U.S. and NATO forces are otherwise not allowed to attack Taliban targets. The situation appears to be in flux in regard to Islamic State elements, but through 2015, they too could be targeted only under narrow circumstances.
The former general, who lead the failed Surge in Iraq, and former head of the CIA, who was thrown out of the job after his extra-marital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, and after his being convicted of exposing classified information, went on to say:
We have the tools in place to step up our game considerably. When combined with a motivated and competent ground force, airpower can be quite effective. This was witnessed in 2001, when U.S. airpower and special operatives worked with the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban from power.
So at this point one must ask the key question: has Petraeus had a stroke or is he on Acid, because otherwise his statements ignore reality, perhaps the laws of time and space themselves.
To begin, Petraeus’ statement that airpower in 2001 “ousted the Taliban,” a statement made without apparent irony, would be hilarious if it was not utterly tragic. Petraeus seems to have missed a few meetings, at which he would have learned that since those victories in 2001 the Taliban has been doing just fine, thanks. The U.S. has remained inside the Afghan quagmire for more than 14 more years, and currently has no end game planned for the war. Air power, with or without “a motivated and competent ground force” (as if such a thing can ever exist in Afghanistan, we’ve been training and equipping there for 14 years), never is enough. There are examples to draw from going back into WWI.
It is also unclear on what information Petraeus is basing his statements that the U.S. is broadly “not allowed to attack Taliban targets.” Petraeus only refers to “leaders on the ground” as his source. We’d sure like to hear more about that.
And, David, how the hell did ISIS come into existence anyway, and how did they get into Afghanistan? U.S. have anything to do with that?
I get it. I get why the failed options are still so attractive. Bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground. A handful of Special Forces troops, American boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will turn the tide. Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” to abet the task at hand. It all sounds good, even though it is not.
Petraeus failed in Iraq (that war is still going on and on) and he failed at CIA. Oh, and yes, in 2010 Petraeus served as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, a period in which insurgent attacks on coalition forces spiked to record levels, and violence metastasized to previously stable areas.
So the most important question of all is why anyone is still listening to David Petraeus?
I joined host Joshua Holland on Politics and Reality Radio to talk about Islamic State, the refugee crisis in Syria and concerns about the gap between on-the-ground reality in Iraq and what might be being reported up the chain by military intelligence analysts intent on cooking the books to suggest we are winning.
My portion of the show starts at 7:05 in.
Also featured are Ed Kilgore from The Washington Monthly on U.S. politics and the 2016 campaign, and The New Republic‘s Rebecca Leber talking about the horrific shootings broadcast live out of Virginia this week.
Check out the interview online.
The execution of Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and 46 convicted al-Qaeda members by the Saudis triggered a still-unfolding crisis between the Kingdom and Iran. Protesters in Tehran set fire to the Saudi embassy, and the Iranian government threatened that the Saudis will face “divine” revenge.
Riyadh responded by severing diplomatic relations and ordering Iran’s ambassador to depart the Kingdom, followed by the cutting off of all commercial ties with Iran. Saudi allies Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates made formal diplomatic protests to Iran. Additional acts of retaliation in a region that embraces the concept will no doubt follow, likely inside the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen or Syria. There will be blood.
But why execute al-Nimr now?
The cleric has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family for some years. In 2009 he went as far as threatening Shi’ite secession, provoking a government crackdown in the minority’s eastern heartland. The Saudis have had al-Nimr in custody since 2012, and he was sentenced to death in 2014.
While there are external factors, particularly the broader Saudi-Iranian struggle for power in the Persian Gulf, those are secondary. The execution of al-Nimr was a signal sent by the new King to his supporters and adversaries at home.
The crucial point in understanding any part of Saudi politics is that the Kingdom has not had its Islamic revolution, a transition from a largely secular rule to a theocratic one, as in Iran in 1979 and as is fumbling forward in other nearby locations, such as Syria. Saudi has also not seen the unpredictable upheaval of an Arab Spring. It instead has been ruled by the al-Saud family for decades. The family’s rule has been made possible in part by fundamentalist Sunni Wahhabi clerics, who provide religious legitimacy to the al-Saud family. Alongside all this were a series of strong, patriarchal Saudi kings to keep control of the military and security forces.
Times have changed.
Shi’ite Islam is on the move regionally, perhaps most significantly in Iraq. Following the American invasion of 2003, Iraq changed from a secular regime under Saddam that waged open war against Shi’ite Iran, to the largely Shi’ite regime now in power in Baghdad that openly welcomes Iranian special forces. Saudi Arabia’s steadiest partner, the United States, has become prone to erratic acts, naively bumbling into Iraq in 2003, demanding regime changes here and there, and unofficially partnering with the Iranians to defeat Islamic State.
The U.S. is also far more energy independent than a decade ago and is slowly moving toward some form of new diplomatic relationship with Iran. Oil prices have also been falling. Many disgruntled Saudi Sunnis support Islamic State, an organization that has sworn to take down the al-Saud monarchy. These are all potentially destabilizing factors for the Saudis.
But perhaps most significantly, the al-Saud family’s rule is facing succession issues in the form of the deceased King Salman’s newly empowered 30-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman. It is the first time since the country’s modern founder, King Abdulaziz, died in 1953 that power has been concentrated in the hands of just one branch of the family. This was done by the deceased King’s decision to bypass one of his brothers, the traditional successor, in favor of a nephew, who has set up his son as successor. There have been thus not surprisingly rumors of opposition to the son, even of a coup.
It was also the son, who, as defense minister, oversaw the decision to go to war in Yemen, launching his country into an open-ended struggle he may sometime face the need to defend.
The execution of al-Nimr send multiple signals. The most significant is a get-tough message to all inside the Kingdom, coupled with an assurance to the Iranians that Salman is firmly in charge and able to further prosecute the war in Yemen. The execution appeases the Wahhabists, and gives the government a chance to crackdown on Shi’ite dissent.
Al-Nimr’s crime was described using terms normally reserved for jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, to include plotting to overthrow the Saudi government. In a region that pays particular attention to symbolism, executing al-Nimr as a terrorist, alongside 46 al-Qaeda members, is a crystalline example of how the Saudi authorities view a man seen by many Shi’ites inside the Kingdom as a freedom fighter of sorts, and as a religious figure in greater the Shi’ite world.
And in case anyone still did not get the message, the Saudi government did not give al-Nimr’s body to his family, saying that they already buried all of the corpses.
The burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran plays right into this, though was unlikely to have been anticipated. But what better way to wag the dog for the war in Yemen and perhaps beyond then another example of the “out of control” Iranians, and the threat Shi’ites pose. It doesn’t hurt Saudi relations vis-a-vis the United States to see an embassy burn once again in the heart of Tehran, or for local Saudis angered by a 40 percent rise in gas prices to have an external enemy to distract them.
Events set in motion are difficult to control, and things may yet spin out of Salman’s control, and the ploy backfire; for example, al-Nimr is now a martyr with an international profile.
But for the time being, it appears Salman has moved ahead a few spaces in a real-life Game of Thrones.
One of the unique things surrounding America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the extraordinary number of books written by servicemen and women.
Unlike in previous wars, the best telling of the soldiers’ stories has come from the soldiers themselves, and not from traditional journalists. Many of these books add to our understanding of people at war, while a few are just macho battle stories.
Some seek to reach into a war’s soul.
Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire is one from the latter category. Randy Brown, who blogs as “Charlie Sherpa,” is a 20-year Army veteran and the author. FOB Haiku (a FOB is a Forward Operating Base in mil-speak), via a series of short poems, takes the reader from boot camp through Afghanistan, to homecoming.
While Brown’s book-length work is the only one available now that demands we understand the Afghan War through poetry, the use of verse to express things often otherwise unsayable about war has a long history. From Homer’s Iliad through Walt Whitman’s plaintive descriptions of the American Civil War, the collision of something beautiful with something terrible has been an important part of war literature.
Brown’s writing is a worthy addition. For example, saying grace over a prepackaged meal (MRE), Brown is funny, but with an edge:
Forgive us our trespasses, for we have trespassed a lot today — kinda goes with the territory, and the job. And deliver us from evil, particularly that which we have done unto others. See also: “trespasses,” above.
Warning a new trooper too anxious to get into the fight:
War is often more boring than not. Then, it is scalding. Do not covet action.
Brown wistfully recalls his days as a National Guardsman, when training was laughed off as “summer camp.” Headed to Afghanistan post-military retirement as a reporter, Brown has to buy his own body armor online, noting it is part of a land of no refunds and no returns, as true for Afghanistan as it is for Internet commerce. He remembers his grandfather’s musket over the fireplace mantle as a proud symbol, and wonders if he could do the same with that armor. Should he make it home, of course.
A Vietnamese cab driver enroute to the airport asks too many questions about Afghanistan, leaving a hole in Brown, the irony — a Vietnamese asking about another American war — noted. In that same airport, Brown observes well-traveled suits confuse boots with heroes and buy us sandwiches, knowing they do not understand the shallowness of such a gesture, Brown bitter and generous in forgiving at the same time.
Speaking of other wars, or perhaps of all wars, Brown reaches for more epic tones:
Let all diffuse, dissolve and disappear in time. Because we are not dust, but water – moving in spaces between nations. We are not ashes, but waves.
But the strongest writing here is in the final section, Homecoming. Brown remembers the blessed smell of earth at his farm, experiences shock at the fried-food excesses of a county fair, and expresses a soldier’s sense of wonder reuniting with his family. He is frustrated with the difficulty of re-establishing relationships with his children, begging a too-young daughter to cling to a turn looking at the night sky with him, finally saying to her:
Wars and presidents will come and go. So, too, will parents and children and other first loves. All will be eclipsed in memory, leaving you. Remember this.
We are the stories we tell ourselves, Brown writes near the end of Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. These poems are the stories he brought home to tell us.
So, have you heard the good news? The town of Ramadi, in the Disneyland of the Middle East, Iraq, is free again. Iraqi military forces have retaken the town from Islamic State. Sort of. Maybe.
The town of Ramadi is a popular place for liberationing. In 2003, the United States liberated it from Saddam, though fighting continued right up through 2011, when the new Iraqis liberated the town from the Americans. That lasted until spring 2015, when ISIS liberated Ramadi back from the new Iraqi National Army. Now, in December, somebody Iraqi sort of took the town back.
— Sort of… is the operative word, in that even the best estimates suggest that ISIS still controls some 25 percent of Ramadi.
— Sort of… in the sense that U.S. bombing and the Iraqi siege has destroyed much of Ramadi in order to free it and left many of its residents homeless, or dead.
— Sort… of in the sense that it was not solely the Iraqi government’s forces which liberated Ramadi, but also Shia militias controlled by various factions in Iraq, and beholden to Iran. The event was stage-managed by the U.S. to create the appearance of a more unified effort by the Iraq side, and to use Ramadi as an example of how America’s train and equip strategy was finally working… sort of… somewhere.
Newsweek’s Jeff Stein reports that the security forces of the Iran-backed regime in Baghdad that captured Ramadi largely consist of Shiite fighters in league with murderous militias that have slaughtered innocent Sunnis after ousting ISIS militants from Tikrit and other battlegrounds in the past year. Ramadi is the capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, and the Shiites are ready to break some sectarian skulls.
“We are not calling a spade a spade,” says Derek Harvey, a retired U.S. Army intelligence colonel who’s been dealing with Iraq for over 25 years, including as intelligence adviser to both General David Petraeus,as quoted in Newsweek. “My sources on the ground say Shiite militias and sectarian fighters… are wearing MOI [Ministry of Interior] uniforms with MOI patches.” So they look like Iraqi Government forces, even though they are not.
Their vehicles, Harvey adds, fly Shiite militia banners, “and the people who are commanding them are still Shiite militia leaders. Just because you put on a different uniform doesn’t mean you aren’t who you are, who their group identity is and who they’re committed to.”
In Tikrit earlier this year, such circumstances of “victory” lead to reprisals killings of Sunnis, and loss of central government control over the city. If that happens again in Ramadi, there is nothing close to a victory to celebrate.
The U.S. coalition denies any Shia groups were involved in Ramadi, and reports from the very few journalists on the ground tend to support that position,in contrast to the Newsweek report.
BONUS: The Ministry of Interior is controlled by the Shia Badr political party, which originated in 1982 as an Iran-backed Iraqi exile group headquartered in Tehran. With the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it moved inside the country, and its members infiltrated the army and police. In 2014, the stand-alone Badr Brigade, led by Iranian officers, was basically the only force standing in the way of an ISIS takeover of Baghdad.
In most people’s minds, America’s biggest exports are things like iPhones made in China, or swank Levi’s made in China. But in fact, America is the world’s leading seller of one category of goods, and those goods are nearly 100% made in America: weapons.
Maybe not a huge surprise, given that America maintains the globe’s largest military itself, has the largest network of bases and installations around the world, and makes war, well, pretty much anywhere/everywhere it godd*amn feels like it. But check out some impressive numbers: foreign arms sales by the United States jumped by almost $10 billion in 2014, about 35 percent growth, even as the global weapons market remained flat and competition among suppliers increased. How’d where you work do this year? Did you realize 35 percent growth? Sounds like you’re in the wrong business, Skippy.
American weapons receipts rose to $36.2 billion in 2014 from $26.7 billion the year before, bolstered by multibillion-dollar agreements (negotiated in large part by the the government of the United States on behalf of the private companies who make the weapons; wouldn’t your business benefit from having the Pentagon and the entire network of U.S. embassies augmenting your sales force?) with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. Those deals and others ensured that the United States remained the single largest provider of arms around the world, controlling over 50 percent of the market.
Russia followed the United States as the top weapons supplier, albeit at only about one-third of what the U.S. racked up in sales. Sweden, France and China were distant numbers three, four and five.
As for the buyers, America’s top markets over time are both remnants of past American wars, South Korea, and Iraq. Quite popular items included American drones, as well as very, very lucrative aftersales in ammunition, spare parts and training.
Every Christmas sees one toy emerge as the most-wanted, gotta have gift — remember Tickle Me Elmo, and Beanie Babies from years past? Well, 2015’s big hit has emerged: The Iraq-Syria LEGO Playset.
The set retails for three trillion dollars, though the price may have doubled by the time this is published. Included in the standard set are enough LEGOS to build replicas of Mosul and Fallujah, allowing a child to refight those battles over and over.
Figures, all with removable heads, include Sunni militias, Islamic State fighters, Shia militias, one figure representing the actual Iraqi Army, American special forces with and without boots, Iranians, Kurds, Turks, Russians, Syrians (moderate and radical, though they cannot be told apart), British, French and Italian troops, shady Saudi financiers and Hezbollah soldiers.
The basic set also includes a starter pack of refugee figures, though most people will want to opt for the bonus pack, if only to get access to the limited edition dead children refugee figures.
Not included: any weapons of mass destruction.
While the Iraq-Syria LEGO Playset will provide any child with decades of fun, even more adventures can be played out by buying the Turkish Expansion Pack.
And parents, please note: Even after careful construction with the best of intention, the playset tends to simply fall apart.
In the many strategies proposed to defeat the Islamic State (IS) by presidential candidates, policymakers, and media pundits alike across the American political spectrum, one common element stands out: someone else should really do it.
The United States will send in planes, advisers, and special ops guys, but it would be best — and this varies depending on which pseudo-strategist you cite — if the Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Sunnis, and/or Shias would please step in soon and get America off the hook.
The idea of seeing other-than-American boots on the ground, like Washington’s recently deep-sixed scheme to create some “moderate” Syrian rebels out of whole cloth, is attractive on paper. Let someone else fight America’s wars for American goals. Put an Arab face on the conflict, or if not that at least a Kurdish one (since, though they may not be Arabs, they’re close enough in an American calculus). Let the U.S. focus on its “bloodless” use of air power and covert ops. Somebody else, Washington’s top brains repeatedly suggest, should put their feet on the embattled, contested ground of Syria and Iraq. Why, the U.S. might even gift them with nice, new boots as a thank-you.
Is this, however, a realistic strategy for winning America’s war(s) in the Middle East?
The Great Champions of the Grand Strategy
Recently, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton openly called for the U.S. to round up some Arab allies, Kurds, and Iraqi Sunnis to drive the Islamic State’s fighters out of Iraq and Syria. On the same day that Clinton made her proposal, Bernie Sanders called for “destroying” the Islamic State, but suggested that it “must be done primarily by Muslim nations.” It’s doubtful he meant Indonesia or Malaysia.
Among the Republican contenders, Marco Rubio proposed that the U.S. “provide arms directly to Sunni tribal and Kurdish forces.” Ted Cruz threw his support behind arming the Kurds, while Donald Trump appeared to favor more violence in the region by whoever might be willing to jump in.
They may all mean well, but their plans are guaranteed to fail. Here’s why, group by group.
The Gulf Arabs
Much of what the candidates demand is based one premise: that “the Arabs” see the Islamic State as the same sort of threat Washington does.
It’s a position that, at first glance, would seem to make obvious sense. After all, while American politicians are fretting about whether patient IS assault teams can wind their way through this country’s two-year refugee screening process, countries like Saudi Arabia have them at their doorstep. Why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to lend a helping hand, including some planes and soldiers, to the task of destroying that outfit? “The Arabs,” by which the U.S. generally means a handful of Persian Gulf states and Jordan, should logically be demanding the chance to be deeply engaged in the fight.
That was certainly one of the early themes the Obama administration promoted after it kicked off its bombing campaigns in Syria and Iraq back in 2014. In reality, the Arab contribution to that “coalition” effort to date has been stunningly limited. Actual numbers can be slippery, but we know that American warplanes have carried out something like 90% of the air strikes against IS. Of those strikes that are not all-American, parsing out how many have been from Arab nations is beyond even Google search’s ability. The answer clearly seems to be not many.
Keep in mind as well that the realities of the region seldom seem to play much of a part in Washington’s thinking. For the Gulf Arabs, all predominantly Sunni nations, the Islamic State and its al-Qaeda-linked Sunni ilk are little more than a distraction from what they fear most, the rise of Shia power in places like Iraq and the growing regional strength of Iran.
In this context, imagining such Arab nations as a significant future anti-IS force is absurd. In fact, Sunni terror groups like IS and al-Qaeda have in part been funded by states like Saudi Arabia or at least rich supporters living in them. Direct funding links are often difficult to prove, particularly if the United States chooses not to publicly prove them. This is especially so because the money that flows into such terror outfits often comes from individual donors, not directly from national treasuries, or may even be routed through legitimate charitable organizations and front companies.
However, one person concerned in an off-the-record way with such Saudi funding for terror groups was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton back in 2009. In a classified warning message (now posted on WikiLeaks), she suggested in blunt terms that donors in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
One who thinks the Saudis and other Gulf countries may be funding rather than fighting IS and is ready to say so is Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the recent G20 meeting, he announced that he had shared intelligence information revealing that 40 countries, including some belonging to the G20 itself, finance the majority of the Islamic State’s activities. Though Putin’s list of supposed funders was not made public, on the G20 side Saudi Arabia and Turkey are more likely candidates than South Korea and Japan.
Most recently, the German vice chancellor has explicitly accused the Saudis of funding Sunni radical groups.
Expecting the Gulf Arab states to fight IS also ignores the complex political relationship between those nations and Islamic fundamentalism generally. The situation is clearest in Saudi Arabia, where the secular royal family holds power only with the shadowy permission of Wahhabist religious leaders. The latter provide the former with legitimacy at the price of promoting Islamic fundamentalism abroad. From the royals’ point of view, abroad is the best place for it to be, as they fear an Islamic revolution at home. In a very real way, Saudi Arabia is supporting an ideology that threatens its own survival.
At the top of the list of groups included in the American dream of someone else fighting IS are the Kurds. And indeed, the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, are actually on the battlefields of northern Iraq and Syria, using American-supplied weapons and supported by American air power and advisers in their efforts to kill Islamic State fighters.
But looks can be deceiving. While a Venn diagram would show an overlap between some U.S. and Kurdish aims, it’s important not to ignore the rest of the picture. The Kurds are fighting primarily for a homeland, parts of which are, for the time being, full of Islamic State fighters in need of killing. The Kurds may indeed destroy them, but only within the boundaries of what they imagine to be a future Kurdistan, not in the heartlands of the Syrian and Iraqi regions that IS now controls.
Not only will the Kurds not fight America’s battles in parts of the region, no matter how we arm and advise them, but it seems unlikely that, once in control of extended swaths of northern Iraq and parts of Syria, they will simply abandon their designs on territory that is now a part of Turkey. It’s a dangerous American illusion to imagine that Washington can turn Kurdish nationalism on and off as needed.
The Kurds, now well armed and battle-tested, are just one of the genies Washington released from that Middle Eastern bottle in 2003 when it invaded Iraq. Now, whatever hopes the U.S. might still have for future stability in the region shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Using the Kurds to fight IS is a devil’s bargain.
And talking about devil’s bargains, don’t forget about Turkey. The Obama administration reached a deal to fly combat missions in its intensifying air war against the Islamic State from two bases in Turkey. In return, Washington essentially looked the other way while Turkish President Recep Erdogan re-launched a war against internal Kurdish rebels at least in part to rally nationalistic supporters and win an election. Similarly, the U.S. has supported Turkey’s recent shoot-down of a Russian aircraft.
When it comes to the Islamic State, though, don’t hold your breath waiting for the Turks to lend a serious military hand. That country’s government has, at the very least, probably been turning a blind eye to the smuggling of arms into Syria for IS, and is clearly a conduit for smuggling its oil out onto world markets. American politicians seem to feel that, for now, it’s best to leave the Turks off to the side and simply be grateful to them for slapping the Russians down and opening their air space to American aircraft.
That gratitude may be misplaced. Some 150 Turkish troops, supported by 20 to 25 tanks, have recently entered northern Iraq, prompting one Iraqi parliamentarian to label the action “switching out alien (IS) rule for other alien rule.” The Turks claim that they have had military trainers in the area for some time and that they are working with local Kurds to fight IS. It may also be that the Turks are simply taking a bite from a splintering Iraq. As with so many situations in the region, the details are murky, but the bottom line is the same: the Turks’ aims are their own and they are likely to contribute little either to regional stability or American war aims.
Of the many sub-strategies proposed to deal with the Islamic State, the idea of recruiting and arming “the Sunnis” is among the most fantastical. It offers a striking illustration of the curious, somewhat delusional mindset that Washington policymakers, including undoubtedly the next president, live in.
As a start, the thought that the U.S. can effectively fulfill its own goals by recruiting local Sunnis to take up arms against IS is based on a myth: that “the surge” during America’s previous Iraq War brought us a victory later squandered by the locals. With this goes a belief, demonstrably false, in the shallowness of the relationship between many Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis and the Islamic State.
According to the Washington mythology that has grown up around that so-called surge of 2007-2008, the U.S. military used money, weapons, and clever persuasion to convince Iraq’s Sunni tribes to break with Iraq’s local al-Qaeda organization. The Sunnis were then energized to join the coalition government the U.S. had created. In this way, so the story goes, the U.S. arrived at a true “mission accomplished” moment in Iraq. Politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington still believe that the surge, led by General David Petraeus, swept to success by promoting and arming a “Sunni Awakening Movement,” only to see American plans thwarted by a too-speedy Obama administration withdrawal from the country and the intra-Iraqi squabbling that followed. So the question now is: why not “awaken” the Sunnis again?
In reality, the surge involved almost 200,000 American soldiers, who put themselves temporarily between Sunni and Shia militias. It also involved untold millions of dollars of “payments” — what in another situation would be called bribes — that brought about temporary alliances between the U.S. and the Sunnis. The Shia-dominated Iraqi central government never signed onto the deal, which began to fall apart well before the American occupation ended. The replacement of al-Qaeda in Iraq by a newly birthed Islamic State movement was, of course, part and parcel of that falling-apart process.
After the Iraqi government stopped making the payments to Sunni tribal groups first instituted by the Americans, those tribes felt betrayed. Still occupying Iraq, those Americans did nothing to help the Sunnis. History suggests that much of Sunni thinking in the region since then has been built around the motto of “won’t get fooled again.”
So it is unlikely in the extreme that local Sunnis will buy into basically the same deal that gave them so little of lasting value the previous time around. This is especially so since there will be no new massive U.S. force to act as a buffer against resurgent Shia militias. Add to this mix a deep Sunni conviction that American commitments are never for the long term, at least when it comes to them. What, then, would be in it for the Sunnis if they were to again throw in their lot with the Americans? Another chance to be part of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that seeks to marginalize or destroy them, a government now strengthened by Iranian support, or a Syria whose chaos could easily yield a leadership with similar aims?
In addition, a program to rally Sunnis to take up arms against the Islamic State presumes that significant numbers of them don’t support that movement, especially given their need for protection from the depredations of Shia militias. Add in religious and ethnic sentiments, anti-western feelings, tribal affiliations, and economic advantage — it is believed that IS kicks back a share of its oil revenues to compliant Sunni tribal leaders — and what exactly would motivate a large-scale Sunni transformation into an effective anti-Islamic State boots-on-the-ground force?
Not that they get mentioned all that often, being closely associated with acts of brutality against Sunnis and heavily supported by Iran, but Iraq’s Shia militias are quietly seen by some in Washington as a potent anti-IS force. They have, in Washington’s mindset, picked up the slack left after the Iraqi Army abandoned its equipment and fled the Islamic State’s fighters in northern Iraq in June 2014, and again in the Sunni city of Ramadi in May 2015.
Yet even the militia strategy seems to be coming undone. Several powerful Shia militias recently announced, for instance, their opposition to any further deployment of U.S. forces to their country. This was after the U.S. Secretary of Defense unilaterally announced that an elite special operations unit would be sent to Iraq to combat the Islamic State. The militias just don’t trust Washington to have their long-term interests at heart (and in this they are in good company in the region). “We will chase and fight any American force deployed in Iraq,” said one militia spokesman. “We fought them before and we are ready to resume fighting.”
Refusing to Recognize Reality
The Obama/Clinton/Sanders/Cruz/Rubio/Pentagon/et al. solution — let someone else fight the ground war against IS — is based on what can only be called a delusion: that regional forces there believe in American goals (some variant of secular rule, disposing of evil dictators, perhaps some enduring U.S. military presence) enough to ignore their own varied, conflicting, aggrandizing, and often fluid interests. In this way, Washington continues to convince itself that local political goals are not in conflict with America’s strategic goals. This is a delusion.
In fact, Washington’s goals in this whole process are unnervingly far-fetched. Overblown fears about the supposedly dire threats of the Islamic State to “the homeland” aside, the American solution to radical Islam is an ongoing disaster. It is based on the attempted revitalization of the collapsed or collapsing nation-state system at the heart of that region. The stark reality is that no one there — not the Gulf states, not the Kurds, not the Turks, not the Sunnis, nor even the Shia — is fighting for Iraq and Syria as the U.S. remembers them.
Unworkable national boundaries were drawn up after World War I without regard for ethnic, sectarian, or tribal realities and dictatorships were then imposed or supported past their due dates. The Western answer that only secular governments are acceptable makes sad light of the power of Islam in a region that often sees little or no separation between church and state.
Secretary of State John Kerry can join the calls for the use of “indigenous forces” as often as he wants, but the reality is clear: Washington’s policy in Syria and Iraq is bound to fail, no matter who does the fighting.
So file this one under “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” subcategory, “Everything.”
American ally the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has dispatched hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to Yemen to fight in that country’s raging conflict, adding a volatile new element in a complex proxy war that has drawn in the United States and Iran, reports the New York Times.
It is the first combat deployment for the mercenary army that the Emirates has built up over the past five years. And — small world –the army was raised and for its few years run by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater. The mercs are presently controlled by the small Emirati military while Prince presumably has moved on to create private merc armies for others we’ll someday learn about.
The arrival in Yemen of 450 Latin American troops — among them are also Panamanian, Salvadoran and Chilean soldiers — adds to the volatile stew of government armies, armed tribes, terrorist networks and Yemeni militias currently at war in the country. Earlier this year, a coalition of Sunni countries led by Saudi Arabia, including the United States, began a military campaign in Yemen against Shia Houthi rebels supported by Iran. So, in theory, the merc army is semi-on the same side as the U.S.
As background, we all do remember that the U.S. government previously employed Erik Prince’s Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq as security for the American embassy and State Department diplomats.
After Blackwater imploded, killing 14 innocent Iraqi civilians and wounding 17 others, in Nisour Square and after a few name changes (Xe, Academi) to hide the fact that Blackwater was still employed by the State Department long after, the mercenary contracts moved to other similar but unrelated companies. Those companies in turn employed mercenaries from various countries in service to the USG. In addition to many mercs from Central and South America, popular hired guns also were recruited from Africa, where child soldiers and constant warfare created a steady pool of trained recruits.
“Mercenaries are an attractive option for rich countries who wish to wage war yet whose citizens may not want to fight,” said Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order.
“The private military industry is global now,” said McFate, adding that the United States essentially “legitimized” the industry with its heavy reliance on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan over more than a decade of war.
BONUS: Erik Prince is now chairman of another security firm, Frontier Services Group. It focuses heavily on providing logistics and aviation support in Africa. The company has a fleet of Cessna aircraft and “holds important customer approvals from the United Nations, the British government and the U.S. government.”
And what could possibly go wrong with all that?
Should Islamic State take things further and strike an American civilian target, President Barack Obama would be all but forced to “do something.” What would that “something” likely look like, and what might be the pitfalls?
Post-Paris, France and the United States immediately increased their air campaign in Syria. The visuals play well on television, as American audiences have seen over the last 24 years of airstrikes on Iraq. For an Obama appeared wary of deeper involvement in Syria, this may be enough to tamp down the pressure assuming no future attack on American civilians. France may also find a short and sharp set of revenge attacks enough for the near term, as Jordan did in at the beginning of this year, after the horrific burning alive of one its pilots captured by Islamic State. Things could settle back into a more routine fight.
However, if Islamic State were to strike against Americans, President Obama would almost be required to escalate, and more of the same airstrikes and colorful missile launches would not satisfy demands for vengeance. They would not have been sufficient a year ago, and certainly not in the midst of a presidential campaign. Any perceived lack of resolve would hand the Republicans a red, white and blue issue to take them through the next 12 months, and Hillary Clinton would be forced to break with the White House.
America’s escalation could take only one form: many more American boots on the ground.
No one would call it an invasion, but that is what it would be, regardless of scale. The most likely paths into Syria would be through Turkey if that government blessed it (and remember, Turkey refused to open their borders for the 2003 American invasion of Iraq), or, most likely, via Jordan, with a smaller force from the northeast, across the Iraqi border.
The United States has a notably infrastructure and a compliant government in place in Jordan. In May of this year, thousands of soldiers from 18 countries took part in war games in Jordan, overseen by the American Army. The Jordanians themselves are already considering a militarized “humanitarian corridor” into Syria that could easily morph into an invasion route.
Since 2013, the United States has been growing its military presence in Jordan, to include strike aircraft, missle defenses and strategic planners, lots of planners, the infrastructure of war. An attack against Islamic State from the south might also isolate Damascus for follow-on action against Assad. From a military point of view, Israel and the Golan Heights it controls provide neat protection on the invasion’s left flank. Lastly, Jordanian involvement would help dress up the American invasion by giving it something of an Arab face.
Sending large numbers of troops into Syria from the northeast, via Iraq, would likely encouch on Islamic State’s strongholds in northern Iraq and sandwich the United States between them and Islamic State fighters in northern Syria. Foreign fighters could also find their way in across the Turkish border. Still, moving airborne and special operations troops through Kurdish-held areas would be possible and necessary to reach Islamic State from another front.
It would very surprising to see any significant American escalation in Iraq proper, absent perhaps inside the Kurdish confederacy. Americans dying once again in the Iraqi desert would be a tough sell domestically, the Iraqi government in Baghdad and its Iranian partners would be less than receptive, and militarily dividing Islamic State into a Syrian force and an Iraqi force would accomplish much on its own without re-inserting American troops into the Iraqi civil war.
The problem with all this chess playing is the identical one that bred Islamic State into existence in the first place.
As the United States saw in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, winning on the battlefield is the easy part. Assuming Islamic State could be physically destroyed (a big assumption itself given its diffuse nature and political support among many Sunnis), what follows? Who will govern “liberated” areas? How much land will the Kurds seize for themselves in northern Syria and how will Turkey react to that? Syria is a wrecked wasteland flooded with internally displaced persons. Who will pay for reconstruction, and why would anyone think it would work any better in Syria than it did in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will the Russians simply stand aside?
Scenarios that put boots on the ground are easy to foresee, and the possible on-the-ground strategies are clear enough to speculate on. How to deal with the aftermath is what really matters, and what’s the plan for that?
The United States recently unveiled a new approach in Iraq and Syria it insists is not new at all: Special Forces will be sent into direct combat. “The fact is that our strategy… hasn’t changed,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said. “This is an intensification of a strategy that the president announced more than a year ago.”
The press secretary is right if you take him at his exact words: the deployment of Special Forces does not change America’s grand strategy, it only changes the on-the-ground tactics.
Something tactically new, something strategically old
Tactically, downplaying these moves as intensification, or as somehow not boots on the ground (one imagines American Special Forces hopping from foot to foot to protect Washington’s rhetoric) is silly. America has entered a new stage, active ground combat, and anyone who thinks a handful of Special Forces is the end of this is probably among the same group who believed air power alone would resolve matters a year ago.
However, in the bigger picture, the White House is spot-on. Broader strategy for the Middle East has not changed at all. That is baked into the American belief that there is an imposable solution to every foreign problem, and that it is the responsibility of the US to find and implement that solution. This thinking has rarely been even close to right since the Vietnam War, and is most certainly wrong when looking at the Middle East in 2015. It has led directly to the mess in Iraq and Syria, and remains tragically unchanged.
The state of Iraq and Syria is not pretty.
Iraq the nation is no more, replaced by a Kurdish confederacy in the north, a Shia-controlled south and a semi-governed ISIS-Sunni area to the west. Syria is divided into a northern area increasingly under Kurdish control, a southern section still under Assad’s rule, and a lot of contested space being fought over by the United States, Russia, Britain, Jordan, Turkey, France, Canada, Australia, Iran, a handful of Gulf nations, Islamic State, its cohorts, Bashar Assad’s forces, the Kurds, and a complex mélange of local religious and tribal alliances.
But no unicorns. Those mythical creatures, the moderate rebels of Syria, couldn’t be created via wishing, hoping or training, and the forces the US now supports in Syria are either Kurds out for their own interest in creating a nation-state (that the U.S. is facilitating the non-Arab Kurds to “liberate” Arab lands will be long-noted in the region) or the usual collection of thugs. America will no doubt soon dub them freedom fighters. Is the name “Sons of Syria” already taken?
American goals in Iraq seem to be along the lines of destroy ISIS and unify the country. In Syria, the goals, as best as can be discerned, are to destroy ISIS and depose President Assad.
The problem with “destroying ISIS” is that every time the United States kills off some fighters, ISIS simply gets more, using as their recruiting tool the American military’s return to Muslim lands. ISIS is the physical embodiment of a set of ideas – religious, anti-imperialist, anti-western – and one cannot blow up ideas. Unless a popular rebalancing of power likely favouring a version of Islamic fundamentalism is allowed to take hold and create some measure of stability, count on the US fighting the sons and grandsons of ISIS for years to come.
The other American goals are equally far-fetched.
Obama is the fourth American president to bomb Iraq, and inevitably his successor will be number five. Yet even after decades of bombing and years of occupation, fiddling, reconstructing and meddling, the United States has not pulled Iraq together. Special Forces cannot accomplish what all that already failed to do.
An Assad-less Syria is possible, following an assassination, a coup, or perhaps a plane crash. However, removing one government, then hoping another will emerge Big Bang-like, has a very poor track record (see Iraq with Saddam and Libya with Qaddafi.) Any negotiated form of regime change in Syria, such as an offer of exile to Assad, is now subject to a Putin veto, given Russia’s military presence there.
It is unlikely in the extreme that more American involvement, never mind a mere handful of Special Forces, will have much effect in either Iraq or Syria. But the US is escalating anyway.
But the US must do something… right?
But what if there is no “solution” in Iraq and Syria but to allow, however reluctantly, the forces now in play to find their own balance? The outcome will undoubtedly be distasteful to many in Washington, some sort of Syrian state with Russian allies, a Shia Iraq with Iranian supporters, an ISIS-Sunni statelet, and a trans-border powder keg of Kurdish nationalism on the loose.
But whether America takes a deep breath of realism and steps back or not, there is little that can be done to change any of those things anyway; the Iraq invasion, if nothing else, made clear the American military cannot dictate policy outcomes in the Middle East. American force might postpone the changes, or allow friends like the Kurds a more favorable bargaining position, but that’s about it, Special Forces or no Special Forces.
But what about ISIS?
The idea that absent American intervention Islamic State will pop up in Times Square is simply a new flavor of the old scare tactic politicians have consistently used to cow the American public. The bogey man has just seamlessly changed from Communists to Sandinistas to post-9/11 al-Qaeda to Saddam to the Taliban to ISIS. Note that despite American intervention, Islamic State is as strong or stronger now than it ever has been, and yet has never directly struck outside its own neighborhood. Indeed, as a terror group, ISIS must know it is accomplishing most of its political goals vis-a-vis the US using only Twitter.
As for Islamic State being evil, they are. Yet in a time when hospitals are bombed by America in Afghanistan and by its Saudi allies in Yemen, and when civilian areas in Gaza are shelled by ally Israel, one should be careful when invoking morality.
Maybe they were right all along
Ironically, after Syria’s Arab Spring became a civil war, the White House met with Pentagon planners, looking for options. They came up empty-handed. “Nobody could figure out what to do,” a senior Pentagon official said.
They may have had it right from the beginning: there was nothing the U.S. could do. What some call Obama’s indecisiveness may have just been realism. History, as well as his political enemies, is likely to claim Obama “lost” Iraq and Syria. That is unfair, as it presumes that it was ever possible to win.
And so perhaps the White House is right in characterizing the deployment of Special Forces into a combat role as nothing really so new. What is happening now in Iraq and Syria is just the dragging of the same decades old failed strategy forward.
What is the price of America’s war against Islamic State? Higher than you think.
Last week saw the first American ground combat death in Iraq since 2011. Sadly, such deaths are a price always paid in war. The cost of the fight against Islamic State in dollars is staggering; more than $2.7 billion so far, with the average daily cost around $11 million.
But costs should also be measured in the chaos the war has spawned, and in the additional problems for American foreign policy it has created.
Vast areas of Syria have been reduced to rubble, and refugee flows have created a humanitarian disaster; more than 240,000 people have died in the conflict, and nearly 12 million people – half the country’s population – have been driven from their homes. Whereas at one point an American goal was to depose Bashar Assad because he (only) was bombing his own people, those same people now suffer attacks from the air and the ground by the United States, Russia, Britain, Jordan, Turkey, France, Canada, Australia, Iran, a handful of Gulf nations, and Islamic State and its cohorts.
The de facto strategy seems to be evolving into a Vietnam War-era “destroying Syria in order to save it.” The reconstruction of Syria will be expensive, though it is unclear who will pay that bill. But allowing the country to become a failed state, a haven for terror groups like Sudan in the 1990s and Afghanistan post-9/11, will be even more expensive.
The price being paid, however, extends beyond Syria’s borders.
NATO ally Turkey has long supported Islamic State, leaving its border with Syria open as a transit point, and allowing Islamic State to broker oil on the black market. Turkey’s actions are intimately tied to its violent history with the Kurds. A weak Islamic State empowers the Kurds. Initial American efforts to enlist Turkey into the Islamic State fight thus met with little success.
That appeared to change in August 2015, when Washington reached a deal allowing it to fly strike missions against Syria from inside Turkey. However, there appeared to be a quid pro quo: on the same day Turkey announced it would help fight Islamic State, it also began an air campaign against Kurdish groups tied to the only effective fighting force the United States has so far found – the unicorn – the peshmerga.
The Kurds’ vision for their nation extends beyond their confederacy in Iraq, into Turkey and Syria. It endangers whatever hopes America may still have for a united Iraq. It also ensures Kurdish national ambitions denied since the end of World War I will need to be addressed alongside any resolution in Syria, as Kurdish forces occupy areas in the north of that country. That’s a tall diplomatic order.
The fight against Islamic State is also playing out elsewhere in Iraq, as the United States has had to accept Iranian leadership, special forces, and weapons inside same the nation Americans died “saving” only a few years ago. The growing Iranian influence is closely coupled with American acceptance of Shi’ite militias now in the field, after the Iraqi Army ran away from Islamic State.
The government in Iraq today is a collection of mostly Shi’ite factions, each with one of those militias on call. With a weak prime minister, and with Islamic State for the time being pushed back from the gates of Baghdad, the Shi’ites are free to maneuver for power. A price to be paid for the conflict with Islamic State could easily be a civil war inside a civil war.
And of course there is Russia, who, under the loose cover of fighting Islamic State, quickly re-established itself as a military force in the heart of the Middle East. It is difficult to imagine them leaving. Until now, the United States has had a relatively free hand in the region as no one had the military power to seriously challenge an American move. That has changed. Any significant change in Syria is now subject to a Putin veto.
Meanwhile, despite the costs, Islamic State remains as strong as it has ever been, with American actions serving as its best recruitment tool.
“Defeating Islamic State” is far too simplistic for a regional strategy. And who can really afford that?
Wars are expensive. The recruitment and sustainment of fighters in the field, the ongoing purchases of weapons and munitions, as well as the myriad other costs of struggle, add up.
So why isn’t the United States going after Islamic State’s funding sources as a way of lessening or eliminating their strength at making war? Follow the money back, cut it off, and you strike a blow much more devastating than an airstrike. But that has not happened. Why?
Many have long held that Sunni terror groups, ISIS now and al Qaeda before them, are funded via Gulf States, such as Saudi Arabia, who are also long-time American allies. Direct links are difficult to prove, particularly if the United States chooses not to prove them. The issue is exacerbated by suggestions that the money comes from “donors,” not directly from national treasuries, and may be routed through legitimate charitable organizations or front companies.
In fact, one person concerned about Saudi funding was then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who warned in a 2009 message on Wikileaks that donors in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
At the G20, Russian President Vladimir Putin said out loud what has otherwise not been publicly discussed much in public. He announced that he has shared intelligence with the other G20 member states which reveals 40 countries from which ISIS finances the majority of its terrorist activities. The list reportedly included a number of G20 countries.
Putin’s list of funders has not been made public. The G20, however, include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and the European Union.
One source of income for ISIS is and has robustly been oil sales. In the early days of the air campaign, American officials made a point to say that the Islamic State’s oil drilling assets were high on the target list. Yet few sites have actually been targeted. A Pentagon spokesperson explained that the coalition has actually been trying to spare some of ISIS’s largest oil producing facilities, “recognizing that they remain the property of the Syrian people,” and to limit collateral damage to civilians nearby.
The U.S. only this week began a slightly more aggressive approach toward the oil, albeit bombing tanker trucks, not the infrastructure behind them. The trucks were destroyed at the Abu Kamal oil collection point, near the Iraqi border.
Conservative estimates are that Islamic State takes in one to two million dollars a day from oil sales; some see the number as high as four million a day. As recently as February, however, the Pentagon claimed oil was no longer ISIS’ main way to raise money, having been bypassed by those “donations” from unspecified sources, and smuggling.
One of the issues with selling oil, by anyone, including ISIS, is bringing the stuff to market. Oil must be taken from the ground using heavy equipment, possibly refined, stored, loaded into trucks or pipelines, moved somewhere and then sold into the worldwide market. Large amounts of money must be exchanged, and one to four million dollars a day is a lot of cash to deal with on a daily basis. It may be that some sort of electronic transactions that have somehow to date eluded the United States are involved.
Interestingly, The Guardian reported a U.S.-led raid on the compound housing the Islamic State’s chief financial officer produced evidence that Turkish officials directly dealt with ranking ISIS members, including the ISIS officer responsible for directing the terror army’s oil and gas operations in Syria.
Turkey’s “open door policy,” in which it allowed its southern border to serve as an unofficial transit point in and out of Syria, has been said to be one of ISIS’ main routes for getting their oil to market. A Turkish apologist claimed the oil is moved only via small-diameter plastic irrigation pipes, and is thus hard to monitor.
A smuggled barrel of oil is sold for about $50 on the black market. This means “>several million dollars a day worth of oil would require a very large number of very small pipes.
Others believe Turkish and Iraqi oil buyers travel into Syria with their own trucks, and purchase the ISIS oil right at the refineries, transporting themselves out of Syria. Convoys of trucks are easy to spot from the air, and easy to destroy from the air, though up until now the U.S. does not seem to have done so.
So as is said, ISIS’ sources of funding grow curious and curiouser the more one knows. Those seeking to destroy ISIS might well wish to look into where the money comes from, and ask why, after a year and three months of war, no one has bothered to follow the money.
And cut it off.
You don’t want to read this, and I take no pleasure in writing it, and no one really wants to hear it right now. But I believe it needs to be said.
I join the world in grieving for the dead in Paris. I have grieved for the dead from 9/11 forward — the Australians who died in terror attacks on Bali in 2002, Londoners who died in terror attacks in 2005, the French citizens who died in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January of this year, the Russians whose plane went down over the Sinai a week or so ago. So many more non-Western deaths barely noticed in the U.S. media. I grieve also for those killed in smaller attacks already smuggled deep into the obscurity of our memory.
And so we Tweet hashtags and phrases in high school French and post GIFs to Facebook. We know what to do; we’ve done this before.
But it has to be said, especially looking at the sick repetition of the same story, that despite fourteen plus years of a war on terror, terror seems to be with us as much as ever, maybe even more. It is time to rethink what we have done and are doing.
Since that day in 2001, the one with those terrible sparkling blue skies in New York, we have spied on the world, Americans at home and foreigners abroad, yet no one detected anything that stopped the Paris attacks. We gave up much to that spying and got nothing in return.
Since 2001, the United States has led nations like Britain, France, Australia and others into wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, with drone attacks on people from the Philippines to Pakistan to all parts of Africa. We have little to nothing to show for all that.
Since 2001 the U.S. has expended enormous efforts to kill a handful of men — bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, al-Awlaki, and this weekend, Jihadi John. Others, many without names, were killed outside of media attention, or were tortured to death, or are still rotting in the offshore penal colony of Guantanamo, or the dark hell of the Salt Pit in Afghanistan.
And it has not worked, and Paris this weekend, and the next one somewhere else sometime soon, are the proof.
We gave up many of our freedoms in America to defeat the terrorists. It did not work. We gave the lives of over 4,000 American men and women in Iraq, and thousands more in Afghanistan, to defeat the terrorists, and refuse to ask what they died for. We killed tens of thousands or more in those countries. It did not work. We went to war again in Iraq, and now in Syria, before in Libya, and only created more failed states and ungoverned spaces that provide havens for terrorists and spilled terror like dropped paint across borders. We harass and discriminate against our own Muslim populations and then stand slack-jawed as they become radicalized, and all we do then is blame ISIS for Tweeting.
Note that it is the strategy of Islamic terror to generate a crackdown in France in order to radicalise French Muslims. Hundreds of French citizens have already traveled to Syria to fight with groups including ISIS.
As one of the most intelligent commentators on all this, Bill Johnson, said, terrorism is about killing pawns to affect the king. The attacks in Paris are not about the murder of 150 innocent people. Hell, that many die nearly every day in Iraq and Syria. The true test for France is how they respond to the terror attacks in the long-game — that’s the king in all this. America failed this test post-9/11; yet it does not sound like France understands anything more than America. “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless,” French president Hollande said outside the Bataclan concert hall, scene of the most bloodshed.
If I had exactly the right strategy, I’d tell you what it is, and I’d try and tell the people in Washington and Paris and everywhere else. But I don’t have the exact thing to do, and I doubt they’d listen to me anyway.
But I do have this: stop what we have been doing for the last 14 years. It has not worked. There is nothing at all to suggest it ever will work. Whack-a-mole is a game, not a plan. Leave the Middle East alone. Stop creating more failed states. Stop throwing away our freedoms at home on falsehoods. Stop disenfranchising the Muslims who live with us. Understand the war, such as it is, is against a set of ideas — religious, anti-western, anti-imperialist — and you cannot bomb an idea. Putting western soldiers on the ground in the MidEast and western planes overhead fans the flames. Vengeance does not and cannot extinguish an idea.
Start with those things and see, even if you won’t give it 14 years to succeed, if things improve. Other than the death tolls scaling up further, I can’t imagine we could be doing anything worse.
A guest article today by Tom Englehardt, orginally published on his own website, TomDispatch.com, as “The American Way of War in the Twenty-First Century”
Let’s begin with the $12 billion in shrink-wrapped $100 bills, Iraqi oil money held in the U.S. The Bush administration began flying it into Baghdad on C-130s soon after U.S. troops entered that city in April 2003. Essentially dumped into the void that had once been the Iraqi state, at least $1.2 to $1.6 billion of it was stolen and ended up years later in a mysterious bunker in Lebanon. And that’s just what happened as the starting gun went off.
It’s never ended. In 2011, the final report of the congressionally mandated Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated that somewhere between $31 billion and $60 billion taxpayer dollars had been lost to fraud and waste in the American “reconstruction” of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, for instance, there was that $75 million police academy, initially hailed “as crucial to U.S. efforts to prepare Iraqis to take control of the country’s security.” It was, however, so poorly constructed that it proved a health hazard. In 2006, “feces and urine rained from the ceilings in [its] student barracks” and that was only the beginning of its problems.
When the bad press started, Parsons Corporation, the private contractor that built it, agreed to fix it for nothing more than the princely sum already paid. A year later, a New York Times reporter visited and found that “the ceilings are still stained with excrement, parts of the structures are crumbling, and sections of the buildings are unusable because the toilets are filthy and nonfunctioning.” This seems to have been par for the course. Typically enough, the Khan Bani Saad Correctional Facility, a $40 million prison Parsons also contracted to build, was never even finished.
And these were hardly isolated cases or problems specific to Iraq. Consider, for instance, those police stations in Afghanistan believed to be crucial to “standing up” a new security force in that country. Despite the money poured into them and endless cost overruns, many were either never completed or never built, leaving new Afghan police recruits camping out. And the police were hardly alone. Take the $3.4 million unfinished teacher-training center in Sheberghan, Afghanistan, that an Iraqi company was contracted to build (using, of course, American dollars) and from which it walked away, money in hand.
And why stick to buildings, when there were those Iraqi roads to nowhere paid for by American dollars? At least one of them did at least prove useful to insurgent groups moving their guerrillas around (like the $37 million bridge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built between Afghanistan and Tajikistan that helped facilitate the region’s booming drug trade in opium and heroin). In Afghanistan, Highway 1 between the capital Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar, unofficially dubbed the “highway to nowhere,” was so poorly constructed that it began crumbling in its first Afghan winter.
And don’t think that this was an aberration. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) hired an American nonprofit, International Relief and Development (IRD), to oversee an ambitious road-building program meant to gain the support of rural villagers. Almost $300 million later, it could point to “less than 100 miles of gravel road completed.” Each mile of road had, by then, cost U.S. taxpayers $2.8 million, instead of the expected $290,000, while a quarter of the road-building funds reportedly went directly to IRD for administrative and staff costs. Needless to say, as the road program failed, USAID hired IRD to oversee other non-transportation projects.
In these years, the cost of reconstruction never stopped growing. In 2011, McClatchy News reported that “U.S. government funding for at least 15 large-scale programs and projects grew from just over $1 billion to nearly $3 billion despite the government’s questions about their effectiveness or cost.”
The Gas Station to Nowhere
So much construction and reconstruction — and so many failures. There was the chicken-processing plant built in Iraq for $2.58 million that, except in a few Potemkin-Village-like moments, never plucked a chicken and sent it to market. There was the sparkling new, 64,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, $25 million headquarters for the U.S. military in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, that doubled in cost as it was being built and that three generals tried to stop. They were overruled because Congress had already allotted the money for it, so why not spend it, even though it would never be used? And don’t forget the $20 million that went into constructing roads and utilities for the base that was to hold it, or the $8.4 billion that went into Afghan opium-poppy-suppression and anti-drug programs and resulted in… bumper poppy crops and record opium yields, or the aid funds that somehow made their way directly into the hands of the Taliban (reputedly its second-largest funding source after those poppies).
There were the billions of dollars in aid that no one could account for, and a significant percentage of the 465,000 small arms (rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and the like) that the U.S. shipped to Afghanistan and simply lost track of. Most recently, there was the Task Force for Business Stability Operations, an $800-million Pentagon project to help jump-start the Afghan economy. It was shut down only six months ago and yet, in response to requests from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Pentagon swears that there are “no Defense Department personnel who can answer questions about” what the task force did with its money. As ProPublica’s Megan McCloskey writes, “The Pentagon’s claims are particularly surprising since Joseph Catalino, the former acting director of the task force who was with the program for two years, is still employed by the Pentagon as Senior Advisor for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism.”
Still, from that pile of unaccountable taxpayer dollars, one nearly $43 million chunk did prove traceable to a single project: the building of a compressed natural gas station. (The cost of constructing a similar gas station in neighboring Pakistan: $300,000.) Located in an area that seems to have had no infrastructure for delivering natural gas and no cars converted for the use of such fuel, it represented the only example on record in those years of a gas station to nowhere.
All of this just scratches the surface when it comes to the piles of money that were poured into an increasingly privatized version of the American way of war and, in the form of overcharges and abuses of every sort, often simply disappeared into the pockets of the warrior corporations that entered America’s war zones. In a sense, a surprising amount of the money that the Pentagon and U.S. civilian agencies “invested” in Iraq and Afghanistan never left the United States, since it went directly into the coffers of those companies.
Clearly, Washington had gone to war like a drunk on a bender, while the domestic infrastructure began to fray. At $109 billion by 2014, the American reconstruction program in Afghanistan was already, in today’s dollars, larger than the Marshall Plan (which helped put all of devastated Western Europe back on its feet after World War II) and still the country was a shambles. In Iraq, a mere $60 billion was squandered on the failed rebuilding of the country. Keep in mind that none of this takes into account the staggering billions spent by the Pentagon in both countries to build strings of bases, ranging in size from American towns (with all the amenities of home) to tiny outposts. There would be 505 of them in Iraq and at least 550 in Afghanistan. Most were, in the end, abandoned, dismantled, or sometimes simply looted. And don’t forget the vast quantities of fuel imported into Afghanistan to run the U.S. military machine in those years, some of which was siphoned off by American soldiers, to the tune of at least $15 million, and sold to local Afghans on the sly.
In other words, in the post-9/11 years, “reconstruction” and “war” have really been euphemisms for what, in other countries, we would recognize as a massive system of corruption.
And let’s not forget another kind of “reconstruction” then underway. In both countries, the U.S. was creating enormous militaries and police forces essentially from scratch to the tune of at least $25 billion in Iraq and $65 billion in Afghanistan. What’s striking about both of these security forces, once constructed, is how similar they turned out to be to those police academies, the unfinished schools, and that natural gas station. It can’t be purely coincidental that both of the forces Americans proudly “stood up” have turned out to be the definition of corrupt: that is, they were filled not just with genuine recruits but with serried ranks of “ghost personnel.”
In June 2014, after whole divisions of the Iraqi army collapsed and fled before modest numbers of Islamic State militants, abandoning much of their weaponry and equipment, it became clear that they had been significantly smaller in reality than on paper. And no wonder, as that army had enlisted 50,000 “ghost soldiers” (who existed only on paper and whose salaries were lining the pockets of commanders and others). In Afghanistan, the U.S. is still evidently helping to pay for similarly stunning numbers of phantom personnel, though no specific figures are available. (In 2009, an estimated more than 25% of the police force consisted of such ghosts.) As John Sopko, the U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan, warned last June: “We are paying a lot of money for ghosts in Afghanistan… whether they are ghost teachers, ghost doctors or ghost policeman or ghost soldiers.”
And lest you imagine that the U.S. military has learned its lesson, rest assured that it’s still quite capable of producing nonexistent proxy forces. Take the Pentagon-CIA program to train thousands of carefully vetted “moderate” Syrian rebels, equip them, arm them, and put them in the field to fight the Islamic State. Congress ponied up $500 million for it, $384 million of which was spent before that project was shut down as an abject failure. By then, less than 200 American-backed rebels had been trained and even less put into the field in Syria — and they were almost instantly kidnapped or killed, or they simply handed over their equipment to the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. At one point, according to the congressional testimony of the top American commander in the Middle East, only four or five American-produced rebels were left “in the field.” The cost-per-rebel sent into Syria, by the way, is now estimated at approximately $2 million.
A final footnote: the general who oversaw this program is, according to the New York Times, still a “rising star” in the Pentagon and in line for a promotion.
You’ve just revisited the privatized, twenty-first-century version of the American way of war, which proved to be a smorgasbord of scandal, mismanagement, and corruption as far as the eye could see. In the tradition of Watergate, perhaps the whole system could be dubbed Profli-gate, since American war making across the Greater Middle East has represented perhaps the most profligate and least effective use of funds in the history of modern warfare. In fact, here’s a word not usually associated with the U.S. military: the war system of this era seems to function remarkably like a monumental scam, a swindle, a fraud.
The evidence is in: the U.S. military can win battles, but not a war, not even against minimally armed minority insurgencies; it can “stand up” foreign militaries, but only if they are filled with phantom feet and if the forces themselves are as hollow as tombs; it can pour funds into the reconstruction of countries, a process guaranteed to leave them more prostrate than before; it can bomb, missile, and drone-kill significant numbers of terrorists and other enemies, even as their terror outfits and insurgent movements continue to grow stronger under the shadow of American air power. Fourteen years and five failed states later in the Greater Middle East, all of that seems irrefutable.
And here’s something else irrefutable: amid the defeats, corruption, and disappointments, there lurks a kind of success. After all, every disaster in which the U.S. military takes part only brings more bounty to the Pentagon. Domestically, every failure results in calls for yet more military interventions around the world. As a result, the military is so much bigger and better funded than it was on September 10, 2001. The commanders who led our forces into such failures have repeatedly been rewarded and much of the top brass, civilian and military, though they should have retired in shame, have taken ever more golden parachutes into the lucrative worlds of defense contractors, lobbyists, and consultancies.
All of this couldn’t be more obvious, though it’s seldom said. In short, there turns out to be much good fortune in the disaster business, a fact which gives the whole process the look of a classic swindle in which the patsies lose their shirts but the scam artists make out like bandits.
Add in one more thing: these days, the only part of the state held in great esteem by conservatives and the present batch of Republican presidential candidates is the U.S. military. All of them, with the exception of Rand Paul, swear that on entering the Oval Office they will let that military loose, sending in more troops, or special ops forces, or air power, and funding the various services even more lavishly; all of this despite overwhelming evidence that the U.S. military is incapable of spending a dollar responsibly or effectively monitoring what it’s done with the taxpayer funds in its possession. (If you don’t believe me, forget everything in this piece and just check out the finances of the most expensive weapons system in history, the F-35 Lightning II, which should really be redubbed the F-35 Overrun for its madly spiraling costs.)
But no matter. If a system works (particularly for those in it), why change it?
Brandon Caro’s debut novel, Old Silk Road, is an important, tough read, both for the dirt-under-its-nails portrayal of soldiers at war, and for a complex plot that rewards a reader with insights into America’s longest war, in Afghanistan.
But be careful. This is not a typical book by another soldier (though Caro spent a year in Afghanistan as a combat medic.) Almost every one of those books follows an outline you’d think they issue to servicepeople as they muster out: get energized following 9/11, throw in a boot camp montage and then drop into Iraq or Afghanistan all wide-eyed. The death of a buddy and/or local child changes everything. Wrap it up with some angst and ship it off to the bestseller list.
Caro instead gives us three distinct but overlapping stories, the first two only lightly fictionalized.
The first portion of the book is the one soldiers will want to hand to friends who ask “what was it like over there.” Caro captures two of the most common aspects of modern war: endless tension about what might happen next, and endless boredom between occasional acts of horror. The narrator, Specialist Norman Rogers, himself a combat medic, and his small team, drift among America’s archipelago of bases in Afghanistan, at one point setting off on a “mission” to eat Mongolian BBQ at a Forward Operating Base.
The details are carefully rendered. It’s a travelogue of sorts, but pay attention; scenes that seem to drift past play tightly into the book’s conclusion. One detail disclosed early on is that Rogers is addicted to the morphine he is issued to use as a painkiller on wounded soldiers.
Caro offers us something of a training sequence in the second part of his book, but with a twist. He lays things bare in a seminal chapter called The Goat School (excerpt). The reference is to a controversial military training technique, in which medics practice on wounded goats (pigs are also used in real life.) This is not PETA-friendly. The animals are shot at close range, and left in the care of would-be medics to treat. About half-way through, the instructor shoots the animal again.
The final story told in the book is the most compelling. Rogers’ addiction turns him deeper and deeper into the drug, to the point where his hallucinations take over his life, and thus the story. He is guided through his visions by a shaman, appropriately and ironically in the guise of Pat Tillman.
(Tillman was America’s once-walking propaganda dream. A pro football player making a $3.6 million salary, he gave that all up and volunteered for combat. When he died in Afghanistan, his family was told he’d been killed by enemy fire charging up a hill. After media interest tapered off, the Pentagon notified Tillman’s family he had actually died as a result of friendly fire.)
Through his drugs and his shaman, Rogers (and author Caro) present a deeply sad meditation on America’s war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires, and America’s longest war is held up alongside others who failed earlier: the Greeks, the Mongols, the British and the Soviets. Echoes of the questions many Americans should be asking are present – Why did we invade? 14+ years later why are still occupying? Why do we believe we will win when everyone else failed? Rogers unwinding as a human being mirrors America’s own efforts at war.
Criticisms are few. The book shifts in time, in narrator and between the character’s world in and out of his morphine haze. The reader must pay careful attention. Some passages meant to show the hurry-up-and-wait nature of Army life may themselves drag a bit.
But no matter. Old Silk Road is an important addition to post-9/11 war literature. While the message in the hands of others could have been pedantic or whining, Caro is a skilled writer and presents a statement that is not anti-soldier and not anti-American, but clearly anti-war.
What if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003? How would things be different in the Middle East today? Was Iraq, in the words of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the “worst foreign policy blunder” in American history?
Let’s take a big-picture tour of the Middle East and try to answer those questions. But first, a request: after each paragraph that follows, could you make sure to add the question “What could possibly go wrong?”
Let the History Begin
In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering “terrorists” to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.
Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran’s decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran’s leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.
The Precipitating Event
Nailing down causation is a tricky thing. But like the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that kicked off the Great War, the one to end all others, America’s 2003 invasion was what novelists refer to as “the precipitating event,” the thing that may not actively cause every plot twist to come, but that certainly sets them in motion.
There hadn’t been such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East since, well, World War I, when Great Britain and France secretly reached the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Because the national boundaries created then did not respect on-the-ground tribal, political, ethnic, and religious realities, they could be said to have set the stage for much that was to come.
Now, fast forward to 2003, as the Middle East we had come to know began to unravel. Those U.S. troops had rolled into Baghdad only to find themselves standing there, slack-jawed, gazing at the chaos. Now, fast forward one more time to 2015 and let the grand tour of the unraveling begin!
The Sick Men of the Middle East: It’s easy enough to hustle through three countries in the region in various states of decay before heading into the heart of the chaos: Libya is a failed state, bleeding mayhem into northern Africa; Egypt failed its Arab Spring test and relies on the United States to support its anti-democratic (as well as anti-Islamic fundamentalist) militarized government; and Yemen is a disastrously failed state, now the scene of a proxy war between U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels (with a thriving al-Qaeda outfit and a small but growing arm of the Islamic State [ISIS] thrown into the bargain).
Iraq: Obama is now the fourth American president in a row to have ordered the bombing of Iraq and his successor will almost certainly be the fifth. If ever a post-Vietnam American adventure deserved to inherit the moniker of quagmire, Iraq is it.
And here’s the saddest part of the tale: the forces loosed there in 2003 have yet to reach their natural end point. Your money should be on the Shias, but imagining that there is only one Shia horse to bet on means missing just how broad the field really is. What passes for a Shia “government” in Baghdad today is a collection of interest groups, each with its own militia. Having replaced the old strongman prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, with a weak one, Haider al-Abadi, and with ISIS chased from the gates of Baghdad, each Shia faction is now free to jockey for position. The full impact of the cleaving of Iraq has yet to be felt. At some point expect a civil war inside a civil war.
Iran: If there is any unifying authority left in Iraq, it is Iran. After the initial 2003 blitzkrieg, the Bush administration’s version of neocolonial management in Iraq resulted in the rise of Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, and an influx of determined foreign fighters. Tehran rushed into the power vacuum, and, in 2011, in an agreement brokered by the departing Bush administration and carried out by President Obama, the Americans ran for the exits. The Iranians stayed. Now, they have entered an odd-couple marriage with the U.S. against what Washington pretends is a common foe — ISIS — but which the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad see as a war against the Sunnis in general. At this point, Washington has all but ceded Iraq to the new Persian Empire; everyone is just waiting for the paperwork to clear.
The Iranians continue to meddle in Syria as well, supporting Bashar al-Assad. Under Russian air cover, Iran is increasing its troop presence there, too. According to a recent report, Tehran is sending 2,000 troops to Syria, along with 5,000 Iraqi and Afghan Shia fighters. Perhaps they’re already calling it “the Surge” in Farsi.
The Kurds: The idea of creating a “Kurdistan” was crossed off the post-World War I “to do” list. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres at first left an opening for a referendum on whether the Kurds wanted to remain part of what remained of the Ottoman Empire or become independent. Problem one: the referendum did not include plans for the Kurds in what became Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of the so-called Turkish War of Independence. The result: some 20 million angry Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
That American invasion of 2003, however, opened the way for the Kurds to form a virtual independent statelet, a confederacy if you will, even if still confined within Iraq’s borders. At the time, the Kurds were labeled America’s only true friends in Iraq and rewarded with many weapons and much looking the other way, even as Bush administration officials blathered on about the goal of a united Iraq.
In 2014, the Kurds benefited from U.S. power a second time. Desperate for someone to fight ISIS after Iraq’s American-trained army turned tail (and before the Iranians and the Shia militias entered the fight in significant force), the Obama administration once again began sending arms and equipment to the Kurds while flying close air support for their militia, the peshmerga. The Kurds responded by fighting well, at least in what they considered the Kurdish part of Iraq. However, their interest in getting involved in the greater Sunni-Shia civil war was minimal. In a good turn for them, the U.S. military helped Kurdish forces move into northern Syria, right along the Turkish border. While fighting ISIS, the Kurds also began retaking territory they traditionally considered their own. They may yet be the true winners in all this, unless Turkey stands in their way.
Turkey: Relations between the Turks and the Kurds have never been rosy, both inside Turkey and along the Iraqi-Turkish border.
Inside Turkey, the primary Kurdish group calling for an independent state is the Kurdistan Workers party (also known as the PKK). Its first insurgency ran from 1984 until 1999, when the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire. The armed conflict broke out again in 2004, ending in a ceasefire in 2013, which was, in turn, broken recently. Over the years, the Turkish military also carried out repeated ground incursions and artillery strikes against the PKK inside Iraq.
As for ISIS, the Turks long had a kind of one-way “open-door policy” on their border with Syria, allowing Islamic State fighters and foreign volunteers to transit into that country. ISIS also brokered significant amounts of black market oil in Turkey to fund itself, perhaps with the tacit support, or at least the willful ignorance, of the Turkish authorities. While the Turks claimed to see ISIS as an anti-Assad force, some felt Turkey’s generous stance toward the movement reflected the government’s preference for having anything but an expanded Kurdish presence on its border. In June of this year, Turkish President Recep Erdogan went as far as to say that he would “never allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria.”
In light of all that, it’s hardly surprising that early Obama administration efforts to draw Turkey into the fight against ISIS were unsuccessful. Things changed in August 2015, when a supposedly anti-ISIS cooperation deal was reached with Washington. The Turks agreed to allow the Americans to fly strike missions from two air bases in Turkey against ISIS in Syria. However, there appeared to be an unpublicized quid pro quo: the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Turkish military action against its allies the Kurds. On the same day that Turkey announced that it would fight the Islamic State in earnest, it also began an air campaign against the PKK.
Washington, for its part, claimed that it had been “tricked” by the wily Turks, while adding, “We fully respect our ally Turkey’s right to self-defense.” In the process, the Kurds found themselves supported by the U.S. in the struggle with ISIS, even as they were being thrown to the (Turkish) wolves. There is a Kurdish expression suggesting that Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.” Should they ever achieve a trans-border Kurdistan, they will certainly have earned it.
Syria: Through a series of events almost impossible to sort out, having essentially supported the Arab Spring nowhere else, the Obama administration chose to do so in Syria, attempting to use it to turn President Bashar al-Assad out of office. In the process, the Obama administration found itself ever deeper in a conflict it couldn’t control and eternally in search of that unicorn, the moderate Syrian rebel who could be trained to push Assad out without allowing Islamic fundamentalists in. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda spin-offs, including the Islamic State, found haven in the dissolving borderlands between Iraq and Syria, and in that country’s Sunni heartlands.
An indecisive Barack Obama allowed America’s involvement in Syria to ebb and flow. In September 2013, on the verge of a massive strike against the forces of the Assad regime, Obama suddenly punted the decision to Congress, which, of course, proved capable of deciding nothing at all. In November 2013, again on the verge of attacking Syria, the president allowed himself to be talked down after a gaffe by Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to Russian diplomatic intercession. In September 2014, in a relatively sudden reversal, Obama launched a war against ISIS in Syria, which has proved at best indecisive.
Russia: That brings us to Vladimir Putin, the Syrian game-changer of the moment. In September, the Russian president sent a small but powerful military force into a neglected airfield in Latakia, Syria. With “fighting ISIS” little more than their cover story, the Russians are now serving as Assad’s air force, as well as his chief weapons supplier and possible source of “volunteer” soldiers.
The thing that matters most, however, is those Russian planes. They have essentially been given a guarantee of immunity to being shot down by the more powerful U.S. Air Force presence in the region (as Washington has nothing to gain and much to worry about when it comes to entering into open conflict with the Russians). That allows them near-impunity to strike when and where they wish in support of whom they wish. It also negates any chance of the U.S. setting up a no-fly zone in parts of Syria.
The Russians have little incentive to depart, given the free pass handed them by the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the Russian military is growing closer to the Iranians with whom they share common cause in Syria, and also the Shia government in Baghdad, which may soon invite them to join the fight there against ISIS. One can almost hear Putin chortling. He may not, in fact, be the most skilled strategist in the world, but he’s certainly the luckiest. When someone hands you the keys, you take the car.
World War I
As in imperial Europe in the period leading up to the First World War, the collapse of an entire order in the Middle East is in process, while forces long held in check are being released. In response, the former superpowers of the Cold War era have once again mobilized, at least modestly, even though both are fearful of a spark that could push them into direct conflict. Each has entangling regional relationships that could easily exacerbate the fight: Russia with Syria, the U.S. with Saudi Arabia and Israel, plus NATO obligations to Turkey. (The Russians have already probed Turkish airspace and the Turks recently shot down a drone coyly labeled of “unknown origin.”)
Imagine a scenario that pulls any of those allies deeper into the mess: some Iranian move in Syria, which prompts a response by Israel in the Golan Heights, which prompts a Russian move in relation to Turkey, which prompts a call to NATO for help… you get the picture. Or imagine another scenario: with nearly every candidate running for president in the United States growling about the chance to confront Putin, what would happen if the Russians accidentally shot down an American plane? Could Obama resist calls for retaliation?
As before World War I, the risk of setting something in motion that can’t be stopped does exist.
What Is This All About Again?
What if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003? Things would undoubtedly be very different in the Middle East today. America’s war in Afghanistan was unlikely to have been a big enough spark to set off the range of changes Iraq let loose. There were only some 10,000 America soldiers in Afghanistan in 2003 (5,200 in 2002) and there had not been any Abu Ghraib-like indiscriminate torture, no equivalent to the scorched earth policy in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, nothing to spark a trans-border Sunni-Shia-Kurd struggle, no room for Iran to meddle. The Americans were killing Muslims in Afghanistan, but they were not killing Arabs, and they were not occupying Arab lands.
The invasion of Iraq, however, did happen. Now, some 12 years later, the most troubling thing about the current war in the Middle East, from an American perspective, is that no one here really knows why the country is still fighting. The commonly stated reason — “defeat ISIS” — is hardly either convincing or self-explanatory. Defeat ISIS why?
The best Washington can come up with are the same vague threats of terrorism against the homeland that have fueled its disastrous wars since 9/11. The White House can stipulate that Assad is a bad guy and that the ISIS crew are really, really bad guys, but bad guys are hardly in short supply, including in countries the U.S. supports. In reality, the U.S. has few clear goals in the region, but is escalating anyway.
Whatever world order the U.S. may be fighting for in the Middle East, it seems at least an empire or two out of date. Washington refuses to admit to itself that the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism resonate with vast numbers of people. At this point, even as U.S. TOW missiles are becoming as ubiquitous as iPads in the region, American military power can only delay changes, not stop them. Unless a rebalancing of power that would likely favor some version of Islamic fundamentalism takes hold and creates some measure of stability in the Middle East, count on one thing: the U.S. will be fighting the sons of ISIS years from now.
Back to World War I. The last time Russia and the U.S. both had a powerful presence in the Middle East, the fate of their proxies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War almost brought on a nuclear exchange. No one is predicting a world war or a nuclear war from the mess in Syria. However, like those final days before the Great War, one finds a lot of pieces in play inside a tinderbox.
Now, all together: What could possibly go wrong?
UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced new plans to address the radicalization of young British Muslims, including measures to withdraw the passports of those believed to be at risk of joining jihadist groups abroad.
As part of a strategy to tackle extremism, parents will be able to ask the government to seize the passports of 16- and 17-year-olds thought to be considering travel to Syria and Iraq. British parents can already request the cancellation of passports of those under 16. Another measure will ensure that anyone with a conviction for a “terrorist crime or extremist activity” will automatically be barred from working with children or other people regarded as vulnerable.
Cameron’s critics worry that the new measures may be seen as heavy-handed and exacerbate the sense of alienation and resentment among young British Muslims, which is itself a driver of radicalization.
Left unsaid is any tally of exactly how many 16- and 17-year-olds have traveled to join ISIS, the practicality of knowing where they are going since most would-be jihadis travel via a circuitous route, and the question of what happens to the 18-99-year-olds who want to join up. The vagueness of what constitutes a “terrorist crime or extremist activity” and who the hell are “other people regarded as vulnerable” is noted.
Doubling down, Cameron described the battle against terrorism as the struggle of his generation. He is also expected to restate the case for expanding Britain’s laws on electronic surveillance, because why not throw that in while you’re on a roll.
Apart from a natural desire to expand fascism, grow government power and try and tie himself to things like surviving WWII, an actual struggle of a generation, what might be driving Cameron (as well as his contemporaries in the U.S., who are frothing over similar ideas)?
Simply this: pointless, knee-jerk reactions and security theatre are a whole lot easier to sell to the average frightened citizen than the idea that their safety actually depends on foreign policies that do not inspire rage and hatred in very large numbers of people.
When I was a kid, three presidents told us we had to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, because if we didn’t fight them over there, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of California. We believed. It was a lie.
I was a teenager during the Cold War, and several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, invade Cuba, fight in odd little places and use the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments and replace them with dictators, or the Russians would destroy us. We believed. It was a lie.
When I was in college our president told us that we needed to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua or the Sandinistas would come to the United States. He told us Managua was closer to Washington DC than LA was. He told us we needed to fight in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.
When I was a little older our president told us how evil Saddam Hussein was, how his soldiers bayoneted babies in Kuwait. He told us Saddam was a threat to America. He told us we needed to invade Panama to oust a dictator to protect America. We believed. It was a lie.
The next president told us we had to fight terrorists in Somalia, as well as bomb Iraq, to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.
The one after him told us that because a group of Saudis from a group loosely tied to Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11, we needed to occupy that country and destroy the Taliban, who had not attacked us, for our own safety. The Taliban are still there. But we believed. It was a lie.
After that we were told that Saddam Hussein threatened every one of us with weapons of mass destruction, that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. We believed. It was a lie.
In 2011 the president and his secretary of state told us we needed regime change in Libya, to protect us from an evil dictator. We believed. It was a lie.
In August 2014 the same president told us we needed to intervene again in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple act of humanness that only the United States could conduct, and then leave. We believed. It was a lie.
Now we are told by that same president that Americans will again fight on the ground in Iraq, and Syria, and that Americans have and will die. He says that this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland.
We want to believe, Mr. President. We want to know it is not a lie.
So please address us, explain why what you are doing in Iraq is different than everything listed above. Tell us why we should believe you — this time — because history says you lie.
This. Is. Hilarious.
Honestly, I can’t stop laughing. I gotta wipe the tears out of my eyes, seriously. I feel like I need to start including the line “This is real. It is not from the Onion” as a standard disclaimer.
But They Promised
So it seems the U.S. has told Iraq’s leaders they must choose between American support against Islamic State and Russian support. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Iraqis “promised” they would not request any Russian airstrikes or support for the fight against IS.
Dunford told reporters he had laid out a choice when he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. “I said it would make it very difficult for us to be able to provide the kind of support you need if the Russians were here conducting operations as well,” Dunford said. “We can’t conduct operations if the Russians were operating in Iraq right now.”
He said there was “angst” in the U.S. when reports surfaced that al-Abadi had said he would welcome Russian airstrikes in Iraq. The U.S., Dunford said, “can’t have a relationship right now with Russia in the context of Iraq.”
And Now, We Laugh
We begin laughing in that the U.S. does not seem to have any problems with the Iranians (who are also active in Syria, supporting Assad) working out in Iraq. The Iranians overtly have special forces, leadership and trainers on the ground there, have sent in armor and by many accounts supplied limited numbers of ground troops. But that seems to be OK.
The hilarity continues because the U.S. sort of started off welcoming the Russians into the fight against IS in Syria, at least until the U.S. realized it had been played by Putin, and that the Russians in fact did not share American goals (who would have thought it?) and instead supported Assad. I mean, Russia has been Assad’s only supporter, ally, and benefactor for decades, and the Russians maintained their only remaining overseas military base in Syria since forever, so it made perfect sense for the U.S. to believe they would not side with Assad, right?
It is even funnier when you realize the U.S. has no real goals or business left in Iraq, except now to have hissy fits to make sure that it is Iran that retains defacto control there instead of the Russians.
And of course, since the Iraqis “promised” not to take Russian help, well, that makes it a done deal, right?
Plus if the Russians did step in, what would the U.S. really do? Pack everything up in Iraq and just come home? Leave the Russians to guard the American Embassy? Hah, as if the U.S. would just leave Iraq.
But the true amusement is that if the Iraqis want the Russians to help — maybe as “volunteers” — there is not a damn thing the U.S. can do about that, other than move aside, as is happening in Syria.
Seriously, this is what’s left of American foreign policy?
The United States does not formally acknowledge the existence of Delta Force, and rarely mentions the names of any of its members, even after they leave the service.
Unlike the SEALs, who seem to be prolific writers, Delta operators keep to themselves. Most of the unit’s actions abroad are never mentioned publicly, and when an operator is killed in combat, often the death goes unmentioned in the press, or attributed sometime later to a training accident.
So the very public attention given at the highest levels in Washington to the combat death of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler was more than a little significant.
Wheeler was not only acknowledged as having fought with Delta, but his photo was widely published. That in itself is usually a no-no, for fear of linking him to others and outing active duty Delta. His place of death, on the ground, deep inside Iraq, on a strike mission, was explicit, with only a little b.s. thrown in about how Delta was present to provide security for the Kurdish raiding forces seeking to free some hostages. Well, well, nobody in their right mind believes America’s finest special forces are sent out to provide security for a bunch of gussied up militiamen.
That all within the context that the president of the United States has made it explicit that his war against Islamic State would not involve any American “boots on the ground.” Well, Sergeant Wheeler most definitely was an example of boots on the ground. There were an awful lot of reasons to have said nothing about Wheeler, and instead much has been said.
So why all the public attention to Wheeler’s death, and why now?
One reason stands out: we, the public, are being readied for a larger U.S. combat role in Iraq and Syria, one big enough that it will be hard to keep hidden.
The circumstances of Wheeler’s death are picture perfect for such a plan. He was a revered hero simply by the nature of the unit he served with. He was fighting with about the only competent and pro-American force left in the Middle East, the Kurds. He was fighting the most evil enemy of America (for now), Islamic State. He was on a successful rescue mission; hostages were freed, prisoners released, some IS bad guys dispatched. And the whole thing was conveniently videotaped — a videotaped special forces raid. How often do you see that? You don’t.
The whole could not be more palatable to an American public perhaps just a little bit weary of war in the Middle East.
Now hear this: in an “exclusive,” meaning the entire story was handed intact to a single reporter to jot down and print, The Hill reports “top leaders at the Pentagon are considering a range of options to bolster the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including embedding some U.S. troops with Iraqi forces… A second option sent to Pentagon leaders would embed U.S. forces with Iraqis closer to the battlefield, at the level of a brigade or a battalion. Some of the options sent to Pentagon leaders would entail high risk for U.S. troops in Iraq and require more personnel.”
Timing? Couldn’t be better. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford (himself just back from Iraq) will discuss the options when they testify today, October 27, in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee. They will no doubt raise Wheeler’s name.
I don’t like to traffic in conspiracy theories, but if you can put these pieces together in another way without having to use the word “coincidence” a couple of times, I’d be interesting in what you have to say. Otherwise, hang on, the United States is doubling down in the quagmire of Iraq. Again.
America’s presidential candidates go on TV and brag about killing a man with their own hands (one guy) and froth over the idea of starting even more wars (all the others.) In Canada, they get a supermodel as their new king, who speaks French, looks like a young Matthew McConaughey, and who tells America to shove its stupid wars up its overweight *ss.
Canada’s prime minister-elect, Justin Trudeau, pictured looking fabulous, said Tuesday he told Barack Obama that Canadian fighter jets would withdraw from fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Western nations only go to war when coerced by the United States in joining some coalition. No other nation on the planet makes war as often and as unsuccessfully as the United States. No other nation makes war its business.
So you can imagine the huge hassle it is for Canada to have to suck up to its war-loving, gluten-free neighbor to the south, tossing in a few planes or troops whenever America has another hissy fit and has to invade somewhere. Canada famously refused to be sucked into the 2003 Iraq invasion, for example (though did play in Afghanistan.)
Quick question: what about Mexico? They also share a border and NAFTA with America, plus America graciously buys up 99 percent of its dope crop, and thus has the same need to suck up, but they also always seem to duck these war calls. Hmmm.
Anyway, Trudeau said “while Canada remains a strong member of the coalition against ISIL,” he made clear to Obama “the commitments I have made around ending the combat mission.”
It was not immediately clear if Trudeau added “you warmongering bastard” and/or said he’d nail Michelle with his old man’s “moves like Jagger” at the next state dinner.
America and its allies make modern war in a way that assures “mistakes” destroy hospitals, and civilian lives are taken by drones. These horrors are all too often strategic decisions, or the result of the profligate use of needlessly destructive weapons. They are typically far from accidents.
The destruction of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, including the deaths of physicians from Doctors Without Borders, has become the celebrity example of America’s conduct of war. It is the one that made the news, much like a single child dead on the beach stood in for five years of unabated refugee flows out of the Middle East. But Kunduz is more important than just a dramatic news story, in that it stands as a clear example of a sordid policy.
After a series of cascading explanations, the United States settled on blaming the Afghan military for demanding a strike on the building which was the hospital. There is truth in that — the request likely did initiate with the Afghans — but it ignores the larger story of how “accidents” really happen.
The strike was conducted by an American AC-130, a flying gunship. A retired Air Force Special Operations officer explained to me that the AC-130 is considered a “first hit” weapon; its ordnance hits where it is designated to hit on the first try. The targeted hospital was marked by a U.S. Special Forces operator alongside the Afghans, using a laser. The AC-130 fired on the hospital for over one hour, in 15 minute paced barrages.
How could the U.S. have known the target was a hospital? Easily. Kunduz had been controlled by the Afghans alongside their embedded Americans for some time. It was a mature battlefield, with landmarks such as the hospital well-known on the ground. In addition, NGOs employ organizations such as The International NGO Safety and Security Association (INSSA) specifically to coordinate with armed forces working around their sites, to include providing precise GPS coordinates to avoid “accidental” targeting. Doctors Without Borders also directly provides combatants their locations; in Kunduz, as recently as September 29.
The latter details are especially important in evaluating strikes against hospitals and other civilian targets. Unlike in WWII when thousands of planes flew over cities hoping to hit a target only as precisely defined as “Tokyo,” modern ordnance is delivered by computer, using laser designation, satellite coordination, GPS systems and classified mapping tools.
America blew up exactly what it aimed at in Kunduz.
America’s Other Hospitals
Kunduz was not America’s first hospital. The U.S. bombed a maternity hospital in Baghdad in 2003, a hospital in Rutbah, and stormed a hospital in Nasiriya. Shells hit the large Al Yarmuk Hospital in Baghdad. A hospital in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia, was bombed in the 1990s. In Hanoi, the United States struck the Bach Mai hospital — twice — during the 1972 “Christmas Bombing.” The United States also destroyed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, citing inaccurate maps as the cause.
There are always investigations following such incidents, though in the history of modern American warfare none have ever been deemed such strikes as having been planned. Hospitals make attractive targets. Destroying them results in fighters dying of their wounds, and increases the burden on healthy soldiers, pulling them from the battlefield to care for their own wounded. In military terms that is known as a “soft kill.” Accidents emerge in war, but so do patterns.
Civilian Deaths and the Drone War
The killing of civilians as a result of American war is not limited to attacks on hospitals. The global drone war continues to take innocent lives, in what has come to be known without shame or irony as collateral damage.
Even conservative estimates of the number of civilians killed by drone attacks targeted on others are suspect, given the secrecy under which the U.S. drone program operates. The analytically conservative Council on Foreign Relations tally assesses that 500 drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 3,674 civilians as of 2014. The count measures kills outside of Iraq and Afghanistan specifically because only those places are considered active war zones per se by the United States (known U.S. attacks inside Syria had not yet begun.)
In Yemen, in just one example, American drone strikes aimed at 17 named men actually killed 273 people, at least seven of them children, including the American Citizen son of alleged al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki.
But the killing of civilians as a result of American war is not limited to attacks on hospitals, or by drone.
Tools of Destruction
There is a commonality to the growing death count created by America and its allies: the inevitable civilian deaths caused by the profligate use of horrifically destructive weapons, especially inside urban areas.
Civilian casualties overall in America’s 2003-2011 Iraq War were anywhere from 140,000 dead to upwards of 500,000, many by artillery, cluster munitions, and depleted uranium munitions, indiscriminate weapons unique to American forces.
For its drone strikes, the U.S. uses Hellfire missiles, armed with warheads originally designed to burn through the heaviest tank armor. Aiming them at a person inevitably will kill others nearby; the U.S. claimed al-Awlaki’s son was killed inside a car, seated next to the actual target. Such deaths are also closely tied to America’s policy of “signature drone strikes,” where a missile is aimed at a “profile:” a suspect cell phone, a car matching some description, a suspicious gathering outside a home.
America’s allies, equipped with American weapons, follow a similar pattern in their making of war.
The U.S. throughout the Middle and Near East, the Saudis in Yemen and Israel in Gaza, employ cluster munitions in urban areas. Such munitions are known as “area denial weapons,” which cause massive, indiscriminate destruction over wide swaths of territory. Documented inside Yemen have been American-made CBU-52 cluster bombs, each loaded with 220 “anti-material” bomblets. Imagine the use of such weapons inside central London, or on a Manhattan street.
Though not confined to cluster munitions alone, the deployment of U.S.-made weapons by the Saudis in Yemen has only added to the carnage. Almost 4,000 people have been killed, with 19,000 injured and more than a million displaced from their homes.
In Gaza in 2009, the Israelis used cluster munitions, white phosphorus (a burning agent also used by the U.S. in Iraq), as well as standard artillery, rockets and airstrikes, all against dense urban areas. The UN estimates over 1,400 civilians, of whom 495 were children, were killed in the attacks. The Israelis also destroyed a hospital in Gaza, attacked two others, and shelled UN-run schools in 2014.
The U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia are among the countries that have refused to sign The Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty banning the use of such weapons.
The Cost of Modern War
Accountability remains in the hands of those with the weapons. America and Israel conduct self-investigations, and stymie independent ones, to clear their military of blame (the Saudi do not even appear to bother.) At the UN, the United States blocks action critical of Israel. In Yemen, the U.S. claims it cannot control how the Saudis choose to employ American weapons, and has stated the Saudi actions only “border on” violations of international law. NATO and the EU are deathly silent on the substantive issues, even in places where their own forces are on the ground.
It is clear that modern war as conducted by the United States and its allies in the Middle East has as a known outcome massive civilian casualties. The sites purposefully targeted can be civilian when needed, in violation of all known standards of international law. The steady flow of “accidents” and collateral kills are fully-expected, inevitable and foreseeable consequences of the choice of weapons used.
The civilian deaths are not accidental, but policy. Kunduz was no accident. It was simply another example.