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?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The 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.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
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?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
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.
If ever tragedy descended into sick comedy, here it is: Obama plans on solving the massive humanitarian refugee crisis in the Middle East via a Kickstarter campaign.
I’m not kidding, though one can easily see the headline above on an Onion story.
The U.S. government’s war in Iraq and Syria has already cost American taxpayers between $780 and $930 million, and could amount to over one billion dollars a month if U.S. efforts intensify on the scale demanded by many Congress. The wars are directly responsible for the flow of refugees out of the Middle East into Europe.
But don’t worry. Obama is ready to help, but he wants you to pay for it. And no, not just with tax dollars. He wants you to pony up additional money via Kickstarter. The White House says “This isn’t just about what a government can do. It’s about what every single one of us — as a citizen, a company, or an organization — can do to make sure that those displaced or impacted by this crisis have everything they need to survive and find safe haven.”
Also, and this is huge, Obama wants you to “Get involved: Spread the word using #AidRefugees on social media.” Because nothing can help people without food, water and in need of medical care better than knowing suburban Americans and privileged college kids are putting up hashtags. Here, kid, eat this Tweet.
“We have a moral responsibility to do what we can for families forced from their homes,” Obama said about the crowdfunding campaign, in a cheerleader-in-chief effort to get people to donate to the crisis.
As of this writing the Kickstarter campaign has yielded about $1.2 million, about the cost one a couple of bombs dropped on Syria or Iraq during time you’ve spent reading this.
Over four million people are registered refugees. So the Kickstarter money works out to about 25 cents per person, Here, kid, eat this quarter.
Lame and sad as all that is, the lamest and saddest thing is not that the U.S. government wants us to pay for this like it was some new dot com startup, but that the U.S. government knows damn well that what the refugees need more than anything is something money can’t buy: a safe place to immigrate to.
Sustaining America’s state of post-9/11 perpetual war requires skillful manipulation of the public at home. The key tool used for this purpose is the bloodless narrative, a combination of policy, falsehoods and media manipulation that creates the impression that America’s wars have few consequences, at least for Americans.
How can the American government sustain its wars in the face of dead soldiers coming home? Why is there no outcry among the American people over these losses? The answer is the narrative of bloodless war.
The bloodless war narrative’s solution to the dead is a policy of don’t look, don’t tell.
Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense for George H. W. Bush, helped decide in 1991 the first Iraq War would play better if Americans did not see their fallen return home. He recalled the images of coffins from the 1989 invasion of Panama on television, transposed against the president speaking of victory, and banned media from Dover Air Force Base, where deceased American personnel would arrive from the Persian Gulf.
The ban at Dover lasted 18 years, past George Bush 2.0 and Iraq War 2.0, overturned only in 2009, well after the casualty counts dropped off. Even then, allowing cameras at Dover was left at the discretion of the families, except of course when the president needed a blood-stirring photo op. Obama took one just before ordering the surge in Afghanistan.
Death, when it is reluctantly acknowledged, must still follow the bloodless narrative as closely as possible. Death must be for a good cause, freedom if possible, “for his buddies” later when public opinion weakens.
There is no better example in recent times than the death of Pat Tillman, America’s once-walking propaganda dream. Tillman was a professional football player making a $3.6 million salary. Following 9/11, he gave that all up, and volunteered for combat. When he died in Afghanistan, the Army told his family he’d been killed by enemy fire after courageously charging up a hill to protect his fellow soldiers.
It was of course the right thing to say to support the narrative, but it was a lie.
A month later, the Pentagon notified Tillman’s family he had actually died as a result of friendly fire. The month placed the non-narrative news safely after Tillman’s memorial service and in the fog of faded media interest. Later investigations revealed the Army likely knew the death was by friendly fire within days.
The Physically Wounded
For all the trouble the dead cause to the bloodless narrative, the wounded are even messier. They still walk around, sometimes speak to journalists, and, well, do not always look bloodless.
The Honolulu side of Waikiki beach is anchored by a hotel run by the Department of Defense as a low-cost vacation destination for servicepeople. While some of the grounds are public by Hawaiian law, the hotel itself is off limits.
I used to have a government ID that let me in. Inside, who is a soldier? The buff bodies stand out against the beached whale look more popular among regular tourists. The odd-patterned tans – browned faces with pale white limbs – betray a recent trip to the Middle East.
But sometimes it is a missing limb on a 20-year-old, or a face that looks like raw bacon. Could’ve been a car wreck or a factory fire, but I doubt it. The burns sketched precisely where the helmet had, and had not, been, a map of pain.
That’s on the inside. When we as outsiders see images of the wounded, they instead follow the narrative. Brave troopers, with their state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs, are shown skiing, surfing or working out. Some featured amputees even demand to return to active duty. They show off their new limbs, some decorated with decals from their favorite sports teams. They are brave and they are strong.
The inside story is again very different. A recent book by Ann Jones, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars, fills in what the narrative omits. As a summation, Jones offers the haiku of one military trauma nurse: “Amputees up to the waist. No arms. No legs. No genitals. Age 21 or 22. We cry.”
The Mentally Wounded
Military suicides have made it through the screen of bloodless narrative, but just barely, thanks to the Hollywood-ization of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Where we need clarity, we get tropes, such as the freaked-out-at-home scenes in Hurt Locker and American Sniper. Not to say those things don’t happen (they do) but to say those types of scenes are incomplete, giving enough info to arouse sympathy without actually being too alarming. As Ann Jones points out, such treatment of PTSD is “useful in raising citizen sympathy for soldiers, defusing opposition to Washington’s wars, and generally medicalizing problems that might raise inconvenient political and moral issues.”
At the same time, another non-Hollywood narrative bubbles just below the surface, that some vets are exaggerating or outright faking it. PTSD inherits all of our stigmas toward mental illness, and that dilutes the bad news.
Still, with all the attention PTSD and soldier suicides garner, one would think the military would, at minimum, have some ready statistics to help frame the problem. Oh, there are numbers, but not ones that fully strike back against the bloodless narrative.
The Department of Defense keeps statistics on suicides which occur while soldiers are deployed. The Veterans Administration (VA) tracks them at home. But since big suicide numbers run counter to the narrative, it is little surprise that it was only in 2011 that the VA announced a joint suicide database with the Pentagon, so the two bureaucracies might arrive at an accurate body count. Perhaps not unexpectedly, an Inspector General’s report stated that in 2015 the database is still a work in progress.
One way of not knowing is not to look for the answers at all. The narrative says we should be like Mafia bosses’ kids, who never ask what Daddy does for a living despite our big house and fancy cars.
When the Narrative Fails
During the year I spent in Iraq, the only deaths experienced by the Army units I was embedded with were suicides.
The death I was most familiar with was a young Private, who put his assault rifle into his mouth. No one back home saw what I saw, because they were not supposed to see: the fan spray of blood and brain on the wall, already being washed off as I arrived to look.
These things are not unspeakable, we just don’t want to talk about them, and the bloodless narrative says we don’t have to. That keeps it alive. Because when the narrative fails, the wars tend to end.
For example, in 1969, Life magazine published a famous edition consisting entirely of portraits of the Americans who died in Vietnam that week. Many subscribers canceled, but many more looked for the first time outside the narrative. The war found its end.
In another conflict, President Bill Clinton pulled American troops out of Somalia after a photo showed crowds cheering a dead American soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. That image dogged American war mongering until it could be cleaned up by the bloodless narrative of Gulf War 1.0.
We are no longer likely to see those nasty pictures. The military has become more skillful at manipulating the media, even as the media has become more compliant. In the X-rated world of war, most of the media refuses to budge from family fare.
The military-media symbiosis is just one more tool that feeds the narrative. As long as Americans are convinced of the bloodlessness of perpetual war, the wars will go on.
Why exactly again is the U.S. at war in Syria and Iraq? Here’s a potpourri of fun things.
I heard it was something to do with Islamic State, a bunch of guys who have never done anything outside their own neighborhood but who we are afraid will strike inside the United States at any moment.
They’ve never done that, anywhere, and seem to have their hands full in Syria and Iraq, plus most of their heavy weapons seem to come from American allies handing our stuff over to them. It is almost as if by elevating them to Bond-villain status they are able to use that notoriety to recruit more fighters.
And of course to strike inside the U.S. ISIS would need to get in line behind our own mass shooters.
We’re no longer really even giving lip service to saving Iraq, so why are we fighting over there?
Now in Syria a couple of years ago we started our war there because Assad was butchering his own people, what with the barrel bombs and the chemical weapons and such. Well, we’ve shown him. He is no longer butchering his own people, others are. Currently the U.S., Russia, Turkey, UAE, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France and Jordan are bombing Syria.
Also, the war to save the Syrians from their dictator has killed 250,000 people since March 2011 and sent millions of refugees fleeing to other countries in the Middle East and to Europe.
Maybe I could check with the Iranians. They, too, are fighting in Iraq, but in order to maintain control over the Shiite government as their proxy, and to push aside or wipe out the Sunnis, all in contravention of American goals, except America is helping the Iranians because they are also killing them some ISIS.
The Iranians are also fighting in Syria, on Assad’s side allied with the Russians. We help the Iranians in Iraq, but not in Syria.
Now the Saudis, they know where they stand. They do sometimes do a little tiny bit of bombing stuff in Syria, and especially in Yemen, probably Islamic State, but who knows, because they live in literal terror about terrorism sweeping away their repressive monarchy. The Saudis are also bombing Syria because the Saudis are one of America’s closest allies in the region.
Except that donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to terrorist groups worldwide. In fact, Hillary Clinton even said so, in a Wikileaks document from 2009 classified as secret, where she admonished her diplomats that “More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups.”
Oh, also, the Saudis may have helped fund 9/11. See, there was this disagreement between the secular monarchy and the religious side of the Kingdom, that resulted in Islamic religious zealots being assigned into Saudi embassies worldwide as part of the balancing act/compromise, including in the U.S. Some of those “diplomats” collected donations from within the Kingdom and funneled them to extremists in the the U.S. and elsewhere, such as the 9/11 guys. I heard.
Also, we’re bombing hospitals and killing doctors in Afghanistan, apparently to prove the axiom that when we do it it’s an accident and when they do it it’s barbaric terrorism.
Anyway, if anyone can straighten me out on all this, please, I need your help. Thanks!
But why is it that those that create refugees are the least likely to help them? The answer lies in empty rhetoric from those who begin America’s wars in the region under the guise of humanitarian intervention itself.
A searing image of a refugee child lying dead on a beach finally alerted the world to a crisis now entering its fifth year. Awareness is never bad, but here it too easily bypasses the question of where all the refugees come from, in favor of a simpler meme. One is reminded of Malala, one story that pushes aside millions.
Such narratives bait a familiar trap: the need to “do something.” That “something” in the Middle East is often the clumsy hand of military intervention under the thin cover of humanitarian rhetoric. Cries answered that way have a terrible history of exacerbating a problem they ostensibly set out to solve.
The scope of the problem is staggering. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are more than three million Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Inside Syria itself, over 17 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including those internally displaced. Only 350,000 Syrians are estimated to have traveled to Europe. They are the ones you see on television.
In Iraq, some 1.8 million people were displaced between January and September 2014, a declared United Nations emergency, and Iraqis are currently the second-largest refugee group in the world. Yet even now the New York Times speaks of a “new wave” of Iraqi refugees, driven in part by “years of violence and unmet promises for democracy by a corrupt political elite.”
The situation in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere is much the same.
There is a common denominator behind all of these refugee flows: they are, in whole or in part, the product of American “humanitarian interventions.”
In 2003, President George W. Bush declared the goals of the United States in invading Iraq included freeing its people. In case that was not clear enough, in 2007 Bush proclaimed the American military the “greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” Yet by 2007 the number of displaced persons in Iraq had grown by some 50%.
President Barack Obama used similar rhetoric in 2014, when he revived the United States’ war in Iraq in response to a “humanitarian crisis that could turn into a genocide” for the Yazidi people. “One Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,” President Obama said at the time. “Well, today America is coming to help.” A senior administration official went on to explicitly describe the action as a humanitarian effort.
Some 5,000 airstrikes later, that humanitarian effort is now a bloody war with Islamic State, metastasized across multiple nations, exacerbating the refugee flow. For the Yazidis, long-forgotten by Americans as the no longer needed casus belli, the war enveloped them in Islamic State’s slave trade.
The conflict in Syria remains connected to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, in the form of militarized Sunnis, the elimination of any effective border between Iraq and Syria and, of course, Islamic State, birthed in the Iraqi sectarian conflict. American intervention in Syria ratcheted up seemingly on a schedule, all around the theme of saving the Syrian people from their dictator, Bashar al-Assad (similarities to George W. Bush’s 2003 wording in reference to Saddam Hussein are noted.)
After it appeared Assad used chemical weapons in 2013, it was American Secretary of State John Kerry who insisted that it was “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” Airstrikes were forestalled for a time, then popped up in 2014 aimed not at Assad, but at Islamic State. Chaos has gone on to drawn numerous foreign powers into the conflict.
With Libya in 2011, there was again a “humanitarian effort,” lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton sold intervention as a necessity: “Imagine we were sitting here and Benghazi had been overrun, a city of 700,000 people, and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered, hundreds of thousands had fled. The cries would be, ‘Why did the United States not do anything?’” That “doing something” helped push Libya into failed state status, feeding the refugee flow and bleeding conflict into neighboring countries.
It is foolish to claim the United States alone “caused” all of these refugee flows; multiple factors, including the aggressiveness of Islamic State, are in play. But it would be equally foolish to ignore American culpability, directly in Iraq and in Libya, and via arms flows and the fanning of flames, in Syria and Yemen. The common element is a stated intent to make things better. The common result is the opposite.
To many, particularly outside the United States, political rhetoric is just the aural garbage of imperialism. But inside the United States, military “humanitarian” intervention generally enjoys robust support. It may look like a shoddy product to some, but people continue to buy it, and thus it continues to happen. Politicians seem to know how to feed the public’s demands to “do something” triggered by an emotional photograph for their own purposes.
There exists an inverse relationship between those that create refugees and those who help them. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees referred 15,000 Syrians to Washington for resettlement over the last four years; the United States accepted only 1,500, citing, among other issues, concerns over terrorists hiding among the groups.
But that was then, pre-photo.
Post-photo, with no apparent irony, United States Senator Patrick Leahy stated the refugee crisis “warrants a response commensurate with our nation’s role as a humanitarian leader.” Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is “looking hard at the number” of additional Syrian refugees it might accommodate, given America’s “leadership role with respect to humanitarian issues and particularly refugees.”
Right on schedule following Kerry’s remarks, President Obama promised, per the New York Times headline, to “Increase Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement to 10,000.” With the problem seemingly solved, albeit only 10,000 out of millions, the plight of the refugees disappeared from America’s front pages.
Left unsaid was the emptiness of even such non-military humanitarian rhetoric. President Obama did not mention, nor was he asked about, the reality that refugees to the U.S. are processed, not accepted. That processing can take years (the average out of Syria is two years at present), indefinite if enough information on a person’s security background cannot be amassed. If a positive “up” decision cannot be made that a person is “safe,” then the default is indefinite pending status. Such a conundrum has, for example, stymied the applications of many Iraqis and Afghanis who served as translators for the American military and fear for their lives, only to have been left behind.
There also remain voices calling for another escalation of war in the Middle East to deal with the “root causes” of the refugee crisis, loosely defined for now as Islamic State’s continued existence.
There is an immediate need to do more to help the refugees moving into Europe, and those still in the Middle East. That, and that alone, should comprise the “do something” part of a solution. Long term, if the primary response is simply more military intervention in the name of humanitarianism, or more empty promises, the answer is best left as “doing less.”
(This article, written by me, originally appeared on Middle East Eye)
Allegations that American military analysts may have “cooked the books” to skew intelligence assessments about the campaign against Islamic State (IS), providing a more optimistic account of progress, are a sign of bad things to come.
Bad intel leads to bad decisions. Bad intel created purposefully suggests a war that is being lost, with the people in charge that loathe to admit it even as they continue to stumble forward, ever-more blind. And if that sounds like America’s previous war in Iraq, or its earlier one in Vietnam, you are not wrong.
A Pentagon Inspector General’s investigation into allegations of overly optimistic intelligence reporting, first reported in the New York Times, began after at least one Defence Intelligence Agency analyst claimed officials overseeing the war against Islamic State were improperly reworking the assessments prepared for senior policy makers. The focus is on whether military officials changed the conclusions of draft intelligence assessments during a review process and then passed them on.
Intelligence typically involves working with incomplete data (one analyst likens the process to turning over a small subset of rocks in a large field) to assess the present situation and then to predict the future.
Anyone who claims to be certain about the future is more likely to be a fortune teller than a professional analyst, and so it is quite reasonable and common for a group of honest, well-meaning people to assess a data set and come to different conclusions. To be of value, however, legitimate differences of opinion must be played off one another in a non-politicised, intellectually vigorous check-and-balance fashion, as enshrined in Intelligence Community Directive 203.
There is a wide gap between that, and what it appears the inspector general is now looking into.
We can assume, arguendo, the inspector general knows a legitimate difference of opinion when he sees one, can easily rule out a sloppy supervisor, or spot a mid-level official rewriting things to pump up his own credentials. Investigations of the level leaked to the New York Times are not needed to deal with such situations. What appears to be under the microscope is whether or not the intelligence assessments headed to senior policy makers are purposely inaccurate.
Cooking the intel has a sordid history in the annals of American warfare.
Former CIA analyst Paul Pillar described the process in a postmortem on the 2003 Iraq intelligence failures, noting “Intelligence analysts and their managers knew that the United States was heading for war with Iraq. It was clear that the Bush administration would frown on or ignore analysis that called into question a decision to go to war and welcome analysis that supported such a decision.”
Those factors led directly to the flawed if not outright fraudulent 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) supporting the narrative of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The NIE was used by the White House to press Congress into supporting war, and by Colin Powell to do the same at the United Nations. The so-called Downing Street Memo bluntly stated “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”.
Analysis during the Vietnam War also pushed forward a steady but false narrative of victory. Former CIA and US Army analyst Patrick Eddington notes analysts’ conclusions that the US would be unlikely to ever defeat North Vietnamese forces were repeatedly overruled by commanders certain the United States was winning. He cites a complex inter-agency process of manipulating data to match the needs of General William Westmoreland’s narrative that enemy morale and military structure were deteriorating.
The CIA’s Paul Pillar again, stresses the difficulties of dissent, and speaking of truth to power: “You’re part of a large structure that does have a vested interest in portraying the overall mission as going well.” Compare that to what any journalist, graduate student or successful businessperson should be able to tell you, that information must drive conclusions, not the inverse. The more complex the problem, the higher the quality of information needed to successfully solve it.
The situation with Islamic State is more complex than that faced by the United States in Iraq over a decade ago, or in Vietnam before that. IS is a trans-state, loosely-organised fighting force, whose defeat requires the United States to stitch together a collection of strange bedfellows, each with their own agendas, in hopes the sum will add up to victory.
The Iranians support Iraq’s Shiite militias against IS, but not Iraq’s Sunni forces. Turkey is prepared to wage war only in equal dollops against America’s opponents IS, and America’s allies the Kurds. The Kurds themselves fight well in their own territories but are loathe to strike elsewhere in Iraq. Creating a unified strategy out of all that demands hard, objective reporting and courageous analysis.
There are three positions on why the military might not be providing that courageous analysis, and instead substituting a more positive spin on events.
The first is basic bureaucratic cover – saying things are going well is a neat way of telling the boss that the military is doing the job they were sent to do, a self-administered pat on the back. Such thinking should never be easily discarded. However, higher-ups in the military chain of command will eventually look askance at such tactics, fearful of blow-back if events on the battlefield turn sour.
The second is of more concern. Imagine a scenario where the president is rejecting advice from his generals to continue the war against IS, and wants to tamp down the level of American involvement (as some say Kennedy wished to do in Vietnam before his assassination). The president pushes back, saying nothing has worked, that ongoing failure comes at great cost. A military that wishes to stay engaged, again, as in Vietnam, might want to create the appearance that current levels of involvement are good, and thus increased involvement will be even better.
But it is the third position, reporting only the good news senior policy makers signal they want to hear, that history suggests is the dominant reason.
If American military intelligence insists on pushing false narratives of progress up the chain of command, that strongly suggests someone higher up, afraid of the ground truth, is happy to receive only the palliative of good news. And that is bad news. The lessons of modern history make clear that misleading policy makers who themselves seek to be misled can only yield disastrous consequences.
In 2012 I published a book all about how the United States squandered billions of dollars on the reconstruction of Iraq. The main point was that we had no plan on what to do and simply spent money willy-nilly, on stupid things and vanity projects and stuff that made someone’s boss in Washington briefly happy. We had absolutely no plan on how to measure our successes or failures, and then acted surprised when it all turned out to be a steaming pile of sh*t that did little but create the breeding ground for Islamic State.
The idea of the book was to try and lessen the chance the United States would do exactly, precisely and completely the exact same f*cking thing in Afghanistan.
Now, I just read a speech given by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), entitled “Ground Truths: Honestly Assessing Reconstruction in Afghanistan” which says the United States has done exactly, precisely and completely the exact same f*cking thing in Afghanistan.
And like me, Sopko concludes if we do not learn the lessons from Afghanistan “we will miss out on a crucial learning opportunity that will affect U.S. foreign policy for generations to come.” To which I can only say, “Good Luck” with that John.
Here’s some more of what Sopko pointed out, all his quotes from the same speech:
— There is a strong need for evidence-based policymaking, because if you don’t have a means of knowing whether or not your programs are succeeding, the policymaker’s job is that much harder.
— In a conflict-affected environment such as Afghanistan, the challenge of setting realistic standards is amplified. That said, perhaps constructing buildings to U.S. standards across the board in such an environment might be unwise, especially if we expect the Afghans to maintain and sustain what we give them.
— If after 13 years and so much blood and treasure invested in Afghanistan, we cannot be honest with ourselves about our successes and failures, we are not only leaving the Afghans in a precarious position, but also putting our entire mission there at risk.
— Incredibly, for the first nine years of CERP’s existence [an Army funding program for reconstruction], a single, clearly articulated mention of the program’s true objectives could not be found in any official document beyond the generic inputs of “humanitarian relief and reconstruction.”
— It becomes really difficult for SIGAR to assess reconstruction projects and programs if agencies don’t set clear criteria or project management standards.
— USAID spent almost $15 million to build a hospital in Gardez, but USAID did not fully assess the Afghan Ministry of Public Health’s ability to operate and maintain the hospital once completed. It seems that time and again, people have to be reminded that Afghanistan is not Kansas.
— It is hard to give people the benefit of the doubt when we build multi-billion dollar roads to U.S. weight standards in a country that has no ability to enforce weight limitations, or when a military official suggested that we spend millions building high-tech bus stops in Afghanistan, complete with solar-powered lighting. This is not Bethesda.
— Two and a half years ago, SIGAR sent the Departments of State and Defense, as well as USAID, a letter requesting that they identify, by their own judgement, their ten most and least successful reconstruction programs, and why they selected those programs. We still have not received a straight answer from any of them. A USAID official even said that asking him to identify his agency’s top successes and failures was like asking him to choose which of his children he loved more.
— Almost fourteen years into our trillion dollar effort, with over 2,000 American lives sacrificed, if we can’t honestly point to some actual, measurable accomplishments from that massive investment, we will miss out on a crucial learning opportunity that will affect U.S. foreign policy for generations to come. In short, we risk failing to understand the conditions necessary not only to produce peace and prosperity, but to sustain them.
The world finally noticed that one Syrian refugee kid drowned on a beach, after failing to notice the Middle East refugee crisis has been an ongoing disaster for almost five years now.
Same for the U.S.; Obama just announced he wants America to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, so this is all fixed now, we can go back to Miley and Katy, right? No.
The Day Before
Here was the state of affairs as of the day before Obama’s announcement.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees referred 15,000 Syrians to Washington for resettlement over the last four years; the United States accepted 1,500, with formally announced plans to take in only another 1,800 by next year, citing, among other issues, concerns over terrorists hiding among the groups.
With no apparent irony, United States Senator Patrick Leahy stated the refugee crisis “warrants a response commensurate with our nation’s role as a humanitarian leader.” Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is “looking hard at the number” of additional Syrian refugees it might accommodate, given America’s “leadership role with respect to humanitarian issues and particularly refugees.”
Many in Washington likely felt that was enough. A token increase, some nice, high-flying language, a little sprinkle of freedom and respect. I think we’re done here.
The Day After
But, after seeing that it was a slow week and the media was still showing sad pictures of refugees on the TV box, it seemed more (rhetoric) was needed. So, on September 10, President Obama announced, per the New York Times headline, he will “Increase Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement to 10,000.”
Well, that’s good, right? I mean, the estimates are that there are some four million Syrian refugees already out there, with another 10 million internally displaced, so even if it is 10,000 that’s hardly anything but still, better than nothing.
What He Said, What He Meant
Maybe. But let’s dig down one level deeper.
To be precise, Obama did not say the U.S. is taking 10,000 Syrian refugees in FY2016. He did not say if the 10k were part of the U.S.’ overall 70k refugee cap, or in addition to it, meaning other refugees could be left behind to favor the flavor-of-the-moment out of Syria. Obama also did not explain that the United States processes refugees abroad (if the person is somehow in the U.S. physically, that’s asylum, different thing, done while the person is in the U.S.)
Actually, have a look at the exact wording from the White House spokesperson (emphasis added): “The president has… informed his team that he would like them to accept, at least make preparations to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees.”
Refugees are processed, not accepted. That processing can take years, indefinite if enough information on a person’s security background cannot be amassed; there remains great fear in the U.S. government about terrorists sneaking into refugee flows, and so if a positive “up” decision cannot be made that a person is “safe,” then the default is indefinite pending status. Such a conundrum has, for example, stymied the applications of many Iraqis and Afghanis who served as translators for the American military and fear for their lives, only to have been stuck left behind.
As Representative Peter King said “Our enemy now is Islamic terrorism, and these people are coming from a country filled with Islamic terrorists. We don’t want another Boston Marathon bombing situation.”
There are also medical and other checks before a refugee is approved. With all the variables, there is no average processing time, but post-9/11 we can say the average is s-l-o-w. In the world of suffering, slow can often mean death.
It appears the White House is taking full advantage of the media’s ignorance of how refugee processing works to create the appearance of doing something when little of a practical nature is being done, all sizzle and no meat. There is little help coming from the United States for any significant number of Syrian refugees. Sorry guys!
A well-done article in the New York Times reminds us that four years after the United States assassinated American citizen and Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (and his teenage son) in a drone strike, his influence on jihadists is greater than ever.
At the same time, the UK’s Guardian tells us about William Bradford, an assistant law professor at West Point, who argued in a peer-reviewed paper that attacks on Muslim scholars’ homes and offices, Middle Eastern media outlets and Islamic holy sites are legitimate and necessary to “win” the war on terrorism.
Bradford threatens “Islamic holy sites” as part of a war against radicalism. That war ought to be prosecuted vigorously, he wrote, “even if it means great destruction, innumerable enemy casualties, and civilian collateral damage. Other ‘lawful targets’ for the U.S. military in its war on terrorism,” Bradford argues, “include law school facilities, scholars’ home offices and media outlets where they give interviews, all civilian areas, but places where a causal connection between the content disseminated and Islamist crimes incited exist.”
Illustrations of Failure
The two articles illustrate as sharply as can be the failures of America in the last 14 years. Not only has the United States failed to blunt terrorism, Islamic State and radical hegemony, it has made them worse. Indeed, the foreign terror attacks so many Americans live in fear of have morphed into Americans themselves committing terror attacks. That is not progress.
But that’s how the articles in the Times and the Guardian show the WHAT of failure. The WHY is also revealed: terror is an idea, not a thing.
You can bomb a thing into oblivion, but you cannot blow up an idea. An idea can only be defeated by another, better, idea. So killing al-Awlaki had no more chance of truly silencing him than turning off the radio and hoping the broadcast never exists elsewhere. At the same time the U.S. runs social media campaigns claiming we are not at war with Islam, allowing an instructor at America’s military academy to justify attacks on the institutions of Islam simply reinforces the belief around the world that we are indeed trying to destroy a religion.
In an environment where martyrdom is prized, America might begin to turn around its failures first by creating fewer martyrs. In an environment where radicalism and support for groups like Islamic State are fostered by fear that the full weight of the world’s most powerful army is aimed at destroying a way of life, America might want to stop teaching just that doctrine at West Point.
The old adage, “follow the money,” is still not a bad way to suss out wrongdoing. Originated during the Watergate era, the term says if you follow the trail of money through an organization or a caper, you’ll find the guilty people at the end.
With the State Department and Hillary Clinton, the advice should read: “Follow Pat Kennedy.”
Meet Pat Kennedy
The name of long-time State Department Under Secretary for Management, Patrick Kennedy, pictured, is unknown to most journalists and nearly all of the public, but he in fact is present at every significant public issue State confronts. Take a look…
Kennedy and Manning
Do a little Googling around, and there’s Pat helping drive nails into Chelsea Manning’s coffin, testifying at his trial about the “grave damage” done to America’s national security. Kennedy in September 2013 admitted his testimony “contained misstatements,” which he said were “inadvertent.” Kennedy also oversaw State’s internal report on Wikileaks’ impact and ran the working group that was supposed to identify people at risk because their names appeared in the State Department cables online.
Kennedy and Benghazi
And at the Congressional Benghazi hearings, there’s Pat testifying Clinton did no wrong, that State as an institution did no wrong, and helping throw a few lesser officials under the bus in hopes of making it all go away.
Kennedy also was the one who hand-picked the members of State’s internal Accountability Review Board that failed in December 2012 to find any senior official at fault for any wrongdoing in the run-up to Benghazi. That Review Board chose not to interview Secretary of State Clinton about her role in Benghazi.
Kennedy and Child Prostitution Cover-Up
It was Pat who helped former American Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman retire in order to curtail a public investigation.
A State Department investigator asserted Gutman solicited “sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children.” Howard Gutman and members of Clinton’s security detail were also accused of hiring prostitutes. According to an internal memo prepared by the State Department Inspector General in October 2013, Kennedy personally called off an investigation.
Kennedy and Iraq
Kennedy was also the central figure in the First Amendment struggle over my Iraq book critical of the State Department, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
There’s more, but you get the picture. When dirty deeds need to be done dirt cheap to protect Clinton and State, Pat’s your man.
So it is little surprise that media reports now tell us that the Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy is now in charge of running interference on Capitol Hill regarding the Clinton email controversy.
Kennedy reportedly visited lawmakers in July and argued that the Abedin email along with another one sent in 2012 by another Clinton aide, Jake Sullivan, are not classified. The Under Secretary also argued that the information in the emails was already public.
However, one source said that it was odd that Kennedy wanted to discuss the matter in a secure facility for classified information while simultaneously arguing that the Abedin email was not classified.
The source also said that Kennedy cited a report from the Irish Times in 2011 as evidence, but that the details were not comparable. Kennedy also said that someone from the CIA agreed with his conclusion. However, the CIA was not the agency that sent the email.
Kennedy likely has more in the fire with the Clinton emails than his usual dollops of blind institutional loyalty.
Given his role at State, Pat Kennedy is very likely to be the most senior official below the Secretary of State’s own staff to have either signed off on Hillary’s email server or passively fended off concerns from the rank and file about it. There are no doubt interesting emails with his name on them to be FOIAed or subpoenaed about all that. Pat no doubt hopes like hell a Democrat wins the presidential election or he is toast.
So, mark this down: when Pat Kennedy steps into the picture, State/Clinton knows it is in real trouble and is calling in its Fixer of Last Resort. Journalists would be wise to keep on eye on Kennedy’s schedule over the coming months.
Are American analysts skewing intelligence reporting and assessments to provide a rosier outlook of U.S. progress against Islamic State?
At least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst says so, and has convinced the Pentagon’s Inspector General to look into it. The analyst says he had evidence officials at United States Central Command, overseeing the American campaign against Islamic State, were improperly rewriting conclusions of intelligence assessments prepared for policy makers, including President Obama.
While legitimate differences of opinion are common in intel reporting, to be of value those differences must be presented to policy makers, and played off one another in an intellectually vigorous check-and-balance fashion. There is a wide gap between that, and what it appears the Inspector General is now looking at.
Cooking the intel to match policy makers’ expectations has a sordid history in the annals of American warfare. Analysis during the Vietnam War pushed forward a steady but false narrative of victory. In the run-up to Iraq War 2.0, State Department analysis claiming Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction was buried in favor of obvious falsehoods.
Jokes about the oxymoron of “military intelligence” aside, bad intel leads to bad decisions. Bad intel created purposefully suggests a war that is being lost, with the people in charge loathe to admit it.
A guest blog, by Rory Fanning. Fanning walked across the United States for the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2008-2009, following two deployments to Afghanistan with the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion. Fanning became a conscientious objector after his second tour. He is the author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America.
Dear Aspiring Ranger,
You’ve probably just graduated from high school and you’ve undoubtedly already signed an Option 40 contract guaranteeing you a shot at the Ranger indoctrination program (R.I.P.). If you make it through R.I.P. you’ll surely be sent off to fight in the Global War on Terror. You’ll be part of what I often heard called “the tip of the spear.”
The war you’re heading into has been going on for a remarkably long time. Imagine this: you were five years old when I was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2002. Now I’m graying a bit, losing a little up top, and I have a family. Believe me, it goes faster than you expect.
Once you get to a certain age, you can’t help thinking about the decisions you made (or that, in a sense, were made for you) when you were younger. I do that and someday you will, too. Reflecting on my own years in the 75th Ranger regiment, at a moment when the war you’ll find yourself immersed in was just beginning, I’ve tried to jot down a few of the things they don’t tell you at the recruiting office or in the pro-military Hollywood movies that may have influenced your decision to join. Maybe my experience will give you a perspective you haven’t considered.
I imagine you’re entering the military for the same reason just about everyone volunteers: it felt like your only option. Maybe it was money, or a judge, or a need for a rite of passage, or the end of athletic stardom. Maybe you still believe that the U.S. is fighting for freedom and democracy around the world and in existential danger from “the terrorists.” Maybe it seems like the only reasonable thing to do: defend our country against terrorism.
The media has been a powerful propaganda tool when it comes to promoting that image, despite the fact that, as a civilian, you were more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist. I trust you don’t want regrets when you’re older and that you commendably want to do something meaningful with your life. I’m sure you hope to be the best at something. That’s why you signed up to be a Ranger.
Make no mistake: whatever the news may say about the changing cast of characters the U.S. is fighting and the changing motivations behind the changing names of our military “operations” around the world, you and I will have fought in the same war. It’s hard to believe that you will be taking us into the 14th year of the Global War on Terror (whatever they may be calling it now). I wonder which one of the 668 U.S. military bases worldwide you’ll be sent to.
In its basics, our global war is less complicated to understand than you might think, despite the difficult-to-keep-track-of enemies you will be sent after — whether al-Qaeda (“central,” al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Magreb, etc.), or the Taliban, or al-Shabab in Somalia, or ISIS (aka ISIL, or the Islamic State), or Iran, or the al-Nusra Front, or Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Admittedly, it’s a little hard to keep a reasonable scorecard. Are the Shia or the Sunnis our allies? Is it Islam we’re at war with? Are we against ISIS or the Assad regime or both of them?
Just who these groups are matters, but there’s an underlying point that it’s been too easy to overlook in recent years: ever since this country’s first Afghan War in the 1980s (that spurred the formation of the original al-Qaeda), our foreign and military policies have played a crucial role in creating those you will be sent to fight. Once you are in one of the three battalions of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the chain-of-command will do its best to reduce global politics and the long-term good of the planet to the smallest of matters and replace them with the largest of tasks: boot polishing, perfectly made beds, tight shot groupings at the firing range, and your bonds with the Rangers to your right and left.
In such circumstances, it’s difficult — I know that well — but not impossible to keep in mind that your actions in the military involve far more than whatever’s in front of you or in your gun sights at any given moment. Our military operations around the world — and soon that will mean you — have produced all kinds of blowback. Thought about a certain way, I was being sent out in 2002 to respond to the blowback created by the first Afghan War and you’re about to be sent out to deal with the blowback created by my version of the second one.
I’m writing this letter in the hope that offering you a little of my own story might help frame the bigger picture for you.
Let me start with my first day “on the job.” I remember dropping my canvas duffle bag at the foot of my bunk in Charlie Company, and almost immediately being called into my platoon sergeant’s office. I sprinted down a well-buffed hallway, shadowed by the platoon’s “mascot”: a Grim-Reaper-style figure with the battalion’s red and black scroll beneath it. It hovered like something you’d see in a haunted house on the cinder block wall adjoining the sergeant’s office. It seemed to be watching me as I snapped to attention in his doorway, beads of sweat on my forehead. “At ease… Why are you here, Fanning? Why do you think you should be a Ranger?” All this he said with an air of suspicion.
Shaken, after being screamed out of a bus with all my gear, across an expansive lawn in front of the company’s barracks, and up three flights of stairs to my new home, I responded hesitantly, “Umm, I want to help prevent another 9/11, First Sergeant.” It must have sounded almost like a question.
“There is only one answer to what I just asked you, son. That is: you want to feel the warm red blood of your enemy run down your knife blade.”
Taking in his military awards, the multiple tall stacks of manila folders on his desk, and the photos of what turned out to be his platoon in Afghanistan, I said in a loud voice that rang remarkably hollowly, at least to me, “Roger, First Sergeant!”
He dropped his head and started filling out a form. “We’re done here,” he said without even bothering to look up again.
The platoon sergeant’s answer had a distinct hint of lust in it but, surrounded by all those folders, he also looked to me like a bureaucrat. Surely such a question deserved something more than the few impersonal and sociopathic seconds I spent in that doorway.
Nonetheless, I spun around and ran back to my bunk to unpack, not just my gear but also his disturbing answer to his own question and my sheepish, “Roger, First Sergeant!” reply. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought of killing in such an intimate way. I had indeed signed on with the idea of preventing another 9/11. Killing was still an abstract idea to me, something I didn’t look forward to. He undoubtedly knew this. So what was he doing?
As you head into your new life, let me try to unpack his answer and my experience as a Ranger for you.
Let’s start that unpacking process with racism: That was the first and one of the last times I heard the word “enemy” in battalion. The usual word in my unit was “Hajji.” Now, Hajji is a word of honor among Muslims, referring to someone who has successfully completed a pilgrimage to the Holy Site of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In the U.S. military, however, it was a slur that implied something so much bigger.
The soldiers in my unit just assumed that the mission of the small band of people who took down the Twin Towers and put a hole in the Pentagon could be applied to any religious person among the more than 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet. The platoon sergeant would soon help usher me into group-blame mode with that “enemy.” I was to be taught instrumental aggression. The pain caused by 9/11 was to be tied to the everyday group dynamics of our unit. This is how they would get me to fight effectively. I was about to be cut off from my previous life and psychological manipulation of a radical sort would be involved. This is something you should prepare yourself for.
When you start hearing the same type of language from your chain-of-command in its attempt to dehumanize the people you are off to fight, remember that 93 percent of all Muslims condemned the attacks on 9/11. And those who sympathized claimed they feared a U.S. occupation and cited political not religious reasons for their support.
But, to be blunt, as George W. Bush said early on (and then never repeated), the war on terror was indeed imagined in the highest of places as a “crusade.” When I was in the Rangers, that was a given. The formula was simple enough: al-Qaeda and the Taliban represented all of Islam, which was our enemy. Now, in that group-blame game, ISIS, with its mini-terror state in Iraq and Syria, has taken over the role. Be clear again that nearly all Muslims reject its tactics. Even Sunnis in the region where ISIS is operating are increasingly rejecting the group. And it is those Sunnis who may indeed take down ISIS when the time is right.
If you want to be true to yourself, don’t be swept up in the racism of the moment. Your job should be to end war, not perpetuate it. Never forget that.
The second stop in that unpacking process should be poverty: After a few months, I was finally shipped off to Afghanistan. We landed in the middle of the night. As the doors on our C-5 opened, the smell of dust, clay, and old fruit rolled into the belly of that transport plane. I was expecting the bullets to start whizzing by me as I left it, but we were at Bagram Air Base, a largely secure place in 2002.
Jump ahead two weeks and a three-hour helicopter ride and we were at our forward operating base. The morning after we arrived I noticed an Afghan woman pounding at the hard yellow dirt with a shovel, trying to dig up a gaunt little shrub just outside the stone walls of the base. Through the eye-slit of her burqa I could just catch a hint of her aged face. My unit took off from that base, marching along a road, hoping (I suspect) to stir up a little trouble. We were presenting ourselves as bait, but there were no bites.
When we returned a few hours later, that woman was still digging and gathering firewood, undoubtedly to cook her family’s dinner that night. We had our grenade launchers, our M242 machine guns that fired 200 rounds a minute, our night-vision goggles, and plenty of food — all vacuum-sealed and all of it tasting the same. We were so much better equipped to deal with the mountains of Afghanistan than that woman — or so it seemed to us then. But it was, of course, her country, not ours, and its poverty, like that of so many places you may find yourself in, will, I assure you, be unlike anything you have ever seen. You will be part of the most technologically advanced military on Earth and you will be greeted by the poorest of the poor. Your weaponry in such an impoverished society will feel obscene on many levels. Personally, I felt like a bully much of my time in Afghanistan.
Now, it’s the moment to unpack “the enemy”: Most of my time in Afghanistan was quiet and calm. Yes, rockets occasionally landed in our bases, but most of the Taliban had surrendered by the time I entered the country. I didn’t know it then, but as Anand Gopal has reported in his groundbreaking book, No Good Men Among the Living, our war on terror warriors weren’t satisfied with reports of the unconditional surrender of the Taliban. So units like mine were sent out looking for “the enemy.” Our job was to draw the Taliban — or anyone really — back into the fight.
Believe me, it was ugly. We were often enough targeting innocent people based on bad intelligence and in some cases even seizing Afghans who had actually pledged allegiance to the U.S. mission. For many former Taliban members, it became an obvious choice: fight or starve, take up arms again or be randomly seized and possibly killed anyway. Eventually the Taliban did regroup and today they are resurgent. I know now that if our country’s leadership had truly had peace on its mind, it could have all been over in Afghanistan in early 2002.
If you are shipped off to Iraq for our latest war there, remember that the Sunni population you will be targeting is reacting to a U.S.-backed Shia regime in Baghdad that’s done them dirty for years. ISIS exists to a significant degree because the largely secular members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were labeled the enemy as they tried to surrender after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Many of them had the urge to be reincorporated into a functioning society, but no such luck; and then, of course, the key official the Bush administration sent to Baghdad simply disbanded Saddam Hussein’s army and tossed its 400,000 troops out onto the streets at a time of mass unemployment.
It was a remarkable formula for creating resistance in another country where surrender wasn’t good enough. The Americans of that moment wanted to control Iraq (and its oil reserves). To this end, in 2006, they backed the Shia autocrat Nouri al-Maliki for prime minister in a situation where Shia militias were increasingly intent on ethnically cleansing the Sunni population of the Iraqi capital.
Given the reign of terror that followed, it’s hardly surprising to find former Baathist army officers in key positions in ISIS and the Sunnis choosing that grim outfit as the lesser of the two evils in its world. Again, the enemy you are being shipped off to fight is, at least in part, a product of your chain-of-command’s meddling in a sovereign country. And remember that, whatever its grim acts, this enemy presents no existential threat to American security, at least so says Vice President Joe Biden. Let that sink in for a while and then ask yourself whether you really can take your marching orders seriously.
Next, in that unpacking process, consider noncombatants: When unidentified Afghans would shoot at our tents with old Russian rocket launchers, we would guesstimate where the rockets had come from and then call in air strikes. You’re talking 500-pound bombs. And so civilians would die. Believe me, that’s really what’s at the heart of our ongoing war. Any American like you heading into a war zone in any of these years was likely to witness what we call “collateral damage.” That’s dead civilians.
The number of non-combatants killed since 9/11 across the Greater Middle East in our ongoing war has been breathtaking and horrifying. Be prepared, when you fight, to take out more civilians than actual gun-toting or bomb-wielding “militants.” At the least, an estimated 174,000 civilians died violent deaths as a result of U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan between 2001 and April 2014. In Iraq, over 70 percent of those who died are estimated to have been civilians. So get ready to contend with needless deaths and think about all those who have lost friends and family members in these wars, and themselves are now scarred for life. A lot of people who once would never have thought about fighting any type of war or attacking Americans now entertain the idea. In other words, you will be perpetuating war, handing it off to the future.
Finally, there’s freedom and democracy to unpack, if we’re really going to empty that duffel bag: Here’s an interesting fact that you might consider, if spreading freedom and democracy around the world was on your mind. Though records are incomplete on the subject, the police have killed something like 5,000 people in this country since 9/11 — more, in other words, than the number of American soldiers killed by “insurgents” in the same period. In those same years, outfits like the Rangers and the rest of the U.S. military have killed countless numbers of people worldwide, targeting the poorest people on the planet. And are there fewer terrorists around? Does all this really make a lot of sense to you?
When I signed up for the military, I was hoping to make a better world. Instead I helped make it more dangerous. I had recently graduated from college. I was also hoping that, in volunteering, I would get some of my student loans paid for. Like you, I was looking for practical help, but also for meaning. I wanted to do right by my family and my country. Looking back, it’s clear enough to me that my lack of knowledge about the actual mission we were undertaking betrayed me — and you and us.
I’m writing to you especially because I just want you to know that it’s not too late to change your mind. I did. I became a war resister after my second deployment in Afghanistan for all the reasons I mention above. I finally unpacked, so to speak. Leaving the military was one of the most difficult but rewarding experiences of my life. My own goal is to take what I learned in the military and bring it to high school and college students as a kind of counter-recruiter. There’s so much work to be done, given the 10,000 military recruiters in the U.S. working with an almost $700 million advertising budget. After all, kids do need to hear both sides.
I hope this letter is a jumping off point for you. And if, by any chance, you haven’t signed that Option 40 contract yet, you don’t have to. You can be an effective counter-recruiter without being an ex-military guy. Young people across this country desperately need your energy, your desire to be the best, your pursuit of meaning. Don’t waste it in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or Somalia or anywhere else the Global War on Terror is likely to send you.
As we used to say in the Rangers…
Lead the Way,
Don’t sweat the details of the July nuclear accord between the United States and Iran. What matters is that the calculus of power in the Middle East just changed in significant ways.
Washington and Tehran announced their nuclear agreement on July 14th and yes, some of the details are still classified. Of course the Obama administration negotiated alongside China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany, which means Iran and five other governments must approve the detailed 159-page “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” The U.N., which also had to sign off on the deal, has already agreed to measures to end its sanctions against Iran.
If we’re not all yet insta-experts on centrifuges and enrichment ratios, the media will ensure that in the next two months — during which Congress will debate and weigh approving the agreement — we’ll become so. Verification strategies will be debated. The Israelis will claim that the apocalypse is nigh. And everyone who is anyone will swear to the skies that the devil is in the details. On Sunday talk shows, war hawks will fuss endlessly about the nightmare to come, as well as the weak-kneedness of the president and his “delusional” secretary of state, John Kerry. (No one of note, however, will ask why the president’s past decisions to launch or continue wars in the Middle East were not greeted with at least the same sort of skepticism as his present efforts to forestall one.)
There are two crucial points to take away from all the angry chatter to come: first, none of this matters and second, the devil is not in the details, though he may indeed appear on those Sunday talk shows.
Here’s what actually matters most: at a crucial moment and without a shot being fired, the United States and Iran have come to a turning point away from an era of outright hostility. The nuclear accord binds the two nations to years of engagement and leaves the door open to a far fuller relationship. Understanding how significant that is requires a look backward.
A Very Quick History of U.S.-Iranian Relations
The short version: relations have been terrible for almost four decades. A slightly longer version would, however, begin in 1953 when the CIA helped orchestrate a coup to oust Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. A secular leader — just the sort of guy U.S. officials have dreamed about ever since the ayatollahs took power in 1979 — Mosaddegh sought to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. That, at the time, was a total no-no for Washington and London. Hence, he had to go.
In his place, Washington installed a puppet leader worthy of the sleaziest of banana republics, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The U.S. assisted him in maintaining a particularly grim secret police force, the Savak, which he aimed directly at his political opponents, democratic and otherwise, including the ones who espoused a brand of Islamic fundamentalism unfamiliar to the West at the time. Washington lapped up the Shah’s oil and, in return, sold him the modern weapons he fetishized. Through the 1970s, the U.S. also supplied nuclear fuel and reactor technology to Iran to build on President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, which had kicked off Iran’s nuclear program in 1957.
In 1979, following months of demonstrations and seeing his fate in the streets of Tehran, the Shah fled. Religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to take control of the nation in what became known as the Islamic Revolution. Iranian “students” channeled decades of anti-American rage over the Shah and his secret police into a takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. In an event that few Americans of a certain age are likely to forget, 52 American staffers were held hostage there for some 15 months.
In retaliation, the U.S. would, among other things, assist Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein (remember him?) in his war with Iran in the 1980s, and in 1988, an American guided missile cruiser in the Persian Gulf would shoot down a civilian Iran Air flight, killing all 290 people on board. (Washington claimed it was an accident.) In 2003, when Iran reached out to Washington, following American military successes in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush declared that country part of the “Axis of Evil.”
Iran later funded, trained, and helped lead a Shiite insurgency against the United States in Iraq. In tit-for-tat fashion, U.S. forces raided an Iranian diplomatic office there and arrested several staffers. As Washington slowly withdrew its military from that country, Iran increased its support for pro-Tehran leaders in Baghdad. When Iran’s nuclear program grew, the U.S. attacked its computers with malware, launching what was in effect the first cyberwar in history. At the same time, Washington imposed economic sanctions on the country and its crucial energy production sector.
In short, for the last 36 years, the U.S.-Iranian relationship has been hostile, antagonistic, unproductive, and often just plain mean. Neither country seems to have benefited, even as both remained committed to the fight.
Despite the best efforts of the United States, Iran is now the co-dominant power in the Middle East. And rising. (Washington remains the other half of that “co.”)
Another quick plunge into largely forgotten history: the U.S. stumbled into the post-9/11 era with two invasions that neatly eliminated Iran’s key enemies on its eastern and western borders — Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. (The former is, of course, gone for good; the latter is doing better these days, though unlikely to threaten Iran for some time.) As those wars bled on without the promised victories, America’s military weariness sapped the desire in the Bush administration for military strikes against Iran. Jump almost a decade ahead and Washington now quietly supports at least some of that country’s military efforts in Iraq against the insurgent Islamic State. The Obama administration is seemingly at least half-resigned to looking the other way while Tehran ensures that it will have a puppet regime in Baghdad. In its serially failing strategies in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria, Washington has all but begged the Iranians to assume a leading role in those places. They have.
And that only scratches the surface of the new Iranian ascendancy in the region. Despite the damage done by U.S.-led economic sanctions, Iran’s real strength lies at home. It is probably the most stable Muslim nation in the Middle East. It has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years. It is almost completely ethnically, religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous, with its minorities comparatively under control. While still governed in large part by its clerics, the country has nonetheless experienced a series of increasingly democratic electoral transitions since the 1979 revolution. Most significantly, unlike nearly every other nation in the Middle East, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one.
Why Iran Won’t Have Nuclear Weapons
Now, about those nukes. It would take a blind man in the dark not to notice one obvious fact about the Greater Middle East: regimes the U.S. opposes tend to find themselves blasted into chaos once they lose their nuclear programs. The Israelis destroyed Saddam’s program, as they did Syria’s, from the air. Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya went down the drain thanks to American/NATO-inspired regime change after he voluntarily gave up his nuclear ambitions. At the same time, no one in Tehran could miss how North Korea’s membership in the regime-change club wasn’t renewed once that country went nuclear. Consider those pretty good reasons for Iran to develop a robust nuclear weapons program — and not give it up entirely.
While, since 2002, Washington hasn’t taken a day off in its saber-rattling toward Iran, it isn’t the only country the clerics fear. They are quite convinced that Israel, with its unacknowledged but all too real nuclear arsenal, is capable and might someday be willing to deliver a strike via missile, aircraft, or submarine.
Now, here’s the added irony: American sabers and Israeli nukes also explain why Iran will always remain a nuclear threshold state — one that holds most or all of the technology and materials needed to make such a weapon, but chooses not to take the final steps. Just exactly how close a country is at any given moment to having a working nuclear weapon is called “breakout time.” If Iran were to get too close, with too short a breakout time, or actually went nuclear, a devastating attack by Israel and/or the United States would be a near inevitability. Iran is not a third world society. Its urban areas and infrastructure are exactly the kinds of things bombing campaigns are designed to blow away. So call Iran’s nuclear program a game of chicken, but one in which all the players involved always knew who would blink first.
The U.S.-Iran Nuclear Accord
So if Iran was never going to be a true nuclear power and if the world has lived with Iran as a threshold state for some time now, does the July accord matter?
There are two answers to that question: it doesn’t and it does.
It doesn’t really matter because the deal changes so little on the ground. If the provisions of the accord are implemented as best we currently understand them, with no cheating, then Iran will slowly move from its current two- to three-month breakout time to a year or more. Iran doesn’t have nukes now, it would not have nukes if there were no accord, and it won’t have nukes with the accord. In other words, the Vienna agreement successfully eliminated weapons of mass destruction that never existed.
It does really matter because, for the first time in decades, the two major powers in the Middle East have opened the door to relations. Without the political cover of the accord, the White House could never envisage taking a second step forward.
It’s a breakthrough because through it the U.S. and Iran acknowledge shared interests for the first time, even as they recognize their ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. That’s how adversaries work together: you don’t have to make deals like the July accord with your friends. Indeed, President Obama’s description of how the deal will be implemented — based on verification, not trust — represents a precise choice of words. The reference is to President Ronald Reagan, who used the phrase “trust but verify” in 1987 when signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Russians.
The agreement was reached the old-school way, by sitting down at a table over many months and negotiating. Diplomats consulted experts. Men and women in suits, not in uniform, did most of the talking. The process, perhaps unfamiliar to a post-9/11 generation raised on the machismo of “you’re either with us or against us,” is called compromise. It’s an essential part of a skill that is increasingly unfamiliar to Americans: diplomacy. The goal is not to defeat an enemy, find quick fixes, solve every bilateral issue, or even gain the release of the four Americans held in Iran. The goal is to achieve a mutually agreeable resolution to a specific problem. Such deft statecraft demonstrates the sort of foreign policy dexterity American voters have seldom seen exercised since Barack Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize (Cuba being the sole exception).
It’s All About the Money
While diplomacy brought the United States and Iran to this point, cash is what will expand and sustain the relationship.
Iran, with the fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves on the planet, is ready to start selling on world markets as soon as sanctions lift. Its young people reportedly yearn for greater engagement with the West. The lifting of sanctions will allow Iranian businesses access to global capital and outside businesses access to starved Iranian commercial markets.
Since November 2014, the Chinese, for example, have already doubled their investment in Iran. European companies, including Shell and Peugeot, are now holding talks with Iranian officials. Apple is contacting Iranian distributors. Germany sent a trade delegation to Tehran. Ads for European cars and luxury goods are starting to reappear in the Iranian capital. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of foreign technology and expertise will need to be acquired if the country is to update its frayed oil and natural gas infrastructure. Many of its airliners are decades old and need replacement. Airlines in Dubai are fast adding new Iran routes to meet growing demand. The money will flow. After that, it will be very hard for the war hawks in Washington, Tel Aviv, or Riyadh to put the toothpaste back in the tube, which is why you hear such screaming and grinding of teeth now.
The Real Fears of the Israelis and the Saudis
Neither Israel nor the Saudis ever really expected to trade missile volleys with a nuclear-armed Iran, nor do their other primary objections to the accord hold much water. Critics have said the deal will only last 10 years. (The key provisions scale in over 10 years, then taper off.) Leaving aside that a decade is a lifetime in politics, this line of thinking also presumes that, as the calendar rolls over to 10 years and a day, Iran will bolt from the deal and go rogue. It’s a curious argument to make.
Similarly, any talk of the accord touching off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is long out of date. Israel has long had the bomb, with no arms race triggered. Latent fears that Iran will create “the Islamic Bomb” ignore the fact that Pakistan, with own hands dirty from abetting terror and plenty of Islamic extremists on hand, has been a nuclear power since at least 1998.
No, what fundamentally worries the Israelis and the Saudis is that Iran will rejoin the community of nations as a diplomatic and trading partner of the United States, Asia, and Europe. Embarking on a diplomatic offensive in the wake of its nuclear deal, Iranian officials assured fellow Muslim countries in the region that they hoped the accord would pave the way for greater cooperation. American policy in the Persian Gulf, once reliably focused only on its own security and energy needs, may (finally) start to line up with an increasingly multifaceted Eurasian reality. A powerful Iran is indeed a threat to the status quo — hence the upset in Tel Aviv and Riyadh — just not a military one. Real power in the twenty-first century, short of total war, rests with money.
The July accord acknowledges the real-world power map of the Middle East. It does not make Iran and the United States friends. It does, however, open the door for the two biggest regional players to talk to each other and develop the kinds of financial and trade ties that will make conflict more impractical. After more than three decades of U.S.-Iranian hostility in the world’s most volatile region, that is no small accomplishment.
Getting ready for that free update to Windows 10? Using the latest OS on your iPhone-Apple Watch-MacBook setup? Smart enough to have moved to a full-on Linux system?
If you answered YES to any of the questions above, you are not the U.S. Navy. The Navy is still running Windows XP, a decent enough system when it came out in 2001, fourteen years ago. Fourteen years in computer time is like twenty million people years, FYI. Dinosaurs still roamed the earth when Xp came out. You probably aren’t driving the same car you had in 2001, are you?
The choice to use the obsolete operating system costs the Navy $9 million every year, as Microsoft stopped providing free technical support and security updates for Windows XP over a year ago. Never one to leave a buck on the table, especially when it is a taxpayer dollars, Microsoft provided the option of continued support for XP for a price. That’s what the Navy has to pay for.
For those keeping track, there are four versions of Windows that are newer than XP – Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8 and the soon-to-be released Windows 10. The Navy said it has plans to upgrade to one of those (oh sure, go for Vista!) by July 2016, but there’s a chance it will take even longer. Consequently, the Navy’s contract with Microsoft includes an option to extend the agreement until June 2017.
“The Navy relies on a number of applications and programs that are reliant on legacy Windows products,” a spokesman for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command told CNN. “Until those applications and programs are modernized or phased out, this continuity of services is required to maintain operational effectiveness.”
ProTip: Never accept a piece of custom software that is reliant on features in a current operating system. That is not smart management. Failure to future-proof software (remember the Y2K thingie?) is great news for contractors and poor planning on the part of government and business.
And good news, while most of the Navy’s land-based computers have already been upgraded to newer versions of Windows, the 100,000 computers located on ships are the ones that still rely on XP. So sleep safe, America, your sons and daughters at sea are safe in the arms of the mighty XP.
“Ah, Alpha two niner, this is Nimitz control. Any chance you can ask the Chinese to hold off that missile attack on our fleet? We have to reboot the air defense system, and you know how damn long XP takes.”
General Ray Odierno, the Army’s most senior leader as Chief of Staff, told reporters the fight against Islamic State (IS) will last “10 to 20 years.”
That means if we take the General at his word, some of the American soldiers who will be fighting IS two decades from now haven’t even been born yet.
Just a Bit Longer Than Expected
“In my mind, ISIS is a ten to twenty year problem, it’s not a two year problem,” Odierno said. “Now, I don’t know what level it will be a problem, but it’s a long term problem.” Odierno is pictured above, when he was the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, a war which he did not help to win and a war which birthed IS right under America’s nose.
“The Obama administration has said ‘three to five’ years. I think in order to defeat IS, it’s going to take longer than that,” Odierno said. “This movement is growing right now, and so I think it’s going to take us a bit longer than we originally thought.”
Apparently in Odierno’s world, “a bit longer” can mean 15 additional years of conflict.
But Maybe, Sort Of, Possibly, Someone Else will Fight IS for Us
But don’t worry, the Army isn’t going to win the fight against IS any more than it won the fight in Iraq, or Afghanistan. See, it is not really their job. Odierno again:
“To defeat IS is not just a military issue. It is an economic issue. It is a diplomatic issue. It is an issue of moderate versus extremists and it is about also, potentially, having the capability to root them out of the places they now hold in Iraq and Syria. Others should do this. I believe the nations in the Middle East need to solve this problem. We should be helping them to solve this problem.”
Apparently word on how Odierno and the United States are not going to win the war has not yet filtered down to the nations of the Middle East.
About a year ago, the U.S. formed a make-believe coalition of 62 nations to fight IS. Where are they all now? The U.S. conducts 85 percent of all air strikes against IS, with most of the rest handled by western allies like Canada, France and the UK. None of the Arab ground troops expected ever showed up.
So far the only two Middle Eastern entities robustly fighting IS are Shiite militias under the control of Iran, and Iran. Neither is particularly interested in American-style goals; their focus is on eliminating a Sunni armed presence in Iraq, including IS, to secure that country as a client state for Tehran. One of those “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” types of situation.
There have been even fewer takers for the American request to fight IS in Syria. Or in Yemen, Libya and everywhere else IS is making inroads in the wake of clumsy American policy.
I’ll check back in on the situation after another two decades or so has passed, and update this article.
I write and speak about Iraq frequently, and strongly oppose U.S. military (re-)intervention there. People often respond by saying “But we have to do something, shouldn’t we do something?”
I now have a good answer: stop this. The flood of internally displaced people into Iraqi Kurdistan is increasing human trafficking and illegal organ sales.
“The increase in the number of displaced people in the Iraqi Kurdish region is the main reason why the amount of human trafficking and trafficking of human organs is increasing,” Tafkah Omar, who heads the legal department of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Human Rights Commission, told NIQASH. “The displaced people here are marginalized and they may be more willing to accept the fact that they could sell their own organs, or their relatives’ organs, in order to cover costs of their basic needs,” she noted, before adding that it was also important to consider all forms of human trafficking brought on by the ongoing conflicts in the area, including forced prostitution and child labor.
“There are fears that gangs might take more advantage of displaced people here,” she said. “The security situation is such that it is still very difficult to prevent human trafficking of all kinds.”
The sale of a kidney requires middlemen, who must both know a seller and a buyer. It is thought that middlemen for the buyers travel from Baghdad and contact middle men for the sellers in Iraqi Kurdistan. The sellers will typically receive around US$4,100 for a kidney. The middleman then sells the kidney for about $20,000 or more.
“Over the last couple of months the police haven’t managed to arrest anyone on these kinds of charges,” stated an activist.
“When we don’t have any clear evidence, we cannot do anything about the organ sales,” a police spokesperson responded. “It is highly likely that these middlemen have found alternative ways of doing business.”
(Image is representative and is not from Iraq)
I had a chance to sit down with RT.com to talk about the peace talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban that are expected to start again after Ramadan ends. The negotiations are taking place after more than a decade of war. Here’s what we said.
RT: Why is the Afghan government negotiating with Taliban terrorists in the first place?
PVB:As a former diplomat, I think it’s critical people do talk. Look, this war has gone on for fourteen years between the US, the Taliban, the Pakistanis, the Afghans – the whole gang. There has got to be a way to bring it to a conclusion, and since the US has failed militarily to bring it to a conclusion, really the only answer now is some form of negotiation. Terrorist or not, the labels are less important than the idea of stopping this war.
RT: The talks in Pakistan were said to have been very constructive, with negotiators reportedly even hugging each other afterwards. Can this diplomacy really bring peace to Afghanistan?
PVB: I think the word “peace” is a little ambitious at this point of time. I prefer the word “resolution”. We are going to have a hard time saying this is a war that was won, or a war that settled something. But I think what we need now is to speak of resolution, a way for the US to disengage, a way for the Afghan government and the Afghans in the Taliban to talk to one another and try to work something out that will benefit the Afghan people.
RT: US-led occupation forces ran the show in Afghanistan for 13 years. Were they even trying to make peace with the Taliban?
PVB: It’s a good question and one I think people like you and people like me have been asking for all these years. We’re going to have to take a deep breath and say that it’s good that the negotiations have started, even though history would judge poorly the fact that it took all these years and all these deaths to get us to this point.
RT: What about a military solution here? Has the US finally understood it’s not going to work?
PVB: It took Washington a good part of those years to realize there is no military solution, but I’m sad to say it took Washington even more time to understand that it was going to have to negotiate with the people who are on the battlefield. I think that mindset of having to negotiate with “the enemy” was really a harder victory to achieve in Washington than the idea that the military solution wasn’t going to work.
RT: Could talks with the militants have started sooner?
PVB: Absolutely. They could have started much sooner, they could have started back in 2001. The US initial push into Afghanistan was actually very successful. The Taliban was driven out of all the major cities, they were driven up into the mountains, into the caves, into hiding and at that point of time I think there was in fact a negotiated political solution that might have avoided all the years of war. There were points no doubt along the way when some type of negotiations may have been possible. That’s all water under the bridge; it’s blood on everyone’s hands but again we are going to take a deep breath and say “Thank goodness, we finally got to the point where we are sitting down at a table rather than facing off across the battlefield.”
RT: There’s also the threat posed by Islamic State in the region. There are reports that the group’s leader for Afghanistan and Pakistan has been killed in a US drone strike. The terrorist organization has said it wants to expand in the area. Who’s there to stop them?
PVB: Islamic State has something to do with it, but perhaps in a different way. Certainly no one wants to see IS entering the conflict in Afghanistan. More people with more guns are not going to make anything better. But I suspect part of the motivation is to allow the US to focus more on IS in Iraq, in Syria and other places. The Afghan war is over; everyone knows that, it’s a matter of figuring out the right way to bring America’s role to some form of resolution.
RT: Could IS be possibly welcomed in Afghanistan?
PVB: IS has the potential to establish a foothold there. Keep in mind Afghanistan shares a huge border with Pakistan, so infiltration is not going to be physically a very difficult thing, and the Taliban have often welcomed outside help in their struggle. But at the end of the day I don’t think the Taliban have much interest in sharing power with IS, I don’t think the Taliban would have much tolerance for IS setting up any kind of permanent shelter there and I don’t think the Taliban at this point see themselves wanting to give away their successes against the US by giving America yet another reason to kick the war in Afghanistan up a notch. I suspect IS’s welcome in Afghanistan would be relatively short.