Iraq’s Sunnis won’t fight ISIS for the U.S. says NIQASH, a non-profit media organization operating out of Berlin. Without Sunni support, America’s war in Iraq cannot succeed. Here’s why.
According to NIQASH, a source at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said there have been secret negotiations between various Sunni Muslim armed factions, via Arab and Iraqi Kurdish intermediaries, for the past three months. At the request of U.S. diplomats and military personnel, Shia officials from the Iraqi government have also been meeting with the leaders of these groups in Erbil, Kurdistan and Amman, Jordan.
At the same time General John Allen, the Obama’s appointed coordinator of U.S. efforts in Iraq, has been trying to contact the Sunni tribal leaders he worked with in Anbar during the previous war’s “Awakening.” “But it was surprising,” a NIQASH source reported, “Most of General Allen’s former allies refused to cooperate with us. And some of them are actually now living outside of Iraq because of the Iraqi government’s policies.”
Oops. With some irony, America’s failure to secure the 2006 Awakening caused those Sunnis sympathetic to America’s aims to flee Shia persecution. Those “good guys” are thus not available in 2014 to help out America in the current war.
ISIS and the Sunnis
When ISIS first took control of Sunni areas in western Iraq, anger towards the Shia government in Baghdad caused many to see them as liberators from the Iraqi army. The army, along with paramilitary police from the Interior Ministry, had engaged in a multi-year campaign of beating, imprisoning and arresting Sunnis, to the point where many felt that Baghdad was occupying, not governing, the Sunni majority areas. For the Sunnis and ISIS, the Baghdad government was a common enemy, and a marriage of convenience formed.
Recent events in Baghdad do little to assuage Sunni fears. A recent report suggests the new Iraqi Prime Minister may nominate a Shia Badr Militia leader as Interior Minister. Since the Shias took control of Iraq following the American invasion of 2003, the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and the prisons, has been a prime tool of repression and punishment.
Still, cracks in the ISIS-Sunni relationship have started to form. Many of the Sunni groups, especially those led by former Baathists, are largely secular in nature, seeing their Sunni ties more as broadly cultural than strictly religious. ISIS’ requests to pledge allegiance to its cause, coupled with demands to implement Sharia law, have created friction. Some internecine fighting has taken place. The U.S. has sought to exploit these issues to break the indigenous Sunnis away from ISIS, and ultimately to turn the Sunnis into American proxy boots on the ground as was done with the Kurds.
America’s problem is that most Sunnis are fearful about cooperating via America with the Shia government in Baghdad. They fear history will repeat itself and the Americans and the Shia government will betray them, exactly as they betrayed them only a few years ago when the Awakening movement collapsed. Quite a pickle.
The Sunnis seem to be choosing a middle ground, one which does not serve America’s interests.
According to a 1920s Revolution Brigades (Sunni militia) leader, various militias came to the decision “not to support the international coalition against ISIS. They also decided not to cooperate with ISIS either. If the [Iraqi] army or the [Shia] militias attack [Sunni] areas they control though, they will fight both groups.”
“We are against the acts of the hardline Islamic State. And we are also against bombed cars exploding randomly in Baghdad,” Abu Samir al-Jumaili, one of the Sunni Mujahideen Army’s leaders in the Anbar province, told NIQASH. “However we are also opposed to the government’s sectarian policies against Sunnis… In 2006 we cooperated with the government to expel al Qaeda from Sunni cities but the government did not keep its end of the bargain. They chased our leaders and arrested us… The ISIS group are terrorists but so are the Shia militias.”
History is a Witch
There is no way America can succeed in its goals in Iraq– repel ISIS and keep the country together– without the active participation of the Sunnis. It is very unlikely that that will happen. American strategy rests on the assumption that the Sunnis can be bribed and coerced into breaking with ISIS, no matter the shape of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine. As with al Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. Starting in 2006, U.S. officials did indeed bribe and coerce some Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting insurgent outfits, including al-Qaeda. That deal, then called the Anbar Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them.
America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked exit. The Shias promptly reneged on the deal.
Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for what seems to be essentially the same bad deal? It appears they will not, and that by itself suggests the current Iraq war will end much the same as the previous one. It is foolish for America to expect otherwise.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
— U.S. Embassy Baghdad (@USEmbBaghdad) October 18, 2014
A key part of America’s strategy in Iraq is the creation of an “inclusive” government in Baghdad, one that will pull together the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. This has been a persistent American myth since the 2003 invasion, one that is impossible realize and thus a single point of failure for Obama’s war.
History of the Myth
First, in 2003, as symbol of the democracy the U.S. sought to create in Iraq, then again in 2006 (remember the purple finger photos?) that the war was not actually already lost, and then forever after as the solution to the internecine fighting that America’s Occupation unleashed, the myth has had a long run. As you can see from Embassy Baghdad’s Tweet above, America again imagines it has achieved its interim goal of a balanced government; peace and prosperity is just around the corner.
A big part of the problem is that the United States thinks creating an Iraqi government is like picking players for a sports team. If things don’t work out, try again in next season’s draft. That was the thought behind America’s 180 on former Prime Minister Maliki. In power since 2006 with strong U.S. support, Maliki stayed in office from January to August 2014, even as ISIS had its first successes in Iraq. But as Obama launched the newest Iraq war, Maliki was out and a new player moved up the roster.
But since Haider al-Abadi, the latest prime minister and thus the great inclusivist hope, is a Shia and a former colleague of the once-anointed, now disappointed former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as a member of the same political party, little changed at the top. So hopes for “inclusiveness” fell to the choices to lead the key ministries of defense and the interior. Both have been tools of repression against the country’s Sunnis for years.
And now we know the winners of that odd contest.
Anti-Inclusionary Choice for Interior Ministry
A Sunni was chosen to lead Defense, a ministry currently in charge of a decrepit Iraqi Army best known for running away at first contact, leaving behind American-supplied weapons for ISIS to repurpose. Not so much joy in that job for now.
More significant choice is Abadi’s new Interior Minister, Mohammed Ghabban, a little-known Shiite politician with the Badr Organization. You remember the Badr folks, or should, because every Sunni in Iraq does. During the American Occupation, the Badr militia ran the notorious Shiite death squads, after infiltrating the same Interior Ministry it basically now heads to ensure the government would not interfere in their grim work.
Human Rights Watch quoted a doctor in the Health Ministry: “Sunnis are a minority in Baghdad, but they’re the majority in our morgue.”
Back in 2009, a SECRET Wikileaked State Department cable had this to say about the Badr militia’s leader, and the man Ghabban still answers to, Hadi al-Amiri:
Amiri is widely known to have played a leading role in organizing attacks by the Badr Corps militia (the strongest, most disciplined Shia militia at the time and precursor to the current Badr Organization) against Sunnis during the sectarian violence of 2004-2006. Sources indicate that he may have personally ordered attacks on up to 2000 Sunnis. One of his preferred methods of killing allegedly involved using a power drill to pierce the skulls of his adversaries.
Amiri was also previously rejected by Sunnis as a negotiating partner. Again, from the State Department:
Given his role in sectarian violence and prominent position in the dominant Shia coalition, it is understandable that Sunni leaders were hesitant to view him as a viable negotiating partner when he proposed a compromise parliamentary seat distribution after the November 23 Shia-Kurd backed electoral amendment was adopted.
Anti-Inclusionary Rise of the Shia Militias
The elevation of a Badr organization leader to perhaps the most significant cabinet position vis-vis the Sunnis is in line with the broader increasing influence of the Shia militias.
As much out of necessity given the limp Iraqi Army as sectarian politics, the Baghdad government has increasingly called upon Shia militias to defend the city. While they currently seem to be holding off ISIS advances past the already-Sunni controlled territory west of Baghdad Airport, Shia militias have also abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians in recent months and enjoy total impunity for these crimes, according to Amnesty International. These attacks, as an anti-inclusionary act as can be, are apparently in revenge for Sunni support of ISIS. Scores of unidentified bodies have been discovered across the country handcuffed and with gunshot wounds to the head, deliberate execution-style killings that send a message.
“By granting its blessing to militias who routinely commit such abhorrent abuses, the Iraqi government is sanctioning war crimes and fuelling a dangerous cycle of sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart,” concluded Amnesty.
Two more points about the Badr group: They were responsible for the deaths of many American military personnel during the Occupation and they remain closely allied with Iran. There is no good news with this one.
“To give the Interior Ministry to a direct Iranian proxy is huge,” said one researcher specializing in Shiite groups. “It shows who the Iraqis are throwing their lot in with.”
The inclusionary government America’s strategy for Iraq rests on is an illusion, a governmental fantasy in 2014 as it was 2003-2011. Everyone with eyes– except the U.S. government– can see where this one ends.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Only last week, when Turkey refused to assist Kurdish fighters in the Syrian city of Kobane, even as those Kurds were losing ground to ISIS fighters, and the U.S. was directing its airstrikes against far-away targets in Iraq, Secretary of State John Kerry said while the U.S. was deeply concerned about the tragedy in Kobane, Kobane did not define the strategy for the coalition with regard to ISIS.
As the U.S. sensed Kobane would fall, it tried then to distance itself from the failure. However, after domestic media and opinion started to criticise what appeared to be a failure of the Obama plan for Iraq and Syria, air resources were suddenly shifted away from Iraq and onto Kobane. ISIS seemed to have pulled back, the Kurds seemed to have moved forward, and the U.S. began hinting at victory.
Part of the U.S. strategy has been to resupply the Kurds from the air, necessary because Turkey will not allow resupply overland across its border. Such supply drops don’t always go right, and ISIS fighters seized at least one cache of weapons airdropped by U.S.-led coalition forces that were meant to supply Kurdish militiamen. The cache of weapons included hand grenades, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
On Tuesday, Islamic State loyalists on social media posted sarcastic thank you notes to the United States, including one image that said, “Team USA.”
And So What?
The badly-aimed weapons drop can be seen as more of a small embarrassment than any great strategic loss. True enough, but looking too closely at a single failed airdrop obscures the larger picture.
Though small in scale, the weapons ISIS received from the United States underscore that the group’s most sophisticated arms, and deadliest weapons, come from the U.S. Unless and until America can get control of the weapons it is pushing into battle (it can’t), the reality of Americans and their allies being killed by their own tools of war is not something to ignore.
Destroy Kobane to Save It
“Winning” in Kobane accomplishes nothing really. The city is nearly destroyed, reminding one of the Vietnam war-era remark that it was necessary to destroy the village of Ben Tre to “save it.” Over 200,000 refugees have left the city, with questions about how they can ever return to resume their lives given such devastation. The decision not to intervene by the Turks exposed the fragility of the hastily assembled U.S. coalition, setting up future confrontations among allies with very different goals and agendas for this war.
Meanwhile, as attention and limited resources are tied up in a battle of questionable strategic import, ISIS launched fifteen near-simultaneous attacks on Kurdish forces in northern Iraq on Monday in what Kurdish government officials said was a fierce and renewed push for territory. ISIS also launched attacks against Mosul Dam, a strategic prize, and also renewed its offensive on the Sinjar mountain range in northern Iraq. This is an organization aware of broader goals, and not focused on symbolic “victories.”
So be suspect if at some future date the U.S. declares Kobane a victory, an example of how ISIS can be beat. The city may very well end up as an example from this war, though perhaps not the one the U.S. intends it to be.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Long-time readers of this blog will remember the name Brett McGurk. Embarrassing emails he sent using a U.S. government computer system in Iraq surfaced in 2012, just as he was heading into confirmation hearings to become America’s ambassador to Baghdad. We now learn that the State Department’s efforts to investigate the incident were quashed, in part by some of the same people involved in State’s handling of the post-Benghazi fall out.
The McGurk Story
McGurk worked in Iraq under multiple U.S. ambassadors and through both the Bush and Obama administrations. He was present at nearly every mistake the U.S. made during the years of Occupation. In return for such poor handling of so many delicate issues, McGurk was declared “uniquely qualified” and Obama nominated him as America’s ambassador to Baghdad in 2012.
Unfortunately, around that same time a series of near-obscene emails appeared online, showing a sexual relationship between the then-married-to-someone else McGurk, and a then-married-to-someone else female reporter assigned to Baghdad. The emails suggested a) that official U.S. government communications were being used to arrange nooky encounters; b) that McGurk may have shared sensitive information exclusively with this one reporter as pillow talk; c) that he may have ditched his security detail to engage in his affair and d) rumors circulated that a McGurk sex tape, featuring a different woman, existed.
McGurk withdrew his nomination for ambassador and was promptly appointed by the State Department as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, a position without the title of ambassador but one with a significant role in policy making. Conveniently, the position was not competed and did not require any confirmation process. McGurk just walked in to it with the thanks of a grateful nation.
Still, senior officials behaving poorly can damage the credibility of a nation, and so State’s Office of Diplomatic Security (DS) was asked to investigate McGurk’s actions. State’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) later stepped in to look at the question of whether or not “undue influence” was applied by senior Clinton officials to that Diplomatic Security investigation so as to allow McGurk to emerge squeaky clean.
It seems we now know what may have happened with that investigation. It was, in the words of CBS News, quashed.
The third DS internal investigation in which OIG found an appearance of undue influence and favoritism involved the unauthorized release in mid-2012 of internal Department communications from 2008 concerning an individual who was nominated in early-2012 to serve as a U.S. Ambassador. (The nominee’s name was withdrawn following the unauthorized release.) DS commenced an internal investigation related to the unauthorized release of the internal communications. The then Chief of Staff and Counselor to the Secretary of State [Cheryl Mills] was alleged to have unduly influenced that investigation.
OIG found no evidence of any undue influence by the Chief of Staff/Counselor. However, OIG did find that the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of DS [Eric Boswell] had delayed for four months, without adequate justification, DS’s interview of the nominee, and that delay brought the investigation to a temporary standstill. OIG concluded that the delay created the appearance of undue influence and favoritism. The case was ultimately closed in July 2013, after the nominee was interviewed and after DS conducted additional investigative work.
Some are More Equal Than Others
Small world: Both Cheryl Mills and Eric Boswell of the McGurk case were deeply involved in State’s post-Benghazi actions.
Now, let’s break down some important parts of the OIG report. First, Diplomatic Security commenced its work by trying to track down the person who released the naughty emails, claiming they were “internal Department communications” even though they dealt with purely personal matters. Never mind what the emails revealed, DS’ first move was to try and hunt down the whistleblower.
While OIG could not find evidence of undue influence per se, they certainly found an “appearance” of such. Finally, we learn that the center of all this, the man seeking a senior position inside State, McGurk, was never even interviewed for four months by Diplomatic Security, and no adequate reason was given for why that delay was allowed to take place. In the short-attention span of Washington and the media, four months might as well be four years.
Where are They Now?
It would be easy to dismiss all this as business as usual in Washington (it is), or sour grapes on my part (a little) or even an I-Told-You-So on my part given the role I played in seeing McGurk’s indiscretions reach a wide audience (guilty).
But this is not just about me, no matter how much that was part of my motivation to write about the topic. It is, at the end of the day, about how our nation’s policies are created, managed an enacted, because the people and systems I’ve written about here do that.
So where are they all now? McGurk, as we know, is deeply involved in America’s new war in Iraq. The reporter who appeared to have slept with her source still works for a major media outlet. Eric Boswell, who quashed the investigation into McGurk, was reassigned and then allowed to retire post-Benghazi. Cheryl Mills remains one of Hillary’s closest advisors and is expected to play a significant role in any Clinton administration.
BONUS: The OIG report cited above was first surfaced by the best State Department blog out there, Diplopundit.
You know the joke? You describe something obviously heading for disaster — a friend crossing Death Valley with next to no gas in his car — and then add, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Such is the Middle East today. The U.S. is again at war there, bombing freely across Iraq and Syria, advising here, droning there, coalition-building in the region to loop in a little more firepower from a collection of recalcitrant allies, and searching desperately for some non-American boots to put on the ground.
Here, then, are seven worst-case scenarios in a part of the world where the worst case has regularly been the best that’s on offer. After all, with all that military power being brought to bear on the planet’s most volatile region, what could possibly go wrong?
1. The Kurds
The lands the Kurds generally consider their own have long been divided among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. None of those countries wish to give up any territory to an independence-minded ethnic minority, no less find a powerful, oil-fueled Kurdish state on their borders.
In Turkey, the Kurdish-inhabited border area with Iraq has for years been a low-level war zone, with the powerful Turkish military shelling, bombing, and occasionally sending in its army to attack rebels there. In Iran, the Kurdish population is smaller than in Iraq and the border area between the two countries more open for accommodation and trade. (The Iranians, for instance, reportedly refine oil for the Iraqi Kurds, who put it on the black market and also buy natural gas from Iran.) That country has nonetheless shelled the Kurdish border area from time to time.
The Kurds have been fighting for a state of their own since at least 1923. Inside Iraq today, they are in every practical sense a de facto independent state with their own government and military. Since 2003, they have been strong enough to challenge the Shia government in Baghdad far more aggressively than they have. Their desire to do so has been constrained by pressure from Washington to keep Iraq whole. In June, however, their military, the Peshmerga, seized the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the wake of the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul and other northern cities in the face of the militants of the Islamic State (IS). Lacking any alternative, the Obama administration let the Kurds move in.
The Peshmerga are a big part of the current problem. In a near-desperate need for some semi-competent proxy force, the U.S. and its NATO allies are now arming and training them, serving as their air force in a big way, and backing them as they inch into territory still in dispute with Baghdad as an expedient response to the new “caliphate.” This only means that, in the future, Washington will have to face the problem of how to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle if the Islamic State is ever pushed back or broken.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and now under the control of the Islamic State, is the most obvious example. Given the woeful state of the Iraqi army, the Kurds may someday take it. That will not go down well in Baghdad and the result could be massive sectarian violence long after IS is gone. We were given a small-scale preview of what might happen in the town of Hassan Sham. The Kurds took it back last month. In the process, some Shia residents reportedly sided with their enemies, the Sunni militants of IS, rather than support the advancing Peshmerga.
Worst-case scenario: A powerful Kurdistan emerges from the present mess of American policy, fueling another major sectarian war in Iraq that will have the potential to spill across borders. Whether or not Kurdistan is recognized as a country with a U.N. seat, or simply becomes a Taiwan-like state (real in all but name), it will change the power dynamic in the region in ways that could put present problems in the shade. Changing a long-held balance of power always has unintended consequences, especially in the Middle East. Ask George W. Bush about his 2003 invasion of Iraq, which kicked off most of the present mess.
You can’t, of course, talk about the Kurds without discussing Turkey, a country caught in a vise. Its forces have battled for years against a Kurdish separatist movement, personified by the PKK, a group Turkey, NATO, the European Union, and the United States all classify as a terrorist organization. Strife between the Turks and the PKK took 37,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s before being reduced from a boil to a simmer thanks to European Union diplomacy. The “problem” in Turkey is no small thing — its Kurdish minority, some 15 million people, makes up nearly 20% of the population.
When it comes to taking action in Syria, the Turks exist in a conflicted realm because Washington has anointed the Kurds its boots on the ground. Whatever it may think it’s doing, the U.S. is helping empower the Kurdish minority in Syria, including PKK elements arrayed along the Turkish border, with new weapons and training.
The Turkish ruling party has no particular love for those who run the Islamic State, but its loathing for Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad is such that its leaders have long been willing to assist IS largely by looking the other way. For some time, Turkey has been the obvious point of entry for “foreign fighters” en route to Syria to join IS ranks. Turkey has also served as the exit point for much of the black-market oil — $1.2 to $2 million a day — that IS has used to fund itself. Perhaps in return, the Islamic State released 49 Turkish hostages it was holding, including diplomats without the usual inflammatory beheading videos. In response to U.S. requests to “do something,” Turkey is now issuing fines to oil smugglers, though these have totaled only $5.7 million over the past 15 months, which shows the nature of Turkey’s commitment to the coalition.
The situation in the IS-besieged town of Kobani illustrates the problem. The Turks have refused to intervene to aid the Syrian Kurds. Turkish tanks sit idle on hills overlooking the hand-to-hand combat less than a mile away. Turkish riot police have prevented Turkish Kurds from reaching the town to help. Turkish jets have bombed PKK rebels inside Turkey, near the Iraqi border.
American bombs can slow IS, but can’t recapture parts of a city. Short of destroying Kobani by air to save it, U.S. power is limited without Turkish ground forces.
On the other hand, Washington’s present policy essentially requires Turkey to put aside its national goals to help us achieve ours. We’ve seen how such a scenario has worked out in the past. (Google “Pakistan and the Taliban.”) But with Kobani in the news, the U.S. may yet succeed in pressuring the Turks into limited gestures, such as allowing American warplanes to use Turkish airbases or letting the U.S. train some Syrian rebels on its territory. That will not change the reality that Turkey will ultimately focus on its own goals independent of the many more Kobanis to come.
Worst-case scenario: Chaos in Eastern Turkey’s future, while the sun shines on Assad and the Kurds. An influx of refugees are already taxing the Turks. Present sectarian rumblings inside Turkey could turn white hot, with the Turks finding themselves in open conflict with Kurdish forces as the U.S. sits dumbly on the sidelines watching one ally fight another, an unintended consequence of its Middle Eastern meddling. If the buffer zone comes to pass, throw in the possibility of direct fighting between the U.S. and Assad, with Russian President Vladimir Putin potentially finding an opening to reengage in the area.
Think of Syria as the American war that never should have happened. Despite years of calls for U.S. intervention and some training flirtations with Syrian rebel groups, the Obama administration had managed (just barely) to stay clear of this particular quagmire. In September 2013, President Obama walked right up to the edge of sending bombers and cruise missiles against Assad’s military over the purported use of chemical weapons. He then used an uncooperative Congress and a clever Putin-gambit as an excuse to back down.
This year’s model — ignore Assad, attack IS — evolved over just a few weeks as a limited humanitarian action morphed into a fight to the finish against IS in Iraq and then into bombing Syria itself. As with any magician’s trick, we all watched it happen but still can’t quite figure out quite how the sleight of hand was done.
Syria today is a country in ruins. But somewhere loose in that land are unicorns — creatures often spoken of but never seen — the Obama administration’s much publicized “moderate Syrian rebels.” Who are they? The working definition seems to be something like: people who oppose Assad, won’t fight him for now, but may in the meantime fight the Islamic State, and aren’t too “fundamentalist.” The U.S. plans to throw arms and training at them as soon as it can find some of them, vet them, and transport them to Saudi Arabia. If you are buying stock in the Syrian market, look for anyone labeled “moderate warlord.”
While the U.S. and its coalition attacks IS, some states (or at least wealthy individuals) in that same band of brothers continue to funnel money to the new caliphate to support its self-appointed role as a protector of Sunnis and handy proxy against Shia empowerment in Iraq. Vice President Joe Biden recently called out some of America’s partners on this in what was billed as another of his famous gaffes, requiring apologies all around. If you want to see the best-case scenario for Syria’s future, have a look at Libya, a post-U.S. intervention country in chaos, carved up by militias.
Worst-case scenario: Syria as an ungoverned space, a new haven for terrorists and warring groups fueled by outsiders. (The Pakistani Taliban has already vowed to send fighters to help IS.) Throw in the potential for some group to grab any leftover chemical weapons or SCUD-like surface-to-surface missiles from Assad’s closet, and the potential for death and destruction is unending. It might even spread to Israel.
Israel’s border with Syria, marked by the Golan Heights, has been its quietest frontier since the 1967 war, but that’s now changing. Syrian insurgents of some flavor recently seized border villages and a crossing point in those heights. United Nations peacekeepers, who once patrolled the area, have mostly been evacuated for their own safety. Last month, Israel shot down a Syrian plane that entered its airspace, no doubt a warning to Assad to mind his own business rather than a matter of military necessity.
Assumedly, the Obama administration has been in behind-the-scenes efforts, reminiscent of the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi SCUDS began raining down on Israeli cities, to keep that country out of the larger fight. It is not 1991, however. Relations between the U.S. and Israel are far more volatile and much testier. Israel is better armed and U.S. constraints on Israeli desires have proven significantly weaker of late.
Worst-case scenario: An Israeli move, either to ensure that the war stays far from its Golan Heights frontier or of a more offensive nature aimed at securing some Syrian territory, could blow the region apart. “It’s like a huge bottle with gas surrounded by candles. You just need to push one candle and everything can blow up in a minute,” said one retired Israeli general. Still, if you think Israel worries about Syria, that’s nothing compared to how its leadership must be fuming over the emergence of Iran as an ever-stronger regional power.
What can go wrong for Iran in the current conflict? While in the Middle East something unexpected can always arise, at present that country looks like the potential big winner in the IS sweepstakes. Will a pro-Iranian Shia government remain in power in Baghdad? You bet. Has Iran been given carte blanche to move ground forces into Iraq? Check. Will the American air force fly bombing runs for Iranian ground troops engaged in combat with IS (in a purely unofficial capacity, of course)? Not a doubt. Might Washington try to edge back a bit from its nuclear tough-guy negotiations? A likelihood. Might the door be left ajar when it comes to an off-the-books easing of economic sanctions if the Americans need something more from Iran in Iraq? Why not?
Worst-case scenario: Someday, there’ll be a statue of Barack Obama in central Tehran, not in Iraq.
Iraq is America’s official “graveyard of empire.” Washington’s “new” plan for that country hinges on the success of a handful of initiatives that already failed when tried between 2003-2011, a time when there were infinitely more resources available to American “nation builders” and so much less in the way of regional chaos, bad as it then was.
The first step in the latest American master plan is the creation of an “inclusive” government in Baghdad, which the U.S. dreams will drive a wedge between a rebellious and dissatisfied Sunni population and the Islamic state. After that has happened, a (re)trained Iraqi army will head back into the field to drive the forces of the new caliphate from the northern parts of the country and retake Mosul.
All of this is unrealistic, if not simply unreal. After all, Washington has already sunk $25 billion dollars into training and equipping that same army, and several billion more on the paramilitary police. The result: little more than IS seizing arsenals of top-notch Americans weaponry once the Iraqi forces fled the country’s northern cities in June.
Now, about that inclusive government. The United States seems to think creating an Iraqi government is like picking players for a fantasy football team. You know, win some, lose some, make a few trades, and if none of that works out, you still have a shot at a new roster and a winning record next year. Since Haider al-Abadi, the latest prime minister and great inclusivist hope, is a Shia and a former colleague of the once-anointed, now disappointed Nouri al-Maliki, as well as a member of the same political party, nothing much has really changed at the top. Really, what could possibly go wrong?
As for the Sunnis, American strategy rests on the assumption that they can be bribed and coerced into breaking with IS, no matter the shape of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine, unless they lack all memory. As with al-Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. Starting in 2007, U.S. officials did indeed bribe and coerce some Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting insurgent outfits, including al-Qaeda. That deal, then called the Anbar Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them. (General John Allen, now coordinating America’s newest war in Iraq, was a key figure in brokering that “awakening.”) America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked “exit.” The Shias promptly reneged on the deal.
Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for what seems to be essentially the same bad deal? In addition, this one appears to have a particularly counterproductive wrinkle from the American point of view. According to present plans, the U.S. is to form Sunni “national guard units” — up-armored Sunni militias with a more marketable name — to fight IS by paying and arming them to do so. These militias are to fight only on Sunni territory under Sunni leadership. They will have no more connection to the Baghdad government than you do. How will that help make Iraq an inclusive, unitary state? What will happen, in the long run, once even more sectarian armed militias are let loose? What could possibly go wrong?
Despite its unambiguous history of failure, the “success” of the Anbar Awakening remains a persistent myth among American conservative thinkers. So don’t be fooled in the short term by media-trumpeted local examples of Sunni-Shia cooperation against IS. Consider them temporary alliances of convenience on a tribe-by-tribe basis that might not outlast the next attack. That is nowhere near a strategy for national victory. Wasn’t then, isn’t now.
Worst-case scenario: Sunni-Shia violence reaches a new level, one which draws in outside third parties, perhaps the Sunni Gulf states, seeking to prevent a massacre. Would the Shia Iranians, with forces already in-country, stand idle? Who can predict how much blood will be spilled, all caused by another foolish American war in Iraq?
7. The United States
If Iran could be the big geopolitical winner in this multi-state conflict, then the U.S. will be the big loser. President Obama (or his successor) will, in the end, undoubtedly have to choose between war to the horizon and committing U.S. ground forces to the conflict. Neither approach is likely to bring the results desired, but those “boots on the ground” will scale up the nature of the ensuing tragedy.
Washington’s post-9/11 fantasy has always been that military power — whether at the level of full-scale invasions or “surgical” drone strikes — can change the geopolitical landscape in predictable ways. In fact, the only certainty is more death. Everything else, as the last 13 years have made clear, is up for grabs, and in ways Washington is guaranteed not to expect.
Among the likely scenarios: IS forces are currently only miles from Baghdad International Airport, itself only nine miles from the Green Zone in the heart of the capital. (Note that the M198 howitzers IS captured from the retreating Iraqis have a range of 14 miles.) The airport is a critical portal for the evacuation of embassy personnel in the face of a future potential mega-Benghazi and for flying in more personnel like the Marine Quick Reaction Force recently moved into nearby Kuwait. The airport is already protected by 300-500 American troops, backed by Apache attack helicopters and drones. The Apache helicopters recently sent into combat in nearby Anbar province probably flew out of there. If IS militants were to assault the airport, the U.S. would essentially have to defend it, which means combat between the two forces. If so, IS will lose on the ground, but will win by drawing America deeper into the quagmire.
In the bigger picture, the current anti-Islamic State coalition of “more than 60 countries” that the U.S. patched together cannot last. It’s fated to collapse in a heap of conflicting long-term goals. Sooner or later, the U.S. is likely to once again find itself alone, as it eventually did in the last Iraq war.
The most likely outcome of all this killing, whatever the fate of the Islamic State, is worsening chaos across Iraq, Syria, and other countries in the region, including possibly Turkey. As Andrew Bacevich observed, “Even if we win, we lose. Defeating the Islamic State would only commit the United States more deeply to a decades-old enterprise that has proved costly and counterproductive.” The loss of control over the real costs of this war will beg the question: Was the U.S. ever in control?
In September, Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, or bombed since 1980. During these many years of American war-making, goals have shifted endlessly, while the situation in the Greater Middle East only worsened. Democracy building? You’re not going to hear that much any more. Oil? The U.S. is set to become a net exporter. Defeating terrorism? That’s today’s go-to explanation, but the evidence is already in that picking fights in the region only fosters terror and terrorism. At home, the soundtrack of fear-mongering grows louder, leading to an amplified national security state and ever-expanding justifications for the monitoring of our society.
Worst-case scenario: America’s pan-Middle Eastern war marches into its third decade with no end in sight, a vortex that sucks in lives, national treasure, and Washington’s mental breathing room, even as other important issues are ignored. And what could possibly go wrong with that?
“The time has come to act,” said President Obama today after previously asserting robustly that it was previously not the time to act. “And so, I have ordered airstrikes commencing immediately on ebola. We won’t stop until we have degraded, some other d-word I forgot and ultimately destroyed ebola.”
A White House source named Susan Rice, who asked not to be named because everytime she speaks on the record bad things happen to her, told members of the press Obama made the decision after conferring long into the night with his closest advisor, himself. “Barack told me that when times are tough you go with what you know, and for every crisis since near day one of this presidency, when something went wrong overseas our go-to response has been airstrikes. Libya, Iraq, Syria, wherever. OK, maybe not Benghazi. So, once we saw this piece last night on Colbert saying ebola was sort of a problem, the president ordered the attacks.”
“Not a big deal anymore really, we have an online form for it now he just fills out. Hit submit and boom, death from above b*itches! God I love it so!” said Ambassador Rice, drooling, as she was led from the room to be put down.
When asked how airstrikes would be able to defeat a virus, a White House spokesperson was quick to respond “Why’d you even ask that question– don’t you support the troops? We have been using airstrikes to defeat an idea, terrorism, and that’s worked out. I am told by experts– top men– that a virus is actually physically larger than an idea, so this should be a walk in the park for our brave military personnel.”
Other measures the president has undertaken include carpet bombing the city of Dallas, where America’s two indigenous ebola cases began. “At first I was kinda worried about dropping napalm on American folks,” said the president in an exclusive interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who repeatedly licked the soles of the chief executive’s feet during the session. “But you know, pretty much no other folks outside Texas give a crap what happens to Texas folks, so it seems to have worked out. And it’s not like the state was going to vote Democrat anyway.” Obama pointed to his own eyes, then out the window, saying aloud “I’m watching you Missouri. Clean up that Ferguson thing or we just might find us some ebola in the ash tray of your car and have to clean it up with a couple of smart bombs, ya’ hear?”
Several doctors contacted for comment expressed skepticism about the president’s plan to bomb ebola, but admitted if they could not get their own professional health staff to wash their hands and stop getting on airplanes after caring for infected patients, well, why not try it his way.
Military leaders, reached in bunkers just outside Baghdad where they were placing bets on whether they would die next week at the hands of an ISIS assault or the Iraqi Army mishandling its own weapons, simply sighed and reminded this reporter that “when that ebola thing goes south like this stupid motherf*cker of a war will, don’t you blame us.”
The ebola virus was last seen dancing a merry jig, laughing to itself about how easy it was to draw the U.S. deeper into its quagmire. “Excellent, excellent,” it was heard to mutter.
As some readers may know, I am former employee of the Department of State, and after publishing a book critical of State’s efforts in the previous Iraq War We Meant Well, I was subjected to a year of legal battles, including threat of prosecution.
But standing up for your rights is a part of having those rights. A free society is based on a marketplace of ideas, that free speech thing we all learned about in civics class. We all need to hear from all sides to become the “informed citizenry” that Thomas Jefferson said was so essential to a democracy. And who better to enlighten the public about how their government really works than former federal employees, the people who were on the inside, now private citizens?
It would be wrong then for a former employer, as codified into its agency regulations, to expect its retirees to “refrain from engaging in activities of any kind, including writing manuscripts or giving speeches, which would be prejudicial to the foreign policy interests of the United States.” But that is exactly what the U.S. Department of State does.
They even wrote it down, stating (emphasis added):
Former employees are expected to refrain from engaging in activities of any kind, including writing manuscripts or giving speeches, which would be prejudicial to the foreign policy interests of the United States.
Former employees are encouraged to make public appearances and write manuscripts for unofficial publication which constructively contribute to the interests and objectives of the Department of State and the Government.
So let’s get this straight. Private citizens, who happened to once work for the State Department in some capacity, perhaps not even one directly connected to policy issues, are expected to not say anything in a public forum against the interests of the United States? And they are encouraged to say things that contribute to the objectives of the Department of State? Just ’cause?
Though this all smacks of some sort of Orwellian attempt to coerce, er, expect, a class of private citizens to propagandize, um, engage in activities, that use their authority and reputation as former State Department employee to promote only the side of a discussion that supports the government’s position, I’ll play along. I have to right, as a Good Citizen?
But I think the problem will be in how the State Department and I might differ on just what the “interests and objectives of the Department of State and the Government” are that I am told because I once worked there I must support.
But let’s start with something we can agree on. The State Department’s Mission Statement says in part that the agency should seek to “Shape and sustain a… democratic world.” I agree.
But I disagree that admonishments to spew the government line as a private citizen, as State wants, contribute to that goal. Instead, I believe that exercising my First Amendment rights as a private citizen contribute much to democracy. Any exercise of rights strengthens a democracy, the same as any attacks on those rights diminish it. Bleating out the party line is for countries ruled by parties. Did you know that North Korea’s interests and objectives include claiming Kim Il Sung invented the television? I guess their former employees are encouraged and expected to write nice things in comments on YouTube and stuff about that.
Welcome to another episode of Post-Constitutional America, where the old rules do not apply. See something, say something, unless you used to work for the State Department and what you say does not agree with the government’s version of things.
But oh! Some feel that is too much, too dramatic. Fair enough. The whole problem is not that State can ever enforce these rules– they can’t– it is that they exist as a testament to how they think. It’s that whole idea of “loyalty” above all else, and of course the hypocrisy of saying how important dissent is while trying very hard to stifle it. At the end of the day such things erode employees. So many just kind of give up and stop caring too much about what they do and just glide through the motions.
BONUS: The same section of regulation quoted above also says “The State Department will be glad to furnish, upon request, advice, assistance, and copies of printed publications to former employees who wish to obtain information on particular subjects.” Or not. I have asked State for comment and “advice” on these regulations and have not received any response.
FYI: State has not contacted me personally about anything I have written. This article is based on State’s regulations. Whether currently enforced in some way or not, their existence is reason enough to call out.
It can be hard to keep track of your money. You charge stuff and misplace the receipts, you forget to record a check written and before you know it, $12-14 billion is unaccounted for in Iraq. Even then, after one authoritative source thinks he’s found some of it, no one bothers to go get it.
Is it in Lebanon?
New information from the former Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGAR) Stuart Bowen, reported by perhaps the bravest journalist alive today, James Risen, shows that of the multi-billions of U.S. dollars cash literally shipped on pallets (pictured) to Iraq in 2003, over one billion was traced into Lebanon (the other billions remain unaccounted for.)
Risen reports that in the first days after the fall of Baghdad and continuing for over a year, American proconsul Paul Bremer, on his own, somehow ordered $12-$14 billion (note the uncertainty factor of two billion dollars, itself a crime) to be sent to Iraq in the airlift, and an additional $5 billion was sent by electronic transfer. Some sources put the total as high as $20 billion.
Dollars and Nonsense
“We did not know that Bremer was flying in all that cash,” said the head of the Treasury Department team that worked on Iraq’s financial reconstruction after the invasion. “I can’t see a reason for it.”
The cash was literally delivered shrink-wrapped, on pallets, enormous bundles of Benjamins. Exactly what happened to that money after it arrived in Baghdad became one of the many unanswered questions from the chaotic days of the American occupation. We’ll never know.
Except maybe Bowen, who claims to have tracked $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion (note the uncertainty factor of $4,000,000 dollars) to a bunker in rural Lebanon for safe keeping. An informant said the bunker also may have held $200 million of Iraqi government gold. “I don’t know how the money got to Lebanon,” Bowen said. “Billions of dollars have been taken out of Iraq over the last ten years illegally. In this investigation, we thought we were on the track for some of that lost money. It’s disappointing to me personally that we were unable to close this case, for reasons beyond our control.”
The Bush administration never investigated how that huge amount of money disappeared, even after Bowen’s investigators found out about the bunker in Lebanon. The Obama administration did not pursue that lead, either. Bowen’s team briefed the CIA and the FBI on what they found, but no one took any action. Even the Iraqi government has not tried to retrieve the money, and has kept information about the Lebanese bunker secret. When Bowen and his staff tried to move the search into Lebanon themselves, he met with resistance from the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Bowen himself was not allowed to travel to Lebanon, and two of his investigators who did travel were denied permission from the embassy to see the bunker. Bowen’s staff members instead met with Lebanon’s prosecutor general, who initially agreed to cooperate on an investigation, but later decided against it. In the words of one who has spent perhaps too much time in government, Bowen summed it all up by saying “We struggled to gain timely support from the interagency as we pursued this case.”
Of all the missing money, by 2011 the Pentagon and the Iraqi government claim to have accounted for all but $6 billion of it, as if missing the target by six billion spaces is an OK result. And even that assumes one believes the Pentagon and Iraqi audit.
How’d All That Money Go Missing Anyway?
How did all that money go missing? That, at least, is something we know. U.S. officials claimed in the early days of the war that they didn’t have time or staff to keep strict financial controls. Millions of dollars were stuffed in gunnysacks and hauled on pickups to Iraqi agencies or contractors, officials have testified. House Government Reform Committee investigators charged in 2005 that U.S. officials “used virtually no financial controls to account for these enormous cash withdrawals once they arrived in Iraq, and there is evidence of substantial waste, fraud and abuse in the actual spending and disbursement of the Iraqi funds.” Meanwhile, Pentagon officials contended for years that they could account for the money if given enough time to track down the records.
But repeated attempts to find the documentation, or better yet the cash, were fruitless. An inspector general’s report into the missing money in Iraq painted a picture of Pentagon officials digging through boxes of hard copy records looking for missing paper copies of Excel spreadsheets, monthly reports and other paper documents that should have been kept detailing what the money was spent on and why those expenditures were necessary. Apparently, there are no electronic records to back up the spending. It. Just. Went. Away.
Occam’s Bank Account
So where did all that money go? Here and there on the web you can find a conspiracy theory or two, but the obvious answer is usually the correct one. There are no doubt Dubai-based bank accounts of current and former Iraqi government officials swollen with cash, perhaps some accounts of American contractors and various U.S. officials as well. As for that bunker in Lebanon, well, your typical third world crew knows that you can only trust banks so far, and everyone needs a stash in case they have to bug out in a hurry and lay low while international terrorists hunt for you. Perhaps following a few more battlefield successes for ISIS inside Iraq?
Inspire is an English language online magazine published since 2010 by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I just read the latest issue so you won’t get arrested doing so.
Aimed primarily at radicalizing youth audiences in the U.S. and Britain, the mag appears semi-regularly (twelve issues so far) online only, as a PDF, and is entirely in English. Graphically well-done, the editorial parts of the magazine shift among sometimes bad-English reporting, religious and jihadi-inspirational pieces, and bomb making instructions.
Yeah, bomb making instructions. That’s the part that sort of is controversial, the clear, step-by-step photo-illustrated instructions for making your own explosives using common materials, plus the encouragement to use them in crowded places.
Inspire and al-Awlaki
The magazine was once thought to be the work of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who once preached at a Northern Virginia mosque and lunched at the Pentagon, gone-bad.
Though al-Awlaki and his teenage son were assassinated by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011, thus ending his editorship, the magazine continues to be published. Al-Awaki’s thoughts are reprinted posthumously and still carry influence. That tells you pretty much all you need to know in two sentences about the failure of the war on terror.
Because reading/possessing Inspire may be illegal in the UK and Australia, and viewing it online in the U.S. likely to land you on some sort of watch list or another, I’ll just offer the one link here to the full text if you want to read the whole thing. For me, if I’m not on some list already I haven’t been doing my job and should just go back to my true passion, Little House on the Prairie fan fiction.
Inside the Spring 2014 Inspire Mag
Things begin straight-forward enough with a note from the editor:
The American government was unable to protect its citizens from pressure cooker bombs in backpacks, I wonder if they are ready to stop car bombs! Therefore, as our responsibility to the Muslim Ummah in general and Muslims living in America in particular, Inspire Magazine humbly presents to you a simple improvised home recipe of a car bomb. And the good news is… you can prepare it in the kitchen of your mom too.
To be fair, the kitchen of your mom has to be stocked with some pretty unusual stuff to pull this off, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
There follows some quotes by famous people on news topics, most predictable. But one by a Muslim college student in the U.S. stands out:
I remember I had one professor that said that if he was in Iraq, he’d probably be on the other side. And I remember I was just looking at him thinking I’ll be in jail if I thought that.
A quote by another leaves you with the uncomfortable impression that these guys “get it,” saying the things we just don’t hear from our own media:
If we don’t change our stupid foreign policies, there will sooner or later be many more people overseas wishing to do this country harm! We’re already the most hated country in the world and through our own stupidity that will only get worse. Moreover, we’re spending ourselves into oblivion over this!
So while there is plenty of bloody jihad stuff written in Borat-level English, it isn’t all that way in Inspire. One wonders if this approach, accidentally humorous and purposefully serious, is not actually an effective way to speak to disaffected youth.
Despite my promise to you, I did not actually read every word of articles that began “Twelve years have passed since the blessed Battles of New York, Washington and Pennsylvania…” or asked “Is the modern Buffalo soldier worth a Labrador? Would the U.S. Army at least honor them with Dickin Medals?”
I sort of can figure out without getting 800 words in what the point of a piece that asks “Isn’t it saddening that Bo, Obama’s dog, dines with the tax payers’ money on better food than that of 100 million Americans?” But hah, Inspire, got you there. A lot of lower-income Americans are forced to eat the same dog food Bo does!
And see if you can puzzle out this one:
Obama is like a very thirsty patient that suffers from high blood pressure. As he becomes thirstier he finds a cup of salty water with salt crystals visible. To make the water drinkable, he has to get rid of the salt. So he stirs the water. As he stirs, the salt begins to disappear, this makes him very happy. Yes, the salt disappeared from sight, but the taste of the water became saltier. This is exactly what Obama is doing by the use of unmanned drones.
Things alternate like that for most of the magazine, kind of thoughtful stuff, weird unintelligible stuff, sort of parable, sort of makes sense maybe stuff, a lot of anti-Semitism and rants intermingled with Quranic quotes. But things get deadly serious when the topic turns to making and employing car bombs.
The magazine explains the bomb making instructions are “open source jihad,” to allow persons via the web to “prepare for jihad,” all from the comforts of home. I am not a chemist, but the details seem easy to follow, broken down into steps with photos to illustrate. Theory is tagged on to the practical; how explosive combustion works, how pressure is measured and so forth. Different ignition switches are discussed, depending on whether you seek a timed explosion or intend a suicide attack where you’ll trip the bomb manually.
You turn away with the impression that this is something simple enough that you could probably make it work.
It is made clear the type of bomb you’ll be making is aimed at destroying people, not buildings, and advice is given accordingly.
Closing the Pages
It would be unfair to close the pages of Inspire and say I felt anything but creeped out. I’ve tried to come up with something more intelligent sounding, but what starts as a laugh ends very seriously. Someone was very effective at making me walk away thinking they want to kill me.
So when you read other versions of what’s in Inspire, most of which focus on creating their own, new levels of fear-mongering or in belittling the magazine as “clumsy,” spare a thought to what the magazine is really achieving: it makes you afraid. That’s what good propaganda does, effectively get inside your head. Inspire is good propaganda.
I wanted to offer a wry chuckle before we headed into the heavy stuff about Iraq, so I tried to start this article with a suitably ironic formulation. You know, a déjà-vu-all-over-again kinda thing. I even thought about telling you how, in 2011, I contacted a noted author to blurb my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and he presciently declined, saying sardonically, “So you’re gonna be the one to write the last book on failure in Iraq?”
I couldn’t do any of that. As someone who cares deeply about this country, I find it beyond belief that Washington has again plunged into the swamp of the Sunni-Shia mess in Iraq. A young soldier now deployed as one of the 1,600 non-boots-on-the-ground there might have been eight years old when the 2003 invasion took place. He probably had to ask his dad about it. After all, less than three years ago, when dad finally came home with his head “held high,” President Obama assured Americans that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” So what happened in the blink of an eye?
The Sons of Iraq
Sometimes, when I turn on the TV these days, the sense of seeing once again places in Iraq I’d been overwhelms me. After 22 years as a diplomat with the Department of State, I spent 12 long months in Iraq in 2009-2010 as part of the American occupation. My role was to lead two teams in “reconstructing” the nation. In practice, that meant paying for schools that would never be completed, setting up pastry shops on streets without water or electricity, and conducting endless propaganda events on Washington-generated themes of the week (“small business,” “women’s empowerment,” “democracy building.”)
We even organized awkward soccer matches, where American taxpayer money was used to coerce reluctant Sunni teams into facing off against hesitant Shia ones in hopes that, somehow, the chaos created by the American invasion could be ameliorated on the playing field. In an afternoon, we definitively failed to reconcile the millennium-old Sunni-Shia divide we had sparked into ethnic-cleansing-style life in 2003-2004, even if the score was carefully stage managed into a tie by the 82nd Airborne soldiers with whom I worked.
In 2006, the U.S. brokered the ascension to power of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia politician handpicked to unite Iraq. A bright, shining lie of a plan soon followed. Applying vast amounts of money, Washington’s emissaries created the Sahwa, or Sons of Iraq, a loose grouping of Sunnis anointed as “moderates” who agreed to temporarily stop killing in return for a promised place at the table in the New(er) Iraq. The “political space” for this was to be created by a massive escalation of the American military effort, which gained a particularly marketable name: the surge.
I was charged with meeting the Sahwa leaders in my area. My job back then was to try to persuade them to stay on board just a little longer, even as they came to realize that they’d been had. Maliki’s Shia government in Baghdad, which was already ignoring American entreaties to be inclusive, was hell-bent on ensuring that there would be no Sunni “sons” in its Iraq.
False alliances and double-crosses were not unfamiliar to the Sunni warlords I engaged with. Often, our talk — over endless tiny glasses of sweet, sweet tea stirred with white-hot metal spoons — shifted from the Shia and the Americans to their great-grandfathers’ struggle against the British. Revenge unfolds over generations, they assured me, and memories are long in the Middle East, they warned.
When I left in 2010, the year before the American military finally departed, the truth on the ground should have been clear enough to anyone with the vision to take it in. Iraq had already been tacitly divided into feuding state-lets controlled by Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. The Baghdad government had turned into a typical, gleeful third-world kleptocracy fueled by American money, but with a particularly nasty twist: they were also a group of autocrats dedicated to persecuting, marginalizing, degrading, and perhaps one day destroying the country’s Sunni minority.
U.S. influence was fading fast, leaving the State Department, a small military contingent, various spooks, and contractors hidden behind the walls of the billion-dollar embassy (the largest in the world!) that had been built in a moment of imperial hubris. The foreign power with the most influence over events was by then Iran, the country the Bush administration had once been determined to take down alongside Saddam Hussein as part of the Axis of Evil.
The Grandsons of Iraq
The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than 190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.
According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.
Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.
The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.
And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared? They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.
The newest Iraq war features Special Operations “trainers,” air strikes against IS fighters using American weapons abandoned by the Iraqi Army (now evidently to be resupplied by Washington), U.S. aircraft taking to the skies from inside Iraq as well as a carrier in the Persian Gulf and possibly elsewhere, and an air war across the border into Syria.
It Takes a Lot of Turning Points To Go In a Circle
The truth on the ground these days is tragically familiar: an Iraq even more divided into feuding state-lets; a Baghdad government kleptocracy about to be reinvigorated by free-flowing American money; and a new Shia prime minister being issued the same 2003-2011 to-do list by Washington: mollify the Sunnis, unify Iraq, and make it snappy. The State Department still stays hidden behind the walls of that billion-dollar embassy. More money will be spent to train the collapsed Iraqi military. Iran remains the foreign power with the most influence over events.
One odd difference should be noted, however: in the last Iraq war, the Iranians sponsored and directed attacks by Shia militias against American occupation forces (and me); now, its special operatives and combat advisors fight side-by-side with those same Shia militias under the cover of American air power. You want real boots on the ground? Iranian forces are already there. It’s certainly an example of how politics makes strange bedfellows, but also of what happens when you assemble your “strategy” on the run.
Obama hardly can be blamed for all of this, but he’s done his part to make it worse — and worse it will surely get as his administration once again assumes ownership of the Sunni-Shia fight. The “new” unity plan that will fail follows the pattern of the one that did fail in 2007: use American military force to create a political space for “reconciliation” between once-burned, twice-shy Sunnis and a compromise Shia government that American money tries to nudge into an agreement against Iran’s wishes. Perhaps whatever new Sunni organization is pasted together, however briefly, by American representatives should be called the Grandsons of Iraq.
Just to add to the general eeriness factor, the key people in charge of putting Washington’s plans into effect are distinctly familiar faces. Brett McGurk, who served in key Iraq policy positions throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, is again the point man as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran. McGurk was once called the “Maliki whisperer” for his closeness to the former prime minister. The current American ambassador, Robert Stephen Beecroft, was deputy chief of mission, the number two at the Baghdad embassy, back in 2011. Diplomatically, another faux coalition of the (remarkably un)willing is being assembled. And the pundits demanding war in a feverish hysteria in Washington are all familiar names, mostly leftovers from the glory days of the 2003 invasion.
Lloyd Austin, the general overseeing America’s new military effort, oversaw the 2011 retreat. General John Allen, brought out of military retirement to coordinate the new war in the region — he had recently been a civilian advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry — was deputy commander in Iraq’s Anbar province during the surge. Also on the U.S. side, the mercenary security contractors are back, even as President Obama cites, without a hint of irony, the ancient 2002 congressional authorization to invade Iraq he opposed as candidate Obama as one of his legal justifications for this year’s war. The Iranians, too, have the same military commander on the ground in Iraq, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Force. Small world. Suleimani also helps direct Hezbollah operations inside Syria.
Even the aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf launching air strikes, the USS George H.W. Bush, is fittingly named after the president who first got us deep into Iraq almost a quarter century ago. Just consider that for a moment: we have been in Iraq so long that we now have an aircraft carrier named after the president who launched the adventure.
On a 36-month schedule for “destroying” ISIS, the president is already ceding his war to the next president, as was done to him by George W. Bush. That next president may well be Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state as Iraq War 2.0 sputtered to its conclusion. Notably, it was her husband whose administration kept the original Iraq War of 1990-1991 alive via no-fly zones and sanctions. Call that a pedigree of sorts when it comes to fighting in Iraq until hell freezes over.
If there is a summary lesson here, perhaps it’s that there is evidently no hole that can’t be dug deeper. How could it be more obvious, after more than two decades of empty declarations of victory in Iraq, that genuine “success,” however defined, is impossible? The only way to win is not to play. Otherwise, you’re just a sucker at the geopolitical equivalent of a carnival ringtoss game with a fist full of quarters to trade for a cheap stuffed animal.
Apocalypse Then — And Now
America’s wars in the Middle East exist in a hallucinatory space where reality is of little import, so if you think you heard all this before, between 2003 and 2010, you did. But for those of us of a certain age, the echoes go back much further. I recently joined a discussion on Dutch television where former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra made a telling slip of the tongue. As we spoke about ISIS, Hoekstra insisted that the U.S. needed to deny them “sanctuary in Cambodia.” He quickly corrected himself to say “Syria,” but the point was made.
We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.
As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.
1) “Inclusive” Government
A cornerstone of solving Iraq, however defined, is the formation of an inclusive government, one that addresses the needs of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, gives each a sense of substantive participation, creates safety for each and allows decision-making to take place while assuring the Shias do not slink back into dominance. Since the new prime minister, handmaiden to the U.S. and approved by Iran, is a Shia and former colleague of Maliki and member of the same political party, inclusiveness falls to appointments to key ministries and the powers delegated to those ministers.
The big ones to watch are Defense and Interior. Both ministries have been used as tools of repression against Sunnis since at least 2006. A key Sunni in one or both is good. A “for show” Sunni is bad. It is highly unlikely the U.S. will allow two Shias to be chosen, but leaving the posts empty, as they are now, is nearly as bad.
2) For-Show Sunnis
Of the many mistakes the U.S. made during the Occupation, one was the empowerment of not powerful Sunnis, many of whom were simply carpetbaggers out for a buck or a million bucks, or just lesser leaders hoping to move up with U.S. help. This undermined broader support, as the Sunni people knew who the fakes were even if the U.S. didn’t, or didn’t care. Information on individual Sunnis who come to some power will be hard to find, but look for it, as it will make clearer whether such men will add to or help mask the truth about inclusiveness.
Most gestures are just that, empty statements. Any real progress in Iraq requires concrete, substantive action by the Shia government; they have a lot of distrust to overcome among their Sunni and Kurd populations.
Simple statements, however trumpeted by the U.S. as signs of progress, typically framed as “you have to walk before you run,” are likely just propaganda. A trick employed by the Iraqi government during the Occupation was to announce one thing in English to the Western media, and say nothing, or say something quite different, in their own media. If possible, check news sources with Arabic speakers on the ground in Iraq closely. I recommend @prashantrao, @JoelWing2, @reidarvisser, @berendvh, @IraqDaily, @iraqbiznews, @tarangoNYT, @LizSly, @AJEnglish, @iraqoilreport and just for laffs, @USEmbBaghdad.
One big deal but unlikely gesture: Allow the former Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, now in exile under a death warrant, to return. Huge deal: give him a place in the new government. He’s no angel, but it will get the Sunnis’ attention.
Any signs that Shia militia are being reigned in off the battlefield are good. Examples of them targeting Sunnis in Baghdad or elsewhere are bad things. Examples of whatever remains of the Iraqi military proper really fighting with the peshmerga, as opposed to fighting nearby while the Americans make everyone fight nice together, are good. Sunni units fighting in one place, Shia in another and Kurds in a third are bad signs. Don’t be fooled by showcase episodes, such as when CNN just happens to be embedded just as a Shia unit happens to help out a Kurd unit.
Of course, when ISIS overruns an Iraqi Army base near Baghdad and executes 300 government troops as they did recently, and somehow U.S. airpower is unable to intervene, that is a bad turn. Same for reported ISIS bombings inside Baghdad city.
Watch claims of victory carefully. Many small towns will change hands, especially if ISIS follows Insurgency 101 tactics of just temporarily melting away when faced with bad odds. Unless and until the Iraqi government actually controls Mosul and especially Fallujah, there is still a l-o-n-g way to go in this struggle.
5) U.S. Bombing
More U.S. “successes” closer and closer to Baghdad are bad, especially south of the city where Sunni-Shia seams still exist. How the inevitable “collateral damage” and/or bombing mistake that takes out a school or hospital is handled will be very important. The Shia government has to keep a wary population at least neutral toward the Americans. There is a large group of people inside Iraq who believe ISIS is a CIA creation designed to create a causa belli for American forces to re-enter Iraq.
More war porn video of smart bombs snuffing ISIS Toyotas or individual mortars is bad, signs that there is little to blow up that makes any difference. More U.S. aircraft being based inside Iraq is a sign that the U.S. may get those permanent bases it has always wanted, and likely has little to do with the conflict per se.
Another bad news thing: basing American aircraft in-country, as is happening now near Erbil and with a small number of helicopters inside Baghdad International Airport, means a long “tail.” That tail includes U.S. maintenance and armorers on the ground, staff to feed and protect them, and shipments in of bombs and spare parts. Every persn becomes a target that can expand the conflict. Yep, it is that slippery slope thing again.
6) That Coalition
If the U.S. insists on any of its Arab “partners” doing any bombing outside western Iraq near Syria, bad news. No one inside Iraq wants Arab forces loose inside the country. The Shia government would be especially troubled, given how much of the local coalition comes from Sunni nations. It is unlikely even the U.S. is clumsy enough to push for this, but then again, you never know.
Keep an eye on Turkey, who is shaping up to really get the dirty end of the stick because of U.S. efforts. The Turks fear a powerful Kurdish entity on its disputed border with Kurdistan/Iraq, fear internal strife from its own restive Kurdish population and are wary of U.S. efforts to further arm and empower Kurds, and move them deeper into Syria as proxy boots on the ground. That would put the Kurds on two Turkish borders. The Turks are also bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis the U.S. is creating by bombing Syria. Anything the U.S. does to alleviate Turkish concerns is good, anything else is bad.
Iran of course is the place where all the lines intersect in Iraq, as well as Syria and throughout the parts of the Middle East the U.S. is most concerned about, never mind the nuclear issue.
But sticking to Iraq, watch everything Iran says, does, or has said about it. Right now, the U.S.’ influence in Baghdad is mostly being bought with “aid” money (the Kurds have more needs, primarily U.S. assurances of their de facto autonomous status vis-vis Baghdad.) The foreign power with the most influence throughout Iraq, and especially with the central government, is Iran. The prime minister and his party have deep ties to Iran, and won’t make a significant move without at least tacit approval. Iran has funded and retains connections into many Shia militias and can reel them in or push them out into the war.
Iran has overtly committed those elusive boots on the ground to the struggle. Iran, as the power that did not leave Iraq, has credibility on the ground with the Shia, and scares the sweat out of Sunnis and Kurds, who know the U.S. will again depart someday while the Iranians will share at least a border with them forever.
While there is no doubt the U.S. and Iran are speaking via some back channel, a very good sign would be overt discussions. A bad sign would be pop ups of anger over the nuclear issue. The U.S. may, for domestic political reasons, foolishly try and separate the issues of Iran-Iraq and Iran-Nukes, but inside Iran there is no such divide; both are part of the uber-issue of U.S.-Iran relations.
What Iran does will affect the struggle in Iraq as much as any other single factor. Watch for it.
“Dude, I grew up on the classic U.S. sound, you remember, democracy, equality, promotion of freedom. My favorite was ‘The Peace Corps,’ but ‘We Won’t Invade You This Month’ got me through some rough times in college. But this new stuff, meh,” said one long-time fan, sweeping aside his gray ponytail.
“We Will Bomb You, Because” opened big inside the United States, where the United States still enjoys a steady following. A recent track, “Who Cares What You Think, Featuring al Qaeda,” saw over one million downloads its first week alone. “The addition of al Qaeda to the tune pumped new life into an old franchise,” stated Rolling Stone in its review, “but subsequent attempts to roll in ISIS and Khorasan just did not work when al Qaeda balked at joining the U.S. in touring the new material. “Just isn’t the same,” said Stone. “America has gone to the well too many times with the same material. They’re just phoning this new wave of terror stuff in.”
When reached for comment, lead singer of the United States Barack Yeezus Obama remained hopeful. “Any time the group moves in a new direction, you risk losing some old time fans. We saw that just after we dropped the “NSA” album. But many times the old timers just give up and come to reluctantly accept what you are shoveling out, and of course new material also brings in new fans.”
“For example,” chimed in backup singer George The W Bush, “look at what happened with our seminal ‘It’s 9/11, Bitch’ multi-platinum work. Not only did we rope in millions and millions of fans worldwide, but after sales tapered off following the disastrous Iraq tour, our old fans sucked it up and started taking their shoes off at the airport without a complaint. We even spun off the mega-platinum group DHS from all that. And when a small group of former fans started making too many negative comments online, we just had them tortured and imprisoned indefinitely. Let’s see Beyonce do that.”
“And,” said Obama hopefully, “the recent tours in Yemen and Somalia have been huge successes. We have high hopes for Syria and the new material as well. We da’ bomb ya’all!”
The band also acknowledged the growing popularity of long-time rival group Iran, but shrugged off any notion that the United States would not continue to dominate the market in the long-run.
A spokesperson for the United States did quietly add that the group is not totally unaware of its falling image abroad. She hinted that the current tour will work in additional classic material, and a greatest hits collection will be out in time for Christmas. The United States plans also to donate a percentage of sales to the Wounded Warrior charity.
“You gotta give back,” said the spokesperson.
On the Alan Colmes radio show we talked about some of the mistakes the U.S. has made in Iraq and Syria, and how the future of the region can only end in chaos.
We also discussed where ISIS came from, why the State Department went after me after writing We Meant Well, and what it really means to “rebuild” Iraq.
Listen to the full audio here.
The ISIS First Sergeant spat into the sand. “These new suicide bomber Western recruits just ain’t what they used to be. Shoot, I quit al Qaeda for ISIS just to get away from this amateur crap and here I am stepping in it again for ISIS.”
“Once upon a time,” said the grizzled veteran who will be played by Clint Eastwood if we can afford him in the movie version of this article, “you got some good people signing up for the suicide corps. Sure, they arrived at training here as pasty kids from the American suburbs, but they trained up right and blew up real nice. Made me proud. Now, look at this pack of maggots I’ve got to work with. Can’t even remember to wear their reflective safety belt over the damn dynamite-packed suicide vest.”
“After we put an ad on Craigslist specifically asking for Americans to join jihad as suicide bombers, I got like 4,000 emails overnight. Every one said the kid had just graduated with an English degree, had massive student loans and was willing to do anything as a start. Fair enough, but then the little twerps started asking about benefits and ‘work-life balance.’ Work-life balance, are you freaking kidding me? It says ‘suicide bomber’ right in the job description. Give me a break. I gotta admit though, when I mention the 72 virgins waiting for you in heaven after only one week at work, they do perk up. Does Google offer that?”
Still, the sergeant admitted, his challenges with the new recruits are hard to overcome.
“They do complain about everything. Until about three months ago, nobody ever asked me for whatever the hell sriracha sauce is to add to the rotten goat meat we serve. But yeah, our pita bread is gluten free, mainly because we have to make it out of sawdust since the American sanctions cut off most wheat imports. But the hilarious one is always ‘where can I charge my cell phone?’ Don’t these bozos even watch the news? Cell phones attract drones like rotten goat meat attracts flies, which, by the way, are another featured menu item here.”
But the worst is yet to come for the sergeant.
“I have a huge wash-out rate. And our basic training is only like four days long. Day One we practice writing wills, and they do OK. Day Two is when they sign over all their assets and as much of their parents’ money as they can. Again, no problem, as that’s just like the student loans they are familiar with. Day Three, the guys spend ten hours pushing the one button on our new model practice suicide vests over and over. A bunch fail at that, claiming in four years of college they never had to do any ‘manual labor.’ I tell them it’s like a video game controller, and that helps a few. The last day is the big wash-out. As a final exam the recruits have to swing across some monkey bars and jump through a ring of fire in black pajamas.”
“I personally think our modern, hi-tech suicide corps is past that kind of thing, but the mullahs love it, and we somehow always end up featuring it in the recruitment videos your American media plays over and over again for us. I can’t tell you how many times in the NCO mess I hear ‘well if it was good enough for us in the Taliban in the old days, it’s good enough for these kids now.'”
“You wanna know how hard this job really is? My most motivated class of recruits all turned out to be CIA agents, and I had to behead each one myself after some supply clerk ganked up the curved knife requisition order. And then when I finally do train some kid into a spit-shined suicide bomber, he’s never around long enough to mentor the next group. See how it sucks to be me?”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force involved in the training of Americans to kill Muslims by remote control using drones described the scene above as “barbaric.”
Proving or disproving his allegations will be an uncertain thing. One thing that is certain is that people will claim he is nothing more than a disgruntled employee with an agenda. I don’t think so. Because once I was also there.
Who is Ray Maxwell?
Raymond Maxwell was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, covering Libya. Soon after Ambassador Chris Stevens and others were killed in Benghazi, Maxwell says he participated in a secret Sunday session where Clinton aides Cheryl Mills and Jake Sullivan oversaw a document review with the aim to “pull out anything that might put anybody in the front office or the seventh floor in a bad light” (“Seventh floor” is slang for the Secretary of State.)
As the House Select Committee on Benghazi held its first hearing Wednesday, the focus was on the Secretary of State’s role in securing American embassies and consulates abroad. Maxwell did not testify, and may or may not be eventually called to speak publicly to the Committee, but his allegations loom in the background.
I’ve met Maxwell, talked with him, though he did not confide in me. When you join State, you serve whomever is in the White House and like me, Maxwell worked Reagan through Obama. “For any Foreign Service Officer, being at work is the essence of everything,” Maxwell told a reporter after he was ultimately pushed into an early retirement following State’s internal review of the Benghazi debacle. In 2013, Maxwell spoke to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Oversight Committee, and kept quiet about the bombshell information. Maxwell impresses as a State Department archetype, dedicated to the insular institution, apolitical to the point of frustration to an outsider, but shocked when he found his loyalty was not returned.
Whistleblowers at State
He has revealed what he knows only two years after the fact. People will say he is out for revenge. But I don’t think so. As a State Department whistleblower who experienced how the Department treats such people, I was there, and there is not a place anyone readily wants to be.
My own whistleblowing seems minor compared to something that might alter the race for the presidency. With 22 years at State, I spent twelve months leading two Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq. The staggering incompetence and waste of taxpayer money I saw, coupled with the near-complete lack of interest by the Department I found trying to “go through channels,” lead to me write a We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People book exposing it all. The response was devastating: my security clearance was pulled, my case was sent to the Department of Justice for prosecution, I was frog-marched out of my office and forbidden to enter any State Department facility, I was placed on a Secret Service watch list as a potential threat to Mrs. Clinton, the pension I earned over a long career was threatened and only after the intercession of some of the same lawyers now representing Edward Snowden was I “allowed” to retire. My case appeared in Glenn Greenwald’s column. All over a book that discussed history, and named no names.
Inside the Mind of a Whistleblower
For whistleblowers to go public, there is a calculus of pain and gain, and that takes time. You try to go through channels; Congressman Jason Chaffetz says Maxwell first told lawmakers his full story privately some time ago. Then you wait in hopes the information will come out without you, that someone else might speak up first, you hint at it hoping someone will take the bait, and instead see faux investigations and bleats about “it’s just politics” further bury it.
There was a two year gap between much of what I saw in Iraq and my public coming out. The same was true for Snowden and other whistleblowers. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to turn your own life, and that of your family’s, upside down, risking financial ruin, public shaming and possibly jail time. It is a process, not an event. You have to wonder what your fate will be once the media grows bored with your story, how far your actions will follow you. Fear travels with you on your journey of conscience. In my case, I was ignorant of what would happen once I blew the whistle. Ray Maxwell examples to learn from. He likely calculated he needed to securely retire from State before taking Team Clinton head-on.
Why It Matters
Now of course much of this is politics, in all its forms, though non-political questions about Benghazi still exist, especially as America resumes war in Iraq with its largest embassy vulnerable. Politics still do matter, and are indeed inevitable, as the measure of candidates needs to be taken. Among other things, their view of whistleblowers is important.
Document reviews at State following some significant event are not unheard of; an office affected needs to recap how it got to where it is. Conducting such a review in secret, on a Sunday, with some of the Secretary’s most senior advisors personally overseeing things, is unheard of. The details of Maxwell’s story ring true, the place, the procedures. Checks of State Department entry and exit records and room use requests should establish the basic facts. Proving what happened at that document review will be much, much harder, and will focus in large part on Maxwell’s own credibility.
Who is Ray Maxwell?
Is Maxwell a disgruntled employee with an agenda? Possibly, but whistleblowers act on conscience, not revenge; the cost is too high for that, and in this day revenge is available much cheaper via a leak or as an unnamed source. Going public and disgruntlement often coincide but are not necessarily causal. You can be both bitter and a truth-teller. Knowing what the right thing to do is easier than summoning the courage and aligning one’s life to step up and do it.
I think Ray Maxwell is credible. I don’t think his timing suggests he is not. We’ll see, paraphrasing Clinton’s own words on Benghazi, if it really matters anymore, and what difference does it make.
Meanwhile, 71 percent of Americans now support airstrikes in Iraq, and 65 percent in Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that the formation of a new Iraqi government was “a major milestone” for the country.
Kerry told reporters at the State Department that the government formed on Monday in Baghdad had “the potential to unite all of Iraq’s diverse communities for a strong Iraq, a united Iraq and give those communities a chance to build a future that all Iraqis desire.”
Kerry did not mention that divisive former Prime Minister Maliki, who was Washington’s man in Baghdad since 2006 tasked with uniting Iraq, stays on in the new government as Vice President. Kerry also did not mention that the job of uniting Iraq has been on various U.S.-supported Prime Ministers’ and other Iraqi officials’ to-do lists since 2003, never mind the eventual point of the nine year American Occupation and 4600 American deaths.
But Kerry did say the week’s events are a major milestone. That’s the same as the turning point so often mentioned before about Iraq, right? Let’s look back:
“This month will be a political turning point for Iraq,” Douglas Feith, July 2003
“We’ve reached another great turning point,” Bush, November 2003
“That toppling of Saddam Hussein… was a turning point for the Middle East,” Bush, March 2004
“Turning Point in Iraq,” The Nation, April 2004
“A turning point will come two weeks from today,” Bush, June 2004
“Marines Did a Good Job in Fallujah, a Battle That Might Prove a Turning Point,” Columnist Max Boot, July 2004
“Tomorrow the world will witness a turning point in the history of Iraq,” Bush, January 2005
“The Iraqi election of January 30, 2005… will turn out to have been a genuine turning point,” William Kristol, February 2005
“On January 30th in Iraq, the world witnessed … a major turning point,” Rumsfeld, February 2005
“I believe may be seen as a turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism.” Senator Joe Lieberman, December 2005
“The elections were the turning point. … 2005 was the turning point,” Cheney, December 2005
“2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq… and the history of freedom,” Bush, December 2005
“We believe this is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens, and it’s a new chapter in our partnership,” Bush, May 2006
“We have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror,” Bush, May 2006
“This is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens.” Bush, August 2006
“When a key Republican senator comes home from Iraq and says the US has to re-think its strategy, is this a new turning point?” NBC Nightly News, October 2006
“Iraq: A Turning Point: Panel II: Reports from Iraq.” American Enterprise Institute, January 2007
“This Bush visit could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror,” Frederick W. Kagan, September 2007
“Bush Defends Iraq War in Speech… he touted the surge as a turning point in a war he acknowledged was faltering a year ago,” New York Times, March 2008
“The success of the surge in Iraq will go down in history as a turning point in the war against al-Qaeda,” The Telegraph, December 2008
“Iraq’s ‘Milestone’ Day Marred by Fatal Blast,” Washington Post, July 2009
“Iraq vote “an important milestone,” Obama, March 2010
“Iraq Withdrawal Signals New Phase, But War is Not Over,” ABC News, August 2010
“Why the Iraq milestone matters,” Foreign Policy, August 2010
“Iraq Milestone No Thanks to Obama,” McCain, September 2010
“Hails Iraq ‘milestone’ after power-sharing deal, ” Obama, November 2010
“Week’s event marks a major milestone for Iraq,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 2012
“National elections ‘important milestone’ for Iraq,” Ban Ki Moon, April 2014
“Iraq PM nomination ‘key milestone,'” Joe Biden, August 2014
Here I am on the Dutch television program “Nieuwsuur,” with former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, discussing the futility of air strikes to resolve the Iraq/Syria/ISIS mess.
After a setup in Dutch by the anchor, and an Obama speech clip, the interview (about three minutes in) is in English.
Obama said a week ago he did not have a strategy to combat ISIS, and that now he does. He was right the first time.
The United States ignored ISIS for months. Then out of nowhere a complex situation morphed into a struggle to save the Yazidis from so-called genocide, requiring special forces and air strikes. The Yazidis disappeared from view, perhaps saved, certainly no longer needed as an emotional excuse to re-enter a war we had been told ended for America in 2011.
ISIS beheaded journalist James Foley’s and another tail wagged its dog as surveillance flights commenced over Syria. It was a year ago that Obama asked Congress to approve air strikes there. They didn’t, largely in reply to a war-weary public. With the the subsequent beheading of another American journalist, an attack is back on deck.
So finally action to dethrone Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, himself once accused of near-genocide by the United States? No. Now as we fight ISIS together, Assad has been rebranded. The issue of how action against ISIS will only strengthen Assad is set aside. Assad is supported by the Russians, whose interests in Syria are thus tacitly upheld by Washington even as a mini-Cold War rises in the Ukraine from the ashes of the last great struggle the United States claimed to have won.
In Libya, site of a much-trumpeted Obama-Clinton lite-war success once upon a time, Islamic militants took over the abandoned American embassy and published photos of themselves swimming in the mission’s pool.
The United States issued Maliki’s replacement the same to-do list the United States issued Maliki since 2006– unite Iraq, and make it snappy, even as more troops are sent in. The blind man in the dark search for moderate Sunnis in Iraq to create a political solution will likely work out as well as it has in Syria. Iran, who won the 2003-2011 Iraq War with the installation of a pro-Tehran Shia government in Baghdad, is holding on to its victory, now with United States air power on its side.
Only a few weeks ago the United States feared the Kurds might take advantage of the chaos in Iraq and declare themselves an independent nation. One strategy to forestall this was to choke off “illegal” Kurdish oil exports (on paper, Iraq’s oil profits are shared among Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, though the Shia government in Baghdad has not fairly divided the money.) In July, a court decision in Texas led to United States Marshals seizing $100 million worth of Kurdish crude. The Kurds are presently in such need of United States military help that they have shut up (for now) about independence. So, on August 25, the Texas court threw out the seizure order so as to allow the oil to be delivered. The Kurds also appear to have resumed direct oil sales to Israel. Independent sales weaken the central Baghdad government the United States claims to support, strengthen de facto Kurdish independence the United States does not want, and create a model for a someday autonomous Sunni state that learns to manipulate its own limited oil reserves.
Ahead is a United States-brokered linking of Iraqi Kurd fighters with Syrian Kurd fighters, aimed at ISIS. This is of great concern to NATO-ally Turkey, who fears a pan-national Kurdish state.
Lastly, there are all those weapons the United States continues to scatter into the conflict. The fact that many of the current air strikes into Iraq are aimed at our own military equipment previously given to the Iraqi Army might in itself give pause to sending over more stuff. The shoulder-fired anti-air missiles ISIS captured inside Syria to use against American warplanes may have been slipped into “moderate” Syrian hands by the CIA, or were just picked up on the open market as weapons flooded out in the post-Qaddafi chaos the United States midwifed in Libya.
Digging It Deeper
Grasping at expediency is not a policy. Shifting to the greater-evil-of-the-day is a downward spiral. Not being able to articulate an end-game is a poor start. Obama did not create all these problems, but he certainly has done his part to make them worse.
A canon of diplomacy is that nations act in their own self-interest. America is once again exceptional, as the Obama Doctrine for foreign policy reveals itself: There is no hole that can’t be dug deeper.
A critical part of America’s plan to resolve all issues left unresolved after nine years of war and occupation is to divide the indigenous Sunnis from the “foreign” Sunnis, i.e., ISIS, and “unite” Iraq.
As counter-insurgency theory teaches, bad guys can only thrive when they have local support, what Mao called the “water we swim in.”
There is a familiar ring to the plan.
Unity Plan, 2006
In 2006 the U.S. brokered the ascension (remember the purple fingers?) of a new Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, hand-picked to unite Iraq. A bright, shining lie of a plan followed. The U.S., applying vast amounts of money, created the Sahwa, the Sons of Iraq, the Anbar Awakening, a loose grouping of Sunnis who agreed to break with al Qaeda in return for a promised place at the table in the New(er) Iraq. The “political space” for this would be created by a massive escalation of the American military effort, called by its the more marketable name, The Surge. In the end the Shia government in Baghdad ignored American entreaties to be inclusive, effectively ending the effort.
Unity Plan, 2014
And so to 2014. The U.S. brokered the ascension (no purple fingers needed this time for visuals) of a new Shia Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, hand-picked to unite Iraq. His play so far along these lines? Asking his military to stop bombing and shelling his own-citizen Sunni civilians.
Al-Abadi said on Saturday, after he held talks with travelin’ man U.S. Secretary of State Kerry in Baghdad, that he ordered his air force to halt strikes on civilian areas occupied by Iraqi citizens, albeit Sunnis. He also asked his Iraqi security forces to stop “the indiscriminate shelling” of civilian Sunni communities occupied by ISIS.
The hearts and minds moves by al-Abadi follow several incidents which may yet have an effect for indigenous Sunni feelings toward unity.
Senior Iraqi officials acknowledged in recent days that shelling by their armed forces has killed innocent civilians in the course of the battle against ISIS. Attacks on Sunni towns have been part of what many Sunnis call a pattern of sectarian bias by the Shiite-dominated security forces. Human Rights Watch reports one Iraqi government airstrike targeted a school near Tikrit housing displaced Sunni families fleeing ISIS. That strike killed at least 31 civilians, including 24 children. Human Rights Watch also reported earlier Iraqi government airstrikes, including six with the type of barrel bombs commonly used by Syrian leader Assad to kill his own people, had killed at least 75 civilians and wounded hundreds more in mainly Sunni areas.
(Despite the incessant playing of the ISIS beheading videos of three Westerners, no images of the dead Sunni children have made it to American media.)
Earlier this year the Iraqi Shia government also employed barrel bombs, U.S.-supplied Hellfire missiles as well as some of the 11 million rounds of ammunition the U.S. shipped in, against Sunni targets in Fallujah, itself the scene of some of the most intense U.S.-Sunni fighting during the previous Iraq War.
Government-backed Shia militias have also been kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians throughout Iraq’s Baghdad, Diyala, and Hilla provinces over the past five months. Human Rights Watch documented the killings of 61 Sunni men early this summer, and the killing of at least 48 Sunni men in March and April.
Memories are Long
Many Sunnis see their own government as more of a threat than any ISIS occupation, given the record of the past eight years of Shia control. The Sunnis are also aware that the Shia government purportedly now seeks some measure of unity only after it was prompted by the United States. The Sunnis most clearly do remember being abandoned by the U.S. and the Shia government after they last agreed to break with a foreign Sunni group, al Qaeda, in 2007. You have the watch, but we have the time, says an Iraqi expression.
Memories are long in the Middle East.
Any sane human being welcomes a decision to not bomb and shell civilians, particularly if it is actually carried out. However, in the broader strategic context of Iraq, especially vis-a-vis American claims that Sunni-Shia unity is the key to stability, one wonders how much of the statement by the new Iraqi prime minister is based on the need to throw another bone to Americans always ready to proclaim another short term success, even as they speed walk down the road to Hell.
For if Iran is the 500 pound gorilla in the room with Iraq, it is the 800 pound monster in the Middle East. No real stability can be achieved without Iran. It is time for the president to go to Tehran.
Boots on the Ground
For all the talk about boots on the ground for America’s air offensive in Iraq and Syria, Obama ignored the ground truth: Iranian forces are already there. The Iranians also command enough attention in Baghdad to significantly enable or stall filling the cabinet positions of Defense and Interior (Maliki held both portfolios personally) that are key components of any sort of “inclusive” government. Tehran’s real advantage? Everyone in Iraq remembers it is the Iranians who never really withdrew after 2011.
The Iranians truly understand the cross-border nature of the Middle East. An Iran that works closely with America will yield some version of stability in Iraq, affect the war in Syria (Iran, through its many proxies, including Hezbollah, has supported Assad by fighting his Sunni rebel enemies, moderate and radical alike), perhaps reduce pressure on Israel, and could calm the entire region by acting less bellicose toward a less bellicose United States. This would enable the comprehensive actions needed in the Middle East to slam shut the doors the United States blew open in 2003. Obama’s Iraq plan has already failed in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia to produce any but the most fleeting “successes.” The Brits and Germans won’t fight in Syria, and Turkey is reluctant to go in deeper, weakening any talk of coalitions. As Obama becomes the fourth president in a row to order war in Iraq, a new solution is needed.
Obama Should Go to Tehran
There is little to lose. After the midterms, he will be a true lame duck. Candidates can run against his failure, or bask in his success. With a dramatic gesture, Obama can start the process of re-balancing the Middle East. Too many genies are out of the bottle to put things back where they were.
Tough realities will need to be acknowledged regarding nukes. Having watched America’s serial wars across the region, and the sort of odd deference shown to North Korea after it went nuclear, the Iranians will never back away completely. Tehran also watched closely what happened in Libya. Qaddafi gave up his nukes and ended up dead, while the Secretary of State laughed about it on TV. Obama cannot move forward without accepting that he cannot paint himself into a corner over Persian nukes. Israel has had the Bomb for a long time without creating a Middle East arms race. Let the Iranians stay comfortable, albeit in the threshold stage of nuclear weaponry.
To begin, follow the China model — set up the diplomatic machinery, create some fluid back channels, maybe try a cultural exchange or two. They don’t play ping-pong over there, but they are damn good at chess. Offer to bring Iran into the world system, slowly, and see if they don’t follow. Give the good guys in Tehran something to work with, something to go to their bosses with. Iran has reasons to play. Regional stability can benefit its own goals. Removal of sanctions can grow its economy, and allow it to sell oil in global markets. Calmer borders allow Iran to focus limited resources on domestic problems.
Change in Iran, like anywhere, has to come from within. Think China again. With prosperity comes a desire by the newly-rich to enjoy their money. They demand better education, more opportunities and a future for their kids. A repressive government yields to those demands for its own survival and before you know it, you’ve got iPads and McDonald’s. Despite some tough talk aimed at both sides’ domestic constituencies, America and China are trading partners, and have shared interests in regional stability. In a way, as China was to the Soviet Union, Iran can counter-balance undue Saudi influence on American actions. There will be friction, but it can be managed, what President Kennedy called during the Cold War the “precarious rules of the status quo.”
Islamic nationalism is a powerful force in the Middle East, and the defining mover of world events in our time. It is not going away. American attempts to create “good” governments failed in the Middle East. The new world order created a place for countries that are not a puppet of the United States, and not always an ally, but typically someone the nation can work with, maybe even influence occasionally. That’s statesmanship, and a chance at stability in the Middle East. Perhaps even a chance for a beleaguered and exhausted American president to finally earn his Nobel Peace Prize.
Following Obama’s address to the nation Wednesday, America’s psychiatrists and liquor stores stocked up on anti-depressants and massive amounts of alcohol. States allowing for legal marijuana report booming sales.
President Obama announced an expansion of the current war with Iraq (not to be confused with the previous war with Iraq he claimed to have ended in 2011) as well as a Cheney-like giddy eagerness to bomb Syria “just as soon as Congress wimps out and gets out of my way.” Despite their general glee about bombing any brown person anywhere anytime on the planet, many Americans are expected to complain of depression.
“I support 9/11 and all that, but really, another freaking war?” said one college undergrad waken for comment. “My neighbor’s cousin’s son has PTSD or STD or something from that last war I like saw online and so I plan to feel sad about this before the pre-game on Saturday.”
Psychiatrists take a more serious tone. “People will be eating Prozac and Cymbalta like candy,” said one doctor. I’m stocking up, not just for myself, but for the new patients I am expecting to flood in. I’ll be double-billing the insurance companies as usual, so I guess there is an upside. Also, 9/11.”
“Upside?” commented the owner of local store Booze-a-Palooza, We Don’t Card. “Hell, I’ve already booked a luxury cruise on the profits from this thing. You had the drinking games. Kids online were saying they took shots every time the president mentioned ‘moderate rebels’ or ‘degrade and destroy.’ I quietly trolled for a full water glass of bourbon to be drunk every time the idiot said ‘no boots on the ground.’ And of course depressed people are my bread and butter audience every day, so there’s also that. And 9/11. Never forget.”
Colorado state officials, congratulating themselves on the timing of legalizing marijuana, could not be happier. “The taxes on weed sales just funded our school systems through 2019, with an overflow of cash into the coffers to buy enough blow to near kill us all here at the office. Weed is for light weights, especially after this speech. Dude, 9/11. Don’t forget.”
When reached for comment at a Colorado medical marijuana dispensary, Obama was characteristically calm and cool about the issue.
“Americans understand our constant state of pointless war is necessary to, what is it this week Reggie? Right, to protect the country. Some may say by making this speech exactly one year after I said we’d bomb Syria to oust Assad only to now plan on bombing Syria in tacit support of Assad, and choosing 9/11 eve for the speech, I increased the weary nation’s sense of complete and devastating cynicism. Well, folks have got to understand that war means sacrifice. Hey, did you hear about this drinking game where every time I said ‘no boots on the ground’ people had to shotgun a water glass of bourbon? I told my speechwriters to throw that line in about a million times. I think the whole address went down better with the American people drunk off their ass when they heard it. Now, watch this drive.”
The Hillary Clinton not-a-campaign, located in Oprah’s guest house, declined comment on the entire everything, pending the outcome of polling to see what opinion the not-a-candidate should hold deeply.
Reached at his luxury villa in Riyadh, an ISIS spokesperson just laughed. “ISIS lacks the ability to strike directly into your Homeland– I mean, who even says words like ‘Homeland,’ seriously man, outside of Leni Riefenstahl and Fox anymore? Anyway, we can’t whack you infidels at home, so we rely on the American government to do the job for us. And I must say, they are superb. Declaring ISIS a direct threat to Americans in Iowa, man, that sent ISIS stock futures soaring. Making all Americans depressed over our successes and the needlessly dumb acts their government plans to take? Man, you can’t buy that kind of PR. I’d say I was happy as a pig in poop right now if I did not consider pigs filthy creatures under my religion. Oh heck, why not? This is a great day!”
For those who argued with the theory about a month ago that interceding in Iraq for “humanitarian purposes” to help the Yazidis was just a subterfuge to have the U.S. re-enter a messy war that supposedly ended for us in 2011, well, you were wrong.
It was. Enjoy that slippery slope.
This Means War
Just hours ahead of the president’s speech where he is expected to widen the current Iraq War, possibly expand the war into Syria, all the while pledging there will be “no American boots on the ground,” Secretary of State John Kerry got ahead of his boss when he raised the possibility U.S. troops could be committed to ground operations in Iraq in extreme circumstances, the first hedging by an Obama administration official on the president’s pledge that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground to battle the Islamic State.
Kerry made the comment during a news conference after a day of meeting with Iraqi officials.
While Kerry reiterated that Obama has indeed said that no U.S. combat troops would be deployed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, he adding “unless, obviously, something very, very dramatic changes.”
No U.S. official has previously used those words in discussing the growing U.S. confrontation with the Islamic State.
Doomed to Repeat It
Just as a reminder of the last few weeks, here’s some history:
— From 2011 until early August, the U.S. was not involved overtly, militarily, in Iraq.
— In announcing U.S. airstrikes in Iraq in August, Obama said they would be limited to preventing Islamic State genocide of the Yazidi religious minority, a tasking quickly expanded to stopping the ISIS advance on the Kurdish capital of Irbil. Special Forces’ boots were on the ground.
— As Obama deployed upwards of 1000 American troops as “advisors” into Iraq, the air mission was widened into protecting them and the embassy.
— The Yazidi’s forgotten, the U.S. moved into providing close air support for Kurdish troops fighting,bombing near the Mosul Dam, being the air force for Iranians and Iranian-trained Shiite militia breaking the Islamic State siege of Amerli, and forces of whoever is fighting around the Haditha dam.
While in Baghdad, Kerry also said “Every single [Iraqi] leader I talked with today in the strongest terms possible affirmed that they had learned the lessons of the past years” and were determined “to move in a different direction from the direction of years past,” he said.
Ah, if only American leaders would do the same.
Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a worthy read; if it was fiction it might be called “a good yarn.” The book is instead straight-up non-fiction, making it all the more interesting as a window into the world of modern espionage.
An Enthusiastic Muslim
The book is the “as told to” autobiography of Morten Storm. Storm grew up on the dark side of Denmark, a tough, a brawler, a street gang member who always looked for a fight and usually found one. He did some jail time, and lived on the outskirts of society, surviving well enough off Denmark’s generous social welfare system. Socially and spiritually adrift, he was a quick convert to Islam, driven into his new faith by a chance encounter with a library book on the life of The Prophet. The descriptions of the built-in camaraderie of the mosques shows their appeal to disenfranchised youth.
Storm quickly found a way to combine his street smarts with his new faith, gravitating into the growing European jihadi underground. He soon moved to the UK, taking up life in “Londonistan,” the slang term for England’s dark underbelly of Muslim immigrants. Like them, Storm felt marginalized, left out, looked down on and began moving in ever-more radical circles. Despite his over six foot height and bright red hair, he found himself well-accepted. An encounter with a fellow Muslim, who died almost in his arms, propelled Storm to Yemen in search of meaning for his own life. His devotion to Islamic studies and his tough attitude saw him befriended not just by his classmates, but soon by Anwar al-Awlaki himself. Storm takes on all sorts of courier missions for the cleric and becomes a member of his trusted inner circle.
Another chance event suddenly has Storm again reverse course. He falls in with Danish intelligence and Britain’s MI5/MI6 and becomes a double-agent. His second conversion is marked by a bacon sandwich and a beer with his new intel friends to seal the deal. He begins accepting money and taskings from both the British and the Danes.
Storm quickly becomes invaluable, exploiting his connections with al-Awlaki and apparently nearly every significant jihadi in Europe to the advantage of his handlers. He finally attracts the attention of the CIA, which dispatches case officers to work with him toward one goal: pinpoint the location of al-Awlaki so the Americans can assassinate him. Storm agrees and over a series of events, the American citizen cleric is indeed assassinated by an American drone (along with his 16 year old son, also a U.S. citizen.) The CIA, however, double-crosses Storm, denies him the $250,000 payment promised for his work and eventually drives the big Dane in from the cold. His last conversion is to go to the media with his tale, and leave the world of espionage behind.
Without a doubt the very best parts of the book expose a bit of intelligence tradecraft. Unlike what one sees in movies and reads in (fictional) spy books, “spying” is 90 percent working patiently with people, with just a little high-tech thrown in. The book portrays this accurately, showing the best spies are more like skilled psychiatrists than hardened killers. A few details of the recruitment process appear to have been left out, perhaps for security reasons, perhaps because of the unusual three-way sharing of Storm. In real life, case officers of the CIA (the KGB, the Danish security services, MI5/MI6…) spend a lot of time seeking out people (“agents”) who can be convinced to betray their organization or nation. Motives vary, and a smart case officer will pay close attention to what his/her agent really wants– money, adventure, sex, etc. We watch as Storm is cleverly manipulated with both money and the lure of adrenaline rushes, and as his failed fervor for Islam and desire to provide for his family is worked against him.
Of equal interest are the contrasts drawn among the three services involved in handling Storm. The Danes are friendly, clubby, out for a good time even as they subtly draw Storm in and play him off against the Brits and the Yanks. The British impress with their professionalism and appeal to Storm’s sense of adventure, setting him up for sessions in arctic survival with an ex-Royal Marine and shooting lessons with an SAS man.
Then there is the CIA. Storm saves the Americans for his most unflattering portrayal, painting them as impatient, and ready to hand over obscene amounts of money when needed, only then to double-cross their “man” inside al Qaeda when needed. The CIA has another agent, secretly, alongside Storm and never even feigns to trust either of them. The CIA’s simplistic and crude handling is one of the main drivers behind Storm’s break with the intel world.
A Few Criticisms
A few criticisms mark an otherwise decent read. Storm is not shy about his own accomplishments, taking personal credit for a number of significant intelligence successes during the years he worked as a double-agent. One does wonder how accurate such an accounting is, suggesting as it does that the combined European and U.S. spy agencies had very few other people on the inside. Storm is also quite casual, almost dismissive, about how easy it was for him to gain the complete trust of hardened terrorists, despite his very recent infidel past and quick conversion to Islam. The bad guys never really put his allegiance to the test absent a few word games, leaving the question of if al Qaeda’s operational security is really so lame why the intel agencies did not have hundreds of inside men and women. Apparently one need only send the average red-haired European Viking into Yemen claiming he is a recent Muslim convert and bam! you have infiltrated the world of terror.
Storm’s own blustery self-image and the bit of unrealness noted aside, Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a decent read for anyone watching the world of intelligence who also appreciates a good story.
The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Obama for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in announcing the award, cited Obama’s promotion of nuclear nonproliferation and a “new climate” in international relations, especially in reaching out to the Muslim world.
In an exclusive interview, for the first time ever the actual Peace Prize, a large, coin-like object, speaks out.
“At first, it was an amazing time. Like the Committee, I too was all caught up in hope and change. Sure, some cynics said from the beginning that Obama just got awarded me because he wasn’t George Bush, but that just wasn’t what it felt like, honestly. We all believed. The man took me into his home and at first displayed me on his mantel in his private office. It was the same office Clinton got busy with Monica in, so I was on hallowed ground. Really, it was hashtag Proud. At the same time, Obama had his kids’ pictures on the same mantel, which felt cool at first then became kinda creepy. I should have taken the hint. I guess I was in love, and love can make you naive.”
“Looking back, I can almost pinpoint the moment things started to fall apart. At first Barack would come in to the office, alone, and just look at me. One night, very late and after a well-deserved Scotch or two, he said to me ‘I don’t have a birth certificate, but I’ve got you my Peace Prize.’ I never felt closer to him. Then after he dropped his college transcripts behind the file cabinet and was trying to fish them out to shred, he came upon a Post-It note George Bush left behind. It read ‘They’ll believe anything, just do whatever the hell you want.’ The next day he turned me toward the wall, and a few days after that he shoved me into the junk drawer of his desk.”
“Bang, on December 1, less than two months after getting me, Barack announces he is surging 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. He even used that filthy word, surge, whereas a real man would just call it an escalation and take the heat. I still wanted to believe, so I rationalized it as something he had to hold his nose and do to clean up that mess Bush started, but looking back I now wonder how I could have been that stupid. I guess I wasn’t alone in that, but shut away in the dark drawer, I felt I could only blame myself. Sure I was being mistreated, but I somehow felt it must have been something I had done, you know, somehow my fault. If only I had been more supportive, maybe a little warmer to him after those hard days he had. I knew about Michelle, and of course knew he’d never leave her, but still.”
“Once Barack had taken that first step, the rest just tumbled out. Drone strikes everywhere, then Libya, denying the Arab Spring, Special Ops all over Africa, whatever happened between him and Putin that one crazy weekend to ruin things, Syria, Ukraine, it just went on and on. Sometimes he’d open the drawer for a stapler or something and I’d swear his eyes were glowing bright red in the dark.”
“But the real end for us was Iraq. Barack got elected on the fact that he was one of a very few Senators who voted against that awful war, and beat Hillary using that against her own yes vote for Iraq. He took some heat in 2011 for the pull out of the last troops from Iraq but stuck it out. So you can imagine how I felt when he announced 300 advisors being sent in, then unlimited months of air strikes, then more advisors, then whatever that Yazidi thing was, and on and on. Now the U.S. is back in Iraq on another open-ended campaign that seems to have no goal, no endpoint, no definition of ‘victory.’ Meanwhile, we are still in Afghanistan and Gitmo is still an open sore. So where have we seen this movie before, right? I keep asking myself, is this 2014, or 2006?”
“Anyway, I begged him to just let me go. I said he should give me away to Bono or Sean Penn, or just send me off to the Carter Foundation, but he said no, I was his and always would be. I even snuck out and called the Nobel Committee, but man, if you could hear a shrug over the phone that described it.”
“Old Mr. ISIS is a clever fighter,” said the hardened veteran, “but even though Uncle Sam has been fighting him for the last 11 years continuously, long past my failed first and second marriages but I ain’t bitter, we still have a couple of tricks up our sleeve. Yes, sir, this time around we’re getting on the inside to unleash hell.”
The Sergeant shuffled nervously from foot to foot as he spoke, reminding this reporter that he was told to avoid placing both feet on the ground at the same time in front of anyone so that the president could honestly claim there were no American “boots on the ground.”
“Yeah, it gets tiring, but we’re trained for it,” said the Sergeant.
“Last round of fighting in Iraq, we tried bombing and artillery, some rockets, even knives and rocks, but nothing really stuck. Even whatever the Surge was didn’t seem to do the trick, and I’d heard from some buddies of mine up the chain that most people liked that back home. Oh well, this time is the charm. Hey, back in the U.S. do people still do that yellow ribbon thing? Kinda liked that. I once was thanked for my service losing these three fingers here near Mosul with a two-for-one coupon at Taco Bell.”
The secret weapon to defeat ISIS?
“Actually it is a three-part strategy to take down ISIS. And no, it’s not involving Chuck Norris! A little inside joke among us Green Beanie types. Anyway, the first part of the plan is already in play. We have secretly wanted all along for ISIS to capture some of our old military equipment. American stuff needs regular and careful maintenance. When we gave it to the Iraqis on our way out of the country, I guess that was ‘temporarily’ now, we knew the Iraqis would never take care of it. I mean, have you seen this country? People say they’re poor and all, and then everywhere you look there are mountains of trash. How can people who say they don’t have anything create that much garbage every day?”
“Hey, you see that little hill over there? I took a round in my left thigh over there in 1991 during Operation Provide Comfort when we saved the Kurds. And that way? By that well, near the sheep pen, that’s where I got hit in 2003 saving the Kurds again. Lotta stuff up here needs saving it seems, so after this intervention I’m gonna leave behind some shirts and socks so I don’t have to pack so much stuff in next time.”
“So anyway, we knew the Iraqi so-called Army would gank up everything we left behind that they didn’t sell off for scrap metal first. No oil changes, no swapped out parts, hell, they’d sooner leave a truck on the side of the road then tighten a few bolts to keep it running. So the ole’ US of A laid that trap out in 2011 nice and quiet like, just waiting for ISIS to bite. Now, ISIS is stuck with all that junk. They might get a few miles out of some of those HUMVEES, but not much more. Our old rifles are clogging with sand as we speak, and nothing meant to fly is ever gonna again. When they call in for tech support, as some of the stuff is so new it is still under warranty, they’ll be on hold and pushing button one for hours, destroying their forward momentum. Sure hope they speak Spanish, too, because the call center is in Costa Rica. Done and done. We’re only in trouble if they stumble on to some old Russian gear from Saddam’s time.”
“The second part of the plan is Powerpoint. Anybody who has served in the U.S. military knows we plan trips to the porta-potty with a dozen Powerpoint slides, all with animated GIFs. In fact, the Army is the world’s number one consumer of animated GIFs, along with really awful fonts. Another little known fact: 67% of the military is engaged, on average, with creating a Powerpoint presentation somewhere in the world right now. Of course I can’t tell you their exact location, but I know for a fact that SEAL Team Six is on a far-away beach at this moment building a slide deck using only a portable laptop and their night vision gear. The point is simple: we have a couple of guys on the inside of ISIS explaining that all the smart jihadis use Powerpoint. This will slow their planning cycle down by 100 percent. The two hundred Microsoft Office licenses we bought yesterday off New Egg will save American blood today, absolutely. We even had the NSA gin up some fake academic email addresses for us, so we got the four year license cheap so we’re ready for the next intervention, too.”
“Funny thing is when I went into this in 2003 to get rid of Saddam, I told myself that I was doing it so my son would never have to. Thing is that he’s now 23, and deployed to Afghanistan. Now I’m probably shooting at the older brothers of the people I shot at last war. Small world, huh? By the way, speaking of kids, because of all this intervention I’ve been deployed almost continuously for nine years. Your kids forgive you for missing nine birthdays, right? Hey, freedom ain’t free.”
“The last sneaky Pete thing we have ‘cooked up’ is, literally, the killer. We have purposefully overshot our drop zones for some of that humanitarian aid we are delivering by air. The stuff is all MREs, Meals Ready to Eat officially, but Joe Troop calls them Meals Rejected by Everyone. The stuff inside is nasty. During our Special Forces training we have to live in the wild, using only our knives and our cunning to survive. Me, I ate snakes and insects for two weeks. After finally being allowed back in camp and given some MREs, the only thing I could do with them was use the ‘food’ inside as bait for more snakes and insects. Pretty soon the snakes wouldn’t eat it either.”
“So we ‘accidentally’ allowed a bunch of the MREs to fall into ISIS hands. Sooner or later they’ll get hungry enough to push some down their throats. That, my friend, will end this campaign. Can you imagine a fighting force of 100,000 jihadis, everyone of which has to hit the toilet at the same time? Our planes overhead will just roll them up, like fish in a barrell. Actually, come to think of it, fish in a barrel sounds pretty good compared to an MRE.”
“And yeah, those 72 virgins supposedly waiting in heaven for Mr. ISIS? Well, rumor has it Saint Peter made a mistake and misdirected a couple of Marines into Muslim heaven. Let’s just say there are no longer any virgins available, if you get my meaning.”
“Bottom line: if we don’t fight them over here, we’ll just have to come back in a few years and still fight them over here.”
General Ray Odierno lives in the third person regarding Iraq. “Mistakes were made” for sure, but not by him, even when he was in charge. Somehow the mistakes happened temporally on his watch, but by someone, never named. Certainly not by General Ray Odierno.
Continuing a media-led open sucking chest wound process of giving a platform to those who were responsible for the current disaster in Iraq to explain anew to us what happened in Iraq (short version: they didn’t do it), the Aspen Security Forum featured a long, sad dirge by Odierno on Iraq.
One could presume Odierno knows something about Iraq; he spent a lot of time there in key positions of responsibility and built up quite a resume: From October 2001 to June 2004, General Odierno commanded the 4th Infantry Division, leading the division in combat. He was Commanding General of the Multi-National Corps in during the famous Surge that was fantasized as ending the war. Odierno was also Commander of United States Joint Forces Command, meaning he was in charge of every American service member in the country. It was during this time that Odierno had personal responsibility for implementing General Petraeus’ counter-insurgency doctrine, overseeing the 2010 Iraqi elections that gave Prime Minister Maliki his second term, and working hand-in-hand with the American embassy in Baghdad to ensure the training of the Iraqi police and army before the U.S. retreat from Iraq at the end of 2010. Odierno is currently Chief of Staff of the Army. Tragically, Odierno’s son, an Army captain, was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in Baghdad in August 2004 and lost his left arm.
So it is with some sad amusement (think slowing down to gawk at a car wreck on the side of the road) to read Odierno’s comments from the Aspen Security Forum. The general was led through his comments by David Sanger of The New York Times. Sanger himself in 2003 was part of the Times’ wholesale acceptance of the Bush White House’s falsehoods on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so the two make quite a pair.
But no matter; that was in the hard air of then, this is now.
Here are some key points Odierno made at the 2014 Forum:
— “The country was going in the right direction when the United States left in 2011, but Iraqi leaders overestimated the progress made by their military and government institutions.”
— “The problem in Iraq was not the training of the Iraqi security forces, although their ability to sustain their own training was ‘disappointing.’ The problem was a lack of confidence, trust and loyalty between troops and their leaders because of politicization of Iraq’s military leadership.”
— “Leaders were changed out. Many of them weren’t qualified. There was some sectarian nature to the changes that were made. Members of the Iraqi security forces were unwilling to fight for a government that they perceived as not standing up for all the different peoples of Iraq, so when they were challenged, you saw them very quickly fade away.”
— “But military power isn’t enough to solve the problems in Iraq, or elsewhere in the Middle East for that matter. The lesson here is [that] you’ve got to stand up an institution. And that includes not just a military, but also a functioning government. Iraq will continue to disintegrate if the unity government doesn’t re-form… The good thing about this is they are in the process of forming a new government. They just had an election. The hope is that the government that would come out would be one that clearly supports a unity government as we go forward. Will that solve the problem?” My guess is not completely. But that’s the first step.”
Odierno has rehearsed his lines– from 2010. Here’s what he claimed after the 2010 elections in Iraq: “”Iraqi security forces performed superbly… I think it was very much a success for the Iraqi people yesterday.” He said earlier that same year “Iraq presents a solid opportunity to help in stabilizing the Middle East.” The Washington Post, never a stranger to hagiography, said on Odierno’s departure from Iraq: “He leaves behind a war not yet won, not yet lost and not yet over. The gap has narrowed in one notable way: Iraq’s security forces, trained, equipped and to a large extent designed by the U.S. military, are increasingly professional and competent.”
The very factors Odierno speaks today of almost as if he was an independent third party dispassionately looking back are the same ones he was responsible for resolving over his many years of command in Iraq. Odierno watched as the United States poured $25 billion into training the gleefully third world standard Iraqi Army he now says was not properly trained. He was handmaiden to the 2010 elections that saw the Iranians broker a Maliki victory and the installation of a Shia-based non-representative government. He oversaw the military reconstruction efforts over years of the Occupation that failed (alongside the State Department’s efforts) to create the very institutions whose absence he now decries. Despite all this, the best Odierno can come up with as an explanation for why everything is a mess in 2014 is the Iraqi’s messed up his good work.
But if Maliki is anything more than a talisman for the whole mess of post-2003 Iraq, he was certainly America’s choice (twice) for the role, and it is unfair to simply fob current events off on him, or assume things will turn around when he is sent off-stage like a modern day Ngo Dinh Diem. Same for “the Iraqis,” whoever they are in this context, who have been designated as a group the responsible party for failing to reassemble the broken country the U.S. created, uninvited, and then left for them.
Odierno is far from alone in absolving himself of responsibility for all the good he failed to do. The big difference is that Odierno likely knows better.
While in Iraq, I met Odierno several times. He traveled tirelessly and spoke to everyone. Addressing small groups of his field officers, the general was often more considered in his remarks, and more aware of the nuanced ground truth, than in his photo-op statements. Yet for all his McNamara of 1965-like public optimism during the war, Odierno does not now seem able to rise to the McNamara of 1995 in admitting his shortcomings, and those of his war. In not doing so– as McNamara did when he remained silent over Vietnam for so long– he blocks the lessons of the past from informing the present. Odierno, like all of Washington vis-vis Iraq, seems to believe he is exempt from history.
Is ISIS a Direct Threat to the U.S.? Doubtful.
First, a few samples of the fear-mongering rhetoric.
“The militant Islamic State group could launch a direct attack on U.S. soil,” warned South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who claimed the militants are a “direct threat to our homeland… They are coming.” Graham, and his running dog accomplice John McCain, have never found a threat they could not exaggerate.
“In reality, ISIS represents the most virulent form of Islamic jihad the planet has ever seen. These folks are not Muslims, they are animals, frankly… another 9/11 is imminent.” said Ali Khedery, who, as an advisor to five U.S. ambassadors in Iraq, is personally responsible for much of the mess there.
“Every day that goes by, ISIS… becomes a direct threat to the United States of America. They are more powerful now than al Qaeda was on 9/11,” Representative Peter King said.
R U Scared Yet?
Well, that is all pretty terrifying. While the fear mongers depend on the idea that there is no way to prove a negative (i.e., ISIS will never attack the U.S., or Paraguay, or Bermuda), there is still room for rational thought. Here are a few of such thoughts:
— ISIS has been in existence in some form since perhaps 2004, as part of Al Qaeda in Iraq. They formed their own organization, such as it is, in 2013. In the nine years of the U.S. Occupation of Iraq, no Mideast group launched an attack on the U.S. Nobody from the Taliban has shown up here since whenever, same for the groups unleashed after the U.S. attacked Libya. No Yemeni or Pakistani terrorists yet either. No Boko Haram, no Abu Sayyaf. Not even al Qaeda after 9/11. What’s different about ISIS?
— Oh, the money? Yep, they seemed to have gotten ahold of a huge amount of Iraqi and U.S. currency, and American weapons, after the Iraqi Army gave up and ran away. Money can help, but in fact the 9/11 attacks may have cost about $400,000, and that included all that expensive flight training. Not small change, but certainly the kind of money that an international terror group could raise. Nope, no big change there either.
— Many/most of the ISIS fighters are unsophisticated people with limited formal education, likely with no English skills and little if any experience outside their own areas. It seems unlikely they are the kind of people who will successfully obtain passports, travel to international airports, blend in, hop on planes, wander into the U.S., acquire weapons and navigate around America to strike important targets.
— But what about the foreign fighters with ISIS? Aren’t there Americans among them who will return to the Homeland and carry out lone wolf attacks? Sure, that it always possible. But again, since 9/11, almost 13 years, it hasn’t happened. Is there something different about the ISIS Americans? Meanwhile, the very few acts of terrorism in the U.S. have been carried out by people already here, such as the hapless Boston kids, likely the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, and Major Hasan, a serving U.S. Army officer who shot up Fort Hood. We’ll leave aside the heavy death toll in America in the meantime by our own army of school mass shooters and workplace psychos.
— And speaking of those Americans who have joined ISIS, perhaps the fear mongers might pause and consider what might encourage a young person to do that, and perhaps tackle the problem from the perspective.
— Thinking ISIS will jump from the battlefields of Iraq to New York fails to understand the point of terrorism. ISIS has exactly what it wants already, and achieved its goal vis-vis the U.S. at almost no cost: they lured the Americans back into Iraq. What had been a struggle for territory among indigenous groups turned overnight into a jihad against the American crusaders, you know, the ones who promised to leave Iraq in 2011 and then instead came back?
Nothing could be more helpful to ISIS in terms of recruitment, raising money and inspiring its forces than to recharacterize the conflict as something broader, with ISIS in the role of protector of Islam. If ISIS wants to kill Americans, they can do it right there at home.
So sleep well America. ISIS is killing us over there because it is more convenient for them than killing us here. The rest is just fear mongering.
No one wants to see anyone suffer, Yazidi or otherwise. What we do want is to know the truth about what is going on in Iraq even as Obama continues airstrikes, and prepares to send in 130 more American troops. The 130 additional advisers brings the number of American military personnel in Iraq to more than 1,000.
U.S. officials said they believed that some type of ground force would be necessary to secure the passage of the stranded members of the Yazidi group. The military is drawing up plans for consideration by President Obama that could include American ground troops.
So a couple of questions here.
Long before U.S. airstrikes, the defenseless Yazidi people climbed up that mountain for refuge from ISIS, who supposedly wanted to slaughter them. Why didn’t ISIS just also climb up and then slaughter them? We know ISIS had mortars and actual artillery, because the U.S. later bombed those. Why didn’t ISIS use those weapons to slaughter the Yazidis from afar?
Also, after one or two airstrikes, ISIS became so easy to defeat that the Kurds made it possible for 24,000 Yazidis to walk off the mountain, walk into Syria and then U-turn walk back into Iraq and settle in safely. It begs the question about how surrounded by determined ISIS fighters that mountain really was. It takes a long time for 24,000 people to do anything, and they’d need to be walking a long way during which time they would be vulnerable to ISIS. How could ISIS go from being such a threat that U.S. airpower was essential, to be pushed aside by Kurds who otherwise were having their hats handed to them by ISIS everywhere else?
And after all that, plus more airstrikes, why are there still people up on that mountain without food or water? How was it that 24,000 people could walk away but not everyone? The air strikes are ongoing, and those same Kurds that cleared a path once are still there.
The Iraqi government claims ISIS killed at least 500 Yazidis, burying some alive and taking hundreds of women as slaves. The Iraqi government claimed “Some of the victims, including women and children, were buried alive in scattered mass graves in and around Sinjar.” This was reported by western media, at least one of whom was still ethical enough to add “no independent confirmation was available.” Recent mass graves in a desert area should stand out. This seems like something worth confirming instead of just repeating. What efforts are being made to confirm the information?
If every seat on every helicopter will save a Yazidi child’s life via evacuation, why are seats being allotted to CNN camera crews and other journalists? What is the priority?
What is the thinking about a group the U.S. has long-designated as a terrorist organization playing an active part in rescuing the Yazidis under American air cover? Shouldn’t the U.S. be bombing known terrorist organizations instead of working with them? Isn’t that sort of the actual point of a war on terror, to kill terrorists wherever they are?
Maybe there are good answers to these questions (please share below, with links) but is it at all possible that we’re being sold an emotionally compelling story to justify U.S. military intervention in Iraq? Perhaps that mountain the Yazidis are on has a slippery slope for the U.S.?
It looks like some of the stuff the U.S. is now blowing up in Iraq is some of the stuff the U.S. first brought to Iraq to blow up Iraqis in 2003, then gave to the Iraqis after we were done blowing them up and left in 2011, only to see those same Iraqis abandon the gear on the battlefield last month so it could be picked up by ISIS this week, which led to the U.S. bombing it today.
It’s Our Own Stuff
When the Iraqi Army’s 2nd Division broke and fled ahead of the advancing columns of ISIS fighters near Mosul earlier this summer, they left behind a mountain of U.S.-supplied military equipment. Included were were hundreds of Humvees, small arms and ammunition (including 4,000 machine guns that can fire upwards of 800 rounds per minute), and as many as 52 American M-198 howitzer mobile gun systems – the same guns that two US Navy F/A-18s most likely pounded with 500 pound laser guided bombs on Friday.
Obama gave the green light for strikes anywhere in Iraq where U.S. citizens were in danger, so CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin gave the order to strike on Friday when it was determined that the city of Erbil was in range of the American-lost guns. All of the Americans being protected in Erbil are there because the U.S. government put them there, including U.S. Consulate staff and Special Forces. Presumably those personnel could have been moved out, thus avoiding this whole thing.
Now the good news here is for the U.S. defense industry, which has achieved the state of karmic perfection. The weapons they once sold to the U.S. are now being destroyed by other weapons they sold to the U.S., which will need to be replenished. Why, it’s a win-win situation for nearly everybody!
We Told You So
The U.S. knew ISIS had control of the howitzers from at least mid-July. But it is not like any of this couldn’t have been foretold long before mid-July.
Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University Chris Coyne, in an interview with me, predicted this exact scenario much earlier this summer:
The U.S. government provided significant amounts of military hardware to the Iraqi government with the intention that it would be used for good (national security, policing, etc.). However, during the ISIS offensive many of the Iraqis turned and ran, leaving behind the U.S.-supplied hardware. ISIS promptly picked up this equipment and are now using it as part of their broader offensive effort. This weapons windfall may further alter the dynamics in Syria.
Now the U.S. government wants to provide more military supplies to the Iraqi government to combat ISIS. But I haven’t heard many people recognizing, let alone discussing, the potential negative unintended consequences of doing so. How do we know how the weapons and supplies will be used as desired? What if the recipients turn and run as they have recently and leave behind the weapons? What if the weapons are stolen? In sum, why should we have any confidence that supplying more military hardware into a country with a dysfunctional and ineffective government will lead to a good outcome either in Iraq or in the broader region?