While the U.S. media panders to its audience via the blood sport of calling for more airstrikes, more weapons, more boots on the ground and overall more killing to “win” this time in Iraq, alternative sources of news seek out alternative voices. In this case, mine. Here’s what I had to say on Chinese television (CCTV) on the subject.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
In one form or another, the U.S. has been at war with Iraq since 1990, including a sort-of invasion in 1991 and a full-scale one in 2003.
During that quarter-century, Washington imposed several changes of government, spent trillions of dollars, and was involved in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. None of those efforts were a success by any conceivable definition of the term Washington has been capable of offering.
Nonetheless, it’s the American Way to believe with all our hearts that every problem is ours to solve and every problem must have a solution, which simply must be found. As a result, the indispensable nation faces a new round of calls for ideas on what “we” should do next in Iraq.
With that in mind, here are five possible “strategies” for that country on which only one thing is guaranteed: none of them will work.
1. Send in the Trainers
In May, in the wake of the fall of the Sunni city of Ramadi to Islamic State (IS) fighters, President Obama announced a change of course in Iraq. After less than a year of not defeating, degrading, or destroying the Islamic State, the administration will now send in hundreds more military personnel to set up a new training base at Taqaddum in Anbar Province. There are already five training sites running in Iraq, staffed by most of the 3,100 military personnel the Obama administration has sent in. Yet after nine months of work, not a single trained Iraqi trooper has managed to make it into a combat situation in a country embroiled in armed chaos.
The base at Taqaddum may only represent the beginning of a new “surge.” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has begun to talk up what he calls “lily pads,” American baselets set up close to the front lines, from which trainers would work with Iraqi security forces. Of course, such lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, waiting for a hungry Islamic State frog.
Leaving aside the all-too-obvious joke — that Dempsey is proposing the creation of a literal swamp, a desert quagmire of the lilypad sort — this idea has been tried. It failed over the eight years of the occupation of Iraq, when the U.S. maintained an archipelago of 505 bases in the country. (It also failed in Afghanistan.) At the peak of Iraq War 2.0, 166,000 troops staffed those American bases, conducting some $25 billion worth of training and arming of Iraqis, the non-results of which are on display daily. The question then is: How could more American trainers accomplish in a shorter period of time what so many failed to do over so many years?
There is also the American belief that if you offer it, they will come. The results of American training so far, as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made clear recently, have fallen far short of expectations. By now, U.S. trainers were to have whipped 24,000 Iraqi soldiers into shape. The actual number to date is claimed to be some 9,000 and the description of a recent “graduation” ceremony for some of them couldn’t have been more dispiriting. (“The volunteers seemed to range in age from late teens to close to 60.” Given how much training the U.S. has made available in Iraq since 2003, it’s hard to imagine that too many young men have not given the option some thought. Simply because Washington opens more training camps, there is no reason to assume that Iraqis will show up.
Oddly enough, just before announcing his new policy, President Obama seemed to pre-agree with critics that it wasn’t likely to work. “We’ve got more training capacity than we’ve got recruits,” he said at the close of the G7 summit in Germany. “It’s not happening as fast as it needs to.” Obama was on the mark. At the al-Asad training facility, the only one in Sunni territory, for instance, the Iraqi government has not sent a single new recruit to be trained by those American advisers for the past six weeks.
And here’s some bonus information: for each U.S. soldier in Iraq, there are already two American contractors. Currently some 6,300 of them are in the country. Any additional trainers mean yet more contractors, ensuring that the U.S. “footprint” made by this no-boots-on-the-ground strategy will only grow and General Dempsey’s lilypad quagmire will come closer to realization.
2. Boots on the Ground
Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the most vocal proponent of America’s classic national security go-to move: send in U.S. troops. McCain, who witnessed the Vietnam War unfold, knows better than to expect Special Forces operatives, trainers, advisers, and combat air traffic controllers, along with U.S. air power, to turn the tide of any strategic situation. His response is to call for more — and he’s not alone. On the campaign trail recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for instance, suggested that, were he president, he would consider a full-scale “re-invasion” of Iraq. Similarly, General Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command, urged the sending in of many boots: “I can tell you, you could put ground forces on the ground now and we can destroy ISIS.”
Among the boots-on-the-ground crowd are also some former soldiers who fought in Iraq in the Bush years, lost friends, and suffered themselves. Blinking through the disillusion of it all, they prefer to believe that we actually won in Iraq (or should have, or would have, if only the Bush and Obama administrations hadn’t squandered the “victory”). Needed now, they claim, are more U.S. troops back on the ground to win the latest version of their war. Some are even volunteering as private citizens to continue the fight. Can there be a sadder argument than the “it can’t all have been a waste” one?
The more-troops option is so easy to dismiss it’s hardly worth another line: if over eight years of effort, 166,000 troops and the full weight of American military power couldn’t do the trick in Iraq, what could you possibly expect even fewer resources to accomplish?
3. Partnering with Iran
As hesitancy within the U.S. military to deploy ground forces in Iraq runs into chicken-hawk drum-pounding in the political arena, working ever more closely with Iran has become the default escalation move. If not American boots, that is, what about Iranian boots?
The backstory for this approach is as odd a Middle Eastern tale as you can find.
The original Obama administration plan was to use Arab, not Iranian, forces as proxy infantry. However, the much-ballyhooed 60-nation pan-Arab coalition proved little more than a short-lived photo op. Few, if any, of their planes are in the air anymore. America flies roughly 85% of all missions against Islamic State targets, with Western allies filling in a good part of the rest. No Arab ground troops ever showed up and key coalition countries are now openly snubbing Washington over its possible nuclear deal with Iran.
Washington has, of course, been in a Cold War-ish relationship with Iran since 1979 when the Shah fell and radical students took over the American Embassy in Tehran. In the 1980s, the U.S. aided Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, while in the years after the invasion of 2003 Iran effectively supported Iraqi Shiite militias against American forces occupying the country. Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, currently directing his country’s efforts in Iraq, was once one of the most wanted men on America’s kill list.
In the wake of the 2014 Islamic State capture of Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities, Iran ramped up its role, sending in trainers, advisers, arms, and its own forces to support the Shiite militias that Baghdad saw as its only hope. The U.S. initially turned a blind eye on all this, even as Iranian-led militias, and possibly the Iranians themselves, became consumers of close American air support.
In Washington right now, there is a growing, if quiet, acknowledgment that Iranian help is one of the few things that might push IS back without the need for U.S. ground troops. Small but telling escalations are occurring regularly. In the battle to retake the northern Sunni city of Tikrit, for example, the United States flew air missions supporting Shiite militias; the fig leaf of an explanation: that they operated under Iraqi government, not Iranian, control.
“We’re going to provide air cover to all forces that are under the command and control of the government of Iraq,” a U.S. Central Command spokesperson similarly noted in reference to the coming fight to retake the city of Ramadi. That signals a significant shift, former State Department official Ramzy Mardini points out. “The U.S. has effectively changed its position, coming to the realization that Shiite militias are a necessary evil in the fight against IS.” Such thinking may extend to Iranian ground troops now evidently fighting outside the strategic Beiji oil refinery.
Things may be even cozier between the U.S. and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias than we previously thought. Bloomberg reports that U.S. soldiers and Shiite militia groups are both already using the Taqaddum military base, the very place where President Obama is sending the latest 450 U.S. military personnel.
The downside? Help to Iran only sets up the next struggle the U.S. is likely to bumble into due to a growing Iranian hegemony in the region. Syria, perhaps?
4. Arm the Kurds
The Kurds represent Washington’s Great Hope for Iraq, a dream that plays perfectly into an American foreign policy trope about needing to be “liked” by someone. (Try Facebook.) These days, glance at just about any conservative website or check out right-wing pundits and enjoy the propaganda about the Kurds: they are plucky fighters, loyal to America, tough bastards who know how to stand and deliver. If only we gave them more weapons, they would kill more Islamic State bad guys just for us. To the right-wing crowd, they are the twenty-first-century equivalent of Winston Churchill in World War II, crying out, “Just give us the tools and we’ll defeat Hitler!”
There is some slight truth in all this. The Kurds have indeed done a good job of pushing IS militants out of swaths of northern Iraq and were happy for U.S. assistance in getting their Peshmerga fighters to the Turkish border when the locus of fighting was the city of Kobane. They remain thankful for the continuing air support the U.S. is providing their front-line troops and for the limited weapons Washington has already sent.
For Washington, the problem is that Kurdish interests are distinctly limited when it comes to fighting Islamic State forces. When the de facto borders of Kurdistan were directly threatened, they fought like caffeinated badgers. When the chance to seize the disputed town of Erbil came up — the government in Baghdad was eager to keep it within its sphere of control — the Kurds beat the breath out of IS.
But when it comes to the Sunni population, the Kurds don’t give a hoot, as long as they stay away from Kurdistan. Has anyone seen Kurdish fighters in Ramadi or anywhere else in heavily Sunni al-Anbar Province? Those strategic areas, now held by the Islamic State, are hundreds of actual miles and millions of political miles from Kurdistan. So, sure, arm the Kurds. But don’t expect them to play a strategic role against IS outside their own neighborhood. A winning strategy for the Kurds involving Washington doesn’t necessarily translate into a winning strategy for Washington in Iraq.
5. That Political Solution
Washington’s current man in Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Abadi, hasn’t moved his country any closer to Sunni-Shiite reconciliation than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, did. In fact, because Abadi has little choice but to rely on those Shiite militias, which will fight when his corrupt, inept army won’t, he has only drawn closer to Iran. This has ensured that any (American) hope of bringing Sunnis into the process in a meaningful way as part of a unified government in a unified state will prove to be a pipe dream.
A balance of forces is a prerequisite for a Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish federal Iraq. With no side strong enough to achieve victory or weak enough to lose, negotiations could follow. When then-Senator Joe Biden first proposed the idea of a three-state Iraq in 2006, it just might have been possible. However, once the Iranians had built a Shiite Iraqi client state in Baghdad and then, in 2014, unleashed the militias as an instrument of national power, that chance was lost.
Many Sunnis see no other choice but to support the Islamic State, as they did al-Qaeda in Iraq in the years after the American invasion of 2003. They fear those Shiite militias — and with good reason. Stories from the largely Sunni city of Tikrit, where militia-led forces defeated Islamic State fighters, describe “a ghost town ruled by gunmen.” In the Euphrates Valley town of Jurf al-Sakhar, there were reports of ethnic cleansing. Similarly, the mainly Sunni population of the city of Nukhayb, which sits at a strategic crossroad between Sunni and Shiite areas, has accused the militias of taking over while pretending to fight the extremists.
There remains great fear in Sunni-dominated Anbar of massacres and “cleansing” if Shiite militias enter the province in force. In such a situation, there will always be a place for an al-Qaeda, an Islamic State, or some similar movement, no matter how brutal, to defend the beleaguered Sunni population. What everyone in Iraq understands, and apparently almost everyone in America does not, is that the Islamic State is a symptom of civil war, not a standalone threat.
One lingering hope of the Obama administration has no support in Baghdad and so has remained a non-starter: defeating IS by arming Sunni tribes directly in the style of the “Anbar Awakening” movement of the occupation years. Indeed, the central government fears arming them, absent a few token units to keep the Americans quiet. The Shiites know better than most what an insurgency can do to help defeat a larger, better-armed, power.
Yet despite the risk of escalating Iraq’s shadow civil war, the U.S. now is moving to directly arm the Sunnis. Current plans are to import weapons into the newest lilypad base in Anbar and pass them on to local Sunni tribes, whether Baghdad likes that or not (and yes, the break with Baghdad is worth noting). The weapons themselves are as likely to be wielded against Shiite militias as against the Islamic State, assuming they aren’t just handed over to IS fighters.
The loss of equipment to those militants is no small thing. No one talking about sending more new weaponry to Iraq, no matter who the recipient is, should ignore the ease with which Islamic State militants have taken U.S.-supplied heavy weapons. Washington has been forced to direct air strikes against such captured equipment — even as it ships yet more in. In Mosul, some 2,300 Humvees were abandoned to IS fighters in June 2014; more were left to them when Iraqi army forces suddenly fled Ramadi in May. This pattern of supply, capture, and resupply would be comically absurd, had it not turned tragic when some of those Humvees were used by IS as rolling, armored suicide bombs and Washington had to rush AT-4 anti-tank missiles to the Iraqi army to destroy them.
The Real Reason Nothing Is Going to Work
The fundamental problem underlying nearly every facet of U.S. policy toward Iraq is that “success,” as defined in Washington, requires all the players to act against their own wills, motivations, and goals in order to achieve U.S. aims. The Sunnis need a protector as they struggle for a political place, if not basic survival, in some new type of Iraq. The Shiite government in Baghdad seeks to conquer and control the Sunni regions. Iran wants to secure Iraq as a client state and use it for easier access to Syria. The Kurds want an independent homeland.
When Secretary of Defense Ash Carter remarked, “What apparently happened [in Ramadi] was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” what he really meant was that the many flavors of forces in Iraq showed no will to fight for America’s goals. In the Washington mind-set, Iraq is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving problems that were either created by or exacerbated by the U.S. in the first place, even as America once again assumes an ever-greater role in that country’s increasingly grim fate.
For America’s “plan” to work, Sunni tribesmen would have to fight Sunnis from the Islamic State in support of a Shiite government that suppressed their peaceful Arab-Spring-style protests, and that, backed by Iran, has been ostracizing, harassing, and murdering them. The Kurds would have to fight for an Iraqi nation-state from which they wish to be independent. It can’t work.
Go back to 2011 and it’s unlikely anyone could have imagined that the same guy who defeated Hillary Clinton and gained the White House based on his opposition to the last Iraq War would send the U.S. tumbling back into that chaotic country. If ever there was an avoidable American crisis, Iraq War 3.0 is it. If ever there was a war, whatever its chosen strategies, in which the U.S. has no hopes of achieving its goals, this is it.
By now, you’re undoubtedly shaking your head and asking, “How did this happen?” Historians will do the same.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be planning to invade northern Syria to prevent Kurds from forming their own state there.
Turkey to Invade Syria
In a speech last Friday, Erdogan vowed that Turkey would not accept a move by Syrian Kurds to set up their own state in Syria following gains against Islamic State (IS). “We will never allow the establishment of a state on our southern border in the north of Syria,” Erdogan said. “We will continue our fight in that respect whatever the cost may be.” He accused Syrian Kurds of ethnic cleansing in Syrian areas under their control.
Reports are Erdogan will send the Turkish army into Syria. Up to 18,000 soldiers would take and hold a strip of territory up to 20 miles deep and 60 miles long that currently is held by IS. It stretches from close to the Kurdish-controlled city of Kobani in the east to an area further west held by the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups, beginning around the town of Mare. The “Mare Line” is to be secured with Turkish ground troops, artillery and air cover.
Why This Matters
— Turkey is entering the fighting in a big way. Turkey, a NATO country, is unilaterally and under dubious “defensive” standards invading another nation. Yeah, it’s 2015 that kind of thing happens pretty much all the time now, but it is still sort of worth noting.
— Turkey is fighting the Kurds, a group whom the U.S. arms and supports as an anti-IS force. Anything Turkey does to weaken the Kurdish forces is in opposition to U.S. policy, may strengthen IS in the long run and may provoke some sort of political mess between Turkey and the U.S.
— Turkish troops could easily get caught up in the general fighting now going on among IS, the Kurds and Syrian government troops, stepping smartly thus into the Syrian quagmire. Retaliation attacks by IS and/or Kurdish militants on Turkish territory may follow.
— Kurdish forces supported by the U.S. elsewhere in Iraq may move against Turkey. This will weaken their efforts against IS in Iraq (a U.S. goal) and place additional pressure on the U.S. over whether or not to further arm, train and support them with air power.
— NATO troops operating U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles near the Syrian border to shield member country Turkey against air attacks from Syria will be forced to either stand down completely, or try and discriminate in shooting back at an increasing crowded sky full of ambiguous good guys and bad guys.
— Short version: a very messy situation will be getting worse.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
I know a fair number of State Department employees peak at this blog, so I have a favor to ask.
Would someone please tell the “social media gurus” at the State Department young people join Islamic State for a number of very serious and often deeply-held reasons — religion, disillusionment with the west, anger at American policy — and not because they saw an IS tweet? And that you can’t dissuade people from their beliefs simply with a clever hashtag and 140 characters of propaganda pablum?
Yet the idea that the State Department can use social media to “counter program” IS’ message persists, even as its uselessness stares everyone but the State Department in the face.
A Little Background on YouTube
The State Department’s propaganda uses a negative message to try and counter the attraction of Islamic State. Started in 2011, State’s blather was only in foreign languages, moving into English in 2013. In 2014 year the work started showing up on YouTube. The theme then was “Think Again, Turn Away; the messaging was found on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even on the sides of buses in New York City as posters. One YouTube video includes subtitles such as “learn useful skills, such as blowing up mosques” and “crucifying Muslims.” Another features oil being poured on the ground framed as “squandering public resources.
The content is seemingly written more to appeal to Washington than potential jihadis, as you can see in this example. A lot of the messaging mocks potential recruits, claiming, for example, they read “Islam for Dummies” before heading to Syria. Those efforts cost between $5 million and $6.8 million a year.
When in Doubt, Hire a Consultant
With the clear failure of that messaging to stop the flow of western recruits to IS (State does like to point to proving the negative, suggesting they cannot measure people who did not join), the State Department is now trying a new version of the old strategy.
EdVenture Partners, a company whose self-described mission is to connect clients with the “valuable and powerful millennial market” to sell junk to dumbasses, was hired to enlist student teams to combat violent extremism with some kind of digital effort — an app, a website or an online initiative. It was to be a contest; State would pick the winners and fund those as U.S. government propaganda, er, counter messaging.
Because, see, up until now, the problem has been that those dang young people just weren’t “getting down” with the messages old people at State were “putting out there.” For real. Ya’all.
“Millennials can speak better to millennials, there’s no question about that,” State Department Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Keiderling, who was a judge in the competition, said, sounding like some 1950s educational film narrator.
How to Defeat Islamic State
So here’s how the young will be stopping other youngsters from joining Islamic State.
— Australia’s Curtin University developed an app called 52Jumaa, which to support young Muslims. The app sends daily positive affirmations about Islam to users’ smartphones, allows them to connect with other Muslims and asks them to complete a selfless act of kindness every Friday.
— Students at Texas A&M came up with a website idea called The Funny Militant, which would run jihadi-centric parodies, including a hilarious app for finding a jihadi bride and one called Who’s Your Bagdaddy?
— Missouri State’s product, which won the competition, is a website about the dangers of violent extremism. The site provides English-language curriculum for teaching about the extreme ideological ideas on social media and how to recognize them. It also includes trivia, community boards and videos from people who have been directly affected by terrorism.
Wait — the winner sounds almost exactly like the lame stuff the State Department already spews out, basically saying “IS is bad, so don’t do that,” the war on terror’s reboot of the 1980s anti-drug message “Just Say No.” The winning group also created a hashtag, so you know they are like super-serious: #EndViolentExtremism
Here are all the winners of the competition. Looks can obviously be deceiving, but one does wonder how many Muslims are in a group seeking to speak directly to Muslims in a voice that doesn’t sound like a bunch of know-it-all white kids from the ‘burbs:
Today is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
In honor of the victims and with hatred for the torturers, including the United States of America, I am re-running an older article that speaks to the real horrors of what has been and is being done to other human beings.
There’s one particular nightmare that Americans need to face: in the first decade of the twenty-first century we tortured people as national policy. One day, we’re going to have to confront the reality of what that meant, of what effect it had on its victims and on us, too, we who condoned, supported, or at least allowed it to happen, either passively or with guilty (or guiltless) gusto. If not, torture won’t go away. It can’t be disappeared like the body of a political prisoner, or conveniently deep-sixed simply by wishing it elsewhere or pretending it never happened or closing our bureaucratic eyes. After the fact, torture can only be dealt with by staring directly into the nightmare that changed us — that, like it or not, helped make us who we now are.
The president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has made it clear that no further investigations or inquiries will be made into America’s decade of torture. His Justice Department failed to prosecute a single torturer or any of those who helped cover up evidence of the torture practices. But it did deliver a jail sentence to one ex-CIA officer who refused to be trained to torture and was among the first at the CIA to publicly admit that the torture program was real.
At what passes for trials at our prison camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, disclosure of the details of torture is forbidden, effectively preventing anyone from learning anything about what the CIA did with its victims. We are encouraged to do what’s best for America and, as Barack Obama put it, “look forward, not backward,” with the same zeal as, after 9/11, we were encouraged to save America by going shopping.
Looking into the Eyes of the Tortured
Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. As an act, it is all about pain, but even more about degradation and humiliation. It destroys its victims, but also demeans those who perpetrate it. I know, because in the course of my 24 years as a State Department officer, I spoke with two men who had been tortured, both by allies of the United States and with at least the tacit approval of Washington. While these men were tortured, Americans in a position to know chose to look the other way for reasons of politics. These men were not movie characters, but complex flesh-and-blood human beings. Meet just one of them once and, I assure you, you’ll never follow the president’s guidance and move forward trying to forget.
The Korean Poet
The first victim was a Korean poet. I was in Korea at the time as a visa officer working for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. Persons with serious criminal records are normally ineligible to travel to the United States. There is, however, an exception in the law for political crimes. It was initially carved out for Soviet dissidents during the Cold War years. I spoke to the poet as he applied for a visa to determine if his arrest had indeed been “political” and so not a disqualification for his trip to the U.S.
Under the brutal military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee, the poet was tortured for writing anti-government verse. To younger Americans, South Korea is the land of “Gangnam Style,” of fashionable clothing and cool, cool electronics. However, within Psy’s lifetime, his nation was ruled by a series of military autocrats, supported by the United States in the interest of “national security.”
The poet quietly explained to me that, after his work came to the notice of the powers that be, he was taken from his apartment to a small underground cell. Soon, two men arrived and beat him repeatedly on his testicles and sodomized him with one of the tools they had used for the beating. They asked him no questions. In fact, he said, they barely spoke to him at all. Though the pain was beyond his ability to describe, even as a poet, he said that the humiliation of being left so utterly helpless was what remained with him for life, destroyed his marriage, sent him to the repeated empty comfort of alcohol, and kept him from ever putting pen to paper again.
The men who destroyed him, he told me, entered the room, did their work, and then departed, as if they had many others to visit that day and needed to get on with things. The Poet was released a few days later and politely driven back to his apartment by the police in a forward-looking gesture, as if the episode of torture was over and to be forgotten.
The Iraqi Tribal Leader
The second torture victim I met while I was stationed at a forward operating base in Iraq. He was a well-known SOI leader. The SOI, or Sons of Iraq, were Sunni tribesmen who, as part of Iraq War commander General David Petraeus’s much-discussed “Anbar Awakening” agreed to stop killing Americans and, in return for money we paid them, take up arms against al-Qaeda. That was 2007. By 2010, when I met the man, the Sons of Iraq, as Sunnis, had no friends in the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and the U.S. was expediently allowing its Sunni friendships to fade away.
Over dessert one sticky afternoon, the SOI leader told me that he had recently been released from prison. He explained that the government had wanted him off the street in the run-up to a recent election, so that he would not use his political pull to get in the way of a Shia victory. The prison that held him was a secret one, he told me, under the control of some shadowy part of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces.
He had been tortured by agents of the Maliki government, supported by the United States in the interest of national security. Masked men bound him at the wrists and ankles and hung him upside-down. He said that they neither asked him any questions nor demanded any information. They whipped his testicles with a leather strap, then beat the bottoms of his feet and the area around his kidneys. They slapped him. They broke the bones in his right foot with a steel rod, a piece of rebar that would ordinarily have been used to reinforce concrete.
It was painful, he told me, but he had felt pain before. What truly wounded him was the feeling of utter helplessness. A man like himself, he stated with an echo of pride, had never felt helpless. His strength was his ability to control things, to stand up to enemies, to fight, and if necessary, to order men to their deaths. Now, he no longer slept well at night, was less interested in life and its activities, and felt little pleasure. He showed me his blackened toenails, as well as the caved in portion of his foot, which still bore a rod-like indentation with faint signs of metal grooves. When he paused and looked across the room, I thought I could almost see the movie running in his head.
Alone in the Dark
I encountered those two tortured men, who described their experiences so similarly, several years and thousands of miles apart. All they really had in common was being tortured and meeting me. They could, of course, have been lying about, or exaggerating, what had happened to them. I have no way to verify their stories because in neither country were their torturers ever brought to justice. One man was tortured because he was considered a threat to South Korea, the other to Iraq. Those “threatened” governments were among the company the U.S. keeps, and they were known torturers, regularly justifying such horrific acts, as we would also do in the first years of the twenty-first century, in the name of security. In our case, actual torture techniques would reportedly be demonstrated to some of the highest officials in the land in the White House itself, then “legalized,” and carried out in global “black sites” and foreign prisons.
A widely praised movie about the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, opens with a series of torture scenes. The victims are various Muslims and al-Qaeda suspects, and the torturers are members of the U.S. government working for the CIA. We see a prisoner strapped to the wall, bloody, with his pants pulled down in front of a female CIA officer. We see another having water poured into his mouth and lungs until he wretches in agony (in what during the Middle Ages was bluntly called “the Water Torture,” later “the water cure,” or more recently “waterboarding”). We see men shoved forcibly into tiny confinement boxes that do not allow them to sit, stand, or lie down.
These are were among the techniques of torture “lawfully” laid out in a CIA Inspector General’s report, some of which would have been alarmingly familiar to the tortured men I spoke with, as they might be to Bradley Manning, held isolated, naked, and without sleep in U.S. military prisons in a bid to break his spirit.
The movie scenes are brutal, yet sanitized. As difficult to watch as the images are, they show nothing beyond the infliction of pain. Horrific as it may be, pain fades, bones mend, bruises heal. No, don’t for a second think that the essence of torture is physical pain, no matter what Zero Dark Thirty implies. If, in many cases, the body heals, mental wounds are a far more difficult matter. Memory persists.
The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. After all, it’s not just about eliciting information — sometimes, as in the case of the two men I met, it’s not about information at all. Torture is, however, invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control. We’re just slapping you now, but we control you and who knows what will happen next, what we’re capable of? “You lie to me, I hurt you,” says a CIA torturer in Zero Dark Thirty to his victim. The torture victim is left to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, almost always in the process assuming responsibility for creating his own terror. Yes, torture “works” — to destroy people.
Khalid Sheik Mohammed, accused 9/11 “mastermind,” was waterboarded 183 times. Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj spent six years in the Guantanamo Bay prison, stating, “They used dogs on us, they beat me, sometimes they hung me from the ceiling and didn’t allow me to sleep for six days.” Brandon Neely, a U.S. military policeman and former Guantanamo guard, watched a medic there beat an inmate he was supposed to treat. CIA agents tortured a German citizen, a car salesman named Khaled el-Masri, who was picked up in a case of mistaken identity, sodomizing, shackling, and beating him, holding him in total sensory deprivation, as Macedonian state police looked on, so the European Court of Human Rights found last week.
Others, such as the Court of Human Rights or the Senate Intelligence Committee, may give us glimpses into the nightmare of official American policy in the first years of this century. Still, our president refuses to look backward and fully expose the deeds of that near-decade to sunlight; he refuses to truly look forward and unambiguously renounce forever the use of anything that could be seen as an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Since he also continues to support robustly the precursors to torture — the “extraordinary rendition” of captured terror suspects to allied countries that are perfectly happy to torture them and indefinite detention by decree — we cannot fully understand what men like the Korean poet and the Iraqi tribal leader already know on our behalf: we are torturers and unless we awaken to confront the nightmare of what we are continuing to become, it will eventually transform and so consume us.
Words seem to mean different things in the Middle East. “Training” is a new term for escalation, and “Iraq” seems more and more like the Arabic word for Vietnam.
But the terms “slippery slope” and “quagmire” still mean what they have always meant.
In 2011, making good on a campaign promise that helped land him in the White House, President Barack Obama closed out America’s eight-year war in Iraq. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed.
Then America went back. In August 2014, Obama turned an emotional appeal to save the Yazidi people from Islamic State into a bombing campaign. A massive tap was turned and arms flowed into the region. The number of American soldiers in Iraq zoomed up to 3,100, quietly joined by some 6,300 civilian contractors. The reputed mission was training – or whipping the Iraqi Army into shape.
After another inglorious retreat of the Iraqi Army, this time in Ramadi, the Obama administration last week announced a change: America will send 450 more troops to establish a new base at al Taqaddum, Anbar Province.
It is clear the United States no longer believes the Iraqi Army exists. What is left of it is largely a politically correct distribution tool for American weapons, and a fiction for the media. America will instead work directly with three sectarian militias in their separate de facto states (current bases in America’s Iraqi archipelago include one in Sunni Anbar, another in Kurdish territory and three in Shi’ite-controlled areas). The hope is that the militias will divert their attention from one another long enough to focus on Islamic State. It is, of course, impossible; everyone in Iraq — except the Americans — knows Islamic State is a symptom of a broader civil war, not a stand-alone threat to anyone’s homeland.
It is also significant that the United States will circumvent Baghdad’s objections to arming and training Sunni tribes. Baghdad has not sent any new recruits to the U.S. training facility at Ain al-Asad, in Sunni territory, for about six weeks; the United States will instead engage directly with Sunni recruits at Taqaddum. Obama’s new plan will also bring U.S. arms for the Sunnis straight into the new base, bypassing Baghdad’s control.
This is likely only the beginning of Obama’s surge. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the establishment of what he called “lily pads” — American base-lets scattered around the country. Of course, like Taqaddum, these lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, at risk of being snapped up by an Islamic State frog. Any attack on U.S. troops would require a response, a cycle that could draw the U.S. deeper into open conflict.
The new strategy also revises the role of American troops in Iraq. “Advise and assist” is the new “training.” While careful to say Americans would not engage in combat per se, signals suggest advice and assistance will be dispensed quite close to the front.
In sum: More troops, more bases, more forward-leaning roles, all operating at times against the will of a host government the United States appears to have lost patience with. The bright light of victory is years down a long tunnel.
We’ve seen this before. It was Vietnam.
Some details are different. The jumps from air power to trainers to advisors to combat troops took years in the Vietnam War. Obama has reached the advisor stage in just months. The Iranians fighting in Iraq do share a short-term goal with the United States in pushing back Islamic State, but like the Russians and Chinese in Vietnam, ultimately have an agenda in conflict with American policy.
Meanwhile, similarities scream. As in Vietnam, a series of U.S.-midwifed governments in Baghdad have failed to follow Washington’s orders; they have proceeded independently amid incompetence and corruption. Both wars are characterized as good versus evil (baby killers in Vietnam, jihadis chopping off heads with swords in Iraq); both were sold under questionable pretenses (humanitarian intervention in Iraq, reaction to an alleged but doubtful attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964) and as part of a great global struggle (against communism, against Islamic extremism). Despite the stakes claimed, few allies, if any, join in. In each war, the titular national army — trained, advised and retrained at great cost — would not fight for its country. The host country is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving its (American-created) problems, even as America assumes a greater role.
In Vietnam, Americans were caught between two sides of a civil war. Iraq has at least three but, once again, America sits in the center, used by all, trusted by none. One even sees in Obama a touch of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In its obituary, the New York Times wrote, “[McNamara] concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life. In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was ‘wrong, terribly wrong.’ ” Like McNamara, Obama’s years-long uncertain approach to Iraq may suggest he privately knows the war can’t be won, but publicly escalates it anyway, caught in the roller-coaster of his times and its politics
One difference between Iraq and Vietnam, however, is sharp as a razor. The United States eventually left Vietnam. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed. But unlike in Iraq, the United States was not foolish enough to go back.
USAID just got caught wasting $769 million not supporting Afghanistan’s education sector.
How could this happen?!? As a public service, here are your step-by-step instructions.
— Start with the premise that schools in a wasteland like Afghanistan in support of a failed American policy are more important uses of American taxpayer money than schools in America (which is socialism, or a handout, or whatever, Ayn Rand.)
— Send incompetent people (see below) to Afghanistan with a lot of money, say $769 million. Tell them to build schools. If you don’t have enough in-house incompetent people, like USAID, hire contractors, like USAID did.
— Make sure those people never travel to where the schools are being built. Instead, have them rely on a known corrupt government to tell them where to spend the money. In our instant case, former ministry officials who served under President Hamid Karzai provided false data to USAID regarding the number of active schools in Afghanistan.
— Make sure, as USAID, while spending all that money, not to ask if there are any schools actually being built. Instead, sit back and look the other way as Afghan officials doctored statistics, embezzled money, and interfered with university entrance exams to make it seem schools existed. These allegations suggest that the U.S. and other donors may have paid for ghost schools that ghost students do not attend and for the salaries of ghost teachers who do not teach.
— Despite this, as USAID, announce at every opportunity that education programs are among your most successful work in Afghanistan. For example, USAID cited a jump in students enrolled in schools from an estimated 900,000 in 2002 to more than eight million in 2013 as a clear indicator of progress.
— Make sure all your data supporting these successes is unverifiable, coming only from the Afghan Ministry of Education. Appear surprised when you learn, years and $769 million later, that the data has been falsified. Do not conduct any investigation of your own. Wait and see if some inspector general notices. You know most of the media won’t.
— Ignore the fact that accurate data is essential for gauging progress and for making future funding decisions. Congress will help with this.
— Make sure you have bosses in the field and at the State Department in Washington who do not care about accurate metrics or real results.
— Repeat this process for fourteen years of the Afghan War.
When at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again.
And with that, we woke up Wednesday to see the Obama administration ready to announce a change of course in Iraq, one that is very much a back to the future kind of event. Following about a year of not defeating, degrading or destroying Islamic State (IS; in fact, they are doing quite well, thank you), the administration let slip it’s planning to send hundreds or more new U.S. military personnel to set up a new training base in Anbar Province, Western Iraq. The facility will be located at Al Taqqadum, an Iraqi base near the town of Habbaniya.
American plans are to somehow use, what, magic powder, to double the number of Sunni tribesmen willing to fight IS, while at the same time recruiting and training some 3,000 new Iraqi Army personnel to fight specifically in Anbar. Such plans remind one of an eight-year-old, who proclaims she plans to make a billion zillion dollars selling lemonade in front of the house.
The 450 new military trainers would boost the American presence in Iraq; there are currently 3,080 U.S. military personnel in the country, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Journal notes this latest dumbass move “would expose American forces to greater risk of being drawn into direct combat with Islamic State forces that already control territory around likely sites for a planned U.S. training base.”
But that’s actually the least thing wrong with all this. The biggest problem is the latest American escalation won’t work any better than any of the previous ones, going as far back at 2006 and The Surge.
Apart from the possibility U.S. troops will engage in combat, lead ground combat missions, or act as forward air controllers for U.S. warplanes, their most likely mission will be to try and train Sunni militias to fight IS. The U.S. has been pestering the Shiite Iraqi government for years to arm and train the Sunnis. That government, fearful of an armed insurrection among its own people and dead set on conquering Iraqi Sunni-controlled territory in Anbar (IS is a sideshow, dangerous and annoying, but in the long-term politics of Iraq, a sideshow nonetheless), has shown about as much enthusiasm for the idea as a Muslim at a pork roast, wrapped in bacon, enroute to a Quran burning. You get it.
Without the support of the central government, in particular concrete moves toward moving Shiite militias and their Iranian trainers out of Anbar, coupled with concrete moves to a bring Sunnis into actual government roles that affect the daily lives and political future of the Sunnis, the U.S. plan will fail. Basically, the same plan already failed in 2009 when the central government refused to support the U.S.-initiated Sahwa, the Sons of Iraq, and allowed the Sunnis to flounder. Remember one definition of mental illness is doing the same thing over and over, each time hoping for different results.
Baghdad has no interest in empowering its Sunni minority. It is playing a long-game for control of Iraq, not going deep with the United States in some short-term temper tantrum against the latest terror group we helped create that has spun out of control. To the U.S., the battle is toward the east, as Anbar is just 70 miles from Baghdad. To the Iraqi government, the battlefield is west, from Anbar deeper into Sunni turf.
Now take a look at this snapshot: The Iranians are training and equipping Shiite militias. The U.S. is seeking to train and equip Sunni militias. Long after IS retreats, retires to Florida or whatever, what could possibly go wrong with that kind of a scenario?
Ho ho, ho, this one has all the hallmarks of the amazing waste and stupidity I enjoyed while participating in the reconstruction of Iraq, documented in my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released with a straight face its inquiry into U.S. government’s “Downstream Gas Utilization Project” in Afghanistan, the sum total accomplishment of which was the erection of a single compressed natural gas (CNG) station at a cost of nearly $43 million to the taxpayers.
Here’s why this was such a hallmark waste:
— The limited ability to transport CNG to the location of the single station in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif limits the practicality of expanding the CNG industry in that city. There is only one natural gas pipeline providing gas to Mazar-e-Sharif and it is only safe to operate at minimal pressure.
Hallmark: The people who conceived the project to build the compressed gas station never thought for a second where the gas would come from. They just built the station for the hell of it.
— Construction on a planned new gas pipeline has not started and about $6.5 million worth of new pipe is apparently sitting in storage in Afghanistan.
Hallmark: The people who built the station, the people who ordered the pipe and the people who organize construction did not speak to one another. They may have worked for different contractors. They may not have even known the others existed. They may have done their work in different years. By the time anyone figures all that out, the pipe in storage will have been pilfered, and likely melted down by the Taliban to make mortar shells.
— The gas project may never be completed unless the state-owned Afghan Gas Enterprise pays up to $16 million for its completion.
Hallmark: Leaving some part of a reconstruction project for the host government to pay for was a plan designed to promote “buy in.” In reality, the host government is far too busy sucking up American money via every possible channel of corruption available, and could care less about buy-in on whatever dumb ass thing the Americans are building now.
— The process for converting automobiles in Afghanistan to CNG appears to be cost prohibitive for all but the wealthiest of Afghans.
Hallmark: And here’s the money shot — even if all of the above factors could somehow be fixed by magic, the project would still be a complete waste. Nobody in Afghanistan wanted what the U.S. was building to begin with. If we built this compressed natural gas station for anyone, it is at best as a financial mastubatory device for ourselves.
Bookmark this page so in a few years when Afghanistan devolves into the mess Iraq is today, you’ll know why!
Iraqi security forces lost 2,300 Humvee armored vehicles when the Islamic State jihadist group overran the northern city of Mosul, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Sunday.
U.S. Weapons Already Lost to Islamic State
Iraqi forces have previously abandoned significant types and number of heavy weapons Islamic State could not have otherwise acquired. For example, losses to IS include at least 40 M-1A1 main battle tanks. IS also picked up in Mosul and elsewhere American small arms and ammunition (including 4,000 machine guns that can fire upwards of 800 rounds per minute), and as many as 52 American M-198 howitzer mobile gun systems.
“In the collapse of Mosul, we lost a lot of weapons,” Abadi said in an interview with Iraqiya state TV. Clashes began in Mosul, Iraq’s second city, late on June 9, 2014, and Iraqi forces lost it the following day to IS, less than 24 hours later.
More U.S. Weapons on the Way
To help replenish Iraq’s arms, last year the State Department approved a sale to Iraq of 1,000 Humvees with increased armor, machine guns, and grenade launchers. The U.S. is currently in the process of sending/has already sent to Iraq 175 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, 55,000 rounds of main gun ammunition for the tanks, $600 million in howitzers and trucks, and $700 million worth of Hellfire missiles.
Some $1.2 billion in future training funds for Iraq was tucked into an omnibus spending bill Congress passed earlier this year.
For those keeping score, between 2003-2011, the United States spent $25 billion training the Iraqi Army. Some 3,000 American soldiers are currently in Iraq, re-training the Iraqi Army to re-fight Islamic State. The previously trained Iraqi army had 30,000 soldiers in Mosul, who ran away in the face of about 1,000 Islamic State fighters. The same thing happened in Ramadi, where 10,000 Iraqi soldiers fled ahead of 400 IS fighters.
Could This Have Been Predicted?
Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University Chris Coyne, in an interview with me about a year ago even before the U.S. again sent troops into Iraq, predicted this exact scenario:
The U.S. government provided significant amounts of military hardware to the Iraqi government with the intention that it would be used for good (national security, policing, etc.). However, during the IS offensive many of the Iraqis turned and ran, leaving behind the U.S.-supplied hardware. This weapons windfall may further alter the dynamics in Syria.
Now the U.S. government wants to provide more military supplies to the Iraqi government to combat IS. But I haven’t heard many people recognizing, let alone discussing, the potential negative unintended consequences of doing so. How do we know how the weapons and supplies will be used as desired? What if the recipients turn and run as they have recently and leave behind the weapons? What if the weapons are stolen? In sum, why should we have any confidence that supplying more military hardware into a country with a dysfunctional and ineffective government will lead to a good outcome either in Iraq or in the broader region?
Impact on American Policy
And hey: A report prepared for the United Nations Security Council warns IS possesses sufficient reserves of small arms, ammunition and vehicles to wage its war in Syria and Iraq for up to two more years. And that presumes the U.S. won’t be sending more to them.
The United States remains the world’s largest exporter of weapons.
Is there hope for Iraq? It depends on what you are hoping for.
It is becoming clearer that there is little hope of destroying Islamic State in Iraq. Islamic State has no shortage of new recruits. Its fighters capture heavy weapons with such ease that the United States is forced to direct air strikes against equipment abandoned by the Iraqis — even as it ships in more. Islamic State holds territory that will allow it to trade land for time, morph into an insurgency and preserve its forces by pulling back into Syrian territory it controls even if Iraq’s government, with Iranian and American help, launches a major assault.
Islamic State maintains support among Iraq’s Sunnis. The more the Shi’ites align against it, the more Sunnis see no other choice but to support Islamic State, as they did al Qaeda after the American invasion in 2003. Stories from Tikrit, where Shi’ite militia-led forces defeated Islamic State, describe “a ghost town ruled by gunmen.” There are other reports of ethnic cleansing in the Euphrates Valley town of Jurf al-Sakhar. Absent a unified Iraq, there will always be an al Qaeda, an Islamic State or another iteration of it to defend the Sunnis.
The only way for Iraq to remain unified was a stalemate of force, with no side having the might to win nor weak enough to lose, with negotiations to follow. As the United States passively watched the Iranians become its proxy boots on the ground against Islamic State, all the while knowing Tehran’s broader agenda was a Shi’ite Iraqi client, that possibility was lost.
It’s possible to pin down the failure to a single battle. The last hope that Iraq would not become an Iranian client was dashed after Islamic State’s defeat in Tikrit. The victory triggered the Iraqi central government to dismiss American and Kurdish support for a drive toward strategically important Mosul. The government all but abandoned the idea of a nonsectarian national army; it turned instead to a gang of Iranian-supported Shi’ite militias with a bundle of anti-Sunni agendas. Baghdad pointed those forces toward Ramadi.
Islamic State is also in Ramadi, but it had already poked into most of the city over the past year. It needed only 400 fighters for the final push last week. The threat was not new. The move by Baghdad on Ramadi is thus more long-term political than short-term tactical: think of Ramadi not as a gate through which Islamic State must pass moving east toward Baghdad (Islamic State cannot occupy the Shi’ite city of four million, defended by untold militia, any more than the German army could capture Stalingrad) but as a gate the Shi’ite militias must traverse headed west to control the Sunni homeland of Anbar.
The Kurds, America’s great loyalist hope, were energetic fighters against Islamic State in the north, at least as long as their peshmerga was reclaiming territory — such as the city of Arbil — from the central government in Baghdad. The Kurds are nowhere to be seen now that fighting has shifted to Anbar. Kurdistan cares little about the Sunnis other than to keep them away from its territory. Baghdad, with Islamic State on its plate, under political pressure from Washington to keep the peace with the Kurds and facing a powerful peshmerga, is unlikely to make any near- to mid-term moves against Kurdistan.
So, besides simply hoping for the best, what can the United States do? Not much. Most of the possible game changers have already failed.
Ever more air power and raids by Special Operations forces cannot hold ground or do more than dilute Iranian influence in spots, assuming they are not actually assisting the Iranians. President Barack Obama has ruled out large numbers of U.S. ground forces. (Not that troops matter; the 166,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq at the surge’s peak failed to win anything lasting, and Obama’s final pullout in 2011 was numerically meaningless.) The training the United States is doing with the Iraqi Army in 2015 will accomplish about the same as the training the United States did with the Iraqi Army from 2005 to 2011. Even the U.S. secretary of defense was reduced to near-mockery when describing Iraq’s army in Ramadi; it lacked the will to fight, he said.
America’s latest man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Hader al-Abadi, has no more moved his country toward any kind of reconciliation than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, did. Abadi’s reliance on Shi’ite militias only draws him closer to Iran.
Obama’s post-Ramadi hope is once again to try to attract and train an anti-Islamic State Sunni force. There’s no support for that idea in Baghdad itself. The central government fears arming domestic Sunnis, besides a few token “federal police” units. It seems unlikely the Sunnis will be fooled by another U.S.-sponsored “awakening,” like the one in 2006 that helped root out insurgents in Anbar province. Baghdad left the fighters without paychecks from — or meaningful representation in — the government. As America watched, Maliki’s failure to capitalize on the original awakening is a large part of why Iraq is falling apart now.
The much-ballyhooed pan-Arab coalition against Islamic State proved to be a short-lived photo op. America flies roughly 85 percent of the missions against Islamic State, with Western allies filling in a good part of the remaining percentage. No Arab ground troops ever showed up, and key coalition countries are now openly snubbing Washington over its possible nuclear deal with Iran.
The United States appears to have run out of hope any of its cards will play in the long game.
Iraq’s Sunnis can, at best, hope to be pushed into an Islamic State-protected enclave on the fuzzy Syrian border, a development Washington would likely quietly support to avoid a politically embarrassing ethnic cleansing. Iraq would remain an Iranian client state, dependent on its patron to keep Islamic State in check. Iranian and Iraqi political needs would mostly be aligned at that point, though more Islamic State fighters nearer to Syria would pose its own problems. This would expose what might be the key flaw in American policy in Iraq: The people America thinks are its allies don’t actually want what America wants.
The Iraq of 2003 is gone. The Iraq of 2014 is gone. America’s mistakes made in between have had consequences because, as everyone knows, hope alone is a poor strategy.
Hello American people, your friend Haider al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq, writing to you here from Baghdad, which is the capital of Iraq since many Americans I heard are ignorant of basic geography.
Go ahead, check the Wikipedia, as Google is the friend of us all. Me, my English not so good, you forgive, OK.
I meeting this good day with my old friends the Iranians. I had a few minutes here and wanted to drop you in America a line to say “hi.”
I started thinking about you when I was reading a book about what you call the “Vietnam War.” People over there call it the Third Indochina War, as they fought the Japanese, the French and then you Americans in succession. Your wonderful naivete about history just amuses me. We in Iraq call the most recent invasion by you the Third and a Half Gulf War, after Saddam fought the Iranians in the 1980’s (you were on Iraq’s side), then Iraq fought the U.S. in 1991 and of course then you invaded us because of 9/11 in 2003. Now your troops are back in my country, but without their boots on my ground, so I call it half a new war for you.
You know, in Vietnam your government convinced generations of Americans to fight and die for something bigger than themselves, to struggle for democracy they believed, to fight Communism in Vietnam before it toppled countries like dominoes (we also love this dominoes game in Iraq!) and you ended up fighting Communism in your California beaches. Everyone believed this but it was all a lie. Then in 2003 the George W. Bush (blessed be his name) told the exact same lie and everyone believed it again– he just changed the word “Communism” to “Terrorism” and again your American youth went off to die for something greater than themselves but it was a lie.
How you fooled twice? Hah hah, don’t haggle in the marketplace, we say. Soon of course the Obama will say something similar and you’ll do it again. Maybe in Syria, maybe in Iran, maybe somewhere else. As you say, it’s a big world!
But I am rude. I need to say now “Thank You” to the parents of the 4491 Americans who died in this Iraq invasion so that I could become leader of Iraq. Really guys and the girls, I could not have achieved this without you. See in March 2010 you had another American election festival for us in Iraq, and my good friend, boss and mentor al-Maliki lost by the counting of votes. However, because your State Department was desperate for some government to form here and they could not broker a deal themselves, they allowed the Iranian government to come and help us.
My Iraq is good friends with my Iran thanks to you. “If Tehran and Baghdad are powerful, then there will be no place for the presence of enemies of nations in this region, including the U.S. and the Zionist regime,” the official Iranian news agency IRNA quoted Ahmadinejad as telling al-Maliki.
Anyway, I gotta run my bitches. But yes, my thanks again for sacrificing 4491 of your young men and women for me. I can never repay this debt, not that I would even think of seeking to repay you anything you ignorant pigs.
Haider al-Abadi (follow me on Twitter!)
Iraqi officials are investigating reports that Islamic State militants destroyed Hatra, an archaeological site that dates to the First Century B.C., two days after the group bulldozed another nearby site, the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud.
Destruction of such important historical sites is indefensible. Like an extinct species, once they are gone, they are gone forever. The casual destruction of the world’s heritage is too often a byproduct of war, as well as a symbol of its senselessness.
The IS act reminded me of another example, however, one from my own time in Iraq with the American Army, in 2009.
On the edge of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hammer where I lived were several small hills, lumps of raised dirt on the otherwise frying-pan-flat desert. These were “tells,” ancient garbage dumps and fallen buildings. For thousands of years, people in Iraq, as throughout the Middle East, used sun-dried bricks to build homes and walls. The bricks lasted about twenty years before crumbling under the strain of erosion, at which point the people rebuilt on top of the old foundation. After a couple of rounds, the buildings sat on a small hill. There had been so much erosion over the years, along with the digging the Army had done, that an entire area two football fields in size was covered with pottery shards.
In a few minutes of wandering around, you could find pieces commingled that were handworked (old), spun on a wheel with grooves (less old), and glazed with blue color (newest). They were just laying on the ground. Where hold has been dug, you could see larger pieces, even most of a large pot or two. The problem for history was that the large, mostly flat area attracted soldiers, who would sometimes drive the SUVs used to get around on the base around, doing “donuts” and enjoying kicking up dust plumes. No one officially seemed to mind much — kids blowing off steam — until one reservist Lieutenant Colonel took it upon himself to personally try and preserve what was left of the site. He set up posts with red streamers on them, both as a warning and as a way to make driving impossible, and the donuts stopped. At least during his one year deployment.
People said that when the American Army first built the FOB and dug up truckloads of dirt, they found ancient skulls and long bones. You could sometimes spot very old bones in the dirt inside the earthen Hesco barriers that protected the base. The Army used one nearby ancient hill for artillery practice, blowing off most of the top. As one soldier said, “If it’s old and already broken, why does it matter if we shoot at it?” That same area was turned over to the Iraqis, who use it still today as a live fire exercise zone.
The American Army digging also exposed an old village perimeter wall, short-lasting sun-dried bricks on the bottom with a row or two of longer-lasting kiln-dried bricks on top for sturdiness. There was little wood in the desert for kilns, so the inhabitants could not build the whole wall out of the sturdier fired brick. There was still a large brick factory in the area, a few miles from the FOB, that made bricks with local mud. With only a little water added, the mud turned thick and sticky, bad for walking when it rained in winter, great for bricks.
Some ten thousand tells are scattered all over the Middle East. You could see them in the desert from the helicopter, especially in the late afternoon when the sun was low, as they were the only things that cast a significant shadow. An ancient river once flowed through this area, with the village adjacent. A band of greenery marked where the river had been, suggesting there was still water deep underneath. Some of the pottery and bricks were likely Sumerian. It was possible the dust we dug out of our ears at night might have been part of an ancient wall around a Sumerian city.
At night the tell area was very dark so as to avoid giving the insurgents an easy aiming point, and you could imagine how the earliest inhabitants of what was now FOB Hammer must have seen the night sky. It was beautiful, deserving of he over-used expression “awe-inspiring,” with stars down to nearly the horizon. It was all a reminder that we were not the first to move into Iraq from afar, and a promise across time that someone might sit atop our own ruins and wonder what ever happened to the Americans.
(Partially excerpted from my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
Iraq? On another Memorial Day, we’re still talking about Iraq?
I attended the 2015 commencement ceremonies at Fordham University in New York. The otherwise typical ritual (future, global, passion, do what you love, you’ll never forget this place) began oddly, with an admonition to pause for a moment in honor of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a special congratulations to veterans among the graduating class. No other group was so singled out.
At William and Mary, a university that counts Thomas Jefferson as an alumnus, Condoleezza Rice was granted this spring an honorary degree in public service; William and Mary’s chancellor is former head of the CIA and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
The ongoing news features “gaffs” by various Republican candidates about whether they would invade Iraq then knowing now, or maybe then invade now knowing then, or tomorrow knowing less. Pundits recycle the old arguments about imperfect decisions, mistakes being made, and a new trope, that Obama “lost” Iraq.
The mother of the first Navy Seal killed in Iraq wrote an open letter to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Dempsey responded to reports that Ramadi, Iraq fell to Islamic State by describing the city as “not symbolic in any way.” The mother asked a version of the familiar question, “so what did he die for?”
Remembering the Dead
Yes, it is another Memorial Day and we are still talking about Iraq.
The facts are in front of us. The Iraq War of 2003-2011 killed 4491 Americans. The Pentagon states 32,226 Americans were wounded “in action,” a number which does not include an estimated 200,000 soldiers who will suffer PTSD or major depression, or the 285,000 of them who experienced a probable traumatic brain injury.
On the Iraqi side of the equation, no one knows. Most of the Iraqis died more of the war — well-after then-president Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” and an end of major hostilities — than in the war per se. Estimates run from some 200,000 up to a million dead.
Argue with any of the numbers you like. Agree that the “real” numbers are big.
There are similar sets of numbers for Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and many other places America makes war, overtly, covertly and via drone.
Lessons from Iraq
And that is why we should, on Memorial Day, still be talking about Iraq. We haven’t learned anything from our mistakes there and it is time we did.
The lessons of Iraq are not limited to bad decision making, falsifying intelligence reports, and exaggerated claims about smoking guns and mushroom clouds.
Those are just details, and they come and go with wars: the Gulf of Tonkin incident that brought America into the Vietnam War was false. So were the stories out of Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing Kuwaiti infants from their incubators. Same for the “we’re just on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidi people” that reopened American involvement in Iraq less than a year ago. Just as false are the “we are invading ______ (fill in the blank with any number of locations) to liberate the people” there from a thug government, an evil dictator, another bad guy.
We’ve eliminated a lot of Qaddafi’s and Saddam’s, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone on the ground in their old countries happy about what resulted from that. War after war we need to fight back against barbarians who seek to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region (Communism? Terrorism?) War after war we need to fight “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here.
Maybe as late as the Vietnam War we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. Most hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” But we of the September 12 group of Americans have no excuse.
The lies and fudges and mistakes that took us to war in Iraq in 2003 were not unique; they were policy. There is a template for every American war since 1945, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. Unless and until we talk about that on some Memorial Day, we will be talking about Iraq, or wherever next year’s war is, on another Memorial Day.
Alone at Night
I think about that mom who wonders what her son died for in Ramadi. She is not alone; there are lots of moms whose sons died in Ramadi, and Fallujah, and Helmand Province, and Hue and Danang, even Grenada. Late at night, perhaps after a third glass of white wine failed again to let them sleep, those moms may try and console themselves thinking their sons and daughters died for “something.” I can’t criticize or begrudge them for that, they having lost a child. Ghosts are terrible things to follow you through life.
The kids who will serve in our military into the “commitment” to Afghanistan that extends into 2024 are currently in elementary school. They are out on the lawn right now this Memorial Day, playing at being ghosts.
What I would like to do on this Memorial Day is ask all the mom’s who have not yet lost a child in a war that does not matter to think about those unthinkable things while they are waving a flag, and while their kids are still alive.
If we think about that this Memorial Day, maybe we can start to learn the real lesson of Iraq.
The Wall Street Journal reports while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, scrutinized politically sensitive documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and sometimes blocked their release.
Keystone, Bill and the Foundation
The Journal cites two examples. In one, Mills told State Department records specialists she wanted to see all documents requested on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and later demanded that some be held back (The Clinton Foundation received millions from proponents of Keystone XL.)
In the other case, Mills’s staff negotiated with the records specialists over the release of documents about Bill Clinton’s speaking engagements, many on behalf of the Clinton Foundation, also holding some back (During Hillary’s tenure as secretary, the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser gave near-blanket approval to at least 330 requests for Bill Clinton’s appearance at speeches, dinners and events both in the U.S. and around the globe. More than 220 paid events earned the family nearly $50 million.)
Mills interfering with the FOIA process at State to shield the Clinton’s politically would be a clear ethical and likely legal violation. But is it the only instance of her intercession in this way? Let’s ask Ray Maxwell.
Ray Maxwell has a helluva story: Hillary Clinton’s most senior aides participated in a Benghazi cover-up. Maxwell says he knows because he was there.
Raymond Maxwell was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, covering Libya. Soon after Ambassador Chris Stevens and others were killed in Benghazi, Maxwell says he participated in a secret Sunday session where Clinton aides Cheryl Mills and Jake Sullivan oversaw a document review with the aim to “pull out anything that might put anybody in the front office or the seventh floor in a bad light” (“Seventh floor” is slang for the Secretary of State.)
When Maxwell first made his allegations in September 2014, he was dismissed by most as a disgruntled employee with an agenda. There was no collaborating evidence.
But what we now appear to know about Cheryl Mills and her desire to shield Clinton from document searches adds a little more fuel to the fire.
BONUS: After Hillary left the State Department, Mills joined the Board of Directors for the Clinton Foundation.
The United States remains the world’s largest exporter of weapons.
The Middle East and North Africa are among America’s most lucrative arms markets, and U.S. defense companies and contractors have opened local offices as the demand shows no sign of abating.
I sat down with VICE News to discuss the (lack of) controls on U.S. arms exports. The focus is on how arms sales were built into our war efforts in Iraq, and how the “controls” on selling weapons to regimes that violate human rights are bypassed via a compliant State Department.
One highlight of this documentary is VICE News traveling to the International Defense Exhibition and Conference in the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi, to examine the competition between arms manufacturers vying for a greater portion of the lucrative market.
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While hosting the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Washington and at Camp David last week, Obama faced a hard sell: assuring the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that the United States has an Iran policy that encompasses their security needs.
He also tried to encourage the six countries to work together for their own collective security, but in a way that dovetails with American strategic goals.
It did not work.
Only two of the six GCC nations even bothered to send heads of state. Three of the missing leaders pleaded health issues as their excuses to stay home; Saudi Arabia said its ruler, King Salman, didn’t travel due to humanitarian commitments to Yemen. The Saudi snub in particular reflects the concern, among America’s Sunni Arab allies, that the United States isn’t taking a hard enough stance toward Iran and its proxies.
The Saudis’ commitment to ensuring that the United States is ready to oppose Iranian-proxy forces even as rapprochement moves forward is clearly seen in Yemen. After tamping down the Arab Spring in Sana’a and easing a sympathetic government into power with Saudi support, America militarized Yemen. This approach was intended to be a model for a new “small footprint” strategy, where a compliant local government would be paired with drones and Special Forces to conduct joint strikes against Islamic militants fueled by intelligence from the United States. Obama cited Yemen as a successful example of this strategy as recently as September 2014. Yet the dissolution of that country, and the chaos that followed a tail-between-the-legs evacuation of American diplomats and Special Forces, instead planted an Iranian-supported rebellion on Saudi Arabia’s border.
When Washington did not decisively move to counter Iranian gains in Yemen, the Saudis lashed out in late March of this year. The recent Saudi royal succession, which concentrated power in a smaller circle, may have also put pressure on the new king to act aggressively. Though the Saudi attacks in Yemen are tactically aimed at securing its southern border, strategically they send a message to Iran to step back. They signal to the United States that Saudi Arabia wants Washington to become more engaged in the situation and perhaps use air strikes and covert forces, similar to what it is doing in other parts of the Middle East.
Increasing hostilities, including the Saudi use of American-supplied cluster bombs, forced Obama into that rock-and-a-hard-place that increasingly defines Washington’s policy in the region. He needed to ensure Saudi military action did not bleed over into open conflict with Iran, while demonstrating the United States would stand up for its allies. Obama’s tepid answer — saber rattling in the form of an aircraft carrier moved into the area — seemed to back down the Iranians for now, but said very little about long-term strategy.
The Saudis demonstrated in Yemen what might be called unilateral collective defense; though they could not assemble a robust pan-Arab force and have conducted most of the bombing themselves, they acted with regional assistance in the form of limited air strikes, reconnaissance help and statements of support. This is very much at odds with Washington’s idea of what pan-Arab collective defense should look like. After all, how far can relations with Iran progress — never mind the goal of regional stability — when America’s allies start new wars against Iranian proxies?
No matter who showed up for last week’s conference, Obama could only propose his own version of collective defense, a region-wide missile defense system. This was a significant step down from the NATO-like agreement with the United States the GCC would have prefered. (Stated plans to create an “Arab NATO” are still in process.) Obama included new arms sales to GCC states that, while afraid of Iran, still remain wary of one another. The United States wants to be the glue that holds the arrangement together. That would seem to be an optimistic goal since American glue failed to hold together any substantive pan-Arab force in Iraq and Syria, and tens of billions of dollars in arms sales over the years apparently have not been reassuring enough.
If Washington doesn’t reassure the GCC countries that it will oppose Iran in proxy wars across the region, expect more independent action from America’s allies in the Gulf. America cannot walk away from these countries; oil, long-standing alliances and U.S. strategic facilities and bases housed across the GCC are factors. This may lead to Washington finding itself dragged into any number of fights it does not want, or stuck playing intermediary between the Saudis and Iran, as it is now doing to help broker a short cease-fire in Yemen. Think Syria next, where the Saudis are already working on a deal with Turkey that is at odds with American policy.
Obama and the GCC nations concluded last week’s meetings with little resolved, even as all sides know they must ideally find some resolution ahead of the June 30 deadline for the U.S.-Iran nuclear treaty.
The old order is in flux. Iran is no doubt watching traditional allies snap at each other over its ascendancy with some satisfaction; discord only plays to its advantage. All three sides — the United States, the GCC and the Iranians — are watching the clock. What will be their next moves if time runs out?
As official United States forges ahead with its controversial 13-year Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, which, incredibly, extends from May 28, 2012 to November 11, 2025, and the world celebrates the 40th anniversary of the end of the American War in Vietnam this month, here’s a simple exercise that will help you comprehend the horrific magnitude of the loss of human and, more specifically, Vietnamese life during that war.
The next time you’re standing at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. thinking about the 58,000+ Americans who died in what was essentially a war of national liberation, perhaps including friends or family members, reach out, touch the black granite, close your eyes and multiply The Wall by 65.
Let that sink in for a moment: 58,300 times 65.
Let’s call it the Vietnamese Monument, the Ultimate Wall, inscribed with the names of 3.8 million mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, grandmothers and grandfathers, nearly nine percent of the population at the time, including two million civilians, who were murdered by the U.S. military, its client state and various allies, e.g. Australia and South Korea. A U.S. veteran friend had this to say about one of the 1.8 million Vietnamese souls who perished fighting to rid their country of yet another foreign invader: “One of our victims was searched when the shooting stopped and the bleeding continued and was found to be in possession of a medal. Our interpreter told us it was for heroism at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ fourteen years previous. While we were sent to war to fight communism, he had fought his whole life for his country’s right to self-determination. We traveled 12,000 miles to kill him for that.” (From I Would Rather Die Alone — for Peace: A Soldier’s Dream by Steve Banko, 2003)
The 3.8 million is not a statistic pulled out of thin air; it is the number of violent war deaths, according to researchers from the Harvard Medical School and the University of Washington. It does not include Vietnamese who died as a result of war-related disease, hunger or lack of medical care.
3.8 million lives snuffed out, 3.8 million family members become memories, ancestral spirits and pictures on family altars, 3.8 million fates frozen in time. In case you’re counting, that’s the current equivalent of 28.87 million Americans (as of 4/24/15) or the combined populations of Delaware, New Mexico and South Dakota. To put it in historical perspective that’s over 60 percent of the number of Jews generally thought to have been exterminated during the Holocaust. Commemorate that.
If you want to begin to grasp how it’s humanly (or inhumanly) possible for so many people to be killed in such a short window of time and why so many U.S. veterans of that ill-begotten war suffer from PTSD, are disproportionately represented among America’s legion of homeless and continue to take their lives at an alarming rate, read Nick Turse’s best selling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. [NOTE: See We Meant Well’s review of that book.]
If the truth sometimes hurts, this particular truth — in all of its technicolor brutality — will devastate and haunt you. It will also set you free, as in no more illusions and no place to hide, both essential prerequisites to overcoming an inglorious past.
Now close your eyes again and let a much larger and longer polished black granite monument take shape in your mind’s eye, the Vietnamese Monument, which extends from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument to The White House and back to the Capitol. It’s not all about U.S., is it?
Originally published in the Huffington Post
Because America does not have enough war in the Middle East at present, and because more American arms introduced into any situation always make things better, Senator Joni Ernst introduced on Wednesday legislation to provide arms directly to the Kurds in Iraq, ostensibly so they could fight Islamic State (IS).
Cosponsors include Senators Barbara Boxer, Lindsey Graham, Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio.
A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives and has some bipartisan support.
The Current Situation
For those who accidentally landed here thinking this was a Game of Thrones fan fiction site, a quick recap of what is going on with the Kurds, Iraq and IS.
Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country’s three major ethnic/religious groups — the Sunni, Shia and Kurds — were held in rough togetherness by Saddam and his police state. The U.S. broke all that, but failed to replace the police state with a functioning nation state. Hilarity ensued, plus 13+ years of internecine violence.
IS moved into Iraqi territory more or less on the side of the Sunnis in 2014. The Shia-led central government, supported and armed by the U.S. and Iran, along with the Kurds, went to war against IS.
The U.S. likes the Kurds, because they are non-Arab Muslims and have supported the many U.S. interventions in Iraq over the years. The Iranians do not really care for the Kurds, as they fear Kurdish independence inside Iraq will enflame their own Kurd minority.
The Kurds, who are essentially a de facto independent nation inside the rotting shell of “Iraq,” made common cause with the Shia’s against the threat of IS. The Kurds, however, have big plans for their own state, and are kept in check in part by the U.S.
One tool for that is making sure (most of) their weapons flow through the central Shia government.
Why This New Legislation is a Bad Idea
Not supplying weapons directly to the Kurds is not much of a policy, but it is what Obama went to war with, and it is not altogether bad. A balance of power in Iraq serves American interests and gives the U.S. leverage over the Shias.
The new Senate legislation will not likely pass, and even if it does, it will not force Obama to do anything. The actual on-the-ground policy toward the Kurds and their weapons is unlikely to change in the near-to-midterm. Only another collapse of Shia forces in the face of a new IS advance will alter policy.
Still, the action by the Senate reveals how clueless some Senators are toward the complex reality on the ground in Iraq (the Democratic supporters) and how willing to play politics with global events some are (the Republicans, especially Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, both presidential contenders.)
Just because we already know nothing good is going to come out of this latest Iraq War does not mean we still can’t find ways to make it even worse.
I had the chance to talk about all this on RT.com (the announcer says I am in Baghdad, not true. I am happily thousands of miles away, in New York):
If there was a single, overriding lesson to crawl out of America’s failure in Iraq War 2.0, it is that destroying a government/leader is the easy part. Replacing what you have destroyed with a functioning government is the key to lasting victory. If you do not, all you get is chaos and, eventually, more conflict. That’s what paved the way for IS into Iraq, and is the real test of “victories” over the Islamic State (IS) such as Tikrit.
The much-hailed victory over IS is seen by many in the west as a model for the eventual defeat of IS throughout Iraq. It may indeed be such a model, but, once again, not the one America thinks it will be.
A Quick Tikrit Primer
The Islamic State occupied and controlled the city of Tikrit from June 2014 until last month. IS is largely a Sunni entity, and was generally welcomed by the majority Sunnis in Tikrit as a bulwark against the Shia forces of the Iraqi government, the Iranian forces on the ground and especially the Shia militias unleashed by both. The United States assisted in the Iranian-led take over of Tikrit in April 2015 in part by providing close air and tactical bombing support to the Iranian and militia forces.
With the declaration of victory, American forces were distracted by some other shiny object elsewhere in Iraq, and the media which followed the fight as if it was a sporting event, moved on. No one seems to be paying much attention to what is happening in Tikrit now that the shooting has stopped. However, if the Iraqi government fails to secure control of the city in an equitable way that is inclusive of the Sunni residents, and if someone cannot stop the Shia militias from taking bloody revenge on the Sunnis, the schedule ahead will be simply more war.
So let’s visit Tikrit, alongside the one journalist that has bothered to go there.
Revenge and Disarray
A reporter for NIQASH (a network of Iraqi correspondents managed by an international team of editors at Media in Cooperation and Transition, a non-profit media organization based in Berlin, is a generally reliable and non-sectarian news source) had this to say (excerpted) after making his way into Tikrit:
It’s been almost a month since the Islamic State group was expelled from Tikrit. NIQASH went there and found a graffiti-covered ghost town ruled by opposing groups of gunmen, none of whom trust one another.
In Basha Street in the centre of the Iraqi city of Tikrit, there are several buildings that have been completely destroyed. On the walls that remain there is graffiti: “These houses belonged to members of Daash,” the writing says, referring to the extremist group known as the Islamic State by their Arabic acronym. Their destruction was clearly punishment for membership of the extremist group.
One of the houses belonged to Nasser al-Amounah, a well known local and a leading member of the extremist group. His house has been almost completely levelled. Only one wall of the building remains standing and on it is written: “This is the house of the criminal, Nasser al-Amounah”.
As yet there’s no real civilian life here, no schools open, hospitals, courts of justice or police stations active. Residents of the city who fled their homes some time ago – the city was largely empty when the security forces arrived to fight the IS group – remain displaced, in cities around Iraq waiting for an official decision as to whether they should return. In fact, the city is more like a ghost town at the moment, populated only by wraiths from the various kinds of security forces in charge of different areas around the city.
Getting to Tikrit is hardly fun at the moment either. The soldiers deployed along the highways leading from Baghdad to Tikrit look terribly tired and they all seem to be in a bad mood. They certainly don’t trust strangers. They act as though everyone coming through here may as well as be a member of the IS group, until they can prove otherwise.
Once inside Tikrit, it’s not particularly easy to move around. There are three types of security forces inside the city and each controls its own areas. The first and most powerful is composed of members of the unofficial Shiite Muslim militias, composed of volunteers who took up arms to fight the IS group. The second strongest organisation in Tikrit is the official Iraqi army. And the third group here are the local police, who appear to have only limited resources and powers.
It’s difficult to travel around the city, even for members of the different groups. The security forces in charge of one area don’t trust those in charge of the other areas and any movement between neighbourhoods needs to be coordinated by their leaders. In some cases coordination hasn’t happened and threats have been made; there have even been some minor skirmishes apparently.
“Every now and then there are clashes between the Iraqi army and the Shiite militias,” one senior police officer said. “There are conflicts about who is in charge of what. And the army have been ordered by the government to search for vandals and thieves but there are huge problems in completing this mission. We don’t actually know who is in charge of Tikrit.”
As one travels around Tikrit some of the loudest sounds come from the vehicles belonging to the Shiite militias who tour the streets; they have religious songs blaring from their vehicles continuously. You also see other vehicles who distribute food to fighters all over the city; the food is prepared in large pots on makeshift, road side kitchens and the cost of the meals is paid for with donations from Shiite Muslim tribes in southern Iraq. Rumour has it that the Iraqi government hasn’t been able to deliver food to the soldiers and the militias’ fighters in some cases because of corruption.
One of the most famous parts of Tikrit is the area where many palaces are located. As the BBC reports: “Tikrit’s palaces have a somewhat mythical status. The city is widely cited as having the highest number of luxurious palaces built during Saddam’s time”. After passing through various hands – from Hussein to the U.S. military to the Iraqi government and then to the IS group – the palaces have now become a base for the Shiite militias. Nobody can even approach the area without express permission from the militia leaders.
Elsewhere in the city, houses and buildings and even mosque walls are covered in graffiti, often of a religious nature, or praising the heroism of the fighters from the Shiite militias who participated in the fight against the IS group here. They say things like: “The soldiers of Karbala were here”. And: “The heroes of Basra defeated terrorism here”. Some of the slogans have apparently been removed on orders from the Iraqi government because they were written in Persian, a reflection of the Iraqi government’s growing unease at Iranian influence among the Shiite militias.
The former administrators of the city remain in Baghdad or Samarra and they organise anything they need to from there. “The Shiite factions want revenge and they believe that we are traitors,” one of the officials from the provincial administration told NIQASH anonymously.
If civilians do start to return they would not only face threats of vengeance from Shiite militias and even from local police (who were also endangered by the IS fighters in Tikrit) but also from tribal conflicts. There have already been some retaliatory murders apparently – local police acted against residents who had been affiliated with the IS group, who they say were part of IS sleeper cells inside Tikrit even before the city fell to the extremists.
After selling America a bill of goods that he claimed won Iraq War 2.0 (i.e., “The Surge,” yeah, how’d that work out Dave?), General Dave went on to head the CIA, where he strongly supported long prison terms for whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and John Kiriakou, claiming in the latter case that secrecy oaths “do matter.”
Then of course when it became his turn, General Dave happily handed over higher classified data than either Manning or Kiriakou even had access to, all to his adulterous lover and so-called biographer, Paula Broadwell. How’s that for a two-fer, violating both his oath of secrecy and his oath of marriage in one soggy gesture?
But this is America, where justice is blind and all. Right?
So when when David Petraeus was sentenced last week to a mere two years of probation and a fine that is only a fraction of what he gets paid to make a speech these days, questions were asked. Why did Petraeus get off, so to speak, so easily?
Apart from the general sleaze in Washington DC, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler said as part of the plea deal he received letters supporting leniency for the general. In fact, Keesler received nearly three dozen such letters, including some from “high-level military and government officials.”
“The letters paint a portrait of a man considered among the finest military leaders of his generation who also has committed a grave but very uncharacteristic error in judgment,” Keesler said at the sentencing hearing.
It might be interesting to see who in Washington supported a confessed leaker of highly-classified documents. But despite Petraeus’ light sentence being based in part on those letters, no one can see them. The letters were filed under seal by Petraeus’ lawyers, which the judge agreed to. No explanation was given by the lawyers or the judge about what public interest was served by keeping the authors and the contents of the support letters hidden.
Several media outlets, from The Associated Press to The Washington Post, filed suit Monday with Keesler demanding that he unseal them. But unless the judge is also sleeping with Paula Broadwell (who, by the way, was never charged with unlawfully receiving classified documents) and also, um, leaks, we may never know.
We’ll of course talk about my own experiences in that devastated country, as chronicled in my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
I’ll also be discussing whistleblowing at the Department of State, and what patriotism and courage mean in a post-9/11 world.
My talk will be part of The School of International Affairs’ Global Issues Colloquium, which brings leading thinkers, authors, and scholars to Penn State to discuss the latest research and trends in foreign relations, conflict resolution, food security, poverty, religion, terrorism, and nation building. Organized by Professor Dennis Jett, a retired U.S. Ambassador, all presentations are open to the public and webcast live.
The theme of the series is best expressed by Ambassador Jett. “Major international problems cannot be solved through just one academic discipline,” said Jett. “Our guests have a wide range of practical experiences and perspectives to share.”
See you in State College!
It is widely reported that the U.S. would like to keep additional troops in Afghanistan past the previously announced withdrawal date. Secretary of Defense Carter is now in Afghanistan negotiating.
We listened in:
Afghanistan: Hey, thanks for the invasion and for staying these 14 years. It’s been fun and I hope we can still be friends and all…
Carter: We can invade anyone we want to you know, but hey, we picked you. You’re special to us and we want everyone to know that. Here, take this permanent base full of troops as a sign of our commitment.
Afghanistan: But that’s what you said to all the other countries you invaded! And even while you’re saying these nice things to us, you still have bases in Japan, Germany and Italy, and they’re like 70-years-old.
Carter: Sure, I have other… friends… but I have to keep those bases there for family reasons. You’re my new bestest friend. How about a base? Just one, a little one?
Afghanistan: But I saw on Facebook that you are flirting with Yemen and Syria and even Somalia. And don’t think I don’t know what you did in Sudan! And please, Iraq again? You guys broke up, “for forevers” Obama said on Instagram, and now look at you, back involved again. That bitch.
Carter: Hey, that’s not fair. Iraq is a just a friend with benefits. It doesn’t mean anything. I love you. Didn’t I promise you freedom and democracy in 2001? And then in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015? Besides, you were asking for it.
Afghanistan: You made a lot of promises, but I think you only like me for my big bases. You say nice things to me, but you really just want your hands on a base for when you are ready for Iran.
Carter: Aw, you know Iran and I are just good friends. I might fool around a bit with Syria, and yeah, Yemen looks pretty hot some days, but you’re the real one for me.
Afghanistan: OK, maybe you can have just one. But do you promise to pull out?
Carter: Of course baby. Would I lie to you?
The U.S. is running around in circles in the Middle East, patching together coalitions here, acquiring strange bedfellows there, and in location after location trying to figure out who the enemy of its enemy actually is. The result is just what you’d expect: chaos further undermining whatever’s left of the nations whose frailty birthed the jihadism America is trying to squash.
And in a classic tale of unintended consequences, just about every time Washington has committed another blunder in the Middle East, Iran has stepped in to take advantage. Consider that country the rising power in the region and credit American clumsiness for the new Iranian ascendancy.
Today’s News — and Some History
The U.S. recently concluded air strikes in support of the Iraqi militias that Iran favors as they took back the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, Washington began supplying intelligence and aerial refueling on demand for a Saudi bombing campaign against the militias Iran favors in Yemen. Iran continues to advise and assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Washington would still like to depose and, as part of its Syrian strategy, continues to supply and direct Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group the U.S. considers a terror outfit.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has successfully negotiated the outlines of an agreement with Iran in which progress on severely constricting its nuclear program would be traded for an eventual lifting of sanctions and the granting of diplomatic recognition. This is sure to further bolster Tehran’s status as a regional power, while weakening long-time American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States.
A clever pundit could undoubtedly paint all of the above as a realpolitik ballet on Washington’s part, but the truth seems so much simpler and more painful. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. policy in the region has combined confusion on an immense scale with awkward bursts of ill-coordinated and exceedingly short-term acts of expediency. The country that has most benefited is Iran. No place illustrates this better than Iraq.
Iraq Redux (Yet Again)
On April 9, 2003, just over 12 years ago, U.S. troops pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, symbolically marking what George W. Bush hoped was the beginning of a campaign to remake the Middle East in America’s image by bringing not just Iraq but Syria and Iran to heel. And there can be no question that the invasion of Iraq did indeed set events in motion that are still remaking the region in ways once unimaginable.
In the wake of the Iraq invasion and occupation, the Arab Spring blossomed and failed. (The recent Obama administration decision to resume arms exports to the military government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt could be considered its coup de grâce.) Today, fighting ripples through Libya, Syria, Yemen, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa, and other parts of the Greater Middle East. Terrorists attack in once relatively peaceful places like Tunisia. There is now a de facto independent Kurdistan — last a reality in the sixteenth century — that includes the city of Kirkuk. Previously stable countries have become roiling failed states and home to terrorist groups that didn’t even exist when the U.S. military rolled across the Iraqi border in 2003.
And, of course, 12 years later in Iraq itself the fighting roars on. Who now remembers President Obama declaring victory in 2011 and praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of the pile of sticky brown sand that was Bush’s Iraq. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but as with Vietnam decades earlier, the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for the dream of a successful Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.
You know what happened next. Unlike in Vietnam, Washington did go back, quickly turning a humanitarian gesture in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people from destruction at the hands of the Islamic State into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 62 nations was formed. (Where are they all now while the U.S. conducts 85% of all air strikes against IS?) The tap on a massive arms flow was turned on. The architect of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq and a leaker of top secret documents, retired general and former CIA Director David Petraeus, was brought back in for advice. Twenty-four-seven bombing became the order of the day and several thousand U.S. military advisors returned to familiar bases to retrain some part of an American-created army that had only recently collapsed and abandoned four key northern cities to Islamic State militants. Iraq War 3.0 was officially underway and many pundits — including me — predicted a steady escalation with the usual quagmire to follow.
Such a result can hardly be ruled out yet, but at the moment it’s as if Barack Obama had stepped to the edge of the Iraqi abyss, peered over, and then shrugged his shoulders. Both his administration and the U.S. military appear content for the moment neither to pull back nor press harder.
The American people seem to feel much the same way. Except in the Republican Congress (and even there in less shrill form than usual), there are few calls for… well, anything. The ongoing air strikes remain “surgical” in domestic politics, if not in Iraq and Syria. Hardly noticed and little reported on here, they have had next to no effect on Americans. Yet they remain sufficient to assure the right wing that the American military is still the best tool to solve problems abroad, while encouraging liberals who want to show that they can be as tough as anyone going into 2016.
At first glance, the American version of Iraq War 3.0 has the feel of the Libyan air intervention — the same lack of concern, that is, for the long game. But Iraq 2015 is no Libya 2011, because this time while America sits back, Iran rises.
The Middle East was ripe for change. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the last major transformational event in the area was the fall of that classic American stooge, the Shah of Iran, in 1979. Otherwise, many of the thug regimes in power since the 1960s, the height of the Cold War, had stayed in place, and so had most of the borders set even earlier, in the aftermath of World War I.
Iran should send America a fruit basket to thank it for setting the stage so perfectly for its ascent. As a start, in 2003 the United States eliminated Iran’s major border threats: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to the west and the Taliban in Afghanistan to the east. (The Taliban are back of course, but diligently focused on America’s puppet Afghan government.) The long slog of Washington’s wars in both those countries dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for yet more of the same, and cooled off Bush-era plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. (After all, if even Vice President Dick Cheney couldn’t pull the trigger on Iran before leaving office in 2008, who in 2015 America is going to do so?)
Better yet for the Iranians, when Saddam was hanged in 2006, they not only lost an enemy who had invaded their country in 1980, launching a bitter war against them that didn’t end for eight years, but gained an ally in the new Iraq. As U.S. influence withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi elections to produce a broadly representative government, Iran stepped in to broker a thoroughly partisan settlement leading to a sectarian Shia government in Baghdad bent on ensuring that the country’s minority Sunni population would remain out of power forever. The Obama administration seemed nearly oblivious to Iran’s gains in Iraq in 2010 — and seems so again in 2015.
Iran in Iraq
In Tikrit, Iranian-led Shia forces recently drove the Islamic State from the city. In charge was Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Qods Force (a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards), who had previously led the brutally effective efforts of Iranian special forces against U.S. soldiers in Iraq War 2.0. He returned to that country and assembled his own coalition of Shia militias to take Tikrit. All of them have long benefited from Iranian support, as has the increasingly Shia-dominated Iraqi army.
In addition, the Iranians seem to have brought in their own tanks and possibly even ground troops for the assault on the city. They also moved advanced rocket systems into Iraq, the same weapons Hamas has used against Israel in recent conflicts.
Only one thing was lacking: air power. After much hemming and hawing, when it looked like the assault on Tikrit had been blunted by well-dug-in Islamic State fighters in a heavily booby-trapped city, the Obama administration agreed to provide it.
On the U.S. side, the air of desperation around the decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit was palpable. You could feel it, for instance, in this statement by a Pentagon spokesperson almost pleading for the Iraqi government to favor Washington over Tehran: “I think it’s important that the Iraqis understand that what would be most helpful to them is a reliable partner in this fight against IS. Reliable, professional, advanced military capabilities are something that very clearly and very squarely reside with the coalition.”
Imagine if you had told an American soldier — or general — leaving Iraq in 2011 that, just a few years later in the country where he or she had watched friends die, the U.S. would be serving as Iran’s close air support. Imagine if you had told him that Washington would be helping some of the same Shia militias who planted IEDs to kill Americans go after Sunnis — and essentially begging for the chance to do so. Who would’ve thunk it?
The Limits of Air Power 101
The White House no doubt imagined that U.S. bombs would be seen as the decisive factor in Tikrit and that the sectarian government in Baghdad would naturally come to… What? Like us better than the Iranians?
Bizarre as such a “strategy” might seem on the face of it, it has proven even stranger in practice. The biggest problem with air power is that, while it’s good at breaking things, it isn’t decisive. It cannot determine who moves into the governor’s mansion after the dust settles. Only ground forces can do that, so a victory over the Islamic State in Tikrit, no matter what role air strikes played, can only further empower those Iranian-backed Shia militias. You don’t have to be a military expert to know that this is the nature of air power, which makes it all the more surprising that American strategists seem so blind to it.
As for liking Washington better for its helping hand, there are few signs of that. Baghdad officials have largely been silent on America’s contribution, praising only the “air coverage of the Iraqi air force and the international coalition.” Shia militia forces on the ground have been angered by and scornful of the United States for — as they see it — interfering in their efforts to take Tikrit on their own.
The victory in that city will only increase the government’s reliance on the militias, whom Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi now refers to as “popular volunteers,” rather than the still-limited number of soldiers the Americans have so far been capable of training. (The Pentagon might, by the way, want to see if Iran can pass along any training tips, as their militias, unlike the American-backed Iraqi army, seem to be doing just fine.) That also means that the government will have no choice but to tolerate the Shia militia atrocities and acts of ethnic cleansing that have already taken place in Sunni Tikrit and will surely follow in any other Sunni areas similarly “liberated.” Claims coming out of Washington that the U.S. will be carefully monitoring the acts of Iraqi forces ring increasingly hollow.
What Tikrit has, in fact, done is solidify Iran’s influence over Prime Minister al-Abadi, currently little more than the acting mayor of Baghdad, who claimed the victory in Tikrit as a way to increase his own prestige. The win also allows his Shia-run government to seize control of the ruins of that previously Sunni enclave. And no one should miss the obvious symbolism that lies in the fact that the first major city retaken from the Islamic State in a Sunni area is also the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
The best the Obama administration can do is watch helplessly as Tehran and Baghdad take their bows. A template has been created for a future in which other Sunni areas, including the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and Sunni cities in Anbar Province will be similarly retaken, perhaps with the help of American air power but almost certainly with little credit to Washington.
Iran in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen
Tehran is now playing a similarly important role in other places where U.S. policy stumbles have left voids, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
In Syria, Iranian forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Qods Force, and their intelligence services, advise and assist Bashar al-Assad’s military. They also support Hezbollah elements from Lebanon fighting on Assad’s side. At best, Washington is again playing second fiddle, using its air power against the Islamic State and training “moderate” Syrian fighters, the first of whom refused to even show up for their initial battle.
In Yemen, a U.S.-supported regime, backed by Special Forces advisers and a full-scale drone targeted assassination campaign, recently crumbled. The American Embassy was evacuated in February, the last of those advisers in March. The takeover of the capital, Sana’a, and later significant parts of the rest of the country by the Houthis, a rebel Shiite minority group, represents, in the words of one Foreign Policy writer, “a huge victory for Iran… the Houthis’ decision to tie their fate to Tehran’s regional machinations risks tearing Yemen apart and throwing the country into chaos.”
The panicked Saudis promptly intervened and were quickly backed by the Obama administration’s insertion of the United States in yet another conflict by executive order. Relentless Saudi air strikes (perhaps using some of the $640 million worth of cluster bombs the U.S. sold them last year) are supported by yet another coalition, this time of Sudan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and other Sunni powers in the region. The threat of an invasion, possibly using Egyptian troops, looms. The Iranians have moved ships into the area in response to a Saudi naval blockade of Yemen.
No matter what happens, Iran will be strengthened. Either it will find itself in a client relationship with a Houthi movement that has advanced to the Saudi border or, should they be driven back, a chaotic state in Yemen with an ever-strengthening al-Qaeda offshoot. Either outcome would undoubtedly discombobulate the Saudis (and the Americans) and so sit well with Iran.
To make things even livelier in a fragmenting region, Sunni rebels infiltrating from neighboring Pakistan recently killed eight Iranian border guards. This probably represented a retaliatory attack in response to an earlier skirmish in which Iranian Revolutionary Guards killed three suspected Pakistani Sunni militants. Once started, fires do tend to spread.
For those keeping score at home, the Iranians now hold significant positions in three Middle Eastern countries (or at least fragments of former countries) in addition to Iraq.
Iran Ascending and the Nuclear Question
Iran is well positioned to ascend. Geopolitically, alone in the region it is a nation that has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years. It is almost completely ethnically stable and religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous, with its minorities comparatively under control. While still governed in large part by its clerics, Iran has seen evolving democratic electoral transitions at the secular level. Politically, history is on Iran’s side. If you set aside the 1953 CIA-backed coup that ousted the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and put the U.S.-backed Shah in power for a quarter of a century, Iran has sorted out its governance on its own for some time.
Somehow, despite decades of sanctions, Iran, with the fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves on the planet, has managed to hold its economy together, selling what oil it can primarily to Asia. It is ready to sell more oil as soon as sanctions lift. It has a decent conventional military by local standards. Its young reportedly yearn for greater engagement with the West. Unlike nearly every other nation in the Middle East, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one — 36 years ago.
Recently, the U.S., Iran, and the P5 (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) reached a preliminary agreement to significantly constrain that country’s nuclear program and lift sanctions. It appears that both the Obama administration and Tehran are eager to turn it into an official document by the end of June. A deal isn’t a deal until signed on the dotted line, and the congressional Republicans are sharpening their knives, but the intent is clearly there.
To keep the talks on track, by the end of June the Obama administration will have released to the Islamic Republic a total of $11.9 billion in previously frozen assets, dating back to the 1979 Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. In addition to the straight-up flood of cash, the U.S. agreed that Iran may sell $4.2 billion worth of oil, free from any sanctions. The U.S. will also allow Iran approximately $1.5 billion in gold sales, as well as easier access to “humanitarian transactions.” Put another way, someone in Washington wanted this badly enough to pay for it.
For President Obama and his advisers, this agreement is clearly a late grasp (or perhaps last gasp) at legacy building, and maybe even a guilty stab at justifying that 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. The urge to etch some kind of foreign policy success into future history books that, at the moment, threaten to be grim reading is easy enough to understand. So it should have surprised no one that John Kerry, Obama’s once globetrotting secretary of state, basically took up residence in Switzerland to negotiate with the Iranians. He sat at the table in Lausanne bargaining while Tikrit burned, Syria simmered, his country was chased out of Yemen, and the Saudis launched their own war in that beleaguered country. That he had hardly a word to say about any of those events, or much of anything else going on in the world at the time, is an indication of just how much value the Obama administration puts on those nuclear negotiations.
For the Iranians, trading progress on developing nuclear weapons for the full-scale lifting of sanctions was an attractive offer. After all, its leaders know that the country could never go fully nuclear without ensuring devastating Israeli strikes, and so lost little with the present agreement while gaining much. Being accepted as a peer by Washington in such negotiations only further establishes their country’s status as a regional power. Moreover, a nuclear agreement that widens any rift between the U.S., Israel, and the Saudis plays to Tehran’s new strength. Finally, the stronger economy likely to blossom once sanctions are lifted will offer the nation the possibility of new revenues and renewed foreign investment. (It’s easy to imagine Chinese businesspeople on Orbitz making air reservations as you read this.) The big winner in the nuclear deal is not difficult to suss out.
What Lies Ahead
In these last months, despite the angry, fearful cries and demands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Saudi royals, and neo- and other conservatives in Congress, Iran has shown few signs of aspiring to the sort of self-destruction going nuclear would entail. (If Iran had created a bomb every time Netanyahu claimed they were on the verge of having one in the past two decades, Tehran would be littered with them.) In fact, trading mushroom clouds with Israel and possibly the U.S. never looked like an appealing goal to the Iranian leadership. Instead, they preferred to seek a more conventional kind of influence throughout the Middle East. They were hardly alone in that, but their success has been singular in the region in these years.
The U.S. provided free tutorials in Afghanistan and Iraq on why actually occupying territory in the neighborhood isn’t the road to such influence. Iran’s leaders have not ignored the advice. Instead, Iran’s rise has been stoked by a collection of client states, aligned governments, sympathetic and/or beholden militias, and — when all else fails — chaotic non-states that promise less trouble and harm to Tehran than to its various potential enemies.
Despite Iran’s gains, the U.S. will still be the biggest kid on the block for years, possibly decades, to come. One hopes that America will not use that military and economic strength to lash out at the new regional power it inadvertently helped midwife. And if any of this does presage some future U.S. conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a great irony, a great tragedy, and a damn waste of American blood and resources.
(Today we feature, with permission, a guest post by Daniel N. White. The post originally appeared on Contrary Perspective. All opinions are the author’s.)
James Fallows, a noted journalist and author of National Defense (1981), is tits on a boar useless these days.
That’s my conclusion after reading his Atlantic Monthly cover story, The Tragedy of the American Military, in which he asks, “Why do the best soldiers in the world keep losing?” It is a truly terrible article that, regrettably, is mainstream U.S. journalism’s best effort by one of their better talents to answer a vitally important question.
Right off the bat, I’m going to have to say that the U.S. Army doesn’t produce “the world’s best soldiers” — and it never has. We Americans don’t do infantry as well as others do. This is reasonably well known. Anyone who wants to dispute the point has to dispute not me but General George Patton, who in 1944 said: “According to Napoleon, the weaker the infantry the stronger the artillery must be. Thank God we’ve got the world’s best artillery.” Operational analysis of us by the German Wehrmacht and the PLA (China) said the same thing. We should know that about ourselves by now and we don’t, and the fact that we don’t, particularly after a chain of military defeats by lesser powers, says a good deal bad about us as a people and society. The Atlantic and James Fallows are both professionally derelict to continue printing these canards about our infantry prowess. “The world’s best” — there is no excuse for such hyperbolic boasting.
Why the U.S. keeps losing its wars, and why James Fallows has no clue as to why, is revealing of the American moment. It’s painfully obvious the U.S. has lost its most recent wars because it has lacked coherent and achievable objectives for them. (Or no objectives that our ruling elites were willing to share with us.)
Just what, exactly, was the end result supposed to be from invading Iraq in 2003? If the Taliban were willing as they stated to hand over Osama Bin Laden to us, why did we invade Afghanistan? Why did we then start a new war in Afghanistan once we overthrew the Taliban?
Of course, this isn’t the first time in recent history that the U.S. has fought wars with no coherent rationale. Vietnam had the same problem. The Pentagon Papers showed that insofar as we had a rationale it was to continue the war for sufficiently long enough to show the rest of the world we weren’t to be trifled with, even if we didn’t actually win it. Dick Nixon was quite upfront in private about this too; that’s documented in the Nixon tapes.
Not having clear and achievable political objectives in a war or major military campaign is a guarantee of military failure. Here’s what arguably the best Allied general in WWII had to say about this, William Slim, from his superlative memoirs, Defeat into Victory, writing of the Allied defeat in Burma, 1942:
Of these causes [of the defeat], one affected all our efforts and contributed much to turning our defeat into disaster — the failure, after the fall of Rangoon, to give the forces in the field a clear strategic object for the campaign… Yet a realistic assessment of possibilities there and a firm, clear directive would have made a great deal of difference to us and to the way we fought. Burma was not the first, nor was it to be the last, campaign that had been launched on no very clear realization of its political or military objects. A study of such campaigns points emphatically to the almost inevitable disaster that must follow. Commanders in the field, in fairness to them and their troops, must be clear and definitely told what is the object they are locally to attain.
Anyone who wishes to dispute the lack of clear and achievable objectives for America’s wars should try to answer the question of what a U.S. victory in Iraq or Afghanistan would look like. What would be different in the two countries from a U.S. victory? How would the application of force by the U.S. military have yielded these desired results, whatever they were?
I invite anyone to answer these questions. They should have been asked, and answered, a long time ago. All the parties concerned — the political class, the intelligentsia, the moral leadership, and the military’s senior officer corps — in America have failed, stupendously, by not doing so.
Indeed, the lack of coherent objectives for these wars stems from the fraudulence of our pretenses for starting them. Even senior U.S. and UK leaders have acknowledged the stage-management of falsehoods about weapons of mass destruction for a rationale for war with Iraq. When wars are started on falsehoods, it isn’t reasonable to expect them to have honest (or moral) objectives.
The question then arises: What were the real objectives of these wars? Economic determinists/Marxists look to oil as the underlying reason, but this can’t be it. None of the economic determinist explanations for the Vietnam War made a lick of sense then or now, and any arguments about war for oil make an assumption, admittedly a remotely possible one, about the ruling elites in the U.S. and UK not being able to read a financial balance sheet. The most cursory run of the financials under the best possible assumptions of the promoters of the wars showed Iraq as a giant money loser, world’s third largest oil reserves or not. Economic reasons for a war in Afghanistan? Nobody could ever be that dumb, not even broadcast journalists.
Judging from the results, the real intent of our political leadership was to create a state of permanent war, for narrow, behind the scenes, domestic political reasons. The wars were/are stage-managed domestic political theater for current political ruling elites. The main domestic objective sought was a Cold-War like freezing of political power and authority in current form by both locking up large areas of political debate as off-limits and increasing the current distribution of societal resources toward economic elites. This was the real objective of both sides in the Cold War, Americans and Russians both, once things settled out after 1953, and most historians just lack the ability and perspective to see it.
A related factor Americans aren’t supposed to discuss is how much of the drive to war was neo-con war promotion manipulated by Israel. There’s no getting around the high percentage of Jewish neo-cons inside the Beltway. There’s a seven decade-long history of American country-cousin Jews being manipulated by their Israeli city-slicker relations, too, but I’d call this a contributing factor and not a causative one. But the willingness of American neo-cons to do Israel’s bidding and launch a war against Iraq is most disturbing and does require more research. (They all seem to be willing to do it again in Iran – was there ever a neo-con ever against an Iran war ever? Just look at the current situation vis-à-vis Iran, and the direct intervention by the Israeli Prime Minister into American foreign policy.)
There is one other possibility: that America’s leaders actually believed their own PR about spreading democracy. That’s been known to happen, but under present circumstances, their coming to believe their own PR knowing it was false from the git-go would be something truly unique and horrifying. But not impossible, I’m afraid.
Cui Bono? (To whose benefit) is always the question we need to ask and with 13 years of war the beneficiaries should be obvious enough. Just follow the money, and follow those whose powers get increased. James Fallows, and everyone else in the mainstream news media, hasn’t.
But the most pressing issue isn’t any of the above. The most pressing issue is moral, and most importantly of all our society’s unwillingness to face the hard moral questions of war.
Above all else, war is a moral issue; undoubtedly the most profound one a society has to face. Wars are the acme of moral obscenity. Terrible moral bills inevitably accrue from the vile actions that warfare entails. It has always been so. As long as there has been civilization there has always been great debate as to what political or social wrongs warrant the commission of the crimes and horrors of war. About the only definitively conceded moral rationale for war is self-defense against external attack. Domestic political theater is nothing new as a reason for war, but it has been universally condemned as grotesquely immoral throughout recorded history.
Our country is ostrich-like in its refusal to acknowledge the moral obscenity of war and its moral costs. Insofar as your average American is willing to engage with these moral issues, it is at the level of “I support our troops” to each other, combined with the “Thank you for your service” to anyone in uniform. Moral engagement on the biggest moral issue there is, war, with these tiresome tropes is profoundly infantile. It isn’t moral engagement; it is a (partially subconscious) willful evasion.
The Hollywood sugarcoated picture of what war is hasn’t helped here; blindness due to American Exceptionalism hasn’t helped either. Our intellectual and moral leadership—churches in particular—have been entirely AWOL on the moral failings of our wars and the moral debts and bills from them we have accrued and continue to accrue. And these bills will come due some day, with terrible interest accrued. Anyone paying attention to how the rest of the world thinks knows that we currently incur the world’s contumely for our failings here on this issue.
Mr. Fallows and the Atlantic are both equally blind and AWOL on the moral issues of our wars. The moral issues, and failings, of the wars are paramount and are completely undiscussed in the article, and the magazine, and always have been since before the wars began. Mr. Fallows, and the Atlantic, by framing the war issue in terms of “why the best (sic) soldiers in the world keep losing our wars” are avoiding them in a somewhat more sophisticated way than the “Thank you for your service” simpletons are. They should know better and they don’t, and they lack the situational- and self-awareness to understand that they are doing this. They deserve our contempt for it. They certainly have mine.
The issue isn’t why the world’s best (sic) soldiers keep losing our wars. The issue is why we started and fought wars this stupid and wrong and show every sign of continuing to do so in the future. Why do we learn nothing from our military defeats? How can we remain so willfully and morally blind? Well, types like James Fallows and The Atlantic Monthly are a large part of why.
Missing the biggest political and moral question in our lifetimes, for this many years, well, hell, The Atlantic Monthly and James Fallows are just tits on a boar useless these days.
I am excited that the University of North Carolina, Asheville, will host me for an afternoon of speaking, reading and book signing, in connection with my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. I’ll also be discussing the current mess in Iraq, as well the whistleblowing and the ideas of patriotism and courage in a post-9/11 world.
The event is free, at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, April 14, in UNC Asheville’s Humanities Lecture Hall. There will be a Q&A session. Everyone is welcome.
Things are sponsored by UNC Asheville’s Department of Political Science and the Belk Distinguished Professor. For more information, contact Mona Moore at 828.251.6634.
Please come join me!
Estimates are that 20,000-30,000 foreigners, many from the west, have joined IS. The numbers are likely wrong, could be double, might be half.
A number of politicians and security analysts believe one of the greatest threats facing the United States is from so-called “lone wolf” attacks. These would be perpetrated by western foreigners returning from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq radicalized and weaponized.
The U.S. devotes significant resources to identifying these wolves, though often to results more comic than anything else. Nonetheless, it is illegal for Americans to join and fight for groups such as IS — that is called conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism, and is prosecuted with vigor.
Yet it seems less of an issue when it is good Christian Americans zooming off to the Middle East to join Christian militias.
Reuters reports idealistic Westerners are enlisting in Christian militias now fighting in Iraq, citing frustration their governments are not doing more to combat the Islamists. The militia they joined is called Dwekh Nawsha, meaning “self-sacrifice” in the ancient Aramaic language spoken by Christ and still used by Assyrian Christians in Iraq.
A map on the wall in the office of the Assyrian political party affiliated with Dwekh Nawsha marks the Christian towns in northern Iraq, fanning out around the city of Mosul. The majority are now under control of IS, which overran Mosul last summer and issued an ultimatum to Christians to pay a tax, convert to Islam, or die by the sword.
Dwekh Nawsha operates alongside very non-Christian Kurdish peshmerga forces to protect Christian villages on the frontline in Nineveh province. “These are some of the only towns in Nineveh where church bells ring. In every other town the bells have gone silent, and that’s unacceptable,” said American citizen “Brett,” who has “The King of Nineveh” written in Arabic on the front of his army vest.
Another fighter is “Tim,” who shut down his construction business in Britain last year, sold his house and bought two plane tickets to Iraq: one for himself and another for a 44-year-old American software engineer he met through the internet. “I’m here to make a difference and hopefully put a stop to some atrocities,” said the 38-year-old Tim. “I’m just an average guy from England really.”
“Scott,” a software engineer, served in the U.S. Army in the 1990’s. He was mesmerized by images of ISIS hounding Iraq’s Yazidi minority and became fixated on the struggle for the Syrian border town of Kobani. Scott had planned to join the YPG, which has drawn a flurry of foreign recruits, but changed his mind four days before heading to the Middle East after growing suspicious of the group’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). See, he was worried he would not be allowed home if he associated with the PKK, which the United States and Europe consider a terrorist organization.
The only foreign woman in Dwekh Nawsha’s ranks said she had been inspired by the role of women in the YPG, but identified more closely with the “traditional” values of the Christian militia. Wearing a baseball cap over her balaclava, she said radical Islam was at the root of many conflicts and had to be contained.
“Everyone dies,” said Brett, asked about the prospect of being killed. “One of my favorite verses in the Bible says: be faithful unto death, and I shall give you the crown of life.”
The chances of any of these westerners becoming radicalized and weaponized and returning home to commit violent acts against a U.S. government they perceive as not doing enough “to combat the ultra-radical Islamists” is of course nil. That their very presence will fuel ISIS propaganda efforts to portray America’s war in the Middle East as a modern-day crusade is also nil.
Also, there is no doubt that The Prince of Peace would love to see Americans traveling half way around the world to add to the death toll in Iraq.
The American reconstruction campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have, and continue, to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on pointless projects seemingly designed solely to funnel money into the pockets of U.S. government contractors.
These projects (Iraq War examples are detailed in my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People seem to bounce between the merely pointless, such as dams that are never completed and roads to nowhere, to the absurdly pointless.
One ongoing theme under the absurdly pointless category has been the “empowerment of women.” In both countries, the U.S. has acted on the assumption that the women there want to throw off their hijabs and burkas and become entrepreneurs, if… only… they knew how. Leaving aside the idea that many women throughout the Middle East and beyond prefer the life they have been living for some 2000 years before the arrival of the United States, the empowerment concept has become a standard.
However you may feel about these things, and the programs are in some part designed as “feel good” but cynical gestures to domestic American politics, the way “empowerment” is implemented is absurd. Lacking any meaningful ideas, women are “empowered” by holding endless rounds of training sessions, seminars, roundtables and hotel gatherings where Western experts are flown in laden with Powerpoint slides to preach the gospel. Over time, in my personal experience in Iraq at least, these proved so unpopular that the only way we could draw a crowd (so we could take pictures to send to our bosses) was to offer a nice, free lunch and to pay “taxi fare” far in excess of any reasonable transportation costs; bribes.
One Army colonel I worked with was so into the goals of the program that he called these things “chick events.”
Women’s Empowerment in Afghanistan
So much for Iraq. How’s it going for women’s empowerment in Afghanistan?
Not well, at least according to the latest report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Some highlights from that report include an inquiry into USAID’s Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority Programs (Promote), which has been highlighted as USAID’s largest women’s empowerment program in the world. Promote has left SIGAR with a number of “troubling concerns and questions,” to wit:
–SIGAR is concerned that some very basic programmatic issues remain unresolved and that the Afghan women engaged in the program may be left without any tangible benefit upon completion. SIGAR is also concerned about whether USAID will be able to effectively implement, monitor, and assess the impact of Promote.
–Many of SIGAR’s concerns echo those of Afghanistan’s First Lady. To quote Mrs. Ghani, “I do hope that we are not going to fall again into the game of contracting and sub-contracting and the routine of workshops and training sessions generating a lot of certificates on paper and little else.”
–Promote has been awarded to three contractors: Chemonics International, Development Alternatives, Inc., and Tetra Tech, Inc. The overall value of the contracts is $416 million, of which USAID is funding $216 million and other—still unidentified—international donors are expected to fund $200 million.
–USAID does not have any memoranda of understanding between any of the three Promote contractors and the Afghan government.
Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
The few photos publicly seen of the abuses American soldiers committed inside the Abu Ghraib prison are only a tiny portion of the whole (former Senator Joe Lieberman said in 2009 that there were nearly 2,100 more photographs.)
The photos, such as the ones you see here, were released by a whistleblower. A significant number of photos, said to show acts of sodomy and brutality far worse than what is already known, have been kept from the public by the U.S. government for eleven years now, ostensibly to protect American forces from retaliation. Since the American Civil Liberties Union first filed a lawsuit against the government in 2004 seeking the release of the photographs, the government has been successful in blocking them. That may — may — change.
A federal judge ruled March 20 that the U.S. government must release photographs showing the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and other sites. However, Judge Alvin Hellerstein in Manhattan ruled that his order would not take effect for 60 days to give the U.S. Department of Defense time to decide whether to appeal.
“The photos are crucial to the public record,” ACLU’s deputy legal director said. “They’re the best evidence of what took place in the military’s detention centers, and their disclosure would help the public better understand the implications of some of the Bush administration’s policies.”
Keep in mind Hellerstein first ordered the government to turn over the photographs in 2005, but while that order was being appealed, Congress passed a law allowing the Secretary of Defense to withhold the photographs by certifying their release would endanger U.S. citizens. Then remember Hellerstein already ruled last August that the government had failed to show why releasing the photographs would endanger American soldiers and workers abroad, but then immediately gave the government until March 20 a chance to submit more evidence. The judge’s most recent order said the additional evidence had failed to change his decision. Yet Hellerstein has still left open a further appeal.
Meanwhile, the horrors of Abu Ghraib done in our names, and well-known to the Iraqi victims, remain shielded from only the American public by their own government.
So how’s that war on terror going? Well, it may not be very successful in actually stopping any terrorism, but it sure as hell has been profitable for America’s arms manufacturers. I was on Chinese CCTV recently to discuss the issue.