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.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The United States 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.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
This graphic, however, is part of America’s multi-billion dollar effort to defeat Islamic State, so it is not intended to be weirdly amusing, even though it is. Somehow, this is actually serious.
An American F-15E pilot risked his life to drop 60,000 copies of the leaflet on Raqqa, Syria, the base of operations for the Islamic State. Al Jazeera’s translation says the image shows a “Daesh Employment Office” (Daesh is a pejorative nickname for IS in the Arab world, so nah nah poopy heads!) as two Floyd-esque IS recruiters feed young men into a meat grinder with “Daesh” written in blood on its side.
When asked about the intended message of the leaflet, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren, said “If you allow yourself to be recruited by Daesh, you will find yourself in a meat grinder.” Warren said the leaflet was created by the Army’s Military Information Support Operations, formerly known as PSY-OPS.
The theory of course was that some young man who is otherwise being bombed day and night by the U.S. and/or his own government and/or some rival militant group, will pick up the leaflet from among the other trash strewn all over the streets, glance at the whacky comic, and decide that instead of joining Islamic State he’ll, whatever, finally start in on that art history degree at community college his mom is always bugging him about.
Surprisingly, some experts have questioned the efficacy of the leaflet.
Faysal Itani, a Fellow at the Atlantic Center in Washington who studies the various groups fighting in Syria’s war, said anyone in Raqqa thinking of joining IS is either ideologically committed or coerced. “Members of the first category are likely immune to leaflet propaganda, especially if distributed by an air force that has been bombing Raqqa,” Itani said. The rest, he said, would join out of financial necessity, the need for protection, or because they were forced to do so.
News Flash to America: Dying for Islamic State, that whole jihadi thingie, is kind of what most recruits expect.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The 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.
While the Snowden-NSA revelations continue to shock Americans on a daily basis, and illustrate how intrusive the government is in our lives, and how casually it violates our Fourth Amendment right against unwarranted searches, it just got worse.
It turns out the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was spying on Americans, gathering metadata on our phone calls, almost a decade before 9/11, and right up to 2013. With help from the U.S. military.
Decades of Metadata Spying
In an exclusive report, USA Today learned the U.S. government started keeping secret records of Americans’ international telephone calls nearly a decade before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, harvesting billions of calls in a program that provided a blueprint for the far broader National Security Agency surveillance that followed. The DEA spying only stopped, supposedly, in 2013, no longer needed due to the NSA.
For more than two decades, the Justice Department and the DEA amassed databases of virtually all telephone calls from the U.S. to as many as 116 countries “linked to drug trafficking.” The State Department officially says there are 195 countries out there, so the DEA was monitoring most of them. The Justice Department revealed in January that the DEA had collected data about calls to “designated foreign countries.” But the comprehensive scale of the operation has not been disclosed until now.
Federal investigators claim they used the call records — metadata — to track drug cartels’ distribution networks. They say they also used the records to help rule out foreign ties to the bombing in 1995 of a federal building in Oklahoma City and to identify U.S. suspects in other investigations.
Still believing metadata is not intrusive? Read this.
Telecoms Roll Over
America’s telecommunications and phone companies apparently turned over their records voluntarily and without asking for warrants. Officials said a few telephone companies were reluctant to provide so much information, but none ever challenged the issue in court. Those that hesitated received letters from the Justice Department urging them to comply.
The data collection was “one of the most important and effective Federal drug law enforcement initiatives,” the Justice Department said in a 1998 letter to Sprint. The previously undisclosed letter noted the operation had “been approved at the highest levels of Federal law enforcement authority,” including then-Attorney General Janet Reno and her deputy and later Attorney General during the NSA-spying era, Eric Holder.
The data collection began in 1992 during the administration of George H.W. Bush, nine years before his son, George W., authorized the NSA to gather its own logs of Americans’ phone calls in 2001. The program was re-approved by top Justice Department officials in the Clinton and Obama administrations. There was no oversight or court approval.
U.S. Military Involvement
The DEA program also employed U.S. military assets. When the volume of data threatened to overwhelm DEA, the military responded with a pair of supercomputers and intelligence analysts who had experience tracking the communication patterns of Soviet military units. The supercomputers were installed in DEA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.
To keep the whole program secret and thus outside of any legal challenge, the DEA did not to use the information as evidence in criminal prosecutions per se. Instead, its Special Operations Division passed the data to field agents as tips, a process approved by Justice Department lawyers.
That process is know as “parallel construction,” and has a sordid history. Read this.
They just did it. The template for the NSA’s later spying on America was set long before 9/11. All the elements were already in place: no-questions-asked cooperation from the telcoms, no warrants or oversight, near-perfect secrecy, near-perfect pointless, dragnet security on American citizens in their homes. Multiple administrations, and multiple corporate executives of publicly-traded companies, kept silent.
One notes that despite all this spying, drugs are still quite available in the U.S. and while it is nice that there was no foreign connection to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the DEA spying did miss a whopper of a terror attack some years later. At least 9/11 was not drug-related.
And for those criminal defense attorneys who might want to reopen some old cases and challenge guilty verdicts based on the unconstitutionality of these searches, sorry. The DEA has destroyed the databases.
BONUS: The DEA is still mass-targeting Americans, only now via large-scale subpoenas.
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.
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.
The United States will most likely suffer defeat in Mosul, even if it “wins” against IS. And you can pretty much substitute “Tikrit” in the story below anywhere you see “Mosul.”
The reasons will be much the same as those that caused the defeat of American strategy in Iraq War 2.0: a failure to force reconciliation among the Iraqi Shia, Sunni and Kurds.
Some History of Mosul
A little history, repeating itself. In April 2003, an entire Iraqi Army Corps in Mosul surrendered to a small U.S. Special Forces group. The city fell into disorder, with the Central Bank plundered and the university library pillaged. Sound familiar? Chaos ensued as Kurds fought both Sunni and Shia Arabs. The Sunnis, tribally dominant in the area, fought hard against the rise of Shia power emanating from the new government in Baghdad.
During the occupation by the U.S. 101st Airborne Division in 2003, a 21,000-strong force under General David Petraeus pushed the Kurdish militias largely out of Mosul and created an uneasy peace with the Sunni tribes (Petraeus would revisit the idea as part of the Anbar Awakening.) Via his own military muscle and the skillful use of American reconstruction money, Petraeus tried to foster a governing structure that integrated Kurdish parties without alienating Sunni Arab constituencies. After Petraeus left, and as the war worn on and Kurdish influence began to exert itself in Mosul, the Sunnis turned to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI; the precursor to IS) for support. Multi-sided fighting continued in Mosul, as the fundamental issue of which group truly controlled the city — as it was for Iraq as a whole — was left unresolved as the U.S. pulled out in 2011.
Assault on Mosul
Sometime this year (maybe in the autumn or later) the U.S. hopes to organize 25,000 Iraqi troops, 12 full brigades, at least five of which have not even begun training yet, for the assault. Three Kurdish brigades will also join the attack, as well as an unspecified number of non-government Shia militias aided by whatever Iranian assets may be supporting them (now acknowledged to include elements of Hezbollah.) U.S. officials say there would also be Sunni force of former Mosul police and tribesmen who would enter the city once the Islamic State fighters are cleared out.
Boots on the Ground
U.S. forces on the ground will almost certainly be required to coordinate the many disparate elements on the “Iraq” side, as well as to call in close air support. Secretary of State John Kerry initiated the process of walking back the president’s pledge about no boots on the ground, speaking to the Senate Appropriations Committee in support of Obama’s request for authorization for use of military force against IS. Kerry said American soldiers embedded with Iraqi troops would not be in violation of the ban on enduring ground offensive operations. “If you’re going in for weeks and weeks of combat, that’s enduring. If you’re going in to assist somebody and [do] fire control and you’re embedded in an overnight deal, or you’re in a rescue operation or whatever, that is not enduring.”
Assuming the logistics of moving 25,000 troops across the desert, as well as training, equipping, and sustaining them with food and water (difficult, and fully impossible without direct U.S. assistance and cargo flights) can be solved, the real questions about the upcoming Battle of Mosul are twofold.
The Key Questions
The tactical question. Will it become necessary to destroy Mosul in order to save it. Look at the victory in Kobane over ISIS. By all accounts, the over 700 airstrikes the U.S. conducted on a round-the-clock basis on Kobane devastated the town. The civilian death toll has never been calculated. No plans to rebuild the city have been announced. It is unclear what entity governs the remains. Some 230,000 refugees have fled. Photos of the place make it look like Stalingrad. As an activist in the ISIS capital of Raqqa wrote, “People don’t look at Kobani and see a defeat, because everyone had to leave and the Americans bombed it to rubble to win.”
The greater strategic question. Who will control whatever is left of Mosul after IS is driven out? The American command and control efforts, plus American air power, needed to ensure the physical destruction of IS will be welcomed by all sides, as they are in greater Iraq. Less clear will be the reaction to follow-on U.S. demands that some of the victorious forces withdraw in favor of the others. The Sunnis controlled Mosul before 2003, and contested the space with the Kurds after that. The Baghdad Shia government then forfeited its claim to the city when the Iraqi Army cut and ran in 2014. It seems highly unlikely that the Peshmerga, especially after shedding blood to retake the city, will simply walk away and see the small paramilitary police force of Sunnis move in. The role the Iranians will choose to play is unclear. A fair number of Mosul’s one million residents support IS, leaving open the question of ethnic cleansing and score-settling.
The United States continues to dig the same hole deeper in Iraq. It sees problems in a wholly-military light, focusing on an urban assault rivaling set-piece battles of WWII while paying little attention to the underlying political factors that will surely snatch defeat from any “victory.”
So U.S. counter-surveillance gets whooped by Israel, who then uses information gathered on Iran nuclear talks so that Netanyahu can try and convince Congress to torpedo Obama’s negotiations with Iran so that Israel can remain America’s bestie in the Middle East and shove Iran off to the side like a B-level Kardashian. And some people still prefer professional sports to watching politics?
Israel spied on Iran’s nuclear talks with the United States — and used the information to undermine the Obama administration’s position with the GOP-led Congress, according to an explosive report in The Wall Street Journal. While Israeli officials deny the accusations, claiming they got the info by spying on the Iranians, the White House found out about the operation while it was spying on Israel. U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted messages among Israeli officials containing details that U.S. officials believed could only have come from inside the top-secret negotiations.
The anonymous officials say that classified information, such as the number of centrifuges that Iran might be able to keep operating as part of a final accord, were then shared with GOP lawmakers in an effort to derail the talks.
Now why would Israel want to undermine U.S. attempts to reach some sort of nuclear agreement with the Iranians that, if successful, would lessen the chance that Iran would become a nuclear state?
Israel wants to accomplish two things. Well, three, if they could.
Israel wants to remain the only nuclear power in the Middle East (and yes, of course they have nukes, c’mon.) They may be afraid the U.S.-Iran deal is 99 percent Obama-Kerry legacy grab and will be weak enough that Iran will remain a nuclear threshold state. The Iranians are unlikely to upset things by testing a device, but they’ll hover as close to the line as they think they can. That’s pretty much how the Republicans see the deal as well, so the Israeli connection is hand in glove.
Israel is also concerned about any U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. Iran has all the makings of a regional power to rival Israel and the Sunni states which quietly more or less support at least some Israeli goals. About the only thing that keeps Iran in check is U.S. sanctions that cripple the country economically. A nuclear deal could pave the way for reopening of relations with the U.S. and the lifting of sanctions.
The third Israeli aim is kind of a long shot. Israel would love to send Iran back to the Stone Age, nuclear development-wise. It would be most convenient for them if the U.S. were to bomb Iran, though Israel would be more than happy to do the job itself with U.S. permission and support. The bombing is very, very unlikely to take place. After all, if Dick Cheney couldn’t get Bush to sign off on it during eight years of near-constant saber rattling over Iran, who is going to get it pushed through in 2015?
Yet despite all the spying and bad vibes these days between the U.S. and Israel, remember, money talks and bullsh*t walks. U.S. military aid alone to Israel exceeds $100 billion, with lots and lots of other official money flowing in around the edges. So smile whenever you read about diplomatic rifts in the relationship.
In the age of the all-volunteer military and an endless stream of war zone losses and ties, it can be hard to keep Homeland enthusiasm up for perpetual war. After all, you don’t get a 9/11 every year to refresh those images of the barbarians at the airport departure gates.
In the meantime, Americans are clearly finding it difficult to remain emotionally roiled up about our confusing wars in Syria and Iraq, the sputtering one in Afghanistan, and various raids, drone attacks, and minor conflicts elsewhere. Fortunately, we have just the ticket, one that has been punched again and again for close to a century: Hollywood war movies, what I have called “war porn.”
It was necessary to destroy the Syrian town of Kobane (above) in order to save it from ISIS. The rubble and ruin of what was once a place more than 200,000 people lived is now free. Want to know the future of Mosul? Look to Kobane.
Kobane once mattered nearly nothing at all, at least when ISIS was winning there in the face of NATO-ally Turkey choosing not to intervene. In October 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry, said preventing the fall of Kobani was not a strategic U.S. objective. “As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobane, you have to step back and understand the strategic objective.” That objective was something about destroying ISIS’ command centers.
After the U.S. abandoned the goal of bringing Turkey into the fight, and, against Turkey’s wishes, facilitated the movement of Kurdish forces across Iraq to attack Kobane, the city suddenly did become a U.S. strategic objective. Speaking a little over two months after his earlier dismissive statement, Kerry said with the recapture of the Kurdish city of Kobane, ISIS was “forced to acknowledge its own defeat. Daesh – ISIL as some know it – has said all along that Kobane was a real symbolic and strategic objective.” Kerry continued to say that pushing ISIS out of Kobane was “a big deal.”
By all accounts, the over 700 airstrikes the U.S. conducted on a round-the-clock basis on Kobane devastated the town. The civilian death toll has never been calculated. No plans to rebuild the city have been announced. Kobane was saved from ISIS by destroying it.
Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam
A famous quote from the Vietnam War was a statement attributed to an unnamed U.S. officer by correspondent Peter Arnett, writing about Bến Tre city in February 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The officer was talking about the decision to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong. The quote became garbled over time, eventually becoming the familiar, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
The meaning of the phrase, as applied to Vietnam and to Kobane, is the same. What absurd value can be found in decimating a town in the cause of freeing it?
Kobane is Free
“Winning” in Kobane accomplishes nothing really. The city is destroyed. Over 200,000 refugees have been forced out, with questions about how they can ever return to resume their lives given such devastation. The decision not to intervene by the Turks exposed the fragility of the hastily assembled U.S. coalition, setting up future confrontations among allies with very different goals and agendas for this war.
As an activist in the ISIS capital of Raqqa wrote, “People don’t look at Kobani and see a defeat, because everyone had to leave and the Americans bombed it to rubble to win.”
Meanwhile, as attention and limited resources were tied up in a battle of questionable strategic import, ISIS gains ground in Anbar, and continues to gather recruits from around the world. Kobane may very well end up as an example from this war noted by historians, as was Ben Tre from the Vietnam War, though perhaps not the one the U.S. intended it to be.
American forces in Afghanistan (“The Other War, The One Not About ISIS”) produce an extraordinary amount of garbage.
War is a Waste
Waste, after all, is a cornerstone of the same American Way we have been trying to hammer into the Afghan’s heads now for over thirteen years. There is human waste, medical waste, food waste, chemical waste, never mind old batteries, toxic electronics and all the rest. It all has to go somewhere, and often times the easiest way to get rid of it is just to burn it all. To avoid contaminating further the entire country, never mind endangering the health of Americans and Afghans nearby, a proper incinerator is the right tool for the job. It also seems to be one of the most expensive, especially when it is not used.
It is thus hard to choose which part of the latest pile of garbage to come out of Afghanistan to focus on, so here are all three:
(A) Is it that $20.1 million was wasted because four U.S. military installations in Afghanistan never used their incinerators? Trash was merely dumped nearby, often within sight of the expensive incinerators.
(B) Or is it that the U.S. spent $81.9 million on incinerator systems and only equipped a total of nine military installations in Afghanistan?
(C) Or is it that despite all of the above, there are still over 200 active, open-air, burn pits in Afghanistan?
Trick question students! The correct answer is (D), All of the Above.
The most recent Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report (“The Catalog of Horrors”) blithely informs us that prohibited items such as tires and batteries continue to be disposed of in open-air burn pits even after Congress passed legislation to restrict that practice. SIGAR also tells us that the Department of Defense paid the full contract amount for incinerators that were never used because they contained deficiencies that were not corrected, and that U.S. military personnel and others were exposed to the emissions from open-air burn pits that could have lasting negative health consequences.
SIGAR also adds that a “common theme” throughout 30 inspection reports over a period of years is that contractors who installed the incinerators did not deliver according to the specified requirements but were still paid the full contract amount and released without further obligation.
Beyond the Monetary Waste
The saddest part of all is not the monetary waste, but the human one. The dangers of open air burning of toxic substances has long been known, and the practice outlawed, across the United States. More specifically, the effects of such practices in Iraq and Afghanistan on the soldiers ordered to carry out the burning are well-documented.
A federal registry of U.S. troops and veterans possibly sickened by toxic smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan has gathered nearly 11,000 eligible names since it was established in 2013. The airman who inspired the registry to be created contracted constrictive bronchiolitis, a potentially progressive, terminal disease, due to burn pit exposure.
In only one example, explored in Senate hearings on toxic burn sites, it was revealed that the carcinogen Sodium Dichromate was spread across a ruined water-injection facility in Qarmat Ali, Iraq, exposing thousands of individuals.
So much for supporting the troops when it counts.
In the age of the all-volunteer military and an endless stream of war zone losses and ties, it can be hard to keep Homeland enthusiasm up for perpetual war. After all, you don’t get a 9/11 every year to refresh those images of the barbarians at the airport departure gates. In the meantime, Americans are clearly finding it difficult to remain emotionally roiled up about our confusing wars in Syria and Iraq, the sputtering one in Afghanistan, and various raids, drone attacks, and minor conflicts elsewhere.
Fortunately, we have just the ticket, one that has been punched again and again for close to a century: Hollywood war movies (to which the Pentagon is always eager to lend a helping hand).American Sniper, which started out with the celebratory tagline “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history” and now has the tagline “the most successful war movie of all time,” is just the latest in a long line of films that have kept Americans on their war game. Think of them as war porn, meant to leave us perpetually hyped up. Now, grab some popcorn and settle back to enjoy the show.
There’s Only One War Movie
Wandering around YouTube recently, I stumbled across some good old government-issue propaganda. It was a video clearly meant to stir American emotions and prepare us for a long struggle against a determined, brutal, and barbaric enemy whose way of life is a challenge to the most basic American values. Here’s some of what I learned: our enemy is engaged in a crusade against the West; wants to establish a world government and make all of us bow down before it; fights fanatically, beheads prisoners, and is willing to sacrifice the lives of its followers in inhuman suicide attacks. Though its weapons are modern, its thinking and beliefs are 2,000 years out of date and inscrutable to us.
Of course, you knew there was a trick coming, right? This little U.S. government-produced film wasn’t about the militants of the Islamic State. Made by the U.S. Navy in 1943, its subject was “Our Enemy the Japanese.” Substitute “radical Islam” for “emperor worship,” though, and it still makes a certain propagandistic sense. While the basics may be largely the same (us versus them, good versus evil), modern times do demand something slicker than the video equivalent of an old newsreel. The age of the Internet, with its short attention spans and heightened expectations of cheap thrills, calls for a higher class of war porn, but as with that 1943 film, it remains remarkable how familiar what’s being produced remains.
Like propaganda films and sexual pornography, Hollywood movies about America at war have changed remarkably little over the years. Here’s the basic formula, from John Wayne in the World War II-era Sands of Iwo Jima to today’s American Sniper:
*American soldiers are good, the enemy bad. Nearly every war movie is going to have a scene in which Americans label the enemy as “savages,” “barbarians,” or “bloodthirsty fanatics,” typically following a “sneak attack” or a suicide bombing. Our country’s goal is to liberate; the enemy’s, to conquer. Such a framework prepares us to accept things that wouldn’t otherwise pass muster. Racism naturally gets a bye; as they once were “Japs” (not Japanese), they are now “hajjis” and “ragheads” (not Muslims or Iraqis). It’s beyond question that the ends justify just about any means we might use, from the nuclear obliteration of two cities of almost no military significance to the grimmest sort of torture. In this way, the war film long ago became a moral free-fire zone for its American characters.
*American soldiers believe in God and Country, in “something bigger than themselves,” in something “worth dying for,” but without ever becoming blindly attached to it. The enemy, on the other hand, is blindly devoted to a religion, political faith, or dictator, and it goes without saying (though it’s said) that his God — whether an emperor, Communism, or Allah — is evil. As one critic put it back in 2007 with just a tad of hyperbole, “In every movie Hollywood makes, every time an Arab utters the word Allah… something blows up.”
*War films spend no significant time on why those savages might be so intent on going after us. The purpose of American killing, however, is nearly always clearly defined. It’s to “save American lives,” those over there and those who won’t die because we don’t have to fight them over here. Saving such lives explains American war: in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, for example, the main character defuses roadside bombs to make Iraq safer for other American soldiers. In the recent World War II-themed Fury, Brad Pitt similarly mows down ranks of Germans to save his comrades. Even torture is justified, as in Zero Dark Thirty, in the cause of saving our lives from their nightmarish schemes. In American Sniper, shooter Chris Kyle focuses on the many American lives he’s saved by shooting Iraqis; his PTSD is, in fact, caused by his having “failed” to have saved even more. Hey, when an American kills in war, he’s the one who suffers the most, not that mutilated kid or his grieving mother — I got nightmares, man! I still see their faces!
*Our soldiers are human beings with emotionally engaging backstories, sweet gals waiting at home, and promising lives ahead of them that might be cut tragically short by an enemy from the gates of hell. The bad guys lack such backstories. They are anonymous fanatics with neither a past worth mentioning nor a future worth imagining. This is usually pretty blunt stuff. Kyle’s nemesis in American Sniper, for instance, wears all black. Thanks to that, you know he’s an insta-villain without the need for further information. And speaking of lack of a backstory, he improbably appears in the film both in the Sunni city of Fallujah and in Sadr City, a Shia neighborhood in Baghdad, apparently so super-bad that his desire to kill Americans overcomes even Iraq’s mad sectarianism.
*It is fashionable for our soldiers, having a kind of depth the enemy lacks, to express some regrets, a dollop of introspection, before (or after) they kill. In American Sniper, while back in the U.S. on leave, the protagonist expresses doubts about what he calls his “work.” (No such thoughts are in the book on which the film is based.) Of course, he then goes back to Iraq for three more tours and over two more hours of screen time to amass his 160 “confirmed kills.”
*Another staple of such films is the training montage. Can a young recruit make it? Often he is the Fat Kid who trims down to his killing weight, or the Skinny Kid who muscles up, or the Quiet Kid who emerges bloodthirsty. (This has been a trope of sexual porn films, too: the geeky looking guy, mocked by beautiful women, who turns out to be a superstar in bed.) The link, up front or implied, between sexuality, manhood, and war is a staple of the form. As part of the curious PTSD recovery plan he develops, for example, Kyle volunteers to teach a paraplegic vet in a wheelchair to snipe. After his first decent shot rings home, the man shouts, “I feel like I got my balls back!”
*Our soldiers, anguished souls that they are, have no responsibility for what they do once they’ve been thrown into our wars. No baby-killers need apply in support of America’s post-Vietnam, guilt-free mantra, “Hate the war, love the warrior.” In the film First Blood, for example, John Rambo is a Vietnam veteran who returns home a broken man. He finds his war buddy dead from Agent Orange-induced cancer and is persecuted by the very Americans whose freedom he believed he had fought for. Because he was screwed over in The ‘Nam, the film gives him a free pass for his homicidal acts, including a two-hour murderous rampage through a Washington State town. The audience is meant to see Rambo as a noble, sympathetic character. He returns for more personal redemption in later films to rescue American prisoners of war left behind in Southeast Asia.
*For war films, ambiguity is a dirty word. Americans always win, even when they lose in an era in which, out in the world, the losses are piling up. And a win is a win, even when its essence is one-sided bullying as in Heartbreak Ridge, the only movie to come out of the ludicrous invasion of Grenada. And a loss is still a win in Black Hawk Down, set amid the disaster of Somalia, which ends with scenes of tired warriors who did the right thing. Argo — consider it honorary war porn — reduces the debacle of years of U.S. meddling in Iran to a high-fiving hostage rescue. All it takes these days to turn a loss into a win is to zoom in tight enough to ignore defeat. In American Sniper, the disastrous occupation of Iraq is shoved offstage so that more Iraqis can die in Kyle’s sniper scope. In Lone Survivor, a small American “victory” is somehow dredged out of hopeless Afghanistan because an Afghan man takes a break from being droned to save the life of a SEAL.
In sum: gritty, brave, selfless men, stoic women waiting at home, noble wounded warriors, just causes, and the necessity of saving American lives. Against such a lineup, the savage enemy is a crew of sitting ducks who deserve to die. Everything else is just music, narration, and special effects. War pornos, like their oversexed cousins, are all the same movie.
A Fantasy That Can Change Reality
But it’s just a movie, right? Your favorite shoot-em-up makes no claims to being a documentary. We all know one American can’t gun down 50 bad guys and walk away unscathed, in the same way he can’t bed 50 partners without getting an STD. It’s just entertainment. So what?
So what do you, or the typical 18-year-old considering military service, actually know about war on entering that movie theater? Don’t underestimate the degree to which such films can help create broad perceptions of what war’s all about and what kind of people fight it. Those lurid on-screen images, updated and reused so repetitively for so many decades, do help create a self-reinforcing, common understanding of what happens “over there,” particularly since what we are shown mirrors what most of us want to believe anyway.
No form of porn is about reality, of course, but that doesn’t mean it can’t create realities all its own. War films have the ability to bring home emotionally a glorious fantasy of America at war, no matter how grim or gritty any of these films may look. War porn can make a young man willing to die before he’s 20. Take my word for it: as a diplomat in Iraq I met young people in uniform suffering from the effects of all this. Such films also make it easier for politicians to sweet talk the public into supporting conflict after conflict, even as sons and daughters continue to return home damaged or dead and despite the country’s near-complete record of geopolitical failures since September 2001. Funny thing: American Sniper was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture as Washington went back to war in Iraq in what you’d have thought would be an unpopular struggle.
Learning From the Exceptions
You can see a lot of war porn and stop with just your toes in the water, thinking you’ve gone swimming. But eventually you should go into the deep water of the “exceptions,” because only there can you confront the real monsters.
There are indeed exceptions to war porn, but don’t fool yourself, size matters. How many people have seen American Sniper, The Hurt Locker, or Zero Dark Thirty? By comparison, how many saw the anti-war Iraq War film Battle for Haditha, a lightly fictionalized, deeply unsettling drama about an American massacre of innocent men, women, and children in retaliation for a roadside bomb blast?
Timing matters, too, when it comes to the few mainstream exceptions. John Wayne’s The Green Berets, a pro-Vietnam War film, came out in 1968 as that conflict was nearing its bloody peak and resistance at home was growing. (The Green Berets gets a porn bonus star, as the grizzled Wayne persuades a lefty journalist to alter his negative views on the war.) Platoon, with its message of waste and absurdity, had to wait until 1986, more than a decade after the war ended.
In propaganda terms, think of this as controlling the narrative. One version of events dominates all others and creates a reality others can only scramble to refute. The exceptions do, however, reveal much about what we don’t normally see of the true nature of American war. They are uncomfortable for any of us to watch, as well as for military recruiters, parents sending a child off to war, and politicians trolling for public support for the next crusade.
War is not a two-hour-and-12-minute hard-on. War is what happens when the rules break down and, as fear displaces reason, nothing too terrible is a surprise. The real secret of war for those who experience it isn’t the visceral knowledge that people can be filthy and horrible, but that you, too, can be filthy and horrible. You don’t see much of that on the big screen.
The Long Con
Of course, there are elements of “nothing new” here. The Romans undoubtedly had their version of war porn that involved mocking the Gauls as sub-humans. Yet in twenty-first-century America, where wars are undeclared and Washington dependent on volunteers for its new foreign legion, the need to keep the public engaged and filled with fear over our enemies is perhaps more acute than ever.
So here’s a question: if the core propaganda messages the U.S. government promoted during World War II are nearly identical to those pushed out today about the Islamic State, and if Hollywood’s war films, themselves a particularly high-class form of propaganda, have promoted the same false images of Americans in conflict from 1941 to the present day, what does that tell us? Is it that our varied enemies across nearly three-quarters of a century of conflict are always unbelievably alike, or is it that when America needs a villain, it always goes to the same script?
Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald apologized Monday for “misstating” that he served in the military’s special forces. McDonald made the “erroneous” claim while speaking to a homeless veteran during a segment that aired last month on the CBS Evening News.
In a statement released Monday by the VA, McDonald said: “While I was in Los Angeles, engaging a homeless individual to determine his veteran status, I asked the man where he had served in the military. He responded that he had served in special forces. I ‘incorrectly stated’ that I had been in special forces. That was inaccurate and I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement.”
Lying or exaggerating military service is known as “stolen valor.” There are entire organizations devoted to calling out fake claims to special forces service. In the specops community, this is a big deal.
The VA website says McDonald is an Army veteran who served with the 82nd Airborne Division. Anyone who has been in the Army knows the 82nd is not a special forces unit. That term is reserved primarily in the Army world for Green Berets. You cannot be mistaken about whether or not you have undergone special forces training and deployment.
The White House issued a statement saying, “We take him at his word and expect that this will not impact the important work he’s doing to promote the health and well-being of our nation’s veterans.”
President Barack Obama chose the former Procter and Gamble CEO to take over the scandal-plagued VA last year. The questions about McDonald’s service come as TV newsmen Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly have had their claims about covering foreign wars called into question.
So, some things to ponder.
— Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine you have a child. She is standing in the living room. A broken lamp is on the floor. She is holding a baseball bat with pieces of the lamp embedded in the wood. She has written on a large piece of poster board “I broke the lamp.” Would you, as the media has done in McDonald’s case, use the words “misstate,” “erroneous,” and “inaccurate” to describe her oral admonition that she did not break the lamp?
— OK, another one. You know from my online biography that I have not served in special forces. If I write an article saying “I served in special forces,” would that be a misstatement? If, only after I have been caught dead to rights lying, I apologize to anyone “who might have been offended,” say persons who underwent the tough selection and life-threatening work of real special forces folks, or maybe a homeless veteran, does that make it OK?
— If I worked for you and got caught lying in connection to my work and embarrassed the organization I lead, would you as my boss make a public statement of support for me?
— But that said, let’s try it anyway. My name is not Peter. It is Rambo. Even as I type this, I am an active duty special forces operator. Please buy me drinks.
BONUS: This is not McDonald’s first work-related lie. Obama named the clown to run the VA after veterans died awaiting care. McDonald said on NBC 60 people had been fired for their part in the misconduct, but the fact-checking website PolitiFact.com rated his statement as false, saying that fewer than 20 had been dismissed.
Chris Appy’s American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity is a book-length essay on the Vietnam War and how it changed the way Americans think of ourselves and our foreign policy. This is required reading for anyone interested in foreign policy and America’s place in the world, showing how events influence attitudes, which turn to influence events.
Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam
Appy’s book is valuable to its readers in showing how Vietnam became the template for every American war since, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. But before all that, there was Vietnam, and, larger lessons aside, Appy’s book is a fascinating, insightful, infuriating and thought-provoking study of that conflict, from its earliest days when America bankrolled the French defeat, to the final, frantic evacuation of Saigon. This is a history, yes, but one where events are presented not as isolated factoids but toward building a larger argument. Drawing from movies, songs, and novels, as well as official documents, example after example shows how America was lied to and manipulated.
We begin with Tom Dooley, a Navy physician who had one of the best-selling books of 1956, Deliver Us from Evil. Presented as fact, the book was wholly a lie, painting a picture of Vietnam as a struggling Catholic nation under attack by Communists, with only America as a possible Saviour. Despite Dooley’s garbage selling millions of copies in its day, few have ever heard of it since. It did however establish a forward-leaning pattern of lies to engage and enrage the American public in support of pointless wars.
The Dooley line runs through the faux Gulf of Tonkin Incident to fake stories from Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing infants from their incubators to Gulf War 2.0’s non-existent WMDs to Gulf War 3.0’s “Save the Yazidi’s” rationale for America re-entering a war already lost twice. “Saving” things was a common sub-theme, just as Vietnam was to be saved from Communism. It was no surprise that one of the last American acts of the Vietnam War was “Operation Babylift,” where thousands of children were flown to the U.S. to “save” them.
Vietnam as a Template
Vietnam set the template in other ways as well.
— The 1960’s infamous domino theory was raised from the grave not only in the 1980’s to frighten Americans into tacit support for America’s wars in Central America, but then again in regards to the 1991 model of Saddam, never mind the near-constant invocations of tumbling playing pieces as al Qaeda and/or ISIS seeks world domination.
— Conflicts that could not stand on their own post-WWII would be wrapped in the flag of American Exceptionalism, buttressed by the belief the United States is a force for good/freedom/democracy/self-determination against a communist/dictator/terrorist evil. Indigenous struggles, where the U.S. sides with a non-democratic government (Vietnam, the Contras), can never be seen any other way, truth be damned to hell. Wars for resources become struggles for freedom, or perhaps self-preservation, as we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.
— A sidestory to such memes is the invocation of “Munich.” If we don’t stop _____ (Putin?) now, he’ll just go on to demand more. Better to stand and fight than commit the cardinal sin of appeasement. That “appeasement” and “diplomacy” are often confused is no matter. We are not dealing in subtleties here.
— Killing becomes mechanical, clean, nearly sterile (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Gulf War 1.0?) Our atrocities — My Lai in Vietnam is the best known, but there were many more — are the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities are evil genius, fanaticism or campaigns of horror.
No More Vietnams
Appy accurately charts the changes to the American psyche brought on by the war. Never before had such a broad range of Americans come to doubt their government. The faith most citizens had in their leaders coming out of WWII was so near complete that the realization that they had been lied to about Vietnam represents the most significant change in the relationship between a people and their leaders America, perhaps much of history, has ever seen.
The aftermath — No More Vietnams — is well-covered in Appy’s work. The No More Vietnam mantra is usually presented as avoiding quagmires, focusing on quick, sharp wins. Instead, Appy shows politicians have manipulated No More Vietnams into meaning greater secrecy (think Central America in the 1980’s), more over-the-top justifications (“You don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”) and an emphasis on keeping American deaths inside the acceptable limits of the day to tamp down any public anti-war sentiment.
Throw in increasingly clever manipulation of the media (“Pat Tillman was a hero,” “Malaki/Karzai is a democratic leader with wide support”) and indeed there will be no more Vietnams per se, even as conflicts that bear all the hallmarks continue unabated. Americans may have developed an intolerance for Vietnam-like wars, but failed to become intolerant of war.
For readers of the 9/11 era, explaining the changes America underwent because of Vietnam seems near-impossible, though American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity succeeds as well as anything else I have read.
Before Vietnam, we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. We hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” Our education was very expensive in the form of that blood and treasure commentators love to refer to.
You finish with the feeling that Appy wishes the lesson of Vietnam would be for the American people to rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but close the book sharing with Appy the thought that we have, and will. “There remains,” concludes Appy, “a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain… the institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy.”
How did we reach such a state? Better read this book to find, in Appy’s words, what our record is, and who we now are.
The American Embassy in Yemen is closed and the American staff evacuated. Houthi officials say the evacuation was unnecessary and claim it is largely a political act seeking to undermine their legitimacy. Is closing an embassy a political act? What happens when an embassy is evacuated? What happens to private Americans in-country?
A Political Signal
The decision to close an embassy rises to the Secretary of State for approval. An embassy evacuation really is a virtual chess match that some State Department critics say is as much about political signals as it is about the safety of America’s diplomats. In cases where the United States wants to support the host government, an embassy closure cuts off most interaction and will eliminate on-the-ground reporting. An evacuation can trigger the fall of the host government based on the perceived loss of American confidence, or may encourage rebels to attack private American citizens seen as less-protected. In that one point of having an embassy at all is symbolism, closure is without a doubt a political act. Reopening the embassy brings up all those factors in reverse.
How Do You Close an Embassy?
The mechanics of closing an embassy follow an established process, with only the time line varying.
All embassies have standing evacuation procedures, called the Emergency Action Plan, that are updated regularly. A key component is the highly-classified “trip wires,” designated decision points. If the rebels advance past the river, take steps A-C. If the host government military is deserting, implement steps D-E, and so forth.
Early actions include moving embassy dependents out of the country via commercial flights. Incoming staff can be held in Washington and existing tours cut short. Non-essential official personnel (for example, the trade attache, who won’t be doing much business in the midst of coup) are flown out. Some sort of public advisory must be issued by the State Department to private American citizens under the “No Double Standard” rule. This grew out of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am flight, where inside threat info was made available to embassy families but kept from the general public.
These embassy draw-down steps are seen as low-cost moves, both because they use commercial transportation, and because they usually attract minimal public attention.
The next steps typically involve the destruction of classified materials. The flood of sensitive documents taken from the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 remains a sore point inside State even today. Classified materials include mountains of paper that need to be shredded, pulped or burnt, as well as electronics, weapons, encryption gear and hard drives that must be physically destroyed. Embassies estimate how many linear feet of classified paper they have on hand and the destruction process begins in time (one hopes) to destroy it all.
Send in the Marines
Somewhere in the midst of all this, the Marines come into the picture. Embassies are guarded only by a small, lightly armed detachment of Marines. As part of their standard Special Operation Capable (SOC) designation, larger Marine units train with their SEAL components for the reinforcement and evacuation of embassies. They maintain libraries of overhead imagery and blueprints of diplomatic facilities to aid in planning. Fully combat-equipped Marines can be brought into the embassy, either stealthily to avoid inflaming a tense situation, or very overtly to send a message to troublemakers to back off. Long experience keeps Marine assets handy to the Middle East and Africa.
What is done to support private American citizens varies considerably. Planning and putting into action support for our citizens was a major part of my work at the State Department. The rule of thumb is if a commercial means of departure exists, private citizens must utilize it, sometimes with the assistance of the embassy. Loans for tickets can be made, convoys organized and so forth. In cases where the major airlines refuse to fly but the airport is still usable, the State Department can arrange charters. In extreme cases only (Yemen is not such a case) the Marines conduct a Noncombatant Evacuation Order (NEO) to pull citizens out of the country using military assets. At times Americans are simply told to “shelter in place” and ride out a crisis. State will ask a neutral embassy in-country, such as the Swiss, to look after them to the extent possible.
Sorry, Local Staff
Almost always left out of the mix are the embassy local staff, the cooks, drivers, and translators. Rarely are they evacuated, and are usually left to make their own way in what can be a very dangerous environment for someone seen as an American collaborator. Some have compared this to the poor treatment military translators from Iraq and Afghanistan have received trying to secure visas and refugee status to the United States.
Closing an embassy is often a tacit admission that America’s policies toward the host government failed. For example, Yemen represents the third American embassy in an Arab Spring country, following Syria and Libya, now closed. Images of an empty embassy are not what the American government looks forward to seeing spreading across social media. A closure is indeed a political act.
Brian Williams was seduced.
He is a liar of course, someone who did not tell the truth no matter the reason or excuse, a bad trait for a journalist. Williams lied about being RPG’ed in a helicopter over Iraq; he did not see any variant of what you can see in the photo above. And that’s not a hard thing to “misremember.”
But if there is any reason to forgive Williams, it was that he was seduced by both his own conflation of his sad little life as a talking head and the “brave troops,” and, more clearly, by the process of embedding with the military. I know. I saw it.
Journalists into Liars
What is it about the military that turns many normally thoughtful journalists into liars? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.
I’m neither a soldier nor a journalist. I was a diplomat who spent 12 months as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader, embedded with the military in Iraq, and let me tell you that nobody laughed harder at the turgid prose reporters used to describe their lives than the soldiers themselves. They knew they were trading hours of boredom for maybe minutes of craziness that only in retrospect seemed “exciting,” as opposed to scary, confusing, and chaotic. That said, the laziest private knew from growing up watching TV exactly what flavor to feed a visiting reporter.
In trying to figure out why journalists and assorted militarized intellectuals from inside the Beltway lose it around the military, I remembered a long afternoon spent with a gaggle of “fellows” from a prominent national security think tank who had flown into Iraq. These scholars wrote serious articles and books that important people read; they appeared on important Sunday morning talk shows; and they served as consultants to even more important people who made decisions about the Iraq War and assumedly other conflicts to come.
One of them had been on the staff of a general whose name he dropped more often than Jesus’s at a Southern Baptist A.A. meeting. He was a real live neocon. A quick Google search showed he had strongly supported going to war in Iraq, wrote apology pieces after no one could find any weapons of mass destruction there (“It was still the right thing to do”), and was back to check out just how well democracy was working out for a paper he was writing to further justify the war. He liked military high-tech, wielded words like “awesome,” “superb,” and “extraordinary” (pronounced EXTRA-ordinary) without irony to describe tanks and guns, and said in reference to the Israeli Army, “They give me a hard-on.”
Fearing the Media vs. Using the Media
Such figures are not alone. Nerds, academics, and journalists have had trouble finding ways to talk, write, or think about the military in a reasonably objective way. A minority of them have spun off into the dark side, focused on the My Lai, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon-style psycho killers. But most spin in the other direction, portraying our men and women in uniform as regularly, daily, hourly saving Private Ryan, stepping once more into the breach, and sacking out each night knowing they are abed with brothers.
I sort of did it, too. As a State Department Foreign Service Officer embedded with the military in Iraq, I walked in… er, deployed, unprepared. I had never served in the military and had rarely fired a weapon (and never at anything bigger than a beer can on a rock ledge). The last time I punched someone was in ninth grade. Yet over the course of a year, I found myself living and working with the 82nd Airborne, followed by the 10th Mountain Division, and finally the 3rd Infantry Division, three of the most can-do units in the Army. It was… seductive.
The military raised a lot of eyebrows in my part of the world early in the Iraq invasion with their policy of embedding journalists with front-line troops. Other than preserving OpSec (Operational Security for those of you who have never had The Experience) and not giving away positions and plans to the bad guys, journalists were free to see and report on anything. No restrictions, no holding back.
So, in 2003, we diplomats sat back and smugly speculated that the military didn’t mean it, that they’d stage-manage what embedded journalists would see and who they would be allowed to speak to. After all, if someone screwed up and the reporter saw the real thing, it would end up in disaster, as in fact happened when Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings got Afghan War commander Stanley McCrystal axed as a “runaway general.”
We were, however, dead wrong. As everyone now agrees, journalists saw what they saw and talked to whomever they chose and the military facilitated the process. Other than McCrystal (who was redeemed by the same president who fired him), can anyone name another military person whacked by reporting?
Embed in Action
I saw it myself in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commander of all troops in Iraq, would routinely arrive at some desert dump where I happened to be, reporters in tow. I saw for myself that they would be free to speak about anything to anyone on that Forward Operating Base (which, in acronym-mad Iraq, we all just called a FOB, rhymes with “cob”). The only exception would be me: State had a long-standing policy that on-the-record interviews with its officials had to be pre-approved by the Embassy or often by the Washington Mothership itself.
Getting such an approval before a typical reporter’s deadline ran out was invariably near impossible, which assumedly was the whole point of the system. In fact, the rules got even tougher over the course of my year in the desert. When I arrived, the SOP (standard operating procedure) allowed Provincial Reconstruction Team leaders to talk to foreign media without preapproval (on the assumption that no one in Washington read their pieces in other languages anyway and thus no one in the field could get into trouble). This was soon rescinded countrywide and preapproval was required even for these media interactions.
Detouring around me, the reporters would ask soldiers their opinions on the war, the Army, or even controversial policies. The reporters would sit through the briefings the general received, listening in as he asked questions. They were exposed to classified material, and trusted not to reveal it in print. They would go out on patrols led by 24-year-old lieutenants, where life-and-death decisions were often made, and were free to report on whatever they saw. It always amazed me — like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything suddenly changes from black and white into color.
Fear Not: The Force Is With You
But the military wasn’t worried. Why? Because its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was — not to mince words — seductive. The world, it turns out, is divided into two groups, those who served in the military and those who didn’t. For the rare journalists with service time, this would be homecoming, a chance to relive their youth filtered through memory. For the others, like me, embedding with the military felt like being invited in — no, welcomed — for the first time by the cool kids.
You arrive and, of course, you feel awkward, out of place. Everyone has a uniform on and you’re wearing something inappropriate you bought at L.L. Bean. You don’t know how to wear your body-armor vest and helmet, which means that someone has to show you how to dress yourself. When was the last time that happened? Instead of making fun of you, though, the soldier is cool with it and just helps.
Then, you start out not knowing what the hell anyone is saying, because they throw around terms like FOB and DFAC and POS and LT and BLUF and say Hoo-ah, but sooner or later someone begins to explain them to you one by one, and after a while you start to feel pretty cool saying them yourself and better yet, repeating them to people at home in emails and, if you’re a journalist, during live reports. (“Sorry Wolf, that’s an insider military term. Let me explain it to our viewers…”)
You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you’re riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You’re the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they’re cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can’t believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen — and you want to tell them.
Even though you may be only a few years older than many of them, you feel fatherly. For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you’re treated as the most beautiful female they’ve seen in the last six months — and it’s probably true.
The same way one year in a dog’s life equals seven human years, every day spent in a war zone is the equivalent of a month relationship-wise. You quickly grow close to the military people you’re with, and though you may never see any of them again after next week, you bond with them.
You arrived a stranger and a geek. Now, you eat their food, watch their TV, and sleep, pee, and work together every day. These are your friends, at least for the time you’re together, and you’re never going to betray them. Under those circumstances, it’s harder than hell to say anything bad about the organization whose lowest ranking member just gave up his sleeping bag without prompting because you were too green and dumb to bring one with you.
Why It Matters
So, take my word for it, it’s really, really hard to write about the military objectively, even if you try. That’s not to say that all journalists are shills; it’s just a warning for you to take care when you’re hanging out with, or reading, our warrior-pundits.
It is also to say that journalists who embed and do write objective pieces are to be read, revered and respected.
And yet having some perspective on the military and what it does matters as we threaten to slip into yet more multigenerational wars without purpose, watch the further militarization of foreign affairs, and devote ever more of our national budget to the military. War lovers and war pornographers can’t offer us an objective look at a world in which more and more foreigners only run into Americans when they are wearing green and carrying weapons.
I respect my military colleagues, at least the ones who took it all seriously enough to deserve that respect, and would not speak ill of them. Some do indeed make enormous sacrifices, including of their own lives, even if for reasons that are ambiguous at best to a majority of Americans. But in order to understand these men and women and the tasks they are set to, we need journalists who are willing to type with both hands, not just pass on their own wet dreams to a gullible public.
Civilian control of our military is a cornerstone of our republic, and we the people need to base our decisions on something better than Sergeant Rock comic rewrites.
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
—C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems.
We must remember that the progressive debasement of international law and comity has reached such a stage that all the concepts of internal sovereignty, respect for international boundaries, and even of a formal state of war have well-nigh disappeared from the book of rules. [The situation is] now rapidly approaching comparison with the lawless era of the Thirty Years’ War.
–Bernard Fall, Two Vietnams.
Looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications — that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of “cold war” with its neighbors.
—George Orwell, You and the Atomic Bomb
The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.
—George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism
The U.S. military decided it will no longer release facts and figures about America’s costly effort to assist Afghan security forces.
(As this goes online, the military has announced, having been called out, that it is backtracking on parts of the classification)
Information that has been made public for the past 12 years is now classified. The fact that the information has generally made the military (and the State Department, who helps spend the money) look like fools may have something to do with the decision.
The move marks an about-face for the Pentagon, which for the past years has more or less bragged about the $65 billion program to build up the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and the Afghan Police. The data now being withheld as classified from the American public is how taxpayers’ money has been spent and the state of the troubled forces. Presumably the Afghan side already knows.
“The decision leaves the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) unable to publicly report on most of the taxpayer-funded efforts to build, train, equip and sustain the ANSF,” said John Sopko, the Special Inspector General.
But What About the Troops?
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, defended the change, saying the information could prove helpful to Taliban insurgents and needed to be kept secret. “With lives literally on the line, I am sure you can join me in recognizing that we must be careful to avoid providing sensitive information to those that threaten our forces and Afghan forces, particularly information that can be used by such opposing forces to sharpen their attacks,” Campbell wrote.
The now-classified data also hides the results of the $107.5 billion U.S. reconstruction program that, adjusted for inflation, has surpassed the price tag of the Marshall Plan. For example, the classified data includes the total amount of U.S. funding for Afghan forces for the current year, details of contracts for literacy training and an assessment of anti-corruption initiatives. It remains unclear how such information could endanger lives or aid the Taliban. Also, Afghan officials do not consider the information secret and have discussed it with media.
The State Department was also not forthcoming about its aid projects when contacted by the inspector general’s office. Despite a legal obligation for federal government agencies to provide requested information to the inspector general, “the State Department did not answer any of SIGAR’s questions on economic and social-development this quarter, and failed to respond to SIGAR’s attempts to follow up.”
What Information? You Mean, Like This?
The possibility that the information on ANSF and police readiness might be being withheld simply because it is bad news remains.
Afghan war blog Sunny in Kabul (which, if you have any interest at all in events in Afghanistan you should be reading) says the military isn’t hiding money, it’s hiding people. Specifically, the lack of Afghan soldiers on the job.
Sunny in Kabul concludes “Based on the numbers publicly reported last fall, there won’t be an army left to fight the insurgency by the end of 2015. That’s not a metaphor or commentary on their professionalism. I mean there won’t be an army at all.”
“The ANSF lost 27 percent of its fighting force to attrition from October 2011 to September 2012. For the same period the previous year, the ANSF lost 30 percent of its personnel due to attrition, which means that 57 percent of the ANA has been lost to attrition over the last two years. It gets worse: if the time period from March 2010 until September 2012 is considered, that number climbs to 72 percent. So nearly three quarters of the ANSF’s total force over the course of 31 months was lost.”
Basically, despite extraordinary sums of money being spent to train and equip the ANSF, they are quitting, deserting, getting killed or running away.
About That Other Stuff Being Hidden
Despite the very clear case that all this newly-classified information is designed to hide people, not money, a compelling argument can be made that the point is to hide people AND money.
For just a few examples, pick from this list:
— A failed $7.3 million police headquarters;
— $700 million spent on sending Afghan jewelers on lavish “gem training” junkets to India, Paris, and Milan;
— $300 million annually for police salaries with no audits to assure the funds are going to active police personnel;
— A five-year-old State Department effort to upgrade Afghanistan’s largest prison has been halted with only half the contracted work performed. Some $18 million was wasted on a project that will never be finished and will never serve any need.
— For unclear reasons, the U.S. Air Force destroyed $468 million of aircraft purchased for the Afghan military by America’s taxpayers, and sold off the scrapped metal for all of $32,000.
— The U.S. spent $34 million on a “Regional Command and Control Facility” that will never be used. The Marines this week forever abandoned/withdrew from the base that houses that facility.
— The U.S. spent another $771.8 million on aircraft the Afghans cannot operate or maintain.
— Some 285 buildings, including barracks, medical clinics and even fire stations built by the Army are lined with substandard spray insulation so prone to ignition that they don’t meet international building codes.
— A USAID program designed to promote stability in Afghanistan spent its entire $47 million budget on conferences and none on grants to accomplish its aim.
And much, much more!
Not that anyone likely cares anymore, but all this classification seems to have as its primary goal preventing American taxpayers from drawing informed conclusions as to how their money has been spent. Whatever.
Hah, it doesn’t matter because your tax money was spent on this crap.
A Pentagon task force in Afghanistan is under investigation for ejaculating taxpayer dollars to send Afghan jewelers on lavish “gem training” junkets to India, Paris, and Milan, according to findings by a government watchdog.
The Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) in Afghanistan is being accused of “imprudent spending, profligate travel by employees and contractors, and possible mismanagement” of its programs by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
The TFBSO was provided $700 million in taxpayer funds to pursue, among other things, the development of Afghanistan’s gem industry. These funds (SHOCK!) were not managed properly and were wasted instead on lavish trips abroad that (SHOCK!) did not actually foster economic development or increased employment in Afghanistan, according to SIGAR.
Afghan jewelers were sent on “months-long gem training programs in India,” while other were sent to jewelry shows in “locations including Paris and Milan,” according to SIGAR. “Despite these expenditures, it is not clear [SHOCK!] that the gem industry program produced any positive and lasting economic development or increased employment in Afghanistan.”
The U.S. has so far spent multiple billions of your tax dollars on such economic projects, the goal of which was supposed to be to make Afghanistan such a wonderful and prosperous place that the Taliban would not be welcomed. So how’s that working out? Ask any gem dealer.
Alongside the Afghan Army (RIP), the police are supposed to hunt down the Taliban and preserve order inside the cities. The army, for what it is worth, is supposed to hunt down the Taliban outside the cities. This is so that Afghanistan can develop a “civil society” where the army and the police are different things with different roles. Just here in the Homeland.
For the funs, this was the same plan in Iraq, and how’d that work out?
Well, it seems the police thing in Afghanistan is headed toward about as much success as it has enjoyed in Iraq. Also like Iraq, that failure is very expensive. Or so says what must be the most depressed group of people in the U.S. government, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). SIGAR just released an audit of U.S.-funded salary payments for the Afghan National Police (ANP), which total $1.3 billion.
The audit found:
–The U.S. is spending over $300 million annually for ANP salaries with little assurance that these funds are going to active police personnel or that the amounts paid are correct.
–There are almost twice as many ANP identification cards in circulation as there are active police personnel.
–After nine expensive years of effort, an electronic human resources system has still not been successfully implemented.
–Reports have disclosed inflated police rosters, payments being made to more police personnel than are authorized in particular locations, and police personnel receiving inflated salaries.
–20 percent of ANP personnel are at risk of not receiving their full salaries because they are paid in cash by a non-governmental agent, where as much as half of these payments are possibly diverted.
–U.S. officials confirmed that over the past year they accepted, without question, all personnel totals provided by the Afghan Ministry of Interior (MOI).
–Independent monitoring groups may have artificially inflated the percentage of successfully verified ANP personnel from 59 percent to as much as 84 percent.
–The U.S. plans to continue for an open-ended period of time (“Until hell freezes over”) handing over $300 million in annual funding for ANP salaries.
Walter Stewart (Major General, U.S. Army, retired) has some pretty good ideas why America keeps losing its wars. Arguably, allowing for some “ties” as in Korea, since WWII America’s unambiguous wins have really been only in one-sided contests like Grenada and Panama. You might want to argue Iraq War 1.0, in 1991, but you better figure out a way to account for 12 years of following sanctions, bombing and missile attacks, never mind Iraq Wars 2.0 and the current 3.0.
Stewart says there are three basic reasons for the loses:
— America is losing its wars because they are unconstitutional to begin with. They are unconstitutional because they are undeclared.
If America’s wars are not worth formal Congressional declarations, which act to unite the American people, they are by that fact not worth fighting. However, in the classic definition of insanity, America’s leaders keep doing the same thing over and over – fighting undeclared and unnecessary wars without rallying the support of the people – expecting different results.
— Strategic-level commissioned officers who swear an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution have an obligation to protest these wars. However, none have. Indeed, our most senior officers have even misstated their oaths, suggesting they are sworn to obey the president rather than to defend the Constitution. In the process, they fall prey to a version of the Nuremberg Defense of “I was just following orders.”
Even when senior officers recognize the folly and illegality of America’s wars, they refuse to resign in protest. Why? Because they convince themselves they can better effect change within the system. Or they conclude they are beholden by civilian authority to follow orders. Or they believe that resignation would be disruptive and disloyal. But such excuses are corrosive to their oath of office, an oath that officers – especially the most senior – must find the personal integrity and moral courage to follow.
— Until America returns to declared wars by Congress that have the support of the people, America will continue to lose its wars, further weakening itself while sowing the seeds for even more unconstitutional — and unwinnable — wars.
His whole argument is a worthwhile read.
But hey, did you know we won the war in Afghanistan this past weekend? Or, at least we ended the war in Afghanistan this weekend? It is true. America’s longest war, clocking in at more than 13 years, (fun fact: the U.S. involvement in WWII, when we defeated the Nazis and the Japanese, only lasted three and a half years), is over.
Live from Hawaii
Seriously. While you were eating your Christmas roast beast, Your President was in Hawaii. From that forward deployment, Obama announced that “thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion… We are safer, and our nation is more secure, because of their service. [We] have helped the Afghan people reclaim their communities, take the lead for their own security, hold historic elections and complete the first democratic transfer of power in their country’s history.”
USA! USA! USA!
Now, there is no journalism without fact-checking, so let’s dig in on the president’s statement. Afghanistan no longer is under threat from the Taliban, and all terrorism has been taken care of. Instead of an economy based on corruption, smuggling and opium production, Afghanistan is a thriving consumer society. Women walk the streets in mini-skirts, and elections happen without incident. An American can stroll among Kabul’s cafes and quaint bazaars with his head held high and his safety guaranteed by grateful Afghans. America and its allies’ investment of over 3,400 lives and four trillion dollars has paid off. Also, all the dead Afghans, whatever.
Oh, wait, none of that is true.
It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over
And for a war that is over, the U.S. has over 10,000 troops stationed and still fighting in Afghanistan under a legacy defined as a “transition from a combat mission to a ‘noncombat mission in a combat environment’ with a definition that “remains as unclear as Afghanistan’s future.”
The Taliban have obviously not heard all the good news out of Hawaii. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid characterized a hand-over event in Kabul as a “defeat ceremony” and added “We will fight until there is not one foreign soldier on Afghan soil and we have established an Islamic state.”
Despite such gloom, it is obvious that America’s accomplishments in Afghanistan rank alongside its accomplishments in Iraq.
One of the latest stories from Iraq is that some 50,000 “ghost soldiers” haunt the rolls of the Iraqi Army.
They have been added to the rosters so that someone can skim away all or part of their salaries. The story has been played for Daily Show-like laughs, has been cited as a cause for the collapse of the Iraqi Army in the face of ISIS, has been used as an example of corruption in Iraq and conversely, acknowledging it used as an example of how the new Prime Minister, Haider Abadi, is fighting corruption. It may in truth be a little of all of those things, but is most of all a brief flash of light in the darkness of how the Iraq Army works.
The Iraqi Army of today is a U.S. construct. As one of the very first acts of the Occupation in 2003, the United States famously disbanded the Saddam-era Iraqi Army (and thus helped supply armed, trained men to the blossoming insurgency.) At some point American strategy shifted toward the Bush Administration’s proclamation of “As They Stand Up, We’ll Stand Down,” a mantra that meant the U.S. would take it upon itself to create a new Iraqi Army to take over internal security and border protection. This would need to be done quickly, as Americans grew bored and/or weary of the seemingly endless war in Iraq. The standing up of this army cost American taxpayers over $20 billion dollars.
What did they get for their money? Not much, except for the seeds of the present mess in Iraq.
The Iraqi Army America wrought was by definition created within the climate of the insurgency. It was thus never really a national army, but rather a loose collection of regional forces and fiefdoms divided along mostly religious and sectarian lines. Sunni units were based in Sunni areas and led by Sunni generals, Shia were in their areas and of course the Kurds and their peshmerga were off on their own (the peshmerga also benefited greatly from never having been disbanded in the first place.) America accepted these divisions out of expediency; the non-starter of an alternative was to wait until all sectarian problems were resolved first, and then reconstitute the army.
Disbanding Saddam’s army meant throwing away most of the senior, experienced military leadership. These generals and mid-level officers were Iraq’s professional soldiers. Many melted away or immigrated to neighboring Sunni countries, while some took up with the Sunni insurgency. Lacking experienced leadership, the U.S. was left with creating an officer corps from scratch. Experience matters in most things in life, and really matters in jobs that require leadership. Even under the best of circumstances that all takes time (leaders are made, not born), and the U.S. was creating the new Iraqi Army under anything but the best of circumstances.
Napoleon famously said that an army travels on its belly; another general reminded that it is logistics, not tactics, that win battles. From its early days, the factors that “miscreated” the new Iraqi Army doomed its ability to police and supply itself. Central authority was lacking; the combination of a weak central government and a force divided along sectarian lines meant resources were never allocated based on need, and that the kind of oversight necessary to avoid “ghost soldiers” did not exist. The problems were masked by U.S. expedient acts: an Iraqi unit desperate for spare parts could either fight a long battle with baghdad for what it needed, or appeal to the local U.S. military commander for help. The commander, under pressure himself to report success, typically gave in. The Iraqi system never was forced to mature or allowed to fail, at least until the Americans departed and ISIS appeared.
Procurement became an excuse for plunder. Soldiers in the Iraqi army basically pay for their own food via a salary deduction. In practice, officers pocket most of this money instead of buying supplies for the troops themselves. Soldiers in Mosul often had to purchase their own food and water from civilian markets. When the markets close under ISIS attack, the soldiers have no choice but to flee.
A system such as that seen as ineffective to some meant opportunities to others. In 2009, a lucrative appointment as an army colonel required a $20,000 bribe. The same job today costs $200,000. Divisional commander positions run about two million dollars. Why would such military jobs be worth that much money?
As an investment. Iraqi commanders purchased for their bribe money opportunities to skim budgets, withhold salaries from their own troops, or even create the ghost troops to justify budget increases. The ghost troops likely served another goal, covering soldier absences. During my own time in Iraq embedded with the U.S. Army, it was a given that any Iraqi unit we worked with would be missing a percentage of its soldiers. Some American advisors used a 10 percent rule of thumb, others pegged it as high as thirty percent. Where were the Iraqi troops? Some shuttled between their unit and their home towns. Lacking a reliable banking system, soldiers needed to physically carry their salaries home to their families. Because food budgets and the salaries themselves were often skimmed by their commanders, some troops kept working at outside, part-time jobs. With variable unit discipline, some soldiers just took time off as they saw fit, often bribing their own commanders to avoid punishment. Soldiers would sell off Army gas and spare parts, create unsanctioned checkpoints to harvest bribes from motorists, sell electricity if they controlled a large generator, or even their own weapons, to raise extra cash for themselves.
As for the thought that uncovering these ghost soldiers shows a commitment by Prime Minister Abadi to fight corruption, the real proof is in what he does next. Likely under U.S. pressure, Abadi took this first step to expose a limited dollop of corruption inside his failed army. But watch what does, or doesn’t, happen next. How many senior commanders’ heads will roll? How many will be fired or publicly demoted? What if any central and systematic auditing procedures will be put in place?
Answers to questions such as those will answer the most important question: will Abadi and the U.S. really seek to fix the Iraqi Army, or is the latest move simply another short-term expedient, meant to create the appearance of change ahead of more U.S. money pouring down the same dry well?
If the United States was looking for the surest way to lose Iraq War 3.0, it might start by retraining the failed Iraqi Army to send — alongside ruthless Shi’ite militias — into Sunni-majority territory and hope that the Sunnis will welcome them with open arms, throwing out the evil Islamic State.
Maybe it’s time for a better plan. The way to find one is by understanding how we lost Iraq War 2.0. We need a plan to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide, or the current war will fail as surely as the previous one.
A critical first step is, of course, to remove Islamic State from the equation, but not how the Obama administration envisions. The way to drive Islamic State out of Iraq is to remove the reason Islamic State has been able to remain in Iraq: as a protector of the Sunnis. In Iraq War 2.0, the Iraqi Sunnis never melded politically with al Qaeda; they allied out of expediency, against the Shi’ite militias and the Shi’ite central government. The same situation applies to Islamic State, the new al Qaeda in Iraq.
The United States is acting nearly 180 degrees counter to this strategy, enabling Shi’ite militia and Iranian forces’ entry into Anbar and other Sunni-majority areas to fight Islamic State. The more Shi’ite influence, the more Sunnis feel they need Islamic State muscle. More Iranian fighters also solidify Iran’s grip on the Shi’ite government in Baghdad, and weakens America’s. The presence of additional Sunni players, like the Gulf States, will simply grow the violence indecisively, with the various local factions manipulated as armed proxies.
Iraq in 2007 was, on the surface, a struggle between insurgents and the United States. However, the real fight was happening in parallel, as the minority Sunnis sought a place in the new Shi’ite-dominated Iraq. The solution was supposedly the Anbar Awakening. Indigenous Iraqi Sunnis would be pried lose from al Qaeda under American protection (that word again), along with the brokered promise that the Shi’ites would grant them a substantive role in governance. The Shi’ites balked almost from day one, and the deal fell apart even before America’s 2011 withdrawal — I was in Iraq with the Department of State and saw it myself. The myth that “we won” only to have the victory thrown away by the Iraqis — a favorite among 2.0 apologists — is very dangerous. It suggests repeating the strategy will result in something other than repeating the results.
The Sunnis are Who fans; they won’t be fooled again.
Progress otherwise in Iraq? The new prime minister has accomplished little toward unity, selecting a Badr militia politician to head the Interior Ministry, for example. The Badr group has been a key player in sectarian violence.
Islamic State still controls 80 percent of Anbar Province, the key city of Mosul and is attacking in Ramadi. U.S. air strikes cannot seize ground. The Iraqi Army will never rise to the fullness of the challenge. One can only imagine the thoughts of the American trainers, retraining some of the same Iraqi troops from War 2.0.
Military vehicles of the Kurdish security forces are seen during an intensive security deployment in Diyala province north of Baghdad. Elsewhere, the Kurds are already a de facto separate state. Their ownership of Arbil, the new agreement to allow the overt export of some of their own oil, and the spread of the peshmerga to link up with Kurdish forces in Syria, are genies that won’t go back into the bottle. America need only restrain Kurdish ambitions to ensure stability.
Present Iraq strategy delays, at great cost — in every definition of that word — the necessary long-term tri-state solution. It is time to hasten it. The United States must use its influence with the Shi’ites to have their forces, along with the Iranians, withdraw to Baghdad. America would create a buffer zone, encompassing the strategically critical international airport as a “peacekeeping base.” Using air power, America would seal the Iraq-Syria border in western Anbar, at least against any medium-to-large scale Islamic State resupply effort. Arm the Sunni tribes if they will push Islamic State out of their towns. Support goes to those tribes who hold territory, a measurable, ground-truth based policy, not an ideological one. Implementing the plan in northwest Iraq can also succeed, but will be complicated by Kurd ambitions, greater ethnic diversity among the Iraqis and a stronger Islamic State tactical hold on cities like Mosul.
There’ll be another tough challenge, the sharing of oil revenues between the new Sunni and Shi’ite states, so this plan is by no means a slam-dunk.
The broad outline is not new; in 2006 then-Senator Joe Biden proposed a federal partition of Iraq along the Bosnian model. Bush-era zeal kept the idea from getting a full review. But much has transpired since 2006.
If the tri-state plan works, it will deny Islamic State sanctuary where it is now most powerful, and a strategy for northwest Iraq may emerge. America will realize its long-sought enduring bases in Iraq as a check on Iranian ambitions and an assurance of security for the embassy. The president can decouple Syrian policy from Iraq. An indefinite American presence in Iraq will not be fully welcomed, though one hastens to add it basically is evolving anyway.
I Hate Myself
For advocates of disengagement like myself, this is bitter medicine. But we are where we are in Iraq, and wishful thinking, on my part or the White House’s, is no longer practical. A divided Iraq, maintained by an American presence, is the only hope for long-term stability. Otherwise, stay tuned for Iraq War 4.0.
A new poll finds majority of Americans — 59 percent — believe torture was justified after the 9/11 attacks.
Look around you at the company you keep. The people who support torture, six out of ten, are your neighbors, your co-workers, the people on the bus with you. If you live in Washington DC, they are your children’s friends parents, the people at Safeway, the folks you go to church with.
Now, let’s have a look at the company the United States keeps.
Tortures Human Beings
United States – YES
ISIS – YES
North Korea – YES
China – YES
Russia – YES
Nazi Germany – YES
Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES
Uses Medical Personnel to Enhance Torture
United States – YES
ISIS – NO
North Korea – Unknown
China – Unknown
Russia – YES
Nazi Germany – YES
Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES
Maintains Third Country Detention Facilities
United States – YES (including Poland)
ISIS – NO
North Korea – NO
China – NO
Russia – NO (once including Poland)
Nazi Germany – NO (once including Poland)
Apartheid-Era South Africa – NO
Kidnaps/Renders People from Other Countries to Torture
United States – YES
ISIS – YES
North Korea – YES
China – Unknown
Russia – Unknown
Nazi Germany – YES
Apartheid-Era South Africa – NO
Sends Prisoners to Other Governments for Torture
United States – YES (including Libya, Egypt and Syria)
ISIS – NO
North Korea – NO
China – NO
Russia – NO
Nazi Germany – NO
Apartheid-Era South Africa – NO
Holds Prisoners Indefinitely without Trial
United States – YES
ISIS – Sort Of
North Korea – YES
China – YES
Russia – YES
Nazi Germany – YES
Apartheid-Era South Africa – NO
Kills Prisoners Under Torture
United States – YES
ISIS – YES
North Korea – YES
China – YES
Russia – YES
Nazi Germany – YES
Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES
Holds Innocents for Torture
United States – YES
ISIS – YES
North Korea – YES
China – YES
Russia – YES
Nazi Germany – YES
Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES
United States – YES
ISIS – YES
North Korea – YES
China – YES
Russia – YES
Nazi Germany – YES
Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES
Had Some Sort of Reconciliation Once Torture Exposed
United States – NO
ISIS – NO
North Korea – NO
China – NO
Russia – Sort Of (Post-Stalin)
Nazi Germany (Post-War)- YES
(Post) Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES
Claims to be a Christian Nation
United States – YES
ISIS – Hells NO
North Korea – NO
China – NO
Russia – NO
Nazi Germany – NO
Apartheid-Era South Africa – YES, mostly.
BONUS: Has its State Department write sanctimonious yearly human rights reports about other countries: USA! USA! USA!
The Bush and Obama administrations have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide America’s archipelago of secret prisons and systems of torture.
For all the empty talk of “transparency” being high-fived around following the Senate Report, they at first denied any of that nasty stuff even existed, then used an ever-so-compliant media to call it all necessary for our security and very survival, then shaping dumb-cow public opinion with ersatz terms like enhanced interrogation to keep the word torture out of the discourse, then having the CIA destroy videos of the brutality, then imprisoning officials, such as John Kiriakou, who sought to expose it all, then refusing to hold hearings or conduct investigations, then employing black ops to try and derail even a cursory Senate report and finally allowing the torturers at the CIA themselves the final word on the watered-down public version of a Senate report on torture.
The Torture of Shaker Aamer by the United States
Yet, like a water leak that must find it’s way out from inside the dark place within your walls, some things become known. Now, we can read a psychiatrist’s report which includes, in detail, the torture enacted on just one prisoner of the United States, Shaker Aamer.
The once-U.S. ally Northern Alliance captured Aamer in Afghanistan and sold him to the United States as an al Qaeda member. Who knows at this point who Aamer was at that time, or what he did or did not do. If you think any of that matters, and perhaps justifies what was done to him, stop reading now. This article cannot reach you.
What was Done to One Human
In his own words, Aamer describes the casual way his Western jailers accepted his physical presence, and skinny confessions made under Afghan torture, as all the proof necessary to imprison him in U.S. custody from 2002 until forever. The U.S. created a world of hell that only had an entrance, not caring to conceive of an exit. In no particular order (though the full report dispassionately chronicles every act by time and location), the United States of America did the following to Aamer:
— On more than one occasion an official of the United States threatened to rape Aamer’s five year old daughter, with one interrogator describing in explicit sexual detail his plans to destroy the child;
— “Welcoming Parties” and “Goodbye Parties” as Aamer was transferred among U.S. facilities. Soldiers at these “parties” were encouraged and allowed to beat and kick detainees as their proclivities and desires dictated. Here’s a video of what a beating under the eyes of American soldiers looks like.
— Aamer was made to stand for days, not allowed to sleep for days, not allowed to use the toilet and made to shit and piss on himself for days, not fed or fed minimally for days, doused with freezing water for days, over and over again. For twelve years. So far.
— Aamer was denied medical care as his interrogators controlled his access to doctors and made care for the wounds they inflicted dependent on Aamer’s ongoing compliance and repeated “confessions.”
— Aamer was often kept naked, and his faith exploited to humiliate him in culturally-specific ways. He witnessed a 17-year-old captive of America sodomized with a rifle, and was threatened with the same.
— At times the brutality took place for its own sake, disconnected from interrogations. At times it was the centerpiece of interrogation.
— The torture of Aamer continues at Gitmo, for as an occasional hunger striker he is brutally force-fed.
The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. Torture is invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control, not gathering information. Even when left alone (especially when left alone) the torture victim is punished 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.
And there you have the take-away point, as briefers in Washington like to say. The real point of the torture was to torture. Over twelve years, even the thinnest rationale that Aamer was a dangerous terrorist, or had valuable information to disclose, could not exist and his abusers knew it. The only goal was to destroy Shaker Aamer.
The combination of raw brutality, the careful, educated use of medical doctors to fine-tune the pain, the skills of psychiatrists and cultural advisors to enhance the impact of what was done worked exactly as it was intended. According to the psychiatrist who examined Aamer in detail at Guantanamo, there is little left of the man. He suffers from a broad range of psychiatric and physical horrors. In that sense, by the calculus his torturers employ, the torture was indeed successful.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed at great cost, al Qaeda has been reborn in Africa and greater parts of the Middle East and the U.S. has willingly transformed itself into at best a bully abroad, and a police state at home. But no mind; the full force and credit of the United States of America destroyed Shaker Aamer as revenge for all the rest, bloody proof of all the good we failed to do.
Never Again, Always Again
Despite the horrors of World War II, the mantra– never again– becomes today a sad joke. The scale is different this time, what, 600? 6000? men destroyed by torture not six million, but not the intent. The desire to inflict purposeful suffering by government order, the belief that such inhuman actions are legal, even necessary, differs little from one set of fascists to more modern ones. Given the secrecy the Nazis enjoyed for years, how full would the American camps be today? Kill them all, and let God sort them out is never far from the lips.
Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. The ghosts don’t disappear the way the flesh and bone can be made to go away.
The people who did this, whether the ones in the torture cell using their fists, or the ones in the White House ordering it with their pens, walk free among us. They’ll never see justice done. There will be no Nuremburg Trials for America’s evils, just a collapsing bunker in Berlin. But unlike Shaker Aamer, you are sentenced to live to see it.
Many have compared those “moderate Syrian rebels” the U.S. keeps looking for to unicorns. The U.S. now thinks it has a new set of tools to scare the unicorns out of hiding, and to tell the nasty terrorists from the good terrorists: psychological evaluations, biometric checks and stress tests. It is unlikely this will help.
Call of Duty: Problems One-Four
According to the Washington Post, “moderate” Syrian fighters will be evaluated on an ongoing basis. Successful participants “would gradually attain access to higher levels of training and weaponry.” So basically this is going to work something like Call of Duty leveling-up. Problem One.
The Post goes on to say that the American government hopes “to lessen the risk that U.S.-trained fighters sent back into Syria to combat ISIS will use their weapons on civilians or — like the Afghan mujahideen fighters Washington backed in the 1980s — later turn against the United States and its allies.” This is of course a good goal, considering those U.S.-backed 80s-era mujahideen fighters went on to become al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS. Problem Two.
The psych screening and stress testing will not stand alone. Biometric data will be gathered from the recruits, and along with their names, run through all sorts of databases. Needless to say, a person must exist in one of those databases for the checking to do any good. And in a region of the world where last names and birthdays are not always recorded, there may be some problems with that. There are a lot of “Muhummed, FNU, 01/01/01″ entries in the databases that match everyone and no one (FNU = First Name Unknown). Problem Three.
“In the special operations community, we have a pretty long history of vetting and screening surrogate forces that we’ve worked with,” said an official at CENTCOM who apparently is unfamiliar with the success of the 1980s mujahideen fighters experiment, America’s near-endless work with human rights violating Central and South American thug armies (see School of the Americas) and so forth. That official appears also unaware of the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan in the present war by their Afghan partners, so called “Green-on-Blue” attacks. Problem Four.
Problem Five: No Leahy Vetting
For all the Hail-Mary style “vetting” that will sort-of take place, one thing which will not happen is Leahy Vetting.
Leahy Vetting is a process, albeit flawed as it is run by a small office located deep inside the State Department, put in place during the 1990s precisely to stop the U.S. from funding and partnering with human rights violators who might fulfill America’s short term goals but ultimately alienate the very populations the U.S. seeks to win over.
But because the Syrian rebels will not be part of a state-sponsored force, the Leahy Vetting laws will not apply, according to an interpretation announced by the Obama Administration (existing Department of Defense regulations classify “paramilitary forces” as included, so we’ll call that Problem 5.5). That means even the very light touch of Leahy won’t be applied to America’s new partners in the fight against ISIS. Persons who at this point may be concerned that the U.S. will be backing one group of human rights-violating Islamic fundamentalists against another group of human rights-violating Islamic fundamentalists are excused from the final exam. You already got it.
I sometimes label things I write as “satire,” as without the label I often received both well-meaning and incredibly obscene comments and emails challenging the stories. After learning of these nearly-pointless psych evaluation vetting procedures (“Now look at this ink blot. Does it look like a splatter of ISIS brain matter on the end of your rifle butt, or moderate brain matter?”), I feel it may be clearer to label posts such as this one “Not Satire” and leave the purposefully satirical ones alone.
Here’s a guest post from Nick Turse, first published on TomDispatch. All opinions are those of the author, though he is damn spot on with this update on America’s continuing efforts to militarize Africa.
Admit it. You don’t know where Chad is. You know it’s in Africa, of course. But beyond that? Maybe with a map of the continent and by some process of elimination you could come close. But you’d probably pick Sudan or maybe the Central African Republic. Here’s a tip. In the future, choose that vast, arid swath of land just below Libya.
Who does know where Chad is? That answer is simpler: the U.S. military. Recent contracting documents indicate that it’s building something there. Not a huge facility, not a mini-American town, but a small camp.
That the U.S. military is expanding its efforts in Africa shouldn’t be a shock anymore. For years now, the Pentagon has been increasing its missions there and promoting a mini-basing boom that has left it with a growing collection of outposts sprouting across the northern tier of the continent. This string of camps is meant to do what more than a decade of counterterrorism efforts, including the training and equipping of local military forces and a variety of humanitarian hearts-and-minds missions, has failed to accomplish: transform the Trans-Sahara region in the northern and western parts of the continent into a bulwark of stability.
That the U.S. is doing more in Chad specifically isn’t particularly astonishing either. Earlier this year, TomDispatch and the Washington Post both reported on separate recent deployments of U.S. troops to that north-central African nation. Nor is it shocking that the new American compound is to be located near the capital, N’Djamena. The U.S. has previously employed N’Djamena as a hub for its air operations. What’s striking is the terminology used in the official documents. After years of adamant claims that the U.S. military has just one lonely base in all of Africa — Camp Lemonnier in the tiny Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti — Army documents state that it will now have “base camp facilities” in Chad.
U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) still insists that there is no Chadian base, that the camp serves only as temporary lodgings to support a Special Operations training exercise to be held next year. It also refused to comment about another troop deployment to Chad uncovered by TomDispatch. When it comes to American military activities in Africa, much remains murky.
Nonetheless, one fact is crystal clear: the U.S. is ever more tied to Chad. This remains true despite a decade-long effort to train its military forces only to see them bolt from one mission in the face of casualties, leave another in a huff after gunning down unarmed civilians, and engage in human rights abuses at home with utter impunity. All of this suggests yet another potential source of blowback from America’s efforts in Africa which have backfired, gone bust, and sown strife from Libya to South Sudan, the Gulf Guinea to Mali, and beyond.
A Checkered History with Chad
Following 9/11, the U.S. launched a counterterrorism program, known as the Pan-Sahel Initiative, to bolster the militaries of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Chad. Three years later, in 2005, the program expanded to include Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and was renamed the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP). The idea was to turn a huge swath of Africa into a terror-resistant bulwark of stability. Twelve years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, the region is anything but stable, which means that it fits perfectly, like a missing puzzle piece, with the rest of the under-the-radar U.S. “pivot” to that continent.
Coups by the U.S.-backed militaries of Mauritania in 2005 and again in 2008, Niger in 2010, and Mali in 2012, as well as a 2011 revolution that overthrew Tunisia’s U.S.-backed government (after the U.S.-supported army stood aside); the establishment of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2006; and the rise of Boko Haram from an obscure radical sect to a raging insurgent movement in northern Nigeria are only some of the most notable recent failures in TSCTP nations. Chad came close to making the list, too, but attempted military coups in 2006 and 2013 were thwarted, and in 2008, the government, which had itself come to power in a 1990 coup, managed to hold off against a rebel assault on the capital.
Through it all, the U.S. has continued to mentor Chad’s military, and in return, that nation has lent its muscle to support Washington’s interests in the region. Chad, for instance, joined the 2013 U.S.-backed French military intervention to retake Mali after Islamists began routing the forces of the American-trained officer who had launched a coup that overthrew that country’s democratically elected government. According to military briefing slides obtained by TomDispatch, an Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) liaison team was deployed to Chad to aid operations in Mali and the U.S. also conducted pre-deployment training for its Chadian proxies. After initial success, the French effort became bogged down and has now become a seemingly interminable, smoldering counterinsurgency campaign. Chad, for its part, quickly withdrew its forces from the fight after sustaining modest casualties. “Chad’s army has no ability to face the kind of guerrilla fighting that is emerging in northern Mali. Our soldiers are going to return to Chad,” said that country’s president, Idriss Deby.
Still, U.S. support continued.
In September of 2013, the U.S. military organized meetings with Chad’s senior-most military leaders, including Army chief General Brahim Seid Mahamat, Minister of Defense General Bénaïndo Tatola, and counterterror tsar Brigadier General Abderaman Youssouf Merry, to build solid relationships and support efforts at “countering violent extremist operations objectives and theater security cooperation programs.” This comes from a separate set of documents concerning “IO,” or Information Operations, obtained from the military through the Freedom of Information Act. French officials also attended these meetings and the agenda included the former colonial power’s support of “security cooperation with Chad in the areas of basic and officer training and staff procedures” as well as “French support [for] U.S. security cooperation efforts with the Chadian military.” Official briefing slides also mention ongoing “train and equip” activities with Chadian troops.
All of this followed on the heels of a murky coup plot by elements of the armed forces last May to which the Chadian military reacted with a crescendo of violence. According to a State Department report, Chad’s “security forces shot and killed unarmed civilians and arrested and detained members of parliament, military officers, former rebels, and others.”
After Chad reportedly helped overthrow the Central African Republic’s president in early 2013 and later aided in the 2014 ouster of the rebel leader who deposed him, it sent its forces into that civil-war-torn land as part of an African Union mission bolstered by U.S.-backed French troops. Soon, Chad’s peacekeeping forces were accused of stoking sectarian strife by supporting Muslim militias against Christian fighters. Then, on March 29th, a Chadian military convoy arrived in a crowded marketplace in the capital, Bangui. There, according to a United Nations report, the troops “reportedly opened fire on the population without any provocation. At the time, the market was full of people, including many girls and women buying and selling produce. As panic-stricken people fled in all directions, the soldiers allegedly continued firing indiscriminately.”
In all, 30 civilians were reportedly killed and more than 300 were wounded. Amid criticism, Chad angrily announced it was withdrawing its troops. “Despite the sacrifices we have made, Chad and Chadians have been targeted in a gratuitous and malicious campaign that blamed them for all the suffering” in the Central African Republic, declared Chad’s foreign ministry.
In May, despite this, the U.S. sent 80 military personnel to Chad to operate drones and conduct surveillance in an effort to locate hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria. “These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area,” President Obama told Congress. The force, he said, will remain in Chad “until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required.”
In July, AFRICOM admitted that it had reduced surveillance flights searching for the girls to focus on other missions. Now AFRICOM tells TomDispatch that, while “the U.S. continues to help Nigeria address the threat posed by Boko Haram, the previously announced ISR support deployment to Chad has departed.” Yet more than seven months after their abduction, the girls still have not been located, let alone rescued.
In June, according to the State Department, the deputy commander of U.S. Army Africa (USARAF), Brigadier General Kenneth H. Moore, Jr., visited Chad to “celebrat[e] the successful conclusion of a partnership between USARAF and the Chadian Armed Forces.” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus arrived in that landlocked country at the same time to meet with “top Chadian officials.” His visit, according to an embassy press release, “underscore[d] the importance of bilateral relations between the two countries, as well as military cooperation.” And that cooperation has been ample.
Earlier this year, Chadian troops joined those of the United States, Burkina Faso, Canada, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Senegal, the United Kingdom, and host nation Niger for three weeks of military drills as part of Flintlock 2014, an annual Special Ops counterterrorism exercise for TSCTP nations. At about the time Flintlock was concluding, soldiers from Chad, Cameroon, Burundi, Gabon, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, the Netherlands, and the United States took part in another annual training exercise, Central Accord 2014. The Army also sent medical personnel to mentor Chadian counterparts in “tactical combat casualty care,” while Marines and Navy personnel traveled to Chad to train that country’s militarized anti-poaching park rangers in small unit tactics and patrolling.
A separate contingent of Marines conducted military intelligence training with Chadian officers and non-commissioned officers. The scenario for the final exercise, also involving personnel from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mauritania, Senegal, and Tunisia, had a ripped-from-the-headlines quality: “preparing for an unconventional war against an insurgent threat in Mali.”
As for U.S. Army Africa, it sent trainers as part of a separate effort to provide Chadian troops with instruction on patrolling and fixed-site defense as well as live-fire training. “We are ready to begin training in Chad for about 1,300 soldiers — an 850 man battalion, plus another 450 man battalion,” said Colonel John Ruffing, the Security Cooperation director of U.S. Army Africa, noting that the U.S. was working in tandem with a French private security firm.
In September, AFRICOM reaffirmed its close ties with Chad by renewing an Acquisition Cross Servicing Agreement, which allows both militaries to purchase from each other or trade for basic supplies. The open-ended pact, said Brigadier General James Vechery, AFRICOM’s director for logistics, “will continue to strengthen our bilateral cooperation on international security issues… as well as the interoperability of the armed forces of both nations.”
The Base That Wasn’t and the Deployment That Might Be
In the months since the Chadian armed forces’ massacre in Bangui, various U.S. military contract solicitations and related documents have pointed toward an even more substantive American presence in Chad. In late September, the Army put out a call for bids to sustain American personnel for six months at those “base camp facilities” located near N’Djamena. Supporting documents specifically mention 35 U.S. personnel and detail the services necessary to run an austere outpost: field sanitation, bulk water supply, sewage services, and trash removal. The materials indicate that “local security policy and procedures” are to be provided by the Chadian armed forces and allude to the use of more than one location, saying “none of the sites in Chad are considered U.S.-federally controlled facilities.” The documents state that such support for those facilities is to run until July 2015.
After AFRICOM failed to respond to repeated email requests for further information, I called up Chief of Media Operations Benjamin Benson and asked about the base camp. He was even more tight-lipped than usual. “I personally don’t know anything,” he told me. “That’s not saying AFRICOM doesn’t have any information on that.”
In follow-up emails, Benson eventually told me that the “base camp” is strictly a temporary facility to be used by U.S. forces only for the duration of the upcoming Flintlock 2015 exercise. He stated in no uncertain terms: “We are not establishing a base/forward presence/contingency location, building a U.S. facility, or stationing troops in Chad.”
Benson would not, however, let me speak with an expert on U.S. military activities in Chad. Nor would he confirm or deny the continued presence of the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance liaison team deployed to Chad in 2013 to support the French mission in Mali, first reported on by TomDispatch this March. “[W]e cannot discuss ISR activities or the locations and durations of operational deployments,” he wrote. If an ISR team is still present in Chad, this would represent a substantive long-term deployment despite the lack of a formal U.S. base.
The N’Djamena “base camp” is just one of a series of Chadian projects mentioned in recent contracting documents. An Army solicitation from September sought “building materials for use in Chad,” while supporting documents specifically mention an “operations center/multi-use facility.” That same month, the Army awarded a contract for the transport of equipment from Niamey, Niger, the home of another of the growing network of U.S. outposts in Africa, to N’Djamena. The Army also began seeking out contractors capable of supplying close to 600 bunk beds that could support an American-sized weight of 200 to 225 pounds for a facility “in and around the N’Djamena region.” And just last month, the military put out a call for a contractor to supply construction equipment — a bulldozer, dump truck, excavator, and the like — for a project in, you guessed it, N’Djamena.
This increased U.S. interest in Chad follows on the heels of a push by France, the nation’s former colonial overlord and America’s current premier proxy in Africa, to beef up its military footprint on the continent. In July, following U.S.-backed French military interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic, French President François Hollande announced a new mission, Operation Barkhane (a term for a crescent-shaped sand dune found in the Sahara). Its purpose: a long-term counterterrorism operation involving 3,000 French troops deployed to a special forces outpost in Burkina Faso and forward operating bases in Mali, Niger, and not surprisingly, Chad.
“There are plenty of threats in all directions,” Hollande told French soldiers in Chad, citing militants in Mali and Libya as well as Boko Haram in Nigeria. “Rather than having large bases that are difficult to manage in moments of crisis, we prefer installations that can be used quickly and efficiently.” Shortly afterward, President Obama approved millions in emergency military aid for French operations in Mali, Niger, and Chad, while the United Kingdom, another former colonial power in the region, dispatched combat aircraft to the French base in N’Djamena to contribute to the battle against Boko Haram.
From Setback to Blowback?
In recent years, the U.S. military has been involved in a continual process of expanding its presence in Africa. Out of public earshot, officials have talked about setting up a string of small bases across the northern tier of the continent. Indeed, over the last years, U.S. staging areas, mini-bases, and outposts have popped up in the contiguous nations of Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and, skipping Chad, in the Central African Republic, followed by South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. A staunch American ally with a frequent and perhaps enduring American troop presence, Chad seems like the natural spot for still another military compound — the only missing link in a long chain of countries stretching from west to east, from one edge of the continent to the other — even if AFRICOM continues to insist that there’s no American “base” in the works.
Even without a base, the United States has for more than a decade poured copious amounts of money, time, and effort into making Chad a stable regional counterterrorism partner, sending troops there, training and equipping its army, counseling its military leaders, providing tens of millions of dollars in aid, funding its military expeditions, supplying its army with equipment ranging from tents to trucks, donating additional equipment for its domestic security forces, providing a surveillance and security system for its border security agents, and looking the other way when its military employed child soldiers.
The results? A flight from the fight in Mali, a massacre in the Central African Republic, hundreds of schoolgirls still in the clutches of Boko Haram, and a U.S. alliance with a regime whose “most significant human rights problems,” according to the most recent country report by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “were security force abuse, including torture; harsh prison conditions; and discrimination and violence against women and children,” not to mention the restriction of freedom of speech, press, assembly, and movement, as well as arbitrary arrest and detention, denial of fair public trial, executive influence on the judiciary, property seizures, child labor and forced labor (that also includes children), among other abuses. Amnesty International further found that human rights violations “are committed with almost total impunity by members of the Chadian military, the Presidential Guard, and the state intelligence bureau, the Agence Nationale de Securité.”
With Chad, the United States finds itself more deeply involved with yet another authoritarian government and another atrocity-prone proxy force. In this, it continues a long series of mistakes, missteps, and mishaps across Africa. These include an intervention in Libya that transformed the country from an autocracy into a near-failed state, training efforts that produced coup leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso, American nation-building that led to a failed state in South Sudan, anti-piracy measures that flopped in the Gulf of Guinea, the many fiascos of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, the training of an elite Congolese unit that committed mass rapes and other atrocities, problem-plagued humanitarian efforts in Djibouti and Ethiopia, and the steady rise of terror groups in U.S.-backed countries like Nigeria and Tunisia.