• Archive of "Iraq" Category

    Lessons for Afghanistan: My Time in Iraq 10th Anniversary Edition

    April 18, 2019 // 8 Comments »

    I recently spoke with some college students. They were in fifth grade when I first got on a plane to Iraq, and now study that stuff in classes with names like “Opportunities and Errors: 21st Century America in the Middle East.” I realized about halfway through our conversation it’s coming up on ten years ago I first went to Iraq.

    I was a Foreign Service Officer then, a diplomat, embedded with the U.S. Army at a series of forward operating bases. I was in charge of a couple of reconstruction teams, small parts of a complex failure to rebuild the Iraq we wrecked. I ended up writing a book about it all, explaining in tragic-comic terms how we failed (those “Errors.”)

    The book was and wasn’t well-received; people laughed at the funny parts but my message — it didn’t work and here’s why — was largely dissipated by a cloud of government and media propaganda centered on The Surge, David Petraeus’ plan to pacify the Sunnis and push al Qaeda away while clearing, holding, and building across the country, apparently to make room for ISIS and the Iranians to move in. Meanwhile the new American president, elected in part based on his “no” vote to go to war in 2003, proclaimed it all a victory and started bringing the troops home even while I was still in Iraq. When I got home myself, my employer from not long after I was taking classes called “Opportunities and Errors: America in the Middle East Since WWII,” the U.S. Department of State, was unhappy with the book. Over a year-long process State eventually pushed me into early retirement. My career was history.

    People asked in line at Trader Joe’s and in interviews on semi-important TV shows “Was it all worth it to you?” and I always answered yes. I wasn’t important, I said, the story was. We’re making the same mistakes in Afghanistan, I ranted at cashiers and pundits, and there is time to change.

    See, my book wasn’t aimed at cataloguing the failure in Iraq per se, but in trying to make sure we didn’t do the same thing in Afghanistan. The initial title wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The early drafts were pretentious scholarly stuff, outlining our mistakes. Harvard Business School-like case studies. Maps. Footnotes. It would have sold maybe five copies, and so my editors instead encouraged me to write more funny parts. NPR’s Fresh Air actually added a laff track to my interview. They were all right, and I figured I’d get the lessons across with humor more effectively anyway. In such situations you have to think that way. You can’t believe what you went through didn’t matter and keep getting out of bed every morning checking if it was yet Judgement Day.

    I now know officially it did not matter. It was pointless. SIGAR shows I accomplished nothing.

    SIGAR is the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, a government oversight body that is supposed to prevent waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the billions of dollars being spent rebuilding Afghanistan but which has its hands full just recording a CVS-receipt length list of what’s wrong. Sounds familiar? SIGAR just released The 2019 High-Risk List which points out especially egregious things that will follow in the wake of any peace agreement in Afghanistan. Here are some highlights:

    — Without financial support from international donors, the government of Afghanistan cannot survive.  [Peace] will come at an additional price that only external donors can afford.
    — There are over 300,000 Afghans currently serving in the security forces, most of whom are armed.  If, because of a loss of financial support, their paychecks were to stop coming, this could pose a serious threat to Afghanistan’s stability.
    —  A failure to peacefully reintegrate as many as 60,000 heavily armed Taliban long-term would threaten any peace agreement as disaffected former Taliban who may have been expecting a peace dividend may return to violent and predatory behavior.

    — Effective policing will require a force that gives citizens the presumption of innocence, rather than anticipating and taking preemptive offensive operations against perceived threats… There is no comprehensive strategy for a competent civil police force backed by the rule of law.

    — Failure to effectively address systemic corruption means U.S. reconstruction programs, at best, will continue to be subverted and, at worst, will fail.

    — The lack of sustained institutional capacity at all levels of government undermines the country’s development and ability to address the production and sale of illegal drugs. The opium trade plays a significant role in the Afghan economy and it is difficult to see how a peace accord between the Afghan government and the insurgency would translate into the collapse or contraction of the illicit drug trade.

    — If the U.S. reduces its presence in Afghanistan but feels compelled to provide significant financial support for reconstruction, there may be little choice but to provide a greater proportion of funding as on-budget assistance. But if that road is taken and conditions are lacking, we may as well set the cash ablaze on the streets of Kabul for all the good it will do.

    That last line really got me; in my book I’d written “While a lot of the money was spent in big bites at high levels through the Embassy, or possibly just thrown into the river when no one could find a match to set it on fire…” Had SIGAR read what I’d written or was the joke just so obvious that we’d both come to the same punchline ten years and two countries apart?

    A former State Department colleague is on her fourth (or fifth?) tour in Afghanistan. She likes it over there, says Washington leaves her alone. Her job has something to do with liaising with the few NATO military officials still around. It’s pretty easy work, they’ve known each other for years.  She harbors no illusions, and in a sober moment would likely agree with SIGAR that after over 17 years of American effort, Afghanistan has almost no chance of survival except as a Taliban narcoland with financial support needed indefinitely to avoid whatever “worse” would be in that calculus.

    We all know but try not to talk too much about the over 6,900 U.S. service members, 7,800 contractors, and 110,00 uniformed Iraqi and Afghan “allies” who died for that, and its companion Iranian client state in Iraq. A tragically high percentage of veterans have also died since returning home of drug overdoses, car accidents (?) or suicide. Nobody really knows how many civilians died, or even how to count them. Bombs and bullets only? Hunger and cold? Abandoned kids and enslaved women? Do we count deaths in Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and wherever too?

    Iraq wrecked me, too, even though I initially somehow didn’t expect it to. I was foolish to think traveling to the other side of the world and spending a year seeing death and poverty, being in a war, learning how to be mortared at night and decide it doesn’t matter I might die before breakfast, wasn’t going to change me. In the military units I was embedded in three soldiers did not come home, all died at their own hands. Around us Iraqis blew themselves up alongside children. Everyone was a potential killer and a potential target, sides appearing to change depending on who was pointing the weapon even as we were all the same in the end. I did this once, at age 49, on antidepressants and with a good family waiting at home for me. I cannot imagine what it would have done to 18 year old me. And I had it easier than most, and much, much easier than many.

    The only way to even start to justify any of it was to think there was some meaning behind it all. It didn’t do anything for me but fill my soul with vodka but maybe it… helping someone? A buddy I saved? No, I didn’t save anyone. The Iraqis? Hah, not one was better off for my presence. Maybe America? Please.

    Around the same time as the SIGAR report, the Army War College released its official history of the Iraqi Surge, a quagmire of dense prose I’m only about halfway through, but so far no mention of the impact of reconstruction. The theme so far seems to be the Army had some good ideas but the politicians got in the way. Fair enough, but they often misspelled Vietnam as i-r-a-q all through the book. The Army seems committed to calling things like suicide bombing and Shiite militias running whole neighborhoods as crime syndicates “challenges” instead of the more vernacular “failures.” That answers all questions about whether anyone will be held responsible for their work.

    The post-9/11 wars spread across three presidencies so far. Pick the thing you detest most about Bush, Obama, and Trump, and complain how it was never investigated enough, and how there weren’t enough hearings, and how he got away with it. And then I’ll disagree, for most everything that happened and continues to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan has gone uninvestigated, unheard, and unpunished. It’s all ancient history.

    All those failures have had no consequences on the most significant decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as a Nobel peace prize winner. Trump is criticized bizarrely both as a war monger and for talking about reducing U.S. troops in Middle East. The State Department ambassadors and senior leaders responsible retired, many to sweet university teaching jobs or think tanks. The generals found similar hideouts in pseudo-academia or as consultants; some are still in the military. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it, and that kind of thinking doesn’t do me any good anyway.

    Oh, and on April 8 four Americans were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan, including a New York City firefighter (9/11, Never Forget!) The incident occurred when an IED exploded in a vehicle near Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. Taliban forces claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, which also wounded three additional U.S. servicemen.

    We all want to believe what we did, what we didn’t do, the moral injury, the PTSD, the fights with spouses, the kid at home we smacked too hard when she wouldn’t eat her green beans, all of what we saw and heard and smelled (oh yes, the smells, you know there’s a body in that rubble before you see him) mattered. You read that SIGAR report and tell me how. Because basically I’m history now.

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Who Said This? Fun Quiz!

    March 13, 2019 // 14 Comments »


     

    Fun quiz! Who said the following on TV this week? (The answer is below and will surprise you!)

    “Nature abhors a vacuum, and if we are not involved in international conflicts, or trying to quell international conflicts, certainly the Russians and the Chinese will fill that vacuum. And we will step away from the world stage in a significant way that might destabilize the world, because the United States, however flawed, is a force for good in the world in my opinion.”

    Answer: Stephen Colbert, who supposedly is a comedian with a silly late night show, but instead ends up reading neocon talking points to millenials.
     

    The ever-sharp Caitlan Johnstone has the whole story here; Colbert was in the process of tearing apart Tulsi Gabbard for daring oppose American interventions.

    The correct answer is reading what Gabbard said:

    “The United States should not be intervening to overthrow these dictators and these regimes that we don’t like, like Assad, like Saddam Hussein, like Gaddafi, and like Kim Jong Un. There are bad people in the world, but history has shown us that every time the United States goes in and topples these dictators we don’t like, trying to end up like the world’s police, we end up increasing the suffering of the people in these countries. We end up increasing the loss of life, but American lives and the lives of people in these countries. We end up undermining our own security, what to speak of the trillions of dollars of taxpayer money that’s spent on these wars that we need to be using right here at home.”

     
     

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    John Kerry Is a Man of His Times (and That’s Not a Good Thing)

    January 31, 2019 // 18 Comments »


     

    Oh how easy it is to forget! John Kerry, fundraising for the 2020 Dems, write “Trump’s complete disregard for diplomacy has embarrassed our nation on the world stage” and “weakened the very foundation of our democracy.”

    Poor John Kerry doesn’t remember much about his own record. So, John, here’s something I wrote in 2013 to refresh your memory of what a hash you made of the world, including singing “Happy Birthday” to Vlad Putin during a USG shutdown.

    This one’s, again, for you, Johnny boyo!

     

    In the 1960s, John Kerry was distinctly a man of his times. Kennedy-esque, he went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in a lost war. When popular sentiments on that war shifted, he became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. Now, skip past his time as a congressman, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, senator, and presidential candidate (Swift Boated out of the race by the Republican right). Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. And he’s looked like a bumbler first class.  Has he also been — once again — a true man of his time, of a moment in which American foreign policy, as well as its claim to global moral and diplomatic leadership, is in remarkable disarray?

    In his nine months in office, Kerry’s State Department has one striking accomplishment to its name. It has achieved a new level of media savvy in promoting itself and plugging its highest official as a rock star, a world leader in his own right (complete with photo-ops and sophisticated image-making). In the meantime, the secretary of state has been stumbling and bloviating from one crisis to the next, one debacle to another, surrounded by the well-crafted imagery of diplomatic effectiveness. He and his errant statements have become global punch lines, but is he truly to blame for his performance?

    If statistics were diplomacy, Kerry would already be a raging success. At the State Department, his global travels are now proudly tracked by the mile, by minutes flown, and by countries visited. State even has a near-real-time ticker page set up at its website with his ever-changing data. In only nine months in office, Kerry has racked up 222,512 miles and a staggering 482.39 hours in the air (or nearly three weeks total). The numbers will be going up as Kerry is currently taking a 10-day trip to deal with another NSA crisis, in Poland this time, as well as the usual hijinks in the Middle East.  His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, set a number of diplomatic travel records. In fact, she spent literally a full year, one quarter of her four years in office, hopscotching the globe. By comparison, Cold War Secretary of State George Schultz managed less than a year of travel time in his six years in office.

    Kerry’s quick start in racking up travel miles is the most impressive aspect of his tenure so far, given that it’s been accompanied by record foreign policy stumbles and bumbles. With the thought that frenetic activity is being passed off as diplomacy and accomplishment, let’s do a little continent hopping ourselves, surveying the diplomatic and foreign policy terrain the secretary’s visited. So, fasten your seatbelt, we’re on our way!

    We’ll Be Landing in Just a Few Minutes… in Asia

    Despite Asia’s economic importance, its myriad potential flashpoints, and the crucial question of how the Sino-American relationship will evolve, Kerry has managed to visit the region just once on a largely ceremonial basis.

    Diplomatically speaking, the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” seems to have run out of gas almost before it began and with little to show except some odd photos of the secretary of state looking like Fred Munster in Balinese dress at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. With President Obama then trapped in Washington by the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis, Kerry seemed like a bystander at APEC, with China the dominant presence. He was even forced to suffer through a Happy Birthday sing-along for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the meantime, the economy of Washington’s major ally, Japan, remains sleepy, even as opposition to the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact grows and North Korea continues to expand its nuclear program seemingly unaffected by threats from Washington.

    All in all, it’s not exactly an impressive picture, but rest assured that it’ll look as fetching as a bright spring day, once we hit our next stop. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, the pilot now asks that you all return to your seats, because we will soon be landing…

    … in the Middle East

    If any area of the world lacks a single bright spot for the U.S., it’s the Middle East. The problems, of course, extend back many years and many administrations. Kerry is a relative newcomer. Still, he’s made seven of his 15 overseas trips there, with zero signs of progress on the American agenda in the region, and much that has only worsened.

    The sole pluses came from diplomatic activity initiated by powers not exactly considered Washington’s closest buddies: Russian President Putin’s moves in relation to Syria (on which more later) and new Iranian President Rouhani’s “charm offensive” in New York, which seems to have altered for the better the relationship between the two countries. In fact, both Putin’s and Rouhani’s moves are classic, well-played diplomacy, and only serve to highlight the amateurish quality of Kerry’s performance. On the other hand, the Obama administration’s major Middle East commitment — to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians — seems destined for a graveyard already piled high with past versions of the same.

    Meanwhile, whatever spark remained of the Arab Spring in Egypt was snuffed out by a military coup, while the U.S. lamely took forever just to begin to cut off some symbolic military aid to the new government. American credibility in the region suffered further damage after State, in a seeming panic, closed embassies across the Middle East in response to a reputed major terror threat that failed to materialize anywhere but inside Washington’s Beltway.

    Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia was once nicknamed “Bandar Bush” for his strong support of the U.S. during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign and the Bush dynasty.  He recently told European diplomats, however, that the Kingdom will launch a “major shift” in relations with the United States to protest Washington’s perceived inaction over the Syria war and its overtures to Iran. The Saudis were once considered, next to Israel, America’s strongest ally in the region. Kerry’s response? Fly to Paris for some “urgent talks.”

    Meanwhile, the secretary of state has made no effort to draw down his fortress embassy in Baghdad, despite its “world’s largest” personnel count in a country where an American invasion and nine-year occupation resulted in a pro-Iranian government. Memories in the region aren’t as short as at the State Department, however, and Iraqis are unlikely to forget that sanctions, the U.S. invasion, and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4% of their country’s population. Kerry would be quick to condemn such a figure as genocidal had the Iranians or North Koreans been involved, but he remains silent now.

    State doesn’t include Turkey in Kerry’s impressive Middle Eastern trip count, though he’s traveled there three times, with (again) little to show for his efforts. That NATO ally, which refused to help the Bush administration with its invasion of Iraq, continues to fight a border war with Iraqi Kurds. (Both sides do utilize mainly American-made weapons.) The Turks are active in Syria as well, supporting the rebels, fearing the Islamic extremists, lobbing mortar shells across the border, and suffering under the weight of that devastated country’s refugees. Meanwhile — a small regional disaster from a U.S. perspective — Turkish-Israeli relations, once close, continue to slide. Recently, the Turks even outed a Mossad spy ring to the Iranians, and no one, Israelis, Turks, or otherwise, seems to be listening to Washington.

    Now, please return your tray tables to their upright and locked position, as we make our final approach to…

    … Everywhere Else

    Following more than 12 years of war with thousands of lives lost, Kerry was recently reduced to begging Afghanistan’s corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, to allow a mini-occupation’s worth of American troops to remain in-country past a scheduled 2014 tail-tucked departure by U.S. combat troops. (Kerry’s trip to Afghanistan had to be of the unannounced variety, given the security situation there.) Pakistan, sporting only a single Kerry visit, flaunts its ties to the Taliban while collecting U.S. aid. As they say, if you don’t know who the patsy is at a poker game, it’s you.

    Relations with the next generation of developing nations, especially Brazil and India, are either stagnant or increasingly hostile, thanks in part to revelations of massive NSA spying. Brazil is even hosting an international summit to brainstorm ways to combat that agency’s Internet surveillance. Even stalwart Mexico is now lashing out at Washington over NSA surveillance.

    After a flurry of empty threats, a spiteful passport revocation by Kerry’s State Department, a bungled extradition attempt in Hong Kong, and a diplomatic fiasco in which Washington forced the Bolivian president’s airplane to land in Austria for a search, Public Enemy Number One Edward Snowden is settling into life in Moscow. He’s even receiving fellow American whistleblowers as guests. Public Enemy Number Two, Julian Assange, continues to run WikiLeaks out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London. One could argue that either of the two men have had more direct influence on America’s status abroad than Kerry.

    Now, please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, and consider ordering a stiff drink. We’ve got some bumpy air up ahead as we’re…

    … Entering Syrian Airspace

    The final leg of this flight is Syria, which might be thought of as Kerry’s single, inadvertent diplomatic accomplishment (even if he never actually traveled there.)

    Not long before the U.S. government half-shuttered itself for lack of funds, John Kerry was point man for the administration’s all-out efforts to attack Syria. It was, he insisted, “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” That statement came as he was announcing the recruitment of France to join an impending U.S. assault on military facilities in and around the Syrian capital, Damascus. Kerry also vociferously beat the drums for war at a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    His war diplomacy, however, quickly hit some major turbulence, as the British parliament, not eager to repeat its Iraq and Afghan misadventures, voted the once inconceivable — a straightforward, resounding no to joining yet another misguided American battle plan. France was soon backing out as well, even as Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the administration’s urge to launch strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.” (Kerry’s boss, President Obama, forcefully contradicted him the next day, insisting, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)

    Kerry had his moment of triumph, however, on a quick stop in London, where he famously and offhandedly said at a news conference that war could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. Kerry’s own State Department issued an instant rejoinder, claiming the statement had been “rhetorical.” In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach. Unable to walk his statement back, Kerry was humiliatingly forced to explain that his once-rhetorical remark was not rhetorical after all. Vladimir Putin then arose as an unlikely peacemaker and yes, Kerry took another trip, this time to “negotiate” the details with the Russians, which seems largely to have consisted of jotting down Russian terms of surrender to cable back to Washington.

    His “triumph” in hand, Kerry still wasn’t done. On September 19th, on a rare stopover in Washington, he claimed a U.N. report on Syria’s chemical weapons stated that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack that had set the whole process in motion. (The report actually said that there was not enough evidence to assign guilt to any party.) Then, on October 7th, he effusively praised the Syrian president (from Bali) for his cooperation, only on October 14th to demand (from London) that a “transition government, a new governing entity” be put in place in Syria “in order to permit the possibility of peace.”

    But, But…

    As for Kerry’s nine-month performance review, here goes: he often seems unsure and distracted, projecting a sense that he might prefer to be anywhere else than wherever he is. In addition, he’s displayed a policy-crippling lack of information, remarkably little poise, and strikingly bad word choice, while regularly voicing surprising new positions on old issues. The logical conclusion might be to call for his instant resignation before more damage is done. (God help us, some Democratic voters may actually find themselves secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush won his dismal second term in office.)

    In his nine months as secretary of state, Kerry, the man, has shown a genuine capacity for mediocrity and an almost tragicomic haplessness. But blaming him would be like shouting at the waiter because your steak is undercooked.

    Whatever his failings, John Kerry is only a symptom of Washington’s lack of a coherent foreign policy or sense of mission. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been adrift, as big and dangerous as an iceberg but something closer to the Titanic. President Bush, the father, and President Clinton, the husband, had at least some sense of when not to overdo it. They kept their foreign interventions to relatively neat packages, perhaps recognizing that they had ever less idea what the script was anymore.

    Waking up on that clear morning of September 12, 2001, the administration of Bush, the son, substituted a crude lashing out and an urge for total domination of the Greater Middle East, and ultimately the planet, for foreign policy. Without hesitation, it claimed the world as its battlefield and then deployed the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, growing Special Operations forces, paramilitarized intelligence outfits, and drone technology to make it so. They proved to be good killers, but someone seemed to forget that war is politics by other means. Without a thought-out political strategy behind it, war is simply violent chaos unleashed.

    Diplomacy had little role in such a black-and-white world. No time was to be wasted talking to other countries: you were either with us or against us. Even our few remaining friends and allies had a hard time keeping up, as Washington promoted torture, sent the CIA out to kidnap people off the streets of global cities, and set up its own gulag with Guantanamo as its crown jewel. And of course, none of it worked.

    Then, the hope and change Americans thought they’d voted into power in 2008 only made the situation worse. The Obama administration substituted directionless-ness for idiotic decisiveness, and visionless-ness for the global planning of mad visionaries, albeit with much the same result: spasmodic violence. The United States, after all, remains the biggest kid on the block, and still gets a modicum of respect from the tiny tots and the teens who remember better days, as well as a shrinking crew of aid-bought pals.

    The days of the United States being able to treat the world as its chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. Across the globe, people noted how the World’s Mightiest Army was fought to a draw (or worse) in Iraq and Afghanistan by insurgents with only small arms, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers.

    Increasingly, the world is acknowledging America’s Kerry-style clunkiness and just bypassing the U.S. Britain said no to war in Syria. Russia took over big-box diplomacy. China assumed the pivot role in Asia in every way except militarily. (They’re working on it.) The Brazilian president simply snubbed Obama, canceling a state visit over Snowden’s NSA revelations. Tiny Ecuador continues to raise a middle finger to Washington over the Assange case. These days, one can almost imagine John Kerry as the wallflower of some near-future international conference, hoping someone – anyone — will invite him to dance.

    The American Century might be said to have lasted from August 1945 until September 2001, a relatively short span of 56 years. (R.I.P.) John Kerry’s frantic bumbling did not create the present situation; it merely added mirth to the funeral preparations.

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    The Wall May Be a Waste, But It is Not a Crisis

    January 14, 2019 // 21 Comments »


     

    Trump’s wall isn’t going to stop much illegal immigration. On the other hand, it is unlikely to hurt much of anything; it will most likely just be another waste of money. It is certainly not a Constitutional crisis over authoritarianism.

     

    There are currently some 700 miles of fence/wall/barrier along the 2,000 mile southern border, built in pieces under the Bushes and Clinton administrations, and maintained under Obama. Clinton even called his 1994 wall effort “Operation Gatekeeper.” There was little-to-no national opposition raised when the various walls were constructed, and no widespread movement to tear them down when Democrats held full control of the government in the early Obama years. No Russian leader stood on the border and declared to freedom loving people everywhere “Mr. Bush, Mr. Clinton, Other Mr. Bush, or Mr. Obama, tear down this wall!”

    Democrats in the Senate,including then-Senators Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which was signed into law by George W. Bush. The law authorized a fence along about 700 miles of the border between the U.S.-Mexico border. By 2015, Customs and Border Protection had constructed 654 miles.

    There was certainly nothing on the scale of what we are hearing today, with Nancy Pelosi calling Trump’s plan to add another 234 miles of fence/wall/barrier “immoral… not who we are as a nation.”

    Maybe she forgot the beloved Abe Lincoln was an actual railsplitter, a person whose job it was to create rails for fences. The wall meanwhile wasn’t immoral in the 1990s and it wasn’t immoral a year ago when Democratic senators negotiated a compromise Republicans rejected for a wall in exchange for legislation on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

    So what’s different in 2019? Via the New York Times: unlike the other parts of the existing fence/wall/barrier, the part Trump wants to add will be “a symbol of hate and racism.” How can one tell? Different construction? A sign? Why isn’t Trump’s part just another brick in that existing wall? What’s the message conveyed by the unwalled half of the border still left after Trump’s part is built?

    The president wants something and the other side doesn’t want him to have it. Think of this all as a prelude to the 2020 campaign, including the fierce commentary storm enraging everyone. The media even has us debating whether “walls” as a concept work; do or don’t people sometimes build walls around their (gated) communities for protection, some ask with great seriousness. WaPo ran an Op-Ed criticizing all walls, from medieval times to the present day.

    Silly media. Like the shutdown, this is not about walls. Every government shutdown is about brinkmanship. And brinkmanship is risky business, because it demands someone must lose and compromise is off the table. That’s not always a good idea when one side holds a trump card. The president’s is he may declare a “national emergency” (there are also less dramatic “declarable” options) which he feels would allow him to reprogram funds to pay for his contribution to the fence/wall/barrier. Within his narrative, it will play as decisive – someone had to solve the impasse – and as an antithesis to whatever people expected from the midterms’ Blue Wave. “No wall, no deal,” Mike Pence declared. “We’re going to keep standing strong, keep standing firm.”

    That sounds all scary, even authoritarian, and you will read articles about how it is unconstitutional or a crisis or an impeachable offense. One outlet called this a “Pandora’s Box” that could even lead to Trump shutting down CNN and Facebook.

    It’s not. Declaring a national emergency is at times necessary, at times bureaucratically convenient, and at times rough politics. Shutting down government over a policy dispute is always a cheap move. Trump and the others involved will be judged by the voters. But that’s about it, folks.

    Here’s a list of the current 28 standing national emergencies. See if you can find some that rise to the level of what any normal person thinks of as an emergency that couldn’t be dealt with except by the president using extraordinary powers. For example, Obama proclaimed Blocking Property and Suspending Entry of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela as a national emergency.

    Funny thing: the September 11 national emergency, still in force today, was used to have the military do some domestic construction work, the same thing anti-wall pundits claim is now illegal under Trump (other laws also suggest Trump can use the military in this manner.) What if Trump used the existing 9/11 emergency again for whatever he wants, same as Bush and Obama did, instead of declaring a fresh emergency? Maybe that would wake Americans up.

    Now if you still want to talk about misuse of executive power, you may want to look at the Constitution. The document doesn’t say much about walls, but it does limit the power to declare war to Congress. Nobody has done much about that misuse of power, as every president since WWII started new wars without any declaration and in most cases without even a head nod out of Congress. To make things clear after Vietnam, Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973, a bit of executive power-limiting legislation that has been fully ignored ever since.

    Leaving aside the gross fig leaf of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that has been waived over every American invasion, special forces incursion, regime change, drone attack, bombing campaign, reconstruction project, and police action in the last 17 years and still counting, there has been more debate given to the wall than much of any of the conflicts around it.

    Certainly more anger and angst has been spewed alongside the wall, and the waste of money it represents. Trump wants $5.7 billion to build it! That is all of about 1/7 of the yearly cost of the war in Afghanistan, and of course that war has run on at $45 billion a year for 17 years. Anybody want to talk about that money being wasted? Maddow? Pelosi? Ocasio-Cortez? Bueller?

    And for the media, who discovered via “fact-checking” Trump exaggerated the terrorist threat on our southern border, where were you when every facet of American foreign and domestic policy was driven by two administrations using this same lie?

    Apparently all the fears about abuse of power center on a couple of hundred miles of wall in the desert; wars in deserts further away now barely make the news. Spare us the hand wringing over crisis, abuse of power, and unconstitutionality. If anyone really wants to talk the talk on those topics, let’s reopen the debate on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria as part of the negotiations to reopen the government.

    That all of that is ignored while the nation is on edge over a slice of wall tells you what this is all really about: 2020.

     
     

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    You can have sex with your sources, get thrown out of one job, and rise again in the Age of Trump. Journalism is great!

    January 11, 2019 // 3 Comments »


     

    Today’s fear mongering is brought to you by Reuters, who in this piece goes from Trump using emergency powers to build his wall to Trump shutting down CNN and Facebook. The story calls the president’s emergency powers, which have been on the books since 1976 and used by every president since then, a “Pandora’s Box.”

    FYI: the Reuters article is basically plagiarized rewritten adapted from a slightly better version of the same in this month’s Atlantic.

    FYI FYI: The Reuter’s article was written by Brett McGurk’s wife, Gina Chon (above). McGurk was recently forced out of office retired at the State Department because he didn’t agree with Trump’s Syria withdrawal policy.

    Chon, the writer, was previously forced out resigned her job at the Wall Street Journal for once having an affair with McGurk, then one of her sources in Baghdad and married to someone else.

    Apparently you can have sex with your sources, get thrown out of one job, and rise again in the Age of Trump. Journalism is great!

     
     

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    Don’t Weep for Mattis but for the Global War on Terror, 2001-2018, R.I.P.

    December 25, 2018 // 20 Comments »



    Senior officials never seem to resign over a president starting a war. And Trump, the guy who was supposed to start new wars, instead ended one and is on his way to wrapping up another.

    A full pull-out of U.S. forces from Syria and a drawdown in Afghanistan are much more important as markers of the end of an era than either a bureaucratic tussle (Mattis is stepping down as defense secretary after Trump overruled him and other top national security advisers) or a disastrous geopolitical decision.

    The New York Times, its journalists in mourning over the loss of a war, ask “Who will protect America now?” Mattis the warrior-monk is juxtaposed with the flippant Commander-in-Cheeto. The Times also sees strategic disaster in an “abrupt and dangerous decision, detached from any broader strategic context or any public rationale, sowed new uncertainty about America’s commitment to the Middle East, [and] its willingness to be a global leader.” “A major blunder,” tweeted Marco Rubio. “If it isn’t reversed it will haunt… America for years to come.” Lindsey Graham called for congressional hearings.

    What is history if not irony. Rubio talks of haunting foreign policy decisions in Syria seemingly without knowledge of its predecessor decisions in Iraq. Graham wants to hold hearings on quitting a war Congress never held hearings on authorizing.

    That’s all wrong. Mattis’ resignation, and Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, are significant as marking the beginning of the end of the GWOT, the Global War on Terror, the singular, tragic, bloody driver of American foreign policy for almost two decades.

     

    Why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?

    It’s 2018. Why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?

    Defeat ISIS? ISIS’ ability to hold ground and project power outside its immediate backyard was destroyed somewhere back in 2016 by an unholy coalition of American, Iranian, Russian, Syrian, Turkish, and Israeli forces in Iraq and Syria. Sure, there are terrorists who continue to set off bombs in marketplaces in ISIS’ name, but those people are not controlled or directed out of Syria. They are most likely legal residents of the Western countries they attack, radicalized online or in local mosques. They are motivated by a philosophy, and that way of thinking cannot be destroyed on the ground in Syria. The fundamental failure of the GWOT is that you can’t blow up an idea.

    Regime change? It was never a practical idea (as in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, there was never a plan on what to do next, how to keep Syria from descending into complete chaos the day Assad was removed) and though progressives embraced the idea of getting rid of another “evil dictator” when it came through the mouthpiece of Obama’s own freedom fighter Samantha Power, the same idea today has little drive behind it.

    Russia! Overwrought fear of Russia was once a sign of unhealthy paranoia satirized on The Twilight Zone. Today it is seen as a prerequisite to patriotism, though it still makes no more sense. The Russians have always had a practical relationship with Syria and maintained a naval base there at Tartus since 1971, and will continue to do so. There was never a plan for the U.S. to push the Russians out — Obama in fact saw the Russian presence are part of the solution in Syria. American withdrawal from Syria is far more a return to status quo than anything like a win for Putin (Matt Purple pokes holes in Putin Paranoia elsewhere on TAC.)

    The Kurds? The U.S.-Kurd story is a one of expediency over morality. At each sad turn there was no force otherwise available in bulk and the Kurds were used and abandoned many times by America: in 1991 when it refused to assist them in breaking away from Saddam Hussein following Gulf War I, when it insisted they remain part of a “united Iraq” following Gulf War II, and most definitively in 2017 forward following Gulf War III when the U.S. did not support the Kurdish independence referendum, relegating the Kurds to forever being the half-loved stepchild to Baghdad. After all that, U.S. intentions toward the Kurds in Syria are barely a sideshow-scale event. The Kurds want to cleave off territory from Turkey and Syria, something neither nation will permit and something the U.S. quietly understands would destabilize the region.

    Mattis, by the way, supported NATO ally Turkey in its fight against the Kurds, calling them an “active insurgency inside its borders.” The Kurds run a propaganda operation inside the U.S. to rival any other, and, as if to signal that they would not go quietly, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are discussing the release of 3,200 Islamic State prisoners, a prominent monitoring group and a Western official said Thursday. Western media of course featured this story heavily, without thinking for even one second how stupid it would be to release thousands of ISIS prisoners who would immediately turn on you, just to spite the U.S.

    A final point — “The Kurds” are not a nation, or an organization, or a sports team. As referred to in this context, “The Kurds” are a violent subset of an ethnic group spread across multiple nation borders, including Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Supporting “The Kurds” means supporting a non-uniformed armed force which uses violence many classify as terrorism, including urban car bombs, to take and hold territory. The roots of these conflicts go back centuries, and the U.S. should tread carefully when inserting its 500 pound gorilla-self into them. Certainly discussion beyond Op-Eds is needed. Sorry, kids, it’s called real world politics: forced to choose between Turkey whose second-largest army in NATO controls the entrance to the Black Sea, and the stateless Kurds, um…

    Iran? Does the U.S. have troops in Syria to brush back Iranian influence? As with “all of the above,” the genie got out of the bottle years ago. Iranian power in the greater Middle East has grown dramatically since 2003, and has been driven at every step by the blunders of the United States. If the most powerful army in the world couldn’t stop the Iranians from essentially being the winners of Gulf Wars II and III, how can 2,000 troops in Syria hope to accomplish much? The United States of course wasn’t even shooting at the Iranians in Syria; in most cases it was working either with them, or tacitly alongside them towards the same goal of killing off ISIS anyway. Tehran’s role as Assad’s protector was set as America rumbled about regime change. Iran has since pieced together a land corridor to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria and will not be giving that up, certainly not because of the presence of absence of a few thousand Americans.

    American credibility? Left is that once-neocon, now progressive catch-all, we need to stay in Syria to preserve American credibility. While pundits can still get away with this line, the rest of the globe knows the empire has no clothes. Since 2001 the United States has spent some $6 trillion on its wars, and killed multiples of the 9/11 victims worth of American troops and foreign civilians. The U.S. has tortured, still maintains the gulag of Guantanamo as a crown jewel, and worst of all credibility-wise, lost on every front. Afghanistan after 17 years of war festers. Nothing was accomplished with Iraq. Libya is a failed state. Syria is the source of a refugee crisis whose long-term effects on Europe are still being played out. We are largely left as an “indispensable nation” only in our own minds. A lot of people around the world probably wish America would just stop messing with their countries.

    Our allies? The much-touted coalition which the U.S. lead into Afghanistan was in pieces before it fell apart in 2003 ahead of the Iraq invasion. One-by-one, American allies across Europe, including Britain, as well as Canada, have dropped out of GWOT or reduced their participation to token forces. Nonetheless, the media has found people as far away as Australia to quote on how the U.S. is abandoning its post-WWII roll as the world’s protector. And of course any U.S. ally who feels the fight in Syria/Afghanistan/Yemen/Etc. is worth dying for is more than welcome to send in its own troops.

     

    So why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?

    Anyone? Bueller? Mattis?

    The U.S. presence in Syria, like Jim Mattis himself, is an artifact of another era, the failed GWOT. As a Marine, Mattis served in ground combat leadership roles in Gulf Wars I and II, and also in Afghanistan. He ran United States Central Command from 2010 to 2013, the final years of The Surge in Iraq and American withdrawal afterwards. There is no doubt why he supported the American military presence in Syria, and why he resigned to protest Trump’s decision to end it — Mattis knew nothing else. His entire career was built around the strategy of the GWOT, the core of which was never question GWOT strategy. Mattis didn’t need a reason to stay in Syria; being in Syria was the reason.

    So why didn’t Trump listen to his generals? Maybe because the bulk of their advice has been dead wrong for 17 years? Instead, Trump plans a dramatic drawdown of troops in Afghanistan (American soldiers will be there in some small number forever to act as a rear-guard against the political fallout that chased Obama in 2011 when he withdrew troops.) The U.S. presence in Iraq has dwindled from combat to advise and assist, and Congress seems poised to end U.S. involvement in Yemen against Mattis’ advice.

    There is no pleasure in watching Jim Mattis end his decades of service with a bureaucratic dirty stick shoved at him as a parting gift. But to see this all as another Trump versus the world blunder is very wrong. The war on terror failed, and needed to be dismantled long ago. Barack Obama could have done it, but instead was a victim of hubris and bureaucratic capture and allowed himself to expand it. His supporters give him credit for not escalating the war in Syria, but leave out the part about how he also left the pot to simmer on the stove instead of removing it altogether.

    A New Lens

    The raw drive to insta-hate everything Trump does can mislead otherwise thoughtful people. So let’s try a new lens: During the campaign Trump outspokenly denounced the waste of America’s wars. Pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas was driven by people who agreed with his critique, by people who’d served in these wars, whose sons/daughters had served, or given the length of all this, both. Since taking office, the president has pulled U.S. troops back from pointless conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Congress may yet rise to do the same for American involvement in Yemen. No new wars have started. Though the results are far from certain, for the first time in nearly twenty years negotiations are open again with North Korea.

    Mattis’ ending was clumsy, but it was a long time coming. It is time for some old ideas to move on. And if future world events cause us to have some sort of debate over what the proper U.S. role is in places like Syria and Afghanistan, well, that’s been a long time coming, too.

     

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    A Short History of How the U.S. Went to War in Syria

    December 22, 2018 // 2 Comments »



    Here’s what got Secretary of Defense James Mattis all worked up!

    Even as what should have been a quick 2001 strike into Afghanistan bogged down into the quagmire of nation building, George W. Bush in 2003 invaded Iraq. The pretenses were all false. Terrorism was the excuse, American control over the region the goal. “Winning” in Iraq was built on an illusion the U.S. could somehow establish a puppet government there incorporating Sunni, Shia, and Kurd power blocs. There was no plan for this and it predictably failed, metastasizing into civil war, eventually drawing in powerful outside forces, most predominantly the Iranians on the Shia side, and al Qaeda on the Sunni side, with the U.S. assuming a defacto role protecting the semi-autonomous Kurds.

    As the second Bush term gasped to conclusion and America grew weary of the Iraq War, the U.S. quietly abandoned its plans for a tripartite Iraqi state. It allowed Iranian-supported Shias to “win” the 2010 elections at the expense of the Sunni population, and walled off the Kurds, formal status to be sorted out sometime whenever. Under a deal negotiated by Bush, American troops came home under Obama. That action didn’t “lose” Iraq; Iraq was “lost” at a thousand incremental steps between 2003-2010 when the U.S. failed to create a viable government and left everyone to fight it out. The continued presence of American troops post-2010 would not have prevented the violence which followed, anymore than the continued presence of U.S. troops pre-2010 did not prevent the violence and in fact inflamed it.

    The Shia government in Iraq, advised, financed, and controlled by newly-empowered Iran (America’s wars had removed Iran’s two biggest enemies, the Taliban on its eastern border and Saddam on the west, freeing up the bulk of Iran’s military and foreign policy resources) wildly overplayed its hand, setting off on a clumsy genocide of the Sunnis. Out of desperation, the remnants of al Qaeda coupled with ultra-violent Sunni nationalists/protectors/patriots/terrorists (pick one word, but they all describe ISIS) morphed into Islamic State. From a Syrian border American interventionism had turned into a failed state, Islamic State organized itself and began holding ground, quickly rolling over the Kurds in northern Iraq and through sympathetic Sunni lands. When the American-trained (cost: $25 billion) Iraqi national army dropped its weapons and ran in 2014, remaining Shia forces collapsed back toward Baghdad, and it looked like Iraq was about to snap apart.

    The U.S., under Obama, reinserted itself into Iraq, in a devil’s bargain with the most powerful player on the ground other than ISIS, the Iranians. The U.S. paired with Iranian special forces, the U.S. paired with Iranian-led Iraqi troops, and the U.S. paired with Iranian-backed Shia militias/nationalists/protectors/patriots/terrorists. This time there was no grand plan to do any nation building. The plan was to literally kill every Islamic State fighter, and if that meant destroying Sunni cities to save them, so be it. Death was rained in literal Biblical doses. The American strategy against Islamic State worked. It should have; this was a war the American military knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were set-piece battles. City after Sunni city were ground into little Dresdens before being turned over to the militias for ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunnis.

    Without much discussion, “fighting ISIS” into Syrian territory slipped into another, albeit less enthusiastic, round of regime change, this time aimed at Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s family controlled the country since the 1960s, and was a sort-of American partner here and there, certainly helpful during the early years of the GWOT in torturing folks on America’s behalf. Bashar himself was a goofy looking guy with a sophisticated wife, an optometrist by education, and when he took office after his classic dictator Dr. Evil father’s death, was briefly seen as a “new voice” in the Middle East, a less fashionable version of last year’s Saudi Mohammed bin Salman. Assad was fighting Islamic State, too: they were seeking to seize territory from him, and so the U.S. and Assad were sort of on the same side.

    Nonetheless, Obama’s warhawks — the gals, Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton in the lead! — drove policy toward regime change. Assad became an evil dictator who killed his own people. Justification for the U.S. going to war again in the Middle East was thus because a tiny percentage of the deaths were maybe caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones, a “red line.” The world of 2015 however was very different than the one of 2003. The U.S. had been bled out by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and fights picked in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and across Africa. Iran was empowered. Russia, always a friend of Assad’s, was invited in to help rid Syria of chemical weapons by Secretary of State John Kerry and took the opportunity to dramatically grow its military role there.

    Saudi money fed the fight, often flowing into ISIS’ coffers because ISIS was fighting Iranian-backed troops whom the Saudi’s opposed. Turkey saw an opportunity in chaos to push back against the Kurds nipping at its southern and eastern borders and basically a small-scale version of WWI unraveled as the United States bombed a bit, stepped back, sent in some special forces, then claimed it had no boots on the ground, and so forth. America’s goals — destroy ISIS, fight Iranian influence, oust Assad — were often at odds with one another and lead to U.S. weapons and money flooding the battlefield. More than one firefight featured American-supplied guns on both sides. More than one American special forces unit found itself playing traffic cop stopping an American “ally” from attacking another American “ally.”

    That more or less brings things up to late 2018…

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    Notes on the Khasshogi Case

    November 23, 2018 // 20 Comments »




    The Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi story will someday be seen by historians (not in the US) as a near-perfect example of the failure of American policy in the Middle East begatting more failure. Only ignorance of history and the amazing sheepishness of the American people to have their opinions spoon fed to them will make things “work out.”

    Forget the current arms sales (the naughty thing the media says made Trump “pardon” Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman for supposedly ordering the murder, conveniently on a phone fully-tapped by the US, though sooner or later someone will claim the real driver is some sort of shady Trump real estates deal negotiated by Kushner) the US at present needs the Saudis as a hedge against the empowered Iran our wars of the last decades in Iraq inadvertently created, and of course as Israel’s new friend in that same regard in the music of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” that powers the Jewish state’s relations in the neighborhood. Trump is boorish and gross, but he is just the ugly face of truth behind decades of US policy, a Few Good Men’s Colonel Jessup inside foreign affairs screaming we can’t handle the truth. The truth is every American president from Roosevelt to Trump bent over for the Saudis. And so will the next president, whether it’s Trump or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Representative Tulsi Gabbard eviscerating Trump as “Saudi Arabia’s bitch” is true enough, even if she was incomplete in not naming every other American leader since WWII. And, oh yeah, the Clinton Foundation, which was engorged with Saudi cash.

    (Trump as Colonel Jessup telling us what we don’t want to hear is not restricted to Saudi affairs. When journalism cosplayer, now friend of the #Resistance, Bill O’Reilly demanded to know what Trump thought about Vladimir Putin being a killer, Trump responded: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?… I think our country does plenty of killing also.”)

    The truth is the Saudis can do whatever they want inside their own sphere as long as they serve our (shifting needs) for (example) oil, war in Afghanistan against the USSR, and now bulwark against Iran.

    And the US is always happy to return a favor. Two Bushs waged wars that helped the Kingdom. Obama sent US forces into bloody work in Yemen for the Saudis. Stuff happens along the way — OPEC was unleashed out of a plan to control prices, 9/11 and al Qaeda out of the creation of the jihad against the Sovs, Desert Storm when then-US ally Saddam ended up too strong after we used him to knock back Iran in the 1980s and America had to defend the Kingdom’s oil so they could sell it to us, and this year the relatively minor kerfuffle (promoted by Erdogan for his own political purposes) of Khasshogi. But the US always looks the other way, whether it is Saudi funding to kill 2,997 Americans on 9/11 or the Soprano’s hit on Khasshogi. Meh.

    The latter just caught the public’s attention because it fits with the media’s 24/7/365 need to create Trump-driven crisis fodder (don’t forget Mohammed Bin Salman — MBS to his friends and PR handlers — was a US-media darling only months ago because he was gonna let the ladies drive over there), plus of course Trump’s own willingness to constantly fan the flames with a Tweet or flippant comment. It’s nice to see them have such a symbiotic relationship. Meanwhile the greater American atrocity, supporting the slaughter of civilians by Saudi forces in Yemen, is left more or less untouched except as an adjunct to the Khasshogi case; the US may publically pull back there a symbolic bit as playful punishment. The real blowback from Khasshogi will be near-zero compared to what happened for example when OPEC crushed our economy and when al Qaeda sent us to war for 18 years.

    US-Saudi relations are a constant clusterfutz where one unexpected horrible outcome is “fixed” by an even larger problem once envisioned as the solution. That domino effect, from 1945 through tomorrow, is what binds the US and Saudi Arabia as brothers in foreign policy crime, and if the Saudi’s play it right (as they have for decades) it always will.




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    Thanksgiving 2018

    November 21, 2018 // 9 Comments »

    Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving (Not in Iraq)


    Nine years ago this day I was in Iraq at a forward operating base embedded with the 10th Mountain Division and alongside all those men and women missing Thanksgiving with my family.


    Not one article, Tweet, or video clip ran that said we were wasting our time out there, that we were being used as a political tool by the president, even though we were, and the waste was 1000x greater in every way over whatever’s going on on the Mexican border.


    You are concerned about how the U.S. is treating people of color? In Iraq, we were killing them, not refusing them asylum. Women, kids, old men, whatever, collateral damage.


    The media didn’t criticize our deployment then, they cheered it, and when they criticize it today only in one place, Mexico (the troops are still in Iraq for another Thanksgiving, by the way) just Because Trump they either don’t know or likely don’t care how empty, rude, and hypocritical they fucking sound.




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    Was Bin Laden Right About 9/11?

    September 11, 2018 // 25 Comments »

    9-11


    (A reprint of my 9/11 article from 2016…)


    OK, ok, serious now. It’s been 15 years now people, so we can talk about this kind of thing, ‘kay? That’s what anniversaries are for, after all.


    Peter Bergen, at CNN, who is often the sanest clown in the CNN circus, tell us that al Qaeda really blew it on 9/11.

    “Like the attack on Pearl Harbor,” says Bergen, “9/11 was a great tactical victory for America’s enemies. But in both these cases the tactical success of the attacks was not matched by strategic victories. Quite the reverse.” He goes on to remind us the U.S. totally kicked Japan’s butt.

    Now it can get a little fuzzy when you try to jam 9/11 and al Qaeda into the Saving Private Ryan narrative framework. So it’s important to understand what Bergen thinks al Qaeda’s goal was with the attacks 15 years ago. I’ll quote him so when I call him an idiot a bit later, you’ll understand my reasoning:

    “Bin Laden believed that al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington would result in an American withdrawal from the Middle East. Instead, the United States quickly toppled the Taliban and al Qaeda… The United States not only did not reduce its influence in the Middle East, but it also established or added to massive bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. And, of course, it also occupied both Afghanistan and Iraq. Bin Laden’s tactical victory on 9/11 turned out to be a spectacular strategic flop.”

    Um, OK.


    Bergen is an idiot. Al Qaeda got much, much more than it ever hoped for out of 9/11, and Bergen’s silly retelling of al Qaeda’s goals is part and parcel of what drives American foreign policy off a cliff on a daily basis in the Middle East.

    Japan was a nation set on territorial conquest in WWII. It bombed Pearl Harbor to destroy as much of America’s Navy as it could to buy itself as much time as it could to conquer as much as it could across the Pacific before America got back on its naval feet. Standard war as it has been since Caesar.

    Terrorists fight a different war, a political one. They don’t have navies. They have guys who hijack planes.


    Quite the opposite of what Bergen says, bin Laden did not want America to withdraw from the Middle East, he wanted to pull America into a Middle Eastern quagmire as deep and sticky as possible. This would drive recruits to al Qaeda’s cause, establishing with global certainty the west was at war with Islam.

    That worked; see Islamic State, and the way war and chaos has spread from edge-to-edge in the region, as well as the presence of so-called lone wolves in the U.S. and Europe. And remember, on 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Libya were all stable countries and there were no lone wolves in California and Florida.

    Bin Laden did almost blow it. He expected the west to bog down in the graveyard of Afghanistan very quickly, but that didn’t happen. The early successes that drove the Taliban out of governing and into the mountains were done with very few troops and relatively clean bombing attacks. It was after that the Afghan war grew messy, when reconstruction and democracy and all that became the new goals interlaced with the U.S. having new tolerance for the nasty bastards running Pakistan.


    And, of course, the crown jewel of bin Laden’s success, still giving, was the invasion of Iraq.

    Bush’s invasion of Iraq was so transparently pointless to everyone but most Americans that it made concrete all the things bin Laden was saying: America was at war with Islam, America sought to conquer the Middle East, America wanted the oil, and so forth. But even bin Laden could not have hoped for the free gifts his cause got out of the invasion: the chance for al Qaeda to set up shop in Iraq, the massacre at Fallujah when the Marines reduced the city to medieval rubble, the images of torture from Abu Ghraib, the jihadi training grounds at prison Camp Bucca, and, of course, the overall Sunni-Shia clusterf*ck the invasion ended up as. You know, the one that is driving the current ISIS war today.

    And never mind the U.S. destruction of the Libyan state, America’s clumsy hand in crushing the Arab Spring, the growth of Islamic State and the little wars between the Turks and the Kurds, in Yemen, and more to come. Chaos and failed states favor the terrorists.

    As Canadian historian Gwynne Dyer, a guy we all should be listening to said, “It is hard enough for Westerners to recognize that their attackers actually have a coherent strategy and are not simply mad fanatics motivated by hatred. To accept that these terrorist attacks are not really about Western countries at all, but merely an attempt to use the overreaction of Western countries to create change in the Middle East, is beyond their understanding.”

    What Peter Bergen cannot seem to understand himself is bin Laden was practicing a kind of tough love when he staged the 9/11 attacks, to bring the wrath of the United States down on innocent Muslims to radicalize and politicize them. It is, bin Laden (and now ISIS) believe, for their own long-term good.


    We’ll need to wait longer to find out if the U.S. will ever get it. See you next year for the next anniversary of 9/11.



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    Mike Pompeo and the Missiles of Spring

    March 24, 2018 // 11 Comments »




    Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo will walk into his confirmation hearings, and soon after that his first day of work, confronting the missiles of spring.

    In one case President Donald Trump and Pompeo signal they want to back away from an Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, while in the other both men seem intent on securing a likely similar deal with North Korea. It will be Pompeo’s counsel to Trump which will help shape the nuclear landscape American foreign policy will move forward in.


    The shakeup at State places an ardent critic of the Iran nuclear deal as the nation’s top diplomat, alongside a president who already delivered an ultimatum to European powers in January to fix the deal’s “terrible flaws.” Absent changes western Europe (as well as China and Russia) would agree to press on the Iranians, Trump will not extend U.S. sanctions relief when the current waiver expires on May 12. That move would likely scuttle the whole agreement and spin Iran back into the nuclear development cycle.

    Trump previously singled out the Iran nuclear deal as one of the main policy differences he had with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The new Secretary of State’s starting position on the 2015 agreement is unambiguous: “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Pompeo remarked during his Central Intelligence Agency confirmation process. As director of the Agency, Pompeo likened Iran to Islamic State, and called the nation a “thuggish police state.”


    It may be as simple as that. Iran’s Javad newspaper, believed to be close to the Revolutionary Guard, said replacing Tillerson with Pompeo signaled the end of the nuclear deal. But sometimes, as the old saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit. Pompeo will find the region more complex as Secretary of State than as Director of Central Intelligence. Pompeo will inherit a Department of State which views the Iran agreement as one of its key legacy successes. Should he seek advice from his new staff at Foggy Bottom, Pompeo will be challenged on his hardline views. Same for Pompeo’s initial calls to his counterparts in western Europe, China, and Russia. They are likely to ask for more time to work with Iran on an arrangement that allows Trump to appear to have bested the Obama deal without it falling apart and sparking a nuclear crisis in the Persian Gulf.

    As Secretary, Pompeo will become much more conscious of the powerful role Iran now plays in Iraq. While at the Agency Iran is simply known as a bad guy, over at State it is seen as an odd bedfellow, a pseudo-partner. Effectively defeating Islamic State in Iraq is a little-mentioned foreign policy success for Trump, and one due significantly to cooperation with Tehran. Tehran, with its military advisors in place, control over the Shiite militias, and influence among key politicians, holds the key to stability in Iraq. With elections for the next prime minister scheduled for May 12 in Iraq (major candidates all have ties to Iran), Tehran has some bargaining chips of its own, including threats to vulnerable American forces and diplomats in Iraq, right at the time the U.S. might reimplement sanctions.

    The good news? If his new counterparts in western Europe, China, and Russia can get Pompeo’s ear where they have failed to do so with Trump, they’ll have a strong advocate in the Oval Office. Those same counterparts, knowing Pompeo is unafraid of war with Iran, also have a new impetus to find common ground with Washington on modifying the Iran deal; even as Tillerson was being fired Tuesday his top policy aide Brian Hook frantically headed to Vienna for meetings with European allies aimed at coming up with new measures that can satisfy Trump.

    Pompeo might be persuaded, for example, to get Trump to extend his sanctions waiver on Iran into the autumn, buying time to negotiate a “soft exit” that would delay enforcement of secondary U.S. sanctions so international companies could continue trading with Iran without the threat of losing the American market. Extending the sanctions waiver into the fall would also allow Mike Pompeo to forestall a potential crisis striking the Middle East nearly to the day the president is scheduled to sit down with Kim Jong Un.


    Mike Pompeo’s most recent comments on North Korea emphasize he is now in lock step with Trump: “We’ve gotten more than any previous administration — an agreement to not continue testing nuclear weapons and their missile program, the things that would put them capable of getting across the threshold… at the same time [Kim] has agreed to have a conversation about denuclearization.” Pompeo’s move to Foggy Bottom appears timed to have him shepherd through the summit plans; one report claims the reason Trump is putting Pompeo at the State Department now was because he “wanted a strong team ready for North Korea.”

    Trump seems to want a deal with North Korea, very likely ironically similar to the one Obama made with Iran — reduced sanctions in return for progress on denuclearization. The highly-technical deal with Iran, with its tethered sanctions, inspection protocols, and multinational angle, could even serve as a quiet blueprint for what may happen with the North.

    Pompeo is well-placed to help. One of his first acts at the Agency was to revamp intelligence collection on North Korea to inform the administration’s sanctions campaign. Pompeo will be ready to suggest where sanctions can be adjusted for whatever impact Trump is seeking. And unlike others at State, whom Trump would likely fear were trying to make him look weak with their suggestions, Pompeo is trusted. Pompeo has also been in charge of a covert cyber campaign against the North, hinted at on several occasions, which can be strategically dialed up or down as appropriate.

    For Pompeo to implement his marching orders in Asia, he will need to walk back earlier comments about regime change in North Korea. Security is Kim Jong-un’s primary goal for negotiations with the U.S., and a guarantee of his own position will be non-negotiable. Trump can expect no progress on denuclearization without deflecting Pompeo’s July 2017 statement the North Korean people “would love to see” Kim removed from power, and that he remained hopeful the U.S. would figure out a way to make that happen. But it won’t be hard to sort out; the North understands well the role of bellicose rhetoric in negotiations.


    Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State stands at an important policy intersection. His relationship with Trump means overseas he will be seen as speaking with the full authority of the president. He is a true believer in Trump’s worldview, and an influential figure in a chaotic White House. How he handles the role as chief foreign policy advisor to Donald Trump will help determine whether or not the Middle East falls into a nuclear crisis even as first steps are taken to avoid one in East Asia.



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    What’s Next in Iraq?

    February 5, 2018 // 3 Comments »

    petraeus-crocker-sons-of-iraq

    The contours of Iraq post-Islamic State are becoming clearer. Did the strategy to defeat Islamic State succeed? Are the American wars in Iraq finally over? Who walks away the winner?


    Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over Islamic State on December 9, 2017. And while there will still be some fighting, the real war is over. Yet there were no parades, no statues pulled down, no “Mission Accomplished” moments. An event that might have once set front pages atwitter a few years ago in America wasn’t even worth a presidential tweet.

    That’s because in Washington there is little to celebrate. With the likelihood of spring elections in Iraq, what stands out is how absent American influence is. The two main candidates are current prime minister Abadi, and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both come from the same Shi’ite Dawa party, and both have close ties to Iran. The names should be familiar. Maliki was the Great American Hope in 2006, and again in 2010, to unite Iraq across Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurdish lines as the bulk of American occupation forces withdrew, while Abadi was the Great American Hope in 2014 to do the same as American troops flowed back to Iraq to fight Islamic State.

    As prime minister Maliki didn’t follow-through on the Surge in the end years of the American occupation, leaving the Sunnis at the mercy of his Shi’ite supporters. Maliki’s first action post-occupation — the very day after the last American combat troops withdrew — was to try and arrest his own Sunni vice president. In 2014, Maliki unleashed his army in Sunni Anbar Province, a move which drew Islamic State in to Iraq. American manipulations then replaced Maliki with Abadi in 2014.

    Yet despite high (American) hopes, Abadi made few efforts to integrate Sunnis into the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi judiciary, military, and police forces, the minimum groundwork for a united Iraq. He did not create economic opportunities for Sunnis or deliver public services. Instead, Abadi created new fault lines, ossified old ones by further embracing Tehran, and sent Iranian-lead Shi’ite militias numbering some 120,000 tearing through the Sunni heartlands. Both Presidents Obama and Trump worked closely with Abadi to ultimately destroy Islamic State in Iraq, at the expense of the Iraqi Sunnis.


    The Obama-Trump strategy was medieval: kill people until there was literally no Islamic State left inside Iraq, then allow the Iranians and Shi’ite Iraqis to do whatever they pleased with the Sunnis in the aftermath. This was the big takeaway from the Iraq war of 2003-2011: there would be no political follow-on this round, no nation building, between the end of the fighting and the exit. The United States would pay no mind to internal Iraqi politics, even if that meant an exclusionary Shi’ite government in Baghdad under Tehran’s wing.

    The walk-away policy was implemented, albeit less violently, to resolve for now the question of the Kurds. In September 2017, the Kurds voted for independence from Iraq, only to see their fate decided as Washington stood aside while Shi’ite militias pushed Kurdish forces from disputed regions, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. After decades of American promises of independence, the Kurds were left to salvage a small bit of pre-2003 autonomy from Baghdad where once full statehood stood within grasp. With American support, the Kurds blunted Islamic State in the darkest days of 2014. In 2018, in what some analysts call the “Twilight of the Kurds,” they no longer seem to have a place in Washington’s foreign policy.

    The American strategy against Islamic State worked. It should have; this was a war the American military knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were set-piece battles. City after Sunni city were ground into little Dresdens (since 2014, the United States spent more than $14 billion on its air campaign against Islamic State) before being turned over to the militias for ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunnis. The United Nations was appalled by the mass execution of Sunni prisoners and called for an immediate halt. There was no response from Washington.

    Unlike the 2003-2011 war, when it spent $60 billion on the task, the United States does not intend on trying to pay for the reconstruction of Iraq. Estimates suggest $100 billion is needed to rebuild the mostly Sunni areas destroyed, and to deal with the 2.78 million internally displaced Sunnis. Shi’ite Baghdad pleads lack of funds to help. Across two administrations Washington contributed only $265 million to reconstruction since 2014 (by comparison, America allotted $150 million in 2017 alone to financing arms sales to Iraq, one of the top ten global buyers of American weapons.) Other than plans for Kuwait to host a donors conference in February, the Sunnis are largely on their own, hanging on with the vitality of an abused shelter dog.


    President Trump is unlikely to pull troops out of Iraq entirely. A reduced force will stay to play Whack-a-Mole with any Islamic State resurgence, to act as a rear-guard against the political fallout that chased Obama in 2011 when he withdrew troops, and to referee among the disparate groups in western Iraq and Syria the United States armed willy-nilly to help defeat Islamic State. The armed groups mostly set aside differences dating from Biblical times to fight Islamic State, but with that behind them, about all they have in common is mutual distrust and lots of guns. American troops perma-stationed inside Iranian-allied Iraq are a bit of a geopolitical oddity, but one Iran has likely already at least passively agreed to. Tehran has little to gain from a fight over some American desert base real estate right now, when their prize is the rest of Iraq.


    Over five administrations and 26 years, the United States paid a high price – some 4,500 American dead and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent – for what will have to pass as a conclusion. Washington’s influence in Baghdad is limited and relations with Iran are in shambles under a Trump administration still focused backwards on the Obama-era Iran nuclear accords. The last quarter century of Iraq wars thrust the region into chaos while progressively erasing American dominance. Iran is picking up the pieces, creating a new Lebanon out of the shell of what was once Iraq. As long as the Trump administration insists on not opening diplomatic relations with Tehran, it will have few ways to exert influence. Other nations in the Middle East will diversify their international relationships (think Russia and China) knowing this.

    A long fall from the heady days of 2003, when America lit up the region like the Fourth of July to remake the Middle East. But the problems proved impossible to solve and so America washed its hands of that, for this. And if any of this does presage some future American conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a true ironic tragedy.

     




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    Iraq War 3.0, the War to End All Wars, is Over

    January 2, 2018 // 66 Comments »



    America’s serial wars in Iraq are ending with a whimper, not a bang. And in the oddest of ironies, it may be President Donald Trump, feared as a war monger, the fifth president to make war in Iraq, who has more or less accidentally ended up presiding over the end.

    Here’s how we ended up where we are, and how a quarter century of American conflict in Iraq created the post-Vietnam template for forever war we’ll be using in the next fight.


    Iraq War 1.0+ The Good War

    The end of the Soviet Union transitioned the Middle East from a Cold War battleground to an exclusive American sphere of influence. George H. W. Bush exploited the new status in 1991 by launching Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm, reversing decades of U.S. support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

    Prior to the ‘Storm, the U.S. supplied weapons to Iraq, including the chemicals Saddam used to gas his own people. The American goal was more to bleed the Iranians, then at war with Iraq, than anything else, but the upshot was helping Saddam stay in power. The more significant change in policy Iraq War 1.0 brought was reversing America’s post-Vietnam reluctance to make war on a large scale. “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula. By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” the elder Bush said, in what the New York Times called “a spontaneous burst of pride.” There was even a victory parade with tanks and attack helicopters staged in Washington. America was back!

    Bill Clinton took office and kept the fires burning, literally, inside Iraq, in what might be called Iraq War 1.5. Clinton, following the brush back pitch of the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, decided maybe some Vietnam-era reluctance to send in troops wasn’t all that bad an idea, and instead embarked on an aerial campaign, with U.S. imposed no-fly zones, over Iraq. By the time Clinton’s tenure in the White House ended, America was bombing Iraq on average three times a week. In 1999, the U.S. dropped about $1 billion worth of ordnance, scaling up to $1.4 billion in the year ending around the time George W. Bush took office. It would be that Bush, in the hysteria following the 9/11 attacks, who would shift the previous years of war on Iraq into something that would change the balance of power in the Middle East: Iraq War 2.0, full-on regime change.


    Iraq War 2.0, The Bad One

    On the flimsiest excuse, non-existent weapons of mass destruction, fueled by the media and America’s own jihadistic blood thirst, George W. Bush invaded a nation to change its government to one preferred by the United States.

    Though often presented as a stand-alone adventure, Bush’s invasion was consistent with the broader post-WWII American Empire policy that fueled incursions in South East Asia and coups across South America when Washington decided a government needed to be changed to something more Empire-friendly. Many believe Iraq was only the first of Bush’s planned regime changes, his war cabinet having their eye on Syria, Lebanon, perhaps even Iran. After a heady start with the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (“shock and awe”) Bush declared victory for the first time — Mission Accomplished! — only to see the war drag on past his own time in office.

    It is a type of macabre parlor game to pick the moment when things might have been turned around in Iraq, when chaos and disaster might have been averted. Over drinks in some Georgetown salon it might be agreed the tipping point was the decision to disband the Iraqi military, police, and civil service in 2003. Others might point to the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Golden Mosque, which drove the next decade of Sunni-Shia fighting. The American military insists they had a chance right up through the Surge in 2008, the State Department imagines it almost turned the corner with reconstruction in 2010, and Republican revisionists prefer to mark the last chance to fix things as the day before Obama’s decision to withdraw American combat troops in 2011.


    Iraq War 3.0, Made in America, Fought in Iraq

    Who now remembers President Obama declaring pseudo-victory in Iraq in 2011, 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, the better to concentrate on a new Surge in Afghanistan. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.

    Until Obama went back. Obama turned a purported humanitarian mission in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people few Americans had ever heard of from destruction at the hands of Islamic State into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 73 nations and organizations (including Chad and Ireland, the vestigial list is still online) was formed to help, even though no one ever heard of them again absent a few bombing runs by the Brits. It was as if the events of 2003-2011 had never happened; Barack Obama stepped to the edge of the Iraq abyss, peered over, and shrugged his shoulders.

    The Iraq of 2014 was all Made in America, and due to low oil prices, much of it was also paid for by America, via subsidies and foreign aid to replace the petroleum revenues that never came.

    The gleefully corrupt Baghdad authorities of 2014 held little control over most of the nation; vast areas were occupied by Islamic State, itself more or less welcomed by Iraqi Sunnis as protection against the genocide they feared at the hands of the Iranian puppet Shia central government. That government had been installed by Iran out of the mess of the 2010 elections the U.S. held in hopes of legitimizing its tail-tucked exit from Iraq. The Sunnis were vulnerable because the American Surge of 2008 had betrayed them, coercing the tribes into ratting out al Qaeda with the promise of a role in governing a new Iraq that never happened once the Iranian-backed Shia Prime Minister al-Maliki took power.

    Initially off to the side of the 2014-era Sunni-Shia struggle but soon drawn in by Islamic State’s territorial gains were the Iraqi Kurds, forever promised a homeland whenever the U.S. needed them and then denied that homeland when the U.S. did not need them to oppose Saddam in Iraq War 1.0, help stabilize liberated Iraq in War 2.0, or defeat Islamic State in Iraq War 3.0.


    We Won! Sort of.

    Obama’s, and now Trump’s, Iraq War 3.0 strategy was medieval, brutal in its simplicity: kill people until there was literally no Islamic State left inside Iraq. Then allow the Iranians and Shia Iraqis to do whatever they pleased in the aftermath.

    The United Nations said earlier this month it was appalled by a mass execution of Sunni prisoners in Iraq and called for an immediate halt. There was no response from the United States. As in Iraq War 1.0, when the U.S. abandoned the Kurds and their desire for a homeland, and stood back while Saddam crushed a Shia uprising the U.S. had helped provoke, internal Iraqi affairs were just too messy to be of lasting concern; that was one of the big takeaways from Iraq War 2.0 and all that failed nation building. Do what we’re good at, killing, and then walk away.

    The outcome of Iraq War 3.0 was never really in doubt, only how long it might take. With the semi-allied forces of the United States, Iran, the Kurds, and local Shia militias directed against them, Islamic State could never hold territory in what was a struggle of attrition.

    This was finally a war the U.S. knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were the same set-piece battle the American army first fought in Vicksburg in 1863. City after Sunni city were ground into little Stalingrads by air power and artillery (since 2014, the United States spent more than $14 billion on its air campaign against Islamic State) before being turned over to the Shia militias for the ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunni elements. There are no practical plans by the Iraqi government to rebuild what was destroyed. This time, unlike in Iraq War 2.0, there will be no billions of U.S. tax dollars allotted to the task.

    The end of War 3.0 came almost silently. There was no “Mission Accomplished” moment. No parades in Washington, no toppling of giant Saddam statues in Baghdad. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi simply on December 9, 2017 declared the war which essentially started in 1991 over. It barely made the news, and passed without comment by President Trump. What used to matter a lot in the end did not matter at all.


    The Price We Paid in Iraq

    Tweetable version: The last quarter century of Iraq Wars (from Desert Storm 1991 to the present) thrust the region into chaos while progressively erasing American dominance. Iran is picking up the pieces. As long as the U.S. insists on not opening diplomatic relations with Tehran, it will have no way short of war to exert any influence, a very weak position. Other nation-states in the Middle East will move to diversify their international relationships (think Russia and China) knowing this. Regional politics, not American interests, will drive events.

    After five administrations and 26 years the price the United States paid for what will have to pass as a victory conclusion is high. Some 4,500 American dead, millions killed on the Iraqi side, and $7.9 trillion taxpayer dollars spent.

    The U.S. sacrificed long-term allies the Kurds and their dreams of a homeland to avoid a rift with Baghdad; the dead-end of the Kurdish independence referendum vote this autumn just created a handy date for historians to cite, because the Kurds were really done the day their usefulness in fighting Islamic State wrapped up. Where once pundits wondered how the U.S. would chose a side when the Turks and Kurds went to war both armed with American weapons, it appears the U.S. could care less about what either does over the disputed borderlands they both crave.

    The big winner of America’s Iraq War is Iran. In 2017, Iran has no enemies on either major border (Afghanistan, to the east, thanks again to the United States, is unlikely to reconstitute as a national-level threat in anyone’s lifetime) and Iraq is now somewhere between a vassal state and a neutered puppet of Tehran.

    About their rivals in Saudi Arabia, again there is only good news for Iran. With the Sunnis in Iraq hanging on with the vitality of an abused shelter dog (and Iranian-supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently to remain in power), Saudi influence is on the wane. In the broader regional picture, unlike the Saudi monarchs, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one. With its victory in Iraq, stake in Syria, and friends in Lebanon, Iran has pieced together a land corridor to the Mediterranean at very low cost. If it was a stock, you’d want to buy Iran in 2018.


    The War to Make All Wars

    Going forward, Trump is unlikely to pull many troops out of Iraq, having seen the political price Obama paid for doing so in 2011. The troops will stay to block the worst of any really ugly Shia reprisals against the Sunnis, and to referee among the many disparate groups (Peshmerga, Yazidi, Turkmen, the Orwellian-named/Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, along with animated militias and factions of all flavors) who the U.S. armed willy-nilly to defeat ISIS.

    The U.S. put a lot of weapons on to the battlefield and a reckoning is feared. The armed groups mostly set aside differences dating from Biblical times to fight ISIS, but with that behind them, about all they still have in common is mutual distrust. There is zero chance of any national cohesion, and zero chance of any meaningful power-sharing by Baghdad. U.S. goals include keeping a lid on things so no one back home starts looking for someone to blame in the next election cycle, wondering what went wrong, “Who lost Iraq?” and asking what we should be doing about it. How well the U.S. will do at keeping things in line, and the long term effects of so many disparate, heavily-armed groups rocketing around greater Mesopotamia, will need to be seen.

    U.S. troops perma-stationed in Iraq will also be a handy bulwark against whatever happens next in Syria. In addition, Israel is likely to near-demand the United States garrison parts of western Iraq as a buffer against expanding Iranian power, and to keep Jordan from overreacting to the increased Iranian influence.

    Iran has already passively agreed to most of this. It has little to gain from a fight over some desert real estate that it would probably lose to the Americans anyway, when their prize is the rest of Iraq. 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 true ironic tragedy and a historic waste of American blood and resources.


    Empire

    In the longer view, the Iraq Wars will be seen as a turning point in the American Empire. They began in 1991 as a war for oil, the battle to keep the pipelines in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia open to the United States’ hungry mouth. They ended in 2017 when Persian Gulf oil is no longer a centerpiece of American foreign policy. When oil no longer really mattered, Iraq no longer really mattered.

    More significantly, the Iraq Wars created the template for decades of conflict to come. Iraq was the first forever war. It began in 1991 with the goal of protecting oil. The point of it all then shape-shifted effortlessly to containing Saddam via air power to removing weapons of mass destruction to freeing Iraq from an evil dictator to destroying al Qaeda to destroying Islamic State to something something buttress against Iran. Over the years the media dutifully advised the American people what the new point of it all was, reporting the changes as it might report the new trends in fashion — for fall, it’s shorter hemlines, no more al Qaeda, and anti-ISIS, ladies!

    The Iraq Wars changed the way we look at conflict. There would never again be a need for a formal declaration of war, such decisions now clearly were within the president’s whims and ordinations. He could ramp things up, or slow things down, as his mind, goals, temperament, and often domestic political needs, required. The media would play along, happily adopting neutral terms like “regime change” to replace naughty ones like “overthrow.” Americans were trained by movies and NFL halftime salutes to accept a steady but agreeably low rate of casualties on our side, heroes all, and be hardened to the point of uncaring about the millions of souls taken as “collateral damage” from the other. Everyone we kill is a terrorist, the proof being that we killed them. Play a loud noise long enough and you stop hearing it.


    The mistakes of the first try at a forever war, Vietnam, were fixed: no draft, no high body counts for Americans, no combative media looking for atrocities, no anguish by the president over a dirty but necessary job, no clear statement of what victory looks like to muddle things. For all but the most special occasions the blather about democracy and freeing the oppressed was dropped.

    More insidiously, killing became mechanical, nearly sterile from our point of view (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Iraq War 1.0? The hi-tech magic of drone kills, video game death dispensed from thousands of miles away?) Our atrocities — Abu Ghraib is the best known, but there are more — were ritualistically labeled the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities were evil genius, fanaticism, campaigns of horror. How many YouTube beheading videos were Americans shown until we all agreed the president could fight ISIS forever?

    Without the Iraq Wars there would be no multi-generational war in Afghanistan, and no chance of one in Syria. The United States currently has military operations underway in Cameroon, Chad, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Uganda, and Yemen. Any one will do of course, as the answer to one last question: where will America fight its next forever war, the lessons of Iraq well-learned, the presidents ready?




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    What If Trump Dismantled the State Department, and It Didn’t Matter?

    November 30, 2017 // 7 Comments »



    Bad news: President Donald Trump may be dismantling the State Department. The good news? No recent president has made much use of those diplomats, so they are unlikely to be missed. And that’s really bad news.


    Recent stories try hard to make the case that something new and dark has crept into Foggy Bottom. Writing for the December 2017 Foreign Service Journal, American Foreign Service Association President Barbara Stephenson sounds the alarm on behalf of the organization of American diplomats she heads: “The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60% of its Career Ambassadors since January… The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today.”

    Stephenson doesn’t mention a 60% loss of Career Ambassadors, the most senior diplomats, means the actual headcount drops from only five people to two (and of the three that did retire, two are married to one another suggesting personal timing played a role. One retiree worked in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, another was seconded to a university, important but outside State’s core diplomatic mission that many feel is “at risk.”) Choosing to count noses “right after Labor Day” is deceptive. Most retirements take place officially on September 30 in line with the ending of the federal fiscal year, so numbers will seem lower in November. Stephenson also leaves out the losses are voluntary retirements, not a taking of heads by the Trump administration. None of the retirees have stated they are leaving in protest.

    The number of Career Ministers (another senior rank) in the Foreign Service actually increased from 22 to 26 under Trump. Growth had been delayed by Senate confirmation process, not the White House.

    Stephenson is equally alarmed at Trump’s government-wide hiring freeze affecting entry level diplomats, though fails to note the freeze won’t touch a good two-thirds of new hires, as they come from exempt fellowship programs.

    Also not mentioned is that intake of new Foreign Service officers is now primarily via existing fellowship programs, as regular intake is frozen. These fellowships recruit heavily from historically black colleges and universities, which means diversity at State should actually increase under Trump. And hiring has been below attrition since the Obama years anyway.


    So good news, the dismantling is not happening. Overall, the number of senior diplomats (the top four foreign service ranks) is only 19 people less than at this time in 2016. But the bad news: while a shortage of diplomats is not new under President Trump, the weakening of American diplomacy is real.

    For example, no other Western country uses private citizens as ambassadors over career diplomats to anywhere near the extent the United States does, handing out about a third of the posts as political patronage in what has been called a “thinly veiled system of corruption.” In 2012, the Government Accountability Office reported 28 percent of all senior State Department Foreign Service positions were unfilled or filled with below-grade employees.

    Relevancy?  State has roughly the same number of Portuguese speakers as it does Russian. 

    Or take a longer view: in 1950, State had 7,710 diplomats. The pre-Trump total was just 8,052 as State has failed to grow alongside the modern world. The reasons may differ, but modern presidents simply have not expanded their diplomatic corps.


    It is the growth of military influence inside government that has weakened State. Months before Barbara Stephenson’s organization worried about Trump dismantling the State Department, it worried about State becoming increasingly irrelevant inside a militarized foreign policy. That worrisome 2017 article cited an almost identical worrisome article from 2007 written at the height of the Iraq War.

    In between were numerous reiterations of the same problem, such as in 2012 when State questioned its relevance vis-vis the Pentagon. In Africa, for example, the military’s combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility, budget, and influence is confined to a single country, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, or value to diplomats. As a foreign leader, who would you turn to get Washington’s ear, or to pry open its purse?


    It wasn’t always this way. A thumbnail history of recent United States-North Korean relations shows what foreign policy with active diplomacy, and without it, looks like.

    For example, in 2000 there were American diplomats stationed in North Korea, and the Secretary of State herself visited Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for rebuilding relations. These steps took place under the 1994 Agreed Framework, which ended — diplomatically — an 18-month crisis during which North Korea threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Framework froze North Korea’s plutonium production and placed it under international safeguard.

    President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil” scuttled that last real attempt at direct diplomacy with Pyongyang. Bush demanded regime change, which led to the North going nuclear. Unlikely at the advice of his State Department, Bush also found time to refer to North Korea’s then-leader Kim Jong-il as a pygmy. Bush plunged into the Middle East militarily with little further attention paid to a hostile nuclear state.

    With one failed exception, President Obama also avoided substantive negotiations with Pyongyang, while warning the United States “will not hesitate to use our military might.” The Obama administration-driven regime change in Libya after that country abandoned its nuclear ambitions sent a decidedly undiplomatic message to Pyongyang about what disarmament negotiations could lead to. Without a globally thought-through strategy behind it, war is simply chaos. Diplomacy has little role when the White House forgets war is actually politics by other means.


    It is clear that President Trump thinks little of his State Department. Morale is low, the budget is under attack, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s reorganization plans have many old hands on edge. But the real question of what is wrong with President Trump’s non-relationship with State is answered by asking what value Presidents Bush and Obama derived from a fully-staffed State Department, either by ignoring its advice, or simply ignoring diplomacy itself. As with the numbers that suggest State is not being dismantled, the point is much of the current hysteria in Washington fails to acknowledge that a lot of what seems new and scary is old and scary. It is a hard point, rationality, to make in a media world where one is otherwise allowed to write declarative sentences that the president is mentally ill and will start WWIII soon in a tweet.

    Having the right number of senior diplomats around is of little value if their advice is not sought, or heeded, or if they are not directed toward the important issues of the day. Whether Trump does or does not ultimately reduce staff at State, he will only continue in a clumsy way what his predecessors did by neglecting the institution in regions where it might have mattered most.


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    Soldier Boy, for Veteran’s Day

    November 16, 2017 // 4 Comments »



    Perhaps only ancient Sparta claimed to support its military more than the United States. From the “soldiers in uniform board first” rituals that happen only in American airports, to politics where a decision not to serve is forever held against a candidate, there are reminders that America’s troops are a presence in our society like few others.

    The desire to claim a piece of that leads to elaborate lies, known as “stolen valor.” People buy regulation uniforms and walk through society showing off medals, telling fake war stories, and accepting unearned thanks, all without ever having served a day. They want the juice without having endured the squeeze. They are out there this Veteran’s Day, and they are to be loathed.

    At the same time we curse the fakes, we might also spare a thought this Veteran’s Day to those who really did serve, and how society in return shows its real support. Because while some fake service, in too many ways society fakes support:

    — We pass by 40,000 veterans homeless on any given night. More than half suffer from mental illness.

    — We watch the troops die because of long waits for care at U.S. veterans hospitals.

    — We know some 460,000 vets from the Iraq and Afghan wars suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; another 260,000 have Traumatic Brain Injuries. Statistics are hard to come by from America’s other wars, but since the working figure for PTSD out of Iraq and Afghanistan is about 20 percent, that would leave millions of Vietnam and Korean vets suffering.

    — We read in Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide that military suicides increase among those who deploy overseas, among those who suffer brain injuries, and particularly among those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

    — We are silent as 20 veterans a day commit suicide.

    What does it all add up to on Veteran’s Day? This.


    As a State Department foreign service officer I spent a year embedded with the Army in Iraq at several smaller forward operating bases (FOBs). I wrote this about one very bad day.

    I heard about Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson’s (name changed) death at breakfast and walked over to his trailer. He’d put the barrel of his rifle into his mouth, with the weapon set for a three-round burst, and blew out the back of his skull. I saw the fan spray on the wall, already being washed off by the Bangladeshi cleaning crew. The bleach solution they used was smearing more than cleaning, and the Bangladeshis had little stomach to wring out the mop heads all that often. The blood smelled coppery and though I never smelled that before or since I can summon the smell into my mind at any time I wish, and at some times I don’t wish.

    The death of any soldier reverberated through the FOB. This was, after all, a small town, and nobody was left untouched. The ritual prescribed by regulation was the same, whether the death was by suicide or in combat. The chapel had rows of chairs set up, much as it would in Ohio or Georgia for a wedding, only at the front of the room was a wooden box with holes for the U.S. and the unit flag and a slot to stand the deceased’s rifle. The remains of the deceased were likely already on their way home and not with us. The box was made of plywood, stained and varnished like paneling, and reminded everyone of a high school wood shop project. The dead man’s boots stood on either side of the rifle, with his helmet on top. It was fitting no one had cleaned the boots, because the presence of the dust and dirt wiped away a lot of the cheapness of the event.

    There was a program with the official Army photo of the deceased, posed in front of an American flag — you could see a few red pockmarks on the side of his face, a chicken pox scar on his forehead. All these photos showed a vacant stare, same as every high school graduation photo. The chaplain read the 23rd Psalm.

    The required speeches were strained because the senior officers who had to speak at these events rarely knew, or could know among the many troops under them, the deceased. The dead man’s job had something to do with radios and most present didn’t say much beyond that. The eulogy thus rang a bit hollow, but you reminded yourself the words were not necessarily intended for you and that the Colonel may not have been the best man for the job. He was a responsible man, trying hard to do something impossible, and he probably felt bad for his lack of conviction, and that he was not a Pericles or Lincoln.

    The last speaker was by tradition someone acquainted with the deceased. In this ceremony, things were especially awkward. The dead man had taken his life after only a few months in the Army and even less time at this FOB. Nobody had befriended him, and this being the third suicide on the FOB made the whole thing especially grim. The ceremony felt rushed, like an over-rehearsed school play where the best performance had taken place the night before.

    But sometimes things surprised you, maybe because of low expectations, maybe because every once in a while somebody stood up and said just what needed to be said. A young Captain rose without notes. “I was his team leader but I never really knew him. Brian was new here. He didn’t have no nickname and he didn’t spend much time with us. He played Xbox a lot. We don’t know why he committed suicide. We miss him anyway because he was one of us. That’s all I have to say.”

    The ceremony ended with the senior enlisted person calling the roll for the dead man’s unit. Each member answered, “Here, Sergeant Major” after his name was called. That was until the name called was the dead man’s. “Brian Hutson?” Silence. “Brian E. Hutson?” Silence. “Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson?” Silence. Brian was not there and almost none of us had known him but yes, that day, at that place, we all missed him anyway.


    We will hear a lot this Veterans Day about supporting the troops and thanking them for their service. Please do those things; they deserve it.

    But don’t traffic in bullshit this Veterans Day. For all the talk about how much we owe, no one ever demands we pay up. If our nation insists on being so quick to send men and women into harm’s way, then it damn well better face up to its obligation to take care of them beyond yellow ribbons, firm handshakes, and discounts on wings ‘n beer. Food, shelter, health care, counseling– that’s how you support the troops on Veterans Day and every other day. We remember Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson by taking care of the brothers and sisters of his we created.



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    The Next Middle East War, Post-ISIS

    October 29, 2017 // 3 Comments »

    Iraqs-Prime-Minister-Nuri-al-Maliki

    Islamic State is in fatal decline. The Middle East will soon enter a new era, post-Islamic State, dominated by the Saudi-Iranian power struggle. The struggle will, as it has as it ran alongside the fight against Islamic State, involve shifting Sunni and Shiite allegiances. But the fight is not about religion. Religion this time has more to do with complicating choices in political bedfellows and where proxies are recruited than dogma. For behind that Sunni-Shiite curtain, this is a classic geopolitical power struggle — for control of Iraq and Syria, and for expanding diplomatic and strategic reach throughout the region.

    In the fight against Islamic State, it has been all too easy to cite expediency in putting complex issues aside, but as the alliances created for that struggle run their course, the new reality will force changes. With the strategic value of funding Islamic State as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq gone, the Saudis appear to be pivoting toward building warmer relations with the Shiite government in Baghdad. That a Saudi airline is just now announcing the first return of direct service between the two countries since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 is no coincidence, nor is it an isolated event

    The Saudis also appear willing to let a lot of religious water pass under the bridge to take advantage of a looming intra-Shiite power struggle in Baghdad among Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (above), and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr, the most religiously zealous Shiite of the group, has always been something of a nationalist, and unlike his rivals, is wary of Iranian influence. It is perhaps not surprising that he has made friendly trips to Sunni Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates, the first time in 11 years done under official invitation from Saudi Arabia.

    Sadr is an interesting choice for the Saudis to use to gain influence in Baghdad. Real progress for Riyadh means untangling years of close Iranian cooperation in Iraq, to include limiting the power of the Iranian-backed militias. Sadr has significant influence among the militias, and can use his religious credibility to sell Saudi cooperation to the vast numbers of his followers who remember well the Saudis funded al Qaeda in Iraq and Islamic State’s killing of so many Shiites over the years. Further enhancing Sadr’s Shiite religious status can thus further Sunni Saudi goals. During his visit, the Saudis gifted Sadr with $10 million for “rebuilding,” but also astutely threw in some special visas for this year’s Hajj pilgrimage for Sadr to distribute.

    One should not, however, sell Iran short. Its ties to officials in Baghdad are a tiny part of a deep relationship forged in the bloody fight against the American occupiers. Iranian special forces then helped defeat Islamic State, Iranian money continues to support Iraq, and the Shiite militias who will suddenly have a lot less to occupy their time post-Islamic State are still mostly under Iranian influence. In the absence of any effective national army, no government will stand long in Baghdad without militia support. At the moment, Iran is way ahead in Iraq.

    Iran is also likely to be a winner in Syria. Islamic State’s defeat will significantly lessen Sunni influence there, and Iran’s role as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s protector will only increase in value now that it appears Assad will remain in control of some portion of the country. The Saudis backed the wrong team and are left with little influence.

    In addition to a strong hand in Iraq and Syria, Iran is also probably the most stable Muslim nation in the Middle East. It has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years, and is largely religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous (though keep an eye on the Kurdish minority.) While still governed in significant part by its clerics, the country has held a series of increasingly democratic electoral transitions since the 1979 revolution. And unlike the Saudis, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one.


    Power struggles create flashpoints, and the Saudi-Iranian struggle post-Islamic State is no exception.

    The Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen has settled into a version of World War I-style trench warfare, with neither side strong enough to win or weak enough to lose. In an ugly form of stasis, the conflict seems likely to stay within its present borders.

    A potential powder keg however lies in Kurdistan. The Kurds, a de facto state arguably since 2003, did the one thing they weren’t allowed to do, pull the tiger’s tale by holding a formal independence referendum. That vote required everyone with a stake to consider their next moves instead of leaving well enough alone.

    Iran, and the Iranian-backed government now in Baghdad, are clear they will not tolerate an actual Kurdish state. With Islamic State defeated, those governments will simultaneously lose the need to make nice to keep the Kurds in that fight and find themselves with combat-tested Shiite militias ready for the next task. Following a Shiite move against the Kurds, and stymied in Yemen, imagine the Saudis throwing their support into the fight, and a new proxy war will be underway right on Iran’s own western border.


    While it may seem odd to write about the balance of power in the Middle East leaving out the United States, that may very well describe America’s range of options post-Islamic State.

    The United States, which did so much via its unnecessary invasion of Iraq and tragic handling of the post-war period to nurture the growth of Islamic State, seems the least positioned of all players to find a place in a post-Islamic State Middle East. American influence in Baghdad is limited, and with Washington having declared its opposition to the Kurdish independence referendum, likely limited in Erbil as well. Detente with Iran is in shambles under the Trump administration, leaving Washington with few options other than perhaps supporting the Saudis in whatever meddling they do in Iraq.

    Having followed his predecessor’s single minded “strategy” of simply “destroy Islamic State,” there are no signs the Trump administration has any ideas about what to do next, and with the military exhausted and the State Department apparently sitting out international relations at present, it is unclear if any will emerge. It will soon be mission accomplished for America with nothing much to follow. And if that sounds familiar, echoing back to 2003, well, then you understand how things got to where they are.




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    Kurdistan Independence Referendum: Fuse for Iraq War 4.0, and What Might Have Been

    October 5, 2017 // 1 Comment »

    Free Iraqi Child

    It was all a terrible, terrible waste. There were plenty of worthy markers along the way, but history loves a signature event, so let it be September 25, 2017, the day of the Kurdish independence referendum. That overwhelmingly “yes” vote to someday, somehow break away from Iraq will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections in October.


    The referendum, coupled with the ongoing decimation of Iraq’s Sunni minority population (with the destruction of Mosul in summer 2017 as its signature event), means “Iraq” no longer in practice exists. In its place is a Shiite state dominated by Iran, a new nation in all but name called Kurdistan, and a shrinking population of Sunnis tottering between annihilation or reservation-like existence, depending on whether the United States uses the last of its influence to sketch out the borders or abandons the Sunnis to fate.

    The waste comes in that a better version of all this was available around 2006. Every life (estimates are of some one million Iraqi dead, plus those 4,424 Americans), every dollar (the cost is in the trillions), and every unanticipated outcome (the rise of Islamic State, conflict in Syria) since then is part of the waste.


    The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement created modern Iraq, dividing up Arab lands that had been part the Ottoman Empire. A key goal of the era, creating Kurdistan, never happened. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres left an opening for a referendum on Kurdish independence. The referendum never took place, a victim of fighting that saw the Turkish people separate themselves from the remains of the Ottoman Empire and fight for two years to prevent the dismantling of what is now modern Turkey. The result is 30 million Kurds now scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

    No one at the time of Sykes-Picot could have imagined the Kurds would wait over 80 years for the United States to show up under the false flag of post-9/11 retribution to create the conditions for a modern referendum.


    The 2003 American invasion, arguably the single worst foreign policy decision since WWII, destroyed all civil order in Iraq. American failures opened the door to massive Iranian influence, such that a pro-Iranian government was installed in 2010 under the passivity of an America in retreat anxious for the illusion of stability. Iran and its Iraqi Shiite allies manipulated chaos into opportunity and began a process of political marginalization followed by direct ongoing violence against Iraqi Sunnis. That in turn created an opening for a Sunni protector, Islamic State, to replace the scattered al Qaeda.

    The situation facing the United States at that point was grim. While then President Obama seemed content to accept a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad in return for enough stability to maintain the false impression at home that America had at least “not lost” in Iraq, he could not accept a powerful Islamic State holding territory in northern and western Iraq, threatening Baghdad. When the Iraqi national army dropped its weapons, broke, and ran in 2014, and local Shiite militias proved too weak to fill the breach, Obama reinserted the U.S. military into Iraq, saving the Kurds with air power to then repurpose those fighters against Islamic State.

    It kind of worked: the Kurds, with American help, blunted Islamic State’s progress in the south, and retook territory in the north. The problem was that while American diplomacy, the carrot-and-stick of aid, and difficulty of maintaining long-distance logistics saw the Kurdish forces replaced by Shiite militias in some locations, the Kurds held their gains in the north. Victorious and blooded, they were not about to go home empty handed. The Kurds’ need for American arms did force them to postpone an independence referendum in 2014 opposed by Washington. However, three years later with Islamic State mortally weakened, Washington no longer holds that sway over Kurdish ambitions.

    The ground truth in autumn 2017 — a referendum-endorsed Kurdistan in the the north, a Shiite state in the south, a marginalized Sunni population out west — is pretty much the deal that could have been had in 2006, albeit now for a 2017 price.


    In 2006 then-senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden proposed Iraq be divided into three separate regions: Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni. Biden wanted the United States to broker the deal and leave behind a “residual force to combat terrorists and keep the neighbors honest.” A peacekeeping force of Americans that would impose itself between Sunni, Shiites, and Kurds, while keeping outsiders like Islamic State at bay. The Senate actually passed a resolution in 2007 supporting Biden’s idea.

    It probably would have stabilized the region. The Middle East in 2006 was a very different place than in 2017.

    In 2006 Iran faced an American military as yet unsullied by a decade more of grinding war. That military sat on both Iran’s western border with Iraq, and eastern border with Afghanistan. The Iranian nuclear program was years behind where it is today, leaving Iran’s ability to intercede in Iraq minimal. Syria in 2006 was a relatively stable place under not-then-yet-enemy of the free world Bashar al-Assad; indeed, there was some hope the young Assad might be a minor reformer. Turkey was stable, a recognized albeit reluctant NATO ally. Russia was not in 2006 a major player in the Middle East. Many of 2017’s regional genies were thus still in the bottle.

    By Middle Eastern standards security would have been a manageable proposition via a modest American military presence. Alongside this, America would have realized its long-sought enduring bases in Iraq and could have decoupled its Islamic State-forward Syrian policy from Iraq. Never mind the savings of all those lives and all that money.


    Instead, the rough play of the last decade has brought us to a worse place on the ground in Iraq at much greater cost. The ten years has also torn apart the regions surrounding Iraq such that Kurdish independence being a source of stability has greatly diminished. There are now new questions: in 2017 and beyond, will an empowered Iran push back against the Kurds? Will an engorged, nationalistic Turkey politically distant from NATO go to war over disputed borderlands with Kurdistan? Will the Kurds, emboldened by their victories and aware of America’s weaker position try to hold territory they now occupy in Syria? Will the Russians, newly returned to the neighborhood, look for opportunities? Will Israel, who backs Kurdish independence as part of its search for allies, seek a bigger role in the ongoing conflicts?

    Who will control the disputed flashpoint city of Kirkuk? And what will become of the oil reserves held by the land-locked Kurds? That question is key to the future of Kurdistan, as the government there is some $20 billion in debt with oil as its primary export.


    Alongside these questions, the American military, once with the chance of a role similar to that played in former Yugoslavia, instead will exist as a crumple zone among the forces of its own warring semi-allies. Imagine American forces trapped between Turk and Kurd fighters, all three sides armed by the United States, on a scale dwarfing the so-far quickly deconflicted skirmishes now happening inside Syria. Such a scenario tells the tale of what might have been in 2006 when the United States could have managed events, and 2017, when Americans can do little more than witness them.

    Kurdish independence — the 2017 version — is a fuse waiting to ignite the next phase of Mesopotamia sorting itself out. Call it the end of Iraq War 3.0, and the start of the next version.




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    Review: Ken Burns’ Vietnam

    October 2, 2017 // 5 Comments »



    Though Ken Burns’ 10-part PBS documentary The Vietnam War doesn’t try very hard, he can’t be blamed for failing as a filmmaker even if he had. It can’t be done. There are too many Vietnam War’s to accurately portray in a documentary, even one 18 hours long. So fair enough. But Burns’ real failure is not as a documentarian per se, it is one of courage.


    Burns teases us at the beginning of the series that there will be courage here, a reckoning of sorts, riffing off the final pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, showing war footage in reverse, so bombs return to their mothership’s belly, rockets are sucked out of the bush back onto helicopters, and, in case the point wasn’t clear yet, the 1st Cav walks backwards onto their Huey’s and departs the rice paddy. See, it’s an antiwar movie.

    Well, not really, or maybe not also. Burns quickly moves on to the next test, getting all the greatest hits in. There’s the iconic image of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head, and Nick Ut’s photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm raid, alongside that footage of bombs dropping, exploding Kodachrome orange against greener-than-green foliage. If the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black hadn’t been written during Vietnam, it would be necessary to invent time travel to place it alongside the war. And yep, there’s Dylan, a hippie chick with flowers, grunts in the jungle, Marlboro hard packs and M-16s at the ready. Check, check, check – Oh Suzy Q!

    No, wait, it’s one of those balanced documentaries. Burns treats us to the trope-ish story of Ho Chi Minh foolishly writing fan letters to American presidents over the years, starting way back with Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI, thinking the American love of freedom, ye olde tale o’ democracy, the experience as fellow colonialists, should in fact bond the United States to his side over the imperialist French. That didn’t happen, you see, so it’s ironic. There’s also a bunch of actual Vietnamese interviewed in Burns’ movie, albeit disproportionately far too many identified as formerly of the “South Vietnamese Army.” The ties to the CIA of several of those interviewed are also left obscured.

    For the Americans in the audience, there’s also a dollop of “Vietnam as a test of manhood/the test of manhood is actually a metaphor for broken American dreams of the 20th century.” Burns had no choice with this one, as it is required as much as the shots of Saigon whores in their tight ao dai’s. America loves the manhood story; it’s the version of Vietnam that allows us to revere a crusty old war monger like John McCain (Episode Four of Burns’ film even includes a shot of George W. Bush in the Air National Guard), and leaves people who took deferments like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton forever in shame.

    Burns does the manhood theme proud, though, slipping us both the noble grunt version via gritty personal anecdotes from guys you don’t know (though rough-and-tumble Marine guy Karl Marlantes pops up), and the Oliver Stone subreddit, where manhood is proved only after it is broken down (forget Platoon, his real telling was in Born on the Fourth of July.) Stone and his subject Ron Kovic don’t appear for Burns’ camera, but a non-celebrity grunt named John Musgrave is on camera to illustrate the journey from gungho killer to “it was all a lie, man.”

    OK, fair enough, Dad shouts at the TV screen, this is Ken Burns for heck’s sake. He does jazz, he does Americana, he gets baseball in a way that sends George Will reaching for the Viagra, of course he’s gonna go folksy. That’s why we donate and get the PBS tote bag each year. At least he filmed this one in color, all 79 individual interviews.

    But where Burns lets us down is where nearly everything that has or maybe will be written about Vietnam lets us down. He is too easy on the politicians who cynically manipulated the public, he is too easy on the bulk of the media who gleefully participated in the manipulation (everything short of proclaiming WMDs in Hanoi), too easy on individual soldiers who took advantage of lax leadership to, in historian Nick Turse’s words, kill anything that moves (My Lai was one, far from the only.)

    Burns drinks too deeply from the cup of “hate the war, not the warrior.” Deaths were committed because of a policy that demanded body counts, a number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. As Turse writes and Burns omits, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.” In 2017 America, where the military is fetishized, personal responsibility is lost.

    Burns indeed lets all of us off too easy. Us, the American people, the voters, the spectators, the ones who bought the epic story that Vietnam was a struggle between two great forces for the soul of civilization, Communism versus Freedom. The American people in 1962 (or ’65, or ’68, or 1945, or 1954) were not yet cynical. They were easily convinced what was little more than a continuation of colonialism was instead a firewall of the Cold War. We had come out of WWII winners, with anything that would have made that less than the Good War hidden for another couple of generations. Vietnam was then our bad childhood, and should have left us with no such excuse for Iraq (Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya…)

    Burns lets us off too easy because he does not demand we not let it all happen again, and that is his sin, omission.

    “With knowledge comes healing,” the filmmaker told Vanity Fair about his goal, but that is not the film he made.

    We should know better but we were the ones who bought the epic story that Iraq, et al, like Vietnam, was a struggle between two greats forces for the soul of civilization, Terrorism versus Freedom (feel free to substitute in Islam and Christianity.) We had to fight them over there (the beach at Danang instead of the beach at San Diego) or we’d fight them over here, the smoking gun a mushroom cloud over Cincinnati. We let Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon lie to us about the war, then let five successive modern presidents, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Kissinger also won the Peace Prize for ending the war he first helped prolong) lie to us about Iraq in a spin of our illusion of invincibility and moral rightness.

    Burns tips his hand in the first minutes of his series when the narrator intones the war was “begun in good faith.” Who could have known Vietnam was a war for independence, not a civil war as sold to the American people? That Pakistan supported the Taliban with U.S. aid money? That there gosh dang it weren’t any WMDs in Iraq? Burns doesn’t tell us that Vietnam was not an exception, it was a template.

    And so we all say “thank you for your service” today with the same uninformed conviction that we said “baby killer” back then. Americans need to die for freedom, yes, that’s standard, but civilians from the other side need to die in vast, angry clouds of millions, too, for their freedom. Agent Orange in the ‘Nam to punish the next generation of slopes, depleted uranium across the Middle East for the baby ragheads. There are no names of any Vietnamese civilians on that wall in Washington DC.

    Burns tried to be all things to all people, while failing at the most important task, making history valuable to the present. He does not seem in search of lessons, only in creating a catalog of Vietnam stuff and leaving it on the table for us to poke at, historical amuse bouche. By eschewing experts from his interviews to focus on “real people” and their anecdotes, Burns by default puts himself into the expert role. He then chooses not to responsibly occupy it.

    Ken Burns had a chance to reach for a higher goal with his work on Vietnam. Instead, there is no reckoning, and it is doubtful there ever will be. You can’t close the book on Vietnam if you want to keep it open for Syria, or Iran, or wherever America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits torture, assassinations, and mass killings all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public with the media’s financially-comfortable cooperation.

    Each of these wars is not the equivalent of stepping on a Lego in a darkened bedroom. It’s the same story, the same war. It has the same ending. It serves the same purpose. It’s Vietnam. We just slog through 18 hours of Vietnam documentary because it lasts 18 hours. After the 25th similar shot of helicopters landing, you may not even be sure why you’re still watching. You want to finish Burns’ documentary with the feeling the American people will rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but instead shut off the TV knowing we have, and will.



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    Sour Grapes: Iran Wins the Iraq War, and I Scooped the NYT by Six Years on the Story

    July 23, 2017 // 31 Comments »


    The New York Times is featuring a piece stating Iran is the big winner of the U.S.-Iraq wars, 1991-2017.

    So what does winning in Iraq look like, asks the Times? About like this:

    A Shia-dominated government is in Baghdad, beholden to Tehran for its security post-ISIS. Shia thug militias, an anti-Sunni and Kurd force in waiting, are fully integrated into the otherwise-failed national Iraqi military. There are robust and growing economic ties between the two nations. An Iraqi security structure will never threaten Iran again. A corridor between Iran and Syria will allow arms and fighters to flow westward in support of greater Iranian geopolitical aims in the Middle East. And after one trillion in U.S. taxpayer dollars spent, and 4,500 Americans killed in hopes of making Iraq the cornerstone of a Western-facing Middle East, American influence in Iraq limited.

    It seems the Times is surprised by the conclusion; it’s “news” for some apparently. The newspaper ran the story on its hometown edition front page.

    But sorry, it wasn’t news to me. I tried writing basically the same story in 2010 as a formal reporting cable for the State Department. Nobody wanted to hear it.

    At the time I was assigned to Iraq as an American diplomat, with some 20 years of field experience, embedded at a rural forward operating base. All the things that took until 2017 to become obvious to the New York Times were available to anyone on the ground back then with the eyes to see.

    The problem was what I wrote could never get cleared past my boss, and was never allowed to be sent to Washington. The Obama administration message was that America had won in Mesopotamia, and that we would be withdrawing to focus our national efforts on Afghanistan. “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has landed to this moment of success,” said Barack Obama. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self reliant Iraq.”

    So it was off-message – I was off-message – and thus needed to be ignored. The area where I was assigned in Iraq had a heavy Iranian presence, both special forces working with Iraqi Shia militias to help kill Americans, and Iranian traders and businessmen selling agricultural products (the Iranian watermelons were among the best I’ve ever eaten.) Bus loads of Iranian tourists were everywhere. Most were religious pilgrims, visiting special Shia sites, including mosques that had been converted by Saddam into Sunni places of worship which had been restored to their original Shia status, often with Iranian money, following America’s “victory.”

    In fact, somewhere in Iran are a tourist’s photos of me and his family, posing together in the area outside Salman Pak. He begged me for the souvenir photo op, never having met an American before, telling me about the small local hotel he hoped to finance for Iranian pilgrims in the future. I’d sure like a copy of the picture if he somehow reads this.

    Even after my boss deep-sixed my reporting in 2010, I still thought there was something to this Iranian thing. So I spoke to the designated “Iran Watcher” at the American Embassy in Baghdad. Her job was to monitor and report on Iran-related news out of Iraq, albeit from well inside the air conditioned Green Zone, without ever speaking to an Iranian or worrying that her convoy might be blown up by an Iranian Special Forces IED.

    I told her about the watermelons, those delicious Iranian fruits which were flooding the markets in the boonies where I lived. The melons were putting enormous pressure on Iraqi farmers, whose fruit was neither as tasty nor as government subsidized. The State Department Iran Watcher was quick to point out that I must be wrong about the Iranian fruit, because she had only yesterday been in a meeting with the Iraqi agricultural minister who had explained the Iraqi government’s efforts to seal the border had been wholly successful; she’d seen a translated report! Things went downhill from there, and the Embassy offered only canned peaches in syrup at lunch. Damn things tasted like the can, and there was a joke about the truth being too bitter to swallow I was too tired to make.

    A year later, 2011, back in Washington DC, I set down the same broad ideas about Iran victorious in layperson’s terms and was turned down as an op-ed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others. One editor said “So you’re telling Barack Obama he’s wrong? That the surge failed, the war wasn’t won, all those dead Americans were for nothing and Iran came out on top? Seriously?” I was made to feel like I was wearing a skirt in an NFL locker room.

    The best I could do with the knowledge I had that in yet another way the war had been for nothing was to settle for being treated as a kind of novelty, a guest blogger at Foreign Policy. Here’s the article I wrote there, scooping the New York Times by six years.

    As for the U.S. government, I’m still not sure they’ve gotten the story on Iraq.

     

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    How to Sustain Perpetual War (It’s Easy; Hide the Bodies)

    July 15, 2017 // 24 Comments »

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    Sustaining America’s state of post-9/11 perpetual war requires skillful manipulation of the public at home. The key tool used for this purpose is the bloodless narrative, a combination of policy, falsehoods and media manipulation that creates the impression that America’s wars have few consequences, at least for Americans.

    How can the American government sustain its wars in the face of dead soldiers coming home? Why is there no outcry among the American people over these losses? The answer is the narrative of bloodless war.


    The Dead

    The bloodless war narrative’s solution to the dead is a policy of don’t look, don’t tell.

    Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense for George H. W. Bush, helped decide in 1991 the first Iraq War would play better if Americans did not see their fallen return home. He recalled the images of coffins from the 1989 invasion of Panama on television, transposed against the president speaking of victory, and banned media from Dover Air Force Base, where deceased American personnel would arrive from the Persian Gulf.

    The ban at Dover lasted 18 years, past George Bush 2.0 and Iraq War 2.0, overturned only in 2009, well after the casualty counts dropped off. Even then, allowing cameras at Dover was left at the discretion of the families, except of course when the president needed a blood-stirring photo op. Obama took one just before ordering the surge in Afghanistan.

    Death, when it is reluctantly acknowledged, must still follow the bloodless narrative as closely as possible. Death must be for a good cause, freedom if possible, “for his buddies” later when public opinion weakens.

    There is no better example in recent times than the death of Pat Tillman, America’s once-walking propaganda dream. Tillman was a professional football player making a $3.6 million salary. Following 9/11, he gave that all up, and volunteered for combat. When he died in Afghanistan, the Army told his family he’d been killed by enemy fire after courageously charging up a hill to protect his fellow soldiers.

    It was of course the right thing to say to support the narrative, but it was a lie.

    A month later, the Pentagon notified Tillman’s family he had actually died as a result of friendly fire. The month placed the non-narrative news safely after Tillman’s memorial service and in the fog of faded media interest. Later investigations revealed the Army likely knew the death was by friendly fire within days.

    The Physically Wounded
    For all the trouble the dead cause to the bloodless narrative, the wounded are even messier. They still walk around, sometimes speak to journalists, and, well, do not always look bloodless.

    The Honolulu side of Waikiki beach is anchored by a hotel run by the Department of Defense as a low-cost vacation destination for servicepeople. While some of the grounds are public by Hawaiian law, the hotel itself is off limits.

    I used to have a government ID that let me in. Inside, who is a soldier? The buff bodies stand out against the beached whale look more popular among regular tourists. The odd-patterned tans – browned faces with pale white limbs – betray a recent trip to the Middle East.

    But sometimes it is a missing limb on a 20-year-old, or a face that looks like raw bacon. Could’ve been a car wreck or a factory fire, but I doubt it. The burns sketched precisely where the helmet had, and had not, been, a map of pain.

    That’s on the inside. When we as outsiders see images of the wounded, they instead follow the narrative. Brave troopers, with their state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs, are shown skiing, surfing or working out. Some featured amputees even demand to return to active duty. They show off their new limbs, some decorated with decals from their favorite sports teams. They are brave and they are strong.

    The inside story is again very different. A recent book by Ann Jones, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars, fills in what the narrative omits. As a summation, Jones offers the haiku of one military trauma nurse: “Amputees up to the waist. No arms. No legs. No genitals. Age 21 or 22. We cry.”


    The Mentally Wounded
    Military suicides have made it through the screen of bloodless narrative, but just barely, thanks to the Hollywood-ization of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

    Where we need clarity, we get tropes, such as the freaked-out-at-home scenes in Hurt Locker and American Sniper. Not to say those things don’t happen (they do) but to say those types of scenes are incomplete, giving enough info to arouse sympathy without actually being too alarming. As Ann Jones points out, such treatment of PTSD is “useful in raising citizen sympathy for soldiers, defusing opposition to Washington’s wars, and generally medicalizing problems that might raise inconvenient political and moral issues.”

    At the same time, another non-Hollywood narrative bubbles just below the surface, that some vets are exaggerating or outright faking it. PTSD inherits all of our stigmas toward mental illness, and that dilutes the bad news.

    One way of not knowing is not to look for the answers at all. The narrative says we should be like Mafia bosses’ kids, who never ask what Daddy does for a living despite our big house and fancy cars.


    When the Narrative Fails
    During the year I spent in Iraq, the only deaths experienced by the Army units I was embedded with were suicides.

    The death I was most familiar with was a young Private, who put his assault rifle into his mouth. No one back home saw what I saw, because they were not supposed to see: the fan spray of blood and brain on the wall, already being washed off as I arrived to look.

    These things are not unspeakable, we just don’t want to talk about them, and the bloodless narrative says we don’t have to. That keeps it alive. Because when the narrative fails, the wars tend to end.

    For example, in 1969, Life magazine published a famous edition consisting entirely of portraits of the Americans who died in Vietnam that week. Many subscribers canceled, but many more looked for the first time outside the narrative. The war found its end.

    In another conflict, President Bill Clinton pulled American troops out of Somalia after a photo showed crowds cheering a dead American soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. That image dogged American war mongering until it could be cleaned up by the bloodless narrative of Gulf War 1.0.

    We are no longer likely to see those nasty pictures. The military has become more skillful at manipulating the media, even as the media has become more compliant. In the X-rated world of war, most of the media refuses to budge from family fare.

    The military-media symbiosis is just one more tool that feeds the narrative. As long as Americans are convinced of the bloodlessness of perpetual war, the wars will go on.



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    A Letter: “Life without you has been like drinking bad whiskey by myself”

    July 7, 2017 // 9 Comments »



    Following my book about moral injury, memory, and loss, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, I received a cop of the following unsolicited letter. It’s reprinted here with the author’s permission.


    30 June 2017
    FOB Base Marez (Mozul)

    Dear Mark Strand,

    Forgive me for taking so long to write to you. You died back in November, 2014, and it’s taken me all this time to write. Forgive me.

    You once told me back when I was your student at Johns Hopkins that I should “stop mourning everything all the time” — true, I see loss everywhere, and I tend towards sadness — but it’s also true that I have missed you every day since you have died. I miss talking with you. I miss reading the early drafts of your poems and essays. I miss how easily good work comes from you; even early drafts have certain glamour. I miss watching your mouth read. I miss wanting to hold your hand — strangers at church hold hands; why not us? I miss feeling like your poems were prayers, and that your readers were blessed. I miss how handsome you were; even in death, you looked too good to bury.

    Something else: I miss that, unlike most great poets, you had no compulsion to immortalize yourself. Towards the end of your life, you were not a poet writing poems; instead, you were a poet who had become his poems.

    I miss you, my friend, my mentor. Life without you has been like drinking bad whiskey by myself.

    Let me tell you why I’m writing now: I’ve fallen in love. Really. After four divorces. Who would have thought!

    After a youth of restlessness, recklessness, and utter and total irresponsibility towards my wives and kids, and a middle age filled with disappointments, I fell in love with whom I had imagined and desired, but yet didn’t know. My lover has a true substance beyond imagination and desire.

    My lover was unrecognizable until she happened. She was the long-sought beloved. And she appeared from out of nowhere; she rose from the “Black Sea” of which you have written in one of your most anthologized poems.

    Now, loving her all day long in the simplest of chores in daily life, and spooning with her all night long with one aura around our two bodies, I am free. Free. Free. Free. I am free not from wanting, but free from the person who wanted. I am free from myself alone.

    Mark, today I write to you now on an empty street in an empty city in a faraway country besieged by war. Iraq. Afghanistan. Syria. Does it matter? There are no children in the streets. There is no music filling the buildings. The buildings are in ruins. The city is devastated. Dusty rumble. Roadblocks everywhere. Snipers everywhere. The last wishes of the dead and dying dissolve in the harsh sunlight on this terrible place. The dead are often without names; they are the nameless. Their toes tagged with numbers. Here, in this city, all the horrors are intended, deliberate, man-made.

    My story here is not so dramatic, but yet I have the life I’ve always wanted. I’m doing the work I was born to do. I’m just your basic MOS 3011 grunt and Fire Team Leader who got discharged, became a national security contractor, who then got assigned to the Expeditionary Targeting Force (ETF), but who is now wanting to be a humanitarian aid worker.

    And I’m in love. Her name is Victoria. She is a Goddess.

    And this is what Victoria taught me: Heaven is not there in the imagination; it is right here, where Hell is, too. Heaven and Hell coexist, and angels and demons cohabitate. Somehow Heaven and Hell both feel the same. Why? Because things matter less than they used to matter. Only love seems to matter now.

    Love and poetry.

    And art of loving and writing poetry.

    Mark, you’ll be happy to know that, finally, I’ve stopped mourning everything all the time. After four divorces, alcohol and other addictions, assorted (and sordid) other self-destructive behaviors, anger management issues, depression, anxiety and panic disorder, etc. — you know my story — I feel reborn, like a baby in his mother’s arms.

    This is what I also know: Soon, in this war-ravaged city, buds will appear on the dead-looking limbs of the trees. The buds will become leaves. Tiny, red-tasseled flowers will appear and bloom. The blossoms will be blood-red, but not blood-red, and it will be a time for magical thinking. The dead will demand it.

    I miss you, maestro. I really miss you. Thank you for being my friend and teacher.

    Love,

    John Good Iron




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    How Accidental are America’s Accidental Civilian Killings Across the Middle East?

    June 30, 2017 // 20 Comments »



    U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said “civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation,” referring to America’s war against Islamic State.


    How can America in clear conscience continue to kill civilians across the Middle East? It’s easy; ask Grandpa what he did in the Good War. Civilian deaths in WWII weren’t dressed up as collateral damage, they were policy.

    Following what some claim are looser rules of engagement in place under the Trump administration, U.S.-led coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria killed 1,484 civilians in March 2017 alone. Altogether some 3,100 civilians have been killed from the air since the U.S. launched its coalition war against Islamic State, according to the NGO Airwars. Drone strikes outside of the ISIS fight killed 3,674 other civilians. In 2015 the U.S. destroyed an entire hospital in Afghanistan, along with doctors and patients inside.

    That all adds up to a lot of accidents — accidents created in part by the use of Hellfire missiles designed to destroy tanks employed against individual people, and 500 pound bombs that can clear a football-field sized area dropped inside densely inhabited areas. The policy of swatting flies with sledgehammers, surgical strikes with blunt instruments, does indeed seem to lead to civilian deaths, deaths that stretch the definition of “accident.”

    Yet despite the numbers killed, the watchword in modern war is that civilians are never targeted on purpose, at least by our side. Americans would never intentionally kill innocents.


    Except we have.


    The good guys in World War II oversaw the rapid development of new weapons to meet the changing needs of killing entire cities’ worth of innocents. For example, in Europe, brick and stone construction lent itself to the use of conventional explosives to destroy cities. In Japan, however, given the prominence of wood construction, standard explosives tended to simply scatter structures over a limited area. The answer was incendiary devices.

    To fine-tune their use, the U.S. Army Air Force built a full-size Japanese village in Utah. They questioned American architects who had worked in Japan, consulted a furniture importer, and installed tatami straw floor mats taken from Japanese-Americans sent off to internment camps. Among the insights gained was the need for incendiary devices to be made much heavier than originally thought. Japanese homes typically had tile roofs. The early devices tended to bounce right off. A heavier device would break through the tile and ignite inside the structure, creating a much more effective fire.

    Far from accidental, firebombing Japan had been planned in War Plan Orange, written long before Pearl Harbor. As far back as the 1920s, U.S. General Billy Mitchell had said Japan’s paper and wood cities would be “the greatest aerial targets the world had ever seen.” Following the outline in War Plan Orange, the efforts were lead by Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay, who expressed his goal as “Japan will eventually be a nation without cities, a nomadic people.”

    LeMay also helped run the U.S. bombing campaign against North Korea during that war, claiming that American efforts killed some 20 percent of the civilian population. The man many call the architect of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara, worked for LeMay during the WWII firebombing campaign. McNamara as Secretary of Defense went on to order the use of napalm in Vietnam, often against undefended civilian targets. The accidents of civilian deaths in war turn inside tight circles.

    The skill with which America tuned its WWII firebombing into a exquisite way to destroy civilians reached its peak on March 10, 1945, when three hundred American B-29 bombers flew virtually unopposed over Tokyo’s most densely populated residential area. They dropped enough incendiary bombs to create a firestorm, a conflagration that burned the oxygen out of the air itself.

    What was accomplished? One hundred thousand dead, a million people made homeless. The raid remains the single most destructive act of war ever committed, even after Hiroshima.


    The problem, however, for the U.S. with such raids was their inefficiency in killing civilians. The logistics of sending off 300 planes were daunting, especially when an hour or two of unexpected wind or rain could negate much of effort. There was no question firestorms were the very thing to systematically commit genocide in Japan. But what was needed was a tool to create those firestorms efficiently, and to make them weather-proof.

    It would only take science a few more months after the Tokyo firebombing to provide that tool. A single atomic bomb meant one plane could do the work of 300. And the bomb would create a fire so powerful and large and hot that weather would have no effect; it was foolproof. There could be no better weapon for destroying whole cities and all of the people in them, and it has only been used by one nation. Twice, because the 85,000 killed in Hiroshima were not enough.

    These were tactics of vengeance matched with weapons designed to carry them out as horribly as possible. They worked well: the firebombing campaign over Japan, including the atomic bombings, purposely killed more than one million civilians in just five months in 1945.

    It was only after WWII ended, when accurate descriptions from Hiroshima began finding their way back to America, that the idea of firebombing as a way to shorten the war, to spare lives in the long game, came into full flower. The myth, that the atomic bomb was in fact a reluctant instrument of mercy, not terror, was first published in Harper’s Magazine in February 1947 under the name of Secretary of War Henry Stimson. The actual writing was done by McGeorge Bundy, who later as National Security Adviser helped promote the American war in Vietnam that took several million civilian lives.

    The majority of Americans, recovering their consciences post-war, were thus nudged into seeing what was actually a continuation of long-standing policy of civilian genocide in Japan as an unfortunate but necessary step toward Japan’s surrender, and thus saved innumerable lives that would have been lost had the war dragged on. This thinking lives on today on politically correct ground under the banner of great powers having to reluctantly put aside what is moral in peace for what is expedient in war. A “fact of life,” according to the U.S. Secretary of Defense.


    So look deeper into history if you want to understand the morality-free rise in civilian deaths across America’s battlefields in the Middle East. We don’t like to think of ourselves as the kind of people who willfully kill innocents, but we were pleased by it only a skip back in history; your grandfather flew missions over Japan to burn children to death. Accidents of course happen in war, but there is a dark history of policy that demands skepticism each time such claims are made.



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    Groundhog Day in Iraq? Nope, Worse

    June 23, 2017 // 31 Comments »

    petraeus-crocker-sons-of-iraq


    It’s a helluva question: “Tell me how this ends.”

    It was a good question in 2003 when then Major General David Petraeus asked it as the United States invaded Iraq, an ironic one in 2011 when the US withdrew, worth revisiting in 2014 when the US reinvaded Iraq, and again in 2017 as Islamic State appears to be on its way out. Problem is we still don’t have a good answer. It could be Groundhog Day all over again in Iraq, or it could be worse.



    Groundhog Day

    The Groundhog Day argument, that little has changed from 2003 until now, is quite persuasive. Just look at the headlines. A massive Ramadan car bomb exploded not just in Baghdad, but in Karada, its wealthiest neighborhood, during a holiday period of heightened security, and all just outside the Green Zone were the American Embassy remains hunkered down like a medieval castle. Islamic State, like al Qaeda before it, can penetrate the heart of the capital city, even after the fall of their home base in Fallujah (2004, 2016.) Meanwhile, Mosul is under siege (2004, 2017.) Iranian forces are on the ground supporting the Baghdad central government. The Kurds seek their own state. American troops are deep in the fighting and taking casualties. The Iraqi Prime Minister seems in control at best only of the Shia areas of his country. Groundhog Day.

    But maybe this time around, in what some call Iraq War 3.0, we do know how it ends.


    Not Groundhog Day

    It seems unlikely anyone will be able to get the toothpaste of Kurdish independence back into the tube. A functional confederacy since soon after the American invasion of 2003, Kurdish national forces have linked with Kurdish militias, albeit with American help, across the width of northern Iraq, from the Iranian border in the east into Turkey and Syria in the west. This is in large part the land mass traditionally thought of as Kurdistan.

    The Trump administration is for the first time overtly arming Kurdish militias in Syria (some of whom the Turks consider terrorists) to fight Islamic State, without much plan in mind about how to de-arm them when they turn towards the Turks who hold parts of their ancestral homeland. That may not even be a valid question; the ties that bound the United States and Turkey during Iraq War 2.0 appear significantly weakened following Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s coup. His authoritarian government seems far less a valued NATO partner in 2017 than it was even a few years ago. Though the US may require the Kurds to maintain some sort of fictional relationship with the country of “Iraq” to preserve the illusion of a unified nation for American domestic consumption, the key question is whether the Kurds will go to war with Turkey somewhere in the process, and whether the US will choose a side.

    Any reluctance on the part of the United States during Iraq War 2.0 to act as a restraining force on the Shia central government’s empowering of militias (gifted the Orwellian name of Popular Mobilization Units) disappeared when the Iraqi National Army dropped its weapons and ran from Islamic State in 2014. Those militias — only loosely allied with one another, and even less tied to the central government — now carry the bulk of the responsibility for the fight against Islamic State. Many owe their primary allegiance to Iran, who helps arm them, command them, and by some accounts supplements their efforts with special forces dispatched from Tehran. These militias, empowered by the Iranian help now offered openly as America shrugs its shoulders at expediency, are unlikely to be interested in any kind of Sunni-Shia unified Iraq post-Islamic State. It will be near impossible to demobilize them. Indeed, holding them back from committed a Sunni genocide will be the likely challenge in the near future.

    The Iraqi government “victories” over Islamic State in Sunni strongholds like Ramadi and Fallujah have left little for those not sent off as internal refugees. Large swathes of Sunni territory lay in ruins, with no clear plan to rebuild in sight. A political officer at the American Embassy would likely tell you the problem is that neither the U.S. nor Iraq will have the funds anytime in the foreseeable future. A Sunni tribal leader would likely spit on the ground and explain the Shia central government wouldn’t spend a dime if it had a dollar, and will settle for a slow-motion genocide of the Sunni people if the Americans won’t allow a quick one at Shia gunpoint. No matter; the desolation of Sunni areas is severe, regardless of the cause.

    Iraq will be a Shia nation with extraordinary ties to Iran. With no small amount of irony, the price Iraq and Iran will be forced to pay for America, and Israel, titularly accepting this will likely be permanent American military bases inside Iraq (don’t laugh until you remember Guantanamo in Soviet-dominated Cuba, or Hong Kong nestled in Communist China), mostly out of sight way out west with more interest in Syria than Iran. America has wanted those bases since the early days of Iraq War 2.0, and Iran has nothing to gain by picking a fight with the United States. They get the rest of Iraq, after all.

    What happens to the bulk of Iraqi Sunnis is less certain, though the menu is all bad news. World media optics suggest it is in everyone’s interests that any mass slaughter be avoided; Iran in particular would have no interest in giving President Trump or an angry Congress an excuse to get more involved in Iraq’s internal affairs. With the US bases most likely to be located in western Iraqi Sunni homelands, it may be that the tribes find themselves the unofficial beneficiaries of American protection. Those permanent American bases, and the safety they provide, might also keep the successor to Islamic State from moving into a power vacuum the way Islamic State did when al Qaeda found it had outstayed its welcome among the Sunni population.

    This is the End

    Tell me how this ends? A defacto divided Sunni-Shia-Kurd “Iraq” with stronger ties to Iran than the United States. The only unanswered question will be if the value of that ending is worth the cost of some 14 years of American combat, close to 4,500 American dead, and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent.

     

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    Requiem for a Soldier Suicide: Missing Him

    May 27, 2017 // 25 Comments »

    For Memorial Day, here’s an excerpt from my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. The name of the deceased has been changed and the exact location of the ceremony obscured out of respect.

    Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson, in Iraq, put the barrel of his M-4 rifle into his mouth and blew out the back of his skull. He was college-aged but had not gone and would never go to college. Notice appeared in the newspapers a week after his death, listed as “non-combat-related.”

    I heard about his death at breakfast and walked over to his trailer. I took a quick look inside and saw the fan spray of blood and brain on the wall, already being washed off by the Bangladeshi cleaning crew. The bleach solution they used was smearing more than cleaning, and the Bangladeshis had little stomach to wring out the mop heads all that often. Blood like this smelled coppery. It reminded you that you were not welcome. Even if you’d never smelled pooled blood before, you didn’t have to learn what it was, you already knew something was wrong in this place.

    The death of any soldier reverberated through our Forward Operating Base. This was, after all, a small town, and nobody was left untouched. The comfort of ritual stood in for public expressions of actual feelings, which were best kept private and close. And the ritual prescribed by regulation was that the chapel had rows of chairs set up, much as it would in Hamilton, Ohio, or Marietta, Georgia, for a wedding, only at the front of the room was a wooden box with holes for the U.S. and the unit flag and a slot to stand the deceased’s rifle. The remains of the deceased were likely already on their way home and not with us. The box was made of plywood, stained and varnished like paneling, and reminded everyone of a B+ wood shop project. The dead man’s boots stood on either side of the rifle, with his helmet on top. Before the event started, the hum in the room was about future meetings, upcoming operations, food in the DFAC, the workaday talk of soldiers.

    There was a program, done up on a word processor, with the official Army photo of the deceased, wearing a clean uniform, posed in front of an American flag. You could see a few red zit marks on the side of his face, a chicken pox scar. All these photos showed a vacant stare, same as every high school graduation photo.

    The program was strained. As with every other briefing they gave the officers read words someone else wrote for them to give the impression of authority and familiarity. The dead man’s job had something minor to do with radios and most present didn’t know what to say beyond that. The eulogy thus rang a bit hollow, but you reminded yourself that the words were not necessarily intended for you and that the Colonel may not have been the best man for the job. He was a responsible man, trying hard to do something impossible. He understood why we were all here, and that a task had to be done, and that he need not be Pericles or Lincoln to do a decent job of it.

    The last speaker was by tradition someone acquainted personally with the deceased. In today’s ceremony, things were especially awkward. The dead man had taken his life and had done so after only a few months in the Army and even less time at this base. Nobody really had befriended him, and this being the third suicide at this place made the whole thing especially grim. The ceremony felt rushed, like an over rehearsed school play where the best performance had taken place the night before.

    But sometimes things surprised you, maybe because of low expectations, maybe because every once in awhile somebody stood up and said just what needed to be said. A young Lieutenant rose without notes. “I was his team leader but I never really knew him. Brian was new here. He didn’t have no nickname and he didn’t spend much time with us. He played Xbox a lot. We don’t know why he committed suicide. We miss him anyway because he was one of us. That’s all I have to say.”

    This was how the Army healed itself. It was a simple organization, a vast group of disparate people who came together for their own reasons, lived in austere conditions, and existed to commit violence under bewildering circumstances. Simply, we will miss him anyway because he was one of us. The word that raised the sentence beyond simple declaration was “anyway.” It was important to believe we all meant something to one another because we were part of this. When it rained, we all got wet. We could hate the war, hate the president, hate the Iraqis, but we could not hate one another.

    The ceremony ended with the senior enlisted person calling the roll for the dead man’s unit. Each member answered, “Here, Sergeant Major” after his name. That was until the name called was the dead man’s. “Brian Hutson?” Silence. “Brian E. Hutson?” Silence. “Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson?” Silence. Brian was not there and almost none of us had known him but yes, today, at this place, we all missed him anyway.

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    My Letter in Support of a Reduced Sentence for Pvt. Manning

    May 17, 2017 // 18 Comments »

    According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Convening Authorities can reduce or eliminate a convicted soldier’s sentence. They use this power when they feel the court martial failed to deliver justice. As Commanding General of the Military District of Washington, Major General Jeffrey S. Buchanan is the only other individual besides President Obama (and there ain’t no joy there unless Manning qualifies as a Syrian kid) with the power to lessen Pvt. Manning’s sentence.

    This process is not new, nor unique. Though a slightly different judicial procedure, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals only in June of this year reduced the sentence of a former Ramstein Air Base staff sergeant who advertised babysitting services to gain access to three young girls he repeatedly sexually assaulted. Staff Sgt. Joshua A. Smith’s sentence was reduced such that Smith, 30, would be eligible for parole after a decade or more. The appellate judges, in their written opinion, said that despite the heinousness of Smith’s crimes against the girls — ages 3, 4 and 7 — the sentence handed down in November 2010 by military judge Col. Dawn R. Eflein and approved by the Third Air Force commander was “unduly severe.”


    If you wish to add your voice to the many now asking for Manning’s sentence to be reduced, the instructions on how to do so are straightforward.

    Here is what I wrote:

    Major General Jeffrey S. Buchanan
    Commanding General, U.S. Army Military District of Washington, DC

    General Buchanan:

    I write to request that as the Convening Authority in the case of U.S. v. Bradley E. Manning you move to reduce Pvt. Manning’s sentence to time served. Pvt. Manning has, in the course of several difficult years of confinement, taken responsibility for his actions and has been punished.

    As the leader of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Iraq, I was embedded with the 10th Mountain Division, 2nd Brigade at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hammer at the same time Manning was deployed there (though we never met.) I worked closely with Colonel Miller and his team to implement U.S. goals, and came away with great respect for him and his officers, and the enlisted men and women of the Commandos.

    At the same time, I experienced first-hand the austere conditions at FOB Hammer, and the difficult lives the soldiers led. As you are aware, one young soldier tragically took his own life early in the deployment at Hammer. Many veteran soldiers, some who served in the Balkans, also talked about the rough conditions at our FOB. I saw that at times computer security was imperfect. While none of this excuses Pvt. Manning (nor should it; he himself has plead guilty to multiple counts), it does in part help explain it. I ask that you consider these factors in your decision.

    As a State Department employee, I had access to the same databases Pvt. Manning in part disclosed, and back in Washington played a small roll in State’s “damage review.” I thus know better than most outsiders what Pvt. Manning did and, significantly, did not disclose, and am in a position to assess dispassionately the impact. As the State Department and the DoD reluctantly concluded at Manning’s trial, little if any verifiable damage was indeed done to the United States. There is no denying that the disclosures were embarrassing and awkward, but that is not worth most of a man’s life.

    Justice elevates us all, and reflects well on our beloved nation. The revenge inherent in a 35 year sentence against Pvt. Manning does not.

    Very Respectfully,

    (signed)

    Peter Van Buren



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    Would You Have Chelsea Manning’s Courage When Called?

    // 28 Comments »




    Chelsea is free!


    With more than a little irony, while I was in Iraq working for the State Department, Chelsea Manning’s office was across the hall from mine. While I was winning the war by writing emails to the embassy, Manning was across the hall capturing the texts of hundreds of thousands of State Department cables, famously released by Wikileaks, showing that was could never be won.

    My war in Iraq ended in near-complete failure. What Manning did will have an impact far beyond that terrible struggle. In this video, I ask the question of why I didn’t do what Manning did, and challenge the audience: when faced with history, would you have the courage to do what Manning did?

    I didn’t.


    Skip ahead to about 2:30





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    Nooooooooooooooo! Iraq Asks U.S. for Marshall Plan Reconstruction Funds

    May 1, 2017 // 15 Comments »


    Iraq’s Foreign Minister this week asked the United States to develop a financial plan for the reconstruction of the country after ISIS, similar to a program developed for Western Europe after the Second World War.

    In discussions with Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition Brett McGurk, Ibrahim al-Jaafari stressed the need for “collective support from the international community to contribute to the reconstruction of infrastructure after the defeat of terrorism.” Jaafari suggested “the adoption of a project similar to the Marshall Plan which contributed to rebuilding Germany after the Second World War.”

    Iraq will need billions of dollars to rebuild after ISIS. Large portions of major cities were destroyed in the war, infrastructure was neglected under ISIS, villages are riddled with mines and booby-traps. The deputy governor of Anbar estimated that his province would need $22 billion alone for reconstruction.
    Um, never mind invoking the Marshall Plan. What needs to be cited here is that the United States already spent billions to reconstruct Iraq, from 2003-2010. I know. I was there. It was my job to help spend some of those billions. We accomplished less than nothing. In fact, our failure to reconstruct Iraq then lead in a direct line to the Iraq of now. I cannot believe I am writing this. Again.

    See, in fact, I wrote a whole book about it: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, in 2011. I just sent a copy to Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition Brett McGurk, and asked him to pass it on to the Iraqi Foreign Minister after he’s done reading it.
    But in case Brett or the Minister don’t get around to reading a whole book, here’s a shorter version.

    I spent a year in Iraq as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, leading two of the then-vaunted Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We were charged with nothing less than winning the war for America by rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, creating a functioning democracy and stable economy that would preclude terrorists like ISIS (well, it was al Qaeda then) from gaining a foothold, and thus ensuring Iraq would be an ally of the United States in the war on terror. This is the same mission statement that the Iraqi Foreign Minister would want tagged to his proposed reconstruction plan.

    When my book came out in September 2011, most people I met with threw out skeptical comments: “Well, maybe it will work out like in Germany and Japan,” they said. When I met with staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2012, they said, “We’d like to believe you, but everything that State tells us contradicts your thesis that the money spent was just a big waste.”

    But now it’s official. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction concluded “$60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost.”

    Then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said “that $55 billion could have brought great change in Iraq,” but the positive effects of those funds were too often “lost.”

    Then Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, the country’s top Sunni official, told auditors that the rebuilding efforts did not “achieve the purpose for which it was launched. Rather, it had unfavorable outcomes in general.” Like ISIS.

    There “was usually a Plan A but never a Plan B,” said Kurdish official Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
    Shiite, Sunni, Kurd. Trust me, about the only thing everybody agrees on is the United States spent a bundle of money between 2003-2011 and got nothing for it but ISIS.

    According to the Associated Press, the United States has spent more than $60 billion in reconstruction grants on Iraq. That works out to about $15 million a day. Overall, including all military and diplomatic costs and other aid, the United States has spent at least $767 billion since the U.S.-led invasion began.

    And guess who was one of the people in charge of the last Iraq reconstruction? Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition Brett McGurk. Maybe this time around he’s smart enough to not get fooled again. In fact, I’ve recommended a book for him to read to help out.

     

    McGurk Bonus: McGurk spent a good portion of the last 14 years working for the U.S. Government in Iraq, advising several ambassadors and leading the failed negotiations to secure permanent U.S. bases there. You’d kinda think having that on your resume – “I am partially responsible for everything that happened in Iraq for the last ten years, including America’s tail-between-its-legs retreat” — might make it hard to get another job running Iraq policy. Who goes out of their way to hire the coach that lost most of his games?

    The other side of McGurk’s failed attempt at being ambassador to Iraq was his questionable personal life, which in turn raised issues of judgement, decorum, discretion, and class. It was his sexual misconduct that brought the real questions of competence and ability to light. For no apparent gain, but whatever, Iraq.

     

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    Film Review: National Bird Looks Deeply in the Drone War’s Abyss

    April 27, 2017 // 5 Comments »



    National Bird, a documentary film about America’s drone wars by filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck, airs May 1 at 10 pm on your local PBS station as part of the Independent Lens series.

    I had a chance to see the film in advance, and here’s why you should watch it: it is terrifying even in the quiet moments; it is most terrifying in the quietest moments.


    National Bird is a deep, multilayered, look into America’s drone wars, a tactic which became a strategy which became a post-9/11 policy. To many in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world, America’s new national symbol is not the bald eagle, but a gray shadow overhead armed with Hellfire missiles.

    The Silence

    Scattered throughout the documentary are silent images from drones and aerial cameras, sweeping, hypnotic vistas taken from above both Afghan villages and American suburbs. The message could not be more clear: the tools used over there can just as easily be used over here, not merely for surveillance (as is already happening in America) but perhaps one day soon to send violence down from the sky. Violence sudden, sharp, complete and anonymous.



    The Americans

    The anonymity of that violence comes at a price, in this case in the minds of the Americans who decided who lives and dies. National Bird presents three brave whistleblowers, two former uniformed Air Force veterans (Lisa Ling, Heather Linebaugh) and a former civilian intelligence analyst (Dan), people who have broken cover to tell the world what happens behind the scenes of the drone war. There are ironic elements of “old hat” here, chilling in that we have sadly grown used to hearing that drone strikes kill more innocents than terrorists, that the people who make war justify their actions by calling their victims hajjis and ragheads, that America draws often naive young people into its national security state on the false promises of hollow patriotism and turns them into assassins.

    Heather suffers from crippling PTSD. Lisa is compelled to travel to Afghanistan with a humanitarian group to reclaim part of her soul, a victim of moral injury. Dan is in hiding as an Espionage Act investigation unfolds around him. A sobering side to this all is the presence of the whistleblowers’ attorney, Jesselyn Radack, who currently also helps defend Edward Snowden. Radack ties the actions of the drone whistleblowers into the larger post-9/11 narrative of retributive prosecutions and government attempts to hide the truth of America’s War on Terror from everyone but its victims.



    The Afghans

    The final layer of National Bird is what may be some of the first interviews with innocents who have suffered directly from drone attacks. The film interviews at length members of an Afghan extended family attacked from the air in a case of mistaken targeting even the Department of Defense now acknowledges.

    The family members speak six years after the fact as if still in shock. Here’s a boy who shows off his leg stump. Here’s a woman who lost her husband, the boy’s father, in the same attack. Here is another father discussing the loss of his own child. In a critical piece of storytelling, National Bird does not seek to trivialize the deaths in Afghanistan by weighing them against the psychological trauma suffered by the Americans, but rather shows the loss to everyone done in our names.

    (Full disclosure: Jesselyn Radack helped represent me in my own whistleblower fight against the U.S. Department of State in 2012)




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    Tell Us Why We’re At War, President Trump

    April 24, 2017 // 30 Comments »



    People speak of Afghanistan as “our generation’s” Vietnam, a quagmire, a war that goes on simply because it has been going on.


    The Afghan war is dragging into being our generation’s, and soon the next generation’s Vietnam as well, over a decade and a half old. There are troops deploying now that were two years old when the conflict started. There are fathers and sons deploying together. Bin Laden’s been dead for years.

    With a slight break, the current war in Iraq has been ongoing for some 14 years. If you want to think of it in a longer view, Trump is now the fifth consecutive president to make war on that country. Saddam’s been dead for years.

    And though of more recent vintage, the war in Syria appears both open-ended in duration and ramping up in U.S. involvement. If Assad died tomorrow, the war would likely only intensify, as the multiple parties in the fight vie to take over after him.

    The reason we’re fighting all of these places and more can’t still be “terrorism,” can it? That has sort of been the reason for the past 16 years so you’d think we would have settled that. Regime change? A lot of that has also happened, without much end game, and nobody seems to know if that does or ever did apply in Syria to begin with. America can’t be under threat after all these years, right? I mean, world’s most powerful military and all that.


    So maybe it’s time for the current president to tell us why we’re still fighting in all of these wars. Because previous presidents’ track records on explaining to the ever-bloodthirsty American public why we are fighting is poor. Perhaps history has a lesson for us?


    — When I was a kid, successive presidents told us we had to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, because if we didn’t fight them over there, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of California. We believed. It was a lie.

    — I was a teenager during the Cold War, several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, maybe invade Cuba, fight covert wars and use the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments and replace them with dictators, or the Russians would destroy us. We believed. It was a lie.

    — When I was in college our president told us that we needed to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua or the Sandinistas would come to the United States. He told us Managua was closer to Washington DC than LA was. He told us we needed to fight in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.

    — When I was a little older our president told us how evil Saddam Hussein was, how his soldiers bayoneted babies in Kuwait. He told us Saddam was a threat to America. He told us we needed to invade Panama to oust a dictator to protect America. We believed. It was a lie.

    — Another president told us we had to fight terrorists in Somalia, as well as bomb Iraq, to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.

    — The one after him told us that because a bunch of Saudis from a group loosely tied to Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11, we needed to occupy that country and destroy the Taliban, who had not attacked us. The Taliban are still there 15 years later, ISIS now too, and so is the American military. We believed. It was a lie.

    — After that the same President told us Saddam Hussein threatened every one of our children with weapons of mass destruction, that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. We believed. It was a lie.

    — In 2011 the president and his secretary of state told us we needed regime change in Libya, to protect us from an evil dictator. We believed. It was a lie.

    — In August 2014 the same president told us we needed to intervene again in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple, limited act only the United States could conduct, and then we’d leave. We believed. It was a lie.

    — That same president later told us Americans will need to fight and die in Syria. He says this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland. We believed. It was a lie.


    So with a new guy in the White House, maybe it’s time to renew the question. Perhaps the media can take a day off from what borders on sexual pleasure gushing over the latest super bomb and ask the president a few simple questions: why are we fighting, what is the goal, when will we get there? Someone should have asked a long time ago, but since no one did, this is as good a time as any.




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    Iraqis Making Freelance Bomb Disposal Into A Lucrative New Business

    April 17, 2017 // 15 Comments »

    ied


    When someone gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right?

    And so it goes in Freedom Land of Iraq, where for many, now out from under the heels of Islamic State, the Iraqi people have only to clear out all the bombs, IEDs, and unexploded ordnance left everywhere they want to live by all sides in this ongoing clusterf*ck of foreign policy adventurism.

    Despite the gazillions of dollars in U.S. aid, Iraq claims not to have the personnel to defuse all the explosives left behind once freedom reigns in places like Fallujah. So, concerned local citizens, who have been making defusing bombs for decades (handling explosives is an Olympic event in Iraq), smelled a business opportunity.

    The fellows at NIQASH tell us the story of one Faleh al-Marsoumi, who got involved in the lucrative new trade because it was taking too long for authorities to come to his home and remove booby trapped explosives. He tried unsuccessfully to find someone to help him on the freelance market (there is no TaskRabbit franchise — yet — in Iraq.)

    Unable to find anyone at a reasonable price, Marsoumi decided to do the work himself.

    “I watched some videos on the Internet about how to remove IEDs,” he says. See the video, below, at around :55. That’s the wrong way to do it.

    After clearing his own property, Marsoumi soon was helping out friends at their houses. Eventually he began charging for his services. He made so much money that he quit his day job and now focuses exclusively on IED disposal. He has even hired on two guys to assist him.

    “There are three of us now working together and we charge some of the lowest prices in the market,” Marsoumi said.

    Clearing a house costs between US$300 and US$700. Clearing a car of IEDs costs US$200.





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