• Archive of "Syria" Category

    State Department Lamely Markets Anti-IS Messages to Millennials

    June 29, 2015 // 11 Comments »

    just_say_no_isis_terrorism_shirt

    I know a fair number of State Department employees peak at this blog, so I have a favor to ask.

    Would someone please tell the “social media gurus” at the State Department young people join Islamic State for a number of very serious and often deeply-held reasons — religion, disillusionment with the west, anger at American policy — and not because they saw an IS tweet? And that you can’t dissuade people from their beliefs simply with a clever hashtag and 140 characters of propaganda pablum?

    Yet the idea that the State Department can use social media to “counter program” IS’ message persists, even as its uselessness stares everyone but the State Department in the face.

    A Little Background on YouTube

    The State Department’s propaganda uses a negative message to try and counter the attraction of Islamic State. Started in 2011, State’s blather was only in foreign languages, moving into English in 2013. In 2014 year the work started showing up on YouTube. The theme then was “Think Again, Turn Away; the messaging was found on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even on the sides of buses in New York City as posters. One YouTube video includes subtitles such as “learn useful skills, such as blowing up mosques” and “crucifying Muslims.” Another features oil being poured on the ground framed as “squandering public resources.

    The content is seemingly written more to appeal to Washington than potential jihadis, as you can see in this example. A lot of the messaging mocks potential recruits, claiming, for example, they read “Islam for Dummies” before heading to Syria. Those efforts cost between $5 million and $6.8 million a year.

    When in Doubt, Hire a Consultant

    With the clear failure of that messaging to stop the flow of western recruits to IS (State does like to point to proving the negative, suggesting they cannot measure people who did not join), the State Department is now trying a new version of the old strategy.

    EdVenture Partners, a company whose self-described mission is to connect clients with the “valuable and powerful millennial market” to sell junk to dumbasses, was hired to enlist student teams to combat violent extremism with some kind of digital effort — an app, a website or an online initiative. It was to be a contest; State would pick the winners and fund those as U.S. government propaganda, er, counter messaging.

    Because, see, up until now, the problem has been that those dang young people just weren’t “getting down” with the messages old people at State were “putting out there.” For real. Ya’all.

    “Millennials can speak better to millennials, there’s no question about that,” State Department Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Keiderling, who was a judge in the competition, said, sounding like some 1950s educational film narrator.


    How to Defeat Islamic State

    So here’s how the young will be stopping other youngsters from joining Islamic State.

    — Australia’s Curtin University developed an app called 52Jumaa, which to support young Muslims. The app sends daily positive affirmations about Islam to users’ smartphones, allows them to connect with other Muslims and asks them to complete a selfless act of kindness every Friday.

    — Students at Texas A&M came up with a website idea called The Funny Militant, which would run jihadi-centric parodies, including a hilarious app for finding a jihadi bride and one called Who’s Your Bagdaddy?

    — Missouri State’s product, which won the competition, is a website about the dangers of violent extremism. The site provides English-language curriculum for teaching about the extreme ideological ideas on social media and how to recognize them. It also includes trivia, community boards and videos from people who have been directly affected by terrorism.

    Wait — the winner sounds almost exactly like the lame stuff the State Department already spews out, basically saying “IS is bad, so don’t do that,” the war on terror’s reboot of the 1980s anti-drug message “Just Say No.” The winning group also created a hashtag, so you know they are like super-serious: #EndViolentExtremism

    Here are all the winners of the competition. Looks can obviously be deceiving, but one does wonder how many Muslims are in a group seeking to speak directly to Muslims in a voice that doesn’t sound like a bunch of know-it-all white kids from the ‘burbs:





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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Syria

    Iraq Lost 2,300 Humvees (and More!) to IS in Mosul Alone

    June 8, 2015 // 16 Comments »

    abadi


    See, this is why the Iraqis just can’t have nice things.

    Iraqi security forces lost 2,300 Humvee armored vehicles when the Islamic State jihadist group overran the northern city of Mosul, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Sunday.

    U.S. Weapons Already Lost to Islamic State

    Iraqi forces have previously abandoned significant types and number of heavy weapons Islamic State could not have otherwise acquired. For example, losses to IS include at least 40 M-1A1 main battle tanks. IS also picked up in Mosul and elsewhere American small arms and ammunition (including 4,000 machine guns that can fire upwards of 800 rounds per minute), and as many as 52 American M-198 howitzer mobile gun systems.

    “In the collapse of Mosul, we lost a lot of weapons,” Abadi said in an interview with Iraqiya state TV. Clashes began in Mosul, Iraq’s second city, late on June 9, 2014, and Iraqi forces lost it the following day to IS, less than 24 hours later.



    More U.S. Weapons on the Way

    To help replenish Iraq’s arms, last year the State Department approved a sale to Iraq of 1,000 Humvees with increased armor, machine guns, and grenade launchers. The U.S. is currently in the process of sending/has already sent to Iraq 175 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, 55,000 rounds of main gun ammunition for the tanks, $600 million in howitzers and trucks, and $700 million worth of Hellfire missiles.

    The United States has previously donated 250 MRAPs to Iraq, as well as $300 million in other weapons.

    Some $1.2 billion in future training funds for Iraq was tucked into an omnibus spending bill Congress passed earlier this year.

    For those keeping score, between 2003-2011, the United States spent $25 billion training the Iraqi Army. Some 3,000 American soldiers are currently in Iraq, re-training the Iraqi Army to re-fight Islamic State. The previously trained Iraqi army had 30,000 soldiers in Mosul, who ran away in the face of about 1,000 Islamic State fighters. The same thing happened in Ramadi, where 10,000 Iraqi soldiers fled ahead of 400 IS fighters.

    Could This Have Been Predicted?

    Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University Chris Coyne, in an interview with me about a year ago even before the U.S. again sent troops into Iraq, predicted this exact scenario:

    The U.S. government provided significant amounts of military hardware to the Iraqi government with the intention that it would be used for good (national security, policing, etc.). However, during the IS offensive many of the Iraqis turned and ran, leaving behind the U.S.-supplied hardware. This weapons windfall may further alter the dynamics in Syria.

    Now the U.S. government wants to provide more military supplies to the Iraqi government to combat IS. But I haven’t heard many people recognizing, let alone discussing, the potential negative unintended consequences of doing so. How do we know how the weapons and supplies will be used as desired? What if the recipients turn and run as they have recently and leave behind the weapons? What if the weapons are stolen? In sum, why should we have any confidence that supplying more military hardware into a country with a dysfunctional and ineffective government will lead to a good outcome either in Iraq or in the broader region?


    Impact on American Policy

    And hey: A report prepared for the United Nations Security Council warns IS possesses sufficient reserves of small arms, ammunition and vehicles to wage its war in Syria and Iraq for up to two more years. And that presumes the U.S. won’t be sending more to them.

    The United States remains the world’s largest exporter of weapons.



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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Syria

    Hope for Iraq? Depends on What You’re Hoping For…

    May 31, 2015 // 11 Comments »

    iraq women2

    Is there hope for Iraq? It depends on what you are hoping for.

    It is becoming clearer that there is little hope of destroying Islamic State in Iraq. Islamic State has no shortage of new recruits. Its fighters capture heavy weapons with such ease that the United States is forced to direct air strikes against equipment abandoned by the Iraqis — even as it ships in more. Islamic State holds territory that will allow it to trade land for time, morph into an insurgency and preserve its forces by pulling back into Syrian territory it controls even if Iraq’s government, with Iranian and American help, launches a major assault.

    Islamic State maintains support among Iraq’s Sunnis. The more the Shi’ites align against it, the more Sunnis see no other choice but to support Islamic State, as they did al Qaeda after the American invasion in 2003. Stories from Tikrit, where Shi’ite militia-led forces defeated Islamic State, describe “a ghost town ruled by gunmen.” There are other reports of ethnic cleansing in the Euphrates Valley town of Jurf al-Sakhar. Absent a unified Iraq, there will always be an al Qaeda, an Islamic State or another iteration of it to defend the Sunnis.

    The only way for Iraq to remain unified was a stalemate of force, with no side having the might to win nor weak enough to lose, with negotiations to follow. As the United States passively watched the Iranians become its proxy boots on the ground against Islamic State, all the while knowing Tehran’s broader agenda was a Shi’ite Iraqi client, that possibility was lost.


    It’s possible to pin down the failure to a single battle. The last hope that Iraq would not become an Iranian client was dashed after Islamic State’s defeat in Tikrit. The victory triggered the Iraqi central government to dismiss American and Kurdish support for a drive toward strategically important Mosul. The government all but abandoned the idea of a nonsectarian national army; it turned instead to a gang of Iranian-supported Shi’ite militias with a bundle of anti-Sunni agendas. Baghdad pointed those forces toward Ramadi.

    Islamic State is also in Ramadi, but it had already poked into most of the city over the past year. It needed only 400 fighters for the final push last week. The threat was not new. The move by Baghdad on Ramadi is thus more long-term political than short-term tactical: think of Ramadi not as a gate through which Islamic State must pass moving east toward Baghdad (Islamic State cannot occupy the Shi’ite city of four million, defended by untold militia, any more than the German army could capture Stalingrad) but as a gate the Shi’ite militias must traverse headed west to control the Sunni homeland of Anbar.

    The Kurds, America’s great loyalist hope, were energetic fighters against Islamic State in the north, at least as long as their peshmerga was reclaiming territory — such as the city of Arbil — from the central government in Baghdad. The Kurds are nowhere to be seen now that fighting has shifted to Anbar. Kurdistan cares little about the Sunnis other than to keep them away from its territory. Baghdad, with Islamic State on its plate, under political pressure from Washington to keep the peace with the Kurds and facing a powerful peshmerga, is unlikely to make any near- to mid-term moves against Kurdistan.


    So, besides simply hoping for the best, what can the United States do? Not much. Most of the possible game changers have already failed.

    Ever more air power and raids by Special Operations forces cannot hold ground or do more than dilute Iranian influence in spots, assuming they are not actually assisting the Iranians. President Barack Obama has ruled out large numbers of U.S. ground forces. (Not that troops matter; the 166,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq at the surge’s peak failed to win anything lasting, and Obama’s final pullout in 2011 was numerically meaningless.) The training the United States is doing with the Iraqi Army in 2015 will accomplish about the same as the training the United States did with the Iraqi Army from 2005 to 2011. Even the U.S. secretary of defense was reduced to near-mockery when describing Iraq’s army in Ramadi; it lacked the will to fight, he said.

    America’s latest man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Hader al-Abadi, has no more moved his country toward any kind of reconciliation than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, did. Abadi’s reliance on Shi’ite militias only draws him closer to Iran.

    Obama’s post-Ramadi hope is once again to try to attract and train an anti-Islamic State Sunni force. There’s no support for that idea in Baghdad itself. The central government fears arming domestic Sunnis, besides a few token “federal police” units. It seems unlikely the Sunnis will be fooled by another U.S.-sponsored “awakening,” like the one in 2006 that helped root out insurgents in Anbar province. Baghdad left the fighters without paychecks from — or meaningful representation in — the government. As America watched, Maliki’s failure to capitalize on the original awakening is a large part of why Iraq is falling apart now.

    The much-ballyhooed pan-Arab coalition against Islamic State proved to be a short-lived photo op. America flies roughly 85 percent of the missions against Islamic State, with Western allies filling in a good part of the remaining percentage. No Arab ground troops ever showed up, and key coalition countries are now openly snubbing Washington over its possible nuclear deal with Iran.

    The United States appears to have run out of hope any of its cards will play in the long game.

    Iraq’s Sunnis can, at best, hope to be pushed into an Islamic State-protected enclave on the fuzzy Syrian border, a development Washington would likely quietly support to avoid a politically embarrassing ethnic cleansing. Iraq would remain an Iranian client state, dependent on its patron to keep Islamic State in check. Iranian and Iraqi political needs would mostly be aligned at that point, though more Islamic State fighters nearer to Syria would pose its own problems. This would expose what might be the key flaw in American policy in Iraq: The people America thinks are its allies don’t actually want what America wants.


    The Iraq of 2003 is gone. The Iraq of 2014 is gone. America’s mistakes made in between have had consequences because, as everyone knows, hope alone is a poor strategy.




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    Iraq and Another Memorial Day

    May 23, 2015 // 16 Comments »

    flags

    Iraq? On another Memorial Day, we’re still talking about Iraq?



    Remembering

    I attended the 2015 commencement ceremonies at Fordham University in New York. The otherwise typical ritual (future, global, passion, do what you love, you’ll never forget this place) began oddly, with an admonition to pause for a moment in honor of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a special congratulations to veterans among the graduating class. No other group was so singled out.

    At William and Mary, a university that counts Thomas Jefferson as an alumnus, Condoleezza Rice was granted this spring an honorary degree in public service; William and Mary’s chancellor is former head of the CIA and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

    The ongoing news features “gaffs” by various Republican candidates about whether they would invade Iraq then knowing now, or maybe then invade now knowing then, or tomorrow knowing less. Pundits recycle the old arguments about imperfect decisions, mistakes being made, and a new trope, that Obama “lost” Iraq.

    The mother of the first Navy Seal killed in Iraq wrote an open letter to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Dempsey responded to reports that Ramadi, Iraq fell to Islamic State by describing the city as “not symbolic in any way.” The mother asked a version of the familiar question, “so what did he die for?”

    Remembering the Dead

    Yes, it is another Memorial Day and we are still talking about Iraq.

    The facts are in front of us. The Iraq War of 2003-2011 killed 4491 Americans. The Pentagon states 32,226 Americans were wounded “in action,” a number which does not include an estimated 200,000 soldiers who will suffer PTSD or major depression, or the 285,000 of them who experienced a probable traumatic brain injury.

    On the Iraqi side of the equation, no one knows. Most of the Iraqis died more of the war — well-after then-president Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” and an end of major hostilities — than in the war per se. Estimates run from some 200,000 up to a million dead.

    Argue with any of the numbers you like. Agree that the “real” numbers are big.

    There are similar sets of numbers for Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and many other places America makes war, overtly, covertly and via drone.



    Lessons from Iraq

    And that is why we should, on Memorial Day, still be talking about Iraq. We haven’t learned anything from our mistakes there and it is time we did.

    The lessons of Iraq are not limited to bad decision making, falsifying intelligence reports, and exaggerated claims about smoking guns and mushroom clouds.

    Those are just details, and they come and go with wars: the Gulf of Tonkin incident that brought America into the Vietnam War was false. So were the stories out of Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing Kuwaiti infants from their incubators. Same for the “we’re just on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidi people” that reopened American involvement in Iraq less than a year ago. Just as false are the “we are invading ______ (fill in the blank with any number of locations) to liberate the people” there from a thug government, an evil dictator, another bad guy.

    We’ve eliminated a lot of Qaddafi’s and Saddam’s, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone on the ground in their old countries happy about what resulted from that. War after war we need to fight back against barbarians who seek to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region (Communism? Terrorism?) War after war we need to fight “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here.

    Maybe as late as the Vietnam War we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. Most hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” But we of the September 12 group of Americans have no excuse.

    The lies and fudges and mistakes that took us to war in Iraq in 2003 were not unique; they were policy. There is a template for every American war since 1945, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. Unless and until we talk about that on some Memorial Day, we will be talking about Iraq, or wherever next year’s war is, on another Memorial Day.



    Alone at Night

    I think about that mom who wonders what her son died for in Ramadi. She is not alone; there are lots of moms whose sons died in Ramadi, and Fallujah, and Helmand Province, and Hue and Danang, even Grenada. Late at night, perhaps after a third glass of white wine failed again to let them sleep, those moms may try and console themselves thinking their sons and daughters died for “something.” I can’t criticize or begrudge them for that, they having lost a child. Ghosts are terrible things to follow you through life.

    The kids who will serve in our military into the “commitment” to Afghanistan that extends into 2024 are currently in elementary school. They are out on the lawn right now this Memorial Day, playing at being ghosts.

    What I would like to do on this Memorial Day is ask all the mom’s who have not yet lost a child in a war that does not matter to think about those unthinkable things while they are waving a flag, and while their kids are still alive.

    If we think about that this Memorial Day, maybe we can start to learn the real lesson of Iraq.




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    Snubbed by Saudi Arabia, What Happened at the Arab summit?

    May 19, 2015 // 2 Comments »

    summit


    While hosting the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Washington and at Camp David last week, Obama faced a hard sell: assuring the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that the United States has an Iran policy that encompasses their security needs.

    He also tried to encourage the six countries to work together for their own collective security, but in a way that dovetails with American strategic goals.

    The Snub

    It did not work.

    Only two of the six GCC nations even bothered to send heads of state. Three of the missing leaders pleaded health issues as their excuses to stay home; Saudi Arabia said its ruler, King Salman, didn’t travel due to humanitarian commitments to Yemen. The Saudi snub in particular reflects the concern, among America’s Sunni Arab allies, that the United States isn’t taking a hard enough stance toward Iran and its proxies.



    Yemen

    The Saudis’ commitment to ensuring that the United States is ready to oppose Iranian-proxy forces even as rapprochement moves forward is clearly seen in Yemen. After tamping down the Arab Spring in Sana’a and easing a sympathetic government into power with Saudi support, America militarized Yemen. This approach was intended to be a model for a new “small footprint” strategy, where a compliant local government would be paired with drones and Special Forces to conduct joint strikes against Islamic militants fueled by intelligence from the United States. Obama cited Yemen as a successful example of this strategy as recently as September 2014. Yet the dissolution of that country, and the chaos that followed a tail-between-the-legs evacuation of American diplomats and Special Forces, instead planted an Iranian-supported rebellion on Saudi Arabia’s border.

    When Washington did not decisively move to counter Iranian gains in Yemen, the Saudis lashed out in late March of this year. The recent Saudi royal succession, which concentrated power in a smaller circle, may have also put pressure on the new king to act aggressively. Though the Saudi attacks in Yemen are tactically aimed at securing its southern border, strategically they send a message to Iran to step back. They signal to the United States that Saudi Arabia wants Washington to become more engaged in the situation and perhaps use air strikes and covert forces, similar to what it is doing in other parts of the Middle East.

    Increasing hostilities, including the Saudi use of American-supplied cluster bombs, forced Obama into that rock-and-a-hard-place that increasingly defines Washington’s policy in the region. He needed to ensure Saudi military action did not bleed over into open conflict with Iran, while demonstrating the United States would stand up for its allies. Obama’s tepid answer — saber rattling in the form of an aircraft carrier moved into the area — seemed to back down the Iranians for now, but said very little about long-term strategy.

    The Saudis demonstrated in Yemen what might be called unilateral collective defense; though they could not assemble a robust pan-Arab force and have conducted most of the bombing themselves, they acted with regional assistance in the form of limited air strikes, reconnaissance help and statements of support. This is very much at odds with Washington’s idea of what pan-Arab collective defense should look like. After all, how far can relations with Iran progress — never mind the goal of regional stability — when America’s allies start new wars against Iranian proxies?


    Obama’s Solution?

    No matter who showed up for last week’s conference, Obama could only propose his own version of collective defense, a region-wide missile defense system. This was a significant step down from the NATO-like agreement with the United States the GCC would have prefered. (Stated plans to create an “Arab NATO” are still in process.) Obama included new arms sales to GCC states that, while afraid of Iran, still remain wary of one another. The United States wants to be the glue that holds the arrangement together. That would seem to be an optimistic goal since American glue failed to hold together any substantive pan-Arab force in Iraq and Syria, and tens of billions of dollars in arms sales over the years apparently have not been reassuring enough.



    The Consequences

    If Washington doesn’t reassure the GCC countries that it will oppose Iran in proxy wars across the region, expect more independent action from America’s allies in the Gulf. America cannot walk away from these countries; oil, long-standing alliances and U.S. strategic facilities and bases housed across the GCC are factors. This may lead to Washington finding itself dragged into any number of fights it does not want, or stuck playing intermediary between the Saudis and Iran, as it is now doing to help broker a short cease-fire in Yemen. Think Syria next, where the Saudis are already working on a deal with Turkey that is at odds with American policy.

    Obama and the GCC nations concluded last week’s meetings with little resolved, even as all sides know they must ideally find some resolution ahead of the June 30 deadline for the U.S.-Iran nuclear treaty.

    The old order is in flux. Iran is no doubt watching traditional allies snap at each other over its ascendancy with some satisfaction; discord only plays to its advantage. All three sides — the United States, the GCC and the Iranians — are watching the clock. What will be their next moves if time runs out?



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    Paranoia in a September 12 World

    May 18, 2015 // 4 Comments »

    brazil

    It got me. Paranoia. Who is watching? What are the consequences in a September 12 world of things that used to be innocent?

    I began researching materials online that advise, in English, how someone might travel to Syria and join Islamic State (IS). Several media outlets mentioned an ebook IS created along those lines, but none linked to it or dove deep into what it said. I set out to find it, Googling away with “how to join Islamic State,” and “advice for jihadi travel.” I eventually found the ebook with the term “hijrah.” Used in canon to refer to Mohammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina, the word today colloquially refers to those who leave home for jihad.

    The ebook is brief, titled simply Hijrah to the Islamic State, some 50 pages with pictures and maps. The advice is mostly stuff you’d think people could figure out on their own. Bring a sturdy backpack, don’t tell Turkish immigration officials you are headed to Syria, don’t call attention to yourself in the airport, that sort of thing. There are a bunch of Twitter handles included so you can make contact with IS, but the few I checked were dead accounts.

    You could probably do better with Lonely Planet (which also advises travelers not to call attention to themselves, but to avoid being targeted by thieves, not anti-terror forces.) I found another site just for women seeking to join IS, assuring the traveler she’ll be in female-only accommodations and that they have diapers and baby stuff available. Otherwise, it was all about bringing books to read on the long trip and not forgetting needed medicines.

    I wrapped up my research with a quick buzz through Orbitz to see flight choices. New York was the default starting point because Orbitz had it already there from my previous searches. You can fly nonstop from the United States to Turkey, and then take a taxi to the Syrian border. Flights directly into Damascus involve a couple of stops, and most require you fly out of Newark. Jihad starts in Jersey, what a hassle.

    All in all, not much of story in the hijrah ebook, and certainly nothing at the they’re-seducing-our-kids-into-terrorism level, though New York Times called it “a remarkable ISIS travel guide” and authorities in the UK want to ban it from social media. The ebook is in reality near useless, except as another boogie man for westerners to point to.


    But I started to worry.

    Look at me: I Googled up a how-to manual for jihadis. I’d previously read al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine online (Islamic State has its own online magazine, and I read that too.) I looked into travel to Syria. I sought out a good translation of “hijrah.” Everything I did, I did from an office desk. It was all on the Internet, with no secret meetings in shadowy places. So it was OK, like going to the library, right?

    But I started to panic. How long until this reached critical mass, when some piece of software went “bing!” and some new protocol was applied to me? I have an international trip planned in a few weeks (plain vanilla Asia). Will I get selected for additional screening? Will I be questioned trying to exit or, later, when I re-enter the United States? Have I become paranoid? Should I be? Is it wise or stupid to worry about these things?

    I remember discussing the Jeffrey Sterling Espionage Act case, the case that at one point threatened to send reporter James Risen to jail for not revealing his sources. My friend said the case was probably one of the last of its kind. So the government learned its First Amendment lesson I asked? No, she said, next time the government won’t have to threaten a reporter; most reporters will either shy away from such stories, their editors will kill the reporting to avoid an expensive legal battle, or the government will already know who they talked to.

    I’m certain I am no James Risen. I’m pretty sure I didn’t write a more detailed story about the Islamic State travel guides because there was little to say, that the links I left out above were of little value. Google works at your house, too, if you really want to see them, and you’re not afraid of that, are you? The algorithms they — whoever they are — use are smart enough to see that I’m just a curious writer, and you’re just a curious reader, and none of us plans on joining IS, right?

    I still wrote a lawyer’s phone number in the back of my passport. Can’t be too careful these days, as people say. Threats are everywhere.




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    U.S. Drops Pink Floyd-Inspired, Anti-IS leaflet in Syria

    May 13, 2015 // 11 Comments »

    4 T


    You’d be forgiven if the anti-IS leaflet pictured below reminds you of images from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, you know, the whole meat grinder meets Ralph Steadman thing.

    This graphic, however, is part of America’s multi-billion dollar effort to defeat Islamic State, so it is not intended to be weirdly amusing, even though it is. Somehow, this is actually serious.

    An American F-15E pilot risked his life to drop 60,000 copies of the leaflet on Raqqa, Syria, the base of operations for the Islamic State. Al Jazeera’s translation says the image shows a “Daesh Employment Office” (Daesh is a pejorative nickname for IS in the Arab world, so nah nah poopy heads!) as two Floyd-esque IS recruiters feed young men into a meat grinder with “Daesh” written in blood on its side.




    When asked about the intended message of the leaflet, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren, said “If you allow yourself to be recruited by Daesh, you will find yourself in a meat grinder.” Warren said the leaflet was created by the Army’s Military Information Support Operations, formerly known as PSY-OPS.

    The theory of course was that some young man who is otherwise being bombed day and night by the U.S. and/or his own government and/or some rival militant group, will pick up the leaflet from among the other trash strewn all over the streets, glance at the whacky comic, and decide that instead of joining Islamic State he’ll, whatever, finally start in on that art history degree at community college his mom is always bugging him about.


    Surprisingly, some experts have questioned the efficacy of the leaflet.

    Faysal Itani, a Fellow at the Atlantic Center in Washington who studies the various groups fighting in Syria’s war, said anyone in Raqqa thinking of joining IS is either ideologically committed or coerced. “Members of the first category are likely immune to leaflet propaganda, especially if distributed by an air force that has been bombing Raqqa,” Itani said. The rest, he said, would join out of financial necessity, the need for protection, or because they were forced to do so.

    News Flash to America: Dying for Islamic State, that whole jihadi thingie, is kind of what most recruits expect.







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    Pulling Out of Afghanistan: Coitus Invadus

    April 27, 2015 // 7 Comments »

    Love

    It is widely reported that the U.S. would like to keep additional troops in Afghanistan past the previously announced withdrawal date. Secretary of Defense Carter is now in Afghanistan negotiating.

    We listened in:

    Afghanistan: Hey, thanks for the invasion and for staying these 14 years. It’s been fun and I hope we can still be friends and all…

    Carter: We can invade anyone we want to you know, but hey, we picked you. You’re special to us and we want everyone to know that. Here, take this permanent base full of troops as a sign of our commitment.

    Afghanistan: But that’s what you said to all the other countries you invaded! And even while you’re saying these nice things to us, you still have bases in Japan, Germany and Italy, and they’re like 70-years-old.

    Carter: Sure, I have other… friends… but I have to keep those bases there for family reasons. You’re my new bestest friend. How about a base? Just one, a little one?

    Afghanistan: But I saw on Facebook that you are flirting with Yemen and Syria and even Somalia. And don’t think I don’t know what you did in Sudan! And please, Iraq again? You guys broke up, “for forevers” Obama said on Instagram, and now look at you, back involved again. That bitch.

    Carter: Hey, that’s not fair. Iraq is a just a friend with benefits. It doesn’t mean anything. I love you. Didn’t I promise you freedom and democracy in 2001? And then in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015? Besides, you were asking for it.

    Afghanistan: You made a lot of promises, but I think you only like me for my big bases. You say nice things to me, but you really just want your hands on a base for when you are ready for Iran.

    Carter: Aw, you know Iran and I are just good friends. I might fool around a bit with Syria, and yeah, Yemen looks pretty hot some days, but you’re the real one for me.

    Afghanistan: OK, maybe you can have just one. But do you promise to pull out?

    Carter: Of course baby. Would I lie to you?




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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Syria

    The Iranian Ascendancy

    April 22, 2015 // 15 Comments »

    Nuclear-Explosion-001



    The U.S. is running around in circles in the Middle East, patching together coalitions here, acquiring strange bedfellows there, and in location after location trying to figure out who the enemy of its enemy actually is. The result is just what you’d expect: chaos further undermining whatever’s left of the nations whose frailty birthed the jihadism America is trying to squash.

    And in a classic tale of unintended consequences, just about every time Washington has committed another blunder in the Middle East, Iran has stepped in to take advantage. Consider that country the rising power in the region and credit American clumsiness for the new Iranian ascendancy.

    Today’s News — and Some History

    The U.S. recently concluded air strikes in support of the Iraqi militias that Iran favors as they took back the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State (IS). At the same time, Washington began supplying intelligence and aerial refueling on demand for a Saudi bombing campaign against the militias Iran favors in Yemen. Iran continues to advise and assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Washington would still like to depose and, as part of its Syrian strategy, continues to supply and direct Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group the U.S. considers a terror outfit.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. has successfully negotiated the outlines of an agreement with Iran in which progress on severely constricting its nuclear program would be traded for an eventual lifting of sanctions and the granting of diplomatic recognition. This is sure to further bolster Tehran’s status as a regional power, while weakening long-time American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States.

    A clever pundit could undoubtedly paint all of the above as a realpolitik ballet on Washington’s part, but the truth seems so much simpler and more painful. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. policy in the region has combined confusion on an immense scale with awkward bursts of ill-coordinated and exceedingly short-term acts of expediency. The country that has most benefited is Iran. No place illustrates this better than Iraq.

    Iraq Redux (Yet Again)

    On April 9, 2003, just over 12 years ago, U.S. troops pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, symbolically marking what George W. Bush hoped was the beginning of a campaign to remake the Middle East in America’s image by bringing not just Iraq but Syria and Iran to heel. And there can be no question that the invasion of Iraq did indeed set events in motion that are still remaking the region in ways once unimaginable.

    In the wake of the Iraq invasion and occupation, the Arab Spring blossomed and failed. (The recent Obama administration decision to resume arms exports to the military government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt could be considered its coup de grâce.) Today, fighting ripples through Libya, Syria, Yemen, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa, and other parts of the Greater Middle East. Terrorists attack in once relatively peaceful places like Tunisia. There is now a de facto independent Kurdistan — last a reality in the sixteenth century — that includes the city of Kirkuk. Previously stable countries have become roiling failed states and home to terrorist groups that didn’t even exist when the U.S. military rolled across the Iraqi border in 2003.

    And, of course, 12 years later in Iraq itself the fighting roars on. Who now remembers President Obama declaring victory in 2011 and praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of the pile of sticky brown sand that was Bush’s Iraq. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but as with Vietnam decades earlier, the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for the dream of a successful Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.

    You know what happened next. Unlike in Vietnam, Washington did go back, quickly turning a humanitarian gesture in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people from destruction at the hands of the Islamic State into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 62 nations was formed. (Where are they all now while the U.S. conducts 85% of all air strikes against IS?)  The tap on a massive arms flow was turned on. The architect of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq and a leaker of top secret documents, retired general and former CIA Director David Petraeus, was brought back in for advice. Twenty-four-seven bombing became the order of the day and several thousand U.S. military advisors returned to familiar bases to retrain some part of an American-created army that had only recently collapsed and abandoned four key northern cities to Islamic State militants. Iraq War 3.0 was officially underway and many pundits — including me — predicted a steady escalation with the usual quagmire to follow.

    Such a result can hardly be ruled out yet, but at the moment it’s as if Barack Obama had stepped to the edge of the Iraqi abyss, peered over, and then shrugged his shoulders. Both his administration and the U.S. military appear content for the moment neither to pull back nor press harder.

    The American people seem to feel much the same way. Except in the Republican Congress (and even there in less shrill form than usual), there are few calls for… well, anything. The ongoing air strikes remain “surgical” in domestic politics, if not in Iraq and Syria. Hardly noticed and little reported on here, they have had next to no effect on Americans. Yet they remain sufficient to assure the right wing that the American military is still the best tool to solve problems abroad, while encouraging liberals who want to show that they can be as tough as anyone going into 2016.

    At first glance, the American version of Iraq War 3.0 has the feel of the Libyan air intervention — the same lack of concern, that is, for the long game. But Iraq 2015 is no Libya 2011, because this time while America sits back, Iran rises.

    Iran Ascendant

    The Middle East was ripe for change. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the last major transformational event in the area was the fall of that classic American stooge, the Shah of Iran, in 1979. Otherwise, many of the thug regimes in power since the 1960s, the height of the Cold War, had stayed in place, and so had most of the borders set even earlier, in the aftermath of World War I.

    Iran should send America a fruit basket to thank it for setting the stage so perfectly for its ascent. As a start, in 2003 the United States eliminated Iran’s major border threats: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to the west and the Taliban in Afghanistan to the east. (The Taliban are back of course, but diligently focused on America’s puppet Afghan government.) The long slog of Washington’s wars in both those countries dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for yet more of the same, and cooled off Bush-era plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. (After all, if even Vice President Dick Cheney couldn’t pull the trigger on Iran before leaving office in 2008, who in 2015 America is going to do so?)

    Better yet for the Iranians, when Saddam was hanged in 2006, they not only lost an enemy who had invaded their country in 1980, launching a bitter war against them that didn’t end for eight years, but gained an ally in the new Iraq. As U.S. influence withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi elections to produce a broadly representative government, Iran stepped in to broker a thoroughly partisan settlement leading to a sectarian Shia government in Baghdad bent on ensuring that the country’s minority Sunni population would remain out of power forever. The Obama administration seemed nearly oblivious to Iran’s gains in Iraq in 2010 — and seems so again in 2015.

    Iran in Iraq 

    In Tikrit, Iranian-led Shia forces recently drove the Islamic State from the city. In charge was Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Qods Force (a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards), who had previously led the brutally effective efforts of Iranian special forces against U.S. soldiers in Iraq War 2.0. He returned to that country and assembled his own coalition of Shia militias to take Tikrit. All of them have long benefited from Iranian support, as has the increasingly Shia-dominated Iraqi army.

    In addition, the Iranians seem to have brought in their own tanks and possibly even ground troops for the assault on the city. They also moved advanced rocket systems into Iraq, the same weapons Hamas has used against Israel in recent conflicts.

    Only one thing was lacking: air power. After much hemming and hawing, when it looked like the assault on Tikrit had been blunted by well-dug-in Islamic State fighters in a heavily booby-trapped city, the Obama administration agreed to provide it.

    On the U.S. side, the air of desperation around the decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit was palpable. You could feel it, for instance, in this statement by a Pentagon spokesperson almost pleading for the Iraqi government to favor Washington over Tehran: “I think it’s important that the Iraqis understand that what would be most helpful to them is a reliable partner in this fight against IS. Reliable, professional, advanced military capabilities are something that very clearly and very squarely reside with the coalition.”  

    Imagine if you had told an American soldier — or general — leaving Iraq in 2011 that, just a few years later in the country where he or she had watched friends die, the U.S. would be serving as Iran’s close air support.  Imagine if you had told him that Washington would be helping some of the same Shia militias who planted IEDs to kill Americans go after Sunnis — and essentially begging for the chance to do so. Who would’ve thunk it?

    The Limits of Air Power 101

    The White House no doubt imagined that U.S. bombs would be seen as the decisive factor in Tikrit and that the sectarian government in Baghdad would naturally come to… What? Like us better than the Iranians?

    Bizarre as such a “strategy” might seem on the face of it, it has proven even stranger in practice. The biggest problem with air power is that, while it’s good at breaking things, it isn’t decisive. It cannot determine who moves into the governor’s mansion after the dust settles. Only ground forces can do that, so a victory over the Islamic State in Tikrit, no matter what role air strikes played, can only further empower those Iranian-backed Shia militias. You don’t have to be a military expert to know that this is the nature of air power, which makes it all the more surprising that American strategists seem so blind to it.

    As for liking Washington better for its helping hand, there are few signs of that. Baghdad officials have largely been silent on America’s contribution, praising only the “air coverage of the Iraqi air force and the international coalition.” Shia militia forces on the ground have been angered by and scornful of the United States for — as they see it — interfering in their efforts to take Tikrit on their own.

    The victory in that city will only increase the government’s reliance on the militias, whom Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi now refers to as “popular volunteers,” rather than the still-limited number of soldiers the Americans have so far been capable of training. (The Pentagon might, by the way, want to see if Iran can pass along any training tips, as their militias, unlike the American-backed Iraqi army, seem to be doing just fine.) That also means that the government will have no choice but to tolerate the Shia militia atrocities and acts of ethnic cleansing that have already taken place in Sunni Tikrit and will surely follow in any other Sunni areas similarly “liberated.” Claims coming out of Washington that the U.S. will be carefully monitoring the acts of Iraqi forces ring increasingly hollow.

    What Tikrit has, in fact, done is solidify Iran’s influence over Prime Minister al-Abadi, currently little more than the acting mayor of Baghdad, who claimed the victory in Tikrit as a way to increase his own prestige. The win also allows his Shia-run government to seize control of the ruins of that previously Sunni enclave. And no one should miss the obvious symbolism that lies in the fact that the first major city retaken from the Islamic State in a Sunni area is also the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.

    The best the Obama administration can do is watch helplessly as Tehran and Baghdad take their bows. A template has been created for a future in which other Sunni areas, including the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and Sunni cities in Anbar Province will be similarly retaken, perhaps with the help of American air power but almost certainly with little credit to Washington.

    Iran in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen

    Tehran is now playing a similarly important role in other places where U.S. policy stumbles have left voids, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.

    In Syria, Iranian forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Qods Force, and their intelligence services, advise and assist Bashar al-Assad’s military. They also support Hezbollah elements from Lebanon fighting on Assad’s side. At best, Washington is again playing second fiddle, using its air power against the Islamic State and training “moderate” Syrian fighters, the first of whom refused to even show up for their initial battle.

    In Yemen, a U.S.-supported regime, backed by Special Forces advisers and a full-scale drone targeted assassination campaign, recently crumbled. The American Embassy was evacuated in February, the last of those advisers in March. The takeover of the capital, Sana’a, and later significant parts of the rest of the country by the Houthis, a rebel Shiite minority group, represents, in the words of one Foreign Policy writer, “a huge victory for Iran… the Houthis’ decision to tie their fate to Tehran’s regional machinations risks tearing Yemen apart and throwing the country into chaos.”

    The panicked Saudis promptly intervened and were quickly backed by the Obama administration’s insertion of the United States in yet another conflict by executive order. Relentless Saudi air strikes (perhaps using some of the $640 million worth of cluster bombs the U.S. sold them last year) are supported by yet another coalition, this time of Sudan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and other Sunni powers in the region. The threat of an invasion, possibly using Egyptian troops, looms.  The Iranians have moved ships into the area in response to a Saudi naval blockade of Yemen.

    No matter what happens, Iran will be strengthened. Either it will find itself in a client relationship with a Houthi movement that has advanced to the Saudi border or, should they be driven back, a chaotic state in Yemen with an ever-strengthening al-Qaeda offshoot. Either outcome would undoubtedly discombobulate the Saudis (and the Americans) and so sit well with Iran.

    To make things even livelier in a fragmenting region, Sunni rebels infiltrating from neighboring Pakistan recently killed eight Iranian border guards. This probably represented a retaliatory attack in response to an earlier skirmish in which Iranian Revolutionary Guards killed three suspected Pakistani Sunni militants. Once started, fires do tend to spread.

    For those keeping score at home, the Iranians now hold significant positions in three Middle Eastern countries (or at least fragments of former countries) in addition to Iraq.

    Iran Ascending and the Nuclear Question

    Iran is well positioned to ascend. Geopolitically, alone in the region it is a nation that has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years. It is almost completely ethnically stable and religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous, with its minorities comparatively under control. While still governed in large part by its clerics, Iran has seen evolving democratic electoral transitions at the secular level. Politically, history is on Iran’s side. If you set aside the 1953 CIA-backed coup that ousted the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and put the U.S.-backed Shah in power for a quarter of a century, Iran has sorted out its governance on its own for some time.

    Somehow, despite decades of sanctions, Iran, with the fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves on the planet, has managed to hold its economy together, selling what oil it can primarily to Asia. It is ready to sell more oil as soon as sanctions lift. It has a decent conventional military by local standards. Its young reportedly yearn for greater engagement with the West. Unlike nearly every other nation in the Middle East, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one — 36 years ago.

    Recently, the U.S., Iran, and the P5 (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) reached a preliminary agreement to significantly constrain that country’s nuclear program and lift sanctions. It appears that both the Obama administration and Tehran are eager to turn it into an official document by the end of June. A deal isn’t a deal until signed on the dotted line, and the congressional Republicans are sharpening their knives, but the intent is clearly there.

    To keep the talks on track, by the end of June the Obama administration will have released to the Islamic Republic a total of $11.9 billion in previously frozen assets, dating back to the 1979 Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. In addition to the straight-up flood of cash, the U.S. agreed that Iran may sell $4.2 billion worth of oil, free from any sanctions. The U.S. will also allow Iran approximately $1.5 billion in gold sales, as well as easier access to “humanitarian transactions.” Put another way, someone in Washington wanted this badly enough to pay for it.

    For President Obama and his advisers, this agreement is clearly a late grasp (or perhaps last gasp) at legacy building, and maybe even a guilty stab at justifying that 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. The urge to etch some kind of foreign policy success into future history books that, at the moment, threaten to be grim reading is easy enough to understand. So it should have surprised no one that John Kerry, Obama’s once globetrotting secretary of state, basically took up residence in Switzerland to negotiate with the Iranians. He sat at the table in Lausanne bargaining while Tikrit burned, Syria simmered, his country was chased out of Yemen, and the Saudis launched their own war in that beleaguered country. That he had hardly a word to say about any of those events, or much of anything else going on in the world at the time, is an indication of just how much value the Obama administration puts on those nuclear negotiations.

    For the Iranians, trading progress on developing nuclear weapons for the full-scale lifting of sanctions was an attractive offer. After all, its leaders know that the country could never go fully nuclear without ensuring devastating Israeli strikes, and so lost little with the present agreement while gaining much. Being accepted as a peer by Washington in such negotiations only further establishes their country’s status as a regional power. Moreover, a nuclear agreement that widens any rift between the U.S., Israel, and the Saudis plays to Tehran’s new strength. Finally, the stronger economy likely to blossom once sanctions are lifted will offer the nation the possibility of new revenues and renewed foreign investment. (It’s easy to imagine Chinese businesspeople on Orbitz making air reservations as you read this.) The big winner in the nuclear deal is not difficult to suss out.

    What Lies Ahead

    In these last months, despite the angry, fearful cries and demands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Saudi royals, and neo- and other conservatives in Congress, Iran has shown few signs of aspiring to the sort of self-destruction going nuclear would entail. (If Iran had created a bomb every time Netanyahu claimed they were on the verge of having one in the past two decades, Tehran would be littered with them.) In fact, trading mushroom clouds with Israel and possibly the U.S. never looked like an appealing goal to the Iranian leadership. Instead, they preferred to seek a more conventional kind of influence throughout the Middle East. They were hardly alone in that, but their success has been singular in the region in these years.

    The U.S. provided free tutorials in Afghanistan and Iraq on why actually occupying territory in the neighborhood isn’t the road to such influence. Iran’s leaders have not ignored the advice. Instead, Iran’s rise has been stoked by a collection of client states, aligned governments, sympathetic and/or beholden militias, and — when all else fails — chaotic non-states that promise less trouble and harm to Tehran than to its various potential enemies.

    Despite Iran’s gains, the U.S. will still be the biggest kid on the block for years, possibly decades, to come. One hopes that America will not use that military and economic strength to lash out at the new regional power it inadvertently helped midwife. And if any of this does presage some future U.S. conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a great irony, a great tragedy, and a damn waste of American blood and resources.




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    Onward Christian Soldiers – to Iraq!

    April 8, 2015 // 7 Comments »

    crusader


    Estimates are that 20,000-30,000 foreigners, many from the west, have joined IS. The numbers are likely wrong, could be double, might be half.

    A number of politicians and security analysts believe one of the greatest threats facing the United States is from so-called “lone wolf” attacks. These would be perpetrated by western foreigners returning from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq radicalized and weaponized.

    The U.S. devotes significant resources to identifying these wolves, though often to results more comic than anything else. Nonetheless, it is illegal for Americans to join and fight for groups such as IS — that is called conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism, and is prosecuted with vigor.



    Crusaders

    Yet it seems less of an issue when it is good Christian Americans zooming off to the Middle East to join Christian militias.

    Reuters reports idealistic Westerners are enlisting in Christian militias now fighting in Iraq, citing frustration their governments are not doing more to combat the Islamists. The militia they joined is called Dwekh Nawsha, meaning “self-sacrifice” in the ancient Aramaic language spoken by Christ and still used by Assyrian Christians in Iraq.

    A map on the wall in the office of the Assyrian political party affiliated with Dwekh Nawsha marks the Christian towns in northern Iraq, fanning out around the city of Mosul. The majority are now under control of IS, which overran Mosul last summer and issued an ultimatum to Christians to pay a tax, convert to Islam, or die by the sword.

    Dwekh Nawsha operates alongside very non-Christian Kurdish peshmerga forces to protect Christian villages on the frontline in Nineveh province. “These are some of the only towns in Nineveh where church bells ring. In every other town the bells have gone silent, and that’s unacceptable,” said American citizen “Brett,” who has “The King of Nineveh” written in Arabic on the front of his army vest.

    Another fighter is “Tim,” who shut down his construction business in Britain last year, sold his house and bought two plane tickets to Iraq: one for himself and another for a 44-year-old American software engineer he met through the internet. “I’m here to make a difference and hopefully put a stop to some atrocities,” said the 38-year-old Tim. “I’m just an average guy from England really.”

    “Scott,” a software engineer, served in the U.S. Army in the 1990’s. He was mesmerized by images of ISIS hounding Iraq’s Yazidi minority and became fixated on the struggle for the Syrian border town of Kobani. Scott had planned to join the YPG, which has drawn a flurry of foreign recruits, but changed his mind four days before heading to the Middle East after growing suspicious of the group’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). See, he was worried he would not be allowed home if he associated with the PKK, which the United States and Europe consider a terrorist organization.

    The only foreign woman in Dwekh Nawsha’s ranks said she had been inspired by the role of women in the YPG, but identified more closely with the “traditional” values of the Christian militia. Wearing a baseball cap over her balaclava, she said radical Islam was at the root of many conflicts and had to be contained.

    “Everyone dies,” said Brett, asked about the prospect of being killed. “One of my favorite verses in the Bible says: be faithful unto death, and I shall give you the crown of life.”



    Overt Sarcasm

    The chances of any of these westerners becoming radicalized and weaponized and returning home to commit violent acts against a U.S. government they perceive as not doing enough “to combat the ultra-radical Islamists” is of course nil. That their very presence will fuel ISIS propaganda efforts to portray America’s war in the Middle East as a modern-day crusade is also nil.

    Also, there is no doubt that The Prince of Peace would love to see Americans traveling half way around the world to add to the death toll in Iraq.

    God bless.



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    U.S. Weapons Worth $500 Million Vanish in Yemeni Chaos

    March 24, 2015 // 6 Comments »

    army


    Remember back in the good ‘ole days when America didn’t supply the bad guys with the weapons they’ll use later to kill Americans? Good times, good times.

    Cited by Obama as a model for fighting extremism as he sent the U.S. back into Iraq last summer, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Yemen has all but collapsed as the country has all but collapsed. Yemen has no government now, and joins a growing list of places where American handiwork has midwifed a new failed state.

    In Yemen, where al-Qaeda vies for supremacy with the home-grown Shiite Houthi rebels supported by Iran, the Pentagon cannot $500 million worth of military equipment the U.S. donated to Yemen since 2007. U.S. officials said instability in Yemen has made it impossible to keep tabs on donated equipment.

    It. Is. Just. Gone.

    “We have to assume it’s completely compromised and gone,” a legislative aide on Capitol Hill, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Washington Post.


    Missing in Action

    Here’s a taste of the equipment no one can find:

    1,250,000 rounds of ammunition
    200 Glock 9 mm pistols
    200 M-4 rifles
    4 Huey II helicopters
    2 Cessna 208 transport and surveillance aircraft
    2 coastal patrol boats
    1 CN-235 transport and surveillance aircraft
    4 hand-launched Raven drones
    160 Humvees

    Take another look. Over a million rounds of ammunition? How can one misplace coastal patrol boats, never mind airplanes and helicopters?

    Lebanon, Iraq, and…

    Not that it is related to the mess in Yemen in any way, but the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon recently announced a new shipment of weapons and ammunition have arrived in Beirut. The Ambassador said the equipment includes more than 70 M198 howitzers and over 26 million rounds of ammunition and artillery “of all shapes and sizes, including heavy artillery… I know that in a matter of days it’s going to be what your brave soldiers are using in the battle to defeat terrorism and extremism.” Lebanon has become the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military assistance. Weapons worth more than $100 million were given to Lebanon last year and over a $1 billion worth in the last eight years.

    And also not that it is related to the mess in Yemen in any way, but here’s part of what is on the way into Iraq from the U.S.: 175 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks, 15 Hercules tank recovery vehicles, and 55,000 rounds of main gun ammunition for the tanks, about $3 billion worth. In July, General Dynamics received a $65.3 million contract to support the existing Iraq M1A1 Abrams program. In October, the U.S. approved the sale of $600 million in M1 tank ammunition to that country. There have also been sales of all sorts of other weaponry, from $579 million worth of Humvees and $600 million in howitzers and trucks to $700 million worth of Hellfire missiles. With the collapse of the Iraqi army and the abandonment of piles of its American weaponry, including at least 40 M1s, to IS militants.



    Looking Down the Barrell of a Gun

    And so, one must ask the snarky question “So how’s that working out for you?” The current U.S. war “against IS” has spread around like spilled paint around the Middle East, and along with it, the weapons America supplies to one side that often end up in the hands of the other side. Like that spilled paint, once you let go of the guns and bullets, you cannot control where they end up. Whether they go “missing,” are outright sold on the black market for non-sectarian, good old fashioned profit, left on the battlefield for whoever to pick up, or carried over as groups switch side, they can easily end up pointed the wrong way: back at America.


    BONUS: Thanks to American aid, Yemen is estimated to have the second-highest per capita gun ownership rate in the world, ranking behind only the United States.




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    The Future of Mosul is Kobane

    March 7, 2015 // 14 Comments »

    kobane



    It was necessary to destroy the Syrian town of Kobane (above) in order to save it from ISIS. The rubble and ruin of what was once a place more than 200,000 people lived is now free. Want to know the future of Mosul? Look to Kobane.


    Destroying Kobane

    Kobane once mattered nearly nothing at all, at least when ISIS was winning there in the face of NATO-ally Turkey choosing not to intervene. In October 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry, said preventing the fall of Kobani was not a strategic U.S. objective. “As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobane, you have to step back and understand the strategic objective.” That objective was something about destroying ISIS’ command centers.

    After the U.S. abandoned the goal of bringing Turkey into the fight, and, against Turkey’s wishes, facilitated the movement of Kurdish forces across Iraq to attack Kobane, the city suddenly did become a U.S. strategic objective. Speaking a little over two months after his earlier dismissive statement, Kerry said with the recapture of the Kurdish city of Kobane, ISIS was “forced to acknowledge its own defeat. Daesh – ISIL as some know it – has said all along that Kobane was a real symbolic and strategic objective.” Kerry continued to say that pushing ISIS out of Kobane was “a big deal.”

    By all accounts, the over 700 airstrikes the U.S. conducted on a round-the-clock basis on Kobane devastated the town. The civilian death toll has never been calculated. No plans to rebuild the city have been announced. Kobane was saved from ISIS by destroying it.


    Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam

    A famous quote from the Vietnam War was a statement attributed to an unnamed U.S. officer by correspondent Peter Arnett, writing about Bến Tre city in February 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The officer was talking about the decision to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong. The quote became garbled over time, eventually becoming the familiar, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

    The meaning of the phrase, as applied to Vietnam and to Kobane, is the same. What absurd value can be found in decimating a town in the cause of freeing it?

    Kobane is Free

    “Winning” in Kobane accomplishes nothing really. The city is destroyed. Over 200,000 refugees have been forced out, with questions about how they can ever return to resume their lives given such devastation. The decision not to intervene by the Turks exposed the fragility of the hastily assembled U.S. coalition, setting up future confrontations among allies with very different goals and agendas for this war.

    As an activist in the ISIS capital of Raqqa wrote, “People don’t look at Kobani and see a defeat, because everyone had to leave and the Americans bombed it to rubble to win.”

    Meanwhile, as attention and limited resources were tied up in a battle of questionable strategic import, ISIS gains ground in Anbar, and continues to gather recruits from around the world. Kobane may very well end up as an example from this war noted by historians, as was Ben Tre from the Vietnam War, though perhaps not the one the U.S. intended it to be.



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    Why Evacuating an Embassy is a Political Act

    February 19, 2015 // 14 Comments »

    -


    The American Embassy in Yemen is closed and the American staff evacuated. Houthi officials say the evacuation was unnecessary and claim it is largely a political act seeking to undermine their legitimacy. Is closing an embassy a political act? What happens when an embassy is evacuated? What happens to private Americans in-country?



    A Political Signal

    The decision to close an embassy rises to the Secretary of State for approval. An embassy evacuation really is a virtual chess match that some State Department critics say is as much about political signals as it is about the safety of America’s diplomats. In cases where the United States wants to support the host government, an embassy closure cuts off most interaction and will eliminate on-the-ground reporting. An evacuation can trigger the fall of the host government based on the perceived loss of American confidence, or may encourage rebels to attack private American citizens seen as less-protected. In that one point of having an embassy at all is symbolism, closure is without a doubt a political act. Reopening the embassy brings up all those factors in reverse.



    How Do You Close an Embassy?

    The mechanics of closing an embassy follow an established process, with only the time line varying.

    All embassies have standing evacuation procedures, called the Emergency Action Plan, that are updated regularly. A key component is the highly-classified “trip wires,” designated decision points. If the rebels advance past the river, take steps A-C. If the host government military is deserting, implement steps D-E, and so forth.

    Early actions include moving embassy dependents out of the country via commercial flights. Incoming staff can be held in Washington and existing tours cut short. Non-essential official personnel (for example, the trade attache, who won’t be doing much business in the midst of coup) are flown out. Some sort of public advisory must be issued by the State Department to private American citizens under the “No Double Standard” rule. This grew out of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am flight, where inside threat info was made available to embassy families but kept from the general public.

    These embassy draw-down steps are seen as low-cost moves, both because they use commercial transportation, and because they usually attract minimal public attention.

    The next steps typically involve the destruction of classified materials. The flood of sensitive documents taken from the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 remains a sore point inside State even today. Classified materials include mountains of paper that need to be shredded, pulped or burnt, as well as electronics, weapons, encryption gear and hard drives that must be physically destroyed. Embassies estimate how many linear feet of classified paper they have on hand and the destruction process begins in time (one hopes) to destroy it all.



    Send in the Marines

    Somewhere in the midst of all this, the Marines come into the picture. Embassies are guarded only by a small, lightly armed detachment of Marines. As part of their standard Special Operation Capable (SOC) designation, larger Marine units train with their SEAL components for the reinforcement and evacuation of embassies. They maintain libraries of overhead imagery and blueprints of diplomatic facilities to aid in planning. Fully combat-equipped Marines can be brought into the embassy, either stealthily to avoid inflaming a tense situation, or very overtly to send a message to troublemakers to back off. Long experience keeps Marine assets handy to the Middle East and Africa.



    Private Americans

    What is done to support private American citizens varies considerably. Planning and putting into action support for our citizens was a major part of my work at the State Department. The rule of thumb is if a commercial means of departure exists, private citizens must utilize it, sometimes with the assistance of the embassy. Loans for tickets can be made, convoys organized and so forth. In cases where the major airlines refuse to fly but the airport is still usable, the State Department can arrange charters. In extreme cases only (Yemen is not such a case) the Marines conduct a Noncombatant Evacuation Order (NEO) to pull citizens out of the country using military assets. At times Americans are simply told to “shelter in place” and ride out a crisis. State will ask a neutral embassy in-country, such as the Swiss, to look after them to the extent possible.



    Sorry, Local Staff

    Almost always left out of the mix are the embassy local staff, the cooks, drivers, and translators. Rarely are they evacuated, and are usually left to make their own way in what can be a very dangerous environment for someone seen as an American collaborator. Some have compared this to the poor treatment military translators from Iraq and Afghanistan have received trying to secure visas and refugee status to the United States.



    We Failed

    Closing an embassy is often a tacit admission that America’s policies toward the host government failed. For example, Yemen represents the third American embassy in an Arab Spring country, following Syria and Libya, now closed. Images of an empty embassy are not what the American government looks forward to seeing spreading across social media. A closure is indeed a political act.



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    What ISIS Gained by Burning a Man Alive

    February 18, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    japan isis4.jpg

    A few weeks ago, did the majority of the world know the Japanese prime minister pledged $200 million in “humanitarian aid” in the war against ISIS? Or that two Japanese citizens had been held as hostages for months? Or that ISIS also held a Jordanian pilot? Or, since 2005, Jordan had been holding a failed al Qaeda female suicide bomber on death row?

    The world knows now. With three killings, the Islamic State sent its messages viral, and watched them pay off in strategic gains.



    What ISIS Accomplished

    Last month in Iraq, 2,287 people were killed. No one knows how many died in the same time span in Syria and other “war on terror” hot spots. Little seems to have changed for it all. Yet, via skillful manipulation of the global media, here is some of what Islamic State accomplished via taking three lives in such a gruesome manner:

    — Islamic State humiliated two U.S. allies. Both sought to negotiate with the militants and both were shown to be weak and ineffectual.

    — The United States, which remained silent, absent the usual tropes about evil, was shown as ineffectual in being able to help its allies.

    — A key U.S. partner, the United Arab Emirates, announced — based on the Jordanian pilot’s capture alone — that it was suspending airstrikes unless the U.S. stationed search and rescue teams inside Iraq. The U.S. quickly announced it was doing just that, raising its on-the-ground footprint. Keeping partners in the game is crucial to maintaining the dubious claim that efforts against Islamic State are anything but an American campaign. Even with the UAE, estimates are that the U.S. conducts some 80 percent of the airstrikes itself.

    — The Japanese and Jordanian governments have vowed revenge, drawing them deeper into the conflict while bringing their domestic debates over the propriety of supporting what many see as America’s war into the open. Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seizing this moment to try and push through a controversial change to Japan’s pacifist constitution. Blood always runs hot at first; it remains to be seen how many additional deaths of its own citizens a society will tolerate in the name of revenge. Will the hyper-macho images of Jordan’s king wearing a flight suit come to be seen in the same way that George W. Bush’s images of himself in a flight suit now are?

    — The Jordanians executed a Sunni Muslim woman, martyring her and giving new voice to her cause.

    — ISIS successfully kicked off another cycle of revenge in an area of the world where such cycles can become perpetual motion engines. America cannot help but be drawn deeper into this quagmire as it struggles to hold its limited coalition together. President Barack Obama has already announced an increase in annual aid to Jordan from $660 million to $1 billion.

    — To its core recruitment audience, who believes in violent jihad, Islamic State saw one of its most barbaric videos broadcast globally. Islamic State is far less concerned about those shocked by the video than it is about those who will join its struggle because of the video.
    War of ideas

    — Islamic State understands that it is waging a war of ideas, and that ideas cannot be bombed away. There is no victory or defeat per se in such a war, just struggle in epic terms.

    The Charlie Hebdo killers appeared to have been inspired by American citizen cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whom the U.S. assassinated in 2011. And for all that al Qaeda has been degraded, Islamic State has arisen as its spawn. That dead men inspire living acts of horror shows that unless the fundamental ideas driving Islamic militants are addressed, there will be no end.

    The Heisenberg Effect

    Absent Jordan, the bulk of the Arab world reacted to the Islamic State video with firm statements, and no action. Somehow, that remains primarily in the hands of an America that cannot seem to understand how its very presence in the Middle East exacerbates conflict.

    Robert Pape and James Feldman, in Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It reviewed 2,100 suicide bombings in the Middle East from 1980 to 2009. They conclude most were fueled by U.S. intervention.

    And there has been plenty of fuel for those who fan the flames. Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces invaded, occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have publicly killed or been killed, since 1980. This history suggests what one Marine officer called in the Small Wars Journal the Heisenberg Effect, after the physics theorem that states the presence of an observer affects the event being observed.

    Any Ideas?

    America’s track record in the “war on terror” is a poor one, the ISIS video only the latest bit of evidence. You can’t shoot an idea. You defeat a bad idea with a better one. Islamic State has proven terribly effective with its bad ideas; on the American side, more than 13 years after 9/11, we need to ask, so what do you have to offer?



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    Libya: A Perfect Storm of Interventionist Failure

    February 17, 2015 // 13 Comments »

    Still image from video shows men purported to be Egyptian Christians held captive by the Islamic State kneeling in front of armed men along a beach said to be near Tripoli


    Libya is the perfect storm example of the failure of U.S. interventionist policy in the Middle East.


    The Obama-Clinton Model

    In 2011, Libya was to be the centerpiece of Middle East Intervention 2.0, the Obama-Clinton version.

    Unlike the Bush model, that of Texas-sized land armies, multi-year campaigns and expensive reconstruction efforts, the Obama-Clinton version would use American air power above, special forces and CIA on the ground, and coordinate local “freedom fighters” to overthrow the evil dictator/terrorist/super-villain of the moment. “We Came, We Saw, He Died,” cackled then-Secretary of State Clinton as Libyan leader Moamar Quaddafi was sodomized by rebels on TV.

    The idea was that the U.S. would dip in, unleash hell, and dip out, leaving it to the local folks to create a new government from scratch. So how’d that strategy work out in Libya?


    Benghazi Only A Sign

    Benghazi was only a sign of the chaos to come.

    Here’s the state of Libya today. Several Islamist groups vying for control in Libya have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and carried out barbaric executions, as in Iraq and Syria. The growth and radicalization of Islamist groups raise the possibility that large parts of Libya could become a satellite of the Islamic State where one never previously existed.

    Libya’s official government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, has only tenuous authority, having been run out of Tripoli last summer amid fighting between rival militias formed during the 2011 civil war.

    The shell government Thinni leads, pathetically still recognized by the international community, operates out of the eastern city of Bayda. The Libya Dawn movement, a coalition of militias and political factions, has wrested control of the capital and established a rival government.

    Fighters who identify themselves as part of the Islamic State have killed journalists and many other civilians. They took credit for the November 13 bombings targeting the Egyptian and United Arab Emirates embassies in Tripoli. Last month, fighters linked to the Islamic State kidnapped Egyptian Coptic Christians and bombed the Corinthia Hotel in the capital, killing ten people.

    And according to the New York Times, the chaos in Libya has paralyzed the economy. The one industry that is booming is human smuggling. Taking advantage of the lawlessness, smugglers who use Libya as a way station in moving impoverished sub-Saharan Africans and Syrian refugees to Europe have become increasingly brazen and reckless in their tactics, sending hundreds to their deaths.



    Egypt Bombs Libya after 21 Beheaded

    In what is only the latest evidence of the failure of the 2011 intervention, Egyptian jets bombed Islamic State targets in Libya recently, a day after the group there released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians. That forced Cairo directly into the conflict across its border. While Cairo is believed to have provided clandestine support to some former-Libyan general fighting the rogue government in Tripoli with his own militia, the mass killings pushed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi into open action.


    The Obama-Clinton Model

    While Libya is the perfect storm example of what happens when the U.S. clumsily intervenes in a Middle Eastern country, it is certainly not the only example. The evacuation of the American embassy in Yemen is the marker for America’s policy failure there. The U.S. is again at war in Iraq, trying the new interventionist model as a recipe to rescue the old one. That conflict alone threatens to inflame the entire region, pulling in Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others.

    Want to see the future? Look to the recent past. Look at Libya.




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    U.S. Dumps Massive Load, of Weapons and Ammunition, in Lebanon

    February 9, 2015 // 12 Comments »

    howitzer


    The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon announced a new shipment of weapons and ammunition have arrived in Beirut, the latest American assistance to Lebanon’s army as it fights ISIS along its border with Syria. The Ambassador said the equipment includes more than 70 M198 howitzers and over 26 million rounds of ammunition and artillery “of all shapes and sizes, including heavy artillery.”

    “We are very proud of this top-of-the-line equipment. This is the best that there is in the marketplace. It’s what our soldiers use,” the Ambassador continued. “I know that in a matter of days it’s going to be what your brave soldiers are using in the battle to defeat terrorism and extremism.”

    Hale told reporters that Lebanon has become the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military assistance. He added that weapons worth more than $100 million were given to Lebanon last year and over a $1 billion worth in the last eight years. In November, France and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to provide the Lebanese army with $3 billion worth of weapons paid for by Riyadh.

    So How’s that Working Out for You?

    And so, one must ask the snarky question “So how’s that working out for you?”

    The current U.S. war “against ISIS,” (aka Iraq War 3.0) has spread around like spilled paint into Syria, Iraq and threatens Turkey. It has drawn into its sucking vortex Lebanon, Jordan, Iran (a very happy participant as every victory against ISIS is a double win for Tehran), Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Britain, France, Canada and bits and pieces overt and covert of other nations.

    In Iraq, the U.S. war has solidified Shia control of the government in general, and reestablished the Shia militias as the government’s bully boys and the vanguard of ethnic cleansing even now underway. The war midwifed an independent Kurdish nation-state in every sense but name; that toothpaste is never going back into the tube. The need to play nice with Iran inside Iraq has weakened the U.S. in nuclear negotiations. Syria’s Assad, a year and a half ago the man in America’s crosshairs for crimes against humanity, is now allowed to sit comfortably in power in Damascus, his name barely even mentioned by the White House.

    America at War!

    The move to overt combat by U.S. forces in Iraq is one incident away, assuming you don’t count defensive operations, getting mortared, and flying ground attack helicopters as “combat.” Fun prediction: some incident will indeed occur, maybe a hostage rescue scenario, right about the time the Kurds/Iraq Forces run into trouble this spring retaking Mosul from ISIS. Cynical? Remember the current round of U.S. intervention in Iraq began with a rescue mission for the Yazidi people.

    So in the shadow of all that, what possible harm could come out of sending another 26 million rounds of ammunition into Lebanon?



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    ISIS are Barbarians for Burning That Pilot Alive, But…

    February 4, 2015 // 7 Comments »

    Kim Phuc story





    The picture above comes from a U.S. napalm strike on a village in Vietnam.










    This image is from a U.S. white phosphorus strike on Fallujah, Iraq.




    This image is from the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima.



    Wrongs don’t make rights, and one horror does not excuse or justify another. But do be careful slinging the term barbarian around, or decrying the murder of defenseless innocents too freely, lest it come back and bite you.



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    Talkin’ Those Why U.S. Terror Policy Just Fails Blues

    January 10, 2015 // 4 Comments »

    Former U.S. ambassador Chas Freeman, hit the nail on the head when recently describing America’s failed strategy in the Middle East: “If at first we don’t succeed, we do the same thing again harder, with better technology, and at greater expense. The patch provides a cogent – if uncouth – summary of the results of this approach so far this century.”


    Freeman’s remark was my inspiration in responding to questions in this episode of Crosstalk.






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    Lebanon Arrests ISIS Leader Baghdadi’s Wife and Child

    December 3, 2014 // 4 Comments »

    baghdadi


    Lebanese security forces have detained a wife and nine-year-old child of Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The pair were picked up after entering Lebanon with forged passports ten days ago, and are being interrogated at the defence ministry. Baghdadi is the leader of the “caliphate” created by ISIS in the parts of Syria and Iraq it controls.

    Describing them as “a valuable catch”, the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir said that the IS leader’s wife and child had been detained in coordination with foreign intelligence services. Indeed, CNN cites a “source” with knowledge of the arrest, describing the wife as a “powerful figure who is heavily involved in ISIS.”


    So let’s drill down a bit into this story.

    Given that ISIS is a strict, conservative, fundamentalist Islamic organization that follows Sharia law and uses captive women for rape and as slaves, the statement that one of Baghdadi’s three wives is indeed a “powerful figure who is heavily involved in ISIS,” seems suspect at best. She would be in fact the only woman ever connected with ISIS with any known power at all. Her role as an ISIS leader has certainly not been discussed before. It is not common anywhere in the conservative Muslim world for powerful men to share responsibilities with their spouses; among the reasons, other men would be unlikely to take orders from a woman, regardless of who she was married to. In addition, having one’s wife play such as role would certainly weaken the status of the husband.

    Given that, and given that a child was also arrested, one cannot avoid the term hostage. By coincidence, Lebanon is deeply engaged in negotiations to free more than 20 Lebanese Army soldiers held hostage since August by ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.

    In a better world, one would expect to hear the United States condemning the arrest of a woman and a child simply because she is married to a bad guy. Even more so when there is the appearance that her arrest has some connection to ongoing hostage negotiations, and that it involved a young child.


    I will update this story when the U.S. issues its condemnation of the hostage taking…

    A Different Update: An Iraqi official denied that a woman detained in Lebanon is a wife of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claiming she is the sister of a terror suspect being held in Iraq. Same church, different pew.



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    U.S. to Use Psych Tests to Vett Syrian Rebels for Moderateness

    December 2, 2014 // 6 Comments »

    blot


    Many have compared those “moderate Syrian rebels” the U.S. keeps looking for to unicorns. The U.S. now thinks it has a new set of tools to scare the unicorns out of hiding, and to tell the nasty terrorists from the good terrorists: psychological evaluations, biometric checks and stress tests. It is unlikely this will help.


    Call of Duty: Problems One-Four

    According to the Washington Post, “moderate” Syrian fighters will be evaluated on an ongoing basis. Successful participants “would gradually attain access to higher levels of training and weaponry.” So basically this is going to work something like Call of Duty leveling-up. Problem One.

    The Post goes on to say that the American government hopes “to lessen the risk that U.S.-trained fighters sent back into Syria to combat ISIS will use their weapons on civilians or — like the Afghan mujahideen fighters Washington backed in the 1980s — later turn against the United States and its allies.” This is of course a good goal, considering those U.S.-backed 80s-era mujahideen fighters went on to become al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS. Problem Two.

    The psych screening and stress testing will not stand alone. Biometric data will be gathered from the recruits, and along with their names, run through all sorts of databases. Needless to say, a person must exist in one of those databases for the checking to do any good. And in a region of the world where last names and birthdays are not always recorded, there may be some problems with that. There are a lot of “Muhummed, FNU, 01/01/01” entries in the databases that match everyone and no one (FNU = First Name Unknown). Problem Three.

    “In the special operations community, we have a pretty long history of vetting and screening surrogate forces that we’ve worked with,” said an official at CENTCOM who apparently is unfamiliar with the success of the 1980s mujahideen fighters experiment, America’s near-endless work with human rights violating Central and South American thug armies (see School of the Americas) and so forth. That official appears also unaware of the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan in the present war by their Afghan partners, so called “Green-on-Blue” attacks. Problem Four.


    Problem Five: No Leahy Vetting

    For all the Hail-Mary style “vetting” that will sort-of take place, one thing which will not happen is Leahy Vetting.

    Leahy Vetting is a process, albeit flawed as it is run by a small office located deep inside the State Department, put in place during the 1990s precisely to stop the U.S. from funding and partnering with human rights violators who might fulfill America’s short term goals but ultimately alienate the very populations the U.S. seeks to win over.

    But because the Syrian rebels will not be part of a state-sponsored force, the Leahy Vetting laws will not apply, according to an interpretation announced by the Obama Administration (existing Department of Defense regulations classify “paramilitary forces” as included, so we’ll call that Problem 5.5). That means even the very light touch of Leahy won’t be applied to America’s new partners in the fight against ISIS. Persons who at this point may be concerned that the U.S. will be backing one group of human rights-violating Islamic fundamentalists against another group of human rights-violating Islamic fundamentalists are excused from the final exam. You already got it.


    Comment

    I sometimes label things I write as “satire,” as without the label I often received both well-meaning and incredibly obscene comments and emails challenging the stories. After learning of these nearly-pointless psych evaluation vetting procedures (“Now look at this ink blot. Does it look like a splatter of ISIS brain matter on the end of your rifle butt, or moderate brain matter?”), I feel it may be clearer to label posts such as this one “Not Satire” and leave the purposefully satirical ones alone.




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    ISIS has Enough Weapons for Up to Two Years

    November 20, 2014 // 5 Comments »

    Team-America


    And guess where the weapons came from?


    A new report prepared for the United Nations Security Council warns ISIS possesses sufficient reserves of small arms, ammunition and vehicles to wage its war in Syria and Iraq for up to two years. And that is assuming they do not capture more weapons, including heavy weapons, from the Iraqi Army, their accidental, primary supplier to date.

    The UN report has even more bad news to share: the size and breadth of the ISIS arsenal provides the group with durable mobility, range and even a limited defense against low-flying aircraft (ISIS has already shot down Iraqi helicopters.) Even if the U.S. bombing campaign continues to destroy the group’s vehicles and heavier weapons, the UN report states, it “cannot mitigate the effect of the significant volume of light weapons” ISIS possesses.


    Where to Begin

    So maybe someone should cut off the flow of weapons to ISIS? Here’s where to start: Almost 20 percent of the small arms ammunition used by ISIS could be traced to U.S. manufacturers. Additionally, the Islamic State appears to use “significant quantities” of ammunition manufactured in Russia under the Wolf brand and distributed by the U.S. to its own allied states in the Middle East. Hmmm.

    Meanwhile, ISIS seems to be getting weapons supplied by air, possibly from Russia, but who really can say.

    Anti-tank weapons that were likely once owned by moderate Syrian rebels have also landed in ISIS hands. In addition to U.S.-supplied arms, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been funneling weaponry to various rebel factions in the conflict.


    Who’s Number 1?

    The ISIS arsenal, according to the UN, includes older T-55 and modern, front-line T-72 tanks, anti-aircraft artillery, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets captured from Iraqi and Syrian military stocks, and “extensive supplies of ammunition,” as well as some 250 light vehicles.

    The UN report does have a sense of humor embedded, noting that much of the ISIS weapons stock stolen from the U.S.-backed Iraqi military was “unused” before ISIS seized it.

    The weapons as a whole, the UN report finds, make ISIS not only the world’s best-funded terrorist group but among its best armed. ISIS is sufficiently armed to threaten the region “even without holding territory”, the report concludes.


    Money Matters

    The report recommends the UN adopt new sanctions designed to disrupt the well-financed ISIS’ economic health. Significant among them is a call for states bordering ISIS-controlled territory (a diplomatic way of saying mostly Turkey) to “promptly seize all oil tanker trucks and their loads” coming in or going out. While the report warns ISIS has alternate revenue sources, primarily ransom payments, and does not predict that truck seizures can eliminate ISIS’ oil smuggling money, it holds out hope that raising the costs to smuggling networks and trucking companies will deter them from bringing ISIS oil to market.

    The report comes on the heels of an October report to the Security Council assessing that 15,000 fighters from 80 countries have flooded into Syria and Iraq to fight alongside ISIS.


    So yeah, things seem to be going well for ISIS now, four months into the U.S. bombing campaign.



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    Jihadis Using Cruise Ships to Reach Middle East (Not Satire)

    November 14, 2014 // 3 Comments »

    LoveBoatHo ho, this is just hilarious. But serious.

    You know what cruises are, right? A couple of days at sea, a day or two in some cheesy port, mostly time spent eating madly at buffets, sucking down booze, laying in the sun in between turns at the buffet and the bar, that kind of thing. Other than regular occurrences of alcohol poisoning, heart attacks on the massage tables and the occasional passenger overboard, cruises are pretty laid back vacations.

    (Cue ominous music) Until. Now.


    The Threat

    Proving overreaction to terrorism is not merely an American hobby anymore, Interpol has said some of those jihadis trying to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria are using cruise lines now to get to countries like Turkey to infiltrate in. The answer? More invasive security with more secret watch lists of course, this time in the form of new name checks on passenger lists extended from airlines to cruise operators before, Interpol warns, “the issue became more of a problem.” This is not satire and is actually true. The BBC reported it.

    Unfortunately, Interpol could provide no figures on how many militants have travelled in this way.

    Interpol’s director of counterterrorism, Pierre St. Hilaire, a Bond-villain name if there ever was one, said Turkish authorities said they have deported hundreds of “suspected” jihadists in recent months after detaining them at airports and bus stations. This has led prospective fighters to make alternative travel arrangements in an effort to avoid detection. Regular stops at ports in the region would allow fighters to disembark undetected and make their onward journey to Syria or Iraq untracked by security agencies.

    Interpol officials said the militants’ use of cruise ships had emerged only in the “past three months or so.”

    Those cruise ships are big, but may need to add more capacity for the jihadi surge. A recent United Nations report estimated there were 15,000 foreign jihadists from more than 80 countries already fighting with Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.

    Leaving aside the fact that you can walk or take a taxi into Turkey, let’s examine this cruise ship idea. For it to work, jihadis would of course first need to pay the hefty fares. But they seem well-funded, in large part via black market oil smuggled onto international markets via Turkey, so the money’s covered. But the jihadis would also have to blend in with the rest of the Love Boat passengers. So with that in mind, we now segue into the See Something, Say Something advice of this article.


    Recognizing A Jihadi Aboard a Cruise Ship

    — Look for skinny people among your fellow cruisers. The vast majority of cruise passengers are obscenely obese Americans, Germans or rich Russians. A skinny jihadi is going to stand out like a McRib sandwich at a vegetarian restaurant.

    — Be very suspicious of sober people. Most cruisers are drunk off their butts even before boarding the ship, and maintain a state of constant drunkenness throughout. Bloodies at breakfast, buckets of beer by the pool, wine and champagne in the evenings, IV drips of vodka overnight, are all the norm. That flinty-eyed sneak nursing a Diet Coke is trouble.

    — Dress aboard a cruise ship is casual. Wear-your-bathrobe-without-underwear to dinner kind of casual. Keep a sharp eye out for passengers wearing head coverings and those checked scarves over their bathrobes. Exception: Hipsters and Russell Brand, who also wear those scarves but if either are thrown into Guantanamo by accident, no great loss.

    — Conversation aboard a cruise ship is largely about when to drink next and crude attempts to pick up men/women. Some passengers also chat about sexually harassing the staff or how much they ate at the all-you-can-eat lard bar. If someone keeps switching the topic to how many infidels can fit into the hot tub, be wary.


    Eternal vigilance is the price of cruising freedom. Don’t leave home without it!



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    Iraq and ISIS: What Could Possibly Go Right?

    November 12, 2014 // 2 Comments »

    soldier1_QVga

    Karl von Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military thinker, is best known for his aphorism “War is the continuation of state policy by other means.” But what happens to a war in the absence of coherent state policy?

    Actually, we now know. Washington’s Iraq War 3.0, Operation Inherent Resolve, is what happens. In its early stages, I asked sarcastically, “What could possibly go wrong?” As the mission enters its fourth month, the answer to that question is already grimly clear: just about everything. It may be time to ask, in all seriousness: What could possibly go right?

    Knowing Right from Wrong

    The latest American war was launched as a humanitarian mission. The goal of its first bombing runs was to save the Yazidis, a group few Americans had heard of until then, from genocide at the hands of the Islamic State (IS). Within weeks, however, a full-scale bombing campaign was underway against IS across Iraq and Syria with its own “coalition of the willing” and 1,600 U.S. military personnel on the ground. Slippery slope? It was Teflon-coated. Think of what transpired as several years of early Vietnam-era escalation compressed into a semester.

    And in that time, what’s gone right? Short answer: Almost nothing. Squint really, really hard and maybe the “good news” is that IS has not yet taken control of much of the rest of Iraq and Syria, and that Baghdad hasn’t been lost. These possibilities, however, were unlikely even without U.S. intervention.

    And there might just possibly be one “victory” on the horizon, though the outcome still remains unclear. Washington might “win” in the IS-besieged Kurdish town of Kobane, right on the Turkish border. If so, it will be a faux victory guaranteed to accomplish nothing of substance. After all, amid the bombing and the fighting, the town has nearly been destroyed. What comes to mind is a Vietnam War-era remark by an anonymous American officer about the bombed provincial capital of Ben Tre: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

    More than 200,000 refugees have already fled Kobane, many with doubts that they will ever be able to return, given the devastation. The U.S. has gone to great pains to point out just how many IS fighters its air strikes have killed there. Exactly 464, according to a U.K.-based human rights group, a number so specific as to be suspect, but no matter. As history suggests, body counts in this kind of war mean little.

    And that, folks, is the “good news.” Now, hold on, because here’s the bad news.

    That Coalition

    The U.S. Department of State lists 60 participants in the coalition of nations behind the U.S. efforts against the Islamic State. Many of those countries (Somalia, Iceland, Croatia, and Taiwan, among them) have never been heard from again outside the halls of Foggy Bottom. There is no evidence that America’s Arab “allies” like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, whose funding had long-helped extreme Syrian rebel groups, including IS, and whose early participation in a handful of air strikes was trumpeted as a triumph, are still flying.

    Absent the few nations that often make an appearance at America’s geopolitical parties (Canada, the Brits, the Aussies, and increasingly these days, the French), this international mess has quickly morphed into Washington’s mess. Worse yet, nations like Turkey that might actually have taken on an important role in defeating the Islamic State seem to be largely sitting this one out. Despite the way it’s being reported in the U.S., the new war in the Middle East looks, to most of the world, like another case of American unilateralism, which plays right into the radical Islamic narrative.

    Iraqi Unity

    The ultimate political solution to fighting the war in Iraq, a much-ballyhooed “inclusive” Iraqi government uniting Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds, has taken no time at all to fizzle out. Though Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi chose a Sunni to head the country’s Defense Ministry and direct a collapsed Iraqi army, his far more-telling choice was for Interior Minister. He picked Mohammed Ghabban, a little-known Shia politician who just happens to be allied with the Badr Organization.

    Even if few in the U.S. remember the Badr folks, every Sunni in Iraq does. During the American occupation, the Badr militia ran notorious death squads, after infiltrating the same Interior Ministry they basically now head. The elevation of a Badr leader to — for Sunnis — perhaps the most significant cabinet position of all represents several nails in the coffin of Iraqi unity. It is also in line with the increasing influence of the Shia militias the Baghdad government has called on to defend the capital at a time when the Iraqi Army is incapable of doing the job.

    Those militias have used the situation as an excuse to ramp up a campaign of atrocities against Sunnis whom they tag as “IS,” much as in Iraq War 2.0 most Sunnis killed were quickly labeled “al-Qaeda.” In addition, the Iraqi military has refused to stop shelling and carrying out air strikes on civilian Sunni areas despite a prime ministerial promise that they would do so. That makes al-Abadi look both ineffectual and disingenuous. An example? This week, Iraq renamed a town on the banks of the Euphrates River to reflect a triumph over IS. Jurf al-Sakhar, or “rocky bank,” became Jurf al-Nasr, or “victory bank.” However, the once-Sunni town is now emptied of its 80,000 residents, and building after building has been flattened by air strikes, bombings, and artillery fire coordinated by the Badr militia.

    Meanwhile, Washington clings to the most deceptive trope of Iraq War 2.0: the claim that the Anbar Awakening — the U.S. military’s strategy to arm Sunni tribes and bring them into the new Iraq while chasing out al-Qaeda-in-Iraq (the “old” IS) — really worked on the ground. By now, this is a bedrock truth of American politics. The failure that followed was, of course, the fault of those darned Iraqis, specifically a Shia government in Baghdad that messed up all the good the U.S. military had done. Having deluded itself into believing this myth, Washington now hopes to recreate the Anbar Awakening and bring the same old Sunnis into the new, new Iraq while chasing out IS (the “new” al-Qaeda).

    To convince yourself that this will work, you have to ignore the nature of the government in Baghdad and believe that Iraqi Sunnis have no memory of being abandoned by the U.S. the first time around. What comes to mind is one commentator’s view of the present war: if at first we don’t succeed, do the same thing harder, with better technology, and at greater expense.

    Understanding that Sunnis may not be fooled twice by the same con, the State Department is now playing up the idea of creating a whole new military force, a Sunni “national guard.” Think of this as the backup plan from hell. These units would, after all, be nothing more than renamed Sunni militias and would in no way be integrated into the Iraqi Army. Instead, they would remain in Sunni territory under the command of local leaders. So much for unity.

    And therein lies another can’t-possibly-go-right aspect of U.S. strategy.

    Strategic Incoherence

    The forces in Iraq potentially aligned against the Islamic State include the Iraqi army, Shia militias, some Sunni tribal militias, the Kurdish peshmerga, and the Iranians. These groups are, at best, only in intermittent contact with each other, and often have no contact at all. Each has its own goals, in conflict with those of the other groups. And yet they represent coherence when compared to the mix of fighters in Syria, regularly as ready to slaughter each other as to attack the regime of Bashar al-Assad and/or IS.

    Washington generally acts as if these various chaotically conflicting outfits can be coordinated across borders like so many chess pieces. President Obama, however, is no Dwight Eisenhower on D-Day at Normandy pointing the British to one objective, the Canadians to another, ultimately linking up with the French resistance en route to the liberation of Paris. For example, the Iranians and the Shia militias won’t even pretend to follow American orders, while domestic U.S. politics puts a crimp in any Obama administration attempts to coordinate with the Iranians. If you had to pick just one reason why, in the end, the U.S. will either have to withdraw from Iraq yet again, or cede the western part of the country to IS, or place many, many boots on the ground, you need look no further than the strategic incoherence of its various fractious “coalitions” in Iraq, Syria, and globally.

    The Islamic State

    Unlike the U.S., the Islamic State has a coherent strategy and it has the initiative. Its militants have successfully held and administered territory over time. When faced with air power they can’t counter, as at Iraq’s giant Mosul Dam in August, its fighters have, in classic insurgent fashion, retreated and regrouped. The movement is conducting a truly brutal and bloody hearts and minds-type campaign, massacring Sunnis who oppose them and Shias they capture. In one particularly horrific incident, IS killed over 300 Sunnis and threw their bodies down a well. It has also recently made significant advances toward the Kurdish capital, Erbil, reversing earlier gains by the peshmerga. IS leaders are effectively deploying their own version of air strikes — suicide bombers — into the heart of Baghdad and have already loosed the first mortars into the capital’s Green Zone, home of the Iraqi government and the American Embassy, to gnaw away at morale.

    IS’s chief sources of funding, smuggled oil and ransom payments, remain reasonably secure, though the U.S. bombing campaign and a drop in global oil prices have noticeably cut into its oil revenues. The movement continues to recruit remarkably effectively both in and outside the Middle East. Every American attack, every escalatory act, every inflated statement about terrorist threats validates IS to its core radical Islamic audience.

    Things are trending poorly in Syria as well. The Islamic State profits from the power vacuum created by the Assad regime’s long-term attempt to suppress a native Sunni “moderate” uprising. Al-Qaeda-linked fighters have just recently overrun key northern bastions previously controlled by U.S.-backed Syrian rebel groups and once again, as in Iraq, captured U.S. weapons have landed in the hands of extremists. Nothing has gone right for American hopes that moderate Syrian factions will provide significant aid in any imaginable future in the broader battle against IS.

    Trouble on the Potomac 

    While American strategy may be lacking on the battlefield, it’s alive and well at the Pentagon. A report in the Daily Beast, quoting a generous spurt of leaks, has recently made it all too clear that the Pentagon brass “are getting fed up with the short leash the White House put them on.” Senior leaders criticize the war’s decision-making process, overseen by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, as “manic and obsessed.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wrote a quickly leaked memo to Rice warning that the president’s Syria strategy was already unraveling thanks to its fogginess about the nature of its opposition to Assad and because it has no “endgame.” Meanwhile, the military’s “intellectual” supporters are already beginning to talk — shades of Vietnam — about “Obama’s quagmire.”

    Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey has twice made public statements revealing his dissatisfaction with White House policy. In September, he said it would take 12,000 to 15,000 ground troops to effectively go after the Islamic State. Last month, he suggested that American ground troops might, in the future, be necessary to fight IS. Those statements contrast sharply with Obama’s insistence that there will never be U.S. combat troops in this war.

    In another direct challenge, this time to the plan to create those Sunni National Guard units, Dempsey laid down his own conditions: no training and advising the tribes will begin until the Iraqi government agrees to arm the units themselves — an unlikely outcome. Meanwhile, despite the White House’s priority on training a new Syrian moderate force of 5,000 fighters, senior military leaders have yet to even select an officer to head up the vetting process that’s supposed to weed out less than moderate insurgents.

    Taken as a whole, the military’s near-mutinous posture is eerily reminiscent of MacArthur’s refusal to submit to President Harry Truman’s political will during the Korean War. But don’t hold your breath for a Trumanesque dismissal of Dempsey any time soon. In the meantime, the Pentagon’s sights seem set on a fall guy, likely Susan Rice, who is particularly close to the president.

    The Pentagon has laid down its cards and they are clear enough: the White House is mismanaging the war. And its message is even clearer: given the refusal to consider sending in those ground-touching boots, Operation Inherent Resolve will fail. And when that happens, don’t blame us; we warned you.

    Never Again 

    The U.S. military came out of the Vietnam War vowing one thing: when Washington went looking for someone to blame, it would never again be left holding the bag. According to a prominent school of historical thinking inside the Pentagon, the military successfully did what it was asked to do in Vietnam, only to find that a lack of global strategy and an over-abundance of micromanagement from America’s political leaders made it seem like the military had failed. This grew from wartime mythology into bedrock Pentagon strategic thinking and was reflected in both the Powell Doctrine and the Weinberger Doctrine. The short version of that thinking demands politicians make thoughtful decisions on when, where, and why the military needs to fight. When a fight is chosen, they should then allow the military to go all in with overwhelming force, win, and come home.

    The idea worked almost too well, reaching its peak in Iraq War 1.0, Operation Desert Storm. In the minds of politicians from president George H.W. Bush on down, that “victory” wiped the slate clean of Vietnam, only to set up every disaster that would follow from the Bush 43 wars to Obama’s air strikes today. You don’t have to have a crystal ball to see the writing in the sand in Iraq and Syria. The military can already sense the coming failure that hangs like a miasma over Washington.

    In or out, boots or not, whatever its own mistakes and follies, those who run the Pentagon and the U.S. military are already campaigning strategically to win at least one battle: when Iraq 3.0 collapses, as it most surely will, they will not be the ones hung out to dry. Of the very short list of what could go right, the smart money is on the Pentagon emerging victorious — but only in Washington, not the Middle East.

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    U.S. Anti-ISIS Recruitment Videos: Why They Don’t Work

    November 6, 2014 // 9 Comments »

    The U.S., via the State Department, is spending considerable effort and money producing anti-ISIS videos and other media (actual example, left), the goal of which is to convince American and other would-be jihadis not to join ISIS. The efforts won’t work, almost can’t work. They fail to understand the way ISIS recruits and as such, can’t counter it.


    Alcoholics Anonymous

    The starting point is oddly Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA does not recruit per se; instead, they rely on attraction, not promotion. The difference is subtle but crucial. Long experience suggests people lured in any spur-of-the-moment, impulse decisions that actually require long-term commitment will almost certainly fail. AA won’t create a commitment, but rather relies on you to make a commitment. Ads for the organization never try to seduce or seek out members. Instead, the focus is on what AA is, and what it does for you if you participate. If you want what we have, sobriety, they say, then join us. Otherwise, thanks for listening.


    ISIS

    And so ISIS. ISIS propaganda (and FYI, this is not an endorsement of anything ISIS does, just an explanation) pulls no punches. Beheading videos (NSFW), boasts about enslaving women, promises of extremely austere Sharia-led lives, there it is. You want what we have? Come along, because ISIS knows they want people with commitment, people who make a positive choice to join, not a negative one to stay away. The presentation is professional and serious, particularly in its Al Hayat Media Center (there is an unaffiliated Egyptian TV channel with a similar name), aimed specifically at non-Arabic speakers via videos and a weekly magazine.

    The strategy seems to be working; recruitment from both inside and outside of the Arab world is strong. Some even claim that ISIS has been so successful they are drawing away foreign recruits from the Taliban. And in the duality of everything the American government says about terrorism, between 12 (we’ve got this, you’re safe) and 300 (panic! run now!) Americans have also left Walmartland for ISIS.


    The State Department

    And so the U.S. State Department. State Department propaganda (and FYI, this is not an endorsement of anything State does, just an explanation) is designed to counter the attraction of ISIS media with the promotion of a negative message. The theme of State’s efforts is “Think Again, Turn Away” and features anti-ISIS accounts on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even on the sides of buses in New York. The YouTube products are graphic and sarcastic; one includes subtitles such as “learn useful skills, such as blowing up mosques” and “crucifying Muslims.” One also features an odd shot of oil being poured on the ground framed as “squandering public resources.”

    The quality of much of the interaction is poor, seemingly written more to appeal to Washington bosses than would-be jihadis. Have a look at one example. A lot mocks potential recruits, claiming for example that they read “Islam for Dummies” before heading to Syria.

    The anti-ISIS messaging campaign is keeping disaffected youth from joining the extremist group, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel told CNN. “We have evidence that there are young people who are not joining because we have somehow interceded. They’re reading the messages, they’re hearing the messages, not just from us but from the hundreds of Islamic clerics who have said that this is a perversion of Islam.” State’s description of its work is that they are “contesting the space,” fighting back on social media against the ISIS message. State’s coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which runs the program, has called it “participating in the marketplace of ideas.”

    Richard Stengel and the State Department have not provided any evidence or metrics that they have in fact dissuaded anyone from joining ISIS, nor will they discuss the budget for their work. A request to State for comment has gone unanswered.


    We’re Not All That Different, You and I(SIS)

    The odd thing is that State’s messaging and ISIS’ messaging are not all that different in content, per se. Both stress that recruits are unlikely to survive. State paints that as a terrible choice, while ISIS categorizes it as martyrdom, a chance to help save Islam and achieve Paradise.

    Both show photos of Christian churches ISIS destroyed, with obviously different views of the act. Both talk about Western life, State showing its good side, ISIS claiming it is empty and vapid; one ISIS piece features a recruit saying “We don’t need any democracy, we don’t need any communism or anything like that, all we need is Sharia.”

    Both sides agree that Muslims are killing Muslims; State takes the one-size-fits-all approach, with one Muslim being the same as any other. ISIS says some (i.e., Shias and other pretenders to the faith that abandoned Sharia) are not sincere and pious and it is not a violation of the Koranic imperative against internecine violence to kill them (one report says 92 percent of Saudi Sunnis see the ISIS activities as religiously legal.) “It’s a message frequently posted by ISIS on social media: “You have to join. It’s your religious duty,” said one terrorism analyst.


    Who is Winning?

    To be fair, State’s messaging is hard to quantify, requiring one to prove a negative. On the other hand, while ISIS seems to be chock-a-block with foreign recruits, one can never tell how many were driven to jihad by ISIS propaganda, or how many shyed away.

    But looking at the U.S.’ messaging, one is reminded of the anti-drug “Just Say No” campaign, which quickly morphed into fodder for comedians. As with AA, offering people already committed a positive message– you can have what we have– seems to work. To a disgruntled young person already looking askance at a western society he perceives as hollow, what ISIS offers seems more attractive in many ways than the crude, negative message of the State Department. It appears that many ISIS recruits wan to give their lives for jihad.

    At the end of the day, State says you’re going to hell, ISIS says you’re headed to heaven. Which strategy seems to offer more?



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    Iraq’s Sunnis Won’t Fight ISIS for U.S.

    October 31, 2014 // 6 Comments »

    iraq women1


    Iraq’s Sunnis won’t fight ISIS for the U.S. says NIQASH, a non-profit media organization operating out of Berlin. Without Sunni support, America’s war in Iraq cannot succeed. Here’s why.


    Negotiations Fail

    According to NIQASH, a source at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said there have been secret negotiations between various Sunni Muslim armed factions, via Arab and Iraqi Kurdish intermediaries, for the past three months. At the request of U.S. diplomats and military personnel, Shia officials from the Iraqi government have also been meeting with the leaders of these groups in Erbil, Kurdistan and Amman, Jordan.

    At the same time General John Allen, the Obama’s appointed coordinator of U.S. efforts in Iraq, has been trying to contact the Sunni tribal leaders he worked with in Anbar during the previous war’s “Awakening.” “But it was surprising,” a NIQASH source reported, “Most of General Allen’s former allies refused to cooperate with us. And some of them are actually now living outside of Iraq because of the Iraqi government’s policies.”

    Oops. With some irony, America’s failure to secure the 2006 Awakening caused those Sunnis sympathetic to America’s aims to flee Shia persecution. Those “good guys” are thus not available in 2014 to help out America in the current war.


    ISIS and the Sunnis

    When ISIS first took control of Sunni areas in western Iraq, anger towards the Shia government in Baghdad caused many to see them as liberators from the Iraqi army. The army, along with paramilitary police from the Interior Ministry, had engaged in a multi-year campaign of beating, imprisoning and arresting Sunnis, to the point where many felt that Baghdad was occupying, not governing, the Sunni majority areas. For the Sunnis and ISIS, the Baghdad government was a common enemy, and a marriage of convenience formed.

    Recent events in Baghdad do little to assuage Sunni fears. A recent report suggests the new Iraqi Prime Minister may nominate a Shia Badr Militia leader as Interior Minister. Since the Shias took control of Iraq following the American invasion of 2003, the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and the prisons, has been a prime tool of repression and punishment.

    Still, cracks in the ISIS-Sunni relationship have started to form. Many of the Sunni groups, especially those led by former Baathists, are largely secular in nature, seeing their Sunni ties more as broadly cultural than strictly religious. ISIS’ requests to pledge allegiance to its cause, coupled with demands to implement Sharia law, have created friction. Some internecine fighting has taken place. The U.S. has sought to exploit these issues to break the indigenous Sunnis away from ISIS, and ultimately to turn the Sunnis into American proxy boots on the ground as was done with the Kurds.

    America’s problem is that most Sunnis are fearful about cooperating via America with the Shia government in Baghdad. They fear history will repeat itself and the Americans and the Shia government will betray them, exactly as they betrayed them only a few years ago when the Awakening movement collapsed. Quite a pickle.


    Sorry America

    The Sunnis seem to be choosing a middle ground, one which does not serve America’s interests.

    According to a 1920s Revolution Brigades (Sunni militia) leader, various militias came to the decision “not to support the international coalition against ISIS. They also decided not to cooperate with ISIS either. If the [Iraqi] army or the [Shia] militias attack [Sunni] areas they control though, they will fight both groups.”

    “We are against the acts of the hardline Islamic State. And we are also against bombed cars exploding randomly in Baghdad,” Abu Samir al-Jumaili, one of the Sunni Mujahideen Army’s leaders in the Anbar province, told NIQASH. “However we are also opposed to the government’s sectarian policies against Sunnis… In 2006 we cooperated with the government to expel al Qaeda from Sunni cities but the government did not keep its end of the bargain. They chased our leaders and arrested us… The ISIS group are terrorists but so are the Shia militias.”


    History is a Witch

    There is no way America can succeed in its goals in Iraq– repel ISIS and keep the country together– without the active participation of the Sunnis. It is very unlikely that that will happen. American strategy rests on the assumption that the Sunnis can be bribed and coerced into breaking with ISIS, no matter the shape of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine. As with al Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. Starting in 2006, U.S. officials did indeed bribe and coerce some Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting insurgent outfits, including al-Qaeda. That deal, then called the Anbar Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them.

    America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked exit. The Shias promptly reneged on the deal.

    Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for what seems to be essentially the same bad deal? It appears they will not, and that by itself suggests the current Iraq war will end much the same as the previous one. It is foolish for America to expect otherwise.



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    The Example of Kobane

    October 22, 2014 // 6 Comments »

    ramadi


    Only last week, when Turkey refused to assist Kurdish fighters in the Syrian city of Kobane, even as those Kurds were losing ground to ISIS fighters, and the U.S. was directing its airstrikes against far-away targets in Iraq, Secretary of State John Kerry said while the U.S. was deeply concerned about the tragedy in Kobane, Kobane did not define the strategy for the coalition with regard to ISIS.


    Shifting Perspectives
    As the U.S. sensed Kobane would fall, it tried then to distance itself from the failure. However, after domestic media and opinion started to criticise what appeared to be a failure of the Obama plan for Iraq and Syria, air resources were suddenly shifted away from Iraq and onto Kobane. ISIS seemed to have pulled back, the Kurds seemed to have moved forward, and the U.S. began hinting at victory.

    Part of the U.S. strategy has been to resupply the Kurds from the air, necessary because Turkey will not allow resupply overland across its border. Such supply drops don’t always go right, and ISIS fighters seized at least one cache of weapons airdropped by U.S.-led coalition forces that were meant to supply Kurdish militiamen. The cache of weapons included hand grenades, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

    On Tuesday, Islamic State loyalists on social media posted sarcastic thank you notes to the United States, including one image that said, “Team USA.”


    And So What?
    The badly-aimed weapons drop can be seen as more of a small embarrassment than any great strategic loss. True enough, but looking too closely at a single failed airdrop obscures the larger picture.

    Though small in scale, the weapons ISIS received from the United States underscore that the group’s most sophisticated arms, and deadliest weapons, come from the U.S. Unless and until America can get control of the weapons it is pushing into battle (it can’t), the reality of Americans and their allies being killed by their own tools of war is not something to ignore.


    Destroy Kobane to Save It
    “Winning” in Kobane accomplishes nothing really. The city is nearly destroyed, reminding one of the Vietnam war-era remark that it was necessary to destroy the village of Ben Tre to “save it.” Over 200,000 refugees have left the city, with questions about how they can ever return to resume their lives given such devastation. The decision not to intervene by the Turks exposed the fragility of the hastily assembled U.S. coalition, setting up future confrontations among allies with very different goals and agendas for this war.

    Meanwhile, as attention and limited resources are tied up in a battle of questionable strategic import, ISIS launched fifteen near-simultaneous attacks on Kurdish forces in northern Iraq on Monday in what Kurdish government officials said was a fierce and renewed push for territory. ISIS also launched attacks against Mosul Dam, a strategic prize, and also renewed its offensive on the Sinjar mountain range in northern Iraq. This is an organization aware of broader goals, and not focused on symbolic “victories.”

    So be suspect if at some future date the U.S. declares Kobane a victory, an example of how ISIS can be beat. The city may very well end up as an example from this war, though perhaps not the one the U.S. intends it to be.



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    I Read al-Qaeda’s Inspire Mag So You Don’t Get Arrested

    October 10, 2014 // 3 Comments »



    Inspire is an English language online magazine published since 2010 by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I just read the latest issue so you won’t get arrested doing so.

    Aimed primarily at radicalizing youth audiences in the U.S. and Britain, the mag appears semi-regularly (twelve issues so far) online only, as a PDF, and is entirely in English. Graphically well-done, the editorial parts of the magazine shift among sometimes bad-English reporting, religious and jihadi-inspirational pieces, and bomb making instructions.

    Yeah, bomb making instructions. That’s the part that sort of is controversial, the clear, step-by-step photo-illustrated instructions for making your own explosives using common materials, plus the encouragement to use them in crowded places.

    Inspire and al-Awlaki

    The magazine was once thought to be the work of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who once preached at a Northern Virginia mosque and lunched at the Pentagon, gone-bad.

    Though al-Awlaki and his teenage son were assassinated by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011, thus ending his editorship, the magazine continues to be published. Al-Awaki’s thoughts are reprinted posthumously and still carry influence. That tells you pretty much all you need to know in two sentences about the failure of the war on terror.

    Disclaimer

    Because reading/possessing Inspire may be illegal in the UK and Australia, and viewing it online in the U.S. likely to land you on some sort of watch list or another, I’ll just offer the one link here to the full text if you want to read the whole thing. For me, if I’m not on some list already I haven’t been doing my job and should just go back to my true passion, Little House on the Prairie fan fiction.

    Inside the Spring 2014 Inspire Mag

    Things begin straight-forward enough with a note from the editor:

    The American government was unable to protect its citizens from pressure cooker bombs in backpacks, I wonder if they are ready to stop car bombs! Therefore, as our responsibility to the Muslim Ummah in general and Muslims living in America in particular, Inspire Magazine humbly presents to you a simple improvised home recipe of a car bomb. And the good news is… you can prepare it in the kitchen of your mom too.

    To be fair, the kitchen of your mom has to be stocked with some pretty unusual stuff to pull this off, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

    There follows some quotes by famous people on news topics, most predictable. But one by a Muslim college student in the U.S. stands out:

    I remember I had one professor that said that if he was in Iraq, he’d probably be on the other side. And I remember I was just looking at him thinking I’ll be in jail if I thought that.

    A quote by another leaves you with the uncomfortable impression that these guys “get it,” saying the things we just don’t hear from our own media:

    If we don’t change our stupid foreign policies, there will sooner or later be many more people overseas wishing to do this country harm! We’re already the most hated country in the world and through our own stupidity that will only get worse. Moreover, we’re spending ourselves into oblivion over this!

    So while there is plenty of bloody jihad stuff written in Borat-level English, it isn’t all that way in Inspire. One wonders if this approach, accidentally humorous and purposefully serious, is not actually an effective way to speak to disaffected youth.

    Dog Food

    Despite my promise to you, I did not actually read every word of articles that began “Twelve years have passed since the blessed Battles of New York, Washington and Pennsylvania…” or asked “Is the modern Buffalo soldier worth a Labrador? Would the U.S. Army at least honor them with Dickin Medals?”

    I sort of can figure out without getting 800 words in what the point of a piece that asks “Isn’t it saddening that Bo, Obama’s dog, dines with the tax payers’ money on better food than that of 100 million Americans?” But hah, Inspire, got you there. A lot of lower-income Americans are forced to eat the same dog food Bo does!

    Salty Obama

    And see if you can puzzle out this one:

    Obama is like a very thirsty patient that suffers from high blood pressure. As he becomes thirstier he finds a cup of salty water with salt crystals visible. To make the water drinkable, he has to get rid of the salt. So he stirs the water. As he stirs, the salt begins to disappear, this makes him very happy. Yes, the salt disappeared from sight, but the taste of the water became saltier. This is exactly what Obama is doing by the use of unmanned drones.


    Bombs

    Things alternate like that for most of the magazine, kind of thoughtful stuff, weird unintelligible stuff, sort of parable, sort of makes sense maybe stuff, a lot of anti-Semitism and rants intermingled with Quranic quotes. But things get deadly serious when the topic turns to making and employing car bombs.

    The magazine explains the bomb making instructions are “open source jihad,” to allow persons via the web to “prepare for jihad,” all from the comforts of home. I am not a chemist, but the details seem easy to follow, broken down into steps with photos to illustrate. Theory is tagged on to the practical; how explosive combustion works, how pressure is measured and so forth. Different ignition switches are discussed, depending on whether you seek a timed explosion or intend a suicide attack where you’ll trip the bomb manually.

    You turn away with the impression that this is something simple enough that you could probably make it work.

    It is made clear the type of bomb you’ll be making is aimed at destroying people, not buildings, and advice is given accordingly.

    Closing the Pages

    It would be unfair to close the pages of Inspire and say I felt anything but creeped out. I’ve tried to come up with something more intelligent sounding, but what starts as a laugh ends very seriously. Someone was very effective at making me walk away thinking they want to kill me.

    So when you read other versions of what’s in Inspire, most of which focus on creating their own, new levels of fear-mongering or in belittling the magazine as “clumsy,” spare a thought to what the magazine is really achieving: it makes you afraid. That’s what good propaganda does, effectively get inside your head. Inspire is good propaganda.



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    Fighting in Iraq Until Hell Freezes Over

    October 7, 2014 // 3 Comments »



    I wanted to offer a wry chuckle before we headed into the heavy stuff about Iraq, so I tried to start this article with a suitably ironic formulation. You know, a déjà-vu-all-over-again kinda thing. I even thought about telling you how, in 2011, I contacted a noted author to blurb my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and he presciently declined, saying sardonically, “So you’re gonna be the one to write the last book on failure in Iraq?”

    I couldn’t do any of that. As someone who cares deeply about this country, I find it beyond belief that Washington has again plunged into the swamp of the Sunni-Shia mess in Iraq. A young soldier now deployed as one of the 1,600 non-boots-on-the-ground there might have been eight years old when the 2003 invasion took place. He probably had to ask his dad about it.  After all, less than three years ago, when dad finally came home with his head “held high,” President Obama assured Americans that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” So what happened in the blink of an eye?

    The Sons of Iraq

    Sometimes, when I turn on the TV these days, the sense of seeing once again places in Iraq I’d been overwhelms me. After 22 years as a diplomat with the Department of State, I spent 12 long months in Iraq in 2009-2010 as part of the American occupation. My role was to lead two teams in “reconstructing” the nation. In practice, that meant paying for schools that would never be completed, setting up pastry shops on streets without water or electricity, and conducting endless propaganda events on Washington-generated themes of the week (“small business,” “women’s empowerment,” “democracy building.”)

    We even organized awkward soccer matches, where American taxpayer money was used to coerce reluctant Sunni teams into facing off against hesitant Shia ones in hopes that, somehow, the chaos created by the American invasion could be ameliorated on the playing field. In an afternoon, we definitively failed to reconcile the millennium-old Sunni-Shia divide we had sparked into ethnic-cleansing-style life in 2003-2004, even if the score was carefully stage managed into a tie by the 82nd Airborne soldiers with whom I worked.

    In 2006, the U.S. brokered the ascension to power of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia politician handpicked to unite Iraq. A bright, shining lie of a plan soon followed. Applying vast amounts of money, Washington’s emissaries created the Sahwa, or Sons of Iraq, a loose grouping of Sunnis anointed as “moderates” who agreed to temporarily stop killing in return for a promised place at the table in the New(er) Iraq. The “political space” for this was to be created by a massive escalation of the American military effort, which gained a particularly marketable name: the surge.

    I was charged with meeting the Sahwa leaders in my area. My job back then was to try to persuade them to stay on board just a little longer, even as they came to realize that they’d been had. Maliki’s Shia government in Baghdad, which was already ignoring American entreaties to be inclusive, was hell-bent on ensuring that there would be no Sunni “sons” in its Iraq.

    False alliances and double-crosses were not unfamiliar to the Sunni warlords I engaged with. Often, our talk — over endless tiny glasses of sweet, sweet tea stirred with white-hot metal spoons — shifted from the Shia and the Americans to their great-grandfathers’ struggle against the British. Revenge unfolds over generations, they assured me, and memories are long in the Middle East, they warned.

    When I left in 2010, the year before the American military finally departed, the truth on the ground should have been clear enough to anyone with the vision to take it in. Iraq had already been tacitly divided into feuding state-lets controlled by Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. The Baghdad government had turned into a typical, gleeful third-world kleptocracy fueled by American money, but with a particularly nasty twist: they were also a group of autocrats dedicated to persecuting, marginalizing, degrading, and perhaps one day destroying the country’s Sunni minority.

    U.S. influence was fading fast, leaving the State Department, a small military contingent, various spooks, and contractors hidden behind the walls of the billion-dollar embassy (the largest in the world!) that had been built in a moment of imperial hubris. The foreign power with the most influence over events was by then Iran, the country the Bush administration had once been determined to take down alongside Saddam Hussein as part of the Axis of Evil.

    The Grandsons of Iraq

    The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than 190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.

    According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.

    Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.

    The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.

    And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared?  They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.

    The newest Iraq war features Special Operations “trainers,” air strikes against IS fighters using American weapons abandoned by the Iraqi Army (now evidently to be resupplied by Washington), U.S. aircraft taking to the skies from inside Iraq as well as a carrier in the Persian Gulf and possibly elsewhere, and an air war across the border into Syria.

    It Takes a Lot of Turning Points To Go In a Circle

    The truth on the ground these days is tragically familiar: an Iraq even more divided into feuding state-lets; a Baghdad government kleptocracy about to be reinvigorated by free-flowing American money; and a new Shia prime minister being issued the same 2003-2011 to-do list by Washington: mollify the Sunnis, unify Iraq, and make it snappy. The State Department still stays hidden behind the walls of that billion-dollar embassy. More money will be spent to train the collapsed Iraqi military. Iran remains the foreign power with the most influence over events.

    One odd difference should be noted, however: in the last Iraq war, the Iranians sponsored and directed attacks by Shia militias against American occupation forces (and me); now, its special operatives and combat advisors fight side-by-side with those same Shia militias under the cover of American air power. You want real boots on the ground? Iranian forces are already there. It’s certainly an example of how politics makes strange bedfellows, but also of what happens when you assemble your “strategy” on the run.

    Obama hardly can be blamed for all of this, but he’s done his part to make it worse — and worse it will surely get as his administration once again assumes ownership of the Sunni-Shia fight. The “new” unity plan that will fail follows the pattern of the one that did fail in 2007: use American military force to create a political space for “reconciliation” between once-burned, twice-shy Sunnis and a compromise Shia government that American money tries to nudge into an agreement against Iran’s wishes. Perhaps whatever new Sunni organization is pasted together, however briefly, by American representatives should be called the Grandsons of Iraq.

    Just to add to the general eeriness factor, the key people in charge of putting Washington’s plans into effect are distinctly familiar faces. Brett McGurk, who served in key Iraq policy positions throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, is again the point man as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran. McGurk was once called the “Maliki whisperer” for his closeness to the former prime minister. The current American ambassador, Robert Stephen Beecroft, was deputy chief of mission, the number two at the Baghdad embassy, back in 2011. Diplomatically, another faux coalition of the (remarkably un)willing is being assembled. And the pundits demanding war in a feverish hysteria in Washington are all familiar names, mostly leftovers from the glory days of the 2003 invasion.

    Lloyd Austin, the general overseeing America’s new military effort, oversaw the 2011 retreat. General John Allen, brought out of military retirement to coordinate the new war in the region — he had recently been a civilian advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry — was deputy commander in Iraq’s Anbar province during the surge. Also on the U.S. side, the mercenary security contractors are back, even as President Obama cites, without a hint of irony, the ancient 2002 congressional authorization to invade Iraq he opposed as candidate Obama as one of his legal justifications for this year’s war. The Iranians, too, have the same military commander on the ground in Iraq, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Force. Small world. Suleimani also helps direct Hezbollah operations inside Syria.

    Even the aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf launching air strikes, the USS George H.W. Bush, is fittingly named after the president who first got us deep into Iraq almost a quarter century ago. Just consider that for a moment: we have been in Iraq so long that we now have an aircraft carrier named after the president who launched the adventure.

    On a 36-month schedule for “destroying” ISIS, the president is already ceding his war to the next president, as was done to him by George W. Bush. That next president may well be Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state as Iraq War 2.0 sputtered to its conclusion. Notably, it was her husband whose administration kept the original Iraq War of 1990-1991 alive via no-fly zones and sanctions. Call that a pedigree of sorts when it comes to fighting in Iraq until hell freezes over.

    If there is a summary lesson here, perhaps it’s that there is evidently no hole that can’t be dug deeper. How could it be more obvious, after more than two decades of empty declarations of victory in Iraq, that genuine “success,” however defined, is impossible? The only way to win is not to play. Otherwise, you’re just a sucker at the geopolitical equivalent of a carnival ringtoss game with a fist full of quarters to trade for a cheap stuffed animal.

    Apocalypse Then — And Now

    America’s wars in the Middle East exist in a hallucinatory space where reality is of little import, so if you think you heard all this before, between 2003 and 2010, you did. But for those of us of a certain age, the echoes go back much further. I recently joined a discussion on Dutch television where former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra made a telling slip of the tongue. As we spoke about ISIS, Hoekstra insisted that the U.S. needed to deny them “sanctuary in Cambodia.” He quickly corrected himself to say “Syria,” but the point was made.

    We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.

    As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.




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    Seven Things to Watch in Iraq

    October 6, 2014 // 4 Comments »

    embassy in iraqAs events tumble forward in Iraq, here are some things to keep an eye on:

    1) “Inclusive” Government

    A cornerstone of solving Iraq, however defined, is the formation of an inclusive government, one that addresses the needs of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, gives each a sense of substantive participation, creates safety for each and allows decision-making to take place while assuring the Shias do not slink back into dominance. Since the new prime minister, handmaiden to the U.S. and approved by Iran, is a Shia and former colleague of Maliki and member of the same political party, inclusiveness falls to appointments to key ministries and the powers delegated to those ministers.

    The big ones to watch are Defense and Interior. Both ministries have been used as tools of repression against Sunnis since at least 2006. A key Sunni in one or both is good. A “for show” Sunni is bad. It is highly unlikely the U.S. will allow two Shias to be chosen, but leaving the posts empty, as they are now, is nearly as bad.

    2) For-Show Sunnis

    Of the many mistakes the U.S. made during the Occupation, one was the empowerment of not powerful Sunnis, many of whom were simply carpetbaggers out for a buck or a million bucks, or just lesser leaders hoping to move up with U.S. help. This undermined broader support, as the Sunni people knew who the fakes were even if the U.S. didn’t, or didn’t care. Information on individual Sunnis who come to some power will be hard to find, but look for it, as it will make clearer whether such men will add to or help mask the truth about inclusiveness.

    3) Gestures

    Most gestures are just that, empty statements. Any real progress in Iraq requires concrete, substantive action by the Shia government; they have a lot of distrust to overcome among their Sunni and Kurd populations.

    Simple statements, however trumpeted by the U.S. as signs of progress, typically framed as “you have to walk before you run,” are likely just propaganda. A trick employed by the Iraqi government during the Occupation was to announce one thing in English to the Western media, and say nothing, or say something quite different, in their own media. If possible, check news sources with Arabic speakers on the ground in Iraq closely. I recommend @prashantrao, @JoelWing2, @reidarvisser, @berendvh, @IraqDaily, @iraqbiznews, @tarangoNYT, @LizSly, @AJEnglish, @iraqoilreport and just for laffs, @USEmbBaghdad.

    One big deal but unlikely gesture: Allow the former Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, now in exile under a death warrant, to return. Huge deal: give him a place in the new government. He’s no angel, but it will get the Sunnis’ attention.

    4) War-Making

    Any signs that Shia militia are being reigned in off the battlefield are good. Examples of them targeting Sunnis in Baghdad or elsewhere are bad things. Examples of whatever remains of the Iraqi military proper really fighting with the peshmerga, as opposed to fighting nearby while the Americans make everyone fight nice together, are good. Sunni units fighting in one place, Shia in another and Kurds in a third are bad signs. Don’t be fooled by showcase episodes, such as when CNN just happens to be embedded just as a Shia unit happens to help out a Kurd unit.

    Of course, when ISIS overruns an Iraqi Army base near Baghdad and executes 300 government troops as they did recently, and somehow U.S. airpower is unable to intervene, that is a bad turn. Same for reported ISIS bombings inside Baghdad city.

    Watch claims of victory carefully. Many small towns will change hands, especially if ISIS follows Insurgency 101 tactics of just temporarily melting away when faced with bad odds. Unless and until the Iraqi government actually controls Mosul and especially Fallujah, there is still a l-o-n-g way to go in this struggle.

    5) U.S. Bombing

    More U.S. “successes” closer and closer to Baghdad are bad, especially south of the city where Sunni-Shia seams still exist. How the inevitable “collateral damage” and/or bombing mistake that takes out a school or hospital is handled will be very important. The Shia government has to keep a wary population at least neutral toward the Americans. There is a large group of people inside Iraq who believe ISIS is a CIA creation designed to create a causa belli for American forces to re-enter Iraq.

    More war porn video of smart bombs snuffing ISIS Toyotas or individual mortars is bad, signs that there is little to blow up that makes any difference. More U.S. aircraft being based inside Iraq is a sign that the U.S. may get those permanent bases it has always wanted, and likely has little to do with the conflict per se.

    Another bad news thing: basing American aircraft in-country, as is happening now near Erbil and with a small number of helicopters inside Baghdad International Airport, means a long “tail.” That tail includes U.S. maintenance and armorers on the ground, staff to feed and protect them, and shipments in of bombs and spare parts. Every persn becomes a target that can expand the conflict. Yep, it is that slippery slope thing again.

    6) That Coalition

    If the U.S. insists on any of its Arab “partners” doing any bombing outside western Iraq near Syria, bad news. No one inside Iraq wants Arab forces loose inside the country. The Shia government would be especially troubled, given how much of the local coalition comes from Sunni nations. It is unlikely even the U.S. is clumsy enough to push for this, but then again, you never know.

    Keep an eye on Turkey, who is shaping up to really get the dirty end of the stick because of U.S. efforts. The Turks fear a powerful Kurdish entity on its disputed border with Kurdistan/Iraq, fear internal strife from its own restive Kurdish population and are wary of U.S. efforts to further arm and empower Kurds, and move them deeper into Syria as proxy boots on the ground. That would put the Kurds on two Turkish borders. The Turks are also bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis the U.S. is creating by bombing Syria. Anything the U.S. does to alleviate Turkish concerns is good, anything else is bad.

    7) Iran

    Iran of course is the place where all the lines intersect in Iraq, as well as Syria and throughout the parts of the Middle East the U.S. is most concerned about, never mind the nuclear issue.

    But sticking to Iraq, watch everything Iran says, does, or has said about it. Right now, the U.S.’ influence in Baghdad is mostly being bought with “aid” money (the Kurds have more needs, primarily U.S. assurances of their de facto autonomous status vis-vis Baghdad.) The foreign power with the most influence throughout Iraq, and especially with the central government, is Iran. The prime minister and his party have deep ties to Iran, and won’t make a significant move without at least tacit approval. Iran has funded and retains connections into many Shia militias and can reel them in or push them out into the war.

    Iran has overtly committed those elusive boots on the ground to the struggle. Iran, as the power that did not leave Iraq, has credibility on the ground with the Shia, and scares the sweat out of Sunnis and Kurds, who know the U.S. will again depart someday while the Iranians will share at least a border with them forever.

    While there is no doubt the U.S. and Iran are speaking via some back channel, a very good sign would be overt discussions. A bad sign would be pop ups of anger over the nuclear issue. The U.S. may, for domestic political reasons, foolishly try and separate the issues of Iran-Iraq and Iran-Nukes, but inside Iran there is no such divide; both are part of the uber-issue of U.S.-Iran relations.

    What Iran does will affect the struggle in Iraq as much as any other single factor. Watch for it.




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    Satire: Everyone Hates America’s New Album

    October 4, 2014 // 6 Comments »

    Sales figures prove what many already feared: worldwide acceptance of the United States’ new album, “We Will Bomb You, Because” has fallen through the floor.

    “Dude, I grew up on the classic U.S. sound, you remember, democracy, equality, promotion of freedom. My favorite was ‘The Peace Corps,’ but ‘We Won’t Invade You This Month’ got me through some rough times in college. But this new stuff, meh,” said one long-time fan, sweeping aside his gray ponytail.

    “We Will Bomb You, Because” opened big inside the United States, where the United States still enjoys a steady following. A recent track, “Who Cares What You Think, Featuring al Qaeda,” saw over one million downloads its first week alone. “The addition of al Qaeda to the tune pumped new life into an old franchise,” stated Rolling Stone in its review, “but subsequent attempts to roll in ISIS and Khorasan just did not work when al Qaeda balked at joining the U.S. in touring the new material. “Just isn’t the same,” said Stone. “America has gone to the well too many times with the same material. They’re just phoning this new wave of terror stuff in.”

    When reached for comment, lead singer of the United States Barack Yeezus Obama remained hopeful. “Any time the group moves in a new direction, you risk losing some old time fans. We saw that just after we dropped the “NSA” album. But many times the old timers just give up and come to reluctantly accept what you are shoveling out, and of course new material also brings in new fans.”

    “For example,” chimed in backup singer George The W Bush, “look at what happened with our seminal ‘It’s 9/11, Bitch’ multi-platinum work. Not only did we rope in millions and millions of fans worldwide, but after sales tapered off following the disastrous Iraq tour, our old fans sucked it up and started taking their shoes off at the airport without a complaint. We even spun off the mega-platinum group DHS from all that. And when a small group of former fans started making too many negative comments online, we just had them tortured and imprisoned indefinitely. Let’s see Beyonce do that.”

    “And,” said Obama hopefully, “the recent tours in Yemen and Somalia have been huge successes. We have high hopes for Syria and the new material as well. We da’ bomb ya’all!”

    The band also acknowledged the growing popularity of long-time rival group Iran, but shrugged off any notion that the United States would not continue to dominate the market in the long-run.

    A spokesperson for the United States did quietly add that the group is not totally unaware of its falling image abroad. She hinted that the current tour will work in additional classic material, and a greatest hits collection will be out in time for Christmas. The United States plans also to donate a percentage of sales to the Wounded Warrior charity.

    “You gotta give back,” said the spokesperson.



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