• What’s Next in Iraq?

    February 5, 2018 // 3 Comments »

    petraeus-crocker-sons-of-iraq

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

     




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    Letter from Your Friend Haider al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq (Satire)

    May 29, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    abadi

    Hello American people, your friend Haider al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq, writing to you here from Baghdad, which is the capital of Iraq since many Americans I heard are ignorant of basic geography.

    Go ahead, check the Wikipedia, as Google is the friend of us all. Me, my English not so good, you forgive, OK.

    I meeting this good day with my old friends the Iranians. I had a few minutes here and wanted to drop you in America a line to say “hi.”

    I started thinking about you when I was reading a book about what you call the “Vietnam War.” People over there call it the Third Indochina War, as they fought the Japanese, the French and then you Americans in succession. Your wonderful naivete about history just amuses me. We in Iraq call the most recent invasion by you the Third and a Half Gulf War, after Saddam fought the Iranians in the 1980’s (you were on Iraq’s side), then Iraq fought the U.S. in 1991 and of course then you invaded us because of 9/11 in 2003. Now your troops are back in my country, but without their boots on my ground, so I call it half a new war for you.

    You know, in Vietnam your government convinced generations of Americans to fight and die for something bigger than themselves, to struggle for democracy they believed, to fight Communism in Vietnam before it toppled countries like dominoes (we also love this dominoes game in Iraq!) and you ended up fighting Communism in your California beaches. Everyone believed this but it was all a lie. Then in 2003 the George W. Bush (blessed be his name) told the exact same lie and everyone believed it again– he just changed the word “Communism” to “Terrorism” and again your American youth went off to die for something greater than themselves but it was a lie.

    How you fooled twice? Hah hah, don’t haggle in the marketplace, we say. Soon of course the Obama will say something similar and you’ll do it again. Maybe in Syria, maybe in Iran, maybe somewhere else. As you say, it’s a big world!

    But I am rude. I need to say now “Thank You” to the parents of the 4491 Americans who died in this Iraq invasion so that I could become leader of Iraq. Really guys and the girls, I could not have achieved this without you. See in March 2010 you had another American election festival for us in Iraq, and my good friend, boss and mentor al-Maliki lost by the counting of votes. However, because your State Department was desperate for some government to form here and they could not broker a deal themselves, they allowed the Iranian government to come and help us.

    My Iraq is good friends with my Iran thanks to you. “If Tehran and Baghdad are powerful, then there will be no place for the presence of enemies of nations in this region, including the U.S. and the Zionist regime,” the official Iranian news agency IRNA quoted Ahmadinejad as telling al-Maliki.

    Anyway, I gotta run my bitches. But yes, my thanks again for sacrificing 4491 of your young men and women for me. I can never repay this debt, not that I would even think of seeking to repay you anything you ignorant pigs.

    With love,

    Haider al-Abadi (follow me on Twitter!)



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    Why Iraq Paid for 50,000 Soldiers Who Didn’t Exist

    December 22, 2014 // 7 Comments »

    commuting_in_iraq (Large)


    One of the latest stories from Iraq is that some 50,000 “ghost soldiers” haunt the rolls of the Iraqi Army.

    They have been added to the rosters so that someone can skim away all or part of their salaries. The story has been played for Daily Show-like laughs, has been cited as a cause for the collapse of the Iraqi Army in the face of ISIS, has been used as an example of corruption in Iraq and conversely, acknowledging it used as an example of how the new Prime Minister, Haider Abadi, is fighting corruption. It may in truth be a little of all of those things, but is most of all a brief flash of light in the darkness of how the Iraq Army works.

    The Iraqi Army of today is a U.S. construct. As one of the very first acts of the Occupation in 2003, the United States famously disbanded the Saddam-era Iraqi Army (and thus helped supply armed, trained men to the blossoming insurgency.) At some point American strategy shifted toward the Bush Administration’s proclamation of “As They Stand Up, We’ll Stand Down,” a mantra that meant the U.S. would take it upon itself to create a new Iraqi Army to take over internal security and border protection. This would need to be done quickly, as Americans grew bored and/or weary of the seemingly endless war in Iraq. The standing up of this army cost American taxpayers over $20 billion dollars.

    What did they get for their money? Not much, except for the seeds of the present mess in Iraq.

    The Iraqi Army America wrought was by definition created within the climate of the insurgency. It was thus never really a national army, but rather a loose collection of regional forces and fiefdoms divided along mostly religious and sectarian lines. Sunni units were based in Sunni areas and led by Sunni generals, Shia were in their areas and of course the Kurds and their peshmerga were off on their own (the peshmerga also benefited greatly from never having been disbanded in the first place.) America accepted these divisions out of expediency; the non-starter of an alternative was to wait until all sectarian problems were resolved first, and then reconstitute the army.

    Disbanding Saddam’s army meant throwing away most of the senior, experienced military leadership. These generals and mid-level officers were Iraq’s professional soldiers. Many melted away or immigrated to neighboring Sunni countries, while some took up with the Sunni insurgency. Lacking experienced leadership, the U.S. was left with creating an officer corps from scratch. Experience matters in most things in life, and really matters in jobs that require leadership. Even under the best of circumstances that all takes time (leaders are made, not born), and the U.S. was creating the new Iraqi Army under anything but the best of circumstances.

    Napoleon famously said that an army travels on its belly; another general reminded that it is logistics, not tactics, that win battles. From its early days, the factors that “miscreated” the new Iraqi Army doomed its ability to police and supply itself. Central authority was lacking; the combination of a weak central government and a force divided along sectarian lines meant resources were never allocated based on need, and that the kind of oversight necessary to avoid “ghost soldiers” did not exist. The problems were masked by U.S. expedient acts: an Iraqi unit desperate for spare parts could either fight a long battle with baghdad for what it needed, or appeal to the local U.S. military commander for help. The commander, under pressure himself to report success, typically gave in. The Iraqi system never was forced to mature or allowed to fail, at least until the Americans departed and ISIS appeared.

    Procurement became an excuse for plunder. Soldiers in the Iraqi army basically pay for their own food via a salary deduction. In practice, officers pocket most of this money instead of buying supplies for the troops themselves. Soldiers in Mosul often had to purchase their own food and water from civilian markets. When the markets close under ISIS attack, the soldiers have no choice but to flee.

    A system such as that seen as ineffective to some meant opportunities to others. In 2009, a lucrative appointment as an army colonel required a $20,000 bribe. The same job today costs $200,000. Divisional commander positions run about two million dollars. Why would such military jobs be worth that much money?

    As an investment. Iraqi commanders purchased for their bribe money opportunities to skim budgets, withhold salaries from their own troops, or even create the ghost troops to justify budget increases. The ghost troops likely served another goal, covering soldier absences. During my own time in Iraq embedded with the U.S. Army, it was a given that any Iraqi unit we worked with would be missing a percentage of its soldiers. Some American advisors used a 10 percent rule of thumb, others pegged it as high as thirty percent. Where were the Iraqi troops? Some shuttled between their unit and their home towns. Lacking a reliable banking system, soldiers needed to physically carry their salaries home to their families. Because food budgets and the salaries themselves were often skimmed by their commanders, some troops kept working at outside, part-time jobs. With variable unit discipline, some soldiers just took time off as they saw fit, often bribing their own commanders to avoid punishment. Soldiers would sell off Army gas and spare parts, create unsanctioned checkpoints to harvest bribes from motorists, sell electricity if they controlled a large generator, or even their own weapons, to raise extra cash for themselves.

    As for the thought that uncovering these ghost soldiers shows a commitment by Prime Minister Abadi to fight corruption, the real proof is in what he does next. Likely under U.S. pressure, Abadi took this first step to expose a limited dollop of corruption inside his failed army. But watch what does, or doesn’t, happen next. How many senior commanders’ heads will roll? How many will be fired or publicly demoted? What if any central and systematic auditing procedures will be put in place?

    Answers to questions such as those will answer the most important question: will Abadi and the U.S. really seek to fix the Iraqi Army, or is the latest move simply another short-term expedient, meant to create the appearance of change ahead of more U.S. money pouring down the same dry well?

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    Shakeup or Shakedown in Iraqi Army?

    November 13, 2014 // 4 Comments »

    obama and abadi


    Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, as Commander-in-Chief of the belittled Iraqi Army, fired 26 military commanders on November 12 for corruption and incompetence.

    “The military leadership should have competence, and this is an important thing, as it is not possible for someone who is not efficient to do his work properly,” Abadi said in comments to army officers broadcast on state television. “The second thing is integrity, as efficiency without integrity produces a vacuum. The third is courage, so that the soldier will fight in a proper way when he sees his commander has such qualifications.”

    Abadi did not elaborate on his timing or the decision itself, and officials in his office did specify which commanders were removed.


    Timing is Everything

    The timing is however interesting. Iraq’s most influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said during Friday prayers that it was corruption in the armed forces which enabled ISIS to seize large amounts of Iraqi territory. Sistani has become increasingly critical of Iraqi leaders since ISIS’ advances spiraled the country into a crisis in general, and in particular how that crisis reinserted American troops into Iraq. Shia militias, with whom Sistani maintains links, have increasingly replaced the remnants of the Iraqi Army in the fight against ISIS. The militias have also, however, also continued the persecution and outright murder of Iraq’s indigenous Sunnis under the guise of fighting ISIS.


    Who Got the Axe?

    The other issues regarding the firing of those 26 military commanders are also of great importance.

    Until the affiliations of all 26 are known, Sunni or Shia, Abadi’s real intent is unknown. If a significant number of Sunni commanders were sacked, the action will be seen inside Iraq as more of a purge than any sort of reform. Same for the location of the commanders; if many are in Sunni-held areas to the west of Baghdad, suspicions that Abadi is looking to install more of his own adherents into power will arise. Another issue to watch is rank. If many of the commanders are senior leaders, that bodes well for reform. However, if the firings come from the lower ranks, most inside Iraq will see them simply as a show-event to please the Americans calling for reform. Finally, the disposition of the fired commanders will need to be watched closely. If some resurface in the near future in other jobs or locations, or remain attached to the government, Abadi’s reforms will need to be taken with a grain of salt.

    Keep in mind firing commanders is nothing new in Iraq. As recently as June, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fired four senior officers after the collapse of Army north of Baghdad. He also fired the commander of the Third Infantry Division after he “fled the battle scene.”


    But It’s Progress, Right?

    The U.S. spent $25 billion and several years training the Iraqi Army prior to its near-total collapse at first-blood when ISIS moved into northern Iraq. The weapons abandoned by the Iraqi Army have also supplied ISIS with some of its heaviest artillery and armor. There most certainly is room for improvement.

    But whatever the ground truth of the firings in Iraq really turns out to be, expect Abadi’s actions to be much-praised by an Obama Administration obsessed with “doing something” as another sign of “progress.”



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    Hearts, Minds and Dead Sunnis in Iraq

    September 15, 2014 // 6 Comments »

    A critical part of America’s plan to resolve all issues left unresolved after nine years of war and occupation is to divide the indigenous Sunnis from the “foreign” Sunnis, i.e., ISIS, and “unite” Iraq.

    As counter-insurgency theory teaches, bad guys can only thrive when they have local support, what Mao called the “water we swim in.”

    There is a familiar ring to the plan.

    Unity Plan, 2006

    In 2006 the U.S. brokered the ascension (remember the purple fingers?) of a new Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, hand-picked to unite Iraq. A bright, shining lie of a plan followed. The U.S., applying vast amounts of money, created the Sahwa, the Sons of Iraq, the Anbar Awakening, a loose grouping of Sunnis who agreed to break with al Qaeda in return for a promised place at the table in the New(er) Iraq. The “political space” for this would be created by a massive escalation of the American military effort, called by its the more marketable name, The Surge. In the end the Shia government in Baghdad ignored American entreaties to be inclusive, effectively ending the effort.

    Unity Plan, 2014

    And so to 2014. The U.S. brokered the ascension (no purple fingers needed this time for visuals) of a new Shia Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, hand-picked to unite Iraq. His play so far along these lines? Asking his military to stop bombing and shelling his own-citizen Sunni civilians.

    Al-Abadi said on Saturday, after he held talks with travelin’ man U.S. Secretary of State Kerry in Baghdad, that he ordered his air force to halt strikes on civilian areas occupied by Iraqi citizens, albeit Sunnis. He also asked his Iraqi security forces to stop “the indiscriminate shelling” of civilian Sunni communities occupied by ISIS.

    “Incidents”

    The hearts and minds moves by al-Abadi follow several incidents which may yet have an effect for indigenous Sunni feelings toward unity.

    Senior Iraqi officials acknowledged in recent days that shelling by their armed forces has killed innocent civilians in the course of the battle against ISIS. Attacks on Sunni towns have been part of what many Sunnis call a pattern of sectarian bias by the Shiite-dominated security forces. Human Rights Watch reports one Iraqi government airstrike targeted a school near Tikrit housing displaced Sunni families fleeing ISIS. That strike killed at least 31 civilians, including 24 children. Human Rights Watch also reported earlier Iraqi government airstrikes, including six with the type of barrel bombs commonly used by Syrian leader Assad to kill his own people, had killed at least 75 civilians and wounded hundreds more in mainly Sunni areas.

    (Despite the incessant playing of the ISIS beheading videos of three Westerners, no images of the dead Sunni children have made it to American media.)

    Earlier this year the Iraqi Shia government also employed barrel bombs, U.S.-supplied Hellfire missiles as well as some of the 11 million rounds of ammunition the U.S. shipped in, against Sunni targets in Fallujah, itself the scene of some of the most intense U.S.-Sunni fighting during the previous Iraq War.

    Government-backed Shia militias have also been kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians throughout Iraq’s Baghdad, Diyala, and Hilla provinces over the past five months. Human Rights Watch documented the killings of 61 Sunni men early this summer, and the killing of at least 48 Sunni men in March and April.

    Memories are Long

    Many Sunnis see their own government as more of a threat than any ISIS occupation, given the record of the past eight years of Shia control. The Sunnis are also aware that the Shia government purportedly now seeks some measure of unity only after it was prompted by the United States. The Sunnis most clearly do remember being abandoned by the U.S. and the Shia government after they last agreed to break with a foreign Sunni group, al Qaeda, in 2007. You have the watch, but we have the time, says an Iraqi expression.

    Memories are long in the Middle East.

    Any sane human being welcomes a decision to not bomb and shell civilians, particularly if it is actually carried out. However, in the broader strategic context of Iraq, especially vis-a-vis American claims that Sunni-Shia unity is the key to stability, one wonders how much of the statement by the new Iraqi prime minister is based on the need to throw another bone to Americans always ready to proclaim another short term success, even as they speed walk down the road to Hell.



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