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

    January 2, 2018 // 66 Comments »



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

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


    Iraq War 1.0+ The Good War

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

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

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


    Iraq War 2.0, The Bad One

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

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

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


    Iraq War 3.0, Made in America, Fought in Iraq

    Who now remembers President Obama declaring pseudo-victory in Iraq in 2011, praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of the pile of sticky brown sand that was Bush’s Iraq, the better to concentrate on a new Surge in Afghanistan. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.

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

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

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

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


    We Won! Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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


    The Price We Paid in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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


    The War to Make All Wars

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

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

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

    Iran has already passively agreed to most of this. It has little to gain from a fight over some desert real estate that it would probably lose to the Americans anyway, when their prize is the rest of Iraq. And if any of this does presage some future U.S. conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a true ironic tragedy and a historic waste of American blood and resources.


    Empire

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

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

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


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

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

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




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    Interview on Politics and Reality Radio

    January 16, 2016 // Comments Off on Interview on Politics and Reality Radio

    A Face Made for Radio


    I joined host Joshua Holland on Politics and Reality Radio to talk about Islamic State, the refugee crisis in Syria and concerns about the gap between on-the-ground reality in Iraq and what might be being reported up the chain by military intelligence analysts intent on cooking the books to suggest we are winning.

    My portion of the show starts at 7:05 in.

    Also featured are Ed Kilgore from The Washington Monthly on U.S. politics and the 2016 campaign, and The New Republic‘s Rebecca Leber talking about the horrific shootings broadcast live out of Virginia this week.

    Check out the interview online.




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    The Price of ISIS

    November 19, 2015 // 4 Comments »

    kobane

    What is the price of America’s war against Islamic State? Higher than you think.

    Last week saw the first American ground combat death in Iraq since 2011. Sadly, such deaths are a price always paid in war. The cost of the fight against Islamic State in dollars is staggering; more than $2.7 billion so far, with the average daily cost around $11 million.

    But costs should also be measured in the chaos the war has spawned, and in the additional problems for American foreign policy it has created.

    Vast areas of Syria have been reduced to rubble, and refugee flows have created a humanitarian disaster; more than 240,000 people have died in the conflict, and nearly 12 million people – half the country’s population – have been driven from their homes. Whereas at one point an American goal was to depose Bashar Assad because he (only) was bombing his own people, those same people now suffer attacks from the air and the ground by the United States, Russia, Britain, Jordan, Turkey, France, Canada, Australia, Iran, a handful of Gulf nations, and Islamic State and its cohorts.

    The de facto strategy seems to be evolving into a Vietnam War-era “destroying Syria in order to save it.” The reconstruction of Syria will be expensive, though it is unclear who will pay that bill. But allowing the country to become a failed state, a haven for terror groups like Sudan in the 1990s and Afghanistan post-9/11, will be even more expensive.

    The price being paid, however, extends beyond Syria’s borders.

    NATO ally Turkey has long supported Islamic State, leaving its border with Syria open as a transit point, and allowing Islamic State to broker oil on the black market. Turkey’s actions are intimately tied to its violent history with the Kurds. A weak Islamic State empowers the Kurds. Initial American efforts to enlist Turkey into the Islamic State fight thus met with little success.

    That appeared to change in August 2015, when Washington reached a deal allowing it to fly strike missions against Syria from inside Turkey. However, there appeared to be a quid pro quo: on the same day Turkey announced it would help fight Islamic State, it also began an air campaign against Kurdish groups tied to the only effective fighting force the United States has so far found – the unicorn – the peshmerga.

    The Kurds’ vision for their nation extends beyond their confederacy in Iraq, into Turkey and Syria. It endangers whatever hopes America may still have for a united Iraq. It also ensures Kurdish national ambitions denied since the end of World War I will need to be addressed alongside any resolution in Syria, as Kurdish forces occupy areas in the north of that country. That’s a tall diplomatic order.

    The fight against Islamic State is also playing out elsewhere in Iraq, as the United States has had to accept Iranian leadership, special forces, and weapons inside same the nation Americans died “saving” only a few years ago. The growing Iranian influence is closely coupled with American acceptance of Shi’ite militias now in the field, after the Iraqi Army ran away from Islamic State.

    The government in Iraq today is a collection of mostly Shi’ite factions, each with one of those militias on call. With a weak prime minister, and with Islamic State for the time being pushed back from the gates of Baghdad, the Shi’ites are free to maneuver for power. A price to be paid for the conflict with Islamic State could easily be a civil war inside a civil war.

    And of course there is Russia, who, under the loose cover of fighting Islamic State, quickly re-established itself as a military force in the heart of the Middle East. It is difficult to imagine them leaving. Until now, the United States has had a relatively free hand in the region as no one had the military power to seriously challenge an American move. That has changed. Any significant change in Syria is now subject to a Putin veto.

    Meanwhile, despite the costs, Islamic State remains as strong as it has ever been, with American actions serving as its best recruitment tool.

    Defeating Islamic State” is far too simplistic for a regional strategy. And who can really afford that?




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    Why the War on Terror is Failing

    August 31, 2015 // 8 Comments »

    al-awalki


    A well-done article in the New York Times reminds us that four years after the United States assassinated American citizen and Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (and his teenage son) in a drone strike, his influence on jihadists is greater than ever.

    At the same time, the UK’s Guardian tells us about William Bradford, an assistant law professor at West Point, who argued in a peer-reviewed paper that attacks on Muslim scholars’ homes and offices, Middle Eastern media outlets and Islamic holy sites are legitimate and necessary to “win” the war on terrorism.

    Bradford threatens “Islamic holy sites” as part of a war against radicalism. That war ought to be prosecuted vigorously, he wrote, “even if it means great destruction, innumerable enemy casualties, and civilian collateral damage. Other ‘lawful targets’ for the U.S. military in its war on terrorism,” Bradford argues, “include law school facilities, scholars’ home offices and media outlets where they give interviews, all civilian areas, but places where a causal connection between the content disseminated and Islamist crimes incited exist.”



    Illustrations of Failure

    The two articles illustrate as sharply as can be the failures of America in the last 14 years. Not only has the United States failed to blunt terrorism, Islamic State and radical hegemony, it has made them worse. Indeed, the foreign terror attacks so many Americans live in fear of have morphed into Americans themselves committing terror attacks. That is not progress.

    But that’s how the articles in the Times and the Guardian show the WHAT of failure. The WHY is also revealed: terror is an idea, not a thing.

    You can bomb a thing into oblivion, but you cannot blow up an idea. An idea can only be defeated by another, better, idea. So killing al-Awlaki had no more chance of truly silencing him than turning off the radio and hoping the broadcast never exists elsewhere. At the same time the U.S. runs social media campaigns claiming we are not at war with Islam, allowing an instructor at America’s military academy to justify attacks on the institutions of Islam simply reinforces the belief around the world that we are indeed trying to destroy a religion.

    In an environment where martyrdom is prized, America might begin to turn around its failures first by creating fewer martyrs. In an environment where radicalism and support for groups like Islamic State are fostered by fear that the full weight of the world’s most powerful army is aimed at destroying a way of life, America might want to stop teaching just that doctrine at West Point.



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    Cooking the Books: The Danger of Bad Intel on Islamic State

    August 27, 2015 // 8 Comments »

    scan from file copy negative

    Are American analysts skewing intelligence reporting and assessments to provide a rosier outlook of U.S. progress against Islamic State?


    At least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst says so, and has convinced the Pentagon’s Inspector General to look into it. The analyst says he had evidence officials at United States Central Command, overseeing the American campaign against Islamic State, were improperly rewriting conclusions of intelligence assessments prepared for policy makers, including President Obama.

    While legitimate differences of opinion are common in intel reporting, to be of value those differences must be presented to policy makers, and played off one another in an intellectually vigorous check-and-balance fashion. There is a wide gap between that, and what it appears the Inspector General is now looking at.

    Cooking the intel to match policy makers’ expectations has a sordid history in the annals of American warfare. Analysis during the Vietnam War pushed forward a steady but false narrative of victory. In the run-up to Iraq War 2.0, State Department analysis claiming Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction was buried in favor of obvious falsehoods.

    Jokes about the oxymoron of “military intelligence” aside, bad intel leads to bad decisions. Bad intel created purposefully suggests a war that is being lost, with the people in charge loathe to admit it.



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    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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    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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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Trump

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