• The Next Middle East War, Post-ISIS

    October 29, 2017 // 3 Comments »

    Iraqs-Prime-Minister-Nuri-al-Maliki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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




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    Posted in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Trump

    Why America Can Never Win in Iraq

    June 16, 2014 // 20 Comments »




    I think of it now, all the time.

    Sometimes I think I even recognize a place on TV I had been, having spent a year in the midst of America’s Occupation in Iraq, 2009-2010. I was a State Department civilian, embedded in turn with two Army brigades of some 3000 men and women each, far from the embassy and the pronouncements of victory and whatever bright lights Iraq might have had.

    Why We Lost

    I grow weary of the drumbeat for the U.S. to return to Iraq and blow more stuff up. Drones, airstrikes, Special Forces on the ground who are somehow not really “boots on the ground,” the whole bloodlust redux. As a human being I decry the loss of more life. As someone who cares about America’s foreign policy, I cannot believe (while believing) that we are continuing to misunderstand the larger picture, what might be called the strategic or long-term, once again for the tactical, the expedient, the short-term.

    Of all the many reasons why American could not win its Iraq War (and I wrote about one of the most significant, the failure of Occupation and Reconstruction, in my first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People perhaps the one that is most applicable now is the most basic.

    America’s wars in the Middle East exist in a hallucinatory space that imagines Blue Forces fighting Red Forces, Saving Private Ryan but with more sand. Instead, in Iraq right now, there are multiple layers of war going on. For those who like to look ahead a bit, you may feel free to substitute “Syria” for “Iraq” in the rest of this article. Most of this also applies to Libya, Afghanistan and pretty much the rest of the post-9/11 conflicts.


    A War of Layers

    Instead of a good old fashioned and simple Our Side vs. Their Side, Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, the Iraq War is one comprised of many layers. They intermingle and overlap, kind of like the multiverse of conflict. Some of this is painted here in quibbly broad strokes, but the core is solid:

    — On the surface you have our media-view war: Jihadists vs. The Iraqi Government. This is the dominant view in Washington, because it is the easiest to understand in bullet points, the easiest to sell to the American people through an ever-compliant media, and the one that fuels the most defense spending. These sorts of wars need plenty of hardware for the U.S. military, and lots of stuff to sell to whichever side we support. You can imagine these sorts of wars as winnable with brave-but-Spartan-like-expendable Special Forces, drones and intel. Blue-on-Red wars also lend themselves well to demonizing the enemy (Terrorists! Who kill people! Who want Sharia law!)

    — Another layer down in Iraq you have one group dominated by Sunnis vs. another Shia one fighting a political civil war for actual control of territory. The U.S. willingness to devote extraordinary amounts of money and military power to keeping “Iraq” from not separating on its historical boundaries (the present national borders were drawn up by British cartographers after WWI) over eight years of Occupation and for four years of pretend democracy left this one on long-term simmer awaiting today’s boil. Enough power and money can reduce it again to a simmer, maybe, but it won’t go away.

    — Below that layer are intra-Sunni and intra-Shiite struggles for turf and power. There is no such thing as a Sunni Corporate Structure, or a Shia one, with privates reporting to colonels who report to a white house. Instead you have religious allegiances, tribal allegiances, warlord allegiances, paid for allegiances, allegiances of convenience and so forth. At some point they turn on each or dissolve, for awhile, then often reassemble. During the Occupation the U.S. thought they could play off various groups against each other, but the Iraqis had been doing that long before any Americans got there, and knew the game so well that it was like putting the U.S. soccer team up against the Brazilians.

    — Laying under it all is the much larger proxy war, including Iran’s support for the Shiites/Malaki government and Saudi/Kuwaiti support for the Sunnis. To zoom out for a moment, this is why invading Afghanistan without dealing with Pakistan failed as well. Failure to focus on the proxy war means things like America supporting the same side as the Iranians in Iraq. Inevitably, this results in adding to Iran’s regional power with every drone flight and Special Forces action undertaken. That Iranian regional power will end up projecting itself elsewhere, such as in Syria, where the U.S. and Iran are not on the same side.

    — And just because many Americans don’t see/know this, the people in the region sure do: should airstrikes occur,or even just more military aid into Iraq, once again America is at war in an Islamic country. You cannot win the hearts and minds of dead people, but you sure can help recruit their friends and relatives against you. Worse, in that the U.S. promised to leave forever in 2011. America is also supporting Shias against Sunnis, which does not go unnoticed outside of Iraq.


    Why the U.S. Cannot Win

    The reason why America can never win the war in Iraq, et al, is because to win the war you have to somehow win all the layers of wars, and to win all the wars involves impossible to resolve paradoxes such as siding with the Iranians here while opposing them there. Here and there are often in reality the same place, such as along the Syrian-Iraqi border. It can’t be done. It is a trick, like a carnival ring toss game. The only way to win is not to play. Otherwise, you’re just another sucker with a fist full of quarters to trade for a cheap stuffed animal.

    BONUS: Not convinced yet? The aircraft carrier being sent into the Persian Gulf to launch any air strikes the U.S. deems necessary is the USS George H.W. Bush. Construction of the ship began in 2003, planning and funding well before that. I know irony is not a government thing, but using a carrier named after the president who first got us deep into Iraq is one level of it, and then realizing we have been in Iraq so long that we now have an aircraft carrier named after the president who started the adventure is another.

    BONUS BONUS: And for goodness sakes, stop saying this is all PM Maliki’s fault. It is, of course, but only after the U.S. slipped him into power in the 2006 elections, allowed him to cut deals with the Iranians to stay in power in 2010 elections and then has maintained him in power with money, weapons and support since then (including now).



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    Posted in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Trump

    Future of Iraq is Now

    December 5, 2011 // Comments Off on Future of Iraq is Now

    The post below wonders what might the future hold for Iraq. Answer: More of the Present.

    A series of bombs tore through crowds of Shiite pilgrims celebrating a major ritual across Iraq on Monday, killing at least 32 people, mostly women and children, and wounding scores more, local police and witnesses said. The attacks took place at the height of Ashura, which commemorates the death of Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussein and defines Shiite Islam.

    In Baghdad, at least 11 people were killed and 38 more wounded by roadside bombs targeting Shiite pilgrims in three different neighborhoods, police and hospital sources said. On the outskirts of Baghdad, gunmen using hand grenades attacked Shiite pilgrims marching to the holy city of Karbala, killing two and wounding four in Latifiya, police said.

    Such attacks are designed not only to kill Shiites, but also to piss them off. These are provocative attacks, sirens of war.

    More to come. Thanks America!



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    One of These Things is Not Like the Other

    October 28, 2011 // Comments Off on One of These Things is Not Like the Other

    Security in Iraq is “very good,” but the United States is not letting its guard down while moving out 39,000 troops and equipment by the December 31 deadline, Fort Bragg’s commander Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick said today.

    “They are really continuing to help themselves provide for their internal defense and external defense right now and also improve the quality of life for their citizens,” Helmick said. “Their military is the fastest-growing military in the world, and their capabilities and their ability to conduct operations really improves daily.”



    A twin bombing killed 18 people today in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad — the deadliest attack to rock Iraq since President Barack Obama declared the full withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of the year.

    Two police officials said the first explosion, at a music store shortly after 7 p.m., killed two people. The second bomb struck four minutes later, as rescue workers and others rushed to the scene, the officials said. Thirty-six people were wounded in the attack.

    “Today’s attack proves that the government’s allegations that the security is under control are nothing but baseless allegations and that the tens of checkpoints scattered all over the capital are useless and a waste of resources,” Baghdad resident Jalil said.




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    Iraq-Iran Economic Relations Just Fine, Thanks

    June 28, 2011 // Comments Off on Iraq-Iran Economic Relations Just Fine, Thanks

    So who was the real winner of the US-Iraq War of 2003? Hmmm… US loses 4466 soldiers, drops a couple of trillion dollars for little-to-no return, so maybe not us. Iraq gets its civil society shredded and undergoes eight years of sectarian civil war, sees over 100,000 killed and is home now to a bustling al Qaeda franchise… nope. Iran sits on its hands while the US hacks away at its two major enemies, Saddam and the Taliban, while burning itself out economically? Yep, gotta go with Iran as the winner.

    Now, in addition to winning our war strategically, it is looking good for Iran economically as well, at least vis-a-vis Iraq.

    While Iraq flounders trying to gin up its oil industry, and Reuters headlines a story Iraq’s Moribund Manufacturing Sector Appeals for Help, it is good to know that economic relations between Iraq and former enemy Iran are, well, peachy.

    The Tehran Times lets us know that Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi will visit Iraq on July 6 in order to take part in the Iran-Iraq Joint Supreme Economic Committee. The newspaper estimated the two countries’ current annual trade value at $4-5 billion.

    Better yet, Iran just agreed to supply 9400 barrels of gasoil a day to Iraq for power generation. Ironic as Iraq sits atop one of the largest reserves of petroleum in the world, just out of reach apparently.

    Politically, things are also smooth as butta. Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshiar Zibary said on Wednesday that Iran and Iraq would sign an agreement to overcome “all the suspended problems between both countries.” “Iran is playing a positive role in Iraq and there is no objection for the strengthening of relations between the two countries,” Zibary said, highly assessing the “assistance, granted by Iran to the Iraqi people.”

    But while trade is good, and oil is necessary, the real money is in tourism. More specifically, religious tourism, Iranian Shia pilgrims traveling to previously off-limits shrines in Iraq, is a huge source of economic exchange, albeit mostly one-way.

    Iranian travel agencies control religious tourism to the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, preventing Iraqi travel agencies from rendering a similar service. The Iranian companies are associated with hotels, also owned by Iranians. The control by Iranian companies extends to tourists from Lebanon who combine a visit to Iraq with one to a religious site Mashhad, Iran. The Iranian domination also extends to security arrangement for protecting the tourists. That role is filled by one company owned by one of the religious parties in Karbala.

    Business is booming. Najaf is in the midst of a hotel building frenzy in a bid to dramatically ramp up the number of visiting pilgrims. While thousands of mostly Iranian religious tourists already pass through Najaf every day on what are marketed as nine-day tours of Iraq’s holy Shiite sites, hoteliers and business groups in the city expect hotel capacity, currently at breaking point, to double in the next three years.

    Elsewhere, markets in rural Iraq are filled with Iranian goods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. While the knitwear market is dominated by cheap Chinese stuff, other household goods are conspicuously marked “Made in Iran” and are snapped up by consumers.

    We saw a little slice of this during our own time in Iraq. Peter’s PRT covered an area that included the city and mosque of Salman Pak. Once a center for chemical weapons production and secret police training under Saddam, Salman Pak is better known to most Iraqis and Iranians as a historical and recreational area, approximately 15 miles south of Baghdad near a peninsula formed by a broad eastward bend of the Tigris River. It is named after Salman the Persian, a companion of Mohammad, who is buried there.

    Salman Pak is also site of the Arch of Ctesiphon, the remains of the once majestic Persian Sassanid capital (pictured above). Ctesiphon is one of the largest and oldest freestanding arches in the world. Before the US invasion of 2003, the area was a popular day trip out of Baghdad, and even sported a floating casino and villas for select Saddam friends.

    The attraction now for Iranian pilgrims is the mosque, once a well-known Shia shrine, converted to a well-known Sunni shrine by Saddam and now once again a well-known Shia shrine after sectarian violence post-2003 blew away most of the Sunnis in the area.

    On routine patrols through the area, Peter’s PRT would frequently see giant tour buses, with Iranian license plates and markings, hauling tourists around the city.

    The Iranian tourists would take pictures of our military vehicles and gesture at us as we drove past, even as our soldiers scowled at them and pantomimed “no photos.”

    Nothing weirder than to be spending one’s days freeing Iraq only to run into Iranian tour agencies being the most obvious beneficiaries of that freedom.


    Read more about the US-Iran proxy war now underway in Iraq…




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    Victory in Iraq Update

    June 23, 2011 // Comments Off on Victory in Iraq Update

    Four bombs ripped through Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad Thursday evening, killing at least 40 people in the worst violence the capital has seen in months, Iraqi officials said.

    Stay tuned for the Shiite retaliatory attack in the next day or two, followed by the Sunni re-retaliatory attack, followed by the…

    An American civilian aid specialist was killed in a separate attack. The State Department released this statement:

    The United States condemns a terrorist attack in Baghdad today that claimed the life of international development and finance expert Dr. Stephen Everhart and wounded three others. Dr. Everhart was an American citizen who was working in Iraq for an implementing partner of the United States Agency for International Development’s Mission in Iraq. He was killed while working on a project to introduce a new business curriculum to a Baghdad university in a program supported by the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education. His support of efforts to advance a modern and efficient financial sector has benefited the people and business enterprises of Iraq and his lifelong dedication to public service has improved the lives of countless people around the world.

    We are saddened by this tragedy and extend our thoughts and prayers to Dr. Everhart’s family and loved ones, and to the three other injured victims and their families.




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