The USA in Iraq: Putting Out the Fire with Gasoline

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Surely, HIMARS will bring peace to Iraq

W.J. Astore

Today brings yet another announcement of more U.S. troops to Iraq.  This time 600 are being sent as logistics support, advisers, and enablers (that term, “enabler,” is fuzzy indeed: enabler of what?  More failure?).  That brings the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to more than 5200, but of course this figure seriously under-represents the American presence in the region.  Nowadays, most “troops” are provided by private contractors, and many of these are U.S. military veterans who discovered they could make a lot more money wearing mufti than in Uncle Sam’s uniforms.  At the same time, the U.S. continues to provide heavy-duty weaponry to the Iraqi military, including Apache attack helicopters and the HIMARS rocket system.  All of this is intended to help the Iraqi military retake the city of Mosul.

That the U.S. is yet again providing more troops as well as heavy weapons as “force multipliers” highlights the failure of U.S. military efforts to “stand up” an effective Iraqi military. The enemy, after all, has no Apache helicopters, no HIMARS system, and no U.S. advisers, although we certainly “enable” them with all the U.S. weaponry they’ve been able to capture or steal.  Despite a lack of U.S. military training and aid, ISIS and crew have proven to be remarkably resilient.  What gives?

Two years ago, I wrote an article at TomDispatch.com on “America’s Hollow Foreign Legions.”  Back then, I said this:

Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause.  Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit.  ISIS has fought with conviction.  The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t.  The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common.  This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation. 

Despite an ongoing record of failure, pulling out of Iraq is never an option that’s considered by the Pentagon.  The only option our leaders know is more: more troops, more weapons, more money.  As I wrote for TomDispatch back in October 2014:

pulling out is never an option, even though it would remove the “American Satan” card from the IS propaganda deck.  To pull out means to leave behind much bloodshed and many grim acts.  Harsh, I know, but is it any harsher than incessant American-led bombing, the commitment of more American “advisers” and money and weapons, and yet more American generals posturing as the conductors of Iraqi affairs?  With, of course, the usual results.

Here we are, two years later, and nothing has changed.  The war song remains the same, as discordant as ever, with a refrain as simple as it is harsh: putting out the fire with gasoline.

State of (Military) Failure

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Tom Engelhardt

Reposted from TomDispatch.com and used by permission.

Someday, someone will write a history of the U.S. national security state in the twenty-first century and, if the first decade and a half are any yardstick, it will be called something like State of Failure.  After all, almost 15 years after the U.S. invaded the Taliban’s Afghanistan, launching the second American Afghan War of the past half-century, U.S. troops are still there, their “withdrawal” halted, their rules of engagement once again widened to allow American troops and air power to accompany allied Afghan forces into battle, and the Taliban on the rise, having taken more territory (and briefly one northern provincial capital) than at any time since that movement was crushed in the invasion of 2001.

Thirteen years after George W. Bush and his top officials, dreaming of controlling the oil heartlands, launched the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (the second Iraq War of our era), Washington is now in the third iteration of the same, with 6,000 troops (and thousands of private contractors) back in that country and a vast air campaign underway to destroy the Islamic State.  With modest numbers of special operations troops on the ground and another major air campaign, Washington is also now enmeshed in a complex and so far disastrous war in Syria.  And if you haven’t been counting, that’s three wars gone wrong.

Then, of course, there was the American (and NATO) intervention in Libya in 2011, which cracked that autocratic country open and made way for the rise of Islamic extremist movements there, as well as the most powerful Islamic State franchise outside Syria and Iraq.  Today, plans are evidently being drawn up for yet more air strikes, special operations raids, and the like there.  Toss in as well Washington’s never-ending drone war in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, its disastrous attempt to corral al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (leading to a grim and horrifying Saudi-led, American-supported internecine conflict in that country), and the unending attempt to destroy al-Shabaab in Somalia, and you have at least seven wars and conflicts in the Greater Middle East, all about to be handed on by President Obama to the next president with no end in sight, no real successes, nothing.  In these same years Islamic terror movements have only spread and grown stronger under the pressure of the American war machine.

It’s not as if Washington doesn’t know this. It’s quite obvious and, as TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse, author of the highly praised Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, points out today in his latest report on the U.S. military’s pivot to Africa, the pattern is only intensifying, something clearly recognized by key American commanders. What’s strange, however, is that none of this seems to have caused anyone in the national security state or the military to reconsider the last 15 years of military-first policies, of bombs dropped, troops dispatched, drones sent in, and what the results were across the Greater Middle East and now Africa. There is no serious recalibration, no real rethinking. The response to 15 years of striking failure in a vast region remains more of the same. State of failure indeed!

Be sure to read Nick Turse on how U.S. military efforts in Africa show more regress than progress.

Feeding the Disease of Terrorism

07kurds.xlarge1 U.S. troops in Mosul, Iraq in 2007.  A foreign presence to Iraqis

W.J. Astore

I’m a retired U.S. military officer.  When I think of U.S. troops, naturally I see them as my gals and guys.  I identify with them.  And I know enough of them to know that their intent is usually good — at least in the sense that they seek to do their duty.

But I’m also an historian with a modicum of empathy.  I know that foreigners don’t see the U.S. military as I see it.  Nor do they experience it the way I experienced it.  To cite just one anecdote: I recall a story in the New York Times in which U.S. troops in Iraq ask an Iraqi farmer if he’s seen any foreign fighters around.  The Iraqi has a simple answer: “Yes. You.”

Six years ago, I wrote an article for Huffington Post on “Catch-22 in Afghanistan.”  I argued that the more the U.S. military intervened in the affairs of Afghanistan, the less likely it was that a permanent, and suitably Afghan, solution would be found to the problems confronting that country.  Not much has changed in those six years, except that today the Taliban controls even more territory, the drug trade is even more pervasive, and corruption is even more endemic.

We need to learn (or re-learn) a basic lesson: The more the U.S. intervenes in conflicts within other countries, the less likely it is that a favorable outcome will result (favorable for the U.S., that is), simply because U.S. forces are viewed as a foreign contagion. And indeed we are that.

Ignoring its Afghan failures, the U.S. government now seeks to widen its military commitment to the most hotly contested areas of the Middle East.  Our leaders act as if the way to end civil wars driven in part by radical Islam is violent intervention led by American troops.

But American troops (and drones and bombs and all the rest) are not the answer.  Indeed, their actions spread the contagion further.

The other day, I was reading about “super-bugs,” those bacterial infections that have become highly resistant to traditional antibiotics due to misuse and overuse of the same.  In seeking to “destroy” ISIL and similar “infections,” the American government instead often feeds them.  Indeed, I was surprised to learn that in medicine there are super-bugs that literally feed on traditional antibiotics.  They gain strength from being attacked.  Such is often the case for “bugs” like ISIL, which feed off of heavy-handed U.S. military actions.

This is not an argument for the U.S. military to do nothing.  Rather, it’s a reminder of the limits of power and the complexity of life.  It’s a reminder too that to foreigners the U.S. military is the foreign presence, the contagion.  Even when it seeks to act as a “cure,” it may in fact be feeding the disease.

President Obama’s Speech on Terror

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W.J. Astore

My wife and I watched the president’s speech last night.  Overall, it was a solid, even praiseworthy, performance.  First, we had to get past the NBC pre-speech fear-mongering.  Lester Holt and Chuck Todd, the NBC commentators, were talking about how afraid Americans were, hinting that we all feared our holiday parties would be invaded by active shooters bent on murder.  My wife and I looked at each other.  Are you fearful, honey?  Neither am I.

President Obama himself made many good points.  Yes, we shouldn’t vilify Muslim-Americans or condemn all of Islam.  Yes, we shouldn’t commit major ground forces to the Middle East to chase ISIL terrorists. Yes, we need sane gun control measures in the USA.  Nobody needs an AK-47 or AR-15 (these are not hunting guns: they are military assault rifles designed to kill people).  And nobody needs the right to buy a gun if they’re on a “no fly” list as a possible terror threat.

These were “common sense” points, and it pains me to think the president has to belabor what should be obvious.  But he does.  Because the National Rifle Association wants no restrictions on gun ownership, and the radical right does want to vilify Muslims, commit large numbers of U.S. ground troops to the Middle East, and extend a regimen of militarized surveillance and security at home that will make us even less safe.

Where President Obama consistently disappoints is what he leaves unsaid. That the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq essentially created ISIL; and that his policy of overthrowing the Syrian government by arming indigenous Arab forces contributed to it (according to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, formerly head of the Defense Intelligence Agency). That his strategy of drone assassination (so-called signature strikes that are often based on faulty intelligence) is creating more terrorists than it kills, as several military drone operators have recently argued.

Defenders of the U.S. drone assassination program argue that it’s not the intent of the U.S. government to kill innocents, therefore the U.S. is free from blame.  Try telling that to those who have lost loved ones to drones.  (So sorry: We didn’t mean to kill your mother/brother/loved one. Wrong place/wrong time: an explanation as infuriating as it is unconvincing.)

President Obama concluded by arguing that he needed even more of a blank check (in the form of a Congressional authorization) to prosecute the war on terror.  All in the name of keeping Americans safe, naturally. But he has it exactly backwards.  Congress needs to exercise more oversight, not less.  Imagine giving President Donald Trump a Congressional blank check to exercise the war on terror.  Not such a good idea, right?

Finally, and disappointingly, Obama misunderstands the solemn duty of his office.  As commander in chief, Obama believes his first duty is to keep Americans safe and secure.  Wrong.  His first duty is to “preserve, protect and defend” the U.S. Constitution and the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities defined within.  Put bluntly, you can’t keep Americans safe and secure by abridging their rights to freedom of speech or to privacy or to dissent.  “Safety” and “security” were not the bywords of America’s founders.  Liberty was.  And liberty entails risks.

A saying popular on the right is Thomas Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  In the USA today, “tyranny” is most likely to come in the form of a leader who promises to keep us safe and secure at any cost.  (Just look at the Republican candidates for president with their calls for Muslim detention camps, mass expulsion of immigrants, the shuttering of houses of worship, and similar measures of repression.)

The president was right to argue that we must not betray our values.  He was right to talk about human dignity.  He was right to say that freedom is more powerful than fear.  Now we as Americans need to live up to those words.  And so does he.

 

 

America’s Military Strategy? Persistent Overreach

A Roman Cavalry Mask found at the presumed site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
A Roman Cavalry Mask found at the presumed site of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest

W.J. Astore

Reports that President Obama is considering even more troops and bases to fight ISIS in Iraq put me to mind of Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus.  Two millennia ago, Varus committed three Roman legions to the Teutoburg Forest in Germania in terrain that neutralized Roman advantages in firepower and maneuverability.  Ambushed and caught in a vise, his legions were destroyed in detail as Varus took his own life.  To Rome the shock and disgrace of defeat were so great that Emperor Augustus cried, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my Legions!”

Ever since 9/11, American presidents and their military advisors have repeatedly committed U.S. troops and prestige to inhospitable regions in terrain that largely neutralizes U.S. advantages in firepower and maneuverability.  Whether it’s the urban jungles of Baghdad or Fallujah or Mosul or the harshly primitive and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, American troops have been committed to campaigns that they can’t win (in any enduring sense), under conditions that facilitate ambushes by an elusive enemy with superior knowledge of the local terrain.  The number of U.S. soldiers killed or seriously wounded in these campaigns is roughly equivalent to those lost by Varus, though unlike Varus no U.S. general has yet to fall on his sword.

Unlike Rome, which did learn from Varus’s catastrophe the perils of imperial overreach, the U.S. persists in learning nothing.  Perhaps that’s because America’s defeat is collective and gradual, rather than singular and quick.  America may lack a Varus or a calamity like Teutoburg Forest, yet the overall result since 9/11 has been no less debilitating to American foreign policy.

Despite setback after setback, American presidents and generals persist in trying to control hostile territory at the end of insecure logistical lines while mounting punitive raids designed to deny Al Qaeda or ISIS or the Taliban “safe havens.”  We should have learned the impossibility of doing this from Vietnam, but it seems America’s presidents and generals keep trying to get Vietnam right, even if they have to move the fight to the deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan.

Yet seeking to control territory in inhospitable regions like the Middle East or Afghanistan, whether you use American troops or proxy armies, is an exercise in strategic futility.   It’s also old-fashioned thinking: the idea that, to exert influence and control, you need large numbers of military boots on the ground.  But the world has already moved past such thinking into “borderless” hegemony as demonstrated by the Internet, by global business and finance, and by America’s own practice of drone strikes and cyber-war.

By repeatedly deploying American troops – whether in the tens of hundreds or tens of thousands – to so many equivalents of the Teutoburg Forest, our leaders continue a strategy of overreach that was already proven bankrupt in Vietnam.  Meanwhile, despite our own early revolutionary history, our leaders seem to have forgotten that no country likes to be occupied or interfered with by foreigners, no matter how “generous” and “benevolent” they claim to be.  Let’s also not forget that boots on the ground in faraway foreign lands cost an enormous amount of money, a cost that cannot be sustained indefinitely (just ask the British in 1781).

America simply cannot afford more troop deployments (and commitments of prestige) that set the stage for more military disasters.  When you persist in committing your legions to torturous terrain against an enemy that is well prepared to exact a high price for your personal hubris and strategic stubbornness, you get the fate you deserve.

After Varus’s calamity, the Romans stopped campaigning east of the Rhine.  When will America’s leaders learn that persistence in strategic overreach is nothing but folly?

Update (6/21/15): A friend writing from Germany reports that “new archaeological finds near the Elbe apparently show at least one major battle between Roman and Germanic forces in the second century AD. The documentary film’s claim was that the archaeological finds, combined with a few classical source references, show that the Roman armies did engage in major punitive expeditions deep into the territory across the Rhine in the time after Varus, including the one newly discovered which apparently showed a major Roman victory.”

Difficult to see.  Always in motion the future, Yoda once said.  He might have added that the past too “is always in motion.” Did a punitive raid such as this strengthen the Roman Empire or weaken it?  If the Romans won a victory, was it of the Pyrrhic variety?  Did the Romans attempt to sustain a presence across the Rhine only to abandon the attempt?  It will be interesting to see what new evidence is uncovered by archaeologists working in the area.

The Ongoing Civil War in Iraq: Mission Accomplished?

Yet another "magnificent victory" in Iraq, this time in Tikrit, twelve years after "Mission Accomplished" was declared
Yet another “magnificent victory” in Iraq, this time in Tikrit, twelve years after “Mission Accomplished” was declared

W.J. Astore

American reporting on Iraq focuses on the eternal now, such as the rise of ISIS or recent battles in Tikrit.  Rarely is any context given to these events, and rarer still is any accounting of the costs of war (still rising) to the Iraqi people.

Let’s return to 2003 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Before the invasion, the U.S. Army War College accurately predicted what was to come.  A report co-authored by Conrad C. Crane and W. Andrew Terrill warned that U.S. forces would have “to prevent Sunnis from fighting Shiites, secular Iraqis from fighting religious ones, returned Iraqi exiles from fighting non-exiles, Kurds from fighting Turkomans or establishing an independent state, tribes within all these groups from fighting one another, Turkey from invading from the north, Iran from invading from the east, and the defeated Iraqi army–which may be the only national institution that can keep the country from being ripped apart–from dissolving,” as summarized in “After Saddam,” a short article in “Primary Sources” in the Atlantic Monthly in June 2003.*

Read that last bit again: America’s military experts stated the Iraqi army had to be preserved so as to prevent Iraq from devolving into factionalism and chaos.  So what did America’s proconsul for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, proceed to do when he took over in 2003?  He dissolved the Iraqi army!  Under the orders of the all-wise Bush Administration.

In a much longer article for the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows detailed how the Bush Administration went “Blind into Baghdad” (January/February 2004).  Fallows concluded that Bush/Cheney (and Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz) oversaw “a historic failure” in Iraq precisely because they “willfully” disregarded “a vast amount of expert planning.”  Whether this was by design or not is still disputed, but one must recall Cheney’s rosy prediction that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops as “liberators.”

Hubris is one explanation for such folly.  Other commentators suggest a deliberate policy to destabilize Iraq.  Whatever the case, the big winner of Iraq’s decline and near fall was Iran, followed by various forms of Islamic extremism that arose from the ashes of violence and civil war.

By the spring of 2004, as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headed by Bremer prepared to return “sovereignty” to the allegedly newly-democratic Iraq, American officials who hadn’t drunk the kool-aid recognized that civil war was coming.  A friend of mine, an Army major, was at that time serving with the CPA in Baghdad.  He wrote to me at the time that:

“The emperor has no clothes … corruption, private militias, insecurity, and coming civil war [in Iraq] is accepted as given amongst the CPA staff.  The focus is on making some sort of transition on 30 June [2004] to whatever ‘government’ we can get in place by then.  Anything after 30 June is ‘we’ll get to that when we can.’  This whole operation is a train wreck waiting to happen, and the [Bush] administration simply refused to acknowledge it, much less do anything about it.”

Ominously, my friend concluded that “Even the Iraqis who welcomed us after Saddam [fell] have lost patience with us and are pursuing other routes to power and national control.”  This was because the U.S. was throwing its support behind an Iraqi regime “which is seen as completely illegitimate by the people it’s supposed to rule in the name of democracy.”

In short, the CPA and Bush Administration were selling a lie in 2004, and they knew it.  But Bush won reelection later that year, so who really cares if the U.S. lost, in the words of my friend, “serious credibility” in the region as a result?

For informed Americans not suffering from amnesia, the above narrative shouldn’t come as a total surprise.  By its actions and inaction and lies, the Bush Administration brought endless civil war to Iraq.  The U.S. essentially created the conditions for the rise of ISIS and similar extremist groups.  But the U.S. media has cloaked this hard reality in a shroud of myths about the “decisive” Petraeus Surge of 2007 (really a temporary lull in the civil war) or various other “mission accomplished” moments promoted by both Bush and Obama.

Mission accomplished?  A magnificent victory?  Only if the “mission” was the dismantling of Iraq, and “victory” is measured by more and more war.

*The report, dated February 2003, was “Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario.”

The Best and the Brightest Have Become the Venal and the Vacuous

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W.J. Astore

Over at TomDispatch.com, retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich asks a telling question: Why does Washington continue to rely on policy “experts,” the “best and brightest” as they were called during the Vietnam War, even when events prove their advice to be consistently wrong?

As Bacevich puts it (with considerable relish):

“Policy intellectuals — eggheads presuming to instruct the mere mortals who actually run for office — are a blight on the republic. Like some invasive species, they infest present-day Washington, where their presence strangles common sense and has brought to the verge of extinction the simple ability to perceive reality. A benign appearance — well-dressed types testifying before Congress, pontificating in print and on TV, or even filling key positions in the executive branch — belies a malign impact. They are like Asian carp let loose in the Great Lakes.”

One of the big drawbacks of a Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush joust in 2016 is that both candidates will be relying on the same neocon “experts” who got us into Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing, seemingly endless, war on terror.  What Washington needs most of all is fresh blood and fresher thinking; what 2016 promises is retread candidates and recycled pundits.

The problem is that these pundits rarely admit that they’re wrong.  Even when they do, their admissions run false. They say things like: “We were wrong for the right reason [about Iraq and WMD],” a sentiment echoed by George W. Bush in his memoir that “There are things we got wrong in Iraq, but the cause is eternally right.”  So, as long as your cause is “eternally right” (fighting against Communism in Vietnam; against terror in the Middle East), it doesn’t matter how many things you get wrong (such as how many innocents you end up killing, especially if they’re foreigners).

Their mantra is something like this: Never admit your wrong.  And never apologize. Instead, double down on talking tough and committing troops.

As Bacevich notes:

The present-day successors to Bundy, Rostow, and Huntington subscribe to their own reigning verities.  Chief among them is this: that a phenomenon called terrorism or Islamic radicalism, inspired by a small group of fanatic ideologues hidden away in various quarters of the Greater Middle East, poses an existential threat not simply to America and its allies, but — yes, it’s still with us — to the very idea of freedom itself.  That assertion comes with an essential corollary dusted off and imported from the Cold War: the only hope of avoiding this cataclysmic outcome is for the United States to vigorously resist the terrorist/Islamist threat wherever it rears its ugly head….

The fact that the enterprise itself has become utterly amorphous may actually facilitate such efforts.  Once widely known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT, it has been transformed into the War with No Name.  A little bit like the famous Supreme Court opinion on pornography: we can’t define it, we just know it when we see it, with ISIS the latest manifestation to capture Washington’s attention.

All that we can say for sure about this nameless undertaking is that it continues with no end in sight.  It has become a sort of slow-motion Vietnam, stimulating remarkably little honest reflection regarding its course thus far or prospects for the future.  If there is an actual Brains Trust at work in Washington, it operates on autopilot.  Today, the second- and third-generation bastard offspring of RAND that clutter northwest Washington — the Center for this, the Institute for that — spin their wheels debating latter day equivalents of Strategic Hamlets, with nary a thought given to more fundamental concerns.”

Tough talk by “experts” with no skin in the game has proved to be a recipe for disaster in slow-motion.  The best and the brightest have become the venal and the vacuous.  Bacevich is right: We can do better, America.