“We Have Become the Kurdish Air Force”

Update 8/21/2014: Salon published this today.

My friend Leighton Woodhouse interviewed me for the Huffington Post on the current crisis in Iraq:

We Have Become the Kurdish Air Force” — Former State Department Official Matthew Hoh Makes the Case For Non-Intervention in Iraq

Matthew Hoh is a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq before being stationed in Afghanistan as a high-ranking foreign service officer. In 2009, Hoh resigned in protest from the State Department over the U.S.’ misguided occupation of Afghanistan. Leighton Woodhouse, who interviewed Hoh, writes for Capital & Main.

Note: This interview was conducted before the Obama administration announced that it would not send in ground troops to evacuate refugees on Mount Sinjar.

You’ve written that sending U.S. troops back into Iraq, bombing the Islamic State, or otherwise engaging militarily in Iraq’s civil war may serve to salve guilty American consciences, but will only exacerbate the country’s violent divisions in the long run. With that said, there remain thousands of Yazidi and other non-Sunni refugees stranded and besieged on a mountain, with no access to food and water other than by airlift, dying of starvation, dehydration and sunstroke. Should it prove to be the case that the deployment of U.S. ground troops is the only means available to carry out an evacuation, is there a valid distinction to be made between that kind of an emergency, humanitarian rescue mission and out-and-out U.S. military intervention in Iraq? Could this be a situation in which some limited use of U.S. military force in the area is justified, and if not, what is the humanitarian alternative?

I think that distinction can be made in theory or in debate, but in practice I don’t believe it is possible to put American troops into the middle of the Iraq Civil War without supporting one side against another in the conflict. If our troops go into Iraq they will be picking winners and losers in a society they do not understand and in a war that is amazingly complex. This was the genesis of this conflict in 2003. The United States has quite a history of U.S. forces being utilized by one side against another in foreign civil wars, and that utilization only widens and deepens the conflict. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and, of course, our nearly nine-year-long occupation of Iraq are all examples. Further, putting foreign troops into Iraq will only help serve the interests of ISIS by lending credence to their propaganda and recruiting narratives.

The plight of the Yazidis should not be seen either as a singular tragic event, but rather as the most recent of a vicious cycle of violence that has been ongoing in Iraq. Estimates are of half a million dead, millions injured or maimed, and upwards of four million people, out of a population of 32 million, or 1 in 8, have been forcibly driven from their homes since 2003. So, without some political solution that will stop the cycle of violence, the Yazidis will soon be replaced in the archives of Iraqi horrors by another ethnicity or demographic. A long-term solution is what is needed, not something that is short-term and designed to score domestic political points or adhere to some form of foreign policy ideology or doctrine.

Finally, it is very important to separate and not conflate our humanitarian mission with the military mission. The United States is the wealthiest nation on Earth and we should help in a humanitarian manner whenever we can. However, in this case our military assets were not used to protect the Yazidis, but to protect territory that the Kurds have taken control of over the last two months. Since June the Kurds have increased their territory by 40 percent, including capturing the major oil city of Kirkuk. Northern Iraq is rich with oil and natural gas and what is playing out is a battle for these resources by the Kurds and Sunnis in the wake of the departure of Baghdad’s control and army. In effect we have become the Kurdish Air Force in protecting the gains the Kurds have made since this crisis began in June. Additionally, we have a very large CIA base near Erbil, which was reported by the Miami Herald last month, and protection of that, because of our concerns with Iran, is a priority for the Administration.

The same was said, however, by Clinton administration officials about Rwanda — that the U.S. cannot risk American lives, treasure and prestige intervening in a “tribal” conflict that could embroil the U.S. in the region for years or decades. The result of that calculation was genocide. Is the situation different in this case? What should be the guidelines for when foreign troops should intervene to prevent genocide or a level of mass atrocity that approaches it?

I’ll turn this around and say that I think the situation is different because of the oil and natural gas in northern Iraq. If Rwanda had such resources I think you would have seen intervention by the U.S. in the 90s.

Additionally this situation is different, because it has been caused by U.S./Western occupation in Iraq and the resultant destabilization of the region. ISIS is an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was created in the wake of our invasion of Iraq in 2003. What needs to be done is to reverse the cycle of instability caused by U.S. intervention and meddling, one of the results of which is the atrocity committed against the Yazidis.

Consistency in our policy is a needed start to diminish the chances of future genocide. Remember a year ago, many of the same advocates in the U.S. of our re-entry into the Iraqi Civil War to fight ISIS, were advocating the U.S. become involved militarily in Syria, which, in effect, would have put the U.S. in support of ISIS and its goals in Syria. So, consistency in policy, and some thinking other than military-only approaches, needs to be applied to the region.

As far as what guidelines should be for U.S. troop intervention, I must say I do not know. I have not seen any evidence of successful U.S. intervention to stop such violence in our modern history. So, while I think it is a noble idea, I don’t think it is practically possible. Prevention of genocide by addressing conditions of political instability and lack of political order is what is needed and what is attainable.

Certainly the U.S. invasion unleashed the chaos we’re witnessing and set in motion the events that led to the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq/ISIS/the Islamic State. However, it was during the period of U.S. drawdown that Nouri Al-Maliki consolidated Shiite political rule and excluded the Sunnis from power, fueling the disenchantment that has led to this resurgence of militant Sunni nationalism. While the U.S. was exiting its military role in Iraq, are there diplomatic levers the Obama administration could have used to prevent the current outcome we’re seeing? Are there diplomatic levers it could still use today? Or should the U.S. simply extricate itself from the conflict on every level, both military and non-military?

I think we need to remain engaged with the world and the Middle East non-militarily while steadily reducing our military engagement, and thereby drawing down tensions in the Middle East, cooling off the arms race amongst Middle Eastern nations, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, and diminishing the rationale and narrative of terror groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, that rely, in simple terms, on keeping the motif of the Crusades alive. We have had a heavy military involvement, indeed a military-first foreign policy, in the Middle East since the end of World War II and most especially over the last four decades. The result has been a steadily decreasing level of stability in the region.

With Iraq we should have limited our arms sales to the Maliki government and limited its oil exports unless the government had remained politically inclusive. We have also fostered incredible confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, aggravating an existing Sunni Arab and Shia Persian tension that has played out in both nations supporting proxies in the civil war in Iraq. Of course, this may not have been possible; we may not have had such leverage in Iraq following our occupation. Both Shia and Sunni Iraqi communities were devastated as a result of the American occupation, so it is debatable what influence we could have had at all in Iraq over the last three years.

I feel, sadly, the violence in Iraq may need to play out, that external involvement will cause unintended consequences in Iraq and the region. The United States’ focus needs to be on repairing, actually completely rebuilding, any moral authority it once possessed and trying to become a truly independent outside power that seeks stability, balance of power and prosperity for the people of the Middle East. This isn’t fanciful idealism, but rather realistic policy necessary to prevent further atrocity and collapse throughout the Middle East. If the U.S. continues to try and pick winners and losers in the Middle East then the U.S., and the Middle East, will continue to fail.

Do you believe that the most stable eventual outcome for Iraqis may be the partition of Iraq into three countries, for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, respectively, if it’s even possible to do so without foreign intervention?

Yes, I do. I think that is the solution. There must be an equitable sharing of resources, but I believe that is the path most conducive to stability. Over time, when political order is restored, I think you will see a return to the multi-ethnicity that did characterize large parts of Iraq, including Baghdad, but for now I think only segregation and equitable sharing of resources will provide a solution to stop the cycle of violence.

At this particular moment, do you hold out much hope for the long-term future of Iraq?

No. I think political order in Iraq has been so overturned and upset, that we are going to see a lot more bloodshed until a natural and legitimate political order exists again. Again, to reiterate, the cause of this chaos and death has been outside intervention and occupation by foreign forces. It is mind-boggling that people advocate that as the solution.

*Note that I did this interview prior to Nouri al-Maliki peacefully stepping down from power. At the time of the interview al-Maliki has deployed troops in the Green Zone for his protection. I am a bit more optimistic about the political chances, but still see partition as a likely outcome/solution.

Robin Williams

When I was a kid, one of the greatest moments for me, as an 8 or 9 year old boy, was to be able to watch Mork and Mindy. Robin Williams’ antics were eye-opening. His comedy, his goofiness and his sensitivity transcended anything I’d seen and, as I look back and reflect, I realize what an influence he was on me. John Ritter, in his role as Jack Tripper on Three’s Company, with his physical, silly humor, had a similar influence on me. Sadly, both men have now passed.

Robin Williams was, of course, well known and appreciated not just for his comedic talent, but for the compassion and empathy he could elicit in his dramatic roles. My friend, Pete Dominick, himself a stand-up comedian, explains that a good comic draws his ability to make people laugh through compassion, through an understanding of suffering, hardship, isolation; through those very things that allow a dramatic actor to so affect his audience.

While Robin Williams had certainly transmitted tenderness, sympathy and humanity in prior roles, such as Good Morning Vietnam, Awakenings, The Fisher King and Dead Poets Society, it was his role, in 1994, in NBC’s cop drama Homicide, that has always affected me the most. As Robin’s character, a man whose wife has just been murdered, leaving behind two small children, sits on a playground swing, he asks to hold a detective’s pistol. The look of anguish on Robin’s face, the frustration, the sorrow, the rage, as he begs for the weapon is tempered by his words as he assures the detective he won’t do anything stupid, he just wants to feel that power. In his words and body/facial language I’ve always felt how trapped the man was. Trapped between the overwhelming grief and sorrow of his loss, the anger and desire for justice towards his enemy, and the frightening and paralyzing understanding of now being a father of two motherless children, I’ve often thought about that role and that performance. I was 21 at the time and I can see, now, how that performance taught me so much about grief, anger, love, frustration and obligation. No one is two dimensional, nobody is a cardboard cut-out of emotions, and none of us live a scripted life with the solutions and remedies readily available for our afflictions and torments.

But this post is not meant as another tribute to a great actor, and as many people feel towards those on-screen giants, a friend. It is rather to admit, which I suspect many of my fellow veterans and travelers in our post-war PTSD, depression, alcoholic and morally injured lives also feel: the terror that even though we have it together today, even though we may be managing our illnesses, taking our medications, going to therapy, forgoing booze, avoiding triggers and making our lives worthy of others’ death and suffering by living lives of meaning and purpose, that it all may crash out from underneath us. For although those of us in recovery live our lives as if we are in new homes and new structures, the reality is that the floor of the structure is weak, and in some cases rotted. Constant attention, upgrade and maintenance is required to avoid collapse and our falling through, again, into an abyss, that deep dark hole with its rock bottom, we had successfully crawled out of.

Robin Williams fell through. I’d be lying if I haven’t thought many times this week that the same may happen to me in five, ten or twenty years.  It’s a terrifying and haunting demon. By sharing this fear, I hope to exorcise it.

PTSD, Depression and Moral Injury are hope-destroyers. Alcohol and drugs their armaments. The disease is insidious and brilliant. If it destroys hope, then there is not much reason to remain in recovery.  I feel like I should offer some form of chippy or up-beat affirmation at this point, but that would be a lie. Living, by fighting through these issues, is the only thing we can do.

Rest in peace Robin. Thank you for all you did for us. I’m sorry your floor fell through.

The Death of a General and the Racket of a War

From the Huffington Post yesterday:

Five years ago this month, the New York Times, under the bylines of James Risen and Mark Lander, published a front-page profile of Marshal Mohammad Fahim, a notorious and bloody Afghan warlord and druglord, who had long been involved in the theft of American aid money. Fahim was about to become the Vice President of Afghanistan, for a second time. Risen and Lander explained in great detail not just Fahim’s crimes, but also the acknowledgement and acceptance of Fahim’s crimes, past and ongoing, by senior American officials in both the Bush and Obama Administrations.

Despite the obvious and clear illegality of President Hamid Karzai’s re-election in 2009, the first of three fraudulent national elections in Afghanistan over the last five years, including this year’s presidential election, an election with still no outcome, whose fraudulence pushes Afghanistan towards an ever greater political abyss, the United States backed Fahim’s position once again as Vice President.

In December of 2009, President Obama sent an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan to assure Karzai and Fahim’s positions in power, escalating the war and eliminating any sincere chances of political reconciliation in Afghanistan. Tens of billions of dollars more for Karzai and Fahim’s amazingly kleptocratic government to continue to steal were sent from America’s Treasury. During this time, the United States government continued to turn a blind eye towards the Afghan government’s heavy and integral involvement within the Afghan drug trade, allowing Afghanistan to produce record numbers of drug exports on a near annual basis since 2001. Reports of American Marines and soldiers in southern Afghanistan guarding poppy fields are not exaggerations nor are the stories of helicopters and planes given to the Afghan Air Force being used to ferry drugs.

Fahim passed away in March of this year from a heart attack. He was never held accountable for his immeasurable human rights atrocities nor did American officials ever challenge his drug business. The millions of dollars he stole from American taxpayer funded reconstruction assistance has never been recouped. Thousands of American soldiers died to ensure his power and profit, while tens of thousands more were wounded and hundreds of thousands will be haunted by psychiatric wounds for the rest of their lives. Rather, after Fahim’s death, the American Ambassador to Afghanistan eulogized his “crucial role” and relationship with the US, the United Nations called him a “good and trusted partner,” and the Afghan Military Academy, constructed with US taxpayers’ money, was renamed in his honor.

Last week we learned of the latest American to be killed in America’s longest and most unpopular war. Major General Harold Greene undoubtedly will not be our last death in a war that so long ago lost its purpose and became, as the former British Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007-2010, Sherard Cowper-Coles described to the Los Angeles Times in 2011, as “one big bright shining lie.”

General Greene is the most senior American killed in our wars since 2001. He was gunned down as many Americans before him in Afghanistan, in what are known as “insider attacks.” These killings happen not on the battlefield, but in an office, a hospital or a school, and are not committed by a recognizable enemy, but by someone supposedly on our side, often a member of the Afghan army or police. For several years these attacks were epidemic, but over the last year or so they have been managed, primarily by reducing our troops’ time with their Afghan counterparts or making sure our officers aren’t in the same room as Afghans with loaded weapons. These limitations on American forces interactions with the very Afghan men they were supposed to be training in order to deliver victory in Afghanistan is one of the many absurdities that characterize the madness of the war into which our troops have been committed.

So, in a very cruel, yet perversely fitting injustice we see the most senior American officer to be killed since the Vietnam War to have been murdered at the Marshal Fahim National Defense University in Kabul. After thirteen years of war, after all the violence, all the theft, all the lies, are we so naïve and so closeted to be surprised at this death? Can we not see the symbolism intertwined in the murder, the money and the location’s namesake?

General Greene’s death at the Marshal Fahim National Military Academy, while of no greater or lesser importance than the previous 2,340 American deaths in Afghanistan, or the 4,486 killed in the equally senseless and failed war in Iraq, may be the most illustrative death. Perhaps the only thing more glaring than the limits on American power overseas may be our own unwillingness to acknowledge our short-comings, recognize our own failures and admit our inability to live up to our own values.

And somehow, someway, as if we are living in some cosmic, divinely inspired farce, our airwaves are inundated now, not with just calls to keep our troops and money in Afghanistan, but to return to Iraq. So it goes.

Laughing From His Grave

I published this on HuffPo on Saturday:

Laughing From His Grave

Saddam Hussein

Nearly 12 years ago, the United States Congress, representing the American people, provided President George W. Bush with the authorization to invade Iraq. Friday, seemingly under this same authorization, American bombs fell again on Iraq.

This is not, however, the Bush Whitehouse. After coming into office and adopting a proto-Bush approach to foreign policy by escalating the war in Afghanistan, participating in Libya’s civil war, and enlarging America’s targeted assassination and drone bombing campaign, the Obama White House has appeared, recently, more reticent in its use of military force.

With the current emergency in Iraq, so far the most apt and discerning quote, and the course of action most likely to bring about some form of peace and stability in Iraq, has come from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest:

“There are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq… These problems can only be solved with Iraqi political solutions.”

This was reinforced by the President himself late Thursday evening: “There’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.”

I pray their words are sincere. Certainly the experience of our Nation overseas militarily over the last 13 years supports no other narrative.

If American bombs and bullets were the answer to the civil wars and political disorder in the Muslim world, then the situation would have been resolved in Iraq in 2003. The Obama Administration’s surge of nearly 70,000 troops into Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 would have produced reconciliation among the Afghans and not the bloodshed of the last five years. The American bombs that fell on Libya in 2011 would have created peace rather than the civil war that is still ravaging Libya’s countryside and cities.

Getting re-involved militarily in Iraq’s ongoing civil war would be a mistake. Yes, the current civil war is a result of our 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation, and yes, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is horrid and barbarous. It would be a feel-good, guilt-assuaging, self-justifying exercise to drop bombs, particularly with the images of desperate and dying refugees haunting our television and computer screens. Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists in both parties could applaud this exercise of American “leadership”, regardless of how ineffective or counter-productive the results are. But any help our bombs would provide would be short-lived, completely one-sided and would serve to exacerbate Iraq’s civil war. Sure, we can bomb and we can kill, but then what?

In the North of Iraq, many of Iraq’s Sunnis have aligned themselves with ISIS out of political necessity. This alignment has given ISIS the manpower and popular support needed to conquer territory and continue their campaign of terror against non-Sunni Iraqis. This alignment comes as Iraq’s Sunnis find themselves disenfranchised and marginalized by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia dominated, and horribly corrupt and cruel, government in Baghdad. Excluded from the government and security forces, as well as large shares of revenue from oil exports, Iraq’s Sunni minority finds themselves, as many Sunnis see it, not just as losing in a contest for relevance, representation and resources, but in an existential fight for survival.

Re-entering the Iraqi civil war, whether by backing Maliki’s Shia dominated forces or the forces of the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region, will put the United States back in a position of supporting one side against the Sunnis, just as occurred from 2003-2006 when the Sunnis, with similarly no other choice, sided with ISIS’ predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq. Further marginalization of an already desperate Sunni population will push them closer to ISIS.

Any goal we have in Iraq, and I say that fully recognizing how much we have already overstepped any reasonable bounds in that country with our previous invasion and occupation, should be to re-integrate the Sunni population back into the government, the security forces and revenue. Bombing the Sunnis will force them closer to ISIS, while strengthening an exclusive government in Baghdad. Similar to the mistakes made in Afghanistan by backing Hamid Karzai’s corrupt and exclusionary government with military force, continuing to do the same in Iraq will only provide incentive to al-Maliki’s government not to reform. Answering the political grievances of the Sunni population is the only way to peace and stability in Iraq. Such a path is not available through 500-pound bombs or depleted uranium shells.

I am confident of only a few things. I believe the future holds more terror and bloodshed for the Iraqi people and I am confident of our culpability in that death and destruction. However, I am also confident that, as President Obama rightly stated, America’s military will not fix an Iraqi political problem.

I am also confident, that 11.5 years after we deposed him from power, Saddam Hussein is laughing from his grave.

Just as public pressure stopped the United States from getting involved in the middle of Syria’s Civil War in 2013, calls to Congress will have a similar effect on any potential American entry into the Iraqi Civil War. Please call your senators and representative and tell them to keep American soldiers out of Iraq.

Last Few Seconds of my Veterans for Peace Keynote

Thanks to Dan Shea for posting the last thirty seconds or so of my Keynote Address for the Veterans for Peace Annual Convention.

It was quite an honor to address the 300+ delegates who met the last weekend of July in Asheville, NC. It is an organization I am proud to be a part of and one I hope will continue to grow and become a stronger advocate for peace, sanity and compassion.

I’ll post the full version of the video when I get it, but until then here’s the conclusion: