Veterans Day Interview with Amy Goodman Part 1

I did a lengthy interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now on a number of issues, some of it very personal, for Veterans Day. This first part deals primarily with our current intervention in the Iraqi Civil War:

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the nation prepares to commemorate Veterans Day, President Obama has authorized the deployment of an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq. The plan will more than double the current U.S. force in Iraq and will reportedly cost $5.6 billion. At a news conference Friday, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby announced the decision.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: The commander-in-chief has authorized Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to deploy to Iraq up to 1,500 additional U.S. personnel over the coming months, in a noncombat role, to expand our advise and assist mission and initiate a comprehensive training effort for Iraqi forces. Secretary Hagel made this recommendation to the president based on the request of the government of Iraq, U.S. Central Command’s assessment of Iraqi units, the progress Iraqi security forces have made in the field, and in concert with the development of a coalition campaign plan to defend key areas and go on the offensive against ISIL.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby. In a significant expansion of the U.S. military campaign against ISIS, military advisers will reportedly establish training sites across Iraq. The request for $5.6 billion will reportedly be presented to Congress during the lame-duck session that begins this week. In an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation broadcast Sunday, President Obama said the increased troop deployment to Iraq marks a “new phase” against Islamic State militants—an offensive strategy, rather than a defensive one.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re now in a position to start going on some offense. The airstrikes have been very effective in degrading ISIL’s capabilities and slowing the advance that they were making. Now what we need is ground troops, Iraqi ground troops, that can start pushing them back.
AMY GOODMAN: The timing of the announcement has raised questions about whether the Obama administration waited until after the midterm elections in order to shield Democratic candidates from war-weary voters. The antiwar group CodePink has criticized Obama for sending more troops to Iraq, saying in a statement, quote, “For months we’ve been hearing ‘no boots on the ground’ over and over from the administration … When will we learn from our mistakes and stop repeating history?” they wrote.

Well, for more, we go to Raleigh, North Carolina, where we’re joined by Matthew Hoh, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, former State Department official who resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan over the U.S. policy there in September 2009. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh served in Iraq. From 2004 to ’05, he worked with a State Department reconstruction and governance team in Salah ad-Din province. And from 2006 to ’07, he worked as a Marine Corps company commander in Anbar province.

Matthew Hoh, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you share your response to the increased boots on the ground?

MATTHEW HOH: Hi, good morning, and thank you for having me on. My response is, as many people, I think, in the United States, scratching their head and wondering: What are we doing? What does the United States government really think it’s going to accomplish by putting more American troops into the middle of the Iraqi civil war and into the middle of the Syrian civil war, particularly coming off of 13 years of war in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in Somalia, in Yemen, etc.? So, my response, Amy, is more or less the same as most people’s, of a—very concerned and, you know, lack of a better phrase, this is crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to CBS’s Face the Nation, President Obama insisted U.S. troops will focus on training Iraqis to fight ISIS and coordinating airstrikes, rather than engaging in active combat.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What hasn’t changed is, our troops are not engaged in combat. Essentially what we’re doing is we’re taking four training centers, with coalition members, that allow us to bring in Iraqi recruits, some of the Sunni tribes that are still resisting ISIL, giving them proper training, proper equipment, helping them with strategy, helping them with logistics. We will provide them close air support once they are prepared to start going on the offense against ISIL. But what we will not be doing is having our troops do the fighting.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama refused to rule out further increases in U.S. troops in Iraq.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As commander-in-chief, I’m never going to say never, but what, you know, the commanders who presented the plan to me say is that we may actually see fewer troops over time, because now we’re seeing coalition members starting to partner with us on the training and assist effort.
AMY GOODMAN: That is President Obama on CBS’s Face the Nation. Matthew Hoh, do you believe what he’s saying?

MATTHEW HOH: No, I don’t. And I think it’s very easy for us to revisit this in a few months’ time, just as now we’re revisiting this from several months ago, and see the increase, the graduation of entry of American forces back into the conflict. But I think it’s a slippery slope—excuse me—and that very quickly this will spin out of control for the United States. What happens when American troops are killed? What happens when we lose several young men to a suicide bomber? How is the president going to react to that? How is the United States going to react when our troops are in combat and we only have 3,000? And the president, who can’t seem to face down the same critics in Congress who are always demanding for war, the John McCains and Lindsey Graham, how is he going to face them down then, if he can’t face them down now? So, I don’t believe his words, and I think that this is going to be the beginning of an unfortunate and tragic re-entry of America back into this civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the fate of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Iraqi officials claim he was wounded in an airstrike on ISIS leaders in Iraq’s Anbar province, Anbar province where you were, Matthew Hoh.

MATTHEW HOH: It may be true. I mean, certainly it could possibly happen, but I don’t put much stock in that having a great effect on the Islamic State. They’ll just get another leader. Look, Osama bin Laden has been dead for three-and-a-half years, and the administration is citing how dangerous al-Qaeda still is, in order to justify spying on Americans or justify bombing in Syria. The precursor to the Islamic State, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which didn’t exist, of course, until we invaded Iraq, but al-Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the Islamic State, their leader, al-Zarqawi, was killed in 2006, and here we are now in 2014 facing an even stronger, more dangerous, more barbaric force in the Islamic State. So, I don’t—if he’s dead, you know, I don’t think it’s going to affect things in the mid or long term in terms of what’s occurring in Iraq, what’s occurring in Syria, because the issues here go well beyond one man or one group. It goes into issues relating to sectarian violence, that has been fostered and pushed by policies from the United States, from the West, from the Gulf nations, that have created this Frankenstein, ISIS, and that have enabled the environment for civil war to flourish.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about that, how ISIS was created, its support, and what you feel is the alternative?

MATTHEW HOH: Sure. Well, the Islamic State, as I just mentioned, came from the al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was an organization that sprang to life after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of the things that—when I was there in Iraq, as well as in the State Department and the Pentagon in D.C., one of the things we always noticed about it and one of the things that we saw was that it was—while it had a number of foreign fighters in it, a number of young men who were coming from other Arab nations to fight against the Americans in Iraq, very often, though, the—or I should say, the majority of the constituency of al-Qaeda in Iraq were Iraqis in 2006, 2007, because so many people were supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq based on sectarian reasons. So, basically, what was occurring in Iraq was you had this civil war, so the Sunnis in Iraq were supporting al-Qaeda because they had no other choice.

In 2006, 2007, we made a deal with the Sunnis. We gave them money. We brought them back into the power structure. We pulled Shia forces out of the Sunni areas. And so, the Sunnis then turned on al-Qaeda. What happened after that was, when the United States left in 2011, the Shia government in Baghdad, which is incredibly corrupt, relentlessly went after the Sunnis. They persecuted them to an extent that I don’t think people realize the violence behind that. This wasn’t just excluding the Sunnis from government, this was actively killing them, actively chasing them from their homes, actively mass arrests—actively arresting them in mass numbers, to the point that the Sunnis have revolted and have thrown their weight behind this group, the Islamic State, which is the successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq. So what you see here is this horrible group, Islamic State, that’s very barbaric. They have this extreme religious fanaticism and ideology behind them. But they are receiving the support of many Sunni Arabs in the area, in Iraq and Syria, because of the alternatives to the Islamic State are government forces that the Sunnis see as much worse to them than the Islamic State.

My alternative to the U.S. bombing campaign, to the U.S. military intervention is this. This is the consequence of decades of United States policy in the Middle East that has played one sect against the other. The Islamic State is a Frankenstein of our creation. And as horrible as it is, the purposes behind the United States policy in the Middle East must change to be one of preventing conflict rather than fostering conflict. For decades now, we have supported various regimes in the Middle East that have been despotic, that have been dictatorships, that have oppressed their people, or, in the alternative, we have supported these groups that have then morphed into these organizations like al-Qaeda, like the Islamic State. And it’s now out of control. And so, for me, the alternative in Iraq is to stop supporting a Shia government that is horribly corrupt, that is persecuting its own people, stop buying their oil, stop selling their weapons. Look, Amy, when we—as the United States, when we sell the world 70 percent of its weapons, we have to take responsibility for the havoc that’s going to result from that. So, a lot of this, to me, is not so much what do we do now. What do we do over the next decades to disengage ourself from this policy where we have created these Frankensteins, we have created conditions for civil war, where we have set one group, whether it be by religion, by sect, by ethnicity, against the other? And how do we walk away from that? How do we back out of that and become a much more responsible partner in the world? And how do we seek to actually bring about justice, bring about stability, rather than fostering either war or oppression?

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Hoh, can you describe your own transformation, how you came to the position you have? You fought in Iraq. You served in Afghanistan. You quit as a State Department official in protest of the war in Afghanistan. Explain the trajectory you took over the years.

MATTHEW HOH: Well, I think, for me, it begins in 2002 when I’m stationed in the Pentagon. I was put in a very senior position. Just happened—just happened I worked directly for the secretary of the Navy as a Marine Corps captain. And so, in the run-up to the war, the Iraq War, and during the initial phases of the Iraq War, I was very close to the decision making, the policy making. I could see how things were done, how decisions were made, how assessments were conducted. And I could see very quickly, particularly once the war began in Iraq and once we started receiving our communications from our forces in Iraq, our classified communications detailing what was occurring on the ground, the dissonance, the disconnect between what policy was being promulgated in Washington, D.C., what assessments were being made, what statements were being made, and what the reality was on the ground.

Of course, when I got there in 2004, 2005, I saw that firsthand. I saw how our presence was fueling the occupation, how we were setting one group against the other, how we were aiding corrupt and thuggish militias in power in Iraq. The same thing, too—I came back to D.C., worked in the State Department again on the Iraq desk and again, in an inter-agency process, saw that disconnect between what’s occurring in Iraq and what we’re actually saying, and the refusal by people in the administration, by people in the military, in the government, to acknowledge that our policies weren’t just harmful, but they were malignant, that they were causing further violence, they were causing groups like al-Qaeda to gain support.

And so, this continued until finally I was in Afghanistan in 2009 and seeing all the same things again, seeing the narrative that we have the white hats on, that American troops are dying to protect us, to keep us free, seeing that really what we were doing in Afghanistan was taking part in a civil war, our presence was fueling the insurgency, we were propping up a corrupt kleptocracy, and that al-Qaeda had left Afghanistan years before. I decided at that point in 2009 I no longer could take part in it. And, you know, here we are five years later.

With American Help Iraq’s Cycle of Violence Spirals

I published this last week in the Huffington Post:

Amnesty International published a report yesterday on Iraqi Government and Shia militia war crimes against Sunni populations in Iraq. This important piece of documentation helps to illustrate the cycle of violence that has been devastating the people of Iraq for 11 years and why US military intervention, on behalf of the Shia government and against the Sunni population, is not working, will not work, and will only prolong the suffering of millions of Iraqis.

Over the last several years, since the US military withdrew in late 2011*, the Shia government in Baghdad has persecuted the Sunni minority population relentlessly. Persecution against Sunnis has included killings, disappearances, mass arrests, indefinite detainment without charges or trial, torture, and exclusion from national, provincial and local political, security and revenue structures.

The result has been Sunni alignment with the Islamic State and organized revolution against the Shia dominated government in Baghdad with the all too predictable accompanying sectarian slaughter. Mass Sunni retaliation against non-Sunnis, led by the Islamic State, highlighted the news cycle this summer, although this type of bloodshed was nothing unique or new to the people of Iraq. The cycle of violence continues as Shia forces, now with American military support, engage in retribution against Sunni civilians.

This cycle of violence started with our invasion of Iraq in 2003, and while it diminished for a period of time from 2007-2011, it has since been progressing steadily. Nearly 10,000 Iraqis were killed in sectarian violence in 2013, and, if nothing changes, at the current rate, nearly 20,000 Iraqis, maybe more, will die this year.

What can and should be done?

Address the political grievances of the Sunni population. Give the Sunnis a reason not to support the Islamic State. Right now the Sunni population of Iraq is choosing to side with the Islamic State because that is a better option than to further acquiesce to the Shia government in Baghdad. To accomplish Sunni rejection of the Islamic State pressure must be put on the government in Baghdad to reform by incorporating Sunnis back into the security forces, into the political system and into the revenue streams, as well as removing Shia dominated security forces from Sunni areas. Greater autonomy must be given to Sunni areas; note this is not a Sunni only demand, but the government in Baghdad is so corrupt, that the Shia province of Basra in southern Iraq wants autonomy too.

The government in Baghdad will not reform or stop its persecution of Sunnis while we provide it with unconditional support through weapons sales and the use of the American air force or while we allow the continued sale of Iraqi oil. With no reform and no negotiation the Sunnis will remain attached to the Islamic State. With no political efforts the Islamic State will continue to grow stronger.

Sound familiar? Like our misadventure in Afghanistan? The greater we supported the corrupt government in Kabul and the more American troops we sent, the more the Taliban prospered. A similar dynamic is at play in Iraq. Consequently, without a change in American policy the cycle of violence in Iraq will continue its ghastly spiral, Amnesty International will find cause and need to publish more reports, and parasites of war, like the Islamic State and American defense companies will be the sole beneficiaries.

You may find the Amnesty International report here.

*This is not an endorsement for US forces to have remained in Iraq, but rather acknowledgment of one of the consequences of massive policy folly and foolishness. Despite a revisionist view currently circulated by hawks in D.C. and on TV, the prospect of American troops staying in Iraq past 2011 was wildly unpopular with a majority of Iraqis and would have led to a re-opening of the Iraq Civil War, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces once again killing American troops in large numbers. One of the foremost lessons that somehow, amazingly, we have not learned as Americans, is that once war has begun, war is impossible to control and there may be no options that result in anything other than death, maiming and destruction.

The Beheadings Are Bait

From September 4th in the Huffington Post:

“All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there and cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses…” — Osama bin Laden

On the last day of March, in 2004, four American contractors were ambushed and killed in the western Iraqi city of Fallujah. Mutilated and immolated by a mob, their remains were strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River.

Barely a month later, in May, Nicholas Berg, a young American who had traveled to Iraq looking for work and had been captured, was beheaded.

Videos of the swinging American bodies and Berg’s execution were posted online and aired hourly on cable television. Americans were horrified and shocked. Operation Iraqi Freedom was unraveling. With this graphic confirmation of barbarity and terror President Bush reacted forcefully, desperate to demonstrate American resolve, strength and revenge.

U.S. Marines attacked twice into Fallujah, in April and then again in November 2004. In some of the worst fighting of the war, large parts of the city were destroyed, thousands killed and the majority of the city displaced. Throughout Iraq, American forces went on the offensive, attempting to stamp out “terrorists” by launching greater and more violent operations than had been seen since the invasion.

This military action, which was quite successful in sheer numbers of Iraqis killed or interned in detention camps, backfired as the often arbitrary, uncontrollable and escalatory nature of violence, as so happens in war, further enflamed hatred of the foreign occupation and led to greater Iraqi support, directly and indirectly, to the insurgency. This, in turn, strengthened al-Qaeda in Iraq, as well as al-Qaeda’s broader global narrative of fighting “Crusaders” and defending Muslims. When the release of the Abu Ghraib torture photos added to this narrative, thousands of outraged Muslim men traveled to Iraq to join al-Qaeda’s cause and fight the Americans.

Alongside this increased military action, the U.S. accelerated the transfer of “sovereignty” to the Iraqis through an inept political process that replaced the incompetent American-led Coalition Provisional Authority with a corrupt network of mostly Shia expatriate Iraqis. This interim government in Baghdad, full of Iraqis whose chief qualification was that they spoke English and dressed in Western suits, oversaw a political vacuum that deepened the chaos.

Shia groups battled other Shia groups for power and money in Baghdad; Sunnis and Shias massacred one another; minorities, such as Turkmens and Christians, fled Baghdad; the Kurds smartly walled themselves off in their homeland in North Iraq; and everyone who was not on the United States payroll fought the Americans, primarily young American men, many really boys, who were mired in a rising and bloody civil war in which they were ordered to pick winners and losers, with the barrel of a rifle, in a society and land they did not understand. With that, 500,000 Iraqis were killed, millions wounded and maimed, and one in eight Iraqis were displaced forcibly from their homes in a civil war that is still raging ten years later.

Now, in 2014, with the ghastly beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, America is poised to make the same mistakes. While escalating American airstrikes and sending more troops to Iraq may assuage the fear and horror affecting the American public, and motivating America’s politicians, acting on those feelings will ensure greater conflict and loss.

The Islamic State, like al Qaeda, requires the United States to serve as a villain in order for the Islamic State to receive manpower, logistics and financial support from Sunni Muslim communities. Additionally, an American military re-entry into the Iraqi Civil War in support of Shia and Kurdish factions, without lasting and serious political concessions from Baghdad towards Sunni grievances, will worsen the same political disenfranchisement and sense of existential danger that has pushed the Sunnis to align with the Islamic State. In the short-term American bombs may hurt the Islamic State, but in the long-term it is what they need and want.

The Islamic State is a parasite of war. Its members and its narrative need war for their personal, organizational and ideological validation and success. That is why the only way to defeat the Islamic State is to take the war away from them. Abandoning support to all sides in the conflict, including oil sales from the Iraqi government and American support for the oil fields seized by the Kurds this summer, will put all sides of the Iraqi Civil War at a disadvantage and force concessions in order to meet Sunni grievances. Achieving a permanent political solution will divorce the Islamic State from the Sunni community. Notions of American support to a Shia and Kurdish invasion of Sunni lands, again, will only strengthen the Islamic State by giving them the Sunni population’s support they require and by feeding into the Islamic State’s members own romantic visions of their historical and divine place defending Islam.

In our rush to return to war in Iraq we are playing into the Islamic State’s hands, just as we played into the hands of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 and into Osama bin Laden’s larger strategy with our morally disastrous Global War on Terror, including the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in reaction to the 9/11 attacks.

After tens of thousands of American dead and wounded, with veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq killing themselves at rates three times greater than their civilian peers, and with a total cost of the wars projected at six trillion dollars, it is safe to say that Bin Laden’s goals, with respect to the above quote, have largely been achieved.

We seem likely to take the bait again.

Another Petition, this Time, Sadly, it Needs to be for Iraq

I have a petition going through MoveOn.org urging President Obama to not involve the US militarily in Iraq, but to pressure Nouri Maliki’s government to enact political reforms to address the underlying Sunni grievances of disenfranchisement and marginalization. Amazing, over ten years later and we have seemed to have learned nothing.

If you want to have your voice heard, please contribute your name to this petition. Last I checked we had nearly 70,000 signatures.

For my conservative friends who don’t want to sign something put out by MoveOn, I haven’t seen anything from any conservative groups at this point urging against US military intervention in Iraq. If there is something out there, please direct me to it, or if you know of an organization willing to put out something on Iraq, please let me know, I’m happy to help them too. We don’t need further loss of American lives in wars overseas nor do we need to continue our Nation’s inept, and deadly, meddling abroad. Partisanship should not supersede such sense.

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Tell President Obama and Congress: Keep America Out Of Iraq!
Petition by Matthew Hoh

To be delivered to The United States House of Representatives, The United States Senate, and President Barack Obama

President Obama and Congress, don’t take new military action in Iraq. The solution to the chaos is not another American military intervention, including bombing strikes. President Obama was right to end the Iraq War in 2011, and it would be a tremendous mistake to restart it now.
There are currently 69,917 signatures. NEW goal – We need 75,000 signatures!
PETITION BACKGROUND Fallujah. Mosul. Baghdad.

Hearing these names again sends a chill down my spine. As a Marine who served in Iraq, I know well the bloody costs paid by Americans and by Iraqis in these and so many other cities over the past decade. I have friends who to this day remain on the front lines of a sectarian conflict that is tearing their homeland apart. And I am saddened to see the renewed and growing violence once again gripping Iraq.

But I also know that the solution to the chaos in Iraq is not another American military intervention. The president was right to end the Iraq War in 2011, and it would be a tremendous mistake to restart it now.

The United States and Iraq have already paid dearly for George W. Bush’s disastrous decision to launch the Iraq War. With Iraq once again descending into violence, we must not repeat the mistakes of the past. No military intervention, whether a massive invasion like the one in 2003 or the limited airstrikes some are calling for today, will solve the deep and complex challenges Iraq is facing. Iraq’s problems can only be solved by Iraqis, not American bombs. Launching another military intervention in Iraq would only throw more fuel on a fire that is raging. Even worse, it would once again risk American lives in a fight that is not ours and that we cannot win.

Over the past few days, the news has been filled with stories of a swift insurgent advance through northern Iraq. Sunni militants, under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have taken over city after city in northern Iraq. These militants, fresh from the fight in neighboring Syria, have made dramatic progress, capturing American-made weapons and supplies left behind by the fleeing Iraqi security forces. Their advance is fueled in no small part by the repressive sectarian policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The situation may get worse before it gets better, but one thing is clear: American bombs are not the solution.

Even more chilling than watching the violence in Iraq is listening to the pundits here at home. The very same men and women who lied to the American public and sent thousands of my fellow men and women in uniform to their deaths are now leading the charge for another military intervention. Many of these men should be in jail; none of them should be listened to.

If my friends in Iraq are to ever find peace, if their children and their grandchildren have any chance of growing up without the butchery of beheading knives and the carnage of car bombs, peace will come through negotiation and settlement, as it briefly did post-2007, and not through an American strategy of choosing sides, choosing winners and losers, and indulging in the self-satisfactory, self-indulgent, guilt-erasing, yet illusory, medication of bombing.