Iraq War Veterans Should Know Better

With my friend and fellow Iraq War vet, Matt Southworth, in The Hill:

We read with disappointment the comments in The Hill (Iraq vets on Hill call for stronger response to ISIS, August 17, 2014), by Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) on the ongoing civil wars in Iraq and Syria and the accompanying desire by many in Congress, including Gabbard and Kinzinger, to re-enter the United States militarily into the middle of the Iraq Civil War.

Rather than promote stability and resolution to the conflicts that rage in the Middle East, expanded U.S. engagement—a brand new war for Americans—will only harden the resolve of the extremists, drive those looking for security into the clutches of these groups and further entrench the dynamics of the broader conflict.

While we have both become accustomed to the short-sighted advocacy of politicians towards the deployment of American bombs and troops to crises overseas, our disappointment, in this case, results from Gabbard and Kinzinger’s biographies as veterans of America’s war in Iraq. Simply put, both Gabbard and Kinzinger should know better.
As combat veterans ourselves, we experienced first-hand the failure of United States’ policies in the Middle East—policies that in our lifetimes have been nearly exclusively military in their orientation, make-up and execution. Not surprisingly, the result of these policies has been greater conflict and less stability across the Middle East.

That there is no evidence of the American military-first policy in the Middle East bearing positive outcomes over the long term is clear. While there may be examples of limited achievement, such as the removal of Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1991, such events are temporary and ephemeral in their impact. Similarly, current calls to action in Syria and Iraq must be viewed and measured against the totality of the civil wars in both countries.

The U.S. cannot wash its hands of millions of dead, injured and displaced Iraqis created since its 2003 invasion. Re-entering the Iraqi Civil War, or the broader regional war, under the guise of civilian protection is a course of action that will only exacerbate the violence. The Islamic State is actually quite small. Their strength comes from the support of the Iraq Sunni population, who, often as a measure of self-preservation, align Islamic State. American bombs will only further this cycle.

Entering the conflict on behalf of the Kurds, as promoted by Gabbard, (and coincidentally, the one million dollar a year Kurdish lobby industry in Washington, DC) in order to help the Kurds protect the oil-rich territory they hold would put the United States, again, into direct combat with non-Kurdish Sunni and Shia communities throughout Iraq.

Such combat will not force the political compromise necessary for the reduction and eventual cessation of violence, but will make such a compromise much less likely. Why would the Kurds be inclined to make concessions while they enjoy robust US military support and greater autonomy from Shia governed Iraq?

Kinzinger’s suggestion of “all options on the table”, which includes putting young Americans back into Iraq, is even more problematic. Groups like the Islamic State, as well as Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shia militias, will realize a recruitment windfall if foreign troops re-enter Iraq and American troops will once again find themselves trying to pick winners and losers in a foreign land. After 4,486 US casualties in Iraq, is one more American life worth this fight?

The Islamic State is barbaric and heinous, but, as veterans of the war in Iraq, we can attest that all sides in that conflict, all ethnicities and sects, have been brutalized, tortured and murdered. Events unfolding today are the latest in thirteen years of mass atrocities in Iraq and the result of nearly a quarter of a century of US military led policies there. If a political solution is not found, one that is inclusive to all sects and groups within Iraq, then, most surely, more atrocities will occur.

A re-introduction of American troops into Iraq to fight the Islamic State will find American boots once again in the middle of fighting Iraqis. Continued arming, funding and training of all warring parties in the Middle East by international and regional powers will only continue to undermine any long term prospect for peace and stability.

To advocate American military involvement again in Iraq simply makes no sense. By advocating for such, Gabbard and Kinzinger fail in their responsibilities not just as elected leaders, but also as veterans of the Iraq War.

Hoh is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. Southworth is the Major Gifts officer for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Both men are Iraq War veterans.

 

 

 

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.

Bombs are Medication for Guilt, Not Peace, in Iraq

Young Sunni boys in Salah ad Din Province in Iraq clamor not just for the photograph, but for the promise of our occupation in 2004. Of those who survived the last ten years, I imagine many of these boys make up the ranks of ISIS and the current Sunni insurgency.
Young Sunni boys in Salah ad Din Province in Iraq clamor not just for the photograph, but for the promise of our occupation in 2004. Of those who survived the last ten years, I imagine many of these boys make up the ranks of ISIS and the current Sunni insurgency.

I have friends in Iraq, Iraqi friends, many of them Sunnis, living in areas and cities north of Baghdad. I became friends with most of them in 2004-2005 while serving as a civilian Department of Defense official on a US Embassy team in Tikrit. Some of these friends were circumstantial and conditional. I did control large amounts of cash, at one point I had $26 million in $100 bills in two safes where I slept in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. Of course, money makes friends. Yet some of these friends were genuine, men with whom I shared not just common interests and passions, and exchanged tales of families and future plans, but with whom I endured hardship, suffering and combat.

My Iraqi friends are less in numbers now, their ranks thinned by murder and slaughter; some killed by the very people who comprise the army of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, (the Levant or Greater Syria). ISIS is a horrific and barbaric phenomenon; with roots in the worst of the groups that arose in Iraq following our invasion in 2003, groups that wrought unimaginable years of terror on the Iraqi people. Large numbers of non-Iraqis form the core of ISIS, young and not so young men from the Islamic world, who have traveled to wage an unholy crusade to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. On their own, these postmodern Muslim Knights of the Templar, consist of hundreds, maybe thousands, and, in a perfect world, should be dealt with harshly by local Iraqi forces, leaders and justice. However, those local forces in northern Iraq, Sunni forces, are allied with ISIS and are the reason for the recent routing of the Iraqi Security Forces and the capture of North Iraq. It is for this reason, with the full recognition and understanding of the danger and horror engulfing my Iraqi friends that I have to argue against US military action in Iraq.

Let me get my guilt out of the way. My guilt over the war, my participation in it and what was unleashed on the Iraqi people, is a primary cause of my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Moral Injury. Like hundreds of thousands of other veterans, I will struggle to manage those disabilities the rest of my life (I recognize my suffering is insignificant compared to the suffering of the Iraqi people). How simple it would be to re-engage, to try and right a wrong through action, through forceful, demonstrative, and deadly action. However, the nature of this war in Iraq is political, a struggle between sects for control of population, resources, money and governance. It is a split among ethnicities and amongst religions. This civil war in Iraq is a war caused by our invasion and nearly decade long occupation, no doubt, but it is a war that will only worsen if the United States once again returns and takes a side. In its current form, in northern Iraq, we see a Sunni dominated movement, headlined by ISIS seizing control of Iraqi cities, sending both Iraqi military and population fleeing, nearly all non-Sunni members of the military and the population.

I was in Iraq, serving with the Marines in Anbar Province, in 2006 and 2007, and saw first hand the abatement and diminishment of violence in that part of the country. With no amount of uncertainty in my mind, that drop in violence was caused by the re-integration of the Sunnis, in particular their traditional tribal leadership, into the Iraqi systems of power and revenue, and not by added American troops or celebrity generals. For several years, violence remained, but relative to previous years, the daily count of the bodies of the dead was much reduced. Following the departure of American forces, and American money, in December of 2011, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia dominated government began to upset the balance, once again disenfranchising and marginalizing Sunnis. The result has been a return to the bloodshed and the carnage, horrifically to levels not seen for years, and a resumption of Sunni leadership and society searching for partners that could help the Sunnis regain what they felt was unjustly usurped from them in 2003. That partnership has been manifested with ISIS.

American military involvement will serve as an accelerant to and a prolonger of this Iraqi civil war. American bombs, bullets and dollars will further strengthen the bond between Sunnis and extremist groups like ISIS, increasing Sunni desperation by intensifying their backs to the wall dilemma and justifying the propaganda and rhetoric of ISIS: a narrative of a Western campaign of international subjugation enacted through Shia, Kurdish and Iraqi ethnic minority puppets. Further, such American support will strengthen the resolve of the al-Maliki government not to reform and not to address Sunni grievances. With the renewed backing of American might and money, al-Maliki’s government will feel no need to restore a balance of power in Iraq and will continue a policy of disenfranchisement and marginalization of the Sunni population and leadership. Only by withholding support to al-Maliki’s government, and not by sending advisors, tomahawk missiles or cash, will there be a reason for al-Maliki’s government to negotiate and seek peace.

Putting US troops back in Iraq, while assuaging our well deserved and well earned feelings of national and personal guilt, will put Americans once again in the middle of a religious, sectarian civil war. As with so many modern wars, a solution lies not in violence, but in accommodation; not in division, but in unification; and not in killing, but in compromise. The United States has an obligation in Iraq, our war there from 2003-2011 is the bloody stain of my generation’s soul, but our recourse should be to find and force a political solution through pressure on al-Maliki’s government and dialogue with Sunni leaders. To make the mistake again of sending American troops to Iraq will turn our stain into a bleeding wound.

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

 

Letter to the Editor

Last week, the Washington Post was kind enough to publish a letter I wrote in response to a column by Tom Ricks, a former WaPo journalist and author. The letter is here:

Thanks to Thomas E. Ricks for his Oct. 27 Sunday Opinion piece, “Can the military learn from its mistakes?” I am glad such a prominent voice on military affairs is raising the question of the United States’ lost wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, Mr. Ricks missed the forest for the trees.

The U.S. military has failed to win because it has engaged in civil wars whose causes and meanings are absent any U.S. concern; Iraq, of course, is a civil war of our own making. There is no strategy, and certainly no general, capable of winning a war whose foundations were as morally rotten as the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, or a war in which success requires the funding and fortification of a corrupt and illegitimate government such as the regime in Kabul.

We can continue to argue about troop levels, deify or defrock generals and debate strategies, or we can own up to the reality that war is a failure. Until we do, lives will continue to be shattered without gain.

Peace.