Seeking Atlas; a Q&A with Telesur on Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria


Following the news the US would be expanding airstrikes in Afghanistan I was interviewed by Charles Davis of TelesurCharles’ article, which puts my comments into excellent context can be found here, while my full answers to Charles’ questions are below.

Are airstrikes likely to have a tangible impact?   

-The renewed airstrikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan will have the same effect as the thousands and thousands of previous airstrikes we have conducted against the Afghan insurgency. American airstrikes will make for triumphant press releases from the US military in Kabul, and it will kill many Taliban fighters, and also many civilians, but, strategically and long term, the airstrikes will not significantly weaken the Taliban, and, very likely, may strengthen them by providing more public support due to the civilian casualties the air strikes will cause. Under General Petraeus, starting in 2010, the US initiated scores of airstrikes, as well as dozens of nighttime commando raids, daily against Afghan insurgent targets. Many of these strikes hit legitimate targets, but many more of them hit civilians. The surge in the increase of public support for the Taliban in the areas of the air and commando strikes is undeniable. Similarly, this surge in American attacks only saw an increase in Taliban attacks. Rather than weakening the Taliban, the Taliban’s ability to fight, judged by nearly all indicators (number of Americans killed and wounded, number of assassinations, number of IEDs, etc) increased, year by year. There should be no doubt as to the effectiveness of American air power against the Afghan insurgency in the achievement of strategic and political goals in Afghanistan: at best there is no evidence the air strikes had a positive strategic effect pursuant to American goals, except to provide political cover for the American withdrawal; and at worst the evidence is that the airstrikes were entirely counter-productive. In Afghanistan, during our nearly 15 year occupation, there has been no reliable, non-corrupt, non-predatory, local Afghan forces that have been able to hold ground against the Afghan insurgency, let alone claim the support of the Afghan population, primarily Pashtun, in the East and South of Afghanistan. Without a militarily capable and locally endorsed Afghan ground force, no amount of American air power will be successful.

In concert with local proxy forces they appear to be helping reduce ISIS’s hold on land in Iraq and Syria… does that mean they could work against the Taliban?

-In Iraq and Syria US airstrikes have had a role in pushing back the Islamic State and its allied Sunni fighters, but the overwhelming reason for this has been increased success by sectarian forces, Kurdish in Syria and Shia in Iraq, on the ground against the Sunni forces. It is very important to realize the sectarian nature of this conflict and to note that all sides are committing atrocities, as noted by the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Those atrocities, in turn, motivate continued sectarian conflict and provide an existential reason for Sunnis, Kurds and Shia to support their respective sides. You’ll note that in the cities in Iraq from where the Islamic State has been forced to retreat from, Ramadi and Tikrit particularly, the cities have been massively destroyed, widely looted and are mostly empty of their previous Sunni residents due to the occupation of the Shia militias. The Shia militias are the primary reason for the success of the counter-offensive against the Islamic State, as the Iraqi Army is still very corrupt and ineffective. American air strikes in Iraq and Syria are a supporting mechanism only and on their own cannot push the Islamic State from the (Sunni) territory they hold.

Is this a slippery slope that will lead to US troops eventually returning to a combat role?

-In terms of US troops going into full scale ground conflict in either Iraq or Syria, I don’t believe it will occur for any military reason, but rather will occur for a political reason such as the American president making a “red line” statement or due to an atrocity, both of which were the reasons offered by the Obama Administration to enter into the Syrian civil war in 2013 (in a manner that would have placed American forces in a position where their objectives and goals were directly aligned with those of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadist groups). Regardless of the rationale, the reasoning will be political and it will be because the US president feels she or he needs to strengthen their display of American resolve in the Middle East, which would be in line with President Johnson’s decision(s) to escalate the Vietnam War and President Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan in 2009. By saying there is no military reason, I mean that no mid- or long-term outcome can come out of American troop involvement in the civil wars in Iraq and Syria other than American boys and girls once again patrolling hostile city and village streets in a country half a world away they do not understand while being under constant guerrilla war attack. I think the biggest impetus on US troop involvement would be in protection of the Kurdish oil and gas fields in northern Iraq, particularly if the planned attack on Mosul, by the Iraqi government, Shia militias and Kurdish forces, fails (if the attack ever happens), and the Kurds, and the large number of American and European energy firms resident in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, feel threatened as they did in 2014.

Does the US even have a strategy?

-The US does not have a strategy in any way that any person who has ever put together a plan of action or strategy for a business, construction project or even a kids’ soccer game would expect. Rather the US is simply reacting to events in Syria and Iraq that failed to meet the hopes and aspirations of politicians and politically inspired planners in Washington DC over the last decade and a half. This really has been and continues to be a foreign and military policy based upon allegiance to neoconservative ideology, whether carried out by a Democratic or Republican administration, and propelled by “hope” that things will fall in line with expectations due to an unwavering belief in American superiority and faith in the righteousness of American supremacy. The US has found its role in both Iraq and Syria by unleashing sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria and then being disappointed when those sectarian forces have ignited civil wars that cannot be controlled. For example, since 2011, in Iraq the US hoped to use the Shia dominated government to control Sunni discontent and to keep the violence of the Islamic State in check, while in Syria, right across the border, the US hoped to utilize Sunni discontent and the Islamic State’s violence to overthrow the Syrian government.

What is apparent is an American strategy in the Middle East that is astonishingly detached from reality, let alone history, both this and last century’s. The success of such a policy as America’s would require the intervention of a determinist deity, such as Atlas, to hold together the badly fracturing Middle East that had previously been held together, in definition, by America’s massive arms and financial support to despotic monarchies, revolutionary groups, and unquestioned support of Israel. Such a house of cards could never stand.

BDA, Genocide and Oil in Iraq

From the Huffington Post on September 2:

Utilizing the data published from the United States Central Command, The Guardian has put together a database of targets struck by American aircraft in Iraq since August 9. Particularly important is the spreadsheet that includes the U.S. military’s battle damage assessment (BDA) against Islamic State targets.

Even if you take the BDA at face value (which you should not, because as almost anyone with combat experience will tell you, BDA is almost always inflated or wrong), you will note that most of what the U.S. has bombed in Iraq has not been heavily armored equipment or advanced weaponry, but rather a limited number of makeshift vehicles and roadside barricades. For all the hysteria and urgency over the Islamic State this past summer you would expect the targets struck to be quantitatively and qualitatively superior than the reality: about forty pick-up trucks, what the military calls armed vehicles; less than twenty Humvees; less than ten armored vehicles; and a handful of checkpoints and fighting positions.

This data belies the notion of overwhelming Islamic State superiority in military equipment and puts into doubt the expressed urgency of countering the Islamic State offensive in Iraq. In the American BDA I fail to see evidence of the equipment that would give the Islamic State and the Sunnis an overwhelming military advantage over their Kurdish and Shia rivals.

Similarly, when American forces reached Mount Sinjar earlier this month, the tens of thousands of desperate Yazidis desirous of rescue, as described in breathless media reports from the Kurdish capital of Erbil, were no where to be found. Rather, American soldiers discovered only several thousand Yazidis who make Mount Sinjar their home and who were quite content to remain on the mountain.

Now, thousands of Yazidis did flee their homes, many of them aided by Kurdish forces not associated with the Iraqi Kurdish government. An unknown number of Yazidis have been killed in the past months. However, the shouts of genocide, again hysterical and urgent, do not seem to match the evidence.

Certainly atrocities have occurred in northern Iraq and battles have waged there, but what makes this summer and its dead different than the 500,000 dead, millions wounded and the one in eight Iraqis forcibly chased from their homes since 2003? What is causing the U.S. to get involved, again, and at this time?


The Iraqi Kurds have long aspired to state-hood. This past year they have taken bold steps in realizing their independence. In January, they effectively severed ties with Baghdad and in the spring they started pumping oil, through their own pipelines, north through Turkey, abrogating any need to cooperate with the Iraqi government in oil production and export, or share in revenue. At the same time, the Kurdish government announced plans to hold a referendum on independence.

Shortly thereafter, in June, the U.S. trained, Shia dominated and extremely corrupt Iraqi Army collapsed in Northern Iraq. A land and oil grab immediately commenced between Kurdish and Sunni forces (the Sunni land grab has been headlined by the Islamic State, with its accompanying terrors, but the bulk of its manpower and momentum comes from the Sunni population who see themselves in an existential fight with the Kurdish and Shia populations in Iraq). The Kurds captured Iraq’s fourth largest city, and the oil capital of the North, Kirkuk, and expanded Kurdish territory by 40%, seizing the vast majority of the oil fields and production facilities in the North that had formally been under the control of the Shia dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad. The Kurds, with the oil fields now in their possession, have the resources and revenue they need to sustain their independence. They now need the military might to hold it and the American political support to do so.

The Kurds have had an extremely close relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency for decades. One of the CIA’s largest bases worldwide is located near Erbil, allowing the CIA access to next-door Iran. The Kurds keep a million dollar a year lobbyist payroll in Washington, DC, with daily admittance to members of Congress. Meanwhile Erbil is home to multiple American oil companies, all of them grateful for the opportunity provided by Kurdish control of the northern oil fields. These arrangements have given the Kurds, particularly for a state-less people, quite enormous influence in Washington, DC, on U.S. media, and in American intelligence and business circles. The sort of influence that is useful in prompting U.S. intervention and the protection of the Kurd’s newly won oil fields.

To be clear, I am not saying the Islamic State is not barbarous and should not be defeated, nor am I saying the bloodshed in Iraq is not worthy of our humanitarian and political assistance. I am also not against Kurdish independence, as I believe the political partition of Iraq may ultimately be Iraq’s solution. However, militarily intervening on behalf of one side in a civil war, in particular to ensure gains made by one ethnicity against another, will make achieving a political settlement, which is necessary to bring peace and stability to Iraq and the region, nearly impossible.

In all of our lifetimes we have seen the United States led into war based on inaccurate and false assertions of dangers and horrors, often for the benefit of a few. It should not happen again.