I’ve been meaning to reference Russell Brand on this blog, but he seems to have beaten me to it. It was a real joy to hear Russell read some of my writing on his show. He even put my name to an Edwin Starr song:
If you haven’t done so, definitely subscribe to his Youtube channel.
I did this interview with David Pakman last week. David is great and I really encourage you to follow him for some really smart insights and takes on a wide variety of issues:
“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.
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.
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.
Update 8/21/2014: Salon published this today.
My friend Leighton Woodhouse interviewed me for the Huffington Post on the current crisis 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.