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.

Smoke from Bayji

It’s been ten years since I took this photo. This is the smoke obscuring the sun in Tikrit, Iraq. The smoke is from an oil pipeline fire near Bayji, approximately 15 or 20 km north of where I was standing at the time. These fires were daily and, ten years later, with reports this week of increased fighting around Tikrit, the notion that the fires were apocalyptic in their forboding and foreshadowing is neither hyperbolic or hysterical.

Smoke from Bayji Oil Fire

 

 

Bitter Lake

The simple stories they tell us don’t make sense anymore.

This is superb, maybe the best film I have seen to explain the war in Afghanistan and our post WWII policies that have led to such chaos and death throughout the Muslim world.

It is a bit odd in its editing and sequencing of video clips, but it is brilliant, brave, haunting and, at times, hypnotic.

Trailer:

Full film:

 

 

Part Two of Interview with Bill Moyers

Here is part two of my interview with Bill Moyers.

http://billmoyers.com/2014/09/26/web-extra-americas-return-war-middle-east/

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 3.47.05 PM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is the transcript:

BILL MOYERS: Jonathan, you were as I said one of the few reporters who got it right in 2003 in the run-up to the Iraqi invasion. Do you see any similarities today?

JONATHAN LANDAY: No, except for the involvement of the United States military. This president, as opposed to George W. Bush, basically had to be dragged kicking and screaming into intervening in Iraq and now Syria. He campaigned on a promise to get America out of Afghanistan and out of Iraq.

And the US intelligence community had been tracking the threat by the Islamic state for several years and warning the administration that this was a grave threat, this was a growing threat to the region, not just to Iraq, not just to Syria but to the region. And yet this president resisted and resisted and resisted doing anything beyond trying to get the former Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki to try and respond in a forceful way and failing to do so because Maliki simply was not going to listen to the Americans anymore.

And eventually the Americans even knew three days before the Islamic State’s offensive across the border from Syria into Mosul in northern Iraq and then down into sort of to the doorstep of Baghdad. Three days before they launched it, the Americans knew this was going to happen. Tried to get Maliki again to respond and he didn’t.

BILL MOYERS: Where were you in 2003?

MATTHEW HOH: I was actually in the Pentagon in 2003–

BILL MOYERS: And what–

MATTHEW HOH: –working directly for the secretary of the Navy.

BILL MOYERS: And do you see any similarity between now and then?

MATTHEW HOH: Yes, in a sense that for decades now we’ve had a policy in the Middle East where we play one sect against another. I have friends who served 20, 30 years in the military, and they will all say, I have spent half my career in the Middle East. And what’s come of it? I see us having a policy that again for decades has been a military first policy that has either rewarded despotic authoritarian regimes with arms sales or facilitating the purchase of their oil or the regimes we do not agree with, facilitating sectarian unrest sponsoring rebels, sponsoring groups that have then morphed into a Frankenstein like the Islamic State.

And so certainly I see in Iraq now, one, the cause of the conflict or our invasion of 2003, our subsequent occupation. I would say in Iraq we have the world’s largest embassy. But yet as Jonathan was saying, we did nothing to stop what was coming. My view is a little more harsh in terms of putting the blame on the government in Baghdad and their repression of the Sunnis. If you have a government that is repressing one of its minority sects, stop selling them weapons. Stop facilitating the purchase of oil, don’t turn a blind eye. What happened in Iraq is in the summer you had the Iraqi army collapse and then the Sunnis fill that void just as the Kurds filled the void in the north as well. And so this is certainly something that we should’ve seen coming and certainly the parallels to previous experiences there as well then to our policy is what has put much of this in place.

JONATHAN LANDAY: The sale of weapons to the Maliki government was something the administration resisted for quite a while.

BILL MOYERS: The Obama administration?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely. They were asking, there was this incident and a lot of people didn’t pay attention to it. I believe it was back in March of 2013. There were a whole bunch of Syrian soldiers who ran across the border from Syria, into Iraq, seeking refuge and sanctuary from an attack by the Islamic State.

The Iraqis brought these guys, put them on busses the following day and took them, were taking them back to Syria to another border crossing when they were attacked inside Iraq by the Islamic State, killed more than 40 Syrians. That incident, following that incident, Maliki’s office asked the United States, please we need air strikes, we need weapons. As far as we could tell that was one of the first times they asked for it. And they were not forthcoming. They, Iraqis, we sold the Iraqis, concluded contracts for the sale, I think, of F-16s and helicopter gun-ships, I think the F-16s in 2011. They still have not been delivered.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think was the decisive tipping point that turned Barack Obama around and prompted him to order the bombing this week?

JONATHAN LANDAY: I think this assault first of all on Mosul and the collapse of the Iraqi army and an army that we had poured billions of dollars into in weapons and training that just collapsed overnight. Four divisions just collapsed and their officers took off allowing the Islamic State to sweep down literally to the doorstep of Baghdad.

What that did was essentially end up trisecting Iraq into a northern part where the Kurds were able to hold onto their piece, although they were under attack by the Islamic State, a middle part, a “Sunnistan,” if you will, where there’s no resources, where you have this minority who join, a lot of whom joined the Islamic State or supported, allied themselves, creating this potential space where the Islamic State could plot and plan attacks elsewhere and push out from. And then in the Baghdad south you have this area dominated by Iraqi Shiite majority. So the United States looked at this and said, we need to be able to keep Iraq together because if this place falls apart, we’ve got an even bigger crisis in the Middle East. And so you saw–

BILL MOYERS: Another vacuum like Afghanistan–

JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely, absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: –in the ’94, ’96 when the Taliban moved in?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: Russians left, the United States was not there–

JONATHAN LANDAY: That’s right. And you already had that situation in northern Syria let’s not forget. There’s this gigantic ungoverned space where you had–

BILL MOYERS: Ungoverned space?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Ungoverned space except you had Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the official Al Qaeda syndicate in Syria, and the Islamic State, which once upon a time was part of Al Qaeda, controlling these pieces of territory already in Syria. Then you had the potential collapse of Iraq as a state that we’ve known since the end of World War I.

And then, and so that’s when you started seeing the air strikes. But what I think really turned him into this, you know, brought us this phase where he is now backing this huge international, or leading this huge international coalition was the switch in American public opinion. You had American public opinion which was dead set against any kind of intervention in Syria or Iraq and turned because of the videos of the beheading of two American journalists.

BILL MOYERS: But it was only when two American journalists were beheaded that the public woke up, right?

MATTHEW HOH: Absolutely. Last year in 2013 almost 10,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in bombings. This year over 12,000 have been killed–

BILL MOYERS: Suicide bombings–

MATTHEW HOH: Suicide bombing, car bombings, gunfights, bombs put in marketplaces, but 10,000 in 2013. So I think the important thing for people to understand about this conflict and, of course, the Syrian conflict, is that this didn’t just begin this summer. This is something that’s been going on for a long time.

The government in Baghdad is very corrupt. And to show how corrupt the government in Baghdad is, and this is a Shia-dominated government, but at least two provinces in southern Iraq that are Shia, including Basra, have also made noises about secession. So this is not anything that we should be surprised how the state of affairs in Iraq.

We should not have been surprised that the Sunnis are not allying themselves with the Islamic State. This has been coming for years now. The question to me is what do you do? How do you how do you rectify this? And how do you stop and halt this cycle of violence? Because this year it’ll be, you know, if the numbers keep up, it’ll be 20,000 civilian dead in Iraq. Next year it’ll be 30,000. We have to remember that in Syria over the last three years you had 200,000 dead. How do you stop the cycle of violence?

BILL MOYERS: Why do so many people ignore the fact that air power didn’t win in Vietnam and it didn’t win in Afghanistan where you were in the foreign service. It didn’t prevail in Iraq recently. You don’t think air strikes are going to resolve this crisis, do you?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Not air strikes alone. I’ve got to go back to something though you said earlier. And you brought up the period in Afghanistan beginning in 1994 with the emergence of the Taliban who then went on to conquer Afghanistan and create essentially what was, I mean, they governed it, but it was this space in which Al Qaeda was able to come, get sanctuary and plot the 2001 attacks on the United States.

I think that there were a lot of, there were people within the military, within U.S. intelligence that were looking at northern Syria and the fact that you had exactly the same kind of situation take place there with the defeat of, in a lot of these rural areas abutting Iraq, of the Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad and the conquest of these areas by Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, by the Islamic State, by other Islamist groups. And I think they looked at that and drew a parallel between what could happen there and what happened in Afghanistan in the 1990s and said, we cannot allow that to take place.

Now, originally, you know, the idea was we’re going to help Iraq do this, we’re going to reconstitute the Iraqi army, good luck with that, and you know arm the Kurds and get them to be our ground forces. And there is a model for that. It is Afghanistan 2001 where yes, it was U.S. air power and some special forces on the ground. But the United States actually had ground troops there. They weren’t Americans, they were the Northern Alliance.

And they swept out of the north, backed by American air power, and drove the Taliban out of the country. Subsequently we see there were enormous policy missteps and mess-ups that failed to crush the Taliban. I don’t know if it could ever happen. But that’s a model I think they’re looking at.

BILL MOYERS: But Matthew resigned from the foreign service because he said the war the American war in Afghanistan was only making the situation worse.

MATTHEW HOH: I still hold that conviction. I, you know, you look at the state of Afghanistan after we’ve surged 150,000 foreign troops into Afghanistan. You have a Taliban that is stronger, they launch more and more attacks every year, they control a large part of the terrain. You have a political process in Afghanistan that’s completely broken. You have this unity government that has come out of an election that was so fraudulent that no numbers can be released from it. The only thing that has, the only thing that has done well in Afghanistan has been the drug trade.

Every year there’s record poppy and opium exports out of Afghanistan. And so what has that achieved? And on top of that, Afghan civilians have paid the cost. And for me I look at this and I say you have these schisms in this country. We are supporting one side against the other. By doing so in 2009, I felt our policy was military victory first. I actually had experiences in Afghanistan in my post where we had the insurgency come to us, want to negotiate, want to talk and we were instructed not to speak with them, that we were going to–

BILL MOYERS: By your superiors?

MATTHEW HOH: –win militarily, yes, that was our policy.

BILL MOYERS: Who told you what?

MATTHEW HOH: We were going to, this is not, we are not in the business of reconciliation. And you’d see this then echoed through statements by Secretary Clinton or General Petraeus or others in the Obama administration that we are going to drive the insurgents, we are going to drive the Taliban to the negotiations table. And of course that didn’t happen.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think the president, when these air strikes fail to solve the situation, will send troops?

MATTHEW HOH: The, I think there’ll be a lot of pressure. I think you’re seeing members of Congress already make noise about having ground troops. You’re seeing think tanks in Washington, DC put out numbers at 25,000 ground troops would be appropriate. And so I feel and I fear that there’s going to be a lot of pressure put on the president to send troops back into it. I think that would be a horrible mistake. You, if, in my opinion, if you want to stop this conflict, in Syria, I think we may have missed that window. For years in Syria, we refused any meaningful negotiations. We, our goal in Syria was Assad’s removal. So in any of these peace talks in Syria, we always limited the options Assad had.

We refused to allow the Iranians to participate, which is Assad’s main ally. So we always stacked the deck in these negotiations so that it was never going to be an outcome that– where you would get some negotiated settlement where each side would give up something and get something in return. In Iraq, I still think there’s time. And Iraq, but I think you have to hold the gun to Baghdad’s head, not the Sunni’s heads. For as long as it–

BILL MOYERS: That didn’t work with Maliki.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Right. And I have to say–

BILL MOYERS: He’s gone now because it didn’t work.

JONATHAN LANDAY: And I have to say, I don’t think it was just the Americans that stacked the deck in the negotiations. There was no way Assad was giving up, the Assad family’s going to give up 40 years of power. No way. And let’s not forget, I mean, do you really negotiate with a guy who’s allegedly used chemical weapons against his own people? I mean, some of the atrocities that have taken place, not just at the hands of the Islamic State, but at the hands of these of Assad’s forces, are just unbelievable. So I don’t think it’s just the Americans that were preventing, you know, the, I don’t think these negotiations were going to work one way or the other.

I think, you know, after 40 years, and let’s not forget, this isn’t the first time that the Sunnis in Syria have fought the Assad family. It’s not. You know, remember what Bashar’s father did in 1982, in Hama where between 20,000 and 40,000 people killed in the space of several weeks. I mean, these are grievances that have built up over decades and pressures that have built up over decades. In Iraq, you know, I agree, I don’t know how they’re going to, you know, the I don’t even know if it’s possible to put it back together in Iraq. The Kurds, for the time being, have given up their demands for independence.

And I remember meeting with a very senior Kurdish official in Washington, was there to basically tell the White House, yeah, we’ll participate in a post-Maliki government, but only to negotiate the terms of our divorce. We are going to hold a referendum and we’re outta here. That’s gone away. And I can see the, you know, the behind-the-scenes negotiations, if you want us to stage air strikes to prevent the Islamic State from overrunning your capital Erbil, you better give up this referendum. And they have for the time being.

MATTHEW HOH: But we have to start pulling back out of these affairs. We have to start trying to become a more neutral arbiter.

BILL MOYERS: How do you do that though without creating the vacuum that you say emerged in Afghanistan, and caused so much grief?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely. And, you know, and I just have to say also, I think Afghanistan’s still a work in progress too. You know, I’ve been going there since 1986. The first time I went there was with the mujahideen. I crossed the border during the Soviet occupation. And then I went legally in 1987, the first time I was allowed in. And I have to say, the contrast between the Afghanistan that I saw then, and the Afghanistan I see now, with all the attendant problems that Matt has talked about, there is an unbelievable difference.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think it?

MATTHEW HOH: Certainly in certain parts of the country, absolutely. I mean, so how do, you know, in the north, in the west of the country, in, certainly of the urban areas in Afghanistan, absolutely. But when you go to the south and the east where the fighting is, and it’s hard. It’s horrible. I mean–

JONATHAN LANDAY: Absolutely.

MATTHEW HOH: –I mean, so how do you answer grievances, how do you get to a point where these groups aren’t at each other’s throat, where there isn’t a fighting over resources where there isn’t a fight over population centers–

JONATHAN LANDAY: But I also have to say that there are, you know, I’ve gone back and I I’ve looked at places where we’ve intervened militarily. There aren’t a lot of successes out there. There’s Grenada, there’s Panama, there’s Kosovo, and there’s the Balkans, writ large. And you know, yes, there are real problems in Bosnia because of this political system that the United States cooked up to try and put that place back together again. But it did stop the war. And, you now, have Croatia is part of the EU, Slovenia is part of the EU, Bosnia is looking to get into the EU and looking to get into NATO. Serbia is looking is on the track for the EU and looking to get into NATO. Kosovo, the same thing. Macedonia, the same thing. So you got to say to yourself, well, is it possible? Yeah, maybe.

BILL MOYERS: How does the president do that? Very quickly, both of you.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Well, I think we see where he’s trying to go, which is this idea of American air strikes in conjunction with the creation of some moderate Syrian force that will fight ISIS, and then perhaps after that, go fight Assad. Come, and you put that together with this effort to try to put together a more representative government in Baghdad. You know, all these financial measures to try and stop the flow of money, stop the flow of foreign fighters, but again, you know, go back to my original point, how do you deal how do you stop all of this without dealing with the, addressing the underlying problems of that region, that I don’t see the local leaders trying to deal with, the lack of jobs, the fighting the corruption, the lack of representative government, the lack of accountability. You know, lack of educational opportunities, healthcare? Unless somehow that is tackled, we could find ourselves continually trapped in this cycle.

MATTHEW HOH: How do you break the cycle? I mean, I hate to say it, I mean, as Jonathan was saying, like, how do you negotiate with either sides? And now it’s so far gone, and the violence is so revenge oriented and sect against sect, even among the moderate Syrian forces, their hatred of the Shia and the Alawite people is clear in their messaging and what they say. And in Iraq, my view is, hold the gun to the government of Baghdad. Iraq is basically filled now to its borders within the country, by the various ethnic groups. The Sunnis have their area, the Shia have their area, the Kurds have their area. Hold the gun to Baghdad’s head economically, because Baghdad will not reform as long as we’re, as long as we’re their air force.

Why would they? What incent do they have to meet any Sunni grievances? And at the same time, the Sunnis won’t divorce themselves or split from the Islamic State when they see no other alternative. And that’s what’s so horrific about the situation in Iraq, is that the people talk about the Sunnis, they’re going to wake up to the fact that the Islamic State is a bad thing. I’m pretty sure they’re aware of that already. But and so the scary thing is, in spite of that, they have aligned themselves with the Islamic State, because the Islamic State’s barbarity, their grotesqueness is a better option for the Sunnis right now than anything else they see. So how do you change that? And to do that, you have to have serious reform in Baghdad. You have to answer the Sunnis’ grievances, the Shia need to make concessions.

I think the Kurds in the north have to make concessions. Remember that when this happened this summer in Iraq, the Kurds enlarged their territory by 40 percent. They took control of most of the northern oil fields. So now the Sunnis in a different, in addition to the mass arrests, the mass killings from the Iraqi army, the Shia army that they’ve been dealing with, now they’re looking at economic existential danger from the fact that they no longer have these resources up there.

The Kurds control all the oil. So again, what do you give the Sunnis to make them break from the Islamic State and how do you beat down this organization that’s doing so well propaganda-wise? You know, Haaretz, the Israel daily, reports that 6,000 foreign fighters have joined the Islamic State since the United States began bombing. So how do we defeat that propaganda, how do we take away that recruitment potential, how do we stop validating their narrative that they’re defending the Islamic people, and particularly, the Sunnis, against the crusaders and against the apostate Shia and Kurds?

BILL MOYERS: You’re the one who said to us earlier this week, this is the nightmare of Groundhog Day. Exactly what does that mean?

JONATHAN LANDAY: Well, I mean, it’s the cycle that we keep getting trapped in. And we keep repeating a lot of the same mistakes. You know, I look at what 12 years, I think it has been in Afghanistan, and sort of the campaign that we launched into Pakistan’s tribal area to degrade and destroy Al Qaeda. We certainly have degraded them. We certainly have not destroyed them. Zawahiri, the head of Al Qaeda Central, as it’s referred to, just announced the creation of an India wing of Al Qaeda. So but, and so yeah, I know, you know, it is, it’s the nightmare of Groundhog Day, because we keep going finding ourselves trapped in this endless cycle. But perhaps that’s the curse of being the country that we are. The country we have been since World War I where, you know, we, as much as President Obama wishes we weren’t the world’s policemen, perhaps we are. And there’s no escaping that curse.

BILL MOYERS: This has been a wonderful conversation, Jonathan Landay and Matthew Hoh, thank you very much for being with me.

MATTHEW HOH: Thank you.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Thank you.

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.

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?

Oil.

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.