Why the U.S. stuck with Maliki — and lost Iraq

“The crisis now gripping Iraq and the Middle East was not only predictable but predicted — and preventable. By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated.”

This is the damning assessment of Ali Khedery who by 2009 had become the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq. He writes:

[I]n August 2010, I was shocked that much of the surge’s success had been squandered by Maliki and other Iraqi leaders. Kurds asked how they could justify remaining part of a dysfunctional Iraq that had killed hundreds of thousands of their people since the 1980s. Sunni Arabs — who had overcome internal divisions to form the secular Iraqiya coalition with like-minded Shiite Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians — were outraged at being asked to abdicate the premiership after pummeling al-Qaeda and winning the elections. Even Shiite Islamist leaders privately expressed discomfort with Iraq’s trajectory under Maliki, with Sadr openly calling him a “tyrant.” Worst of all, perhaps, the United States was no longer seen as an honest broker.

After helping to bring him to power in 2006, I argued in 2010 that Maliki had to go. I felt guilty lobbying against my friend Abu Isra [Maliki], but this was not personal. Vital U.S. interests were on the line. Thousands of American and Iraqi lives had been lost and trillions of dollars had been spent to help advance our national security, not the ambitions of one man or one party. The constitutional process had to be safeguarded, and we needed a sophisticated, unifying, economics-minded leader to rebuild the country after the security-focused Maliki crushed the militias and al-Qaeda.

In conversations with visiting White House senior staff members, the ambassador, the generals and other colleagues, I suggested Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi as a successor. A former Baathist, moderate Shiite Islamist and French-educated economist who had served as finance minister, Abdul Mahdi maintained excellent relations with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds as well as with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

On Sept. 1, 2010, Vice President Biden was in Baghdad for the change-of-command ceremony that would see the departure of Gen. Ray Odierno and the arrival of Gen. Lloyd Austin as commander of U.S. forces. That night, at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence that included Biden, his staff, the generals and senior embassy officials, I made a brief but impassioned argument against Maliki and for the need to respect the constitutional process. But the vice president said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.

I was not the only official who made a case against Abu Isra. Even before my return to Baghdad, officials including Deputy U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, Odierno, British Ambassador Sir John Jenkins and Turkish Ambassador Murat Özçelik each lobbied strenuously against Maliki, locking horns with the White House, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Maliki’s most ardent supporter, future deputy assistant secretary of state Brett McGurk. Now, with Austin in the Maliki camp as well, we remained at an impasse, principally because the Iraqi leaders were divided, unable to agree on Maliki or, maddeningly, on an alternative.

Our debates mattered little, however, because the most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was about to resolve the crisis for us. Within days of Biden’s visit to Baghdad, Soleimani summoned Iraq’s leaders to Tehran. Beholden to him after decades of receiving Iran’s cash and support, the Iraqis recognized that U.S. influence in Iraq was waning as Iranian influence was surging. The Americans will leave you one day, but we will always remain your neighbors, Soleimani said, according to a former Iraqi official briefed on the meeting.

After admonishing the feuding Iraqis to work together, Soleimani dictated the outcome on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader: Maliki would remain premier; Jalal Talabani, a legendary Kurdish guerilla with decades-long ties to Iran, would remain president; and, most important, the American military would be made to leave at the end of 2011. Those Iraqi leaders who cooperated, Soleimani said, would continue to benefit from Iran’s political cover and cash payments, but those who defied the will of the Islamic Republic would suffer the most dire of consequences.

I was determined not to let an Iranian general who had murdered countless American troops dictate the endgame for the United States in Iraq. By October, I was pleading with Ambassador Jeffrey to take steps to avert this outcome. I said that Iran was intent on forcing the United States out of Iraq in humiliation and that a divisive, sectarian government in Baghdad headed by Maliki would almost certainly lead to another civil war and then an all-out regional conflict. This might be averted if we rebuffed Iran by forming a unity government around a nationalist alternative such as Abdul Mahdi. It would be extremely difficult, I acknowledged, but with 50,000 troops still on the ground, the United States remained a powerful player. The alternative was strategic defeat in Iraq and the Middle East writ large. To my surprise, the ambassador shared my concerns with the White House senior staff, asking that they be relayed to the president and vice president, as well as the administration’s top national security officials.

Desperate to avert calamity, I used every bit of my political capital to arrange a meeting for Jeffrey and Antony Blinken, Biden’s national security adviser and senior Iraq aide, with one of Iraq’s top grand ayatollahs. Using uncharacteristically blunt language, the Shiite cleric said he believed that Ayad Allawi, who had served as an interim prime minister in 2004-05, and Abdul Mahdi were the only Shiite leaders capable of uniting Iraq. Maliki, he said, was the prime minister of the Dawa party, not of Iraq, and would drive the country to ruin.

But all the lobbying was for naught. By November, the White House had settled on its disastrous Iraq strategy. The Iraqi constitutional process and election results would be ignored, and America would throw its full support behind Maliki. Washington would try to move Talabani aside and install Allawi as a consolation prize to the Iraqiya coalition.

The next day, I appealed again to Blinken, Jeffrey, Austin, my embassy colleagues and my bosses at Central Command, Gen. Jim Mattis and Gen. John Allen, and warned that we were making a mistake of historic proportions. I argued that Maliki would continue to consolidate power with political purges against his rivals; Talabani would never step aside after fighting Hussein for decades and taking his chair; and the Sunnis would revolt again if they saw that we betrayed our promises to stand by them after the Awakening’s defeat of al-Qaeda. [Continue reading...]

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Blackwater manager threatened to murder State Department investigator in Iraq

The New York Times reports: Just weeks before Blackwater guards fatally shot 17 civilians at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, the State Department began investigating the security contractor’s operations in Iraq. But the inquiry was abandoned after Blackwater’s top manager there issued a threat: “that he could kill” the government’s chief investigator and “no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” according to department reports.

American Embassy officials in Baghdad sided with Blackwater rather than the State Department investigators as a dispute over the probe escalated in August 2007, the previously undisclosed documents show. The officials told the investigators that they had disrupted the embassy’s relationship with the security contractor and ordered them to leave the country, according to the reports.

After returning to Washington, the chief investigator wrote a scathing report to State Department officials documenting misconduct by Blackwater employees and warning that lax oversight of the company, which had a contract worth more than $1 billion to protect American diplomats, had created “an environment full of liability and negligence.” [Continue reading...]

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My Iraqi city is falling, but America’s occupation unraveled all hope for unity

Najim Abed al-Jabouri writes: My city was supposed to be the model for a better tomorrow in Iraq. Integrated security forces from all ethnic groups, restored cohesion among the many segments of Iraqi society – this was the hope amid the surge, back when I was the mayor in Tal Afar.

But that was nearly a decade ago, and now my city is a battleground again, as government security forces attempt to withstand the march of Sunni militants, as the incubator for an Islamic state has turned into sectarian chaos. The dream of a unified Iraq has not just been deferred but destroyed.

Isis was a sleeping giant, and to see what went so wrong, you have to follow the destructive path set out by the United States as an occupying power in my country, almost from the moment those first air strikes began.

Back in 2003, most Shia Muslims and a good number of Kurds welcomed the Americans. The Sunni population, meanwhile, was not of one mind: many of them were outright opposed to US control, while others were holding out for things to change for the better. Give the occupiers six months, argued Sunni scholars, to see what happens. Iraq had suffered so many calamities – so many wars and siege after siege – that a population suffering in poverty and destitution, no matter one’s ethnic background, seemed willing to hope together.

Then the American occupational authority, led by Paul Bremer, dissolved state institutions (including the Iraqi army), uprooted the Ba’ath party (by way of harsh de-Baathification laws) and, even worse, failed to give adequate Sunni representation in the “transitional” government (five Sunni Muslims sat on the original Governing Council, to 13 Shia representatives, five Kurds and one Turkoman). This was the beginning of the end of that better tomorrow for Sunni people in Iraq. [Continue reading...]

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The war on terror has been a total failure, so it must continue

“For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism,” President Obama said at West Point last week.

If the war on terror was conceived as a never-ending war, then I guess its continuation can be regarded as a success in the sense that relentless war has been normalized.

But the success for which neither the current nor previous administration will take credit is that the U.S. government, through its actions over the last thirteen years, has been instrumental in transforming al Qaeda from an organization into a movement.

Obama’s proudest accomplishment — overseeing the killing of Osama bin Laden — turned out to be the hollowest victory. For the sake of grabbing a bloody trophy, a genuine historic opportunity was sacrificed: the open trial of the al Qaeda leader.

The failure of the war on terror was built in from its conception. A refusal to address the political dimensions of terrorism has guaranteed that the ideological questions are only being raised and answered by one side, thereby reinforcing a perception that the U.S. and the West fight from an indefensible position.

Since relatively few Americans are willing to admit that 9/11 triggered a national psychosis and a foreign policy debacle, the sentiment now, in the face of failure, is that what is called for is persistence.

I’m reminded of a story about Mullah Nasrudin:

Nasrudin is sitting outside an Arabian spice shop. He’s sitting beside a huge basket of red hot ‘dynamite chillies’. Nasrudin’s eyes are filled with tears as he takes chillies from the basket and bites into one after another. His friend comes along and sees Nasrudin sweating and crying. “Nasrudin what are you doing. You’re crying and sweating. Why are you chewing on those chillies?” Nasrudin answers, “I’m trying to find a sweet one.”

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reprises the narrative of a never-ending threat that necessitates a never-ending fight:

Al-Qaida has decentralized, yet it’s unclear whether the terrorist network is weaker and less likely to launch a Sept. 11-style attack against the United States, as President Barack Obama says, or remains potent despite the deaths of several leaders.

Obama said in his foreign policy speech last week that the prime threat comes not from al-Qaida’s core leadership, but from affiliates and extremists with their sights trained on targets in the Middle East and Africa, where they are based. This lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-type attacks against America, the president said.

“But it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi,” he said, referring to the September 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Experts argue that this restructured al-Qaida is perhaps even stronger than it has been in recent years, and that the potential for attacks on U.S. soil endures.

“We have never been on a path to strategically defeat al-Qaida. All we’ve been able to do is suppress some of its tactical abilities. But strategically, we have never had an effective way of taking it on. That’s why it continues to mutate, adapt and evolve to get stronger,” said David Sedney, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

Decentralization does not mean weakness, he said. [Continue reading...]

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Video: The United States of Secrets

Also, watch Frontline interviews with:

  • “The Whistleblowers”: William Binney; Thomas Drake; Edward Loomis; Diane Roark
  • “The Government”: Andrew Card; Alberto Gonzales; Michael Hayden; Ben Rhodes
  • “The Journalists”: Barton Gellman; Glenn Greenwald
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Bush-Obama continuity and the interests of the national security establishment

Glenn Greenwald writes: The just-retired long-time NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander, recently traveled to Australia to give a remarkably long and wide-ranging interview with an extremely sycophantic “interviewer” with The Australian Financial Review. The resulting 17,000-word transcript and accompanying article form a model of uncritical stenography journalism, but Alexander clearly chose to do this because he is angry, resentful, and feeling unfairly treated, and the result is a pile of quotes that are worth examining, only a few of which are noted below:

AFR: What were the key differences for you as director of NSA serving under presidents Bush and Obama? Did you have a preferred commander in chief?

Gen. Alexander: Obviously they come from different parties, they view things differently, but when it comes to the security of the nation and making those decisions about how to protect our nation, what we need to do to defend it, they are, ironically, very close to the same point. You would get almost the same decision from both of them on key questions about how to defend our nation from terrorists and other threats.

The almost-complete continuity between George W. Bush and Barack Obama on such matters has been explained by far too many senior officials in both parties, and has been amply documented in far too many venues, to make it newsworthy when it happens again. Still, the fact that one of the nation’s most powerful generals in history, who has no incentive to say it unless it were true, just comes right out and states that Bush and The Candidate of Change are “very close to the same point” and “you would get almost the same decision from both of them on key questions” is a fine commentary on a number of things, including how adept the 2008 Obama team was at the art of branding. [Continue reading...]

Greenwald says Alexander “has no incentive to say it unless it were true” — but actually he does have an incentive as does every other former and current member of the national security establishment.

Whenever intelligence agencies are accused of lack of accountability, evading Congressional oversight, or any other abuse of power, their comeback is always the same: we are the humble and loyal servants of the president doing exactly what we are asked to do.

So, they very much do have an interest in portraying the continuity of their own operations as perfectly mirroring the continuity in the approaches of their commander in chief.

The irony in the continuity between Bush and Obama has been frequently noted. What seems more worthy of being underlined is the way in which Obama has turned out to be worse than Bush.

The excesses of the last administration have come to be portrayed as a product of 9/11, but the ways in which Obama has institutionalized pervasive secrecy are much more insidious and much less likely to be undone by future presidents.

And if anyone thought that the legacy of the Snowden/Greenwald revelations might be a move towards more open government, the opposite is turning out to look more likely.

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Matt Taibbi — The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

AMY GOODMAN: Who was tougher on corporate America, President Obama or President Bush?

MATT TAIBBI: Oh, Bush, hands down. And this is an important point to make, because if you go back to the early 2000s, think about all these high-profile cases: Adelphia, Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen. All of these companies were swept up by the Bush Justice Department. And what’s interesting about this is that you can see a progression. If you go back to the savings and loan crisis in the late ’80s, which was an enormous fraud problem, but it paled in comparison to the subprime mortgage crisis, we put about 800 people in jail during—in the aftermath of that crisis. You fast-forward 10 or 15 years to the accounting scandals, like Enron and Adelphia and Tyco, we went after the heads of some of those companies. It wasn’t as vigorous as the S&L prosecutions, but we at least did it. At least George Bush recognized the symbolic importance of showing ordinary Americans that justice is blind, right?

Fast-forward again to the next big crisis, and how many people have we got—have we actually put in jail? Zero. And this was a crisis that was much huger in scope than the S&L crisis or the accounting crisis. I mean, it wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth, and nobody went to jail, so that we’re now in a place where we don’t even recognize the importance of keeping up appearances when it comes to making things look equal.

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Cheney talks bombing Iran and GOP donors applaud

Andy Kroll and David Corn report: What do former Vice President Dick Cheney, billionaire mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, and Republican activists and funders talk about — and applaud — when they’re behind closed doors at a Las Vegas hotel? Bombing Iran.

This past weekend, the Republican Jewish Coalition held its spring leadership meeting at Adelson’s Venetian hotel, where several possible 2016 contenders, including ex-Governor Jeb Bush and current Governors Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and John Kasich, showed up to kiss the ring of the casino magnate, who’s looking to bankroll a viable Republican presidential candidate. Though the heavy-on-Israel speeches of the White House wannabes were open to the press, the keynote address delivered by Cheney on Saturday night was off-limits to reporters and the public. But Mother Jones has obtained a recording of Cheney’s talk, during which he once again derided President Barack Obama on foreign policy, blasted the isolationists within his own party, assailed critics of the National Security Agency, and seemingly endorsed the idea of an Israeli strike against Iran.

Speaking about the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon, Cheney dismissed Obama’s negotiations with Tehran, and he recalled a dinner meeting he had in 2007 with Israeli General Amos Yadlin. Yadlin had flown in the Israeli Defense Force’s mission in 1981 that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, and he was the country’s military intelligence chief in 2007 when the Israel Defense Forces obliterated Syria’s nuclear reactor in the Deir ez-Zor region. Recalling his conversation with Yadlin, Cheney said, “He looked across the table over dinner, and he said, ‘Two down, one to go.’ I knew exactly what he meant.”

“One to go” was an obvious reference to bombing Iran’s nuclear program. The crowd responded approvingly with laughter and applause. [Continue reading...]

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How Dick Cheney remade our world

f13-iconMark Danner writes: Almost exactly a decade ago, Vice President Dick Cheney greeted President George W. Bush one morning in the Oval Office with the news that his administration was about to implode. Or not quite: Cheney let the president know that something was deeply wrong, though it would take Bush two more days of increasingly surprising revelations, and the near mass resignation of his senior Justice Department and law enforcement officials, to figure out exactly what it was. “On the morning of March 10, 2004,” as the former president recounts the story in his memoirs,

Dick Cheney and Andy Card greeted me with a startling announcement: The Terrorist Surveillance Program would expire at the end of the day.

“How can it possibly end?” I asked. “It’s vital to protecting the country.”

The Terrorist Surveillance Program, then known to the handful who were aware of it only as “the Program” or by its code name, “Stellar Wind,” was a highly secret National Security Agency effort — eventually revealed by The New York Times in December 2005 and then in much greater detail by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last June. Among other things, Stellar Wind empowered the agency to assemble a vast collection of “metadata,” including on the telephone calls and e-mails of millions of Americans, that its analysts could search and “mine” for information.

Though the program would appear on its face to violate the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, President Bush had approved it three weeks after the September 11 attacks, securing the signature of Attorney General John Ashcroft after the fact. To remain in force the program had to be recertified by the president and the attorney general every forty-five days.

And now, two and a half years later, Cheney and White House chief of staff Andrew Card told Bush, Justice Department lawyers “had raised a legal objection to one component of the program.” Unless that “component” — apparently, the sweeping up of Internet metadata — was eliminated or modified, they told the president, the lawyers would refuse to certify that the program was legal. [Continue reading...]

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Mark Danner: Still living in Cheney’s world

Rest assured of one thing: he was the only American vice president ever to travel regularly with “a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit” in the back seat of his car.  You could say that he took his weapons of mass destruction seriously, and perhaps even infer from Jane Mayer’s account of his anxieties back in September 2001 that he had something of a paranoid view of a world he believed wanted to do him harm in a weapons-of-mass-destructive way.

It was in this mood that he and the president he served decided to show that world just who was who and leaped, post-9/11 — not to put the matter too modestly — to create a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.  (At home, they were planning for a Pax Republicana coast to coast until hell froze over.)  In their imaginations, and some of their official documents as well, they dreamed of reorganizing the whole planet in ways that would more than rival any imperial power since Rome went down amid mad emperors and barbarian invasions. In the fabulous future they didn’t hesitate to document, no power or bloc of powers would be allowed to challenge the United States for years, decades, eons to come.  And their means of doing this?  The U.S. military, which the president took to calling “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” That high-tech force, romanticized and idolized by administration fundamentalists, turned out to be the only tool in their toolkit, all they believed was necessary to transform Earth into a first-class American protectorate.

Give credit to George W. Bush and his more-than-right-hand man, Dick Cheney, the vice president who essentially nominated himself: there’s never been a duo like them in the White House.  Cheney, in particular, was a geopolitical visionary, his planet-encompassing vision fueled by his experiences in the energy trade and by a Cold Warrior’s urge to roll back ever further the remnants of the Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation.  He was also, as Mark Danner illustrates, mad in his vision and desperately wrong.  But again, give him and his president credit: before they were done mistaking military for economic power, they had punched a gaping hole through the heart of the Middle East and, as Arab League head Amr Moussa warned at the time, had driven directly through “the gates of hell” dreaming of a path strewn with “sweets and flowers” and lined with grateful Iraqis who would greet them as liberators on their way to Tehran.

Before they could complete their global damage, however, the adults were brought in, among them Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  At his congressional nomination hearings in December 2006, Gates put the vice president, his ever-endangered heart still pounding, in his political grave by describing the particular nightmare that would ensue from any U.S. attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.  The signal was clear enough.  If Dick Cheney couldn’t pull the trigger on Iran, no one else would (despite much talk in the years to come about all “options” remaining on “the table”).  In fact, 2007 should probably be considered the beginning of the Obama years, a time when top officials with no vision at all of how the planet should function raced like so many overworked firemen from the scene of one global blaze to another (many originally set by Cheney and Bush).

Today, Mark Danner reminds us, as he did in his remarkable three-part series at the New York Review of Books on Bush-era Secretary of Defense Donald (“stuff happens”) Rumsfeld, that if the cast of characters from those first post-9/11 years is gone, we still live in the ruins they created and the special darkness they embraced.  In an essay that focuses on Cheney’s memoir, a movie about the former vice president, and a book by his surgeon, Danner takes us deep into that darkness.  Thanks to the kindness of the editors of the New York Review of Books, it’s an honor to be able to post Danner’s latest piece for the first time online.  The start of a three-part series on Cheney, it will appear in that magazine’s March 6th issue.  Tom Engelhardt

In the darkness of Dick Cheney
The smile of secret power
By Mark Danner

[This essay appears in the March 6th issue of the New York Review of Books and is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine. The film and two books under review in this piece are listed at the end of the essay.]

If you’re a man of principle, compromise is a bit of a dirty word.
— Dick Cheney, 2013

1.  “We Ought to Take It Out”

In early 2007, as Iraq seemed to be slipping inexorably into chaos and President George W. Bush into inescapable political purgatory, Meir Dagan, the head of the Israeli Mossad, flew to Washington, sat down in a sunlit office of the West Wing of the White House, and spread out on the coffee table before him a series of photographs showing a strange-looking building rising out of the sands in the desert of eastern Syria. Vice President Dick Cheney did not have to be told what it was. “They tried to hide it down a wadi, a gulley,” he recalls to filmmaker R.J. Cutler.

“There’s no population around it anyplace… You can’t say it’s to generate electricity, there’s no power line coming out of it. It’s just out there obviously for production of plutonium.”

The Syrians were secretly building a nuclear plant — with the help, it appeared, of the North Koreans. Though the United States was already embroiled in two difficult, unpopular, and seemingly endless wars, though its military was overstretched and its people impatient and angry, the vice president had no doubt what needed to be done: “Condi recommended taking it to the United Nations. I strongly recommended that we ought to take it out.”

[Read more...]

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The fall of Falluja reveals the tragic futility of America’s strategy in the Middle East

Graham E. Fuller writes: When is a war “worth it?” It’s a timeless question that still begs a decisive response.

The debacle of Iraq has now drifted off the scope Americans’ attention — US troops are no longer dying there and new challenges beckon Washington elsewhere. Been there, done that. The American part of the war may be over, and we have grown weary hearing about it, but the Iraqi part of the war still continues. And with the recent and symbolic fall, again, of Falluja to al-Qa’ida and other jihadis we are forcefully reminded of the price that we paid in the American cleansing of Falluja ten years ago — for naught. Falluja, massively damaged, seems back to square one.

What about the Iraqis — was the war worth it for them? The figures are pretty well known by now — upwards of half a million Iraqis died, either in the violence of war or subsequent civil strife. That’s roughly equivalent to 5 million US citizens dying in a war. Add at least one million Iraqis displaced from their homes and villages, many now in exile — equivalent to ten million Americans displaced. Saddam was one of the most brutal dictators the world has seen in modern times, but one wonders–Iraqis must wonder — whether anything Saddam could have done could ever have remotely approached such human and structural devastation as the war. And the psychological damage — constant fear, death, mayhem, ongoing massive insecurity, anarchy and civil conflict –is not yet over.

Still, if you talk to some Iraqi Shi’a, the shift of power from the hands of a Sunni minority under a brutal dictator into the hands of the Shi’ite majority was a long term political godsend for them; they are today “better off” — at least politically, than before the war. But that’s a political abstraction.

Was it “worth it” to individual Shi’ite families who suffered loss of husbands, brothers, wives and children, homes and livelihoods? Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children deprived of medicine under the US sanctions on Saddam, said it was “a hard choice… but it was worth it.” That is the comforting Olympian strategic view, uncomplicated by ground realities for real human beings.

What strategic gains can we tote up for the US alongside Iraqi losses? For the US, virtually nothing gained; indeed, it’s been a serious net loss in geopolitical terms. Few Iraqis are grateful. An Iraq that has always displayed strong Arab nationalist tendencies will not likely now change its colors or learn to love Israel.

Iran is now recognized as the real winner of the Iraq war. The Iraqi internal struggle has spread across into Syria, presenting the US with choices nearly all of which are highly unpalatable. Saudi Arabia has now felt the need to unleash a vicious sectarian conflict that destabilizes the Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, Lebanon, Syria, even Pakistan. [Continue reading...]

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How the U.S. turned the world into a war zone

Gregory D Johnsen writes: Sunrise was still nearly an hour off when Nazih al-Ruqai climbed into his black Hyundai SUV outside a mosque in northern Tripoli and turned the key. The lanky 49-year-old had left the house barely 30 minutes earlier for a quick trip to the mosque on a Saturday. It was Oct. 5, 2013, and after more than two decades in exile, he had settled into a predictable existence of prayer and worship.

The homecoming hadn’t always been so smooth. Ruqai, who is better known in the jihadi world as Abu Anas al-Libi, was still feeling the effects of the hepatitis C he had contracted years earlier during a stint in an underground prison in Iran. Following overtures from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government, his wife and children had returned to Libya in 2010. But Libi stayed away, wary of the man he had once plotted to kill. Only when the Libyan uprisings started in early 2011 did he follow his family back to Libya. But by then it was already too late. His oldest son, Abd al-Rahman, the only one of his five children who had been born in Libya, was dead, shot while fighting for the capital.

After that, things moved in fits and starts. Qaddafi was killed weeks later in October 2011, and Libi eventually settled in Nufalayn, a leafy middle-class neighborhood in northeast Tripoli, alongside several members of his extended family. Life after Qaddafi was chaotic and messy — nothing really worked as the new government struggled to reboot after 42 years of dictatorship, often finding itself at the mercy of the heavily armed militias and tribes that had contributed to Qaddafi’s downfall.

Libi knew he was a wanted man. He had been on the FBI’s most wanted list for more than a decade, following an indictment in 2000 for his alleged role in al-Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two years earlier. Along with Libi the indictment named 20 other individuals, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, as defendants.

“He suspected that at any moment he would be killed,” his son later told The New York Times. Still, on that Saturday morning in early October, much of the danger seemed to have passed. Libi had been living in the open for nearly a year, attending prayers and settling local disputes, where his history as a fighter and knowledge of the Qur’an made him a respected arbiter. Neighbors called him simply “the shaykh,” a sign of respect in the conservative circles in which Libi still moved.

He had also taken steps to address his past. Three weeks earlier, on Sept. 15, Libi had sat down with Libya’s attorney general to discuss his indictment, according to one report. (The Libyan Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests to confirm Libi’s meeting.) But mostly he just wanted to move on with his life. He had applied for his old job at the Ministry of Oil and Gas and he couldn’t stop talking about how much he was looking forward to becoming a grandfather for the first time.

A trio of cars around 6 a.m. ended all of that.

Inside the family’s apartment, Libi’s wife heard the commotion. From a window she looked out over the beige wall that surrounded their building and into the street where several men had surrounded her husband, who was still in the driver’s seat of his black Hyundai.

“Get out,” the men shouted in Arabic. “Get out.” Then they smashed the window. Most of the men were masked, but she could see a few faces, she said later in Arabic interviews. They looked Libyan; they sounded Libyan. Some of them had guns; some didn’t, but they all moved quickly.

By the time the rest of the family made it to the street, all that was left was a single sandal and a few drops of blood.

Early that same morning, nearly 3,000 miles away in the seaside city of Baraawe on Somalia’s eastern coast, U.S. Navy SEALs crept through the darkness toward their target, which a local resident later described to me as a walled compound more than 100 yards inland. The Americans had been here before. Four years earlier, in September 2009, a contingent of Navy SEALs had ambushed a two-car convoy just outside of town. Flying low in helicopter gunships, the SEALs quickly disabled the cars and then touched down to collect the bodies.

This time the target — Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Abd al-Qadir, a young Kenyan of Somali descent better known as Ikrima — was stationary. The SEALs would have to go in and get him. Pre-raid intelligence suggested that the compound housed mostly fighters with few or no civilians present. Only 130 miles south of Mogadishu and what passed for the Somali government, Baraawe had been under the control of al-Shabaab, a fragmentary militant group, since 2009. Fighters came and went freely, as al-Shabaab implemented its own narrow version of Islamic law in the city.

Moving up the beach and into enemy territory, the SEALs needed the element of surprise. Through the trees and scrub brush ahead of them, most of the city was dark. Baraawe had only a few hours of electricity each day, usually from evening prayers until midnight. But al-Shabaab’s members lived separately and, along with some of the city’s wealthier residents, got around the shortages by running private generators. The plan that night took this into account, calling for the SEALs to jam internet signals, apparently in an attempt to cut off communication once the raid began. That would prove to be a mistake.

Inside the compound, some of the al-Shabaab fighters were up late and online. And, according to a report in the Toronto Star, when the internet suddenly went out in the middle of the night, they went to look for the source of the problem. At least one fighter stepped outside, and as he moved around in the darkness he spotted some of the SEALs.

The plan to knock the internet offline and isolate the fighters in the villa had backfired, effectively giving al-Shabaab an early warning that the SEALs were on their way. (In the days after the raid, al-Shabaab would arrest a handful of local men who were known to visit Western websites, accusing them of spying and aiding U.S. efforts.)

The firefight lasted several minutes, although residents reported hearing gunfire throughout the night as members of al-Shabaab discharged their weapons into the dark for hours after the Americans had withdrawn, empty-handed.

In the span of a few hours, the U.S. had launched a pair of raids — one successful and one not — 3,000 miles apart, in countries with which the nation was not at war. Hardly anyone noticed.

More than a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, this is what America’s war looks like, silent strikes and shadowy raids. The Congressional Research Service, an analytical branch of the Library of Congress, recently said that it had located at least 30 similar occurrences, although the number of covert actions is likely many times higher with drones strikes and other secret operations. The remarkable has become regular.

The White House said that the operations in both Libya and Somalia drew their authority from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a 12-year-old piece of legislation that was drafted in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the heart of the AUMF is a single 60-word sentence, which has formed the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids. Everything rests on those 60 words. [Continue reading...]

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How data thieves have captured our lives on the internet

John Naughton writes: [T]he biggest misjudgment of all – the one that legitimised most of the excesses that Snowden has unveiled – was … a political one. It was the decision of the George W Bush administration to declare a “war on terror” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – and the eager adoption by the UK and other allies of the same stance.

As Professor Eben Moglen of Columbia University puts it, the intelligence agencies “presented with a mission by an extraordinarily imprudent national government in the United States, which having failed to prevent a very serious attack on American civilians at home, largely by ignoring warnings, decreed that they were never again to be put in a position where they should have known. This resulted in a military response, which is to get as close to everything as possible. Because if you don’t get as close to everything as possible, how can you say that you knew everything that you should have known?” In a real war, one in which the very survival of a state is threatened by a foreign adversary, almost anything is permissible, including the suspension of civil liberties, the right to privacy and all the other things we liberals hold dear. Between 1939 and 1945, Britain was governed by what was effectively a dictatorship wielding unimaginable powers, including comprehensive censorship, the power to requisition private property on demand, and so on. Citizens might not have liked this regime, but they consented to because they understood the need for it.

The “war” on terror is not a war in this sense. It is a rhetorical device aimed at engineering consent for a particular political strategy. But it was enough to provide legislative cover for the acquisition by the US intelligence-gathering agencies of warlike powers, which included the means of surveilling every citizen on earth who had an internet connection, and every owner of a mobile phone in most countries of the world. The war on terror may have succeeded in turbocharging the surveillance capabilities of the US and its allies, but it has also inflicted significant collateral damage on the foreign policy of the US, threatened its dominance of cloud computing and other markets, undermined its major technology companies, infuriated some of its most important allies and superimposed a huge question-mark on the future of the internet as a global system. The war on terror may have made tactical sense in the traumatic months post-9/11. But as a political decision it has had a catastrophic long-term impact. [Continue reading...]

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Rumsfeld’s war and its consequences now

Mark Danner writes: A bare two weeks after the attacks of September 11, at the end of a long and emotional day at the White House, a sixty-nine-year-old politician and businessman—a midwesterner, born of modest means but grown wealthy and prominent and powerful—returned to his enormous suite of offices on the seventh floor of the flood-lit and wounded Pentagon and, as was his habit, scrawled out a memorandum on his calendar:

Interesting day—
NSC mtg. with President—
As [it] ended he asked to see me alone…
After the meeting ended I went to Oval Office—He was alone
He was at his desk—
He talked about the meet
Then he said I want you to develop a plan to invade Ir[aq]. Do it outside the normal channels. Do it creatively so we don’t have to take so much cover [?]

Then he said Dick [Cheney] told me about your son—I broke down and cried. I couldn’t speak—
said I love him so much
He said I can’t imagine the burden you are carrying for the country and your son—
He said much more.
Stood and hugged me
An amazing day—
He is a fine human being—
I am so grateful he is President.
I am proud to be working for him.

It is a touching and fateful scene, this trading of confidences between the recovering alcoholic president and the defense secretary whose son is struggling with drug addiction, and shows the intimacy that can be forged amid danger and turmoil and stress. Trust brings trust, confidence builds on confidence: the young inexperienced president, days before American bombs begin falling on Afghanistan, wants a “creative” plan to invade Iraq, developed “outside the normal channels”; the old veteran defense secretary, in a rare moment of weakness, craves human comfort and understanding.

And yet they’d hardly known one another, these two, before George W. Bush chose him for his secretary of defense nine months before. To George W., Donald Henry Rumsfeld had been little more than a political enemy of the Bush family. It was Rumsfeld, as President Gerald Ford’s ambitious young chief of staff, who had been instrumental in the so-called “Halloween Massacre” in 1975 that—so the legend goes—had helped clear the way for his own presidential ambitions by shunting George H.W. Bush, the wealthy eastern born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-his-mouth preppie who was the scrappy Illinois-born wrestler’s main rival, off to be CIA director. This was a job for which Bush could gain Senate confirmation only by agreeing not to accept the vice-presidential nomination in 1976—even as Rumsfeld, as he tells us in his memoir, “for the third time in three years,…found myself being discussed for the vice presidential nomination.” As Bush family consigliere James A. Baker III cautioned George W. a quarter-century later, when Rumsfeld’s name was bruited for secretary of defense, “You know what he did to your daddy.”

Certainly he knew, and one can be forgiven for suspecting that this knowledge might have been a strong part of the attraction, perhaps for both men. When Errol Morris asks Rumsfeld whether his former aide Dick Cheney had brought him into the Bush administration, Rumsfeld replies, “I assume that’s the case. I don’t think George W. Bush’s father recommended it,” and then beams with self-congratulatory mischievousness. [Continue reading...]

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America’s ‘army of lawyers’ is almost as deadly as its drones

Dawood Ahmed writes: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Some ascribe this quote to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels; others say Hitler authored the idea. In Mein Kampf he did speak of the invention of a lie so “colossal” that few would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”.

Whoever coined the idea, the point is this: controlling the narrative matters immensely.

Military prowess is not enough in this age. And the United States knows it. America’s “other army” – its less visible but equally potent cadre of skillful lawyers (in government and even in private institutions) – dutifully got busy crafting appropriate international law narratives for the War on Terror. They realized that winning the battle for defining “legality” on the world stage was critical.

This is something states in the developing world would do well to understand. And particularly, governments of countries that bear the brunt of US military interventions touted as “self-defense” and “counter-terrorism” – Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Such states need to build intellectual-professional capacity to counter precedent-setting international legal arguments strategically employed (or better said: deployed) against them.

No contemporary political discourse provides us with a clearer illustration of this than the heated debate about the (ill)legality of drones and targeted killings. [Continue reading...]

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The secret diaries of Abu Zubaydah

Jason Leopold reports:

Al Jazeera has obtained a copy of the secret personal diaries of Abu Zubaydah, one of the highest-profile prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. The six notebooks, which were obtained from a former U.S. government intelligence official who worked with the CIA and FBI on Al-Qaeda’s rise to power, were discovered at a safe house in Pakistan where Abu Zubaydah was captured in 2002. Repeatedly cited by U.S. officials in making the case for holding a number of prisoners at Guantanamo, the diaries, which were never officially released, cast fresh light on Abu Zubaydah and challenge some of the Bush administration’s accounts of its “war on terror.” Below are some of the highlights of the first notebook.

Arriving in Afghanistan in 1991, the young computer-science student Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah had no idea of the fateful journey he was embarking on — a journey that, 10 years later, would land him in a CIA black-site prison and then in Guantanamo Bay, branded by President George W. Bush as “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.”

“I am actually scared,” he conceded in his diary. “Not of a bullet or a shell, rather of the future itself. If I decide to settle here, it means that I will cancel my education and there is no harm in that, God willing; jihad is a good thing, and I will stay.”

Abu Zubaydah arrived in Afghanistan from Mysore, India, where he had gone against his father’s wishes to study computer science.

“But,” his diary continues, “I am scared that I’ll be left high and dry in the future, God forbid. At that point, I will have no contingent plan to resort to, a degree or a job to lean on.” His fear was not martyrdom but surviving the war in Afghanistan, particularly if he was wounded. “What would I do if the party is over and there is no more jihad in Afghanistan! Where would I go when I have no job and no college degree?”

He was distrustful of the few friends he had, describing many of them as backstabbers. “Friendship is a fantasy, friendship is false.”

So in the diary — which offers deep insight into a man portrayed by the Bush administration as a seminal figure in the “war on terror” — Abu Zubaydah created a friend he could talk to.

“Dear 30-year-old Hani,” the diary begins, referring to himself by a childhood nickname and making clear that the audience is himself 10 years in the future, “Today I have decided to write my memoirs and these words are to you. So, this will be the letter in which I complain to you, get things off my chest, and cry in your arms whenever I feel the need to share my burden, from this silly world, with someone.”

He states that he intends to reread the diary only after he reaches that age. “So, I will be you; the 30 years old Hani, provided that I get to live to meet you.”

Perhaps mindful of how others might interpret his literary device, Abu Zubaydah writes, “I am not a schizophrenic, which is a split personality disease; rather, I am trying to divide myself into two parts because; I believe that everything changes with time, even human beings. Therefore, it is inevitable that you Hani 2 at 30 years of age are different than Hani 1 … Me… at 20 years old.”

FBI agents who read the diaries said that Abu Zubaydah’s writing to a different version of himself proved that he had a “schizophrenic personality.” The correct term for the exhibition of multiple personalities is dissociative identity disorder, however, not schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a disease often characterized by hallucinations or delusions but not by multiple personalities. [Continue reading...]

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