Opening new Iraq front, U.S. strikes ISIS in Tikrit

The New York Times reports: American warplanes began airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Tikrit late Wednesday, finally joining a stalled offensive to retake the Iraqi city as American officials sought to seize the initiative from Iran, which had taken a major role in directing the operation.

The decision to directly aid the offensive was made by President Obama on Wednesday, American officials said, and represented a significant shift in the Iraqi campaign. For more than three weeks, the Americans had stayed on the sideline of the battle for Tikrit, wary of being in the position of aiding an essentially Iranian-led operation. Senior Iranian officials had been on the scene, and allied Shiite militias had made up the bulk of the force.

Mr. Obama approved the airstrikes after a request from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shiite militias move aside to allow a larger role for Iraqi government counterterrorism forces that have worked most closely with United States troops, American officials said. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who has been advising forces around Tikrit, was reported on Sunday to have left the area. [Continue reading…]

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William Hartung: Your money at war everywhere

Fifteen to 20 years ago, a canny friend of mine assured me that I would know I was in a different world when the Europeans said no to Washington. I’ve been waiting all this time and last week it seemed as if the moment had finally arrived. Germany, France, and Italy all agreed to become “founding members” of a new Chinese-created development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Great Britain, in “a rare breach of the special relationship,” had already opted for membership the week before (and another key American ally deeply involved in the China trade, Australia, clearly will do so in the near future). As Andrew Higgins and David Sanger of the New York Times reported, the Obama administration views the new bank as a possible “rival to the World Bank and other institutions set up at the height of American power after World War II.”

“The announcement by Germany, Europe’s largest economy,” continued the Times, “came only six days after Secretary of State John Kerry asked his German counterpart, Frank Walter-Steinmeier, to resist the Chinese overtures until the Chinese agreed to a number of conditions about transparency and governing of the new entity. But Germany came to the same conclusion that Britain did: China is such a large export and investment market for it that it cannot afford to stay on the sidelines.”

All of this happened, in other words, despite strong opposition and powerful pressure from a Washington eager to contain China and regularly asserting its desire to “pivot” militarily to Asia to do so. 

Whatever world we now inhabit, it’s not the twentieth century anymore. Though no other power has risen to directly challenge Washington, the United States no longer qualifies as the planet’s “sole superpower,” “last superpower,” “global sheriff,” or any of the similarly self-congratulatory phrases that were the coin of the realm in the years after the Soviet Union dissolved.

Only one small problem, highlighted today by Pentagon expert and TomDispatch regular William Hartung: the Department of Defense evidently doesn’t have a clue. As he makes clear, it’s still planning for a sole superpower world in a big way. And in the present atmosphere in Washington, it’s got real support for such planning. Take, for instance, Senator Tom Cotton — he of the “Senate 47″ — who just gave his maiden speech on the Senate floor calling for a policy of total U.S. “global military dominance” and bemoaning that “our military, suffering from years of neglect, has seen its relative strength decline to historic levels.”

It may be a new world in some places, but in others, as Hartung makes clear, it couldn’t be older. Tom Engelhardt

Military strategy? Who needs it?
The madness of funding the Pentagon to “cover the globe”
By William D. Hartung

President Obama and Senator John McCain, who have clashed on almost every conceivable issue, do agree on one thing: the Pentagon needs more money. Obama wants to raise the Pentagon’s budget for fiscal year 2016 by $35 billion more than the caps that exist under current law allow.  McCain wants to see Obama his $35 billion and raise him $17 billion more. Last week, the House and Senate Budget Committees attempted to meet Obama’s demands by pressing to pour tens of billions of additional dollars into the uncapped supplemental war budget.

What will this new avalanche of cash be used for? A major ground war in Iraq? Bombing the Assad regime in Syria? A permanent troop presence in Afghanistan?  More likely, the bulk of the funds will be wielded simply to take pressure off the Pentagon’s base budget so it can continue to pay for staggeringly expensive projects like the F-35 combat aircraft and a new generation of ballistic missile submarines.  Whether the enthusiastic budgeteers in the end succeed in this particular maneuver to create a massive Pentagon slush fund, the effort represents a troubling development for anyone who thinks that Pentagon spending is already out of hand.

[Read more…]

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U.S. ready to back Iran with airstrikes against ISIS

Nancy A. Youssef reports: The U.S.-led coalition is preparing to expand its air strike campaign into the city of Tikrit where Iraqi forces, backed by Iranians, have stalled in their efforts to reclaim the hometown of Saddam Hussein from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that the United States is awaiting a formal request from the Iraqi government for the strikes. Once they receive that request, it could be only a matter of days before the attacks begin.

“The preparatory work is probably already done. The [U.S. military] has started to bring in more assets for a Tikrit air support campaign,” an adviser to the U.S. government tasked with monitoring and engaging with Iraqi officials told The Daily Beast. “Unless there is an impediment on the Iraqi side, and I don’t see it happening, the campaign could begin within days.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS in Iraq siphon state pay

The Wall Street Journal reports: Islamic State militants are skimming tens of millions of dollars a month from salaries paid to Iraqi government employees in occupied areas such as Mosul, and Baghdad continues to send the cash to maintain local support.

The group is using the money to fund operations, U.S. officials say, underlining the delicate balancing act U.S. and Iraqi governments face in what they know is a hearts-and-minds campaign against Islamic State ahead of a military operation to retake Mosul, for which U.S. officials are training Iraqi troops.

U.S. defense officials say U.S.-led strikes have put pressure on Islamic State, hurting its command-and-control operations, but they remain cautious about the near-term prospects of retaking Mosul and other territory under the group’s firm control.

A lack of desirable options has put U.S. officials in an awkward position, forced to choose between the goal of denying funds to Islamic State and the goal of persuading Sunnis to back the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS urges sympathizers to kill U.S. service members it identifies on website

The New York Times reports: In a new online threat to American military personnel, the Islamic State has called on its members and sympathizers in the United States to kill 100 service members whose names, photos and purported addresses it posted on a website.

The group said that the personnel had participated in efforts to defeat it in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

Defense Department and F.B.I. officials said that they were aware of the website and were investigating the posting.

It does not appear that the information had been hacked from government servers. One Defense Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that most of the information could be found in public records, residential address search sites and social media.

The officials said the list appears to be drawn from personnel who have appeared in news articles about airstrikes on the militant group.

Some of the names also appear to be drawn from the Defense Department’s own official reports on the campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

But the list also included armed services personnel and others in the United States or elsewhere who have had nothing to do with the bombing campaigns, officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon loses track of $500 million in weapons, equipment given to Yemen

The Washington Post reports: The Pentagon is unable to account for more than $500 million in U.S. military aid given to Yemen, amid fears that the weaponry, aircraft and equipment is at risk of being seized by Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.

With Yemen in turmoil and its government splintering, the Defense Department has lost its ability to monitor the whereabouts of small arms, ammunition, night-vision goggles, patrol boats, vehicles and other supplies donated by the United States. The situation has grown worse since the United States closed its embassy in Sanaa, the capital, last month and withdrew many of its military advisers.

In recent weeks, members of Congress have held closed-door meetings with U.S. military officials to press for an accounting of the arms and equipment. Pentagon officials have said that they have little information to go on and that there is little they can do at this point to prevent the weapons and gear from falling into the wrong hands. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan militia leaders, empowered by U.S. to fight Taliban, inspire fear in villages

The New York Times reports: Rahimullah used to be a farmer — just a “normal person living an ordinary life,” as he put it. Then he formed his own militia last year and found himself swept up in America’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.

With about 20 men loyal to him, Rahimullah, 56, soon discovered a patron in the United States Special Forces, who provided everything he needed: rifles, ammunition, cash, even sandbags for a guard post in Aghu Jan, a remote village in Ghazni Province.

Then the Americans pulled out, leaving Rahimullah behind as the local strongman, and as his village’s only defense against a Taliban takeover.

“We are shivering with fear,” said one resident, Abdul Ahad. Then he explained: He and his neighbors did not fear the Taliban nearly as much as they did their protectors, Rahimullah’s militiamen, who have turned to kidnappings and extortion. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. unclear on impact of bombing on al Qaida group in Syria

The Associated Press: The U.S. military has hit as many as 17 separate targets connected to a shadowy al-Qaida cell in Syria known as the Khorasan group, U.S. officials say, as part of a little-discussed air campaign aimed at disrupting the group’s capacity to plot attacks against Western aviation.

U.S. intelligence analysts disagree about whether the attacks have significantly diminished the group’s capabilities, according to the officials, showing how difficult it has been to develop a clear picture of what is happening on the ground in Syria.

American officials briefed on the matter agree that the air attacks have forced militants into hiding and made their use of cellphones, email or other modern communications extremely risky. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss classified assessments.

There is some disagreement about how much the airstrikes have undermined the group’s ability to pose an imminent threat, U.S. officials say. Some U.S. officials say the military believes the strikes have lowered the threat, while the CIA and other intelligence agencies emphasize that the group remains as capable as ever of attacking the West.

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U.S. exaggerates ISIS casualties

Eli Lake and Josh Rogin write: The war against the Islamic State has killed thousands of fighters and even some mid-level battlefield commanders, but the organization’s senior leadership and nerve center remain largely untouched, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials.

These officials and other experts tracking the terror group tell us that the Islamic State’s Shura and Sharia councils, the advisory bodies that help inform the major decisions of the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remain intact, notwithstanding one close call in November for Baghdadi. Although airstrikes and military campaigns have killed several regional administrators and designated “governors,” the Islamic State has quickly replaced them and maintains its command-and-control capabilities.

This assessment of progress against the Islamic State differs sharply from public statements by top Obama administration officials as recently as last month, including Secretary of State John Kerry and retired General John Allen, the president’s special coordinator for the coalition against the Islamic State. In February, Allen said that half the group’s leaders in Iraq had been killed.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference also in February, Kerry expanded that claim to account for the group’s leadership in Syria as well.

“We’ve disrupted their command structure, undermined its propaganda, taken out half of their senior leadership, squeezed its financing, damaged its supply networks, dispersed its personnel, and forced them to think twice before they move in an open convoy,” Kerry said.

Kerry and Allen haven’t since repeated that claim about the group’s senior leadership. U.S. military officials tell us no consensus intelligence estimate supports the claim that half the Islamic State’s leadership has been eliminated. [Continue reading…]

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In Iraq, whatever the officials say, the U.S. is providing air support for Iran

Nancy A. Youssef writes: Forces loyal to Iran are threatening to break ISIS’s grip on the key Iraqi city of Tikrit. Officially, the American military isn’t helping these Shiite militias and Iranian advisers as they team up with Iraqi forces to hit the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But U.S. officials admit that American airstrikes are a major reason Iran’s proxies are advancing on Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.

The U.S.-led air campaign has not only crippled ISIS’s ability to move freely. It’s also providing air cover for Iraqi troops and the Iranian forces fighting alongside of them. It is a perilous, yet unspoken, military alliance between the U.S. and its top regional foe that some said could lead to an ISIS defeat in the short term and ethnic cleansing of Sunni Iraqis in the long run.

“Like it or not, right now [the U.S. and Iran] are on the same side,” said Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and longtime Iranian expert.

U.S. officials have repeatedly stated their concerns about the sectarianism that could emerge even as the strategy now decisively helps one side, the Shiite, in the push to defeat ISIS.

But two U.S. officials concede that the effect of the airstrikes helps Shiite forces — while swearing that there is no strategy to help Iran. Rather, as one explained, “the goal is to provide Iraqi forces the operational space to take back territory.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-trained Iraqi forces investigated for war crimes

ABC News reports: U.S.-trained and armed Iraqi military units, the key to the American strategy against ISIS, are under investigation for committing some of the same atrocities as the terror group, American and Iraqi officials told ABC News. Some Iraqi units have already been cut off from U.S. assistance over “credible” human rights violations, according to a senior military official on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.

The investigation, being conducted by the Iraqi government, was launched after officials were confronted with numerous allegations of “war crimes,” based in part on dozens of ghastly videos and still photos that appear to show uniformed soldiers from some of Iraq’s most elite units and militia members massacring civilians, torturing and executing prisoners, and displaying severed heads.

The videos and photos are part of a trove of disturbing images that ABC News discovered has been circulating within the dark corners of Iraqi social media since last summer. In some U.S. military and Iraqi circles, the Iraqi units and militias under scrutiny are referred to as the “dirty brigades.”

“As the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] and militias reclaim territory, their behavior must be above reproach or they risk being painted with the same brush as ISIL [ISIS] fighters,” said a statement to ABC News from the U.S. government. “If these allegations are confirmed, those found responsible must be held accountable.” [Continue reading…]

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In campaign against terrorism, U.S. enters period of pessimism and gloom

The Washington Post reports: U.S. counterterrorism officials and experts, never known for their sunny dispositions, have entered a period of particular gloom.

In congressional testimony recently, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. went beyond the usual litany of threats to say that terrorism trend lines were worse “than at any other point in history.”

Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in the Middle East, told participants on a counter­terrorism strategy call that he regarded the Islamic State as a greater menace than al-Qaeda ever was.

Speaking at a New York police terrorism conference, Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, said he had come to doubt that he would live to see the end of al-Qaeda and its spawn. “This is long term,” he said. “My children’s generation and my grandchildren’s generation will still be fighting this fight.”

The assessments reflect a pessimism that has descended on the U.S. counterterrorism community over the past year amid a series of discouraging developments. Among them are the growth of the Islamic State, the ongoing influx of foreign fighters into Syria, the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Yemen and the downward spiral of Libya’s security situation. The latest complication came Saturday, when the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria carried out a series of suicide bombings and reportedly declared its allegiance to the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon’s $55 billion mystery plane is secret, but debate on cost is appearing

Christian Davenport writes: The closest it’s come to a public debut was a prime-time tease during a Super Bowl ad that showed its svelte outline veiled beneath a sheet, but revealed not a glimpse of the Pentagon’s most mysterious plane.

Highly classified, the program is one of the Air Force’s top priorities — and its most expensive. The service estimates it will cost $55 billion to build as many as 100 of what it calls the Long Range Strike Bomber, which is designed to fly deep into enemy territory undetected until the mushroom cloud begins to bloom.

In the coming months, the Air Force is expected to award a contract for the next-generation bomber, which would begin flying in the mid-2020s, have the potential to fly manned or unmanned and give the military the ability to hit any target “at any point on the globe.”

But that’s about all the Air Force will say about the program, which has been cloaked in a veil of secrecy rivaling the jet’s stealthy ability to creep past enemy lines. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq’s attack against ISIS in Tikrit catches U.S. ‘by surprise’

Nancy A. Youssef reports: The Iraqi military launched a major campaign to take back a key city from the self-proclaimed Islamic State over the weekend — a move that caught the U.S. “by surprise,” in the words of one American government official.

The U.S.-led coalition forces that have conducted seven months of airstrikes on Iraq’s behalf did not participate in the attack, defense officials told The Daily Beast, and the American military has no plans to chip in.

Instead, embedded Iranian advisers and Iranian-backed Shiite militias are taking part in the offensive on the largely Sunni town, raising the prospect that the fight to beat back ISIS could become a sectarian war.

The news is the latest indication that not all is well with the American effort against the terror group. On Friday, U.S. defense officials told The Daily Beast that a planned offensive against the ISIS stronghold of Mosul had been indefinitely postponed. Over the weekend, an American-backed rebel group in Syria announced that it was dissolving, and joining an Islamist faction.

Then there was the unexpected battle for Tikrit. Over the weekend, a reported 30,000 troops and militiamen—mostly Shiites —stormed the Sunni dominated city of Tikrit, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s hometown and the symbolic birthplace of his three decades of repressive practices against the majority Shiite population.

U.S. officials were largely left in the dark of the planning and timing of the operation, defense officials said. The Pentagon said Monday it was not conducting airstrikes in support of the Tikrit offensive because the Iraqi government did not ask for such help. [Continue reading…]

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Main U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group disbanding, joining Islamists

The Washington Post: The Syrian rebel group Harakat al-Hazm, one of the White House’s most trusted militias fighting President Bashar al-Assad, collapsed Sunday, with activists posting a statement online from frontline commanders saying they are disbanding their units and folding them into brigades aligned with a larger Islamist insurgent alliance distrusted by Washington.

The statement bore Hazm’s stamp and logo, and according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group, the brigade’s fighting units are disbanding. Emails and phone calls to Hazm’s political leaders were not returned.

“Given what is happening on the Syrian front, offenses by the criminal regime with its cronies against Syria as a whole, and Aleppo specifically, and in an effort to stem the bloodshed of the fighters, the Hazm movement announces its dissolution,” the statement said.

Charles Lister, an analyst with U.S, think tank Brookings, described in a tweet the implosion of the group as “absolutely remarkable.” [Continue reading…]

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SNL skit targets American militarism, Toyota — and ISIS?

When an American man reaches that juncture in life where he’s ready to buy a Toyota Camry, he can be confident he’s now living the American dream: a reliable car, a house in the suburbs and then the final act that will prove his boldness and manhood — he tearfully ships off his teenage daughter to join the U.S. Army.

I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, so I didn’t see this ad until today. My reaction to Toyota’s message: WTF?

It seems like the writers for Saturday Night Live also took exception to Toyota’s message and thought that it was worth a parody — a parody which a segment of SNL’s audience thought was in bad taste.

As much as some viewers are applauding SNL for being so bold as to take on ISIS, I think that what the show really did was use ISIS to give themselves some cover while taking an indirect punch at U.S. militarism and the Americanist dogma that military service is the closest thing to saintliness.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for Toyota to seize the marketing opportunity that has been staring them in the face for decades: to launch The Technical — a four-wheel drive pickup truck with a factory-installed gun-mount, and “fully loaded” with all the features that an organization like ISIS needs for desert warfare.

But joking aside, when the military history of the 21st century gets written, among the tools of warfare of preeminent importance, the Toyota pickup truck is probably going to rank higher than the drone. And it’s not just any Toyota truck; the truck of choice is the Hilux.

“The Toyota Hilux is everywhere,” says Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and now a fellow of the Center for a New American Security. “It’s the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47. It’s ubiquitous to insurgent warfare. And actually, recently, also counterinsurgent warfare. It kicks the hell out of the Humvee.”

Whether you’re an American dad, or you’re fighting for ISIS, there’s only #OneBoldChoice: Toyota.

Now if there’s any way Toyota could trick ISIS to trade in their Hiluxes for the Toyota Isis minivan — that’s right, Toyota makes an “Isis” — there’s no question the militant group could swiftly be defeated.

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When detailing plans to retake Mosul, Pentagon officials forgot the U.S. no longer controls Iraq

Foreign Policy reports: The Pentagon is walking back its public plans to help Iraqi forces seize Mosul from the Islamic State, chastened by a backlash in Baghdad for failing to inform leaders there before releasing details of the springtime offensive.

Angered Iraqi officials said the unusual level of detail released about the Mosul operation — including that it would likely launch in April or May — created the appearance that the U.S. is leading the battle, and not Iraqi forces.

“We need all parties to focus on their part in the eradication and defeat of Daesh,” Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily told Foreign Policy on Tuesday. He was referring to the Arabic name for the Islamic State.

Faily also signaled it was a mistake for the Pentagon to have discussed the timing of the offensive with reporters last week at a briefing by a senior U.S. Central Command official who, among other details, estimated up to 25,000 Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers would join the fight. [Continue reading…]

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How U.S.-run prisons in Iraq became boot camps for ISIS

From ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan: Early on, [Major General Doug] Stone [who went on to control the entire detention and interrogation program in Iraq] said, he came across a detainee whose listed surname was Baghdadi. There was nothing inherently eyebrow-raising about that — insurgents often take their city or country of origin (or the city or country they’d like people to think they’re from) as a nom de guerre. But this Baghdadi stood apart from others. Stone said, “His name came up on a list of people that I had. They listed him as a guy who had significant al-Qaeda links. The psychologists rated him as someone who was a really strong wannabe — not in the sociopathic category, but a serious guy who [had] a serious plan. He called himself an imam and viewed himself not as a descendant of Muhammad — we had a few of those at Bucca — but someone with a very strong religious orientation. He was holding Sharia court and conducting Friday services from the platform of being an imam.”

This Baghdadi was pensive and hardly a jailhouse troublemaker. “We had hundreds like him in what we termed the ‘leadership category,’” Stone said. “We ended up referring to him as an ‘irreconcilable,’ someone for whom sermons by moderate imams weren’t going to make the slightest difference. So here’s the quiet, unassuming guy who had a very strong religious viewpoint, and what does he do? He starts to meet the ‘generals.’ By that I mean, we had a lot of criminals and guys who were in the Iraqi army who called themselves generals, but they were low-ranking officers in Saddam’s army.” All the high-level former Iraqi military officials and hard-core Baathists, including Saddam himself, were detained at Camp Cropper, another U.S.-run facility based in Baghdad International Airport. Cropper was also the processing center for Bucca detainees. “Some of the generals shared Baghdadi’s religious perspective and joined the takfiris — big beards and all of that.”

Stone said he believes that this man was in fact a decoy sent by ISI to pose as the elusive Abu Omar al-Baghdadi to penetrate Bucca and use his time there to mint new holy warriors. “If you were looking to build an army, prison is the perfect place to do it. We gave them health care, dental, fed them, and, most importantly, we kept them from getting killed in combat. Who needs a safe house in Anbar when there’s an American jail in Basra?” [Continue reading…]

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