Gary Younge writes: A couple of weeks ago, the Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush was asked in an interview with Fox News whether, knowing what he knows now, he would have invaded Iraq. It’s the kind of predictable question for which most people assumed he would have a coherent answer. They were wrong. Jeb blew it. “I would have [authorised the invasion],” he said. “And so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”
For the next few days, as he was hammered from left and right, he flailed around like a four-star general in search of a plausible exit strategy. In a number of do-overs, he answered the same question with “I don’t know”, “I didn’t understand the question”, and “no” before finally falling back on the perennial Republican default of blaming everything on Barack Obama.
“You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever,” writes Tim O’Brien in his novel about Vietnam, The Things They Carried. “In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unravelling the deeper meaning.”
Iraq is one such story. The troops may have left, but the fallout from the conflict lingers in the American polity, clinging to its elites like stale cigarette smoke to an Aran sweater – it stinks, and they just can’t shake it. Not only did it trip Jeb up, it remains the abiding, shameful legacy of his brother George Bush’s administration. And, as Jeb hinted, it dogged Clinton during her 2008 presidential bid, too.
Back then, she claimed if she’d known what George Bush would do with the authority to go to war (ie go to war with it) she would never have given it to him. That didn’t fly. Now she concedes her vote was an unqualified “mistake”.
Extracting a moral from this disaster would demand “unravelling the deeper meaning” of America’s military impulses, the popular consent it enjoys and the craven political assent it is accorded.
It would require an assessment of why so many Americans supported the war for so long, how an ostensibly independent media not only failed to challenge the state but actively capitulated to it, and why nobody has paid the price for any of these mistakes. In short, it would demand a reckoning with American power – how it works, as well as whom it works for, and to what end. [Continue reading…]
Megan McCloskey and Vince Dixon report: This is a story about how the U.S. military built a lavish headquarters in Afghanistan that wasn’t needed, wasn’t wanted and wasn’t ever used—at a cost to American taxpayers of at least $25 million.
From start to finish, this 64,000-square-foot mistake could easily have been avoided. Not one, not two, but three generals tried to kill it. And they were overruled, not because they were wrong, but seemingly because no one wanted to cancel a project Congress had already given them money to build.
In the process, the story of “64K” reveals a larger truth: Once wartime spending gets rolling there’s almost no stopping it. In Afghanistan, the reconstruction effort alone has cost $109 billion, with questionable results.
The 64K project was meant for troops due to flood the country during the temporary surge in 2010. But even under the most optimistic estimates, the project wouldn’t be completed until six months after those troops would start going home.
Along the way, the state-of-the-art building, plopped in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, nearly doubled in cost and became a running joke among Marines. The Pentagon could have halted construction at many points—64K made it through five military reviews over two years—but didn’t, saying it wanted the building just in case U.S. troops ended up staying. (They didn’t.) [Continue reading…]
C.J. Chivers reports: The toxic vapors acted quickly against the Second Platoon of the 811th Ordnance Company, whose soldiers were moving abandoned barrels out of an Iraqi Republican Guard warehouse in 2003. The building, one soldier said, was littered with dead birds.
As the soldiers pushed the barrels over and began rolling them, some of the contents leaked, they said, filling the air with a bitter, penetrating smell. Soon, many were dizzy and suffering from running noses and tearing eyes. A few were vomiting, disoriented, tingling or numb.
After the soldiers staggered outside for air, multiple detection tests indicated the presence of nerve agent. Others suggested blister agent, too. The results seemed to confirm the victims’ fear that they had stumbled upon unused stocks of Iraq’s chemical weapons.
From Camp Taji, where the barrels had been found, more than 20 exposed soldiers were evacuated in helicopters to a military hospital in Balad, where they were met by soldiers wearing gas masks and ordered to undress before being allowed inside for medical care.
“They drew a box in the sand and had armed guards and were like: ‘Do not get out of that box. Do not get out of that box,’ ” said Nathan Willie, a private first class at the time. “I was kind of freaked out.”
Since last fall, the United States military has acknowledged that American soldiers found thousands of abandoned chemical weapons in Iraq, and that hundreds of troops notified the military medical system that they believed they had been exposed to them. The military acknowledged the exposures after years of secrecy — and of denying medical tracking and official recognition to victims — only after an investigation by The New York Times.
Even then, the affliction of the 811th Ordnance Company had quietly remained one of the unsolved mysteries of the Iraq war, and a parable of what several of the victims describe as the corrosive effects of the government’s secrecy on troop welfare and public trust. [Continue reading…]
At the Woodrow Wilson Center on March 12, Hassan Hassan, co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, talked about the rise and leadership of ISIS in the Middle East.
Center for Public Integrity: U.S. Army Specialist Stephanie Charboneau sat at the center of a complex trucking network in Forward Operating Base Fenty, near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, that daily distributed tens of thousands of gallons of what soldiers called “liquid gold”: the refined petroleum that fueled the international coalition’s thirsty vehicles, planes, and generators.
A prominent sign in the base read: “The Army Won’t Go If The Fuel Don’t Flow.” But Charboneau, 31, a mother of two from Washington state, felt alienated after a supervisor’s harsh rebuke. Her work was a dreary routine of recording fuel deliveries in a computer and escorting trucks past a gate. But it was soon to take a dark turn into high-value crime.
She began an affair with a civilian, Jonathan Hightower, who worked for a Pentagon contractor that distributed fuel from Fenty, and one day in March 2010, he told her about “this thing going on” at other U.S. military bases around Afghanistan, she recalled in a recent telephone interview.
Soldiers were selling the U.S. military’s fuel to Afghan locals on the side, and pocketing the proceeds. When Hightower suggested they start doing the same, Charboneau said, she agreed.
In so doing, Charboneau contributed to thefts by U.S. military personnel of at least $15 million worth of fuel since the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And eventually she became one of at least 115 enlisted personnel and military officers convicted since 2005 of committing theft, bribery, and contract rigging crimes valued at $52 million during their deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a comprehensive tally of court records by the Center for Public Integrity. [Continue reading…]
Huffington Post: On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush delivered a now-infamous speech aboard an aircraft carrier in which he declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” and that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” That speech, given less than two months after the U.S. initiated combat operations in Iraq, has been derisively labeled “Mission Accomplished” after the banner used as a backdrop.
The truth is that the American role in Iraq was far from finished, with the overwhelming majority of deaths occurring and most of the money spent since that speech 12 years ago today.
In the years since “Mission Accomplished,” some 149,053 civilians have been killed, compared to about 7,412 prior to the speech, according to the website Iraq Body Count. Since the speech, 4,637 military members in the Iraq War coalition led by the U.S. have lost their lives, versus 172 prior, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. As of September 2014, total U.S. expenditures on the war in Iraq totaled $815.8 billion, about 93 percent of which was spent after 2003. That cost is more than 16 times the Bush administration’s original projection.
The Washington Post: A federal judge Monday sentenced a former Blackwater Worldwide security guard to life in prison and three others to 30-year terms for killing 14 unarmed civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007, an incident that fomented deep resentments about the accountability of American security forces during one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq war.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District rejected a claim of innocence by Nicholas A. Slatten, 31, of Sparta, Tenn., who received the life sentence after being convicted of murder in October for firing what prosecutors said were the first shots in the civilian massacre.
The three others — Paul A. Slough, 35, of Keller, Tex.; Evan S. Liberty, 32, of Rochester, N.H.; and Dustin L. Heard, 33, of Maryville, Tenn. — were sentenced to 30 years plus one day after being convicted of multiple counts of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter.
Retired General David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. troops during the 2007-2008 surge, was back in Iraq last week for the first time in more than three years.
In his most expansive comments yet on the latest crisis in Iraq and Syria, he answered written questions from The Washington Post’s Liz Sly:
I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran.
These militia returned to the streets of Iraq in response to a fatwa by Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani at a moment of extreme danger. And they prevented the Islamic State from continuing its offensive into Baghdad. Nonetheless, they have, in some cases, cleared not only Sunni extremists but also Sunni civilians and committed atrocities against them. Thus, they have, to a degree, been both part of Iraq’s salvation but also the most serious threat to the all-important effort of once again getting the Sunni Arab population in Iraq to feel that it has a stake in the success of Iraq rather than a stake in its failure. Longer term, Iranian-backed Shia militia could emerge as the preeminent power in the country, one that is outside the control of the government and instead answerable to Tehran.
Beyond Iraq, I am also profoundly worried about the continuing meltdown of Syria, which is a geopolitical Chernobyl. Until it is capped, it is going to continue to spew radioactive instability and extremist ideology over the entire region.
Any strategy to stabilize the region thus needs to take into account the challenges in both Iraq and Syria. It is not sufficient to say that we’ll figure them out later.
What went wrong in Iraq?
There was certainly a sense in Washington that Iraq should be put in our rearview mirror, that whatever happened here was somewhat peripheral to our national security and that we could afford to redirect our attention to more important challenges. Much of this sentiment was very understandable given the enormous cost of our efforts in Iraq and the endless frustrations that our endeavor here encountered.
In retrospect, a similar attitude existed with respect to the civil war in Syria — again, a sense that developments in Syria constituted a horrible tragedy to be sure, but a tragedy at the outset, at least, that did not seem to pose a threat to our national security.
But in hindsight, few, I suspect, would contend that our approach was what it might — or should — have been. In fact, if there is one lesson that I hope we’ve learned from the past few years, it is that there is a linkage between the internal conditions of countries in the Middle East and our own vital security interests.
The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East. It is ultimately part of the problem, not the solution. The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State. While the U.S. and Iran may have convergent interests in the defeat of Daesh, our interests generally diverge. The Iranian response to the open hand offered by the U.S. has not been encouraging.
Iranian power in the Middle East is thus a double problem. It is foremost problematic because it is deeply hostile to us and our friends. But it is also dangerous because, the more it is felt, the more it sets off reactions that are also harmful to our interests — Sunni radicalism and, if we aren’t careful, the prospect of nuclear proliferation as well.
You have had some interactions with Qassem Soleimani in the past. Could you tell us about those?
In the spring of 2008, Iraqi and coalition forces engaged in what emerged as a decisive battle between the Iraqi Security Forces and the Iranian-supported Shiite militias.
In the midst of the fight, I received word from a very senior Iraqi official that Qassem Soleimani had given him a message for me. When I met with the senior Iraqi, he conveyed the message: “General Petraeus, you should be aware that I, Qassem Soleimani, control Iran’s policy for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.” The point was clear: He owned the policy and the region, and I should deal with him.
Jason Leopold reports: Thirteen years ago, the intelligence community concluded in a 93-page classified document used to justify the invasion of Iraq that it lacked “specific information” on “many key aspects” of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.
But that’s not what top Bush administration officials said during their campaign to sell the war to the American public. Those officials, citing the same classified document, asserted with no uncertainty that Iraq was actively pursuing nuclear weapons, concealing a vast chemical and biological weapons arsenal, and posing an immediate and grave threat to US national security.
Congress eventually concluded that the Bush administration had “overstated” its dire warnings about the Iraqi threat, and that the administration’s claims about Iraq’s WMD program were “not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting.” But that underlying intelligence reporting — contained in the so-called National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was used to justify the invasion — has remained shrouded in mystery until now. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: In the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya, [Patrick] Maxwell [a 29-year-old Iraq war veteran from Austin, Texas] was greeted at the airport by the Kurdish lieutenant. Soon after, he befriended one of the few foreign volunteers there, a Canadian veteran named Dillon Hillier, who had served in Afghanistan.
“We both thought it was important to help, to not sit back and watch it happen,” Mr. Hillier said in a phone interview from his home in Ontario.
The pair ended up in a ragtag infantry battalion on the front lines near Kirkuk, eating meals of rice and flatbread, traveling in beat-up, sometimes bullet-pocked trucks and sleeping on the floors of shipping containers.
“This is just like back in Al Anbar Province,” Mr. Maxwell said with a laugh in a video he made while speeding to the front lines in the back of a Ford pickup, holding a belt-fed machine gun. “Except we have no safety gear, no medical support and no air support.”
Much of the time he was kept away from the fighting, providing security for pesh merga generals, while occasionally manning sniper positions on the front line.
Mr. Maxwell said fighting was rare during his time on the Kurdish lines. “It was more like a World War I standoff,” he said.
In the seven weeks he was in Iraq, he became disenchanted as he watched a procession of American outcasts come to volunteer, including a man kicked out of the Marines who had arrest warrants in the United States and a biker with lip piercings, implanted fangs and “necromancer” written across his black leather jacket.
“Guys who had nothing to live for and just wanted to lay down bodies,” Mr. Maxwell said.
His time with the pesh merga abruptly ended in mid-January, he said, when American Special Operations forces advising the Kurds spotted him at a base near Kirkuk and State Department officials told pesh merga leaders that American civilians should not be in combat.
Mr. Maxwell said that he was removed from the front and that a few days later he and Mr. Hillier flew home in frustration.
“There was no point being there,” he said. “Politics had gotten in the way.”
In January when Mr. Maxwell arrived at Kennedy International Airport in New York with more than 100 pounds of military gear, he assumed he might be detained and possibly charged for fighting with the pesh merga, but no one stopped him. [Continue reading..]
The Daily Beast spoke to another American volunteer, referred to as “Patrick” — not his real name: Patrick’s journey to Syria started when he contacted a recruiter affiliated with the Lions of Rojava Facebook page, which specializes in recruiting foreigners for the YPG. The YPG is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and is perhaps best known in the West for its defense of Kobani and the use of its all-female YPJ units. Though both are Kurdish and have at times fought together, the YPG and YPJ are not the Peshmerga of neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.
“I decided to join the fight against ISIS because…at a certain point in my life I made a promise to defend my nation against enemies foreign and domestic, and I decided that ISIS presents a clear threat not only to the people of Kurdistan, not only to the people of the Middle East, but eventually will threaten our national security at home,” Patrick said.
He added that some of the foreign fighters he met had previous military experience, though he wouldn’t say whether he did. He said he doesn’t have an exact count of just how many foreigners are with the YPG but that it could be as many as 100-plus — now. When he initially arrived in Syria, the YPG was seeking to form all-Western units, but Patrick said these units were later broken apart to allow the YPG command to structure message control, and some of the foreigners even had their passports and phones taken away. Patrick said the YPG told the fighters this was because they feared ISIS might gain a propaganda victory if they killed or captured a foreigner and discovered their passport. He said he believed, however, it might have had just as much to do with ensuring the fighters couldn’t leave at will or speak to anyone on the outside without a YPG minder present.
From there, Patrick said, the foreigners were trained on the YPG’s aging weapons systems and occasionally manned checkpoints and went on patrols, but they never participated in any real battles.
“The Western fighters who spend time with YPG soon realize they’re not going to fight. I did not meet one single person, one single Westerner, that didn’t catch on to the fact that they were never intended to fight and they were being used as propaganda,” he said.
Sally Satel writes: The evil hour descended on David Morris in the summer of 2009. The former marine and war reporter was in a theater watching a movie with his then girlfriend and suddenly found himself pacing the lobby with no memory of having left his seat. Later, his girlfriend explained that Morris had fled after an explosion occurred onscreen.
He began having dreams of his buddies being ripped apart. When awake, he would imagine innocent items—an apple or a container of Chinese takeout—blowing up. Pathological vigilance took root: “Preparing for bed was like getting ready for a night patrol.” The dreams persisted. “Part of me,” he admits, “was ashamed of the dreams, of the realization that I was trapped inside a cliché: the veteran so obsessed with his own past that even his unconscious made love to it every night.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is the subject of two new books, one by Morris and another by war reporter Mac McClelland. The symptoms are crippling: relentless nightmares, unbidden waking images, hyperarousal, sleeplessness, and phobias. As a diagnosis, it has existed colloquially for generations—“shell shock” is one name that survives in the modern idiom—and it has particular resonance because of this generation’s wars. (Most soldiers are spared it, though the public tends to think they are not. A 2012 poll found that most people believe that most post-9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD. The actual rate has been estimated at between two and 17 percent.)
Morris thinks the symptoms—a body and mind reacting in fear long after the threat to life and limb is gone—hardly encompass the experience of PTSD. Historically, we might have sought out not only shrinks but also “poetry, our families, or the clergy for solace post horror.” Profitably, Morris turns to everyone: the Greeks, the great poets of World War I, historians, anthropologists, and yes, psychiatrists and psychologists.
From such wide consultation comes a masterful synthesis. The Evil Hours interweaves memoir with a cultural history of war’s psychic aftermath. Morris chronicles the development of PTSD as an official diagnosis and its earlier incarnations in other wars. From Homer’s Odyssey to the venerated war poets, from the crusade for recognition by organized psychiatry to the modern science of fear and resilience, Morris gives a sweeping view of the condition, illuminated by meditation on sacrifice and danger and, in his words, “the enigma of survival.” [Continue reading…]
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…]
Sarah Leah Whitson writes: Six months and 16,000 airstrikes into the campaign to defeat the Islamic State, with less than 1% of the territory it held in Iraq recovered, an honest accounting leads to only one conclusion: The U.S.-led strategy is failing.
With the effort focused almost exclusively on a military defeat of the armed group, also known as ISIS, neither the Iraqi government nor its anti-ISIS allies – Iran included – have seriously addressed the reforms and accountability for abuses that could earn back the support of Iraq’s Sunni population. The fragmentation of Iraq’s fighting forces into unaccountable sectarian militias responsible for horrific abuses against Iraqi civilians is part of Iraq’s slide into a broken state that no amount of foreign aid and military intervention will be likely to put back together.
Despite the grievances underlying initial Sunni support for ISIS, the anti-ISIS coalition has focused almost exclusively on an airstrikes campaign, with Shi’a militias supported by Iran as the primary boots on the ground.
The stunning takeover by ISIS of a massive swath of Iraqi territory testified to the alienation of Sunni communities. Many Sunnis welcomed ISIS fighters as “liberators” from the sectarian oppression of government forces. But let’s not forget how Iraq got to that point – with the U.S.-led Iraq war that displaced a dictator but resulted in an abusive occupation and destructive civil war, leaving more than a million dead. [Continue reading…]
Left Foot Forward: ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, is brilliantly easy to read. Concise yet thorough the book charts the history of a group, “[a]t once sensationalized and underestimated,” that is simultaneously a terrorist organisation, mafia, conventional army, sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus, propaganda machine and the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime which controls an area the size of Britain in the heart of the Middle East.
The book begins with an underemphasised point: neither the Islamic State (ISIS) nor its governing method – extreme violence coupled with distributing stolen oil revenue and extortion – is new. The United States battled ISIS, then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), as the US tried to stabilise and democratise Iraq in the last decade. Moreover, ISIS is built out of the ruins of the Saddam regime.
In the late 1980s, Saddam launched the Faith Campaign and “Islamised his regime”. The campaign pushed a hardline Salafism combined with a cult of the leader, and involved setting up of elaborate networks of patronage, informants, militias and weapons to control the religious institutions and prevent a renewed Shi’a uprising as followed Saddam’s eviction from Kuwait in 1991. In tandem, Saddam’s deputy, Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, to this day an important insurgent, set up smuggling networks into neighbouring States. These networks would come under ISIS’ control as the Ba’athist-Salafist remnants of the regime fused with foreign al-Qaeda forces in the post-Saddam insurgency.
ISIS was initially led by a Jordanian drug-taker and street-thug turned religious militant named Ahmad al-Khalaylah. Khalaylah had arrived in Afghanistan in time to see the Red Army leave, and then been imprisoned when he tried to take jihad home. In prison, Khalaylah gained status over his mentor, al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and migrated to Taliban Afghanistan in 1999, where he was given start-up funds for a terrorism camp by Osama bin Laden. The world would come to know Khalaylah as Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, and his group would become AQI in 2004. Zarqawi’s supporters would brand him the “Shaykh of the Slaughterers” because of his fondness for decapitating prisoners on film.
While AQI primarily stayed in Iraq, Zarqawi often targeted the homeland he fled: the first attack of the Iraqi insurgency was against the Jordanian Embassy in August 2003; and there was a massive attack against hotels in Amman in November 2005
In post-Saddam Iraq, many Sunni Arabs joined the insurgency to thwart Shi’a power, and others joined because they were made jobless by the disbanding of the army. If the insurgents were not radicalised beforehand they were after time in American prisons, which were “little more than social-networking furloughs for jihadists”.
“If you were looking to build an army, prison is the perfect place to do it,” one expert says. “We gave them health care, dental, fed them, and, most importantly, we kept them from getting killed in combat.” AQI also actively infiltrated the US prisons to help make them jihadist production facilities. [Continue reading…]
In a review of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War, by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, Danny Postel writes:
I was reluctant to review this book. With all the dramatic developments in the Middle East today–the ISIS crisis, the siege of Kobanê, the deepening nightmare in Syria, the escalating repression in Egypt, the fate of Tunisia’s democratic transition, the sectarianization of regional conflicts driven by the Saudi-Iranian rivalry–delving back into the 2003 invasion of Iraq seemed rather less than urgent. It’s hard enough just to keep up with the events unfolding day-to-day in the region. Reading–let alone reviewing–a detailed study of the internal processes that led to the United States toppling Saddam Hussein over a decade ago seemed remote, if not indeed a distraction.
But I’m glad I set these reservations aside and took the assignment. This forcefully argued and meticulously researched (with no fewer than 1,152 footnotes, many of which are full-blown paragraphs) book turns out to be enormously relevant to the present moment, on at least three fronts:
(1) ISIS emerged from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, which formed in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without the 2003 invasion, there would be no ISIS as we know it — and the region’s political landscape would look very different.
(2) The US Senate report on CIA torture has brought back into focus the rogues gallery of the Bush-Cheney administration — the same cast of characters who engineered the 2003 Iraq invasion. This book shines a heat lamp on that dark chapter and many of its protagonists.
(3) There is talk of a neoconservative comeback in Washington. This thoroughly discredited but zombie-like group are now angling for the ear of Hillary Clinton, who might be the next US president. Ahmad’s book provides a marvelously illuminating anatomy of the neocons, which has lessons that apply directly to this movement’s potentially ominous next chapter.
The central question Ahmad attempts to answer is: Why did the 2003 Iraq War happen? In one of the book’s most valuable sections, felicitously titled ‘Black Gold and Red Herrings’, he goes through several prevalent explanations/theories and takes them apart one by one:
Oil. ‘If Iraq was invaded for oil,’ Ahmad writes, ‘then the US was remarkably negligent in securing the prize’. Iraq awarded its first major post-invasion oil concessions in 2009, and the big winners? Norway, France, China and Russia. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: A decision to delay a long-awaited official report into Britain’s role in the Iraq War until after a general election in May drew accusations of a whitewash on Wednesday and demands for British voters to be given its findings.
The investigation, headed by former civil servant John Chilcot, was set up six years ago to learn lessons from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq which ousted Saddam Hussein and its aftermath. Britain was the U.S. main ally in the war despite widespread public opposition.
Rose Gentle, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, said she was disgusted the report had taken so long to come out.
“We just feel totally let down, we just feel it’s going to be a total whitewash now,” she told BBC television.
The latest delay, said to be necessary to allow those criticized to respond, adds to a string of hold-ups ascribed in part to U.S. sensitivities about releasing exchanges between then-leaders U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. [Continue reading…]
Among opponents of the war in Iraq there remains a considerable amount of bitterness that none of the authors of the war were held accountable for their actions.
The past cannot be so easily swept aside, many reasonably argue.
But alongside this righteous insistence that the past must not be forgotten, there seems to be a simultaneous eagerness to forget Iraq itself.
America, like a hit-and-run driver, must keep facing forward — no point looking back to a scene of carnage if one lacks the skill to help… Or so the sentiment seems to go.
President Obama might have just been serving his own interests — anticipating a similar need in the future to be excused by his own successors for authorizing extrajudicial killings — when he enunciated his belief that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards” and not hold torturers accountable. But he was also expressing the spirit of a nation that has so often preferred to bury and forget its crimes and mistakes, seeming to regard amnesia as an aid to progress.
The Wall Street Journal reports: The battles to control Fallujah were the most devastating of the Iraq war. To rebuild after the fighting subsided, the Americans needed local Iraqi partners. Gaining their trust was Mr.[John Kael] Weston’s mission.
For most of three years, Mr. Weston was the only [U.S.] diplomat embedded with more than 30,000 Marines and soldiers in Fallujah and Anbar province.
Mr. Weston met Capt. Saad in early 2005 during a long lunch of meat over rice. The American was curious about domestic life in Fallujah. Capt. Saad, a Sunni, told Mr. Weston about his family and talked to Mr. Weston about American politics and policy.
The two men saw eye-to-eye about the need to stamp out al Qaeda and reduce sectarian tensions. They swapped intelligence about Hollywood blockbusters for sale in Fallujah’s black market and stories about their mutual love of German shepherds.
Mr. Weston’s local ties surprised some of his American colleagues, who preferred to keep their Iraqi partners at greater distance. Maj. Gen. Nicholson, then a colonel, recalls a meeting attended by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, where Mr. Weston was introduced by Fallujah’s city-council chairman as “Kael al-Falluji,” using the middle name by which Mr. Weston is known to his friends. The nickname stuck.
Almost every week, a city council leader in Fallujah was assassinated. Capt. Saad’s family also paid a steep price. His younger brother was shot and killed while visiting a mosque.
By 2007, Mr. Weston felt burned out. He said goodbye without fanfare and started a new assignment in Afghanistan.
The two men last saw each other when Mr. Weston returned to Fallujah for Iraq’s elections in 2009. Security and stability had improved, and he saw the grinning Capt. Saad on the street.
“Look, no masks!” the policeman said, referring to facemasks long worn to shield officials’ identities from insurgents.
As the U.S. pulled out its troops from Iraq, Mr. Weston and Capt. Saad used email for updates on work and family. “I often wish I was closer so that we could visit in person,” Mr. Weston wrote in October 2011.
Capt. Saad soon resigned from the police force, tired of corruption in the ranks and eager to pursue his dream of teaching physics. He found a job at a boys’ high school and wrote excitedly to Mr. Weston about having a quieter life.
Mr. Weston quit the State Department and started writing a book about his wartime experiences. Iraq was never far from his mind. The sound of explosives used by the ski patrol at Utah’s Solitude Mountain to reduce avalanche risk reminded him of 155mm howitzers.
Islamic State seized Fallujah in January. On New Year’s Day, Mr. Weston got a harrowing email in broken English from a Fallujah highway-patrol officer with whom he had also kept in touch.
“Al Qaeda flags is over all the goverment buildings…..all the citizens of fallujah start to leave,” wrote the officer. “We are looking for help.”
The frantic messages stopped as suddenly as they had started. The silence left Mr. Weston with no idea if his Fallujah friends were still alive. [Continue reading…]
James Fallows writes: Every institution has problems, and at every stage of U.S. history, some critics have considered the U.S. military overfunded, underprepared, too insular and self-regarding, or flawed in some other way. The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy.
At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.
I have met serious people who claim that the military’s set-apart existence is best for its own interests, and for the nation’s. “Since the time of the Romans there have been people, mostly men but increasingly women, who have volunteered to be the praetorian guard,” John A. Nagl told me. Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who was a combat commander in Iraq and has written two influential books about the modern military. He left the Army as a lieutenant colonel and now, in his late 40s, is the head of the Haverford prep school, near Philadelphia.
“They know what they are signing up for,” Nagl said of today’s troops. “They are proud to do it, and in exchange they expect a reasonable living, and pensions and health care if they are hurt or fall sick. The American public is completely willing to let this professional class of volunteers serve where they should, for wise purpose. This gives the president much greater freedom of action to make decisions in the national interest, with troops who will salute sharply and do what needs to be done.”
I like and respect Nagl, but I completely disagree. As we’ve seen, public inattention to the military, born of having no direct interest in what happens to it, has allowed both strategic and institutional problems to fester.
“A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it,” Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2012. Bacevich himself fought in Vietnam; his son was killed in Iraq. “Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.”
[Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mike Mullen thinks that one way to reengage Americans with the military is to shrink the active-duty force, a process already under way. “The next time we go to war,” he said, “the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean that half a million people who weren’t planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for that.” [Continue reading…]
Mullen says “inconvenienced” — presumably that’s a euphemism for drafted — but Fallows claims that reintroduction of the draft would be “unimaginable.”
Perhaps the draft is not so unimaginable as a policy recommendation as much as it is unimaginable coming from Fallows.
During the Vietnam War, Fallows dodged the draft rather than resisting it, an option he made because, as he wrote in 1975: “What I wanted was to go to graduate school, to get married, and to enjoy those bright prospects I had been taught that life owed me.”
Having told an examining doctor at his Cambridge draft board that he had contemplated suicide, and having thus been deemed “unqualified” for military service, Fallows said: “I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day.”
No doubt that sense of shame would now make it impossible for Fallows to be an advocate for the draft.
But by now dodging this issue, he avoids drilling deeply into the most basic questions about the role of the military in America.
Fallow’s war-weariness and that of many other Americans seems to stem not so much from the fact that the United States has engaged in so much unnecessary war over the last decade or so, than the fact that its military efforts have been such a colossal and expensive failure.
Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.
Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.
Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
That Fallows views the killing of bin Laden as the “one clear strategic success” — without his intention — goes right to the heart of his polemic on America’s chickenhawk culture.
The celebration of bin Laden’s death is no less cowardly than support for wars triggered by 9/11.
If this killing could have served America in any way, it might conceivably have functioned as the symbolic end to an era. Clearly it did not have that effect.
A strategic success would be defined by its effect — by its ability to forestall undesirable outcomes and create a better future. Killing bin Laden had no such effect. Had he been captured and put on trial, it is conceivable that justice would have been served in a constructive way.
The willingness of Americans to support or acquiesce to a succession of military misadventures after 9/11 flowed very much from the fact that so few people were willing to question America’s need for vengeance. Moreover, America’s need to look strong was the product much less of the magnitude of the threat it faced than of a fear of looking weak.
Fallows hopes that America might be able to choose its wars more wisely and win them, but in that hope lies the most basic fallacy: that war should be a matter of choice.
In a war of true necessity, a nation goes to war because it has no choice. It fights not because it is convinced it will win but because the alternative would be worse than war.