How one U.S. soldier blew the whistle on a cold-blooded war crime in Iraq

William Langewiesche writes: Jess Cunningham was a staff sergeant in a mechanized unit of the U.S. Army—Alpha Company, First Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division—during the intensified fighting that accompanied the surge of American troops in Baghdad in 2007. This was his second tour in Iraq, and his first with Alpha Company. He had been a high-school football star in Bakersfield, California, before heading off to war. He had excelled in the army, rising rapidly through the ranks. Now 26, he was strong, alert, and accustomed to battle. He had a bright future.

But he also had a problem. Although Alpha Company appeared from the outside to be like any other infantry unit, neatly integrated into the larger American force structure, on the inside it revolved to an unusual degree around a single personality—that of an imposing first sergeant, a hard-charging 18-year veteran named John Hatley, who dominated the company. Hatley was a burly Texan who spoke with a drawl. He carried his 240 pounds on a six-foot frame, and at the age of 40 still achieved a perfect 300 on the army’s physical-fitness test. He had been the company’s first sergeant for three years and had delayed a promotion to sergeant major in order to return with his men to the fight. He reveled in his power. He made it clear that the rules of engagement that mattered were the ones he alone defined. Cunningham had never encountered such a sergeant before. He himself was a team player and not immune to Hatley’s leadership qualities, but over the first few months in Baghdad he began to struggle privately with doubts. The company called itself Wolf Pack and sometimes seemed to act like one. Cunningham did not question the war itself, but he wondered about the treatment of Iraqi detainees and the actions of certain gunners who seemed to be playing loose with their justifications for killing.

Alpha Company’s area of operations lay in southwest Baghdad, one of the most active battlefields in Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites were fighting over the neighborhoods, and insurgents from both groups were warring on American patrols. The U.S. mission was to promote stability. This boiled down to convoys of recent American high-school graduates lumbering around in Bradley troop carriers and armored Humvees from which they could barely see, struggling to distinguish combatants from civilians in an indecipherable city, and waiting to get attacked. Cunningham served as a squad leader in the company’s Second Platoon. They were based with Hatley’s headquarters platoon at a fortified combat outpost called Angry Dragon, which also housed the company’s Tactical Operations Center, an office and briefing room known as Wolf Den on the radios. Wolf Pack, Wolf Den, Angry Dragon—the bravura was probably useful, given the youth of the soldiers. The engagements were frequent and anything but child’s play. They resulted in uncounted numbers of Iraqi deaths. By contrast, the accounting of American losses was carefully done. During Alpha Company’s 14 months on the ground, six soldiers were killed and three were gravely wounded—a toll that amounted to a casualty rate of about 15 percent in Cunningham’s platoon alone. The first soldier died four months into the fight, on February 27, 2007. He was a tall, 22-year-old staff sergeant named Karl Soto-Pinedo, who was shot in the head by a sniper after he rose too high above the hatch of his Bradley. Three weeks later, on March 17, 2007, a 30-year-old specialist named Marieo Guerrero was lost to a jerry-rigged land mine, an I.E.D. [Continue reading…]

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In Iraq, everything started going downhill again after Maliki was allowed to stay in power despite losing the election

Often described as “the most influential Brit in Iraq,” Emma Sky arrived there in 2003 after having been an opponent of the war.

Tim Lewis: The title of your book – The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq – makes it clear you view the west’s involvement in the country since 2003 as a grand failure but also a preventable one. What were the biggest mistakes?

Emma Sky: There have been a series. The whole experience of Iraq is a rollercoaster and those who didn’t watch it closely just assumed it was going to be disastrous because of the way we went in. But there was that period in the middle – the surge from 2007 to 2009 – when those of us who spent a long time there, we saw things really improving. By 2009, we thought – and the Iraqis thought – that the country was going in the right direction. The big mistake of the Obama administration was in 2010, after a good election, not helping to broker the formation of the government and deciding to keep Nouri al-Maliki in power despite him having lost the election. Everything from then started to go downhill again and it’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening now.

It could have been very different?

Maliki went after all his rivals, pushing them out, and things just started to unravel. So watching that you think, over 150,000 Iraqis lost their lives, almost 200 British soldiers, 4,500 American military. After that sacrifice, we hoped to leave Iraq in a better place. So it’s awful to watch it now.

Although a British civilian, you were the political adviser to the US general Ray Odierno from 2007 to 2010 – you’ve been described as “the most influential Brit in Iraq” for almost a decade. Is that how you felt?

When you are working so hard, you don’t sit there thinking, oh, look at me, I’m so important. But in the role I had, I felt I was able to influence the general. He valued the different perspective that I brought. Full credit to him, because they always tell you that you must surround yourself with people who are different to you, but people never do. General Odierno told me he wanted somebody to tell him when he was making mistakes. So I thought, Oooh [rubs hands together], what a great job! Nobody ever asks you to tell them when they’re screwing up.

When you told the Iraq inquiry – also known as the Chilcot inquiry – how you ended up in Iraq, they scarcely believed you. Can you explain?

Well, I was working for the British Council and I volunteered to go to Iraq in 2003. The British government said it would be for three months, before we handed the country back to the Iraqis. I was against the war and I thought this would be penance: I can go and apologise to everybody and help them rebuild. I’d spent a decade working Israel-Palestine, so I’d got experience in conflict mediation and institution development, and I thought I’d be useful. I didn’t know what my job was going to be, but when I arrived in Kirkuk, I was told: “Great! You are now the governor coordinator, you are in charge of the province.” It was a slightly embarrassing position to be put in. [Continue reading…]

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Torture, false information and the Iraq war

David Abramowitz writes: In 2002, I was the chief counsel for the Democratic members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. At the time, the committee was considering legislation authorizing the use of force against Iraq. The central justification raised by the George W. Bush administration revolved around Iraq’s suspected and continued possession of weapons of mass destruction.

In the fall of 2002, the committee received a briefing on Iraq from the intelligence community. I remember thinking that almost all of the details presented to us by the Bush administration were old and familiar. It was concerning but not alarming. In fact, I felt a growing sense that there was no new information to suggest that Iraq was a real threat, and certainly not one that could justify U.S. military action.

Then the CIA briefer dropped a bombshell. With the great confidence that was this briefer’s hallmark, he stated that Iraq had provided chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda members.

I remember the jarring impact of this revelation. I thought to myself that if we knew that, perhaps there was even more information we didn’t know, including a possible transfer of such weapons to Al Qaeda. I looked over to one of the senior staffers who shared my reaction: This was serious.

I had attended hundreds of briefings in my 10 years of working on Capitol Hill, but very few resulted in such an immediate change in my thinking or had such an emotional impact. Until that day, I had been dubious that the regime of Saddam Hussein would cooperate in any meaningful way with jihadists. Afterward, when lawmakers or staffers asked me about my own view, I would point to this intelligence as an important consideration. And I believe that lawmakers very much took the CIA briefer’s dramatic revelation into account when deciding whether to vote to use military force against Iraq.

We now know that this information was obtained from a single source. According to the New York Times, the individual, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, was captured in Pakistan, transferred to a military base in Afghanistan and then rendered to authorities in Egypt, where he claims he was tortured. Indeed, even at the time, his statements on Iraq were disputed within the intelligence community, and the Senate report on prewar intelligence indicates that no corroborating evidence was ever found. Once back in U.S. custody, Libi recanted his statements, and the CIA withdrew intelligence based on these remarks.

I am not writing to re-litigate the reasons we went to war with Iraq. And I recognize that this information was coerced by a foreign intelligence service, not by the CIA.

But we need to remember that nearly 4,500 U.S. service members lost their lives in a conflict that was justified, in part, using unreliable information obtained via torture. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis also lost their lives. And we are still dealing with the ramifications of our intervention there. [Continue reading…]

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Why are the ISIS commanders so much better than the Iraqi Army?

Foreign Policy reports: One reason for the imbalance is military skill and commitment to the fight: the Iraqi security forces that are taking the field are facing off against battle-hardened officers trained under Saddam Hussein who have spent the past 12 years moving in and out of Anbar Province fighting both American and Shiite-led Iraqi forces.

Those former officers, in turn, have been given relative freedom to operate, with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delegating command responsibility to his field commanders, said Ahmed Ali, a senior fellow at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, a Washington based nonprofit that develops programs to help Iraqi youth. Having grown up in the Sunni heartland of Anbar, these leaders understand the terrain very well, “and their level of intelligence collection is straight out of the Baath Party playbook. Very precise, very personal,” Ali said.

The ISIS commanders, Ali said, also know the province’s tribes and social structures, helping the group identify which it can be co-opted and which would need to be defeated militarily.

The Islamic State’s advantages on the battlefield represent a long-term unintended byproduct of the U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi army in 2003 after Saddam Hussein’s regime melted away. A generation of Sunni military expertise was essentially turned out onto the streets and eventually lost to the insurgency. The situation worsened in recent years when then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government purged even more experienced Sunni commanders from the security forces and promoted less capable Shiite officers and commanders.

For years, Maliki’s Shiite-led army and police acted as a sectarian militia, brutally suppressing Sunni leadership and taking orders directly from the prime minister, who appointed loyalists and consolidated all military decision making in his own office. Many Sunnis, furious at their treatment, began coalescing around the tribal militias and Islamist groups that eventually evolved into the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Far from facing the truth, the U.S. is telling new lies about Iraq

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…]

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The $25 million building in Afghanistan nobody needed

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…]

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12 years later, a mystery of chemical exposure in Iraq clears slightly

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…]

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Hassan Hassan: Understanding the historical context out of which ISIS arose

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.

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U.S. military personnel have been convicted of $50 million worth of crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan

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…]

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‘Mission Accomplished’ was 12 years ago. What’s been the cost since then?

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.

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Four Blackwater guards sentenced in Iraq shootings of 31 unarmed civilians

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.

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Petraeus returns to Iraq

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.

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The CIA just declassified the document that supposedly justified the Iraq invasion

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…]

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Unsettled at home, veterans volunteer to fight ISIS

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.

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The enigma of survival

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…]

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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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Why the fight against ISIS is failing

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…]

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America’s alignment with Iranian interests is undermining the fight against ISIS

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…]

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