Monday, June 30, 2014

June 2014: The Mess in Iraq

After 9-11 when the US was on the brink of attacking Iraq, part of the so called Axis of Evil that included Iran and North Korea (and I am still not sure how North Korea got into this mix), I was worried.  What was I worried about?  I was not worried about toppling Saddam Hussein.  The Iraqi armed forces were no match for the US.  We were simply better trained and certainly much better equipped.  They could not match us on land, sea, or air.  Given our resolve, it was a fait accompli.  
My worry was what would happen after we toppled Saddam and this worry was two fold.  First, I guess that the Iraqi army would never engage the US army in the open battlefield.  I thought they would melt into the background and after our forces “took over” the country, the real war, a guerilla war would start.  I was, sadly, spot on.  The Iraqi forces did not engage the US.  The takeover was easy.  I, like many others, felt ominous when President Bush gave his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech.  In reality, the harder part of the mission was just beginning.  Shortly after, the insurgent or guerrilla war began.  
Secondly, I wondered what kind of government we would install.  The plan was to create the kind of democracy in Iraq that would be the envy and model for the rest of Arab world.  Yeah… that didn’t quite happen either.  We grossly underestimated the divisions between Shiites and Sunnis as well as the between Arabs and Kurds.  We grossly underestimated the wishes and influence of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran in Iraq.  We grossly overestimated the presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq but went about create a fertile ground for their entry and growth in the country.  Lastly, we grossly overestimated our ability to manage the country after the regime change.  I will not even address the gross lack of intelligence regarding the Weapons of Mass Destruction.  
This is not hindsight on my part.  I was concerned about these very issues and expressed them to family and friends when we were rattling our sabers and preparing to go in.  It was not something I wanted to be right about.  I would much rather be writing a piece on how wrong I was in these regards.
As a result, around 4,500 US soldiers were killed and a greater number injured.  We were good at counting our numbers.  I was a bit amazed and a tad upset that we did not give the Iraqi deaths and casualties the same air time.  We kept claiming that our mission there was to help the Iraqi people.  Given that we barely talked about the 100,000 to 200,000 that were killed (the number is not clear).  This just gave me the impression that we did not really care about the Iraqi people as much as we were claiming to care.  
After 9-11, when it was certain that we would be invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, there was a brilliant article in either the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.  It was long and it talked about the experiences and history of other Western Countries, namely England and perhaps France, in Iraq.  While they were able to achieve initial military victories and advances, they were equally ineffective in bringing any significant change to the region in their attempts to either westernize or civilize them.  As I recall, there was a great quote from, I believe, T. E. Lawrence that said something along the lines of over time the sands of Arabia will swallow you.  The article confirmed my feelings that we would win the war and lose the peace.
The article was very good.  I am almost certain it was in the WSJ because it I recall thinking this was not the conservative hawkish viewpoint I would have expected from the WSJ.  I did not save the article.  I remember sharing it with my cousin David who also found it quite interesting.  Of course, I have tried to find this article numerous times in the past few days.  I searched in Google as well as on the NYT and WSJ websites.  I searched all variants and combinations of Iraq, Afghanistan, War, Preparing for War, Lessons from History, T. E. Lawrence, sands of Arabia or Araby, and the years 2001 and 2002.  There was nothing to be found.  I would have like to have re-read this article as I collect my thoughts for this June letter.  
After we ousted Saddam, we set to create a new government.  This was to be the government that would lead Iraq from dictatorship to the model democracy that has so eluded the Arab Islam World.  We organized elections in which Nouri Al-Maliki was elected as Prime Minister.  Did he have any chance of creating a stable inclusive government?  Could any leader have led Iraq to the model democracy we were looking to create?  Is it that the various factions of Shia, Sunni, Kurds, and more will never get along?  Saddam Hussein held it together but as tough and often vicious dictator.  Was the US doomed to fail?  Was al Maliki doomed to be ineffective?  I believe the answer to all of these questions was and is a resounding… yes.
Now a new leader and new movement has emerged.  The leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the organization/ movement/army is called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  ISIS is fundamentalist and brutal.  They have suddenly and quickly taken a large swath of Iraq beginning in the oil rich regions and are headed toward Baghdad.  Abu Bakr was originally part of the insurgency after the US toppled Saddam.  He was captured and spent several years in custody where, apparently, his radicalism and resolve was hardened by association with seasoned Al Qaeda prisoners.  Upon his release from prison he honed his skills and rose in the ranks of ISIS.  He became the leader of ISIS in 2010 when his predecessor was killed by US and Iraqi troops.  The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the war in Syria provided an opportunity for Abu Bakr and ISIS to grow in numbers and become a deadly revolutionary force killing everyone who not only stands in their way but also those who might be a bystander.  ISIS has been called too extreme by Al Qaeda and ISIS claims Al Qaeda is ineffective.  ISIS claims that they are the true successors of Bin Laden.  In their current march across Iraq, they are emphasizing this with extreme brutality.  
The closest thing to a profile on Abu Bakr is a June 15, 2014 Aljazeera artice:  The fierce ambition of ISIL's Baghdadi.  Note that ISIL stands for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  Here is an excerpt:

Not since Osama bin Laden has a leader been held in such reverence among Sunni fighters, scored such stunning and shocking victories, and threatened so much of the established order.

But unlike Bin Laden, whose vast wealth aided his elevation to the "sheikh", Baghdadi has literally fought his way from ordinary beginnings in northern Iraq to lead what is perhaps the Middle East’s most feared irregular armed force.

So emboldened by his success on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, Baghdadi has challenged the very leadership of al-Qaeda, denouncing them publicly as deviating from the cause and stating he is the true heir to Bin Laden's legacy.

But his methods are extreme and his actions repugnant to many - captured enemy fighters are shot or decapitated and their deaths recorded for the internet.

Other armed groups in Syria are attacked as ISIL expands territory and influence, and a strict interpretation of Islam is implemented in the regions under its control - internet videos abound of thieves having their hands severed and adulterers, smokers and those who fail to attend prayer being publicly whipped.

There is a school of thought that we precipitated the current mess in the region.  If we had not invaded Iraq neither Iraq nor Syria would be in the dire straits they are now experiencing.  This may be true.  In our attempt to bring regime change, democracy, and stability to the Iraq, we may have fueled Al Qaeda which spawned ISIS which is now a juggernaut to create a Caliphate.  It is also possible it may have happened anyway maybe not as soon. Nothing galvinizes jihadi radicalism like an invasion from a “Christian” or non-Islamic army.  In one of his first speeches after 9-11, George W. even called the coming military invasion a Crusade.  There was a pretty passionate response in the Muslim world to the use of that term.  
I am oversimplifying things.  I have no choice.  I am not a scholar or state department employee whose job it is to study every nuance of what has gotten us to this point in Iraq.  My view is rather, what we call a 30,000 foot flyby.  It seemed fairly obvious before we invaded Iraq and more obvious in hindsight, that creating the post-Saddam Iraq was the real challenge.  The consensus now is that we failed at this part.  Those that are not big fans of Bush and Cheney blame Bush and Cheney for all this.  Others that are not particularly fans of Obama blame Obama.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  I believe Bush and Cheney got us into a war that had very little probability of succeeding.  I believe that Obama withdrew our troops prematurely (if there was never going to be a right time, then he probably did the right thing). The blame game is definitely partisan.  Tom Toles, the cartoonist for The Washington Post, captured this perfectly in his June 24, 2014 cartoon.  Both parties have united by saying, almost in unison:  “I told you so.”
What is bothersome on one level is that we have very smart people in the State Department and the Military.  How could they not know the risks?  The only logical thing I can think of is that there was a lot of money to be made in if there were a war.  What are the numbers?

·         The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will cost taxpayers $4 trillion to $6 trillion, taking into account the medical care of wounded veterans and expensive repairs to a force depleted by more than a decade of fighting, according to a new study by a Harvard researcher.

the United States has spent almost $2 trillion already for the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those costs, she said, are only a fraction of the ultimate price tag. The biggest ongoing expense will be providing medical care and disability benefits to veterans of the two conflicts. ~ 3/28/13.  

·         Ten contractors received 52 percent of the funds, according to an analysis by the Financial Times that was published Tuesday.

The No. 1 recipient?

Houston-based energy-focused engineering and construction firm KBR, Inc. (NYSE:KBR), which was spun off from its parent, oilfield services provider Halliburton Co. (NYSE:HAL), in 2007.

The company was given $39.5 billion in Iraq-related contracts over the past decade, with many of the deals given without any bidding from competing firms, such as a $568-million contract renewal in 2010 to provide housing, meals, water and bathroom services to soldiers, a deal that led to a Justice Department lawsuit over alleged kickbacks, as reported by Bloomberg. ~ rsn 3;20/13

ISIS has made gains in Iraq and in Syria.  At first, it looked like they were going to roll across Iraq and then perhaps Syria.  Since their initial gains their progression has been slowed.  Their opposition in country was caught flatfooted at first but have since organized aided by US Military advisors, Russian jets, and the Shiites in Iraq literally fighting for their lives.

ISIS believes that the Shiites are apostates and must die in order to forge a pure form of Islam. ~ NYT 6-25-14

This is extreme hatred within the same faith.  It exists in the same country and leaves no wonder why our mission to create that model democracy was doomed to fail.  It seems unlikely there is strong public support for another large military invasion of Iraq. Those that profited from our most recent invasion are probably in favor. 
Perhaps the Russians will step in and try to take control and bring some stability to the region.  They are already committing aircraft.  Perhaps they have forgotten the lesson they learned thirty years ago in Afghanistan
On June 29, ISIS took a bold step and made the following declaration:

BEIRUT, June 29 (Reuters) - An offshoot of al Qaeda which has captured territory in Iraq and Syria has declared itself an Islamic "caliphate" and called on factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance, a statement posted on Islamist websites and Twitter said on Sunday.

The move poses a direct challenge to the central leadership of al Qaeda, which has already disowned it, and to conservative Gulf Arab rulers.

The group, previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and also known as ISIS, has renamed itself "Islamic State" and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as "Caliph" - the head of the state, the statement said.

"He is the imam and khalifah (Caliph) for the Muslims everywhere," the group's spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in the statement, which was translated into several languages and read out in an Arabic audio speech.

"Accordingly, the "Iraq and Sham" (Levant) in the name of the Islamic State is henceforth removed from all official deliberations and communications, and the official name is the Islamic State from the date of this declaration," he said.

I will close with the following.  My friend and Middle East scholar Professor Elyse Semerdjian posted the following on Facebook.  It was a tweet posted by Khaled Diab, a Belgian-Egyptian journalist and writer.  "ISIS have no idea what restoring the Caliphate actually means. In Baghdad, it'd involve booze, odes to wine, science... and a gay court poet."  The Caliphate referred to is the Abbasid Caliphate which ruled a the majority of the Moslem world from 750 - 1258.  Baghdad was the capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate.  The gay court poet was “Al-Hasan ibn Hani’ al-Hakami ad-Dimashqi (757-815), known under the name of Abu Nuwas was a contemporary of Caliph Harun ar-Rashid, the renound Caliph of the Arabian Nights tales.” ~ Gay Poet at the Court of Harun Al Rashid.


  1. Mark: You are far more well informed than I and I admire your ability to express your thoughts. My views have been far more simple; I saw what happened in Vietnam (although we are not supposed to compare one to the other) and was never convinced that the results would be any different. To my simple way of thinking they are not. W's assurance of "Mission Accomplished" is no consolation whatsoever.

  2. If we had just let Saddam keep Kuwait and bought his stupid oil how things would have been different. Kuwait was a dictatorship too. Calling a tyrant 'emir' doesn't change that. Iraq would be a modern secular country under an aging dictator who might die any day. Women would be part of a functioning government. The Palestinian people (remember them?) would have a homeland under the secular rule of the Bathist Party rather than the Islamist Hamas. A win-win for them and Israel. Saudi Arabia and Iran would have a check on their extremist religious views, with a firm warning, "Export your religious craziness and we might let our bud Saddam 'Kuwaiticize' you!" And the emir would be happy banging his servant girls in the resort city Taif. But Noooooo! We had to get all moral and try to bring freedom, democracy, a hand picked puppet president, and a little bit of American corruption to the Iraqis. That petite bourgeois crap may have played in Peoria but not in Baghdad. How's all that working out for us so far?