Nobody Wants Erik Prince’s Contractors Running Afghanistan

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Blackwater employees in a firefight in Iraq

After almost 16 years of continuous war, recent redoubling efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the overall expansion of the once-named “Global War on Terror”, sometimes it feels like Americans have learned nothing in the last decade and a half.

But if there is one thing they have apparently learned, it is that they do not want Blackwater founder Erik Prince running Afghanistan.

The New York Times published an op-ed by Prince on Wednesday in which he predictably argues that contractors are the solution in Afghanistan. His plan, rejected by President Trump after asking for private business solutions in Afghanistan, involves removing all conventional troops and the contractors that support them.

Instead, Prince proposes 2,000 special operations forces and 6,000 contractors. The contractors would among other things, patrol with Afghan forces. Contractors that fight in wars are also known as mercenaries.

But it turns out it is not just Trump who is not having it from Prince. Many Twitter users mocked the piece this morning — pointing out the absurdity in the obviousness of Prince’s position:

Some created parodies of the piece:

Contractors are not inherently bad. I worked as a security contractor in Afghanistan guarding a post so some soldiers or airmen did not have to. It was not shadowy. I was not a mercenary.

But what Prince proposes would fundamentally change how the U.S. conducts war. The guy whose company was responsible for the Nisour Square massacre does not need to be at the table in the debate over the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Looks like we are learning from our mistakes after all.

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Trump Announces Afghanistan War Strategy, No One Gives a Shit

On Monday, President Donald Trump announced his new Afghanistan strategy, but no one gives a shit. Distancing himself from the war under Obama, Trump proclaimed additional troops and no timelines, but no one gives a shit.

Trump did not mention any key strategic goals besides the defeat of the Taliban, but no one gives a shit. Trump was secretive about how many more troops would be sent to Afghanistan or what exactly they would be doing, but no one gives a shit.

“Retribution will be fast and powerful,” said Trump of the war launched nearly sixteen years ago in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but no one gives a shit. By not defining any standards for success, Trump is likely shielding himself from any political fallout as conditions in Afghanistan continue to deteriorate, but no one gives a shit.

In truth, such ambiguity by the president may not be necessary. The American public does not seem to attribute any political cost to the war. In the three 2016 presidential debates, Afghanistan was mentioned just one time—in passing—but no one gives a shit.

The speech countered what Trump has said about Afghanistan in the past. Tweeting multiple times from 2011 through 2013, Trump said the war in Afghanistan was a mistake and the United States must leave, but no one gives a shit.

As the war in Afghanistan drags on endlessly, new benchmarks are created. In July, the first American soldier to be a toddler during 9/11 was killed, but no one gives a shit.

American troops in Afghanistan are committed to two concurrent missions: training and advising Afghan forces under NATO-led Operation Resolute Support, and destroying Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) under Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, but no one gives a shit.  IS-K did not exist when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Perpetual war destabilized the country enough to allow room for new radical groups to flourish, but no one gives a shit.

Besides IS-K, new troops in Afghanistan will face additional threats. The Department of Defense suggested that Russia is arming the Taliban, but no one gives a shit. The burden will not be carried alone, however. NATO members signaled that they are willing to also increase their troop commitments in Afghanistan, but no one gives a shit.

The speech was welcomed by the Afghan government. Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib, Afghan envoy to the U.S., told AP, “We heard exactly what we needed to. The focus on the numbers has taken away the real focus on what should have been: what conditions are required and what kind of support is necessary.” The Afghan budget is 70% dependent on foreign assistance, but no one gives a shit.

Trump is now the third consecutive president to escalate the war in Afghanistan, but no one gives a shit.

The Google Memo and its Implications on National Security

By now, you may have read about the anti-diversity internal memo at Google written by a disgruntled software developer. In the 10-page memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” circulating on Google+ and now virally, the author (a man) argues that Google’s hiring practices are unfair and anti-business.

He writes that the under-representation of women in tech at Google is not due to systemic oppression of women from birth on, but because of natural biological differences between genders that allow men to rise to the top in tech and leadership roles while women are left behind because they value work/life balance and cooperation.

You can read more about his position and the widespread criticism of it elsewhere. Despite his position — both his opinion and role in the company — the author puzzlingly shows little understanding of gender or technology careers.

Nonetheless, what I am interested in is how closely his position imitates the long and on-going debate about the effect of diversity policies on the military. As Dr. Jill S. Russell, professor at the U.S. Army War College, observed on Twitter, the discourse in the national security sphere is eerily similar.

If you are not familiar with why someone would not want women or the LGBTQ+ community serving in uniform, here are a couple of opinions from what might be considered reputable sources. But let’s face it: they are everywhere and often given unasked.

What the Google memo gets wrong, just like the argument against women serving in combat, and transgender people in the military generally, is why Google exists. Google exists not to make products, not to code, but to solve problems. The technology they create does not exist for its own sake.

So even if it were true that women were not as good at coding as men (it is not), it is beside the point.  The problem solving, to be most effective, should be done by the most qualified pool possible. Discouraging women from technology by embracing the status quo severely hamstrings tech companies’ ability to do what they need to do: solve problems.

And that is where the tech word intersects with national security. Not only does the military depend on tech companies, but the military itself is misunderstood in the same way the author misunderstands Google. The military does not exist, as White House National Security Advisor Sebastian Gorka recently argued, to “kill people and break stuff.” That is a product that it offers, proudly — you will see variations on that theme on many a morale t-shirt or challenge coin. The purpose of the military is to solve problems, (see Clausewitz, “a continuation of politics by other means” etc.) but it has not in a long time.

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The back of an AC-130 unit morale shirt

The problem the United States has been facing for at least the last decade and a half is how to defend itself and its strategic resources from radical groups operating from mostly failed states without spending more on protection than they are worth. In 2001, the U.S. government decided the military was the only way to solve this problem and since then other avenues of approach, like diplomacy, have been cast aside.

Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not being lost by the combat arms soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen on the ground. And it is not their fault things are not going what one might consider “well” in Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and the rest of the 14 countries where military operations have been conducted under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

The locating, closing with, and destroying the enemy aspect of the military is going swimmingly. Maneuvering to the locations of high value targets, setting up perimeter security, and clearing the building room by room killing bad guys along the way is definitely a “sustain” from the Global War on whatever. They are going great not because they are being done solely by tough men with strong upper bodies, but because this aspect of the military is literally the lowest, most basic skill of soldiering.

Almost anyone can learn to do it. That is why under conscription the vast majority of people snatched right off the street are sent into the infantry. It is why the the ASVAB requirement for infantry is the lowest score you can get and still enlist.

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Living that infantry life (DoD photo)

I say this not to disparage the infantry. After all, I was an infantryman. I joined the infantry after I had served in a support role in a support branch because it just was not as fun and exciting as the infantry. I loved the job, culture, and status.

But we need to realize this status is mostly imagined by infantrymen themselves. Something must explain why they have a job that makes the same amount of money as a logistician safely in an air conditioned trailer while they exist in a meaningless world. Their time in war is spent mostly throwing rocks at each other and walking painfully with more gear than they could ever effectively fight in. The only honorable escape from the brutal monotony is a few seconds of near death experience that they have almost no control over, but can retell with proud agency for the rest of their lives.

This invented culture is then brought to the civilian world through the survivors — whether they were vindicated in combat or not — and then retold in a society where the war is just not going very well.  This hyper-masculine fantasy, of strong men doing what no other could (the inverse of the truth) becomes reality. As Dr. Russell tweeted, this ideal is elevated to the essence of “not just warfare, but War itself.”

Then the idea becomes that if anything disrupts this this violent state-run Männerbund,  the war itself is in danger. We see this time and again in foxhole hypotheticals and fireman carry catastrophizing. (“Could a woman/transgender person lift a 250 lb man with 150 lbs of body armor and ammunition and carry him out of combat?”)

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The soldier carry, the ultimate test of a warrior, apparently (DoD photo)

But it is vital to understand that the firefight is just one small instrument of warfare. If commanders had three choices to destroy a target, room clearing, airstrike, or cyber attack, the explosion would win nearly every time.

We must stop focusing on the details of whether a woman or transgender man can do everything exactly like a cisgender man in combat. Just like at Google, whether a woman can code or be just as apathetic of a co-worker’s feelings as a man is irrelevant. The military, like Google, exists to solve problems. The last thing we need — after 16 years of war with an end forecast sometime to the right of forever — is to scare off over half the pool of qualified thinkers and leaders from the profession of arms with toxic masculinity.

Any other approach is thinking tactically, not strategically. It is bad for business and bad for war.

Why Trump Supporters Think #covfefe is a Secret Message to Terrorists

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Islam does actually mean “submission” in Arabic so this meme creator imagines that covfefe is a coded anti-Muslim message.

After President Trump tweeted and then deleted a cryptic message early Wednesday morning, many took to Twitter to mock the apparent typo. With #covfefe trending, Trump supporters began defending the tweet. Evidently, if you add a space and an apostrophe, Google Translate will translate “cov fe’fe” as “I will stand up” in Arabic. I tried it myself:

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Google Translate was set to Arabic for me automatically because despite its shortcomings, it’s a lot quicker than the Hans Wehr dictionary. Google thinks “cov fe’fe” is “سوف فقف” (sawfa faqif).

“Cov fe’fe” is not Arabic. If it was Arabic, I suspect Arabic speakers would have said something about Trump’s tweet pretty quickly. Nevertheless, Google Translate thinks it is. So Trump supporters took to Twitter to educate people about a language none of them spoke:

For some reason this person thinks Afghans speak Arabic too!

Sean thinks Trump is playing twelve dimensional chess by Tweeting in Arabic after midnight.

Shannon thinks it makes perfect sense!

William thinks Trump was trolling America by tweeting in Arabic and then deleting it.

One Trump supporter did a write up explaining what his “God Emperor” meant by “I will stand up.”

Like I said, “cov fe’fe” is not Arabic. But as a former Arabic student, I was puzzled as to why it was translating “cov fe’fe” to “I will stand up.” “I will stand up” in Modern Standard Arabic is sa-aqaf or perhaps sawfa aqaf (the difference is the certainty of the future event, with sawfa indicating uncertainty).

So the translation for what Google thinks it is, sawfa faqif doesn’t make sense. But bad translations are normal for Google, it’s why it thinks fe’fe is faqif that interested me.

There is no standard transliteration (changing from one alphabet to another) from the Latin alphabet English uses to the Arabic alphabet, but Google thinking “cov fe’fe” was someone trying to write “سوف فقف” (again, sawfa faqif) seemed like quite a stretch to me.

So I did some digging into different Arabic dialects (I learned Modern Standard Arabic in school, the version of the language used officially versus colloquially).

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Most Arabs only hear Modern Standard Arabic on the news.

If you’re into languages, this is was a fun puzzle to solve. If you’re not, things are about to get really boring so you might want to skip down to the paragraph above the last graphic.

First, Google transliterated “cov” into سوف (pronounced sawfa). If you go to Google Translate and input this alone, it doesn’t work, while sawfa translates to will.

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Google does not think “cov” alone is Arabic.

But when you enter a second word, Google now thinks that “cov” is an Arabic word. For example, if you just type “cov fe” now Google will transliterate “cov” into سوف (sawfa) and fe into في (fi) which means “in” or “at” depending on context.

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Add a second word, and Google thinks cov is Arabic.

So what’s with Google’s hesitance? I don’t know exactly how it’s been programmed, but obviously Google thinks the C in “cov” is now a soft C like in the word “cent.” At first I thought maybe this was because of Francophone Arab influence but in French a C before an O makes the hard C that sounds like a K.

Regardless, “cov” to sawfa isn’t too much of a stretch now. But what about fe’fe?

First of all, I don’t know why someone added an apostrophe into “covfefe.” It wasn’t there when Trump tweeted it. But when you add that and the space, Google thinks you are trying to transliterate فقف (faqif) and translates it all as “I will stand.”

But what is more confusing to me than “cov” to sawfa is “fe’fe” to faqif. Why does Google think that?

In Arabic, the letter ق (qaf), the middle letter in فقف (faqif) in is most commonly transliterated as Q. You have already seen this in words like Iraq or al-Qaida. Sometimes it’s transliterated as K like in the word Koran.

Less often, it’s transliterated as a G, like in  the name of former Libyan president, Muammar Gaddafi.

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Nobody knew how to spell Gaddafi (DoD/Wikimedia Commons photo).

All three words and the name use the same letter in Arabic, but are represented differently in English. That’s why occasionally you will see Koran spelled Quran or Gaddafi spelled Qaddafi (there’s even more variants, but that’s because of other Arabic letters, not the one we’re focusing on).

Part of the reason for these different transliterations is because Arabic regional dialects pronounce the letters differently (think about how most Americans pronounce Rs versus how Bostonians do — Havard Yard versus Havahd Yahd).

In North Africa (like Gaddafi’s home Libya) and the Gulf, ق is often pronounced like an English G.

In Iraq and Kuwait, sometimes ق is even pronounced like an English J. This depends on your education and tribe and a lot of other neat things that influence the way we speak, but it was pretty confusing for me, who learned Modern Standard Arabic, when I was there.

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The author posing for a cliche Baghdad palace picture in 2011.

Finally, in Egypt, the ق is often not pronounced like a consonant all! Instead, it’s a glottal stop — like the sound you make between the T and the when you say “button.” Try it!

Confusingly, there already is another letter in Arabic that makes that same sound, ء (hamza). That letter is most often transliterated as an apostrophe. (There’s one of those letters in al-Qaida too, which is why it is sometimes written in English as al-Qa’ida).

So to bring this all together, Google has to figure out what Arabic dialect you are trying to speak when you write an Arabic word in the Latin alphabet into Google Translate and there are a lot of variations.

When you add the space into “covfefe” it makes it two words. When you add the apostrophe, Google thinks you are adding another letter that often makes a sound. Thus, “cov fe’fe” becomes sawfa faqif or a very bad translation of “I will stand up.” It’s not Arabic, but a well-meaning Google Translate thinks it is. 

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It gets a little confusing at the bottom because Arabic is read right to left. Also, Google transliterated V and F as the same Arabic letter.

There you have it. How one weird internet coincidence started yet another baseless conspiracy associated with the alt-right. Hopefully this one doesn’t lead to anyone to senseless violence, as they are wont to.

Umberto Eco said, “translation is the art of failure.” I’m not a fluent Arabic speaker and I haven’t traveled to all Arabic speaking countries. If you are or have and think I’ve gotten something wrong, please let me know in the comments.

Update: This post originally said Google thought “cov fe’fe’” was sawfa faqaf, but a native Arabic speaker has informed me faqaf is not an Arabic word in any dialect. The closet word would be faqif (so stand/stop) and this post has been updated to reflect that.

With Major Operations in Iraq and Syria Ongoing, Pentagon Wants to Begin a Third Urban Campaign in Yemen

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Town near Mosul, Iraq burning during the Mosul offensive in 2016 (Mstyslav Charnov/Wikimedia Commons photo)

According to Buzzfeed, the Department of Defense continued its quest to back a new campaign to take a major port city in Yemen at a meeting last Thursday.

The assault on the Houthi-controlled city of Hodeida would be led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia but supported by U.S. military logistics and intelligence — likely aerial refueling and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) — American capabilities in demand by allies.

The meeting was requested by aid agencies who had concerns over the humanitarian impact of the operation. The Pentagon official assured that the operation would be “clean” and only take weeks.

The Trump Administration has ramped up military options in Yemen since coming to power. In January, the first American service member to die under Trump’s Administration happened during a botched raid on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants there.

The tempo has increased so much that the U.S. launched more airstrikes on AQAP targets during one week in March than it did in any single year during the Obama Administration.

But an attack on the Port of Hodeida would be targeting Houthis — Shiite rebels supported by Iran — not AQAP, significantly increasing the scope of U.S. involvement in the now two year old civil Yemeni civil war.

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Yemen territorial control map. Green = Houthis, Red = Yemeni Government, Black = al-Qaida (Yemen Conflict Maps graphic)

This escalation of military responsibility in Yemen is what is known as “mission creep” and is a sign of a lack of strategy and usually a longer than anticipated commitment.

In the civil war in Syria, what began as non-military aid turned into funding, training and intelligence, then air strikes, and now American ground troops in country.

The Trump Administration may not authorize the Hodeida operation, but it and further involvement is not out of the realm of possibility. Trump has shown an eagerness to allow the Pentagon greater freedom to wage war. Last week, Trump bragged that he had given the military “total authorization“.

One thing is certain: an American war in Yemen will not be short or “clean”. Such a fanciful idea should be seen for the foolishness it is.

Considering the decades-long-without-success American involvement in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa, we should realistically expect as much anywhere we consider increasing American military presence in the region.

If ongoing urban campaigns in Iraq and Syria are a sign of what may come, then thousands of civilian deaths, the devastation of the city, and a humanitarian disaster is a reasonable prediction.

The MOAB and a Brief History of Bombing Afghanistan

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The last BLU-82, the predecessor to the MOAB, detonated in Utah by the 711th Special Operations Squadron in 2008 (DoD/Wikimedia Commons photo).

The United States dropped a “Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan on Thursday targeting Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) — its first ever use in combat.

In a statement, the Department of Defense said the bomb, designated the GBU-43 Massive Ordinance Air Blast (the common name being a backronym), targeted and destroyed a tunnel complex used by IS in Nangahar province in eastern Afghanistan.

The bomb has the largest explosive yield of any non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal at 11 tons. For comparison, the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima had the explosive capability equal to 15,000 tons. The blast radius is roughly one mile.

The strike took place at 7:32 PM local time in Achin district, where ongoing operations against IS in Afghanistan are being conducted as part of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and in the vicinity of where Special Forces Staff Sergeant Mark De Alencar was killed earlier this week.

According to Ismail Shinwari, the governor of Achin district, the strike took place in a remote, mountainous location and there were no reports of civilian casualties. Recently there has been heavy fighting between Afghan forces and IS fighters in the area.

The weapon’s purpose as an air blast weapon, like the BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” before it, is to destroy troop concentrations and equipment, clear explosives, and intimidate enemy forces. It is not a “bunker buster” designed to penetrate the ground or hardened structures. It was designed before the 2003 Iraq War to pressure Saddam Hussein.

While the trend lately in U.S. counter-terrorist airstrikes has been to use smaller, precise bombs and missiles delivered by drones and F-16s to conduct localized surgical strikes against single rooms or vehicles, the MOAB was kicked out of the back of an MC-130.

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A BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” deployed from an MC-130 on a test range in Utah (DoD/Wikimedia Commons photo).

But this is not the first time large area weapons have been used in Afghanistan. In the beginning of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Daisy Cutters were used to attempt to destroy Al-Qaida and kill Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora, also in Nangahar province. The operation was unsuccessful.

Afghanistan has been the target tens of thousands of airstrikes over the last 15 years. Unfortunately, the amount of civilian casualties per airstrike has risen since 2009, with 2016 the highest year on record. On average, one civilian was killed per every three US airstrikes.

Most civilian airstrike casualties occur in populated areas that the Taliban has infiltrated since most NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014. As of early 2017, the Afghan government only controlled 65 per cent of its territory.

However, airstrikes against IS in Afghanistan have been in less populated areas because the U.S. has not given IS room to grow. The U.S. increased its airstrikes against them in early 2016 when reports of thousands of fighters had established themselves in remote areas of Nangahar. Today, the U.S. estimates only 600 – 800 remain.

I have seen a lot of outcry on social media about the use of the MOAB, presumably versus smaller munitions, but a war is still occurring in Afghanistan whether a MOAB is used or not.

If Governor Shinwari is to be believed and no civilian casualties occurred, perhaps it is a legitimate tactical choice to use a large airburst weapon against the few remaining IS fighters in Afghanistan, especially if we do not want them to take population centers.

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A U.S. operator accompanying Afghan commandos (DoD/Wikimedia Commons photo).

Most Americans do not like when American service members are killed overseas. So using a weapon to destroy defenses, IEDs, and potentially psychologically disaffect IS fighters before U.S. Special Forces assist Afghan forces in conducting a dangerous clear and sweep operation on the ground may not be a bad thing.

Time will tell if the weapon was effective (we will have an idea if it is used again), but we should not let ourselves be swept up by the media’s fetishization of military weaponry with sexy names.

The Mass Ordinance Air Blast may be the U.S.’s largest non-nuclear bomb, but at 22,000 lbs of explosive yield it is more comparable to the size of the extensively used drone-launched Hellfire missile (20 lbs) than to “Little Boy”, the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima (30 million lbs).

One MOAB was dropped on Thursday. In 2016, the U.S. used so many smaller precision-guided weapons like the Hellfire — tens of thousands — that it could not replenish its stocks to keep up with with demand. Which weapon system has had more impact? You do the math.

Trump’s War in Syria: What You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask

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A Tomahawk missile is launched from a Navy Cruiser in the Persian Gulf (U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons photo)

President Trump announced Thursday night that the United States conducted a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government earlier this week.

The U.S. Navy launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles targeting aircraft at al-Sharyat airbase in Homs province from destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea. Russian forces are stationed on the base, but U.S. officials said they used established deconfliction channels to notify them beforehand.

Cruise missiles have a range of 1,000 miles and typically carry a 1,000 lb. warhead. A staple of U.S. military unmanned strike capability, cruise missiles have been used since the 1991 Gulf War. They were utilized by former President Bill Clinton who famously used them to strike at al-Qaida in Afghanistan in Sudan prior to the attack on September 11th, 2001.

Most recently, cruise missiles were used to attack targets in Yemen after Houthi rebels launched missiles at U.S. Navy ships supporting the Saudi-led war there.

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Aftermath of an air strike in Sana’a, Yemen (Ibrahem Qasim/Wikimedia Commons photo)

The missile strike in Syria was launched at roughly 8:40 PM Eastern time or 4:40 AM local time. It came hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced “steps are underway” to build an international coalition to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

The announcement marked a major shift in U.S. policy in Syria, where the U.S. has spent two and a half years combatting Islamic State (IS, also know as ISIS or ISIL), but has not struck Syrian government targets (on purpose—in September Syrian troops were killed in a U.S. airstrike it deemed “unintentional”).

Is the U.S. going to war in Syria?

The U.S. has been at war in Syria since September, 2014 when it conducted its first airstrikes against IS in response to the videoed and widely-seen assassinations of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Thursday’s missile strike represents and expansion and escalation of the war, authorized under the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force to target al-Qaida.

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U.S. Special Operations Forces in Syria (AFP/Getty photo)

If Trump continues to strike Syrian government targets, he will need a new Congressional authorization. The War Powers Act of 1973 limits military force to 60 days without Congressional approval.

However, former President Barack Obama continued military operations in Libya far past the 60 day limit by claiming “operations did not involve sustained fighting.”

Will the U.S. send ground troops?

Ground troops, typically defined as non-Special Operations Forces (SOF) in country, have already been in Syria for a month. U.S. Army Rangers (highly-trained shock troops originally intended to seize airfields) and a Marine artillery unit were deployed to Northeast Syria to support continuing operations against IS near Raqqa.

These forces combined with existing SOF such as Navy SEALs and Army CAG (also known as Delta Force) total almost 1000 American military personnel currently in Syria.

The U.S. has possibly two military bases already established in Syria. One at Rmeilan airfield and another near Ain Eissa, both in Kurdish-controlled areas.

What would an American-Led Operation to Remove Assad Look Like?

It is difficult to predict what regime change might look like or if it will even happen. We can compare the last three successful government-toppling actions in the greater Middle East for context, though.

In 2001, the U.S. sent a small contingent of C.I.A. operatives, Special Operations Forces including Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs, and Army Rangers to Afghanistan to remove the Taliban government in Kabul while simultaneously hunting al-Qaida.

With the support of the Northern Alliance, local forces already fighting the Taliban, Kabul was captured in roughly a month, but al-Qaida leadership slipped through the U.S.’s fingers.

Today, the U.S. is still hunting al-Qaida and fighting the Taliban for control of territory in Afghanistan.

In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq with 150,000 troops in a multinational coalition after a heavy bombing campaign striking government targets in Baghdad and military bases throughout the country.

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U.S. tanks in Baghdad, 2003 (Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons photo)

Baghdad fell in just months and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was captured within the year.

U.S. troops completely withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but returned in 2014. Today, there are over 5,000 troops supporting the operation to defeat an insurgent group created in the chaos after the 2003 invasion.

In contrast to the colossal Iraq invasion, in 2011 the United States supported a NATO air operation to depose Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. The U.S. provided support to European airstrikes protecting rebels and targeting the Libyan government.

Gaddafi was killed by rebel forces in 7 months. Today, Libya continues to fight a multi-factional civil war. U.S. bombers continued to conduct airstrikes in Libya this year.

Whatever may come, Thursday’s events did not mark the beginning of an American war. The U.S. has been at war toppling multiple governments in the Middle East for nearly 16 years. Killing a Middle Eastern head of state and destroying the government of that country has become the specialty of the U.S. this century. Repairing what it has broken has proven challenging and burdensome.

Reflections on 2016: The Year’s Most Popular Posts

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Afghan National Army soldier fires an RPG-7 (DoD photo)

As 2016 comes to a close, it is important to look back on our successes and failures as we go forward into a different numbered year. Very thankfully, Insurgentsia has had a few successes. In 2016, Insurgentsia entered into a syndication agreement with Business Insider. Select posts have been republished to a wider audience for which I am both proud and grateful.

Through my work both here and other publications like The Fair Observer and NonDoc, I was sponsored for an associate membership in The Military Writers Guild—a more impressive group of people you will have a tough time meeting.

This year also saw more posts, more subscriptions, and more readers per post (a certain 2015 post going viral means 2016 did not break 2015’s total readers—note to self: make more posts go viral). If you found Insurgentsia this year, I thank you very much for your readership.

Here is a look back at this year’s most popular posts. I hope you enjoy(ed) them and I look forward to providing a continued look into the world of small wars, political violence, and terrorism in 2017:

 

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What ISIS Really (Really) Wants

 

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Homage to Catalonia: A Lions of Rojava Update

 

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ISIS-Chan, the Crowdsourced Anime Meme Information Operation

 

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Five Years After Killing Bin Laden: The Failure of Decapitation Strategy

 

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Reflections on Leaving Afghanistan

Without Significant Troop Commitment, Trump’s Syrian Safe Zones Will Not Be Safe

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Kamuna refugee camp in Syria after being bombed (Getty/Andolu Agency photo)

President-Elect Donald Trump announced on Thursday that he will establish “safe zones” in Syria, the second time he has mentioned such a plan since being elected.

Trump said at a rally in Pennsylvania that the situation in Syria is “so sad, and we’re going to help people.” He told the crowd that he would make the Gulf States assist, echoing a promise he made on the campaign trail.

Last month at a rally in Tennessee he also brought up safe zones, saying, “What I like is build a safe zone in Syria [sic]. Build a big beautiful safe zone. And you have whatever it is so people can live.”

Hillary Clinton also campaigned on establishing safe zones in Syria, something the Obama Administration has not been interested in. In April, President Obama said, “As a practical matter, sadly, it is very difficult to see how it would operate short of us being willing to militarily take over a chunk of that country.”

Trump had said he would deploy as many as 30,000 American troops before, but his Syria strategy, like much of his proposed policy, has not been consistent. In June 2015, Trump told Fox News “maybe Syria should be a free zone for ISIS, let them fight and then you pick up the remnants.”

It would take a significant force to protect these proposed safe zones. During the Bosnian War, the United Nations established safe zones for Muslims but only deployed lightly-armed and legally-restricted peace keeping troops to protect them.

“American Special Operations Forces were chased out of the Syrian town of al-Ray by US-backed Free Syrian Army militias to cries of ‘Pigs!’ and ‘Crusaders!'”

As a result, Serbian forces repeatedly attacked and eventually captured the safe zones. At one safe zone in Srebrenica, strict rules of engagement prevented UN peacekeepers from taking action as nearly the entire male population of the town was massacred.

Gathering mostly Sunni refugees from Aleppo into safe zones creates an opportune target for Assad-backed forces for easy extermination. Indeed, Assad may have foreshadowed his intentions earlier this year when the Kamuna refugee camp in Northern Syria was bombed in May, killing more than 30 people.

Additionally, Russian warplanes bombed a UN aid convoy last September in then-opposition controlled territory near Aleppo and subsequently denied it. Russia insisted no airstrike occurred, despite video evidence proving otherwise.

These precedents prove that Assad and/or Russia is not above purposely attacking defenseless civilians. Thus, for American-created safe zones to work, they would need to be heavily defended with a significant troop presence. Both air and ground elements would be required to protect refugees from Russia and Assad’s combined forces.

Trump has used the 30,000 troop figure before in reference to fighting Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS and ISIL), but the Pentagon estimated that it might take 30,000 troops just to protect safe zones. Even if some of those troops are provided by coalition partners such as the Gulf States, that does not leave many troops to fight IS.

Currently there are roughly 5,000 troops in Iraq and another 500 in Syria supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led campaign against IS. Trump has described the operation as “a total disaster.”

But more troops in Syria may not be welcomed. In September, American Special Operations Forces were chased out of the Syrian town of al-Ray by US-backed Free Syrian Army militias to cries of “Pigs!” and “Crusaders!” The US-backed forces claimed that the presence of ground troops signaled a military occupation of Syria.

If the US’s own proxy army does not want US ground forces in Syria, deploying 30,000 troops to protect safe zones is a recipe for disaster. During the Iraqi occupation, Shiites liberated by American forces quickly began a five-year long insurgency against them.

Trump has claimed that he will make “rich Gulf States” contribute to the safe zones, but the United Arab Emirates and Qatar has a combined military force of less than 90,000 troops. Saudi Arabia is currently embroiled in a war in Yemen to the tune of 150,000 troops, so it seems unlikely they will be able to commit many soldiers without significant incentive from Trump.

It is unclear whether he is as informed as one might expect a president-elect would be on the situation in Syria. Since being elected, he has refused daily intelligence briefings, insisting he does not need them because “I’m, like, a smart person.”

Bragging TheBlaze Journalist Shoots at ISIS, Endangers Real War Correspondents

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TheBlaze journalist Jason Buttrill claims to be shooting at IS (Photo from his Twitter)

This post has been updated

TheBlaze published an article on Thursday with a provocative headline boasting that one of their journalists filmed himself “shooting at ISIS”—a clear violation of the spirit of international law that protects journalists as non-combatants.

The journalist, Jason Buttrill, tweeted in detail about his experience willingly entering offensive operations against IS (Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL), bragging that he “got off 6 shots. ISIS looked like ants on that scope, but my USMC PMI was exceptional.” PMI refers to Primary Marksmanship Instruction, or the training he received in Boot Camp.

As he is a former Marine, I would assume that Buttrill is familiar with the basic concepts of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC)—training all U.S. service members receive, often in Boot Camp or Basic Training. A main principle of LOAC is distinction: distinguishing combatants from non-combatants. Non-combatants include civilians, prisoners of war, and wounded personnel removed from combat.

International Law is clear in its distinction of journalists as non-combatants to protect them from being targeted in war. However, when one picks up a weapon and fires it without provocation, like Buttrill did, one becomes a combatant and a legal target. Buttrill can no longer claim non-combatant status as a journalist. If he did, he would be in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which classifies feigning non-combatant status as perfidy—the same thing as pretending to surrender and then ambushing your enemy.

Buttrill should and likely does know better. But when presented with an opportunity for a photograph of him simulating combat, he did what lots of non-combat arms (and even, admittedly, some combat arms) military members do: take the picture, professionalism be damned.

If Buttrill wants to see combat so bad, he should join one of the many militias accepting American volunteers that are currently fighting IS, like the Lions of Rojava. Instead, he is just one of many pretenders getting their kicks as war tourists.

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Jason Buttrill with Peshmerga (Photo from his Twitter)

It was the gruesome and public deaths of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff at the hands of IS in 2014 that galvanized the Western public against them. The cruelty and injustice of murdering two American civilians—non-combatants—made the fight against IS personal for many.

Unfortunately, because of Buttrill’s foolish and selfish actions, he has tainted the professionalism of all journalists in the region. IS rather infamously has access to the internet and social media too.

For the reward of a few seconds of adolescent excitement, Buttrill has discredited hundreds of real journalists that have risked their life to do their job for us—some, like Foley, Sotloff, and dozens of others sacrificed their lives. By publishing this video, photos, and tweeting about it, Buttrill discredits them and gives IS the moral authority to treat journalists as combatants.

Update:

Politico is reporting that TheBlaze has recalled Buttrill from Iraq and suspending him from further field assignments.

The statement from Mercury Radio Arts, which owns TheBlaze, reads:

Jason Buttrill is a valued researcher for Mercury Radio Arts for a television show that airs on TheBlaze network. Given his military and security background, Mr. Buttrill was offered the opportunity for an important research assignment in Iraq. Due to his conduct, Mercury Radio Arts has recalled him back to the US. He has been suspended from further field research assignments.