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

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.

Trump’s National Security Advisor Tweeted Fake News That Inspired D.C. Pizzeria Shooter

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Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Mike Flynn at a campaign rally for Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore photo)

Sunday’s shooting at Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington D.C. was inspired by a baseless conspiracy theory targeting Hillary Clinton that Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, shared on Twitter. The gunman claimed to be “self-investigating” the fake news story, according to local police.

The election-related conspiracy theory dubbed “pizzagate” claims that Hillary Clinton has ties to a child sex ring operated out of the D.C. pizzeria. Flynn shared a link to an anonymously authored and unsourced story in November on the fringe conspiracy blog True Pundit that alleged Hillary Clinton was involved in child sex trafficking with the commentary “U decide” and “MUST READ!”

Trump appointed Flynn to one of the most senior positions in the West Wing. As National Security Advisor, he will directly shape American policy on national security as a chief advisor to the President.

Flynn served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense’s in-house version of the C.I.A., for two years during the Obama Administration until he was fired. Flynn claims he was fired for not agreeing with the Obama Administration’s message that al-Qaida was in decline (to his credit, it was not), but others have attributed it to his inability to manage a large, bureaucratic organization of mostly civilian employees, his chaotic management style, and the wildly inaccurate claims he made about Muslims that his analysts began calling “Flynn facts”.

The New York Times elaborates:

During a tense gathering of senior officials at an off-site retreat, he gave the assembled group a taste of his leadership philosophy, according to one person who attended the meeting and insisted on anonymity to discuss classified matters. Mr. Flynn said that the first thing everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His staff would know they were right, he said, when their views melded to his. The room fell silent, as employees processed the lecture from their new boss.

According to those who worked with Flynn, it is difficult even meld your views to his because they are not clear. “If you listen to him, in 10 minutes you’ll hear him contradict himself two or three times,” said Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment.

Flynn wrongly believes that Shariah, or Islamic Law, is spreading in the United States and is of the opinion the Islam is a “cancer” and a “political ideology”, not a religion. In February he tweeted a video that asserted Muslims living with other religions was “a problem” and more violent than other religions. Flynn said in his tweet, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: please forward this to others.”

“Mike Flynn is crazy,” said an analyst contact of mine who worked under Flynn at the D.I.A. who, like many in the intelligence community, did not want to be quoted by name. When discovering Flynn had been appointed to Trump’s Administration, another analyst who did not wish to be named commented, “We’re doomed.”

Flynn has disseminated unsubstantiated reports, i.e. lies, that have led to a politically motivated act of violence in this country. He officially assumes the role of National Security Advisor to the President of the United States in 45 days.

Canada’s Train and Equip Mission in Iraq Turns Offensive (Like Always)

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Canadian special operations forces scan the horizon (Canadian Armed Forces photo)

Canadian special forces in Northern Iraq are performing offensive operations against Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) according to Canadian military officials. Lt. Col. Stephen Hunter, commander of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR), told reporters on Monday that Canadian troops have sometimes shot first in engagements with IS when Kurdish forces were not present.

“Because they have demonstrated hostile intent, we’re able, through our rules of engagement, to use our own weapons systems to engage that kind of threat,” said Hunter. This sort of preventive attack in the name of self-defense is the same justification U.S. forces use in Afghanistan to attack the Taliban two years after “combat operations” ended.

But the revelation that Canadian soldiers are attacking IS is significant because Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau supposedly ended combat operations in Syria last March. He announced the Canada would suspend its bombing operations and instead focus on training and defending allied forces—namely the Kurds.

Canada, like the U.S., is succumbing to mission creep—even with a left-leaning Prime Minister who vowed to take Canadians out of combat. Similarly, what started as a deployment of an extra 275 personnel to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as IS quickly took territory in Iraq has become well over 5,000 in both Iraq and Syria.

It is important to identify that the idea that U.S. and Canadian forces can engage in offensive operations under the authority of self defense is doublespeak. A similar blurring of the meanings of words occurred when former President George W. Bush used the concept of preemptive war to embroil the U.S. in Iraq from which now the American government seems unable to disentangle itself.

The American and Canadian examples show that it is not only the Russian government that utilizes their military overtly while saying they are not (as they did during the annexation of Crimea and are doing in Syria). We must hold our governments accountable when they tell us one thing and do another.

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Canadian Joint Task Force 2 assault demonstration (Patrick Cardinal photo)

It is more important now more than ever as the Trump Administration prepares to move into the White House heralding an era many have coined as “post-truth“. Liberals in American society allowed President Obama to do things they found unsavory, like expanded surveillance, extra-judicial killing, and re-intervening in Iraq because they trusted him. Likewise, conservatives are already turning blind eye to President-elect Trump’s admission of intention to break campaign promises.

Interestingly, public support of the war against IS is rising. Recent polls have suggested that Canadians are overwhelmingly in favor of utilizing ground troops against IS while American opinion is mixed but growing. With the support of their citizens, one wonders why the governments of Canada and the U.S. use doublespeak regarding their military operations.

It appears that in a (debatable) post-Cold War world, it is not just the Russians embracing deception operations. We as a people must decide whether we find this in accordance with our democratic values. Malcolm X said, “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified U.S. forces as Canadians

Fifteen Years Ago We Started Looking Away and We Never Stopped

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House hunting in Duluth, Minnesota after 9/11 forced the author and his family to move (Nov 2001, photo provided by author)

By Eric Chandler
Insurgentsia guest contributor

I have an 8 mm video of my son. He’s just over eleven months old. He’s crawling around on the floor of my living room. He was kind of a fat baby. His chosen form of locomotion was to logroll around the house. We were living in South Ogden, Utah at the time. It was kind of a grayish carpet. In the background you can see the new entertainment center we bought to house our TV. Mission Style, when those kind of things mattered to me. Things like how many stars the restaurant had. What critics thought of the movie we were going to see. What kind of car we drove.

When I watch this video and see the TV on in the background, you can see one of the twin towers burning in New York City. I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know why I was doing that. Why was I videotaping my son as he crawled around on the carpet during a disaster? I don’t remember doing it. Years went by and I was organizing our video tapes and looked through them to see what I had. I saw my son and there were the towers. When I looked through the lens and tried to imagine my thoughts, I drew a blank. I must’ve been in shock. Like someone who just got in a car accident and has a broken arm and doesn’t know it yet.

I don’t remember videotaping my son. I do remember that I was in the Mountain time zone when my dad in Maine called me and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was drinking coffee in my bathrobe. He said, “Turn on your television.”

I also remember my wife weeping in front of the tube. We were watching the people jump out of the World Trade Center and fall like horrifying confetti. She cursed at the screen. I was surprised at how angry she was through her tears.

They rarely, if ever, play video of the falling people on TV. In a world where nothing is forbidden, the restraint shown is remarkable. It isn’t WWII. Nobody today would hide the fact that FDR was in a wheelchair. They’ll show anything on TV.

They’ll show the money shot of the plane hitting the tower. Or a tower crumbling. But you won’t see much tape of people jumping. Somehow, we, the shameless, have arrived at a consensus. We look away.

This post originally appeared on Shmotown.

Eric Chandler has written for Flying Magazine, Silent Sports Magazine, Northern Wilds, Minnesota Flyer, and Lake Country Journal and runs the blog Shmotown. Literary journals like Grey Sparrow Journal, The Talking Stick and Sleetmagazine.com have published his fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. He’s a member of Lake Superior Writers, an Active Member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild.

He’s also an Air Force veteran with twenty years of experience flying the F-16. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He enjoys cross country ski racing and marathon running. He lives with his wife and two children in Duluth, Minnesota.

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Russia, U.S. Reach Agreement as Syrian Forces Falter

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Syrian Marines (Photo from Abkhazian Network News Agency)

Secretary of State John Kerry announced a deal with Russia on Friday to “reduce violence, ease suffering and resume movement toward a negotiated peace and a political transition in Syria.” The agreement includes a cessation of hostilities starting September 12th, the end of Russia targeting non-Nusra (Jabhat al-Nusra, recently rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the al-Qaida offshoot in Syria) opposition forces, restrictions on the Syrian Air Force, unimpeded humanitarian access and a demilitarized zone in Aleppo.

In exchange for this, the United States will work jointly with Russia to target Nusra together. Whether this is a good deal or not is yet to be seen. Secretary Kerry says the deal “has the ability to be a turning point—a moment of change.” There have been different reactions on Twitter:

But why have the Russians agreed to a deal with the US now? Perhaps a clue lies in the fact that the tone has begun to change online about Russia’s intervention in Syria, where just months ago it was considered a victory by many.

In a piece written for Gazeta.ru, an online publication whose editor was replaced by a pro-government appointee during Putin’s media crackdown in 2013 and 2014, a retired Russian officer argues that “it is impossible to win the war with such an ally as Assad’s army.”

He describes a Syrian Arab Army that is too small, undisciplined, unmotivated, and corrupt to defeat the “illegal armed groups” (such as the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces) it is fighting. While Assad’s army mans checkpoints and extorts the local population, “the actual fighting against opposition groups is mostly done by Syrian militias, the Lebanese Hezbollah Shia units, Iranian and Iraqi volunteers and Private Military Companies.”

The Russian officer goes as far as to suggest the only hope for Russia is to disband Assad’s army and reform a new one from scratch—though he admits the political will to finance such an endeavor is absent.

Similarly, The Atlantic Council’s Faysal Itani published a piece today backtracking on his prediction that the Syrian insurgency would soon be impotent. After some impressive successes post-Russian air campaign, Syrian forces now appear unable to hold their newly occupied territory.

If Russia has decided that it cannot depend on local forces to maintain the territory that it has won for them and it does not wish to commit its own ground forces, then a deal with the US is prudent.

 

Itani observes that the biggest problem Assad faces is manpower. The Aleppo siege was broken by a relatively small force of an estimated 4,000 rebels and the recent successes by opposition forces in Hama province may involve as little as 2,500 rebels, yet Assad’s forces have been unfit to counter. It appears that Assad is unable to hold two fronts simultaneously.

If Russia has decided that it cannot depend on local forces to maintain the territory that it has won for them and it does not wish to commit its own ground forces, then a deal with the US is prudent.

While touted as a success by the State Department, Russia likely sees this deal as a win for them: they get help from the United States Air Force while their client, the Syrian Arab Air Force, gets a break. The Gazeta piece claims that the Syrian Arab Air Force is rundown, lacking sufficient manpower, aircraft, and ordinance.

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Destruction in Azaz, near Aleppo (Wikimedia Commons photo)

The much published “barrel bombs” are a result of a scarcity of real bombs and both pilot training and aircraft maintenance has effectively ceased due to war restrictions.

Any deal to reduce suffering in Syria—even temporarily—is a good one. Humanitarian access to the destroyed city of Aleppo is desperately needed. But joint Russian/US strikes on Nusra, while in the US’s interest, also serve to help Assad. As is now unfortunately common in the Syrian conflict, efforts to end the war by pressuring one actor only seem to help prolong it by unintentionally benefiting two or more other actors who may or may not be aligned.

Such has been the fate of Syria for the last five and a half years. Decisive victory, for any side, still remains a distant goal.

Foreverwar Roundup 8/3/16

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Once a Qaddafi stronghold, Sirte, Libya is now an IS stronghold and a target in a new U.S. air war (Christian Jacob Hansen/Danish Demining Group photo)

With the U.S. presidential election in less than 100 days, it is easy for news about the escalating war against al-Qaida, Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL), and other bad guys to get buried under headlines about what supposedly shocking thing Trump said about Muslims, babies, or Purple Heart medals. In case you missed it:

Non-special operations troops outside the wire in Iraq

In Iraq, non-special operations troops, i.e. what might be considered legitimate “boots on the ground”are conducting operations outside the confines of their bases in preparation  for the invasion of Mosul. (“The boots on the ground have to be Iraqi” said President Obama once in 2014.) U.S. Army Combat Engineers are assisting an Iraqi engineer battalion build a pontoon bridge over the Tigris River.

American forces were completely withdrawn from Iraq in December, 2011, but today there are over 3,600 in country.

Jabhat al-Nusra rebrands

Jabhat al-Nusra (also know known as Nusra Front), al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, announced that it was changing its name to Jabhat Fath al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of the Levant). The name change in itself is interesting because Jabhat al-Nusra’s full name was Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahli al-Sham or “the front of support for the people of the Levant”—a decidedly soft and cuddly name for what was effectively al-Qaida in Syria.

The new name has more direct ambitions: the conquest of Sham. Sham is often translated as the Western concept of the Levant or a “greater Syria”. Already in actual conflict with IS, this now puts their name in conflict with IS too. IS was once the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham. The once-Nusra now wants to conquer that territory claimed by IS.

What interested most in the Western media about this rebranding, though, was the announcement that Jabhat Fath al-Sham would have “no affiliation to any external entity” which was interpreted as an official separation from al-Qaida proper. Many experts have argued that this is not the case, but the benefits of not being affiliated with al-Qaida are many—mostly foreign aid.

War against IS kicks off in earnest in Libya

Two days ago, a U.S. air campaign in support of the U.N.-backed government in Libya began against IS. I wrote about the first airstrike against IS in Libya a few months ago, but this most recent strike signifies a prolonged campaign specifically in support of the Government National Accord, one of three government-like entities currently operating in Libya.

This new campaign against IS is authorized under the 2001 AUMF. Yes, a war in Libya is legal under a law passed to fight al-Qaida in Afghanistan a decade and a half ago. A new, revised authorization from Congress to fight what is effectively a new war is not likely.

Afghan forces use child soldiers but the US is okay with that

This one is not exactly news, but Foreign Policy published a piece today about the Afghan National Police’s use of what are effectively child soldiers. This makes for cute propaganda pieces about 10 year old “heroes” fighting the Taliban, but it is also in violation of the spirit of a law preventing the U.S. from arming or assisting countries that use child soldiers.

The Obama Administration argues that a child police officer is not a child soldier, but in Afghanistan the National Police do not do traditional police work like investigating crimes, they fight the Taliban. But using technicalities to not enforce laws protecting children is not new for the U.S. After all, the U.S. is one of only three countries (joining Somalia and South Sudan) that will not ratify the U.N. child rights treaty.

It’s Time to Start Understanding Violence As an Overwhelmingly Masculine Problem

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(Wikimedia Commons photo)

I ran across an interesting essay on “the weaponized loser” where Stephen T. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, makes the argument that mass killings such as the ones perpetrated by Omar Mateen in Orlando, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at Columbine, and perhaps even the tens of thousand Islamic State (IS) fighters in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere share something in common: they are by socially alienated men who “can’t get laid”.

This argument is not new. It has been floating around the internet for a while. I still do not think the argument is a very strong one. After all, there are plenty of non-sex starved, violent men. The argument seems a little silly when Asma practically concludes that sexbots could be a solution to radicalism. But there is something to the idea that violence is an overwhelmingly male problem and might need to be addressed thusly. Asma writes:

Young men who cannot find a place in the socialisation process will often take up a disdainful hostility towards domestication itself. The terminal rebel takes shape. A mild version of this was articulated two decades ago in Chuck Palahniuk’s now classic novel Fight Club (1996) and its later movie adaptation. But far more chilling than alienated urbanites secretly fighting in basements is the rise of ISIS, Boko Haram and other violently antisocial brotherhoods.

Part of male socialization is gainful employment and there is a correlation between societies with high unemployment rates and political violence. In Iraq the unemployment rate has been over 15% for the last ten years, rocketing as high as 28% after the US invasion in 2003. In Syria, the unemployment rate has been similar since the rebellion against Assad began, but one wonders how accurate those numbers are in the first place since the governments of Iraq and Syria have controlled a fraction of their respective countries for years now.

“When comparing domestic violence and political violence, the sexual-frustration-as-a-catalyst-for-radicalism hypothesis is even weaker.”

Due to the absence of a government in Libya for some time (and even when Qaddafi was in power said government was hardly transparent) unemployment numbers are difficult to estimate, but over 20% is a safe bet. In Somalia, a country that has seen nearly constant violence for the last 25 years, the unemployment rate has been hovering around the half century mark.

It is important not to confuse correlation and causation when researching radicalism, though. After all, armed rebellions contribute to unemployment as much as they might be affected by it. One of the common myths about terrorism is that it is caused by poverty. This myth has prevailed because commonly it is politicians that spread the myth. But when looking at the empirical research, it is very difficult to link the two. In his course on terrorism and counterterrorism on Coursera, Dr. Edwin Bakker argues:

Most terrorists are not very poor, or much poorer than others. In fact, some terrorists are extremely rich. Think of Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps the most well-known terrorist of our age, who came from a wealthy Saudi family. And another example is the so-called Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who in 2009 tried to blow up a plane heading for Detroit. But he studied in London, and was of a well-to-do family from Nigeria. And there are many other examples of terrorists from upper or upper-middle class. Take, for instance, Anders Breivik, who killed almost 80 people in Norway. Or to take an example from the 1960s and ’70s: from left-wing terrorism, Ulrike Meinhof, one of the key persons of the Rote Armee Fraktion. She also came from a well-to-do family, was highly educated, and had lots of opportunities in life. Studying the characteristics of Jihad terrorists in Europe, I found out that they were mainly children of migrants or migrants themselves. And they were of lower parts of society. But they were not poorer than other migrants or children of migrants.

The research backs this up. James Piazza of Rutledge University studied terrorism as it relates to poverty, inequality, and poor economic opportunity and could not find a link.

But terrorism, insurgency, and political violence all have at least one thing in common: they are all forms of violence and violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. The US Department of Justice (DoJ) found in 2007 that 75.6% of all violent crimes were committed by men. Even more alarmingly, as Asma points out in his article, a 2011 DoJ report found that nearly 90% of homicides were perpetrated by men.

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American terrorist Jared Loughner, who shot US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 13 other people in 2011, did not come from a particularly poor background (Wikimedia Commons photo)

When comparing domestic violence and political violence, the sexual-frustration-as-a-catalyst-for-radicalism hypothesis is even weaker. After all, men who abuse their women partners could hardly be considered failures with women if they are able to enter into relationships and even marry them.

So what is going on here? Dr. Thomas Harbin, a criminal psychologist, argues that male violence stems from male anger, which is partly a socialized trait. Men learn how to deal with anger from their fathers, their peers, and their friends as adolescents. He writes, “most people convicted of domestic violence, child abuse, or other violent crimes were abused themselves.” Since men have been angry and violent for generations, they will continue to be unless this generation is socialized differently.

One of my favorite quotes about war comes from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. His character, The Judge, says about war: “It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them.” Men create and perpetuate violence. When looking at violence from a gendered perspective, articles with headlines like “Male violence is the worst problem in the world” no longer seem outlandish. It is both catastrophic and until recently, undiscussable. Let’s start discussing it.

 

What We Can Learn from T.E. Lawrence About Today’s Middle East Policy

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I recently stumbled across an article in Foreign Policy written by James Stravadis titled How Would Lawrence of Arabia Defeat the Islamic StateAs a researcher who writes about Islamic State (IS) and a personal fan of Lawrence (my dog is named T.E.), this type of article was right up my alley.

If you could use a refresher, T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia” after the 1962 Oscar-winning film of the same title, was a British Army officer who successfully trained and equipped an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War 1. With an army of irregulars, he employed guerrilla warfare against the Ottomans, blowing up trains, attacking and melting away — he led the same type of insurgency the United States has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade.

What was so special about Lawrence was his deep understanding of both Arab and Ottoman societies. He was a British intelligence officer working as cartographer and archaeologist in the Middle East when World War 1 broke out. He was sent to liaise with Arabs from the Hashemite tribe in present day Saudi Arabia who the British thought might be sympathetic to their anti-Ottoman war effort.

Lawrence’s appointment was supposed to be temporary until a replacement could be sent, but he ended up nearly single-handedly (from a Western perspective — there were thousands of Arabs involved) leading a revolt in the desert. In the vernacular of today, we would say he was a special operator training and advising local national fighters. (One might imagine that today an Obama Administration official would make the distinction that he was involved in “non-combat operations” despite the numerous raids he went on.)

That Lawrence was so successful in working with Arab groups to successfully implement Western policy in the Middle East is what draws our attention to him today. Many of the candidates in this year’s American presidential election called for the creation of a Sunni Arab coalition to fight IS. Stravadis’s article recommends we rely on our Sunni allies as well — namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, and Egypt. But the war against IS today reflects a different reality.

The aforementioned countries minus Oman are currently caught up in a war in Yemen, while Egypt is dealing with its own insurgency in the Sinai. Meanwhile, in the military intervention against IS, Jordan has participated in only token air strikes against Syria –mostly after one of their pilots was executed in a brutal and widely plublicized video. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have participated in Syria, but only nominally. President Barack Obama has been forthright in his opinion that our Sunni allies need to do more, but we should also remember that those five countries’ defense budgets combined is about $110 billion, or only about 15% of what the US spends.

“While Kurds and Shiites are the most organized fighters now and that makes them a convenient ally, one must take into consideration what the ultimate goals are for these groups.”

Instead, what the US has done (after twin failed Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency train and equip programs in Syria) is make the Kurds of northern Syria and northern Iraq along with the Shiites of southern Iraq our de facto fighting force against IS. Our new baby in Syria, a coalition of militias in Syria called the “Syrian Democratic Forces” are mostly Kurds.  The US has also established an airfield in Kurdish-held Syria.

In Iraq, US special operations forces have also set up an airfield and outposts in Kurdish controlled areas. US troops are now operating out of an airbase near Erbil and a US Marine was killed by indirect fire from IS at an outpost in the area. Additionally, a Delta Force soldier was killed during a raid with Kurdish forces, as was more recently a Navy SEAL while training Kurds. Successful territory gaining operations against IS thus far in Tikrit were mostly comprised of Shiite militias and the Shiite Badr Corps were on the ground in the liberation of Ramadi.

So what is the lesson we can learn from Lawrence of Arabia? During the successful Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the Hashemites of Saudi Arabia were promised kingdoms in a Middle East. Faisal bin Hussein was made King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria. After being ousted by the French who had received Syria in the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, he became the first King of Iraq with the help of the British.

Faisal’s brother, Abdullah I, became the first King of Jordan after being convinced by the British not to attack the French in retaliation for removing his brother. Finally, Faisal and Abdullah’s father, Hussein bin Ali, declared himself King of the Hejaz (an area in present day Saudi Arabia), but was never recognized by the global community and the British-backed al-Saud tribe forced him to flee in 1924.

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Arab revolt fighters, 1918 (Library of Congress photo)

Today, the only remaining Hashemite ruler in the Middle East is King Abdullah II of Jordan.  The Hashemites were overthrown in Iraq in 1958 during a bloody coup resulting in the death of many members of the Hashemite family. The Sauds conquered the Arabian peninsula and created modern Saudi Arabia.

Lawrence, perhaps disgusted with how the Hashemites he fought with were essentially betrayed by the British and French governments, enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1920 under an assumed identity, distancing himself from his past identity as Colonel T.E Lawrence, leader of the Arab Revolt.

The lesson here is that the US needs to be careful about who it supports in its fight against IS. While Kurds and Shiites are the most organized fighters now and that makes them a convenient ally, one must take into consideration what the ultimate goals are for these groups. The YPG, a Kurdish militia the US is supporting in Syria, has made it known that it intends independence. Shiites in Iraq have habitually disempowered Iraqi Sunnis and will likely continue to do so.

Whether or not the US plans acquiesce its current allies plans for self-determination, it must be prepared for the next conflict after IS is defeated. It is unlikely that in a post-IS world, empowered and well-armed Kurds will willingly return to the old status quo. Similarly, it is not a stretch to imagine Sunnis in formerly IS-held areas to rebel against their Shiite conquerors. Much of our modern turmoil in the Middle East is thought to be related the failed promises and poor planning of the post-conflict after the Arab revolt —and it has lasted nearly a century. Are we prepared for another hundred years of conflict in the Middle East?

 

The United States and the ‘Fight for the Future of Islam’

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Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul (Ben Lieu Song photo)

Yesterday, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut sent out a mass email asking for feedback on a speech on United States relationships in the Middle East that he gave to the Council on Foreign Relations last January. Murphy is a Democrat who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has styled himself as the leader of a movement for a progressive foreign policy.

Murphy’s foreign policy goals are a marked difference from the early 2000s Neoconservative foreign policy of preemptive war and this decade’s Neoliberal foreign policy of endless covert war. Murphy calls for increasing foreign aid spending versus defense spending, the end the president’s authority to wage limitless war, and reigning in mass surveillance and drone strikes.

“Is it the role of the US to provide theological guidance?”

In his speech about US policy in the Middle East, Murphy makes it clear that he understands how our ally, Saudi Arabia, makes the world less secure by investing enormous amounts of money in spreading Wahhabism, a Saudi form of Sunni Islam that is considered intolerant by the West. At the end of his speech, he argues that it is time to stop being myopic when it comes to our relationships in the Middle East:

“If we are serious about constructing a winning strategy to defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda, then our horizons have to extend beyond the day to day, here and now, fight in Iraq and Syria.

We need admit that there is a fight on for the future of Islam, and we can’t sit on the sidelines. Both parties in Washington need to acknowledge this reality, and the U.S. needs to lead by example by ending our effective acquiescence to the Saudi export of intolerant Islam.

And we need to be careful not to blindly back our friend’s plays in conflicts that simply create more instability, more political and security vacuums, into which ISIS and other extremist groups can fill, like what is going in Yemen today.”

I commend the Senator on his unusually canny understanding of the Middle East and Central Asia. It is refreshing to see frankness instead of mealy-mouthed support of least bad options in our relationships there. After all, often it is our allies who cause many of the problems we attempt to solve, from Pakistan protecting the Taliban (and the US-designated terrorist Haqqani network, and perhaps Osama Bin Laden), to Israel and its illegal settlements in occupied Palestine, to the Gulf States arming jihadist groups in Syria.

However, sandwiched between two great points in the quote above, the Senator makes a very troubling remark: “We need admit that there is a fight on for the future of Islam, and we can’t sit on the sidelines.”

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Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut (US Senate photo)

Murphy should reflect about what that statement means. Is it the role of the US to provide theological guidance? Does it have the right to get off the “sidelines” (and is a sports reference appropriate)? The separation of government and religion is a cornerstone of American democracy. While the US does have some history hypocritically prohibiting the free exercise of religion abroad, Murphy must understand that making a statement about the US’s role in the “fight for the future of Islam” is exactly the type of shortsightedness that he is rejecting.

It should be plainly obvious that most of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims would not support the government of the nominally secular, culturally Christian United States making any decisions on the future of their religion. If he thinks the anti-Americanism in madrasas is bad now, just wait until they find out that the US is getting off the sidelines in fight for the future of Islam.

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Men praying in Afghanistan (Wikimedia Commons photo)

I think Murphy is an ambitious, smart guy who truly wants the best for the US and I admire the type of world he is attempting to create. Perhaps the sentence in question was simply a phrasing error — I would like to think that he does not believe the US government should have a prominent role in shaping a religion. Nonetheless, Murphy must be aware of how that type of messaging will backfire among the people he is attempting to fight for.

Murphy’s team asked for feedback on his speech. I urge them to consider this point when talking about Middle East policy in the future.