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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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.

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

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Artwork by Surian Soosay

Exactly five years ago last Monday, United States Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden during a raid on the compound where he lived with his family in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

I remember where I was when I heard Bin Laden was dead: in the open bay, cinderblock barracks at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, during mobilization training for a deployment with the Oklahoma Army National Guard. The mood then among fellow soldiers was mostly surprise and perhaps a little incredulity — after all, there was no evidence of a body. Junior enlisted soldiers are, by nature, suspicious creatures.

It took almost ten years after the Bin Laden-directed attacks on September 11th, 2001 in the United States, but on the evening of May 2, 2011, President Barack Obama told the world during a televised address from the White House, “After a firefight, [a small team of Americans] killed Osama Bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

“Looking at al-Qaida’s position in the world today versus in 2011, it is hard to make a good argument that killing Bin Laden worked.”

According to President Obama himself during that very address, the killing or capture of Bin Laden was, until then, the top priority of the war against al-Qaida. But for all the resources that went into Bin Laden’s killing, did, as President Obama put it, “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaida” actually disrupt, dismantle or defeat it?

Looking at al-Qaida’s position in the world today versus in 2011, it is hard to make a good argument that killing Bin Laden worked. In 2011, al-Qaida’s core in Pakistan was suffering from seemingly endless drone strikes, disrupted communications, constant threat of infiltration, and the inability to meet in large groups. Killing Bin Laden did not much change the operational ability of al-Qaida’s core.

However, pre-Bin Laden raid, al-Qaida’s affiliated groups in Africa and the Middle East, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) were much less active.

Since the horrific car bombing in Algiers in 2007 that killed and wounded 180 people, AQIM attacks had essentially dropped off, with no AQIM-attributed casualties in 2008 or 2010 and only 12 in 2009. But after Bin Laden’s death, attacks saw an uptick, with casualties increasing every year, culminating in two large attacks this year using gunmen in Burkina Fasso and Ivory Coast, resulting in 100 casualties — relatively high for attacks not using explosives and a marked expansion from their Algeria-centric operations prior to Bin Laden’s death.

AQAP has seen tremendous growth in the past five years. In 2009, AQAP was estimated to have only 200-300 members, but grew to nearly 1000 in 2014. Because of the Saudi-backed war in Yemen against Iranian Houthi rebels, AQAP has been able to consolidate its power, enjoying the control of a mini-state along the Yemeni coast, much like the quasi-state under the control of Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.

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Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters in the Algerian desert. The stones spell “La ilaha ila Allah (There is no god but God)” (Voice of America photo)

Another al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as Nusra Front or Nusra), did not exist before Bin Laden’s death. But after the start of the Syrian Civil War, Nusra began operating as the official arm of al-Qaida in Syria with the blessing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then-leader of the Iraqi affiliate, AQI. Since its formation, Nusra has become one of the strongest and most organized rebel groups in Syria, second only to IS.

IS itself was once the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq and then known as AQI. During the time of the Bin Laden raid, AQI was nearly defeated. But the death of Bin Laden, the civil war in Syria, and the withdrawal of American troops combined with an extremely weak government in Iraq created ideal conditions for AQI/IS to seize control of large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria. While not affiliated with al-Qaida anymore (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has eclipsed al-Qaida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and perhaps even Bin Laden), IS is certainly more powerful than al-Qaida ever was — before or after Bin Laden.

“The US and its partners must, at a minimum, work harder to quantify the results of their counterterrorism strategies and end the practices that are counterproductive.”

So, if al-Qaida and global jihadism have only become stronger since the death of Bin Laden, it is fair to say that killing Bin Laden was a poor top priority for the United States in its war against al-Qaida. This does not come as a surprise to all. In 2008, Aaron Manness published a study which found that decapitation strategy is not only limited in efficacy, but may actually be counterproductive when used on religiously motivated terrorist groups, who have been found to become more violent when their leaders are killed.

One could theorize that Bin Laden would have been more useful captured alive, but the point is now moot. His death, once the top priority of the US, has done nothing to defeat al-Qaida. Indeed, al-Qaida’s greatest foe today may not even be the US, but rather IS, who is competing with (and for the moment, winning against) al-Qaida to be the world’s premiere Salafi jihadist group.

Should the US defeat either IS or al-Qaida by killing its members, the other will directly benefit. If decapitation strategy does not work, the US and its partners must, at a minimum, work harder to quantify the results of their counterterrorism strategies and end the practices that are counterproductive. The killing of Bin Laden was only one of hundreds of “high value targets” that have been killed in countries the US is not technically at war with — to unimpressive results. Next, the US and its partners must identify a strategy that does not benefit al-Qaida while IS is degraded or vice versa. If they do not, this 15 year old war is not likely to end any time soon.

Happy New Year: The State of Afghanistan 2016

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Last week the United States celebrated its 14th New Year in Afghanistan, making it the longest war in which the US has fought. While 2015 was technically the first year Americans were no longer engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan, 22 US military members lost their lives including six US Air Force personnel on December 22nd. In addition to the US military fatalities, another five coalition military personnel perished and more contractors — who outnumber US troops three to one — but for them no official numbers are kept.

This is the year the US war in Afghanistan was planned to end. The 9,800 troops in country were intended to be cut in half  by the end of 2015 with a slow withdrawal of the remainder by the end of 2016 (much like the Iraq withdrawal.) But there were some . . . issues with the Iraq withdrawal and the security situation in Afghanistan is the worst it has been since 2001. Even in Kabul, it is too dangerous for the State Department to drive from the Embassy to the airport.

The grimdark reality of Afghanistan in 2016 is that the last decade and a half has been mostly a wash.

So instead, at least 5,500 troops will remain in Afghanistan through the end of the Obama presidency where the next administration will decide how to proceed with the war that the US has been fighting since Carson Daly hosted MTV’s Total Request Live.

The grimdark reality of Afghanistan in 2016 is that the last decade and a half has been mostly a wash. Despite the $685 billion spent, over 3,500 US and coalition troops killed, and perhaps 200,000 Afghan civilians killed, the Taliban controls more territory in Afghanistan today than they have since the 2001 invasion.

Unfortunately, as 2016 rolls in the Taliban is not the only failed American objective in Afghanistan. Even al-Qaida is enjoying a resurgence. In October of last year, “probably the largest” AQ training camp was destroyed in Kandahar province. One spanned over 30 square miles — roughly three times the size of the largest US base in Afghanistan, Bagram Airfield (though much less populated.)

Additionally, there is a new threat in Afghanistan in 2016 that did not exist fourteen years ago: Islamic State. IS only controls small portions of southeast Afghanistan now (see this excellent Frontline episode) but could gain momentum if they keep paying large signing bonuses to former Taliban fighters.

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Taliban and Islamic State Control Areas in Afghanistan December 2015 – Institute for the Study of War Graphic

Looking forward, 2016 will be another challenging year for US forces in Afghanistan. 2015 brought a large, but mostly unsuccessful offensive from the Taliban that allowed them to briefly control Kunduz. They did not manage to capture any more city centers, but 2015’s warm winter has prevented a traditional lull in the fighting season. Only a week into 2016, the US has found itself in a “combat situation” once again in Marjah, with one Army Special Forces soldier killed and two others injured.

It is clear that as US and coalition partners reduce their military presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban, AQ, and other unfriendly actors will fill the power vacuum in place of the Afghan government. It also seems unlikely that the Obama administration will commit more troops to a war it pledged to end.

I do not anticipate the state of Afghanistan in 2016 to become more secure — and it is not foreseeable that the US will find an endpoint to its counterterrorism mission this year. Unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, it will probably be 2017 before any meaningful policy shift in either direction occurs from the United States. For now, Afghanistan will continue to exist in a strange state of non-war where American combat operations do not occur but combat situations do.

Political violence in the Information Age

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The internet’s role in changing 20th century political norms is well known, especially since 2011’s Arab Spring movement and social media’s huge role in it. But it is not just social media that is supporting radical change. In 2014 the most Googled “recipe” in Ukraine was for Molotov cocktails (beating Easter bread, homemade pizza, and “Vyshyvanka cake.”)

What did Google point these inquiring Ukrainians to? Answer: A Wikipedia article in Russian about Molotov cocktails.

As a millennial I naively wonder, “How was this knowledge passed around before the internet?” Encyclopedia Britannica doesn’t have an entry for Molotov cocktails. In the 1990s it seemed like you could find things like this in the Anarchist’s Cookbook, but that was still online. Said Cookbook’s only publisher stopped publishing it because they had a “responsibility to the public.” Ironically, Wikipedia’s priorities are more populist by disseminating information on how to make homemade incendiaries.

Like all discussions about the internet, it poses the question, “What did we ever do without it?” Obviously, political violence, insurgencies, and revolutions existed before the internet, but can they exist without it now? Al Qaeda infamously eschews digital communication in favor of couriers, but they have been completely eclipsed by Islamic State as the premiere jihadist movement in the world. And IS has no qualms about using the internet to promote their ideology. Their media arm frequently posts polished videos to YouTube of their human rights abuses (I won’t post a link here) leading to incredibly successful recruitment around the world. Even the music, radio, and television hating Taliban has trolled ISAF on Twitter.

Somehow we have reached a point in history where jihadist message boards have become passé (they’re so 2000s.) That’s political violence in the Information Age.

“I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war”

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Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta – Wikipedia Commons Photo

Today, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that the fight against the Islamic State could take decades. This is hardly an unreasonable assertion considering our war against al-Qaida is now thirteen years old. (I was sixteen on September 11th and am now twenty-nine. There are high schoolers alive today who have no memory of a United States at peace.) New, yet to be named operations in Iraq and Syria do not show signs of a speedy resolution. After all, it might take a year to train the Iraqi Security Forces to a readiness level suitable to start a ground campaign against IS. (I expect that estimate is optimistic—coalition forces trained the ISF for at least seven years, but it did not prevent the ISF from collapsing against IS earlier this year.)

Panetta goes on to blame President Obama for not forcing former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraqi government in 2011 to accept a new Status of Forces Agreement with diplomatic immunity for US forces. In his view, the absence of this hypothetical SOFA and continued troop presence created a security vacuum and thus IS—a position shared by Senator John McCain and the GOP as well. This sort of cognitive dissonance concerning the recent origins of unrest in the “Greater Middle East” aside, there are a few troubling points within his statements.

1. We are fast approaching the longest war in US history—one that spans continents and has no end in sight. In just seven years we will be fighting AQ and its associates/separatists for as long as we were fighting communists in Vietnam (“advisor years” included). As the Vietnam War could be considered the US’s most embarrassing foreign policy blunder (or more accurately string of blunders), why is our Department of Defense not a learning institution?

2. Panetta complained that Obama “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” How do we live in a world where a leader in the US government’s highest offices (Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA, etc.) can claim that logic is a lesser trait than passion? It continues to astonish me that we allow our elected and appointed leaders to make these sophomoric emotional statements.

3. To what end do we accept that this war will take decades? After IS is degraded and destroyed—then what? Shall we keep US forces in the Middle East indefinitely, fighting the next armed group who opposes imperialism? Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war to prevent this scenario. It is not within the American people’s strategic interests to remain there. The question should not be, “What is the most recent action by a US administration that led to the strengthening of IS,” the question should be, “How did we end up here in the first place,” and, “How do we avoid doing it again?”

I admit I do not have the answers to these questions. But the US has a long history of addressing the symptoms and not the root cause of its problems. This part of Obama’s address to the American people about this still unnamed operation in Iraq and Syria is telling:

“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

If Yemen and Somalia are our measure of success, I am positive we will continue to be successful in Iraq and Syria.