Here’s your Situation Update for February 26, 2018


Department of Defense photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a regular feature from Insurgentsia that covers irregular war and runs weekday mornings. The scope of these posts will cover small wars, but big things can come in small packages.

The weather forecast this morning is clear with a 30% chance of reflexively calling someone you don’t like at work a Russian bot. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

“It’s high time to stop this hell on earth,” said the United Nations General Secretary referring to the cease-fire in Syria. Adopted over the weekend, the 30-day ceasefire was drafted in response to the relentless campaign by Syrian government forces on a suburb of Damascus that has killed hundreds, targeted protected civilians, and possibly used chemical weapons. Unfortunately, the cease-fire has yet to have any effect, as Syrian government forces continue to attack eastern Ghouta under the pretense of attacking Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a militant group that is effectively a rebranded al-Qaida.

“The patriarchy really is over,” joked a Kurdish woman in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria in this article about how Marxist theory from an imprisoned terrorist in Turkey has revolutionized the power women have in Kurdish society. But as Kurdish militias like the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its female counterpart, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) liberate majority Arab towns from Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or Daesh), these Arab areas, traditionally male-dominated and conservative, also get Kurdish-created feminist governments. One Arab resident of Manbij told the New York Times, “To understand the current situation, think of ISIS, but at the other end of the spectrum.” He’s making a point about radicalism, but “the opposite of ISIS” seems like pretty high praise to me.

Three Taliban attacks in southern Afghanistan killed 20 Afghan soldiers on Saturday. In one attack, Taliban fighters used an American Humvee as a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), packing it explosives and detonating it. During the attacks the Taliban fighters stole another American Humvee and captured “a lot of light and heavy weapons.”

Russian state media tried to pass off a video game as footage from Syria in a bizarre example of Russian disinformation in the news. This would be like Fox News showing footage of Call of Duty and saying it was from heroic action in Iraq. We praise the Russians for being good at disinformation, but they do so much of it that maybe it’s just the successes that get attention while these obvious failures slide under the radar.

Turkey occupied a portion of Syria’s Afrin province that it shares a border with. The campaign to enter Afrin has met resistance both from the YPG that Turkey is attempting to destroy and pro-Assad militias sent to assist the YPG in repelling Turkey. The Turkish army said the operation meant it was ready for a “new battle” and deployed special forces units to the area.

Missing Nigeria girls now number 110 after a Boko Haram attack last week. Previous reports said 75 girls were missing and that they had all been rescued.

Plan to truck oil from Northern Iraq to Iranian refineries delayed due to security concerns. Iraq recently launched an offensive to clear the area of militants, but now Iran is concerned it cannot guarantee the trucks will not have explosives on them.

Questions still linger over an American airstrike in Iraq that occurred in January in Anbar province. The town was not under IS control and it struck the police chief and other security forces as they investigated where a raid was conducted by U.S. forces and Iraqi Army. The locals do not understand why their police chief was target and the U.S. is mum on the reason for the strike. One theory is a local used the American air power to solve a personal problem.

Despite over a decade of supporting the troops, women veterans don’t feel supported says a woman veteran in this op-ed for The Atlantic. According to the piece, 74% of women veterans don’t feel supported by the general public.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section. Existential questions must be pondered silently. To receive these in your inbox daily, use the follow button on the sidebar (web) or below (mobile). Your next Situation Update will be Tuesday, February 27th, 2018.

Here’s your Situation Update for February 12th, 2018


Department of Defense photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a new feature from Insurgentsia that runs weekday mornings. The scope of these posts will cover the globe’s military operations other than war (oddly enough, this is another name for war).

The weather forecast this morning is freezing with a 30% chance of strained Clausewitz references. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

Gaza is starving and the world wonders if that will affect them this piece from The New York Times seems to say. Gaza has long been blockaded by Israel, but the tiny strip of land with two million people living there found ways around the economic siege to survive. Namely, tunnels into Egypt provided Gaza with goods and a tax revenue on those imported goods. But Egypt has cracked down on the tunnels and Gazans must turn to Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority. Fatah is not keen to work with Gaza because it is ruled by a rival party, Hamas. With no where to turn, Hamas may turn to violence against Israel to draw international sympathy and aid.

Kobani, Syria is preserving a neighborhood destroyed by war by turning it into an open air museum. During the battle to win back Kobani from Islamic State, Kurdish fighters supported by  U.S. and allied air power targeted and destroyed areas where militants were operating. “A reinforced-concrete, three-story house on the street was pancaked. ‘Everyone in that house is dead now,’ said Mustafa, a 40-year-old mechanic,” says the article about part of the area preserved.

Anti-IS campaign in Iraq caused $45.7 billion in damage says a new study by the World Bank and Iraq. I wonder who will be generously willing to loan the Iraqi government money to rebuild (at a modest interest rate, of course)? The Wall Street Journal vaguely states, “international investors.”

Pakistan-based militants attacked an Indian Army base over the weekend, killing at least six. Indian authorities blamed Jaish-e-Muhammad, an insurgent group that has attacked government forces in Kashmir as well.

Israel bombed Syrian government positions over the weekend in retaliation for the shooting down off an Israeli fighter over Syrian airspace. The loss of the Israeli fighter was the first in three decades.

A Turkish helicopter was also shot down in Syria on Saturday, killing two Turkish soldiers. The Kurdish YPG claimed responsibility and posted a video of the attack.

Pakistani Taliban confirmed deputy leader killed by a suspected U.S. drone strike last week and appointed a new one.

“Tunisia is finished” says one migrant who fled to Europe is this breakdown of the crisis from The Guardian. A crackdown on the smuggling routes from Libya, including a deployment of soldiers from Italy, has shifted the business to neighboring Tunisia.

Terrorism is not as useful lens for understanding violence in the Sahel said Nathaniel Powell of King’s College London for War on Rocks last week. Support for authoritarian regimes in squashing violent dissent is not helpful in the long run, he argues.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section but we are unaware of answers at this time because we were traveling. To receive these in your inbox daily, use the follow button on the sidebar (web) or below (mobile). Your next Situation Update will be Tuesday, February 13th, 2018.

Situation Update February 5th, 2018

Eyes in the Sky: Afghan Air assists ANDSF offensive maneuver during Maiwand 10

Department of Defense photo

Welcome to your Situation Update, a new feature from Insurgentsia that will run weekday mornings. The scope of these posts will cover the globe’s various low-intensity conflicts (i.e. all of them until a mythical near-peer force-on-force war awakens from its slumber as prophesied).

The weather forecast this morning is chilly with a 70% chance of bias presented as context. I hope that helps you wherever you are located as you read this.

Russia struck multiple targets by air in Idlib province, Syria starting Sunday night and continuing into Monday afternoon. Many cities were bombed and the targets included hospitals. Syria’s “White Helmets” reported on Twitter that chlorine gas was used in at least one attack. The strikes may have been retaliation for the downed Russian pilot on Saturday. Russian press reported the pilot killed himself with a grenade to avoid capture.

Iraq announced a military operation to secure the oil route to Iran and provide a path for Iraqi oil exports. The mountainous terrain between Iraq’s Kirkuk oil fields and the Kermanshah Oil Refinery in Northern Iran has been occupied by militants including Islamic State (IS). In January, IS fighters launched a cross-border raid and killed three Revolutionary Guard soldiers. The region is known by locals as Iraq’s “Tora Bora,” a name referencing the mountain hideout Osama bin Laden escaped from in Afghanistan in 2001.

Dangerous work in liberated Raqqa continues as the city is swept for explosives by the coalition-trained Syrian Defensive Force despite no training or tools. Since October, over 300 civilians have been killed from improvised explosives left by IS or perhaps unexploded ordinance dropped by the coalition.

Turkish causalities mount as it continues its anti-Kurdish Afrin operation in Northern Syria. Two soldiers were killed Sunday and 8 killed Saturday in the operation that the United States has tolerated despite allying with the Kurds to fight IS in Syria.

Saudi Arabia shot down another Houthi missile launched from Yemen targeting the Saudi city of Khamis Mushait. Since the Saudi invasion of Yemen in 2015, Houthi rebels have been targeting Saudi cities including Riyadh with ballistic missiles. Most are intercepted, but in December one did explode near the Riyadh airport.

American military officers lack integrity according to the scuttlebutt at Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar. An American military officer, on the condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to press, said that officers deployed there are lying to the lodging office by making up fictional roommates to secure rooms by themselves.

This concludes your Situation Update. Questions may be posted in the comments section but answers are not guaranteed. Your next Situation Update will be Tuesday, February 6th, 2018.

Rex Tillerson is out of his depth


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday the United States would stay in Iraq to fight Islamic State (IS, sometimes referred to as ISIS or ISIL) whether the Iraqi government authorizes the troop presence or not.

Tillerson testified with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee amid scrutiny over the death of four U.S. soldiers in Niger earlier this month.

Sen. Tom Udall asked, “If U.S. forces are told to leave, will we depart Iraq or will we stay uninvited as our forces are doing in Syria, and under what legal authority will they remain?”

Tillerson replied, “We will remain in Iraq until ISIS is defeated and we are confident that ISIS has been defeated.”

The implication that the U.S. would keep its military in Iraq despite being unwanted is not only the definition of imperialism, but it would be the biggest foreign policy blunder since the 2003 invasion.


PMU celebrates a victor over IS (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Iraqi militias already weary of U.S. presence

Tillerson’s position is ironic considering he called for Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to “go home” last week. “Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home. The foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control,” he said.

In Baghdad, the Iranian influence is noticeable. In the square where U.S. soldiers in 2003 famously removed a statue of Saddam Hussein, hoisted an American flag, and then quickly took it down, a billboard advertises Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) with photos of Khomeinei and Khamenei.

At the moment, the Iraqi government welcomes both U.S. and Iranian forces and has heavily depended on both to fight IS. But should the U.S. stay as a foreign occupier after being told to leave, the fight against IS would expand to include defending itself against local militias fighting what they consider an invading force.

This month a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb identified as an explosively formed penetrator (EFP). This type of bomb is not an improvised explosive device (IED) as it requires considerable manufacturing effort to create.

EFPs were used to kill many American service members during Operation Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn and are linked to Iran. Notably, no evidence of IS use of EFPs has been recorded.

The idea that Shiite militias in Iraq would be targeting U.S. forces again is not unsound. In March, a PMU commander threatened U.S. troops should they stay after IS is gone.


A U.S. Marine fires an M777-A2 Howitzer in Syria, June 1, 2017 (DoD photo)

U.S. unilateralism in Syria untenable 

Resistance to the U.S. presence by militias also fighting IS is not contained only to Iraq. In Syria, Free Syrian Army fighters surrounded a small detachment of U.S. special operations forces last winter and chanted “Pigs! Crusaders!”

Since then, U.S. special operations bases have been limited to Kurdish-controlled areas and their locations closely guarded secrets (until Turkey announced the location of 10 bases this year).

Depending on the protection of non-state actors while ignoring the wishes of the host nation’s government — but not actively fighting them — has become the norm in Syria, but obviously is not the ideal operating environment.

The precarious position of U.S. troops in Syria was highlighted recently. In September, U.S. troops were forced to abandon a small base in the Syrian desert and withdraw closer to the Iraqi border.

The U.S. position in Syria post-IS is currently untenable. Turkey continues to consider the YPG, a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia, a terrorist organization and existential threat. As the IS buffer diminishes, Russia and Iran-backed fighters grow bolder in opposing U.S. forces. Last month, Russia threatened to bomb U.S. troops.

Diplomat needed

That Tillerson would suggest he is comfortable with the same situation in Iraq shows how out of his depth he is in the position to which he was appointed. On the Middle East, Tillerson recently admitted that he was lost. “Maybe we leave it to the next generation to try. I don’t know. I’m not a diplomat,” he admitted.

It should go without saying that the top U.S. diplomat should probably be a diplomat. It should also go without saying that the top U.S. diplomat should not endorse imperialism as viable foreign policy.

Since President Trump was elected, a lot of things that used to go without saying need saying.

Happy 16th birthday, forever war​

Enduring Freedom

US Army soldiers pose for a photo in Afghanistan (DoD photo)

Today, the war in Afghanistan and across the world turns sweet sixteen. Authorized under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, known otherwise as the AUMF, the war is now old enough to drive (or drink in Germany).

The AUMF, written by Congress in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and foiled in Pennsylvania, authorized the United States to go to war in Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida.

Since then, it has been used to justify military options in fourteen countries — almost one for every year this war existed.

The war in Syria and Iraq against Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) is legally the same war as Afghanistan. The war in Libya, Somalia, Yemen. . . you get the idea — if you know of any terrorists, you can start a war and it will be covered under the same Congressional authorization.

“By 2021, the US and Afghan governments still plan to be fighting insurgent forces for territory.”

The war in Afghanistan is not forecasted to end anytime soon, either. Recently, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told NPR that the current four-year plan is to “[bring] 80 percent of the territory of the country under control.”

By 2021, the US and Afghan governments still plan to be fighting insurgent forces for territory. The war will be twenty years old and we do not even expect to control the entire country.

Meanwhile, the war against IS in Iraq and Syria seems to be going well. After all, coalition forces reduced IS territory by nearly 80 percent and it did not take 20 years to do it.

Yet, after IS loses its territory in Iraq and Syria, things will get worse. Vera Mironava spent time embedded with Iraqi Security Forces and interviewing IS fighters. She predicts that things will not improve until government corruption and abuses stop.

The next IS, made up of seasoned veterans, will have plenty of young people to recruit in the coming years.

One result of the forever war is that the children of the war’s early years are coming of age.


Samar Hassan, age five, screams in terror after US soldiers kill her parents in 2005 (Getty photo)

Samar Hassan was five years old when US soldiers killed her parents at a checkpoint. In the documentary Hondros, Samar, now 18, is interviewed and told an American soldier wants to apologize to her.

She responds, “No one ever told me they were sorry. ‘Sorry’ won’t bring back my parents. I’ll never forgive them. If they were in front of me, I’d want to drink their blood — and I still would not feel satisfied.”

This is one birthday I do not look forward to celebrating next year.

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


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:


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).


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.


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.

cov fe.png

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.


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.


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. 


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.

Bragging TheBlaze Journalist Shoots at ISIS, Endangers Real War Correspondents


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.


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.


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.

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


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.


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?


Book Review for A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962


A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1952-1962 by Alistair Horne was recommended to me by retired Army officer and professor of international studies, Lt. Col. John Fishel, in one of my undergraduate classes called “Small Wars” for good reason: the 20th Century French war is eminently relatable to the savage wars of peace involving Western powers and Arab states that continue today.

If you are ignorant of the French war in Algeria or French history in general (as I was or am; the extent of my exposure to the war was from a memoir of a Legionnaire during that time and the famous film, The Battle of Algiers), this book is difficult at first. It took me many months to get through the background and the beginning of the war. Even so, poignant prose is generously sprinkled among the unfamiliar names and places. Passages such as the following highlight the incredible amount of research in the book:

Early on, when dressed in plain clothes [General Jacques de Bollardière] had been shocked to overhear a young cavalry officer remark, “In Algiers, now, there is nothing but genuine chaps, paras, the Legion, fine big blond fellows, stalwarts not sentimentalists.”

Bollardière intervened: “Doesn’t that remind you of anything, des grands gars blonds, pas sentimentaux?” 

The young officer replied, quite unashamedly: “If I had been in Germany at that moment, I too would have been a Nazi.”

But by the last third of the book — being now more familiar with the actors — the intrigue of the attempted coups, assassinations, and near fall of the French republic (and possible civil war and rise of a fascist state) turned this history into a legitimate page turner. What a fascinating time that most Americans are unaware of!

To me, the most important parts of this book are those that deal with French torture and how it affected the service members performing it, the French national psyche, and most importantly: the war effort. Strong parallels to American wars in Arab states continue today, from the widely publicized American experiment with torture in Iraq to current presidential candidates promising a policy of torture once again. Donald Trump would be wise to read this book.

But lessons are also to be found in the way counterinsurgency wars are fought. Even with comparatively relaxed rules of engagement, the French were still unable to neutralize the National Liberation Front (FLN) due many factors including cross border safety areas, the war’s disastrous effects on regular civilians, and the indomitable spirit of what these young Arabs were fighting for: a new way of life. The Napoleon Bonaparte quote, “There are only two powers in the world. . .the sword and the spirt. In the long run, the sword is always defeated by the spirit. . . .” is aptly applied here. Current leaders of the campaign against Islamic State would be wise to take these lessons into consideration.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest, but I now consider it required reading for those involved in security studies in the Middle East/North Africa: students, government employees, think tankers, soldiers, etc. This one belongs in your library.

What ISIS Really (Really) Wants

AQMI_Flag_asymmetric.svgIn light of increased Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) foreign terrorism, especially in Europe, I have seen a piece from The Atlantic titled “What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood experience a resurgence in popularity. Last week it was the second most popular article on the site, despite it being a year old. In the piece, Wood made the argument that despite foolish United States government statements to the contrary, IS really was very Islamic and must be viewed with a theological lens to truly understand and counter it.

At the time, the piece filled a vacuum in long form analysis on what was a seemingly unstoppable al-Qaida separatist group. IS had captured both significant amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria and the attention of most Americans with its beheading video of American James Foley. Americans were now acutely aware of the strength of the group that President Barack Obama had attempted to downplay by calling “al-Qaida’s jayvee team.” Wood’s piece helped provide some context for the target of a new US war in the Middle East after attempting to withdraw from the region.

The piece was controversial when published, but with the benefit of a year of hindsight, I do not think that its central argument holds up well.

IS Not Very Islamic After All

It has become evident that many of the IS rank and file, especially those performing terrorist attacks like the ones in Paris and Belgium, are not particularly pious. Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, the two brothers responsible for the Brussels bombings, were not very religious. Nor was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the Paris attacks, who was known to regularly drink alcohol and use drugs — activities few if any Muslim religious leaders condone.

Mohamad Khweis, an American jihadist who was recently captured by the Kurdish Peshmerga as he attempted to desert, told reporters that IS’s religious ideology was too intense for him, complaining of how he could not smoke. And two British jihadists arrested upon returning from fighting in Syria were found to have bought Islam for Dummies — indicating their relatively new appreciation for Islam.

“Wood’s piece is not mansplaining, but it comes close to something like secularsplaining: ‘Dear Muslims, allow me to explain to you your religion.’”

But it is not just low-level fighters that might not be as Islamic as Wood claims. It has been reported that some of the IS senior leadership is made up of former Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since Ba’athism is a secular pan-Arabist ideology, either these leaders were closeted Islamists before, they are only recent converts, or they are fighting for IS for non-religious reasons (like a Shi’a-dominated, Iran-influenced, anti-Ba’athist government in Baghdad.)

Furthermore, the examples of pious Islamists that Wood interviewed, such as Anjem Choudhry, are not even proper IS members. While they may indeed be committed Islamists who openly endorse an IS caliphate, the fact remains that they are not living in IS territory or fighting for them, despite IS calls for their sympathizers unable to emigrate to launch attacks in the countries where they reside. On Twitter, many IS fighters chastise those who have not emigrated. I suspect that most actual IS fighters would deem people like Choudhry and his ilk to be pretenders in the same way that US military members have no great love for young Americans who profess to want to fight IS, but will not enlist.

The Obama Administration Is Right

A major point of contention from Wood is that the Obama Administration is purposely  calling IS un-Islamic not as a reflection of reality but for purposes of messaging. Because the administration does not correctly identify IS as very Islamic, it makes bad predictions. While I think the benefit of time has helped show that IS is not as Islamic as Wood thought it was, it is completely true that the Obama Administration made a conscious choice not to use “Islamic” when describing IS for political reasons — and they are right for doing so.

We must be realistic in acknowledging that most Americans would not understand the nuance in top government officials saying things like, “Yes, IS is Islamic but so are millions of practicing Muslims in the US who do not want to create a caliphate or cut off anyone’s head.”


IS fighters from IS social media

Islamophobia is on the rise in the US and it is evident by recent murders of Muslim Americans and current Republican anti-Muslim rhetoric. Since it is the government’s responsibility to protect Americans, it does have to be careful with its messaging when discussing IS, lest it be used to fuel bigotry and a Trump rally turns into a Kristallnacht against Muslims.

Secularsplaining Islam

The last problem with Wood’s piece is that Islam is what Muslims do. If 99% of Muslims are not doing what IS does, then how Islamic can it be? It would be more accurate to describe the actions of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims as Islamic than the relative handful of militants in Iraq, Syria, et al. performing the atrocities that make us so fearful.

When non-Muslims start making judgements on how Islamic a certain group of Muslims are, we straddle a thin line between useful thought exercise and absurdity — this is a problem with Orientalism in general. I think it would be difficult for Wood to defend his position in a room with 100 British Muslims. So when we as non-Muslims wonder about Islam, or what religiously motivates those who kill in the name of Islam, perhaps we should ask actual Muslims instead of relying solely on non-Muslim journalists.

“IS is, among other things, a youth movement.”

In feminist discourse there is a term called “mansplaining” which is used to describe a man explaining something to a woman in a condescending or patronizing way. Wood’s piece is not mansplaining, but it comes close to something like secularsplaining: “Dear Muslims, allow me to explain to you your religion.”

What IS Really Really Wants

So then what does IS really want? This is the part where I disappoint you: IS cannot “want” anything because it is not a cognizant being. When we talk about IS as an agent instead of a group of tens of thousands with varying interests we are utilizing a form of folk psychology that simplifies group complexities to make sense of the world and predict behavior.

If a group cannot truly want anything, and IS elites — from the al-Qaida in Iraq old guard to the ex-Ba’athists — are likely are not homogenous in their goals, then this line of questioning seems futile. If many of its young members were not religious before joining, then perhaps we are not fighting Islam that has been radicalized, but radicalization that has been Islamized.

IS is, among other things, a youth movement. The average age of a European jihadist has dropped from 27.7 when al-Qaida was the dominant jihadist group from 2001-2009 to just 20 years old today. As Cormac McCarthy wrote, war “endures because young men love it and old men love it in them.” What if the question is not what IS wants, but rather what do the young men (and women) joining IS want?

Instead of wondering how we can make ourselves safe from Muslims, maybe we should figure out how to assist in providing a meaningful life to a generation of Arabs both in the Middle East and Europe who have been marginalized. Young men have always willingly given their lives to save those of their countrymen. What does it say about the societies in Europe and the Arab states that tens of thousands of young people are more eagerly self-identifying with a murderous extra-legal organization in a war zone than the countries in which they reside?