Rex Tillerson is out of his depth

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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.

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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.

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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​

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will the U.S. send ground troops?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Google Uses One Weird Trick to Dissuade Would-Be Islamic State Recruits

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Google has developed a program it hopes will use a combination of search advertising algorithms and targeted YouTube videos to dissuade would-be recruits from traveling to Syria to join Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL).

The project was created by Google’s in-house tech incubator, Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas). Called “Redirect Method”, when search terms that Google predicts someone who might be curious about joining IS are used, text links to anti-IS YouTube videos will display. The keywords include “Fatwa for jihad in Syria” and places used for entry into IS-controlled Syria. When used, links with subtle messages like “Want to join ISIS?” will display. (Though maybe it should consider “one weird trick”.)

This information operation uses the same basic dilution method as the organically crowd-sourced ISIS-chan meme. By adding more anti-IS content to search results, the likelihood of legitimate IS propaganda displaying is reduced. The Google campaign goes a step further by curating a playlist of authentic anti-IS videos already uploaded to YouTube such as “Raqqa under ISIS food lines”. This is in contrast to government information operations like the State Department’s  failed “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign that created their own (bad) content, or France’s “How to Spot a Jihadist” infographic.

Unlike ISIS-chan, this information operation could have the potential to legitimately deter recruitment. Google claims that their anti-IS ad clickthrough rates are around nine per cent, much  higher than the two to three per cent in a typical Google AdWords campaign. Additionally, people seem to be actually watching the videos, with their best performing videos getting an average of eight minutes. That is a longer time than I spend on most videos I actually want to watch.

As we have seen, most IS recruits are ignorant of Islam. It makes sense that these would-be recruits are legitimately interested in what life in IS-controlled territory is like.

While this program is encouraging, it does make me question Google’s ultimate aim here. Are they altruistically investing time and money into counterterrorism, or will this information be used to change people’s minds about other things? It is a new development in the ongoing search neutrality debate. It would be difficult to oppose Google manipulating their results to combat terrorism, but it will be interesting to see how Google uses its new Inception-esque technology to change users minds in the future.

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?

 

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.”

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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?

The GOP Wants to Defeat Islamic State, But Doesn’t Understand the Syrian Civil War

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Donald Trump never stops saying absurd things about the Middle East (Gage Skidmore photo)

An updated and expanded version of my post about the Republican plans for defeating Islamic State went up at Fair Observer, a global journal in partnership with the United Nations Foundation and Oxford University School of Politics and International Relations, on Wednesday.

“The three candidates’ plans for defeating Islamic State may differ tactically, but they all want to put American troops on the ground in Syria to fight IS while avoiding involvement in the Syrian Civil War. This is the type of half-planning that needlessly endangers Americans troops and exposes the US to blowback.

The power vacuum in Iraq and Syria that facilitated the rise of IS has been attributed by many Republicans to President Obama’s miscalculating the consequences of the Iraq withdrawal and inaction in Syria. But to advocate putting American troops in Syria to fight IS while keeping them neutral against Assad’s regime is not just bad strategy—it is wishful thinking.”

More here.

The GOP Candidates’ Plans for Beating Islamic State Range from Contradictory to Absurd

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Presidential candidate Ted Cruz wants to “carpet bomb” Islamic State (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons photo)

The Republican candidates for president have said some provocative things about battling Islamic State (IS — also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), yet none have mapped out a plan quite as detailed as Hillary Clinton’s, which I wrote about, along with Sanders’, last month. With four Republican primaries today and another 25 to go, the remaining candidates have outlined their strategies as such:

Ted Cruz

Goal: Defeat IS while allowing the Syrian civil war play out and reserving American ground forces as a last resort

How? Cruz famously said that he would “carpet bomb” IS, but later revealed he did not know what the term meant when he elaborated — essentially describing standard close air support within the framework of legal air strikes. He has also said he wants to “bomb ISIS back to the stone age,” but this seems more like blustery talk and less like a new form of hyper-anti-counterinsurgency policy. Cruz wants to:

  • Arm the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq to defeat IS in both Iraq and Syria
  • Avoid population-centric counterinsurgency and state building in Syria
  • Focus on Iraq, not Syria, and avoid resolving the Syrian civil war

It is clear that Cruz does not want American forces to do more than bomb IS. Ironically, for someone saying Obama is not doing enough, his plan is less involved than the Obama Administration’s. He speaks of using the Peshmerga as a ground force in Iraq, but they have not and will not fight for traditionally Arab areas. It is unlikely that Cruz could defeat IS using the meager plan he has described so far. On his campaign website, his IS strategy is tellingly limited to “calling the enemy by its name – radical Islamic terrorism – and securing the border. Border security is national security.”

John Kasich

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John Kasich wants American troops in Syria now (YouTube/New America photo)

Goal: “Wipe out, degrade, and destroy” Islamic State with an American-led coalition of European and Middle Eastern allies sooner rather than later, without using American forces against Assad

How? Kasich said he wants to:

  • Utilize American, European, and Middle Eastern ground forces
  • Arm moderate rebels in Syria
  • Arm Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish militias
  • Create and enforce no-fly zones in Syria
  • Encourage regional allies to take in refugees

Kasich’s plan is firmly in the interventionist camp, but he also knows that military action alone will not defeat Islamic State. While he once called for the creation of an agency to promote “Judeo-Christian values”, he later walked back this statement, instead suggesting to “breathe life”  into Voice of America, a US-government funded news organization broadcast around the world.

However, his vision of a broad military coalition including American ground forces and no-fly zones, while not taking action to depose Assad is non-sensical. Enforcing no-fly zones in Syria means shooting down Syrian and Russian aircraft should they encroach on this hypothetical airspace. In that event, it would be very unlikely that American ground forces could avoid combat with the Syrian Arab Army.

Marco Rubio

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Rubio sees the world through the eyes of an early 2000s Neocon (Gage Skidmore photo)

Goal: The US-led defeat of IS in a post-Assad Syria as part of a larger zero-sum “clash of civilizations”

How? Rubio’s plan is neatly outlined in bullet points on his campaign website, though most of “his” plan is already being implemented by the Obama Administration. The significant policy changes he would like to pursue are:

  • Utilize American and coalition ground forces in Syria and Iraq
  • Expand air campaign and deploy American forward observers to direct airstrikes in Syria and Iraq
  • Increase training of rebels in Syria to fight Assad
  • Form safe zones in Syria
  • Directly arm Sunni and Kurdish militias in Iraq
  • Increase military action against Islamic State in Libya and Afghanistan
  • Bar entry of Iraqi and Syrian refugees into the United States

Rubio proposes the most military action of any candidate. Like the Democratic candidates, he prefers regime change in Syria. Like Hillary Clinton, he proposes safe zones, but without adequate troop commitment safe areas become the opposite.

He has called for American ground forces embedded with coalition forces, but despite his bravado and “them or us”, “fight them here or there” world view, has not offered that he would deploy American infantry battalions to fight in any country. Most worrying about Rubio’s plan is his insistence on describing the fight against IS as a clash of civilizations:

“For [Islamic State and other jihadist groups] do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East, they hate us because of our values. They hate us because young girls here go to school. They hate us because women drive. They hate us because we have freedom of speech, because we have diversity in our religious beliefs. They hate us because we are a tolerant society. . .This is a clash of civilizations and either they win, or we win.”

If 9/11 and the Global War on Terrorism should have taught us anything, it is that the above quote is nonsense. Rubio is still attempting to paint the world as the Bush Administration and other Neoconservatives saw it in the early 2000s. Jihadist groups including al-Qaida and IS have told us themselves that they attack the United States because of realist security issues, not abstract cultural differences — there is not much of a mystery there.

Donald Trump

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Donald Trump wants to give Syria to Exxon and torture people (Michael Vadon photo)

Goal: Donald Trump’s envisioned end state in Iraq and Syria is unclear. If any candidate has said more senseless things about the Middle East than former candidate Ben Carson, it is Trump. Trump wants to defeat Islamic State — that much is clear.

How? Before Trump was an official candidate, he hinted at knowing a “foolproof” plan to defeat IS, but as of yet still has not enlightened us. Interestingly, in that same interview he suggested talks with IS, but a peaceful resolution has not been brought up since. Instead, he has said he wants to:

  • Expand legal authority to torture
  • Ban Muslims from entering the United States
  • Allow Assad and Russia to continue fighting IS in Syria while the US fights them in Iraq
  • Use airstrikes and ground forces to seize IS-controlled oil fields and take the oil for the US

Essentially Trump’s plan so far is three-pronged: bomb them, send in ground forces, take their oil fields. He has said it is important for the US to avoid fighting two wars at once, because it cannot win. While the last decade and a half in the greater Middle East might support his theory, it is important also to realize that wars are not what you want them to be, they are what they are. Simply because he might choose not to fight Assad does not mean Assad will not fight the US directly or via proxy, especially when his oil fields are occupied by American troops and Exxon.

It is also necessary to stress that there is no research that suggests that Trump’s plan to expand the legal authority to torture IS fighters and his suggestion that their families might also be legal targets would hasten an IS defeat. IS has partly risen in response to US torture. Indeed, IS prisoners wear orange jumpsuits to mimic Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo Bay prisoners and treatment of prisoners by Americans is frequently mentioned in IS propaganda videos.

As the French learned in the Algerian War, torture is not only counterproductive, it also “corrupts the the torturer as much as it breaks the victim.”  A quote from a French paratrooper in Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 shows the suffering of the torturer himself:

“‘All day, through the floor-boards, we heard their hoarse cries, like those of animals being slowly put to death. Sometimes I think I can still hear them. . . . All these men disappeared. . . .’ Gradually, ‘I felt myself becoming contaminated. What was more serious, I felt that the horror of all these crimes, our everyday battle, was losing force daily in my mind.’ Going on a month’s leave to Paris was like a deep breath of fresh air, and sufficient ‘to make me forget the suffering throughout poor Algeria. I felt ashamed. Ashamed of having been so happy.’”

For someone who supposedly has made veterans’ issues a high priority, he might consider  more deeply the lasting effects of war on those who serve.