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Archive for July, 2008

For some weeks there have been reports that foreign jihadis are departing Iraq in increasing numbers to join their fellow believers in Afghanistan. According to The Washington Post, Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri himself has recently relocated. With security improving in Iraq, Americans with neocon leanings have predictably announced that “victory” is at hand.

This is the same as if Roosevelt would’ve declared the Pacific War won when the last Japanese was killed on Guadalcanal.

Just as President George W. Bush himself has always spoken of his “global war on terror” as a multi-front struggle, Iraq for al-Qaeda has been but one battlefield among many. For bin Laden, it has never been the central front, but rather a useful sideshow, an unexpected opportunity to bleed the stumbling superpower even more. And it has been a spectacular success: thousands of Americans have died, Iraqi deaths probably number at least 100,000, billions of dollars have been wasted, resources have had to be diverted from Afghanistan, and America’s image as a beacon of democracy has suffered irreparable damage.

Only fools believe al-Qaeda’s local affiliates really sought to establish a Salafi state in Iraq. The jihadis knew that once the U.S. realised what it was up against and harnessed its military might to fight a counterinsurgency, it would all be over. Iraq was nothing more than a country-sized training ground for terrorist tactics, and the surge provided the trainees with their last live targets before the real deal — Afghanistan.

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In a sure sign that security has greatly improved in Diyala, the Iraqi Army has ventured out of its barracks to conduct one of its live combat simulations in the province. Touted as a “major offensive” by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the U.S. military and the skeleton crew of journalists still in Iraq, the operation will most likely involve no shooting, as the government announced its intentions weeks ago, giving Sunni insurgents ample time to scurry off.

At least the people of Mosul can let out a collective sigh of relief, as their city now appears to have lost its title of “the last urban stronghold of al-Qaeda”.

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I’ve never personally met a Concerned Local Citizen, or a Baquba Guardian, or a Son of Iraq, although I’ve had the dubious honour of meeting very bad people in many countries during my career. Even so, I have always presumed that co-opting local power players by bribery is not a lasting solution to an insurgency. With the war in Afghanistan run by Rumsfeld and Franks, I thought it only natural that stupid mistakes would be made, and it never surprised me that the U.S. chose to pay local warlords to serve as their proxies. But I’ve never quite understood why Petraeus has allowed the Sahwat and the SoI — smugglers, murderers, crooks and terrorists — to flourish on his watch in Iraq. After all, one of the central tenets of his COIN doctrine is “support the host government”.

But who exactly are these people, and what do their erstwhile enemies think of them?

Milblogger Alex at Army of Dude provides by far the most thoughtful answer I’ve come across. Please read all of it, but here’s a taste:

Why isn’t there an outcry from the media and citizenry about these people? Quite simply, the military led the media by its nose when they characterized insurgents as ‘concerned’ and proudly spoke of them as volunteers. To further confuse people, they were renamed ‘Baqubah Guardians’ and then finally ‘Sons of Iraq,’ each name a brighter shade of lipstick for the same dirty pig. They’re only growing stronger and more experienced as time goes on, watching coalition forces close up, looking for every weakness. They’ve already discovered a big one: our over-reliance on their dirty, sectarian work.

(Via The Washington Independent.)

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Yesterday, an al-Qaeda chemical weapons expert was killed in a Predator strike in Pakistan. Today, Los Angeles Times reports that Pakistan plans to move units of its XI Corps to cover the Afghan border. And according to an Army Times article by Sean Naylor, apparently leaked to bloggers, new CENTCOM chief General David Petraeus will “seek to re-create his Iraqi success in Afghanistan, using many of the same methods that appear to have turned the tide in Iraq over the last 18 months”.

These are encouraging news, but caveats abound. One successful precision strike will not seriously hamper al-Qaeda; Pakistan is better at making promises than keeping them; and, as Vikram Singh has convincingly argued, Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, and even Petraeus’s COIN wizardry can’t change that.

I’m still waiting to hear how Obama plans to tackle all this, although I’m a lot more optimistic about his chances after learning that Barnett Rubin is advising him on Afghanistan.

Here’s how Ahmed Rashid sums up the challenge in his Descent Into Chaos:

The United States and NATO have failed to understand that the Taliban belong to neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan, but are a lumpen population, the product of refugee camps, militarized madrassas, and the lack of opportunities in the borderland of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have neither been true citizens of either country nor experienced traditional Pashtun tribal society. The longer the war goes on, the more deeply rooted and widespread the Taliban and their transnational milieu will become.

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Journalists are up in arms after photographer Zoriah Miller published photos of dead Marines on his web site and was consequently kicked out of his embed. Predictably, the U.S. military is being accused of censorship; the Marines, for their part, say Miller’s photos desecrated the memory of their fallen comrades, added to the grief of their loved ones, and “provided the enemy with an after-action report”.

My advise to the media: calm down.

I’ve been embedded twice in Iraq with U.S. units. There was no concerted effort to curtail my reporting or the work of the photographers I was travelling with. In fact, I was surprised and impressed by the access I was granted.

On my first embed, with the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad in April 2007, I witnessed the deaths of several American soldiers, watched as limbs were amputated, and was present as a constant stream of Iraqi civilian casualties came in. According to the ground rules, I could not interview American wounded without a public affairs officer present; my photographer needed a written permission from the wounded he wanted to photograph, if they could be identified in the photos; and all “suspected insurgents” were off-limits. We had no trouble agreeing to this. I wasn’t there to interview the wounded; I don’t believe in trying to force empty quotes out of traumatised people. And my photographer, following the journalistic code of conduct accepted in Finland, pointed his Canon somewhere else when a person passed away. He didn’t need pictures of bodies to portray the horror that was Baghdad. (The story is here.)

My second embed, with the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment in Mosul in March 2008, was different only in that the access I was given was even wider. I got to see everything I wanted, from foot patrols to route clearance and cordon and search. All I had to do was ask. Once with the line units, I was on my own — the PA officers stayed in Marez. The only restrictions were logistical: they wouldn’t send a patrol through the dangerous streets of West Mosul just to pick me up. I doubt anyone can argue that’s censorship.

Here’s the thing, though:

From the soldiers’ perspective, journalists are a nuisance. They take up valuable space in your Humvee, poke around when you’re trying to rest, and require constant babysitting in combat. They’re generally pushy and inconsiderate. And most of them can’t even explain why they’re there, so you end up feeling they just want to use your sweat and tears to make money.

I don’t believe there is a plot to sanitise our coverage of the war. I believe the Marines and their commanders who’ve expressed outrage are genuinely shocked at what they perceive as our insensitivity and arrogance. And I believe the ordinary Iraqis, whose relatives appear in Miller’s photos dead and mangled, would be equally disgusted, if anyone would care to ask them.

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Someone will write a book about this.

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According to calculations by the Congressional Research Service, the total cost of America’s post-9/11 wars now stands at $859 billion, almost equal to that of Korea and Vietnam together. Wars are expensive, but when they go well, no one complains. Of course, what American taxpayers have gotten for the money invested in the present conflicts is deteriorating security in every region they are fought. (And just so you know, I will personally hunt down and wrist-slap anyone who calls this or this “residual violence”.)

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The foreign policy debate between the two U.S. presidential hopefuls now seems to boil down to just two questions: (1) Has the surge worked? (2) When can we leave? For some pertinent answers, check out this LA Times story by Ned Parker & co. GEN Petraeus, for his part, puts it this way in a McClatchy interview:

‘We know where we are trying to go. We know how we think we need to try to get there with our Iraqi partners and increasingly with them in the lead and shouldering more of the burden as they are.’ [...]

‘But there are a lot of storm clouds out there, there are lots of these possible lightning bolts. You just don’t know what it could be. You try to anticipate them and you try to react very quickly. . . .It’s all there, but it’s not something you want to lay out publicly.’

For what it’s worth, here’s what I think:

I think calling a troop increase of 28,500 a “surge” was a stroke of genius from the Bush administration, and accepting it at face value shows that the rest of us are just as gullible as they expected. I’ve blogged about it before and won’t bore you with the discussion of whether or not reinforcing your army amounts to a strategy. (This GAO report provides a good outline.) But lest we forget what real “surges” look like, here’s some perspective:

  • In just one battle in the American Civil War, at Antietam in 1862, some 87,000 Union troops clashed with 45,000 Confederates.
  • In the battle of Tarawa in 1943, the number of U.S. Marines sent to Betio was 35,000.
  • In Khe Sanh in 1968, between 20,000 and 30,000 North Vietnamese troops attacked the American combat base, which was defended by some 6,000 Americans and South Vietnamese.

As to whether the war in Afghanistan can be won with the same “strategy”, now propounded by both Obama and McCain, here’s an excellent piece by Vikram Singh.

I for one think it’s almost certain that, regardless of who wins in November, the U.S. will continue its present policy of supporting warlords, pushing for poppy eradication without first providing alternative crops, and alienating locals by killing their loved ones.

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Rory Stewart’s prescription for the ills of Afghanistan has elicited sharp responses, some more angry than thoughtful, but interesting nevertheless. For a thorough dismantling of Stewart’s arguments, I recommend Christian Bleuer’s excellent post at CTLab.

Speaking of Afghanistan, here are a couple of interesting papers, which I haven’t had time to finish:

“Securing Pakistan’s Tribal Belt”, Daniel Markey, Council on Foreign Relations.

“Canada in Afghanistan”, Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development

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As expected, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, rejected the provincial elections law passed by the parliament yesterday, which means they’re back to square one, the political situation has taken a sharp turn for the worse, and the elections are highly unlikely to be held in 2008.

As to what exactly transpired on Monday when the Kurds and ISCI legislators marched out, I’m relying on Marc Lynch and Reidar Visser. Lynch quotes some Arab and Iraqi reports as saying that the Kurds might even leave Maliki’s coalition, causing the government to collapse:

Wouldn’t it be wild if the estimably pro-US Kurds, the biggest fans of a long-term American military presence, bring down Maliki at the height of his perceived power immediately after he expressed support for the removal of US troops by 2010… over a seemingly entirely unrelated issue?

Visser writes in a subscriber-only e-mail update:

With the numerous reports from Iraq about Nuri al-Maliki being in the ascendancy as some kind of strongman with good ties to the security forces, this clear indication of parliamentary weakness as well as the obvious contradiction between his declared objectives as an Iraqi centralist and his choice of alliance partners (the Kurds and ISCI) certainly need to be taken into account as well. In fact, this is the second time in 2008 that the Kurdish-ISCI axis appears to have lost a parliamentary battle, once more forcing them to consider the presidential veto as a last resort.

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