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Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden

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I just found a couple of excellent long reads about the Snowden affair and Laura Poitras’s role in it.

First is an interview of Poitras by Tom Englehardt; second is an article by Alex Pasternack in Motherboard. I strongly encourage you to read both.

Englehardt begins:

Here’s a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! stat from our new age of national security. How many Americans have security clearances? The answer: 5.1 million, a figure that reflects the explosive growth of the national security state in the post-9/11 era. Imagine the kind of system needed just to vet that many people for access to our secret world (to the tune of billions of dollars). We’re talking here about the total population of Norway and significantly more people than you can find in Costa Rica, Ireland, or New Zealand. And yet it’s only about 1.6% of the American population, while on ever more matters, the unvetted 98.4% of us are meant to be left in the dark.

For our own safety, of course. That goes without saying.

All of this offers a new definition of democracy in which we, the people, are to know only what the national security state cares to tell us.  Under this system, ignorance is the necessary, legally enforced prerequisite for feeling protected.  In this sense, it is telling that the only crime for which those inside the national security state can be held accountable in post-9/11 Washington is not potential perjury before Congress, or the destruction of evidence of a crime, or torture, or kidnapping, or assassination, or the deaths of prisoners in an extralegal prison system, but whistleblowing; that is, telling the American people something about what their government is actually doing.  And that crime, and only that crime, has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law (and beyond) with a vigor unmatched in American history.  To offer a single example, the only American to go to jail for the CIA’s Bush-era torture program was John Kiriakou, a CIA whistleblower who revealed the name of an agent involved in the program to a reporter.

In these years, as power drained from Congress, an increasingly imperial White House has launched various wars (redefined by its lawyers as anything but), as well as a global assassination campaign in which the White House has its own “kill list” and the president himself decides on global hits.  Then, without regard for national sovereignty or the fact that someone is an American citizen (and upon the secret invocation of legal mumbo-jumbo), the drones are sent off to do the necessary killing.

And yet that doesn’t mean that we, the people, know nothing . . .

Continue reading.

And Pasternack begins:

I get my face photographed and printed on a temporary ID card that I deposit into a slot and I get on an elevator and am led down a hallway. On a desk, I spot a signed letter with the Vice President’s seal. I’m brought into a windowless room, and there is the filmmaker Laura Poitras. On a coffee table is a MacBook Pro with a sticker that says “National Security Agency—Monitored Device.” Behind her, there’s a framed Ricky Gervais poster. We are at the offices of HBO, which began discussions to acquire the TV rights to her new film, “Citizenfour,” even before it was finished, not long before it premiered at the New York Film Festival to a standing ovation. We shake hands and I display my recorder. “Mind if I record?” I ask.

She laughs briefly and agrees. “That’s very respectful, given the context,” she says.

The context is quite serious. It was a 12-minute video made by Poitras that in June 2013 attached a name and a face to disclosures of a massive secret and legally dubious global surveillance system. A year earlier, Poitras became the first journalist to communicate with the NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, then anonymously. Though she shared bylines on stories in the Guardian and the Times and Der Spiegel, much of the reporting was done by Glenn Greenwald and others, most recently at The Intercept, the upstart outlet where Poitras is also now also a founding editor. She has been in more of a hide-out mode, working on her much-anticipated documentary on multiple computers out of a bunker-like editing studio in Berlin. She moved there from New York in 2012, after years of getting stopped at the airport every time she tried to fly; starting in 2006, her air tickets were marked “SSSS” for Secondary Security Screening Selection, subjecting her to extra scrutiny at the borders.

She is no longer stopped, but wagers that she is still watched by her own government. She uses her cell phone sparingly and has become an expert in encrypted communications. “I really do feel that there are some really angry powerful people, mad at the reporting that we’re doing. I should expect they’re paying attention to my communications and who I spend time with.”

I asked her if she thought that by speaking with her, I too would end up on such a list.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2014 at 3:22 pm

Afghanistan: ‘A Shocking Indictment’

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In the NY Review of Books Rory Stewart reviews a recent book on Afghanistan:

1.

Ashraf Ghani, who has just become the president of Afghanistan, once drafted a document for Hamid Karzai that began:

There is a consensus in Afghan society: violence…must end. National reconciliation and respect for fundamental human rights will form the path to lasting peace and stability across the country. The people’s aspirations must be represented in an accountable, broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic, representative government that delivers daily value.

That was twelve years ago. No one speaks like that now—not even the new president. The best case now is presented as political accommodation with the Taliban, the worst as civil war.Western policymakers still argue, however, that something has been achieved: counterterrorist operations succeeded in destroying al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, there has been progress in health care and education, and even Afghan government has its strengths at the most local level. This is not much, given that the US-led coalition spent $1 trillion and deployed one million soldiers and civilians over thirteen years. But it is better than nothing; and it is tempting to think that everything has now been said: after all, such conclusions are now reflected in thousands of studies by aid agencies, multilateral organizations, foreign ministries, intelligence agencies, universities, and departments of defense.

But Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living shows that everything has not been said. His new and shocking indictment demonstrates that the failures of the intervention were worse than even the most cynical believed. Gopal, a Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor reporter, investigates, for example, a US counterterrorist operation in January 2002. US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, had identified two sites as likely “al-Qaeda compounds.” It sent in a Special Forces team by helicopter; the commander, Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, was attacked by an unknown assailant, broke his neck as they fought and then killed him with his pistol; he used his weapon to shoot further adversaries, seized prisoners, and flew out again, like a Hollywood hero.

As Gopal explains, however, the American team did not attack al-Qaeda or even the Taliban. They attacked the offices of two district governors, both of whom were opponents of the Taliban. They shot the guards, handcuffed one district governor in his bed and executed him, scooped up twenty-six prisoners, sent in AC-130 gunships to blow up most of what remained, and left a calling card behind in the wreckage saying “Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc.” Weeks later, having tortured the prisoners, they released them with apologies. [And now those very former prisoners hate us for our freedoms. /snark - LG] It turned out in this case, as in hundreds of others, that an Afghan “ally” had falsely informed the US that his rivals were Taliban in order to have them eliminated. In Gopal’s words:

The toll…: twenty-one pro-American leaders and their employees dead, twenty-six taken prisoner, and a few who could not be accounted for. Not one member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda was among the victims. Instead, in a single thirty-minute stretch the United States had managed to eradicate both of Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies.

Gopal then finds the interview that the US Special Forces commander gave a year and a half later in which he celebrated the derring-do, and recorded that seven of his team were awarded bronze stars, and that he himself received a silver star for gallantry.

Gopal’s investigations into development are no more encouraging. I—like thousands of Western politicians—have often repeated the mantra that there are four million more children, and 1.5 million more girls, in school than there were under the Taliban. Gopal, however, quotes an Afghan report that in 2012, “of the 4,000 teachers currently on the payroll in Ghor, perhaps 3,200 have no qualifications—some cannot read and write…80 percent of the 740 schools in the province are not operating at all.” And Ghor is one of the least “Taliban-threatened” provinces of Afghanistan.

Or consider Gopal’s description of the fate of several principal Afghan politicians in the book:

Dr. Hafizullah, Zurmat’s first governor, had ended up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed Police Chief Mujahed. Mujahed wound up in Guantanamo because he crossed the Americans. Security chief Naim found himself in Guantanamo because of an old rivalry with Mullah Qassim. Qassim eluded capture, but an unfortunate soul with the same name ended up in Guantanamo in his place. And a subsequent feud left Samoud Khan, another pro-American commander, in Bagram prison, while the boy his men had sexually abused was shipped to Guantanamo….

Abdullah Khan found himself in Guantanamo charged with being Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former Taliban minister of the interior, which might have been more plausible—if Khairkhwa had not also been in Guantanamo at the time….

Nine Guantanamo inmates claimed the most striking proof of all that they were not Taliban or al-Qaeda: they had passed directly from a Taliban jail to American custody after 2001.

Why didn’t I—didn’t most of us—know these details? . . .

Continue reading.

The US has fucked up. But still we honor many of those responsible for the fuck-up. We do not learn, as a nation, or at least we learn quite slowly and uncertainly and quickly forget our lessons. We are a people who will put a teacher on leave because she was in Dallas, though she did not get within 10 miles of Texas Presbyterian Hospital. (On the bright side, we did not force everyone in Dallas to stay home for a couple of weeks.)

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2014 at 3:06 pm

The Government War Against Reporter James Risen

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Norman Solomon and Marcy Wheeler have an excellent article in The Nation, which Margaret Sullivan points out in the column mentioned in my previous post. The article is good enough that I wanted to highlight it. The article begins:

Ever since New York Times reporter James Risen received his first subpoena from the Justice Department more than six years ago, occasional news reports have skimmed the surface of a complex story. The usual gloss depicts a conflict between top officials who want to protect classified information and a journalist who wants to protect confidential sources. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Sterling—a former undercover CIA officer now facing charges under the Espionage Act, whom the feds want Risen to identify as his source—is cast as a disgruntled ex-employee in trouble for allegedly spilling the classified beans.

But the standard media narratives about Risen and Sterling have skipped over deep patterns of government retaliation against recalcitrant journalists and whistleblowers. Those patterns are undermining press freedom, precluding the informed consent of the governed and hiding crucial aspects of US foreign policy. The recent announcement of Eric Holder’s resignation as attorney general has come after nearly five years of the Obama administration extending and intensifying the use of the Justice Department for retribution against investigative journalism and whistleblowing.

Official enmity toward Risen had simmered for years before the Bush administration sent him a subpoena on January 24, 2008. Shortly before the 2004 presidential election, Risen and his colleague Eric Lichtblau put together breakthrough reporting on a warrantless domestic-wiretap program. As it sometimes does with stories deemed sensitive for national security, the Times notified the government of its intent to publish. But under strong pressure from White House officials—including some later implicated in the legally suspect program—Times editors delayed the story’s publication for over a year, until December 2005. The coverage won Risen and Lichtblau a Pulitzer Prize for “carefully sourced stories on secret domestic eavesdropping that stirred a national debate.” It was the kind of debate that the people running the US surveillance state had been desperate to avoid.

The belated publication of those stories came just before Risen brought out a book that contained reporting on the wiretap program and several other sinister initiatives under categories like “counterterrorism” and “counterproliferation.” On January 13, 2006, the week after Risen’s book State of War reached the stores, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told a news conference that an investigation into the Times wiretap stories was under way and that “it’s too early to make decisions regarding whether or not reporters should go to jail.” Though not apparent at the time, facts later emerged to show that Gonzales was implicated in the illegal wiretapping that Risen exposed. (As White House counsel, Gonzales had authorized continued operation of the program after the Justice Department refused to do so.)

It turned out that the Justice Department was not able to prosecute any whistleblower or make legal trouble for any journalist in connection with the wiretap revelations. But as attorney general—an office he assumed in early 2005—Gonzales ran the department as it collected information that would not only jeopardize the confidentiality of Risen’s sources but also impede his ongoing reporting. Risen’s book, a bestseller, included a chapter that became the ostensible reason for the series of subpoenas and legal threats that have been aimed at Risen since George W. Bush began his final year in the Oval Office.

Under Attorney General Eric Holder, President Obama’s Justice Department took up where the Bush DOJ left off. Risen received a second subpoena for grand-jury testimony in late April 2010. As he noted in a mid-2011 affidavit, “It was my reporting, both in The New York Times and my book State of War, that revealed that the Bush Administration had, in all likelihood, violated the law and the United States Constitution by secretly conducting warrantless domestic wiretapping on American citizens.” At the White House and the Justice Department, he remained unforgiven.

Anger at Risen also endured at the CIA, where officials have loathed his way of flipping over their rocks. Former head CIA lawyer John Rizzo singles out Risen for condemnation in a memoir this year, writing that inside the agency “he has had a reputation for being irresponsible and sneaky.” State of War, which depicted the agency’s leadership as inept and dangerous, only stoked that antipathy.

Some high-ranking individuals have been mainstays in the continuation of policies that Risen exposed in his book. John Brennan—President Obama’s former counterterrorism czar and now CIA director—has been at notable cross-purposes with both Risen and Sterling for more than a decade. Brennan was a senior CIA official when the agency rolled out its torture program under Bush, which came under intense public scrutiny after the use of waterboarding was revealed in a May 13, 2004, front-page Times story with Risen as the lead reporter. And Brennan played a key role in the illegal wiretap program, overseeing the production of what personnel in the program called the “scary memos” intended to justify the domestic spying exposed by Risen. (Brennan has since admitted that he relied on intelligence from the CIA’s interrogation programs to develop such memos, and his tenure in that role spanned the period when the CIA used its most extreme torture.)

As for Sterling, Brennan played a role in his unhappy departure from the CIA a dozen years ago. In 2000, Sterling filed a discrimination complaint within the agency, asserting that he had been denied certain assignments because of his race. (Sterling was one of the CIA’s few African-American officers.) Brennan, as deputy executive director, was involved in rejecting Sterling’s claim. Sterling responded by suing the CIA; he was fired in 2002. The CIA rebuffed a number of settlement offers and then won dismissal of the entire lawsuit in 2004 after claiming that the litigation would expose state secrets.In early March 2003, Sterling met with two Senate Intelligence Committee staffers to report that Operation Merlin—the CIA’s ill-conceived and bungled effort in 2000 to use a former Russian scientist to pass flawed nuclear-weapons blueprints to Iran—may have helped Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The government concedes that Sterling went through proper channels when he “disclosed classified information” to committee staff. (In court documents, the prosecution has complained that Sterling was unfairly critical of that operation when he spoke to committee staffers.)

The New York Times was even more deferential to government pressure on the Operation Merlin story than it was with its fourteen-month delay of the warrantless wiretap scoop: it never published the Merlin story, which finally reached the public via Risen’s book after remaining bottled up at the paper of record for more than two years. Later, in an affidavit responding to his third subpoena, which was issued on May 23, 2011, Risen said that he included the exposé of Operation Merlin in his book to help prevent another trumped-up war: “I realized that U.S. intelligence on Iran’s supposed weapons of mass destruction was so flawed, and that the information I had was so important, that this was a story that the public had to know about before yet another war was launched.”

Alarm bells had gone off as soon as the National Security Council got a bootlegged copy of State of War before its publication. . .

Continue reading. It has important content.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2014 at 9:22 am

For James Risen, a Struggle That Never Ends

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A good column by the Public Editor of the NY Times, Margaret Sullivan:

Readers of this blog may know that I’m particularly interested in the situation involving James Risen, a Times investigative reporter who is at risk of going to jail to protect a confidential source from his 2006 book, “State of War.”

What’s happened to Mr. Risen is one of the two most telling journalism episodes of the past decade or so, the other being the Edward Snowden leak.  They share common themes, of course: the growth of post-9/11 government surveillance in America and the role of the National Security Agency in spying on American citizens, among others. (I interviewed Mr. Risen at his home in suburban Maryland last year about his and fellow Times reporter, Eric Lichtblau’s, extraordinary warrantless-wiretapping story that was delayed for 13 months, finally appearing in 2005; it won a Pulitzer Prize.)

There have been some developments in the Risen story — and some fascinating coverage. I’ll summarize them here and comment only to say that I admire Mr. Risen’s toughness and a great deal of his work.

1.  Thomas E. Ricks, in Monday’s Times, gives a generally favorable review to Mr. Risen’s new book, “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War.” . . .

Continue reading.

The second resource she mentions is definitely worth a click:

2.  CBS’s “Sixty Minutes” ran a comprehensive story on Mr. Risen’s legal situation over the weekend. It included an interview with Michael Hayden, the former N.S.A. director in which he said he thought the government was overdoing its pursuit of Mr. Risen. “Frankly,” he told the interviewer, Lesley Stahl, “I don’t understand the necessity to pursue Jim.” The transcript, which includes comments from former executive editors Bill Keller and Jill Abramson, is worth reading.

UPDATE: See also this Salon interview with James Risen.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2014 at 9:17 am

Information continues to seep out about the US torture system

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Cora Currier writes in The Intercept:

In the fall of 2006, Nathaniel Raymond, a researcher with the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights, got a call from a man professing to be a CIA contractor. Scott Gerwehr was a behavioral science researcher who specialized in “deception detection,” or figuring out when someone was lying.  Gerwehr told Raymond “practically in the first five minutes” that he had been at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo in the summer of 2006, but had left after his suggestion to install video-recording equipment in detainee interrogation rooms was rejected. “He said, ‘I wouldn’t operate at a facility that didn’t tape. It protects the interrogators and it protects the detainees,’” Raymond recalls.

Gerwehr also told Raymond that that he had read the CIA Inspector General’s report on detainee abuse, which at the time had not been made public. But “he didn’t behave like a traditional white knight,” Raymond toldThe Intercept. Though he had reached out to Raymond and perhaps others, he didn’t seem like a prototypical whistleblower. He didn’t say what he was trying to do or ask for help; he just dropped the information. Raymond put him in touch with a handful of reporters, and their contact ended in 2007.

In 2008, at the age of forty, Gerwehr died in a motorcycle accident on Sunset Boulevard. Years after Gerwehr died, New York Times reporter James Risen obtained a cache of Gerwehr’s files, including emails that identify him as part of a group of psychologists and researchers with close ties to the national security establishment. Risen’s new book, Pay Any Price, uses Gerwehr’s emails to show close collaboration between staffers at the American Psychological Association (APA) and government officials, collaboration that offered a fig leaf of health-professional legitimacy to the CIA and military’s brutal interrogations of terror suspects.

Risen describes Gerwehr as “living a highly compartmentalized life.” A Santa Monica liberal who “expressed distaste for George Bush,” he was nonetheless tightly connected to people involved in the administration’s interrogation program. He had Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance, according to Risen, and a psychologist told Risen “he seemed optimistic about the possibilities of testing out psychological theories on interrogation issues.” Indeed, in a 2005 New York Times op-ed that reads almost naïvely, post-Abu Ghraib, he and a co-author wrote that the idea “that harsh treatment of prisoners can be less effective than showing compassion…now deserves a test in Iraq.” Treating prisoners well “would help reverse the terrible propaganda defeat suffered with the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib,” he wrote, and “prisoners released by our forces would return to their communities with stories of American generosity and tolerance.”Risen says that Gerwehr’s files don’t contain “explosive bombshells,” or indicate “the extent of his knowledge of the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs.” But they narrate a period in 2004 and 2005 when the APA was being forced to respond to revelations about detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and the role of psychologists in designing and condoning brutal questioning tactics. (Subsequentgovernment investigations and reporting would show the foundational roleof psychology, and in particular, two psychologists and CIA contractors, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.)

The APA in 2002 famously revised its ethics code to allow for a psychologist to follow the law or a “governing legal authority,” even if it clashed with the APA’s own code of ethics. It was, essentially, the Nuremberg Defense of “just following orders.” (In 2010 the APA definitively disavowed it.) As Risen writes, the 2002 change allowed psychologists to be involved in CIA and military interrogations, and “helped the lawyers in the Justice Department to argue that the enhanced interrogation program was legal because health professionals were monitoring the interrogations to make sure they stayed within the limits established by the Bush administration.”

In 2005, after the revelations of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib, the APA put together a task force on ethics and national security, which, while affirming the organization’s opposition to torture, determined that psychologists could be involved with interrogations “to assist in ensuring that such processes are safe and ethical for all participants.”

Gerwehr was copied on emails discussing a confidential APA lunch meeting in July 2004, attended by psychologists from the CIA, Department of Defense, and other agencies. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 October 2014 at 12:15 pm

The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons

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It seems very much as though the Pentagon really does not care that much about the welfare of the troops. You may recall the decades-long struggle of American soldiers and marines who suffered from the extensive chemical warfare the US waged in Vietnam, and how Agent Orange (dioxin) destroyed the health of thousands, whose claims the military denied repeatedly.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 October 2014 at 9:40 am

Background to continuing US failure in Iraq and Afghanistan

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The failure of US efforts in Iraq and Pakistan reflect deliberate (and extremely poor) policy and operational decisions. It’s not an accident the US failed so badly: the US actively worked to implement policies that guaranteed failure. William Astore writes in Informed Comment:

In June, tens of thousands of Iraqi Security Forces in Nineveh province north of Baghdad collapsed in the face of attacks from the militants of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), abandoning four major cities to that extremist movement. The collapse drew much notice in our media, but not much in the way of sustained analysis of the American role in it. To put it bluntly, when confronting IS and its band of lightly armed irregulars, a reputedly professional military, American-trained and -armed, discarded its weapons and equipment, cast its uniforms aside, and melted back into the populace. What this behavior couldn’t have made clearer was that U.S. efforts to create a new Iraqi army, much-touted and funded to the tune of $25 billion over the 10 years of the American occupation ($60 billion if you include other reconstruction costs), had failed miserably.

Though reasonable analyses of the factors behind that collapse exist, an investigation of why U.S. efforts to create a viable Iraqi army (and, by extension, viable security forces in Afghanistan) cratered so badly are lacking.  To understand what really happened, a little history lesson is in order.  You’d need to start in May 2003 with the decision of L. Paul Bremer III, America’s proconsul in occupied Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), to disband the battle-hardened Iraqi military.  The Bush administration considered it far too tainted by Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party to be a trustworthy force.

Instead, Bremer and his team vowed to create a new Iraqi military from scratch.  According to Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks in his bestselling book Fiasco, that force was initially conceived as a small constabulary of 30,000-40,000 men (with no air force at all, or rather with the U.S. Air Force for backing in a country U.S. officials expected togarrison for decades).  Its main job would be to secure the country’s borders without posing a threat to Iraq’s neighbors or, it should be added, to U.S. interests.

Bremer’s decision essentially threw 400,000 Iraqis with military training, including a full officer corps, out onto the streets of its cities, jobless.  It was a formula for creating an insurgency.  Humiliated and embittered, some of those men would later join various resistance groups operating against the American military.  More than a few of them later found their way into the ranks of ISIS, including at the highest levels of leadership.  (The most notorious of these is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former general in Saddam’s army who was featured as the King of Clubs in the Bush administration’s deck of cards of Iraq’s most wanted figures.  Al-Douri is now reportedly helping to coordinate IS attacks.)

IS has fought with considerable effectiveness, quickly turning captured American and Syrian weaponry, including artillery pieces, Humvees, and even a helicopter, on their enemies.  Despite years of work by U.S. military advisers and all those billions of dollars invested in training and equipment, the Iraqi army has not fought well, or often at all.  Nor, it seems, will it be ready to do so in the immediate future. Retired Marine Corps General John R. Allen, who played a key role in organizing, arming, and paying off Sunni tribal groups in Iraq the last time around during the “Anbar Awakening,” and who has been charged by President Obama with “coordinating” the latest American-led coalition to save Iraq, has already gone on record on the subject.  By his calculations, even with extensive U.S. air support and fresh infusions of American advisers and equipment, it will take up to a year before that army is capable of launching a campaign to retake Mosul, the country’s second largest city.

What went wrong?  The U.S. Army believes in putting the “bottom line up front,” so much so that they have even turned the phrase into an acronym: BLUF.  The bottom line here is that, when it comes to military effectiveness, what ultimately matters is whether an army — any army — possesses spirit.  Call it fire in the belly, a willingness to take the fight to the enemy.  The Islamic State’s militants, at least for the moment, clearly have that will; Iraqi security forces, painstakingly trained and lavishly underwritten by the U.S. government, do not.

This represents a failure of the first order.  So here’s the $60 billion question: Why did such sustained U.S. efforts bear such bitter fruit?  The simple answer: for a foreign occupying force to create a unified and effective army from a disunified and disaffected populace was (and remains) a fool’s errand.  In reality, U.S. intervention, now as then, will serve only to aggravate that disunity, no matter what new Anbar Awakenings are attempted.

Upon Saddam’s overthrow in 2003 and the predictable power vacuum that followed, score-settling ethno-religious factions clashed in what, in the end, was little short of civil war. In the meantime, both Sunni and Shia insurgencies arose to fight the American occupiers. Misguided decisions by Bremer’s CPA only made matters worse. Deep political divisions in Iraq fed those insurgencies, which targeted American troops as a foreign presence. In response, the U.S. military sought to pacify the insurgents, while simultaneously expanding the Iraqi constabulary. In military parlance, it began to “stand up” what would become massive security forces. These were expected to restore a semblance of calm, even as they provided cover for U.S. troops to withdraw ever so gradually from combat roles.

It all sounded so reasonable and achievable that the near-impossibility of the task eluded the Americans involved. To understand why the situation was so hopeless, try this thought experiment. Imagine that it is March 1861 in the United States. Elected by a minority of Americans, Abraham Lincoln is deeply distrusted by Southern secessionists who seek a separatist set of confederated states to protect their interests. Imagine at that moment that a foreign empire intervened, replacing Lincoln with a more tractable leader while disbanding the federal army along with state militias due to their supposed untrustworthiness and standing up its own forces, ones intended to pacify a people headed toward violent civil war. Imagine the odds of “success”; imagine the unending chaos that would have followed.

If this scenario seems farfetched, so, too, was the American military mission in Iraq.  Not surprisingly, in such a speculative and risky enterprise, the resulting security forces came to be the equivalent of so many junk bonds. And when the margin call came, the only thing left was hollow legions.

In the military, it’s called an “after action report” or a “hotwash” — a review, that is, of what went wrong and what can be learned, so the same mistakes are not repeated. When it comes to America’s Iraq training mission, four lessons should top any “hotwash” list:

1. Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause.  Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit.  ISIS has fought with conviction.  The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t.  The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common.  This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation.

2. . .

Continue reading. Later in the article:

As Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, noted in December 2004, American generals and politicians “did not think through the consequences of compelling American soldiers with no knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture to implement intrusive measures inside an Islamic society.  We arrested people in front of their families, dragging them away in handcuffs with bags over their heads, and then provided no information to the families of those we incarcerated.  In the end, our soldiers killed, maimed, and incarcerated thousands of Arabs, 90 percent of whom were not the enemy.  But they are now.”

Sharing that contempt was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who chose a metaphor of parent and child, teacher and neophyte, to describe the “progress” of the occupation.  He spoke condescendingly of the need to take the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike of state and let Iraqis pedal for themselves.  A decade later, General Allen exhibited a similarly paternalistic attitude in an article he wrote calling for the destruction of the Islamic State.  For him, the people of Iraq are “poor benighted” souls, who can nonetheless serve American power adequately as “boots on the ground.”  In translation that means they can soak up bullets and become casualties, while the U.S. provides advice and air support.  In the general’s vision — which had déjà vu all over again scrawled across it — U.S. advisers were to “orchestrate” future attacks on IS, while Iraq’s security forces learned how to obediently follow their American conductors.

The commonplace mixture of smugness and paternalism Allen revealed hardly bodes well for future operations against the Islamic State.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 October 2014 at 9:34 am

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