By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
IDD detection dog Ty keeps watch while his handler Marine LCpl. Brandon Mann, a Texas native with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion sweeps the area with a look through his automatic rifle. The pair along with other Marines and sailors was in Helmand Province assigned to a "clearing and disrupting operations in and around the villages of Sre Kala and Paygel during Operation Highland Thunder" on February 2.
Photo by Cpl. Alfred V. Lopez
The IDF has ordered that a song about a border policeman not be played on its radio, Haaretz reports. Some of the offensive lyrics:
To learn to kill is a matter of momentum, you start small and later it comes... First it's only a drill, a rifle barrel bangs the door, children in shock, family in panic... The heart goes crazy, beats wildly, he knows -- from now on it will be easier. They're not a man, not a woman, they're only an object, only a shadow. To learn to kill is a matter of habit... To learn cruelty is a matter of momentum, it starts out small and later it comes. Every boy is a man, eager for victories. Hands behind your head, legs apart.
The fellas over at the Foreign Policy Initiative seem eager to intervene in Syria. They're proposing establishing "a safe zone" that would be protected by a "no fly zone."
They don't go into details of whether there would be boots on the ground.
The board of directors are Eric Edelman, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, and Dan Senor. I know some of youse will get upset by those names, but I think the first three are some of the most thoughtful conservative interventionists around. (I don't know Senor well. I think I have only met him once or twice and have never read much of what he has written.)
Personally, I am sick of Americans being involved in wars in the Middle East. I don't like this plan of keeping on trying 'til we find we all like. That said, I find it a bit awkward to explain why I thought it was the right thing to help intervene in Libya but not in Syria. I find David Ignatius persuasive (as usual) on why we should do more than we are doing, but less than Foreign Policy Initiative recommends.
Adam Dean/Panos Pictures
I asked an American friend in Baghdad what Iran is up to there. This is his response:
Iranian activities in Iraq must be viewed in the context of regional considerations and multiple lines of effort.
Clearly Iran has been setting itself up to be a resurgent force and regional power broker for some time, and Iraq is a critical piece of the game board, yet just one piece. Iran stands in opposition to the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Israel of course, and the west in general. They stand with the Assad regime in Syria, Nasrallah/Hezbollah in Lebanon, and their global allies in China, Venezuela, and North Korea. The players that they stand neither with nor against, but a little bit of both, include the Turks who they're with on energy and Kurds but against on Syria, the Pakistanis who they stand with in regard to Talibs and Afghanistan and against with Sunni extremists, Shiite Yemenis who oppose Saudis, AQAP, and the Yemeni government, the north African emerging states, to include Egypt, and others.
What we see are not clearly defined operations with named objectives, rather a series of shaping initiatives intended to strengthen allies, develop transportation routes and mechanisms, and undermine the credibility of opposition governments. The end-state is a Persian/Farsi/Shiite Islamic state that is stronger than the other states in a region that is opposed to western powers, presence, and influence. They are shaping a series of lesser engagements that don't rise to the level of justifying western military intervention, but dispose of regimes they are opposed to, beginning with Bahrain and ending with Israel with Lebanon falling to Hezbollah while they were sleeping.
Near term, they cannot allow Syria to fall and are assisting in every possible way. Of concern is that should the Assad regime appear to be near collapse, a diversionary engagement will be directed against Israel by Iranian allies. As a sword can serve more than one purpose, these same antagonists will strike Israel in response to any Israeli or western action taken against Iranian nuclear facilities. While the world watches the right hand engaged in Syria, they miss the left hand working to organize kinetic opposition in Bahrain, Kuwait, and other Gulf States with sizable Shiite populations, which the Saudis, Qataris, and Emiratis will not abide. And then there is Iraq.
While we Americans espouse a "whole-of-government" approach to strategic objectives abroad, the Iranians actually practice it in Iraq. Diplomatically, they have a robust embassy in Baghdad and very active consulates in Erbil, Basrah, and Karbala. They are building upon the P5+1 conference, with the Iraqi Ambassador to Iran stating in August that they were ready to host another round in Baghdad. Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi just concluded successful security cooperation talks in Baghdad. Economically, Najaf hotels are mostly owned by Iranian investors who spend more religious tourism money there than they do in Karbala. Iranians export electricity, finished goods, and smuggled oil into Iraq in exchange for hard currency.
On the religious front, there is a full-court PR campaign, to include radio and billboards, to replace Ayatollah Sistani with Ayatollah Shahroudi, an Iranian with a much more aggressive position on clerics and government than the even-tempered Sistani. Through a variety of agencies, Iran continues to fund Husseinyahs and affiliated social service organizations throughout Iraq. They have the remnants of the Badr Corps firmly ensconced in virtually all Iraqi security organizations ensuring that Sunni organizations are targeted, but they are not. Iranian proxies, such as Assaib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) and Kitaib Hezbollah are being carefully reconciled with Baghdad while retaining arms to threaten those that stand in opposition. They continually dance with the Sadrists in the form of the Promised Day Brigade and lesser affiliates, seeking influence as opposed to outright control. Politicians and prominent civil servants or other civilians generally know better than to speak out against Iran.
Iran is very active, but they are not omnipotent and work within their limitations. They understand that they have just as many foes as they do friends -- thus they are patient. Iran does not seek to dominate the Gulf Region or Middle East today, rather they seek to improve their hand for the coming conflict of tomorrow. By all accounts, they're building a fairly strong hand to play -- perhaps we should consider improving our hand as well.
By Brian Castner
Best Defense book review department
What is the defining image of America's just-concluded war in Iraq? Not the defining weapon, major battle or significant speech. Rather, what is the image every writer and film-maker will feel compelled to use to sum up the stuff of the place, to distill the essence and personality of the war in a single glance? World War I has the screaming horses and clouds of chlorine in the trenches. The western front of World War II evokes a cloud of bomber formation across the sky. Vietnam, the circle of bare-chested soldiers, smoking cigarettes (or more) in the deep jungle. The towers of black smoke from an oil well fire in the First Gulf War. What comes next?
There are several images that have already appeared in a delayed (though now sudden) wave of books and films. The civilian-clothed veteran searching a U.S. interstate for IEDs and reaching for a rifle that is no longer there. A dead body hiding an IED. Orange and white taxis. A native interpreter wearing a ski-mask to hide his features. The palm groves and orchards that hug the Tigris and Euphrates.
In the National Book Award-nominated The Yellow Birds, essentially a string of such well-drawn images, Kevin Powers makes an eloquent case for those and more, specifically these two that are harder to shake:
--First, the ubiquitous dust that impregnates every crack and every piece of equipment and every thought in Iraq. Layers of dust, 'moon dust' we often called it, dust storms and clouds, swimming pool-sized pits of it and a film of talcum powder that stuck to every available surface via the magic of static electricity. This book is so full of dust that I was amazed I couldn't turn the book over, grab it by the binding, and shake some out.
--Second, and more haunting by far, the songs and screams of the Iraqis themselves. Four times in the book we hear the Muslim call to prayer or the mourning wails of the women after battle. Each time, the ghostly intrusive sound is a harbinger or coda to the worst of the horrors The Yellow Birds has to offer. And in this image, Powers creates a perfect analogy for the war itself. Hide behind the walls of your FOB, behind your machine gun on the highlands overlooking the village, and you can still hear the muezzin's voice from the minarets. Iraqis live publicly in the street. Emotion is public for men and women, whether a pious call to prayer or mourning the dead, public grief as the bodies are recovered and wrapped in white and paraded through the streets for everyone to view and mourn. The mothers and wives and sisters unselfconsciously wail in their grief, and you can't escape it. "I was not sure if it really came from the women around the campfires, if they pulled their hair crying out in mourning or not, but I heard it and even now it seems wrong not to listen," Private Bartle, the main character, tells us. It seeps under your skin. And so will the war; you will bring it home.
It is no spoiler to reveal that it is only Bartle who brings every experience home. The novel follows him, his younger friend Murphy, and their tough platoon sergeant, Sterling. Bartle mistakenly promises Murphy's mother that he will come home safe, a charge we know from the outset that Bartle cannot fulfill. Told in a back-and-forth style, jumping between war and home, the tension for the reader comes in only incrementally understanding both how Murphy dies and how Bartle deals with it.
The title of the book references a chant sung by soldiers while running in formation during physical training. "A yellow bird / With a yellow bill / Was perched upon / My window sill. I lured him in / With a piece of bread / And then I smashed / His f___ing head." I sang that one myself, and others, equally brutal in retrospect. The songs, at the time, are fun: "I went to the market / Where all the women shop / I pulled out my machete / And I began to chop." Singing these chants do more than desensitize the soldier. They make a game of what is coming.
But in truth war is no game, and the only birds smashed in the head in this book are the soldiers themselves, the narrator and Murphy and even the hard-nosed Sterling. Being damaged goods, Bartle is an untrustworthy guide for even his own memory and knowledge of Murphy's tragedy. His post-war ruminations dimly focus on the "why" of Murphy's death, and here he can provide no clear answer either. Sitting in his jail cell at the end of the book, Bartle uses chalk marks to try to recreate a timeline of what happened to him. "Eventually, I realized the marks could not be assembled into any kind of pattern," he tells us. During the firefight that opens the book, Bartle and Murphy and Sterling cover only one small sector of the village. They have control over very little, their view of the war will be small, no national policy issues will be solved in Powers' novel. Bartle focuses only on Murphy, and even here he feels ultimately helpless.
I wish I knew more of Powers' actual war-time experience, and how much resides in this book. In a joint interview the two of us did for Connecticut Public Radio, Powers said that he wrote fiction because he needed the space to first make sense of the war, and then put it down in a new way that provided separation between him and it. I wonder if he also felt it was the only way to tell the truth, because the heart-breaking story of Bartle and Murphy and Sterling is so ordinary, if it wasn't fiction no one would believe it.
Brian Castner is an Iraq veteran, a former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and the author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows.
By Nathan R. Sherfinski
Best Defense diplomatic bureau
In an hour-long conference call hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday, Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi discussed a range of issues including: nuclear ambitions, Syria, and anti-American sentiment. His tone was measured and notably non-inflammatory.
Salehi, who received a PhD from MIT, described Iran as acting with rational manner in its foreign policy. He dismissed concerns that Iran's nuclear program is intended for anything aside from civilian energy purposes. Salehi stated that Iran having a nuclear bomb would neither make the region more stable nor make rational sense. "Iran's possession of a nuclear bomb would only invite attack and threaten other countries; it would not increase security in the region," he stated in response to a question on the issue. He contended that energy diversification was the sole purpose of Iran's nuclear program. Furthermore, he reaffirmed Iran's position as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Regarding Iranian support for Syria, he reiterated strict opposition to foreign intervention of any kind and aimed to communicate Iran's role in resolving the conflict. "The Syrian people are entitled to democracy and freedom," he said. He went on to say, "We [Iran] have been in talks with the opposition for at least a year." He contended that a political, not a military, solution is the key to the issue and that Iran puts strong support behind U.N. efforts to resolve the situation. "We [Iran] are on the same wavelength with Brahimi, al-Arabi, and the quartet of countries," he stated. He did draw a red-line in Iranian support for the Syrian government. He asserted that, should the Syrian government use WMD, then Iran would pull its support for the government and any country that would employ WMD, "...loses legitimacy."
Salehi addressed the issue of anti-American sentiment, saying, "Iran has great respect for the United States." While he noted that Muslims must stand up for acts against the Prophet, he said that, "some went beyond what was expected." He contended his country is opposed to anti-Americanism or an "America-phobia," as he called it. He went on to say, "We [Iran] have no animosity toward the United States."
Nathan R. Sherfinski is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security.
Quote of the day comes from "Gold Star Father," a one-time Marine whose son became a Marine and was killed in action, made this comment the other day: " We all have'‘new normals' as recently discussed in TBD, but some new normals are absolute hell."
Yes, I know that those aren't Marines in the photo. I chose it because this is about more than his own experience, as he says "we all."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
By Charles A. Krohn
Best Defense guest columnist
Mitt Romney, facing the clear prospect of losing the presidential election, needs to throw a long ball. I suggest he repudiate the invasion of Iraq and the handling of the war in Afghanistan.
If Romney demonstrates courage by breaking with the past, it may restore vigor to his foundering campaign. Some old Bush advisors may feel they are being thrown under the bus, but the numbers favor the less-rigid and political savvy youth whose votes could swing the election.
By not renouncing Bush's costly errors explicitly, Romney endorses them by default, troubling many party loyalists looking for a clean break with disastrous Republican decisions. And by having as his advisors several people who championed "Curveball" (the phony CIA informer) and Ahmed Chalabi (the exile who was a favorite of several senior Pentagon officials), he implicitly endorses their failures.
Republicans should take pride in the obstinacy of George H.W. Bush, who opposed the invasion of Iraq and perhaps persuaded Brent Scowcroft to denounce the idea. If Romney could draw some inspiration from GHWB's fortitude, it would separate and purify the party from its past miscalculations and perhaps swing the election.
(Author's note: As a veteran of the Vietnam War, I share the anguish of survivors of recent and on-going conflicts who mourn the loss of family and friends. It will take several generations to overcome this pain. Nor can their sacrifices be dismissed as useless exercises. They obeyed orders and executed the foreign policy of their times. Errors in policy cannot be laid on their doorstep nor blemish their memories. Amen.)
Charles A. Krohn is the author of The Lost Battalion of Tet. Now retired to Panama City Beach, Florida, he served in the Vietnam War, in Iraq in 2003-2004 as public affairs adviser to the director of the Infrastructure Reconstruction Program, and later as public affairs officer for the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Over the weekend I read Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a well-written novel about an imaginary "hero squad" brought home from Iraq to bolster the war effort. It is well-done. The author is a strong writer, with a sharp eye. He gets off some good lines about military life. "Part of being a soldier is accepting that your body does not belong to you." The entire story takes place during the game between the Cowboys and Bears in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day 2004. In the book, unlike in real life, the Cowboys lose.
The book gets military life right, I think, but its account of Army life circa late 2004 won't surprise anyone who has been paying attention. And if you want to know what it is like to be a hero vet returning from Iraq, there are good memoirs out there that will tell you flat out, no-holds-barred. You could start with Brian Castner's The Long Walk -- an interestingly similar title.
Where Fountain's terrific effort of imagination is impressive is capturing American culture right at that tipping point where the country was coming to grips with what a disastrous move it was to invade Iraq. For that slice of queasy excess and the attempt to refuse to entertain doubt, the book reads to me like what Jonathan Franzen, one of my favorite novelists, would be producing if he were grappling with the central issues of our time and culture, instead of obsessing on pet cats killing wild birds.
By Butch Bracknell
Best Defense office of Syrian intervention
The Syrian regime is struggling to contain yet another manifestation of the Arab Spring with brutality and inhumanity unparalleled since the freedom phenomenon began in Tunisia last April. The international media has documented the slaughter of thousands of rebels and protected civilians, waging war indiscriminately and through inhumane and unlawful means against internal populations whose crime against the regime is a desire for freedom from authoritarianism. Tens of thousands of refugees and displaced persons have streamed across the borders into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and humanitarian catastrophe lurks, with a threat to victimize tens of thousands and spill across Syria's borders regionally. America's NATO ally Turkey has, of course, shouldered the brunt of the load because it represents a safe haven with the most regional capacity to absorb the huddled masses escaping the fire of war.
America, of course, will not occasion the possibility of armed intervention at this stage of the presidential and congressional election cycle. Moreover, even after November, the U.N. Security Council assuredly will not authorize action in Syria after the Libyan debacle. The Russians believe they were duped into authorizing intervention into Libya, and subscribe to the "Fool me once..." school of international affairs. Absent an American or NATO embracing of the controversial Responsibility to Protect doctrine to authorize an armed intervention in Syria, the alliance's hands are tied at present.
Even so, inaction is not justified in light of the suffering. The current state of western unpopularity in the Arab world, manifesting itself in worldwide protests, is not likely to improve if America and her allies are seen to stand idly by and do nothing as Arab innocents die in the streets of Aleppo, even if their deaths are at the hands of other Arabs. So what can the alliance do? Find a middle way.
One possible first step toward NATO taking decisive action in this crisis is to ask Turkey for permission to set up a command and control structure in Turkey aboard an American or Turkish airbase. The task force's initial mission set should extend to intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance of the conflict in Syria, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. Bringing NATO resources to bear by constructing and maintaining refugee camps in Turkey and protecting the refugees for the duration of the Syrian conflict will be seen as a signal of the alliance's resolve and usefulness, and will refocus the world's attention on the atrocities in Syria, heightening pressure on Assad to resolve the conflict and seek reconciliation, or to resign in disgrace.
Second, providing humanitarian relief will speak volumes to the Arab world about Western values of compassion and our collective obligation to humanity. Moreover, standing up NATO capabilities at Turkey's request would reinforce NATO's resolve to act collectively and to support a member state that doubtless would be receptive to the alliance's help.
Finally, having a command and control structure in place would be useful if conditions in Syria evolve to the point that armed intervention to stop the slaughter becomes viable and unavoidable. Eventually, Russia may feel the pressure to abstain from a Security Council vote authorizing intervention, rather than risk cementing its reputation as an obstructionist state to the international order or appearing impotent and irrelevant. Even absent an explicit Security Council authorization, Western allies may, in fact, embrace the moral obligation to intervene summarized by the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.
Armed intervention in Syria is not unavoidable, but inaction by NATO should be. There are many competencies the alliance can operationalize to mitigate human suffering in the region which could provide a foothold capability as mission sets evolve. Finally, NATO's action to mitigate Arab suffering in Syria could help tamp down the fury against the West and send productive communicative ripples through the Arab world. As many commentators have observed, NATO's future relies on its ability to actually accomplish missions that add value to the sum total of international security. Skeptical voters in cash-strapped Western democracies rightly should require return on their investment. If the alliance neglects to act in circumstances where turning a blind eye constitutes organizational failure, eventually it may fail to exist.
Butch Bracknell is a Marine lieutenant colonel on active duty and former international security fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States. The opinions expressed herein are personal to the author and do not represent the position of the United States government or of Red Sox ownership.
Adam Dean/Panos Pictures
Abu Mook, before going into radio silence, takes a Parthian shot:
The casual arrogance with which the U.S. military has approached the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has a direct relation to the difficulty with which we have fought each war. That we think we can send a commander to Afghanistan with no prior knowledge of Afghanistan and watch him be successful in the eleventh year of the conflict shows that after eleven years of conflict, we really don't know too much about Afghanistan. And we might not know too much about conflict either.
I've had this sense, but have never been able to put it into words as well as Abu Mook does here. "Casual arrogance" captures it exactly.
I've long thought there was a good study to be done of Iranian advisory efforts in Iraq. They seemed to me a model of long-term, low-key influence. No big bases, but lots of effects.
Now maybe it seems that study should be expanded to Syria. An Iranian official, speaking about the Qods Force (AKA the foreign operations wing of the Revolutionary Guard) said over the weekend that, "A number of members of the Qods force are present in Syria but this does not constitute a military presence."
An Iranian foundation also has reportedly upped the amount of the bounty it has placed on the head of Salman Rushdie. Can you imagine if American foundations did stuff like that?
Meanwhile, someone blew up a bomb on the July 14 bridge into the Green Zone and killed a bunch of people at the checkpoint. I've walked across that bridge a lot. It was my point of maximum vulnerability, when I was outside the Green Zone yet not back in the able hands of the Washington Post security guys.
Steve Biddle, a smart guy, writes with some of his homeys in International Security in a study of the surge in Iraq that we need to better understand how and why some insurgents change sides. "Our findings emphasize the Sunni realignment's importance, yet realignment's role in civil warfare is largely unstudied, as are its causes and consequences."
Some good dissertation theses are to be found in following up that hint. Maybe a comparative study of who and why changed sides in several civil wars. I think especially the timing would be interesting: Is there typically a phase of the war that provokes side-changing? (My cynical guess is: Yes there is, and it is when the outlines of the ending start becoming evident. Biddle, by the way, is moving camp to George Washington University. I hope they understand over there what a big deal it is for them to get him. He is so astute that when I disagree with him, my first impulse is to retrace my steps and try to see where I went off track.)
Here is Joel Wing's critique of the article itself.
Meanwhile, one night in August I dreamed that Moqtada al-Sadr went into exile in South Africa. No idea why I chose that for him. Probably too much lobster for my dinner whilst watching Olympics.
Sometimes a newspaper editorial gets it exactly right. This is one such time. Read the whole thing, if you can. But pay attention especially to the last paragraph, which states that:
As for Mr. Romney, he would do well to consider the example of Republican former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who issued a statement Wednesday lamenting "the tragic loss of life at our consulate," praising Mr. Stevens as "a wonderful officer and a terrific diplomat" and offering "thoughts and prayers" to "all the loved ones of the fallen." That was the appropriate response.
(HT to RD)
David Calvert/Getty Images
By coincidence, a few minutes later I read Joel Wing's summary of the state of things in Iraq, which interested me because he always has been more optimistic about Iraq than I have. He concludes that Iraq is stuck in a political deadlock that is causing an annual cycle of violence:
After the summer is over, attacks and deaths will go down in Iraq. The problem is that the routine will repeat itself next year, and the year after that until there is a change in the status quo. That will not come from the security forces that are set in their ways. Only the political class can bring about a real transformation. In 2009 and 2010, large numbers of Sunnis participated in elections after largely boycotting them in 2005. That led to a drop in casualties. Now, things are going in the other direction, as the ruling parties are moving farther and farther apart in their feud over the distribution of power, increasing ethnosectarian tensions. That growing resentment within the country, gives some the reason to fight rather than reconcile adding life to the insurgency. The problem for Iraq is that nothing looks to be changing the political deadlock, and in turn the security situation will not improve either.
Meanwhile, Iraq is allowing Iran to fly military supplies through its airspace to Syria.
And an Iraqi MP called for dumping the U.S. and starting an alliance with Russia. Frankly, okay by me. Knock yourself out.
I keep on seeing talk about how the Obama administration should do more to oust Assad.
I actually think the best way to get rid of Assad would be to remove the roadblock posed by the possibility that the ouster would be followed by a punitive repression of minorities (Christians, Armenians, and such) who supported the regime. But I don't know if such a removal is possible. Overall, to my surprise, I tend to agree with this Washington Times column by Daniel Pipes.
I wonder if eventually the borders of the Middle East will be re-drawn. I could see it, Iraq and Lebanon all being reconfigured. I am not sure what that would mean for the Kurds. It will be interesting to watch the role Turkey plays in all this -- as a relatively stable, prosperous member of NATO whose interests extend deep into the affected states.
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on June 21,2011.
On a morning when news comes of more bombings in south-central Iraq, here is an overview from Lady Emma Sky, who knows as much about Iraqi politics as a foreigner can. Her comments on Turkey balancing Iran in Iraq especially interested me, as did the speculation about whether an overthrow of the jerks running Syria might lead to further fragmentation in Iraq. And keep in mind that Iran remains mighty interesting.
By Emma Sky
Best Defense roving Middle East correspondent
The taxi driver to Beirut airport tells me that yom al-qiyama (the day of judgment) is approaching. There will be a big explosion soon -- a very big explosion. The revolutions sweeping the Arab World are not good. Islamic parties will come to power everywhere. There will be no more Christians left in the Middle East. Believe me, believe me, he insists. In anticipation, he will make the Hajj to Mecca this year, inshallah. I tell him that I am traveling to Iraq as a tourist. The look he gives me in the rear view mirror says it all: He thinks I am crazy.
I am heading back to Iraq nine months after I left my job as Political Advisor to the Commanding General of U.S. Forces Iraq. Earlier this year, a Sheikh emailed me from his iPad, "Miss Emma we miss you. You must come visit us as a guest. You will stay with me. And you will have no power!" I am excited and nervous. The plane is about a third full. I am the only foreigner. I look around at my fellow passengers. I wonder who they are and whether they bear a grudge for something we might have done.
The flight is one and a half hours long. I read and doze. As we approach Iraq, I look out of the window. The sky is full of sand and visibility is poor. But I can make out the Euphrates below. Land of the two rivers, I am coming back.
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on June 6, 2011.
The Ink Spots has a good proposal for better names for phases of the Afghan war than "Consolidation II" and so on:
- Bombing the Piss out of the Taliban - Sept. 11, 2001 to Nov. 30, 2001
- Escape from Tora Bora - Dec. 1, 2001 to Dec. 31, 2001
- General Indifference - Jan. 1, 2002 to March 18, 2003
- Economy of Force - March 19, 2003 to Nov. 30, 2009
- The Good War - Dec. 1, 2009 to June 21, 2011
- The Expensive, Disappearing War - June 22, 2011 through a date to be determined
While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on April 18, 2011.
Here's a thoughtful response to the post I had last week about where the post-2011 U.S. military presence in Iraq might be based.
Meanwhile, on the Southern Iraq watch: Someone bombed a U.S. convoy near Hilla the other day.
By Adam L. Silverman, Ph.D.
Best Defense guest Iraqi affairs analyst
While I appreciate both Ambassador Ryan Crocker's remarks and forethought on this, as well as Mr. Ricks' commentary, and keeping in mind that I've not been in Iraq since the end of 2008, I think that any meaningful attempt to renegotiate the security agreement, or parts of it, are very unlikely.
I do think that you're going to see an ongoing, but comparatively small U.S. presence of trainers covered under the Security Force Advising concept, but we're talking relatively small footprint here. The Iraqis, and here I'm referring to every major faction, have made it very, very clear beginning with our Sawha allies out in Anbar starting back in 2007, that they are waiting for us to leave. They are waiting for us to leave in order to settle scores. The Sunnis and non-expatriate Shiite that make up the Sawha and primary opposition that composed the Iraqiyya Party (which was disenfranchised from forming the most recent Iraqi government after winning the largest plurality due to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's directing the power of the state at them in a successful attempt to reverse the electoral outcome) know they can't really win a head on confrontation, but they've made it repeatedly clear that they are ready to fight (back). Maliki is waiting for us to go so that he can cut his forces loose on these folks once and for all and put an end to them. The Sadrists want us gone -- badly! The Kurds want their own state and are just waiting for us to stop paying attention long enough so that they can find an opportune moment to declare independence. Moreover, given past and/or ongoing Iranian support for the bulk of the parties in the governing coalition (Dawa, Sadrists, the Kurds, ISCI/Badr) they won't allow their proxies to agree to anything that significantly prolongs any significant U.S. presence. They'll tolerate training of security forces as a large number of the Arab portion of the Iraqi Army (IA) are Badr Corps, which is tied directly to the Quds Force. So whatever we teach the IA, we're teaching the Iranians. No need for subterfuge at all.
From Octavian Manea's interview of Maj. Fernando Lujan in Small Wars Journal:
An eager 23-year old all-American lieutenant, full of energy, would be trying to talk to a local villager through an interpreter. And inevitably, the conversation starts sounding like a tactical interrogation: "Hello I am Lieutenant Jones and I am from America. Can you tell me where the Taliban is? Have you seen any IEDs? Have you seen any suspicious people?" We don't do small talk. And of course the patrol doesn't get any useful information. Everyone is terrified to talk to them. But to the American soldiers, the silence makes it seem like the whole village supports the Taliban. They feel like every patrol is Groundhog Day, and like they're just out there walking around.
Yet during embeds we started to notice that while the young lieutenant was struggling through his conversation, there would almost always be an Afghan Army soldier -- born and raised in the Pashtun areas of the country -- standing a few meters away. And he'd usually be relegated to pulling security and staring out over his rifle instead of engaging with the locals. After the patrol, we'd ask the young lieutenant, "Do you know how many native Pashto speakers (vice Dari) you have in your Afghan platoon? Had you ever considered training them to talk to the locals and get information?" I can literally count on one hand the number of times the lieutenant knew... and this was out of maybe a hundred platoons over 14 months.
BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images
By Nora Bensahel
Best Defense director of wargames
On June 27, I participated in a day-long crisis simulation about the regional effects of the conflict in Syria, which was co-sponsored by AEI, the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, and the Institute for the Study of War. Although such simulations are necessarily artificial and simplified (the only teams in the simulation were the Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States, for example), they nevertheless provide valuable insights about the issues involved and the national interests at stake. Four key themes emerged from the game.
1. The road to Damascus leads through Ankara. Turkey emerged as the most critical regional state. In each of the game’s three moves, the United States, and by extension NATO, chose to reflect Turkish preferences rather than take more initiative on its own. Unless Turkey actively supports more direct action in Syria, the United States and NATO will not do so -- and, unlike Libya, no NATO member states are going to push Turkey to support direct action. This suggests that more forceful efforts to remove Assad from power will only happen if and when Turkey decides that would be the best way to secure its own national interests.
2. Military force against Assad will only be a very last resort. Turkey only supported military action to remove Assad in the game’s last move, where the game designers made the situation so dire that Turkey essentially had no other alternatives. The U.S. team quickly rejected all military options in the earlier moves, and even in the last move, would have chosen to maintain the (terrible) status quo if the Turkish team had not decided to enter Syrian territory.
3. The Arab states don’t have a whole lot of diplomatic leverage over developments in Syria. The game was designed so that Saudi Arabia was the key Arab player, but as the Saudi team admitted during the debrief at the end of the day, it didn’t have a whole lot to do. The Saudi team did continue funneling arms and support to the Syrian opposition throughout the game, so it did affect the course of the conflict in that way. Yet its only source of diplomatic leverage was offering money, and the Turkish team rejected every such Saudi offer. If Saudi Arabia can’t influence regional diplomacy, it’s unlikely that many other Arab states will be able to do so.
4. No one wants to own Syria after the fall of Assad. This did not surprise anyone, but it is worth emphasizing since it is so critically important. None of the participants believed that the Syrian opposition would be strong enough to maintain some amount of civil order throughout the country after the fall of Assad, and none of the teams supported strong international intervention to play that role. This means that whenever and however Assad falls, civil strife could well escalate into violence and possibly into a continued civil war.
Taken together, these themes suggest that the status quo in Syria could persist for quite a long time, with the opposition and regime continuing to fight throughout the country while the humanitarian situation worsens. Then again, if there were any easy solutions to the Syrian crisis, Assad would already be gone.
Dr. Nora Bensahel is the Deputy Director of Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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By Lt. Lucas Enloe
Best Defense guest columnist
I can definitely understand Mr. Woods' perspective, from a number of levels. Having carried rucks weighing upwards of 60 pounds up mountains, I can certainly say that it sucks. I'll admit that I haven't done any rucking in Afghanistan yet, where it would only suck even more. That said, Mr. Woods' argument that applying the philosophy of extreme alpinism would significantly reduce soldier loads is wrong. As an avid alpine mountaineer myself, I can safely say that even the extremest of alpiners would still be forced to carry heavy packs on extended trips. Take, for example, an 8-day trip up and around Mt. Rainier. Even when climbing with some incredibly talented and experienced mountaineers, the average pack weight was about 65 pounds. Food weighs a lot. And that was operating under the convenience of being able to melt snow to get fresh water. Soldiers in Afghanistan don't have that luxury.
Imagine all the food, water, and gear a hiker would need for even a short three-day hike. Now add a weapon, your basic combat load of ammo, radios, and a week's worth of batteries. And contrary to Mr. Woods' point, even if I was carrying no extra weight, I'd still need a significant amount of water, you know, because I'm doing combat patrols at 7,000 feet in 95 degree weather. The problem isn't that soldiers and NCOs are taking more than they need, the problem is that what they need is pretty heavy. As much as I would like to say "Yeah, let's make our weapons and ammo and armor and water lighter!" I know the ridiculous amount of time and money it would take to do that.
Mr. Woods then argues that somehow the 60 pound ruck is a major cause of difficulties in counterinsurgency operations, and then implies (I think) that we should do without body armor or helmets. I don't think I need to go into more detail other than to say that I strongly disagree. Unfortunately Mr. Woods' lack of military experience is the primary reason for a large part of his argument being infeasible.
That's not to say that all of Mr. Woods' points are wrong. The Army has, to an extent, recognized the need for lighter gear in Afghanistan (see the introduction of plate carriers, M240Ls, etc...), but I think it can do better. By studying the design of similar gear in the civilian sector, I think we can make the load easier on our soldiers. Take, for example, the shape and design of our rucks. If you compare your standard issue ruck with some large-capacity expedition packs made by companies like Gregory or Arcteryx (or Mystery Ranch, whose packs I've seen running around in Afghanistan), and you'll notice that the Army's ruck is much rounder, whereas the packs are narrower, but taller. Having carried both I can say with absolute certainty that my civilian pack is far superior to my issued ruck. I think that by studying the design philosophy of civilian mountaineering equipment the Army can continue to improve our gear.
Again, though, any major changes in gear take time and money. Until then, we'll have to continue to rely on the NCO corps to train our Soldiers, both physically and mentally, to deal with the burden they'll bear in combat. I definitely welcome any disagreements or other perspectives on this issue.
Lucas Enloe is an Army 1LT currently in Afghanistan. He has years of experience in walking uphill.
From a report by the International Crisis Group:
... what is most surprising, arguably, is that there has not been more violence -- that Egyptians, by and large, have engaged in spirited debate, taken to the streets peacefully and participated in electoral politics. Morsi's victory, though a bitter disappointment to a large number of Egyptians, is a signal of a continued transition. Yet all this is enormously fragile, a brittle reality at the mercy of a single significant misstep.
Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images
My first thought was that Syria shot down the Turkish F-4 because the Turks were probing Syrian air defenses. But then I remembered that the U.S. aircraft patrolling the northern Iraq no-fly zone flew out of Incirlik, Turkey, which meant that they zoomed along the northern Syrian border for years. We must have learned an awful lot about Syrian operations, and shared almost all of it with our Turkish friends, and other members of NATO.
So what more might there be to learn? Probably a probe to see how much deterioration there has been in Syrian defenses in the last year. But that would be a good use of a drone, no? (And are we sure there was a pilot in that F-4?)
The Israelis clearly also know a lot about Syrian defenses.
Meanwhile, Turkish jets conducted air strikes in northern Iraq. Interesting neighborhood.
Is anybody else bothered that the U.S. Senate is going through Brett McGurk's old e-mails to his lover, whom he married? What business is it of the U.S. Senate? I mean, it isn't like the guy is going on a soft ride to Paris. He is up to be the ambassador to Baghdad. They should be thanking him for being willing to go to live in one of the world's worst climates, where violence is still rampant, and where the Iranians will make his professional life not so much fun.
Where is our sense of decency? I think the Senate owes this man an apology -- an apology, sir.
I am with Dr. Slaughter in her disgust for the Syrian regime for what they are doing to their own people. I agree that they have violated their responsibilities as leaders. But I hesitate to support the use American military force to wage war in an action that is likely to result in the deaths of more civilians than the regime's current actions. Values are an American interest, but are they worth war without overwhelming support from the rest of the globe? I don't think so. Values are a great reason to flex the United States' ample diplomatic and economic capabilities as this approach is more in line with our values.
Tom again: Also, once we intervene, I think we are in part responsible for subsequent events. What if the eventual winner in Syria starts driving out or killing minority groups? Do we intervene again?
Maj. Fernando Lujan gave a fast-paced, lively talk on the future of the American mission in Afghanistan.
His interlocutor, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, kicked off this part of the CNAS conference with a provocative question: Aren't most Afghan soldiers lazy, corrupt guys just waiting to shoot an American soldier in the back?
Lujan tackled that one quickly. Yes, he said, there are some terrible and corrupt senior leaders in the ranks. But for every one of them, he said, there are several good aggressive junior leaders. As for shooting Americans, he said, some of those incidents come from the Taliban, but others are the result of the "well of resentment" that builds up when Afghan soldiers see the contrast between how they live on a base and how Americans have air conditioning, the internet and other "luxuries." Afghan soldiers are also treated insensitively, and spoken to as if they were recruits being corrected by a drill instructor.
Furthermore, he said, the Afghan perspective tends to be different -- our people are on a one-year sprint, and want to see results, while many Afghans have been in the fight a long time.
The Afghan war is about to get very interesting, Lujan said. "The really hard part begins right now." With the number of American troops declining, he explained, American advisors increasingly will be forced to let the Afghans lead the way, and do it their way.
One place to watch, he said, is Zabul Province, just north of Kandahar, where the Taliban is very active and where two Afghan battalions are operating "without coalition assistance." The problems the Afghans encounter are not lack of infantry training or ardor, but lack of medics, mechanics, and logistical support.
Lujan heads back to Afghanistan in a couple of months for another tour of advisory duty, Chandrasekaran said.
If you are a glutton for Afghan stuff, here is another discussion, from the American Security Project.
Speaking of barn doors and snazzy wording, Paul Krugman, in discussing the bailout of Spanish banks, uses the neat term "doom loop."
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.