The situation in Iraq continues to get grimmer and grimmer. Here is the latest: “A wave of car bombings and gunfire attacks hit cities in Iraq overnight and on Monday, killing at least 64 people and wounding more than 170, medical and security officials said.”
What is most alarming about this growth of violence is the intransigence increasingly displayed by both sides. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is blaming “terrorist” politicians of Sunni persuasion for the attacks, while Sunnis once active in the Anbar Awakening are vowing to resist with force the presence of the Iraqi army in Anbar Province. It is difficult, if not yet impossible, to imagine some kind of negotiated solution. In all likelihood, the violence will get worse as al-Qaeda in Iraq stages a dismaying comeback from its near-defeat during the surge in 2007-2008.
Now that we refer to the timeline of the Syrian civil war in years instead of days or months, it can be difficult to perceive singular turning points. But the reports coming today out of Homs Province on the battle over the strategic city of Qusayr seem to be describing just that. As the New York Times notes, the battle, which is pitting the Syrian government’s forces and Hezbollah against Syrian rebels, has resulted thus far in government control over more than half the city for the first time.
The importance of Qusayr can be gleaned from the Washington Post’s essential story from May 11 as well. “All [Assad’s forces] need now,” a Syrian analyst tells reporter Liz Sly, “is to hold the coast, Homs and Damascus, where the institutions of governance are.” The Assad regime has stabilized, and the portrait being painted now is one in which the outcome of the conflict is more likely than not to be a Syria with Bashar al-Assad still in power controlling most of the country except for some jihadist-run enclaves. But it would be a mistake to consider this a return to the status quo. In many ways, the perpetuation of current trends is going to yield a balance of power very different from the pre-war one.
Speaking on Face the Nation, White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer tried to deflect blame for the brewing IRS scandal by arguing that the only way the scandal might have involved President Obama is if the president had actively sought to interfere in the IRS inspector general’s report. According to Politico.com’s coverage:
Pfeiffer said that the administration followed the “cardinal rule” of all White Houses. “You do nothing to interfere with an independent investigation and you do nothing to offer the appearance of interfering with investigations,” Pfeiffer said. Once informed, the White House officials responded after they had the facts, he said. Obama has come under fire from Republicans and others for being slow to respond and for saying that he learned only recently of the investigation into IRS officials targeting tea party groups. “What we waited for were the facts,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s important to get out there fast, but it’s important to get out there right.”
These are not good days for Barack Obama.
His second term agenda has broken down. The Democratic-controlled Senate did not pass even a single part of his gun-control agenda. His effort to use sequestration to batter Republicans has backfired. His budget was sent up to Capitol Hill two months late–and was immediately dismissed. If immigration reform passes, it will be because Democrats kept the president on the sideline, fully aware that his presence in negotiations with Republicans would only make success more unlikely.
In his press conference earlier this week, Mr. Obama was forced to plead that he is still relevant. “Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point,” he said. (“At this point” is a curious and revealing formulation.)
Ryan Crocker is quite simply the best diplomat of his generation, and not a person given to hyperbole, so when he writes that recent events in Iraq “are reminiscent of those that led to virtual civil war in 2006 and resulted in the need for a surge in U.S. troop levels, a new strategy and very heavy fighting”–then attention must be paid.
He is alarmed, and rightly so, by the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusrah Front. He notes: “These developments threaten not only to unravel the gains made since 2007, but also to energize the forces of violent extremism in the heart of the Arab world, already burning in Syria.”
In essence, he is sketching out the dire consequences of President Obama’s failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011, although he is too diplomatic to come out and say so.
Recent developments in Syria and Iraq make clear that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East–a policy of disengagement disguised as “leading from behind”–is in a shambles.
In Iraq, fighting intensifies between the Shiite-dominated armed forces and Sunni tribesmen. The trouble started on Tuesday when security forces attacked Sunni protesters near Kirkuk, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100. Sunnis retaliated with attacks on the security forces, who in turn escalated their own attacks on Sunnis, to include using helicopter gunships against Sunni fighters in Sulaiman Bek, a village north of Baghdad. Many Sunnis are now beginning to link their revolt to that of Syrian Sunnis, to suggest that both are fighting Shiite dictators. This may be an exaggeration, but that is the perception Prime Minister Maliki has fostered, unrestrained by American pressure, with his vindictive and foolish attempts to prosecute leading Sunnis.
There is one more lesson to draw from Israeli revelations about Syria’s alleged use of sarin gas against insurgents, which Max Boot commented on yesterday. Middle East dictators’ arms procurement, whether through purchases abroad or domestic production, was always geared first and foremost toward enabling their armies to crush internal dissent.
The Assad family always justified its WMD arsenal as a necessary step to achieve strategic parity with Israel in a classic deterrence game. And whether that was all they had in mind vis-à-vis Israel, deterrence worked at the state-to-state level. But regardless of whether Israel’s assessment is correct, when it comes to domestic enemies, nothing will deter a dictator whose life and power are at stake.
From the 1950s to the 1990s–from the Malayan Emergency to the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland–British troops developed a reputation as the foremost counterinsurgency experts in the world. Iraq and Afghanistan have been the undoing of their reputation.
In Iraq, British troops allowed Basra to become taken over by Shiite extremists and criminals. They hunkered down in an airbase outside the city even as extremists rained rockets and mortars down upon them. Order was not restored until Prime Minister Maliki ordered an Iraqi assault, Operation Charge of the Knights, in 2008, which received some much-needed, last-minute American help.
Every so often, an article or report will come out that repeats a common theme: Iraq itself may be a disaster, but Iraqi Kurdistan is secure, developing, and democratic. Here’s one from CBS News, another from the Washington Post, a third from National Review Online and, most recently, a piece from the Weekly Standard, in which the author ironically does not realize that he relies on a man accused by the U.S. army of corruption.
The Kurdistan Regional Government is slick and does not hesitate to pay visitors’ ways, shower them with hospitality, or hold out the possibility of a slice of the Kurdish oil pie. As with the Mujhaedin al-Khalq, which essentially was able to bribe former officials to get it de-listed as a terrorist group, too many former officials—both Republicans and Democrats—are willing to let greed trump principle when it comes to the Kurds. Yes, Kurds have made tremendous success (as has southern Iraq) since their removal from the yoke of Saddam’s dictatorship, but democratic they are not.
It’s amusing to watch senior American officials doing their best to put a smiling face on the repeated American failures in Iraq since the departure of our troops at the end of 2011. Thus the Washington Post quotes one “senior US official involved in Iraq policy” as follows: “The smaller our presence, the more strategic our presence, the more effective we can be.”
That’s not how the Iraqis see it. In their very same article, Saleh al-Mutlak, the deputy prime minister and the senior Sunni in the government, is quoted as saying, “No one thinks America has influence now in Iraq. America could still do a lot if they wanted to. But I think because Obama chose a line that he is taking care of interior matters rather than taking care of outside problems, that made America weak — at least in Iraq.”
In the past I’ve written about Walter Bagehot’s ability to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of public argument and the temptation commentators face to turn decisions into a zero-sum game, as if every policy is obvious and all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other.
My own experience is that things are quite different when you serve in the White House, when the decisions one faces are often complicated, when good arguments can be made on behalf of competing policies, and decisions have to be made on incomplete information based on uncertain assumptions.
An excellent illustration of what I have in mind can be found in this piece by Michael Gordon in Foreign Policy. Based on newly revealed transcripts, it presents the competing views in 2006 of the State Department and the National Security Council over the so-called surge strategy in Iraq.
There are two essential lessons one can draw from the Iraq War: either that we should never get mired in counterinsurgency or “nation-building” operations in the future or that, if we do get involved, we should do a better job of achieving our objectives. The prevailing wisdom in Washington adheres to the former position, but I believe the latter lesson offers more useful guidance for the future.
No less an eminence than Bob Gates, on his way out the door as secretary of defense, proclaimed, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Although he subsequently walked back that statement, it is fair to say that Gates’ view is now the conventional wisdom.
What to make of this Wall Street Journal report that, under a program launched by the Obama administration last year, the CIA has stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service which includes Iraqi Special Operations units that were trained and mentored in the past by U.S. Special Operations forces? Iraqi forces are now working with American clandestine operatives to target al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.
On one level this is an implicit acknowledgement from President Obama that his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was a mistake: Contrary to his overoptimistic claims, Iraq was not, and still is not, ready to take over its entire defense. There has been a corresponding degradation of Iraq’s capacity to fight groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which helps to account for their resurgence in the past year and now their spread to Syria.
Saturday, March 16 will mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons strike on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. The chemical bombardment may not have been Saddam’s first chemical weapons strike nor was it his last, but it was his most devastating: Perhaps 5,000 Kurdish civilians died in a matter of minutes. Kurdish doctors say that survivors still suffer a disproportionate number of cancers.
Because the Reagan administration sought rapprochement—and valuable arms contracts—with Saddam Hussein, both the White House and State Department turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. That was reprehensible and remains a stain on U.S. foreign policy. Still, despite the self-flagellation of some American academics and the America-bashing of others, it was not the United States which provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons or their precursors (and, indeed, declassified documents show Donald Rumsfeld had warned Saddam about any use of CW in Rumsfeld’s earlier capacity as Reagan’s special envoy), but rather European commercial enterprises which were happy to make a neat profit and not ask questions. The German NGO Wadi explains:
Just when you think that the situation in Syria couldn’t get any worse… it does. The conflict is spilling over Syria’s borders and badly affecting its neighbors.
The United Nations Refugee Agency is reporting that the number of Syrians who have registered as refugees (which allows them access to aid and services) has now passed the 1 million mark. The actual number of refugees, many of them unregistered, is higher and millions more are internally displaced within Syria. The refugee flow is growing all the time with at least 7,000 people leaving the country every day. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees warns that “Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster”–and it’s not just Syria that is affected. As the New York Times notes:
February 2013 was a particularly bloody month in Iraq, with more than 200 killed and 500 wounded in terrorist attacks. When it comes to Iraq, the United States military has a sectarian problem: In the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the Pentagon often is more sectarian than Iraqis, and deeply biased against the Shi’ites. The reasons for this are multifold:
- The Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran
- The 1983 attack on the Marine Barracks in Beirut.
- Subsequent Hezbollah hostage-taking in Lebanon
- CENTCOM deals almost exclusively with Sunni generals and Sunni royal families who don’t hesitate to badmouth Shi’ites at every possible opportunity.
Iranian malfeasance is real, but the Shi’ites are not all fifth columnists for Iran. Most Iraqis—including the vast majority of Iraqi Shi’ites—place Iraqi nationalism above sectarian solidarity. The whole reason Iran must sponsor militias in Iraq is to impose through force of arms what is not in Iraqi hearts and minds.
It is naïve and dangerously sectarian to assume—as American analysts who view Iraq through the military’s lens so often do—that Iraqi Shi‘ites are Fifth columnists, somehow more loyal to Iran than to Iraq. The simple fact of the matter is that the Shi‘ites are as much if not more victims of the Iranian regime as others. Because the interpretation of Shi‘ism that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini imposed on Iran is outside the mainstream, the Islamic Republic is especially sensitive to theological dissent coming from Shi‘ites themselves. (I detail the theology behind this and give several examples in this 2008 book chapter from Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion).
Yesterday, Al-Sharqiyah, a London-based Iraqi television station, reported (and the Open Source Center translates an excerpt):
Sources from Al-Najaf Governorate, southwestern Iraq, have revealed that the Iranian authorities have arrested Iraqi Religious Scholar Ahmad al-Qubanshi, who is currently on a visit to Iran. Neither the sources, nor the Iranian authorities revealed the reasons behind the arrest of Al-Qubanshi. Al-Qubanshi is known for publishing, throughout the past thirty years, many books and studies in which he severely criticized the Iranian regime and the means of running Iran’s affairs.
Regimes that have self-confidence do not arrest those who express dissent.
Tina Brown stated the obvious when she observed on Bill Maher’s show that had George W. Bush used drone attacks in the same manner as Barack Obama has done he would have been impeached a long time ago. As Pete Wehner wrote last week in a post that both Max Boot and I agreed with, a thick stench of hypocrisy hangs over the Obama administration. The president who came into office decrying Bush’s actions against terrorists as a disgrace not only later carried out many of the same policies but also doubled down on them in many respects. The large number of drone attacks in which the United States has carried out targeted assassinations of terrorists, including at least one American citizen, as well as many of their family members and bystanders, makes the enhanced interrogations and the prison at Guantanamo that so outraged liberals look like child’s play. Yet most Democrats are not rushing to the barricades the way they did when Bush and Vice President Cheney were widely said to have subverted our constitutional liberties. To the extent that any have articulated a rationale for this turnaround, the best they seem capable of doing is to assert that while Obama can be trusted to use this power, Republicans like Bush and Cheney could not.
This has conservatives fuming and rightly so. But that has not caused most of them to play the same game. Though some of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party led by Rand Paul have attacked Obama for exceeding his power, most in the GOP are backing up the president on his right to carry out the drone attacks even while grousing about his hypocrisy. But after we acknowledge the unfairness of this situation, this is hardly the first time this double standard has raised its head. It is a pattern that has held true for the past half century. Though it is a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow, perhaps its time for them to acknowledge that during prolonged wars the country is always better off if a Democrat is in the White House.
According to the United Nations, Afghans spent $3.9 billion on bribery in 2012. According to the Associated Press report:
The cost of corruption in Afghanistan rose sharply last year to $3.9 billion, and half of all Afghans bribed public officials for services, the U.N. said Thursday. The findings came despite repeated promises by President Hamid Karzai to clean up his government… Lemahieu added the problem leads “towards alienation, frustration and a disconnect to those who should be able to give you the service provided.” Fifty percent of the adult population had to pay at least one bribe to a public official in 2012, a 9 percent drop from 2009, according to the findings, which were based on interviews last year with 6,700 Afghan adults from across the country. Meanwhile, the total cost of bribes paid to public officials increased 40 percent to $3.9 billion. That amount was double the revenue collected by the government to provide services, said [Jean-Luc] Lemahieu, head of the UNODC [U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime].
That’s nearly as much as the $4.1 billion Afghan National Security Forces need on an annual basis. In other words, if Afghanistan did not suffer the corruption problem it now does, it would be able to fund its own security forces absent endless subsidies.
It hasn’t gotten much attention, but Iraq was badly shaken by an incident that occurred Friday in Fallujah: security forces fired on a crowd of anti-government protesters, killing at least seven people. The people of Fallujah got their revenge by killing at least two soldiers and kidnapping three more. As press accounts note, mourners in Falluja shouted, “The blood of our people will not be lost in vain,” and they set fire to an army checkpoint.
This is, to put it mildly, a worrisome situation. Fallujah was one of the epicenters of Al Qaeda in Iraq and, more generally, of Sunni resistance to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Along with the rest of Anbar Province, it has been relatively peaceful since the “surge” of 2007-2008, when most Sunnis elected to join with the U.S. and its Iraqi allies, but the situation is now becoming volatile because of the vendetta that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing against senior Sunni politicians.