Commentary Magazine


Topic: Middle East Journal

From Middle East Journal: A Dark Corner of Europe

cross-posted at Middle East Journal

“If Yugoslavia was the laboratory of Communism, then Communism would breathe its last dying breath here in Belgrade. And to judge by what [Slobodan] Milosevic was turning into by early 1989, Communism would exit the world stage revealed for what it truly was: fascism, without fascism’s ability to make the trains run on time.” – Robert D. Kaplan

“You bombed my country.” These were the nearly first words I heard after clearing passport control on arrival in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, from a taxi driver who flagged me down inside the airport. “Fifteen countries bombed my country.”

I didn’t know what to say. Neither did my American friend and traveling companion Sean LaFreniere.

“Why are you here in Serbia?” the driver said.

“We’re tourists,” I lied. I didn’t want to say I was an American journalist on a trip through the former Yugoslavia with an end destination in Kosovo. Serbia’s last war of ethnic-cleansing was fought there, and it only ended when NATO, led by the United States, bombed Belgrade’s tyrant Slobodan Milosevic into submission. That was nine years ago, but just three months ago Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A mob of Serbian nationalists answered by fire-bombing the American embassy. The U.S. responded by evacuating its non-essential employees.

“If people ask what two tourists are doing here,” the driver said, “where you are from, you say you’re from Holland.”

Read the rest of the post here.

cross-posted at Middle East Journal

“If Yugoslavia was the laboratory of Communism, then Communism would breathe its last dying breath here in Belgrade. And to judge by what [Slobodan] Milosevic was turning into by early 1989, Communism would exit the world stage revealed for what it truly was: fascism, without fascism’s ability to make the trains run on time.” – Robert D. Kaplan

“You bombed my country.” These were the nearly first words I heard after clearing passport control on arrival in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, from a taxi driver who flagged me down inside the airport. “Fifteen countries bombed my country.”

I didn’t know what to say. Neither did my American friend and traveling companion Sean LaFreniere.

“Why are you here in Serbia?” the driver said.

“We’re tourists,” I lied. I didn’t want to say I was an American journalist on a trip through the former Yugoslavia with an end destination in Kosovo. Serbia’s last war of ethnic-cleansing was fought there, and it only ended when NATO, led by the United States, bombed Belgrade’s tyrant Slobodan Milosevic into submission. That was nine years ago, but just three months ago Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A mob of Serbian nationalists answered by fire-bombing the American embassy. The U.S. responded by evacuating its non-essential employees.

“If people ask what two tourists are doing here,” the driver said, “where you are from, you say you’re from Holland.”

Read the rest of the post here.

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From Middle East Journal: Builders of Nations

“This is my hardest deployment,” Marine Sergeant Cooley said as he unfastened his helmet and tossed it onto his bed. “We weren’t trained for this kind of thing.” He’s been shot at with bullets and mortars, and he’s endured IED attacks on his Humvee, but post-war Fallujah is more difficult and more stressful than combat. He isn’t unusual for saying so. Many Marines I spoke to in and around the Fallujah area said something similar.

“We’re trained as infantrymen,” Captain Stewart Glenn said. “But here we are doing civil administration and trying to get the milk factory up and running.”

“We make up all this stuff as we go,” Lieutenant Mike Barefoot added.

While most Americans go to school, work traditional day jobs, and raise their families, young American men and women like these are deployed to Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan where they work seven days a week rebuilding societies torn to pieces by fascism, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and war. It is not what they signed up to do. Some may have geeked out on nation-building video games like Civilization, but none of the enlisted men picked up any of these skills in boot camp.

Officers pick up some basic relevant skills, though, as well as a more complete education. Lieutenant Nathan Bibler runs a Joint Security Station in the slums of Fallujah and works with local authorities every day.

He has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. “In a lot of ways it helps me analyze and interpret,” he said. What helps more than anything, though, is a training program Marine officers go through in 29 Palms, California, before they’re deployed.

“We were living in a town they built out in the desert with Iraqis.”

“Really,” I said. “Iraqi-Americans?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know if they were all U.S. citizens, but Iraqis who were already in the U.S. We were living in this town that they built. We lived in the town with the Iraqi Police right next door. Actually they lived with us part of the time.”

Enlisted men don’t go through role playing training in 29 Palms, but every officer who mentioned it to me said those exercises were eerily effective, that actors from Iraq hired to play Iraqis in Iraq during counter-terrorist warfare turned out to be surprisingly like real Iraqis in a real counter-terrorist war.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

“This is my hardest deployment,” Marine Sergeant Cooley said as he unfastened his helmet and tossed it onto his bed. “We weren’t trained for this kind of thing.” He’s been shot at with bullets and mortars, and he’s endured IED attacks on his Humvee, but post-war Fallujah is more difficult and more stressful than combat. He isn’t unusual for saying so. Many Marines I spoke to in and around the Fallujah area said something similar.

“We’re trained as infantrymen,” Captain Stewart Glenn said. “But here we are doing civil administration and trying to get the milk factory up and running.”

“We make up all this stuff as we go,” Lieutenant Mike Barefoot added.

While most Americans go to school, work traditional day jobs, and raise their families, young American men and women like these are deployed to Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan where they work seven days a week rebuilding societies torn to pieces by fascism, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and war. It is not what they signed up to do. Some may have geeked out on nation-building video games like Civilization, but none of the enlisted men picked up any of these skills in boot camp.

Officers pick up some basic relevant skills, though, as well as a more complete education. Lieutenant Nathan Bibler runs a Joint Security Station in the slums of Fallujah and works with local authorities every day.

He has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. “In a lot of ways it helps me analyze and interpret,” he said. What helps more than anything, though, is a training program Marine officers go through in 29 Palms, California, before they’re deployed.

“We were living in a town they built out in the desert with Iraqis.”

“Really,” I said. “Iraqi-Americans?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know if they were all U.S. citizens, but Iraqis who were already in the U.S. We were living in this town that they built. We lived in the town with the Iraqi Police right next door. Actually they lived with us part of the time.”

Enlisted men don’t go through role playing training in 29 Palms, but every officer who mentioned it to me said those exercises were eerily effective, that actors from Iraq hired to play Iraqis in Iraq during counter-terrorist warfare turned out to be surprisingly like real Iraqis in a real counter-terrorist war.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

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From Middle East Journal: The Liberation of Karmah, Part II

This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part I here.

KARMAH, IRAQ — The small city of Karmah sits between Fallujah and Baghdad, two Iraqi cities that have suffered more insurgent and terrorist violence than most. Karmah, however, was more hard-hit than either. It’s right on the bleeding edge of Anbar Province where the outskirts of Baghdad taper away. Unlike Fallujah, it has no hard perimeter to defend, nor was it considered a top priority for counterinsurgency operations. Surge forces in Baghdad drove Al Qaeda in Iraq members out of the capital’s neighborhoods and straight into Karmah during most of 2007.

Al Qaeda in Iraq did in Karmah what they have done everywhere else – intimidated and murdered civilians into submission. They decapitated police officers and placed severed heads all over the city. They destroyed the homes of anyone who opposed them. The message was clear: This is what will happen to you if you work with the Americans.

The story in Karmah should be familiar by now. Iraqis said no. We will work with the Americans and drive you out of our country. So many Stateside Americans still wonder aloud why mainstream Muslims refuse to stand up to terrorists, so apparently the story in Karmah – which is hardly unique to Karmah – isn’t familiar enough.

I joined Lieutenant Jasey Alleman on a foot patrol in the city at dawn when the air was still cold and the sun cast long shadows.

Fewer Iraqis were out on the street. Many were still sleeping or cooking breakfast at home. Most stores were open, though, and the lieutenant ducked into a hardware store and bought several cans of blue spray paint. I didn’t ask what they were for because I assumed I’d find out.

Even this city, of all cities, has gone quiet. Saturation patrolling by Marines who live embedded in the community’s neighborhoods stanched the terrorist outflow from Baghdad and purged the local insurgency’s remnants. The main market area downtown was recently re-opened to much ceremony and fanfare. Marine veterans who had served in Karmah before can hardly believe their own eyes – a year ago Karmah was thought to be as dark as Mordor.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part I here.

KARMAH, IRAQ — The small city of Karmah sits between Fallujah and Baghdad, two Iraqi cities that have suffered more insurgent and terrorist violence than most. Karmah, however, was more hard-hit than either. It’s right on the bleeding edge of Anbar Province where the outskirts of Baghdad taper away. Unlike Fallujah, it has no hard perimeter to defend, nor was it considered a top priority for counterinsurgency operations. Surge forces in Baghdad drove Al Qaeda in Iraq members out of the capital’s neighborhoods and straight into Karmah during most of 2007.

Al Qaeda in Iraq did in Karmah what they have done everywhere else – intimidated and murdered civilians into submission. They decapitated police officers and placed severed heads all over the city. They destroyed the homes of anyone who opposed them. The message was clear: This is what will happen to you if you work with the Americans.

The story in Karmah should be familiar by now. Iraqis said no. We will work with the Americans and drive you out of our country. So many Stateside Americans still wonder aloud why mainstream Muslims refuse to stand up to terrorists, so apparently the story in Karmah – which is hardly unique to Karmah – isn’t familiar enough.

I joined Lieutenant Jasey Alleman on a foot patrol in the city at dawn when the air was still cold and the sun cast long shadows.

Fewer Iraqis were out on the street. Many were still sleeping or cooking breakfast at home. Most stores were open, though, and the lieutenant ducked into a hardware store and bought several cans of blue spray paint. I didn’t ask what they were for because I assumed I’d find out.

Even this city, of all cities, has gone quiet. Saturation patrolling by Marines who live embedded in the community’s neighborhoods stanched the terrorist outflow from Baghdad and purged the local insurgency’s remnants. The main market area downtown was recently re-opened to much ceremony and fanfare. Marine veterans who had served in Karmah before can hardly believe their own eyes – a year ago Karmah was thought to be as dark as Mordor.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

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From Middle East Journal: The Liberation of Karmah, Part I

KARMAH, IRAQ – Just beyond the outskirts of Fallujah lies the terror-wracked city of Karmah. While you may not have heard of this small city of 35,000 people, American soldiers and Marines who served in Anbar Province know it as a terrifying place of oppression, death, and destruction. “It was much worse than Fallujah” said more than a dozen Marines who were themselves based in Fallujah.

“Karmah was so important to the insurgency because we’ve got Baghdad right there,” Lieutenant Andrew Macak told me. “This is part of the periphery of Baghdad. At the same time, it is part of the periphery of Fallujah.”

Lieutenant Macak is not a veteran of Karmah, but Sergeant Jason Howell is. He was deployed in the city from March through October in 2006. “People weren’t out in the streets,” he said. “They were very reserved. They were afraid to talk to us. They had the feeling that, especially in the smaller towns, they were constantly being watched. They were in real jeopardy if they interacted with coalition forces and, especially, the Iraqi Police.”

Lieutenant Macak arrived in Karmah in the middle of July 2007 when the city was still a war zone. “It was moving in the right direction, but it was still active,” he said. “2/5 [Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment], who we relieved, was part of the surge effort. Karmah was still a very dangerous place. The lollipop over here was a big deal.”

“You mean the traffic circle?” I said. The Marines refer to a large traffic circle down the street from the police station at the entrance to the market as the “lollipop.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It was basically IED Alley. The whole road out here in front of the station was just covered in IEDs. No one even went down the roads leading to the north of here. It was an insurgent stronghold. Before 2/5 came in there weren’t many patrols. They didn’t do a whole lot. The Iraqi Police didn’t have any confidence. Their numbers weren’t big and there wasn’t a whole lot of organization. 2/5 came in and started patrolling, started doing what Marines do. They identified local leaders and started engaging them. Sheikh Mishan came back at about the same time from Syria.”

Sheikh Mishan Abbas, like many other sheikhs in Anbar Province, fled to Syria shortly after the U.S. invaded.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

KARMAH, IRAQ – Just beyond the outskirts of Fallujah lies the terror-wracked city of Karmah. While you may not have heard of this small city of 35,000 people, American soldiers and Marines who served in Anbar Province know it as a terrifying place of oppression, death, and destruction. “It was much worse than Fallujah” said more than a dozen Marines who were themselves based in Fallujah.

“Karmah was so important to the insurgency because we’ve got Baghdad right there,” Lieutenant Andrew Macak told me. “This is part of the periphery of Baghdad. At the same time, it is part of the periphery of Fallujah.”

Lieutenant Macak is not a veteran of Karmah, but Sergeant Jason Howell is. He was deployed in the city from March through October in 2006. “People weren’t out in the streets,” he said. “They were very reserved. They were afraid to talk to us. They had the feeling that, especially in the smaller towns, they were constantly being watched. They were in real jeopardy if they interacted with coalition forces and, especially, the Iraqi Police.”

Lieutenant Macak arrived in Karmah in the middle of July 2007 when the city was still a war zone. “It was moving in the right direction, but it was still active,” he said. “2/5 [Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment], who we relieved, was part of the surge effort. Karmah was still a very dangerous place. The lollipop over here was a big deal.”

“You mean the traffic circle?” I said. The Marines refer to a large traffic circle down the street from the police station at the entrance to the market as the “lollipop.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It was basically IED Alley. The whole road out here in front of the station was just covered in IEDs. No one even went down the roads leading to the north of here. It was an insurgent stronghold. Before 2/5 came in there weren’t many patrols. They didn’t do a whole lot. The Iraqi Police didn’t have any confidence. Their numbers weren’t big and there wasn’t a whole lot of organization. 2/5 came in and started patrolling, started doing what Marines do. They identified local leaders and started engaging them. Sheikh Mishan came back at about the same time from Syria.”

Sheikh Mishan Abbas, like many other sheikhs in Anbar Province, fled to Syria shortly after the U.S. invaded.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

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From Middle East Journal: In the Villages of Al Anbar

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The Iraqi town of Al Farris looks like a model Soviet city up close and a rounded square from the sky. Saddam Hussein built it to house workers in the now-defunct weapons factory to the east, and they live in neighborhoods called City 1, City 2, City 3, City 4, and City 5. “Socialist living at its finest,” Sergeant Edward Guerrero said as we rolled through the gates in a Humvee. The place made me think of Libya, where I have been, and North Korea, where I have not.

Al Farris was part of Saddam’s attempt to launch Iraq into the sci-fi future before he ruined his country with four wars, two genocides, and an international sanctions regime. It was a failure. Like all utopian cities, Al Farris is dreary. Every apartment building is nearly identical. There are few stores, restaurants, or other businesses at street level. There certainly is no traditional Arabic souk. If it weren’t for the vaguely Arabesque windows, little would distinguish it from any other drab worker’s paradise.

“It’s like a gulag city,” one Military Police officer said. The grace note, if I could call it that, is the encircling coil or razor wire at the city limits which keeps insurgents from coming in and blowing up buildings and people. Billowing plastic bags have been snagged along the length of the wire.

Sergeant Guerrero had a private meeting scheduled with the local Iraqi Police chief, so I climbed a ladder to the roof where I could get a better view.

An Iraqi Police officer pointed out an American military outpost on top of the water tower. His job entailed sitting in silence in a rooftop bunker with a machine gun in case the station is attacked. I assumed the Americans on the water tower overwatched the city with sniper rifles. I didn’t ask, but if they are it would not be a secret.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The Iraqi town of Al Farris looks like a model Soviet city up close and a rounded square from the sky. Saddam Hussein built it to house workers in the now-defunct weapons factory to the east, and they live in neighborhoods called City 1, City 2, City 3, City 4, and City 5. “Socialist living at its finest,” Sergeant Edward Guerrero said as we rolled through the gates in a Humvee. The place made me think of Libya, where I have been, and North Korea, where I have not.

Al Farris was part of Saddam’s attempt to launch Iraq into the sci-fi future before he ruined his country with four wars, two genocides, and an international sanctions regime. It was a failure. Like all utopian cities, Al Farris is dreary. Every apartment building is nearly identical. There are few stores, restaurants, or other businesses at street level. There certainly is no traditional Arabic souk. If it weren’t for the vaguely Arabesque windows, little would distinguish it from any other drab worker’s paradise.

“It’s like a gulag city,” one Military Police officer said. The grace note, if I could call it that, is the encircling coil or razor wire at the city limits which keeps insurgents from coming in and blowing up buildings and people. Billowing plastic bags have been snagged along the length of the wire.

Sergeant Guerrero had a private meeting scheduled with the local Iraqi Police chief, so I climbed a ladder to the roof where I could get a better view.

An Iraqi Police officer pointed out an American military outpost on top of the water tower. His job entailed sitting in silence in a rooftop bunker with a machine gun in case the station is attacked. I assumed the Americans on the water tower overwatched the city with sniper rifles. I didn’t ask, but if they are it would not be a secret.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

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From Middle East Journal: In the Slums of Fallujah

FALLUJAH, IRAQ – Captain Steve Eastin threw open the door to the Iraqi Police captain’s office and cancelled a joint American-Iraqi officer’s meeting before it could even begin. “Someone just shot at my Marines,” he said. “We can’t do this right now.”

I following him into the hall.

“What happened?” I said.

“Someone just shot at my guys at the flour mill,” he said. “A bullet struck a wall four feet over a Marine’s head. We have to go in there and extract them.”

“They don’t extract themselves?” I said.

“They’re on foot,” he said, “and we’re going in vehicles. They don’t extract themselves on foot.”

And I was getting comfortable and even bored in post-insurgent Fallujah. Complacency kills, and Fallujah isn’t completely free of insurgents just yet.

“Can I go with the extraction team?” I said.

“They’ve already left in Humvees,” he said.

But he did send a patrol to the flour mill less an hour later, and I went with them.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

FALLUJAH, IRAQ – Captain Steve Eastin threw open the door to the Iraqi Police captain’s office and cancelled a joint American-Iraqi officer’s meeting before it could even begin. “Someone just shot at my Marines,” he said. “We can’t do this right now.”

I following him into the hall.

“What happened?” I said.

“Someone just shot at my guys at the flour mill,” he said. “A bullet struck a wall four feet over a Marine’s head. We have to go in there and extract them.”

“They don’t extract themselves?” I said.

“They’re on foot,” he said, “and we’re going in vehicles. They don’t extract themselves on foot.”

And I was getting comfortable and even bored in post-insurgent Fallujah. Complacency kills, and Fallujah isn’t completely free of insurgents just yet.

“Can I go with the extraction team?” I said.

“They’ve already left in Humvees,” he said.

But he did send a patrol to the flour mill less an hour later, and I went with them.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

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Hamas, Slipping

Yesterday Noah Pollak (at Middle East Journal) cited some encouraging new poll numbers from Gaza:

Hamas got only 23 percent support, down from 29 percent in the previous survey last month, while Fatah climbed from 31 percent to 43 percent.

The poll, the first major survey since the Hamas takeover, also showed that 66 percent of Hamas supporters said they would vote Fatah if it undertook reforms.

Trust in the Gaza-based deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas stood at 37 percent, compared to 63 percent for Abbas. [Fatah] Prime Minister Sallam Fayad got higher trust marks than Haniyeh, 62-38 percent.

A bit more than eighteen months ago, Hamas took a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament (though it won just 44 percent of the popular vote). These new numbers don’t constitute a directly comparable result, but they suggest (as Pollak and others argue) that Hamas may be its own worst enemy. The tumble in Hamas’s standing also means that Fatah has a chance to recapture and retain power—provided that Abbas can remake his party into one capable of governing a functional (or less dysfunctional) state.

This would mean not only establishing a firm monopoly on violence, but addressing the rampant political corruption, internal tribal divisions, and rotten or non-existent infrastructure that have plagued Palestinian life for years. It would also mean, ultimately, ending hostilities—whether government-sanctioned or not—against Israel. (Dennis Ross took this line of argument at TNR.) Abbas may be too weak to accomplish this, but the opportunity is there. One hopes the Palestinian leadership won’t squander it.

Yesterday Noah Pollak (at Middle East Journal) cited some encouraging new poll numbers from Gaza:

Hamas got only 23 percent support, down from 29 percent in the previous survey last month, while Fatah climbed from 31 percent to 43 percent.

The poll, the first major survey since the Hamas takeover, also showed that 66 percent of Hamas supporters said they would vote Fatah if it undertook reforms.

Trust in the Gaza-based deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas stood at 37 percent, compared to 63 percent for Abbas. [Fatah] Prime Minister Sallam Fayad got higher trust marks than Haniyeh, 62-38 percent.

A bit more than eighteen months ago, Hamas took a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament (though it won just 44 percent of the popular vote). These new numbers don’t constitute a directly comparable result, but they suggest (as Pollak and others argue) that Hamas may be its own worst enemy. The tumble in Hamas’s standing also means that Fatah has a chance to recapture and retain power—provided that Abbas can remake his party into one capable of governing a functional (or less dysfunctional) state.

This would mean not only establishing a firm monopoly on violence, but addressing the rampant political corruption, internal tribal divisions, and rotten or non-existent infrastructure that have plagued Palestinian life for years. It would also mean, ultimately, ending hostilities—whether government-sanctioned or not—against Israel. (Dennis Ross took this line of argument at TNR.) Abbas may be too weak to accomplish this, but the opportunity is there. One hopes the Palestinian leadership won’t squander it.

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