Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq

America Has a Stake in Kurdish Statehood

The continuing unrest in Iraq has claimed another casualty: the deal reached between the Kurds and Baghdad last December, which led the Kurdish Regional Government to suspend unilateral oil sales. The Financial Times reports that “the federal government withheld payments to Erbil soon after the deal began due to its own budget crisis while accusing the Kurds of not transferring the agreed volumes.” Read More

The continuing unrest in Iraq has claimed another casualty: the deal reached between the Kurds and Baghdad last December, which led the Kurdish Regional Government to suspend unilateral oil sales. The Financial Times reports that “the federal government withheld payments to Erbil soon after the deal began due to its own budget crisis while accusing the Kurds of not transferring the agreed volumes.”

As a result, the KRG has once again started selling its oil abroad without going through Baghdad’s State Oil Marketing Organization. “Since May,” the FT reports, “the Kurds have sold almost 40m barrels of oil to traders via the Turkish port of Ceyhan.” (Interestingly, much of the crude seems to be winding up in Israel, which is now said to be getting as much as three-quarters of its oil from the pro-Israeli Kurds.)

Meanwhile in northern Syria, the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish terrorist group — has been making inroads into ISIS control. In fact, with some 35,000 fighters under arms, it is the only armed group that has had any success in rolling back ISIS gains, doing so with the aid of American airpower. Its gains, coming at the same time as the PPK has stepped up attacks inside Turkey, have so alarmed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that he has ordered Turkish aircraft to bomb targets in northern Syria. His ostensible target is ISIS, but the Turks seem to be saving most of their firepower for the PKK and its affiliates.

What’s happening, notwithstanding violent Turkish resistance, is of great significance. You can almost hear the tectonic plates of the region shifting. The Kurds, long the largest ethnic group without their own state (they are thought to number over 30 million people), appear to be on the verge of realizing their long-held ambitions for autonomy if not independence.

Already the KRG is virtually a sovereign state inside the empty shell that is Iraq. Now, the YPG is carving out another Kurdish statelet in Syria. It would not take too much more effort to join the two Kurdish enclaves and thus create a de facto Kurdish state sprawling across northern Iraq and Syria.

Of course, major obstacles remain in the way — not only the Turks and Iranians (who have their own substantial Kurdish minority) but also the Arabs of both Syria and Iraq. They are not going to support Kurdish statehood. But the Syrian and Iraqi states have virtually ceased to function, thereby making their opposition less relevant than ever.

Neither Iraq nor Syria is likely to be reconstituted in their old form, which in any case dates back only to the post-World War I settlement created by Britain and France. Who is to say that a future realignment of Mesopotamia and the Levant might not result in the creation of a Kurdish state?

And, notwithstanding habitual American support for existing borders around the world, it is hard to see why we should stand in the way of such a development, should it occur. The Kurds are more secular and more pro-Western than any other group in the region other than the Christians of Lebanon and (of course) the Jews of Israel. They are far from perfect — the PKK, in particular, is a terrorist group with a Marxist ideology — but at the moment the Kurds look a damn sight preferable to the other alternatives on offer, which are competing brands of Sunni and Shiite jihadism. This is not to say that the U.S. should make the realization of Kurdish statehood a primary objective, but it is to say that we need to rethink our reflexive opposition to that prospect.

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The Lies About Iraq Democrats Tell Themselves

With his foreign-policy address at the Reagan library last week, Jeb Bush has stirred up a hornets’ nest of criticism from Democrats. There has been little commentary, to be sure, about his detailed and persuasive proposals for battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Much of the Democratic outrage has focused on his comments about the consequences of President Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011: Read More

With his foreign-policy address at the Reagan library last week, Jeb Bush has stirred up a hornets’ nest of criticism from Democrats. There has been little commentary, to be sure, about his detailed and persuasive proposals for battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Much of the Democratic outrage has focused on his comments about the consequences of President Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011:

So why was the success of the surge followed by a withdrawal from Iraq, leaving not even the residual force that commanders and the joint chiefs knew was necessary?  That premature withdrawal was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill – and that Iran has exploited to the full as well.  ISIS grew while the United States disengaged from the Middle East and ignored the threat.  And where was Secretary of State Clinton in all of this?  Like the president himself, she had opposed the surge, then joined in claiming credit for its success, then stood by as that hard-won victory by American and allied forces was thrown away. In all her record-setting travels, she stopped by Iraq exactly one time.

Hillary Clinton herself shot back:

“I find it somewhat curious that Jeb Bush is doubling down on, defending his brother’s actions in Iraq,” she said at a news conference set up outside a barn on the grounds of the Iowa State Fair. “If he’s going to do that, he should present the entire picture,” which, she added, “includes the agreement George W. Bush made with the Maliki government in Iraq that set the end of 2011 as the date to withdraw American troops.”

The Clinton rebuttal has been echoed by numerous Democrats such as Madeleine Albright. But repetition does not make the case against Jeb and his brother, the former president, any more accurate.

It is true that the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in 2008 had an expiration date of 2011 as a sop to Iraqi concerns about their sovereignty. But there was also a widespread assumption on both sides that the agreement would be renegotiated before its expiration date. If you want the long story of why the agreement did not come to pass, read The Endgame by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor. If you want the short version, you can read this Wall Street Journal article I wrote on October 31, 2011, shortly after the negotiations collapsed.

I pointed out that President Obama had entered late into negotiations — not until the middle of 2011, even though the previous SOFA had taken a year to negotiate — and he had taken a hands-off attitude to the talks. Worse, I wrote:

The recent negotiations were jinxed from the start by the insistence of State Department and Pentagon lawyers that any immunity provisions be ratified by the Iraqi parliament—something that the U.S. hadn’t insisted on in 2008 and that would be almost impossible to get today. In many other countries, including throughout the Arab world, U.S. personnel operate under a Memorandum of Understanding that doesn’t require parliamentary ratification. Why not in Iraq? Mr. Obama could have chosen to override the lawyers’ excessive demands, but he didn’t…

When the White House then said it would consent to no more than 5,000 troops—a number that may not even have been able to adequately defend itself, much less carry out other missions—the Iraqis understandably figured that the U.S. wasn’t serious about a continued commitment. Iraqi political leaders may have been willing to risk a domestic backlash to support a substantial commitment of 10,000 or more troops. They were not willing to stick their necks out for such a puny force. Hence the breakdown of talks.

That’s the real story of what happened. It is a story that Hillary Clinton is perfectly familiar with, having been secretary of state at the time, even if she did not choose to play a major role in the Iraq negotiations. No amount of partisan huffing can change the historical record.

It is perfectly fair to blame George W. Bush for the dismal conditions of Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Indeed even Jeb Bush said that, knowing what he now knew, he would not have ordered the invasion of Iraq. But it is quite a stretch to blame George W. Bush for the failure to renew the SOFA more than two years after he left office. The decision to pull out U.S. troops rather than trying harder to win a renewal of their mandate — something that I and many other close observers of Iraqi politics believe would have been perfectly possible — was made by Barack Obama, not George W. Bush.

It’s perfectly possible that if Hillary were president, she would have made a different decision. But if that’s the case she should say so, rather than continuing to associate herself with the disastrous Iraq policy pursued by President Obama, a policy that has been a boon to both ISIS and Iran.

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Jeb vs. Hillary on Rise of the Islamic State

Inevitably, in the ‘Celebrity Deathmatch’ between Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and their proxies) with regard to who would be the better national security candidate, discussion has turned to who deserve more blame for the rise of the Islamic State. Bottom line up front: there’s plenty of blame to go around. Almost everyone seems to acknowledge that the precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was a disaster. But, to the details and the revisionist history being pushed by some political aides like Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s presumptive National Security Advisor, or journalists like McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay, there can be no agreement. Here’s Sullivan, for example, responding to Jeb Bush: Read More

Inevitably, in the ‘Celebrity Deathmatch’ between Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and their proxies) with regard to who would be the better national security candidate, discussion has turned to who deserve more blame for the rise of the Islamic State. Bottom line up front: there’s plenty of blame to go around. Almost everyone seems to acknowledge that the precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was a disaster. But, to the details and the revisionist history being pushed by some political aides like Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s presumptive National Security Advisor, or journalists like McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay, there can be no agreement. Here’s Sullivan, for example, responding to Jeb Bush:

Let’s remember where ISIS and its leadership came from. It is simply wrong to assert that ISIS arose in the vacuum after American troops left. ISIS grew out of Al–Qaeda in Iraq. And where did AQI come from? It didn’t exist before the invasion.

And here’s Landay:

The former Florida governor asserted that the Islamic State’s takeover of large swaths of Iraq in 2014 was a direct consequence of the “fatal error” of Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the country in 2011 after the eight-year U.S. military occupation. He claimed the withdrawal squandered the “success, brilliant, heroic and costly,” of the 2007 U.S. troop surge. He said Clinton “stood by as the hard-won victory by American and allied forces was thrown away.” Bush’s account of the withdrawal as a “case of blind haste” omitted the fact that it was his brother who’d set the withdrawal date of Dec. 31, 2011, in an agreement that he signed with the Iraqi government in 2008. He also neglected to note that the Iraqi government strongly opposed the continued presence of U.S. forces. “The last American soldier will leave Iraq” as agreed, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said in a Dec. 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal. “This agreement is not subject to extension, not subject to alternation. It is sealed.”

Here are the problems with both narratives: The group which became al-Qaeda in Iraq and led by the now-late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi actually started its operation before the 2003 Iraq war. In October 2002, for example, Zarqawi’s group assassinated U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan. So when Sullivan says Al Qaeda in Iraq “didn’t exist before the invasion,” he’s either lying or ignorant. That’s not to say that it didn’t expand rapidly after the invasion—that’s another story. But to suggest—cheaply—that it was the Bush decision to oust Saddam that caused Al Qaeda in Iraq to exist is simply wrong.

As for Landay, I agree that Bush should never have finalized the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Landay often ignores context in pursuit of a political point, and his latest article is no exception. Bush finalized the SOFA on December 14, 2008 after then-Senator Barack Obama defeated Senator John McCain in the presidential race. Obama had campaigned consistently on withdrawing from Iraq and Bush, as a gentleman and not simply a leader, wanted to leave Obama with a blank slate rather than commit U.S. troops to a mission and have Iraq base security upon a commitment that Obama had no intention to uphold.

I had one-on-one meetings with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the weeks, months, and years after the SOFA was signed. Maliki often complained that when it came to negotiations to leave a residual U.S. force in Iraq, the White House (under Obama) simply would not take yes for an answer: Maliki was fine with U.S. forces in Iraq as trainers and in locations outside population centers and he had also agreed to grant the U.S. forces immunity, a key American demand. But no sooner had he done so than the Obama White House and Clinton State Department demanded he formalize that through the Iraqi parliament, a political non-starter. In hindsight, that parliament didn’t ratify any immunity agreement is ironic since Obama has been so willing himself to act by executive order if he feared Congressional push back. He refused to accept that Maliki might do the same, even though Maliki was, ironically, on firmer constitutional grounds.

Let’s put election politics and the he-said, she-said aside of the campaign aside: The reality — and the consensus that all candidates can and should subscribe to — is that recent history shows that terrorism thrives in ungoverned spaces. That was certainly the lesson of al-Qaeda in pre-9/11 days, and that was a lesson of al-Qaeda’s rapid proliferation in Iraq as insurgency removed large portions of the country from government control in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. The surge closed the space al-Qaeda and the pro-Islamic State groups could operate, but both the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Obama’s decision to stand aside in Syria (to be fair to Clinton, she counseled more forceful action) made matters far worse. To exculpate Obama is to suggest that decisions made during his six-plus year presidency are irrelevant and have had no bearing on world events. The point is that if candidates accept that ungoverned spaces or terrorists controlling territory are harmful to U.S. security — not a controversial statement — then they must explain how they would restore stability and rule-of-law to those territories. The much more relevant question is, given how much of Syria and Iraq are ungoverned or controlled by terrorist groups, what would the policy of the candidate be to fill that vacuum? Arbitrating history can be a parlor game for journalists or politicos, but given the reality of the challenge today, journalists should not let political aides off the hook with mistruths nor should journalists allow Bush (or Clinton) Derangement Syndrome to trump timelines and context.

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Barzani Illustrates Why U.S. Shouldn’t Arm Kurds Directly

The Kurds, both in Iraq and Syria, have put their lives on the line to fight the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). Whatever any American politician, diplomat, or analyst thinks of Kurdish nationalism or any particular Kurdish political party, there is unanimity in the desire that the Kurds defeat the Islamic State.

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The Kurds, both in Iraq and Syria, have put their lives on the line to fight the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). Whatever any American politician, diplomat, or analyst thinks of Kurdish nationalism or any particular Kurdish political party, there is unanimity in the desire that the Kurds defeat the Islamic State.

While the Syrian Kurds (YPG) have, with very few resources, largely succeeded against the Islamic State, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga have struggled. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga loyal to Masoud Barzani and commanded by his sons refused to send reinforcements to Mount Sinjar ahead of the Islamic State assault, refused to send supplies, and then largely abandoned the Yezidis to the Islamic State. Many Barzani family members fled Erbil a year ago as it looked the Islamic state might break through the lines; to this day, the Kurdish government refuses to release the flight manifests from those commercial planes and private jets that departed Erbil’s International Airport at the moment of crisis.

U.S. air power helped the Kurds avert disaster, and the Peshmerga have fought to a standstill since. They may not have scored the gains of the Iraqi Army at Tikrit and Beiji, but neither have they suffered the losses, such as at Fallujah. In short, the Kurds have fought to a standstill.

Ever since, Kurdish leaders have argued that if only the United States would supply weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and bypass the government in Baghdad, the Kurds could roll back the Islamic State further. Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG representative in Washington, DC, has talked a good game and swayed many senators, most notably Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) who had sponsored an ultimately unsuccessful bill calling for the United States to ship weaponry directly to Erbil. Alas, Abdul Rahman played Boxer and Ernst: According to some Congressional aides who attended private meetings and/or public events, she falsely claimed to U.S. officials that Baghdad had blocked weapons shipments. There was certainly tension between former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Barzani, but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has neither delayed nor hampered weapons shipments. Here, for example, is a list of recent deliveries of military equipment to the Kurdish Regional Government from international donors via Baghdad. This list, of course, does not include the military equipment delivered directly to the Kurds by Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, or Iran.

One of the chief arguments against the direct provision of weaponry to the KRG is that the weaponry doesn’t get to where it’s needed. Take Kirkuk, for example, labeled the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan” by a succession of Kurdish leaders. It has been in the Islamic State’s crosshairs, and yet Barzani has not released donated weaponry to it because its Kurdish population regularly favors rival Kurdish parties.

Barzani had led Iraqi Kurdistan since he returned to the region against the backdrop of the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, the KRG parliament established the Kurdistan Regional Presidency, allowing the president to serve two consecutive four-year terms. Barzani is now in the tenth year of his constitutional eight-year mandate.

Because a new Kurdish constitution allowing him continuing leadership has yet to be ratified and Barzani’s extra-constitutional extension expires on August 19, in theory, Kurdistan could soon have a new president the next day, as Parliamentary Speaker Yousif Mohammed from the Gorran Movement would become temporary president until parliament could elect a new president. As usual, the Kurdistan Tribune has the best overview and explanation of the current predicament.

Barzani has responded to this possibility first with a long and rambling statement, demanding snap elections for the presidency, regardless of the constitution. Then, yesterday, he took a page from Arab autocrats and staged a display of force in downtown Erbil (the Facebook page is from a news agency run by Barzani’s nephew, the current prime minister). This does not surprise. Barzani has no intention to step down: He seeks to rule for life and then allow his son Masrour to succeed him. His partisans claim him to be indispensable while others argue that transition would be unwise against the backdrop of the Islamic State threat. This is disingenuous, because with this display of power in central Erbil, Barzani is reinforcing the fact that he treats the military as a personal militia, and that he would sooner turn it on his political rivals or Kurdish civilians than dispatch it to the front lines where it is needed. Like Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Qaddafi, Barzani has exposed himself less as a nationalist than simply an egoist. That’s ultimately a problem for the Kurds to resolve, but Boxer, Ernst, their Senate colleagues should think long and hard about how and why Kurdish representatives and lobbyists played them.

As for the defeat of the Islamic State, here’s a modest proposal: Whether equipment and aid is being sent to Turkey, the YPG, the Iraqi Army, or the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, there should be far more verification as to its end use. U.S. advisors should be embedded in the war rooms and logistical centers of each group receiving American assistance to make sure it is not only delivered to the government or entity in question, but then actually gets to where it is needed. It should not be the job of U.S. taxpayers to subsidize Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s murder of Turkish or Syrian Kurds, as he lets the Islamic State go largely freely, nor should Baghdad be trusted blindly given the political turmoil in Iraq. Critics accuse the YPG of ethnic cleansing, although there’s not much evidence to support such claims beyond the fog of war. Still, the YPG would certainly accept advisors and monitors if that were a condition of substantive aid. As for Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani’s latest antics suggest a major reassessment is in order. The Kurds deserve U.S. support, but making sure cargo planes take off from Baghdad and land in Erbil is not enough. It’s long past time that the international community make aid to the Kurdistan Regional Government conditional on donor nation presence in war rooms and logistical centers to ensure that Barzani does not misappropriate the equipment to pursue political rather than military ends.

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It’s Time for an Eric Shinseki Moment on Iran Deal

I was a low- to mid-level functionary on the Iraq and Iran desk of the Office of the Secretary of Defense back in February 2003 when Gen. Eric Shinseski, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, contradicted the policy of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and suggested a far greater force would be needed to occupy Iraq than was called for in the war plans at the time. Shinseki had been blindsided, but there was still fury in the Pentagon that he would answer the question rather than demur, especially as it risked a debate that would expose war plans. Ultimately, however, many analysts and historians would say Shinseki was right (though the degree of occupation sought had yet to be resolved, although that is a quibble considering subsequent history).

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I was a low- to mid-level functionary on the Iraq and Iran desk of the Office of the Secretary of Defense back in February 2003 when Gen. Eric Shinseski, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, contradicted the policy of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and suggested a far greater force would be needed to occupy Iraq than was called for in the war plans at the time. Shinseki had been blindsided, but there was still fury in the Pentagon that he would answer the question rather than demur, especially as it risked a debate that would expose war plans. Ultimately, however, many analysts and historians would say Shinseki was right (though the degree of occupation sought had yet to be resolved, although that is a quibble considering subsequent history).

Fast forward twelve and a half years to the present day. The Iran deal, as Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated it, will provide Tehran with a windfall in hard currency, perhaps over $100 billion. Both precedent and the structure of the Islamic Republic suggest that the preponderance of that money will flow to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s various military projects. High on the Iranian shopping list will be anti-ship missiles more advanced than that which Hezbollah used to cripple an Israeli ship in 2006. This means that the Iran deal will most immediately endanger the U.S. Navy and U.S. sailors not only because of Iran’s arsenal of anti-ship weaponry will soon grow exponentially, but also because the IRGC will seek to destabilize Bahrain, which the U.S. Fifth Fleet calls home.

While Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz have each testified before the Senate and House of Representatives, the Senate Armed Services Committee seems more intent to hear from political officials and think tank analysts than serving military officials. Indeed, here are its forthcoming hearings. The only exception is Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who testified on July 29.

In hindsight, hats off to Senator Carl Levin for, back in 2003, using his oversight position to survey top generals about their opinion about the planning and potential impact of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While I disagreed with much of Levin’s rhetoric and regret that he spent so much time pursuing Lyndon LaRouche-generated conspiracy theories (such as that involving the stupidly named Office of Special Plans), no one can suggest that Levin did not do his job.

How unfortunate it is, then, with a deal on the horizon which may very well imperil U.S. servicemen that the Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and his honorable colleagues have yet to put all the Chief of Naval Operations, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and their colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as senior Fifth Fleet officials on the stand to publicly testify about what this deal might mean for the men and women who serve under them and whose lives and interests they seek to defend. It is long past time for another Shineski moment. Given the magnitude and potential impact of what President Obama and Kerry seek to achieve, it is the least the Senate should do.

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Iran Keeps Reiterating: No Inspections Where it Counts

One of the sure signs that Iraq was going south fast was when policy papers and memos trumped reality. Back in 2003 or 2004, I had driven out with friends past Mosul, Sinjar, and to the Syrian border. There were tire tracks going back and forth through a break in the wire, and I was able to walk across into Syria. I was stopped by Iraqi forces several kilometers back into Iraq, but I showed them my “Blockbuster” card and they waved me through. When I left the Pentagon shortly after, I wrote about the hole in border security. Col. (now Lt. Gen.) Michael Linnington wrote an angry response detailing the policies he and Gen. Petraeus had put in place to secure the Syrian border. The best policies on paper did not translate into reality on the ground, however, and with the hindsight derived from the Sinjar documents and other evidence, Linnington’s insistence that the border with Syria was secure looks naïve at best. The same sort of problems occurred with Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer’s stewardship of Iraq. Ensconced within the walls of the Republican Palace in the Green Zone, Bremer, his chief of staff Pat Kennedy, and the broader CPA team (of which I was briefly part before I moved out into the red zone), constructed a largely imaginary Iraq based upon the shuffle of papers, few of which correlated to the reality of Iraq beyond the palace walls. Read More

One of the sure signs that Iraq was going south fast was when policy papers and memos trumped reality. Back in 2003 or 2004, I had driven out with friends past Mosul, Sinjar, and to the Syrian border. There were tire tracks going back and forth through a break in the wire, and I was able to walk across into Syria. I was stopped by Iraqi forces several kilometers back into Iraq, but I showed them my “Blockbuster” card and they waved me through. When I left the Pentagon shortly after, I wrote about the hole in border security. Col. (now Lt. Gen.) Michael Linnington wrote an angry response detailing the policies he and Gen. Petraeus had put in place to secure the Syrian border. The best policies on paper did not translate into reality on the ground, however, and with the hindsight derived from the Sinjar documents and other evidence, Linnington’s insistence that the border with Syria was secure looks naïve at best. The same sort of problems occurred with Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer’s stewardship of Iraq. Ensconced within the walls of the Republican Palace in the Green Zone, Bremer, his chief of staff Pat Kennedy, and the broader CPA team (of which I was briefly part before I moved out into the red zone), constructed a largely imaginary Iraq based upon the shuffle of papers, few of which correlated to the reality of Iraq beyond the palace walls.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are making much the same mistake with the Iran deal. They continue to embrace the theory of the agreement to which they arrived rather than the reality of the Iranian reaction to it. Kerry may have gone from ‘anytime, anywhere’ to managed inspections, and he and his proxies may still insist that the procedures set in place are rigorous and can prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout. What he ignores, however, is the growing number — and position — of senior Iranian officials who insist that there can be absolutely no inspection, managed or otherwise, of Iranian military sites, the very locations where the work on the possible military dimensions of a nuclear program allegedly occurred or still could occur.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the group that would guard any sensitive sites, has signaled its rejection of the deal. The latest to speak up is Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who was promoted upwards to the Office of the Supreme Leader. Yesterday, he declared, “The arrival of any foreigner, including inspectors of the IAEA or any other inspector, to our sensitive military sites is forbidden in any situation.” That position — straight from the Supreme Leader’s office — seems to make moot the compromise at which the IAEA and Iran supposed arrived to enable managed inspections so long as no Americans were on the inspection teams.

None of this should surprise. On June 24, 2015, as the talks reached their climax, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reiterated his red lines. “I have already asserted that no inspection of military sites can ever be done,” he tweeted. Nothing since has signaled any change or flexibility in that position.

None of this is rhetoric for Iranian domestic political consumption. To suggest as much ignores the fact that Iran is no democracy. The Supreme Leader derives his authority as the deputy of the Messiah on Earth; popular sovereignty means nothing. It is long past time for Obama and Kerry to put aside the deal they insist they signed, and instead answer the question: If no inspections can occur by the IAEA on Iranian military sites, is the deal still worth its salt? If Iran can maintain locations that remain inspections-free (and which also might be shielded from satellites if underground), does the White House still believe that all pathways to a nuclear bomb are blocked? If inspections cannot occur in certain areas, what would that mean for the State Department’s insistence that the deal has achieved the most rigorous peacetime inspections ever? (Let’s put aside for the sake of argument that 124 countries have ratified the Additional Protocol and so, in theory, accept more rigorous inspections than Iran does under this deal).

Of course, if Iranian authorities from the Supreme Leader on down increasingly voice a consensus against inspections on military sites, then this opens a path for Congress to put the Iran deal to an early test before Iran receives its $100 billion windfall. Congress must demand inspections from day one if Obama is able to enact the Iran deal. If Iran refuses to comply, it should be back to the drawing board. The question then becomes whether Obama and Kerry will be willing to put Iran to the test. They likely won’t want to gamble with their legacy and potential Nobel Prize, however, and so they will have to be compelled. Let us hope that given the importance of the Iran issue to the Middle East and the United States, Congress will use every means at its disposal to prevent the usual Congressional obfuscation, even if it means slashing all funding for every State Department function but security until inspectors are sent.

 

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No, We’re Not Winning the War on ISIS

It’s almost exactly a year ago that the American military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria began. On August 8, 2014, American warplanes began bombing ISIS positions in Iraq, a campaign that soon expanded to Syria as well.

How’s it going? Optimists can take heart from the finding of one research organization that over the past year ISIS has lost 9.4% of its territory, mainly in northern Syria (where the Kurds have been on the offensive) and around Tikrit, Iraq (where the offensive was led by Iranian-backed militias supported by Iraqi security forces). True, but that ignores the fact that ISIS continues to control a sprawling pseudo-state stretching from the vicinity of Homs and Aleppo in Syria to Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq. Read More

It’s almost exactly a year ago that the American military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria began. On August 8, 2014, American warplanes began bombing ISIS positions in Iraq, a campaign that soon expanded to Syria as well.

How’s it going? Optimists can take heart from the finding of one research organization that over the past year ISIS has lost 9.4% of its territory, mainly in northern Syria (where the Kurds have been on the offensive) and around Tikrit, Iraq (where the offensive was led by Iranian-backed militias supported by Iraqi security forces). True, but that ignores the fact that ISIS continues to control a sprawling pseudo-state stretching from the vicinity of Homs and Aleppo in Syria to Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq.

Those who assert that progress is being made can also take heart from Undersecretary of State Richard Stengel’s claim that the U.S. is actually winning the media war against ISIS, which seems to rest largely on the proposition that things could be a lot worse than they actually are. “Analysts believe that about 500 to 2,000 dedicated ISIL fanboys (call them Hashtag Jihadis) are stirring up the traffic on social media and propagating most of the links…,” Stengel wrote in the Washington Post. “The roughly 20,000 foreign fighters it has recruited is about .001 percent of the Muslim population — that’s one one-thousandth of 1 percent.” True, but as the 9/11 attack showed, it doesn’t take a lot of individuals to wreak havoc — on that day, 19 men pulled off the most destructive terrorist attack in history.

In any case, the optimists’ case is quickly deflated by articles such as this one in the New York Times reporting on an internal debate among American intelligence and security officials over which is the bigger threat — al-Qaeda or ISIS:

The split reflects a rising concern that the Islamic State poses a more immediate danger because of its unprecedented social media campaign, using sophisticated online messaging to inspire followers to launch attacks across the United States.

Many intelligence and counterterrorism officials warn, however, that Qaeda operatives in Yemen and Syria are capitalizing on the turmoil in those countries to plot much larger “mass-casualty” attacks, including bringing down airliners carrying hundreds of passengers.

Further down in the article, there is an alarming leak which suggests that ISIS is hardly growing weaker:

American analysts say the Islamic State is replacing its combatants in Iraq and Syria as fast as the United States and its allies are killing them there, and the group still maintains as many as 31,000 fighters. It remains well funded — earning close to $1 billion a year in oil revenues and taxes, according to Treasury Department estimates — and has expanded to other countries, including Libya, Afghanistan and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

And now there is every reason to believe that, with Mullah Omar’s death, ISIS will actually be able to expand its inroads into Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This doesn’t sound like a group on the road to being “degraded” and “destroyed,” as President Obama promised a year ago. From my vantage point, it looks as if ISIS has been weathering the American assault nicely, and even gaining points with its followers for thriving under the bombs of the world’s sole superpower.

Is there hope that this situation will change anytime soon? Not really. The most promising recent development has been the U.S.-Turkish agreement to support an “ISIS-free zone” in northern Syria. But with the Turks insisting that it will not be defended by Kurds, it’s hard to know who will actually do the fighting on the ground — the 60 fighters the Pentagon has trained, a number of whom have already been killed or kidnapped? And what about Iraq — who will fight ISIS designs there? The 3,400 U.S. personnel on the ground have not produced a change in the on-the-ground situation, which continues to be a stalemate between ISIS, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Iranian-backed militias, with the Iraqi security forces relegated to an increasingly marginal role. In fact, as Jonathan Spyer reports from Iraq, the Iranian takeover of that country — at least the parts not controlled by the Kurds or ISIS – is well advanced.

President Obama may be indifferent to the Iranian advance, which will get a turbo-charge from the nuclear deal, but it makes it difficult to make any progress against ISIS when the Sunnis of both Iraq and Syria are convinced that the alternative to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State “caliph,” is Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, who is about to be taken off international sanctions lists.

In sum, it is hard to see how anyone who is not a paid White House operative could possibly suggest that the war against ISIS is having much success, much less the broader war on terrorism, which is being lost not only to ISIS but also to al-Qaeda and to Shiite terrorist groups organized by (our new partner) Iran.

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Considering Iran on the 25th Anniversary of Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It was a momentous event that unleashed a cascade of tragedy that included those who died in Kuwait’s occupation by the Saddam Hussein and then its liberation to the tremendous suffering that Iraqis experienced in subsequent years.

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Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It was a momentous event that unleashed a cascade of tragedy that included those who died in Kuwait’s occupation by the Saddam Hussein and then its liberation to the tremendous suffering that Iraqis experienced in subsequent years.

What is worth considering with the hindsight of history, however, is to consider what if anything might have prevented the Iraqi invasion. Contemporaries poured scorn on April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who famously told Saddam during a meeting before the invasion that the United States had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” To single out Glaspie, however, would be to scapegoat her for representing a policy which, however flawed, had been embraced by a far greater portion of officialdom. Indeed, from the Reagan years onward, it had been the consistent policy of the White House and State Department both to seek rapprochement with Saddam Hussein.

In December 1983, President Reagan dispatched Donald Rumsfeld, at the time retired from government and in the private sector, as a special envoy to meet with Saddam in Baghdad. The State Department reported that Saddam was pleased with Rumsfeld’s visit: “His remarks removed whatever obstacles remained in the way of resuming diplomatic relations, but did not take the decision to do so,” a diplomatic cable from the time read. Rumsfeld himself recalled in his memoirs, “I began to think [during the meeting] that through increased contacts we might be able to persuade the Iraqis to lean toward the United States and eventually modify their behavior.” Of course, it did not. Shortly after, Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and, less than five years after Rumsfeld’s initial meeting, Saddam would order the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The Iraqi leadership may have been slaughtering Iranians, Kurds, and other Iraqis, but elite Washington society then as now treated engagement with rogues as chic and sophisticated. To object to rapprochement with Saddam’s regime was to privilege Israeli interests over those of America, diplomats and journalists suggested. Just as today journalists rush to secure interviews with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, 30 years ago the new Iraqi ambassador Nizar Hamdoon was the toast of the town. In December 1985, the Washington Post Magazine gave a swooning account of a dinner party Hamdoon hosted. It was the first of many.

Rapprochement continued into the George H.W. Bush administration. On October 2, 1989, Bush signed a national security directive declaring, “Normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests,” and calling for the U.S. government to provide economic and political incentives to increase influence and encourage Iraq to moderate its behavior.

It didn’t work. Saddam Hussein executed a British-Iranian journalist and then bragged, “Mrs. Thatcher wanted him. We’ve sent him in a box.” Still, proponents of engagement refused to give up. Senator Arlen Specter traveled twice to Baghdad to meet Saddam. He was so impressed with what he interpreted as Saddam’s sincerity that he helped block military sanctions on Iraq. “There is an opportunity, or may be an opportunity, to pursue discussions with Iraq,” he explained, adding, “I think that it is not the right time to impose sanctions.” Less than two months later, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Fast forward a quarter-century. Few argue that Saddam Hussein should have been a partner to the United States. Whether for or against Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, most diplomats and historians understand that Saddam Hussein was mercurial, cruel, and completely untrustworthy. During the Bush administration, progressives repeatedly castigated Rumsfeld for his efforts at diplomatic engagement with a rogue leader like Saddam. Now the same figures seek to lift military sanctions on Iran, reach out to Iranian leaders with blood on their hands, and argue that Iran can be moderated through trade and careful diplomacy. Just as diplomats once waved off Saddam’s rhetoric calling Kuwait his 19th province as hyperbole meant for a domestic audience, today Secretary of State John Kerry does similar dismissing Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s calls for Israel’s annihilation and ‘death to America’ as meant for a domestic constituency (as if Iran were a democracy).

Alas, it almost seems that a quarter-century since Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States has learned nothing about the perils of appeasing rogue regimes or the dangers of facilitating their military build-ups.

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The Unavoidable Costs of Inaction in the Middle East

Sometimes the facts speak for themselves. This is one of those times. Read More

Sometimes the facts speak for themselves. This is one of those times.
From the Los Angeles Times:

Islamic State militants’ attempts to inspire Americans to launch attacks at home pose a bigger threat to the U.S. than Al Qaeda, the head of the FBI said Wednesday.

From The Hill:

The Army’s top officer said Tuesday it was “frustrating” to watch the gains U.S. troops helped achieve in Iraq unravel with the entrance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and that the chaos “might have been prevented.”

“It’s frustrating to watch it,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told Fox News in an exclusive interview weeks away from his retirement after 39 years in the Army.

“I go back to the work we did in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 and we got it to a place that was really good. Violence was low, the economy was growing, politics looked like it was heading in the right direction,” he said.

Odierno, who commanded at various levels in Iraq during the war, said “I think it would have been good for us to stay,” when asked by Fox News if it was a mistake to pull out.

There you have it: The biggest terrorist threat we face was created, in no small measure, by President Obama’s pullout from Iraq, which was hardly necessary; all indications were that if the president truly wanted to reach a deal to keep U.S. troops, he would have been able to do so. That, combined with Obama’s failure to intervene early on in Syria’s civil war, created the conditions under Islamic State has become such a potent threat.

That is worth keeping in mind the next time that Obama slams the Iraq War or claims that his political adversaries are warmongers. (Which, by my watch, should occur in the next five minutes.)

Yes, it’s true that sometimes getting involved in a war is a mistake, and (based on what we now know in hindsight) the Iraq War was one of those times. It was true, too, that the war was terribly mismanaged until the surge (which Obama opposed), resulting in much needless death and destruction. But what Obama’s tenure in office has shown is that not getting involved in a war — or ending our involvement in a war prematurely — also carries terrible costs. We are seeing those costs now with the rise of ISIS, and also the rise of Iran. Heaven knows what will happen in Afghanistan if the president carries out his pledge to withdraw entirely before he leaves office.

Getting involved in the Middle East carries costs, true. But what we are now seeing is the heavy cost of nonintervention, and it is Pollyannaish to imagine that the price will be paid exclusively by Iraqis or Syrians, or even by the Israelis and Turks, the French and British. Americans, too, will pay the price for the president’s tragically misguided foreign policy which is inadvertently aiding the rise of our enemies

 

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Cementing Iran’s Hold on Iraq

After the Iran deal was announced, my old boss Leslie Gelb (who is well connected with the Obama administration) confirmed what Michael Doran and I have been writing for a while. “According to top administration officials,” Gelb wrote, “Mr. Obama has always been after something much bigger than capping Iran’s nuclear program, and he got it — the strategic opportunity to begin converting Iran from foe to ‘friend.'” Read More

After the Iran deal was announced, my old boss Leslie Gelb (who is well connected with the Obama administration) confirmed what Michael Doran and I have been writing for a while. “According to top administration officials,” Gelb wrote, “Mr. Obama has always been after something much bigger than capping Iran’s nuclear program, and he got it — the strategic opportunity to begin converting Iran from foe to ‘friend.'”

Such naive hopes should have been dashed by the Supreme Leader’s response to the Iran deal.

“Our policy regarding the arrogant U.S. government will not change,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a televised address on Saturday, while his supporters chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” “We don’t have any negotiations or deal with the U.S. on different issues in the world or the region.”

For good measure, he added, “We will not give up on our friends in the region.” That would be “friends” like Bashar Assad whose forces are now said to be dropping naval mines — the kind designed to destroy warships — on civilian areas. Or like Hezbollah, which is not only fighting to preserve the brutal Assad regime but also stockpiling at least 50,000 missiles aimed at Israel. How many more missiles will Hezbollah be able to afford when it receives its share of Iran’s $100 billion first-year windfall, one wonders?

Yet the Obama administration seems blithely untroubled by evidence – both in rhetoric and action – showing that Iran has no intention of giving up its mantle as the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Instead, the U.S. is acting as if Iran is really our de facto ally not only in nuclear arms control but also in fighting terrorism.

The latest evidence of the administration’s misguided faith in the Islamic Republic is its decision to deliver the first four F-16s to Iraq, which it did just before the Iran deal was signed. Thirty-two more F-16s are scheduled to arrive in Iraq eventually. Assuming that these advanced warplanes are not captured by ISIS (as has been the case with many Humvees, MRAPS, and even Abrams tanks that the U.S. has provided to Iraq), they will be operated by an Iraqi regime that has been thoroughly subverted by Iran’s agents and proxies.

The most powerful man in Iraq is not the ineffectual prime minister but rather Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, who (in yet another boost for Iranian regional designs) will be taken off the European and U.N. sanctions lists by the terms of the Iran deal. The second most powerful man is probably his close ally, Hadi al-Ameri, the minister of transportation and head of the Badr Corps, the Shiite militia that has become more powerful than the Iraqi armed forces. As a Sunni politician said earlier this year, “Iran now dominates Iraq.”

It is more than a bit shocking that the Obama administration is willing to deliver such advanced aircraft to an Iranian-dominated regime. That makes no sense unless the administration thinks the airplanes will be used to fight ISIS, a battle in which the US and Iran supposedly have a common stake. It may well be that the aircraft will be used to bomb ISIS. Or perhaps they will be used to randomly bomb Sunni population centers, as Assad’s aircraft do on a daily basis in Syria.

Whatever the case, of one thing we can be sure: The aircraft will further increase the power not of Iraq’s moderate Sunnis, Kurds, or even Shiites, but rather the power of the Iranian-backed radicals who are in de facto control in Iraq. The aircraft could even wind up in Iranian hands, allowing Iran to get a head-start on breaking the arms embargo that is due to expire in no more than five years anyway.

From the American standpoint, that is about as self-defeating a strategy as it possible to imagine. As I’ve argued repeatedly, any increase in Iranian power actually redounds to the benefit of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Sunni radicals who can then posture as defenders of their communities against “Persian” aggression. We should be arming and supporting real and potential partners such as the Kurds and the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province. Instead, we are assisting Iran in extending its growing empire.

Even if Congress can’t stop the Iranian nuclear deal, it should stop further F-16 deliveries to Iraq as long as Iran continues to dominate in Baghdad.

 

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Investors Turn Sour on Iraqi Kurdistan

It’s long been the dream of Iraqi Kurdish leaders to transform Iraqi Kurdistan into a new Dubai. Kurds have long bridged the delicate balance between the United States, Turkey, and Iran. While huge swaths of the country from Baghdad to Mosul and Kirkuk devolved into sectarian chaos and civil war, portions of Iraq controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) remained relatively stable and secure. The KRG sold the rights to explore for oil and gas and international oil companies found vast reserves. Here, for example, is the website to KRG’s campaign to encourage international investment. Ordinary Kurds had every expectation they would benefit from this windfall as money poured into the region. It didn’t work, however. Read More

It’s long been the dream of Iraqi Kurdish leaders to transform Iraqi Kurdistan into a new Dubai. Kurds have long bridged the delicate balance between the United States, Turkey, and Iran. While huge swaths of the country from Baghdad to Mosul and Kirkuk devolved into sectarian chaos and civil war, portions of Iraq controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) remained relatively stable and secure. The KRG sold the rights to explore for oil and gas and international oil companies found vast reserves. Here, for example, is the website to KRG’s campaign to encourage international investment. Ordinary Kurds had every expectation they would benefit from this windfall as money poured into the region. It didn’t work, however.

The KRG consistently has reneged on payments to oil conglomerates and on commitments to investors, often blaming Baghdad for failing to remit its portion of Kurdistan’s budget and, more recently, the strains of fighting the Islamic State.

Blaming Baghdad is often a successful strategy to deflect public blame away from the true costs of corruption and mismanagement. After decades of discrimination and worse, Kurds readily accept the narrative that the fault lies in Baghdad. But not only is a Kurd now Iraq’s finance minister, he is also Masoud Barzani’s uncle; he treats KRG with transparency. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also struck an oil deal with the KRG shortly after taking office. When Kurdish salaries were not paid in December 2013 in Sulaymani, for example, the reality was that Baghdad had transferred the money to the KRG, but the money had somehow gone missing between Erbil and Suleimani. And while the cost of fighting the Islamic State is high, a portion of that expense is money siphoned from the treasury and paid to ‘ghost’ peshmerga; troops which exist on paper but not in reality. Indeed, the ghost employee scam is one reason why the KRG is so reluctant to embrace modern banking and electronic transfer of salaries.

The KRG regularly disparages any independent Kurdish journalist who writes about corruption or nepotism and, like the Iraqi government under the Baath party, regularly interrogates Kurds returning from travel abroad — including State Department-organized International visitor programs — to ensure they have not spoken to analysts or journalists whom the KRG fears would report critically about the situation in the KRG. Conversely, the KRG showers former U.S. government officials, retired military officers, and think tank analysts with gifts, contracts, and cash in order to sing the KRG’s praises.

Journalists may be superficial — they parachute in and out of a region quickly — but responsible investors and the international markets are not so easily swayed by rhetorical flak. They want to know the facts, see the books and, in areas where opacity is the rule, be convinced that the government line is rooted in reality.

Well, as cash has dried up, the KRG has recently tried to tap international debt markets for a five year, one billion dollar bond.  The market told them it would cost 12 percent.  In comparison, Ivory Coast debt with a much longer maturity — December 2032 — yields 6.43 percent, and Iraqi government debt with a 2028 maturity trades at 8.2%.  Twelve percent for a five-year paper is a slap in the face and a sign of complete lack of confidence in the KRG’s stewardship. Indeed, while the Kurdish government drops hints about its desire for a referendum leading to independence — hints it drops every few years but upon which it never acts — the international market now signals that the Kurds are very close to insolvency and that they believe the KRG has driven the Kurdish economy into the ground. Indeed, it says a great deal that international investors now have far greater confidence in the future of Iraq than in the future of Iraqi Kurdistan.

If Kurdistan were truly as democratic as its representatives say it is, it is long past time for the Kurdish parliament to ask very tough questions about the president and premier’s stewardship of the economy, investor relations, and rule-of-law.

 

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Iran’s Nukes are Iraq’s Moment of Truth

Iranian influence in Iraq has grown greatly since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Shortly after I returned to Iraq in July 2003, I had driven with Iraqi friends down to see the marshes which Saddam Hussein had ordered drained in order to try to extinguish the Marsh Arabs’ thousands-year way of life. On our way back, we stopped at a roadside fruit and drink stand on the outskirts of Kut. Peeking out from behind a bunch of bananas was a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader. A month later, I stopped unannounced at a tribal leader’s house in al-Amara. When I had scheduled a visit with him through local Coalition Provisional Authority officials a week before, he was obsequious to the Americans; when I came back unannounced, there in his reception room where he had served us tea a week before was a huge portrait of Khomeini. Then, of course, there was the time in Baghdad when I was visiting an Iraqi politician. It was getting late and so I took his offer to sleep on a couch in his living room rather than traverse Baghdad after curfew. On the other couch when I woke up? An Iranian official, who had even more reason to avoid getting caught by the American army breaking curfew. And then, there was the time when I was exploring Basra in December 2003. I stayed at a local hotel, and was wandering along the trash-strewn local canals which decades before had made Basra the “Venice of the Gulf.” Sharing the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) office was Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s chief terrorist proxy. Read More

Iranian influence in Iraq has grown greatly since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Shortly after I returned to Iraq in July 2003, I had driven with Iraqi friends down to see the marshes which Saddam Hussein had ordered drained in order to try to extinguish the Marsh Arabs’ thousands-year way of life. On our way back, we stopped at a roadside fruit and drink stand on the outskirts of Kut. Peeking out from behind a bunch of bananas was a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader. A month later, I stopped unannounced at a tribal leader’s house in al-Amara. When I had scheduled a visit with him through local Coalition Provisional Authority officials a week before, he was obsequious to the Americans; when I came back unannounced, there in his reception room where he had served us tea a week before was a huge portrait of Khomeini. Then, of course, there was the time in Baghdad when I was visiting an Iraqi politician. It was getting late and so I took his offer to sleep on a couch in his living room rather than traverse Baghdad after curfew. On the other couch when I woke up? An Iranian official, who had even more reason to avoid getting caught by the American army breaking curfew. And then, there was the time when I was exploring Basra in December 2003. I stayed at a local hotel, and was wandering along the trash-strewn local canals which decades before had made Basra the “Venice of the Gulf.” Sharing the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) office was Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s chief terrorist proxy.

The irony here is that, for all the attempts Iran made to infiltrate Iraq — successfully in some cases — most Iraqi Shi’ites resented them or soon came to due to the Iranian leadership’s arrogance and its deaf ear to Iraqi nationalism. The bulk of the Iraqi Army at the front lines during the Iran-Iraq War were Shi‘ite conscripts who fought honorably to defend Iraq; they neither defected to Iran out of sectarian loyalty nor were they in position to question the justice of a war which Saddam Hussein started. On January 6, Iraqi Shi‘ites alongside Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Sunnis commemorate Iraqi Army Day, celebrating the institution, not the previous regime that often abused it. Within hours after the war began, Iran violated an agreement struck between its UN ambassador (now Foreign Minister and chief negotiator) Mohammad Javad Zarif and American diplomats Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalilzad and inserted a number of proxies and its own men into Iraq. One of their missions was to seize personnel records in the Defense Ministry and then proceed to hunt down and kill any veteran pilot from the Iraq-Iran War on the assumption that they had bombed Iran. The Iranian Red Crescent participated in this assassination wave, providing yet one more reason why the Iranian government and its NGOs should not be taken at their word.

Ever since President Barack Obama ordered a complete withdrawal from Iraq in order to fulfill a 2007 campaign pledge, Iranian influence has grown in Iraq. The reason for this has less to do with the hearts of Iraqis than their minds: Because they could no longer balance American and Iranian influence and demands in order to preserve their independent space, they needed to make greater accommodation to Tehran. It’s one thing to push back on over-the-top Iranian demands when several thousand American troops are garrisoned around the country. It is quite another to tell Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to shove his demands where the sun don’t shine when he has the wherewithal to kill anyone who stands in his way and every Iraqi regardless of sect or ethnicity knows that the United States really does not have their back. Hence, Iraq allowed some Iranian overflights to support and supply Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria (the same regime to which Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry now appear prepared to accommodate). And Iraqis also traveled to Syria to support the Assad regime against Jabhat al-Nusra and/or the Islamic State (again, which the United States now appears to be doing, having demanded that ‘moderate’ Syrians whom U.S. forces train not target Assad). More recently, Americans have criticized the role that Iranian-backed militias play in the Iraqi security forces. This concern is certainly warranted, although every time a politician, journalist, or think-tank analyst recommends arming Sunni tribes directly, they simply drive the Iraqi public away from moderates like Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has been solicitous of American interests and concerns, and into the hands of harder-line pro-Iranian politicians.

So what can Iraq do to signal that it is not simply an Iranian proxy like so many of its critics say? Taking a public stance against the Iranian nuclear program would be a good first step. Under no circumstances, can the Iranian nuclear program be an Iraqi interest. Forget the Washington talking points: Everyone in the Persian Gulf, Arabs and Persians alike, know that the deal currently being finalized secures a path to an Iranian nuclear breakout. They also have a far more realistic assessment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) than the Obama administration. Not only is it unlikely that the IRGC will abide by any agreement, but it is also likely that if Iran does acquire a nuclear capability, it will find itself so overconfident behind its own nuclear deterrence that it will further erode Iraqi sovereignty.

Iran may not like Iraq siding, in this instance, with almost every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council but Oman (which feigns neutrality), but certainly it must expect that any Iraqi government — even one which reflects the Shi‘ite majority of Iraq — will stand up for Iraqi national interests and oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions with the same cautionary statements heard from Saudi, Emirati, and Kuwaiti diplomats and officials.

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The Price of Sycophancy

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, is having a bad month. After spending millions of dollars lobbying Washington to supply arms directly to the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, the Congress reversed course and, to the surprise of Barzani and the Kurds who seemed just days before to consider approval a done deal, voted not to send weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government. It was the right call: Barzani and his government not only had already acquired weaponry directly from Iran and several European countries, but they also have a troubling tendency to stockpile weaponry to empower themselves vis-a-vis Kurdish political rivals rather than deploy them where needed. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk, long called the Kurdish Jerusalem by factional leaders like Barzani and rival Jalal Talabani, is probably the city most in the crosshairs of the Islamic State and yet the Kurdistan Regional Government has yet to supply it with the weaponry it needs. The weaponry isn’t in Baghdad or missing, but rather warehoused in Erbil. Former Parliamentary Speaker Kemal Kirkuki, a Barzani loyalist, may tell foreign journalists otherwise; he is lying and simply taking advantage of the fact that most journalists now parachute in for only a short period of time. Read More

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, is having a bad month. After spending millions of dollars lobbying Washington to supply arms directly to the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, the Congress reversed course and, to the surprise of Barzani and the Kurds who seemed just days before to consider approval a done deal, voted not to send weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government. It was the right call: Barzani and his government not only had already acquired weaponry directly from Iran and several European countries, but they also have a troubling tendency to stockpile weaponry to empower themselves vis-a-vis Kurdish political rivals rather than deploy them where needed. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk, long called the Kurdish Jerusalem by factional leaders like Barzani and rival Jalal Talabani, is probably the city most in the crosshairs of the Islamic State and yet the Kurdistan Regional Government has yet to supply it with the weaponry it needs. The weaponry isn’t in Baghdad or missing, but rather warehoused in Erbil. Former Parliamentary Speaker Kemal Kirkuki, a Barzani loyalist, may tell foreign journalists otherwise; he is lying and simply taking advantage of the fact that most journalists now parachute in for only a short period of time.

Nor is Barzani’s desire for family rule going as smoothly as he planned. Barzani has led the Kurdistan Regional Government since his return from exile against the backdrop of Operation Provide Comfort, the U.S.-led effort to create a safe-haven in 1991. He agreed to a two-term limit from 2005; that expired in 2013. He received a legally questionable two-year extension on his second term back in 2013, but that is soon to expire. Barzani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) over which he maintains autocratic control has been working to extend his rule indefinitely but has been facing increasing resistance from the two other major regional parties: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Goran. Harem Karem and Kamal Chomani, two of the most professional independent Kurdish journalists, have an excellent piece in the Kurdistan Tribune discussing the crossroad which Kurdistan now faces between democracy and autocracy. Needless to say, neither Barzani nor the KDP is happy with any resistance. A KDP parliamentarian, for example, attacked a Goran parliamentarian for speaking against the extralegal extension of Barzani’s term. An undisclosed medical emergency which sidelined Barzani a couple weeks ago — and forced him to cancel all appearances — only added fuel to the debate, given Barzani’s efforts to lay the groundwork for dynastic succession.

Finally, despite all the hype about Kurdistan’s oil potential, Kurdish officials find themselves perhaps $17 billion in debt, without any explanation as to where the money — owed to the oil companies for their share of the royalties — have gone. Apparently, Barzani’s government is gambling that the oil companies have invested too much already in Kurdistan to pull of stakes and accept their loss. While such a strategy might enrich some officials in the short-term, it is corrosive to long-term investor confidence in Kurdistan. This has forced Kurdistan to seek a $5 billion loan just to keep afloat.

Clearly, not all is going well for Barzani either in Kurdistan, in the United States or with investors. That he seems so surprised, however, illustrates one of the greatest Achilles’ heels of dictatorships: Sycophancy.

Barzani surrounds himself with yes-men. Those who parrot his line 100 percent are friends; those who only agree with him 90 percent of the time he and his staff consider enemies. He lives on a mountain top complex, which was once a public resort before Saddam Hussein seized it for himself. That Barzani appropriated it after Saddam was forced from the region was problematic. His staff argue that he needs it for security, but the optics have always been horrible and the cynicism of ordinary Kurds palpable. When living a couple dozen kilometers from the people he claims to represent, and when he seldom circulates among people, he might as well be ruling Kurdistan from the moon.

The problem of distance and sycophancy is compounded by the behavior of his staff. Why did they so greatly underestimate the atmosphere in Washington, D.C.? Last month, when Barzani visited Washington, his staff insisted host organizations run their invitation list past the Kurdistan Regional Government to ensure there would be no attendees who might ask difficult questions. The Center for New American Security (CNAS), on whose board a lobbyist for Kurdistan sits, systematically disinvited multiple analysts, writers, and academics whom they feared might ask difficult questions. (In a Washington Post piece earlier this week, CNAS President Richard Fontaine and Chief Executive Michèle Flournoy repeat the trope that Baghdad does not provide Kurdistan weapons in a timely matter. As the White House, Pentagon, and, increasingly, Congress know, this complaint has no basis in reality, and so it is curious that CNAS continues to repeat it. The Atlantic Council, where the daughter of Barzani’s chief-of-staff works, likewise ensured an ingratiating audience. It certainly crosses a line to allow a foreign entity to control the audience in the middle of Washington, D.C.

As a result, Barzani was confronted not with questions about governance, oil policy, or press freedom, but rather with statements about what a most amazing man he was. His aides might consider that a successful trip, but it reflected as much the reality of Washington, as Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole reflected the garden party above.

Nor is Barzani able to understand reality by reading critical columns in the Kurdish press. After being peppered with lawsuits by the Kurdish government claiming unfair criticism, Awene, one of the region’s most respected independent newspapers, is about to close. Security forces controlled by Barzani’s eldest son Masrour have beaten and even allegedly murdered writers for other independent newspapers. Most parties publish their own organs which simply amplify party propaganda in the belief that if repeated enough, it must be true. Parties and individual politicians control television stations. When any government suffocates the press, it loses perhaps the most important mirror to reflect true public concerns short of holding free and fair elections.

Now, I don’t mean to single out Barzani or the Kurds — it’s simply the sharpest example of a true disconnect between government perception and reality. The same has held true of Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan eviscerated the press, sought to control audiences not only in Turkey but also while traveling abroad, including in the United States. Think tanks which hold theoretically open and academic events in Istanbul systematically exclude the Turkish opposition, even if they represent half the population; they understand that is the price of Ankara’s cooperation and any minister let alone Erdoğan himself showing up. Turkey has gone beyond even the Kurds, trying to silence foreign critics with ultimately irrelevant lawsuits filed in Turkish courts. The Turkish embassy, meanwhile, long ago stopped representing Turkey and today represents only the ruling party. Fortunately, other Turkish parties have sent their own representatives and often do their outreach better than the professional Turkish diplomats.

I am supportive of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, despite his path to power. While critics abound in Washington, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt with regard to the sincerity of his desire for reform. But, as he increasingly limits press freedom, constrains civil society, and uses the judiciary as a tool against opposition, he risks losing touch as he is no longer able to escape the bubble created by his sycophants. At some point, he will reach a tipping point when public opinion shifts against him. If he only discovers that months or even years after the fact, the resulting violence can be extreme.

Against this backdrop, what should the United States do? It’s important to support free press among both friend and foe. It should be the position of the United States always to support free speech abroad so long as it does not incite violence or genocide as during the dark days of the Rwanda genocide or wars resulting from the breakup of Yugoslavia. Furthermore, while systems may be indispensable, leaders never are. And while entourages may like to shield leaders from the reality of public opinion at home, it should not be the job of any truly independent or academic organization in the United States to aid and abet that bubble. One thing is certain: When rulers insulate themselves behind layers of yes-men, the result is never the adulation of the people or an accurate sense of one position in the world. Rather, it is often quite the opposite.

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Obama Cedes Iraq to Iran

U.S. forces in Anbar province sharing a base with Iranian-directed militias? A few years ago, I would have been incredulous; after all, these are the same militias that killed hundreds of American troops, and they are just as dangerous and extremist as ever. But now, there is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about this scoop from Josh Rogin and Eli LakeRead More

U.S. forces in Anbar province sharing a base with Iranian-directed militias? A few years ago, I would have been incredulous; after all, these are the same militias that killed hundreds of American troops, and they are just as dangerous and extremist as ever. But now, there is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about this scoop from Josh Rogin and Eli Lake

It is all part and parcel of the Obama policy of tilting toward Tehran that has been evident for several years now — a trend that Michael Doran and I noted in January 2014 in this New York Times op-ed and that Doran had identified even earlier. This strategy has been evident at least since the president’s decision in the fall of 2013 not to bomb Iran’s client, Bashar Assad, for violating a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. Instead, Obama reached a deal with Assad for the peaceful removal of his chemical weapons — a deal that has made the U.S. complicit in Assad’s continuance in power even as Assad has continued to drop chlorine gas and barrel bombs on civilians.

Since then, the administration has bombed in Tikrit in support of an offensive mounted, for the most part, by Iranian-backed militias rather than Iraqi troops. It has cut funding to anti-Hezbollah Shiites in Lebanon. And, of course, it has continued to make crippling concessions to Iran in order to get a nuclear deal — even if the terms of the deal only increase Iran’s breakout time from two months to three months.

The administration is not vocal about what it is up to, but it is consistent: It is trying to realign the strategic chessboard of the Middle East so that Iran becomes a de facto partner of the U.S. rather than its adversary. Amazingly enough, the president does not seem to be deterred by the meager returns on his strategy so far: a region in flames.

There is every indication to believe that, as Doran and I predicted, the administration outreach to Iran is only exacerbating the sectarian divide and emboldening extremists of both Sunni and Shiite persuasion. The problem will become much more severe once a nuclear deal is concluded with Iran, because that could well spur Saudi Arabia to seek its own nuclear weapons and it will provide billions of dollars more that the mullahs can use to subvert their neighbors.

It is still not too late for the administration to reverse course — to demand more of Iran at the negotiating table and to take actions against Iran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq. A good beginning would be to ground Assad’s air force and declare safe zones along the borders where the moderate opposition can organize. But the intertwining of U.S. forces and Shiite militias in Iraq makes such a decision more dangerous because it will be all too easy for Iranian militias to attack U.S. forces again as they have in the past. Not that it matters: Obama has shown no desire to check Iranian designs. As long as that’s the case, the Iranian militias will happily coexist with U.S. troops because they will perceive, correctly, that the American presence is actually aiding their power grab.

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Assessing Shi’ite Militias in Iraq

The rise of the Shi‘ite militias has complicated if not undercut American policy from the 2003 occupation of Iraq to the present. Shortly before U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, then-National Security Council official Zalmay Khalilzad and State Department official Ryan Crocker (both future ambassadors to Iraq) met with Iran’s UN Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif (now foreign minister) in Geneva. Zarif promised non-interference: there would be no direct Iranian intervention, nor would Iran allow the militias which its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) trained to interfere. Read More

The rise of the Shi‘ite militias has complicated if not undercut American policy from the 2003 occupation of Iraq to the present. Shortly before U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, then-National Security Council official Zalmay Khalilzad and State Department official Ryan Crocker (both future ambassadors to Iraq) met with Iran’s UN Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif (now foreign minister) in Geneva. Zarif promised non-interference: there would be no direct Iranian intervention, nor would Iran allow the militias which its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) trained to interfere.

Zarif, of course, either lied or was powerless to prevent the IRGC from acting autonomously (it is ironic, therefore, that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are so willing to trust Zarif despite his previous refusal to uphold diplomatic agreements). Even Iranian journalists remarked about how quickly the IRGC inserted itself and militias like the Badr Corps into Iraq. Meanwhile, for all the chatter about why Washington policymakers erred by working with Iraqi politicians who had spent some time in exile, the most powerful insider, firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, sought power by leveraging a militia equally anti-American, violent toward other Iraqis, and engaged in criminal enterprise.

During the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, U.S. forces just as often found themselves in conflict with Shi‘ite militias as with Sunni insurgents. Hassan Kazemi Qomi, a Qods Force operative who worked as Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, oversaw the smuggling into Iraq of explosively-formed projectiles used to kill hundreds of Americans. Then, in 2007, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-sponsored militia, kidnaped five American soldiers, and then tortured and executed them. They and Kata’ib Hezbollah still undermine rule-of-law and government authority in Iraq.

In the wake of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh)and the collapse of several units of the Iraqi army, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for volunteers to help defend Iraqi Shi‘ites (and non-Shi’ite Iraqis) and protect both the shrine cities and the capital from ISIS’ advance. The resulting Popular Mobilization Forces (alHashd al-Shaabi) are often treated almost cartoonishly among many Western commentators. They describe them as uniformly Shi‘ite (they are not, even if Shi’ites make up the vast majority) and Iranian proxies (certainly, Iranian officials would like to co-opt them and perhaps do some but most are at heart Iraqi nationalists). Contrary to some reports, there was no widespread abuse, looting, or burning of homes in Tikrit when the volunteers defeated ISIS.

At any rate, if the goal is to fight and defeat ISIS and if Iraqis cannot rely on outside powers to help with any consistency, then they would be foolish to sit around and wait to conduct full military training, nor do many ordinary Iraqis have any wish to make a three-year commitment to the Iraqi army. The training program announced by President Obama for Syrians to fight ISIS has gone nowhere, but perhaps that was the point, and so the Hashd has become an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem. Does that mean the United States, Iraqis, or others should be sanguine about the Hashd? No. They are a short-term solution which will pose a long-term threat to Iraq, as many will expect a reward or patronage position for their service.

Norman Cigar, perhaps the most skilled and precise linguist and military analyst of the Middle East (whose work I have previously cited here) is out with a new publication through the United States Army War College Press entitled “Iraqi Shi’a Warlords and Their Militias,” which is a free .pdf here. It’s probably the most complete, nuanced, and realistic take to date on both the various militias and the issues raised by their existence, especially in the post-ISIS order. He addresses key questions such as how the militias are mobilized, and the breakdown between those used to fight versus those deemed unfit and perhaps instead relegated to guard duty. He breaks down the numbers in each militia and, for all the talk about leveraging tribes, he discusses how various tribes delivered volunteers for the militias. He also addresses training, equipping, maintaining, and feeding the militias, the logistical elements seldom discussed.

Looking to the future, Cigar is realistic. Iraqis will continue to embrace the militias unless there is a significant foreign military force that can supplant them to counter the Islamic State challenge. Americans like to condemn the militias, but at the same time there is no appetite in the White House or Congress for a significant military deployment back into Iraq. That means the militias are here to stay. The Kurds provide no substitute. Not only is Cigar realistic about the capabilities of the Peshmerga, but he also recognizes the political limitations given Kurdish disunity and disinterest in combatting ISIS in territories in which the Kurds have no interest. Then the question turns into how the militia reality might impact future organization. Will, he ponders, the militias be folded into an organization much like Iran’s Basij? Indeed, for better or worse, this might be the model that most Iraqis are familiar. And if, alternately, there is demobilization, how will that occur?

A decade ago, no one foresaw the rise of the Islamic State or, conversely, of the Hashd. And while the Islamic State needn’t be a fact-of-life if the United States and regional powers were serious about defeating it, the Hashd are now here to stay. Simply condemning them all as Iranian agents is neither accurate nor productive. Rather, it’s time to confront the new reality and craft policies to accommodate or perhaps alter it. Either way, Cigar’s monograph is unique, essential, and a great place to start.

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Anbar Sleeps Once More

For years, the United States has been throwing away the hard-won successes of the Iraq Surge. They were, however, previously discarded largely as a result of President Barack Obama’s ambivalence toward their value. Today, the president abandons America’s gains in Iraq actively and with insight into the dire consequences of his actions. It’s time to abandon Hanlon’s Razor; for the sake of political expediency, this White House is prepared to bequeath his successor not just an Iraq in tatters but also a region in flames.

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For years, the United States has been throwing away the hard-won successes of the Iraq Surge. They were, however, previously discarded largely as a result of President Barack Obama’s ambivalence toward their value. Today, the president abandons America’s gains in Iraq actively and with insight into the dire consequences of his actions. It’s time to abandon Hanlon’s Razor; for the sake of political expediency, this White House is prepared to bequeath his successor not just an Iraq in tatters but also a region in flames.

One of the great gains of the Surge is what came to be known as the “Anbar Awakening.” In late 2006 and into 2007, Sunni Arab leaders in the restive western Anbar Province that had once tolerated the heavy hand of al-Qaeda in Iraq in order to prevent encroaching Shiite influence united against their oppressors. Contrary to the popular mythology espoused by al-Qaeda leadership, the United States had demonstrated that it was a Middle Eastern power. It would not simply retreat amid a slow bloodletting at the hands of the insurgency. As Bing West observed, the American military showed that it was “the strongest tribe,” and the region’s leaders were prepared to throw their lots in with America.

Today, with the fall of Ramadi to ISIS apparently representing a new status quo, there is no doubt about who is the strongest tribe in Anbar. Many of the region’s Sunni clerics and tribal leaders who resisted ISIS’s advance were exiled or slaughtered by the renewed insurgency. Those who remain have now accepted their overlords. “A number of Sunni tribal sheikhs and tribes in Iraq’s Anbar province have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group,” Al Jazeera reported earlier this month. “The sheikhs and tribal leaders made the pledge on Wednesday in Fallujah in a statement read out by Ahmed Dara al-Jumaili, an influential sheikh, after a meeting.”

The gains of the Surge are lost. Anbar is again asleep.

Compounding the impression among Anbar’s Sunni elites that a Shiite conspiracy is afoot that will only further undermine their influence in their home governorate is the fact that the United States has so flagrantly traded expediency for strategic competence by, reportedly, inviting Iran-backed Shiite militias into Anbar. Not only are militias loyal to Tehran operating inside Anbar, they are doing so alongside U.S. service personnel and within the same base.

“Two senior administration officials confirmed to us that U.S. soldiers and Shiite militia groups are both using the Taqqadum military base in Anbar, the same Iraqi base where President Obama is sending an additional 450 U.S. military personnel to help train the local forces fighting against the Islamic State,” Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported. “Some of the Iran-backed Shiite militias at the base have killed American soldiers in the past.”

As galling as that last sentence may be — and it is galling — it is even more disheartening to know that the Sunni leaders in Anbar now have even more reason to tacitly or even openly welcome the ISIS insurgency, regardless of how brutal it might be. It’s hard to square the revelation that American troops and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power’s September 2014 contention that “we are not coordinating military operations or sharing intelligence with Iran.” The direct communication between forces that take orders from the Pentagon and those that are loyal to Tehran is now overt.

What’s harder to comprehend, however, is how this strategy would lead to a lasting victory against ISIS in Iraq. What seems more likely is that it would sow the seeds of a new civil war, and a real one, in the vacuum that would follow ISIS’s retreat and America’s second withdrawal from Iraq.

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Saudi Wikileaks a Reality Check on Iraq

There has been surprising little press attention in the United States to the massive hack and exposure by Wikileaks of 60,000 Saudi diplomatic documents detailing behind-the-scenes maneuvering between Saudi Arabia and a number of Arab countries.

In Iraq, the exposure of Saudi documents has gotten significant attention, however, as it confirms a number of suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s continuous efforts to undermine Iraqi security and democracy and also debunks slightly some of the myths that consume many American policymakers. Read More

There has been surprising little press attention in the United States to the massive hack and exposure by Wikileaks of 60,000 Saudi diplomatic documents detailing behind-the-scenes maneuvering between Saudi Arabia and a number of Arab countries.

In Iraq, the exposure of Saudi documents has gotten significant attention, however, as it confirms a number of suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s continuous efforts to undermine Iraqi security and democracy and also debunks slightly some of the myths that consume many American policymakers.

One Saudi cable, for example, depicts how Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, sought to intercede with Iran to force then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to concede to the Kurds additional oil rights. Maliki refused to listen to the Iranians, however. Perhaps the former prime minister did put Iraqi interests first and foremost. The Saudis weren’t willing to put all their eggs in Barzani’s basket, however; the cables also reveal that in 2012, the Saudis contributed $500,000 to the Islamic Movement, Kurdistan’s more radical and sometimes violent Islamist movement.

Then, of course, was this cable in which the Saudi Foreign Ministry urged the Saudi King to host Barzani to encourage Barzani’s continued opposition to Maliki. Of course, when the Saudi king hosts a regional leader from whom it wants something, it seldom involves letting that politician return home absent a significantly augmented bank account. Iraqi politicians are seemingly unwilling to compromise post-election. Perhaps the problem was Shi‘ite intransigence after all. The cables also suggest that Barzani led a press campaign against Maliki on behalf of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

The Saudi dalliance in Iraqi politics was not simply limited to the Kurds. Ayad Allawi has long been a darling of certain diplomatic and military circles in Washington even though he has declining credibility in Baghdad, where he has cultivated a reputation for being lazy and for wanting to be coronated as Iraqi leader through the political intervention of regional states rather than working, campaigning, and competing in the democratic arena along with everyone else. Indeed, there’s an Iraqi joke about how Maliki once confiscated Allawi’s “Green Zone” pass, but Allawi didn’t realize it for seven months (the implication being he never showed up in Baghdad). Well, now it seems that Allawi was on the Saudi payroll as well: The documents appear to show that the Saudis gave Allawi 2,000 Hajj permits which he could distribute. (Not everyone can simply board a plane and show up for the Hajj; as part of their crown control, the Saudis allocate a quota to each country. Some countries distribute these by lottery, others sell the permits, and some simply use them as patronage). If Allawi sold his permits, he could reap quite a windfall.

Over the course of the last decade, the Iraqis have been resilient, surprising almost all diplomats and analysts who predicted doom and gloom. And while many of Iraq’s current political problems may be self-inflicted, the Saudi revelations show that a major reason why Iraqis seem unable to coalesce is that Saudi Arabia has given prominent politicians favors if not money in order to undermine any consensus. How ironic it is then that so many pundits continue to insist that the current or former leadership in Baghdad is the problem, while they put forward the very politicians that appear to have an unhealthy and unethical relationship with the Saudis as a solution.

To be fair, however, while there is no serious suggestion that the Saudi document cache is fraudulent, it is important to remember the parable of the blind men each describing different parts of the elephant. Saudi malfeasance does not mean exculpation of Iran, for which there is overwhelming evidence of bribery, extortion, and other methods of coercion. When I was preparing to do my Ph.D. at Yale, the faculty unofficially but persistently promoted a 30-year-rule: no serious academic work could be conducted without the passage of decades and without access to the full array of documents shaping those events. To do otherwise would simply be journalism rather than scholarship. The leak of Saudi documents shows once again that academics or journalists who believe they have written the history of the Iraq war and post-war period absent a full array of documents show how faulty their premise to be.

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Iraq Myths Lead to Bad Policy

Against the backdrop of recent Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) gains in Ramadi and Palmyra, a number of American diplomats, pundits, and military analysts have argued that U.S. interests would be better served bypassing Baghdad and supplying arms directly to Sunni tribes and/or Kurdish Peshmerga. Other pundits have even gone so far as to revive then-Senator Joseph Biden’s proposal to divide up along ethnic and sectarian lines. Both such proposals are wrong-headed, and not only detrimental to Iraqis, but they would also be disastrous for U.S. national security. Some of these proposals are based on myths, and others simply misunderstand Iraqi politics and society. Sometimes, it’s necessary simply to debunk falsehoods:

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Against the backdrop of recent Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) gains in Ramadi and Palmyra, a number of American diplomats, pundits, and military analysts have argued that U.S. interests would be better served bypassing Baghdad and supplying arms directly to Sunni tribes and/or Kurdish Peshmerga. Other pundits have even gone so far as to revive then-Senator Joseph Biden’s proposal to divide up along ethnic and sectarian lines. Both such proposals are wrong-headed, and not only detrimental to Iraqis, but they would also be disastrous for U.S. national security. Some of these proposals are based on myths, and others simply misunderstand Iraqi politics and society. Sometimes, it’s necessary simply to debunk falsehoods:

First, is Iraq an artificial country? Those who suggest dividing Iraq often suggest it was an artificial country, merely the result of British diplomats and adventurers drawing lines on map after World War I. The actual situation is more complicated. Even if its borders were haphazardly drawn, the concept of Iraq, much as the concept of Syria, Egypt, or Yemen, dates back centuries if not millennia. Nineteenth century Persian diplomatic correspondence references Iraq, but the name Iraq dates back to before the coming of Islam, and often appears in medieval Arabic literature. Regardless, even if a Western diplomat or historian wanted to label Iraq a completely artificial country, the fact of the matter is that it has existed within the same set of borders for nearly a century; 95 years of a common history within common boundaries builds identity.

Second, why not divide Iraq anyway? Recently, some pundits have revived the idea of dividing Iraq. Let’s pretend that ethnic and sectarian divisions are clear cut (they’re not) and that division wouldn’t Certainly, the Kurds want independence, but Iran—fearful of how that precedent might impact Iran’s own restive Kurds—have made clear that they will spare no means to sabotage that ambition. As for the Sunnis, how would division and independence resolve the problem of the Islamic State? Simply put, it wouldn’t: Rather, a Sunni entity would simply normalize the Islamic State. And if the fear is Iranian dominance of Iraq, then stripping away the Sunnis and the Kurds simply makes Iranian dominance over a Shi‘ite rump state easier.

Third, isn’t the Islamic State the result of political failures in Baghdad ? No. There have been failures in Baghdad, but the Islamic State neither formed in a day in reaction to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s raid on a protest camp in Al-Anbar, nor would a broad-based government that incorporates everyone to their maximum demands resolve the problem. Sure, some Sunni political activists feel disenfranchised by the largely Shi’ite political order? Certainly, but there are many outlets for political discord. Enslaving women, burning children, defenestrating gays, and filling mass graves are the symptoms of psychopathy, not legitimate political protest. Nor do proponents of the idea that Baghdad causes the Islamic State consider that group’s presence in countries like Libya where sectarianism is not a concern. Simply put, political grievance isn’t the common denominator; rather, an extreme reading of Sunni Islam is.

Fourth, why support Iraq when its army doesn’t fight? Ashton Carter is probably the secretary of defense with the best command of defense issues in a generation, but his remark that the Iraqi Army had “no will to fight” at Ramadi was not only factually incorrect but also insulting and tone deaf. After all, the Iraqi Army (and the hashd, the popular mobilization forces) had fought in Ramadi for months before their collapse amidst an Islamic State assault involving multiple truck bombs. While the Kurdish Peshmerga had anti-tank missiles, the United States had not provided them to the Iraqi army. It had nothing in its arsenal to take out the armored trucks before they put Ramadi’s defenders in the kill zone. And as for American airpower? At the critical moment it was nowhere to be found. So much for all the assurances from the Obama administration that, post-withdrawal, the United States could (and would) provide security or gather adequate intelligence.

Fifth, Did Baghdad betray “the Surge?” No. The surge was good military strategy in the short-term, but it ensured long-term political instability. When assessing the surge, it’s crucial not to allow hagiography for some of the American commanders trump the reality of what the surge meant for Iraqi politics. The problem was that the surge was based on the notion that violence could bring both financial reward and political power. Rather than demand that Sunni politicians accept the post-2003 order, it empowered them absent any permanent acceptance on their part of the post-Saddam political order. Many of the entities the surge created were just as sectarian and contrary to the constitution as the Popular Mobilization Forces are today. As for the Sunni tribes, there’s often a conceit in America that when they work with American forces, it is because of a match of mind and heart but when they work with terrorists, radicals, and insurgents, it is something else entirely. The fact of the matter is that allegiance is transient for many tribes, and that it is poor policy to assume that any amount of political concession can permanently recruit them onto the right side. At the very least, the surge as with de-Baathificaton created a political Trojan horse and, more likely, set the stage for a bidding war for loyalty that the United States could never win.

Sixth, but wasn’t Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pro-Iranian after 2010? Sure, Nouri al-Maliki began leaning evermore toward the Iranians after the White House announced its intention to withdraw from Iraq, and he grew more sectarian as he had to fend off challenges from various Shi‘ite parties that accused him of being too moderate. But, why should that surprise? Iraqi politicians are, well, politicians. Why can Secretary of State John Kerry be for something before he was against it and not expect Iraqi politicians to be equally venal and opportunistic? The same holds true for Ahmad Chalabi, Ibrahim Jaafari, Masoud Barzani, and Jalal Talabani. It really is amazing that American politicians feel they can scapegoat foreign counterparts and just expect them to take it.

Seventh, why not give arms directly to Sunni tribes or the Kurdish Peshmerga? Given the rapidly changing loyalties of the Sunni tribes, arming them directly would be akin to arming Al Qaeda. It’s the same quixotic quest as searching for moderate Syrian opposition four years after their betrayal. Iraqi forces fleeing the Islamic State abandoned weaponry, and that’s bad. But many Sunni tribesmen and former regime elements simply joined the Islamic State. And, as for the Kurdish Peshmerga: First, the Kurds have been acquiring weaponry directly for several years and, second, Kurdish leaders continue to stockpile that weaponry for their own political benefit rather than deploy it where it’s needed. To work outside of Baghdad and arm the Sunnis and Kurds directly is the single best action to take if the goal is to undercut Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and give the pro-Iranian factions the perfect talking point to bash anyone that suggests considering let alone deferring to the American position.

Eighth, why not work with Iran to defeat terrorism in Iraq? Make no mistake: Iran is just as much of a threat to Iraqi sovereignty and regional security as is the Islamic State. If the Iranian government were really so antagonistic to the Islamic State, however, then perhaps in the years before the United States became involved in an air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, then Tehran would have had its client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, use his air force to bomb the Islamic State’s headquarters in Raqqa rather than use his then-uncontested control of the skies to drop barrel bombs on civilians. Even if Iranian leaders have come to recognize the threat the Islamic State poses, they are not an altruistic power. It is the Qods Force—and not ordinary Iraqi volunteers joining the fight against the Islamic State—that promulgate corrosive sectarianism. It should be the goal of the United States to ensure Iraqi sovereignty and defeat all extremism, not simply swap one flavor for another.

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Obama Embraces Hope But Little Change in Iraq

On Monday, The Hill reported, quoting defense officials, that “Baghdad has not identified or sent any new recruits to the Al Asad air base in western Iraq for as many as four to six weeks”. Yesterday President Obama announced that he was sending 450 more trainers to Iraq. Those trainers are specifically designed to train Sunnis in Anbar Province to retake Ramadi. There’s a disconnect between the two events: How is sending more trainers going to help anything if Baghdad, dominated by sectarian Shiites, is refusing to send Sunnis to be trained? Read More

On Monday, The Hill reported, quoting defense officials, that “Baghdad has not identified or sent any new recruits to the Al Asad air base in western Iraq for as many as four to six weeks”. Yesterday President Obama announced that he was sending 450 more trainers to Iraq. Those trainers are specifically designed to train Sunnis in Anbar Province to retake Ramadi. There’s a disconnect between the two events: How is sending more trainers going to help anything if Baghdad, dominated by sectarian Shiites, is refusing to send Sunnis to be trained?

The administration is apparently pinning its hopes on the passage of a law authorizing a National Guard composed of Sunni tribesmen, but Iraqi officials have been promising to pass that law for at least a year and haven’t delivered because sectarian Shiites have no interest in arming Sunnis. Perhaps that will suddenly change. And perhaps 450 additional trainers will somehow make a difference when the previous deployment of 3,000 personnel hasn’t done much to stop the ISIS onslaught. Perhaps the administration will get lucky, but hoping to fill an inside straight isn’t a good basis for policymaking.

If the administration were really serious about defeating ISIS, it would have to lift the rules that prevent American personnel from going into battle with Iraqi forces and calling in air strikes. It would also have to be prepared to order US Special Operations Forces to engage ISIS directly, staging regular raids like the one that recently killed an ISIS mid-level leader in Syria. In addition, it would have to mount a major political initiative to give the Sunnis a reason to fight ISIS by assuring them that they will not again be subjugated to extremist Shiite rule. Oh, and the administration would also have to come up with some strategy for fighting ISIS in Syria — and in far-flung lands such as Libya, where the Islamic State is now expanding.

If the administration has any plans to address these issues, they are well-concealed secrets. What we can tell from public statements and leaks is that the president is willing to tinker around the edges with the current strategy, much in the way that President Bush did during 2003-2006. But, unlike Bush in 2007, Obama is not willing to question the flawed assumptions on which his current strategy is based. Until that happens don’t expect to see much success in rolling back the Islamic State.

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Obama Plays Analyst-In-Chief in Fight Against ISIS

President Obama caused a lot of eye-rolling with his comment yesterday at a press conference where he admitted that he does not yet have a plan to defeat ISIS. “The details of that are not yet worked out,” he said, even though it’s been a year since Mosul fall and ten months since the US started bombing ISIS. If the details aren’t yet worked out, it’s hard to know when they will be. Read More

President Obama caused a lot of eye-rolling with his comment yesterday at a press conference where he admitted that he does not yet have a plan to defeat ISIS. “The details of that are not yet worked out,” he said, even though it’s been a year since Mosul fall and ten months since the US started bombing ISIS. If the details aren’t yet worked out, it’s hard to know when they will be.

The president also neatly dodged the issue of whether he would be prepared to commit more U.S. forces. Asked about that, he replied, “I think what is fair to say is that all the countries in the international coalition are prepared to do more to train Iraqi security forces if they feel like that additional work is being taken advantage of.” That reveals muddled thinking on two levels. First the question wasn’t just about more trainers—it was about more US forces, period. Trainers alone will never be very effective; what are needed are more advisers, tactical air controllers, and special operations personnel to work alongside Iraqis in battle to call in precision air strikes and to bolster their professionalism. With his answer, Obama revealed a willful refusal to even consider this kind of commitment even though most military experts agree it is the only one with any shot of success.

The second problem with Obama answer is that he is once again putting the onus on Iraqis to get their house in order before the U.S. will do more assist them. Obama was right that the effort to enlist Sunnis to fight ISIS “has not been happening as fast as it needs to.” He was right, too, that “the political agenda of inclusion remains as important as the military fight that’s out there. If Sunnis, Kurds, and Shia all feel as if they’re concerns are being addressed, and that operating within a legitimate political structure can meet their need for security, prosperity, non-discrimination, then we’re going to have much easier time.” But what if anything is President Obama himself going to do to break through the political log jam, to provide a check on Iranian influence, and to push for the inclusion of Sunnis in Iraq’s governing structure? Here is the entirety of his answer: “And so we’ve got to continue to monitor that and support those who are on the right side of the issue there.”

What was missing was any pledge by Obama that he was going to roll up his sleeves and work on this personally or even that he would send a high-profile envoy to Baghdad, of the kind the administration has employed on other issues. All we got was pretty much more of the same — more a description of the problem than a pledge to find a solution. Once again, the president is showing himself to be more analyst-in-chief than commander-in-chief. But dispassionate analysis will not defeat a determined organization like ISIS. That requires a massive effort that is plainly not forthcoming from this administration.

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