Five Ways the Newest Story in Iraq and Syria is... That There Is No New Story
by Peter Van Buren
One of the most popular apps these days is Snapchat. It allows the sender to set a timer for any photo dispatched via the app, so that a few seconds after the recipient opens the message, the photo is automatically deleted. The evidence of what you did at that party last night is seen and then disappears. POOF!
I hope you’ll forgive me if I suggest that the Iraq-Syria War against the Islamic State (ISIS) is being conveyed to us via Snapchat. Important things happen, they appear in front of us, and then… POOF!… they’re gone. No one seems to remember them. Who cares that they’ve happened at all, when there’s a new snap already arriving for your attention? As with most of what flows through the real Snapchat, what’s of some interest at first makes no difference in the long run.
Just because we now have terrifyingly short memories does not, however, mean that things did not happen. Despite the POOF! effect, events that genuinely mattered when it comes to the region in which Washington has, since the 1980s, been embroiled in four wars, actually did occur last week, last month, a war or two ago, or, in some cases, more than half a century in the past. What follows are just some of the things we’ve forgotten that couldn’t matter more.
It’s a Limited Mission — POOF!
Perhaps General David Petraeus’s all-time sharpest comment came in the earliest days of Iraq War 2.0. “Tell me how this ends,” he said, referring to the Bush administration’s invasion. At the time, he was already worried that there was no endgame.
That question should be asked daily in Washington. It and the underlying assumption that there must be a clear scope and duration to America’s wars are too easily forgotten. It took eight long years until the last American combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Though there were no ticker tape parades or iconic photos of sailors smooching their gals in Times Square in 2011, the war was indeed finally over and Barack Obama’s campaign promise fulfilled…
Until, of course, it wasn’t, and in 2014 the same president restarted the war, claiming that a genocide against the Yazidis, a group hitherto unknown to most of us and since largely forgotten, was in process. Air strikes were authorized to support a “limited” rescue mission. Then, more — limited — American military power was needed to stop the Islamic State from conquering Iraq. Then more air strikes, along with limited numbers of military advisers and trainers, were sure to wrap things up, and somehow, by May 2016, the U.S. has 5,400 military personnel, including Special Operations forces, on the ground across Iraq and Syria, with expectations that more would soon be needed, even as a massive regional air campaign drags on. That’s how Washington’s wars seem to go these days, with no real debate, no Congressional declaration, just, if we’re lucky, a news item announcing what’s happened.
Starting wars under murky circumstances and then watching limited commitments expand exponentially is by now so ingrained in America’s global strategy that it’s barely noticed. Recall, for instance, those weapons of mass destruction that justified George W. Bush’s initial invasion of Iraq, the one that turned into eight years of occupation and “nation-building”? Or to step a couple of no-less-forgettable years further into the past, bring to mind the 2001 U.S. mission that was to quickly defeat the ragged Taliban and kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. That’s now heading into its 16th year as the situation there only continues to disintegrate.
For those who prefer an even more forgotten view of history, America’s war in Vietnam kicked into high gear thanks to then-President Lyndon Johnson’s false claim about an attack on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. The early stages of that war followed a path somewhat similar to the one on which we now seem to be staggering along in Iraq War 3.0 — from a limited number of advisers to the full deployment of almost all the available tools of war.
Or for those who like to look ahead, the U.S. has just put troops back on the ground in Yemen, part of what the Pentagon is describing as “limited support” for the U.S.-backed war the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates launched in that country.
The new story is also the old story: just as you can’t be a little pregnant, the mission never really turns out to be “limited,” and if Washington doesn’t know where the exit is, it’s going to be trapped yet again inside its own war, spinning in unpredictable and disturbing directions.
No Boots on the Ground — POOF!
Having steadfastly maintained since the beginning of Iraq War 3.0 that it would never put “American boots on the ground,” the Obama administration has deepened its military campaign against the Islamic State by increasing the number of Special Operations forces in Syria from 50 to 300. The administration also recently authorized the use of Apache attack helicopters, long stationed in Iraq to protect U.S. troops, as offensive weapons.
American advisers are increasingly involved in actual fighting in Iraq, even as the U.S. deployed B-52 bombers to an air base in Qatar before promptly sending them into combat over Iraq and Syria. Another group of Marines was dispatched to help defend the American Embassy in Baghdad after the Green Zone, in the heart of that city, was recently breached by masses of protesters. Of all those moves, at least some have to qualify as “boots on the ground.”
The word play involved in maintaining the official no-boots fiction has been a high-wire act. Following the loss of an American in Iraqi Kurdistan recently, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter labeled it a “combat death.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest then tried to explain how an American who was not on a combat mission could be killed in combat. “He was killed, and he was killed in combat. But that was not part of his mission,” Earnest told reporters.
Much more quietly, the U.S. surged — “surge” being the replacement word for the Vietnam-era “escalate” — the number of private contractors working in Iraq; their ranks have grown eight-fold over the past year, to the point where there are an estimated 2,000 of them working directly for the Department of Defense and 5,800 working for the Department of State inside Iraq. And don’t be too sanguine about those State Department contractors. While some of them are undoubtedly cleaning diplomatic toilets and preparing elegant receptions, many are working as military trainers, paramilitary police advisers, and force protection personnel. Even some aircraft maintenance crews and CIA paramilitaries fall under the State Department’s organizational chart.
The new story in Iraq and Syria when it comes to boots on the ground is the old story: air power alone has never won wars, advisers and trainers never turn out to be just that, and for every soldier in the fight you need five or more support people behind him.
We’re Winning — POOF!
We’ve been winning in Iraq for some time now — a quarter-century of successes, from 1991’s triumphant Operation Desert Storm to 2003’s soaring Mission Accomplished moment to just about right now in the upbeat third iteration of America’s Iraq wars. But in each case, in a Snapchat version of victory, success has never seemed to catch on.
At the end of April, for instance, Army Colonel Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesperson, hailed the way American air power had set fire to $500 million of ISIS’s money, actual cash that its militants had apparently forgotten to disperse or hide in some reasonable place. He was similarly positive about other recent gains, including the taking of the Iraqi city of Hit, which, he swore, was “a linchpin for ISIL.” In this, he echoed the language used when ISIS-occupied Ramadi (and Baiji and Sinjar and…) fell, language undoubtedly no less useful when the next town is liberated. In the same fashion, USA Today quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying that American actions had cut ISIS’s oil revenues by an estimated 50%, forcing them to ration fuel in some areas, while cutting pay to its fighters and support staff.
Only a month ago, National Security Adviser Susan Rice let us know that, “day by day, mile by mile, strike by strike, we are making substantial progress. Every few days, we’re taking out another key ISIL leader, hampering ISIL’s ability to plan attacks or launch new offensives.” She even cited a poll indicating that nearly 80% of young Muslims across the Middle East are strongly opposed to that group and its caliphate.
In the early spring, Brett McGurk, U.S. special envoy to the global coalition to counter the Islamic State, took to Twitter to assure everyone that “terrorists are now trapped and desperate on Mosul fronts.” Speaking at a security forum I attended, retired general Chuck Jacoby, the last multinational force commander for Iraq 2.0, described another sign of progress, insisting that Iraq today is a “maturing state.” On the same panel, Douglas Ollivant, a member of former Iraq commander General David Petraeus’s “brain trust of warrior-intellectuals,” talked about “streams of hope” in Iraq.
Above all, however, there is one sign of success often invoked in relation to the war in Iraq and Syria: the body count, an infamous supposed measure of success in the Vietnam War. Washington spokespeople regularly offer stunning figures on the deaths of ISIS members, claiming that 10,000 to 25,000 Islamic State fighters have been wiped out via air strikes. The CIA has estimated that, in 2014, the Islamic State had only perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms. If such victory statistics are accurate, somewhere between a third and all of them should now be gone.
Other U.S. intelligence reports, clearly working off a different set of data, suggest that there once were more than 30,000 foreign fighters in the Islamic State’s ranks. Now, the Pentagon tells us, the flow of new foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria has been staunched, dropping over the past year from roughly 2,000 to 200 a month, further incontrovertible proof of the Islamic State’s declining stature. One anonymous American official typically insisted: “We’re actually a little bit ahead of where we wanted to be.”
Yet despite success after American success, ISIS evidently isn’t broke, or running out of fighters, or too desperate to stay in the fray, and despite all the upbeat news there are few signs of hope in the Iraqi body politic or its military.
The new story is again a very old story: when you have to repeatedly explain how much you’re winning, you’re likely not winning much of anything at all.
It’s Up to the Iraqis — POOF!
From the early days of Iraq War 2.0, one key to success for Washington has been assigning the Iraqis a to-do list based on America’s foreign policy goals. They were to hold decisive elections, write a unifying Constitution, take charge of their future, share their oil with each other, share their government with each other, and then defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, and later, the Islamic State.
As each item failed to get done properly, it became the Iraqis’ fault that Washington hadn’t achieved its goals. A classic example was “the surge” of 2007, when the Bush administration sent in a significant number of additional troops to whip the Iraqis into shape and just plain whip al-Qaeda, and so open up the space for Shiites and Sunnis to come together in an American-sponsored state of national unity. The Iraqis, of course, screwed up the works with their sectarian politics and so lost the stunning potential gains in freedom we had won them, leaving the Americans heading for the exit.
In Iraq War 3.0, the Obama administration again began shuffling leaders in Baghdad to suit its purposes, helping force aside once-golden boy Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and pushing forward new golden boy Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to — you guessed it — unify Iraq. “Today, Iraqis took another major step forward in uniting their country,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said as Abadi took office.
Of course, unity did not transpire, thanks to Abadi, not us. “It would be disastrous,” editorialized the New York Times, “if Americans, Iraqis, and their partners were to succeed in the military campaign against the Islamic State only to have the politicians in Baghdad squander another chance to build a better future.” The Times added: “More than 13 years since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, there’s less and less reason to be optimistic.”
The latest Iraqi “screw-up” came on April 30th, when dissident Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters broke into the previously sacrosanct Green Zone established by the Americans in Iraq War 2.0 and stormed Iraq’s parliament. Sadr clearly remembers his history better than most Americans. In 2004, he emboldened his militias, then fighting the U.S. military, by reminding them of how irregular forces had defeated the Americans in Vietnam. This time, he was apparently diplomatic enough not to mention that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese 41 years ago on the day of the Green Zone incursion.
Sadr’s supporters crossed into the enclave to protest Prime Minister Abadi’s failure to reform a disastrous government, rein in corruption (you can buy command of an entire army division and plunder its budget indefinitely for about $2 million), and provide basic services like water and electricity to Baghdadis. The tens of billions of dollars that U.S. officials spent “reconstructing” Iraq during the American occupation of 2003 to 2011 were supposed to make such services effective, but did not.
And anything said about Iraqi governmental failures might be applied no less accurately to the Iraqi army.
Despite the estimated $26 billion the U.S. spent training and equipping that military between 2003 and 2011, whole units broke, shed their uniforms, ditched their American equipment, and fled when faced with relatively small numbers of ISIS militants in June 2014, abandoning four northern cities, including Mosul. This, of course, created the need for yet more training, the ostensible role of many of the U.S. troops now in Iraq. Since most of the new Iraqi units are still only almost ready to fight, however, those American ground troops and generals and Special Operations forces and forward air controllers and planners and logistics personnel and close air support pilots are still needed for the fight to come.
The inability of the U.S. to midwife a popularly supported government or a confident citizen’s army, Washington’s twin critical failures of Iraq War 2.0, may once again ensure that its latest efforts implode. Few Iraqis are left who imagine that the U.S. can be an honest broker in their country. A recent State Department report found that one-third of Iraqis believe the United States is actually supporting ISIS, while 40% are convinced that the United States is trying to destabilize Iraq for its own purposes.
The new story is again the old story: corrupt governments imposed by an outside power fail. And in the Iraq case, every problem that can’t be remedied by aerial bombardment and Special Forces must be the Iraqis’ fault.
Same Leadership, Same Results — POOF!
With the last four presidents all having made war in Iraq, and little doubt that the next president will dive in, keep another forgotten aspect of Washington’s Iraq in mind: some of the same American leadership figures have been in place under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and they will initially still be in place when Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump enters the Oval Office.
Start with Brett McGurk, the current special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS. His résumé is practically a Wikipedia page for America’s Iraq, 2003-2016: Deputy Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran from August 2013 until his current appointment. Before that, Senior Advisor in the State Department for Iraq, a special advisor to the National Security Staff, Senior Advisor to Ambassadors to Iraq Ryan Crocker, Christopher Hill, and James Jeffrey. McGurk participated in President Obama’s 2009 review of Iraq policy and the transition following the U.S. military departure from Iraq. During the Bush administration, McGurk served as Director for Iraq, then as Special Assistant to the President, and also Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008 McGurk was the lead negotiator with the Iraqi Government on both a long-term Strategic Framework Agreement and a Security Agreement to govern the presence of U.S. forces. He was also one of the chief Washington-based architects of The Surge, having earlier served as a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority from nearly the first shots of 2003.
A little lower down the chain of command is Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland. He is now leading Sunni “tribal coordination” to help defeat ISIS, as well as serving as commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force. As a colonel back in 2006, MacFarland similarly helped organize the surge’s Anbar Sunni Awakening movement against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
And on the ground level, you can be sure that some of the current colonels were majors in Iraq War 2.0, and some of their subordinates put their boots on the same ground they’re on now.
In other words, the new story is the old story: some of the same people have been losing this war for Washington since 2003, with neither accountability nor culpability in play.
What If They Gave a War and No One Remembered?
All those American memories lost to oblivion. Such forgetfulness only allows our war makers to do yet more of the same things in Iraq and Syria, acts that someone on the ground will be forced to remember forever, perhaps under the shadow of a drone overhead.
Placing our service people in harm’s way, spending our money in prodigious amounts, and laying the country’s credibility on the line once required at least the pretext that some national interest was at stake. Not any more. Anytime some group we don’t like threatens a group we care not so much about, the United States must act to save a proud people, stop a humanitarian crisis, take down a brutal leader, put an end to genocide, whatever will briefly engage the public and spin up some vague facsimile of war fever.
But back to Snapchat. It turns out that while the app was carefully designed to make whatever is transmitted quickly disappear, some clever folks have since found ways to preserve the information. If only the same could be said of our Snapchat wars. How soon we forget. Until the next time…