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Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing: Thoughts on Landing in Iraq 12 Years Later it is hard

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

it is hard to believe that about this time a dozen years ago that I was landing in Iraq, for a tour of duty with American advisers to Iraqi Army and security forces in Al Anbar Province. To quote Charles Dickens “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It was a tour of duty that would change me forever, I could have stayed there indefinitely, but my tour was limited to seven months. Nonetheless, I left a lot of me in Iraq, and brought a lot back.

It was an amazing tour of duty, full of danger every day, full of travel from the Syrian border to Fallujah and all places in between. I met many friends there, Americans and Iraqis alike. I returned with a severe case of PTSD as well as moral and spiritual injuries that have afflicted me since. I really understand T. E. Lawrence, better known by most as Lawrence Of Arabia who wrote:

“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

You see I went to war as a volunteer. I was eager to go, and as I said I would have remained longer. When I left I felt like I was abandoning my Americans and Iraqis. When I left, the Navy Chaplain who followed the one I served under deferred on having my replacement and in a sense abandoning those Americans and Iraqis that I was the only Chaplain serving. My replacement was sent to an Army team in Mosul.

I left Iraq questioning everything that I had went there believing: about the justness of the war, about my country’s leadership, the political party I had been a part of for three decades, and my faith as a Christian.

I have written much about my experience in Iraq and how even today I have a deep regard for the Iraqi people and their hopes for a better future. However, I wonder if what Lawrence wrote will be true:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” 

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In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. Many Iraqis of all creeds looked upon the US and coalition forces as liberators but within a few months the illusion was over. Within weeks of the overthrow of Saddam, the US military personnel and leaders who were working with Iraqi officials, both military and civilian to get the country back on its feet were replaced by the Bush administration.

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In their place a new entity, the Coalition Provisional Authority was created and staffed. The first administrator of the entity was retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner. He had much experience in Iraq but was sacked quickly by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not conducting an immediate purge of members of the Baathist Party from key positions in the civil service or security forces, or implementing the agenda of the administration.

After Garner’s dismissal the CPA was led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, a man who had no experience in the Arab world, much less in Iraq. Bremer and his staff, most of who had little experience or knowledge of the country created conditions that directly led the the Iraq insurgency, the sacrifice of thousands of American and allied lives and the loss of friendship of the Iraqi people. They also gave a a bloodless strategic victory to Iraq’s traditional enemy and oppressor Iran, which became a dominant regional power without having to worry about their traditional Arab nemesis.

It was as if Bremer, the leaders of the Bush administration and their neoconservative allies knew nothing of history. If they did they decided to ignore it. Whether it was ignorance of history, or a wanton disregard for it, and the country we invaded it was immoral, unethical and probably criminal.

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T.E. Lawrence wrote of the British incursion into Turkish Mesopotamia in 1915, managed by the British Indian Office:

“By brute force it marched then into Basra. The enemy troops in Irak were nearly all Arabs in the unenviable predicament of having to fight on behalf of their secular oppressors against a people long envisaged as liberators, but who obstinately refused to play the part.”

The actions of the CPA destroyed the plans pragmatists in the Pentagon and State Department to incorporate the existing civil service, police and military forces in the newly free Iraq.  Instead Bremer dissolved the Iraqi military, police and civil service within days of his arrival. Since the military invasion had been accomplished with minimal forces most Iraqi weapon sites, arsenals and bases were looted once their Iraqi guardians were banished and left their posts. The embryonic insurgency was thus provided by Bremer a full arsenal of weapons to use against American forces; many of whom were now mobilized Reservists and National Guardsmen that were neither trained or equipped to fight an insurgency or in urban areas.

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The reaction of the Iraqi Arabs to US occupation should have been anticipated. Lawrence wrote in 1920 a letter that could have easily been written in 2004:

“It is not astonishing that their patience has broken down after two years. The Government we have set up is English in fashion, and is conducted in the English language. So it has 450 British executive officers running it, and not a single responsible Mesopotamian. In Turkish days 70 per cent of the executive civil service was local. Our 80,000 troops there are occupied in police duties, not in guarding the frontiers. They are holding down the people.”

The actions of Bremer’s incompetent leadership team led to a tragic insurgency that need not have taken place. The now unnumbered US forces had to fight an insurgency while attempting to re-create an army, security forces and civil service from the wreckage created by Bremer’s mistakes; as well as its own often heavy handed tactics in the months following the invasion.

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Nearly 4500 US troops would die and over 30,000 more wounded in the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded or died of disease during the war.  Lawrence wrote about the British administration of Iraq words that could well have been written about Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority:

“Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Bagdad.”

It took dramatic efforts in blood and treasure to restore the some modicum of security in Iraq, something that was only accomplished when the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province turned against the Al Qaeda backed foreign fighters. The surge under the command of General David Petreus achieved the desired result. It gave the Iraqis a chance to stabilize their government and increase their own security forces.

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Unfortunately many of those that remained in power of the Shia sect refused to share power in meaningful ways with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurds leading to a political crisis. The US military mission ended in December 2011 and since then Iraq security forces and civil authorities, often divided by tribal or sectarian loyalties have struggled to maintain order. The result is that by 2013 that Iraq was again heading toward the abyss of civil war. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conducted frequent protests, sectarian violence spread, and an Al Qaeda affiliated group gained control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. It took years for the Iraqis aided by the Kurds, and a renewed U.S. military presence to restore a precarious stability in Iraq, something that it seems the Trump administration is trying to destroy in its economic and political war against Iran. To me that seems like the President is pissing on the graves of every American and Iraqi who died supporting that operation, and I hate him for that. I am still loyal to my oath and the Constitution but I loathe him and have no respect for a man who used every opportunity he could to not serve in Vietnam and consistently has disrespected Vietnam veterans and other military personnel. He loves military technology, but he shows no respect for the soldier.

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To the west in Syria a brutal civil war has been going on for  years. Like Iraq it pits Sunni against Shia, as well as Kurd and foreign fighters from a score of nations, some fighting as part of a Free Syria movement, others as part of the Al Qaeda coalition and others beside Syria’s government.

In 1920 Lawrence wrote of the British intervention and occupation of Iraq:

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”

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His words have a sadly familiar tone. The US invasion of Iraq did have a different outcome than we imagined. The Arab Spring erupted and the consequences of it will be far reaching and effect much of the Middle East and the world. The internal conflicts in Iraq and Syria threaten every country that borders them, and the instability has the potential of bringing on an regional war.

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That being said, many if not most Arabs in all of these lands simply desire to live in peace and enjoy some amount of freedom for themselves and future for their children. One has to remember that the freedom for which many are striving, and dying is for them, not for the United States or any other power.

Lawrence’s words and wisdom concerning the Arabs who rebelled against the Turkish Ottoman Empire are as true today as when he wrote them after the war:

“The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.”

That is the case in many Arab countries today. One can only hope that in those countries as well as in Afghanistan where our troops are embroiled in a war that cannot end well, that somehow peace will come. I do hope that we will do better than we have over the past dozen years of conflict, or than the British or French did almost 100 years ago, but under the present administration I doubt it.

I have recovered much since my tour, but there are days when I feel as Lawrence did not long before his death, when he wrote a friend:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

 

I fully understand, and in the final year of my active service, I must speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable for me and others.

As for my Iraqi friends who still remain in danger, I say Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under ethics, faith, History, iraq, iraq,afghanistan, leadership, life, mental health, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Hell is Where they will Reside: The Expanding War Against ISIL

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“This war differs from other wars, in this particular: We are not fighting armies but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” William Tecumseh Sherman

Note: Please know, I have been to war, I have seen its devastation and heartache and I came back changed from the experience. I hate it. I served in Iraq with the Iraqis in support of our advisors to them. For me the war is personal, I left a huge part of my soul in that unfortunate nation. 

 

That being said, despite being a progressive who hates war, I am also a realist. I am not one that finds any romance or glory in war, but I know that sometimes it becomes unavoidable. In the past few months I have written about the nature of war, the kind of war we are now engaged in with ISIL and some of the ethical and moral compromises that could easily be made in such a war.

Likewise I realize that we as Americans must take responsibility for the mess that the Bush administrated created in Iraq. We cannot hope to have any peace with justice, nor succeed in the current war against the Islamic State, unless we are honest about the lies that were told to get us into Iraq, and the horrible policy decisions after we succeeded in toppling Saddam Hussein that brought about the collapse of order, the insurgency and the Iraqi Civil War that brought Al Qaeda into Iraq, a country that they had not previously been welcome. 

Thus what I write here is a continuation of those thoughts and I encourage you to look at those articles which can be found at the following links on this page: 

Iraq, ISIS and Al Qaeda: Sowing the Wind…

Iraq 2014: A Disaster Long in the Making

9-11-2014 War Without End…

The Islamic State and the New, Old Nature of War

War is Cruelty, and You Cannot Refine it… The War Against ISIL

Prepare for a Long and Brutal Ideological War Against the Islamic State

Can you Live With It? The Moral Costs of the War Against the Islamic State

Iraq and the Middle East 2013: Lessons from T. E. Lawrence

ISIL: A Generational Problem in Which the Enemy Gets a Vote

Inshallah Iraq (إن شاء الله) Maybe Someday things will be Better

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The American war against the Islamic State is entering a more sustained mode. Air strikes are occurring daily, thousands of advisors have arrived, backed by Army aviation assets to protect American interests at Baghdad International Airport and the U.S. Embassy complex, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has again alluded to the possibly of American ground troops engaging ISIL at the side of Iraqi troops.

Whether most of want to admit it or not, and the latter is more descriptive of the vast bulk of Americans, we are at war.  It is a war which we have been fighting  for over thirteen years now. President Obama had hoped that our involvement in Iraq was at and end that that the Iraqis could handle their own affairs. But the hope was misplaced, and now this war has been extended indefinitely by the actions of the Islamic State and the announced intentions of President Obama to fight it. It will become much worse than people want to believe that it will, regardless of whether it is a long or a short war, and even a “short” war will likely extend into the next Presidential administration.

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Americans have grown up for the past twenty years with hi-tech wars that with a few exceptions of terrorism inflicted on American civilians have been waged by a comparatively small professional military; a military that at any given time over the last 20 years has comprised less than one percent of the American population. As such war is a spectator sport for most Americans, we watch it on television, or on You Tube videos on the internet, but it is a distant thing, happening to others that doesn’t touch us too deeply because most of us think that we have no skin in the game. In fact people that bet on baseball have more skin in the game than most Americans do in the current war, but that will probably change.

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Since I have written much about that military at its sacrifices in the war that began on September 11th 2001 I am not going to belabor that today. Instead I am going to go back to the nature of war, even wars that may be fought in self-defense and with just cause. It was General William Tecumseh Sherman who wrote:

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out…”

Chris Hedges wrote: “Violence is a disease, a disease that corrupts all who use it regardless of the cause,” and as Clausewitz noted of war’s nature, that it is: “a paradoxical trinity-composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity…”

We try to use language to soften war; to make it more palatable, but to do so is an Orwellian charade that is deceptive and destructive to the soul. Dave Grossman, the army infantry officer who has spent his post military life writing about the psychology of war and killing wrote:

“Even the language of men at war is the full denial of the enormity of what they have done. Most solders do not “kill,” instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, or slope. Even the weapons of war receive benign names- Puff the Magic Dragon, Walleye, TOW, Fat Boy, Thin Man- and the killing weapon of the individual soldier becomes a piece or a hog, and a bullet becomes a round.”

Likewise Thucydides wrote:

“Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question incapacity to act on any….”

Such language gives those who have never been to war but cannot live without it to bring it on, but as Sherman noted: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

President Obama in his address to the nation, and the world on the eve of September 11th talked of a war against the Islamic State, using far more diplomatic, restrained and less warlike language than did Vice President Biden who said:

“As a nation we are united and when people harm Americans we don’t retreat, we don’t forget. We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside.”

I commend the President for his humanity and desire to fight the Islamic State with a matter of restraint, and though our efforts have been limited to air strikes and reengaging with the Iraqi military to retrain it for the fight, it does appear that at least in Iraq the policy is showing signs of working. ISIL troops are having a hard time moving about the battlefield and their more conventional units are taking a beating from the air, while Iraqi and Kurdish forces are slowly beginning to have more success, the Iraqi military having just relieved the beleaguered garrison of the massive Baiji oil refinery complex.

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This in a sense is part of ISIL’s conundrum, they desire to conquer territory and subjugate people. To do that they need to be able to use conventional military tactics and equipment, not simply using terrorist strikes and the element of surprise to overwhelm unsuspecting or demoralized Iraqi security forces. It is possible that they are now overextend and have reached what Clausewitz termed their “culminating point.” We will have to see if that is the case, and only time will tell.

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U.S. Air Strike on ISIL Position 

However, American restraint, particularly with a hawkish, newly elected Republican Congress, of whom many new members are highly militant Christians who will have no compunction in killing Moslems, be they good Moslems or terrorist thugs like ISIL or Al Qaeda; will last as long as the Islamic State is unable or unwilling to strike at American civilians in the American homeland, American interests in a country that is not in the war zone, or an American ship or military installation at home or abroad.

But once that happens, and it will eventually happen, the recent attacks in Canada serving as a foretaste of what will happen here, the pretense of restraint will drop, and what Vice Biden President said will become our goal, even if we do not officially say it. But once those restraints are passed, the war will get really messy. Ethicist and philosopher Michael Walzer wrote in his book Just and Unjust Wars:

“We don’t call war hell because it is fought without restraint. It is more nearly right to say that, when certain restraints are passed, the hellishness of war drives us to break with every remaining restraint in order to win. Here is the ultimate tyranny: those who resist aggression are forced to imitate, and perhaps even to exceed, the brutality of the aggressor.”

The problem with this war is that it has lasted so long already, if we consider American involvement in Iraq as going back to 2003. Long wars such as these are detrimental to the nations and peoples that fight them, as Sun Tzu wrote: “There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.”

As such the longer we drag this war against the Islamic State and other similar groups out, the longer the war continues, the crueler it will become, the more damage it will do to our civil liberties, our economy, and even more importantly to the spirit of our nation. One can only look at the Patriot Act and related measures undertaken in the name of national security after 9-11-2001 and recall the words of President John F. Kennedy who said in respect to the epidemic of loyalty oaths and restrictions on civil liberties enacted in the 1950s:

“We have also seen a sharpening and refinement of abusive power. The legislative investigation, designed and often exercised for the achievement of high ends, has too frequently been used by the Nation and the States as a means for effecting the disgrace and degradation of private persons. Unscrupulous demagogues have used the power to investigate as tyrants of an earlier day used the bill of attainder.

The architects of fear have converted a wholesome law against conspiracy into an instrument for making association a crime. Pretending to fear government they have asked government to outlaw private protest. They glorify “togetherness” when it is theirs, and call it conspiracy when it is that of others.”

Thus the place that we now find ourselves is not good. On one hand by using restraint the war goes on and on, war without end, but if we embrace Sherman’s realism and admit that “War is cruelty. There’s no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over” is that we will imitate or exceed the brutality of the Islamic State. Either way, we lose something of ourselves. But as Abraham Lincoln said “There’s no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war. Except its ending.”

The young Union hero of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, Colonel Strong Vincent wrote his wife about how he believed the Union had to defeat the Confederacy. His words were much like Sherman’s and in dealing with ISIL I would hope that the American, Iraqi and coalition forces will take them to heart in combating ISIL: Vincent wrote:

“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step.  We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest…” 

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Lawrence with Bedouin after capturing Aqaba 

That is an uncomfortable thought and philosophy, it goes against the grain, it seems terribly brutal; but it is the only philosophy of war that the leaders and jihadists of the Islamic State understand. We may not yet understand it, but I think that in time we and the Iraqis will. However, the lead cannot be taken by us or even if we are “successful” in defeating ISIL, another group will be back and doing the same things; just as ISIL filled the vacuum left by the collapse of Al Qaeda Iraq in 2008.

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Iraqi Soldiers after retaking Baiji

That is a danger that T.E. Lawrence advised his fellow British officers serving with the Bedouin during the Arab Revolt in 1917 and 1918. It is advice that we need to remember as we assist the Iraqis and Kurds in their fight. That is why this must be an Iraqi and Kurdish fight. When and if the Iraqis and Kurds embrace this philosophy of total war against ISIL, if they are willing to fight ISIL vindictively and desolate every ISIL stronghold, will they bring peace to their country. We can aid them in thee fight, but we cannot win this for them. Lawrence wrote:

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”

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The Author with Bedouin on Syrian Border December 2007

My hope is that somehow, when this is war is done that there will be peace and reconciliation. I would like to see this in my lifetime, but it may take another generation or two that we will finally be able to establish peace by making those who are our enemies our friends. I hope for such a day, because I know that Chris Hedges is all too correct about the corrupting and devastating effect of violence on all that rely on it to achieve their goals and Sun Tzu’s wisdom in noting that prolonged warfare benefits anyone. As Major General Smedley Butler wrote:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations.”

If you ask me I do not think that we or the people of Iraq can keep adding to that bill.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Eve of 9-11-2001 +13

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On the night of September 10th 2001 my mind was as far from war and terror as it could be. I was much more interested in the MLB Pennant Race than I was anything going on in the world, after all the only issues we faced were occasional, if deadly terrorist attacks on foreign installations and deployed ships like the USS Cole.  But as to the security of the Continental United States, or as it has been referred to since 9-11 as “the Homeland” I wasn’t concerned. Somehow, despite my knowledge, understanding and study of terrorist groups I just never thought anyone could pull off an attack of this magnitude.  The next morning I discovered just how wrong I was as the first reports came in while I was on my way to a late PT session at Camp LeJeune North Carolina where I was serving with the Second Marine Division.

That day changed all of our lives and ushered in what is now 13 years of war which has cost the United States military almost 60,000 casualties including nearly 7,000 dead or died of wounds. Of course that does not count non-DOD agency casualties, or those of the contractors who have been a big part of the war effort.

Today I was in Washington DC participating in the Military Officers Association of America “Warrior-Family” Symposium, which was an effort to bring together DOD, VA and the private sector to pool ideas, share best practices and attempt to make the connections that we need to serve and care for our military personnel and their families. It was a very good day and I will report out on it in detail in the coming days. That being said I was nervous my entire time in DC because of the approaching anniversary of the 9-11-2001 attacks as my hotel, and the facility where the symposium were conducted were both just three blocks from the White House. Needless to say with the anniversary occurring tomorrow I am glad to be home.

This evening I watched as President Obama addressed the nation regarding the military and diplomatic actions that he is taking against the Islamic State, also known and ISIS or ISIL. Whether we wanted it to or not the war which began on 9-11, which was so stupidly expanded into Iraq by the Bush Administration, opening the door to Al Qaeda Iraq and now the Islamic State, and which greatly strengthened Iran by eliminating their worst enemy, Saddam Hussein have made our task most difficult.

Thirteen years after 9-11-2001 we are not only still at war, but it is becoming a war without end.

Thirteen years ago, I figured that after a few months Al Qaeda would be no more, and the war that they had unleashed upon us would be over. however I was wrong .

Have a good night, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padresteve.wordpress.com

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, history, iraq,afghanistan, Military, philosophy

Iraq 2014: A Disaster Long in the Making

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Map of the ISIL/ISIS Vision

“A Wahabi-like Moslem edition of Bolshevism is possible, and would harm us almost as much in Mesopotamia as in Persia…” T.E. Lawrence, Memorandum to Foreign Office 15 September 1919

As the British and French divided up the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the young Lieutenant Colonel, T.E. Lawrence wrote a warning to the British Foreign Office. He was quite concerned about what was happening and saw the dangers to the region inherent in the British and French division of it. Lawrence understood the religious and ethnic divisions of the region and saw the lack of wisdom in how both the British and French policies, which in order to prop up their gains used those divisions to establish ruling elites in Syria and Iraq, in each case pitting Sunni against Shia, Christian against Moslem and Kurd against Arab.

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Mosul Refugees

In spite of the efforts of the Europeans and later the Americans to prop up strongmen in the region, or in the case of Saddam Hussein, destroy his regime opening a Pandora’s Box of chaos that was only contained by a massive amount of U.S. Military power and an alliance with Iraqi Sunni tribesmen and their sheikhs during the “Anbar Awakening.” The Sunnis expected after they had helped the U.S. and the Iraqi Shia led Central Government to destroy the forces of Al Qaida Iraq, to be brought back into the government and given a reasonable amount of autonomy. Instead, when the U.S. departed in 2011 at the behest of the Shia government those Sunnis became persecuted and alienated. Now many of them are actively aiding, supporting or acquiescing to the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which also known by the name Islamic State of Iraq and the Shaams (ISIS). We forget the lesson that Lawrence learned about the Arabs who fought against the Turks in the First World War: “The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.” The Iraqi Sunni who allied themselves with the U.S. military in Anabar in 2007 did so for the same reason, they wanted independence.

The American administration of Iraq was even more disastrous than that of the British following the First World War. Lawrence wrote of that occupation in words that could have well described the American efforts in 2003-2006.

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.” T. E. Lawrence, ‘Mesopotamia’ By ex.-Lieut.-Col. T. E. Lawrence (Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford) Sunday Times, 22 August 1920

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ISIL Fighter in Tikrit

Unlike the loosely organized insurgents and militants of AQI and its allies, many of whom were foreign fighters; while there are still good numbers of foreign fighters, most of the ISIS forces are Syrian or Iraqi Sunni, connected by tribe, religion and culture to the land that they are fighting on. These units are well trained, organized as proper military units and have fought both savagely and effectively in Syria and Iraq. Many are led by former professional officers of the old Iraqi Army who when Saddam fell, were thrown out of the military and not even provided for with the smallest of pensions. To demonstrate how close some of these are one only has to read the reports out of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, one of which quoted a tribal leader near Tikrit who said of the ISIL forces: “They came in hundreds to my town and said they are not here for blood or revenge but they seek reforms and to impose justice. They picked a retired general to run the town.”

The ISIL or ISIS fighters are strict Islamists and have been issuing decrees in Mosul regarding what citizens can and can’t do. Women are ordered to be completely veiled and covered if they go outside, which they are told that they should not do. People are being ordered to go to Mosques 5 times a day, sheikhs are being ordered not to cooperate with the government and the only people allowed to be armed are the militants. There are videos of ISIL fighters executing captured government officials.

Many of the Sunni Iraqi Nationalists, professional military officers who returned to the Army following the disastrous performance of it prior to 2007 also expected better treatment for their service. They too were not rewarded and it is possible that the collapse of Iraqi security forces could be in part due to the fact that these men hold grievances against the Baghdad regime of Maliki, which many view as a puppet to Iran, or as they call it “Persia.” Maliki claims that there was a conspiracy in the wholesale collapse of Iraqi forces in the north, and he may be right, but it is a problem that he created and made worse by his divisive policies and politics.

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The ISIL forces, though small are effective and efficient. In a sense they are a throwback, albeit a more hardened and ideological one to the Arabs that Lawrence advised and helped direct as they routed the Turkish Army in the Hajaz, Transjordan and Syria in 1917-1918. Lawrence wrote of that army:

“The Arab army, created in the field, grew from a mob of Bedouins into an organised and well-equipped body of troops. They captured thirty-five thousand Turks, disabled as many more, took a hundred and fifty guns, and a hundred thousand square miles of Ottoman territory.” From T. E. Lawrence, ‘France, Britain, and the Arabs’ by Col. T. E. Lawrence The Observer, 8 August 1920

What happens next I do not know. The ISIL forces have stated that: “Our final destination will be Baghdad; the decisive battle will be there…” I do not know if they have the ability to take and hold it, but they should be able to maintain their gains in Mosul and Tikrit. They have captured large numbers of armored HUMMVs as well as Iraqi military helicopters, including U.S. supplied UH-60 Blackhawk and MH-58 Kiowa at the Mosul airbase. To further complicate the situation the semi-autonomous Kurdish region seized the city of Kirkuk, which it considers its ancestral capitol. Those troops however are reportedly reading for a counter-attack on the ISIL forces absent any presence of regular Iraqi units.

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Kurdish Forces outside Kirkuk

The loss of all of these areas is a disaster to a unified Iraq and shows the incredible short-sightedness of the Bush administration to overthrow Saddam and leave a power vacuum in his place after disbanding the Iraqi military, police and civil service, the only institutions that had kept Iraq together.

If Maliki has any sense he will welcome moderate Iraqi Sunni nationalists back and actually give them the autonomy within Iraq that they were promised while the U.S. was still there, a policy that now Vice President Joseph Biden articulated as early as 2007. A policy that unfortunately was ignored by Maliki as he consolidated power as the U.S. withdrew from Iraq. However, it may be too late for this. The more probable thing that Maliki will do is to rely on Shi’ite militias or even the Iranians to buttress his regime. There are reports that Iranian Al Quds commandos may have been deployed to Iraq, something that may in the vacuum of outside support from other Arab states, the U.S, U.N. Or the international community widen the conflict significantly.
This will likely lead to a bloody stalemate and civil war, similar to what has been happening in Syria, that could last for years throwing the entire region into chaos.

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A Border no More… the berm between Iraq and Syria

ISIL has removed the border between the areas that it controls in Iraq and Syria. They have controlled most of the Euphrates valley in Anbar since last year, and now with the seizure of Mosul and Tikrit are in control of much of the Tigris river valley. Lawrence wrote in his essay The Changing East in 1920 that:

“The cultivated districts, Mesopotamia and Syria, have, however, language, race, and interests in common. Till to-day they have always been too vast to form a single country: they are divided, except for a narrow gangway in the north, by an irredeemable waste of flint and gravel: but petrol makes light of deserts, and space is shrinking to-day, when we travel one hundred miles an hour instead of five. The effect of roads, railways, air-ways and telegraph will be to draw these two provinces together, and teach them how like they are…”

In effect the ISIL forces are creating that Sunni dominated and quite possibly radicalized Wahabi state that Lawrence warned of in 1919. This could well be the end of the duplicitous and disastrous Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East irrespective of into its current form. Those who implemented that agreement sowed the wind, and now the region and the world are reaping the whirlwind.

It is interesting to recount Lawrence’s observations of the Arab peoples in the Changing East essay published in 1920 which I quoted above. Lawrence wrote:

“The fate of the Arabs is more difficult to prophesy… they have been a government twenty times since the dawn of history, and as often after achievement they have grown tired, and let it fall: but there is no record of any force except success capable of breaking them. The history of their waves of feeling is significant in that the reservoir of all ideas, the birth of all prophecies are shown in the deserts. These empty spaces irresistibly drive their inhabitants to a belief in the oneness and omnipotence of God, by the very contrast of the barrenness of nature, the lack of every distraction and superfluity in life. Arab movements begin in the desert, and usually travel up the shortest way into Syria – for it is remarkable that whereas all prophets go to the desert, yet none of them are ever desert-born. It is the Semitic townsman or villager who receives the revelation. For this reason, for what seemed to be the immemorial finger-sign of history, this present Arab movement, the craving for national independence and self-government, was started in the desert. It, too, took the traditional road to Damascus, the traditional first centre of new movements, and with the successful establishment of Feisal there the second phase was finished. This is not, however, the proper end of the Arab movement: the weight and importance of the Semitic states have always lain in Bagdad, for very sound reasons of economics and population. Syria is a poor country, small and mountainous, dry, lacking in minerals and in arable land. There is no probability that her native population will ever be very dense. Mesopotamia has big rivers, and a huge area of irrigable land. Her wealth in grain and cotton will be very great, and nature may have bestowed on her abundance of cheap fuel. Should that be the case, she will inevitably take the headship of the Arab world in the future, as so often in the past. Damascus may hold an interim pre-eminence: Bagdad must be the ultimate regent, with perhaps five times the population of Syria, and many times its wealth. Mesopotamia will be the master of the Middle East, and the power controlling its destinies will dominate all its neighbours.”

If the politicians, diplomats, businessmen and bankers or the West fail to comprehend this we will never understand or successfully deal with the Arabs of Syria and Mesopotamia. This is not going to get better anytime soon and poses a danger to the region and also the world economy as oil prices are already going up as the oil markets anticipate losing access to Iraq’s oil reserves. In a sense what happens in Iraq will likely make the situation in Syria look like child’s play and will have far more long lasting effects, not only for the region, but the world.

Actions have consequences, and the failure of people, leaders and governments to understand the complex nature of Iraq and Syria have brought the world to a crisis. Barbara Tuchman said it well: “Confronted by menace, or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely examine it, understand it, define it.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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