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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

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Thoughts on the Iranian “Deal”

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Yesterday negotiators from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China finished hammering out a tentative deal with Iran regarding that nation’s nuclear program.

There are a lot of opinions about the deal, some positive, some definitely negative and quite a few like mine a wait and see attitude. Now I am hopeful that the deal is a positive first step in assuring that Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. In fact I pray that it does.

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The fact is that we have to try, even if some allies for their own reasons disagree. The Israelis are understandably concerned, especially since the last President of Iran, most of the Mullahs that actually run that country and the Revolutionary Guard have expressed their belief that Israel should not exist. Thus for the Israelis this can be seen as an existential matter. If Iran were to get operational nuclear weapons and use them against Israel that state would suffer greatly. Likewise the Saudis are distrustful of the Iranians, but for different reasons. For the Saudis this is the great conflict between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam, a conflict that appears to be gaining steam in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. It is  conflict that has the potential to be the Islamic equivalent of the Thirty Years war, that great bloodletting between Catholic and Protestant Europe. Iran and the Saudis are the leaders of the respective factions of Islam, they are mortal enemies.

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We have to be cognizant of both the Israeli and Saudi concerns. They are legitimate and because they are allies we must take them into account. That being said the most important security needs to be addressed by the United States are those of the United States. Sometimes those are not always the same of allies, even allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. That is something that has to be weighed in this case.

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The cold fact of the matter is that for many years we in the United States have become accustomed to resorting to military force first and neglecting the other aspects of national and international power that could be brought to bear to in achieving our national security and foreign policy goals. Those other aspects include economic power, information and diplomacy which unfortunately have been neglected. Presidents and our Congress have, even in spite of the misgivings of military leaders pursued the military option first.

After the attacks of September 11th 2001 the Bush Administration with the authorization of Congress pursued an almost single minded military solution to those attacks. That response was not only against the Al Qaeda terrorists but against their Afghan Taliban hosts and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

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Those campaigns have worn our military down. The resources spent in those countries, the lives lost, the money spent and the wear and tear on equipment have harmed our national security. But even above that in terms of strategy we eliminated the one natural enemy of Iran which helped hold them in check. We invaded Iraq and left it in a condition that it could no longer be the western bulwark against Iran. We turned down Iranian offers of help after September 11th and in doing so lost opportunities which might have led us and Iran down a different path. Instead President Bush declared Iran and Iraq both parts of an “Axis of Evil.”

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It was a declaration that the Iranians rightly understood as a declaration of war. Legally it may not have been, but the stated strategy enunciated by men like John Bolton and those we call the “Neocons” inside the Bush Administration and in associated think tanks could only be understood by the Iranians in that light. That end state envisioned by Bolton then and even now was regime change in not only Iraq, but also Iran. We have to ask ourselves this question: If another nation did this to us, how would we respond? I dare say that we, like the Iranians would dig in our heels and seek to develop military capacities that could defeat them, or if not defeat them make their “success” so costly that our enemies would not press us.

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Now because of those choices we are faced with a situation where Iran is estimated to be reasonably close to developing a nuclear weapon capacity. It is something that if it happens will result in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The Israelis already have that capability and the Saudis are reportedly pursuing that capability. Thus it cannot be allowed to happen.

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That being said there are ways to ensure that does not happen. One advocated by those opposed to the deal is a hard line approach including pre-emptive military strikes against Iran, which not only would bring about a regional war but at best delay Iran a few years in procuring nuclear weapons.

The other is the course that has been pursued by the Obama Administration over the course of the past few years. That is the use of economic sanctions and diplomacy. As I said at the beginning this has not been our default policy over the past 12 years. But it is necessary. We are not in a good position to add yet another war, a war with world wide security and economic implications to our plate.

The fact is that due to the wars of the past 12 years as well as budget cuts including the sequestration cuts we are not in a good position to wage another war. We are stretched thin. Readiness thanks to sequestration is declining. The Chief of Staff of the Army stated that only two combat brigades are immediately deployable for combat operations. Could we launch another military campaign? Yes we could. But war, if we believe Clausewitz war is an extension of politics and policy. But we have to ask if would it achieve our overall policy goals? That I am not sure.  Clausewitz wrote: “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.”

In fact even if we delivered punishing strikes to Iran the costs could be great, and not just the economic costs.  Our campaign would have to be an air campaign to destroy hardened targets many of which we do not know the exact locations. Our record in such air campaigns is mixed. We spent over 70 days pounding Serbia with little to show for it in actual damage to their military. Likewise Iran is not Iraq, our targets will not be exposed in the open desert. Additionally Iranian A2/D2 (Anti-Access/Area Denial) capabilities pose great risks for US and Allied Warships as well as bases in the Arabian Gulf. If an Iranian Kilo Class submarine were to sink an American Aircraft Carrier it would not be a tactical setback, it would be a major loss of American strategic capability not just in the Middle East but world wide.

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Likewise as I mentioned before we took out the one natural opponent of Iran when we overthrew Saddam Hussein. In doing so we destroyed every bit of infrastructure, military power and civil government structures that any new Iraqi government would need to maintain any sense of a balance of power in the Arabian Gulf.

All that being said do I trust the Iranians? I cannot say that I do. I am a realist. I enlisted in 1981 in large part because of the Iranian takeover of the American Embassy and the hostage crisis. They remain a dictatorial regime which persecutes religious minorities including Christians. They restrict their people from open access to the internet and persecute political opponents. The Revolutionary Guards Corps, the most powerful organization in Iran has actively worked to destabilize other countries in the region. Their influence is great especially in regards to Lebanon’s Hezbollah which has launched missile campaigns against Israel and been active on the side of Syria dictator Bashir Assad in that country’s brutal civil war.

However the path of diplomacy must be given a reasonable chance to succeed. In the early 1970s President Nixon started a process of detente with the Soviet Union and Communist China. It was not embraced by hawks. President Ford, Carter and Reagan continued those policies to one degree or another with the final result being the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the Warsaw Pact and overthrow of Communism.

This deal is a start. It is not perfect at all. I see issues in it. but it is based on the politics and art of the possible. It has the potential to be a game changer in a region wracked by war and revolution, a region led for the most part by despots in which terrorists often operate freely. I don’t know if it will work, but I hope it does.

Peace

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When Will We Ever Learn? Looking at 12 Years of Unending War

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War is the province of chance. in no other sphere of human activity must such a margin be left for this intruder. it increases the uncertainty of every circumstance and deranges the course of events.- Karl von Clausewitz

We are coming up on the beginning of the 13th year of our current wars. Wars that when they began were believed to be easy and uncomplicated and since they were being waged against enemies that were “backward” and not hi-tech. Thus we were promised that they would be short in duration, low in cost and casualties. We elected the war option as the quick and easy way to win, neglecting the words of the venerable Chinese strategist Sun Tzu who said “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

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In 2001 and early 2002 the Bush Administration pursued the Al Qaeda terrorists to Afghanistan, toppling the unpopular Taliban regime but failing to kill or capture Bin Laden. But by 2002 those in that Administration sought to widen the scope of the war. An “Axis of Evil” comprised of Iraq, Iran and North Korea was identified, even though none of those nations had links to Al Qaeda, and two of which, Iran and Iraq were hostile to Al Qaeda, each for their own reasons, Saddam Hussein because he only embraced Islam when it suited his strategic purposes and Iran because the Shia there were and are mortal enemies with the ultra-Fundamentalist Sunni Wahhabi Islam of Al Qaeda.

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The undeclared war against Al Qaeda became the Global War on Terrorism. It was an amorphous term that allowed the government to play fast and loose with facts even as it by fully “legal” means restricted the rights and invaded the privacy of American citizens through the Patriot Act and expansion of the FISA laws and a massive expansion of electronic surveillance against our enemies, against our allies, even long tern NATO allies and our own citizens.

All of these ideas seemed like good ideas at the time. The United States had been hit by the most well planned, executed and devastating terrorist attack ever conducted and it had been done by those who many believed incapable of doing it. We forgot however the words of Clausewitz that war is the provence of chance.

But then our leaders, regardless of political party over the past 50 years since our entry into Vietnam have been pretty inept at understanding history and understanding the consequences of their actions. The Greek historian Thucydides understood this, he saw what happened to Athens when it allowed itself to become enmeshed in the Peloponnesian War, a war that it entered as the premier economic and military power of its time and ended in disaster. He wrote:

“Think, too, of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war: think of it now, before you are actually committed to war. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them: we have to abide their outcome in the dark. And when people are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way round. Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think.” 

It seems strange now after so long of war that our openness, freedoms and liberties were not destroyed by the actions of Al Qaeda but by our own government in the Patriot Act a title so Orwellian that it defies logic. The sad fact is that the Patriot Act was only the beginning and the actions and legislative accomplishments those that seek to broaden the war and broaden the powers of the government to restrict freedom, speech and privacy of otherwise law abiding citizens has only increased.

As I listen to the words of some legislators, or both parties I might add I am frightened because for many it seems that the only answer they have to national security issues is the hammer of military force, force that over the years of this war has been eroded and which due to their legislative negligence in the Sequester will only further erode. They seem to forget, or maybe they never learned what is taught to military officers at Command and Staff College that national power is based on the DIME, the diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic power of a nation and not on military power alone.

Our legislators, the talking heads of the media and their political allies of various “think tanks” act as though their decisions have no consequences. Thucydides noted the same in his time:

“Some legislators only wish to vengeance against a particular enemy. Others only look out for themselves. They devote very little time on the consideration of any public issue. They think that no harm will come from their neglect. They act as if it is always the business of somebody else to look after this or that. When this selfish notion is entertained by all, the commonwealth slowly begins to decay.”

Those who think this way frequently praise those that they send to fight their wars. They pound their chests in praise of “the brave soldiers” but as far as the soldier is concerned they care not, thus when through their own political negligence hard budgetary choices need to be made neither the troops or the actual security of the nation matters, only the profits of their financial contributors, those who profit from war and suffering matter.

Two time Medal of Honor winner and Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler wrote in 1932: “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. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”

Unfortunately despite the hopes of some in the Obama administration and in the country this undeclared “war on terrorism” will not end. It has taken on a life of its own and neither political party will end it. It like Athen’s misadventure in the Peloponnesian War, and so many other nations that ventured into “unending” wars that span generations will be our undoing if we are not take action now to figure out a way to extricate ourselves from it while still keeping our people safe. Somehow I think that our former freedoms, our liberties, transparency and openness are not weaknesses but strengths which at one time were embraced by us and many around the world who loved them and hoped to bring them to fruition in their own countries.

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I think bout it now. Many of the 18 year old men and women enlisting in the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy today knowing that they could end up at war were only 5-7 years old on September 11th 2001. That a war should last this long is not only unwise and destructive to liberty but criminal in the fact that we should have known better. Thomas Jefferson wrote to President James Monroe advising him to stay clear of European conflicts saying: “They are nations of eternal war. All their energies are expended in the destruction of the labor, property, and lives of their people.” James Madison wrote to Jefferson in 1798 “The loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or imagined, from abroad.” 

These are dangerous times, the fact is that more war is beckoning and there are those anxious for their own reasons, power, profit or even religion seek to continue and expand the. They care not a whit about those that fight them, those that die in them nor the ultimate costs in blood, treasure and freedom and home. The ends justify their means. Hannah Arendt said: “Although tyranny…may successfully rule over foreign peoples, it can stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national institutions of its own people.”

Peace

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The Fallacy of “Complete” Victory and the Seeds of Perpetual War and the Way to Peace

“We learn from history that complete victory has never been completed by the result that the victors always anticipate—a good and lasting peace. For victory has always sown the seeds of a fresh war, because victory breeds among the vanquished a desire for vindication and vengeance and because victory raises fresh rivals.” B H Liddell Hart

The current conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has brought into light the fallacy of the belief that military victories alone can bring peace. One would think that leaders would know this and understand the basic truth of this key aspect of the human condition but it seems that we are doomed in every generation for leaders to ignore this basic fact of human life and civilization.

While one can easily criticize the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs for their unremitting hostility and desire for revenge they are not unique. Europe bears the scars of over 1500 years of Christendom’s own tribal and religious hatreds, many which still simmer underneath the surface of “free and democratic society.” Asia is rife with ethnic hatred and desire for revenge for actions committed by people long dead. Africa, the same except for the most part those in the “First World” be they Americans, Europeans or Asians only care about Africa for its natural resources, otherwise we would have acted to stop the various genocides on that rich, beautiful and diverse but seemingly cursed continent. The inter-Islamic and other Middle Eastern and Central Asian Moslems likewise have their hatreds, try as they might Arabs and Persians despite a common allegiance to Islam are mortal enemies with animosities that pre-date their conversion to Islam. Even we Americans are not immune to such hostility in our own country and against those that we label as our enemies overseas.

Despite this there are those that first and always resort to military force or terrorist violence to attempt to fight the “war to end all wars.”

The current episode of violence in Gaza is simple another chapter in what has been an unending series of wars since the establishment of the State of Israel. The time since has been marked by major wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1981 the Palestinian Infatada as well as border conflicts between Israel, Fatah, Hamas and Hezbollah that have occurred since. These wars forced exodus of Palestinian Arabs from their ancestral homes, as well as the practical end of substantial Jewish and Christian communities in Moslem dominated nations.

The Israelis have in many cases lived under threat of invasion and destruction by neighboring Arab states for much of their history even while maintaining control of territories that they occupy by brutal force in the name of their own security. In some sense the Israeli position is understandable. They occupy but a small portion of land and threats of extermination, real and propagandistic by Arab and nations and the Iranians cause them to see these threats as existential threats.

The Arabs on the other hand deal with centuries of humiliation at the hand of foreigners, many Christian and European, but also that of the Turk and Persian. The constant drumbeat of military defeats endured by them at the hands of the Israelis and the support of Israel by western nations, some of whom ran the brutal colonial administrations which divided their lands, appointed despots as surrogates and exploited their natural resources has ingrained in them a deep seated need for revenge and respect.

I know from my time in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries that the key to friendship and mutual respect is the simple act of taking time to know and appreciate the culture, history, faith and traditions of other people. I frequently in my dealings with Iraqi officers in Al Anbar Province opened doors by taking the time to learn their history, which goes back several millennia as the cradle of civilization and to be both polite and respectful in dealing with them. Iraqi officers were surprised that I knew the positive contributions of Iraqi military officers to Iraq, including the abolition of child labor, public education, the expansion of universities, universal suffrage and public works that benefited all Iraqis before the takeover of the country by Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party. Likewise the fact that I could name the victories of Iraq forces against the British at Al Kut in the First World War, the largest surrender of British forces during the war as well as other victories gained me their respect and friendship as the “American” or “Christian Imam.”

However most Americans have not learned this despite over a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was listening to a friend today who was upset that the government of Iraq was urging that Arabs use oil as a weapon against the United States to force the United States to change its policy in regard to the Palestinians. The argument presented on Fox News and echoed around much of the country is that the statement of the Iraqis is an act of ingratitude by a country that we “liberated.”

But that is our fiction that we create to absolve ourselves from the fact that over a period of 20 years American and other Western nations destroyed Iraq and humiliated its people. Yes we overthrew Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator, a man that we supported for years as an ally until he crossed a line that we determined that he should not cross when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. To Shi’te Iraqis the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 was liberation, but it was “liberation” that followed the betrayal of them in 1991 where after encouraging them to revolt against Saddam we allowed them to be slaughtered by his Republican Guard.

To the Sunni of Anbar Province who after realizing that the radicals of Al Qaeda who were bringing more destruction to them than the Americans and allied themselves with the United States military in 2007, the Anbar Awakening the withdraw of American forces was an abandonment. They made our exit from Iraq possible and helped break the back of Al Qaeda, and for their trouble they believe that they have been abandoned to a corrupt Shi’te led government in Baghdad.

In light of all of this who can blame the Iraqis for making those statements. How would be we feel if that were to happen to us in the United States, or in Western Europe? Actually we know from history how we would feel. The answer is obvious in our history as well as our current actions and attitudes. We would not rest until those that brought destruction on our country and betrayed our people were defeated.

It is no wonder that Sun Tzu said that “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

Likewise Abraham Lincoln asked a question that those consumed by the need to destroy their enemies by military force should ask before ever mobilizing an army for war: “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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I Left My Heart in Al Anbar…Visions of Iraq 5 Years Later

I left Iraq in early 2008. My experience of Iraq was with various teams of advisors in Al Anbar Province. I travelled thousands of miles hot cramped HUMMVs and in tightly packed aircraft to get to these far flung teams of 12-30 Americans in places from the Syrian border at Al Waleed, Al Qaim and various COPs on the border, back to Fallujah and almost everywhere in between, occasionally taking fire and most of the time isolated, and sometimes alone and unarmed except for the presence of my Religious Programs Specialist and Bodyguard, RP1 Nelson Lebron.

For those unaware of geography Anbar Province is about the same size in area as the State of North Carolina. The Euphrates River runs through it, a shimmering blue swath bordered by a narrow green valley that cuts through an endless sea of yellow brown sand speckled with small towns and a few larger sized cities. The Provincial Capital, Ar Ramadi is in the east central part of the province about 65 miles west of Baghdad. It is a city of about 440,000 people at the time of the US invasion.

In 2007 Ramadi and Al Anbar Province was the turning point for the United States in the Iraq War. The Sunni tribes of the province decided that their interests were better served by cooperating with the United States Forces rather than continue to endure the terrorism of foreign Al Qaida members.

It was to Al Anbar Province that I deployed in 2007. I was assigned to the Iraq Assistance Group with duties to serve the advisor teams assigned to the Iraqi Army, Border Forces, Police, Highway Patrol and Port of Entry Police. While there I also served members of Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

I have been thinking a lot about Iraq lately as I have been having to recount my experiences as I get ready for EMDR and Biofeedback therapy to treat my PTSD. I have been surprised by how strong the memories are of my time there.

Today I was talking with my therapist and the discussion came to one of my experiences at a base on the banks of the Euphrates in Ramadi. At least part of it was known as COP Snake Pit. It is a base included a Joint Security Operations Center run by the US Army, a Police training facility an Iraqi Military and Police forces, an Advisor of Marines woking with the Iraqi Army 7th Division and an Iraqi Detention Facility. Surrounded by Hesco Barriers and walls not far from a number of high speed avenues of approach an easy target for any attacker. In fact since the United States left Iraq the detention facility and Operations center have been attacked by Al Qaida linked insurgents.

When we visited there Iraqi forces were in charge of the perimeter security while a small number of Americans worked at three isolated areas within the base. For me the memories of walking through the prison as well as getting to address the first class of female Iraqi Police cadets in Anbar.

The memories of that visit are still etched deep in my mind. When I close my eyes I can see the inside of that prison as well as the faces of those brave Iraqi women who risked their lives and those of their families to become Police officers in war torn Ramadi. As I talked with my therapist those memories were so strong. I talked about things today that I have not shared with anyone and which are still hard to write about. Eventually I will, but not tonight, it will be hard enough to sleep as it is.

For most people the Iraq war is not even a memory. Most Americans are untouched by war and cannot imagine what either our troops or the Iraqi people went through and it is hard to explain.

Since I am all verklempt right now I think I will stop for the night. But as I told my therapist today to paraphrase Tony Bennett’s immortal song I Left my Heart in San Francisco I left my at least part of my heart in Al Anbar.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remember and Pray: Lessons from 9-11-2001 Today

9-11 Memorial Ceremony (US Navy Photo)

Today many of us took the time to remember the events of September 11th 2001. Some were large ceremonies and others small, while many just took the time to remember the lives of those lost, to reflect and pray. Many talked about what they remembered and where they were that fateful day and others remembered the event silently, the pain still too great to express.

The events of 9-11-2001 are now 11 years past yet danger still looms. American military and diplomatic personnel, Federal agents of various police and security agencies, contractors and American Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) serve in harms way exposed to violence and terror. The Middle East is ablaze in violence between competing Islamic groups, the Sunni-Shia Moslem divide becomes greater with every day as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon become more violent. The conflict threatens adjoining nations including Israel, Jordan and Turkey. Israel and Iran edge closer to war and extremists do all that they can to incite others to violence by their acts. Today Egyptian Islamic extremists stormed the US Embassy in Cairo and ripped down our flag allegedly in response to a film being produced by an American extremist the Koran burning “pastor” Terry Jones which they believe is blasphemous.

Pundits, politicians and preachers, that Unholy Trinity that seems to find life in the death and misery of others stoke the fires of hate, among the “faithful” of their religions and nationalities. The truth be known I get angry every time these extremists act or do things the are done with the sole intent of bringing harm to others while advancing their dark agendas.  I get tired of those that from places of safety and security provoke violence and urge wars that they know others will have to fight and without any cost to themselves. They make their pronouncements all claiming that God, however they define him is on their side. That is blasphemy, no matter which God you believe in.

The world is a very dangerous place. It is not only a time for vigilance and military preparedness, it is a time for reflection, prayer and peace making.

God of the ages, before your eyes all empires rise and fall yet you are changeless. Be near us in this age of terror and in these moments of remembrance. Uphold those who work and watch and wait and weep and love. By your Spirit give rise in us to broad sympathy for all the peoples of your earth. Strengthen us to comfort those who mourn and work in large ways and small for those things that make for peace. Bless the people and leaders of this nation and all nations so that warfare, like slavery before it, may become only a historic memory. We pray in the strong name of the Prince of Peace. Amen. (From the September 11th Litany published by the National Council of Churches)

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Fear and Loathing in Damascus

Free Syrian Army Fighter

The situation in Syria continues to worsen as the battle for Damascus heats up. Syrian Dictator Bashar Assad reportedly has moved his headquarters to the Alawite Mountains as fighting rages in the Syrian capitol.   The International Red Cross has declared what most of us already believed that the conflict is a civil war and call for the United Nations to intervene under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter grow ever stronger despite the opposition of Russia and China to those calls.

In the 16 months that this fighting has been going on an estimated 10,000-15,000 Syrians have been killed. Thousands more have been wounded, many are missing and the number of refugees in Turkey has risen to roughly 120,000.  Despite the harsh repression of the Syria government, military, security and police against the opposition the opposition continues to grow in strength and is being joined by increasing numbers of senior military officers and soldiers.

Syrian Army Troops fighting in Damascus

On Wednesday the 18th after four days of sustained combat in Damascus the Free Syrian Army struck a blow at the heart of the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad. It was a blow that no-one saw coming except the plotters. From a strategic point of view it was a brilliantly executed strike that will inspire fear among Assad’s loyalists and increase the opposition to him.

Bashar Assad and Senior Generals including Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha

Both the FSA and the Liwa al-Islam group claimed credit for a strike using a remotely detonated explosive inside the national security headquarters building in to decapitate the military and intelligence leadership of the Assad regime. Killed were Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha; and his “deputy” Asef Shawkat. Shawkat is Assad’s brother-in law and one of the regime’s most feared strongmen.

Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha; and his “deputy” Asef Shawkat (below)

Also killed was Assistant Vice President Hassan Turkmani, a former Defense Minister who served as the head of Assad’s Crisis Management Office. Syrian State TV reported that Hisham Ikhtiar, director of the National Security Bureau, and Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, were among those hurt in the attack.  Al Arabia reported that another key official, Hafez Makhlouf, head of the investigations at the Syrian Intelligence Agency was killed in the attack.

The dead were key members of Assad’s attempt to crush the rebels and maintain his control over Syria. Rajiha was the most senior Christian in the Syrian government. Shawkat who was the husband of Assad’s sister Bushra had been Assed’s enforcer who wielded great power in Syria and with Syrian dealings in Lebanon.  AFP reports that the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called Shawkat’s death “a severe blow to the Syrian regime since he played the main role in operations by regular forces to crush the revolution.”

Syrian Army Tanks fire on Opposition Fighters

With the successful attack the revolution has reached a turning point. It has show the ability to strike at the heart of the Assad regime. Assad is counter-attacking but with the loss of such trusted key players his efforts, which have been a failure to date will be dealt a fatal blow. Even before the attack a number of Generals and other senior officers as well as thousands of troops have defected to the revolution. Rebels find arms and ammunition easy to come by in the corrupt Syrian government. Last week the Syrian Ambassador to Iraq Nawaf Fares defected to the rebels and claimed that he believed that Assad would use his chemical weapons against the opposition if he felt the need to do so.

Syrian Refugees in Turkey

The probable end of this is that the Assad regime will fall and a long term sectarian civil war like that that has plagued Lebanon since the 1970s will ensue. Hezbollah having lost its ally will attempt to retain power in Lebanon and influence events in Syria to their advantage, possibly attempting to gain control of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile.

The collapse of Syria which to all before 2010 appeared to be stable by Arab standards despite fomenting problems for its neighbors will bring more instability, uncertainty and violence to the region. Expect that Assad’s loyalists among the Shite Alawite sect will be targeted for revenge by the persecuted Sunni majority. Also expect that Christianity will lose its last place of refuge in the broader Middle East as Syrian Arab Orthodox and Catholic Christians are targeted by all sides as were Iraqi Christians during the Iraq civil war and insurgency.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Last Troops Leave as Sunnis Quit Iraqi Parliament

The final contingent of American Soldiers except those assigned to the US Embassy.  The last US military installation in Iraq, Camp Adder near Nasiriya during the cover of night to avoid traffic jams and for their security. As the 500 soldier 110 vehicle convoy of Special Troops Battalion 3rd Brigade 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood made its way to the Kuwait border the Sunni Block Iraqiya quit the Iraqi Parliament.  The Americans crossed the fortified border of Kuwait joining their comrades at Camp Virginia marking the end of our  war in Iraq today.

Iraqiya is one of the largest political parties in the country and had entered the government on a power sharing basis with the majority Shia coalition.  Iraqiya is protesting Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s consolation of power in himself and Ma his failure to fill the key Defense Minister and Interior Minister vacancies.  One of the party’s leaders warned of a Maliki dictatorship and the possibility of civil war and the division of the country.

It will be a dangerous time for Iraq and the region. Should their be a civil war the possibility of the intervention of Iran, Saudi Arabia or even Turkey to secure their interests in the country. Such would be a disaster for Iraq and its people.  Somehow the Shia and Sunni will have to find a way to share power or face even more war and destruction.

I pray for my Iraqi friends and that they will find a way to rebuild and unify their country.  Too many American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen as well as Iraqi security forces and civilians have died over the course of this war to do anything else.

Our war in Iraq is over and I hope that Iraq and its people will truly unite prosper and become a friend to the United States. Likewise I pray for all of us that served in Iraq and our families that time will also heal the wounds of war.  But only time will tell.  God willing, Inshallah.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Moslem Allies and Friends

I posted a piece that I’m sure that some will find controversial yesterday.  Entitled “A Christian Defense of the Rights of Moslems in a Democracy (or Constitutional Republic) it dealt with comments and demands made by some that Moslems be removed from the military, security services and government positions simply because of religion or ethnicity.  You an see the post here:

https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2009/11/14/a-christian-defense-of-the-rights-of-moslems-and-others-in-a-democracy-or-constitutional-republic/

It generated some heated debate and I am sure that more will come. However I am just going to show a photo montage of the Iraqi military, US employed interpreters and former Iraqi officers helping the Iraqi government and US Forces.  The people of Iraq and much of the Middle East are not a monolithic bloc or extremists as many in this country are prone to believe.  Moslems fight every day against terrorists and are killed by the same kind of extremists who took down the Trade Center Towers and inspired Major Hasan in his shooting at Fort Hood.  They are friends and allies in the war against Moslem terrorists.  I post this article to put a human face on those that are often lumped together as the “enemy” simply because of their religion.

074Dinner with Brigadier General Sabah of 1st Brigade of 7th Iraqi Division in Ramadi. A professional soldier and Shia he sees himself as an Iraqi and ally of the US. The Last time we met in January 2008 in passing at the helo terminal in Ramadi he greeted me with a hug in front of his staff and many American soldiers and Marines calling me a friend.

079Group Shot with General Sabah, his youngest son, our interpreter, the American Brigade Senior Adviser and my Assistant RP2 Lebron

176RP2 Lebron with one of the “Terps” interpreters named “Shaun” originally from Palestine but a Green Bay Packer fan living in Minnesota

237Iraqi Children Greeting us in a town along the Euphrates

227Iraqi man in traditional garb happy to see us because Americans helped clean out the terrorists from his village

258With Iraqi Officers of 7th Division and Marine Advisers at the 2007 Marine Corps Birthday Cake Cutting at Camp Blue Diamond. Trained by the Marines the 7th and the 1st Iraqi Divisions helped turn the Tide in Al Anbar and the 1st went on to liberate Basra and then to Diyala Province

372Blessing Advisers of 7th Division as they prepared to go with Iraqis to guard a fuel convoy. Following this the Iraqis asked if I would bless them and their vehicles too, it seems they have some kind of Holy Water too and were willing to take the Christian kind as well.

291A man with a Dangerous Job. Iraqi Policeman Escorting Civilians across Route Michigan in Ramadi. Shortly after we took small arms fire and Iraqi Police engaged the target

866With the Leaders of an Iraqi Border Force Company a kilometer from Syria, they like all the Iraqis we dealt with were hospitable offering us Ch’ai as well as food on our visit with the adviser team

880With a Bedouin Family near the Syrian border on Christmas Eve 2007

867Iraqi Border Troops at Border Fort Five near Syria

882Proud Bedouin Father and his son

883The Bedouin Father serves us Ch’ai and cakes

934Iraqi Troops of 7th Division coming back from Patrol on Christmas Day at COP North an isolated post near Syria. While we celebrated they worked and trained.

911One of the Iraqi vehicles in one of our convoy’s near Al Qaim pulling security for us to pass. Our convoys generally had about 3 American and 2-3 Iraqi trucks transiting dangerous areas with very few soldiers, nothing more than 240 series or .50 cal machine guns and far away from any big reinforcements should we have been hit

969New Iraqi Army Soldiers in Basic Training at Habbiniya. Imagine being far away from your family and know that they are in danger just because you serve in the Army

971Chaplains and our Assistants with General  Ali and his staff of the Training and Support Center at Habbinyah. He proudly showed us his well worn Arabic-English Bible. A Moslem he liked it because it had information not in the Koran

973Bakers at the Iraqi Army Bakery in Habbinyah the fresh bread is great

Dundas and FallahWith General Falah Hasan..driven from Iraq by Saddam under threat of death he returned from the United States to help rebuild the Iraqi Air Force and advise the Iraq Assistance Group.When asked what branch of Islam he said “My mother was Sunni, my father Shia I don’t know I am an Iraqi”

Of course I had many more interactions with the Iraqis than just these photos.  There was the G-3 Officer at 2nd Brigade of 7th Division who said that he wished that the Iraqis had Christian Priests to serve as Imams because he knew that they would care for the soldiers and families and were not compromised like many Sunni and Shia clergy.  The Iraqi military, Sunni and Shia distrusts most Moslem clergy because of their political militancy and divisiveness during the worst part of the civil war.  At one time they had Imams during the Saddam era but many commanders refused to appoint Imams.  Then there was the Iraqi Company commander at out in the west who tracked me down to meet the “American Imam and thank him” for serving our Marines and for praying for Iraq and its people. He also said to let people know that if something ever happened between the US and “Persia” that most Iraqis would support us. I could go on but needless to say there are millions of Moslems who fight along side of us as well as the American Moslems who serve in our ranks without being traitors like Major Hasan.   

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+






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The most dangerous assignment: 4 More Advisers Die In Afghanistan

training team baseIsolated Embedded Training Team Base

Once know and relatively unglamorous group of American military men have suffered multiple casualties in a single engagement.  These men belong to are small units that do not have a lot of organic firepower.  They usually operate in remote areas far from immediate assistance if they get in trouble.  When one of these units suffers casualties, especially where they lose 3-5 men in one engagement they might have lost 20-25% of their unit.

On September 8th a team of these men was ambushed while on foot going to an Afghan with Afghan soldiers to meet tribal leaders with the intent of establishing a government presence in a hostile area.  In the ambush four were killed, three U.S. Marines and one U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman attached to them.  On Tuesday the 8th Gunnery Sgt. Edwin W. Johnson Jr., 31, of Columbus, Ga., 1st Lt. Michael E. Johnson, 25, of Virginia Beach, Va., Staff Sgt. Aaron M. Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Ga. and Petty Officer 3rd Class James R. Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif., were while working as trainers to Afghan soldiers on a mission to search for weapons and then meet village elders under an agreement to establish government authority there.  They were killed in “a complex attack according to a U.S. Military spokesman.  According to McClatchy news service who had a reporter that accompanied the mission, insurgents had set up positions in the village and in the mountains on both sides and apparently attacked as the men neared the village. 1st LT Johnson was wounded and while being attended Navy Hospital Corpsman Third Class James R. Layton when they both came under attack.  Both were killed.  Another Marine told the McClatchy reporter that they’d found the wrappings of bandages and other medical gear strewn around Layton and Johnson.  Eight Afghan troops and police and the Marine commander’s Afghan interpreter also died in the ambush and the subsequent battle that raged from dawn until 2 p.m. around the remote hamlet of Ganjgal in eastern Kunar province, close to the Pakistan border.

traiining team with afghan armyUSMC Advisers with Afghan Counterparts

The McClatchy reporter said: “We walked into a trap, a killing zone of relentless gunfire and rocket barrages from Afghan insurgents hidden in the mountainsides and in a fortress-like village where women and children were replenishing their ammunition.”  The reporter said that “U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines — despite being told repeatedly that they weren’t near the village.”

The battle must have been intense.  I have been on foot patrols in areas crowded with Iraqis far away from significant support where if an insurgent group had attacked us we would have easily been overwhelmed. This is part of the world of the U.S. Military in the embedded training teams which work closely with Afghan and Iraqi soldiers.  I spent a lot of time with the advisers to Iraqi Army. Border and Port of Entry troops, Police and Highway Patrol spread across the entirety of Al Anbar Province.  These men and women are seldom thought of or mentioned by the press or even the military. . They come from all branches of the military and serve as advisers, trainers and mentors to these nations’ security forces.  The duty is dangerous.  The advisers, be they to the military, police, or civil administrations often work in the most isolated places in these countries and are stationed in small teams with the Iraqis and Afghans that they advise.  They are often far from the “big battalions” that have lots of firepower available and often operate out of larger and more secure bases with air support close at hand. Earlier in the year there were a number of incidents where advisers were killed by renegade soldiers or police, or by infiltrators posing as security personnel.  Two soldiers were working with an Iraqi unit in doing humanitarian work in a village when attacked and killed by someone who had infiltrated the Iraqi security forces.  . On March 27th Navy LT Florence Choe and LTJG Francis Toner IV were killed by an Afghan insurgent posing as an Afghan Army soldier. All of these events triggered anxiety in me as I remembered how many times I was incredibly exposed to danger conducting similar operations.

This incident was especially chilling as I read the reporter’s account of the ambush.  “Dashing from boulder to boulder, diving into trenches and ducking behind stone walls as the insurgents maneuvered to outflank us, we waited more than an hour for U.S. helicopters to arrive, despite earlier assurances that air cover would be five minutes away.”  According to the reporter Marine Maj. Kevin Williams” the commander of the team said: “We are pinned down. We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We’ve lost today, through his translator to his Afghan counterpart, responding to the latter’s repeated demands for helicopters.”  When I read this my mind flashed back to being in the middle of a massive crowd at the border crossing of Waleed on the Iraqi-Jordanian border.  There were about nine of us, of which only 8 were armed as I am not allowed by the U.S. interpretation of the law of war to carry a weapon.  There were thousands of Iraqis and others around us, very few border troops or port-of-entry police anywhere near us.  The port of entry had been the scene of numerous attempts to smuggle weapons, materials, and other supplies, drugs and to Iraq insurgents and Al Qaida.  Very few US troops were stationed there and many of these were dispatched off of the base at any given time.

The advisers are drawn from all services.  They are all Individual Augments that come from both the Active and Reserve components.  They do not deploy with their own units, which means that they go to war with people that they might have trained alongside getting ready for the mission, but otherwise have not served with.  When they come home they go back to their old assignments or new orders and are separated from the men and women that they served alongside for 7 to 15 months.  In other words they are isolated when they return home and go back to places where the majority of personnel, even those who have been “in country” have no earthly idea or appreciation of the conditions that they served in and dangers that they faced.  This happened to me when I returned and I went through an emotional collapse as the PTSD that I did not know I had kicked my ass.  Sights, smells, noises, crowds, airports and in fact almost everything but baseball diamonds caused me to melt down as they all brought the danger back to me. Don’t get me wrong, my tour in Iraq was the highlight of 27 plus years in the military, the part of which I am the most proud.

I have a special place for these men and women.  I served with them in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province as the first Navy Chaplain, and one of the first chaplains of any service to be assigned to cover these teams since Vietnam.  My assistant, RP2 Nelson Lebron and I deployed together from out unit.  I had prepared well.  I had been on the bubble to deploy for months.  My background in military history and past service with both the Army and Marines helped me. Likewise my military and civilian education helped me.  Shortly before we were notified of the deployment I went to the Jordanian Army Peace Operations Training Center course on Iraqi culture, religion and society.  I had served as a chaplain in the trauma department of one of the largest trauma centers in the country.  RP2 Lebron had deployed multiple times to Iraq, Beirut and Afghanistan where he was awarded the Defense Meritorious Service Medal (no small feat for an E-5).  He is also an incredibly gifted boxer, kick boxer and martial artist who has fought on Team USA and holds more title belts than I can count.  He most recently won the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic. I had served with him before and he knew that his mission was to keep me safe.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but the Chief of Staff of the Iraq Assistance Group said that we were “the best ministry team he had seen in 28 years in the Army.”

When we went to Al Anbar we were sent out with the Marines and Soldiers advising the 1st and 7th Iraqi Army Divisions, The Iraqi Police, Highway Patrol, the 2nd Border Forces Brigade and Port of Entry Police.  We operated in a area the size of the state of Oregon.  In some cases it would take us 2 days by air and convoy to reach isolated teams on the Syrian border.  When you travel by air in Iraq you are always at the mercy of the weather and aircraft availability. I had the rare privilege as a Lieutenant Commander to be able to arrange all of my own air transportation.  Most people, including people higher ranking than me had to depend on others to do this for them.  We worked with our advisers to get out to them.  We would be out 5-12 days at a time with anywhere from 4 to 7 days between missions.  In our 7 months we traveled over 4500 air miles and 1500 ground miles.  Almost all of our air travel was rotor wing. We flew in CH-46, CH-47 and MH-53s and the MV-22 Osprey.  Our convoys were usually not larger than 3 American HUMMVs and sometimes a few Iraqi vehicles.  Our biggest guns were .50 cal or M240B machine guns.

Dinner with Geneal SabahDinner with General Sabah in Ramadi

Many places we served were in places that had no large forces in position to help us if we got in trouble.  Even on the bases we were isolated.  Our teams were with the Iraqis in almost all cases.  We often ate in Iraqi chow halls and used Iraqi shower trailers.  Our advisers had us meeting their Iraqi counterparts.  We met and dined with Iraqi Generals, had ch’ai (tea) with small groups of Americans and Iraqis and got out with the Bedouins. We were in a number of particularly sensitive and dangerous situations with our advisers; one which I cannot go into great detail involved a senior advisor having to inform a new Iraqi Brigade Commander that a member of his staff was engaged in illegal activities and who had put out contracts to kill the American officer.  The bad Iraqi officer was confronted and relieved in a tense meeting where both Nelson and I were with that Colonel and two other advisors as they made the confrontation in the Iraq C.O.’s office, a confrontation that got quite heated until the Iraqi C.O. shut him up. At one point the cashiered officer appealed to the American “Imam” that he was a faithful Moslem, to whit the American Colonel and I asked him how a person who was living a good Moslem life could steal from his own countrymen and supply his county’s enemies with what they needed.

Waleed trip 006Team at Waleed on the “secure” side of the Port of Entry

It was an incredible, once in a lifetime tour serving with some of the greatest Americans and Iraqis around. Iraqi soldiers in with our convoys would ask me to bless their trucks with Holy Water like I was doing with the American trucks.  I came to admire many of the professional Iraqi officers that I came to know and pray for the people of Iraq, that God would grant them peace. They are wonderfully hospitable and gracious.  We were often treated to food and tea by Iraqi soldiers, and civilians.  After nearly 30 years of nearly continuous war, dictatorship and terrorism, they deserve peace and security.

Me BTT CO and Iraqi LeadersAdvisers and Iraqi Border Troops near Syria

I had one Iraqi operations officer, a Sunni Muslim tell me that he wished that his Army had Christian priests because they would take care of his soldiers and had no political axe to grind. He said that the Army did not trust most Imams or Mullahs because they had compromised themselves during the civil war.  Another officer, a Shia Muslim came to me to thank me for being there to take care of our Marines.  He said that he, an Iraqi Shia Arab, hoped that if they had any problems from the Persians (Iranians), that we would help them.  These is little truth to what is floated that Iraqi and Iranian Shia like each other.  The memories of the past die hard in the Middle East.  When Persia ruled Iraq they treated the Arabs like dirt. Likewise the memories of the Iran-Iraq war are still alive.  Iraqi Arabs, Sunni, Shia and even Christian have little love for the “Persians.”  General Sabah of the 7th Division had us to his quarters for dinner. We had a wonderful and friendly discussion about similarities and differences in Christianity and Islam. We departed friends. The last time I saw him ws in the Ramadi heliport.  He saw me, ran up to me in from of his staff and Americans in the little terminal and gave me a bear hug, telling all that I was his friend. Another Iraqi General told me just before we left to come back as a tourist in 5 years because everything would be better.  I honestly think that he is right.  I hope to go back someday.  It would be a privilege to see my Iraqi friends again.

Me and BTT with Bedouin KidsWith a Bedouin Family

At the same time Afghanistan is a different animal. Iraq was not as easy of place for Al Qaida to work in and the Iraqis have a much more developed national identity which they trace back to the Babylonians and Chaldeans.  They also have adopted a lot of western ways.  Insurgents there once they had lost the confidence of the Iraqis lost traction.  In Afghanistan there is no real collective national identity and the form of Islam is much more severe than almost all Iraqi variants.  The Afghans insurgents have also due to the terrain; climate and inability of invaders to gain the confidence of the population have used the inability of invaders against them as they bring the population back under their control, sometimes quite peacefully.  The Taliban have secure bases on the Pakistani side of the border as did the North Vietnamese and they have the support of much of the population due to the unpopularity and corruption of the Afghan government.  The Taliban have begun to operate in larger better organized units and last year a battalion sized element attempted to overrun a small NATO base.  They did this with the Russians as well.  One troubling comment was reported about something overhead on the Taliban radio: “We will do to you what we did to the Russians,” the insurgent’s leader boasted over the radio, referring to the failure of Soviet troops to capture Ganjgal during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.”  They also have outlasted or defeated a host of powerful empires.  The war in Afghanistan has much more in common with Vietnam than it does with Iraq. Counter Insurgency techniques learned in Iraq will be helpful but because of the terrain, climate and nature of the opposition will be tougher to execute and in order to have any chance of getting out of Afghanistan having accomplished the mission we will end of taking more casualties, especially in the teams of advisers.  Iraq was different, despite the problems and having to be rebuilt the Iraqi Army has a long history and tradition dating back to the Ottoman Empire, they led the way to westernizing Iraq and helping build an Iraqi identity, this is not the case in Afghanistan.  What happened to this team could easily happen to others and it looks to me like someone set them up to be hit, probably a Taliban sympathizer in the Afghan security forces or government. Afghanistan is much more treacherous than Iraq and in my view will be much more difficult.

What happened at Ganjgal is being investigated and in our area it is front page news as 1st Lt Johnson was from Virginia Beach.  The Taliban want to use events like this to break down the American home front and 8 years after the attacks of 9-11 2001 with that a fading memory they may well do this.  If they do Afghanistan will become Vietnam in the mountains.  We will be forced to withdraw and and the NATO alliance will be severely tested.  A defeat would have wide ranging consequences beginning in Afghanistan as it would fall back into the medieval world of Taliban rule, and would likely spread to Pakistan which which is already under severe strain.  This could threaten the Pakistani nuclear weapons.

Our advisers build bridges between peoples of different history and culture.  They are the unsung heroes of these wars and will likely never get credit for all that they have done.  Operating in isolation they are exposed to more danger that the average unit. They have my highest admiration and I hope that if you know one of these men or women that you will thank them.  I pray that they will all come home safe and be blessed with success.  I would certainly serve with them again at any time and in any place.

Please keep the families of the most recent casualties in your prayers. Peace, Steve+

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