Monday, June 23, 2014

The Parade of Iraq Absurdocities Continues

More and more people seem to think that stand-off, push-button joystick warfare is the answer.  It ain’t.

Less than two weeks ago I was telling you that we’d be lucky if only half of Iraq falls into the hands of the bloodthirsty, America-hating, enemy-decapitating ISIS forces now rampaging through that country.  In the days since, a few things have become clear:

1.  Blame game aside, none of our leaders and politicians really know what to do.  Many are comically clueless.

2.  Absurdocities” rule—a lot of people are saying things that are just plain stoopid.

3.  Many people have convinced themselves that we can deal with any hotspot by remote control through push-button drone warfare, without getting our hands dirty.

4.  Out of one side of their mouths, plenty of experts and pontificators are happy to blame Iraq’s current crop of leaders for “creating this mess” by failing to put together an inclusive government, while out of the other side they cite the very impossibility of doing such a thing as a reason for the U.S. to stay the hell out and let the chaos sort itself out.

Right now, Chaos Theory is winning.  With neither the U.S. nor anyone else in the free world willing to intervene in any significant way, the possibility I laid out of a permanently fractured Iraq partially under the control of some of the worst terrorists imaginable is looking more and more likely.

Last week columnist Fareed Zakaria was among those blaming Iraqi’s prime minister for the disaster, declaring, “Nouri al-Maliki lost Iraq.”  In Zakaria’s view, al-Maliki’s failure to put together a true coalition government between the feuding Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects was the primary cause of the disaster.  Zakaria did not stand alone in that view; his was only one of a chorus of voices heaping blame on al-Maliki.  Some critics (notably, not our president) went further, demanding that al-Maliki step aside and make room for some other theoretically-available person who could figure out how to kiss up to the Sunnis.   The upshot was that this shiny vision of a truly inclusive hearts-and-flowers enemy-embracing Iraqi government emerged as the consensus solution of the week for dealing with the murderous ISIS terrorists.  Right now our secretary of state, John Kerry, is in Baghdad scolding al-Maliki for having failed to solve the 1,400 year old conflict, and giving advice on how to form an inclusive government where opposing sides close ranks and work together productively (!?!?!?!!!  Don't laugh.  On second thought, go ahead, you'll feel better, unless you're a veteran suffering from a war wound to the upper body, in which case I'd advise limiting your reaction to a shake of the head).  

The whole “inclusiveness is the solution” idea is garbage, of course.  And in this week’s column Zakaria presents a different vision.  He now admits that the possibility of putting together any kind of coalition government is remote.  “The Sunnis have done enough killing to keep the Shiites wary for decades,” he writes.  Zakaria calls for a “Plan B” under which the United States and world powers would simply recognize that the region, Syria included, will fall apart and devolve into “enclaves”—and that it has, in fact, already done so.

And yes, one of those enclaves is the growing chunk of territory controlled by ISIS.  Zakaria says we should acknowledge this new reality and deal with it, but even so he doesn’t suggest that we simply let ISIS run wild.  In the areas ISIS controls, he writes, “Washington would have to use drones, counterintelligence and occasional Special Operations forces strikes—just as it does in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.”

Here is the problem with that.  The drone strike/Special Forces scenario conflicts with the president’s “no boots on the ground” promise.  Drones and special ops require secure forward operating bases, which in turn demand significant on-the-ground support and coordination.   In order to know what targets to hit, drone and strike team commanders must have access to effective intelligence-gathering resources.  All of this requires a major commitment of troops on the ground.   Such a commitment is precisely what politicians of both parties are doing double back-flips right now trying to avoid.  Further, we'd have to put these resources into what's left of Iraq, which is the Shiite enclave.  This would make us the de-facto cheerleaders for the Shiite team, which would destroy any nation-building credibility we might otherwise have enjoyed.

And then there is this concern:  if you send in Special Ops forces often enough, sooner or later one or more of them will get captured.   That would put us in a whole new world of hurt.  Terrorists know we’ll do just about anything to trade for a U.S. military hostage.  If they weren’t sure of that before, just recently we proved it to them with the Bergdahl trade.  We'll be lucky if none of the forces we've already sent in (we can assume they're not wearing boots, given the president's promise) wind up getting snatched.  That's also true for the U.S.citizens on the ground there.

This brings us back to remote-control warfare.  Those who think drone strikes alone have done a tremendous job for us to date and are the answer for the future should pay closer attention to what is happening in Afghanistan.  Our military there is already scratching its collective head wondering how to carry out drone operations once we leave the country.  Right now we fly them out of Bagram Airfield and also out of some forward operating bases elsewhere in the country.   The military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper reported earlier this year that our impending withdrawal from Afghanistan has left us in a bit of a pickle.  There are no good options anywhere for establishing replacement drone bases.   The newspaper reports that even if we do find workable replacement sites somewhere else in Central Asia, without proper intelligence-gathering on the ground in Afghanistan such bases would be next to useless. 

The same principle would apply to the aircraft-carrier based drones the Navy is now experimenting with.

Zakaria is not the only one pointing toward the Balkanization of Iraq as the likely future.   It is true that Iraq as a modern country with its current borders was largely the creation of the victorious Allied powers following World War I.  The winners divvied up the remnants of the old Ottoman Empire in a fashion that suited their national and commercial interests, with little if any regard for the needs and problems of the people who actually lived there.  (Britain and France made out like bandits, but the U.S. got nothing in all that—which sure makes you wonder why we’re so up to our necks in it now).  Iraq has struggled to find a national identity ever since, a task not made easy by the fact that its two major Muslim sects do not harbor warm feelings for one another and are prone to express their regards with murder, explosive vest-wearing suicide attackers, and car bombs.  We shattered the existing power structure.  Perhaps the shards won’t fit back together again.  Maybe we should rethink whether Iraq must move forward as a single geopolitical entity—or, more to the point, whether the United States should insist that it does.

That doesn’t mean it makes any kind of sense to let terrorists control their own state.  As Zakaria rightly points out, even if we now endorse an enclave-driven “Plan B,” it’s not in our interests to turn our back on ISIS, a group so brutal it makes al-Qaeda faint dead away.

Right now a lot of people are in denial about ISIS, feeling that it doesn’t really threaten us and will not lead to any kind of 9/11 style catastrophe.  One of them is Rand Paul, the GOP senator out of Kentucky.  “I'm not willing to send my son into that mess,” he declared on Sunday.  Paul scoffed at the idea that ISIS poses a danger to the U.S.—and in trying to discredit the notion, he used extreme hyperbole, a technique designed to paint an idea in such wildly ludicrous terms that no one will take it seriously.  “I don't believe that ISIS, right now, is in the middle of a battle saying, ‘Hmm, I think we're going to send intercontinental ballistic missiles to America,’” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley.  

That’s an absurdocity.  Of course ISIS isn’t contemplating the use of such weapons, nor is anyone claiming that it is, for the simple reason that ISIS has none and has no reasonable expectation of ever getting its hands on one that could reach America.   ICBMs are not the threat.   ISIS terrorists with passports (reportedly, there are thousands) and plane tickets are.  So is ISIS’ ability to attack Israel and other countries from its current vantage point, further destabilizing the region. 

Whatever we do, it’s not in our best interests to do it alone.  This is a problem not just for the United States, but for the world.   9/11 may have been the bloodiest terrorist event in history, but other countries also have suffered attacks.  

And note that what’s going on now isn’t just a security threat.  It’s a major humanitarian crisis.  Past events of this nature have provoked world outrage.  Not this one.  The world at large doesn’t seem to much care what ISIS does to the residents of the areas it’s captured.   Decapitations?  Crucifixions?  Mass murder?  Forced imposition of 7th century fundamentalist law?  It’s a local matter.  Islamic terrorists in Africa kidnap hundreds of girls, and the world cries out.  Islamic terrorists kidnap an entire population, and the world yawns.  This fact hasn't gone unnoticed in Iraq.  Over the weekend one of its generals asked, “Why has the U.N. not decried these atrocious crimes, which are among the biggest crimes against humanity?”

Why indeed?  Can you imagine the outcry that would have resulted if, instead of ISIS, U.S. forces had carried out the killings?  Or the Israeli army? The world's ho-hum reaction was utterly predictable.  If it surprises you, go back and review what the world, including our own so-called allies, have had to say when U.S. forces in Afghanistan have accidentally killed civilians, and compare it to what gets said when the Taliban deliberately does so.  (The Taliban is responsible for 90% of the civilian deaths in that area.  Do you think this generates 90% of the world outrage over what is going on there?)  If ISIS wants a finger-wag from the United Nations, it's going to have to do more than slaughter a few hundred people, institute Sharia law, and force its women into niqabs.  The world is a cruel place.

If there’s a lesson in any of that, it’s this:  we need to stop thinking of ourselves as the globe’s policeman.  In matters of terrorism in particular, we should start insisting on more assistance from our allies.  In this particular case, they have as much to lose in allowing Iraq to become a stronghold and a breeding ground for terrorism as we do.  It’s not fair for them to enjoy a peace dividend at no cost to them that we can’t get because we have to spend so much on our military.   Our willingness to do so in the past has not led us to a good place, and it’s one reason why so few of our citizens and leaders are thinking clearly now about the road ahead.

One thing that's becoming increasingly clear is that Iraq likely is done as a nation.  John Kerry is visiting not Iraq, but the Shiite enclave.  Maybe it will formally declare new borders at some point.  Maybe it'll simply allow Iran to absorb it.   The Kurds in the north likely will wind up with their own country.  And so will ISIS, which apparently we and the rest of the world are going to allow to form its own state.  Perhaps they'll name it Terrorist Disneyland.  

Of course, we could get lucky with ISIS.  Maybe it will become the first such force in world history not to export its terrorism.   Who’s to say it couldn’t happen?  What makes you think it won't?  Aside from world history?

In politics, never doubt the power of wishful thinking—which, in turn leads to wishful planning.  When it comes to Iraq, we’ve already seen plenty of both.  And it's almost certain that more is on the boards.



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