The present-day U.S. military qualifies by any measure as highly professional, much more so than its Cold War predecessor. Yet the purpose of today’s professionals is not to preserve peace but to fight unending wars in distant places. Intoxicated by a post-Cold War belief in its own omnipotence, the United States allowed itself to be drawn into a long series of armed conflicts, almost all of them yielding unintended consequences and imposing greater than anticipated costs. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. forces have destroyed many targets and killed many people. Only rarely, however, have they succeeded in accomplishing their assigned political purposes. . . . [F]rom our present vantage point, it becomes apparent that the “Revolution of ‘89” did not initiate a new era of history. At most, the events of that year fostered various unhelpful illusions that impeded our capacity to recognize and respond to the forces of change that actually matter.

Andrew Bacevich

Monday, March 28, 2016

Update for Monday, March 28, 2016

I'm going to devote today's post to Kenneth M. Pollack's Iraq situation report, mostly because I think he is largely right on the facts (even if we may differ on their implications).

First, there are some 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, not the 3,800 officially announced, and they are more engaged in combat than we are generally led to believe. That said, it's a small number and Iraqi forces of one kind or another really are doing the work. And they have gotten better. For some reason he doesn't say anything specifically about the peshmerga, but he does say that the U.S.-led coalition has trained 6 Iraqi brigades who are performing well, and that there has been some improvement in the Iraqi command culture. The Iraqis are less demanding of unnecessary close air support, which leaves coalition aircraft free to strike more important IS targets.

The result is that IS is losing. They are losing territory, and Sunni Arabs within what is left are finding the courage to turn against them and join the popular mobilization. Although Pollack thinks it will still be 6 to 12 months before Mosul falls, he thinks IS troops are losing morale and are unable to mount effective offensives.

The bad news, however, is the risk of catastrophic success. There is no plan in place to build an Iraqi nationalist culture once the common enemy is gone. The Iranian-backed militias may well remain, and competing groups will rush in to try to grab what they can if IS collapses. The result may be a new phase of civil war, rather than anything that looks like a success. Of course this is what happened after the 2003 invasion -- there was no plan to rebuild the Iraqi nation-state, and there doesn't seem to be a plan now, either. As Pollack concludes:

Unfortunately, as has been a trademark of American involvement with Iraq at least since 2003 (and arguably since 1991), military success is not being matched with the commensurate political-economic efforts that will ultimately determine whether battlefield successes are translated into lasting achievements. In particular, the absence of developed and resourced plans to deal with post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction, and the lingering question regarding the future status of the militias raise huge questions about whether these victories will prove as ephemeral as America’s many past triumphs in Iraq.


Friday, March 25, 2016

Update for Friday, March 25, 2016

U.S. says it has killed Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, also known as Haji Imam, who the U.S. says was second in command of IS and acting Finance Minister. Although several reports say he was killed in an airstrike, I believe this is just an assumption. The Pentagon declines to say where and how he was killed, leaving open the possibility that it was a commando raid. [I would remind everyone that during the previous civil war in Iraq, the U.S. would claim to have killed the al Qaeda number 2 every few weeks.]

Iraqi forces have begun a slow advance toward Mosul, now claiming the capture of 4 villages in Ninevah province expanding from the Makhmour base (where U.S. marines are stationed).  The marines are supporting the advance with artillery and illumination rounds. Iraqi forces also claim to have severed communication between Raqqa in Syria and areas west of Anbar, continuing the encirclement of Mosul. The advance is slow, however, as IS resists with guerilla tactics, and Kurdish peshmerga forces face an uncertain welcome in Arab villages.

Muqtada al-Sadr threatens further unrest if promised government reforms are not completed.

Turkey continues regular air strikes on PKK positions in Iraq. I should note that the wall-to-wall coverage in the U.S. of the IS bombings in Brussels contrasts with almost complete disinterest in the recent bombings in Turkey, which killed just as many people; and the regular bomb attacks on civilians in Iraq, which are no longer news. In fact, western Europe is just about the safest place on earth.

Update: Like I was saying, suicide bomber kills 29 at a soccer stadium in Iskanderiya. I'm sure CNN will feature coverage of nothing else for the next week, and everybody will be waving "I am Iskanderiya" signs at candlelight vigils all over the U.S. and Europe. Or not.

And, another explosion in Kabul, no word yet on casualties.

Taliban assassinate army general Khan Aga in Kandahar.

One dead in clash between followers of rival warlords Dostum and Noor in Faryab.

Seven police killed in a turncoat attack in Kandahar.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Update for Monday, March 21, 2016

Hoo boy. First, some context: Shiite militias, largely backed by Iran, are increasingly dominating Iraqi politics. The various militias are the armed wings of political parties, and are rivals of the Iraqi army and constitutional government for power. Excerpt:

The more than 50 Shiite militias in Iraq have between 60,000 and 140,000 fighters, according to estimates from the government and the Hashd itself. They are backed by tanks and weapons, and have their own intelligence agency, operations rooms and court of law.
The larger militias, like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Hezbollah Brigades, Badr and the Peace Brigades, have been in place since soon after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein. They are linked to political parties, effectively forming armed branches for politicians.
So, now that we have learned a detachment of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit is deployed in northern Iraq, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the League of the Righteous, has threatened to attack U.S. forces. The group was responsible for the kidnapping of British subject Peter Moore and also shot down a British helicopter in 2006. The league is commanded by an Iranian general. Hezbollah has also threatened U.S. troops in Iraq. Note that they subscribe to the widespread theory among Shiites that IS is in fact a U.S. creation, and the U.S. is only pretending to fight it. Even the largely reality-based Iranian news channel Al-Alam laces its report of the U.S. deployment with a dose of skepticism. That the U.S. secretly backs I.S. is also a commonplace of Syrian government-backed news sources.

The situation is highly combustible, to say the least.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Upate for Saturday, March 19, 2016

U.S. service member killed by rocket attack on a base at Makhmour, a town near Mosul on the edge of Kurdistan. The base is controlled by peshmerga and has been hosting U.S. military advisers for some time. As the assault on Mosul gradually builds up, indirect fire attacks from IS are said to have increased. There were apparently additional injuries but little information is available as of yet. Some sources say the dead service member was a marine, others a soldier.

British hostage John Cantlie appears in a new IS propaganda video. The video is undated but raises hopes he is still alive.

Here's a blast from the past. Mullah krekar is released from a Norwegian prison sentence after his conviction was overturned. He had been imprisoned for threatening a fellow Kurd. Who is Mullah Krekar, you may well ask? I will tell you.

His real name is Najmuddin Faraj Ahmad. He was the leader of a militant organization called Ansar al Islam which operated in Kurdistan prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003. George W. Bush claimed that the presence of Ansar al Islam within the putative territory of Iraq proved that Saddam Hussein harbored terrorists. The truth, as is usually the case when George W. Bush's lips move, was the precise opposite. Mullah Krekar was an enemy of Saddam Hussein, who tried to have him killed. Since Krekar operated in the Kurdish region outside of Saddam's control, Saddam provided weapons to Kurdish militants in exchange for their promise to try to track him down. Accordingly, Krekar fled to Norway, where he was given asylum, and where he was living in 2003. Weird story.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Update for Thursday, March 17, 2016

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declares that IS is guilty of genocide, specifically against Christian, Yazidi and Shiite people in its territory. The ruling comes just ahead of a deadline specified in a congressional resolution. Although the declaration does impose legal obligations on the U.S., it is not clear that it makes much practical difference as the U.S. is already acting against IS.

The UN expresses concern about some 35,000 refugees fleeing fighting near Hit, where Iraqi forces are conducting an offensive against IS. Relief workers have limited access to the area.

Kurdish president Masoud Barzani says peshmerga forces are prepared to participate in the assault on Mosul, but there will have to be agreement on how the city will be administered after IS is expelled. His stated concern is for the welfare of "minorities," but it is unclear what he means. The city is majority Sunni Arab, and that is the group that has faced reprisals following previous reconquests by the Iraqi army and Shiite militias.

Palestinian-American Mohamad Jamal Khweis, who had joined IS and then turned himself in to Kurdish troops, is expected to provide valuable intelligence about the IS command structure.

An Iraqi aircraft is apparently shot down by IS forces, killing 5 crew members. This was a small plane apparently on a reconnaissance mission. The Iraqi military has confirmed that the plane crashed, but not that it was shot down.

This isn't strictly in Iraq, but the Iraq/Syria border is probably obsolete anyway. Several Syrian Kurdish and allied groups proclaim an "autonomous federation" in northern Syria.  This obviously doesn't sit well with the Assad government, and we'll probably be hearing from Turkey soon.

Turning to Afghanistan, reports are leaking that the Pentagon investigation into the attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz is nearly complete and that no personnel will be court martialed. Twelve individuals will apparently receive letters of reprimand over the incident, in which a U.S. aircraft killed 42 people in a relentless attack lasting for an hour. (If this is really all that happens, we can expect a strong reaction from MSF and the human rights community. -- C)

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Update for Sunday, March 13, 2016

Warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar says his Hezb-e-Islami group will join peace talks. For those who don't know, he has a long history, going back to the anti-Soviet resistance in which he received funding from the CIA. He then became Prime Minister of Afghanistan, until he was driven out by the Taliban to exile in Iran. After 9/11, he declared support for al Qaeda and the Iranians kicked him out. The U.S. tried to kill him with a Hellfire missile but missed. Currently he is believed to be hiding in Pakistan. He isn't much of a force on the battlefield but he did try twice to murder Hamid Karzai.

Police chief in Ghazni says many districts in danger of falling to Taliban and demands reinforcements.

Salman Rafi in Asia Times analyzes the Afghan conflict.  He sees China and Pakistan as aiming for complete withdrawal of U.S. forces and Pakistan's support for the Afghan Taliban as continuing until this end is achieved, hence the insistence on U.S. withdrawal as a precondition for peace talks.

A child is killed and 3 other civilians injured by IED in Helmand, while 2 civilians, including a 12 year old boy, are killed in a drive-by shooting in Kandahar apparently targeting somebody else.

In Iraq, IS continues to lose territory, abandoning a town in Anbar. upate: This turns out to have been a feint. IS forces returned to the town after 24 hours.

IS attacks in Salah-u-Din province are repulsed.

Investigators conclude IS used mustard gas in attack on a Turkman town near Kirkuk in which a child died.  (However, this is clearly not a very sophisticated or powerful form of a chemical weapon. While there were many injuries, most were not serious.)

The Saudi delegation walks out of an Arab League meeting after Iraqi delegate Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari defends the role of Shiite militias in the fight against IS. "Morocco said last month that it would not host the 2016 Arab League meeting as scheduled, saying it wanted to avoid giving a false impression of unity in the Arab world."

I should note that the U.S.-led coalition flies about 20  sorties every day in Iraq and Syria. Since this  is a routine occurrence I don't normally bother to link to it, but I don't want people to forget that it is happening. Turkey also continues to attack PKK positions, at least a couple of times a week. But as the Kurdish Regional Government has repudiated the PKK, this does not have any wider repercussions.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Update for Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Details emerge about IS detainee captured by U.S. special forces last month. He is identified as Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, an unconventional weapons expert who once worked for Saddam Hussein. He is said to have revealed that IS is able to fabricate weapons using mustard gas (which they have reportedly used against Kurdish villages and forces), but the weapons are not very sophisticated nor highly effective.

The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline is still not back in operation but Turkish officials say it will be soon now that they have cleared PKK forces from the area of the damage. Inability to move oil to market through the pipeline has contributed to the financial crisis facing the Kurdish Regional Government. (Again, the motive for the PKK to do this is unclear but it seems to have been an incredibly stupid and counterproductive move. Obviously, it hurts the KRG a lot, the Turks very little.)

Its oil revenues sharply curtailed, IS is said to be more dependent on donations from the Gulf Arab states. Let us never forget the ridiculous situation in which U.S. "allies" are the principal funders of IS and al Qaeda. Yes, these donations are supposedly from individuals, not the governments, but the monarchies could put a stop to it if they wanted to.

Department of What Else is New? CentCom head Gen. Lloyd Austin wants more U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. To fight Saudi Arabia's proxies, in alliance with Iran. Whatever.

In Afghanistan, Taliban attack a police station in Helmand, killing at least 3 police and suffering 7 dead of their own.

Video shows Afghan police torturing a prisoner.

Taliban abduct 11 civilians in Sar-i-Pul.

Men convicted of killing Farkhunda have sentences sharply reduced.

Three civilians killed by IED in Herat.

Attempted suicide attack on Kabul fire department apparently kills only the attacker.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Update for Sunday, March 6, 2016

The reported death toll keeps rising, but as of 10:30 ET al Jazeera is reporting 60 dead and 70 wounded in a suicide truck bombing near Hilla. IS has taken responsibility. The location was a checkpoint where a long line of cars was waiting, which accounts for the large casualty toll.

We keep hearing different stories about when the assault on Mosul will begin, but AP today reports it is still months away. A major concern, obviously, is that security at the dam be good enough that the Italian contractors can quickly undertake repair work.

In Afghanistan, Afghan and Pakistani forces trade fire across the border in Nangarhar. This probably won't amount to anything but it's a reminder of how hostile the two countries are.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Update for Saturday, March 5, 2016

Well, so much for that. (At least for now.) Taliban say they will not participate in peace talks that were to be brokered by Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the U.S.

We . . .  unequivocally state that the leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting. (Islamic Emirate) once again reiterates that unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, black lists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile misleading negotiations will not bear any results.
Heavy fighting in various parts of Helmand with numerous casualties on both sides.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction describes various ways U.S. taxpayer dollars were squandered. The U.S. has now spent more on Afghan reconstruction than it did on rebuilding Europe after W.W. II, with, shall we say, somewhat less impressive results. Example:

The Pentagon spent close to half a billion dollars on 20 Italian-made cargo planes that it eventually scrapped and sold for just $32,000, according to SIGAR. "These planes were the wrong planes for Afghanistan," Sopko told NBC News. "The U.S. had difficulty getting the Afghans to fly them, and our pilots called them deathtraps. One pilot said parts started falling off while he was coming into land."

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Update for Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Guardian has a detailed, and terrifying report on the state of the Mosul dam. What has not been clear until now is that maintenance work essentially ceased during the brief time when IS held the dam in 2014, and has not resumed. Preventing collapse of the dam from undermining of the gypsum on which it rests requires continual infusion of concrete, but the workers have not returned, the machines have been looted, and there is no cement. Furthermore the sluice gates are closed due to a malfunction. Soon the spring snow melt will increase pressure on the dam. Engineers involved in its construction fear that collapse is imminent, and would send a wall of water 20 meters high through Mosul, then onto Samarra, Tikrit and Baghdad potentially killing more than 1 million people. Really.

After months of delay, the government has finally signed a contract with an Italian company to repair and maintain the dam, but there is no indication as to when work will begin.

Remember that the Pentagon recently announced that Delta Force commandos are operating in Iraq. (Apparently that doesn't count as "combat troops.") They are said to have captured a high-ranking IS official and are interrogating him, prior to handing him over to Iraqi authorities. The identify of the captive and his actual role in the IS organization have not been revealed.

Iraqi forces continue to make modest territorial gains, capturing 4 villages near Samarra and re-opening the road to Baiji. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Update for Tuesday, March 1, 2016

IS suicide bombers enter army headquarters in Haditha, kill a brigadier general and 5 other soldiers.

Al Jazeera has an analysis of Muqtada al-Sadr's public re-emergence. Although it is based on a platform of national unity and honest government, they see it as largely an effort to retain influence within the Shiite community. [Al-Sadr has always publicly called for a unified, non-sectarian state, even while his Mahdi Army was embroiled in the Iraqi civil war. His degree of sincerity has never been clear.]

General Dunford says Iraqi forces, supported by the U.S., have isolated Mosul  and that the campaign to retake the city is in preparation. However, the plan is not yet decided, including whether peshmerga will participate, and whether PM Abadi will allow close air support from U.S. helicopters. U.S. special forces are participating in this effort, with 200 Delta Force troops "conducting raids, seizing territory and plotting to rescue hostages and prisoners."

Iraqi troops and militias launch an offensive to retake Samarra. This is part of the ongoing effort to encircle Mosul and sever IS-held territory.

In Afghanistan, women and girls who are accused of "moral crimes" such as leaving their homes without permission are subject to "virginity tests." Oy.

Police officer at a remote checkpoing shoots 4 of his colleagues dead, 11 are missing, on the highway between Kandahar and Uruzgan.

Meanwhile, Afghan forces abandon 2 districts in Uruzgan, while while Rashid Dostum claims advances in Faryab. [His private army is nominally part of the Afghan National Army, and he holds a vice-presidency. This is perhaps best thought of as a federal affiliation.]

Two U.S. drone strikes in Nangarhar kill 9.

MoD announces the deaths of 8 ANA soldiers, and in the usual absurdly lopsided other half of the announcement claims killing 98 militants.