The abject failure of US efforts to train troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has been one of my most frequent topics. Even though the US mission in Iraq has officially ended and the mission in Afghanistan is mired in a surreal form of purgatory as the government re-invents it vote auditing procedure and even the structure of its government, the US military just can’t kick its addiction to training and is now contemplating yet another attempt at training Iraqi troops.
The New York Times tries to come to the aid of the military this morning with a front page story dedicated to re-starting the training process. The problem though, is that as the Times dives into the idea, it becomes apparent that our previous failures in training may have made it too dangerous to start (and, of course, fail again, but the Times doesn’t go there) the process yet again. That danger even makes it into the headline: “US Sees Risks in Assisting a Compromised Iraqi Force“.
The story opens:
A classified military assessment of Iraq’s security forces concludes that many units are so deeply infiltrated by either Sunni extremist informants or Shiite personnel backed by Iran that any Americans assigned to advise Baghdad’s forces could face risks to their safety, according to United States officials.
The report concludes that only about half of Iraq’s operational units are capable enough for American commandos to advise them if the White House decides to help roll back the advances made by Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq over the past month.
Imagine that. Despite eight years of work and over $25 billion invested, two and a half years after we left Iraq only about half of Iraq’s units are even fit enough for the US to advise them in an effort to take on their latest existential threat.
But the real beauty in the current conundrum lies in who stepped up to fill the training gap when the US left:
Adding to the administration’s dilemma is the assessment’s conclusion that Iraqi forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki are now heavily dependent on Shiite militias — many of which were trained in Iran — as well as on advisers from Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force.
Shiite militias fought American troops after the United States invaded Iraq and might again present a danger to American advisers. But without an American-led effort to rebuild Iraq’s security forces, there may be no hope of reducing the Iraqi government’s dependence on those Iranian-backed militias, officials caution.
So when we left, Maliki supplemented his military with the very Shiite militias that US forces had been fighting. At least one reason for Maliki’s move was that these militias knew how to fight and the troops the US trained were useless. Those militias have been trained by Iran. And as much as the US would love to “rebuild Iraq’s security forces” through yet another ride on the training carousel, that could well be too dangerous because many of the people we would then be training might remember that less than three years ago, the US trained their weapons on them while training other Iraqi troops to go after them. The Times article rightly recognizes this situation as ripe for a resurgence of green on blue insider killings if the US tried to train such forces. They quote Michael Barbero, who was in charge of training in Iraq from 2009 to 2011 (funny, once again, while discussing training failures, David Petraeus is never mentioned):
“The advisory mission has inherent risks, but they can be mitigated,” he added. “You can put security with them. You can be selective about where you put the advisers. We can apply the lessons learned from dealing with the insider threat in Afghanistan.”
Gosh. Our military just can’t stop looking at hopeless situations and saying that they are at the turning point where they will get better. Despite all those previous failures, this time, by golly, we’ll get it right:
And General Dempsey also emphasized any American military involvement in Iraq would be different than in the past.
You see, this time we’ll call our guys advisers instead of trainers. That should make all the difference. Even if those we are advising know that we were trying to kill them very recently…
As I pointed out two weeks ago, US foreign and military policy is now so muddled that the primary response to any ongoing crisis is to choose a side to arm without thought to the inevitable blowback that will come from trying to pick winners and losers in otherwise internal affairs of far-flung countries. As the meltdown of the US-trained Iraqi military accelerates, we now see a situation whose supreme irony would be hilarious if only so many lives were not senselessly caught in the crossfire. Two developments of that sort stand out today.
First is the news that Syrian aircraft have carried out a strike against ISIS targets inside Iraq. Because Iraq has been pleading with the US to carry out attacks of this sort, it appears that early reports first assumed that US drones had been involved:
Syrian government aircraft bombed Sunni militant targets inside Iraq on Tuesday, further broadening the Middle Eastern crisis a day after Israeli warplanes and rockets struck targets inside Syria.
Iraqi state media initially reported that the attacks near Iraq’s western border with Syria were carried out by U.S. drones, a claim that was quickly and forcefully denied by the Pentagon.
Think about that one for a minute. Last fall, the US was agonizing over how to find and arm only those groups fighting the Assad government in Syria that are “moderate” so that we didn’t arm the then fledgling ISIS group. But now, inside Iraq, state media is initially unable to distinguish an action taken by Assad from one taken by the US. That is, Assad, whom we are fighting inside Syria, is on our side inside Iraq.
The second development is a pairing of US interests with one we have been fighting for a much longer time. The New York Times brings us the latest on Iranian assistance to Iraq in its struggle against ISIS. The initial part of the report seems routine:
Iran is flying surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is secretly supplying Iraq with tons of military equipment, supplies and other assistance, American officials said. Tehran has also deployed an intelligence unit there to intercept communications, the officials said.
The secret Iranian programs are part of a broader effort by Tehran to gather intelligence and help Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government in its struggle against Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But when the Times drills down to detail on how the assistance is being delivered, we get into more strange times:
Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, has visited Iraq at least twice to help Iraqi military advisers plot strategy. And Iran has deployed about a dozen other Quds Force officers to advise Iraqi commanders, and help mobilize more than 2,000 Shiite militiamen from southern Iraq, American officials said.
Wait. Iran’s IGRC, and especially its Quds Force, is supposed to be still absolutely opposed to the US and even drops comments trying to disrupt the P5+1 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program now and then. And yet, here they are, sending their head to Iraq to prop up al-Maliki as well as sending “about a dozen other Quds Force officers to advise Iraqi commanders”. Hmm. Advisers. That sounds familiar. Returning to the Washington Post story cited above: Continue reading
There are of course many people to blame for the war crime of US invasion of Iraq, but David Petraeus’ role as the falsely constructed hero of Iraq who in reality was the author of some of its most profound failures stands out. Recall the heady days of the fall of 2007 when Washington was paralyzed by the Congressional hearings on Iraq. Washington had already forgotten Petraeus’ false claims of training prowess in his September, 2004 Washington Post op-ed that launched his career in a political direction and helped Bush get re-elected. Instead, Petraeus was granted a mulligan on troop training and was promoted to head US troops in Iraq to preside over the surge so that his vaunted “new” COIN strategy could be implemented. Petraeus then of course was given credit for that COIN strategy being behind the decline in violence, even though we learned from Lt. Col. Daniel Davis and others that the drop in violence was more likely due to Iraqi Sunnis turning to the US because of the excessive brutality of al Qaeda in Iraq.
Sadly, with all the Washington circus atmosphere surrounding the hearings and the Move-On Betrayus ad, a key document prepared by the GAO (pdf) was all but ignored during the hearings. There were in fact 18 benchmarks for the Iraq war effort outlined in the legislation passed in January of 2007 authorizing the surge. The opening of the document provides the most telling one sentence summary of what the US hoped to achieve at the time:
The January 2007 U.S. strategy seeks to provide the Iraqi government with the time and space needed to help Iraqi society reconcile.
Although the vaunted Petreaus COIN strategy paid lip service to winning “hearts and minds”, the sad reality is that the US spent zero effort on achieving any sort of social reconciliation in Iraq. The huge Sunni-Shia schism remained intact and was even further fed by the US’ hand-picked Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. On the list of benchmarks from the legislation, unlucky number 13 held the key:
Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security.
Needless to say, the GAO found that particular benchmark unmet in September, 2007 and it remains unmet today as Sunni extremist ISIS troops gain territory throughout Iraq while al-Maliki’s Shia forces melt away. A tremendous window opened for reconciliation when the Sunni militias abandoned al Qaeda in Iraq and joined with the US, but these groups were given no standing by al-Maliki, who even continued to send his Shia-dominated military into Sunni regions, laying groundwork for local support once ISIS came into the picture.
But it is Petraeus’ failure as the leading figure behind the training of Iraq’s forces that stands out today. From the New York Times:
Recent assessments by Western officials and military experts indicate that about a quarter of Iraq’s military forces are “combat ineffective,” its air force is minuscule, morale among troops is low and its leadership suffers from widespread corruption.
As other nations consider whether to support military action in Iraq, their decision will hinge on the quality of Iraqi forces, which have proved far more ragged than expected given years of American training.
The Washington Post piles on with more bad news:
After tens of thousands of desertions, the Iraqi military is reeling from what one U.S. official described as “psychological collapse” in the face of the offensive from militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The desperation has reached such a level that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is relying on volunteers, who are in some cases receiving as little as a week’s military training, to protect his ever-shrinking orbit of control.
“Over time, what’s occurred is that the Iraqi army has no ability to defend itself,” said Rick Brennan, a Rand Corp. analyst and former adviser to U.S. forces in Iraq. “If we’re unable to find ways to make a meaningful difference to the Iraqi army as they fight this, I think what we’re looking at is the beginning of the disintegration of the state of Iraq.”
In the end, all of the years and the billions of dollars spent on “training” Iraqi forces has given a force that is “combat ineffective’, “far more ragged than expected” and melts away at the first sign of resistance. But wait. Any day now, we will see that those 300 “advisers” we are sending into Iraq will magically train a new force that will get it right this time. Who knows, maybe Petraeus will be given yet another chance to lead that training. What could go wrong?
This partial screen capture from the “World” section of today’s New York Times really needs no further explanation of the incompetence of US diplomats and military strategists:
There simply are no words to adequately describe the insanity at work here. Even as each misadventure winds down in disastrous fashion, the new ones follow the same perverted script.
Marcy quickly responded, “Funny how you can graph surge out of existence.”
So how did the White House make Obama’s surge of troops into Afghanistan disappear? Consider this graph of troop levels in Afghanistan, where we see the surge of US troops into Afghanistan standing out clearly:
This graph shows what we are used to seeing for Afghanistan, where troop levels were only around 35,000 when Obama took office in 2009 and surged to almost 100,000 in 2010, remaining at that level through most of 2011, as well. So how did the White House hide this surge in their feel-good “bringing home the troops” message? They did it by making the graph include both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Here are the troop levels for Iraq:
There were around 150,000 US troops in Iraq when Obama took office and by the time his Afghanistan surge (remember, Obama campaigned about Afghanistan being the “good war”) reached its peak in late 2010, Iraq troop levels had dropped to around 50,000 (although Obama waved his hand and declared that these were no longer “combat troops”). So, with a net loss of 100,000 troops in Iraq during the same time period, the White House was able to make it appear that the surge of about 65,000 troops into Afghanistan never happened.
Maybe next week the White House can graph that pesky inequality of capital distribution out of existence. I’m sure it will make us all feel richer.
At long last, after over twelve years of war in Afghanistan and nearly eleven years since the invasion of Iraq, the majority of citizens in the US admit that the vaunted US military failed to achieve its goals in either effort. A Pew poll released yesterday showed that in nearly identical results, 52% of Americans feel our goals were not met in either country, while 14 to 15% fewer felt we had met our goals.
Back in August, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis had one prescription for addressing these failures when he argued that it is time to “Purge the Generals“. I quoted extensively from his analysis in a post shortly after it was published, but one of the primary points from Davis is that for too long, military leaders have lied about the status of military missions and never faced any consequences for their false claims of success.
We have seen a partial purge of higher military ranks lately, but these removals have been primarily for offenses that have caused acute embarrassment to the military, such as being caught using counterfeit poker chips in a casino. Congress also plays a huge role in the promotion of lies about success in military missions. As I noted last April, Armed Services Committee member Jack Reed delighted in getting Dunford to enter into the record a statement that we were “winning” in Afghanistan at the time.
The Pentagon and other inhabitants inside the Beltway would benefit greatly from some soul-searching into just how these two misadventures were allowed to start in blind rage and then be so badly mismanaged for so long. Of course, that will never happen, but we now have reached the stage where the folks who have paid the bill for the fiasco realize that the lives, money and effort have all been wasted. With public opinion running so strongly against the two latest high-profile wars, our politicians and the Pentagon will have to content themselves now with more clandestine actions using the Special Operations Forces that are deployed in over 100 countries around the globe.
Iraq has been seeping back into the headlines lately, as civilian deaths there have now reached a level last seen in 2008. What is striking about this increase is that it did not occur until almost 18 months after the last US troops left Iraq.
Here is a screen capture of the latest data on civilian deaths in Iraq by Iraq Body Count:
Recall that the final US troops left Iraq in the middle of December, 2011. The civilian death rate had leveled off in 2010 and remained steady throughout all of 2012, not rising significantly until May of 2013. Recall that earlier this week, conclusions of a National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan were leaked, suggesting that should the US completely withdraw troops from Afghanistan as we did in Iraq, the situation would deteriorate very rapidly. With Iraq now at high levels of violence, it would be very easy for politicians to lose sight of the very long gap between withdrawal of our troops and the rise in civilian deaths. Iraq should not be used as a cautionary tale against complete withdrawal though, since there was such a long gap between the withdrawal and the degradation of security.
Recall that David Petraeus was quick to accept praise for the drop in civilian death rates that began in late 2007 and continued throughout 2008. Many attributed this calming to Petraeus’ surge and others ascribed it to the “Anbar Awakening” that Petraeus exploited:
Controversially, he even started putting some Sunni groups – including some that had previously fought the U.S. – on the American payroll. The “Anbar Awakening” of Sunni groups willing to cooperate with the Americans had begun in 2005, but at a smaller scale. Petraeus recognized that the groups had real community influence and ability to bring security, whether he liked them or not, and brought them on board. At the program’s peak in 2008, the U.S. had “contracted” 103,000 fighters who were now ostensibly paid to assist an American-dominated peace rather than the disrupt it. That same year, according to Ricks, the U.S. signed ceasefire deals with 779 separate Iraqi militias.
Other analysts, especially Daniel Davis, came to the conclusion that most of the decline in violence was due to Sunni citizens in Anbar rejecting the extreme violence to which al Qaeda had sunk and especially its toll on fellow Muslims.
As is well known, the turning point in 2007 Iraq came when the heart of the Sunni insurgency turned against al-Qaeda and joined with US Forces against them, dramatically reducing the violence in Iraq almost overnight. The overriding reason the Sunni insurgency turned towards the United States was because after almost two years of internal conflict between what ought to have been natural allies – al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the greater Sunni insurgency – a tipping point was reached whereby the Iraqi Sunnis finally and decisively turned against AQI. Had this unnatural split not occurred, by all accounts I have been given on both the Iraqi side and the US military side, “we would still be fighting in Iraq today,” in the words of two officers I know who fought there.
Although there likely are many factors that contributed to the eventual outbreak of violence in Iraq that elevated civilian death rates, one possibility that intrigues me is that the timing fits reasonably well to be a part of Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan’s play for regional dominance. Marcy noted this week that the recent bombings in Russia fit with Bandar’s warning delivered to Putin in a secret meeting last July. But if we go back to the report on that meeting, we see this about Bandar’s regional plan and especially how it applied to Syria: Continue reading
One of the underlying assumptions for folks who joined the rush to claim that the UN report on the August 21 chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus proved the attack was carried out by Syrian government forces was that only government forces had access to the refined versions of chemical weapons that the Assad regime had amassed. That aspect of the story began to crumble quickly once the accidental diplomacy kicked in and it became clear that chemical weapons inspectors would need cooperation from both the Syrian government and rebel forces to gain access to all sites where chemical weapons are present. Today’s New York Times presents the clearest indication yet that it isn’t just access routes to chemical weapons sites that the rebels control, but that the rebels control some of the sites themselves:
A Western diplomat in the Arab world said that though the Syrian government was legally responsible for dismantling its chemical weapons under an international agreement, its opponents should also cooperate in the process, because several chemical weapons sites were close to confrontation lines or within rebel-held territory.
Somehow, though, the Times only discusses this very important piece of information in light of the need for rebels to grant access to the sites to the OPCW without noting that the rebels had direct access to chemical weapons (or their immediate precursors) previously belonging to the Syrian government. This admission by a “Western diplomat” completely invalidates the assumption that rebels had access only to crude, “home-made” versions of chemical weapons.
Today’s news fully underscores the need for a true ceasefire (as I have been shrilly pointing out for some time now):
“The international community also expects full cooperation from the opposition,” the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a delicate issue. “However divided the opposition might be, it would look very bad if the government was seen to be cooperating fully, while inspections were held up because of problems with the opposition.”
The inspection team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the watchdog group in charge of implementing the agreement along with the United Nations, has not publicly cited any specific instance of opposition fighters’ impeding access to chemical weapons sites. As with agencies that deliver relief aid, the inspectors face a complicated and uncertain process that requires cease-fires with multiple parties among fluid lines of combat.
Clearly, a general ceasefire by all parties would be much better than the current, piecemeal arrangement where it appears that localized agreements are put into place for individual excursions by the inspectors.
Finally, it should also be noted that however the Obama administration got to the diplomatic route involving the OPCW, we got new details over the weekend on how the Bush administration orchestrated the removal of the previous head of OPCW because he wanted to send inspectors into Iraq in 2001-2002 to verify that Iraqi chemical weapons had been destroyed in the 1990′s:
More than a decade before the international agency that monitors chemical weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize, John R. Bolton marched into the office of its boss to inform him that he would be fired.
“He told me I had 24 hours to resign,” said José Bustani, who was director general of the agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague. “And if I didn’t I would have to face the consequences.”
But Mr. Bustani and some senior officials, both in Brazil and the United States, say Washington acted because it believed that the organization under Mr. Bustani threatened to become an obstacle to the administration’s plans to invade Iraq. As justification, Washington was claiming that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, possessed chemical weapons, but Mr. Bustani said his own experts had told him that those weapons were destroyed in the 1990s, after the Persian Gulf war.
“Everybody knew there weren’t any,” he said. “An inspection would make it obvious there were no weapons to destroy. This would completely nullify the decision to invade.”
What a different place the world would be today if Bolton and his neocon buddies hadn’t held such sway during the George W. Bush presidency.
Even while Barack Obama and John Kerry are busily lobbying for a positive vote in Congress for their Not-War in Syria, it appears the Defense Department isn’t waiting for a pesky thing like Congressional approval or even the official start (as opposed to already ongoing but covert) of US actions to begin their usual process of mission creep that is undoubtedly to be followed by cries of “Just six more months and victory will be ours!”. The mission creep on targeting threatens the propaganda push that so far has been centered on selling the action as limited. We have New York Times articles this morning stating that Israel goes along with the idea of limited strikes but definitely doesn’t want to go all the way to regime change where radical Sunni groups might seize power, while at the same time we have the Pentagon claiming they’ve been tasked with expanding the number of targets for the strike. From the latter:
President Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.
Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria — to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.
For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved.
See? It’s the fault of all those dirty hippies insisting on following an old piece of paper and forcing the President to get a permission slip from Congress before taking action. That delay is why we have to expand the number of targets.
We are left to ponder just how it will be possible to magically target and kill Syrian forces tasked with moving chemical weapons around without actually hitting those weapons–which the forces are in the process of hiding. What could possibly go wrong here?
But I want to focus more fully on this AP article. Marcy had just read it when she sent out this tweet:
Press coverage from the Chuck-Hagel-Says-It’s-Covert training that HAS BEEN GOING ON in Jordan being given real time machine treatment.
— emptywheel (@emptywheel) September 6, 2013
That, along with the title: “US officials: US considers training Syria rebels”, suggests that the article is an expansion of the effort I outlined earlier in the week, where Barack Obama is trying to change both the date and the size of the first CIA-trained death squads to enter Syria, most likely because they are somehow tied up either as targets of the chemical weapons attack or as perpetrators of a false flag operation.
Diving into the article, though, we see that this is about adding to the death squad training by expanding into a much larger operation where US troops are directly involved in training a large force (for the Afghanistan analogy, this proposal is to move beyond the CIA training Afghan Local Police–the militias who become death squads–for our military to train the actual Afghan National Army, which is about ten times larger): Continue reading
Poor Joby Warrick. With Judy Miller so disgraced that Fox News had to issue a “she has nothing to apologize for” press release when they hired her back in 2008, Joby drew the short straw yesterday and was assigned to transcribe the
hyped bullshit concerns arising from Israel Syria’s neighbors that Syria might be contemplating use of biological weapons. The entire Warrick article needs to be read to get a full feel for its credulous recitations of completely unfounded speculation being passed off as actual intelligence, but I will stick with just a few paragraphs. Warrick opens by making a completely baseless claim:
Last month’s alleged chemical attack near Damascus has refocused attention on Syria’s 30-year-old biological weapons research and raised concerns about whether the government there could activate an effort to make a weapon.
Really, Joby? Aside from those “intelligence officials in two Middle East countries” who fed you this material, has anybody else voiced a concern that Syria is contemplating use of bioweapons, or even could produce bioweapons if they wanted to?
Even Warrick has to admit that any work on bioweapons in Syria is now over 30 years old. But that doesn’t deter Warrick and the spooks whispering in his ear:
Syria’s bioweapons program, which U.S. officials believe has been largely dormant since the 1980s, is likely to possess the key ingredients for a weapon, including a collection of lethal bacteria and viruses as well as the modern equipment needed to covert them into deadly powders and aerosols, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials and weapons experts.
Wow. the “US and Middle Eastern officials and weapons experts” guiding Warrick’s hands on the keyboard as he types are saying that despite not working on bioweapons for thirty years or so, they have the deadly organisms and equipment that would be needed to make “deadly powders and aerosols”.
Warrick and the spies who feed him have absolutely nothing on which to base this accusation. Let’s check a neutral source on what the real status of biotechnology capability in Syria is and whether it can be rapidly adapted to bioweapons. The Nuclear Threat Initiative provides a report on Syria’s potential bioweapons capability that was last updated in February of this year. They come to very different conclusions than Warrick (emphasis added):
In the past, unclassified statements by U.S. officials occasionally claimed reason to suspect Syria of maintaining an offensive BW program.  However, in contrast to discussions of Syrian chemical warfare (CW) capabilities, such claims have not included any details on the size and scale of Syria’s potential BW program, and are not presented alongside supporting evidence. Instead, discussions on this topic have focused on speculative extrapolations of Syrian dual-capable industry and on Syrian political motivations. Such analysis can be neither detailed nor comprehensive. Although the existence of a biotechnology industrial base would suggest that Syria has some indigenous expertise useful for developing a biological weapons capability, it does not imply and cannot confirm the existence of an offensive biological weapons program. Furthermore, given that Israel, a state that is understood to possess a nuclear arsenal and continues to occupy the Golan Heights, remains Syria’s primary security concern, and given the risk of “blowback” when deploying biological weapons, such weapons would be of questionable tactical desirability from a Syrian perspective. While public sources on the nature of Syria’s chemical and nuclear programs are limited, even less exists about Syria’s biological program, and “there is no hint of its existence from open sources.” 
The report goes on to detail what Syria’s biological industries do (again, emphasis added): Continue reading