The Covert Operation Undermining US Credibility against ISIS

Over the weekend, the NYT had a story reporting the “conspiracy theory” popular among Iraqis that the US is behind ISIS.

The United States has conducted an escalating campaign of deadly airstrikes against the extremists of the Islamic State for more than a month. But that appears to have done little to tamp down the conspiracy theories still circulating from the streets of Baghdad to the highest levels of Iraqi government that the C.I.A. is secretly behind the same extremists that it is now attacking.

“We know about who made Daesh,” said Bahaa al-Araji, a deputy prime minister, using an Arabic shorthand for the Islamic State on Saturday at a demonstration called by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr to warn against the possible deployment of American ground troops. Mr. Sadr publicly blamed the C.I.A. for creating the Islamic State in a speech last week, and interviews suggested that most of the few thousand people at the demonstration, including dozens of members of Parliament, subscribed to the same theory.


The prevalence of the theory in the streets underscored the deep suspicions of the American military’s return to Iraq more than a decade after its invasion, in 2003. The casual endorsement by a senior official, though, was also a pointed reminder that the new Iraqi government may be an awkward partner for the American-led campaign to drive out the extremists.

It suggests the theory arises from lingering suspicions tied to our occupation of Iraq.

But, given the publicly available facts, is the theory so crazy?

Let me clear: I am not saying the US currently backs ISIS, as the NYT’s headline but not story suggests is the conspiracy theory. Nor am I saying the US willingly built a terrorist state that would go on to found a caliphate in Iraq.

But it is a fact that the US has had a covert op since at least June 2013 funding Syrian opposition groups, many of them foreign fighters, in an effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Chuck Hagel confirmed as much in Senate testimony on September 3, 2013 (the NYT subsequently reported that President Obama signed the finding authorizing the op in April 2013, but did not implement it right away). We relied on our Saudi and Qatari partners as go-betweens in that op and therefore relied on them to vet the recipient groups.

At least as Steve Clemons tells it, in addition to the more “moderate” liver-eaters in the Free Syrian Army, the Qataris were (are?) funding Jabhat al-Nusra, whereas Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan gets credit for empowering ISIS — which is one of the reasons King Abdullah took the Syria portfolio away from him.

McCain was praising Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and a former ambassador to the United States, for supporting forces fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham had previously met with Bandar to encourage the Saudis to arm Syrian rebel forces.

But shortly after McCain’s Munich comments, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah relieved Bandar of his Syrian covert-action portfolio, which was then transferred to Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. By mid-April, just two weeks after President Obama met with King Abdullah on March 28, Bandar had also been removed from his position as head of Saudi intelligence—according to official government statements, at “his own request.” Sources close to the royal court told me that, in fact, the king fired Bandar over his handling of the kingdom’s Syria policy and other simmering tensions, after initially refusing to accept Bandar’s offers to resign.


ISIS, in fact, may have been a major part of Bandar’s covert-ops strategy in Syria. The Saudi government, for its part, has denied allegations, including claims made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, that it has directly supported ISIS. But there are also signs that the kingdom recently shifted its assistance—whether direct or indirect—away from extremist factions in Syria and toward more moderate opposition groups.


The worry at the time, punctuated by a February meeting between U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and the intelligence chiefs of Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, and others in the region, was that ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra had emerged as the preeminent rebel forces in Syria. The governments who took part reportedly committed to cut off ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and support the FSA instead. But while official support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia appears to have dried up, non-governmental military and financial support may still be flowing from these countries to Islamist groups.

Thus, to the extent that we worked with Bandar on a covert op to create an opposition force to overthrow Assad, we may well have had an indirect hand in its creation. That doesn’t mean we wanted to create ISIS. It means we are led by the nose by the Saudis generally and were by Bandar specifically, in part because we are so reliant on them for our HUMINT in such matters. Particularly given Saudi support for Sunnis during our Iraq occupation, can you fault Iraqis for finding our tendency to get snookered by the Saudis suspect?

Moreover, our ongoing actions feed such suspicions. Consider the way the Administration is asking for Congressional sanction (at least in the form of funding) for an escalated engagement in the region, without first briefing Congress on the stupid things it has been doing covertly for the last 18 months?

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The Cost of $100 Million Prison Expansions and Other “Civilian-Led” Blowback

In addition to green-lighting debt collection calls to cell phones, another of the deficit plans Obama rolled out today is basically claiming credit for military withdrawals.

The plan also realizes more than $1 trillion in savings over the next 10 years from our drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As DDay notes, these “cuts” are scheduled to happen anyway. It’s just funny accounting, particularly since the foreverwar hawks will fight some of these changes in any case.

But there’s another reason I think this is funny accounting. We’re not withdrawing, we’re switching to “civilian-led” efforts in these places. And Obama is not measuring the costs of these civilian-led efforts.

Such as the $100 million expansion we’re making to habeas-free Parwan prison in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineer (USACE) Middle East District intends to solicit names of construction firms or joint ventures experienced in working in the Middle East region who are interested in submitting a firm-fixed price offer for this project. To be considered a construction firm, the firm must perform construction as a significant portion of its business. This announcement is for the construction of Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP), Bagram, Afghanistan. The contractor shall comply with all base security requirements. Defense Base Act Insurance and Construction surety will be required. The estimated cost of the project is between $25,000,000 to $100,000,000.

PROJECT SCOPE: The scope of the Project includes construct detainee housing capability for approximately 2000 detainees. [my emphasis]

Glenn Greenwald hits much of what needs to be said about this expansion:

Budgetary madness to the side, this is going to be yet another addition to what Human Rights First recently documented is the oppressive, due-process-free prison regime the U.S. continues to maintain around the world:

Ten years after the September 11 attacks, few Americans realize that the United States is still imprisoning more than 2800 men outside the United States without charge or trial. Sprawling U.S. military prisons have become part of the post-9/11 landscape, and the concept of “indefinite detention” — previously foreign to our system of government — has meant that such prisons, and their captives, could remain a legacy of the 9/11 attacks and the “war on terror” for the indefinite future. . . . .

The secrecy surrounding the U.S. prison in Afghanistan makes it impossible for the public to judge whether those imprisoned there deserve to be there. What’s more, because much of the military’s evidence against them is classified, the detainees themselves have no right to see it. So although detainees at Bagram are now entitled to hearings at the prison every six months, they’re often not allowed to confront the evidence against them. As a result, they have no real opportunity to contest it.

In one of the first moves signalling just how closely the Obama administration intended to track its predecessor in these areas, it won the right to hold Bagram prisoners without any habeas corpus rights, successfully arguing that the Supreme Court’s Boumediene decision — which candidate Obama cheered because it guaranteed habeas rights to Guantanamo detainees — was inapplicable to Bagram.  Numerous groups doing field work in Afghanistan have documented that the maintenance of these prisons is a leading recruitment tool for the Taliban and a prime source of anti-American hatred.  Despite that fact — or, more accurately (as usual), because of it — the U.S. is now going to build a brand new, enormous prison there.

And then there’s the expansion we’re doing to the “Embassy” in Baghdad. Dan Froomkin lays this out.

U.S. diplomats, military advisers and other officials are planning to fall back to the gargantuan embassy in Baghdad — a heavily fortified, self-contained compound the size of Vatican City.

The embassy compound is by far the largest the world has ever seen, at one and a half square miles, big enough for 94 football fields. It cost three quarters of a billion dollars to build (coming in about $150 million over budget). Inside its high walls, guard towers and machine-gun emplacements lie not just the embassy itself, but more than 20 other buildings, including residential quarters, a gym and swimming pool, commercial facilities, a power station and a water-treatment plant.


The number of personnel under the authority of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq will swell from 8,000 to about 16,000 as the troop presence is drawn down, a State Department official told The Huffington Post. “About 10 percent would be core programmatic staff, 10 percent management and aviation, 30 percent life support contractors — and 50 percent security,” he said.


As the Department of Defense pulls out and its spending drops, the State Department is expecting its costs to skyrocket. State asked Congress for $2.7 billion for its Iraqi operations in fiscal year 2011, and got $2.1 billion. It wants $6.2 billion for next year. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee estimates that State’s plans will cost $25 to $30 billion over the next five years.

I use scarequotes for the word “Embassy” because I think it’s time we set aside the fiction that this is a State Department operation. Froomkin notes, for example, that the $6 billion a year State will be spending on this “Embassy” adds to the only $14 billion State spends, in total, right now.

It’s not just the actual spending I’m objecting to–the $100 million here, the $30 billion there–though Glenn’s point, that we refuse to spend a fraction of $100 million to fix CA’s prison overcrowding, is an important one.

It’s that in one of our colonies we’re doubling the size of our replacement Gitmo, right there in plain view of the people it will antagonize (though the expansion does raise questions about whether we’ll fill the prison with detainees from other countries, too).

And in another of our colonies we’re expanding our giant concrete intelligence bunker (I am open to suggestions for better names for this monstrosity), replete with numbers equal to the numbers of troops Nuri al-Maliki can’t publicly approve. Will the fact that intelligence and contractor personnel are watching over our colony be any less incendiary to the Moqtada al-Sadrs of Iraq than men and women we explicitly called troops? Isn’t this stupid fiction–with the legal fiction it exploits–be in a number of ways worse?

Call it a crazy suspicion. But our non-withdrawal withdrawals from our colonies seems ripe for blowback in a very very big (and expensive) way.

Of course that’s precisely the kind of cost even the deficit hawks refuse to count, so we’ll never see it accounted for in any budget.

Condi’s Pissing Contest with Moqtada al-Sadr

Siun and Spencer make what I believe to be the most important point about Condi’s taunt of Moqtada al-Sadr.

“I know he’s sitting in Iran,” Rice said dismissively, when asked about al-Sadr’s latest threat to lift a self-imposed cease-fire with government and U.S. forces. “I guess it’s all-out war for anybody but him,” Rice said. “I guess that’s the message; his followers can go [to] their deaths and he’s in Iran.”

Here’s Siun:

Hmmm … am I missing something here? Aside from the fact that it is only the U.S. military that keeps claiming al Sadr is always in Iran, I had not noticed the redeployment of the Bush White House and State Department to the streets of Iraq. Occasional drop-ins at the Green Zone, less occasional speed tours of locations outside the GZ (complete with air cover and hundreds of military escorts), sure, but … when did George and Condi move to Baghdad?

And here’s Spencer:

So Sadr is a coward for making threats from Iran… and Condoleezza Rice is a stateswoman for blustering Sadr into making a move that carries the potential of killing American soldiers. Why is this woman respected again?

Once again, this Administration’s claims of manlihood are so much empty fluff.

But I’d like to point out something else about Condi’s taunt. Back when Dick Cheney snuck off to Iraq to meet with Nuri al-Maliki, it remained unclear whether or not Cheney’s visit had some causal relationship with what came next: Maliki’s ill-fated offensive into Basra. It seemed like a pretty telling coincidence, but the Administration barely admitted the US was providing air support, much less admit that Dick at least approved–if not incited–the offensive.

I submit we will have no doubts about what comes next. Condi has made it very clear she owns–we own–whatever atrocities are about to happen in Sadr City.

Update: Here’s Scarecrow making the same point. He also notes that, by inciting more civil war, the US seems to be engaging in an effort to further empower Iran.

The Administration wanted this fight, and Petraeus’ first duty is to protect the Green Zone from rocket attacks. His only tactical complaint was his claim — which now appears disingenuous — that the Iraqis tried to move against Basra before US forces were ready. He blamed al Maliki’s impatience for the initial stumbles, but as soon as the offensive stalled, the Americans (and British) bailed out the Read more