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COIN Wars - On Daniel Bolger's "Why We Lost":(Commentary Magazine, April 2015)

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Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars
By Daniel P. Bolger
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pages

The shooting wars may be drawing to a close, but the war about the wars continues to rage. The latest salvo is Why We Lost, a provocative book by Daniel P. Bolger, a U.S. Army lieutenant general who retired in 2013 after 35 years and three major commands in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I am a United States Army General, and I lost the Global War on terrorism,” Bolger writes in the preface. “It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.”

Bolger’s confession may center on an arguably premature assertion of defeat but it certainly promises writing of a directness, self-awareness, and skill seldom encountered in books by former generals. What’s more, it suggests a bracing and much-needed critique. Is it?

Why We Lost turns out to be every bit as gripping as you would hope, thanks to a writing style that is sharp, astringent, and refreshingly jargon-free. (Bolger, who has a Ph.D. from Chicago and taught at West Point, was an accomplished author long before he received his star, having published a thriller as well as several works of military history). But it falls short as both a confession and an indictment. Although the book’s subtitle describes “A General’s Insider Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars,” Bolger’s work is not autobiographical. Neither is it a treatise or policy argument. Instead Bolger offers a fast-moving narrative history of the two major military campaigns of the Global War on Terror, interspersed with vivid stories of “in the weeds” combat taken from various recent memoirs and histories. These tales, which include accounts of exhausted and enraged soldiers breaking the laws of war, seem intended not just to give a flavor of the fighting but to illustrate the agonizing difficulties of battling insurgents and therefore the supposed wrongheadedness of forcing American soldiers do it.

What the stories don’t do, however, is back up Bolger’s central claim: that the campaigns were lost, and that they were lost because of “poor strategic and operational leadership” by himself and his fellow generals. Nor does Bolger go into much detail discussing specific errors of judgment by his fellow generals. After a while, Bolger’s insistence that generals take the blame for political and strategic decisions—which were actually made in Washington by presidents, cabinet officers, or the joint chiefs—feels almost masochistic.

In fact, one of the odd things about Why We Lost is that Bolger’s talk of “losing” and “failure” tends to be undermined by a narrative that demonstrates how impressive the U.S. Army is at adapting and learning from its mistakes, at least compared with other large bureaucratic government organizations. Bolger himself admires how the Army rapidly developed a talent for combining intelligence with special operations in order to capture and kill terrorists.

He also touches on the impressive fact that junior commanders not only quickly realized that fresh approaches were needed in Iraq but also experimented with techniques that were eventually codified in the Counterinsurgency Strategy and Field Manual championed by General David Petraeus—which resulted in the Surge and the Sunni Awakening that turned around America’s fortunes in Iraq in 2007.

Even odder, Bolger’s own account suggests that some of the worst reverses of the Iraq war took place not because of poor strategy, poor structure, or poor decisions made by generals—but thanks to unpredictable mistakes made by less powerful individuals. Prime examples include the worldwide scandal that erupted as a result of a few prison guards and their horrible behavior at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and the recklessness of private military contractors who brought about the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004.

But Bolger’s storytelling is so skillful that it almost doesn’t matter if his arguments contradict one another. The first half of the book, which deals with the war on terror before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is especially entertaining, not least because it is free of political correctness and diplomatic scruple. After describing how General Norman Schwarzkopf, the chief commander of the 1991 Gulf War, acceded to Saudi demands that American troops based in Saudi Arabia abjure not only alcohol but also Christian and Jewish insignia, he explains that “the Saudis did not see themselves as hosts.” He continues:

In their own eyes they were customers, buying Americans and other defenders in much the same way they hired hundreds of thousands of Filipino, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani contract laborers to build their homes, run their oil wells, and clean their streets…Schwarzkopf agreed to the King’s directives, and the Americans accepted substantial Saudi financing and, later, material support…so the transactional relationship looked very clear to the Arab authorities…the House of Saud had rented the best armed forces in the world.

Bolger is also good on the attitudes and actions of Saddam Hussein in the wake of his 1991 defeat. The Iraqi dictator, he says, drew important lessons from the American victory, our rapid departure from the conflict, and Schwarzkopf’s naive decision to let Saddam’s regime continue to use its attack helicopters. Most critically, he understood the “operational importance” of propaganda and the possibilities of 24-hour cable news: It was relentless CNN footage of the “Highway of Death,” along which Iraq’s military retreated from Kuwait, that prompted the eventual cease-fire. As Bolger points out: “Rarely have rapists and pillagers garnered such thoughtful consideration.”

But when Bolger reaches the 9/11 attacks, he turns his sardonic wit on the U.S. government. Something had to be done, of course, but, he says, the question that planners didn’t want to confront was, “Who was the enemy?” While it was al-Qaeda rather than its Taliban hosts who still threatened America, “the quasi-conventional Taliban furnished a much more appropriate target set for U.S. firepower.”

And yet Bolger has little time for those who lambast the Bush administration and the military under Donald Rumsfeld for the fact that Osama bin Laden and his entourage were not killed or captured in the Afghan caves of Tora Bora in the winter of 2001. Given the terrain and the weather, America “could have deployed the entire 10th mountain division” and still been unable to close off every ratline” into Pakistan.

Bolger’s critique intensifies with his account of the first days after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Some of the mistakes he highlights were unquestionably just that. One of the most astonishing was that General Tommy Franks, in charge of the invasion, and his staff failed to set up a clear chain of command in newly conquered Iraq. They envisaged a civilian headquarters called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), to be run by retired general Jay Garner, which would “coordinate” with the Army’s V Corps headquarters during the six months or so it would take Iraqi society to get back on its feet. This meant no one was in charge.

As Bolger relates, this arrangement was soon replaced by an equally hazy one. Paul Bremer, a former ambassador to the Netherlands, took over the newly formed Coalition Provisional Authority. V Corps was replaced by a new military headquarters led by Ricardo Sanchez, a newly promoted lieutenant general who had never commanded a division in combat. According to Bolger, when Bremer issued his controversial orders dissolving the Baath Party and the country’s army, he did so without consulting his military opposite number.

Regardless of who was in charge, Bolger believes the underlying situation was impossible. “Replace Bremer with Henry Kissinger and Sanchez with Dwight Eisenhower, cancel the de-Baathification orders, and the stark facts on the ground still sat there oozing pus and bile,” he writes. “With Saddam gone, any voting would install a Shiite majority. The Sunni wouldn’t run Iraq again. That, at the bottom, caused the insurgency.” (Like many commentators on the war, Bolger often seems blasé about the oppression of Iraq’s Kurds and Shia under the Baathist regime and the dominance of the Sunni minority.)

Bolger has a peculiar soft spot for General John Abizaid, who commanded the U.S. Central Command during that first vital year of the occupation. Given Abizaid’s inability to see that the heavy-handed, crudely “kinetic” approach of the U.S. military was quickly fomenting an insurgency, Bolger’s regard is hard to understand. The reason only becomes apparent in subsequent chapters, when Bolger reveals his loathing for David Petraeus, who took over the American effort in early 2007. It’s a loathing so intense that it targets not only Petraeus’s person but also the counterinsurgency doctrine he championed and everyone associated with it. At the same time, any general, who, like Abizaid, prominently opposed Petraeus and his team of maverick soldier scholars, or who opposed the surge, gets an automatic high rating from Bolger, no matter how unsuccessful his command really was.

Much of this animus seems to be a matter of personality. Petraeus, as Bolger points out, had risen quickly thanks in part to what he sees as shameless networking. “He had more connections than ten of his peers, and he wasn’t shy about using them,” he writes. Petraeus possessed “inordinate” ambition and was a skilled and assiduous “self-promoter.” Indeed, according to Bolger, Petraeus was a member of “the AAA club,” which he defines as “that careerist self promotion society that hung out near the military throne rooms: Aides, Adjutants, and Assholes.” Bolger makes sure to remind the reader of Petraeus’s relative lack of height, as if that might be the key to his character flaws.

This antipathy corrupts Bolger’s analysis of the Iraq war. After he condemns the generals for trying the same failing policies year after year, he pours scorn on those such as Petraeus who not only tried something different but were so successful that the war was virtually won when the Obama administration decided to abandon it.

That said, when Bolger’s perspective is not distorted by this odd animus, he points out problems most civilian authors have failed to notice. These include the fact that the Army underwent a major structural reorganization—becoming a force based on “brigade combat teams” rather than divisions—in the middle of the war, and that its personnel-rotation policies undermined unit cohesion until 2004.

Bolger is particularly perceptive about the way “information warfare” turned out to be a force multiplier for the other side in Iraq. He considers the grotesque photographs from Abu Ghraib the equivalent of a huge battlefield defeat. And he explains how the Marine Corps’ efforts to retake Fallujah in April 2004 were essentially defeated by Al Jazeera news teams. The Qatar-based network’s carefully curated footage of destruction and suffering so rattled both the Tony Blair government and Iraqi politicians that the United States had little choice but to halt the operation.

Unfortunately, insights like these play a smaller role in the book than do attacks on COIN and its champions. Though Bolger himself once advocated for more COIN training, he now insists that the military must pursue only “short, decisive conventional wars, for limited ends.”

It’s a view that mirrors a way of thinking that first became Army orthodoxy in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Apologists for that failure, led by the historian Russell Weigley, maintained that the “American way of war” was “big war” involving the use of overwhelming force and high technology to annihilate the enemy. COIN, they argued, is incompatible with our national character and talents, and should not be studied, lest familiarity lead to use.

This was and is nonsense: The United States has successfully fought many “small wars”—starting with the campaign against the Barbary Pirates.

It is understandable that commanders of Bolger’s vintage would dislike tricky “low-intensity operations” and prefer that the military be used only in Desert Storm–style pitched battles against easily crushable Third World armed forces. Unfortunately, U.S. interests may require riskier forms of military action, especially now that America’s enemies are often too smart to challenge her in conventional army-to-army battles. And the fact is that in Iraq many U.S. commanders—and their troops—turned out to be very adept at using forms of warfare that required cunning, cultural awareness, intellectual flexibility, a willingness to delegate authority, and the skillful application of relatively limited force.

Bolger may have a point, however, when he says that one of the greatest mistakes our generals made was to assume that the politicians at home would go along with a decades-long military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans, he maintains, don’t do long-term active military commitments. Bolger believes the generals should have argued for immediate pullouts after overthrowing the Taliban and Saddam regimes.

Some experienced and thoughtful people in the military share Bolger’s view. It’s an understandable argument given the tremendous difficulty and cost of Afghan nation-building. It seems likely, however, that had the United States and her allies pulled out in 2002 after installing Karzai in Kabul, Afghanistan would have returned quickly to the chaos and civil war that characterized the pre-Taliban era. And Pakistan probably would have ensured that its favorite fundamentalist terror groups and the rump Taliban retained power. This would have cast a pall over America’s swift victory and might have emboldened other regimes giving sanctuary to anti-American terrorists.

It is also far from clear that the campaign in Afghanistan has been lost. America and her coalition allies have achieved much there despite various mistakes. And there are encouraging signs from Afghanistan, despite the opportunities offered to the insurgents by the premature drawdown of coalition forces and President Obama’s insistence on a 2016 withdrawal. We could still lose in Afghanistan. But if the campaign ends in defeat, it is likely to be a self-inflicted and unnecessary one, like the one the Obama administration oversaw in Iraq. Although Bolger’s book was completed before ISIS took Mosul, ISIS’s rise to power surely casts doubt on his belief that an even more premature withdrawal from Iraq by U.S. forces would have had more benign results for the region or American interests.

Despite all these caveats, Why We Lost serves an important purpose as one of the first salvos in the military’s historiographical battle to make sense of the past decade. It also sets a high literary bar for the books that will follow and answer it.

The Afghan Handover (The Weekly Standard Nov.17, 2014)

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It’s not too late for the president to rethink his arbitrary end date


With less than two months to go until the end of the mission, the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul can feel a little forlorn. You still encounter an amazing mix of uniforms, headgear, ethnicities, and accents, with Macedonian troops brushing shoulders with soldiers from Mongolia. The gym is still packed at all hours. There are still civilian contractors walking around with pistols strapped importantly to their hips. But the national support element clubhouses are empty, the PXs are closing, and some major ISAF participants like the Canadians are long gone. An organization that was once so large its operational command hadits own separate base at Kabul airport and was in command of 150,000 troops from 48 nations—a quarter of the world’s countries—is shrinking rapidly.

U.S. Army Black Hawk at Kabul airport

In a huge and complicated engineering operation, vast bases are being closed and stripped, or handed over along with their power and water plants to Afghan forces who may or may not be able to staff and operate them effectively. ISAF, which had already largely shifted during the course of 2014 from a combat mission to one described as “train, assist, advise,” is now down to 34,000 personnel; there will be less than 12,000 by the end of the year.

Of course, the war is not over. Come January, ISAF will morph into a NATO-led partnership called Resolute Support Afghanistan. “A noncombat mission in a combat environment” as one foreign colonel called it, Resolute Support is supposed to train, advise, and assist Afghan security institutions in what you might call their higher functions: budgeting, corruption oversight, civil-military relations, recruitment, strategy and planning, and intelligence gathering.

The plan is to have a hub in Kabul or Bagram and four or five spokes. The Germans will run the training and advisory command at Mazar in the North, the Italians will do the same in Herat in the West, and the United States will be in charge of the other bases, which are likely to be in Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Bagram.

Planning for the new mission, including raising the required number of troops, was severely delayed by ex-president Karzai’s refusal to sign a Status of Forces Agreement and Bilateral Security Agreement, and also by the election crisis over the summer. NATO is now frantically trying to ensure that it has the 12,000 soldiers it calculates are the minimum needed for the mission to work. If it doesn’t get the full complement of troops from NATO and 14 partner states, Resolute Support will be cut down to only four spokes. That would not be a good thing, either for the training mission or for the wider goals of the alliance in Afghanistan.

After all, America and its allies need their own sources of intelligence in Afghanistan. This is not simply because Afghan corps commanders have a tendency to exaggerate Taliban numbers in an effort to get more funds and more support. It’s also because the drawdown has prompted neighboring states—some concerned about the vacuum, others malevolent—to increase their activity in Afghanistan.

The Resolute Support advisers also need to be able to defend themselves should things go wrong. Although the safety of the foreign advisers will ultimately depend on the Afghan Security Forces, there is a “force protection” element built into Resolute Support; it is not clear if it is nearly large or strong enough.

The rebranded NATO-led organization will shift the training, advice, and assistance from the tactical realm to Afghanistan’s ministries and corps commands. The hope is to make the Afghan government and military leadership capable of sustaining their 350,000-strong forces in the field.

This will be a considerable challenge. For a host of cultural, political, and historical reasons, it can be much easier to teach Afghan soldiers infantry tactics and weapons handling than to impress the essentials of modern logistics, joint operations, and fire support on their senior commanders, or to get the generals and politicians to ensure that soldiers and police are consistently, adequately paid and supplied with food, water, and fuel.

On the other hand, one of the things that quickly becomes apparent if you spend time at ISAF headquarters in Kabul or in the regional commands, or if you visit 
the specialized bases where ISAF personnel are “training the trainers,” is that after more than a decade in the country, and many mistakes, ISAF’s advisers really “get” Afghans and Afghanistan.

The learning curve was long and was not helped by rotations of troops and units that all but ensured the frequent loss of hard-earned institutional knowledge. The ISAF personnel you meet these days, however, are not only impressively able and experienced (it’s common to meet officers, enlisted troops, and civilians who have done multiple tours) but also movingly devoted to Afghanistan.

As you might expect, they have few of the illusions that beset many of the first commanders and aid workers who arrived here in 2002; but neither do they tend to be so cynical about getting things done “the Afghan way” that they’re willing turn a blind eye to rank incompetence and corruption.

On the Afghan side, if you speak to the generals about international assistance you inevitably hear a litany of requests and complaints—they need more heavy weapons, more close air support, and of course more money. Relay those complaints and requests to ISAF commanders and you’re likely to hear depressing and comical anecdotes, such as the recent discovery by an ISAF officer of an Afghan Army warehouse filled with brand new NATO-supplied high-tech anti-IED devices. The Afghan National Army did not know it had been supplied with these devices because the troops that accepted delivery were essentially illiterate and had no idea what was in the boxes.

As time goes on, though, such debacles seem to be less frequent, not least because illiteracy is dramatically lower both in the army and in Afghanistan in general. It’s now easier for the government and the military to hire people who can fill out the forms upon which tasks like the supply of spare parts depend and use the computers that are the basis of all the management systems that ISAF has tried to teach.

A combination of accumulated effort and accumulated cultural awareness has enabled ISAF to transform the way the Afghan Army is paid. Some 85 percent of the soldiers now have salaries paid directly into personal bank accounts they can access through ATMs installed at all the big Afghan bases. This is a revolutionary change, as formerly they were paid in cash from money supplied to their corps commanders—with all the potential for mischief that you might expect. Many Afghan soldiers are said to believe that they were given a 25 percent pay raise this year; they weren’t, it was just that for the first time they got their full salaries unaffected by the generals’ skimming.

It’s not a foolproof system. It’s possible that some generals and defense officials will figure out a way to input nonexistent personnel or whole ghost units into the system and take their salaries. But it’s one of several instances in which ISAF advisers have come up with mechanisms that make government more efficient while removing opportunities to steal or otherwise abuse the power of the state.

Another example is the way the British officers who set up and advise the Afghan National Officers Academy (sometimes called the “Sandhurst in the Sand” after the U.K.’s equivalent of West Point) established a selection system highly resistant to the usual nepotism and tribal influence. All candidates who come to the academy at Qargha are given randomly assigned identity numbers before they take a week of physical and academic tests. Only one person on the entire base has the list that matches numbers to names—the British colonel in charge of the training team. That means that the Afghan commander and his staff can honestly tell any powerful individual who contacts them hoping his influence will ensure the selection of a particular candidate that they are simply unable to game the system for him.

On the purely military side of things, thanks to years of hard work by NATO and ISAF trainers and advisers, units of the Afghan National Army not only can fight in an organized and effective way, but are often more proactive than they used to be. This, along with the shift to “Afghan-led” operations, is one of the reasons why Afghan Security Forces suffered higher casualties this year. Not only was the 2014 “fighting season” Afghan-led and largely successful, but the security forces managed to protect a massive double election process that the Taliban had sworn to disrupt.

On the other hand, the United States and ISAF allowed the ANA’s better units to get used to being ferried to the battlefield in American helicopters and to have highly effective ISAF close air support on speed dial; next year they will have to do without both. They do have helicopters of their own—and will have more, along with a score of Tucano ground attack planes—but beginning in 2015 the Afghan Army and police will no longer have even the possibility of consistent support and backup from first-world air forces, and no one knows how they will do.

In general, Afghan realities are complex and confusing. The more you talk to people here, the more contradictory stories you hear, and the harder it is to get a sense of how things are really going. Some people say with confidence that the Taliban is increasingly fractured and has lost much of its raison d’être with the departure of most foreign forces; others insist that Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura retains enough influence to be a useful interlocutor. Some foreign officials scoff at the way their Afghan counterparts blame insurgency and terrorism on Pakistan’s intelligence service; others regret the failure of Washington and its allies to put more pressure on Islamabad to stop sponsoring terror groups like the Haqqani network. 

On the one hand, corruption, incompetence, and a leadership culture shaped by a toxic combination of Soviet-style and Central Asian warlordism are rife in the Afghan military establishment. On the other hand, the tactical skill and courage of much of the Afghan Army is undeniable. Some senior ISAF and Afghan Army commanders insist that the Afghan Local Police program, which enlists villagers in local defense forces, has generally been a success; others are equally convinced that the ALP are unreliable at best and prone to banditry and moonlighting for the Taliban.

Still, even off the record, the ISAF commanders both at the top and in the training missions tend to be relatively optimistic about the direction Afghanistan is going. They draw considerable comfort from the performance of the Afghan Security Forces during the 2014 fighting season, and in particular during the two elections. If there was ever a time in which the Afghan military might have split along ethnic and regional lines it would have been in between the two elections. The fact that nothing of the sort took place arguably outweighs an ongoing lack of cooperation between the army and the country’s many police forces and the ability of insurgent groups to carry out high-profile attacks in some areas.

They can see that in terms of trends within Afghanistan time is on their side. With every passing year the proportion of the adult population that is young, literate, and either urban or connected to the world beyond the village by mass media, mobile phone, and Internet grows by leaps and bounds, while the backward conditions that created warlordism and then the Taliban are becoming a distant memory.

Some see signs of an osmotic influence. Many Afghans have had more than a decade of exposure to professionalism, to a modern, Western style of military leadership, to the advantages of merit-based promotion, and to organizational cultures that prize individual responsibility.

If you go to, say, the Afghan special forces training base at Camp Commando on the outskirts of Kabul, you can see the effect of this. The officers there from the commanding general down are fit and serious with little sign of that well-fed indolence that indicates high status in many Middle Eastern and Asian societies. While there are still some older generals in the Afghan Army who sport airborne or ranger patches in empty imitation of American advisers, the officers and NCOs here wear patches they have actually earned at elite schools in the United States or Europe. They come back from those crucibles with fundamentally altered ideas of rank and hierarchy.

That said, the ISAF and NATO leaders here were all shaken to some degree by the election crisis and by the way that Karzai’s delay in signing the Status of Forces and Bilateral Security agreements risked a total pullout of foreign forces. The fact that the Taliban was unable to obstruct the election and the dispute was finally resolved in the form of a nascent national unity government was therefore reassuring.

They are also all well aware of the political problems here that will require international involvement and large-scale donation for decades to come. For instance, there is no way that Afghanistan with its limited government revenue could by itself sustain security forces of any significant size for decades to come. They fear, as do many Afghan politicians, that without foreign military forces on the ground, and with new crises emerging in the Middle East and Africa, Western donors may lose interest in the country.

They also think that the timeline of the new mission is far too short. NATO has not specified an end date for Resolute Support. Theoretically it could last until the end of the Bilateral Security Agreement two decades from now. But in practice it is set to finish by the end of 2016, because of President Obama’s insistence that all U.S. troops be gone by then. His plan for half of the U.S. contingent to be pulled out by the end of 2015, regardless of conditions on the ground, essentially rips the heart out of the whole exercise. It will leave the training mission understaffed and largely undefended.

The president’s politically determined end date for Resolute Support, like his previous 2014 deadline, undermines the mission in several ways. It will encourage the insurgents, who know they just have to hold on for two years. It discourages ambivalent allies and supporters in Afghanistan and abroad. It will demoralize soldiers and civilians who know they will have to leave regardless of where their mission stands. And it may well encourage a cynical “screw-it” attitude on the part of personnel who understandably don’t want to be killed or maimed for a cause that the U.S. government clearly does not believe in.

The new president, Ashraf Ghani, has indicated that the duration of Resolution is too short. Senior NATO leaders, both military and civilian, Afghan government officials, and members of civil society, the people at the top of the international aid effort here, and even the reflexively cynical Kabul press corps, all agree. Even the governments of India and even Pakistan have expressed their concerns about the 2016 pullout to the U.S. government. All of them are hoping against hope that the disaster of Iraq will inspire the president to revise his decision. Certainly you would think that all that has happened in Syria and Iraq might prompt the administration and its supporters in the U.S. media and think-tank world to be less complacent about the fate of Afghanistan.

The one thing that has given hope to many people here at ISAF is that Germany’s Angela Merkel is said to have given a classified briefing to the Bundestag in which she said that Germany would push for a longer mission. If President Obama could be persuaded by her example to go for a condition-related date of departure, rather than the rigid deadline he has so far embraced, then perhaps the vast amount of effort and sacrifice, blood and treasure, spent in Afghanistan will not have been given in vain.

Enemies, Allies and Kurdistan (Weekly Standard, Nov. 03, 2014)

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The Case For a Major New US Military Base

It is not clear at the time of writing if Turkey will or will not allow the United States to use the NATO air base at Incirlik for airstrikes against ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq. On October 13, national security adviser Susan Rice announced that Turkey had finally agreed to the use of the base, only to be contradicted the very next day by Turkey’s foreign minister. A subsequent press report claimed that the Turks were allowing their American allies to fly reconnaissance drones from Incirlik but no manned aircraft.

The brouhaha exemplifies a troubling downward trend in America’s ability to project power in the Middle East, a trend that goes beyond Turkey and its peculiar, complicated, sometimes hostile relationship with America. The ISIS crisis and the feebleness of the current air campaign don’t just provide evidence that only a foolish leader would preclude putting at least some “boots on the ground” in a military campaign. They also show that the countries that have long given us basing rights in the region may not be as cooperative or as trustworthy as our planners assume them to be, and that this is likely to get worse.

Given this unfortunate development, it is time for America’s planners to consider breaking with tradition and setting up new bases in countries that are likely to remain reliable allies—even if they are not yet recognized as independent states. 

Iraqi Kurdistan is just such a place (another is the Somaliland Republic, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen). It is not technically an independent state, as it has not seceded from the battered, unraveling republic of Iraq. But at this point that doesn’t really matter. Baghdad is hardly in a position to object to any deal between the United States and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Indeed, any hope that Iraq has of remaining a single state, federal or confederal, once ISIS has been defeated would depend on Baghdad and whoever controls it (likely a Shiite-dominated government), giving the KRG something very close to de facto independence.

Similarly, the only way Iraqi Kurdistan will feel really safe from invasion by Baghdad-controlled forces, an ISIS-Sunni alliance, a Turkey that has returned to its old anti-KRG ways, or Iran (Syria is unlikely to be a threat for a long time to come) is if there is a U.S. military presence in the country.

For both the Iraqi Kurds and the United States, then, a U.S. base in Kurd-istan—which already has airfields with long military-spec runways—would offer the United States tremendous strategic advantages.

These are all the more important in a region where U.S. influence has diminished, and in which the United States may well lose access to some of its biggest air, land, and naval bases in the medium or long term.

In the short term it obviously makes sense. There has been much talk about the need for the United States and its allies to stand up effective local forces in the war against ISIS. But the 5,000-strong Syrian rebel force that U.S. military leaders think they can stand up within a year or two is nowhere near adequate.

A proper alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan, one that includes the training and equipping of more effective Kurdish armed forces, offers perhaps the only hope of defeating ISIS without having to cooperate militarily with Iran (which would demand nuclear concessions and continue to undermine U.S. interests in Iraq) or Syria’s Assad regime (which has much American as well as Syrian and Iraqi blood on its hands).

Despite the Obama administration’s reflexive hostility to Kurdish aspirations and the official U.S. government preference for dealing only with Baghdad, the airports of Iraqi Kurdistan have reportedly become U.S. military installations as a matter of simple necessity. Some of the big air bases in Iraq proper like Balad and Taji are either too vulnerable to ISIS attack to be used by coalition aircraft or have already been captured. As for bases further south like the Rasheed base in Baghdad, the Iranian military is already using them to launch surveillance drones, and U.S. military officials are rightly nervous about the security implications of sharing an air base with, and being studied by, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

 But quite apart from the immediate value of Iraqi Kurdistan in the ISIS campaign, it would make sense for the United States to form a closer military partnership with the KRG. Unlike several of the countries from which we fly our aircraft or base our ships, its leaders and people are pro-American, its ruling regime is not a monarchy ripe for Arab Spring-style overthrow, it’s not trying to replace the United States as a regional hegemon, it does not sponsor Islamist terrorism, and if we did ally with it, we would be guaranteeing its freedom and security in such a way as to bind it to us by the strongest cords of self-interest and gratitude.

Currently, American military efforts in the region are dependent on Qatar, which hosts CENTCOM’s forward HQ and the huge al-Udeid air base, Kuwait, home of the Ali-al-Salem airfield, the UAE, location of the Al-Dhafra air base, and Bahrain, which is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Qatar is said to sponsor Islamism and jihadist militancy around the world: Its financial beneficiaries have allegedly included Hamas, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Somalia’s al Shabab, the al Qaeda-allied Nusra Front in Syria, and finally the Afghan Taliban. Alleged Qatari support for ISIS has prompted the U.S. Treasury to single out the kingdom as an especially “permissive jurisdiction” for terrorist financing.

Kuwait, too, has sponsored the Muslim Brotherhood as well as more radical Islamist groupings around the world. It was revealed by WikiLeaks to have been a key transit point for al Qaeda financing.

Moreover, the Arab Spring showed that even the most stable-seeming authoritarian monarchies and dictatorships can be more vulnerable than they look. It should be clear to U.S. planners that it is risky to assume that the rulers of the Gulf States will continue in power or that they will continue to be on America’s side.

Certainly violence in Bahrain, where members of the Shiite majority protested against Sunni rulers and were brutally repressed with Saudi assistance, should have the Pentagon making plans for the day when the regime has been overthrown and neither CENTCOM nor the Navy can use the country as a base.

As for Turkey, now that it sees itself as potential top dog in a region from which America withdrew, it is unlikely ever to give us free rein at Incirlik, regardless of the destination or mission of U.S. aircraft. And even if the Erdogan government were inclined to be more cooperative in the matter of ISIS, the Turkish military has on several occasions shown itself willing to sacrifice the U.S. alliance on the altar of its anti-Kurdish obsession.

There is a strong argument that gaining a permanent U.S. base in Iraq, preferably in Kurdistan, always ought to have been a primary U.S. goal after the 2003 invasion, and not just because such a boon might have quieted those “realist” opponents of the Iraq mission who abhorred talk of fostering democratic government in the Middle East.

The United States has lost several key bases in recent years, the most significant one being the Kharshi Khanabad base in Uzbekistan (thanks to Russian pressure). At the very least, the existence of a major modern U.S.-equipped air base in Kurdistan would offer redundancy for whenever Turkey refuses permission for the use of Incirlik, or for the day when Turkey might cease being even a nominal ally.

A U.S. air base in Iraqi Kurdistan would give America the ability to influence events in the immediate region and also in the Caucasus. Just the reconnaissance capability would be transformative. After all, Sulaymaniyah is only 330 miles from Tehran and 500 miles from Damascus.

A U.S. base in Kurdistan could make all the difference to Washington’s military options when dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. The fact that airstrikes would be significantly less difficult—not to mention the potential for inserting special forces by air or land—might well have a salutary effect on Tehran and therefore make such an action less necessary and less likely.

Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the few places in the world where both the government and the population actively desire an American military presence. Indeed the KRG has been quietly lobbying for more than a decade for the United States to establish a base in its territory.

The Kurdistan Regional Government certainly has its flaws and would continue to have them even if the country asserted its independence and became a formal U.S. ally. Its key institutions are dominated by two rival clans, there are serious problems with corruption, and also periodic problems with press freedom. Still, the country is more democratic and much more religiously tolerant than most others in the region. A formal, quasi-permanent arrangement for a U.S. base in Kurd-istan could transform for the better America’s position in the region. It would also be a good thing for all the Kurds (not just those in Iraq), a good thing for Iraq, and arguably a good thing for a region that otherwise will be a proxy battleground for Iran and Turkey.

Can An Independent Kurdistan Reshape the Middle East (Newsweek Jul. 29, 2014)

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When Isis militants stormed the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, the disastrous fragility of Iraq’s armed forces was laid bare.  It also ignited a process that may lead to the setting up of the world’s first independent Kurdish state.

Since the departure of US forces from Iraq in 2011, relations between the Iraqi administration led by Nouri-al-Maliki and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have deteriorated. The Maliki administration has, according to Kurdistan’s High Representative in London, Bayan Rahman, imposed “a policy of control and punishment”.

She explains that the region’s grievances with Maliki include Baghdad’s failure to hand over the KRG’s full 17% share of the national budget (it has never paid more than 11% and has paid nothing since January 2014), its failure to pay the salaries of the Kurdistan national guard, known as the Peshmerga, and its alleged efforts to hinder Kurdistan’s oil and gas sales abroad.

What’s more, Rahman says the central government has failed to carry out its obligations under the 2005 Iraqi constitution to hold a referendum in disputed, historical Kurdish territories such as the city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds claim should be part of Kurdistan.

Rahman says that “40% of Kurdish territory lies outside the regional border unilaterally drawn by Saddam Hussein in 1991”. These areas, some of them oil-rich, were subjected to ethnic cleansing and government-ordered settlement by Arabs from other parts of Iraq. They have now fallen under Kurdish control as a result of the Iraqi Army’s retreat from Isis.

Unlike many of the minority ethnic groups that fought unsuccessfully for their own states in the late 20th century, Iraqi Kurdistan has achieved something close to independence without actually declaring it. That is not because Iraq’s Kurds don’t want formal independence.

As the former diplomat and Iraq expert Peter Galbraith says: “I’ve been going to Kurdistan for 30 years and I’ve never met a Kurd who said I’d prefer to be a citizen of Iraq than a citizen of an independent Kurdistan, and that includes the [former] President of Iraq himself.” 

Rather, it is because until now the KRG’s ­leaders have seen advantages in remaining legally linked to Iraq, and because the obstacles to independence, in particular opposition from Arab Iraq, seemed impossible to overcome.

Ever since it was first negotiated in the 1960s, Iraqi Kurdish autonomy proved hard to achieve and hold. Even when Saddam’s forces were prevented from ­ravaging Iraq’s Kurdish areas by the post-Gulf War no-fly-zone, and then by the US-led ­invasion in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan remained under threat from Turkey. Ankara had long viewed any manifestation of Kurdish nationalism in the region as a danger to its own social cohesion and was willing to use force to neutralise it.

However, since 2009 there has been a rapprochement, to the extent that Turkish officials have signalled that they would be happy with an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.

These days it is Iran that has become an implacable opponent of Kurdish independence. Syria potentially would be another but its ruling regime is busy fighting a civil war. Iran was friendly to Iraqi Kurdistan when the latter was a source of support in the war against Saddam’s Iraq. But its sympathies have cooled as Tehran has become the dominant influence over Baghdad.

“If you look at Iranian media there is a campaign against the Kurds suggesting that the push for independence is all an Israeli plot,” declares Galbraith

In a bizarre confluence of interests, the only other country that seems equally opposed to Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence is the United States. American commitment to a unitary centralised Iraqi state has actually deepened under the Obama administration, despite Vice President Joe Biden once proposing the partitioning of Iraq into three countries.

The Kurdish nationalist movement could unite around 40 million ethnic Kurds under one banner Adam Jones

Galbraith says that the Obama administration has backed Baghdad and pressured the KRG by, among other things, “trying to stop people from buying Kurdistan’s oil, and threatening legal action against companies trying to import into the United States”.

Such economic pressure is no minor threat for a country of only six million people that has taken in some 250,000 refugees from Syria and about 750,000 refugees from other parts of Iraq. However, it’s not clear that America has much leverage over the question: after US opposition made little difference to the breakups of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

Some experts, including the journalist and investor Bartle Bull, who is writing a history of Iraq, are not so sure that independence is inevitable. “Yes the KRG is a big winner of recent events and has been strengthened in its disputes with Baghdad,” he says. But if the KRG wins a referendum in Kirkuk [for that traditionally Kurdish, oil-rich region to join with Kurdistan] then its grievances with Baghdad decrease.”

Independence, with all its complications and risks, would therefore be less necessary.

Bull believes it is the “destiny” of Iraqi Kurdistan “always to be loosely, uncomfortably but definitively linked to the rest of Mesopotamia”. He suspects that the drive to independence may lose momentum if Isis is defeated and Maliki is replaced as Iraqi prime minister by a more acceptable and more able Shia politician. “Any likely new government would rule better, could not be as incompetent and sectarian and paranoid as Maliki’s, and that would make staying in Iraq that much more attractive for both Kurds and Sunnis.”

Galbraith and many other observers disagree and think Iraq “unfixable”. Gary Kent, who heads the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, sees it as unlikely that “Baghdad with a new leader and a new form of governance can reach out to the Sunnis and keep promises it has broken to the Kurds and defeat Isis.”

That Maliki has become more hostile to the KRG since the Mosul debacle, accusing it of being in league with Isis, makes reconciliation seem even less likely. If Kurdistan does declare its independence it may struggle for international recognition.

According to Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania, the new state might be quickly recognised by Turkey and Israel “but it would be much better to have comprehensive recognition”. He thinks it is highly unlikely that any member of the Arab League will recognise an independent Kurdistan, so the EU and the US will be key. But EU recognition might be tricky because “Spain would almost certainly block recognition of Kurdistan given its position on Kosovo”.

In general it is rare for the international community to recognise new states unless the former ruling power recognises them first. The refusal of Somalia to recognise the breakaway Somaliland Republic, which has been independent for two decades, has meant that no other country does so. Baghdad might be equally unwilling to recognise Iraqi independence. O’Leary sees the KRG as having two other choices given the weakness of the Baghdad government. It could try to renegotiate the existing constitution with a Baghdad that it does not trust. Or it could work towards the refashioning of Iraq as a confederation of two or three sovereign states with those states having a right to secede after a specified time.

Such confederations are rare. One recent ­example was that of Serbia and Montenegro, Another was the confederation of Sudan and South Sudan but both ultimately broke up.

Whether an independent Kurdistan could flourish is another question. Not only would it have to deal with threats from Isis and the deadly chaos in Syria, but would need to defend itself from whatever state emerges in Iraq.

Even in the best of circumstances an independent Kurdistan would need to cultivate other foreign friends lest it become a kind of dependency of Ankara. The KRG has long hoped for closer alliances with the US, the UK and other Western countries, but Gulf States like the United Arab Emirates have been quicker to invest in Kurdistan. As Gulf assistance often comes with Islamist strings attached, the idea of close relationships with countries like Qatar makes some Kurds nervous. Experts disagree as to how quickly or even whether Kurdistan will declare its independence.

In any case there seems little chance of a return to the status quo ante. As the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani has put it, “there is Iraq pre-Mosul, and Iraq post-Mosul”.

Regardless of whether Iraqi Kurdistan pursues sovereignty plus confederation, or full independence, right now it faces a more immediate ­problem. As experts who testified on Kurdistan to the British parliament recently pointed out, the KRG has a 1,000km border with the Isis Caliphate and only 50km border with Iraq.

Moreover, Isis now fields armoured vehicles and artillery pieces captured from the fleeing Iraqi Army, while Kurdish forces have little more than small arms.

As Galbraith puts it: “The ironic fact is that the US has ended up arming Isis, which is our enemy, and not the Peshmerga, who are our friends.”

Stop Messing the Kurds Around (Breitbart - London 23 July 2014)

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One of the less attractive characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon powers is their post-war habit of betraying third world allies, whether they are Vietnamese Montagnards, Afghan interpreters or belong to one of several less well-known minorities that have paid a grim price for trusting Britain or America to reward their loyalty.

The Kurds of Iraq are the latest to find themselves in the position of under-appreciated and betrayed allies.

Grateful for the US-British-French no-fly-zone that kept Saddam’s forces out of Kurdistan after the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurds have long been the most pro-American and pro-British ethnic group in the entire region. They were enormously helpful to the Coalition before and during the invasion of Iraq and defeat of the Saddam regime in 2003.

Iraqi Kurdistan could then have asserted its independence, kept control of historically Kurdish (but partially ethnically cleansed) Kirkuk and done little or nothing to help the authorities in Baghdad fight the Sunni insurgency and Shia militia violence that spread through Iraq from 2004.

Instead, as any allied commander who is worth his salt will tell you, Kurdish battalions were invaluable to Coalition efforts. Not only were they good at counter-terrorist operations, they were also reliable and trustworthy, qualities all too rare among Iraqi Security Forces especially in the early years.

Nevertheless, even at the height of the war, and even though they often fought side by side Coalition forces in Baghdad and elsewhere, the Kurds received minimal military assistance from the Coalition.  

When America pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011, after Prime Minister Malik and President Obama failed to find common ground on a Status of Forces Agreement, you might have expected the US and its allies to cultivate the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

After all, Kurdistan was then, as it had been during the fighting, and continues to be today, much more stable, peaceful and economically vibrant than the rest of Iraq. And unlike the Maliki government it was not falling under the malign influence of Iran.

Instead, the US government has consistently backed the Baghdad government in its worst behaviour to the Kurds.

Under the Iraqi constitution, oil and mineral resources can be extracted and sold by the regions as long as the proceeds are shared with the rest of the country. But Baghdad has refused to pay the KRG the 17 percent of revenues that it committed to (it never paid more than 11 percent and stopped paying altogether in January. Baghdad also never ponied for the salaries for Kurdish troops.). It has also tried to stop Iraqi Kurdistan from selling oil and gas to Turkey and elsewhere.

Amazingly the US State Department has joined with Baghdad in trying to stop foreign buyers from taking Kurdish oil and gas, with the US government actually threatening legal action against anyone trying to buy it in the United States.

The KRG could be forgiven for resenting this American economic warfare on behalf of the corrupt and incompetent and Iranian-leaning Maliki regime, especially given that Iraqi Kurdistan has to feed and house 750,000 refugees from Syria and at least 250,000 displaced people form other parts of Iraq.

And the F-16’s promised by Washington to the Iraqi Air Force have rightly been seen as a potential threat by the Kurds who have vivid memories of bombardment by Saddam’s jet fighters.

The bizarre American approach to the US’s most reliable allies has three roots.

The first is the fact that the US government and in particular the State Department, prefers strong unitary states with only one center of power and set of leaders to talk to. The second is more emotional: after putting so much effort, blood and treasure into rebuilding and defending Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam it feels right to back the central government even if the complaints and claims of the Kurds are valid.

Finally, the fact that the Kurds unquestionably did gain from the overthrow of the Baathist regime makes them unattractive to people in or out of the Obama administration who opposed the war or who saw George W Bush as the devil incarnate.

Thanks to ISIS and the collapse and retreat of the Iraqi Army from Northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds are now in a much stronger position political politically than at any time since 2003. (It helps that Turkey is not only no longer trying to undermine the Kurdish Regional Government; it has become a regional friend and economic partner of the fledgling state.)

But in terms of security the Iraqi Kurds are in greater danger than they have been at any time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Between 2003 and 2011 they had to be on their guard against the threat presented by Arab Iraq’s various insurgents and militias. But they had powerful allies in the form of Coalition forces and an Iraqi army that was being mentored and guided by the Coalition. And they were able by and large to keep terrorists out and down. Now they are effectively alone as they confront the ISIS Caliphate along a 1000km border.

There have already been deadly clashes with ISIS in places where the Pershmerga – the Kurdish armed forces – have taken over cities abandoned by the Iraqi army. And the Pershmerga have not always come out on top.

ISIS front line forces may not be that numerous but they are experienced, well-trained operators, thanks to years of fighting in both the Iraqi insurgency and the Syrian civil war. They also have a significant advantage over the Peshmerga in that they now have, thanks to the sudden flight of the Iraqi army, an impressive arsenal of modern weaponry, much of it US-supplied.

That includes at least 1500 armoured Humvees and MRAPs, 52 modern 155mm howitzers, a number of M1 tanks and even helicopters

The vehicles may not be easy to keep running over time without spare parts or the expertise of foreign contractors. But ISIS, like its predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq, includes in its ranks plenty of former Iraqi army soldiers who know how to use artillery and other heavy weapons.

The Peshmerga lack heavy weaponry and aircraft, and all their recent experience has been fighting small numbers of insurgents and terrorists rather than an actual army. Among the supplies the Kurds need is electronic jamming equipment to combat IEDs. They have requested some from Britain. However, the UK, like the US, has so far refused to send defence equipment to the KRG unless end-user certificates are supplied for them by the central government in Baghdad. This the Maliki government refuses to do.

If we help the Kurds, it will protect an oasis of stability and democracy and tolerance. And it will cement a natural friendship that could be of enormous strategic benefit to both the West and Kurdistan. (After all it is only 400 or so miles from Kurdistan to both Tehran and Tiblisi.)

If we don’t, Iraqi Kurdistan will have to look elsewhere, most likely to Teheran or perhaps Moscow. Or that oasis could be overwhelmed by the violence and chaos that is spreading outward from Syria.

Neither would be good outcomes; both are easily avoidable. It’s up to Downing Street and the White House to do the right thing.

Building the US-Kurdistan Special Relationship (WSJ, July 10, 2014)

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A U.S. base in Kurdistan would improve the U.S.’s strategic position in the region while guaranteeing Kurdish independence.

 The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is reeling from the sudden loss of key northern cities to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Baghdad is looking increasingly to Iran and Russia for military assistance. That’s led some foreign policy gurus in Washington to call for a closer U.S. relationship with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG. It’s a good idea, but they aren’t going far enough.

The time has come for America and the West to support Kurdish independence and, simultaneously, to set up U.S. bases in Iraqi Kurdistan that would make it America’s military hub in the region.

After all, this country-in-the-making has proved to be a haven of stability, relative security and pro-American, pro-Western sentiment ever since it broke free from Saddam’s misrule. A major American air base in Kurdistan would improve the U.S.’s much-weakened strategic position in the Middle East while guaranteeing Kurdish independence.

Not long ago such an alliance would have been politically all but impossible. Regional powers were reluctant to support Kurdish independence for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that Washington was adamant in its support of a unitary Iraqi state within the borders set by colonial powers after World War I.

Since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the U.S. has tended to disregard Kurdistan’s aspirations and even hindered the KRG’s efforts to develop and profit from the oil resources on its territory. That’s because America’s priorities have generally been to bolster the government in Baghdad, in which Washington had invested vast amounts of blood and treasure, and to maintain good relations with neighboring Turkey.

Ankara is a NATO member that was long dominated by a military establishment fanatically hostile to any manifestation of Kurdish independence anywhere in the region. These days, however, the Turkish military has lost much of its political influence, and Turkish businessmen are among the biggest investors in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Mr. Maliki’s Iraqi government, meanwhile, has effectively become a client of Iran after being largely abandoned by the Obama administration following a half-hearted attempt to make an agreement allowing for a rump force of US troops. Iranian influence is unlikely to diminish in the immediate future, whether or not Tehran’s assistance helps Baghdad stop the ISIS advance and recapture lost territory.

Kurdistan’s economic success, and the military prowess of its peshmerga troops, mean that the KRG’s strength has increased relative to Mr. Maliki’s in Baghdad. The region has enjoyed what amounts to de facto independence from Baghdad since 2003 and a great deal of autonomy since the establishment of a no-fly zone in the wake of the first Gulf War. Perhaps the most pro-American ethnic group in the entire region, and for good reason, Iraq’s Kurds were the Coalition’s most loyal and effective allies during the eight-year war there.

Early in the Iraq war, the KRG encouraged the U.S. to take advantage of the stability and security of the region. It offered air bases and R&R facilities in the mountains that could have made long troop deployments much easier to bear for U.S. forces. Both offers were turned down.

Now that hundreds of thousands of Americans in uniform are no longer being sent to fight in Iraq’s baking deserts and broiling cities, the R&R facilities aren’t needed. But given how quickly the region is changing, and given what Washington should now understand about the fragility of Arab tyrannies, America could certainly use an air base in Kurdistan.

U.S. military planners can’t assume that our alliance with Turkey won’t decline further. Nor should they assume as given Turkey’s military cooperation with NATO for missions against adversaries in places like Syria and Iran.

And it would be even more foolish for American policy makers to assume that U.S. forces will always be able to use bases in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. All three countries are autocracies vulnerable to upheaval. So far, adroit use of their fantastic wealth has protected these countries’ rulers against the resentments of their subjects, but this may not always be the case.

Moreover, Kuwait and Qatar are arguably “frenemies” rather than true allies of the U.S. It’s no secret that elements within their ruling elites have long sponsored and encouraged jihadist terrorism and fundamentalism in the same way that Saudi princelings have. As for Bahrain, it is something close to an apartheid state, with a Sunni elite brutally repressing a Shiite majority. As the author Ralph Peters has famously written, in the end, “the Shah always falls.”

A new U.S. Air Force base near the Kurdish cities such as Sulaymaniyah or Erbil—both of which already boast airports with suitably long runways—would radically increase American leverage over everyone in the region, in particular Iran and Syria. Both Sulaymaniyah and Erbil are within 600 miles of Tehran.

The presence of such a base might even make it easier to deter the Iranian mullahs, since the chances of a successful U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be that much greater. Such a move would also guarantee Kurdish independence in a very concrete way—the price likely to be demanded, quite fairly, by the Iraqi Kurds.

The Obama administration would have to be uncharacteristically bold to make such a breach with past policies and with the State Department’s traditional preference for maintaining postcolonial borders. And there is no question that deepening the U.S. military partnership with the KRG would carry risks for landlocked Kurdistan and for America. But both would be in a stronger long-term position to face an uncertain future in a chaotic region.

Mr. Foreman covered the Iraq war for the New York Post.

When the Fix is In (National Review, Sept 10, 2007)

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Fixers, interpreters, and reporting from Iraq 

A British colleague of mine was sent by his newspaper to Iraq in 2005, just before the July 7 bombings in London. After that attack, his editor asked him to canvass “ordinary Iraqis” for their reaction. The resulting article reported that all but one of the twelve Baghdadis my colleague spoke to were delighted that Londoners had been blown up. This seemed a surprisingly high proportion, so I asked him a few days later just who these interviewees were and how he’d found them. 
With slight sheepishness, he admitted that all the Iraqis he’d canvassed were Sunni Arabs. In other words, his straw poll had been confined to members of a minority that makes up less than 25 percent of the Iraqi population — the same minority that dominated the country for 80 years, that feels humiliated by the empowerment of the Shiite-Kurd majority, and that forms the basis of the anti-coalition insurgency. 
How had the British reporter come to meet these interviewees? It turned out that they had been selected by his interpreter and his “fixer.” I asked him to tell me about these persons — good interpreters and fixers being costly and hard to find. Well, my colleague said with an enthusiastic smile, “Ahmed,” his excellent fixer, had done sterling work for him since 2003 and before, when he had been employed by Saddam’s ministry of information. As for his interpreter, “Muhammad” — also terrific — he’d been a colonel in the Republican Guard. Both, it hardly need be said, are Sunnis and former members of the Baath party. 
That this journalist — otherwise honest and relatively unbiased — relied entirely on Sunni Arabs is bad enough. For a journalist to rely on Iraqis with such backgrounds is arguably like going to Germany in 1945 and hiring a former employee of Josef Goebbels as your fixer and a recently retired SS officer as your translator. Yet it had never occurred to my colleague that his choices were problematic, or that his employees might have an agenda of their own. 
This is a pattern all too common among Western news organizations in Iraq. Sunni Arabs are vastly overrepresented among the employees of such organizations, which are becoming more and more dependent on local hires for actual shoe-leather reporting. Ask any producer or correspondent who has worked in Iraq what community his interpreter or fixer is from, and the answer will almost certainly be the Sunni Arabs. 
One reason for this is that, long after 2003, major news organizations continued to rely on the fixers and translators they had hired in Iraq before the war began — including some staffers whose links with Saddam’s regime, and its secret police, brought access. (At the height of the invasion, Western-media reliance on Saddam’s flacks — official or not — sometimes led to embarrassing incidents, such as the insistence of the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan that American forces had not reached Baghdad Airport even as Fox News was showing footage of U.S. tanks on the runway.) 
Of course, one benefit of reliance on Iraqis with strong links to the old regime is access to insurgent spokesmen. Another is safety: You are less likely to be kidnapped or ambushed if you’re paying more than $100 a day to an insurgent’s brother. 
One might ask how much this reliance on Sunnis affects media objectivity. Allow me to relate my own experience. My first driver-interpreter in Baghdad, in the spring of 2003, was a Christian — a former U.N. employee who took me to visit his large and delightful family in a tidy, very pro-coalition Christian enclave. Getting to know them was an emotionally powerful experience, and probably did influence my perspective, even though I knew they weren’t necessarily “typical” Baghdadis. Most honest foreign reporters would admit that it’s hard not to assimilate the point of view of the local driver/interpreter/fixer who gets you your scoops and on whom your life may depend. 
I would argue that the reliance on Sunni Arabs has had a powerful if subtle effect on war reporting. Certainly it’s not hard to find circumstantial evidence of pro-Sunni and anti-Shiite bias in the mainstream Western media. Most people who watch network news or read the major papers have no idea that almost every marketplace and mosque bomb that goes off in Iraq is an attack on Shiite civilians by Sunni terrorists. That is because the sectarian nature of these attacks generally goes unmentioned — they are presented as nondenominational “insurgent” bombs going off in crowded public places. 
But when, after the destruction of Samarra’s Golden Mosque in February 2006, Ayatollah Sistani could no longer hold back a people enraged by three years of violence against them and Shiite militias began to target Sunnis, sectarian identity suddenly became important in much of the reporting from Iraq. Now the stories were about “Shiite death squads” and incipient civil war. In other words, it was only when Shiites began to fight back that the bloodshed was deemed sectarian. Even now, if you look at the stories about ethnic cleansing, the victims profiled by the New York Times and the Washington Post tend to be Sunnis. The car bombs that slaughter scores or even hundreds of Shiite civilians are still just “insurgent” attacks, not attacks by Sunni death squads. 
As if that weren’t bad enough, the Times and other papers frequently stereotype the Shiite majority as primitive, misogynist, cinema-torching tribals — unlike those nice, well-educated, secular Baathists so foolishly overthrown by the Bush administration. The pro-Sunni, anti-Shiite tilt is also evident in a reluctance to give voice to members of the majority populations (unless of course they are Sadrist extremists) or to the many brave Iraqis who are struggling to make a go of democratic government. Elected Iraqi leaders such as President Jalal Talabani and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih (both Kurds) are all too often rejected when they want to place op-eds in major newspapers. 
Another factor reinforcing the pro-Sunni bias may be the widespread employment of Palestinians by foreign news organizations in Iraq. Some of these are Iraqi-born Palestinians such as Khalid Hassan, the young New York Times reporter tragically murdered in July. Others are professional newsmen imported by U.S. and European organizations from elsewhere in the Middle East, including the West Bank (where many cameramen have been trained by Western media). It happens that all Muslim Palestinians are Sunni. Moreover, no group in Iraq was more loyal to Saddam Hussein than the Palestinians — and vice versa. The Palestinians were rewarded for their loyalty with privileges such as high-rise housing on and near Baghdad’s then-prosperous Haifa Street — and with the hatred of much of the Iraqi people. Indeed, xenophobic Iraqis — most Iraqis, that is — generally hate Palestinians even more than they hate Kuwaitis and Egyptians. 
This certainly does not mean that all Palestinians in the employ of Western news organizations in Iraq are hostile to the aspirations of Iraq’s Shiite and Kurd majority, or regret the passing of the Saddam regime, or support the insurgency. Or that, if they do have such leanings, it necessarily distorts their work. But it is interesting that so many media organizations rely heavily on the one ethnic group that arguably has the most reason to resent the coalition and sympathize with the insurgents. As one Iraqi friend said to me bitterly, “Why don’t they just go to Saudi and hire their reporters from the most extreme madrassas, or go to Damascus and get their reporters from Syrian intelligence?” 
The great irony is that the same organizations and professionals that don’t look too hard at the backgrounds of their fixers and interpreters tend to wring their hands over the supposed bias-inducing effects of embedding reporters with the U.S. military. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a mainstream-media editor worry that an embed’s “dependence” on his hosts might compromise his “objectivity” — as if all foreign journalists didn’t develop potentially unhealthy relationships, not just with translators and fixers, but with local journalists, government spokesmen, and other key sources. 
The willingness of so many experienced Western reporters to be guided and gulled by the most anti-coalition and anti-democratic elements of Iraqi society is hard to forgive. In conjunction with other institutional failings, it may have influenced the progress of a war in which perceptions and morale are the key to victory and defeat. 

Review of 'Eight Lives Down' by Chris Hunter, (Daily Mail, November 2007)

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Defusing the Iraqi conflict

Few Britons have any idea of what our troops actually do in Iraq. The media’s coverage is generally limited to casualty reports, abuse claims and the odd, ill-informed screed about soldiers having the wrong equipment.

In four years no British media organisation, including the BBC, has bothered to establish a bureau in Basra. This lack of information makes Chris Hunter’s extraordinary Eight Lives Down all the more welcome and important.

But even if the ordinary travails of British troops in Iraq were wellcovered, this gripping memoir would be a revelation. After all, it’s by and about a man whose real-life job involves choosing between the red and blue wire so familiar in James Bond films – only on a daily basis.

Chris Hunter is a veteran ‘ammunition technical officer’ (ATO) or counterterrorist bomb-disposal expert.

During the first two months of his four-month tour of Iraq in 2004 ? a tour that coincided with the most intense period of the war in Basra ? his team was called out 45 times to disable various improvised explosive devices (IEDs), including remotecontrolled rockets aimed at Britain’s main Basra city base.

You might expect an account of disabling bombs to be repetitive or overly technical, but Hunter’s is neither. Each incident is fascinatingly different and edge-of-the-seat dramatic, and Hunter recounts them with vividness and clarity.

When he walks up to a dusty box by a highway with wires trailing off into a distant slum, or up to a car weighed down by explosives, he goes into his ‘other world’ ? he becomes a soldier with the concentration of a Zen monk and the manual dexterity of a surgeon.

Back at base, Hunter looks for patterns in the way that bombs are made and laid. At first his main opponent is a Sunni bomb-making gang, who are happy to slaughter scores of Shia civilians along with Coalition soldiers. Then, in the spring of 2004 comes the Shia militia uprising. They increasingly receive high-tech help from Iran and even Lebanese Hezbollah in using devices such as mobile phones and electronic car keys to detonate bombs by remote control.

Soon Hunter himself becomes a target for assassination: ‘They are out to kill the golden-haired bomb man in Basra,’ he’s told. Bombs are planted near schools and hospitals just to get Hunter out into the open and a sniper’s sights.

But it’s not all bombs and IEDs. Hunter also vividly describes full-on infantry combat, when on only his fifth day in country his convoy is ambushed on the main road. It’s one of several attacks on British troops after Piers Morgan’s Daily Mirror published obviously faked pictures of British soldiers abusing a prisoner.

The book reveals other uncomfortable truths. It turns out that the biggest handicap for British troops has been a lack of air cover. Often, when Hunter’s team disarmed a bomb, militiamen spied on them from rooftops.

On one occasion he was able to call helicopters in, prompting the watchers to flee. Mostly no helicopters came because it was either ‘too hot’ or none were available. Yet there were pilots twiddling their thumbs at base, and helicopters sitting unused at home in the UK along with other needed equipment.

Hunter is not a professional writer and the book is written in plain conversational soldier-speak peppered with military acronyms (there’s a glossary at the back), obscenities and cliché. Sometimes it feels as though he’s trying too hard to create a dramatic arc out of the question of whether his marriage will survive his tour.

But unlike much military nonfiction there isn’t a dull or needless paragraph. The action is relentless – Hunter saw more of it than most.

Indeed, as he was called out daily to different parts of the city, Hunter is probably a better informed guide to the war than more senior officers or the ordinary infantryman on patrol.

You also get a rare picture of professional soldiers at work: how they get on with each other and on with their jobs under huge stress.

There’s illegal drinking. There’s infuriating laziness on the part of rear echelon support troops. There’s absurd interference by senior commanders ‘too busy reminiscing about past conflicts to think about present and future ones’. There is compassion for the Iraqi people that the ‘bring-the-troops-home-now’ crowd could learn from.

You also get a powerful sense of just how amazingly filthy and run-down Basra is, even by Iraqi standards, despite promises of British aid.

Eight Lives Down is essential for anyone who wants to understand this war and the Army in general. It should be compulsory reading for Messrs Brown and Cameron and every single bureaucrat at the MoD.

In any case, it is almost certainly destined to be the British military classic of the Iraq war, and a book that will be read long after this conflict is over. Chris Hunter had already given extraordinary service to his country – and to civilians of Bosnia, Colombia, Afghanistan and Iraq – in one of the most dangerous military jobs. By writing this book he has also done a service to his profession, and created an enduring monument to his comrades.

JONATHAN FOREMAN has been an embedded correspondent with British and U.S. troops in Iraq.
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