joker123 ISIS » Jonathan Foreman

Why the UK's "Prevent" strategy Isn't working (Spectator Blog June 18, 2015)

Comment/OpEd, Latest Articles, Policing/Urban Policy Comments Off on Why the UK’s “Prevent” strategy Isn’t working (Spectator Blog June 18, 2015)
Telling young men that ISIS is ‘dangerous’ will only encourage them to go
“The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had’

When we were both sixteen, my then-best friend Dave carved the above lyric on his school desk. It was from the song ‘Mad World’ by the band Tears for Fears and we both thought it ineffably cool. It’s a line that elegantly evokes the self-pity and nihilism that afflicts so many teenaged boys.

Every decade has songs that hit a nerve because they are similarly doom-laden and grandiose. But the important point is that many adolescent boys fantasize about death, killing and suicide – melodramatic, shocking gestures that might free them from their sense of powerlessness as they flail between childhood and the adult world.

One of the reasons why the authorities have failed to stem the flow of young Britons to ISIS’s ‘caliphate’ may be because they have forgotten the extent to which many teenage boys live in a world of macho fantasy. It is certainly not something overlooked by jihadi recruiters, as even a quick glance at their propaganda will show.

Those in charge of counter-radicalisation may also have underestimated the profound appeal to the adolescent mind of adventure, risk, and sacrifice – all things that play a big role in jihadi recruitment materials, but that can be hard for young men to find in mainstream British life.

Today one of the key elements of the UK’s ‘Prevent’ counter-radicalisation strategy involves police visiting schools in cities such as Bradford and Birmingham. Their central message? Going to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS is very dangerous.

But the danger is one of the most appealing things about it. You’re not drawn to ISIS because you hanker for comfort and safety, any more than you’d join the SAS because you want a cosy 9-5 job. This is true not just for the criminals and gang members converted and recruited so effectively in British prisons, but also for the geeky South Asian boys who are radicalized online.

So it’s hard to imagine a more useless exercise, or one that better demonstrates to those students how laughably out of touch the authorities seem to be. In that way, the ‘Prevent’ strategy is a bit like those naive adult interventions of previous decades, when police or social workers visited schools to warn of the dangers of smoking or alcohol. The more earnest the warnings, the cooler it was to be one of the kids who smoked or drank.

 During the last two years ISIS has made jihadism more enticing than ever before. And for certain types of young man, especially but not exclusively in the British Pakistani community, it was already powerfully attractive.

After the 7/7/2005 bombings, our commentariat often agonized about why British born young men would blow up trains and buses in London. It was generally assumed that the roots of home grown terror must lie in phenomena such as lack of opportunity, social exclusion, racism, poverty, ‘Islamophobia’ or the percieved wrongs of British foreign policy. After all, the logic went, to commit such a terrible crime you must surely be angry about some terrible wrong. For middle-aged politicians, home office officials, policemen and social workers – people for whom killing or dying for a cause seemed almost unimaginably extreme – no other explanation made sense.

They did not really register that all the suspects in the British bomb plots were young men in their teens or twenties, that there were no angry elderly or middle-aged men, no angry women, and at least in the UK, no angry girls seeking to set off explosives in buses and tubes.

It did not occur to them, even before the advent of ISIS, that jihadist recruiters were offering their potential cadre something positive and idealistic, an intoxicating cocktail of adventure, discipline, belonging, manliness and glamour.

To boys rebelling against their immigrant parents and caught between cultures, they offered not just community but a particularly intense form of it: membership in a proud international brotherhood of warriors fighting on behalf of a global umma.

To youths humiliated at school by their lack of confidence with girls, they promised a future in which they would (finally) get respect from women; not just respect, but the respect due to heroes.

By joining the movement in Britain they could become jihadi James Bonds and Jason Bournes. They would enter a world of subterfuge and conspiracy, defying the entire security structure of a modern state, and carrying in their hands the technology to terrify a nation. And if they were to fail, then they could embrace a martyrs doom.

This was exciting enough for some. But ISIS offers even more, and it does so using methods cleverly designed to attract a generation shaped by social media, computer gaming and online avatars.

What ISIS proffers is something equally attractive to poor young men in Yemen, humiliated Sunnis in Iraq, and science graduates from Birmingham. It offers participation in Victory. To identify with ISIS is to identify with a winner, an unstoppable world-changing force.

Moreover, their dazzling successes against vastly larger armies and governments recall those of the original empire-shattering Muslim conquest of Arabia, North Africa, Persia and Central Asia. When recruiters tell their targets that Allah is on their side, it’s not hard for them to make a convincing case.

ISIS offers the opportunity to take part in a real war, and the chance to enjoy the fruits of victory in a real caliphate. Just days from London it could be you cradling an assault rifle, racing down dusty streets in your heavily-armed Toyota pickup (no driving license necessary) on your way to buy a pair of Yazidi slave girls or to watch the beheading of a Shia prisoner. It certainly trumps joining a local British street gang and controlling the dreary streets of a depressed midlands post code, or the wing of a prison.

Moreover, you don’t have to be genuinely tough to join. Indeed, in the UK, ISIS actively recruits computer geeks and science nerds. It needs them for its cyber warfare, to make its propaganda videos, and to run its thousands of blogs and social media feeds.

And, unlike any other potential employer, ISIS promises it will let you kill someone. If the UK’s authorities are to have any chance at countering the appeal of ISIS, they will have to start acknowledging aspects of human nature and the male psyche that British society prefers to keep tidied away.

Jonathan Foreman is Senior Research Fellow at the Civitas think tank.

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

Essays/Book Reviews, Latest Articles, Military/Defence Comments Off on COIN Wars – On Daniel Bolger’s “Why We Lost”:(Commentary Magazine, April 2015)

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.

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

Comment/OpEd, Latest Articles, Military/Defence Comments Off on Enemies, Allies and Kurdistan (Weekly Standard, Nov. 03, 2014)

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.

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

Comment/OpEd, Military/Defence Comments Off on Stop Messing the Kurds Around (Breitbart – London 23 July 2014)

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)

Comment/OpEd, Latest Articles Comments Off on Building the US-Kurdistan Special Relationship (WSJ, July 10, 2014)

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.