Dec 16

As we have written about twice before, our blog roll is a living document (Suck it, Originalists!). If we find something great, we add it. I discovered the Musings on Iraq blog through the Small Wars Journal, and I kept coming back to it. After I used it for intelligence research in Iraq, I knew it belonged on our blog roll.

Written by Joel Wing, a high school history teacher with a "BA and MA in International Relations", Musings on Iraq uses open source information but usually combines several news reports or papers into one solid conclusion. He frequently highlights missed news stories or makes connections not seen in the larger media. Wing also shows the power of “untrained” bloggers to provide original opinion and make connections the mainstream media doesn’t.

The sheer amount of intelligence on Musings on Iraq is staggering. None of it is clandestinely or covertly collected; it is all out there on the interwebs. But Wing shows the skills good military intelligence analyst needs: patience, focus and tenacity along with a clear and precise writing style. His conclusions are insightful, exactly what a division or corps commander needs in Iraq.

If the intelligence community were smart, someone would have read his blog, seen that it has been posting for years, and hire Wing on the spot with a six figure salary. Instead, if he joined the Army, for example, Wing would have to enlist in a job with no responsibility or freedom for years. Even then he would have to contend with the PowerPoint and email and inanities of everyday military life. In all likelihood, he couldn’t do intelligence work like he does every week on his blog.

Alas. In the meantime, read Musings on Iraq to stay current on Iraq.

Dec 15

Eric C and I love the NPR show Foreign Dispatch--“a collection of some of the best coverage of news and events filed by NPR’s corespondents from around the globe"--but their latest episode trotted out an old cliche that we wish would die: Afghanistan has never been conquered! (I put that in italics, because I feel like that phrase is always spoken or written in exasperation.) This little factoid sums up thousands of years of history in five words, forcing the conclusion that America, like all past conquerors, is doomed to fail, so get out of Afghanistan or die trying. (With an evil doctor "Boo ha ha!" following.)

One tiny, little inconvenient truth stands in the way of this delightful saying: Afghanistan has been conquered. A lot. Many times. Over and over.

I don’t blame the average person for parroting this myth. It’s ubiquitous. I’ve read it in books, including Sebastian Junger’s War, which describes Afghanistan as “too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off.” Luttrell--of course--writes it on page forty two of Lone Survivor,It’s probably worth remembering that no nation, not the Turks, the Tatars, the Persians, the Arabs, the Hindus or the Brits has ever completely conquered Baluchistan. Those tribesman even held off Genghis Khan.” And if you think those examples are specific to the tribal areas, Seth G. Jones titled his book, In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan.

Jones isn’t the only person to use that phrase as a title. Milton Beardon titled his Foreign Policy article “Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires.” And Malou Innocent and Ted Galen Carpenter titled their Cato Institute paper “Escaping the "Graveyard of Empires": A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan”. Andrew Exum plays on the phrase here and here.

The most famous example came from Michael Steele. He said, “Everyone who has tried, over 1,000 years of history, has failed and there are reasons for that. There are other ways you could engage in Afghanistan.” And other people have said it here, here and here. And here. And here. And here. And here.

And The Daily Show said it really clearly here.

There are two problems with this sentiment. The first is that it is way too simplistic and factually inaccurate. As historian Thomas Barfield tells, “Until 1840 Afghanistan was better known as a 'highway of conquest' rather than the 'graveyard of empires’...For 2,500 years it was always part of somebody's empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C."

Even Sebastian Junger, whom I quoted above, goes on later in War to contradict himself. He writes that the inhabitants of the Korengal were forcibly converted to Islam only 100 years ago. I mean, if a foreign ruler can change an entire valley’s religion just a hundred years ago, surely it isn’t as unconquerable as Junger described?

The argument is, at its core, too simplistic. Afghanistan has only been unified as a country for barely 200 years. Up until then it was the center of empires, part of empires and a well-worn path of conquerors and armies. History is too long and convoluted to make some grand pronouncement that one region has “never been conquered”. A quick trip to wikipedia solves this problem.

Which brings me to my second point, how come no one else has thought, “Hey, this doesn’t sound right. I should check on this”? Why don’t we question our assumptions, quotations and references more frequently?

There are two lessons to be learned. The first is that Afghanistan is not the “graveyard of empires”. The second is that everyone needs to questions simple platitudes, especially on the interwebs.

Dec 14

We wanted to give you a heads up about two fellow bloggers who gave On Violence a shout out this week.

First off, Josh Mull mentioned our post, “War as the Opposite of Civilization”, in his post, “Journalism is not an Attack, Wikileaks is not Warfare” over at Firedoglake and the Huffington Post. Big ups to Josh for the shout out, but more importantly, I (Eric C) love that he has promoted the idea that, instead of viewing war as politics, we should view it as the opposite of civilization. I love that this idea is getting out there, and I’m thinking about expanding the concept into a longer form article.

On a more disagreeing note, Gaijinass, over at his blog, took issue with Michael's ethical outline in our post “We are Holier than Thou”. I will say this--and wrote this in the comment’s section over there--Michael’s post was an attempt to rebut critics who say America should act immorally in war. Still, an interesting rebuttal. Check it out.

Finally, if you have a blog and mention On Violence on it, please shoot us an email or tweet so we can keep the discussion going.

Dec 13

If I had all the time in the world, I would track the predictions of sports analysts and political pundits to see how often they are flat wrong. I love Pardon The Interruption, but man, those guys hardly ever get their predictions right. (Apparently, experts are wrong all the time.)

Having learned my lesson from a disastrous/ingenious prediction in high school, Eric C and I decided when we started On Violence that we wouldn’t be in the predicting business. That said, after you’ve blogged for over a year and a half, it’s hard to keep a few predictions from slipping in. Thus the latest attempted terrorist attacks stemming from Yemen made us look both pretty smart and pretty dumb at the same time.

Here are four points--and one new idea--that predict or relate to the attempted cargo plane bombings:

Prediction: All roads lead to Iraq. (Right and Wrong) We said in our post “The Obama Blame Game Part 2” that “all terrorists roads lead through Iraq”. We predicted that, if the US gets attacked again, Iraq will have something to do with it. In a strict sense, we were wrong. The failed underwear bomber was from Somalia. The failed Times Square attacker was from Nigeria. And the latest cargo bombings originated from Yemen.

While we can’t blame Iraq directly, the motivation for this attack goes back to Iraq. Besides the transfer of knowledge on how to make bombs, perfected by years in Iraq, the terrorists in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula repeatedly refer to Iraq as a rallying cry in their propaganda. The war in Iraq did more to inspire, motivate, train and instruct future terrorists than anything else the US has done.

Prediction: Failed States are the issue. (Right) We have written about failed states many times before here, here and here. Each time, we said that terrorists live and thrive in failed states. And guess what? Yemen is a failed state. So is Somalia. Nigeria flirts with the designation. Until we crack the failed states nut, extremism and terrorism will be an security issue.

Prediction: Terrorism isn’t an existential threat. (Right) Even if the cargo planes had exploded--and that would have been a tragedy--probably more Americans died in car accidents that day. Or shootings. Or hospital-borne infections. Or ladder accidents. Or surgery complications. The point is terrorism is a statistical anomaly, not an existential threat. Al Qaeda and its affiliates have one goal: to bankrupt the West by destroying our way of life. Don’t believe me? Well, that is exactly what the terrorists say in their poorly written version of a news magazine.

Prediction: Our Intelligence Community needs serious reform. (Right) When we added “Top Secret America” to our blog roll, it was for one reason: the article explained perfectly why our intelligence community doesn’t work. A technological and bureaucratic mess, the only reason we stopped the latest attacks was luck and good Saudi intelligence. Our intelligence community needs serious reform, but hides behind 9/11. That needs to stop.

And one new idea: We can’t let door kickers lead our foreign policy. As a culture, and in our government, we glorify “door kickers”, special operations troops who conduct direct action missions (kill or capture raids). Our video games and movies glorify these men--think Delta Force, Call of Duty or Navy SEALs.

Special Operations Command, through JSOC, along with the direct action arm of the CIA the Special Activities Division, keeps getting more money and more responsibility to fight terrorism. The door kickers took the lead for operations in Pakistan, Yemen, the early days of Afghanistan and other places around the world, all covert and clandestine. But it hasn’t worked. We value operations over intelligence, to our detriment.

We can’t kill our way out of this fight. We have enough hindsight from the last ten years to verify that. Until we remove the door kickers and replace them with intelligence and diplomacy people, we will continue to make more terrorists than we stop.

Dec 10

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.

Spoiler warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Pride of Baghdad.)

Zill, leader of his pride, lounges in his captivity in the hot Baghdad son, enclosed in a prison he no longer seems to mind, the Baghdad Zoo. A bird catches his attention, spouting nonsense. "The sky is falling," the stupid little creature cries. Zill dismisses the bird until two F-18 Falcons roar overhead, dropping ordinance into the city and accidentally destroying the walls and cages of the Baghdad Zoo.

Zill and his lion companions, for the first time, face terrifying freedom.

Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon's Pride of Baghdad is the story of four lions caught in the turmoil of the 2003 US Military invasion of Iraq, freed from captivity by a stray American bomb. Based on a true story and presented as a graphic novel, the creators tell an allegory that poignantly comments on the price and the effects of freedom thrust upon those who aren't ready for it. He seamlessly weaves a narrative about four inhabitants of the Baghdad zoo while simultaneously glimpsing the larger turmoil of the events of 2003.

Each lion acts as an allegorical representation of a particular segment of the Iraqi culture prior to American liberation, representing a different generation and reflects the spirit and events they have experienced. The elder Safa portrays a perspective of one who has lived under two types of oppression--lawlessness and captivity--while the slightly younger Zill contrasts this with memories of freedom and the male instinct for combat. Younger still is Noor, the adolescent lioness discontented with the walls that confine her and active in her pursuit of freedom. To complete the quartet is Ali, the innocent, a child representing the future of the pride.

Using these four distinct characters, we follow the lions as they gain freedom, roam the wreckage, attempt to avoid many dangers and interact with other natives to Baghdad. Without giving too much away, the interactions between the cast of four with other creatures loose in the streets of Baghdad is where really Pride of Baghdad shines. These creatures echo distinct characteristics of the culture of a city and a people who have lived under an oppressive regime and twice in recent history seen the effects war. The personalities and perspectives of these ancillary characters, combined with the pride they radiate, gives more gravity to the war in Iraq than even recent Oscar winning movies of the same subject.

Vaughn and Henrichon tell a complete story with vivid artistry. Smoldering ruins of the abandoned zoo and the city proper add weight to the events. Every location is distinct propelling the story forward. As is every character in spite only slight variation visually. The artist and writer manage to form a tale that is not only visually compelling, but compelling intellectually. 

There is more here than the story of lions presented with their freedom. It's a story about the people and the culture of Iraq and it's a story about the effects of war, oppression, and freedom. I will not spoil the summation at the novel's conclusion, but the words written are haunting and true. As a graphic novel and as a individual narrative, Pride of Baghdad is an excellent read.

Dec 09

Quick heads up:

Michael C just had a guest post published over at Tom Ricks’ blog, The Best Defense, titled, “Iraq, the Unraveling: Here's a nasty killer most Americans know nothing about”. Check it out of course.

And you may remember Michael C had an article published in Infantry Magazine last month. Well, we have the PDF of the article loaded on our website now, so feel free to download it here.

Dec 08

As I wrote in Monday’s post, most citizens, politicians and diplomats in America think that Iraq is destined for victory. It isn’t; Iraq is far from a sure thing and today I am going to lay out five very real possibilities for Iraq’s future using my “S2 perspective". (Check out Monday’s post to understand this one. We originally wrote it as a single article and this post makes almost no sense by itself.)

Iraq’s five worst case scenarios:

1. A Strongman Rises (Most likely) - First, the Iraqi election was delayed two months. Then it took their government eight months to kind of/not really form. Now the Iraqi national census has been delayed for who knows how long. The Iraqi military is arguably the most competent organization in the country. If a military general decided he should rule Iraq, many would support him. This wouldn’t be unusual for Iraqis: Saddam did it and he ruled for almost 24 years.

Thing to watch for: articles where Iraqis talk about how they want a better Saddam back, like this New York Times piece or this 60 Minutes piece by Lesley Stahl.

2. A Renewed Sunni Insurgency (Longest Term Threat to Iraq) - As Shia politicians consolidate power in Baghdad, and Moqtada al-Sadr gains unprecedented political and military power, the Sunnis could easily feel disenfranchised. Polling regularly shows that Sunnis do not trust the Iraqi Security Forces, and if the government of Iraq finally shuts down the Sons of Iraq (Sahwa) movement, the Sunnis could return to the (formerly Al Qaeda) Islamic State of Iraq movement. Sunni insurgents learned the same lessons the US Army did about winning over the population. If the Sunni population decides the Iraqi Government is not the answer, they may very well take up arms again.

Thing to watch for: the disenfranchisement of Sunni politicians and news that the Islamic State of Iraq is making inroads in Sunni communities.

3. A Shia Theocracy (Best for Iran) - Instead of a violent takeover, the Shias of Iraq could just decide to continue consolidating power in the security forces, the key ministries and the government, and slowly box out the Sunnis and Kurds. Over time, they could convert the current government to a Shia government and, for all intents and purposes, become an Iranian puppet. This could happen in conjunction with several other options.

Thing to watch for: the Iraqi relationship with Saudi Arabia. Check out this article to understand how worried Saudi Arabia is about the Iranian influence.

4. The Balkanisation of Iraq (Worse Outcome for the Stability of the Region) - Kurdistan, Basrah-stan, Sunni-stan, and Shia-Stan. In this possible future, if violence flares up again, the Kurds will likely move from autonomy to separation, taking a huge number of very talented generals with them. Their Peshmerga brigades will provide defense and their oil reserves will provide money. This will encourage further separation, and cause hotly contested wars over the oil rich lands of Kirkuk and Mosul. No matter who wins, the violence will last for years.

Thing to watch for: continued violence and the involvement of Iraq’s neighbors. If Iraq’s neighbors continue to wage proxy wars in Iraq, the possibility of a split raises exponentially.

5. A Second Civil War (Most Violent Outcome) - If the last twenty years have taught us anything about civil wars, it is that once they start they are hard to stop. Iraq’s violence also influences its neighbors and beyond, from Turkey to Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and even the US. None of Iraq’s neighbors want to see one group gain a foothold--Sunni, Shia or Kurdish. So everyone will throw money and weapons at Iraq to keep its side in the fight. The losers will be the Iraqi people.

Thing to watch for: the migration of people (Sunnis) out of Iraq, and the migration of fighters into Iraq.

Any of the above scenarios could happen, maybe none of them will, maybe it will be a mix. If the Iraqi politicians don’t construct meaningful change and reconciliation, expect a repeat of 2006-2008: sectarian violence, possible genocides, millions of refugees and a descent into chaos.

Dec 06

Tom Ricks, through his series of blog posts titled “Iraq: The Unraveling”, argues that while the US has moved on from Iraq, the situation there remains precarious.

Having just returned from a deployment to Iraq, I agree.

Too often, it seems like Ricks has been the only voice of dissension when it comes to Iraq. Former congressmen Duncan Hunter just released a book called Victory in Iraq: How America Won. Other than that horribly misleading book and title, no one is talking about Iraq.

I will concede that Iraq is less violent today than it was in 2007, which makes it just violent as opposed to being fantastically violent. Two months ago a failed hostage rescue resulted in dozens of deaths and hundred wounded. Last month a series of car bombs killed over a hundred people in Baghdad alone and then another series of car. And two days ago at least a dozen people (maybe more) were killed in the latest spate of bombings, this time aimed at Shiite pilgrims.

In addition to the violence, Iraq’s political situation remains as murky as the bottom of a Dagobah swamp. Iraqi President Talabani recently authorized Prime Minister Maliki to form a government, but he still delayed a month because it is doubtful Maliki can apportion the cabinet positions throughout the government in a way that will please the whole government..

To provide a unique perspective, I am going to give On Violence readers my “military intelligence” perspective. Intel analysts use a process called “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield” (IPB) to predict the enemy’s behavior. IPB takes all the information available, organizes it, and then determines the enemy’s possible courses of action.

Normally, intelligence sections go through the IPB process for an opposing force, like an enemy battalion or brigade (especially when we faced the Soviets). But we can do the same thing for Iraq as a whole--not just looking at the big five threat groups (Al Qaeda in Iraq/Islamic State in Iraq, Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa Naqshbandi, Promised Day Brigade, Jaysh Al Mahdi, and Asaib Ahl Al Haqq). When you look at all the available information--political, economic, social, tribal, regional, criminal, legal and the insurgent violence--Iraq is not on an automatic path towards peace and democracy.

Instead, Iraq has a range of outcomes for where it could end up. I call it the “Iraqi Spectrum”. It goes from utter chaos to complete order. I don’t want to predict where Iraq is headed--making predictions is incredibly hard, and in Iraq doubly so--but I do want to point out that the future of Iraq is not certain. On Wednesday’s post, I will provide the five worst case scenarios for the future of Iraq. These scenarios aren’t guaranteed to happen, but they all could.

Unfortunately, most politicians, pundits and diplomats are ignoring these very real possibilities.