Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

Deja Vu all over again?

datePosted on 15:26, July 2nd, 2017 by Pablo

According to press reports US Defense Secretary James Mattis is considering sending between 3000-5000 additional US troops back to Afghanistan to bolster the 13,450 already there. Last week he is reported to have asked NATO members and non-NATO military partners to commit additional troops up to the desired threshold of 1,200. Fifteen NATO members and partners have apparently committed to the task, with the UK (which has nearly 600 troops in theatre) promising an additional 100 soldiers and Norway and Lithuania publicly stating their intention to do likewise (without revealing numbers or units involved). Given that New Zealand has non-member partner status with NATO, is a member of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and is a bilateral US military partner that earlier agreed to a request to send a handful of soldiers back to Kabul, it is certainly possible that it has also been asked to consider bolstering its presence in that country. Mattis conceded that in retrospect the earlier US drawdown of troops from Afghanistan was too large and too sudden given the prompt resurgence of the Taliban (especially in Kandahar province) and the rise of Daesh as a new adversary in theatre. So what he is asking is for reinforcements to re-stem the extremist tide and continue the mentoring and advising that, along with selected hunter/killer missions, have been the mainstay of the ISAF role since the drawdown began a few years ago.

The question is: has NZ agreed to this latest US request to send more troops back to Afghanistan and if so, in what capacity? Given Donald Trump’s demands that US military allies “do more and pay more” for their common “defense,” is it prudent for NZ to refuse the US request?

On a related topic, reports are now regularly surfacing that Iraqi troops and federal police are committing war crimes on a significant scale in the battle to push Daesh out of the country, including torture and summary executions of unarmed suspects. Many of the war crimes are being committed by Shiia members of the Iraqi armed forces, who see their acts as revenge for the atrocities committed by Sunni Ba’athists during and after Saddam Hussein’s regime (since many Daesh fighters in Iraq are Iraqi Sunnis with ties to the deposed regime). No mention has been made of where these personnel were trained, but given the urgent need to commit troops to battle, is it not possible that some of the 20,000 Iraqis trained by NZDF personnel at Camp Taji outside of Baghdad since 2015 might be involved in these war crimes? (the NZDF is now in its fifth rotation at Camp Taji and claims that its training involves instruction on “fundamental human rights law and the Law of Armed Conflict”). This question is particularly relevant given that the NZDF admits that most of the soldiers it has trained have been committed to the battle for Mosul where war crimes have recently been documented (WARNING: the link contains nasty imagery).

Given that the NZDF has in the past had problems with some of its foreign security partners with respect to the treatment of prisoners (such as the NZSAS handing over detainees to the Afghan secret police, who then tortured and purportedly killed some of them), is it not possible that its combat training at Camp Taji (which emphasises infantry skills) has overshadowed the ethics training component of the mission given the urgent need to commit Iraqi troops to battle? Or do the Iraqis simply ignore the ethics part of their training or go rogue afterwards? Could this have contributed to the commission of war crimes by graduates of Task Force Taji’s training program? Since a NZDF officer is serving as a spokesperson for the anti-Daesh coalition in the battle for Mosul (and has had to explain the use of white phosphorous munitions in urban areas), and NZSAS personnel are believed to be serving as intelligence gatherers and target designators in the theatre, it is likely that the NZDF would know if its Task Force Taji graduates are involved in committing war crimes.

The culture of secrecy and denial within the upper ranks of the NZDF will make finding honest answers to both sets of questions difficult, but they are certainly worth asking.

 

PS: I shall leave aside the incidental question as to why a senior NZDF officer is serving as the Coalition spokesperson for the Battle of Mosul when the ostensible role of the NZDF in Afghanistan is limited to training Iraqi soldiers at Camp Taji and a few other bases.

The US has asked New Zealand to provide special operations troops to the anti-Daesh coalition. The government has said that it will consider the request but both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister have qualified the response by stating that they do not think that NZ will increase its contribution beyond the company sized infantry training complement currently deployed at Camp Taji outside of Baghdad.

The Ministers’ caution has more to do with domestic political concerns than the practical or diplomatic necessities of the conflict itself. With a thin majority thanks to Winston Peter’s by-election victory in Northland, National cannot risk parliamentary defeat on the issue. But Opposition leader Andrew Little has signaled that Labour is willing to consider sending SAS troops to the fight, so the ground is clearing for authorization of a new phase of the NZDF mission.

This was predictable from the moment the NZDF first deployed to Iraq last May. It was clear then and it is now that training Iraqi soldiers is not enough to turn the tide against Daesh. The training is good and the troops that graduate have improved professional skills, but according to a report prepared by the US Defense Department immediately before Mr. Key travelled to Taji in October for his meet-and-greet photo op with the troops, they were no better in battle than they were before the training mission began.

The problem lies with the Iraqi Army leadership. Iraqi field rank officers are not included in the training program and are unwilling or unable to demonstrate the type of leadership skills under fire that are required to make best use of the training received by their soldiers from the NZDF and its allies.

That is where special operations troops like the NZSAS are useful. Among many other roles they serve as leadership advisors on the battlefield. Because of their exceptional skills and hardened discipline, SAS teams serve as force multipliers by adding tactical acumen, physical resilience and steadfastness of purpose to the fight. They lead by example.

NZ’s major allies already have special operations troops on the ground in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Although all of the nationally-badged SAS units roam the region, the Australian SAS is heavily involved in Iraq (and is present at Camp Taji). Not only do Australian SAS troops serve as forward spotters for RAAF FA-18s undertaking ground attack missions in Iraq. They have fought alongside Iraqi troops attempting to re-take the city of Ramadi, provincial capital of the Sunni heartland that is Anbar Province (119 kilometers from Camp Taji and 90 kilometres from Baghdad). The Australian role is considered to have been essential in the initial re-occupation of Ramadi, in which NZDF trained Iraqi troops participated. US, UK and Canadian special operators are currently conducting advisory, forward targeting, search and destroy and long-range intelligence missions against Daesh in north and western Iraq in conjunction with Kurdish and Iraqi forces. Russian, Iranian and Turkish special operators are on the ground in Iraq and Syria as well, and the contested spaces in which Western special forces are now actively involved in the Middle East extends to Libya, Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Anglophone special forces are the allies that the NZSAS trains with regularly and works the closest with when on foreign missions. Like its counterparts, NZSAS tend to spend much time in or near overseas conflict zones whether that is publicized or not, usually following the typical military rotation pattern of threes: a third overseas, a third preparing for deployment, and a third on home duty after deployment. It is fair to assume that their attention when overseas has recently been focused on Iraq, Syria and perhaps other conflict zones in the Middle East.

The PM has hinted as much, stating that the NZSAS could be involved in roles other than combat. Since one of its primary missions is long-range patrol and intelligence gathering (rather than active engagement of the enemy), it could well be that the NZSAS is already playing a part in the targeting of Daesh assets.

With around 130 SAS troops in A and B Squadrons (Air, Boat, Mountain), that leaves a minimum of two troops’ or a platoon sized group (30-40 soldiers excluding officers) available for foreign deployment at any given time. Since the NZSAS operates in squads of 3 to 6 men depending on the nature of the mission (4-5 squads per troop), this leaves plenty of room for tactical flexibility, operational decentralization and role diversification.

Reports dating back to early 2015 already put the NZSAS in theater in small numbers, something the government does not deny. They may not be based in Iraq (which gives the government plausible deniability when asked if there are NZSAS troops on the ground in Iraq), but the main focus of their mission certainly is. Given the logistics involved it would be unusual if the NZSAS has not been working behind the scenes for their eventual participation in more active combat roles beyond what it may already be engaged in.

It will be odd if NZ refuses to send its most elite soldiers when asked for them by its major allies in a UN sanctioned multinational military coalition. Troops like the NZSAS need regular combat experience to sharpen and maintain their skills and they cannot do that at home. Since part of their specialness is versatility in a wide range of combat environments, the NZSAS would be keen to test its troops in the mixed urban/desert, conventional and unconventional battlefields of Iraq, Libya and Syria. The kinetic environment in the fight against Daesh is highly complex and multi-faceted so it stands to reason that our elite soldiers would want exposure to it.

Leaving the NZSAS in NZ is akin to leaving a Bugatti in the garage. Much has been invested in their combat readiness. They are trained to fight autonomously and lead others in combat (such as during the anti-terrorist mission in Afghanistan). To keep their specialist skills they need to experience live hostile fire. It would therefore be counterproductive for them to be idling in Papakura when there is a just cause to be fought against real enemies of humanity who commit atrocities and wreak misery on those they subjugate.

Whether one likes it or not, thanks to the Wellington and Washington Agreements NZ is once again a first tier military partner of the US, standing alongside Australia, Canada and the UK in that regard. Most of NZ’s major diplomatic partners are members of the anti-Daesh coalition and some, like Norway and Denmark, have also contributed special operations troops to it. NZ ‘s major trade partners in the Middle East are part of the coalition. As a temporary member of the UN Security Council, NZ has been vocal in its condemnation of Daesh and in calling for a united diplomatic and military response against it. It consequently has no real option but to accede to the request for the NZSAS to join the fight. It may be mission creep but this was mission creep that was foreseeable (and arguably has been planned for and implemented in spite of the government’s obfuscations).

Critics will say that NZ has no dog in this fight, that it is neo-imperialist foreign intervention on behest of corporate interests that only serves to show how subservient governments like National’s are when it comes to pleasing the US. If so, then there are 59 other countries in that category, to which can be added Iran (and its proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), Russia and the newly formed (if at this stage only on paper) Sunni Muslim anti-terrorism coalition that includes Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan. Critics will also point out that NZ is being selective about when and where it chooses to join foreign military adventures, and they would be right in that regard. But given its military resources, NZ pretty much has to be selective every time that it deploys troops, especially in combat roles. So there is nothing new, unusual or unethical in doing so.

Pacifists will say that the conflict with Daesh cannot be resolved by military means. It is true that military force alone is not sufficient to defeat Daesh, but removing it from the territory it occupies in Iraq, Libya and Syria is essential to that project. Not only is Daesh not prone to negotiating with its adversaries or sitting down with those that it disagrees with in order to settle differences. The very nature of its rule is based on coercion and imposition–of its puritanical values, of its medieval authority, of its rape and sex slave culture and of its harsh discriminatory treatment towards all who are not Sunni Arab men (and even the latter are not immune from its violence). Its removal is therefore justified on humanitarian grounds although disputed opinion polls claim that it enjoys some measure of public support in Anbar Province and Mosul. Yet even if the polls are correct–and that is very much questionable given the environment in which they are conducted–the hard fact is that there is no objective measure to gauge whether Daesh enjoys the informed consent of those that it governs, and until it does its reign is illegitimate because rule without majority consent is tyranny. Add to that the innumerable crimes against humanity Daesh has committed and its exportation and exhortation of terrorism across the globe, and the case against the use of force loses foundation.

Re-taking the ground lost to Daesh removes the main areas in which its leadership is located, from which it profits from oil production and where it trains jihadists from all over the world (some of whom return to commit acts of violence in their home countries). That in turn will lessen its appeal to prospective recruits. Thus the first step in rolling back Daesh as a international irregular warfare actor is to win the war of territorial re-occupation in the greater Levant.

The military objective in Iraq is to push Daesh out of Anbar Province and the Nineveh Governorate in which Mosul is located and force it to retreat back into Syria. At that point it can be subjected to a pincer movement in which the European/Arab/Antipodean/North American anti-Daesh coalition presses from the South and East while Russian, Iranian, Turkish and Syrian forces press from the North and West. The endgame will involve four milestones: first the capture of Ramadi, then the re-taking of Falluja, followed by the freeing of Mosul, and finally the seizure of the northern Syrian city of al-Raqqah, the capital of Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

Arab states will need to contribute more to the fight, including ground forces. Resolving the impasse over what to do with Assad is critical to establishing a united front between his military, Russia’s, Iran’s, Turkey and the anti-Daesh coalition. Both requirements are fraught and need to be the subject of delicate negotiations made all the more complicated by the Saudi-Iranian confrontation occasioned by the Saudi execution of a Shiia cleric. But for the negotiations to advance, much less to succeed, there needs to be battlefield gains against Daesh in Iraq that reverse its march towards Baghdad and which break the strategic stalemate currently in place. Once the prospect of victory over Daesh becomes possible, more countries will feel comfortable putting additional resources into the campaign against it.

There is room to be optimistic in that regard. In 2015 Daesh lost approximately 30-40 percent (+/- 5000 square miles) of the territory that it controlled in Iraq and Syria. Most of these losses were to Kurdish Peshmerga forces working in concert with Western special operations units. Significantly aided by its coalition partners and tribal militias, the Iraq Army has re-taken Tikrit (November) and the oil refinery town of Baiji (October) and is in the process of clearing the last pockets of Daesh resistance in Ramadi. Preparations for the re-taking of Falluja are well underway, and the battle for Mosul–Daesh’s biggest conquest in Iraq–is scheduled to begin within months. Key Daesh supply lines between Iraq and Syria are under near-constant aerial attack. In sum, the tide of Deash victories may not have completely turned but it does appear to have ebbed.

John Key does not do anything out of moral or ethical conviction, much less altruism. Instead he relies on polling and self-interest to drive policy. His polling may be telling him that it is getting politically less difficult to sell the NZSAS deployment to domestic audiences. But even if not, he has in the past ignored public opinion when it suits him (e.g. asset sales and the TPPA). With Labour warming to the idea of an NZSAS deployment, his political risk is reduced considerably regardless of public opinion. It is therefore likely that, weasel words notwithstanding, the train has been set in motion for that to occur.

Once the deployment is announced it is likely that the NZ public will support the decision and wish the troops Godspeed and success in fulfilling their mission. But even if the majority do not, the diplomatic and military pressure to contribute more to the war effort against Daesh will be enough to convince the government that it is in NZ’s best interests to agree to the request. In a non-election year and with Labour support it is also a politically safe thing to do.

What is certain is that the mission will be very dangerous for the troops involved. It will raise NZ’s target profile amongst Islamicists and could invite attack at home. But given the position NZ finds itself in, it is a necessary and ultimately justified thing to do for several reasons, not the least of which is upholding NZ’s reputation as an international actor.

A short version of this essay appears in the New Zealand Herald, January 7, 2016 (the comments are quite entertaining).

Is there a Kiwi word for “mission creep?”

datePosted on 16:51, September 11th, 2015 by Pablo

Well, it was bound to happen. After all the hemming and hawing and the kerfuffle that led to the announcement that New Zealand was sending 143 troops to Iraq as trainers and their force protection, the Prime Minister has now said the he would consider eventually sending to Syria a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) such as those previously deployed in Afghanistan. He said as well that he was open to the idea of deploying NZSAS in Syria as target selectors for anti-Daesh air-strikes. So much for his previous ironclad assurances that the training mission was the extent to which the NZDF would get involved in the anti-Daesh fight.

What is interesting about his statement is that he has the order of engagement reversed. For the PRT (which deploy about the same number of personnel as those currently stationed in Iraq) to be tasked in Syria Daesh will have to be pushed out of it, or at least significant portions of it. Even then, the mission will be difficult as the experience in Bamiyan attests (six of the nine NZDF combat dead came from the Bamiyan PRT, and Bamiyan was considered one of the safer Afghan provinces). However, for an eventual PRT deployment in Syria to happen, the conflict against Daesh will have to be ramped up exponentially, which is something the European members of the coalition and Australia are currently in the process of doing. The UK has started to use lethal drones against Daesh targets (primarily British citizens), and the French and Australians have decided to increase the number of air strikes they will fly against Daesh in Syria as well as Iraq.

Part of the air battle against Daesh in both Iraq and Syria is the use of UK, Australian and US special forces as target finders. US Army special forces are now fighting alongside Kurdish peshmerga in northern Syria, and it is widely believed that UK and Australian SAS are doing a bit more than just finding targets for air strikes, to include nighttime raids on Daesh facilities and troop formations in Iraq as well as Syria.

The New Zealand government denies that the NZSAS is in the conflict theatre, but it would be naive to take that assertion at face value given the close working ties between the NZSAS and the afore-mentioned special operators already there. If for no other reason, that scenario is possible because deploying of SAS assets in Syria in any role requires a fair bit of lead-in time, something that has now grown short as the migrant crisis deepens. There is some urgency to finding a front and back-end solution to the crisis: addressing the refugee flows on the back-end in Europe but upping the ante on the front-end (the Syrian/Iraqi conflict zone) so as to stop the refugee flows from continuing.

That is going to take some doing. The Iraq armed forces are no closer to re-taking Ramadi than they were before the NZDF “advisors” arrived in May. The oil refinery town of Baiji, north of Camp Taji where the NZDF troops are stationed, is still surrounded by Daesh fighters and at risk of falling to them. Mosul remains in Daesh hands. In Syria the Russians have decided to put skin into the game by sending the 1000-strong 810th Marine Brigade to Latakia (where Russia maintains an electronics signals intercept station) while reinforcing its naval base at Tartus. US intelligence has reported hearing Russian voices on Syrian armoured communications, which is not surprising given that Russian crews fought in Syrian tanks in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel.

Russian involvement should be seen as a potentially positive development as it has indicated that it is open to joining the coalition against Daesh. It differs on the question of what to do with Assad, but the hard fact is that no solution to the Syrian civil war will come without Russia at the negotiating table (and Iran, for that matter). Sending combat troops to bolster Assad gives the Russians increased leverage as well as a greater stake than what they already have (which is considerable given that over 100,000 Russian citizens live in Syria and the Assad regime is its closest ally in the Middle East). Most importantly, it takes pressure off the West to solely shoulder the burden of rolling back Daesh. With the Russians and Iranian-backed shiia militias (including Hezbollah) on board in both Syria and Iraq and air strikes on Syria added to the coalition target list, a simultaneous pincer movement on Daesh in Iraq and Daesh in Syria can begin. Cutting off cross-border re-supply routes will be a priority and once that is accomplished, the squeeze can be placed on places like Mosul and Raqqa (the de facto capital of the Islamic State).

There is much more to the scenario and it will inevitably be ugly. Turkey is now involved but spending more time trying to kill Kurdish PKK fighters than those of Daesh (and the PKK obliges the Turks by turning its guns on Turkish targets) That will have to change, or at least Turkey’s security priorities will have to be reversed–Daesh first and then the PKK. Iran and the West will need to find an accommodation with regard to the former’s armed proxies in Iraq and Syria (something that has tacitly occurred in Iraq between Coalition forces and the al-Sadr Brigades). Other European and Middle Eastern nations will have to increase their military contributions to the fight. But it is clear that there is movement in these regards.

It appears that the refugee crisis has been the tipping point for that to occur, which is why the front- and back-end solution set is now being addressed and why John Key is being asked about what NZ proposes to do on both ends. If his recent waffling about the NZDF role is anything to go by, the process of mission creep could soon be underway and may well have started already.

A hard rain is a’gonna fall.

datePosted on 14:16, May 22nd, 2015 by Pablo

Although I am loathe to prognosticate on fluid situations and current events, I have been thinking about how the conflict in Iraq has been going. Although I do not believe that the Islamic State (IS) is anywhere close to being the global threat that it is portrayed to be in the West, I do believe that it is an existential threat to Syria, Iraq and perhaps some of their Sunni neighbours. Unlike al-Qaeda, which has limited territorial objectives, IS is political-religious movement with serious territorial ambitions that uses a mix of conventional and unconventional land warfare to achieve them. Given that difference, below is an assessment of the situation in Iraq after the fall of Ramadi into IS hands.

Iraq’s Anbar Province, a Sunni stronghold, is now under IS control. Tikrit was occupied a few months ago, Falluja and Haditha fell some weeks ago and Ramadi was conquered a week ago. To the northeast, Mosul remains in IS hands, while Baiji (site of major oil processing facilities) and Samarra remain under siege. With dozens of smaller towns in Anbar and elsewhere under IS rule, to include a front extending south-southeast from Tikrit to the eastern Baghdad suburbs along the Tigris River basin, the advance on the capital appears inevitable. Or is it? In this post I attempt to outline the strategic situation that the NZDF has thrust itself into.

28D32BC000000578-3087517-image-a-9_1432030518818Map courtesy of the DailyMail Online (http://www.dailymail.co.uk).

First, let’s look at the positives (from the West’s perspective). There is no way that IS can physically take and occupy Baghdad. A city of nearly four million people, most of them Shiia, Baghdad is a fortress when compared to what IS has tackled so far. It has concentrated military forces, is the seat of national government and is the location of numerous foreign military and diplomatic missions. It is therefore a strategic asset that Iran, the West and Iraqi Shiites cannot afford to lose. Moreover, IS is stretched too thin on the ground in Iraq to have the numbers to engage effective urban warfare against a determined and concentrated enemy, has no air power and does not have enough Sunni support in Baghdad to make up for the lack of numbers on the ground (A digression here: IS has a Salafist ideology buttressed by Ba’athist political and military organisation. Much of its leadership is drawn from the ranks of displaced Sunni Ba’athist officials in the Saddam Hussein regime, and it enjoys considerable support in Sunni Iraq. This accounts in significant measure for its success in Anbar).

Although not located in Anbar, Mosul, Samarra and Tikrit also have Sunni majorities, so the trend has been for IS to target and conquer urban areas where its sectarian support is matched by demographic numbers. The question remains as to whether its military campaign can be equally successful in Shiia dominant areas to the east and south of Baghdad, where Iranian forces also have a presence. That appears unlikely.

On the negative side from the West’s perspective, IS appears to be engaging in a pincer movement designed to surround and isolate western and northern Baghdad from the rest of the country. If it able to control the land routes in those areas it can cut off not only supply lines between Baghdad and its allied forces in the north and west, including Camp Taji where the NZDF is supposed to be stationed (I say supposedly because I have read an unconfirmed report that the NZDF deployment are stuck in Baghdad because of the increase in IS hostilities), but it can also proceed to apply a chokehold on supplies entering Baghdad via the north and west. As part of this strategy IS will target the power grid that supplies Baghdad, the majority of which comes from its north (including the power plant at Baiji, now under siege) as well as water supplies drawn from reservoirs in the northwest and piped to Baghdad. This will not be fatal if the Baghdad government can keep its land lines of supply in the south and east open, but it certainly will hinder its ability to keep some (more than likely Sunni) neighbourhoods stocked with life essentials, which will only exacerbate their alienation from central authorities and perhaps contribute to their support for IS.

Moreover, if more difficult to achieve, IS does not need to control all of the territory to the east and south of Baghdad in order to choke it off. All it has to do is establish a thin mobile front that can gain and hold intercept points on the major highways surrounding the city (and relatively close to the city limits at that, which obviates the need to fight Shiias further afield). This includes targeting power and water supplies coming from the south and east.

In other words, IS does not have to achieve strategic depth in order to choke the arterial routes leading into the city from the south and east. Coalition airpower may be able to stave off this eventuality for a while but without ground control that allows unimpeded re-supply, Baghdad will be operating on a scarcity regime within a few months. Resupply by air, while significant, cannot substitute for land supply, and it is worth noting that Baghdad airport as well as the infamous Abu Ghraib prison (where many Sunni militants are held) lie west of Baghdad and have recently been the subject of IS attacks. In fact, in the last year both Abu Ghraib and the prison at Taji have been the scenes of major prisoner jailbreaks orchestrated by IS, with many of the escapees now thought to have joined its ranks in an effort to increase its knowledge of the local fighting terrain.

A microcosmic version of this scenario involves the city of Taji, location of Camp Taji, the huge military base that is the destination point for the NZDF contribution to the anti-IS coalition. Straddling national highway one 20 miles northwest of Baghdad west of the Tigris river, Taji is the last significant town on the run south into Baghdad. With the old Saddam-era and later US military base capable of housing a mix of 40,000 Iraqi and foreign troops (although in reality there are far less on base), and home to a 1700 meter runway and Iraqi’s armoured corps, it is now the focal point of foreign training of Iraqi troops. As such and because of its location, it is a major target for IS, which controls the territory immediately east of the Tigris (about 11 miles away from the base). Since Taji is only 30 miles from Falluja, the presumption is that IS will mass it’s force to the east, west and north of Taji, then launch offensives designed to gain control of the town and highway. That would leave the base cut off from land routes and force it to rely on air re-supply and/or fight its way out of containment. If that happens it is doubtful that the NZDF troops will hunker down “behind the wire” and do nothing else. Whatever the scenario, isolating Camp Taji from Baghdad is a primary IS objective in the next months and will be essential to any move to surround and squeeze the capital city. The good news, from the West’s perspective, is that in order to isolate the base and sever its land link to Baghdad, IS will have to mass significant numbers of fighters, artillery and armour, something that makes it vulnerable to coalition air strikes.

The bottom line is that a successful pincer movement will slowly strangle and starve Baghdad, something that it turn will force the Iraq government to seek a political settlement on terms favourable to IS. That will entail the ejection of foreign forces and partition of Iraq. IS will claim Sunni-dominant areas and merge them with the territory it holds in Syria (IS controls roughly half of Syria’s territory) to establish its caliphate. It has no real interest in Iraqi Kurdistan because it cannot defeat the Peshmerga and other than the oil facilities on its western flank, Kurdistan has no strategic assets. Likewise, Shiia dominant areas of Iraq are too large and populated for IS to occupy, plus any incursion into Iraqi Shiia border territory with Iran will invite a military response from the latter. But where IS is in control, it has already begun to provide the basic services that the Iraq and Syrian governments no longer can, which raises the possibility that partition is already a fait acompli. As stated in The Economist:

“The danger is that the IS caliphate is becoming a permanent part of the region. The frontiers will shift in the coming months. But with the Kurds governing themselves in the north-east, and the Shias in the south, Iraqis question the government’s resolve in reversing IS’s hold on the Sunni north-west. “Partition is already a reality,” sighs a Sunni politician in exile. “It just has yet to be mapped.” (“The caliphate strikes back,” The Economist, May 23. 2015 (http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21651762-fall-ramadi-shows-islamic-state-still-business-caliphate-strikes-back, May 23, 2015).

Thanks to the Iraqi Army abandoning their positions and leaving their equipment behind, IS has captured significant amounts of modern US made weaponry, including the equivalent of several armoured columns. It now has anti-aircraft munitions that eventually will score hits on coalition aircraft. Its fighters are a mix of seasoned veterans and unprofessional jihadis, but IS field commanders have been judicious in their use of each (for example, employing  inexperienced foreign jihadists in first wave assaults or in suicide bombings using construction vehicles to breach enemy lines, followed by artillery fire and hardened ground forces). What that means is that IS has the realistic ability to cut off Baghdad’s land access to its near north and west, which will force the Iraq military and coalition partners to stage a counteroffensive to reclaim those lines of supply.

IS relies on mobility, manoeuvre and the selective application of mass force to achieve it ends. The fall of Ramadi was accomplished by rapidly surrounding it from the north and east and focusing firepower on one garrison in it. IS also has relatively unencumbered supply lines coming from Syria, and many suspect that supplies also come from Saudi Arabia and Turkey (Iraq has land borders with those states as well as Iran, Jordan and Kuwait. There is a strong belief–which could well be confirmed by the document retrieval made during the US Special Forces raid on a senior IS financier’s hideout in Syria– that the Saudis in particular are doing more than just financing IS as a hedge against Iran). The best check against its advances is demographic density in Shiia dominant parts of the country and the fact that any adventurous move in the east or south will be met by serious Shiia militia and Iranian military resistance (Sadr City, a bastion of Shiia militias, lies on the northeast of Baghdad and Basra, a major oil refining centre and home of the so-called (Shiia) marsh Arabs, is the capital of the south).

Sanctuary

Source: Institute for the Study of War, September 26, 2014.

For those who believe that coalition air power is enough to stem the tide of IS advances, let me simply point out that history has shown that air power alone cannot determine success in a territorial conflict, especially an irregular or unconventional one. Vietnam is a case in point. In the battle for Ramadi the coalition conducted 275 air strikes and still saw the city fall to IS in the space of days. Thousands of coalition air strikes have been launched against IS and while they slowed down many IS advances and were decisive in battles between Kurdish peshmurga and ISIS forces in Syria and northeastern Iraq, they have not proven so when the forces they are supporting are too few or lack the will to fight when things get ugly. Since IS prefers to move quickly between urban areas and stage assaults from within them, the fear of civilian casualties hampers the coalition’s ability strike surgically at them in urban settings. That leaves the coalition with the task of trying to target IS convoys and garrisons, something that has proven hard to do given the dispersed nature of their campaign outside of urban areas.

It would seem that the best way to counter IS advances is to pre-emptively launch counter-offensives using a mix of foreign and Iraq troops and militias. That involves accepting Iranian military participation in concert with Western forces and requires moving sooner rather than later to at least stall IS’s progress southward. But if we take standard basic training as a guideline, then the Iraqi Army forces that have begun to be trained by the coalition troops will not be ready to fight until mid July. That may be too late to stop IS before it reaches Taji and the western Baghdad suburbs. Thus the conundrum faced by the coalition is to commit group troops and accept Iranian military help now or wait and hope that IS will slow down its advance due to its own requirements, thereby allowing training provided to the Iraqi Army by foreigners like the NZDF enough time to strengthen it to the point that it can take back the fight to IS with only marginal foreign assistance.

At worst, the latter is a pipe dream. At best, it is a very big ask.

A ruinous adventure.

datePosted on 16:43, December 21st, 2011 by Pablo

The objective of war is to marshall organized violence in order to intimidate or defeat an adversary for the purpose of imposing a political outcome against its will. Wars can be offensive or defensive in nature, preventative, pre-emptive or reactive, and can be waged out of necessity or choice (necessary defensive wars being the most justified under jus ad bellum standards). The point is to use enough lethal force to secure a preferred political end-game. In recent years this has given rise to something known as “effects-based strategy,” whereby military planners think of a desired tactical effect and plan their deployments accordingly. I shall not detour into how the “fog of war” and an adversary’s will and preparation play a role in determining real, as opposed to desired combat effects. Suffice it to say that the idea that one can go to war with an eye to a specific effect is problematic, and that is even more true at a strategic level than it is on the battlefield.

Instead, let us consider Iraq as an exercise in effects-based war-mongering. Leave aside the bogus WMD justifications for attacking Saddam Hussein’s regime. Let’s look at the real reasons and see how well the invasion and occupation of Iraq achieved those ends.

Dreamt up by the feverish minds of the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century (which included Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle and Wolfowtiz among its members), the invasion of Iraq was designed to remove a stable but hostile authoritarian regime in order to replace it with a US-friendly regime that would give US companies privileged access to Iraq’s oil supplies (with fuel retail prices coming down as a result) and which would allow the permanent stationing of US troops on its soil. US military assets in Iraq  would come from the transfer of troops and weapons from Europe and Saudi Arabia, since the former’s presence was made unnecessary by the end of the Cold War and the latter were a source of hatred in Islamicist circles and a potential source of domestic instability for the House of Saud. The idea was to create a land-based aircraft carrier in Iraq, numbering up to 100,000 troops with a full complement of weapons, in order to intimidate Iran and Syria while bringing fight against al-Qaeda to home soil. Having such a force forward-deployed in Iraq would also reduce rapid response times to other theaters, Central Asia in particular.

This scenario (the strategic “effect”) rested on the assumption that Hussein’s successors would be compliant if not democratic, that Iraqi Shiia and Kurdish populations would welcome US troops even if the Sunni population did not, that Baathists could be purged from the public bureaucracy without loss of efficiency and that any resistance could be defeated with overwhelming force. It assumed that Iran would be intimidated by the move. In order to produce the “effect” the war would have to be successfully prosecuted through its four phases (stage, thrust, seize and hold), and the international community would have take up the task of post-war nation-building as soon as Saddam’s statues had dropped from their pedestals.

Very little military input was sought in the making of these assumptions, and none of them proved correct.

Instead, Sunni and Shiia Iraqis violently resisted the occupation while the Kurds turned to in-fighting and irredentist actions in Turkey, the post-Saddam government (although elected and laboriously installed) has proven corrupt, unstable, unreliable and less than obsequious to American demands, the Iraqi armed forces dissolved into the resistance and have not yet reconstituted, the public bureaucracy collapsed and national infrastructure destroyed, both yet to be resurrected, all while Iran strengthened its influence in Iraq as well as in the broader Gulf region.

The last item is important. The US enemy d’jour, Iran, is in a better geopolitical position today as a direct result of the occupation next door (which allowed it to funnel advisors and material to Shiia resistance groups, particularly the Mahdi Army). Iraq is no longer a buffer between the Persian and Sunni Arab worlds, but instead is contested ground. Meanwhile, the Arab world is convulsed by domestic dissent to the point that US backing is not enough to stave off popular protest or Iranian influence amongst Shiia minorities in the region. As for the human cost, 4500 US troops were killed in the nine year occupation, more than 30,000 have been wounded (with many of those suffering catastrophic injuries that would have been fatal in previous wars), and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians are estimated to have died through no fault of their own as a direct consequence of the war. Corruption and ill-discipline infected the ranks of US civilian and military personnel as the occupation wore on, to the point that Abu Ghraib and Blackwater excesses are among the most potent images left in its wake. There is no permanent US military base in Iraq.

So what was the overall effect of this effects-based war?

Iran is regionally stronger now than before the invasion. Its influence in Iraq is greater now than before 2003. The Malaki government in Baghdad is neither democratic nor pro-US and instead is more susceptible to Iranian influence than ever before. The Kurds have not proven to be reliable US proxy counter-weights to Sunni and Shiia factions in Iraq, and instead have fomented trouble with a key US ally, Turkey. The Assad regime in Syria is in trouble but the US had nothing to do with that and can do nothing to force a preferred outcome there. The Sunni Arab street is in revolt against US-backed regimes. Anti-US  forces elsewhere have learned from the Iraq resistance and modified their tactics accordingly (the use of IEDs being the single most important lesson now shared by jihadis and others world-wide). The Afghan occupation–which was the only post 9/11 US military action that enjoyed broad international support and which was largely neglected during the height of the Iraq conflict–now languishes even as it spills over into Iran in the guise of stealth spy drones and special forces incursions.

While the US has been preoccupied with its wars, major rivals China and Russia have found opportunity to re-arm and expand their spheres of influence relatively unchecked (the 2008 Ossetian-Georgian war being an example). There has been an epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder issues within returning US service ranks, and the US public has grown tired of fruitless war rather than proud of it as the “liberating” gesture that it was supposed to be (or sold as). Oh, and the US teeters on the edge of bankruptcy as a result of  deficit war spending and the price of gas at the pump (which soared after the invasion) is at record highs while Russian and other non-US companies negotiate contracts with Iraqi oil suppliers.

From a US strategic standpoint, the invasion made the regional situation worse, not better. The attack on Iraq was legally unjustified, ill- conceived, based on false assumptions and counter-productive in the end. Although military skills were honed and weapons advancements made, by any political measure the US is in a weaker position in the Middle East than it was before the invasion, and its major rivals are demonstrably stronger at a time when the entire region is less stable now than it was in early 2003.

Unless one subscribes to the view that preventative wars of choice are waged by the US in order to fuel the military-industrial complex, the Iraq War was a defeat. Although orderly, the circumstances of US military withdrawal from Iraq were not of its choosing, and the political situation it left behind is unstable, deteriorating and not protective of US interests. One does not have to be a Realist to understand that many lives were wasted in armed pursuit of an impossible effect in Iraq (although it was US realists who argued the most vigorously against the invasion in the months before it happened). It was, in other words, a cluster**k of epic proportions.

Doing things for effect is not the same as doing things right, or being right. The US going to preventative war in Iraq by choice and for effect was not right and was not rightly done. It was wrong and criminally stupid to do, and no amount of patriotic gloss can alter that fact.

 

One man’s terrorist…

datePosted on 08:54, March 2nd, 2011 by Lew

Via Thomas Beagle, the following astonishing story:

In Libya, an unlikely hero of a youth-led revolution
BENGHAZI, LIBYA – Mehdi Mohammed Zeyo was the most unlikely of revolutionary heroes. The bespectacled 49-year-old worked in the supplies department of the state-owned oil company. He was a diabetic with two teenage daughters.
But something snapped inside him as a youth-led uprising in Libya against the government of Moammar Gaddafi quickly turned bloody.
[…]
On the morning of Feb. 20, he walked down the stairs of his apartment building with a gas canister hoisted on his shoulder, witnesses said. He put two canisters inside his trunk of his car, along with a tin can full of gunpowder. Driving toward the base, he flashed the victory sign to the young men protesting outside and hit the gas pedal.
Gaddafi’s security forces sprayed his black car with bullets, setting off a powerful explosion, witnesses said. The blast tore a hole in the base’s front gate, allowing scores of young protesters and soldiers who had defected to stream inside. That night, the opposition won the battle for the base, and for Benghazi, as Gaddafi’s forces retreated.
[…]
Zeyo had left a will listing the debts he owed so that they could be paid, but Hafidh said the community and the company where Zeyo worked would take care of his family. On Zeyo’s desk Monday was a printed piece of paper pasted to the computer screen.
“We are from God and we return to God,” it said.
At home, his wife put her head down.
“We had no sons to carry on his name. But this is how God works, and now his name is written in history,” she said.

That was published in the Washington Post, and syndicated to the front page of the international news section of today’s Dominion Post. Read the whole thing, it’s worth your time.

Then try to re-imagine this story if the protagonist was an uneducated working-class youth from the Palestinian Occupied Territories, rural Afghanistan or the Iran-Iraq borderlands.

L

Seven years after the US invaded Iraq, the last of its combat troops have withdrawn across the border into Kuwait. Left behind are 50,000 troops whose mission is to continue limited counter-insurgency operations while providing security training and advice to Iraqi security forces along with helping in civilian reconstruction projects. President Obama has been cautious in his framing of the end of the combat mission, noting that the “job” in Iraq is not yet done. No “mission accomplished” banners have been unfurled, and no staged military fly-ins to congratulate the troops have been organised. For the US, the end of combat in Iraq is a transition to another phase of its occupation, one that has seen an escalation in sectarian violence in parallel with the withdrawal of the bulk of US forces from the country. The future of Iraq remains unclear.

With that in mind the question of the moment is: what is the strategic outcome of the US invasion of Iraq? Has the outcome been positive or negative from the perspective of the US, the Middle East, and the broader international community? Was US intervention in Iraq a success?

In this post two opposing views are offered. I offer the case against the US invasion as a strategic success. Sagenz from No Minister offers the case in favour. The rules we have agreed on is that we both state our basic position without rebuttal, then invite the readers to argue the merits of each case. As the host I open the debate.

Con: The US invasion and occupation of Iraq is a strategic failure.

It is an axiom of military strategy that wars are fought for political reasons. The famous Clausewitz dictum that “war is politics by other means” is a hallmark of modern strategy, because even if fought for immediate reasons such as resources, territory, access to sea lanes or diplomatic leverage, the ultimate motive for war is a strategic calculation made by government elites that political advantage can be accrued by the use of force. Be it born out of necessity or discretion, wars are measured by the political outcomes they produce.

If we accept that achievement of political objectives are the reason for war, then the US invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a strategic failure. Let me summarise why, starting with what the US sought to accomplish with the invasion.

Using the pretext of preventing Saddam Hussein’s use of weapons of mass destruction, the US sought to remove his regime in order to install a secular, pro-US democracy that would host forward bases for US troops drawn from obsolete commands in Europe and controversial bases in Saudi Arabia. This would reinforce Iraq’s traditional role as a buffer state between the Sunni Arab world and their traditional Persian enemies in Shiia Iran while at the same time placing a US military presence on the Syrian border. The idea was to use the post 9/11 rationale of fighting Islamicist terrorism to bring the fight to the region in which it was incubated while intimidating those like Iran and Syria who are believed to provide weapons, training and safe havens for the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. Coupled with the US military presence in Afghanistan, the installation of permanent US military bases in Iraq would act as a pincer on Iran and a check on Syria and Iranian proxies while allowing the US to more rapidly project massed force into failed states such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen where Islamicists congregate.

The invasion was also sold as bringing democracy to Iraq and as a means of re-opening Iraqi oil supplies to the world after more than a decade of embargos and sanctions. The erection of a pro-Western democracy on the ashes of the Baathist one-party authoritarian state was seen as a model for other Muslim Arab countries to emulate, and therefore a vehicle for change in the Sunni world. The re-opening of Iraq’s oil industry would help undermine the Saudi monopoly on oil pricing within OPEC, since full capacity Iraq oil production would be the third largest in the world (after Saudi Arabia and Russia). Breaking the Saudi ability to price fix the petroleum market would lead to a reduction in crude prices, thereby stimulating economic growth and consumption in the West in the measure that disposable income for corporate investment and consumer spending in non-energy related areas was freed up. With fuel costs down Western economies could push out of their post- 9/11 doldrums.  

Breaking the Saudi lock hold on oil pricing would also accelerate reform in the Kingdom as it was forced to diversify its economy and become more competitive in its core export industry. That would and encourage and reinforce incipient democratic movements as well as economic diversification throughout the Middle East, under the assumption that a move towards competitive economic diversity would promote political pluralism as well. The sum total of these repercussive effects would be to enhance US prestige and power in that part of the world while curtailing that of regional adversaries. Or so the neoconservative architects of the invasion thought.

In practice, this is what has happened: when compared to the Saddam regime, Iraq is more politically unstable, less of a buffer, virtually defenceless on its own, and just as anti-American, if less autocratic than before 2003. It may hold elections but it is by no means democratic, especially when examined at the sub-national level where traditional political hierarchies and forms of patronage still obtain. It has yet to convene a central government six months after the last parliamentary elections due to profound and often violent divisions between Sunni and Shiia parliamentary blocs. Corruption remains endemic, even worse than under Saddam due to the influx of foreign money for reconstruction and pacification projects. Compared to 2003 Iraq is more susceptible to Iranian influence in its internal politics, most visibly via Moqtada al-Sadr’s Madhi Army and other militias that dominate Shiia political representation. In fact, the US has had to court the favour of the very Baath Party members and Sunni tribal elders that were the backbone of Saddam’s regime in order to counter Shiia dominance of Iraq politics, with a Kurdish-Sunni alliance now seen as the only means of balancing the numerical advantages held by Shiia political factions (the same formula that Saddam used to bolster his regime). The goal of representative democracy has been abandoned as completely as was the search for WMD—what matters now is staving off Shiia domination of the Iraqi political process. The irony is that is exactly what Saddam was useful for in the 1980s—countering Persian and Shiia influence at home and abroad.

Although the volume of terrorist attacks has diminished from the high point of 2004-07, car bombings, assaults on mosques, markets, police stations and community centres, assassination of community leaders, kidnappings, murders and other basic measures of criminality have all increased exponentially when compared with the Hussein regime. On virtually every human security index—health (infant mortality, average life span, infectious disease rates, access to primary care), education (literacy, access to post-primary schooling), access to electricity and potable water—Iraq is worse off today than before the invasion. It is no longer a secular republic, but instead a country in which behind a facade of constitutional government religion permeates politics from the local to the national level. It is a country in which women used to populate senior positions in the health, education and diplomatic bureaucracies, but which now sees the burqa imposed on the streets of conservative neighbourhoods. In sum: the country is fundamentally broken as a result of the invasion, and this was not a case of having to break eggs in order to make an omelette. It is a case of breaking eggs with hope but without a p(l)an.

The Iraqis have refused to allow the US permanent basing rights, so thoughts about using  the country as a forward platform for US regional force projection are no longer possible. That leaves Iraq virtually defenceless, since its national army is weak, corrupt, and focused on internal security while its air force and navy are for all intents and purposes non-functional. In fact, once the remaining US troops are withdrawn by 2014, Iraq will be at the mercy of its neighbours, Iran in particular (which may be a reason why US troops may stay beyond that deadline). In order to counter that possibility, Iraq is making overtures to Syria and Turkey and the wider international community in ways that do not conform to the US preferred approach to those countries (for example, by courting Russian and Chinese investment in oil infrastructure). Rather than a beacon of pro-US democracy in an otherwise authoritarian landscape in the Middle East, Iraq looks at best—in the event that it does eventually develop a stable central government with authority over the whole country—to become a civilianised version of Saddam’s regime, with a Shiia twist.

As for the oil logic, the results have been poor. Iraq oil production is years away from pre-1990 levels and those who will benefit the most from its resumption are the Chinese and Rusisans whose contracts for infrastrructure development have been accepted by the Malaki regime. The Saudis are unmoved politically or economically by the invasion and occupation–they still dominate international oil pricing and they still play both sides of the fence when it comes to the so-called “war on terror.”  Energy prices throughout the West have not come down to anything close to pre-2003 levels, so whatever the intention, the results of the invasion have been counterproductive on both the political and economic dimensions. Saudi Arabia is still the dominant economic and political force in the Arab world, and another regional power has benefitted from the invasion in unexpected ways.

To put things bluntly, the biggest beneficiary of the US invasion is Iran. In terms of regional power balances, Iran has been strengthened by the invasion. Having US forces tied down in Iraq as well as Afghanistan made it less possible for the US to credibly threaten large-scale force against Tehran. Having borders on both Afghanistan and Iraq allows the Iranians to leverage their support for anti-US irregulars in both countries while at the same time continuing support for proxies further afield such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Its influence in Iraq has increased to the point that it is a major power broker in that country, which has allowed it to start a process of “Finlandisation” of Iraq whereby the latter no longer serves as a buffer state but instead as a forward line of defense for Iranian interests. Using great power balancing to its advantage, Iran has successfully played off Russia, China and the West on matters of common concern in Iraq and elsewhere while cultivating broader international ties with countries like Brazil and Venezuela.  

All of this gives Iran space to manoeuvre with regards to its suspected nuclear weapons development program and overall military expansion while providing it with shelter from armed response to its openly anti-Israeli, anti-American and anti-British rhetoric. That has increased Iranian prestige within the Muslim world while undermining Sunni Arab elites who are seen as appeasing of Western interests. By all measures, and despite internal dissent, Iran’s world position is stronger today than it was in 2003. It has consequently gotten bolder, expanded its range of influence and placed its Western antagonists under more pressure than ever before.

The US strategic position is weaker as a result of the invasion. Although it is true that ten years of continuous fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere has made the US military (especially its land forces) the most combat experienced in the world today, it has been stretched thin by its ongoing deployments and is therefore no longer able to mount large scale land assaults in other theatres of operation for anything other than short periods of time. Since air and sea power do not secure ground, this leaves the US unable to respond to military contingencies in the measure that it could have had it not gone into Iraq. The 2008 Ruso-Georgian War is illustrative in that regard. Moreover, the debacles of Abu Ghraib and Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo have reduced US moral authority and prestige world-wide while encouraging anti-US sentiment throughout the Muslim Diaspora. Thus, by no measure can it be said that the US is stronger today than it was on the eve of the invasion in March 2003.

Hence, when considering the outcomes of the Iraq invasion and occupation, the overall picture is one of strategic failure. The US did not achieve any of its goals other than the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Perversely, the rivals it sought to weaken have been strengthened while the position it sought to establish has been abandoned. Rather than consolidate US superpower pre-eminence it has opened it to question. It has left the Middle East geopolitical landscape less rather than more stable, and it not diminished Islamicist influence in the Muslim world or its capabilities to strike at targets outside of Iraq. What successes have been achieved in dismantling al-Qaeda’s core leadership and large scale operational abilities have occurred in spite of rather than because of the Iraq invasion.

Perhaps the longer-term picture in Iraq will turn out to be more favourable to US interests. But if that does happen, it will be due not so much to the invasion and occupation itself as it will be to the as of yet unknown actions of Iraqi and other international actors in the wake of US military withdrawal. Only then will a strategic victory be snatched from what is now a strategic defeat masquerading as a military drawdown.

Pro: Seven years after Saddam, It’s too early to tell.

The question is: what is the strategic outcome of the US invasion of Iraq? Has the outcome been positive or negative from the perspective of the US, the Middle East, and the broader international community?

Pablo has succinctly put the case for the view that the invasion of Iraq is a strategic failure.  I put the case for the invasion being a qualified strategic success.

To analyse whether the world is in a better or worse place because of the invasion we must consider three things.  Has America achieved its strategic objectives, what the alternative would have been and what was the strategic context for the invasion? 

Addressing those in reverse order the strategic context for the invasion can be traced to the US withdrawal from Lebanon after losing 200 marines, the decision to leave Saddam Hussein in place after the first gulf war, Clinton cutting and running from Somalia after losing 17 Rangers followed by the international community washing its hands in Rwanda and being too slow to protect European Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Aden and the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1992-3 were further indicators to Osama Bin Laden and the Islamists that the West had grown corrupt, weak and lacked the will to defend themselves.  911 was intended to cause a reaction from the US.  What Al Qaeda expected was a weak response that would kill many Muslims and bring more to the cause.  The air war on Serbia was perhaps their foremost example of an America unwilling to put boots on the ground. 

Although many will not accept the premise of Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations it is clear to any serious observer that Islamists reject Western culture and are prepared to use violent means to replace it with a caliphate.  To suggest that the invasion of Iraq caused otherwise completely peaceful Muslims to become insurgents would be fatuous.   Western mistakes have certainly provided recruits to the cause but the likes of Abu Hamza were preaching their hatred long before GW Bush took office.

Having invaded Afghanistan after 911 the US was faced with a strategic choice.  Double down and try to convert part of the Middle East to democracy or manage the situation.  Having chosen not to occupy Iraq in 1991 the US had seen the result.  A dictatorship contemptuous of American power and an enemy prepared and able to bring the war to American soil.  It is relevant that there have been no further successful attacks on US soil since September 2001.

America and their allies chose to take the fight to the enemy.  That the invasion lacked UN legitimacy was only down to a late change of mind from the perfidious French more concerned with their Iraq weapons sales than morality.  To believe that America must occupy Iraq to control its oil is to completely misunderstand the international oil market.  Even now, Venezuela supplies a large amount of crude to US refineries.

Moving on to address the likely present if the invasion had not happened.  Without the invasion of Iraq, the Islamists would have had only one front to fight on and all recruits would have headed to Afghanistan.  The difficulties faced by the coalition there from a divided enemy would have been nothing compared to the full force of an Al Qaeda not distracted and then defeated in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein would have long broken the will of the international community to keep up sanctions.  He was more able to accept the damage to his own people from them.  Iraq had the technology to reconstitute chemical weapons any time they wished to and would now be well on the way to being nuclear armed as Iran and Iraq along with other countries scared by that prospect engaged in a regional arms race.  Nuclear weapons in the hands of Qusay or Uday Hussein would certainly have required US intervention.

Iraqi leadership do not quite understand yet that the US is serious about leaving them to their own devices.  It is now apparent that Iraq is in a similar position to Pakistan with the American military providing  a stable guiding hand rather than the Pakistani military.  Both countries require a leader to emerge before they can expect genuine stability.  Does the fact that Iraq is in a similar position to Pakistan make Iraq a success or Pakistan a failure?

Has America achieved its strategic objectives?  On the face of it Pablo makes a strong case that the current situation is a strategic failure for the US on the basis of the objectives he identifies. Certainly the Islamist insurgents fought more determinedly than anybody thought likely.  Abu Ghraib and other incidents are a stain on American honour and its moral leadership.

However, the core strategic objective for the US to invade Iraq in 2003 was and remains its own security.  Islamist terrorism had challenged the status quo and American power.  The only way to ensure America had peace was to bring that peace to the rest of the world.  Hence the development of the Bush doctrine.

Can anybody now doubt that America is prepared to use force to protect its strategic interests.  Although the insurgents have developed tactical IED that cause losses to coalition forces,  the insurgents lose when they confront coalition forces directly.  By contrast, the US has highly developed drone technology that is proving highly effective at targeting and destroying enemy leadership. It’s military has learned the hard lessons of counter-insurgency doctrine.

“Peaceful” Islam must go through its own enlightenment before it ceases to treat its women so barbarically and joins the modern world.  The sight of democratic elections in Afghanistan and Iraq has de-stabilised theocratic Iran.  Iran has been trying to develop nuclear weapons for decades, that is not new.

America has taken the fight to the enemy and won a military victory on its enemy’s fields.  To expect nations with decades of dictatorship and conflict to easily turn into stable democracies within a decade was never more than wishful thinking.  The flow of foreign recruits to Iraq insurgency was stemmed and Iraqi insurgents chose to take a more peaceful path.  In the new world of counter insurgent warfare there is not an army to defeat on the field, but the absence of a large number of insurgent combatants is an indicator of success.

As America withdraws its combat troops it can only look forward to many more years of Islamist containment but it has demonstrated to the world in general and Islamism in particular that it has not lost its determination and ability to react when provoked.  It has left behind a country that is corrupt, poorly lead, but practicing self determination. That constitutes a qualified strategic success.