Opinion

The Great Debate

The best weapon to fight the Islamic State is already in Iraq

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands guard at the Bakirta frontline near the town of Makhmur

In 21st century Iraq, the enemy is not a state, though it calls itself one. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a group of Islamist insurgents whose presence stretches across the border between Syria and Iraq.

The only way to defeat the Islamic State is through military force, but Americans will not be doing the fighting on the ground. General John Allen, who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan, has observed that, “the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Free Syrian resistance elements of the region are the ‘boots on the ground’ necessary to the success of this campaign.”

Make no mistake: dismantling a nascent Islamic State is a serious undertaking, involving thousands of U.S. personnel and a robust interagency effort. The insurgents are ruthless, resourceful and are adept at weaving themselves into the fabric of the region, making them virtually undetectable until they strike. If President Barack Obama’s strategy is to “contain” ISIL, not destroy it, as the New York Times reported on Aug.  22, he will fail.

Masked and without a uniform, ISIL is impossible to fight using the doctrines of the past. Airstrikes and raids will fail to do damage without actionable intelligence. To keep pace with and then overtake ISIL, the U.S. Central Command should first select a widely respected four-star officer to lead a new joint task force. It would operate inside Syria and Iraq, and along the Turkish and Iranian borders. No Burger Kings or Best Buys on this base.

And every part of the U.S. intelligence and military apparatus has to work together; just they did with the interagency Joint Task Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003.

from Jim Gaines:

Waiting for the cold light of day in Missouri and the Middle East

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Aside from the strange fact that both the Ferguson Police Department and the barbarians of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are using U.S. armor and weaponry, the shooting death of Michael Brown and the murder of James Foley would seem to have little in common, about as little as the Midwest and the Middle East.

Yet the similarities are evocative. Both frame enormously complex problems in the context of a single, riveting incident. Both were deaths in the American family, calling every parent to feel something of the Brown and Foley parents’ bottomless grief and to think, if only for an instant, “there but for the grace of God….”

Both events draw attention to life-and-death issues that call on every resource of our minds and hearts: What to do about racial divisions at home and the horrific outbreak of lethal sectarianism abroad.

In Iraq, U.S. is spending millions to blow up captured American war machines

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Last week was a weird one for American military hardware.

In the United States, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), AR-15s and camouflage body armor all made an appearance on the streets of a suburb in the heartland, helping to give a tense situation the push needed to turn into a week of riots. American citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, feeling they were being occupied by a foreign army, rather than their friendly neighborhood cop on the beat.

Riot police stand guard as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

MRAPs didn’t get a better rap overseas, either. In what’s still being called Iraq — at least for the sake of convenience — the U.S. Air Force has resumed bombing missions in the northern part of the “country.” The aim of the missions is stated as being the defense of a minority group known as the Yazidis, who practice a religion unique to themselves and are under threat by the Islamic State, a jihadi group that controls a large chunk of territory in Syria and Iraq.

The extremist cadre Islamic State — which has declared itself to be the new caliphate, representing God’s will on earth — has had an incredible string of military successes over the last few months. They’ve taken a lot of territory. They’ve slaughtered a lot of people, including civilians. They’ve imposed what they say is Islamic law — though many Islamic scholars would beg to disagree.

For once, the situation in Iraq wasn’t caused by an intelligence failure

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate

President Barack Obama, in an interview earlier this year with New Yorker editor David Remnick, offered an unfortunate comparison. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate,” the president said, “is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

The president’s jayvee jihadists were the Islamic State militants.

Remnick called the analogy “uncharacteristically flip.” After all, the group’s flag then flew over Fallujah.

Today, the Islamic State boasts a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, a cadre of battle-hardened fighters that dwarfs the membership of core al Qaeda and an international following large enough to support a brick-and-mortar gift shop in Turkey.

With or without Maliki, Iraq will tear itself apart

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The word out of Washington is Nouri al-Maliki must go. A new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will unify Iraq with American help.

We’ve seen this movie before — an attempt at a quick fix of Iraq’s problems. Like every other quick fix tried, this one will fail, too. The United States is ignoring the inevitable: Iraq will eventually dissolve into separate nation-states. Efforts are needed to manage that process, not to hope it will go away.

Some history. Following the regime change of 2003 and the elimination of Saddam Hussein, the United States failed to create any civil structure to fill the vacuum. Religious, ethnic, tribal and geographic tensions in Iraq were unleashed (I’ll label it all Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd as shorthand, though the reality is much more complex.) A U.S.-patched-together “government” (the Governing Council, of which Abadi was a part) accomplished little more than marking the first failed quick fix in the Iraq story.

Iraq airstrikes: You read the news, now get the context

Relatives mourn the death of a Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter, killed during clashes with Islamic State fighters in the Iraqi city of Rabia on the Iraqi-Syrian border, during his funeral in Ras al-Ain

Once you read the latest news about the U.S. airstrikes and humanitarian drops in Iraq, turn to commentary for the context you need to fully understand what is happening and how we got here. Here is a quick tour:

You can start with incisive background from Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at the Guardian. He provides additional framework for the Obama administration’s decision to use air power. It’s about far more than protecting U.S. advisers in Irbil, Ackerman says. He lays out why the White House felt compelled to protect the pro-U.S. Kurds against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Ackerman then looks at the possible military hardware involved. His reporting continues today with Dan Roberts here.

While you’re on the Guardian site, read the explainer about the Yazidis, the Iraqi religious minority sect besieged atop Mount Sinjar.

If at first you don’t succeed in Iraq, Surge, Surge again

Major-General Hertling, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, walks during a battlefield circulation patrol on the streets in Mosul

America’s new strategy for resolving the Sunni-Shi’ite crisis in Iraq? The Surge — again.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey sounds as if he were reading off the 2007 script, echoing the divide-and-conquer strategy that was the basis for the Surge: “If you can separate those [Sunni] groups,” Dempsey said, “then the problem becomes manageable and understandable.”

So, Washington is now sending U.S. officials to meet with Sunni tribal leaders and others. The ultimate goal — after hopefully forcing out foreign fighters from within Sunni ranks in 2014, as in 2007 — is political reconciliation between Sunni and Shi’ite.

If Iraq must be divided, here’s the right way to do it

Shi'ite volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight ISIL, hold a sign during a graduation ceremony in Najaf

As Iraq spirals toward chaos and its Kurdish region talks independence, the issue of partition, or federalism, has resurfaced. This is a concept that then-Senator Joe Biden strongly advocated in 2006. Though it would be difficult to accomplish, federalism could still be a helpful element as Iraqis struggle through their current tragic mess.

The appeal of federalism could grow if Iraqi leaders in Baghdad cannot agree soon on a government of national unity, ideally one without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has proven so divisive. Whether a “soft partition” — meaning the creation of a Sunni autonomous zone to complement the existing Kurdish one — or “hard partition” –meaning the formal redrawing of regional lines — it would seem a natural idea. Not only because of the recent violence, which has caused hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes, but also the arbitrariness with which state borders were drawn by the European powers after World War One.

We did a study of the possible soft partition of Iraq in 2007, and found that the new Sunni autonomous zone would need the following:

from John Lloyd:

Are we at war? And why can’t we be sure anymore?

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron poses for group photograph taken with G8 leaders at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen

The question -- “Are we at war?” -- seems absurd. Surely, we would know it if we were. But maybe we’re in a new era -- and wars are creeping up on us.

In the decade after the collapse of communism, the United States and its allies seemed invulnerable to challenges, from military to technological to economic. All changed in the 2000s, the dawning of the third millennium: an Age of Disruption. Russia, under a president smarting publicly at the loss of the Soviet empire, has now delivered an answer to decline: aggressive claims on lost territories.

China, admired for its free-market-driven growth since the 1980s, is feared for the strategic expansion that now accompanies it. This happens in its own region: a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands remains tense. It is also at work far beyond -- in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America -- where it seeks energy and natural resources.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

World War One: First war was impossible, then inevitable

British troops advance during the battle of the Somme in this 1916 handout picture

Why does the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand -- the event that lit the fuse of World War One 100 years ago Saturday -- still resonate so powerfully? Virtually nobody believes World War Three will be triggered by recent the military conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq or the China seas, yet many factors today mirror those that led to the catastrophe in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

The pace of globalization was almost as dramatic and confusing in 1914 as it is today. Fear of random terrorism was also widespread -- the black-hatted anarchist clutching a fizzing bomb was a cartoon cliché then just as the Islamic jihadist is today. Yet the crucial parallel may be the complacent certainty that economic interdependence and prosperity had made war inconceivable -- at least in Europe.

An undated archive picture shows German soldiers offering to surrender to French troops, seen from a listening post in a trench at Massiges, northeastern FranceA 1910 best-selling book, The Great Illusion, used economic arguments to demonstrate that territorial conquest had become unprofitable, and therefore global capitalism had removed the risk of major wars. This view, broadly analogous to the modern factoid that there has never been a war between two countries with a MacDonald’s outlet, became so well established that, less than a year before the Great War broke out, the Economist reassured its readers with an editorial titled “War Becomes Impossible in Civilized World.”

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