Craziness on Display

One of the things writing the U.S. media roundup on IraqSlogger allows me to do is get a high dudgeon up over the crap that passes for analysis on op-ed pages … or sloppy writing in the middle of reporting. (Michael Gordon of the New York Times has been raked over the coals for his indiscriminate use of “al Qaeda” to describe most Iraqis with a Kalashnikov, but thankfully that seems to have been reined in.)

Others have been less careful. On Friday, Leslie Sabbagh of the Christian Science Monitor writes that Petraeus warned of “greatly increased sectarian violence” if the U.S. pulls out too soon. It’s a fairly run-of-the mill story, with stats showing a drop in attacks against civilians and an increase against U.S. troops. Pretty much what you’d expect, but there is some sloppy language in here. Sabbagh writes of a “quick withdrawal,” but few people in Washington are talking about anything hasty. They’re talking about the start of a withdrawal sooner rather than later — one that might take six months, a year, whatever — not a pell-mell rush to the border.

Sabbagh does it again, writing, “The prospect of any hasty removal of US troops has (Petraeus) concerned.” But the general actually said, “If we pull out there will be greatly increased sectarian violence, humanitarian concerns….” Petraeus makes no mention of the speed of the pullout; he questions the wisdom of a pullout altogether. The military command and the Bush White House seem to be envisioning a long-term presence in Iraq that will last years, but reporters are thinking of a evacuation, Saigon style. Those are two very different ideas. Reporters need to let the readers know when Petraeus, Bush, et al. are trying to reframe the debate as a choice between a hasty, unplanned retreat and an indefinite presence. What’s actually being talked about is either an indefinite presence or an orderly withdrawal with proper force-protection over a period of time, but which begins sooner rather than never.

But for an egregious example of high weirdness, check out the Monitor‘s publication of an op-ed by Andrew Roberts, author of “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900.” In this extraordinary op-ed, Roberts argues that “the English-speaking peoples” (ESPs) of the world are the ones best able to stand up to radical, totalitarian Islam because Anglophones have never been invaded or fallen under the sway of fascism or communism. “Countries in which English is the primary language are culturally, politically, and militarily different” — read, “better” — “from the rest of ‘the West,'” he writes. “They stand for modernity, religious and sexual toleration, capitalism, diversity, women’s rights, representative institutions — in a word, the future.” Yeah! Suck it, Germany, Spain and Italy! (Who have all committed troops and suffered casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere since 9/11.)

Seriously, this offensively nativist tract must come as a surprise to the those non-English-speaking peoples of the world (poor sods), but maybe they’ll be content to bask in the warm protectorate of the US-Canadian-British-ANZ imperium. There is just so much wrong with this op-ed — such as saying the invasion of South Korea by North Korea was a “surprise” attack for the world’s ESPs when it sounds like it was more a surprise to the South Koreans. And his repetition of the whole ESP phrase is grating. Finally, he just up and ignores the contributions of German soldiers in Afghanistan and the French Navy in patrolling the vital sea lanes throughout the Arabian and Indian oceans. And he trots out the old, “Al Qaeda can’t be appeased because the French would have already done so” trope. WTF? Is this a joke?

There’s much more — so much more. I’m leaving out the pablum from such luminaries as Bill Kristol — “the Bush presidency will be seen as a sucess” — and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. I mean, we all know what’s the score with those guys. But I expected a bit more from the Monitor.

Finally, my latest column for is available. In it, I take up — what else? — the 1st anniversary of the Israel-Hezbollah war. (Some people call it the July War, but since half of it happened in August, I’ll stick with my appellation, thanks.)

That’s all. More to come!

Iran attack this Friday? Not Likely

There’s some buzz that the U.S. is readying an attack on Iran, possibly as soon as this Friday.
Don’t believe it. I’m due to be on board the _USS Stennis_, believed to be one of the ships taking part in this attack, next week — and it won’t even be in the Persian Gulf.
I’m not inclined to believe the US military would be taking reporters on boat rides in the Indian Ocean, for example, just a few days after the start of a new war. Maybe I’m wrong on this, but my hunch is this is one more rumor that got started by Debka and the usual suspects.

Failure to Communicate

A former translator in Iraq, Dustin Langan, wrote me today to tip me off about an interesting read in Radar, about the lack of good translators in Iraq. He was recruited by MZM Inc., one of the companies connected with the “Duke” Cunningham corruption scandal, to work in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, and he has some good points to make.

One that is personally dear to me is the treatment of the Iraqi translators. As he says:

[Iraqi translators] have been treated terribly. They’ve been killed. They have not been protected. They have not received visas or anything. They’re being killed at very high rates. The result is many people now in Iraq think if you work with the coalition you’re an idiot, because you’re working with someone who doesn’t care about you, and then you’re killed.

I’ve known a few ‘terps, as they’re called, and my friend George Packer has made this one of his major concerns. It should be one that makes every feeling American — whether you supported the war or not — ashamed at how we’re treating these people.

Anyway, it’s a good interview. Thanks for the tip, Dustin!

Operation Overblown

BAGHDAD — “Operation Swarmer” is turning out to be much less than meets the eye, or the television camera, for that matter. And that should raise concerns about relying on Iraqi intelligence.

BAGHDAD — Operation Swarmer is turning out to be much less than meets the eye, or the television camera, for that matter.

Iraqi and Coalition forces launched Operation Iraqi Freedom’s largest air assault operation in southern Salah Ad Din province March 16. Named Operation Swarmer, the joint operation’s mission was to clear a suspected insurgent operating area northeast of Samarra.

Operation Swarmer included more than 1,500 troops from the Iraqi Army’s 4th Division, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division and 101st Combat Aviation Brigade. The Soldiers isolated the objective area in a combined air and ground assault.

More than 50 Attack and assault aircraft and 200 tactical vehicles participated in the operation. Troops from the Iraqi Army’s 4th Division, the “Rakkasans” from the 187th Infantry Regiment and the “Hunters” from the 9th Cavalry Regiment assaulted multiple objectives. Forces from the Iraqi 2nd Commando Brigade then completed a ground infiltration to secure numerous structures in the area.

Initial reports indicate a number of weapons caches were captured, containing artillery shells, IED-making materials and military uniforms. Iraqi and Coalition troops also detained 41 suspected insurgents.

That sounds exciting! But according to a colleague of mine from TIME who traveled up there today on a U.S. embassy-sponsored trip, there are no insurgents, no fighting and 17 of the 41 prisoners taken have already been released after just one day. The “number of weapons caches” equals six, which isn’t unusual when you travel around Iraq. They’re literally everywhere.

(Digression: Just to clear some things up, “air assault” does not equal air strikes. There are no JDAMs being dropped, and there are no fixed-wing aircraft involved at all, except maybe for surveillance. An air assault is the 101st Airborne’s way of inserting troops into a battlespace. There is so far no evidence of bombardment of any kind. Also, it’s a telling example of how “well” things are going in Iraq that after three years, the U.S. is still leading the fight and conducting sweeps in an area that has been swept/contained/pacified/cleared five or six times since 2004. How long before the U.S. has to come back again?)

As noted, about 1,500 troops were involved, 700 American and 800 Iraqi. But get this: in the area they’re scouring there are only about 1,500 residents. According to my colleague and other reporters who were there, not a single shot has been fired.

“Operation Swarmer” is really a media show. It was designed to show off the new Iraqi Army — although there was no enemy for them to fight. Every American official I’ve heard has emphasized the role of the Iraqi forces just days before the third anniversary of the start of the war. That said, one Iraqi role the military will start highlighting in the next few days, I imagine, is that of Iraqi intelligence. It was intel from the Iraqi military intelligence and interior ministry that the U.S. says prompted this Potemkin operation. And it will be the Iraqi intel that provides the cover for American military commanders to throw up their hands and say, “well, we thought bad guys were there.”

It’s hard to blame the military, however. Stations like Fox and CNN have really taken this and ran with it, with fancy graphics and theme music, thanks to a relatively slow news day. The generals here also are under tremendous pressure to show off some functioning Iraqi troops before the third anniversary, and I won’t fault them for going into a region loaded for bear. After all, the Iraqi intelligence might have been right.

But Operation Overblown should raise serious questions about how good Iraqi intelligence is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by earnest lieutenants that the Iraqis are valiant and necessary partners, “because they know the area, the people and the customs.” But when I spoke to grunts and NCOs, however, they usually gave me blunter — and more colorful — reasons why the Iraqi intelligence was often, shall we say, useless. Tribal rivalries and personal feuds are still a major reason why Iraqis drop a dime on their neighbors.

So I guess it’s fitting that on the eve of the third anniversary of a war launched on — oh, let’s be generous — “faulty” intelligence, a major operation is hyped and then turns out to be less than what it appeared because of … faulty intelligence.

UPDATE 2400 GMT +0300: has posted the magazine’s official version by Brian Bennett, my colleague who was on the operation today.

Airstrikes … in Baghdad

Air strikes… in Baghdad?!

BAGHDAD — So this is what all the booms were today (From a U.S. military press release):

WASHINGTON, Feb. 15, 2006 — In a joint effort, Coalition Forces conducted a precision air strike, using four U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, against a known terrorist facility at approximately 4:30 p.m. Feb. 15 in southern Baghdad.
Terrorists were using a former Iraqi regime munitions storage bunker, located in a large, uninhabited weapons-storage complex in the Babil province, to acquire and transport bomb-making munitions to be used in attacks against the Iraqi people and Coalition Forces.
Coalition Forces participating in the mission took all available precautions to ensure no civilians were present during the strike. The aircraft conducted a clearing pass while Multi-National Division — Baghdad helicopters scanned for any civilians in the area in a deliberate effort to ensure no collateral damage.
The sorties made multiple passes to ensure the complete and methodical destruction of the bunker.

The area they’re talking about is probably al-Saha, on the other side of the neighborhood of Dora, where a major refinery is located.
I’m not sure, but I don’t recall air strikes in or near Iraq’s capital city for a long time. In fact, I can’t remember any since I got here in May 2004, although these things tend to blend together after a while. But if the war’s going so well, and the Iraqis are taking the fight to the terrorists, blah blah, why are the Americans resorting to air strikes here? That’s, like, _so_ 2003.

Spain and Al Qaeda…

The American Prospect has a good interview with Jessica Stern, terrorism expert at Harvard University and author of “The Ultimate Terrorists” and “Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill.” While all signs seem to point to al Qaeda, she brings up an interesting point that al Qaeda might be recruiting from within ETA. But regardless of whether ETA was involved or not, if last week’s bombing did influence the Spanish elections, this is hardly a good day for democracy.

The American Prospect has a good interview with Jessica Stern, terrorism expert at Harvard University and author of The Ultimate Terrorists and Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. In the interview, she speculates on possible linkages between ETA and al Qaeda. While all signs seem to point to al Qaeda, she brings up an interesting point that al Qaeda might be recruiting from within ETA.

Do you think that there is a relationship between the two groups?
I have to wonder whether there’s cooperation between ETA and Al Qaeda, and what this relationship might consist of. Al Qaeda is pragmatic and likes to avail itself of local operatives, expertise, and languages. They especially like to recruit locals. Al Qaeda has a large presence in Spain, so looking for partners like ETA would be at the top of their list.
We know that the majority of people in Spain oppose the war in Iraq, so it makes me wonder whether some members of ETA have been infiltrated by the Al Qaeda network. There’s also the chance that Al Qaeda might be recruiting within ETA.
I think the pragmatism of terrorist groups is emerging as they mature, as is a willingness to cooperate with organizations that would seem to be promoting completely different agendas. Also, sometimes we see that as possible terrorist organizations get closer to achieving their ostensible objective, zealots remain and carry out unprecedented attacks (as happened with the IRA). It’s not impossible to imagine that ETA could have done this even though it would be unprecedented for them.
Reports have said that Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for this bombing. Are these reports credible?
No. The group claiming to speak for Al Qaeda is notoriously unreliable — they even claimed responsibility for last summer’s blackout. Intelligence officials really don’t know anything about the group.

At any rate, I think it’s far more likely al Qaeda or at least an Islamist group is responsible. My initial suspicions — that ETA and al Qaeda may have been in league — are feeling less sure now with more and more evidence pointing to bin Laden’s network emerging daily. Also, a Qaeda attack fits in with my hypothesis that a spring offensive from both sides in the terror war is in the works. I wrote that al Qaeda would attempt to destabilize or overthrow the Saudi regime, destabilize Pakistan and/or weaken U.S. resolve with massive attacks within the country, possibly with WMD. Well, now add a fourth option: crack away at the U.S. alliance by forcing its European allies — Spain, Poland, Britain and Italy, for the most part — to withdraw from Iraq. Why is this important?
Two words: logistics and manpower.
The war on terror and Iraq are linked, although not in the way that President George W. Bush would like. They’re linked because much of the U.S. military is tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, Spain’s 1,300 troops certainly weren’t adding much to the firepower there, but they were of significant symbolic value. If Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero makes good on his promise to pull Spanish troops out by June 30, that will adversely affect the ability of the U.S. to get other countries to help out after the sovereignty hand-over on June 30 — even with U.N. support. That means the bulk of the security responsibility in Iraq will continue to fall on the U.S. far into the foreseeable future with a hampering of its operational capacity elsewhere. The U.S. military, as powerful as it is, simply can’t keep up with Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti and now North Africa. Al Qaeda is counting on this.
But back to Spain. I’m of two minds on this. One the one hand, I thoroughly support the democratic process and there is no doubt that despite a horrific bombing, the people of Spain had their voices heard loud and clear. The war in Iraq was immensely unpopular in Spain and it strikes me as stunningly arrogant for a purportedly democratic government to go against the wishes of so many of its citizens. On the other hand, I’m a full-blown supporter of the war against al Qaeda. I was at my desk working at 8:46 a.m. when the first plane snarled low over my neighborhood and slammed into the north Tower. I watched those buildings fall to the ground from my rooftop and saw my neighborhood turned into an armed camp for a week afterward. I know mass terror. I’m against anything that gives al Qaeda breathing room — which is why I opposed the Iraq war.
It was a horrible, needless distraction. There were no significant ties between Saddam’s government and al Qaeda. It was unlikely there were any Qaeda forces in Iraq prior to the fall of Baghdad — except for Ansar al-Islam in the area controlled by the Kurds outside of Saddam’s control. As far as being a threat to the United States, he was prevented from moving into two-thirds of his country, he was weakened by international sanctions and he had enemies on all sides: Turkey, Kurdistan, U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and Iran. He had no weapons of mass destruction to give to al Qaeda even were he inclined to do so. Hell, even the rationale that he was a very bad man — a fact not in dispute — is taking a shellacking because all the mass graves seem to date from when he was either a U.S. puppet thug or immediately after the 1991 Gulf War in which the U.S. encouraged the Shi’as and the Kurds to rise up, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. They ended up in mass graves, in no small part due to the United States’ reluctance to act on their behalf.
Iraq was a colossal blunder that has costs thousands of lives and billions of dollars. There is, as yet, no end in sight.
But the fact of the matter is that the U.S. is now in Iraq and in need of allies if it hopes to prosecute the war on terror successfully. Billmon has a typically insightful take on this:.

I understand, and emotionally sympathize with, the desire of many readers to see Sunday’s election as a victory for the Spanish people — or for the progressive left, or for both. I, too, am glad the neo-Francoists of the Popular Party got the boot.
But as much as I might like to, I can’t apply that particular coat of sugar to the results, because I still think that something significant (and ominous, from an American point of view) has happened here: A well-timed terrorist attack has directly and dramatically influenced the results of a national election in a major country allied with the United States. What’s more, it has caused, or at least contributed to, a decisive defeat for a ruling party that had aligned itself closely with the current U.S. strategy for fighting terrorism — which, like it or not (and of course I don’t like it at all) includes the occupation and pacification of Iraq.

One the one hand, the Spaniards can argue that they have unyoked Iraq from the greater war on terror, which is how it should have been all along. On the other, now that the world’s go-to guy on fighting Islamic fanaticism is tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, is this really the time to pull up stakes and say you’re on your own? I wish I had a decent answer. But I feel the Spanish, while remaining true to themselves as a democracy, may have just emboldened the real enemy.
PS: Back from Japan finally, but will, unfortunately, miss SXSW. My apologies.

An email received, questions asked

An email I received today from a soldier’s wife asks some hard questions as to why America is in Iraq. The author has good reason to be concerned.

I received this email today:

Well, I was going to post a comment, but it just didn’t seem appropriate because I didn’t really have anything to add. I’m a military spouse, and this is the first time I’ve ever even heard of your website. My husband, who happens to be a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune, was deployed last Saturday (whoever picked that date should be shot, I swear! :)) back to Iraq. Since I can’t get a straight answer out of his command, or the military in general, let alone any government official (huge surprise there…). I was wondering if you could offer some insight into exactly why we are sending thousands of troops back into Iraq this month. I understand that their purpose, ostensibly, is to relieve those that have been on the ground for a year now, but I thought that we would be receiving some relief from other countries’ troops, and that now that we were no longer officially on a wartime footing, the number of our troops in Iraq would be decreased, not increased.
Anyway, call me crazy (or maybe I just misunderstand), but the entire situation lacks any sort of sense that I can detect. A transition of power is all well and good, but if it’s to be anything other than a puppet government, shouldn’t the UN be directing it, not GWB?
Any input would be appreciated…
Julia [Last name withheld by request]

Julia has agreed to allow me to post her email and my response. Here it is.
First of all, I hope your husband will be OK. I’m so sorry he shipped out on Saturday (Valentine’s Day), and it seems that the military has the mother of all bad timings. My best friend in the world has also been mobilized (He’s Army Reserve) and he’s due over there in early March. He has two daughters (5 and 3) and a lovely wife. They mobilized him a week or so before Christmas, and gave him five days to get his affairs in order.
Anyway, on to your question: Yeah, it’s the largest troop rotation since WWII, and it’s to spell the guys who have been there for a year. But your question is more about why isn’t anyone helping us out. Well, there are several reasons:

  1. Bush alienated so many allies in the run-up to the war that they’re disinclined to support us now, especially if, like France and Germany, they have massive majorities in their populations opposed to the war. Even if France and Germany wanted to help out (and there are growing signs that they do) it will be very difficult for them to do so without sparking massive protests in the streets of Paris and Berlin. They’re democracies, after all, and they do have to listen to the voters on occasion.
  2. Rumsfeld blew it and put in too few men when the Americans first went in. That initial mistake is a root cause of the main problem: a lack of security. Many foreign governments don’t want to send their soldiers to fight a war — again one that their people probably opposed. Peacekeeping is one thing, fighting a war is another.
  3. The Bush Administration has not evidenced a willingness to trust the U.N. — not without reason. The U.N. probably isn’t in step with American goals in Iraq, which were not WMD or freeing the Iraqi people, but far more about maintaining a strategic base of operations in the heart of the Middle East from which to pressure Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Check out Why Iraq? as to my theories on this.

As to why there’s an increase in the number of troops, it’s got to do with overlapping and training the new guys. But there are also some thoughts that the 200,000+ that will be in Iraq during the rotation will be for a spring offensive against the insurgents. We’ll see what happens.
Best wishes, and give my respect and regards to your husband, please.
thank you,
By publishing Julia’s letter, I’m hoping to spark a dialogue among the readers, so she might gain a deeper insight.