Mission Creep In Iraq, And The President’s Bullshit

Let’s say you wanted to construct a narrative that perfectly fits the definition of mission creep. How could it improve on the following: at first you insist you are not going to be dragged into a new war in Iraq and Syria; then you rush military aid to avoid a humanitarian disaster; then you find that you need to make sure Kobani doesn’t fall; then you commit 1500 troops to “advise” the Iraqi “military”; and then you have the  Pentagon announce “that it had received authorization from Obama to send an additional 1,500 U.S. personnel to Iraq over the coming months”, which would double the number of American boots on the ground there. But no worries. Nothing to see here:

The new troops will be placed under the same noncombat restriction as those already deployed, but they will be moved closer to the front lines. … According to a senior administration official, 630 of the new troops will be performing an advise-and-assist mission — similar to the one being conducted today — primarily in Anbar in the west of the country. The Pentagon plans to establish “two expeditionary advise and assist operations centers, in locations outside of Baghdad and Erbil,” to provide support for the Iraqis at the brigade headquarters level and above. The remaining 870 troops will be doing a more traditional training mission at locations across the country, the senior administration official said. Both missions will move U.S. troops out of Iraq’s major cities and closer to where battles are currently being waged and where a likely counteroffensive would begin.

But no combat will be allowed! What if combat comes to them? What if one of them is killed? Are we not to respond and defend ourselves? One US soldier captured by the IS and we have a huge emotional story that could guarantee even more of a commitment. This is exactly how this operation with a few advisers becomes an unstoppable war in an unwinnable desert.

And then, as if to underline the fact that he could easily be ramping up for a third Iraq war (to be continued by the Clintons or by a neocon president), Obama stressed that he would “never say never” to more troops (video above). Juan Cole wants Obama to stop bullshitting about our presence in Iraq:

If ISIL really is a dire threat to US security, as administration officials maintain, then they should go to the US public with the news that they are going to have to put thousands of US forces on the ground in Iraq. So far they are trying to spin us, and to pretend that there are just some trainers and advisers. It is far more than that; US special operations forces will be operating in Iraq brigades, likely in part to paint lasers on targets for US warplanes to bomb.

Meanwhile, the counteroffensive may have already begun: an aide to ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was reportedly killed in an air strike Friday night, while Baghdadi himself may also have been injured or even killed, though the Pentagon can’t confirm that. The Iraqi army is also making gains against ISIS in the strategically important northern city of Beiji:

Exclusive images obtained by Al Jazeera on Monday showed government forces pushing ahead into the rebel-controlled city, with ISIL flag covered in an Iraqi security forces slogan. Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Baghdad, said clashes continue and the armed rebels are fighting back. He said the oil refinery, located about 50km from the city centre, is the next big target. ISIL fighters remain in control of parts of the facility. The military advance is seen as a significant victory for the government, as Beiji and its nearby oil refinery were one of the first territories swept by ISIL in June.

The targeting of refineries like the one in Beiji is one reason why German intelligence believes the jihadist group’s oil revenues are much lower than previous estimates had calculated:

According to German English-language publication The Local, the BND (German equivalent of the CIA) estimate was obtained by several German news agencies. The BND estimate suggests that ISIS may make less than $100 million this year from oil — under $274,000 per day. Obviously, that’s still a lot, but it’s way lower than what most public estimates suggest. …

There are two big reasons the BND thinks most estimates are inflated. The first is coalition airstrikes: the United States and its allies have pounded the oil extraction rigs, which are after all right out in the open, and hit ISIS smuggling lines. As such, the BND believes that ISIS has gone from producing its highest oil production of 172,000 barrels per day to 28,000 in October. … The second reason the BND believes ISIS oil revenues are inflated has to do with ISIS governance itself.

But this is never enough. Now, the US has to fight the Iraqis’ fight for them – and somehow regain the territory lost to the IS. The goal will determine the forces. And whatever restraints this president tries to put on this will soon be busted – either by him or his successor.

This is exactly what we elected Obama to prevent, not to enable. But the war machine outlasts any president. And it has too easily coopted this one already.

Obama’s Supreme Pen Pal In Tehran

Yesterday, the WSJ broke the news that President Obama sent a secret letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month, “aimed both at buttressing the campaign against Islamic State and nudging Iran’s religious leader closer to a nuclear deal”:

Mr. Obama stressed to Mr. Khamenei that any cooperation on Islamic State was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with global powers on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by a Nov. 24 diplomatic deadline, the same people say. The October letter marked at least the fourth time Mr. Obama has written Iran’s most powerful political and religious leader since taking office in 2009 and pledging to engage with Tehran’s Islamist government. The correspondence underscores that Mr. Obama views Iran as important—whether in a potentially constructive or negative role—to his emerging military and diplomatic campaign to push Islamic State from the territories it has gained over the past six months.

The letter represents a significant shift in the administration’s approach to Iran:

The disclosure of the letter is likely to raise the political pressure on the White House, which is already coming under fire from lawmakers in both parties concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran in order to strike a landmark nuclear deal before a Nov. 24 deadline. It also raises new questions about the precise contours of the White House’s Iran policy. Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last month, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the U.S. wasn’t working with Iran on the fight against the Islamic State.

Tom Rogan rejects that shift:

[W]hen he receives solicitous letters from the American president, Ayatollah Khamenei can only be encouraged to make a deal on Iran’s terms. It’s important to remember that while Khamenei is a hardliner amenable to pragmatic concerns, he’s only allowing Rouhani to negotiate for a simple reason: economics. With Iran’s economy suffering under the dual burden of sanctions and low oil prices (oil revenue being critical to Iran’s government expenditure), Iran must negotiate. As overlord of a young population that has increasing cultural and intellectual connections with the West, Khamenei fears that continued economic pain will feed social instability and threaten his ongoing Islamic revolution. His pragmatism is thus a consequence of Iran’s economic pain.

President Obama should pay closer heed to Iran’s economic pain and abandon his current carrot-heavy approach in favor of clarifying three precepts to the Iranians. First, America seeks a deal and will allow low-enrichment activities in return for an unimpeded inspections regime, the verified closure of high-risk weaponized facilities, and centrifuge limits. Second, America will not accept a bad deal and will introduce tougher sanctions if the deadline expires. Third, the military option, though complex, is very much on the table. Republicans should support President Obama in this effort.

Allahpundit on the letter:

Riddle me this, though. Why would Khamenei care about formal U.S. cooperation against ISIS? Western airstrikes appear to be making headway against the group, slowing its advance if not quite reversing its gains (yet). Americans support the anti-ISIS campaign heavily so Obama’s going to keep it up whether Khamenei will take his calls or not. The main virtue of formal cooperation, I would think, is the propaganda value in it. Having the U.S. coordinate with Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy would be a humiliation to both allies. Maybe there’s something in that for Khamenei, but to get it he’d have to step back (a little) from the anti-Americanism that helped birth Khomeinism. How do you go from “Death to America” to “Let’s fight ISIS with America” overnight?

John McCain and other Iran hawks are predictably furious. Juan Cole rolls his eyes at the shallow analysis their reaction betrays:

[T]he US needs Iran in Iraq, but views Iran as an enemy in Syria. McCain’s reaction is mainly about Syria, not Iraq. But if you look closely at the latter country, you can see that ISIL probably cannot be defeated without Iranian help. McCain has never appeared to meditate the mistakes he made in arming Muslim radicals to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, which led in some ways to the rise of al-Qaeda.

Great powers always have to make friends among states that are enemies of one another. The US has to have good relations with Greece and Turkey, and with Pakistan and India. Obama needs Iran in Iraq. It may be unpalatable, but the US needs Iran. Moreover, the US cannot defeat ISIL in Syria if it concentrates on bombing the al-Assad government, as McCain wants. McCain, who doesn’t usually show evidence of being capable of a nuanced or subtle foreign policy, doesn’t appreciate this need.

Barak Ravid notes that Israel might not have been told about the letter, speculating that “if Israel … learned of it only from the Wall Street Journal, that is liable to deepen the already severe lack of trust between Jerusalem and Washington on an issue –Iran – that is critical to their relationship”. Dov Zakheim accuses Obama of pushing Israel toward war:

[I]f an arrangement with Iran is seen to be likely to hold, the result could well be another American war in the Middle East. Israel has been threatening for years that it is prepared to take unilateral action against Iran if that country does not discontinue its nuclear weapons program. Given the total lack of trust between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were there no real prospect that Congress could block the deal from taking place, Israel might well launch an attack against Iranian targets. In response, Tehran would not only attempt to retaliate against Israel, it would most certainly hold the United States accountable as well, regardless of any denials emanating from Washington. Should Iran attack American forces, or ordinary Americans anywhere in the world, the administration would have no choice but to react. The president would find himself doing exactly what his appeasement of Iran sought to avoid: a costly war whose demands on American personnel and materiel would stretch the military to its limits.

The usual threats from the Israel lobby should be treated with the contempt they deserve. Zack Beauchamp cautions that the move could easily backfire:

Obama’s goal is probably in part to use this letter, by setting up linkage with Iran between nukes and ISIS, as a incentive to make Iran more willing to strike a nuclear deal. But Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, thinks the linkage idea could make ISIS cooperation needlessly harder to get. Maloney argues that if the US-Iran negotiations had stayed on two separate tracks, nuclear and ISIS, the success of one wouldn’t be dependent on the success of the other. But once Obama’s position is that the US needs nuclear concessions in order to consider ISIS cooperation, then getting ISIS cooperation becomes harder.

But cooperating with Tehran on ISIS might be a bad goal in itself. In Syria, Iran’s principal objective isn’t destroying ISIS: it’s defending Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. Making a deal with Iran would likely mean an at least implicit degree of alliance with Assad, which might actually end up making ISIS stronger. This is more possible than you think, and underscores just how dangerous a game Obama is playing with Khamenei.

I’d love to know who leaked the letter and why. It’s a bold move, it seems to me. But very hard to read in the context of negotiations we have, understandably, little access to. Overall, I find it encouraging – evidence that the president knows how crucial this move will be, and how central to his legacy it could become. It will be fascinating to see Hillary Clinton’s response to the deal, if it emerges. She may actually have to take a stand at some point, after all.

Longing For The Caliphate

Shadi Hamid offers his take on what attracts people to ISIS, and why that attraction is specific to Islam:

ISIS draws on, and draws strength from, ideas that have broad resonance among Muslim-majority populations. They may not agree with ISIS’s interpretation of the caliphate, but the notion of caliphate—the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition—is a powerful one, even among more secular-minded Muslims. The caliphate, something that hasn’t existed since 1924, is a reminder of how one of the world’s great civilizations endured one of the more precipitous declines in human history. The gap between what Muslims once were and where they now find themselves is at the center of the anger and humiliation that drive political violence in the Middle East. But there is also a sense of loss and longing for an organic legal and political order that succeeded for centuries before its slow but decisive dismantling. Ever since, Muslims, and particularly Arab Muslims, have been struggling to define the contours of an appropriate post-caliphate political model.

In contrast, the early Christian community, as Princeton historian Michael Cook notes, “lacked a conception of an intrinsically Christian state” and was willing to coexist with and even recognize Roman law. For this reason, among others, the equivalent of ISIS simply couldn’t exist in Christian-majority societies. Neither would the pragmatic, mainstream Islamist movements that oppose ISIS and its idiosyncratic, totalitarian take on the Islamic polity. While they have little in common with Islamist extremists, in both means and ends, the Muslim Brotherhood and its many descendants and affiliates do have a particular vision for society that puts Islam and Islamic law at the center of public life. The vast majority of Western Christians—including committed conservatives—cannot conceive of a comprehensive legal-social order anchored by religion. However, the vast majority of, say, Egyptians and Jordanians can and do.

Obama Takes The War To Congress

Literally. Laying out his agenda for Congress’s lame duck session yesterday, Obama announced that he would finally ask for a new AUMF to cover the ongoing war against ISIS:

He said the goal was to update an authorization narrowly tailored to the fight against al-Qaida to be more applicable to the current mission against IS extremists in Iraq and Syria. “It makes sense to make sure the authorization from Congress reflects what we perceive to be not just our strategy over the next two or three months, but our strategy going forward,” Obama said. The conversation was to start Friday, when Obama said he’d update congressional leaders about the fight against IS during an Oval Office meeting. Obama said he wanted the process of crafting the new authorization to start now, but that finalizing it could carry over into next year, when a new Congress will usher in GOP control of the Senate.

This is something that should clearly have been done long before now. The decision to go to war should never be punted until after national elections. Such a decision should precisely be made before elections so that voters have a better sense of what they’re voting for. But there I go again – insufficiently cynical to understand how Washington works these days.

Nonetheless, now it is going to the Congress, let’s have a debate. On this question particularly, the GOP needs to put up or shut up. They need to make an argument as to what their foreign policy would be. Let newly-elected Senator Tom Cotton make the explicit case for a renewed invasion of Iraq and a new war against Iran. Let them show us what further domestic programs will be cut to release the Pentagon from the sequester’s constrictions. Alternatively, let’s hear from those Republicans more leery of more war, and disdainful of further attempts to retain hegemony in the Middle East. Let’s see the divisions of the GOP on these questions laid bare – between fiscal hawks and defense aggressors, between neocons and libertarians and realists.

Again: why Obama didn’t force them to make this positive case before now is beyond me. It would have clarified a lot.

Juan Cole lists more pragmatic reasons why he thinks Obama is making this move now:

1. Obama may be trying to mollify Republicans so that they’ll cooperate with an extension of the aid program to train Syrian rebels, which runs out in December.

2. Obama is taking ISIL off the table as an issue during his last two years (and into the next presidential campaign) by this step. If the GOP Congress gives him the authorization, they will bear the blame if anything goes wrong. If they refuse, then everything that goes wrong will be their fault.

3. If they vote for an authorization for the use of military force, the GOP Congress won’t easily be able to blackmail Obama by threatening to withhold funding for the military effort against ISIL unless he gives in on some issue.

But, like me, Jens David Ohlin has no idea why he waited until after the elections:

If he had sought authorization before the election and received it, this would have strengthened his image as a foreign policy president dealing with the most pressing and emerging threats. Furthermore, thinking of this as a “new” war helps his image. If it is viewed as an “old” war, he is open to criticism that the situation was caused by his failure to deal with the Iraq War appropriately. On the other hand, if Congress had denied him the authorization, he could have used that denial as a sword against the Republicans going into the mid-term elections.

I guess the Democrats believed that the “war on women” and never mentioning the economy’s success and the ACA was going to do all their work for them. For his part, Larison wishes Congress would vote it down, even though he knows they won’t:

At the very least, the debate over authorization should subject the administration’s policy to the kind of close scrutiny that it has so far escaped. Obama embarked on this open-ended intervention without debate or real consultation with our representatives. Meanwhile, gutless members of Congress from both parties have been more concerned to jump on the pro-war bandwagon or to demagogue the threat from ISIS than they have been to question the wisdom of the intervention and the likelihood of its success. Now is the time for Congress to debate whether the ostensible goal of the intervention is even possible at an acceptable cost, and if it isn’t the president and Congressional leaders should be prepared to acknowledge that the intervention can’t succeed on its own terms.

But if there’s one thing we know about Washington’s debate about these questions: no one ever wants to ask whether what we want to do is even doable. No one wants to concede that the Iraq intervention was a catastrophe from which we have still not recovered. No one wants to point out that Pentagon spending is not compatible with a saner fiscal future. No one wants to point out that American power is on the wane, that intervention is becoming progressively less legitimate, and that the sensible response is to retrench. In fact, in a Clintons vs Republicans death match, both will be angling for the crown of intervener-in-chief – and the cost and feasibility of intervention will scarcely be on the table.

The Return Of The Hawks, Ctd

Following the victories of pro-war candidates like Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst, Rosie Gray looks ahead to how the Republican Senate is likely to muck up Obama’s foreign policy agenda:

Most immediately and maybe most importantly, Republicans will try to nix any Iran deal that they deem unsatisfactory — and on this, they have the support of plenty of Democrats. The deadline for the nuclear talks is Nov. 24. The new Senate will have the will and the manpower to push through new sanctions legislation if it chooses, and the fight over Iran policy could prove to be one of the defining battles of the waning Obama presidency.

It’s unclear where exactly the new Republican conference will be when it comes to foreign policy, but Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst, the new senators from Arkansas and Iowa, have seemed to exhibit a fairly hawkish foreign policy instinct. Foreign policy isn’t the top issue voters care about, but their election could represent a cooling of enthusiasm for the anti-interventionist policies of libertarian Republicans that have garnered much attention in the past few years.

Fairly hawkish? Cotton’s view is that the Iraq War was a fantastic moral cause and we should be on the look out for more opportunitiees to spread “democracy” at the barrel of a gun. Juan Cole braces for the worst:

Barack Obama was convinced or bamboozled by the Pentagon to do the Afghanistan troop escalation in 2009, and he has conducted drone wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and some other countries. The GOP may see him as not ultimately committed to keeping US troops out of Iraq and Syria, and will almost certainly attempt to force him to put more boots on the ground (John McCain will be chairman of the Armed Services Committee). If the GOP Senate objected to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it could refuse to fund it (getting out will be expensive). And, if Obama manages a breakthrough in negotiations with Iran that requires a reduction in US economic sanctions, the Republican House might be able to find ways to block that reduction, so as to go back on a war footing with Iran (war is good for the arms industry, which funds a lot of congressional campaigns).

Karlyn Bowman observes what the exit polls showed about foreign policy-minded voters:

55% of voters who chose foreign policy as the most important issue facing the country voted for Republican candidates: about 4 in 10 of them voted for Democrats. The issue ranked behind the economy and health care as the top issue and tied with immigration. 58% of voters in House races approved of the US military action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In another question, seven in ten said they were very worried about another major terrorist attack in the US, including 28% who were very worried.

But Larison notes that the voters who elected the hawks aren’t necessarily hawks themselves:

[Cory] Gardner won 52% among those that disapproved of the military action despite launching the most shamelessly demagogic attacks on his opponent on this very issue. This pattern was repeated nationwide: opponents of the war against ISIS tended to vote for Republican House candidates (55-43%), most of whom have been reliably in favor of the intervention, and a slim majority of supporters of the war (51%) voted for Democratic candidates. It is no wonder that the more hawkish candidates prevail when relatively dovish voters back them regardless of their positions. Nonetheless, this also gives us another reason to be skeptical when hawks claim that these election results are proof that aggressive foreign policy is a political winner.

Our Syrian Allies Are Dropping Like Flies

Our proxy war in Syria suffered a setback over the weekend when two of the main “moderate” rebel groups receiving arms from the West surrendered to the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra following an assault on their strongholds in Idlib province:

The US and its allies were relying on Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front to become part of a ground force that would attack the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). For the last six months the Hazm movement, and the SRF through them, had been receiving heavy weapons from the US-led coalition, including GRAD rockets and TOW anti-tank missiles. But on Saturday night Harakat Hazm surrendered military bases and weapons supplies to Jabhat al-Nusra, when the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria stormed villages they controlled in northern Idlib province. The development came a day after Jabhat al-Nusra dealt a final blow to the SRF, storming and capturing Deir Sinbal, home town of the group’s leader Jamal Marouf.

On top of the American weapons now in the hands of the radical Islamist militia, the defeat of these two groups means that the Free Syrian Army has been almost completely driven out of northern Syria:

Idlib was the last of the northern Syrian provinces where the Free Syrian Army maintained a significant presence, and groups there had banded together in January to eject the Islamic State in the first instance in which Syrians had turned against the extremist radicals. Most of the rest of northern Syria is controlled by the Islamic State, apart from a small strip of territory around the city of Aleppo. There the rebels are fighting to hold at bay both the Islamic State and the forces of the Assad government, and the defeat in Idlib will further isolate those fighters.

Juan Cole responds to the news that some members of Marouf’s group defected to Jabhat al-Nusra:

The incident is disturbing because the Obama administration plans to train and arm fighters of the Syria Revolutionaries Front sort, on the theory that they are “moderates.” But a present Syrian moderate is all too often a future al-Qaeda member; many of these affiliations are not particularly ideological, but have to do with who is winning and who has more money. Last July, the Daoud Brigade of the Free Syrian Army joined ISIL.

Jamal Marouf’s group in any case had sometimes fought alongside Syria’s al-Qaeda and last April said al-Qaeda was the West’s problem, not his. (Ouch!) He complained that aside from a one time payment some time ago of $250,000, he hadn’t received any appreciable aid from the West. The loyalties of fighters may also have to do with which group is seen as more indigenous and which as foreign agents.

Larison knew this would happen:

In a saner political culture, this would be extremely bad news for the members of Congress that voted in favor of the administration’s plan to arm and train “moderate” and “vetted” rebels. The loss of weapons to an Al Qaeda affiliate is exactly the worst-case scenario that opponents of arming the “moderate” Syrian opposition imagined could happen, and now it has. Following the large loss of weapons and equipment to ISIS in Iraq, it was inexcusable to approve sending more weapons into Syria where they could be and now have been seized by jihadists, but the measure overwhelmingly passed both houses. A failure of this magnitude would normally be an indictment of the terrible judgment of the policy’s supporters, but we can expect that interventionists will quickly tell us that this would never have happened if only we had listened to them sooner.

Totten shrugs:

They were bad proxies anyway. The Syrian Revolutionary Front was an Islamist organization. Less deranged than Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, sure, but it was still an Islamist organization. Harakat Hazm is more secular, but it consists of a measly 5,000 fighters while the Islamic State has as many as 100,000.

Syria is gone. The only portions of that former country that may still be salvageable are the Kurdish scraps in the north. The Kurds are good fighters and they may be able to hold on with our help, but there is no chance they will ever destroy the Assad regime or the Islamic State. They don’t have the strength or the numbers. So unless the United States decides to invade outright with ground forces—and fat chance of that happening any time soon—we’re going to have to accept that the geographic abstraction once known as Syria will be a terrorist factory for the foreseeable future.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s gains in northern Syria weren’t the only bad news this weekend. In Iraq, ISIS militants perpetrated a massacre against a Sunni tribe in Anbar province that had attempted to resist them, murdering more than 300 people:

 The Albu Nimr, also Sunni, had put up fierce resistance against Islamic State for weeks but finally ran low on ammunition, food and fuel last week as Islamic State fighters closed in on their village Zauiyat Albu Nimr. “The number of people killed by Islamic State from Albu Nimr tribe is 322. The bodies of 50 women and children have also been discovered dumped in a well,” the country’s Human Rights Ministry said on Sunday. One of the leaders of the tribe, Sheik Naeem al-Ga’oud, told Reuters that he had repeatedly asked the central government and army to provide his men with arms but no action was taken.

Iraqi security forces are now planning a spring offensive to recapture the territory lost to ISIS, with American assistance, but the plan requires the training of three new army divisions and doesn’t foresee retaking the captured areas until the end of next year.

The US vs The IS

I watched two decent documentaries on the Islamic State this weekend – long overdue. The Frontline version is pretty tough on the Obama administration – in part because they start the story the day US forces formally left the country, rather than when the US first arrived. And so you see only half the picture. The implication is that Obama squandered the multi-sectarian “success” of the surge, took his eye off the ball, and allowed sectarianism a comeback.

But if your core analysis of the clusterfuck is that we removed a Sunni government of a majority Shia country after decades of Sunni brutality, then surely, Shiite revenge, in various forms, was always inevitable. Some occurred in the horrific sectarian cleansing under the US occupation – but it was met with just as savage Sunni violence and, of course, a resilient, murderous Sunni insurgency as well. In the aftermath, it would have taken a miracle of Mandela-like magnitude for a Shiite majority government, once in power and free of foreign occupation, not to exact some kind of revenge or act out of a deep sense of paranoia about the Sunnis; and it would have taken another miracle for such acts not to have been answered in turn.

And they weren’t. The idea that a few more urgent phone calls or threats would have made a difference doesn’t pass the smell test to me. If we could barely contain the sectarian forces unleashed by the war with 150,000 troops, what hope when we had no troops left at all, or even a couple thousand? The last few years were for the Iraqis to finally make their choice as to what their future could be; and they could not overcome the past, or the entire history of the region. The only real alternative – a US occupation for decades – was simply not there. Maybe at some point Iraqis will be able to overcome their past. I sure hope so. But the only thing I’m sure of is that it won’t happen because America wants it to happen. Au contraire.

And the same sectarian history informs Vice‘s inside look at the IS. What I took from it was the totalizing coherence of the Caliphate’s vision. While the secular dictatorships of Saddam and Assad lie in smoldering ruins, and “democracy” in Iraq is empowering the infidel Shiites, of course a radically idealized theocratic invocation of the ancient Caliphate would have huge appeal (at least for the moment). It has erased the Sykes-Picot borders; it favors the most austere and ascetic form of Sunni Islam, and adds to these elements a kind of preternatural savagery toward its enemies or even its own population. That’s a very potent formula when fused with the Iraqi and Syrian Sunni populations seeking to defend themselves against Shiite regimes. So that’s what we have here – a well-trained, lethal, fanatical Sunni-state in embryonic form. And what Vice explains is how that is the real difference. Al Qaeda never ran a state or sought to. But IS is about a new political entity, attracting every frustrated, alienated young Muslim male left behind by the Arab Spring and yearning for meaning and direction.

How solid is this new “state”? Could they, for example, over-run Kurdistan or take Baghdad?

It seems unlikely right now. Their territory is currently very Sunni. And although the Potemkin Iraqi Army – did any of them ever expect really to fight? – is a slough of corruption and incompetence, there are plenty of nasty Shiite militias and dogged pesh merga who would put up one hell of a fight on their own territory. And it’s worth recalling how these extremist movements have crested and crashed in the past as their savagery and religious purism have alienated the very people they need to control. They could as easily implode at some point as they could explode.

Running an actual state – as opposed to territory being milked to finance and support a sectarian war – has not historically been in the Jihadist skill-set. It requires all sorts of compromises and pragmatism and good government that fanatics tend not to be interested in. All of which leads one to see the prudence of Obama’s very limited pseudo-war. I’d have preferred no intervention at all – because that alone would force the regional powers to reckon with the IS in a way that might actually lead to a resolution. But given that we have intervened, it makes sense for it to be about policing the borders of the IS – and, say, acting to protect Baghdad’s airport – rather than anything more drastic. Fred Kaplan is right to be tart:

Figures released by U.S. Central Command show that the airstrikes over Syria and Iraq, combined, rarely exceed 25 per day. That’s not nothing, but it’s close. A joke recently circulating among Kurds was that they couldn’t tell whether the Americans were not fighting while pretending to fight—or fighting while pretending not to fight.

We would have been better leaving it alone – if only to prevent the huge propaganda and recruiting tool that US intervention has created. (You want Iraq’s and Syria’s Sunnis to resist the fanatics? Don’t make them choose between the IS and the US.) But given Obama’s moment of weakness/panic this summer, what we’ve got is arguably the least worst of most of the alternatives. If the GOP wants to defeat the IS with combat forces, let them make that argument. If they want us to ally with Assad or Iran, ditto. Until then, we are stuck again in a quagmire in which, as yet, only our tippy-toes have gotten swamped. For which small mercies we should remain temporarily thankful.

“We Are ISIS. We Milk The Goat Even If It’s Male.”

Dean Obeidallah salutes the Middle Eastern comedians, like the Kurdish satirists in the above video, who are ridiculing ISIS:

What’s truly remarkable is that some of these comedic performers are waging their comedy battle in countries were ISIS is fighting them, such as those involved in the new Iraqi TV show that began airing Saturday that lampoons ISIS. Unlike us, they don’t need to watch ISIS on TV; they can see ISIS from their front window.

No one doubts that these comedians will be killed if ISIS captures them. ISIS doesn’t want to be laughed at, they want to be feared. In fact, just a few months ago, ISIS threatened to cut the tongue out of anyone who referred to them as “Daesh,” which is the Arabic acronym for ISIS. Why? Because ISIS learned that many Arabs use that term as an insult, because Daesh in Arabic also can mean “a bigot who imposes his view on others.” And keep in mind that even pre-ISIS, an Iraqi comedian was killed in 2006 for comically mocking those in power.

The Plight Of The Yazidis Still Isn’t Over, Ctd

Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains arrive in Syria's Haseki

ISIS militants returned last week to further harass the hundreds of Yazidis who remain on Mount Sinjar. Joel Wing provides an update on the fighting:

During the second week of the month the Kurds said that they were liberating Sinjar, which was taken by the Islamic State in August, but then it was revealed that IS had actually surrounded Mount Sinjar and were trying to take it once again. On October 20 there were clashes in all the surrounding areas such as Khazir, Bartella, Bashiqa, Tilkaif and Mount Sinjar itself. IS was able to seize two towns north of the mountain that day as Yazidi fighters ran out of ammunition. Twenty peshmerga were also killed and 51 wounded. On Mount Sinjar there are two Yazidi militias resisting the IS push. They told Rudaw that they had not received supplies for weeks. There are also YPG, PKK, and peshmerga fighters in the area as well. IS has cut off the supply routes to the mountain and the Yazidi forces are desperate for weapons and ammunition.

With hundreds of thousands of Yazidis displaced from their homes and unable to return, and with international attention having shifted to the battle for Kobani, Sheren Khalel and Matthew Vickery fear that the Yazidis won’t get the help they need before winter arrives:

Since news about the Yazidis first appeared in the headlines, more substantial — and much-needed — relief efforts have stumbled. Liene Veide, the public information officer for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says the organization is doing all it can for internally displaced persons and refugees in the region, but that more funding and manpower is required. Coordination, it seems, is another problem: The United Nations is working with other local Kurdish organizations, along with the Kurdish Regional Government, to deliver aid, but some communities are receiving assistance multiple times, while others are getting none at all due to a lack of communication between these different organizations, Veide explained.

According to Veide, even with the new UNHCR camps currently in the planning stage in for Iraq, there still won’t be room for everyone. “What we are working on now is absolutely not enough for the whole number — absolutely not,” Veide says.

Cathy Otten reports on the psychological trauma the displaced Yazidis have endured and the limited treatment options available to them:

It’s mid-morning in the hospital and patients crowd the narrow corridors outside Dr [Haitham] Abdalrazak’s office in Zakho General Hospital. He estimates that over 70 percent of Yazidi IDPs in Zakho, a small city in Dohuk Province near the Turkish border, are suffering from trauma. Abdalrazak has a kind, serious expression. He says about 20 percent of his patients have considered suicide and about five percent have attempted it. … Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders warns that PTSD, anxiety and depression are now also affecting displaced children. The organisation has been offering psychological support to displaced people in their Dohuk mobile clinics since August, but do not have any psychiatrists working with them in the area.

(Photo: Thousands of Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains without food and water for days, due to the Islamic State (IS) violence, arrive in Haseki city of Syria on August 10, 2014. By Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

ISIS On The Rio Grande?

Musa al-Gharbi argues that Mexico’s drug cartels are in every last respect more violent and dangerous than the Islamic State, from their body count (16,000 killed last year) to their use of child soldiers, kidnapping, torture, rape, and slavery:

Some may argue that despite the asymmetries, the cartels are less of a threat than ISIL because ISIL is unified around an ideology, which is antithetical to the prevailing international order, while the cartels are concerned primarily with money. This is not true.

A good deal of the cartels’ violence is perpetrated ritualistically as part of their religion, which is centered, quite literally, on the worship of death. The narcos build and support churches all across Mexico to perpetuate their eschatology. One of the cartels, the Knights Templar (whose name evokes religious warfare), even boasts about its leader’s death and resurrection. When cartel members are killed, they are buried in lavish mausoleums, regarded as martyrs and commemorated in popular songs glorifying their exploits in all their brutality. Many of their members view the “martyrs” as heroes who died resisting an international order that exploits Latin America and fighting the feckless governments that enable it. The cartels see their role as compensating for state failures in governance. The narco gospel, which derives from Catholicism, is swiftly making inroads in the United States and Central America.

In short, the cartels’ ideological disposition is no less pronounced than ISIL’s, if not worse.