New York- Fifteen year ago today the United States military intervened in the then ongoing civil war in Afghanistan which until 9/11 had been all but entirely ignored in the West save for a few women’s rights groups and other specifically focused human rights outfits. Suddenly Afghanistan became a geopolitical cause celebré while almost no one understood the real time human dynamics transpiring on the ground there.
To call the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom an outright ‘occupation’ as many are doing on social media this week is a serious misnomer. Part of why Arab AQ members were able to flee across the Durand Line into the warrens of neighbouring FATA was because the US began with such a small footprint in Afghanistan. As is very well known, even before the bombing commenced on October 7, 2001, there were impetuous agitators in the White House and the Pentagon who wanted to seize the opportunity to topple the Ba’ath Party in Iraq. Intervention is a far more apropos term to describe the beginning of Western war fighting efforts there.
And we–the world–are 15 years on. There was never a strategically coherent vision of what success in Central Asia’s perennial basket case looks like. Aside from the forced idea of the country becoming a woefully underperforming democratic state, how Islamic should it be? Should it be more of a functioning autocracy?
No one agrees on anything. Each unreformed warlord/mujahideen big man has their own ethn0-centric base or vote bank that they consider well before the rest of the country. Ethno-linguistic groups very often consider themselves in competition with one another rather than as components of a largely cooperative society where zero-sum games trump idealistic concepts of inclusivity and diversity.
Kabul is still lined with dust packed unpaved streets throughout many of its more well to do neighbourhoods, the city has only a handful of functioning ATMs, and has remained a festering, little discussed environmental disaster for decades (those certain, hmm, unpleasant particulates in the smog).
In that other failed neo-conservative legacy war theatre, I have a new piece for IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Monitor out this week entitled, “The Islamic State’s waning fortunes in Mosul and the dynamic of the offensive.”
Despite talk of an ‘October surprise’ throughout the summer, such a battle has yet to materialise to recapture the world’s most talked about occupied city. In the article, I explore how the overall contraction of IS territorial control has helped to focus coalition efforts on the much feted recapture of the north’s former economic capital which the central government notoriously lost control of in June 2014.
Part of why the effort to dislodge IS has become such a costly and difficult prospect is precisely because salafi-jihadis were allowed the political action space to lodge themselves so firmly in.
I’m confident that Mosul will be freed but just as confident that its freeing will start a highly complex competition for power and control of the city. What will the limits of Kurdish power be? Will the Hashd al-Shabi abuse Sunni civilians they default assume to be IS sympathisers? How much influence with the al-Nujaifi brothers have in a post-IS scenario? Not I nor anyone has the answers to these sorts of questions. At some point in the supposedly near term, armed groups will move into Mosul and only through exceedingly perilous trial and error will we find out such answers.
New York-I’ve ashamedly been too busy to update my site as of late with my Iraq articles (a good thing) and the general hustle and bustle of being home (not always a good thing) but partly I timed my return for the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11–still the largest salafist suicide attack in history. Much less ado was made of this one than the 10th anniversary which was a momentous occasion by comparison. That milestone came sort of on the heels of the bin Laden assassination in Pakistan in early May 2011 which gave some sense of closure–though only a portion at best–to the 9/11 era.
But there are obviously still so many questions regarding the attacks, the timeline of the plot despite the passage of more time and the release of the 28 pages from the 2002 Congressional Joint Inquiry. The lack of transparency from federal authorities on the matter has only fed festering conspiracy theories about building 7 and the like.
When I wandered around the area formally referred to as ‘Ground Zero’ several Sundays ago, the was but one lone ‘truther’ crackpot wandering around with a “9/11 was an inside job” sign constructed from what looked to be kindergarten level art supplies. What was once a semi movement now seems a fleeting anachronism of yore. The Obama administration’s harsh treatment of whistle blowers and leakers certainly hasn’t helped matters either.
Ground Zero has been transformed into a glitzy magnet of unrepentant commercialism much like the rest of New York City during the era of Bloomberg rule where developers were allowed to run rampant razing entire city blocks under the much debated rubric of gentrification. But for those of us who lived through those moments and that era, we shall always smell the acrid stench of death, remember the fear of the next attack that never came, and see the ash filled sky that ushered in a period of unending global war which has killed so many.
New York- I am proud to mention that I have the cover story of the October issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review entitled “Eyes on Mosul: Offensive Looms in Northern Iraq.” With each of the reporting trips I’ve made to Iraq over the years, the broken republic is in a higher phase of devolution from a centralised state to nearly discrete territories held by rivalrous groups adhering to identity-based ideologies each incompatible with the next.
During my previous trip in 2013, the smoke was on the horizon. IS was still a localised insurgent movement with a primarily regional agenda before it evolved into a transnational movement as it metastisised in neighbouring Syria. In its earlier stage, IS collaborated and even cooperated with other anti-government and anti-Kurdish groups along the ‘Green Line’ that has separated Kurdish-majority governorates and disputed districts in northern Iraq with so-called ‘Arab’ Iraq.
Reminding me somewhat of the LTTE in the early phases of their separatist war in northern Sri Lanka in the 1980s, one by one IS pushed aside, intimidated or eliminated peer competitors within its hyper violent action space. IS seeks to be the sole non-state actor (or proto-state actor by its own macabre narrative) in the areas it administers. In intense contrast, the armed groups arrayed around Mosul are virtually all involved in peer competition be ethnic, sectarian, inter-reglious, intra-Kurdish and so forth. This does not bode well for attempting to govern a post-IS Ninewa.
Where this dangerous dynamic works in the ad hoc coalition’s favour is that IS has no allies to fall back on. Despite losses of a number of major towns and cities, the salafi-jihadis still control a vast, though shrinking, territory. But it does not have a web of local alliances after over two years of unrelenting brutality. Nor does it have safe mountain redoubts nor an outlet to the sea. The encirclement of the group has only grown while a litany of air strikes have put them under immense pressure.
Although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has made numerous pronouncements about the recapture of Mosul by the end of this year which would signify the defeat of IS in Iraq in his own words, there is still a long way to go and there is still not agreement about how Iraq’s second largest city will be rebuilt much less run.
Al-Abadi tweeted from the UN General Assembly in New York this week that an offensive to recapture the ancient Assyrian town of al-Shirqat was underway which is the last major IS stronghold in Salah-ad-Din Governorate. Then there is conundrum of Hawija in nearby Kirkuk Governorate which I saw coming in 2013 after the protest camp there was so violently dispersed fueling the fire of Sunni Arab discontent which allowed for the IS takeover in June 2014.
Though it wrought massive environmental degradation with the IS retreat, Qayyara was successfully retaken by ISF and its local allies after a prolonged stalemate along the Tigris. Much remains to be seen. I and much of the interested world will be staying tuned to see how the rest of the year plays out militarily in Ninewa.
Barcelona- Very proud to have an article from my recent trip to Iraq’s Ninewa Governorate in the August issue of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s Sentinel publication. As you may have read or heard, there has been much talk of an offensive to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul at some point this October. On my recent trip to Iraq, this notion seemed virtually entirely unlikely although if war planners want it badly enough, I suppose a slim possibility.
The article out in this month’s issue isentitled “The Hard March to Mosul: A Frontline Report,” or you can download the entire issue here. It’s late August at the time of this posting leaving not much time for an ‘October surprise’ to give a democratic administration in Washington a win during the very last phase of a bizarre election cycle.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vaguely promised the defeat of the so-called Islamic State inside Iraq’s borders (or former borders depending on one’s perspective) by the end of this year. Then came the talk of October. In Erbil I was informed of a November rumour. But just the talk of Mosul’s liberation is a quarrelsome affair to the hilt.
The two biggest issues seemed to me to be whether the Hashd al-Shabi (referred to as Popular Mobilisation Units in Anglophone media) will a) take part in the operation and/or b) enter Mosul itself with Iranian advisors quite possibly in tow–or being towed by perhaps. The second biggest question I encountered regards what will be the role of the peshmerga and will said peshmerga enter Mosul? A pesh commander reminded me of their forces being booted out of Mosul in 2003 after just ten short days to appease the Arab population’s wishes at the time.
Barcelona- Regretfully I haven’t updated TWD for quite some time. I had wanted to do regular updates during my recent stint in Iraq but that whole time I was focused on my goals there to the point where I shirked off just about everything else. I’ll be updating the site more when some new works begin to be published.
Things didn’t go the way I’d envisioned before leaving NYC but all told they went well enough in that I got out unscathed. It was like one of those now clichéd expressions about war that I can never remember the exact wording of like, “everything is ok until it’s not” or “war is 98% boring, 2% terrifying.”
Iraq has been broken since 2003 and those attempting to keep it whole are taking on a Sisyphean task.
New York- “Mosul, Mosul, Mosul!” is what enterprising taxi drivers in Erbil would yell as I walked past a dusty lot referred to as the Mosul garage years ago now. I would contemplate hopping in one of those shared orange-and-white battered taxis and heading an hour west in what was then Iraqi government territory with an estimate pre-war population of about 2 million. I didn’t take the trip for two reasons at the time: I didn’t have a visa for ‘Arab’ Iraq and figured I could be turned away at a checkpoint along the so-called Green Line that as delineated Kurdish majority areas from regime controlled ones since 1991; and my focus at the time was to interview a reclusive guerrilla commander in precisely the opposite direction.
Iraq’s beleaguered prime minister Haider al-Abadi has been promising this Mosul offensive for what today’s counts as time immemorial yet it still keeps not materialising. It is essentially common knowledge for Iraq watchers that the central government and the KRG haven’t been able to agree on a battle plan acceptable to both sides.
Meanwhile Washington officialdom make anonymous statements that Iraqi security forces simply are not capable whether in terms of logistical capability, battle readiness, and so forth. Yet Iraqi officials repeat that the country’s second city will be recaptured before 2016 is out but have been less than convincing about just how this would take place. ISF and their allies have slowly been retaking mostly minor villages in Ninewa Governorate to shrink the IS’s hinterland while it maintains its grip on the city.
Somewhat big news out of Baghdad today was Ashton Carter’s announcement that an additional 560 American servicemen will be headed to Iraq to help in anti-IS operations in support (officially anyway) of ISF. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq since the start of Inherent Resolve has steadily increased nearly two years into the operation. There are now some 4600 in all, a huge jump from the 275 authorised by the Obama administration in June 2014. And what can the ISF and the militias with which it works do without American air power?
As with the retaking of Fallujah but likely even more so, there will be a vast human cost to such highly anticipated military action. Dohuk Governorate will reportedly be prefabricating 5 new IDP camps to accommodate the coming IDP influx from IS-controlled territory. In sum, things will get much worse before they get better as the old saying goes…
New York- With the highly distracting ‘Brexit’ debate-arguably the most distasteful neologism since ‘Grexit,’ and the buffoonery of the coming US presidential election, the war(s) in Iraq and Syria painfully grind on in the ramadan heat. The recapture of Fallujah-which has not been fully consolidated-is hoped to be a prelude for regaining Mosul to the northeast. Various anti-IS forces have inched toward Mosul in 2016 by capturing villages in its rural hinterlands but there does not appear to be any coordinated effort to retake Iraq’s 2nd most significant urban centre amongst fighting groups with allegiances of widely varying stripes. PM al-Abadi has vowed to retake Mosul at an unspecified time later in 2016 although Mosul has a far more complex ethnic and religious matrix than Sunni Arab Fallujah. But there are other important smaller cities and towns that must be confronted before Mosul such as Hawija and al-Qaim which are still in the clutches of the IS evildoers to employ throwback neocon-ism.
Then there’s the perhaps more difficult idea of taking ar-Raqqa, from IS control, which, if occurred, would turn the offensive salafi-jihadi movement back toward its asymmetrical insurgent roots from which is spawned in mid-2000s Iraq. But the FSA and YPG are not getting along perfectly to say the least around the fight for Aleppo. Kurdish-Arab cooperation has worked to some degree in the SDF context in al-Hasakah governorate to the east. On another side of the equation, the SAA and their Russian backers are not fairing terribly either. IS claims to have killed three Russian servicemen with an IED on the Ithiriya-Raqqa road. Meanwhile Russian air strikes in the city centre killed between 18-32 civilians depending on reports.
Though the Fallujah offensive has been successful to a degree, one must ask at what cost? And can PM al-Abadi survive the Sadrist turmoil that has breached the Green Zone? The only ground forces capable of taking ar-Raqqa are the YPG but they don’t appear to have a post-conflict plan for ruling the primarily Arab city nor have they expressed a palpable desire beyond rhetoric. Many questions remain beyond the cinders fluttering above al-Anbar governorate’s commercial capital.
New York- I have an article out for IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Monitor entitled “A dangerous thaw – Nagorno-Karabakh heats up” after the recent clashes in the most hotly disputed territory in the South Caucasus. Nagorno-Karabagh, a Russian-Turkic-Iranian word mash meaning (Nagorno or Nagorny) Mountainous (Kara) Black (Bakh or Bagh) Garden, is part of land internationally recognized as a constituent territory of Azerbaijan yet de facto ruled by ethnic Armenian separatists who term their unrecognized republic “Artsakh.” Karabakh had, for years, been lumped together with Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a so-called ‘frozen conflict’ impeding development and economic integration in the post-Soviet, South Caucasus.
When the term was in vogue, frozen was far more apt for pre-2008 Abkhazia and South Ossetia than Karabakh which has always been simmering with regular small arms exchanges as well as occasional mortars, known as “ceasefire violations” in diplomatic speak.
Karabakh is an oft overlooked conflict that rarely makes international headlines as the disputes origins are it little understood, its geography relegated to the obscure. It took the use of heavy artillery, drones, tanks, and so forth to elevate Karabakh to the center of attention if only for one brief weekend in early April. The fight over this heavily mined, gorgeous Mountainous Black Garden is perpetually framed by ultra competitive, irreconcilable narratives held tightly by Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
No party involved has either the mechanism nor the mindset to foster a lasting peace. Russia sells weaponry to both sides, the Americans are divided between a desire for Caspian hydrocarbon products that circumvent the Russian Federation and a vociferous, diaspora-powered Armenian lobby in Washington that tirelessly lobbies congress albeit with somewhat declining influence. Iran, though co-relgionists with the Shia majority in Azerbaijan, supports Armenia in part due to the paranoia of Azeri irredentism among ethnic Azeris in northwestern Iran. Turkey’s support for Baku’s position has been, for the most part, largely rhetorical in nature.
After three days of fighting in which Azerbaijani forces touted regaining two hilltops and one village and dozens of soldiers and Karabakhi militiamen were killed, Karabakh has faded back into the shadows as quickly as it temporarily emerged. Yet it is only more explosive as both Armenia and Azerbaijan have acquired more advanced armaments primarily from Russian vendors. The threat of violence can only temporarily subside in this tragically intransigent morass.