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.
New York- I’ve authored a recent article in the March edition of IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review in the United Kingdom on the sprawling French-orchestrated counter terror operation called Barkane in Africa’s greater Sahara-Sahel region. The French effort has been met with mixed results at best in that during its as yet unfinished timeline, salafist terrorism has spread all the way to the Atlantic with the March 13 attack by sub-Saharan AQIM operatives on the Hotel Etoille du Sud resort in the Côte d’Ivoire’s Grand Bassam commune situated east of Abidjan in the Comoé District not far from the Ghanian border.
The Grand Bassam assault is part of what we can sadly call a distinct pattern of AQIM’s attacks well beyond its traditional theater of terror in Algeria from where it was b0rne out of the ashes of that country’s civil war. Firstly there was the attack on the Radisson Blu in Bamako’s ACI 2000 district in November followed by the siege of the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou in January. The arc of this does not appear to have any end in sight in the near term. Attacks in West Africa get nowhere near the coverage as those carried out by IS in Western capitals such as Paris and Brussels but they demonstrate that the al-Qaeda brand has a much bigger footprint in a part of the world that until very recently once essentially devoid of salafi-jiahdi cruelty.
And then there is the spreading threat posed by IS-allied Boko Haram which has deployed suicide bombers–some of them young girls–outward from northeastern Nigeria and into Cameroon’s Région de l’Extrême-Nord, Niger’s southeastern Diffa region and southwestern Chad’s lac region, all around the the Lake Chad basin.
My article analyses the recent history of salafist violence in this part of the world with the reasonings behind continuing, geographically escalating attacks on soft, civilian targets aimed at garnering attention with mass casualty events. As I began writing it in November in the aftermath of the Bamako attack, I didn’t game out things going as far afield as southern Côte d’Ivoire so quickly (though I did see things potentially reaching the Atlantic via Senegal which thus far thankfully hasn’t played out). Curiously, Ivorian forces are not part of the five-nation alliance of sorts that participate in Barkhane. It was simply a soft target in a weak state still recovering from a vicious set of civil wars which was ill prepared for an AQIM operation.
In the core years of the terror wars after 9/11, Africa was always a seldom reported upon, low priority in comparison to the war Afghanistan and later Iraq. Sure, there was the State Department’s Pan-Sahel Initiative and then the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership but who–excluding think tank types–today even remembers these programs which effectively amounted to nil?
New York- In compiling a short manuscript of poetry that was written from approximately 1997-2002, its interesting for me to look back and see which poem topics are in a time capsule of that era and which are even more relevant in 2016. The piece below about Afghan refugees before 9/11 but it might as well be regarding the fate of Syrian and Iraqi refugees today. It is juxtaposed with the image above which I shot shortly after 9/11.
Beneath the poem are Syrian Kurdish refugees in southern Turkey, existing in humanitarian limbo. We must ask ourselves what have the terror wars and the Arab and Kurdish uprisings actually accomplished?
Unwanted and unafraid
On the move from where squalor has stayed
Each at his own indescribable peril
Dying everyday undeserved of each discrete, excruciating hell
Transforming desert to village overnight
Pulling water from the bedrock in the name of the almighty
And when that smile confronted me
I knelt to grace for all to see
An expression so beautiful
A moment in time beyond dutiful
Inhabiting at the edge of existence
People without sustenance are the truest resistance