The War Diaries

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Hawija Finally Collapses but for How Long?

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KDP-affiliated Peshmerga fighters look on toward then IS-held territory in Dibis district, Kirkuk governorate which is disputed between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I have an article out in the October issue of the CTC Sentinel entitled “The Hawija Offensive: A Liberation Exposes Faultlines,” based on my fieldwork in Kirkuk governorate in August and September. I began this work before the offensive to retake the IS-held, so-called “Hawija pocket” kicked off in late September, just days before the Kurdish referendum on independence was going to be held. During my visits, the frontline was effectively stalemated because Kurdish forces could not agree on who would control the neighbouring district of Hawija with Iraqi security forces and the Shia militias known in Iraq as Hashd al-Shaabi.

Both sides were equally wary of each other’s intentions. In the end, Iraqi state forces and heavily armed Shia factions chased IS out of Hawija where they had been entrenched longer than Mosul or ar-Raqqa in terms of firm territorial control. Hawija was the quintessential building block of the aspiring ‘khilifah’ (‘caliphate’).

Ultimately Shia-dominated forces stormed into the long-held Sunni salafi enclave and evicted IS who ended up surrendering en masse as the khilifah was in its final stage of collapse as a military and administrative entity.

Little known to the world outside Iraq, Hawija is hugely symbolic in terms of Sunni grievances. A disastrous raid by then PM Nouri al-Maliki’s security forces in April 2013 acted as a catalyst for an IS takeover of the eponymous district a mere eight months on. In Iraq, Hawija is synonymous with Sunni Arab resentment of Shia power politics and armed insurgency.

It won’t be long before we begin to hear about IS regrouping in small numbers of “sleeper cells” around Hawija for that geography and the rage within it is part of what enabled IS to begin its territorial quasi state-building project in the first place.

PUK-affiliated Peshmerga along the frontline northwest of Tuz Khurmatu. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

October 18th, 2017 at 8:41 am

The Devastation

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An SDF fighter from the Manbij Military Council scouts for IS in the ruins of ar-Raqqa in northern central Syria. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Ar-Raqqa- I have a new article out in the October edition of Jane’s Intelligence Review back in the UK based on my frontline observations and analysis in ar-Raqqa before IS would completely withdrew from the city exactly two weeks on. The destruction I witnessed was astounding in terms of sheer totality. I can’t recall seeing a single structure that was unscathed as the SDF and IS fought it out in those last weeks of waning salafi occupation.

It was a ‘things will get worse before they get better’ scenario writ large as the entire breadth of the city was shattered while IS snipers fired pot shots from their veiled positions and American fighters circled overhead smashing them with GPS coordinates provided by the SDF ground spotters.

Driving around the city’s cratered intersections evoked a mid-1990s Grozny in terms of such a modest sized city withstood scorched earth. Ar-Raqqa was littered with corpses and almost wholly depopulated at the time of my visit. Unexploded ordinance and booby trapped dwellings made the zone uninhabitable for all but the men of the MMC and YPG in the SDF units I encountered.

When I interviewed a commander at the YPG media house about who would govern and secure ar-Raqqa after the battle concluded, his responses were vague at best. The conclusion of each battle in the transnationally inflected Syrian civil war meant that each end begat a new conflict erupting within weeks if not days in the battlespace.

Written by derekhenryflood

October 3rd, 2017 at 10:50 am

Posted in Non-state warfare,Syria

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When in Kirkuk

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Frontline fighters were disciplined in waiting for their commander’s instructions while they occasionally took in IDP families and withstood IS salvos meant to harass their position in Dibis district. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Paros-I have a piece out this week for Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre on the findings from my field research in late August and early September in the troubled, multi-ethnic Kirkuk and Salah ad-Din governorates. These contentious regions act as a kind of security buffer between the mostly quiescent KRG that abuts northeastern Syria, Turkey and northwestern Iran and the schismatic Arab heartland of central Iraq.

But with the Kurdish desire to maintain control over Kirkuk after it was abandoned by state security forces, Baghdad wanting to reassert control over Kirkuk with Iranian-backing, and let’s not leave out the minority Turkmen who consider Kirkuk their cultural capital within the Iraqi milieu. Thus Kirkuk, and to a lesser degree Tuz Khurmatu, the seat of Salah ad-Din, will pull in all these players with oil-fueled centripetal force that will make its contested status an issue immediately after the IS territorial decline is certain.

While the focus is on eradicating the salafi-jihadis encircled by Kurdish, ISF, and Hashd al-Shaabi  units, once the Hawija pocket is subsumed back into state control, the likelihood of Kurdish and Shia fighters turning on one another is assured.

Written by derekhenryflood

September 26th, 2017 at 4:26 am

Posted in Iraq

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The Festering Bastion

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A Peshmerga commander in Dibis district points toward IS controlled villages some five kilometers away on the baking hot horizon. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- I have a new article out for Jane’s Intelligence Review on the forces arrayed around what has come to be known as the ‘Hawija pocket’ in southwestern Kirkuk governorate. The traditionally Sunni Arab town of Hawija, a restive northern bastion of insurgency from 2004 forward, and its hinterlands acted as an accelerator of Sunni grievances when Iraqi security forces stormed a protest camp there in late April of 2013.

The Peshmerga and their battlefield peer competitors in the Hashd al-Shaabi have been stuck in operational limbo as there has been no agreement on who would govern a post-IS Hawija once the smoke has cleared. The ethnic Turkmen stationed outside the town of Bashir (alt. Basheer) from the local brigade of the Badr Organisation withstood IS sniper fire at the time of my visit which they promptly answered with a Zu-23 anti-aircraft gun mounted atop a BTR-50 tucked safely behind a berm.

Knocking IS out of Hawija will be more like Tal Afar than Mosul or ar-Raqqa. The armed groups surrounding the pocket just haven’t been able to come to terms on a battle plan. That should change very soon. Hawija simply isn’t valuable enough for IS to continue to hold onto till the last man. It is more likely planning a salafi version of taqiyya (dissimulation) into the local population while it decides to regroup in the nearby Hamrin mountains.



Written by derekhenryflood

September 20th, 2017 at 9:08 am


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President Barack Obama First Lady Michelle Obama George W. Bush and Laura Bush attend the ceremony in Lower Manhattan to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. While the Obamas remained composed throughout the Bush's displayed visible signs of emotion as the events of 9/11 were recalled.

President Barack Obama First Lady Michelle Obama George W. Bush and Laura Bush attend the ceremony in Lower Manhattan to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. While the Obamas remained composed throughout the Bush’s displayed visible signs of emotion as the events of 9/11 were recalled. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

New York- The American political system was dealt what many perceived as a devastating blow last night after years of fitful yet steady progress on a host of domestic and international policy issues. From normalization of relations with Cuba to the decriminalization of certain soft drugs on a state by state basis, many calcified issues held over from other eras have been de-stigmatized which has had the effect of getting US policy more in line with some of its more progressive Western counterparts. On major issues like guns or the death penalty this has not particularly been the case but while I was in the EU this past summer I felt a sense that the US, under years of Obama’s presidency, was more in line with European social norms than at any time in recent history.

The US was no longer viewed as the “hyperpuissance” (hyperpower) as it was derided at the apogee of neoconservative power in 2002-2003.  In short, things had chilled out on either side of the Atlantic. EU member states, with France most notably, had become much more active in exercising the use of military force since the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ took off in late 2010 but more properly early 2011. The amplification of already existing migration routes to the EU helped empower right and far right parties in states like Austria and Hungary that bore the brunt of the second phase of the migration routes from the greater Balkans to Central Europe.

The EU’s own fear of ‘the other’ complex has been both deepening and widening as masses of people storm the gates. To generalize–which carries its own inherent risk–peoples with starkly different views on gender relations, the cultural baggage of dietary restrictions, clothing restrictions for women, and religious traditions that are portrayed as incompatible with the increasingly secular voting populations of member states concerned who want to be seen as open societies within an increasingly borderless world. Those in the West who receive these individuals and families are ill equipped to determine who is a war refugee such as someone from Mosul, who is seeking political asylum such as a resident of Asmara, and those who are traditional economic migrants seeking to remit cash back to their countries of origin while getting a foothold in stable countries such as those from Bangladesh.

Despite the Russian Federation’s entirely illegal annexation of territory in Ukraine and Georgia, the notion of erecting walls and razor wire fences is an antipathy toward the post-war ideals that were fought so hard for and took decades of diligent diplomacy to implement. The ideas so poorly articulated by America’s next commander-in-chief are so far fetched as to be absurd. These next four years will be long, painfully embarrassing, and so chock full of political gaffs that comedians will have their hands full. They may also be marked by increasing radicalization within already marginalized immigrant communities whose communal identities are still reeling from the “with or against” blather that occurred during the onset of the terror wars. Integration is made more difficult when isolation is employed as a tactic in lieu of strategy. These proposed ‘policies’–which are not policies in any real form–cannot work.

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November 9th, 2016 at 4:41 pm


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A then rare daylight (barely) landing of American soldiers in Khwaja Bahauddin, Takhar province, Afghanistan in November 2001. ©2001 Derek Henry Flood

A then rare daylight (barely) landing of American soldiers in Khwaja Bahauddin, Takhar province, Afghanistan in November 2001. Who would have thought then that troops would still be present 15 years on? ©2001 Derek Henry Flood

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.

The Karzai years seem like an entire era of lost opportunity with the former Afghan president seemingly less rational by the day the longer he remained in power. ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

The Karzai years seem like an entire era of lost opportunity with the former Afghan president seemingly less rational by the day the longer he remained in power. I saw this poster (next to one of Massoud for northern street credibility among Tajiks) in Samangan province while researching the early days of the 2001 intervention. ©2008 Derek Henry Flood

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).

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-3-20-02-pmIn 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.

The peshmerga warily monitor IS positions from their makeshift bunkers along the Makhmour front. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

The peshmerga warily monitor IS positions from their makeshift bunkers along the Makhmour front. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

October 7th, 2016 at 1:19 pm

Posted in 9/11,Afghanistan,Iraq

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Fifteen Years

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The towers of light on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

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.

Juxtaposing 9/11 then and 9/11 circa 2016 from the same vantage of the Columbia Heights promenade near downtown Brooklyn. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

Juxtaposing 9/11 then and 9/11 circa 2016 from the same vantage of the Columbia Heights promenade near downtown Brooklyn. What a difference 15 years makes.  ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

October 1st, 2016 at 7:42 pm

Posted in 9/11,New York

Eyes on Mosul

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An Iraqi peshmerga and Iranian PAK fighter survey the IS-occupied town of Bashiqa in Ninewa Governoorate. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

An Iraqi peshmerga officerand Iranian PAK fighter survey the IS-occupied town of Bashiqa in Ninewa Governoorate. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-11-22-51-amNew 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.


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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.

A peshmerga soldier takes up a position after an IS sniper attack from the valley below in a tiny sandbagged position called Lufa. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

A peshmerga soldier takes up a position after an IS sniper attack from the valley below in a tiny sandbagged position called Lufa. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

September 19th, 2016 at 11:57 pm

Posted in Iraq

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