The War Diaries

"We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Back to Iraq 6.0

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A headless statue of the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad 15 years ago. If the neoconservative war planners’ goal was “regime decapitation,” in this case it was interpreted literally by beheading a statue atop its shiny plinth. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- I arrived back in Iraq for the sixth time since the American-led invasion that commenced fifteen years ago (a month from now give or take). On 20 March 2003 Baghdad time, the ground forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Poland, along the royal navy of the Kingdom of Denmark (with possibly a small contingent of special operations forces). This country has been in some form of chaos ever since. While many areas are comparatively stable as here in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s administrative seat, or the oil port of Basra far to the south, even these areas are built upon a shaky political modus vivendi that guarantees no future stability without some for of genuine communal reconciliation.

We are now living in the era of the so-called ‘terror wars,’ a time of perpetual terror and spreading instability. Though our world is oft said to be in a steady decline of conventional warfare since the conclusion of the second world war in terms of both breadth and the geographic distribution of conflict, that academic sentiment holds little if any water to the people of this region. From Operation Desert Shield to Desert Storm to Desert Fox to Iraqi Freedom to New Dawn to Inherent Resolve,* much of what Iraqis (and now Syrians) know about American power is through the blunt force of orchestrated, highly mechanized violence.

*Note: Coalition partner code names may, and often do, differ.

Here we are in early 2018 and it has been reported that American troops in Iraq are to begin a gradual force drawdown after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-abadi declared a total victory over IS…in terms of territoriality anyway. But note that a drawdown is not a withdrawal and that it may purportedly, quietly signal a troop build up in Afghanistan where the Taliban are gaining territorial control replete with shadow governance. And unlike October 2001, IS has a serious presence there now presenting themselves as a more fundamental movement in terms of Sunni salafi jurisprudence as opposed to the traditional Deobandi strain of Taliban ideology with its local South Asian characteristics. In short, the fight in Afghanistan has intensified in terms of its non-state actor complexity.

Iraq is as fractious and fluid as a nation-state can be. In the wake of the IS defeat in Ninewa, al-Anbar, and Kirkuk governorates in particular, nothing in terms of the country’s territorial integrity has been resolved nor has the insurgency been completely defeated by any means. There are still IS remnants in and around the Hamrin mountain range and there is talk, albeit somewhat unsubstantiated at the time of this writing, of a group of disgruntled Kurdish nationalists calling themselves the ‘White Flags’ or ‘White Banners’ operating on the outskirts of Tuz Khurmatu in perennially troubled Salah ad-Din governorate south of here.

Kurdistan Democratic Party-aligned Peshmerga in one of the ‘Disputed Territories,’ Dibis district, Kirkuk governorate, five years back. While facing off a multitude of Sunni and nominally Sufi insurgents, they were also facing off the forces of the central government. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

In Iraq, and now neighbouring Syria, the end of one war merely often only signifies the start of the next. This is due in large part to indigenous political elites pandering only to their power base while never genuinely mediating, much less resolving, core ethno-sectarian fissures coupled with Western policy makers having only a primordial understanding of.

The terror wars expand and contract but they do not end. There is no end game, no coherent strategy. And there never was.

The Iraqi flag flowing in Erbil fifteen years after the latest stage in the war here began (and then morphed). ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

February 14th, 2018 at 11:23 am

Along the Bosphorus

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A cold, quiet evening in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Istanbul- I realised upon arriving in Turkey’s commercial capital tonight this visit marks twenty years of my coming here. I first came to Turkey in the middle of a EU to MENA backpacking trip in 1998 between semesters. I’ve been back virtually every year ever since for very different reasons each time.

Turkey is the cultural and transport naval of my world. Bordering Greece, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Georgia etc, Turkey is essential. It is also a comparatively functional place in highly dysfunctional region. All connective air transport is routed through Istanbul, rather than  Ankara, the centralised political capitol in the Anatolian heartland. As volatile is this area often is, regional airports open and close whether due to geopolitical feuding or kinetic political violence, there are plenty of long overland routes to reach forlorn land borders where chai and marlboros are smuggled as an integral cog in the local cross border economy.

Taking the ferry from Kadikoy to Eminönü last year. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Walking in the frosty warrens along the Bosphorus tonight, I reflected upon two decades of change in Anatolia, the Caucasus, and the Levant. In 1998, as a young but not entirely naive university student, the Turkish military was on the brink of invading Syria over its southern neighbour’s support of the PKK. The Assad regime had supported ethno-nationalist Kurdish irredentists owing to its own regime-held irredentism over Turkey’s Hatay province (formerly the  Sanjak of Alexandretta) and humiliation over Turkey’s damming of of the Euphrates (Firat in Turkish, al-Furat in Syrian Arabic) river so crucial to Syrian industry and agriculture.

That war in the summer of 1998 never came to be after negotiations led to the Adana Agreement in October of that year which saw PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan expelled from his Damascene sanctuary and the Assad regime ceasing its support for Kurdish rebels. Yet here we are in 2018 and Turkey finally has invaded Syria, this time to crush the Kurdish enclave of Afrin (or Efrin as Syrian Kurds prefer). When I checked into my hotel room tonight the first thing I see is live broadcast from Hatay regarding Turkey’s troop movements  in Syria.

Diplomacy seemed to work to at least some degree back in the 1990s. No more.

Turkish current events commentators discussing developments in their military’s war on the Kurdish canton of Afrin.

 

 

Written by derekhenryflood

February 12th, 2018 at 4:33 pm

Posted in Turkey

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Syria after IS

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SDF fighters throw up victory gestures in the finaly phase of the battle against IS in central ar-Raqqa. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I have a new article out with Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre about the risks faced by the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces following their final defeat against the so-called Islamic State. My piece assesses what the armed landscape will look like in the near term following the territorial demise of kalashnikov-toting adherents of salafiyya-jihadiyya ideology who sought to erase the physical history of the Ba’athist, post-colonial, and ancient edifices on which the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys draw their culture in order to create a macabre, social media-fueled vision of utopia.

As militants from as far afield as Trinidad and Turkmenistan are killed or attempt to flee, this will force several awkward realignments of both state and non-state actors. The United States military has no coherent policy on an end game for its Syria strategy, stating it is solely focused of defeating IS with its SDF partners. But as the battle is all but entirely finished save for a small pocket of eastern Deir ez-Zor, this narrow, soda straw view of the war there does not factor the next phase of which it is on the precipice.

The air force of the Russian Federation is pummeling rebel enclaves that continue to resist the al-Assad regime in faltering scorched earth policy reminiscent of the shelling of Grozny in the 1990s. Moscow insists it only has advisors in the context of the Syrian Arab Army’s ground war but that doesn’t include Russian and other CIS citizens who are fighting on behalf of the opaque doings of private military companies supporting the regime in the name of hard currency.

And this is only to name but a few looming factors as the calcified regime in Damascus tries to hold and consolidate its gains with Russian and Iranian support. The regime may try to evict the various factions that comprise the SDF from ar-Raqqa and environs lest another player joins the action space (read:Turkey).

Written by derekhenryflood

November 24th, 2017 at 7:41 am

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

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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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Presidents

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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.

Written by derekhenryflood

November 9th, 2016 at 4:41 pm

Intervention

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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

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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

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October 1st, 2016 at 7:42 pm

Posted in 9/11,New York