Flashback, 2000: At a military checkpoint on the side of a road in Lesotho, an officer pointed an automatic weapon at me, and asked for $20. I took out my business card, I handed it to him, and I told him that I worked with the US government and I didn’t need to give him $20. He pretended to read the card (he was obviously illiterate), he smiled, and with his machine gun, he then waived me back to my car. Perhaps he said “Have a nice day”; I don’t recall specifically.
Flashback, 2001: On a street in Myanmar, I negotiated with a shopkeeper over a curio. There were some soldiers leaning against a wall down the block. When we had a deal, he told me that I had to pay him in the alley, not in the street. I did so, and then asked him why. He explained that if the soldiers had seen me handing him money, they would have come and taken it away from him. They wouldn’t take it away from me, but they would take it away from him.
Because that’s what soldiers do, in most countries. Like fish gotta swim.
For the past decade, we have purported to “train” the Iraqi military and police, at the cost of at least $24 billion. That’s almost $100 for every man, woman and child in America. We have undertaken this training even though in the Middle East, many millennia ago, the Iraqis’ ancestors invented the concepts of both the military and the police, at a time when our ancestors were drawing pretty pictures on cave walls employing colored dirt.
Such training consisted primarily of a one-month paid vacation to the neighboring country of Jordan. American instructors who did not speak a word of Arabic were paid roughly $170,000 per year to teach “ethics” – ethics! – to these trainees. For sure, a good time was had by all.
We used to be good at training bloodthirsty killers. Google “School of Americas,” and see what I mean. In the old days, we trained the caudillos of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru and, in Africa, Gambia. When did we lose our touch?
Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time observing soldiers and police officers in Third World countries like Iraq and Syria will tell you that it’s ridiculous to think that any amount of “training” will make them want to put their head into the meat-grinder called “war.” That simply is not the gig.
Here is the gig: In countries like Iraq with vast amounts of unemployment, being in the military or police (not a big difference between the two, in their minds) means a steady income – in Iraq, around $500 a month. In addition to that, if you are posted somewhere other than in your hometown, you can steal whatever you get your hands on. That’s it. That’s the job. It has nothing to do with shooting at people, much less killing people. And for sure, absolutely for sure, it has nothing to do with being shot at. That sounds dangerous.
And no amount of training is going to change that. You can’t train people to commit suicide.
But what about our military, you ask? Well, our military has gotten very good at killing without dying. Take drone warfare, for instance – thousands of kills, no US military deaths. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the death rate for US soldiers was just above 1% -- which is just above the death rate each year for the US population as a whole. Moreover, our military doesn’t have anything else to do except “the mission”; it doesn’t enjoy the same opportunities for . . . “enrichment” . . . that attracts young men in countries like Iraq.
Let’s compare that to the death rate for Iraqis who counterattack against ISIS. It’s roughly the same as the death rate from Ebola disease.
Everyone recognizes that ISIS cannot be defeated by bombing and missile strikes alone. It just doesn’t work that way. ISIS now controls a population of nine million people, including the second-largest city in Iraq. When it comes to ground forces occupying urban territory, you can’t defeat somebody with nobody.
So then what is the “plan” from our leadership? To try to reanimate the dead corpse of the Iraqi Army. Also, to assemble a ferocious regiment of orthodontists and bookkeepers to take back eastern Syria from ISIS. And how will we assemble such a force? By giving them a one-month paid vacation – not in Jordan this time, but in Saudi Arabia.
Not going to happen. I regret to say this, but even with US air support, there is no way that the Iraqi Army or the “moderate Syrian rebels” are going to defeat ISIS. And by the way, there are no “moderate Syrian rebels.” We might as well arm leprechauns riding bareback into battle on unicorns. If you don’t believe me, just ask the CIA.
So realistically, the current strategy is nothing but air strikes. And how effective are these air strikes against ISIS? Well, the first ones destroyed some oil refineries in ISIS-controlled territories. Those attacks increased the price of oil by approximately three dollars a barrel this week. And the United States imports almost eight million barrels a day. So these attacks have cost us $24 million a day in higher gasoline costs alone – almost 10 cents a gallon. That’s showing them!
Oil powers Saudi Arabia and the UAE bravely joined in these air attacks that increased the price of oil. Surprise, surprise. Are they laughing at us?
But not all is lost. Assuming for the sake of the argument that ISIS is something more than a band of theatric psychopaths, and actually does represent a threat to some fundamental US strategic interest, here is how you could defeat ISIS militarily. Right now, Iraq says that it wants no foreign soldiers fighting ISIS in Iraq. So you give Iraq a firm deadline to defeat ISIS and take back western Iraq under international air cover. Let’s say six months, which is how long it took for ISIS to occupy the territory.
If that fails – and it very, very likely would – then you acknowledge that the government of Iraq is unable to control its own territory, which is most basic function of any national government. Under the auspices of the UN and the Arab League – both of which have already authorized military action against ISIS – you then assemble an international Sunni fighting force and deploy it against ISIS.
Now, let’s suppose that the neighboring Arab League countries refused to provide such a force. What does that tell us? Why should we defend them, when they won’t defend themselves?
But that’s unlikely, because three Sunni Arab countries already have said that they would populate such a force, and with prodding from the United States, more would join. That force largely would consist of soldiers who speak Arabic, who look like the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, who understand the religion and the customs, and who would not be regarded by the locals as invaders. Unlike the Iraqi Army, they have responsibilities other than cashing paychecks and looting from the locals, and they would be able to keep their own casualties down to what modern military forces view as acceptable levels.
That is how you defeat ISIS.
Is this realistic plan to defeat ISIS with Arab League forces ever going to happen? Probably not. Our present leaders have no interest whatsoever in action orchestrated by the United Nations or the Arab League. They don’t have the chutzpah to tell Iraq, “look – you’ve failed to defend your territory from a terrorist group, why don’t you give the other Arabs a shot at it?” And it would take too much effort to assemble a real fighting coalition, not a Potemkin-village “Coalition of the Willing” or a “Core Coalition” or whatever the polling says that they should call it these days.
I hope that I’m wrong, but I predict that our air attacks, without international Arab League “boots on the ground,” will not defeat ISIS in western Iraq or in eastern Syria. I also predict that this war will fade from the news, just as the earlier war in Iraq did. I also predict that we will continue to throw half a trillion dollars each year at the military-industrial complex, which has now successfully transitioned from Osama bin Laden’s corpse to a new bogeyman.
And it doesn’t have to be that way. Peace, anyone?
Rep. Alan Grayson
“Naturally the common people don’t want war, neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy. It is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of their masters. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
- Hermann Goering, at the Nuremberg Trials