dinsdag 7 oktober 2014

The Islamic State war: Iraq's echo

by Paul Rogers

Night launch of F-18s from USS George H.W. Bush in the Arabian Sea to conduct strike missions against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert Burck – Wikimedia Commons

A major new war has begun in the Middle East. But the Islamic State movement is prepared, and the precedents are bleak.

George W Bush, the United States president, was unequivocal in his response to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaida was a threat to the world and must be destroyed; the Taliban regime in Afghanistan would be terminated; western states should give strong support to the US in its immediate military assaults.

At the time, a handful of analysts in think-tanks such as Oxford Research Group and Focus on the Global South warned against such instant responses. They argued that al-Qaida sought confrontation and that 9/11 had been a provocation with this aim in mind. After all, one superpower had already been humbled in Afghanistan during the 1980s; here was a chance to repeat the action against another, however long it might take.

The regime in Kabul was indeed terminated in a matter of weeks, and in January 2002 - two months after the Taliban had gone - Bush delivered his first state-of-the-union address as president. He extended the war against al-Qaida to a much broader conflict against an “axis of evil”, the immediate enemy being the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. This received rapturous applause.

As war loomed a year later, the rhetoric escalated. The Baghdad regime was declared a threat to the world, in part on account of its alleged possession of missiles loaded with weapons of mass destruction that could be launched in forty-five minutes. Saddam was overthrown within three weeks in March-April 2003; the following month, Bush made his “mission accomplished” speech to great acclaim.

In the event, the war in Afghanistan was to last thirteen years before the US withdrew most of its troops. There may be much more insecurity yet to come (see "Afghanistan: state of insecurity", 31 July 2014). Iraq developed into a bitter eight-year war that cost well over 100,000 lives and is now leading on to a third major confrontation. Al-Qaida may be a shadow of its former self but as an idea it is gaining more potency and fresh recruits. There are evolving movements fired by the idea in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Libya and many other countries; a determined and brutal offshoot, Islamic State (IS), controls substantial territory in Syria and Iraq.

George W Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, insists that Islamic State must be degraded and ultimately destroyed. The war started in earnest with major bombardments on 22-23 September 2014. The one big difference between now and 2001 or 2003 may be that senior military in Washington are saying from the start that this will be a long war stretching over years (see "The thirty-year war, continued", 11 September 2014).

Even so, in spite of presumed war weariness, majority opinion in the US is moving in favour of war. In Britain, prime minister David Cameron is seeking and will likely get cross-party support for UK strike aircraft to join in. Most of the public in the UK was recently assessed as being opposed to direct involvement, but that may change in the face of repeated claims of immediate threat.

The Islamic State view

The air-raids earlier this week were much more substantial than reported in established media outlets. Most were undertaken by the United States, using cruise-missiles, drones, the F-22 stealth-aircraft and other systems from the airforce, navy and marines, with five Arab states playing more of a symbolic support role.

The operations, far more intense than the seven weeks of bombing IS targets in Iraq, hit twenty-two sites in three broad areas across northern Syria. One of the best-informed US journals, Military Times, reports:

“Monday night’s attacks involved about 200 munitions, a defense official said, making it far more intense than the air campaign over Iraq that began Aug. 8, which have rarely targeted more than one or two sites at a time.”

The intensity of the assaults may suggest that IS will be rapidly crippled, but this is very far from the truth. The previous column in this series pointed to the limited impact of the US attacks in Iraq so far (see "Into the third Iraq war", 18 September 2014). There are also numerous reports that, days before being attacked, IS paramilitaries in Raqqa and elsewhere had already dispersed from their bases into the city. Thus, the buildings targeted were largely empty.

In a further revealing analysis, Military Times assesses the impact of the raids in Iraq:

“So far, the strikes have not targeted large urban areas such as Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit, where breaking the extremists’ grip is harder and the risk of civilian casualties is higher. In a sign of their confidence, Islamic State group fighters paraded 30 captured Iraqi soldiers in pickup trucks through the streets of Fallujah on Tuesday, only hours after the coalition strikes across the border in Syria.”

This should not come as a surprise. The core of the Islamic State is formed of determined paramilitaries, many of them combat-trained young men who survived the ugly war fought by US and UK special forces against Iraqi Sunni insurgents during the Iraq war after 2003.

As this new war accelerates, it is wise to assume that Islamic State is not only ready for this but welcomes it. The movement will be particularly pleased that the Pentagon is preparing to deploy an army division headquarters to Iraq, a strong indication that many more troops will be moved there in the coming weeks. The possibility of capturing US military personnel is particularly attractive (see "America and Islamic State: mission creeping?", 21 August 2014).

The longer term

The fact that Washington is in coalition with five Sunni Arab states is not so much irrelevant as to be expected by IS. After all, radical jihadist movements in the Middle East for at least two decades have been opposed to the “near enemy” of autocratic regimes just as much as to the “far enemy” of the United States, these regimes' consistent backer.

For now, Obama will have much domestic support, as will Cameron in the UK, Francois Hollande in France and not forgetting Tony Abbott in Australia. Furthermore, the intensive air assault that will develop in the coming weeks will most certainly give an impression of progress, with the Islamic State reported as being much diminished.

In the short term, though, even the positive spin might not ring true. It is uncertain how IS will react in the next few days, what will happen to the multiple hostages, or whether it will launch diversionary attacks (for example, on the US base that is rapidly building up at Baghdad international airport) or engineer some completely unexpected event.

In any case, it is the longer term that counts. It is all too likely that this war, a couple of years hence, will look every bit as misjudged and futile as the previous two.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century(Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

This article first appeared on openDemocracy 25 September 2014.

zaterdag 20 september 2014

US generals challenge Obama on ground troops in Iraq, Syria

By Bill Van Auken

U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno (left) observes as the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment conducts a live fire exercise at Fort Hunter Liggett, CA Jan. 31, 2014.
U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Steve Cortez (Wikimedia Commons)

The accelerating drive to a new US war in the Middle East, extending from Iraq to Syria and potentially beyond, has laid bare a stark contradiction between President Barack Obama’s public rejection of any US “boots on the ground” and increasingly assertive statements by top generals that such deployments cannot be ruled out.

Underlying this semi-public dispute between the US president—the titular “commander-in-chief”—and the military brass are the realities underlying another war of aggression being launched on the basis of lies for the second time in barely a decade.

It is being foisted on the American public as an extension of the 13-year-old “global war on terror,” with Obama warning this week that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) “if left unchecked… could pose a growing threat to the United States.”

In reality, the ISIS threat, such as it is, stems entirely from US imperialist interventions that have ravaged first Iraq, through a war and occupation that claimed some one million lives, and then Syria, in a US-backed sectarian war for regime-change—in which ISIS was the beneficiary of arms and aid from the US and its regional allies—that has killed well over 100,000 and turned millions into refugees.

The collapse of Iraq’s security forces in the face of an ISIS offensive that was part of a broader Sunni revolt against Iraq’s US-installed Shi’ite sectarian government is now being used as the justification for a US military intervention aimed at reasserting US military dominance in Iraq, intensifying the war to overthrow the Assad regime in neighboring Syria, and escalating the confrontations with the key allies of Damascus—Iran and Russia.

Such strategic ambitions cannot be achieved with such unreliable proxy forces as the Iraqi military and the so-called Syrian “rebels.” They require the unrestrained use of Washington’s military might. This is why the generals are publicly challenging the blanket commitment made by Obama ruling out any US ground war in Iraq or Syria.

Over the past several days, both White House and Pentagon spokesmen have issued “clarifying” statements in an attempt to smooth over what increasingly suggests something close to insubordination by the top uniformed brass against the president.

The Washington Post pointed to the conflict Friday in a lead article entitled “In military, skepticism of Obama’s plan,” writing, “Flashes of disagreement over how to fight the Islamic State are mounting between President Obama and US military leaders, the latest sign of strain in what often has been an awkward and uneasy relationship.”

The first major public airing of the divisions between the military command and the White House came Tuesday in congressional testimony in which Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that circumstances in Iraq and Syria could require the introduction of US ground troops and he would not rule out their deployment. He added that the commander of CENTCOM, which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, had already proposed the intervention of US troops in the campaign to retake the Mosul dam last month, but had been overruled by the White House.

A day later, Obama appeared to rule out such action even more categorically, telling a captive audience of US troops at MacDill Air Force Base Wednesday: “As your commander-in-chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our Armed Forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”

This hardly settled the question, however. Speaking on the same day as the president, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff and former top US commander in Iraq, told journalists that air strikes would prove insufficient to achieve Washington’s ostensible goal of destroying ISIS. “You’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting them out,” he said.

Odierno intensified his argument on Friday, telling reporters that air strikes alone would grow increasingly problematic as ISIS forces intermingled with Iraq’s civilian population.

“When you target, you want to make sure you are targeting the right people,” the Army commander said. “The worst thing that can happen for us is if we start killing innocent Iraqis, innocent civilians.” He added that US ground forces would be needed to direct the bombing campaign.

Odierno referred to the 1,600 US troops the Obama administration has already deployed to Iraq as “a good start,” but added that as the US military campaign developed, so too could the demand for further deployments. “Based on that assessment we’ll make further decisions,” he said.

The Army chief warned that the US was embarking on a protracted war in the region. “This is going to go on,” he said. “This is not a short term—I think the president said three years. I agree with that—three years, maybe longer. And so what we want to do is do this right. Assess it properly, see how it’s going, adjust as we go along, to make sure we can sustain this.”

As to US ground troops entering combat together with Iraqi units, Odierno stated, “I don’t rule anything out. I don’t ever rule anything out, personally.”

Even more blunt was Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the former commander of CENTCOM, who retired only last year. Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, he directly attacked Obama’s public position of “no boots on the ground,” stating, “You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do.”

Mattis added: “If a brigade of our paratroopers or a battalion landing team of our Marines would strengthen our allies at a key juncture and create havoc/humiliation for our adversaries, then we should do what is necessary with our forces that exist for that very purpose.”

Even Obama’s defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, appeared to contradict the president’s assertion about no ground troops, telling the House Armed Services Committee Thursday, “We are at war and everything is on the table.” Hagel also revealed that the 1,600 “trainers” and “advisers” who have been deployed to Iraq are receiving combat pay.

It is apparent that the Obama administration is using a hyper-technical definition of “combat troops” to exclude the military’s special operation units from this category, even if they end up engaged in combat.

The position taken by the generals has found ample political support from the right-wing editorial board of the Wall Street Journal as well as congressional Republicans. The Journal argued in an editorial Friday that Obama’s “promise never to put ground troops into Iraq or Syria is already undermining the campaign before serious fighting begins against the Islamic State. Few believe him, and they shouldn't if Mr. Obama wants to defeat the jihadists.”

The editorial compared Obama’s denial about “combat troops” to the claims made at the beginning of the Vietnam War that US troops were acting only as “advisers,” warning that the president could face the same fate as Lyndon Johnson, who “gave the impression of looming victory… only to have to escalate again and again.”

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (Republican of California), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told the Washington Post that Obama should “follow the … professional advice of the military” and “not take options off the table.”

The assertiveness of the top military brass in contradicting the White House is fed by the subservience and cowardice of civilian authorities, including the president and Congress. The latter adjourned this week after voting in both the House and Senate for Obama’s plan to shift $500 million in Pentagon funding to the arming and training of so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria. The measure was inserted as an amendment to a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through mid-December.

No serious debate, much less direct vote, was taken on the region-wide war that Washington is launching in the Middle East. The legislators have no inclination to be seen taking a position on this action—much less an interest in exercising their constitutional power—for fear that it will reverberate against them at the polls in November. Any debate has been postponed until Congress reconvenes after the elections and, undoubtedly, after the war is well under way in both Syria and Iraq.

This article first appeared on World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) on 20 September 2014, and was republished with permission.

maandag 1 september 2014

US and Europe escalate provocations against Russia

By Johannes Stern

The European Union summit held in Brussels over the weekend represents a major escalation of the aggression by the Western powers against Russia, raising the specter of full-blown war in Europe and even a nuclear war between NATO and Russia.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the business oligarch and leader of the right-wing regime installed by the Western powers in Kiev, set the tone for the summit. He urged the EU to take a tougher stance against Russia, which he accused of “military aggression and terror.”

“We are very close to the point of no return, the point of no return is full-scale war, which is already happening in the territories controlled by the separatists,” Poroshenko said at a news conference.

Standing alongside European Commission President Juan Manuel Barroso, Poroshenko alleged that Kiev still hoped for a political settlement of the conflict, but then painted a picture of war.

“We are too close to a border where there will be no return to the peace plan,” he said, claiming that since Wednesday, “thousands of foreign troops and hundreds of foreign tanks are now on the territory of Ukraine, with a very high risk not only for the peace and stability of Ukraine but for the peace and stability of the whole of Europe.”

EU officials and European heads of state joined in the allegations and threats of war against Russia. British Prime Minister David Cameron described the situation in Ukraine as “deeply serious,” adding: “We have to show real resolve, real resilience in demonstrating to Russia that if she carries on in this way the relationship between Europe and Russia, Britain and Russia, America and Russia will be radically different in future.”

Dalia Grybauskaite, the president of Lithuania, a NATO member, took an even more aggressive tone: “It is the fact that Russia is in a war state against Ukraine. That means it is in a state of war against a country which would like to be closely integrated with the EU. Practically Russia is in a state of war against Europe,” she said from the summit.

She demanded, “We need to support Ukraine, and send military materials to help Ukraine defend itself. Today Ukraine is fighting a war on behalf of all Europe.”

Assertions that Western politicians are merely reacting to a Russian aggression against Ukraine and now have to defend Europe against Russia are lies. This crisis has been instigated by the imperialist powers, above all Germany and the US, which organized a fascist-led coup against the pro-Russian Ukrainian government of President Viktor Yanukovych. Now the EU and NATO are collaborating closely with the puppet regime they installed to militarily crush pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine as part of their broader plan to encircle and ultimately subjugate Russia.

In comments cited by Russian news agencies, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the crisis in Ukraine on the NATO powers, accusing them of supporting a “coup” in Ukraine in February.

“They should have known that Russia cannot stand aside when people are being shot almost at point-blank range,” Putin said. Now, despite the fact that their political adventure is blowing up in their faces, the imperialist powers continue to seize upon the manufactured crisis in Ukraine to ratchet up tensions with Russia.

Echoing Poroshenko’s comment by saying that Russia was pushing the conflict in Ukraine toward “the point of no return,” Barroso threatened that European leaders would take new, tougher measures to make Moscow “come to reason.” The president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, said that the European heads of state had agreed to take “further significant steps” if Russia did not back down within a week.

“Everybody is fully aware that we have to act quickly given the evolution on the ground and the tragic loss of life of the last days,” Van Rompuy said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that further sanctions were needed, as “the situation has deteriorated considerably in the last few days,” and would be imposed “if this situation continues.” Despite her numerous phone calls with Putin, Merkel said she could not make “a final judgment” on his intentions and whether Putin seeks to take “further parts of the country under his control.” She said that Germany “will certainly not deliver weapons, as this would give the impression that this is a conflict that can be solved militarily,” but indicated that other European countries might take a different stance on this issue.

There are signs that the factions in the imperialist governments that foresaw a Russian reaction to the Western provocations are increasingly taking the lead in pushing for a full-blown militarization of Europe and a possible war with Russia.

The current issue of the major German news magazine Der Spiegel published yesterday runs an article under the headline, “Level 4.” It states that the “hardline faction within NATO is on the rise” and insists that “they want much more than economic sanctions.”

Der Spiegel writes, “Poland and the Baltic States promote a demonstrative break with Moscow, and they are receiving increasing support. Canada, which hosts over one million people of Ukrainian descent, has now taken their side. ‘Diplomacy is reaching its limits in the face of continued Russian aggression,’ said even the foreign minister of Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn. ‘The question is posed, if there can be any diplomatic solution with Putin at all.’ Several Eastern European governments are coming to similar conclusions.”

On Friday, the Financial Times reported that seven NATO states plan the creation of a new so called “rapid reaction force” of at least 10,000 soldiers as part of plans to strengthen NATO. The force would be led by Britain. Countries involved include Denmark, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Norway and the Netherlands. Canada has also expressed an interest. According to the FT, the force includes air and naval units as well as ground troops for rapid deployment and regular exercises in Eastern Europe. Cameron is expected to announce the creation of the force coinciding with the upcoming NATO summit in Wales later this week.

On Sunday, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS) newspaper led with the headline, “NATO goes east: military bases, armament depots and intervention forces,” reporting that NATO plans to deploy five bases in Eastern Europe. At each base in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania and Poland, up to 600 servicemen will be stationed.

The paper also reports that more soldiers will be stationed at the regional NATO headquarters in Stettin, Poland, which is currently led by Germany, Poland and Denmark. In “case of emergency,” it will host 60,000 troops. The FAS writes that these plans are part of a “readiness action” plan to be discussed in detail at the summit. It brands Russia as a “threat to Euro-Atlantic security.”

Since the crisis began, the most aggressive elements within NATO, which are close to Washington and especially to the neo-conservative faction within the American ruling elite, have sought to transform the NATO into an anti-Russian alliance and place Europe on a permanent war footing against Russia. This is now happening with breathtaking speed.

In another landmark decision, European leaders decided that Polish prime minister Donald Tusk will succeed Van Rompuy on December 1. The British Guardian described him as “a leading EU hawk on the Kremlin and the crisis in Ukraine,” stressing that “Poland has been leading the campaign for a more energetic anti-Putin and pro-Ukraine policy.“

This article first appeared on World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) on 1 September 2014, and was republished with permission.