Update on the Iraqi quagmire.

It’s time for the tredecennial review of the quagmire in Iraq. In my 2002 column, I cautioned:

“If Iraq were completely destroyed, it will break in three: a Shiite protectorate of Iran in the South, a Kurdish state in the north and a small Sunni state in the middle. That would completely destabilize the whole region, inflaming more conflict.”

SALADIN, IRAQ - AUGUST 31:  A Shiite militian flashes victory sign after Iraqi forces have entered the northern town of Amirli which had been under the siege of Islamic State militants for over two months in Saladin ,Iraq on August 31, 2014. Supported by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, the Iraqi army launched an offensive shortly after the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions near the town, and dropped aid for the nearly 20,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped in Amirli. The government forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting against the militant group to block their advance. (Stringer - Anadolu Agency)

(Stringer – Anadolu Agency)

Parts of that warning turned out to be true. Conflict has generated more conflict. The Kurds represent a coherent entity in the North, if not a Kurdish state. There is no Sunni state in the middle of Iraq but Anbar province is controlled by Sunni leaders of Saddam Hussein’s former party. Shiites are not just in the South. With the help of the U.S., they control government.

Whereas Canada declined involvement in the earlier invasion, now we are willing participants in the bombing of Iraq. The Harper government apparently believes that, while massive bombing didn’t fix the problem in the first place, a few more should do the trick.

Another difference is that the Prime Minster’s office sees the invasion as public relations opportunity. When Corporal Nathan Cirillo was killed at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, the PMO issued a video reminiscent of U.S. President Bush’s macho response to the attacks of September 9, 2001. Reporter Patrick Graham describes the chest-thumping by the PMO:

“Three months after Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack [on Cirillo], the PMO put out a jingoistic video  –a montage of the cenotaph and the gunfight on Parliament Hill that included a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot punching the air; presumably after a successful mission. The takeaway: Avenge Corporal Cirillo. Bomb ISIS (Walrus magazine, June, 2015).”

Canada’s bravado avoids a vexing question. How were millions of Iraqis overcome by a few thousand ISIS fighters?

“As Canada continues –indeed escalates –its war with ISIS, politicians and policy-makers need to grapple with that question in a serious way,” says Graham. “But based on it public pronouncements thus far, there is little evidence that government’s analysis has gone beyond patriotic slogans and images of pumped-up fighter pilots.”

The Shiite-Sunni conflict has extended fourteen centuries. Relations were calm until Hussein came to power in the 1970s when he banned Shiite ceremonies and ruthlessly put down a Shiite uprising.

The opportunity for revenge came when a Shiite was installed as head of the Iraqi government. With Prime Minister Maliki in control of the army, Sunnis were arrested under the country’s anti-terrorism laws. Sunni tribal leaders, who had joined the U.S. fight against al Qaeda, were cut off from positions of power.

No wonder that many Sunnis have welcomed ISIS over a Shiite army. “From a Sunni point of view, the U.S. occupation simply was replaced with an occupation run by Tehran’s proxy armies [the Shiites].”

The undisciplined and corrupt Shiite army simply folded in the face of a small, determined, ISIS force. Army morale had been undermined by incompetent officers who were more interested in extortion than building confidence within the rank and file.

It will be interesting to see whether Canada’s new government will carry on with war as a public relations exercise or take a more nuanced approach. I’ll let you know in 13 years.


Coalition’s battle in Iraq has barely touched war on terrorism

We fired our guns and the British kept a’comin. There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago. We fired once more and they began to runnin’, down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. (from the song The Battle of New Orleans by Johnny Horton, 1959)


On January 8, 1815, Major General Andrew Jackson led a small, poorly equipped American army to victory against 8,000 British troops in the Battle of New Orleans.

The battle of New Orleans was not only a triumph of  the underdog rebels over a superpower, it was the success of new military tactic over an old one.  On that fateful day, British Major General Pakenham marched his soldiers towards the American lines.  The Americans were well positioned on the other side of a canal, up a steep slope, barricaded behind bales of cotton and earth-filled sugar barrels.

Despite the advantage of position, the superior British forces could have overpowered the Yankee rebels if not for fate and the rigid British command structure.  During the march, General Pakenham and another general were killed, and a third wounded.

Leaderless, the British soldiers stood rock-like, in close formation, and were picked off by the Americans.  At last the surviving general was at able to give the withdrawal command.  The remaining soldiers retreated with parade-ground precision, leaving three-quarters of their total strength killed or wounded.

Fate and inflexibility were just part of the problem for the British imperial power.  The rebels developed superior tactics.  Small bands terrorized the British.  The freedom fighters worked independently using the element of surprise.  They moved rapidly over difficult terrain to defeat larger British armies.

In the opinion of  the British military, the rebels used cowardly colonial tactics – –  not fair according formal rules of military engagement.   For the Americans, the guerrilla tactics represented a new way of fighting.

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, were viewed by the modern world as despicable acts of cowardly terrorists.  For many fundamentalist Muslims, the attacks were seen as heroic and a legitimate tactic – –  a new kind of soldier and a new way of waging war.

The Al Qaeda has redefined modern warfare by modeling themselves after global corporations.   They’re lean, flexible, and don’t require a great deal of money.

“They’re catalysts, for the most part, and their greatest strength is their intellectual organization. The costs involved here are not very high. You know, the technology makes it possible to communicate cheaply, to get these goods easily.  If you think about this entire operation, it probably cost well under a million dollars. But what they have is organizational skill and savvy. In a way, it’s very much like one of these great investment banks or money management firms where the assets are the people.  So it’s very much a globalized organization in that sense,” says Fareed Zakaria, foreign correspondent for Newsweek International.

It’s a sick military fact that the goals of weapons of mass destruction are to generate fear and confusion.  When civilians get in the way, their deaths are written off  as “collateral damage”.  Those goals were achieved by the Al Qaeda on September 11 with their unconventional use of weapons of mass destruction.  When our allies use WMD on innocent civilians, as in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their actions are glibly justified.

The Americans have not made the same mistake as the British did 188 years ago.  The invasion of Iraq is a different mistake.

When the British attacked New Orleans, they knew where the enemy was.  They were just across the canal, up a slope, behind the barrels and bales of cotton.

The terrorists of September 11 are not in Iraq.  They are not waiting across the Euphrates, just past Babylon, in Baghdad.

And even if they are, they will not be found.   They are not wearing bright red uniforms with a bull’s-eye on the back.  They look pretty much like everyone else.  Unless the U.S. were to slaughter all 24 million Iraqis, some terrorists could remain.

The invasion of Iraq is a big a mistake.  The war on terrorism is being fought in the wrong place by the wrong kind of army.

The battle of Iraq will be won but the war on terrorism is barely started.