"Is it in the United States interest to save what I would call a failing Iranian strategy? And I worry about Iran's role in Iraqi military operations because what does that portend for the political future of Iraq?" these were straight forward questions from US House Rep Eliot Engel.
Sadly, there were no straight forward answers in reply.
This morning, the House Foreign Affairs Committee heard testimony from the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL John Allen as well as Brig Gen Michael Fantini and Brig Gen Gregg Olson.
Allen was the one skirting the issues Engel raised. Engel is the Ranking Member of the Committee, US House Rep Ed Royce is the Committee Chair. We'll note some of his opening remarks.
Chair Ed Royce: Adding to the problem, the regional forces on the ground these airstrikes are supposed to be supporting are badly undersupplied. After seven months of fighting, the Committee is still receiving troubling reports that the Kurdish Peshmerga are outgunned on the front lines. This morning, Ranking Member Engel and I are re-introducing legislation to allow US arms to be sent directly to the Kurds. These brave fighters need the better equipment to defeat ISIS. And the Sunni tribal fighters, who will be central to this fight, are yet to trust Baghdad. Strong local police and provincial national guard forces are desperately needed to protect Sunnis in Anbar Province and elsewhere. Into the void on the ground in Iraq have stepped Iranian-backed Shi'ite fighters, the leading force behind the recent Tikrit offensive. Senior US officials have put this development in positive terms. And reports indicate that US intelligence and air power will now support this Iranian-backed mission. The Washington Post wisely cautioned in an editorial this week, "The growing power of the militias, with their brutal tactics, sectarian ideology and allegiance to Iran's most militant faction, has become as large an impediment to the goal of stabilizing Iraq" as ISIS. Shi'ite militias taking on ISIS may serve the immediate interest of killing jihadis but it is hard to see how empowering Iran's proxies is in the short, medium or long term interests of an inclusive Iraq or a stable Middle East. The fear that many of us have is that Sunni Iraqis, who have been tortured by ISIS, will get the same brutal treatment by their Shi'ite militia 'liberators.' That would fuel endless conflict. Political reconciliation in Baghdad must be central to US policy. The Committee will be interested to learn what the administration is doing to press Prime Minister [Hadier al-] Abadi to ensure he doesn't become former Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki, a disastrous sectarian.
Didn't the administration just send witnesses to happy talk how supplying the Peshmerga was no longer a problem?
Why, yes, they did.
Wednesday, March 11th, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held an important hearing on Iraq.
We covered it in the March 11th and March 12th and March 13th snapshots.
Here's a key exchange from that earlier hearing.
Senator Cory Gardner: . . . what weight of effort would you say that the Peshmerga or other fighting in the region are pursuing against ISIL?
Gen Martin Dempsey: The early successes against ISIL were largely through the Peshmerga. And that will evolve over time but they've been carrying the majority of the effort thus far.
Senator Cory Gardner: And by majority of effort, is there a weight? Like they're carrying out a third? Three-quarters? Ninety percent?
Gen Martin Dempsey: No, Senator, I can't actually put
Senator Cory Gardner: -- the weight of effort on it?
Gen Martin Depmsey: -- but the early, uh, the early effort to blunt ISIL's momentum were north and therefore with the Peshmerga
Senator Cory Gardner: And reports in the news and other places have stated the Peshmerga are only getting about 10% of the arms that have routed through -- that have been routed through Baghdad. Is that correct?
Gen Martin Dempsey: Uh, again, I don't have the percentage but I can certainly take it for the record. But there were some friction early on with the willingness of the government of Iraq to provide weapons to the Peshmerga but we think we've-we've managed our way through that.
Senator Cory Gardner: And so right now you feel confident that the process by which arms will reach Erbil have now been settled or resolved?
Gen Martin Dempsey: I am confident that we've broke through the initial friction but it doesn't mean it won't return.
There are other exchanges in other hearings that took place this month where other officials insisted the Peshmerga was being armed.
But they're not.
They're not getting what they need.
And so a bi-partisan bill is being re-introduced by Chair Ed Royce and Ranking Member Eliot Engel to ensure that this problem gets solved.
Today's hearing took place a day after the announcement that the US would begin aiding the Baghdad-Tehran assault on Tikrit by dropping bombs from war planes at the request of Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
State Dept spokesperson Jeff Rathke was asked about the airstrikes at today's press briefing:
QUESTION: Thank you. On the airstrikes in Tikrit, first of all, why did these airstrikes come so late?
MR. RATHKE: Well, the decision by the United States to conduct airstrikes was a decision we reached after consultation with the Iraqi authorities and in response to an Iraqi request. These strikes are designed to destroy ISIL strongholds with precision. And we are trying to minimize damage and enable Iraqi forces, under Iraqi command, to continue their operations – offensive operations against ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit. And so that’s – and we’ve gone through a careful process of coordinating those strikes through our Joint Operation Center in Baghdad with Iraqi authorities.
QUESTION: Are you saying that you haven’t carried out airstrikes for three weeks because the Iraqis didn’t want it themselves so far?
MR. RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to get into our exchanges –
QUESTION: But you said (inaudible) just came now.
MR. RATHKE: Well, no. I said that we have gone through a careful process of determining targets and determining the capabilities that we could bring to bear and we’ve acted in response to an Iraqi sovereign government request.
QUESTION: And one more quick question. There are a lot of concerns that with having so many Shia militias around Tikrit, and as the U.S. officials, including General John Allen have said it, most of the Iraqi forces are also Shias. So aren’t you worried that your airstrikes could be seen as taking sides with those Shia militias who are mostly backed by Iran?
MR. RATHKE: Well, no, because again, the – Prime Minister Abadi as well as other authorities in Iraq have been quite clear about their efforts to generate cross-sect and inter-ethnic agreement on the way forward, and they’re acting on that basis and we’re acting in support of the Iraqi authorities.
[. . .]
QUESTION: And on a separate topic on Tikrit, the State Department has no concerns at all that U.S. will become Iran’s air force in Iraq? I mean, basically, hasn’t the U.S. become a functional ally of Iran since we’re providing air support?
MR. RATHKE: Well, no. That’s the short answer. We are acting in Tikrit at the response of Iraqi Government request. We are – we are focused on supporting the Iraqi Central Government. We’re working with them. We’re working through our established Joint Operations Center, and this is a step we’ve taken after careful consideration and careful planning with the Iraqi partners.
Mitchell Prothero (McClatchy Newspapers) reports one reaction to the bombings, "Iraqi Shiite Muslim militias, angry that the government of Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has asked for American help in ejecting Islamic State fighters from the central Iraqi city of Tikrit, began Thursday withdrawing their forces from the battle, the first major break between the Iranian-trained militias and Iraq’s military establishment since the Islamic State advance last year." Noah Rayman (Time magazine) notes that the alleged pull-out accounts for "roughly a third of the 30,000-strong government-led forces."
But did they walk or were they pushed?
Saif Hameed, Ahmed Rasheed, Isabel Coles and Mark Trevelyan (Reuters) report that "a senior U.S. general said Washington had demanded the withdrawal of Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias fighting alongside Iraq's government before agreeing to take part."
While confusion reigns on that aspect, Mark Mazetti and David D, Kirpatrick (New York Times) attempt to explain the White House's many varying positions in the region:
In Yemen, the Obama administration is supporting a Saudi-led military campaign to dislodge Iranian-backed Houthi rebels despite the risks of an escalating regional fight with Iran.
But in Iraq and Syria, the United States is on the same side as Iran in the fight against the Islamic State, contributing airstrikes to an Iranian-supported offensive on Tikrit on Thursday even while jostling with Iran for position in leading the operation.
All that, while the Obama administration is racing to close a deal with Iran to remove economic sanctions in exchange for restraints on its nuclear program, alarming Saudi Arabia and Israel.
While the world tries to make sense of the 'plan' the White House has for the Middle East, US House Rep Alan Grayson attempted to do the same in today's House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with regards to Barack's 'plan' for Iraq.
US House Rep Alan Grayson: Gen Olson, trying to piece together information from public sources, it appears to me that we're spending roughly a million dollars for every ISIS fighter that the US military kills. Does that sound right to you?
Brig Gen Gregg Olson: The figure that we understand for the operation cost per day is about 8.5 million dollars.
US House Rep Alan Grayson: But am I right to think that we're spending approximately a million dollars for every single ISIS fighter that US forces kill?
Brig Gen Gregg Olson: I-I haven't done the math, sir.
US House Rep Alan Grayson: Alright let's assume for the sake of the argument that that's correct. Does it make sense for us to be deploying the most powerful military force that the world has ever seen and spend one million dollars to kill some man standing in the desert, 6,000 miles from the closest American shore, holding a 40-year-old weapon? Does that make sense?
Brig Gen Gregg Olson: The military strategy as designed provides US support to a coalition that will degrade, dismantle and ultimately defeat ISIL.
US House Rep Alan Grayson: What about you, Gen Fantini? Can you think of ways that we could spend less than a million dollars and still keep America safe for every gentleman standing in a desert, 6,000 miles away, whom we kill?
Brig Gen Michael Fantini: Congressman, I-I can't address the math that you're presenting. I don't know whether that's accurate or not. Uh, from the perspective of continuing with the strategy of developing local forces, to enable those local forces with coalition support to degrade and defeat ISIL, I would submit that is a worthy expenditure of resources.
US House Rep Alan Grayson: Well let's talk about that. You of course are very, very familiar with what Gen Powell said about what makes for a good effective war and what doesn't. Gen Powell said that we need a vital national security interest that's pursued by a clear strategy, we need overwhelming force and we need an exit strategy. So let's start with you on that, Gen Allen, what is our exit strategy?
Envoy John Allen: The exit strategy is an Iraq that ultimately is territorial secure, sovereign, an ISIL that has been denied safe haven ultimately has been disrupted to the point where it has no capacity to threaten at an existential level the government of Iraq and the nation of the Iraqi people and ulitmatly ends up in a state that does not permit it to threaten the United States or our homeland.
US House Rep Alan Grayson: General Allen, that doesn't sound like a strategy to me. That sounds like a wish list.
Envoy John Allen: You know --
US House Rep Alan Grayson: You certainly understand the difference between a strategy and a wish list.
Envoy John Allen: And-and I do. And this strategy, in fact, has a whole series of lines of effort that converge on Da'ash to prevent it from doing the very things that I just mentioned.
US House Rep Alan Grayson: But what is our strategy?
Envoy John Allen: The strategy is to pursue a series of lines of effort from defense of the homeland to stabilization of the Iraqi government to the countering of the Da'ash message, to the disruption of its finances, to the -- uh -- impediment of the foreign fighters to the empowerment of our allies to the le-leadership of a coalition ultimately aimed to the defeat of Da'ash. That's a strategy.
US House Rep Alan Grayson: But none of those are exit strategies, right?
Envoy John Allen: There is no exit strategy for this. This is about dealing with Da'ash. This is about defeating Da'ash. The success of the strategy is not about exit. The secees -- success of the strategy is about empowering our partners so that they can ultimately restore the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of a country and deny Da'ash the ability ultimately to, uh, to do that. If you're looking for an exit strategy with respect to our presence in Iraq when we have successfully concluded that strategy. We have said from the beginning that our forces will redeploy. The coalition has said from the beginning that our forces will redeploy. So if that's the term that you are seeking in terms of an exit strategy then-then I would say that is the mechanism by which we redeploy our forces from Iraq. But the strategy is oriented on an effect that we hope to achieve with respect to Da'ash.
US House Rep Alan Grayson: Gen Olson, you will agree that we're not using what Colin Powell would have considered to be overwhelming force, correct?
Brig Gen Gregg Olson: We're using an appropriate level of force to --
US House Rep Alan Grayson: Which isn't overwhelming force, right? Not as -- not as Colin Powell would see it, right?
Brig Gen Gregg Olson: Uh, I don't want to speak for Gen Powell. I believe that the resources that we're applying to the in our ends -- to achieve our ends through matching ways and means are appropriate for the strategy as designed.
US House Rep Alan Grayson: Gen Fantini, yes or no, are we using what you would consider to be overwhelming military force?
Brig Gen Michael Fantini: Congressman, uh, I-I would submit that, uh, American air power against an AK47 could be construed as overwhelming. I, uh, agree with, uh, Gen Olson that the-the use of the resources and the force applied to support our coalition partners to enable these ground operations are appropriate for the strategy and for the strategy and for success in this fight that will take a clear eyed and long term commitment and, we have stated, at least three years.
There were many key moments in this morning's hearing but that was the most notable.
Not only did Grayson put an understandable dollar amount on the financial cost (paid for by US tax payers) he also got a grand admission from Envoy Barry Allen.
US House Rep Alan Grayson: But none of those are exit strategies, right?
Envoy John Allen: There is no exit strategy for this.
"There is no exit strategy for this."
Barack's begun an action with no exit strategy.
And the way Allen ranted on, it was like an Aaron Sorkin moment.
US House Rep Alan Grayson: But none of those are exit strategies, right?
Envoy John Allen: There is no exit strategy for this. This is about dealing with Da'ash. This is about defeating Da'ash. The success of the strategy is not about exit.
Maybe when you select an envoy, you don't go with some retired general who doesn't grasp diplomacy and thinks sticking to scripted lines makes him sound smart?
What is this with the administration's speech writers and the term existential?
It's not like any of them grasp Jean-Paul Sarte but they sure do love to (mis)use the term existential.
They also love "degrade and destroy."
They use these terms far too often.
And, by the way, they and the nonsense of "holistic" all supposedly come from the State Dept's Brett McGurk -- or that's what he's been bragging to others.
There is no exit strategy.
Which shouldn't be all that surprising.
The whole point of endless war is that it's . . . endless.
In the hearing, there were attempts like Alan Grayson's to provide perspective.
US House Rep Lois Frankel attempted to do that during part of her questioning round.
US House Rep Lois Frankel: I have a couple of questions. First relates to underlying conditions that led to the rise of ISIL. Would you -- would you agree that ISIL is not the cause of the turmoil in the region but a symptom of a deeper problems? And I'd like to get your opinion is it unstable governments, poverty, desperation, radical religion, what? I'd like to get your take on that. And secondly, I think the American public somehow thinks that you can simply get rid of ISIL by bombs or dropping -- or drones. Could you just explain the difficulty of -- of their assimilation into the population, and so forth, the terrain.
Envoy John Allen: One of the, I think, real benefits of the counter-ISIL coalition which numbers at 62 entities right now -- countries and entities -- is the recognition that Da'ash is in fact not the disease, it's a symptom of something bigger. And that broad recognition includes the base societal factors that have given rise to, uh, the attractiveness of an organization like this. And it's -- there are societal issues, there are political issues, inclusiveness, participation -- uh, social issues associated with economic opportunity, the ability ultimately to have the opportunity to put food on the table for families. And often the result of the absence of all of those or some of those in these countries and among these populations have created the conditions of despair and desperation which has made those populations susceptible to radicalization and then recruitment
US House Rep Lois Frankel: Excuse me general, I assume there are efforts being done to try to respond to those conditions
Envoy John Allen: I-I-I think so. Uh, we've just had this week -- In fact, we ate dinner together the other night, uh, with the president of Afghanistan [. . .]
Bore us some more, Allen.
You just wanted to snooze.
He was either heavily scripted or fumbling for a response -- one or the other throughout the hearing.
Mainly though, he was just unimpressive -- grossly unimpressive.
He appears to believe he's above questioning and he also appears beyond actual thought.
It's hard to believe that he comes alive outside of hearings.
Part of the non-progress towards a political solution in Iraq may be Allen who seems woefully unsuited for the post of diplomatic envoy.
On the issue of ways to address the Islamic State, to counter it, Mercy Corps Kari Diener offers suggestions in a column for The Hill which includes:
Mercy Corps recently released a report, Beyond Humanitarian Relief: Strengthening the Foundation for a More Stable Iraq, highlighting the fact that by relying on programs that only address the symptoms of the conflict there is the real potential to create dependencies and sideline the voices of Iraq’s fledgling civil society, which is trying to address the underlying drivers of this conflict: poor governance and political grievances.
It is US-supported civil society initiatives that are encouraging Sunnis, Shiites and Christians alike to feel they have a real stake in their own future. Initial investments of $4.1 million by the State Department in the Iraqi Center for Negotiation Skills and Conflict Management between 2008-2013 allowed the Center to blossom into an Iraqi-led NGO and network of 350 highly influential men and women, Ala Kamal among them, from a broad swath of sectarian and ethnic backgrounds, including religious leaders, tribal elders as well as seven newly elected members of Iraq’s Parliament. The Center has formally negotiated peaceful solutions to over 1,000 conflicts.
If the US genuinely hopes to responsibly scale back its engagement in Iraq, Congress must work with the Administration to support Iraq’s fledgling civil society to prepare for a more stable future. The president’s FY 2016 budget request rightly called out the need to invest Economic Support Funds (ESF) in areas liberated from ISIL control. But investments should not be limited to those areas alone, as many of the factors driving conflict in Iraq pre-date ISIL’s presence. Congress should fully fund the FY 2016 request of no less than $72.5 million in ESF and broaden its focus to support good governance, conflict resolution and civil society programming in all areas of the country. Congress should also ensure that the FY15 funding allocation of $25 million for conflict response programming in Iraq is fully implemented.
The administration's repeated problems in the Middle East are really beginning to register. The editorial board of Virginia's Daily Press notes:
The White House is no place for on-the-job training, and the president's growing pains have been troubling to watch.
After withdrawing troops from Iraq, the United States again has boots on the ground to battle the growing menace of the Islamic State. We find ourselves on the same side of the battle as Iran, which is trying to turn Iraq into a proxy state under Tehran's control.
We were talking about the Peshmerga earlier.
Quick, when was the last time a US official -- past or present -- told Congress the truth about the Peshmerga?
And the official was former US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey who noted that Baghdad wasn't overly fond of arming the Peshmerga.
Jeffrey is part of Michael Crowley's examination (for POLITICO) of Barack's efforts in the region:
“We’re in a g**damn free fall here,” said James Jeffrey, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Iraq and was a top national security aide in the George W. Bush White House.
For years, members of the Obama team has grappled with the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring. But of late they have been repeatedly caught off-guard, raising new questions about America’s ability to manage the dangerous region.
Obama officials were surprised earlier this month, for instance, when the Iraqi government joined with Iranian-backed militias to mount a sudden offensive aimed at freeing the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Nor did they foresee the swift rise of the Iranian-backed rebels who toppled Yemen’s U.S.-friendly government and disrupted a crucial U.S. counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda there.
Lastly, Margaret Griffis (Antiwar.com) counts 209 violent deaths today across Iraq.