Thursday, September 17, 2015

Iraq snapshot

Thursday, September 17, 2015.  Chaos and violence continue, whatever happened to reconciliation in Iraq, the Senate hears of 'progress' on the battle with the Islamic State, and much more.

Senator John McCain:  It's been one year.  It's been one year since President [Barack] Obama spoke to the nation about the threat posed by ISIL and increased US military operations against this.  Many of us believe that the goal the president laid out, "to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL"  is right. Many of us agree with a military strategy that seeks to empower local forces in Iraq and Syria to combat ISIL with US and coalition training, equipment, assistance and air power.  One year into this campaign, it seems impossible to assert that ISIL is losing and that we are winning.  And if you're not winning in this kind of warfare, you are losing.  Stalemate is not success.  It is accurate that we have conducted thousands of air strikes against ISIL trucks and fighters, bunkers and buildings.  This conjures the illusion of progress. But what effect has that had?  ISIL has lost some territory on the margin -- mainly to Shi'ite and Kurdish forces -- but ISIL has consolidated control of its core territories and expanded its control in Syria.  It continues to dominate Sunni Arab areas in both Iraq and Syria.  It maintains control of key cities like Mosul, Falluja and Ramadi -- and efforts to retake those territories appear to have stalled entirely. 

That stark assessment came Wednesday morning at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.  The witnesses were the Defense Dept's Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth and CENTCOM commander Gen Lloyd Austin.  McCain is the Committee Chair and Senator Jack Reed is the Ranking Member.

At one point, as barrel bombs and refugees were being discussed (McCain never acknowledged or mentioned the barrel bombs being used by the Iraqi government on the civilians in Anbar), McCain exclaimed, "I've never seen a hearing that is as divorced from the stark realities of every outside expert and what you're saying."

That led to this exchange:

Chair John McCain:  So everything is really going well?

Gen Lloyd Austin:  No, sir, that's not --

Chair John McCain: So if things aren't going well and we've had "setbacks," and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says it's tactically stalemated  and you think everything is going well pursuing the strategy and tactics on the ground that we are, Gen Austin, I respectfully disagree. I respectfully, fundamentally disagree. This is an abject failure.  The refugees are the result of it.  This is a result of leaving Iraq.  And you were there at the meeting when [former prime minister Nouri al-] Maliki told Senator [Lindsay] Graham and I that if the others agreed, he would agree to keep a residual force there and we never gave him the forces that we wanted to leave behind which then set [in train?] the US departure completely from Iraq and set  the table for the catastrophe that we are seeing.

Others noted not just the failure in terms of battles but also the failure in terms of inclusion within Iraq's forces.

Ranking Member Jack Reed: Now one of the things that has been suggested -- not only suggested bur recommend strongly to the Iraqi government -- is they create National Guard units -- Sunni units as well as others -- but formerly allied with the government.  And that legislation is bogged down in their Parliament, is that accurate?

Gen Lloyd Austin: That's correct, sir.

Ranking Member Jack Reed:  So we could do more essentially if the Iraqis were willing to make some changes in their policies.  For example, we could at least contemplate the use of avisors with these National Guard -- Iraqi National Guard units -- to be brokers in terms of distributing equipment as well as tactical advice.  Is that something that's possible as we get cooperation?

Gen Lloyd Austin: It's clearly possible, sir.

Ranking Member Jack Reed: Is it something you would consider if --

Gen Lloyd Austin: Yes, sir, it is.

Ranking Member Jack Reed:  And one of the factors too, and this is a constant source of inquiry, is that, in fact, recently the Iraqi Parliament, I think, rendered a scathing report about Prime Minister Maliki's leadership or lack of leadership effectively suggesting that whatever he said couldn't be trusted.  Is that, you know, your estimate of his role leading up to this crisis over many years?

Gen Lloyd Austin:  Sir, what we saw from the former prime minister was increasingly sectarian behavior and a number of bad decisions that led to the atrophy of his security forces. 

Ranking Member Jack Reed:  And, in fact, according to this report that I've seen in the media, they attributed most of the blame for the disintegration of Iraqi security forces at Maliki's door step and no one else.  Is that at least accurate for most of the feeling in Iraq?

Gen Lloyd Austin:  I'd say that it was primarily his responsibility -- his responsibility and those he appointed in key leadership positions enabled that as well.

The National Guard proposal was first publicly floated by Barack over a year ago.  The Parliament has repeatedly kicked the can on the issue.  Then, last week, came the formal opposition to the plan from the Shi'ite militias.  The proposal now appears dead.

And equally dead any attempts at reconciliation and inclusion.  Alsumaria reports today that Ayad Allawi (Shi'ite politician who headed the non-sectarian Iraqiya) is calling on the Arab League and the United Nations to assist with national reconciliation in Iraq.  All these years later, this has still not taken place and Nouri al-Maliki's second term actually made things worse.

Barack referred to the importance of national reconciliation early on but then that got shoved aside.  Possibly that's why Allawi doesn't call for help from the US government or, specifically, from Barack?

Or maybe it's Barack's many lies to Ayad Allawi?

Such as The Erbil Agreement -- the US-brokered contract in November 2010 which gave Nouri a second term as prime minister in exchange for Nouri making concessions to various political blocs.  Barack said that contract had his full backing.  When Nouri, at the first Parliament meeting after the contract was signed, insisted it would have to wait, Allawi and others walked out.  Barack personally called Allawi and swore the contract had the full backing of the US government and the White House in particular.

And then?

After that got Allawi to return to Iraq, Barack pretended like the contract never existed.

You can only break your word so many times before people lose faith in you.

Faith is being lost over the claims of 'progress' and 'success' in Iraq.

This came up repeatedly during the hearing.

Chair John McCain:  Published media reports suggest that the CIA's estimates of ISIL's manpower has remained constant despite US air strikes which suggests that either they were wrong to begin with or that ISIL is replacing its losses in real time.  Neither is good.  Indeed this Committee is disturbed by recent whistle-blower allegations that officials at Central Command skewed intelligence assessments to paint an overly positive picture of conditions on the ground.  We are currently investigations these allegations which we take with the upmost seriousness.  The Department of Defense should as well.  And if true, those responsible must be held accountable.

Cooked intel -- a problem in the lead up to the war on Iraq, a problem in the continued selling of 'success' in the continued war on Iraq.

We'll note this exchange from the hearing.

Senator Claire McCaskill: I understand from your testimony, Gen Austin, that you can't comment on the IG investigation this accusation that people are putting pressure on intelligence analysts to change the tenor of their reports.  It's a serious allegation that strikes at the core of our government in terms of our ability to oversee and make decisions around the use of our military. I want to say, at the end of this investigation, when you can discuss it, I just want to put on the record that I, for one, am going to be watching very carefully about any potential retaliation against any of the men or women that may have come forward with allegations.  It is incredibly important that whistle-blowers be protected in this space and -- depending upon what the investigation finds -- I understand that maybe there are other factors that I am not aware of -- but I just want to put on the record that I will be paying very close attention to how these whistle-blowers are treated in the aftermath of this investigation.

Gen Lloyd Austin: I absolutely share your concerns, Senator, and you have my uh-uh-uh -- I will assure you that we will do everything in our power to ensure that the whistle-blowers remain protected and that there is no retaliation.  

We'll note some other moments from the hearing in the next snapshot.

Turning to reports of violence . . .

Wednesday's reported violence included . . .

Alsumaria reports that the PKK is stating their female brigade has killed 16 Turkish soldiers at the border Iraq and Turkey share.  They also note that Turkish warplanes bombed northern Iraq and the bombs burned orchards and large areas of forest land.  Xinhua reports, "An Iraqi aircraft bombarded IS positions in the IS-held city of Rutba, some 370 km west of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, leaving 10 people killed and 16 others wounded, a provincial security source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity."

Meanwhile, September 2nd saw 18 people kidnapped in the Sadr City section of Baghdad.  The 18 were 1 Iraqi interpreter and 17 Turkish workers.  Reuters reports two of the 18 have been released.  Alsumaria notes they were released near a hospital under construction in Basra.

Still on Wednesday, NINA reports that local residents in Mosul state that the Islamic State "executed on Wednesday Imam and preacher of a mosque in central Mosul."  Alsumaria also notes that there were kidnapping and assassination attempts at the Ministry of Education yesterday and that this led to explosive temperatures and an altercation between MPs in the cafeteria of the Parliament.

And today Sinan Salaheddin (AP) reports that 2 Baghdad suicide bombings have left at least 21 people dead.