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becoming our own worst enemy

becoming our own worst enemy

I was directed by a college classmate to this Ted Koppel editorial. The post title is mine, my summary of Koppel’s argument. We are threatened. We live in a world that is not safe. We do have enemies. But it is most unfortunate when we do our enemies’ job for them. Then it is us, not them, putting the well-being and security and peace of mind and quality of life of our own citizens at risk.

By Ted Koppel
Sunday, September 12, 2010

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, succeeded far beyond anything Osama bin Laden could possibly have envisioned. This is not just because they resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths, nor only because they struck at the heart of American financial and military power. Those outcomes were only the bait; it would remain for the United States to spring the trap.

The goal of any organized terrorist attack is to goad a vastly more powerful enemy into an excessive response. And over the past nine years, the United States has blundered into the 9/11 snare with one overreaction after another. Bin Laden deserves to be the object of our hostility, national anguish and contempt, and he deserves to be taken seriously as a canny tactician. But much of what he has achieved we have done, and continue to do, to ourselves. Bin Laden does not deserve that we, even inadvertently, fulfill so many of his unimagined dreams.

It did not have to be this way. The Bush administration’s initial response was just about right. The calibrated combination of CIA operatives, special forces and air power broke the Taliban in Afghanistan and sent bin Laden and the remnants of al-Qaeda scurrying across the border into Pakistan. The American reaction was quick, powerful and effective — a clear warning to any organization contemplating another terrorist attack against the United States. This is the point at which President George W. Bush should have declared “mission accomplished,” with the caveat that unspecified U.S. agencies and branches of the military would continue the hunt for al-Qaeda’s leader. The world would have understood, and most Americans would probably have been satisfied.

But the insidious thing about terrorism is that there is no such thing as absolute security. Each incident provokes the contemplation of something worse to come. The Bush administration convinced itself that the minds that conspired to turn passenger jets into ballistic missiles might discover the means to arm such “missiles” with chemical, biological or nuclear payloads. This became the existential nightmare that led, in short order, to a progression of unsubstantiated assumptions: that Saddam Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons; that there was a connection between the Iraqi leader and al-Qaeda.

Bin Laden had nothing to do with fostering these misconceptions. None of this had any real connection to 9/11. There was no group known as “al-Qaeda in Iraq” at that time. But the political climate of the moment overcame whatever flaccid opposition there was to invading Iraq, and the United States marched into a second theater of war, one that would prove far more intractable and painful and draining than its supporters had envisioned.

While President Obama has, only recently, declared America’s combat role in Iraq over, he glossed over the likelihood that tens of thousands of U.S. troops will have to remain there, possibly for several years to come, because Iraq lacks the military capability to protect itself against external (read: Iranian) aggression. The ultimate irony is that Hussein, to keep his neighbors in check, allowed them and the rest of the world to believe that he might have weapons of mass destruction. He thereby brought about his own destruction, as well as the need now for U.S. forces to fill the void that he and his menacing presence once provided.

As for the 100,000 U.S. troops in or headed for Afghanistan, many of them will be there for years to come, too — not because of America’s commitment to a functioning democracy there; even less because of what would happen to Afghan girls and women if the Taliban were to regain control. It has to do with nuclear weapons. Pakistan has an arsenal of 60 to 100 nuclear warheads. Were any of those to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda’s fundamentalist allies in Pakistan, there is no telling what the consequences might be.

Again, this dilemma is partly of our own making. America’s war on terrorism is widely perceived throughout Pakistan as a war on Islam. A muscular Islamic fundamentalism is gaining ground there and threatening the stability of the government, upon which we depend to guarantee the security of those nuclear weapons. Since a robust U.S. military presence in Pakistan is untenable for the government in Islamabad, however, tens of thousands of U.S. troops are likely to remain parked next door in Afghanistan for some time.

Perhaps bin Laden foresaw some of these outcomes when he launched his 9/11 operation from Taliban-secured bases in Afghanistan. Since nations targeted by terrorist groups routinely abandon some of their cherished principles, he may also have foreseen something along the lines of Abu Ghraib, “black sites,” extraordinary rendition and even the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But in these and many other developments, bin Laden needed our unwitting collaboration, and we have provided it — more than $1 trillion spent on two wars, more than 5,000 of our troops killed, tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans dead. Our military so overstretched that one of the few growth industries in our battered economy is the firms that provide private contractors, for everything from interrogation to security to the gathering of intelligence.

We have raced to Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently to Yemen and Somalia; we have created a swollen national security apparatus; and we are so absorbed in our own fury and so oblivious to our enemy’s intentions that we inflate the building of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan into a national debate and watch, helpless, while a minister in Florida outrages even our friends in the Islamic world by threatening to burn copies of the Koran.

If bin Laden did not foresee all this, then he quickly came to understand it. In a 2004 video message, he boasted about leading America on the path to self-destruction. “All we have to do is send two mujaheddin . . . to raise a small piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.”

Through the initial spending of a few hundred thousand dollars, training and then sacrificing 19 of his foot soldiers, bin Laden has watched his relatively tiny and all but anonymous organization of a few hundred zealots turn into the most recognized international franchise since McDonald’s. Could any enemy of the United States have achieved more with less?

Could bin Laden, in his wildest imaginings, have hoped to provoke greater chaos? It is past time to reflect on what our enemy sought, and still seeks, to accomplish — and how we have accommodated him.

the lessons of vietnam?

the lessons of vietnam?

Last week, George Bush compared the consequences of an immediate withdrawal from Iraq with the results of the withdrawal of American troops from Viet Nam:

One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like boat people, re-education camps and killing fields …

The comparison prompted this reply from one of my college classmates, Rob Watson, currently Chair of the Department of English and Associate Vice-Provost for Educational Innovation at UCLA:

After years of scoffing at warnings that Iraq could turn out to be another Vietnam, the Bush administration is now trumpeting the parallels …

… of course Bush is right: this is mostly like Vietnam. But it’s Vietnam in 1967, not 1973. Again our soldiers have been sent off on a phony basis and stuck for four years in the midst of a civil war, and the enemy seems as strong as ever; yet the president says we just need to send more troops — to secure the towns, you see — and all will be well. Susceptible journalists and congressmen are sent on junkets carefully orchestrated by the military so they’ll come back and say now, at last, the counter-insurgency is really going great. The White House then trumpets the news (as they did in each previous year of the war from the beginning) that victory is just around the corner. Remember the Simon and Garfunkel “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” from 1966, with Nixon condemning the anti-war movement as “the greatest single weapon working against the U.S.”? Those Americans who argue (at great personal risk, especially if they made the mistake of being right early on) that the misguided war is bad for our country are called traitors and cowards; those who make their money and hold their offices by protracting the agony are reflexively depicted as steadfast patriots.

We’re told that if we admit our mistake and withdraw, the world-historical enemy will soon be on our shores murdering our families. We’d been told our soldiers would be greeted as liberators, but on countless streets in countless towns they find ordinary looking citizens willing to die to kill them. We’re told we have to stay because of the soldiers who have already died; therefore many more are dying.

By the start of 1967, we had fewer than ten thousand of our soldiers dead. By the time we stopped believing the annual promises that the enemy was just about to quit, and got out, another fifty thousand had died. And of course many innocent locals died for every one of those deaths. Neither the official treaty nor the practical outcome was any better than what was available had our government been willing to crawl out of the quagmire six years earlier.

May we have the good sense to do the right thing before an even greater price is paid by our sons and daughters and the sons and daughters of Iraq.

ucc petition to end the iraq war

ucc petition to end the iraq war

Along with thousands of United Church of Christ members and supporters, I call for an end to the war in Iraq, an end to our reliance on violence as the first, rather than the last resort, an end to the arrogant unilateralism of preemptive war.

I call for the humility and courage to acknowledge failure and error, to accept the futility of our current path, and I cry out for the creativity to seek new paths of peacemaking in the Middle East, through regional engagement and true multinational policing.

I call for acknowledgement of our responsibility for the destruction caused by sanctions and war and a beginning to rebuild trust in the Middle East and around the world.

I call for repentance in our nation and for the recognition in our churches that security is found in submitting to Christ, not by dominating others.

I will join protest to prayer, support ministries of compassion for victims here and in the Middle East, cast off the fear that has made all of us accept the way of violence and return again to the way of Jesus. Thus may bloodshed end and cries be transformed to the harmonies of justice and the melodies of peace. For this I yearn, for this I pray, and toward this end I rededicate myself as a child of a loving God who gives “light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

To add your name to the petition, go to: Call for an End to the Bloodshed: Sign the Petition to End the Iraq War

general petraeus’ letter to the troops

general petraeus’ letter to the troops

It is good, very good, to hear General Petraeus talk about dignity, respect, and integrity, values, law, and doing what is right. It is good to hear him take an unequivocal stand against torture, both because it is wrong and because it serves no useful purpose. It is good to hear him emphasize the first reason, stating clearly that war is not just about doing what works, not just about gaining the upper hand by whatever means necessary, but about doing the right thing the right way.

We need voices like his in leadership, in the military and in government. The threat of terrorism — both real and imagined — has engendered a fear among us that has clouded our commitment to “the moral high ground.” We have granted our tacit approval to tactics of warfare and interrogation and homeland security that just a few short years ago would have been considered unthinkable, the tactics of a people without values, a people with no regard for human dignity.

I applaud his plea for honor and respect — and righteousness — among the armed forces deployed in Iraq. Yet, even so, even in his letter, some jarring contradictions remain.

We are, indeed, warriors. We train to kill our enemies. We are engaged in combat, we must pursue the enemy relentlessly, and we must be violent at times. What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight, however, is how we behave … While we are warriors, we are also all human beings.

Yes, we are human beings, but making war brings to the surface what is inhuman in us — killing and violence, relentless and merciless pursuit. War as such is about destruction, taking life, reckoning your own life or the lives of your companions or the lives of your compatriots — or even a cause, whatever cause it may be — as more valuable than other lives. Torture and disregard for human dignity may not be a necessary adjunct to war, but they differ from “just war” practices only in degree, not in kind.

If there is a better way than torture, there is also a better way than war.

Here is the text of General Petraeus’ letter:

10 May 2007

Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen serving in Multi-National Force—Iraq:

Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity, and do what is right. Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy. This fight depends on securing the population, which must understand that we—not our enemies—occupy the moral high ground. This strategy has shown results in recent months. Al Qaeda’s indiscriminate attacks, for example, have finally started to turn a substantial portion of the Iraqi population against it.

In view of this, I was concerned by the results of a recently released survey conducted last fall in Iraq that revealed an apparent unwillingness on the part of some US personnel to report illegal actions taken by fellow members of their units. The study also indicated that a small percentage of those surveyed may have mistreated noncombatants. This survey should spur reflection on our conduct in combat.

I fully appreciate the emotions that one experiences in Iraq. I also know firsthand the bonds between members of the “brotherhood of the close fight.” Seeing a fellow trooper killed by a barbaric enemy can spark frustration, anger, and a desire for immediate revenge. As hard as it might be, however, we must not let these emotions lead us—or our comrades in arms—to commit hasty, illegal actions. In the event that we witness or hear of such actions, we must not let our bonds prevent us from speaking up.

Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone “talk”; however, what the individual says may be of questionable value. In fact our experience in applying the interrogation standards laid out in the Army Field Manual (2-22.3) on Human Intelligence Collector Operations that was published last year shows that the techniques in the manual work effectively and humanely in eliciting information from detainees.

We are, indeed, warriors. We train to kill our enemies. We are engaged in combat, we must pursue the enemy relentlessly, and we must be violent at times. What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight, however, is how we behave. In everything we do, we must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect. While we are warriors, we are also all human beings. Stress caused by lengthy deployments and combat is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign that we are human. If you feel such stress, do not hesitate to talk to your chain of command, your chaplain, or a medical expert.

We should use the survey results to renew our commitment to the values and standards that make us who we are and to spur re-examination of these issues. Leaders, in particular, need to discuss these issues with their troopers—and, as always, they need to set the right example and strive to ensure proper conduct. We should never underestimate the importance of good leadership and the difference it can make.

Thanks for what you continue to do. It is an honor to serve with each of you.

David H. Petraeus
General, United States Army

containment and the war on terrorism

containment and the war on terrorism

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration rejected containment as an obsolete Cold War hangover. Advocates of containment were accused of appeasement. But now we know that the containment regime worked: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was in no position to threaten anyone, let alone the United States.

That’s the first paragraph of an article published in the Yale Alumni Magazine. The article, A Better Strategy Against Terror is adapted from Ian Shapiro’s new book, Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy against Global Terror (Princeton University Press). The article — and I would expect, the book! — are well worth reading.

torture hurts all of us

torture hurts all of us

I started realizing that most of the prisoners were innocent. We were torturing people for no reason. I started getting really angry and really remorseful and by the time I got back I completely broke down.

I’m from New York City. I’m college-educated. But you put me in Iraq and told me to torture, and I did it and I regretted it later.

I didn’t know I would discover and indulge in my own evil. And now that it has surfaced, I fear that it will be my constant companion for the rest of my life.

(Tony Lagouranis, discussing his service in Iraq as a military intelligence specialist, quoted in the International Herald Tribune: “We were torturing people for no reason.”)

Torture hurts all of us … ravaging the bodies and the souls of those who are tortured, human beings like us, some “guilty,” some “innocent” … leaving a creeping and hungry darkness planted deep in the bodies and souls of those who do torture, human beings like us, haunted now by their own shadows … touching too the bodies and souls of all of us who silently look away or make excuses or try to justify the torturing, leaving us less than what we were, less just, less human.

Some things simply must never be done, under any circumstances. What little is gained — in intelligence(?), in security(?), in the preservation of freedom(?) — comes at the cost of our souls, of all of our souls.

a conversation that needs to happen, but won’t

a conversation that needs to happen, but won’t

From today’s New York Times: Bush Vows Not to Negotiate on Iraq Timetable

A defiant President Bush vowed today not to negotiate with Congress about setting a date for withdrawing American troops from Iraq, and he said the American people would blame lawmakers if there is any delay in approving money for the war effort.

“Now, some of them believe that by delaying funding for our troops, they can force me to accept restrictions on our commanders that I believe would make withdrawal and defeat more likely,” Mr. Bush said. “That’s not going to happen. If Congress fails to pass a bill to fund our troops on the front lines, the American people will know who to hold responsible.”

I believe, I want to believe, that Mr. Bush believes he is doing what is best for our country by “staying the course” in Iraq, but sincerity and good intentions are not enough. By refusing to bend at all and by summarily dismissing legislation setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq passed by both the House and the Senate, Mr. Bush is not merely defying the Democratically-controlled Congress, he is defying the intent of the Constitution. The Constitution intends a trilateral sharing of power, a system of checks and balances, so that one person, one office, even one branch of government will not act alone, unilaterally establishing national policy.

But this administration wants to pursue its war as it sees fit, without counsel, without oversight, without negotiation, without compromise. The bills passed by Congress and the bill which may eventually reach the president’s desk should provide, not an ultimatum, but a starting point for conversation, a conversation that could lead to a policy more closely reflecting the will of the people. But this administration has already decided by itself what is best for the people.

“If we cannot muster the resolve to defeat this evil in Iraq, America will have lost its moral purpose in the world. And we will endanger our citizens, because if we leave Iraq before the job is done, the enemy will follow us here.”

We have already lost our moral purpose in the world. The invasion of Iraq four years ago was a preemptive strike; an act of war in response to a perceived threat, not to any provocation; quite simply an act of aggression, illegal and immoral. The United States and its allies invaded a sovereign nation without just cause, and the immorality of that act has only been compounded by the immense suffering of the Iraqi population.

We cannot unring that bell and the situation on the ground in Iraq today is complex and unpredictable. The daily violence despite — or because of — the presence of American troops is horrendous, and it is almost certain that the violence without the presence of American troops would be even worse. But as a moral issue, the war does not become any more moral by its elongation. The immoral war is still immoral, and the only way to redress that failing and to reclaim any moral redemption is to cease and desist … to leave Iraq.