29 November 2013

Iraq Sitrep: No Light at the End of the Tunnel

The United States bears a moral responsibility for the murderous state of affairs in Iraq, but contemporary American grand strategy has become a self-referencing mix of arrogance, narcissism, and exceptionalism; so it is not surprising that most Americans have dismissed Iraq their minds (as they are now dismissing Afghanistan).  Attached is an excellent reminder of the situation in Iraq.  
Patrick Cockburn, one of the very best journalists now covering conflicts in the Arab World and Central Asia interviews Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the most influential Shia clerics in Iraq and leader of the Mehdi Army, a powerful Shia faction.  Sadr party is now a part of the Shia dominated Iraqi government, but he is becoming increasingly alienated from its leader, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  Al-Sadr argues that a toxic mix of (1) sectarianism, (2) governmental incompetence and corruption, and (3) external interference by the U.S. and U.K. and Iran is plunging Iraq into an ever-deepening state of chaos, with no light at the end of the tunnel. (Note: I inserted a few clarifying comments in red.)
Chuck Spinney
(h/t Antiwar.com)

"The near future of Iraq is dark"
Warning from Muqtada al-Sadr - the Shia cleric whose word is law to millions of his countrymen


In a rare interview at his headquarters in Najaf, he tells Patrick Cockburn of his fears for a nation growing ever more divided on sectarian lines.
The future of Iraq as a united and independent country is endangered by sectarian Shia-Sunni hostility says Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia religious leader whose Mehdi Army militia fought the US and British armies and who remains a powerful figure in Iraqi politics. He warns of the danger that [1] “the Iraqi people will disintegrate, [2] its government will disintegrate, and [3] it will be easy for external powers to control the country”.
In an interview with The Independent in the holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south-west of Baghdad – the first interview Mr Sadr has given face-to-face with a Western journalist for almost 10 years – he expressed pessimism about the immediate prospects for Iraq, saying: “The near future is dark.”
[1] Mr Sadr said he is most worried about sectarianism affecting Iraqis at street level, believing that “if it spreads among the people it will be difficult to fight”. He says he believes that standing against sectarianism has made him lose support among his followers.
Mr Sadr’s moderate stance is key at a moment when sectarian strife has been increasing in Iraq – some 200 Shia were killed in the past week alone. For 40 years, Mr Sadr and religious leaders from his family have set the political trend within the Shia community in Iraq. Their long-term resistance to Saddam Hussein and, later, their opposition to the US-led occupation had a crucial impact.
Mr Sadr has remained a leading influence in Iraq after an extraordinary career in which he has often come close to being killed. Several times, it appeared that the political movement he leads, the Sadrist Movement, would be crushed.
He was 25 in 1999 when his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered Shia leader, and Mr Sadr’s two brothers were assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s gunmen in Najaf. He just survived sharing a similar fate, remaining under house arrest in Najaf until 2003 when Saddam was overthrown by the US invasion. He and his followers became the most powerful force in many Shia parts of Iraq as enemies of the old regime, but also opposing the occupation. In 2004, his Mehdi Army fought two savage battles against American troops in Najaf, and in Basra it engaged in a prolonged guerrilla war against the British Army which saw the Mehdi Army take control of the city.
The Mehdi Army was seen by the Sunni community as playing a central role in the sectarian murder campaign that reached its height in 2006-7. Mr Sadr says that “people infiltrated the Mehdi Army and carried out these killings”, adding that if his militiamen were involved in the murder of Sunnis he would be the first person to denounce them.
For much of this period, Mr Sadr did not appear to have had full control of forces acting in his name; ultimately he stood them down. At the same time, the Mehdi Army was being driven from its old strongholds in Basra and Sadr City by the US Army and resurgent Iraqi government armed forces. Asked about the status of the Mehdi Army today, Mr Sadr says: “It is still there but it is frozen because the occupation is apparently over. If it comes back, they [the Mehdi Army militiamen] will come back.”
[2] In the past five years, Mr Sadr has rebuilt his movement as one of the main players in Iraqi politics with a programme that is a mixture of Shia religion, populism and Iraqi nationalism. After a strong showing in the general election in 2010, it became part of the present government, with six seats in the cabinet. But Mr Sadr is highly critical of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s performance during his two terms in office, accusing his administration of being sectarian, corrupt and incompetent.
Speaking of Mr Maliki, with whom his relations are increasingly sour, Mr Sadr said that “maybe he is not the only person responsible for what is happening in Iraq, but he is the person in charge”. Asked if he expected Mr Maliki to continue as Prime Minister, he said: “I expect he is going to run for a third term, but I don’t want him to.”
[2&3] Mr Sadr said he and other Iraqi leaders had tried to replace him in the past, but Mr Maliki had survived in office because of his support from foreign powers, notably the US and Iran. “What is really surprising is that America and Iran should decide on one person,” he said. “Maliki is strong because he is supported by the United States, Britain and Iran.”
Mr Sadr is particularly critical of the government’s handling of the Sunni minority, which lost power in 2003, implying they had been marginalised and their demands ignored. He thinks that the Iraqi government lost its chance to conciliate Sunni protesters in Iraq who started demonstrating last December, asking for greater civil rights and an end to persecution.
“My personal opinion is that it is too late now to address these [Sunni] demands when the government, which is seen as a Shia government by the demonstrators, failed to meet their demands,” he said. Asked how ordinary Shia, who make up the great majority of the thousand people a month being killed by al-Qa’ida bombs, should react, Mr Sadr said: “They should understand that they are not being attacked by Sunnis. They are being attacked by extremists, they are being attacked by external powers.”
As Mr Sadr sees it, the problem in Iraq is that Iraqis as a whole are traumatised by almost half a century in which there has been a “constant cycle of violence: Saddam, occupation, war after war [also the Iran-Iraq War and the decade of sanctions after the 1st Gulf War], first Gulf war, then second Gulf war, then the occupation war, then the resistance – this would lead to a change in the psychology of Iraqis”. He explained that Iraqis make the mistake of trying to solve one problem by creating a worse one, such as getting the Americans to topple Saddam Hussein but then having the problem of the US occupation. He compared Iraqis to “somebody who found a mouse in his house, then he kept a cat, then he wanted to get the cat out of the house so he kept a dog, then to get the dog out of his house he bought an elephant, so he bought a mouse again”.
Asked about the best way for Iraqis to deal with the mouse, Mr Sadr said: “By using neither the cat nor the dog, but instead national unity, rejection of sectarianism, open-mindedness, having open ideas, rejection of extremism.”
[3] A main theme of Mr Sadr’s approach is to bolster Iraq as an independent nation state, able to make decisions in its own interests. Hence his abiding hostility to the American and British occupation, holding this responsible for many of Iraq’s present ills. To this day, neither he nor anybody from his movement will meet American or British officials. But he is equally hostile to intervention by Iran in Iraqi affairs saying: “We refuse all kinds of interventions from external forces, whether such an intervention was in the interests of Iraqis or against their interests. The destiny of Iraqis should be decided by Iraqis themselves.”
This is a change of stance for a man who was once demonised by the US and Britain as a pawn of Iran. The strength of the Sadrist movement under Mr Sadr and his father – and its ability to withstand powerful enemies and shattering defeats – owes much to the fact it that it blends Shia revivalism with social activism and Iraqi nationalism.
Why are Iraqi government members so ineffective and corrupt? Mr Sadr believes that “they compete to take a share of the cake, rather than competing to serve their people”
Asked why the Kurdistan Regional Government had been more successful in terms of security and economic development than the rest of Iraq, Mr Sadr thought there was less stealing and corruption among the Kurds and maybe because “they love their ethnicity and their region”. If the government tried to marginalise them, they might ask for independence: “Mr Massoud Barzani [the KRG President] told me that ‘if Maliki pushes on me harder, we are going to ask for independence’.”
At the end of the interview Mr Sadr asked me if I was not frightened of interviewing him and would not this make the British Government consider me a terrorist? Secondly, he wondered if the British Government still considered that it had liberated the Iraqi people, and wondered if he should sue the Government on behalf of the casualties caused by the British occupation.
(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)

11 November 2013

Should the AF Retire the A-10? - A Seminar on a Seminal Question

[Reprinted in Small Wars Journal, 13 November 2013]

The Air Force has decided to retire the A-10 attack aircraft from its inventory.  To people who follow defense, particularly old timers, this cynical move is hardly surprising.  

The purpose of the posting is to announce a seminar in Washington D.C. where experts will address some of the issues raised by this controversial decision.  The seminar is sponsored by the Strauss Military Reform Project will take place at 0930 on November 22 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  It will be open to the public and interested readers can find the RSVP details and the agenda at this link.  Readers are cordially invited to attend a public (and free) seminar discussing some of the issues raised by this decision.  A listing with links to relevant background reading material can be found here

The remainder of this posting is intended to give you a little background, written admittedly from my perspective of being a long-time supporter of the A-10, dating back to my involvement as an Air Force officer in vulnerability studies and (peripherally) in some gunfire testing in the late 1960s and later as a civilian in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The A-10 is arguably the most effective combat airplane ever designed to provide close support to ground troops in combat.  This is a very demanding mission, because it is usually necessary when the troops are in trouble.  Pilots have to develop a feel for the battlefield and need to think like infantrymen.  The A-10 pilots are trained specifically for this mission, and work with ground forces in training exercises.  The A-10's staying power over a battlefield (i.e., long loitering capability) gives it a level of responsiveness that high speed jets like the F-15 can not equal.  Moreover, its excellent low speed maneuverability, its highly effective 30mm cannon, and its low vulnerability to enemy fire make it the most responsive and capable CAS weapon in our air inventory.  It is no secret that ground troops in the dusty of battlefields of Afghanistan love the A-10.  

Nevertheless, the AF hates the A-10 with passions rooted deeply in its founding culture of precision strategic bombardment.  

The history of this hatred goes back to the doctrinal debates in the Army Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s, the so-called precision bombardment of Germany and Japan, and the evangelism surrounding the AF's fight for institutional independence that ended with the AF's successful secession for the Army in 1947.  If you doubt the AF's evangelism surrounding the claim of the independent war winning capabilities of strategic bombing, watch and listen carefully to the dialogues in the movies "12 O'Clock High" or "Command Decision." (available on Netflix)

Fundamentally, the AF's animosity toward the A-10 is rooted in the fact that the A-10 works for the Army, and the A-10 subordinates its operational art to that of the Army ground forces it supports.  This combined-arms outlook stands in sharp contrast to the Air Force's view of itself.  Since well before WWII, the AF has promoted its organizational independence from the Army by claiming it could provide a unique independent war winning capability -- precision strategic bombing and destruction of what it deems to be the vital organs of its adversary's supporting economic and political infrastructure -- for example, ball bearing production by Germany during World War II.  This claim leads to a vision of war that is diametrically opposed to one of being part of a combined-arms team. The AF's old old motto, 'Victory Through Airpower Alone," may have fallen into disuse after its litany of failed promises, not least because its theory of vital nodes has not been proven in real war, but the dream has never been forgotten; and today, it remains deeply rooted in the AF's cultural DNA.

Before rejecting this argument, readers should remember: The A-10 had to be forced upon the AF by the Secretary of Defense in the aftermath of the AF's poor performance in the close air support mission during Vietnam, a war where the AF chose to concentrate the bulk of its efforts on the strategic bombing of North Vietnam -- far more heavily, in fact, that when it bombed Germany.  

Another indicator of the AF's dislike of the A-10 becomes apparent when one considers the historical fact that the A-10 production line was the only AF fighter/attack airplane production line that was shut down at the end of its production run in the early 1980s, during the glory days of the Reagan spending spree.  This was a period when everything got funding extensions.  The higher cost F-15 and F-16 production lines, in contrast, were kept open, and the AF bought far more than these fighters than originally planned in the 1970s.  

Also, remember how tens of billions were spent during those glory days restarting the flawed B-1's production, producing only 21 super expensive B-2s -- both strategic bombers, and even restarting the troubled C-5, arguably one of the biggest cost overrunners in DoD's history.  

Moreover, despite the unconstrained programmatic hijinks in the 1980s, routine efforts to replace the A-10 in the mid-to-late 1980s with a more modern version of itself (i.e., a low-cost dedicated CAS platform) were sabotaged by the AF after the initial work was approved by the Secretary of Defense.  

Finally, consider the fact that while the AF now says it must trash the A-10 for what it says are budgetary reasons, it also is lobbying hard to start a $50 billion next-generation strategic bomber program that will suck money out of the taxpayer for the next 50 to 75 years.

Despite the AF's long-term opposition to the A-10, it should be remembered that the A-10 has been a stunning -- some might say embarrassing -- success in every war in which it has been employed, beginning with the First Gulf War in 1991 -- a war, it should be remembered, where the AF reluctantly deployed the A-10 only after the theater commander, an Army general, insisted on it being deployed.  And in today's wars, Marines and Army grunts in Afghanistan will tell you, as they have told me, they love the A-10.

Yet, despite this success story, the AF now claims it is being forced to retire the A-10 as cost saving measure, while at the same time, it is cobbling together a plan to spend $500 billion on a new bomber.  This crazy situation is made even more bizarre by the fact that retiring the A-10 won't even save much money, because it has, by far, the lowest operating costs per flying hour of any fighter/attack aircraft in the AF inventory.   

The current 'plan' for its close support mission in the future -- really a ludicrous rationalization -- is that the AF will replace the low-cost A-10's low-cost, proven capability to support ground troops with the high-cost, highly problematic, multi-mission capabilities of  F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  

The F-35, as just about everyone knows, is a  deeply troubled, super-high-cost stealth fighter that is way behind schedule.  The F-35, predictably, is plagued with a host of technical problems.  If the F-35 ever becomes operational, it  will be completely unfit for the kind of knife fighting the A-10 excels at -- low and slow jinking around a battlefield saturated with small arms threats.  The F-35 will be far too vulnerable to these cheap threats (including light machine guns).  The F-35's poor thrust-to-weight and high wing loading guarantee poor agility at low speeds and long re-attack times; it will have nothing comparable in offensive capability to the A-10's 30mm gun; its low fuel fraction guarantees the F-35 will have no loitering capability.  Any battle damage the F-35 somehow manages to survive will be almost impossible to repair at the field level without depot-level contractor support, because of its high complexity systems and exotic stealth structures.  Moreover, the F-35's high cost and complexity will guarantee much reduced inventories, poor availability, and low sortie rates coupled with very high operational costs.  

Readers who are interested in learning more about these issues and live near Washington DC are invited to a seminar discussing them.  Participants will address questions surrounding (1) the vital importance of the Close Air Support mission, (2) the controversial decision to retire the A-10 in favor of the F-35, (3) what it will take to provide a CAS capability in the future, and most importantly, (4) how the Defense Department should proceed to insure our ground troops will be given the support they need and deserve.  

The seminar will take the form of a discussion among people having long experience in this mission area -- from a variety perspectives -- from aircraft designers, to pilots with A-10 combat experience and, most importantly, the views soldiers and marines on the receiving end of close support in ground combat operations.  In the interests of having a vigorous debate, pushbacks by people supporting the AF decision will be not only welcomed but emphatically encouraged and solicited.  The goal is to promote a free market of ideas. 

This seminar will take place on 0930 Nov. 22  at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and will be sponsored by the Strauss Military Reform Project, a subsidiary of the Project on Government Oversight.  The details of the seminar and a list of relevant reading materials can be found at the links at the top of this posting. 

08 November 2013

Polk Report: Understanding Syria (1)

Attached is an excellent primer on Syria -- its history, culture, and nature of the ongoing civil war.  It is written by my friend and historian William R. Polk.  He has given me permission to post it ... I strongly recommend that viewers take the time to read it carefully -- it is long, but well worth the investment.

Chuck Spinney

Part 1 of a three part series
By William R. Polk
November 6, 2013

1. Geographical Syria

Syria is a small, poor and crowded country. On the map, it appears about the size of Washington State or Spain, but only about a quarter of its 185 thousand square kilometers is arable land. That is, “economic Syria” is about as large as a combination of Maryland and Connecticut or Switzerland. Most is desert, some is suitable for grazing but less than 10% of the surface is permanent cropland.

Except for a narrow belt along the Mediterranean, the whole country is subject to extreme temperatures that cause frequent dust storms and periodic droughts.  Four years of devastating drought from 2006 to 2011 turned Syria into a land like the American “dust bowl” of 1930s. That drought was said to have been the worst ever recorded, but it was one in a long sequence: Just in the period from 2001 to 2010, Syria had 60 “significant” dust storms. The most important physical aspect of these storms, as was the experience in America in the 1930s, was the removal of the topsoil. Politically, they triggered the civil war. (continued)