To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Who Won The War In Iraq? The ‘New Yorker’ says Iran. Read It And Weep

Over the weekend there was news of the death of Vo Nguyen Giap, “the relentless and charismatic North Vietnamese general whose campaigns drove both France and the United States out of Vietnam,” as the New York Times obituary put it. Giap had been the military mastermind of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and was the architect of the Tet offensive in 1968, ending the war as the North Vietnamese Minister of Defense as Saigon fell in 1975. According to NPR, Giap “is ranked by historians as among the greatest military leaders of the 20th century.”   

Giap’s death, and its unwanted but necessary reminder that American military power has limits, comes on the heels of a recent New Yorker magazine profile of Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Iranian revolutionary Quds Forces for the last fifteen years. According to the profile’s author, Dexter Filkins, Suleimani “has built the Quds Force into an organization with extraordinary reach, with branches focused on intelligence, finance, politics, sabotage, and special operations.” It has been a shadow force in the fighting in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, as well as a central player in a variety of anti American and anti Israeli terrorist attacks.

Filkin’s reporting on Suleimani’s Iraqi operations can’t help but renew questions about what the US accomplished in Iraq, at such considerable cost of blood and treasure. While JFK said, “victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan,” the profile shows that Suleimani’s success in Iraq makes Iran perhaps the only victor there, amidst a wider American policy defeat. According to one frustrated Iraqi politician who was relying on American power, “Iraq is a failed state, an Iranian colony.”  In addition to describing the extent of Suleimani’s control of Iraq, Filkins explains how he has been able to use Iraq as a platform to project Iranian power into the Syrian civil war.  “Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today,” John Maguire, a former C.I.A. officer in Iraq, told Filkins, “and no one’s ever heard of him.”

I don’t wince too much about supporting the decision to attack Iraq in 2003, although I do regret not being more skeptical of the WMD argument and in hindsight wish other options, like containment and covert operations, had been more vigorously aired and debated. What I do wince at though is the Bush administration’s bungling of the war effort at almost every step except for the surge of 2008 and the attendant neoconservative denial of that bungling. “Off the record, Paris is burning,” Coalition spokesman Dan Senor, who went on to become Mitt Romney’s 2012 foreign policy advisor, told reporters. “But on the record, security and stability are returning to Iraq.”) 

But it’s absolutely galling to read how our military and political ineptitude during the Iraqi conflict has handed Iran the advantage there, allowing Suleimani to use the Iraqi banking system and oil industry to generate funds that make his Quds Forces even more immune to international sanctions than they would otherwise be, which has translated into significant Iranian influence in Syria. “Suleimani’s greatest achievement may be persuading his proxies in the Iraqi government to allow Iran to use its airspace to fly men and munitions to Damascus,” writes Filkins. “General James Mattis, who until March was the commander of all American military forces in the Middle East, told me that without this aid the Assad regime would have collapsed months ago.” Below are some of the profile's more revealing, if depressing passages: 
In 2004, the Quds Force began flooding Iraq with lethal roadside bombs that the Americans referred to as E.F.P.s, for “explosively formed projectiles.” The E.F.P.s, which fire a molten copper slug able to penetrate armor, began to wreak havoc on American troops, accounting for nearly twenty per cent of combat deaths. E.F.P.s could be made only by skilled technicians, and they were often triggered by sophisticated motion sensors. “There was zero question where they were coming from,” General Stanley McChrystal, who at the time was the head of the Joint Special Operations Command, told me. “We knew where all the factories were in Iran. The E.F.P.s killed hundreds of Americans.”

Suleimani’s campaign against the United States crossed the Sunni-Shiite divide, which he has always been willing to set aside for a larger purpose. Iraqi and Western officials told me that, early in the war, Suleimani encouraged the head of intelligence for the Assad regime to facilitate the movement of Sunni extremists through Syria to fight the Americans…

…In the years after the invasion, General McChrystal concentrated on defeating Sunni insurgents, and, like other American commanders in Iraq, he largely refrained from pursuing Quds Force agents. Provoking Iran would only exacerbate the conflict, and, in any case, many of the agents operated under the protection of diplomatic cover. But, as the war dragged on, the Iranian-backed militias loomed ever larger. In late 2006, McChrystal told me, he formed a task force to kill and capture Iranian-backed insurgents, as well as Quds Force operatives

…As the covert war with Iran intensified, American officials considered crossing into Iran to attack training camps and bomb factories. “Some of us wanted very badly to hit them,” a senior American officer who was in Iraq at the time told me. Those debates lasted well into 2011, until the last American soldiers left the country. Each time, the Americans decided against crossing the border, figuring that it would be too easy for the Iranians to escalate the fighting.

As the American presence in Iraq was starting to wind down in late 2010, Filkins says that Suleimani played the role of kingmaker in promoting Nuri al-Maliki as Prime Minister in a newly formed government, which contradicts the narrative Americans projected at the time. “The country had been without a government for nine months, after parliamentary elections ended in an impasse,” writes Filkins. “The composition of the government was critical; at the time of the election, there were still nearly a hundred thousand American troops in the country, and U.S. commanders were still hoping to leave a residual force behind. ‘We look forward to working with the new coalition government in furthering our common vision of a democratic Iraq,’ said a note of congratulations to the Iraqi people from James Jeffrey, the American Ambassador to Iraq, and General Lloyd Austin, the top American commander there, after the formation of the new Malaki government was announced.  

What Jeffrey and Austin didn’t say was that the crucial deal that brought the Iraqi government together was made not by them but by Suleimani. In the months before, according to several Iraqi and Western officials, Suleimani invited senior Shiite and Kurdish leaders to meet with him in Tehran and Qom, and extracted from them a promise to support Maliki, his preferred candidate. The deal had a complex array of enticements. Maliki and Assad disliked each other; Suleimani brought them together by forging an agreement to build a lucrative oil pipeline from Iraq to the Syrian border. In order to bring the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in line, Suleimani agreed to place his men in the Iraqi service ministries.

Most remarkable, according to the Iraqi and Western officials, were the two conditions that Suleimani imposed on the Iraqis. The first was that Jalal Talabani, a longtime friend of the Iranian regime, become President. The second was that Maliki and his coalition partners insist that all American troops leave the country. “Suleimani said: no Americans,” the former Iraqi leader told me. “A ten-year relationship, down the drain.”

Iraqi officials told me that, at the time of Jeffrey’s announcement, the Americans knew that Suleimani had pushed them out of the country but were too embarrassed to admit it in public. “We were laughing at the Americans,” the former Iraqi leader told me, growing angry as he recalled the situation. “Fuck it! Fuck it!” he said. “Suleimani completely outmaneuvered them, and in public they were congratulating themselves for putting the government together.”

The deal was a heavy blow to Ayad Allawi, a pro-American secular politician whose party had won the most parliamentary seats in the elections, but who failed to put together a majority coalition. In an interview in Jordan, he said that with U.S. backing he could have built a majority. Instead, the Americans pushed him aside in favor of Maliki. He told me that Vice-President Joe Biden called to tell him to abandon his bid for Prime Minister, saying, “You can’t form a government.”

Allawi said he suspected that the Americans weren’t willing to deal with the trouble the Iranians would have made if he had become Prime Minister. They wanted to stay in Iraq, he said, but only if the effort involved was minimal. “I needed American support,” he said. “But they wanted to leave, and they handed the country to the Iranians. Iraq is a failed state now, an Iranian colony.”

Filkins says that Suleimani’s powers of manipulation and intimidation on display at that critical juncture in 2010 have endured:

According to American and Iraqi former officials, Suleimani exerts leverage over Iraqi politics by paying officials, by subsidizing newspapers and television stations, and, when necessary, by intimidation. Few are immune to his enticements. “I have yet to see one Shia political party not taking money from Qassem Suleimani,” the former senior Iraqi official told me. “He’s the most powerful man in Iraq, without question.”

…Maliki may be amply repaying Suleimani for his efforts to make him Prime Minister. According to the former senior intelligence officer, Maliki’s government is presiding over a number of schemes, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars a year, to help the Iranian regime outwit Western economic sanctions. A prominent Iraqi businessman told me that Iranian-backed agents regularly use the Iraqi banking system to undertake fraudulent transactions that allow them to sell Iraqi currency at a huge profit. “If the banks refuse, they are shut down by the government,” he said.

The other main source of revenue for the Iranians is oil, officials say: Maliki’s government sets aside the equivalent of two hundred thousand barrels of oil a day—about twenty million dollars’ worth, at current prices—and sends the money to Suleimani. In this way, the Quds Force has made itself immune to the economic pressures of Western sanctions. “It’s a self-funding covert-action program,” the former senior intelligence officer said. “Suleimani doesn’t even need the Iranian budget to fund his operations.”


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