Why is Obama bombing Iraq, Really?

By Juan Cole

Al-Zaman reports that a US drone hit mortar emplacements and F-18s struck artillery arrays and armored vehicles deployed by the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) in Kuwair east of Mosul on the way to the Kurdistan capital of Irbil, and near a major dam, some ares of which are controlled by the IS fighters.

Also on Friday, the Naqshbandi Army denied any involvement in a push on the Kurdistan capital of Irbil, denouncing it as racist. The Naqshbandi Sufi order is important in Mosul and was infiltrated and used by agents of Baathist high official Izzat al-Duri, a former vice president of Saddam Hussein. The Naqshbandis are said to be nowadays having tensions with the so-called Islamic State, with which they allied to kick al-Maliki’s largely Shiite government out of Mosul.

Apparently the White House felt it urgent to intervene because IS leaders were eying a conquest of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. When I heard this, I thought of the old 1980s film, “Gallipoli.” Churchill advanced a strategy for a short campaign against the Ottoman Empire, wherein troops would be landed at the Gallipoli peninsula and march straight up to the nearby capital, Istanbul. Churchill’s plan failed because Mustafa Kamal Attaturk kept the British army from advancing, deploying against the British troops the machine gun.

Likewise, IS was thinking of just going up to Irbil and decapitating the government of Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader.

The US has a consulate in Irbil and presumably many intelligence workers are based there, who were at danger of being shelled or captured, evoking Benghazi again. With midterms coming up, Obama appears to have decided that he would intervene rather than risking those intel guys getting kidnapped.

The US is intervening for political as well as military reasons. Washington says that more such military aid may be forthcoming if Iraq will form a government of national unity. So basically, Obama is putting pressure on President Fuad Massoum to pick a prime minister other than Nouri al-Maliki and form a government asap. Likewise, Washington wants the Kurds to remain within a Federal Iraqi framework rather than declaring independence, and seems to be bombing IS positions for the Kurds in order to extract a promise from Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani that he will stay in Iraq.

The US used close air support with the Kurdish peshmerga during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Bush couldn’t send US troops into the north because the Fourth Infantry Division had been denied permission to march through Turkish Anatolia on their way to Iraq. So the US used the Peshmerga a surrogate troops. It worked then, against the Baath Army of Saddam Hussein. The US also provided close air support to the Northern Alliance in Afghanisan, which enabled it to take Mazar, Herat and many other cities from the Taliban.

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Related video:

CNN: “U.S. strikes ISIS artillery in Iraq”

26 Responses

  1. Obama’s cynicism is too inept, too transparent–not only does the emperor have no clothes, but the magician has no wand.

    IS, despite its anarchically fearless appearance, would of course never think of attacking Turkey, or Jordan, or Israel; it strikes as being a principally anti-Iranian creature/machine.

  2. The Gallipoli campaign was a case study in hubris, which is your apparent point. However, the winning edge in battle is notoriously hard to keep sharp, and some say today’s peshmerga is hardly the same well-trained and hardened machine as ten years ago. One slip with close air support, of all things, is one too many. On the other hand, to have survived the IS is evidently at the top of its game.

    • I do not claim to be an expert in this field, but some reading of WWI history has opened my eyes to what a close run thing the Gallipoli campaign actually was for the British and what a narrow escape from disaster for the Turks. If things had gone only a little differently at the beginning of the operation, it would be seen today as a daring, bold attack worthy of Alexander or Napoleon. A lot of things went wrong for the British, such as the naval commander losing his nerve at taking more losses than anticipated from mines and not forcing the Dardanelles as could have been achieved at the onset; and the troops that landed did not push inland as fast or capably as they should have. And a lot went right for the Turks, beginning with British bad luck and uncoordination and ending with the rise of Attaturk in the nick of time. Their army almost broke, too, but the British finally gave up first.

      Things could have easily gone the other way, as Allenby’s dramatic victories in Palestine and the Levant showed in 1917-18, and had the British seized Caonstantinople in a lightning assault as planned, the Ottomans might have capitulated years early and who knows what the results might have been for the rest of the combatants? An early settlement among the powers? Maybe no Russian revolution? Fascinating counterfactuals.

      • If one reads a lot of WW I history, looking for understanding of why the world is so effed up now rather than the fascinating nitty gritty of this battle or campaign which is only military history anyway, one can find lots of clues as to how things could indeed be very different, and how close “we humans” have come to setting inevitable preconditions in place for our own demise as a species. (No jumping ahead, now, to the last chapter, the one on the blandly labeled “Nuclear Age” and all its unbelievable follies.)

        I will never be a cheerleader for or take any vicarious pleasure in the exploits of one effing empire’s fungible military or another. That may be the only way that humans can organize themselves, for reasons of flawed biology, though the range of human organizations and the ethics or whatever that move them seems to embrace models that are a lot less asymptotic in their form. But “we” really have to start doing a little better, maybe? Looking at what “we” have wrought under the Games we have been playing so vigorously and partisanly?

        Maybe a turn through the works of Barbara Tuchman, from the fin de siecle through the mass and minute idiocies and fantastic profit-taking of WW I and on and on, might be of more virtue than how near run a thing it was that Churchill (actually, a bunch of bleeding Tommies and Colonial troops — why do the effing generals and admirals get the credit – and get to run away from the blame for –for Great Victories and Losses?) might have triumphed at Gallipoli. There is nearly an infinite literature on how this or that general or admiral screwed up a sure “victory,” with nary a tiny little question about whether that particular trip was in any way necessary other than on the basis of certain idiotic momentary exigencies and thanks to the machinations of evil and vile little and large egos serving their own pleasures…

        We blogspacers and wonks and policy promoters all talk wisely about what “we” ought to do about this or that policy or event, like the latest Horde to form up and descend on helpless villagers, gathering momentum from the detritus of “our” policies and interventions and the contents of armories “we” have left exposed, for really smart geopolitical reasons, and drawing more and more gunmen to that black flag of death. “We” are unfortunately more and more stuck to each other in ways that require altruism and comity to keep the species even alive, and teasing out lessons about how to achieve “victory” by force and arms does not seem to lead toward, you know, like, “survival?”

        • Right on, JT! Your last paragraph was great, as is you calling ISIS what it is, a ‘horde’ invasion. But remember, even Ghengis Kan has been rehabilitated as a modernizer, given the historic period in which he functioned. Not so our ISIS horde today.

      • Israel gets the biggest chunk of aid & support from the US.

        Brazilian president Dilma Roussef has recalled its ambassador from Israel, telling the world, “Israel is a Terrorist Country”.

        Some other countries have done the same following the lead from Brazil.

      • The point being, that the initial attitude of Churchill et al was “no-sweat, these are just a bunch of Turks; we’ll be in Constantnoble (sic) by lunch.” It was a prelude to the glory of WWI in Europe (Huh? Machine Guns?). Reading closer about Gallipoli and you’ll see that gentlemanly attitudes and positive thinking abounded, to be cruelly slapped down at every turn. Switching back to Iraq: anytime any military op is expected to be “no-sweat,” look out for trouble.

      • “but some reading of WWI history has opened my eyes to what a close run thing the Gallipoli campaign actually was for the British and what a narrow escape from disaster for the Turks. If things had gone only a little differently at the beginning of the operation, it would be seen today as a daring, bold attack worthy of Alexander or Napoleon.” – Only initially, problem lay with Enver’s earlier decisions which was quickly rectified. Furthermore you also have realised officers of the Ottoman military weren’t backward yokels but were trained according to Prussian standards, officers like Mustapha Kemal and Mukhtar attended the Prussian war academy and this is also bearing in mind the Ottomans were fighting a war on 5 different fronts. There’s an excellent book on the Ottoman military during World War called ‘Ordered to Die’ by Erick. J. Erickson. For me what was so peculiar about the Ottoman military is that by 1917 the Turks had outlasted the Russians, were more effective then the Austrians and had brilliantly outmanoevred the British army in Kut.

  3. I have limited intelligence, a dysfunctional memory and thus get easily confused. I’m unable to understand much of Informed Comment but I have to try since most of the popular and major US news medias are excessively corrupted and control Americans with misinformation keeping them unconscious and brain washed.

    The many groups in Iraq and in the Middle East are calling each other terrorists. And the US government, Obama is again deciding who should be supported and who should be killed, bombed in Iraq and in other countries. In the last decade, many of the individuals and their followers that received US military, financial and political support ended up becoming terrorists, US enemies as determined by US intelligence and therefore were bombed, droned and killed by the US government which does not always represent most Americans.

    1. Has the US military intelligence improved such that they will provide the current president the best intelligence that will prevent the US from supporting those Iraqis and others that may become real terrorists?

    2. Or is it just a throw of the dice that decides whether or not a current friend of the US becomes a terrorist?

    3. Who or what can best determine the really honest and good groups/individuals that will not become terrorists and dangerous? Or is this just a dream? Perhaps more academia consultation, support and presence in the US government? More honesty? Full disclosure without secrecy?

    4. What can be done? Or is history going to keep repeating?

    • #2 is correct. Eventually, everyone will be a terrorist, at least when it suits their interests. All governments do is play for time, meaning until the next election.

    • Terrorism is by design a word with no clear meaning. It is applied to whoever happens to be our enemy at the time, never to anyone that happens to be our friend.

      These relationships are determined by a perception of whether or not those groups look like they’re going to do what we want.

      It has less to do with morality or tactics and more to do with transitory alignments of interest.

      Similarly words like “Democracy” (just check out those US statesmen that rushed to Egypt to bask in al-Sisi’s democratic credentials after his coup) and “Moderate” (Saudi Arabia is often described with that term despite forbidding the construction of Churches and outlawing proselytizing other religions) are employed cynically to define whether or not a country is on “our side” or not.

  4. I reckon the US are killing several birds with one stone with this intervention. Apart from the reasons laid out by Juan, there’s also the possibility that this action could be used to distract from what could well be more carnage in the Gaza Strip.

    Very little happens in the Middle East without Israel somehow featuring in the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes.

    • It’s tempting and easy to say the US is Israel’s tool; ipso facto, what we now see…..

      But it really only “tends to be” in matters, human blood not withstanding, when the US has no particular druthers. What is it for congressmen to sell themselves for however many tax dollars Israel is costing YOU, or the tens of thousands of Palestinians/Arabs that have been “mowed” down over the last 50 years? By and large, neither party really matters to the US and it can afford to be manipulated.

      What changes “the calculus,” as Obama would phrase it, is if the oil supply is threatened, and whether a conflict might overspill to threaten real US interests (but notice the restraint on Syria).

      So, yeah, in the case of Iraq look more closely, but the dynamics and the agendas at play here are far, far more complex. Israel may influence this policy heavily, but they won’t dictate it as is normal.

  5. Barzani might make the promise to stay in Iraq, but I seriously doubt he’ll keep it. The Kurds have waited a long time to gain their independence and Barzani just said the time is right. Obama doesn’t have many options here. Either he supports the Kurds with airstrikes and weapons OR ISIL continues to push toward Irbil in Kurdistan and other parts of Iraq with no force capable of stopping them.

    ISIL forces have also been attacking in northern Lebanon, so their reach stretches hundreds of miles from Kurdistan through Syria and now, Lebanon. ISIL money, weapons and organization has been badly underestimated, to say the least.

    As recently as a few weeks ago, I really thought ISIL had expanded just about as far as they could go without beating themselves up against Maliki forces in Samarra and/or Baghdad and the peshmerga in Kurdistan. So the latest ISIL offensive is STUNNING. Last night, on the Charlie Rise Show, Dexter Finkel said ISIS is close to surrounding Baghdad. But just a few weeks ago, he told Rose that ISIL “would get CRUSHED” if they tried to take Baghdad.

    The situation in Iraq has changed dramatically since then.

    • When the U.S. left Iraq in 2011, Maliki promised to distribute $200M in arms to Kurdistan. Of course he withheld all arms as a bargaining chip. That chip is now largely in ISIS hands.

      Kurdistan has been in desperate financial situation since Malaki cut-off oil revenue sharing last February. The dispute is over Kurd’s rights to sell oil directly. So far, Kurds have only puny revenues from direct sales.

      The notion that the U.S. is going to pressure Kurdistan to remain under Baghdad’s thumb is idiotic Kabuki theater. The only sensible structure is a federation of equal regions, such as proposed by Biden/Gelb last decade. Malaki can remain emperor of Shiitestan.

      I’m becoming hopeful that reality is finally slapping U.S. policy makers up the side of the head. But we shall see.

      • Yea, ISIS got their hands on some serious weapons. Nothing else explains their latest success. ISIS threatening Irbil is right out of the Twilight Zone. Before 6this push, not in a million years would I ever think ISIS could roll into Kurdistan.

        Barzani ain’t dumb. He’ll play it so the Kurds gain their independence while American fighter jets give them cover from ISIS.

        How can the U.S. take a chance on ISIS KOOKS doing some really serious damage to the Kurds, Baghdad, Jordan, Lebanon etc.?

        • I have to wonder about the actual (not media-friendly version) quality of Kurdish units or leadership. The Kurds have had years to dig in and prepare to defend their region. Yet ISIS rolls over them in a week? Something isn’t right with this picture. ISIS didn’t become the Wehrmacht overnight.

        • Why are you questioning Kurdish units and leadership?
          They lack weapons, even have shortages of gasoline to move around.
          You can’t defend a 600 mile border with 20-year-old rifles just with high morale. They are mountain fighters, not a large traditional army.

        • There’s something odd going on here. You don’t just jump into the driver’s seat of a 155mm self-propelled howitzer and spin off to rain havoc on your enemies. There’s technical knowledge needed and people need to be trained on operating these weapon systems. Then there’s the little matter of ammunition resupply. I’d like to know how many captured artillery pieces ISIL is actually able to use

  6. Simple. He’s doing it because it’s safe — politically and militarily. He gets to look like a real tough guy at home and abroad and it’s very easy to act tough when you pick fights with enemies who basically can’t hit back. So we bomb Iraqis again, not Syrians or Iranians or No. Koreans or (heaven forbid) Russian separatists.

  7. The question is, did the US intervene because it refuses to let Iran intervene? Iran views Bagdad as a satellite, but also has good relations with the Kurds. It would surely use its own air force rather than let these fanatics rape and pillage the capitals of two allied regimes (because ISIS surely lacks the means to govern them).

    Of course, we should just let Iran act in its self interest and do some good besides. But America is officially brain-dead on accepting the right of other countries to have spheres of influence. No, there’s only international law and there’s no spheres of influence amending international law. Except for… the Monroe Doctrine?

    • The Iranian air force isn’t that big or good, and close ground support requires a lot of coordination that the US can do far better than the Iranians, if at all in this case.

      What I find intriguing is the idea this may provide the US and Iran with a way to work together in a meaningful way on something complex, operationally and diplomatically. The positive potential, even if only in theory, must be driving at least some Israelis up the wall.

  8. “Churchill’s plan failed because Mustafa Kamal Attaturk kept the British army from advancing, deploying against the British troops the machine gun.”

    This reduction of the campaign which lasted eight and half months is beyond the pale, since it was made by supposedly historian.

    Commander of Turkish troops was Liman von Sanders. Mustafa Kemal was in one time commander of important sector of the front, but neither his part was decisive nor he evented usage of machine gun.

  9. The claim the US is bombing to prevent the death or capture of U.S. personnel in Irbil is absurd. These people could be easily evacuated if the safety of these people were a primary concern. This claim is just more propaganda for the masses, using the well worn theme that the US bombs and kills for humanitarian reasons. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  10. The American Government is in Iraq to steal the oil for the international oil cartels. Presidents can come and go but the rich always rule.

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