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Gordon Campbell on John Key’s trip to Iraq

Gordon Campbell on John Key’s trip to Iraq

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has just returned from a quick visit to our troops in Iraq, where he reportedly discovered that (a) Iraq is hellishly hot and dusty (b) our troops are doing a great job and (c) that he personally, certainly made the right call in sending them there. The media who accompanied the PM on this mission totally agreed – and they reached the same conclusion almost instantaneously, it would seem:

John Key’s trip to Iraq asked and answered the question about whether our troops are making a difference. It only took a day watching the Kiwi troops and their students in action at Camp Taji in Iraq to know they are making a real difference and it is more than just a drop in the ocean.

As in most of these exercises in delusional self-aggrandisement, the trainees are depicted as being almost child-like:

Part of what the Kiwis do is demystify the enemy to Iraqi soldiers, demoralised by the slick mind games of an enemy that has mastered social media to spread chilling propaganda. Among the myths that have taken root are that IS has millions of soldiers and snipers who can shoot them from 6km away.

And of course, they SO admire to the Kiwi way:

…..the Kiwis have been debunking the myths and boosting the confidence of their students that IS is an enemy that can be beaten. And they are doing it in a typically Kiwi fashion that has earned them the respect of the Iraqi soldiers.

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Back home, RNZ’s Checkpoint, now firmly in its post Mary Wilson phase, asked the tough questions. (So we are doing the right thing, in your mind? and… Did you feel safe?)

Certainly, no-one wants to disparage the individual trainers or trainees at Camp Taji. But “making a difference… not a drop in the ocean” is to assert a positive outcome when all the available evidence is running entirely to the contrary. In the embedded press coverage on this trip, the absence so far of any evaluation of the wider context of what New Zealand thinks it is doing at Camp Taji has been striking. As a result, the coverage largely illustrated the drawbacks of embedded journalism, whereby the journalism functions essentially as an extension of the public relations effort of their handlers.

By sheer co-incidence…in the same week that Key and his press entourage were at Camp Taji the New York Times published an extensive evaluation of the wider US training effort in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. To the NYT, the failures of the training programme in Iraq were very typical:

With alarming frequency in recent years, thousands of American-trained security forces in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia have collapsed, stalled or defected, calling into question the effectiveness of the tens of billions of dollars spent by the United States on foreign military training programs, as well as a central tenet of the Obama administration’s approach to combating insurgencies…… What many of them have in common is poor leadership, a lack of will and the need to function in the face of intractable political problems with little support. Without their American advisers, many local forces have repeatedly shown an inability to fight. “Our track record at building security forces over the past 15 years is miserable,” said Karl W. Eikenberry, a former military commander and United States ambassador in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, an inadequate number of recruits – relative to what is required to defeat or even to degrade the capacity of Islamic State - has reportedly turned up for training, Given the equipment problems – smaller IS forces have repeatedly been better led and better armed, often with captured US weaponry – the situation appears to be deteriorating:

A United States training program to strengthen the embattled security forces there [in Iraq] has run aground, in part because the Iraqi government has provided far fewer recruits than anticipated, while many Shiite militiamen and soldiers who were fighting the Islamic State have left the battlefield and joined the exodus of migrants seeking new lives in Europe.

If anything, the motivation to fight appears to be waning:

The reality is that Iraq’s Shiite majority seems to be settling in to a divided Iraq and increasingly questioning whether it is worth shedding Shiite blood in areas like Anbar Province or Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which the Islamic State captured in June 2014. The battle against the Islamic State is no longer the national priority it was a year ago, when the militants threatened Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south.

That progress in the security situation around Baghdad has not been due to the Iraqi Army recruits emerging from the US/coalition training programmes. It has been due to the prowess of Iranian advisers and informal Shi’ite militias that owe their allegiance to Teheran, not to the Baghdad government. In the battle to retake Tikrit and in the counter attack on Ramadi, the Iranians and their proxies have proved far more militarily proficient, motivated and effective than the official Army and security forces that the US-led coalition has been training.

With those areas [around Baghdad] now largely secure, mostly because of the efforts of Iranian military advisers and their proxy militias, the Iraqi government is focused on other priorities — mostly the migrant crisis and street protests, which led to a series of proposals by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

For the White House, which hoped to rely on a rehabilitated Iraqi Army and Shiite militias to fight the Islamic State, this raises troubling questions and highlights the diverging interests of the United States and its partner.

At Camp Taji, our troops are situated little more than an hour’s drive from Anbar province, now almost entirely under Islamic State control. If anything the government forces – and even the Shia militias - are reportedly less feeling less – not more – inclined to confront the IS forces in Anbar. All part of a de facto partitioning of the country that appears to be emerging :

Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior adviser at the State Department, said there was a deepening sense in Iraq that “ISIS is a Sunni problem, not a Shia problem.” He said the prevailing belief now among Shiites was that saving Anbar was not worth “the blood of our children.”

Maps have even circulated that show the territory the Shiite militias and their sponsors in Iran care about. A line stretches from the Iranian border in the east to just south of Kirkuk; around Samarra and to the edge of Baghdad; and then across Anbar, south of Falluja, toward the Jordanian border.

Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi analyst based in London and Baghdad who has advised the Iraqi Defense Ministry, saw one of the maps and described it as “the lines they are not willing to concede.”

Far from taking the fight back to IS in Ramadi and elsewhere, the goal of the Shia militias seems to be a de facto colonisation and partition of the country. Anbar is proving to be a classic example:

American officials had long worried that the militias, the most powerful of which are supported by Iran, would be counterproductive if they fought in Sunni areas [such as Anbar] because they could exacerbate sectarian tensions.

But in Anbar, the situation was so dire that local Sunni officials invited the militias in, and the Americans largely acquiesced as long as the groups coordinated with the Iraqi government so that American warplanes would not mistakenly bomb them. Now, more than four months after the fall of Ramadi, despite American and Iraqi officials’ promises of a robust counter-offensive, the fight has come to a stalemate.

And many of the Sunnis who sought help from the militias now regret it. Several officials said that instead of helping liberate Anbar from the Islamic State, the Shiite militias had settled into relatively safe areas of the province, raising fears that their goal — and that of their sponsor, Iran — is to set up a permanent presence there as part of a plan to protect Baghdad and the south. Sheikh Rafi al-Fahdawi, a Sunni tribal leader in Anbar, said the militia fighters had “isolated themselves in certain areas and don’t want to participate in the important battles.”

Further polarisation – not inclusiveness – is the direction in which Iraq is headed. While in Iraq, Key met in Baghdad with the Iraqi government leadership. Alas, there is nothing in the embedded NZ journalism about the progress – or lack of it – about the reduction of sectarianism. Previously whenever pressed by Scoop on this point at his post-Cabinet press conferences, Key has always repeated the line that in contrast to its al-Maliki predecessor, the current Iraqi government is intent on being more inclusive. Supposedly, our troops are in Iraq to help improve the security situation – by helping to degrade the threat from IS – such that a less sectarian form of government will be pursued. Well, what’s the scorecard on that process? Are we – or is any of the US-led coalition’s blood, sweat and millions – really ‘making a difference’ on that essential front?

So far, Key doesn’t seem to have been asked. That’s a shame. Because inevitably, the failures on the political front are rendering the training efforts worthless:

The United States and 16 allied countries have so far trained six Iraqi Army brigades and 10 Kurdish pesh merga battalions, or about 12,000 troops, according to the Defense Department. About half of the army troops are now in the fight, with the others training on their equipment and soon to follow, American military officials said. But while there are about 5,600 Sunni fighters in Anbar as part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the umbrella group for the largely Shiite paramilitary forces, they have yet to prove themselves in combat.

An Iraqi official briefed on the military situation in Anbar, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media, said, “I don’t think there is a sense of urgency anymore.” Clearly, there is no progress,” the official said. “Why there is no progress is what everyone is talking about. I don’t think there is any will among the Iraqi security forces and militias to fight. They are just not fighting.” Soldiers and militiamen, many of whom said they had not been paid in months, are dropping their weapons and heading for Europe.

To repeat: unless the Iraqi government becomes more inclusive, all of that training effort at Camp Taji will make no difference whatsoever. Like our similar efforts in Bamiyan province in Afghanistan – where the wider security situation is now deteriorating in the face of Taliban advances – our worthy efforts seem doomed to be futile :

John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the C.I.A. who is now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said American efforts to train the Iraqi military would probably be futile without a political bargain to unite the country’s Shiite and Sunni Arabs. “Training is a necessary but not sufficient way to get you to the point of creating a robust fighting force, because ultimately, militaries fight over political issues,” he said.

Rihanna Redux

Last week, I reported some positive comments made in early 2013 by Rihanna about Chris Brown. The gist of them being that she regarded him as essentially a good person, who should not be the ongoing target of “ridicule, criticism and bashing.” Well, to be fair to her…here from this week’s Vanity Fair is a more nuanced update of her current feelings about Chris Brown, and the difficulty that she experienced in preventing a legacy of domestic violence from sinking even the best attempts at reconciliation:

Rihanna is quiet and thoughtful when she talks about getting back with Brown for the second time and asking the court to lift the restraining order against him. “I was that girl,” she says, “that girl who felt that as much pain as this relationship is, maybe some people are built stronger than others. Maybe I’m one of those people built to handle shit like this. Maybe I’m the person who’s almost the guardian angel to this person, to be there when they’re not strong enough, when they’re not understanding the world, when they just need someone to encourage them in a positive way and say the right thing.”

So, she thought she could change him? “A hundred percent. I was very protective of him. I felt that people didn’t understand him. Even after … But you know, you realize after a while that in that situation you’re the enemy. You want the best for them, but if you remind them of their failures, or if you remind them of bad moments in their life, or even if you say I’m willing to put up with something, they think less of you—because they know you don’t deserve what they’re going to give. And if you put up with it, maybe you are agreeing that you [deserve] this, and that’s when I finally had to say, ‘Uh-oh, I was stupid thinking I was built for this.’ Sometimes you just have to walk away.”

Now, she says, “I don’t hate him. I will care about him until the day I die. We’re not friends, but it’s not like we’re enemies. We don’t have much of a relationship now.”

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