Hussain Abdul-Hussain

An unsatisfying debate

American pundits on Iraq are missing the point

Iraqi special forces keep watch as they secure a district in West Baghdad on June 18, 2014

American public debate on the Middle East has become unacceptably misinformed, leading to blunders ranging from the last Iraq War to its current fumbles in Syria and elsewhere. While many factors are at play, the most apparent seems to be the culture of “networking:” in today’s Washington, “making it” in policymaking and punditry relies more on “who you know” than “what you know.”


In an article in The Daily Beast, Josh Rogin reported that America’s allies “are funding ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria].” Rehashing a flimsy Brookings report, Rogin argues that private Kuwaiti donors have been funding “extremist rebels in Syria.” He quotes Syria expert Andrew Tabler as saying, “Kuwait’s banking system and its money changers have long been a huge problem because they are a major conduit for money to extremist groups in Syria and now Iraq.”


The key word here is “extremists,” a term that does not necessarily denote groups the US government classifies as foreign terrorist organizations. US law forbids persons, groups, or companies from dealing with or offering any kind of support to these organizations. But of the over 1,000 armed groups in Syria (according to the Carter Center), only two – Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS – are on the State Department’s list of foreign terror groups.


The Brookings report, which dates back to December, could not establish that Kuwaitis were actually donating to either of these two terrorist groups. Therefore, the report’s author concluded that the Kuwaiti-sponsored Syrian rebels had “coordinated” with Syria’s two officially-designated foreign terrorist organizations in the fight against Assad.


Since December, Nusra and the allegedly Kuwaiti-funded Syrian rebels have waged a relentless war on ISIS. Meanwhile, under US pressure, Kuwait has replaced its justice minister, whom the US Treasury Department named as one of the facilitators of Kuwaiti fundraising to Syria’s “extremists.” (Note that the Treasury too could not establish links between Kuwaitis and Nusra or ISIS.)


Journalists are trained to be detail-oriented. But when Rogin, one of the regular talking heads on US national media, reproduces an outdated report and makes it into news, he not only misleads public opinion but also takes policymaking in the wrong direction.


The New Yorker, one of America’s most respected publications, has also contributed to the dumbing down of the debate on Iraq and the Middle East through the tired bipartisan diatribes of its blogger, John Cassidy, who wrote in an article that if “in the immediate aftermath of the US invasion, Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Baghdad, and his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, had not decided to disband Saddam’s army, the one institution that somewhat unified the country, the Iraqi state would be stronger.”


But long before 2003, Saddam Hussein had already turned Iraq’s army into a hollow institution. Paranoid of coups and fearing for his security, Saddam liquidated senior army officers who emerged as heroes from the war with Iran. He even reportedly arranged the death of Defense Minister Adnan Khairallah Talfah, an army hero who was also his cousin, childhood friend, and the brother of his wife Sajidah. Saddam then constructed several units loyal only to him, notably the Republican Guards and Fidayee Saddam.


Contra Cassidy, the Iraqi army had ceased being an institution long before the American invasion. National institutions do not usually drop their arms, take off their military uniforms, and run away at the first whiff of battle with the Marines.


What Saddam left behind was instead a loose network of loyalists, many well-trained in espionage work and explosives. Some of these joined the Sunni insurgency, while others, such as former members of the M4 Directorate of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, remained independent, and became known to Western intelligence as Former Regime Elements (FRE).


Meanwhile, in 2003, Iran’s first order of the day was to take revenge against the Iraqi officers who fought against it in the 1980s. Iran’s allies – some say including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – formed what they called “Death Squads” to go after these officers, who in turn went into hiding and used their expertise and money to wage a counter-offensive against the new rulers. With violence receding, Saddam’s loyalists took refuge in predominantly-Sunni Mosul and formed the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandiyah (JTRN), the main muscle behind the takeover of Iraq’s second largest city last week.


These Sunni officers were never allowed to resettle in post-Saddam Iraq, despite American pleas with Maliki and his sponsor, Iran. They have nowhere to go and remain troublesome today, begging the question of how Iran, the driving force behind the hunting down of the thousands of Saddam-era security personnel, can be part of the Iraq solution, as Secretary of State John Kerry and other American policy wonks recently suggested.


In the Mosul showdown, America does not seem to understand the many players, their funders, or the best approaches to reaching compromise with them. Instead, America lumps ISIS with Nusra and JRTN, blames itself for disbanding Saddam’s army, and seemingly has no clue that Iran is part of the problem, not the solution.


It is sad that a decade after the Iraq War, Washington has yet to learn the right lessons. Until that happens, crises in the Middle East will keep on happening for no fault of America, who will still have to deal with them to defend the homeland against possible spillovers.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain

Iraqi special forces secure a district in West Baghdad. (AFP Photo/Sabah Arar)

"The Iraqi army had ceased being an institution long before the American invasion."

  • shue.arie

    The problems with Arabs, especially Muslims, is they're so easily manipulated by the US, the most corrupt country on the planet. And although I don'y like Asaad for his interference in Lebanon's politics, I'd still prefer him as ruler of Syria than those terrorist scum who are killing everyone indiscriminately. How long before Lebanon is dragged back into civil war is anyone's guess, but it will happen.

    June 19, 2014

  • GOTC

    Very few who have ever worked in the state dept have been anti-Syria. Alexander Haig was the most anti-Syrian Secretary of State. Unfortunately every other SOS since Kissinger has looked at the Assad's as a stabilizing force.

    June 18, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    It has always been like this with US foreign policy. Always lumping the good and the bad because of ignorance by supposed experts, and also because US foreign policy is short-sighted and reacts with in mind "immediate" solutions to equally "immediate" crises. Remember when the State Department supported the Assad regime's takeover and occupation of Lebanon, despite the fact that the Syrian regime was a charter member of the State Department's List of State sponsors of terrorism, despite the fact that the Syrian regime was the only remaining obstacle to a comprehensive peace with Israel through its support of Hamas and Hezbollah and Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process, and despite the fact that the Syrian regime's record of human rights violations was documented and known to all? Some propose that this long standing policy spanning from the 1970s through 2003 was a conspiracy because Kissinger believed the Syrians were the best mercenaries to have on board in order to dismantle Lebanon and sell its pieces to the PLO, and thus help relieve Israel of the "Right of Return" and keep peace on the Golan. It may be, but for those who reject conspiracy theories, this policy vis-a-vis Syria, which not only destroyed Lebanon, hindered any progress on the peace process, and in fact has led to the Syrian debacle of today, it is fundamentally attributable to the stupidity and ignorance of State Department experts who have inherited the British thinking of post World War I to have one "Arabia" and one Israel, as opposed to the French thinking of an independent Lebanon. The Anglo-Americans and their State Department intellectual heirs have always hated Lebanon and loved Syria, regardless of whether they had friends in Lebanon and enemies in Syria. Ignorance, just plain ignorance, of international affairs, despite the mountains of publications, books, opinions, and despite the hundreds of academic departments in US universities "specializing" in the Middle East.

    June 18, 2014