Iraqi rapid response forces advancing towards the south of Mosul. Donald Trump won the Republican primaries and the general election in part by attacking the Iraq War, which he likened to “throwing rocks into a hornets’ nest.” Photo: Reuters
Iraqi rapid response forces advancing towards the south of Mosul. Donald Trump won the Republican primaries and the general election in part by attacking the Iraq War, which he likened to “throwing rocks into a hornets’ nest.” Photo: Reuters
Middle EastUS politicsFrom the Archives

Trump, McMaster and the Petraeus legacy

Asia Times' columnist Spengler wrote this piece in 2010. In it he argues that the American military had, starting with Iraq, militarized large parts of the Middle East and Central Asia in the name of pacification before engaging in a grand strategic withdrawal from responsibility in the region, leaving behind men with weapons and excellent reason to use them. His words ring very true today.

February 28, 2017 2:26 AM (UTC+8)

After seeing his first choice for National Security Advisor, retired US Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, expeditiously hounded out of office by what has come to be known as the deep state, President Trump has appointed US Army Lieutenant H.R. McMaster to advise him on national security and foreign policy issues. The choice has been widely applauded in corners of the political universe not usually counted on Trumps side.

Trump won the Republican primaries and the general election in part by attacking the Iraq War, which he likened to throwing rocks into a hornets nest. Republican voters revolted against the Bush-McCain wing of the party and chose an outsider who repudiated a policy for which the United States had sacrificed thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

Once elected, Trump faced the ironic problem that virtually all the prospective appointees available to him built their resumes on a policy he abominated. He abandoned the one real outsider on his national security team, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, because opposition to Flynn in the intelligence community and the military threatened to paralyze the functioning of the White House.

The legacy of the Iraq War, and above all the Petraeus surge, still lies heavily on this anti-Establishment administration. The supposed success of the Petraeus surge remains an article of faith in the Republican Party, and the many flag officers promoted by Petraeus notably including McMaster comprise a formidable constituency. But the present ruin of Iraq and Syria is the direct result of the surge, which bought a temporary peace in Mesopotamia at the price of arming a Sunni resistance that eventually backed ISIS.

Seven years ago, Asia Times columnist Spengler (the alias of David P. Goldman) predicted the present disaster in an essay entitled, Gen. Petraeus Thirty Years War. As a reminder and admonition, Asia Times reprints that essay unaltered below. Spengler warned that Americas support for Sunni irregulars would lead to perpetual sectarian war, which is precisely what happened. Anbar Province, which Petraeus claimed to have pacified in 2008, became a Petri dish for the gestation of ISIS and a cockpit for perpetual war between Sunni radicals and Shiite militias led by Iranian officers.

It is one thing to have a disaster, another to celebrate it. The French use the term Trafalgar to say what American solders mean by FUBAR. If the truth got its due, they might say Anbar. Intro: Asia Times staff.

General Petraeus Thirty Years War
By Spengler

Memo to heads of state: beware the clever general who turns up at a tough moment, and says Leave it to me: I can fix it for you. Two examples come to mind. The great field marshal of the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, Albrecht von Wallenstein, taught armies to live off the land, and succeeded so well that nearly half the people of Central Europe starved to death during the conflict.

General David Petraeus, who heads Americas Central Command (CENTCOM), taught the land to live off him. Petraeus putative success in the Iraq surge of 2007-2008 is one of the weirder cases of Karl Marxs quip of history repeating itself first as tragedy and second as farce. The consequences will be similar, that is, hideous.

Wallenstein put 100,000 men into the field, an army of terrifying size for the times, by turning the imperial army into a parasite that consumed the livelihood of the empires home provinces. The Austrian Empire fired him in 1629 after five years of depredation, but pressed him back into service in 1631. Those who were left alive joined the army, in a self-feeding spiral of destruction on a scale not seen in Europe since the 8th century. Wallensteins power grew with the implosion of civil society, and the Austrian emperor had him murdered in 1634.

This file photo shows U.S. General David Petraeus when he was commander of the international security assistance force and commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, testifying at a Senate Armed Services committee hearing on the situation in Afghanistan in 2011. Photo: Reuters
This file photo shows U.S. General David Petraeus when he was commander of the international security assistance force and commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, testifying at a Senate Armed Services committee hearing on the situation in Afghanistan in 2011. Photo: Reuters

Petraeus accomplished the same thing with (literally) bags of money. Starting with Iraq, the American military has militarized large parts of the Middle East and Central Asia in the name of pacification. And now America is engaged in a grand strategic withdrawal from responsibility in the region, leaving behind men with weapons and excellent reason to use them.

Petraeus surge of 2007-2008 drastically reduced the level of violence in Iraq by absorbing most of the available Sunni fighters into an American-financed militia, the Sons of Iraq, or Sunni Awakening. With American money, weapons and training, the remnants of Saddam Husseins regime have turned into a fighting force far more effective than the defunct dictators state police. And now the American military is doing the same thing in Afghanistan, and, under General Keith Dayton, in Palestine. America is pouring money which is to say weapons into disputed areas of Afghanistan, and building the core of a Palestinian army. The latters mission is to impose a pro-Western Palestinian government on a population of whom two-thirds oppose the two-state solution. It more likely will end up fighting Israel.

Petraeus created a balance of power between Sunnis and Shiites by reconstructing the formers fighting capacity, while persuading pro-Iranian militants to bide their time. To achieve this balance of power, though, he built up Sunni military power to the point that for the first time in Iraqs history Sunnis and Shiites are capable of fighting a full-dress civil war with professional armed forces. Nation-building in Iraq failed to construct any function feature of civil society a concept hitherto unknown to Mesopotamia except, of course, for the best-functioning organized groups of killers that Iraq ever has had.

The Iranians had no interest in disrupting the surge. If they had, the American military would have made short work of their local proxies, who never could outfight the US Marines. Iran is patient, playing for time, possibly to acquire nuclear weapons which Washington has all but conceded and until the Americans withdraw, which they must sooner or later.

An old Israeli joke says that you cant buy an Arab, but you can rent one. An October 16, 2007, report describes the first meeting between the then commander of American forces in Iraq, Major General Rick Lynch, and his superior, Petraeus, with Sunni tribal leaders:

One mentions weapons, but the general insists: I can give you money to work in terms of improving the area. What I cannot do this is very important is give you weapons.

The gravity of the war council in a tent at the US forward operating base at Camp Assassin is suspended for a few moments as one of the local Iraqi leaders says jokingly but knowingly: Dont worry! Weapons are cheap in Iraq.

Thats right, thats exactly right, laughs Lynch in reply.

That was then. American forces now are trying to do the same thing in Afghanistan, except that they are unable to distinguish between tribesmen-for-rent and the Taliban itself. The New York Times reported April 3 [2010]:

Since their offensive here in February, the Marines have flooded Marjah with hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. The tactic aims to win over wary residents by paying them compensation for property damage or putting to work men who would otherwise look to the Taliban for support. The approach helped turn the tide of insurgency in Iraq. But in Marjah, where the Taliban seem to know everything and most of the time it is impossible to even tell who they are they have already found ways to thwart the strategy in many places, including killing or beating some who take the Marines money, or pocketing it themselves.

Having armed all sides of the conflict and kept them apart by the threat of arms, the United States now expects to depart leaving in place governments of national reconciliation that will persuade well-armed and well-organized militias to play by the rules. It is perhaps the silliest thing an imperial power ever has done. The British played at divide and conquer, whereas the Americans propose to divide and disappear.

At some point the whole sorry structure will collapse, and no-one knows it better than Petraeus. There are many possible triggers. The Iraqi government might collapse, leaving the political agenda to the men with guns. Iran might acquire a deliverable bomb and turn its dogs lose in Iraq after the Americans withdraw. Iran and Pakistan might come to blows over the fractious province of Balochistan on their mutual border, or over Irans covert support for Pakistans Shiites, who comprise a fifth of the countrys population. Or the Israelis might strike Irans nuclear program, or Syria, or the Hezbollah clients of Syrian and Iran in Lebanon.

Petraeus made his reputation on the surge, and needs someone to blame for its prospective failure. His choice is Israel. A great deal of ink has been spilled over Petraeus March 16 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which the CENTCOM commander blamed the Israel-Palestine conflict for inflaming Muslim sentiment against the United States. Petraeus stated in his written testimony:

Enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to advance our interest in the AOR (Area of Responsibility). Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile Al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.

As National Review columnist Andrew McCarthy wrote in an April 8 [2010] essay:

The upshot of this could not be clearer: Petraeus is echoing the narrative peddled incessantly by leftists in the government he serves and by Islamists in the countries where he works. According to that narrative, Israels plight is not a struggle for survival against immovable foes spurred by an Islamist ideology that must be discredited and defeated. To the contrary, this view holds, it is the result of a mere political conflict. It could be resolved, so the theory goes, if only Israel werent so intransigent ie, if it would just stop taking so seriously its need to secure its citizens against enemies pledged to its destruction. Israels stubbornness (which is to say, its insistence on existing as a Jewish state in what Muslims regard as Islamic land) creates tensions that flare into violence (Palestinian terrorist attacks undertaken with the approval and encouragement of the regions most influential Islamic authorities).

Because Petraeus sold the surge to former president George W Bush, allowing the Republicans to claim a certain degree of success for the largely unpopular Iraq War, his influence vastly exceeds that of a career officer. He became a Republican hero for pulling the partys political chestnuts out of the fire. American conservatives lionized him; this month the American Enterprise Institute will give him its Irving Kristol award, named after the intellectual architect of modern conservatism. Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary magazine and the dean of Jewish conservatives, wrote in his book World War IV, It took Lincoln three years to find Sherman and Grant. It took George Bush three years to find Petraeus.

The Republicans are like investors involved in a Ponzi scheme; if any of them disavows it, everyone will, and the scheme will collapse. In order to justify their past support of nation-building in Iraq, they have difficulty disowning Petraeus even when Petraeus puts the onus for the failure of American policy on Israel. Petraeus, to be sure, attempted to qualify his March 16 [2010] statements (in what Andrew McCarthy qualified as Clintonesque doublespeak), but without convincing any but analysts who have a reputational stake in the game. This is particularly painful for some Jewish conservatives. Between Petraeus and Bernie Madoff, they have had a bad year.

Donald Trump with his newly appointed national security adviser, Lieutenant General H R McMaster. Photo: Reuters
Donald Trump with his newly appointed national security adviser, Lieutenant General H R McMaster. Photo: Reuters

No matter: what is now commonly called linkage between the Israel-Palestine conflict and Americas strategic morass in Central Asia is the official view of the Barack Obama administration. Petraeus formulation lends respectability to the fanciful idea that Iran would listen to reason if only Israel would stop building apartments in East Jerusalem. Echoing Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on April 27 [2010], Heretofore, the lack of progress in the peace process has provided political ammunition to our adversaries in the Middle East and in the region, and that progress in this arena will enable us not only to perhaps get others to support the peace process, but also support us in our efforts to try and impose effective sanctions against Iran.

Like Alice in Wonderland, the US administration is trying to play croquet with flamingos and hedgehogs. If only the hedgehog would hold still, Gates complains, Washington could hit it with a flamingo.

There is not a government in the world that believes that effective sanctions against Iran are anything more than a euphemism for the catastrophic failure of American policy. That is why the Chinese continue investment in Iranian oil and the Russians are moving ahead with a deal to sell the Iranians a nuclear reactor. If the United States merely is going through the motions, why should the Russians or Chinese prejudice their commercial interests in order to assist the face-saving inanities of American diplomacy?

Put the American military in charge of nation-building, and it will do the only thing that soldiers know how to do, namely, train more soldiers. The strangest case of all is the Palestine Authority, which consists of a prime minister imposed by the Western donors who pay $1.8 billion a year for its maintenance, supported by an American-trained and armed military force. As Jonathan Spyer wrote in the Jerusalem Post May 2 [2010]:

The key Palestinian leader in the West Bank today is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Fayyad is not a Fatah member, and his government holds power not as a result of that movements authority. Rather, Fayyad is in effect an appointee of the West. The security forces led by Gen Keith Dayton, which keep him in place, are Western organized and financed, and not beholden to any political faction. His gradualist approach is quite alien to Palestinian political culture, and despite the undoubted improvements this approach has brought to daily life in the West Bank, the level of his support is uncertain. It remains widely believed that without the presence of the Dayton forces and more importantly without the continued activities of the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] in the West Bank, the area would fall to Hamas in a similar process to that which took place in Gaza.

The Israeli view is that there is no Palestinian partner with whom to make peace, and the fact that General Dayton has spent $100 million to train 30,000 Palestinian soldiers reinforces that impression. It is quite possible that President Obama at some point will order the Israelis to make peace and that the Israelis simply will refuse. American aid to Israel now amounts to only 2% of the countrys Gross Domestic Product, or about a third of the annual GDP growth, such that even the threat of a complete cessation of American aid would not persuade the Israelis to sacrifice their own perceived security interests. And the ties between American and Israeli civil society are far too strong for any American government to isolate Israel diplomatically.

That will put the proprietors of the Palestinian Authority Potemkin Village in an untenable position. For the two-thirds of Palestinians who, according to the most recent polls, oppose a two-state solution, it will be a double humiliation: Fayyads government will be exposed as the puppet of an American government with no teeth. At this point Daytons Palestinian force may turn into a more effective source of violence against Israel than the Palestinians ever have put into the field. And that in turn may elicit a tougher response from Israel. The possibility that forces being trained by the US now will eventually turn on the IDF, using enhanced skills and equipment, is exceedingly high, wrote David Bedein and Arlene Kushner in a 2009 study for the pro-Israeli Center for Near East Policy Research. There is strong precedent for this, as PA security forces trained by the CIA have several times turned on Israel, in particular in 1996 and following, and again during the second intifada that began in 2000.

Dayton echoes these warnings. He hailed his trainees as the founders of a Palestinian state, but warned in 2009, With big expectations, come big risks. There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that youre creating a state, when youre not.

All this leaves the region in an icy calm, as all the players wait to see who will make the first move. Thanks to American money and American training, the next round of the game in Iraq will be played for keeps. And if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon as it could do in the absence of military intervention the dolls-house balance of power built by the United States will disappear.

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