If you control the countryside, you control the towns

We got it wrong. We always get it wrong.
Image source: The Times

Good episode from Angry Planet on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.

Conquerors and nations have been trying to rebuild Afghanistan in their own image for thousands of years. The U.S. is just the latest to fail. The Soviet Union also failed, with a little push from the United States. But they learned their lesson in only 10 years, from 1979-1989.

Angry Planet – When the Soviets Fled Afghanistan

I loved the quote that titles this post from Mark Galeotti:

“If you control the countryside, you will control the towns.”

Basically, we did things backwards. Control the towns, control the provincial capital, and then the province turns blue, right?

Wrong. The province is red with a blue dot where the city limits end. We got that wrong. We always get this wrong.

There really needs to be a post-mortem on this whole endeavour. There was a way to do it better.

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Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Sunni and Shia

Soldiers escorting trucks carrying concrete “T-Walls” (Source)

Gertude Bell, describing the Sunni element in Iraq:

The Sunni element in Iraq, though small, enjoys a social and political importance incommensurate with its size. It consists mainly of great landowners, such as the Sa’dun and the houses of the Naqibs of Baghdad and Basrah, and the wealthy merchants inhabiting the towns and holding estates along the rivers. With the exception of Sa’dun, the Sunnis of the Iraq are mostly town-dwellers. Since the country has been under the Sunni government of the Turks, Shiahism has had no political status, Shiah religious bequests had not had legal recognition, nor has the Shia ecclesiastical law, which differs from that of the Sunnis, been included in the Ottoman code.

And on the Sunni-Shia relationship in Iraq:

Partly, it may be, because of the unquestioned nature of the Sunni ascendancy, there has been little jealous or bitterness between the two branches of Islam in the Iraq, and whatever changes the future may bring, it should be the first care of the rulers of the country to preserve that fortunate condition.

Ouch.

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Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Gertrude Bell’s Pamphlet Propaganda

Back in December, Musings on Iraq published a review on Gertrude Bell’s The Arabs of Mesopotamia. Synopsis below.

Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers is a collection of two pamphlets Gertrude Bell wrote for British troops entering Iraq during World War I. The first was printed in 1916 called The Arab of Mesopotamia and the second came out the next year Asiatic Turkey. The writings were part information guides to the lands and people of the Ottoman Empire and part propaganda justifying why London invaded.

Musings on Iraq, Review Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers, Second Edition, Gertrude Bell’s The Arab of Mesopotamia

I’ve always been fascinated by Bell – more so than the more popular and well-known T. E. Lawrence. I’ve given mention to her numerous times on the blog (here). While she didn’t advise the Arab Revolt, she deftly served as a political officer in colonial Iraq, and holds the ominous moniker “Mother of Iraq.” The movies made about her have – to date – been pretty poor. I only recently discovered Clash of Loyalties, which does her better service, I think, but you’ll have to swallow that with a large dose of Ba’athist propaganda that comes with it.

I was also fascinated by the fact that this book – or rather, pamphlet compilations – were written as both primers for British colonial troops serving in Iraq and subtle propaganda “justifying why London invaded.” Similarly, I remember receiving my Iraq “country guide” and Iraqi langauge flip-book prior to the 2003 American invasion.

The more things change…

There were a few things that stuck out in my reading of the book and I’ll share them over the next few days.

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Islam, science fiction, and space mosques

This was different, and cool.

The Muslim world is not commonly associated with science fiction. Religion and repression have often been blamed for a perceived lack of creativity, imagination and future-oriented thought. However, even the most authoritarian Muslim-majority countries have produced highly imaginative accounts on one of the frontiers of knowledge: astrobiology, or the study of life in the universe. Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World by Jörg Matthias Determann (I.B. Tauris, 2020) argues that the Islamic tradition has been generally supportive of conceptions of extra-terrestrial life, and in this engaging account, Jörg Matthias Determann provides a survey of Arabic, Bengali, Malay, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu texts and films, to show how scientists and artists in and from Muslim-majority countries have been at the forefront of the exciting search. 

New Books Network | Jörg Matthias Determann, “Islam, Science Fiction…

During the interview, Jörg mentions the SpaceMosque as part of an art exhibition. It is also very cool!

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Saddam, eradicating illiteracy, and the Ba’athist propaganda machine

Fascinating interview on women, writing, and the Ba’athist state.

Hawraa Al Hassan’s Women, Writing and the Iraqi Ba’thist State: Contending Discourses of Resistance and Collaboration, 1968-2003 (University of Edinburgh Press, 2020) is unique because it both explores discourse concerning women and how women themselves used literature to create a site of resistance to the state. Al-Hassan’s work is also inclusive, as it joins a wider call to make literary studies a space in which works which were previously considered propagandistic can also be seriously considered.

New Books Network | Hawraa Al Hassan, “Women, Writing and the Iraqi…

There are some great gems in this episode and areas I would like to dig deeper on, such as:

-Saddam eradicating illiteracy chiefly to build a wider audience for Ba’athist propaganda.

-Book covers as messages (not many read the book, but they do see the cover).

-The novels of Saddam Hussein. You may recall, it is believed that Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy The Dictator was inspired by one of these novels.

For more, here’s a print interview with Dr. Al-Hassan over at ArabLit.

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Decorating the Palace

Source: Iran Chamber Society

Remember those terrible ISIS videos showing the destruction of idols and museum pieces? I remember feeling sick to my stomach watching them. It’s very strange how powerful that imagery can be – and the anger that it can stoke.

Time has passed, and we’re at a place now where researchers and scholars are beginning to publish on those events.

I recently listened to a good interview with professor and researcher Aaron Tugendhaft on the New Books Network. The topic was his book titled The Idols of ISIS which discusses those events.

The striking point he makes during the interview is that it is not simply the destruction of the idols that was important, but replacing those idols with the image – the video – of those idols being destroyed. This is such an important and often overlooked concept. Someone is always holding the camera, and there is a purpose.

The book sounds fascinating, and discusses Saddam’s appropriation of Assyrian iconology to support his political ambitions (a subject I’m endlessly interested in). I couldn’t help but think of the video of Saddam’s statue being taken down in 2003 (the statue is an idol). Taking down the statue was important, but more important was replacing that with the image of it being taken down. We think we are watching a video of something happening – but it is in fac the video itself that is the new thing.

I know this gets kind of meta – but this is an important and easily missed phenomena.

There’s also a portion of the interview that discusses how the ISIS aesthetic was inspired by imagery in video games – Call of Duty is mentioned.

There is an endless deluge of scholars who look at ISIS – and for good reason. It is refreshing to get a take from someone outside of “terrorism” studies.

Lastly, during the interview, the below political cartoon was mentioned. It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it is still infuriating on so many levels.

PATRICK CHAPPATTEMosul Museum Devastated, 2015. Published in Le Temps, Switzerland, February 28, 2015. © Chappatte 2015.

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‎Army Myths: Chechens

A ruined Grozny, 1995.

Reminded during a recent Team House podcast of a very-GWOT myth: Chechens.

For some reason, “Chechens” became a bogeyman. I heard this in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Related: Juba).

“I heard there is a Chechen sniper in our AO,” someone might say with a knowing gravity.

“Oh damn, really?”

Given the influx of foreign fighters in both countries, of course there would be Chechens. I always wondered though – why, exactly?

What is it about “Chechens” that makes them particularly scary or fearsome? Why is it that when someone would invoke the Chechens, faces became sullen and serious?

I never figured that out.

Maybe someone has a better take on this, but I remember growing up in the 1990s watching the news of the war in Chechnya. It was brutal, and the Russians pulled no punches. I had a notion of what was going on, and there is a part of me that thinks much of the myth-making here is attributing mystical fighting prowess to Chechens because we (collective we, soldiers) really don’t know much about it.

It also feels very conspiratorial any time Chechens are invoked. The presence of “Chechens” points to something darker going on that I never quite bought into. Other leaders might roll their eyes – “This guy again with the Chechens…”

I am sure there is a kernel here, something going on that got this ball rolling. But the power the myth has does not seem warranted.

Would love to know more about the reality here, if anyone can point me in the right direction.

Details about the referenced podcast below.

Wesley Morgan details the history of US military operations in the Pech valley in Afghanistan, a place of deadly battles and unforgiving terrain. We start with the history of the valley and America’s first forays there in 2002, then get into the larger conventional and special operations campaigns that have taken place there with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns.

‎The Team House: Deadly Special Ops missions in the Pech Valley with Wes Morgan, Ep. 85 on Apple Podcasts

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Media war in Iraq

From Al-Monitor:

In a span of less than three months, five “new pro-Iran militias” have announced their plans to escalate attacks on US forces in Iraq. Some of them have claimed responsibility for major anti-American attacks. But evidence indicates this is a propaganda campaign conducted by existing militias rather than an actual escalation. The main desire common among these groups is avenging the death of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Popular Mobilization Units’ (PMU) military leader who was assassinated by the United States alongside Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani, in January.

Pro-Iran militias in Iraq wage ‘fake news’ campaign against US – Al Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East

So much noise in the Iraqi media environment. If you take the time to dig through it, there is a lot to learn.

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Desert Wolverines: Living the ‘Red Dawn’ fantasy

Wolverines!

I came across a few good articles challenging some of the common notions of what inspires ISIS fighters and supporters.

The first describes the worldwide phenomenon as more akin to a youth revolt, with Islam as its unifying thread. It’s not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism.

The second discusses the “joy of ISIS.” That is, the general lack of understanding the West has towards recognizing that there is something that draws people to the cause in the first place: meaning, sense of purpose, happiness, joy.

I also revisited this short piece from five years ago on the Islamic State in Iraq (the predecessor to ISIS) where they repurposed the Call of Duty:Black Ops poster for their own propaganda. Youth and fun.

What I enjoyed about these articles is that they’re looking a little deeper at the ISIS phenomenon. The loudest voices I hear scream that it’s the religion that is to blame; it’s a “death cult.” Those voices flame more paranoia and fear which stoke stupid events like burning Qurans, lining streets with pig heads, proudly displaying ‘infidel’ labels, and so on.

Even before ISIS, I had a hard time believing that it was simply religion that inspired the IEDs, snipers, and ambushes I faced in Iraq after the invasion and later just before the surge. I was younger and dumber then, and while it would have been easy to simply say “It’s the religion, stupid!” and cast all of “them” as the other, just a tiny amount of critical thinking said there was something more going on.

Years later, sitting in a room with David Kilcullen, one of the chief advisors to Gen. Petraeus during the surge, I asked him if the chief motivation for some of the insurgents might simply be “the thrill of it?”

“Maybe,” he said.

When you peel back the layers of why young men and women join our own military, you’ll often find they do it for the experience – the thrill. As William Broyles wrote in Why Men Love War, “War offers endless exotic experiences, enough “I couldn’t fucking believe it!’s to last a lifetime.”

Similarly, James Jeffrey, a former British Armor officer describes the thrill this way:

“I defy anyone in a Challenger 2 tank, looking back over the commander’s cupola at 20 armored vehicles kicking up curtains of sand, speeding across the smooth desert while enveloped in warm winds as the gunner traverses the turret to test fire the coaxially mounted machine gun, and then claim not to have enjoyed themselves.”

One of the most addictive things about being in or around the military is the feeling of being “at the center of the world.” The obsession and interest people have with the military (news, movies, games, literature, etc.) makes it very easy for those who are a part of it to feel unique and a part of something greater. If you’re born in America, you can get close to that center through joining the military.

If joining the military isn’t your thing or isn’t possible, you can get on the same stage simply by joining ISIS. You don’t even have to join, you can just pledge loyalty and get on with it.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, there were some pundits that claimed Saddam was stalling on allowing Weapons of Mass Destruction inspectors, simply because he liked the attention. He liked being on the world stage. If America (and Iran) believed he had WMDs, it made him relevant and important.

Many of my peers in the military love the film Red Dawn, the story of a group of teenagers who find themselves waging a guerrilla war against an invading Soviet force. They call themselves the ‘Wolverines’ after their school mascot. It’s a fantasy, where they get to ambush the invading enemy, steal his weapons to grow more powerful, be the underdog and be the hero.

Invading a country is an odd experience, and when you think about it and talk about it, it doesn’t take long to realize that once you get to the insurgency, the “enemy” might simply be living that Red Dawn fantasy.

The Pashtuns, former Baathists, ISIS fighters – it’s Red Dawn, in reverse.

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