Great Power Competition in the Middle East

mural depicting saddam victory in jerusalem

We’ve heard this before. Competition between states is going to happen in other places – not directly in or on the borders of those same states.

“It is quite clear that the Middle East is a critical arena for China.”

Linda Robinson (see Infinite Competition)

This episode of the IWI podcast dives into the concept of competition between states in other places – specifically Russia, China, and Iran.

Here’s the question that had me listening more closely:

“What are the skill-sets and capabilities needed to implement integrated deterrence in the CENTCOM area of responsibility given the character of these threats?”

The answer? Language and culture.

If you don’t understand the language of the people you’re dealing with, if you don’t understand their culture, then you’re going to have a really hard time appreciating how a particular action plays out in that culture, or doesn’t play out.

Rear Admiral Mitch Bradley, ~44:15

The conversation goes on from there stressing the importance of education in developing leaders who can truly understand their environments and the implications of their actions or inactions.

This, of course, is refreshing to hear.

The challenge is two-fold. First, to truly develop the skills that we’re talking about (language proficiency beyond building rapport and cultural understanding beyond the surface level) we are talking about an immense investment of time. A short course on language or culture isn’t going to do it. This stuff takes years – decades even.

Which brings me to the second challenge: incentives. If we are saying that what we want is the above, are we incentivizing this? Are we promoting and rewarding those who have put in the work?

It goes back to the infinite competition episode and another great question: “Do you think the system is promoting the right types of leaders and talent to engage in political warfare or great power competition?”

The desire is there. The need is there. Now it’s about aligning incentives to meet it.

Lastly, I love it anytime senior leaders talk about the need to develop our own “Lawrence of Arabia.”

“…not only a Lawrence of Arabia, but a Lawrence of Africa… and I would say, a Lawrence of southern Arabia, and all of these other places where the Chinese and the Iranians and the Russians are trying to compete…”

I appreciate the further parsing – knowledge that is useful has to be extremely granular. And developing that granular knowledge takes time.

Lawrence’s education began well before he stepped foot in Arabia as a military man.

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Shallow Fakes

Surely by now you have heard of “deep fakes.”

In their most insidious form, these are doctored videos that appear real. As technology improves, so does the ability to create convincing and deceptive videos.

The fear is that people will believe these deep fakes which will then lead to some change in attitude or behavior.

While deep fakes are interesting, we have been dealing with instances of this forever. We’ve always had the “shallow fake,” or low-effort deception.

And these can be surprisingly effective.

My favorite example is from 2005. The insurgency in Iraq was intensifying and becoming more dangerous. A militant group claimed to have captured US soldier “John Adam.” I remember seeing this photo making its way around the internet.

Of course, it looks fake now.

But in 2005, when the internet was still a pretty new thing, it gave pause. I remember scrutinizing the picture myself, thinking it must be fake, but still wondering.

Deception doesn’t always have to change minds or win the war. It can just cause angst and bureaucratic churn.

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Western YouTubers and Influencers touring Iraq

a picture of baghdad at night along the river

Not something I ever thought I’d see.

“A lot of YouTubers and influencers from the West started coming,” Haroun, a native of the ancient city of Babylon, told Middle East Eye.

Iraq: Western YouTubers and influencers a new ‘phenomenon’ for tourism, Middle East Eye

And apparently this has been going on for a while now. The security situation has gotten better, for sure, but it seems that the proximate cause is the easing of entry requirements.

But the Iraqi government also took a big step in March 2021 when it decided to allow citizens from countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and European Union countries to obtain a visa on arrival at airports or land and sea borders. 

Before, the cumbersome process to get a tourist visa could take months and cost thousands of dollars. Even more enticing for some, Iraq did away with the requirement that tourists have a government-approved guide with them.

Agreed. Getting a visa in advance coupled with a government-sponsored minder would be a major hindrance to visiting.

I’ve watched a couple of the videos, and they’re a bit mind-boggling to watch.

This is a good development. I hope it continues.

Could you even imagine?

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So Kill Them Back!

brown tree in desert

One of my not-so-guilty pleasures is the Bulaq podcast.

We look at new writing from Syria and about the experiences of Syrian refugees, including Ramy Al-Asheq’s Ever Since I Did Not Die, a book he categorizes not as poetry or prose but as “pieces of my body, haphazardly brought together in a paper bag.”

So Kill Them Back!

The below excerpt from the book Ever Since I Did Not Die struck me, and I’ve added it to my list.

Going back kills you.

A child running from his innocent features kills you, to become a hero.

But heroism ends up killing him.

It kills whatever can grow in a child who is planning to grow up.

There is no hero on that land sown with injustice and war.

There is no hero there except for death, standing victorious as it awaits your flesh.

The spreadout dirt of worms and intermittent wailing fades to silence.

Eventually, you fade too.

No one says your name anymore.

A child sinking in the drowning sea of death kills you.

A child born to be killed kills you.

A child born to kill kills you.

Yearning, love, family, light, age, god, homeland, and sea, kill you.

Earth, paradise, memories of old photos, mourning’s enterouage, happiness as waste, and exile, kill you.

Revolution, women of death, and grandmother’s stories, kill you.

Return kills you.

Going back kills you.

So kill them back.

It’s really worth listening to. The passage starts at about the ~15:00 mark.

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Subversive Chants

I love this recent episode of the Bulaq podcast which discusses the politics of Arab football chants.

Football and Arabic literature haven’t always had an easy relationship. Football has inspired famous authors like Mahmoud Darwish, and anonymous fans who have composed powerful stadium chants. But the sport is sometimes looked down on by writers. We celebrate the sport and its chroniclers, featured in the FOOTBALL-themed fall 2021 issue of ArabLit Quarterly.

Football Writing: The Passion and the Provocation

This episode is a companion to the Fall 2021 issue of Arab-Lit Quarterly, which is on football writing in the Arab world.

There’s something that happens when you get thousands of people together united behind a common cause.

There’s a reason regimes everywhere are terrified of crowds. Add to that the passion of a chant and things can quickly get out of hand.

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GWOT Hangover: “I’ll take it from here”

I'll take it from here
I'll take it from here
Not sure of the origin of this cartoon – but it was everywhere in the military in the weeks following 9/11. Our company armorer had it posted right there at the weapons cage.

We’re in the deluge of 9/11 reflections. Articles, documentaries, ceremonies, and tweet storms. It’s everywhere.

And it should be.

I find myself wanting to do nothing but engross myself in all of them while also avoiding every last one.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about if I have anything useful to add.

I’m not sure that I do.

I’ve written about my experiences in and around 9/11 – a lot. I’m from New York City. My father worked for the FDNY. I joined the Army just before 9/11 and it happened while I was at jump school. My entire military and academic career has been wrapped up in what happened, why, and our response to it.

That’s all personally interesting, but it’s not that different from most folks I serve with. There are variations of intensity and experience, but it’s all very similar.

Instead of thinking about what it all means for me, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means for us.

9/11 was a psychological weapon of mass destruction.

It shocked us into action and overreaction. It was a power-punch directly to the forehead. We were shook.

Do you remember this video (2003) of Tom Friedman discussing our reaction to 9/11?

We need to see American boys and girls, going house to house, from Basra and Baghdad, asking ‘what part of this sentence don’t you understand?‘”

Watch the video. It’s angry. It’s absurd. It’s counterproductive. I don’t agree with the argument.

But I also remember this sentiment being the feeling in the air in the days, weeks, and years directly after 9/11. It didn’t matter what was logical. It mattered how we felt. We made decisions and we carried them out.

Then twenty years goes by.

When I think about 9/11 now, I don’t really thinking about 9/11 at all. What I think about is the GWOT effect.

What I think about is the burning desire to help, to marshal that patriotism into action and churn, and churn, and churn. And have it come up empty.

“To be sent overseas to divide by zero.”

I’ve seen men and women of all ranks and in all different jobs throw themselves into the fire only to get burned.

What began as a mission of justice became something much grander.

So here we are.

Twenty years is a long time.

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If you control the countryside, you control the towns

taliban fight holding an m16
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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Islam, science fiction, and space mosques

a fantasy space mosque

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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Two recent podcasts on Fallujah

a marine with an m16 smoking iraq war

I haven’t listened to an Urban Warfare Project podcast for awhile – this one was good.

In this episode of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project Podcast, John Spencer is joined by retired Colonel Leonard DeFrancisci. He served thirty-two years in the Marine Corps and in 2004 he was a civil affairs detachment commander for Regimental Combat Team 1 during the Second Battle of Fallujah, Iraq.

Civil Affairs and the Second Battle of Fallujah – Modern War Institute

I don’t usually get too excited about Civil Affairs, especially USMC Civil Affairs. In the episode, we learn about civil affairs contracts as military deception, the effective use of PSYOP and loudspeakers to clear an area of civilians, and whisper campaigns.

Incidentally, I recently listened to another podcast on Fallujah, titled “Toxic Legacy of War in Iraq,” which discusses the lingering effects of warfare on the health of the people of Fallujah.

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Arabic literature and beyond: Bulaq | بولاق

old photograph of cairo bulaq

I’ve been listening to the Bulaq podcast since episode one. I’m not exactly sure how I found it, although it was probably from the Arabist or Jaddaliya.

Bulaq has become one of my favorite podcasts, despite the fact that I read very little Arabic literature. And most of the Arabic literature I have read came based off of recommendations from the podcast or ArabLit.

While the episodes mostly focus on works of Arabic literature – in Arabic and in translation – I specifically enjoy the commentary and cultural criticism from the episode’s two hosts, Ursula Lindsey and M Lynx Qualey.

In their latest episode (Women in Love and Lust), they discuss the topic of sex in Arabic fiction and poetry over the past 1500 years with editor Selma Dabbagh.

Here, Ursula raises how troublesome it can be just having these converations.

“The topic of Arab women’s sexuality is a kind of cultural minefield in which there is a long history of Western attention to the status of women in the Arab world, and specifically of their sexual freedom which is loaded with all sorts of stereotypes, and really is self-interested and sometimes malicious agendas.”

Women In Love and In Lust | Sowt

Yes. Afghanistan being the most palpable recent example.

The conversation goes on and is related to the topic of imperial feminism. That is, the idea that the defense of women can be (and often is) used as justification for empire or empire-building. It’s an important topic and one that can be shocking if you’ve never heard it before.

We’re all in our own unique information bubbles. It’s good to have things in your information diet that challenges the status quo and might even make you feel a little uncomfortable.

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