Category Archives: War

Remembrance Day


On Remembrance Day we are asked to think about war and those who gave their lives for our freedoms. That’s not a bad idea. Yet, I can’t help thinking about a very current war. One that is far from over even though it was “declared” more than 2 decades ago—the war on terror. This in turn led directly to the war in Afghanistan that took 20 years until the Americans who initiated it, packed their tents and went home, leaving behind hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment and carrying with them memories of thousands of injured and lost lives and more than a trillion dollars paid by American taxpayers for not much of value in return.

I am not a pacifist. At least technically. Like Obama said, “we should avoid dumb wars.” And I agree. I just think they are pretty well all dumb wars.

So why can’t we celebrate those who helped us avoid wars or at least did their best to save us from the dumb wars?  I think of Bertrand Russell who went to jail in World War I because he refused to serve in what he thought (rightly so) was a dumb war. I think World War I was one of the dumbest. As the song goes, “War—what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” In his autobiography Russell wrote about the people in London at Trafalgar Square who turned out in delirious celebratory joy when England declared war on Germany in 1914. Soon after that the dead soldiers began to pile up and again without much accomplished.  Let’s remember Bertrand Russell.

Congress woman Barbara Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against going to war in Afghanistan. Some called her a traitor. She was a hero.

She said she thought long and hard about that war, and it took a while for her to come to a decision. She said when she spoke in Congress about whether to go to war she thought about what she had heard Reverend Nathan Baxter say in his opening invocation at the memorial service at Washington Cathedral 3 days after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Baxter prayed this: “Let us also pray for divine wisdom as our leaders consider the necessary actions for national security, wisdom of the grace of God, that as we act, we not become the evil we deplore.”

That was wisdom unlike the loud clamorous demands for revenge and war. Let’s remember Barbara Lee today.

I do not object to remembering the men and women who fell in battle trying to defend our liberties. They made the supreme sacrifice after all. If the wars were dumb that was not their fault. Their country asked for their service and they gave it wholeheartedly.

I just want to think about those as well who tried to keep us out of wars. No one is going around selling poppies to remember them.

Statistics of the War in Afghanistan


Mark Twain once said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” But there are also some statistics that are pretty darn telling.

Here are some interesting statistics about the war as of mid-April 2021.

The American war in Afghanistan cost a lot of treasure. At least a trillion and maybe more, but when it gets to figures like that my eyes glaze over anyway. Whether it was one trillion or two or three who really cares. But importantly, lives.  The war lasted 20 years. The longest war in US history.  And we must remember the US has been in a lot of wars.

2,442 US troops died in the war.  3,800 American private security forces died. I found it interesting that more private American soldiers died than regular military.  It “paid off” for Americans to outsource the war as much as possible. After all who feels sorry for private security forces?

20,666 Americans were injured in the war. Much of the suffering of war is caused by injury. People came back from the war with all kinds of injuries including, of course, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Even though no one in the west really pays attention to this, but 47,245 Afghans died in the war. This is really the most important number though people in the west pay so little attention to it. This of course followed the 10-year war with Russia.  The people have Afghanistan have suffered enormously. That much is clear from the numbers.


That is a lot of suffering.

Now for the question:  What was worth so much suffering?


Afghanistan: One of the Dumb Wars


I know some people can’t stand Bill Maher.  He is a comedian and often doesn’t allow his guests to speak. He likes to hear himself speak. Too much. But he does have some fascinating guests and interesting conversations. Recently, he had one with Craig Whitlock about the war in Afghanistan—a genuine debacle.

The war in Afghanistan originally had some semblance of a rationale. Not much but some. George W. Bush launched that war in response to the attack on the US on September 11, 2001. He like so many others thought Afghanistan was harbouring the terrorists who launched the attack on America at the Twin Towers on 9/11 and other American targets.

The US spent over $2 trillion on this war? What did it get out of it? Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan not Afghanistan.

Craig Whitlock was interviewed by Bill Maher on his TV show. He was the author of a book called The Afghanistan Papers.  He pointed out how the Taliban within about a week of taking over are banning music again. Women have been told to go home. As Maher said, “The Taliban have said the women will have all their rights within the limits of Islam–which is a great way of saying none.”  Maher says he is always surprised at how little liberals in America don’t care how women are treated in so many countries around the world. “We got into the mindset that Bin Laden is in Afghanistan so we gotta go there and stay there until we can say it will never happen again and which of course means we will be there forever.”

70% of the people in the country were not alive during the reign of the Taliban.  Do they know what they are getting in for?

One of the surprising and sad things about the war in Afghanistan is how similar it was to the War in Vietnam. As Maher said,  “It’s like we just did this shit and then we did it again,” One generation forgets what the last one did. In America they should start teaching history in school, that might help.

Whitlock’s book has a theory of the war that is like what happened in Vietnam. The leaders were optimistic in public and pessimistic (realistic) in private. They didn’t tell the truth to the American public–again. That is exactly what the American military and political leaders did throughout the War in Vietnam and then repeated it in the War in Afghanistan.

According to Whitlock this is what they did right from the start of the war. Donald Rumsfeld the Secretary of Defense  mocked journalists who asked if this would be another Vietnam. 6 months into the war he sent a memo to his military chiefs saying if we don’t get a plan to stabilize Afghanistan our troops will get stuck there forever. He ends the memo like this with one word: “Help!” Sounds a lot like Vietnam doesn’t it.

Should he not have considered this before he committed the troops to the invasion? According to Whitlock this went on for years. In public the leaders said things are getting better, we’re making progress, we’re turning the corner. In private diplomatic cables and memos they admitted things are a mess in Afghanistan–which is exactly what they were. The same thing happened in Vietnam. “They knew that gradually things are slipping out of their grasp and it’s becoming unwinnable.”

Maher was very upset with President Barack Obama.  Obama said he was not against all wars. Some are justified. I would add–not many. Obama said, but I am against dumb wars. That was smart! We all should be. Too many are not. After Maher heard Obama say that  he said, ‘that’s my guy.’ Yet Maher also asked, “How could a guy that was that bright do what we were trying to do? Surge? Take over the country? Flood it with money and that would change things around, when really it was doing just the opposite?”

When Obama ran for office he said Iraq was the dumb war. That was true. It was dumb. Even dumber than the ear in Afghanistan, but that does not diminish the fact that the Afghan war also stupid. The Americans soon forgot their goal which was to get bin Laden and somehow switched to nation building. Obama said Afghanistan was the just cause. And that made some sense, because bin Laden launched his attack or at least trained soldiers in Afghanistan. It was originally a war of self defense. That was why Canada and other NATO countries joined in as they felt they had to do under the NATO Treaty. Canada under Chretien wisely declined to participate in the second Iraq war. The first Iraq war, again, made some sense.

Why did the war not end when bin Laden was killed?  Instead the Americans allowed the war to morph into this idea that they would build the democratic nation of Afghanistan. As Maher said, “It morphed into nation building. It morphed into this ridiculous idea, as in Vietnam, that we could change hearts and minds when by the things we were doing there, you only lose hearts and minds.”

As Whitlock said,

“Each president–Bush, Obama, and Trump–said we are not nation building in Afghanistan., even though at that very moment that is exactly what we were doing. The United States spent more than $100 billion nation building in Afghanistan. That’s more than we spent in Europe on the Marshall Plan after World War II and now it’s all gone up in smoke.”

That was dumb and many lives were lost on its account.

Hans averts World War III


Many people don’t know about this but for decades Canada and Denmark have been “fighting” over a tiny island off the coast of Greenland. Denmark owns Greenland. Donald Trump tried to purchase Greenland but Denmark refused to sell. He should have made an offer for Hans Island instead, but probably did not want to tangle with Canada.

Hans Island is a tiny uninhabited island—no more than a big rock really—in the center of Kennedy Channel of Nares Strait off the coast of Greenland.  Like Hans Neufeld the writer of this blog, Hans Island has no apparent natural resources and is essentially worthless. Yet astonishingly there has been a decades long dispute between Canada and Norway over ownership of this tiny island that no one with any sense would want. It has no oil and is located precisely on the agreed border between Canada and Greenland, but sort of by accident this little island was left out of the boundary agreement. The island has  no apparent natural resources of mineral, oil or natural gas, but still, there is an ongoing territorial dispute between Denmark and Canada over who owns the half-squared mile of the rock.

This “war” between Denmark and Canada has been one of the most unusual in the history of warfare. For the past 3 decades each country has repeatedly placed a flag on the island claiming ownership and yet welcomes the other country to the island with a bottle of hootch. I kid you not. Canada leaves whiskey and Denmark schnapps. This is exactly how two friendly countries should fight a war and Hans Neufeld is enormously proud of the fact that this is how the battle has been fought over his namesake island.

In 2006 a student got into the act. He was a Carleton University student who announced he had set up the Government of Tartupaluk and declared himself “The Reigning Prince of Tartupaluk.” Since no one inhabits the island there was no one to challenge his claim or oppose it, but his claims sadly seem to have been forgotten.   As well recently there were some self-declared “Indigenous” Hans Islanders, called Hans who claimed ownership.  These people said they wanted other  to come to live on the unpopulated island. I wish I had been consulted by these two Hans as I would like to have a chance to put forward my case for this island. I could be “President for life of Hans Island.” Or perhaps I could be Emperor of Hans Island.

Recently I heard the two countries have agreed to share jurisdiction over the island. I don’t know what it means, but I guess this means war has been averted. It could easily have led to World War III so that is a very good thing. History would have been very different if world wars had been fought like this. I say, let ‘Let Hans show the way.’


This is particularly important on September 11 20 years after 9/11 which led to the longest war in American history for no apparent purpose. There is a better way. Hans Island proves it.




This film tells the story of 2 fictionalBritish lance corporals in World War I on the western front, assigned to stop a battalion of 1,600 men from walking into a German ambush.  One of the men has extra incentive. His brother is part of the forces about to walk into that trap. The general warns the young corporal, “If you fail, it will be a massacre.” Apparently the film is based on true events told by the director’s father.


The film astonishes with its brilliant cinematography and unusual points of view. This is a war movie like I have never seen before. I am not sure this is what I wanted, but I really got the feeling that this is what war is like. And it doesn’t feel good. It an outstanding film. While not for the squeamish, I recommend it highly.


The scenes of war are unparalleled in their grizzly realism. The landscape is strewn with mud, dead horses, dead humans stuck inside mud, often with only parts revealed. Rats and birds consume the corpses. There are cows in the country-side doing their best to ignore the carnage. Buildings are horribly ravished. Violence is sudden, shocking, and explosive. All of this makes for a great film created by artists at the height of their powers. If this film does not win the Best Picture award, the film that does will have to be outstanding.


When the message to stand down is delivered, the officers who receive it safely ensconced in their bunkers, don’t want to believe. They are ready for war. The last thing they want to do is stand down. That idea is entirely contrary to their aggressive training. You’ll have to see the film to see what happens.

But I want to comment on a side bar. The film does not glorify the “heroes.” It does not glorify war. And that is good.

But why do so many war movies focus on the soldiers? For example, I would love to see a war movie that concentrates on a real life hero–like Bertrand Russell for example. I read his autobiography about 50 years ago after my first year of university. Russell was one of my intellectual heroes, but he was more than that.

I will never forget his description of going to Trafalgar Square in London when England declared war on the Germans in 1914. What surprised Russell, and me, was the immense joy experienced by the people. They were excited to go to war. The young men and women, aided and abetted by the old warmongers, were absolutely joyous at the prospects of the war. Of course it helped that most of them thought the war would be over soon. They fully expected to be, as they said, “home or homo by Christmas.”

Bertrand Russell could not believe it. It was his first experience of people braying for war. They screamed for war. They demanded war. And only a few voices dissented from this madness. People like Russell who were conscientious objectors to the war urged caution. They were the only ones who were sceptical about the objects of the war. They were the only ones who thought the war might not end soon. They were the only ones who exercised any humility or modesty. They were not consumed by the lust for war.

Of course, the people in England scorned Russell and his kind as cowards, traitors, Communists, and Huns. Many of them, like Russell were imprisoned for refusing to serve in the war. That took real courage.

Yet that war served absolutely no good purpose. It was fought mainly by young men and women from the working classes, to defend the dubious colonial businesses of the ruling classes. Why would they do that? Those hapless young people were pushed into a meat grinder for the sake of the higher classes. Millions lost their lives for no good reason at all. The war, like so many,  was a monstrous disaster. Old men called; young men and women died fro it.

When will we see a movie that glorifies the dissidents who told the truth about war, urging caution and humility while renouncing aggressive violence? That is a movie that I would like to see.

Camps: Incubating the next Jihad.

There are some consequences of the war to the “liberation” of Mosul that I was not familiar with.  That is the existence of camps for refugees. One of the often forgotten results of war is the displacement of people. It is just not possible for people to live in a war torn country. As Ben Taub reported in the New Yorker, “The war against the Islamic State displaced a million people in Nineveh Province.” (emphasis added) And that is just one province of Iraq! It is difficult for us in the west to comprehend 1 million people not being able to live in their own homes. Imagine the distress this would cause.


Many of these people were placed in refugee camps, often near by in other parts of Iraq some distance from the worst fighting. Originally the main inhabitants were people displaced by ISIS. Later ISIS linked families were added to the list of the displaced as the U.S. led coalition forces claimed “victory.”  Many were transported to the camps in 115°F weather in open trucks without shade or water.  Taub reported how the head of a major Non-governmental organization described the camps as“like a concentration camp.”


Many of the security forces were reluctant to protect the camp residents. They are more interested in exacting revenge for violence inflicted on their loved ones. Life inside those camps was gruesomely bad:


In some camps, humanitarian workers offer aid in exchange for sex. Many women are pregnant from having been raped by the security forces or from having sex to feed themselves and their children. Although the fighting has ended, “these camps are meant to stay,” the N.G.O. director said. “If you are ten years old now, and you have no food, no assistance, and your mother has to prostitute herself to survive, and the whole of Iraqi society blames you because you were close to ISIS—in two, three, four years, what are you going to do? It’s clear. The seeds for the next conflict are all here.” (emphasis added)

Many commentators criticized President Obama for the chaos he left behind in Iraq, saying it generated ISIS. Now the American supported coalition forces are doing it again. As Taub said,

“At a police compound in West Mosul, I asked a colonel named Mezhar Sedoon whether he thought that the camps are creating more security problems than they are solving. “Some of the mothers in the camp are raising ISIS children, but others have become prostitutes,” he said. He laughed. “Money-money, fucky-fucky!” he said in English. “I’d rather they become whores than raise terrorists!”

Some women try to carry out abortions inside their tents. Others give birth, and discard the babies in unpopulated parts of the camp. Those who are found alive often end up in the care of Sukaina Mohammad Ali Younnis, an Iraqi government official who is in charge of women’s and children’s issues in Mosul. Over tea in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, she showed me hundreds of photographs of children she has found in camps, on the streets, and dead in trash cans. Earlier this year, she saw someone throw a bundle out of a car, and found that it was a baby boy. She showed me a video of herself cradling him in the back of an ambulance, as blood bubbled out of his nostrils. He died on the way to the hospital.

Outside the camps, thousands of other children have been abandoned or orphaned by the war. Many of them were born to Yazidi women who had been kidnapped by ISIS and forced into sexual slavery. “After ISIS, the Yazidis accepted the women back into the community, but not their half-ISIS babies,” Younnis said. “They force the women to turn over their children to the orphanage. Every day, these women call me, wanting to know how their children are doing.” (emphasis added)

Hundreds of very young children are living in Iraqi prisons because their parents have been sentenced to death. As Taub said,

“Iraqi children whom ISIS trained to become fighters and potential suicide bombers, are imprisoned, as if their lives were irredeemable. “They are useless in interrogations—they just cry,” the senior Iraqi intelligence official said. “We are holding children as young as twelve in cells with hard-core jihadi fighters.”… Thousands of children in Mosul live on the street, searching through the trash for scrap to sell. “After their parents were killed or imprisoned, their relatives refused to take them in,” Younnis said. “They are seen as tainted, even if they were too young to absorb the ideology.” Many of them hang out in traffic and at checkpoints, choking on dust and diesel, trying to wipe down windshields or sell water and tissues to passing motorists. “They will do anything for fifty dollars,” she said. “I go to many government officials, asking to find ways to help these kids, but they all say, ‘It’s not my area of responsibility.’ ” (emphasis added)

Thousands of children in Mosul live on the street, searching through the trash for scrap to sell.

So the American supported coalition forces have created a problem that will come back to haunt not just he Middle East, but likely, the world.  All of this is just one more unintended consequence of war. Taub put it this way,

“The camps are a time bomb,” Younnis continued. “The fathers are in prison or dead. The mothers are being raped. They will raise the kids accordingly, and their sons will seek revenge. This won’t just affect Mosul, or Nineveh, or Iraq. This will affect the whole world.” (emphasis added)

At least the Pentagon is not saying “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. They have learned that the next generation of jihadists is being incubated. No matter what Trump says, ISIS is not destroyed. He did not start any of these wars, but he seriously misjudged, as did Obama, how difficult it is to end these crazy wars in the Middle East. That is one more reason not to start them in the first place. Already since its “defeat” ISIS has set up checkpoints and has carried out abductions and assassinations in parts of Iraq. It has been said that they have buried large quantities of weapons and even cash to be unearthed when the next jihad is declared. Taub concluded his article in the New Yorker this way:

” According to the Pentagon, ISIS is “more capable” now than Al Qaeda in Iraq was at its peak, in 2007, and there are still some thirty thousand fighters operating in Syria and Iraq. Citing the camps, Umm Hamad told me that she expects the Islamic State to return to Mosul. “Not soon, but more powerful than before,” she said.

The other woman was Umm Hamad’s niece. She was in her twenties, and spoke softly and wistfully of the past. “Everyone in my family welcomed the Islamic State, except my youngest brother,” she said. “He hated them.” Throughout the occupation, she and her other brothers had tried to convince him of the merits of the caliphate, to no avail. Then he was arrested by the Iraqi security forces, under suspicion of ISIS affiliation. He was twelve years old. She has no idea where he is, or when he will get out of prison—she knows only that, if the government doesn’t kill him, by the time it lets him go it will have taught him that she was right.”

 I keep thinking about my American friend who wants to “take out Iran.”  How easy will that be? What unintended consequences would such actions usher in? The United States has helped cause the death of thousands of people, helped displace millions of others, spent hundred of billions of dollars (if not trillions) in Iraq and the result has been the Middle East is filled with people who hate Americans and the next generation of jihadis has already been  born to unleash their reign of terror on a new generation of innocents. This is not madness; it is much worse than that!

The Battle for Mosul: Who are the Good Guys?


I know I have been going on and on about war in the Middle East, particularly the wars in Iraq.  My American friend got me going on these thoughts when he said if he was President he would “take out Iran.” That sounds so simple.

Ben Taub in his New Yorker article described the battle to retake Mosul from ISIS as the” most intense urban combat since the Second World War.”  One of the interesting things about that battle was that the brutal ISIS fighters were often seen as preferable to the U.S. supported Iraqi security. As Taub said,

“They told us that the Iraqi security forces would kill the men and rape the women,” a young woman from the village of Shirqat told me… “We trusted ISIS more than the Iraqi state.”

Of course that did not end brutality by ISIS. As Taub reported,

“We trusted ISIS more than the Iraqi state.” Other villagers, who had spent years awaiting liberation, were loaded onto buses at gunpoint by ISIS fighters, and packed into Mosul’s front-line neighborhoods, to be used as human shields. In the ensuing months, the jihadis murdered hundreds of people who tried to escape, and hung bodies from electrical pylons.”

 Mosul was a very difficult place to fight a war. After all it was an old city. The west part of the city was particularly difficult because it was so densely packed with narrow streets and alleyways. As Taub said,

“The coalition concluded that the Old City could not be captured according to the rules of engagement that had governed the battle in East Mosul, so it loosened its requirements for calling in an air strike. In March, the U.S. dropped a five-hundred-pound bomb on a roof in the Old City, in an effort to kill two ISIS snipers. The explosion killed a hundred and five civilians who had been sheltering inside the building. Survivors reported that there were no ISIS fighters in the vicinity at the time of the strike.” Who thinks this makes sense?

There is only one question that is really pertinent here: “Who are the good guys?”  After all this was “our side.” Our side is always the good guy right?

Of course both sides were guilty to atrocities. ISIS fighters killed thousands, so the Iraqi forces retaliated in kind.  Taub described it this way:

“By early July, ISIS fighters had killed thousands of government troops and police officers, and Iraqi commanders were under enormous pressure to finish the battle. The next few weeks were a bloodbath. ISIS fighters who surrendered were executed on the spot. Iraqi security forces filmed themselves hurling captives off a cliff, then shooting them as they lay dying on the rocks below. Helicopters buzzed the Tigris, bombing people as they tried to swim across. The troops assumed that anyone still living in the Old City sided with the Islamic State. For the rest of the month, corpses bobbed downstream, dressed in civilian clothes. “We killed them all—Daesh, men, women, and children,” an Iraqi Army officer told a Middle Eastern news site, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. As he spoke, his colleagues dragged a suspect through the streets by a rope tied around his neck. “We are doing the same thing as ISIS. People went down to the river to get water, because they were dying of thirst, and we killed them.” When the battle was over, soldiers used construction equipment to shovel rubble into the entrances of ISIS tunnels—ostensibly to suffocate any remaining jihadis, but also to mingle corpses and concrete, thereby obscuring the scale of the atrocities. As late as March of this year, journalists were still finding the bodies of women and children on the riverbanks, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs and bullet holes in their skulls.

When the battle was over the Old City of Mosul was in ruins.  According to the UN, besides the dead and wounded, the battle for Mosul has left behind around ten million tons of rubble. Many of those destroyed buildings were continuously inhabited from the 7th century until July 2017. Of course the greatest losses were suffered by people.

The brutality of ISIS forces is well known and for good reason. The brutality of coalition forces, supported by the US and Britain are less well known. As Taub reported,

“In October, 2016, Iraqi security forces filmed themselves executing a captive in Qayyarah, an hour south of Mosul. They also tied the bodies of several dead ISIS fighters to the back of a Nissan pickup truck and dragged them through Qayyarah’s main road, while villagers cheered; children kicked the corpses, and a man stood on one of the bodies, surfing. According to Human Rights Watch, which obtained thirteen videos from the scene, a man from a nearby village came to Qayyarah after hearing that the man who had killed his father and three of his uncles was among the dead fighters. He beheaded the man and cut out his heart, then presented it as a gift to his mother.”

Little wonder that coalition forces tried their best to conceal the casualties:

“The coalition has acknowledged a civilian death toll in the low hundreds. But the West Mosul civil defense has retrieved thousands of corpses from the Old City. Last December, the Associated Press obtained a list of nearly ten thousand civilians whose bodies had been registered at the local morgue. Most had been crushed to death by falling concrete; for others, the cause of death had been entered into the morgue’s database simply as “blown to pieces.” (Thomas Veale, a U.S. Army colonel and a spokesman for the coalition, told the A.P. that it was “irresponsible” to draw attention to civilian casualties in West Mosul. If not for the coalition’s campaign, he said, Iraqis would have suffered years of “needless death and mutilation” at the hands of “terrorists who lack any ethical or moral standards.)”

Are we to believe that “our side” is ethical and moral?  The evidence clearly does not support that assumption.

Ben Taub did not mince words in his description of Iraqi forces and Iraqi people:

“Elsewhere in Iraq, security forces filmed themselves punching, kicking, and whipping men in ad-hoc detention sites, including school classrooms. They dragged suspects by the hair, stepped on their heads, slammed knees into their faces, and threw furniture at them. They beat people unconscious; they beat people to death. They filmed themselves gunning down captives in open fields and stabbing them in the face with knives. A group of Hashd members struggled to interrogate six foreign fighters who couldn’t speak Arabic; in the end, they shot them, doused them in gasoline, and lit them on fire—including two who were still alive. A federal police officer filmed himself beheading captives, including minors, and posted the videos to his Facebook account. He told a Swedish reporter that he had decapitated fifty people so far, all while they were still alive; as he paraded through the streets holding severed heads aloft, other uniformed police officers and soldiers cheered and marched alongside him. All through northern and western Iraq, anti- ISIS forces kept lists of people they wanted to kill. They hung bodies from telephone poles, and encouraged civilians to desecrate the corpses of their former jihadi oppressors. The irony was not lost on the killers—they knew that they were mirroring the Islamic State’s worst acts.” 

The Iraqi government has sought to minimize attention to such atrocities. Haider al-Abadi, who served as Prime Minister between 2014 and October, 2018, dismissed them as “individual acts” for which the perpetrators would be held to account. But there have been no meaningful investigations. According to the senior Iraqi intelligence official, “all Hashd violations are carried out with the knowledge and approval of the national-security apparatus, in all governorates.” He added that the government has provided official cover for numerous civilian massacres, by organizing press conferences and lying about the provenance of mass graves. “The Iraqi government brought in journalists and said, ‘Look, ISIS killed these civilians,’ when in fact it was the Hashd al-Sha’abi,” he said. “The reality is totally different from what ends up in the media. At least ISIS had the courage to not hide its crimes.”

Yet even that is not enough to describe what the liberators–people who were liberated from ISIS by American sponsored forces have done.  As Taub said, “Throughout the ISIS period, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, the Iraqi government has carried out mass executions in order to mollify an outraged public.”

If there are no good guys in a war, what does that mean?

Humility is as important as a good military: The First Iraq War

Some have asked if I am a passivist who believes that all wars are morally wrong. The answer is no, but I admit I am very close to that.  There are not many wars I think were justified.

The first Iraq War had what we lawyers like to think of as ‘colour of right.’ There was some justification for that war. After all a cruel and vicious dictator, Saddam Hussein, led Iraq into an invasion of a small neighbour, Kuwait, entirely without provocation. This was reminiscent of Adolf Hitler leading Nazi Germany in invasions of Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland just because he could, and because the neighbour’s big bully, the USA, hinted it would look the other  way. That invasion would have given Iraq access to all of Kuwait’s oil.  Saying that this was unacceptable made sense.

George H.W. Bush the American President at the time got a solid international core of support for his venture.  The broad coalition of countries he got to sign on included Britain, various European countries, Australia,  as well as a number of Middle Eastern countries. He even got Canada to come on board.

The key to that war, unlike the Second Iraq War, was limited aims. The coalition forces  joined to stop the aggressor from its invasion of Kuwait and drive them drive it out of the country.  Iraq was not allowed to convert its gains on the ground into potentially valid claims against the country.  This contrasted sharply with the Second Iraq War where George W. Bush’s lieutenants, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, wanted to initiate what they famously referred to as “regime change.”

Many American conservatives had thought George H.W. Bush had stopped the first Iraq War too soon. The Coalition forces could have driven the Iraqi invaders back into Iraq in order to removed the widely perceived ‘evil’ Iraq government led by Hussein, into submission, but the elder Bush decided to stop when the goal was accomplished.  George W. Bush was not so easily satisfied. He wanted to topple the government, and not just the statue of Hussein. This changed the war entirely. Bush Jr. wanted to do what he thought his father should have done–see too it that the regime changed.

The younger Bush had goals that could not be considered modest or humble. He wanted to end the Hussein government and turn the country into a democracy.  Wars without humility are very dangerous things. George W. Bush and the American people found that out the hard way. They ended up with a war that has lasted nearly 2 decades and is still not over. They are still having trouble extricating themselves from Iraq.

The second problem with the Second Iraq War, unlike the First Iraq War, was that there was no legitimate instigation or provocation. The Americans tried to manufacture one, but that failed. They claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and it did not matter that the Americans had them too. Iraq could not have them.

There is no time where humility is more important than war. Hubris is as much of an enemy as the foe. If countries fail to remember this, even powerful countries can be made to pay a heavy price.


Victory in Mosul


Mission Accomplished

What does victory look like? Donald Trump bragged about how he had helped the Iraqi forces defeat ISIS (or ISIL or IS as it is sometimes called). For convenience I will refer to them all as ISIS.  ISIS as we all know is not an organization of Sunday school teachers.

I suppose such a victory is what my American friend was looking for when he called for the American forces to “take out Iran.”

Mosul is Iraq’s second most populated city. In June 2014, much to their surprise, ISIS  captured Mosul as the government forces, trained and outfitted by the Americans, collapsed at the mere sight of the fearsome  ISIS warriors. Much to the disappointment of the Americans, the Iraqi forces abandoned all that fancy and expensive American equipment largely without a fight. Years of American training, advice, and money, created security forces that at the first sign of trouble folded up and left their military hardware behind.

The Iraqi government was dominated by Shia Muslims. ISIS was dominated by Sunni Muslims.   That made for natural enmity. It was in Mosul that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the beginning of their self-proclaimed “caliphate.” At the time the population of Mosul was 2.5 million people After ISIS ruled for more than 2 years those numbers dropped to 1.5 million.

ISIS had about 3,000 to 5,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul.  The estimates of their strengths varied widely. Many of them were not well trained and included teenagers, but because of their reputation for brutality they struck fear into the hearts and minds of Iraqis and westerners alike. Only the Kurds were keen on fighting them. About 10,000 were foreign fighters in including both Arabs and non-Arabs. The rest of ISIS fighters were Iraqi.

The Iraqi-led coalition that eventually drove out ISIS included about 100,000 Iraqi security forces, (ISF), 16,000 Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or PMU) 40,000 Peshmerga that included about 200 Iranian Kurdish female fighters from the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). It was estimated that Peshmerga and ISF outnumbered ISIS fighters by about 10-1. The Kurds did  most of the fighting for the American military, until the US abandoned them at the end of 2019. The world was notified of that abandonment by a tweet from President Trump and it shocked the world. The Kurds were more shocked than anyone else, even though many people told them not to trust the Americans.

The forces against ISIS were supported by many countries, including Canada, but most importantly the United States. The assault to recapture the city of Mosul really started in October of 2016. The coalition forces inflicted severe pain on ISIS in that effort and because by then ISIS was totally embedded in Iraq, the local population also suffered greatly. As the above photograph makes abundantly clear, the “victory” of retaking Mosul from ISIS came at a horrendous cost to the city and the people who lived there.

The UN stated that ISIS had taken tens of thousands of civilians to use as human shields in Mosul. Those who refused to go were executed. Life (and death) was simple in Mosul.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeted ISIS positions, and ISIL started tire fires to reduce visibility. Heavy fighting occurred in the city. The city was “won” back from ISIS by hard block-by-block fighting.  Before the battle to take back Mosul was over, it was estimated that it would cost more than $1 billion to repair “basic” infrastructure in the city. This process would likely take years. Again looking at the photograph above that is hardly surprising.

 The UN also estimated that more than 5,000 buildings have been damaged and another 490 were destroyed in the Old City. During the battle Amnesty International accused Iraqi, Kurdish  and United States forces of using unnecessarily powerful weapons including MOAB the so-called Mother of All Bombs, the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the world. Both sides damaged many religious sites.

The US accused ISIS of using civilians as human shields. It was confirmed that this happened and was widely condemned by human rights organizations.  The International Business Times reported that ISIS had forced boys as young as 12 to fight for them and that ISIS had trained the children to behead prisoners and make suicide bombs. Civilians were shot and deposited into mass graves in the city. ISIS also carried out retribution killings of civilians for welcoming Iraqi and Peshmerga troops.

The presence of Iraqi forces with several militias with histories of human rights abuses caused various organizations to criticize the US led coalition forces.  The International Business Times reported cases of Iraqi security forces torturing and interrogating young children for information about ISIS. On March 17, 2017 a U.S. led coalition air-strike in Mosul killed more than 200 civilians.  Amnesty Internationals reported, “The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”

Kurdish intelligence estimated in July of 2017 that the total number of civilian casualties at the time were 40,000. The largest portion of this loss of life is attributable to the unyielding artillery bombardment by U.S. supported Iraqi government forces. The US-led coalition forces were one of the significant sources of civilian deaths.

Thousands of people had been forced to flee the country as a result of ISIS attacks and bombardment by U.S. led coalition forces.  Of course, many of these refugees were children. The refugees were not welcome in the Us as part of his Muslim ban. All sides were accused of violating human rights laws. About one day after victory was declared by Iraqi forces, Amnesty International accused both sides of violating international laws. The Iraqi forces, supported by the U.S. were accused of carrying out unlawful attacks using explosive weapons and failing to take necessary precautions to prevent the loss of civilian life and in some cases including disproportionate attacks.

An Associated Press investigation that cross-referenced independent databases from non-governmental organizations, claimed that 9,000–11,000 residents of Mosul were killed in the battle. It blamed airstrikes and shellings by Iraqi forces and anti-ISIS coalition of being responsible for at least 3,200 civilian deaths. The coalition on the other hand has acknowledged responsibility for 326 deaths. ISIS was held responsible for killing one third of the civilians out of the death toll. Both sides were brutal. As I said before, savagery was the chief legacy of the war in Iraq, not democracy as George W Bush an dDick Cheney had envisioned.

Official victory over ISIS was declared in July of 2017, but that did not stop further heavy fighting as ISIS continued to resist in the Old City of Mosul.

It has been estimated that removing explosives from Mosul and repairing the city will cost $50 billion over the next 5 years.

This is what “victory” looks like. It’s not a pretty picture. Who is looking forward to another victory in the Middle East?

Iraq: The Chief Legacy of War is Savagery

As a result of my conversation with my American friend where he suggested the current foe, Iran, should obliterated, I have been thinking a lot about what succession war would look like. It is not obvious.

The Second War in Iraq started in 2003 and in 2017 Donald Trump bragged about how the Americans had defeated ISIS in Iraq. Of course he neglected to mention how most of the heavy lifting in that battle was done by the Kurds. Those were the same Kurds he shamelessly abandoned in 2019.

Originally that war was started to remove Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction with which he could not be trusted. Only the US and their friends can be trusted with such weapons. Later, when none of such weapons were found, the purpose of the war switched to defeating ISIS who had rushed into the country to fill the void left by Hussein.

But there is more to this story than victory. Ben Taub wrote a very interesting article for the New Yorker on what has happened in Iraq since ISIS had been defeated (more or less) in 2017.

To begin with, we must remember that the Iraqi government was installed by the Americans after they defeated Saddam Hussein and his army during the second Iraq War. Ever since then the US has been engaged in nation building in Iraq with pretty meager success. They have trained the military and police, since they did not want to keep Saddam Hussein’s Baathist security forces around for fear they would revive Saddam’s government. So really the Americans now own those security forces and the problems they have created. The US can’t really say it is not responsible and wipe its hands of the matter.

Taub described how a trial of Iraqi terrorists proceeded in 2018. After ISIS was largely defeated the Iraqis went on a rampage of revenge.  Taub saw dozens of suspected  terrorists who were crammed into a jail cell. Several of them had not yet seen a lawyer yet but were already dressed for execution.

Taub described the trial of one of those suspected terrorists this way:

“In terrorism cases, lawyers are usually denied access to their clients until the hearing begins. Shortly after ten o’clock, three judges in long black robes shuffled into Courtroom 2 and sat at the bench. Suhail Abdullah Sahar, a bald, middle-aged man with a thin, jowly face, sat in the center. There were twenty-one cases on his docket that day, sixteen related to terrorism. He quietly read out a name; a security officer shouted it down the hall to one of his colleagues, who shouted it to the guard, who shouted it into the cell. Out came a young man named Ahmed. A security officer led him to a wooden cage in the middle of the courtroom. Judge Sahar accused him of having joined ISIS in Qayyarah, a small town south of Mosul.

“Sir, I swear, I have never been to Qayyarah,” Ahmed said.

Sahar was skeptical. “I have a written confession here, with your thumbprint on it,” he said.

“Sir, I swear, I gave my thumbprint on a blank paper,” Ahmed replied. “And I was tortured by the security services.” Sahar listed Ahmed’s supposed jihadi associates; Ahmed denied knowing any of them.

“Enough evidence,” the prosecutor said. “I ask for a guilty verdict.”

Ahmed had no lawyer, and so Sahar called upon an elderly state attorney named Hussein, who was seated in the gallery, to spontaneously craft a defense. Hussein walked over to a lectern, repeated from memory what Ahmed had said, and, without requesting his release, concluded with a plea for “mercy in his sentencing.”

Ahmed wept as he was led out of the room. His trial had lasted four and a half minutes.”

And we should remember that the usual sentence for terrorist cases is death.

The second trial Taub observed lasted 8 minutes while the lawyers in the room yawned, cracked jokes, or closed their eyes. The Defendant said he was charged by mistake because his name was similar to that of someone in ISIS.

The trial of the third Defendant was a 23 year old from a village near Mosul who was charged with being a member of ISIS and again claimed it was a case of mistaken identity.

2 of these accused men had lawyer, which according to Taub was a good sign that they were innocent, since lawyers rarely wanted to represent guilty people because often after doing that the lawyers would be charged with being members of ISIS.  “As the lawyer spoke, the judges tended to administrative tasks. The trial was over in nine minutes. “I hate ISIS—they blew up my house!” the suspect shouted, in tears, as he was led out of court.”

In each case the prosecutor said: “Enough evidence—I ask for a guilty verdict.” It was the only phrase he uttered in court that morning. He did not have to do any more to get convictions from the judges even though many Defendants explained how they had been tortured into giving confessions.

One accused man had waited 4 years for his trial and then had a 3-minute trial during which time the judge paid no attention to his case. As Taub said,

 “The Islamic State has been mostly destroyed on the battlefield, but the war is far from over. Air strikes cannot kill an idea, and so it has fallen to Iraq’s fractured security, intelligence, and justice systems to try to finish the task. But, insofar as there is a strategy, it seems almost perfectly crafted to bring about the opposite of its intent. American and Iraqi military officials spent years planning the campaign to rid Iraq of ISIS, as if the absence of the jihadis would automatically lead Iraq toward the bright democratic future that George W. Bush’s Administration had envisaged when U.S. forces invaded the country, in 2003. But ISIS has always derived much of its dangerous appeal from the corruption and cruelty of the Iraqi state.”

As if this is not bad enough, we must remember that by far most of the young men and boys who were convicted of ISIS never made it to trial. They were disposed of without trials!

Ben Taub reported this way:

“Thousands of men and boys have been convicted of ISIS affiliation, and hundreds have been hanged. But, according to the senior intelligence official, these cases represent only a small fraction of the total number of detainees. “A few of the suspects are sent to court, but only to maintain the illusion that we have a justice system,” he said. (emphasis added)

 From 2014 to 2017, ISIS controlled about half of Syria and 1/3rd of Iraq. This territory was about the size of Great Britain. Millions of people lived inside this territory. Some of ISIS’s military leaders were former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. They combined a police state with what Taub called “the certainty of Jihadism.” He describe the situation in Iraq this way:

“The group blew up mosques and ancient archaeological sites, and pursued a campaign of ethnic cleansing through mass murder and sexual slavery. It conscripted local bureaucrats, doctors, and teachers, often on pain of death, and devoted enormous effort to radicalizing a generation of children and inuring them to violence, suffering, and loss. At the height of its success, in 2014, there was a real possibility that ISIS would capture Baghdad, and the Iraqi state would collapse. Now, more than a year after ISIS lost Mosul—its largest source of legitimacy, wealth, and power—hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering at the hands of their liberators. Anyone with a perceived connection to ISIS, however tenuous or unclear, is being killed or cast out of society.’

 Nothing is more dangerous than such incinerating certainties. Iraqi forces, supported and trained by America, were laying waste to what was left in Iraq. As Taub said,

 “Not long ago, I met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official who is deeply involved in counterterrorism operations. For three hours, over tea and cigarettes, he described systematic criminality within the security forces, detailing patterns of battlefield executions, murders in detention centers, and coverups organized by the state. He spoke as a witness, but also as a participant; although he is in a position to have stopped certain abuses, by intervening he would have risked incurring accusations that he is sympathetic to the group he has sought to destroy.

He believes that the Iraqi government’s response is as much a tactical blunder as it is a moral one; it plays directly into the jihadis’ narrative—that Sunnis, who make up a minority of the Iraqi population, cannot live safely under a government dominated by Shiites. “The reaction is one of vengeance—it is not well thought out,” he told me. “We rarely abide by the law.”

It is noteworthy that the conviction rate in Iraq is 98%.  I wonder how that compares with the regime of Saddam Hussein. I suspect the similarities are overwhelming.  The real problem, according to Taub is that “We’re deleting thousands of families from Iraqi society,” the official told me. “This is not just revenge on ISIS. This is revenge on Sunnis.”

This is the regime that Bush and Cheney thought would encourage all of the Middle East to jump on board the democracy train. This is the regime the Americans have spent billions (if not trillions) to uphold.  As Taub told the story:

“Nine years ago, two C.I.A. officers walked into an Iraqi prison and saw a hallway filled with hooded men, about to be executed for supposed affiliation with Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group that gave birth to ISIS. “We were hammering A.Q.I., but the Iraqi government was just rounding up Sunnis,” one of the C.I.A. officers recalled. “And, for a moment, it worked.” But, instead of releasing the innocents, the Iraqi government sentenced them to death. “So, of course, they came back,” the officer said, of Al Qaeda in Iraq. “What do you expect? You literally killed their dads.”

 Now the people of Iraq are in the unenviable position of deciding who is better: ISIS or the Iraqi government?  It does not matter that the Americans have spent billions supporting the current Iraqi regime. Ben Taub has a significant warning for the rest of us:

 “Iraq is now entering one of the most delicate moments in its recent history. To the extent that ISIS functioned as a state, it was entirely predatory. But, by having lost on the battlefield rather than being toppled by its own depravity, the caliphate lives on as a fantasy of Islamic justice and governance which is measured against the corrupt reality of the Iraqi state. What is at stake, in this post-conflict period, is whether the Iraqi government can win over the segment of the population for whom ISIS seemed a viable alternative.

Of course none of this should surprise. This has happened around the world over and over again. The Americans back one side of a dispute, support them with equipment, training, and money and then discover, much to their surprise, that these “good guys” are just as bad as the regime they were to replace.   And again, much to their surprise the people they were saving were not very grateful. All too often this is what “success” in war looks like.