Engelhardt, Tomorrow's News Today

Posted on

Failed States and States of Failure
“We Destroyed the Cities to Save Them” and Other Future Headlines
By Tom Engelhardt

One of the charms of the future is its powerful element of unpredictability, its ability to ambush us in lovely ways or bite us unexpectedly in the ass. Most of the futures I imagined as a boy have, for instance, come up deeply short, or else I would now be flying my individual jet pack through the spired cityscape of New York and vacationing on the moon. And who, honestly, could have imagined the Internet, no less social media and cyberspace (unless, of course, you had read William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer 30 years ago)? Who could have dreamed that a single country’s intelligence outfits would be able to listen in on or otherwise intercept and review not just the conversations and messages of its own citizens — imagine the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century — but those of just about anyone on the planet, from peasants in the backlands of Pakistan to at least 35 leaders of major and minor countries around the world?  This is, of course, our dystopian present, based on technological breakthroughs that even sci-fi writers somehow didn’t imagine. 

And who thought that the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street were coming down the pike or, for that matter, a terror caliphate in the heart of the former Middle East or a Donald Trump presidential run that would go from success to success amid free media coverage the likes of which we’ve seldom seen? (Small career tip: don’t become a seer. It’s hell on Earth.)

All of this might be considered the bad but also the good news about the future.  On an increasingly grim globe that seems to have failure stamped all over it, the surprises embedded in the years to come, the unexpected course changes, inventions, rebellions, and interventions offer, at least until they arrive, grounds for hope.  On the other hand, in that same grim world, there’s an aspect of the future that couldn’t be more depressing: the repetitiveness of so much that you might think no one would want to repeat.  I’m talking about the range of tomorrow’s headlines that could be written today and stand a painfully reasonable chance of coming true.

I’m sure you could produce your own version of such future headlines in a variety of areas, but here are mine when it comes to Washington’s remarkably unwinnable wars, interventions, and conflicts in the Greater Middle East and increasingly Africa.

What “Victory” Looks Like

Let’s start with an event that occurred in Iraq as 2015 ended and generated headlines that included “victory,” a word Americans haven’t often seen in the twenty-first century — except, of course, in Trumpian patter.  (“We’re going to win so much — win after win after win — that you’re going to be begging me: ‘Please, Mr. President, let us lose once or twice. We can’t stand it any more.’ And I’m going to say: ‘No way. We’re going to keep winning. We’re never going to lose. We’re never, ever going to lose.’”)  I’m talking about the “victory” achieved at Ramadi, a city in al-Anbar Province that Islamic State (IS or ISIL) militants seized from the Iraqi army in May 2015.  With the backing of the U.S. Air Force — there were more than 600 American air strikes in and around Ramadi in the months leading up to that victory — and with U.S.-trained and U.S.-financed local special ops units leading the way, the Iraqi military did indeed largely take back that intricately booby-trapped and mined city from heavily entrenched IS militants in late December. The news was clearly a relief for the Obama administration and those headlines followed.

And here’s what victory turned out to look like: according to the Iraqi defense minister, at least 80% of the city of 400,000 was destroyed.  Rubblized.  Skeletized.  “City” may be what it’s still called, but it’s hardly an accurate description.  According to New York Times reporter Ben Hubbard, who visited Ramadi soon after the “victory,” few inhabitants remained.  Of an Iraqi counterterrorism general there with him, Hubbard wrote:

“In one neighborhood, he stood before a panorama of wreckage so vast that it was unclear where the original buildings had stood. He paused when asked how residents would return to their homes. ‘Homes?’ he said. ‘There are no homes.’”

Hubbard also cited the head of the Anbar provincial council as estimating that “rebuilding the city would require $12 billion.” (Other Iraqi officials put that figure at $10 billion.) That’s money no one has, including an Iraqi government increasingly strapped by plummeting oil prices — and keep in mind that that’s only a single destroyed community.  The earlier, smaller victories of the Kurds at Kobane and Sinjar in Syria, also backed by devastating U.S. air power, destroyed those towns in a similar fashion, as for instance has Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombing air force and military in parts of the city of Aleppo and in the now thoroughly devastated city of Homs in central Syria.  The Russians have, of course, entered the fray, too, in the American style, bombing and advising.

Let’s add one more thing before we write our future headlines.  The day after President Obama gave his final State of the Union address, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visited the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  Eighteen hundred of that division’s members are soon to be deployed to Iraq to aid Iraqi military units in their drive to retake parts of their country from the Islamic State.  For those future advisers, Carter elaborated on the president’s plans, laying out in some detail how he (and presumably Obama) saw the conflict playing out.  Favoring the image of the Islamic State as a metastasizing cancer, he said:

“The ISIL parent tumor has two centers — Raqqa in Syria, and Mosul in Iraq. ISIL has used its control of these cities and nearby territories as a power base from which to derive considerable financial resources, manpower, and ideological outreach. They constitute ISIL’s military, political, economic, and ideological centers of gravity.

“That’s why our campaign plan’s map has got big arrows pointing at both Mosul and Raqqa. We will begin by collapsing ISIL’s control over both of these cities and then engage in elimination operations through other territories ISIL holds in Iraq and Syria.”

In fact, such a campaign would give “elimination operations” new meaning, since it would clearly involve quite literally eliminating the urban infrastructure of significant parts of the region.  Three cities are, in fact, at present targeted: Fallujah (population perhaps 300,000), the other major IS-controlled city in al-Anbar Province, Mosul (the second largest city in Iraq, with a population presently estimated at 1 to 1.5 million), and Raqqa, the Syrian “capital” of the Islamic State, now reportedly stuffed with refugees (population 200,000-plus).  Put them together and you have a 2016 plan for a U.S.-backed set of campaigns in Iraq and Syria based on the same formula as the taking of Ramadi: massive American air power in support of heavily trained and advised Iraqi special ops forces and army units or, in Syria, Kurdish peshmerga outfits and assorted Kurdish and Syrian rebels.  Add in the Islamic State’s urge to turn the urban areas it holds into giant bombs and what you have is a plan for the rubblization of yet more cities in the region.

There has, of course, been much talk about an offensive to retake Mosul since relatively small numbers of Islamic State fighters captured the city from tens of thousands of fleeing Iraqi troops in June 2014.  There was, for instance, a highly touted spring offensive against Mosul that was much discussed in early 2015 but never happened, so it’s impossible to be sure that the overstretched, generally underperforming Iraqi military will even make it to Mosul in 2016 or that there will be any non-American “boots” available to take Raqqa, especially since that city sits well outside any imaginable future Kurdistan. Still, assuming all went “well,” we essentially know what the future holds: Ramadi-style “victories.”

As a result, the end of the year headline for American/Iraqi/Kurdish/Syrian rebel operations — adapted from an infamous 1968 line by an anonymous American officer in Vietnam after U.S. planes had pummeled the provincial capital of Ben Tre — would be: “We Destroyed the Cities to Save Them.”

Based on Ramadi, you could then perhaps offer these “ballpark” (not that any stadiums would be left standing) future estimates for rebuilding: Falluja, $10 billion; Raqqa, $7 billion; Mosul, $20 to $25 billion. Those are obviously fantasy figures, but the point is that “success” against and “victory” over the Islamic State would undoubtedly leave much of the region a modern Carthage. And who would pay for a new Ramadi, or Mosul, or Fallujah, or Raqqa, no less all of them and more?

Put another way, “victory” would mean that Iraq will have far fewer habitable cities and a far larger number of displaced people whose resettlement will undoubtedly be subject to the ethnic tensions that helped fuel the Islamic State in the first place.  This represents a reasonably predictable future, one that should be obvious enough to anyone who took a half-serious look at the situation.  It certainly should be obvious to Ashton Carter, as well as to American planners at the Pentagon and in the Obama administration.  And yet the planning goes on as if “victory” were a meaningful category under the circumstances.

And here’s the thing: you can join the Islamic State in blowing up the physical plant of Syria and parts of Iraq and then eject its fighters from the rubble, but you’ll be destroying the means of existence of a vast, increasingly unsettled population.  What you may not be able to do in the process is destroy a movement that began in an American military prison in Iraq and has always been a set of ideas. You may simply create a legend.

Unleashing the Special Operators and the Drones

Now, let’s consider another set of potential future headlines linked to present planning and past experience.  Secretary of Defense Carter claims that the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State is focused on creating “sustainable political stability in the region,” by which he means not just the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, but all of the Greater Middle East.  As he said to the members of the 101st Airborne:

Failed States and States of Failure

“We Destroyed the Cities to Save Them” and Other Future Headlines

“Next, let me describe the fight outside of Iraq and Syria. As we work to destroy the parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, we must also recognize that ISIL is metastasizing in areas such as North Africa, Afghanistan, and Yemen. The threat posed by ISIL, and groups like it, is continually evolving, changing focus and shifting location. It requires from us, therefore, a flexible and nimble response with a broad reach.”