June 30, 2014

The Kurdish پێشمەرگە (peshmerga) - "those who follow death"

Kurdish peshmerga - note Kurdistan flag

One of my readers asked that I write a small piece about the Kurdish peshmerga. I am happy to do so. As I often do, I want to disclose my relationship with the Kurds.

In the mid-1990's, I served in northern Iraq - my duties put me in a close working relationship with senior Kurdish political leaders on both sides of the political division between the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan - including their intelligence services and their military arms - the peshmerga.

A senior peshmerga leader and me in northern Iraq - the dagger is not a prop

The word peshmerga - پێشمەرگە in Kurdish - literally means "those who follow death." They are committed men and women who have taken an oath to defend the Kurdish people and the Kurdish homeland at all costs. They are tough, single-minded and loyal to a fault - you will find no finer irregular troops anywhere in the world.

The Kurds were the targets of the Saddam Husayn regime for years. In the 1980's, the Iraqi military's Anfal campaign was aimed at defeating the Kurds once and for all, since the effort to forcefully integrate them into the Iraqi Arab population had failed. That program, the ta'rib (Arabization) effort, attempted to move large numbers of Kurds, sometimes entire villages, into the southern part of Iraq, and at the same time, move large numbers of Arabs into the Kurdish areas.

The Anfal campaign saw pitched battles between the Iraqi Army and the Kurds - Kurdish cities were defended by the vastly outnumbered and outgunned peshmerga. On March 16, 1988, the Iraqi Air Force dropped bombs filled with the nerve agent Sarin (and possibly VX) on the Kurdish city of Halabjah, killing an estimated 5,000 people. It was later determined to be a final weapons test before launching chemical attacks on Iranian troops on the southern front. I was in Baghdad when all this occurred.

After the Iraqi defeat in Operation Desert Storm, the Kurds rose up against Saddam Husayn. As he did effectively in the south against a similar Shi'a uprising, Saddam unleashed the Iraqi Air Force and Army Aviation to brutally attack the Kurds. This led to the U.S. and NATO-imposed "no fly zone" in northern Iraq that allowed the Kurds to operate as a virtually separate enclave until the American invasion of 2003. It was during those years that I served with the Kurds in the north.

During the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the peshmerga were close allies of the United States, often working directly with American forces in the northern part of the country. They were also key players in the search for, and capture of, Saddam Husayn. It was the Kurds that played a vital role in the capture of Usamah bin Ladin's messenger, which led to the killing of the al-Qa'idah leader.

The Kurds, in accordance with provisions of the Iraqi constitution of 2005, established the Kurdish Autonomous Region comprised of the provinces of Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah (and now the newly-created province of Halabjah). Part of the Kurdistan Regional Government is the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, which functions similar to a regional ministry of defense. The peshmerga constitute the armed forces of the Kurdish area - the group consists of about 18 brigades.

Should the Kurds pursue independence from Iraq, the peshmerga will be the armed forces of the new country. They will need to acquire additional capabilities, however, including an air and air defense force.

June 29, 2014

CNN Reliable Sources - Should we listen to Dick Cheney?

Should we listen to Dick Cheney?

CNN Military analyst Rick Francona and counterterrorism analyst Phillip Mudd discuss former Vice President Dick Cheney's recent criticism of the Obama administration over Iraq; does he still deserve the media's attention?

Take a look at the video of the segment.

June 28, 2014

Russia delivers first of five Sukhoi SU-25 ground attack fighters to Iraq

Iraqi Air Force Su-25 buried in desert - 2003

According to a video released by the Iraqi defense ministry, a Russian Federation Air Force Antonov AN-124 (NATO: Condor) heavy transport aircraft delivered the first two of five Sukhoi SU-25 (NATO: Frogfoot) ground attack aircraft to an unidentified Iraqi air base.

The used fighter aircraft were purchased in the last few days to react to the threat posed by advancing forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and [Greater] Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki expressed frustration at the long delivery schedule of the Iraqi Air Force American-built F-16 fighters. The F-16 fighters are not due to be delivered to Iraq until this fall, although some of the aircraft have been turned over to the Iraqi Air Force for training in Texas.

The SU-25 had been in service with the pre-American invasion Iraqi Air Force - at one point, as many as 66 of the fighters were in the Iraqi inventory. None survived the two wars with the United States - some were buried in the desert as a survival measure (see above photo). It is a capable close air support fighter.

On hand to greet the arriving aircraft was Iraqi Air Force commander Staff Lieutenant General (Pilot) Anwar Hamad Amin. According to the general (interviewed in the video), the aircraft will be reassembled by "our friends the Russians" and will be ready to enter service in the coming three to four days, after which they will be used to attack "terrorist ISIS takfiri criminal forces," specifically citing ISIS forces in Salah al-Din province (basically the Tigris valley between Baghdad and Mosul).

When asked about maintenance and support for the aircraft, General Anwar said that the Iraqi Air Force has long experience with this (aircraft), and together with the Russian "experts" the logistics and maintenance will not be an issue. Also, he said that though the Iraqi Air Force and Iraqi Army Aviation have struck ISIS targets in the past few days, the addition of these aircraft will provide a greater attack capability.

Life in the Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater] Syria

The Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater] Syria (ISIS) is not a new phenomenon that just burst on the scene two weeks ago as they seized the northern Iraqi city of Mosul (al-Mawsil). ISIS has already been governing a wide swath of territory in neighboring Syria, most notably in al-Raqqah governorate. To see what life will be like in the newly-seized areas of Iraq, one need only look at how the group governs al-Raqqah. It is not pretty - watch this CNN video about ISIS's takeover of the city of al-Raqqah.

There is no reason to believe that life in the areas seized in Iraq will be any different. Reports coming out of Mosul indicate a process of imposing strict Islamic rule almost identical to that which we saw in al-Raqqah months ago. Alcohol, smoking, music - all prohibited. Violations of the new laws are severely punished according to Islamic law. One of the first institutions to be established in Mosul was the Higher Islamic Court. This is reminiscent of what Afghanistan became under the Taliban from 1996 until the government was removed by the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance in 2001.

ISIS has set up the Islamic State to have subordinate provinces* closely following the current governorate structure in Syria and Iraq - a few have been renamed. A new country is being created as the rest of the world is encouraging the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to form a more inclusive structure. Unfortunately, the Sunnis now in the ISIS area are not in position to participate.

Life under ISIS will eventually wear thin on the Sunni Iraqis. These independent tribal groups want to maintain their way of life. At some point, I assess they will tire of the draconian Sharia'-based life which ISIS wishes to impose. That is when we may see a second "Anbar Awakening" and a refutation of ISIS by the tribal leaders. It was the original Anbar Awakening in 2007 and 2008 that helped defeat al-Qa'idah in Iraq (also known as the Islamic State in Iraq), forerunner of ISIS.

ISIS may be good at taking territory, generating support among the Sunnis who have been poorly treated by the Shi'a government in Baghdad, and expelling the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi Army from Sunni areas. However, they have had problems governing in western Iraq.

LATE ADDENDUM (added without comment - I think it speaks for itself):

* The translation of the words for "state" present a semantic problem - there are two words used by ISIS. Dawlah and wilayat. The first is a state in the larger, national sense, like State of Kuwait or State of Israel. The second is more like a component of a larger entity, more akin to the U.S. states of California, Oregon, etc. To distinguish, I am going to use province for wilayat.

June 27, 2014

CNN's Out Front with Erin Burnett - June 23, 2014

I appeared on CNN's Out Front with Erin Burnett a few days ago, discussing Iraq with retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor. Take a look:

Is Iraq Lost? - Out Front with Erin Burnett

June 26, 2014

Iranian support to Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki - why is anyone surprised?

Iranian-made Mohajer-4 reconnaissance drone in service with
 the Syrian Army over the southern suburbs of Damascus.

There has been recent reporting highlighting Iran's operation of reconnaissance drones (the Mohajer-4 as seen in Syria in the above video) over Iraq in support of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The timing is, of course, interesting - this comes at the same time that American reconnaissance aircraft - manned and unmanned - are also operating over Iraq. Both countries are collecting intelligence on the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater] Syria (ISIS).

ISIS has mounted an impressive military campaign, moving in two short weeks from Syria, seizing a huge swath of western Iraq from the city of Mosul (al-Mawsil) in the north to the outskirts of Baghdad and virtually closing Iraq's borders with neighboring Syria and Jordan.

Iranian involvement in Iraq should come as no surprise. Iran has been active in Iraq for decades, especially following the end of Operation Desert Storm in which the Iraqi armed forces were defeated in short order by the U.S. military.

In the turmoil that followed the end of the liberation of Kuwait - the Shi'a uprising in the south and the Kurdish rebellion in the north - Iran moved to protect their Shi'a brethren in the south, and the Kurds in the north with whom they have enjoyed a good relationship. Iran provided safe haven to many Kurds during successive operations in the 1980s by Saddam Husayn that bordered on genocide.

Iran remained a key player in the northern part of Iraq, especially as the Kurds set up a de facto autonomous enclave, albeit split politically between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Mas'ud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani. Barzani is now the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the Kurdish autonomous region, and Talabani is the president of Iraq. The Kurds have resolved their internal differences and are focused on making their region successful politically and economically.

I served in the Kurdish areas of both the KDP and PUK in the 1990s, working closely with the senior leadership of both parties (especially the PUK). Both parties freely admitted to us that they closely cooperated with the Iranians. When I pressed the issue, the Kurds disclosed the fact that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had teams operating in the area.

It was hard for us Americans to complain about the presence of the IRGC, since we and the Turks (and maybe others - the Israelis?) were doing the exact same thing, all hoping to hasten the removal of the Saddam Husayn regime. In fact, I spent several nervous nights sleeping in the same guest house as my Iranian counterparts - we had an unspoken agreement to ignore each others' presence, although we all maintained a "weapons ready" posture.

After the American invasion in 2003, the IRGC was again busy, training Shi'a militias to attack American troops. It was the IRGC that provided the shaped charge known as the "explosively formed penetrator" - capable of effectively penetrating the armor on American vehicles. The Qods Force, the IRGC special operations force, were the key trainers of the militia of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr known as the jaysh al-mahdi, or JAM.

When the new Iraqi government was formed, Iran was there - lobbying for the election of long-time exile in Iran Nuri al-Maliki, their chosen leader for Iraq. Since the majority of Iraq is of the Shi'a sect, it was a foregone conclusion that the Shi'a would dominate the elected government. Since Iran is generally regarded as the protector and proponent of the world's Shi'a, it was also no surprise that their chosen candidate emerged as the new prime minister of Iraq.

The Iranians have never left. Their influence is felt throughout the Iraqi government agencies, including the office of the prime minister. Nuri al-Maliki is ofter referred to by the Sunnis as nuri al-irani - "Nuri the Iranian." His office has been derisively labeled by his opponents as al-sajad al-irani, "the Persian carpet."

Now here is a surprise: Iran has returned 130 Iraqi Air Force aircraft that Saddam Husayn had ordered flown to Iran to prevent their certain destruction at the hands of the US-led coalition air forces in 1991. Soon after the Operation Desert Storm air campaign began, it became patently clear to Saddam and his generals that unless he moved the aircraft to Iran, all of them would be systematically destroyed.

According to the Iraqi armed forces, the aircraft have been refurbished and equipped by Iran with "sophisticated weapons" to fight ISIS. Bringing aircraft that have been in storage for over 20 years back to operational status requires a lot of work. That to me demonstrates to me the importance Iran attaches to its relationship with the Shi'a-dominated government in Baghdad.

Iranian support to, and strong influence over, the Iraqi government should come as no surprise. Flying drones, even to the point of flying them from an airfield in Baghdad, should also come as no surprise. The Iranians could actually be helpful in this regard. They can easily direct Muqtada al-Sadr to ratchet down his rhetoric about attacking any American adivsors that come to Iraq.

I think it would useful for the Obama Administration to make it crystal clear that we have no intentions of coordinating our military activities with the Iranians. Iran is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, they are the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism, they are Syria's key allies in their repression of their own population, they are the key patrons and suppliers of Hizballah, and despite their unbelievable claims to the contrary they are developing a nuclear weapon. These are not the people we should be working with.

All that said, the fact that Iran is attempting to keep itself in play as the Americans arrive back in Baghdad by continuing their ongoing support for what many believe is their puppet government in Iraq should not be a surprise. What would be a surprise is them not doing so.

June 25, 2014

Secretary Kerry, please focus on American national interests, not Iraq's failed government

This will be short and to the point. Secretary Kerry needs to focus first and foremost on U.S. national interests, not Iraq's failed government.

Here is an June 24 article from CBS News, written by Dan Kedmey:

Kerry Says U.S. Air Strikes in Iraq Would Be ‘Act of Irresponsibility’
Top American diplomat warns against strikes in a power vacuum

Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday ruled out U.S. air strikes in Iraq so long as its government remains fractured along sectarian lines and incapable of combating extremist Sunni militants who are capturing towns in the country’s north.

Kerry told CBS News that the U.S. military was prepared to provide assistance to Iraqi troops, but launching air strikes at this moment would constitute “a complete and total act of responsibility.”

“There’s no government, there’s no backup, there’s no military, there’s nothing there that provides the capacity for success,” Kerry said.

His remarks appeared to walk back comments made the day before, when he suggested the progress by fighters from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) could force U.S. action. Kerry is in Iraq this week meeting with the country’s leaders and urging them to form a more inclusive government.


Mr. Kerry, you were right several times in this article, but not in the right order.

Time is not on our side in this particular crisis. The notion that the three disparate factions of the Iraqi electorate are going to come together because you are here and imploring them to do so flies in the face of reality. I think you may have gotten a small dose of that reality when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki publicly rebuffed your proposal today saying he would not seek to form a national unity government, claiming that the process you espouse is in contravention of the Iraqi constitution.

Yesterday (June 24), you met with the leadership of the Kurdish Regional Government in Irbil, the government of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. The Kurds see no future in maintaining the fiction of a coherent Iraqi government - there has been no such thing since the withdrawal of American forces in late 2011.

I know personally most of the senior Kurdish leadership, having worked closely with them years ago while serving in northern Iraq in the Saddam years. This may be their best chance at an independent Kurdish state. On a personal level, I hope they are successful, despite the complications this poses for your current mission.

After the removal of U.S. troops, al-Maliki felt relieved of any constraints to maintain the facade of a truly representative government. He replaced the competent (often Kurdish or Sunni Arab) leadership of military and government organizations with his Shi'a cronies. That resulted in the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces and security services when confronted with the threat from committed ISIS forces.

ISIS has taken most of the territory of western Iraq from the edge of the Kurdish area north of Mosul (al-Mawsil) to the southern border. Granted, much of that territory is vacant desert, and there are a few areas that are still contested, but for the most part, ISIS controls the Syrian-Iraqi border and may (there are conflicting reports) control the Jordanian-Iraqi border.

There are reports (accurate information is difficult to obtain) that ISIS has also moved across the area southwest of Baghdad along the Euphrates River. With the potential fall of Ba'qubah to the northeast of Baghdad, the already ISIS-occupied al-Fallujah to the west of Baghdad, and this possible move south of the city, ISIS is attempting to isolate the city from it's Shi'a base in the south of the country.

So, here is my paraphrase of your words as you should have said them - this fits the Middle East context in which we find ourselves.

"Progress by fighters from the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria could force U.S. action, because there’s no government, there’s no backup, there’s no military, there’s nothing there that provides the capacity for success. The United States military is prepared to provide assistance to Iraqi troops - launching air strikes at this moment may be required to prevent the collapse of the Iraqi state as we know it."

Yes, Mr. Secretary, it is that dire. The notion that there is enough time to hold a series of meetings to convince the Iraqis to form a more inclusive government - among groups that are unwilling to do so - is merely fooling yourself. Call me pessimistic, but I have spent a lot of time living and working in this region, and the animosities at this point in time present an insurmountable hurdle to the fictional government you are imposing as a precondition to American airstrikes.

The presence of a radical Islamist state - yes, a state with an organized government and a huge expanse of territory in what were parts of Syria and Iraq - presents a real threat to the United States. Think Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. They already have training camps in Syria, and have indicated the intention to strike American interests, if not the United States itself.

Do not underestimate these radical jihadis. They are true believers in their warped sense of Islam, committed to the cause of spreading their version of the Islamic revolution. We cannot allow them a pseudo-state in the heart of the Middle East.

We cannot afford to base our foreign policy on the actions of a failed Iraqi government - we need to take action based on American national interests. If that means conducting airstrikes without the establishment of some form of inclusive government in Baghdad, so be it.

We need to act in our national interests, not the Administration's view of Iraq's national interests.

June 24, 2014

Syrian Air Force strikes targets in Iraq - not waiting for the Americans

Posted June 24
Posted June 20

Part of the American plan to address the rapid success of fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater] Syria (ISIS) includes the option for what President Barack Obama labeled "targeted and precise military action." For those who do not understand diplo-speak, that means airstrikes. As most people who have served in the military, or have studied military history, airstrikes can be effective if conducted properly.

The United States government is not the only government that knows this. The Iraqis are well aware of it, having twice been on the receiving end of American airpower. The Syrians have used their air force - jet fighters, fighter-bombers and helicopters - to great effect in their efforts against the various groups of rebels in that country.

Meanwhile, the United States is slowly deploying its first advisors to the country to assess the capabilities (or lack thereof) of the Iraqi Army and what steps can be taken to stem the advance of ISIS as it moves to the gates of Baghdad, as well as the Jordanian border. ISIS has effectively taken control of the entire Syrian border with Iraq, and the single border crossing between Iraq and Jordan.

Faced with the loss of the major border crossing at al-Bukamal (Syria) and al-Qa'im (Iraq), the Syrian Air Force, reportedly in cooperation with the Iraqi Army, has conducted a series of airstrikes inside Iraqi territory (see map). We don't need a sophisticated intelligence capability to know this - the Syrians have announced it.

I refer you to the two Facebook posts above. These are from the Syrian Arab Army Facebook page - a semi-official organ of the Syrian Armed Forces public affairs office. I have followed this page for years - they have reported information that could only originate with the government. Having served as the first Air Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I am fully aware of how tightly the Syrian regime controls information about its military capabilities and operations. Virtually everything was kept secret - I remain surprised at how much information is now being released by the regime of President Bashar al-Asad.

The June 24 post (top) shows a Syrian Air Force Sukhoi SU-22M4 (NATO: FITTER K) fighter-bomber, the workhorse of Syrian air operations against the rebels in Syria. The post claims that the Syrians conducted airstrikes against ISIS targets in the al-Qa'im area of Iraq. The June 20 post (lower) indicates that Syrian Air Force struck a bridge in the city of al-Qa'im, Iraq. Al Qa'im is fully six miles inside the Iraqi border.

The Iraqis and Syrian governments are both in trouble - and they know it. ISIS control of this major border crossing, as well as virtually all of the other minor crossings, prohibits the Iraqis sending supplies and equipment to their allies in Damascus - some of that materiel originates in Iran. The Syrians are trying to keep this important main supply route (known in military circles as an MSR) open.

The Iraqis feel that they cannot wait for the Americans to make a decision to conduct airstrikes - they have asked their allies in Syria for assistance. The Syrians, affected by ongoing events almost as much as the Iraqis, have come to the aid of their Iraqi allies.

So what? So the Syrian Air Force conducts airstrikes in support of the Iraqis - is that a concern? Maybe not just now, but what happens when armed Syrian Air Force jet fighter/fighter-bomber aircraft conduct operations in the same airspace as U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy fighter, fighter-bomber, C-130 gunships, and/or helicopters? The potential for misunderstandings could lead to dangerous confrontations. I seriously doubt that American forces are going to cooperate with the Syrian Air Force.

Time is running out - this situation is not static. ISIS is not waiting for the United States to conduct its assessment as it rolls towards Baghdad now, and possibly Amman in the future.

Where is the Iraqi Army?

As the Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater] Syria (ISIS) rolls through western and north central Iraq, seizing cities, towns and border crossings seemingly with little resistance, many military analysts - many of us with experience in Iraq - are asking the question, "Where is the Iraqi Army?" What happened to the force that we spent billions of dollars and countless man hours training and equipping.

As the Islamist fighters of ISIS approached Iraq's second largest city of Mosul (al-Mawsil), the Iraqi Army defenders appeared to collapse in the face of the jihadi fighters pouring into the country from their ISIS enclave in northern Syria. By most accounts, the soldiers deserted and headed south. What happened? Four of Iraq's 14 divisions simply evaporated?

I have to admit my surprise at the collapse of the Iraqi Army. In 1988 - the last year of the Iran-Iraq War - I served at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as a liaison officer to the Iraqi Army's military intelligence service. As part of my duties, I traveled to several battlefields and was able to observe the Iraqi Army in action.

After eight years of fighting, the Iraqi Army had developed into an effective force, at least in the context of the Middle East in the 1980s. They had an inflated sense of their own capabilities, which did not serve them well when confronted with the much better trained and equipped U.S. armed forces a few years later in Operation Desert Storm.

After the two crushing defeats at the hands of the Americans in 1991 and 2003, the Iraqi Army was essentially destroyed, not only as a fighting force, but as a social institution as well. Many Iraqi Army unit commanders had been recruited by American intelligence officers between 1991 and 2003 and had been convinced not to fight when the Americans invaded, with the promise that they and their soldiers would be part of the post-Saddam military. That effort served American forces well as they made the lightning thrust to Baghdad - U.S. senior commanders were aware of which units would not engage them.

Following the ill-advised disbanding of the Iraqi army in 2003 by Coalition Provisional Administrator Paul Bremer, a new Iraqi Army had to be built from scratch. (I will not go into the far-reaching ramifications of Bremer's disastrous decision to dismantle the military, security and intelligence services; I have decried that mistake in great detail since the day he did it.)

Given the abysmal performance of the new post-Saddam Iraqi Army over the past few weeks, it would appear that the huge investment in time and money on the part of the United States was wasted. An estimated $25 billion was spent training the Iraqis, not to mention the billions of arms ordered by the Iraqi government. Much of the equipment fell into disrepair after U.S. advisors and trainers left at the end of 2011. American-made military equipment deployed to western Iraq is now in the hands of ISIS - some of it has been moved to ISIS-controlled areas of Syria.

So what happened?

There are numerous reasons for the poor performance and abysmal state of the Iraqi Army. First, when the United States withdrew its troops in late 2011, the training of Iraqi troops had barely reached the battalion level. This is critical, since the basic combat formation of most armies, including Iraq's, is the brigade. When deployed to the field, the units were not thoroughly trained in working at that level. (Note: I have already made my thoughts known about the effects of the American withdrawal in 2011.)

Soon after the removal of American troops, whose presence had provided a useful set of eyes and ears on the ground throughout the country, especially in the military and security forces, the Shi'a-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki began to systematically remove the competent military commanders - many of them Sunni Muslims - and replace them with his Shi'a cronies.

Military forces in many countries are more than just armed forces, they are social institutions. In poorer countries, they are also a source of money - weapons and the associated materials of war are expensive. There is a lot of potential for graft and corruption - I am told by many of my Iraqi contacts that this is exactly what happened. The Iraqi Army began a downward spiral from an army in the making to a third-world military rife with corruption.

The quality of the rank and file Iraqi soldier soon became irrelevant. In military service, the key ingredient is leadership. A mediocre army with good leadership can accomplish difficult missions; a good army with mediocre leadership can be defeated. I think we have just witnessed the latter.

I will watch with interest as the American officers make their assessment of just how broken the Iraqi armed forces are now. It may not be fixable in the time required to prevent ISIS from becoming established in the western part of Iraq.

June 22, 2014

ISIS map indicates intentions in the Levant

This is a map ostensibly published by the Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater] Syria (ISIS) - it is chilling.

Here is the legend:

- The black flags and grey/black circles indicate areas ISIS claims to have under its control
- The red circles indicate areas where fighting is going on
- The black rings on the borders are border crossings under their control
- The capital of the new Islamic State is indicated as Baghdad
- The lines of march in grey to the south indicate planned advances into Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which has been renamed "Land of the Two Holy Places" - once you remove the ruling family, the House of Sa'ud, it is no longer "Sa'udi" Arabia

Several cities in Syria that have come under ISIS control have been renamed as well. For example, Dayr al-Zawr, a city in the oil producing region on the Euphrates River is know called al-Khayr.

It would appear that ISIS wants to control the entire Levant....

Read this in conjunction with my earlier article: URGENT - ISIS seizes almost all Iraq-Syrian-Jordanian border crossings.

URGENT - ISIS seizes almost all Iraq-Syrian-Jordanian border crossings

In just the last few days, fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have seized a series of Iraqi cities from Mosul in the north to cities as close as 35 miles from Baghdad. They have also consolidated their gains by taking a series of towns in al-Anbar province - most of these are in the Euphrates Valley.

They have also moved in the opposite direction, to the southwest, taking the city of al-Rutbah (A on the map), which sits at the junction of the main highways from Baghdad to Damascus, Syria and Amman, Jordan. Immediately afterwards, they moved to the borders and seized the border posts. This positions ISIS to basically cut off Iraq from both Syria and Jordan.

Let's take a look at what this means from a military standpoint.

The first border crossing (#1) near Jabal Juraybah was key to the ISIS advance on Mosul. Soon after that, ISIS forces seized the border crossing at Albu Kamal/al-Qa'im (#2), the main route into al-Anbar province. In just the past few days, they have moved from the junction at al-Rutbah to the border crossing on the Syrian border at al-Walid (#3) and the border crossing on the Jordanian border at al-Turaybil (#4).

Controlling these border crossings is a smart move on the part of ISIS. Someone in that organization has attended war college - I suspect this expertise is coming from former senior Iraqi army officers who have joined the ISIS cause.

As a result, ISIS can now:

- prevent overland support from the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to his embattled ally in Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.
- position forces for a possible attack into Syria that expands ISIS's presence from the north to areas east of Damascus.
- stopped overland traffic - both commercial and a possible evacuation route for foreigners in Iraq - between Iraq and Jordan.
- position forces to mount an incursion into Jordan. ISIS has threatened to move into Jordan and "slaughter" the Hashemite royal family.

There have been reports, seemingly corroborated by American defense officials, that Syrian fighter aircraft have struck targets inside Iraq near these border posts in an attempt to prevent these border crossings from coming under ISIS control. The Syrian military public affairs office acknowledged the reports of the air strikes, indicating the location of the alleged targets, but refused to confirm or deny the veracity of the reports.

ISIS has pretty much a free hand in western Iraq - it appears that the Iraqi military has ceded control of the area to ISIS and is planning on defending Baghdad. What we do not want is the acceptance/acquiescence by the Iraqi government of the presence of ISIS on their soil. The status quo is unacceptable.

The Kurds and Kirkuk - prelude to partition?

Following the June 10 fall of Mosul (al-Mawsil), Iraq's second largest city, to fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Iraqi Army forces deserted their positions in the mixed Arab-Kurdish-Turkoman city of Kirkuk. Rather than allow ISIS fighters to take the city, Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga ("those who face death"), mobilized and took control of Kirkuk and the surrounding areas.

It was a godsend for the Kurds.

Kirkuk has always been regarded by the Kurds as their capital city. When the Kurdish Autonomous Region was established in 2005 - in accordance with the Iraqi constitution - the Kurds hoped to include the city of Kirkuk in that area. They have sought control of the city for decades, but have always been denied by the central government in Baghdad for several reasons.

The city has a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs (Sunnis) and Turkomans. The Turkoman minority in Iraq has always enjoyed the moral support of neighboring Turkey, who have often threatened intervention in the north - which they have done at times - to protect the ethnic Turkic people from what they believe might be discrimination by either the Kurds or Arabs.

One cannot overlook the other reason the Kurds have been denied possession of Kirkuk - oil. Although the bulk of Iraq's oil fields and production facilities are located in the southern, Shi'a-majority, portion of the country south of Baghdad, there are significant oil fields in the Kirkuk area. Some of these oil fields are in the Kurdish zone, but a large portion are not - they are in or near the city of Kirkuk. (See my 2009 article, The Kurds make a play for Kirkuk.)

Now that the Kurds have taken possession of the city of Kirkuk, I do not see them giving it up. They believe they "saved" it from the ISIS onslaught as the Islamist forces moved east and south through Iraq, taking Mosul and rolling down the Tigris and Euphrates valleys toward Baghdad. The Kurds have finally achieved a long-time goal, and unless the Iraqi government in Baghdad wants to come north and try to take it back, it will remain in the hands of the Kurds. I don't see that happening anytime soon - the Iraqi government in Baghdad has its hands full trying to regain its composure after being battered by ISIS in the Sunni heartland.

By way of disclosure, I spent a significant period of time (was that sufficiently vague?) in northern Iraq in the mid-1990s working with the Kurds. I am a huge supporter of their efforts to gain Kurdish independence. The Kurds, all told, comprise about 30 million people spread out in northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran. They are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country.

That does not mean that they have failed to plan for a future that leads to an independent state. Despite admonitions from the central government in Baghdad, they have negotiated international contracts for the oil produced in the autonomous region.

Realizing that the main pipeline for the oil production in the north runs through the Iraqi Arab areas south and west of Mosul - areas which will likely never be included in the Kurdish area - they built a pipeline to Turkey that ties into the existing pipeline to the oil terminal at the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The expected output from this pipeline should adequately fund the Kurdish region.

That addresses the Kurds in Iraq. What about their brethren in Iran, Turkey and Syria? Given the situation with ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, it would not surprise me if the Kurds in Iraq and Syria attempted to link up and create a state that includes both areas. Iran has not yet faced any crisis in the region in which its Kurds reside, so I doubt that Tehran will look favorably on an attempt to incorporate that area into a new Kurdish state. Also, that area in Iran is not exclusively Kurdish - many Persians and Azeris reside in that area as well.

Turkey is another matter. Over the last four decades, the Turks have been combating Kurdish efforts to gain autonomy or independence. Surprisingly, they have recently been involved in talks with Mas'ud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdish Autonomous Region. The Turks want a stable presence on their southern border. An agreement with a Kurdistan in what is now northern Iraq would provide that stability.

The Kurds want an independent state - the current crisis in Iraq may provide the opportunity to create one. I wish them success.

June 20, 2014

ISIS versus ISIL - what's in a name?

The term ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a common word in newsrooms and on news broadcasts over the past few weeks as the group it describes continues to challenge the Iraqi army as it moves toward Baghdad. Yet, when the U.S. government describes this group, they use the acronym ISIL, or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

What is the difference and which is correct?

Let's start with the actual name of the group. In Arabic, it is الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, or al-dawlat al-islamiyah fil-'iraq wal-sham. That translates to "the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham." Even the Arabic-language media uses an acronym* using the first letters of the Arabic words - داعش, or da'ish. It is the translation of the Arabic word al-Sham that becomes problematic.

Al-Sham can be translated in several ways, depending on context. It can mean the city of Damascus, the country of Syria or the area also known as "greater Syria" or the Levant. In the past, the Levant included the island of Cyprus and what are now the countries of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories (West Bank and the Gaza Strip), and part of southern Turkey.

Today, it is generally accepted as referring to the area that comprises the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Although the translation of al-Sham as "the Levant" (and thus ISIL) is technically more accurate, for the purposes of describing this group, I prefer to use the more generic "Syria" (and thus ISIS), since that appears to be everyone's focus at this time. That does not change the group's larger goal.

* Although acronyms are not as common in Arabic as they are in English, they do exist. The most common one in the media is HAMAS, an acronym for حركة المقاومة الاسلامية, harakat al-muqawamah al-islamiyah, or the Islamic Resistance Movement.

June 18, 2014

The capture of Ahmad Abu Khatallah - what took us so long?

Ahmad Abu Khatallah

Last weekend, a team of American special operations forces and FBI special agents conducted a covert mission into Bengahazi, Libya, and captured the most wanted suspected leader of the Islamist group responsible for the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate and a CIA facility in that city. Four Americans were killed in that 2012 attack.

It has taken 21 months to capture Ahmad Abu Khatallah. Yet, the media is abuzz with recriminations and accusations, decrying how long it has taken, pointing out that Abu Khattalah was available for interviews with several journalists, including CNN's Arwa Damon last year. (Disclosure: As I write this, I am a paid CNN military analyst.) Arwa is an excellent journalist, has excellent Arabic language skills, and was able to get a good interview. I listened to the interview in the original Arabic - to me, Abu Khatallah sounded arrogant and condescending.

As I sit in the CNN New York bureau, I am watching almost every network and cable outlet repeatedly point to their journalists' meetings with Abu Khatallah and ask that if it was possible for their journalists to find him, why couldn't the United States armed forces, intelligence community or FBI do the same?

The short answer is, of course, that they could - he wasn't lost. Knowing where someone is not the same as being able to seize him, transport him and then - an important point - successfully convict him.

Now for the long answer. The days of capturing illegal combatants and taking them to Guantanamo is over. The Obama Administration is trying to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, not increase the inmate population. The preferred method of bringing these types of individuals to justice is via the U.S. federal court system.

Prosecuting a case in federal court, subject to the rules of evidence and judicial procedure, requires evidence that will prove Abu Khatallah's guilt to the standard required in criminal case - beyond a reasonable doubt. Gathering that evidence in an area known to be hostile to the United States is problematic, and thus takes time.

Only when you have gathered the required evidence for a successful prosecution can you mount an operation to seize the accused. This is when the months of surveillance become critical. Knowing where someone is not the hard part; extricating him is.

Being able to arrange an interview for a journalist is not difficult when the subject is not afraid of being captured. A journalist meeting with a subject in an area that the subject controls is not a threat - it is his security, his schedule, his location. Conducting a covert special operations mission is a different matter. It is not simply a matter of taking a camera and recorder to a meeting in a coffee shop.

The essential ingredient for a successful operation is accurate intelligence. That intelligence has to be precise and specific, gathered via a variety of sources and methods - human, electronic, visual, including any information gleaned from the journalists' interviews.

Examples of the types of intelligence information required for these types of operations: where does he live, where does he work, how does he travel, does he vary his routes, does he always use the same vehicle, what is his security situation at home and work, and during the period when he travels back an forth? Are the potential locations where an operation could be mounted, what is the local security situation, will a local police force or a security organization respond, how long does that response take, are their medical issues with the subject? - the list goes on.

Developing a file on one person to this level of granularity takes time and resources. In Libya, it is complicated by the fact that there is virtually no American presence in the area.

Once you have the intelligence required to mount an operation, then you have to plan the operation itself. Who is going to do it, how many special operations personnel are required for success without creating a alerting signature? Deploying a large number of assets to an area could very well tip off the target that an operation may be in the works. How do you safely get into and out of the designated target location? What type of transportation will be required, where will helicopters or boats stage from, what are the defenses in the area, where will the subject be taken once seized, etc.? Again, the list goes on and on. The goal is to have as much of the situation controlled as possible.

I have some experience with this type of operation - I was the deputy chief of a team hunting war criminals in Bosnia. After that operation concluded years later, I wrote a book about it. Warning: unabashed plug here -
Chasing Demons - My Hunt for War Criminals in Bosnia.

Here is what I wrote about a similar situation during our successful hunt for five indicted war criminals, which took a few years:

Quote from Chasing Demons

The Hunting Party

The Hunting Party is the title of a movie made in 2007 starring Richard Gere, Terrence Howard, Jesse Eisenberg and James Brolin. According to the movie plot, three war correspondents embark on an unauthorized mission to find the most wanted war criminal in Bosnia. The villain is easily representative of Ratko Mladić. The group finds themselves in serious jeopardy when they are mistaken as a CIA hit squad and their target decides to come after them.

The movie had authentic scenery and was entertaining, but the producers could not just provide us with entertainment. No, they had to end the movie with a political statement ridiculing the actual hunt by Razorback and Buckeye bases (subject of the book).

Their ridicule was misplaced and inaccurate. I know the effort that went into hunting down these dangerous men; they do not. It is easy to make unfounded statements and shoot a movie. It is quite another thing to pick up a weapon and go forth into the fray, or as my Navy friend Tony Harper said, "where angels have second thoughts about treading."

End Quote

Bottom line

Criticizing the intelligence community, special operations forces and law enforcement agencies about the length of time it took to mount this high-risk successful operation is a cheap shot. There are valid reasons for being critical of these organizations - this is not one of them.

June 12, 2014

Interview: ISIS and the move towards Baghdad

I appeared on the Steve Malzberg Show today to talk about the situation developing in Iraq.

Here is the story that accompanies the video, and the video itself

June 10, 2014

Iraq's second largest city falls to Islamists - fault of the United States?


As you can see from the image above, taken from the White House website, President Barack Obama committed in his 2009 inauguration speech to end the war in Iraq responsibly - his exact words, "We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people."

During the campaign, he also committed to leaving a residual force of American troops in the country to continue training Iraqi military and security forces, and to provide a rapid response capability should the Iraqi forces be faced with a situation beyond their capabilities.

When Mr. Obama assumed office, the United States and Iraq were operating under a Status of Forces Agreement signed during the Bush Administration that called for the removal of American forces by the end of 2011, unless the security situation warranted the extension of an American presence.

During the summer months of 2011, the Obama Administration engaged in just such extension negotiations with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'a Muslim (and many would say, Iranian puppet). In the middle of negotiations, the American side abruptly terminated the talks and walked out.

In my opinion, President Obama had no intention of keeping American forces in Iraq beyond the end of 2011 and was merely going through the motions. He used the back and forth nature of the negotiations as an excuse to walk away from the table and pull out American troops by year's end. By December 2011, the Iraqis were on their own.

Without the presence of American combat power in the country, it was not long before the old animosities that had been simmering beneath the surface since the American surge in 2007 had tamped down the sectarian violence, re-ignited and violence began to reappear. Sunnis and Shi'a again drew battle lines - the Sunnis gaining support from al-Qa'idah affiliated and other Islamist groups, and the Shi'a from the Iranians - the self appointed guardians of Shi'a worldwide.

I admit that I was surprised at the level of activity by the Islamist groups, particularly the group formerly known as al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI), which renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq. After a series of successful operations in Iraq, it sent fighters to participate in the Syrian civil war in cooperation with other Islamist groups, particularly jabhat al-nusrah (the Victory Front). The Jabhat al-Nusrah remains a group subordinate to al-Qa'idah, while ISIS is an independent Islamist organization.

As the organization grew in strength in Syria, it renamed the parent organization the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).* They believe (with some justification) that the border between Iraq and Syria is an artificial creation of mandatory powers Great Britain and France following World War One, and should not exist. A new Islamic state should replace both colonial legacy nations.

While ISIS continues to fight the Syrian regime and at times the secular Free Syrian Army (also opposed to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad), it also continues to mount attacks on Iraqi government facilities and troops in both the Sunni Arab and Kurdish areas. They have already taken the city of Fallujah, and the Iraq army has not been able to recapture it. It's area of focus is the area shaded in green on the map below.

Debkafile Map (debka.com)

These operations culminated on June 10, 2014 with the capture of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul (al-Mawsil). The Iraqi army units assigned to Mosul simply dropped their weapons, abandoned hundreds of American-made (and funded) vehicles and departed the city, leaving it defenseless to the attacking Islamists. So much for security being in the hands of the Iraqis, as described by the President in 2011.

The President repeatedly claims to have "ended the war in Iraq." Mr. Obama, you did not end the war. You merely ended our involvement in it - the war has never stopped, and as we see today, is escalating. Thanks to your ill-advised decision to cut and run rather than hammer out an agreement with the Iraqi government that would have provided an American backstop to the Iraqi military, we are now faced with the impending dismemberment of a country that we fought to make into an fledgling democracy. Iraq may become the next major haven for Islamists worldwide.

If ISIS is successful in expanding its control of territory in Syria, it will soon become a national security threat to the United States - too large of a threat to ignore. At some point, we are going to have to address this threat, or it will address us. It reminds of the old car repair commercial, "Pay me now or pay me more later." Later is fast approaching, Mr. President.

By the way, Mr. Obama is doing the same thing in Afghanistan that he did in Iraq. He has told the Taliban when we are leaving. I won't even address his release of the Taliban's top five leaders. That too will come back to haunt the United States.

* The name in Arabic is actually al-dawlat al-islamiyah fil-'iraq wal-sham. Al-Sham can be translated as either Damascus, Syria or the Levant, depending on context. I prefer to use "Syria."

June 4, 2014

ADDENDUM - Upcoming Syrian Presidential Election - A Prediction

This is a follow-up to my original article (quoted below) predicting Bashar al-Asad's landslide re-election. That prediction, of course, took no real political acumen - it was a foregone conclusion. The only question was the size of the victory that al-Asad's political machine could engineer. As we expected, there were numerous reports of government thugs "encouraging" people to vote, and how to vote.

Here are the numbers, courtesy of the Syrian constitutional court:
- Number of citizens eligible to participate in the presidential elections: 15,845,575
- Number who participated: 11,634,412
- Particpation: 73.42 percent
- Results: Commander in Chief, President Bashar al-Asad re-elected with 88.7 percent of votes.

What a sham* (see comment on original article).


Bashar al-Asad supporters in Damascus

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, who has been in office since his father's death in 2000, is nearing the end of his second seven-year term. A quick reminder of how Bashar came to be the president will provide some insight into the Syrian electoral process. Bashar, second son of Syrian strongman Hafiz al-Asad, was called back from his ophthalmology studies in the United Kingdom when his older brother Basil was killed in a car accident in 1994. The poster in the above photograph refers to "the eye doctor."

After his return, the tall, introverted physician was groomed to succeed his father, much as Basil before him. That entailed a direct field-grade commission in the army, imaginary graduation from the war college, command positions, etc., most in name only. It was no secret to anyone in the country that Bashar would be the next president of Syria, but that was never mentioned out loud.

Although many Syrians objected to what amounts to a dynasty in the country, they have had no say. Despite the trappings of a republic, Syria is a dictatorship ruled by the Ba'ath Party, a party dominated by the minority Shi'a-offshoot 'Alawi sect and the al-Asad clan. Complaining about the al-Asad family out loud in Syria usually results in the complainer going wara' al-shams (behind the sun, meaning they just disappear).

In 2000, Hafiz al-Asad died, putting Syria into somewhat of a constitutional crisis. The Syrian constitution, regarded by most Syrians as merely hibr 'ala waraq (ink on paper), required that the Syrian president be 40 years of age, and a Muslim. At that time, Bashar was only 34 years old. The Syrian parliament went into emergency session and within one hour changed the Syrian constitution to change the age requirement to 34 years of age. You can't make this stuff up.

A referendum was held, asking the electorate to vote for or against Bashar al-Asad as the new president. With a turnout of 94.6 percent, Bashar was approved with 99.7 percent voting yes. The joke in Damascus at the time: when told of the results and asked what more he could ask for, Bashar replied, "the names of the 0.3 percent...."

Bashar was re-elected to a second term in 2007 with "only" 97.62 percent of the vote, with a 95.86 percent turnout. Although the numbers appear to be a slight decrease in support for Bashar, the internal numbers reveal almost the same impossible numbers. There were only 0.17 percent against Bashar's re-election - the remaining 2.21 percent were declared invalid ballots. It's all a sham.*

Voting in Damascus's fifth election precinct in 2012

In 2012, under pressure from the rebels who were on the verge of overthrowing the al-Asad government, Bashar ordered the drafting of a new constitution, which to no one's surprise, was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum.** The voter turnout was only 57.4 percent (remember - this was during a civil war), and 89.4 percent voting in favor.

The new constitution changes the selection of the president from a referendum on one candidate to an election with multiple candidates. A law adopted by the Syrian parliament in 2014 (at Bashar's direction) prohibits candidates who have not lived in Syria for the past 10 years - this removes self-exiled opposition leaders from eligibility.

For the election which will be held on June 3, a total of 24 potential candidates have applied to be on the ballot. Of these 24, only three have been determined to meet all the eligibility requirements and will appear on the ballot. It is meaningless theater - Bashar al-Asad will be re-elected in a landslide.

Yes, you heard it here first: Bashar al-Asad will be re-elected in a landslide.

I have a good Syrian friend, a doctor - we will call him Dr. Walid - who described a voting experience a few years ago. He went to work at the hospital on election day. He was summoned to the hospital administrator's office, where he was introduced to two Ba'ath Party "officials" - his description of them was more akin to "enforcers." They explained that since the doctor was very busy with patients, they had taken the liberty of bringing his ballot to him and had already filled it out. How considerate, no?

This will be another sham (pun intended) election, Bashar will be re-elected by a huge margin, and the dictatorship in Syria will go on. The civil war will continue, more civilians will be killed.
* This is a play on words for my Arabic-speaking readers. The word sham in Arabic means Syria or Damascus, depending on the word preceding it. See also another use of the word at my earlier article, What's in a name? - the Syrian-Iranian car company.

** The military situation has changed dramatically since 2012. With the introduction of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters and advisors, plus fighters from Lebanese Hizballah, the Syrian armed forces have regained the upper hand.

June 1, 2014

The Bowe Bergdahl exchange - a mixed blessing

PFC Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan - 2009

The backslapping and media frenzy has begun following the prisoner exchange that resulted in the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban Haqqani network, and the release of what many consider the top five Taliban prisoners formerly held at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Over the next few days, the press will hound the Bergdahl family and lionize the now-free soldier. This is all understandable, but after the media circus dies down, there will be serious questions that need answers. I will pose some of them here.

The Price

Here are the five Taliban leaders who were released in exchange for Sergeant Bergdahl. Let's take a quick look at who they are - all were part of the Taliban government that brutalized what it called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from September 1996 until December 2001 when it was removed by American forces. As you read this, you might wonder why these Islamic fanatics are still alive.

Top left: Muhammad Nabi 'Umari (Mohammad Nabi Omari), served as the Taliban’s chief of communications and assisted in the escape of al-Qa'idah leaders to Pakistan, and was part of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin militant group associated with al-Qa'idah.

Top center: 'Abd al-Haq Wathiq (Abdul Haq Wasiq), deputy chief of the Taliban intelligence service, also affiliated with al-Qa'idah's intelligence effort, and like 'Umari, a member of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin militant group.

Top right: Nurallah Nuri (Norullah Noori), former governor of Balkh province during the Taliban rule and a key participant in the fight against the Northern Alliance.

Bottom left: Muhammad Fazl Akhund (Mohammad Fazl), army chief of staff in the Taliban government, and led the fighting against the American-led invasion in 2001. He is believed to be responsible for the killing of thousands of Afghan Shi'a between 1998 and 2001, and was also affiliated with al-Qa'idah.

Bottom right: Khayrallah Sa'id Wali Khayrkhwah (Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa), served as interior minister during the Taliban’s rule, and was directly associated with al-Qa'idah leader Usama bin Ladin, as well as Al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musa'ib al-Zarqawi. He also was a major opium drug lord.

My questions

A few words before I delve into the questions I feel are relevant to this case. Make no mistake - I, as all Americans should be, am pleased that Sergeant Bergdahl has been recovered. I am happy for the Bergdahl family that their son is now free and on his way home, and I am relieved that there are no remaining American prisoners of war, putting to bed any thought that we were going to leave any of our troops behind when we leave Afghanistan. Despite the circumstances surrounding Sergeant Bergdahl's capture (I will use that word for now), he is a U.S. Army soldier, and we could not break faith with him.

Now, for Sergeant Bergdahl:

1. What are the circumstances surrounding your "capture" on June 30, 2009. There are several versions, only one of which can be true. You say you were lost after you fell behind on patrol - that's been debunked. There are claims from your fellow soldiers that you simply walked away from your post with a few days supply of water. This came after you sent some bizarre emails to your family complaining about the war and how it was being conducted, as well as unflattering descriptions of the troops with whom you served. The Taliban claims you were drunk and outside the post. I am inclined to believe the words of your fellow soldiers.

2. Did you plan to desert? Your emails indicated that you were ashamed to be an American, you mailed home your uniforms and books (although your deployment was not over), and you asked a sergeant if you should take your weapon if you left the post (really?). This all sounds like you were planning to leave.

3. Did you have any communications with the Taliban before you came under their control? It is curious that the Taliban kept you alive - most Islamists torture and behead their captives. What did you tell them? Why did they keep you alive? It may have been to exchange you for the Taliban Five, but how could they know it would work?

4. Assuming that your departure from your post was voluntary, are you aware of the resources expended to try to locate and retrieve you? Five years of intelligence work and special operations, lots of money spent and time wasted because of your actions - not to mention the danger in which you put the people trying to find you.

5. Do you understand that your actions have led to the release of five dangerous Taliban militants?

6. Do you stand behind your rather inflammatory characterizations of American troops in Afghanistan. Yes, the same ones that spent time, sweat and blood trying to locate you, the same ones that were at risk at the turnover on May 31.

For the Administration:

1. Is it now U.S. policy to negotiate with terrorists?

2. What is the nature of the release of the five Taliban militants? Are they to be detained in Qatar, or will we find them on a battlefield in Afghanistan attacking American troops?

3. My understanding is that release of Guantanamo detainees requires Congressional authorization. Who in Congress was notified, and when?

4. Will Sergeant Bergdahl be called to answer for his actions in June 2009?

The list for both the sergeant and the Administration goes on and on. If I was interrogating Sergeant Bergdahl, it would take months. Eventually, the truth will come out. If he walked away from his post as it appears, given the information we have now, he needs to be held accountable. He has already been through hell, although possibly of his own doing, so I think any type of punishment is out of the question.

However, he could be given a less than honorable discharge. If that is the case, he should be enjoined from making any money from this ordeal - no book or movie deals, etc. Any monies generated from these kinds of endeavors should be put into a fund for the families of our fallen troops.

Bob Bergdahl

Then we have Bob, Bowe's father. I am willing to give him some leeway - no doubt the last five years have been traumatic, but it is how we conduct ourselves when faced with adversity that defines us. That said, I have some concerns about Bob Bergdahl. He appears to have, as we used to say in the human intelligence field, "gone native."

He has adopted the beard of devout Muslims, the Muslim-style skullcap, and recited the bismillah* during his remarks at the White House. I think he knows his son is likely in trouble and this may be his way of dealing with it. His tweets on Twitter are telling. See <@bobbergdahl>.

What's next?

As I said, the truth will come out. There will be long interrogations, sorry, interviews, ahead for Sergeant Bergdahl. It will become clear what happened that night in Yahya Khel, Afghanistan. I hope that this Administration provides that information to the public, although their track record with that is a bit spotty....

* The bismillah is the Arabic phrase باسم الله الرحمن الرحيم (bismillah al-rahman al-rahim - In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful). It is the first phrase of every sura (chapter) of the al-Qur'an. It also appears on every piece of official stationery of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.