Notes From the Margins…

ISIS: Made in Washington?

  • June 23, 2014
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As a result of its continuing offensives in Iraq, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS) has become the latest Islamist threat to civilisation.   If the rightwing Internet website World Net Daily is to be believed however,  the US government may have inadvertently played a direct role in ISIS’s creation, through a military training program which began in the spring of 2012.   According to WND

dozens of ISIS members were trained at the time as part of covert aid to the insurgents targeting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The officials said the training was not meant to be used for any future campaign in Iraq.

Evidence to support this thesis comes from “informed Jordanian officials” and is rather thin on the details.   WND does not say how US military trainers knew that they were training ISIS, given that the group has only emerged as a military force in Syria in the last 12 months.   Its reporters also quote “a high official in the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki” who says that the US was aware of more recent training and support provided to ISIS by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

These are not the most reliable or conclusive sources, especially coming from a conservative website which undoubtedly has more interest in advancing conspiracy theories involving the Obama administration than it might have done say, if George Bush had still been in power.

Nevertheless, it is not outlandish to suggest that Isis may be – in part – yet another of the unexpected consequences of the clandestine backchannels through which US/ Western strategic interests are pursued.   From the earliest period of the rebellion against Assad, the Syrian opposition was receiving money, weapons and training from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States.

In March last year, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that some 200 US miltitary advisors in Jordan were training some 1, 200 Syrian rebels in Jordan as part of an eventual project to train 10,000 fighters “to the exclusion of radical Salafists.”   That same month the Guardian reported that the British Foreign Office  was providing military training to rebels in Jordan.     According to William Hague this also included technical assistance, advice and training on “co-ordination between civilian and military councils, on how to protect civilians and minimise the risks to them, and how to maintain security during a transition.”

The Guardian also revealed that the Pentagon had already begun a training programme at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Centre near Amman in the autumn of 2012, in which special forces operatives were training rebels to “prepare for the possibility of Syrian use of chemical weapons and train selected rebel fighters.”

All the governments concerned insisted that any military training and weaponry reaching the Syrian rebels was only reaching the ‘good rebels’ who don’t go around crucifying the opposition, murdering Christians, suppressing women and killing prisoners-of-war.    In March 2012, John Kerry insisted thatThere is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them.”

It’s difficult to believe that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States asked prospective recipients of military aid in Syria for their views on parliamentary democracy or the rights of women.     In addition, democratic States interested in regime change generally provide military aid to the organizations that are most militarily effective in achieving their aims, and they are not likely to worry too much whether these organizations are politically ‘moderate’,   even if they like the world to believe otherwise.

It has been thus, ever since the Afghan war against the Soviets, when Western governments helped re-launch the international jihad in order to ‘make Russia bleed.’   In those pre-al Qaeda days, neither the CIA nor the American government nor their allies worried about the distinctions between   ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ rebels, and generally ensured that weapons and money went to the most violent and the most militarily active anti-Soviet organizations.

If those groups skinned Russian prisoners alive or blew up girls schools, or were more concerned with establishing an Islamic state than a parliamentary democracy, that did not undermine their credentials as ‘freedom fighters’ as far as the White House or Downing Street were concerned.

With the help of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the US also encouraged and facilitated an international movement of Muslim volunteers who transformed Afghanistan into the Islamic equivalent of the Spanish Civil War.  Many of the on-the-ground details of the jihad were left to the Pakistani ISI or the Saudi secret services, so that the US could maintain the usual fiction of ‘plausible deniability’ that has always accompanied its covert op programmes, but the US government also played its part, for instance, by maintaining a visa waiver program in Riyadh which enabled selected Saudis to receive military training in the US.

All this worked very well, and made a lot of Russians – and Afghans – bleed,   so much so that the US also continued its relationship with some of the international jihadist groups after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, with a view to extending similar operations into Central Asia and the ‘stans’.

As the world now knows too well, these organizations were not merely puppets.   They had their own agendas, and sometimes the US was useful to them and sometimes not.   In the aftermath of the Afghan war it wasn’t, at least not to the ‘far enemy’ school of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, which declared war on the United States.

But even then there was still scope for collaboration between ‘jihadists’ and the ‘far enemy’ in areas of mutual interest, for example in Bosnia, where, according to the 2002 Dutch government inquiry into the 1995 Srebenica masacre, the US collaborated with Turkey and Iran in facilitating the transport of weapons and ‘Afghan-Arabs’ from proscribed ‘terrorist’ organizations to assist the Bosnian government.

More recently, in 2007, the Bush administration received congressional approval for an escalation of covert operations against Iran, that included support and assistance to the Baluchi/Sunni Jundallah, another violent ‘fundamentalist’ organization which has carried out numerous bombings and assassinations in Iran.

Then there was Libya, where Western governments relied heavily on armed jihadist groups with a radical Islamist agenda to take down Gaddafi, whose members included some of the same people it had only recently been torturing.

So if the US and ISIS  have overlapped, there would be nothing surprising about it.   Such collaboration doesn’t mean that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are mere pawns of Washington.

It’s difficult to see how current developments in Iraq can possibly be in the interests of the United States, but governments that engage in short-term ‘games of thrones’ do not always pay attention to the long-term,   and sometimes they find that the pieces they bring to the chessboard have an unwanted ability to move all by themselves.



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  1. Kieran Kelly

    24th Jun 2014 - 10:15 pm

    You write: “It is difficult to see how current developments in Iraq can possibly be in the interests of the United States….” Did it somehow escape your attention that some US imperialists have been pushing for partition ever since the 2003 invasion? Did you not notice that during the occupation the US systematically sowed sectarian divisions? Have you never heard of the phrase “divide and rule”? I feel that you are inadvertently putting matters in an apologistic frame. I can only think that the comment you make is a gut reaction to the brutality of ISIS. You should bear in mind the blood that is already on US hands and ask yourself why you think they would draw a line at madmen like ISIS. Moreover, you should reflect on the history of the Khmer Rouge, because their are inevitable parallels. They were inadvertently nursemaided by the US admittedly, but it was when their insane killing spree reached a crescendo that the US decided to ally with them. The US empire does not have moral limitations to its imperial ambitions.

    • Matt

      25th Jun 2014 - 9:01 am

      I wondered whether someone would pick me up for that sentence. It takes a certain kind of ultra-leftist to accuse someone of ‘inadvertently’ being an apologist for US imperialism because of an article pointing out the absence of moral limitations in American foreign policy, and I can’t say I find your sarcastic, finger-in-the-chest approach especially endearing. For what it’s worth, let me make the following points:

      1) I am and was aware that partition was a back channel discussion in some foreign policy circles before the invasion, but I have never seen any evidence whatsoever to suggest that it became official policy, let alone that the US somehow came up with ISIS in order to achieve it.

      2) Believe it or not, I have heard of the expression ‘ divide and rule’ I am also aware that the Anglo/American occupation ‘sowed sectarian divisions’, but this was done, in my opinion, to better control and shape a unified Iraq rather than fragment the state. If the latter was really the intention, the occupiers would not have made the effort to bribe/terrorize Sunni tribes in Anbar province between 2006-2010, and they would have taken advantage of the opportunity that the Shia/Sunni ethnic war provided them with.

      3) I still do not see how the current ISIS offensives benefit the United States. If Iraq disintegrates, what part of it is the US going to control or have influence over? Kurdistan maybe, but to some extent such influence already exists. Personally, I don’t believe that the US wants to get involved in Iraq again – it was badly burned and very nearly defeated when it was last there. It failed to achieve its strategic objectives, and didn’t even get the status of forces agreement that it wanted. In the end, it had to content itself with a ‘surge’ that was largely intended to create conditions when its troops could withdraw and its government could claim that some kind of ‘victory’ had been achieved.

      Even if it ‘intervenes’ now, it has no good strategic options that I can see. On the contrary, anything it does is likely to empower its enemies and regional competitors, while sucking it back into a conflict in which the US has no obvious allies that can further its own interests.

      4) The US did indeed create the Khymer Rouge ‘inadvertently’ – by bombing Cambodia to smithereens and conspiring against Sihanouk. It only began officially supporting the Khymer Rouge (together with Britain) after its killing spree had reached a ‘crescendo’ and subsided as a result of the Vietnames invasion. That was done as part of the Reaganite ‘proinsurgency’ policy intended to ‘make Vietnam bleed’.

      5) In this, and in many other pieces I have written, I have argued that US foreign policy is unconstrained by moral limitations. That probably won’t stop you from viewing me as some kind of liberal apologist or ‘gatekeeper’, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

      • Kieran Kelly

        26th Jun 2014 - 1:21 am

        If my tone offended you I apologise. I will admit that I am frustrated because people seem to think that by being critical of US administrations they have somehow discharged some moral duty and that to go beyond that is transgressive. You yourself framed the issue that way when you used the ad hominem “a certain kind of ultra-leftist”. Why would I have to be a certain sort of person to disagree with “an article pointing out the absence of moral limitations in American foreign policy” if I think the article is wrong in some detail? It leaves me with a sense that there is a core ideological kernel that is sacrosanct to you, and that is exactly the analytical limitation that causes me so much frustration.

        I would also like to point out that the burden of proof is on you. You wrote the sentence: “It is difficult to see how current developments in Iraq can possibly be in the interests of the United States.” You are probably aware that constructions such as “no one can doubt” or “there can be no doubt” are often used as a way of conveying unexamined ideological positions. They are more efficacious than similar constructions such as “it is clear to all” because they are passive and negative. Your sentence achieved the same effect. You are stating a presupposition in a way that minimises cognitive engagement with the assertion embedded within it.

        I appreciate that you have actually endeavoured to provide the reasoning behind your assertion in your enumerated response. I think that your first point could have been included easily in your original article. However, in response to your points:

        1) I wasn’t suggesting that there was some consensus among foreign policy elites in DC over the partition of Iraq. That isn’t how this sort of foreign policy works. There is no monolithic “US”, but I would contend that there is a very strong coherent imperialist strain that, though it must deal with limitations, is highly empowered by circumstance with regard to Iraq. Regardless of who supports partition, such as Peter Galbraith, you would never expect it to be “official policy”. By analogy, official Israeli policy is to seek a 2 state solution. Their actions, however, show the systematic implementation of a de facto “Yeretz Israel” policy of territorial expansion which contradicts their “official policy”. It is also not unusual for a minority position to hold sway over the long term if they can make better use of the official pieties of a society.
        2) Yes they pacified Anbar, but they also armed them whilst ensuring that they remained politically excluded. The fact that the Awakening groups didn’t simply throw their lot in with ISI and attack occupation forces with their shiny new weapons is as much a testament to the repugnance generated by ISI as it is to successful calculation on the US part. In the long run, of course, those weapons are at the service of ISIS/Daash. And look at the circumstances leading up to that: mass protest fails, people form General Military Council, and then suddenly ISIS appears and is ceded massive swathes of territory by the Iraqi military. If you read the posts from Mosul Eye you will see that a tiny group has actually been gifted control of the resources and energies of huge numbers of people, including many armed groups, who are all far less extreme ideologically.
        3) “If Iraq disintegrates, what part of it is the US going to control or have influence over? Kurdistan maybe, but to some extent such influence already exists.” This is really too simplistic. The US exerts a great deal of control in areas where there is ongoing conflict. obviously there are limits to what you can do with such a situation, but that is exactly why those who seek partition and instability are empowered by circumstance. Once a place is Balkanised, and once divisions have been created by “weaponising identity”, it is easy to ensure continued instability. Increasingly conflicts have become never-ending and we seem to have simply accommodated to this change as if it were some eternal reality, not a recent drastic change in the nature of historical events. Clausewitzian models of armed conflict are no longer applicable. Everywhere the US uses armed force, or succeeds in altering the political landscape, becomes a site of indefinitely protracted mass violence at some level. This is true in the Horn of Africa, Central Africa, Libya, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Waziristan. They have also shown that throughout the horrific slaughter and instability in eastern DRC, they could still export minerals as fast as they could dig them up, and far more profitably than if they had to deal with a functioning government. It is really an extension of the mechanisms used by departing colonial powers who would often sow destruction in order to foster neocolonial controls – often commercial in nature, but ultimately political also. Moreover, bear in mind that disrupting oil supplies through destabilisation worked out pretty well for the US empire after 2003.
        4) The US only began “officially” supporting the KR after its ouster, but why don’t you consider its de facto support significant? They began supporting the KR at exactly the time when their madness was reaching a crescendo and they were slaughtering their Eastern Zone cadres for being “Vietnamese heads on Khmer bodies”. Since we know this is true, why would any care when they made it “official” – which only occurred because the nature of their support was necessarily diplomatic as well as material.
        5) You write: “In this, and in many other pieces I have written, I have argued that US foreign policy is unconstrained by moral limitations. That probably won’t stop you from viewing me as some kind of liberal apologist or ‘gatekeeper’….” The way you are framing things here is to delegitimise my argument by another ad hominem. You seem to be saying that because you “have argued that US foreign policy is unconstrained by moral limitations”, that disagreement indicates that I am some sort of fringe person. However, from my perspective you are simply ignorant of some details and not sophisticated enough in your thinking on this subject. I don’t have any problem with your politics. I do suspect an ideological origin to our difference in viewpoint, but it is still ultimately an intellectual matter between two people who are very clearly closely aligned in political beliefs. I don’t think you are some sort of “gatekeeper”. In fact, I’m fairly sure that I have read other posts of yours and had no issues with them at all.

        What I am trying to explain is, on one level, very simple. I am saying no more than that things are as they appear. But when you have to deconstruct the frameworks of interpretation that people impose over events, it can be very complicated. I hope you understand that I have not been able in this space to give a full accounting. I would love nothing better than to discuss these things at length in some sort of relaxed setting. I can see from your publications that you know a great deal about many related issues, and if you paid me the respect of not assuming that I had no knowledge or insight that you might lack, then it would be a profitable discussion for both.

        • Kieran Kelly

          26th Jun 2014 - 1:27 am

          NB: I tried to embed hyperlinks to Mosul Eye – which is a Facebook page if you want to look it up – and an article about Peter Galbraith’s shenanigans, but they didn’t work.

        • Matt

          26th Jun 2014 - 12:28 pm

          Some very interesting arguments here Kieran. Thanks for your apology. I’m sorry too, if I gave the impression that I thought you ‘had no knowledge or insight.’ I didn’t make that assumption, in fact, which would also suggest that I regard myself as some kind of authority whose ‘knowledge and insights’ cannot be challenged. I don’t, and you – and anyone else for that matter – are perfectly entitled to take issue with the ideas I put forward. But your rather hectoring tone did remind me of a ‘a certain kind of ultra-leftist’ response that I have often encountered, in which a single word or expression out of place becomes a kind of indictment, or is interpreted as some kind of moral/intellectual collusion. You didn’t intend that, then fine, let’s put it behind us. So in reponse to your points:

          1) Agreed that states often adopt policies and pursue strategies that are not ‘official’, and that the US is no exception. But my ‘it’s difficult to see’ is not the same as your ‘there is no doubt that.’ And is not intended to defend an ‘ideological position.’ I really don’t see how it suits the US to have a partitioned Iraq, nor do I believe that ISIS is some kind of policy instrument to achieve this aim. I see the Iraq occupation as a strategic failure for the US, which began by attempting to create a (unified) client state under an empowered Shia majority, that would have been a platform for further invasions, permanent military bases, and regime change and other ‘policing’ operations across the region. It didn’t achieve this, and was in the end forced to come up with a pseudo-‘pacification’ that allowed the Bush administration to withdraw its troops and claim that its objectives had been achieved (parl. democracy, stability, reconstruction of the Iraqi armed forces etc), when the core assumptions that had led to the invasion had failed on virtually every count.

          2) Regarding your point about Anbar. You aren’t suggesting that the ‘Awakening’ was part of a long-term strategic plan, which also includes ISIS/Daash, are you? Because I don’t see that at all. After all, if the occupation regime had wanted to ‘Balkanize’ Iraq and ‘weaponize [Sunni] identity’ it could have done it when it was actually in Iraq and with more ability to dictate the course of events. Even if the US comes to accept the partition of Iraq as an inevitability as a result to the developments during the last month, and the catastrophic collapse of the Malik government, I still don’t see how full-blown ethnic/civil conflict benefits American strategic or economic interests in this case.

          3) Your argument suggests that the US deliberately courts ‘continued instability’ and uses it to its advantage. But except for the DRC, you don’t provide any examples of the concrete benefits that accrue to American interests from such a situation globally. It’s true that ‘arcs of instability’ do provide a pretext for American military deployments/bases/special forces etc, but that doesn’t necessarily mean (to my mind) that America is deliberately seeking to create them. There is a fair about of incompetence and incoherence in US foreign policy, Iraq being the classic example. It’s true that American/ Western military intervention almost always makes things worse, but to my mind, you are assuming too much, in attributing all the conflicts that you mention to an ongoing agenda of ‘neocolonial’ control.

          4) Regarding the Khymer Rouge, I do in fact consider it very significant that the US and Britain supported it, and another indication of the absence of moral constraints in American/Western foreign policy.

          5) Lastly, I was not trying to dismiss you as a ‘fringe person’. But you can’t really accuse people of lack of respect when you don’t show any yourself, and statements like ‘ from my perspective you are simply ignorant of some details and not sophisticated enough in your thinking on this subject’ are not likely to endear you to anyone, I’m afraid.

          That said. Thank you for sharing these ideas with me. You’re right, it’s difficult to give a ‘full accounting’ in a comments section, or a blog. Please accept that, like you, some of us are trying to do the best we can, and are not ignoramuses or imperialist fellow-travellers if, in your opinion, we don’t succeed.

          • Kieran Kelly

            27th Jun 2014 - 1:53 am

            Obviously I am not concerned with endearing myself to people, but I would like to point out that there is a world of difference between calling someone “ignorant of some details” and calling them an ignoramus. If I thought you were an ignoramus I would probably not bother to post comments here.

            Your gist is that you still can’t see what the US would get out of Balkanising Iraq. Here are 3 things.

            1) Instability gives them greater control over global oil supplies. In an unstable system the US can easily foment insecurity which can disrupt oil production. This is called strategic denial. It pushes up the value of the oil that they control directly. This is still an important bulwark for the US dollar, but it is also essential for maintaining Third World indebtedness. Most states, especially those of the Third World or global South, are subject to the “Washington Consensus” due to debt. Without the debt, there is no empire.
            2) The US is sowing division in Iraq to continue the suppression of Iraqi development, because a developed Iraq is by its very nature inimical to US imperial interests. The Brits found that even their Hashemite clients in Iraq were not properly tractable. By 1978, when a 3rd US backed coup brought Saddam Hussein to formal power, the US had clearly worked out that the now rapidly developing Iraq could not be trusted to be a vassal state. They deceived Saddam Hussein with fake intel about conditions in Iran in order to kick off the 1980-88 war. During the war they intervened several times to favour whichever side was losing. Bob Woodward characterises this as trying to engineer a stalemate, but they each intervention was designed to increase the tempo of violence destruction and death, so “stalemate” is not a very appropriate term.
            The US then effectively engineered the invasion of Kuwait. Not only did Glaspie give the notorious “green light”, but for more than a year before this, the US had been prompting the al-Sabbahs to back Hussein into a corner over his debt, whilst simultaneously needling and provoking with both concrete actions, such as slant-drilling, and with rhetorical insults.
            Following this there was Desert Sabre and Desert Storm. Then over a decade of genocide through sanctions. Then, by your estimation, they “began by attempting to create a (unified) client state under an empowered Shia majority”, but what did they ever do that fits in with that contention? They did exactly the opposite, under the rationalisations of shock-and-awe, debaathification, neoliberalism, force protection, and a seriously perverted application of “counter-insurgency”. They systematically continued the genocidal work of attacking the economic, social, cultural and political fabric of the Iraqi nation-state whilst spreading violence and mayhem. Don’t you think that it is about time, given that this has been going on for decades, that we stop making ludicrous claims that this is all just a series of totally unconnected miscalculations and mistakes that have just coincidentally cohered into a policy of genocide?
            You also ask whether I thought “the ‘Awakening’ was part of a long-term strategic plan, which also includes ISIS/Daash”? That is a straw man, if you don’t mind me saying, albeit one posed as a question. The fact is that it takes little imagination to see that giving guns to people whilst preventing their political participation will lead to exactly the sort of situation that has now arisen. This was, more or less, foreseen by critics at the time but the discourse was seriously slanted towards the impact on coalition forces.
            3) The current situation seems very well suited to trapping Iran between allowing a disintegration which will allow violent attacks on targets on its own soil and being drawn into a quagmire. As with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, the US will, at very little cost to themselves, be able to bleed Iran white with asymmetric proxies in either scenario. Perhaps I don’t fully understand their position, but it seems to me that Iran’s leaders were very foolish to have become associated with the Maliki regime in the first place.

          • Matt

            27th Jun 2014 - 9:44 am

            Hi Kieran. Well obviously you’re not obliged to endear yourself to me, but as I said in my first response, you can’t be surprised if people don’t respond well to being looked down on from a great height. So thanks for not considering me an ignoramus, but the ‘details’ that you mention here still don’t convince me of what seems to be your overall thesis; namely that ISIS is only one more instrument that the US had used to further its longterm strategic aims: the destruction and Balkanisation of Iraq. The question I asked over whether the ‘Awakening’ and ISIS/Daash are both components/chapters is not a ‘straw man’, because you yourself include both in your summary of US violence in Iraq and the strategic aspirations that you ascribe to it.

            Regarding ‘strategic denial’ – surely that objective could have been achieved if the US had achieved overall control of a unitary (weakened) Iraqi state – something that I still insist it tried and failed to do? This is one of the problems I have with your thesis: you seem to suggest that everything that happens in Iraq (and the other conflicts you mentioned in your earlier post) happens because ‘US imperialism’ wants it to. There is no room here for what Iraqis might do, or for the strategic interests that other states may have – which may or may not coincide with what the US wants – not to mention the divisions within the US elite itself about what to do and how to achieve it.

            You point out for example that, Saddam’s coup was ‘US-backed’, which it was. But then you say that by then, the US had ‘already worked out that a rapidly-developing Iraq could not be a vassal state’. Why back the coup then? Well one reason would be to wipe out the Iraqi communist party – an objective that was achieved. But one of the consequences of Iraq’s ‘rapid development’ was the transformation of Iraq into a regional military power which draped itself in Arab nationalist clothing and became a threat to the Gulf States and also to Israel – something that could not be tolerated. But obviously the US did not anticipate that outcome when it supported Saddam, just as it did not anticipate the intensity of the insurgency that eventually wrecked its plans for the occupation post-2003, or the possibility (if the WND/Spiegel reports are true), that providing military training to jihadists in Jordan might lead to the formation of ISIS and the possibility of the ‘Balkanisation’ of Iraq and a jihadist/warlord political space spanning Iraq and Syria.

            The ‘Awakening’ for example, does not seem to me at all to be a ‘deliberate’ instrument of this ‘Balkanisation’ thesis. The Sunni tribal formations that were eventually co-opted were already armed before Petraeus and the ‘COINistas’ attempted to coopt them, and they were using their weaponry to great effect against US troops themselves. Terrorising/bribing Sunnis with the assistance of Shia death squads, it seems to me was an entirely contingent attempt to defeat the insurgency, not foment ‘Balkanisation’. I just don’t think the US thought that far ahead.

            Also, the benefits of Balkanisation that you outline might be real enough – assuming that the US actually perceives them in this way. But it could also work against US interests, by empowering both Iran and Syria – something that goes entirely against US interests. Instead of considering this possibility – and the short-term, improvisational, opportunistic thinking and sheer brutal incompetence that makes it possible – you suggest once again that ISIS has been an act of US strategic brilliance, intended to ‘bleed Iran white’ and immerse it in a ‘quagmire.’ How about the possibility that ISIS might suck the US itself back into a ‘quagmire’, and that it might be the inadvertent consequence of a typically amoral ‘regime change’ strategy that was aimed at Syria, not Iraq?

            Anyway, there is a lot more we can say, and I would quite like the opportunity to discuss these issues further with you one day, as judging by your interesting blog, we have a lot of interests in common even if our perspectives are different.

            I’m following it, by the way. Because contrary to your initial suggestion that I was trying to write you off as a ‘fringe person’, I rather like the fringes.

  2. Kieran Kelly

    28th Jun 2014 - 2:57 am

    Hi Matt,

    – I guess I used the term “straw man” not to suggest that you were trying to use specious techniques of argumentation, but rather that you are interpreting my assertions as meaning something they do not. I am not concerned with fine details of whom and how until after I have discerned the way intentionality is revealed by the course of events. The problem is one of distinguishing the course of events according to whoever is able to direct events to a predicted and desired outcome. I realise that that wording makes it sound like I am writing of some sort of backroom conspiracy of secret society types. I don’t exclude this possibility, but what I am saying is actually almost the contrary of that suggestion. What I am trying to get at is that the very nature of the universe itself favours certain strategies over others. The simplest example is that it take less energy to destroy than to build. More to the point it is easy for people in a political system of Byzantine complexity to undermine and subvert others.

    – You restate that you believe that the US sought “overall control of a unitary (weakened) Iraqi state”. I think you probably know that that does not fit the actual actions taken by the US. They sent too few troops, sidelined the State dept’s occupation planners, paralysed Garner’s ORHA, and so forth. I could actually list many many more things that fit the same pattern of behaviour. Of course there were people who were working towards the goal of “overall control”, but others thought they were looking for WMDs, others thought they were avenging 9/11 and/or combating terrorism, some thought they were there to liberate Iraqis and bring democracy, and plenty of US personnel thought of their efforts as a religious war against Islam.

    – You seem to think that I am ignoring the agency of Iraqis, but I’m not. I’m suggesting that a successful planner would pursue strategies that render that agency meaningless. The US could not effect strategic denial by controlling “a unitary (weakened) Iraqi state”, because the Iraqis would never let them. Iraq’s interests are not reconcilable with those of empire.

    – I’m sure you are aware that an intelligence asset is not necessarily a witting agent, and the same is true of Daash. This isn’t about having some meticulous plan with timetables and so forth. This is done with much broader brushstrokes, but the results of empowering such a force fall within a very predictable range.

    This brings me back to the larger sweep of events. If you can accept, and I hope you do, that the sanctions were genocidal then how can you deny that US policies since then have effected a continuation of that destruction?

    – I shouldn’t have used the term “quagmire”. It is a terrible and blinding cliché. There can be no comparison between the situation facing Iran and that facing the US. One of the silliest things that people say about US involvement in Viet Nam is that the PLAF and PAVN controlled the tempo. In a very limited sense that is true, but the US chose when to commit troops and when to withdraw. The war ended with PAVN tanks rolling into Saigon, not Washington DC. The US then used a ridiculous pretext to impose sanctions on the “victors”, until they decided to embrace neoliberalism in 1990. Both William Westmoreland and Noam Chomsky agree that this was proof that the US won the war, and when those two agree on something it is surely grounds to pay heed. The very notion that the US was in a quagmire is a yet another way of saying that they were actually victims. Indochina was trashed, but US hegemony was strengthened. The people of the US paid a price, but not its imperialists. Much of the corporatist infrastructure which has become prominent after the invasion of Iraq was first politically empowered and given access to the public purse during the war in Indochina [e.g Monsanto and KBR/Halliburton].

    Thank you for this conversation. I’m sorry if I’m not more personable. I used to care more for other people’s views but it has been burnt out of me by 10 years of trying to work through the system.

    • Matt

      28th Jun 2014 - 9:52 am

      Yes I see what you mean now. Maybe it’s my historical training, but I also feel compelled to try and determine ‘intentionality’ not just through the pattern of events in any given situation, which are often subject to various possible interpretations, but in terms of ‘whom and how.’ That’s what I meant when I somewhat misleadingly used the term ‘official policy’ when talking about whether Balkanisation was a US strategic objective in Iraq. It’s not that I expected Karl Rove to announce such a thing, but I wanted/want more evidence that this was the dominant trend in US thinking, and I still haven’t found it.

      It’s true, as you point out, that the actual actions taken by the US after the occupation seem to mitigate against the idea of a unitary vassal state, but I attribute that to the gross incompetence/arrogance and idiocy of the Bush administration, and its near total failure to understand the internal dynamics of Iraqi society or even to draw on the considerable expertise that previous US occupation regimes had acquired, rather than a coherent strategic project to carve up Iraq. In other words, I don’t think the occupiers actually knew that ‘Iraqis would never let them’ achieve this – they were made to realise it afterwards.

      Of course you’re right about intelligence assets. But once again, the very limited evidence of initital US involvement in the creation of ISIS/Daash, suggests that it was intended to bring about regime change in Syria, and that it’s expansion into Iraq was an ‘unintended consequence’ of that agenda.

      Regarding your question about the larger sweep of events, I do not and have never denied that US policies are dedicated towards a ‘ continuation of that destruction’ [viz a viz sanctions. I think you mistakenly interpreted my argument in my original piece, in thinking that I was trying to present US actions in an ‘apologistic framework.’ It seems to me that our real disagreement is not over the absence of moral restraints in US foreign policy, but over the ultimate strategic purposes behind it.

      Have you read my piece Bombing Iraq: Death and Destruction as Instruments of Statecraft? Available here:

      Regarding your comments on Vietnam, I suppose it’s true that getting Vietnam to embrace neoliberalism through sanctions was a strategic achievement, but it wasn’t a military achievement per se, and Chomsky and Westmoreland notwithstanding, I still think that the US did not achieve its politico-military objectives during the war itself – one of which was the continued division of Vietnam, and the Vietnamese themselves certainly didn’t think so at the time of US withdrawal. But then it’s also true that purely ‘military’ outcome are only one component of ‘post-Clausewitzian’ war.

      Perhaps that’s another discussion for another time. But this one has provided me, at least, with a lot of food for thought. As for being ‘burnt out’, well that is always a problem for all ‘fringe persons’ seeking to find explanations/answers to the utterly dark and horrifying imperialist agendas that are wreaking such havoc across the world, when the worst things seem constantly to happen, and very little that we can say or do appears able to stop them. That said, we have to keep at it, even it sometimes means that we aren’t very personable.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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