Zero Dark Thirty

February 4th, 2013

It seems that every few years, the moviegoing public is treated to a film that is so thoughtfully written, so artistically crafted, so poignantly acted, and just so timely and relevant that it transcends the silver screen and becomes a social phenomenon, a legitimate “must-see” that sparks debate among people of all classes, races, political stripes, etc.  Zero Dark Thirty, the second collaboration between Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, is an artistic triumph that in the fourth week since its release has already achieved this rarefied status.  As anyone who does not live in a Tora Bora cave knows by now, the movie’s sprawling narrative (somehow, ZDT clocks in at just over two and a half hours while making every scene feel essential and properly paced) tells the story of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.  The paradox of Zero Dark Thirty is that both its greatest successes and its most troubling shortcomings stem from the same fact:  the movie is an enthralling blend of entertainment, art, journalism, and history.

The magnitude of the task that Bigelow & Boal took on during the course of making ZDT is worth considering on its own.  The hunt for bin Laden spanned nearly a decade, took place across literally dozens of countries, involved an elaborate web of nearly-indistinguishable characters,* and occurred against an insanely complex historical/geopolitical backdrop (two wars in the Middle East, two American presidencies, and a string of attacks by al-Qaeda and its affiliates).  Even many who participated in it would probably have difficulty wrapping their heads around the entire enterprise.  To add to the filmmakers’ burden, Zero Dark Thirty falls somewhere between contemporary history and journalism–although accounts of the manhunt and the final Abottabad raid have emerged, they are incomplete and likely remain that way for some time, given the penchant for secrecy on the part of the US government organizations involved.  Bigelow & Boal actually got into the weeds and conducted their own interviews with Pentagon officials to round out the story.

Moreover, this astonishing amount of narrative ground had to be covered in an extremely compressed timeframe–when the raid on bin Laden’s compound occurred in May 2011, the two were about to start shooting on a script centered around the failed attempt to capture bin Laden during the 2001 Battle of Tora Bora.  They immediately threw out that script and started again from scratch, yet still managed to produce a film by August 2012 (only to have the October release date pushed back after complaints that ZDT would influence the American presidential election).  After he made Apocalypse Now, Stanley Kubrick remarked, “We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane [. . .] My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”  Arguably, Bigelow & Boal’s experience producing ZDT also resembled the war they were chronicling:  after conducting hundreds of interviews all over the globe, they had a breakthrough that completely changed their perspective but were temporarily prevented from acting on it by political concerns (not to mention the intense ex post facto Congressional scrutiny over what exactly happened in those “interviews” and who authorized them).  But the bottom line is that like the bin Laden raid itself, Zero Dark Thirty accomplishes exactly what it set out to do, albeit with a few mishaps and casualties along the way.

The shameless mission of ZDT is to recreate the bin Laden manhunt and raid for the silver screen.  Bigelow & Boal accomplish this magnificently:  their movie is shot beautifully; its scenes jump effortlessly from locale to locale while capturing the essence of each new part of the world.  Its soundtrack draws you in but does not distract from the drama unfolding onscreen.  Their attention to detail shows a genuine appreciation for their subjects–at one point, the main character, a CIA analyst named Maya, taps out a memo to her superiors about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, an al-Qaeda figure she believes is acting as a courier for bin Laden.  For a split second, the subject line of the memo is visible:  “The Anatomy of a Lead.”  The recreation of the Abottabad raid during the final thirty minutes, which occurs pretty much in real-time and through the eery green lens of night vision goggles, is by all accounts exquisitely choreographed and probably one of the most accurate depictions of modern special operations forces to date.  Given the challenges inherent in capturing such a diversity of places, people, and events, it is borderline-criminal that Kathryn Bigelow was not nominated for Best Director.  As art and entertainment, Zero Dark Thirty exceeds every expectation I had going in, and my expectations were already sky-high.

As a work of journalism and history, however, the film falls short.  In this respect, I found it strikingly similar to The Social Network in the way that it sacrifices authenticity for the sake of drama and narrative while covering a deeply controversial and contemporary subject.  This raises a familiar question, namely, what kind of responsibilities do the filmmakers have to tell the truth, both to their audience (many of whom are not likely to investigate the nuances of the film and whose understanding of the events shown onscreen pretty much starts and stops with the movie itself) and about the subjects they portray?  For example, The Social Network was Hollywood’s version of a fictionalized account of the founding of Facebook, whose main characters were nevertheless real people.  Jesse Eisenberg played a distinctly unsympathetic character named Mark Zuckerberg, who does things onscreen that make for a great story but that both the writers and the real Mark Zuckerberg agree never happened.  Is it acceptable, for the sake of making a great movie, to tell something less than the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

I would argue that for Zero Dark Thirty, the bar ought to be set higher.  For one thing, its subject matter (and the public’s understanding of it) is much more serious than the founding of a social network and has implications for national policy, civil liberties, history, etc.  For another, ZDT explicitly aspires to a higher standard.  As the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Steve Coll, whose opinions on all things bin Laden are usually highly informed, notes:

It is not unusual for filmmakers to try to inject authenticity into a movie’s first frames by flashing onscreen words such as “based on real events.” Yet the language chosen by the makers of Zero Dark Thirty to preface their film about events leading to the death of Osama bin Laden is distinctively journalistic: “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” [. . .]  Boal and Bigelow—not their critics—first promoted the film as a kind of journalism. Bigelow has called Zero Dark Thirty a “reported film.” Boal told a New York Times interviewer before the controversy erupted, “I don’t want to play fast and loose with history.”

Yet in trying to compress ten years of history into two and a half hours of film, Boal & Bigelow took a number of shortcuts that substantively alter it.  Perhaps they did not play “fast and loose” with the facts, but the net effect is that the film presents a partial, simplified picture of what is actually a very complicated and murky reality.  On the whole, this may be a more serious offense because the mistakes of Zero Dark Thirty are more nuanced, and thus more easily glossed over, particularly when the directors claim some mantle of journalistic credibility (by contrast, writer Aaron Sorkin gave multiple interviews saying that The Social Network was intended to be viewed as fiction and art, and repeatedly defended his decision to depart from the facts to make artistic points).  Consider the following departures from historical fact:

  1. Throughout ZDT, the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) allegedly practiced at various CIA “black sites” around the world are conflated with torture practiced by rogue, low-level staff at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  Most of the practices shown on-screen did not, in fact, occur as they are shown on-screen.  This is a fact that both liberal critics and conservative supporters of enhanced interrogation techniques seem to be in agreement on, but again, I defer to Steve Coll:

    “The film’s torture scenes depart from the historical record in two respects. Boal and Bigelow have conflated the pseudoscience of the CIA’s clinical, carefully reviewed “enhanced techniques” such as waterboarding with the out-of-control abuse of prisoners by low-level military police in places such as Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Dan puts Ammar in a dog collar and walks him around in an act of ritualized humiliation, but this was never an approved CIA technique… More importantly, Zero Dark Thirty ignores what the record shows about how regulated, lawyerly, and bureaucratized—how banal—torture apparently became at some of the CIA black sites. A partially declassified report prepared by the CIA’s former inspector general, John Helgerson, indicates that physicians from the CIA’s Office of Medical Services attended interrogation sessions and took prisoners’ vital signs to assure they were healthy enough for the abuse to continue. Agency officers typed out numbingly detailed cables and memos about the enhanced interrogation sessions, as the available outline of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s classified investigation makes clear. Videotapes were recorded and logged. This CIA office routine might have been more shocking on screen than the clichéd physical abuse of prisoners that the filmmakers prefer.”

  2. Two of the major characters in the movie, Maya (the aforementioned CIA analyst) and Ammar, an al-Qaeda operative whom she interrogates, are composites of multiple real-life people.  While this obviously makes things simpler for the viewer to understand, it also eliminates nuance.  No detainees are shown cooperating without first being subjected to EITs.  No one seems to ever be on Maya’s side, except occasionally reluctantly.  Both narratives seem unlikely and former D/CIA Michael Hayden suggested as much during a recent event at AEI (“Watching Zero Dark Thirty With the CIA“).  “There was not one Maya, but a team of Mayas,” he said of the analysts in the bin Laden cell who would brief him.  As for the sources that led the Agency to the courier and eventually bin Laden’s Abottabad compound, Hayden said, “Very often, stuff you have in your possession takes meaning only after the fact.  It’s a tapestry, not a thread… It’s like putting together a puzzle with no edge pieces and no picture on the box… You can’t prove that something was effective dot-to-dot.  You can’t separate any single source or discipline and say, ‘That’s the golden strand.’”  It stands to reason from his comments that sources other than the detainee program played a role in locating Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.  However, ZDT shows primarily one source–Ammar, who confesses under duress.  Corroborating sources exist, but only in the form of other detainees, shown ominously in interrogation videos that Maya watches repeatedly.  Not once does any other source of intelligence, such as signals intercepts, corroborate or otherwise support Maya’s assertion that al-Kuwaiti is bin Laden’s courier, though in real life those sources almost certainly existed (perhaps one reason other sources are not shown in ZDT is because, unlike the detainee program, they may still be in use).  It seems clear that Boal and Bigelow set out to show that the detainee program played some role in the killing of Osama bin Laden; however, in compressing events, it appears as if enhanced interrogation techniques were the only tool that enabled Abottabad.  That seems misleading at best.

These are far from minor factual quibbles, and I suspect that as more details emerge about the principal players, we will see other instances where dramatic license was taken (for instance, was “Maya” really targeted for assassination in Pakistan by the ISI?  Were she and Jennifer Matthews, the CIA base chief who was killed in Khost, really in the Mariott hotel in Islamabad when it was attacked by a truck bomb?  For that matter, did Matthews really pronounce the name of bin Laden’s terrorist network “al-Qa-ay-dah” after spending years chasing its operatives?).  And in compressing the story to fill two and a half hours of screentime, Boal & Bigelow sometimes give the impression that events onscreen are occuring in a vacuum–we never really get a backstory on, or development of, any of the major characters.

But as I said before, ZDT captures the zeitgeist of the decade-long war against al-Qaeda even if it misses a few facts here and there.  Nowhere is this more evident than the ending.  Maya walks up the ramp of a C-130 transport plane, where she is greeted by the pilot.  “You must be important,” he says to her–the plane is completely empty, save for her, and has clearly been sent for the sole purpose of bringing her back to Washington.  “Well,” the pilot asks, “Where do you want to go from here?” An exhausted Maya breaks down crying.

After a decade of war, it is an appropriate question to end on.  Consider what has changed since the movie began just after 9/11:  rather than capturing and interrogating terrorists, the U.S. wages a drone campaign to kill them by remote control (there was significant debate within the Obama administration over whether to do this with bin Laden).  Although this approach avoids the political third rail of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and granting some form of court trial to terrorists, it opens up a whole different philosophical/legal/ethical bag of worms.  It also raises a practical problem:  we no longer derive any intelligence from captured terrorists, and dead men tell no tales, particularly after a Predator strike.  Without good intelligence, it becomes increasingly difficult to target drone strikes; if drone strikes occur without good targeting, local populations become even more radicalized.  Al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan is decimated, but branches of the now-decentralized movement have sprung up elsewhere, inhabiting lawless spaces in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, and Mesopotamia–particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Osama bin Laden rose to power and prominence in precisely these types of areas.  Though he is now dead, al-Qaeda is not, and the U.S. has some serious soul-searching to do regarding the lengths to which it will attempt to “surgically” prosecute the war on terror, lest the cure exacerbate the disease.
*I don’t mean this pejoratively–the fact is that with everyone using multiple aliases, disguises, and actively trying to hide themselves, even the expert analysts struggled at times to distinguish between different al-Qaeda operatives.  Likewise, many of the more minor characters on the US government side remain nameless and faceless today for reasons of operational security.  Even some important movie characters that bore clear resemblances to Obama administration figures (i.e. James Gandolfini as then-CIA Director Leon Panetta) were not formally introduced, apparently out of a desire to keep the narrative simple rather than any legal concerns.  The SEAL commander in the tactical operations center during the raid, for example, is never addressed by name but wears a name insignia that clearly reads “McRaven.”

A More Unified Iran Policy

March 25th, 2012

Iran's foreign policy, courtesy of Zion Times (Yes, that's a real paper).

U.S. policy toward Iran right now is overly disjointed and unnecessarily ad hoc, a casualty of President Obama’s election-year, prevent-defense approach to foreign affairs.  Almost all of the discourse on Iran has focused on the utility of a military strike on its nuclear facilities and the effectiveness of the economic sanctions currently in place.  While this debate is surely important, it has the effect of narrowing the range of options for dealing with Iran to tangible actions that can be taken directly against the country.  There is zero talk of direct, quid pro quo engagement with Iran (although the fact that this option has not entered the public discourse does not preclude the possibility that it is being pursued through backchannels).  Briefly, I would like to highlight some of the other levers that the U.S. possesses to deal with Iran, and the potential benefits of employing them into a single, unified “Iran policy.”

For starters, Iran has interests across the Middle East that the U.S. ought to be, and in some cases is, diametrically opposed to.  In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is a longtime ally of Iran and has been propped up by Iranian arms shipments and expertise, delivered on civilian flights from Tehran to Damascus (Another consequence of leaving Iraq without an air force is that, in the words of a US official, “Maliki couldn’t enforce a ban on Iranian overflights in Iraqi airspace even if he really wanted to [. . .] because Iraq doesn’t have an air force and U.S. air assets have all left the country.”  –Foreign Policy).  There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that Tehran views Assad’s Alawite regime as a key ally in the region and a gateway to its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon.  The battle in Syria is quickly shaping up to be a regional struggle for influence between Iran and Turkey as well as the Arab States.  However, discussions about whether to take more direct involvement in Syria have largely focused on the so-called “responsibility to protect” (R2P) civilians from crimes committed by their own government.  Proposals to establish safe zones for the various rebel groups that constitute the Free Syrian Army, or to arm these groups directly, have been evaluated only in the context of the struggle for Syria and not in the broader strategic environment of making life more difficult for Iran.

Iraq is another country whose struggles are largely viewed in isolation when, in fact, they have broader regional security implications.  Iran has ingratiated itself with a number of Iraq’s Shi’a politicians and although it does not exercise direct control over them, Tehran’s interests often guide Iraqi decision-making.  Iran would love for its Iraqi neighbor to remain a weak, dysfunctional, Shi’a-dominated state with tattered oil infrastructure and widespread national disunity.  It has opposed any government that threatens this status quo, such as a governing coalition led by Ayad Allawi’s secular Iraqiya bloc, or one led by the more technocratic Shi’a politician Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s ISCI party.  However, in Iraq as well the United States has not challenged Iranian influence, and has indeed acquiesced to it.  President Obama now looks set to appoint Brett McGurk, a former NSC official with close ties to Maliki, as the new Ambassador to Iraq.  This is just the latest of a number of occasions that the United States has chosen the path of least resistance against Iran in Iraq:  for years, it failed to confront Iranian-backed Shi’a militias; when it finally did, many high-level operators used their political connections and nominal diplomatic status to escape jail.  Then, in 2010, Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law Coalition lost the parliamentary elections to Allawi’s Iraqiya, but through extraconstitutional maneuvering was able to form a larger bloc to perpetuate its rule.  The US looked the other way the whole time and did not seriously commit itself to enforcing the rule of law, let alone supporting another candidate.  Finally, the withdrawal of American troops after 2011 and the lack of a serious push to keep a residual force in Iraq played right into Iran’s hands.  Although the full story has yet to be told, during this time American decisionmakers divorced Iraq from the larger regional picture.

Although the US has been less involved in these final two arenas, Iran also has serious interests in Bahrain, where it is stoking an uprising of the island’s majority-Shi’a population against its Sunni rulers; and Lebanon, where its proxy Hezbollah stands ready to retaliate against Israel should Netanyahu decide to launch a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.  Its Quds Force agents have also popped up in Yemen, a disconcerting fact given that Yemen is quickly replacing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia as a lawless haven for al-Qaeda.

In considering how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, however, these regional interests have rarely been treated as the opportunities for leverage which they clearly are.  From Iran’s perspective, all of these interests are intimately connected to the Khameni regime’s fundamental goal of achieving Iranian national security.  More importantly, they highlight the fact that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is only one part of that larger goal.  In order to determine whether Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon can be stopped by nonmilitary means, it seems logical to conduct negotiations with Iran that encompass all of Iran’s national security interests rather than discrete, individual ones.  If the U.S. were to engage in a strategic dialogue with Iran, either publicly or through backchannels [FN:  This is not a ridiculous proposal, given that Qassam Suleimani, the spymaster in charge of Iran's elite Quds Force, reached out to General David Petraeus seeking such a dialogue in 2008] it could begin to understand each side’s priorities and perhaps even engage in some horse-trading.  Mutual diplomatic assurances, backed up with some form of verification — for example, that the U.S. would not intervene in Syria or Iraq if Iran agrees to inspections and does not weaponize its nuclear program — could become the norm for doing business with Iran.

But this can only be achieved by putting the many disparate strands of Iran’s national security apparatus on the negotiating table.  Tehran will not give up something for nothing, but if it can retain a certain amount of retaliatory capacity, deterrence power, and therefore assured security, it may be more flexible regarding what form that capacity takes.  Given the current Administration’s positions — Obama seems indifferent to Iranian attempts to spread its tentacles across the Middle East at will, provided that it doesn’t open a Pandora’s Box by going nuclear — it is certainly worth seeing whether Iran would also be comfortable with that accommodation/understanding/grand bargain before we make any game-changing decisions.

Such an approach would strike many as cynical — if the US treats Iran’s interests in the region as bargaining chips, it will almost certainly come down on the “wrong side” of some issues, particularly those such as Syria where there are profound humanitarian concerns.  For others, the approach is off-putting because its very premise suggests American impotence — in other words, the idea that we must make some compromises because we cannot confront Iran at all corners of the globe is repugnant to many.  These are both valid criticisms.  But the current approach — increasingly militarized confrontation with Iran, across disparate areas of interest and without consideration for Iran’s overall security needs — entails risks of its own.  Chief among them is that it raises the (in)security dilemma and increases the chances that one provocation or miscalculation will set off a destructive regional war that leaves both sides worse-off.  A secondary risk is that the American position will not effectively deter Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, which could spark a regional race to obtain nuclear weapons as well (although Zachary Keck has argued persuasively that further proliferation is hardly guaranteed should the Iranians get the bomb).  If President Obama wants to assure that the Middle East does not literally or metaphorically blow up during the 2012 election campaign, pursuing a strategic dialogue with Iran may be the least bad path to achieving that goal.  Of course, the unfortunate irony is that electoral politics may be the exact reason why he chooses not to.

Breaking Down the ExxonMobil/KRG Deal

January 31st, 2012

I wrote the following piece for Wikistrat, an online consultancy that I work for part-time.  It got published on a website called the Atlantic Sentinel, which is run by Wikistrat’s own Nick Ottens.  Enjoy.

Oilfields in Iraqi Kurdistan

According to sources in the city, supermajor ExxonMobil is establishing a presence in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region.  This is a major development because in November 2011, ExxonMobil signed an oil exploration deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) despite the fact that the different political factions in Iraq had not agreed on a law to distribute oil revenues between the provinces and the central government in Baghdad.  The central government maintains that the KRG/ExxonMobil deal is illegal and threatened to nullify Exxon’s other contracts for oilfields in southern Iraq.  Exxon announced that it would review the deal, but appears to be going forward with implementing it.

ExxonMobil was the first supermajor to ink a contract with the KRG, and rumors abound that other supermajors will finalize deals of their own soon.  An industry source said that Total, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Eni, and Lukoil are all interested in working with the KRG.  Kurdistan has an estimated 45 billion barrels of proven reserves, compared to at least 100 billion barrels of oil in southern Iraq.  However, Kurdistan has proven to be the more attractive target for investors because its security situation and economy are markedly better than the rest of Iraq.


ExxonMobil has moved forward with the KRG deal for several reasons.  First and most importantly, it saw no credible threat that the Iraqi government would cancel its contracts in the southern oilfields as retaliation for an exploration deal with uncertain returns.  The architects of the deal believed that because Baghdad is so dependent on oil revenues, threats to disrupt production in the south by severing ExxonMobil’s contracts there — in the largest oilfield in Iraq, no less — amounted to nothing more than bluffs.  After witnessing Oil Minister Hussein Shahristani’s feeble response to the ExxonMobil deal, other oil companies are more likely to call this bluff as well by pursuing deals with Kurdistan.

Second, the US withdrawal has created substantial uncertainty in the security and regulatory environment of non-Kurdish Iraq, and investment there will remain a risky prospect for some time.  The dispute between Baghdad and the provinces cuts to the heart of the nature of the post-2011 Iraqi state, and it has flared up in the wake of US withdrawal.  Salahaddin and Diyala provinces have formally requested autonomy from the central government, prompting a crackdown by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security forces.  Until these disputes are resolved and the character and powers of Iraq’s governing bodies are clarified, investors will rightly be hesistant to commit themselves to such a politically volatile region.

Finally, it is important to remember that this is just an oil exploration deal, not a production contract.  Should oil be discovered in significant quantities, it is quite possible that Maliki’s government will not be so tolerant of ExxonMobil operating in Kurdistan without contributing some proportion of their revenues to Baghdad’s coffers.

The distribution of oil revenues is part of a larger ongoing conflict between Iraq’s provinces the central government in Baghdad.  The dispute touches on a number of fundamental questions and factional insecurities about the nature of the Iraqi state itself.  The Kurds, a stateless people who endured centuries of persecution from governments across the region, have been largely successful since 2003 in achieving their goals of sovereignty, security, and economic prosperity with an eye toward eventual independence.  Although Kurdistan’s accomplishments have not trickled down to the rest of Iraq, the KRG does provide an appealing model that other Iraqi provinces may seek to emulate.  Both Sunnis in the west and Shiites in the south have expressed interest in local self-government with only nominal ties to Baghdad — in other words, Iraqi federalism.  This is because Iraq’s national government has been paralyzed by political disputes and is largely unable to effectively distribute resources and services outside of Baghdad.  Furthermore, there is great uncertainty as to whether the Maliki government will be representative, responsive, and free of sectarian influence in the wake of U.S. withdrawal.

This trend toward federalism poses a problem for Baghdad because most of Iraq’s oil is located in Kurdistan and southern Iraq.  If those regions were to become functionally independent without sharing oil revenues with Baghdad, the central government would collapse into bankruptcy (oil accounts for about 75% of GDP and 90% of government revenues).  This basic impasse explains why a national oil law has been stalled since 2005.  ExxonMobil’s apparent decision to go forward with exploration in Kurdistan is great news for the KRG and Western investors, but it will ultimately complicate the process of arriving at a national concensus on distributing Iraq’s oil revenues.

Bottom Lines


  • Kurdistan increasingly looks like the silver lining within the cloud that is Iraq.  The final paragraph of the article describes the ongoing boom in Arbil:  “Now the latest Porsches, Maseratis and Range Rovers jostle with the albeit largely new pick-up trucks preferred by the masses on the still pot-holed roads. Five-star hotels are swiftly springing up and Kurdish shoppers buy designer brands at swish shopping malls with an air of confidence in the future.”  Investment opportunities in Kurdistan should be monitored and pursued particularly closely.


  • Iraq is a fragile state and its politicians are playing a particularly nasty game of hardball right now, accusing each other of running death squads and/or autocratic security forces.  Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi has fled to Kurdistan after the Maliki government issued an arrest warrant for him.  At least two provinces have expressed a desire to become autonomous regions similar to Kurdistan.  There are a number of endgames to the current situation, but none of them are particularly pretty.
  • The outcome of the dispute between Prime Minister Maliki and his political rivals will shape the resolution or escalation of the conflict between the central government and the provinces.  If Maliki neutralizes all of his political opposition, provinces will be justifiably wary of participating in a national Iraqi government.


  • The Iraqi public’s reaction to Western oil companies will be decidedly mixed.  In Baghdad, they may be seen as predatory, whereas in Kurdistan they are more likely to be viewed as partners.  A particularly strong reaction one way or the other — for example, attacks on infrastructure/personnel or tax breaks/favorable concession terms — could determine how vigorously future investment opportunities are pursued.

You Read It Here First…

November 18th, 2011

Some folks have woken up to the fact that America’s withdrawal from Iraq has cleared the path for an Israeli airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, as I described in a previous post.  In a new article for Tablet, a Jewish affairs magazine, Austin Long of Columbia SIPA argues that Israel still could execute a successful strike against Iran should it choose to do so.  Among other things, he points out that

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq means that the Iraq route is now much more feasible. Without U.S. aircraft and radars, Iraq will have minimal ability to control its airspace. A route crossing northern Syria (which may still be in turmoil next year) and Iraq would likely encounter no significant opposition if well-planned.

In addition, the Israeli Air Force has modernized and expanded its aerial tanker fleet. Several sources have confirmed that the United States has been transferring bunker-buster bombs to the Jewish state. Finally, the Israeli Air Force has conducted training missions with simulated operations as far as Gibraltar at the western edge of the Mediterranean, which indicates it could effectively organize a very large long-range strike.

Long is somewhat of an authority on this subject; in his former capacity as a researcher for the RAND Corporation, he co-authored a 2008 paper that serves as an excellent backgrounder on Israeli preventive doctrine and the evolution of its long-range strike capabilities since Osirak.  In a slightly less scholarly sphere, Tom Ricks also echoed some of my thoughts in a post on his blog:

Longtime grasshoppers know I’ve been skeptical about Israel actually carrying through on threats to strike Iran in an attempt to degrade the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

But I’ve heard two comments lately that have me recalibrating a bit:

  • With the U.S. military out of Iraq in about six weeks, there is a new opportunity for a direct flight straight across Iraq. “We have no authorities or arrangements to defend the [Iraqi] skies,” a U.S. Air Force general helpfully notes. The Iraqi military isn’t capable of stopping an Israeli air flotilla or maybe even detecting it, if done right. Israel even could put up some refuelers over the western desert, with some fighters protecting them. And maybe even take over an airstrip out there to use for emergency landings, or combat search and rescue. If you find this argument persuasive, then New Year’s Eve may be the time to do it. I mean, who is going to stop them? Syria has its own problems, and Saudi Arabia probably would be happy to help.
  • Also, I think the more Israel talks about doing it, the more inured Iranian air defenders become.

Keep reading for the latest and greatest insights…

Some Thoughts on the End of the Iraq War

November 11th, 2011

I’ve had plenty of time to think about the Iraq withdrawal over the past few weeks since it’s such a big subject at my office and is highly relevant to the book I’m working on.  Long story short:  I think that the withdrawal was a mistake and could have been handled better, but based on the way both President Bush and President Obama were being outmaneuvered in Iraq, I doubt it will make a difference in the long run.  I have a few points to make that I don’t think have been covered sufficiently since President Obama made his announcement on October 21.

First, let’s address one of the main human fallacies that has hindered almost all decision-making related to Iraq:  the problem of sunk costs.  The classic example of this is poker–when you are deciding whether or not to call a bet, it is tempting to consider how much money you have already bet or put into the pot.  It is also wrong; once you make a bet, that money is lost, and it does little good to spend more money trying to win it back if you have only a slim chance of doing so.  Too often, policymakers have managed to inappropriately factor in sunk costs into their decisions about Iraq.

For example, many of the Democrats who opposed the initial decision to invade also opposed the troop surge.   In making that decision, they ignored the key fact, which was that the US had already invaded and was ensnared in an insurgency, and sending more troops offered a pretty viable path to securing the country.  Because they had sunk political capital into objecting to the original war, they did not want to simply write that off.  Instead, they expended more political capital trying to end a war, flawed though it was, that had already happened.  In poker terms, Democrats disagreed with the initial decision to play a hand, but then still wanted to fold even after they had decent chances on the flop.

Republicans, on the other hand, tend to have the opposite problem.  They’ve consistently viewed additional expenditures of blood and treasure, even major ones such as the surge, as ways of protecting their initial “investment”–aka the invasion.  The logic usually runs along the lines of, “We can’t quit after losing X thousand soldiers and spending X trillions of dollars.”  Well, actually, you can–as cold as it sounds, decisions about whether to continue a war should not be based on an attempt, ex post facto, to make previous sacrifices worthwhile.  Instead, such a decision should be based on whether or not you think the benefits of victory are worth the future sacrifices you would have to make in order to achieve it.

This is why much of the discourse surrounding President Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq is misguided.  Many pundits have questioned whether the Iraq War was worth it.  Well, with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, the answer should be clear:  probably not.  Although there are several long-term regional trends playing out that Iraq might fit into, I think that if you offered the American people the choice of having the nearly 4,500 soldiers and several trillion dollars we’ve lost in Iraq since 2003 back, they would take it.  If you offered our regional allies a strong Iraq with a stable dictator to balance Iran, they would probably take it.  Although few Iraqis would choose to return to life under Saddam, they might still yearn for their country’s prewar infrastructure and relative security.  The Econmist‘s Lexington said it best:  “Not one of Mr Bush’s principal [advisor]s has said flat out that the war was a mistake (Mr Powell has come closest). But since success can live with a thousand fathers, it is reasonable to wonder whether [their] memoirs would contain quite so much bile if their authors thought it a triumph.”

But asking whether invading Iraq was worth it is the wrong question.  That kind of analysis imprisons us in the past, in the murky territory of weighing sunk costs.  Instead, we should be asking whether America leaving Iraq is worth it, or whether President Obama’s discrete decision to do so was the right one.  On this point, the jury is still out and will be for some time.  However, I think that in weighing his decision, we should consider four major points:

  1. Iraq is not a normal country.  For folks who are in favor of withdrawal, it is tempting to pretend that Iraq is a functioning, fully sovereign country and will remain that way after we leave.  It is not, although it is heading that way.  The fact is, we created many of Iraq’s institutions less than a decade ago and they are still nascent.  We cannot ignore our unique, intertwined history and we should not pretend that Iraq is perfect.  The State Department certainly isn’t–in what other country are they planning to spend billions of dollars every year on the largest Embassy in the world, a series of regional consulates, an independent air service, and 16,000 civilian security contractors?  We should question any analysis that justifies withdrawal based on the premise that since the surge succeeded, all is now well and good in Iraq.
  2. Nevertheless, our influence there is waning.   A successful counterinsurgency campaign did help stand up an Iraqi government that is reasonably representative and somewhat competent.  The Iraqis have crawled, walked, run, and moved from a tricycle to a bicycle training wheels.  As they have gained capability, they have also reached out to regional players who will be there long after we are gone.  For the Kurds in the North, this has included Turkey, and for some opportunistic Sunnis it has also meant Saudi Arabia.  But by and large, the country that is influencing Iraq most today is Iran.  This is partly an inevitable feature of geography–after all, unless we stay in Iraq indefinitely, Iran will always been there longer than we will–and partly a feature of demography (Iraq is 65% Shi’a and Prime Minister Maliki is also a Shiite).  This influence naturally comes at the expense of the U.S., which has seen its ability to shape outcomes in Iraq wane in proportion to the number of troops in the country.
  3. Iran’s influence in Iraq is not a new development.  We flatter ourselves when we say that deposing Saddam allowed the Iranians to begin meddling in Iraq.  In fact, Iran was doing that long before any American troops pulled down a statue in Baghdad.  Many of Iraq’s leaders spent significant time in Iran in exile there under Saddam.  Since the Iran-Iraq War, Iranians have maintained the capability to smuggle weapons and money across the border into Iraq.  It has been clear for a long time that Iran would like to annex the Shi’a portions of eastern Iraq, particularly the oilfields around Basra.It is true that Iran’s influence has increased as of late.  During the process of government formation after the 2010 Iraqi elections, Iran acted as a key mediator between the various Iraqi parties.  Iraq’s equivalent of Air Force One was also supplied by Tehran, and is operated by a Farsi-speaking crew.  However, Iraq has defied Iran on several key occasions–most notably, when it declined Tehran’s offer of military training last week.  It’s still unclear just how close Prime Minister Maliki wants to be with Tehran relative to other neighbors.
  4. Crucially, Iran has proven itself more able to shape outcomes in Iraq than the US.  This is as much our fault as it is theirs.  The Iranians are good at what they do, but this is more a function of American incompetence and incoherence than anything else.  I don’t think there’s any one person to blame for this, it’s just the natural, ugly result of a democratic American government trying and failing miserably to have a coherent strategic policy toward Iraq.  Instead, you’ve got a lot of parochial agencies and branches of the government pursuing their own interests and nobody concerned about the whole message, which is somehow less than the sum of its parts.  This is a problem that, in theory, can be laid at the feet of the leader, the American president.  But it’s a problem that persisted under Bush as well as Obama, and really under every president to some degree.  Sometimes, the size and the unwieldiness of the US government comes back to bite us, and in dealing with a nimble, very locally aware adversary such as Iran, I think that was definitely the case.  But I’ll skip the details for this section because I don’t want to give away all of Michael’s book.  Nevertheless, I do think that…
  5. In the long term, there is a fundamental tension between Iraq becoming a regional power/Prime Minister Maliki becoming a dictator, and the country being a stooge of Iran.  Put simply, it is very unlikely that a country with the resource potential and ambitions of Iraq will take orders from Tehran forever.  If Iraq’s central government remains strong or acquires dictatorial, Saddam-like powers, there will be very little reason for its leaders to listen to Iran because Persian influence in Iraq will be diminished.  If the Iraqi government grows weaker, Iran may be able to exercise influence in Iraq through traditional means such as arms shipments, funding Shi’a political parties, etc.  But make no mistake:  Iraqi politicians are only cutting deals with Iran because they’re being opportunistic.  As soon as one faction seizes control of Iraq and that opportunity goes away, Iranian influence will diminish precipitously.  Iran may install a dictator, but that dictator will turn on them because Iraq’s ambitions will grow along with its regional clout.  If Iraq remains a federalist state, each individual sect will lock down security among its own people tightly.  A Shi’a state might accept Iranian influence, but the Kurds and the Sunnis will not.  In the long run, I just think the ambition of locals to harness Iraq’s natural resources will trump outside influence.  This may mean that Iraq becomes a de facto Shi’a dictatorship, but it will be a powerful one and will naturally act as a counterweight to Iran.

So given all this, was leaving Iraq the right move?  Big-picture, I would say yes.  Eventually, the region’s future will be shaped by those who live there, not outsiders.  We played a big role for a while, but our role was diminishing as Iraqi sovereignty grew.  The political problems in Iraq, the big ones–whether Iraq is a centrally governed state or a federalist republic, whether the Shi’a and Sunnis and Kurds can overcome their history and insecurities and get along–wouldn’t be solved even by a Korea- or Germany-sized force of 50,000+ combat troops remaining indefinitely. That would’ve just kept the problem in check, and nobody wanted that anyway.

However, I am worried about the short-term.  The mechanics of our withdrawal certainly should have been handled better.  Iraq’s need for American troops was more technical than strategic; however, it still existed, and the country still desperately needs its Army and Air Force to be trained and equipped, and small numbers of American troops have done little to deter Iranian meddling anyway–however, it still existed.  The lack of attention from the White House to this crucial issue is disturbing, and may prove damning if Iraq blows up in the near future.  However, there is still time to rectify this if President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki can work out a training agreement before the end of the year (or if they decide to quietly send some troops–no, a “training presence”–back in after December).

Like he has in other foreign policy arenas, President Obama has taken a calculated risk on Iraq in order to focus on other things.  These risks may be proven shrewd or reckless by history, and future generations may question whether those “other things” were correctly prioritized over Iraq.  One decision that might deserve special scrutiny is the 2009 Afghan surge review and the decision that was made to essentially move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and repeat the surge there.   In my opinion, Iraq–with its enormous proven oil reserves, somewhat-functioning democracy, and strategic position in the Middle East–was worth fighting for more than Afghanistan, a backwater, hopelessly corrupt country where no citizen has lived under a functioning state and the tribal dynamics are infinitely more complex than even Iraq’s mind-numbing Sunni/Shi’a/Kurd relations (not to mention the regional problems, the safe havens in Pakistan, etc.).  However, one lesson for the immediate future is that American foreign policy is increasingly being conducted using scarce resources.  More of these hard choices lie ahead.

Finally, it only seems appropriate on Veterans’ Day to note that the Iraq War, unlike the Vietnam War, was one of the first prolonged conflicts fought by an all-volunteer military (the other one still carries on today in Afghanistan).  For those servicemembers who were there and for their friends and families, Iraq was an all-consuming struggle; for the rest of us, it was something that popped up on the news every once in a while but left our daily lives largely unaffected.  The discrepancy between military and civilian interest in an ongoing war has rarely been higher.  Although it’s easy to express your thanks to a veteran today by shaking their hand in the street or donating to a charity, perhaps a better way to thank them would be to take an active interest in the wars they fight.  Whether or not you agree with the conduct, purpose, or merits of Iraq and Afghanistan, being informed about what’s happening over there will help you cut through the rhetoric and determine for yourself whether the struggle is worth it.  In doing so, you might just help bridge the military-civilian divide and bring credence to the notion that, despite our differences of opinion, we are all in these fights together as Americans.

Withdrawal from Iraq: America’s Gift to… Israel?

November 6th, 2011

There is one major implication of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that has received little, if any, coverage in mainstream media or other outlets.  Although I’m somewhat ambivalent about President Obama’s overall decision—a subject which I will tackle in greater detail with a future post—it’s clear to me that the U.S. leaving Iraq after December 31 has cleared the way for an Israeli airstrike on Iran.  Consider the following:

The Middle East, with airfields marked in pink (courtesy

Looking at that map, it’s pretty clear that in order to strike at Iran, Israeli planes would almost certainly have to fly over Iraqi territory.  There are few alternatives:  although Israeli pilots could probably operate over unstable Syria, where Bashar al-Assad is focused inwardly on quelling dissidents, Turkey would almost certainly contest any prolonged Israeli overflight for political and sovereignty reasons.  Saudi Arabia, as much as it would like to see a nuclear Iran thwarted, would only be able to cooperate secretly, and only for a one-and-done strike.  King Abdullah has faced a storm of criticism from Sunni hardliners for allowing an American military presence in the Muslim Holy Land; allowing a prolonged Israeli one as well would be suicidal for the regime.  Besides all of this, one thing the map makes clear is that the most direct path to Iran is clearly through Iraq.  Given that a bombing mission would have to involve aerial refueling, any distance that can be shaved off will allow more firepower to be delivered onto targets in Iran.  Therefore, the best path for an Israeli strike runs straight through Mesopotamia.  Perhaps this is why Israel has previously sought flyover privileges for Iraq from Coalition commanders, apparently to no avail.

When American troops leave Iraq, the last diplomatic obstacle preventing the Israelis from conducting a major operation over that country will be removed.  If American troops had stayed in Iraq beyond 2011, America would still be responsible for defending Iraqi airspace against any incursion, Israeli or otherwise.  Thus, the U.S. would have had several compelling reasons to demand that Israel seek overflight permission for an attack.  First, if the U.S. allowed Israel to carry out an airstrike by remaining on the sidelines while Israeli planes violated Iraqi air sovereignty, it would be seen as complicit in the attack.  This could have major political and diplomatic ramifications across the region.  On the tactical level, a second consideration is that American troops, civilian contractors, and Embassy workers could once again be targeted for retaliatory attacks by Iranian proxy militias in Iraq.  Finally, in addition to the reasons listed above, Israel would probably be forced to at least give the U.S. early warning of an attack just to avoid a “friendly fire” incident or any other kind of confusion that could hamper the operation.

But now, although popular perception in the Middle East would still probably blame the United States for any Israeli attack, the withdrawal of combat forces allows America to maintain some degree of plausible deniability.  Rather than keeping our planes on the ground while Israel flies over Iraq, we can move them to Kuwait and keep them on the ground there.  In our wake, we will leave Israel with a completely clear air corridor to Iran starting on January 1st.  This corridor will be clear because Iraq, having won its long-sought sovereignty, will be left with almost no capability to defend itself against aerial threats.  Right now, the Iraqi Air Force consists mainly of U.S.-provided reconnaissance, training, and transport aircraft plus some attack helicopters.  It has no jet aircraft and no fighters.  The vast majority of the country’s air defenses were destroyed in order to enforce the UN-mandated no-fly zones prior to 2003; since then, the Air Defense corps has been disbanded and apparently not rebuilt in any meaningful way.  Under the U.S. presence, security resources were devoted primarily to ensuring domestic stability rather than defending against external threats.  No less an authority than the Iraqi equivalent of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said publicly that Iraq will not be ready for external-defense missions until 2020.  As far as I can tell, it is extremely doubtful that Iraq currently has the basic ability to shoot down an enemy plane over its own territory.  Iraq has inked a contract to purchase F-16s from America, but there will be a lengthy window of opportunity between the time when American troops leave and when Iraqis acquire the capability to operate fighter jets independently.  Military sales to Iraq may also be used as an instrument of political leverage, especially of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues along his path of creeping authoritarianism.

To be clear:  bombing Iran’s reactors would be difficult.  Unless Israeli commandos could be inserted to verify the destruction, the mission may require multiple sorties against deep-embedded targets, all hidden in the mountains and protected by several layers of air defenses.  This implies a major logistical operation with aerial refueling, and the constant risk of several nightmare scenarios (pilots shot down behind enemy lines come to mind).  However, Israel has conducted exercises over the Mediterranean that closely mimicked the requirements of an aerial engagement with Iran.  Even with Iraq out of the way, Israeli planes will still have to find a way to create plausible deniability for Jordan and Saudi Arabia–perhaps by flying along the border of those two countries and mimicking their callsigns, as they did for the 1981 Osirak bombing.  On a military/operational level, the strike seems possible.

That said, there are a number of political, strategic, military, and diplomatic factors that Israel must weigh beyond pure logistics.  A bombing may not succeed, or it may only set Iran’s nuclear program back a couple years.  Iran’s retaliation is likely to be fierce; they may use their proxy Hezbollah to strike at Israel, or they might attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz and create massive, untimely instability in global oil markets.  The U.S., recognizing this, may make a last-ditch effort to stop an operation should it receive advance warning.  But make no mistake:  one of the reasons for Israel’s apparently sudden interest in bombing Iran is because in the wake of the American withdrawal from Iraq, Bibi Netanyahu & Co. see a narrow window of opportunity.