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Cockburn writes: "A strange aspect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that there has been so little criticism of the failure of expensively equipped Western armies to defeat lightly armed and self-trained insurgents."

 Patrick Cockburn recently won the award for Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year.  (photo: Democracy Now!)
Patrick Cockburn recently won the award for Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year. (photo: Democracy Now!)


US Unable to Counter ISIS Despite Billions Spent on Weapons

By Patrick Cockburn, CounterPunch

29 December 14

 

here is a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass in which Alice meets the White Knight who is wearing full armour and riding a horse off which he keeps falling. Alice expresses curiosity about why he has placed spiked metal anklets on his horse’s legs just above the hoofs. “To guard against the bites of sharks,” he explains, and proudly shows her other ingenious devices attached to himself and his horse.

Alice notices that the knight has a mouse trap fastened to his saddle. “I was wondering what the mouse trap was for,” says Alice. “It isn’t very likely there would be any mice on the horse’s back.” “Not very likely, perhaps,” says the Knight, “but if they do come, I don’t choose to have them running all about.” It’s as well “to be provided for everything”, adds the Knight. As he explains his plans for countering these supposed dangers, he continues to tumble off his horse.

The White Knight’s approach to military procurement is very similar to that of the American and British military establishments. They drain their budgets to purchase vastly expensive equipment to meet threats that may never exist, much like the sharks and mice that menace Alice’s acquaintance. Thus the Pentagon spends $400bn (£257bn) on developing the F-35 fighter (Britain is buying planes at a cost of £100m each) to gain air superiority over Russia and China in the event of a war with either power. Meanwhile, equipment needed to fight real wars is neglected, even though no answer has been found to old-fashioned weapons such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that caused two-thirds of the US-led coalition’s casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A strange aspect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that there has been so little criticism of the failure of expensively equipped Western armies to defeat lightly armed and self-trained insurgents. This is in sharp contrast to the aftermath of the US Army’s failure to win the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The question is of more than historic interest because the US, UK and other allies are re-entering the wars in Iraq and Syria where they are seeking to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).

Perhaps the military are not being blamed for lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan because the failure there is seen as political, rather than military. There is some truth in this, but it is also true that army commanders have been agile in avoiding responsibility for what went wrong. A senior US diplomat asked me in exasperation in Baghdad five or six years ago: “Whatever happened to the healthy belief the American public had after Vietnam that our generals seldom tell the truth?”

Iraq this year has seen a more grotesque and wide-ranging failure than the inability to cope with IEDs. The Iraqi Army was created and trained by the US at great expense, but this summer it was defeated by a far smaller and less well-armed force of insurgents led by Isis. It was one of the most shameful routs in history, as Iraqi Army commanders abandoned their men, jumped into helicopters and fled. The new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, admits that 50,000 “ghost soldiers” in the Iraqi Army had never existed and their salaries fraudulently diverted into their officers’ pockets.

The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police Service, some 350,000 soldiers and 650,000 police, had been built by the US at a cost of $26bn since 2003, according to the recent report of the US Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction. It is a fascinating document that demands answers to many questions, such as how did $9.4bn get spent on training, staffing and supplying the Iraqi police, though this force is notorious for its corruption and incompetence. Another $3.4bn went on supplying the Iraqi Army with tanks, aircraft, boats, armoured personnel carriers and other equipment, much of which was later captured by Isis. Curiously, Isis was immediately able to find crews for the tanks and artillerymen for the guns without any lengthy and expensive training programmes.

The 3,000 American soldiers President Obama has sent back into Iraq are to start training the remaining 26 brigades of the Iraqi Army all over again, without anybody asking what went wrong between 2003 and 2014. Why is it that Isis recruits can fight effectively after two weeks’ military training and two weeks’ religious instruction, but the Iraqi Army cannot? Maybe the very fact of being foreign-trained delegitimises them in their own eyes and that of their people.

Renewed foreign military intervention in Iraq and Syria is primarily in the form of air strikes of which there have been more than 1,000 since bombing started in Iraq on 8 August. What is striking about these figures is that there have been so few compared to the 48,224 air strikes during the 43 days of bombing against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991. A reason for this is that Isis is a guerrilla force that can be dispersed, so only about 10 per cent of missions flown actually lead to air strikes against targets on the ground.

Only against the Isis forces besieging the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria is the US Air Force able to inflict heavy casualties. It is not clear why Isis continues with a battle where it is most vulnerable to air power, but the probable reason is that it wants to prove it can win another divinely inspired victory, despite heavy air attacks.

In more than 10 years of war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, it is the insurgents and not those in charge of Western military policy and procurement who have developed the most effective cocktail of military tactics and methods of attack suited to local circumstances. These include various types of IEDs supplemented by booby traps that make those few areas reconquered from Isis dangerous for soldiers and uninhabitable for civilians.

IS has turned suicide bombing by individuals or by vehicles packed with explosives into an integral part of their fighting repertoire, enabling them to make devastating use of untrained but fanatical foreign volunteers. Isis deploys well-trained snipers and mortar teams, but its most effective weapon is spreading terror by publicising its atrocities through the internet.

Gruesome though these tactics are, they are much more effective than anything developed by Western armies in these same conflicts. Worse, Western training encourages an appetite on the part of its allies for helicopters, tanks and artillery that only have limited success in Iraqi conditions, although bombing does have an impact in preventing Isis using a good road system for attacks by several hundred fighters in convoys of pick-up trucks and captured Humvees.

While Isis may be suffering more casualties, it is in a position to recruit tens of thousands fighters from the population of at least five or six million that it controls. Six months after the Islamic State was declared, it has not grown smaller. As with the White Knight, the US and its allies are not undertaking the measures necessary to fight their real enemy.


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+22 # mgwmgw 2014-12-29 23:01
The goal is not victory by any reasonable definition. The goal is profit for the politically connected, and by that metric, American intervention in the Middle East has been very successful. The rhetoric is just an excuse for profiteering, nothing else.

If America cannot distinguish its friends from its foes, and if the nature of our attacks kill a large number of those who are not our foes, so as to help our foes recruit, then of course we lose. We would need to eliminate collateral damage in order to stop this effect, which we seem neither able to do nor interested in trying to do.
 
 
-13 # brux 2014-12-30 06:41
It is that intervention in the Middle East where most of our strategic power vis-a-vis energy comes from. Imagine today if we did not have that we might have 8 or 9 dollar gas instead of $2.50??
 
 
+8 # dbrize 2014-12-30 10:13
Quoting brux:
It is that intervention in the Middle East where most of our strategic power vis-a-vis energy comes from. Imagine today if we did not have that we might have 8 or 9 dollar gas instead of $2.50??


So it is all about oil. Thanks for coming clean.
 
 
-13 # brux 2014-12-30 10:45
See, you guys always read something that is not there into my comments ... that is why you are such losers and perceived as so incredibly stupid and ineffective. First, I did not say it was all about oil, but I would say somewhere around 50%.

The other factors are control of a strategic resource so Russia, China or the Mohammedan hordes don't control it to everyone's detriment.

The testing and debugging of military technology.

The testing and debugging of soldier training.

Strategic foothold in this area of the world for defense and supply.

There's always the old making the world safe for democracy ploy the most people think is a joke, but which is pretty serious.

But I am sure rather than consider this you will again come back with another smart remark to indicate your inability to think past the first line of anything. Best regards for the New Year.
 
 
0 # dbrize 2014-12-30 11:07
Quoting brux:
See, you guys always read something that is not there into my comments ... that is why you are such losers and perceived as so incredibly stupid and ineffective. First, I did not say it was all about oil, but I would say somewhere around 50%.

The other factors are control of a strategic resource so Russia, China or the Mohammedan hordes don't control it to everyone's detriment.

The testing and debugging of military technology.

The testing and debugging of soldier training.

Strategic foothold in this area of the world for defense and supply.

There's always the old making the world safe for democracy ploy the most people think is a joke, but which is pretty serious.

But I am sure rather than consider this you will again come back with another smart remark to indicate your inability to think past the first line of anything. Best regards for the New Year.


And to you.

Your ode to PNAC is as always, right on the mark.

As is your silly juvenile talk about "losers" etc.

And we "guys" (though I hasten to affirm single ownership of my remarks) thank you for coming half-clean.
 
 
-5 # brux 2014-12-30 14:18
I'll bet I knew about PNAC before you did, and actually read the documents, so I knew what to criticize. You seem to think there are two kinds of people ... the ones who agree with your and all the others are Neocons. See how far you get in life with this kind of mindset.
 
 
+1 # tpmco 2014-12-31 02:53
Brux--I always thought you were a long term thinker. Oil costs what it costs. The price is what you will pay. The difference is profit.
 
 
0 # brux 2015-01-06 17:45
I am a long term thinker, but that has nothing to do with this particular issue, oil is sold under futures contracts, and when there is speculation about, for example, war with Iran or the Person Gulf, Straits of Hormuz being closed, or mined ... the price goes way up and can stay up for years because who countries and economies are involved. How can you not know that and think you are competent to express and opinion on these issue?
 
 
0 # wantrealdemocracy 2015-01-03 11:19
The price of oil is going down because the American Empire is afraid that their position as the only super power on earth is threatened by Russia and China. The oil price is down in an attempt to weaken Russia. The price is set by Saudi Arabia under the direction of the United States. All the actions of the United States against Russia will be the cause of the collapse our our nation. Russia is joining with other nations to create a new currency for international trade which will replace the dollar. This will cause the value of the dollar to collapse to its real value of a piece of paper.
 
 
0 # brux 2015-01-06 17:47
How much you want to bet on that?

Russia is basically on the run. No one wants to join with Russia because Putin and his secret police murder people and take businessmen's money.

You're nuts, but apparently you want everyone to know that too?
 
 
+3 # ritawalpoleague 2014-12-30 10:24
Yep, mgwmgw, "...excuse for profiteering, nothing else..."

"Twas Pres. Ike who warned us/U.S. of the military industrial complex (MIC) power grab.....

ISIS is B.S., B.S., B.S., nothing else.
 
 
+11 # Diane_Wilkinson_Trefethen_aka_tref 2014-12-29 23:22
"In more than 10 years of war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, it is the insurgents and not those in charge of Western military policy and procurement who have developed the most effective cocktail of military tactics and methods of attack suited to local circumstances."

And this is why IF even a small percentage of the 318 million people in the US finally gets tired of being dictated to by the corrupt and super rich, tired enough to revolt, they WILL succeed. Numerous posts to RSN in the past poo-pooed the idea that Americans armed with only guns and other low-tech equipment could defeat our fantastically well-armed military forces. Well, clearly that is not so and the "rebels" in the Middle East have proven the lie.
 
 
-15 # brux 2014-12-30 06:43
The reason we go up against these Mohammedan thugs is exactly because we are developing a technology to fight that we have not had before, that no one has had. It is hard to fight a guerrilla war as the clumsy Goliath against David, but we are making progress.
 
 
+6 # dbrize 2014-12-30 10:46
Quoting brux:
The reason we go up against these Mohammedan thugs is exactly because we are developing a technology to fight that we have not had before, that no one has had. It is hard to fight a guerrilla war as the clumsy Goliath against David, but we are making progress.


Leaving aside the fact that we've been at these "guerrilla wars" for a dozen years now with nothing to show for it except loss of US military lives, equipment, thousands of civilian deaths and destabilized regions galore, let us play your "technological" fantasy out and say somehow the use of these magical mystery weapons of technology allow us to "win".

Just how do you suppose we have the ability to manage our future colonies? From where do we get the policing power? A draft? Governing power? Putting our "chosen locals" in place? That has really worked well hasn't it? Do we place entire populations in a new age "technological all seeing prison"?

As bad a warmonger as Bush I was, he at least had the sense to stop short of creating a new colony. As Powell tried to forewarn Junior, "if you break it, you own it". It's not only expensive, but worse, impossible.

Neither Junior nor Obama has learned it. Or you.

As the diplomat said when asked by a French reporter the lesson of Algiers? "When they no longer want you...it is best to leave sooner rather than later...".

We learn so little from history.
 
 
-10 # brux 2014-12-30 12:45
We have killed lots of terrorists, we have flushed out others, and deposed ruthless murdering tyrants and are in place to do more strategically. Why do you think the price of gas is going down?

The reason oil went up was not lack of supply so this is not market forces, this has been uncertainty about supply because the US was strategically dependent on oil. Now the world supply is secure than can relax a bit.

> We learn so little from history.

You do anyway, but only because you have your conclusions set before you even crack a book, or a web page, or a cartoon, wherever you get your nonsense from.

You don't think those natives telling the West to go are a little biased in what they say? You don't think they would make out better when their people are against the West, and they will line their pockets with no oversight?

Man, you have the cluelessness bug really bad.
 
 
+5 # dbrize 2014-12-30 15:12
That you have answered my questions with a couple of non sequiturs is noted.

P.S. You really don't have a clue about what's driving oil prices do you?

Just more woofin'.
 
 
+15 # James Marcus 2014-12-29 23:57
Success Here, is NOT about anybody winning! (duh!)
In fact, the 'whole point' is thatNOBODY WINS! AND all keep fighting, and SPENDING,... and spending! JILLIONS, on weapons, in particular (this budget is unaudited!)
Get it?
War is profitable, ... for These SICKO 's
 
 
-15 # brux 2014-12-30 06:39
War per se is not really that profitable. Sure it is for some, but the US seeks to find a way to integrate defense into the global marketplace. Certainly selling weapons is one part of that, but the filtering down of military technology into consumer goods, the patents, processes and technologies is critical to us/US.

My last article explains this and why we need it. The Left would do well to think about this deeply and carefully because what helps our military also helps our economy, and defense, as well as the global trend towards peace and human rights.
 
 
+8 # dbrize 2014-12-30 10:52
Quoting brux:
War per se is not really that profitable. Sure it is for some, but the US seeks to find a way to integrate defense into the global marketplace. Certainly selling weapons is one part of that, but the filtering down of military technology into consumer goods, the patents, processes and technologies is critical to us/US.

My last article explains this and why we need it. The Left would do well to think about this deeply and carefully because what helps our military also helps our economy, and defense, as well as the global trend towards peace and human rights.


Sorry but General/Preside nt Eisenhower disagrees with you.

It was part of his warning about the MIC that every weapon built took away materials that could be used to build schools, tractors, houses and a variety of products to make peoples lives better.

I'll go with Ike's expertise over yours.
 
 
-6 # brux 2014-12-30 12:40
So you believe the speeches political figures give .... selectively of course. The man was a 5 star general and then President, and presided over the Korean war, one of the most bloody conflicts the US has been involved in. I don't think you know anything about the man:

>> Eisenhower entered the 1952 presidential race as a Republican to counter the non-interventio nism of Senator Robert A. Taft and to crusade against "Communism, Korea and corruption". He won by a landslide, defeating Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson and ending two decades of the New Deal Coalition. In the first year of his presidency, Eisenhower deposed the leader of Iran in the 1953 Iranian coup d'état and used nuclear threats to conclude the Korean War with China.


Of course he's going to say something peaceful to temper his legacy as President. Your model of reality is based on nonsense because you see it and hear it in the media, not because you have actually studied or thought about anything.
 
 
+8 # dbrize 2014-12-30 15:06
Well, poor old Ike wasn't as smart as you brux, but he did see the futility of war up close and accepted a truce rather than WWIII.

That you fail to get the point doesn't surprise me. And no, Ike wasn't perfect, he made mistakes like every president. Hiring the Dulles Brothers was a big one.

Your attempt to diminish his farewell speech as an effort "...to temper his legacy..." is laughable ignorance.

I have studied it, but more importantly lived through it.

The man had no need to "temper" his legacy, he was a national hero who could easily have won a third term were it not for the 22nd amendment and had his health permitted.
 
 
-6 # brux 2014-12-30 18:40
>> In the first year of his presidency, Eisenhower deposed the leader of Iran in the 1953 Iranian coup d'état and used nuclear threats to conclude the Korean War with China.

Guess you missed that eh?

No need to temper his legacy? Do you know how many died under Eisenhower in Korea?

Eisenhower was a very smart guy ... even smarter than me. He was great with military planning, strategy and logistics and made the best decisions he could from his position. Still, Korea was not popular then and since the dirty tricks of the CIA at that time throw people into paroxysms.

But your point was what, that Eisenhower said war is profitable? You just say that unqualifyingly ... it is not war, it is defense, and that has kept our economy afloat with tech, but not because of war, because of the way we have set up our economy to support the military.

The military is a net drain, but the technology it produces, and the expertise and practice we get that we can get nowhere else is why we do it.
 
 
+10 # itchyvet 2014-12-30 00:10
The author forgets, the OBJECT of America's wars is NOT TO WIN their wars, but to degrade their enemies resources and cause disintegration and disruption, as well as keeping the DEMAND for war material running, profits keep flowing into shareholders accounts.
 
 
-9 # brux 2014-12-30 06:35
yeah, that's about right, to fight strategically on multiple dimensions.
 
 
+12 # riverhouse 2014-12-30 02:10
The way to neutralize ISIS is to stop nonsensically bombing Muslim countries and stop our unbridled support of Israel's brutal occupation and oppression of Israel. The USA would go a long way toward defanging ISIS if we would simply not veto the Palestinian effort for statehood in the UN.
 
 
-14 # brux 2014-12-30 05:42
In the years that the US and world was doing nothing, was the years when Afghanistan went from a backward mess to a haven and nest for terrorism to a low tech totalitarian paradise for rich Islamic men who wanted to fight and oppress women to the extreme.

Most crimes became punishable by death ... you know, terrible crimes like singing, making music, dancing, going to school, reading, taking pictures, women not wearing their burkas - or whatever the Afghanis call them.

The unthinking creation of these silly stories about how the US is the only source of evil in the world are simple BS.

Finally there is little point to bomb ISIS because the germ of this kind of evil and corruption is heavy and strong in this area, and as the experts knew when we went in there this was a very long term, say over 100 year struggle.

Read my last article if you want to get the big picture.
 
 
-5 # FDRva 2014-12-30 03:29
The author's father was famously exposed as a CIA agent in the Ramparts caper.

I presume the author works for British agencies.

And the Brits have a knack for organizing intell ops that kill Americans.

9-11-01 comes to mind.

Regards to Prince Bandar.
 
 
-1 # brux 2014-12-30 06:44
You think it was the Brits that caused 911 ... that is a new one on me? Really?
 
 
0 # brux 2014-12-30 12:36
But I guess at least two people share your paranoia.
 
 
+5 # lobdillj 2014-12-30 08:40
The US is NOT "unable to counter ISIS". ISIS, like Al Qaeda, like bin Laden, are useful to the neocons in their "perception management" efforts to support the military-indust rial complex.
 
 
+1 # tpmco 2014-12-31 03:39
I do notice, however, that you do not follow Osama bin-Laden with the name of the ISIS leader. Is that because the ISIS leaders name is not well known as al-baghdadi? The man from Baghdad.

Seems like a big change to me. Maybe it's been figured out that if you can surround the organization, then you can strangle it.
 

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