Growing and Arming Your Own Enemy

ISIS: It's not easy to defeat an enemy you've helped to create and arm

ISIS: It’s not easy to defeat an enemy you’ve helped to create and arm

Tom Engelhardt

[Editor’s Note: Tom Engelhardt wrote the following as an introduction to Michael Klare’s new article at TomDispatch.com.]

Think of this as a little imperial folly update — and here’s the backstory.  In the years after invading Iraq and disbanding Saddam Hussein’s military, the U.S. sunk about $25 billion into “standing up” a new Iraqi army.  By June 2014, however, that army, filled with at least 50,000 “ghost soldiers,” was only standing in the imaginations of its generals and perhaps Washington.  When relatively small numbers of Islamic State (IS) militants swept into northern Iraq, it collapsed, abandoning four cities — including Mosul, the country’s second largest — and leaving behind enormous stores of U.S. weaponry, ranging from tanks and Humvees to artillery and rifles.  In essence, the U.S. was now standing up its future enemy in a style to which it was unaccustomed and, unlike the imploded Iraqi military, the forces of the Islamic State proved quite capable of using that weaponry without a foreign trainer or adviser in sight.

In response, the Obama administration dispatched thousands of new advisers and trainers and began shipping in piles of new weaponry to re-equip the Iraqi army.  It also filled Iraqi skies with U.S. planes armed with their own munitions to destroy, among other things, some of that captured U.S. weaponry.  Then it set to work standing up a smaller version of the Iraqi army.  Now, skip nearly a year ahead and on a somewhat lesser scale the whole process has just happened again.  Less than two weeks ago, Islamic State militants took Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province.  Iraqi army units, including the elite American-trained Golden Division, broke and fled, leaving behind — you’ll undoubtedly be shocked to hear — yet another huge cache of weaponry and equipment, including tanks, more than 100 Humvees and other vehicles, artillery, and so on.

The Obama administration reacted in a thoroughly novel way: it immediately began shipping in new stocks of weaponry, starting with 1,000 antitank weapons, so that the reconstituted Iraqi military could take out future “massive suicide vehicle bombs” (some of which, assumedly, will be those captured vehicles from Ramadi).  Meanwhile, American planes began roaming the skies over that city, trying to destroy some of the equipment IS militants had captured.

Notice anything repetitive in all this — other than another a bonanza for U.S. weapons makers?  Logically, it would prove less expensive for the Obama administration to simply arm the Islamic State directly before sending in the air strikes.  In any case, what a microcosm of U.S. imperial hubris and folly in the twenty-first century all this training and equipping of the Iraqi military has proved to be.  Start with the post-invasion decision of the Bush administration to totally disband Saddam’s army and instantly eject hundreds of thousands of unemployed Sunni military men and a full officer corps into the chaos of the “new” Iraq and you have an instant formula for creating a Sunni resistance movement.  Then, add in a little extra “training” at Camp Bucca, a U.S. military prison in Iraq, for key unemployed officers, and — Voilà! — you’ve helped set up the petri dish in which the leadership of the Islamic State movement will grow.

Tom Engelhardt, book editor and writer, is the founder of TomDispatch.com, a regular antidote to the mainstream media.  His books include The End of Victory Culture, The United States of Fear, and Shadow Government.

17 thoughts on “Growing and Arming Your Own Enemy

  1. The Iraqi military on Saddam Hussein’s watch was a very bad joke. It wasn’t just a matter of the US’s technology being superior: these troops were clearly not motivated to fight for Saddam. So to the extent that former members of that military are now a key element in IS (this is what we’re told, at any rate) they seem to have undergone quite a transformation to have become an effective fighting force.

  2. We need to install a self destruct mechanism in the weapons that we send them that can be triggered from the U.S. the next time they are captured.

    • Do you by any chance mean a self-destruct mechanism designed and built by the same U.S. military that just shipped live anthrax spores to unsuspecting laboratories in the U.S.? That these U.S. mechanisms might self-destruct, I have not the slightest doubt, but I shudder to think about who might do the triggering and where the destruction might actually take place. I suggest taking the prefix “self-” literally, with all the unintended consequences that it implies.

  3. Do I see anything repetitive here? Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps that old joke by Chairman Mao during the Chinese Civil War of 1945-49 where The Great Helmsman called the U.S. his “quartermaster” for arming and equipping the Nationalist Chinese forces who somehow managed to lose or sell most of the stuff to the eventually victorious communist armies.

    And, of course, the less said the better about what happened to all that vast U.S. arming and training of the now defunct Republic of South Vietnam. I seem to remember playing something of a bit part in that.

    Repetitive? As the old Rolling Stones song put it:

    Baby baby come back, maybe next week,
    ‘Cause you see I’m on a losing streak …

    A losing streak that has gone on now for seventy years now. We just cannot let other people fight their own battles for their own reasons without us getting involved to only make things worse for everybody.

    • Good song reference. I can’t get no satisfaction … but I try, and I try, and I try, and I try …

      When will we learn to stop trying? Or are their just too many reasons not to learn?

      • I vote for “too many reasons not to learn” — by systemic oligarchic design. As Upton Sinclair put it: “It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” In the United States, too many salaries depend on not understanding where all the money goes or into whose few, deep pockets it ultimately accumulates.

      • A desk-bound general or admiral has no skin in the game; he or she isn’t going to lose a leg or eye or worse to an IED. The name of the game is: don’t make waves; find scapegoats among your underlings when things go wrong; wait for your juicy pension and go shopping for a cushy job in the “defense” industry. (Oh, and try to be more discrete than Petraeus about your extra-marital affairs!) And the Secretary of “Defense,” the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, etc.? Appointed, not elected. Who’s going to hold their feet to the fire when things go horribly wrong in one of their campaigns? Oh, the President of the United States may occasionally fire one of these folks–remember what I said about looking for scapegoats among underlings?–but the general public has no influence on them, no way to even access them. Presidents come and go, but the backbone of The Government Within The Government just keeps chugging along.

  4. Michael’s quote of Upton Sinclair (“It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”) gets right to the point. US policy is set and maintained by elites* with their political pawns mouthing the words. US policies will likely remain the same regardless of the results of elections and views like those expressed here. Public opinion, will be managed by ‘propaganda’** …
    I fear that US adversaries have figured out that the US can’t sustain the costs of it’s current imperial system. The cost of developing weapons, deploying and using the weapons (how much does a drone assassination or a ‘special forces’ raid cost***), the salaries, medical care and pensions of veterans and etc. is so high, and will grow with the length of they war, that a war on the cheap, like waged by ISIL, can bankrupt the ’empire’.

    * . . . a small minority, consisting of members of the economic elite and policy-planning networks, holds the most power and that power is independent of a state’s democratic elections process. – ‘Elite Theory’ (the council of foreign relations, various think tanks, some of the ‘media’ etc.)
    ** “. . . The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and cliches and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.” (Edward Bernays)
    *** so far, assassinations don’t seem to have won the wars …

    • Rulers’ ideas rule — I think I came up with this truncation of Marx’s dictum that “In every era, the ideas of the rulers are the ruling ideas.” That about sums it up.

      • “No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country.” Alexis de Tocqueville
        “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.” Sun Tzu

        ‘The only thing we learn from history,’ it has been said, ‘is that men never learn from history’, So much for the ‘exceptional’ US elites …

    • I, for one, welcome the end of this empire. I have no problem with China, Russia or whomever “equote” considers “our adversaries” gaining more economic clout in the world by “doing Capitalism” better. This is notwithstanding the fact that I am an opponent of Capitalism. Of course I oppose anyone seeking this clout via military force, and I am exceedingly alarmed about the consequences to the environment of such activity. But bottom line: you won’t find me boo-hooing over the US losing influence in the world. Assassinations (the “Phoenix Program”) in “south” Vietnam certainly didn’t achieve victory for the US, eh?

      • I suppose you have read John B. Glubb’s “The Fate of Empires” — If not it is worth the effort. It is available as a pdf on the web.

      • Actually, I have not read that work. (I’m a mere few decades behind in reading the books I’ve acquired over my lifetime, but am working diligently to catch up in my retirement.) I have noted several references to it in these discussion threads. There’s also a book called “The Ruin Of Empires,” by Count somebody-or-other (started with a ‘V’ I seem to recall) that Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s American Atheists organization used to sell. I will look into the Glubb work and thanks for the info. And who knows, thanks to online booksellers maybe I’ll even track down the Count’s work.

  5. Here’s proof that the Internet is generally worthwhile (when it’s not enabling crooks to hack one’s identity, etc.!). A little research at Amazon showed that Count (C.F.) Volney’s book is actually in print! The full title is: “The Ruins: Or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires and the Law of Nature” (rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?). First published in French in 1791 (a certain revolution was in progress over there, you might recall), it was translated by none other than Thomas Jefferson, but he reportedly didn’t make that knowledge public at the time. (per one of only 4 Customer Reviews at Amazon) One reviewer indicates the book opens with an imagined philosophical dialogue between two characters in Palmyra, among the Roman ruins in that Syrian town now in the headlines thanks to Islamic State! What goes around comes around! Obviously I can’t recommend this tome myself, not having yet read it. But being a glutton for punishment, yes I’m about to order a copy!

      • Thanks for the info but I already ordered a paperback of Volney’s book. Hopefully it is NOT a “scan job.” I am presently reading a paperback edition of T.E. Lawrence’s memoir on his role in the Arab Revolt that apparently is result of a scanning. As I pointed out in my review of it at Amazon it is a typographical abomination!! I hope to NEVER encounter a book in such condition again! No one with a conscience could issue such a thing!

    • The scanned version of ‘pillars’ is really bad. I’ve been repairing the epub version and adding photos and will add supplemental materials. I think you will find some wisdom there. Notice TE’s emphasis on ‘preaching’ in irregular warfare.
      Like so many ‘troubles’ problems in the middle east are a result of the first world war. The people living in the middle east during WWI, like the people of Germany, were really screwed by the allies and they have not forgotten. An unknown Sunni said: “Revenge unfolds over generations”.
      It is amusing how US policy makers and media fail to grasp the situation there. Evidence abounds, but, American policy makers seem enamored with their power and the military might of this nation. Their actions and talk compound the problem. It seems each of the US efforts to solve the problem create a set on new ones. It seems the premise of US foreign policy is “Every problem is replaceable with a bigger one.”

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