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The Politics of the Battle for Mosul

The battle for Mosul is as much a political endeavor as its post-conflict status will be. The entire venture pivots on the trust between the allied factions: the Kurds, the Christians, the Yazidis, and the Iraqi army which has its own Shia-Sunni divisions—not to mention the Turks hovering on the horizon threatening to join the hunt. For the ground war to work the factions need to believe that they share a common goal for the long-term future of Mosul. That's a tall order because the major players have divergent, even opposing, agendas.

I was in Iraq five times for various stretches, up to and beyond the Surge, reporting mostly for the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages. At first, I spent a good deal of time with the Turkmen in the north and on the Syria border and then often with Ahmad Chalabi around Baghdad.

China Claims Three Straight Quarters Growth at 6.7%

On Wednesday, Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics reported that China’s gross domestic product in the third calendar quarter of this year grew 6.7%. That is the same rate that was announced for the two most recent quarters.

As Mark Magnier reports in the Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, the three quarters of identical growth “was the first time since Beijing started releasing quarterly figures in 1992 that it had achieved such a feat of consistency.” “It’s quite implausible,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard of Capital Economics to the paper.

The news, however, is not that the People’s Republic of China is fabricating statistics. That, after all, has occurred almost since the founding of the Chinese communist state in 1949. The news is that the constant repetition of Beijing claims seems to be defining the global narrative even though those claims might brazenly overstate China’s true economic performance.

A Visit to Cairo's 'City of the Dead'

“There’s a dead body inside our kitchen table” said Ahmed, a bright-eyed boy about 7 years old. “It’s OK though—it’s normal” he said with a smirk. “On what planet is this normal?” I asked my father, who had spent the summer in Egypt during college. Ahmed is one of an estimated half-million people living in Egypt’s ghoulish “City of the Dead,” one of two massive inhabited cemeteries in Cairo. Ahmed’s home is in the Southern Cemetery, not far from the famous Mohammed Ali Mosque, near the Muqattam Hills.

The Battle for Mosul is On

A coalition of Iraqi government forces, Christian militiamen, and Kurdish soldiers in home-made post-apocalyptic battle tanks are now on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and with air support from the US and Britain, they are poised to retake it from ISIS.

Mosul is the last Iraqi city still under ISIS control. Washington and Baghdad saved it for last because, with a normal population of more than two million people, it will likely prove the most difficult battle.

The number of ISIS fighters inside the city is estimated at less than 10,000, but they’ll be fighting guerrilla-style with booby traps, car bombs, IEDs and suicide bombers. ISIS has also dug in deep underground with a vast network of Vietcong- and Hezbollah-style tunnel networks. Rooting them out of there is going to be a nightmare.

The cities of Fallujah, Tikrit and Ramadi were purged with the help of Iranian-backed Shia militias. This time, Assyrian Christians and Kurds are backing up the Iraqis instead.

The Kurds are the best fighters in the region after the Israelis, and they are by far our most reliable allies. They are consistently on the right side of every conflict, against both secular tyrants like Saddam Hussein and all manner of religious totalitarians like Al Qaeda and ISIS.

And they are truly formidable fighters. Attacking Kurdish territory is as brain-dead as attempting an invasion of Texas. At the height of his power, Saddam Hussein had the fourth-largest army in the world, yet Kurdish fighters, thanks to a British and American no-fly zone, fought and won against Baghdad in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War with nothing but small arms.

They’re making their own tanks now, if “tank” is the right word for contraptions that appear air-lifted out of Mad Max and Dawn of the Dead. You can tell just by looking at them that they’re not as fireproof as an M1 Abrams, a Merkava, or a Russian T-4 Armata, but they don’t have to be. The Kurds are fighting terrorists, not the Wehrmacht.

ISIS is doomed. Fewer than 10,000 terrorists are currently facing off against almost 100,000 Kurdish and Iraqi fighters. They aren’t fighting “imperialists” this time, but indigenous Muslims and Christians, many of whom, especially on the Kurdish side, would be willing to fight with kitchen knives if they had to.

A Kurdish general says he expects the fighting to last roughly two months, which seems about right since taking back smaller Iraqi cities took a couple of weeks. However long it takes, ISIS is going to lose Mosul, just like it lost Tikrit and Fallujah.

“They will come back with a new name and they'll be more extreme and more barbaric,” Kurdish Lieutenant-Colonel Fariq Hama Faraj told the Military Times. “If you look to the history of these organizations we see that each one is more extreme than the last.”

That has been true so far, but it’s hard to imagine a nastier terrorist army than ISIS. The only thing limiting ISIS’ barbarism is its dearth of technology. Does anyone doubt for a moment that it would use nuclear weapons if it had them? If it had a superpower’s arsenal, mushroom clouds would have already risen over Baghdad, Tehran, Damascus, Tel Aviv, Brussels, Paris and Washington.

Even if ISIS were forced out of every last stronghold in both Syria and Iraq, it would still exist in some form, for sure, but the whole point of denying it territory, especially urban territory, is so it can’t amass military strength like a conventional state.

A lot of ISIS fighters are going to die, but they are part of a global organization and the survivors will fly away and land somewhere else like exploding mold spores. Some will hunker down elsewhere in Iraq. Some may head to Libya, others to Egypt’s increasingly anarchic Sinai peninsula.

Most will probably crawl back to Syria where they came from. ISIS is still going gangbusters there, especially in and around its “capital” in Raqqa. Contrary to popular belief—and propaganda out of the Kremlin—neither the Assad regime nor Vladimir Putin’s Russia are fighting ISIS. Their only concern is keeping the Arab Socialist Baath Party propped up in its rump state in Damascus and along the Mediterranean. ISIS still has a free hand to do whatever it wants out in the desert.

Some fleeing ISIS fighters will probably make a beeline for Europe and the United States. It won’t be easy for them to get here. The State Department has a notoriously difficult time vetting refugees, but more ISIS members than ever are now known to foreign intelligence agencies. Syrian rebels, for instance, have handed vast amounts of intelligence on ISIS’ network of foreign fighters to the US while other troves of information, much of it also about foreign fighters, including American citizens, have been obtained directly by the US military.

It won’t be easy for these people to get here when they run out of Mosul, but you can bet your bottom dollar that at least some of them are going to try.

The State of Play in Transdnistria

The drive from Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, to the breakaway region of Transdnistria takes only about an hour. Transdnistria, which runs like a ribbon between the curved borders of Moldova and Ukraine, takes its name from the fact that most of it—though not all—lies across the Dniester river.

Transdnistria does have a somewhat different modern history than does the rest of Moldova—a much more Soviet one. From 1921-1940, much of the area that is now called Transdnistria was part of the Soviet Union. The so-called Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (officially founded in 1924) was a constituent part of the Ukrainian SSR, and for much of the time had its capital in Tiraspol. So while Transdnistria was Sovietized—and large amounts of Russians and Ukrainians were imported to work in the newly industrialized area—the rest of what we now know as Moldova was part of the Kingdom of Romania.

China’s PLA Faces Budget Cuts, Soldiers Protest

On Tuesday, more than a thousand demobilized soldiers, wearing green fatigues, staged a protest in Beijing across from the headquarters of the Ministry of National Defense.

China’s People’s Liberation Army faces increasingly severe budget constraints, and there has already been grumbling not only from former soldiers but also from currently serving senior officers.

The demonstrators arrived early Tuesday morning and stayed late into the evening. In the interim, they sang patriotic songs, waved national flags, and demanded relief. “They protested because they don’t have a job now after serving a long period of time in the army, some for a dozen years,” said Liu Feiyue, editor of the civil rights Minsheng Guancha website, to the Associated Press. “They are asking for employment.”

Putin and South Africa’s ANC: Friends Forever?

Russia wants to promote strategic partnerships and economic cooperation with African countries, President Vladimir Putin said at VTB Capital’s “Russia Calling” Forum on October 11, 2016.

Putin’s statement came at a time of high tensions between Russia and Western forces. President Jacob Zuma and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa are likely to be among Putin’s allies during this period.

In past years, Zuma and the ANC have become more reliant on Russia and China as foreign patrons. The ANC and Zuma are politically weaker due to scandals around the president, increased factionalism, constrained government resources and electoral setbacks.

Putin has used the opportunity to strengthen Russia’s position in South Africa. Putin’s United Russia party concluded a pact with the ANC in 2013. The BRICS alliance and bilateral relations were also channels in this regard. The strategic partnership has been reflected in increased security and intelligence cooperation, arms industry projects, and a gigantic nuclear energy project.

Slow Blogging This Week

Two weeks ago, my mother-in-law died of liver and kidney failure.

My wife and I have just returned home from Southern California where we scattered her mother’s ashes at sea off the coast of Ventura. She is doing okay, but her father is having a much harder time. Her parents were married for 49 years.

There’s plenty going on in the world right now, but it’s going to take me a couple of days to catch up and get back in the swing of things. Thanks for being patient.

Philippine President to Obama: 'Go to Hell' as Asia Alliance Deteriorates

“No, no, no, he did not say that at all,” said Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay to reporters in Hanoi.

Yes, yes, yes, he did. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in fact said this in Vietnam on September 28, addressing the US: “You are scheduled to hold war games again which China does not want. I will serve notice to you now, this will be the last military exercise.”

You can understand Yasay’s attempt to smooth over what could end up the biggest blunder in his country’s post-colonial history. While Beijing threatens to dismember the Philippines, one island, rock, and shoal at a time, Duterte is trying to break the only thing that protects his country from Beijing, his military alliance with the United States. It would, of course, be difficult for the US to defend the Philippines if the Philippine and American militaries did not regularly exercise together.

Georgia's Election Matters as Putin's Global Threat Looms

Vladimir Putin's global offensive began in 2008 when Russian forces invaded Georgia. This week on October 8, the imperial resurgence Putin launched could receive its first serious setback when Georgians go to the polls to elect a new parliament. Pro-Western parties could retake power but polls indicate a virtual dead heat. It will be near-run thing. It shouldn't be and wouldn't be but for America's neglect of the region—really since the invasion—alongside the EU's passionless embrace. Should we care if Georgia drifts further back into Moscow's orbit? I reported on the invasion for the Wall Street Journal and, yes, we should care. It matters a lot. To understand why, we need a brief history excursion.

Dueling Narratives: EU Overreach vs Hungary's Resistance

"Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?" This was the question asked to Hungarians on Sunday's special referendum. It was prompted by an outcry from Hungarians at the throngs of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants that have crossed into their country in the past two years, and President Victor Orbán's disgust at the European Union's plan to distribute refugees amongst all of its member countries regardless of the wishes of the citizenry.

The referendum was Orbán and his ruling Fidesz Party's opportunity to snub their nose at European Union and German leadership on the issue. But things did not go precisely as planned. While the results were as expected—a resounding 98.3 percent said 'No' to the above question—the turnout numbers have proven to be the fly in Orbán's ointment.

What Just Happened in Colombia?

By a razor-thin margin of less than half a percentage point, Colombian voters narrowly rejected a proposed peace plan that would have formally ended the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere.

Almost everyone thought the referendum would pass, that it was a mere formality after years of painstaking negotiations in Cuba, but no.

The UK’s Independent calls the vote “Farcxit.” Indeed, the peso crashed hard against the dollar for the same reason the British pound fell after Brexit—international markets hate uncertainty, especially where war and peace are concerned.

“If Colombians were dinosaurs,” one supporter of the peace deal said on social media, “we would vote for the meteorite.”

For more than five decades, the Soviet- and narco-backed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has waged a brutal insurgency against the Colombian government and its people. When Soviet largesse dried up at the end of the Cold War, the guerrillas turned to kidnapping and drug trafficking to fund their insurgency, and they’ve used just about every terrorist tactic short of suicide-bombings since the very beginning. More than 220,000 people have been killed since the war started in 1964, and more than seven million have been displaced.

So why did a slim majority of the population vote “no” in a national referendum to end the war once and for all?

Because the peace deal was too nice to the FARC.

Amnesty was part of the package, of course. All the FARC leaders could have stayed out of prison if they confessed and made reparations. Worse, the peace treaty would have given the FARC ten seats in Congress—five in the Senate and five in the House—for ten years.

Plenty of wars end with amnesty for the losing side, including the American Civil War. Confederate soldiers, officers and political leaders surrendered partly because they lost on the battlefield but also because they knew they’d be citizens with equal rights rather than corpses, prisoners or subjects. President Andrew Johnson, who followed Abraham Lincoln in the White House, issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon to all but a few who had participated in the rebellion against Washington. The war would have lasted longer and ended even more bitterly otherwise.

Giving the FARC ten seats in Congress, however, would have rewarded them for their violence. Colombia is a democratic country. The only people who deserve seats in the Congress are those with enough popular support to win a proper election.

The FARC is and has always been communist. Communists prefer bullets and barbed wire to ballots. Every communist nation in the history of the world has been a police state. All communist rulers murdered their way into power and murdered and jailed opponents to stay in power. Rewarding the FARC’s kidnapping and bloodshed with an unearned share of an otherwise functioning democracy would have been a travesty far worse than amnesty.

Former president and current senator Álvaro Uribe led the political opposition to this treaty, which should surprise no one. He’s the man who turned the conflict around during his presidency between 2002 and 2010. He did it by clearing and holding guerilla-occupied territory, ramping up the police and army presence in dangerous areas, improving the government’s human rights record, assisting internally displaced people and convincing murderous right-wing militias to disarm. Call him Colombia’s David Petraeus. He knows how the beat the guerrillas and is confident that they can be whipped even harder if need be.

If I lived in Colombia, I probably would have voted for the peace deal with extreme reservations. At the same time, I’d probably be relieved that it failed by a miniscule margin because it will force the FARC to accept harsher—and much fairer—terms.

Make no mistake. The FARC is willing to negotiate because the government spent a good solid decade kicking its ass. It has been losing and losing badly for a long time and has absolutely no chance of a miltary or political victory, ever.

Even without a final peace treaty, violence in Colombia has dropped so sharply during the last couple of years that the country is becoming a must-visit tourist destination. The city of Medellín, once among the most violent and hellish on earth, has won a number of international awards for its urban dynamism, including the City of Year Award from the Urban Land Institute, the Lee Kwan Yew World City Prize, and another for urban design from Harvard University.  

We’ll know the Syrian civil war is well and truly over, whether or not it says so on paper, if Aleppo ever wins these kinds of prizes.

The Colombian vote was so close that the results were in range of a rounding error. Just 50.24 percent voted no. Another treaty with just slightly harsher terms should at least narrowly pass, and it might even pass by a lot.

So the FARC leaders are spectacularly unlikely to ramp up the violence again. They’ll go back to Havana and swallow that pill if the alternative is more fighting that they can’t possibly win and that could easily lead to their death, imprisonment or permanent exile.

I could be wrong, of course, but if they’re willing to risk that by setting the country on fire again, I’ll eat my hat. Colombians are used to war. Most of them have never known anything else. If it takes a little more fighting to end this thing properly, they’ll do it. And they’ll win. 

Putin Consolidates Power as Young Loyalists Enter Duma

When the final results of the September 18th Russian Duma elections were announced on Friday, the outcomes were entirely as expected. President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party was victorious, though reports of electoral fraud indicate that, particularly in cities, those results had to be manipulated. Turnout was down to only 48 percent, helping United Russia push its share of Duma seats even higher than it had been before. When the new Duma is seated, 76 percent of its deputies will be from United Russia and will hold 105 more seats than it had previously. The remaining seats went to the systemic opposition parties that Putin trusts to not rock the political boat: the Communist Party, A Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party. Each of these saw their share of Duma seats shrink markedly.

Trump Botches Iraq

Donald Trump hit Hillary Clinton hard on foreign policy during the first presidential debate Monday night.

“Secretary Clinton is talking about taking out ISIS,” he said. “Well, President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq, because they got out -- what, they shouldn't have been in, but once they got in, the way they got out was a disaster. And ISIS was formed.”

Bernie Sanders has made a similar argument. Lots of people on both the left and the right have made similar arguments. Democrats love to blame ISIS on George W. Bush for invading Iraq, while Republican partisans blame ISIS on Obama and Clinton for withdrawing from Iraq prematurely.

They’re all wrong for one simple reason.

ISIS is a product of the Syrian war, not the Iraq war.

The Syrian civil war started in 2011, eight years after the United States invaded Iraq and three years after President Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that included a deadline for all American troops to leave the country. All combat forces were out in 2010. Only a small “transitional force” remained until 2011.

Whether or not invading was a good idea, leaving almost certainly was, and in any case, it was inevitable. The war was over. Americans didn’t want to be there anymore. Iraqis didn’t want us hanging around either. Public opinion in both countries mandated withdrawal.

I visited Iraq seven times as a foreign correspondent. On my final trip, in 2008, I was bored. It was a hard country to write about then because it was more or less stable. The various militias and terrorist organizations had been routed. If the Iraqis had their act together, they’d be in fine shape by now after eight years of peace.

An entirely separate chain of events led to the rise of ISIS. It started in Tunisia when a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi in the remote town of Sidi Bouzid doused himself with gasoline and lit a match to protest the crooked authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Non-violent protests swept across the country like a human tsunami. After a short and furious month, Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. Tunisia has enjoyed several free and fair elections in the meantime and is currently governed by a secular center-left government.

Tunisia is the one Arab Spring success story, and ousting Ben Ali triggered copy-cat revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Syria. All failed in their own way, though no revolution has failed as spectacularly as Syria’s.

What began as a non-violent protest movement for reform against Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party transformed over time into an armed insurrection. Relatively moderate forces fought both alongside and against Islamist factions like the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Foreign fighters poured into the country from all over the world, and three years into the bloodshed and mayhem, in 2014, ISIS declared its “caliphate” in the Syrian city of Raqqa in the wake of the withdrawal of Assad’s armed forces.

That’s how it started, and the Syrian civil war is emphatically not a product of the Iraq war. Follow the international chain of causation backwards and you won’t end up in Baghdad, but in Tunisia. ISIS—or something that looks and sounds a lot like it—would have sprung up in Syria even if Iraq were an Arab version of Switzerland.

To be sure, ISIS is the reconstituted and rebranded version of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which reared its ugly head in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein, so in that sense it does appear, at a glance anyway, that ISIS is the product of the Iraq war rather than the Syrian war, but here’s the thing: Al Qaeda in Iraq effectively ceased to exist for years after losing to the American and Iraqi armed forces in the mid-to-late 2000s. It lost every scrap of territory and its entire leadership was erased.

If ISIS didn’t exist, and if Al Qaeda in Iraq never existed, the Nusra Front, which is the Syrian franchise of Al Qaeda, would be recruiting all the foreign fighters, and the Nusra Front has never even set foot in Iraq.

Donald Trump (along with Bernie Sanders and Gary Johnson and so many others) talks about Iraq as if the Middle East would be fine if the Baath Party were left in place in Baghdad. It’s a frankly ludicrous proposition. The Baath Party is still in place next-door in Syria, and how’s that working out?

These kinds of governments can only keep a lid on things until they can’t.

Trump is partly right in one sense, at least. If Presidents Bush and Obama had acted differently, and if Iraq were somehow—miraculously—stable, ISIS would not have been able to invade and conquer the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi from Raqqa. ISIS (or something like it) would still exist, but might be confined to Syria.

How much of an improvement would that be? By focusing all its attention on Syria instead of spreading itself thin across two separate countries, ISIS could very well  control twice as much territory in Syria and might even have overthrown the Assad regime by now. (We could speculate all day, but nobody can possibly know.)

Anyway, ISIS is spreading all over the world from Syria, not just into Iraq. It has roughly 20,000 fighters. The overwhelming majority aren’t from either Syria or Iraq. It’s a genuinely international terrorist army, forged in the vacuum left behind by the cleansing of Assad’s army in the Syrian Desert.

At least it’s not spreading everywhere. ISIS controls no territory in Tunisia. It controls no territory in Morocco or Jordan or Algeria. ISIS and organizations like it can only conquer and hold ground in failed states and other anarchic places, of which there are legion.

We’d have a deadly serious ISIS problem on our hands even if Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had been running the White House for the past sixteen years and never went anywhere near Iraq. The problem would have a different shape and different details, sure, but let’s not kid ourselves here. There is no policy recipe that any American president can come up with that will prevent failing Middle Eastern countries from failing. Nor is there any conceivable policy prescription that can stop ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar entities from recruiting the disaffected, the radical, the extreme, and the psychopathic.

America’s available foreign policy options are so narrow at this point that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would likely make similar decisions about tackling ISIS next year. They’d both use the Air Force and drone strikes, and they’d both assist local ground forces like the Kurdish Peshmerga. They’d both work with Vladimir Putin’s Russia whether they want to or not, they’d both have to deal with the increasingly deranged Turkish president whether they like it or not, and neither are remotely likely to mount a full scale invasion of Iraq or Syria or anywhere else.

It’s not America’s fault that that part of the world is a mess. It’s the fault of the people who live there. When we aren’t busy taking partisan shots at whichever political party we love to hate most, we all know it’s true, so please, for once, let’s stop blaming America and Americans for what the Middle East does to itself. 

The United States has made plenty of mistakes over there, no question about it, and only a stubborn fool refuses to learn anything from them, but Iraq is so dysfunctional that it would still be in catastrophic shape even the United States did everything right. And if Iraq had its act together, it wouldn’t matter how many mistakes Americans made—Iraq would be fine.

China's Warplanes Stalk Japan, Unite Neighbors

On Sunday, the Chinese air force flew more than 40 aircraft through Japan’s Miyako Strait into the Western Pacific Ocean.

The exercise, involving H-6K bombers, Su-30 fighters, and tankers, is the largest of its kind for China through this airspace. Previous exercises involved fewer than 20 planes according to Li Jie, a military analyst based in Beijing.

China flew through the strait, an international passageway that separates the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa, for the first time in May of last year.

China’s Ministry of National Defense, in a statement quoting air force spokesman Shen Jinke, said the planes Sunday flew “systematically” to conduct early warning, sudden assault, and refueling tasks. Shen noted the exercise was to protect China’s “sovereignty and security” and “maintain peaceful development.”

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