Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, Updates Blogs of War on the ISIL Threat

Ambassador Lukman FailyThe Ambassador was kind enough to take some additional questions. I originally submitted these questions to him the day before there were widespread reports of, if not a coup, at least a difficult political transition in Baghdad. That situation has since stabilized somewhat but the environment remains challenging.

John Little: How would you describe the security situation in and around Baghdad at his time? Has the Iraqi government made progress in its preparations for a possible ISIL assault?

Ambassador Faily: The situation in Baghdad itself is stable, however there are pockets in the outskirts of the city where ISIL has launched attacks. These attacks have been pushed back by the Iraqi security forces as we’ve stepped up our defenses to protect the capital against potential attacks.

John Little: Has your government’s relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government changed in any significant way since the start of the ISIL offensive?

Ambassador Faily: The central government and the Kurdistan regional government have been cooperating on military, humanitarian and political matters to confront the serious threat of ISIL. Joint operations centers have been established to coordinate these efforts. As an example, the Iraqi Air Force has been supporting Kurdish peshmerga forces in the Sinjar area as part of our joint efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Yazidi community who have been trapped on Mount Sinjar.

John Little: At the start of this crisis U.S. support for Iraq seemed uncertain. There has obviously been some progress but, from the outside looking in, it seems that there is still a fair amount of uncertainty. Do you feel like your government has reasonable assurances of support from the Obama administration? What immediate action would you like to see?

Ambassador Faily: We are in constant talks with the US Administration regarding military and humanitarian cooperation.We appreciate President Obama’s courageous decision to conduct airstrikes in response to ISIL’s attempt to commit genocide against minorities in Iraq. This is a brutal terrorist organization that has even been denounced by Al-Qaeda. Many of its members hold Western passports, and it is clear that their ambitions extend far beyond the Middle East. Therefore, drastic and immediate actions are required to counter this imminent threat from ISIL. Given the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Iraq, broader and more intensive airstrikes and additional humanitarian assistance would help mitigate against further atrocities.

John Little: The United States and others can blunt the ISIL threat and buy the Iraqi government some time but ultimately it has to be responsible for its own security and stability. Many are worried that the Iraqi government is countering extremism with extremism through its reliance on government-aligned militias. Is a truly inclusive Iraqi government and society possible?

Ambassador Faily: Yes. We have seen significant progress over the past 6 weeks as Iraq’s political leaders have come together to elect the Speaker and President. Recently, a prime minister designate was named. All three positions were chosen through broad agreement among Iraq’s political leaders, who stand united against the common threat of ISIL, and we are likely to see the formation of an inclusive government within a month that will lead the charge against these brutal terrorists.

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PBS NewsHour and Blogs of War Twitter Chat on Social Media and Warfare

Twitter Chat: Is social media a weapon in modern warfare?

The nice folks at PBS @NewsHour asked me and @PJTobia to spend an hour discussing the topic with them on Twitter.

Social media can be used to circulate true information in the face of censorship. It can also cause false information to go viral. It has powered revolutions, but it is also used to expand the reach of violent extremists. What is the role of social media in modern warfare? How has this changed as the medium evolves? What responsibility do sites such as Facebook and Twitter have to regulate (or restrict) users’ promotion of military actions

Join the conversation in a Twitter chat 1-2 p.m. EDT, Thursday, July 31. John Little, who blogs about international relations and national security on his website Blogs of War, will participate through his Twitter handle @BlogsofWar. PBS NewsHour foreign affairs producer @PJTobia will also contribute. Follow along and weigh in using #NewsHourChats.

You can find the full transcript of the chat here.

If you’d like some background on how social media is being used in both warfare and intelligence this list is a good starting point:

I also recommend following the excellent J.M. Berger @intelwire. His comments on extremism and social media are always insightful.

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U.S. and European Airlines Halt Flights to Tel Aviv

U.S. and European Airlines Halt Flights to Tel Aviv

I absolutely understand the concern raised by this single small rocket. The entire world has endured a miserable, helpless, gruesome week observing the aftermath of Malaysian Air Flight 17. If you think airline executives and aviation bureaucrats feel human emotions, and I suspect at least some of them do, then for them this past week has been both a human and business disaster. Nobody wants to see this repeated. And given last week’s events, no airline can afford to risk it happening again. They just can’t. I understand that. But, having said that, suspending flights to Tel Aviv might still be the wrong thing to do.

Terrorist plots against civil aviation have evolved. It’s no longer about ransom money, securing safe passage to some failed state hell-hole, or even cheap publicity. Civil aviation is an enormous economic engine in its own right but it sits at the center of so many other business that taking it offline for any extended time would have an economic impact so vast that, frankly, it is beyond calculation.

Modern terrorists dream of dropping tens of planes out of the sky in a short period of time. The goal isn’t to kill a few thousand people. Death, destruction, and terror are the immediate impact but the ultimate goal is grounding airlines. Terrorists dream of paralyzing a core economic engine and watching the impacted downstream businesses fall like dominoes.

So here sits Israel. Forget about whether you support them or not for the moment – if that is even possible. In a tiny country with hostile neighbors Ben Gurion Airport is the only practical lifeline Israel has to the rest of the world:

Imagine if the United States had only one airport and that driving in and out of the country wasn’t really an option. That should give you an idea of how important Ben Gurion Airport is to both Israel’s economy and its sense of national well-being.

And so now Hamas finds itself, with militarily insignificant weapons (essentially only useful for terrorizing civilians), punching way above it’s weight. An overabundance of caution by airlines and aviation officials, even if it lasts only 24 hours or so, will cost Israel millions. And what will the airlines do if flights resume and another rocket lands a mile away the next day? What will they do if this pattern repeats itself day after day after day? Even more importantly, what will they do when these cheap and easy attacks are directed at other airports around the world?

And that is my concern. While I understand the anxiety driving these decisions my fear is that we’ve lowered the bar for terrorists. We should resist the chaos they seek even if it means incurring slight risk. What is so troubling about this incident is that the disruptive impact of these safety measures absolutely outweigh the potential risk. There are only more challenges ahead, some will be vastly more difficult than this, and finding balance in our response is essential if we want to win the long game.

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The Islamic State Will Not Survive – Despite Its Big Gains

Warhammer - Mark of Chaos

I am firmly in the camp which believes that ISIS, now known as the Islamic State, has overplayed its hand. They’re smart, organized, well-led, and now resource rich but they are also betting everything on a strategy that creates more enemies than allies and which will eventually force many divergent world powers to collaboratively focus their military might at deconstructing whatever the Islamic State attempts to stand up.

Any radical jihadist caliphate, or any significant attempt at one, will soon be returned to its failed state roots. Military hardware, command and control facilities, military barracks, forces on the move, and any industrial capabilities are easy targets for first world armies. We still struggle with nation building but we can deconstruct a state with unparalleled efficiency. This leaves us with the assurance that any imperialistic jihadist caliphate will unquestionably be dismantled if not pounded into fine-grained dust. Unfortunately, that only solves a small part of a much larger problem.

The Islamic State will never be much of state in the traditional sense. You certainly won’t see them tearing up the bobsled track in the 2018 Winter Olympics or chairing a UN committee. Survival, not expansion, will become their primary goal soon enough. But the end result of all of this will almost certainly be intractable chaos – not game winning stabilization. And creating chaos plays to their broader movement’s long game. Deconstructing a state, no matter how fragile, is a massive win for the forces seeking to upend the current world order even if they ultimately lose the big gamble.

The unfortunate truth in all of this is that there is a large and diverse set of forces in the world seeking to subvert the current order. Some of them have clearly defined objectives while others do not. Few of them are in agreement but that’s beside the point. All of them, thanks to technological advances, are radically empowered. The problem is that if these forces continue to march forward with the cheap and easy strategy of destabilization while the rest of the world struggles with the massively expensive and frequently unsuccessful strategies of stabilization something will eventually have to give.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State might ultimately be a footnote in history. I certainly don’t think either one of them will live long in the big scheme of things. But that does not mean that they have not been successful. They have claimed territory, if not for their own cause, for the cause of chaos. In the short term we will defeat them but if we do not learn how to fight a thousand year war, and ultimately tame the chaos, it might not matter.

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