It was December of 2003, and I was in Tal Afar, Iraq with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division. The Brigade was based at an old Iraqi air force base just outside of the town. I had spent the last week in Rabihya, a small town on the border with Syria. When I say “on the border with Syria,” I mean it literally. The wall along the western side of the Army compound where I stayed was the actual border between Iraq and Syria. You could step up on a pile of sandbags just inside the wall of the compound and see into Syria, where a huge billboard-size photo of the recently deceased Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad stared back at you. While I was there, they succeeded in erecting a matching billboard depicting the new strongman, Bashar al-Assad, next to the one of his father.
This article first appeared in Salon.
It was a noisy, dusty, primitive place. The Army’s compound was only a few yards from the border crossing, where all day and night, trucks, buses, taxis and private vehicles passed between the two countries. One night, I stood for several hours across the road from the makeshift “customs” shack and watched maybe a hundred tractor-trailer car carriers loaded with stolen cars pass through the border on their way to a roadside black market that had sprung up in Baghdad. They were waved through one after another, stopping only to wave their phony papers and pay off the border guards.
But the big action was along the border to the north and south of our outpost in Rabihya. Every night, weapons destined for the insurgency in Iraq were smuggled from Syria across the berm of earth that stood as the only barrier between the two countries. Money was smuggled in the other direction. The upper-class Sunni gentry of Saddam’s Baath Party was eager to get its cash out of the country before the Shiite majority took charge in Iraq, so garbage bags filled with cash were smuggled every night, strapped to backs of donkeys in long convoys.
The American soldiers stationed at the outpost in Rabihya didn’t know it, but what was happening all around them was the beginning of the Iraqi insurgency that the American military would fight for the better part of the next decade, before the United States pulled its combat troops out of the country in 2011.
There was very little the company of 101st Airborne soldiers could do to stop the smuggling. Every night when I was there, we went out in Humvees and patrolled the border, peering into the darkness with night vision binoculars. Occasionally the soldiers would spot a small pickup truck or car filled with weapons making the dash across the border and give chase. The smugglers were usually able to avoid capture by quickly disappearing into the narrow alleys of nearby villages, where the Humvees were too wide to follow them. One night, they were able to chase a smuggler’s pickup down dirt roads and across fields until he drove into a small lake of oil that had seeped up through cracks in the earth and formed a thick sludge on the surface. They stopped at the edge of the lake of oil and watched the smuggler’s pickup sink slowly into the sludge with its stockpile of smuggled weapons. The driver had leapt from the truck, waded out of the sludge and disappeared into the darkness.
That’s what was going on along the border. The insurgency that would eventually drive the U.S. out of Iraq and morph into ISIS and ravage northern Iraq and Syria was arming itself and amassing funds across the border where the American military couldn’t touch them.
One night, I caught a ride on a Blackhawk helicopter back to the 3rd Brigade base camp in Tal Afar. The next morning, I made it over to the huge brigade mess hall at first light, so I could eat the first fresh food I’d had in a week.
I filled a tray with scrambled eggs and bacon and toast and a couple of containers of yogurt and sat down at a table where I was soon joined by three or four 101st troopers who had just come off a six-week operation in Sinjar, a town largely populated by the Yazidi non-Muslim minority to the south of us. Insurgents had moved into the town and were attempting to take control.
On the wall of the mess hall across the table from us was a 40-inch flat-screen TV. Usually the TVs in the Army’s mess hall were turned to one of the sports networks like ESPN Classic. For some reason that morning, the one we were watching was showing C-Span broadcasting from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, where a roomful of suit-and-tie wearing D.C. swells had gathered to hear a talk by Douglas Feith, the deputy secretary of defense for policy.
Feith was one of the triumvirate of defense intellectuals who had already become known as the “architects of the Iraq war.” The other two were Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The U.S. invaded Iraq in March and took Baghdad in three weeks. Eight months later, the “architects” of the war were riding high. At the same moment we were sitting there in Tal Afar having breakfast, Feith was standing in front of this roomful of lobbyists, congressional staffers and defense industry hacks holding forth on the subject of “Transforming the U.S. Global Defense Posture.” Feith was rambling on, spewing macho military strategy-speak about “updating the types, locations, numbers and capabilities of our military forces and the nature of our alliances.” We had to get away from our “Cold War posture,” Feith was saying, when “U.S. forces deployed forward were defensive, tripwire units that were expected to fight near where they were based. The kind of forces used for that mission are not the agile, fast, lean forces we need for the future.”
The sergeant sitting next to me was covered in dried mud and dust. He had gone six weeks in Sinjar without a bath or hot food. Breakfast that morning was his first taste of civilization, and there was Feith on the TV telling him: “We no longer expect our forces to fight in place; rather, their purpose is to project power into theaters that may be distant from where they are based.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” the sergeant yelled at the man on the screen. Shaking his head in amazement, he asked me, “Sir, you got any idea who that asshole is?”
I told him he was Douglas Feith, one of the “architects” of the war who had sent him and the other soldiers over there to Iraq.
“Stupid motherfucker doesn’t know what the fuck he doesn’t know,” the sergeant said between bites.
“Realigning the U.S. posture will also help strengthen our alliances by tailoring the physical U.S. ‘footprint’ to suit local conditions. The goal is to reduce friction with host nations,” Feith intoned.
“Reduce friction my ass,” said one of the other soldiers at the table. “We been out there killing the motherfuckers!” He picked up a piece of toast covered with butter and jelly and threw it at the screen. “Shut the fuck up, you douchebag!” yelled another soldier. Soon the whole table was throwing eggs and toast and open containers of yogurt at the screen.
Feith was still talking: “We intend to increase combined training for expeditionary operations, for example, to encourage Allied participation in so-called ‘high-end’ U.S. exercises. For this deployability concept to work, U.S. forces must be able to move smoothly into, through, and out of host nations.”
“We been here for 10 fuckin’ months, you idiot,” one of the soldiers yelled. “Tell me about into and out of this fuckin’ host nation! They’ll be sending our sorry asses back! You can count on it.”
By now, the television screen was covered in bits of egg and buttered toast and jelly. Feith finally reached his grand finish: “Whatever improvements in military effectiveness the actual posture decisions produce, they will serve our interests fully only if they also help sustain and strengthen our ties with our friends, allies and partners around the world. We are confident that they will.”
Sinjar, the town where the soldiers had been fighting for six weeks, would fall to ISIS control 10 years later. More than 5,000 Yazidi civilians were killed in the ISIS attack and hundreds of Yazidi women were taken as slaves. Tal Afar would be in and out of U.S. control over the next 10 years, until it too was taken by ISIS fighters. Same with Rabihya. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians would lose their lives. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers would be killed. So much for “posture decisions” and “military effectiveness.”
But that didn’t stop think tanks in Washington like the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute and the American Enterprise Institute from lobbying for higher and higher defense budgets. (Douglas Feith is now “director for national security strategies” for the Hudson Institute.) This year, President Trump signed the largest defense budget in our history: $700 billion. The budget includes $13.7 billion for 90 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, which according to CNN are “in service and mission capable only 26 percent of the time.” Not a single F-35 jet has yet to see combat duty.
The budget will provide $4.5 billion for the construction of a new Ford class aircraft carrier, $450 million for three Littoral Combat Ships, $4 billion for two new guided missile destroyers, $5.5 billion for two new Virginia Class submarines, and tens of billions more for upgrades and repairs on various aircraft and naval vessels. Two of the guided missile destroyers already in service were involved in deadly collisions with cargo ships in the western Pacific last year. A Navy investigation revealed that for all of the hundreds of billions spent on defense, there was apparently not enough in the budget to provide for adequate training in standing watch and driving Navy combat ships.
All of billions spent on defense, and still the United States Army couldn’t interdict smuggling along the Iraq-Syria border. They couldn’t hold onto Sinjar, Tal Afar, Mosul or Rabihya.
You want to know what those soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division were using for weapons when I was there? The M-16 rifle. The 7.62 mm machine gun. The 81 mm mortar. The 105 mm Howitzer. All weapons the U.S. Army had fought with in Vietnam, 35 years earlier. You want to know what they’re still fighting with overseas? Those same old weapons.
You want to know what wasn’t being used over there near the Iraq-Syria border? Any of the fancy Navy ships or F-22 or F-35 fighters.
We’ve still got exhausted, dusty, hungry sergeants and corporals and privates over there in Iraq. If they’ve got C-Span on the TVs in the mess halls, they’re still listening to defense intellectuals like Douglas Feith giving speeches at those think tanks in Washington, which are still holding symposiums. They’re still talking about our “strategic footprint,” and “pursuing peace through strength” and “offshore balancing” and how “the strength of the unilateral pre-eminence vision is that it appears to provide an opportunity to reassert U.S. leadership and stave off risks for U.S. security in a rebalancing world.” This from Gordon Adams, a “distinguished fellow” at the Stimson Center in Washington, who wrote something called “U.S. Global Engagement and the Military” for the Foreign Policy Association.
Not billions, not tens of billions, not hundreds of billions. Trillions of dollars spent.
Fifteen years in Iraq. Seventeen years in Afghanistan. There is no end in sight.