Peter Van Buren

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Tuesday’s attacks at Istanbul’s main airport, which appear at this time to be the work of Islamic State, are the latest reminder that the United States should not downplay the group’s rudimentary –  yet effective –  tactics.

Since the wave of Islamic State suicide bombings in May – killing 522 people inside Baghdad, and 148 people inside Syria – American officials have downplayed the strategy as defensive. Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy in the fight against Islamic State, said the group "returned to suicide bombing" as the area under its control shrank. The American strategy of focusing primarily on the “big picture” recapture of territory seems to push the suicide bombings to the side.…  Seguir leyendo »

On May 27, Barack Obama will become the first sitting American president to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the site of the world's first atomic bombing. Though highly photogenic, the visit will otherwise be one that avoids acknowledging the true historical meaning of the place.

Like his official predecessors (Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Peace Memorial in early April, as did two American ambassadors before him), Obama will not address the key issues surrounding the attack. “He [Obama] will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb,” Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, stated well ahead of time.…  Seguir leyendo »

The recent death of a Marine in Iraq exposed the fact the United States set up a firebase there, which in turn exposed the fact the Pentagon misrepresented the number of American personnel in Iraq by as many as 2,000. It appears a second firebase exists, set up on the grounds of one of America’s largest installations in the last Iraq war. Special operations forces range across the landscape. The Pentagon is planning for even more troops. There can be no more wordplay: America now has boots on the ground in Iraq.

The regional picture is dismal. In Syria, militias backed by the Central Intelligence Agency are fighting those backed by the Pentagon.…  Seguir leyendo »

It’s time to renegotiate the contract that put the Middle East together.

The “contract” is the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The world that document created exists now only on yellowed maps, and the issues left unsettled — primarily the need for separate Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish territories — have come home begging. War is not fixing this; diplomacy might.

In November 2014, I wrote the only solution to Islamic State was to use American peacekeepers to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide inside Iraq.…  Seguir leyendo »

Why did Saudi Arabia execute Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr now?

The Saudis have had Nimr in custody since 2012, sentencing him to death in 2014. The cleric has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family for years, going as far as threatening Shi’ite secession in the minority’s eastern homeland in 2009.

Saturday’s execution of Nimr, alongside 46 others, mostly al Qaeda members, sparked a crisis with Iran. Protesters in Tehran set the Saudi embassy on fire, and the Iranian government threatened “divine revenge” against the kingdom. Riyadh severed diplomatic and commercial ties with Tehran, and Saudi allies Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates filed diplomatic protests.…  Seguir leyendo »

Pressure on the White House to escalate the Syria/Iraq war has no doubt intensified post-Paris. Should Islamic State strike an American civilian target, President Barack Obama would be all but forced to “do something more.” What might that “something” look like, and what would be the consequences?

For an Obama already wary of deeper involvement in Syria/Iraq, a ramping up of the air campaign may be enough to tamp down the current post-Paris pressure. France may also find the short and sharp set of revenge attacks already underway enough for the near term, as Jordan did at the beginning of this year, after the horrific burning alive of one its pilots by Islamic State.…  Seguir leyendo »

A rainbow is seen as residents inspect damage from what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on the main field hospital in the town of Douma, near Damascus, October 29, 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

The United States unveiled a new strategy last week in its war against Islamic State. For the first time, American military advisors will be on the ground in Syria, existing advisors in Iraq will be moved closer to the front lines, and American special forces will be sent into direct combat in both locations.

These new moves increase the likelihood that more Americans will die in the fight, much as the nation saw two weeks ago with the death of Delta Force operator Joshua Wheeler in Iraq (others have been wounded.) The changes will also increase the monetary cost of the war against Islamic State.…  Seguir leyendo »

People gather at the site of car bombs attack in Baghdad, May 2, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Is there hope for Iraq? It depends on what you are hoping for.

It is becoming clearer that there is little hope of destroying Islamic State in Iraq. Islamic State has no shortage of new recruits. Its fighters capture heavy weapons with such ease that the United States is forced to direct air strikes against equipment abandoned by the Iraqis — even as it ships in more. Islamic State holds territory that will allow it to trade land for time, morph into an insurgency and preserve its forces by pulling back into Syrian territory it controls even if Iraq’s government, with Iranian and American help, launches a major assault.…  Seguir leyendo »

Japan is weighing whether it needs to be a major military power in the Pacific again, 70 years after World War Two.

Since the end the war, Japan has interacted with its neighbors through the lens of a bilateral relationship with the United States. Japanese domestic politics either benefited from the arrangement (through a lucrative domestic arms industry that caters to the U.S. military) or were subservient to it (by providing military bases). However, a multi-polar East Asia and new homeland pressures are challenging how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe views his loyalty to the United States.

Behind the scenes of the April 28 Obama-Abe White House summit — which will include a state dinner and a congressional address by Abe — the leaders will wrestle with changes in what has been the strongest bilateral relationship in Asia.…  Seguir leyendo »

Iraqi children run in front of a temple in the historic city of Hatra, north of Baghdad, Dec. 6, 2002. Reports say Islamic State destroyed at least parts of the city, REUTERS

Iraqi officials are investigating reports that Islamic State militants destroyed Hatra, an archaeological site that dates to the 1st century B.C., only two days after the group bulldozed another site nearby, the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. There is information that an archaeological site near Khorsabad is the latest to be desecrated. There no doubt will be more.

Destruction of historical sites is indefensible. Like an extinct species, once they are gone, they are gone forever. The casual destruction of the world’s shared heritage is too often a byproduct of war, as well as a symbol of its senselessness. Unfortunately, Islamic State’s wanton destruction reminded me of another example that I witnessed in Iraq while embedded with the U.S.…  Seguir leyendo »

Shi’ite fighters fire a rocket during clashes with Islamic State militants in Salahuddin province March 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmed Al-Hussaini

Islamic State will lose the Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Mosul.

Victory won’t come quickly or easily for the combined forces of the Iraqi government, Shi’ite militias, Kurdish fighters and Sunnis who have learned to loath Islamic State. But sheer weight of numbers, as well as Iranian and American military assistance, should do the trick.

Unfortunately, none of the parties involved in the fighting like each other very much. In Mosul in particular, beating Islamic State looks likely to set the situation back to April 2003, when an entire Iraqi army corps surrendered the city to a small American force. Fighting officially came to an end, but chaos ensued as the Kurds and Sunnis battled one another alongside Sunni and Shi’ite clashes.…  Seguir leyendo »

Iraqi security forces march on the outskirts of Najaf, south of Baghdad Nov. 19, 2014. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

If the United States was looking for the surest way to lose Iraq War 3.0, it might start by retraining the failed Iraqi Army to send north — alongside ruthless Shi’ite militias — into Sunni-majority territory and hope that the Sunnis will welcome them with open arms, throwing out the evil Islamic State.

Maybe it’s time for a better plan.

And the way to find one is by understanding how we lost Iraq War 2.0. We need a plan to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide, or the current war will fail as surely as the previous one.…  Seguir leyendo »

On Saturday, control of the United States mission in Iraq will formally pass from the military to the State Department. But after eight years of war, Iraq is still plagued by corruption, sectarianism and violence. And after a year spent in the desert outside Baghdad as the leader of two State Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams, I don’t have much faith that the department can turn things around. We closed down our operations last September as part of normalizing relations, and I am still haunted by the Iraqis we left behind. No matter the strategic value of the war, our legacy will be written in those human lives.…  Seguir leyendo »