TIME foreign affairs

How Hope for a Kurdish State Vanished Overnight

IS-led militants driven from Mosul Dam
Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces take security precautions against possible ISIS-led attacks around the Mosul Dam on August 19, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Many thought it would be the future of Iraq. Then ISIS came along

Just one month ago, the Chief of Staff to Kurdish President Barzazi and the Kurdish Defense Minister travelled to Washington, D.C., and policy makers wondered if, finally, the time was ripe for an independent state. The Iraqi province of Kurdistan was held up as what Iraq could be: a secure area with a booming economy and a what was thought to be a well-trained army.

After the American-led no fly zone in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, the Kurds focused on internal economic growth by taking advantage of the vast supply of oil. The Kurdish Regional Government convinced oil companies like ExxonMobil, Total and Gazprom to defy the government in Baghdad and invest in the region by showing them how stable their investment would be–while the rest of Iraq became engulfed in the rising number of IEDs.

A model for regional stability, an independent Kurdistan was the future of Iraq, many (including Vice President Biden) thought.

Then ISIS came.

In June, ISIS took over the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit, and quickly focused their sights on the northeastern Kurdish region. While groups like the Afghan Taliban receive funding through the illicit trade of illegal drugs like heroin, ISIS is much more sophisticated, said Steve Levine, a New America Future Tense Fellow, at a recent panel discussion held at New America. They are doing something that no terrorist group has been able to do so far: gain control of standard resources like wheat fields, oil refineries and dams that power hydroelectric plants. They’re organized, they have a central command and control center, they’re logistically sophisticated and they have democratized violence using social media for their own purposes. All of these things have allowed ISIS to continue their advance and drive at the heart of the Kurdish independent region, that is, oil refineries in the north, and so the bubble has burst on dreams of an independent Kurdistan.

As recently as last week, the Kurdish city of Erbil was attacked in a strong offensive by ISIS, and American diplomats living in the city were in danger. Fearing another Benghazi disaster, which left four American diplomats dead, President Obama ordered the use of targeted airstrikes to slow the advance of ISIS. Bolstered by these airstrikes, the Peshmerga have pushed back ISIS in concentrated areas. But in vast areas without air support, the losses of the Peshmerga have continued. Without proper training and experience, the Peshmerga simply have not performed as expected, said Derek Harvey (Ret.), a Former Senior Analyst for Iraq for General David H. Petraeus. The losses currently being felt by the Peshmerga may be due to the fact that after the Iraqi government pulled out of several towns, and that the Kurds over-extended their territory, extending their borders by almost 40 percent overnight, said Denise Natali, a Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University.

At the same time that Kurds have been taking these significant territorial losses, the backbone of their economy — their oil industry — evaporated almost overnight. All of the major oil companies in the Kurdish region have left, and the economy has come to a virtual standstill, said Natali. More so, Kurdish tankers that are currently carrying oil have been operating in international legal limbo and sitting just off shore. Unable to dock and unload their cargo, a legal battle has began in American civil courts. To the delight of the government in Baghdad, the State Department has actively called countries and oil traders to discourage the oil from being purchased.

In fact, even if the oil industry was operating as usual, the idea of an economically vibrant Kurdish state was a myth. “The Kurdish economy has been propped up by the government in Baghdad, the United States, and even Iran,” said Natali. “Even if the oil industry is operating at full capacity, they would essentially be a client state of Turkey.”

The advance of ISIS has shown that Kurdistan cannot succeed without a strong Iraq, and vice versa. The U.S. airstrikes that have bolstered the Kurds have been closely coordinated with the government back in Baghdad, and the intelligence shared between the two armies has been essential. As for the Kurdish oil, it can only be exported if Baghdad drops its proprietary claims and allows it to be sold on the international market. Put simply: the fantasy of a Kurdish independent state has evaporated for the time being. But if the Kurds continue to work with the government in Baghdad, there’s a chance that they could prevent ISIS from spreading into Jordan or Lebanon and further destabilizing the region, and, if they’re lucky, they could start to rebuild the region — together.

Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at the New America Foundation. Emily Schneider is a research associate for the national security program at New America. This piece originally appeared on The Weekly Wonk.

TIME Media

Bloggers, Surveillance and Obama’s Orwellian State

President Obama Delivers Statement On Veterans Affairs Scandal
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) arrives to make a statement to the news media about the recent problems at the Veterans Affairs Department with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House May 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

Advancements in technology have fueled this White House's obsession with controlling the message.

Jay Carney is free. But not loose – at least so far. After resigning as the press secretary for President Obama on June 20, Carney gave insight into the Obama administration’s handling of classified documents, and responded to criticism that this administration has been the most Orwellian in recent history.

“I know — because I covered them — that this was said of Clinton and Bush, and it will probably be said of the next White House,” said Carney in a recent New York Times Magazine interview. “I think a little perspective is useful…It is a serious, serious matter to leak classified information. Some of the debate around this kind of forgets how serious that is.”

But, it could also be the changing nature of the relationship between the media and the White House. At a recent event at the New America Foundation, journalists and historians challenged Carney, arguing that this White House has been more secret than previous occupants.

“Increasingly, the Obama White House has become so brittle, and so controlling of the message, that people are afraid to respond to me,” said Kimberly Dozier, a former Associated Press reporter. She was one of the journalists whose phone records were obtained by the Department of Justice last spring during its investigation into a leak of classified information about a failed Al-Qaeda plot. The scope of that investigation, some critics said, was unprecedented overreach.

According to ProPublica, the Obama administration has filed eight cases under the Espionage Act, which criminalizes disclosing information harmful to national security. Before the Obama administration, only three known cases had ever been charged under the act.

But some say that the crackdown by the Obama administration is not due to an extraordinary effort, but rather due to advancements in surveillance.

“[Bush administration] lawyers told me that they wanted to prosecute as many leaks then, but technology had not moved on to the point where it is today, where it is so easy to track peoples’ electronic footprint,” said Dozier, who is now a contributing writer at The Daily Beast. “There are simply more tools for the Department of Justice now than they had back then.”

Thom Shanker, the Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times, noted that his employer has implemented rigorous standards to balance the security risks of reporting classified information with the public’s right to know.

“When we reported on WikiLeaks, we had conversations with all of the relevant agencies, and the takeaway is that the American public learned how it was operating,” said Shanker. “We asked then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who was a former C.I.A. director, what he thought about the WikiLeaks story, and he said, ‘As an intelligence professional, I am very upset whenever this happens, but I can tell you that I don’t see any specific damage to our national security programs because of the way the information was handled.’”

But as citizen journalism – people without an official press affiliation reporting on personal blogs – becomes more popular, the way the military and intelligence community is reported on could shift. Random bloggers need not follow the professional standards by which journalists abide.

Matthew Pinsker, a professor of history at Dickinson College, pointed out that this “new” form of journalism is a throwback to previous models that did not value objectivity and impartiality. In some ways, bloggers use the same practices of 19th Century pamphleteers, where anybody with a hand-crank could stand on a corner and shout to a group of people.

If these bloggers can’t hold themselves to the same standards of journalists in the 20th Century, “maybe the Obama administration is justified in pursuing leakers in a harsher way,” Pinsker said.

Regardless, as both the news industry and surveillance technology continue to evolve, the White House will have to work harder to determine which offenses merit harsher tactics – to balance national security interests with respect for the Fourth Estate.

“The government really needs to get its message out to the American people, and it knows that the best way to do that is by using the American news media,” said Shanker. “The relationship between the government and the media is like a marriage; it is a dysfunctional marriage to be sure, but we stay together for the kids.”

Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at the New America Foundation. Outside of New America, Justin is the Youth Ambassador to the United Nations for Voices of African Mothers, where he works to promote gender equality and educational opportunity in West Africa. This piece appeared originally at The Weekly Wonk.

TIME foreign affairs

Obama Doesn’t Need an Afghanistan-Taliban Peace Deal

Obama,Karzai And Zardari Brief Media After White House Meetings
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with the President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai and the President of Pakistan Asif Zardari in the Cabinet Room of the White House on May 6, 2009 in Washington, DC. The talks centered on how the unstable governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan can work with the United States to crack down on the Taliban insurgency. Pool—Getty Images

The U.S. may exit in 2016, but it will need to bring and keep Afghans at the table for a long time after that.

Growing up, Ronald Neumann went to a school with a gang problem. At least, that’s what many people thought. But by the time Neumann got to high school, most of the gangs had been cleaned up. The perception remained however, that his high school was plagued with unsavory characters. This served as an important lesson for the man who would later become the United States Ambassador to Afghanistan: reputation follows fact.

But Afghanistan is no high school. As the U.S. Ambassador from 2005-2007, Neumann was tasked with changing the narrative and reputation of the war. Before the reputation of Afghanistan could be fixed, however, he needed to find out what was happening on the ground. But finding the truth, in a country like Afghanistan, with competing and contradictory narratives, was a skill beyond even his skills and experience, which left the reputation building a task still undone.

Even now, the recent release of five Al Qaeda prisoners in exchange for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl shows how fungible facts can feel. As New America Fellow Anand Gopal recently wrote, “The categories we take as rigid and unchanging, such as ‘terrorist’, are in fact remarkably fluid in the context of Afghan politics.”

This lack of a coherent reputation confuses the discussions about U.S. strategic interests in Afghanistan. Should we be propping up the current Afghan government (which will change after the second round of elections on June 14), negotiating with the Taliban, or leaving the country outright? Whose reputations are we working to preserve?

“Afghanistan is enormously complex. Province to province, sometimes district to district, things are enormously difficult and different,” said Amb. Neumann at a New America event in June.

Chris Kolenda, a former Senior Advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Department of Defense, agreed that it is hard to boil things down to talking points that have a simple narrative or solution set. In a complex tribal environment that’s endured 35 years of war, it is difficult enough to string together a set of facts, let alone singular objectives or interests.

One fact, though, is that America has multiple objectives and interests in Afghanistan, and some of them conflict with each other, said Neumann. The U.S. has an interest in preventing the collapse of Pakistan, but equally must pressure Pakistan to get tougher with al-Qaeda. “Sometimes, the world is a contradictory place.”

With all of this complexity, all of these conflicting facts, narratives, and interests in Afghanistan, what should the U.S. do, especially after President Obama recently announced that he is planning to pull troops out of Afghanistan by 2016?

Clare Lockhart, President of the Institute for State Effectiveness, suggested that the Obama administration should emphasize a peace process, not a peace deal, between the Taliban and Afghan government. We can’t expect a “Hollywood style” scene with 20-men sitting around a table, striking a deal, she said.

But in this peace process, what role should the U.S. play?

Since the U.S. announced its plans to leave Afghanistan by 2016, we have nothing to offer – at least while acting alone, Amb. Neumann said.

Kolenda agreed, and noted that the U.S should work in concert with the international community to bring and keep Afghans at the table. “This is going to have to be a process, that is going to have to go on for a very, very long time.”

The burden doesn’t just fall on governments. Reputations are formed by what outsiders see and hear about a place. That leaves the media with a responsibility to accurately report what is happening in the country, the three emphasized.

For the first few years after the 2001 elections, most international stories focused on the success and turnaround of Afghanistan, Lockhart said. Reporters wrote favorably of new Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and largely ignored the problems that were plaguing the country.

Lockhart confronted editors and producers, pointing out that if they didn’t report on some of the challenges, the problems of Afghanistan would never be fixed. Editors took note, but the pendulum swung too far. Soon, stories about Afghanistan emphasized the ineffective government, weak security apparatus, and failure of international aid.

Again, Lockhart called out editors for bias. “Some of the editors have actually responded, ‘Ok, we agree,’” she said. Today, the pendulum’s swing is steadier, reflected in recent coverage of the first round of Presidential elections. During voting, the domestic and international media refused to cover and report on violence within the country. “There was actually a great deal of violence,” said Amb. Neumann. “In fact, journalists and editors were getting calls from the Taliban saying ‘wait a minute, we just blew something up, and you’re not reporting it.”

For Lockhart, Neumann and Kolenda, the hope is that if international press narrative more accurately represents Afghanistan’s progress, it can build confidence both domestically and amongst international actors.

Both candidates for President of Afghanistan have committed to signing a strategic partnership with the United States, the first step on the road to stability. It’s all part of a long process. Narratives reinforcing narratives, and, slowly, improving facts on the ground. Reputations may be set in high school – but college can be fertile ground for reinvention.

Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at the New America Foundation. Outside of New America, Justin is the Youth Ambassador to the United Nations for Voices of African Mothers, where he works to promote gender equality and educational opportunity in West Africa. He is also a political blogger for the Bangor Daily News. The piece originally appeared at The Weekly Wonk.

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