We’ve had wall-to-wall ebola coverage this week. One of the most vicious diseases known to mankind, here in America for the first time -- it makes sense to tell that story. Scary and deadly as the virus is though, there clearly won’t be an ebola epidemic in the U.S., let alone an epidemic on the scale of West Africa’s. Before ebola arrived in Texas, that actual epidemic received comparably little coverage. Headlines with ‘disease’ and ‘Africa’ tend to fall on deaf ears after all.
Well, that same deafness tends to follow headlines of ‘conflict’ and ‘Middle East’ as well. Regardless, it’s been a big week for America’s affairs in the Middle East and you should pay attention to that right now, not a non-existent ebola epidemic in America. So, to make that case, I decided to offer a short news rundown in the form of five stories and one reflection.
- ISIS's Progress Has Been Halted in Iraq and Syria According to Vox, there are three reasons the terrorist group has stopped gaining ground and may begin to start losing ground:
- American airstrikes have held them to their existing territory.
- Their surprise tactics stop working after a while. Months into relying on the "unpreparedness of its enemies," ISIS has finally found these enemies preparing themselves.
- If you're running a 'state,' you can't rely on guerrilla tactics. By proclaiming (and now having to run) a caliphate, ISIS fighters have had to remain visible when they would otherwise act like an insurgency.
- We Just Left the Deadliest Province in Afghanistan In a major step for the 2014 drawdown, U.S. and British forces handed over the massive joint complex of Camps Leatherneck and Bastion to the Afghan National Army. The bases were at the core of ISAF operations in Helmand Province and the withdrawal marks the end of operations in the deadliest part of the country.
- As an interactive map on iCasualties.org shows, southwestern Helmand Province is the site of about a third of all coalition deaths in the War in Afghanistan. Include neighboring Kandahar in that tally and the area accounts for one half of all coalition deaths in Afghanistan.
- There's a photo series on Business Insider of the withdrawal from the base that at one point housed as many as 28,000 personnel.
- An American Humvee was the Vehicle of ISIS's First Carbombing. As Max Fisher writes:
- "The vehicle that was supposed to signal "help is here" (not that it ever quite achieved that) is becoming just another possible explosive. Iraqi civilians now have the pleasure of seeing Humvees as simultaneously representing both of the two major horrors they have faced in the past decade: foreign occupation and sectarian bombing
- "The absurdity runs deep: America is using American military equipment to bomb other pieces of American military equipment in Iraq, so that ISIS does not use that American military equipment to bomb Iraqis."
- Iran is Forcing Shia Afghans to Fight for Assad in Syria Writing on the excellent Medium-hosted site War is Boring, reporter Jassem Al Salami explains the growing solution Syria has turned to in their need for fighters: Shia Afghans seeking refuge in Iran.
- This story illustrates the complex marbling of Shia and Sunni conflict across the Middle East: In Afghanistan, the Taliban (which is Sunni) threatens Shia Afghans, who then emigrate to Iran (which is Shia), which forces these undocumented immigrants to fight in Syria for Assad (who is also Shia) against rebel forces and ISIS (which is Sunni), whose success in invading Sunni territories Iraq have been linked to the deeply sectarian governance of Nouri al-Maliki (who is Shia).
- Kurdish Iraqis Pass through Enemy Turkey to Join Fighting in Syrian Border Town Yesterday, a small force of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters with heavy weaponry passed uninhibited through the territory of longtime enemy Turkey. They joined other Kurds fighting ISIS in the small town of Kobani.
- The event is one of symbolism. First, symbolism in Turkey’s recognition that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Second, symbolism in victory for the remote border town of Kobani. A story on the event in The Guardian quotes Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma as saying “Kobani turned into an opportunity, it became symbolic for the US to have a win, or at least defend people who were begging us to defend them. Strategically its not important, but it has tremendous symbolic value.” Another Guardian headline three days earlier called Kobani a "strategically vital border post.” Concerns raised in Time Magazine noted that this focus on defending the largely Kurdish town of 200,000 could give ISIS “free reign elsewhere” and amount to “winning the battle while losing the war."
- The Kurds make for appealing figures for an American audience. A secular fighting force of women alongside men, Kurdish Peshmerga are a stark contrast to ISIS. And where ISIS is a clear enemy, the Kurds seem to offer the rare clarity of a protagonist in the Middle East. Other murkier options include Syrian rebel groups and an Iraqi Army that, being a de-facto Shia force, has gotten help from once-enemy Iran.
- The indispensable Dexter Filkins gave voice to the appeal of the Kurds at this month's New Yorker Festival. First calling the Middle East a “black hole” that’s “unravelling in a way that’s unprecedented,” he found hope in Kurdish Iraq. Even before ISIS, he says, “Baghdad was a sad and depressing place. And then I made the hour-and-a-half flight to Erbil, which is the capital of Kurdistan, and it’s amazing. There’s a Jaguar dealership. There’s a sushi restaurant — open air. From one end of the horizon to the other, there are construction cranes and high-rises. It’s democratic (relatively democratic). It’s secular. The economy is booming (until recently). It’s pro-Western. It’s pro-American. And it’s totally weird because you can be sitting in that sushi restaurant and twenty miles down the road is the front line with ISIS. Is chaos. So they are literally an island in the middle of this sea of anarchy."
- We Left Iraq Three Years Ago -- Now, We're Wading Back In Just as We Leave Afghanistan Study it or not, we seem doomed to repeat history. With Iraq's deterioration following sectarian regionalism and poor leadership, the U.S. has been drawn back into a conflict it left three years ago. Now, on the eve of departing Afghanistan, we’re faced with painfully similar symptoms in that conflict.
- This week, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, former Ambassador Peter Tomsen offers his view on what to do about the fight once considered the 'Good War.'
- I'm left to reflect on personal experience. When I was a freshman in college, my dad was deployed in Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that now serves as ISIS's key stronghold in the country. Two years ago, he had a tour in Afghanistan with time spent in the Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and FOB Shank just south of Kabul. As you'd expect, he came back with a complicated picture of the conflict, but a clear sense that Afghans were preparing for an internal fight to erupt as soon as the last C-130s went wheels-up. Until then, they needed only to hold onto what weapons they could. It’s painful to consider the sacrifices in Mosul to have been for naught.
Also, if it wasn’t clear from the first and third stories, Vox has excellent coverage of the Middle East. I highly recommend following Max Fisher on Twitter - he’s the author of that third story and Content Director for the new explanatory journalism outfit started by Ezra Klein. That first story was the site's Most Read on Wednesday, so there is hope on the internet, if not on cable news.