Cambanis vs. Cohen on Bloggingheads

Posted February 4th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

BhTV screen grab

My first foray onto Bloggingheads TV, with fellow TCF fellow Michael Cohen. Michael thinks COIN is “claptrap”; I think it was a decent idea taken too far. We’re both starting our discussion with a read of Fred Kaplan’s book The Insurgents, and our own long-standing argument about what went wrong in Iraq (and our mostly shared view of what went wrong in Afghanistan).

If you watch, you can hear in the background my kids apparently trying to tear down our house, directly upstairs from my head.

BONUS: CROWD-SOURCED TECH HELP? For some reason, I can’t figure out how to embed the video here. When I paste the embed code from BhTV in the post on WordPress, it just leaves the code as is. Any suggestions?

<embed type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” src=”” flashvars=”diavlogid=15077&file=” height=”288″ width=”380″ allowscriptaccess=”always” id=”bhtv15077″ name=”bhtv15077″></embed>

Kaplan and COIN: The Tweets

Posted January 30th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Fred Kaplan graciously took part in a Twitter conversation about his book, The Insurgents. He explained his concerns that the military remains confused about its mission, and expounded on his view that counterinsurgency doctrine is sometimes the right recipe and is not, as I suggested in a question, “snake oil,” or “the best way to fight a kind of war we should never fight.”

The tweets have been gathered here in what to the horror of those who care about grammar, is called a “storify,” v. trans. “to storify.”

How We Fight

Posted January 26th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Fred Kaplan’s Insurgents on David Petraeus

The American occupation of Iraq in its early years was a swamp of incompetence and self-delusion. The tales of hubris and reality-denial have already passed into folklore. Recent college graduates were tasked with rigging up a Western-style government. Some renegade military units blasted away at what they called “anti-Iraq Forces,” spurring an inchoate insurgency. Early on, Washington hailed the mess a glorious “mission accomplished.” Meanwhile, a “forgotten war” simmered to the east in Afghanistan. By the low standards of the time, common sense passed for great wisdom. Any American military officer willing to criticize his own tactics and question the viability of the mission brought a welcome breath of fresh air.

Most alarming was the atmosphere of intellectual dishonesty that swirled through the highest levels of America’s war on terror. The Pentagon banned American officers from using the word “insurgency” to describe the nationalist Iraqis who were killing them. The White House decided that if it refused to plan for an occupation, somehow the United States would slide off the hook for running Iraq. Ideas mattered, and many of the most egregious foul-ups of the era stemmed from abstract theories mindlessly applied to the real world.

There is no one better equipped to tell the story of those ideas — and their often hair-raising consequences — than Fred Kaplan, a rare combination of defense intellectual and pugnacious reporter. Kap­lan writes Slate’s War Stories column, a must-read in security circles. He brings genuine expertise to his fine storytelling, with a doctorate from M.I.T., a government career in defense policy in the 1970s and three decades as a journalist. Kaplan knows the military world inside and out; better still, he has historical perspective. With “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War,” he has written an authoritative, gripping and somewhat terrifying account of how the American military approached two major wars in the combustible Islamic world. He tells how it was grudgingly forced to adapt; how it then overreached; and how it now appears determined to discard as much as possible of what it learned and revert to its old ways.

Read the rest in The New York Times [subscription required].

NPR: Sadrists follow Hezbollah

Posted July 20th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Kelly McEvers has a story on NPR about Moqtada Sadr’s methods; he seems to be borrowing directly from Hezbollah’s playbook, and I discuss in an interview with Kelly all the potential for power and long-term pitfalls Hezbollah’s approach entails.

At a recent press conference, Iraq’s minister of planning, Ali Youssef al-Shukri, stepped to the podium, gave a brief and somber blessing, and announced the issue of the day: a new mechanism for quality control of imports to Iraq.

Shukri spoke softly and wore a pressed suit. The former academic has spent time in the United States, on a State Department program for international leaders. One could hardly guess that he belongs to the party of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric best known for fierce battles against U.S. troops during the war and violent threats against the American presence in Iraq that continue today.

Analysts say the planning minister is the new face of Sadr’s party, which now holds 40 out of 325 seats in Iraq’s Parliament. They say Sadr is following in the footsteps of other Islamist groups in the region — namely, Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Remaking a militant group’s image starts with recruiting middle-class technocrats into the party’s ranks, says Thanassis Cambanis, author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

With Hezbollah, “militants, fighters and ideologues who were leading the party would be happy to assign an obscure dentist or biochemical professor to an important portfolio in Parliament or in the government — if that person could do a better job,” he says. “This lack of ego was a big part of their success.”

It’s a success Cambanis says Sadr hopes to copy. If, say, Iraq’s Planning Ministry can show it’s combating corruption by controlling imports, then the people will continue voting for Sadr’s party.

Read the rest at NPR.

From the Archives

Posted December 31st, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing
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I was cleaning out my office ahead of the New Year, and I found the press badge that the US military issued me in Kuwait in 2003. Just a few weeks before the invasion of Iraq, the military press office (known during that phase of the war as the CFLCC PAO) accredited more than a thousand journalists. Lots were embedding for the invasion, but plenty more of us were operating on our own. We still needed badges to deal with the ubiquitous military.

The spokesman’s office organized sessions to plan how to bring unembedded journalists to the site of the WMD he expected to be discovered. In other ways, too, the flacks were planning ahead for a long slog in Iraq: my accreditation lasted more than a year, through May 2004.

The terminology, though, still makes me laugh — the unwitting sense of humor of the acronym-happy bureaucrats who brought us hits like the quickly discarded “Operation Iraqi Liberation.” America was suffering global recriminations for eschewing allies and multilateral institutions in its march to war. With no apparent trace of irony the military’s public affairs department borrowed the term being flung at the US government by angry critics, and applied it to the reporters who had chosen not to embed: we were “unilateral journalists.” To this day it’s my favorite title I’ve ever earned.

Long Form Best of 2010

Posted December 8th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing
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I’m quite honored to find my memoir of the Iraq invasion in At Length on the top 20 list for this year at They’ve chosen quite a line-up of pieces, including a bunch I have not yet read but have just put in my Instapaper.

Larry Kaplow on Iraq

Posted November 17th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

One of my favorite voices on Iraq is Larry Kaplow, the veteran reporter who to my knowledge spent more time in Baghdad than any other Western reporter. He has weighed in today with the kind of droll summation that is his trademark.

“It’s not over yet,” on Foreign Policy, describes the biggest fault lines splitting Iraq and threatening disaster as potently in the Mesopotamian war’s eighth year as it they did in its first. That’s right; Iraq’s quieter, but it’s still at war, as Larry reminds us in his “let’s cut the BS” fashion.

Larry is a tireless reporter and a good friend (we lived a few doors apart in the Hamra hotel for the couple of years I spent in Baghdad). At the height of the sectarian killing in Iraq, Larry liked to remind people that calling the conflict a civil war misleadingly implied that sectarian militias were fighting one another, when in fact, most of the violence entailed militias from one sect killing civilians from another.

Larry was well ensconced in Baghdad months before the American invasion began in March 2003, and he stayed, more or less without interruption, until the fall of 2009. He returned this summer and helped produce one of the most humane (and perversely enjoyable) accounts of what’s happened in Iraq for This American Life. The hour-long show is well worth streaming online or downloading to your iDevice.

On both Foreign Policy and This American Life, Larry is reminding us of the horrifying and still-uncalculated human toll of the Iraq war – and that despite the recent spells of quiet, he’s warning us that there’s still reason to fear.

Iraq’s Narrative

Posted September 4th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

What is the long arc of America’s involvement in Iraq?

For two very different approaches to this question, take a look at the a Defense Department official’s description of the blueprint for Iraq and Anthony Shadid’s wrenching story of one family’s encounter with Operation Iraqi Freedom. Each in their way is trying to make sense of the seven-year war, giving us a story line to make sense of what’s happened, where Iraq is going, and what it might mean.

On’s Middle East Channel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin H. Kahl outlines America’s goals in Iraq for 2011 and beyond. Most interesting are some of the details, like the mention that America’s civilian presence in the long-term will be concentrated in the Kurdish north, and the rhetorical shift from war and occupation to “strategic partnership” and a “train-and-equip” military mission. In Defense Department fashion, the most compelling illustration of the narrative arc comes in these Power Point slides, which show death tolls.

For a sense of what those deaths look and feel like, we can turn to Anthony, who deploys his formidable gifts to tell us the human narrative. He delivers the kind of sweeping, gripping tale that we’ve come to expect from him. In this case, he accompanies a family that is searching for one of its dead five years after his murder and disappearance.

The odyssey contains so much of what defines life in Iraq: fear, death, bureaucracy, sectarian resentment and underlying it all, a deep strain of bewilderment. In one scene, the Sunni family goes to a police station in a Shia area for a document they need in order to obtain a death certificate.

The family needed a letter from the police station, the first step in claiming Muhammad’s death certificate and finding out where he was buried. With Hamid beside her, the mother pleaded to let them inside. For five years they had looked for him, she said.

The policeman glared at her suspiciously. “If you’re lying, I’ll put you all in jail right now,” he shouted.

“My son is dead, and this is what you say to us?” the mother answered.

The policeman turned his head in disgust.

“Dog,” he muttered under his breath.

Slogans litter Baghdad. They are scrawled on the blast walls that partition this city of concrete. They proclaim unity from billboards over traffic snarled at impotent checkpoints. The more they are uttered, it seems, the less resonant they become.

“Respect and be respected,” read the one the family passed, entering the police station.

Read the rest in the Times.

The Decisive Ones

Posted July 6th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

At Length Magazine has just published a short memoir I wrote of the early days of the Iraq invasion. You can find it under prose on the homepage, or you can click here to link directly to the piece. Here’s how it opens:

“Fuck you fuck you fuck you. Fucking American army piece of shit,” Sa’ad al-Azawi chanted behind the wheel of his BMW. He couldn’t recognize his own city, he couldn’t navigate it. He just wanted to hop across the July 14 Bridge to the manicured center of the city’s power, Baghdad’s palm-lined answer to the Washington Mall, soon to be home to the occupation headquarters. A tank blocked an on-ramp. We had to circle west along the Tigris River and then back east again to get to the Rashid Hotel.

Baghdad’s map had become malleable, old routes across town melting away like mercury and reforming in odd places. Americans had closed some roads and bridges with checkpoints. They had cut others with bombs. Buildings were missing in action. Pits of rubble had replaced homes, like an entire block that included a Saddam safe house behind a Mansour restaurant. A bunker buster had buried a three-story house in a pit 20 feet deep.

Along the approach to Baghdad, every hundred yards or less, a killed car askew beside the road — either a rotting driver, shot to death, or a charred car frame from a direct hit on the car by some kind of bomb. (Rocket? RPG? Mortar? So early in the war, I certainly couldn’t tell.) Bullet casings at every intersection, detours around each part of the highway bombed into a moonscape. A bloated dead donkey blocked the bridge across the Tigris in downtown Baghdad. You could date the bodies in the cars and sometimes on the sidewalks by their shape and smell. Within days of death the skin turned black. As they decomposed they bloated to twice their normal size. And they smelled stronger than anything I’ve smelled before, like that rush up the back of your nose from your stomach just before you vomit, and then blooming into something worse.