There was never a truce in Nigeria, just so we’re clear

On Friday, the world media foolishly decided yet again to take the Nigerian military at its word when they announced a truce with Boko Haram and a deal to release the kidnapped girls from Chibok. I explained, with a laundry list of evidence, why there was no reason to trust that this huge claim was true, especially with zero confirmation or comment from Boko Haram.

It only took a day for “we have a deal” to become they have “agreed in principle” to a deal, with negotiations to follow. And then came the explaining away of ongoing violence after a purported ceasefire.

A senior public affairs aide to the president, Doyin Okupe, told VOA that Boko Haram leadership is on board with the truce and that the violence was perpetrated by “fringe groups” of fighters who likely had not gotten word of the agreement.

 
Over the weekend, the violence continued to mount, undercutting any case that a ceasefire actually existed.

Suspected militant Islamists have shot and slaughtered people in three villages in north-east Nigeria, despite government claims that it had agreed a truce with them, residents say.

Boko Haram fighters raided two villages on Saturday, and raised their flag in a third, residents said.

The government said it would continue negotiating with Boko Haram, despite the alleged breach of the truce.

It hopes the group will this week free more than 200 girls it seized in April.

Boko Haram has not commented on the announcement made on Friday that a truce had been agreed, and that the militants would release the schoolgirls abducted from the remote north-eastern town of Chibok.

 
The government tried to point to the recent release of dozens of Cameroonian and Chinese prisoners as evidence that the purported negotiations were making progress, while skipping over the fact that they were released days before any such deal had been announced and were probably unrelated.

Moreover, the Nigerian government claims to be negotiating in nearby Chad with a man named Danladi Ahmadu, which has immediately raised all kinds of red flags… Read more

US and Turkey part ways on Syrian Kurds

US cargo planes yesterday began ferrying supplies and ammunition from the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government to Syrian Kurdish fighters in the besieged town of Kobani, despite protests from Turkey’s president.

Earlier Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would not arm the Kurdish fighters, calling them “equal” to the Kurdistan Workers Party that both Turkey and the U.S. consider a terrorist group.

Erdogan said “it would be very, very wrong to expect” the Turkish government “to openly say ‘yes’ to our NATO ally America giving this kind of support. To expect something like this from us is impossible.”

 
This echoes the strident remarks made last weekend by Erdogan’s former deputy prime minister and the current number two in the president’s ruling AK Party, in which he asserted that the battle at Kobani was essentially just terrorists fighting terrorists. It also follows last week’s resumption of Turkish airstrikes against the PKK Kurdish fighters in Turkey after two years of peace.

That, combined with the embarrassing reversal on Turkish airbase use for the Syrian campaign a week ago, appears to have served as a breaking point for the United States on trying to placate Turkey on American policy on Syria’s Kurds, because there was another big shift in addition to the supply drops:

[Erdogan] made the comment days after the United States said it held its first direct talks with the Syrian Kurdish political party the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which is tied to the Kurdish fighters in Kobani.

 
The Democratic Union Party (PYD) was formed in 2003 by the Syrian Kurdish backers of the PKK in Turkey, about five years after Syria’s Hafez al-Assad regime switched from supporting the the PKK to supporting the Turkish government and ejected the PKK from Syrian territory. During the current civil war, the PYD emerged as the central government structure of the increasingly independent Syrian Kurdistan in the country’s north, an area called “Rojava” or “Western Kurdistan” (eastern Kurdistan being the Iraqi and Iranian areas of Kurdish populations).

Because of their affiliation with the PKK against Turkey, the United States and the rival Kurdish political parties in Iraq had kept their distance from the PYD and their fighters (known as the YPG), but the threat of ISIS increasingly forced everyone toward a fork in the road on whether to embrace them or leave them behind. Turkey’s government appears to have taken the latter path, while the United States is choosing the former. (The Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government is still more on the fence. Despite yesterday’s aid to Kobani, they have complained as recently as last week that they don’t want to help the PYD because they might be allied with Bashar al-Assad, a dubious albeit vaguely plausible allegation that periodically circulates.)

Given the YPG’s vital help earlier this summer in relieving the ISIS siege of the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in Iraq, helping the Kurdish fighters at Kobani is only fair. Moreover, the Kurdish paramilitaries in Syria remain one of the most reliably US-friendly militant groups in the country’s civil war, and the United States can ill afford to abandon any friends there now.

With the United States now directly talking to Kurdish leaders in Kobani in real time, coalition efforts to lift the siege at Kobani should make much more progress. As I noted previously, it seemed that Turkey’s obstruction and opposition to anyone coordinating with YPG fighters directly was a major impediment to military support at Kobani:

Not only has Turkey still not let coalition planes use airbases close to Kobani — which would make it much easier to reach to offer air support — but Turkey appears to be discouraging the US from talking to Syrian Kurd commanders on the ground to gain real-time intelligence. This may be why coalition airstrikes have been so limited and ineffective at Kobani: there are no spotters on the ground to report rapidly shifting targets for American planes. In contrast, the airstrikes have been much more effective in breaking Iraqi sieges at Sinjar and Amirli in part because the US has a much stronger and pre-existing, working relationship with the anti-ISIS commanders on the ground, particularly within Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government’s paramilitaries.

The US, of course, is also more focused on broader strategic targets that will break ISIS overall, not just at Kobani [...] But relief airstrikes have occurred in Iraq at several key points, which implies that if the United States had more ability to break the siege at Kobani, they would do so. A lot of that impediment seems to hinge on Turkey’s vacillation regarding how to handle the situation at Kobani (and its unwillingness to work with the Syrian Kurdish fighters or let the US work with them).

 
Already we have seen US airstrikes on ISIS at Kobani hit with more frequency and more accuracy in the past several days as YPG commanders provide targeting coordinates to American bombers.

We may well be witnessing the emergence of another far-reaching Middle Eastern alliance between the United States and a minority quasi-government with a large paramilitary.

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Mexico’s war: Still a bigger threat to the US than Syria’s

There are heavily armed militant groups with substantial military experience terrorizing, extorting, and beheading people in a major oil-producing desert country to the south of a NATO member, who have had a destabilizing effect across borders in a wide region encompassing many countries. They lack popular support and rule their territory primarily by fear. They are the Mexican cartels, and we haven’t bombed them at all (unlike ISIS), even as they have captured and held territory for years on end.

That parallel occurred to me a number of weeks ago, when I was reading up on the development of Los Zetas, the cartel that emerged from the Mexican military itself, but I didn’t have enough hard numbers to back up the argument. Then I read this article by Musa al-Gharbi.

The overall numbers are astonishing:

A recent United Nations report estimated nearly 9,000 civilians have been killed and 17,386 wounded in Iraq in 2014, more than half since ISIL fighters seized large parts on northern Iraq in June. It is likely that the group is responsible another several thousand deaths in Syria. To be sure, these numbers are staggering. But in 2013 drug cartels murdered more than 16,000 people in Mexico alone, and another 60,000 from 2006 to 2012 — a rate of more than one killing every half hour for the last seven years. What is worse, these are estimates from the Mexican government, which is known to deflate the actual death toll by about 50 percent.

 
ISIS is held up, as well, for its barbarity. But the cartels in Mexico have them beat there too:

Statistics alone does not convey the depravity and threat of the cartels. They carry out hundreds of beheadings every year. Beyond decapitation, the cartels are known to dismember and otherwise mutilate the corpses of their victims — displaying piles of bodies prominently in towns to terrorize the public into compliance. They routinely target women and children to further intimidate communities. Like ISIL, the cartels also use social media to post graphic images of their atrocious crimes.

The narcos also recruit child soldiers, molding boys as young as 11 into assassins or sending them on suicide missions during armed confrontations with Mexico’s army. They kidnap tens of thousands of children every year to use as drug mules or prostitutes or to simply kill and harvest their organs for sale on the black market. Those who dare to call for reforms often end up dead. In September, with the apparent assistance of local police, cartels kidnapped and massacred 43 students at a teaching college near the Mexican town of Iguala in response to student protests, leaving their bodies in a mass grave, mutilated and burned almost beyond recognition.

 
There has been a far more systematic campaign against reporters and citizen journalists in Mexico than anything we’ve seen from ISIS.

While the Islamic militants have killed a handful of journalists, the cartels murdered as many as 57 since 2006 for reporting on cartel crimes or exposing government complicity with the criminals. Much of Mexico’s media has been effectively silenced by intimidation or bribes. These censorship activities extend beyond professional media, with narcos tracking down and murdering ordinary citizens who criticize them on the Internet, leaving their naked and disemboweled corpses hanging in public squares.

 
The treatment of women is at least as bad under the Mexican cartels as under ISIS but on a much vaster scale:

[...] Westerners across various political spectrums were outraged when ISIL seized 1,500 Yazidi women, committing sexual violence against the captives and using them as slaves. Here again, the cartels’ capture and trafficking of women dwarfs that of ISIL’s crimes. Narcos hold tens of thousands of Mexican citizens as slaves for their various enterprises and systematically use rape as a weapon of war.

 
U.S. airstrikes this summer in Iraq began when ISIS forces came within a few dozen miles of the U.S. consulate in Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, while U.S. airstrikes in Syria came after two beheadings in Raqqa, Syria. How does that stack up with Mexico?

U.S. media have especially hyped ISIL’s violence against Americans. This summer ISIL beheaded two Americans and has warned about executing a third; additionally, one U.S. Marine has died in efforts to combat the group. By contrast, the cartels killed 293 Americans in Mexico from 2007 to 2010 and have repeatedly attacked U.S. consulates in Mexico. While ISIL’s beheadings are no doubt outrageous, the cartels tortured, dismembered and then cooked one of the Americans they captured — possibly eating him or feeding him to dogs.

 
ISIS has not staged any attacks in the United States, or killed large numbers of U.S. citizens anywhere for that matter. In contrast, the Mexican cartels have not only staged attacks and assassinations inside the United States but have killed more U.S. citizens inside the United States itself than were killed by al-Qaeda on 9/11.

The cartels’ atrocities are not restricted to the Mexican side of the border. From 2006 to 2010 as many as 5,700 Americans were killed in the U.S. by cartel-fueled drug violence. By contrast, 2,937 people were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Over the last decade, some 2,349 Americans were killed in Afghanistan, and 4,487 Americans died in Iraq. In four years the cartels have managed to cause the deaths of more Americans than during 9/11 or either of those wars.

 
Cult-like pseudo-military organizations controlling large swathes of territory and local government administrations in one of the world’s largest oil producers, while threatening and attacking American citizens and interests regularly, but the United States doesn’t intervene militarily? How bizarre.
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ISIS and the irreversible rise of Kurdish female fighters

Global coverage of the Kurdish struggles with ISIS in northern Syria and northern Iraq has included a pretty strong focus on the role of women in the Kurdish paramilitaries. Several weeks ago, Marie Claire of all places published a lengthy freelance piece featuring photos and interviews with Kurdish women fighting ISIS.

(Slightly outside the topic of Kurdish fighters, we also saw the viral rise of a photo by Zmnako Ismael of Runak Bapir Gherib, a 14-year-old Yazidi girl determinedly packing a Kalashnikov gun half her height to protect her fleeing family from ISIS, despite a look of pure exhaustion. It’s one of the most powerful photos of survival that I’ve ever seen)

Some of the coverage of the Kurdish women in combat has perhaps been a bit skewed toward the overly dramatized wondrous-curiosity angle of “Hey look at this unusual thing and how unusual it is” or toward the morbid.

Granted, ISIS hasn’t exactly been doing itself favors with either the ladies or media coverage, by issuing proclamations like this:

“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” read an article in Dabiq magazine, attributed to ISIL spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani and addressing those who do not subscribe to the group’s interpretation of Islam.

“The enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers,” another Dabiq article read. “The Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Shariah [Islamic law] amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations.”

 

This past week, however, the Wall Street Journal tried to put the stories more in context with a long profile of who some of the women are, why they volunteered, what they’ve experienced, what role this fits into in existing Kurdish society, and what impact it will have on future Kurdish society. The current conflict is one of the most high-intensity wars to involve the Kurds since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire began about a hundred years ago, and it will likely be a defining moment for generations to come. One way it could define the culture might be in gender roles.

Here are just a few of the highlights from the piece:

“When I walk with my gun, the men who haven’t volunteered keep their eyes down around me,” said Dilar, who didn’t want to give her family name. “My bravery shames them.”
[...]
Women in battle shock many in traditional corners of the Middle East, but among Kurds the female warriors have drawn acclaim in poems and on Facebook.

Kurdish society is hardly a bastion of feminism, but across the wider region, Kurds—who are ethnically and linguistically distinct from Arabs or Turks—are relatively progressive. That is partly a reflection of the leftist and Marxist political ideology that has influenced the Kurds’ decades long struggle for independence in Turkey and Iraq.

Many Kurdish women’s rights activists have criticized Mr. Ocalan and other Kurdish leaders as only paying lip service to their cause, pointing to the male-dominated military and political hierarchies of Kurdish society that in practice keep women shut out from leadership positions. Now, the prowess of Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish women fighters is straining, if not breaking, that glass ceiling.
[...]
If she survives the battle for Kobani, Ms. [Afsin] Kobane [a 28-year-old commander and former kindergarten teacher] said she knows her battlefield experience will alter her life forever. “After this, I can’t imagine leading a life of a traditional Kurdish woman, caring for a husband and children at home,” she said. “I used to want that before this war.”

 
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CIA’s own studies: arming rebels almost categorically fails

Props to the CIA for honestly checking itself:

The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.

 
Almost the only “success” in arming rebels (as opposed to governments) was Afghanistan in the 1980s, according to their own internal review, and we all know what happened as a direct result of that.

Too bad President Obama, who seemed swayed by the study for some time, reversed course in September of this year and ordered an incomprehensible and ineffective program to arm and train Syrian rebels extremely slowly, narrowly, and pointlessly.

As I asked then:

Why do we have to provide military training and weapons to uncontrollable non-state actors in an already brutal civil war? Is it worth going through this effort and incurring this risk to help a declining rebellion that might even be over by the time these fighters arrive? Are we potentially making the situation for civilians in Syria worse by introducing a new source of destruction and death, rather than letting this war come to a finite end?

 

"First Sting" by Stuart Brown, CIA Museum, an artist's depiction of Afghan mujahideen rebels shooting down a Soviet aircraft with CIA-supplied Stinger missiles.

“First Sting” by Stuart Brown, CIA Museum, an artist’s depiction of Afghan mujahideen rebels shooting down a Soviet aircraft with CIA-supplied Stinger missiles.

The Farce that is Nigeria’s Armed Forces

Today the global media was aflutter with an announcement by senior Nigerian military officials that a deal had been reached with Boko Haram to have a ceasefire and get back the kidnapped northern girls. Boko Haram did not confirm or deny…or say anything…according to every single news report around the world that I heard or read.

I flat-out do not believe any such deal has been reached. Not even a little bit. The only thing that will convince me otherwise is when those girls are actually back home with their families and the world media can verify that fact.

Why don’t I take it seriously? In addition to the lack of any confirmation from the deciding player in the situation (Boko Haram), this year has been marked by one long series of increasingly vast fabrications and demonstrations of incompetence by Nigeria’s military and security forces.

Below are just a few of the completely absurd things that either actually happened in Nigeria or have been made up entirely by the military, just in one week of September. It’s genuinely hard to decide which ones — the facts or the fictions — are more flabbergasting. But either way, there’s no credibility anymore.

One shining week of lies and failure: Compiled September 27, 2014

From the People Who Failed to Bring Back The Nigerian Girls Comes…the receiving end of the most boring A-Team heist of all time:

Last week it was reported that government agents took $9.3m (£5.7m) in cash to South Africa to buy weapons.
[...]
South African police said last week customs officials seized the money in $100 bills in three suitcases that arrived on a private jet from Nigeria at Johannesburg’s Lanseria airport earlier in September. The two Nigerians and an Israeli allegedly did not declare the money and it was impounded.

 
Parliamentary inquiries into the affair were immediately stonewalled for “national security reasons.” Then, after re-affirming everyone’s lack of trust in them, the Nigerian government and military proceeded to initiate the most epic and ham-fisted scramble to get out of trouble probably since “the dog ate my homework.”

First they tried to claim that the kidnapped girls had been rescued only to have retracted that within hours. This is the second time they have tried to pull this.

Then they went for a lie so big it might almost work, except again for having no way to prove it or even prevent it being disproven… They announced that Boko Haram’s leadership had been dispatched with extreme prejudice and the group was rapidly collapsing overnight.

Now by this point in the week there was NO WAY I could believe anything the Nigerian military claims, let alone something as gigantic as that, without outside proof and yet it rapidly circulated in Western media:

The military claims Mohammed Bashir was an imposter posing as Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau, thought to have died in 2009

General Chris Olukolade of the Nigerian military said that Mohammed Bashir, who was killed in the latest offensive against Boko Haram, was a lookalike.

The Nigerian military has said that more than 260 Boko Haram militants have surrendered in north-eastern Nigeria.

 
Purely coincidence that they accidentally lose a ton of cash to South African customs officials, then suddenly start trying to claim they’ve rescued the kidnapped girls, and then when that’s proven false claim they’ve killed the lookalike and real leader of Boko Haram. I’m not sure they grasp how distraction tactics or plausible lies are meant to work work.

By the way: Nigeria and Cameroon’s armed forces have between them claimed to have killed the head of Boko Haram — or one of his doubles — multiple times over 5 years. Some experts think he’s been dead the whole time, like Bruce Willis. Others think he’s still alive.

Meanwhile, the claim that Boko Haram is collapsing was based on an unverified assertion of two separate incidents involving surrenders of fewer than 200 fighters … out of thousands. In contrast to those claims, Boko Haram staged multiple dramatic attacks in the 24 hours following the announcement of their purported collapse.

Wow, that held up all the way to the next day.

Trust us, this time

Again, all of that happened in, essentially, a roughly 7-8 day period preceding September 27. Now, less than a month later, we’re meant to believe that the previously “collapsing” Boko Haram has struck a major ceasefire deal and will be returning the girls, whom we’re told (without much evidence) are being treated well and are fine.

Here’s the thing: These lies matter, and they don’t mean nothing. They are deeply propagandistic, however incompetent, and this means the global media (or Western media, particularly) is complicit in this disgusting charade. There are few if any other countries where false claims of this magnitude are readily and regularly repeated with so little criticism or investigation.

Reporting false or unverified deals with insurgent groups is unwitting propaganda because it makes subsequent lack of progress appear one-sided. As in, if Nigeria’s military announces a deal and then fighting continues, it must be that Boko Haram broke the deal, instead of that there was never a deal because the government and military didn’t put in the work to make it happen. (For all we know, nothing was ever even negotiated!) We see this happen quite often during civil conflicts, as a way to score public approval points.

If a country or military announces a ceasefire or peace deal with rebel or terror group and then peace doesn’t happen, the default assumption is that the rebels/terrorists sabotaged the deal. Which is certainly plausible in many situations, but that assumption actually makes it easier for the authorities to exploit. Thus, governments have an incentive to announce non-serious or even imaginary peace offers as a done deal, to strengthen their “peacemaker” credentials. They get to say “Look, we tried to make peace and they stabbed us in the back!” and then keep fighting, and the media dutifully reports that version of events.

How the media should report on claims by Nigeria’s military
  1. Until Boko Haram confirms a deal and until those kidnapped girls are back, there is no deal.
  2. The Nigerian military lies regularly, constantly, and spectacularly. Anything they assert, at this point, should be assumed false until proven true.
  3. Stop repeating anything they say, without absolute confirmation. Official sources are only worth something when they’re usually reliably factual.

It’s pretty simple. Don’t splash those headlines all over the web, TV, and radio, unless and until you have absolute proof that it’s not made up. Don’t even report unverified “progress” announcements with the caveat that it can’t be confirmed. There’s no room for benefit of the doubt anymore with the Nigerian military’s statements.

We usually don’t see such epic and false proclamations from top military officials except in North Korea, and we don’t see U.S. media outlets unironically and uncritically reporting the claims of wondrous majesty and prowess by the Dear Leader. The claims by Nigeria’s military and government on the situation in northern Nigeria consistently proven untrue within about 48 hours, but buy them a little extra time and faith that isn’t warranted. Stop helping.

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Jessica Williams heads to Kansas for The Daily Show

In September, I noted that the situation in Kansas was becoming quite dire for some of the Republican statewide incumbents on the ballot. A lot of that is due to the state’s unmitigated disaster of a fiscal experiment headed by hardline-Republican Governor Sam Brownback. Here’s what I said in September:

Closer to home, in Kansas itself, creating a second competitive statewide race in Kansas could further help boost left and moderate voter turnout against the now-near-universally-loathed Governor Sam Brownback.

Brownback very plausibly might be about to lose re-election to the governorship of Kansas for cutting taxes — because his magical-thinking-based plan cut them so far that there’s a budget catastrophe unfolding. A former Republican state party chair suggested the state may be bankrupt (or at least deeply in debt) within 2 years … and the bond outlook to finance that is not great.

According to PPP in February, Brownback had a lower approval rating in Kansas than Obama has in Kansas. And even Republican-leaning Rasmussen polling [in August] put the Democratic challenger, Paul Davis, ahead of Brownback by an impressive 10 points, pulling above 50%, and with a very low undecided block — which adds up to almost certain doom at the ballot box. (It was unclear, last I checked, what the Democratic challenger would do instead regarding the budget, but I’m guessing Kansas will have to elect first and ask questions later, while hoping it’s better than the monstrosity Brownback enacted.)

 
The Daily Show sent its brilliant and incredibly talented correspondent Jessica Williams into the field in Kansas this week to bring the story to wider attention.

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