In 2008 the Georgian battalion that was part of the Coalition Forces of Operation Iraqi Freedom was attached to the brigade combat team that I and my teammates were assigned to. When Putin invaded the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia under the excuse of a border dispute and protecting ethnic Russians, the Georgian battalion was immediately ordered to return home and fight. The Georgians had only been part of the coalition because the Bush 43 administration had intimated that if the Georgians helped us in Iraq, then the US would support them joining NATO. The Georgians wanted to join NATO as protection from Putin’s interests in reestablishing what he believes is Russia’s rightful sphere of interest and historic near abroad. In reality, the Bush 43 administration wasn’t really going to push for them to join NATO and didn’t.
The brigade’s job was to help facilitate the Georgians’ movement home. To ensure they got from the combat outpost they had been operating from through the command forward operating base and on to one of the two large US bases adjacent to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) from which they’d fly home. As they transited through many of us thanked them for working with us, wished them well, told them we’d be thinking of them. Some were stoic. Some wanted one last group picture with my female analyst – a former student of mine (frankly one of the best students I’d ever had undergrad or grad) who I’d recruited to my team and who was also an olympic class athlete who also did fitness competitions, which explains the enthusiasm for the pictures. And some asked us the question that will haunt me forever:
You’re coming, right? We came to help you, you’re coming to help us? Right?
I’d never before been embarrassed to be an American. And even though my service at that time was as a supervisory contractor, because all the civilians in the experimental Army program that had sent my teammates and I to Iraq had to be contractors by regulation because it was an experiment not a program of record, I have never been so embarrassed and so ashamed to be both an American and in service to America as I was that day. Because I knew, we all knew, that we weren’t coming. That these men, from a battalion that had suffered more KIA’s in our operational environment/area of responsibility than we had, were on their own. We weren’t coming. No one from US Army Europe or the South European Task Force or EUCOM or NATO was coming. We’d, or rather our national command authority both elected and appointed, had asked them to fight and die with us and we would not return the courtesy or repay the debt.
Today I read a Twitter thread by a reporter with a source from the Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground in Syria who is in harm’s way. That thread reported what her source was telling her, which was that the SDF in Kobani, as well as the civilians there, were not going to stand and fight this time as they had previously against ISIS. Instead they were all pulling out and heading to an American military base in the area in the hope that the Americans were both still there and that the US commander at that base would allow them to seek shelter and sanctuary there from the Turkish assault that the President’s rash decision has made possible. And when I read that thread I had two reactions. The first was that same sense of shame I had on that August day in 2008 as all I could do was wish Georgian Soldiers the best as they went back home to fight falsely hoping we would soon arrive like the cavalry coming over the hill in the nick of time in an old western.
The other feeling was amazement. Amazement that even though they knew that the President of the United States had betrayed them, had given approval for Erdogan to try to obliterate them in his ongoing ethnocidal and genocidal campaign against the Kurds under the cover of a counterterrorism operation, they still believed that if they could get to where the American flag was flying they would be safe. It is stunningly mind and emotion boggling, to the point that I am actually having trouble typing it out, that knowing that they had been betrayed by the President of the United States, the belief of these men and women is that if they could get to territory held by the United States, in this case a military base, that if they packed up what they could, grabbed their families, and drove hard through an hours and miles long traffic jam of their friends and neighbors and fellow SDF in the middle of what is now a very hot war zone, that at the end of that exodus was hope. At the end of that exodus was safety. Because at the end of that flight from danger, through danger, was a berm and hescos and a gate with a guard tower where the American flag would be flying. In the face of this cruelest, most pointless betrayal their thoughts were to run to those wearing uniforms that bear the American flag – the flag of their betrayers. Because that flag, despite the betrayal, symbolized to them their last best hope for safety.
I have no idea if the base they are trying to reach is still there. I haven’t seen any follow on and follow up reporting, but I would like to believe that the commander of that base would open the gate and provide refuge to our erstwhile allies to lessen the betrayal and pay the moral debt that the President has now created for all of us Americans. And I’d like to believe that most will make it. But belief and hope are not strategies.
I don’t know yet, and I’m not sure we ever will know, how to properly assess the damage that will happen as a result of the President’s decision to betray the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurds and Arabs, Muslims and Syriac Christian alike, who had been decisively instrumental in successfully achieving our and our other allies’ strategic objectives of reducing ISIS’s physical caliphate. The SDF suffered over 10,000 Killed in Action and I’m not even sure the total number of wounded in action as the host country component to the by, with, and through strategy we’ve been using against ISIS since 2015. I know that as many ISIS detainees that can go into the wind will. And that they’ll scatter throughout the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, and Europe, which will increase both discreet acts of terrorism and instability in all of the states and societies in those regions. We’ll also see increased refugee flows as both SDF and non SDF from the areas now or soon to be under attack by Turkey flee looking for safety. This will increase instability in adjoining states like Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. It will also create even more problems for our EU and NATO allies as many will try to flee there because the neo-nationalist and neo-fascist parties and movements in the EU member states, all funded overtly or covertly by Putin, leverage refugee flows from the Levant as part of their anti-governmental and anti-EU political activities. I don’t know how many US and Coalition military personnel, let alone civilians, will be hurt or killed because of the President’s rash actions, and I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to directly tie those injuries or deaths back to this decision to betray the SDF in specific and the Kurds in general, but they will occur nevertheless. And I have no way to quantify or qualify what this will do to our ability to find partners and allies in the future, but I’m sure, despite the President’s glib assurances this afternoon that “alliances are easy”, that it will make it much, much, much harder for the US to partner and ally with other state and non-state actors to achieve our national interests in the future.
The events of the past three days may likely be the worst national security and foreign policy decision ever made by a US president. Which, given the long rich history of bad national security and foreign policy decisions made by US presidents, is saying something. Based on the reporting it was made without any formal or even informal decision making process. Without any input or recommendations by the senior military advisors on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by the senior leadership of our Intelligence Services, by either the Geographic Combatant Commander or the Coalition Commanding General in the theater of operations, or by any of our allies in the Coalition. It is a rash, short sighted, stupid, self defeating, self harming decision. It is a decision that betrayed our host country allies; allies who have fought valiantly and suffered significant casualties as a result because they were willing to fight for their own chance for self determination. And it is a decision that shames all of us who are Americans, even those unable to recognize that they should be ashamed because the slavishly support anything and everything the President does.
Today, for the second time, I am ashamed to be an American. And I am also amazed that those we’ve betrayed still flee from danger through danger in the attempt to reach a base where the American flag may still fly because they believe, despite the betrayal, that at the end of that dangerous journey is hope and safety. And from that, in my shame, I take a small amount of hope.
Full disclosure: I served from October 2007 through November 2008 as the Cultural Advisor to the Commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team/1st Armored Division and was deployed with the brigade in Iraq in 2008. I have also served as the Cultural Advisor to the Commandant of the US Army War College (2010-2014), the Cultural Advisor (Temporary Assigned Control) to the Commanding General of III Corps (January – October 2012), the Cultural Advisor (Temporary Assigned Control) to the Civil Affairs Branch Chief (October 2012 – November 2013), the Cultural Advisor (Temporary Assigned Control) to the Director of the Institute for NCO Professional Development and the Commandant of the US Sergeants Major Academy (November 2013 through June 2014), the Cultural Advisor (Temporary Assigned Control) to the Commanding General of US Army Europe (December 2013 – June 2014), and a senior subject matter expert at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Security Dialogue in the Middle East assigned as the Cultural Advisor to the Commanding General of US Army Europe (July – August 2014). I served briefly as a Senior Special Operations Fellow at the Joint Special Operations University Center for Special Operations Studies and Research at US Special Operations Command (May – August 2015). In May 2016 I provided the keynote and kickoff briefing on the regional and geo-strategic considerations of the Levant problem set for the Commanding General, Command Group, and senior staff of XVIII Airborne Corps prior to their deployment as the command element of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. In November 2018 I delivered the keynote address at the US Army Psychological Operations Regiment’s 100th anniversary regimental dinner. I currently work as a national-security consultant. The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of any of the commands, elements, or offices that I have ever advised and/or are currently supporting.