This week I watched two magnificent documentaries, ‘Fighting ISIS,’ produced by VICE, and ‘The Diplomat,’ about the life of Richard Holbrook, directed by his son David. In ‘Fighting ISIS’ Ben Anderson provides a look into the three fronts in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, the one in the east manned by the Kurds, the one in the south manned by the Iraqi army and Shiite militias, and the one in the west manned by Sunni tribes. Anderson’s film is a highlight of both very dangerous and very illuminating journalism. He shows how, apart from the air campaign against ISIS, US operations in Iraq only benefit the Iraqi army and the Shiite militias, both controlled by Iran, respectively indirectly and directly. The images of Kurdish fighters trying to hold their border against ISIS without adequate weaponry and effective US support are already disturbing, but really heart-breaking are the images of Sunni fighters in the Anbar province, parading in desert fatigues and doing their target practice with only six antiquated guns for sixty men, which means that they would inevitably be slaughtered if they got into a military confrontation with ISIS.
It is not really astounding that these Sunnis are still willing to defend their territory against ISIS, considering that they are defending their way of life, and it is even less astounding that they feel betrayed by both the Iraqi government and the US, which funnels all its military support through the Iraqi army and therefore is in a factual alliance with Iran, at least on the Iraqi side of the fight with ISIS. In ‘The Diplomat’ David Holbrook covers his father’s whole career, from his first assignment in Vietnam before America got drawn into a war there, through the war between Croatia and Serbia and the Kosovo conflict, to his last assignment as the State Department’s special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. The last part of the documentary tells the story of the failed US handling of the war in Afghanistan, from the George W. Bush administration’s fatal decisions in the beginning of that war that allowed the Taliban to re-establish control over large parts of the country, to the Obama administration’s decision to send in thirty thousand troops in an attempt to undo the earlier damage.
Taken together, the two documentaries tell a tale that’s critical of Barack Obama’s current efforts to fight both ISIS and the Taliban. At the time of the surge, Holbrook warned the White House that American troops would be stretched too thin and might often be exposed to overwhelming force, and that’s exactly what happened in Afghanistan. Unfortunately Obama preferred to listen to General Petraeus’s predictions rather than Holbrook, who had seen a similar drama unfolding in Vietnam.
Worrysome is that the White House apparently took complete control over foreign policy and effectively shut out Holbrook, and to a lesser extent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to the point of even prohibiting that any reference to Vietnam be made. It makes you wonder if Obama is now just trying to buy time and prevent things from getting worse before the end of his presidency.
In the last debate of the Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton did not show clear signs of grasping these problems, and Bernie Sanders is still daydreaming about the Saudis fighting ISIS with US and Russian support. They should both go see those documentaries as soon as possible.