Here it is... The War Nerd Christmas Special!
Happy Christmas! As a holiday gift to you, we're delighted to share a very special interview between Gary Brecher -- aka the War Nerd -- and Mark Ames. An "around the wars in 60 minutes," if you like.
Pull up a comfy chair, pour yourself some mulled wine and click the play button below to hear the whole thing. If you're in a reading mood, the full transcript is below.
Also: If you're still looking for a very last minute gift for yourself, or for the War Nerd fan in your life, don't forget that the eBook edition of the War Nerd Dispatches is still available for immediate DRM-free download right here.
Mark Ames: ...by popular demand, folks have been clawing and screaming and banging at the gates demanding more War Nerd audio.We haven't been recording anything for quite a long time with the War Nerds, so we're hoping to get this going more often in the future. I'm joined now by the War Nerd, Gary Brecher, aka John Dolan, live from Kuwait City. War Nerd, are you there?
Gary Brecher: I'm here and I want to say I'm not one of those fancy Kuwaitis. I'm not in Kuwait City proper, like Salmiya, I'm in Ramgarh, which is the dirtiest place in Kuwait. It's down 10 miles south of the main town. If you see an actual Kuwaiti here, everybody gets their cell phone's cameras out. This is basically for immigrant workers from the subcontinent.
Mark: They get their cell phones out and what?
Gary: [laughs] No, I was exaggerating.[laughter]
Gary: It's unusual to see an ethnic Kuwaiti here. Kuwaitis are only one third the population of Kuwait, none of that one third lives down here. We're an immigrant slum.
Mark: You're in the hood, basically.
Gary: Very much so.
Mark: Who lives there besides western ex-pat teachers, who also lives there?
Gary: There's ex-pat teachers. In fact, if you get in a taxi here, you tell them the street and they say, "Ah, teacher building." You say, "Yeah," and you know they know the way.Beyond that, it's mostly south Indians, especially from Kerala and many Bangladeshi, many Afghans, some Pakistanis, mostly Muslin countries, where there's no money, no oil, although a lot of the Keralans are not Muslim. I didn't quite realize, I know there are Muslims in Kerala. I had a really good Muslim Keralan friend in Saudi Arabia, but I found out a lot of the Keralans here are not Muslim when Modi got elected because all of a sudden there was nonstop, ringing of taxi horns.
Everybody was acclaiming his victory. I thought, "What? Are they mad about this?" No, inadvertently did a little Thomas Freedman and every taxi you got in was like, "Modi, good. No, Congress party corrupt, bad." Not a lot, a few people come to places like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia expecting religious solidarity as fellow Muslims but they get disabused of that notion pretty quickly.
It's about money and if you don't have money, then as Lou Reed would say, "You end up on the dirty boulevard of [inaudible 03:12] ."
Mark: [laughs] I remember that song. It's the end of the year and it's been a pretty bloody year, I was thinking what we should do, we talked about this just before the show, we used to do around the wars in eight minutes. We never made it in eight minutes when we used to do the show. I was thinking, let's try and do around the world, around the wars, in 18 minutes, if possible.This way, because all the wars going on and bloodshed going on right now have been going on, you've been basically tracing them back to when you joined NSFW Corp. There are still simmering or hot and they're all pretty much the same wars, looking back, it seems to me. Then we'll go onto defense procurement, which seems dull but actually, it's at the heart at every War Nerd's fantasy, especially when they're younger.
As you told me, you used to be obsessed with defense procurement yourself and you wrote this great article about the F-35 debacle boondoggle versus the 810 Warthog, which seems to be doing very well. We'll do that second. Let's start off with around the wars in 18 minutes, if possible. Where would you start, which is the hottest place in war?
Gary: It's an interesting question. Most people would say the Syria-Iraq war, which those are two wars that started out separately and then merged so that it's pretty much one war now. There are wars that get so little attention that all anyone knows is that they're bloody.They're in places where people are very poor, where conditions are very healthy and usually when a regular war happens, villagers flee and a lot of people die out in the bush where nobody notices and I'm talking there about South Sudan, where they're getting independence. The head of state, who was generally respected, Salva Kiir, was a Dinka and the other major tribe there was the Nuer.
Their head guy, Riek Machar, didn't like the fact that he lost the election so he basically set off a civil war. Nobody quite knows how many people have died in that war but to be blunt, not as many people care about how many people have died there as care about Syria and Iraq, which are relatively central, strategic, wealthy countries. The war there certainly gets a lot of attention.
If we're talking about wars that concern people, it's definitely Syria, Afghanistan. In fact I'll use a list put together by Professor Joshua Goldstein of the University of Massachusetts, which is a good, useful thing. His blog is called "War and Progress," and it gives you a nice list of the big wars.
He's defining more than a thousand battle deaths a year as a big war and his list goes Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Israel Gaza, Ukraine, Libya.
One interesting thing about those wars is that when you and I were talking before, you said, "What's going on in this hemisphere?" by which you meant the western...
Mark: The only hemisphere that matters. Ours. The Americas.
Gary: The one I'm not allowed to live in anymore, but anyway. That one, the one that has Santa Monica in it, it's really hard to think of anything that you can call a war that's killing a lot of people. Now is Mexico a war? Yeah, I guess so.The war there, whatever the hell it is, is killing an awful lot of people. But it doesn't make this professor's list, because he's not sure that it can be called a war, because it's so difficult to identify sides. Crooked cops...
Mark: Political goals, I guess, is the problem. There's no political goal. It's turf wars, in a sense.
Gary: Yeah. Pure gang warfare. Every irregular war shades off into gang war pretty easily. If you look back, every mafia was a resistance movement once and maybe again if conditions change. That's not an absolute distinction.But the western hemisphere has gotten awfully peaceful, really. FARC just unilaterally surrendered, or called a ceasefire in Columbia.
Mark: Barack Obama unilaterally surrendered to Cuba, as you've probably heard.[laughter]
Gary: They were menacing Florida and then he gave in. That one is very weird. They just can't seem to scare people with Cuba the way they used to. In truth, it's hard to see why anybody was ever scared of Cuba. It's never been much of a menace.But yeah. There's peace in large swathes of the western hemisphere. That Columbia might be at something approaching peace...What you're getting in the western hemisphere is a lot of civilians killing civilians, and it doesn't seem to rate as warfare.
To go down the biggest wars, let's start with Syria-Iraq. Because when you combine them, at least, they probably have a higher body count than the African wars. I just want to say, again, the African wars don't get the safe coverage, they don't get the same careful body counts, so we don't know. But let's say Syria-Iraq combined is the bloodiest war right now.
What's happened in Syria and Iraq above all, at least in terms of the world press, was the rise of the Islamic State, the terribly confused welter of Syrian and Iraqi Sunni resistance/Jihadist groups. That happened slowly, but by the spring of 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq...morphed out of AQI, Al Qaeda Iraq, had a big dispute with Al Qaeda about who got to use that name.
Because Al Qaeda was beginning to favor...
Mark: Al-Nusra, right?
Gary: Jabhat-al-Nusra, yeah. Because they, Al Qaeda Iraq survivors were too bloody. That's often presented as some sort of joke, too bloody for Al Qaeda. But Al Qaeda is actually relatively careful, and they're not in favor especially of killing fellow Sunni Muslims.The Islamic State has no such qualms, because this was also a turf war in its way. There were 1,200 Sunni resistance/Jihadi/gang groups in Syria and above all, it was a struggle to see who was going to be the emir of all those groups. Something was going to shake out, as it usually does in that kind of struggle.
Islamic State won that war. Mainly because they had a really good public relations campaign that resonated with young, reactionary men, mostly from Islamic families. But many of them recent converts from all over the world.
Those guys were pouring in their bodies and their lives. Some rich people from the Gulf, where I'm living now, though not in my neighborhood, were pouring in the money. It made a powerful combination for a while.
Mark: But I want to cut you off real quickly and say you were right. The War Nerd, when the big scare about Islamic State first hit, it was like May or June, I can't remember when. They just, as you pointed out, when they just walked into a vacuum in Iraq and scared everyone.It was like the Ebola fear. Everyone was suddenly terrified that ISIS was going to roll over the entire world and own all of our oil and so on and so forth, and you call them out as virtual paper tigers.
Gary: A midsized Sunni militia. A midsized Sunni militia with much better PR than most of them, and a very western orientation. Which is part of why the press love to hate them. Because they had some excellent English-language propaganda, and a lot of English-speaking recruits.But yeah. It was clear that if the CIA was not lying outright about their numbers, which were originally pegged at less than 20,000, then at 30,000. Even if it's 30,000, that is not enough to take all of Syria and Iraq, and it was most likely, and it was especially not enough to take the Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq. I said they would not triumph against the Peshmerga.
That's where it gets interesting. Because I was getting a lot of flak addressed to me saying, "Yo, you overrated the Kurds, Kurd-lover. The Peshmerga just fled." The Peshmerga fell back. I'm not sure they fled.
Mark: In Iraq.
Gary: Yeah, in Iraq. Then Kobani took up everybody's attention for a long time. But what really happened is Nouri al-Maliki's cronies were running the Iraqi army straight into the ground. It was basically a Shia militia, and it was so demoralized and so corrupt.Most recently it's come out that there 50,000 ghost soldiers on its rolls. That is, soldiers who were being paid their salary every month. That salary was going directly into the pockets of their corrupt al-Maliki chums who were the commanders. But there were no soldiers. There was nobody to handle a gun.
Faced with this, and all the soldiers knew that. All the soldiers knew they were working for some filthy politicians from the Shia elite in Iraq. When they heard that Islamic State was coming, having watched those beheading videos, they just fled. They took their very expensive US vehicles and just headed east and south as fast as they could.
It wasn't that Islamic State defeated the Iraqi army, if you're going to be technical about it. The Iraqi army flat-out fled from the Sunni areas. This is something that makes more sense when you understand the history there. The Sunni were always the dominant tribe in Iraq, and there are some weird overtones of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the KKK and what happened in Iraq.
It was a campaign of terror by a formerly dominant, extremely violent, extremely ruthless group against the people that they had treated as victims for a very long time.
Now the Shia will fight if they're fighting for one of their holy cities, like Karbala or Najaf. As I...
Mark: Or even for their neighborhood in Baghdad.
Gary: Right. Yeah. That's why, as I said, Islamic State is never going to take Baghdad. Don't even think about it. But when they found themselves stationed wearing the uniforms of a sham army, a corrupt army, in the territory of their former oppressors, who were flooding the media with genuinely scary beheading videos and other propaganda that made Islamic State look like a little blitzkrieg force.They saw that their commanders fled first, and there's a lot of testimony that that happened. The commanders took their personal Humvees and just zoomed out of there. The soldiers followed. A force of roughly a thousand Islamic State just rolled in like a small wave into a gigantic depression that was left by the fleeing Iraqi army.
When you saw that in the news, and saw how much territory was suddenly being covered by the red wave of Islamic State, or black wave. They also made it a black wave. It looked very impressive. It was impressive for their propaganda wing. It didn't prove a goddamn thing about their military prowess.
Mark: Yeah, and you predicted that they would fail against even much smaller and less, more lightly armed Kurdish fighters, and they did fail. In Kobani they failed against a very lightly armed Kurdish militia. Now it turns out...As you were saying, when everyone said, "Oh, look, the Peshmerga fell back and ceded some territory in Iraq." Now it looks like the Peshmerga is retaking that territory. What happened in Iraq and what happened in Kobani?
Gary: Yeah, yeah, that's a good idea. We need to divide these things. Because they are two different fronts. Even though Islamic State is fighting on both fronts, I'm not sure how much coordination is really involved.In Iraq what happened was Islamic State, with its relatively small force, flushed the Iraqi army out of the Sunni territory. The Iraqi army was basically a Shia army by that state, and it didn't stop running until it got back to Baghdad, which is now effectively a Shia city. There's very little Islamic State can do about that.
But the Peshmerga also fell back and ceded to Islamic State a patch of territory below the hills that basically marked the Kurdish towns. That patch of vulnerable flatland happened to be inhabited overwhelmingly by vulnerable minorities, like the Yazidi. The big town in northwestern Iraq, the one really big city there, is Mosul.
Mosul, when I lived in Kurdistan, no one would take you there. Because Mosul was originally a Kurdish town. Saddam Hussein slaughtered them and kicked the survivors out and settled his officer class in Mosul, a huge number of Saddam officers and their families went there. In classic Plantation Ulster style.
Like, OK, you Kurds have been a problem again and again. I'm going to kill as many of you as we can. The rest of you can get the hell out, and I'm going to seed my soldiers there. Basically, to give them houses in Mosul, evacuated by Kurds. In return for their service in killing Kurds.
Mosul is a very scary town. When I went there, when I was in Kurdistan a few years ago, people...The Kurds were very entrepreneurial and very eager to make money, but they would only take you to Kirkuk in the daytime, and they would not take you to Mosul at all.
I've met someone recently who said he drove to Mosul when he was there and I thought, are you lying or are you some kind of three-letter agency person? Because nobody went to Mosul. Very scary place.
They took Mosul, which was inevitable. No Kurdish force, no Peshmerga wanted Mosul. You were just going to be picked off on the street corners there, and they're too smart to do that. But that left the Islamic State also in charge of these rural areas that the Peshmerga fell back from, and that includes the Yazidi towns like Sinjar, which are on the plain, or surrounded only by small hills.
I think in retrospect...I'm just guessing here, and it's a pretty grim guess. The Kurds have been betrayed many, many times. Decided, first of all, they don't want the trouble of controlling minority areas, because controlling people outside your sect is always trouble. Way down the line, for generations.
More urgently, they wanted the world to see what happened if Islamic State took over those Yazidi towns. Because that would yield the money and the guns that they've been needing, and that the US refused to give them.
In one of the great demonstrations of American stupidity, the American regime in Iraq showered money and equipment on the Iraqi army, which proved to be utterly useless and refused to equip the Peshmerga, who actually fight.
The Peshmerga said basically, "OK, you're going to starve us of equipment? I guess we can't fight for those Yazidi, then. We'll have to pull back, and you're going to hear some stories that aren't going to be very pleasant."
Mark: They funded and equipped the Iraqi army for purely political reasons. Because they felt like they had to, to make it seem like, when we pulled out, that we had this national Iraqi army rather than the Peshmerga, which would actually fight.Now, so the Peshmerga essentially said, "OK, well then for political reasons, there's going to come up a situation where you're actually going to have to fund us. Because we're the only ones that can protect the Yazidi and avoid the sort of political problems that arose when ISIS rolled in."
Gary: Absolutely, and that's happened today. As of today, the Peshmerga, who have now gotten lots of guns. Not directly from the US, for some reason. The US is still wary of doing that, because it's still trying to please all the politicians in Iraq.But through Germany and through other suppliers, they've gotten the weapons, or at least some of the weapons they need, and they just entered the town of Sinjar today and they are now fighting at the airport.
Islamic State peaked, I would say, a couple of months ago. They've been deprived of their one great asset, which is mobility. The great weapon of early 21st century warfare is the Toyota Hilux pickup. Every male over 16 in this part of the world who has the money has a Toyota Hilux pickup. They can roll across...
Mark: There's something grimly, comically War Nerdy about that. Because everyone wants to think about "Star Wars" or some laser weapon, like that new Navy laser gun is what every war nerd wants. But actually, no, in that part of the world where they still do fight, everyone wants a Toyota Highland pickup for mobility.
Gary: A Toyota Hilux pickup.
Mark: Very "Mad Mex."
Gary: Yeah. An AK, and an RPG or two, and you're set. What else do you need? That was Islamic State's big asset. This is very flat land. You'll notice that once the land stops being flat, they don't do so well.But you can cross the so-called Iraqi-Syria border anywhere. It is just all sediment from the rivers, the two great rivers. That meant they could attack any town. They could concentrate, and the defenders who were demoralized anyway couldn't concentrate.
They took all those towns, but now they have to face the United States Air Force. The United States military has a lot of limitations, but once you're...
Mark: I'm sorry. I'm sorry to cut you off. I just got a note from our producer that we should get Toyota to sponsor the War Nerd in future.[laughter]
Gary: That would be beautiful.
Mark: OK, carry on.
Gary: They could have me in a Toyota Hilux saying, "Hi, I'm here and I, oh, I see a vulnerable little town up there and I do believe it's a Yazidi town. Whoo-ie!"
Mark: When I want to cleanse the Yazidi, I use Toyota Hilux. Geez, Hilux, yeah.
Gary: It speaks for itself, but the first [inaudible 24:08] you capture it. We'll have to cut that bit.[laughter]
Gary: Anyway. Now there's a problem called the USAF. Like I said, the US doesn't do everything well. But what it does is vaporize vehicles moving across a flat plane. It can do that 24/7, it can do that in any weather. There is no place to hide. If you like...
Mark: Every video that came out of that region about Americans killing whoever is vaporizing a vehicle from the air, right?
Gary: Yeah. It's the easiest way to deal with people. You've usually got more than one person at a time. You're killing hardware as well as people. About the time the US started effectively killing people in Iraq, which it did before it started killing people effectively in Kobani. Because they didn't want to offend the Turks, which is another long story.About that time, you started to see Islamic State's Twitter feeds and its social media in general, which I've been following with a sick, morbid curiosity. You started to see, and also because, I'm not pretending to be so different from those guys. Look, if I were a 20-year-old from suburban London, well, anyway. I understand. I understand...
Mark: This is one of the reasons why you've had a big leg up on everybody else who writes about this stuff, who doesn't understand them. Who throws around words like evil. They may very well be evil, and you've definitely come out, you clearly don't like ISIL very much yourself.But you understood from the War Nerd perspective, from like it's like to be a loser male or a frustrated male or whatever. You've written more...I think you had just greater insight into all kinds of insurgencies and militias and so on than anybody because of that.
That goes back, again, to your, not just your experience growing up in the Bay Area in the hippie era. But also your interest in the IRA and the Irish wars against the British. Which really are the template for guerrilla war and counterinsurgency for the last hundred years, aren't they? That is a big insight.
Gary: Yeah. There are a lot of factors there, too. Like the biggest contributor for foreign troops after Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, foreign volunteers for Islamic State, is the UK. It goes something like 3,000 from Saudi Arabia, 3,000 from Tunisia, and of those two the Tunisia one is interesting, because it's not the [inaudible 27:00] .The next with 2,000 is the UK. Why so many from the UK? OK, there's a lot of Muslims there. Yeah, but there's a lot of Muslims in Germany, too, and they're not going.
The reason is that the UK has a long tradition of young men going off to make their way in wars in somebody else's neighborhood. There's a kind of continuity there. The idea that all this comes from their Muslim upbringing is very dubious to me. That wouldn't explain the breakdown in different European things. There are all kinds of factors, yeah.
One of them is, well, which country are you coming from, and how deep is that country's tradition of going off to foreign wars? All these things factors. But above all, I think being a 20-year-old romantic reactionary in a peaceful, western European state.
Look, when I thought about this, one of the things I thought is, "God, I hate the clash. God, I hate the clash." Because there's something clash-like where every white face is an invitation to robbery and sitting here in my safe, European home, I want to go back to, again, riot of my own. Yeah, OK, yeah. But that was a cleansed version of this.
What you're seeing with the Islamic State, people fleeing the tame suburbs of London to do something like this is the non-cleansed version. The really dirty, horrible stuff as it happens. But it's not such a hard impulse to understand. Anyway.
Then the world focused on Kobani, and Kobani was about to fall and about to fall and about to fall. The way the old joke has it, Franco was about to die, or was still dead. Because it kept refusing to fall.
Kobani is a little border town. Nowheresville, strictly on the Turkish-Syrian border. In fact, I tried to figure out where the name comes from, because there are different names. [foreign words] , which means Arab spring, not the [inaudible 29:13] kind, the ooh, we got water kind.
Kobani is what the Kurds called it, because they were migrant workers. It apparently comes from a company, Ban, the German company that was building the railway through there. It's a very recent town, like a lot of these towns. A lot of these are not ancient at all. They're 20th-century boom-towns. That was Kobani and it was nowhere.
The Kurds inhabited it after the Armenians got slaughtered, and the Kurds are not innocent of either. They were some of the big executioners there. It's a rough, rough place. Then the Islamic State set up what it called an emirate, one of its earliest emirates in Jarabulus. Another little border town that was mainly Arab, a few miles away from Kobani, and swore that it would take Kobani. But they just didn't do very well.
They could not stage a frontal attack, because the Kurds, even though they were just a local militia, mostly female, with a female commander, which really horrified the Islamic State. Even so, they were beating these guys. Over a year, they could not take Kobani from Jarabulus.
At that point in 2014 the Islamic State started to move massive forces toward Kobani. It's not entirely clear why, but there was some very sleazy deal Erdogan's regime in Turkey, the AK Party, and someone working as a go-between with Islamic State.
Because they were ferrying Islamic State parties across the border, and it's very possible they did a deal saying, "If you want us to keep letting you use our border as part of your supply lines, we want you to take out this Kurdish enclave."
Because there are three Kurdish enclaves on that border, and they all worry Turkey a lot. The Kurdish area of northeastern Syria is now called the Rojava, and the Kurds there are from an offshoot of the radical socialist party, the PKK in Turkey. They are serious radical socialists. I can't believe it. Most of all, I can't believe the western left doesn't care more about this.
They run this wildly egalitarian world where, among other things, women are the dominant military commanders. Everyone participates equally, food is distributed communally. It's a wild little world than a beautiful one.
They've done this in one of the nastiest places on earth. The last thing Turkey wants is for that to spread to the Kurds inside Turkey, who basically constitute the population of south eastern Turkey.
Somebody told the Islamic state, "We want you to kill this otherwise insignificant order town," and they started doing so. By early September, I think, or was it October? I'm not sure. Either early September or early October, they were very close to doing so, but then Kobani, and especially, you know, those attractive Kurdish women warriors. There was a little cheesy, and a little sexist, but what the hell, it got them some publicity.
People started to notice them, and when that happened, started to be a big noise in the western press, and at same date that I can't remember. It might have been October 7th, Obama, or somebody in the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, "Ah, fuck it. We can't let them take this town because they will rape, they will behead, it will look really bad." Then the bombs started falling.
Mark: Yeah, it would have been ugly if they took over the town, wouldn't it? If they did win, it would have been a disaster?
Gary: There was already a photograph of one of these grinning assholes holding up a beheaded Kurdish woman fighter by her long hair, and that got [inaudible 33:35] play. I think somebody in Obama's inner circle said, "It's going to look like if there's a town full of photographs like that."The Yazidi, nobody cares about them to be blunt. They have no relatives outside their area. They are the most endogamous group in the world. They marry each other, they just want to be left alone, which makes them perfect victims.
Kurds are not like that. A lot of Kurds in Germany, a lot of Kurds making money around the world. You can't just kill all of those Kurds like they used to be able to do. At some point, they started bombing, and the Islamic state took casualties like they'd never seen.
They Syrian Human Rights Observatory now estimates Islamic state dead in Kobani as 1,400. Which I also said before anybody else did, because they were saying maybe a few hundred, and I knew it had to be more than that, because they were doing something really stupid.
Which is Islamic state's big mistake in general. They were trying to fight like a conventional army when they just didn't have the resources to do it against the US air force. They've been paying the price since then. Now, they're losing territory on both fronts. They are sitting ducks in the ruin of Kobani, the kind of thing that the US air force enjoys picking off.
Mark: I've been reading about all these recruits who are trying to get the hell out now as you wrote. They come out there, and they suddenly realize, "Oh shit. No hot water, and no toilets. Really sucks. This isn't like what I imagined it to be. This isn't Call of Duty, where I can grab my bag of Doritos while I'm playing it."
Mark: They're trying to get out. I thought I read somewhere that ISIS is executing dozens of people trying to flee.
Gary: There is a report, yeah. There is a report that they've executed 100 western Jihadists, or war tourists, if you want to call them that, who said, "This sucks man. Now it's cold. You didn't tell me it was going to be cold. Fuck this."
Mark: "No toilet paper. Fuck it."
Gary: Yeah, but I think it's the real thing that's getting to them, is the cold. I read all their tweets, these idiots, and they can't handle it, because it's one thing to be cold when you're moving around, but if you're really on a front that's dominated by snipers, and mortars, and aircraft, it's not a good idea to move around.It means long stretches of sitting in the rubble, in the shadow, and you get really cold even if the temperature isn't below freezing, and they cannot handle it.
Mark: Yeah, makes you realize how impressive the [inaudible 36:29] and grab battle in the rivers. When you think about cold wars which is frightening.
Gary: Oh, those guys are like a different species now, so basically Islamic state is shrinking badly now. Without that flow of recruits, they are pretty much doomed, because they've done an awful lot of boasting about loving death. In the long run, that can make sense. It's complicated. It can make sense in a completely guerrilla war, but it does not make sense.
Mark: What they love is glory, and there's no glory in being cold for days at a time, and no Doritos and so on, and not actually dying when you want to, in the way you want to.
Gary: Yeah. Death is easy, but the lead up is not so easy. There hadn't been a lot of recruits from Indian Muslims, but there was one guy from India who went home and said he was disenchanted, because the Islamic state had him doing nothing but cleaning toilets.Then they searched him, and they said, "Well, why is this bullet wound here?" He said, "I don't know, man. I never saw that man. I never saw that thing before."
Gary: "I [inaudible 37:50] an army of darkness."[laughter]
Mark: "That's the first time I saw that. What the hell is that doing there?"
Gary: "I think I was doing one of those black head videos, and it went wrong."[laughter]
Gary: Anyway, after...
Mark: I don't mean to cut you off here, but I just realized that we've been spending a lot of time on this particular war, and we could probably spend an hour on it, or more, but I want to try and get a couple of other wars really quickly, and then to the defense procurements before our time is up here.
Gary: All right. Let's talk about Pakistan quickly. The interesting thing about Pakistan is two Talibans and a whole bunch of other irregular outfits that don't agree about anything anymore.What happened in Peshawar that I'm sure everybody knows about, 140 kids massacred by the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban. That got criticized by a really interesting group of people from Imran Khan, to Hafeez Sayed, who runs Lashkar-e-Taiba, who normally approves of any Jihadi massacre.
This was a massacre of his friends, and his buddies' offspring, because it's [inaudible 39:09] army that protects him, and all sorts of the usual suspects were saying, "You can't do this." The Pakistani Taliban is having a problem with the Pakistani army, so there's this really unusual spectacle of complete dissension among Jihadi groups.
Because normally, they may hate each other, and want to kill each other in struggles over turf, but they agree in general about policy. Not this time. The afghan Taliban denounced this, Lashkar-e-Taiba denounced it, Al Qaeda denounced.
Mark: Don't you love it when terrorists get all moral, and high and mighty about things? It reminds me that scene in Casino when the mobsters find out that Nicky has been scheming off their schemes like, "Hey, you can't do that. They're scheming off our scheme. It ain't right." Like it's just beyond comprehension.
Gary: Yep, and well, all these people owe a lot to the Pakistani, maybe not army, but to the ISI, the intelligence [inaudible 40:13] place.
Mark: Maybe the ISI got pissed off, and that got everybody like, "Yeah, I'm against it too."
Gary: Yeah, "They can't do it." Hafeez Sayed is one of the most contemptible people alive. Lives in a house in Lahore that's guarded nonstop by Pakistani security, so there's no way on earth that he's going to cheer for the slaughter of his minders and protectors.Anyway, it's going to be interesting. The TTP may now get crushed, which, I think, would cause few tears among most people in the world. Nigeria is getting really weird. This is another one of the African wars, which means, and you can count on this. It's shamefully consistent, which means massive casualties that nobody much cares about.
This is northern Nigeria, and like these wars, it goes way, way back. When the British ruled Nigeria, they divided it into two parts. The two coastal parts were free for missionaries, journalists, entrepreneurs, everybody.
They made a deal with the Sultans of the northern pastoral Islamic part of the country, and said, "You guys rule, and the deal is we don't let any foreigners in, so you can keep that hermetic state that you love, and in return you do what we say," which they did.
The north voted against independence, did whatever the British said, the south got stomped. After Biafra in the 1960s, the north ruled, but the world has been creeping into the north. It creeps in in many comments as I've said about Jihad.
It creeps in 100,000 ways. You can't control them all, and this causes a hopeless rage among the xenophobes of that part of the world. They've been reacting in ways that seem crazy, unless you understand that. Unless you understand that this is a defensive reactions against infection by global culture.
Boko Haram in Hausa, the book is forbidden. Book from English book, it's just corruption that...has been really weird stuff. Like trying to be as nasty as they can be. Just today, there was a release by Boko Haram saying, "We just killed everybody in Gwoza, the city in Maiduguri province.
"We know that the Quran says you should take prisoners instead of killing people, but we don't feel like it's a good time for us to take prisoners." That was one of the more extra-ordinary statements I've seen.
It's like so much for literal reliance on the Holy book. That was, "No, not right now. No. Easy for us to kill them." The idea is to remove all contagion, which is very weird, because in an almost grad-school-y way, it partly accounts for the fact that they're killing polio workers up there, because as niches not long ago, purity always means ritual purity in the beginning. It never means literal cleanliness.
We're talking about ritual purity here, sectarian purity, not freedom from disease. It's a hopeless struggle, but it's also going to be a very, very. Very bloody one, especially because the Nigerian army is utterly worthless and corrupt, and haven't done a God damn thing.
Wars all the time, whether massacre occurred a couple of days ago has been attacked, I think, at least three times. Massive killings each time. There is still no army present there.
Mark: Do they loot banks? How do they feed their armies? How do they supply themselves?
Gary: It's a good question. They can loot what they can. They probably have more support than one would like to think, because the real armies usually do. There's long term talk about support by northern politicians, because if you're a corrupt Northern politician, it really helps in the same way that afghan Taliban helps the ISI.It really helps to have a scary army of pyromaniacs under your control. There are rumors that they get money from them. I don't know if Boko Haram does kidnappings as well, but I would think so, because they're usually an excellent source of revenue.
Mark: What about the oil? Is the oil in their region, or is it more in the [inaudible 45:05] ?
Gary: Oh, it's around Port Harcourt on the delta, but there's a revenue sharing deal for Nigeria, which means a lot of the money, in fact, a disproportionate share of the money from the oil goes to the north.From the north to Boko Haram is not an unimaginable jump. They may also have connections with the movement for oneness, and Jihad, which was an astute of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, which, just to show you how ordinary disputes within Jihadism are.
That's split off, because they felt that Al Qaeda in the Maghreb was promoting too many Algerians, and basically light skinned Mediterranean shore people as against Sahel darker people, who also saw themselves as relatively light skinned people against the non-Muslim people further south. It's all messed up, but anyway.
That group does do a lot of kidnapping. They may have relations with Boko Haram, but Boko Haram tends to work on its own. Levels of prosperity in northern Nigeria are very low.
It's not like recruiting for somebody to go to Syria. You recruit somebody from Dusseldorf to go to Syria, you pretty much have to offer them air conditioning. You don't have to do that to recruit somebody for Boko Haram. There are no jobs there. There is no economy there. Pastoralism, or you herd goats, or it's nothing.
Mark: So that we can fit it in time, I know that there are a lot of other wars. You mentioned South Sudan, which is just one giant horrible depressing story. There's Israel and Gaza, there's Ukraine, which is in a cease fire mode.It sounds to me like Putin is kind of in a strategy retreat for them moment [inaudible 47:23] as the Russian economy are getting badder by the oil price drop, and speculators. Now, he's talking about what you always said. I think it was either he or Lavrov went on record and said the Donbas region, the eastern Ukraine region, we don't look at it the same way we look at Crimea, which is what you said all along anyway.
Gary: Yeah, who would want that, but you'd want Crimea. Crimea is nice.
Mark: Anyway, there are other wars to talk about. There's Central African Republic, Congo of course, Libya, but just to try and stay within time, I want to put all that aside for now, and hopefully, we can talk about that next year. Hopefully, we'll get this going more regularly.Let's talk about the defense procurement issue. You wrote this great piece about how the air force is cancelling the A-10 warthog, which is the war course, especially for air to ground combat, which has been pretty much all the air force has needed.
Because we never did have another World War II, or a giant land war with the Soviets. Anyway, they're cancelling the A-10 warthog, which the war nerd has been on record a few times, I think really saying is one of the better machines we built.
In favor of the F-35, which is like a grotesque caricature of a boon dog. It cost enormous amounts of money, and doesn't even fly still. Tell us a little bit about that, and why defense procurement matters to War Nerds.
Gary: Yeah. OK, well, I think for most War Nerds, depends procurement is how you get into it. It certainly was for me, because these weapons are incredibly cool. You start studying the weapons, I mean, I know I started that way.I've written about this going to the public library, because they had air conditioning in the summer, and going to the reference room and reading all those big blue Jane's handbooks of missiles, and ships, and aircraft, and all that. You can do all that online now, but you couldn't when I was young. That was the only way to do it.
You start out believing that they're all these beautiful weapons, and if you're me, coming from a very conservative background, and being quite conservative when I was young, you assume that they are being developed and reduced, and distributed for the defense of American, and it's freedom well beyond. I pretty believed all that.
I knew Vietnam was a bad idea, because it just looked bad, but I still pretty much believed in all that stuff. Then if you really followed this stuff carefully, you begin to have your doubts, and as I started to have those doubts long ago, I started to see the weapons that really work aren't the ones that get the money, and a lot of the ones that do get the money, never were designed to work.
There's a Philip K. Dick novel called "The Zap Gun," in which weapon designers compete to produce basically the most ridiculous weapon, and then it turns out they're all telepathically getting their ideas from a Nigerian comic book, and all the ridiculous weapons.
Like the evolution gun that sends you back in time evolutionarily from a Nigerian comic book. It's roughly like that.
You and I were talking about the Reagan years, and the vast disillusionment that came to patriotic Americans with any sense as they realized through the development of weapons like Star Wars and the B1B bomber, that the people in charge of the department of the defense seem to prefer weapons that anyone with half a brain knew were not going to work.
That's when even if you're as financially naive as I am, any more financially naive, and I don't know, you'd be a sal bug. It's kind of one of those "duh" realizations. You realize, "Gee, it's just about money. They're thinking about defending American like at all."
The A-10 was just like my latest hit on the head epiphany of that. The A-10 really works. Two reasons for that. It's a good design, and it does what wars are about now. Good design. It was designed to fly low. That's the capture rate. It's sort of closer I suppose. Low and slow.
Obviously, you're not going to kill the people by sending a super-fast racing fighter jet over the battle area. You need something that can pick its targets, home in on them, and destroy them, and that's the A-10 was designed to do.
It has a 30 millimeter Gatling gun in the nose that can shred any armor ever developed. It has heavy reinforced wings to carry any ammunition you would want to put on them, and it has a redundant avionics and electric systems, so you can shoot it to pieces, and it will still fly.
There's a titanium bubble enclosing the cockpit, so it's very hard to kill the pilot, which study showed it was one of the main ways of killing closer support objects. It's just blasting the cockpit and killing pilot.
It was very well designed, but when it was designed, and I remember this very, very well because I was a trusting little war nerd who would actually, and I'm not kidding about this, would actually hover around the librarians in the Pleasant Hill library on the Thursday when the new copy of "Aviation Week" and "Space Technology" was handed out. When they put it in its little plastic jacket, I would be the first one to get it before some other chubby, sexually frustrated war nerd got it from me.
Mark: [laughs] You were at the top of the pecking order on that.
Gary: Sometimes, unless somebody else got it, in which case I would give them a good glaring from behind their back. I meant it to sting, too.
Mark: Like rays from the eyes. [laughs]
Gary: Yeah, that Kids in the Hall skit of the looney in the park squeezing index and thumb together going, "I'm squishing your head. I'm squishing your head."
Gary: How nerds fight, anyway. In those days I followed this more avidly than you could imagine, more avidly than I followed the Oakland Raiders. The A-10, everybody was willing to say it was a good design. It was some of the first computer simulation used in designing an aircraft.Where do close air support fighters get shot from? Let's take that into account, so let's put twin engines high in the back where they're hardest to hit from the ground, so that's what they did but they couldn't say, in case we have another Vietnam because as weird as it may sound, nobody wanted to talk about Vietnam at all around 1977 when it entered production.
They had to justify it as a weapon that would be used against the Warsaw Pact and that big imaginary war. I'm not sure it would have worked very well in that war but I'm don't believe in that war anyway, that war would have gone nuclear, Soviet plans have revealed. It would have gone nuclear very quickly. The whole elaborate, lucrative scenario of Warsaw Pact versus NATO conventional warfare would simply not have happened.
Mark: If it's conventional...
Gary: If it was conventional and the US wouldn't have let that happen.
Mark: We were crazy. We would have gone nuke fast.
Gary: The reason I can't say that about the US plans is because they weren't sold for a few rubles the way the Russian plans were so we know what the Russian plans were. I'm absolutely morally certain the US also planned to go nuclear, but I can't swear to it.They had to say it was designed for that but in a way, it was a good air craft, but the main reason it's the best the air force has is it's designed for killing things on the ground which is what the air force is called to do but it doesn't like doing. It doesn't want to admit that that's it's job because to an air force fighter jet, just imagine Tom Cruise and his idiot buzz-cut buddy in "Top Gun."
Imagine those guys having to kill little guerillas on the ground. Dirty little guys who don't have any money and are low-tech. It's no fun. What they want to do is go have fighter duels in the sky.
As I said in the article, that's like being committed to playing polo when nobody in the neighborhood even knows what polo is, and nobody's going to play it with you.
The Air Force, in a contemptibly transparent move, said we want the F-35, which costs a third of a billion dollars per plane. That is, you get three of these lousy planes that are years behind in development. You get three of them for a billion dollars.
To get the F-35 in service, we're going to have to kill the A10, which is a bit of a logical leap even for congress. They said, "Why do you have to do that?" They said, "Because there's only a finite number of aircraft mechanics in the US defense industry, so our plan is to take all the ones that are working for the A-10 and put them on the F-35. Unfortunately that will accidentally mean that we have to get rid of the A-10, which we always hated anyway. Sorry."
It was such a lousy...
Mark: I love how they basically tried to sell it as a cost-saving measure. That's pretty much what they're doing. We're trying to save costs by not hiring so many more mechanics. That's all about saving money here. It gets insane.
Gary: The fact that the aircraft themselves will cost way more than a trillion dollars doesn't enter into it. Even then, if it was a traditional gold-plated beauty of an aircraft, like say the F-15, it...It wouldn't be justified, but you could at least have a little more sympathy for it.This is a terrible aircraft. One of the worst, maybe the worst that I know of. The gold standard for a bad fighter is the F-104, which was built in the days where they thought the best fighter aircraft is the one that's closer like a, closest to a little Martian spaceship from a Chuck Jones carton, and they built it like that. As a result, it crashed an awful lot.
Mark: The fly coffin, right?
Gary: Yeah, it's way worse than that, way, way worse. Partly because it costs a third of a trillion dollars, of a billion dollars each. But also because it incorporates every mistake the US habitually makes with aircraft design. One is the, let's make one aircraft that will serve the needs of the United States Marine Corps, the Navy, and the Air Force. Truly, as I said in the article, it was like playing the three bears with taxpayer money.The Marine Corps said, "We want ours to take off and land vertically, and hover like a hummingbird." OK, they had to build that into the design. The Navy said, "We want ours to be able to take off and land on the short flight decks of carriers." OK, they had to change the design for that.
The Air Force said, "No, runways will do," so they had to design a version for that too. There are three different versions of this floating around, each one incredibly expensive, and they had to puff out the fuselage to accommodate all the different landing gear for all that stuff.
They also included every variant of dated, phony stealth technology. You can take it for granted that between online PACs and the F-117 that crashed in Serbia in 1999 all US stealth technology is in the hands of Chinese and Russian military aircraft manufacturers and designers.
But the US continues to rely on it, even after some goddamn Serbian militia shot down one of their stealth fighters in '99. They've never asked the hard question, like, how did that happen? [inaudible 01:00:04] .
Mark: I think I saw one attempt at explaining it, which was basically, "They got lucky!"
Gary: They, they got lucky with a guided missile. That happens all the time.
Mark: They got lucky means we don't have to change any design, let's keep buying them.
Gary: I've talked to people in the industry since that article came out, because I'm getting little leaks saying, "Yeah, you're right, but I can never tell you you're right." What they stress overall is inertia. These are massive amounts of money, and these are careers.You used to quote Bush's line, "Jobs, jobs, jobs."
Gary: Baker, OK.
Mark: That was Baker's, Baker, when he finally said the reason for the Gulf War I and why are we going to war, he just said, "Jobs, jobs, jobs," when he was secretary of state.
Gary: I think that explains everything about defense procurement. To all budding war nerds out there, the closer you come to realizing that and the sooner you stop believing that it's got anything to do with defense, the more clearly you'll see what's happening.I honestly found that a very painful awakening, when that started to happen to me. But once you see it, it's everywhere. Most of us Americans are having a hard time. I know I'm broke in Kuwait, and it isn't easy. But there are a few people who are doing extremely well. A lot of them are in the defense procurement industry.
Think of it now. If you woke up the day after 9/11, where would you put your money? It's got to be defense. Those were the stocks.
Mark: The suckers were outraged and angry and shocked and didn't know what to do. The smart, cunning people though, "I'm setting up a new defense consultancy and raking in cash and feeding the fear." That's what happened.
Gary: We know some of these people who [inaudible 01:02:09] a lot of it, didn't they? [inaudible 01:02:13] . But anyway.
Mark: We're reaching the hour point right now. I just want to maybe wrap up this show. This is very special. It's like a Dickens War Nerd Christmas carol. I want to wrap it up, maybe with a prediction or something? I don't know. What do you think about that? It's kind of dangerous in your business. You've done it and you've actually come out right just about every time.I guess you don't have to predict with absolute certitude, but just a general prediction. Like, where things are going to go with Iraq and Syria, that particular war, in 2015. Or is that just a bad idea to try and predict?
Gary: I can make a reasonable prediction. I can't swear to it, but I can guess. Islamic State will shrink. It will be what it always has been, a Sunni militia that will eventually have to abandon its attempt to fight a conventional war. But it won't vanish, because it's all that's left as the representative of Iraq's Sunni Arabs who until 2003 were the ruling tribe.Again, it's useful in a limited way to think about the south in 1865. Just because you've been defeated doesn't mean you go away or you stopped being dangerous. They'll always be there, they'll always be dangerous. I predict they will go back to a more irregular style of warfare.
Because they were doing very well at that until they got these grandiose designs about the caliphate. The caliphate is a disastrous idea because it requires that you have all the trappings of a real state.
If you look at Islamic State band's tweets, you'll see why this is so important. They keep doing these really almost sad things, like, "Look, we have a currency. Gold and silver. We are a real state. We have a headquarters. We have this, we have that." They are so pathetically attached to the idea [inaudible 01:04:18] being just like all the other big boys, and it's killing them. Eventually someone will realize that.
Mark: It's also the heart of their strength, in a way, isn't it? That's how they get all these Jihadists.
Gary: That's how they get the Jihadists from Dusseldorf and [inaudible 01:04:35] . Those guys are going to stand out really kind of badly when they have to go back. They'll either kill them or sell them to somebody else. They're big on selling people. I don't think they'd hesitate to sell those guys. They don't really need them. What they need is to be the revenge of the Sunni, the Iraqi Sunni.
Mark: This reminds me of something. I hadn't thought about this before. When you go back and read, I think maybe it was "Ghost Wars" or one of those books about Afghanistan from the 80s through the 90s, and you read about the rise of the Taliban, you can kind of see some parallels and see maybe where ISIS is coming from.There were these warlords. There was a central government, which was very unpopular, which had its territory. Then there were all these warlords all around. All of them were sort of fighting to be dominant.
Then suddenly, at some point, this sort of like, "We are the purist force around," they came in when everybody had really weakened each other pretty badly except maybe for the lion of the [inaudible 01:05:47] , the guy in the north. He was the only who was completely weakened.
In any event, the Taliban came and just swept in. Of course they had Saudi money or Gulf money. They had Pakistani generals and officers helping guide them.
Gary: That's absolutely right. Remember, they were also the vehicle of what had always been the dominant group. The dominant group was always the Pashtun. Those warlords you mentioned like Ahmed Shah Massoud and [inaudible 01:06:17] and all those guys, they were either Tajik or Uzbek.Suddenly, to their shock and disgust, the Pashtun, who are a scary bunch of people, found themselves as the one group in Afghanistan that didn't seem to have a dominant vehicle. Then, suddenly, boom, they had one. That's really important. That's a very strong parallel to Iraq now.
The Sunni had always dominated in Iraq. Then suddenly they were forced out. The US, more or less, installed a Shia regime with a little Kurdish enclave in the north. It was a huge shock to the. I remember someone describing graffiti on a Sunni town, "Better Saddam's hell than American paradise."
There was a lot of that kind of thought. If you're a young male, nothing is more important than dominance. When we're talking about the Sunni, we're talking about the young males. I'm sure a lot of Sunni women are not thrilled with the way things are going, but nobody cares really. They are not going to swallow this humiliation. They'll always be there.
Like I said, they cannot afford to strut around with a bunch of red haired converts from northern France if they go back to guerrilla warfare. Those guys will die, be sold, or be returned to the security services. Then there will be a smaller Islamic state killing quietly, breaking into prisons, which they used to do really well until they got these grandiose ideas.
Mark: That's good. Thanks for talking with us all the way from Kuwait City. I know it's late there.
Gary: My pleasure.
Mark: Stay safe. Hopefully we'll be doing this more next year. We'll see what happens with PANDO and Toyota, our potential sponsor.
Gary: I'm looking forward to it. Oh God, we've got such a link set up there. Yeah.