Monday, August 14, 2017

The New Yorker


Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?
By Robin Wright
Having spent my life covering wars, I've thought a lot about this subject. So I wrote about it for The New Yorker today: "Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?
A day after the brawling and racist brutality in Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe asked, “How did we get to this place?” The more relevant question after Charlottesville—and other deadly episodes in Ferguson, Charleston, Dallas, Saint Paul, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria—is where the United States is headed. How fragile is the union, our republic, and a country that has long been considered the world’s most stable democracy? The dangers are now bigger than the collective episodes of violence. “The radical right was more successful in entering the political mainstream last year than in half a century,” the Southern Poverty Law Center reported in February. The organization documents more than nine hundred active (and growing) hate groups in the United States.
America’s stability is increasingly an undercurrent in political discourse. The pattern of civil strife has evolved worldwide over the past sixty years. Today, few civil wars involve pitched battles from trenches along neat geographic front lines. Many are low-intensity conflicts with episodic violence in constantly moving locales....
Read on....

Friday, August 4, 2017

The New Yorker

Why is Donald Trump Still So Horribly Witless About the World?
By Robin Wright 
Max Boot, a lifelong conservative who advised three Republican Presidential candidates on foreign policy, keeps a folder labelled “Trump Stupidity File” on his computer. It’s next to his “Trump Lies” file. “Not sure which is larger at this point,” he told me this week. “It’s neck-and-neck.”
Six months into the Trump era, foreign-policy officials from eight past Administrations told me they are aghast that the President is still so witless about the world. “He seems as clueless today as he was on January 20th,” Boot, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. Trump’s painful public gaffes, they warn, indicate that he’s not reading, retaining, or listening to his Presidential briefings. And the newbie excuse no longer flies.
“Trump has an appalling ignorance of the current world, of history, of previous American engagement, of what former Presidents thought and did,” Geoffrey Kemp, who worked at the Pentagon during the Ford Administration and at the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration, reflected. “He has an almost studious rejection of the type of in-depth knowledge that virtually all of his predecessors eventually gained or had views on.”
Read on....
http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/why-is-donald-trump-still-so-horribly-witless-about-the-world

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The New Yorker

Are We Nearing the End with ISIS?
By Robin Wright
The American diplomat Brett McGurk is the central player in the seventy-two-nation coalition fighting the Islamic State, a disparate array of countries twice the size of nato. He has now worked all of America’s major wars against extremism—in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—under three very different Presidents: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump. McGurk served in Baghdad after the ouster of Saddam Hussein; he used his experience clerking for the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist on the Supreme Court to help draft Iraq’s new constitution. President Bush brought McGurk back to Washington to serve on the National Security Council and help run the campaign against Al Qaeda. President Obama tapped him to work Iraq and Iran at the State Department. McGurk was visiting Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, when isis seized nearby Mosul. In 2015, he became Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter isis. President Trump kept him on.
In a sign of how fast the Islamic State is shrinking, McGurk last month visited northern Syria. I called on him Wednesday, at his small whitewashed office on the ground floor of the State Department, to assess the future of isis and the world’s most unconventional nation. McGurk is an optimist, long-term, despite the chorus of skeptics in Washington about extremism, Iraq and Syria, and U.S. foreign policy in the volatile Middle East. The interview has been edited and condensed. McGurk’s most chilling answer was when he talked about how many isis fighters are still alive.
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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The New Yorker

Is the Iran Deal Slipping Away?
By Robin Wright 
On July 17, the White House hastily organized a press teleconference on the Iranian nuclear deal. The accord—brokered by the world’s six major powers two years ago—is to President Trump’s foreign policy what Obamacare is to his domestic policy: he is determined to destroy it, without a coherent or viable strategy, so far, to replace it. It’s also not clear that Trump fully understands its details, complex diplomatic process, or long-term stakes any more than he does health care.
During the White House briefing, I asked the three senior Administration officials whether, after months of inflammatory declarations about the “bad deal” and the “bad” government in Tehran, the Trump Administration is moving toward a policy of regime change. It often sounds like it. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress in June that U.S. policy includes “support of those elements inside Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.”
For two years, I covered the tortured diplomacy from both Washington and Tehran. I now feel the deal slipping away. The most important non-proliferation agreement in a quarter century, it was a diplomatic breakthrough because no one liked it and every party had to compromise. It succeeded in ending thirty-six years of tension in a way that—even Iran concedes—could have facilitated diplomacy on other flash points, notably Syria’s grisly war. It extended the potential “breakout” to produce a weapon to a year or more. It stipulated in three different ways that Iran will never be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb, and forged an international agreement on automatic “snap back” sanctions if it should try. It allowed Tehran to get some closely monitored capabilities back over time, yet it allowed the United States to maintain sanctions—and leverage—on Iran for other issues.
On July 18, I sat down in New York with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, first one on one, and then with a small group of American journalists, to discuss the precarious state of play. 
Read on...

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The New Yorker

Can Mosul Be Put Back Together?
By Robin Wright 
For three years, Lena Kandes and her family lived under isis rule in Mosul. Sequestered in her home after being forced to abandon her university studies, she created an online alias—which she asked me to use—so she could connect with the outside world but not be traceable by the Islamic State’s goons. “We were prisoners there,” she told me earlier this year in Kurdistan, where her family had fled. “We got close to losing our minds.” Through a window, she watched a crowd stone to death a woman suspected of adultery. Kandes felt especially vulnerable because her father had been a contractor for the U.S. military. They had hosted U.S. Army officers at their home.
“My father hid the whole time isis was in Mosul,” she said. “We changed his look and burned papers, in the garden, showing that he had worked with the U.S. Army.” isis tried to recruit her sixteen-year-old brother, the youngest of her siblings, to be a “warrior of God” and a hero. “We knew from the things he said, the way he was acting,” she told me. “My mother told him that she’d raised him never to be like this.” The family bought video games from the underground, to divert his attention.
Last October, Iraq launched an offensive to liberate its second-largest city. “We were praying and waiting—and waiting,” Kandes said. As the battles raged, often block by block, her home lost power, then water. “We were so cold,” she said. “We were running out of strength.” In December, Kandes’s street became the front line between isis and Iraq’s élite counterterrorism force. “Our kitchen was full of bullets, the windows were all broken,” she told me. “Then isis came and said, ‘This is a war zone and we want to use your house.’ We were sure, ninety per cent, that we would die. So many died in our area.”
Kandes, along with her parents and four brothers, decided to try to escape—by foot.
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Sunday, July 9, 2017

The New Yorker

Mosul Falls: What's Next for ISIS?
By Robin Wright
     Exactly three years after it was declared, the Islamic State is now near defeat. The Iraqi Army has liberated Mosul, the largest city under isis control, while a Syrian militia has penetrated the Old City section of Raqqa, the capital of the pseudo-caliphate. But it is far too soon to celebrate. Since the rise of jihadi extremism four decades ago, its most enduring trait, through ever-evolving manifestations, is its ability to reinvent and revive movements that appeared beaten.
     Osama bin Laden slunk out of Afghanistan in disgrace, in 1989, after his miscalculations contributed to the deaths of thousands of Arab fighters. He was expelled from Sudan and lost his Saudi citizenship in the nineteen-nineties. He reëmerged to carry out the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but then was forced to flee Afghanistan. He abandoned his own fighters at Tora Bora, to go into hiding. A decade later, he was killed in a lightning raid by Navy seals. His body was dumped at sea.
     isis has followed a similar pattern. In its first iteration in Iraq, the group was “on the brink of collapse in 2007 and 2008—its senior leadership either dead, in hiding, or in prison,” Soufan notes. Tens of thousands of Iraqi tribesmen, backed by the United States, had turned on it. Its jihadi ranks were decimated to a few dozen men forced into the underground. Within seven years, however, its new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had reorganized and rebranded his group. By 2015, it had attracted more than thirty thousand fighters, from a hundred countries, to fight for the first modern caliphate. Despite an appalling death rate on the battlefield, of roughly ten thousand fighters a year, thousands more kept coming.
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Sunday, July 2, 2017

The New Yorker

America's Badass Immigrant Astronaut
By Robin Wright 
In the rarefied world of space travellers, NASA’s new astronaut class—seven men and five women, picked from a record-breaking eighteen thousand applicants—includes one, nicknamed “Jaws,” who played basketball at M.I.T., is a Marine Corps major, and was decorated for flying Cobra gunships on a hundred and fifty combat missions in Afghanistan. The astronaut candidate is also an immigrant—an Iranian-American, the only one with roots in the Middle East since the first class of astronauts was selected, in 1959. Most striking, Jaws is a woman. Her name is Jasmin Moghbeli, and she wears her black hair pulled back, accentuating the elegant Persian nose on her long, oval face. 
Read on....
http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/jasmin-moghbeli-americas-badass-immigrant-astronaut

Friday, June 23, 2017

The New Yorker


Is ISIS Conceding Defeat? 
By Robin Wright 
Three years ago, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi chose the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, in Mosul, as the site to proclaim his new Islamic State. The mosque, known as al-Hadba, or the “hunchback,” for its leaning minaret, is a fabled landmark in the Middle East. It dates back to the twelfth century. The creation of a modern caliphate was symbolized when the black isis flag was hoisted atop the minaret, on July 4, 2014. It was Baghdadi’s first, and still only, public appearance.
“I do not promise you, as the kings and rulers promise their followers and congregations, luxury, security, and relaxation,” he saidfrom the mosque’s pulpit. “Instead, I promise you what Allah promised his faithful worshipers”—a jihad to consume all other territory and people in the world. “This is a Duty on Muslims that has been lost for centuries.”
The Iraqi Army had set its sights on the al-Nuri Mosque as the ultimate prize in the campaign to oust isis from Mosul, which was launched eight months ago. Ferocious urban battles around the Old City have been fought within fifty yards of the mosque over the past few days. Iraqis hoped that their beloved mosque would be liberated by Eid al-Fitr, the joyful celebration that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Instead, on Wednesday night, isispreëmpted the Army by blowing up the Great Mosque.  Ironically, it acted during the period of Ramadan known as Laylat al-Qadr, when Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.
Once again, the Great Mosque of al-Nuri reflects the fate of the world’s most notorious terrorist group; this time, its demise. The black flag no longer flies from the tipping minaret.
“Blowing up the al-Hadba minaret and the al-Nuri Mosque amounts to an official acknowledgement of defeat,” Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, said on Thursday. “It’s a matter of a few days and we will announce the total liberation of Mosul.”
Read on....

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The New Yorker

Saudi Arabia's Game of Thrones
By Robin Wright
In the fractious world of Middle Eastern politics, Mohammed bin Salman is seen either as a long-awaited young reformer shaking up the world’s most autocratic society, or as an impetuous and inexperienced princeling whose rapid rise to power could destabilize Saudi Arabia, the preëminent sheikhdom on the energy-rich Arabian Peninsula. Either way, the thirty-one-year-old is now set to be the kingdom’s next ruler—potentially for the next half century—following an abrupt shakeup in the royal family.
On Wednesday, King Salman, who is eighty-one and frail, ousted his more seasoned heir—a fifty-seven-year-old nephew who crushed Al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia during decades as the counterterrorism tsar—in favor of Prince Mohammed, the monarch’s seventh and favorite son. The sprawling royal family has traditionally shared power among the first generation of sons of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founding father of modern Saudi Arabia. When he died in 1953, he had fathered forty-three sons and even more daughters. Since then, an artful balancing act has distributed politics, privilege, and financial perks among the royal family’s many branches. The arrangement preëmpted serious dissent.
Now, in a royal decree, the king’s move has bypassed his own brothers, hundreds of royals in the second generation who thought that they had a shot at the kingship, and even his own older sons. Prince Mohammed is the youngest heir apparent in Saudi history—by decades. In a country long ruled by men who grew up without air-conditioning or direct-dial phones, the new crown prince talks of growing up playing video games, carries an iPhone, and talks openly about idolizing Steve Jobs.
Not everyone is happy.
Read on....
http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/saudi-arabias-game-of-thrones

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The New Yorker

My Last Conversation with My Father
By Robin Wright 
As my sister, Jana, tells it, my father and I had one long conversation that spanned thirty-four years. “From the time I remember, you and dad were always talking—about the world, about sports, about everything,” she told me recently. My dad often told us that he assumed that he would have sons, but he ended up with girls. He eventually adjusted. I was his firstborn; I became his mission.
My father, L. Hart Wright, was the son of conservative Baptists in Oklahoma—his father was a bank president and his mother a snob who boasted of having descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He became an agnostic, a liberal, and a law professor at the University of Michigan who ironed his own clothes. He wore bow ties most of his life. My mother made them. He ended up with four hundred, kept in boxes marked “Winter,” “Spring,” “Summer,” and “Fall.”
He taught his children and his students with ferocious passion. My mother was an actress and my father could be a stage-door Johnny, doting on her performances. But he rivalled her for theatric flare. “For him, a class was a dramatic piece,” his colleague Douglas Kahn once told a campus publication. He made his classes into morality plays, full of flawed characters and human drama and life lessons—often a bit of mischievous humor as well. Sally Katzen, one of his students, wrote about being perpetually late for his 8 a.m. classes—until the day Dad greeted her with a tray of eggs, bacon, toast, juice, and coffee.
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Monday, June 12, 2017

The New Yorker

The Library Without Any Books in Mosul
By Robin Wright
I could smell the acrid soot a block away. The library at the University of Mosul, among the finest in the Middle East, once had a million books, historic maps, and old manuscripts. Some dated back centuries, even a millennium, Mohammed Jasim, the library’s director, told me. Among its prize acquisitions was a Quran from the ninth century, although the library also housed thousands of twenty-first-century volumes on science, philosophy, law, world history, literature, and the arts. During the thirty-two months that the Islamic State ruled the city, the university campus, on tree-lined grounds near the Tigris River, was gradually closed down and then torched. Quite intentionally, the library was hardest hit. ISIS sought to kill the ideas within its walls—or at least the access to them.
On a rainy day this spring, I walked the muddy and eerily deserted university grounds. I turned a corner and saw the library, a block-long building, charred black and its shell strewn, inside and out, with splintered glass, burnt beams, heat-warped furniture, toppled shelves, and mounds of ashes. In December, as the Iraqi Army pushed into Mosul, ISIS fighters had set the library alight. The books had served as kindling. 
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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The New Yorker

Terror Strikes Tehran
By Robin Wright 
Terrorists attacked two of the most important symbols of Iran’s Islamic government—its well-guarded parliament building and the lavish shrine where the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is buried. The basic facts on Wednesday, as reported by Iranian media, followed a familiar pattern: mid-morning, four gunmen penetrated security in the parliament’s Hall of Visitors and opened fire, sparking a dramatic standoff with security forces, which spanned four hours. Government snipers took up positions around the imposing Majlis building and helicopters hovered overhead as people inside tried to drop out of windows to safety. At least one attacker detonated a suicide vest. At Khomeini’s tomb, two people—one a woman—opened fire on pilgrims and then detonated a bomb at the entrance. In the twin attacks, the deadliest in Iran in at least a decade, thirteen people were killed, plus six assailants, and forty-three were injured.

Accounts then quickly diverged over just who was responsible for the terrorist rampage. The Islamic State claimed credit for its first-ever attack in Iran. Soon after the attacks, ISIS released a twenty-four-second video through its Amaq news agency, which showed a rifle-toting gunman in parliament, standing over a bloodied body. The attacker invoked terms used in ISIS propaganda about the group’s ability to survive in the Middle East even as it loses its caliphate in neighboring Iraq and Syria. Amid gunshots, the gunman said, “Oh God, thank you. Do you think we will leave? No! We will remain, God willing.” A member of Iran’s parliament later confirmed that the shooting took place in his office and that the dead man was a member of his staff.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps had a different version, however. It charged that Saudi Arabia and the United States were ultimately to blame, even as it acknowledged the claim by isis. The I.R.G.C. said, in a statement, “Public opinion in the world, especially in Iran, recognizes this terrorist attack—which took place a week after a joint meeting of the U.S. President and the head of one of the region’s backward governments, which constantly supports fundamentalist terrorists—as very significant.” It charged that the ISISclaim of responsibility “reveals (Saudi Arabia’s) hand in this barbaric action.” Read on....

The New Yorker

Trump Sabotages His Own Mideast Coalition
By Robin Wright
Less than three weeks ago, on his first trip abroad as President, Donald Trump greeted the young Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who was swathed in white robes and headdress, with effusive warmth. “We’ve been friends now for a long time, haven’t we?” Trump said. “Our relationship is extremely good.” The President announced that the two leaders would discuss “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment, because nobody makes it like the United States. First, that means jobs,” he said, adding, “It also means, frankly, great security back here” in the Gulf. The same day, at the summit in Riyadh, Trump warmly welcomed Qatar into his new coalition of conservative Sunni regimes, designed to confront Islamic extremism and contain Iran.

On Tuesday, in a series of startling and undiplomatic tweets, Trump threw the leader of oil-rich Qatar under the diplomatic bus. Trump’s stunning flip-flop came a day after a toxic split in the Arab world—the biggest in years—as Saudi Arabia led six countries to sever diplomatic and commercial relations with neighboring Qatar. 

“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” the President tweeted after the Saudi announcement. He not only took sides in an intra-Arab dispute; he sabotaged the cohesion of his own new Sunni coalition—which he touted just last month as an unprecedented foreign-policy success. Read on....


Monday, June 5, 2017

The New Yorker

How Different--and Dangerous--Is Terrorism Today?
By Robin Wright
On Sunday, just hours after the assault on London Bridge, British Prime Minister Theresa May stepped in front of 10 Downing Street and told the world, “We believe we are experiencing a new trend in the threat we face.”
In many ways, the attack in the British capital, as well as others over the past two years in Nice, Berlin, Stockholm, Paris, and Manchester, actually weren’t all that unique in terms of tactics, targets, or even motive. A century ago, a battered horse-drawn wagon loaded with a hundred pounds of dynamite—attached to five hundred pounds of cast-iron weights—rolled onto Wall Street during lunch hour. The wagon stopped at the busiest corner in front of J. P. Morgan’s bank. At 12:01 p.m., it exploded, splaying lethal shrapnel and bits of horse as high as the thirty-fourth floor of the Equitable Building on Broadway. A streetcar was derailed a block away. Thirty-eight people were killed; many were messengers, stenographers, clerks, and brokers simply on the street at the wrong time—what are today known as “soft targets.” Another hundred and forty-three people were injured.

The attack on September 16, 1920, was, at the time, the deadliest act of terrorism in American history. Few surpassed it for the next seventy-five years, until the Oklahoma City bombing, in 1995, and then the September 11th attacks, in 2001. The Wall Street case was never solved, although the investigation strongly pointed to followers of a charismatic Italian anarchist named Luigi Galleani. Like isis and its extremist cohorts today, they advocated violence and insurrection against Western democracies and justified innocent deaths to achieve it.

Europe has also faced periods of more frequent terrorism than in the recent attacks. Between 1970 and 2015, more than ten thousand people were killed in over eighteen thousand attacks, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. The deadliest decades were, by far, the nineteen-seventies and eighties—during the era of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang, Italy’s Red Brigades, Spain’s E.T.A., Britain’s Irish Republican Army, and others. The frequency of attacks across Europe reached as high as ten a week. In 1980, I covered what was then the deadliest terrorist attack in Europe since the Second World War when a bomb, planted in a suitcase, blew up in the waiting room of Bologna’s train station. Eighty-five people were killed; body parts were everywhere. A neo-fascist group, the Armed Revolutionary Nuclei, claimed credit.

 Yet May is correct: modern terrorism is still evolving. Read on....

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The New Yorker

Does the Manchester Attack Show the Islamic State’s Strength or Weakness?
By Robin Wright
Ten hours after Salman Abedi blew himself up outside the Manchester Arena, where the American pop star Ariana Grande was performing, ISIS claimed a grisly attack that killed twenty-two people and injured dozens more. “With Allah’s grace and support, a soldier of the Khilafah (caliphate) managed to place explosive devices in the midst of the gatherings of the Crusaders in the British city of Manchester,” the group boasted on social messaging apps, in multiple languages. The odd thing—for a group that has usually been judicious about its claims and accurate in its facts—is that it got key details wrong.

The discrepancies were conspicuous—and clumsy. In one early claim, the message referred to a “security detachment,” as if there were multiple operatives. It implied that the attack involved multiple bombs left on site. It missed the fact that a lone bomb had been detonated in a single suicide operation. It did not refer to a “martyr,” as it usually does when perpetrators are killed. It did not name or claim Abedi.


“It looks like the work of ISIS,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told me on Monday, although the British investigation was ongoing. Yet the mistakes also spurred speculation about ISIS’s command of foreign operations, its communications with operatives or sympathizers, and even its access to news, which had already reported the basics of the attack. Just how much has ISIS been disrupted?
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