State of the Islamic State

14 August 2014

Tracking the Islamic State


In light of President Obama’s decision to authorize air strikes against the Islamic State, Sunni militants who have overtaken much of Iraq, New America’s International Security Program released a map that shows exactly how much of Iraq is under militant control.

Although the group began taking control of cities, towns, military outposts, and oil wells and dams across Iraq earlier this year, the humanitarian crisis has worsened in recent weeks — even the Kurdish militias who were withstanding offensives by the militants before gave up substantial ground. Since the situation on the ground is so dynamic and reports are often unclear or even contradictory, this map is meant to be an up-to-date account of which group controls what territory. Each point on the map is scaled according to the square mileage of the city and a sliding bar lets you see the progression of ISIS — and the conflict — over time as they move across the country.

The Bursting Kurdish Bubble


Just one month ago, the Chief of Staff to Kurdish President Barzazi and the Kurdish Defense Minister travelled to Washington, D.C., and policy makers in wondered if, finally, the time was ripe for an independent state. The Iraqi province of Kurdistan was held up as what Iraq could be: a secure area with a booming economy and a what was thought to be a well trained army.

After the American-lead no fly zone in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, the Kurds focused on internal economic growth by taking advantage of the vast supply of oil. The Kurdish Regional Government convinced oil companies like Exxonmobil, Total, and Gazprom to defy the government in Baghdad and invest in the region by showing them how stable their investment would be, while the rest of Iraq became engulfed in the rising number of I.E.D.

A model for regional stability, an independent Kurdistan was the future of Iraq, many (including Vice President Biden) thought.

Then ISIS came.

In June, ISIS took over the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit, and quickly focused their sights on the north eastern Kurdish region. While groups like the Afghan Taliban receive funding through the illicit trade of illegal drugs like heroin, ISIS is much more sophisticated, said Steve Levine, a New America Future Tense Fellow, at a recent panel discussion held at New America. They are doing something that no terrorist group has been able to do so far: gain control of standard resources like wheat fields, oil refineries, and dams that power hydroelectric plants. They’re organized, they have a central command and control center, they’re logistically sophisticated, and they have democratized violence using social media for their own purposes. All of these things have allowed ISIS to continue their advance and drive  at the heart of the Kurdish independent region, i.e. oil refineries in the north, and so the bubble has burst on dreams of an independent Kurdistan.

Put simply: the fantasy of a Kurdish independent state has evaporated for the time being.

As recently as last week, the Kurdish city of Erbil was attacked in a strong offensive by ISIS, and American diplomats living in the city were in danger. Fearing another Benghazi disaster, which left four American diplomats dead, President Obama ordered the use of targeted airstrikes to slow the advance of ISIS. Bolstered by these airstrikes, the Peshmerga have pushed back ISIS in concentrated areas. But in vast areas without air support, the losses of the Peshmerga have continued. Without proper training and experience, the Peshmerga simply have not performed as expected, said Col. Derek Harvey (Ret.) a former Senior Analyst for Iraq for General David H. Petraeus. The losses currently being felt by the Peshmerga may be due to the fact that after the Iraqi government pulled out of several towns, and the Kurds over-extended their territory, extending their borders by almost 40 percent overnight, said Denise Natali, a Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University.

At the same time that Kurds have been taking these significant territorial losses, the backbone of their economy –  their oil industry — evaporated almost overnight. All of the major oil companies in the Kurdish region have left, and the economy has come to a virtual standstill, said Natali. More so, Kurdish tankers that are currently carrying oil have been operating in international legal limbo and sitting just off shore. Unable to dock and unload their cargo, a legal battle has begun in American civil courts. To the delight of the government in Baghdad, the State Department has actively called countries and oil traders to discourage the oil from being purchased.

In fact, even if the oil industry was operating as usual, the idea of an economically vibrant Kurdish state was a myth. “The Kurdish economy has been propped up by the government in Baghdad, the United States, and even Iran,” said Natali. “Even if the oil industry was operating at full capacity, they would essentially be a client state of Turkey.”

The advance of ISIS has shown that Kurdistan cannot succeed without a strong Iraq, and vice versa. The U.S. airstrikes that have bolstered the Kurds have been closely coordinated with the government back in Baghdad, and the intelligence shared between the two armies has been essential. As for the Kurdish oil, it can only be exported if Baghdad drops its proprietary claims and allows it to be sold on the international market. Put simply: the fantasy of a Kurdish independent state has evaporated for the time being. But if the Kurds continue to work with the government in Baghdad, there’s a chance that they could prevent ISIS from spreading into Jordan or Lebanon and further destabilizing the region, and, if they’re lucky, they could start to rebuild the region — together.

About the Author

Justin Lynch
Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at the New America Foundation. Outside of New America, Justin is the Youth Ambassador to the United Nations for Voices of African Mothers, where he works to promote gender equality and educational opportunity in West Africa.
Emily Schneider
Emily Schneider is a research associate for the national security program at New America.

Healthcare in a Suspicious World


Ebola might not kill you on this side of the Atlantic, but your mistrust of medicine just might.

I feel Ebola’s pain personally, having been born in the Congo and spent much of my youth in Liberia. In fact, when I was 10 and a patient in the emergency room at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Liberia, I was so much in awe of the hospital and the doctor treating me that I decided then that I was going to become a doctor. I, too, was going to help a sea of people just as my overwhelmed physician did that day.

I’m familiar with disaster – I was in Haiti three days after the devastating 2010 earthquake – but I look at this recent Ebola outbreak with a combination of sadness and anger. How could this be happening again? I have worked under circumstances where there were too few resources, the need great and, in Haiti’s case, virtually no health care infrastructure. So it’s not necessarily about the facts, but about the circumstances in which Ebola continues to manifest itself that confound me.

JFK – the hospital where my career dreams were born – has become so overwhelmed with this current Ebola virus that normal daily functions such as the pharmacy and operating rooms have to be curtailed, and one of its top medical consultants, Dr. Samuel Brisbane, has died of the disease.

So, if it’s this easy to prevent the spread of this disease, how do we find ourselves back here again?

By now, we know the facts about Ebola: a thousand people have died in three countries; it’s the deadliest outbreak of the disease; now an international public health emergency. No need to review its brutal, horror-movie symptoms. Less known, though, is that even in the absence of a cure or a vaccine, spread of the virus can be controlled with simple basic health protocols: finding and isolating the patient, finding the patient’s contacts, implementing universal infectious control precautions by healthcare workers ( i.e., gloves, gowns, washing hands), and educating the public about transmission of the disease. It’s thought that the transmission of the virus occurs through direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person, even a dead one. It’s not spread through air droplets like the common cold or flu.

So, if it’s this easy to prevent the spread of this disease, how do we find ourselves back here again? Reminder: I’m about to make this relevant to you, my smug American friend.

Multiple recent reports suggest health care workers in the affected regions in West Africa are running into resistance and mistrust among the populations near the outbreak. They’re being turned away from homes where there are known dead victims of Ebola, and not permitted to take the bodies away for appropriate burial or even to enter the homes to question family members. Sometimes they are even threatened with bodily harm if they enter a village. This kind of perpetual suspicion makes it hard to provide help. And the suspicion seems – seems – like it’s from another time. Dr. James Sirleaf, an ER doctor from Albany, Georgia, who frequently travels to Liberia, says that many are suspicious of anything they hear from healthcare workers, worried that they will isolate their family member and not feed them, and just leave them there to die.

“Families are hiding their family members, not revealing that they in fact have Ebola, they even get upset when you tell them they shouldn’t be eating certain meats (monkeys, bats and certain rodents are the bush meats – wild game – and might be a natural reservoir for the virus),”  adds Sirleaf, the son of current Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and co-founder of the HEARTT (health education and relief through teaching) foundation that provides volunteer US- trained physicians to work in Liberia.

The notion of mistrusting the medical establishment in the face of proven scientific evidence is not just an African phenomenon, and only relegated to the poor and uneducated.

From America, we might paternalistically write off these fears and suspicions as driven by extreme poverty, illiteracy, cultural customs. To have this sort of mistrust during this type of crisis would seem pathological, somewhat irrational. But it’s not. It’s quite predictable. Sure, the affected countries are near the bottom of most lists of health care delivery. Liberia, after decades of economic deprivation and civil war, has fewer than 100 practicing physicians. In a 2011 World Bank report, Guinea was ranked last in the world in hospital beds per capita. This is fertile ground for a virus that can live outside the body for several days to survive.

This makes sanitation, what ordinary citizens can do without medical help, of even utmost importance. So, the idea of families harboring their sick family members seems irrational. However, the notion of mistrusting the medical establishment in the face of proven scientific evidence is not just an African phenomenon, and only relegated to the poor and uneducated. In the book, The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy, journalist Seth Mnookin illustrates how some parents in the United States have stopped vaccinating their kids, which has led to outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, two diseases that had been almost eradicated. He adeptly chronicles how highly educated people, in the face of fear, in this case, the fear of autism, disregard years of a provable fact: that vaccinations help prevent disease.

I find even in my own practice that patients becoming increasingly more distrustful of healthcare. Not a skepticism, which I can appreciate, and encourage, but just flat out distrust. When given the choice of using antibiotics to treat a bacterial skin infection, patients choose turpentine: They think it just works better. Or when patients just decide to stop taking all their blood pressure medications – without taking the concurrent steps of watching their diets, losing weight, consulting with their physicians – but then wonder why they get headaches when their blood pressures fluctuates.

When we stop trusting the people charged with taking care of us, how do we treat disease? Persistence may be what wins in the end. Even with suspicion, health care workers still have to do their jobs. I took an oath when I became a doctor, so while I chose to be a doctor, sometimes I can’t chose the circumstance in which I do my job, even when it’s my own patients who make my job harder. Just like physicians like myself and Dr. Sirleaf have to continue to take care of and educate patients everyday, those aid workers will keep knocking on doors and educating their communities, so that another 10-year-old girl can decide that one day she will do the same.

About the Author

Mana L. Kasongo-Robinson
Dr. Mana L. Kasongo-Robinson is an emergency physician and  journalist based out of Albany, Georgia. Her articles have been published by Newsweek,, the Black Star News, and the Women’s Media Center. Her work focuses primarily on the pursuit of social justice through medicine and journalism.

How Good Is Your Networking Game?


New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter and guests explore the ideas and policy challenges that not only dominate today’s headlines, but will shape our future. Subscribe to the Weekly Wonk Podcast in iTunes.

Are you really as connected as you think you are? New America Fellow Eric Tyler tells us that you might not be — that’s right, even with your hundreds of Facebook contacts. But don’t fret. Tyler’s big idea? An online accelerator to help you remedy those critical pain points in your contacts and make your network go global.

Pottery Barn and Foreign Policy

In the run up to the 2003 Iraq war, Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly argued to President Bush that states have a responsibility to fix countries if they break it. What later became known as the “Pottery Barn Rule,” many have debated its merit in foreign policy. With the expected pullout of ISAF forces in Afghanistan in 2016 and the emergence of ISIS in Iraq, the implications of the rule are significant. Does the United States have a responsibility to fix countries like Afghanistan or Iraq?

We asked 4 experts the following question.

The “Pottery Barn Rule” implies that states have a responsibility to fix countries they have broken, like the United States in Iraq, France in Mali, or Belgium in Rwanda. Does the “Pottery Barn Rule” have merit in foreign policy?


Kristen Silverberg, Former Assistant Secretary of State and former Ambassador to the European Union

According to Secretary Powell, the “Pottery Barn rule” was meant to make the unobjectionable point that, as temporary occupier of Iraq, the U.S. would assume responsibility for governing the Iraqi people. As he said to President Bush, “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.”

In the intervention-averse years since, however, the Pottery Barn rule has acquired a logic of its own:  that any decision to intervene militarily in a country necessarily endows the U.S. with ownership of every bit turmoil that follows. It’s an argument for staying home. Like its corollary, the Powell Doctrine (intervene only under specific conditions and then, with overwhelming force), the Pottery Barn rule cabins policymakers to two choices: either avoid military engagement altogether or commit in full, including to the possibility of long-term intervention. According to the rule’s proponents, policymakers shouldn’t debate the merits of a limited engagement with limited aims (protecting civilians, for example) but should commit militarily only if they are prepared to “own it all.”

The hazard in this approach is that limited intervention may offer the best chance of avoiding a more substantial commitment. Early U.S. engagement in Syria, for example, would have reduced the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe, which is now destabilizing the region, and emboldened moderate anti-Assad forces over extremist elements. Every risk we attempted to avoid by staying out of Syria has now materialized, raising the specter of a longer and harder slog. Policymakers need options, not false choices.


Gabriella Blum, Rita E. Hauser Professor of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Harvard Law School

International law does not require nations who go to war to rebuild what they have lawfully broken in another country, even though some international lawyers and policymakers would like rebuilding to be law.

Yet in an era which no longer allows victory to be somebody’s mere military defeat, but always factors in war’s effects on the local population and local politics, the Pottery Barn principle does operate as a powerful disincentive against military interventions by liberal democracies. Military campaigns are no longer assessed solely by the number of enemy combatants killed or the amount of territory seized but also by their ability to adhere to and promote liberal commitments to human rights and prosperity.  Human security everywhere is now defined as a vital part of our national security. This is both a normative ideal and a strategic realization of our complex global security environment. Benevolence and care for the local population therefore become as much a part of operational as airstrikes or detention.

Though there is much to celebrate in the growing humanitarian demands from warring countries, the Pottery Barn principle raises the cost of every intervention to a prohibitive degree even when intervention is justified and needed. The result is an urge for isolationism that cannot be a sound strategy, either for national security or for human security.

Nation-building may well prove to be the right thing to do – during conflict, post-conflict, or (more importantly) regardless of conflict. But it should not be required as a condition for the legitimacy of every military campaign.


Danielle Pletka, Senior Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy, AEI

There’s always been appeal in slogans; Madison Avenue bets the bank on that every year. But they’re not much of a guide when it comes to foreign policy. And inevitably, what sounds good one year doesn’t work that well the next. Consider General Powell’s “Pottery Barn Rule,” a poor excuse for a pseudo-policy in an arena where standards are remarkably low already. So it was the United States that broke Iraq, eh? Not Saddam, mind you? Not the Iran-Iraq war? Not Ba’athist ideology?

Another question: Was Iraq “broken” when Barack Obama “got it”? Not noticeably. It has broken rather because a war that no one appears to care about – Syria – has spilled over into Iraq, as it has into Lebanon and elsewhere. Because powers now shaking Iraq’s foundations should never have risen from the grave of the Iraq war, and were permitted to do so because of the indolence and callousness of Western leaders in the face of extremists and tyrants.

Better than slogans or mindless assignments of responsibility (Belgium in Rwanda? What?), the right answer is for the United States to have a president with a foreign policy vision that shapes his or her understanding of the nation’s role and responsibilities in the world, with a clear understanding of interests and morality. That vision will never be a cookie cutter model of foreign policy, but it will help leaders and the public better weigh the challenges now facing us.


Shibley Telhami, Non-Resident Senior Fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Brookings Institution

This is a wonderful rule when in fact you can fix what you broke. But when you discover that the more you try to fix it the more you break it, it is entirely unwise to continue the damage in the name of fixing it. The outcome in Iraq was entirely predictable; I was not the only one who argued in 2002 (The Stakes: America and the Middle East; and initiated the ad that prepared in the NYT on September 26, 2002, by major scholars of international relations against the war for that reason), that after dismantling the state in Iraq, it would be hard to replace it and that we will end up with terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and it’s allies. There are some things that become a humpy dumpy once broken. The U.S. certainly has some responsibility to help when possible, but my worry about the discourse is that the focus on the things that we could have done better since the 2003 war diverts attention from the original sin that created the Humpty Dumpty: the Iraq war itself.


Allison Stanger, Leng Professor of International Politics and Economics, Middlebury College

“You break it, you own it.” The so-called Pottery Barn rule used to describe General Colin Powell’s hesitance at the prospect of full military intervention in Iraq certainly rang true for American policymakers on multiple occasions, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan. For both strategic and ethical reasons, boots on the ground committed the United States to responsibility for the unintended consequences that inevitably follow in the wake of any military intervention.

The Pottery Barn rule thus has merit in foreign policy, but it also has a statute of limitations with a ragged endpoint when intervention has been privatized. After billions of contract dollars had been poured into Iraq to build democracy after dictatorship and the capacity for the Iraqi state to police its territory and defend itself from external invasion, the U.S. effectively transferred ownership (sovereignty) to the Iraqi government when its troops departed. Contractors, aid workers, and diplomats remained behind. As of January 2014, the State Department still employed some 5000 contractors, 2000 of which were estimated to be Americans. Should the Jihadists reach Baghdad, they are unlikely to care that these infidels don’t wear uniforms.

While airstrikes alone have been seen as a “no-strings attached” option to which the Pottery Barn rule does not apply, they can break plenty. Once considered NATO’s successful intervention because it involved no boots on the ground, Libya is today held up as something to avoid. NATO airstrikes broke it, no one had to own it, and U.S. diplomats, contractors, and above all civilian populations paid the price. Though the commitment of air strikes and military advisors might appear to indicate otherwise, the Obama administration’s main concern in Iraq today is to prevent another Benghazi, which means protecting the Embassy.  Breaking it, even when you don’t own it, turns out to be far from cost-free.

What If You Call an Election and Democracy Loses?


My ten year old and a few of his friends wanted to pose in front of a huge Erdogan poster in an upscale Ankara neighborhood 10 days before the presidential elections. One of his friends, who attends a private elementary school and has secular parents said, “Let’s do two thumbs up,” when I asked “but why?” they all replied, “He is the winner.” Arda’s not a fortune teller. There were no surprises in the election results. And when there are no surprises, is it really democracy?

One bad sign is declining turnout. 74.13 percent of the eligible voters turned out to vote. While that is high for the U.S., it’s the lowest turnout in Turkey since 1977, when voting became compulsory. Even a few months ago in, turnout for municipal elections were 89.9 percent.

Even though it was the first time Turkish expats were allowed to vote where they reside, more than 80 percent chose not to vote.

You can explain this away if you are trying to put a good face on it. Ramadan had just ended. Farm workers were travelling around the country. The strategy of main opposition’s joint candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, backfired:  The leaders of the major left and right wing opposition parties aimed to join forces against Erdogan, but their constituents did follow the plan. Ihsanoglu failed to generate a boost among conservatives, and in many cities nationalist voters opted for Erdogan. Ihsanoglu refrained from rallies during Ramadan while Erdogan campaigned relentlessly. His absence from the trail allowed Erdogan to even convince voters “Ihsanoglu is neutral on Gaza.”  (It’s hard to imagine Ihsanoglu was truly indifferent about the Palestinian issue since he was the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Countries for a decade.)   The left’s candidate Selahattin Demirtas out-performed many expectations, doubling his party’s vote, but many on the left feared that, as a Kurd, he might vote with their bloc.

But, we’re burying the lead.  This was the first time Turkish voters had the opportunity to directly choose their president, and not just any President, but the man who has so consolidated his political power that this election may have taken him past the point of authoritarian return.

Yet, if we scratch the surface, we see that it could hardly be referred as a “fair” election.

Sure, overall, it was a free election in a democratic country. Yet, if we scratch the surface, we see that it could hardly be referred as a “fair” election. Organization of Security and Co-Operation in Europe produced a 13 paged report explaining why the Turkish presidential elections were not fair.   In a sign of the consolidation of power in Turkey, the Supreme Board of Elections promptly discarded OSCE’s report a “groundless,” though it failed to refute the agency’s findings.

Signs of Erdogan’s tightening grip on his country’s levers of power are easy to see, in the restricted media, ambiguous election rules, and lack of accountability on campaign finance regulations.  Let’s start with the media, and not just the media, but the ability to be seen by Turks at all. Until the last 15 days, Demirtas was almost never seen on Turkish state-run television. I was living in a neighborhood the opposition won—and not a single photo of Demirtas or Ihsanoglu was present — it was all Erdogan. It is difficult to call it an equal playing field given the opposition’s lack of access to media.

On the media, OSCE reported that: “TRT1 devoted 51 per cent of coverage to Mr. Erdoğan, while covering Mr. İhsanoğlu and Mr. Demirtaş with 32 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively. In addition, 25 per cent of Mr. İhsanoğlu’s coverage was negative in tone, while Mr. Erdoğan’s coverage was almost all positive.”

This was explained as “normal” by the Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, who was perplexed that opposition candidates would demand more time on TV. Arinc asked, “how can the opposition candidates be equal with Erdogan?”

Erdogan also benefited from the ambiguity of election and campaign rules and regulations. The January 2012, Law on Presidential Elections (LPE), received no support from opposition parties and there was little public consultation. This law established the direct election of the president, but also blocked anyone to be a candidate unless 20 parliamentarians nominated him or her.  If a judge or a banker wanted to run, they’d be required to resign prior to becoming a candidate for Presidency. But the law that says this is required for “fair” elections, lets a Prime Minister or a Minister (read: Erdogan) stay in his job, with all the attendant powers over media that come with incumbency.

The law allowed candidates to fundraise from the public and set donation limits for individuals, but it left unregulated financial contributions from political parties and candidates’ personal funds, which mean you can’t find out who paid for political advertising, rallies, and other expenses.

Even before that law, the 1982 constitution gave the Supreme Board of Elections powers without judicial review, erasing any concept of “separation of powers,” and taking away the power to appeal election disputes.

Given all this power, many pundits wondered why Erdogan had campaigned so intensely. Yet, when your goal is not just the election, but a transformation of the political scene, you need to keep up the game. Erdogan’s relentless campaigning was to convince its constituencies for the legitimacy of an “executive presidency.”  That might sound like the US presidential system but he’s not interested in the rest: federalism, a bicameral Congress or independent Supreme Court.

In the corridors of Ankara, the game is the same: New Turkey means more of Erdogan.

Known to follow the public opinion surveys carefully, Erdogan was well aware that Turkish public was not in favor of a “presidential system”; hence, he utilized this campaign process to lay the foundations of the idea. The net effect of his talking down the premiership, and talking up the presidency, was to convince voters the office is not so important, that Erdogan runs the show from whichever seat he occupies.

Who can stand in front of Erdogan’s dreams? In the last twelve years, press has been successfully tamed; judiciary, security forces and almost all bureaucracy skillfully stacked with loyalists; laws have been repeatedly revised to silence any opposition and corruption charges against himself and his allies. He eloquently established institutions and promptly declared them useless –latest example being TIB, a telecommunications board. Legislation is frequently an expedited process and the public rarely has an opportunity to view what is at stake.

Erdogan has won another election, but it represents a dramatic expansion of his powers, not just another office.  He has made it quite clear that he aims for an illiberal democracy, where even questioning why there could not be a live presidential debate between candidates would promptly put your name on the blacklist.  In the corridors of Ankara, the game is the same: New Turkey means more of Erdogan.

If even a child can tell you who will win an election 10 days before the vote, do you have a democracy anymore?

About the Author

Pinar Tremblay
Pinar Tremblay is a visiting scholar of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is also a contributor to Turkey Pulse of Al-Monitor and writes a regular column for Turkish newspaper T24.

A Separatist Peace?


Let’s say—let’s just say—that there is a country in Eastern Europe on the border of Russia. And let’s say that there is a separatist region in this country that is unrecognized by most of the world but recognized and supported by Russia. And let’s say that Russia is able to use the separatist region to destabilize the rest of the country, and to pit its people and politicians against themselves, and to keep it from pursuing the path toward the EU and NATO. Let’s say that this is done so effectively that those of us in the West stop talking about the future of this country and start bracing ourselves for a so-called new Cold War.

Now let’s say that this country is not Ukraine, but Georgia.

On August 24, the separatist region of Abkhazia in Georgia will hold early elections, following the ousting of its president by a nationalistic group of protesters. Let’s say—let’s just say—that this will matter, too.


 Alexander Ankvab was, until late May, president of the separatist region of Abkhazia, the independence of which is recognized by but a handful of countries, of which Russia is the most prominent.

Georgia is not Ukraine, and Abkhazia is not Crimea or Donetsk. Abkhazia, despite its dependence on Russia, has long seemed to be seeking independence, not annexation.

The issue of separatist regions is central to Georgian politics.  Even in the waning days of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s stoking of Abkhazian separatism led to Georgian protests that – full circle – brought a bloody Soviet crackdown in Tbilisi on April 9, 1989.  The wars in the early 1990s were waged over the autonomy of Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, and resulted in the eventual installment of Moscow-backed Eduard Shevardnadze as Georgia’s president (who was, in turn, ousted in the Rose Revolution by Mikheil Saakashvilli). The signing of the EU Association Agreement in late June was opposed by the people of the separatist regions, on whom the Georgian government has tried to impress the opportunities that it believes will come along on the road to the European Union.

If the goal of Russia with respect to Abkhazia is to destabilize Georgia, it’s working.

Ankvab presided over this much-contested region, lining his pockets with some of the 30 million dollars annually received from Moscow (recently reduced from 60 million) and offering passports and political rights to the ethnic Georgians concentrated in the Abkhaz region of Gali. For this—for corruption or defensiveness of ethnic Abkhazian sovereignty or some combination of the two—he was chased out of his presidential palace, without approval from Moscow.

That, at least, is one narrative. Another is that he was chased out with approval. The suddenness of the uprising, some say, may indicate that Russia was behind Ankvab’s departure.

Why would Russia get rid of a president it had backed, recognized, and legitimized? One theory put forth by a former minister of justice interviewed for this piece is that the Kremlin would like Abkhazia to move toward the South Ossetian model—that is, to dream not of independence, but annexation by Russia. Another is that Russia is showing that it can and will be prepared for all possible scenarios on the ground.

Regardless of what Russia’s end goal with respect to Abkhazia is, and regardless of whether Ankvab’s unceremonious ousting was caused by many in Abkhazia or by one man in the Kremlin, if the goal of Russia with respect to Abkhazia is to destabilize Georgia, it’s working: The current ruling coalition, the Georgian Dream, has tried to distinguish itself from Saakashvili’s government by performing a sort of balancing act between the West and Russia. While Georgia’s prime minister reaffirms the country’s commitment to joining the EU and NATO, he is at the same time trying to get Georgian products back into Russian markets and telling the BBC that he does not believe Russia will try to annex Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

Such comments are met with outrage by opposition party UNM, some members of which have essentially called the prime minister deluded to the reality of occupation. All of this takes place as the Georgian Dream continues to persecute and prosecute UNM members, including Saakashvili himself, for injustices allegedly perpetrated during his reign (the issue is not whether extra-judicial measures were taken by UNM under the justification of benefiting the country, which is widely believed to be true, but rather that forcing a former president into exile and then threatening him with prosecution is perhaps not promising for the future of democratic transition in Georgia).

Russia controls part of Georgia, and, consequently, has its hand always on the lever of Georgian political life and public opinion, which it can destabilize and delegitimize.

Georgia has signed the EU Association Agreement. Western countries have issued their paragraph-long statements against the persecution of UNM. And Abkhazia is holding elections later this month.

Georgia lives under threat of Russian intervention, and not just the militaristic kind. Russia controls part of Georgia, and, consequently, has its hand always on the lever of Georgian political life and public opinion, which it can destabilize and delegitimize.


And why should we say that this matters? And what does any of it have to do with Ukraine? Or with sanctions? Or with Russian-Western relations? Or with you and me?

Let’s say—let’s just say—that Russia uses separatist regions and ethnic and cultural tensions in the countries in its neighborhood. Let’s say that, sure, to some extent this may be out of genuine concern for the people in these countries, but that it is also almost certainly about maintaining control over these countries, and keeping them from getting too far out of its influence, too far into Western ways. Let’s say that this is bad for the democratic development of these countries. Let’s say that this is detrimental to the stability of these countries and to this region. Let’s say that we are seeing that now in Ukraine. Let’s say that we may well see it again in Georgia. And let’s say that an unstable, undemocratic Eastern Europe benefits no one, except, of course, for those who are able to use it to justify their own pursuit of power. Let’s say that Putin is right when he proclaims that national sovereignty is important and should be respected.

Let’s say, as planes come crashing down and sanctions are met with food bans, that what happens in Crimea and Donetsk and South Ossetia and Abkhazia affects us. Let’s say—let’s just say—that this already matters, too.

About the Author

Emily Tamkin
Emily Tamkin is an M.Phil. candidate in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Oxford. She was formerly an editorial intern at New America.

A Rebuttal of Bad History


What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979–89

By Bruce Riedel 

189 pp.  Brookings Institution Press. $27. 

Once again Afghanistan teeters on the edge of a political crisis, an extremist Islamic force is roaming across the Middle East, and the foreign policy community is discussing arming a militant group – this time in Syria and Kurdistan Iraq. Is there one war that can provide policy prescriptions for all of these cases?

On Christmas Eve, 1979, the Soviet 40th Red Army airlifted troops and weapons into Afghanistan, taking the U.S. intelligence community by surprise. At the time, the fall of the Soviet Union was far from certain, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could have been catastrophic for global stability. In actuality, the opposite occurred and the invasion of Afghanistan marked the beginning of the downfall of the Soviet Union. At the end of the war in 1989, the Soviet 40th Red Army crossed the Afghan-Uzbek bridge and disbanded. The Soviet Union soon followed suit, and the Cold War ended. But at the same time, the end of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan marked another event that has come to define international relations: the rise of global jihad.

In What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989, Bruce Riedel accounts for the strategic decisions of each side in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and chronicles the successes and failures of American clandestine operations. Riedel’s recommendations for covert action are clear and concise: Any clandestine operation should avoid mission creep, recognize that unintended consequences will occur, and be independent of the policy process. For the reader it is tempting to prescribe Riedel’s principles to current conflicts. For example, applying the lessons of clandestine action in Afghanistan to the current conflict in Syria could call into question those who support arming the moderate opposition, due to the potential for mission creep and unintended consequences.

What We Won provides an illuminating case study of the realities of clandestine operations, rise of global jihad, and history of Afghanistan before the United States’ invasion.

There is little doubt that some outcomes of the 2009 Afghanistan Policy review that President Obama asked Riedel to chair were subtly reflected in the book. For example, Riedel writes that the Soviet Union severely undersupplied its war effort, and its defeat was almost certain. The United States made a similar error after the invasion in 2001. General Stanley McChrystal’s leaked initial assessment of the situation on the ground has many similarities with what a Soviet commander might have also written in 1985: “The mission in Afghanistan has been historically under-resourced… continued under-resourcing will likely cause failure.”

Importantly, What We Won also reads as a rebuttal to what Riedel believes are the numerous “bad histories” of the Soviet-Afghan War.

Riedel directly refutes the claim that CIA support for the Afghan mujahideen can be directly linked to the 9/11 attacks. To the contrary, the mujahideen fighters who flocked to Afghanistan were not influenced by the CIA, or even the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Rather, these mujahideen fighters, including Osama bin Laden, traveled to Afghanistan to fight against what they saw as a threat to Muslim territory by foreign invaders. In fact, the CIA had almost no contact with these mujahideen fighters, Riedel claims, because the Pakistani ISI insisted on training and equipping the mujahideen. Even when the stinger missile was introduced in 1985, the CIA trained the ISI, who in turn trained the mujahideen.

For those who remember them, the lessons of the Afghan war will remain relevant and meaningful for years to come.

Riedel also counters the notion that the Soviet-Afghan war was won by Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, as popularized in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War. But it was not Charlie Wilson’s war – it was actually Pakistani President Zia al Haq’s war. Riedel’s description of Zia’s decision-making leaves readers wondering whether the Pakistani leader was one of the prominent strategic minds of the 20th century, or just a beneficiary of great luck. The truth is that it is probably both. Sandwiched in between a resurgent India and a Soviet Union who could have continued their invasion past the Durand line to occupy parts of Baluchistan, Zia had to keep the pot at “boiling” without causing it to spill over. Arming the ISI gave Zia a counterweight against the Soviets, and also gave training to militant groups that could fight in Kashmir. But if the Soviet Union found substantial proof of ISI support of the mujahideen, plausible deniability would have been lost and it would have given the Red Army justification to continue their invasion. Zia got it just right. He decided which groups received funding, where they should fight, and most importantly, Zia made the decision to introduce the Stinger missile, which many claim was the final blow to the 40th Red Army. Not only did he master the balancing act between India and the Soviet Union, but Zia also used the war to birth the nuclear program in Pakistan. Riedel’s description of Zia is remarkable, and it is a shame that there are no English-language biographies of Zia’s life.

What We Won provides an illuminating case study of the realities of clandestine operations, rise of global jihad, and history of Afghanistan before the United States’ invasion. Given the increased reliance on clandestine operations in places like Iraqi Kurdistan, the rise of ISIS, and the planned pullout of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2016, What We Won is more timely than ever.

Fittingly, Riedel closes the novel with an understated yet compelling prediction: “For those who remember them, the lessons of the Afghan war will remain relevant and meaningful for years to come.”

About the Author

Justin Lynch
Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at the New America Foundation. Outside of New America, Justin is the Youth Ambassador to the United Nations for Voices of African Mothers, where he works to promote gender equality and educational opportunity in West Africa.

From Your Lips to My Eyes


It always feels like a confession: I am deaf. Whenever I meet someone new, to prevent their panic I quickly add, I am reading your lips right now. It’d make it easier if you could look at me and speak clearly.

Hearing people may feel like these moments allow them to be generous to those of us who supposedly need extra help. But it’s actually the reverse: I’m the one working harder to make this relationship work. My experience, put plainly, teaches us all that effective communication is a partnership, one that works best when both individuals give as much of themselves as they can to try to understand the other.

It has taken me years to feel more confident announcing my mostly hidden disability, resisting the temptation to keep quiet and fit in – even if doing so means I wind up understanding nothing. For a long time, revealing my deafness felt like a burden for my unwitting conversation partner. But one year ago, I moved to the UK and pushed myself to seize upon the quiet power behind these interactions. Through my everyday conversations, I had the chance to teach the hearing world the principles of the deaf world: We all lose when we can’t admit when we don’t understand. And we can all miss critical details if we don’t listen – and watch – closely.

I’ve honed those skills my entire life. I both speak and lipread, the result of assistive hearing devices and years of training my body to follow the conventions of the hearing world. Hearing people often treat lipreading as a marvelous stand-in for listening, but it’s an exhausting, imperfect skill, even if I also find it a useful tool. Like most of us who are deaf, I work harder so you don’t have to.

The truth is, I feel most comfortable understanding people when they converse with me in American Sign Language (ASL). In the mainstream hearing world, where I spend most of my time, people who are fluent in ASL – or who would like to learn – can be few and far between.

I strategized on it for months, and then struck a deal with myself: I’d be brutally honest and help other people help me. I’d choose to believe that communication could be a two-way street.

In other words, it’s tough enough to understand and be understood in the United States with American English speakers. And that’s why my head started spinning when I received a Rhodes Scholarship to pursue postgraduate study at the University of Oxford, starting last fall. International accents to lipread! A new country and education system to navigate! And, perhaps most of all, what would I do about British Sign Language (BSL)?

Wait, did you not know that there’s not one universal sign language that serves all deaf people worldwide? Actually, the linguistic diversity of international sign languages is staggering. These sign languages have their own grammar rules and vocabularies, which are distinct from the spoken or written language in that region and are closely tied to the local deaf culture. They have evolved independently of spoken languages, and have their own historical genealogy. ASL, for instance, is most similar to French Sign Language (LSF), due to the influence of French deaf educator Laurent Clerc on the American School for the Deaf, founded by Thomas Gallaudet (of Gallaudet University fame) in the 19th century. Even though America and Great Britain are two English-speaking countries “divided by a common language,” their sign languages have developed separately. That means BSL is completely different than ASL.

How different, you ask? The languages use similar principles of facial inflection to signify grammar, but other than a few signs in common, the signing systems are quite independent. One of my favorite examples of this: The ASL alphabet uses one hand while the BSL alphabet uses two. So, unlike most of you, when I traveled to Britain, I was traveling to a country where I didn’t know the local sign language.

I strategized on it for months, and then struck a deal with myself: I’d be brutally honest and help other people help me. I’d choose to believe that communication could be a two-way street. I am deaf and need you to speak clearly, I explained over and over again when I arrived. Or, I’m having trouble understanding your accent; could you try again? Saying these things, in the chaos and confusion of a new place, required openness and vulnerability. I felt uncomfortable every time I did it. I sometimes failed at it. But I kept going, hoping people would reciprocate.

They did. Soon my fellow students began asking me about sign language. I explained that my sign language wasn’t the same as the locals used, but that I’d be thrilled to teach them. (Alas, several British undergrads seemed disappointed that I, an American, couldn’t teach them the mysteries of BSL.) New friends marveled to me in wonder at certain benefits of sign language, such as being able to sign and understand each other in noisy pubs, or told me that they’d started to think about language in a different, dynamic and visual way. I found myself signing more with these friends than I sometimes had in the States, perhaps because I had become more confident – welcoming questions, answering them as best as I could, being more assertive about what I needed.

Because of traveling with me, these friends had to become better observers of their environment, and also of different perspectives like mine.

Outside of school, I discovered even more American deaf and signing expats in London than I’d anticipated. Chatting about their British and international exploits inspired me to explore more of the world for myself. I traveled to Turkey, Greece, and France, among other places, with several different hearing friends, asking them about what they heard (or overheard) along the way. Minaret bells. The sound of the sea. How different languages sounded. What the locals were trying to tell me. Because of traveling with me, these friends had to become better observers of their environment, and also of different perspectives like mine.

And my BSL skills? For all the other rich experiences I’ve had abroad, they’re still poorer than I’d like, though I’ve managed to pick up a few signs beyond the alphabet. Becoming more fluent as I prepare to spend one more year at Oxford is high up my list, since – after all, as I continue to teach myself and show others – communication is a two-way street.

About the Author

Rachel Kolb
Rachel Kolb is a graduate student and Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, where she has completed an M.St. in English and is currently an M.Sc. candidate in Higher Education. In her free time she enjoys horseback riding, hiking, reading and writing, spending time with family and friends, and trying as many new foods as possible.