eyes on the U.S.

On Iraq, Obama Is A President Without A Plan

President Barack Obama's decision on the limited U.S. intervention in Iraq seems to have no long-term strategy behind it. Even Obama seems to know that.

Obama's speaks from the White House lawn about Iraq, before leaving for vacation.
Obama's speaks from the White House lawn about Iraq, before leaving for vacation.
Nicolas Richter

-Analysis-

WASHINGTON — The U.S. commander in chief is on a two-week vacation in Martha's Vineyard, where he was spotted playing golf over the weekend. In Washington, before the presidential chopper took him there, President Barack Obama quipped that it'd be a little while before he'd be wearing suits again and indicated that the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq could go on for somewhat longer than that.

Three years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, American bombers are again flying missions. It represents the return to a war zone in which the U.S. military fought — tenaciously and at great cost to life — from 2003 to 2011. One of the reasons Obama was elected was that he promised to end the war. And now he has ordered air attacks. But it isn't just his vacationing as planned that demonstrates how he's underplaying the significance of this latest U.S. intervention. He has also laid out very minimalist goals for the intervention.

Assuring Congress that the scale and duration of the intervention were to be "limited," Obama said the main priorities were protecting U.S. citizens in the northern Iraqi town of Erbil as well as thousands of Yazidi people who had fled to the mountains to escape from ISIS terrorists.

An intervention with limited firepower makes sense in the context of Obama's foreign policy — military force as a last resort. In Libya, Obama only stepped in when dictator Muammar Gaddafi"s troops were about to annihilate the rebels in Benghazi. In Syria, he considered the possibility of rocket attacks only after the regime of President Bashar al-Assad gassed its own people.

In Iraq too, it has required a dramatic series of events to mobilize Obama. For months the president has been monitoring how the the Islamist terrorists have been capturing one Iraqi city after another. But only in the past few weeks has the crisis reached such intense proportions that Obama was forced to act.

In Erbil, most inhabitants are Kurds, which is to say faithful U.S. allies, and there is also a U.S. consulate. And while ISIS rebels were sweeping wide swathes of land clear, they were threatening the fleeing Yazidis with genocide. If Obama had let that happen, he probably never would have forgiven himself.

But the president is not beyond reproach. Republican Sen. John McCain accuses Obama of waiting too long and doing too little against "the most powerful terror organization in history" that poses not just a threat to Iraq but also to the United States. Opponents of any new engagements in the Middle East, Obama's political friends among them, fear on the other hand that the United States will once again become disastrously entangled.

Reading the tea leaves

What strategy Obama is following — if indeed he is following one — is unclear to friend and foe alike. Contradictions abound. At the outset, the president's advisers described the military intervention as a reaction to a "one-time" danger. On Saturday Obama said that the problem couldn't be solved in a couple of weeks and there was no time plan. So it could conceivably go on for months, even years.

Obama's priority explanation for the intervention is that protecting U.S. citizens in Iraq, as well as the consulates in Erbil and the embassy in Baghdad, is his "duty." This justifiable reasoning is doubtlessly aimed primarily at the American public, who are not overly interested in Kurds or Yazidis. But what is the logical follow-up to that? That Obama is giving up on the rest of Iraq with the exception of Erbil and Baghdad? What price is he willing to pay to keep his diplomatic bases? What happens if ISIS terrorists aren't stopped by the air attacks, or if they turn off Baghdad's water supply?

All of these questions lead to a larger one: Just how far is Obama willing to go against the ISIS terror group, which now occupies parts of Iraq and Syria and wants to create a "caliphate," a kind of religious state? According to The Washington Post, Obama doesn't have a "credible plan" to deal with this threat. The think tank Center for a New American Security supports a broadly conceived commitment that would vanquish the IS extremists.

Obama asserts that his is a holistic approach and that the Iraqis themselves are responsible for the country's setbacks. From his point of view, Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has excluded and discouraged other groups such as the Sunnis and the Kurds. According to the U.S. president, that's why he didn't send in planes earlier. That would only have taken the pressure off Maliki, Obama told The New York Times, and would have encouraged Maliki and other Shia to think, "We don’t actually have to make compromises. … All we have to do is let the Americans bail us out again."

So Obama declared Saturday that the most important agenda was forming a new Iraqi government. To his mind, this is feasible without Maliki and would reconcile the three major groups. A unity government would then lay the foundations for the Iraqi military to solve the ISIS problem itself — with U.S. help. Obama said the U.S. didn't want to play the role of air force to the Kurds or to the Iraqis in general. He was a partner of the Iraqis, he said, but wouldn't do their work for them.

This argument is conclusive in the sense that Obama is selling military aid for the price of political progress. But something else results from it as well: If the Iraqis continue to prove unable to find common ground, ISIS terrorists will rule a considerable part of the country.

In his New York Times interview, Obama also mentioned a lesson derived from the Libyan war. After the military engagement, too little was done to rebuild the society there, and the price for that is being paid now. "So that's a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, "Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer for the day after?""

There doesn’t appear to be one for Iraq.

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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