SHAFR: Findings from Iraqi Records

If any of you are at the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) conference going on right now in Madison, I strongly encourage you to stop by the following panel.  Unfortunately, it’s scheduled for Sunday AM, but it should be well worth it.

Panel 58:  New Perspectives on U.S.-Iraq Relations under Saddam (Room 213)

Chair:  Jessica Huckabey, Conflict Records Research Center

“This Stab in the Back”: Saddam Hussein, Irangate and the United States

Hal Brands, Institute for Defense Analyses

Understanding Saddam’s Non-Use of WMD in the Gulf War

David Palkki, University of California at Los Angeles and Institute for Defense Analyses

Saddam’s Perceptions and Misperceptions: The Case of Desert Storm

Kevin Woods, Institute for Defense Analyses

Comment:  Thomas Mahnken, U.S. Naval War College and Johns Hopkins University

All three of these papers draw heavily on captured Iraqi records copies of which are or will be in the Conflict Records Research Center.  (Official site here.)  Hal’s paper will discuss how Saddam reacted to news of the Iran-Contra scandal, in particular the fact that the United States had been shipping weapons to Iran, a country with whom Iraq was at war at the time.  Though the Iran-Contra affair came to light pretty late in the Iran-Iraq War, I think is paper should encourage historians to reconsider the question of the extent to which Saddam really was our man, in our pocket, during the 1980s.

David’s paper should prove equally interesting and deals with the effects or lack thereof of the famous Baker-Aziz meeting of 9 January 1991 at which Baker issued a veiled threat–often thought to refer to the possible use of nuclear weapons–of the consequences if Iraq were to use CBW against American forces.  Dave gave a version of this paper a couple of months ago at a conference at the CSIS.  Here is the abstract from that talk:

Ever since the Gulf War, scholars have debated why Iraq did not use chemical or biological weapons
against Coalition forces or US allies. Many analysts have suggested that Saddam didn’t use WMD
because the ferocity of the Coalition onslaught, adverse weather, difficulties mating toxic materials with
warheads, or other factors rendered Iraq physically unable to deliver them. Others argue that US Secretary
of State James Baker’s ambiguous warning that the United States would retaliate with nuclear weapon
strikes, and/or by replacing Saddam’s regime, deterred Iraqi use. I find that Iraq was physically able to
attack Coalition forces and US allies with chemical and biological weapons, yet refrained from doing so
for fear of US nuclear retaliation. Deterrence, however, was largely existential, as Saddam considered US
nuclear strikes plausible long before US officials issued even the most veiled of threats. My argument is
based on captured recordings of private conversations between Saddam and his inner circle, declassified
US interrogation reports, defector accounts, and recently released memoirs. My findings have important
implications for the ongoing debate over the role of the US nuclear arsenal and the question of a US no first
use declaratory policy.

Kevin will talk about work that he and I did on the lessons Saddam learned from DESERT STORM, how he was able to calculate that he won that war and how these lessons may have served him poorly in the run-up to 2003.  For more on that, see my previous posting here.


Captured Iraqi and Terrorist Records Now Available

I am delighted to draw your attention to the fact that the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) is now open to scholars at the National Defense University.  It presently contains a collection of some 22,000 pages of records captured from Saddam’s regime and from Al Qaida and its allies.  However, that total is simply a drop in the bucket compared to where it is going to be.  The collection grows on a daily basis and there is reason to believe that that growth will accelerate over time.

The CRRC’s website describes the two collections this way:

The Saddam records consist of a wide range of government files—audio recordings of high-level meetings, speeches by Saddam and senior officials, correspondence between ministries, records of the Presidential Diwan, and others—that bear mainly on issues related to national security, defense policy, and diplomacy. These records are categorized by their originating agency or office (for instance, Iraqi Intelligence Service or General Military Intelligence Directorate), and will eventually constitute the vast majority of CRRC holdings.

The [Al Qaida] records also consist of a wide range of files, including everything from al Qaeda “pocket litter” to financial records, theological and ideological documents, strategic plans, operational guidebooks, and histories of individual operations from the Afghan war in the 1980s through the early 2000s. These documents are grouped thematically. There are also a small number of documents generated by the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

The website is a little sparse at the moment, but expect it to grow richer over time.  I imagine that Jessica Huckabey, the acting director (and a friend and occasional co-author of mine) can give you more information on the collection, its future prospects, and how to use it.

I do know that at the moment only documents with full English translations are being entered into the database, so don’t allow lack of Arabic skills to deter you.  The originals were “seized” as provided for under international law and are held by the US Government. The US and the Iraqi Governments have agreed that Iraq will receive the originals back.  Don’t count on Al Qaida ever getting their documents back.  The records open to scholars at the CRRC consist of digital copies of the originals, plus translations and file information sheets. In other words, this is the modern day equivalent of the microfilming of the German, Japanese, and Italian records that were captured in World War II.  It is also worth noting that the records at the CRRC are not the Ba’ath Party records that are held at the Hoover Institution nor the so-called “Jewish Archives” which are at the U.S. National Archives.  (

In a past life I worked with the materials that Jessica and her colleagues are migrating into the CRRC and I can tell you that for those scholars interested in modern Iraq, terrorism, or modern military history, there is a goldmine here.  Reputations to be made.  Dissertations to be written….

Still, according to an e-mail to The Daily from Kanan Makiya, the founder of IMF, there is a “deep rift” within the Iraqi Ministry of Culture about whether or not any of the records should be returned now.

Makiya said that in an Iraqi radio program that aired last Thursday, which he heard in Erbil, Iraq, “a deputy minister of culture, senior to Eskander and his team who visited Hoover, tore into his colleagues’ allegations, supporting enthusiastically the IMF and Hoover’s role.”

A Call to Action: Military History of the Global Jihad

I’m off to the Society for Military History’s annual conference in Lexington, Virginia today.  The SMH conference is always well worth attending and it never fails to demonstrate the remarkable breadth of “military history.”  If you want to know about ancient military history, naval operations during the Cold War, King Philip’s War, paramilitary operations, the religious lives of soldiers, or the role of sugar in World War I, it’s here.  There will  be 600+ historians from the US, Canada, Europe, and South Africa in attendance.

What disturbs me about this conference and has disturbed me about other SMH conferences that I’ve attended is that the military history of the Middle East, including of our jihadist friends, is largely neglected.  I think this is something that we should address at the next SMH conferences in 2011 (Lisle, IL) or 2012 (Arlington, VA).  I’ll get to my specific suggestion at the bottom of this post.

It is true that there several papers that appear to bear on the “war on terrorism” are to be presented.  I find the title of Michael Palmer’s paper particularly intriguing.

  • “A Strategy of Tactics: What Population-centric Counterinsurgency Has Done to the American Army”  Gian P. Gentile, U.S. Military Academy
  • “Whirlwind, Whiz Kids, Waziristan, and the Realization of the Airpower Cause”  John  G. Terino , U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College
  • “’No One Put a Gun to Their Head and Forced Them to Come Here’: Representing the All-Volunteer Army in Narratives on the ‘War on Terror’”  David Kieran, Washington University
  • “The Influence of History upon Modern Jihadists”  Michael A. Palmer, East Carolina University
  • “The War at Home: Responding to Terrorism and Racketeering in France during the Algerian Conflict”  Barnett Singer, Brock University

There is also one panel that promises to be extremely interesting in this regard:

“Counterinsurgency Across History” (A Roundtable Presentation)

Chair: H. R. McMaster, U.S. Army Capabilities Integration Center, Training and Doctrine Command


  • Andrew J. Birtle, U.S. Army Center for Military History
  • Max Boot, Council on Foreign Relations
  • Mark Moyar, U.S. Marine Corps University

Brigadier General McMaster is one of those guys in the military who is not only a great warrior but whose ideas have really mattered.  I briefed him once on the Salafi jihadists’ views on strategy and war and I was really, really impressed with his intellect.  It’s always a pleasure to brief someone like that.  I can’t wait to hear him.

All this said, however, with the possible exception of Palmer’s talk, all of these presentation are about the “war on terrorism” from our side.  However, scholars of modern jihadism have lots of material that is military history.  Most of us don’t think of it that way, however.  Think of it, we know quite a lot about the development of strategic thought in the movement.  Abu Musab al-Suri was, among other things, a military historian within the movement, we know a great deal about the operations of the Arab Afghans during the war with the Soviets.  Jessica Huckabey and I have written an article which is forthcoming in Intelligence and National Security, which discusses the defeats of al Qaida and its affiliates at the hands of Arab security services resulting in a repetitive loss of sanctuary.  A great deal of interesting work could be done about the military history of the GIA in Algeria and the effects of Algerian military intelligence service upon it.  Then, of course, there is the Conflict Records Research Center, which I’m told has been physically established and may be opening within days.  It will eventually hold thousands of previously unseen documents from the jihadists.  Who knows what will be found there?

I do not claim that the study of the Salafi jihadists is only a question of military history.  However, I do suggest that military history–its people, its methods and its ethos–can help us think about certain problems in the field.  And if they can help us, then they should.  They just need to be alerted to the issue.

So, a modest proposal.  I expect to attend the SMH conference next year.  When the call for papers comes out, I’m going to try to put together a panel on the Military History of the Global Jihad.  I’m hoping that some people reading this now will be prepared to help me take this topic to the military history community.  Let’s see what results.

Russia to Open Massive WWII Archive

Russia plans to open the world’s largest WWII archive, the size of which will “comply with the contribution of our country to the Victory.”  (The Russians have always insisted that they won World War II, not us.  The real answer is that we all won it.)  This archive project will apparently entail building new buildings to house the holding which will be brought in from numerous archives around the country.  The project will also include a major digitization effort and will apparently include some sort of commercial database dealing with Soviet casualties.  The article hints that similar efforts may be undertaken to assess German and Hungarian losses on the Eastern Front.

There are significant practicality issues associated with this project.  Furthermore, the desirability of taking war records out of existing archives and putting them into a purpose-built archive designed around an event as opposed to something that organically grew as out of an agency or other organization, is eminently debatable.  (For an excellent discussion of these issues, see the fine post at The Russian Front.)  On the other hand, many archives in Russia are in lamentable condition, so if the price of survival for these records is some disorganization, perhaps that is a price worth paying.  In addition, the digitization component of the project is certainly a good thing, though one does wonder what if any political criteria will be applied to select the documents and files that will be digitized.

Interestingly, Andrei Artizov, the head of the Russian Federal Archive Agency (Federal’naia arkhivnaia sluzhba Rossii aka Rosarkhiv) says that the new archive should include substantial German records “like those of Hitler’s chancellery, the Reich’s Security Services and others. In compliance with the existing legislation, they are part of Russia’s property.”  Meanwhile, a so-far very modest U.S. Government effort to do something similar with copies of analogous Iraqi records captured in 2003 generates accusation of malfeasance.

In any case, this will be an interesting story to follow.

Working with The Bin Laden Tapes

Hopefully you caught the story about Professor Flagg Miller (Assoc. Prof. of Religious Studies at UC Davis) and the Bin Laden tapes on NPR’s On the Media.  The Chronicle of Higher Education also recently ran an article along similar lines about him and his. 

Prof. Miller, whom I know very slightly as a result of having overlapped with him as a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has been working with a collection of some 1500 tapes acquired by CNN in Afghanistan in 2001.  Apparently they came from a house occupied by Bin Laden.  The tapes include recordings of a broad swath of Al Qaida activities, ranging from religious and military content to weddings to cooking breakfast.  CNN offered them to the Intelligence Community but it wasn’t interested.  Now the tapes are at Yale University and on Miller’s computer.  Miller, it should be said, is a fine choice to take a first hack at these tapes.  His last major project dealt with audiocassette poetry and Yemeni culture. 

Flagg Miller

Prof. Flagg Miller

The Chronicle article tells how one of Prof. Miller’s students expressed her surprise that the jihadists ate breakfast.  I don’t want to overemphasize this particular incident, but it struck me straight away that a student of military affairs would never have made such a comment.  It’s a well known fact that warfare–whether one is stateless terrorist or a soldier in an uber-organized military of a nation-state–is largely made up of utterly boring stretches of time.  Many of the best war movies make this clear, but Das Boot is probably the foremost example. 

On the other hand, where Prof. Miller and probably his students have an advantage over many people who study or take part in armed conflict is in having deep human understanding of the enemy, or at least part of it.  Understanding the enemy, even empathizing with him, is not at all incompatible with fighting him; in fact, it adds to ones ability to fight him.  Thank you General Sun Tzu.  This, presumably, is one of the reasons why the Intelligence Community has showed some interest in funding Prof. Miller’s work.  (Bloody ironic, considering that they told CNN originally that they had no interest in the tapes.)  Quite sensibly, Miller turned down the offer on the grounds that accepting such finding might appear to taint his work.  

Professor Miller is writing a book on what he has learned from these tapes and I very much look forward to reading it.  His will probably be the first book I’ve ever read by someone whose training is in linguistic anthropology.  I heard him give a “work-in-progress” talk at the Wilson Center and he has some interesting things to say, including some potentially important revelations about previously unknown ideological influences on Bin Laden.  Miller also has some views on the origins of the term “Al Qaida” that come, in large part, from his work with the tapes.  In particular, he has argued that the people we think of as “al Qaida” did not start using that term until very late on, largely as a result of rhetorical interaction with the West.  Now, I do not agree with him on this question, but he makes some good arguments and if he is correct, then his argument has some small but real implications for people in the worlds of strategic studies, counterterrorism, and intelligence. 

U.S. forces have captured and will continue to capture a large number of documents, tapes, and other detritus from our jihadist enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and doubtless other places.  Digital copies of many of these records are going to end up accessible to scholars in the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) that the Defense Department is opening.  (More controversially, the CRRC will also hold copies of records from Saddam’s regime.)  However, having worked with these materials, it appears to me that the U.S. Government often does not bother to retain or at least duplicate the sorts of everyday materials that are so meaningful to scholars such as Flagg Miller.  For instance, it is known (see here , here and here) that in 2001 the U.S. military took materials  from the house of the then #3 person in al Qaida, Mohammed Atef a.k.a. Abu Hafs al-Masri.  Given that the intelligence community was not interested in the Bin Laden tapes, one can only wonder what was left on the cutting room floor from one of his deputies. 

If, as I suspect, all these enemy materials are being lost, it is a pity.  Though Miller is doing his research for his own academic reasons, as he should, it is helping to secure us all.  It would be good to give him more material to work with and it would be good to see others join him in this line of study.