The Sudden Disintegration of the Iraqi Military

Nehad Ismail   |   June 16, 2014    3:23 PM ET

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian policies backfired dramatically last week as, confronted with just a few thousand jihadist fighters, his army fell apart.

The sudden collapse of military units defending three key cities - Mosul, Iraq's second largest city; Tikrit, the late Saddam Hussein's hometown; and Kirkuk, the oil-rich capital of semi-autonomous Kurdistan -- is reminiscent of the swift disintegration of Saddam's army at the gates of Baghdad in 2003.

Latest reports indicate that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni militant group controlling territory in the two country's northern regions, is making rapid advances towards Baghdad. Kirkuk, the oil capital of Iraq has been secured by military units from Iraqi Kurdistan.

David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post 12th June: "Maliki's U.S.-trained army has suffered a series of crushing defeats, as Sunni insurgents from an offshoot of al-Qaeda ... swept toward Baghdad. Already the Sunni extremists control most of western Iraq".

The collapse of the Iraqi army was swift and shocking. The fall of Mosul was catastrophic. No one expected that the Iraqi army would disintegrate so fast after ISIS launched its offensive. The world witnessed Iraqi military melt away before an enemy a fraction of their strength, leaving behind tanks, vehicles and equipment; their status as a disciplined modern fighting force in serious doubt. Iraqis, speaking on Arab satellite TV channels, blamed Maliki's sectarian policies, and the corruption of military institutions.

Maliki's army is of a different class than Saddam's. Its weaponry is modern and sophisticated, from U.S-made Apache helicopter gunships and F-16 fighter jets to Abrams tanks and Humvees. U.S. occupation authorities alone spent an estimated $16 billion to rebuild the Iraqi army, which, they had envisioned, would form the backbone of a modern Iraq. Some estimates put the cost of years of training, arming, and equipping the Iraqi army at $25bn.

Despite the heavy investment, Maliki's military has failed to withstand a ragtag of armed jihadists who have seized, in very short space of time, city after city across Iraq.

Eye-witness accounts from the soldiers reveal how sectarian enmity has, in the space of mere weeks, destroyed the new Iraqi national army. Corporal Muammer Naser, 35, said to the Daily Telegraph that "his superiors had sympathised with remnants of the regime of Saddam Hussein, and that the generals essentially passed control of the city to them. As the militants approached Mosul, many of the top army commanders there fled to the autonomous Kurdish region. Many in the Iraqi felt betrayed. With their generals gone, the ranks saw no reason to stay.

Maliki purged the commanders he suspected of disloyalty, replacing them with officers whose qualifications were not military experience but sectarian affiliations and personal loyalty. The alienation of the Sunni element of Iraqi society, a third of the Iraqi population, has helped anti-government insurgents and made the collection of human intelligence in the Sunni areas extremely difficult.

Internal problems in the army persist. Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid al- Bayati: "They haven't been trained and imbued with a sense of professionalism." Widespread corruption in the awarding of military contracts results in troops receiving shoddy supplies and bad food. It has never enjoyed a good reputation among the Iraqi public. Sunnis are not keen to fight on behalf of al Maliki. Some years ago, Sunni fighters from the tribal "Sahwa" or Arab "Awakening" confronted al Qaeda and fought against Sunni terrorist groups. They are no longer prepared to help the Iraqi government which alienated them.

Al Arabiya News reported that Maliki blamed a "conspiracy" for the collapse of army units, which are dominated by his Shiite co-religionists. In reality poor intelligence, politicisation, corruption, low morale; desertions all have weakened the Iraqi army. Everyone is blaming Nouri al Maliki for the debacle. This situation has been seized upon by ISIS, which sensed an opportunity to promote itself as the champion of Sunnis against the Shiites led government of Nouri al Maliki.

Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, explained on 12th June how ISIS has been able to conduct its offensive. The group is well organized and has cells of fighters in cities and provinces from Mosul to Salah al-Din to Diyala to Anbar. It even has a presence in Baghdad, where it conducts a car bombing campaign. Ford stressed "that Sunnis are much less inclined to fight, leaving a space for ISIS to again gain ground".

The manipulation of fear through crude but effective propaganda is another factor behind the stunning collapse of Iraqi security forces. A 61-minute video of beheadings was recently posted online by ISIS, to terrorize Sunnis in Iraq's army and police forces and destroy their already low morale.

The battle lines are being drawn. The Shi'ites are mobilising to defend Baghdad and their holy places of Najaf and Karbala. Meanwhile, Iran sent 2,000 advance troops to Iraq to help fight ISIS.

News reports say the Obama administration has ruled out American boots on the ground but other options, such as drone attacks and air-strikes remain on the table.
Iran is said to be offering assistance to fight what it calls Sunni terrorism. The US could begin direct talks with Iran to try to resolve the Iraq crisis, which would have long term strategic implications. The Iraqi government should be supported in defeating the ISIS insurgency. But its supporters in this crisis must insist on a price: Iraq's poisonous sectarian politics must change.

  |   June 15, 2014    5:10 PM ET

Barack Obama has compared climate change deniers to people who believe the moon is "made of cheese".

Addressing thousands of graduates in California, the US president told them their generation had been "short changed by inaction" and said: "I know that manmade climate change really is happening."

Obama, who is locked in a battle with climate change sceptics in the US Congress, addressed an audience of around 8,600.

barack obama irvine

Obama compared climate change deniers to people who believe the moon is 'made of cheese'

He told the audience of University of California at Irvine graduates: “Today’s Congress, though, is full of folks who stubbornly and automatically reject the scientific evidence about climate change,” he said. “They’ll tell you it’s a hoax, or a fad.”

He compared the battle to reverse climate change as similar to John F. Kennedy's pledge that Americans would go to the moon in the 1960s.

Obama said that, while many believed it impossible, few denied the moon's existence or claimed the moon was "made of cheese".

The president described this view as a “fairly serious threat to the future.” He added: “At least they have the brass to say what they actually think.”

He said: “I know that manmade climate change really is happening, but if I admit it, I’ll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot. So, I’m not going to admit it.”

“I’m telling you all of this because I want to light a fire under you,” Obama said. “As the generation that is being shortchanged by inaction, you do not have to accept that this is the way that it has to be.”

Iraq - The End?

Robin Lustig   |   June 14, 2014   12:00 AM ET

What folly. What crass, indescribable, unbelievable folly it was to invade Iraq in 2003. I wonder what George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair think now as they read of the latest disasters to befall that wretched land.

Do they still say that Iraq is better off than it was under Saddam Hussein? Do they? Really? As half a million terrified people flee from their homes to escape a jihadi group so extreme that even al-Qaeda has withdrawn its backing?

Guess, by the way, who said this, referring to their support for the invasion in 2003: "I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had. And I wasn't alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple."

It wasn't Bush, Rumsfeld, or Blair - but you knew that. It was Hillary Clinton, in her just published memoirs, clearing the decks for a run at the US presidency in 2016. Even if it is carefully-calibrated political positioning, I can't help wishing more leaders would say something similar.

The invasion of Iraq may well turn out to have been the most disastrous military adventure since the German army marched into Poland in 1939 and triggered the Second World War. Did Hitler still believe, as he prepared to die in his bunker in 1945, that invading Poland had been a good idea? Was he as crazily delusional as Bush, Rumsfeld and Blair?

Perhaps, despite the lightning advance of the Sunni jihadi fighters over the past week, Iraq will somehow survive. Perhaps not. Perhaps it's about to join such unhappy nations as Somalia, Syria and Libya as yet another failed state, ruled by a nightmare patchwork of brutal militias, loyal to no one but their own commanders and with no interests other than those that are narrow, sectarian and tribal.

In 2003, there was no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq. Now one of its nastiest off-shoots controls vast swathes of the north and west of the country, extending across the border into Syria as it starts to build its trans-national Caliphate. It's not exactly what the US-led invasion was designed to achieve.

In the pantheon of those to blame for all this we must include Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister whose incompetence, corruption and Shia sectarianism has encouraged the country's Sunni minority to join, or at least acquiesce in, the jihadi insurgency. It seems even Saddam loyalists from the former Ba'ath party have joined them - how's that for irony? With a different man at the helm as the US pulled out the last of its troops, it's just possible that disaster could have been averted. But it was not to be.

What has happened has happened. The Kurds in the north are buttressing their defences; their forces are ready to fight back if the Sunni Arab insurgents dare to threaten their hard-won autonomy. The Iraqi army appears to be disintegrating - so much for the countless billions of dollars spent on training a new national force.

In its place, various Shia militia groups are forming, or re-forming, to defend what they regard as essential Shia interests, including the Shia shrine in the mainy Sunni city of Samarra. The shadow of a renewed civil war looms frighteningly large.

In the words of the US Republican senator Lindsey Graham, after having been briefed by the Pentagon on Thursday: "What I heard today scared the hell out of me. The briefing was chilling ... Iraq is falling apart."

And it's not only the fate of Iraq that is at stake: the regional ramifications are seriously worrying. To the west and to the east, in Syria and Iran, the latest developments will be causing deep anxiety. President Assad will be watching with alarm as the insurgents snatch arms and ammunition from abandoned Iraqi army armouries and start shipping them across the border into Syria. And in Tehran, they'll be less than thrilled to see their Shia allies in Baghdad under threat.

So there's a strong possibility of even more bad-neighbourly intervention, never forgetting Turkey's nervousness at any sign that the Kurds may be consolidating their claim to statehood. (Strange, isn't it, how the US and Iran find themselves on the same side as the main backers of al-Maliki?)

This is a deeply uncertain time, but there is one certainty: neither the US nor the UK, which did so much to unleash the forces that are now destroying Iraq, will send their own troops back in again. Good thing, too: Western military intervention would simply make an already terrible situation even worse. And that includes the drone strikes that president Obama is reported to be contemplating - they haven't exactly done wonders for pacifying either Pakistan or Yemen, have they?

What the West can do - should do - is arrange urgent help for the civilians whose lives are being destroyed. And once the picture is a little bit clearer, they might try to encourage neutral mediators like Norway or Sweden to start a talks process aimed at turning the clock back to post-invasion 2003 and charting a new constitutional course for Iraq.

I fear it may already be too late. I've just looked at the diary I kept during the 2003 invasion; the last entry, written after the fall of Baghdad, reads: "I think Iraq is going to be a violent, messy, angry place for a long time ... I'll probably be talking about Iraq until I retire."

I should have added one more line: "And beyond."

  |   June 13, 2014   10:57 PM ET

Pope Francis has cast doubt on the case for Scottish independence, saying he asks himself whether the case for it is "clear".

The spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics told a Catalonian newspaper that countries breaking away from larger states should be considered on a "case-by-case basis".

He acknowledged the case was "clear" in in some cases but listed Scotland as one of the cases where "I ask myself it is so clear".

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Pope Francis said he was not sure the case for Scottish independence was 'clear'

His comments come after US President Barack Obama - and the woman who hopes to succeed him, Hilary Clinton - both cast doubt on Scottish independence.

The Pope was asked about the "conflict" between Spain and those in the Catalan region who are campaigning to be a separate state, he told La Vanguardia: "All division worries me."

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church added: "There is independence by emancipation and independence by secession.

"The independences by emancipation, for example, are American, that they were emancipated from the European states.

"The independences of nations by secession is a dismemberment, sometimes it's very obvious.

"Let's think of the former Yugoslavia. Obviously, there are nations with cultures so different that couldn't even be stuck together with glue.

"The Yugoslavian case is very clear, but I ask myself if it is so clear in other cases - Scotland, Padania, Catalunya."

He added: "There will be cases that will be just and cases that will not be just, but the secession of a nation without an antecedent of mandatory unity, one has to take it with a lot of grains of salt and analyse it case by case."

The votes of Scotland's 840,000 Catholics will be crucial when the country of 5.2 million votes in September.

The pope's comments were welcome both the No and Yes campaigns in Scotland.

Labour MP Anne McGuire said Pope Francis was "right to warn about the impact of division".

Commenting on behalf of the pro-UK Better Together campaign, the MP for Stirling said: "This is an interesting and welcome intervention from Pope Francis.

"The Pope is right to warn about the impact of division on society and to draw the distinction between independence for emancipation and that for secession.

"Coming on the back of the interventions by President Obama, Hillary Clinton and JK Rowling, the comments from Pope Francis highlight just how important the decision we have to make in September is."

Daily Brief

A spokesman for the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign said: "As His Holiness says, these matters should be looked at on a case-by-case basis."

  |   June 13, 2014    9:10 AM ET

Hillary Clinton has become the latest powerful figure to intervene on the independence debate, declaring she would "hate" for Britain to "lose Scotland".

The former US secretary of state said she believes a yes vote would be a "loss for both sides" and she is hoping that it does not happen.

Clinton, who is on a tour to promote her memoir Hard Choices and is widely believed to be preparing for a presidential run in 2016, also indicated she was keen for Britain to remain part of the European Union.

"I would hate to have you lose Scotland," she told BBC 2's Newsnight. "I hope that it doesn't happen but I don't have a vote in Scotland. But I would hope it doesn't happen."

She added: "I would think it would be a loss for both sides but, again, I don't have a vote."

Clinton insisted the so-called special relationship between Britain and the US was "worth everything to me and to our country".

She added: "I do think we see the world very similarly."

Asked if Britain's standing would be enhanced or diminished in the United States if it left the European Union, she replied: "Oh, boy you are asking me to cross into dangerous waters, which I will not do."

She added: "Europe needs Britain, in my opinion. I think Britain brings a perspective and an experience that is very important to Europe, especially post-economic crisis. So, Britain will have to decide if they agree with that."

Clinton's intervention on the Scottish referendum debate comes just one week after US president Barack Obama said he believed that the United Kingdom appears to have "worked pretty well".

A spokesman for Yes Scotland said of Clinton's comments: "As she says, the decision about Scotland's future is one for the people of Scotland to make. After a Yes vote, the friendship between Scotland and the United States will flourish to the benefit of both nations."

A Better Together spokesman said: "Hillary Clinton is a figure who is respected right across the world. Like president Obama, she understands that the UK is at its strongest when it works together.

"She has said 'no thanks' to Alex Salmond's attempts to divide the people of Britain. We are grateful for her support."

SEE ALSO: Clinton: Obama's Decision Against Military Intervention In Syria Influenced By British Vote

Jessica Elgot   |   June 13, 2014    7:32 AM ET

The US has said that it will "not rule anything out" as it struggles to conjure up a strong response to an unexpected emergency in Iraq, as militants advanced towards Baghdad.

President Barack Obama is actively considering American airstrikes against the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), according to the Washington Post, quoting a senior source, but the White House has said that US boots on the ground is not an option.

“I don’t rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter," Obama told reporters. “Iraq’s going to need more help. It’s going to need more help from us, and it’s going to need more help from the international community.”

iraq

Kurdish Iraqi Peshmerga forces deploy their troops and armoured vehicles on the outskirts of the city of Kirkuk

“In our consultations with the Iraqis, there will be some short-term, immediate things that need to be done militarily. But this should be also a wake-up call for the Iraqi government.”

On Thursday night, the Sunni-led Islamists advanced into the eastern towns of Saadiya and Jalawla in the Diyala province, with Iraqi forces fleeing. In Baghdad, Iraqi civilians queued in their droves to sign up to fight the advancing jihadists.

Airstrikes would be a hugely significant step, two years after the last American soldier left the battlefield. The US has so far dismissed requests from President Nouri Maliki to conduct the strikes.

"We are not contemplating ground troops," White House spokesman Jay Carney later clarified. "I want to be clear about that." But he dodged a question on whether the President would ask Congress before launching air attacks.

World leaders are rapidly losing what little faith they had in Iraq's military, even though government forces appear, for now, to be efficiently keeping the ISIS forces from the capital.

James Jeffrey, the US Ambassador until 2012, told CNN Iraq's military was "ill-trained, badly led and not particularly competent."

"They clearly cannot fire and maneuver," he said.

House Speaker John Boehner said the president was “taking a nap” as ISIS forces moved closer to the capital, and Kurdish soldiers were left as the last bulwark in the northern city of Kirkuk as the Iraqi army abandoned their posts.

The UK will not be getting militarily involved in Iraq, William Hague has categorically stated, saying it was "for the Iraqi leadership primarily to respond".

"We're very concerned about the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced, and with our very large humanitarian budget we may be in a position to assist with that, and we're looking at that now," he told the BBC.

"But we will not be getting involved militarily. We will support the United States in anything that they decide to do, we're in consultation with them. But I stress again it is for the Iraqi leadership primarily to respond to this."

Labour leader Ed Miliband told the BBC UK military intervention in Iraq was "not on the table".

"We have got to give all the non-military support we can to the Iraqi government to help them, but I don't think there is any question of going back into Iraq militarily."

ISIS, a radical splinter group whose tactics were once deemed too extreme even for al Qaeda, seized the northern city of Tikrit on Wednesday, the birthplace of Sadaam Hussein. They have driven 500,000 out of Mosul, Iraq's second city, after the country's army abandoned their positions and fled. Militants have also taken 48 hostages from the Turkish consulate in the city.

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The UN Security Council said the humanitarian situation around Mosul is "dire and is worsening by the moment".

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on "the international community to unite in showing solidarity with Iraq as it confronts this serious security challenge".

In Britain, Iraqi-born Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi blamed the West's failure to intervene in Syria, which he said had help fuel the takeover of large parts of Iraq by Islamist extremists.

Iraq-born Nadhim Zahawi blamed US policy in the wake of the 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein for sowing the seeds of the insurgency.

But he said the "divisive sectarian" rule of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the lengthy and increasingly extremist-led civil war in Syria were fanning the flames.

Sara C Nelson   |   June 11, 2014    9:14 AM ET

A staggering 74 school shootings have occurred in the United States since a gunman claimed 27 lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, 18 months ago.

The most recent occurred on Tuesday morning at a high school east of Portland, Oregon, where a gunman and a student are reported to have lost their lives.

That's more than one each week school was in session, with the longest gap between shootings spanning last summer's break, from mid-June to mid-August.

The figures were compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety, a group fighting to pass gun control laws.

The data comes as President Barack Obama made some of his most candid comments on the matter of gun control.

Speaking during a Q&A with Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp, Obama described it as his “biggest frustration so far” that America had been unwilling to take basic steps to end gun violence.

He said: “The country has to do some soul-searching on this. This is becoming the norm.

“Our levels of gun violence are off the charts. There’s no advanced developed country on earth that would put up with this.”

sandy hook shooting

Children are escorted to safety during the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School

Obama insisted he respects the right to bear arms, but lamented the fact that even a modest bill to expand background checks on gun owners failed to pass the Senate last year.

The legislation fell victim to a GOP-led filibuster and pressure from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Obama added: "Most members of Congress are terrified of the NRA.

SEE ALSO:

“The only thing that is going to change is public opinion. If public opinion does not demand change in Congress, it will not change."

The Sandy Hook shooting saw 20 children and six adults killed on 14 December before gunman Adam Lanza turned the gun on himself.

Obama said the violence on that December morning amounted to the “worst day” of his presidency.

Lanza had earlier shot dead his mother Nancy. Police revealed the 20-year-old had an arsenal of weapons including guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, a bayonet and several swords in his home and car.

Investigators also found books on autism and Asperger's syndrome, as well as an NRA guide to pistol shooting.

Sara C Nelson   |   June 9, 2014    8:50 AM ET

Pope Francis was pictured locking lips with Israeli president Shimon Peres this weekend – in an image reminiscent of an advertising campaign that succeeded in enraging the Vatican and prompting it to bring legal action three years ago.

Peres was joined by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican where the pair prayed with the pontiff in the name of rekindling the Middle East peace process.

The image of Pope Francis and Peres embracing called to mind a United Colours of Benetton campaign in 2011 which showed a number of world leaders kissing.

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Pope Francis embraces Shimon Peres at the Vatican this weekend

The Photoshopped images saw US President Barack Obama kissing his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez and China's Hu Jintao, Abbas embracing Benjamin Netanyahu, Germany’s Angela Merkel smooching Nicholas Sarkozy and then-Pope Benedict XVI nuzzling up to Muslim leader Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo.

Executive deputy chairman Alessandro Bennetton was quoted at the time as saying: “The images are very strong, but we have to send a strong message. We are not wanting to be disrespectful of the leaders… we consider them the ‘conception figures’ making a statement of brotherhood with a kiss.”

But while the campaign attempted to preach tolerance, the Vatican was less than impressed, issuing strong condemnation and launching legal proceedings to prevent its wider use.

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Benetton was forced to pull the poster of then-Pope Benedict XVI kissing Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb

Press secretary Father Federico Lombardi said: "We cannot but express a resolute protest at the entirely unacceptable use of a manipulated image of the Holy Father, used as part of a publicity campaign which has commercial ends.

"It is a serious lack of respect for the pope, an affront to the feelings of the faithful and an evident demonstration of how, in the field of advertising, the most elemental rules of respect for others can be broken in order to attract attention by provocation."

Benetton hastily withdrew the poster and issued an apology.

A spokesman said: “We reiterate that the meaning of this campaign is exclusively to combat the culture of hatred in all its forms.

“We are therefore sorry that the use of the image of the pope and the imam has so offended the sentiments of the faithful.”

President Obama’s team wasn’t won over either. "The White House has a longstanding policy disapproving of the use of the president's name and likeness for commercial purposes," White House spokesman Eric Schultz told The Huffington Post.

Benetton is known for its controversial ads, including one of a young nun kissing a priest.

A further poster from the same Unhate campaign showing Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had to be scrapped after the controversial leader resigned.


D-Day and Bergdahl: Thoughts on the Forgotten Casualties of War

Robin Lustig   |   June 7, 2014   12:00 AM ET

Twenty years ago this Friday, on the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I was standing on a cliff-top overlooking the Normandy beaches on which so many men had died half a century earlier.

It was a deeply moving experience, looking down at the immaculately-choreographed ceremonies, and trying to imagine the carnage, terror and mayhem of the landings themselves. There can surely be few more total contrasts than between the reality of a battle and the commemoration of it so many years later.

By definition, those who mark these anniversaries are the survivors - and that means not only those who survived physically but also those who survived mentally. For every veteran proudly wearing his medals and remembering fallen comrades, there are others who wish they could forget. They are the ones whose war wounds are invisible.

When in years to come, US military veterans gather to remember the war in Afghanistan (2,000 US dead, 20,000 wounded), Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is unlikely to join them. He's the US soldier who was freed by the Taliban last weekend after nearly five years in captivity in return for five Taliban detainees freed from Guantanamo Bay.

According to the US military, "there are legitimate concerns about Bergdahl's physical and mental health" - so much so that even his family have been warned that he's in no fit state yet for a reunion. Judging by the video of his handover released by the Taliban - and with all the caveats about not making medical diagnoses based on sketchy video evidence - he may well be deeply traumatised by his ordeal.

Sgt. Bergdahl is reported to have walked away from his unit in Afghanistan on 30 June, 2009, five days after his battalion suffered its first casualty, a man to whom Bergdahl was reported to have been close. According to a report in the New York Times, "he left behind a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life."

The Washington Post yesterday quoted villagers who live close to the base where he was posted as remembering him walking through the village in a haze. "To them, it's clear something was wrong with the American. And he seemed to be deliberately heading for Taliban strongholds, they say."

Is Bergdahl a deserter? A traitor? Is he, as some critics in the US have implausibly suggested, a real-life incarnation of Nicholas Brody of the TV series Homeland, a captured US serviceman who may have switched sides? Or is he one more casualty of war, a man whose wounds can't be seen but are real nonetheless? It's perfectly possible, of course, to be both.

In 2012, more serving members of the US military committed suicide than were killed in action. Even more appallingly, 6,500 former military personnel committed suicide in the same 12-month period. In the UK, more British soldiers and veterans took their own lives in 2012 than died fighting in Afghanistan over the same period.

Post-traumatic stress is now a recognised medical condition. The military know the dangers, and, in so far as they can, they try to offer support for servicemen and women who need help. Even so, in both the UK and the US, it's estimated that more than one in 10 people who are homeless are military veterans.

Until relatively recently, the long-term human cost of wars to those who fight in them was something that both political and military leaders were anxious not to confront. It is harder to convince a country of the need for war if people know that even those who escape death or injury by bomb or bullet may still be scarred for life.

That's probably why there's been such an outcry from President Obama's political opponents over the deal to free Sgt. Bergdahl - it is an unwelcome reminder that wars are messy, nasty and cruel, and that they can often lead to good people doing bad things.

So should all wars be opposed, on principle? Are we all pacifists now? Or do we need to ensure that on those rare occasions when all available alternative policy options have been tried and failed, the men and women who are sent into harm's way are properly cared for, both on and off the battlefield?

Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace wrote "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" (It is sweet and honourable to die for your country). In 1917, in a poem using Horace's aphorism as its title, the First World War poet Wilfred Owen called that a lie. Addressing the reader, he wrote that if you had seen, as he had, the horrendous effects of a gas attack:

"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori."

I shall be thinking of those lines as I watch the 70th anniversary D-Day commemorations -- and as I ponder the fate of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Sara C Nelson   |   June 6, 2014    9:04 AM ET

This is the dramatic moment a topless protester decapitated Russian President Vladimir Putin – while a handful of world leaders simply stood by.

Neither Barack Obama, Spanish King Juan Carlos, Francois Hollande nor Angela Merkel batted an eyelid as the terrifically violent assault took place – carried out by a Femen assassin with the words “Kill Putin” scrawled across her breasts.

Thankfully this Putin is made of wax – otherwise that might of stung a little.

Scroll down for more pictures of the 'attack'
femen attack on putin waxwork

World leaders idly stand by as Vladimir Putin is violently attacked by a member of Femen

The spectacle occurred at the Grevin museum in Paris on Thursday on the day Putin arrived in France for D-Day anniversary events.

According to French Daily Le Parisien, the protester screamed “Putin is a dictator” shortly before she was arrested.

It’s not the first time Putin has been confronted by the feminist organisation.

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Putin getting and eyeful last year in Germany

Last year he was ambushed by a topless activist as he accompanied German Chancellor Merkel during a visit to an industrial exhibition in Hanover, Germany.

And judging by his expression he was pretty happy about it.

SEE ALSO:

Of Thursday's protest, Femen leader Inna Shevchenko told Huffington Post UK: "That was a protest initiated by one of our Ukrainian members.

"It was a symbolic act - an attack on Putin to urge the world to crash Putinism, not to follow it and support his military interventions and more deaths - by ignoring him and not inviting him to international events like today's D-Day in France."

Mehdi Hasan   |   June 6, 2014    8:21 AM ET

Here are the five things you need to know on Thursday 5 June 2014...

1) NEWARK SAYS 'NO' TO NIGEL

The Newark by-election results are in and, as expected, it's a win for the Tories. My HuffPost UK colleague Ned Simons reports:

"The Ukip earthquake failed to shake the Conservatives out of Newark on Thursday, after Nigel Farage's party was unable capitalise on its stunning European election success by winning the parliamentary by-election in the Nottinghamshire constituency. But the ground did move a bit. Roger Helmer, Ukip's candidate who currently represents the area as an MEP, came in second place with 10,028 votes (25.91%). Robert Jenrick, the Tory candidate, held on to the seat for the Conservatives after winning 17,431 votes (45.03%). A majority of 7,403 votes. Ed Miliband's Labour Party candidate came in third place with 6,852 votes (17.68%). The result was another disaster for Nick Clegg, as the Lib Dem candidate finished a distant sixth with just 1,004 votes (2.59%)."

The poor ol' Lib Dems lost their deposit for the ninth time in a by-election since 2010. The Tories, as George Osborne put it on the radio this morning, enjoyed a "strong win" - though it was their seat to lose. Having said that, despite being a safe Tory seat now, back in 1997, Tony Blair's New Labour won Newark. Ed Miliband's One Nation Labour didn't come anywhere close in this by-election. Osborne called it a "disastrous" night for Labour.

Meanwhile, the big question is this: has the Ukip bubble been burst? Second-place isn't a bad result, of course, but the party did top the poll in Newark during the recent Euro elections so expectations were high. There does seem to be some evidence that locals voted tactically to keep Farage's 'People's Army' out. Those who argue that the voters are savvy enough to be able to distinguish between a protest vote for Ukip at the European elections and a vote for the next government at a general election do seem vindicated by yesterday's Newark by-election. Nigel Farage, meanwhile, may have to re-think his whole 'insurgent' strategy when it comes to parliamentary seats.

Bring on 2015...

2) MAY V GOVE, DAY 3

The chancellor of the exchequer has been weighing in on the row over extremism policy between the home secretary and the education secretary. Speaking on the Today programme, Osborne confirmed that Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, is now investigating the spat between the PM's two key lieutenants in cabinet. He said:

"The prime minister has asked Downing Street – and that includes the cabinet secretary – to establish the facts of who said what to who in the arguments we’ve seen over the last few days. We absolutely don’t want a distraction from the central issue here, the issue which the government is absolutely united on and the people listening to this programme I’m sure are concerned about, which is the infiltration of schools by Islamic extremists."

You'll note that Osborne didn't use the word 'alleged' before 'infiltration'. Talk about pre-judging the results of an official inquiry...

On a related note, a spokesman for the Department of Education yesterday told HuffPost UK: "The secretary of state does not support a ban on religious headwear for pupils in all state-funded schools."

Not in 'all' schools? Does that mean he's fine with it in some schools?

3) 'I WON'T GET ON MY KNEES FOR DAVE'

From the Guardian's splash:

"Jean-Claude Juncker, the embattled frontrunner to head a new EU executive, delivered a bitter attack on Britain on Thursday, vowing he would not get on his knees to secure backing as next president of the European commission. He also strongly criticised European leaders, complaining he was being ignored after the grouping of Europe's centre-right parties won the European election. Strongly opposed by David Cameron in his ambition to become the next president of the commission, Juncker declared he would not genuflect before the British, lambasted what he described as a British press campaign against his candidacy, and warned that he was running out of time to secure the most powerful post in Brussels... 'It is wrong if we give in to the British here," Juncker told a closed meeting of the EPP in the parliament in Brussels on Thursday. 'I will not be forced to get on my knees before the British.'"

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Check out this YouTube viral video, 'Brozen' - two brothers lip-synching to the song, 'Love Is An Open Door', from the Disney hit movie. It'll make you smile.

4) OBAMA IMPERSONATES DARLING

The 'Better Together' campaign must be delighted - the US president is their latest recruit. Will the 'cybernats' now go for Barry? From the FT:

"Barack Obama has waded into the fraught debate about Britain’s constitutional future by stressing US interest in a 'united' kingdom that remains a full member of the EU. With just over three months to go before the Scottish vote on independence, the US president stood beside David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, to praise the UK as an 'extraordinary partner' that looked from the outside like it had 'worked pretty well'."

The paper adds:

"Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, who is leading the independence campaign, shot back saying “yes we can”, in an echo of Mr Obama’s electoral slogan. “When Scotland becomes independent, America will have two allies instead of one,” he added."

5) GOODBYE WILLIE?

From the Times:

"William Hague has said that he hopes to have achieved his 'central mission' at the Foreign Office by next year in the strongest hint to date that he is considering stepping down from frontline politics. Mr Hague said the restoration of the Foreign Office's reputation as one of Whitehall's greatest departments was "well advanced and on track"... Asked directly about whether he wanted to remain foreign secretary in a Conservative-led government, Mr Hague said: 'I came back into politics specifically to do this job and I regard it as my last big job in politics. But I don't think any of us should be speculating about what happens after 2015 until we've won the election.'"

Does "last big job in politics" mean British politics? Could it be Hague, rather than Lansley, who Cameron nominates as Britain's next EU commissioner?

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From today's Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 37
Conservatives 31
Ukip 15
Lib Dems 8

That would give Labour a majority of 76.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Philip Collins, writing in the Times, says: "The Tory split on Europe can’t be reconciled."

David Edgar, writing in the Guardian, says: "Labour should be chasing Green voters, not Ukip supporters."

Fraser Nelson, writing in the Telegraph, says: "You can’t reduce a 300-year-old union to a mushy peas analogy."


Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (mehdi.hasan@huffingtonpost.com), Ned Simons (ned.simons@huffingtonpost.com) or Asa Bennett (asa.bennett@huffingtonpost.com). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons, @asabenn and @huffpostukpol

Ned Simons   |   June 5, 2014    3:07 PM ET

President Obama has intervened in the debate over Scottish independence, telling Scots that the United States wanted to see its closest ally remain "united".

The US president also urged Britons to vote to stay part of the European Union if they are given a say in the in/out referendum promised by David Cameron.

Speaking during a press conference with Cameron at the G7 summit Belgium on Thursday, Obama said it was up to the people of Scotland how to vote in September's referendum, but indicated he did not want to see the UK break-up.

"The UK has been an extraordinary partner to us. From the outside at least it looks like things have worked pretty well and we obviously have a deep interest in making sure one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner," he said. Obama added: "Ultimately these are decisions to be made by folks there."

SEE ALSO: Coalition's Lego Anti-Scottish Independence List 'Stupid'

Asked whether he thought the UK should vote to quit the EU, Obama said he thought British voters would make the "right decision" and choose to stay in.

"With respect to the EU, we share a strategic vision with Great Britain on a whole range of international issues and so it's always encouraging for us to know that Great Britain has a seat at the table in the larger European project," he said.

"I think in light of the events that we are going to be commemorating tomorrow, it's important to recall that it was the steadfastness of Great Britain that in part allows us to be here in Brussels in the seat of a unified and extraordinarily prosperous Europe.

"It's hard for me to imagine that project going well in the absence of Great Britain and I think it's also hard for me to imagine that it would be advantageous for Great Britain to be excluded from political decisions that have an enormous impact on its economic and political life.

He added: "This is why we have elections, and we'll see the arguments made, and I'm sure the people of Great Britain will make the right decision."

Speaking on behalf of the Scottish anti-independence Better Together campaign, Labour shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said: "I welcome this important contribution by President Obama. His clear statement of support for the UK staying together will resonate with many of us here in Scotland.

"As a global statesman President Obama understands that interdependence is a defining feature of our modern world, and that building bridges, not putting up new barriers, is the challenge of our generation."

  |   June 5, 2014    1:41 PM ET

g7 reservoir dogs

Is Quentin Tarantino directing the G7 summit?


Thomas Tamblyn   |   June 4, 2014    4:39 PM ET

The Secret Service have a new remit, they'll be protecting the President against the potentially deadly effects of sarcasm. Thankfully though, they're buying a 'sarcasm detector' which can do just that.

Announced via a work order on Monday, the Secret Service confirmed it would be buying a special piece of software that can detect a range of emotions on Twitter, hoping to rule out incidents involving sarcastic threats.

Along with being able to detect what many (wrongly) describe as the 'lowest form of wit', the software can detect the level of influence a user has, how sentimental they're being and provide easy access to historical Twitter data.

Once an alert appears the Secret Service then has the option to send a notification to a user, warning them of the potential ramifications of their rant.

First discovered by nextgov.com, it appears as though the decision was made after the Homeland Security Department got in a spot of bother when it was found to be working on a program which would involve creating fake Twitter profiles to spy on normal users.