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The Guardian, Associated Press, The Washington Post, Reuters, The New York Times, CNN and many other media outlets all rely on the Institute for the Study of War’s (ISW’s) maps and military analysis of the battlefield in Ukraine. But what is the ISW? Is it a trustworthy key source? Who leads and governs it?

Based in Washington DC, the ISW states that it is “committed to improving the nation’s ability to execute military operations and respond to emerging threats in order to achieve US strategic objectives.” Its president and founder is Kimberly Kagan. Her husband is Frederick Kagan, who works at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and is the lead author of ISW’s battlefield assessments of the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Frederick’s brother, Robert Kagan, is a former Reagan-era US state department official, a columnist at The Washington Post and was a proponent of the Iraq War. He defines neoconservatism as “a belief in America’s exceptional role as a promoter of the principles of liberty and democracy, a belief in the preservation of American primacy and in the exercise of power, including military power, as a tool for defending and advancing moralistic and idealistic causes.”

Neoconservatism grew out of the ideas of the philosopher Leo Strauss and a rejection of America’s 1960s counterculture: the basic idea is that a small elite can use statesmanship, in and out of the government and media to create what they consider to be a “good” society.

Kimberly and Frederick Kagan led a team in 2006 that included retired Gen Jack Keane, to develop a counterinsurgency strategy to combat rising insurgent and sectarian violence in Iraq. The strategy argued for a substantial surge of US troops into Iraq. In January 2007 then president George Bush gave the commander of US forces in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, more than 20,000 additional troops.

Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

The Kagans subsequently spent a considerable amount of time in Iraq assisting Petreaus. While her work for the US military was unpaid, Kimberly Kagan continued to draw her ISW salary. The organisation’s 2019 tax filing states that she earned $199,504.

Both retired generals Keane and Petreaus are on ISW’s board. A former vice chief of staff for the US Army (1999-2003), Keane is the board’s chair and the executive chair of AM General, which has made billions from supplying the US military with Humvees.

In 2012 Keane joined Academi, a mercenary outfit formerly known as Blackwater, as a strategic adviser. The New York Times reported in 2009 that the CIA gave Blackwater and its affiliates contracts worth up to $600m. One of the contracts was to run a private assassination programme to hunt down Al-Qaeda leaders. The US courts convicted three Blackwater employees of manslaughter and one of murder for their role in the 2007 Nisour Square massacre.

In 2020, then president Donald Trump gave Keane the Presidential Medal of Freedom and pardoned the four killers of 14 Iraqis, including two children. At a 2010 congressional hearing, Petraeus explained that Operation Earnest Voice in Iraq “provides Centcom with direct communications capabilities to reach regional audiences through traditional media, as well as via website and regional public affairs blogging.” The Guardian revealed in 2011 that the US military was using fake social media identities to influence public opinion and promote pro-US propaganda.

Petraeus was the CIA’s director from 2011 to 2012. He now is a partner at private equity firm KKR and chairs the KKR Global Institute. The firm has significant investments in the defence sector. When the German government announced €100bn in additional military expenditure following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, KKR sold its stake in radar maker Hensoldt for €210m.

With William “Bill” Kristol on the board, ISW neoconservative credentials are cemented. Kristol is the former editor of The Weekly Standard, which was almost required reading in George W Bush’s White House, and the son of Irving Kristol, “the godfather of neoconservatism”. Kristol penned a 1997 editorial entitled “Saddam Must Go”. If America didn’t invade, it stated, the day would come “when Saddam has biological and chemical weapons at the tips of missiles aimed at Israel and at American forces.”

As Scott McConnell, writing in The American Conservative, put it: “the Iraq war is Bill Kristol’s war as much as it is George W Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s, and the Standard is the vehicle that made it possible.” The board also includes former senator Joseph Lieberman. Israel Aerospace Industries hired Lieberman in 2019 to provide strategic advice. The company makes armaments such as unmanned aerial systems and loitering munitions.”

Board member Warren Phillips is the lead director of the defence contractor CACI International. The US government awarded CACI a $19m contract in 2003 to provide interrogation services at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Three former inmates, held from 2003 to 2004, are suing CACI in US courts. The former inmates claim CACI employees tortured them with beatings, electric shocks, humiliation and hunger, including stripping them and threatened them with dogs. Solitary confinement under conditions of sensory deprivation was also inflicted. All of the plaintiffs were eventually released without charge. One of the plaintiffs is Salah Hasan Nusaif Al-Ejaili, an Al Jazeera cameraman. Al Jazeera uses ISW maps and analyses in its reporting on Ukraine.

On its website the ISW states that it “is grateful to the many individuals, corporations, and foundations that provide generous support to help us execute our mission.” Current and former corporate supporters of ISW include defence companies and contractors Alvarez & Marsal, Avantus, General Motors, Raytheon, CACI, DynCorp International, Northrop Grumman, Critical Solutions International and SAIC.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ranked ISW supporter General Dynamics as the world’s fifth largest arms-producing and military service company in 2020, with $25.8bn worth of military sales.

The ISW is not a neutral non-profit filled with mild-mannered academics: the individuals and companies who implemented and benefited from America’s invasion of Iraq. They were the peddlers of the big weapons of mass destruction lie. They are an ideological component of the US military-industrial complex. Hardly a credible source for reporting on another immoral and unjustifiable invasion.

• Dr Taylor, a freelance journalist and photographer, is a research fellow in environmental ethics at Stellenbosch University.

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