Iraq appears to be disintegrating. Its border with Syria has effectively been erased by a marauding army of jihadists. Operating under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham—the acronyms ISIS and ISIL are used interchangeably—this jihadist army has seized vast swaths of western and central Iraq, taken majority-Sunni cities once liberated by American blood, and declared an Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. Iraq’s Shiites have turned to Iran for protection. Iraq’s Kurds are quietly turning their autonomy into de facto sovereignty and, soon, full-blown independence. All the while, Iraq’s postwar war claims some 850 Iraqis per month.
Before getting into why this happened and whether it can be reversed, it’s important to look at the latest villain in the ongoing tragedy that is Iraq. In a region full of bad guys, ISIS—led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi terrorist who fought against U.S. troops during the insurgency—is one of the worst. In fact, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk calls ISIS “worse than al Qaeda.” Here’s why:
• ISIS claims to have massacred 1,700 unarmed, captured Iraqi soldiers near Tikrit, backing up its claims with a series of photos posted on social media.
• ISIS is accused of executing 510 Shiite prisoners in Mosul, and has shelled and set fire to “apostate” homes in Dhuluiya and Zowiya.
• Human rights groups report that ISIS has imprisoned children as young as eight and flogged children as young as 14, engages in summary executions, and employs electric shock, crucifixion and other brutal forms of torture. As an Israeli news agency reports, “The medieval tactics utilized by ISIS in executing and torturing its enemies are too inhumane even for al Qaeda” and led al Qaeda “to disown Baghdadi and his rogue organization.”
• The UN reports ISIS has executed imams, teachers and hospital workers; forced children to become soldiers; and committed mass-rapes.
• ISIS has ordered Christians in Iraq to convert or die.
• ISIS initially relied on extortion to fund its operations; however, with the capture of large cities like Mosul, ISIS took possession of several banks and with them large quantities of cash. The group also took control of large amounts of military equipment in its June blitzkrieg, thus further propelling and underwriting its efforts.
These tactics have a power all their own, inflating ISIS into something more than it is: an invincible, inevitable force. This has led several thousand Iraqi troops to desert, surrender or switch sides.
ISIS now controls 11 Sunni-majority cities, including Mosul and Ramadi, in a patchwork quilt spread across western, northwestern and central Iraq, along with a network of transportation arteries between Baghdad and what used to be the Iraq-Syria border. (See the nearby map, courtesy of The Guardian.) It now is menacing Baghdad, with many fearing an asymmetric assault into the Iraqi capital. ISIS has swelled from 3,000 fighters to an estimated 20,000 on the strength of its sweep through northwestern Iraq.
Baghdadi—who was apprehended during Iraq’s postwar insurgency and detained for four years in a U.S. prison in Iraq before being released in 2009—wants to use ISIS to create a Sunni-dominated caliphate in Iraq and Syria. In fact, he recently declared the territories he controls “the Islamic State” and named himself the caliph.
Not surprisingly, Baghdadi and ISIS have gotten Washington’s attention.
“If they are able to consolidate their gains in that area,” warns Attorney General Eric Holder, “I think it’s just a matter of time before they start looking outward and start looking at the West and at the United States in particular.”
“The United States military does consider ISIL a threat…initially to the region and our close allies, longer term to the United States of America,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey says.
Calling ISIS “sophisticated…dynamic…strong…organized…well-financed” and “a threat to every stabilized country on Earth,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel argues the jihadist group poses an “imminent” threat to the United States. Of course, that was on July 8—almost a month ago—which raises questions about the imminence of the threat and/or the administration’s capacity to remove the threat.
The Obama administration cannot claim ignorance.
• In 2011, Col. Salam Khaled of the Iraqi army explained, “Our forces are good but not to a sufficient degree that allows them to face external and internal challenges alone. The loyalty of forces is not to their homeland. The loyalty is to the political parties and to the sects.”
• In January 2012, Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan warned, “Without all the enablers we provide, there’s no doubt there will be less capability than there is right now,” adding that if Iraqi security forces prove unable to put pressure on jihadist groups, “they could regenerate.”
• In summer 2013, Iraq officially began asking for help against jihadist spillovers from Syria, making urgent requests for American advisors and assets to hit terrorist camps, to no avail.
• In February 2014, McGurk told a House committee that ISIS’s operations “are calculated, coordinated and part of a strategic campaign…to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of governing control in western regions of Iraq and Syria.” That same month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that “the protracted civil war in Syria is destabilizing Iraq.”
• In early 2014, ISIS scored its first major success in Iraq, when it took control of Fallujah and a large swath of Anbar province in western Iraq.
“The U.S. knew what was going on but followed a policy of deliberate neglect,” Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies told McClatchy News. “This miscalculation essentially has helped realize the worst nightmare for this administration, an administration that prided itself on its counterterrorism strategy. It is now presiding over the resurgence of a nightmare of extremism and terrorism.”
It didn’t have to be this way.
As the surge took hold and turned the tide in Iraq in 2008-09—eviscerating al Qaeda, bringing civilian deaths down from a ghastly monthly toll of nearly 4,000 in 2006 to 137 by 2010, persuading former insurgents to become part of the solution, stabilizing Iraq’s politics, and rescuing Iraq from civil war and America from defeat—most observers thought Washington and Baghdad would renew the status of forces of agreement (SOFA) to authorize a residual U.S. presence in Iraq. As Vice President Joe Biden said, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki [Iraq’s prime minister] will extend the SOFA.”
In fact, Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explained that “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” The troops would not be there to fight, but rather to deter flare-ups, train Iraq’s nascent army, secure key facilities, serve as a just-in-case backstop and secure American interests.
But President Barack Obama demanded that the new SOFA be blessed by the Iraqi parliament, rather than simply signed by the Iraqi government, and offered a residual force of just 3,000 troops. When Baghdad balked, as Kagan reported at the time, “The White House then dropped the matter entirely and decided instead to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq…despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.”
For Obama, Iraq was always a mistake to be corrected, rather than a commitment to be sustained. And that’s a key reason why the hard-earned gains of the surge have evaporated.
This unforced error will be impossible to fix without sustained and serious commitment from the White House—something it hasn’t shown to date. As Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, puts it, “Any course the president chooses involves increased risk due to the years of disengagement in the region.”
To deal with ISIS, to salvage America’s increasingly-precarious security architecture in the Middle East, to preserve U.S. influence in the region, the president should follow his own counsel.
In 2008, Obama unveiled a plan premised on “a counter-terrorism force to strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy.” He explained that “If al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad.” And in remarks about Pakistan, he argued, rightly, “We cannot tolerate a sanctuary for terrorists who threaten America’s homeland.”
Well, here we are. ISIS is, by all accounts, worse than al Qaeda, is forming more than a base or sanctuary in Iraq, is a threat to America and cannot be tolerated.
“We have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria,” Obama says. “My team is working around the clock to identify how we can provide the most effective assistance.”
The president’s mention of Syria—land of erased “red lines” and non-lethal American aid—does little to inspire or reassure.
According to Dempsey, “We are preparing a strategy that has a series of options to present to our elected leaders on how we can initially contain, eventually disrupt and finally defeat ISIL over time.” Toward that end, some 825 U.S. troops have been re-deployed to Iraq—160 of them operating joint operations centers in Baghdad and Irbil, another 90 gathering intelligence.
Ultimately, this is not about saving Iraq. It’s about protecting America. If you doubt this, consider what Baghdadi once told his U.S. guards: “I’ll see you guys in New York.”