Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda

War on Terror: What’s Old Is New Again

Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”

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Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”

Is the “old” war on terror over? Not by any reasonable metric. Al-Qaeda is not now, and was not even after bin Laden’s death, on the run. President Obama has somewhat taken the war on terror off the front burner for many Americans through his policy of killing instead of capturing potential terrorists–not to mention the fact that he’s a Democrat, so the antiwar movement, which was mostly an anti-Bush movement, has receded from view. (Though the fringe activists of Code Pink have continued yelling at senators.)

Complicating Obama’s desire to end the war on terror is that he has only presided over its expansion, for a simple reason. Obama can choose to end America’s participation in a traditional land war by retreating from that country. It’s ignominious but yes, a war can plausibly end if one side just leaves.

But the war on terror isn’t a traditional land war. The American retrenchment over which Obama has presided has had all sorts of wholly predictable and deadly results, but those results are, in Obama’s mind, for someone else to deal with. So for example we have Russia on the march, but as far as Obama’s concerned, it’s Ukraine’s war. Terrorism is different, because when terrorists fill a vacuum, they create a safe haven, and when they do that they threaten America.

Thus we have Thursday’s Wall Street Journal report on the terrorist group known as Khorasan, which many in the West hadn’t heard of until last week:

U.S. officials say Khorasan is a growing hazard, particularly to the U.S., because its members are focused on violence toward the West and have been eyeing attacks on American airliners.

On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as Islamic State “in terms of threat to the homeland.” It was the first time a U.S. official has acknowledged the group’s existence. …

Officials wouldn’t describe in any detail the nature, location or timing of the plots. Together, Nusra Front and Khorasan are suspected to have multiple plots in the works targeting countries in Europe as well as the U.S.

Other news organizations have since followed the Journal’s lead and reported on Khorasan. Syria has become an anarchic incubator of terrorist groups, itself an obvious source of possible trouble for U.S. counterterrorism and homeland security efforts. It also magnifies the threat to regional stability, which puts U.S. interests further at risk.

How such a threat multiplies in that environment is often misunderstood. The groups don’t necessarily “team up” on an attack against the West. But it helps to connect those who want to attack the West but don’t have the means or the knowhow with those who have the means and knowhow but not the desire to attack the West. And it has eerie echoes from past collaborations. As the Council on Foreign Relations noted in a 2006 backgrounder on the Hezbollah-al-Qaeda relationship:

As former National Security Council members Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon describe in their book, The Age of Sacred Terror, a small group of al-Qaeda members visited Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon in the mid-1990s. Shortly thereafter, according to testimony from Ali Mohammed, an Egyptian-born U.S. Army sergeant who later served as one of bin Laden’s lieutenants and pled guilty to participating in the 1998 embassy bombings in eastern Africa, Osama bin Laden and Imad Mugniyeh met in Sudan. The two men, who have both topped the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists, agreed Hezbollah would provide the fledgling al-Qaeda organization with explosives and training in exchange for money and manpower. Though it is unclear whether all terms of that agreement were met or the degree to which the two groups have worked together since. Douglas Farah, a journalist and consultant with the NEFA Foundation, a New York-based counterterrorism organization, says Hezbollah helped al-Qaeda traffic its assets through Africa in the form of diamonds and gold shortly after the 9/11 attacks. U.S. and European intelligence reports from that time suggest the two groups were collaborating in such activities as money laundering, gun running, and training. It’s not clear whether these past collaborations were isolated incidents or indications of a broader relationship.

Khorasan’s leader, according to the New York Times, “was so close to Bin Laden that he was among a small group of people who knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before they were launched.” And the Journal adds that the group “is also pursuing a major recruitment effort focused on fighters with Western passports, officials said.” So it’s easy to understand why American counterterrorism and intelligence officials are taking the threat seriously.

A member of bin Laden’s inner circle is leading a group planning attacks on the U.S., was recently living in Iran, and is utilizing a terrorist haven teeming with weapons and possible recruits. This is not a “new” war on terror. In many cases it’s not even a new enemy. No matter how uninterested the American president is in the global war on terror, the war on terror is still interested in him.

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Islamist Atrocities and the End of Outrage

When Islamist terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, southern Russia, just over a decade ago, not only Russians and the West were aghast, but so too were many Ossetians, Chechens, and, more generally, Islamists otherwise supportive of militancy and violence. The victimization of the children was too great to bare for many, and led them to question just what it meant to put the rhetoric they once embraced into action. In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre, radicalism did not diminish, but the Chechen and Ossetian ability to fundraise and recruit did and, for a moment at least, men and women of all religions stood against Islamist radicalism.

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When Islamist terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, southern Russia, just over a decade ago, not only Russians and the West were aghast, but so too were many Ossetians, Chechens, and, more generally, Islamists otherwise supportive of militancy and violence. The victimization of the children was too great to bare for many, and led them to question just what it meant to put the rhetoric they once embraced into action. In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre, radicalism did not diminish, but the Chechen and Ossetian ability to fundraise and recruit did and, for a moment at least, men and women of all religions stood against Islamist radicalism.

There were the beginnings of a similar moment when terrorists from Boko Haram, a radical Nigerian group, abducted hundreds of school girls, most of whom remain missing. Even al-Qaeda criticized Boko Haram’s action as destructive to the overall cause which al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists embrace.

Alas, it seems that the public—and Islamists—are becoming accustomed to such brutality and are no longer willing to condemn it on such a broad scale. Cases in point are the capture and enslavement of Yezidi girls and the systematic execution of journalists and aid workers by proponents of ISIS. Now certainly, these have been subject to the usual rote condemnations by governments and by groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) that have taken Saudi and Qatari money and often associate with more radical Islamist movements like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But, when push comes to shove, many Islamists and the groups and countries which support them are not putting their money where their mouth is. Arab countries—the same countries whose citizens often donated to ISIS and associated charities—have been reluctant to help. Turkey’s excuse—that it is afraid for hostages held in Mosul—does not pass the smell test given that Turkey has not hesitated to wage war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) even when that group has held Turks hostage. That President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refuses to label ISIS as terrorists simply reinforces the issue.

It’s all well and good to dismiss ISIS actions as “un-Islamic” as CAIR has done or, for that matter, as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have done. But the truth is that to millions of Muslims, they are very Islamic. To deny the religious component of “Jihad John” or ISIS’s actions is to deny that there is an exegesis within Islamic thought that not only allows but blesses such actions. It is to deny that there is a battle of interpretation which must be won. Nor is it logical to embrace a politically correct and scrubbed 21st century definition of jihad when ISIS reaches back to interpretations of a millennium and more ago when jihad was understood by Islamic theologians to mean an often offensive holy war.

The fact that the visceral outrage which confronted the Beslan murders has now been replaced by pro-forma but ultimately meaningless condemnations of Islamic terror by Muslim majority states and Islamic advocacy organizations suggests that far from rising up with righteous outrage against the actions of the latest Islamist group, the broader Islamic world has become inured to such actions conducted in its name and unwilling to recoil and shame its proponents and supporters in the same way.

Indeed, the thousands of foreign terrorists which now flock to Syria and Iraq did not radicalize in the last two months, nor did they embrace the most radical interpretations of Islam simply because they disliked former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Rather, they were instructed in hundreds of mosques scattered across Europe, North Africa, South Asia, and Turkey. They were taught the Koran and its meaning by thousands of teachers and imams funded by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. These mosques were protected from criticism by so-called Islamic civil-rights and advocacy groups who conflated any criticism of radical Islamist ideology with Islamophobia. If only the same organizations instead began to name and publicly shame the extremists who preach in American, European, or Middle Eastern mosques.

Press releases won’t cut it, nor diplomatic handshakes and symbolic press conferences. The problem lies deeper, and ultimately boils down to the tolerance for extremism in so many European, American, and Middle Eastern mosques upon which ISIS recruiters rely.

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The Constitution and the War on ISIS

When President Obama announced last night that the United States was now committed to the destruction of the ISIS terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria, there was one conspicuous omission from the speech. He will not ask Congress for a vote authorizing the campaign. That suits most members of the House and Senate—who are not eager to cast a vote for or against war on the eve of the midterm elections—just fine. But it begs the question of whether his decision is constitutional or wise.

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When President Obama announced last night that the United States was now committed to the destruction of the ISIS terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria, there was one conspicuous omission from the speech. He will not ask Congress for a vote authorizing the campaign. That suits most members of the House and Senate—who are not eager to cast a vote for or against war on the eve of the midterm elections—just fine. But it begs the question of whether his decision is constitutional or wise.

In his speech, the president brushed over the question of a congressional vote when he said:

I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL, but I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.

While he’s right about the majority of Congress supporting action at this moment, many in the House and Senate believe they must be formally consulted. While agreeing with the president’s dubious assertion that the terrorists were not Islamic, Senator Rand Paul believes Congress needs to authorize any military action against the group. The libertarian called for “an up or down vote” on the use of force and said authorizing strikes without one was “unconstitutional.”

Is he right? The president’s position on this is precarious but it is not completely illogical.

Last year when the president flirted with taking action in Syria against the Bashar Assad regime after it crossed the “red line” he had enunciated on its use of chemical weapons, he deferred to Congress saying he could not take action on his own. Now he claims he has the authority to order the use of force that he didn’t have last year. The difference is that the administration believes a conflict with ISIS falls under the rubric of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force voted by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda whereas a fight with Assad would not.

That makes some sense but ironies abound.

The first is that, as the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake writes today, fighting ISIS on the basis of a resolution against al-Qaeda makes no sense. The two groups are not the same thing and are actually in conflict with each other so how can a congressional resolution against one allow the president to fight the other?

Even more embarrassing for Obama is the recollection that, as Lake recalls, Obama specifically eschewed the right of the president to act in this manner in the absence of “an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Though the president can assert, with some justice, that ISIS potentially does pose such a threat, given that he repeated his boasts about defeating al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden in his speech, using the resolution from a war he has pretended to have won to fight a new one against a different group is absurd if not illegal, as Lake asserts.

The fact that in May 2013 the president also asked Congress to repeal this very same resolution and vowed never to sign laws to extend that mandate only adds another layer of hypocrisy to the discussion.

Yet even if we were to assume that the president is right that the 2001 law applies to the new conflict, his decision not to ask Congress for a vote is a mistake.

The reasons for his choice are obvious.

First of all, the president was burned last year when it was clear that he didn’t have support for a Syria resolution even though his initial inclination to strike Assad was correct. The president has always been uncomfortable working with Congress and after nearly six years in office has more or less given up on the idea. Even though the odds would be in his favor after the universal revulsion felt by Americans about ISIS atrocities, Obama simply hasn’t the patience or the ability to cajole the House and the Senate to back him.

Moreover, though many members of Congress are unsettled by this usurpation of authority, they are more than happy not to be asked to cast a difficult vote sending the nation to war in the weeks before the midterm elections. Outside of critical voices like Paul, few in either the House or the Senate are upset about being given a pass by the White House.

But both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are wrong.

The president would be immeasurably strengthened by a new vote, especially when you consider that he would be almost certain to win it. Having called the nation to take part in war, albeit on the cheap without ground troops, choosing to avoid a vote while weakly welcoming the legislative branch’s support smacks of the same cavalier attitude toward the Constitution that animates his stands on immigration and the environment. Avoiding the controversies that have embroiled the administration on those issues would lift this conflict out of the partisan squabbles that characterize virtually everything that happens in Washington these days.

Even more important is that such a vote would make it clear that the nation was united and ready to pay the price, be in treasure or blood, to defeat ISIS. Arming himself with that support would be what a true wartime president—one that was able not only to articulate the reasons for fighting but also prepared to stick out a long hard fight—would do.

But this risk-averse president who has been dragged kicking and screaming into this fight by an American people who are outraged and fearful about ISIS rather than his own judgment isn’t willing to do it. A call for a vote would be a sign of respect for the separation of powers in the Constitution as well as a unifying gesture as the U.S. embarks on a new chapter of a war on terror that began 13 years ago today on 9/11. But Obama appears as indifferent to the former as he is uninterested in the latter. While it is to be hoped that his half-hearted approach to this conflict will be successful, this is not a good start to a war that may prove more difficult than he thinks.

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Obama Has the Right Goal on ISIS; Does He Have the Strategy to Attain It?

President Obama laid out the right objective in his address to the nation on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary: “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” He deserves credit for owning up to the threat posed by a group he had dismissed earlier this year as a “JV team.” He deserves credit, too, for removing the artificial limits which had allowed U.S. warplanes to bomb the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq but not in Syria. Members of Congress of both parties should not hesitate to support the commander in chief as he undertakes a campaign against what has been called the strongest terrorist group in the world. But that support need not be uncritical.

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President Obama laid out the right objective in his address to the nation on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary: “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” He deserves credit for owning up to the threat posed by a group he had dismissed earlier this year as a “JV team.” He deserves credit, too, for removing the artificial limits which had allowed U.S. warplanes to bomb the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq but not in Syria. Members of Congress of both parties should not hesitate to support the commander in chief as he undertakes a campaign against what has been called the strongest terrorist group in the world. But that support need not be uncritical.

There are ample grounds for concern that, however good the president is at describing the threat, his actions are not sufficient to overcome it. Listening to the president’s remarks, in particular, I wonder if the president’s strategy will only be sufficient to degrade–not to destroy–ISIS.

There is, for example, the salient fact that Obama stressed over and over–that his strategy “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” It is a mystery why the president would want to telegraph at the opening of a military campaign what the U.S. will not do, which can only raise doubts among friends and foes alike of our resolve in this struggle. Although no one is seriously suggesting sending large ground-combat formations to Iraq or Syria, there is a pressing need for a substantial force of trainers, air controllers, intelligence experts, and Special Operations Forces to direct air strikes and augment the very limited capabilities of our local allies–namely the Kurdish pesh merga, the Sunni tribes, the Free Syrian Army, and vetted units of the Iraqi Security Forces. I and various other commentators have suggested something on the order of 10,000 to 15,000 personnel will be required, but Obama said he was only sending 475 more personnel to Iraq, bringing our troop total to around 1,500. That’s better than zero but it’s probably not where we need to be if we are to actually assist in the destruction of ISIS.

There is no indication, in particular, that Obama will allow the Joint Special Operations Command to do the kind of highly precise network-targeting that, in combination with a larger counterinsurgency strategy, did so much damage in the past to al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor. This would require sending small numbers of Americans into combat, albeit on highly favorable terms. Simply deploying JSOC to bases in and around Iraq and Syria would require a deployment of probably 2,000 personnel–far more than Obama has so far ordered.

The president’s analogy to Somalia and Yemen is not an encouraging one. Obama may be one of the few people around who thinks that the U.S. has achieved so much success in those countries that it is a model worth emulating. Al Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, has withstood offensives by Kenyan, Ethiopian, and African Union troops. As Obama’s own National Counterterrorism Center notes, although “degraded,” Al Shabaab “has continued its violent insurgency in southern and central Somalia. The group has exerted temporary and, at times, sustained control over strategic locations in those areas by recruiting, sometimes forcibly, regional sub-clans and their militias, using guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics.”

Al Shabaab also has shown distressing ability to mount terrorist strikes outside Somalia, for example the attack on a Nairobi mall in 2013. And it is doubtful that the recent American air strike, which killed its leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, will defeat the group any more than did a previous airstrike in 2008 which killed the previous leader, Aden Hashi Ayro.

As for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen, it too has shown a lot of staying power notwithstanding American air strikes that have killed leaders such as Anwar al-Awlaki. It may have been overshadowed by grimmer news on the ISIS front, but on August 8, AQAP murdered 14 captured Yemeni soldiers. A memo from the AEI Critical Threats Project warned that this “may presage the emergence of a renewed threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that the U.S and Yemen are ill-prepared to handle.”

At best, U.S. air strikes in Yemen and Somalia have disrupted these terrorist groups without defeating them. The only case that I am aware of where air strikes, without effective ground action, have had a more substantial impact on a terrorist group is in Pakistan where continued U.S. drone attacks over the course of more than a decade have done serious damage to core al-Qaeda, albeit without destroying it. But that’s only possible because core al-Qaeda is such a small organization with a few dozen operatives. ISIS is much, much larger with more than 10,000 fighters and control of a territory larger than the United Kingdom. It is in fact more than a terrorist group–it is also a guerrilla group that is trying to create a conventional army. And in terms of money and weaponry it has access to resources that far exceed those of Al Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or core al-Qaeda.

It is not, in short, a threat that will be eradicated by a few dozen or even a few hundred American air strikes. What is required is a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign enabled by a substantial force of advisers and Special Operators that would be able to dramatically increase the capabilities of our local allies. If we don’t put at least some “boots on the ground,” we risk bombing blind which could have the opposite of the intended effect. It could, in fact, drive more Sunnis into ISIS’s camp and wind up inadvertently helping extremist Shiite militias, which are present in large numbers, under the direction of Iran’s Quds Force, in both Iraq and Syria.

I have said it before and will say it again: If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. As Napoleon said, “If you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.” Don’t take a few villages outside Vienna.

I very much doubt that most Americans care whether we have 1,500 or 15,000 troops in Iraq. They are mad about ISIS and worried about its threat and they want it to be destroyed. Obama should commit the resources to achieve that objective rather than trying to send the smallest force possible so that he can say he is not repeating George W. Bush’s mistakes in Iraq. In reality, alas, there are eerie parallels between Bush’s failure to adequately resource the Iraq mission between 2003 and 2007 and Obama’s failure to do so today. Perhaps we can defeat ISIS on the cheap, but I doubt it.

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IDF Saves Irish Troops from Jihadists

Ireland is one of the most consistently anti-Israel countries in Europe. So it was interesting to read in Ireland’s Sunday Independent yesterday that Israeli troops were instrumental in saving the lives of Irish peacekeepers on the Golan Heights last week. Citing “senior sources,” the newspaper reported that after the peacekeepers were attacked by a Syrian rebel group, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, “Irish soldiers would have been killed or taken hostage by Islamist extremists if it wasn’t for the military intervention of the Israeli army … The Israeli assistance was described as ‘decisive’ in the success of the mission.”

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Ireland is one of the most consistently anti-Israel countries in Europe. So it was interesting to read in Ireland’s Sunday Independent yesterday that Israeli troops were instrumental in saving the lives of Irish peacekeepers on the Golan Heights last week. Citing “senior sources,” the newspaper reported that after the peacekeepers were attacked by a Syrian rebel group, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, “Irish soldiers would have been killed or taken hostage by Islamist extremists if it wasn’t for the military intervention of the Israeli army … The Israeli assistance was described as ‘decisive’ in the success of the mission.”

Specifically, the Israel Defense Forces used its precise intelligence about the area to guide the troops to safety along a route that avoided Nusra fighters. Additionally, there were “unconfirmed reports that the Israelis directed fire at the Islamists to stop them from attacking the Filipino and Irish soldiers.”

There’s nothing surprising about the IDF’s intervention. After all, Israel has consistently intervened to save Syrian lives even though it’s formally at war with Syria, providing food and other humanitarian assistance to besieged Syrian villages and offering medical care to everyone from wounded fighters to mothers in labor. (Safed’s Rebecca Sieff Hospital delivered its seventh Syrian baby earlier this month.) So intervening to save the nationals of a country it’s not at war with is a no-brainer.

What is surprising, however, is what this says about Ireland, and by extension, about Europe as a whole. For here you have the difference between Israel and its enemies in the starkest form: on one hand, radical jihadists who sought to kill or kidnap Irish soldiers; on the other, a stable country that intervened to save their lives. The choice between the two would seem self-evident. But in fact, Ireland has consistently chosen the jihadists.

Last year, for instance, Ireland led the opposition within the European Union to blacklisting Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization. This is the same Hezbollah that kidnapped European nationals for years; that murdered innocent tourists on European soil in 2012; and that’s currently helping the Assad regime in Syria slaughter its own citizens. True, Hezbollah is Shi’ite and the Nusra Front is Sunni, but beyond that, there isn’t much to choose between them.

Ireland also looks out for Hamas’s interests. It vociferously opposes Israel’s partial blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza, despite the obvious fact that lifting the blockade would let Hamas import vast quantities of arms without hindrance, and it even denies Israel’s right to intercept blockade-running flotillas–a right a UN inquiry commission upheld in 2011.

In contrast, Dublin is always at the head of the pack in attacking Israel. Before assuming the EU’s rotating presidency in 2013, for instance, it announced that it supports an EU-wide ban on imports from Israeli settlements, but had regretfully concluded it was unachievable, since too many other EU members were opposed.

Yet Ireland is merely an extreme case of a pan-European phenomenon: Rather than seeking to empower Israel against the jihadists, the EU consistently seeks to empower the jihadists against Israel. Indeed, the EU often appears obsessed with making Israel give up strategic territory along its borders, despite the fact that every previous Israeli withdrawal has merely further empowered jihadist groups (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza), and that additional withdrawals are all too likely to do the same.

Not coincidentally, the Golan is included in the list of “Israeli-occupied territories” that the EU wants Israel to quit. One wonders whether Dublin appreciates the irony that had Israel complied with this demand, IDF troops wouldn’t have been on hand last week to rescue its peacekeepers.

But that, of course, is precisely the problem with seeking to empower your enemies rather than your allies: If you succeed, your allies will no longer be able to help you when you need them.

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The Imperial Age of Terrorism

President Obama has taken plenty of heat for saying he wants to turn ISIS into a “manageable” problem, proving that his underestimation of threats continues apace. But the lack of urgency toward stopping ISIS’s deadly and destabilizing march is not just about ISIS: it shows the president to still be operating in the false solace of compartmentalization, as if ISIS exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t, and a New York Times story today about terrorism far from Syria or Iraq demonstrates why.

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President Obama has taken plenty of heat for saying he wants to turn ISIS into a “manageable” problem, proving that his underestimation of threats continues apace. But the lack of urgency toward stopping ISIS’s deadly and destabilizing march is not just about ISIS: it shows the president to still be operating in the false solace of compartmentalization, as if ISIS exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t, and a New York Times story today about terrorism far from Syria or Iraq demonstrates why.

The Times writes of a new video message released by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, in which he attempts to recruit fighters in the Indian subcontinent, “in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad and Kashmir.” The call to establish this branch of al-Qaeda was, according to the report, two years in the making, meaning even when al-Qaeda appeared to be splintering it was still expanding. The Times explains the relevance of al-Qaeda’s competitor, ISIS, to Zawahri’s message:

Al Qaeda, which has been weakened by military and economic pressure in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has not traditionally recruited heavily in India or staged major attacks on Hindus. Instead, its ideological focus has been on driving out a “far enemy” — the United States and its allies — from the Middle East. Analysts say its leaders may be wary of provoking conflict with this region’s huge Hindu population.

This summer, however, has seen recruiting of Indian Muslims by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a Sunni network that split rancorously from Al Qaeda last year and has rapidly expanded, threatening to eclipse its forerunner. Many analysts in India saw Al Qaeda’s announcement Wednesday as an effort by the older organization to confront a rising challenge to its leadership of the Islamic militancy in the region.

In his videotaped address, Mr. Zawahri does not make specific reference to ISIS, but he does call for unity among jihadists, saying “discord is a curse and torment, and disgrace for the believers and glory for the disbelievers.”

The idea that ISIS is a threat that can be contained to Syria and Iraq is thus false not only because ISIS is already attracting adherents outside those countries but also because ISIS is an element of a global Islamist terror threat whose success breeds expansion, competition, and imitation. If Islamist terrorists are seen to be on the run, as American officials like to believe, they are often on the run to other, stronger terror networks or on the run to scout new locations to expand their reach. This globalized, networked nature of the threat is something Obama has never understood, and it’s hampered American security policy on his watch.

It also undermines Obama’s “realist” desire to see America’s enemies, especially in Syria, destroy each other. What happens when competition fosters not bloody turf wars but competition for new markets? You have a sort of imperial rivalry superimposed on top of the existing world order.

Take the idea of the nation-state, for example, which has been the basis of the quest for a stable global order. Yesterday, the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney wrote a smart post on how ISIS and its self-declared sovereignty complicate our preferred understanding of what a state is. Using a fascinating Wall Street Journal story about how ISIS controls its local economy and polices its territory as a jumping-off point, Carney writes:

Many states — including my favorites — gained their territory through violence against pre-existing states.

Is it that ISIS lacks consent of the governed? ISIS has consent of some of the governed, it seems. No state has approval from all of the governed. Many states lack consent of the governed (think, China).

We don’t want to call ISIS a state, because it is evil, murderous and oppressive. But that way of thinking might impart more virtue to the idea of statehood than it deserves.

There is a lot to this, though I don’t think it undermines the case for the nation-state as the preferable currency of international order. My immediate reaction to Carney’s post is to ask the following question, however: if ISIS is a state, is Iraq? Both claim defined borders–but those borders conflict.

The same goes for Syria. The West recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime” almost two years ago. Now we’re contemplating airstrikes that would help Assad at the expense of the rebels because the rebels have been eclipsed by groups like ISIS. So who, or what, is Syria?

And this brings us back to the threat of global terrorism. The expansion not just of ISIS but of al-Qaeda and their competitors threatens to destabilize countries across the globe. If they are going to set up statelets–similar, I suppose, to what the Caucasus Emirate tried to do in Russia–they are not doing so on frontierland. They are doing so in existing states, erasing borders and collapsing authority. Yes, rogue states like Putin’s Russia are a prominent threat to the international regime of state sovereignty. But so is ISIS and its ilk, and it’s time to treat it as such.

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The White House Press Secretary Isn’t Telling the Truth. And I Can Prove It.

One of the notable things about the Obama administration isn’t simply that its key figures often make misleading claims, but that they do so in ways that can be so easily disproven.

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One of the notable things about the Obama administration isn’t simply that its key figures often make misleading claims, but that they do so in ways that can be so easily disproven.

The latest effort is in the White House’s attempt to have us believe that the president, in his now infamous “jayvee” analogy, didn’t have ISIS in mind. Here’s an exchange between NBC’s Peter Alexander and White House press secretary Josh Earnest that took place on Monday:

PETER ALEXANDER, NBC: Did the president underestimate ISIS when he referred to them in an interview only a couple months ago as a JV squad and making a reference to National Basketball Association basketball teams like the Lakers?

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE: Well, I thought somebody might ask this question today so I wanted to pull the transcript of the interview because it’s important to understand the context in which this was delivered. So let me just read the full quote and then we can talk about it just a little bit. The president said quote:

I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

So the president was not singling out ISIL [aka ISIS], he was talking about the very different threat that is posed by a range of extremists around the globe. Many of them do not have designs on attacking the West or attacking the United States, and that is what puts them in stark contrast to the goals and capability of the previously existing al Qaeda core network that was let by Osama bin Laden.

That claim–“the president was not singling out ISIL”–is simply not true. And it’s demonstrably untrue. To prove this assertion, it’s helpful to cite the relevant portion of the January 27, 2014 story by David Remnick in the New Yorker:

At the core of Obama’s thinking is that American military involvement cannot be the primary instrument to achieve the new equilibrium that the region so desperately needs. And yet thoughts of a pacific equilibrium are far from anyone’s mind in the real, existing Middle East. In the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” I [Remnick] pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.” [emphasis added]

So we’ve established beyond any doubt that the president’s answer, which Josh Earnest quoted, is in response to David Remnick’s comment about the al-Qaeda flag flying in Falluja. And whose al-Qaeda flag in particular happened to be flying over Falluja at the time of the interview? For that answer, let’s go to a January 3, 2014 story in the New York Times, which begins this way:

Black-clad Sunni militants of Al Qaeda destroyed the Falluja Police Headquarters and mayor’s office, planted their flag atop other government buildings and decreed the western Iraqi city to be their new independent state on Friday in an escalating threat to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose forces were struggling to retake control late into the night. The advances by the militants — members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — came after days of fighting in Falluja, Ramadi and other areas of Anbar Province. [emphasis added]

What we’ve shown, then, is that several weeks before the New Yorker story was published, the al-Qaeda flag flying over Falluja belonged to ISIS/ISIL. The president knew it. There is therefore only one possible interpretation: the president had ISIS/ISIL in mind when he made his “jayvee” reference. And there’s only one possible conclusion about what Mr. Earnest said: It’s false. He’s distorting the truth in order to exonerate his boss, the president, from having made a statement that was deeply and dangerously misinformed.

The White House press corps should vigorously pursue this matter with the White House press secretary; and he in turn should admit what he said was false. If Mr. Earnest doesn’t do so in light of this evidence, then his claim will move from the category of being false to being a lie. That would trouble me; and I would think it would trouble them.

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A Clear-Eyed Assessment of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

The Guardian quotes one “regional diplomat” (whoever that may be) as saying:

The Islamic State is now the most capable military power in the Middle East outside Israel. They can determine outcomes in a few days that the Syrian rebels took two years to influence. Their capacity is in sharp contrast to the Syrian regime, which is only able to fight one battle at a time and has to fight hard for every success.

In the first two months of its life, the so-called Caliphate has achieved unparalleled success. It is in the process of creating foundations for substantial financial, military and political growth. It is the best equipped and most capable terror group in the world. It is unlike anything we have ever seen.

It’s true that ISIS has become the most capable terror group in the world–and far from the “junior varsity” that President Obama labeled it. But let’s put that achievement into perspective. As I argued in my book, Invisible Armies, terrorist groups are generally less capable than guerrilla forces, which are generally less capable than conventional armies. (Possessing weapons of mass destruction can upend that hierarchy but ISIS thankfully doesn’t have any WMD–yet.) Pretty much all terrorist groups aspire to become guerrilla armies, which in turn aspire to become conventional armies. In other words, calling a group the most powerful terrorist force in the world is akin to saying that a baseball team is the best in the minor leagues–it’s not the same thing as suggesting that it can beat the New York Yankees.

True, ISIS has been trying to progress from being merely a terrorist group to being a guerrilla and even a conventional army that is capable of seizing and holding terrain. It is also trying to develop a rudimentary administrative capacity to administer all the territory it has seized. And it has been making some dismaying leaps in capability, but it also displays considerable weakness.

Look, for example, how easily it was driven away from Mosul Dam by Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers with the help of U.S. airpower. As I have previously argued, the beheading of James Foley was another act of desperation designed to show that the group is still relevant. So too of news that it has just executed its own intelligence chief in Aleppo on suspicion of being a British spy–whether the charge was true or not, it is a sign of ISIS’s weakness and the extent it is feeling the strain of even the very limited counteroffensive it has encountered in northern Iraq.

To speak of ISIS in the same breath as the IDF–one of the most professional and capable military forces in the world, with 176,000 active-duty personnel, nearly 4,000 tanks and 10,000 armed fighting vehicles, almost 700 aircraft, 110 navy ships, and, lest we forget, nuclear weapons–is laughable. As a fighting force ISIS doesn’t even stack up very well with the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia (although the latter is the weakest of the bunch): any one of those could crush ISIS if it were fighting on its home soil. The reason ISIS has looked so formidable is that it is operating in the territory of two states, Syria and Iraq, which have seen a calamitous breakdown in central government authority. Its gains to date are more a reflection of the weakness of Bashar Assad and Nouri al Maliki than of its intrinsic strength.

While ISIS is a clear and present danger to the U.S. and its allies, let’s not make these black-clad jihadist fanatics out to be ten-foot-tall supermen. ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was soundly thrashed in Iraq in 2007-2008 and it could be again if the U.S. got serious about destroying it.

So far, alas, there is no such sign of seriousness coming from the White House, which continues to dither as ISIS gains new ground. The longer we wait to deal with ISIS, the more formidable it will get and the harder to dismantle.

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From Jayvee to Juggernaut: What Terrorists Learn from Obama’s Mistakes

The press has begun reminding the Obama administration that the president had earlier referred to terrorist groups like ISIS as petty wannabes: “a jayvee team.” Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as an unprecedented threat and more worrisome, from a national-security perspective, than al-Qaeda. How did such a ragtag band of impostors become, in less than a year, the most imposing group out there? The answer is easy: they never were a jayvee team. To understand where the Obama administration went wrong, it’s instructive to revisit Obama’s full answer to the New Yorker’s David Remnick for that January story.

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The press has begun reminding the Obama administration that the president had earlier referred to terrorist groups like ISIS as petty wannabes: “a jayvee team.” Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as an unprecedented threat and more worrisome, from a national-security perspective, than al-Qaeda. How did such a ragtag band of impostors become, in less than a year, the most imposing group out there? The answer is easy: they never were a jayvee team. To understand where the Obama administration went wrong, it’s instructive to revisit Obama’s full answer to the New Yorker’s David Remnick for that January story.

After making the “jayvee” comment–which Remnick called “an uncharacteristically flip analogy”–Obama expanded on his thinking. He said: “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

The major folly here was not, therefore, Obama underestimating one particular terrorist group or another. And it was not in the president’s naïve assumption that jihadists in particular hotspots don’t have global ambitions. Those are mistakes, surely. But the worst part was really in Obama’s complete lack of understanding in how individual terrorists operate.

Obama has always tried to draw lines between al-Qaeda and other groups because he wants to limit American action. But those lines were and are arbitrary. And because of that, Obama has tended to think of “new” terrorist groups as freshmen starting out at the bottom of the food chain. In fact, not only do they blur lines between groups and switch allegiances, but all terrorist groups benefit from the transnational architecture built over decades by Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and other trailblazers.

A Washington Post story from earlier this month offered a good example of this:

U.S. spy agencies have begun to see groups of fighters abandoning al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Africa to join the rival Islamist organization that has seized territory in Iraq and Syria and been targeted in American airstrikes, U.S. officials said.

The movements are seen by U.S. ­counterterrorism analysts as a worrisome indication of the expanding appeal of a group known as the Islamic State that has overwhelmed military forces in the region and may now see itself in direct conflict with the United States.

“Small groups from a number of al-Qaeda affiliates have defected to ISIS,” as the group is also known, said a U.S. official with access to classified intelligence assessments. “And this problem will probably become more acute as ISIS continues to rack up victories.”

The influx has strengthened an organization already regarded as a menacing force in the Middle East, one that has toppled a series of Iraqi cities by launching assaults so quickly and in so many directions that security forces caught in the group’s path have so far been unable to respond with anything but retreat.

Nobody defects to the jayvee team. And it’s been fascinating to watch the Obama administration come to terms with that realization, and adjust its rhetoric accordingly. Every time the administration is confronted with the fact that the global war on terror was not a made-up construct in a fit of warmongering pique but a logical reaction to the fluid, metastasizing threat of global jihadist groups, it struggles to explain its own meaningless distinctions.

So our enemy was al-Qaeda, not terrorism or terrorists more broadly. That, of course, was completely and recklessly false. So now that we have a non-al-Qaeda threat, how does the administration justify its uncompromising fury toward just one group? Here’s Hagel:

“They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They’re tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” Hagel said, adding that “the sophistication of terrorism and ideology married with resources now poses a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country.”

But that’s not really true either. They’re sophisticated, ideological, militarily advanced, and “tremendously well-funded.” But does Hagel think that doesn’t describe any terror groups that preceded them? Would he not have said that about al-Qaeda? Would he not say that has been true of Hezbollah for decades now? You could even argue it described the Taliban once upon a time.

The point is not to split hairs. The point is that the administration made a grave and dangerous error in its attitude toward al-Qaeda, claiming the fight could be limited to card-carrying and dues-paying members of that one club. Obama is simply repeating that mistake again with ISIS. Who will be the next jayvee team that turns into a juggernaut? Whoever it is, they will almost certainly take Obama by surprise.

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Like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, Hamas Is Fair Game

Hamas supporters came out in their thousands today in Gaza for the funerals of three senior commanders of the terror group’s “military” wing. The trio, along with their chief, Mohammad Deif, whose fate is still unknown, was targeted by Israeli air strikes after days of renewed rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli cities. While no one blinks an eye when the U.S. takes out leaders of al-Qaeda affiliates and other jihadists throughout the Middle East, the deaths of these Hamas figures is being discussed as a provocation that may well lead to more fighting that could have been avoided. But the attempt to draw any meaningful distinctions between Hamas and al-Qaeda or ISIS murderers in Syria and Iraq is mistaken.

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Hamas supporters came out in their thousands today in Gaza for the funerals of three senior commanders of the terror group’s “military” wing. The trio, along with their chief, Mohammad Deif, whose fate is still unknown, was targeted by Israeli air strikes after days of renewed rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli cities. While no one blinks an eye when the U.S. takes out leaders of al-Qaeda affiliates and other jihadists throughout the Middle East, the deaths of these Hamas figures is being discussed as a provocation that may well lead to more fighting that could have been avoided. But the attempt to draw any meaningful distinctions between Hamas and al-Qaeda or ISIS murderers in Syria and Iraq is mistaken.

The targeted killings of this latest group of Hamas murderers will, no doubt, set off the usual chorus of critiques of Israel from those who will claim that this action will somehow be the cause of more violence. As with acts of Israeli self-defense, we will be told that their deaths will sow the seeds of new generations of terrorists.

Throughout the history of Israel’s battles with Palestinian terror factions, Israel’s security services have been constantly lectured about the costs of their successes as well as their near misses.

Whenever attempts to take out known terrorists fail or result (as is often the case with similar attacks by the U.S. on al-Qaeda figures) in casualties among civilians or family members of the targets, Israel is lectured for its inability to differentiate between combatants and non-combatants. But when it does manage to take out Hamas members personally responsible for terror attacks, it is then told that doing so will anger the Palestinians so much that it will only cause them to double down on their war on the Jewish state.

But this is a circular argument. Palestinian terrorists have been waging war on the Jewish presence in the country for almost a century. Their determination to keep fighting has not been deterred by the Jewish acceptance of various partition plans to share the country or peace offers. Nor has it ever been primarily motivated by any particular Israeli counter-attack or defensive measure. Hamas will continue attacking Israel—as it has this week after the collapse of the latest ceasefire—not because they’re upset about what happened to Deif and his comrades but because their belief system will not allow them to make peace, no matter what the Israelis do. The next generations of terror are not motivated so much by specific tales of “martyrs”—be they terrorist killers or civilian casualties—as they are by the mission of avenging the real offense given by Israelis: their presence in their historic homeland that Hamas and other Palestinian factions believe should be cleansed of Jews.

It is precisely the implacable nature of the conflict with Hamas that makes the distinctions drawn between U.S. strikes on al-Qaeda and now ISIS so unfair and misleading.

While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other credulous liberals may believe the propaganda spewed by Hamas ally Qatar about it being a social welfare organization, the truth is that it is just as much a terror group as those more notorious groups that target Westerners and Americans. Though much of the Western media seems intent on sanitizing Hamas and ignoring its use of human shields, it needs no lessons in brutality from either al-Qaeda or ISIS, as the deaths of the Palestinians who have been killed for dissenting from their tyrannical rule of Gaza could attest.

As is the case with ISIS, there is no compromising with Hamas. Just as the Islamist terrorists in Iraq and Syria will not be bribed or cajoled into giving up their goal of imposing their religiously inspired nightmare vision on the world, neither will Hamas be satisfied with anything less than the eradication of Israel and the genocide of its Jewish population.

As with ISIS, there is no “political solution” to a conflict with Hamas, only a military one. So long as Hamas is allowed to remain in power in Gaza, there is no hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Like Osama bin Laden and those who seek to kill Americans today, Hamas operatives are fair game for targeted assassinations. While the aim of Israeli Defense Force strikes on Hamas targets may not be any more perfect than those of their American counterparts elsewhere, they provide the only answer to an ideology that can’t be appeased.

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Time to Annihilate ISIS; Here’s How

The videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley reveals both the barbarism and the weakness of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

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The videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley reveals both the barbarism and the weakness of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

The barbarism is obvious: how else would one describe the carefully choreographed and televised murder of this innocent reporter who had been kidnapped in Syria? This merely confirms what Army Colonel Joel Rayburn, one of the most astute observers of Iraq around, has previously said: that ISIS is a Middle East version of the Khmer Rouge. It is, in short, a death cult that will commit unimaginable crimes against humanity unless it is stopped.

What of ISIS’s weakness? That too was revealed by the video, which was a poor response to the military setbacks ISIS has suffered in the past week as Kurdish peshmerga militia have managed to retake Mosul Dam with the assistance of American firepower (and most likely U.S. Special Operations Forces, although their involvement has not been publicized). Recall the last time that al-Qaeda publicly murdered an American journalist. That would have been my former Wall Street Journal colleague Daniel Pearl, who was killed in early 2002 at a time when, thanks to the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was on the run. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed killed Pearl for the same reason some ISIS fanatic killed Foley: to convey an impression of strength. But such desperate measures instead telegraph, well, desperation–and far from cowing anyone they are only likely to redouble the resolve of the civilized world to smash this group of genocidal jihadists.

What is needed now is not strongly worded condemnation of Foley’s murder, much less a hashtag campaign. What is needed is a politico-military strategy to annihilate ISIS rather than simply chip around the edges of its burgeoning empire. In the Spectator of London I recently outlined what such a strategy should look like. In brief, it will require a commitment of some 10,000 U.S. advisors and Special Operators, along with enhanced air power, to work with moderate elements in both Iraq and Syria–meaning not only the peshmerga but also the Sunni tribes, elements of the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Free Syrian Army–to stage a major offensive to rout ISIS out of its newly conquered strongholds. The fact that Nouri al-Maliki is leaving power in Baghdad clears away a major obstacle to such a campaign.

Now it is simply a matter of resources and resolve on the part of the U.S. and its allies. That, of course, remains the big unknown–how far will President Obama go? He has been willing in the last few weeks to apply a liberal interpretation of his original mandate for U.S. forces in Iraq, which was to protect Americans in Erbil and Baghdad. But beyond protecting the Yazidis and retaking Mosul Dam we still need a strategy to annihilate ISIS. It can be done–and if done right it will be the best, indeed the only worthy, response to James Foley’s barbaric demise.

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Is America to Blame for Iraq Violence?

Over the past few days, I’ve been in a number of debates in the media in which analysts and former government officials blame the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the United States and, more specifically, on the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Here’s one from this morning, for example. And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a popular polemicist on the left, had this to say.

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Over the past few days, I’ve been in a number of debates in the media in which analysts and former government officials blame the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the United States and, more specifically, on the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Here’s one from this morning, for example. And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a popular polemicist on the left, had this to say.

The accusation that the United States is responsible for the travesty wrought by ISIS is nonsense. And while some Iraqi civilians died at the hands of American forces—and for these American forces take responsibility—the notion that the United States is responsible for the entirety of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died during the years of the American military’s presence is sheer and utter nonsense. Some take that even further and go so far as to argue that the United States should give reparations to Iraq because of the war.

There are many problems with such arguments: The first is that they single out the United States intervention among many. The world is a complicated place, but this myopic and self-flagellating narrative suggests that the United States is the only player in the region. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan actively funded and supported the Sunni-led insurgency, while the Islamic Republic of Iran supported Shi‘ite militias. The United States acted under its Chapter VII authority from 1990 and, even if armchair analysts want to argue that it was legally necessary to go back for re-approval to the United Nations Security Council (and therefore set the precedent of the expiration of Chapter VII resolutions), the United Nations did ultimately bless the United States as steward. The United States lost hundreds of soldiers fighting these insurgents who targeted civilians. These men and women died to protect Iraqi civilians, and many more would have died had it not been for American efforts. That proponents who blame America first and only ignore the impact of these other states is as reflective as it is dishonest.

While it’s easy to blame insurgent violence on outsiders—and, indeed, Iraqis have always blamed foreign fighters disproportionately to absolve themselves of their own role—the fact of the matter is many Iraqis turned their guns on their fellow countrymen. Responsibility for such action rests on those pulling the trigger, those giving religious imprimatur to their actions, those accepting money to enable it. If there’s one thing that could make the Middle East a far better, more peaceful place, it is personal accountability. Conspiracies thrive as a means to absolve individuals and communities of responsibility. It is condescending if not racist to suggest Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, or members of any other community should be absolved of accountability for actions in which they individually participated, funded, or supported.

One of the most corrosive practices of journalism is the use of the passive voice: Newspapers relate how, for example, “a bomb went off at a school and killed 20” but never bother to report who planted the bomb or what efforts went into that terror attack. Terrorism is seldom random. Three weeks before a bomb explodes killing those school children, terrorists or informants scoped out that site among others and determined at what time they could have maximum impact. Whenever a journalist uses the passive voice, it’s an indication that they either do not know the subject of the action or they want to obfuscate it. It is a lot harder to be sympathetic to terrorists or suggest they are motivated by the most reasonable of grievances—as Institute for Policy Studies analyst Phyllis Bennis did yesterday on the Baltimore NPR affiliate (link not yet available)—when audiences are forced to confront the reality of their actions.

There is also a logical fallacy to the idea that America is always responsible when such accusations are transposed onto policy. How many people have criticized America for doing nothing, for example, when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds (never mind that it was the Germans and the Dutch who sold the chemical precursors to Saddam, and not the United States)? And yet, in the face of atrocity, their policy advice is to do nothing? Likewise, if critics of U.S. policy consider the United States to be guilty of original sin for entering Iraq, then wouldn’t it compound the problem not to seek to prevent outcomes which lead to greater civilian deaths?

Syria shows clearly what happens when the United States does not intervene when it has an opportunity to do so. So too does Rwanda. While hard-hearted realists might say the United States had no business in Rwanda, the fact of the matter is that ISIS arose in Syria. Even if analysts wish to trace its evolution to its current form from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq, it shows moral inversion to suggest that al-Qaeda should be considered legitimate and indigenous in Iraq or, again, that the United States should not seek to crush it.

Would Iraq have been a better place had Saddam remained in power? Well, for the minority of Iraqis who were Arab Sunnis, perhaps. But not for Kurds living under the threat of continuing genocide, the Yezidis who are also Kurds (Yezidism being a religion and Kurds being an ethnicity), or for the majority of the country who were Shi‘ites. Baathism is an ethnic chauvinist party as much as Nazism. Nor is it fair to paint the entire Sunni Arab community as Baathists. While historians can still debate whether the invasion of Iraq was wise or not, what is beyond debate is the fact that Saddam planned to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program. This is affirmed both by captured documents and interviews with former officials.

Saddam Hussein was 66 years old when the United States invaded Iraq, and 69 when he was executed. Today he would have been 77 years old, assuming he was still alive. Had he died, the world would have confronted an Iraq governed by his malevolent sons or, if they were unable to consolidate power, then the ethnic and sectarian discord that Iraq currently confronts.

Our commentariat’s self-flagellation is dishonest and destructive. Perhaps some pundits think it will score domestic political points, but it also plays into the hands of those who mean America harm, those who embrace conspiracy theories about our intent, and those who seek to shirk accountability for their own murderous objectives. The United States is not the center of the world, even though sometimes only the United States has the logistical ability and wherewithal to try to make the world a better place.

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How to Help the Anti-ISIS Backlash

Word is trickling out of Mosul that Iraqis are starting to chafe under the heavy-handed rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. New York Times correspondent Tim Arango reports of anger against ISIS for destroying a shrine to the biblical prophet Jonah. Residents actually gathered around Mosul’s ancient leaning minaret to prevent its destruction too.

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Word is trickling out of Mosul that Iraqis are starting to chafe under the heavy-handed rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. New York Times correspondent Tim Arango reports of anger against ISIS for destroying a shrine to the biblical prophet Jonah. Residents actually gathered around Mosul’s ancient leaning minaret to prevent its destruction too.

There is also understandable concern that ISIS isn’t making life better for the people–its specialty, after all, is suicide bombings, not municipal governance. The Times quotes one Mosul resident interviewed by phone: “There are unorganized groups fighting ISIS now. If we had the power and the supplies, we could have kicked ISIS out of Mosul by now.”

This is a positive sign–it shows how unpopular Islamist fundamentalists are whenever they achieve power. But we should keep our euphoria about a potential anti-ISIS revolt firmly in check. The history of ISIS suggests that, however much Iraqis may resent their rule, they will successfully rise up only if they have strong outside support. Resentment of al-Qaeda in Iraq (the ISIS predecessor) did not boil over in Anbar Province until 2006 and even then it required American efforts during “the surge” to forge tribesmen into a 100,000-strong Sons of Iraq militia to fight against AQI. In prior years, nascent revolts in Anbar had been repressed with great brutality by AQI.

The question now is where can outside support come from to support an anti-ISIS revolt in western and northern Iraq? Probably not from the Iraqi government, which is identified with a Shiite sectarian agenda that only drives Sunnis further into ISIS’s arms and whose army has shown a depressing inability or unwillingness to fight hard under the political hacks appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

It is possible a change of leadership in Baghdad can revitalize the Iraqi army, lessen the government’s sectarian taint, and thereby allow effective partnering with the Sunni tribes. But don’t count on it. Even if a new prime minister is selected, there will still be deep-seated suspicion in the Sunni community, and understandably so. The only force the Sunnis would trust–despite our prior abandonment of them–is the United States.

But to become an effective catalyst for a Sunni revolt, the U.S. will have to send a lot more than 825 troops to Iraq–the current number. This week I testified before the House Armed Services Committee, presenting my own plan for rolling back ISIS gains. I suggested, in essence, a multi-pronged approach based on supporting relatively moderate factions in both Iraq and Syria–to wit, the Free Syrian Army, elements of the Iraqi security forces which have not been totally subordinated to the Iranian Quds Force, the Sunni tribes, and the Kurdish peshmerga.

I argued that we need to send at least 10,000 troops to act as advisers, intelligence gatherers, air controllers (to call in air strikes), and Special Operations raiders and that in Iraq these personnel need to be evenly distributed between the Iraqi army, the Sunni tribes, and the peshmerga. U.S. troops would not be on the frontlines of ground combat but they would be enabling proxies to fight far more effectively, as we have previously done in countries as disparate as Kosovo, Libya, and Afghanistan. This should be done in conjunction with a political strategy focused on replacing Maliki with a more inclusive figure.

Alas there is no sign that the Obama administration is seriously rethinking its abandonment of Iraq or its misguided policy of arming the current sectarian regime in Baghdad without real American oversight over how the weapons we provide are employed. Unless the administration is willing to roll up its sleeves and get more involved in Iraq (admittedly a difficult political pill for the anti-interventionist president to swallow), anti-ISIS sentiment among Sunnis is unlikely to lead to a serious revolt and ISIS will continue to strengthen its terrorist caliphate.

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Why the Kidnapping Business Is Booming

If you’re afraid of raising your blood pressure, you probably shouldn’t read two articles out today, in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, about how Europeans are subsidizing al-Qaeda with millions of dollars in ransom paid for the release of their hostages.

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If you’re afraid of raising your blood pressure, you probably shouldn’t read two articles out today, in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, about how Europeans are subsidizing al-Qaeda with millions of dollars in ransom paid for the release of their hostages.

The Times account by reporter Rukmini Callimachi is particularly detailed and especially enraging. It reports that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have earned $125 million to $165 million since 2008 in kidnapping ransoms. “These payments were made almost exclusively by European governments, who funneled the money through a network of proxies, sometimes masking it as development aid.”

This has now become the major source of funding for three al-Qaeda affiliates in particular: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (North Africa), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), and Shabab (Somalia). “Put more bluntly,” Callimachi writes, “Europe has become an inadvertent underwriter of Al Qaeda.”

These al-Qaeda affiliates have stopped routinely killing Western hostages as al-Qaeda in Iraq used to do, because it is so much more lucrative to keep them alive. In fact these al-Qaeda groups coordinate their hostage-taking procedures, often helped by al-Qaeda central in Pakistan, with the actual pick-up of hostages contracted out to criminal gangs and with everyone along the way (including hostage negotiators) receiving a cut of the profits. This is big business, “and business is booming: While in 2003 the kidnappers received around $200,000 per hostage, now they are netting up to $10 million, money that the second in command of Al Qaeda’s central leadership recently described as accounting for as much as half of his operating revenue.”

Only the U.S. and Britain, it seems, are refusing to play along. While President Obama released Taliban prisoners in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. is not willing to pay money for hostages. Thus U.S. and British captives can expect to be killed or held indefinitely. But their principled stance has no impact in discouraging hostage-taking because the kidnappers know that the European states are such easy marks.

It’s hard to better the summary provided by a former U.S. ambassador to Mali, Vicki Huddleston. “The Europeans have a lot to answer for,” she told the Times. “It’s a completely two-faced policy. They pay ransoms and then deny any was paid.” She added, “The danger of this is not just that it grows the terrorist movement, but it makes all of our citizens vulnerable.”

And just when I thought I could not get any more disgusted with European policy–it’s bad enough that they subsidize Vladimir Putin, subsidizing al-Qaeda is even worse.

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Is There Something Worse Than Hamas?

Critics of the Pentagon, and indeed of all defense establishments, have often quipped that the term “military intelligence” is an oxymoron. As a general rule, that sort of comment is as inaccurate as it is unfair. But Lt. General Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, bolstered this assumption by declaring that the destruction of the Hamas terrorist government of Gaza would lead to something worse.

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Critics of the Pentagon, and indeed of all defense establishments, have often quipped that the term “military intelligence” is an oxymoron. As a general rule, that sort of comment is as inaccurate as it is unfair. But Lt. General Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, bolstered this assumption by declaring that the destruction of the Hamas terrorist government of Gaza would lead to something worse.

General Flynn warned that if Israel is seeking to either decapitate Hamas, remove it from power, or to eliminate it altogether, that might not be a smart move. He asserted that Hamas would be replaced by something far more radical and, by definition, more dangerous to both Israel and the rest of the world.

As Reuters reports:

“If Hamas were destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse. The region would end up with something much worse,” Flynn said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

“A worse threat that would come into the sort of ecosystem there … something like ISIS,” he added, referring to the Islamic State, which last month declared an “Islamic caliphate” in territory it controls in Iraq and Syria.

Is he right?

It is a reliable rule of existence on this planet than whenever you think things can’t get worse, they often do become even more unbearable. But that piece of general life wisdom aside, the argument that behind Hamas lurks more dangerous groups is not only unsubstantiated; to believe it you have to ignore everything we already know about Hamas.

As far as the possibility of more radical Islamists replacing Hamas, there is no question that the prospect of al-Qaeda-related groups becoming the address for Palestinian “resistance” to Israel’s existence would be scary for the West. Perhaps this fear is based on an assumption that they would not be content with slaughtering Jews as Hamas and Islamic Jihad attempt to do but would instead concentrate on killing Americans. But does anyone in the U.S.—even the spooks in the Pentagon—really believe that al-Qaeda types in the Middle East are not already doing their best to attack America right now?

Any group that replaced Hamas as the Islamist rival to the more secular Fatah would be competing in the same Palestinian political universe that grants credibility to groups that attack Israel, not Western targets. Whatever followed Hamas would not be a freelance Islamist terror group such as those in the Arabian Peninsula or North Africa but a Palestinian entity that would seek to escalate the fight against the Jewish presence in the country, not a scattered campaign against the West elsewhere.

But leaving that issue aside, the problem with Flynn’s thinking is that the more one looks at Hamas’s behavior, the harder it is to argue that there could be something that would be qualitatively worse in terms of conflict escalation or human rights.

For example, it was reported today that Hamas executed 20 Palestinians who had the temerity to launch an anti-war protest in Gaza. The protesters were branded as traitors. Would a successor group seek to repress dissent or govern Gaza with more brutality than Hamas?

Hamas has funneled much of the humanitarian aid sent to Gaza into its “military” infrastructure, constructing an underground city of shelters and tunnels for its armaments and fighters and to facilitate terror attacks on Israelis. As Tablet magazine reported, 160 Palestinian children employed as laborers were killed during the course of the building of these tunnels. Would an ISIS-clone do anything worse than that?

Hamas’s purpose, as detailed in their charter and regularly reaffirmed by both their military and political leaders, is to destroy Israel and to ethnically cleanse it of its Jewish population. Would ISIS or al-Qaeda favor a more gentle form of genocide?

To study Hamas’s actual behavior and its beliefs undermines any notion that its elimination would result in the radicalization of Palestinians and their supporters. Hamas is already so radical in terms of its intransigence against peace and Israel’s existence that any more extreme shift under a successor would be purely cosmetic and result in no tangible increase in the threat level to the region.

More to the point, anyone who truly desires a two-state solution to the conflict must understand that the only hope for that outcome—and, admittedly, it is a slim hope—is for Hamas to be eliminated, giving a chance for the supposedly more moderate Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza and to make peace with Israel.

Given the difficulty and the cost of a campaign that would completely eliminate Hamas or to replace it as the government of Gaza it may well be that Flynn’s nightmare will never be realized. Hamas thinks it is in no danger and statements such as that of the general and the willingness of the U.S. to embrace cease-fire proposals that would grant it an undeserved victory only strengthen their conviction that they can continue to fight with impunity. But using this argument to bolster Hamas’s hold on power is a terrible error. The only way to end the conflict is to demilitarize Gaza. The only way to do that is to eliminate Hamas.

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Islamic State vs. Syrian Kurds

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit Rojava, the autonomous region which Syrian Kurds have carved out by pushing out or containing Bashar al-Assad’s forces while simultaneously defeating wave after wave of Nusra Front and later Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks. What the Syrian Kurds have achieved would be amazing under any circumstance; that they did so while blockaded by Turkey, the Syrian government, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose leader Masud Barzani opposes them for both tribal reasons and because they refuse to subordinate themselves to his leadership) is even more impressive. That Rojava has become a refuge for tens of thousands of Arab Muslims and Syrian Christians is testament to its tolerance and moderation.

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Earlier this year, I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit Rojava, the autonomous region which Syrian Kurds have carved out by pushing out or containing Bashar al-Assad’s forces while simultaneously defeating wave after wave of Nusra Front and later Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks. What the Syrian Kurds have achieved would be amazing under any circumstance; that they did so while blockaded by Turkey, the Syrian government, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose leader Masud Barzani opposes them for both tribal reasons and because they refuse to subordinate themselves to his leadership) is even more impressive. That Rojava has become a refuge for tens of thousands of Arab Muslims and Syrian Christians is testament to its tolerance and moderation.

Largely out of deference to Turkey, the State Department has steered clear of Syrian Kurdistan, refusing to welcome its representatives to the ill-considered and ill-fated conferences in Geneva earlier this year, while choosing instead to bring in Syrian Kurdish politicians lacking any real constituency on the ground in Syria.

The U.S. position is both strategic and moral malpractice. The Assad regime has implemented, in the words of State Department official Stephen Rapp, “the kind of machinery of cruel death that we haven’t seen frankly since the Nazis.” The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, of course, has broken away from al-Qaeda because it considers that extremist group too moderate. Since renaming itself the Islamic State and taking over broad swaths of Iraq, its atrocities have been well covered by the media. That given the option between Assad or a radical Islamist group on one hand, and a secular, democratic-leaning entity on the other, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry place the United States against the secular, democratic-leaning entity says a lot about the current moral bankruptcy infusing U.S. policy.

For months, that lack of support made life difficult for Syrian Kurds, Christians, and other citizens within Rojava. What has not been covered, however, is the all-out battle now occurring between ISIS and Syrian Kurds. Tweets from residents of the region now under ISIS attacks have also reported that the Syrian opposition has been using chemical weapons against the Kurdish population. See, for example, this account from July 9 and 10. Now, of course, just because someone tweets something does not make it true. But there is no indication the reports are false, and every indication they are true At the very least, this is a charge American and UN officials should investigate. How ironic that just over a quarter century after Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds—and the Reagan administration remained silent because speaking up would be too diplomatically inconvenient—history seems to be repeating against Kurds once more. It’s a good thing there are now public intellectuals like Samantha Power who put their moral compass above ambition. Or not.

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Don’t Overestimate the Islamic State

I’m currently in Jordan where I’ve been able to meet some Iraqi tribal representatives, Sunni Iraqi businessmen, and representatives of the “Iraqi resistance,” including those who held senior positions under Saddam Hussein. What they have conveyed to me—which is consistent with what I have heard from many Kurdish interlocutors familiar with the situation in Mosul—is that the West should not see the fighting in largely Sunni populated areas of Iraq as simply a battle between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Iraqi government. Rather, they suggest, while ISIS—now just the Islamic State—has been the vanguard advancing against the Iraqi military, most of the ground is being held either by Sunni tribes or by veterans of the Saddam-era army, albeit professionals who are nationalists but not necessarily Baathists.

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I’m currently in Jordan where I’ve been able to meet some Iraqi tribal representatives, Sunni Iraqi businessmen, and representatives of the “Iraqi resistance,” including those who held senior positions under Saddam Hussein. What they have conveyed to me—which is consistent with what I have heard from many Kurdish interlocutors familiar with the situation in Mosul—is that the West should not see the fighting in largely Sunni populated areas of Iraq as simply a battle between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Iraqi government. Rather, they suggest, while ISIS—now just the Islamic State—has been the vanguard advancing against the Iraqi military, most of the ground is being held either by Sunni tribes or by veterans of the Saddam-era army, albeit professionals who are nationalists but not necessarily Baathists.

Indeed, word from Mosul and elsewhere is that once ISIS passes through, the situation calms rapidly. There are still flights to Mosul listed on the departure board at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. And while there have been atrocities—against some Iraqi army members and, alas, Christians—many of the most gruesome claims, they suggest, are false: just re-posting of photos of Syrian atrocities relabeled to suggest that they had occurred more recently in Iraq. Women are staying home because they don’t necessarily understand what the new rules are or how they will be enforced but, beyond that, life is getting back to normal. The real problem right now, residents say, is that the Iraqi government has cut off salaries, water, and electricity to the city and so supplies are beginning to run out.

The former officers and tribal representatives suggest that Abu Baghdadi’s sermon on Friday in Mosul notwithstanding, they are unwilling to settle for ISIS domination but are willing to cooperate loosely with them for the time being with the full understanding that they will soon be fighting them directly. They also seem to suggest that they recognize that there will have to be negotiations with the Iraqi central government—they have no delusions of taking and holding Baghdad—but that they are unwilling to sit with Prime Minister Maliki, and instead say they will talk to his successor.

Fears of the Islamic State and the caliphate make headlines, but the reach and power of the Islamic State should not be exaggerated. The problem of this radical al-Qaeda off-shoot is real, but the current dynamics in Al-Anbar, Ninewa (Mosul), and Salahuddin (Tikrit) governorates are both more complicated but also perhaps more reconcilable.

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Fighting Terrorism: A Third Way

It is not just in Iraq that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are on the march. This is a general trend across the Islamic world. As Seth Jones of Rand notes in a recent report, “from 2010 to 2013 the number of jihadist groups world-wide has grown by 58%, to 49 from 31; the number of jihadist fighters has doubled to a high estimate of 100,000; and the number of attacks by al Qaeda affiliates has increased to roughly 1,000 from 392.”

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It is not just in Iraq that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are on the march. This is a general trend across the Islamic world. As Seth Jones of Rand notes in a recent report, “from 2010 to 2013 the number of jihadist groups world-wide has grown by 58%, to 49 from 31; the number of jihadist fighters has doubled to a high estimate of 100,000; and the number of attacks by al Qaeda affiliates has increased to roughly 1,000 from 392.”

How should the U.S. combat this distressing trend? Simply pulling back from the Middle East, as President Obama envisioned, is not working–American retreat is increasing conflict, not decreasing it. But that doesn’t mean that the only other alternative is, as the president suggested in his West Point address, to launch a major ground war with American troops.

There is a third way and it can be found in the Philippines where, after 9/11, the U.S. set up a Joint Special Operations Task Force to combat Abu Sayyaf and other Islamist terrorist groups. That task force, whose operations I described in this 2009 Weekly Standard article, never had more than 600 personnel and it never went directly into combat. Rather its mission was to assist the Philippine armed forces with intelligence, planning, civil affairs, psychological operations, training, and other important tasks. Now, having accomplished a lot, the task force, based in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, is being disbanded.

The New York Times quotes one analyst as saying “that the unit ‘undoubtedly helped the Philippine military to curb the activities of violent extremist groups operating in the region’ so that militants ‘now only pose a small, localized threat.’ ” That doesn’t mean Abu Sayyaf has ceased to exist but its numbers have been drastically cut–from an estimated 1,200 fighters to 400–and it has become more of a criminal than a terrorist menace.

That’s not a bad result, all things considered; it would certainly look like victory if we were to achieve anything approaching that outcome with such groups as Boko Haram, the Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and of course the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

That’s not to say that 600 Special Operations troops by themselves can get the job done everywhere; circumstances were propitious in the Philippines where the insurgency was localized among a minority Muslim population and where the state had a long history of functioning, albeit with substantial problems of corruption and ineffectiveness.

The crisis is more acute in countries like Yemen, Sudan, Syria, and Iraq where large sections of the countryside have fallen entirely out of the government’s control. In some places–Iraq and Afghanistan among them–it will take a lot more than a few hundred special operators to keep the enemy at bay. But in other countries the Philippine model could prove to be sufficient. We should certainly try to apply it where we can, because the alternatives–retreat or massive military intervention–are so unpalatable.

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ISIS Can Win Without Baghdad

I don’t blame President Obama for not rushing to launch symbolic air strikes in Iraq when we don’t have good ground-level intelligence on what targets to hit. But generating that intelligence will require dispatching a sizable contingent of Special Operations Forces, military trainers, and intelligence personnel to Iraq as soon as possible. Whether the president will do this or not remains unclear since his first reaction to the crisis was to affirm that the U.S. “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”

I suppose that language leaves enough room to send Special Operations Forces and even advisers as long as they are billed as being on a “non-combat” mission–but whether Obama will do even that much remains very much an open question. It is not comforting to read in the Wall Street Journal: “One option developed by military planners would send as many as 1,400 advisers to embed in Iraqi battalions, but that plan was rejected by top defense officials as overly ambitious and against White House preferences.” This suggests that the president is still refusing, for largely political reasons (“White House preferences”), to do what is strategically necessary to stabilize a country on the verge of imploding.

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I don’t blame President Obama for not rushing to launch symbolic air strikes in Iraq when we don’t have good ground-level intelligence on what targets to hit. But generating that intelligence will require dispatching a sizable contingent of Special Operations Forces, military trainers, and intelligence personnel to Iraq as soon as possible. Whether the president will do this or not remains unclear since his first reaction to the crisis was to affirm that the U.S. “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”

I suppose that language leaves enough room to send Special Operations Forces and even advisers as long as they are billed as being on a “non-combat” mission–but whether Obama will do even that much remains very much an open question. It is not comforting to read in the Wall Street Journal: “One option developed by military planners would send as many as 1,400 advisers to embed in Iraqi battalions, but that plan was rejected by top defense officials as overly ambitious and against White House preferences.” This suggests that the president is still refusing, for largely political reasons (“White House preferences”), to do what is strategically necessary to stabilize a country on the verge of imploding.

Certainly the public pronouncements from the White House do not communicate the gravity of the situation. Instead administration leakers are claiming that urgent action is not needed because the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has stalled in its attack north of Baghdad, which is protected not only by Iraqi security forces but also by Shiite militias. That is true, but it’s not the whole story. For one thing, ISIS continues to make important gains in the north, with the most recent news being that Iraq’s largest oil refinery, at Baiji, has fallen to the terrorists. If they manage to continue operating the refinery it will result in a critical lost of revenue (and power) for Baghdad and a concomitant increase in money and power for ISIS.

Moreover ISIS does not have to take Baghdad, much less the Shiite heartland, to win. It wins if it can simply establish and maintain an Islamist emirate encompassing not only the Sunni Triangle of Iraq but also northern Syria–a goal it is well on its way toward achieving. Eventually ISIS rule will chafe on the people under its thumb, as happened previously in Anbar Province–and as seen earlier in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Fundamentalist jihadist rule is not very popular.

But that’s in the long run. In the short term a lot can and likely will happen if ISIS can consolidate its authority. It is likely, for example, to welcome a motley who’s who of international jihadists to its domain where they can be trained and, in some cases, exported to carry out terrorist attacks in their homelands–including Europe and the United States.

Some will argue that I’m overstating the danger because it’s not in ISIS’s interest to directly target the U.S. or our allies because this is more likely to trigger American intervention. But the same thing could have been said about the Taliban and al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. For some strange reason the reasoning of Western faculty lounges does not always resonate with the hard men of the jihadist movement.

The longer that ISIS controls northern and western Iraq and northern Syria, the more its power will grow and the harder it will be to dislodge. This will likely harden the division of Iraq between a Sunni terrorist state and a Shiite terrorist state. This is or should be America’s worst nightmare–and it is why the president needs to act with greater dispatch and decisiveness than is his usual professorial pattern.

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Could Jordan Fall?

I spoke about the situation in Iraq Saturday morning on C-Span’s Washington Journal. Many callers expressed skepticism at any American involvement in Iraq, arguing simply that no American interests are at stake. I respectfully disagree with that assessment.

That the United States cannot afford to allow terrorists safe haven is a lesson that not only American policymakers but also the general public should have learned after allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups to set up shop in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. It is a truism that other countries have learned, be they Pakistan after the ill-considered Malakand Accord, or Lebanon, which allowed Hezbollah to fill the vacuum in its south following the Israeli withdrawal, a decision that directly led to a destructive war just six years later.

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I spoke about the situation in Iraq Saturday morning on C-Span’s Washington Journal. Many callers expressed skepticism at any American involvement in Iraq, arguing simply that no American interests are at stake. I respectfully disagree with that assessment.

That the United States cannot afford to allow terrorists safe haven is a lesson that not only American policymakers but also the general public should have learned after allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups to set up shop in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. It is a truism that other countries have learned, be they Pakistan after the ill-considered Malakand Accord, or Lebanon, which allowed Hezbollah to fill the vacuum in its south following the Israeli withdrawal, a decision that directly led to a destructive war just six years later.

If ISIS is able to consolidate control, and given its ideological antipathy to nation-state borders, then it will likely turn its sights on Jordan. After all, while ISIS considers Jews, Christians, and Shi’ite Muslims to be heretics deserving of a slow and painful death, its main victims have always been Sunnis.

Security officials acknowledge that ISIS already has cells in Jordan. King Abdullah II of Jordan does himself no favors. Like Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia or Ayad Allawi in Iraq, Abdullah is far more popular abroad than he is at home. Indeed, when he assumed the throne upon the death of his father, Abdullah was fluent in English but stumbled through Arabic. His wife Rania might charm Western audiences and might be imagined to attract Palestinian support because of her own heritage, but her profligate spending and tin ear to the plight of ordinary people has antagonized many Jordanians.

Many tensions Jordan faces are not Abdullah’s fault: While Jordan has, more than any other Arab state, worked to integrate the Palestinian refugee population, it has also been hit by waves of refugees, first from Iraq and then from Syria. Those working among the Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan report that they have not previously seen such a radicalized population. Jordan also does not have the natural resources of some of its neighbors: Saudi Arabia and Iraq are oil-rich and Israel now has gas.

The left-of-center Center for American Progress last week released an excellent new report looking at the pressures Jordan faces as well as the Islamist landscape in the Kingdom. Anything by the Washington Institute’s David Schenker is also worth reading.

An element of blowback also exists. Speaking on the Chris Matthews Show almost a decade ago, King Abdullah II warned of a “Shi’ite crescent,” a specter he subsequently explained in this Middle East Quarterly interview. For those who see an Iranian hidden hand behind every Shi’ite community, Abdullah’s warning had resonance. For Arab Shi’ites, however, it was unrestrained bigotry. Abdullah was not simply content to warn, however. He transformed Jordan into a safe haven for Iraqi Sunni insurgents and spared little effort to undermine Iraqi stability. He, like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was too clever for his own good: By supporting those who justified violence against Shi’ites on sectarian grounds and by working for his own sectarian reasons to undercut Iraqi stability, he set the stage for the blowback which is on the horizon.

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