Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda

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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Getting Fooled by Iran in Iraq

Back in January, Michael Doran and I had an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the Obama administration was pursuing a grand realignment of Middle East politics which would turn Iran from an enemy into “a cooperative partner in regional security.” I am reminded of that argument when I now hear the State Department spokesman claim that the U.S. and Iran have a “shared interest” in pushing back against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and when I read Tom Friedman claim it’s actually in our interest to let Iran dominate substantial chunks of the region: “Iran wanted to be the regional hegemon. Well, Suleimani: ‘This Bud’s for you.’ Now your forces are overextended in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and ours are back home. Have a nice day.”

Is it really necessary to point out that letting Iranian forces dominate Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq is a win for Iran–not for the United States? It is possible to turn this Iranian commitment from an advantage to a disadvantage, but to do so the U.S. would have to wage active proxy warfare against Iran as it once did against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (or as Iran did against us in Iraq and Lebanon). This would involve dramatically ramping up aid (including possibly air strikes) to support the non-jihadist opposition in Syria, which is eager to fight both the Iranian-backed and the al-Qaeda-backed extremists, and to possible partners in Iraq such as the Sunni tribes (if we can still find any left who are stupid enough to trust American assurances of support). But President Obama shows no sign of doing that. Absent a much more active American role to oppose Iranian designs, the mullahs will be able to live out their dreams of regional hegemony at relatively small cost.

Is this actually in America’s interest because Iran as a Shiite nation opposes Sunni extremists? No, because that analysis is far too simplistic. In the first place, as Doran and I pointed out, Iran has made common cause in the past with Sunni extremists in Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, among others. It’s true that Iran doesn’t want to see ISIS or the Nusra Front, another al-Qaeda-affiliated group, dominate Iraq or Syria. But that’s because it would like to see those states dominated by its own proxies who are every bit as bad–Lebanese Hezbollah, Khataib Hezbollah (the Iraqi version), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (another Iraqi Shiite terrorist group), and other actors including to a large extent Bashar Assad and Nouri al-Maliki who are both becoming, in the absence of American intervention, lock-step Iranian allies.

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Back in January, Michael Doran and I had an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the Obama administration was pursuing a grand realignment of Middle East politics which would turn Iran from an enemy into “a cooperative partner in regional security.” I am reminded of that argument when I now hear the State Department spokesman claim that the U.S. and Iran have a “shared interest” in pushing back against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and when I read Tom Friedman claim it’s actually in our interest to let Iran dominate substantial chunks of the region: “Iran wanted to be the regional hegemon. Well, Suleimani: ‘This Bud’s for you.’ Now your forces are overextended in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and ours are back home. Have a nice day.”

Is it really necessary to point out that letting Iranian forces dominate Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq is a win for Iran–not for the United States? It is possible to turn this Iranian commitment from an advantage to a disadvantage, but to do so the U.S. would have to wage active proxy warfare against Iran as it once did against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (or as Iran did against us in Iraq and Lebanon). This would involve dramatically ramping up aid (including possibly air strikes) to support the non-jihadist opposition in Syria, which is eager to fight both the Iranian-backed and the al-Qaeda-backed extremists, and to possible partners in Iraq such as the Sunni tribes (if we can still find any left who are stupid enough to trust American assurances of support). But President Obama shows no sign of doing that. Absent a much more active American role to oppose Iranian designs, the mullahs will be able to live out their dreams of regional hegemony at relatively small cost.

Is this actually in America’s interest because Iran as a Shiite nation opposes Sunni extremists? No, because that analysis is far too simplistic. In the first place, as Doran and I pointed out, Iran has made common cause in the past with Sunni extremists in Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, among others. It’s true that Iran doesn’t want to see ISIS or the Nusra Front, another al-Qaeda-affiliated group, dominate Iraq or Syria. But that’s because it would like to see those states dominated by its own proxies who are every bit as bad–Lebanese Hezbollah, Khataib Hezbollah (the Iraqi version), Asaib Ahl al-Haq (another Iraqi Shiite terrorist group), and other actors including to a large extent Bashar Assad and Nouri al-Maliki who are both becoming, in the absence of American intervention, lock-step Iranian allies.

This is not an outcome remotely in American interests. As Doran and I argued, the increasing Iranian prominence will only drive Sunnis, who constitute the region’s vast majority, into greater militancy. Do you honestly think Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE will stand by and watch Iran and its stalking horses take control of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon? Not a chance. They will amp up their aid to ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups and you will see the murderous Syrian civil war spill over into Iraq.

While some may take satisfaction from Sunni and Shiite extremists clashing, the problem is that they could both win–i.e., both sides could gain control of significant territory which will then become terrorist states. That is what has already happened in Syria and it is now likely to happen in Iraq as well. While the Iranians would prefer obviously that ISIS not control any territory in Iraq or Syria, they may well be willing to live with some ISIS control if the payoff for them is that their proxies consolidate control over what remains of those two states.

Put bluntly, the U.S. interest is in creating democratic, stable, and pro-Western regimes; the Iranian interest is in creating fundamentalist, terrorist-supporting, Shiite-extremist regimes. There is no overlap of interest except when we make the mistake of backing Iranian-aligned leaders such as Nouri al-Maliki. We made that mistake in 2010 when both the U.S. and Iran worked, after the last Iraqi election, to help Maliki win a second term as prime minister. Please, let’s not make that mistake again. The Iranians are pushing for a third term for Maliki. Let’s push for ABM–Anybody but Maliki. Iraq will not survive four more years of Shiite sectarian leadership.

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It’s Time to Talk Intelligence Failures

Behind the shock of the lightning capture of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq, discussion in the United States has focused both on who is responsible and what the insurgents’ victory means for Iraq and the Middle East. These are important discussions, but it is equally imperative for lawmakers and military and intelligence professionals to begin another discussion: About the sheer and utter intelligence failure that led the United States and Iraq to be caught by surprise.

While many understood the withdrawal—begun by George W. Bush and completed by Barack Obama—to be premature and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, strategists sympathetic to their strategy assured that the United States could prevent terror from over the horizon, combing formidable intelligence assets with drones and manned aircraft and even special forces stationed in neighboring countries or offshore on American ships. The events in Mosul show this to be a lie. ISIS blindsided the United States, and neither the Pentagon nor the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has yet to say how this occurred.

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Behind the shock of the lightning capture of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq, discussion in the United States has focused both on who is responsible and what the insurgents’ victory means for Iraq and the Middle East. These are important discussions, but it is equally imperative for lawmakers and military and intelligence professionals to begin another discussion: About the sheer and utter intelligence failure that led the United States and Iraq to be caught by surprise.

While many understood the withdrawal—begun by George W. Bush and completed by Barack Obama—to be premature and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, strategists sympathetic to their strategy assured that the United States could prevent terror from over the horizon, combing formidable intelligence assets with drones and manned aircraft and even special forces stationed in neighboring countries or offshore on American ships. The events in Mosul show this to be a lie. ISIS blindsided the United States, and neither the Pentagon nor the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has yet to say how this occurred.

The reason for the initial intelligence failure in Iraq regarding weapons of mass destruction is known: Saddam not only bluffed the world, but also his generals. The issue wasn’t Ahmed Chalabi (to be precise, most of the faulty intelligence actually came from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which was under the umbrella of the Iraqi National Congress) but rather the fact that when either the Defense Intelligence Agency or CIA debriefed defectors, they found that they were not knowingly being deceptive: most believed what they said. Intercepts corroborated their stories because Saddam’s generals actually believed that the Baathist regime had, if not built certain capabilities, then acquired them from elsewhere. Saddam’s pre-Desert Storm deception also colored analysis and completed the trifecta.

The failure to predict ISIS’s actions may not be as sexy in the political debate—it can’t cheaply be blamed on Bush—but its ultimate impact in the region could be just as great. It’s one thing to miss a vanload of terrorists. It’s quite another to miss an army, which is basically how ISIS coordinated. Nor was the seizure of Mosul simply the result of a group even al-Qaeda deems too extreme. Former Baathists—seemingly the same ones whom David Petraeus tried to co-opt when he presided over Mosul—coordinated with ISIS.

There are a couple possibilities of what happened. Either disparate groups of Baathists, Islamists, and others antagonistic to Iraq communicated extensively without any penetration by Western intelligence, or, as with the lead-up to 9/11, some elements of U.S. intelligence did pick up word of the looming attack but such information failed to be shared and accepted by supervisors. Either way, as the United States increasingly seeks to defend its interests from over the horizon, it behooves both the White House and Congress to understand just how this latest intelligence failure occurred.

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Iraq, Another Grim Point for Romney

At the Washington Post, David Ignatius recalls a 2012 debate exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, during which the two covered al-Qaeda and Iraq:

Romney tried to shake Obama’s optimistic narrative about al-Qaeda. “It’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 20 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”

[…]

Obama scored points later in that debate when he dismissed Romney’s concerns about Iraq. “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.” The transcript records Romney sputtering back: “I’m sorry, you actually — there was a — .”

Obama had the better of that exchange, certainly for a war-weary United States that a few weeks later gave him a new mandate. But looking back, which picture was closer to the truth? Probably Romney’s.

Probably? Al-Qaeda has gone from terrorist organization to conquering army and it’s still not entirely safe to say President Obama kind of blew it on that whole anti-terrorism thing.

But the grudging acknowledgement is something. Reality has the ability to trump spin. Obama was elected in large part to pull out of Iraq “responsibly.” But few watching ISIS plow through the country are thinking that he’s handled things well.

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At the Washington Post, David Ignatius recalls a 2012 debate exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, during which the two covered al-Qaeda and Iraq:

Romney tried to shake Obama’s optimistic narrative about al-Qaeda. “It’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 20 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”

[…]

Obama scored points later in that debate when he dismissed Romney’s concerns about Iraq. “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.” The transcript records Romney sputtering back: “I’m sorry, you actually — there was a — .”

Obama had the better of that exchange, certainly for a war-weary United States that a few weeks later gave him a new mandate. But looking back, which picture was closer to the truth? Probably Romney’s.

Probably? Al-Qaeda has gone from terrorist organization to conquering army and it’s still not entirely safe to say President Obama kind of blew it on that whole anti-terrorism thing.

But the grudging acknowledgement is something. Reality has the ability to trump spin. Obama was elected in large part to pull out of Iraq “responsibly.” But few watching ISIS plow through the country are thinking that he’s handled things well.

The crumbling of Iraq, of course, isn’t the first event to vindicate a maligned Romney debating point. Back when he pronounced Russia “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” Obama derided Romney as a Cold Warrior 20 years past his sell-by date. The president, for his part, was busy touting his “reset” with the Kremlin. But the American public soon took up the fight against Vladimir Putin’s human-rights abuses—and then Russia invaded Crimea. Thus came headlines explaining “Why Obama Got Russia Wrong (and Romney Got It Right).”

That’s not all he got right. While the Obama administration plays Let’s Fake a Deal with Tehran, it’s worth recalling another Romney line of foreign-affairs analysis: “Of course the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. If Obama gets that wrong, belated acknowledgment of his error won’t quite cut it.

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Return of the War That Never Went Away

The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

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The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also called attention to the limits the White House has imposed on the use of American power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.

There is an obvious argument to be made for intervening in Iraq but not Syria: our previous involvement there. But that argument faded greatly after Obama decided the war was over and our combat mission ended. Now we’re back basically on the outside looking in. At this point, can Obama clearly make a case for additional strikes in Iraq that would still logically avoid implicitly making the case for the same in Syria? Sentimental value won’t count for much.

Obama has put great effort into differentiating conflicts so as to avoid a game of intervention dominoes, for instance by agreeing to decapitate the Gaddafi regime but not the house of Assad. He rejected the idea of humanitarian intervention in Syria as well, arguing that that the U.S. did not have a responsibility to protect but did have an obligation to curtail the use of chemical weapons. Seeking to build a case for possibly stepping up its aid to the Syrian rebels, Obama was shifting to “emphasize Syria’s growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda.” By that standard, Iraq beckons as well.

Perhaps Obama could at least make the argument that Syria and Iraq can be taken together as one conflict and thus not a harbinger of broader military action in the region. But the Times report shows why that would be a tall order:

The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.

Right. And suddenly it becomes clear: We’re fighting a (gasp!) global war on terror.

The compartmentalization of conflicts by Obama and others was a necessary element for them to oppose the Bush administration’s war on terror because it was the only way to conceptually remove the common thread that held together Bush’s strategy. But that relied on the belief that the international state system was intact and robust enough to deal with international terrorism. It was a nice idea, but it proved naïve and dangerous.

Obama learned this when he sent forces into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. He learned it again when he had to send drones after Yemen-based terrorists. He learned and relearned it throughout the Arab Spring, as dictatorships fell and transnational terror networks like the Muslim Brotherhood rose. He learned it when weapons from the Libyan civil war fueled a military coup in Mali. He learned it when his administration practically begged the Russian government to accept American counterterrorism help to safeguard the Olympics in Sochi.

And now he’s looking at a stateless mass of terrorism stretching across the Middle East but specifically melding the Syria and Iraq conflicts. He’s looking at a global terror war and trying to figure out increasingly creative ways not to say so. Obama wanted this war to be a different war, and to be over. But he forgot that the enemy always gets a vote. And we still have a lot of enemies.

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Obama’s Retreat and Jihad’s Rise

Back in 2012, the State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism” stated that “The loss of bin Laden and these other key operatives puts the [al-Qaeda] network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.”

In 2014, the terrorist organization stands on the brink of statehood. Not so difficult, really. The United States withdrew from the Middle East and al-Qaeda didn’t. With jihadists now taking city after city in Iraq, we’re hearing murmurs of a rising caliphate.

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Back in 2012, the State Department’s “Country Reports on Terrorism” stated that “The loss of bin Laden and these other key operatives puts the [al-Qaeda] network on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.”

In 2014, the terrorist organization stands on the brink of statehood. Not so difficult, really. The United States withdrew from the Middle East and al-Qaeda didn’t. With jihadists now taking city after city in Iraq, we’re hearing murmurs of a rising caliphate.

Through it all, the Obama administration has bragged about its grit and wisdom. As the president told Mitt Romney in their third debate, “We ended the war in Iraq, refocused our attention on those who actually killed us on 9/11, and as a consequence, al-Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated.” Responding to charges of appeasement at a White House press conference in 2011, Obama boasted: “Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement.”

It would probably be more useful to ask the thousands of al-Qaeda associates who’ve been bombing and beheading their way to glory in Mesopotamia. You could also ask the Taliban five. And for good measure, you might want to pose the question to Hamas, whose political legitimacy has been given the Obama seal of approval.

Most Americans consented to our retreat from the Muslim world. It was easy to look back at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with regret as long as you ignored the alternatives. If warnings of a regional jihadist uprising were nothing more than hyped-up neocon scare-mongering, American military action looked like tragic overreach. But with that alternative no longer hypothetical, George W. Bush’s post-9/11 policies are beginning to look more like what they were: difficult but necessary initiatives aimed at stunting Islamist aggression.

Undoubtedly many Americans still think of the Great Islamist Comeback as a foreign disturbance with little bearing on their day-to-day lives. But that too requires some ignoring. Today, reports abound of terrorists plotting against the United States in Libya and the Syria-Iraq corridor. Even the Nigerian kidnapping crew Boko Haram is reportedly working on plans to hit American targets. Will Americans wait until those hypothetical concerns also become real before they accept the necessity of a strong U.S. presence in the Middle East? Al-Qaeda roared back to life with ease. Somehow the path that still remains difficult to reverse is our own.

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Hagel’s Unconvincing Spin

If there is one good aspect of the dismaying advance of Islamist extremists in Iraq from the Obama administration’s standpoint, it is that these events are distracting attention from the continuing controversy over the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap.

More embarrassing stories continue to emerge. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, reports that the U.S. intelligence community assessed that four out of the five released Taliban were likely to return to the fight and that two of them would assume senior positions. Foreign Policy, meanwhile, reports that the two senior U.S. military commanders in the region–General Joe Dunford in Kabul and General Lloyd Austin at Central Command–were not informed of the deal beforehand (although they knew about the ongoing negotiations).

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If there is one good aspect of the dismaying advance of Islamist extremists in Iraq from the Obama administration’s standpoint, it is that these events are distracting attention from the continuing controversy over the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap.

More embarrassing stories continue to emerge. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, reports that the U.S. intelligence community assessed that four out of the five released Taliban were likely to return to the fight and that two of them would assume senior positions. Foreign Policy, meanwhile, reports that the two senior U.S. military commanders in the region–General Joe Dunford in Kabul and General Lloyd Austin at Central Command–were not informed of the deal beforehand (although they knew about the ongoing negotiations).

Little wonder that senior administration officials who have trooped to Capitol Hill for briefings have not managed to satisfy members’ concerns. The latest to try is Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel who told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. had not actually negotiated with terrorists. Why not? Because Bergdahl was being held by the Haqqani Network and the U.S. instead talked with the Taliban through the good offices of Qatari officials. As one Republican congressman said, “These responses are very, very tortuous.”

But this damage control is also being overshadowed by the ongoing disaster in Iraq. Before long the administration will be able to say that Bergdahl is “old news” and thus duck further inquiries. Unfortunately from the standpoint of the rest of the world, the Bergdahl and Iraq stories are merging to create an appearance of American weakness in dealing with al-Qaeda and its ilk.

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Maliki Must Go

Not satisfied with seizing control of Fallujah and Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to advance from victory to victory. In a lightning fast offensive–the terrorist version of a blitzkrieg–its fighters have now taken control of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and Baiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery. We can expect that they will next march on Baqubah, capital of Diyala province, and then on Baghdad itself. Indeed, in some ways the battle for Baghdad has already begun with ISIS regularly setting off massive car bombs in the capital and with Shiite extremist groups retaliating with atrocities against innocent Sunnis. The Sunni Triangle is rapidly falling under the control of a group so radical and violent that even al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, disowned it.

Perhaps most dismaying of all is that the Iraqi army appears to be falling apart under the sustained assault it is receiving. Its soldiers evacuated Mosul so fast that many left their uniforms behind. Obviously they did not see, much less emulate, Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones in which an embattled garrison of the Night’s Watch managed to throw back a much larger wildling horde. In Iraq the wildlings are on the march and there is little to stop them before they get to the Shiite heartland.

I have previously pointed out that this was not fated to happen–that this dire situation might have been averted if President Obama had kept U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011. But he didn’t. Now what? In today’s Wall Street Journal, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution offers some inventive ideas for reforms that can transform the Iraqi political system to enable it to meet this threat.

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Not satisfied with seizing control of Fallujah and Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to advance from victory to victory. In a lightning fast offensive–the terrorist version of a blitzkrieg–its fighters have now taken control of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and Baiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery. We can expect that they will next march on Baqubah, capital of Diyala province, and then on Baghdad itself. Indeed, in some ways the battle for Baghdad has already begun with ISIS regularly setting off massive car bombs in the capital and with Shiite extremist groups retaliating with atrocities against innocent Sunnis. The Sunni Triangle is rapidly falling under the control of a group so radical and violent that even al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, disowned it.

Perhaps most dismaying of all is that the Iraqi army appears to be falling apart under the sustained assault it is receiving. Its soldiers evacuated Mosul so fast that many left their uniforms behind. Obviously they did not see, much less emulate, Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones in which an embattled garrison of the Night’s Watch managed to throw back a much larger wildling horde. In Iraq the wildlings are on the march and there is little to stop them before they get to the Shiite heartland.

I have previously pointed out that this was not fated to happen–that this dire situation might have been averted if President Obama had kept U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011. But he didn’t. Now what? In today’s Wall Street Journal, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution offers some inventive ideas for reforms that can transform the Iraqi political system to enable it to meet this threat.

For example, he argues for “a constitutional amendment imposing a two-term limit on the presidency and prime ministership,” “a new national-unity government, including a leading Kurd as defense minister and a leading Sunni from one of the opposition parties as interior minister,” and “a constitutional amendment that redefines Iraq’s executive authority, with security and foreign affairs under the president, and the economy and domestic politics under the prime minister.”

These are good ideas but unlikely to be realized, as Pollack himself acknowledges, given the current state of Iraqi politics and given the weakness of American influence in Iraq today. Instead of lobbying for such extensive changes the U.S. might be better off lobbying for a new prime minister. Maliki’s political party came out on top in the April parliamentary elections but it lacks the votes to form a government on its own. It needs the support of other parties, especially other Shiite parties and the Kurds. The U.S. should exert whatever influence it still has to prevent that from happening.

Maliki has presided over the disintegration of Iraq. He doesn’t deserve a third term. The country desperately needs a new leader. Until a change of leadership happens, there is little point in sending more U.S. aid which, if Mosul is anything to go by, is likely to wind up arming the insurgents.

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What Does Mosul Mean for Afghanistan?

Over at AEI-Ideas, I spoke a bit about what al-Qaeda’s take-over of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city and a town I visited earlier this year, means for Iraq. But it’s just as important to reflect on what it means for Afghanistan. The Washington Post quoted Osama Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab whose brother is governor of Mosul and who himself is speaker of Iraq’s parliament, as saying, “When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists.”

In order to justify the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the White House repeatedly claimed that Iraqi forces were well-trained and ready. The generals who trained the new Iraqi army also exaggerated their prowess. For the more ambitious among them, acknowledging reality might mean losing some of the public relations luster those who sought the limelight craved.

When it came to rebuilding the army, Iraq was supposed to be the easy one. While many analysts criticize the Bush administration’s decision to disband Saddam Hussein’s army, the U.S. military immediately began building a new force from its ashes. In reality, Iraq was without an army for about three weeks. Afghanistan, however, was a different case. The Soviets withdrew in 1989, but it was only in May 1993 that the Defense Ministry went vacant and the Afghan army evaporated. After 9/11, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, it faced the Herculean task of rebuilding an army that had been gone not for weeks but for years.

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Over at AEI-Ideas, I spoke a bit about what al-Qaeda’s take-over of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city and a town I visited earlier this year, means for Iraq. But it’s just as important to reflect on what it means for Afghanistan. The Washington Post quoted Osama Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab whose brother is governor of Mosul and who himself is speaker of Iraq’s parliament, as saying, “When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists.”

In order to justify the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the White House repeatedly claimed that Iraqi forces were well-trained and ready. The generals who trained the new Iraqi army also exaggerated their prowess. For the more ambitious among them, acknowledging reality might mean losing some of the public relations luster those who sought the limelight craved.

When it came to rebuilding the army, Iraq was supposed to be the easy one. While many analysts criticize the Bush administration’s decision to disband Saddam Hussein’s army, the U.S. military immediately began building a new force from its ashes. In reality, Iraq was without an army for about three weeks. Afghanistan, however, was a different case. The Soviets withdrew in 1989, but it was only in May 1993 that the Defense Ministry went vacant and the Afghan army evaporated. After 9/11, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, it faced the Herculean task of rebuilding an army that had been gone not for weeks but for years.

As President Obama has moved forward with plans for a withdrawal based upon an arbitrary timeline, those under him seem to treat readiness figures with equal spuriousness. Initially, planners estimated that Afghanistan would require $6 billion in aid annually to support and subsidize a 352,000-man force. But as the U.S. sped up plans to withdrawal, suddenly it was determined that Afghanistan would only need a 250,000-man force. The question is whether those revised numbers provided by military planners were based on the fact that suddenly Afghanistan’s army became that much better or, more likely, that the White House recognized that it wouldn’t have the money and so it decided simply to fib.

The problem with lying, and the problem with basing national security on politics rather than actuality, is that eventually reality catches it. It did last night in Mosul, and it will again across Afghanistan if the Obama administration insists on replicating its same mistakes there.

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The Fall of Mosul

Iraq, which had achieved a tenuous stability when U.S. troops were still present in 2011, continues to descend further into the abyss. Already the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (as al-Qaeda in Iraq has rebranded itself) has taken control of Fallujah and many other parts of Anbar Province. Now its control is extending to Ninewa Province and the second-largest city in the entire country: Mosul.

The latest news: “Iraqi army soldiers abandoned their weapons and fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, as Sunni militants freed hundreds of prisoners and seized military bases, police stations, banks and the provincial governor’s headquarters.”

This immensely strengthens a group that, as recently as 2008, has been on its deathbed. The New York Times quotes one analyst suggesting that ISIS could “use cash reserves from Mosul’s banks, military equipment from seized military and police bases, and the release of 2,500 fighters from local jails to bolster its military and financial capacity.”

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Iraq, which had achieved a tenuous stability when U.S. troops were still present in 2011, continues to descend further into the abyss. Already the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (as al-Qaeda in Iraq has rebranded itself) has taken control of Fallujah and many other parts of Anbar Province. Now its control is extending to Ninewa Province and the second-largest city in the entire country: Mosul.

The latest news: “Iraqi army soldiers abandoned their weapons and fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, as Sunni militants freed hundreds of prisoners and seized military bases, police stations, banks and the provincial governor’s headquarters.”

This immensely strengthens a group that, as recently as 2008, has been on its deathbed. The New York Times quotes one analyst suggesting that ISIS could “use cash reserves from Mosul’s banks, military equipment from seized military and police bases, and the release of 2,500 fighters from local jails to bolster its military and financial capacity.”

It is not just Iraq which is threatened but also Syria, since ISIS now operates freely on both sides of the porous border between the two states. Islamist militants are now in the process of establishing a fundamentalist caliphate that includes much of northern Syria and western and northern Iraq. And that in turn threatens the U.S. and our regional allies because this new Islamist state is certain to become a training ground for international jihadists who will then strike other countries–including possibly ours.

It is harder to imagine a bigger disaster for American foreign policy–or a more self-inflicted one. There was no compelling reason why the U.S. had to pull our troops out of Iraq; if President Obama had tried harder to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement, he probably could have succeeded. But his heart was in troop withdrawal, not in a long-term commitment.

There is, of course, no guarantee that events would have played out any differently even if U.S. troops had been present, but the odds are they would have. After all the event that triggered the current cataclysm was Prime Minister Maliki’s vindictive and short-sighted attempt to persecute senior Sunni politicians–something he waited to do until U.S. troops had withdrawn. As long as U.S. troops were present in significant numbers, their very presence gave extra leverage to American generals and diplomats to influence the government and their aid, especially in intelligence-gathering, logistics, and mission planning, allowed the Iraqi military to more effectively target terrorists.

Now all that is gone. The Iraqi military seems to be falling apart. Many Sunnis are embracing ISIS militants while many Shiites, for their own protection, are drawing closer to Iranian-backed militants. And what is the U.S. doing? It is selling Maliki F-16s that will only exacerbate the violence without addressing its causes.

This is all very dismaying, even heart-breaking, considering how close the U.S. had come in 2011, after so many early missteps, to achieving an acceptable outcome in Iraq. Now Iraq appears increasingly lost and the entire region is threatened by the growing power of the extremists.

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Can the White House Be Trusted on Iran Deal?

President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

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President Obama’s decision to release five senior Taliban prisoners in exchange for a captive American soldier who, according to numerous media reports, was also a deserter was political malpractice. The terrorists released were not simply Taliban, but rather the Taliban leadership who helped forge the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Chuck Hagel both denied that the deal was equivalent to negotiating with terrorists and also denied that releasing such high-value terrorists in exchange for a traitor would incentivize further terrorism.

Hagel is either being disingenuous or intellectually incompetent. That Obama violated the law with the release is simply icing on the cake of poor White House judgment. National Security Advisor Susan Rice again rushed to appear on Sunday talk shows for which she was unprepared and in which she was not truthful when characterizing Bowe Bergdahl’s service. The Taliban are rightly celebrating their victory, while Obama and some of his senior aides appear genuinely surprised at the uproar which their deal has sparked.

Given the detachment of the White House from reality, perhaps it’s time now to double down on the demand that the White House not be trusted to make a deal with Iran without Congress carefully vetting the terms of that deal. The United States and regional states will have to live with whatever Obama’s negotiators decide, but Obama’s team has clearly demonstrated that they have little sense of strategic consequences. Perhaps if there’s any lesson that can be learned from the Bergdahl debacle, it can be that it provides warning that Obama left to his own devices uses secrecy to shield himself from criticism, but is prone to damaging American credibility. What’s at stake with Iran’s nuclear program is simply too important to defer to Obama’s judgment alone.

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The Obama Foreign-Policy “Successes”

President Obama, in his West Point address, was obviously striking back at critics who claim that his foreign policy is a failure. So what successes does he have to point to? At the beginning of his talk, he listed several:

We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.

All of this is true as far as it goes–but it doesn’t go very far.

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President Obama, in his West Point address, was obviously striking back at critics who claim that his foreign policy is a failure. So what successes does he have to point to? At the beginning of his talk, he listed several:

We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.

All of this is true as far as it goes–but it doesn’t go very far.

Yes, Obama has removed U.S. troops from Iraq–but the consequences have been disastrous. Violence is back up to 2008 levels and al-Qaeda in Iraq, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is back in control of major chunks of Anbar Province. Its fighters are now advancing on Baghdad where they regularly set off car bombs while Iranian-backed militias are committing their own atrocities in retaliation.

Yes, Obama is “winding down our war in Afghanistan”–but “their” war goes on unabated. Sure, the president can pull U.S. troops out by the end of his presidency, but that doesn’t mean that the conflict will end. The more likely outcome is that, as in Iraq, our pullout will embolden our enemies and lead to greater levels of fighting.

Yes, “Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated” and Osama bin Laden killed, but in many ways al-Qaeda itself is stronger than ever. Its affiliates have spread to Mali, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and, above all, Syria, which U.S. intelligence officials warn is now as dangerous to the United States as Afghanistan was prior to 9/11.

I applaud the ingenuity of the president’s speechwriters who managed to put forward their claims in a way that is technically true–but they are presenting a misleading impression and everyone who doesn’t work in the West Wing of the White House knows it.

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Obama’s Split-the-Difference Foreign Policy

Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

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Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

At first blush this is a welcome signal of strength from the White House. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with prior administration decisions, the details of the president’s policies can often undermine their stated purpose. So it is again with Afghanistan where, the Washington Post tells us, “The 9,800 troops will be based around Afghanistan until the end of 2015, after which they will be reduced by roughly half and consolidated in Kabul and at the Bagram airfield north of the capital. At the end of 2016, most of those remaining troops will be withdrawn and the U.S. military presence will be confined to a defense group at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”

Keeping around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan post 2014 makes sense (although it would be even better to keep more troops to provide a greater margin of safety). Announcing in advance that we will reduce their numbers to 5,000 within a year and remove them altogether within two years–no matter the conditions on the ground–makes no sense.

Has the administration learned no lesson from the Afghan surge whose effectiveness was vitiated by the 18-month timeline imposed on the troops’ deployment, thus encouraging the Taliban to wait us out? Obama is making the same mistake again. What he should be doing is announcing that we will keep U.S. advisers in Afghanistan in unspecified numbers as long as the government of Afghanistan requests their presence and as long as the U.S. government judges that they are needed to prevent the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists from making major inroads. Such an announcement will drain the Taliban of hope and fill hard-pressed Afghan security forces with newfound confidence.

In contrast, Obama’s announcement is so half-hearted that the Taliban will still have good cause to think that they can wait us out. Kudos to Obama for not sending only 5,000 troops next year, as some earlier leaks had indicated might be the case. But while maintaining 10,000 troops is much better, imposing a timeline on them is a serious mistake–one that cannot be explained by references to objective conditions in Afghanistan and which makes sense only as a split-the-difference compromise between administration hawks and doves. The president should have learned by now that splitting the difference in foreign policy and especially in matters of troop deployments doesn’t work.

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Maliki’s Power Play

What’s bad policy may sometimes be good politics. So it proved in Iraq where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has presided over a disastrous collapse of security since the departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011 left the Iraqis entirely on their own. As The Wall Street Journal notes: “More than 7,800 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013—the most civilian deaths since the nearly 18,000 killed in 2007 at the height of the sectarian conflict, according to the United Nations. At least 2,300 were killed so far this year.”

Much of this increase in violence is due to Maliki’s short-sighted alienation of the Sunnis whose leaders he has been persecuting and sidelining. This has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to revive itself in the new guise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And this has given an opening for militant Shiite extremists backed by Iran to start committing their own atrocities against Sunnis in retaliation for Sunni car bombings of Shiites. Thus has the cycle of violence started spinning again. 

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What’s bad policy may sometimes be good politics. So it proved in Iraq where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has presided over a disastrous collapse of security since the departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011 left the Iraqis entirely on their own. As The Wall Street Journal notes: “More than 7,800 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013—the most civilian deaths since the nearly 18,000 killed in 2007 at the height of the sectarian conflict, according to the United Nations. At least 2,300 were killed so far this year.”

Much of this increase in violence is due to Maliki’s short-sighted alienation of the Sunnis whose leaders he has been persecuting and sidelining. This has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to revive itself in the new guise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And this has given an opening for militant Shiite extremists backed by Iran to start committing their own atrocities against Sunnis in retaliation for Sunni car bombings of Shiites. Thus has the cycle of violence started spinning again. 

Part of the problem here is the Syrian civil war, which has spilled over the border into western Iraq. But the largest part of the problem is Maliki’s conspiratorial, dictatorial worldview that treats as enemies those he should have been trying to win over.

The course he is embarked on is terrible for Iraq but it seems that it is good for his political prospects. In the recently completed elections his State of Law party emerged as the top vote-getter, winning 92 seats in parliament. That puts Maliki in a strong position to cobble together a coalition that will keep him in the prime minister’s office for a third term, thereby allowing him to further increase his already worrisome accumulation of power.

Why did Maliki win the election in spite of the terrible impact of his policies? He is in the position of arsonist turned firefighter: Having stoked sectarian passions and alarmed Shiites, he is now posturing as a strongman who can save the Shiites from further violence. This perception does not accord with the facts–Maliki is the problem, not the solution–but it is not the first or last time that voters have fallen for a politician who abets the very insecurity he is purporting to solve. Vladimir Putin is a beneficiary of the same trend, although he has increasingly disposed with the trappings of democracy which Iraq still has–but for how long?

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