Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda

Is the Tide Turning Back Against Assad?

After an uprising began in Syria in March 2011, the expectation was that Bashar Assad’s days were numbered. But he managed to hang onto power with surprising tenacity, thanks in no small part to significant assistance from Iran and its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. In more recent months the conventional wisdom had gone from “Assad’s a goner” to “Assad’s a winner.” But that latter judgment may be premature.

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After an uprising began in Syria in March 2011, the expectation was that Bashar Assad’s days were numbered. But he managed to hang onto power with surprising tenacity, thanks in no small part to significant assistance from Iran and its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. In more recent months the conventional wisdom had gone from “Assad’s a goner” to “Assad’s a winner.” But that latter judgment may be premature.

The recent fall of Idlib city and much of its surrounding countryside to rebel fighters suggests that Assad’s power may be waning. “After seizing most of Idlib province in recent weeks,” the Washington Post notes, “the rebels are pressing south toward the government strongholds of Hama and Homs and are threatening the ­Assad family’s coastal heartland of Latakia.” Other signs also point to a regime not as strong as commonly believed: notably the failure of earlier government offensives against Aleppo and rebel strongholds in the south.

These setbacks have been accompanied by rumors of high-level dissension. As the Post notes: “On Friday, pro-government news outlets reported the death of political security director Rustom Ghazaleh, a longtime Assad stalwart, after months of rumors that he had fallen out with the regime, had been badly beaten up by a rival and was languishing in a hospital. The reports followed the firing last month of the military intelligence chief, Rafiq Shehadeh, another inner-circle loyalist. Western diplomats monitoring events in Syria from Beirut say the two men appear to have clashed with the Assad family over the growing battlefield role played by Iran.” Even Assad’s family appears to be cracking to some extent. One of Bashar’s cousins was fired as head of security in Damascus and fled the country while another cousin was detained “amid rumors that he had been plotting a coup.”

No less an observer than Robert Ford, an astute Arabist who was the last U.S. ambassador to Damascus, writes: “We may be seeing signs of the beginning of their end.”

Of course one must stay skeptical about such reports, which sound so suspiciously similar to reports from 2011-2012 which prematurely wrote a political obituary for Assad. But even if it’s true that the end is nigh for the Assad regime, that’s hardly unalloyed good news.

True, no one can shed any tears over the potential demise of a government that has been responsible for murdering more than 200,000 of its own citizens. But there is a big question as to what comes next.

The losses the government has been suffering lately are not at the hands of the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army, which has been all but abandoned by the United States. Rather, recent military victories against Assad are ascribed to a new rebel coalition called the Army of Conquest. It includes some of the more moderate battalions that make up the Free Syrian Army but its core is the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Its primary patrons are not the Americans or Europeans but rather Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, all Islamist states. Replacing an Iranian-backed regime in Damascus with an al-Qaeda regime would hardly be cause for celebration, even if ISIS, the other major Islamist army in Syria, is even more radical than al-Nusra.

There was nothing inevitable about the triumph of the extremists—it has come about primarily because President Obama missed his opportunity to support the more moderate rebels in a more sustained way earlier in the conflict. If anything, the potential crumbling of the Assad regime should be a wakeup call to the administration that it needs to step up its aid to the Free Syrian Army and to create liberated enclaves, protected by American airpower, where the moderate Syrian opposition, which has been recognized as the true government by the U.S. and its allies, can start to rule on Syrian territory.

But realistically even such steps would not be enough to significantly alter the balance of power on the ground in the short term. If the Assad regime collapses in the near future, it’s hard to imagine the power vacuum being filled by anyone other than Sunni jihadists—unless the international community is prepared to intervene with a large-scale peacekeeping force, a la Bosnia or Kosovo or East Timor. But if the U.S. and its allies failed to send such a force to Libya after Gaddafi’s downfall (as I urged at the time), it’s unlikely to do so now in the far more dangerous circumstances of Syria where foreign forces would be ripe for attack not only from the al-Nusra Front and Assad’s remaining champions but also from ISIS.

It’s hard to imagine Syria—already a war-ravaged land that has become a magnet for foreign jihadists, both Shiite and Sunni—getting any worse after Assad’s downfall. But it’s also hard to imagine it getting any better unless the West steps up to do more than it has been willing to do for the past four years.

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The al-Qaeda Hostages and Deteriorating U.S. Intel

Today a grim-faced President Obama announced that he was taking “full responsibility” for the inadvertent death of two hostages held by al-Qaeda and killed in the frontier region of Pakistan by an American drone strike. He was right to do so, but it’s not an especially brave thing to do on the president’s part because few but the most perfervid partisans will blame him for this accident of the type that happens so often in the “fog of war.”

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Today a grim-faced President Obama announced that he was taking “full responsibility” for the inadvertent death of two hostages held by al-Qaeda and killed in the frontier region of Pakistan by an American drone strike. He was right to do so, but it’s not an especially brave thing to do on the president’s part because few but the most perfervid partisans will blame him for this accident of the type that happens so often in the “fog of war.”

The only people who might be remotely surprised by this mistake would be those technologists and futurists who once argued that advances in computing power would make possible “perfect information awareness,” thereby turning war into a sterile targeting exercise. The U.S. military in the 1990s to some extent bought into this orthodoxy, which became known as “network-centric operations.” Although the limitations of information technology were brutally exposed in Afghanistan and Iraq, where no number of precision airstrikes could defeat determined insurgencies, there has remained a political vogue for “precise,” “surgical” airstrikes—now done by drones rather than by manned aircraft. This has, in fact, become the preferred Obama way of warfare.

There is no question that drone strikes are a useful tool of counter-terrorism policy, but the mistaken killing of the two hostages shows the limits of our intelligence. It would be all too easy to kill the enemy if we knew precisely where he was, but we don’t—insurgents like to hide in plain sight and it takes a lot of work to distinguish them from the civilian population. To be sure, high-tech reconnaissance and surveillance can enable this process but human-intelligence is necessary too, both the kind acquired by spies and the kind acquired by interrogators.

As it happens, the Joint Special Operations Command under Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Adm. Bill McRaven became very, very good at doing battlefield interrogations without using torture. It was their success in getting detainees to talk that enabled JSOC operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that is now a lot harder to pull off because the U.S. is no longer holding detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have transitioned the detention process over to the Iraqis and Afghans, with predictably dismal results. Many hardened killers who have blood on their hands were set free.

Moreover, Obama is refusing to send any new detainees to Guantanamo and continuing George W. Bush’s policy of releasing detainees, roughly a third of whom return to their old tricks. Finally Obama, like all presidents, is averse to putting American troops on the ground in harm’s way. Thus the strong preference for U.S. counter-terrorism strikes is to kill rather than to capture terrorists. But dead men tell no tales. The fact that we are not capturing and interrogating more bad guys means, inevitably, that the quality of our intelligence is going down, thus raising the likelihood of mistakes such as the ones that killed hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. “Wanted: Dead or Alive” is fine for Westerns, but in the real world live terrorists are far more useful than dead ones.

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What Obama Should Be Apologizing For

President Obama stepped before the cameras this morning to apologize for the deaths of two Western hostages, including one American, in a U.S. drone strike on an al-Qaeda target. Speaking in a dignified and sorrowful tone that marked a strong contrast with most of his press appearances, the president expressed profound regret about the deaths on behalf of the government and vowed that it would do its best not to repeat the mistake. While the families deserved to hear his apology, the rest of us do not. But the American people are owed an apology for something else. As we add to the total of Americans killed as a result of terrorism by a group we were informed by the Obama re-election team was on the run and finished, sometime before the president leaves office it would be far more appropriate for him to own up to the mistakes he made that have led us to a moment in history when Islamist terror is more dangerous than ever.

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President Obama stepped before the cameras this morning to apologize for the deaths of two Western hostages, including one American, in a U.S. drone strike on an al-Qaeda target. Speaking in a dignified and sorrowful tone that marked a strong contrast with most of his press appearances, the president expressed profound regret about the deaths on behalf of the government and vowed that it would do its best not to repeat the mistake. While the families deserved to hear his apology, the rest of us do not. But the American people are owed an apology for something else. As we add to the total of Americans killed as a result of terrorism by a group we were informed by the Obama re-election team was on the run and finished, sometime before the president leaves office it would be far more appropriate for him to own up to the mistakes he made that have led us to a moment in history when Islamist terror is more dangerous than ever.

It’s important to give credit to the president for providing some transparency about the fate of both hostages. Going public with the news about the fact that the hostages were killed as a result of U.S. action was the right thing to do. So was the apology to the family. But, like his refusals to ransom other hostages held by terrorists, the president was right not to try to buy the freedom of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto and also correct to order the attack on an al-Qaeda stronghold even if the results of these decisions were tragic.

Second-guessing about specific operations is easy for critics but useless. No one seriously believes the strike would have been planned and approved had anyone known about the presence of the hostages. The only apologies truly needed for this incident should come from the terrorists who seized two innocent people—both aid workers who were in the region to help, not wage war—and are responsible for their deaths, no matter the origin of the bomb that ultimately killed them.

But any discussion about al-Qaeda must start and end with an honest evaluation of the administration’s counter-terrorism policy in the context of its broader foreign-policy goals. And it is here that apologies are warranted.

The president has taken a beating from some on the left as well as their unlikely libertarian allies on the right such as Senator Rand Paul for the extensive use of drones to kill terrorists. Those criticisms are largely unfounded. These are legitimate targets, and taking out these killers and their infrastructure is both necessary and justified.

The drone attacks are wrongly blamed for making the terrorists popular. As much as many in Pakistan and Afghanistan resent them, the factor that drives terror recruitment is the notion that they are prevailing in the struggle against the West, not resentment of successful attacks that prove they are not winning. But what isn’t working is the foreign policy that makes the context for military action and which has given the terrorists good reason to believe that they are succeeding.

We now know that administration decisions to pull out of Iraq precipitously rather than stay and negotiate a deal that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in the country facilitated the rise of ISIS. The same can be said for the president’s dithering about the civil war in Syria when decisive Western action in the opening months of the struggle probably also would have made it difficult for ISIS to establish a foothold there as well. In Afghanistan, the continued strength of the Taliban even after setbacks they experienced as a result of the surge the president ordered in his first term is largely due to Obama’s announcement of a pullout date for U.S. troops even as reinforcements were arriving.

The problem is that the president was so eager to declare wars over or ending that he forgot that the terrorists were not getting the memo about their being defeated. The same applies to al-Qaeda, whose defeat was supposed to be sealed with the death of Osama bin Laden, a centerpiece of the president’s reelection campaign rhetoric. Yet while the administration was trying to tell us that al-Qaeda was decimated or on the run or effectively out of business, it was continuing to dig in and expand. Now it appears that its affiliates are as strong or stronger than in bin Laden’s time. Combined with the efforts of their ISIS rivals, it’s clear terrorism is as great a threat to U.S. security as ever. Add in the ongoing activities of Hamas and Hezbollah and the Houthi in Yemen, all of which are prospering because of the active aid of Iran, a nation that is the object of the president’s efforts at détente, and the picture becomes even darker.

This is an administration that is more concerned with withdrawing from the Middle East than in showing that it will stay and fight until victory. The appeasement of Iran on the nuclear issue and the refusal of the president to insist that Iran stop supporting terror as part of the negotiations (indeed, his Democratic allies in the Senate successfully insisted that any accountability on terror be left out of the Corker-Menendez bill on the Iran deal) also undermine any notion that it is a priority.

It is that dismal situation and not a tragic if honorable failure to know that hostages might die with their terrorist captors in a drone strikes that merits a presidential apology.

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The Ineffective Campaign in Yemen

Almost a month ago, on March 25, the Saudis launched what they called Operation Decisive Storm to stop the onslaught of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. It turns out that, to no one’s surprise, Decisive Storm isn’t actually decisive.

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Almost a month ago, on March 25, the Saudis launched what they called Operation Decisive Storm to stop the onslaught of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. It turns out that, to no one’s surprise, Decisive Storm isn’t actually decisive.

The Saudis have been bombing rather freely, killing by UN estimates more than 600 people, at least half of them civilians. On March 31, for example, Saudi bombs hit a dairy factory killing 31 civilians, the kind of mistake that would be greeted with global outrage if it were committed by the Israeli Air Force but it is met with polite silence when it’s the Saudis.

Alas, while the Saudis are doing an efficient job of killing civilians (and thereby no doubt driving their relatives into the Houthis’ arms), there is little evidence that they are being effective in stopping the Houthis. Instead, the primary impact of their aerial campaign seems to be to create space for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to expand its sphere of control. To be sure, the U.S. continues to fly drones, now from Saudi soil, that continue to kill AQAP leaders. But that makes little difference on the ground where, with the disintegration of central authority, there is no longer an effective counterweight to AQAP.

As the New York Times reports: “Al Qaeda’s adversaries in Yemen are largely in disarray or distracted by other fighting. Military units have melted away or put up little resistance as Al Qaeda has advanced. The Houthis, a militia movement from northern Yemen that is considered Al Qaeda’s most determined foe, have been preoccupied with battles against rival militias across the country, and their fighters have been battered by aerial assaults from the Saudi-led Arab coalition, which is trying to restore the exiled government to power.”

As a result AQAP is on the march. The Times again: “Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen took control of a major airport and an oil export terminal in the southern part of the country on Thursday, expanding the resurgent militant group’s reach just two weeks after it seized the nearby city of Al Mukalla and emptied its bank and prison.”

Yemen, in short, is a mess and getting worse. And the U.S. role—carrying out a few drone strikes, while providing intelligence to the Saudis to facilitate their own bombing—seems to be almost entirely irrelevant. The Los Angeles Times reports, “Obama administration officials are increasingly uneasy about the U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led air war against rebel militias in Yemen, opening a potential rift between Washington and its ally in Riyadh.” But while the White House may be uneasy, there is no sign it is formulating a different strategy.

All of this is of a piece with the overall state of the war on terror: Both Shiite and Sunni jihadists are advancing across the Arab world while the U.S. fumbles for a response. Perhaps the next administration will formulate a more effective strategy, but unfortunately we can’t afford to wait more than 21 months before doing something about worsening conditions in this strategically vital region.

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ISIS and the Stalingradization of Yarmouk

In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

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In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

Yarmouk is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, not far from Damascus. The refugees, already struggling through Syria’s civil war, found themselves in an almost Stalingrad-like state this month when ISIS laid siege to the camp. CNN describes what happened next:

Besieged and bombed by Syrian forces for more than two years, the desperate residents of this Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus awoke in early April to a new, even more terrifying reality — ISIS militants seizing Yarmouk after defeating several militia groups operating in the area.

“They slaughtered them in the streets,” one Yarmouk resident, who asked not to be named, told CNN. “They (caught) three people and killed them in the street, in front of people. The Islamic State is now in control of almost all the camp.”

An estimated 18,000 refugees are now trapped inside Yarmouk, stuck between ISIS and Syrian regime forces in “the deepest circle of hell,” in the words of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. …

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front control about 90% of the camp. The organization also claims that the Syrian government has dropped barrel bombs on the camp in an effort to drive out armed groups.

The plight of the Yarmouk camp isn’t exactly capturing the world’s attention. And a big reason for that, as even Israel’s critics are now acknowledging, mirrors the Kurdish complaint to Goldberg. The Palestinians of Yarmouk are cursed with three barbaric enemies, none of them Jews. And so the world yawns.

Mehdi Hasan, who would never be mistaken for a Zionist shill, takes to the pages of the Guardian, which would never be mistaken for a pro-Israel bullhorn, to call out the hypocrisy. He explains the terrible condition of the camp and the horrors endured by its residents throughout the civil war. Then he (of course) engages in the requisite throat-clearing about Israel’s “crimes” and the “occupation of Palestine.”

But he finally gets around to his point:

Can we afford to stay in our deep slumber, occasionally awakening to lavishly condemn only Israel? Let’s be honest: how different, how vocal and passionate, would our reaction be if the people besieging Yarmouk were wearing the uniforms of the IDF?

Our selective outrage is morally unsustainable.

That is the first of three lessons of the story of Yarmouk: that the world cares about Palestinian suffering when it can be blamed on the Jews. For the sake of posterity, Hasan even runs down a list of atrocities perpetrated on the Palestinians by other Arabs. It’s not a new phenomenon, nor would anybody in his right mind try to deny it. At least Hasan wants to change it.

The second lesson is that the Palestinians and their advocates often have unexpected allies, and rather than embrace even a temporary alliance they live in denial. Hasan illustrates this as well when he writes:

So what, if anything, can be done? The usual coalition of neoconservative hawks and so-called liberal interventionists in the west want to bomb first and ask questions later, while the rest of us resort to a collective shrug: a mixture of indifference and despair. Few are willing to make the tough and unpopular case for a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict or, at least, a truce and a ceasefire, a temporary cessation of hostilities.

That is an Obama-level false choice hand in hand with a straw man. And it shows just how unwilling Hasan is to make common cause with people he dislikes politically. Neoconservatives are not nearly so pro-intervention in Syria as Hasan suggests (this is a common mistake that virtually every non-neoconservative who talks about the Syria conflict makes). But notice how quickly Hasan seems to change key: it’s a crisis, and has been a burgeoning disaster for years, and yet those who want to intervene are slammed as wanting to “ask questions later.”

Meanwhile, the negotiated track has failed. This is the reality: Assad has the upper hand, and ISIS has had success with their brutality, and neither one is ready to sit down at the table with representatives of Palestinian refugees to shake hands and end the war.

And that brings us to the third lesson, related to the second. Just as the Palestinians’ opponents are sometimes their best allies, the Palestinians’ friends often turn out to be anything but. There is no negotiated solution for the Palestinians of Yarmouk on the horizon because President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have already thrown them to the wolves.

The Obama administration, which happily hammers Israel for every perceived violation of Palestinian rights, has struck a bargain to reorder the Middle East by elevating Iran and its proxies, such as Assad. The plight of the Palestinians in Yarmouk does not interest this president and his team in the least. After all, it can’t be blamed on Israel.

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Where Terrorists Thrive and Why

Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

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Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

This increase in attacks is not a sign that Shabab is growing in power—rather, the reverse. But even though Shabab has been steadily losing ground on its home turf of Somalia, where it has been pushed back by an African Union military force supported by the U.S., it is far from finished as a fighting force. Essentially, Shabab is going back down Mao Zedong’s ladder of guerrilla warfare: from having fielded a quasi-conventional army that could control a Denmark-sized portion of Somalia, it is now reverting back to being primarily a terrorist and guerrilla force that is kept on the run by its better-armed enemies.

Staging attacks in Kenya, one of the nations that has committed military forces to fight Shabab in Somalia, is an easy way for the terrorists to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies and to garner the media attention that all terrorist groups covet. By terrorizing Kenya, Shabab risks destabilizing the economic and political powerhouse of East Africa—a country that the U.S. counts upon in the region and that President Obama (whose father was born there) is due to visit this summer.

Shabab’s latest atrocities demonstrate, if nothing else, the staying power, resilience, and attraction of Islamist insurgent groups—and the difficulty that corrupt and ramshackle states in the Third World have in stamping them out. The fundamental problem is that even with African Union help, the government of Somalia barely functions and cannot control all of its soil. The Kenyan state is more robust but also mired in problems of corruption, ineffectiveness, and poverty, which prevent it from effectively policing its 424-mile border with Somalia. Moreover, Kenya has a substantial Muslim minority (roughly 5.5 million people, or almost 9 percent of the population) that is not entirely immune to the siren song of radical Islam. Indeed one of the gunmen who carried out the university massacre last week turns out to have been a Kenyan who was the son of a local government official.

All of these problems are even more severe in Nigeria, which has a bigger Muslim population (almost half of the entire population) and a more corrupt and dysfunctional government than Kenya—which helps to explain why Boko Haram is on a rampage. Many of the same afflictions are evident in Yemen, which is why that country’s territory is being divided between two extremist groups—the Houthis, who are aligned with Shiite Iran, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is, like Shabab and Boko Haram, a Sunni jihadist organization.

There is not, to put it mildly, an obvious fix that the U.S. can administer to any of these problems. But as a general matter the lesson I would draw is that U.S. aid should be focused on improving the effectiveness of local government—not merely on hunting down individual terrorists who can be replaced all too easily if the territory in which they operate remains ungoverned. This is a lesson that runs counter to the preferred Obama strategy of sending drones and occasionally Special Operations Forces to take out bad guys, including Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Shabab, who was killed in an American airstrike last fall. Unfortunately his death has not eliminated the Shabab threat, any more than the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi eliminated al-Qaeda in Iraq (now renamed ISIS) or the death of Osama bin Laden eliminated al-Qaeda.

These terrorist groups are tough and tenacious and to truly defeat them the U.S. needs to work with local partners to implement comprehensive “population-centric” counterinsurgency plans of the kind that have succeeded in the past in countries as disparate as Iraq, Northern Ireland, Malaya, Colombia, and El Salvador. But that runs counter to the usual White House preference—especially pronounced in this White House, which resists putting any “boots on the ground”—to opt for quick and flashy technological fixes instead.

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Why Yemen Will Continue to Be a Mess

News that Iraqi forces have conquered Tikrit should be taken with caution: victory has been claimed before and it has not materialized. And if it is the case that ISIS fighters have been expelled from Tikrit, the triumph will belong to Iranian-backed Shiite militias which constitute the vast majority of the attacking force and which, in spite of U.S. claims, have not pulled back. Thus if U.S. airpower succeeds in routing ISIS out of this town, it will be a victory for Iran and its proxies.

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News that Iraqi forces have conquered Tikrit should be taken with caution: victory has been claimed before and it has not materialized. And if it is the case that ISIS fighters have been expelled from Tikrit, the triumph will belong to Iranian-backed Shiite militias which constitute the vast majority of the attacking force and which, in spite of U.S. claims, have not pulled back. Thus if U.S. airpower succeeds in routing ISIS out of this town, it will be a victory for Iran and its proxies.

Whatever its impact, the offensive in Tikrit contains an important lesson for the Saudi/Egyptian offensive now occurring in Yemen: namely, that it is not enough to hit your enemies from the air as the Saudis are now doing with the Iranian-backed Houthi militia. Military success requires a combined-arms assault—i.e., there must be ground troops in place to exploit the opening created by modern airpower. In Tikrit, as previously mentioned, most of those ground troops are Iranian-backed militiamen. What about in Yemen?

There are troops still loyal to deposed president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who are now battling Houthi fighters in the streets of Aden, but it is far from clear that, even with Saudi air support, they will be able roll back the Houthi militia—not to mention al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is also a major threat but one that the Saudis aren’t focusing on at the moment. Perhaps there is coordination between the Saudi air strikes and Hadi’s ground troops, but so far it isn’t apparent. And perhaps the Saudis are providing support in terms of arms and training to Hadi’s troops, but that too isn’t apparent.

What is apparent is that the Saudis are bombing pretty freely and not in a very precise way. The latest reports indicate that Saudi aircraft struck the Al Mazraq refugee camp, killing at least 19 people, including women and children. If it had been Israeli warplanes dropping those bombs, it would have been described as a war crime and pressure would have been applied at the United Nations to stop this barbarous assault. Because it’s the Saudis, the international community will not say or do much, but there is still the real risk that by inflicting needless civilian casualties the Saudis will alienate potential allies and drive them into the arms of the Houthis or AQAP for protection.

The Saudis, and the Egyptians who are helping them, have made some threats about sending ground forces to clean out Yemen but they do not appear to be doing so, at least not for the time being—which may be just as well. We have all seen the difficulties encountered over the last decade by U.S. troops—the best in the world—fighting guerrillas in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no reason to expect that the challenge of pacifying Yemen, a notoriously lawless land, would be any less, but there is a great deal of reason to worry that Egyptian and Saudi troops don’t have nearly the combat capacity of U.S. forces.

The Saudis have essentially no combat experience and what combat experience the Egyptians have comes from internal security operations against the Muslim Brotherhood and various jihadist groups in the Sinai. It is a very different matter to project force into a foreign country—one that is on Saudi Arabia’s border, admittedly, but that is 1,400 miles from Cairo—and to put down a foreign insurgency. The Egyptians last tried that trick in Yemen in the 1960s and they lost at a cost of 25,000 fatalities. The danger is that if the Saudis and Egyptians were to go in on the ground and if the campaign were to go badly for them, the resulting backlash could destabilize the Sisi regime and the Saudi royal family.

The fear of getting embroiled in what could prove to be a quagmire may very well deter the Saudis and Egyptians from sending ground forces to Yemen, but failing an outside intervention it’s hard to see how it will be possible to defeat the Houthis, much less AQAP, and pacify Yemen. The best bet is for the U.S., working with the Saudis and other allies, to put a lot more time, energy, and resources into training Hadi’s troops than they have hitherto done, but such training programs are protracted affairs and are unlikely to produce results unless the regime the troops are fighting for is widely perceived to be legitimate—which is probably not the case in Yemen. Hadi, after all, took office after the overthrow of the previous dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was once fighting the Houthis but is now in league with them.

Sadly Yemen is a mess and likely to stay that way. The best bet may simply be that the Saudis, through the judicious application of air power, can prevent Iran from consolidating its grip on that country. But if the Saudis have a strategy for actually defeating the Houthis (and AQAP!) and pacifying Yemen, it remains a closely guarded secret.

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Was the Houthi Takeover in Yemen Inevitable?

Yemen is in free-fall. Its former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was a cynic, and his vice president and post-Arab Spring successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, indecisive. Throw into the mix ungovernable spaces, southern separatism, and an al-Qaeda branch, and the Houthis are simply the icing on a cake of dysfunction.

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Yemen is in free-fall. Its former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was a cynic, and his vice president and post-Arab Spring successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, indecisive. Throw into the mix ungovernable spaces, southern separatism, and an al-Qaeda branch, and the Houthis are simply the icing on a cake of dysfunction.

The Houthis, of course, have not always been Iranian proxies. Just a few years ago, the Iranian press largely ignored them. They might have been Shi‘ite, but they were Zaydi rather than Twlever Shi‘ites. Theologically, this means that they diverged in their recognition of who was the rightful Imam somewhere toward the end of the seventh century AD. In reality, while technically Shi‘ite, the Houthis have long hewn closer to the Sunnis in terms of jurisprudence. When I bumped into a Houthi delegation in Karbala, Iraq, late last fall, some joked that they were there to get up to speed on the Shi‘ite credentials they had lacked for centuries.

That said, it’s hard to deny Iranian influence among the Houthis, circa 2015 at least. When looking back over the past few months, the rise of the Houthis to their current position seems far from inevitable. The Houthis waited several weeks on the outskirts of Sana’a before taking the capital in September 2014. Even then, however, they waited several months before staging the coup against Hadi, never mind driving southward toward Aden.

Many analysts have compared the Houthis to Lebanese Hezbollah. They are both members of the Shi‘ite minority within their respective countries, but have accepted Iranian largesse and training and, apparently, at times command and control. There are major differences, of course. The Houthis are far from as disciplined and organized as Hezbollah although, to be fair, Hezbollah has more than a 30-year head start on that. Nor did Hezbollah ever try to digest the whole country as it appears the Houthis now aspire, at least since late January.

The Houthis probably never imagined getting this far. At first, it seemed as if the Houthis were simply taking a page from Hezbollah’s 2008 playbook. That year, Hezbollah deployed its fighters to the center of Beirut and turned its guns on fellow Lebanese, Sunni, Christian, Druze, and Shi‘ite. Hezbollah did not stage a coup, however, choosing instead to accept veto power over the Lebanese government. Why take responsibility for governance, they seem to have figured, when they can blame the government for any ills, not have to hold themselves accountable for the delivery of services, and prevent their political opponents from acting in any way that undercuts their organizational interests?

So why have the Houthis pressed on while Hezbollah stopped? Alas, the answer is more opportunity than naked ambition. At every key moment, the Houthis paused. They stopped outside Sana’a waiting for the United States and the wider world to react, to send some signal that they should not push on. There was none. Then, they entered Sana’a, but then stood down. Again, they were waiting for a response which never came. Fearing no consequence for their actions, they next staged their coup. Then, they pushed further south and eventually came to Yemeni military bases. But here, too, they paused. Some in the military and State Department have suggested that if only the United States had reinforced its presence rather than evacuated it, the Houthis and their sponsors would have understood they could go no farther. I’m not on the ground in Yemen, and certainly am not privy to the intelligence surrounding the Houthi advance, so that’s just speculation, albeit conjecture based on those who are or have been there in recent weeks and months. Regardless, the Houthis advanced, seized the bases, and, along with them, sensitive U.S. intelligence information.

The Houthis and their Iranian sponsors may have pushed too far this time, however, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and like-minded Arab countries decided enough was enough. Nevertheless, in hindsight, it’s pretty incredible: One of the most amazing things about the complete and utter strategic collapse of the United States in the Middle East is that even U.S. enemies wait to see a response and seem unable to believe their luck when they understand that none will be forthcoming. Seldom if ever are ice hockey metaphors made with regard to Yemen, but there’s always a first time: When we look at how the strategic situation plays itself out there, it’s almost as if President Obama was coaching an ice hockey team and simply decided to pull his goalie in the first period for no reason whatsoever, handing his opponent an effective victory.

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Yemen’s Lesson For the Future of Terror

“Thanks to sacrifice and service of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is winding down, al Qaeda has been decimated, Osama bin Laden is dead.” —President Obama, Nov. 1, 2012

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” —President Obama, Sept. 10, 2014

“The United States has evacuated its remaining personnel, including about 100 special operations forces, from Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation there, U.S. officials said on Saturday. The U.S. pullout…  marked a further setback in U.S. counterterrorism efforts against a powerful al Qaeda branch in the country.” —Reuters, March 21

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“Thanks to sacrifice and service of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is winding down, al Qaeda has been decimated, Osama bin Laden is dead.” —President Obama, Nov. 1, 2012

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” —President Obama, Sept. 10, 2014

“The United States has evacuated its remaining personnel, including about 100 special operations forces, from Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation there, U.S. officials said on Saturday. The U.S. pullout…  marked a further setback in U.S. counterterrorism efforts against a powerful al Qaeda branch in the country.” —Reuters, March 21

The above items are largely self-explanatory. Far from decimated, Al Qaeda is, in combination with the Iranian-backed Houthi militia, chasing the US out of Yemen, which, far from being a shining example of US counter-terrorism policy in action, is an abysmal failure. This is a serious blow to US national security because Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has long been judged the Al Qaeda affiliate most interested in striking the US homeland. Thus the attacks on AQAP that Special Operations Forces have carried out in Yemen have been necessary to prevent terrorist attacks on American civilians.

We will not be entirely helpless to fight AQAP even now–there is a Special Operations base in Djibouti directly across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen and there is reportedly a secret CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia. But even if Predators and other aircraft can still reach targets in Yemen with ease, it will be harder to identify high-value targets without any American personnel on the background–and you can bet that if Embassy and Special Operations personnel have pulled out, so have CIA, NSA, and other intelligence officers.

The only other point to make is that this is a cautionary tale for the future of Afghanistan. President Obama seems to think that it would still be possible for a small number of US Special Operations Forces to be based in Afghanistan in order to target Al Qaeda personnel in Afghanistan and Pakistan even if all other US forces are pulled out after 2016. Yemen shows why this is a very bad idea–not even the most skilled SOF forces can operate in a country that is in utter chaos as Yemen is today. Afghanistan needs to be minimally stable in order to be a useful platform for launching SOF strikes, and to keep it minimally stable will require a long-term commitment of at least 10,000 US troops. But to make that kind of commitment Obama will have to admit that, contrary to his earlier boasts, the war in Afghanistan is not “winding down,” just as Al Qaeda is not “decimated,” and Yemen is not an example of “successfully” fighting terrorists.

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The Disastrous World Obama Has Helped Create

Remember the good old days, when, in the words of President Obama, al-Qaeda was on the “path to defeat” (2011) and ISIS was a “jayvee team” (2014)? Well, those days were never nearly as good as he claimed–and things are much worse now than they were.

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Remember the good old days, when, in the words of President Obama, al-Qaeda was on the “path to defeat” (2011) and ISIS was a “jayvee team” (2014)? Well, those days were never nearly as good as he claimed–and things are much worse now than they were.

The Islamic State has now taken control of much of Syria and large parts of Iraq. Libya has descended into violence and chaos; it’s becoming a terrorist haven. The U.S.-backed government in Yemen has collapsed. And Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based militant group, has taken an oath of allegiance to the Islamic State, reinforcing fears that ISIS is expanding its support well beyond its base in Syria and Iraq.

These developments have created a rising sense of gloom among current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials. The Washington Post provides a useful summary:

  • In congressional testimony recently, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said that terrorism trend lines were worse “than at any other point in history.” (Mr. Clapper testified last month that more than 20,000 foreign fighters have entered Syria, including at least 3,400 from the West — “a pool of operatives who potentially have access to the United States.”)
  • Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in the Middle East, told participants on a counter­terrorism strategy call that he regarded the Islamic State as a greater menace than al-Qaeda ever was.
  • Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA under President Obama, said he had come to doubt that he would live to see the end of al-Qaeda and its spawn. “This is long term,” he said. “My children’s generation and my grandchildren’s generation will still be fighting this fight.”
  • “You’ve got a much bigger counterterrorism problem than you had a few years ago,” said John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA. Terrorist groups “have never had territory of this magnitude. Never had this much money. Never this much access to Western passport holders. Never had the narrative they have now.”

All of this illustrates how farcical the upbeat assessments by Mr. Obama were.

I’d also urge people to recall the president’s June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, where Mr. Obama promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. Mr. Obama’s ascent to the presidency would usher in an unprecedented era of cooperation, he told us. “We have the power to make the world we seek,” the president declared. This came after Mr. Obama, during the 2008 campaign, promised to “repair this world.”

It turns out that by “mutual respect” and “repair this world” Mr. Obama really meant “disdain and contempt” and “do substantial, durable damage to it.”

President Obama, through a pernicious combination of staggering ineptness and intention–he is the first president of the post-World War II generation who does not believe American power is a force for good in the world–has done incalculable harm when it comes to creating a stable world order that advances justice and upholds human dignity.

As the Post story reminds us, DNI James Clapper was asked whether he stood by his assertion that the country was beset by more crises and threats that at any other time in his 50-year career. “Yes, sir,” he said, “and if I’m here next year, I’ll probably say it again.”

Welcome to Barack Obama’s New Beginning.

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Obama’s Anti-ISIS AUMF: A Classic Muddle

Yesterday I wrote “here we go again” with President Obama agonizing over another major foreign-policy decision–whether or not to arm Ukraine–even as our enemies push ahead with great determination and cunning. Today we are seeing yet another Obama MO: the tendency, once endless administration deliberations are finished, to produce a split-the-difference solution that doesn’t accomplish as much as it should.

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Yesterday I wrote “here we go again” with President Obama agonizing over another major foreign-policy decision–whether or not to arm Ukraine–even as our enemies push ahead with great determination and cunning. Today we are seeing yet another Obama MO: the tendency, once endless administration deliberations are finished, to produce a split-the-difference solution that doesn’t accomplish as much as it should.

I refer to the president’s request to Congress to pass an Authorization for the Limited Use of Military Force (ALUMF) against ISIS. Now, the U.S. has been bombing ISIS since August and the administration has been talking about how to produce an AUMF that will allow Congress to weigh in without unduly cramping the president’s options. The result of all these deliberations? A request that allows the president “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as the President determines to be necessary and appropriate against ISIL or associated persons or forces.” So far so good: this is the kind of robust authority that the president needs to fight this band of jihadist fanatics.

But then come the limitations. First, the authority does not extend to “the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground operations.” Second, the authority will expire in three years. Presumably these are sops intended to appeal to Democrats in Congress and a few Republican isolationists who are upset about the prospect of the U.S. waging “another” war in the Middle East. But do they make any sense?

The way the first restriction is worded–what the heck is an “enduring offensive ground operation” and how does it differ from a “temporary defensive ground operation”?–will, admittedly, make it largely meaningless. But still: the intent is clear and it’s to prevent the U.S. from engaging in ground combat against ISIS even if there is no good tactical alternative to such action.

Likewise the deadline–a favorite Obama limitation on the use of military force–is not as binding as it sounds. After all, if Obama has been able to fight ISIS for more than six months based on his executive authority and with no AUMF, it stands to reason that a future president could continue such action even after the AUMF expires. But the symbolism is clear–it is meant to imply that the U.S. will end its anti-ISIS operation within three years, whether that group is defeated or not.

This may be welcome to the ears of anti-war Democrats, but to our allies and enemies in the Middle East this, along with the restriction on the use of ground combat forces, sends a message of irresolution that will make it tougher for our troops to accomplish their mission.

At least we can be grateful that Obama is not seeking the repeal or rewrite of the unlimited post-9/11 AUMF against al-Qaeda, something he has been talking about doing since at least 2013. The last thing the U.S. military and intelligence community need are greater limitations on their ability to combat the monsters who burn and behead hostages.

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The “Yemen Model” Goes Down in Flames

Yemen has been cited a couple of times in recent years by the Obama administration as a model for what it wants to accomplish in the Middle East. In 2011, after an Arab Spring uprising in Yemen, the administration helped to engineer the peaceful transfer of power from longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh to vice president (and staunch American ally) Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. This was hailed as a model of democracy ascendant. More recently in September 2014 Obama hailed Yemen, along with Somalia, as a model of the kind of “small footprint” approach he favored for fighting terrorism–sending American advisers and drones but not combat troops.

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Yemen has been cited a couple of times in recent years by the Obama administration as a model for what it wants to accomplish in the Middle East. In 2011, after an Arab Spring uprising in Yemen, the administration helped to engineer the peaceful transfer of power from longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh to vice president (and staunch American ally) Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. This was hailed as a model of democracy ascendant. More recently in September 2014 Obama hailed Yemen, along with Somalia, as a model of the kind of “small footprint” approach he favored for fighting terrorism–sending American advisers and drones but not combat troops.

The last few days have brutally exposed the falsity of these claims, which is no doubt why Yemen went entirely unmentioned in the State of the Union. The Houthi militia, a Shiite group armed and supported by Iran, has overrun Sana, the capital, and seized the presidential palace. It only agreed to release President Hadi after he agreed to share power with them. This does not sit well with Sunni tribes who are threatening war on the Houthis, which will undoubtedly draw them into league with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group which has taken responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, the main sponsor of the Hadi government and major adversary of Iran and its proxies, is vowing to cut off all aid to Yemen as long as the Houthis are in control. Yemen, in short, is on the verge of plunging into a Libya-like or Syria-like abyss, which would certainly make it representative of Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East but not in the way the president intended.

The administration in recent weeks has softened its anti-Houthi rhetoric. Many inside and outside the administration are tempted to see the Houthis as allies because they are fighting AQAP. This is a big mistake. The Houthis are, like Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored militia whose slogan is “God is great; death to America; death to Israel.” They are hardly potential allies for Washington. Any attempt to align American policy with them will only drive Sunnis further into the camp of al-Qaeda–exactly the same phenomenon we have recently witnessed in Syria and Iraq where a perceived American tilt toward Iran and its murderous proxies has driven many Sunnis to side for protection with ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria.

There is no easy or obvious solution in Yemen beyond the continuing need to support relative moderates such as Hadi and to press for political solutions that can work rather than to simply be content with killing a few terrorists with air strikes–which seems to be the Obama administration’s preferred approach to the entire Middle East. The administration’s policy can be characterized as general lethargy and disengagement punctuated by periodic outbursts of carefully targeted violence. This is a policy that cannot possibly work, and it hasn’t. The administration hasn’t created the chaos that is gripping the Middle East–chaos that is a Petri dish for extremism–but it certainly hasn’t done much to stop it.

Even France’s president, Francois Hollande, is lambasting Obama for creating a power vacuum in the Middle East. When a French socialist, of all people, is attacking him for not being interventionist enough, that should tell Obama something. But if the State of the Union is any indication, he is feeling too cocky at the moment, because of better economic news, to seriously take on board and address the catastrophic failure of his foreign policy in Yemen and beyond.

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Every Presidential Candidate Should Pledge Release of Missing 9/11 Pages

More than 13 years have passed since al-Qaeda terrorists killed almost 3,000 Americans in al-Qaeda’s single-most devastating attack. In the interim, NATO forces collapsed the Pakistani-backed Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Even if Afghanistan remains problematic, millions of Afghans have defied threats to march repeatedly to the polls and Afghanistan last year had its first ever-democratic transfer of power. Al-Qaeda has also changed. President Obama launched an operation that killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. And the United States has changed as well. There has, of course, been a change in administration (and, for that matter, a change in king in Saudi Arabia as well). More astounding, nearly three-quarters of U.S. senators and representatives entered office after 9/11. There are 35 million more Americans today than there were on 9/11, the equivalent of folding Canada’s population into that of the United States.

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More than 13 years have passed since al-Qaeda terrorists killed almost 3,000 Americans in al-Qaeda’s single-most devastating attack. In the interim, NATO forces collapsed the Pakistani-backed Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Even if Afghanistan remains problematic, millions of Afghans have defied threats to march repeatedly to the polls and Afghanistan last year had its first ever-democratic transfer of power. Al-Qaeda has also changed. President Obama launched an operation that killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. And the United States has changed as well. There has, of course, been a change in administration (and, for that matter, a change in king in Saudi Arabia as well). More astounding, nearly three-quarters of U.S. senators and representatives entered office after 9/11. There are 35 million more Americans today than there were on 9/11, the equivalent of folding Canada’s population into that of the United States.

And yet, so much remains inexplicably unknown about that day. President George W. Bush redacted 28 pages of the 9/11 Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities report. A number of congressmen have read the redacted pages. Thomas Massie, a Republican representing Kentucky’s 4th Congressional district, said, “I had to stop every two or three pages and rearrange my perception of history.” He added, however, “There is nothing in there that would affect our national security,” and suggested it was a desire not to embarrass some states that led the Bush administration to withhold the Commission’s findings. Steven Lynch, a Democratic representing Massachusetts’ 8th Congressional district, agreed. “These documents speak for themselves. We have a situation where an extensive investigation was conducted, but then the Bush [administration] decided for whatever purposes to excise 28 pages from the report,” he said, adding: “Maybe there were legitimate reasons to keep this classified. But that time has long passed.” Former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida has also been at the forefront of efforts to declassify and release those 28 pages.

Lawrence Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, addressed the issue of the 28-pages in a recent New Yorker article:

A former staff member of the 9/11 Commission who is intimately familiar with the material in the twenty-eight pages recommends against their declassification, warning that the release of inflammatory and speculative information could “ramp up passions” and damage U.S.-Saudi relations. Stephen Lynch agrees that the twenty-eight pages were buried in order to preserve the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. “Part of the reason it was classified was the fact that it would create a visceral response,” he told me. “There would be a backlash.”

Both Republican and Democratic administrations abuse declassification. Simply put, the purpose of classification is to protect sources and methods. Protection from political embarrassment and exposure of hypocrisy are not legal reasons to shield information from the public. Now, certainly, some of the information in the 28-pages might have been derived from sensitive sources, but more than 13 years on, the idea that keeping them secret would protect methods is risible. If the U.S. intelligence community and its capabilities haven’t evolved in the last 13 years, then the real scandal is how exposed and insecure the United States really is. Fortunately, however, the intelligence community has largely kept up with the times.

If any Saudi officials were culpable in the 9/11 attacks—or members of any other government—then the least of what they should be concerned about is embarrassment and public antipathy for their actions. The passage of time already inures the Saudis to the rage that might result; after all, Riyadh can claim that it is reformed and changed. While Saudi counter-terror cooperation was half-hearted at best up to and perhaps in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, once Saudi Arabia began experiencing blowback from the monster it helped create and fund, it became a far more honest partner. Saudi Arabia today is no Pakistan, Qatar, or Turkey. But no country should get a free pass for the involvement of any of its citizens, princes, or officials in an attack on the United States. In effect, arbitrarily classifying material or delaying its declassification is politicization of intelligence, plain and simple.

As for the bin Laden documents: President Obama rhetorically both casts himself as the anti-Bush and has promised to be the most transparent president ever. And yet, when it comes to opacity on issues of terror, Obama is really no different than his predecessor. The issue for Obama is not simply the 28 pages. When Navy SEALS raided bin Laden’s compound, they removed millions of files. The second the SEALS landed in Abbottabad, there began a countdown on the utility of the intelligence seized.

The Obama administration, however, has ignored the bin Laden cache’s operational expiration date, and released only 17 documents. While still chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Mike Rogers argued that far more than the 17 documents might be released, and that the United States could learn from their contents. Administrations should stop underestimating the American ability to handle complexity and deal with the reality of the world, rather than the simplistic notion of adversaries and diplomacy that too often they seek to project.

On January 20, 2017, a new president will take the oath of office. Already, a handful of Democrats and perhaps a dozen Republicans are exploring their options, starting the carefully calibrated game of footsie with the press. Journalists should not let any candidate off the hook. Every aspirant to the presidency should pledge him or herself to full transparency and to complete the historical reckoning from 9/11 that all the victims, their families, and, indeed, every American deserves.

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Obama’s Pass-the-Buck Foreign Policy

So how’s the anti-ISIS campaign the administration launched back in August going? Not so well, as a couple of news articles make clear.

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So how’s the anti-ISIS campaign the administration launched back in August going? Not so well, as a couple of news articles make clear.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Iraqis are frustrated with the U.S. campaign which they deride as “too slow and too small.” The U.S. has been especially remiss in not doing more to mobilize Sunni tribes; most of our aid is going to Kurdish forces, even though they can’t take and hold Sunni Arab areas, and to government security forces, even though they are deeply penetrated by Iranian militias that are anathema to Sunnis.

The fact that the U.S. isn’t doing more is leading to the growth of conspiracy theories which hold that the U.S. secretly wants ISIS to succeed. And this despite the fact that there has been some progress in Iraq in checking ISIS’s advance and even pushing it out of some contested areas–if not out of Mosul and Fallujah, the major cities it captured last year.

The situation is even worse in Syria. Another Journal article notes that “jihadist fighters have enlarged their hold in Syria since the U.S. started hitting the group’s strongholds there in September.” About the only thing the U.S. has accomplished in Syria is to prevent the border town of Kobani, held by Kurds, from falling to ISIS. Everywhere else ISIS remains on the offensive. The fact that ISIS enjoys a safe haven in Syria also makes it virtually impossible to defeat it in Iraq: If you squeeze too hard in Iraq, ISIS fighters can always retreat and regroup across the border.

Much of the problem in Syria is that the U.S. has no reliable proxy on the ground to coordinate and exploit air strikes. Yet the Obama administration still refuses to launch the kind of crash training program for the Free Syrian Army that it should have undertaken years ago. Nor will it declare a no-fly zone to prevent Assad’s air force from bombing moderate rebels or set up buffer zones along Syria’s borders where anti-Assad forces can mobilize a more moderate alternative to ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. Admittedly, given the administration’s scandalous and stupid neglect of Syria, it may be too late to accomplish any of this–but the attempt must still be made.

The fact that the administration isn’t doing more suggests that President Obama may well be content to run out the clock on his administration–only two more years to go!–and hand off the problem to his successor. But while that may be the most politically expedient path, it is not a course likely to defeat the jihadist menace that looms not only over the Middle East but over France and the U.S., among other Western states, as well.

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Interplay Between Turkey and al-Qaeda Revealed?

Over at the American Enterprise Institute website, I argue that the Turkish government has been the biggest hypocrite to send a representative to march against terrorism in Paris because, well, Turkey is pretty much a state sponsor of terror. An interlocutor in Turkey responds by pointing to new documents which appear to show a much more direct cooperation between the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

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Over at the American Enterprise Institute website, I argue that the Turkish government has been the biggest hypocrite to send a representative to march against terrorism in Paris because, well, Turkey is pretty much a state sponsor of terror. An interlocutor in Turkey responds by pointing to new documents which appear to show a much more direct cooperation between the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

Such documents—which appear to be legitimate and the leaking of which the Turkish government has responded to by trying to shut down accounts housing them, and perhaps Twitter and Facebook as well—are, according to initial reports, the statements of those questioned when the Turkish military raided trucks heading into Syria carrying arms and weaponry. The trucks, it turns out, were driven by employees of the MIT. The arms were apparently destined for more radical groups fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

When the police stopped the trucks, the Erdoğan regime was furious, and ordered the press not to report on the incident, declaring it “a state secret.” Alas, just as dictators in North Korea, Iran, Eritrea, or the former Soviet Union have learned, it is impossible to completely control news and the flow of information.

Turkey is not simply wrong on policy; it appears to be a full-blown sponsor of terrorism. Simply put, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) likely would not exist if it were not for Turkish assistance and Qatari financing. At the very least, the United States, every member of the European Union, and every Arab state should call Turkish ambassadors in and read them the riot act. If the documents are real, Turkey should no longer avoid designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. And it’s long past time the United States and its Canadian and European allies began a serious dialogue about Turkey’s role in NATO.

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ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Deadly Rivalry

There is little ideological or moral difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS. Both are fanatical terrorist organizations with a Sunni jihadist ideology and complete disdain for life. ISIS was even once affiliated with al-Qaeda, having been previously known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. But now they are deadly rivals. The al-Nusra Front is the official al-Qaeda franchise in Syria and it is at war with ISIS. Like Apple and Samsung or Adidas and Nike, al-Qaeda and ISIS are locked in a battle for market share. Those companies compete by bringing to market better products. So do terrorist organizations, only their “products” are high-profile atrocities.

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There is little ideological or moral difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS. Both are fanatical terrorist organizations with a Sunni jihadist ideology and complete disdain for life. ISIS was even once affiliated with al-Qaeda, having been previously known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. But now they are deadly rivals. The al-Nusra Front is the official al-Qaeda franchise in Syria and it is at war with ISIS. Like Apple and Samsung or Adidas and Nike, al-Qaeda and ISIS are locked in a battle for market share. Those companies compete by bringing to market better products. So do terrorist organizations, only their “products” are high-profile atrocities.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre, now claimed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in a video entitled “Vengeance for the Prophet: A Message Regarding the Blessed Battle of Paris,” should be seen in this light. It is, if nothing else, a powerful reminder to the world, after having read about little but ISIS for the past year, that al-Qaeda still matters. ISIS may have made global headlines with grisly beheading videos but it has never struck in a major Western capital before.

It is still unclear, of course, the extent to which AQAP was involved in the attack. Its level of involvement was probably less than al-Qaeda’s role in 9/11 or Lashkar e Taiba’s role in the Mumbai massacre, but both of the murderous Kouachi brothers, Said and Cherif, apparently traveled to Yemen to train with AQAP. This helps to explain their familiarity with AK-47s, even if their tradecraft always remains questionable–they left an identification card in their getaway car.

And even if AQAP was largely responsible for the attack, one of the jihadists killed in Paris–Amedy Coulibaly–claimed allegiance with ISIS. One suspects that in jihadist circles this is a branding statement similar to one’s choice of smart phone or warm-up jacket.

In some ways the Paris attacks may be seen to represent a potent new style of terror–not as complex as 9/11 or Mumbai but not an entirely “lone wolf” style attack, such as the hostage-taking in Sydney last month. The attack is linked to a global terrorist organization but was carried out by homegrown extremists. This is a model that, in business parlance, is easily “scalable”–there are, unfortunately, lots of radicalized Muslims in Europe and even some in the United States, and many of them can travel to places like Pakistan and Yemen where it is easy to link up with major terrorist groups.

The Western response must be twofold.

First, do more to shatter groups such as ISIS and AQAP–to prevent them from controlling territory that they can use as a training base for foreign jihadists. We are very far from achieving this objective today, given widespread reports that 1,000 foreigners a month are traveling to Syria to join the fight. Defeats for AQAP and ISIS also dim their luster and make it less likely they will attract more adherents in the West–no one wants to join a lost cause, not even a would-be suicide bomber.

Second, do more to track down and stop homegrown jihadists before they strike again. The French security services, for all their effectiveness (and it is considerable), failed in this regard because all three culprits had been in and out of custody. All three were known to be violent jihadists yet they were free to roam at will, apparently falling off the French radar screen because the security services were so overwhelmed with tracking fighters heading to and from Syria. The French government is right to push for expanded surveillance powers. The U.S., Britain, and other frontline states should follow suit–or at the very least not stop effective surveillance programs which became so unfairly controversial after Edward Snowden’s treasonous revelations.

France, the U.S., Britain, and other states also need to think about how they should act once jihadists are identified–is it possible to detain them or even expel them before there is solid evidence that they are about to carry out a massacre? Such actions may seem antithetical to the idea of free speech–no one should be punished for their beliefs. And there is no question that abuses have been carried out in the past in the name of preventing terrorism, for instance during the Red Scare of 1919-1920 when hundreds of socialists and anarchists were deported.

But courts do grant protective orders against those who are believed to be violent without waiting for them to carry out an actual violent act. Might it be time to institute some similar system with those who advocate terrorism–not fundamentalist Islam but actual terrorist violence? I’m not sure of the answer, because this would raise legitimate civil-liberties concerns, but it is at least a question worth exploring in the wake of attacks such as the one in Paris–or at the Boston Marathon. We cannot just sit back as ISIS and al-Qaeda play out their deadly rivalry at our expense.

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No “Clash of Civilizations”

The terrorists who carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris–Saïd and Chérif Kouachi–were of course Muslims, born in Paris to parents of Algerian origin. So too Amedy Coulibaly, who shot hostages in a kosher supermarket before being killed by police, was a Muslim, in his case of African origin. Their acts were applauded by various jihadists and fellow travelers around the world who praised them for “avenging the prophet.”

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The terrorists who carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris–Saïd and Chérif Kouachi–were of course Muslims, born in Paris to parents of Algerian origin. So too Amedy Coulibaly, who shot hostages in a kosher supermarket before being killed by police, was a Muslim, in his case of African origin. Their acts were applauded by various jihadists and fellow travelers around the world who praised them for “avenging the prophet.”

It would be easy, therefore, to conclude that this terrorist atrocity, the latest of many, is symptomatic of a general Muslim assault on the West–that the world is dividing, as Samuel Huntington famously predicted, into a battle of civilizations and that “our” civilization is destined to be at war with “theirs.” But that easy us-vs.-them narrative is complicated by a few facts.

Such as the fact that Ahmed Merabet, a police officer gunned down during the Charlie Hebdo attack, was himself a Muslim of Algerian origin. His brother said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims. Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”

So too Lassana Bathily of Mali, the employee who hid 15 people at the kosher supermarket from Coulibaly, was a Muslim. As was Mohamed Douhane, one of the senior police commanders directing the response to the attacks. He even visited Israel in 2008 along with a delegation of other French Muslim leaders.

What to make of these contrasting facts? Is Islam a religion of peace, as many claim, or is it a religion dedicated to making war on unbelievers and infidels, as others assert? Are the terrorists the true Muslims–or are the law-abiding French Muslims truer to their faith?

The answer is “yes.” Both are true at once. Islam, like every other broad-based religion, is subject to numerous conflicting interpretations. Some use it to justify hateful violence; others use it to justify a path of nonviolence. It is impossible to say which is the true version because Islam is a decentralized faith that, unlike Catholicism, has no pope to rule on matters of theology.

Surveys indicate that the broad majority of Muslims around the world are not in the violent, jihadist camp. A Pew poll in 2013, for example, found that across 11 Muslim countries, 67 percent of those surveyed said they are somewhat or very concerned about Islamic extremism and 57 percent said they had an unfavorable view of al-Qaeda while 51 percent had an unfavorable view of the Taliban. Moreover, “about three-quarters or more in Pakistan (89%), Indonesia (81%), Nigeria (78%) and Tunisia (77%), say suicide bombings or other acts of violence that target civilians are never justified.” Indeed the only place where a majority of Muslims justified suicide bombings was in the Palestinian territories.

It seems safe, then, to say that most Muslims around the world are moderate. But there is a substantial minority of extremists which, in absolute numbers, pose a serious threat, given the fact that there are an estimated 1.2 billion Muslims in the world. While those extremists pose a substantial threat to the West, they present an even bigger threat to fellow Muslims. The vast majority of victims of Islamist terrorist organization such as the Taliban, ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah have been fellow Muslims. Such organizations, after all, are principally bent on dominating their own societies, thus by definition oppressing and killing fellow Muslims; they generally attack the West only as an auxiliary line of operations. One of the truly disturbing aspects of modern-day Islamist movements is the ease with which they declare their Muslim enemies to be “takfir” (i.e. apostates) and therefore liable to be killed.

What is going on, then, is not a war between civilizations but a war within Islamic civilization pitting an armed, militant minority against a peaceful but easily cowed majority. Any talk of waging “war on Islam” is thus deeply misguided and harmful. What we in the West need to do is to help moderate Muslims wage war on the radicals. Sound impossible? Far from it. Just look at how successfully (if brutally) Muslim states such as Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria have fought to repress Islamist movements–or how courageously so many Iraqi and Afghan security officers have fought against Islamist extremists. (They would fight even more effectively if their own organizations were less corrupt and more effective.)

The “us-vs.-them” narrative only distracts from what needs to be done while playing into the terrorists’ hands–that is after all, precisely the narrative they seek to promulgate to rally Muslims to their side.

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Paris Terror and the Flawed “Yemen Model”

Back in September, when President Obama was announcing his strategy for coping with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, he eschewed sending U.S. combat troops. Instead, he said, “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

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Back in September, when President Obama was announcing his strategy for coping with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, he eschewed sending U.S. combat troops. Instead, he said, “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

This caused many commentators, including me, to do a double take. As I wrote at the time, “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.”

Now the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris brings further evidence of how flawed the Yemen model actually is. Considerable evidence has emerged of links between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the gunmen who murdered 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices. Said Kouachi, one of the two brothers involved, was said to have visited Yemen in 2011 for training, and before launching the assault either he or his brother told bystanders, “Tell the media we are Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”

It is still unknown whether the actual operation was directed from Yemen, but it was at least inspired from there–a word I use advisedly because a recent issue Inspire, the AQAP glossy magazine, had listed Charlie Hebdo’s now-deceased editor, Stephane Charbonnier, on its hit list of foreigners who supposedly insult Islam. The headline on the article: “A Bullet a Day Keeps the Infidel Away — Defend the Prophet Mohammed.” Mercifully, the Kouachi brothers are now said to have been killed by French police but the problems besetting Yemen will not be eliminated so quickly or easily.

AQAP is actually only one of the major problems undermining the “Yemen model.” The other major problem is the Houthis, a terrorist group whose members are Zaydis (a Shiite offshoot). They are supported by Iran’s Quds Force. They are making major territorial gains as well, coming close to controlling the entire state even if they don’t control all of its territory. Yemen, in fact, is coming apart at the seams in the same sort of violence between Shiite and Sunni extremists which has also devastated Syria and Iraq.

And what is the U.S. doing about it? For years U.S. Special Operations Forces and the CIA have maintained a small, below-the-radar presence in Yemen, working to train government security forces and to carry out drone strikes on terrorist suspects such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the AQAP ideologue who was killed by a Hellfire missile in 2011.

Such isolated, pinprick strikes may be necessary in the war on terror but they are hardly sufficient. They have not turned the tide in Yemen, nor will they do so in Iraq and Syria. A much more substantial effort is needed, as some of us have been arguing for some time.

In this Policy Innovation Memorandum released by the Council on Foreign Relations in November, for example, I laid out the steps needed to defeat ISIS which involve, inter alia, relaxing the restrictions on U.S. “boots on the ground” and doing much more to mobilize the Sunni tribes. The overarching need is for the Obama administration to end its flirtation with Iran which only alarms Sunnis throughout the region and drives them into the arms of extremists such as AQAP and ISIS. Sunnis must be offered a political endstate that will mobilize them to fight–and that hasn’t happened so far.

Until the Obama administration steps up its game, alas, jihadist groups of both Sunni and Shiite ilk will continue advancing, making further mockery of the “Yemen model” for fighting terrorists.

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A Consequential Terror Attack in Paris

The U.S. has 9/11. Spain has 11-M (the March 11, 2004, bombings of the Madrid commuter trains which killed 191). Britain has 7/7 (a reference to the July 7, 2005 bombings which killed 52 people taking public transportation in London). And now, on a slightly smaller but still horrific scale, France has 1/7: the assault by three masked gunmen on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, which left 12 people dead.

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The U.S. has 9/11. Spain has 11-M (the March 11, 2004, bombings of the Madrid commuter trains which killed 191). Britain has 7/7 (a reference to the July 7, 2005 bombings which killed 52 people taking public transportation in London). And now, on a slightly smaller but still horrific scale, France has 1/7: the assault by three masked gunmen on the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, which left 12 people dead.

What all of these events have in common is, of course, the Islamist ideology which animated the killers–a ruthless willingness to kill the innocent in pursuit of far-fetched religious and political objectives. In all three cases jihadist fanatics saw Western nations, whether the U.S., Britain, or France, as obstacles to their designs–and understandably so, because all three back moderate regimes in the Middle East and have intervened with their own armed forces to fight the forces of terrorism, whether in Mali, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

Of these attacks, only one–9/11–so far has been proven to have been directed by a terrorist organization based abroad: al-Qaeda, which at the time enjoyed sanctuary in Afghanistan. There were rumored links between the 7/7 bombers–mostly children of Pakistani immigrants–and the al-Qaeda organization, by then based in Pakistan, but nothing was ever proven. Likewise rumors of links between the Spanish bombers and al-Qaeda or its North African affiliates were not proven. We will have to wait to find out if the 1/7 attackers had direct links to a terrorist organization such as al-Qaeda or ISIS (there are unverified reports that they were connected to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) or whether they were a self-radicalized cell acting on their own initiative.

Whether the 7/7 attackers were in touch with terrorist organizations abroad or not, their actions did not need much planning or coordination, unlike the intricately choreographed attack in 2001 on American passenger aircraft. Indeed it is a wonder that we have not seen more such assaults, especially in the U.S., given the prevalence of massacres by deranged gunmen from Aurora, Colorado, to Newtown, Connecticut. France, for its part, has seen a spate of low-level “lone wolf” attacks in recent weeks, with attackers driving their cars into crowds or attacking police officers with a knife.

Part of the explanation may lie in the greater success that the U.S. has had in assimilating immigrants–there is not a large underclass of resentful Muslim immigrants in this country as there is in Britain, France, and other European countries. But it doesn’t take many fanatics to carry out a terrorist attack and our air of complacency might well have been punctured if the 2010 car bombing of Times Square by a Pakistani immigrant had gone off as planned.

Beyond the need to assimilate immigrants such attacks point to the need to monitor extremist organizations. There has been much controversy in both the U.S. and Europe about the actions of the NSA, but its eavesdropping is the first line of defense–indeed in many ways the best line of defense–against such attacks. The same goes for the much-maligned New York Police Department whose now-disbanded Demographics Unit infiltrated the Muslim community with undercover officers to be alert to extremist activity.

Such intelligence-gathering, especially in the domestic sphere, raises civil-liberties hackles and there is no question that such activities can lead to abuses, as occurred decades ago with the FBI’s Cointelpro intelligence gathering against antiwar activists and civil-rights activists. But, if carefully regulated (as is the case with the NSA and NYPD, from all accounts) such programs are necessary not only to ward off the murder of innocents but the far greater violations of civil liberties that are likely to come after a successful major terrorist attack.

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Is Iraq Doomed to Split Apart?

2014 was annus horribilis for Iraq. In the wake of the raid by Iraqi security forces on a protest camp in Ramadi (a camp which, while largely peaceful also harbored some Al Qaeda elements), al-Qaeda pushed through Al Anbar, seizing Ramadi and Fallujah and overwhelming Iraqi security forces. The collapse culminated in the Islamic State’s rapid sweep through much of the Sunni belt, seizing Mosul, Beiji, and Tikrit as the Iraqi army trained by such American luminaries as David Petraeus and Martin Dempsey simply melted away, the reality of their training not matching the claims of media-savvy generals. The Islamic State, however, was not able to accomplish its initial push alone: It worked hand-in-hand with some Iraqi tribes upset with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s corruption and sectarianism, as well as former regime elements, who have never been able to accede to representative government if it meant empowered Shi‘ites.

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2014 was annus horribilis for Iraq. In the wake of the raid by Iraqi security forces on a protest camp in Ramadi (a camp which, while largely peaceful also harbored some Al Qaeda elements), al-Qaeda pushed through Al Anbar, seizing Ramadi and Fallujah and overwhelming Iraqi security forces. The collapse culminated in the Islamic State’s rapid sweep through much of the Sunni belt, seizing Mosul, Beiji, and Tikrit as the Iraqi army trained by such American luminaries as David Petraeus and Martin Dempsey simply melted away, the reality of their training not matching the claims of media-savvy generals. The Islamic State, however, was not able to accomplish its initial push alone: It worked hand-in-hand with some Iraqi tribes upset with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s corruption and sectarianism, as well as former regime elements, who have never been able to accede to representative government if it meant empowered Shi‘ites.

The Kurds, meanwhile, pushed forward into the disputed territories, finally taking Kirkuk, an oil-rich city which Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani once referred to as the Kurds’ Jerusalem. Not all was well, however, with the Kurds. After months of dismissing Yezidi warnings about the Islamic State’s growing strength and rejecting Yezidi requests for emergency arms, the Islamic State moved on Sinjar with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s peshmerga fleeing in their wake, leaving Yezidi men and boys to their executioners, and Yezidi women and girls to Islamic State slavers.

Shi’ite sectarian parties, meanwhile, won a clear majority in Iraq’s 2014 elections, and uncompromising Iranian-backed militias gained the upper hand, even taking over the interior ministry. In November, I visited a camp in southern Iraq where Shi‘ites answering Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call joined additional volunteer brigades. Unanswered is how these sectarian brigades will reintegrate into society should they push the Islamic State back.

So, with sectarian and ethnic divisions ever more pronounced in Iraq, is Iraq doomed to fall apart as politicians such as Vice President Joe Biden and former diplomats (and Kurdish oil profiteer) like Peter Galbraith once argued?

Earlier this month, Joel Wing—who runs the must-read Iraqi interest blog “Musings on Iraq”—asked me to participate in a short forum with a variety of other Iraq followers to answer the question in 300 words or less: Is Iraq doomed to split apart. As I wrote my piece arguing that Iraq was more resilient than many believe, I expected to be in the minority. I was surprised, therefore, when I read the whole collection in which only a few Iraq experts predicted Iraq’s division and demise. Those predicting Iraq’s resilience spanned a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and political viewpoints. Perhaps the lesson is that if Iraq can survive a year like 2014, it can survive far more than those who see its division realize. Regardless, Musing on Iraq’s “24 Voices on the Unity of Iraq” is worth reading.

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