In today’s New York Times Ian Fisher presents a detailed investigation of the rise of ISIS.
It is a fair and balanced analysis, thus well worth our attention. Fisher sees many strands of blame, but they all seem to stop in the White House.
Fisher begins by noting that in 2010 when we declared victory and began to withdraw from Iraq, ISIS had been thoroughly defeated:
By the time the United States withdrew from its long bloody encounter with Iraq in 2010, it thought it had declawed a once fearsome enemy: the Islamic State, which had many names and incarnations but at the time was neither fearsome nor a state.
Beaten back by the American troop surge and Sunni tribal fighters, it was considered such a diminished threat that the bounty the United States put on one of its leaders had dropped from $5 million to $100,000.
Today, things have changed significantly:
Yet now, five years later, the Islamic State is on a very different trajectory. It has wiped clean a 100-year-old colonial border in the Middle East, controlling millions of people in Iraq and Syria. It has overcome its former partner and eventual rival, Al Qaeda, first in battle, then as the world’s pre-eminent jihadist group in reach and recruitment.
ISIS took good advantage of the Syrian civil war. The Defense Intelligence Agency saw what was happening. The White House ignored the report because it did not fit the administration narrative:
A 2012 report by the United States Defense Intelligence Agency was direct: The growing chaos in Syria’s civil war was giving Islamic militants there and in Iraq the space to spread and flourish. The group, it said, could “declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.”
“This particular report, this was one of those nobody wanted to see,” said Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who ran the defense agency at the time.
“It was disregarded by the White House,” he said. “It was disregarded by other elements in the intelligence community as a one-off report. Frankly, at the White House, it didn’t meet the narrative.”
The White House was gambling that the insurgency would be defeated internally by its own negative energy:
“There was a strong belief that brutal insurgencies fail,” said William McCants of the Brookings Institution and a leading expert on the Islamic State, explaining the seeming indifference of American officials to the group’s rise. “The concept was that if you just leave the Islamic State alone, it would destroy itself, and so you didn’t need to do much.”
After his introduction, Fisher elaborates his points. When American forces were in Iraq, ISIS had been “decimated:”
Looking back this week, John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, recounted in a speech to a Washington think tank that the Islamic State was “pretty much decimated when U.S. forces were there in Iraq.”
“It had maybe 700 or so adherents left,” Mr. Brennan said. “And then it grew quite a bit.”
There is little dispute about that initial success. The American military and Sunni tribesmen, banded together in what became known as the Awakening, left Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadists in disarray by 2010. In June of that year, Gen. Ray Odierno, leader of the American troops in Iraq, said that “over the last 90 days or so we’ve either picked up or killed 34 of the top 42 Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders,” using one early name for the Islamic State.
The American withdrawal was not merely a military surrender. The Obama administration was incapable of guiding the political situation in Iraq. Perhaps it was because it had abandoned the country. Perhaps it was because Secretary of State Hillary was incompetent. Perhaps it was because the administration saw no real problem in allowing the Iraqi government to be controlled by Iran:
Americans wanted to believe that the Iraq war had ended in triumph, and the troops were soon withdrawn. But almost immediately tensions began rising between the Sunnis and the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki — supported by the United States and Iran, the Shiite giant to the east. Salaries and jobs promised to cooperating tribes were not paid. There seemed little room for Sunnis in the new Iraq. The old Sunni insurgents began to look appealing again.
At first, many people underestimated ISIS:
Early on, the Islamic State’s rivals underestimated it, only to face deadly attacks from the group later. They were not the only ones — Mr. Obama likened the group to the “J.V. team.” And the Islamic State fighters often did seem like buffoons, especially the foreign ones, who came from across the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe. Many could not speak Arabic. And some barely knew anything of Islamic theology. They posted on social media pictures of themselves mugging for the camera as they swam in the Euphrates River, or complaining that it was difficult to find Nutella in the shops.
And yet, many people within the American military understood what was going on and attempted to alert the important players in the Pentagon and the White House:
At United States Central Command — the military headquarters based in Tampa, Fla., that is in charge of the American air campaign — intelligence analysts have long bristled at what they see as deliberate attempts by their bosses to paint an overly optimistic picture of the war’s progress.
A group of seasoned Iraq analysts saw the conflict as basically a stalemate, and became enraged when they believed that senior military officers were changing their conclusions in official Central Command estimates in order to emphasize that the bombing campaign was having positive effects. The group of analysts brought their concerns to the Defense Department’s inspector general, who began an investigation into the complaints.
With intelligence estimates politicized, the Obama administration and its satraps in the Pentagon were more concerned with the narrative than with the facts on the ground.