Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Rise of ISIS: How the Middle East Was Lost

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:

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.


Ares Olympus said...

It is important to acknowledge failure of narrative, like the first 2012 report: “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.”

But we also shouldn't too easily accept the failed counter-narrative, that Iraq was a success UNTIL Obama took over and started withdrawing our occupation. Dick Cheney and Gang started the Iraqi war on the ground that it would be over in weeks, and Iraqi oil would pay for the war, and that we'd be greeted as liberators. So if Obama is reluctant to reenter quicksand, we know where his lessons were learned. We should work to clean up our own house before we trust we know how to clean up someone else's.

The NYT article has an interesting ending, looking at the internal conflicts within the group. The power with violence comes in its SHOCK value. People who are willing to do do shocking things will momentarily be looked on with great awe, but the problem is shock wears off, and what's left is contempt, when you realize the powerful person you admired, because he stood up to his enemies, that he's actually a coward, willing to dish out brutality to people who are not enemies, but merely innocent people who got in the way. So in this regard it isn't reasonable to say that brutal leaders are short lived.

...And there is growing anecdotal evidence that even some members of the group — particularly locals who may have joined out of opportunism or a sense that it was the best way to survive — have become disgusted, like the larger world, by its extreme violence.

“I still feel sick,” Abu Khadija, a Syrian fighter for the Islamic State, said recently after witnessing the beheadings of dozens of war prisoners near the Syrian-Iraqi border.

“I can’t eat, I feel I want to throw up,” he said. “ I hate myself.”

For perspective, I also saw this video this morning, from France, and interview of a boy and his father, rationalizing violence, and what alternatives we have to it. So in the end the boy accept the unlikely conclusion "The flowers and the candles are here to protect us."

This doesn't mean violence isn't needed to end the Junior Varsity bullies. It does mean patience is a virtue, and public sentiment is on the side of people victimized by terrorism, and if you respond to indiscriminate violence with indiscriminate violence, you has just as much chance to turn the tide of irrational sympathy back to the instigators, and seed the next generation of brutal bullies with their fantasy visions of vengence.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. Here's a good message from Australia:
The Project host Waleed Aly produced a powerful editorial for the Australian TV show’s first episode following the Paris terror attacks, saying ISIS is much weaker than it wants the public to believe.

Aly said that in ISIS’s monthly magazine, Dabiq, the group has admitted to taking credit for terrorist attacks it’s never funded in order to appear more powerful than it is.

He said that through a false image of omnipotent terror, ISIS aims to create a divide between Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide, leading to a “great war”.

“There is a reason ISIL still want to appear so powerful,” he said, “why they don’t want to acknowledge that the land they control has been taken from weak enemies, that they are pinned down by airstrikes, or that just last weekend they lost a significant part of their territory.

“ISIL don’t want you to know they would quickly be crushed if they ever faced a proper army on a battlefield.

“They want you to fear them. They want you to get angry. They want all of us to become hostile, and here is why – ISIL’s strategy is to split the world into two camps. It is that black and white. Again, we know this because they told us.”

“If you’re a Muslim leader telling your community they have no place here, or a non-Muslim basically saying the same thing, you’re helping ISIL,” he said. “They have told us that…and I’m pretty sure that right now none of us wants to help these bastards.”

If this is true, than the Republican hysteria, like calling to reject muslim refugees is working right into the hands of ISIS. The more hatred they can create towards Muslims, the more inhumanity injustice they cause provoke by people who fear muslims, the more powerful they will be, and presumably the more allies they will find to their cause.

Case in point here as well.

Hate-mongering against Muslims creates violence, and it all works in favor of the apocalyptic vision for ISIS.

FDR said "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Times like now show how this paradox can be true.

Ares Olympus said...

Here's another voice, from a French journalist, Nicolas Hénin, who was held hostage by ISIS, but sees Bashar al-Assad's rule as the primary problem. It would seem to be identical to Obama's position, and contrary to Putin's support for the Syrian dictator.
...It struck me forcefully how technologically connected they are; they follow the news obsessively, but everything they see goes through their own filter. They are totally indoctrinated, clinging to all manner of conspiracy theories, never acknowledging the contradictions.

Everything convinces them that they are on the right path and, specifically, that there is a kind of apocalyptic process under way that will lead to a confrontation between an army of Muslims from all over the world and others, the crusaders, the Romans. They see everything as moving us down that road. Consequently, everything is a blessing from Allah.

Central to their world view is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and every day their antennae will be tuned towards finding supporting evidence. The pictures from Germany of people welcoming migrants will have been particularly troubling to them. Cohesion, tolerance – it is not what they want to see.
And yet more bombs will be our response. I am no apologist for Isis. How could I be? But everything I know tells me this is a mistake. The bombardment will be huge, a symbol of righteous anger. Within 48 hours of the atrocity, fighter planes conducted their most spectacular munitions raid yet in Syria, dropping more than 20 bombs on Raqqa, an Isis stronghold. Revenge was perhaps inevitable, but what’s needed is deliberation. My fear is that this reaction will make a bad situation worse.

While we are trying to destroy Isis, what of the 500,000 civilians still living and trapped in Raqqa? What of their safety? What of the very real prospect that by failing to think this through, we turn many of them into extremists? The priority must be to protect these people, not to take more bombs to Syria. We need no-fly zones – zones closed to Russians, the regime, the coalition. The Syrian people need security or they themselves will turn to groups such as Isis.
The group is wicked, of that there is no doubt. But after all that happened to me, I still don’t feel Isis is the priority. To my mind, Bashar al-Assad is the priority. The Syrian president is responsible for the rise of Isis in Syria, and so long as his regime is in place, Isis cannot be eradicated. Nor can we stop the attacks on our streets. When people say “Isis first, and then Assad”, I say don’t believe them. They just want to keep Assad in place.

At the moment there is no political road map and no plan to engage the Arab Sunni community. Isis will collapse, but politics will make that happen. In the meantime there is much we can achieve in the aftermath of this atrocity, and the key is strong hearts and resilience, for that is what they fear. I know them: bombing they expect. What they fear is unity.

Here's an article interview from March when he was released. His assessment of the recruit's reminds me why all military units try to get their recruits young before a sense of clearer morality is developed.
Henin said he believed that many jihadists began with a genuine desire to help victims in Syria.

But, he said, "these are fragile people. As soon as they arrive, [their recruiters] hook them and push them to commit a crime, and then there is no way they can turn back."

priss rules said...

“There was a strong belief that brutal insurgencies fail,”

Actually, the US looked the other way because ISIS was weakening Assad.

All that stuff about helping the 'moderate' opposition to Assad was just a way to indirectly send arms to terrorist groups. US must have known that the 'moderate opposition' was just a sick joke and that all the US arms and supplies would eventually end up in the hands of Jihadis.

It looks like the murdered US ambassador in Libya was involved in shipping arms from Libya to crazies in Syria. He got burned playing with fire.

The real failing of US policy is seeing Russia and Syria as enemies. They are not perfect but need not be enemies of the US.

Sam L. said...

The Won wanted a victory lap, so he proclaimed victory for himself and took it. And. NEVER. Looked. Back. Won't now, either.

Anonymous said...

Ares, what are you doing here? -$$$

Anonymous said...

Putin is a thug. Just like The One. -$$$