SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) – WASHINGTON; By late last year, classified American intelligence reports painted an increasingly ominous picture of a growing threat from Sunni extremists in Syria, according to senior intelligence and military officials. Just as worrisome, they said, were reports of deteriorating readiness and morale among troops next door in Iraq.
But the reports, they said, generated little attention in a White House consumed with multiple brush fires and reluctant to be drawn back into Iraq. “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it,” said a senior American intelligence official. “They were preoccupied with other crises,” the official added. “This just wasn’t a big priority.”
The White House denies that, but the threat certainly has its attention now as American warplanes pound the extremist group calling itself the Islamic State in hopes of reversing its lightning-swift seizing of territory in Iraq and Syria. Still, even as bombs fall from the sky thousands of miles away, the question of how it failed to anticipate the rise of a militant force that in the space of a few months has redrawn the map of the Middle East resonates inside and outside the Obama administration.
President Obama fueled the debate in an interview broadcast over the weekend when he said that intelligence agencies had underestimated the peril posed by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Mr. Obama accurately quoted James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, acknowledging that he and his analysts did not foresee the stunning success of Islamic State forces or the catastrophic collapse of the Iraqi Army.
But by pointing to the agencies without mentioning any misjudgments of his own, Mr. Obama left intelligence officials bristling about being made into scapegoats and critics complaining that he was trying to avoid responsibility.
“This was not an intelligence community failure, but a failure by policy makers to confront the threat,” said Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
A spokesman denied on Monday that Mr. Obama was blaming intelligence agencies in his interview on “60 Minutes” on CBS News. “That is not what the president’s intent was,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. “What the president was trying to make clear” was “how difficult it is to predict the will of security forces that are based in another country to fight.”
Mr. Earnest added that “the president’s commander in chief and he’s the one who takes responsibility” for ensuring the national security based on the information provided by intelligence analysts. “And the president continues to have the highest degree of confidence in our intelligence community to continue to provide that advice,” he said.
Caught Off Guard
A reconstruction of the past year suggests a number of pivotal moments when both the White House and the intelligence community misjudged the Islamic State. Even after the group’s fighters stormed across the border into Iraq at the start of the year to capture the city of Falluja and parts of Ramadi, the White House considered it a problem that could be contained.
Intelligence agencies were caught off guard by the speed of the extremists’ subsequent advance across northern Iraq. And the government as a whole was largely focused on the group as a source of foreign fighters who might pose a terrorism threat when they returned home, not as a force intent on seizing territory.
“I’m not suggesting anyone was asleep at the switch necessarily, but the organization definitely achieved strategic surprise when it rolled into Iraq,” said Frederic C. Hof, who previously handled Syria policy for the State Department under Mr. Obama and is now at the Atlantic Council.
In interviews in recent weeks, administration officials privately agreed that they had not focused enough on the Islamic State’s territorial ambitions but said they were hamstrung in responding by an Iraqi government that was fanning the sectarian divide that helped give rise to the Sunni extremists in the first place.
While Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki asked for American weaponry and airstrikes, both Mr. Obama and Congress reacted negatively. The White House resisted being seen by Sunnis as “Maliki’s air force,” as a number of officials put it. Instead, they pressed Mr. Maliki not only to respond militarily but also to create a more inclusive government that would undercut support for the Islamic State even as the country headed toward elections.
“It was frustrating because we recognized that there was a need to do more and do it more quickly, but the Iraqi go-slow approach made that a challenge,” said a senior administration official, who like others insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “That was something we were constantly pushing up against.”
The Islamic State was born out of the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was crippled by the time Mr. Obama withdrew American forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. The civil war that erupted in neighboring Syria pitting President Bashar al-Assad against a variety of rebel organizations provided a haven for the Qaeda affiliate to reconstitute itself with an influx of foreign fighters.
“To anyone watching developments in Iraq from mid-2010 and Syria from early 2011, the recovery and rise of ISIS should have been starkly clear,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “The organization itself was also carrying out an explicitly clear step-by-step strategy aimed at engendering the conditions that would feed its accelerated rise.”
Administration officials said that they tried to “get our foot back in the door” in Iraq after the troop withdrawal, as one put it, to create a joint counterterrorism effort, but that Baghdad was eager to be rid of the Americans and resisted. In 2012, when there were roughly five suicide bombings in Iraq a month, that did not seem to be a major issue. But a year later, there were as many as 50 a month as the Syrian war increasingly spilled over the border.
“There were a lot of us saying this is a real massive problem,” said another senior official. “The Syria policy people are so focused on taking down Assad, they were blind to this problem.”
The United States resumed surveillance flights in Iraq in 2013 but flew them only occasionally because of Iraqi sensibilities. “It was a walk instead of a run,” a different official said. An effort to create a joint intelligence center to share information proved modest. Mr. Maliki asked for F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters, but Congress was hesitant.
Mr. Obama pushed Mr. Maliki to modify his own autocratic governing style. “The president really hammered him,” the official said.
By late December, alarm over deteriorating security in Iraq was growing and the United States quietly rushed dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to help Baghdad combat an explosion of violence. Intelligence officials were warning in classified reports at the time that the Islamic State had become a potent force in northern and western Iraq, with armed convoys intimidating towns, assassinating local officials and using explosives to kill Iraqi soldiers.
On New Year’s Day, convoys of up to 100 trucks flying the black flag of Al Qaeda and armed with mounted heavy machine guns and antiaircraft guns stormed into Falluja and Ramadi as they sought to establish an Islamic caliphate stretching across national borders. Their victories sent a chill through the American military, which had fought some of its bloodiest battles in that part of Iraq.
“Falluja and Ramadi had huge emotional resonance for our veterans, and now the Iraqis were losing it,” said a senior Defense Department official.
And yet American officials said there was no serious talk of intervening directly at the time. Since Falluja and Ramadi had long been hotbeds of Sunni extremist sentiment, American officials assumed the Islamic State could be checked there and eventually rolled back.
Intelligence agencies warned against such an assumption. “ISIL probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Falluja,” Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in his annual threat assessment to Congress on Feb. 11.
Even so, Mr. Obama was determined not to let the United States be dragged back into a war that he had opposed from the start and that he had promised during his first campaign for the White House to end. After five years in office, aides said, Mr. Obama was convinced that the United States was too quick to pull the military lever whenever it confronted a foreign crisis. He would not repeat what he considered the mistake of his predecessor President George W. Bush.
While he would help Iraq’s government, he would not use American military force nor would he escalate involvement in Syria’s brutal civil war after having decided the previous fall to call off a plan to launch a missile strike against Mr. Assad’s government in retaliation for using chemical weapons on civilians. Government officials referred to that as the “nonstrike incident” and told foreign policy experts last spring that the president would take a “minimalist approach” to Syria.
By spring, Iraqi forces had reached a stalemate against Islamic State forces in the west, and Mr. Maliki reversed course and asked the Obama administration to intervene directly. In a May 11 meeting with Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III and American diplomats, Mr. Maliki asked that Iraq be provided the ability to operate drones; if the United States was unwilling to do that, then he indicated he was prepared for the United States to carry out strikes itself. He later made the same point to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and sent a written request.
At the time, Mr. Obama was not open to such a move. He gave a speech at West Point eschewing what he deemed the overuse of American force to solve world problems. But he promised more aid to moderate Syrian rebels. The White House sent a proposal for a $500 million program to train and equip the rebels back to the Pentagon several times, but the president eventually announced it.
By then, though, it was too late. On June 10, thousands of Sunni militants poured over the border from Syria and seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Armed gunmen then headed south toward Baghdad and east toward the autonomous region of Kurdistan. The Iraqi Army crumbled in the face of the assault, as soldiers dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms and fled.
“We were surprised by their regional ambitions, the speed of their advance into Mosul and the collapse of the Iraqi security forces,” said a senior Army general with combat experience in Iraq.
The Turning Point
Speaking at a symposium months later, Adm. Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, suggested that the intelligence community had underestimated the Islamic State’s transformation “from an insurgency to an organization that was now also focused on holding ground territory.
“It’s an area we talked about,” he said, “but in hindsight, I wish we had been a little — I’ll only speak for me and for N.S.A. — I wish we’d been a little stronger about.”
The Mosul takeover proved to be the turning point for Mr. Obama. He began to consider intervening directly to prevent Baghdad itself from falling. “That was a very galvanizing moment for us,” a senior official said.
Further complicating the situation were the American hostages held by the Islamic State. Even as Mr. Obama began contemplating airstrikes in Iraq, he authorized a secret Special Forces operation into Syria in July to try to rescue the hostages. His top aides watched the operation unfold from the Situation Room, only to be deflated when the troops found no hostages. “Dry hole,” came the dispiriting news over the radio.
As Islamic State forces continued to march across Iraq and threatened civilian massacres, Mr. Obama ordered American airstrikes. He had largely concluded, his aides said, that he would have to do the same on the other side of the border in Syria as well even before two of the hostages were killed on grisly videos.
“I don’t know if Obama’s fully switched or not,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But he had to fundamentally make changes in his approach.”
For Mr. Obama, the question now is whether this approach works any better than the last one.
Source: NY Times