Quotes of the day

The war in Iraq was not over when the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011. We just pretended that it was. Like it or not, our departure left a diplomatic and security vacuum that contributed to the crisis unfolding there. The government of Iraq floundered in that vacuum, promulgating the wrong domestic policies and allowing the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to backslide to pre-2007 performance levels. The net result has been that al-Qaeda in Iraq has not only reconstituted but expanded drawing in many of those disenfranchised and disillusioned by Iraq’s domestic policies. Worse, it has morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose stated ambition is to create a new Islamic state, absorbing parts of Syria and Iraq. As the past few days have amply demonstrated, ISIS is already more than capable of taking territory and governing…

Halting the offensive is Iraq’s nearest-term objective. What is needed is a coordinated air and ground action consisting of both a heavy dose of precisely applied firepower and a sufficiently executed ground defensive. The Iraqis are incapable of such action alone. The firepower will have to be delivered by United States and allied aircraft augmented by Iraqi assets.


Now the offensive sweeping Iraq — a blitzkrieg assault that saw the surprise takeover of Mosul on Monday, and has seen ISIS and allied militants pressing closer by the day to Baghdad — suggests ISIS is booming. And it seems as intent as ever on state-building — taking over banks and security installations, even the airport, in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, whose population of 2 million would put it fifth on the list of U.S. cities. As jihadi expert Aaron Zelin noted, taking a look at these boundaries on a map, the territory includes a number of oil refineries. “For those who think ISIS doesn’t have a strategy. #blackgold,” he wrote…

This brutality made ISIS increasingly unpopular among Syrians, as did the presence among its ranks of so many foreign jihadis, recruited from across the world, from Saudi Arabia to England. These outsiders developed reputations as some of the group’s most brutal and extreme members, adding to its image as an alien oppressor. The group’s senior leadership, though secretive, was believed to be Iraqi. After those in the organization’s ranks came other foreigners, some Syrians complained, saying that local recruits were used mainly as rank and file, guards and frontline soldiers, and fodder for suicide attacks. Other rebel groups launched an internal war against ISIS earlier this year, and even the local branch of al-Qaeda joined the fight — even for them, ISIS had become too extreme. At times, ISIS seemed to be on the ropes in Syria, but its recent gains in Iraq will put that narrative to rest.


One problem always was, and still is, that Maliki had no interest in conciliatory politics on a national level. And that’s why he’s now facing a monumental, even terrifying armed insurgency. His troops in Nineveh province simply folded when they came under attack, not because they weren’t equipped or trained to fight back but because, in many cases, they felt no allegiance to Maliki’s government; they had no desire to risk their lives for the sake of its survival…

These jihadists are very competent fighters. They reportedly seized Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s hometown) from the north, east, and west. Maliki has rallied his remaining troops to Taji, just north of Baghdad, to prevent or deter an assault on the capital. Some U.S. officials are optimistic that he’ll succeed. Given the ongoing fighting in Syria, ISIS might not want to waste its soldiers and ammunition on a protracted battle in Iraq. (Its triumphs so far have been, by and large, uncontested.) Still, no one claims much confidence in this prediction. In any case, unless Maliki can rally a counteroffensive, the northern half of Iraq seems to have been ceded to Islamists

Depending on what happens in the next few weeks, or maybe even days, we may be witnessing the beginning of either a new political order in the region or a drastic surge in the geostrategic swamp and humanitarian disaster that have all too palpably come to define it.


With shattered Iraqi military units rallying as far away as Taji, a base on Baghdad’s suburbs some 200 miles south of Mosul, the government’s counteroffensive could be slow in coming. Baghdad’s soldiers now have to fight their way through a belt of lost cities and districts between the capital and Mosul, creating plenty of potential distractions, which will drain strength away from the government riposte. Special forces and air units are reportedly rapidly becoming exhausted as they are shuffled from crisis to crisis. The only military force in Iraq that is not presently overcommitted is the peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government, but relations between Baghdad and the Kurdish region are particularly strained…

The Obama administration is determined to honor its campaign pledge to end the wars. To that end, the White House withdrew U.S. combat troops in 2011. However there is an increasingly strong case that Iraq needs new and boosted security assistance, including air strikes and a massively boosted security cooperation initiative to rebuild the shattered army and mentor it in combat. The Middle East could see the collapse of state stability in a cross-sectarian, multiethnic country of 35 million people that borders many of the region’s most important states and is the world’s fastest-growing oil exporter. Any other country with the same importance and the same grievous challenges would get more U.S. support, but the withdrawal pledge has put Iraq in a special category all on its own. Washington doesn’t have the luxury of treating Iraq as a special case anymore. ISIS has moved on since the days of the U.S. occupation and they have a plan. Washington should too.


As fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on Wednesday tightened their grip on Iraq’s second largest city, captured the hometown of Saddam Hussein and pushed to less than 100 miles from the Iraqi capital, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met to question the man President Barack Obama has nominated to be the next ambassador to Iraq. Yet not a single senator asked him directly about the Iraqi government’s apparent loss of control…

“I think that there is a general sense of apathy about Iraq,” the staffer explained, asking not to be identified because the comments might be seen as critical. “Iraq is mostly viewed in terms of other issues.”…

“There is a fear of re-engaging in Iraq because we have turned the page,” Jeffrey said, referring to the 2011 pullout of the last U.S. troops. “This is presidential policy colliding with facts on the ground, facts that could change the Middle East.”


Colin Powell’s famous Pottery Barn rule about invasions—”you break it; you buy it”—assumes there are people in D.C. who feel obligated to make good on that promise. These days, there are not. Democrats will say, rightly, that a Republican administration made this mess by invading and mishandling the insurgency that followed. They will say Iraq was doomed to fail and support the Obama administration’s choice to pull troops from Iraq. Republicans will point out, rightly, that the Obama administration made a major error by leaving Iraq without a security agreement in place. This left Iraq without vital assistance. As recently as 2011 there was talk of leaving as many as 10,000 troops as training and intelligence assets; that could have helped keep the ISIL in check.

This is the worst situation for inspiring progress from Washington D.C. No one feels responsible, no one feels like salvaging the situation, and everyone can blame someone else. President Bush was willing to risk a new strategy in Iraq during his famous surge there, probably because his legacy was on the line. It worked. But now there’s nothing to prompt a bold plan to help Iraq. Intervention is unlikely. The Iraq central government doesn’t seem to be a reliable partner. And so the winner is ISIL, which wants to create a theocratic caliphate, much like the one Al Qaeda dreamed of, and now controls wide swatches of Syria and Iraq. The losers are any U.S. personnel who fought and died for Iraq, and even more so, the Iraqis who supported democracy and equal rights in their nation.


But we are not going to save Iraq and we are not going to save Syria. It’s over. That’s what the Middle East wanted, and it’s what the Middle East is going to get.

Arab governments complain when we intervene and they complain when we don’t intervene. Basically, they complain no matter what. So asking what they want is pointless. It takes a while to notice this trend over time, but there it is. They have not stopped to consider the consequences of this behavior, but those consequences are about to become apocalyptic for Nouri al-Maliki.

“We’ll kill you if you mess with us, but otherwise go die” is not even close to my preferred foreign policy, but it’s what President Barack Obama prefers (phrased much more nicely, of course) and it’s what the overwhelming majority of Americans prefer, including most liberals as well as conservatives.


When the Americans invaded, in March, 2003, they destroyed the Iraqi state—its military, its bureaucracy, its police force, and most everything else that might hold a country together. They spent the next nine years trying to build a state to replace the one they crushed. By 2011, by any reasonable measure, the Americans had made a lot of headway but were not finished with the job. For many months, the Obama and Maliki governments talked about keeping a residual force of American troops in Iraq, who would act largely to train Iraq’s Army and to provide intelligence against Sunni insurgents. (They would almost certainly have been barred from fighting.) Those were important reasons to stay, but the most important went largely unstated: it was to continue to act as a restraint on Maliki’s sectarian impulses, at least until the Iraqi political system was strong enough to contain him on its own. The negotiations between Obama and Maliki fell apart, in no small measure because of a lack of engagement by the White House. Today, many Iraqis, including some close to Maliki, say that a small force of American soldiers—working in non-combat roles—would have provided a crucial stabilizing factor that is now missing from Iraq. Sami al-Askari, a Maliki confidant, told me for my article this spring, “If you had a few hundred here, not even a few thousand, they would be coöperating with you, and they would become your partners.” President Obama wanted the Americans to come home, and Maliki didn’t particularly want them to stay.

The trouble is, as the events of this week show, what the Americans left behind was an Iraqi state that was not able to stand on its own. What we built is now coming apart. This is the real legacy of America’s war in Iraq.


The fundamental question is whether even a small contingent of U.S. troops might have reassured members of Iraq’s minority communities by shielding them from the worst excesses of a Shia-dominated government, thus undermining those calling for its violent overthrow. Without a U.S. presence, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been free to do its worst, up to and including siccing Iraqi security forces on his political rivals. And Maliki’s brutality has, quite predictably, sparked a backlash.

That, of course, leads us to the other reason why U.S. forces were withdrawn: There were many Iraqis, and in particular many Shia Iraqis, who wanted American troops out of the country. Yet as Kimberly and Frederick Kagan have argued, the Obama administration could have done much more to reach an agreement with the Iraqi leadership. Indeed, Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times reported in 2012 that Iraqi lawmakers sensed that the president was ambivalent at best about committing to Iraq, and this made them far less inclined to pay a political price for hammering out a deal.


Back in 2010, Army Gen. George Casey warned that the 130,000-strong Iraqi police and soldiers lacked leaders, were deserting by thousands, were hampered by corruption, displayed little will to fight and would probably never be able to fend off insurgents. Obviously, not much has changed, despite President Obama’s assertion in 2011 that that war had ended and “Iraqis have taken full responsibility for their country’s security.” Put it this way: Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikihad’s crack “Crisis Unit,” which consists of civilian volunteers, is preparing a counteroffensive to the north. A makeshift militia is what ten years, thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars buys in those parts…

Some will, no doubt, argue that doing nothing (and we might very well be doing something soon) means that more than 4,400 U.S. troops and over $700 billion had been wasted in a war that ended but was not won. Perhaps. But a more important matter is this: would the death of another 4,000, or 400, or four, bring about a preferable outcome or a set of conditions that allow the United States to convincingly declare victory? If a decade of nation building brought us this, what could we possible gain by seriously reengaging? Clearly, to make it work the American people would need to be prepared to make a generational commitment – and polls don’t tell us that we’re in the mood for an open-ended conflict in the Middle East.

These are horrible choices, indeed. While millions of civilians no longer experience life under the regime of Saddam Hussein, and we should not forget the sacrifice thousands of soldiers made to allow that to happen, it gets increasingly difficult to imagine that the United States has gained anything worthwhile from its invasion of Iraq. It’s difficult to understand how spending another five or ten years sorting out a sectarian civil war can possible be in our best interests.


Gen. David Petraeus, then the American commander in Iraq, quieted the Sunni opposition to the American-backed Shi’ite majority government by giving them money and weapons. By doing so the U.S. rebuilt the Sunni military capability that it had ruined in 2003 when it destroyed the government of Saddam Hussein. With the fighting capacity of the Sunni minority now on par with the Shi’ite-majority government army, as we saw in the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

I have nothing to add to what I wrote four years ago about the bungling of the Bush administration as compounded by Obama. The present disaster in Iraq is not wholly of our making, but American policy was a key enabler. The “surge” made it inevitable. There will be no resolution now without the exhaustion of the contending forces, in a long war of attrition with dreadful consequences for civilians, starting with the 500,000 who fled Mosul this week…

We Republican warhawks wonder why the public abhors us and our own party has rejected us. Our bungling has made a bad situation much, much worse, and the consequences of our ideological rigidity and cultural illiteracy will haunt us for a generation.


There’s nothing in place available to stop al-Qaeda. The forces that might have are locked up in the Southwest Asia, sustained at the mercy of Russia and Pakistan. Obama has been faked out; the AQ have gone around him for a layup to the basket. He may lose Iraq and its border with Syria before the year ends. Afghanistan’s fall will follow almost immediately thereafter, behind the last American troops, whose safe exit from the landlocked country is now by no means guaranteed. The Russians lost more than 500 men going out in 1989 — and they only had to cross a land border a short distance away…

When you add in the Eastern European crisis and the growing expansion of China to the Middle Eastern collapse, it is not hard to see the obvious. Unless a miracle saves Obama, the nation will be facing a global and existential security crisis within a short time. America will face a supercharged Islamic terrorism with thousands of recruits in the West available as a 5th Column, supplied with vast amounts of money and in potential possession of most of the world’s oil. For how long until Saudi Arabia’s Islamic children eat its parents?


These jihadists are able to move more freely and across a greater range than ever before. Their area of operations stretches from northern Iraq, through Syria and across north Africa to Libya and down towards Nigeria. For the first time, they directly control huge swathes of land. As with the Bolsheviks in 1917 or the fascists in the Thirties, a merciless new force capable of deploying horrifying violence has emerged on the world stage…

How can the West hope to contain the monster it helped to create? The countries we formed at the stroke of a pen in the Sykes-Picot treaty 98 years ago are being washed away. Only Egypt and Iran, states whose history stretches back for thousands of years rather than decades, are certain to survive intact.

With Egypt facing grave problems, Iran has emerged as the most stable and powerful country in the Middle East. Again and again since the 9/11 attack on the twin towers in 2001, the Iranians have offered cooperation against al-Qaeda and its allies. These entreaties have repeatedly been turned down. It is time for President Obama and David Cameron to acknowledge that we have been helping to sponsor terror for the past few decades. We have to choose new allies, and they must include Iran. If we carry on with our present deluded course, the threat to the West will only grow more dangerous.