Capstones: The Costs of Inaction

By Alan W. Dowd, 7.1.16

In 2011, Adm. Eric Olson, then-commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, reported that “al-Qaeda version 1.0 is nearing its end.” But he added an ominous caveat: “I’m very concerned about what al-Qaeda version 2.0 will be.”

Adm. Olson’s worries—seemingly ignored by a government and a public eager to “turn the page” on more than a decade of war—were well-founded. After Orlando and San Bernardino, Brussels and Paris, Mosul and Sinjar, we have learned that al-Qaeda 2.0—better known as ISIS—is a more virulent, more vicious, more violent version of al-Qaeda 1.0.
Poison Roots

In the long shadow cast by 9/11, when Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network maimed Manhattan and murdered 3,000 Americans, it’s difficult to believe that something could be worse than al-Qaeda 1.0. But with American nightclubs and office buildings awash in blood, with Europe under siege, with Christians and Yazidis targeted for extermination, with the Pandora’s Box of chemical warfare reopened, with the female populations of entire cities enslaved, here we are.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi used the rubble of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) as the building blocks for a jihadist superpower in ISIS that controls more territory, has broader appeal, fields more fighters, possesses more financial resources, kills more mercilessly, and reaches deeper and further into the West than al-Qaeda 1.0 ever imagined.

Think about it: al-Qaeda 1.0 was kicked out of Sudan, inhabited a tiny corner of Afghanistan, had a relatively modest financial base, and fielded a small core of deeply committed, mostly-Arab footsoldiers. By 2011, al-Qaeda 1.0 had been whittled down to 3,000 operatives worldwide.

Today, ISIS fields an army of 36,500 foreign fighters, including 6,600 from the U.S. and other Western countries. ISIS has a $56-million monthly revenue stream, thanks to extortion, drug trade and black-market oil sales. Even after two years of U.S. airstrikes, ISIS still controls some 20,000 square-miles of Iraq and Syria. Thirty-four militant groups from around the world—from the Philippines to Uzbekistan to Nigeria—have pledged allegiance to ISIS. The ISIS franchise in Libya, for instance, controls 200 miles of Mediterranean coastline and boasts an army of 6,000 fighters, up from 1,000 two years ago.

“Our efforts,” as CIA Director John Brennan reported in June, “have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach.”

ISIS is responsible for perhaps 22,000 civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has committed genocide against Yazidis and Christians. And its henchmen have murdered at least 1,440 people in 90 terrorist attacks in 21 countries outside Iraq and Syria, including massacres in San Bernardino and Orlando. The FBI has 900 active investigations into ISIS-inspired operatives in all 50 states.

Add it all up, and ISIS is “more powerful now than al-Qaeda was on 9/11,” according to Rep. Peter King, chairman of a House counterterrorism committee. Brett McGurk, the president’s envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, calls ISIS “worse than al-Qaeda.” Yet it’s important to remember that ISIS did not emerge out of thin air. Its roots can be traced to al-Qaeda in Iraq. As The Financial Times has reported, the remnants of AQI “morphed into the earliest version of ISIS.”

Off the Mat
As the surge took hold and turned the tide in Iraq—eviscerating AQI, persuading former insurgents to become part of the solution, and rescuing Iraq from civil war and America from defeat—most observers thought Washington and Baghdad would renew the status of forces of agreement (SOFA) authorizing a residual U.S. presence in Iraq. As Vice President Joe Biden said, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki [then Iraqi prime minister] will extend the SOFA.” 

By every metric, post-surge Iraq was in better shape than pre-surge Iraq, and the Pentagon consensus was that Iraq needed the U.S. military’s support to sustain the upward trajectory of the surge, to keep Maliki honest, to keep an eye on Iran and to keep a lid on jihadist flare-ups. Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explained that “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” Before leaving his post as Joint Chiefs Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen urged the White House to keep at least 16,000 troops in Iraq as an insurance policy to protect the hard-earned gains of the surge. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. James Mattis (CENTCOM commander) concurred. “None of us recommended that we completely withdraw from Iraq,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, Adm. Mullen’s successor, later noted.

But President Obama always viewed U.S. involvement in Iraq as a problem to be corrected, rather than a commitment to be sustained. As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laments, the Obama White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”

Thus, President Obama demanded that the new SOFA be blessed by the Iraqi parliament, rather than simply signed by the Iraqi government, and made it clear he was willing to withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of 2011—a timetable set by the Bush administration, albeit with an important caveat. The Bush administration viewed those out-year plans as “aspirational goals” dependent on Iraq’s security needs. When Maliki balked at Washington’s stipulations, as Kagan reported, the administration went forward with the zero option “despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.”

There was nothing surprising about President Obama’s eagerness to bring America’s war in Iraq to a close. (He opposed the war, and his position reflected the national mood. Unlike 2003, when the American people and Congress supported regime change in Iraq, there was little public support to stay in Iraq in 2011.) Nor was there anything surprising about the results:

  • In October 2011, Col. Salam Khaled of the Iraqi army warned, “Our forces are good but not to a sufficient degree that allows them to face external and internal challenges alone.”
  • In January 2012, Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan worried, “Without all the enablers we provide, there’s no doubt there will be less capability than there is right now,” adding that if Iraqi troops prove unable to put pressure on jihadist groups, “they could regenerate.”
  • In February 2014, McGurk told a House committee that ISIS operations “are calculated, coordinated and part of a strategic campaign…to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of governing control in western regions of Iraq and Syria.”

ISIS thrived on the symbiotic chaos in Iraq and Syria, using the unchecked Syrian civil war as feedstock for its rise. “We had al-Qaeda down on the 10-count, and we let it off the mat,” Col. Peter Mansoor observed as ISIS took root. By 2014, al-Qaeda 2.0 had supplanted al-Qaeda 1.0.

It’s no coincidence that al-Qaeda 2.0 blossomed as the American people turned inward, as Washington limited the reach and role and resources of the U.S. military, as policymakers from both parties concluded it was time to “focus on nation-building here at home” and “build some bridges here at home ” and “build our own nation,” as the U.S. pulled back from its forward presence overseas. But don’t take my word for it.

“The moment they cease to be fought against,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said of our jihadist enemies, “they grow.” Noting that Washington’s “inaction” carried “profound risks and costs for our national security,” former CIA director David Petraeus called Syria “a geopolitical Chernobyl spewing instability and extremism over the region and the rest of the world.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington’s failure to intervene early in Syria “left a big vacuum which the jihadists have now filled.” Seemingly using the press to signal his boss, Secretary of State John Kerry warned, “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism,” adding, “Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”

President Obama sensed this war fatigue among the American people; thus the withdrawal from Iraq. But just as it was a gamble for President Bush to launch the war and then the surge, it was a gamble for President Obama to withdraw from Iraq. With ISIS laying siege to Iraq and Americans fighting and dying there yet again, it’s safe to say that gamble didn’t pay off.

President Obama has often noted that he “was elected to end wars, not start them.” But in unilaterally trying to end the wars of 9/11, the president ignored a fundamental truth of human conflict: The enemy gets a vote. As Gen. Mattis explains, “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over.” And our enemy is far from vanquished.

On the Attack
It’s been said the difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS is that “al Qaeda recruited on the basis of the defensive slogan of martyrdom, ‘Islam is under attack.’ But ISIS is recruiting on the basis of ‘Islam is on the attack.’”

This message emanating from al-Qaeda 2.0 radicalizes, galvanizes and inspires in a way that al-Qaeda 1.0 did not. To counter it, Baghdadi and his henchmen must be destroyed.

To achieve that end—to achieve peace—we have to defeat the enemy that started this war. That means equipping America’s military with the tools necessary to win (U.S. defense spending tumbled from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2010 to 3.1 percent of GDP by 2015); unshackling America’s military to do what it’s made to do; seeking and sustaining political support for what our troops call “the long war”; and leveling with the American people about the enemy. As Gen. Michael Flynn, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, has argued, “We have to energize every element of national power—similar to the effort during World War II or during the Cold War—to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle.”

The president soothingly says our enemy is “on the path to defeat” and “contained.” Yet ISIS controls 20,000 square-miles of prime real estate in the heart of the Middle East. There are more terrorist safe havens today than at any time in history. The Taliban controls more of Afghanistan than at any time since 2001. ISIS is striking the West at will. The bipartisan gamble known as sequestration is decimating the U.S. military. And Congress has failed to debate or authorize the war against ISIS. Can anyone seriously say Washington is heeding Gen. Flynn’s counsel?

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.