This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but I felt I didn’t quite have enough information to be able to illustrate the point that had to be made. A puzzle piece was missing….. The database was incomplete.
Noting that terrorist organization and the conditions that lead to their development had been a part of the social / political landscape in the Middle East long before 9/11 and the ensuing Global War On Terror, the question that must be asked is this: What are the best options on how the US should deal with dictators in the Middle East in relation to terrorism?
When trying to answer this question in regards to current US foreign policy, I would say the place to start is Iraq.
There were more than a few stated goals to justify the invasion of Iraq and the ouster of the dictator Saddam Hussein. But one of the prominent ones was of course to fight terrorism, and to fight and destroy Al Qaeda in Iraq. As it turned out, there really wasn’t much presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq prior to our invasion, and our actions ended up drawing them from other countries in the Middle East to fight against us there (as shown later). We invaded in 2003. By 2007, the flood of Al Qaeda into post-invasion Iraq, coupled with the increase in sectarian violence between the Shia and the Sunni, forced the US to greatly increase the number of American troops into the country to try and bring things under some sort of control. This violence was at least partially a result of the widespread marginalization of Sunnis in post invasion Iraq, policy first implemented by the US controlled provisional government, and then continued by the Shia-friendly Nouri al-Maliki government. Terrorism increase in Iraq. The “surge” was supposed to have defeated the terrorists. But the bigger picture is that the terrorists simply went to friendlier place to regroup, places like Pakistan, Tunisia, and Libya. Many people forget that as the surge ended, a policy decision made by President Bush, terrorism INCREASED in Iraq in 2009. And even as the surge was underway, the Sunnis who were not anchored to Iraq, who decided not to fight the Americans, simply left to regroup in other countries such as Libya and Syria. The enemy adapted, changed tactics, and morphed into something new. Those “surge” refugees would go on to help form the the core of the group we now call ISIS, a group so vile, even many branched of Al Qaeda disavow them.
Partisans blame Obama for the ISIS takeover of parts of Iraq because he didn’t keep more troops in Iraq after the surge. One reason why combat troops were withdraw was that in 2011 the Maliki government was insisting that any remaining American troops, if they played combat roles, would be subject to Iraq laws, something no US President would ever agree to.
Regardless of who exactly is to blame, one thing is clear. We know from first hand experience that the US foreign policy that prescribes overthrowing a dictator and staying in a country for years does not stop or defeat terrorism.
Next – We have Libya.
In 2011, the “Arab Spring” was underway in the Middle East. That would inspire protest inside Libya which soon become a civil war. The US had few options. Qaddafi, who had been involved in, or linked to past terrorist activities such as the bombing of a German discotheque in 1986 and the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, was up until the civil war considered somewhat of an ally in the war on terror by the US. But cruel treatment by the Qaddafi led government fomented hated by a large number of the Libyan citizens. Due to his horrible record of human rights abuses, especially after the civil war started, the US and United Nations decided that it was time for him to go. After failing to negotiate a path for Qaddafi to step down, the US and UN, using airstrikes, bombed strategic targets in Libya which eventually led to the fall of Qaddafi.
Libya had been no stranger to terrorist groups before the civil war, as it already had an Al Qaeda affiliate, and Ansar al-Shari`a (ALS), the group responsible for the Benghazi consulate attack. As ISIS expands into Libya, many members of the home-grown ALS are leaving that group and joining ISIS. Like Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi had been able to keep terror groups in check for the most part. Post Qaddafi, despite the installment of the National Transitional Council at the end of the civil war, and then the election of the next government, the General National Congress, there is an ongoing power struggle in the nation, with many factions not recognizing the post civil war government. This is a situation that terror groups in and outside of Libya are all too happy to exploit.
So we also know that deposing a dictator without the use of ground troops does, and installing a new, friendlier government does not stop terrorism.
Next we turn to Syria.
Syria is regarded as the birthplace of ISIS, the current bad-boy terrorist organization on the block. But that assumption is off-base. The man who many feel is responsible for the development of ISIS is none other than Al Qaeda recruit Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who moved to Iraq in 2002 in anticipation of the coming US invasion. Yep… We come back to Iraq and the US invasion. Zarqawi, before he moved to Iraq, had already been preaching that Al Qaeda needed to speed up its plans to establish an Islamic state, and the US invasion of Iraq would be the prefect time to make that move. This went directly against the more cautious mandates laid out by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Yes, it’s weird to think of bin Laden as cautious.
Despite the warning from bin Laden that Zarqawi’s plan was reckless and not in the best interests of the desired Islam revolution, Zarqawi quickly developed a loyal following, and his views became very appealing to many of the disenfranchised Sunni’s left without power due to the de-Bathification of Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam. Soon after the invasion, Zarqawi and his followers would be responsible for uprisings and brutal killing in Faluja and Baghdad, including the release of videos showing the beheading of their captors. The US killed Zarqawi in 2006, but by then the seed had been sowed; he ignited a spark in those who didn’t want to wait for bin Laden’s slow method of forming a Caliphate…. They wanted it NOW! As bin Laden had predicted, the reckless and over the top actions of Zarqawi created pressure on the US to act, and thus “the surge” was born.
The surge managed to put an end to most of the violence, eventually, and did result in the deaths of many of Zarqawi’s followers. But some survived, and ended up in neighboring Syria, where they would find willing recruits as the Syrian civil war got under way.
Who is to blame for the rise of ISIS and spread out of Syria into Iraq? Some will blame the Bush administration and its invasion of Iraq. Others will blame Obama and his “reckless decisions” not to put troops back there. But, as with everything Middle East, it’s much more complicated than that. As David Ingatius notes:
“Where ISIS experienced organic growth in Iraq (in the sense that a metastasizing cancer can be called organic), in Syria it seems more a case of implantation. For all the mistakes in U.S. policy, the regional powers—Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar—have taken truly reckless actions, making Syria a cockpit for their proxy wars. It was Turkey that allowed a southern border with Syria so porous that it offered ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra what amounted to a logistical safe zone. It was Iran that marched Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia whose mission was fighting Israel, into Syria to save Assad. It was Saudi Arabia and Qatar, jockeying for regional influence, that funded a scattershot array of Sunni militias that proved easy recruiting grounds for the extremists (and in this sense supported the extremists). And it was Russia that stood by while its client, Assad, bombed civilians and ravaged his nation, and then began doing the bombing itself.”
Note that we have already seen that using direct force and occupying a country – Iraq – did not stop the continued development and evolution of terrorism in the Middle East, nor did simply taking out a dictator – Qaddafi. Now on to option number three, leave the dictator in place, and arm and train rebels to depose him for us. Never mind that didn’t work out to well in Central America. That seems to have been the policy the Obama administration settled on in Syria. Obviously, that didn’t work either.
And with that, I present the final piece of the puzzle, the reason I sat down to write what was going to be a short post on terrorism in the Middle East…. This article from NBC titled “Obama Nixed CIA Plan That Could Have Stopped ISIS: Officials” which is based on a book by former CIA operative Doug Laux. Here is the crux of the article:
“It’s long been known that then-CIA Director David Petraeus recommended a program to secretly arm and train moderate Syrian rebels in 2012 to pressure Assad. But a book to be published Tuesday by a former CIA operative goes further, revealing that senior CIA officials were pushing a multi-tiered plan to engineer the dictator’s ouster. Former American officials involved in the discussions confirmed that to NBC News…
Elements under discussion at the time included not only bolstering Syrian rebels, but pressuring and paying senior members of Assad’s regime to push him out, the former officials said. The idea was that the Syrian civil war could then have been peacefully resolved–a huge uncertainty.
Laux ultimately resigned in frustration — over that and other issues — after it became clear the Obama administration would not move forward.
Some time later, Obama authorized a more modest CIA plan to arm and train Syrian rebels than the one Petraeus had recommended, but that effort has not been decisive on the battlefield. The moderate Free Syrian Army collapsed, and many Syrians opposed to Assad were drawn into the orbit of extremist groups, including al Qaeda and ISIS. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf countries began arming different rebel groups and pursuing their own agendas.
ISIS had not yet broken from Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, or seized territory, when Laux was proposing his plan. By 2014, an allied coalition that included the U.S., U.K., and France was launching massive airstrikes against ISIS, which had seized a vast swath of Iraq and Syria and established a caliphate.”
Given that we see the results of our intervention in Iraq; given what we know happened in Libya; that strikingly similar actions taken there did NOT end terrorism by any means, how can the authors of the article Ken Dilanian and Kevin Monohan, or NBC for that matter, say the same actions could have stopped ISIS in Syria? I mean, the guy who wrote the book that is the source material and is quoted within the article as saying in retrospect his plan, and others like it, wouldn’t have worked. Yes, Petreus, Panetta, and some others are still on board with the idea this would have worked. But shouldn’t actual experience be the over-riding factor here? I don’t get how NBC could end up putting such a flawed article with that title into the public domain, except that it will win wide circulation within right wing media circles.
Just like the unrealistic desire to find a miracle cure for cancer, we all have to get used to the idea that there is no easy answer to address the mess that is the Middle East. One thing is for sure, stupidity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.