Al-Qaeda, the Obama administration has told us repeatedly, is on the path to defeat. Now it’s literally on the road to Baghdad.
This week, al-Qaeda in Iraq, now known as ISIS, retook Iraq’s second city, Mosul, where it put up its last spasms of resistance back in 2008. Then it retook Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and reports suggest it’s moving rapidly toward Iraq’s capital city.
The Iraqi army has put up little resistance, and the government, led by Nouri al-Maliki, is only now scrambling to respond. At best, it is in for a long war with ISIS, which controls a huge swath of territory across the Iraq-Syria border.
This turn of events was a long time coming, and the Obama administration ignored all the incipient problems along the way, just as it has largely ignored this week’s events.
Violence has been on the rise in Iraq for over a year now, with ISIS playing a large role. The Iraqi army has also been politicized, co-opted, and misused — and therefore weakened — by Maliki. The army’s capabilities, and those of the Iraqi state, were also likely overestimated in the face of political pressures for the U.S. to cut its support and withdraw from the country. That retreat, of which President Obama still seems proud, left the Iraqi security forces to do a job for which they were not prepared.
All of the foregoing set the stage for this week’s blitzkrieg. The Iraqi state’s weakness, the conflict in Syria, and America’s general lack of interest in the region have created space for a transnational Islamist force, with an army and significant oil resources, to take cities and begin a march toward Baghdad.
Maliki needs help now, and the U.S. needs to give it to him. The Obama administration, asked about the country’s impending collapse, noted that it has sent Maliki a few hundred missiles, some rifles, and lots of ammunition. It’s possible ISIS will overextend itself, but all the ammunition in the world may not be enough for the Iraqi army, such as it is, to retake the cities ISIS controls and stamp out the insurgency.
The Iraqi government has a long list of weapons and support it needs. The U.S. ought to meet those requests, at least. The Maliki government may need U.S. advisory support — and possibly even other measures — to stop ISIS’s advance and retake the cities that have been overrun.
This is anathema to the Obama administration: It much prefers handwringing to intervention. But deliberation now (not unlike in Syria) will allow the Islamists to solidify their position and amplify their influence.
If the Obama administration doesn’t consider the risk of a transnational Islamist state, controlled by al-Qaeda’s most brutal and, today, most deadly offshoot, worthy of an immediate response, we don’t know what would be.
There are plenty of reasons to worry about backing Maliki: He is a natural sectarian who’s relied on Shiite militias to confront ISIS. He’s been busy consolidating an authoritarian power base. He’s flirted far too much with Iran.
But these sectarian instincts are also survivalist ones. Critics who don’t want to support Maliki worry that he will become an Iranian puppet, but the surest way to make that happen would be to remove his other option, a strong alliance with the U.S.
Maliki has to drive ISIS out of Iraq’s cities and ensure that they can’t return. In the long term, this means a political settlement that Sunnis can trust, so that they can’t be bullied or tempted into supporting groups like ISIS instead. The U.S. should give Maliki real long-term support — as was expected before Obama’s rapid abandonment in 2012 — in exchange for a real commitment to better treatment and political roles for the Sunnis and reforms of the military.
ISIS has drawn much of the strength for its recent resurgence from the vacuum that’s opened up for jihadists in Syria. Al-Qaeda groups there, in the absence of any Western influence, have become a magnet for foreign fighters, weapons, and financial resources, some of which they seem now to have turned to Iraq.
The lesson there is not just that dithering can be deadly. It’s also that Islamist terror is not easily defeated, and it knows no borders.
President Obama has celebrated his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraqi and Afghan territory as the way wars end in the 21st century — with a handover to a competent governing authority. But when we don’t take the time to build those authorities, and don’t support them after we depart their borders, the result can end up looking a lot more like the eighth century than the 21st.