ISIS success shows U.S. out of touch with Iraq's reality

Middle East analysts say that U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to send in 300 "advisers" to help in the current Iraq crisis shows how much intelligence the Americans have lost there since pulling out in 2011.

President Obama has pledged to send 300 military advisers to Iraq

The Obama administration has pledged to send 300 military advisers to help defuse the current crisis in Iraq. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Military analysts say Barack Obama's decision to send a contingent of army "advisers" into Iraq amid the worsening crisis there reveals how out of touch the U.S. has been with the facts on the ground since pulling out of the country in 2011.

"The United States lost situational awareness of what was going inside Iraq to a large extent, and especially what was going on inside the Iraqi armed forces, when we withdrew our forces at the end of 2011," says Peter Mansoor, a retired U.S. Army officer and author of Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War.

Mansoor says this loss of intelligence "speaks volumes about the priority of Iraq within the Obama administration" in the past few years.

As the territorial advances of the Sunni militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threaten to push Iraq into civil war, the U.S. president has signalled a willingness to contribute U.S. military resources.

Fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have in recent weeks overtaken major Iraqi cities and threatened to attack the capital, Baghdad. (Reuters)
When asked for specifics on June 12, Obama said, "I don’t rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria."

Since then, he has pledged to send 300 military advisers into the country. While there are no specific details about their role, they're more than likely there to assess "the temperament, the morale and the will of the Iraqi army," says Janine Davidson, senior fellow of defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.

Prior to the pullout in 2011, the U.S. put a great amount of money and effort into equipping and training the Iraqi military. But even before the ISIS occupation of Mosul, during which Iraqi soldiers reportedly laid down their weapons and fled, there were concerns about the capability and conviction of the Iraqi army.

"This is very unique in U.S. military history, that we have a place where we fought a war and trained up a military force, then departed and [then] went back in to assess whether that force can survive against an enemy that has just invaded the country," says Mansoor.

"Pretty tough to name another conflict where that's happened."

Troubling exit

When the Americans pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011, it was the culmination of Obama's 2008 election promise to extricate the U.S. from a controversial and unpopular war that cost upwards of $1-trillion and the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

When he announced the complete pullout in October 2011, Obama said, "Iraqis have taken full responsibility for their country's security."

But civil strife has increased significantly in recent weeks, especially after ISIS fighters commandeered a number of key Iraqi cities, attacked oilfields and threatened the central government of Nouri al-Maliki.

Many Middle East analysts have blamed Maliki for escalating the crisis, saying he has exacerbated tensions with Iraqi Sunnis by barring them from key positions in the government and military.

But part of the problem is the nature of the U.S. exit in 2011, says Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.

The 2003 U.S. invasion led to the capture of Saddam Hussein, but it also inspired an Iraqi Sunni insurgency that led to the formation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is the parent organization to ISIS.

Harmer says that in the years following, the U.S. did a good job of reaching out to Sunni groups who were not completely on-side with al-Qaeda in Iraq, which under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi declared war on Iraqi Shia.

U.S. lost 'human intelligence' in Iraq

"By 2007, 2008, we had a very, very effective human intelligence network in Iraq, because we had convinced Sunni groups, either through moral persuasion or bribery, to align with us instead of with Al-Qaeda in Iraq," says Harmer.

But after the U.S. departed in 2011, it lost communication with many of those groups, resulting in a significant loss of "human intelligence," or information gleaned from sources on the ground.

This type of intelligence could help the U.S. establish, for example, which Sunni groups sympathize with ISIS and which might be more moderate and amenable to working with the central government.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, recently met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the hopes of convincing him to form a more inclusive government in the face of threats from the Sunni jihadist group ISIS. (Brendan Smialowski/Reuters)

Davidson says that the U.S. has actually maintained a significant presence in Iraq since 2011.

"Despite all the rhetoric about us having pulled out, we did leave some advisers," says Davidson. "There are an array of American contractors on the ground that have been continuing to work for the State Department."

She adds that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad is the biggest in the world, with thousands of employees capable of collecting crucial information about sectarian and tribal sentiment in the country.

Harmer insists, however, that a diminished U.S. intelligence effort in Iraq is partly to blame for the current situation.

"The fact that we have sat aside and watched the Maliki government operate like a uniformed gang of thugs puts this issue into play," says Harmer.

"If we had been more engaged in the last three years, ISIS wouldn't have gotten this traction to begin with."


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