The 'unknown unknowns' of confronting ISIS in Iraq

The lack of credible military intelligence about ISIS is like what it was about the Taliban at the start of our Afghanistan engagement, Brian Stewart writes. This is not to say the cause is wrong, just that we ought to be mindful we're largely flying blind.

The lack of credible military intelligence about ISIS is like what it was about the Taliban

Barack Obama thanks members of the U.S. military for their service after meetings with the Pentagon's senior leadership to review the campaign against ISIS earlier this week. The president had been unusually critical of the military intelligence he had been receiving on the Islamist group. (Gary Cameron / Reuters)

One striking similarity between Canada's first combat mission to Iraq and our long, draining involvement in the Afghan war is the almost total lack of credible military intelligence at the outset.

We knew almost nothing about the Taliban for years, even as we began fighting them, and we know even less about ISIS now.

It was Ottawa's abysmal lack of intel in 2005 that allowed us to eagerly lobby NATO to put us in charge of Kandahar province, the Taliban's home base. 

Four frustrating years later, our small contingent of under 3,000 troops was having limited success in suppressing escalating Taliban operations there, and a large U.S. Marine surge was needed to take over the combat lead.

Today, the U.S.-led coalition that we've joined seems to have a similarly blank intelligence slate on this latest enemy as it rampages through Syria and parts of Iraq.

One could say we have a mix of "known unknowns" and even more "unknown unknowns" to use the convoluted language of former U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who learned first-hand the costs of faulty intel following the Iraq invasion in 2003.

This is not an argument against Canada's newest armed mission. I feel a case can be made that there is a real risk of ISIS-led genocide in the region that requires outside intervention.

But if we are going to engage we should be doing so with enormous care, and regard our government's claims to be well informed about the combat reality with the deepest suspicion.

Because Canada has no foreign intelligence agency of its own (and, in fact, is the only G8 country to refuse even to set up one), we rely largely on what our allies choose to tell us — and they're not exactly slaves to clarity right now.

Obama's finger-pointing

Take even the assessment of ISIS's strength. The U.S. estimates sound like they're arrived at by CIA analysts throwing darts at a numbers board.

Back in July, ISIS was estimated at around 10,000 to 12,000 jihadists, but within the past two weeks estimates have suddenly soared into the 20,000 to 30,000 range.

As if that swing was not disconcerting enough, the White House and U.S. intelligence community have been blaming each other for being essentially out to lunch over the entire ISIS threat.

President Barack Obama recently claimed that U.S. intelligence downright missed ISIS's growing strength last winter, when it emerged from its opposition role to Syria's Assad regime into what some now call the most supremely brutal guerrilla movement in the world.

To compound that, Obama noted that his spies also missed the catastrophic decay within the large and costly Iraq military, which let ISIS capture enough sophisticated, mostly U.S.-supplied weaponry to threaten the collapse of Iraq itself.

So if we are to believe Obama, we are in this war today largely thanks to the woeful record of the key intelligence networks that we must rely on for military success in future.

Firing back

For its part, the U.S. intelligence community, which represents the CIA, Pentagon and State Department, has fired back with news leaks that said the White House overlooked the obvious warnings it had been handed.

This equally dispiriting view was buttressed this week when former defence secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta released his critical memoir, Worthy Fights, which insists Obama "lost his way" in both Iraq and Syria, leading to the rise of ISIS.

Once a close ally, now a memoir-publishing critic, Obama's former defence secretary Leon Panetta has blasted the president for missing opportunities in the Middle East. (The Associated Press)

Even when the president gets accurate intelligence, Obama "avoids the battle, complains and misses opportunities," Panetta says.

Panetta may well be right, but there is still plenty of evidence that military intelligence has been flawed over the years, to the extent we really don't know what we're dealing with in this latest war.

The experts seem frankly baffled as ISIS looks like a cross between an actual army and a hard-to-count phantom.

When Britain's RAF, after a month of air surveillance, launched its first five combat mission two weeks ago it couldn't locate a single ISIS target in Iraq's largely barren northern landscape.

The equally skilled Australian air force came up similarly empty on its first missions, although pilots called off one attack for fear of collateral civilian damage.

"We have seen ISIS change its tactics," Australia's chief of defence staff Mark Binskin said this week. "They're moving into built-up areas, and that clearly brings a different collateral damage issue with it that we have to manage."

This is going to be a critical concern for Canadian pilots, too, if intelligence has few answers for an environment where one wrong aim from 10,000 metres can lead to catastrophic humanitarian and even international consequences.

Wing and a prayer

In fact, super intelligence, not just good intelligence, will be needed if we are to avoid playing into ISIS's hands.

From the beginning of the ISIS offensive earlier this year, with its self-publicized atrocities, it seemed clear that the movement was trying to goad Western nations into military action.

Taking a leaf from al-Qaeda’s playbook, it counts on such intervention to inflame large Sunni Muslim populations and cause other terror groups to join its international jihad.

Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike on ISIS fighters trying to take the Syrian border town of Kobani earlier this week. The town has become the focus of international attention since the Islamists' advance drove 180,000 of the area's mostly Kurdish inhabitants to flee into adjoining Turkey. (Reuters)

Coalition partners know this, but feel they have little choice if they are to save Iraqi and Kurdish forces to try to stabilize the region.

It is still too early to assess how well this ISIS strategy is working, though there are some disturbing signs that the air attacks in Syria are causing a growing Sunni backlash and driving moderates into the arms of the extremists.  

The "unknowns" are increasing by the week.

In warfare, poor intelligence can have disastrous consequences by underestimating a foe, but also by overestimating one, too, and so exaggerating the need for intervention, which some close observers feel happened in this case.

Today, a confused coalition seems to be concluding that air power alone cannot suppress such a well-financed guerrilla army, though whose boots will be on the ground is just as muddy as everything else.

Since all agree it will take years to largely destroy ISIS, Canada may find leaving after one six-month air combat tour as difficult as it was to wrap up its Afghanistan mission.

In the meantime, our F-18 pilots will be hoping the coalition can offer up rather more than the wing and a prayer it seems to be operating on now. 


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.