With Iraq’s future pouring into the hands of either Islamic militants or Iran, the time has come for Obama to admit his foreign policy is utterly flawed.
The leader of the free world didn’t look good after his statement to the media on Friday from the White House lawn. With the George H.W. Bush carrier group on its way to the Persian Gulf, U.S. President Barack Obama will soon have over 100 combat aircraft at his disposal around Iraq, including those based in Jordan and the Emirates, and close to 40,000 troops in various bases in the region. If needed, that number could be doubled at short notice. But when Obama admitted that “short term military action, including any assistance we might provide, won’t succeed,” he wasn’t just making excuses.
The new situation in Iraq – where the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), along with local Sunni militias, have taken control of wide swathes of the country’s north-west – symbolizes the total failure of the Obama administration’s military strategy over the last five and a half years. Obama is effectively out of military options.
The Obama strategy in fighting terror in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan-Pakistan, was based on three major components – all which are now proving irrelevant in facing the challenge posed by ISIS.
The first component was building new independent armies. Before U.S. forces finally left Iraq in December 2011, the administration invested huge resources in building up Iraq’s new army, in training and unprecedented quantities of military hardware. Washington invested a total sum of around $25 billion to develop Iraq’s military. Now we can see the results: convoys of American-made army vehicles (some with Israeli-developed armor) captured by ISIS and making their way to its strongholds across the border in Syria. In at least one case, a Blackhawk helicopter supplied to Iraq was filmed flying under what was reported to be ISIS command. This costly army disintegrated – its Shia troops (those who were not captured and summarily executed) fleeing south and the Sunnis changing sides. Now the Iraqi precedent is haunting the United States, which is investing in a similar way in the Afghan army before leaving there by the end of the year.
The second component is replacing the large units – the “boots on the ground” – with unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. The drones hit terror targets of organizations affiliated with Al-Qaida, the Taliban and other Islamist groups. But drones can only be used against pinpoint targets, small cells in diffuse movements. Long-term intelligence work is required to locate these targets and the United States just doesn’t have this sort of knowledge on ISIS. And even if it did, it probably couldn’t significantly damage an army numbering by now over ten thousand fighters (with all the volunteers who have joined following its recent success). Even if the United States uses its heavier, manned airpower, or launches Tomahawk missiles – as Obama threatened last year in Syria following the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime – ISIS is not yet an organized regime, so it doesn’t have the state infrastructure that could be bombed from the air. And the risk of harming civilians instead of fighters and commanders is very high.
The third component – “leading from behind,” as the United States did in Libya and to a lesser degree in Syria, by aiding other nations that were supporting the rebels much more openly – is unappealing in Iraq. The only nation willing to support the al-Maliki government against ISIS is Iran, whose troops are already in the field. When the alternatives left to Obama are to allow Iraq to disintegrate into at least three different states, with a movement even more radical than Al-Qaida controlling oil-rich regions and the borders with Syria and Jordan; or to support its transformation into full-fledged Iranian satellite, the time has come to announce the ultimate failure of his military strategy and foreign policy.