WASHINGTON — The Obama administration knew an attack was in the works three days in advance of the Islamic State’s offensive in northern Iraq, but U.S. efforts to mount a response were hampered by the Iraqi government’s insistence that it could handle the threat, two top U.S. architects of Iraq policy said Wednesday.
The officials faced bipartisan criticism from the House Foreign Affairs Committee as members accused the Obama administration of taking insufficient steps to counter the expansionist goals of the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL, an al Qaida spinoff that now operates freely throughout most of eastern Syria and across the vast swaths of northwestern Iraq that it seized last month.
Brett McGurk, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran who just returned from a seven-week trip to Baghdad, and his counterpart at the Defense Department, Elissa Slotkin, a former Iraq director for the National Security Council, told the panel that the U.S. government had tracked the Islamic State but was caught off guard by the scope of the extremists’ offensive and the rapid collapse of the American-trained Iraqi security forces.
“ISIL is no longer simply a terrorist organization,” McGurk said. “It is now a full-blown army seeking to establish a self-governing state through the Tigris and Euphrates Valley in what is now Syria and Iraq.”
McGurk said the United States warned the Iraqi government on June 7 that American intelligence had received “early indications that ISIL was moving in force from Syria into Iraq and staging forces in western Mosul.” He said U.S. officials had sought the urgent deployment of Kurdish peshmerga militia forces to eastern Mosul to stop the extremists’ advance, but that the idea was blocked by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s administration.
“The government of Baghdad did not share the same sense of urgency and did not approve the deployments,” McGurk said. “Iraqi military commanders promised to send nine brigades of force to Mosul in response to our warnings and we stressed, however, that the forces would not arrive in time.”
McGurk described the resulting events as “catastrophic.”
Within days, the Islamic State had captured Mosul with little resistance from the security forces. Four or five divisions of the Iraqi army simply dissolved. McGurk and Slotkin blamed poor leadership rather than a lack of fighting capability for the breakdown and called for an overhaul of Iraq’s defense forces.
But McGurk bristled against suggestions that the Obama administration could have done more, noting that President Barack Obama already had ordered “a surge of intelligence assets,” asked U.S. special forces to get an “eyes-on picture” from the ground, and had moved an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf after Islamic State campaigns in Iraq’s Anbar province earlier this year.
McGurk said, however, that earlier U.S. intelligence assessments lacked the “granular” details necessary before any U.S. commitment of military force. He said U.S. officials were now studying a clearer picture of the group and its standing on the ground as the Obama administration weighs deeper military engagement in the conflict.
Slotkin described the Islamic State as “one of the most capable and best-funded groups in the region right now,” more worrisome than previous al Qaida-style networks because of the amount of territory it holds, its self-funding capabilities, its “war-tested” foot soldiers, and the Western passport-holders among its members.
She and McGurk noted the group’s old statements praising Osama bin Laden and said that the Islamic State’s break from central al Qaida command signals its desire to lead the “global jihad.” That makes it a direct threat to U.S. national security, the officials argued.
But there was little indication that the Obama administration had moved from its insistence that any further U.S. support would come only after Iraqi politicians took steps toward breaking the political deadlock and forming a new, more inclusive government.
“There will not be an exclusively military solution to the threat posed by ISIL,” Slotkin said. “The Iraqis must do the heavy lifting.”
At the hearing, legislators asked bluntly, and in various ways, whether the beleaguered Maliki should go, whether the United States should carry out airstrikes against the militants and whether Iraq should remain intact or fragment along ethnic and sectarian lines.
The responses from McGurk and Slotkin offered no significant policy changes. The officials mostly repeated administration talking points: that Iraqis are forming a government after successful elections, that military options are under consideration but must be accompanied by political reforms, and that a decentralized “functioning federalism” is the most workable governmental model available under the Iraqi constitution.
Slotkin noted in her testimony that the partition scenario is problematic chiefly because of a lack of Sunni Muslim leaders who could work with a central government; most majority-Sunni territories are now either contested or fully under the control of the extremists and their allies from local tribes and Saddam Hussein’s former military and intelligence forces.
“Who’s in charge of that western and north-central part of Iraq in that model?” Slotkin asked.