WASHINGTON — Like the rest of the world, the U.S. government appeared to have been taken aback last month when Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell to an offensive by jihadis of the Islamic State that triggered the collapse of five Iraqi army divisions and carried the extremists to the threshold of Baghdad.
A review of the record shows, however, that the Obama administration wasn’t surprised at all.
In congressional testimony as far back as November, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials made clear that the United States had been closely tracking the al Qaida spinoff since 2012, when it enlarged its operations from Iraq to civil war-torn Syria, seized an oil-rich province there and signed up thousands of foreign fighters who’d infiltrated Syria through NATO ally Turkey.
The testimony, which received little news media attention at the time, also showed that Obama administration officials were well aware of the group’s declared intention to turn its Syrian sanctuary into a springboard from which it would send men and materiel back into Iraq and unleash waves of suicide bombings there. And they knew that the Iraqi security forces couldn’t handle it.
The group’s operations “are calculated, coordinated and part of a strategic campaign led by its Syria-based leader, Abu Bakr al Baghadi,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk told a House committee on Feb. 5, four months before fighting broke out in Mosul. “The campaign has a stated objective to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of governing control in western regions of Iraq and Syria.”
The testimony raises an obvious question: If the Obama administration had such early warning of the Islamic State’s ambitions, why, nearly two months after the fall of Mosul, is it still assessing what steps, if any, to take to halt the advance of Islamist extremists who threaten U.S. allies in the region and have vowed to attack Americans?
In fresh testimony before Congress this week, McGurk revealed that the administration knew three days in advance that the attack on Mosul was coming. He acknowledged that the Islamic State is no longer just a regional terrorist organization but a “full-blown” army that now controls nearly 50 percent of Iraq and more than one-third of Syria. Its fighters have turned back some of the best-trained Iraqi units trying to retake key cities, while in Syria, it’s seized nearly all that country’s oil and natural gas fields and is pushing the Syrian military from its last outposts in the country’s east.
“What started as a crisis in Syria has become a regional disaster with serious global implications,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Wednesday.
Yet Defense Department officials say they might not complete work on proposed options for U.S. actions until the middle of August, a lifetime in a region where every day brings word of another town or village falling to the Islamic State. Some lawmakers and experts say the delay borders on diplomatic malpractice.
“We did see this coming,” said Royce, adding that Iraqi officials and some diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad began urging the administration in August 2013 to launch U.S. drone strikes against Islamic State bases near Iraq’s border with Syria.
“This was a very clear case in which the U.S. knew what was going on but followed a policy of deliberate neglect,” said Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a former State Department adviser on the Middle East.
“This miscalculation essentially has helped realize the worst nightmare for this administration, an administration that prided itself on its counterterrorism strategy,” said Nasr. “It is now presiding over the resurgence of a nightmare of extremism and terrorism.”
Administration officials deny the charges of inaction. U.S. policy, they contend, was aimed at helping the Iraqi government deal with the growing threat.
“That was also the desire of the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government wanted to act on its own with our assistance,” McGurk told Congress this week. He insisted that Baghdad didn’t formally request U.S. airstrikes until May.
The situation, however, was far beyond the Iraqi government’s ability to cope.
One complicating factor was the administration’s approach to Syria and the uprising there to topple President Bashar Assad, a goal President Barack Obama adopted as America’s own in an August 2011 statement that said Assad had lost all legitimacy to rule and must go.
Some experts argue that Obama committed a key error in 2012 by rejecting calls from top national security aides, lawmakers and others to train and arm a moderate rebel force to fight Assad.
Obama administration officials say that rejection was based on a variety of concerns, including that weapons passed to moderate rebels might end up in the hands of more radical elements such as the Nusra Front, an al Qaida affiliate that by mid-2012 had taken the lead in many of the anti-Assad movement’s major victories.
But without a well-armed moderate force, the battlefield was left open to increasing jihadi influence, others respond.
“This crisis was allowed to fester and get worse in many ways due to inaction against Assad and ISIS,” said Phillip Smyth, a Middle East researcher at the University of Maryland.
A review of the record shows, however, that support for the anti-Assad movement also hampered U.S. action to quash the Islamic State, which until earlier this year rebels considered an ally in the push to topple Assad.
In testimony in November, McGurk said that one of the reasons the United States had not granted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s request for assistance against the Islamic State was Maliki’s refusal to close Iraqi airspace to Iranian planes flying arms to Assad’s military.
While Maliki’s fears about the Islamic State “are legitimate,” McGurk said then, “it’s equally legitimate to question Iraq’s independence given Iran’s ongoing use of Iraqi airspace to resupply the Assad regime.”
In another misstep, some experts said, the Obama administration appears to have turned a blind eye as U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others provided arms and money that allowed Islamist groups to hijack the Assad opposition and ultimately provide Baghdadi with a secure patch in Syria from which he eventually would send men and weapons back into Iraq.
Smyth disputed that idea in part, noting that the Islamic State was largely self-sufficient financially, although the influx of foreign fighters provided a crucial boost to its manpower.
What is indisputable, Smyth said, is that the White House became immobilized by the complexity of the crisis: Having declared that Assad had to go, it found that there was no opposition group that didn’t have some ties to jihadists, and actively backing the rebels would put the United States on the same side as al Qaida.
“When you have a policy that was paralyzed by a number of different things, the result is a confused policy,” he said.
On Iraq, meanwhile, the public testimony shows that the administration moved slowly to respond to the rising Islamic State threat. One complication: Doing so would have put the United States effectively on the same side as Iran, the main regional ally of Baghdad and Damascus.
Maliki, whose Shiite Muslim majority dominated Iraq’s government, formally sought stepped-up U.S. military and counterterrorism assistance in October 2013. But he had been asking privately for help much earlier.
One such appeal came after a March 4, 2013, attack inside Iraq by Islamic State forces on Iraqi army troops who were escorting back to the border dozens of Syrian soldiers who’d fled into Iraq to escape an attack on their post by anti-Assad rebels. While still inside Iraq, their buses drove into bombs and gunfire. At least 49 Syrians and 14 Iraqis died. It was one of the first documented instances of the Islamic State coordinating attacks on both sides of the border.
Ali al Mousawi, Maliki’s spokesman, called then for the United States to immediately give priority to arming Iraq with weapons that the country already had requested so that it could fend off any future incidents.
“We need equipment as fast as it was delivered to Turkey,” Mousawi said, referring to the deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries by the United States and several NATO allies after Syrian missiles landed in Turkish territory.
“They managed to install the Patriot systems within two weeks. We need something like that,” he told McClatchy the day after the incident.
Instead, the White House stuck with a policy that tried to make use of the crisis to pressure Maliki into replicating the U.S. success late in the 2003-2011 occupation of enlisting Sunni tribes to help fight al Qaida’s Iraqi affiliate, which eventually became the Islamic State.
“We made it clear to Maliki and other Iraqi leaders that the fight against terrorists and militias will require a holistic _ security, political, economic _ approach,” McGurk told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Nov. 13 in describing talks held with the Iraqi leader during a visit he’d made to Washington a week earlier.
The approach called for Maliki to be more accommodating to his Sunni Muslim political rivals. The administration called on Maliki to end a harsh crackdown on Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority, restore their political rights and provide salaries and other benefits to Sunni tribes that agreed to fight the Islamic State. Maliki failed to make good on numerous assurances that he’d comply.
Washington also had other priorities: trying to mediate a feud between Maliki and Kurdish leaders over oil revenues, boost the country’s petroleum industry and promote ties between Iraq and its Arab neighbors.
It was only after Islamic State assaults in December on the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi that the administration began stepping up military aid to Baghdad. It sent unarmed spy drones and 75 Hellfire missiles _ which had to be dropped from propeller-driven passenger planes _ for use against Islamic State bases in western Iraq.
And the United States has yet to deliver helicopter gunships and F-16 jet fighters that Iraq already had purchased. It also dragged its feet on Baghdad’s request for U.S. military advisers, some 300 of whom were dispatched only after Mosul fell.
While there are many reasons for the Obama administration’s failure to tackle the rise of the Islamic State earlier, lacking intelligence is not among them.
By early 2013, U.S. intelligence agencies began delivering more than a dozen top-secret high-level reports, known as strategic warnings, to senior administration officials detailing the danger posed by the Islamic State’s rise, said a senior U.S. intelligence official. The reports also covered the threat to Europe and the United States from the return of thousands of battle-hardened foreign fighters, including dozens of Americans, who’d fought to topple Assad.
Intelligence analysts well into this year “continued to provide strategic warning of (the) increasing threat to Iraq’s stability . . . the increasing difficulties Iraq’s security forces faced . . . and the political strains that were contributing to Iraq’s declining stability,” said the senior U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive issue.
On Feb. 11, Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in public that the Islamic State “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014.”
Flynn warned then that Iraqi forces were “unable to stem rising violence in part because they lack mature intelligence, logistics and other capabilities.” They also “lack cohesion, are undermanned, and are poorly trained, equipped and supplied,” leaving them “vulnerable to terrorist attack, infiltration and corruption,” he said.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said his committee had been regularly briefed on both Syria and Iraq.
“I do not think it was an intelligence failure. I think that we got the information we needed to have,” he said recently when asked his assessment of the developments in the region. “I don’t feel like I could lay responsibility at the feet of the intelligence community for not seeing this coming, because they were aware of the growing risk.”
Nancy A. Youssef of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.