The pace of events in the war-torn "greater middle east" is accelerating. A single week began with bitter controversy in the United States over the exchange of American soldier Bowe Bergdahl for five leading members of the Taliban, held since soon after 9/11 at the Guantanamo prison-camp. This was rapidly overshadowed by the deaths of five US special-forces personnel in a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan. But the rapid advance of the ISIS paramilitaries across northern Iraq, and their takeover of Mosul and other cities, is a development with far more profound implications for the region.
Even if these events are of a different order, though, they are connected by an important shift in US military strategy under the Barack Obama administration. For just as the US president was accused by Republicans over his decision to let the "Taliban five" go free, his secretary of state John Kerry stated that if any of them rejoined the conflict - in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere - they would be targeted and killed, most likely by armed-drones.
This political moment, and the reminder of the presence of US special forces in Afghanistan, is confirmation of the strategic transition that has taken place: from an approach based on having tens of thousands of "boots on the ground" (in Afghanistan and then Iraq) to one based on maintaining the security of western interests by "remote control". The latter policy seeks - via a combination of armed-drones, special forces, and privatised military companies (as well as other means) - to deliver safety to Americans while putting few of their lives at risk in the field. In theory it should work - but practice is a very different matter (see "America's turn: new wars, special forces", 13 May 2014).
The Iraqi descent
The seismic events in Iraq may appear startling, though the current drama is part of a wider escalation of conflict that has been chronicled in several columns in this series (see "Iraq, past and future war", 13 March 2014). It is also being tracked even more immediately, near to the events themselves, by exceptionally well-informed journalists such as Patrick Cockburn (see "Iraq crisis: Capture of Mosul ushers in the birth of a Sunni caliphate", Independent, 11 June 2014).
Anyone following such sources would have had advance warning of the possibility of the collapse of the Iraqi army that has occurred, initially in Mosul and then in Baiji and Tikrit. This was foreshadowed by its failure in May 2014 to retake Fallujah after it fell to IISIS paramilitaries; as Cockburn reported, 40,000 government troops had approached the city, leading up to 30,000 civilians to flee in anticipation of a hugely destructive assault (see "al-Qaida, and a global revolt", 22 May 2014) -
In the event, the Iraqi forces opted to lay siege to Fallujah - primarily because the army was so much demoralised. 6,000 of its troops were killed and twice that number deserted in the last year alone; the former number is far bigger than that of the United States troops who fell in eight years of occupation and war in Iraq.
In face of this situation, what do the United States - and its allies such as the UK - actually do? Their situation is tough: a radical and brutal Islamist insurgency now controls large tracts of territory in northwest Iraq and northeast Syria (see "Fall of Mosul to Sunni militias brings Iraq closer to civil war", The Conversation, 11 June 2014). Worse, Iraq itself is moving towards civil war, with the Iraqi government increasingly relying on a quick mobilisation of Shi’a militias to replace an army that evidently cannot cope.
The fact that Islamist control of substantial territory gives ISIS and related movement huge room for independent manoeuvre is hugely worrying for western politicians and military strategists. The focus at present may be on Iraq and Syria, and the process underway of forming a small-scale, symbolic Islamist caliphate. But soon, it will expand to a worldwide level: for current events in Iraq raise echoes of 9/11 itself and its at least partial intention of provoking the United States into large-scale military operations on al-Qaida’s “home turf”.
The impossible choice
There is now very little domestic support in the United States for new, large-scale American troop deployments in Iraq (or anywhere else overseas). Thus it is far more likely that the “remote-control” model will be implemented in the coming months. This will certainly involve the further supply of many weapons and other materiel to Nouri al-Maliki's regime in Baghdad, in the hope that it will make the Iraqi armed forces more effective.
In response to those (the majority of observers) who say this approach is inadequate, the US leadership will say that "something must be done" to prevent the dangerous outcome of the Islamists' acquiring “safe space” in the region. This "something" most likely will be to arm the Iraqi regime and support it with the use of drones, special forces and the rest - all the while avoiding a major and obvious US military presence (see "Remote control: a new way of war", 18 October 2012)
The dilemma for Obama and other western leaders is that - echoes of 9/11, again - this is almost certainly what ISIS actually wants them to do. It might be best for the movement to "invite" even a shadow foreign military intervention in Iraq, which would arouse all the old fears across the Muslim world of a “crusader” takeover. Such a scenario would become a new focus for many of the thousands of young men already travelling to Iraq and Syria to join the two wars (perhaps now in process of combining).
In short, western leaders have a choice: they can either leave ISIS to develop its capacity to control territory and then move beyond the immediate region, or they can take action to try and effect its demise. The trap in the latter option, though, is that its impact will be to encourage determined young jihadists to fight even harder against the west, and in particular the “far enemy”.
The sudden emergence of this problem could make June 2014 a historic month - even more than is realised at present. In the early stages of the Iraq war, on 4 April 2003, a column in this series was titled “A thirty-year war”. That prospect still looks all too probable.