Islamic State flag. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.
Pentagon planners are considering new options to expand the war against ISIS. The decision comes fifteen months after their intense air-war began to strike the movement, which has left it barely constrained in Iraq and actually able to gain new territory in Syria.
The tactics under review include increasing the air-attacks and going for “high-value targets”, regardless that these may be located in heavily populated areas with all the risks of added civilian casualties (see "The airstrike harvest", 9 October 2015). More involvement of special forces, and even the use of troops in frontline ground-combat (not least alongside Iraqi army units), are also probable. The war, in other words, shows no signs of ending or even slowing down.
These new developments coincide with Tony Blair's acknowledgment of a direct relationship between the war in Iraq that started in 2003 and the subsequent development of ISIS. Aspects of this connection have been explored in previous columns in this series, but the topic is worth looking at again in light of the intractable and ultra-violent conflict of 2011 onwards.
The JSOC legacy
The link between the Iraq war and ISIS is just one among many: also relevant, for example, is the crushing of protest in Syria by Bashar al-Assad's regime in the early summer of 2011 and the reaction this provoked. Yet the more direct connection is worth revisiting, especially as the unexpected consequences of that war have direct relevance for the future of ISIS (see "Blowback: Iraq war to Islamic State", 13 August 2015).
The apparent initial success of the war should be recalled. George W Bush made his “mission accomplished” speech on the flight-deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast on 1 May 2003, six weeks after the start of the coalition occupation and three weeks after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. Within a few weeks of that address, the insurgency was heavily underway. It was to last six years, with close to 200,000 people killed, millions displaced and a country almost wrecked.
By 2010, and with Barack Obama in the White House, the insurgency appeared to be waning, sufficiently for the president to keep his election pledge of 2008 and withdrawing United States troops from Iraq. A big part of the reason for that was the effective "dirty war" fought from 20014 by the elite forces of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) - more commonly termed Task Force 145. This culminated with Operation Arcadia in 2006.
Many thousands of paramilitary insurgents were killed and well over 10,000 imprisoned; targeting these key elements of the insurgency, it was argued, took the momentum out of the insurgency. More US ground-troops and support for Sunni clans opposed to the paramilitaries were given some credit, but JSOC was seen as central to the campaign's success.
It is understood now that JSOC's very work helped establish the paramilitary core of ISIS. Many of the toughest fighters were able to break out of Iraqi prisons in 2012-13 after the Americans had left. There was, in other words, a hard core of highly competent and very violent paramilitaries at the heart of ISIS's advances from early 2014. While some since have been killed in air-strikes, a good number are still active.
The intensely religious (indeed eschatological) dimension of much of the ISIS leadership, and its success in attracting ex-Ba’ath party Iraqi technocrats, also played a part. These Ba’athists have proved very efficient, if brutal, when it comes to running the towns, cities and rural areas under the movement’s control in Iraq and Syria (see Christoph Reuter, "The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State", Der Spiegel, 18 April 2015).
The next movement
In this overall context, Blair may be right to accept that the "old" war has helped enhance the "new" war. But the extent of that help goes well beyond hatred of the “crusaders” of the west and through to the direct combat-training provided by the Iraq war itself, especially JSOC.
This has further significance in terms of what is happening now. Washington accepts that Iran can now be involved in negotiations over the future of the Assad regime, and is engaged in intermediate level talks with Moscow. There is thus modest hope that the complex proxy war between the Damascus and the rebels may be brought under control.
That, however, would still leave ISIS rampant. The movement retains considerable paramilitary capability and potential. Even now it benefits from new cohorts of fighters honing their combat-skills on the Iraqi army, Assad’s forces and Iranian militias. All this while functioning under the shadow of the western air-war.
If the astonishing were to happen, and ISIS collapses in the next five years, it would still leave behind the paramilitary knowledge it has accumulated. A new movement would likely inherit these skills. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Iraq war may turn out to be not the rise of ISIS but the growth of what may eventually replace it.
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