Soon after the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, a column in this series spoke of the risk of a "thirty-year war" in the Middle East. More than eleven years on - and after thirteen years of the “war on terror” - Barack Obama has now committed the United States to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State with “a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy”.
This will be a long-term project that goes way beyond Obama's own second term, and thus may be the most important speech of his presidency. Beyond that, it is likely to be the prelude to two more decades of war - and perhaps even on to that thirty-year timescale.
The BBC summarises the strategy as Obama outlined it:
* A systematic campaign of airstrikes against IS targets "wherever they are", including in Syria
* Increased support for allied ground forces fighting against IS - but not President Assad of Syria
* More counter-terrorism efforts to cut off the group's funding and help stem the flow of fighters into the Middle East
* Continuing humanitarian assistance to civilians affected by the IS advance.
The Iraq element of this strategy has already been underway for a month, with over 150 airstrikes so far. An initial analysis of the targets attacked shows that the Islamic State paramilitaries are lightly armed, highly mobile and prone to use commercial vehicles for much of their mobility. They have acquired US weapons, not least from overrunning Iraqi army bases, but they use these sparingly. A Breaking Defense analysis suggests that their capabilities would be limited against well-protected and well-armed defenders, but that their versatility would make it difficult for air-strikes to degrade and ultimately destroy them.
The United States intention is to work with other states, including the Iraqi government and the Iranian (though that is not admitted in public). Also it already has its own substantial forces in the region, primarily air and naval power. The latter includes the George H W Bush carrier battle-group in the Persian Gulf and the USS Cole cruise-missile-armed destroyer in the eastern Mediterranean. The USS Cole itself was an early victim of an al-Qaida-linked operation when it was bombed in Aden harbour in October 2000, killing seventeen American sailors and injuring thirty-nine.
The US airforce has even stronger forces available: air-bases in Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey as well as facilities in Jordan. It could also utilise the large UK base at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. President Obama has stated that the US operations will differ greatly from the “boots-on-the-ground” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with their deploymernt of huge numbers of ground troops. More indicative of what is intended are the operations in Yemen and Somalia, with their heavy reliance on armed-drones, special forces, and aid to local militias.
In each of these examples, though, early successes have been followed by regroupings of opponents. The Yemeni government is currently struggling to cope with a resurgent al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al-Shabaab in Somalia may have been excluded from some of the country's few large urban areas, but it has influence across swathes of countryside as well as regional abilities through to Kenya and beyond.
In any case, the US secretary of state John Kerry has acknowledged - in a revealing comment at a Baghdad press conference on 9 September - that in extreme circumstances, the United States might commit combat-troops on the ground in Iraq. Indeed, several hundred more US troops are already heading for Iraq, albeit reportedly for defensive purposes only; but special-forces units are likely to be already in the country, many of them involved directly in combat (though again this would never be acknowledged officially).
In the labyrinth
All this raises the issue of why the Islamic State’s paramilitary capabilities have come to the fore so rapidly and lethally. It remains a central question. The answer will determine how deeply the US and its coalition partners gets immersed in a new war, and relates quite strikingly to how the United States conducted the previous war in Iraq before the withdrawal of most of its forces in 2011.
The well-informed Guardian journalist Martin Chulov reports that at the core of the Islamic State’s paramilitary force is a tightly-knit group around its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Many of them are Iraqis who fought the American and British special forces in perhaps the most vicious phase of that singularly dirty war, which lasted for three years from late 2004.
At that time, the US joint special-operations command (JSOC) under General Stanley McChrystal was facing a relentless and capable insurgency inflicting huge US casualties. In response it developed a new form of network-centric warfare focusing on mobile special-force groups that were highly autonomous yet connected in "real time" to a wide range of intelligence capabilities.
The operation reached its peak in 2005 in the form of Task Force 145 (TF 145), comprising four groups working in four geographical locations around central Iraq. Three of the groups were based on US forces - SEAL Team 6 from the navy, a Delta squadron and a Ranger battalion. The fourth, Task Force Black, was organised around a British SAS squadron.
The entire JSOC operation was centred on rapid night-raids that killed or captured insurgent suspects. Those captured would often be subject to intensive interrogation (aka torture) - the results immediately used, sometimes within hours, to prompt further raids. Steve Niva, in his remarkable academic paper “Disappearing violence: JSOC and the Pentagon’s new cartography of networked warfare” in the journal Security Dialogue (June 2013) recounts: "By the summer of 2005, JSOC teams undertook an estimated 300 raids per month, hitting targets every night, eventually turning their focus to suspected local players and middle managers in insurgent networks”. A further valuable source is Mark Urban's book Task Force Black (2010).
The learning game
The full death-toll among the insurgents is not known but believed to be in the thousands. More significant in this context, however, is that many tens of thousands of insurgents were detained by JSOC units and others. Some of them were kept for years in squalid conditions in huge prison-camps such as Camp Bucca, south of Basra - which at its peak had 20,000 inmates. Some of the prisoner abuse came to light at Abu Ghraib, but other centres were engaged as well in straightforward torture (one was the infamous “Black Room” at Camp Nana near Baghdad).
By 2009, Barack Obama had been elected president in the US and the war began to wind down. Most of the prisoners were released, including the current Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who may himself have been radicalised partly by his time in Camp Bucca. Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister of Iraq since 2006, was marginalising the Sunni minority. From the Sunni ranks arose a renewed extreme lslamist group in Iraq which developed into the Islamic State, linking increasingly from 2011 onwards with paramilitaries fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.
The Islamic State is thus part of a long-term evolution of a process that originated in Iraq in 2003, was badly knocked back by McChrystal’s JSOC forces by 2008, but has now re-emerged to provide the hardline core of a revived movement - veterans of urban conflict against well-trained and heavily-armed US troops, marines, and special forces.
These are people likely to have an intense hatred of the United States and its forces - coupled with a cold ability to avoid that hatred clouding their judgment. They will be people, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself, who will positively welcome US military action, especially when it extends to the greater use of special forces and the even more welcome possibility of regular troops. These are individuals who survived intense air-attacks and special-force operations for years in Iraq. They will be prepared for what now, following Obama’s speech, is likely to ensue: a new phase in a very long war.
If I might end on a personal note, nine years ago I finished writing a book about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to which I planned to give a rather straightforward title Lost Cause: Consequences of the War on Terror. The marketing people at Polity changed this to Why We’re Losing the War on Terror. I thought it a bit over the top for an essentially analytical book but went along with them a little reluctantly. Nearly a decade later I have to agree with their judgment. Have we learned anything?