President Barack Obama, in an interview earlier this year with New Yorker editor David Remnick, offered an unfortunate comparison. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate,” the president said, “is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
The president’s jayvee jihadists were the Islamic State militants.
Remnick called the analogy “uncharacteristically flip.” After all, the group’s flag then flew over Fallujah.
Today, the Islamic State boasts a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, a cadre of battle-hardened fighters that dwarfs the membership of core al Qaeda and an international following large enough to support a brick-and-mortar gift shop in Turkey.
Somewhere along the line, these insurgents went professional. The CIA and the administration promptly took fire for failing to see it coming. But is that criticism fair? Was the sudden rise of the Islamic State insurgents, to use a loaded term, an “intelligence failure?”
Well no, it wasn’t. In fact, we have known, and continue to know, a great deal about the Islamic State extremists. Its well-documented blitzkrieg in early June, when it was known as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, has been a goldmine for journalism’s infographic industry. For all that we know about the group, though, we don’t have a comprehensive strategy to counter it.
No quantity of intelligence can fill that vacuum. It’s the policy, stupid.
So what will it take to beat the Islamic State insurgents? The actions Obama took this week are welcome: airstrikes to prevent the Islamist militants from taking Erbil; the provision of weapons to brave peshmerga fighters and humanitarian aid to the Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar in 120-degree heat.
But Obama is right to demand policy changes in Iraq, too. The clock is ticking on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure. While Prime Minister-designate Haider el-Abadi works to form a more inclusive government, Maliki still has the opportunity to leave power with a bit of dignity — but leave he must.
Abadi’s new government must remove Maliki’s cronies from senior military positions and restore U.S.-trained commanders who have earned the loyalty of their forces. A fair agreement for sharing oil revenue among the country’s ethnic blocs must be hammered out. Sunni tribes must reject the cruel and vicious Sunni-on-Sunni violence of the Islamic State, as they did in 2007, when their Awakening was a key part of the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq.
You can’t make good policy out of bad intelligence. But good intelligence doesn’t guarantee good policy. What exactly do we need from the intelligence community then, beyond what we’re already getting?
Virtually all the information that policymakers ask for in the Middle East is tactical. We task the intelligence community to tell us the targets and locations for air and drone strikes. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, this is the kind of information that our agencies have gotten exceptionally good at gathering. Rather than scapegoating spies, policymakers should start asking different questions.
Let’s ask our intelligence agencies to think bigger. We need to know more about possible opportunistic relations between terror groups.
The Islamic State, for example, has attracted large numbers of Western passport holders who could facilitate sophisticated bomb plots with the aid of professional jihadists, like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s artisan bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri. This would be a deadly collaboration. It looks like too few have focused on the likelihood of it taking place.
The intelligence community also needs to assess the plans and intentions of the Islamic State insurgents in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. An Iraq-only U.S. strategy might actually drive more fighting into these countries without diluting the threat.
We need a far more ambitious messaging effort. U.S. support should aim to empower the best impulses on the ground and give Iraq the room to work out its politics. To do that — to drum up the local, regional and international support the Iraqi government needs — we need to articulate a wide-angle vision: an American narrative for the broader Middle East that lays out a U.S. role in helping to create stability, rule of law and economic prosperity.
For starters, clearly communicating the Islamic State militants’ extreme cruelty against Sunni Muslims could help win the argument with moderate elements in Iraq, Syria and beyond. Our Ukraine policy, while not perfect, is an example of how to better integrate intelligence, messaging and strategy.
General Stanley McChrystal once admitted that the deck is stacked against the intelligence community. “[As] an operator,” he said, “you always learn that a successful mission is an operational stroke of genius. Anything that fails is an intelligence failure.”
Unfair, probably — but so it goes. With the expansion of the CIA’s operational role since September 11, many have grown used to thinking that cloaks and daggers (with the occasional airstrike) are the preferred solution to every foreign-policy problem. Obama must move beyond that mindset. Confronting the Islamic State insurgents requires a strategic blueprint equal to the threat.