For once, the situation in Iraq wasn’t caused by an intelligence failure

By Jane Harman
August 14, 2014

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate

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.

Members of the Kurdish security forces take part during an intensive security deployment after clashes with militants of the Islamic State in JalawlaSomewhere 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.

A displaced family from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, waits for food while resting at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in FishkhabourAbadi’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.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, re-enter Iraq from Syria at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in FishkhabourLet’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.

A F/A-18E comes in to land onboard USS George H.W. Bush in the GulfFor 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.


PHOTO (TOP): Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk toward the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mount Sinjar, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate, August 11, 2014. REUTERS/Rodi Said

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Members of the Kurdish security forces take part in an intensive security deployment after clashes with militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, in Jalawla, Diyala province, August 12, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer 

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A displaced family from the minority Yazidi sect waits for food while resting at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, re-enter Iraq from Syria at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fishkhabour, Dohuk province, August 10, 2014. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

PHOTO (INSERT 4): A F/A-18E Super Hornet of Strike Fighter Squadron lands on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, in the Gulf, August 12, 2014. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed



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Why don’t we save our save money and lives and leave the unstable area until there is a winner who is treat to us, then kill enough for them pick on someone else. As long as they kill each other and the surrounding nations they are too busy to be treat to us. We are not running their schools and pulpits to change their culture and ways. Russia tried the Afghanistan a large part of the population move to next nation over and attacked the Russians from there. Cultural change take generations.

Their culture makes them subject to warring divisions and/or dictators who are busy hunting and killing potential foes.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

And how do we know that our intelligence is lacking in this regard?

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I can see SAM on a rescue chopper to Mount Sinjai – drinking a case of water in the 110 degree heat then tossing the empty bottles out at the baking desperate exhausted terrified children women and men there.

Posted by cirrus7 | Report as abusive

Ms. Harman didn’t get to the WHY of why the foreigners are heading to Syria to join extremists groups. One example is the Canadian who detonated a truck bomb at a huge prison complex in Aleppo.
Bashar Assad is waging GENOCIDE on Sunnis in Syria, with a SHOCKING lack of response by the World, except for Putin not sending even MORE weapons than he already has to Assad.
To clarify – anyone unlikely to Vote Assad is targeted for death by the Syrian Army. Indiscriminate bombing is SOP. In fact SOP consists of just War Crimes.

This International Outrage is drawing people in who foolishly even sign up with ISIS, flush with CASH from Bashar Assad himself, paying for oil from Syrian oil fields.

Posted by cirrus7 | Report as abusive

Intelligence didn’t fail. It was never foolproof to begin with. Only people sitting in their easy-chairs, doing the Monday morning quarterbacking, use terms like ‘failed’. Things aren’t that black and white. I have a hard time believing that intel orgs didn’t know about these guys, or didn’t give plenty of notices as to what was happening. The notices were obviously ignored for the most part. Mainly because, we have an administration that worries more about appeasing extreme liberals, who have this goofy idea that terrorists and Muslim extremists, don’t actually exist, and are just some sort of conspiracy cooked up by conservatives. In typical hippie thinking, only people who have money and power, can possibly be the bad guys. So the rich, corporations and the Jews, are supposedly your main problem. A bunch of nuts in some far off country killing everybody, is not an issue… They’re just a bunch of primitive sheep farmers and don’t deserve our attention. Then next thing you know, you have this.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Looks pretty simple – there was no unbiased leadership from the start. Should have brought in someone from Canada or non Arabic country in Nato for 2 years until general elections were successful – totally unrelated person with advisers setup from all major Iraqi factions.

Same thing is happening in Afghanistan and will be if Syria falls.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

Being trapped in a quagmire in Iraq is the mother of all ‘failures of intelligence’.

Posted by ToshiroMifune | Report as abusive

An excerpt from one of the comments: “…we have an administration that worries more about appeasing extreme liberals…”

I do not consider myself an extreme liberal, but more conservative individuals might describe me that way. The administration has done next to nothing to appease extreme liberals. Obama is a centrist with a few socially liberal views on topics outside the beltway. His record backs this up. Remember that the affordable care act is based upon a republican idea. “Extreme Liberals” wanted socialized medicine akin to what they have in Canada, France, The United Kingdom, etc. Extreme liberals wanted all profit motive removed from the health care system.

Many of the covert operations with drones were initiated during the Bush years and Obama has continued these policies, largely unchanged. Guantanamo is still open, many of the legal arguments for the right of the president to target and kill citizens are the same as what Bush used. “Extreme Liberals” want Guantanamo closed, and for the U.S. to stop the drone war, stop targeting U.S. citizens, and stop such devious legal distinctions as “Enemy Combatants” vs. regular soldiers.

Wall Street carries on as usual, and while they may not be entirely comfortable with Obama, clearly they have benefited from the continuity of U.S. Policies that embrace capitalism above all else. “Extreme Liberals” wanted to hand out pitchforks and deny the banking industry the bailouts that stabilized the system. Instead Obama stuck with Timothy Geithner, and Ben Bernanke, preferring to maintain the status quo.

Obama holds many of the same views on immigration as Jeb Bush. Obama favors a cap a trade system for pollution, once again a republican idea.

At the personal level Obama is a married family man, who plays basketball and vacations on Martha’s Vineyard. He is a rich American Man at the head of the executive branch, something that has been the norm 43 times since the United States was formed. The one word I left out in describing him is, “Black,” which is perhaps the one significant way that he varies from all of the other presidents before him.

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

What I want to know is how anyone can think that “an American narrative for the broader middle east” is remotely acceptable to sovereign middle eastern nations? Why should any of them agree to accept our “narrative”? Why don’t we just let them figure out their own narrative, for heaven’s sake?

Posted by shootmyownfood | Report as abusive