By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star
Trapped in a vicious circle.
That’s how the US government has found itself since George W. Bush started a “war on terror” by invading Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, dragging US allies into a “coalition of the willing” that got mired in two wars for over a decade. Barack Obama, vowing to end the long and costly conflicts, withdrew American troops from Iraq (in 2011) and scheduled a wind-down in Afghanistan this year.
But now the Obama administration is under pressure to wage a full-scale attack in Iraq, again. It’s cobbling together, as Bush did, a coalition of allies to support the war against the Islamic State (of Iraq and Syria).
The main target of the “war on terror” then was the Islamist jihad group Al Qaeda, headed by Osama bin Laden, which had claimed responsibility for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. The unconventional attacks — carried out by ramming hijacked passenger-filled airplanes rigged with bombs into the huge buildings, reducing the WTC to ashes and badly damaging the Pentagon headquarters traumatized America and stunned the world.
After years of tracking his whereabouts, in 2011 US forces located and killed bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout. However, Obama has continued ordering extermination operations against “Al Qaeda militants” in different countries through lethal bombings by drones (unmanned aerial vehicles). Such operations often kill many civilians, including children, thus incurring more enemies for America.
The Islamic State was formed in 2010 among Al Qaeda’s remnants in Iraq. With the outbreak of civil war in Syria, the group found a better way to expand its recruitment of foreign fighters by joining the war along with various rebel groups united in common opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Recent disclosures by Britain’s home secretary, Theresa May, and other sources provide these numbers of foreign fighters in Syria: 300 Belgians, 400 Germans, 800 Russians, 60 Australians, 80 Swedes, 50 Norwegians, and 70 Danes plus unspecified numbers of Italians, Dutch and Spaniards. There is growing fear in Europe that when these fighters return home they might mount terrorist attacks.
Within months from its formation, the Islamic State grew by leaps and bounds. One study says 40% of the group’s 30,000 fighters are foreigners, many of them non-European.
From January to August the Islamic State moved into northern Iraq, first seizing the cities of Falluja and Ramadi, then Mosul (Iraq’s second largest city) and Kurdish-controlled towns, meantime pressing deeper into Syria. By declaring its intent to establish an Islamic caliphate in the areas it controls, the IS has been attracting more and more recruits.
Under sweeping IS assaults the Iraqi army, which the US had organized and trained, easily crumbled. Soldiers dropped their weapons, discarded their uniforms and fled. The US effected the replacement of Iraq’s prime minister, and in August started sending warplanes, continually bombing IS installations and vehicles. Lately with a few allies the US has been carrying out aerial attacks in Syria against the IS and Khorasan, another alleged Al Qaeda group.
President Obama is now under strong pressure to redeploy ground troops in Iraq. Both Gen. Martin Dempsey, US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, and House Speaker John Boehner are pushing for this, claiming that aerial bombing is insufficient to stop, much less destroy, the Islamic State. Boehner has offered to recall House members from recess to approve an authority for Obama to take such action.
Ironically, the US government itself may be partly to blame for the rise of the Islamic State. Its mistakes and carelessness, say Andrew Thompson, an Operation Iraqi Freedom war veteran, and Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas professor, actually helped in developing the extremist force.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the acknowledged Islamic State leader, and majority of the IS leaders spent almost five years in US-administered prisons in Iraq during the Bush war. Due to the practice of mixing the most radical detainees with “less threatening individuals” and innocent mostly illiterate civilians, the authors say in an op-ed piece in the International New York Times titled “How America helped ISIS,” Baghdadi and his cohorts were able to proselytize big numbers of their fellow detainees.
“The prisons became virtual terrorist universities,” the authors observe. “The hardened radicals were the professors, the other detainees were the students, and the prison authorities played the role of absent custodian.”
“The radicalization of the prison population was evident to anyone who paid attention, Unfortunately, few military leaders did,” they say. By the time prison policies were improved, the damage had already been done. “The terrorists had four years to network, recruit and impose their extreme version of Islam on thousands of detainees.”
Another mistake by American authorities, Thompson and Suri contend, was their refusal to share classified information that could have been enough to convict insurgents with damning evidence against them. Consequently the Iraqi courts ordered the release of these detainees.
Although the most extreme radicals were not released, they were left in Iraqi custody when the American forces withdrew in 2011. So when the IS seized a large part of Iraq they freed these detainees.
Thus, Thompson and Suri conclude, “These former prisoners are now some of the Islamic State’s most dedicated fighters.”
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Published in The Philippine Star
October 4, 2014