The problem of Daesh (or ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State, etc.) seems to be an impossible one for the Obama Administration to solve. The group that President Obama one idiotically referred to as the “jayvee team” now controls a massive land area in Iraq and Syria. They’ve attacked Paris, attacked America, and will do so again. Yet the Obama Administration and the rest of the world seems powerless to do anything to stop them.
However, we already defeated the Daesh once, eight years ago. We kicked them out of their positions in the western Anbar Province of Iraq, prevented them from holding territory, and killed their leader.
Al-Qaeda In Iraq: The Forerunner of Daesh
Daesh (and I use this term because the bloodthirsty bastards hate anyone who calls them that) sprang out of the infamous al-Qaeda militant Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Those who read this blog years ago will remember that name well. al-Zarqawi was a Jordanian-born militant and two-bit thug who ended up at an al-Qaeda training camp before the September 11 attacks. After September 11, al-Zarqawi fled Afghanistan after US troops injured him during the American assault of Tora Bora. From there, he fled to Iraq.
Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, knew that al-Zarqawi was in Iraq. American intelligence believed that al-Zarqawi received medical care in Baghdad in the spring of 2002 as a “guest” of the Hussein regime. During this time, intelligence differs as to where al-Zarqawi was: the US believed that he was in Iraq or Iran, and Arab intelligence believed he was in northern Syria, and what is now the Daesh heartland.
al-Zarqawi’s first attack against America came when he engineered the murder of USAID administrator Lawrence Foley in Amman, Jordan in 2002. This would be the first attack of many.
After the coalition invasion of Iraq in spring 2003, al-Zarqawi was definitely in Iraq, coordinating attacks against US troops and swearing fealty to al-Qaeda. However, even among terrorists, al-Zarqawi had a reputation for brutality. al-Zarqawi ended up killing more Muslims than anyone else, especially Shi’a. al-Zarqawi viewed Iraq’s majority Shi’ite population as apostates, and murdered them indiscriminately. This caused commotion within the senior leadership of al-Qaeda, so much so that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, wrote al-Zarqawi in 2005 and told him that his methods were so brutal that he was alienating fellow Muslims.
During the 2005–2006 period, al-Zarqawi’s group was alternately known as “Monotheism and Jihad” or more commonly as “al-Qaeda in Iraq” (AQI). AQI consisted of foreign fighters from across the Sunni world, many of whom came to Iraq from Syria. AQI was also led by former members of Saddam Hussein’s military. These former regime leaders were Sunnis who realized that Iraqi Shi’ites would gladly see them dead for years of repression under the Ba’athist regime.
In this time, AQI seized large amouns of territory in western Iraq, specifically the majority-Sunni al-Anbar Province. Cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi fell to AQI militants, only to be retaken by US forces. During this time, the brutality of AQI alienated the local population. By October 2006, AQI announced the formation of the “Islamic State of Iraq,” led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and another militant named Abu Ayyub al-Masri.
How Iraqis and Americans Defeated the First “Islamic State”
In January 2007, just months after AQI became the Islamic State, President Bush announced the “surge” in Iraq. Not only would more US troops be arriving in the restive country, but the rules of engagement would be changing. Instead of US troops only leaving their bases to respond to active battles, US troops would be working closely with the leaders of individual towns and villages to provide security, help repair infrastructure, and build relations between US forces and the people.
The Middle East Quarterly has an excellent article on how the “surge” worked with the native Iraqi “Anbar Awakening” to defeat the first Islamic State:
Within a year of its advent, the Awakening movement had dramatically changed the security situation in Anbar with monthly attacks dropping from some 1,350 in October 2006 to just over 200 in August 2007. By now, the movement had been established on a national basis as the coalition sought to replicate its success in other parts of Iraq. It played a particularly prominent role in improving the security situation in Baghdad as part of the troop surge, helping to slash murders by 90 percent and attacks on civilians by 80 percent, as well as destroying numerous insurgent networks. Its contribution in other provinces was no less substantial: By the end of the year, al-Qaeda leaders admitted that their forces throughout Iraq had been decimated by over 70 percent, from 12,000 to 3,500.
No less importantly, the Sahwa eventually became a tool for promoting sectarian reconciliation and weaning fighters away from sectarian militias.
This strategy worked. A combination of US airstrikes, raids, and Sunni tribes banding together to push the radicals out led to the downfall of the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq.” By 2008, Iraq was relatively stable. While there were still terrorist attacks, they were rarer and less destructive. The Iraqi Government was forced to treat Sunnis more equitably in order to keep the hard-won peace.
A US airstrike killed Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi in the summer of 2006, just before the Islamic State began. al-Zarqawi’s death, however, did not end the cycle of zealotry and brutality he commenced.
The secret to this victory was not only American “boots on the ground” but it involved using those boots effectively. Gen. David Petraeus spearheaded those strategies when he helped reduce violence in the Iraqi town of Tal Afar. Gen. Petreaus and his troops worked closely with local leaders, engaged in regular community patrols, and empowered local leaders to help fight terrorism.
What brought Iraq’s Sunnis into the hands of AQI and the first Islamic State was simple: fear. In Iraq, Sunnis are a 20% minority in the country. The Shi’ite majority was actively engaging in purges of Sunni neighborhoods in and around Baghdad. Iranian-backed radical Moqtada al-Sadr was whipping up a frenzy, pretending that killing Sunnis was necessary to stop the spread of al-Qaeda. While US troops were going after al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, they were also attacking Sunnis in order to fight al-Qaeda. Iraq’s Sunnis embraced al-Zarqawi in the hopes that he would drive away both the Mahdi Army and the Americans.
The brutality of the first Islamic State also helped create its downfall. Instead of bringing peace and prosperity, AQI put Iraq’s Sunni tribes into a Taliban-style hellhole where offenses such as smoking led to vicious punishments. AQI and al-Baghdadi’s thugs viciously attacked those perceived as insufficiently pious to their radical Islamic vision.
The “surge” ended with the defeat of the first Islamic State. It lost its territory, its leadership was scattered, and its appeal was greatly weakened. Had the story ended there, there would not be any Daesh today.
Obama Loses Iraq
The election of Barack Obama changed the equation dramatically. While US troops were scheduled to leave under a “status of forces agreement” (SOFA), that departure was conditional on Iraq remaining secure and the central government in Baghdad continuing to negotiate in good faith with Iraq’s Sunni population. But President Obama had every intention of leaving Iraq on a timeline, irrespective of the security situation. By the time Obama announced the end of US troops in Iraq, violence in Iraq seemed well-contained. Leaving did not seem, at least to Obam’s national security team, like a terrible idea.
In 2010, a US-led raid near Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s home town) led to the death of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri. The first Islamic State was left temporarily leaderless, without territory, and with most of their leadership dead or in custody.
In December 2011, the last contingent of US troops left Iraq.
Leaving without establishing either a political solution or having a US peacekeeping force in the region was a terrible idea. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki was not interested in political reconciliation with Iraq’s minority populations. Instead, he continued to marginalize Iraq’s Sunni population from the political process and short-change Iraq’s Sunni provinces on oil revenues that could be used to make life better for Iraq’s Sunnis. Without the stabilizing influence of US forces and active US diplomacy, the situation in Iraq continued to deteriorate.
Meanwhile, the Arab Spring threw the rest of the Arab World into turmoil. The Arab Spring changed the face of the Arab and Muslim world—inspired in large part by the fact that Iraq was a nascent democratic state. Long-standing regimes in Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia were overturned. Reactionary forces, both nationalist (Syria, Egypt) and Islamist (Iran, Libya) tried to prevent a wave of democratization from sweeping them away. When the US and other nations eliminated the Libyan regime of Mohammar al-Qaddafi, Islamist forces quickly took root there.
This wave of democratization had not changed much in Syria, at least at first. During the Iraq War, the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad had allowed the free flow of weapons and fighters across the Syrian border and into Iraq. This created a powder keg in Syria, just waiting for the right spark to set it off. As the Iraqis pushed out the first Islamic State, many of those fighters ended up going back across the border into Syria. This included key members of the former Hussein regime.
Bashar Assad had reasons to want at least some al-Qaeda or Islamic State presence in Syria. That way, he could argue that his regime was all that stood between stability and turmoil. That argument would be the main argument for the regime in the civil war to come.
In 2011, a young Syrian spray painted anti-Assad graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Deraa, near the Jordianian border, just under 60 miles from Damascus. Syrian regime security forces arrested and severely the young man. In response, the boy’s family burned down the headquarters of the ruling Ba’ath Party and attacked security forces. The Syrian Civil War had begun.
Through 2011 and 2012, the security situation in Syria diminished immensely. As Assad’s fighters (backed by Russia, Iran, and Iraq) brutalized the opposition, they turned a blind eye towards Islamist radicals making their home along the Syria-Iraq border. Again, Assad hoped that by being the lesser of two evils, the Syrian people would choose him over the Islamists.
That strategy failed. Instead, the same radicals that had taken over al-Anbar Province in Iraq years before found a perfect base of operations in northern Syria. They took advantage of the chaos to establish a new capital in Raqaa, Syria. From there, the newly formed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, or in Arabic, Daesh) spread like a cancer. It was only by a combination of US airstrikes and Kurdish peshmerga forces that Daesh has recently been rolled back.
What The Defeat of the First Islamic State Teaches Us About Defeating Daesh Today
The defeat of the first “Islamic State” in Iraq should teach us key lessons about what to do today. First, and most obviously, it should teach us that Daesh can be defeated. The same fighters, the same leadership, the same techniques that Daesh uses today were used by the first Islamic State. Yet that first Islamic state lasted only a few years and never managed to hold much territory. Indeed, the First Islamic state was declared in October 2006 and by 2008 was virtually destroyed.
The second lesson is that Daesh cannot be destroyed from the air. Air strikes can degrade Daesh’s leadership, but that cannot destroy a terrorist network that can move easily through the civilian population. The first Islamic State was destroyed because the US was smart enough not only to commit troops, but to use them wisely.
Finally, it was not a matter of US troops staying in remote forward-operating bases and only coming out to fight. Instead, the “surge” followed Gen. Petraeus’ successes in having US troops regularly interact with and gain the confidence of local leaders. When the US kicked out the first Islamic State, US troops followed with resources that helped rebuild those downs that AQI had destroyed or terrorized. Not only did that help keep AQI from coming back, but it allowed us to get valuable intelligence that can only come from listening to people in the community. No satellite system, drone, or spy system can replace having people on the ground and having tea with the local sheik who knows everyone in the area.
The problem today is that those techniques could have stopped Daesh in its tracks in 2013, before they’d gained much territory. It will be a much tougher job today. For one, the Russian presence in Syria means that US-backed forces could be at risk of Russian airstrikes. In order to engage in ground operations in Syria, we would need to have a no-fly zone or at least a coordinated security response with the Russians. That may be difficult at best and perhaps impossible.
The reality is that Daesh is a cancer in the region. If we do not stop Daesh and eliminate it, it will spread once again. That is going to require a protracted US presence in the region for a long time: something like the 30,000 troops in Korea we have had for over 50 years now. But the alternative is worse: already Daesh have launched attacks in the West. They will do so again, and even if those attacks are just more shootings, the effects on the US and our allies would be severe. Worse, Daesh is undoubtedly looking to procure weapons of mass destruction—biological, chemical, or even a radiological “dirty bomb.” While the idea of Daesh getting their hands on a working nuclear weapon seems remote at best, it cannot be fully discounted. If that happens, the effects on the world economy would be a nightmare.
We can defeat Daesh. We have done it before. But it will take a commitment to get the job done, and an understanding that it is a long-term commitment of troops and resources. But it is worthwhile to prevent both a wider war in the Middle East and terrorist attacks here at home.
We learned many hard lessons during the Iraq War, at a cost of too many American sons and daughters. The fact that our political leadership has not digested those lessons less than a decade later should be troubling to every American. But while those who fail to learn from history may be doomed, those who apply history’s lessons can change the course of history for the better.