News from Iraq Becomes More, Deliberately, Personal and More Difficult to Interpret

September 4, 2014

By Roger Owen

America’s long academic summer vacations are usually quiet times for writing and reflection with little disturbing news from the national or international arena. So it was this year too at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies with our graduate students scattered around the world and only a limited audience for a discussion I organized in early August to try to understand more about Israel’s far-away Gaza War. But then, suddenly, and within the space of only a few weeks, not only was the larger Middle East back in the news again but also surprisingly present with the discovery that it was American and British Jihadis who were involved in the brutal ISIS murder of locally-born, New England journalist, Jim Foley, someone already known as the man held briefly captive by Qadhafi forces in Libya in 2011. For those of us who rarely, if ever, find themselves on the battlefields of the modern world, it is the intrepid, and mostly quite young, journalists who become our eyes, and in some sense our proxies. And no matter how much they may protect themselves with flak jackets and helmets, no matter how much care they may take, they prove to be just as mortal as all the rest of us.

Of course, from an ISIS point of view, this just what the organization intends. And just how its leaders would wish us to react. That is in a very personal way, with fear and anxiety, on the one hand, and with our own reaction of shock and awe, on the other. For this is a world in which everything is very precisely reversed. What was done to people like them is now done back to people like us, right down to the practice of water-boarding, on the one hand, and to the Guantanamo-style jumpsuits in which they dress their American victims, on the other.

All of which raises the further question of how we in the West should regard the threat and how our leaders should properly respond. Here it is to President Obama’s great credit that, whatever the demands for immediate action, he feels that he should take the time properly to understand the remarkable nature of both the organization and the threat. This is what he meant by his much parodied remark about not putting the cart before the horse. Not making hasty decisions to strike back blindly anywhere and everywhere. Taking one thing at a time.

Yet, slowly, slowly, day by day, both a strategy and a set of associated tactics are beginning to emerge. First, send American intelligence and other forces to Iraq to help identify the individual ISIS leaders and go after them one by one. Second, assist the battered Iraqi army to regroup in such a way that the ISIS forces are contained just north of Baghdad. Third, try to cut off the supply line of ISIS recruits, especially from Britain and the United States. And, fourth, create a coalition of Western and Middle Eastern political forces to assist in both these tasks.

Beyond this, there may also by a strategy of simply playing for time. That is time not only for more useful information to emerge but also for the passage of events to put pressure on ISIS’s Western recruits themselves as they begin to experience the uncomfortable realization of the huge risks and dangers involved both to themselves and their families. There is already news of some defections and we can certainly expect more. There has been the pull of alternative version of Jihadi ideologies, some with less emphasis on killing other Muslims. And there must also be the increasing realization among some would-be volunteers that, if you are identified as an American or a British Jihadi, you may simply never be allowed to return to you old home.

Yet none of this allows Obama to avoid a number of basic decisions including the major one of whether or not to attack the ISIS bases in Syria, and whether to do this in some sort of cooperation with the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, there remains the fact that quite a lot of his so-called intelligence has been wildly incorrect. It got the number of Yezidis waiting to be rescued on Jabal Sinjar wrong. It cannot be sure exactly whom American bombs are killing. And certainly there must be many other lacunae beside.

What to do other than to send yet more intelligence operatives into Iraq until their number becomes so large—some analysts already suggest 10–15,000 persons will be needed to do the job—that the President’s vaunted claim not to have “boots on the ground” begins to look increasingly spurious? No doubt their orders are to stay mostly within the Baghdadi Green Zone or in Irbil far away from possible trouble. But, sooner or later, one of them is bound to be killed or captured. And then more political difficulties back in a Washington already gearing up for the Congressional elections in November and then the presidential ones two years beyond.

Testing times indeed. Everyday talk of an enemy that has—in the words of the Chairmen of the Joint-Chiefs of Staff—“an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision.” And with that same enemy probing Obama’s will and the American people’s nerve at every possible point.

This article was published in Arabic in Al-Hayat in September 2014. Read more of Professor Owen's Al-Hayat columns in English here.