Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
– Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886
United Arab Emirates, November 2014
My driver pulls up to a resort in the Empty Quarter. It’s after dawn. We’ve been driving for hours across the desert from Abu Dhabi and are near the Saudi border now; past this point the sand stretches hundreds of empty miles. The place is all minarets and battlements – Classical Arabia, as imagined by a designer with grand tastes and an unlimited budget. We cross a causeway between dunes and enter a courtyard past BMWs, a Mercedes and two camouflaged jeeps.
Over the last mile we’ve been penetrating a series of tightening security layers. Helicopters hover beyond the crest, sniffer teams trawl the complex for bombs and bugs, and dogs bark from the checkpoint, half a mile out, where police search cars and bags. All but one entrance to the resort is sealed; there are no other guests. Inside are more dogs, a buzz of radios and a counter-assault team: burly guys with dark glasses and skin-tone earpieces, holsters visible below grey suits, machine-pistols discreetly within reach. Sentries step out of doorways to check credentials. Overhead a silver aerostat, a surveillance blimp positioned to detect the visual or heat signature of anyone approaching across the desert, glints in the sun. The sponsor is taking no chances.
I’m freezing from the air-conditioned car and could do without all this drama. I stretch, climb out and check my watch: still on Sydney time. I’ve been travelling twenty-four hours, fifteen of those on the red-eye from Australia, and I’m in desperate need of a double espresso, some sunlight and a piss.
However odd the setting, this is deadly serious: a conference, long-scheduled, that has turned into a crisis meeting in this year of massacres and beheadings, fallen cities and collapsing states – the unravelling, in weeks, of an entire decade of Western strategy. Former prime ministers and presidents, current foreign ministers, generals, ambassadors and intelligence chiefs are here, with White House staffers, presidential envoys, leaders from the Middle East and Africa, Americans, Brits and Aussies, Iranians, Russians, Chinese and Indians. Two well-known journalists have agreed not to attribute what people say.
Besides the two dozen VIPs, there are a few scruffy field guys like me, here to present research or brief the plenary sessions, though of course at gatherings like this the real business gets done by the grown-ups, at side meetings we never see. The sessions have names like “Syria and Iraq: In Search of a Strategy,” “North Africa in Crisis” and “Islamist Terrorism and the Region.” Maybe it’s my jetlag, but people look dazed, as if in the grip of a hangover. If so, it’s a geopolitical one: the rise of ISIS, the failure of the Arab Spring, the fracturing of Iraq and the spillover of violence from Syria have suddenly, dangerously destabilised the Middle East and North Africa.
In the northern summer of 2014, over roughly one hundred days, ISIS launched its blitzkrieg in Iraq, Libya’s government collapsed, civil war engulfed Yemen, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself Caliph, the latest Israel–Palestine peace initiative failed in a welter of violence, and the United States and its allies (including the United Kingdom and Australia) sent aircraft and troops back to Iraq. Russia, a key sponsor of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, reignited Cold War tensions by annexing Crimea, sent submarines and aircraft to intimidate its neighbours in their own sea and airspace, and supported Ukrainian rebels who shot down an airliner with huge loss of life. Iran continued its push for nuclear weapons, supported Assad in Syria and yet became a de facto ally of the United States in Iraq, as each sought, for different reasons, to bolster the Baghdad government.
As this disastrous year closed, with the fourth winter of war settling over Syria, nine million Syrians languished in miserable, freezing mountain camps, with little prospect of going home. Half of Syria’s people depended on aid to survive, and more than 200,000 had died. Across the increasingly irrelevant border with Iraq, thousands of people had been displaced, sold into sexual slavery, decapitated, shot in the street or crucified for minor infractions of sharia law – as idiosyncratically interpreted by whatever local ISIS thug happened to make it his business. Panic pervaded Baghdad, and Erbil (capital of Kurdistan) was a frontline city, within the sound of the guns and occasionally within reach of them.
Foreign fighters – from the Middle East, Europe, Australia, all over Asia, the Americas and all parts of Africa – poured into Syria and Iraq at twelve times anything seen at the height of the American war, swelling ISIS numbers above 30,000 (for comparison, al-Qaeda, at its peak before 9/11, never had more than 25,000). Hundreds poured across Syria’s frontier with Turkey, a NATO member that nonetheless opened its border for fighters travelling to (or, increasingly, from) the conflict. ISIS provinces appeared in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt, and extremists in Indonesia and Nigeria swore allegiance to Baghdadi’s new “caliphate.” Attacks by ISIS-inspired terrorists hit Europe, America, Africa and the Middle East. Thirteen years, thousands of lives, and billions upon billions of dollars after 9/11, any gains against terrorism had seemingly been swept away in a matter of weeks.
On 10 June 2014 ISIS seized Mosul, anchor of northern Iraq and home to more than two million. Twelve days before the city fell, President Obama betrayed no inkling of impending collapse in a speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point – he failed to mention ISIS at all, having earlier dismissed them as a “jayvee [junior varsity] team,” wannabes lacking the capability of al-Qaeda – and spoke of what was once called the Global War on Terror as if it was winding down. “You are the first class to graduate since 9/11,” the President said, “who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq. We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan. Our counterterrorism efforts were focused on al Qaeda’s core leadership … Four and a half years later, as you graduate, the landscape has changed. We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s leadership on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more … today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al Qaeda leadership. Instead, it comes from decentralized al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland. [emphasis added]
What happened? How could the President so misjudge things, just days before the debacle? Can we recover from this? What does a coherent strategy look like after this disastrous year?
This essay is my attempt to answer those questions. It draws on conferences such as this one in November 2014, on interviews with communities and combatants, work by my field research teams in Iraq and Syria, and analysis by other well-informed observers and researchers. The answer, like most things in war, takes a while to unfold but is essentially simple: it starts with the recognition that the West’s strategy after 9/11 – derailed by the invasion of Iraq, exacerbated by our addiction to killing terrorist leaders, and hastened by precipitate withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, opportunism in Libya, and passivity in the face of catastrophe in Syria – carried the seeds of disaster within it, and until that strategy changes, those disasters will continue.
President Obama’s description of the strategy, italicised above, is quite accurate. We did focus on destroying the core leadership of al-Qaeda (AQ) on the Afghanistan–Pakistan border, targeting the group of leaders around Osama bin Laden and cutting the links between the core of AQ and its affiliates in other countries. The goal was to dismantle AQ into a series of smaller, regional groups that could then be dealt with through local partnerships, advisory efforts and targeted strikes.
This wasn’t just an Obama strategy. In fact, the greatest change in US strategy since 9/11 took place between the first and second terms of President George W. Bush (that is, in 2005, rather than 2009, when President Obama took office), so there’s huge continuity between the Obama administration and the second, though not the first, Bush term. For political reasons, of course, Republicans and Democrats downplay these similarities, but they’re striking all the same. The Obama administration’s rhetoric differs, it makes more use of certain tools (especially drones and mass surveillance) and its focus has been on disengaging from the wars President Bush started in 2001–03. But all those things were also true of the Bush administration itself after 2005: in substance, for ten years the United States has followed much the same strategy.
I know this strategy intimately, because I helped devise it. So its failure is in part my failure too, and if we want to understand how things went so badly awry in 2014, we must first understand where the strategy came from, and how it failed.
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