Shadow Government

A Setback in the Long War

The rapid advance of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has momentarily reminded foreign-policy pundits that Iraq exists. It has also reminded the Obama administration that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq did not usher in a just and lasting peace there. But while critics' attention has focused on the daily headlines -- in some cases with no small degree of schadenfreude -- they have underemphasized a deeper trend that ISIS illustrates: The Middle East is now a more favorable operating environment for jihadist groups than ever before.

Violent jihadism is not new. It arose at least as early as the formation of the Egyptian Brotherhood in the early 20th century. But jihadist terrorism was sporadic and typically met with swift, brutal, and effective reprisals by the local governments against which it was targeted, such as the Egyptian government's crackdown on the Brotherhood in the 1940s and 1950s. Marxism and Arab nationalism were far more popular ideologies across the Middle East up through the 1960s and 1970s.

Today there is no serious ideological rival left to Islamist politics in most Middle Eastern countries. Nationalist and Marxist politicians discredited themselves with decades of corruption, mismanagement, and autocracy that left the region nearly worst in the world for human development. The groups gaining ground in the political ferment of the last few years tend to espouse variations of Islamism -- of the peaceful sort, where possible, as in Tunisia (the Ennahda Party) and Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood has publicly foresworn violence since the 1960s), but of the violent sort elsewhere. 

At the same time, the breakdown of state institutions and the spread of state failure have left states increasingly unable to meet challenges to law and order from criminal gangs, terrorist groups, and insurgents. On the Fund for Peace's color-coded map of state fragility, the Middle East is a sea of orange and red.

These trends have come to the fore with special vigor in Iraq and Syria, states that have neither the legitimacy nor the capacity to resist the march of violent jihadist groups that feel they have the force of history on their side. The civil war in Syria has severely damaged whatever ability the Baathist government had to sustain even the malign order of dictatorship there, while the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq deprived the nascent government of crucial support it needed to keep itself together in the face of continuing sectarian tensions.

As a result, there is now a wide swath of territory across Iraq and Syria that is essentially safe haven for jihadist militants. This is probably the greatest strategic setback to the United States in its long war against jihadists since al Qaeda declared war on the United States in 1996. That a menagerie of like-minded jihadist militant groups are alive and well and capturing territory suggests the irrelevance of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's claim in 2011 that al Qaeda was nearing "strategic defeat." The fate of al Qaeda is simply one small piece of a much larger problem. 

The situation is all the worse today because jihadist groups can now exploit the international border between Iraq and Syria to their advantage. In a move familiar to anyone watching the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, terrorists plan, train, and hide on one side of the border, unmolested by the local government because they only carry out operations on the other side.

The solution is a coordinated and simultaneous counterinsurgency strategy and counterterrorism strikes by both states against their common enemies. It is nearly impossible to imagine this happening. The United States attempted to foster such a strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan when both states were receiving massive U.S. security assistance and when more than 100,000 U.S. troops were in the region to actually conduct half of the coordinated campaign. The United States did not succeed in ending the Taliban's safe haven in Pakistan.

The United States has no such leverage in Syria or Iraq. Having called for Assad's resignation while also passing up opportunities to build a more robust relationship with non-jihadist rebel groups, the United States has managed to cut itself off from any potential local partners there. In Iraq, there was no agreement in 2011 to provide immunities for a residual force of military trainers. U.S. troops would not have solved Iraq's political problems, but could have blunted the current security challenge. Instead, the U.S. government has now responded to Iraqi requests for help with a deployment of 300 advisors.  

There is virtually no imaginable scenario in which Iraq and Syria will develop the capacity to root out the insurgents and terrorists in their respective territories with the current meager level of U.S. involvement, much less on their own.

With Iraq and Syria incapable of defeating ISIS and affiliated militants, the jihadist groups are on their way to becoming the FARC of the Middle East in the depth of their roots and in the difficulty of any campaign against them. The FARC have plagued Colombia for 50 years and become an endemic, integral part of that country's political and economic fabric. It may finally be petering out, after a decade and a half of massive U.S. help to the Colombian government.

Regardless of whether al Qaeda or ISIS or any other particular group rises or falls, jihadist militants across the region are enjoying a perfect storm of political upheaval and American retrenchment. The U.S. failure to secure a lasting presence in Iraq or to intervene effectively in Syria's civil war has contributed to one of the worst imaginable outcomes for the region and for U.S. security: al Qaeda copycats blighting the Middle East and beyond for decades to come.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

No Time to 'Study Options' for Jordan

Jordan's King Abdullah, one of America's most reliable friends in the Middle East, faces what is perhaps the most serious threat of his reign. The Islamic State (as ISIS now calls itself) has already attempted to penetrate his country's eastern border with Iraq. ISIS had planned to rely on Bedouin sympathizers in the town of Ma'an to let its fighters slip across the border; indeed, supporters of al Qaeda hoisted its flag in a demonstration they held in Ma'an earlier this week.

The ISIS scheme failed for several reasons: Jordan's internal security forces had long tracked those who sympathized with ISIS, and Jordanian troops entered Ma'an to ensure that there would be no trouble. In addition, according to Gulf sources, Jordanian forces penetrated Iraq to confront ISIS on its own ground (other regional sources report that Jordanian jets hit ISIS target in Iraq). Finally, and importantly, the king met with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny some two weeks ago and reportedly agreed that Jordan would provide financing for Chechnya's infrastructure in exchange for information regarding Chechens who had links to ISIS and for the deportation to Chechnya of ISIS-linked Chechens caught in Jordan.

For now, therefore, the threat to Jordan from the east seems under control. The king has no reason to breathe any easier, however. His court is seen by many of his subjects, the majority of whom are Palestinians, many with dubious loyalty to the crown, as a hotbed of cronyism and corruption. Islamists continue to be active in Jordan, and specifically harp on the king's determination to honor the peace with Israel. The threat of Salafist incursions from Syria has not disappeared.

Most critically, Abdullah can be certain that he has not heard the last of the Islamic State. Its leader, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, has proclaimed himself the new caliph and surely intends to incorporate Jordan into his caliphate. Jordan's forces would be hard put simultaneously to confront both an internal threat and incursions across both its northern and eastern borders.

Were it not that the administration's only firm commitment regarding Iraq is not to have "boots on the ground," as well as the fact that it continues to dawdle in responding to what is increasingly looking like the breakup of that country, it might be expected that Washington would deploy as many troops as necessary to Jordan in order to confront and defeat any threat that ISIS might pose. But the administration's excessively lengthy review of "options" in Iraq, followed by a drip-drip of small numbers of troops to that country, calls into question just how, and how quickly, Washington might respond to any SOS from Amman. The U.S. currently has about 1500 troops in Jordan, including a Patriot battery and F-16 aircraft. Presumably, these units were deployed in response to the growing threat of a spillover into Jordan from Syria's civil war. A small number of Special Forces troops in Jordan are training Iraqi forces. And 200 American military serve in Amman as Central Command, Forward-Jordan. At issue, however, is whether the administration would be prepared to dispatch far more troops to the kingdom were King Abdullah to face an internal revolt in conjunction with an ISIS invasion.

The speed with which ISIS captured large chunks of Iraq demonstrates that Washington can ill afford to study "options" to death. If it does so in the face of an imminent threat to the Hashemite monarchy, Israel will likely step in with its own forces to protect its ally. It should be recalled that Israel almost intervened in Jordan 1970, when the Black September group threatened to destabilize the kingdom. There can be little doubt that Jerusalem would do so if it suspects an American response to be either too little or too late, or both. In fact, given Israel's virtual complete lack of trust in the Obama administration, it may well not wait too long before it intervenes. An Israeli intervention in Jordan, while it might temporarily stabilize that country, would further inflame an already turbulent Middle East.

Now is not the time for ideological purity about keeping America's land forces in their barracks rather than in the field. The administration should immediately announce that it will not tolerate any threat to Jordan; that it will not issue any restrictions on "boots on the ground"; and that it will deploy as many troops as are necessary to preserve the monarchy, as soon as King Abdullah requests help. Such an announcement will not only reassure the king, but also America's other allies in the region, as well as signal to its enemies there that Washington has finally come to terms with reality. It is a turnabout that will have come none too soon.