Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: Are we or are we not still at war with Al Qaeda, its affiliates and adherents (AQAA)?

U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Eric Davis comes down a flight of stairs after clearing the upstairs portion of an abandoned home in Fair al Jair, Iraq, on Dec. 16, 2007. Davis and his fellow soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, are searching for al-Qaeda insurgents in Fair al Jair.

U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Eric Davis comes down a flight of stairs after clearing the upstairs portion of an abandoned home in Fair al Jair, Iraq, on Dec. 16, 2007. Davis and his fellow soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, are searching for al-Qaeda insurgents in Fair al Jair. Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Adrian Cadiz, U.S. Air Force

The further backward you can look, the further forward you can see. – Winston Churchill

One of my pet peeves is a friend or acquaintance coming up to me and saying: “Gail, where have you been? I haven’t seen you around for a long time.” I know I’m being cranky, but what annoys me is the underlying assumption that because they haven’t seen me, I could not have been up to anything significant. This brings me to what I’d like to blog about — the ongoing global challenge of dealing with al Qaeda, its affiliates and adherents (AQAA), like the breakaway group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Previously known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS is also referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State (IS).

If you simply relied on mainstream media reports, you’d never know we are in an ongoing global war against terrorism, a term the Obama administration apparently doesn’t like to use. The administration is expected to come up shortly with a statement on what they will or will not do to counter the gains made by ISIS in Iraq based on assessments from military advisors sent in to get a better understanding of the issues.

In order to have an informed public discussion there needs to be a better understanding of what President Obama and his team’s assessment of the situation has been up to this point and what actions have been taken. The print media does a pretty good job reporting on ongoing events, but the only time there seems to be widespread media coverage is when terrorists make a major move like blowing up and attacking shopping malls, kidnapping hundreds of school girls, or seizing control of physical territory (i.e., in Mali, Iraq and Syria).

Just because you don’t see a lot of reporting about terrorism on a daily does not mean the military and intelligence community are not fully engaged and aware of what’s going on. What is my point? If you don’t fully understand what came before and what’s being done about it by the U.S., then your criticism is flawed. If your criticism is flawed then you’re drawing attention away from real problems and potential solutions.

To me, one example is garnering public support for a strategy of dealing with Al Qaeda. President Obama and his team need to do a better job of getting the word out to the public of the true and complex nature of the problem. Al Qaeda declared war on the U.S. in 1996 and has not yet declared “uncle.” Counterterrorism operations are an area where much of what goes on is highly classified. I certainly understand the reasons for that. Nevertheless, there is a lot of unclassified information on this topic in the public domain by both the military and the intelligence community. This is worthy of a number of blog posts, but I’ll just give a couple of examples here to illustrate my point.

What was the intelligence assessment on Iraq and ISIS prior to recent events?

A lot of the criticism of the Obama administration terrorism strategy seems to revolve around charges they were taken by surprise by recent events in Iraq. A 13 July editorial in the Washington Post stated:

“The administration was …caught flat-footed by the crumbling of Iraq and emergence of an al-Qaeda state.”

I believe it was the mainstream media and public that was caught flat footed.

The administration must have been aware of the situation unless no one from the Obama team was paying attention to military commanders and the intelligence community. I don’t think that was the case. As I mentioned in my last blog, during Congressional Testimony in February, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency stated:

“Iraqi military and police forces lack cohesion, are undermanned, and are poorly trained, equipped, and supplied. This leaves them vulnerable to terrorist attack, infiltration, and corruption. The ISF (Iraqi Security Force) is inadequately prepared to defend against external threats by land, air, or sea.”

He also stated:

“AQI/ISIL probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the group’s ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria.”

With those statements in mind, one question for the Obama administration would be: In the administration’s 2012 publication Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, it stated:

…we have sought to differentiate between those investments that should be made today and those that can be deferred. This includes an accounting of our ability to make a course change that could be driven by many factors, including shocks or evolutions in the strategic, operational, economic, and technological spheres. Accordingly, the concept of “reversibility” – including the vectors on which we place our industrial base, our people, our active-reserve component balance, our posture, and our partnership emphasis – is a key part of our decision calculus.

So, in light of General Flynn’s assessment of the situation in Iraq and recent events, has the administration considered “reversing” any aspects of your Iraq policy? I’m specifically interested in military options, either unilateral or multilateral, to include Iran or allied with Iraq’s military.

What was the assessment of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), the military command responsible for that region of the world?

During Congressional testimony this past March, U.S. CENTCOM commander General Lloyd J. Austin III made the following statement while discussing the impact of what he called “underlying currents” on the strategic environment of CENTCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR):

“We are seeing a significant increase in ethno-sectarian violence in the Middle East. More so than in the past, groups are coalescing around ethnic or sectarian issues, rather than national identity. This is causing a fracturing of institutions (e.g., governments, militaries) along sectarian lines and associated rifts among mixed populations (e.g., Sunni, Shia). If allowed to continue unabated, this type of regional sectarian behavior soon could lead to a decades-long sectarian conflict stretching from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad to Sanaa.”

Further elaborating on the regional perspective he stated:

“Today, the Central Region is experiencing a deep shift, the total effects of which will likely not be known for years to come. In some parts of the Levant, into Iraq, and even as far as Bahrain, we see a more obvious and accelerating Sunni-Shia sectarian contest. The increasing violence, unresolved political issues, and lack of inclusive governance have weakened Egyptian and Iraqi internal stability, as well as each country’s regional leadership potential. The outcomes of the situations in Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria will largely determine the future regional security environment. Poor outcomes will create additional seams and ungoverned spaces that will be exploited by malign actors, including Al Qaeda.”

Regarding Iraq, he stated:

“Iraq, positioned between Iran and Saudi Arabia, remains at the geo-strategic center of the Middle East and the historically preeminent Shia-Sunni fault-line. Over the past year, the country’s security situation has deteriorated significantly with violence reaching levels last seen at the height of the sectarian conflict (2006-2008). The principal cause of the growing instability has been the Shia-led government’s lack of meaningful reform and inclusiveness of minority Sunnis and Kurds. The situation is further exacerbated by the active presence of Al Qaeda (through the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and the steady influx of jihadists coming into Iraq from Syria. This has come to a head most recently in key areas of Anbar Province. In response to this immediate threat, USCENTCOM, with Congressional support, was able to meet urgent materiel requirements through the FMS process (e.g., small arms, rockets, Hellfire missiles). Leveraging this opportunity, we continue to expand security cooperation activities aimed at strengthening our military-to-military ties. Examples include inviting the Iraqis to participate in regional exercises, such as Eager Lion, and facilitating support for Iraq from nations other than Iran, such as Turkey and Jordan. Now one of the world’s largest producers of oil, Iraq has the potential to become a prosperous country and a leader and proactive enabler of regional stability. However, it will be unable to achieve its potential without first achieving a sustainable level of stability and security. This will require major internal political reform, and the sincere inclusion of the Sunnis and Kurds into the political process that will significantly curb violence across the country.”

In his May 2013 speech on counter terrorism (CT), President Obama summarized his strategy as:

“Targeted action against terrorists. Effective partnerships. Diplomatic engagement and assistance.”

I know U.S. counterterrorism policy has had many successes, but there are a series of questions I have for the administration. For instance, what do you do in a situation when that policy fails, such as in Mali before France put troops on the ground to counter al Qaeda or the current situation in Iraq? During his Congressional testimony, General Austin said the U.S. stepped up aid to Iraq through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program and sent small arms, rockets and Hellfire missiles. That hasn’t worked. Do you withhold involvement until the country in question has a government you approve of? After all, wasn’t Mali’s government overthrown in 2012 by U.S.-trained troops? I understand the “underlying currents issue,” but is not stopping an AQAA group from establishing control of a geographic region and forming a nation a higher priority?

I don’t believe the real issue is Iraq, Syria, Mali, Somalia, Nigeria, etc. In his May 2013 speech, President Obama stated:

“Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America. In many cases, this will involve partnerships with other countries.”

As the news last week about the attempted attack on the Eiffel Tower by al Qaeda that the French prevented reminds us this is not just a problem for the U.S. This is a global war and requires a multilateral global solution. I envision an organization similar to NATO, composed of member nations formed around the principal that an attack on one of them by AQAA is an attack on all. The concept would come into play only if an attack results in a situation the member nation can’t solve by itself, such as the kidnapping of the Nigerian school girls. The organization would offer short-term assistance to whatever extent it would be needed. It may simply involve intelligence support or a much more extensive effort. You would need strict rules of engagement defining what constitutes an attack by AQAA as opposed to an internal sectarian dispute or civil war. There are a lot of details to work out, but the successful international effort against Somali pirates is another model worth examining.

Think I’ll end here. As always, my views are my own.



Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on