The U.S. victory against militants in Iraq during the war there was only partially won with a formidable military campaign. A key element of the strategy under then-President George W. Bush was to target the communications systems of the enemy. Essentially, they watched and listened to everything.
According to Shane Harris, journalist and author of “@War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex,” after a certain point the NSA “basically owned the network in Iraq.
“Basically, we hacked al Qaeda,” said Harris during a recent talk with New America NYC, and added that the U.S. will “often say that they credit the intelligence-driven [work] in Iraq for turning the tide.”
Fast-forward to the dawn of ISIS in Iraq. The infrastructure that supported the intelligence-driven work which became so valuable during the war in Iraq was no longer there after President Barack Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Earlier this month, Obama did an about-face and authorized a larger role for the U.S. military to return to the war-torn country. It could increase the total number of American troops there to 3,100. There are currently about 1,400.
The increased number of troops would be in addition to the airstrikes that started Sept. 23. Obama’s decision could also set more advisory teams and trainers in motion to spread across the country. That presence could extend to Anbar province, the site of fierce fighting. There and elsewhere in Iraq, more U.S. troops could be the remedy needed to counter the devastated morale of domestic Iraqi forces.
“The Iraqi army was a severely demoralized force that didn’t see a purpose in fighting for a central government whose credibility they questioned,” said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
An Existential Battle
The Kurds, on the other hand, “are fighting a truly existential battle,” near the Turkish border, he said.
The expansion of ISIS across the country has been partially pushed back or contained by the efforts, but extreme violence still frequently strikes everything from small villages to police stations and army checkpoints. Just in the past week, a trio of suicide bombings around Iraq’s capital city of Baghdad killed at least 17 people and wounded almost 40.
For its part, the U.S. Central Command said they and allied nations conducted 16 air strikes in Syria and seven in Iraq since Nov. 10, mostly near Kobani, in Syria. Part of the strategy has been to prevent ISIS from capturing immensely valuable oil refineries in Iraqi towns like Beiji.
The logic is obvious, for why we are not simply using the tried and true tactic of spying on ISIS movements through their cell phones and computer networks, according to Harris. It is a simple matter of a tactic exposed is a tactic used up.
“How is it that we don’t have the same level of intelligence [as before]?” he said. “In the intelligence business you cannot rely on one string.”
Harris also points out that the enemy is different this time: extremely violent, well-organized, and good at recruiting new members. By some accounts, they now have a force of 30,000, which constitutes an army.
“These are people who are motivated by bloodlust,” said Harris, who predicts by 2016 there will be a more significant number of troops in Iraq. “The only way you dismantle ISIS is the way we dismantled al Qaeda—with boots on the ground.”
Obama faces the tricky prospect of working with a newly Republican Senate. Congress must approve the almost $5.6 billion he needs to expand the mission in the region—which will delay troop deployment until legislation is passed and the president signs off on it. The defense policy bill, if passed before the end of the calendar year, will likely be dealt with prior to the holidays. Lawmakers want more details from the president, though, about how the money will be spent.
The U.S. will have to deal with the ability of ISIS to create an aura of invincibility, despite their recent military setbacks, such as their failure to capture the key stronghold of Kobani, a border town in Syria. A loss of oil revenue, coupled with a series of high-profile losses and an airstrike against leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that may have killed him, has weakened ISIS both materially and in terms of perception. That could damage their chances of recruiting more fighters.
“ISIS has run a very effective psychological campaign to intimidate its rivals and attract support and recruits,” said Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. But now, he said, the need to maintain its reputation is limiting the group’s options.
This is particularly true in Kobani, where a pre-emptive ISIS withdrawal in the face of U.S.-led bombings from the sky and ethnic Kurdish fighters on the ground could prove too costly.
“They have invested a lot in this battle, and people are noticing. They will soon start asking what’s going on?” said Ayed, a Turkey-based Syrian activist who travels back and forth to the group’s stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa. He declined to give his full name.
The prolonged fighting in Kobani is also distracting IS from more strategically important areas in Syria and Iraq where the militant extremists are already stretched on multiple fronts.
In Kobani, residents say recent U.S. airstrikes there targeting ISIS caused heavy damage that has turned into a living nightmare.
“Their bodies are left for days rotting in the street without anyone picking them up,” said Farhad Shami, a Kobani-based activist.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.