TIME Military

America Is Using Cannons to Kill Mosquitoes in Iraq

The wreckage of a car belonging to Islamic State militants lies along a road after it was targeted by a U.S. air strike at the entrance to the Mosul Dam
U.S. airpower has been largely limited to attacking and destroying Humvees and other vehicles inside Iraq. Youssef Boudlal / Reuters

The world’s most powerful military is dispatching multi-million-dollar aircraft and their pilots into harm’s way to destroy $70,000 Humvees

The new war the U.S. is waging over Iraq is succeeding. With help on the ground from Kurdish and Iraqi troops, U.S. airstrikes have pushed fighters from the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) away from the Mosul Dam.

But the daily details of U.S. military airstrikes only serve to highlight how little American military might can do.

“The strikes destroyed an [ISIS] Humvee,” U.S. Central Command said Wednesday.

“One strike destroyed an [ISIS] Humvee near the Mosul Dam,” Sunday’s announcement said.

“The strikes destroyed or damaged three [ISIS] Humvees,” Centcom said a week ago.

The world’s most powerful military is dispatching multi-million-dollar aircraft and their pilots into harm’s way to destroy $70,000 Humvees.

Adding insult to injury, the U.S. gave those vehicles to the Iraqi military, which fumbled them into ISIS hands after the militants overran Mosul and plundered Iraqi arsenals two months ago.

This may be the challenge of 21st century war. The American military, honed by its successes in World War II, is primed to attack militaries that look like it. Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq each presented U.S. war planners with target-rich environments.

But why should anyone confronting U.S. might want to fight on America’s terms? That’s why the U.S. military has been less successful in the target-poor environments of Vietnam, Afghanistan and post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

President Barack Obama’s 100-plus airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS targets have beaten the jihadists back. Now he’s weighing an expanded campaign that would attack ISIS targets across the border, in Syria.

But any such action lacks a smart and achievable goal. Attacking ISIS in Syria would make the U.S. a de facto ally of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, whose civil war has killed nearly 200,000. It was three years ago this month that Obama said Assad must surrender power.

Most Americans don’t want more military action in the Middle East. Until they do—and their representatives in Congress are willing to back it with a declaration of war against ISIS—letting U.S. warplanes attack U.S.-built-and-paid-for Humvees inside Iraq may be the best, if unsatisfying, option.

TIME foreign affairs

We Must Treat ISIS Like a State to Defeat It

Mosul's Makhmur following invasion of Peshmerga forces
Peshmerga forces inspect the death body of ISIS militants following Peshmerga forces' seizure of Makhmur by repelling ISIS militants in Makhmur town of Mosul, Iraq on August 11, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Statehood carries obligations and commitments—and these expose the group to failure

The international community does not yet understand the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Governments are accustomed to thinking of religious militants as networks of terrorists, saboteurs, assassins and opportunists hiding among the population – quintessential non-state actors, fighting the state. These ideas are obsolete against ISIS. ISIS is no mere militia; in its territory, it is the state. Its claims to statehood are neither unfounded nor ridiculous. Its control of vast territory and resources make it arguably the most powerful religious militant group in modern history. Just as states have strengths, however, they also have weaknesses. Exploiting these weaknesses is the only way to defeat ISIS – counterterrorism is not enough – but addressing the ISIS problem starts with understanding it.

ISIS will inevitably launch terrorist attacks on the United States. At present, however, the group is more focused on capturing land, territory, and resources, and fulfilling its dream of re-establishing the Islamic caliphate. ISIS’ proximate enemy is therefore not the United States, but any individuals, groups or governments standing in its path to statehood. As shown by its limited actions in Iraq, the United States has chosen to contain rather than destroy ISIS, and the group can certainly live with this. Having watched core al Qaeda sink into near irrelevance, ISIS has learned that, without secure territory, recruits and resources, it cannot confront the West. Indeed, even such a confrontation is just a means to a much broader, more ambitious end of de facto statehood.

Given the group’s limited size and ideological eccentricity, ISIS’ state-building project has been a surprising success. However, being a state carries obligations and commitments that expose ISIS to failure. By declaring a caliphate, ISIS committed itself to preserving and expanding its borders and controlling populations, including would-be dissidents. By projecting an image of confidence, control and inevitable victory, ISIS continues to attract local and foreign recruits, while co-opting its opponents or intimidating them into submission. Interrupting and rolling back some of its dramatic battlefield successes would have an enormous psychological impact, heartening its opponents, shattering its image of invulnerability and encouraging popular uprisings against it – insurgencies against the jihadist insurgents-turned-governors.

As an aspiring government authority, ISIS is also committed to providing public and social services to the population, activities in which it is already deeply engaged. These many public goods include power and water services, law enforcement, health care, dispute resolution, employment, education and public outreach. These responsibilities cost money, which in ISIS’ case comes from extortion (or taxation, as it were), control of energy and water resources, and plunder.

These sources are of course vulnerable to physical attack and disruption. Strategic assets such as oil facilities and utilities infrastructure are highly visible and vulnerable to air strikes. ISIS also makes little effort to disguise governing facilities, political headquarters and policy and security installations. As a self-appointed state, ISIS sees little reason to keep a low profile in its own territory. Remarkably, its rivals have made little to no effort to target these assets, which are essential pillars of ISIS’ political authority and governance. For those very reasons, however, destroying these facilities without empowering moderate Sunni groups to govern in ISIS’ place would only lead to state collapse in ISIS-held areas. International efforts continue to focus on foreign terrorist finances such as donations. ISIS – a self-funded organization – remains wealthy.

ISIS is brutal toward anyone who resists its rule or laws; force plays a significant role in its control over populations. Like any state, however, ISIS cannot govern by force alone. Governance requires at least some cooperation from key population segments – tribal leaders, local militiamen and business owners, professionals able to provide technical services, and others. ISIS’ ideology is unpopular, but like many citizens of dictatorships, ISIS’ subjects calculate that resistance is pointless without weapons, money and the ability to organize. On these fronts, they are outmatched, due in part to the lack of outside assistance for rebel groups fighting ISIS in its heartland in Syria. These potential subversives can be encouraged and enabled to overthrown the de facto ISIS government.

Above all, ISIS wants to control territory and borders. Otherwise it is just one militia among many others in Syria and Iraq. This requires fighting on multiple fronts against multiple enemies, within both Syria and Iraq. That means openly moving fighters, arms and equipment across vast desert areas. Therefore, like any conventional army, ISIS is prone to overstretch. These increasingly lengthy lines of communication are prime targets for ground and air attacks that would destroy ISIS’ territorial integrity and fighting capability. For now, however, its enemies – the Syrian regime, Syrian rebel groups, Iraqi Shia militias, Iraqi security forces and indeed the United States – are either unwilling or unable to hit ISIS where it would hurt most.

ISIS is certainly not more powerful than a coalition of all these potential rivals. Even taken alone, most of its enemies vastly outnumber it. But ISIS is adaptive, creative and ambitious. By contrast, the international community’s response has been rigid, predictable and unimaginative. If it continues to see and treat ISIS as simply a terrorist group, the international community will forever be playing defense, which ISIS can happily live with, until it no longer has to and can go on the offensive abroad. Unless its rivals understand and treat ISIS as a state, and exploit the vulnerabilities statehood presents, ISIS will continue to outclass them in ambition and sophistication, and it will have its state.

Faysal Itani is a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

TIME National Security

Woman Arrested in Denver for Alleged Support of Jihadist Group

Her arrest comes weeks after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) launched an offensive in Iraq

+ READ ARTICLE

Updated 7:13 a.m. E.T. on July 3

A woman in Denver was arrested for allegedly providing material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the designated-terrorist organization that has been seizing regions in northern Iraq over the last month.

A criminal complaint filed with the U.S. District Court of Colorado says Shannon Maureen Conley conspired to commit an offense against the U.S., Reuters reports, and that she knew ISIS was engaged in militant activity.

The complaint said Conley met with a co-conspirator—a man, labeled in the documents as Y.M., who said he was an active member of the group—online last year and that she planned to meet him in Syria through Turkey. Conley had apparently attended training sessions for military tactics and using firearms in Texas earlier this year, the complaint added, with an aim to support fighters once she was on the ground.

[Reuters]

TIME Foreign Policy

Hillary: Al-Maliki Must Go

"The Iraqi people need to think seriously about the kind of leader they need to try to unite Iraqis against what is a terrible, imminent threat," Clinton said

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step aside from his country as it gallops furiously toward civil war.

In recent days, Sunni extremist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria moved within 50 miles of Baghdad, an alarming escalation that, the former Secretary of State told Fox News on Tuesday, the Iraqi politician had only exacerbated. Clinton said al-Maliki showed weak leadership by exhibiting a preference for Iraqi Shi‘ites and purging senior military leaders of the rival religious sect group.

Clinton added that she is “not in favor of any formal relationships or agreements with Iran at this time.”

In a separate appearance at a CNN town hall Tuesday, Clinton aimed more harsh words at al-Maliki, saying that in retrospect the Prime Minister should not have rejected an extended “status-of-forces agreement” with the U.S., which would have kept American troops in the country beyond 2011.

“I think it’s imperative that the government of Iraq, currently led by Maliki, be much more inclusive, much more willing to share power, involve all the different segments of Iraq,” she said on CNN. “And I believe strongly that, if Maliki is not the kind of leader who can do that, then the Iraqi people need to think seriously about the kind of leader they need to try to unite Iraqis against what is a terrible, imminent threat from these most extreme terrorists.”

MONEY Gas

WATCH: Iraq Conflict Could Lead to Higher Gas Prices

The latest conflict in Iraq — the world's second-largest oil producer — could result in your paying more at the pump for gas.

TIME Iraq

Turmoil in Iraq as Extremist Militants Make Gains

In a series of devastating assaults, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an extremist splinter group of al-Qaeda, has seized key Iraqi cities as it advances toward the capital Baghdad. Along the way, the Sunni militants have reportedly looted banks and picked up arms and other military equipment from fleeing Iraqi forces. In the north of the country, forces from the the semi-autonomous Kurdish region have seized the city of Kirkuk.

TIME Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

Meet the Most Successful Terrorist Leader Since Osama Bin Laden

Emboldened by its success in Syria and Iraq, al-Qaeda is widening its reach

+ READ ARTICLE

There’s a name that you should remember: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the commander of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose fighters now control large swaths of Iraq.

There are few photos of al-Baghdadi, and even fewer details about his life are well-known. But as Iraq is engulfed by conflict and the country’s second largest city fell to Sunni extremists, the influence of Islamic terrorism’s newest star is set to grow.

TIME’s International Editor Bobby Ghosh explains the danger behind al-Baghdadi’s rise to power, and what that means for both Europe and the United States.

TIME White House

Obama on Iraq: ‘I Don’t Rule Out Anything’ as Militants Aim for Baghdad

Obama is not considering boots on the ground, a senior administration official said

President Barack Obama said he would not rule out military intervention to support Iraq’s government against advancing Sunni militants, two and a half years after the U.S. withdrew its last troops from the country.

“I don’t rule out anything,” Obama told reporters at the White House after meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott after being asked a question about the possibility the U.S. would conduct airstrikes in Iraq to support the government there. “We do have a stake in making sure these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria,” Obama added.

Obama said that is was “fair to say that in our consultations with the Iraqis there will be some short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily and our national security team is looking into all the options.” However, a senior administration official said Obama is not considering putting U.S. boots on the ground once again in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has expressed a willingness to allow the U.S. to conduct airstrikes on the extremists, who have over the past week seized Iraq’s second largest city, the country’s largest oil refinery and the city of Tikrit, the home of former leader Saddam Hussein. Fighting between Iraqi forces and advancing fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other Islamic fundamentalist groups, who spilled over from neighboring war-torn Syria, has already displaced more than 500,000 Iraqis.

“This should also be a wakeup call for the Iraqi government,” Obama said. “There has to be a political component to this so that Sunni and Shia who care about building a functioning state that can bring about security and prosperity to all people inside of Iraq come together and work diligently against the extremists.”

The U.S. has provided Baghdad with $15 billion worth of equipment and training after spending $1.7 trillion and nearly 4,500 lives in almost nine years of war.

“Over the last year we have been providing them with additional assistance to try to address the problems that they have in Anbar, the northwest portions of the country, as well as the Iraqi and Syrian border,” Obama said. “What we’ve seen over the last couple of days indicates the degree to which Iraq’s going to need more help. It’s going to need more help from us, and it’s going to need more help from the international community.”

TIME Iraq

Iraq’s Second Largest City Falls to Extremists

Iraqis fleeing violence in the Nineveh province wait in their vehicles at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski Kalak, 25 miles West of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on June 10, 2014.
Iraqis fleeing violence in Nineveh province wait in their vehicles at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski Kalak, 25 miles west of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on June 10, 2014. Safin Hamed—AFP/Getty Images

Soldiers in Mosul threw down their guns and stripped off their uniforms as Sunni insurgents approached and raised their black flags on Tuesday, allowing the city to fall after just four days of fighting. Terrified residents were streaming out of the city

The fall of Iraq’s second largest city to Islamist extremists Tuesday sends an alarming message about the deterioration of a country where the U.S. spent eight years, 4,500 lives and $1.7 trillion. Mosul, a city of 1.8 million located in the far north of the country, long cultivated a reputation as a military town. But Iraqi soldiers threw down their guns and stripped off their uniforms as the insurgents approached on Tuesday, according to officials stunned by the collapse of its defenses.

“When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists,” Osama Nuajaifi, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament who hails from Mosul, said during a news conference in Baghdad. “Everything is fallen. It’s a crisis. Having these terrorist groups control a city in the heart of Iraq threatens not only Iraq but the entire region.”

The fall of Mosul after only four days of fighting speaks volumes about both the state of Iraqi forces and the depth of the sectarian division at the bleeding heart of the nation’s ongoing crisis: the population of Mosul is mostly Sunni, and the central government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is widely criticized as favoring the country’s Shi‘ite majority. Al-Maliki is likely to remain in office after the April 30 elections left him with the largest share of votes and negotiating chiefly with other Shi‘ite parties to form a new governing coalition.

The insurgents — who raised black flags over parts of the city on Tuesday — are Sunni extremists known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a group al-Qaeda disowned as too extreme.

“Iraq is undergoing a difficult stage,” al-Maliki said at a televised news conference, after asking parliament to declare a state of emergency. The Premier confirmed that militants controlled much of Mosul, and that soldiers had deserted their posts. News reports said militants had overrun the airport, gaining access to military helicopters, and had cranes moving blast walls — erected as protection against terrorist car bombs — to reinforce their positions and block roads against a counterattack. Police stations had been overrun and set afire, and the doors of at least one jail flung open: the Associated Press quoted residents who saw prisoners running down the street still wearing their yellow jump suits.

Terrified residents were streaming out of the city — the International Organization for Migration reports 500,000 people have left their homes since Saturday — and there were reports that water and electricity were cut off. On its Twitter account, ISIS gloated about seizing arms and vehicles abandoned by the city’s supposed defenders. Elsewhere in the country, its fighters have been spotted driving humvees captured from government forces in previous encounters.

The situation was dire in more ways than one. Besides its symbolic importance as Iraq’s second largest city — and the historic home of the country’s oil industry — Mosul has crucial strategic significance. It sits near both Turkey and the largely autonomous Kurdish zone of northern Iraq, but most important, it functions as Iraq’s most prominent doorway to Syria, where ISIS emerged as one of the main rebel forces arrayed against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Led by an Iraqi, ISIS has ranged freely across an international border that separates the countries far more on maps than in reality. The conflicts raging in both Syria and Iraq are grounded in sectarian identities — Sunni vs. Shi‘ite — that have in crucial ways overridden national identities. The terms of the ancient conflict steepen the challenge Baghdad faces in subduing the insurrection that currently has divided Iraq between east and west. ISIS and its Sunni allies control much of Anbar province, including portions of Ramadi and much of Fallujah, which lay due west of the capital. Mosul, though also home to Shi‘ite and Kurdish populations, remained restive for most of the U.S. occupation, and was a battleground between al-Maliki’s troops and forces associated with al-Qaeda as recently as 2008, when the Premier promised a “decisive” battle for the city.

On Tuesday, al-Maliki was preparing again. Despite warnings from analysts that the insurrection was at heart a political problem that might only be worsened by a heavy-handed military response, al-Maliki announced his government had created a Crisis Unit and was preparing a counteroffensive that, according to one report, would include civilian volunteers armed by his government. Nuajaifi, the parliament speaker, warned, “They will reach every corner of Iraq if it doesn’t stop.”

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