11 August 2014

Maybe We Should Be Listening To More Outliers

We already sent MacGregor packing, and then reorganized the Army along 90% of his suggestions. We blew off Shinseki, who said we didn't have even half as many troops as were needed to secure Iraq. And then Flynn mouthed off saying that we were sorely lacking the needed intel in Afghanistan. And he was kicked to the curb. Well, Flynn also noted that ISIS was about to take over half of Iraq, and we ignored him again. Shame on the US military for reflexively closing ranks around the 'easy' ideas and leaving the tough ones from smart people to wither and die in the cold, before we realize (usually too late) that they were right.

Days before the takeover of the Iraqi city of Mosul by the militant group calling itself the Islamic State, U.S. intelligence analysts were sharply divided over whether the group would seize the city, according to people familiar with the debate.

U.S. officials saw initial indications the group might seek to take Mosul and urged Iraqi action, to no avail. But on the day of the June 10 takeover, U.S. officials played down its significance. "Obviously, this has got our attention in Mosul, but it doesn't change the calculus," said Rear. Adm. John Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman.

Although U.S. spy agencies have monitored and warned about the Islamic State over the past year, they often have underestimated the group's ability to make rapid operational gains, U.S. officials said. That was the case a week ago when militants launched a dramatic and successful offensive in Iraq's Kurdish region.

The offensive prompted President Barack Obama to authorize an airstrike campaign. The president acknowledged Saturday that U.S. spies and policy makers had underestimated the group, also known as ISIS and ISIL. "There is no doubt that their advance, their movement over the last several months has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates, and I think the expectations of policy makers both in and outside of Iraq," he said.

The inability of U.S. spy agencies to provide details about the timing of Islamic State offensives or their likelihood of success has touched off debate among U.S. national-security officials about whether intelligence on the group has been adequate.

The struggle to understand the capabilities of the group reflects the difficulty of collecting detailed intelligence on its internal planning. "Collection is tough," one senior U.S. official acknowledged.

That is the challenge facing intelligence officials and the U.S. military as American warplanes launch waves of airstrikes. The success of the strikes may depend in part on how well the U.S. is able to read the group.

A decline in U.S. spy resources after the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq in 2011 has limited American intelligence capability in the region. In some cases, intelligence officials have been frustrated by the Obama administration's reluctance to get more involved in Iraq and Syria, current and former U.S. officials said.

Intelligence officials say that while they can assess a situation, they can't predict outcomes. "The will to fight is inherently difficult to assess," said Jeff Anchukaitis, a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "Analysts must make assessments based on perceptions of command and control, leadership abilities, quality of experience and discipline under fire—none of which can be understood with certainty until the first shots are fired."

There have been indications along the way that Islamic State militants would move to control swaths of Iraq. But intelligence officers and policy makers have been slow to conclude the group would realize those ambitions—and quickly.

In late 2013 or early 2014, militants from the group that came to call itself the Islamic State held meetings with other Sunni groups to plot a major Iraqi offensive, the current and former U.S. officials said. The plan was to use Syria as a launchpad.

But the militants acknowledged they couldn't mount the offensive alone. They enlisted the help of others to plan operations to control parts of western and central Iraq, including a Baathist group operating out of Syria called Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi.

That group, known by the acronym JRTN, is believed led by a former top aide to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who is probably in Syria. JRTN and other groups such as the Islamic Army of Iraq have added to the manpower and capabilities of the Islamic State militants.

In their annual intelligence briefings to Congress early this year, officials focused primarily on a different part of the Syrian threat—that posed by foreign fighters traveling to Syria and the potential for Syria to become another al Qaeda safe haven.

Gen. Michael Flynn, Defense Intelligence Agency Director at the time, warned lawmakers that the group now calling itself the Islamic State "probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014." Whether they would succeed, he said, depended on how much local support they could muster and how well the Iraqi forces fought them off.

The first signs that the Islamic State was executing an Iraq plan came when the militants, working with the allied Sunni groups in Iraq, launched offensives on Ramadi and Fallujah. Although the Iraqi government was able to take those cities back, the move was a warning.

"When there were the ISIS efforts in Ramadi and Fallujah, it started to look pretty serious," said Seth Jones of the Rand Corp. think tank, who recently wrote a report on the rise of Islamic extremist groups. "The U.S. underestimated the capabilities and didn't quite understand what was going on with ISIS and these groups, particularly the ability to leverage weapons, fighters, and areas they controlled in Syria."

In the days before the June 10 takeover of Mosul, analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency and others were studying the capabilities of Islamic State militants and what their future moves might be. There was significant disagreement over whether the group would be capable of taking Mosul, according to a person familiar with the debate. One intelligence official noted, however, that even the Islamic State itself didn't know how successful it would be.

There were indications then that militants were moving forces from Syria into Iraq, staging them in western Mosul. Brett McGurk, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for Iraq told Congress last month that these indications prompted U.S. officials on June 7 to warn the Iraqis and recommend they deploy Kurdish Peshmerga militia forces to stave off the militants.

Instead, the Iraqis sent other forces, despite U.S. warnings that they wouldn't arrive in time. The Islamic State militants moved into Tikrit, north of Baghdad, a day later.

The Islamic State's rapid takeover of Mosul prompted the U.S. to step up intelligence collection, the senior U.S. official said, ramping up surveillance coverage of the group and establishing a joint-operations center so U.S. and Iraqi forces could more quickly share intelligence.

U.S. efforts provided better warnings a week ago when the militants began advancing on Erbil, capital of the Kurdish semiautonomous region.

Nonetheless, the U.S. was once again caught off guard by the effectiveness of militants and their ability to defeat the Peshmerga, seen as the most capable of Iraqi forces.

Days before the latest push by the Sunni militants, a senior defense official said that U.S. intelligence agencies had failed to properly warn about the potency of the Islamic State militants.

"There have been tactical failures, like the rise of ISIS," said the official.

Other officials, including Gen. Flynn, now say that throughout the Islamic State's intensifying offensive, the U.S. has consistently failed to predict their next moves.

"We underestimated the strength, the cohesion and the leadership of ISIL," Gen. Flynn said in an interview shortly before he stepped down Friday as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The group has grown stronger, better armed, and wealthier over the course of the year, he said.

An intelligence official said that spy agencies have been tracking the Islamic State fighters and their predecessor groups for years and have chronicled their rise in detail, as well as the weakness of Iraqi forces.

"This wasn't a U.S. intelligence failure," the official said. "It was an Iraqi military failure. The job of the intelligence community is to warn. We did that. If there was a surprise, it was in just how quickly Iraqi forces initially disintegrated when the shooting started."

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