World Affairs

Did the Saudi Government Secretly Support ISIS?

On August 17, 2014, Clinton wrote to John Podesta, then Counselor to the President and later her campaign chair, outlining the intelligence on ISIS and laying out her policy position on how to deal with the challenge. Most of the stuff—on FSA, peshmerga, Turkey and so on—is clear from open sources but there was one particular bombshell. She claimed that the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia provided clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIS. Here’s the full paragraph:

Armed with proper equipment, and working with U.S. advisors, the Peshmerga can attack the ISIL with a coordinated assault supported from the air. This effort will come as a surprise to the ISIL, whose leaders believe we will always stop with targeted bombing, and weaken them both in Iraq and inside of Syria. At the same time we should return to plans to provide the FSA, or some group of moderate forces, with equipment that will allow them to deal with a weakened ISIL, and stepped up operations against the Syrian regime. This entire effort should be done with a low profile, avoiding the massive traditional military operations that are at best temporary solutions. While this military/para-military operation is moving forward, we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region. This effort will be enhanced by the stepped up commitment in the KRG. The Qataris and Saudis will be put in a position of balancing policy between their ongoing competition to dominate the Sunni world and the consequences of serious U.S. pressure. By the same token, the threat of similar, realistic U.S. operations will serve to assist moderate forces in Libya, Lebanon, and even Jordan, where insurgents are increasingly fascinated by the ISIL success in Iraq.

Now it is well understood that private donors in the gulf, including and especially rich Saudis and Qataris, have provided significant funding for ISIS. But Clinton said quite explicitly that the Saudi and Qatari governments were providing clandestine support. If the claim is true then this would be the greatest national security scandal in US history. For the United States government has gone out of its way to portray the Saudis as a valuable partner in the fight against ISIS.

The US has also gone out of its way to support the Saudis’ aggressive foreign policy in the region. Despite knowing that the Saudi terror bombing of Yemen would strengthen AQAP, the administration has provided blanket operational support for the air war. In Bahrain, the administration quietly acquiesced to the Saudi intervention to quell the uprising of the island’s majority Shia against the Al Khalifa. In Syria, the administration has repeatedly signaled its support for Saudi-backed salafist insurgents—often described as Western-backed—despite considerable concerns about their sectarian and ideological agenda.


President Obama and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

The systematic appeasement of the Saudis is presumably meant to mollify Saudi anger about US policy vis-à-vis Mubarak and the nuclear deal with Iran. But if it is publicly established that the Saudis directly supported ISIS, that would completely undermine domestic support for the US-Saudi alliance. Put simply, Saudi Arabia would become a pariah. Instead of talking about strengthening the alliance, we would be talking about containment. So this is an issue of considerable importance.

ISIS poses an existential threat to Saudi Arabia since the self-styled caliphate rejects the Saudis as the legitimate protectors of the two holy mosques; a job which would naturally fall on the caliphate if one were in existence. The Kingdom has also been the target of ISIS and its predecessors. The Saudis could conceivably use ISIS as a bludgeon against Assad and the Iranian-dominated regime in Baghdad. But such a policy would come with grave risks.

Even supposing that the Saudis could stomach the risk and bankroll ISIS, the second part of the claim is even less credible. For if US intelligence was aware of Saudi clandestine support for ISIS, that information would be extremely difficult to suppress. It is hard to imagine that the administration would bank on keeping the lid on this explosive affair. Indeed, if it ever came out it would ruin the career of every single person involved in the conspiracy to cover up a matter of such grave national security interest.

A much more credible interpretation is that Clinton was being flippant. What she meant to say perhaps was that the indiscriminate support provided by the Saudis and the Qataris (as well as Turkey) for the insurgency against Assad was helping ISIS. Specifically, that the flow of weapons and funds from the gulf regimes to the insurgents was ending up with ISIS. There is considerable evidence to suggest that weapons and monies meant for other insurgent groups ended up in ISIS’ hands through raids and defections. The addition of a single word, inadvertently, would rehabilitate her claim:

While this military/para-military operation is moving forward, we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are [inadvertently] providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.

I believe this is the correct interpretation of the email. If I am wrong and Clinton’s words can be taken literally, then we may be facing a true game-changer in the Middle East. But pending further revelations, it would be unwise to give it much credence.

World Affairs

A Controlled Experiment

Isis strikes

The Obama White House decided last week to double the number of American “trainers and advisers” in the fight against the Islamic State; bringing the total number of US military personnel in the campaign in Iraq to 3,000. The United States has been conducting airstrikes for three months now, with little to show for it. US warplanes, reported the paper of record, “are mostly hitting pop-up targets of opportunity.” In Iraq, only a quarter of more than three thousand sorties so far involved striking targets on the ground. The situation in Syria is even worse. After the initial strikes on obvious fixed sites clearly visible from the air, the campaign has petered down due to lack of targeting information. This comes as no surprise, given that there are no partners on the ground to direct fire.

What the United States is doing in the campaign against ISIS amounts to a controlled experiment. What is being tested is the “Afghan model” of warfare, in which indigenous allies replace US ground troops with the help of American air power and a small number of special operations forces.[1] The rapid collapse of the Taliban alliance in 2001 was explained by the devastation wrought by US precision strikes allowing even a rag-tag crew of local allies to take-over territory abandoned by the Taliban. Specifically, special operations forces acted solely as scouts tasked with providing precise locations of enemy positions which would then be annihilated by precision airstrikes. Once the enemy had thus been routed even untrained indigenous ground troops could be expected to prevail against survivors. Obama’s current war plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State essentially amounts to a bet on the viability of the Afghan model.

Stephen Biddle has forcefully argued that the Afghan model is not widely applicable.[2] In particular, the viability of the model depends crucially on the “balance of skill” on the ground: “allies with inferior skills cannot exploit precision airpower even with US [special operations forces].” The effects of precision airpower work through a “synergistic interaction with ground force skill.” When combined with a favorable balance of skill on the ground, precision airstrikes conducted from a position of absolute command of the air produce tremendous lethality. But ground and air forces are “poor substitutes for one another.”

The governing logic of this nonlinear relation between airpower and the balance of skill on the ground relies on the lessons of 1918, laid out in Biddle’s excellent monograph. The deadlock of the Western Front remained unbroken for more than three years. Massed infantry tactics in 1914 yielded nothing but slaughter in the face of modern firepower. In 1915-1918, all armies instead first used artillery barrages to dislodge the enemy from dug-in positions, followed by infantry charges to take-over territory. Such effort usually failed outright because even a few survivors armed with modern weapons could still slaughter a painfully large number of exposed troops as they charged the trenches. Even when such tactics allowed one side to advance a few hundred yards, it increased their exposure to the enemy’s artillery. How, then, could men survive the storm of steel and advance at all?

The solution that was hit upon by all (surviving) great powers was essentially the same. Germany (as usual) was the first to innovate with the Second Battle of the Somme in the first of the four Spring Offensives in 1918. Instead of massed infantry brigades, troops advanced in dispersed small platoons that were less vulnerable to concentrated fire. They moved at speeds afforded by the terrain, using all possible cover to shield themselves from the hail of fire. Artillery was deployed not to dislodge the enemy but to momentarily suppress enemy fire to allow one’s troops to dash across open fields and into the safety of cover. This required combined arms operations with close and unprecedented cooperation between multiple units. These innovations, quickly deployed by all powers still fighting, finally restored movement to the Western Front in 1918.

Biddle calls the complex of techniques required to operate effectively in the face of radically lethal modern weapons, the “modern system.” His basic argument in that military power in the modern era is not just a function of material capabilities and technology. Numerical preponderance is such a bad predictor of military outcomes that even flipping a coin performs better. Nor do more sophisticated measures of material capabilities like the Composite Index of National Capability (CINC), also called the COW index, does much better in predicting military outcomes. Rather, a state’s effective military power depends first and foremost on whether or not, and to what degree, it has mastered the modern system of force deployment. Biddle shows how military contests between modern and non-modern armies have been extraordinarily one-sided, whereas numerical preponderance and technological advantages only matter in wars between like armies.

Biddle oversells his case for continuity in land warfare since 1918 a bit in that the introduction of the radical combination of mobile armor and flying artillery in 1940, and the emergence of precision guided munitions in large numbers by 1990, were indeed game changers. By his own account, the French military had learned the lessons of 1918 and adopted the modern system of force deployment. How, then, was the Fall of France accomplished in six short weeks? As for the effect of precision guided munitions and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), one only needs to examine the discussions of Russian, Chinese, and Indian military strategists.

Still, on the specific question of the campaign to destroy the Islamic State, Biddle’s insight is clearly applicable. The caliphate is not simply a rag-tag collection of salafi jihadists. It reportedly contains a very large number of former members of the Iraqi army, including the highly-trained Republican Guard. (The Iraqi army was helpfully disbanded by Paul Bremer in his de-Ba’athification of the Iraqi government in 2003.) Moreover, we have seen that the Islamic State is capable of complex operations. It has prevailed against Western and Israeli-trained Kurdish peshmerga, as well as the strikingly numerically preponderant US-trained Iraqi forces, not to speak of Assad’s forces and sundry rebel groups in Syria. At one point, the New York Times article says that the airstrikes have forced ISIS fighters to “disperse and conceal themselves,” counting it as a success. But it could equally well be seen as a signal warning that ISIS is learning the modern system of force deployment, if they are not already trained to do so. For it is not out of the realm of possibility that they are being trained by elite Republican Guard officers who were the only ones to put up a serious fight against invading US forces in 2003.

It recently surfaced that the Islamic State has acquired a number of advanced surface-to-air missile systems. ISIS has used heat-seeking missiles to down Iraqi helicopters. It recently published an online guide describing how to use shoulder-fired missiles to down Apache attack helicopters. The US has refused to deploy these otherwise very effective platforms because of worries about their vulnerability to ground fire. Fixed winged aircraft, whether manned or drones, can provide air cover only for brief, intermittent periods. The adversary can seek cover when they hear the warplanes approaching, and resume their movement after they pass. Survivability rates for trained adversaries on the ground are thus very high, even in the face of an intense air campaign. At lower altitudes such as during take-off and landing, even fixed-winged aircraft are vulnerable to the aging Soviet-made SA-7 Manpads, which has been used often enough by ISIS and other insurgent groups. ISIS positions close to the Baghdad airport are thus a special headache. ISIS militants may also have gained access to Chinese-made FN-6 missile systems, and even the more advanced Russian-made SA-24 Manpads which are effective against aircraft flying at cruising altitudes.

Not only are ISIS fighters well-trained and well-armed, they are also learning how to operate in the face of US airpower. The Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi troops are therefore unlikely to prevail against the Islamic State even with the support of US airpower. The United States’ controlled experiment is likely to fail. America will eventually have to place substantial boots on the ground. The plan put forward by Kimberly Kagan’s shop, the Institute for the Study of War, is sound. It calls for the deployment of 25,000 combat troops. That number will keep rising the longer Obama takes to realize the futility of the experiment.


1. Andres, Richard B., Craig Wills, and Thomas E. Griffith Jr. “Winning with Allies: The Strategic Value of the Afghan Model.” (2006).

2. Biddle, Stephen D. “Allies, airpower, and modern warfare: The Afghan model in Afghanistan and Iraq.” (2006).

World Affairs

More Nonsense From the White House

USS George HW Bush

When a dashing young Senator from Illinois spoke against a “dumb war” of a dumb President, we believed him. We thought President Obama would serve as a long-overdue antidote to America’s addiction to war. Once in the Oval Office, Obama slowly and deliberately implemented his plan for the withdrawal of the hated American troops from Mesopotamia. Even in Afghanistan—the “good war”—he is bringing the US occupation to a close; although with an ill-advised fetish for the calendar. The American bootprint in Eurasia has declined steadily since the high-tide of Bush’s “surge.”

There is no appetite in the United States for large-scale stabilization operations overseas. In 2011, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared: “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Despite widespread calls for American military intervention in Libya, Mali, and Syria, the United States could not be pressed into anything more than airstrikes. Even as Isis gets busy forging a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East, President Obama has flatly ruled out the deployment of ground forces.

This is not the worst thing in the world. American combat troops have always been more useful to deter adversaries and prevent escalation—they have kept the peace between major powers in Eurasia since World War II—than in large-scale pacification campaigns. Prompted by dubious theories and imperial hubris, the deployment of American troops at any appreciable scale in the Third World has invariably been a harbinger for chaos. American pacification campaigns have left millions of dead bodies strewn across the globe—without an iota of strategic gains to show for it. If Washington has been inoculated against ground wars in poor countries for the foreseeable future, surely that is an unambiguous good?

No. Here’s why. There are some problems which cannot be solved without the application of military power. The Isis caliphate is an unambiguous security threat to everyone from Iran to America. It will serve as a breeding ground for Islamic terror. These guys are way out there on Neptune; beyond other run-of-the-mill Islamist extremists—Jabhat al-Nusra, Boko Haram, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Haqqani network, Abu Sayyaf—already a pretty scary lot. This is not hyperbole. To celebrate their victory in Mosul, Isis carried out mass executions of anyone and everyone they suspected of working for the government, or breathing while Shi’a. They claimed to have slaughtered 1,700 Iraqi soldiers, burying them into hastily dug mass graves—sixty of which can be identified from the photos gleefully posted by the group on the Internet.


It has come to light that the White House only plans to carry out significant airstrikes against the Isis if they threaten Baghdad. What this means is that the United States is ready to tolerate the Isis forging a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East, as long as it doesn’t threaten the existence of the Iraqi rump state to the south. It is one thing for President Obama to rule out the deployment of ground forces. Quite another to cede the ground to the Isis.

If President Obama really wants out, he has to give the green light for the Iranians to go in. Indeed, letting strong states in the region do the job is preferable to sending American forces back in. Iran has a very strong interest in preserving the Iraqi state. By contrast, both Turkey and the Kurds would rather not engage the Isis. But the United States has been working to contain Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria. That this is counter-productive is clear. Indeed, Senator Lindsey Graham of the GOP has suggested cooperating with Iran in order to help Iraqi forces hold Baghdad. That still doesn’t go far enough—the Isis needs to be pushed back out of Iraq and hunted down. Either do the job yourself, or allow those who are willing, to do it.

Privileging keeping the score with the Islamic Republic of Iran over genuine security interests is an extremely pig-headed approach to international affairs. The White House would do well to remember Palmerston’s sage advice to the British House of Commons in 1848:

It is a narrow policy to believe that this country or that has marked out the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy. We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and these interests it is our duty to follow.    


World Affairs

The Islamic Statelet of Syria and Iraq

Screenshot 2014-06-11 04.20.54

What is unfolding as of writing in Mesopotamia is nothing short of the worst case scenario. The Islamic State of Syria and Iraq—the most odorous of the Islamist militants—has taken over not only large swaths of northern Syria, but also now nearly a third of Iraqi territory. The Sunni-dominated eastern part of Iraq is now essentially under its boot, although there are other armed Islamists in the region. The ISIS is so radical in its aims that even al Qaeda considers it beyond the pale. For the past six months it has gained steady control of Anbar province, including the major cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. It was reported yesterday that it has conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. It now controls most of the province of Nineveh, once the heart of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the mightiest empire the world had ever seen before the rise of Rome.1

This situation was not foreseen per se, but the dangers inherent in ceding the Syrian rebellion to Islamist militants were. The policy tensor was far from alone in sounding the alarm. The Obama White House was warned by the CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Agency against outsourcing the supply of weapons to the oil monarchies, and letting regional players pour money and weapons into Syria. The baseline scenario (sans a US intervention) laid out by the policy tensor was “the country increasingly becoming a safe haven for a resurgent al Qaeda and a source of regional and global instability.” Unfortunately, what has obtained is considerably worse. What we are witnessing is the establishment of an über-Islamist theocratic terror state without precedent. Even in the Middle Ages no one attempted such lunacy. One very nearly has to go back to ancient empires that practiced human sacrifice to find a precedent. Even the Phoenicians, who slaughtered their young in great numbers at the altar of Moloch (Hercules),  were more civilized.

The nuanced strategy proposed by the policy tensor in September 2013 is no longer viable. The situation calls for a much more radical response. Even at the current juncture, both Baghdad and Damascus are incapable of crushing ISIS. Once ISIS grows much stronger, even other armed groups who are ideologically opposed to it will not be persuaded by weapons and money to take it on. The Obama White House’s foreign policy failures are beginning to bite. The baseline scenario is no longer fighters emanating out from the conflict to thirty countries where they will be chased by drones ten years from now. The baseline scenario now is a vicious caliphate in the heart of the Middle East, that already is, and will become, a much more dangerous staging ground for terror attacks against everyone: what is left of the Iraqi state, the Kurdish Autonomous Region (we should just start calling it Kurdistan), the oil monarchies, Israel, the West, Russia, China, and India; basically everyone who does not submit to the rule of their literal interpretation of the Koran.

What is required by now is a radical overhaul of the White House’s Middle East policy. The White House now needs to back Tehran and Damascus in crushing the radical Islamists. It pains me to say this, but there is no choice left but to support Assad. That this would be the choice that was faced at a later date was clear from the beginning. The only security interest of the United States in the Syrian conflict was to prevent the resurgence of al Qaeda. As I said before, if you are not going to do the job yourself, Assad is the best man for the job. By inadvisedly staying out of the conflict, the Obama administration has cornered itself into a situation where now it has no choice but to support Assad. A thaw with Iran—and the attendant realignment in the Persian Gulf—wouldn’t exactly be the worst thing from a strategic perspective. Iran is the natural regional hegemon of the Persian Gulf. The only way the United States can put Gulf affairs on auto-pilot and ‘pivot to Asia’ is by breaking bread with Iran.

The security situation in northern Iraq has brought up another, long-ignored, opportunity. The Kurds, who has been running their own region for decades now, have no choice but to fend off the ISIS. The United States should finally lift its veto against Kurdish independence, and sign up the Kurds for the fight ahead against ISIS. It’s going to be nastly and long. If you can’t afford to put boots on the ground, you need to bankroll some very competent people who will fight for you. The drones just aren’t gonna cut it. With the carrot of US support for independence, the Kurds can be persuaded to spearhead the fight; and fight competently they will. It’s all hands on deck now.


1 Assyria was the only great power to survive the spectacular collapse of the Bronze Age in 1194 BCE. All the other great powers of the Late Bronze Age—Egypt, the Hittites, and Mitanni—succumbed under the onslaught of the Peoples of the Sea; Assyria survived nearly unscathed only because its center of power lay far inland, protected from the invading hordes.