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How the U.S. missed warning signs about the Islamic State

September 29, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
President Obama acknowledged that the intelligence community underestimated the force of the Islamic State militants and overestimated the will of Iraq’s military. Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute joins Judy Woodruff to offer his perspective on what the intelligence community misjudged about the Islamic State.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On the Sept. 29, 2014, edition of PBS NewsHour, a second guest in our discussion of U.S. policy on the Islamic State was unexpectedly unable to join our discussion due to a last minute technical malfunction. We strive to include multiple points of view whenever possible on the NewsHour and regret this technical error.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We pick up now on the president’s statements that the intelligence community underestimated the Islamic State group’s capabilities and overestimated the Iraqi military’s willpower.

For that, we get the perspective of Frederick Kagan. He’s director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. He was a leading advocate for the surge of American forces in Iraq in 2007.

And, Frederick Kagan, we welcome you back to the program.

FREDERICK KAGAN, American Enterprise Institute: Thanks, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let’s divide this in two, because there are two comments the president made here.

Number one, he said that the intelligence community was caught off-guard about how fast, how strong ISIS was growing. How do you see that?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, I mean, Director Clapper said that they had underestimated the ISIS threat and overestimated the Iraqi security forces.

But when you go back and look at the testimony that General Flynn, the DIA director, gave in February and a number of other testimonies and statements, it is pretty clear that the intelligence community leadership was tracking the rise of ISIS and seeing the threat and seeing the danger.

And so I don’t think it sounds like the intelligence community really missed this one in a big way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But hasn’t Director Clapper, though, said this in so many words, that they were caught off-guard?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, he said — yes, he did say it in so many words, but he also went on to give a little bit more context than that.

And what he really specified was that they had not been able to estimate accurately the will to fight of both sides. And that, you know, may have helped them not see Mosul fall as rapidly as it did, not see the ISF collapse as rapidly as it did.

But that’s a very particular issue. What he didn’t say was that they had fundamentally missed or misjudged the rise of ISIS in general or the threat. He can’t say that, really. And he wouldn’t say that because his people have been testifying to it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And all this is in the context of we know there’s limited intelligence capability inside Syria anyway to know exactly what’s going on…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … inside ISIS as it was growing.

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, right. Because we closed our embassy in Damascus, that deprived us of a lot of capability. And of course we have had limited intelligence in Iraq also since we pulled out and we didn’t succeed in negotiating either a follow-on forces agreement or a follow-on intelligence agreement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that is the other part of this I want to ask you about, because the president also said that the — he said the intelligence community overestimated the ability and the will of the Iraqi army to fight. What is your take on that?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, I think that there were a lot of warning signs about weaknesses in the Iraqi security forces that good analysts at the Institute for the Study of War had been tracking in 2013 and laying out.

And there was a lot of desertions. There was a large amnesty that Prime Minister Maliki granted in 2013 which were indicative of morale problems. I’m sure the intelligence community was aware of those. I’m sure that it was aware of the risks.

I think what Director Clapper was saying was that, from the standpoint of putting a really fine point on it and saying, well, at this moment, ISIS has the capability to do this and the Iraqi security forces will fold, that, they didn’t estimate. But I suspect that in terms of generally understanding the state of play, again, I would be very surprised if the intelligence community had really missed that fundamentally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So when the president went on — and I looked — I was just looking at his interview with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes.”  He said the U.S. left a democracy in Iraq that was intact. He said a well-equipped military with the ability to chart their own course. But he said it was squandered.

And we have heard this argument before from the administration, their belief, their view and the view of many that all this was squandered by the former Prime Minister Maliki.

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, I think the situation that we left behind in 2011 was squandered. I think it was squandered by Maliki and I think it was squandered by President Obama.

I think that the failure to maintain any kind of U.S. military support for the Iraqis was critical. Among other things, it’s misleading to say that the Iraqi army was actually properly equipped. It wasn’t. It hadn’t been designed to stand on its own. It hadn’t — it had no air support of its own. It had no ability to police its own airspace.

It had a variety of lax in intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance that everyone had expected that the U.S. would continue to provide. So when we pulled out in 2011, it wasn’t just about pulling out our ground forces. It was about withdrawing from the Iraqi security forces enablers that they had thought they would continue to have and leaving them in a bad condition to deal with the fight that they faced.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the point, though, Frederick Kagan, that the president went on to say?  He said — and, again, he’s said this before. He said, this can’t be a U.S. military operation alone. In essence, he was saying it’s got to be something the Iraqis want, or how can the U.S. go in and make it happen?

And he’s pointing out if the Iraqi military isn’t going to fight, how can the U.S. go in and do the fighting for them, if they don’t want it to happen?

FREDERICK KAGAN: I have to say, this is one of the most offensive arguments that has been made about Iraq all along, which is that somehow Iraqis are children and craven and lazy or cowardly and they don’t want to fight, and so unless we really boot them in the rear end and push them forward, then they’re just not going to do it for themselves.

That’s false. Iraqis have fought like lions against al-Qaida in Iraq. They fought like lions against Shia militias when our troops were there, and they fought like lions for some time after our troops had left.

What they need is assistance. They need U.S. assistance, concrete assistance on the ground and a willingness that we have shown before, but that this president seems not to have, to share the risks with them and share the burdens against a common enemy, because the biggest problem with this argument that says if the Iraqis don’t stand up, then what can we do, is it implies that it doesn’t matter to us what the outcome is.

But if this group is as much of a threat to us as the president says it is, and I believe that it is, then we have to have a solution to this problem, even if the Iraqis aren’t going to stand up and do it. And when he was asked that question, he punted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, because, I mean, when you put it all together, the president is acknowledging the intelligence community made mistakes. But he’s saying the philosophical view of the administration was, how could the administration, how could the U.S. continue to conduct this fight if the Iraqis themselves didn’t care enough to do it on their own?


And I think the biggest problem here is that the philosophical view of this administration is that they campaigned on, end this war. And he campaigned on, we’re done, and we’re not going to be involved in Iraq. And for five years while Maliki has been making mistakes, and I and many others have been calling attention to them and warning and calling on the administration to press Maliki in various ways to try and help in various ways, this administration has shown the most profound disinterest in what is going on in Iraq.

And I think it’s very telling that, called to account on this, what the president said was, somebody else got it wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. Thank you.