The lights are on 24/7 in the CIA’s Iraq Operations Group these days, with real-time spy satellite imagery, electronic intercepts and drone videos pouring in from Iraq and Syria, along with intelligence reports from agency bases in Baghdad, Kurdistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Turkey. But the whispered corridor conversations and worried looks among analysts and operations officials, sources say, tell the real story: Even if the White House decides to go to war against the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS, there are no good options.
The last time the CIA faced an Iraqi insurgency it had the backing of 140,000 U.S. troops, a 500-strong Baghdad station and constant air cover from in-country bases, not to mention the support of President George W. Bush and Congress for a big troop “surge.” It was also able to promise Sunni tribal leaders that they would have a seat at the table in Baghdad. Today, it has none of those advantages, and it faces an enemy far more lethal, and based across the border in Syria.
“There are just a lot of least-bad options right now,” says Patrick Skinner, a former CIA operative in Iraq who frequently travels to the region for the Soufan Group, a private intelligence organization staffed by former CIA and FBI personnel. “I’m not political in any way, but I don’t fault the administration too much for the situation overall. I mean, you’ve got Syria collapsing and a civil war in the heart of the Middle East along with everything else going wrong. We can change certain things, but to change the overall trajectory of that is an international and regional affair.”
Others aren’t as kind to President Obama. “The White House is the big issue,” says Charles Faddis, a former top CIA operative in Kurdistan during the run-up to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003. “There’s no plan, no coherence, just half-measures, not enough to accomplish anything” in Syria. “Nobody wants anything to do with it. It’s not just that the agency has no appetite for it. They’re also having trouble getting the [Jordanians] enthusiastic about” taking the battle to Syria. “All they see is half-measures, and that’s enough to piss anybody off.”
The immediate objective is to “stop the bleeding” with air strikes, Skinner says. But U.S. war planes need reliable spotters on the ground to accurately identify enemy units and guide pilots and drones to their targets. During the first air strikes in late August against ISIS fighters threatening the Mosul Dam and Izidi refugees, U.S. Special Forces personnel and their Kurdish agents guided pilots onto their targets, intelligence sources say. A broader, sustained bombing campaign is probably beyond their capabilities. “Putting in U.S. military people for days or weeks to be spotters, that’s a very different proposition,” says Skinner. Using Kurdish or U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) irregulars as spotters for U.S warplanes is out of the question, he says. “ I can’t imagine a scenario where U.S. aircraft would drop ordnance on the instructions of even a vetted agent. Only a certified U.S. air controller could do that.”
A sustained bombing campaign would also almost certainly required grassroots-level spies to track the movements of ISIS units, CIA veterans say. And there, too, the U.S. is wanting. “We don’t have the intelligence,” says Faddis, who recounted his experience organizing resistance forces against Saddam Hussein in Kurdistan prior to the 2003 invasion in a 2008 book, Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq. ”After you take out the tanks, you’re down to going after guys with AKs in houses. We don’t have that kind of intelligence in Syria. Who’s going to tell you that this house is the ISIS headquarters in this town?” Without reliable, precise intelligence to hit the “right” house, civilian casualties would be immense—a result ISIS would no doubt publicize.
Skinner agrees. “I mean, you almost have to [penetrate] ISIS on the ground to know what you’re hitting because they’re going to blend in with so many other rebel groups. Some of them we wouldn’t mind hitting, but that’s not the point. It’s incredibly complicated.”
Ideally, the FSA, the so-called “moderate” forces backed by the Obama administration against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, could put pressure on ISIS with reconnaissance missions to support the air war, if not hit-and-run raids of their own. But the FSA is woefully under-equipped, especially now that ISIS forces have captured so much of the weaponry the U.S. supplied to the Iraqi army. On August 24, the ISIS fighters overran a Syrian air base at Taqba, capturing even more advanced weaponry, including sophisticated missiles capable of knocking U.S. warplanes and drones out of the sky.
The FSA, already wobbling before ISIS swept across the region, is completely overmatched now. What does it need just to survive? “Ammo, ammo, ammo,” says Oubai Shahbandar, spokesman for its Washington mission. That, and heavier weapons. “We’re only getting enough ammunition for weeks at a time,” he tells Newsweek. “We need a C-130 full of ammo that we can draw on. There’s been a constant shortage.”
In Baghdad, Washington would like to see the Iraqi Army, which crumbled when confronted by ISIS units in June, regroup with the aid of 300 U.S. special forces advisers dispatched by Obama after that calamity. But that’s proved elusive with control of the Baghdad government still in Shi’a hands and Iranian fighters embedded with Iraqi units. “It’s great to say we’re going to train them up and when they stand up, we’ll stand back down,” says Skinner. “But we spent eight years, and hundreds of billions of dollars training the Iraqi army and the security services for just that, and it fell apart. A lot of that was because the Iraqis staffed it with Shi’a cronies and yes-men, and we’d dismissed the former Sunni military leaders who were Baathists, but it’s naïve to think we’ll go back in there now and train them up fast.”
Although the hated Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is gone, Baghdad-based Shi’a militias are still conducting sectarian rampages against Sunni mosques.. And as long as the administration remains committed to an Iraqi state centered in Baghdad, Sunni tribal leaders, the CIA’s long ago allies, will remain on the sidelines—when not actively collaborating with the Islamic State extremists, intelligence sources uniformly agree. “The Sunnis made a choice to stand aside when [ISIS] rolled in, thinking the choice between ISIS and Maliki was something they could manage,” says John Maguire, a retired former CIA operations chief in Iraq. “At the outset, Maliki was the greater evil, and the Sunnis believed they could manage the ISIS threat after Maliki was forced out because the U.S. would reengage, and the Kurds and Sunnis believed it could be managed together.”
But, says Maguire, “their assumptions proved wrong, and no one expected it to go this far, for the U.S. to ignore the issue, or for it to get this far out of hand and end up with ISIS in possession of three heavy divisions worth of U.S. equipment, ammunition, and supplies.”
For the U.S. to rally Sunni tribal leaders and Kurds, Washington is going to have to promise them independence from Baghdad, virtually everyone outside of the Obama administration argues. The administration needs to accept that the Iraq drawn up by the British a century ago no longer exists. Fractured by the American invasion, warring tribes, sectarian extremists and Iran’s encroachments, it’s hardly more than lines on a map now. “They’re not going to die fighting for a fake notion of Iraq,” says Skinner. “They are not buying into that notion of Iraq anymore.”
“The Anbar Sunni sheiks are not really excited about living in the Dark Ages” under the Islamic State, says Faddis. But to get them and the distrustful Kurds fully engaged against the extremists, U.S. promises this time around have to be dramatic—probably no less than independence, he and many other experts on the region say. “It’s got to be over-the-top,” says Skinner. “It’s gotta be something that gets them fighting, not just against ISIS, but for something. I don’t even know if that’s possible in the short-term.”
With its repeated calls for Iraq to “get its political house in order,” the White House seems far from granting the Kurds and Sunni tribes anything remotely like that. Or to fully engage with a guerrilla campaign against ISIS inside Syria.
All of which has scared off the CIA’s rank-and-file, say several intelligence insiders. Absent a White House program for Syria, nobody wants to work on it. “They can’t staff Syria,” says a former intelligence official deeply involved in Iraq, on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations. “To staff a covert action program, you have to staff it based on desire. People have to want to go there, see that’s something’s happening and be part of something exciting. When you have policy-drift, nobody wants to go there, because the potential for disaster is significant. So right now, the [administration’s] Syria program is bullshit.”
But the emergency is now, which leaves a more aggressive bombing campaign as the least-worst political alternative for Obama, who has repeatedly pledged there will be “no boots on the ground” in Iraq, or Syria. Relentless strikes would be far messier than the few pinprick air raids the U.S. has carried out so far—with the risk now of both massive civilian casualties and losing pilots to Syrian anti-aircraft missiles.
Complications be damned, says Maguire, who has been pursuing oil business in Iraq. The extreme situation requires extreme measures, he argues: Hit ISIS headquarters in Raffiq with a massive air strike. Follow that with “a strategic eradication program over Iraq and Syria, aimed at destroying every piece of U.S. equipment—trucks, weapons, Humvee and up-armored platforms—being operated by ISIS, with intense focus on the fuel resupply and tankers of ISIS.” In a week, he maintains, “ISIS would be struggling to resupply and refuel their units.” AC-130 gun ships could close down the Iraq-Syria border area, “making western Iraq a no-go zone for ISIS, [and] once you close the resupply lines, ‘the caliphate’ is cut off.”
That’s not a likely move by a cautious Obama, Maguire and other CIA veterans admit—with emotions ranging from frustration to disgust. “I usually think just dropping bombs makes it worse up to a point,” says Skinner. “But ISIS is a real threat... It’s really unacceptable from a geopolitical standpoint. You have two countries collapsing, sort of like a black hole and sucking in everything else around it. So you have to do something. Limited airstrikes in Iraq ... will stop the advancement, but it won’t move them anywhere, so you have to crush them.”
So what’s the Obama administration going to do?
“I don’t know,” says a top former intelligence official. “They are thrashing, because they are caught in a vise.”