Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil

The emergence of ISIS, a brutal terrorist group, has forced the U.S. to gear up for a new phase in the war on terror.

It has led the formation of a new coalition to combat ISIS (also called ISIL or the Islamic State). The struggle against this powerful group may take years, well after President Obama leaves office.

Fatigued by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have been reluctant to send troops to the Middle East. Instead, the U.S. deploys aerial attacks, hoping to destroy ISIS together with action by local ground troops.

Though the U.S. has inflicted damage on ISIS, the forces on the ground have been poorly equipped and, at the outset, were unable to hold off the terrorists as they advanced to the outskirts of Baghdad.

The international coalition has been assembled in hopes of turning the tide and ultimately to wipe out a terrorist group that threatens countries far removed from the Middle East.

After struggling to come up with a plan to counter the terrorists, Obama says the U.S. will use increased force and the new coalition to eliminate ISIS.

The sudden appearance of ISIS and the protracted effort to come up with a response to it raise questions going beyond the efforts to organize an effective response.

One question is how U.S. intelligence apparently completely missed the rapid growth of a terrorist organization having sound finances, modern arms, and a large fighting force including American and British citizens.

The massive American intelligence complex was unable to warn Obama and military leaders about the new threat in the Middle East. Such a warning might have given them the time to snuff it out earlier.

This was not a few terrorists in a cave. This was a big, new organization that was missed or ignored.

The failure to spot ISIS was not the first such mistake. Intelligence officials, possibly influenced by Bush era political leaders, thought American troops would have flowers spread at their feet when they entered Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

They failed to understand that Saddam and his Sunni minority had dominated the majority Shia population in Iraq. The new American sponsored government controlled by the Shia retaliated and excluded the Sunnis, rather than creating a broad government that could promote national unity.

That left the Sunnis as ripe recruitment targets for ISIS. Only when this fact became evident did the U.S. take steps to induce the Iraqi government to deal more fairly with Sunnis, a process not yet completed.

In short, the American intelligence miscalculation at the time of the Iraq invasion contributed to the situation allowing ISIS to gain support.

The need for a new effort to deal over a period of years with the ISIS threat comes as a surprise. Apparently, the end of American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq was considered by some to be the end of “the war on terror.”

Even without a clear military victory, the end of a ground war fought by American troops meant that the ongoing struggle would be managed by using intelligence services to help countries in danger to protect themselves. But war did not end, and intelligence did not produce good information.

Terrorism is likely to be a continuing threat to nations. New terrorist groups should face an international community prepared to deal with it, not an American president forced to develop a new response and recruit a coalition of volunteers.

The United Nations was created to try to prevent countries from going to war against one another. It was expected to deal with threats involving countries, socalled “state actors.”

Terrorists were not considered to be a major international problem. They are “non-state actors” and have replaced, though not completely, wars between countries as the biggest threat to peace.

ISIS, the terrorist organization that is a “non-state actor,” wants to end up being a new country carved out of Iraq and Syria.

The U.N. could be updated to make it the main forum for states to spotlight terrorists, whose success presumably is not in the interest of any country. At least, the U.N. might reveal if any countries were backing the terrorists.

By using the U.N. to identify terrorist threats, the U.S. and others could find it easier to form coalitions willing to fight terrorism.

Al Qaeda and ISIS should have taught the world to be better prepared for dealing with terrorism. The U.S. and other countries must accept that the war on terror may never end and remain ready to defend against it.


Gordon Weil is a former public official. He lives in Harpswell.

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