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Kobani, Syria, on Oct. 22. Credit Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press
If Kobani survives, it will have defied the odds. This embattled city on Syria’s northern border with Turkey has been on the verge of falling for weeks in the face of a brutal siege by the Islamic State militants. But the Syrian Kurds who call Kobani home continue to fight hard, and on Sunday the United States made airdrops of weapons and other supplies to bolster them.
The town, once dismissed as inconsequential by American commanders, has become not only a focus of the American operation against the Islamic State, known as ISIS, but also a test of the administration’s strategy, which is based on airstrikes on ISIS-controlled areas in Syria and reliance on local ground forces to defeat the militants. A major problem is that the local ground forces are either unorganized, politically divided or, as in the case of the Kobani Kurds, in danger of being outgunned.
A setback in Kobani would show the fragility of the American plan and hand the Islamic State an important victory. Given Kobani’s location next to Turkey, the town’s fall would put the Islamic State in a position to cross the border and directly threaten a NATO ally, a move that could force the alliance to come to Turkey’s defense.
The big missing piece in the American operation is Turkey, whose reluctance to assist Kobani’s Kurds highlights the enduring weaknesses in America’s strategy. The decision to resupply the Kurds was a desperation move; the Kurds were at risk and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has refused to help despite repeated entreaties from Washington.
Only on Monday, after the American airdrop, did Turkey say it would allow Iraqi Kurdish forces, the pesh merga militia, to cross Turkey into Kobani. So far, however, no reinforcements of forces have reached Kobani by way of Turkey and Mr. Erdogan made it clear on Thursday that he is only prepared to let 200 pesh merga travel through his country — hardly enough when the Islamic State reportedly has about 1,000 militants in the area. .
Turkey has been a troublesome NATO ally in the best of times. Its insistence that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is a bigger threat than the Islamic State and its complicated relationships with various Kurdish groups have made matters worse. Turkey has long enabled the Islamic State, whose original objective was to overthrow the Assad regime, by permitting militants, weapons and money to cross its border into Syria.
Now that the United States is leading the fight against the Islamic State, Turkey says it will work with the Americans. Yet it balks at helping Kurdish fighters in Kobani because it fears this would also strengthen the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or P.K.K.) inside Turkey. The P.K.K. has been fighting a bitter, separatist war against the Turkish government for three decades, though recently the two sides have engaged in peace talks. It is hard to see what Mr. Erdogan gains by angering the Americans or by angering the Kurds in Iraq, the one Kurdish group with which Turkey has had good relations. Its refusal to assist also jeopardizes the nascent peace talks with the P.K.K.
There were many unknowns when President Obama began a premature and ill-advised mission into Syria. The failure to secure the full cooperation of an important ally leaves the success of the fight against the Islamic State increasingly open to question.
While Syrian Kurds are politically at odds with their Iraqi brethren, they have agreed to accept an influx of peshmerga fighters as part of any offensive.
People watch an explosion after an apparent US-led coalition airstrike on Kobani, Syria
Karen Deyoung | WASHINGTON
The United States and Iraq are drawing up a campaign plan for offensive operations by Iraqi ground forces to gradually reclaim towns and cities that have been occupied by Isis, according to a senior US official.
The plan, described as methodical and time-consuming, will not begin in earnest for several months and is designed to ensure that Iraqi forces do not over-extend themselves before they are capable of taking and holding territory controlled by the militants.
It may also include American advisers in the field with the Iraqis, should that be recommended by American military commanders, said the official, who updated reporters on administration strategy on the condition of anonymity. The advisers, the official said, would not participate in combat. President Barack Obama has said repeatedly that no US ground forces would be deployed to Iraq.
With few exceptions, the Iraqi army has concentrated largely on defence and efforts to prevent Isis from claiming more territory since early June when the militant group took over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and began moving south.
Despite some government gains, aided since early August by US air strikes, the militants control about one-third of Iraq, stretching from near Baghdad to the northwest, and across western Anbar province to the Syrian border.
In August, Mr Obama also authorised air strikes against Isis targets in western and northern Syria. Over the past few weeks, world attention has focused on the Syrian town of Kobani, on the Turkish border, where Isis forces have threatened to overrun besieged Syrian Kurdish fighters.
President Obama has insisted that the US would not deploy ground forces to Iraq (Getty)
Following a US military airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to the Syrian Kurds on Sunday, Iraqi Kurdish fighters, called the peshmerga, are expected to come to their assistance.
The administration official said that the Syrian Kurds, while politically at odds with their Iraqi brethren, have agreed to accept an influx of peshmerga fighters. Details of the size and composition of the Iraqi Kurdish force, which is expected to cross into Kobani from Turkey, are to be finalised in the next few days.
But the US administration has said repeatedly that Iraq remains its main concern. Mr Obama said last month that in addition to the air strikes, his strategy includes trainers and advisers for the Iraqi military, which largely fled from advancing Isis forces in Mosul, and the installation of a more inclusive Iraqi government under which the country’s principal Muslim sects could unite.
© The Washington Post
Iraqi Turkmen forces patrol a checkpoint, close to locations of ISIS fighters. (File photo: AFP)
Staff Writer | Al Arabiya News
An Iraqi senior government official claimed that up to 10,000 Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters are on the outskirts of Baghdad ready to attack the capital, the Telegraph newspaper reported on Saturday.
As Iraqi officials continue to urge the United States to deploy ground troops into the war-stricken country, a roadside bomb killed the police chief of Iraq’s battleground province of Anbar on Sunday, officials were quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying.
“Major General Ahmed Saddag was killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) blast targeting his convoy this morning,” Faleh al-Issawi, the deputy head of the provincial council, told AFP.
“The police chief was leading forces involved in an operation to retake Twei” from ISIS, Colonel Abdulrahman al-Janabi said.
He said clashes between government forces and the militants had erupted in the area on Saturday evening.
Anbar in crisis
Sabah al-Karhout, president of the provisional council of Anbar Province, said most of his province, adjacent to Baghdad, is now under ISIS control.
Two of Anbar’s largest cities, Ramadi and Falluja are known as the “graveyard of the Americans,” making it unlikely that the Pentagon would authorize the redeployment of ground forces, the British daily reported.
However, should the entirety of the province fall under ISIS control, it would facilitate an advancement by the militants into Baghdad where a team of almost 1,500 U.S. troops are mentoring a stressed Iraqi army.
As fighting rages between Syrian Kurds and ISIS militants over control of the Syrian border town of Kobane, Iraqi officials claim the Anbar province is on the verge of collapse.
Government forces in the provincial capital of Ramadi fought back an ISIS offensive on Saturday, but U.S. officials warned that the city remains in a “tenuous” position.
“I think it’s fragile there now,” one senior U.S. defense official told Agence France-Presse.
“They are being resupplied and they’re holding their own, but it’s tough and challenging,” the official explained.
ISIS’s heightened activity led to speculation that the group’s offensive to control Kobane was only a decoy architectured by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed ISIS “caliph.”
Observers, the Telegraph reported, say that while an ISIS-controlled Kobane would not greatly benefit the group strategically, the capture of Ramadi and other cities in Anbar would, as it would be catastrophic for both the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition hoping to contain the group.
Andrew Thompson and Jeremi Suri reporting,
Austin, Texas — The Islamic State terrorists who have emerged in Iraq and Syria are neither new nor unfamiliar. Many of them spent years in detention centers run by the United States and its coalition partners in Iraq after 2003. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, spent nearly five years imprisoned at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. A majority of the other top Islamic State leaders were also former prisoners, including: Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Louay, Abu Kassem, Abu Jurnas, Abu Shema and Abu Suja.
Before their detention, Mr. al-Baghdadi and others were violent radicals, intent on attacking America. Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following. At Camp Bucca, for example, the most radical figures were held alongside less threatening individuals, some of whom were not guilty of any violent crime. Coalition prisons became recruitment centers and training grounds for the terrorists the United States is now fighting.
This process began when coalition forces arrived in Iraq in 2003 and detained alleged terrorists with little preparation or oversight. Although soldiers tried to document the circumstances behind the detentions of Iraqis and foreign fighters, the process broke down under the pressure of fighting, the shortage of trained Arabic speakers, and the fog of war.
Simply being a “suspicious looking” military-aged male in the vicinity of an attack was enough to land one behind bars. There were 26,000 detainees at the height of the war, and over 100,000 individuals passed through the gates of Camps Bucca, Cropper and Taji. Quite a few were dangerous insurgents; many others were innocent.
Small-time criminals, violent terrorists and unknown personalities were separated only along sectarian lines. This provided a space for extremists to spread their message. The detainees who rejected the radicals in their cells faced retribution from other prisoners through “Shariah courts” that infested the facilities.
The radicalization of the prison population was evident to anyone who paid attention. Unfortunately, few military leaders did.
At Camp Bucca, the extremists forced moderate detainees to listen to clerics who advocated jihad. The majority of prisoners were illiterate, so they were particularly susceptible. Prisoners frequently refused medical attention and vocational training for fear of breaking religious rules. The prisons became virtual terrorist universities: The hardened radicals were the professors, the other detainees were the students, and the prison authorities played the role of absent custodian.
Policies changed in 2007, as American military leaders began placing more emphasis on understanding the detainee population. Where possible, the military tried to separate hard-line terrorists from moderates. Prisoners gained more access to programs that taught vocational skills, literacy and a moderate version of Islam.
Some of these reforms worked, but the damage had already been done. The terrorists had four years to network, recruit and impose their extreme version of Islam on thousands of detainees.
One of us served at Camp Cropper in 2009 as a compound intelligence liaison officer with the tasks of collecting information on detainees and disrupting extremist activity. Fulfilling the first priority was relatively easy; the second was nearly impossible.
The compound’s “emirs” controlled the prison population. Detainees, for example, refused to watch television or play ping-pong, lest they face the judgment of the Shariah courts. Moderate detainees suffered repeated physical assaults from radicals. When they fought back, they were punished by the prison authorities.
Insurgents with damning evidence against them were released because of the incompetence of the Iraqi court system and America’s refusal to share classified evidence. Efforts at expediency drove both policies, and the mistakes compounded one another.
By December 2009, only a few thousand detainees remained in the prisons and Camp Bucca was closed. Although American soldiers, backed by intelligence agencies, tried to identify the most threatening detainees, that effort was doomed to failure. Poor record-keeping, limited language skills, detainee obfuscation and the pressure to cut costs prohibited the effective evaluation of prisoners.
The most extreme radicals were never slated for release. A number of them had already been sentenced to death and were awaiting transfer to the Iraqi justice system. But after the United States withdrew, these prisoners found themselves in Iraqi custody. The Islamic State made a priority of freeing these extremists as they conquered large parts of Iraq this past summer. With a new lease on life, these former prisoners are now some of the Islamic States’ most dedicated fighters.
The United States should keep this lesson in mind as it begins another counterterrorism campaign in Iraq and Syria. Large detention facilities only create the seeds for further radicalization and violence. There is strong evidence that the prisons run by the Iraqi and Syrian governments have already had this effect.
The United States must convince its regional partners to avoid mixing radicals and moderates, and provide alternatives to prison for small-scale criminals. If we continue to replay the history of mass incarceration in the Middle East, we will remain stuck in the current cycle where our counterterrorism efforts create more terrorists.
Andrew Thompson,a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, served for eight years in the United States military.Jeremi Suri, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of “Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama.”
Afghanistan’s national security adviser Mohmmad Hanif Atmar, seated at right, and U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham, left, sign the documents of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) at presidential palace as Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, center right, and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, center left, watch, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Afghanistan and the United States signed a long-awaited security pact on Tuesday that will allow U.S. forces to remain in the country past the end of year. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)
Rahim Faiez reporting,
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan and the United States signed a security pact on Tuesday to allow U.S. forces to remain in the country past the end of year, ending a year of uncertainty over the fate of foreign troops supporting Afghans as they take over responsibility for the country’s security.
Afghan, American and NATO leaders welcomed the deal, which will allow about 10,000 American troops to stay in the country after the international combat mission ends Dec. 31. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had refused to sign it despite U.S. threats of a full withdrawal in the absence of legal protections for American forces. U.S. officials have said that the delay in the deal’s signing does not affect plans for next year.
President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who was sworn into office a day earlier, told a crowd assembled at the presidential palace in the capital Kabul for the signing ceremony that the agreement signaled a fundamental shift for the positive in the country’s relations with the world.
“This agreement is only for Afghan security and stability,” he said in comments broadcast live on state television. “These agreements are in our national interest. The Bilateral Security Agreement will pave the ground for Afghanistan to take control,” he added.
Afghanistan’s national security adviser Mohmmad Hanif Atmar, center right, and U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham, center left, hug after signing the Bilateral Security Agreement at the presidential palace, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Afghanistan and the United States signed the long-awaited security pact on Tuesday that will allow U.S. forces to remain in the country past the end of year. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)
President Barack Obama hailed what he called a “historic day in the U.S.-Afghan partnership that will help advance our shared interests and the long-term security of Afghanistan,” according to a White House statement.
“This agreement represents an invitation from the Afghan Government to strengthen the relationship we have built over the past 13 years and provides our military service members the necessary legal framework to carry out two critical missions after 2014: targeting the remnants of al-Qaida and training, advising, and assisting Afghan National Security Forces,” it said.
More than a decade after U.S. forces helped topple the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Afghanistan is still at war with the Islamic militant group, which regularly carries out attacks, mainly targeting security forces.
Newly appointed Afghan national security adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar and U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham signed the actual document. A second agreement allowing NATO troops to stay in the country was signed during the same ceremony.
Government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who has assumed a post akin to prime minister after signing a power-sharing agreement with Ghani Ahmadzai, also welcomed the security deal.
“It has been signed after very careful considerations,” he said, adding that “the BSA is not a threat to our neighbors. It will help strengthen peace and stability in the region.”
Abdullah and Ghani Ahmadzai struck the power-sharing agreement earlier this month after a prolonged dispute over alleged voting fraud in June’s presidential runoff. Karzai’s refusal to sign the security pact, and the prolonged uncertainty over who would succeed him, had delayed the signing.
Afghanistan’s national security adviser Mohmmad Hanif Atmar, second right, and NATO ambassador to Afghanistan Maurits Jochems, left, shake hands at the signing of the NATO-Afghanistan Status of Forces Agreement at the presidential palace, as Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, center, and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, second left, attend in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Afghanistan and the United States signed a long-awaited security pact on Tuesday that will allow U.S. forces to remain in the country past the end of year. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the agreement, saying it outlined the group’s new mission to train, advise and assist Afghan forces.
“We remain committed to help finance the Afghan security forces through 2017, to help Afghanistan to further strengthen its institutions, and to further develop our political and practical cooperation with Afghanistan through our Enduring Partnership,” he said in a statement.