The Complex

Obama Sending Advisors to Iraq, Leaves Door Open for Airstrikes

After staking part of his legacy on ending the war in Iraq, President Barack Obama announced Thursday that up to 300 American troops would return there to advise Iraqi security forces on how to counter a growing threat from Islamist militants as they press ever closer to Baghdad, and left the door open to using American airstrikes to "take targeted and precise military action" if it is needed.

Obama said that the troops would not be combat forces but would serve in a train-and-advise role, adding that the United States has already been building up its intelligence capabilities inside the country and would create "joint operation centers" in northern Iraq and in Baghdad to share intelligence and coordinate planning against the threats posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.

But as he attempted to walk the line between addressing the security crisis in Iraq and being dragged into another war there, Obama stressed that he would ensure that the deployment of troops and other assets would not amount to "mission creep."

"American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region, and American interests as well," Obama said from the White House. In response to a reporter's question on whether this would be the beginning of a "boots on the ground" scenario, Obama held firm, saying that ultimately this is a problem Iraq's military and political leaders have to solve.

In a conference call with reporters following Obama's remarks, a senior administration official wouldn't rule out a potential military strike on ISIS fighters in Syria, where they've maintained a stronghold amid a bloody civil war and from where they have flooded across the border into Iraq. The official said that ISIS hasn't limited its operations to one country and that the United States would not be "restricted" in taking actions to protect its national security. The official pointed to the United States' capture in Libya this week of the alleged ringleader of the 2012 Benghazi attack as evidence of America's will to fight terrorists wherever they're located. 

Obama was harshly critical of the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom he accused of alienating the country's Sunni minority. But he stopped short of saying Maliki should go.

"It's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders," he said. "Part of what our patriots fought for during many years in Iraq was the right and the opportunity for Iraqis to determine their own destiny and choose their own leaders." The divisions that exist among Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish leaders have to be eliminated, Obama said, adding that "as long as those deep divisions continue," it will be difficult for the government in Baghdad to command Iraqi security forces to stem the violence.

Obama's move, coming after days of withering criticism from both sides -- those who want airstrikes against militants or another definitive action, versus those who want the president to be more circumspect about entering the conflict -- will likely appease neither group. Yet for an administration that has been scolded for not consulting Congress on its national security decisions, one of its harshest critics seemed to have been brought on board.

The actions Obama announced are a "step in the right direction," Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, told Foreign Policy. Graham said he hoped Obama would use air power but would only use it in combination with diplomacy. "I hope that we would deploy air power in an aggressive fashion, but it has to be coupled with diplomacy," Graham said minutes after Obama's remarks at the White House. "The use of air power protects us against a very vicious enemy making further gains and having a larger safe haven. I think air power will create some momentum for political reconciliation, giving people confidence."

"I'm not a Republican on this," he said. "I made mistakes, Bush made mistakes, Obama's made mistakes -- but clearly the president understands that the ISIS is a threat to our homeland, a safe haven in Syria and Iraq is a direct threat to us. So he's responding. I wished he'd done it sooner more aggressively, but I think it's a step in the right direction."

Another top Republican on foreign policy, Senator Bob Corker, expressed support for the administration's approach thus far. "We're stepping up activities at multiple levels and I do think people are focused on it in the appropriate way," he said. "I think it's good for them to be communicating: To talk about how dire they see the situation to be how serious that it is ... and at the same time making sure that as they're doing what they're doing they're bringing Congress along too."

Other Republicans were more critical. 

Sen. Dan Coats, the Republican from Indiana, said he thought Obama's announcement was "no game-changer" and that Maliki should be pushed to unite the country. But when asked whether Maliki should go, Coats was noncommittal.

"I think he's proven that he's incapable of forming any kind of government that can address in a political way the situation that exists there and give everybody a voice in terms of how they go forward," Coats told Foreign Policy. "But to date he hasn't decided to do that. With the extremists on the doorstep of Baghdad, you'd think he would."

Confronted with a worsening situation in Iraq that challenges the wisdom of removing all American troops from there in 2011 when negotiations over a long-term security arrangement between the two countries failed, the administration has been scrambling in recent days to find a politically and strategically viable approach to stem the insurgents' advance toward Baghdad. Critics believe that if the Obama White House had managed to hammer out a security agreement between the two countries, the United States could have maintained as many as 15,000 troops there to conduct train-and-advise and other operations inside Iraq.

To critics of the administration's Iraq policy, the presence of American troops would have increased the chances that the Iraqi security forces, which the United States spent years and billions of dollars to train and equip, could have stopped the Sunni militant group ISIS from being able to conquer broad swaths of Iraq in just a few weeks.

Shane Harris contributed reporting to this article.


Photo via Getty Images

The Complex

Iraqi Government Takes Its Fight With ISIS Online

Iraqi soldiers may have dropped their weapons, stripped off their uniforms, and fled the Islamist jihadists who have conquered a growing list of cities as they move closer to Baghdad. On the battlefields of cyberspace, by contrast, the Iraqi government is putting up a fierce fight against the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

In the past week, government ministries have blocked Internet access in regions where ISIS has a physical foothold in an attempt to stop the group from spreading propaganda and recruiting followers among Iraq's repressed Sunni minority. The government has also ordered Internet service providers across the country to block all access to certain social media sites, including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, which are ISIS's favorite tools for spreading propaganda and posting photos and videos of their victories over the Iraqi military and their wholesale slaughter of unarmed Shiites -- both sources of tremendous embarrassment for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite.

Baghdad's online offensive appears to be having some effect. As of Tuesday, June 17, daily Internet traffic across Iraq had dropped by roughly a third, said David Belson, editor of the State of the Internet Report, published by web services company Akamai Technologies, which monitors Internet access around the world.

But because Baghdad doesn't have centralized control over the country's telecommunications infrastructure, it cannot enforce a complete cyber-blackout the way government authorities have done in Syria, to block rebel fighters from communicating with each other, and in Egypt, where the government shut down Internet access across the country during citizen uprisings. Iraq is instead awash in Internet service providers, which compete with each other and against other companies in Turkey and Iran. In some portions of the country where ISIS has established strongholds or taken over cities, including in northern Iraq, the group is likely getting online with the help of foreign companies.

"There are providers that the government can take offline, but some, like Newroz [Telecom], the Kurdish provider, is so well connected to Turkey that they don't need Iraq's Internet backbone," said Doug Madory, a senior analyst with Renesys, which has been tracking Internet connectivity in Iraq for the past week.

Although it's unclear whether Iraq is winning its cyberfight with ISIS, the central government has stepped up its offensive. On Sunday, June 15, the Iraqi Ministry of Communications instructed 10 Internet service providers, including one of Iraq's largest, to cut off service in five provinces, including those where ISIS has made its biggest gains, according to a government document posted on the website of the Social Media Exchange, an Internet advocacy group based in Beirut.

"Shut down the Internet totally on these Provinces: Ninawa [Nineveh], Anbar, Saleh El Din [Salahaddin], Kirkuk, Diyalah," the ministry ordered, according to a translation by the advocacy group. The provinces include the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, which ISIS conquered in January, as well as Tikrit and Mosul, which the jihadi group overran and occupied this month.

The order was a modified version of one issued by the ministry on June 13 that also aimed to block Internet access in key ISIS strongholds. The latest directive added more Internet service providers to the list of those subject to government-imposed restrictions, indicating that the central government is increasing pressure on Internet companies to help it fight ISIS. The Communications Ministry also appeared to threaten companies that didn't comply. "There will be a special security committee specialized [to] check that you are following these instructions," the translation of the ministry's order said. "The companies that won't obey will be threatening the security of the country."

The security of the country is already at risk, and there are few tangible signs that the government's online crackdown is having the desired effect of halting ISIS's physical advances or keeping it from spreading propaganda. In recent days, ISIS fighters have moved to within 40 miles of Baghdad. And the blockade of Twitter's website didn't stop an ISIS-linked account from posting on Sunday a photo of a mass execution of captured Iraqi soldiers.

Site-by-site blocking is likely to do little to prevent ISIS from planning new attacks because the militants keep their electronic communications to a bare minimum and instead use human couriers to hand-deliver messages to each other. ISIS uses social media to spread its propaganda, but the group isn't likely to post battlefield plans in a tweet or a status update. Choking off Twitter, in other words, won't deal ISIS a cyber death blow. "These are clandestine organizations. They are practicing good operational security," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism analyst and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who studies ISIS and other al Qaeda-linked groups.

Baghdad is doing all it can to ensure that the group stumbles all the same. The government's cyberoffensive began in earnest early last week. On June 9, the day before Mosul fell to ISIS, analysts noticed a large disruption to Internet service in Iraq, Belson said. It lasted only a few hours, and it was followed by another disruption of similar length on June 12, as the crisis intensified. Several analysts said both disruptions could be traced to actions by the Iraqi government to restrict Internet access. That was followed by official orders to take down service in the regions where ISIS has seized cities.

Cutting off an entire region's Internet access may keep people from seeing ISIS propaganda or humiliating footage of captured Iraqi tanks and vehicles, as well as horrifying images of slaughtered Shiites and captured soldiers lined up for executions. But such broad online assaults also have a significant potential downside, analysts said. Internet blockades make daily life difficult for ordinary Iraqis, including many of the Sunni minority population that Maliki has long repressed. Sunnis are likely to see online outages as a form of censorship and another example of the central government's willingness to punish their entire population because of the sins of a few.

U.S. President Barack Obama has conditioned any military assistance to Baghdad to help repel ISIS's advance on a political reconciliation between Iraq's Shiite-dominated government and the Sunnis. And on Monday, the administration cautioned Iraq not to limit its citizens' online communications. "While we understand Iraqi concerns about the spread of terrorist activity-related messaging on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we're strongly urging the Iraqi government to continue to allow Iraqi citizens access to these sites," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he supported Iraq's efforts to block ISIS from spreading propaganda via social media. "I have been deeply critical of attempts by governments, especially China, Egypt, and Syria to engage in systematic censorship of the Internet, or to cut off access altogether as a means of maintaining political control," Schiff said. "But no government should be expected to allow material that deliberately incites violence and depicts a depraved level of brutality. Iraq desperately needs to undergo a process of political and religious reconciliation and Sunni voices must be heard, but snuff videos and calls to murder should not be part of that conversation."

Madory, the Internet traffic analyst, said governments start losing popular support the instant they cut off people's access to the Internet. That may explain why the latest restrictions are focused on regions where ISIS is strongest and appear to be aimed at minimizing broad disruptions and only blocking the services and tools that ISIS is most likely to use. The latest order instructs Internet service providers to "block all access to VPN [virtual private networks] in all Iraq" every day from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. VPNs allow users to communicate with each other privately and securely, and they could be used by ISIS fighters to evade detection by Iraqi intelligence and security services. But by keeping the curfew limited to hours when businesses are more likely to be closed, the government may avoid annoying Iraqi citizens and business owners who use VPNs for legitimate purposes, analysts said.

The new government effort to block access to certain social media also reflects Baghdad's gradual adoption of a more nuanced approach toward fighting ISIS in cyberspace. Internet service providers have been ordered to block access to the websites for Facebook, YouTube, Viber, and Skype, as well as the social media applications Tango, WeChat, Instagram, and DiDi. Since June 13, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have all reported that users in Iraq have had technical issues accessing the service.

But Iraqis haven't been knocked offline entirely -- at least not outside the five targeted provinces. "Internet traffic across Iraq is still exhibiting its normal peak-use patterns," albeit at reduced levels, "so there are still sites people have access to," Belson said. "It could be news traffic or World Cup traffic that we're seeing, given that most social media has been blocked."

Limiting ISIS's access to social media won't prevent the jihadists from finding quick and easy ways to continue spreading their violent messages and anti-government diatribes, analysts said. One tactic used by activists and rebels in other countries is to post messages in the comments sections of old blog posts or on websites completely unrelated to the group's cause that would attract no official scrutiny.

"Maybe the insurgents will just say, 'Go to the strawberry pie recipe on the America's Test Kitchen website'" to read their updates, Belson said. Then, officials would have to try to block access to that site and wherever ISIS hopped to next. "It's absolutely Whac-A-Mole," Belson said.

This article has been updated.