(The Telegraph) – President Barack Obama’s attempts to destroy ISIL [ISIS, Islamic State, Daesh) have been derided by Western diplomats and his own former intelligence officials.
Mr Obama has insisted that the United States will not change the strategy that he said was already “containing” Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and would work eventually to “degrade and destroy” it.
But in a series of candid interviews with the Telegraph, Western diplomats and intelligence officials – current and former – have angrily dismissed the approach as a “smoke and mirrors” public relations exercise founded on little substantive or effective action.
“It’s smoke and mirrors and that is the dirty little secret,” said Derek Harvey, one of Mr Obama’s senior former intelligence officials, a Middle East specialist, who said he resigned from his job in frustration at the administration’s handling of the conflict.
Many members of both the American and the European intelligence and diplomatic apparatus say the chaos in Iraq and Syria is caused by Mr Obama’s determination to press on with an “exit strategy” from the region, signalled by the withdrawal from Iraq.
The intelligence official said this had created a sense of apathy, with departments feeling they were being judged by how much they were focused on “detaching” from the Middle East, rather than on the success of the policies they were actually implementing there.
Experts in the region had also been withdrawn in case they concentrated on achieving results.
“Who is in charge?” Mr Harvey said. “Where is the intelligence community? It is totally broken on this.”
Two active intelligence sources told the Telegraph that there was a sense of disarray inside the various intelligence agencies.
Official policy is to defend the strategy of gradual disengagement and limited military action against Isil, saying that more direct options might have a “satisfying” immediate visible effect, but would prove damaging in the long run.
That policy depends on American “containing” Isil, as Mr Obama claimed shortly before the attacks in Paris, co-ordinated by Isil, which claimed 130 lives.
“Isil have expanded geographically to eight other countries, taking advantage of civil wars in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan and so on,” the intelligence source, who served in Baghdad at the height of the post-invasion period, said. “They are taking advantage in places where there is lack of effective governance and highly tribalised societies.
“We have not done anything to really hurt them. Even in the areas they have been formerly pushed out of, they continue to operate covertly and they mostly control the largest Sunni Muslim cities outside of Baghdad.”
Diplomats privately agree that a campaign of relatively sporadic air strikes alone cannot be the road to success.
“Isil is not the homogenous block they want us to believe it is,” one very senior Western diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “If you look at military tactics it’s clear that it’s not just one entity, so you cannot have one answer.”
Another diplomat said Mr Obama had allowed the idea to become prevalent that taking on Isil was a separate issue from countering the Assad regime, which could be left till later – even though that was not American or European policy.
The diplomat said it was not possible to rationally separate Isil from the Syrian regime. He said they were two mutually dependent evils.
Meanwhile, Damascus has itself remained a key funding source for Isil as it buys up black-market oil produced in wells under the extremists’ control.
A key problem remains that the current rules of engagement limit the US in what it can legally do militarily. Under the current authorities, it “takes months” to close down bank accounts belonging to Isil jihadists when they are discovered.
It also limits the US ability to fight against the jihadists’ powerful propaganda: “Why is the hacking group Anonymous able to take down 5,000 Isil Twitter accounts and the government not? It’s an authority issue,” Mr Harvey, the former official, said.
The Obama administration’s legal authorisation for the use of military force against Isil derives from measures passed by congress in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
White House officials sought a new authorisation from Congress earlier this year that would allow it to better tailor rules of engagement and strategy to combat Isil, on and off the battlefield, but it was blocked by Republicans.
Whether any strategy that is envisaged by any side will do more than send an ever-increasing number of bombs on to an enemy that has shown itself capable of “sucking up” long-range attacks with relative ease so far is another question.