PBS ‘Frontline’ documents U.S. mistakes in Iraq and the rise of ISIS

If you could use a refresher course on what ISIS (aka ISIL, aka Daesh) is and how it came to be, help is on the way. A PBS “Frontline” documentary, titled “The Secret History of ISIS,” premieres tonight and is a solid refresher course. It also documents steps taken (or not taken) by the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations that contributed to where we are now.

ISIS was founded (under a different name and has gone through several names since) by a young Jordanian-born Palestinian ex-convict named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a petty criminal who was radicalized while doing time in a Jordanian prison. He offered his services to, but was not fully embraced by, Osama bin Laden. At one point, as he sought to coordinate with al-Qaida, Zarqawi called his group “al-Qaida in Iraq,” but that fact seems to overstate the degree of acceptance or coordination between Zarqawi and bin Laden, who apparently didn’t much like or trust Zarqawi and kept him at arm’s length.

According to all the experts, including the CIA officials who knew the most about it and who testify forcefully in the “Frontline” film, there is little or no evidence that Zarqawi was cooperating or collaborating with Saddam Hussein, although an exaggerated version of their relationship was used to justify the U.S. war on Iraq. That war, ironically, contributed mightily to the rise of ISIS.

Nonetheless, in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the CIA came under tremendous pressure from the White House — especially Vice President Dick Cheney and his aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby — to suggest that Zarqawi was the link between al-Qaida, 9/11 and Saddam.

One of the stars of the film is former CIA officer Nada Bakos, who was on the CIA team assigned to investigate possible connections between Saddam and the 9/11 attacks. She and other CIA officials and experts in the film were and are confident that there were no such connections. Saddam and al-Qaida were not allies. On the contrary, some of the CIA experts said in the film, if Saddam had ever gotten his hands on Zarqawi, he would have had him killed.

Building a case

But the Bush administration, which was building its case for overthrowing Saddam, didn’t want to hear that. Top officials wanted to argue that Zarqawi was the link. When they assigned Secretary of State Colin Powell to argue at the United Nations that Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq connected Saddam to al-Qaida, Powell thought the draft of the speech they gave him was illogical and full of holes. He asked the CIA to vet the speech, which they did by (among other things) taking out references to Zarqawi as a credible link.

So they were shocked when the speech was given and included a long section — seven minutes — implying that Zarqawi was cooperative with both Saddam and bin Laden and that Zarqawi’s link represented the means by which weapons of mass destruction (which, it would turn out, Saddam did not possess) might fall into the possession of al-Qaida.

Cheney and Libby declined to be interviewed for the film. Powell, to his credit, did appear, but he shed no light on how the Zarqawi link was edited back into his speech. Instead, he recalled that Zarqawi did not play a major role in the presentation. In fact, Powell mentioned Zarqawi by name 21 times at the U.N.

I read the full text of Powell’s presentation to see how heavily he relied on the bin Laden-Zarqawi-Saddam nexus. The answer is that he relied on it heavily, but always by implication, still clearly intended to convince the world that Zarqawi was the middleman through whom WMD could flow from Iraq’s (non-existent) stockpiles to bin Laden.

Of course, the speech was just a speech. Closer to the beginning of the war, Bakos also testifies (in the “Frontline” film) that the CIA knew where Zarqawi was located and recommended that he be killed. It wasn’t done. Powell, the poor guy, was also the one in the film who took on the task of explaining why, saying the decision was made that the United States shouldn’t “start the war before we’re ready.”

It’s easy, and perhaps cheap, to assume after the fact that if the strike had been authorized and had killed Zarqawi, Iraq and Syria and the world would be a better place. But it’s not provable.

Major blunder

Of course, the U.S. did succeed in overthrowing and eventually killing Saddam, and taking over Iraq. L. Paul Bremer, whom the Bush administration put in charge of running Iraq until a new government could be formed, decided to disband the Iraqi military. This is often treated as a major blunder. Bremer is in the film, defending the decision. But, according to the film, it was a colossal benefit to Zarqawi and the eventual rise of ISIS.

As Dexter Filkins, the great New Yorker and former New York Times reporter who covered the war and its aftermath, says in the film, “you had 250,000 young Iraqi men, trained in the use of weapons, and suddenly they were all out of a job.” Many of them were Sunnis and saw a less-bright future for themselves as the Shiite majority of Iraq prepared to take over the government and settle scores.

Gen. David Petraeus also says in the film that the disbanding of the Iraqi military “planted the seeds of the Sunni insurgency.”

Zarqawi, a Sunni supremacist, was able to recruit many of them and they helped start a sectarian civil war that has pretty much never ended. This is when Zarqawi’s organization starts looking more like an army that wants to take territory. But when Bakos wrote a section that was supposed to go into the presidential daily brief that referred to the fighters as “insurgents,” she was told to use a different word because “insurgent” might make it sound like “the Iraqis weren’t embracing what we were doing.”

The United States did locate a house north of the Iraqi city of Bequeath in which Zarqawi was located in 2006 and dropped bombs on it, killing Zarqawi and several others.

Also in 2006, a group of Iraqi Sunnis in Anbar Province, alienated by the extremism of Zarqawi’s group, participated in what has been called the “Anbar Awakening,” in which they joined with U.S. troops to overthrow the harsh, fanatical rule of Zarqawi’s group, then still known as al-Qaida in Iraq, which controlled much of Anbar.

After Zarqawi’s death, the leadership of his organization passed to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, who changed the name of the organization, declared himself the caliph who would conquer and unify the whole Arab world (or even the whole Muslim world) and came up with the tactic of shifting into Syria, where a civil war was already under way.

One big nation

In case you don’t know this (it may be a pretty big deal), the idea that all of Islam should be united in one big nation — under one holy leader (a caliph) and governed by the laws of the religion itself — has roots that go back to Mohammed. It rises up over and again through history, but not all the pretenders are as vicious as ISIS. And it relies, in part, on the idea that the modern nation-states are false, in many cases imposed by foreigners who seek to divide Muslims against one another. So, when Baghdadi’s organization — calling itself the Islamic State, calling himself the caliph — was able to take territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria, seeming to make one of those foreign-imposed false boundaries to disappear, it had a certain resonance to those who believed in the old story.

Baghdadi makes a daring public appearance in a very holy Mosque to declare that the caliphate is in existence, and the mosque is in Mosul, a major Iraqi city (according to the old order) that is now controlled by ISIS (according to the new).

Meanwhile, we have passed into the Obama era, the era of “don’t do stupid stuff,” which seems to substantially translate into don’t get sucked into every war possible. Syria is a disaster with less and less hope for a happy outcome. The United States likes neither the brutal, undemocratic government of Bashar al-Assad, nor the rebel movement to overthrow him, because the strongest element of that movement is now ISIS, a murderous, West-hating anachronism. ISIS, after almost disappearing, has grown more powerful than ever.

But there is also the so-called “moderate opposition” to Assad, which actually started the civil war, hoping to get rid of Assad and move toward a real democracy. But they are militarily weak.

According to “Frontline,” many members of Obama’s administration want to do more for the moderates and against both Assad and ISIS. Robert Ford, who was U.S. ambassador to Syria, wanted to do more, and he and the film make clear that so did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and CIA director Petraeus.  

But Obama holds back.

ISIS has 40 affiliated groups, mounting more than 90 attacks in 16 countries. ISIS recruits are committing murderous rampages in NATO countries of Europe. ISIS has global ambitions.

Now the film has brought us almost up to the present. Obama says he is doing what is prudent to do in confronting ISIS, helping those who seek to roll back its gains, without making the kind of full-throated U.S. military intervention that Bush made in Iraq.

Criticisms of Obama

The “Frontline” film does not announce a judgment of Obama’s policy. It’s hard, as the film ends, not to hear the familiar criticisms of Obama. The word “feckless” comes to mind, and maybe “dithering.” The United States is involved, but cautiously and with definite limits, mostly involving the use of U.S. troops on the ground, on the front lines, doing the fighting.

It’s easy, and perhaps cheap, to assume from where things stand now that if the United States would commit itself fully and with all elements of its military might to crush ISIS and maybe kick Assad out of Syria too — kind of like what we did in Iraq and with Saddam — the world would be a better place. But it’s not provable.

The “Frontline” film, “The Secret History of ISIS,” premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on PBS stations. And believe it or not, there’s even more there that I didn’t tell you, because it’s a secret.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Doug Gray on 05/17/2016 - 10:33 am.

    poor schmoor

    Gen. Powell had an alternative to giving a speech before the UN he believed contained misleading information. He was too much the “good soldier” to resign.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/17/2016 - 10:51 am.

    The real problem

    is a lot older and deeper than any individual, and goes back to the end of the Islamic Renaissance and the beginning of the European one.
    Islamics, and Arabs in particular, have envied the power and standard of living that go with a modern industrial/scientific society. What they are unwilling to acknowledge is that a modern society is dependent on a degree of church/state independence that is foreign to Islam.
    Therefore, Islamics are resorting to the only form of power than they have available: asymmetrical warfare.
    This may be an existential threat to some nations in the Middle East, but not to the Western World.
    We face far more serious threats in automobile accidents, medical mistakes and climate change/pollution (look up deaths due to coal).
    So we have more productive places to put our resources than the Middle East.

  3. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/17/2016 - 07:53 pm.


    It is clear from this piece that if Bush left Iraq after capturing Saddam and didn’t bother with rebuilding leaving Iraqi army intact, most of the bad things would not have happened. Iraq would have had a new dictator but a much more agreeable one thus making the Middle East a better place…

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/18/2016 - 09:48 am.

      Actual timeline:
      War begins

      Actual timeline:

      War begins late March 2003.

      “Mission Accomplished” declared beginning of May.

      Iraq Army disbanded late in May.2003.

      Saddam’s sons killed end of July.

      Saddam captured mid December 2003

      The disbandment of the army occurred well before the capture/ending of the Saddam regime leaders–given that the army proclamation was order # 2 issued by Paul Bremer it was almost certainly a primary goal of the Bush administration. And by the time Saddam was captured, the Shiite-heavy government had been in place fr months.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/17/2016 - 08:01 pm.

    My 2¢

    It may not be the ONLY way to look at the problem, but I think Paul Brandon has hit on at least one of the takes on the Middle East and radical Islam that should see the light of day more often, but doesn’t. Church/state separation is one of those cultural factors that, I humbly suggest, has very much worked to the advantage of western industrial societies. It’s also, of course, under attack by Christian fundamentalists of the American right wing, who’d like to install a Christian theocracy here in much the same way theocracy has become a standard part of most genuine Islamic states. Down that path lies disaster.

    I’d also suggest, as someone who’s old enough to remember much of the rhetoric of Vietnam (I was of draft age, and my number was called), that “…if the United States would commit itself fully and with all elements of its military might to crush ISIS and maybe kick Assad out of Syria too — kind of like what we did in Iraq and with Saddam — the world would be a better place” has frightening echoes of exactly the sort of statement made in the 1960s about our involvement in Southeast Asia, particularly as a rationalization for why we weren’t “winning” in Vietnam. We kept increasing the number of boots on the ground (and the number of bodies being flown back across the Pacific), with little to nothing to show for it except the enmity of many thousands of families in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia whose lives we destroyed without a credible rationale beyond the facile “domino theory.”

    In the end, we accomplished almost nothing, much as we have with our involvement in the Middle East. American casualties are fewer, but still number in the thousands, and the only people to genuinely benefit from our invasion of Iraq are the same “merchants of death” who profited from the Cold War and every other post-World War II conflict in which we insisted we must be involved.

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/18/2016 - 08:55 pm.

    Independent events

    Mr. Rovick, disbanding Iraqi army was a mistake regardless of when it was done – that is what I meant. It was possible to do everything you described while leaving the army intact.

    Mr. Schoch, will you please substantiate your statement that “Christian fundamentalists of the American right wing” want “to install a Christian theocracy here?” I have not noticed that… And isn’t it correct that American military crushed Iraq quickly and with minimal casualties?

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