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

The “Secret History of ISIS” explores the steps taken (or not taken) by the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.