The administration's lack comprehension of irregular warfare -- insurgency, terrorism, and asymmetric threats – has resulted in two strategic blunders in Iraq. First was assuming the war ended when America left. It didn't. Insurgencies never end cleanly. Most take years to stabilize even after major combat operations cease, mostly because of ideological issues.
Second was a failure to exercise "counterinsurgency (COIN) follow through," a critical and basic tenet of COIN.
What is COIN follow through? In broad terms, it means the COIN assistance nation -- the U.S., in this case – once major combat operations have ended and sufficient stability achieved, must continue to help the insurgency-infected nation -- Iraq, in this case -- develop its hard won and fragile security, political, and economic gains. If one doesn't engage in follow through, it's folly.
Disregarding COIN follow through is the equivalent of adopting an at-risk toddler from a bad neighborhood at age 8, raising them for a short while, and then putting them back on the street when they turn 16.
Even after the British "defeated" communist terrorists (CTs) via COIN in Malaya from 1948-60, the situation still demanded security, political, and economic follow through to 1989 when the CTs officially surrendered.
Regarding Iraq, follow through should have meant helping the military, police, and intelligence services mature and professionalize. It should have meant continuing to help develop the nation's economy. It should have meant mentoring political leaders to continue to reconcile fragile Sunni-Shia relations, a long-term proposition. The ultimate goal should have been to help Iraq achieve a well functional government and legitimacy in the eyes of the people. It wouldn't have required 100,000 troops and sustained combat, just focused defense programs, irregular warfare talent, and political prowess, which America has.
Without follow through, PM Nouri al-Maliki enflamed Sunni-Shia mistrust, failed to monitor growing threats, and neglected to nurture a professional military and police. This provided the ISIS with a window of opportunity to attack, and all the hard won gains earned by one of the most exceptional turnarounds in military history -- achieved by Americans and Iraqis working together -- are at risk of being flushed.
Was it truly such a surprise, this ISIS onslaught? The New York Times asserts several experts had been warning about the group's rise for some time. They included Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation, Alex Bilger, of the Institute for the Study of War, and Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who told Congress in February 2014 the ISIS, "probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014."
What's it all mean?
On a regional scale, a lack of follow though means Iraq is at risk of balkanizing, or breaking up into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish territories, each one vying for their own interests. This opens the door to increased al-Qaida and Iranian meddling, which threatens neighboring Turkey, all six GCC countries, Yemen, America's steadfast ally Jordan, and global gas and oil markets.
It also means loss of heavy political clout in the Middle East. This is a region that has invited America in, militarily, and provided it bases, or military access, in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman as hedges against al-Qaida and Iran. They want and need America there, but they want a savvy, strong, and smart America, not one that pretends al-Qaida is on the run and gift-wraps a strategic opportunity for Iran's Quds Force to wedge into the Arabian Peninsula.
On a world scale, a lack of follow though signifies America's global, strategic retreat, where increased irregular warfare is nipping at it heels. There is historical precedent for this.
As Lao, Cambodian, and North Vietnamese communists took over Indochina in 1975, the Soviets watched an America exhausted by irregular war abandon its allies, so they increased their proxy wars Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia, Angola, Afghanistan, and scores of other countries. America spent the rest of the 1970s and all of the 1980s fighting these small wars.
As the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, Islamist jihadists like Osama bin Laden were convinced their religion and style of warfare prevailed, so they branched out, globally, launching al-Qaida and its franchises to carry out their world mission.
America's leaving Iraq and Afghanistan and inaction on other fronts proves, in the minds of the Islamist jihadists, that their religion and style of warfare is once again victorious. What they are doing in Iraq, the rest of the Middle East, Africa, and other places is a natural reaction to America's calculated egress. What Russia and China are doing in their spheres of influence regarding Ukraine and the South China Sea are, likewise.
These actors perceive not the Powell doctrine, not the Bush doctrine, but the Obama doctrine, which appears to be the Ostrich doctrine: bury one's head in the sand and pretend the threats aren't there (al-Qaida is on the run) , that it's not real (the threat is just "JV") , and therefore you don't have to deal with them. America's enemies like this. ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, after being released from US captivity in 2009, told U.S. Army Col. Kenneth King, "I'll see you guys in New York." If the Ostrich doctrine continues, maybe we will.
Jeff Moore, Ph.D., is the chief executive officer of Muir Analytics, which assesses threats from insurgent and terror groups against corporations. He is the author of the recently published book, The Thai Way of Counterinsurgency.