US president Barack Obama acknowledged in an interview broadcast yesterday that the United States had underestimated the rise of the Islamic State militant group, which has seized control of a broad swath of territory in the Middle East, and had placed too much trust in the Iraqi military, allowing the region to become “ground zero for jihadists around the world.”
Reflecting on how a president who wanted to disentangle the United States from wars in the Middle East ended up redeploying to Iraq and last week expanding air operations into Syria, Mr Obama pointed to assessments by the intelligence agencies that said they were surprised by the rapid advances made in both countries by the Islamic State.
“Our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” Mr Obama said on 60 Minutes, the CBS News programme, referring to James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence. Mr Obama added that the agencies had overestimated the ability and will of the Iraqi army to fight such Sunni extremists.
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“That’s true. That’s absolutely true,” he said. In citing Mr Clapper, Mr Obama made no mention of any misjudgment he may have made himself. Critics have repeatedly pointed to his comment last winter characterizing groups like the Islamic State as a “JV team” compared with the original al-Qaeda.
But he rebutted critics who say his refusal to intervene more directly in the Syrian civil war and his decision to pull all American troops out of Iraq in 2011 had created conditions that allowed the rise of the Islamic State. Instead, he pointed a finger at Nouri al-Maliki, until recently the prime minister of Iraq.
“When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well-equipped and the ability then to chart their own course,” Mr Obama said. “And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shia base.”
By contrast, he praised al-Maliki’s newly installed successor, Haider al-Abadi, whom he met in New York last week, for assembling a more inclusive government that may undercut Sunni support for the Islamic State. Al-Abadi “so far at least has sent all the right signals,” Mr Obama said. “We can’t do this for them.”
But he was measured in that assessment, saying there had been “some progress” by the new Baghdad government. “I wouldn’t say great yet,” he said.
Mr Obama conceded that his strategy would be less likely to succeed in Syria, where he is working at odds with the government rather than in tandem. Mr Obama has called for president Bashar Assad of Syria to step down, but now the two share an enemy in the Islamic State.
The United States’ plan relies on trying to build up a separate rebel force that can take on both Assad’s government and the Islamic State, but Mr Obama dismissed as “mythology” the notion that he should have done that two years ago.
“We’ve got a campaign plan that has a strong chance for success in Iraq,” he said. “I think Syria is a more challenging situation.”
The New York Times