Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, fell today to jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a group with long ties to al Qaeda. Parts of Kirkuk, ninety miles to the southeast, are under ISIS control and the fighting there continues. The implications for Iraq, for the region, and for U.S. national security are monumental.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday afternoon that with these developments ISIS "now controls what amounts to a state of its own across vast areas of Syria and Iraq." While ISIS leadership has been disowned by Ayman al Zawahiri, the group remains committed to al Qaeda-style jihad. And al Qaeda's senior leaders, while denouncing the ISIS presence in Syria, still endorse the group's efforts inside Iraq.
Al Qaeda and affiliated or sympathetic groups now control more territory than ever. And the trend is not good. The presence of al Qaeda is growing apace—in the Middle East, in South Asia, and in northern Africa.
To the extent that it concerns itself with these developments at all, the Obama administration seems most concerned that the growth of al Qaeda undermines the president's frequent claim that al Qaeda is on the run. One might expect that a president who has pointed to Iraq as one of his foreign policy successes, however absurd the proposition, would make an effort to ensure that it doesn't become one of his many failures.
If the response on Iraq from the administration today is any indication, that will not happen.
At the White House press briefing, deputy press secretary Josh Earnest responded to a question about the achievements of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by ticking off a short and generous list of her "accomplishments" that included "ending the war in Iraq." Earnest, who said the U.S. government will continue to provide assistance to Iraq under the strategic framework agreement, claimed that the U.S. relationship with the Iraqi military is governed by "the status of forces agreement" that was never actually executed.
Over at the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki released a statement saying the U.S. was "deeply concerned" about the developments. The United States, she added, "stands with" the Iraqis and promises to work on a "holistic approach" to confronting ISIS.
At the State Department briefing early Tuesday afternoon, Psaki responded to questions about the unfolding crisis by calling for a unified Iraqi government and noting plans for the U.S. to provide a second round of counterterrorism training for Iraqis this summer.
The news in Iraq comes as the Taliban and al Qaeda-linked fighters in Afghanistan celebrate the transfer of five senior Taliban commanders from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In interviews with Western media outlets, Taliban leaders say the prisoner exchange that freed their fellow jihadists have provided a morale boost to their ranks. U.S. intelligence officials have testified several times over the past several days that the five freed detainees—all considered by Obama's own GTMO task force as "high-risk" prisoners to be held indefinitely—are nearly certain to return to a life of jihad.
It's not a pretty picture—an emboldened Taliban in Afghanistan and an advancing ISIS in Iraq—and a U.S. president who is boasting about having "ended" the wars there.
It turns out there is a difference between ending wars and winning them.