Lt. General Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has been outspoken in his criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the Islamic State before, but his new interview in Der Spiegel contains some of his toughest words yet, and he offers stern criticism of the Bush administration as well.
Flynn sees ISIS as the latest version of a malevolent force that has refined its methods under first Osama bin Laden, and then his successor as al-Qaeda chief, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom Flynn had a hand in hunting down. He sees bin Laden’s ideas of decentralized terrorism fully realized under ISIS, leading to a river of blood in Paris spilled by a small team using simple armaments.
“In Osama bin Laden’s writings, he elaborated about being disperse, becoming more diffuse and operating in small elements, because it’s harder to detect and it’s easier to act. In Paris, there were eight guys. In Mali, there were 10. Next time, maybe one or two guys will be enough,” Flynn warned.
He thought it was a serious error to assume the Islamic State’s foreign operations would require anything comparable to a Western command hierarchy. “There’s not some line-and-block chart and a guy at the top like we have in our own systems. That’s the mirror imaging that we have to, in many ways, eliminate from our thinking,” Flynn advised. “I can imagine a 30-year-old guy with some training and some discussion who receives the task from the top: ‘Go forth and do good on behalf of our ideology.’ And then he picks the targets by himself, organizes his attackers and executes his mission.”
Flynn was clear that the ideology motivating ISIS fighters is religious in nature, no matter how vigorously Western politicians try to deny it. He noted that, while bin Laden and his successor Zarqawi liked to pose as military leaders, Islamic State “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi presents himself as an Islamic theocrat, a religious leader comparable to the Pope.
“He stood there as a holy cleric and proclaimed the Islamic caliphate. That was a very, very symbolic act. It elevated the fight from this sort of military, tactical and localized conflict to that of a religious and global war,” Flynn explained.
Another error he advised purging from Western strategic thought is the belief that ISIS could be laid low by taking out Baghdadi with a “decapitation strike.” In fact, he offered a dim view of decapitation theory and regime change fantasies under both Presidents Bush and Obama. Terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda have made martyrs of their dead leaders and proven themselves distressingly good at replacing each slain terror chief with a more skilled and vicious successor.
Baghdadi is the end result of this sinister evolutionary process: a leader with ten times the recruiting skill of Zarqawi, and the vision to make Internet communications a key element of his operation, plus the organizational and political skills to carve a functional terrorist state out of captured Syrian and Iraqi territory.
As for regime change operations against Middle Eastern nations, Flynn views the invasions of Iraq and Libya as mirror-image disasters. “It was a huge error,” he said of the Iraq war. “As brutal as Saddam Hussein was, it was a mistake to just eliminate him. The same is true for Moammar Gadhafi and for Libya, which is now a failed state. The historic lesson is that it was a strategic failure to go into Iraq. History will not be and should not be kind with that decision.”
Having said that, Flynn’s policy prescription for dealing with the Islamic State is an Iraq-style invasion with boots on the ground and precisely the sort of international coalition Bush assembled for Iraq, although Flynn stressed the importance of giving Arab nations a leading role in the battle—making them the “face of the operation,” even though he conceded Western troops would have to do the heavy military lifting.
“Our message must be that we want to help and that we will leave once the problems have been solved,” he said. “The Arab nations must be on our side. And if we catch them financing, if they funnel money to IS, that’s when sanctions and other actions have to kick in.”
He also noted that Russia would have to take a leading role in the anti-ISIS offensive—a concession to how deeply they have become involved in Syria, and how Russian influence would be necessary to keep Iran in line. He also alluded to the loss of American will and prestige under Obama when he said it was “really weird, as an American” to see the president of France turning to Russian president Vladimir Putin for help after the Paris terror attacks.
The key difference between the next steps against the Islamic State and the missteps that led to this moment would be better intelligence and smarter strategies. Flynn cited the Balkans operation as a successful example to be studied, while acknowledging that a lasting military commitment was necessary to keep the peace in that theater.
He said the U.S. has made some “dumb” mistakes in the past, such as letting Baghdadi out of American custody in 2004 because a dysfunctional military intelligence system mistakenly judged him harmless. There seem to be no shortages of mistakes to learn from in Flynn’s estimation, stretching back to before the first hijacked airliner slammed into the World Trade Center.