The Imponderable Will To Fight in Iraq

American officials underestimated ISIL’s threat, according to their Commander-in-Chief. Only last winter, Obama himself described ISIL as a "JV Team.” Yet a year ago, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin warned Americans of exactly that ISIL threat in an extraordinary New York Times op-ed. In the essay titled "A Plea for Caution from Russia: What Putin Has to Say to Americans about Syria", Putin urgently sought to stop Obama from bombing the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s forces were battling ISIL, when they were charged with a chemical weapons attack that killed or injured well over a thousand civilians. Putin pointed out:

“There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.

“Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

It is extraordinary for a Russian president to speak directly to the American people in the pages of an American daily. Putin did so because he despaired of meaningful communication with the Obama administration. Nor was Putin’s awareness of ISIL’s threat a Russian intelligence coup. At the time, it was common knowledge, widely discussed in American media and around the world. It seemed that Obama and his intelligence crew were the only ones who chose to ignore it. The embarrassment was still greater when Putin pointed out that the obvious solution was to arrange for Assad to hand over his chemical weapons to the United Nations, and promptly brokered the deal.

Luckily, we didn’t help ISIL defeat its enemies a year ago. So it took American Intelligence Director, James Clapper, to get to the nub of the problem: "I didn’t see the collapse of the Iraqi security force in the north coming," Clapper was quoted as saying. "I didn’t see that. It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable."

Actually, we’ve known about this "imponderable" at least since the battle of Marathon: it’s called “fighting for what you truly believe” – something that people are traveling from all over the world to do for ISIL, and something that Baghdad’s puppet government could never do. It’s called "fighting with your back against the wall." Like Goliath learned from David, and Lyndon Johnson learned from Ho Chi Minh. Still after more than 60 years, the United States has yet to understand that when it comes to "wars of choice" an arrogant global behemoth is at an important disadvantage against a determined local population with everything on the line.

The United States put Iraqi backs to the wall when it invaded their country in 2003. Then it managed to up the ante for its Sunni Muslims by backing an exclusionary Shia government. The Sunnis were radicalized after the American invasion. Most of ISIL’s leadership came together with their backs up against the inside wall of American prisons between 2003 and 2011.

By contrast Iraq’s Shia majority fought the Sunnis for the elective cause of political privilege. Americans taught them to do that after they invaded Iraq because we were fighting for…. what? Well, initially, it was about weapons of mass destruction, and something about al Qaeda. But a few months after the invasion, with no WMDs in sight, it was no longer a question of America’s back against the wall. This was especially because Saddam Hussein, much like Syria’s Assad, was an enemy of al Qaeda. And in Saddam’s case, it was Americans who helped him to acquire chemical weapons – with a personal assist from Donald Rumsfeld – and then cover-up their deployment.

It was about the same time that Americans started waking up to the fact that Iraqis had nothing to do with 9/11. After that we were fighting to…. make the Iraqis line up properly at polling places and then dip their index fingers into purple ink? We knew that we had everything to lose in that fight! In the New York Times a year ago, Putin added:

“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’"

Even after this tutorial, the director of American intelligence finds it "imponderable" that ISIL put its back into the fight when the Iraqi army did not. Maybe he stopped reading before Putin reached his conclusion: “But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.”


But wait! There’s still time to learn from Putin’s plea to the American people: “No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.”

Maybe that was too subtle for President Obama and his national intelligence director. Perhaps Putin should have added….

“…. thereby putting their backs against the wall.”

No doubt we’ll hear more and more about how ISIL is putting our backs to the wall of this our American homeland.

Robert Bruce Ware is a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

This article originally appeared at

Author: Robert Bruce Ware

Robert Bruce Ware teaches at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He is author of Dagestan: Russian Hegemony and Islamic Resistance in the North Caucasus. He is editing The Fire Below: How Russia Shaped the Caucasus from Continuum Press.