By Maxime Fischer-Zernin.
In a scene all too common at military installations across present-day Iraq, “the Iraqi troops who stood at that entrance are no longer there. The compound, never entombed, is now controlled by the Islamic State.” This compound, however, is quite different from those across Iraq. The Al Muthanna State Establishment, the former nexus of Iraq’s chemical warfare program, includes a bunker containing cyanide precursors and old Sarin rockets.
Those are the final lines of the scathing New York Times’ investigative report by former Marine turned New York Times senior writer C.J. Chivers that uncovered the failings of the Pentagon’s response to abandoned and dangerous chemical weapons found by U.S. troops in Iraq. The extensive report, cites claims by the Iraqi government that about 2,500 corroded chemical rockets remained at Al Muthanna.
In the words, of the former marine, “These encounters carry worrisome implications now that [the Islamic State] controls much of the territory where the weapons were found… As Iraq has been shaken anew by violence, and past security gains have collapsed amid Sunni-Shiite bloodletting and the rise of the Islamic State, this long-hidden chronicle illuminates the persistent risks of the country’s abandoned chemical weapons.”
In response to a July Guardian article about the siege at Al Muthanna, the Pentagon “played down the threat from the takeover, saying there were no intact chemical weapons and it would be very difficult to use the material for military purposes.”
Last week, however, former Commander of the British Army’s chemical and nuclear weapons protection forces, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, told the Telegraph that ISIL has the capability of making battlefield dirty bombs. “These materials are not as secure as we had been led to believe and now pose some significant threat to the coalition in Iraq fighting ISIL,” he said.
ISIL has already begun using chemical weapons according a report by the Global Research in the International Affairs Center, which concluded that ISIL may have employed Iraqi chemical weapons against Kurdish fighters in the Kobani region of northwest Syria.
The deployment of chemical weapons by ISIL should change the President’s calculus because of the unique devastation these weapons can cause. The especially inhumane gore of chemical warfare was first displayed during the First World War and many times since, including during the Syrian Civil War.
Writing for the New Republic, James P. Rubin explains that controlling chemical weapons is “particularly important because of the ease with which such weapons could fall into the hands of non-state actors and terrorists. Unlike nuclear or biological weapons, the storage and deployment of these deadly chemicals does not require an elaborate infrastructure. They come in small packages, and add to the horror of a terrorist act.”
As demonstrated by the Chivers New York Times report, it is increasingly clear that since the onset of Operation iraqi Freedom in 2003, the Pentagon failed to properly disclose the scale of U.S. encounters with Iraqi chemical weapons leftover from the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Reports of these encounters, and the loss of chemical weapons depots to ISIL, should lead to a thorough reappraisal of Operation Inherent Resolve, the name recently assigned to the current U.S.-led intervention in Iraq and Syria.
There should be a renewed sense of urgency among coalition leaders and a focus on dislodging ISIL’s holds on chemical weapons depots and dismantling these depots in a more systematic, institutionalized and transparent process that will avoid a repeat of the disastrous Pentagon policies that left 17 American service members and seven Iraqi police officers exposed to nerve or mustard agents.
The President’s administration can no longer afford to underestimate ISIL as he admitted on “60 Minutes.” The current half-hearted investment to combat ISIL will not suffice. To put Operation Inherent Resolve in perspective, consider this: “Since the campaign started on August 8, the U.S. has launched about 300 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria [as of October 3rd]. By comparison, during the Libya campaign, U.S.-dominated NATO forces were launching over 100 offensive strikes per day, ultimately culminating in over 26,000 raids. And Libya was a limited effort—during the start of the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. launched over 116,000 airstrikes in a few weeks.”
Admittedly, the situations are not perfect parallels. Nonetheless it is clear that only by aggressively pushing back ISIL can the U.S. establish enough security in key areas to begin the process of finally dismantling Iraq’s chemical weapons stocks, a task that would likely receive strong moral and material backing from our Western allies. Though this may require boots on the ground, it is a fallacy to believe that there are not already American boots on the ground in Iraq.
In light of the Pentagon controversy uncovered by the New York Times, and its implications for Operation Inherent Resolve, the President must reassert his command to rebuild confidence in the mission. Hesitancy, complacency, and obscurity on issues, such as the threat posed by chemical weapons, are sure signs of a fragile policy in need of renewed leadership.