The Cable

Top U.S. General: Many Iraqis Believe Washington Aiding Islamic State

The general in charge of U.S. special operations forces in Iraq for the past six months says Washington's information campaign in the Middle East is so inadequate that many Iraqi troops believe American forces are secretly supplying the Islamic State — potentially leaving U.S. forces vulnerable to reprisal attacks from their nominal allies in the fight against the militants.

TAJI, IRAQ - APRIL 12:  A U.S. Army trainer (L), instructs an Iraqi Army recruit at a military base on April 12, 2015 in Taji, Iraq. U.S. forces, currently operating in 5 large bases throught the country, are training thousands of Iraqi Army combat troops, trying to rebuild a force they had origninally trained before the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2010. Members of the U.S. Army's 5-73 CAV, 3BCT, 82nd Airborne Division are teaching members of the newly-formed 15th Division of the Iraqi Army, as the Iraqi government launches offensives to try to recover territory lost to ISIS last year.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TAJI, IRAQ - APRIL 12: A U.S. Army trainer (L), instructs an Iraqi Army recruit at a military base on April 12, 2015 in Taji, Iraq. U.S. forces, currently operating in 5 large bases throught the country, are training thousands of Iraqi Army combat troops, trying to rebuild a force they had origninally trained before the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2010. Members of the U.S. Army's 5-73 CAV, 3BCT, 82nd Airborne Division are teaching members of the newly-formed 15th Division of the Iraqi Army, as the Iraqi government launches offensives to try to recover territory lost to ISIS last year. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The general in charge of U.S. special operations forces in Iraq for the past six months says Washington’s information campaign in the Middle East is so inadequate that many Iraqi troops believe American forces are secretly supplying the Islamic State — potentially leaving U.S. forces vulnerable to reprisal attacks from their nominal allies in the fight against the militants.

“Our adversaries are constantly one step ahead of us in the IO realm,” said Army Brig. Gen. Kurt Crytzer, using the acronym for information operations. Crytzer is the deputy commander of Central Command’s special operations command, and recently returned from a stint commanding most of the Pentagon’s most elite troops operating in Iraq. He was speaking Tuesday in Tampa, Fla., at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, which brings together U.S. special operations leaders and industry representatives.

The complaint that the United States is consistently outfoxed by Islamist militants in the propaganda sphere has been a recurring theme since shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Crytzer’s lament is more evidence that 12 years after the invasion of Iraq, the nation that invented the Internet and which is home to Hollywood and Madison Avenue still has trouble competing with the message promulgated by terror groups whose worldview hearkens back to the 7th century but use a sophisticated online and social media strategy to raise money and recruit new fighters.

The Islamic State and other groups “have powerful ideologies” with a worldwide appeal, Crytzer said. “We need to find solutions that allow us to more effectively contest for the ideological battle space,” he added. The United States typically takes too long to counter anti-American “narratives” in the Middle East, thus ceding the information battlefield to its enemies, Crytzer said.

As an example, he cited a narrative that had taken root in Iraq that the United States was “resupplying” the forces of the Islamic State, which has swept across northern Syria and Iraq over the past 18 months, seizing the important Iraqi city of Ramadi in Anbar province this past week. Crytzer did not specify why many Iraqis would believe that U.S. forces would support an extremist organization that has routinely conducted barbaric executions of its hostages from the United States other Western nations. However, Iraqi conspiracy theorists have long suspected that Washington is searching for an excuse that would allow the United States to move back into Iraq, perhaps permanently. “Without an effective counter-narrative this quickly took traction resonating with many throughout Iraq,” Crytzer said. “It’s not just the poor and uneducated that believe it.”

In comments to reporters after his talk, Crytzer elaborated on this theme, saying that even Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s vaunted Quds Force, which conducts the Islamic Republic’s intelligence and covert action operations abroad, has fallen sway to this rumor. Suleimani controls numerous Shia militias in Iraq, which function as proxy forces for Iran in the fight against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State. “The Quds Force commander believes we’re resupplying Da’esh,” Crytzer said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State. “Truly believes it.”

The general didn’t elaborate on why he thinks a senior military official with as extensive and sophisticated a background in intelligence as would believe the theory.

Still, the fact that this narrative has also taken hold in the Iraqi security forces and the militias fighting the Islamic State poses a threat to U.S. troops in Iraq, according to Crytzer. “It sets the conditions for a lot of bad things to happen,” he said, citing intelligence reports that “members” (he did not specify from which force) had shot at U.S. helicopters “because they thought they were resupplying Daesh,” using another name for the Islamic State. In addition, he said, Iraqi gate guards at several training sites used by U.S. Special Forces A-teams had questioned some of the SF soldiers about why the United States was supporting the Islamic State.

“The longer narratives languish, the more they take traction, so it’s incumbent upon us to come up with an honest and quick response to try to mitigate these narratives before they’re able to take traction,” Crytzer said. However, “it’s not a level playing field,” because U.S. enemies in the region can put out whatever message they want, “based on perceptions and half-truths,” he said. “Naturally, we take the moral high ground and stick to the truth.”

Earlier Tuesday, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, was asked whether U.S. special operations forces should release film of their raids in the same way that the military releases footage of airstrikes. “I’m not sure that is necessarily the best way of conveying the message that we want to get [out],” Votel replied. “It shows one distinct tactical action.”

“To be effective against an organization like ISIL, I think we have to expose ISIL for what it is … for the brutal tactics that it applies,” Votel continued. “And I think our ability to get information out on that will largely be more effective against the population that we are trying to present that to.”

Votel’s brief answer did not account for the fact that although the Islamic State routinely releases gruesome videos showing the crucifixions and beheadings of unarmed captives and, in one particularly horrific case, a Jordanian pilot being burned alive, foreign fighters and money continue to flow to the group. Many Iraqis, jaded after 12 years of on-again, off-again U.S. military operations in their country, also largely tune out any messaging seen as having American fingerprints.

Still, Crytzer said in his own remarks, “doing nothing is not an option.”

John Moore/Getty Images

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. @seandnaylor

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