Douglas Cohn: Time is now for Obama to take action on al-Qaeda

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WASHINGTON — With Iraq on the verge of succumbing to al-Qaeda insurgents, President Obama is facing the critical test of his presidency because the potential ramifications of this are earthshaking.

It will be remembered that following the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush sent air and covert assistance to the Northern Alliance that was essential to its successful campaign to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. That radical Islamic organization had been hosting the al-Qaeda training camps that had spawned the 9/11 attacks. What followed was a low-level fight that morphed into a full-blown U.S. and allied war to thwart the Taliban’s comeback.

Then, in 2003, Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons and providing sanctuary for al-Qaeda, though it turned out that neither event was actually occurring. Saddam was quickly defeated, but a long war with Sunni insurgents ensued.

Iraq, like neighboring Iran, is comprised of a Shiite majority, whereas the bulk of the Muslim world (nearly 90 percent) belongs to the Sunni sect, and the antagonism between these two branches of Islam dates back to the 8th Century.

Then, while America and its allies were looking to extricate themselves from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring erupted, a populist revolution that spread to Syria in 2011. But unlike the uprising in other Arab countries, the revolt in Syria turned into an ongoing war against Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and his minority Alawite sect of Shiites. This attracted Jihadists (Muslim holy warriors) from around the world, including the United States, who formed a portion of the rebels in the war, and al-Qaeda quickly joined them.

At this point, it looked as though the U.S. and its allies were barely keeping the lid on events in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, either through direct or indirect involvement. All that changed on June 11, 2014, when ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an organization even more extreme than al-Qaeda, suddenly broke out of its footholds in Syria and Iraq and took Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and followed up with the conquests of other cities on its drive toward Baghdad.

What this all means is that far from eliminating al-Qaeda and its allies and offshoots, It now appears that U.S. and allied efforts have actually increased their influence in the Muslim world, an influence marked by a rabid hatred of America and a devotion to the brutal enforcement of religious zealotry. Those groups are now within striking distance of taking over Iraq and, once the U.S. departs, Afghanistan as well. Syria could also fall to them. This is unimaginable. Iraq, with its oil riches, is the big prize. It would provide Islamic Jihadists with money, prestige, and credibility among like-minded people across the Sunni world, a world that includes Indonesia (203 million Muslim population, of which 99 percent are Sunnis) and NATO-member Turkey (72 percent Sunni).

Now, with events rapidly unfolding, President Obama must act, because al-Qaeda’s domination of any nation poses a threat to all nations. The president has many options, and manned and unmanned airpower could constitute a first step that could buy time to form military alliances and influence political and economic responses. But whatever he decides, the time has come for prompt, decisive presidential action.