How significant was the US-led war in Iraq in facilitating the emergence of ISIS, Dilly Hussain asks.
In a recent interview with Shane Smith, the founder of VICE News, President Barack Obama said: “ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion, which is an example of unintended consequences.” This admission is evidence of the general causality between Western military interventionism in the Muslim world, and the rise of reactionary armed militia groups. In this particular case, the US-led invasion of Iraq undoubtedly paved the way for the rise of the self-professed ‘Islamic State’, better known as ISIS. Depending on who highlights this “unintended consequence” when commenting on recent events in Iraq and Syria, it is usually given very little importance or completely dismissed. Understandably, the pro-war policy makers in Washington and London who orchestrated the invasion of a sovereign state based on false intelligence, would rather focus on how to “degrade and destroy” the monster they created, as opposed to acknowledging fault and accepting blame.
Furthermore, it appears from numerous public statements that President Obama conveniently deflects the decisions made by his predecessor, George W Bush, when questioned about ISIS, by disregarding America’s problematic foreign policy in the Middle East, to shifting the attention exclusively to an extreme interpretation of Islam. This rhetoric is a pattern which has been overwhelmingly consistent with European leaders, some of whom were brothers-in-arms with the US when invading Iraq. Like President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron also parrots the same narrative, ignoring the misdeeds of Tony Blair in failing to take the advice of the former head of MI5, Baroness Manningham-Buller, when she warned that the Iraq war would increase the domestic terror threat to the UK. Similarly, the Dutch and French governments amongst other European states, who have joined the 60 country coalition against ISIS, also prefer to blame“Islamic extremism”, instead of introspectively learning from their bloody colonial history in the Muslim world.
Though President Obama’s confession to VICE News qualifies as a substantive statement of US complicity in creating ISIS, whether it was an “unintended consequence” or intentional negligence is entirely a different matter.
Prior to the war in Afghanistan, there was no Taliban in Pakistan. The group known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) formed in 2007 as a response to NATO’s presence in the region. Likewise, Al Shabaab did not exist before the Western backed African Union (AU) forces and the Kenyan army entered Somalia. Same can be said about the guerrilla groups that arose as a result of US interference in South America. Evidently, there seems to be a reoccurring pattern whenever Western states, namely the US, attempts to meddle in the affairs of other sovereign states, either through military intervention, regional proxies or subservient dictators. In most cases, American intrusion in other countries is to protect their economic interests or to make geopolitical advancements, and Iraq was no exception to this rule.
History and origin of ISIS
WMD’s were not the only incriminating object that was unfounded prior to ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’; there were no Al Qaeda or ISIS either. The proto-ISIS group, Jam’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (TJ) led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was born out of the Iraq war, as part of a coalition of Sunni resistance groups fighting the occupying forces. TJ changed its name on multiple occasions during its evolution to becoming ISIS. In late 2004, TJ officially joined Al-Qaeda, after Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, and became known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In 2006, AQI became the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which later became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) when it branched into the Syrian civil war.
TJ made a number of strategic errors which worsened as time progressed, and eventually became the hallmarks of the group we know as ISIS. Firstly, it was the adoption of the un-Islamic methodology of classifying civilians as acceptable targets in war. Secondly, TJ declared war on Iraqi Shias in response to many of their prominent leaders collaborating with US forces in attacking predominantly Sunni villages and towns, under the justification of fighting Al Qaeda. The US’s relationship with Shia leaders, who were now the new stakeholders in post-Saddam Iraq, was arguably the sole factor which led to the “unintended consequences” that facilitated the emergence of ISIS.
TJ’s sectarian war against Iraq’s Shia population discredited the wider resistance against Western forces, and became so destructive that the general Sunni populous faced the brunt of the vengeful blowback that followed from the government of Nouri al-Maliki. The untold horror and misery that Iraqis faced from TJ and state-backed Shia death squads allowed the US to extend their occupation as they now portrayed themselves as the ‘lesser of two evils’, who were safeguarding the country from sectarian strife, and ensuring that Iraq would become a “beacon of democracy”.
By 2006, ISI’s (formerly TJ) relationship with other Sunni resistance groups also fell apart due to their inability to understand the nuances of Islamic laws pertaining to warfare and governance. The group considered themselves as a ‘state’, and the people residing in the areas they controlled as their citizens, who were forced to abide by their rigid interpretation of Shari’ah law. ISI perceived any genuine criticism from Iraqi Sunnis as an act of rebellion and apostasy, which led to the summary execution of numerous Sunni tribal chiefs, and assassinations of fellow resistance leaders.
US policymakers witnessed the besieged Sunnis of Iraq, who were suffocated between the harsh vigilante rule of ISI, the state sanctioned Shia militias, and the occupying military forces, until an opportunity arose.
The Sunni Awakening Council
Capitalizing on the desperation of Sunni tribal leaders and resistance groups, the US offered them money and weapons to redirect their efforts towards fighting ISI. Additionally, Sunnis were promised political inclusion, as well as positions within the Iraqi army, police force and security services. The same Sunni tribes that helped ISIS take Mosul in June 2014 had created their own ‘Awakening Councils’ to fight ISI. Thus, ISI had lost their Sunni allies en masse and the territories they controlled, forcing them to go underground.
However, after Nouri al-Maliki was selected by the US to replace Ibrahim al-Jaafari as the new prime minister of ‘post-war’ Iraq, the facilitation of ISI’s return had begun before anyone could celebrate their demise. Al-Maliki’s eight-year rule was infested with paranoia, corruption, the persecution of Iraq’s Sunni population, and closer ties with Iran. The promises made to the Sunni tribes of Anbar province for repelling ISI were not delivered. Instead, Sunni politicians were harassed, threatened with prosecution, imprisoned, assassinated, or exiled. Most notably, Vice-president Tariq al Hashemi was accused of supporting terrorism and forced to flee to Turkey as he was sentenced to death in absentia.
When the democratic process had become seemingly fruitless for Iraqi Sunnis, thousands had taken to the streets of Ramadi, Hawija, and Fallujah to voice their political and socioeconomic frustration. The anti-government protests that took place between 2012-2014 were violently quelled by the Iraqi army and security services; according to some conservative estimations, this led to hundreds of deaths and arrests of peaceful Sunni protestors over a two-year period. In reality, al-Maliki was a prime minister as oppressive as any of Iraq’s previous leaders – with one exception: the Iraqi army he commanded was armed and trained by the US Army. They were undisciplined, unprofessional, unreliable, and depended on US military support to conduct their operations.
Under Iraq’s new democratic regime which was armed by the US and backed by Iran, the Sunnis of the north became increasingly aggrieved, and this provided the perfect opportunity for ISI to fill the power vacuum.
“Unintended consequences” or intentional negligence?
When ISIS declared the re-establishment of the Caliphate on June 29, 2014, the principle of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ became evidently clear for the powerbrokers involved in the region. The US and Iran had committed themselves to train and arm the Iraqi army. After taking Mosul, Fallujah, Hawija, Ramadi and Tikrit, ISIS advanced towards the oil rich city of Erbil in Kurdistan, which was followed by US airstrikes under the guise of ‘humanitarian intervention‘ in protecting the Yazidis. ISIS responded to the US airstrikes by beheading American journalist, James Foley, and ultimately that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
More importantly, what implications do the ongoing airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria have on the US? If history is anything to go by, then there will now be an increased domestic terror threat. Clearly the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq were ignored, when the same policy makers who backed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 began beating the drums of war. As tempting as it may be for the US to ‘fight terrorism’ in every corner of the world, the ‘ISIS crisis’ was a problem for the people of Iraq and Syria to tackle themselves. However, when ISIS threatened US economic interests in Erbil, it became obligatory to intervene militarily. Furthermore, arming the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga to suppress a legitimate Sunni tribal uprising (which ISIS was loosely a part of) against the al-Maliki regime exacerbated the already volatile situation.
What the US tends to forget, or intentionally ignores, is that armed reactionary groups like ISIS are born out of the destabilization created by Western military intervention. As mentioned earlier in this article, hostile anti-American resistance groups gain momentum, sympathy and legitimacy from the actions carried out by Western forces. For four years the Assad regime has been murdering its own people by barrel bombing entire villages and using chemical weapons, whilst al-Maliki was indiscriminately killing Sunnis in Iraq, but that did not urge the Obama administration to intervene militarily. Yet, when the Sunni uprising gained momentum in Iraq and it threatened to shift the balance of power from the Kurds in the north, and the Shia-led government in Baghdad, the US reacted.
Since US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria began, more Muslims from around the world have flocked to ISIS. Nevertheless, the US is adamant in protecting its geopolitical and economic interests in the Middle East. At a time where China and Russia are making headway economically and militarily, perhaps this was the ideal opportunity for America to reassert its position as the commander-in-chief of the ‘civilized world’. Additionally, if Obama succeeds in eradicating the self-professed Islamic State, it would also be an ideological victory over the genuine aspiration for a Caliphate in the future. But identical to the advice of Baroness Manningham-Buller to the Blair government, the words of the former head of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, Jack Devine when he told Fox News, that “attacking ISIS increases terror threats to the US”, has fallen on deaf ears.
This article was first published on the Foreign Policy Journal.