Now we come to the subject of blame. Who lost Mosul? Naturally, this being a day ending in the letter “y,” you’ve got the folks who are blaming Obama, because he’s been “indifferent” to Iraq, and because
he foolishly convinced Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to let American forces leave Iraq despite the fact that Maliki desperately wanted them to stay he honored the agreement that George W. Bush negotiated with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was firmly committed to kicking the American military out of Iraq (and he wasn’t the only Iraqi politician who felt that way), to completely pull US forces out by the end of 2011. Now we’re being told that, oh, if only Obama would’ve showed he cared, or tried harder, he could’ve made Maliki’s heart grow three sizes and gotten him to allow a continued American military presence (note no mention of the fact that it was Bush who negotiated the withdrawal). Well, sure, OK, it’s hard to argue with such highly factual analysis (note the absence of any Iraqi opinion or even the acknowledgement that the Iraqis had any agency to decide their own fate whatsoever).
Aside from the pesky details about “who negotiated what” and “um, has anybody checked with the Iraqis about this?” there’s also the fact that the assumption that whatever rump US forces would have been left in country could’ve stopped what’s happening now is problematic at best. Unless we were planning on staying in Iraq at surge levels indefinitely, and there was no political appetite for that either here or in Iraq, then responding to insurgency was always going to become the job of the Iraqi army that we’ve spent so much money and time training. Well, unless we were actually training them to drop their weapons and run for their lives in the face of a much smaller enemy, it’s safe to say that the training didn’t take. Yeah, maybe we could’ve left behind a force that could now be turning ISIS around, but ISIS is probably going to get turned around anyway, so it’s still not clear how American soldiers would’ve made the situation materially better. But that’s not going to stop the neocons, who need to blame somebody other than themselves for what’s happening right now. Heck, John McCain even took a whole, um, couple of minutes to
attend and listen to make a perfunctory appearance at a classified briefing on the situation before returning to his natural habitat in front of a television camera.
— Derek Davison (@dwdavison9318) June 1, 2014
But let’s talk about those neocons for a second, because even if you grant that Obama could have somehow prevented this whole thing if he’d just negotiated better, you can’t the ignore the fact that ISIS only exists because we unjustifiably invaded Iraq in the first place and then utterly bungled the reconstruction. Oh, I know, Saddam was a Bad Guy. He really was! But there are Bad Guys all over the world and yet we don’t run around toppling all of them, nor should we. And let’s really not diminish the fact that we spent the next five years taking a wrecking ball to Iraq and wondering why it never seemed to be coming together. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re really good at breaking countries, but not so good at putting them back together again, it’s probably best not to break them in the first place.
But look, if we can all agree that Obama probably hasn’t paid enough attention to Iraq over these past few months (even if it’s not clear what difference it would have made, it really did take a shamefully long time for Washington to wake up to the fact that Iraqis were once again dying to the tune of 1000+ a month by the end of last year), and we can also agree that maybe the whole Iraq War and Reconstruction wasn’t the best run thing ever, then we should also be able to agree that direct responsibility for this mess mostly lies with two parties. One of them is Maliki. This is a guy who, I suspect, thinks that Saddam’s only real flaw was that he practiced the wrong kind of Islam.
Instead of behaving like a national leader and trying to unite his people after the war, the riots, the sectarian violence, the civil war, and the surge, Maliki has spent his entire time in office accumulating personal power and trying to disenfranchise Iraq’s Sunni Arab population. He’s refused their help to finally expunge ISIS, he’s systematically shut them out of government, and he’s done his best to shut them out of any economic development as well. He’s made life so miserable for the Sunni Arabs he’s supposed to be governing that for many of them, living under ISIS actually seems like a better deal. And aside from the fundamental immorality of that, it’s also been incredibly stupid; the Arab Sunnis in Iraq held on to power for decades despite being only about as numerous as the Kurds, who make up less than 20% of the population. These are tough, capable people who could have been assets to Baghdad, but Maliki has made them his enemies because he felt like it. He’s been such a lousy leader that even now, with a third of his country under the control of Islamist paramilitaries, he can’t get enough members of parliament to show up to vote him emergency powers to deal with the situation.
Now, shockingly, Maliki wants all the US military aid he can get, including airstrikes, and we’re probably going to give him most of what he asks for. Oh, we might not go as far as manned airstrikes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see drones sent into action, and, frankly, it might be better to give him direct aid than to step up arms shipments to a country whose military tends to leave its weapons lying on the ground when it flees from the enemy. We’ve got to Do Something after all, even if we’d be better off insisting that Maliki step aside (or heavily reform his government) before we ship any more arms to Iraq. Maliki’s response to this situation will determine how much ISIS benefits from its offensive; if he responds with overwhelming force, with more sectarianism, and with lots of American hardware backing him up, then ISIS’s stature among Iraq’s Arab Sunnis is going to improve even if it ultimately loses all the territory it’s won so far. If Maliki sees this as a wake up call and starts to constructively engage with those Arab Sunnis, then ISIS could lose very big here, but that would be very out of character for Maliki.
The other party to blame is ISIS, obviously. What’s the deal with these guys, anyway? This is the group we’re told is “too extreme” for Al-Qaeda, which strikes me as mostly bullshit. ISIS’s founding father, Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was “too extreme for Al-Qaeda” too, but they still let him keep the name “Al-Qaeda.” The reason that ISIS is now an Al-Qaeda “offshoot” rather than an “affiliate” is because its leader, the shady Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, decided that he could safely tell Ayman al-Zawahiri to piss off when Zawahiri tried to exert some control over Baghdadi and his operation. Zawahiri ordered Baghdadi to leave Syria and focus on Iraq, and he didn’t do it. Zawahiri told him to stop fighting other Islamist groups in Syria, and he didn’t stop. So now ISIS is Al-Qaeda’s rival, even to the point of plotting attacks in Saudi Arabia and Europe like a real grown up terrorist movement rather than a local insurgency.
However, the two groups do seem to have different ideas about how to bring about the glorious caliphate. Al-Qaeda, or really its local branches, affiliates, and “affiliates” since those are the groups that are actually active these days, seems to eschew taking and holding territory in favor of attacking the enemy until that enemy is beaten. ISIS, on the other hand, seems very interested in establishing territorial control and government in the areas it controls, even as it continues to attack its enemies. This leads to different definitions of the term “enemy” — for Al-Qaeda types, it’s insufficiently pious Middle Eastern governments, while for ISIS, it’s anybody who won’t accept their (or, really Baghdadi’s) leadership. That’s why you’re far more likely in Syria to find Jabhat al-Nusrah, an actual AQ affiliate, working alongside other jihadi groups in the fight against Assad, while ISIS is more likely to be fighting those other jihadi groups, including Nusrah, than it is to be fighting Assad at all. Of course, if Nusrah and its allies actually succeed in removing Assad, then they would very likely turn on each other, so really this difference comes down to a question of priorities and timing.
The commitment to taking and holding territory is a double-edged sword for ISIS. On the one hand, it gives them a base to operate from and resources to exploit, especially in the oil-rich parts of Syria and Iraq that are its home base right now, which is important for a group that isn’t being financed by a well-connected Saudi businessman like Osama bin Laden. It also looks really good in the recruitment brochures, as demonstrated by the estimated thousands of foreign fighters who have flocked to ISIS’s ranks over the past couple of years. On the other hand, holding territory means the other side knows where to go to attack you, and it also means you have to try to keep the population under your control pacified. Unsurprisingly, ISIS’s 8th century conception of how the world ought to work tends to alienate, rather than comfort, the people it rules.
Despite the fact that it originated as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s strongest area of control is in Syria, where the civil war provides lots of chaos and lawlessness that they can exploit, and where their ostensible enemy, Assad, would rather buy electricity from them than actually attack them. And why would Assad attack ISIS, when they spend so much time fighting the other elements of the rebellion and effectively doing Assad’s job for him? It’s highly unlikely that ISIS could take Baghdad (the Sunni parts, maybe, but probably not the whole thing), and I’m not even sure they can hold on to Mosul, but if Maliki responds with more sectarian hostility then ISIS’s more important long-term goals (recruitment, recruitment, and recruitment) will get a big boost.