The Rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS: A Western Legacy

(Originally published 13 June, 2014)

You’re free. And freedom is beautiful. And, you know, it’ll take time to restore chaos and order – order out of chaos. But we will.

George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., April 13, 2003

The fall of Mosul and the scenes of chaos within the city seem to be the first major and perhaps fatal challenge to Iraq’s fragile ‘democratic’ government.  Obama authorised renewed airstrikes against the barbaric ISIS and humanitarian airdrops for the besieged Yazidis. Either way it is a symbol of the utter failure of U.S and British policy in the country they invaded in 2003 and the Iraqi people are paying for it. 

What we are witnessing in the new Iraqi civil war is the violence that first began against coalition forces and among various sectarian groups. Now they deliver a severe challenge to the work of the U.S-British coalition  in Iraq. Not only were the Anglo-American forces unable to halt the violence, they only hastened the strife between Sunni and Shia.

A combination of long-term and short-term events have heralded this alarming turn of events. ISIS is a dual creation of the inherent instability created by the Bush administration and nurtured by the Syrian Civil War where U.S allies such Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been supplying the Sunni terrorist faction cutting a swath through Iraq. The social and economic deprivation of Iraq is well-documented and Iraq like every other nation in the region has been subject to dramatic change created by the Arab Spring (now very much in its bleak midwinter) which has created numerous pretexts for protest and violence whether it possesses moderate or extremist intentions.

In the vacuum of power created by the coalition in Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) which saw the crude dismantlement of the political and military structure they have ironically witnessed the rise of new extremist factions, alongside Al-Qaeda, that Saddam Hussein was said to have harbored in 2003.  The latter accusation was proven false as was the fictional existence of WMDs. The Islamic State of Iraq in Syria (Isis) is so hard line that it was disavowed by Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

It seems that the Western powers are reacting to an event that was inbound for almost a year if not more. Media outlets had covered the increased rise in violence, bombing and sectarian slaughter in the build up to the elections. What is being witnessed in Iraq is not a surprise as Iraq already a divided state was feeling the effects of the Syrian Civil War, extremists were involved and likely to return to Iraq to impose their doctrines.  It seems very perplexing that American intelligence could have been caught so badly off guard by this escalation of violence.

The fall of Mosul to ISIS led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi adds salt to the wounds of the politicians who took us into conflict without effective plan B, C and D. More importantly this impending disaster for Iraq spits in the face of all the men and women who have died or sustained physical and psychological trauma to their bodies under the inflexible and failed policies of their leaders in government. 4,487 U.S soldiers died for nothing as did nearly 600 coalition soldiers (315 of whom were British) and 160,000 Iraqi civilians (see Iraq casualties total on this link).

What did we fight for?  Ultimately it was not for the victims of 9/11, they were just the opportunity under which war could be undertaken. The military and political failure must be investigated by the Armed Forces and the Parliament thoroughly. If we salvage something from this bitter legacy that is Iraq and learn from it then it is the sole consolation in defeat (what else was it?).

Many have been foolish enough to propose that this was a victory and that the sacrifice was worth paying for creating a democracy within Iraq. The death in last year of 1000 people on average a month (the most horrific I remember being a Christmas day suicide bombing),  the fall of Mosul, the decent of Iraq into bloody civil war and its formation into a new ‘Somalia’ renders this void assumption laughable. The financial costs of this conflict are very apparent already. The threat to Iraq’s oil supply pushed global oil prices higher to $110 a barrel, adding to concerns about a supply shortfall from Libya. This will undoubtedly incur an American reaction as ISIS expand their financial firepower as well as the seizing key weapon caches in various towns and cities such as Mosul.

Though most of us are appalled by the violence consuming Syria, the gradual disintegration of Iraq since the withdrawal of firstly British and secondly U.S forces seems to indicate that the West does more harm than good when it comes to military intervention with no heed to long-term planning and consequences. If military intervention had occurred in August 2013 after the Ghouta chemical attacks who knows the damage we might have added to an already destabilised region.

Despite initial plans to keep some American soldiers in the country to assist the Iraqi security forces, no agreement could be reached between Baghdad and Washington, and the final US troops pulled out in December 2011 leaving security in the hands of the often less-than-effective Iraqi military (who had already sustained some 20,000 dead in the fight against militants between 2003 and 2011). Gradual withdrawal may have been a more viable solution to this problem now occurring in Iraq.

People, however, may be quick to condemn Obama, but the president was acting on one of the promises he kept in his presidential campaign; soldiers would return home from Iraq. This was the response to the demand of public opinion, a response to war exhaustion, a war which by 2008 had been quite completely exposed for all its violations whether it be human rights, the use of torture, international law, American ideals, and of the Iraqi people.

That is the legacy of George Bush and his administration. Granted the joy of Saddam Hussein’s departure from power was welcome and clear to see in the wake of the initially successful invasion. His war crimes against the Kurds, the Iranians and brutal dictatorship he established over his own people were appalling however contentious the grounds for invading Iraq.

However when you create a void in power that has been established for decades under authoritarian rule what is required is covert, sensitive and patient long-term strategy that must be thoroughly planned before you topple the cruel structure lest it be replaced by a equally violent regime in the future.

This was the crucial  blunder of the world’s greatest military power. Some would argue I have the advantage of hindsight but it has been repeated again and again in U.S foreign policy throughout the 20th century.

It is the permanent stain upon Tony Blair’s foreign policy as Prime Minister when he followed Bush obediently into an unpredictable conflict. The shame is that people forget how well Blair performed in bringing an end to the civil war in Sierra Leone via Operation Palliser which defeated the murderous RUF in 2002. The British government pushed beyond their capabilities and bear equal shame in the unraveling of Iraq as a viable state.

The death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan at the hands of U.S Special Operations Forces is perhaps the only pitiful consolation the United States’ have. The costs are so heavy though for the future of the Middle East and the Iraqi people that it can only be labelled a Pyrrhic victory. 

Tony Blair’s assumptions that the Americans and British didn’t cause this crisis is wrong. However in 2011 the Arab Spring, as he asserts, would have brought about protest against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and potentially the same difficulties would have occurred. Though there are agreeable elements in Blair’s point about the Arab Spring that is a matter of debate rather than fact as he tries to deflect criticism.

For the United States numerous questioned should be asked of the previous administration whilst the current one reels in the wake of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s and ISIS’s most important victory yet. We shouldn’t be surprised as Richard Barrett, a former counter-terrorism chief with the British foreign intelligence service comments

“For the last 10 years or more, [Zawahiri] has been holed up in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area and hasn't really done very much more than issue a few statements and videos…Whereas Baghdadi has done an amazing amount — he has captured cities, he has mobilised huge amounts of people (estimates say 12,000), he is killing ruthlessly throughout Iraq and Syria…. If you were a guy who wanted action, you would go with Baghdadi.”

It is harrowing to imagine an extremist Islamic terror cell that is rumored to be too extreme for Al-Qaeda. ISIS will never achieve global dominion that is apparently part of its doctrine but it will wreak havoc regionally and inspire pro-ISIS factions to grow in other areas of the world. The Americans may claim that had they been able to intervene in Syria in August 2013 that ISIS may not be the power it is to today. That would be an oversimplification at best.

Al-Qaeda and perhaps Al-Shabaab were the most well-known radical entities to represent Islam at its worst. Now the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram and many more have joined their ranks or inspired groups. They have emerged  either through the upheaval of the Arab Spring, hatred of perceived Russian authoritarianism, Western hypocrisy and influences, or as seen in the Africa lack of development, corruption, poverty and instability.

The question is what is the viable solution to this crisis, which joins the numerous other regional crises in the Middle East? The US has naturally pledgedto support the current Iraqi government with shipments of military equipment to the government this year and ramped up training for security forces. Its final collapse would confirm the final humiliation for the former administration. The pledge of Obama to place $5 billion towards the ‘Global War on Terror’ (now re branded Overseas Contingency Operations) seems more relevant than ever as JP Sotille quotes:

“It is, in effect, the return of a key Cold War policy of “regime support” for clients and “regime change” for non-client states, particularly in strategically-located areas and resource-rich regions. Regimes—whether or not they actually “reflect American values”—can count on U.S. financial, military and mission-integrated diplomatic support so long as they can claim to be endangered…not by communists, but by terrorists.

The United States look set to remain a major player in the region. The definitions and words to define the conflict may have become less dramatic then Bush’s ‘crusade’ and ‘global war’ yet the intentions remain clear that preventive warfare  (now a little more subtle than before) will continue; the use of drones, the increased use of the special forces and the placement of 9,000 U.S soldiers to remain in Afghanistan after the planned withdrawal of the military are evidence to their continued state of military alert. ISIS are amongst many a constituted threat to the well-being of national security.

The importance of Iran in this equation holds greater significance than ever as does the stance of Israel and Egypt in the ensuing chaos. The former stands to lend military assistance potentially to their neighbours. Israel stands to be ever increasingly threatened by the rise of extremist jihadist and Islamist movements and the fall-out of the Arab Spring. Three states are in states of civil war; Syria, Iraq and Libya. Turkey is beset by internal unrest whilst groups within Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq have made sure the Syrian civil war has evolved into a regional proxy war.

Ending the Syrian war and extremism in Iraq would be the first step on the road to stabilizing the region in part yet it has become such a vibrant hot-bed for radicalism.  Assad’s brutality has  radicalized segments now and these radicals comprised of Islamic extremism, political extremists and criminals are blotting out those who are fighting for democracy, human rights and the end of authoritarian government.

The stalemate  and the Syria Geneva Conference II peace talks appear to confirm that the more things change the more they stay the same, maps and regions are redrawn and new and dangerous players emerge alongside the continuation in Syrian politics and the battle for influence on the conflict between the United States, Russia, and China. There is no doubt that Syria has irrevocably changed, but if anything it has taken a large step back from where it was in 2011 when the civil war began with both rationale and objectives shifting amongst rebel factions and regime.

The difficulty is that the West holds no leverage in the Middle East as the democratic entities it claims to support are being overwhelmed by extremists and authoritarians. Combine this with the failure of the Iraq War and the military preoccupation in Afghanistan, the West lacks financial, military, political, and moral credibility as well as constraints with which they can deal with the Middle Eastern firestorm.

Ultimately the ones with which we have the poorest relations at the moment hold the keys to a measure of stability that being Iran, Putin, and Assad. The issue is that like most a-typical Cold War conflicts military shipments and financial power is vested in opposing sides by the larger powers and the continuation of this only hampers the peace process and endangers more civilians.

To align with Assad would be viewed by some as the ultimate betrayal of those who fight for liberal and democratic goals, much like America aligned with Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran War. However what we have seen in Iraq is the sheer cost of removing or assisting the removal of a authoritarian regime without a viable, moderate and strong leadership to replace it. Assad’s fall it seems would only extend Syria’s prolonged suffering in hands of jihadists, extremists, drained moderates and a shattered government.

The Arab Spring has gained a deadly momentum one which threatens to consume the region for decades and it is taking the disturbing form (though completely different in context) of the Balkans in 1914, inherently unstable and threatening not just people who dwell in the Middle East but the doorstep of Europe. With all options on the table according to Obama what’s next is a matter of dispute. A military intervention in Iraq would send ripples across the international scene.

 Matthew Williams