As Hegel famously observed: “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” Perhaps anyone involved in Western foreign policy in the Middle East should recite this every morning before they go to work, because right now we are sleepwalking into the mistakes of the past.
On 16 March, the Guardian reported on the battle between ISIS and Iraqi government-backed forces for the strategically important city of Tikrit. The particularly nefarious and gruesome quality to ISIS is evident to us all, considering the cruel, barbaric murders of hostages proudly broadcast to the world, the acts arguably constituting genocide against minorities such as Yazidis, and the horrific oppression of women – to name several of a litany of evil actions. This is an organisation disowned by al-Qaeda – they deem it too brutal. It is a self-proclaimed caliphate that currently controls an area of land larger than the UK, and is clear about its goal to extinguish everything that liberal democrats hold dear, in the most savage manner possible.
So it is indubitably better than an ISIS victory that forces supported by the Baghdad government have retaken Tikrit from them in this recent series of battles. But the US and its allies should never have allowed the fighting to have happened in the way that it did. Most of the 30,000 troops fighting in this operation were Shia militia, while Iranian generals organised the campaign. Consequently, the tomb of Saddam Hussein was destroyed (he was the sworn enemy of Iran, as well as being despised by Iraq’s 60% Shia majority for favouring the Sunni 20%, and for the brutal actions that accompanied this sectarian policy). That’s while flags of Shia militia and the images of their leaders were plastered across the territory gained.
The Bush administration’s mistakes
At this point, it is necessary to take a step back and analyse the provenance of ISIS in Iraq. Even David Miliband, the New Labour Foreign Secretary and would-be heir to Tony Blair, has acknowledged that the terror organisation owes its rise to the US-UK invasion of 2003. Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant, but overthrowing him unleashed a volcano of sectarian violence, killing at least 211,000 people. The immediate aftermath of the invasion was handled appallingly. Richard Haass, then Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department, subsequently recalled in his book, War of Necessity, War of Choice, that there was an initial presumption on having a large amount of troops to ensure success: “The first [Gulf] war made use of more than 500,000 US troops and was premised on the […] bias towards using overwhelming military force.” However: “The second war was designed by Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld to minimise the number of US armed forces (approximately 150,000) committed to the effort.” Rumsfeld’s decision here was to have appalling consequences, as 150,000 troops was simply too small a force to even come close to maintaining order.
It was in this power vacuum, during the summer of 2003, shortly after President Bush infamously declared “Mission Accomplished” aboard USS Abraham Lincoln, that the seeds of ISIS’s long-term rise were planted. The US de-Ba’athification policy was announced days after Bush’s victory speech; its aim was to purge Iraq’s political system of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party. It was a disaster. The people who had run each and every organ of government were told to go; the only people with specialist technocratic expertise were forbidden from exercising it.
Just as violence was starting to escalate, essential public services were cut off, leading to a vicious circle as panic and desperation self-perpetuated and militant groups took advantage of the anarchy. Unemployment shot to 40%, according to some estimates, and the pensions system was destroyed, thanks to de-Ba’athification’s crippling of the Iraqi Ministry of Finance. Similarly, the police force and army were gutted; the Interior Ministry was left rudderless after most of its civil servants were fired. With inadequate numbers of American soldiers to keep order, looting became endemic, incurring an economic cost estimated at $400 million but, even more dangerously, allowing both Sunni and Shia militias the chance to offer protection in exchange for money and support. Meanwhile, the death tolls began their ascent towards today’s horrifying total.
These are some of the indirect consequences of de-Ba’athification, all of which produced a cycle of lawlessness and brutality, allowing Sunni militant branches of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the progenitors of ISIS, to flourish. Rival Shia militias such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s notorious Mahdi Army also rose to prominence, driven by the desire for revenge after Saddam had oppressed them for years in favour of the Sunnis. This proliferating sectarian warfare strengthened the resolve of hardline Sunni militants, and radicalised many to the extremist cause. Exacerbating this were election results putting in power Nouri al-Maliki and his Islamic Dawa Party: an explicitly Shia party, funded by Iran. Al-Maliki’s administrations showed an extreme paradigm of the “tyranny of the majority” which Alexis de Tocqueville feared democracy would create. For example, in 2011 and 2012, after Islamic Dawa finally included the largest Sunni Party, al-Iraqiyaa, in the national unity government, its most prominent al-Iraqiyaa member was officially accused of terrorism and had to flee Iraq. This issuance of an arrest warrant for Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi came one day after the withdrawal of US troops in December 2011, and was widely believed to be predicated on no evidence and motivated by a Shia desire to minimise the Sunni influence in the Iraqi government.
The process of de-Ba’athification extended into a much more insidious system of discrimination, as Sunnis, whether linked to the Ba’ath Party or not, were shut out of influence and jobs. Indeed, a CNN report from 2007, based on American intelligence, stated that al-Maliki’s nebulous organisation, the Office of the Commander in Chief, overrode other agencies including the Ministry of Defence, as part of a covert operation to push forward Shia extremism (of course, al-Maliki’s government denied this). All these events formed a continuous process of marginalisation of Iraq’s Sunnis. This has poured fuel on the fires of extremism, and the product of this is clear: the explicitly Sunni self-proclaimed caliphate of ISIS, bent on eradicating Shia influence in Iraq.
Yet there is one very significant, very direct consequence of de-Ba’athification and the weakness of American forces straight after Saddam was toppled. This is best summarised in Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s conversation with a disbanded member of the Ba’athist Iraqi Army, recounted in his 2006 book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. “What happened to everyone there?” Chandrasekaran asks. The former soldier’s response is concise: “They’re all insurgents now.” Saddam’s forces were some of the toughest in the Middle East, hardened by experience of conventional warfare in conflicts against Iran, Kuwait and the almighty US military. De-Ba’athification, combined with a lack of Sunni representation in the al-Maliki governments, led to a significant number of Saddam loyalists joining Sunni militias.
More than a decade has passed since those early stages of post-Saddam Iraqi politics. The overall trajectory is evident: huge waves of sectarian violence which the US army valiantly strove to quash, with varying success, with a government in Baghdad supported by Tehran and for the most part dominated by exclusivist Shias. By 2006, the Sunni Anbar province, constituting the Western third of Iraq, was reported to have fallen to al-Qaeda. The Washington Post had an unnamed source in the Pentagon, who cited Colonel Peter Devlin, head of the US Marine Corps’ intelligence division in Iraq: “There are no functioning Iraqi government institutions in Anbar, leaving a vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.” The Shia-dominated Baghdad government showed no interest in reaching out to this poor, arid region: these events of 2006 and the territory’s present status as an ISIS stronghold are thus highly unsurprising.
The Surge: A temporary success
However, it should be noted that, partly in response to this series of events in 2006, a year later there was the single significant aspect of American involvement in Iraq that could be interpreted as a success: the Surge. Five extra brigades, 20,000 soldiers, were sent under the overarching command of General David Petraeus. On several levels, it is astonishing that it worked at all: from Vietnam to Afghanistan, experience suggests that the deployment of extra troops to destroy insurgency campaigns is doomed to fail. Yet numerous factors made the Surge succeed. The most significant was holistic notions of both what the operation should accomplish and the means by which it should achieve this. In his address to the nation adumbrating this new approach, President Bush grasped an obvious fact which until then seemed to have eluded him and many in his administration. “A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations,” the President acknowledged.
The telos of the Surge was not simply to smash extremist militias on both sides of the Sunni / Shia schism. US military victories were grounded in the goal of providing the peaceful, stable conditions for a comparatively harmonious atmosphere to develop across sectarian divides. It was also explicitly temporary, the objective being to “help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing […] security.”
Most importantly, seeing as a fundamental objective of the surge was retaking the Anbar region (among other parts of Iraq) from al-Qaeda, General Petraeus sought and won the support of the local Sunni tribes. These so-called Sons of Iraq partnerships relied on the appeal of traditional authority, with local Sheikhs driving the fighting and giving American-backed operations a crucial sense of legitimacy in the eyes of the local populace. This aspect of the surge severely shook al-Qaeda in Iraq. The words of a very senior al-Qaeda operative in Anbar to the Washington Post in 2008 speak volumes about this: “The Americans have not defeated us, but the turnaround of the Sunnis against us had made us lose a lot and suffer very painfully.” For once in post-Saddam Iraq, the salient fact that moderate Sunnis must be allowed to shape their community’s destiny in order to prevent radicalisation was acted upon. During the Surge, there was also a boost in economic growth and increased dialogue between the Sunni and Shia communities, as well as progress on reversing de-Ba’athification laws – as the BBC reported at the time.
Cutting and running
Nevertheless, the sustained success of a Western counter-insurgency campaign sounds too good a narrative to be true. In this case it was, not through any military failings, but because of American failures on a higher political level. In 2008, bowing to domestic pressure, President Bush signed the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, leading to the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq by 2011. This document was, it transpires, full of loopholes that allowed American troops to remain subsequently, if this was deemed necessary for security; that’s why Defense Secretary Robert Gates envisaged “perhaps several tens of thousands of American troops” staying well into the present decade.
But after 2008, there was a precipitous decline in the number of US military personnel in Iraq – tens of thousands left each year. Barack Obama had followed public opinion in casting Iraq as the “dumb war”, and accordingly ushered US troops out of the country as fast as possible; the al-Maliki government and its Iranian sponsors cheered this on. The power vacuum as America withdrew was soon filled by Iranian-backed Shia forces – to put it bluntly, that includes both the government and extremist militants – and disillusioned, armed Sunnis, both al-Qaeda extremists and former Ba’athists. Al-Maliki was far too much of a dogmatic Shia partisan reliant on Iran to ever not disband the Sons of Iraq. Unemployed and utterly alienated by Baghdad, many of these fighters joined extremist forces that later coalesced into ISIS. The same narrative repeats itself: the Shia-dominated Baghdad government excludes and discriminates against Iraqi Sunnis as a community, then wonders why Sunni extremists are able to lure swathes of their group into their forces.
US military engagement in Iraq was rightly seen as a strictly temporary matter. The esteemed historian and neoconservative political commentator Niall Ferguson called for an unashamedly colonial approach, with American occupation lasting three decades at least. Thank God no one listened to him. But the US withdrawal was too rapid and too early: the Iraqi armed forces were clearly incapable of defending their country. In June 2014, ISIS forces arrived to take Mosul, and the national army simply ran away. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Nouri al-Maliki was swept out of power; the Iranians told him to go. Unsurprisingly, the new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is another Shia hardliner propped up by Tehran.
There could have been a different course in Iraq. Maintaining American influence was never about just keeping large numbers of boots on the ground; since the 2003 invasion there has been a massive flow of US money to the Baghdad government – over £26 billion in total. In 2011, Washington should have maintained enough troops to ensure order while through rigorous American training the Iraqi security apparatus gained the strength required for effective combat as an independent force.
Even more importantly, long before that, the US should have reminded al-Maliki that they have the deepest pockets and huge quantities of the most advanced weaponry in the world. A clear statement should have been made that the Baghdad government could have had far more of this – that the US would stuff with gold the mouths of al-Maliki and those around him – if they allowed a political order in Iraq that would minimise the risks of fuelling extremism. If al-Maliki failed to act accordingly, sanctions should have been tightened on his de facto bosses in Tehran. Specifically, it was vital that numerous Sunnis had prominent roles in the national government, with power devolved to their traditional tribal networks of power in regions like Anbar.
Now it is too late for the “unified” Iraq Bush envisaged in his speech announcing the surge in 2007. Iraqi Sunnis have been trampled upon countless times in the most egregious fashion since 2003 – that’s why a large number of them joined and welcomed ISIS. Iran has already carved out its own sphere of influence in the East and South of Iraq – and it is inevitable that Tehran will have a huge role in any united Iraq, especially seeing as the country is 60% Shia. There is simply no way of preventing Iran from enfolding a significant portion of Iraq under its control. Tehran’s approach is defined by the sense of Iran as the leader of the Shia minority. Islam is 85-90% Sunni and only 10-15% Shia, and Iran is by far the strongest and most prominent Shia state. Thanks to this religious divide, many powerful Sunni forces in the Middle East are inclined to think of Iran as a natural enemy. Hence Tehran’s paranoid attitude in foreign policy. Hence the exigency, as they see it, of funding Hezbollah, propping up Assad in Syria, and carving out their own Shia zone in Iraq.
The long-term future
Consequently, a partitioned Iraq must be envisaged after the defeat of ISIS. Iraqi Kurdistan has already effectively gone its own way. Indeed, the stability compared to the rest of Iraq enjoyed by this region over the past decade, and the effectiveness of the Peshmerga in combating ISIS, both attest to the fact that the Iraqi Kurds have done enormously well with a large degree of autonomy. The area under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is the only part of Iraq which the US military classified as ‘secure’; no Coalition soldier or non-Iraqi has been killed or kidnapped anywhere under KRG control. This stability has allowed economic flourishing: the Kurdish administered region has the lowest poverty rate in Iraq. Overall, the combination of political stability and positive economic conditions has incentivised 20,000 Iraqis from the rest of the country to migrate there since 2003.
Partition is often painful, but at this point dividing Iraq into Sunni and Shia countries is the best of a very bad and dangerous bunch of options. The country was always an artificial, arbitrarily demarcated one, its borders drawn up thoughtlessly in the infamous colonial Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. Now on both sides of Iraq’s sectarian schism there is simply too much bad blood, too much anger at too many failed opportunities, for the whole country to be ruled by a central government (inevitably Shia-led and close to the Iranians) in Baghdad. There will have to be a Sunni nation, informally under the aegis of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, beside the Shia nation which Iran has already implicitly carved out.
If America pushes Iraq down this painful but, in the medium and long term, necessary and beneficial route, it must tread extremely carefully. It cannot act alone. Ripping up an international border, without a broad consensus among countries in the Middle East and around the world, would contravene every principle of international relations since the world order created by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Yet there is a strong chance that enough legitimacy can be conferred on such a plan if the US, with the support of Europe and democracies around the world, assists the Iraqis down the path of partition. But this is only if Washington can persuade the powers-that-be on both sides of the divide in Iraq, as well as countries on either side of the Middle Eastern religious schism, that partition is needed for the long-term security of Iraq and, ergo, the region.
The emergency situation now
But that should be the long-term aspect of the US plan. Presently, Washington must immediately make it clear that Shia Iraqi militias and the Iranian forces guiding them are not the right people to retake places like Tikrit. Despite the fact that they drove ISIS back, actions like destroying Saddam’s tomb and plastering up photos of Shia and Iranian commanders will only fuel the root cause of ISIS’s rise in Iraq: the alienation of the Sunnis. To try and ensure that the fight against ISIS happens is the right manner, America must talk to all the major players in the region, to ensure that there are no more sectarian takeovers of other groups’ areas. Iran is, of course, most keen to defend Shia zones from the marauding barbarians who believe them to be heretics, to be converted or slaughtered. Washington must welcome Tehran doing this, at the same time as asserting that – given the volcanic extent of sectarian enmity running through Iraq, and in light of the aforementioned severely regrettable actions of Shia militia in Tikrit – its forces must not occupy predominantly Sunni areas. Simultaneously, an attempt must be made to reawaken the Sons of Iraq (an American offer of Sunni independence might just achieve this) while engaging the Saudis, Jordanians and Gulf States in the fight against ISIS in these areas. Sunnis themselves are the people who must do the work uprooting ISIS, in a campaign backed by heavy US air support.
This is the best course of action. But it is, like pretty much everything in Middle Eastern geopolitics, highly problematic. There is no guarantee that Sunni powers would be willing to engage in the heavy fighting against ISIS. However, their chief ally and backer, the United States, has a fair chance of persuading them to deploy ground forces, by bribing and cajoling these allied countries to take action to destroy the greatest threat to their security.
The only other option is to have Western boots on the ground. This is firstly highly unlikely to happen, considering deep-seated, justified popular scepticism of enmeshing ourselves in the same imbroglio that ensnared US and UK forces over the last decade. Defeating ISIS in their strongholds in Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq is predicated not only on defeating them with outside force, but by securing the co-operation and lasting support of local people. Specifically, this entails resurrecting the Sons of Iraq, or a similar coalition of Sunni tribes. Considering that the American Surge with which they worked ended with an empty, inevitably broken promise from the US that Shia sectarianism in Baghdad would end, it is impossible to foresee such a coalition working together again. The militaries of regional Sunni powers – certainly not American troops – must therefore provide the ground forces to help reawaken the traditional, tribal authorities in regions such as Anbar, in order to vanquish ISIS. The new pan-Arab military force – encompassing Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf States – must act as a key driver of this.
The US must continue its campaign of targeted bombing to assist local fighters on the ground. But just as importantly, it must also make a concerted effort to prevent Iranian interference from making the situation even worse. Last night, America (alongside the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) reached an agreement with Iran over their nuclear weapons programme. Concrete limits have been imposed on Tehran to prevent it from obtaining such weapons. The extent of these constraints has positively surprised many. Iran will massively lessen its stockpile of enriched uranium, from 20,000 tons to 600 lbs; it will not purify plutonium at all; and will reduce its number of centrifuges by four-fifths, among other measures. A rigorous International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections programme will enforce this. In return, sanctions will be phased out.
Yet it is likely that the Americans will seek a broader deal, as strongly hinted in Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement description of the deal as a “solid foundation” before “other issues need to be worked out”. President Obama seeks a rapprochement with Iran that will go down in history like Nixon and Kissinger bringing communist China in from the cold in 1972. Any such larger deal, made possible by this nuclear agreement, must include a clause asserting that Iranian occupation of predominantly Sunni Iraqi territory will be met by at least the reinstatement of some sanctions. Moreover, a grand bargain between Washington and Tehran will only work if it allows tensions to ease between Iran and the Sunni great powers – in particular Saudi Arabia. This is key, but extremely problematic. However, it is not quite as difficult for Obama to engineer that it initially seems: both countries are expending large amounts of resources acting on fearful feelings that they are surrounded. Logic dictates that this cannot be simultaneously true for both countries, and both would benefit from reining in their mutually adversarial positions and from their irrational fear of encirclement being assuaged. Both countries are belatedly recognising what this article argues: that Sunni / Shia sectarian conflict has consistently augmented the extremism culminating in ISIS, which seeks to destroy everything held dear by the Saudi and Iranian regimes alike. If such a rapprochement happens between them, tentative as it will inevitably be, Tehran and Riyadh could develop a working relationship of sorts, driving ISIS from, and then guaranteeing the security of, Iraq’s diverging Shia and Sunni zones, respectively. The US would dig deep into its pockets and technical expertise to provide both economic assistance and comprehensive air cover to all anti-ISIS military operations on the ground. The electorate can easily be persuaded to support this: they want ISIS defeated, and they want an alternative to American boots on the ground and body bags flying home.
This approach seems like the course of US action that offers the best chance of providing a way forward for an endemically, chronically troubled Iraq. But it is a path fraught with difficulties, with a plethora of pitfalls, and there are few probable unadulteratedly positive outcomes in sight.
This is the Middle East: no one can tell how events will unfold, and no one would bet money on optimistic outcomes.