I watched two decent documentaries on the Islamic State this weekend – long overdue. The Frontline version is pretty tough on the Obama administration – in part because they start the story the day US forces formally left the country, rather than when the US first arrived. And so you see only half the picture. The implication is that Obama squandered the multi-sectarian “success” of the surge, took his eye off the ball, and allowed sectarianism a comeback.
But if your core analysis of the clusterfuck is that we removed a Sunni government of a majority Shia country after decades of Sunni brutality, then surely, Shiite revenge, in various forms, was always inevitable. Some occurred in the horrific sectarian cleansing under the US occupation – but it was met with just as savage Sunni violence and, of course, a resilient, murderous Sunni insurgency as well. In the aftermath, it would have taken a miracle of Mandela-like magnitude for a Shiite majority government, once in power and free of foreign occupation, not to exact some kind of revenge or act out of a deep sense of paranoia about the Sunnis; and it would have taken another miracle for such acts not to have been answered in turn.
And they weren’t. The idea that a few more urgent phone calls or threats would have made a difference doesn’t pass the smell test to me. If we could barely contain the sectarian forces unleashed by the war with 150,000 troops, what hope when we had no troops left at all, or even a couple thousand? The last few years were for the Iraqis to finally make their choice as to what their future could be; and they could not overcome the past, or the entire history of the region. The only real alternative – a US occupation for decades – was simply not there. Maybe at some point Iraqis will be able to overcome their past. I sure hope so. But the only thing I’m sure of is that it won’t happen because America wants it to happen. Au contraire.
And the same sectarian history informs Vice‘s inside look at the IS. What I took from it was the totalizing coherence of the Caliphate’s vision. While the secular dictatorships of Saddam and Assad lie in smoldering ruins, and “democracy” in Iraq is empowering the infidel Shiites, of course a radically idealized theocratic invocation of the ancient Caliphate would have huge appeal (at least for the moment). It has erased the Sykes-Picot borders; it favors the most austere and ascetic form of Sunni Islam, and adds to these elements a kind of preternatural savagery toward its enemies or even its own population. That’s a very potent formula when fused with the Iraqi and Syrian Sunni populations seeking to defend themselves against Shiite regimes. So that’s what we have here – a well-trained, lethal, fanatical Sunni-state in embryonic form. And what Vice explains is how that is the real difference. Al Qaeda never ran a state or sought to. But IS is about a new political entity, attracting every frustrated, alienated young Muslim male left behind by the Arab Spring and yearning for meaning and direction.
How solid is this new “state”? Could they, for example, over-run Kurdistan or take Baghdad?
It seems unlikely right now. Their territory is currently very Sunni. And although the Potemkin Iraqi Army – did any of them ever expect really to fight? – is a slough of corruption and incompetence, there are plenty of nasty Shiite militias and dogged pesh merga who would put up one hell of a fight on their own territory. And it’s worth recalling how these extremist movements have crested and crashed in the past as their savagery and religious purism have alienated the very people they need to control. They could as easily implode at some point as they could explode.
Running an actual state – as opposed to territory being milked to finance and support a sectarian war – has not historically been in the Jihadist skill-set. It requires all sorts of compromises and pragmatism and good government that fanatics tend not to be interested in. All of which leads one to see the prudence of Obama’s very limited pseudo-war. I’d have preferred no intervention at all – because that alone would force the regional powers to reckon with the IS in a way that might actually lead to a resolution. But given that we have intervened, it makes sense for it to be about policing the borders of the IS – and, say, acting to protect Baghdad’s airport – rather than anything more drastic. Fred Kaplan is right to be tart:
Figures released by U.S. Central Command show that the airstrikes over Syria and Iraq, combined, rarely exceed 25 per day. That’s not nothing, but it’s close. A joke recently circulating among Kurds was that they couldn’t tell whether the Americans were not fighting while pretending to fight—or fighting while pretending not to fight.
We would have been better leaving it alone – if only to prevent the huge propaganda and recruiting tool that US intervention has created. (You want Iraq’s and Syria’s Sunnis to resist the fanatics? Don’t make them choose between the IS and the US.) But given Obama’s moment of weakness/panic this summer, what we’ve got is arguably the least worst of most of the alternatives. If the GOP wants to defeat the IS with combat forces, let them make that argument. If they want us to ally with Assad or Iran, ditto. Until then, we are stuck again in a quagmire in which, as yet, only our tippy-toes have gotten swamped. For which small mercies we should remain temporarily thankful.