Akbar Shahid Ahmed
WASHINGTON — One Middle East catastrophe apparently wasn’t enough for some supporters of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. So they’ve continued to try to shape policy relating to the region, offering punditry in the wake of each fresh crisis.
It wasn’t a surprise, then, that they seized on last week’s tragic attacks in Paris to argue that the Islamic State group could only be eliminated by their preferred mode of U.S. intervention: large-scale troop deployment.
“If it takes 50,000 troops going in there and cleaning out Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, do it,” Bill Kristol said on ABC two days after the attack.
We’ve heard this before. Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, told the Senate in 2002 that he endorsed U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein — despite the absence of credible links between Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks that launched the Bush administration’s War on Terror.
Other cheerleaders for the war said the absence of such proof didn’t matter because the strike would be an essential pre-emptive step. “One of the things the American people learned on September 11 is that there are implacable enemies seeking to destroy us. Everybody knows that. And if those enemies are not identified and disarmed and/or destroyed, ‘they will come for us,’ to quote the president of the United States,” former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) said during the same hearing at which Kristol testified.
These advocates believed the end result of a foray into Iraq would be, in Kristol’s own words, “a friendly, free and oil-producing Iraq.” The pesky skeptics warning about the risks of launching two concurrent U.S. invasions in the Middle East — one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan — were ignoring the potential rewards, Kristol argued.
What really happened? The Bush administration invaded Iraq and made policy calls that are central to how the Islamic State group became the force the world is so worried about today. (Though there are, of course, many other reasons for the group’s rise.)
Just in case anyone needs a reminder of why we should treat recommendations from folks like Kristol with caution, here’s a rundown of the many ways the Iraq War helped a small extremist group formed in Jordan in 1999 become the focus of the world’s fears today.
Disenfranchised Iraqis became well-armed recruits for the extremists.
The Bush administration decided, less than a month after it toppled the Saddam Hussein regime, that it would disband Hussein’s army. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who had previously been among the most privileged in their desperate country were suddenly unemployed, though they retained all the ingenuity and discipline they had gained working for the dictator.
Veteran New Yorker correspondent Dexter Filkins called the move “probably the single most catastrophic decision of the American venture in Iraq.” Multiple Iraqi soldiers were willing to work with the Americans, and some U.S. military commanders wanted to keep the institution alive, but those messages went ignored, Filkins wrote earlier this year.
After the Bush decision, many of these disenfranchised soldiers — who were doubly alienated because they were largely Sunni, like Hussein, in a country now being run by the other major sect of Islam, the Shiites — joined the insurgency against the U.S. presence. Deep investigations into ISIS’s workings show that the group has benefited from having well-trained Sunni army lieutenants from the Saddam era in its leadership.
Mismanaged Iraqi prisons ended up fostering radicals.
Camp Bucca, a U.S.-run facility that held tens of thousands of Iraqi prisoners during its tenure, was once home to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (captured by American forces in 2005) and many of the extremists who are now his top aides.
Military veteran Andrew Thompson and University of Texas at Austin professor Jeremy Suri referred to the prison and other detention centers as “virtual terrorist universities” in The New York Times last October, saying they gave radicals captive audiences and hubs they could use to grow. Those extremists were able to exert influence over former members of Hussein’s Baath Party and regular small-time criminals, pressuring them to join the insurgency and accept their twisted version of Islam if they wanted to avoid retribution.
Though the U.S. military instituted programs to counter radicalization, it wasn’t clear whether those efforts had any impact. After Bush transferred thousands of potentially enraged detainees to Iraqi custody under a 2008 agreement, hundreds of them were released — fresh with bomb-making expertise and other dangerous skills.
Iraq became a lightning rod for regional players.
Bush’s adventure had a ripple effect throughout the Middle East that empowered violent radicals. Just a year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, extremist groups were already gaining recruits thanks to the propaganda value of an unpopular, visibly ineffective occupation.
“Al-Qaeda has added Iraq to its list of grievances. With Osama Bin Laden’s public encouragement, up to 1,000 foreign jihadists may have infiltrated Iraq,” the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported in October 2004.
U.S. officials testified before Congress about the trend the following year. At the same time, more established anti-American forces in the Middle East — notably, the regimes in Syria and Iran — saw the massive U.S. presence in Iraq as a juicy target and began ramping up their support to extremists who would later attack U.S. soldiers, undermine stability in Iraq and, you guessed it, help ISIS grow.
Dictatorial Syrian President Bashar Assad allowed thousands of extremists to move through Syria to Iraq (even as he aided the CIA’s torture program), and Iran’s top intelligence agency supported al Qaeda in Iraq as recently as 2012, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. The group eventually became the Islamic State group’s predecessor.
Iraq was left with a divided, uneven political system.
The Bush administration decided that power in Iraq should be split three ways: between Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds. That simplistic approach — still encouraged in some corners in Washington — ignored other important dynamics of class or religion. (Most Kurds, for instance, are Muslims with some sectarian identity, and many secular Iraqis like prominent politician and one-time presidential candidate Ayad Allawi do not see their loyalties as sectarian — Allawi has worked closely with Sunnis.)
Any distribution of power on this basis should have accounted for factors like Sunnis’ worries about disenfranchisement, given their previous dominance under Saddam, and many Shiite politicians’ links to Iran, which has little interest in keeping Iraq united or seeing power devolved to the Sunnis. That failure to guarantee Sunni Arab buy-in for the central Iraqi government helped the anti-American insurgency — and its most worrying component, al Qaeda in Iraq.
Though U.S. engagement with Sunni tribes during the 2007 surge and “Sunni Awakening” helped undercut those radicals, Sunnis’ relationships with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad remained precarious. The Islamic State group, then known as the Islamic State in Iraq, exploited those worries to target top Sunnis loyal to the Baghdad government as it become clear that the Americans would be leaving and might take fragile sectarian unity away with them.
There are scores of other reasons for ISIS’s growth. President Barack Obama’s approach to Iraq did not help.
The Republican complaint about ISIS being a product of Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 is largely baseless, given that U.S. troops could not have remained in the country without an agreement that the Iraqi government was not willing to sign.
But the Obama administration did support controversial Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki for years after it became clear that he was not serious about working with Sunnis in Iraq, and did not attempt to increase aid to Iraq or take steps that might give Washington leverage over him.
The White House didn’t pressure the prime minister to step down until after Maliki’s shocking treatment of Sunnis — including the persecution of top Sunni politicians — led Sunni Iraqis to welcome ISIS with open arms in the summer of 2014. Though his successor, Haider al Abadi, has attempted reform, his hands seem tied by the Iranian influence that Maliki allowed to grow for years under Obama’s nose.
Syria’s Assad is another factor. He violently reacted to a largely peaceful Sunni opposition movement in 2011, sparking a civil war that gave ISIS a new power vacuum to move into. In what many see as an attempt to let the radical group look like the only alternative to his rule, Assad has helped ISIS by releasing extremists from his jails and largely ignoring its advances through his country. An Associated Press report earlier this week revealed that Assad continues to enable the extremists: last month, his regime released a militant chemical weapons expert who may end up helping ISIS.
Some of the blame also goes to Turkey, for border policies ISIS has exploited; to private donors in U.S.-friendly Gulf states; and to Arab rulers who continue to suppress their populations with U.S. backing and guarantee future radicalization.
Still, the consequences of the Iraq War are important for any talk of how to defeat ISIS. And they make it clear that that war’s proponents are not exactly the best experts to consult in these conversations.
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