The West’s response to Iraq’s latest crisis strongly vindicates Hegel’s suggestion that ‘the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’ According to White House spokesman Josh Earnest, America is at war with the Islamic State (IS) – the jihadist group that now controls a swathe of territory across Iraq and Syria roughly equal to the size of Britain. Although of course Congress is supposed to be the only authority capable of declaring war, President Obama appears to see this as a constitutional nicety. Legally, from the White House’s point of view, the 2001 Congressional resolution authorising military force against Al-Qaeda provides a sufficient legal basis for airstrikes against IS in Iraq and Syria. Put simply, the President of the United States has claimed the right to wage perpetual war in the Middle East, wherever and whenever he sees fit.
The question of how to deal with IS has preoccupied the Western media and our political representatives. Intensified airstrikes? Greater funding for Syria’s ‘moderate opposition?’ An ‘unavoidable’ partnership with former archenemy Bashar al-Assad? The Wall Street Journal has even advocated a re-invasion of Iraq, ‘using a combination of air power and paratroops to defeat or at least contain ISIS.’ To use the military parlance, there are clearly many ‘options on the table.’
Largely absent from these discussions is a thorough analysis of how a band of a few thousand fundamentalist militants has risen to become the obsession of our policymakers and journalists. Despite the false claims of Britain and the United States at the time, al-Qaeda and its affiliates did not exist in Iraq before March 2003, but the illegal Anglo-American invasion of the country provided a perfect opportunity for their emergence. Political scientist Toby Dodge aptly describes the early stages of the occupation as ‘staticide’. The Iraqi state structure was literally destroyed: more than 30,000 members of the Ba’ath Party were purged from their official posts without any legal process to determine guilty from innocent. The Iraqi police force and army were demobilised – with the capital predictably looted and ransacked as a result – while seventeen government ministries (except the Oil Ministry) were immediately eviscerated (the entire scale of this destruction is documented in detail in this report from the Global Policy Forum).
In response to the increasing lawlessness of the occupation and the swelling Iraqi resistance to it, American and British generals were forced to find new ways of maintaining their authority over the Iraqi people. ‘The Salvador Option’ was advanced by US policymakers, a reference to counterinsurgency tactics in El Salvador in the 1980s based on the recruitment and funding of ruthless local militias – death squads – to combat anti-government fighters. Colonel James Steele, who had led the US Military Advisory Group in El Salvador, was sent to work with Iraq’s Interior Ministry to form and supervise ‘Special Police Commandos’, who were subsequently implicated in torture and unlawful killings (this documentary is an excellent resource on the role of Steele). These young, predominantly Shi’a men were not the only armed groups operating on the side of the occupation. Later, Sunni ‘Awakening Council’ tribal militias were also placed on the American payroll in order to combat al-Qaeda’s advances through the country.
So we not only created a state of complete anarchy in Iraq, but also directly fuelled sectarian division. In this sense, Tony Blair achieved an act of historical revisionism when he recently implored us to ‘liberate ourselves from the notion that “we” have caused this.’ We have absolutely caused this. Compounded by the brutal incompetence of the Maliki government and the acceleration of Syria’s conflict for which the West and its allies also bear partial, if not sole, responsibility. The occupation and its consequences provided fertile ground for the spread, first of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and then became what we face today: IS. As the International Crisis Group has written, IS’ extraordinary surge was enabled by the fact that it ‘pushed against a house of cards’. The Sunni ‘Awakening Councils’, still awaiting payment for their services, became a useful IS ally, while the endemic weakness of the Iraqi state facilitated not only the conquering of territory, but also the seizing of vast troves of US-made military equipment. There are numerous images like this one, where an IS fighter is brandishing a US-made M-16 rifle.
IS can now largely fund itself and the Iraqi army has totally disintegrated. Our sophisticated weapons and our vast sums of money have exacerbated the massive crisis precipitated by our illegal invasion and savage occupation. So what can we do now? Firstly, we can acknowledge that more money and more weapons is not the answer. Secondly, as a longer term objective, we can cease arming the Gulf dictatorships that our own governments see as a primary source of funding and ideological support for groups like IS.
But ultimately, this might force us to face up to a deeper and more fundamental reality. We can no longer control or dictate the politics of the Middle East. All our interventions lead to more conflict and then, inevitably, more interventions. The media may refer to ‘combat operations’, ‘limited air strikes’ or ‘targeted killings’, but the simple truth is that we are mired in a cycle of continuous war – and we have to break out of it.