4,000 troops dead. 25,000 wounded. $3 trillion dollars spent.
This is the cost that the United States paid for the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln when President George W. Bush told the American people that the war in Iraq had been won. Though the pomp and circumstance may have been a bit premature (about 8 years premature) by the time of the U.S. military’s pullout in 2011 there was a relative level of security, stability, and even credible commitment by the civilian government in Iraq (at least relative to the psycho-manic terrors of Saddam).
Now, just four years after the U.S. pull out, all of that progress that the U.S. has worked the past 10 years for has gone up in flames like one big burning effigy of Barack Obama in Tehran.
So who’s causing all the trouble? All fingers point to a very big problem called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Though this is the group’s most publicized name, the organization happens to have more names than Puff Daddy. Having started out as The Islamic State of Iraq back when it was buddy-buddy with Al-Qaeda during the Iraqi insurgency, the group is now mutually known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shab (ISIS). Basically, the organization is a relatively new up and comer of some very bad dudes who are hell bent on creating a Sunni state in Iraq and Syria, and despite having made world news in only the past few months ISIS is not an insignificant threat. Since February, these Qur’an thumping extremists have made serious advances in Iraq. In a stunning campaign on June 12th, ISIS fighters captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. In addition, the organization has captured and cemented control over Iraq’s Anbar, Nineveh, and Salahuddin provinces, and taken important cities like Tikrit (where Saddam hailed from) and Fallujah. Currently, the group stands to continue its gains and potentially mount an assault on the Iraqi capital itself– Baghdad.
In the wake of these advances the Iraqi Army, numbered at some 250,000 troops and trained by yours truly — the mighty U. S. of A. — have melted away in the face of the fighting. No better example demonstrates this than the case of ISISs’ blitzkrieg capture of Mosul in which some 30,000 Iraqi troops threw off their uniforms and fled from a mere 800 ISIS fighters. This showcases two crucial facts about the conflict: first, that the Iraqi Army, despite enjoying generous numerical superiority, has a severe morale problem and is unwilling to defend Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s embattled Shi’ite administration, and second, that ISIS has a strong reputation in the conflict, one that has been strengthened by its legacy of brutality and spread by its sophisticated propaganda machine. Prior to the attack images and videos of ISIS fighters executing Iraqi soldiers and Shi’ites were broadcast, hastening the temptation for Iraqi soldiers to flee the scene. Some days after Mosul’s capture the organization claimed on twitter and Islamic forums that ISIS had executed some 1700 people, though these claims could not be verified. If that was not bad enough get this: back in February Al-Qaeda’s boss, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, issued a communique disavowing the actions of ISIS and severing its associations to the organization. The main thought that everyone has been thinking? “ISIS is too extreme for Al-Qaeda.”
Until the past few years ISIS has not exactly enjoyed this kind of power and success. Essentially, the organization, then known informally to our armchair Generals as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” served as a franchise jihadi group to every Islamists number one guy: Osama bin-Laden. Taking up arms in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Sunni Muslim organization operated to combat US troops as well as to fuel sectarian violence between the country’s large Sunni minority and the majority Shi’ite. Though largely defeated following the US troop surge in 2006 the organization pulled back, mustering weapons, equipment, and funds, before hitting the reset button after the US pullout. Given this history it would seem that ISIS is not a “new” organization as much as it is an old one with a new name — a rebranding effort in an attempt to distance itself from its tactical failures during the Iraqi insurgency.
ISIS’s big break came with the Syrian Civil War, which ironically coincided with the the US pullout in Iraq, providing a fertile breeding ground for the organization’s extremist activities. With the embattled Al-Assad government doing all it could to protect Damascus and other essential cities in Syria’s western region, the corresponding power vacuum in the east allowed for ISIS to take control, train its troops, and organize. Doing so not only gave the militants valuable fighting experience, it provided the group with essential “rear areas” for it to operate out of and pull back to. As Jason Lyall of Yale University describes it, “One of the best predictors of insurgent success that we have to date is the presence of a rear area.” In this case it would seem that President Obama’s mishandling of the situation in Syria after his cataclysmic “red line” speech back in April of 2011 had broader repercussions than most people would have expected.
Perhaps one of the most important factors in this conflict is the overhanging sectarian divisions that continues to fuel the violence. ISIS is solely a Sunni militant organization. It is not your casual terrorist cell, but rather a fully suited militia of creating a Caliphate stretching from Palestine, through Syria, and into Iraq. For this reason, ISIS has targeted the Shiite governments of Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad and Iraq’s Al-Maliki. However, Prime Minister Al-Maliki has done just as much to strengthen sectarian violence as ISIS has, most memorably by using his police force to imprison large numbers of Sunni protesters in the last Iraqi election. This distrust is exactly why Sunni and Kurdish factions in the Iraqi Parliament voted against declaring a state of emergency, which would have granted Al-Maliki extraordinary powers following the capture of Mosul. Furthermore, this deep sectarian rift has crippled cohesive action amongst the mixed Sunni, Shi’ite army, especially amongst the former who do not want to defend a government that oppresses them.
In fact the only clear winner in this mess seems to be the Kurds who live in the north and north-east of the country who have operated an autonomous government there since 1991. With the recent collapse of Iraqi administration in the north, however, the Kurdish state has not only been able to exercise everything short of de jure independence, but has expanded into formerly disputed territory. On June 13th, the Kurds moved into the city of Kirkuk, regarded by them as their cultural and political capital. As upset as the Iraqi state may be about it there is little that they can do about it. If anything it would appear that the Kurdish Autonomous Region is the only functional state in the entire country, this being possible in thanks to the Kurdish state’s crack security force — the Peshmerga. Having fought Saddam’s Iraqi government throughout the 1980s and 90s as well as fighting alongside American troops during the US invasion, the Peshmerga are extremely well trained, well equipped, and experienced. They are estimated to number between 80,000 to 240,000 strong, far outnumbering ISIS’s estimated strength of 7,000.
So what does this mean for us? Well if you have not already forgotten the introduction it means that all of the U.S.’s past efforts in Iraq have been forgotten and done away with the drop of a hat. Secondly, and most tersely, it means that our job in country may not be finished. In a speech given by President Obama on June 13th, the White House concluded that options for airstrikes, drone strikes, and cruise missile strikes would be left open if things deteriorated further. Do not expect any US boots on the ground though. The administration has made a firm commitment to not getting caught up in the conflict again (as if one time was not enough). Thirdly, and most surprisingly, expect to see a greater degree of cooperation (QUIET cooperation) between the US and Iran. With Syria’s Shiite government already in danger of being overthrown, Iran will not take the chance of allowing Sunni extremists to topple its allied government in Baghdad either. For this reason, Iran has sent in 500 agents from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards elite special forces group — the Quds force. Led by the Quds commander, General Qassem Suleimani, the Iranians have increasingly been running the show against ISIS forces for the past few weeks. With a mutual enemy to work against the US and Iran will draw closer together. The enemy of my enemy…?
In terms of the end game expect to see current affairs in Iraq as the new status quo for the few coming months. ISIS has had some great success and still enjoys some momentum for now. But given troop estimates and the fact that Al-Maliki has maintained his elite divisions in and around Baghdad there stands little chance for ISIS to make an assault on Baghdad without crippling losses. With such large Shi’ite populations living in neighborhoods like the infamous Sadr City and arming quickly it would be a grave tactical error to capture the capital now. Southern Iraq is also staunchly Shiite and is not remotely occupiable, especially with Iranian assistance. At bare minimum the Shiite sectarian state in the south will continue to function, though under the influence of Iran. Meanwhile, with new oil revenues from Kirkuk and a strong defense force to keep ISIS out, Iraqi Kurdistan will actually prosper in the wake of this conflict and move closer than its ever been to full independence. As for ISIS, with no organized effort to launch a counterattack into ISIS controlled areas (areas that are majority Sunni) and zero willingness to get involved in a Middle-Eastern calamity by the US, ISIS will unfortunately remain the game maker in north-western Iraq, but stands, in my opinion, little chance of achieving further gains.
As much as Iraq may have been this generation’s Vietnam, Baghdad 2014 will not be our Saigon.