Back on May 13 in this space I complained that nothing really new ever happens in the Middle East, just variations on themes as old as Methusalah. Invoking George Shultz, Ecclesiastes and ultimately George Orwell, I had to force myself into word-spill mode. Well, no more complaints: Something big, albeit not entirely new and hardly unpredictable, has now happened—and it’s a real stunner, a game-changer, a pulse-quickener, a stomach-turner… pick your favorite term, or select all of the above if that’s your wont. And what is that something? Something that has been straining to happen now for several years: Iraq is no more.
I don’t mean the country is gone. All those rocks and the sand and the dirt and the two rivers and the oil and such are still there, as they’ve been since the time of Nebuchadnezzar. And I don’t mean the nation is gone, because anyway there never was much of any such thing as an Iraqi nation, supposing for a moment that we want to use the term “nation” precisely. I mean the Iraqi state in its historic territorial configuration is gone—solid gone, and it ain’t coming back.
When I say “hardly unpredictable”, by the way, I mean it. Back on January 21 in this space, I wrote as follows:
Al-Qaeda, in the form of ISIS, is back, and it’s still in control of Ramadi and Falluja. Efforts directed from Baghdad to get tribal leaders to persuade ISIS to leave the cities have not succeeded, and they may even have resulted in a new Sunni pact directed against Maliki in Baghdad. As of this writing, too, al-Qaeda has forced Baghdad into lockdown mode: The demons are getting closer. And everyone in Iraq still privately believes that one Sunni desert tribesman is worth a hundred cowardly Shi’a villagers in a fight. That’s the lore, that’s the perception, and hence to some extent that’s the reality.
Could a Sunni vanguard force, whether Islamist or not, just ride roughshod over a much larger on-paper but disintegrating Shi’a army all the way to Baghdad? Damn right it could. Anyone who doubts that, after all these years, still doesn’t know the first thing about Iraq.
Yes, folks, you heard it first here… if you read my stuff, that is.
Now, I don’t actually think that ISIS wants to march on sand seize Baghdad. I think they want to scare the Shi’a regime ensconced there into one massive laundry problem, and I think they want to get large numbers of clueless Shi’a men onto their turf, where they have metis, and slaughter them as an unmistakable signal to keep Baghdad’s writ far, far away from the Sunni tribal homelands. I think they do not really want to march on Baghdad because the coalition or pact, as noted in the quote above, of which they are still a part would likely fracture on that account. And I think they would rather look toward Syria to consolidate that territory, too, creating their new emirate—of which more in a moment. The gist is a more or less lasting division of the Arab parts of the country into a Shi’a south and a Sunni northwest; once this military pulse has subsided, the Shi’a will not be able to retake the Sunni heartland, and the Sunnis will not be able to take and hold the Shi’a areas.
So we heard talk of a “stall” in today’s news. There is no stall. There is at most a downshifting of gears in order to consolidate control over Tikrit, Tal Afar, and other new prizes, and in order to take the measure of the soon-to-be Shi’a walking corpses headed foolishly in their direction. So far it’s been really easy and, if you are a crazed, bloodthirsty fanatic, quite exhilarating. Just think: You get to drive down the road with submachine-guns firing out the windows, running cars trying to flee Mosul off the road. Then you stop, go over to the spun-out vehicle, and put ten bullets in the faces of all the passengers. What fun. And then you get to do it again, and again. But now there are just too many people to shoot, and some of them are shooting back. Not half as much fun.
What we are seeing, then, is not an attempt by ISIS and allies to take control of Iraq. What we are seeing, in part at least, is a classical example of premodern state, or empire, building. Many years ago, in 1956 to be precise, a cultural anthropologist named Anthony Wallace wrote an essay on what he called revitalization movements. He was mainly interested in the Ghost Dances of American Indians (of which also more in a moment), but what he described as cultures trying to boost themselves into a more effectively organized and satisfied orbit fits perfectly a host of Muslim movements in history, too. The first of these and the best fit for the classic description of a revitalization movement was Mohammed’s uniting of the tribes of Arabia under a new banner of faith in the 7th century. The Almohad maniacs, mainly Berbers, who invaded and completely trashed Almoravid Spain in the 12th century was another, and nothing reminds me as much of ISIS today as the Almohads then. The Wahhabi movement that sired the contemporary Saudi polity in the 18th century was another. So was the Taliban, version 1.0 at least. So was the mainly Tuareg movement that grabbed Timbuktu last year. And now we have ISIS.
But that’s only likely a part of what’s going on, as I just said. The other part we are witnessing is an equally classical form of chiliastic religious violence. Chiliastic premillenarian fanaticism can be inward and quietist, or it can be outward directed and both mass-homicidal and suicidal. It is always mystical and anchored in religious symbols against enemies believed to be attacking the very corporate identity of the pressed group. Like al-Qaeda on 9/11. Like the Ghost Dances. Like Tancred’s Crusaders when they sacked Jerusalem in 1099 and bathed the streets in blood. Like the Jewish zealots fighting the Romans before and at Masada. Like the Peasants’ Revolt of 16th century Germany. Somewhat like the Taiping Rebellion. The Mau-Maus in Kenya, too. One could continue with examples, but I’d be deliriously happy if just a dozen or so members of the entire U.S. political class understood or even just knew something about any of these historical cases.
So the real question about ISIS is this: As it develops, to what extend will it act like a movement of this world, and to what extent will it act like an example of collective radical religious madness bound to end in spectacular self-immolation? Well, there’s an argument for both possibilities and, just as the Almohads were doubtlessly fanatical nutjobs but still managed to consolidate a polity, they’re not mutually exclusive.
A movement has to be at least part of this world to pull off as sophisticated an operation as the ISIS Mosul caper. Cranes and earthmovers operated as if commanded by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers professionals. We saw flying columns comprised of Toyota land cruisers, rather like in the successful Chadian war against Libya in the 1980s. It sure beats the camels and horses of the 7th century. Beats Shi’a too, evidently. But the craziness and delusion quotient is on display, as well. Why else would an ISIS spokesman assume and even yearn for U.S. intervention? They have to know that they will be bounteously dead if U.S. warplanes attack their concentrations in the stark lack of cover that is northern Iraq. But martyrdom may be what many of these holy warriors seek.
So again, what is happening is not entirely new anymore than it was unpredictable. You would therefore have to assume that the U.S. intelligence community as a collections-and-analysis community, which after all knows lots more about Iraq today than it did a dozen years ago (and with NSA listening in), had signals-and-indices level warnings of all this. So go ahead, you just pucker right up and assume it; see where that gets you. (I’d talk more about this aspect of the story but it’s just too depressing.)
Anyway, then, just how dangerous is ISIS—dangerous to us and to our regional associates? And what should the Obama Administration do about it?
Well, if ISIS is a self-immolating chiliastic expression, it’s dangerous mainly to its own members and to anyone else who gets too close as it dances about, madly spinning its own death trail. But to the extent that it’s an empire-building force, it’s pretty dangerous. We don’t really know which way it will spin now that it is in totally aroused mode, and we can’t guess by reference to Ayman al-Zawahiri, because ISIS does not take orders even from itself half of the time, let alone from al-Qaeda central.
Even before Sunni fanatics seized Ramadi and Fallujah this past December, 2013 was already a very good year for al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliates in general (as John McLaughlin was at pains to point out in a recent TAI essay). The Obama Administration’s lame theatrics in trying to get Americans to believe that because it “got” Osama bin-Laden the threat of apocalyptical terrorism had been all but eliminated don’t wash, especially now that 2014 looks to be an even bigger and better year for the bad guys. These guys, just by the way, now have lots of weapons and ammunition, most of it made in the US of A, which Iraqi soldiers dropped as they fled; and they now have lots of money thanks to knocking over some pretty good-sized banks in Mosul. Some ISIS cadres have been holding down day-jobs and some of them and their tribal allies have extensive military training from the old Saddam Hussein-era national army. They may be fanatics, but they are skilled fanatics, many of them. The worst kind.
So it sort of depends on what ISIS leaders do, especially the estimable Abu-Abdallah bin-Rashid al-Baghdadi and his associates. If he and they act nuts, they’ll likely trash their penumbra of allies and go down in flames. If they keep it together as a movement and as an army on the move, and if they’re able to consolidate the territory they currently hold with the assent of the Baquera, Al-Rwala and other tribal and clan authorities in those areas, they could become vastly more dangerous to the region than the Taliban, similarly arrayed, ever were in Afghanistan. If they keep it together, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and even Egypt could become regional targets.
I don’t think anyone yet knows how this will go. These judgments float in a haze of genuine contingency; decisions now being made and not yet made will probably make the difference. So what do we do?
Under the circumstances, even at this early point in what will surely take weeks and months to play out, it’s tempting to want to use fixed-wing U.S. aircraft to kill a lot of jihadis arrayed, as they are now, in more or less economic concentrations. It’s tempting to want to use the opportunity to redeem the Obama Administration’s reputation for pusillanimity, because it’s harmful, to be sure. But absent any discrete political purpose beyond that (like ousting Maliki and reforming a government with Iyad Allawi at its head….probably beyond our abilities now, and maybe too late anyway) that is a pretty lonely reason to put American soldiers and airmen even close to harm’s way.
Some Republicans are making this case just to make it seem by intimation that the Obama Administration is mainly responsible for the current mess. But partisan shenanigans can’t hide the fact that the George W. Bush Administration is more responsible for it than the current Administration. This is despite the latter’s passivity in Syria, where ISIS grew to strength, and despite it’s poor judgment in leaving Iraq without trying hard enough to land a SOFA agreement that would have preserved some U.S. influence and, with it, a deterrent effect against the kind of local revisionism going on now.
As many have already noted, if the U.S. government uses force against ISIS on behalf of the Maliki government in Iraq, it will in effect be allying itself with Iran—not such a hot idea under current circumstances, when most of our Sunni associates already think we’re screwing them. It will make the nuclear negotiations with Iran harder, not easier. And we don’t want to tempt forms of self-help like the Saudi government inviting Pakistani nukes, complete with crews, onto Saudi soil. It has also not gone without mention that it looks weird to be opposing a Sunni coalition force in Iraq while we’re (sort of) supporting what is for all practical purposes the very same force in Syria. “Weird” is maybe not strong enough a word to describe such full-frontal policy incoherence.
We should therefore not attack ISIS formations, either stationary or in motion—at least not yet. We should, on the other hand, rapidly and boldly move to support Jordan, which is dealing with a backbreaking refugee crisis. We should reaffirm our commitments to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait; we should let the nasty Bahraini and mischievous Qatari regimes guess our attitudes toward them.
Above all, we should further tighten relations with the Kurds in what used to be northern Iraq but is now an independent state in everything but name. We probably should try to get on the same sheet of music with them, offering support but counseling prudence—in other words, collecting some leverage so we can influence the behavior of Barzani et al. in future. Personally, I’m fine with the Kurds in Kirkuk, their traditional capital city, so long as they occupy and eventually stabilize the city with genuine justice for all of the city’s communities.
By the same token, we should begin private and earnest, if inevitably complex and difficult, talks with the Turks to discuss what conditions, if any, could lead to a mutual and simultaneous recognition of Kurdish independence from Washington and Ankara. (It’s amazing and dismaying that the Obama Administration has rushed first to talk with the Iranian leadership while keeping the Turks publicly at arms length.) That’s the best longer-term move for the United States to make, but because it requires genuine strategic foresight, as opposed to knee-jerk, risk-averse reaction, we can pretty much rule it out as a possibility for the duration of this Administration.
Not long after General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem in December 1917, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and its Middle Eastern provinces fell into various modes of Allied military occupation. The 1916 Sykes-Picot arrangements did not suffice to deconflict matters once they came to a head, and so it took several years for the allied powers to sort out arrangements. In what was understood to be the British zone—although Mosul nearly ended up as part of the French Mandate for Syria because of oil company concessions—problems arose with regard to what to do with the vast arid tract of land between the verdant banks of the Euphrates westward to the Jordan River. The British garrisoned Mesopotamia to the east and Palestine to the west, but what about all that came between?
As those familiar with the British archives from this period know, the British Government referred to this conundrum as “the Arabian Chapter” problem. Anyone who does not recognize this phrase is unfamiliar with the real historical record and thus certainly relies for their knowledge of Iraqi, (Trans)Jordanian and Palestinian history exclusively on secondary sources, which are invariably pitted with multiple factual errors about what actually transpired on the way to rendering this area into post-Ottoman mandates and polities. Enter Percy Cox and Gertrude Bell, the two British characters (and they really were characters) who drew the lines of Iraq as a territorial state, and by so doing also drew the eastern border of Transjordan and the western border of Iran (where Cox served as British Minister from 1918 to 1920) along the Shatt al-Arav.
Alas, Cox used a rather thick pencil to draw the borders, the leaden width of which precisely defined the territorial dispute between Iran and Iraq that played a role ultimately in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, which cost more than a million dead. You think this is funny? It is rather funny in a way, yes, as gallows humor goes in colonial history. But the fun’s over now, along with Iraq. What Cox drew back in 1920, as a landing pad (so to speak) for a certain Hashemite prince from the Hejaz, is for all practical purposes no more. Wow, what a way to go.