Understanding the Islamic State

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Bellicose Hawks and savvy political commentators are appearing across the media claiming to have pan-optical vision for the present morass in Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Iraq or now called, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is patrolling the north and east of Iraq and are looking more akin to a uniformed army than a terrorist group. In the past months, ISIS took over Fallujah, and in the recent days, ISIS has taken over Mosul and Tal Afar. This hell on earth is ripping Iraq apart, and the systematic execution of the Iraqi army is making the security crisis even worse.

The headlines indicate the pro interventionist political class is haranguing the drumbeats for US intervention.  This time, the solution being proposed is to BOMB something or someone.  This week, many of the architects of the Iraq war are insisting US airstrikes will assist in stabilising Iraq.  Like a child throwing a temper tantrum, Paul Bremmer, John McCain, the neo-cons, and pro-war advocates argue that bombing will bring stability.

This is an apparent and selective memory from 2003 that has proven to be an episodic reoccurring theme.  In large part, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 set off Sunni/Shiite sectarian divides and systematically broke Iraq. Starting with Ambassador Bremmer’s infamous deBaathification, the origin of the Sunni insurgency was born.  In addition, the sectarian tensions between Iraq and Iran was proliferated, and now the region suffers from the perils of the US intervention.


The remnants of the UN Headquarters after a bomb blast, credited to Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad – a predecessor to Al-Qaeda in Iraq/ISIS.  Image credit: MSGT James M. Bowman/USAF

The perils of US intervention really peaked during the US occupation in 2006, the dawn of the Iraq Civil war appeared as the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra was bombed by al-Qaeda. Sectarian divisions and violence peaked.  David Kilcullen accounted the violence was so bad, “There was a 9/11 happening every week in Iraq.  However, a rewriting of the script occurred with General Petreaus taking command and surging troops. With the surge, American soldiers worked with Iraq nationals and pushed Al- Qaeda out.  This provided some breathing room for America’s long-term hope for stability as John Nagl argued in 2006, “the best chance of success in Iraq is that the US can train the Iraq Army, and pass over leadership to them”.

In 2011, the US troops left the Iraqi army that seemed capable enough and the Iraq government showed some signs of promise.  However, by 2011, the regional destabilisation from the Iraq war pushed itself into Syria and in 2014, Syria’s problem came back to Iraq.  As a result, the nightmares of 2006 are yet upon Iraqi’s again.  The government is falling apart, the army is being beaten, and terrorists are gaining the upper hand.

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In 2006, Counterinsurgency (COIN) experts talked about the incredible reforms in government, and argued for the success of the army.  So how did the expert’s opinion come up short in 2014? Why did the plan not work? What does it mean for the future?


US troops fighting alongside Sunni tribesmen in 2008, just outside of Bagdad in Arab Jibor. Image credit: Sgt. Luis Delgadillo/US Army

The truth is US Counterinsurgency efforts in 2006 were tenuous.  The reason being, training an army is a difficult, and takes years not days or months. While the US officials claimed Iraq army was “more than capable”, the cadre needed to continue to advance the security situation was lacking.  Moreover, the Iraq army is not the only metric needed.  Much of the overly militarised hopes of the COIN enthusiasts rested their assumptions on a military centric approach.  What was lacking as a coherent policy for regional stability and lasting peace.

In training the Iraq army, the Maliki government was left to alienate and discriminate against Iraqi’s minority groups, and Sunni population.  This has continued to occur since the US has left Iraq. According to top Iraq experts, Maliki’s actions have forced Sunni’s to temporarily side with extremists because the Sunni’s continue to fear from Shiite reprisals.  As a result, ISIS has moved across the country with ease, gaining more recruits through the Iraq prison system, and gaining the majority of its funds by looting banks. ISIS Army of 15-20,000 hardened fighters with a surplus of 600 million dollars, and up to 100,000 active sympathisers. ISIS is formidable, yet for the time being they posses an inability take over an entire state.

There are two decisions the President has yet to make. The first is decision is whether the President and the Joint Chiefs can agree upon the goals the US has in the region.  Without a proper political and military objective, no matter how altruistic many intend, the problems beseeching Iraq may be more of a domestic Iraq concern, which is correlated to the ghosts of our occupation.  The NSC and the President must make definitive conclusions on what kind of threats exist to the US. The second major choice the President has is whether the neo-cons and war proliferators will force the political tone. Regarding national security matters, the President has been more hawkish than many would like, yet he has demonstrated restraint in Syria.  So there is hope, only time will tell.  However, if history is our guide, restraint looks more promising for the US than intervention.

Jake Diliberto is a Political Scientist, Ph D. candidate at the University of Birmingham, resident scholar on US National Security & research fellow at the Centre for International Policy. Specialised in Religious Conflict and Guerrilla Warfare. He served as a US marine in Afghanistan and Iraq.