A week ago American planes were used for the first time to bomb Islamic State (IS) targets in northern Iraq. President Obama’s decision to authorize limited airstrikes has not changed the military balance, however. The IS army of some ten thousand fighters is an easily dispersible, highly trained light infantry force. There are no valuable targets for attacks, such as barracks, depots, stores, command centers, or armored columns. The airstrikes may have contributed to the ability of the Kurdish Peshmerga to defend their capital Erbil, but the key oil installations in Kirkuk remain in immediate danger and the territory under IS control is steadily expanding.
The Obama administration has no political will and no strategy to roll back the new Caliphate’s dramatic gains of the past two months, which is just as well. John McCain predictably wants to bomb ISIS in Syria and Iraq. “We need to go on offense,” his friend Lindsey Graham says, because the Islamic State is “an existential threat” to our homeland. Doing the opposite of what those two senators advocate is always a sound policy. Hillary Clinton’s claim that timely American help to the “secularist moderates” in Syria might have prevented the rise of the Islamic State is absurd but also dangerous, because it is used as an argument to justify sending American arms to Bashar al-Assad’s enemies even at this late stage. There are no “moderates,” period. Iraq provides ample evidence that U.S. arms, training, and money do not result in hoped-for outcomes. As Daniel Larison pointed out last week, it should be obvious that groups such as ISIS benefit from collapsing state authority, so it is not clear why an even more activist Syria policy aimed at collapsing the Syrian government would have been bad for it: “Syria hawks wanted the U.S. to arm anti-regime forces for the purpose of overthrowing the government, but they emphasized their desire to arm only the ‘right’ kind of insurgents to distract from the small problem that their overall goal of regime change would inevitably empower jihadist groups.”
Obama was wrong to mischaracterize the IS as “barbaric terrorists.” The group has eminently terrorist roots in al-Qaeda in Iraq, and it routinely uses terror and horrendous violence against Christians and other “infidels” and “apostates.” Today it is much more than a terrorist organization, however, and cannot be fought by traditional counterterrorism tactics. Over the past year, and especially since taking Fallujah in January, it has morphed into a serious force capable of conquering and controlling a large contiguous territory inhabited by some ten million people, exploiting its oil resources, and collecting taxes. It extends from Aleppo in the west to Jalawla in the east, only 20 miles from the Iranian border; from the Turkish border in the north to Iraq’s borders with Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the south. It has all key attributes of statehood and acts as a magnet for jihadist volunteers from all over the world, including thousands of Western passport holders.
The Caliphate’s appeal is unsurprising. Far from being a fringe “extremist” group, the Islamic State follows the teaching of Sheikh Taqi ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), which is firmly rooted in orthodox Islam. As such, the ISIS (as it was known until late June) had received funds and logistical support from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait, and the Emirates. Some of them may be having second thoughts about their creation now, but not for “ideological” reasons. Its string of military successes and Islamic populism makes the IS potentially hazardous to the corrupt royal oligarchies in Riyadh and along the Gulf.
The government in Baghdad is not going to change the security equation any time soon. Nouri al-Maliki withdrew his bid to retain the prime ministership in favor of Haider al-Abadi, who was endorsed by the Shiite National Alliance and nominated by President Fuad Masum. The new prime minister-designate is one of the leaders and former spokesman of the Shia Islamic Dawa Party, which makes him unlikely to appeal to Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis. He will be unwilling to introduce reforms which would result in a less sectarian government structure. The fact that Iran played a key role in al-Abadi’s appointment indicates that he will be primarily interested in consolidating the existing power structure in majority-Shia regions, rather than pursuing reforms. Obama’s call for a more inclusive Iraqi government will be followed by some soothing rhetoric from al-Abadi but no serious action. In any event it is far too late to save Iraq from further fragmentation. President George W. Bush’s flawed war has turned it into a failed state.
Obama’s appeal for Iraqi unity is reminiscent of Bush’s address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in November 2005, when he unveiled his clear strategy for victory in Iraq. “We’re helping the Iraqis build a free society with inclusive democratic institutions that will protect the interests of all Iraqis,” Bush said. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises of creating more inclusive institutions, he went on, “it will lose the support of the American people – and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people.”
What Bush did not understand nine years ago, and what Obama fails to grasp today, is that there is no “Iraqi people” as a coherent polity that shares the sense of common destiny and common aspirations. Al-Abadi’s pledges of inclusiveness are as worthless in 2014 as al-Maliki’s were in 2005. They and their fellow Shiite politicians do not care for “the Iraqi people” outside the confines of their own community. The same applies to the overwhelmingly Shia Iraqi army and security services, which fled in disarray from Mosul and Kirkuk in June. The officers and rank-and-file do not regard majority Sunni areas as “theirs,” and were unwilling to risk their lives defending them.
Two-thirds of the country is out of Baghdad’s control. The main beneficiaries are the IS and the Kurds. When the Islamic State captured Mosul in June and advanced into other Sunni areas in western Iraq, Kurdish leaders – long disenchanted with the Shia-dominated central government – were quick to exploit the situation by seizing non-Kurdish territories in three northern provinces, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. In addition, Kurdistan’s president Masoud Barzani promptly ordered the Kurdish parliament to set a date for a referendum on independence. He also pledged to defend the newly conquered territories by the force of arms.
Iraq is disintegrating into three ethno-sectarian units, as we have repeatedly predicted over the past decade that it would. The United States instigated the disaster in March 2003. It would be ill-advised to try and influence the outcome today.