How our invasion of Iraq created the conditions for ISIS.
As the Islamic State (previously known as the more sinister sounding "ISIS") spreads its bloody and barbaric influence across northern Iraq, we begin to see just how big of a strategic blunder our 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of that country was.
Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the removal of all Baathist influence and control, the various sectarian and extremist influences in the country were held together by the superstructure of Saddam's tyrannical regime. His use of extreme punishment, pervasive and ever present informants, and the maintenance of the cult of personality allowed the country to remain relatively cohesive. As Dick Cheney and others originally (and ironically) warned soon after the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait during the Gulf War, to go all the way to Bagdad and oust Saddam would create a power vacuum that the United States and its allies would have to fill for a very long time in order to both maintain internal stability and counter the influence of other regional players in the country. Wisely, we packed up most of our forces and retained only the means to enforce no fly zones in the north and south to protect the Kurds and Kuwaitis respectively.
Despite the immense oppression Saddam caused his people, the country held together and regardless of the political spin used to get us back on a war footing after September 11th, there was no substantial presence of Al-Qaida or other radical Islamic terrorist groups prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
That changed when we invaded, not so much because of the initial invasion, but more so because of the now clearly wrongheaded decision to completely "de-Baathisize" Iraq. Following the post invasion transition from military to civilian command over reconstruction, newly appointed Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi Army and systematically purged all known Baathist officials from the remaining government entities. This effectively gutted the government of Iraq and left US, Uk, and other allied forces as the only remaining organized power in Iraq. Line infantry and other combat units, which had never trained for any sustained occupation missions, were now charged with doing everything from building schools to resolving petty disputes between neighbors. This is where things turned sour, as the less than 190,000 troops trained only to wage war against an opposing enemy force, could never hope to keep the peace in a complex nation with over 25 million people. The tragic looting of priceless Iraqi antiquities was only the beginning, as criminal gangs soon began to organize and spread fear and insecurity among the population. Kidnappings, extortion, looting, robbery, and all manner of criminality soon overwhelmed early efforts at a smooth transition to democracy.
In those chaotic conditions, pent up sectarian and extremist forces long contained under Saddam's brutality were unleashed upon the country. We saw the rise of firebrand figures such as Mutadaq Al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army Militants, the first to openly and violently confront coalition control. More troublingly and directly tied to recent events, we saw the rise of Al-Qaida in Iraq under the leadership of the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. His fighters not only attacked coalition forces with devastating IEDs, they also committed atrocities against Shias in the hopes of fanning sectarian conflict and starting a civil war so Al-Qaida inspired Sunni Islamism could dominate the future of Iraq. While he was eventually killed by US forces and his terrorist group faced a backlash in the country due to their senseless brutality, the damage was already done in terms of cementing chaos and distrust between sectarian groups as seminal features of Iraqi politics.
None of this was helped by the dominance of Shia political groups and their efforts at getting back at the Sunni minority for decades of oppression under Saddam and brutal killings under leaders like Zarqawi.
With Sunnis marginalized and excluded from politics in general, and with US military forces no longer around after 2011 to target terrorist leaders, northern Sunni areas such as Mosul and Al-Ramadi became fertile ground for the rise of newer and more extreme radical groups, many of which were led by former lieutenants of Zarqawi himself. These were drawn to the Syrian Civil War in late 2011, helping to form both the Islamist Al-Nursa Front and ISIS. The effectiveness and brutality of these groups against Syrian Army units, as well as their ability to capture and hold various Syrian towns along the border, gave them both the confidence and know-how to press successfully into Iraq as they have done in recent months.
It seems, therefore, that the initial strategic mistake of invading Iraq in 2003 based on dubious evidence and ridiculously optimistic post-war plans was followed by the mistake of tearing down the Iraqi government. These two grave errors were capped by the understandable but foolish decision to completely withdraw US forces in 2011. As President Obama has recently pointed out, the withdrawal plan was originally created and ratified as part of the 2008 Status of US-Iraq Forces Agreement, signed by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. This does not excuse President Obama from his responsibility in not pressuring to allow at least some forces to remain in Iraq and keep the pressure on terrorist leaders and groups.
Of course many people supported that withdrawal because they wanted the US to get out of the mess that was and is Iraq, especially given so many years of involvement, so much money wasted and so many American lives lost. Unfortunately, we are now re-engaged in Iraq, albeit with airstrikes. Although who knows how long we can maintain such a distanced role given what appears to be genocidal acts against religious minorities being committed by the Islamic State.
If there is anything to be learned from this grand debacle, it is that we must be extremely careful about how and when we apply military force in the pursuit of foreign policy objectives. Not only that, we have to seriously debate and develop a rational and long term foreign policy vision. We can no longer afford to wade optimistically into conflicts without clear, identifiable goals, or without understanding the real risks we face.
We can no longer intervene in the internal affairs of countries we barely understand and whose people don't share our fundamental values. We must have a plan that is both limited in terms of how our military force is applied, and grand in terms of what strategic objectives we want to achieve. Only then can we avoid strategic blunders that create conditions where enemies as brutal and dangerous as the Islamic State can thrive.