13 June 2014

Iraq disintegrates

In Iraq this week, Islamic extremists of the ISIS group suddenly lunged northward from their base in Anbar province and seized a huge chunk of territory including Mosul, the second-largest city in the country.  This provoked the Kurds, who have been autonomous in northeastern Iraq since before the fall of Saddam, to advance into Kirkuk, a city they claim as rightfully their own.  The Iraqi government has lost effective control of the entire north and west of the country.

The US government and much of the punditocracy interpret these developments as a "problem" for which a "solution" must be found.  They are wrong.  This is part of the natural disintegration of a state which has no basis for its existence.

The Middle East includes some of the world's oldest nations, such as Iran and Egypt, but Iraq is not a nation and never has been one.  Except for the centuries-old eastern border with Iran, its borders are an arbitrary construct of Anglo-French imperialism after World War I, enclosing three groups of people who don't like each other and have no feeling of common identity.

Iraq's population is about one-fifth Kurdish (in the northeast), one-fifth Sunni Arab (in Anbar province and extending north to the edge of the Kurdish area) and three-fifths Shiite Arab (in the remaining southeastern part of the country).  Baghdad is a mix of all three groups, since people from all over tend to settle in the capital.  The Kurds are a distinct people with a language closely related to Persian, not at all related to Arabic or Turkish.  They are also Sunni, though that fact is not very important.  Kurds also live across the borders in Turkey, Syria, and Iran; their land, informally called "Kurdistan", is a coherent territory divided among those four states.

Saddam Hussein was a Sunni Arab, and his regime brutally repressed the Shiites and Kurds.  His genocidal al-Anfâl campaign of 1986-1989, to thin out the Kurdish population, destroyed about 4,500 Kurdish villages, displaced a million people, and killed about 180,000.  This helps explain why the Kurds, having gained de facto independence, are determined not to be drawn back under the authority of the Iraqi state.

President Bush foolishly though that overthrowing Saddam would usher in democratic nationhood in a place where neither democracy nor nationhood have ever existed.  In fact, all it did was to reverse the power relationship between Sunni and Shiite.  Democracy means Shiite dominance, since Shiites are the majority.  Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, much to US frustration, has operated as a Shiite regime, excluding and denigrating Sunnis -- not surprising since, to the Shiites, the Sunnis are not fellow countrymen but former oppressors.

Al-Qâ'idah, a Sunni organization which has massacred Shiites when it had the chance, plunged into the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq when it saw a chance to position itself as the defender of the Sunni minority there.  Since then, the country has seen endless tit-for-tat terrorist attacks between Sunnis and Shiites.  The current main Sunni militant group ISIS ("Islamic State in Iraq and Syria") consists of people who were expelled from al-Qâ'idah for excessive brutality, which gives you some idea how difficult they are to deal with.  Outsiders were shocked this week when the Iraqi army melted away without a fight when attacked by a smaller and less-well-equipped ISIS force.  I wasn't.  ISIS fighters are motivated by religious fanaticism which has repeatedly shown its power to move men to kill or die for the cause.  The Iraqi army is under orders to defend a fake state that nobody believes in.

This was inevitable once the US pulled out.  A foreign power defending the integrity of the Iraqi state is like plowing the sea -- as soon as you stop, what you think you accomplished instantly disappears.  ISIS is now threatening to march on Baghdad and seize the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbalâ; it's been suggested that US airstrikes could stop this, or perhaps the Iraqi army will fight harder when defending Shiite territory.  Iran (also Shiite) might even intervene, though after the massive losses of the Iran-Iraq war, public enthusiasm there for an actual invasion would be low to say the least.

ISIS probably can't conquer the Shiite southeast, or at least not much of it.  But even if the US committed a big enough force to help the Iraqi government re-take Anbar province and the north, the situation would simply revert to something like the present one as soon as we left.  Saddam held Iraq together with brutality and terror which were shocking even by Middle Eastern standards.  That option isn't available any more, not to any government that wants to avoid his pariah status.  Neither the Shiites nor the Sunnis can establish stable control over the whole country.

And the Kurds?  They have little interest in Iraq beyond their northeastern enclave, but their Peshmerga fighters have protected the independence of that enclave not only against the feeble post-Saddam state but against Saddam's much stronger forces during the last few years of his rule.  They've now seized Kirkuk pre-emptively to protect it from ISIS, and can probably hold it against them, too, even though the Iraqi army which the US helped create failed utterly.  They're fighting, not for a fake state, but for their own people.  Because -- and this is the important point -- whatever the maps tell you, Iraq is not a nation, but Kurdistan is.

Update 1Iran has intervened to support fellow Shiites against ISIS, so far on a fairly small scale.

Update 2:  This excerpt from The Guardian, I think, sums up the US role well:

The sheer scale of the Iraqi military's capitulation in the face of a well-armed and disciplined insurgent force has shocked American soldiers and officers who fought in Iraq. Many were involved in training and mentoring Iraqi counterparts and left the country thinking they had helped build a credible institution, perhaps the only one in the land.  "When I arrived in 2003, I was a true believer," said a former US marine. "I voted for Bush, I believed in the cause. Then I stayed for three years. We were lied to. We went there for nothing and we came away with nothing. It cost a trillion dollars for this?"

Even after such a huge investment by a superpower, the artificial state is crumbling in the face of the enduring realities of religious fervor, Kurdish nationalism, and Iranian power.


Blogger Tommykey said...

IIRC, the state of Iraq consists of three provinces of the former Ottoman Empire, except for Kuwait.

I'm thinking a big potential loser from the territorial gains of ISIS is Assad in Syria. The ISIS now ha a chunk of territory beyone the range of his armed forces from which they can amass the men and resources to launch a massive offensive against him.

As for the USA, I don't want to expend any blood and treasure to prop up Shiite chauvinists like Maliki who only have themselves to blame for this situation.

13 June, 2014 09:40  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

A clear explanation on the mess we've made in Iraq and why any intervention by any state will not solve its massive problems.

The right is blaming Obama for having pulled out of Iraq too soon, and the left wants nothing to do Iraq.

The human tragedy in this is horrible. But the fact is that the major reason for this carnage is religion -- one sect of Islam fighting against another sect of Islam.

13 June, 2014 11:46  
Blogger Grung_e_Gene said...

No one could have predicted, invading, dropping MOABS and JDams all across the IRaq, disbanding the army, killing hundreds of thousands, and trying to foist a government on a post WW1 cobbled together "Nation" previously held together by an American supported strong-man would have disintegrated!

I blame...


13 June, 2014 13:46  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

"This is part of the natural disintegration of a state which has no basis for its existence."

Man, you sure got that right.

Hey, I've got an idea...why don't we waste several thousand more American lives and a couple trillion more dollars to prove what tough guys we are. I'm sure we could create a country just as free from crazy religious fanatics as we have right here at home.

13 June, 2014 14:35  
Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

Sigh. Yet more evidence that the invasion of Iraq demonstrated all the foresight of someone taking a baseball bat to a beehive. This is becoming a familiar story to me given all the reading I've done on modern African history - so many of the countries on that continent are likewise arbitrary constructs of colonialism, filled with groups of people who all hate each other, and ruled by leaders who're primarily concerned with the welfare of their own respective tribes and nobody else's. Parallels could probably also be drawn with the former Yugoslavia, which, like Iraq, was largely held together as a result of the efforts of a single strong man (Tito in their case).

My tentative prediction for Iraq's future is that it'll remain intact, though as a country in name only (sort of like its near neighbours, Afghanistan and Pakistan). I can't see the other three countries with significant Kurdish populations standing by and allowing Iraq's Kurds to establish a bona fide new state, at least not without a fight, given the funny ideas that that might give their own Kurdish citizens.

14 June, 2014 02:01  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Tommykey: Based on this map of Ottoman provinces in 1900, Iraq consists of two provinces, plus parts of two others, plus a big area of desert that wasn't under Ottoman control before. In any case, the Ottoman provincial boundaries didn't pay much attention to ethnic or religious divisions either.

Good point about the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts being linked -- ISIS is active in both. Asad has been winning for some time now; if ISIS's expansion in Iraq reverses that, it can only prolong and deepen the suffering in Syria.

Shaw: They're right in the sense that if we still had an occupation force there we could have kept ISIS at bay, but staying longer would only have delayed the inevitable. Do they want us to occupy Iraq for generations?

The contrast with Ukraine is instructive. The Ukrainian army is suppressing the pro-Russian insurrection in the east and regaining control of its territory, without US military help, because Ukrainian national identity is real and the insurrection is a puppet of a foreign power. And, yes, religious fanaticism is a hugely intractable problem, luckily absent from eastern Europe but always a factor in the Middle East.

14 June, 2014 03:35  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Grung: Hah. Yes, they blame Obama for not fixing Bush's foreign-policy blunders, just as he's to blame for not reducing Bush's deficits fast enough.

Green: Too bad we can't send our own religious fanatics. I'd love to see Pat Robertson and Paul Broun and suchlike preaching at the ISIS guys.

Zosimus: The lack of foresight stemmed from arrogance and ignorance. Even if removing Saddam was necessary, a wiser leader would have gone in with as much fore-knowledge of the country as possible, anticipating that conflict and break-up were likely and planning how to manage them. Bush had none of that.

The analogy with African states is a good one. The Middle East has a millennia-long tradition of strong states and state institutions, so Saddam's tribal terror state was stronger than, say, Idi Amin's. But Iraq is heading in the direction of the kind of chaos Robert Kaplan described in west Africa. One difference is the presence in the Middle East of real nation-states ready to move in and assert domination in some cases. Iran and maybe Turkey will play a role in Iraq's future.

I could imagine Iraq remaining a state on paper, with the Kurdish area retaining its long-standing independence without a declared state (to avoid angering Turkey), the Sunni area under ISIS rule resembling the Taliban-ruled area of Pakistan, and the Shiite southeast becoming a de facto Iranian satellite. I hope it all at least throws a few scares into the damn Saudi royal family.

14 June, 2014 03:57  
Blogger Rosa Rubicondior said...

Well done America.

One day it might just dawn on you that the world really doesn't consist of people just longing to be like America and who will welcome you as liberators.

15 June, 2014 10:38  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Well, no, evidently a fair number of people are longing to behead everybody who disagrees with them.

15 June, 2014 11:13  

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