The startling advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in Iraq are the most dramatic and visible success that the transnational jihad movement has achieved since its intitial emergence in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the early 80s. Since the end of that war, one of the key aspirations of al-Qaeda and the various franchises and networks that share its ideology has always been to carve out a political space or series of political spaces that would become stepping stones towards the creation of a new ‘caliphate.’
With the fall of more than five Iraqi towns and cities to ISIS forces last week, that aspiration is now closer to realisation than it has ever been. Today ISIS is in effective control of a vast swathe of territory that spans Syria and central Iraq, and which in practice no longer recognizes the border between the two countries. This outcome may not be permanent, but already it threatens to redraw the entire map of the Middle East.
Even if the Nouri al-Maliki government succeeds – with foreign help or by reactivating the Shia militias that wreaked such havoc in the last years of the Anglo-American occupation – it is difficult to see how Iraq can survive as a unified state and avoid its disintegration into all-out sectarian war and the creation of warring ethnic statelets – without a radical change in political direction that is unlikely to come from the corrupt and authoritarian government that now rules the country.
All this is an absolute catastrophe for Iraqis first of all, and for the Middle East in general, and much of it can be traced back to the invasion and occupation based on a fatal combination of imnperial arrogance, delusional ignorance, breathtaking incompetence, and self-interest, that shattered Iraqi society and proved itself singularly unable to reconstitute it.
No one will be surprised to hear that Tony Blair denies any such connections. That is what Blair has always done. One might feel disgust at the fact that Blair wants again wants to bomb Iraq, but that is also a reaction that anyone familiar with the Great Man’s combination of narcissism and almost psycopathic irresponsibility has come to expect.
To Blair, ISIS is Maliki’s fault, and any suggestions to the contrary are ‘bizarre.’ But Blair’s delusions are not unique to him. Take the awful editorial in today’s Observer. Back in 2003 The Observer enthusiastically supported the Iraq invasion. Now, like its onetime crusader/hero, it is keen to disclaim any connection between that catastrophe and the events of last week.
Unlike Blair, The Observer says that it is among those who ‘questioned the wisdom of that decision.’ Such questioning doesn’t appear to have gone that far, since the editorial resents the fact that
‘With barely disguised glee, some who opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq now claim to see in the Isis phenomenon the final, cast-iron proof that George W Bush and Tony Blair were both reckless and wrong.’
Indeed they might. And odd as it may seem to those who so uncritically set in motion the catastrophic series of events which ultimately resulted in ISIS, those of us who opposed the war do not feel much ‘glee’ watching the endless horror into which Iraq has fallen, but nor we feel any inclination to ignore the invasion and occupation just to make the likes of The Observer feel better about themselves, especially when presented with dishonest observations such as the following:
‘… to claim, 11 years on, that what is happening now can be attributed to what was done then is both facile and insulting. It suggests, in a sort of inverted, postmodern neo-colonialism, that Iraqis remain incapable of assuming responsibility for their own country.’
So let me get this straight. According to The Observer, those of us those of us who say that the ISIS offensive is at least in part a consequence of the occupation that it once supported are guilty, of ‘inverted, postmodern neo-colonialism.’ Yes, I see.
I’m not even sure what inverted, postmodern neo-colonialism actually is, but a newspaper that so glibly and uncritically propagated the lies that Bush and Blair once told them is in no position to call anyone else facile. Especially when it still makes fatuous observations like this:
‘The invasion, whatever else it did, gave Iraq the chance of democratic self-governance that it would never have experienced under Saddam Hussein. It is this imperfect democracy that is now under threat and which must now be improved, even as it is preserved.’
What are these leader writers on? That Iraq’s politicians bear some responsibility for the sectarian fragmentation of the country is indisputable, but it is dishonesty on a grand scale to attempt to separate these developments from the 2003 invasion.
When the Anglo-American occupiers took control of Iraq in 2003, they inherited a country whose society had already been battered by war, sanctions and dictatorship. Its population had already experienced a massive drop in living standards; much of its infrastructure was in ruins as a result of the first Gulf War and the sanctions that followed; and the occupiers proceeded to compound the damage by dismantling the army and the public sector, and allowing looters to tear at the fragile fabric of Iraqi society still further.
The result was a savage insurgency, and an international jihadist cause celebre and the catalyst for radicalization that al-Qaeda had sought after, which brought the occupiers close to defeat, and from which they were only able to extricate themselves by terrorising/bribing Sunni tribes and empowering a sectarian Shia government that unleashed a campaign of murder and torture against Sunni insurgents and the communities that supported them.
As many as a million Iraqis may have died in this mayhem, not to mention more than three million refugees and internally displaced. All this was overseen by a reckless and incompetent occupation regime that installed a new Iraqi political class that engaged in truly jaw-dropping levels of corruptions. And somehow, according to The Observer, this ‘gave Iraqis the chance of democratic self-government?’
Please. Since the occupation ended, the Maliki government has run Iraq like a sectarian fiefdom. Its security forces torture and kill with impunity, shooting even peaceful Sunni protestors. The annual death toll from political violence over the last three years has hovered between 7,000-8,000.
To call that an ‘imperfect democracy’ is certainly stretching the notion of imperfect. But not many Western governments seemed particularly bothered by this – until now. Most of them were looking for ways to visit similar ‘liberations’ in other countries, first in Libya and then in Syria, where ISIS first appeared.
And now we are witnessing yet another bleak chapter in this dismal history unfold, which may yet result in Iraq being bombed yet again by the same people who bombed it before.
And naturally it’s not our fault. Because nothing ever is, is it?