Less than a month ago, speaking at West Point to the applause of graduating cadets, President Obama summed up his war successes:
"We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s leadership on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more."
Now, suddenly, it appears the Iraq war, rather than being over, has entered a new phase which might result in the division of Iraq into three parts ("divisa in partes tres".) And, most importantly, one of those parts may be governed by an off-shoot of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda -- raising rather fundamental questions about which side is winning the so-called War on Terror (that misnomer for the war with al Qaeda declared in 2002.)
Writing in the New Yorker Robin Wright raises the spectre of a third Iraq War:
"... both wars [ 1991 and 2003 ] were ultimately political failures, and the new challenge in Iraq may prove to be even deadlier, with sweeping regional repercussions. Given its deepening sectarian and ethnic divisions—and the absence of a cohesive or effective military—the modern Iraqi state may not hold. Neighboring Syria is already shattered, and the Middle East map—defined by European powers a century ago—may be redrawn, either de facto or formally. Globally, the jihadist threat has never been greater."
Osama bin Laden may be dead, but this year his followers may realize a significant step toward his grand strategic goal -- establishing the core territory of a new caliphate in the Middle East. If the ISIS can hold onto Mosul and the oil fields at Baiji near Tikrit they will have the material basis to begin consolidating a state from two provinces of Syria and three provinces of Iraq.
Consolidation of the ISIS proto-caliphate is a good ways off and far from certain. If Baghdad can muster its army and militias to re-take Tikrit and Mosul and if Damascus can put increasing pressure on ISIS in the east of Syria, it may not be possible for ISIS to move much beyond the a rhetorical claim to state-building.
At the moment, though, ISIS is looking like a rather serious force to contend with. CTV News reports:
"ISIS received a huge injection of cash when it captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, reports say. During the invasion, ISIS reportedly secured more than $466 million and a large quantity of gold bullion when it broke into Mosul’s central bank. Since then, the organization has continued to loot and pillage everything in its path, adding to its already considerable wealth. ISIS has also become increasingly well-armed as it appropriates military weapons and equipment left behind after the United States pulled out of Iraq in 2009. [and] ISIS already had considerable funding before it took Mosul."
Retired Army general and key adviser to David Petraeus during the 2007-2008 counter-insurgency 'surge' Jack Keane says:
“This organization has grown into a military organization that is no longer conducting terrorist activities exclusively but is conducting conventional military operations. They are attacking Iraqi military positions with company- and battalion-size formations.”
As of now the Iraqi army is no shape to attempt to re-take Mosul and any such counter-offensive appears a long way off. It will surely be fiercely resisted by the Sunnis in what many of whom now consider to be "liberated territory."
In summary, eleven years after U.S. invasion to change the regime in Iraq and replace it with a stable democratic government both the nations of Iraq and Syria are severely destabilized and al Qaeda off-shoots are on the rise and in the process of attempting to convert what were recently terror cells into armies and state apparatus. It is hard to create a narrative of greater failure of the Bush-era neocon vision for the Middle East.
Tellingly, much of the Washington punditry response to these developments in Iraq has been to discuss the pros and cons of various U.S. military response options -- with the potential use of air power most frequently mentioned. This only reflects the continuing denial of the failure and futility of America's militarized responses to the rise of the militant Islamic movement(s). It is probably too late in Iraq and Afghanitan for U.S. military action to have any lasting value for 'shaping' outcomes in the deeply conflicted politics of these countries.
Strategy scholar Barry Posen writes:
"The United States spent enormous amounts of treasure and considerable blood trying to turn Iraq into a functioning multi-ethnic democracy; this effort failed.
"America need not throw in with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a power-hungry Shiite supremacist bent mainly on serving the interests of his own faction, to keep its people secure. Maliki’s heavy-handed employment of surveillance, incarceration, and violence has driven Sunni Arab fence sitters into the arms of ISIS fanatics; he’s part of the problem, not the solution."
Once we get beyond this crisis ... and return our attention to the important question of what U.S. international strategy should be after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars we should give careful consideration to the wise advice of retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich:
"... a pronounced infatuation with armed might has led senior civilian officials, regardless of party, and senior military leaders, regardless of service, to misunderstand and misapply the military instrument. Force is good for some things, preeminently for defending what is already yours. Not content to defend, however, the United States in recent decades has sought to use force to extend its influence, control and values.
"In a world divided between haves and have-nots, between postmodern and pre-modern, and between those for whom God is dead and those for whom God remains omnipresent, expecting coercion to produce reconciliation, acceptance or submission represents the height of folly. So force employed by the United States in faraway places serves mostly to inflame further resistance, a statement that is true whether we're talking about putting 'boots on the ground' or raining down Hellfire missiles from the heavens.
"What then is to be done? ... For starters, that means lowering expectations regarding the political effectiveness of war, which is demonstrably limited.
"Take force off the metaphorical table to which policymakers regularly refer. Rather than categorizing violence as a preferred option, revive the tradition of treating it as a last resort. Then get serious about evaluating the potential for employing alternative forms of power, chiefly economic and cultural, to advance American interests. The result won't be a panacea. But it won't cost as much as open-ended war."
News and Commentary
New Yorker: "A Third Iraq War?" Robin Wright, 18 June 2014.
Reuters: "Iraq's Maliki defies call to reach out, accuses Saudis of 'genocide'," Ned Parker, 17 June 2014.
BBC: "Iraq's central government suffers mortal blow," Fawaz A. Gerges, 17 June 2014.
CTV News: "How ISIS became the richest terrorist group in the world," Josh Elliot, 17 June 2014.
U.S. News and World Report: "UN panel warns that fighting in Syria and Iraq is bringing entire region to the brink of war," 17 June 2014.
Miami Herald: "Qatari: U.S. intervention in Iraq would be seen as war on Sunni Arabs," Mohamed Salman, 16 June 2014.
The Guardian: "The sectarian myth of Iraq," Sami Ramadani, 16 June 2014.
The Independent: "Who Are Isis? the Rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant," Patrick Cockburn, 16 June 2014.
Politico: "The Case for Doing Nothing in Iraq," Barry R. Posen, 16 June 2014.
Daily Mail: "Having Blair as peace envoy is an obscenity," 16 June 2014.
Reuters: "White House moves on funding for possible Iraq action: congressional aides," Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan, 16 June 2014.
Daily Beast: "America's Allies Are Funding ISIS," Josh Rogin, 14 June 2014.
Boston Globe: "Chaos raises anew question of splitting up Iraq," Bryan Bender, 14 June 2014.
New York Times: "Rebels’ Fast Strike in Iraq Was Years in the Making," Tim Arango, Kareem Fahim and Ben Hubbard, 14 June 2014.
The Independent: "Iraq crisis: Sunni caliphate has been bankrolled by Saudi Arabia," Robert Fisk, 12 June 2014.
Daily Beast: "Iraq’s Terrorists Are Becoming a Full-Blown Army," Eli Lake, 11 June 2014.
L.A. Times: "The misuse of American might, and the price it pays," Andrew J. Bacevich, 12 January 2014.
Key Reports, Official Sources, Journal Articles, and Books
United Nations: "Oral Update of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic," 16 June 2014.
@TahrirSy: "Examining the Causes of the Islamic State’s Resurgence in Iraq," Tahrir Souri and Hasan Shafqat, 16 June 2014.
Institute for the Study of War: "ISIS Annual Reports Reveal a Metric-Driven Military Command," 22 May 2014.