After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 8 minutes

Taking Iraq apart

The recent surge in power of a Sunni jihadist force in northwest Iraq has been spectacular. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s protestations of shock and horror are both theatrical and disingenuous, for it was his own actions that paved the way for this surge. His friends, especially those in Iran, know this but are playing along for their own reasons: it provides a welcome way of distracting people from Maliki’s own failures. In June, Sunni jihadists acting in the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) seized Mosul, Iraq’s second city, almost without a struggle. Other places in this Sunni-dominated zone fell rapidly, as the security apparatus collapsed, abandoning weapons (including US-supplied vehicles) and leaving behind many prisoners as well as spoils, including nearly half a billion dollars at a branch of Iraq’s central bank. Less radical armed groups joined the movement, probably exaggerating their role in the victories. Some inhabitants who hadn’t fled celebrated a “liberation”, “uprising” or “revolution”.

The Kurds seized their chance to take control of Kirkuk (see The Kurds’ big gains,), in a region rich in oil and cultural symbolism. Its control had for several years been a source of heated dispute with the Baghdad government and other local minorities. This other conquest has gone almost unremarked: all the attention has been on the jihadists. If you believe Nouri al-Maliki, his Shia allies and rivals, the US administration and much of the media, the jihadist offensive was impossible to resist: they have also voiced fears that the jihadists might seize and destroy the Shia mausoleums at Samarra, provoking a new intra-faith war, or conquer Baghdad and establish a caliphate across much of Iraq and Syria (as announced on 30 June).

Maliki called for a general mobilisation of his support base. A variety of faith-based militias, whose expansion he has tolerated, and several prominent Shia figures have heeded the call. Iran dispatched reinforcements to organise these paramilitary groups and probably fight alongside them. The US redirected two aircraft carriers near a theatre of operations that President Obama has been trying to leave since 2011.

How could Iraq’s vast security apparatus, one of the world’s biggest (a million men under arms out of a population of around 25 million), have melted in the face of the jihadists’ advance? What explains the jihadists’ relative popularity, given the terrible memories of Al-Qaida’s control of Mosul in 2007, when it slaughtered people in the streets? Why were local Sunni figures, such as Maliki’s allies, the Nujayfi family, unable to rally any support in opposition? And what of the record of the prime minister who, boosted by his result in the recent parliamentary election, had set his sights on a third term?

A new image

Maliki, once an insignificant figure in the small Shia Islamist Dawa Party, became prime minister in 2006 as a compromise candidate, because he seemed a threat to no one. War was then raging between armed Sunni groups and Shia militias. These had all originated as part of the armed resistance to US occupation, but were divided because of perceived persecution by the other community. Under the aegis of the prime minister, the government supported the Shia militias, and used them as auxiliary forces against Sunni groups.

Maliki’s political strategy — and his image — changed radically in 2008, when the US helped him to get out of a sectarian straightjacket. Sunni militias were co-opted by the government to fight Al-Qaida and to rein in out-of-control Shia militias. Maliki’s own role was minimal, but it gave him a statesmanlike aura, as though he had risen above the dynamics of the civil war and was leading the country back to stability. He continued to portray himself as the nation’s saviour and developed a personality cult that owed much to Saddam Hussein. This didn’t seem to worry his Shia supporters. Whether because of the suffering under the previous regime or the “ungovernability” of the Iraqi people, the Shia wished for nothing better than the emergence of a leader in the Saddam mould, but of their own sect.

The fight against “terrorism” quickly became Maliki’s main policy, enabling him to pursue many objectives simultaneously. He concentrated more power in his own hands, expanded his control over the huge security apparatus he had inherited from the US occupying force, and repurposed it for his own political ends. From December 2010 he accumulated the posts of prime minister, commander in chief of the armed forces, defence minister and interior minister. Fear of a power vacuum also helped prevent any attempt to replace him, and guaranteed him the necessary level of support from the US and Iran. Obama had wanted since his election to withdraw US troops as quickly as possible, while Iran was pleased to have Maliki, as a leader capable of holding on to power while taking care not to go against Iran’s interests.

The use of “a war on terror” as a default political programme is not unique to Maliki. In the Arab world, almost all leaders have used it to justify their worst abuses of power: Hafez al-Assad (the current president’s father) in Syria, Algeria’s generals in the 1990s, Gaddafi in Libya and Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. In Yemen, President Ali Abdallah Saleh, until his fall in 2012, held on to power in part because there was an Al-Qaida threat. Faced with the resentment, frustration and aspirations let loose by the Arab Spring in 2011, almost all the regimes invoked the fight against terrorism.

Alienating the Sunnis

What makes Maliki stand out is the limitless use he has made of this. He has deliberately and systematically alienated Sunnis, and weakened the state in a way that is inexplicable given his original position of strength. Assad in Syria has followed a similar path since 2011, but only in response to pressure from a vast popular revolt supported by outside actors calling openly for the end of his regime.

Without any such pressure, Maliki has neglected and sometimes dismantled the (often tribal) Sunni militias he inherited from the US, and cultivated a sectarian, corrupt security apparatus. Sunni opposition has been treated as “terrorism”, which has led to arbitrary arrests and detentions, and countless atrocities.

Iraq’s Sunnis, inspired by the 2011 uprisings in neighbouring countries, were rebellious over their treatment but at the same time disheartened by the disastrous militarisation of Syria’s opposition, as well as their own painful defeat in the civil war. In 2012 they organised themselves to voice their dissatisfaction peacefully. Early demonstrations turned into permanent sit-ins in the main squares of Iraq’s Sunni cities, the demands always centred on rebalancing the power structure to give Sunnis a full role. Maliki ignored them. He took the gradual return of bombings not as a warning, but as a pretext for a hardline stance (1). So the option of violence, previously seen by the Sunnis as an unacceptable alternative, began to gain support beyond the extremist fringes.

Maliki also decided to back President Assad in a conflict that was turning ever more sectarian, pitting a regime reduced to its Alawite core against a Sunni opposition. He stopped criticising Assad’s repression, even as it worsened, and retracted his offer of mediation. He opened Iraq’s borders to Shias volunteering to join the fight in Syria, as part of a “war effort” steered from Iran. These jihadists, inspired by a millenarian vision, began to travel unimpeded through Baghdad airport or by the motorway to Syria, sensitive transport links carefully controlled by Maliki’s forces. These militias also started spreading sectarian hate propaganda, marching in the streets and forming militias in Iraq.

Maliki claimed to be the man who ended the civil war, but seemed to be doing his best to revive it. Until the Mosul crisis, the powerful US and Iranian embassies bizarrely spoke with one voice and offered Maliki their unconditional support. Yet there were more signs of impending disaster. The resurgence of armed Sunni groups and Shia militias should have triggered an alarm.

The disappearing state

More seriously, the erosion of the state structures presaged the nightmare Iraq now faces. The competence and cohesion of the security apparatus diminished as it became politicised under Maliki, who tolerated rampant corruption. The state became an instrument of cronyism, and the (aberrant) participation of those cronies in the recent parliamentary elections partially explains Maliki’s healthy share of the vote.

He reduced the role of the parliament, surrounded himself with profiteers and blithely betrayed his promises, depriving himself of the political levers necessary for managing crises. The powers of the legal system had been curbed, and it could offer no credible redress. Oil revenues were systematically pillaged, which meant that almost no development project actually went forward. Maliki’s “power” depended on survival tactics that undermined Iraq’s already fragile institutional foundations.

A gradually crumbling state suited some Iraqis, though, including Maliki’s political allies — and his rivals who saw it as a sign of the eventual demise of their adversary. Iran, the Kurdish leaders and Shia militias all want Baghdad as weak and malleable as possible. The US withdrawal “strategy” to end a decade of military occupation meant turning a blind eye to anything that could delay that process, and hoping for the best.

The more Maliki showed his sectarianism and ineptitude, and the greater his failings, the more he consolidated his position. In 2012, before the Sunni demonstrations gathered strength, his chances of re-election seemed poor. Frustration was particularly evident in the Shia community: the country was relatively stable, yet nothing seemed to be progressing. A year later, Iraq was once more in turmoil, with 1,000 people killed each month, almost as bad as 2006-07. Maliki’s popularity shot up. Even after the fall of Mosul, his imminent departure did not seem inevitable: the Shia closed ranks around him, Iran showed support, and fear of a power vacuum remained strong even among those who were not his natural supporters.

It would be wrong to focus too much on the most obvious aspects of the crisis — US responsibility, the personalisation of the problem in Maliki or the threat of “terrorism”. The core problem, less mentioned, is how power is exercised in Iraq, and the nature of its institutions. Nouri al-Maliki’s personality is secondary: he exists in a context that not only allows him to behave as he does, but rewards him for doing so. In March, he organised a big international conference on the “fight against terrorism”; the UN took part and cheered him on.

The problem is region-wide. The greater the success of Assad’s strategy of letting the Syrian state rot, the more he seems part of the solution, rather than the problem. Marshal Abdel Fattah Sissi, Egypt’s official head of state since June, has a military intelligence officer’s view of power, but his election — and, as always, fear of a power vacuum — is enough for the outside world to give him free rein. In Bahrain, the ruling family has made no concessions, but suffered no consequences.

Exercising ever-expanding power means abandoning any ambition to govern a proper nation state. These regimes no longer even try to address the divisions within society, of ideology, development or repression; rather they use the fault lines, and make them worse, to seek conflict. By radicalising one section of society, they consolidate their support in another, and have no need of a positive agenda; fear of the future is enough to keep them in power. They make themselves indispensable by depriving institutions of their autonomy, and therefore of their national character. They promote their regimes abroad in the name of the “war on terror”, backed by “democratic” elections with results that reflect the hysterical support of one section of society — and a boycott by the rest.

We can see in Iraq what such exercise of power leads to. But the real question is — what’s the point of it?

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