Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Instant analysis about Iraq has flowed almost as quickly as ISIS’s own advance through towns whose names were familiar to us a few years ago: Mosul, Tikrit and, perhaps, the outskirts of Samarra. Even by the extremely low standards of what passes for the public debate over Iraq, most of it is particularly inaccurate and self-serving. Here are seven main mistakes to avoid.
The Blame Game
Roll up! Roll up! Choose your poison.
“If Bush and Blair hadn’t invaded Iraq, ISIS wouldn’t have even been formed” is the consensus at shabby-chic cafés in Stoke Newington and Nolita, New York. “It proves we were right all along.”
“Rubbish!” reply drinkers at DC cocktail bars and watering holes near No 55 on London’s Tufton Street. “It’s all Obama’s fault. If he’d bombed Assad and kept troops in Iraq, ISIS would have been beaten months ago. It proves we were right all along.”
Either, or indeed both, of these assertions maybe true, but they’re as useless as the “Who lost China?” arguments in the 1950s: they didn’t matter because Mao won it. The ISIS-ters are doing it for themselves.
It shows that Islamist terrorism is back
They are Islamists all right, but much more dangerous than mere terrorists. ISIS have learned from their systematic defeat by General Petraeus’s surge. They used to think, like the apocryphal American general dismissing counterinsurgency strategy that “if you get them by the balls their hearts and minds follow.” Now they’re behaving like standard guerillas.
Even if banning tobacco and coffee is hardly going to win hearts, state-building wins minds. ISIS have taken to fixing roads, keeping electricity running and even setting up girls’ schools (if we try to discredit them as “more extreme than Al Qaeda” ,truth is unlikely to be on our side) while torturing and murdering their enemies (they claim to have executed 1,700 Iraqi soldiers) to encourage fence-sitters to at least keep quiet.
That there is method to their mediaevalism makes them more formidable. Remember the story about two men in a wood confronted by a bear. One starts running. “Are you mad? You won’t outrun the bear!” says his companion. “That’s true,” he replies, “but I only have to out run you.” ISIS don’t have to outrun a competent Iraqi administration, they just have to outrun Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
And Maliki is a very slow runner indeed. His administration is chaotic, riddled with cronyism and corruption, and openly sectarian to boot. Since winning re-election last year he’s made no attempt to govern on behalf of all Iraqis, instead presiding over a Shia ascendancy. Worse, his has been an incompetent Shia ascendancy. The speed with which the government collapsed in Mosul suggests security forces either totally demoralised, obscenely corrupt, or both. By contrast, notwithstanding the recent attack at Karachi airport, Pakistan’s security institutions have been a model of efficiency, probity, and contrary to expectations, success in at least preventing the Pakistani Taliban from taking over.
Attempts to reinforce Maliki’s position will prove as futile as American attempts to prop up Diem in South Vietnam. Corruption this bad only emanates from the top, in a regime that favours loyalty and venality over competence. He will either be removed by his own side or be defeated. The only well-organised, experienced, and relatively competent administration in the region is the Kurdish.
The Kurds were some of the main victims of the Sykes-Picot agreement, by which the British and French Empires divided up the remains of the Ottoman, creating, among other polities, Iraq and Syria. They problem is not that the borders it drew were artificial, though they were – for “artificial” in this sense usually means that the borders weren’t decided, like European ones, by centuries of bloody ethnic war. As borders go, they’ve lasted a long time, but in the end were only kept in place by the unparalleled brutality of the Assad and Saddam regimes.
They no longer reflect real institutions, allegiances, and sources of power, so those trying to preserve them fight from a position of weakness. Assad needs massive Russian and Iranian assistance, but Tehran couldn’t afford to prop a replacement for Maliki up.
Meanwhile the Kurds took Kirkuk and its oil. They won’t give it back.
My enemy’s enemy is my friend
Fantastical alliances are being suggested as though people are working out who to root for in an unfamiliar world-cup tie in order to give England the best chance: Iran and America; air strikes not against Assad, but against some of his most militarily potent opponents; Hizbollah as an anti-terrorist force. While “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” has its merits, and Churchill promised to “make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons” if Hitler invaded Hell, the crisis in Iraq is too complex to supply such a neat solution. Tough negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme should not be held hostage to this. To tilt the battlefield further in Assad’s favour would be an act of cynicism for which its author would deserve to live in infamy.
Much better, because sensible synergy is elusive, to pursue all interests separately, and if a decision is taken to strike ISIS in Syria, equal and opposite airstrikes should be made against Assad.
Thinking short term
Pictures of William Hague striding elegantly between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as ISIS columns advanced along the Tigris were undoubtedly hard for journalists to resist. But the attacks on him for continuing with the summit to end sexual violence in conflict are unjustified, mean-spirited and not a little sexist. The celebrity endorsement of the campaign has generated the attention needed to focus the difficult, unglamorous work involved in prosecuting rapists and other war criminals and rebuilding institutions destroyed by war that too often gets forgotten when the war correspondents are moved on by their bosses.
It is an all too rare example of long-term thinking in foreign affairs. Our desire to wash our hands of Iraq (try finding someone, other than Boris Johnson, who admitted they supported it at the time, despite the invasion having a majority of public support in the early days), led us to neglect our share of the hard work the country now needs.
That it’s all about our domestic politics
The biggest mistake people make about Iraq is to think it’s about our own domestic politics. It isn’t. What Tony Blair now defends as a retroactive preventive war took the lid off Saddam’s pressure cooker, but if it hadn’t some other events would have instead. In the last few decades, Arab societies have undergone vast change faster than almost everywhere else. Population has increased hugely, along with literacy and exposure to modern communications. More people feel their societies need to change, are fed up with corruption, dictatorship and the rank incompetence of their leaders. Though the Arab Spring showed that Islamist fanatics are not the only people trying to do something about it, the violence the fanatics sow will scourge the world for some time to come.