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Repeated, arrogant western interventions from 2003 to today lie behind the rise of IS, as two recent books agree, argues Sean Ledwith

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Patrick Cockburn, Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East (O/R Books 2016), 428pp.

Recent events in both North America and the Middle East have illustrated how the chilling potency of the Islamic State group is far from exhausted. The mass murder in Orlando was probably only indirectly inspired by the group (alternatively known as IS or Isis) but their homophobic ideology was explicitly referred to by the gunman as part of his motivation. Car bombings in Baghdad, undoubtedly Isis-inspired, continue with depressing regularity. Even the European Championship football tournament is being conducted under the cloud of a possible repeat of last year’s attack on the Stade de France.

Obama, Cameron and other Western leaders periodically like to claim the group’s grip on territory in Iraq and Syria is shrinking and that its political influence is now on a downward trajectory. Patrick Cockburn’s journalism throughout this century has been a valuable corrective to the misplaced optimism and disastrous strategic planning of such leaders and their predecessors. One of the effects of reading Chaos and Caliphate, a new collection of his observations on the region, is to conclude the world would be much more stable if his reports had been read and comprehended by the likes of Bush and Blair.

Writing a few weeks after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Cockburn noted with characteristic prescience:

‘Unless the Iraqi poor feel their lives are improving, the US and Britain - now responsible for Iraq - may soon find they too have become a target for their rage’ (p.57).

Tragically, the recurrence of Isis-inspired attacks on Western cities in recent months testifies to the value of the author’s neglected insights. Michael Griffin’s study, IslamicState, does not claim the prophetic power of Cockburn, but still serves as a helpful companion in terms of constructing a clear and coherent narrative of the period from the absurdly named Operation Enduring Freedom (the 2003 invasion) to Operation Inherent Resolve (the current US led operations against Isis).

Cockburn remarks that his attitude to the possible sequence of events in the region throughout this period has been based on the application of what he calls his ‘golden rule’ of reporting: ‘forecast the worst outcome, which may take longer to happen than one had expected, but when it does occur will be far worse than one’s direst imaginings’ (p.18). If only the architects of Enduring Freedom and so on had followed this dictum. The arc of his account stretches from the American and British occupation of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks; the invasion of Iraq two years later; the initial hope and expectation triggered by the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011; and concludes with the current imbroglio in Iraq and Syria.

The cumulative effect of Western intervention has meant ‘chaos and conflict are spreading in a great swath of Islamic countries between north-west Pakistan and north-east Nigeria’ (p.9). Cockburn calculates there are now eight wars underway as a consequence of Bush and Blair’s misconceived ‘War on Terror’. The renewal of hostilities between Turkey and the Kurds is the latest addition to a list that already includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Nigeria (p.402). This collection of reports is a valuable guide for anyone seeking a greater understanding of all these conflicts. They all have distinctive and localised factors in play, but they have also all been exacerbated by the arrogant assumption of American and European states that it is their prerogative to determine the outcome.

Increasingly, even some Western diplomats and government analysts have started to recognise the inadequacy of their masters’ planning. Cockburn cites one Washington ‘expert’ who acknowledges:

‘one of the problems is that we keep trying to describe this situation as if it were black and white, and what we are really watching again is three-dimensional chess with nine players and no rules’ (p.402).

The commanders on the ground during these ill-starred interventions were also frequently guilty of crass misjudgement. Cockburn quotes an American general whose response to complaints from Iraqi teachers that schoolchildren were terrified by relentless bombing should be ‘letting them understand that those booms and those bangs were simply the sounds of freedom’ (p.91).

Occasionally, Cockburn describes how US ignorance could have farcical consequences, such as the failure on the part of occupation officials dispatched from Washington to Iraq to understand the distinctive design of Middle Eastern toilets, in which water fulfils the function usually performed by paper in the West: ‘The water pipes in Saddam’s palaces were not designed to deal with big quantities of paper and became clogged with spectacularly unsavoury results’ (p.94).

The most calamitous example of this Western arrogance remains, of course, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. George Bush Jnr. was clearly not the most cerebral occupant of the White House but it is still astonishing to read how he was unaware on the eve of war of the divide within Islam between Shia and Sunni! (p.55). The story of how the apparently incisive Anglo-American operation to topple Saddam Hussein gradually degenerated into a sectarian quagmire is a familiar one now, but Cockburn perceived this outcome long before it became widely accepted in the corridors of power. Within days of the staged toppling of Saddam’s statue in the Iraqi capital, Cockburn noted Bush’s neoliberal cabal:

‘has done little political planning. It has created a host of enemies with every reason to make sure that the US does not have a happy time here. The entry of US tanks into Baghdad may be the high point of American involvement in this complex and dangerous country’ (p.54).

At the same time that Bush and Blair were blaming residual Baathist supporters for the emerging insurgency, the author identified the dual failure of the Washington based post-war planners to address the concerns of the country’s minority Sunni and majority Shia populations as the root causes of the violence. As early as 2005, the author detected the existence of embryonic groups that would subsequently coalesce into Islamic State a few years later. Reporting in that year, he noted that:

‘the near universal antipathy to the occupation has enabled marginal, unpopular or criminal groups opposed to the US to flourish. Islamic fundamentalists, commonly called the Salafi or Wahhabi, have been able to establish themselves in Sunni Muslim districts’ (p.113).

Unlike the wise monkeys of Western foreign policy, Cockburn soberly acknowledges that, then and now, Isis-type groups have ‘swum in a sea of popular support or acquiescence’ (p.113). Many among the Sunni minority reluctantly turned to the Salafists to defend them, initially against the US occupation and then, subsequently, against the Shia-dominated successor state that has sought to replace the Americans.

Cockburn powerfully accuses the US imposed colonial regime, the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority of acting ‘as if they lived in a Martian spaceship which had temporarily touched down in the centre of Baghdad’ (p.95). The peculiar venality of the post-invasion administration was based on a noxious brew of imperialism, neoliberalism and cronyism. Cockburn notes how $9 billion of US funding vanished down a black hole of corruption in 2003-04 alone (p.110). One hundred and forty military helicopters disappeared without trace! (p.348).

He points out that the country’s ultimate spiral into sectarian blood-letting was far from inevitable as Baghdad’s pre-war tradition of cross-community interaction was more firmly embedded than comparable arrangements in other hotspots he had reported from, such as Belfast and Beirut. He describes how, before the invasion, ‘its special magic, the fact that gave the city its peculiar allure, was its complex ethnic and religious mix of Shia, Sunni and Kurds’ (p.143). That ‘special magic’, of course, would be consciously trashed and eviscerated by the blundering machinations of the CPA and its masters in Washington and London.

In 2006, the golden-domed Shia shrine at Samara, near Baghdad, was destroyed by Sunni militants in a symbolic attack that triggered Iraq’s descent into a sectarian maelstrom from which it has yet to emerge. The civil war between the two communities predictably led to hand-wringing by Western politicians who sought to blame the violence, and further legitimate the presence of their armed forces, on the grounds of Iraq’s supposedly intrinsic sectarian divide.

In contrast, Cockburn noted in the same year: ‘It is seldom realised that the US and Britain have largely provoked the civil war that is raging across central Iraq’ (p.144). Two years previously, the US assault on the predominantly Sunni city of Fallujah had provoked opposition not just from that community but also from the majority Shia. Fleetingly, there were indications of a tentative alliance between the two traditions in the face of a common enemy. Cockburn reports on a visit to the town of Abu Ghraib at the time, seeing ‘freshly painted anti-American slogans on the walls. One reads: “We shall knock on the gates of heaven with American skulls”. Another: “Sunni Shia = Jihad against Occupation”’ (p.89).

The author characterises the US assault on Fallujah as ‘a medieval siege’, the horror of which briefly generated the possibility of the two communities joining forces in common revulsion against a foreign invader. The US response to this nightmare scenario - from their viewpoint - was knowingly to stoke tensions between the two groups, thwarting the rising tide of resistance and consolidating their own power. The CPA devised a constitutional system on the Lebanese model, codifying a sectarian divide and rule system that set Sunni, Shia and Kurd against each other in a blood-soaked scramble for power.

By luring the majority Shia parties into a collaborationist apparatus, the US provided the pretext for the forerunners of Isis to position themselves as the defenders of the minority Sunni, who increasingly bore the brunt of social and economic collapse. The chaos of the post-invasion period provided fertile soil for the stark message of Islamic State. As Griffin also notes, the Sunni were ‘denied any role in the new Iraq after being summarily dismissed from their jobs in the armed forces, intelligence agencies and broad sections of the civilian administration’ (p.1).

Cockburn’s reports first mention Isis in early 2007 (p.148). By that time, the group was detaching itself from its roots in Al Qaeda and emerging as a distinct organisation with a ruthless agenda of unrelenting sectarianism. American miscalculation once more played a key role in provoking a gear change in the accelerating waves of violence. Many of the combatants who would ultimately fill the ranks of Isis first experienced discrimination at the hands of the CPA when they were held en masse in Camp Bucca, a massive detention centre in southern Iraq.

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Michael Griffin, Islamic State: Rewriting History (Pluto Press 2015), xxiii, 176pp.

Griffin cites a Red Cross report which estimated 90% of its 26 000 detainees were probably arrested without cause. Even the camp’s US commander admitted most of those held had probably been picked up accidentally because they were wandering the streets looking for work (p.2). The inevitable resentment actions such as this provoked among the Sunni community provided willing and hardened recruits for the ranks of Islamic State. The current leader of IS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, rose to prominence due to his mobilisation of alienated inmates at Bucca.

The organisation’s growth took off at an exponential rate when the 2011 revolution in neighbouring Syria morphed from a popular and largely secular uprising into a militarised and sectarian conflict. As the progressive impulse of the original insurrection began to run out of steam from about 2013, Cockburn detected this change in the nature of the opposition to Assad, observing that ‘the longer the conflict goes on, the stronger the jihadi will become because they are better soldiers than the more moderate, but less effective allies’ (p.279).

Similarly, Griffin quotes a member of the Local Coordinating Committees which provided the grassroots momentum for the initial wave of protests, to the effect that the revolutionary character of the opposition was being sucked out and replaced by the sectarian mentality that was already scarring the political landscape of Iraq: ‘Militarisation would put the revolution in an arena where the regime has a distinct advantage and would erode the moral superiority that has characterised the revolution since its beginning’ (quoted on p.49). Islamic State’s fusing of Sunni struggles on both sides of the now practically defunct Sykes-Picot border gave the group the territorial platform from which to launch their meteoric ascent.

Books on this topic can frequently make dispiriting reading and potentially could leave the reader feeling gloomy about prospects for progressive change in the region. Cockburn, however, is particularly effective at identifying vignettes of defiance that illustrate the spirit of those who have heroically tried to overthrow entrenched dictatorships. He mentions Hayat-al Gormezi, a female Bahraini poet, who told cheering crowds of protestors at the iconic Pearl Roundabout in 2011, ‘We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery’.

The response of the Bahraini monarchy was encapsulated in the subsequent threat made by a policeman to her father: ‘tell us where Ayat is or we will kill each of your sons in front of your eyes’ (p.258). This is the same state, of course, that is fawned over by Cameron and the Queen and which hosts the US Fifth Fleet. The authors even suggest the apparently inexorable horror of Isis rule can be resisted by the collective action of those brave enough. Griffin recounts how, in Mosul, ‘locals formed a human chain to prevent demolition’ of a twelfth-century minaret regarded as sacrilegious by the Salafists. Episodes such as this suggest the spirit of the Arab revolutions is now dormant but may yet be re-ignited.

Patrick Cockburn, Chaos and Caliphate is available exclusively from O/R Books.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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