Afghanistan and Iraq offer salutary lessons in America’s nation-building enterprise. Both countries are worse off today than they were before the Americans invaded.
Afghans sleepwalked to the polls to replace Hamid Karzai, with a choice between a US-educated ex-World Bank official Ashraf Ghani (and his Uzbek warlord VP Abdul Rashid Dostum), or the Tajik Abdullah Abdullah who threatens chaos if he loses. Iraq’s April elections, the first national elections since the US declared ‘success’ and left in 2011, provide an indication of what could be in store for Afghans. Rather than confirming the new order, they precipitated a ‘surge’ by “Sunni” insurgents, who quickly captured a third of the country, discrediting the whole US-imposed electoral process.
Plans for consolidating Iraq and Afghanistan as pro-US regimes appear to have collapsed with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) capture of Mosul, facing virtually no resistance. The Kurdish Peshmurga militia took control of Kirkuk, and in the south, Iraq's Shia brace to resist ISIS. Iraqis are now living through the 1990s Afghan scenario, when the Taliban quickly took over a country in the grips of sectarian violence with the promise to disarm militias and provide security. In Iraq’s Sunni majority areas, a population exhausted by war and violence is now faced by the same prospect of accepting a harsh rule by extremists waving the “Sunni” flag promising security.
The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham/ Syria (ISIS) is the heir to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), formed as a direct result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, successor to AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (d. 2006) and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (d. 2010), has suddenly emerged as a figure who is attempting to shape the future of Iraq, Syria and the wider Middle East along the lines proposed by Osama Bin Laden.
In 2006, AQI created an umbrella organization, the Mujahideen Shura Council, in an attempt to unify Sunni insurgents in Iraq, and AQI spokesman Abu Ayyub al-Masri declared the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) as a front which included the Shura Council factions. AQI was at a low point in its fortunes in 2010, as the resistance to US occupation was supposedly collapsing due to the US surge of 2007-2008. But the US decision to disband the Iraqi army and ban Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party in 2003 also meant the destruction of the Iraqi state, which meant that the insurgents merely had to wait till the occupying troops departed.
AQI’s transformation into a homegrown organization covering the Levant is reflected in its name change to ISIS in April 2013. The Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra (Support Front, 2012) functioned in parallel to ISIS, and supposedly merged with it in 2013. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri told Baghdadi to leave Syria to Nusra, but recent events suggest that Zawahiri is no longer in control.
Following Bin Laden’s assassination in 2011, Baghdadi released a statement eulogizing Bin Laden and threatening retaliation, which included
24 attacks near Baghdad immediately afterward
a wave of ISI suicide attacks beginning in Mosul in August 2011 resulting in 70 deaths
a series of coordinated car bombings and IED attacks in Baghdad in December 2011, killing 63 just days after the US completed its troop withdrawal from the country.
How far Baghdadi is directly responsible for the military strategy and tactics of ISIS is uncertain. Former Iraqi army and intelligence officers from the Saddam era are said to play a crucial role. The AQI nonetheless follows al-Qaeda’s logic of terror against civilians who oppose their program, a spin-off of quietist Saudi Wahhabism, but with Wahhab’s militancy restored. (Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab inspired the Saud tribal leaders to rebel against the Ottomans, eventually founding the Saudi state.)
Recent Saudi attempts to consolidate hegemony in the region have involved two separate but related policies: the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and banning the popular Sunni Islamic forces in the region, represented by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The latter strategy is apparently moving forward with Egypt’s 2013 coup, though resistance continues. The attempt to overthrow Assad is stalled, and events in Iraq appear to offer a new opportunity to prevent the consolidation of a ‘Shia crescent’ from Iran through Iraq to Syria.
But supporting the insurgencies in Iraq and Syria is proving to be far more perilous for the Saudi monarchy than learning to live with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood or some ‘Shia crescent’. The Brotherhood were quick to assure King Abdullah that they were happy to let Saudi domestic politics take its own course. The MB see change in the neocolonial order coming through popular elections and grassroots organizing. All they want is to be allowed to exist. As for the ‘Shia crescent’, this is a bugaboo to deflect attention from the weakness of the Saudi monarchy’s grip on power.
The neo-Wahhabis on the surface read from the same text as the Saudis, but are committed to overthrow the neo-colonial order—including the Saudi monarchy—violently. In contrast to the MB, who are more traditionalist than fundamentalist, the neo-Wahhabis in Iraq have no stake in the present order, and no qualms about using violence to achieve their goals.
There is a historical precedent to the Saudi leaders’ current dilemma of rooting for their neo-Wahhabi offspring and then conspiring with empire to wipe them out. In the 1920s, the religious fanatic Ikhwan fighters helped Ibn Saud, the father of King Abdullah, conquer Arabia, but were betrayed by him and wiped out by the British in 1929.
Saudi complicity with the US to overthrow Afghan socialists in the 1980s, and Saddam Hussein in the 1990s–2000s was a repeat of this realpolitik. The Saudi monarchy supported Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and then turned against him, refusing his offer of a neo-Wahhabi jihad against Saddam in 1990, just as Ibn Saud first allied with and then betrayed the Ikhwan in the 1920s, tying his fate instead to the fate of the reining imperial power in the region, Britain and later jumping into the lap of the US when it emerged as a superpower after the Second World War.
Saudi complicity with the US today—against Colonel Muammar Qadaffi in Libya, Assad in Syria and Nouri al- Maliki in Iraq once again in alliance with neo-Wahhabi rebels—re-enacts this yet again.
The disintegration of Iraq, creating an extremist state on the Saudi border, and a resurgent Taliban following US withdrawal from Afghanistan this year, bring the Saudi leaders closer to a reckoning with the legacy of realpolitik. The US can no longer prevail in either country, as the neo-Wahhabis gain strength. It is only a matter of time before angry Saudi citizens recreate the same dynamic in the kingdom itself, without any urging by the Brotherhood or Iran.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, there was no equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood or a leader of the caliber of Ayatollah Khomeini, which meant that the collapse of the secular regimes quickly gave way to extremist neo-Wahhabi insurgencies that initially found common cause with al-Qaeda.
This relationship soured in Afghanistan with 9/11, but the US invasion again gave the Taliban and al-Qaeda common cause. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the collapse of Sunni political power opened the door to al-Qaeda there.
In both cases, the US strategy after invading was to promote a “surge” (Iraq 2007–2008, Afghanistan 2010–2012) to defeat the insurgencies. It is clear in both cases that the surge was unsuccessful, merely providing a breathing space for the US to withdraw its troops, a la Vietnam in 1975. Iraq’s present crisis is an indication of what is in store for Afghanistan, where a resilient Taliban aim to reassert control.
The only realistic option to prevent this is for the US to push its Saudi ‘ally’ to work with Iran and Russia to achieve a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war, and with Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan to support the elected governments.
The alternative is to let Iraq disintegrate into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish states, and to allow a similar disintegration of Afghanistan into Tajik, Pushtun, and Uzbek states—after hundreds of thousands more deaths.
Can Obama reverse the nightmare of the past decade, or is this scenario what the US intends?