Watching the sudden and (to Western eyes) unexpected unfolding of the Islamic State and its territorial gains in Iraq has been fascinating. The dynamics have been heretofore unpredictable – a few weeks ago a conflict scholar asked on a social media forum whether ISIS (as it was then known) would bother with the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan or concentrate on Baghdad. The consensus at the time was that the Kurdish peshmerga, battle-hardened from years of war, were probably too much for this new upstart force and that the Islamists didn’t really want to rule the Kurds anyway.
Turns out we were wrong. While the Islamic state has been pushing south towards Baghdad, it is also pushing east towards Erbil and Kirkuk, the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan. And along the way it’s been doing pretty well, by press accounts, in battling what had been Iraq’s most organized and formidable military force. The popular explanation for this, which may be true, is the imbalance of heavy weaponry (tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery) between the Islamic State forces (which have taken significant quantities of these weapons from the dissolving Iraqi military) and the Kurds (which have few if any heavy weapons). This looks bad right now for the Kurds – but it this crisis may contain the seeds of their greatest victory.
This is a guest post by Jonathon Whooley, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Florida currently lecturing at San Francisco State University.
As the rumors, machinations, and punditry weigh in on the current strife in Iraq, many of us who have been avidly observing the consistently deteriorating progress of the Government of Iraq (GOI) have been sadly waiting for all of the old arguments about the state of the country to return: ancestral hatreds, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), terrorism, etc. It was with no surprise and much fanfare therefor that the latest bloodletting and domestic strife.
Over the last five years since Thomas E. Ricks authored his prescient work The Gamble (2009) many Middle East observers have been waiting to see whether stakes that the Us government in its Petraeus-era policy of community policing would work or, if the Iraqi central government, seeking no greater goal than elevating its own status, would ultimately fall apart. While no fan of the American intervention in Iraq in 2003, and far and away dubious about current calls for American intervention in Iraq, one is left slightly agape at the limited historical recall of the punditry and the dramatic steps taken by the GOI that have led to the current state of affairs in the country. Ricks’ argument, that the progress of Iraqi stability and security was fundamentally rooted in an argument toward the Iraqi populace that with legitimate elections, relative security, and the sharing of natural resources, an uneven but faintly credible construction of government in Iraq was possible, this concept was oddly ignored by most leading pundits and policy makers in recent days.
When George W. Bush was pushing the Iraq war, the concern from some of the left was: is this another Vietnam? By “another Vietnam”, most Americans mean “a really long war with lots of US casualties that in the end we lose”. And there was fear in 2003 and 2004 that Iraq would end up that way.
The Bush administration pushed back with absurd assertions that we’d be done in 6 months and “Mission Accomplished” photo ops. Obama finally fixed the problem by pulling US troops out of Iraq a couple of years ago, at which point the “ghost of Vietnam” went away. But there is another aspect of the Vietnam debacle that I think does apply to the Iraq mess. Continue reading
In my previous post I introduced al-Qaeda’s explanations for the rift for the ISIL. In this post I will discuss ISIL’s response as presented in recent statements by the group’s leader al-Baghdadi and its spokesman al-Adnani. Because the discussion is too long for one blog post I decided to divide it to two. Today I will focus on ISIL’s effort to contradict al-Qaeda’s claim that there was a relationship of subordination between al-Qaeda and ISIL previous incarnation, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and that the expansion of the Iraqi group into Syria thus represents a rebellion. According to ISIL when al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to bin Laden in 2004, it was in order to enhance Muslim unity and raise the moral of the Mujahideen. But when conditions were ripe, the Iraqi branch, together with others, raised to the next level by founding the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. For all intent and purposes, that means ceasing to exist as an organization and the disbanding of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Despite the end of the authority relations between the Iraqi affiliate and al-Qaeda Central, the Islamic State of Iraq continued to view al-Qaeda as a symbol of the ummah and its Imams. Thus when al-Zarqawi’s successors proclaimed their loyalty to al-Qaeda, it was a symbolic measure that indicated respect to al-Qaeda and acknowledgement of the latter’s role in leading the global jihad. It was intended to show the State’s commitment to the unity of the Ummah, but did not reflect organizational subordination. In the view ISI leaders, once the State was established it had complete authority over the arena in which it operated. Moreover, once an Islamic Emirate is established it reaches a status that surpasses that of any organization. As a result it would be inappropriate for it to pledge allegiance to an organization. ISIL even reminds al-Qaeda that this principle is reflected in its own pledge to Mulah Omar in his role as the leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
To strengthened its claim that there were no tangible relations of authority between the ISI and al-Qaeda the State emphasized that it did not get any real support from al-Qaeda and that al-Qaeda never exercised any effective control over the State’s activities, operational or bureaucratic. In sharply drawn words, ISIL’s spokesman even ridicules al-Qaeda for the extent of its irrelevance to the operation of the Islamic State. Deridingly he asks the al-Qaeda’s chief al-Zawahiri “what did you give to the State if you were its Emir? With what did you supply it? For what did you hold it accountable? What did you order it to do? What did you forbid it to do? Who did you isolate or put in charge of?”
Over the past couple of weeks we had lots of excitement here at Haverford with a commencement controversy that got us (unwelcome?) media attention like never before. But now it is time to finally focus on research. As part of my work on a book dealing with the relationship between al-Qaeda and its franchises I spent recent days going over some fascinating statements made by leaders of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the past couple of months. The exchange is primarily between al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and ISIL’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. As a reminder, in early February al-Qaeda announced that it is disowning ISIL, keeping Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) its official franchise in Syria. Since then the conflict between the groups escalated, both through rhetoric in messages posted online and through violent clashes on the ground in Syria. The battle of statements is fascinating and deserves to be treated at length as it sheds light not only on the heart of the conflict but also on the discourse that is deemed legitimate in an intra-jihadi rivalry. In this post I will present al-Qaeda’s arguments for distancing itself from ISIL and add some analysis of its statements. In a couple of days I will return with the Islamic State’s response which is even juicier. I apologize that the post is not edited properly and wave my foreigner card and time constraints as my excuses.
Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) explains the decision to distance itself from ISIL as the result of the difference in approaches. It maintains that it is focused on fighting against the US and does not want to fall into engagement with ‘side skirmishes.’ Al-Qaeda seeks to unite the ummah and establish the Caliphate. These objectives require care not to shed innocents’ blood and the projection of a positive image; they cannot be accomplished if the group is viewed as seeking domination and as usurping others’ rights. As implied, ISIL, in contrast, wastes energies on secondary priorities, failing to identify accurately the central threat to the ummah, and consequently its strategy is bound to fail. The Islamic State is also committing a serious mistake as its aggressiveness severely damage its reputation and as a result alienate the public whose support it requires.