“All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there and cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses…” — Osama bin Laden
On the last day of March, in 2004, four American contractors were ambushed and killed in the western Iraqi city of Fallujah. Mutilated and immolated by a mob, their remains were strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River.
Barely a month later, in May, Nicholas Berg, a young American who had traveled to Iraq looking for work and had been captured, was beheaded.
Videos of the swinging American bodies and Berg’s execution were posted online and aired hourly on cable television. Americans were horrified and shocked. Operation Iraqi Freedom was unraveling. With this graphic confirmation of barbarity and terror President Bush reacted forcefully, desperate to demonstrate American resolve, strength and revenge.
U.S. Marines attacked twice into Fallujah, in April and then again in November 2004. In some of the worst fighting of the war, large parts of the city were destroyed, thousands killed and the majority of the city displaced. Throughout Iraq, American forces went on the offensive, attempting to stamp out “terrorists” by launching greater and more violent operations than had been seen since the invasion.
This military action, which was quite successful in sheer numbers of Iraqis killed or interned in detention camps, backfired as the often arbitrary, uncontrollable and escalatory nature of violence, as so happens in war, further enflamed hatred of the foreign occupation and led to greater Iraqi support, directly and indirectly, to the insurgency. This, in turn, strengthened al-Qaeda in Iraq, as well as al-Qaeda’s broader global narrative of fighting “Crusaders” and defending Muslims. When the release of the Abu Ghraib torture photos added to this narrative, thousands of outraged Muslim men traveled to Iraq to join al-Qaeda’s cause and fight the Americans.
Alongside this increased military action, the U.S. accelerated the transfer of “sovereignty” to the Iraqis through an inept political process that replaced the incompetent American-led Coalition Provisional Authority with a corrupt network of mostly Shia expatriate Iraqis. This interim government in Baghdad, full of Iraqis whose chief qualification was that they spoke English and dressed in Western suits, oversaw a political vacuum that deepened the chaos.
Shia groups battled other Shia groups for power and money in Baghdad; Sunnis and Shias massacred one another; minorities, such as Turkmens and Christians, fled Baghdad; the Kurds smartly walled themselves off in their homeland in North Iraq; and everyone who was not on the United States payroll fought the Americans, primarily young American men, many really boys, who were mired in a rising and bloody civil war in which they were ordered to pick winners and losers, with the barrel of a rifle, in a society and land they did not understand. With that, 500,000 Iraqis were killed, millions wounded and maimed, and one in eight Iraqis were displaced forcibly from their homes in a civil war that is still raging ten years later.
Now, in 2014, with the ghastly beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, America is poised to make the same mistakes. While escalating American airstrikes and sending more troops to Iraq may assuage the fear and horror affecting the American public, and motivating America’s politicians, acting on those feelings will ensure greater conflict and loss.
The Islamic State, like al Qaeda, requires the United States to serve as a villain in order for the Islamic State to receive manpower, logistics and financial support from Sunni Muslim communities. Additionally, an American military re-entry into the Iraqi Civil War in support of Shia and Kurdish factions, without lasting and serious political concessions from Baghdad towards Sunni grievances, will worsen the same political disenfranchisement and sense of existential danger that has pushed the Sunnis to align with the Islamic State. In the short-term American bombs may hurt the Islamic State, but in the long-term it is what they need and want.
The Islamic State is a parasite of war. Its members and its narrative need war for their personal, organizational and ideological validation and success. That is why the only way to defeat the Islamic State is to take the war away from them. Abandoning support to all sides in the conflict, including oil sales from the Iraqi government and American support for the oil fields seized by the Kurds this summer, will put all sides of the Iraqi Civil War at a disadvantage and force concessions in order to meet Sunni grievances. Achieving a permanent political solution will divorce the Islamic State from the Sunni community. Notions of American support to a Shia and Kurdish invasion of Sunni lands, again, will only strengthen the Islamic State by giving them the Sunni population’s support they require and by feeding into the Islamic State’s members own romantic visions of their historical and divine place defending Islam.
In our rush to return to war in Iraq we are playing into the Islamic State’s hands, just as we played into the hands of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 and into Osama bin Laden’s larger strategy with our morally disastrous Global War on Terror, including the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in reaction to the 9/11 attacks.
After tens of thousands of American dead and wounded, with veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq killing themselves at rates three times greater than their civilian peers, and with a total cost of the wars projected at six trillion dollars, it is safe to say that Bin Laden’s goals, with respect to the above quote, have largely been achieved.
We seem likely to take the bait again.