Yet another terrifying lesson in the perils of blowback
Der Spiegel has published a fascinating must-read about the real brains behind ISIS and how it came to be. They've come into possession of documents from a shadowy figure who was the real mastermind. And guess what? He was not really a religious fanatic at all. He was a top strategic thinker in Saddam Hussein's military. And he didn't plan to create an Islamic State per se, but rather a totalitarian state in the mode of East Germany using religion as the ostensible motivation and cover.
You have to read the whole thing to understand how much we seem to be misunderstanding the original of this "caliphate" business --- at least the original intention. (Who knows what it has really morphed into today ...) This part, however, is of serious importance to anyone who follows national security policy and wants to ensure the US doesn't contribute to more disasters like the one currently happening in the middle east:
So the genesis of ISIS is really in the inane decision to "de-Bathify" and leave a bunch of highly trained soldiers (many of them trained by the US) humiliated and without any means of support --- then later imprison them all together for years so they could hatch plans to re-take the region and wreak revenge on their enemies. It could not be any dumber.
There is a simple reason why there is no mention in Bakr's writings of prophecies relating to the establishment of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God: He believed that fanatical religious convictions alone were not enough to achieve victory. But he did believe that the faith of others could be exploited.
In 2010, Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir and later "caliph," the official leader of the Islamic State. They reasoned that Baghdadi, an educated cleric, would give the group a religious face.
Bakr was "a nationalist, not an Islamist," says Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi, as he recalls the former career officer, who was stationed with Hashimi's cousin at the Habbaniya Air Base. "Colonel Samir," as Hashimi calls him, "was highly intelligent, firm and an excellent logistician." But when Paul Bremer, then head of the US occupational authority in Baghdad, "dissolved the army by decree in May 2003, he was bitter and unemployed."
Thousands of well-trained Sunni officers were robbed of their livelihood with the stroke of a pen. In doing so, America created its most bitter and intelligent enemies. [my emphasis] Bakr went underground and met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Anbar Province in western Iraq. Zarqawi, a Jordanian by birth, had previously run a training camp for international terrorist pilgrims in Afghanistan. Starting in 2003, he gained global notoriety as the mastermind of attacks against the United Nations, US troops and Shiite Muslims. He was even too radical for former Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi died in a US air strike in 2006.
Although Iraq's dominant Baath Party was secular, the two systems ultimately shared a conviction that control over the masses should lie in the hands of a small elite that should not be answerable to anyone -- because it ruled in the name of a grand plan, legitimized by either God or the glory of Arab history. The secret of IS' success lies in the combination of opposites, the fanatical beliefs of one group and the strategic calculations of the other.
Bakr gradually became one of the military leaders in Iraq, and he was held from 2006 to 2008 in the US military's Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib Prison. He survived the waves of arrests and killings by American and Iraqi special units, which threatened the very existence of the IS precursor organization in 2010, Islamic State in Iraq.
For Bakr and a number of former high-ranking officers, this presented an opportunity to seize power in a significantly smaller circle of jihadists. They utilized the time they shared in Camp Bucca to establish a large network of contacts. But the top leaders had already known each other for a long time. Haji Bakr and an additional officer were part of the tiny secret-service unit attached to the anti-aircraft division. Two other IS leaders were from a small community of Sunni Turkmen in the town of Tal Afar. One of them was a high-ranking intelligence officer as well.
In 2010, the idea of trying to defeat Iraqi government forces militarily seemed futile. But a powerful underground organization took shape through acts of terror and protection rackets. When the uprising against the dictatorship of the Assad clan erupted in neighboring Syria, the organization's leaders sensed an opportunity. By late 2012, particularly in the north, the formerly omnipotent government forces had largely been defeated and expelled. Instead, there were now hundreds of local councils and rebel brigades, part of an anarchic mix that no one could keep track of. It was a state of vulnerability that the tightly organized group of ex-officers sought to exploit.
Attempts to explain IS and its rapid rise to power vary depending on who is doing the explaining. Terrorism experts view IS as an al-Qaida offshoot and attribute the absence of spectacular attacks to date to what they view as a lack of organizational capacity. Criminologists see IS as a mafia-like holding company out to maximize profit. Scholars in the humanities point to the apocalyptic statements by the IS media department, its glorification of death and the belief that Islamic State is involved in a holy mission.
But apocalyptic visions alone are not enough to capture cities and take over countries. Terrorists don't establish countries. And a criminal cartel is unlikely to generate enthusiasm among supporters around the world, who are willing to give up their lives to travel to the "Caliphate" and potentially their deaths.
IS has little in common with predecessors like al-Qaida aside from its jihadist label. There is essentially nothing religious in its actions, its strategic planning, its unscrupulous changing of alliances and its precisely implemented propaganda narratives. Faith, even in its most extreme form, is just one of many means to an end. Islamic State's only constant maxim is the expansion of power at any price.
But then we knew that at the time.This review of Imperial Life in the Emerald City will remind you what happened if it all seems so far away:
Imperial Life is the bureaucratic story of Iraq's Year 1, the year after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, when the United States was the legal occupying power and responsible for the country's administration. The primary mechanism for that work was the Coalition Provisional Authority, headquartered in the Green Zone, a blast-barrier-encased compound created around Hussein's Baghdad palace, on the west bank of the Tigris. Chandrasekaran, The Washington Post's Baghdad bureau chief during this period, catalogs a lethal combination of official arrogance and ineptitude behind those walls that doomed Iraq to its bloody present every bit as much as insufficient military manpower did.
To begin with, the C.P.A.'s recruitment policy would have shamed Tammany Hall. Loyalty to George W. Bush and the Republican Party was apparently the prime criterion for getting work at the C.P.A. To determine their suitability for positions in Iraq, some prospective employees were asked their views on Roe v. Wade. Others were asked whom they voted for in 2000. Republican congressmen, conservative think tanks and party activists were all solicited by the White House's liaison at the Pentagon, James O'Beirne, to suggest possible staffers.
Before the war began, Frederick M. Burkle Jr. was assigned to oversee Iraq's health care system. He had a r?m?o die for: a physician with a master's degree in public health, and postgraduate degrees from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Berkeley. He also had two bronze stars for military service in the Navy, as well as field experience with the Kurds in northern Iraq after the 1991 gulf war. A week after the liberation, he was told he was being replaced because, Chandrasekaran writes, ''a senior official at USAID told him that the White House wanted a 'loyalist' in the job.''
That loyalist was James K. Haveman Jr., who had been recommended by the former Michigan governor John Engler. Haveman's r?m?ncluded running a Christian adoption agency that counseled young women against abortions. He spent much of his time in Iraq preparing to privatize the state-owned drug supply firm -- perhaps not the most important priority since almost every hospital in the country had been thoroughly looted in the days after Hussein was overthrown.
On page after page, Chandrasekaran details other projects of the C.P.A.'s bright young Republican ideologues -- like modernizing the Baghdad stock exchange, or quickly privatizing every service that had previously been provided by the state. Some of these ideas would have been laudable if they were being planned for a country with functioning power and water supplies, and that wasn't tottering on the brink of anarchy.
But how could these young Americans have known what life was like for ordinary Iraqis since they never left the Green Zone? Instead, they turned the place into something like a college campus. After a hard day of dreaming up increasingly improbable projects, the kids did what kids do -- headed for the bar and looked for a hookup. As for the Iraqis, they were conspicuous by their absence.
Presiding over this unreal world was the American viceroy, L. Paul Bremer III, who comes across in this book as a man who has read one C.E.O. memoir too many, a man who knew his mind and would not have his decisions changed by the inconvenient reality of Iraqi life just outside the blast barriers. All of this would be funny in a Joseph Heller kind of way if tens of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers weren't to die because of the decisions made by the C.P.A., the Pentagon and the White House.
In Chandrasekaran's account, all the arrogance, stubbornness and desire for career advancement crystallized at the end of March 2004, when Bremer decided to shut down a newspaper published by the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. With typical high-handedness, he made the decision without thinking through the possible consequences. He had no military backup plan if Sadr decided to fight and, predictably, Sadr's Mahdi Army did fight back. Within a few days four American private security operatives were ambushed and killed in Falluja, their mutilated bodies hung from a bridge over the Euphrates. Suddenly, a year after overthrowing Hussein, the United States was fighting Shiite insurgents on one front and Sunni insurgents on another.
I'm sure most of you recall the accounts of the Bush administration's malfeasance during the early post-war. (If not, you should read the book --- it's mind-boggling.) You cannot fully comprehend the debacle that was the Iraq war without recalling those early decisions. Yes, the invasion itself was so daft it's hard to believe we actually did it. But I don't think anyone, including the Democrats who foolishly went along with it, were prepared for the astonishing ineptitude of the Bush administration in the aftermath in which they hired inexperienced college interns, GOP hacks and operatives and ideological zealots to "re-build" the country in the image of the Heritage Foundation's fondest wet-dreams. (I always thought Imperial Life in the Emerald City should actually be turned into a musical comedy in order to get the true feel for the outrageousness of the whole thing..)
I think we always knew that the seeds of the current debacle were being planted during that period. But I didn't know before this latest article that ISIS specifically stemmed from Saddam's old coterie. It's certainly possible that his original idea has simply morphed into a catch-all terrorist "brand" kind of like Coke or Kleenex. But the fact that it was originally cooked up by Saddam's old henchmen as a way to re-take their territory using the current religious fanaticism of the moment as an inspiration is yet another terrifying lesson in the perils of blowback.
Update: The hits just keep on coming. Yet another case where our alleged desire to "help" ended up in disaster.