Sunday, September 07, 2014

Iraq Revisited - The Rise of ISIS

ISIS fighters prepare to execute captured Iraqi soldiers in Salahaddin
In some ways it actually feels as if we've gone back in time to the period between 2002 - 2011 during the ill-advised US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

This morning two of the major headlines on NPR news were about Iraq. The numbers are still hard to digest.

Nine years. 4,486 American service personnel killed. An estimated 129,065 to 144,562 Iraqi civilians killed; like WWII we'll never really know the total body count. And it's still ongoing, over 80 Iraqi civilians killed just this month alone.

The US has spent over 3 trillion dollars in Iraq (and counting). Now we're going back.

ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria have seized headlines this summer with their campaigns to take large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. They've flooded the Internet with photos and videos of the most horrific kinds of atrocities committed against their enemies; crucifixions, whippings, public executions, shootings and most recently the barbaric beheading of two American journalists captured in Syria.

ISIS has succeeded in inspiring a sense of fear. Politicians have already responded to that fear.

As you read this, ongoing US air operations striking and bombing ISIS targets in Iraq are expanding. The President has already ordered over 304 military advisers back into Iraq to help the besieged and unprepared Iraqi military. He's about to consult Congress to request additional funding to finance a plan to confront ISIS before it gets out of control and will address the nation this Wednesday.

This is awkward for our nation. Except for the Republican Hawks in Washington who dream of a state of perpetual war, most of the American public have long since wearied of the staggering human, ecological and financial costs of war.

In 2008 we elected Obama based in large part on his commitment to wind the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq down. But yet we all saw the images of the beheadings and know that something has to be done and suddenly we seem to be moving very quickly towards an unknown commitment. It feels confusing and rushed.

Here's a suggestion to help ease the sense of confusion. If you missed the July 29th episode of 'Frontline' on PBS entitled "Loosing Iraq", take some time and go online and watch it. You can also probably catch it on-demand on your cable provider.

The episode is an excellent and sobering recap of the US invasion and subsequent occupation. It's not easy to watch. Not so much because of the graphic video clips of some of the horrific images of the war, but because of how it spells out the monumental errors made by the US government.

You might also want to read Roy Scranton's excellent piece, "Back to Baghdad" in the July 17th issue of Rolling Stone. It offers some startling observations about Iraq from the perspective of an American veteran of the Iraq war returning after ten years.

The difficult truth is that bad foreign policy decisions made ISIS. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a Sunni fundamentalist organization (an off-shoot of Al Qaeda) that grew frustrated with being systematically excluded from the ruling Shi'ite government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Who, as the 'Frontline' episode "Loosing Iraq" notes, was an unimpressive, relatively unknown member of the Iraqi parliament, hand-picked from obscurity by the US to be the prime minister.

When the world did nothing to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from killing his own civilians and plunging the country into civil war, ISIS took advantage of the chaos and set up a foothold with the help foreign nationals from places as disparate as Chechnya, France, England and even America.

Their goal? Establish a (Sunni) Islamic Caliphate that stretches from Iraq to Syria.

Remember, Iran is dominated by Shi'ites; (the US actually worked secretly with Iran to prop up al-Maliki in Iraq). Saudi Arabia is dominated by Sunnis.

ISIS controls more territory than Al Qaeda ever had, they're bigger, much more well-armed, better financed, far more ruthless and they despise the United States. They've also got a lot of members with visas who are capable of entering the United States.

Do the math.   

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