Once again club members had an opportunity to hear the complexities of the situation in the Middle East unraveled for us by a true expert, Dr. Farouk al-Nasser of the World Affairs Council of San Diego. Although he had addressed the club last September and gave us some historical context this month he had time to provide a more complete view of the situation.
The key historical aspect that must be understood starts with the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the year 632. After his death a period of five caliphs followed, which was the beginning of the Sunni-Shia split at the heart of the conflict that has prevailed ever since. The differences between them relate to whom each sect sees as rightful heir to the Prophet, whether it be bloodline inheritance or not. Although the sects differ in various ways regarding doctrine and law, they share the same fundamental beliefs. Of the 1.6 billion Muslims globally, Sunnis make up 85% of that population. Indonesia, Pakistan and India are the three (in that order) largest Muslim populations, all in Central Asia. The Middle East area followed by North Africa have much smaller Muslim populations by comparison.
The Sunnis have 4 different sects and the roots of ISIS can be found in one of them, the Hanbali sect dominant in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Furthermore, the Hanbali has a smaller subgroup called the Wahabis, from which ISIS hails. This also happens to be the smallest sect of them all representing only about 12 million people.
Fast forward to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In spite of Colin Powell’s advice of “You break it, you own it,” then President Bush didn’t listen. According to Dr. al-Nasser, “The minute that statue of Saddam fell we became occupiers with responsibility to rebuild the government.” Dr. al-Nasser spent 7 months there in 2003 and witnessed firsthand the incompetency of the American contingent sent in to attempt building peace. But the contractors and diplomats who arrived lacked both the political and cultural knowledge as most were simply “incompetent civilians” appointed by Congressional members.
For example, Dr. al-Nasser was working for SAIC, a contracting company, just after the invasion. SAIC set up the “Iraq Reconstruction Development Corp” to begin the rebuilding process. The two people appointed to lead this effort were a Mormon missionary and an owner of a U.S. ice cream parlor! Well intentioned with no experience and by the time they were replaced it was too late.
Moreover American in-fighting began over what strategy to pursue to succeed. Colin Powell continued insisting we need to secure the peace. Gen. Shinseki indicated he would need 250,000-300,000 troops on the ground to achieve it but Paul Wolfowitz (who never served in the military) said he didn’t know what Gen. Shinseki was talking about. Meanwhile looting continued, with a small U.S. force protecting only the Oil Ministry.
The U.S. made multiple blunders, of which three were key:
- “De-Bathification” efforts instantly created 1 million enemies;
- Dissolving of the Iraqi Army and Security Forces;
- Inadequate troop levels.
The Iraqi Army only cared about protecting their county – Saddam had his own protective force in the Republican Guard – but the U.S. still proceeded to arrest and imprison all “Bathists”, approximately 24,000, and placed them in one of 24 U.S. prison camps. These prisons became Jihadist breeding grounds and were known as “Terrorism Training Academies”. Prisoners spent their time building their networks, discussing tactics and strategies and meeting like thinkers. They exchanged their contact information by marking it inside the elastic bands of their underwear, and upon release the forces of ISIS were set in motion.
Although it is touted that the 2006 “surge” was successful it actually was only a partial military success as the political element was missing. Tribal leaders upon whom our military relied to root out the terrorists among them wanted those who fought in the surge, about 100,000 Iraqi forces, to become part of the standing security forces. But Maliki, who was leading the country at that time, instead started jailing them. Eventually Maliki even refused to allow the U.S. military to stay, pushed by Iran who by 2011 occupied and infiltrated Iraq in all political aspects. Although President Obama pushed Maliki hard he did not succeed and U.S. forces exited Iraq in 2011.
With the ensuing war in Syria, the now active ISIS fighters gained a base of operations that allowed them to cross over into Iraq. ISIS thrived with many sympathizers because of Maliki’s policies against the Sunnis and endemic corruption at “every level of life”.
Today, ISIS are masters of social media for recruitment of fighters. The largest influx of foreign fighters is from Tunisia followed by Saudi Arabia. When Dr. al-Nasser was asked if sending a large force of U.S. ground troops would defeat them he said that would only attract more foreign fighters. What ISIS wants is to fight another Crusade – “Believers against the Crusaders” – and we can’t give them that.
The reality is that this is an ideological and cultural war within Islam and it’s only a very small minority (.0025%) who support ISIS. Only other Muslim countries will be able to solve this conflict. Military defeat alone will not end it unless accompanied by resolution of regional and sectarian differences. As Michael Mullen has said, “Without political progress no amount of military involvement will solve it.”