While ISIS have lost ground of late, national stability in Iraq is a distant goal. Unity is not in Iraq’s past, nor probably its future either.
In a week when Donald Trump gave cause for another round of international head-scratching by connecting the Obama Administration with the very founding of the Islamic State (IS) militant group, there was some implied optimism in the press about the future of Iraq. IS is weakening, it is said. The group might very well lose control of Mosul by the end of the year. A positive development to be sure, but not much else.
The difficult campaign to reverse the gains of IS, a group responsible for both regional and international destruction, is a struggle worth having. Indeed, there have been measurable successes this year in taking parts of Iraq back from IS; a few steps on the path to the restoration of a truly devastated nation-state. Yet therein lies the biggest dilemma: what does it actually mean to restore Iraq? Is it even possible?
A short memory will leave you at the conclusion that the splintering of Iraq, and the subsequent rise of IS, had its cause solely in a faulty Western-led intervention scheme. That the invasion of 2003 was botched, hasty, and plausibly criminal is clear to anyone of knowledge on the subject. Moreover, the withdrawal in 2011 was itself miscalculated and, given the inability of the Iraqi military to defend its own state, far too early. (It was, in effect, giving up on a major project – a regime change – without reaching as far as half-way toward its completion).
Yet a short memory enlightens you only to a small portion of the story, and leaves out some important bits of history. As Jessica Stern and John Berger wrote in their 2015 book, ISIS: The State of Terror, “The West has spent decades trying to impose structures of politics and governance, and the results sadly speak for themselves.” It is a kind of work that can never truly be finished. Not all of it, however, involves the West.
Understanding the reason for the near-impossibility of an Iraqi reconstruction requires a longer memory. What the Coalition did in 2003 was not create otherwise non-existent division in Iraq, but exacerbate sectarian cleavages that already existed, showing the fragility of the country’s seams. Those seams were, as far as the constituents of a disintegrated Ottoman Empire were concerned, entirely arbitrary at the time of their sewing. The post-World War I British and French design for a new Mesopotamia (Iraq and its surrounds, as traditionally known) was a problematic one – the people of the new country did not select its frontiers, nor did they select its government.
What must be understood is the sheer difficulty of restructuring a state the history of which has been stalked by coups and eroded by dictatorship – a state in which a vision of a nation has not been properly conceived.
When Iraq did finally become independent from British rule in 1932, it was supposed to be headed towards the discovery of a national identity and, ideally, a tradition of democratic governance. Instead, it faced so many coups that for leaders, staying in power became effectively impossible (some administrations lasted for less than a year). The leaders were also representative only of the Sunni minority, much to the vexation of Shias and Kurds. It is important also to recall that the Kurdish people, who occupy a precarious northern part of Iraq (sharing a contested border with Turkey), were for all that time completely estranged from the state under which they lived. Sectarianism was not always violent, but it was present so long as the meaning of “Iraqi” was hard to come by.
Though he had been in government since 1968, what Saddam Hussein attempted in his thirty-four-year rule after seizing exclusive power in 1979 was, through sheer oppression, to construct the meaning of “Iraqi” as he thought it should be. First, he desired Iraq to be the leading Arab nationalist state. Then, by the time the United States invaded in 1990 to reverse the horrific annexation of Kuwait, the tune changed: Iraq became, according to Saddam, a holy state pursuing its interests despite the resistance and assault of infidels.
By claiming a monopoly on truth and destroying all effective opposition to his rule, Saddam did not create a legitimate national identity – he made the situation even more hollow than it was when he took it over. The power vacuum exploited by IS, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and others since the 2011 mass-withdrawal of Coalition forces was therefore as expansive as they could ever have wanted it to be.
I have, it may reasonably seem, drawn a very bleak picture of Iraqi history. But bleakness is not what I mean to show. What must be understood is the sheer difficulty of restructuring a state the history of which has been stalked by coups and eroded by dictatorship. It is a state in which a vision of a nation has not been properly conceived, and that is the kind of problem which might never be solved. Competition over national identity need not be splittingly violent, but because of certain forces and events (only a few of which I have had space to show you here), division in Iraq is continuously violent.
I do not know what the solution is, and I would be sceptical of anyone who claims as much, but I think it is the case that unity is the unlikeliest of outcomes. This is not because of some superficial idea that federalism in Iraq is not “meant to be”, but that the construction and history of the Iraqi state makes cooperation the most difficult of tasks. But why give up? Parts of the thirteen-point-plan of 2003 were idealistic, yet admirable in purpose. To achieve its goals would be truly remarkable.