Al Qaeda was America’s Frankenstein. The U.S. foreign policy establishment helped bring it to life to fight the Soviet Union after its ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It turned on its creator, culminating in the September 11 attacks, and has largely been vanquished.
That’s far from the end of the story, however. The ascent of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has consolidated control over nearly half of Iraq and much of Syria, indicates that U.S. policy has created a new Frankenstein. Washington was shocked when Iraq’s army in the North disintegrated when ISIL seized the city of Mosul in June. But the White House had a convenient excuse as to why the Iraqi state on the brink of collapse: sectarianism.
American politicians and pundits fingered Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as the villain. The story goes that Maliki, after being re-elected in 2010, intensified sectarian policies of punishing Sunni Arabs who opposed his rule, violently squashing protests, and targeting senior Sunni political figures.
There is truth to these claims. Under Maliki, Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, was sentenced to death in 2012 by hanging for allegedly running death squads. Last year, Maliki repeatedly ordered security forces to attack sit-ins by Sunni Arabs discontent with being shut out of political influence, jobs, and economic aid, killing dozens of protesters.
However, the sectarian narrative whitewashes the U.S. role in the conflict. Sectarianism is premised on the idea that internal forces springing from ancient religious and ethnic divisions account for the strife. The United States is cast as a bystander, bumbling and misguided at worst, a well-intentioned if exasperated referee at best.
In reality, sectarianism in Iraq is a cover for conflicts over who controls the state, security forces, patronage, jobs, and the oil industry. More important, the U.S. occupation in Iraq weaponized sectarianism. During the first year of the occupation, the American-formed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Pentagon imposed political and military policies to punish the Sunni Arab population, which it viewed as bulwarks of Saddam Hussein’s regime and his Ba’ath party. Since then, as revolts and more wars have convulsed the Middle East, the United States and allies such as Israel, the Egyptian military, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, have regionalized the sectarian divide as a strategy to weaken Iran and its allies in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. Thus, sectarianism is not endemic to Iraqi society or the Muslim world but a result of carefully crafted decisions by states designed to pursue geopolitical interests.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it brought along the Iraq Governing Council as a fig leaf for the occupation. Composed of two Kurdish parties, former Ba’athists, and secular and religious Shi’a parties, it had little legitimacy or experience governing. It had little power under the CPA, which focused on dismantling the state. In May 2003 CPA Procounsel Paul Bremer, a protégé of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, ordered a “de-Ba’athification” program, throwing 30,000 government employees out of work. Bremer disbanded the Iraqi military and security services, tried to eliminate their pensions, and put in motion a plan to privatize state-owned enterprises, which employed thousands more. The orders turned half-a-million Iraqis and their families into opponents of the U.S. occupation. The CPA alienated pretty much everyone else by firing civil-service employees and spending valuable time vetting those remaining in ministries that ran health, sanitation, electricity and the like, leaving it unable to restore needed public services.
At the same time, U.S. forces rolled into regions north and west of Baghdad, which saw little fighting during the three-week invasion, but where Sunni Arabs, Ba’ath party members, and senior military personnel were concentrated. Sending heavily armed American youth with no knowledge of language, culture, or customs ensured deadly encounters, such as the April 2003 killing of more than a dozen protesters in separate incidents in Fallujah, a city that became infamous for resistance to the U.S. occupation.
But the resistance was never limited to Sunni Arabs (most Kurds are also Sunni). Millions of Shi’a in Baghdad also felt the sting of the military occupation and a vindictive and indifferent CPA. Plus, Iraqis had no choice in their leaders. Only the two Kurdish parties had any real support, but that was limited to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan where they ruled with an iron fist. Otherwise, the politicians who rode in on U.S. tanks were seen as interlopers who enjoyed a cushy life in exile while the average Iraqi suffered decades of war, sanctions, cruelty, deprivation and bombings, much of it attributable to the United States.
The U.S. occupation was remarkable in its ability to alienate Iraqis, with armed resistance flowering in mere weeks. U.S. forces came down hard on Sunni Arabs with deadly checkpoints and curfews, villages layered in razor wires and patrols with shoot-to-kill orders. This was complemented by “cordon-and-sweep” operations, house raids, and mass imprisonment and torture in prisons like Abu Ghraib. In 2004, Bremer sparked a revolt by poor urban Shi’a after he cracked down on followers of the populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
April 2004 was the high point of the national resistance, with twin Sunni-Shi’a uprisings that tipped Iraq into chaos. U.S. forces hung on by bombing civilians in Fallujah and Baghdad, but Washington needed a plan B, and it found an answer in a dirty war. When the CPA passed the baton to Ayad Allawi, a former associate of Saddam Hussein, in June 2004, the CIA had already conferred with Allawi on setting up paramilitary units such as the Special Police Commandos to fight the insurgency. The idea was ex-Ba’athists would be best at hunting former Ba’athists among the guerrillas. It allowed the Pentagon to distance itself from extrajudicial killings and torture, especially after Abu Ghraib was revealed to be a poorly supervised dungeon of horrors.
In January 2005 the parties that made up the Iraqi Governing Council grabbed the lion’s share of parliamentary seats in U.S.-organized national elections. Nearly all Sunni Arabs boycotted the poll because of the intensity of the military repression that culminated in the destruction of Fallujah in November 2004. Because of the intensity of the Iraqi resistance, both military and civil, the United States was unable to privatize Iraq’s oil industry. At the same time the winning parties lacked national appeal or a vision for Iraq. They fell back on mobilizing ethnic, religious, kinship, and patronage networks on the outside and horse trading on the outside to secure state power and resources. One consequence is the Shi’a parties that came into office in 2005 leveraged the security forces, especially the death squads, to solidify their support.
The United States created a state that thrived on sectarian strife and corruption, closing space for a broader national opposition as individuals sought safety along communal lines as the sectarian violence intensified. But the fundamental battle was still over resources. Individuals often benefited with new homes or jobs violently seized from rivals. The parties and politicians licked their chops in grasping for the oil industry. The tens of billions of dollars in annual oil revenue is a huge pot of money to buy political support, finance militias, funnel to business allies, dispense to favored communities, or just to loot for personal gain.
The Pentagon finally switched course in 2007 with its much-vaunted “surge” strategy, a point at which nearly 100 U.S. troops were dying monthly and the country was roiled in a civil war that saw at least 3,000 Iraqis being killed a month. More troops were dispatched to Iraq, but the tactic that made the biggest difference was putting legions of unemployed Sunnis on the U.S. payroll, providing salaries to stop fighting while backing away from blanket repression of Sunni Arabs. This also allowed the U.S. to turn the screws on Sadr’s armed followers, known as the Mahdi Army, because they were isolated in the political sphere and from most other resistance groups.
U.S. policy resulted in a weak state, corrupt and authoritarian parties, and ill-trained and vicious security forces. Despite the 2011 pull-out of nearly all U.S. forces, it left behind the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, believed to harbor hundreds of CIA and intelligence staff, along with thousands of military contractors. Washington also kept providing arms, training, and support to Iraqi forces, making it the dominant power in Iraq.
Iraqi scholar Sabah Alnasseri notes this fragmented state is not accidental or incidental to U.S. interests, but is the desired outcome even if events sometimes spin out of control, as with ISIL. Iraq has been downsized from being a threat to Israel and the most powerful state in the Arab world on the eve of its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Its oil industry is within the U.S. sphere of influence and Iraq’s production is the highest it’s been in decades, with 2.5 million barrels a day exported in June. That some oil fields are being developed by Chinese or Russian companies is irrelevant. What matters is U.S. dominance, which holds sway over a former pillar of OPEC. The current strife in Iraq has created a soft partition between the Sunni West, Kurdish forces in the North, and Shi’a groups in the South, where the vast majority of oil production is taking place under relative security. The conflict also gives the Obama administration an excuse to intervene more in Iraq’s internal affairs while making the state even more dependent on U.S. power.
U.S. policies have devastated the people of Iraq and Syria, and they could backfire just like Al Qaeda did. Iraq is a battlefield of conflicting U.S. interests. It backed Shi’a forces against Sunni Arabs, bringing to power a government that tilts toward Iran even as it fights Iran’s allies in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. ISIL is an offshoot of Al Qaeda and earlier permutations in Iraq that fought the Americans. By the end of last decade Al Qaeda had alienated many Sunnis in Iraq. Syria gave it a new lease on life where it morphed into ISIL and took root as a chief opponent of the Assad regime, which is allied with Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbullah, a populist Shi’a movement that has fought multiple wars with Israel over the last 30 years.
Iraq is raking in close to $2 billion a week in oil exports, but little is flowing to Sunni areas in Western Iraq that are bereft of proper farming conditions or a developed energy industry. ISIL has cashed in not with religion, but with Sunni discontent on being shut out of jobs, aid, and state power by Maliki and his allies, and then killed when they protested. Maliki plays the sectarian card because it attracts U.S. attention and military support and allows him to demonize his opponents. But even as a propaganda ploy it’s wearing thin as Maliki is now accusing the secular Kurds of allying with ISIL despite open conflict between the two.
U.S. and Israeli policy toward Syria is a cynical balance of wanting to weaken Assad by aiding the armed opposition to his brutal rule but not trying to strike a decisive blow as that would bring unknown forces to power or resolve the conflict through diplomatic or political means as that would leave Assad in power, representing a victory for Hizbullah and Iran. Rebel sources in Syria claimed in September 2013 they were receiving arms such as anti-tank weapons from the United States that were financed by the Saudis. The armed opposition in Syria consists of a staggering 1,500 groups, however, and most fighters are with Islamist or Jihadi forces such as ISIL or the recognized Al Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front. ISIL claimed last year that it was buying anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons from rebels that Washington is allegedly arming.
The situation is similar to the Afghanistan War. There have been rumors for decades that the CIA backed Al Qaeda in the 1980s. There is not definitive proof that Osama bin Laden was a CIA asset, but the United States did turn the region into a petri dish for violent religious fanatics known as the Mujahideen. Some 12,500 foreign fighters “were trained in bomb-making, sabotage and urban guerrilla warfare in Afghan camps the CIA helped to set up.” The United States paid little concern to its monstrous creation as long as it was tangling with the Soviet Union. It’s nearly as blasé about fundamentalists at war with Assad’s Syria. The United States and its allies, especially the Saudis, flooded both conflicts with guns and cash, guaranteeing Syria would also become a lightning rod for Islamist forces.
The Saudis want to pummel Assad’s regime as a way to inflict a blow on Iran, which sees itself as the leader of oppressed Shi’a brethren. There is a small Shi’a population in the Eastern Province of the Arabian Peninsula, which holds enormous oil reserves. The Shi’a in Saudi Arabia are marginalized, and following the 1979 Iranian Revolution they pushed for fairer distribution of oil wealth. In 2011 the Saudis led other Gulf States in an invasion of nearby Bahrain to support the royal family and quash a peaceful pro-democracy movement among the majority Shia’s there. Since that time, Shi’a in Saudi Arabia have been agitating for reforms and sometimes using violence to counter state repression. One Shi’a in the Eastern Province told a reporter, “You are now standing on top of oilfields that feed the whole world. But we see nothing of it. Poverty, hunger, no honor, no political freedom, we have nothing.”
It’s unlikely the Saudi state is funding ISIL, which are at odds. But the Saudis are reportedly funding its rivals in Syria, such as the Army of Islam. The naked pursuit of territorial, economic, and military interests has regionalized the conflict that has little to do with sectarianism. That the region is dividing into two camps is a twisted victory of sorts for the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The silence of much of the Arab world on Israel’s horrific assault on Gaza stems from the isolation of Iran and the destabilization of Syria. The counter-revolution in Egypt has been especially detrimental to Gaza, with the Egyptian military dictatorship closing the borders with Gaza and lining up with Tel Aviv and Washington in punishing Hamas for Israeli aggression.
Politicians and generals may think they can control the monsters they’ve spawned. But unlike Al Qaeda, which needed a patron in the form of the Taliban, ISIL is building its own state in a region of utmost importance to Empire, not a backwater like Afghanistan. It’s increasingly inevitable that Frankenstein will return. Thanks to U.S. policies, they are more fanatical, better financed and more powerful than ever.
Arun Gupta is a regular contributor to The Guardian, In These Times, and Al Jazeera America.