GLOBAL. Years ago, in 2006, the combination of a full blown civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, a surprisingly powerful insurgency, and a foreign occupier unable to determine the identity of its enemy contributed to the peak of the violence during the entire U.S. led war in Iraq. U.S. credibility at stake, the Bush administration implemented a counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) in 2007, fathered by David Patraeus. The Obama administration offered Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki a bilateral security agreement—the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) of 2011—but the Iraqi government and population couldn’t stand to have U.S. troops remain for a day longer, so they kicked us out. Today, many foreign policy experts and security analysts believe this decision by Iraq was a huge mistake, and that if U.S. troops remained, they could have deterred extremists from organizing.
But is the Iraqi government really at fault? Not long after invading Iraq in 2003, generals and military experts strongly advised for the deployment of several hundred thousand troops for an adequate post-war settlement, a number the Bush administration refused to accommodate. Due to this discrepancy, the Iraqi occupation was never even close to being successful and the U.S. couldn’t police the state and effectively win over the “hearts and minds” of the population. They may have been democratized, but never quite on our side.
Where does ISIS come into play? ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (recently, renamed to just the Islamic State in light of their successes) was established during the peak of the violence, amongst a plethora of other groups vying for the control of the state. ISIS never quite established a stronghold in Syria, where rebel forces and the Syrian regime kicked them out as the conflict in Syria intensified. Moving westward, ISIS made its presence known in Iraq by early 2014 after claiming Fallujah, a town less than 50 miles from the nation’s capital.
ISIS is an extreme jihadi group—so extreme, that al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al Zawahiri cut off all ties to the group in February 2014. The rift between the two groups had been in the making since the Iraq war; Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, now changed to ISIS) had expanded his franchise into Syria amidst the civil war, against the al Qaeda leadership. Furthermore, Zawahiri was wary about Baghdadi’s brutal campaign of merciless mass slaughter. Yeah, you read that right. ISIS was too cruel for al Qaeda. The Islamic State’s goal is not unlike that of other Salafist Jihadi groups. They all want to establish Islamic Sharia law in the Middle East, providing an alternative to today’s corrupt yet Western-backed leaders. Although the two groups have a similar vision for jihad in the Middle East and beyond, the means by which the two wanted to achieve that vision was too different.
Why has the Iraqi government and army been standing idly by, while a non-state actor has been conquering dozens of towns? There have been reports that Iraqi commanding officers have put up a fight, but it isn’t sufficient enough to push ISIS out. The more likely explanation is that a considerable number of Iraqi officers abandoned their posts either in contempt of the Iraqi army or to escape a brutal capture and killing by ISIS.
As preposterous and outrageous ISIS’s actions may seem to outsiders, to Iraqis, particularly Sunnis that have been sidelined by the current Shiite coalition government, ISIS may be a viable alternative. Why? One word: governance. Iraqis perceive ISIS as an organization that can effectively establish order in a post-war government that can be characterized as nothing but corrupt and incompetent. There is a fundamental issue at hand: how do non-state actors govern a state? Some argue that non-state actors have little to lose and are more committed to their cause because they possess limited resources and wealth. Others believe that insurgencies are more likely to govern well if they have infiltrated the government they intend to overthrow.
Governance is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, without legitimacy. Though it is difficult to define and pinpoint legitimacy, it is generally considered to be a mutual binding relationship of authority between rulers and ruled. When it comes to ISIS, it may be perceived as legitimate in the eyes of the Iraqi population so long as the Iraqis see ISIS as having the right to control society and its rules worthy of being obeyed. In reality, legitimacy is twofold. Even if ISIS possesses this legitimacy (better known as internal legitimacy) it still has to work to gain external legitimacy. External legitimacy requires a sense of respect and popularity amongst other states, NGOs or IGOs—something that ISIS won’t gain any time soon. Legitimacy of a jihadi group may be undermined by the state that they occupy; that is Iraq can (and has) cut funding for programs and civil services to areas under the control of ISIS, which one hopes to turn the population against extremism (not unlike U.S. counterinsurgency strategy).
In the meantime, U.S. foreign policy options are very limited. Great Powers—especially the U.S.–should be more reluctant to take actions to escalate conflict in a state that could potentially spill over into other states, resulting in regional chaos. That is exactly what happened in 2011, where NATO’s involvement in Libya resulted in not only prolonged conflict but transformed the state into a breeding ground for jihadists. Some argue the Syrian civil war has produced the same results, but a NATO or U.S. involvement would have exacerbated the problem.
In summary, extremist non-state governance is actually quite paradoxical: jihadi weaknesses become more apparent when they gain territory and power. The more they interact with the population they are trying to control, they are more likely to alienate them and push them closer to the established government. For now, I guess we will have to wait and see what becomes of ISIS.