M.A. Shiwani: The Islamic State, 2.0? 

It is very clear that state-building and strategic development is no more a priority for the Trump Administration.

After a nine-month-long military campaign and a resultant refugee crisis that has affected more than half a million people, Mosul, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has finally been “liberated” from the hold of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). What is left behind, however, seems indifferentiable from the ancient, obliterated walls of Troy. This, the prime minister claims, is still a “great victory for all of Iraq and Iraqis”. For anyone remotely familiar with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, such claims are traumatizingly similar to those made by the United States of America following its, ‘success’ in the war. It seems as if the result of Iraq’s previous, ‘liberation’, whereby Saddam Hussein was hanged and then Iraq was left for dead — much like a beast disposes of a carcass after it is done clawing on its flesh— have been forgotten.

Here, it is important to note that the situation in Iraq after the war of 2003 was worse than the pre-war situation, with 70,000 people cumulatively losing their lives under Saddam Hussein but more than 100,000 Iraqis being killed only in 2013. Is it, then, not alarming that the, ‘successes’ of 2017 are strikingly similar to the, ‘successes’ of 2003? Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri — a former chairman of the United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee, in his book, Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos presents a, ‘viscous cycle of perilous interventions’, where he proves that one military intervention for ‘liberation’ is usually cause for a subsequent military intervention, also for, ‘liberation’. This is essentially because a military intervention for regime change is often followed by an increasingly threatened strategic security environment that exacerbates social and political tensions, especially through economic deprivation, establishing regions as breeding grounds for non-state actors.

These actors then use the deteriorating social fabric of their respective regions to garner political capital in support of their objectives, thus creating a stream of legitimacy that serves as an alternate to the state. Their objectives, however, are either inherently threatening to the populace (such as a radical implementation of the Sharia Law) or seek to disrupt world order (such as pan-Islamism), thus requiring curtailment through another intervention. Puri’s claims have also been backed by an analysis of conflict around the world by professors at Stanford University, who conclude that regions with income that is less than $1000 per capita are associated with, “41 percent greater odds that civil war will break out in a given year”.

A prime case in point is Iraq; the decimation of Iraq during the war of 2003 and the failure of the US to ensure that the post-war state apparatus musters even a vague perception of functionality turned the country into a nursery for ISIS, who won the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqi populace by providing food, shelter, and security. Once ISIS developed into a political and military force strong enough to establish its own de-facto rule in Iraq and implement its radical interpretation of the Shariah Law, it carried out severe violations of human rights domestically, whilst also preparing Iraq to be the global centre for its pan-Islamic ambitions. The US then intervened to ‘liberate’ Iraq for a second time, with the sole change being the antagonist.

It is very clear that state-building and strategic development is no more a priority for the Trump Administration. Trump has already proposed a nearly $26 billion decrease in the budget for diplomacy and foreign aid next year and, in the words of the New York Times:

Promoting development is clearly not part of his tool kit. He is focused on guns.

Do places like Mosul, then, not seem ideal for the creation of an Islamic State 2.0?

Currently, there are more than 400,000 Iraqis that have been displaced from western Mosul, with no prospects of returning until social and physical rehabilitation in the city begins. This rehabilitation is estimated to cost around $1 billion, and is naturally going to take several years to complete. CNN sources have also confirmed that there have been no agreements as to the personnel and mechanisms that need to be placed in Mosul for governance, clearly showing that no significant inroads have been made to restructure the city. As was the case in Afghanistan after the war of 2001 and in Iraq after the war of 2003, if the state and its allies do not provide the people with their necessities, alternate organizations will, utilizing this provision to establish competing centres of legitimacy. When the poor, marginalized Iraqi has the choice of joining an organization that provides food and security for him and his family, why would he want to side with the state that provides neither?

An Islamic State will continue to spawn in Iraq until the viscous cycle of intervening in areas for, ‘liberation’ and then employing fragile and inherently flawed plans for rebuilding them— unwary and ignorant of the consequences of annihilating historic social and cultural fabrics— ends. History has now presented one too many examples of this violent cycle for an Islamic State 2.0 to be termed a cost of war or an innocent mistake.

The examples of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and Libya are not confined to books; we are reminded of them with each Manchester Bombing and San Bernardino Shooting. Given the remarkable speed that Islamist sentiments are diffusing throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and the Caucasus, another failed Iraq will become a center of attraction for the global Jihad and a nursery for the incubation of terrorist movements.

Is there a way to put an end to this cycle? Maybe. The UN and the US have, at their disposal, individuals who understand state-building, and can tailor it to the requirements of specific regions. The state-building expertise of individuals like Lakhdar Brahimi and Ashraf Ghani must now be made use of, since they have proven track-records of re-establishing, or at least initiating the re-establishment of functional states post-war. What is more important, however, is that state-building is prioritized; academics and strategists alike were heavily critical of the failure of the US to prioritize rebuilding Afghanistan after Operation Enduring Freedom, and accredit the rise of the neo-Taliban insurgency solely to the US.

It is essential that such mistakes are not repeated and that all stakeholders are taken on board in state-building efforts. The Pentagon and the Iraqi government must now carefully plan rebuilding efforts by prioritizing the revamping of governance mechanisms and integrating local opinions that carry with them an understanding of the social nuances of the region, if it is to succeed in curtailing the prevalence of yet another terrorist organization.

Mohammad Ahmed Shiwani is an intern at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Discussion, Europe, Human Rights, India, Iraq

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