Lessons learned from Maliki’s Iraq

Mideast Syria Militants Rise AnalysisThe formation of an inclusive, multi-sectarian government in Iraq was a key element of the Obama administration’s response to the fall of Mosul this past June and the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as a strategic threat, notes Marc Sievers, the Diplomat-in-Residence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former political minister-counselor at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s new government appears to embody this policy goal, he writes for the Fikra Forum:

In 2010, the United States was deeply involved in the negotiations to form a similarly representative Iraqi government, which finally emerged in December 2010. The effort was serious and the outcome appeared at the time to represent a significant success. However, understanding Maliki’s subsequent failure to stabilize Iraq and especially the collapse of efforts to include Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish communities in the government, should yield critically relevant lessons.

Observers and local actors were taken aback by ISIS’s  emergence, said the National Endowment for Democracy’s Laith Kubba.

“All the signs were there. Nobody wanted to read them,” he told PBS. “They moved from being an offshoot, a terrorist group — and there, people might think we can live with terrorist groups and the skirmishes they create, but this has become an army of 10,000 to 15,000, very well-equipped with rocket launchers, some air missile — missiles, and they are so coordinated.’

“I’m not really sure if they can hold territory for long, but certainly they have achieved their objective in saying, we’re a force, and I think hundreds will join them, and this is going to become a regional problem,” he said.

Now, thanks in part to ISIS’s brutality and active U.S. and regional diplomacy, Iraq has a rare second chance at success, and there are critical lessons that policymakers should learn from the experience of the second Maliki government, Sievers contends:

The first is that filling the key security ministries with competent, broadly accepted ministers and deputy ministers must be a top priority. Nothing undermined the cohesion of Iraq’s first inclusive government more than the prolonged failure to reach agreement regarding the defense and interior ministries. Second, the Kurds’ mediating role is critical, and addressing the oil revenue issue along the lines of agreements already worked out in the past, but never implemented, should help preserve a sense of mutual interest and common cause between Baghdad and Erbil. Third, Iraq’s political class of all backgrounds shows positive signs of recognizing that they must hang together or they will surely hang separately.


ISIS’ Islamism is rooted in Saudi Wahhabi creed


For their guiding principles, the leaders of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, are open and clear about their almost exclusive commitment to the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam, David Kirkpatrick reports for the New York Times:

The group circulates images of Wahhabi religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia in the schools it controls. Videos from the group’s territory have shown Wahhabi texts plastered on the sides of an official missionary van.

This approach is at odds with the more mainstream Islamist and jihadist thinking that forms the genealogy of Al Qaeda, and it has led to a fundamentally different view of violence. Al Qaeda grew out of a radical tradition that viewed Muslim states and societies as having fallen into sinful unbelief, and embraced violence as a tool to redeem them. But the Wahhabi tradition embraced the killing of those deemed unbelievers as essential to purifying the community of the faithful.

“It is a kind of untamed Wahhabism,” said Bernard Haykel, a scholar at Princeton. “Wahhabism is the closest religious cognate.”

“Violence is part of their ideology,” said Haykel, who spoke on the issue at the National Endowment for Democracy this week (above). “For Al Qaeda, violence is a means to an ends; for ISIS, it is an end in itself.”

Islamic State ideologues often deem anyone, even an Islamist, who supports an elected or secular government to be an unbeliever and subject to beheading, Kirkpatrick adds:

“This is ‘you join us, or you are against us and we finish you,’ ” said Prof. Emad Shahin, who teaches Islam and politics at Georgetown University. “It is not Al Qaeda, but far to its right.”

Some experts note that Saudi clerics lagged long after other Muslim scholars in formally denouncing the Islamic State, and at one point even the king publicly urged them to speak out more clearly.

“There is a certain mutedness in the Saudi religious establishment, which indicates it is not a slam dunk to condemn ISIS,” Professor Haykel said.


‘Mideast people themselves must transform hearts & minds,’ says Obama

guide-to-refuting-jihadism-300x184President Obama today called on the world’s Muslim communities to “explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology” of terrorist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State – the new global threat that he labeled a “network of death.”

In a 35-minute address before the United Nation General Assembly, he sought to rally world opinion behind the campaign to destroy ISIS. Yet he emphasized that ultimately, Muslims themselves are responsible for eliminating the extremism within their communities.

“It is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL,” he said:

It is the task of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world. No children – anywhere – should be educated to hate other people. There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source: the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.

“Ultimately, the task of rejecting sectarianism and extremism is a generational task—a task for the people of the Middle East themselves,” Obama said. “No external power can bring about a transformation of hearts and minds.”

The good news with respect to the ideological struggle against radical Islamist groups is that the rise of the Islamic State “is triggering some long overdue, brutally honest, soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst,” notes a prominent commentator.

Look at a few samples, starting with “The Barbarians Within Our Gates,” written in Politico last week by Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, the Arabic satellite channel, Thomas Friedman writes for the New York Times:

Understanding the ideological dimension of ISIS conflict

islamists nyt

Credit: NY Times

U.S. policy-makers are “particularly ill-equipped to understand, much less participate in, the non-military aspects of the struggle” against ISIS, according to a leading expert.

And the consequences may not only be misunderstanding but, more troubling, a return to the pattern of opportunistic alignments with autocrats that served U.S. policy well in the short term at tremendous long-term cost, argues George Washington University professor Nathan J. Brown, a non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Three factors make the Arab world very confusing turf today for those working to understand the religious and ideological struggles in the region, he writes for the Washington Post:

First, political fault lines do not always coincide with the religious ones. One could listen to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a populist pro-Muslim Brotherhood firebrand in Qatar, and mistake him for a religious leader associated with the post-coup order in Egypt when both talk the exact same way about wasatiyya (centrism). Both similarly hold forth about fiqh al-awwaliyyat (the jurisprudence of priorities, suggesting that the extreme literalism of Salafi approaches gets tied up in minutiae and misses the underlying ethical sensibilities of Islamic law). But when Qaradawi and the same Egyptian official enter the political realm, they sound less like identical twins but instead use insulting language more appropriate for expressing road rage. ….The U.S. habit of defining as “moderate” any individual or political force who seems to have positions consistent with U.S. foreign policy priorities of the moment – a habit that many officials kicked some years ago – seems suddenly to have sprung back. But it provides a particularly poor key to understanding the region.

Second, various religious authorities in the region, even when they are competing against each other, do so on different playing fields. Those in the foreign policy community seeking to understand religion and politics in the Arab world need to follow a dizzying array of debates. Some of the most influential leaders are more media personalities than heads of organizations or venerated institutions; they communicate by call-in programs, tweets, Facebook posts, and public rallies. These “new preachers,” as they are sometimes called, are all over the political map (and some stay off the map completely by avoiding political topics). Other respected authorities argue more through traditional tools of learned treatises or well-reasoned fatwas. The Muslim Brotherhood makes its influence felt through social presence and disciplined organizations. Salafis gather around venerated teachers, focusing on close textual study and attempting to discover correct religious practice. And some actors speak primarily through action ­– with forms of action varying tremendously from charity work to spectacular violence. There is no single public square in the Arab world but a whole host of arenas of contest and argument, many of which are difficult to follow.iraq isis spectator

Third, authority does not easily move from one realm to another. El-Tayeb, for instance, is a learned and cosmopolitan figure; he is a cultured interlocutor interested in dialogue and horrified by extremism. But as the leader of al-Azhar, he also is head of a powerful institution in the Egyptian state and somewhat controversial within that institution (not so much because he represents centrist religious tendencies but because he is seen as imposing centralization and control). Fairly or not, he is identified outside of Egypt (and sometimes inside of it) as very close to the regime. To expect him to persuade disgruntled youth in Syria of the error of the Islamic State’s ways would be about as promising a technique as it would have been to fly the Archbishop of Canterbury to Waco, Tex. to lecture the Branch Davidians.

“The grievances that are very widespread in Arab societies – about a political order that is perceived to be unjust at the domestic and international levels; about the way that political power is used in a manner that seems utterly unaccountable; about the securitization of political disputes – are very real and have produced both the political upheavals of 2011 as well as the environment in which groups can take political, social and economic grievances and render them into a religious language, Brown contends. “Over the past decade, the U.S. policy community has come to a more sophisticated understanding of those underlying problems. It is time to draw on that understanding now.”

Nathan J. Brown is the author of  When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell University Press, 2012).


Saudis a liability in fighting ISIS ideology


An official State Department photo of the September 11 meeting in Jeddah between Secretary of State John Kerry and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, posted on Flickr, could be a metaphor for the current state of U.S.-Saudi relations, says Simon Henderson, the director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

It is out of focus, he writes for the New Republic:

Why such a photo was chosen for Flickr, along with a single (in-focus) close-up of Kerry and the Saudi monarch, can only be a matter of speculation. One obvious possibility is that the U.S. side was upset with the attendance — indeed, the prominence — on the Saudi side of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, one-time long-serving ambassador to the United States, later head of Saudi intelligence, now adviser and special envoy to the king as well as secretary-general of the Saudi National Security Council (NSC). A fuzzy photo might have served to downplay his involvement…..

Saudi Arabia regards itself as the leader of the Muslim world, and as such sees itself as existing in an existential struggle with Iran for dominance of this world. The centuries old Sunni/Shiite divide, which has opened up dangerously since the 1979 Iranian revolution, is compounded by the political Islam of the Brotherhood, which views Arab monarchies such as the House of Saud as anachronisms at best but, more dangerously, un-Islamic.

“We are fighting an ideology, not a regime,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Time reports:

Kerry is so animated by this war of ideas that he calls it even more important than the military campaign against the group. ….. “The military piece is one piece,” Kerry said. “It’s a critical component — but it’s only one component.”

“Probably far more important than the military in the end,” Kerry continued, is the effort “to start drying up this pool of jihadis.” The goal is to mobilize Arab leaders, preachers, and media outlets behind a message that ISIS does not represent a “pure” vision of Islam, but a grotesque distortion of it. That, they hope, can blunt ISIS’ ability to recruit new fighters among impressionable young Muslim men. Stopping a fighter from signing up, Kerry said, is “a far better mechanism than having to go chase him down in the battlefield.”

But a growing and influential faction within western foreign policy makers mistrust the Saudis, who espouse a hardline interpretation of Islam and are suspected of being the source of many of the group’s funds and fighters, writes FT analyst Borzhou Daragahi:

“Saudi has shown itself as being barely able to contain terrorism within its borders and certainly a sizeable chunk of fighters, recruiters, funding, support, preachers for Isis has come from Saudi, the country,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi researcher and analyst. “The preaching of jihadist ideology is in Saudi, not Egypt or elsewhere.”…

Taken together the interlacing networks of animosity, mistrust and fear among the spectrum of forces resemble the warring factions in Lebanon rather than the Allied front that invaded Europe on D-Day. That creates ample points of weakness for Isis to press in an effort to turn its enemies against each other or at least corner them into inaction.

Isis already has a record of being closely tuned to the sectarian and political rivalries among its enemies and using them for its own benefit. Many of its seemingly baffling moves, such as its extreme sectarian rhetoric or its high-profile beheading of westerners, make sense as attempts to inspire its enemies to take actions that strengthen its own hand. By drawing Iran, Syria and Shia militias deeper into the fight, or goading larger numbers of American troops to be deployed they would draw more recruits, justify their jihadi world view and gain legitimacy.

“Isis has studied the situation,” Mr Jiyad said. “It knows there is much rivalry among the forces fighting it. Isis are strategic, they are not thugs. Their leaders are smart and know how to sow discord between its enemies.”

A leading Iraqi expert on ISIS told CNN that Obama may already have revealed more about U.S. plans than he should have to the militant group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“The mistake was announcing too much of the strategy, and this was a free gift to al-Baghdadi to prepare and counter what has been revealed,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, who has studied jihadist groups and their evolution in Iraq over the past decade.

“Help is needed from Saudi and Egyptian religious scholars in fighting ideology with ideology,” al-Hashimi said. “This is key to extracting ISIS from the roots.”

But another analyst argues that “the West must overcome its reluctance to offend the Saudis, and speak out much more forcefully against the insidious influence of Wahhabism and the ideological support it offers violent extremism.” “The Arab gulf states must choose a side. They cannot continue to finance terrorism and use fundamentalism as a policy tool and yet claim to be fighting it abroad. Saudi Arabia is both a sponsor and a target of jihad — it should wish to be neither,” Ahmad Samih Khalidi writes for the New York Times:

This may well be the real test of the West’s leadership. And if the United States and its allies instead amble into another major military conflict in the Middle East without realistic objectives and a clear-eyed plan to achieve them, they will have already failed.