Last week witnessed yet another guerilla attack on a European capital, as bombs went off in the Brussels airport and subway, murdering and injuring hundreds.

Events like these expose the silliness of most of our squabbles, as the true members of civil society shine through while a handful of mad(mostly)men demonstrate for all of us the true downside of mankind.

Anger is what nature provides us with in these situations because it forces us to assign blame, thus highlighting the failures of the present as a warning to future generations, and there is plenty of criticism to go around.

Taking a look back at the evolution of ISIS is instructive of the catastrophic failures of US foreign policy, as it took a series of cataclysmic blunders across two Presidencies that fostered the environment from which this murderous death cult would emerge.

The Bush Administration

George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq served as the catalyst for the creation of ISIS, at least in the form that we know it as know.

Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but one of the “advantages” of a dictator (from a wonkish macro perspective) is that the brutality of dictatorships tends to keep some semblance of order in these intentionally fractured societies.

ISIS did not have the means, nor the capability to become what it is today so long as Saddam was in power.

However, simply removing Saddam was not enough to facilitate the rise of ISIS.

It took a series of cataclysmic blunders across two Presidencies that fostered the environment from which this murderous death cult would emerge.

The first of many gigantic mistakes after the initial invasion came from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney’s commitment to a “light footprint” in Iraq following the initial invasion.

David Kilcullen, an Australian counter-terrorism strategist who arrived in Baghdad’s Green Zone in 2005 called it “Ground Zero for the greatest strategic screw up since Hitler’s invasion of Russia.”

By not providing American troops with enough support to maintain the peace, Rumsfeld ensured that a power vacuum would be created in one of the most violent areas on the planet, right on the border of our regional nemesis.

American pilots during the early days of the Iraq war in 2003. Photo Credit: US NAVY
American pilots during the early days of the Iraq war in 2003. Photo Credit: US NAVY

The United States sent 127,000 troops to manage a divided population of 33 million in a country that is larger than California (California has about 126,000 police officers, fire fighters, and EMT’s to serve its 38 million citizens).

According to US Central Command’s OPLAN 1003-98, it was estimated that the army would need at least 385,000 soldiers to accomplish its goals in Iraq. The administration gave them a third of that.

Providing our troops with insufficient support in a war torn country was bad enough, but the Bush White House exponentially compounded that problem with its next two calamitous mistakes.

If you had to point to any singular event that is responsible for the rise of ISIS, disbanding the Iraqi army after the invasion would be it.

The US military had hoped to weed out Saddam loyalists and keep it mostly intact, but the administration eschewed that difficult task in favor of simply scrapping the army altogether.

As a result, from May 23, 2003 to September 6, 2006, the security of all of Iraq was the sole responsibility of the United States of America.

Major Robert S. Weiler from the United States Marine Corps summarized the contradiction at the heart of this clusterfuck:

“The decision was a product of colliding priorities. The Secretary of Defense wanted a small occupation force that commanders knew was imprudent, the military planners adapted by planning to use the Iraqi Army to make up for coalition short falls, and the Coalition Provisional Authority wanted to dissolve all things Baathist or resembling Saddam even if it was the only mechanism allowing the country to function.”

Seemingly overnight, 250,000 young men and their weapons and talents of war were thrown out on the street, and a huge chunk of them wound up joining the initial version of ISIS: al-Qaeda in Iraq.

This choice makes Rumsfeld and Cheney’s decision to use 127,000 US soldiers to keep the peace even more befuddling, and that is before you even get to the fact that around 80% of Iraqis reported a dislike for the American occupation. It was a plan that literally defied logic.

Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority overseeing all this, defended his momentous decision by stating that the Iraqi army could not be trusted by the populace, as the Baathists loyal to Saddam had too much power, and the Sunni’s were accepted as a sunk cost; there was no expectation that they would remain loyal to the state during the American occupation.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and Ambassador L. Paul Bremer (R), talk to reporters at the Baghdad Forum, Dec. 14, 2003, about the capture of Saddam Hussein. Photo Credit: U.S. Army Europe Images/ Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and Ambassador L. Paul Bremer (R), talk to reporters at the Baghdad Forum, Dec. 14, 2003, about the capture of Saddam Hussein. Bremer made the terrible decision to disband the Iraqi army. Photo Credit: U.S. Army Europe Images/ Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

But instead of trying to bridge the gap between the CPA and Sunni leaders, Bremer accelerated the process of alienation and installed Nouri al-Maliki as Iraqi Prime Minister; a devout Shiite who was raised with contempt for Sunni’s.

Maliki joined the Dawa party as a young man, which aimed to create a Shiite nation-state in Iraq by any means necessary.

Saddam arrested and executed many members of the Dawa party, including some of Maliki’s family members, which only further exacerbated the sectarian tensions boiling inside of Iraq’s future Prime Minister.

The idea that much of the Iraqi Army would remain steadfastly loyal to Saddam seemed like a specious argument anyway, because Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor wrote in “COBRA II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq,” that Saddam refused to let his army enter Baghdad out of fears of a coup.

In 2007, the Combat Studies Institute published “Warfare in the Age of NonState Actors: Implications for the U.S. Army,” and it detailed the absurdity of Bremer and the CPA’s decision:

“Taking away the jobs and weapons in which so many men have depended for so long, and giving them an equivalent civilian occupation in a peacetime (something even highly educated US military personnel find challenging), is a delicate and absolutely vital challenge which has little room for error. To simply disband them is extremely dangerous”

Nouri al-Maliki provided the final push to facilitate the creation of ISIS, as he fired countless Sunni commanders during his 8 year tenure as Prime Minister.

These seasoned military men were out of a job with no prospects provided by the new regime, and al-Qaeda’s new branch in Iraq (AQI) was more than happy to welcome them into their ranks.

Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)
Nouri al-Maliki (R) fired countless Sunni commanders during his time as Prime Minister of Iraq. Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

There was no shortage of candidates available for any position in this new army, as some estimates put the unemployment rate as high as 60% in Iraq after the CPA disbanded the military.

The US government basically helped create an enemy from scratch for its army to fight during the Sunni uprising, which carried out scores of bombings across Iraq between 2003 and 2011, resulting in roughly half a million civilian casualties.

Sasnak Joshi, a Senior Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute highlights the central issue at hand:

“It’s less important in terms of the contribution to manpower, or sheer heft or size, and more important in terms of the specific skills, connections, linkages and technical expertise that the Baathists bring to the table.”

In 2014, Adnan al-Asani, Iraq’s deputy interior minister, told Al Arabiya that half of ISIS’s top military commanders: Haji Bakr, Abu Ayman al-Iraqi and Abu Ahmad al-Alwani, were all former high-ranking members of Sadaam’s party.

This map from Mother Jones of a divided Iraq from 2007 further depicts the folly of coalescing behind one faction, as any group that obtained absolute power would be seen as a threat to the rest of the populace:

Photo Credit: Mother Jones Magazine
Photo Credit: Mother Jones Magazine

Iraq is basically a fake country constructed by colonial powers; it’s really three countries cobbled into one, and a modern day colonial power came in, smashed everything, and sparked a civil war.

The History of ISIS

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is effectively the father of ISIS.

Not only did his actions lead to the creation of ISIS, but the group embodies his spirit; a spirit that was deemed too extreme by Osama freaking bin-Laden. Zarqawi was a fighter who came up through organized crime, not “finding religion” until later in life, yet he thoroughly enjoyed rape, murder, and torture no matter what ideology he presently subscribed to.

Zarqawi became radicalized in prison during the 1980’s, and upon his release in 1988, he traveled to the Peshwar region of Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets.

By 1992, he had returned to Jordan to create Bayat al-Imam, which was the first iteration of ISIS.

Zarqawi was locked up for 15 years by King Hussein of Jordan, where he was subsequently mentored by Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, and the duo expanded the influence of their newfound Jihadist organization both inside the prison and within the outside world.

Upon Zarqawi’s release from jail in 1999, he visited Osama bin Laden, who was alarmed at his extremist views, but nonetheless was convinced to give him seed funding for his new organization, which was set up in Herat, 355 miles away from bin Laden’s base in Kandahar.

Photo Credit: Maureen/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the father of ISIS spent years in a Jordanian prison during the reign of King Hussein (L) where he became more radicalized. Current King of Jordan Abdullah II (R) is shown with his father in this public propaganda photo. Photo Credit: Maureen/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

By the time the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Zarqawi had assembled an army of between 2,000 and 3,000 men, the organization now being known as al-Tawhid wal-Jihad.

Zarqawi soon left Afghanistan to set up camp in Iran, and when some of his operatives were arrested in Europe in 2002, Zarqawi became a much more prominent figure in counterterrorism agencies across the globe.

He spent the next couple years hiding out in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq all while expanding his army, culminating in an agreement with al-Qaeda’s security chief, Seif al-Adel, to move the group into Iraq.

Zarqawi spent most of his time in Iraq in the “Sunni triangle,” gaining new recruits and setting up bases.

By the time the US invaded in 2003, Zarqawi had effectively assembled a Sunni nation-state to combat the invasion.

His strategy was based on four central tactics that we still see ISIS use today:

  1. Isolate American forces by targeting international coalition partners (ie: the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad).
  2. Attack civilians there to help (ie: the May 2004 beheading of Nicholas Berg, thought to be carried out by Zarqawi himself).
  3. Spark a sectarian war by attacking Shiite targets (ie: the December 2004 attack against Shiite leader Sayyid Muhammad al-Hakim at a funeral in the holy city of Najaf)
  4. Deter Iraqi cooperation by targeting politicians, recruiting centers, and police stations (too many examples to count).

The invasion of Iraq served as one of the greatest recruiting boons Jihad has ever seen (second only to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict), as an influx of foreign fighters from all over the globe entered Iraq to fight with Zarqawi and the rest of the Sunni insurgency against the US army.

After the bloody battle that took Fallujah in 2004, the insurgency began to pass out leaflets demanding full compliance with their version of Islamic Law, even going so far as to list the names of “offenders” who were marked for public execution. By October 2004, Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renamed the group al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

The Sunni insurgency boycotted the 2005 Iraqi elections, which proved to be a disastrous decision, as they were left out of the redrafting of the new Constitution.

Zarqawi continued to attack Shiites, further dampening popular support for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The final straw came in November of 2005 as AQI bombed a wedding party, killing 60 people, most of them Muslims.

al-Qaeda began to distance themselves from AQI, as it along with other Sunni terrorist groups were absorbed into a larger Mujahedeen Shura Council from which Zarqawi was excluded.

His brutality and aggression had simply become too much for a terrorist organization that was obsessed with developing popular support from Muslims of all backgrounds. The United States killed Zarqawi in an airstrike on June 7th, 2006, but by then, his ideology had already poisoned an entire generation of fighters.

The 20,000 troop “surge” of 2007 is largely credited as the key event to break the stalemate in Iraq, but the surge would not have had the impact it did if it were not for Sahwa, more commonly known as the Sunni Awakening. Frustrated with the lack of progress by AQI, Sunni tribesmen began to use AQI’s tactics against them, killing many of their senior leaders and intimidating many more to leave the movement.

This was so successful, that by 2009, more than 100,000 Sunni tribesmen were working in cooperation with the United States army against AQI. Not only had they either killed or captured well over half of the organization, but the flow of foreign fighters entering Iraq went from around 120 per month to just a handful.

The Obama Administration

However, an opportunity to reassert themselves emerged when Barack Obama continued the Bush Administration’s misguided “small footprint” strategy by ratifying the US-Iraq Status of Force’s Agreement that Bush had negotiated, which promised a full withdrawal of all US troops by December 31, 2011.

On December 18th of that year, the last US boot left the ground in Iraq, leaving a fractured and vulnerable country with no national force capable of holding all of its disparate parts together.

With AQI seemingly confined to an existence as a regional pest, the Iraqi election of 2010 served as a major event which breathed life back into the movement.

After the populace had elected a more moderate, even pro-American Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in 2010, the United States still continued to back the increasingly unpopular Nouri al-Maliki and his allies in parliament while pursuing conflicting goals, as Joe Biden told top US officials

I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement]

As yet another power vacuum was being created by American intransigence in Iraq, next door in Syria, an even larger problem was emerging. The Iranian backed dictator, Bashar al-Assad, was facing a serious challenge to his rule, as the Arab Spring spilled into Syria’s streets.

American Vice President Joe Biden in Iraq in 2011. Photo Credit: U.S. Forces Iraq/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)
American Vice President Joe Biden in Iraq in 2011. Photo Credit: U.S. Forces Iraq/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Assad and his Alawite support (who are minorities in Syria) were being challenged on all sides, and his strategy to stay in power is to build up the more extremist segments of the revolution while brutally massacring the moderates, thus presenting the West with a stark choice for the future of Syria: him or ISIS.

Obama massively compounded the problem when he stated that Assad using chemical weapons would be a “red line,” for the United States.

Once it was discovered that Assad did gas his own people, the President did nothing militarily, effectively letting the rest of the world know that he did not have the will to commit to a war with a relatively small regime like Assad’s even if he implied it, making his future proclamations on this conflict ring completely hollow.

Additionally, it let Assad (and by extension, Iran) know that they had full control over this situation.

While the United States debated what to do, the former Iraqi officers and Sunni Jihadists who had comprised AQI began to unite with Syrian factions, and captured Raqqa in 2013, declaring it the capital of the Caliphate the following year.

Still paralyzed by indecision, the United States watched as this new iteration of AQI claimed town after town, reaching a breaking point in 2014 as ISIS took over Mosul, Iraq’s 2nd largest city.

Five months prior to this event, Obama dismissed ISIS as a “JV team,” further demonstrating the administration’s miscalculation of this virus rapidly spreading across the globe. By the time a serious military campaign was launched, ISIS had already established a nation state.

Conclusion

Long story short: a decade-plus of foreign policy adventurism and fecklessness from two Presidents combined with the psychotic brutality of a charismatic Jihadist culminated in the establishment of a functional Caliphate in 2014.

Since its establishment, the US State Department estimates that upwards of 25,000 foreign fighters have flocked to these hinterlands formerly known as Syria and Iraq.

Even though they have demonstrated the capability to export their ideology and tactical skillset across the globe, there are still many signs that ISIS is on the decline.

In January, the US military estimated that ISIS has lost 40% of its territory in Iraq and 20% in Syria. In that same month, ISIS announced a 50% pay cut for everyone on the payroll.

Additionally, there have been many reports of protests in ISIS controlled territory, as we are seeing the same dissatisfaction that many Iraqi Sunni’s felt after the initial opposition to the US occupation.

If we have learned anything from this quagmire, it is contained in this sobering quote from Syrian Businessman Raja Sidawi:

“I am sorry for America. You are stuck. You have become a country of the Middle East. America will never change Iraq, but Iraq will change America.”

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Cover Photo Credit: Barney Moss/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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Jacob Weindling grew up in Denver, Colorado and graduated from UMass Amherst with a political science degree in 2009. He lives in Boston now, spending most of his time outside of work either reading, writing, or yelling at one of his teams on TV, as sports and politics are his true passions. The most sage advice he can provide comes from hall of fame college basketball coach Bobby Knight: “Stupid loses more games than smart wins.”

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