On August 7, the United States re-engaged in Iraq. The sudden air strikes make one thing clear: that the US has no idea what to do about the mess it made of Iraq. In no way do the airstrikes represent a display of strength or resolve; rather, they are a sign of disarray. Yet the muffled excitement of war is again being felt in Western governments as they march in step with American belligerence because no one has anything better to offer, or because bombs "for a good cause" ease the conscience.
Anyone who dares to question the merits of these new strikes will immediately hear the retort: "How else can we stop those mad men?"
First, those “mad men" did not appear overnight. They were already there in 2003, and have been there ever since. The Americans and their coalition fought them, spending millions of dollars on a "war on terror" in which they lost several thousand men, but the job was never finished. The media pack left when the American military decamped. Silence settled in for a while, but the war was not over.
Silence greeted the massacres of Christians, which actually began ten years ago, precipitating their exodus. The implacable silence of Western Christians, unaware of or indifferent to the Iraqis’ plight, stunned, disappointed and profoundly distressed these Eastern Christians. Why did it take the current desperate situation, with thousands of men and women on the road and the taking of the town of Qaraqosh, for the West to act? The minority Yazidi have been living in extremely poor conditions for years, its members treated as "Satanists" by Sunni Muslims, but until last Friday, no American senior official seems to have been moved by them.
This silence has also nurtured many pro-al-Qaeda jihadist militias, a mixture of Iraqi tribes abandoned by the Americans and disenfranchised Sunnis locked out of government by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The latter are angry and frustrated to no longer be in power, while the former are lawless renegades who sail from battle to battle, eager to fight infidels anywhere provided that it is dirty, provided they are in the center of the black hole, provided they are allowed to do whatever they want. Western converts have recently jumped into this boiling cauldron, having been recruited and converted into cannon fodder. “It's always easier with strangers,” the jihadists say of their foreign martyrs.
The ISIS fighters are the same “mad men” who, since the beginning of 2014, have retaken Fallujah and swept through Iraq's Anbar region bordering Syria without causing any American strike. The world took notice for a moment, contemplated the horror, then lost interest and moved on. When the city of Mosul was taken in early June, there was no tangible reaction. President Obama was not convinced by his advisers at the Pentagon, who pushed him to re-engage at that time.
So why has he decided to do it now?
The United States is reengaging because its most reliable and safest ally in the region, the chiefs of the independent region of Kurdistan, asked them for help. How many times in the years following the American intervention in 2003 have I heard those same Kurds complain of a lack of real involvement on their side from across the Atlantic. According to them, concerning respect for borders and the sharing of resources between the various Iraqi ethnic groups, the United States has only managed to support the status quo enacted by former dictator Saddam Hussein. How can the American head-of-state have the audacity to assert that he is intervening because "Americans" are geographically threatened?
On the other hand, we hear that the Kurdish Peshmerga who rushed to take control of the oil city of Kirkuk in the early advances of ISIS only did so to protect their region from the the barbarians’ advance. But that doesn’t take into account the fact that they have an agreement with these barbarians made on the backs of Karakosh Christians and all the Christians in northern Iraq to achieve their ends quietly: to swallow the third largest city in the country without causing the slightest stir in the West, something the Kurds have wanted to do since 2003.
Kirkuk was taken without violence. The jihadists from ISIS did not fight; they let the Kurdish Peshmerga impose themselves, in exchange for the Kurds letting them take the complicated areas a little further north where large pockets of Christians still lived. It would thus seem that the Kurdish Peshmerga, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, have “sacrificed” the ancient Christians to satisfy ancient and far from commendable ambitions: to expand their state and get hold of oil production in Kirkuk, which they had never been allowed to do during the American occupation.
Finally, the ultra-rapid advance of ISIS in Iraq must be measured against the disintegration of the Iraqi state, and that should not be surprising. This decay has been worsening for months and months, which no observer could have failed to perceive. The fighters of ISIS do not need extremely sophisticated weapons to establish their hold. First, they recover military equipment abandoned by the rout of the Iraqi army, which is not really known for its courage or sense of organization. These weapons often are leftovers the American army could not take when it moved out at the end of 2011, such as the mobile artillery unit which was bombed in air raids last Friday. Note, also, that after the looting of the Central Bank of Mosul, the jihadis found themselves a cache of several million dollars. But above all, to be feared and respected, they wield the knife and the video camera, anticipating (quite correctly) the terror caused by pictures of their bloody violence that people share frantically on their mobile phones. As such, all Iraqis are frightened, as evidenced by my contacts - afraid that there is nothing to stop the jihadists.
Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister set up by the Americans in 2006, resigned only last week after threatening to cling to power by force. This sets up a completely new situation in Iraq. Regardless, American air strikes will not stop the gruesome developments in the country of the two rivers; they can only slow them down. All the problems will remain.
Anne Nivat, a Warscapes Advisory Board member, is an award-winning war reporter and author. She covered the Chechen war for the French daily Libération and was based in Moscow for ten years until 2005. Nivat has written pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune, and has appeared on NPR's Fresh Air, The Connection, and PBS's News Hour. She holds a doctorate in political science from Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, and was a Fulbright Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University. For her first book, Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya, she disguised herself as a Chechen woman and traveled to the war-torn region despite a Russian ban on journalists. Her books include The View from the Vysotka; The Wake of War; Encounters with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan; and The Fog of War. Nivat is based in Paris and travels extensively covering Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.