Hussain Abdul-Hussain

How to eradicate ISIS

A wall bearing a drawing of the ISIS flag in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, in Nineveh Governorate, on 13 November 2015. (AFP/Safin Hamed)

President Obama is right. Sending troops in after terrorists is not a sustainable strategy. The superior American military can sweep terrorist territory, but cannot hold it indefinitely. Lessons from the War on Terror teach us that fighting terrorist groups is like playing Whac-a-Mole.


President Obama is correctly avoiding open-ended and exhausting US military expeditions. However, he has drafted a faulty alternative strategy by launching half a war on ISIS by offering airpower to known ISIS enemies — the Kurds and Iran. Obama’s bet on Tehran aggravates the problem and send whatever Sunnis America can work with to ISIS.


The president should have stuck to his original view: other than defending the homeland, the US military cannot be the answer to the world’s complex problems. During his first years in office, Obama often talked about charting alternative paths for the unemployed and desperate youths who are joining terrorist organizations.


Dealing with the root causes of terrorism, such as educating the youth and giving them a fair chance in life, was at the core of former President George Bush’s plan of spreading democracy in the Middle East.


The plan, however, fell short for various reasons, including Washington’s inadequate understanding of the region, and billions of US tax dollars were spent with no significant returns. The incompetence of the Bush administration also opened the door for charlatans with agendas such as Iran’s secret agent Iraqi Ahmed Chalabi, who provided faulty intelligence on Iraq’s WMD program.


To cut American losses, Bush consulted his father’s experienced associates – such as former Secretary of State James Baker – and devised a plan that restored a Sunni-Shiite balance in Iraq that had been shattered in the 2003 war.


Throughout the war Iraq War, Bush tried two strategies. The first, spreading democracy, failed miserably. The second, restoring Sunni-Shiite balance, was successful enough to bring down violence to pre-2003 levels and allow America to disengage from Iraq.


After taking the White House, Obama and his team failed to understand Iraq or learn from the Bush experience. Obama simply wanted to cut and run, even after Iraq had become tame. With an eye toward popularity and his legacy, Obama announced that Iraq – and Sunni-Shiite animosity in general – was a situation too complicated for Americans to understand, and too politically toxic for the White House to handle. Obama thus left Iraq and spent his first term boasting about Bush’s success in beating Al-Qaeda, pretending it was his own.


Yet Obama’s hands-off strategy in Iraq proved as grave an error as Bush’s war. The result, in both cases, was the same: the unleashing of terrorist groups that threatened the region and the world.


Today, America has two options for dealing with ISIS and neither of them are military. The first option is a quick fix that could backfire in the future. It consists of restoring the Sunni-Shiite balance in Iraq and across the region. This requires Washington to take a tough position on Iran, a policy that Obama seems unwilling to endorse even though, as per his statements, a nuclear deal with Iran was supposed to free America’s hands and allow it to focus on curbing Iran’s troublemaking behavior without fear of a ticking nuclear clock.


The second option is for America to understand Iraq — an exercise that Obama has repeatedly said that Americans were not prepared to do. Forget nation building and think, instead, of helping the Middle East transform from a place where might is right to a region where justice prevails.


To dismantle ISIS, America has first to understand the circumstances that have produced the organization. As it stands, America has shaped many of the situations that eventually resulted in the birth of the world’s worst terrorist group.


If you were an Iraqi male born in the early 1970s, like most ISIS leaders, by age nine you would have witnessed the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran War.


In 1980, Iraqi TV switched its regular programming to war coverage, with national songs and around-the-clock breaking news from the front. Throughout the war, Iraqis heard news of dozens of young men dying – relatives, friends, neighbors and acquaintances. The Iraq-Iran War made calamity, death and funerals an everyday occurrence.


By 1991, an Iraqi born in the early 1970s would have become in his 20s. That year, Iraq invaded Kuwait, prompting a coalition of 14 nations to bomb Iraq into the stone age, destroying the infrastructure and eviscerating the Iraqi Army in order to expel it from Kuwait. As an Iraqi in your 20s, odds were you were one of the Iraqi Army conscripts who fought, and survived, the first Gulf War.


Washington then encouraged the Shiites of the south and the Kurds of the north to take matters into their own hands by revolting against Saddam Hussein. When the Iraqi dictator smashed the rebels, America simply said ‘tough luck.’


And if that wasn’t enough, between 1991 and 2003, Iraqis suffered a crushing UN embargo that nearly caused a famine. Hyperinflation hit the dinar, forcing the Iraqi government to start distributing rations, an arrangement still in effect today.


Like Obama, former President Bill Clinton endorsed a hands-off policy on Iraq, leaving sanctions in place to further crush Iraqis. Naturally, Saddam and his cronies were immune from the effects of the embargo and enjoyed pilfering whatever meager resources the country could scrape together. The rest of the Iraqis fell into poverty.


To survive global sanctions, Iraqis who lived on the borders with other countries became engaged in smuggling. Smuggling networks proved effective after 2003 in moving men, money and arms into Iraq to fuel an insurgency that killed over 4,000 US troops. This same smuggling network is still alive today, oiling the wheels of the Islamic State despite all sorts of American and international financial sanctions.


In addition to widespread poverty and unemployment, Iraqis had to deal with a megalomaniac dictator whose brutality only increased to make up for his shrinking network of patronage. Saddam Hussein would have a hand cut off anyone found with foreign currency in his or her possession. Iraqis started referring to the hundred-dollar bill as  ‘the paper,’ a term still in common usage today.


To complement the poverty, unemployment and his brutality, Saddam prohibited satellite dishes for fear Iraqis would catch a glimpse of unflattering talk shows about him. Saddam also banned cell phones, thinking that wireless communication would facilitate coups and uprisings. Saddam regulated the internet so heavily that some European embassies received emails from the Iraqi Intelligence agency on floppy disks.


If poverty, unemployment, brutality and economic isolation were not enough, America and its Western allies continued harassing Iraq over its defunct WMD program. From time to time, Western fighter jets would bomb Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. Operation Desert Fox, in 1998, is one example.


If you were an Iraqi male born in the early 1970s and had survived two devastating wars, a UN-embargo, poverty, unemployment and Saddam’s dictatorship, you would live to see America’s Operation Freedom in 2003.


But America’s freedom came only to the Shiites. If you were Sunni, 2003 marked the year that you found yourself chased on bogus charges of being either Baathist or a terrorist. Sunnis began to fill the many notorious prisons Saddam had left behind.


Today, Americans and the world believe that Washington committed its gravest error when it launched its war on Iraq based on faulty intelligence provided by the late Chalabi. Yet that was just the tip of the iceberg. Chalabi, who later turned out to be General Qasem Soleimani’s man, fed America faulty intelligence before and, more importantly, after the war.


Under Chalabi’s — and by extension Iran’s — influence, America’s Operation Iraqi Freedom turned into Operation Iranian Revenge. Iraq’s new rulers — mainly Shiites loyal to Iran who had returned from exile — used America’s muscle to beat not only Saddam’s henchmen, but also Sunnis in general.


So if you were like ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi Sunni not connected to Saddam who hoped freedom had finally arrived in Iraq with the Americans, it turns out you were wrong. Now the Sunnis had to engage in another round of fighting against the new Shiite rulers and their sponsor, America.


At first, Sunnis collaborated with Al-Qaeda against American and Shiite forces. The fight resulted in a stalemate and an ongoing civil war. Later, Americans peeled Iraqi Sunnis from non-Iraqi Al-Qaeda with brilliant results.


After the US withdrawal in December 2011, Iraqi Shiites resumed their vendetta against their Sunni compatriots. This time, with the Americans gone and with nowhere to go, Sunni Iraqis created their own Al-Qaeda — ISIS — which proved to be more potent than the mother organization.


These Sunni Iraqis have been running ISIS the way they were taught during the days of Saddam — through torture, brutality and murder. ISIS employs a financial network detached from the world economy the same way Iraqis circumvented 12 years of international sanctions.


If you are like Baghdadi, a 44-year old Sunni Iraqi male, you will by now have survived four wars and two uprisings. You will have lived through 32 years of Saddam dictatorship, witnessed 21 years of war, and endured 12 years of crippling UN sanctions. Today, at 44, you will still find yourself on the run, fleeing the brutality of Shiite Iran and its protégé government in Baghdad.


ISIS is nothing new. It is the metamorphosis of Saddam’s brutality and Al-Qaeda’s brand of Sunnism, as Iran’s militant Shiism has driven Sunnis away from moderation and into the arms of the radicals.


ISIS’s international terror is nothing new either. Those who remember Saddam, Assad and Gaddafi from the 1970s and 1980s might remember that Baghdad, Damascus and Tripoli were as notorious as Raqqa, the current ISIS capital, in recruiting, training, arming and funding terrorists worldwide. Remember that Carlos the Jackal, once the world’s most wanted man, lived in Baghdad and enjoyed Saddam’s support and largesse.


The world seems surprised, as if the brutality of ISIS is unprecedented. The world wants Baghdadi and his Sunni Iraqi lieutenants to appreciate a concert in Paris or a cartoon in Denmark. But these ISIS gangsters were born into a troubled world — the same world that produced Saddam half a century earlier. These ISIS thugs have lived most of their lives amid wars, tyranny and sanctions. Life has taught Baghdadi and his cohorts that in this world, one rule stands: might is right.


Perhaps it is too late to save the top leaders of ISIS from themselves. But to stop ISIS, the world should change the conditions that created it. The world should put an end to Operation Iranian Revenge against the Sunnis of Iraq and the region. The world should restore justice and show Iraqis, and now Syrians, that life is not all about bombs, kidnappings and poverty.


Since 2005, Iran and its allies across the Middle East have killed or chased the following Sunni moderates: In 2005, Hezbollah killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. In 2007, moderate Sunni lawmaker Walid Eido was assassinated in Beirut. In 2008, Hezbollah killed Sunni police captain Wissam Eid for revealing clues about the party’s involvement in Hariri’s murder. In 2011, the Iraqi Shiite government chased moderate Sunni Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi into exile. In 2012, Hezbollah killed Lebanese Sunni police chief Wissam al-Hassan. In early 2013, Iraq’s Shiite government forced moderate Sunni Finance Minister Rafi Issawi to resign and run away. By late 2013, the Iraqi Shiite government had arrested moderate Sunni lawmaker Ahmed al-Alwani and his brother for their role in supporting anti-government protests in predominantly Sunni areas. Since 2011, Iran’s Syrian protégé, Bashar Assad, has been fighting a horrendously indiscriminate war against the country’s Sunnis.


With no end in sight, every additional day of war in Iraq and Syria breeds a new generation of Al-Baghdadis, perhaps even more bitter and bloody ones.


Blood begets more blood and violence more violence. By allowing, and sometimes encouraging, nations like Iraq and Syria to mutate into lawless jungles, even while they looked stable under tyrants like Saddam and Assad, the world has effectively contributed to the creation of the monstrous terrorist organization, ISIS, its predecessor Al-Qaida, and likely its successor groups.


The world should not send troops into Iraq or Syria to fight ISIS. The world should end the circumstances that led to the creation of ISIS — first and foremost by ending Iran’s messianic Shiite madness and stopping Syria’s petty dictator, Assad. Only then can justice be restored, reconciliation started, and the Middle East given a chance to start living in peace and letting the world live in peace.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain

A wall bearing a drawing of the ISIS flag in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, in Nineveh Governorate, on 13 November 2015. (AFP/Safin Hamed)

To survive global sanctions, Iraqis who lived on the borders with other countries became engaged in smuggling. Smuggling networks proved effective after 2003 in moving men, money and arms into Iraq to fuel an insurgency that killed over 4,000 US troops. This same smuggling network is still alive today, oiling the wheels of the Islamic State despite all sorts of American and international financial sanctions."

  • Beiruti

    Well, well said

    November 24, 2015