Mother of all battles

July 14, 2014
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The American occupation was the death knell of the republican, modern, secular, nationalist Iraqi state, and a deliberate attempt to undermine all such solidarities by institutionalising perennial sectarian conflicts. Al Qaeda, and later the ISIS, filled the vacuum after U.S. occupiers summarily dismantled the whole of the Iraqi state.

WHEN the late Saddam Hussein predicted that the United States’ invasion of Iraq would turn into the “Mother of all Battles”, he was surely prescient. He hardly knew, though, what forms it would take, what phases it would go through, what forces it would unleash, how many countries would be turned into successive (and now overlapping) battlefields, at what human costs and with what outcomes. Victims can no longer be counted in the hundreds of thousands. Numbers run into the millions. With no end in sight.

There are other ways of putting it:

When the neoconservatives spelled out a comprehensive plan for remaking the whole of West Asia, defining what has since been the basic strategic doctrine of the U.S. for the region, it had two features (among others) that are worth recalling. First, that Iraq was only a first staging area; the war would then be taken to other countries, one by one. Slogans were: Baghdad, then Damascus, Riyadh, Tehran; and “Real Men go to Tehran”. Second, the plan calmly predicted that remaking the region would take 30 years. By that count, we are still in Year Eleven. Most of it is yet to come. Remarkably, the jehadi/salafi/takfiri plans are almost exactly the same. They too wish to remake exactly that whole swathe of transcontinental territory, from Afghanistan to Algeria and the Sahel, that is in the sights of the U.S. military machine, and they too have the long-term vision of a war that would last for decades.

Is this convergence of visions and ambitions a mere coincidence? Or is there more to this than meets the eye? Two faces of a coin? Two fundamentalisms, the imperial and the religio-millenarian, converging and colliding? Or, is it a Bhindranwale syndrome, magnified thousands of times? You create a monster to serve your interests. The monster turns around and starts devouring you. You start beating the monster into obedience because you still need it for other tasks. The monster keeps rebelling against your mastery. An infinite cycle of conflict and conciliation ensues, lasting for decades, while more and more of the earth keeps getting drenched in blood. Millions die, not as martyrs but as disposable heaps of corpses.

Honing Islamic right wing

To understand today’s Iraq, we need to go back to the Truman Doctrine, enunciated soon after the Second World War, which devised a policy for the region in which the Islamic right wing was to be honed as a main force at the disposal of Euro-American powers and the reactionary Gulf monarchies as the great bulwark against communism and secular Arab nationalism. It was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who first welcomed leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in the halls of the White House. U.S. diplomatic and intelligence services spent decades promoting all sorts of Islamist groups, from the jehadi to the “moderate”, thereafter, often with Gulf money. It was under (the good, liberal) President Jimmy Carter, aided by his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish aristocrat, that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assembled a force of more than a hundred thousand jehadis to fight against the left-wing government in Afghanistan so as to entice the Soviet Union into intervening, without calculating the consequences for itself and the world at large. It was President Ronald Reagan who welcomed leaders of the Afghan Mujahideen in the White House and described them as “moral equivalents of our Founding Fathers”. Jehadi mercenaries such as Gulbuddin Hekmetyar were being elevated to the stature of a Washington, a Jefferson!

When President Barack Obama delivered his famous address to the Muslim world in Cairo, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were seated in the front row, and it is on Obama’s watch that, according to Financial Times, Qatar has spent three billion dollars on supporting the U.S.-backed jehadis in Syria to topple the tyrannical but secular regime of Bashar al-Assad, turning a popular uprising into a jehadi crusade. Those whom the U.S. and the Gulf monarchies have funded, trained and weaponised for the Syrian crusade have now declared a caliphate on territories taken away from Syrian and Iraqi governments.

What, precisely, are we witnessing? Chickens coming home to roost? Overreaching in Syria and paying for it in Iraq? Or another episode in the cycle of conciliation/conflict/conciliation? Only later developments will tell.

There is yet another way of saying it:

A Western power, Britain, first invaded Iraq (Western Mesopotamia) exactly a century ago, in November 1914. That foreign invasion has not ended. The “Mother of All Battles” did not begin in 2003 with the U.S. invasion. That was a later episode, even more barbarous than the previous ones. The battle has actually been raging for a hundred years, and it has created many a monster. The Islamic State of Al-Baghdadi is one of them.

ISIS and the “caliphate”

Over a territory larger than the United Kingdom and extending from Aleppo in Syria to Iraq’s Kurdish north —reaching up to the Turkish and Jordanian borders and knocking at the gates of Baghdad, with Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, as its capital—there is now a new political authority, led firmly by what was until recently called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and now calls itself simply the Islamic State (IS) or, more potently, the caliphate, and claims authority over all Muslims across the world. Having functioned so far with the nom de guerre “Al Baghdadi” (on whom more below), the leader of this authority now styles himself as “Caliph Ibrahim”—Ibrahim being his original first name.

The English text of the Proclamation of the Establishment of the Caliphate runs to 12 pages in PDF file. It has been issued simultaneously in Arabic as well as major European languages but not, to my knowledge and certainly not on the first day, in Farsi or Turkish or Urdu or any other language that Muslims elsewhere might speak, though such translations shall undoubtedly follow from one quarter or another. Addressing Arabs, American and Europeans has been deemed essential.

The Proclamation specifies that any Muslim who fails to give his undivided allegiance to the new caliph is an apostate and living under the penalty of death. This is a lethal showmanship with very high stakes. By comparison, Mullah Omar, the Emir of Afghanistan at the time of the Taliban government in Kabul, even with Osama bin Laden at his side, made no such globalist claims. No such modesty for our new caliph. As Al Baghdadi, or caliph Ibrahim, put it in a new speech, “by Allah’s grace—you have a state and a caliphate…. A caliphate that gathered Caucasians, Indians, Chinese . . . Americans, French, Germans, and Australians. . . Rush to your state . . . Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. . . . Emigration to the land of Islam is obligatory for those who are capable of it.” This is Pan-Islamism at its most macabre. The Proclamation explicitly says that once all the conditions for the rise of caliphal authority have been met—command of significant territory, a sizeable subject population, an army, a treasury, etc.—and the caliphate in fact been established, rule by any other is rendered illegitimate and un-Islamic. As the group’s spokesman Abu Muhamed al-Adnani proclaimed: “The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations becomes null by the expansion of the Caliph’s authority.”

This must have been news to the Emir of Qatar and sundry Saudi royals who spent so much money on making the ISIS what it is. Anti-monarchical convictions are what they disliked about people like bin Laden. Now they have to deal with a caliph with far more firepower at his command, on very large territory in the very heart of the Arab world, and one who may (or may not) leave Baghdad alone and turn on the Jordanian monarchy instead.

One may well wonder, though, what the Americans might think of the matter. They surely do not want in that critical region a jehadi force so powerful that it spins free of external control, as the Taliban did, and turns on them and their allies. That is why they want the power of the ISIS curtailed, and that is why Israel has announced that if the ISIS threatens Jordanian monarchy, Israel will go to war on the King’s behalf. And yet, victories of the ISIS also serve important interests.

Conditions have suddenly been created for a trifurcation of Iraq into three mutually hostile ethno-religious mini-states that will undoubtedly be at each other’s throats for all the foreseeable future, if such a trifurcation does come to pass. That has been one of the principle American plans for the country and a major reason for the sectarianism they did so much to institute in what was once one of the most secular polities. No wonder Israel has suddenly taken to promoting the cause of an independent Kurdistan with great vigour, as if it was just waiting for the ISIS to create the right conditions.

Second, Nouri al-Maliki, the hideous dictator the U.S. imposed on Iraq, failed in two duties: one, he failed to ensure that the U.S. would be able to permanently station a sizeable military force in Iraq, under one legal pretext or the other, after their formal “withdrawal” from the country; second, he has thus far failed to get the parliament to pass a firm hydrocarbon privatisation law so that Big Oil can obtain long-term ownerships, leases, exploration rights, etc. Big Oil is, of course, making a lot of money in Iraq even now but, not having a clear law in place, the legal basis for such activities has been at best ad hoc. If the ISIS can be used to undercut al-Maliki and get a more pliant government to achieve these ends, the U.S. may not in fact mind a transitory caliphate.

Third, this was a relatively small force when it was only a branch of the Al Qaeda in Iraq alone. The real turn in its fortunes came when it received the wherewithal to enter Syria on the side of the U.S. and its allies, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies, as a leading beneficiary of the largesse that funded the jehad to topple Bashar al-Assad. Veterans of earlier jehads in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Libya were flown to Turkey and infiltrated into Syria from there. A number of its cadres received their training in Jordan and gained much battlefield experience in Syria, occupying territory, filling their coffers with not just foreign donations but also lootings and ransoms, collection of protection monies and taxes from businesses and other properties in areas they captured, and, in the process, attracting freelance jehadis from all corners of the earth, including local youth who are full of rage and frustration at the futureless lives they had been reduced to. Once they have achieved certain objectives in Iraq they can always turn around, or made to turn around, and return to the Syrian killing fields, now with far superior weapons, a much larger fighting force and much more money with which to buy more pauperised youth for jehad, more loyalty from other, smaller jehadi outfits. What the first instalment of the Syrian jehad —from 2011 to 2014—failed to accomplish, the second phase, once they are done with Iraq, might.

Finally, Hizbollah. It played the decisive role in turning the tide of war in Syria against the U.S.-sponsored jehad, of course at considerable cost to itself. Jehadis continued to spread terror against it in Lebanon and to foment a Sunni-Shia sectarian war there. They have done the damage, but they have not so far succeeded in igniting a larger conflict. It is said that the ISIS has sleeping cells in northern Lebanon, just as it is said to have such cells in Jordan and Baghdad itself. At the very least, they can be expected to try to engage Hizbollah in a slow-motion, low-intensity war of attrition across a broad front, and they will try to limit the deliveries of Irani supplies to Hizbollah through Syria. With what degree of success, it is hard to tell. But this too will greatly suit the U.S.-Israeli interests.

Broadly speaking, if the caliph just keeps turning against other Muslims, to teach them more of what he takes to be true Islam and in the process creates more and more mayhem across the region, he may continue to earn ridicule on Western TV channels, to assuage liberal sentiment and keep up the image of the Arab as barbarian, but he will be spared “Shock and Awe”. After all, his men are still needed in Syria and elsewhere. Who knows: the caliphate may yet serve a useful purpose in faraway places like Chechnya or Xinjiang.

For now, an interesting question is just what the Gulf royals are going to do. They have squandered billions to build up outfits of this kind. Lo and behold, as soon as one of them—the ISIS in this case—gets enough power to start nursing delusions of grandeur, it declares all emirates and royalships illegitimate. Should these upstarts, who bite the hand that feeds them, not be consigned to the dungeons? Or at least put back on a leash? But how?

ISIS—a short history

We cannot delve into distant origins even though it is difficult to grasp the more modern and recent developments without understanding those origins. Suffice it to say that political Islamism has had an ambivalent relationship with imperialism and with the Gulf monarchies. On the one hand, they fully bought into the rhetoric of “godless communists” being heretics and fifth columnists in the house of Islam, hence worthy of eradication. They also viewed Arab secular nationalism as an enemy of Pan-Islamism and covert allies of communists. In all this, they were aligned with imperialism and the Gulf monarchies. However, the creation of Israel at the very heart of the Arab world and Western promotion of it against Palestinians and against Arabs and Muslims more generally also gave to this right-wing Islamic populism a certain anti-Western edge. All shades of the Sunni variant of it, from the most extreme jehadi to the most “moderate” parliamentarian and businessman, have been financially dependent on one Gulf monarchy or the other, one Saudi prince or the other, and almost always on Western intelligence agencies as well. And yet, as petty bourgeois radicals of the Right, they have also been at times deeply resentful of the monarchical powers that have bred and fed them.

Two breaks were decisive in the early emergence of the takfiris and the rise of sectarian politics on the regional scale. One, the total defeat of Egypt and Syria in 1967 meant the fall of Nasserist Arab secular nationalism and the rise, instead, of Saudi Arabia, thanks largely to petrodollars, to a position of pre-eminence in the Arab world. Egyptian takfiris were composed of disillusioned formerly Nasserist youth and small groups that had broken away from the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood. In a moment of national humiliation and collective disorientation, they turned to extreme piety, came to the conclusion that secular rulers had betrayed them precisely because they were secular, that the Muslim Brotherhood had lost their fighting spirit and become too much a part of the existing order, and, crucially, that Muslims had lost the ability to fight back because they had deviated from the true path of their religion. Purification and re-Islamisation of the Umma was the first task and a precondition for confronting external enemies. Leave Israel alone, concentrate on re-subjugating the Umma under the authority of a new, true Islamic state that will teach them how to be good Muslims. Hence the war on whatever was considered apostasy. That was fine with the U.S. and Israel; they could do good business with an Islam that was going to leave them alone and make war on other Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, countless youth were getting indoctrinated into the most medievalist, sectarian versions of Wahhabi Islam not only in the mosques and madrasas and seminaries but even in what passed for colleges and universities.

The second significant break came with the Iranian Revolution—anti-monarchical, populist, opposed equally (its leaders said) to the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the “two great Satans”, ready to impose a clerical dictatorship and strict regimes of the Sharia, as they understood it; and they were good at killing communists. In its original formation, the Ayatollah Khomeini regime was somewhat Nasserist in its political economy (nationalisations, welfare schemes, state-led development). In its pieties, it was something of a Shia variant of Wahhabi severities. Best of both worlds, so to speak, from the standpoint of pious Muslim militants. The new Islamic rulers of Iran thus had the potential of inspiring phalanxes of Islamic revolutionaries across the world of monarchies and emirates. Indeed, a group of such militants seized the Mecca mosque in November 1979, some six months after Khomeini rose to power in Iran. These young militants claimed that they were the true Wahhabis, pious and puritanical sons of Islam, and not the corrupt royals of Saudi Arabia; kingship was forbidden in Islam, they said, echoing Khomeini and his cohorts. The royals across the Gulf were stunned: were these Sunni boys going to be led by Shia apostates?

It is in this crucible that billions of dollars started flowing into all kinds of enterprises—mosque sermons, college and university syllabi across the Gulf, funding for Islamic Studies industry in the U.S., think tanks across the world, policy studies, seminars and conferences—to hammer home the idea that the Shia-Sunni divide is the fundamental divide in the Muslim world and that the true ambition of the Iranian Revolution was to pursue Shia supremacy over the Sunni world. This was the new gospel: from the standpoints of true Islam—Sunni, Wahhabi, Salafi, takfiri, what have you—Shias are the true apostates. Many more billions went into supporting Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war against Iran, which was fought with money from the Gulf monarchs and all kinds of supports, including supply of chemical weapons, from the Anglo-American bloc. It was during that war that Saddam Hussein, brought up on the militantly secularist ideology of the old Baath party, started talking about the Sunni-Shia conflicts in medieval Islam, even though, ironically, much of the battlefield on the Iraqi side was comprised of areas where the Shia were in the majority. Seeds of sectarianism were thus sown in Iraq itself.

Then came the U.S.-led Afghan jehad against communism in the 1980s, on which too the Gulf monarchies spent much treasure and helped enlist tens of thousands of Sunni jehadis from around the world. Brzezinski, the U.S. National Security Adviser, stood on a hilltop in the Khyber pass, raising a rifle in one hand and the Quran in the other, shouting to the assembled jehadis: These will liberate you.

The enemy was externalised again. The enemy was either the Shia or the communist, not the monarchs of Arabia, not the Western powers that had colonised and dominated their countries for generations.

This was followed, however, by the first U.S. war against Iraq, over Kuwait, also fought largely with money given to the great imperial power by the Gulf royals, in 1990, a year after the final Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan; Saudi Arabia alone gave $36 billion. About half a million U.S. troops came to be stationed in Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden reacted sharply: we went to seek martyrdom in Afghanistan because a Muslim country had been invaded by infidels, and now you have half a million infidel troops trampling the holiest of all holy lands, the land of Mecca and Medina itself!

Thus it was that the famous CIA recruit turned against the Saudi royals as well as against the masters of those royals. “Al Qaeda”, originally the accounts register for noting names of foreign jehadis and the sums they were paid during the Afghan jehad, became the name of the loose international network of the jehadis as they retired from Afghanistan and got scattered around the world. By the time they arrived in Iraq, the jehadis had imbibed all these contradictory trends and believed fervently in an ideology that was simply incoherent. They could be opposed to foreign occupation one day, then become a sectarian Sunni militia overnight with Western backing and Gulf funding, and then wage war against other Sunnis, for purification and re-Islamisation, whenever they thought they should.

There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq before the U.S. invasion. It entered in the vacuum that ensued after the invasion and especially after the U.S. occupiers of the country summarily dismantled the whole of the Iraqi state, including the army and the civil service, in the name of de-Baathification—invoking, for Western consumption, memories of de-Nazification in Germany after the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs overnight in an economy shattered by a decade of murderous sanctions and then the “Shock and Awe” of the full-scale invasion. Countless among them joined any number of militias, including Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the parent organisation of the ISIS.

Iraqis against sectarianism

A large number of national surveys have been conducted in Iraq over the decade since the U.S. invasion, between 2003 and 2013, and some of the results are as follows, in averaged estimates:

1. Support for the idea that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were to be separated has grown among Sunnis from 60 per cent in 2004 to 81 per cent in 2013. They have obviously drawn some lessons from the rule of the sectarian militias and the consequent mass killings. The ISIS, with its freshly minted caliphate, is supposed to represent these people, “the Sunni community” as mediatic discourse calls them. Among the Shias, such percentages are lower but still hover around 50 per cent.

2. Recognition of Iraqi identity as primary—and religious, sectarian or even Arab identity as secondary—was 22 per cent among Sunnis in 2004 but rose to 80 per cent in 2008. Among the Shias the corresponding figures are 28 per cent in 2004 and 72 per cent in 2007. On both sides of the supposed sectarian divide, the sense of a secular national identity of Iraqiness has grown dramatically precisely during the years when a sectarian Constitution, with mandatory sectarian affiliation of political parties, was being imposed by the Americans and large-scale sectarian violence was getting organised. Only among the Kurds was a sense of Iraqi national identity quite weak, but then, interestingly, their militia, the Peshmargas, visualise themselves as a “national” Kurdish militia, not a religious-sectarian one.

3. In a national survey conducted in 2011, 86 per cent among the Sunni Arabs, 75 per cent among the Shias, and 91 per cent among the Kurds preferred a government that obeyed people’s wishes over one that enforced the Sharia. The same applied when it came to the choice of leaders, with secular nationalist leaders preferred over religious ones by that same overwhelming margin.

4. Around 90 per cent of both Shias and Sunnis do not want to have Americans as their neighbours. After the sanctions, the invasion, the occupation, and the destruction of their country, this shared sentiment makes sense.

5. Interestingly, a much lower percentage but still a majority of both Shias and Sunnis do not want Iran as a neighbour either. This sentiment is harder to interpret. I am persuaded to believe, however, that the sentiment has to do with bitter memories of the Iran-Iraq war in which, as predictable patriots, they blame Iran (justly or not). It is also conceivable that as an overwhelmingly secular population, they do not particularly like Irani clerical regime and its religion-ridden world view.

These figures are an extraordinary tribute to a people who have been subjected to such extremes of sectarian violence and manipulation and have yet persisted in their modern, secular, nationalist beliefs. They are also a tribute to the persistence of deeply ingrained civilisational values that were greatly strengthened during the republican period and which survived even so brutal an invasion and the fraternal genocides that were deliberately unleashed soon thereafter.

Sectarianism is not a social value among the great majority of Iraqis, nor is religion a part of their sense of desirable kinds of polity and state. State religiosity and sectarianism came with the U.S. invasion. The U.S. occupiers came armed with Orientalist knowledge which claimed that Muslims were a hyper-religious people and that modern secular political values were alien or an elite imposition on them; they will consider you a legitimate occupier only if you organise their polity on religious and sectarian lines. This older knowledge was supplemented with the more recent Western knowledge production, deeply influenced by monarchical and clerical elites of the region, which said that the Shia-Sunni divide is the basic divide in Islam and in Iraq most certainly; that the Saddam government was a “Sunni” minority regime oppressing the Shia majority; and that the U.S. troops would be greeted with flowers if they were to be seen as liberators of the Shia majority. They also came armed not only with the prior experience of their co-invaders, the British, who had occupied Iraq in the past and had made much use of the various sectarian elites, but also with the knowledge of the confessional Constitution that France had devised for Lebanon and which has made it impossible for Lebanon to have either a stable government or a modern, secular constitutional structure. They foisted something resembling the Lebanese dispensation on Iraq, a perfect recipe for “Divide and Rule”, with the office of the Prime Minister permanently assigned to the Arab Shia (majority), the much less meaningful office of the Speaker of Parliament to Arab Sunnis (minority), and the largely symbolic office of the President to the Kurds (not a religious but an ethnic minority, mostly Sunni but also with a significant Shia component). The American occupation was thus the death knell of the republican, modern, secular, nationalist Iraqi state, and a deliberate attempt to undermine all such solidarities by institutionalising perennial sectarian conflicts.

The dismissal of the Iraqi army, almost half a million strong and many of them battle-hardened, meant that roughly half a million jobless men with sophisticated knowledge of weapons were now roaming around with no incomes, legally barred from any future employment in government service, and nowhere else to go. Moreover, dismantling of other parts of the state—police and other security services, civil authorities of various sorts—meant a complete breakdown of law and order. Meanwhile, new elites started arriving: the elites of Shia sectarian parties from sanctuaries mostly in Iran; scions of the old ruling class who had been evicted by the republican forces and had spent their time in villas and nightclubs in Western countries and no longer belonged in Iraqi society. These incoming elites nursed oversized political and entrepreneurial ambitions, and relied solely on the largesse of the occupiers—and, in the case of the Shia sectarian elite, on Iran as well. In this situation, every politician and political group swiftly acquired a militia, large or small, while armed gangs roamed the country. Some sectarian militias were designed to capture maximum amount of political power through the gun; sectarian warfare, like so much warmongering, was politics through other means. Others invoked the name of this or that sectarian grouping but were really crime gangs.

Upon entry into Iraq, Al Qaeda and its subsequent incarnations, branches and splinters grew in this milieu and imbibed all its contradictory characteristics. They were formally opposed to U.S. occupation forces but were also financially dependent on U.S. clients in the Gulf and thus open to their manipulation. They claimed to represent and safeguard Sunni interests in sectarian divisions, but they were also opposed by the more entrenched traditional Sunni elite, who regarded Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia as intruders trying to establish a rival centre of power. Once the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf monarchies decided to topple the Assad government in Syria through all means possible—increasingly wielding the jehadi weapon—they were glad to jump on to that bandwagon and take their version of Islam to Aleppo and Damascus.

The future

Members of the ISIS—or, as it now calls itself, the IS—obviously subscribe to the Sunni variant of Islam but the founding declaration of the caliphate is by no means a simply Sunni document. It is specifically a takfiri document. Whether Shia or Sunni or member of any of the other proverbial 72 sects of Islam, all are equally obliged to give allegiance to this caliph and abide by the rules of the Sharia as defined exclusively by him or by senior representatives appointed by him. It is doubtful that the proportion of the Sunni population that would want to live under such a takfiri regime would be greater than the proportion of the Shia population. Iraqis are by and large secular people, with some mild commitments to personal piety, and have generally disliked clerical or sectarian rule. Only a negligible proportion of the population would willingly submit to their diktat.

In a certain sense, the bizarre declaration of a caliphate is meant to be a pre-emptive strike against all other Sunni sectarian groups and jehadi outfits, of which there are hundreds, claiming eminence among them all and telling them to either join the IS or be ready to face superior military force. The IS had already been involved in mutual killings in combat with rival jehadi groups in Syria. Predictably, an alliance of those other groupings issued a joint statement from their “Religious Law Bureau”, saying that al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate is illegitimate both according to Islamic law and according to simple reason. In short, they withheld allegiance and affirmed their opposition to him.

Whatever relations the caliphate maintains with its creators, the project in this particular form is likely to disintegrate, as all millenarian movements eventually do. If the creators, the U.S. and its Gulf allies, really decide to clip the wings of the Caliphate it will disintegrate even faster. As it is, the ISIS has come to command this position because an uprising of the Sunni population against the outrageously sectarian government of al-Maliki was brewing anyway and diverse forces—former Baathists, the militant Naqshbandiya Sufic Order and the various Sunni groupings that the U.S. once funded and armed against Al Qaeda—found it opportune to make a common cause with the takfiris. This is a fragile alliance, opportunistic on all sides, and prone to fall apart if others find alternative channels. Armed conflict among these allies at some future date cannot be ruled out.

ISIS, a formidable force

However, it would be naïve to underestimate the power of the ISIS or to imagine that it would be defeated easily. In the short run, many things are working in its favour. It was already a formidable force in Syria. It controlled Falluja and other significant towns in Iraq before the more recent blitz across large parts of Iraq. In the course of the blitz, it has captured huge caches of advanced weapons from the Iraqi army that fled and had been supplied by the U.S. It also captured loads of money—estimates range from half a billion to two billion dollars—and gained countless new recruits. Its stunning success will undoubtedly motivate any number of jehad-minded youth from a great many places across the world to come and join them. Foreign jehadis have always been a major component of the IS; now it has much more money, weapons and a record of success to attract them. They are said to command sleeping cells in Jordan, Lebanon, Baghdad itself, and elsewhere. The truth, and magnitude of that, is yet to be seen.

In the early stages of the ISIS advance, Kurdish leaders offered a joint operation by the Iraqi army and the Peshmargas, the Kurdish armed force, to confront the marauding takfiris. Al-Maliki—in his capacity as Prime Minster, Defence Minister, Home Minister and Head of the Iraqi Armed forces—turned down the offer, for reasons impossible to fathom. Kurdish authorities then concentrated on capturing more territory for themselves, notably Kirkuk with its vast oilfields, to secure an expanded Kurdistan with formidable hydrocarbon resources. A declaration of independence may yet follow. Fighting against the caliphate is no longer high on their agenda. That too opens a Pandora’s box, however. Will the rest of Iraq accept that? Will the rest be too weak and thus will have to just accept it? Will there be war in any case between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq, especially since so much oil wealth is involved? Al-Maliki’s sectarian oppression of Sunnis is legendary and he is said to have 100,000 of them in his prisons. Is a joint Shia-Sunni alliance for military action against the Kurds even thinkable?

An independent Kurdistan has been on the U.S. agenda since at least the early 1990s, and Israel has now thrown its weight behind the project publicly. Seventy-five per cent of all investment in Kurdistan comes from Turkey, which has also been buying oil from the Kurdish authorities, illegally, since the regional government of Kurdistan has no legal title to such transactions. Why not an independent Kurdistan with even more oil to sell, with sovereign right to do so? The catch, however, is that Iraq has only five million Kurds, whereas there are 20 million in Turkey who have in fact been at loggerheads with the Turkish authorities for decades. A question will necessary arise: if there is a state for five million Iraqi Kurds, then why not for 20 million in Turkey? And for those in Syria and Iran?

The Gulf monarchies are in no position to fight the caliphate on their own. Will they try to bribe and buy other jehadi outfits for a joint fight against the caliphate, which many of them would want anyway? The Iraqi population has no appetite for getting reoccupied by the U.S., but Iraqi skies are already filled with American drones. There is pressure arising for Obama to change course and authorise bombings of ISIS bases in Iraq as well as in Syria. But that will implicitly amount to scaling down the campaign against the Assad government. Leslie Gelb, a senior figure in the U.S. policy establishment, recently published an Op-Ed in The New York Times that said that the real enemy of the U.S. in the region was not Assad but the ISIS and that the U.S. should therefore make peace with Assad and concentrate on fighting the jehadi menace. Will such voices multiply? And will they be heard?

Some regions of Jordan, hotbeds of Salafi Islam, are already simmering, ready to boil over. Will there be a real uprising, even in parts of the kingdom? Will the Caliphate feel obliged to encourage and materially support such an uprising? Israel has said that it will go to war in defence of the Jordanian monarch. How will the Gulf royals react if one of their fellow monarchs is threatened?

The caliphate will undoubtedly pass into oblivion, and it is possible that the self-styled caliph has bitten more than he can swallow. It is, however, in the very nature of such enterprises that they cannot just sit on their laurels and relish their victories. They must either march on or perish.

The latest episode in the Mother of All Battles is just beginning to unfold. Much hangs in the balance.

Related Bios

Aijaz Ahmad

Based in New Delhi, Aijaz Ahmad has appeared many times on The Real News Network; he is Senior Editorial Consultant, and political commentator for the Indian newsmagazine, Frontline. He has taught Political Science, and has written widely on South Asia and the Middle East.