Or, How An Improbable Series Of Events Unhinged The World
Recently, the New York Times, working with Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Rukmini Callimachi, spent fifteen months unpacking a trove of over fifteen thousand internal documents of the so-called "Islamic State", painstakingly assembled over the course of five trips to Iraq over the span of a year.
The documents are fascinating, intriguing...and alarming...as they expose, in excruciating detail, the internal operations of a group of modern barbarians, along with the 'why' and the 'how' by which they were able sustain a functioning state, under continuous attack, largely cut off from external aid.
Despite its barbaric nihilism - including public mass beheadings and a return to open-air (and openly televised) slave markets - the terrorist state at one point controlled a swath of territory the size of Great Britain, as well as a population estimated at nearly 12 million people, not to mention parts of Libya, Nigeria and the Philippines. As fascinating as the article, and its attendant photo archive and supplementary articles are, it is even more fascinating for what it does not say, namely:
How did this happen? MilitaryGazette addressed this very question in 2016.
One of the curious blind spots of the Times' reporting, is that they already had the answer to this question. As early as August of 2014, the Times quite accurately reported that ISIL relied heavily on former officers - and civil officials - of deposed and executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's military forces and Ba'ath Party administrative structure.
Many of these men - most of them dedicated career officers and officials - were summarily ejected from the Iraqi governmental and military structure through the staggering incompetence of the Coalition Provisioning Authority in the aftermath of the Coalition invasion of Iraq, which toppled the dictator. The ill-conceived Order Number 2 effectively destroyed the internal structure of Iraq at a stroke, leading to chaos within the country, and directly to the uprising of the demographic Sunni minority, who had formed the majority of the Iraqi state's bureaucracy for its entire existence. Democracy is always messy to implement, and in a culture with little to no concept of the principles involved, the chances of abuse are heightened, especially when the demographic majority has been systematically abused by a controlling demographic minority.
Iraq was no different, and once George W. Bush, left office in early 2009, to be replaced by the ineffectual Barack Obama, who was eager to fulfill his campaign promise to get the United States out of Iraq, no matter what, as soon as possible.
ISIL forces were not terribly forceful in their capture of Mosul - Iraq's "second city" - in 2014, and by all rights, outnumbered up as much as 15-to-1, should have been speedily annihilated by the Iraqi 2nd and 3rd Infantry divisions...which didn't happen, due to the systematic reprisals by the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, which went largely unanswered by President Obama, until it was nearly too late. That Iraq remained intact at all, and that ISIL's offensive stalled then fizzled, was due to the restraint showed by - of all entities - Iran.
However, with the conquest of Mosul, it suddenly became apparent that ISIL was not the typical terror group. While the vast bulk of their non-Iraqi or -Syrian recruits were in their mid-20's, well-educated, but mostly work-inexperienced and largely ignorant of the Quran or the intricacies of Sharia law, and most of their in-country recruits tended to be indifferently educated and had little experience of the world, the group seemed able to "magically" set up and run a functioning state almost literally overnight.
What happened, to cause this?
In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, and the disenfranchisement of the bulk of the Iraqi government bureaucrats, it is clear that a number of mid-level (captains and majors) military officers - and possibly some civil servants - fled into Syria. While Syria was not an active member of the so-called "Coalition of the Willing" , they largely kept their Ba'athist cousins in check, heavily restricting them from returning to Iraq. In such an environment, with nothing else to do, and with undoubted access to some of the secret monies squirreled away by Saddam's regime, such men would have done what their training told them to do: assess what had happened to get them to that place, and plan for what to do to regain some semblance of power and self-respect.
Freed from the constraints of the ruthless, sadistic, paranoid and militarily-incompetent Saddam and his henchmen, these professionally trained officers would have conducted a multi-sided interdisciplinary study, that examined and assessed Iraq's defeats of the preceding twenty-odd years, the reasons for the United States' and its allies repeated victories over them, the state of their finances, what immediately-available technology and supplies those funds could purchase, and how to more effectively employ those assets...there were just two problems these men could not overcome: a lack of privates, and the lack of a figurehead -- as mid-level officers, these men were largely faceless and unknown - the stereotypical "gray man". But, they could not implement their plans without an army and a leader...which is the point where fate, in the form of the "Arab Spring", intervened.
As the region's more restrictive states began to explode with internal protests in December of 2010, it quickly became apparent that the United States was involved, at least at some level. As protests began to intensify in Syria in early 2011, the former Iraqi officers in Syria undoubtedly began to wonder if this was their moment.
As early as August, 2011 what would become ISIL - after relentless pounding by US and Coalition forces, that also saw the death of its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the rise of his subsequent successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - began withdrawing into western Iraq...and began filtering cadre into Syria to help form what would become the al-Nusra Front. This is likely the point, in 2013, where the two groups first mingled, given the group's rapid growth in effectiveness, and its reputed large numbers of "foreign" fighters.
By January of 2014, it was too late: a suddenly professional ISIL, reinforced by dissident al-Nusra troops and the bulk of the Russian-speaking Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) group, roared out of Aleppo and Raqqa, and into history...
...But in their wake, came the grey men: military bureaucrats and administrators - professional, worldly and well-educated - appeared hot on the heels of the assault units, rounding up the local populace, for either recruitment, co-opting or "ethnic cleansing".
As Ms. Callimachi points out in her Times article, the administrative and logistical professionalism of these men is breathtaking in its effects: ISIL operations within its territory were almost entirely financed by its internal taxation policies. While there was clear assistance from outside, the lesson Ms. Callimachi presents (perhaps unintentionally) is stark: a non-state group can, given enough forethought by its leadership - or even its middle managers - as well as a lack of interference in day-to-day operations by inexperienced leaders, and effective military training can self-sustain itself in ways we have never seen, previously.
Someone has opened Pandora's box, again...and the future bodes ill for it.
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