The approach of the presidential election in the United States in 2016 was signalled this week by a high-profile debate between the main contenders for the Republican Party nomination, hosted by the conservative Fox TV station. Most of the coverage was dominated by Donald Trump's showmanship, but an important if less prominent theme was the strong opposition voiced by these aspiring leaders to the nuclear deal with Iran. This sentiment will doubtless persist for many months as the election nears, backed by persistent lobbying from pro-Israel voices undeterred by rare criticism from President Obama.
A subset of this GOP attitude towards Iran is a demand for much stronger action in Iraq. Republican hawks are worried about the considerable influence that Iran now wields in the country, an outcome in marked contrast to the hopes they had when the war in 2003 was launched.
Even in mid-2003, a few months after the invasion of Iraq by the George W Bush administration and its allies, the latter had every confidence that the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime would usher in a period when Iran would be severely constrained on all sides. This view seemed plausible: Tehran would face US military bases in Afghanistan to the east, a string of pro-American Arab states down the west coast of the Persian Gulf, a US fifth fleet dominant in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf itself - and above all, an Iraq under firm US control.
It all went terribly wrong. A bitter, costly and drawn-out war in Iraq ended up with greatly increased Iranian influence in Bagjhdad. What made it worse for Republicans was that Barack Obama could challenge John McCain in 2008 on a platform of withdrawal from Iraq, and win. In both domestic and foreign policy, the supporters of Bush and the war had to accept defeat.
In the event, however, the story took another twist: namely, that the US had been on the point of victory until Obama let things slip. The analogy here is with Vietnam, and the the notion that the United States was winning the war in there when domestic opposition forced a premature withdrawal. In the case of Iraq, the focus was on the perceived success of George Bush’s much-vaunted “surge” of troops into Iraq towards the end of his second term. This strategy was the sole factor making it possible for the perfidious Obama even to contemplate withdrawing - whereas the right policy would have been to continue the war and ensure a substantial long-term occupation of Iraq, thus excluding Iranian influence.
This whole view stems from what Peter Beinart calls “the legend of the surge”:
“The legend goes something like this: By sending more troops to Iraq in 2007, George W. Bush finally won the Iraq War. Then Barack Obama, by withdrawing U.S. troops, lost it. Because of Obama’s troop withdrawal, and his general refusal to exercise American power, Iraq collapsed, ISIS rose, and the Middle East fell apart. ‘We had it won, thanks to the surge,’ Senator John McCain declared last September.”
A key dynamic
But there is a wider problem with the neo-conservative outlook on Iraq. It lies in the intense shadow war fought by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and its Task Force 145 in 2004-07 and aimed at the heart of the most extreme Sunni insurgents (see "Islamic State: power of belief", 6 November 2014). This initially may have appeared to hugely damage the whole insurgency, making it then possible for the surge to be effective. But it had a terrible consequence, in that it led to thousands of those detained being locked up in Camp Bucca where many were further radicalised - and frequently took on the mantle of the extreme Islamist outlook of what became Islamic State.
This factor is summarised in an Oxford Research Group briefing of October 2014 (see "The Islamic State and its potential", ORG, 7 October 2014). The analysis is now reinforced by a singularly perceptive report from Associated Press by Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra. The authors have tracked down the career trajectories of many of the senior Iraqi paramilitary leaders now at the core of Islamic State’s fighting ability, and have shown how they link with Camp Bucca and JSOC’s operations. They write:
“The prison was a significant incubator for the Islamic State group, bringing militants like al-Baghdadi into contact with former Saddam officers, including members of special forces, the elite Republican Guard and the paramilitary force called Fedayeen.”
When the US forces left Iraq in 2011, many of the 20,000-plus detainees in Camp Bucca and elsewhere were released. The most hardline prisoners were handed over to Nouri al-Malaki's regime in Baghdad for long-term detention. But a series of audacious prison-breaks by the nascent Islamic State in 2012-13 released this group, and many of them became crucial to Islamic State’s current paramilitary prowess.
Indeed, Hendawi and Abdul-Zahra report that there is a key group of 100-160 mid- and senior-level commanders with these origins, many of them highly experienced army or intelligence officers from the Saddam Hussein era. Some have fully embraced extreme Islamist beliefs, others less so; but all are hardened and hugely experienced men who learnt their “trade” against elite western special forces.
This process is one of the most remarkable examples of “blowback” to come out of the Iraq war, and helps explain why Islamic State is so ruthless and effective. It's also an unpalatable truth for any western politician, military official - or Republican hopeful - to begin to acknowledge. Yet until they do, the dynamics that are driving this war will continue to go unchecked.