From The New Yorker
Thanks to Janie Sheppard
It’s been nearly eleven years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which, almost since it began, proved to be the historically fatal element in the war on terror launched by George W. Bush’s White House. His Administration, and its sundry neoconservative wingmen, went so far as to tout the war in Iraq as a means to promote democracy across the Muslim lands. At the same time, there was a growing unease that things might not turn out well. In a 2005 conversation I had with the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq at the time, Zalmay Khalilzad, he spoke of his fears: “I shudder to think what we could face if we don’t fix Iraq.” He foresaw the possibility that an Iraqi civil war between Sunnis and Shiites could infect the entire Middle East.
Where are we today? It seems a good time to take stock.
In Iraq, two years after President Barack Obama made good on his word and pulled U.S. troops out—forty-five hundred American lives later, and God knows how many Iraqi lives later—the slumbering sectarian war has reignited. At least eight thousand Iraqis were killed in the violence in 2013, a majority of them Shiite civilians targeted for murder or killed in bomb blasts set by the reascendant Sunni extremists of Al Qaeda. That’s right: they’re back. Now calling themselves ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham—the jihadis, who were supposedly defeated by Sunni tribesmen and American troops under the tutelage of David Petraeus, in the so-called Sunni Awakening of 2006-08, are not only active again; they are dominating the Syrian battlefield on the rebel side, and in the past few weeks seized the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and a good part of nearby Ramadi, too.
Remember Fallujah? That’s the city on the outskirts of Baghdad, in the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, the homeland of restive tribes since the British occupation of Mesopotamia, a hundred years ago. It’s also where, in 2004, in a bid to beat the extremists who controlled it at the time, U.S. combat troops fought two separate battles, at a cost of more than a hundred and twenty American lives. Nearly a quarter of the American troops killed in Iraq during the war—about a thousand men and women—died in Anbar Province.
Now the Al Qaeda flag waves in the center of Fallujah. At least fifty-two people died in Iraq from terrorist bombs on Wednesday. There are car bombs nearly every day.
In Syria, more than two and a half years into a bloody civil war, as many as a hundred and twenty thousand people are dead, with more than a quarter of the country’s population now living as refugees, either displaced internally or in neighboring countries. Al Qaeda and other Islamist rebel groups have taken over what was once a popular, broad-based uprising against the Assad dictatorship, and are killing one another, and ordinary Syrian civilians, across a wide swath of that country. Having effectively lost control of much of the country’s second most important city, Aleppo, to rebels, the regime is now feeling confident enough to be preparing an assault to retake it. Syria’s conflict is about a lot of different things, of course, but in the business of killing, which is the hardtack, everyday stuff of war, it, too, is Shiite versus Sunni.
As for neighboring Lebanon—the Mediterranean rump state formed in the European carve-up of the Ottoman Empire, in the wake of the First World War—thanks to the spillover of Syria’s conflict, it is looking increasingly like a cracked pane of glass, just waiting for the next hard shake to fall apart completely. As in Syria, the violence is pitting Shiite against Sunni, and also against Christian.
And on and on. The region is, effectively, coming apart. If the Cold War helped to suppress long-standing feuds and rivalries (while helping to incubate militant Islam), which the fall of the Soviet Union exposed, it seems obvious now that key nerve endings were cut by the U.S. intervention in Iraq—and the one in Afghanistan, too—finishing off whatever uneasy compromises remained. (The death, by hanging, of Saddam Hussein, in 2006, had a vengeful quality, but it appeased none of Iraq’s demons.) The Arab Spring of 2011, that phenomenon which so raised hopes and caused hearts to flutter in the West—and, indeed, across the Middle East—has collapsed, and been replaced by increasing volatility. Egypt, the bulwark of American power in the region, a staunch Western ally ever since Anwar Sadat signed a peace deal with Israel at Camp David, is now, post-Mubarak and post-Muslim Brotherhood, in the grip of a military clique that is, by the day, widening its definition of who and what is a terrorist. Extremist violence has begun as a reaction, or possibly as a provocation, or both. Expect tyranny, and more violence, in the land of the pharaohs, and—who knows—maybe even civil war. In Bahrain, the Shiite majority simmers under a Sunni king. In Saudi Arabia, hundreds of young male volunteers, anxious for the chance to kill Shiites in Syria’s jihad, manage to go off and do just that, with the ease of Californians flying to Las Vegas for weekend gambling breaks.
And there is anarchic Libya, with its myriad armed gangs, its jihadis, and its own waves of bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations; fragile (and still marginally hopeful) Tunisia; Mali and the other shaky statelets of western Africa, Burkina Faso and Niger, in which terrorists occasionally kill and are chased but nothing is the same as it was; Nigeria, with the fanatical jihadi group Boko Haram, which seeks common cause with Al Qaeda in the region and at home, and kills Christians with breathtaking frequency, only to find its own people massacred by out-of-control government troops; and the Central African Republic, where poverty and underlying tribal enmities have now found terrifying expression within a Christian-versus-Muslim prism.
Indeed, an arc of violent political instability now links Muslim nations from Mauritania to Pakistan, affecting neighbors in Europe and Africa, and there is no end in sight. Most worryingly, in the contiguous nations of central and eastern Africa, where the states are weak, a rash of uncontained conflicts has spread, their violence and refugees flowing outward and overlapping, in a great bulge of mayhem that extends from the Horn to the Nile and from the Great Lakes region to the Sahel. It is dangerous: war thrives in a vacuum.
Nowadays, the U.S. has no interest in sending combat troops, just advisers or small SWAT teams dispatched here and there on specific missions (to kill Osama bin Laden or sundry terrorists in Somalia). Instead, it supports peacekeeping missions, sends humanitarian aid, and engages in hard-nosed diplomacy. That’s all well and good. Why fight wars if you can’t win them? More troops won’t rewind the past or undo the tragic mistakes and the stupidities of the Iraq invasion and its aftermath. But, at the same time, who says that this is not a world at war? Do we have a plan of action?
Back in the days when he was trying to fix Iraq, Ambassador Khalilzad talked about his use of chaos theory, but he lamented the lack of American strategists with the heft and the depth of Zbigniew Brzezinski, his old mentor, or Henry Kissinger, helping to steer things at the top—someone with a world view and a chess master’s eye. It was, I suppose, his way of saying that, for all its sweeping ambitions, the U.S.S. Enterprise was steering blind.
No new Brzezinski ever appeared on the scene. Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld have long since retired to their ranches to, variously, paint, get a heart transplant, and write self-serving memoirs. Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense, has come out with a tell-all book of his own, revealing, among other things, that he cried at night over the deaths of American troops. That’s comforting. We’re all back home now, or nearly so. But we’ve left a mess behind. So what’s next? Where do we go from here?
As for those American soldiers asking, “Was our sacrifice in Fallujah worth it?,” one is at a loss about how to reply to the thought that comes to mind this week: No, it really wasn’t. It is time to get angry.