Reframing The Current Crisis In Iraq

This piece was first published on King’s College London’s Kings Of War blog.

During the past few months, politicians, media outlets, and pundits alike have framed the current crisis in Iraq in a seemingly straightforward fashion.

The popular narrative goes as follows: a barbaric, Islamic extremist group, called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has established control over areas astride the border between Syria and Iraq. Vastly larger, but mostly ineffective, Iraqi armed forces have not been able to stop the ISIS advance whose militants have come close to reaching the outskirts of the capital Baghdad. Iraq, vexed by ineluctable sectarian conflict, now stands on the brink of civil war. However, the ISIS threat goes beyond the area it currently controls. In fact, the ISIS has ostensibly displayed global ambitions: its leadership has announced the creation of an Islamic caliphate and has called on Muslims worldwide to vow allegiance to its self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

There are at least three aspects of this popular narrative that are inaccurate and somewhat misleading.

1) First aspect: the current crisis in Iraq is all about the ISIS.

Although the ISIS has undoubtedly achieved the status of “ the public face” of the Iraqi insurgency, it could hardly be described as the only actor involved in the fighting. Reliable accounts, in fact, provide evidence that the insurgency in Iraq is a complex aggregation of diverse militant Sunni groups. An all but complete list of these groups includes, along with the ISIS, other Islamist extremist factions (such as Ansar al-Islam), the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq (that comprises as many as eighty tribes), and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (a militant group that claims to have Kurdish and Shiite members and surely hosts many Sunni Baathists once loyal to the regime of Saddam Hussein). Notably, antipathies exist among members of this heterogeneous alliance. As an example, some Islamic extremist groups consider former Baathists to be infidels.

2) Second aspect: the root causes of the current crisis in Iraq mostly stem from religion and sectarian tensions.

Although the armed confrontation in Iraq has indeed pitted a Sunni insurgency against Shiite and Kurdish forces, the current conflict is by no means a theological confrontation rooted in the seventh century. The root causes behind the fighting are primarily political. Sunni political grievances include: fair access to government revenue and services, a say in the process of national decision-making, an end to rampant corruption in the Shiite-led government, and a modicum of social justice. These are clearly secular and not religious grievances. Notably, they are not new grievances either. During the last years of the George W. Bush presidency, in fact, the United States already acknowledged the existence of a number of such potentially destabilizing issues. Tellingly, embedded in the eighteen political “benchmarks” identified at the time by the United States to foster political reconciliation in Iraq, there were laws to distribute oil revenue equitably and provisions to reverse the purge of Baathists from government positions.

3) Third aspect: the goal of the ISIS leadership is to create a global caliphate.

It is true that the ISIS has announced the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the territories the group has seized in Iraq and Syria. It is also true that the ISIS leadership has asked Muslims living beyond the areas under its direct control to swear their allegiance to the new caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, there are clear limits to the ISIS capability to achieve global reach. To begin with, the ISIS has scored its major military successes in areas where local populations were mostly friendly to the insurgency. ISIS is going to face a stiffer resistance in Shiite and Kurdish majority areas. Moreover, and this is linked to points 1 and 2, the current Iraqi insurgency is primarily a marriage of convenience. Cooperation among the above mentioned unlikely Sunni allies will probably terminate as soon as the common Shiite enemy is defeated. Ensuing infighting will likely weaken the insurgency and degrade its ability to seize additional territory. Furthermore, the appeal of the ISIS to Sunni communities in the wider Middle East should not be overestimated. Moderate Sunnis might not feel comfortable with ISIS extremist doctrine and tactics. Finally, the international coalition that is presently forming under the aegis of the United States will represent a huge obstacle not only to the ISIS potential expansionist goals but also to the extremist group’s very existence.

What does this tell us about the way the international community should respond to the current crisis in Iraq? I see at least two important implications:

1) The international community would be mistaken in considering the Iraqi insurgency solely, or primarily, as a terrorist threat.

2) Any international military intervention in Iraq must be followed by a serious long-term commitment by the international community to facilitate sectarian reconciliation and to pressure the government in Baghdad to resolve the political grievances that fueled the Sunni insurgency in the first place.



  1. Cincinnatus Jr.

    An interesting and on the whole sensible analysis. At least two points arise in my view from the piece:

    1. The references to the Bush Administration’s policy regarding Iraq, while accurate, fail to address the more important (in terms of post-occupation Iraq) total failures by the Obama administration(s) to handle the end of direct US involvement in a coherent much less competent manner. It is my view that the US should never have inserted itself into Iraq in the first instance, both in terms of the initial invasion and the even more wrong-headed occupation that followed. This flawed foreign policy was further exacerbated by Obama’s continuation and exacerbation of the situation for crass domestic partisan and ideological reasons (primarily to keep the “anti-war” and “anti-imperialist” constituencies of his political base mollified). Driven by these dangerous reasons to adopt foreign policy, His administration purposely failed to negotiate a bilateral SOFA that would have phased out the US presence in a hopefully more cohesive, intelligent and practical manner that might in turn have achieved at least more of the benchmarks to which Mr. Lilli rightly refers.

    2. The second point Mr. Lilli makes that is troubling to me is the underlying assumption that military intervention is either desirable or inevitable and even worse that the US should be involved. I for one, as a retired senior US military officer firmly believe any further activity beyond diplomatic (in the parlance of Clausewitz) by the US, including the current ineffective and largely political theater air “campaign” is and will be folly at best and further disruptive of the evolution of political dominance in the region.

    The US needs to stop its naive and dangerous assumptions that drive its foreign policy in the region and in other muslim-dominated regions that include the notion that if one “scratches hard enough” there will be an American underneath longing to emerge. This was the flawed basis of Bush’s characterization of the enemies of the US in the region as only a small number of “radical islamic extremists,” that in turn presumed the larger majority saw the US as a liberator and model for changing centuries-old patterns of belief and behavior.

    This ineffective and indeed destabilizing US foreign policy for dealing with islamic states has persisted in the Obama administration(s) but for somewhat different reasons such as those to which I referred above. The US response and encouragement of the so-called “Arab Spring” and the grim reality of its aftermath illustrates this very well. That the US should stay well out of this cauldron of internecine islamic conflict is exemplified by the destruction of the US consulate and murder of four Americans in Benghazi (for which no one in the government responsible for this debacle has yet been held accountable) and the current onslaught of the ISIS/ISIL (or whatever the current nomenclature is) that was largely enabled (in terms of its military prowess) through Obama foreign policy that led to the US having trained and equipped the supposedly “vetted” rebels in the civil war in Syria. Incredibly, Obama now intends to repeat this grotesque error by doing the same againfor yet another faction of “vetted” rebels who no doubt have, like ISIS/ISIL/? did before, promised not to use their training and equipment against US personnel or interests.

    The tragic upshot of all this is it is becoming increasingly likely that, as has become rather commonplace in so many other domestic and foreign policy matters, Obama will backtrack on His repeated assurances that there will be no American “boots on the ground” and we will become embroiled in another no-win conflict. That He and His advisors live in a true fantasy world driven by their ideology and ineptitude is demonstrated in today’s headline that according to our Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff the linchpin to the US “strategy” for dealing with ISIS/ISIL/? is the active involvement (boots on the ground?) of “Arab” states in stopping its/their aggrandizement of territory and power.

    None of this will end well.


  2. Capt Cav

    “God helps those that help themselves
    He will help only those who help themselves
    He cannot help those who do not help themselves
    Outsiders can contribute but cannot win an unconventional war by themselves.”
    —–Douglas Pike
    Americans like winners. It is part of our exuberant nature to rush in, take over everything in sight and try and fix it. We continue to neglect the old saying “proper prior planning and preparation prevent poor performance.” Focusing on Afghanistan we entered the country fueled by the noble cause of finding and eliminating Osama bin Laden who masterminded the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States. We undertook this crusade to eliminate the recruiting and training grounds for Al-Qaeda. Twelve years later are still in Afghanistan because we allowed ourselves to become emotionally involved in the campaign after expending billions of dollars in treasure and more than 1500 American lives. We continue to try and substitute material abundance for lack of national élan. We took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan and started an unnecessary war in Iraq where we still are 13 years later. The Iraqi people MUST step up take responsibility for defending their country. We eve created an armored division (9th Division) but neglected to train transport pilot (similar mistake in Afghanistan). I suggest all war pundits read “The American Experience with Pacification in Vietnam” a three-volume critique written in 1972 by the Institute for Defense Analysis. Obviously, most of our politician and generals have not read it and therefore have not headed the lessons of failed nation building. We should use instead the Philippine model of counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism


    • eugeniolilli

      Thank you for your comment.
      I might be wrong but it seems to me that you are arguing that the United States is “reluctantly” getting involved again in Iraq, forced by events on the ground.
      If that is in fact your position, does it mean that you would dismiss outright the possibility that the U.S. is actually using the current crisis as an opportunity to renew its military presence in Iraq, and, in this way, to increase its ability to exercise substantial pressure on Iran as part of the longstanding US policy of containment of the Islamic Republic?


  3. Jonathan

    First aspect: You point out that many other groups have been involved in the take-over by ISIS of large portions of Iraq. But this doesn’t say anything about who’s in control. You haven’t cited any evidence about that aspect. A good analogy might be the Bolshevik revolution. It’s true that Lenin, Trotsky, and their supporters were involved, but ultimately, Stalin was in control.

    Second aspect: You point out that the current alliance of Sunni tribes with ISIS was spurred by the Iraqi regime’s political exclusion of Sunnis. But why were they excluded in the first place? It seems that was caused by distrust which, at least in part, had to do with religious rivalries. In any case, ISIS came from Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was fighting long before the political issues you mentioned. That’s consistent with the fact that it appears that at least ISIS is motivated more by a religious desire to achieve world domination and kill all non-Sunnis than by any internal political issues having to do with Iraq.

    Third aspect: You question whether “the goal of the ISIS leadership is to create a global caliphate.” But then you argue that ISIS may lack the “capability to achieve global reach.” What does having such a capability have to do with the question of whether or not they have that goal? Their announced intentions, as well as intelligence cited by President Obama, suggest that their goal is to have global reach. Whether they have the “capability” is irrelevant to that question. But even regarding ISIS’s capabilities, these have been underestimated at every turn. And it’s just not correct that they’ve only been successful in areas where they have local support. Initially, that was true, but then they started attacking Kurdish areas and others. The fact they have gone beyond Sunni areas is why there are so many refugees and so many reports of the populations of entire villages being killed. And now that they have state-like powers, their capabilities will likely continue to grow, if left unchecked by the world community.

    As to the conclusion that ISIS should not be viewed solely, or primarily, as a terrorist threat, I don’t think the Obama administration or any serious analyst is denying that for the local population, ISIS is primarily a regional threat. But for those outside the region, clearly the concern about them is due to terrorism. And that concern is justified. They originated as part of Al Qaeda. Their actions and frequent war crimes have shown a complete disregard for any bounds of morality. Their incursions into non-Sunni areas have demonstrated that they will go as far they can, into any territory they can; in this regard, their behavior is not unlike that of the Nazis in the 1930s, although of course they don’t have the military might that Germany did. Still, with state-like powers, the possibility of them gaining nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons is a real threat that one would be foolish to ignore…and ISIS has in fact shown interest in acquiring such weapons.

    Liked by 1 person

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