The events in Iraq over the past week have seemingly moved at light speed; however, the genesis of these militant victories is long standing in that troubled country. The inability of Sunnis, Shi’a and Kurds to govern without ethnic prejudice (especially the Shi’a dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki) have set the stage for these recent attacks. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a Sunni dominated group self-idenified with Al Qadea, have conducted operations from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, swept south to take Tikrit (the home of Saddam Hussein) yesterday. This has caused a humanitarian crisis in the north as nearly 500,000 refugees have fled the area surrounding Mosul for the Kurdish north. Today ISIS has vowed to continue south to take Baghdad.
Adding to the chaos, ISIS forces seized 32 Turkish truck drivers in Mosul and then moved on to the Turkish Consulate and took Turkey’s Counselor, other diplomats and several special forces personnel assigned to the consulate. This comes after months of tough talk from Ankara regarding the deteriorating situation in Iraq as Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish communities continued their in-fighting and cementing ethnic divisions in the country. Now Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be forced to either negotiate with ISIS or launch a rescue attempt. Mosul is located just over 75 miles form the Turkish border but the number of hostages (reported to be nearly 50) will make any rescue attempt difficult if not altogether impossible. All this occurs just two months prior to the Presidential elections in Turkey in which Erdogan plans to run and, by his own estimates, win.
The US response to these attacks has been somewhere between quiet admonishment, directed toward the three ethnic groups in country, and simply ignoring the disintegration of Iraq as a functioning state. As the title of today’s posting points out, the US declared Iraq ready to govern itself in 2011 when US troops left that country and Washington never looked back. This exit was partly due to Iraq failing to sign a bilateral security agreement with the US in which it would have legally retained a US troop presence and partly due to a White House anxious to disengage in a war that it declared as unnecessary.
Now Washington will be forced to deal with the aftermath of a policy which is driven by timelines rather than strategy. Simply declaring that a fragile government is ready to assume responsibility for its own future doesn’t make it so nor does it release the US of its responsibilities or, as Colin Powell put forth in his Pottery Barn axiom, “you break it you own it.”
All of this should be refocusing Washington on the other unspoken concern, Afghanistan. Once again a timeline has been enshrined as strategic vision just as in 2011 in Iraq but, in reality it’s just another timeline for another exit from another fragile state. One hopes that history won’t repeat itself with regard to Afghanistan although for those who don’t learn from history the chances of this redux seems ever more likely.