In two weeks the worst national major-party candidate in U.S. history will become its most unfit president at a time when the 9/11 wars of what Lawrence Wright’s new book calls “the terror years” (following up his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower) cast a long shadow over the tattered remains of post-Cold War hopes for a better world order. In a recent London Review of Books commentary on three recent volumes about the so-called “Islamic State,” Owen-Bennett-Jones observes: “After 15 years of conflict, there are now many places on earth where westerners dare not tread and western politicians are reduced to defining victory as an absence of attacks at home.” Those are “remarkable achievements” for an Islamist extremism that feeds off the weaknesses of western liberal democracy. (Trump’s election was as much celebrated by IS as by autocrats and neofascists.)
There is no better guide to what has been happening “over there” than Patrick Cockburn, the intrepid longtime correspondent for The Independent and regular London Review contributor. The Age of Jihad combines his incisive reporting of several decades with insightful up-to-date analysis.
Cockburn’s introduction cites the prophetic lines from my favourite poem by W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming," that begins: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The centre is not holding in many places; nowhere more so than in the “vast region of instability” from the borders of Iran to North Africa. While stability has been rare since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire a century ago, 9/11 “was the starting pistol for a series of calamitous events which destroyed the old status quo” as manifested in the savage civil wars “in which Sunni fundamentalist jihadis play a leading role.” The ill-conceived 2003 invasion of Iraq was a particularly destabilizing geopolitical “earthquake” that exacerbated Sunni/Shia sectarian hostilities. Added to the consequences of failed western military interventions and withdrawals have been other negative factors, notably the role of the Gulf absolute monarchies (that includes Saudi Arabia’s spread of extremist “Wahhabist” Sunni doctrines) and the dashed aspirations of the “Arab spring.” (Tunisia is the sole partial exception but Egypt has reverted to an “even more repressive police state.”) Epic miscalculations have produced wars that “turn into bloody stalemates with no outright winners or losers, aside from the millions of civilians who are the victims.”
The first 9/11 wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, led to early easy “victories” and a “mission accomplished” myopia that, lacking reliable local partners, proved deceptive. The Taliban retreated to Pakistan and in a few years was able to stage a return. (It now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.) The dysfunctional western-supported Karzai government made deals with warlords and was mired in corruption. As Cockburn observed in 2008, “the dominant political feature was dislike or hatred of the government at all levels of society.”
Matters were even worse in Iraq where the disastrous decisions of the occupiers to dissolve the army and blacklist all Baathist party members provided recruits for a growing insurgency. Underestimated at the time was the devastating impact on the population of the 13 years of sanctions following the First Gulf War that “had already shattered the country’s society and economy.” Cockburn notes the premonition of the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator Dennis Halliday who resigned in protest in 1998: “What should be of concern is the possibility of more fundamentalist Islamic thinking developing . . . as a spin-off of the sanctions regime. We are pushing people to take extreme positions.” Moreover, Iraq’s Sunnis had for centuries exercised political power over the Shia and Kurdish majority. Overthrowing that, followed by incompetent Shia-dominated governance, was a recipe for chaos.
The Arab uprisings of 2011 appeared to sweep away several old regimes but have also belied western expectations. Militant Islam was always an element in them. Where peaceful protests were frustrated, a militarization of dissent provoked civil conflict. Or, as in Bahrain, the West stood by as such protests were severely repressed from the outset, further inflaming Sunni-Shia tensions. In almost all cases the outcome has been more oppression and violence, not democracy. What Cockburn calls the “Somalianization” of Libya could have been foreseen. Yemen has been ripped apart with the regional Sunni-Shia rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran being played out in a savage proxy war largely ignored by the western powers.
Syria’s agony in the throes of revolution and counter-revolution is the greatest affront. For a time the West was banking on the Assad dictatorship to collapse like Gaddafi’s. Instead it fought back ruthlessly while Islamist extremists penetrated the north of the country from Iraq. “Moderate” forces have given way to a military opposition “wholly dominated by ISIS and al-Qaeda clones.” The West therefore faces an enormous dilemma while Russia and Iran are determined to keep Assad in power. However much the outside powers, including Turkey and the Gulf monarchies, contest Islamic State control of parts of Syria, they have contradictory aims. In Cockburn’s view, “the horror story for the Syrian people will go on until the regional players decide that nobody is going to win and bring it to a stop.”
It will surely take more than Trump’s promise to “bomb the s___ out of ISIS” to do that. When the U.S. eliminated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, with a targeted strike in 2006, the congratulations proved grossly premature. When Obama withdrew U.S. troops, eager to turn the page on an unpopular war, western interest waned. As Cockburn writes: “It became yesterday’s crisis. Television and newspapers closed down news bureaux in Baghdad and covered the story only scantily, right up to the moment ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014 and the country fell apart.” Baghdad itself was at risk of falling as politicians in the capital fled to Jordan.
The “caliphate” proclaimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a survivor of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, is under siege. While some Sunnis may have welcomed it initially, its subject populations have endured a reign of terror and ruthless prohibitions. Even if ISIS can be defeated with the help of foreign powers, the damage will be immense and long lasting. Sectarian divisions between Sunni Arabs, Shias, Kurds, and others make for an explosive cocktail. It’s hard to see how Iraq and Syria can be put back together again. Given that Iraq borders six countries and Syria five, their convulsions also contribute to regional destabilization.
Cockburn counts eight wars being fought in the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa which have led to the “murder and migration of whole groups of people,” with no end in sight.
While these multiple catastrophes may seem to be far away, Canada is not immune to the consequences — in refugee flows, radicalized youth lured by jihadi propaganda, the ramping up of security surveillance in response to terrorist threats.
If the western liberal-democratic centre does not hold, the “age of jihad” may be just the beginning. Happy New Year?