Who needs IS in Iraq?

Salah Nasrawi , Sunday 22 Jul 2018

As the fight against Islamic State weaves back and forth in Iraq, the question has arisen of whether the terrorist group is becoming a much-needed perpetual enemy

At the NATO summit in Brussels earlier this month, the Canadian government committed itself to a new military mission in Iraq as the Western alliance declared its intention of expanding its operations in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country would assume command of a new NATO commitment for one year amid reports that the organisation was ramping up its presence in the war-shattered country.

Up to 250 Canadian troops will be posted to Baghdad to help protect and guide the training of Iraqi government troops on measures to prevent a re-emergence of IS militants and other threats.

The announcement came as a surprise to many as Canada had suspended its training and assistance operations in Iraq last year after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared victory over the terror group.

Trudeau had earlier ordered the pulling out of Canadian jets that had been bombing targets in Iraq and Syria, ending the country’s combat role in the fight against IS.

Simultaneously, Australia volunteered last week to join a new NATO-led mission in Iraq which the alliance said was aimed at preventing the return of IS or a resurgence of terrorism.

NATO top representative in Iraq Paul Smith said that about 500 troops would make up the new mission in Iraq, which is expected to last three to five years. The earliest troops would arrive before the autumn, he said.

Most importantly, the United States is also trying to boost its military presence in Iraq. Despite claims that Washington has reduced its forces in Iraq working with the International Coalition after Baghdad declared victory over IS last year, the Pentagon still keeps thousands of US soldiers in Iraq.

According to news reports, the United States is also planning to install its third military base in the western Iraqi desert province of Anbar to join its already operating bases of Ain Al-Assad and Habbaniya near the border with Syria.

Washington maintains several other military bases in Iraq and in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

Iraqi government leaders have said that the fight against IS is not quite finished and that Iraq needs the US troops to stay. Al-Abadi urged the NATO summit last week to scale up its mission in Iraq and to enhance bilateral cooperation.

“Any single terrorist is a ticking bomb and should be confronted by pre-emptive strikes,” Al-Abadi told the summiteers in Brussels, urging them to “combat terrorism on a global level.”

However, the pressure to revamp the US and NATO military presence in Iraq has led to questions about the reasons behind keeping so many foreign troops in Iraq a year after the country declared victory over IS.

The war against the group was left unfinished by Iraqi forces, which, backed by the US-led International Coalition, only fought to retake major cities held by IS.

Soon after ending three years of control of some of their bastions, many IS militants have seized the chance to regroup and relaunch attacks in Iraq as the country remains mired in political turmoil.

The Iraqi government forces limited their campaign to flushing out IS militants from their strongholds, but they did not try to defeat the group decisively.

In recent weeks, the terrorist group has been launching daily attacks and has returned to fight against the Iraqi security forces in areas from which it was driven out more than a year ago.

On the surface, the move to shore up military efforts in Iraq demonstrates the need to continue the war against IS. However, a look at the bigger picture shows that the build-up underlines a policy of reinforcing the sense of a still-existing peril from an unconquered enemy.

The “enemy next door” has long been a propaganda technique used to divert attention or engage in manipulation. Effectively creating an enemy and constructing a threat have long been used to rally support or outwit opposition for various purposes and intents.

From the ancient Roman historian Sallust to the Italian Renaissance thinker Niccolo Machiavelli and US geopolitical strategist Henry Kissinger, the idea of people “without an adversary” turning their knives inwards has long prevailed in Western political thought.

In the eighth century CE, Muslim thinker Abdullah Ibn Al-Muqaffa, author of the Kalilah wa-Dimnah, a book of wisdom for Muslim rulers, wrote that “an enemy is like hot water: when you take it off the fire it will cool down.”

More recently and more meaningful in this context was the alliance in the second half of the 20th century between the United States and the Mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan, who later became US enemies.

One of the most prominent aspects of the international war on terror today is the hostility towards Islam as a “hidden enemy.” This narrative legitimises xenophobia against Muslims and is potentially dangerous for the war against terrorist groups such as IS.

NATO has had many enemies it has used to justify its existence. In the age of “Islamic terrorism” and refugee influxes to Europe from abroad, IS is becoming another needed adversarial threat that can be used for the expansion and promotion of Western influence.

In order for the US-led International Coalition to combat IS in Iraq more effectively, the Western alliance should support the Iraqi people in rebuilding their failed state and help them to end the years of conflict, corruption and neglect that have left their country in tatters.

Something similar is happening with the incumbent Iraqi leadership, which faces numerous daunting challenges ranging from government dysfunction and incompetence to political instability and sectarian and ethnic conflicts.

Yet, instead of overcoming the systemic failures, ending the recurring cycle of instability, and combating the rampant corruption that lies at the root of terrorism, the government is resorting to diversion and evasion tactics to avoid taking the responsibility for beating terrorism.

One recent example has been the way the Baghdad government and its political allies have used IS as a threat in order to reinforce the need for national security during the anti-corruption protests that engulfed most of the country’s Shia provinces this week.

Rather than admit their chronic failure to end the communal divisions and meet the economic, security and other needs of much of the population, Al-Abadi and the country’s Shia leaders blamed a plethora of “infiltrators” and loyalists to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for the widespread unrest.

In an attempt to change the subject and dodge the real issues behind the protests, Shia militia leaders also accused the protesters of serving foreign agendas and trying to undermine the war against IS.

They omitted to mention the failure of the government forces, the Shia militias and the US-led International Coalition to obliterate the terror group and bring stability and lasting peace to Iraq.

Although the Iraqi security forces have taken back much of the territory once claimed by IS, even Baghdad remains extremely dangerous, and the defeat of IS may not be as permanent as Al-Abadi’s government claims.

IS militants have recently increased their attacks on the country’s security forces, including ambushes, kidnappings and suicide bombings, undermining security as the country plunges into a political crisis triggered by the recent and controversial election results.

Fear of terrorism and preparations to fight terrorists are justified. But the use of a threat as a way of dodging responsibility for nation and state-building in Iraq will only make people more distrustful of their government and the international community even as IS does not remain the only destabilising factor in Iraq.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Who needs IS in Iraq?

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