But here’s the point: To the extent that these campaigns worked, it wasn’t just because of the military presence. It was, more, because specific commanders understood that war, as Clausewitz famously wrote, is “politics by other means,” and that in post-Hussein Iraq this meant setting up structures of local government that included (or co-opted) all factions and tribes willing to reconcile with the new order.
One problem always was, and still is, that Maliki had no interest in conciliatory politics on a national level. And that’s why he’s now facing a monumental, even terrifying armed insurgency. His troops in Nineveh province simply folded when they came under attack, not because they weren’t equipped or trained to fight back but because, in many cases, they felt no allegiance to Maliki’s government; they had no desire to risk their lives for the sake of its survival.
Meanwhile, the ISIS commanders have picked up the hundreds of weapons and dozens of vehicles that Maliki’s army has left behind. They’ve also looted the banks and taken over communication centers. Some of them have returned to Syria to resupply their comrades fighting there. (The ultimate goal of ISIS, as its name suggests, is to create an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria.) Others have used the resources to march southward.
These jihadists are very competent fighters. They reportedly seized Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s hometown) from the north, east, and west. Maliki has rallied his remaining troops to Taji, just north of Baghdad, to prevent or deter an assault on the capital. Some U.S. officials are optimistic that he’ll succeed. Given the ongoing fighting in Syria, ISIS might not want to waste its soldiers and ammunition on a protracted battle in Iraq. (Its triumphs so far have been, by and large, uncontested.) Still, no one claims much confidence in this prediction. In any case, unless Maliki can rally a counteroffensive, the northern half of Iraq seems to have been ceded to Islamists.
Meanwhile, Maliki has his own political problems. His party won a plurality of votes in the recent election, but not enough to declare victory. He’s spending much of his time these days trying to form coalitions with other, smaller parties, in order to stay in power. The threat from ISIS—and it’s now a dire threat—might move some factions to strengthen the nation’s leader, or it might move more to abandon all confidence in Maliki and turn to someone else. But whom? (Another blast from the past: Ahmed Chalabi, the George W. Bush-era charlatan, is telling one and all that he’s available.)
One hope for Iraq is that ISIS might have gone one rampage too far. While stomping through Mosul, some of their militiamen stormed the Turkish consulate and kidnapped Turkish diplomats. Under international law, that amounts to an attack on Turkey, and it’s unlikely that the Turks will simply shrug. Iran, which has emerged as Maliki’s main ally, has no interest in seeing Sunnis—much less millenarian Sunnis—regain power in Baghdad. A strange alliance among all three may come to life to beat back this equally strange insurgency.
In one sense, this is a hopeful sign. The countries in the region have to form indigenous alliances to stave off these radical threats. The United States can help, but there is no way any American politician is sending back tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of troops: They didn’t compel or convince Maliki to adopt a smart policy before, and they wouldn’t be able to do so now.
But this could be yet another sign of a breakdown in the entire Middle East. The war in Syria, which can be seen as a proxy war between the region’s Sunnis and Shiites, is now expanding into Iraq. The violence will intensify, and the neighboring countries will be flooded with refugees (half a million have already fled Mosul), with few resources to house or feed them.
Depending on what happens in the next few weeks, or maybe even days, we may be witnessing the beginning of either a new political order in the region or a drastic surge in the geostrategic swamp and humanitarian disaster that have all too palpably come to define it.
Correction, June 11, 2014: This post originally misidentified Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaida.