Over the past weeks the news has been dominated by the discussion of the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS, The Islamic State of Iraq and asSham/Syria) through Iraq, the apparent ease with which this has occurred, and the virtual absence of any concerted resistance from an Iraqi military that was trained and armed through an expensive and arduous US military program. The common narrative in the Western media has been centered around the extremism of ISIL, their supposed military prowess, the “threat” that the organization poses domestically to the United States, and the potential for US military intervention in response. There have been other voices, largely in the think tank community, that have been attempting to inject an element of nuance, through a discussion of the constellation of fighting forces on the ground, a discussion of the political history behind the recent uprising, and some of the possible regional dynamics at work, but these have been largely ignored. This seems to be a result of the opacity of the entire discourse, the density of the recent history in the area, and the complexity of the situation on the ground. However, without this sort of background the current events seem to have sprung from nothingness.
As the dominant narrative goes, the US military drew down forces from Iraq in 2010 after succeeding in their mission to stabilize the political structure that resulted from the US invasion and occupation of the country in 2003. There are clearly issues with this narrative, issues that are clear to anyone that has been following events in Iraq closely for the past decade, but even where doubt about this narrative has persisted there is still a sense that the past few years have been relatively stable in Iraq. Hidden by this narrative is not only the political resentment that has been accelerating since 2010, culminating in a protest and occupation movement that was violently dispersed in the early part of 2014, but also the quiet reorganization that has been undertaken by a number of insurgent groups, as well as the dynamics of a region that is characterized by false borders that traverse vast swaths of open desert, a region that has been in a process of political upheaval for the past three years, particularly in Syria and bordering regions of Iraq. To really understand the media phenomena that is now termed ISIL we have to first be clear about some points. Primary among these is the multiplicity of forces that are arrayed within Iraq, specifically the tribal councils, most importantly in the rural north and east of the country, Kurdish groups, and the myriad of organizations participating in the current insurrection, which has largely, though inaccurately, been attributed completely to ISIL. But before discussing ISIL and the current array of forces around Iraq we will return to a period before ISIL or any of its previous incarnations existed, to May 22, 2003, when Paul Bremer signed Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 2 disbanding the Iraqi military and placing 400,000 people with arms and military training out of work. This move is widely considered to have set the stage for the Iraqi insurgency against the US occupation forces, beginning a trajectory that would move from resistance to occupation through sectarian civil war, the founding of AlQaeda in Iraq and the sectarian militias, the collapse of AQI from US counterinsurgency, the Anbar Awakening (a movement which had much to do with American funding of employment) and the betrayal of the Awakening members by first the US and then the Maliki regime.
It is in this background that we can understand how a small organization, less than 5,000 fighters by most estimates, has come to be the most dominant military force in an area roughly the size of Indiana in which there are tens of thousands of insurgents and any number of regime forces, and how they could launch a lightning strike of such speed and ferocity. Without this background it would almost seem as if ISIL is an invincible force, impervious to defeat, with unlimited resources and numbers that vastly outweigh the actual levels of force that they are able to deploy. ISIL is very adept in the use of guerrilla tactics, and many fighters within their ranks have previous experience in insurgent conflict in Iraq, Syria, or Chechnya, among other places, but it is not possible to understand the dynamics of the current conflict without examining their tactics through one essential lens; they are really good at projecting force, expanding capacity and moving through space quickly. This approach, though highly effective currently, generates a widely dispersed force dependent on other elements for its success. The strategy becomes difficult to maintain after a common objective dissipates, and makes impossible the inevitable attempt to move on to constitute the state. State building requires occupying, holding and policing space, and much higher concentrations of force than ISIL is currently able to mobilize. But before moving ahead in this analysis it is important to establish events starting from March 19, 2003, a day many of us who were active at the time remember, the day that Shock and Awe began in Iraq.