Foreign policy disasters created the chaos that led to rise of ISIS

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After bombings in Beirut, Lebanon, and the downing of a Russian plane, in addition to devastating attacks in Paris, The Hill notes that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is in the process of “dramatically expanding its scope beyond the narrow slice of the Middle East that it controls.” To understand why Paris fell victim to this genocidal organization, we must look at the origins of ISIS from a historical context, and then see how our actions have fostered its growth. First, it’s important to understand that ISIS originated from al Qaeda and grew during the Iraq War, as this Stanford University summary of its origins explains:

The Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) is a Salafi militant organization in Syria and Iraq whose goal is the establishment and expansion of a caliphate. The group has its origins in the early 2000s, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi began training extremist militants. Zarqawi’s militants became a major participant in the Iraqi insurgency during the American occupation, first under the name Jama’at al-Tawhid wa’al-Jihad and then, after swearing fealty to Al Qaeda, as Al Qaeda in Iraq.

After its official break from al Qaeda, ISIS has conducted terrorist attacks under its own banner. The terrorist are entirely to blame for their role in killings, but to ignore the foreign policy disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars would be to overlook the environment that fostered the creation of ISIS and other terrorist groups existing today. Counterinsurgency wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to Vietnam and the Soviets’ war in Afghanistan, have often resulted in various unintended consequences that none of the “rational” actors who supported these conflicts were able to predict, or prevent from wreaking havoc. As further note in the Stanford summary, “Zarqawi’s militants became a major participant in the Iraqi insurgency during the American occupation.”

{mosads}Without the Iraq War, the foundation of ISIS could never have been molded by the bloody and tragic consequences of the invasion. The reality is that neoconservative foreign policies, specifically the notion that Western powers led by the U.S. could rearrange the Middle East like a chessboard, remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and expect democracy to flourish, have resulted in the chaos that fuels groups like ISIS and other al Qaeda splinter groups.

Before addressing recent history, we must begin with how U.S. bombing in Cambodia during the Vietnam War fostered the growth of the Khmer Rouge. According to Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen in their article, “Roots of U.S. Troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian Bombing Casualties and the Cambodian Precedent,” American bombings in various wars radicalized local insurgences and fueled the moral relativism that bolsters terrorist groups:

Along with Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents and suicide bombers, who have recently escalated their slaughter of the Afghan population, U.S. and NATO aircraft have for years inflicted a horrific toll on innocent villagers. …

The U.S. insistence even today on using airpower against insurgencies raises this same dilemma: perhaps even more than the civilian casualties of ground operations, the “collateral damage” from U.S. aerial bombing still appears to enrage and radicalize enough of the survivors for insurgencies to find the recruits and supporters they require. …

The strategic and moral failure of the U.S. Cambodia air campaign lay not only in the toll of possibly 150,000 civilians killed there in 1969-73 by an almost unprecedented level of carpet, cluster and incendiary bombing, but also indirectly, in its aftermath, when the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime rose from the bomb craters to cause the deaths of another 1.7 million Cambodians in 1975-79.

In an interview referenced by Kiernan and Owen, when a former Khmer Rouge officer was asked how U.S. bombs inflicted propaganda efforts, he answered, “Yes, that’s right … sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.”

Similarly, when U.S. forces accidentally bombed a Doctors Without Borders trauma hospital in northern Afghanistan, killing 30 people, insurgents and terror organizations use these tragedies as the moral justification for terrorist attacks on civilians. Before ISIS, the Khmer Rouge butchered hundreds of thousands of its own people with the following moral code: If the enemy engages in indiscriminate killing for its objectives, then we too must follow the same rules of war.

Whether or not this mindset makes perfect moral or logical sense is irrelevant; terrorist groups rely upon the moral failings of Western powers to legitimize their attack upon civilians. As for how neoconservative foreign policy resulted in the ISIS attacks upon Paris, let’s look at the results of Iraq.

Yes, Hussein was a tyrant, but we had worked with him in the past, and even Dick Cheney predicted the consequences of a power vacuum in Iraq shortly after the Gulf War. Nonetheless, in 2002, President George W. Bush stated that “Saddam Hussein must disarm himself, or, for the sake of peace, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.” After 9/11, the neoconservatives in Bush’s administration had lofty goals, without any concern for the consequences of their actions.

As for these consequences, and how they’ve resulted in ISIS and recent attacks, their ultimate impact upon the region is summarized by this Iraq Body Count (IBC) article from last year:

Combining the 17,000 civilian deaths recorded by IBC with the above wide range of combatant deaths of 4,000-30,000, suggests a total of between 21,000 and 47,000 people have been killed in war-related violence in Iraq during 2014, making it one of the three worst years of the conflict that began nearly twelve years ago.

Total cumulative reported deaths for the entire period 2003-2014 passed 200,000 during 2014, and presently stand at 206,000 using the more conservative end of the range for combatant deaths in 2014. Over 150,000 (around 75%) of these were civilian.

There is a new brutality on the ground and renewed attacks from the air. ISIS and the Iraqi army have caused thousands of civilian deaths this year, while the international coalition has yet again been responsible for civilian killings, for the first time since the U.S. withdrawal three years previously. Iraqi civilians are once again being killed by all sides.

The destruction in Iraq, like Cambodia decades ago, has now resulted in a genocidal group — this one named ISIS. When conservative estimates show over 150,000 civilians killed as a result of the Iraq War, then George W. Bush’s initial decision to invade (and his neoconservative justifications for the war) should be the center of everyone’s attention after the carnage of the Paris attacks.

When not using conservative estimates, one study from 2013 states that almost half a million people have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the Iraq War. This carnage hasn’t been limited only to Iraq; as we saw in Paris, the chaos has spread beyond the Middle East. However, what’s the primary role of neoconservative foreign policy in fomenting the chaos that now spreads throughout the Middle East and now in Europe?

Regime change in Iraq was a goal of neoconservatives for years, even before 9/11, and a 1998 op-ed by William Kristol in The New York Times, “Bombing Iraq Isn’t Enough,” highlights the mindset that bolsters foreign policy blunders:

Does the United States really have to bear this burden? Yes. Unless we act, Saddam Hussein will prevail, the Middle East will be destabilized, other aggressors around the world will follow his example, and American soldiers will have to pay a far heavier price when the international peace sustained by American leadership begins to collapse.

Kristol’s words from 1998 speak for themselves, especially in light of the fact that, according to the Pentagon, half to two-thirds of the Americans killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the victims of improvised explosive device (IED) blasts.

When then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) visited Iraq in 2005 and said that the insurgency is failing and that much of Iraq is “functioning quite well,” then it’s not only Republicans who are to blame for the demise of Iraq and the region. This demise, and the aftermath and “blowback” of neoconservative philosophy, has led to ISIS, and now its attacks upon Paris and other cities. We can utter the words “jihadist” and “radical Islam” all we like, but Saudi Arabia is now the world’s largest importer of weapons (while beheading its citizens at a record pace) and the U.S. is the “biggest beneficiary” of weapons to the Middle East, as noted in IHS Jane’s 360. Combined with failed neoconservative policies, the unintended consequences of U.S. foreign policy have helped create the environment for groups like ISIS to grow and wage attacks upon civilians.

Goodman is an author and a journalist.

Tags Afghanistan War al Qaeda Foreign policy Hillary Clinton Iraq Iraq War ISIS Islamic State in Iraq and Syria neoconservative Terrorism
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