WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Dr. Najmaldin Karim, governor of Kirkuk Province until Baghdad’s October 2017 assault, sat down with Kurdistan 24 last week to discuss recent developments.
In light of the ongoing violence in Iraq—above all the reemergence of the Islamic State—Karim made two key points, that are, in fact, related to each other. Together, they raise the question: will the US succeed now in neutralizing the threat from Iraq or will we soon face yet another iteration of the terrorist organization?
“Know the enemy” is ancient wisdom. It is a well-known phrase from Sun Tzu’s, The Art of War, the oldest extant military manual, which, 2,500 years later, is still taught in US (and other) military colleges.
US officials do not understand the Islamic State. They see it as a phenomenon external to Iraq. They see its defining feature (“center of gravity,” to use the terminology of the 19th-century German theoretician, Karl von Clausewitz) as an ideology. And they believe that the Islamic State came into Iraq from outside the country.
Therefore, the US military can take territory from the Islamic State, drive it out of Iraq, and secure victory.
However, Karim, who was born and raised in Kirkuk and served as governor of the province from 2011 to 2017—through the entirety of the military conflict there with the terrorist organization—has a very different view, which is shared by other informed Kurdish officials.
The Islamic State in Iraq is indigenous to Iraq, Karim affirmed to Kurdistan 24. Its fighters are Iraqis, and they come from around the areas in which they fight.
“They are definitely local,” he said. “There is no argument about that, because we saw them,” when Kirkuk and the Peshmerga Forces were attacked in 2014 and 2015.
“We saw the dead, and even their relatives came to claim some of the bodies,” he continued. As Karim earlier told Kurdistan 24, “We have their pictures, their DNA. They’re all from the area.”
Karim’s second key point is that the Baghdad government does not—even now, sixteen years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime—adequately represent Iraq’s Sunni Arab population. The Kurds have the Kurdistan Region, but the Sunnis have nothing. So they resort, repeatedly, to violence.
“In most of Iraq, particularly in Kirkuk and Salahuddin province and also in Diyala Province,” the Islamic State is local people, Karim affirmed.
There were “a bunch of other organizations that used to carry out terrorist activities against US personnel,” as well as the people of Iraq and Kurdistan: “Al Qaeda, Ansar al-Sunna, Naqshbandis and some other groups,” he said.
“When ISIS came, they all banded together under ISIS,” Karim continued. “Now they are still working as ISIS, but they may also diverge again and go back to the same groups that they were before.”
Knowledgeable Kurdish officials speak similarly. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, “Undefeated, ISIS is Back in Iraq,” Aziz Ahmad, of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, described the violence as basically a sectarian struggle between the Shia regime in Baghdad and Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunnis.
Across the areas of northern Iraq from which the Islamic State was driven, there is now “a patchwork of various sectarian militias,” Ahmad wrote. “Thousands of families with alleged links to ISIS are exiled, their birthrights reduced to being names on militias’ wanted lists, their dignity violated in irreversible ways.”
“Iraqi government forces have returned to some of the practices that originally fed the ingrained sense of local grievances. In recent months, we have seen a surge in arrests using an anti-terrorism law widely perceived as unfairly targeting Sunnis,” whose “dignity is being violated in ways that provoke bitter resentment.”
Ahmad provides alarming details about the Islamic State’s resurgence: “over the past fifteen months, hundreds of attacks linked to the group took place in areas that were supposed to have been freed from ISIS.” The Islamic State is now focused on recovering its position in rural areas. Last year, “dozens of village chiefs” opposed to the terrorist organization “have been killed across northern Iraq in assassinations, bombings, and kidnappings.”
Karim shares that view. “ISIS is very much alive” in both Iraq and Syria, he said. If the US leaves Syria without a plan, it will become even stronger, “just like ISIS emerged after the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011,” Karim affirmed, stressing that the underlying political problems “remain unresolved today.”
Gen. Michael Hayden, former Director of the CIA and National Security Agency, spoke to Kurdistan 24 last summer. He suggested that Iraq and Syria are no longer viable. Rather, that space should be allowed to refashion itself into entities that reflect the basic identities and loyalties of the people there: Sunni, Kurd, and Shia.
Asked if he agreed with Hayden, Karim certainly did, affirming that Hayden is “very respected” and has “a lot of knowledge.”
Karim added that in 2006, then-Senator Joe Biden (D, Delaware), later Vice-President, along with Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, published a New York Times op-ed, which argued that Iraq should not continue as a highly centralized state, but should be decentralized, providing for autonomous Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish rule.
The Bush administration dismissed the idea—although it had seriously underestimated the difficulties in Iraq and failed to understand the prerequisites of good governance there (and elsewhere.) Just the year before, President George W. Bush in his second inaugural address, had described America’s central foreign policy objective as “ending tyranny in our world.”
Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, was not unsympathetic, but thought it “over the top.” As she wrote, “Tyranny is a bad thing,” but added, “one doesn’t expect we’re going to eradicate it any time soon.” After all, “this is not heaven, it’s earth.”
Citing the 2006 Biden-Gelb article—which was approved by the US Senate in 2007 as a non-binding resolution, sponsored by Biden and Sen. Sam Brownback (R, Kansas), now Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom—Karim advised Kurdistan 24 that it was really the only way to address Iraq’s continued problems: through a weak central government which loosely oversees three confederate states: Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish.
“This Iraq has not worked, since it was created,” Karim said, recalling the note penned by Iraq’s first king: a Hashemite from Mecca, installed by the British to rule a country that they, themselves, had created. As Faisal famously complained, the vast majority of his people had no allegiance to Iraq.
“Shias are Shias; Sunnis are Sunnis; and Kurds are Kurds” is how Karim summarized Faisal’s lament.
“And it’s still like this?” Kurdistan 24 responded.
“It’s still like that,” Karim replied.
Editing by Nadia Riva