Why do we face ISIS? PBS documentary found a key reason (think Nouri al-Maliki)

The great PBS documentary series “Frontline” is rerunning one of its outstanding films. This one, titled “The Rise of ISIS,” which is about, well, maybe you can guess from the title. I watched it Tuesday night, and highly recommend giving it a look if, like me, you struggle sometimes to keep straight how the region long ago known as Mesopotamia managed to blend history, religion and tribal grudges into the current mess.

Originally aired last year, it will probably float through the various PBS affiliates for a while. If not, you can stream it via this link.

The documentary most definitely does not solve the problem of ISIS. No big, foolproof idea for dealing with the scourge is identified. Obama-haters will certainly be able to spot the places where they will think that if only President Obama had acted differently, more forcefully, sent troops, bombed harder, said or did or threatened whatever at this point or that, things would be so much better now.

But to me that’s in the category of “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail.” If you are sufficiently committed to the blame-Obama game, every foolish thing that Obama did is the problem, except for the feckless things he didn’t do, which are even worse. As the sarcasm suggests, that’s not how I see it.

To me (and, of course, all reasonable observers) the villain of the “Frontline” piece is Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister of Iraq, who comes across (as he pretty much always does) as a sectarian (Shiite) thug and the worst possible choice to lead Iraq in the post-Saddam era.

Shia Arabs were and are the biggest of the three major groups in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ran a relatively secular regime based on his Ba’ath Party, but the Shiites were treated badly and brutally repressed when they complained or pushed back or just existed. It’s perhaps understandable that, in the absence of a Gandhi figure, when the Shia gained power in Iraq (thanks to the U.S. invasion) they would mistreat the other major population groups.

A key cause

A big part of the cause of the “The Rise of ISIS” as portrayed in the documentary was that, in the absence of a Gandhi, that Iraq got a Maliki.

Maliki did everything possible to alienate the other two groups, the Kurds, who predominate in the north of Iraq, and especially the Sunni Muslims, who predominate in the center and especially in Anbar Province. ISIS (which morphed out of an earlier movement called Al Qaida in Iraq) is a Sunni group that rose up in Anbar and seemed, at first, to many Anbar Sunnis like a liberation movement compared to the deal they were getting from Maliki.

You can learn a lot more of the step-by-step if you watch the documentary. And I guarantee you will either learn a bunch you never knew or relearn a bunch that you forgot.

But the shortcoming of the documentary (and you can’t have everything in 57 minutes) is that it starts the story too late. When the narrative starts, Maliki is already in power and already mistreating and alienating the Sunnis. But how did Maliki come to power? Well, the Americans (and let me be obnoxiously specific and say the George W. Bush administration) picked him.

Frontline presents “The Rise of ISIS”

For backup on that fact, I rely on a great long-ago New Yorker piece by Dexter Filkins which I wrote about a couple of years ago. Filkins, who covered the Iraq War for the New York Times and who also appears in the brand-new “Frontline,” wrote that in 2006 the Americans were fed up with the first stooge they had put into power in Baghdad and were looking for another when a CIA official suggested Maliki to the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad (without telling the ambassador that Maliki had long-standing grudges against both Americans and Sunnis).

And so, without much input from the new democracy that the Americans had set up in Iraq, Khalilzad, an important architect/cheerleader for the Iraq War and the representative of the Bush administration, arranged for the accession to power of Maliki, a thug who was pretty close to the opposite of a Gandhi.

(If you were to click through that link two paragraphs above, you would find that Filkins wrote that “Khalilzad emphasized that he did not choose Maliki; he had merely exerted American leverage to maximum effect.”)

After a few years of Maliki, the Sunnis of Anbar had become alienated and were unwilling to defend the province once the pre-ISIS fighters showed up looking for a place to start their caliphate.

Another blunder

Of course, before that American blunder was the idea of the war to liberate Iraq in the first place.

And if you can stand one more backflip into history, the roots of Iraq’s instability and Sunni-Shia hatred can be traced to the British and French mapmakers who, in the aftermath of World War I, created the nation of Iraq out of three former Ottoman provinces, one predominantly Kurdish, one Sunni and one Shiite.

I don’t know when the golden age of peace and brotherhood was in Iraq, but it must have predated World War I, and the trouble with that is that before World War I, there never was and never had been any such country.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/09/2015 - 11:33 am.

    Iraq didn’t just “get” Maliki

    Iraq ended up with Maliki as a result of our invasion and occupation. Ultimately our invasion of Iraq produced ISIS along with the surrounding instability that flowed out of the Iraqi civil war. Sure you can blame Makliki but that’s kind like blaming a gunshot wound on the bullet instead of the one who fired the gunshot.

  2. Submitted by Robin Rainford on 12/09/2015 - 11:34 am.

    Thank you

    for this timely analysis.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/09/2015 - 12:40 pm.

    We have apparently forgotten

    … or never learned “realpolitik.” Diplomacy requires skill and knowledge – traits often possessed (not always, but often) by long-term civil servants in the State Department – not political connection or its close cousin, the massive campaign contribution. Our tendency, time after time after time, to appoint cronies to important diplomatic posts, has often not just worked against our interests, but has been disastrous. Iraq is but one of many cases in point.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 12/10/2015 - 12:58 pm.

      six of one

      Having worked for both long-term civil servants in the State Department and massive campaign contributors, I’d say that — carefully chosen — there’s no important difference between the career Ambassador or the appointee. The very real and important difference in Afghanistan and Iraq was that the appointers were apparently working to a set of ideological criteria that altogether ignored the insights of the “reality-based community” and, even assuming it was in the interests of some country, was not in the interests of the US. Following that criteria, they managed to find and promote disasters among both appointees and career officers.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/09/2015 - 12:44 pm.

    From politifact:


    Military commanders in Washington and in Baghdad pushed for a residual force between 16,000 and 24,000 to conduct counterrorism work and train Iraqi security forces.

    The White House, reports show, was not open to a force that size.

    The Obama administration was initially open to leaving up to 10,000 troops in Iraq after the scheduled pullout at the end of 2011, a controversial pitch that would have required approval from Iraq’s divided government to change the 2008 agreement, the Los Angeles Times reported. The troops were to be placed in Baghdad and other “strategic” locations around the country.

    It did not stay there. The New York Times detailed how the one-time goal of a 10,000-person force shrank before negotiations failed altogether.

    Obama ruled out the 10,000-troop option in an Aug. 13, 2011, conference call, according to the New York Times, and “the new goal would be a continuous presence of about 3,500 troops, a rotating force of up to 1,500 and half a dozen F-16’s.”

    What killed the deal?

    The agreement failed over a demand that American troops be given immunity from prosecution by Iraqis, a very touchy political issue within the Iraqi Parliament. Some experts said Iraqi leaders may not have been willing to take great political risk with their citizens in exchange for a relatively small American force.

    But no immunity meant no sizable residual troop presence.

    “When the Americans asked for immunity, the Iraqi side answered that it was not possible,” al-Maliki said in an October 2011 news conference. “The discussions over the number of trainers and the place of training stopped. Now that the issue of immunity was decided and that no immunity to be given, the withdrawal has started.”

    Three years later, as the Islamic State advanced in the country and shocked the world, a CNN reporter asked Obama if he regretted the decision not to leave a residual force in Iraq. Obama said, “Keep in mind, that wasn’t a decision made by me. That was a decision made by the Iraqi government.”


    (end quote)

    But of course, facts are a liberal plot….

  5. Submitted by Jim Million on 12/09/2015 - 12:47 pm.

    And so it came to pass…long before Maliki

    Few people likely remember Saddam Hussein’s televised warnings as troops closed in on Baghdad, perhaps because those were dismissed as propagandist ravings of a demented tyrant. Well, at least one of those was rationally prophetic. I remember it well.

    That’s the one where Saddam raised the issue of historic factions he claimed to have kept in check all those years, you might not know, the one where he predicted much of exactly what now fills blogs and newscasts. Well, he did predict this outcome in that warning, apparently ignored or suppressed by our government/media people–maybe because he was not raving then, but seemingly rational.

    Is this to say we should have left him in place? No. Should we have dismissed his message as one from a crazed criminal? No. He was neither crazed nor bombastic in this message, as I recall. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recall it so clearly.

    For me, the reflection here is two-fold: that we typically demean the messenger rather than focus on the message; that we have had, and continue to have, little Middle East Intelligence.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/09/2015 - 02:16 pm.

      It wasn’t just Saddam

      We had a Plethora of Middle East scholars, observers, and experts, warning us that Iraq was a powder keg of sectarian hostilities likely to be unleashed by a collapse of Saddam’s regime. We were told that civil war was the most likely outcome of an invasion. Some of us heard these warning, most were too captivated by the dumbest president in history playing tough guy on TV. And so it goes.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 12/09/2015 - 04:30 pm.


        But Saddam was contemporary and primary in his knowledge, having suppressed those/these factions for decades. He spoke from first-person perspective, not from third-party translations or scholarly footnoting perhaps after the fact, as well.

        I listened to him very closely on this issue.

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/09/2015 - 05:08 pm.

    Today I saw …

    in my review mirror a couple entertaining their child in in car seat behind them while stopped behind me at a stop light. So very endearing. We all see these sites everyday. They are weekly drawn to our attention by the cast of Prarie Home Companion and most of network entertainment media. Collectively we have an upside. However this is the same country that denies our imperialstic tendencies. And yet collectively we contribute huge amounts of aide and relief to the world. We can be a magnanimously giving collective. Yet we are the greatest inhalers of the worlds resources who daily deny the affect it has to the planet and public health of the planet’s citizens defending our greed. We muddle through the scientific method to create some of the greatest innovations in the history of the planet for it’s benefit. Yet we “monetize” these creations for the benefit of the few. We have apologized for incredible social hurts we have caused citizens of the planet. And yet we drag our feet to the point of being held in place by the weight of hubris with making that process complete.
    I wonder still what would have happened had we reflected deeply on our national history after 911 ? Until then American Exceptioalism is only a politically spun myth.

  7. Submitted by Doug Gray on 12/10/2015 - 11:01 am.

    forgot one

    Don’t forget Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator Paul Bremer and his superiors, who in their first order dissolved the Iraqi Army whose officers now provide the cadres for ISIS and who were rewarded with Presidential Medals of Freedom.

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