We Need to Re-Learn the Lessons of the Iraq War

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Jeff Guo writes about the likelihood that the Paris attacks will inspire reprisals against Muslims:

“This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for — to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims,” said Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who studies how people become terrorists. “Then ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies, and the enemies of Islam.’”

….The researchers see the Paris attacks increasing radicalization in two potential ways. First, the killings project power and prestige, burnishing ISIS’s image and attracting those who want to feel potent themselves.

Second, the attacks will escalate tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. They have already led to some anti-Muslim activity, and will likely provoke more. Not only will these events make Muslims in the West feel marginalized, but they will also provide extremist propagandists with examples of Western oppression.

What really gets me about this is not just that it’s true. It’s that we’ve seen this movie before with Al-Qaeda. We know perfectly well that it’s ISIS that wants to turn this into a war of civilizations, just as Al-Qaeda wanted to do. It’s no secret. Why are so many conservative hawks so willing to play along with this?

More generally, it’s astonishing—or depressing, take your pick—how soon we forget what we learned just a few years ago. Should we send a massive force into Anbar to crush ISIS once and for all? Well, we’ve tried that before. Remember? We sent a massive force into Iraq and, sure enough, we toppled Saddam Hussein’s regular army units pretty quickly. Then, despite a huge military presence, the country fell apart. The Sunni insurgency lasted for years before it was finally beaten back. Then the Shiite government of Iraq decided that fealty to its Shia supporters was more important than uniting their country, and before long Anbar was in flames again, this time with ISIS leading the charge.

You want to take out ISIS? Me too. But if you want to do it fast in order to demonstrate how tough you are, it’s going to require 100,000 troops or more; it will cost hundreds or thousands of American lives; and the bill will run to tens of billions of dollars. Remember Fallujah? It took the better part of a year and nearly 15,000 troops to take a medium-sized city held by a few thousand poorly trained militants. Now multiply that by ten or so. And multiply the casualties by 10 or 20 or 30 too. This isn’t two armies facing off on the field of battle. It’s house-to-house fighting against local insurgents, which isn’t something we’re especially good at.

Still, we could do it. The problem is that President Obama is right: unless we leave a permanent occupying force there, it will just blow up yet again—especially if we take Ted Cruz’s advice and decide we don’t really care about civilian casualties. Having defeated Al-Qaeda 2.0, we’ll end up with Al-Qaeda 3.0. Aside from a permanent occupation, the only thing that can stop this is an Iraqi government that takes Sunni grievances seriously and is genuinely willing to govern in a non-sectarian way.

This isn’t just a guess. We went through this just a few years ago. But everyone seems to have forgotten it already. Just send in the troops and crush the bastards! That worked great against the Nazis. It doesn’t work so great in Iraq.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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