Al-Qaeda’s Resurgence In Iraq

Posted by Admin On Sunday, 26 January 2014 0 comments
Al-Qaeda’s Resurgence in Iraq

Do the latest operations of Al-Qaeda-linked militias in Iraq pose a significant threat to the peace and stability of the post-Saddam Iraqi state? Shemrez Nauman Afzal tries to see whether any analytical relevance or connection can be drawn to the current state of insecurity in Iraq and what might happen in Afghanistan after 2014.
Since December 2013, the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, the Al-Qaeda group responsible for operating mainly in Iraq and Syria, has launched deadly and devastating attacks against the Iraqi state security forces – the army and the police – as well as the Sunni “awakening” militias that had been created by the U.S. in order to turn the tide against radical extremists and terrorist militias that had occupied the security vacuum after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2004. According to the U.N., the death toll in Iraq for the year of 2013 was 8,868 – the death toll (so far) in January 2014 is estimated at 364 according to the Associated Press, while in an interview to NPR’s Steve Inskeep, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey estimated the death toll for January 2014 to be “nearly 700 and rising”.
The main reason for the commencement of the sectarian violence in Iraq was the disbanding of the original Iraqi Army that was answerable to Saddam: if that force had been allowed to continue operating (provided it gave up allegiance to the Saddam regime and the Ba’ath party), many of its operatives and soldiers would not have turned into militants or nationalist insurgents, even “freedom fighters”, who were engaged against U.S. forces as well as the new Iraqi security forces that the U.S. was setting up. The Matt Damon film “Green Zone” dramatizes this event – as well as the failure to uncover Saddam’s alleged nuclear weapons – in great detail. Unlike Afghanistan, where NATO militaries and other allied countries have a prominent role, only the U.S. and the U.K. were involved in “liberating” Iraq from Saddam Hussein in 2004 – even afterwards, only American and British troops operated in the Arab country. It must also be noted that there was no sectarian violence in Iraq during Saddam’s regime – not even against the majority Shi’ites by the Sunni-led Ba’ath regime, which had allegedly used chemical (and biological) weapons against Iraqi Kurds in Halabja (1988) and against the Iranian Army in the First Battle of al-Faw (1986) during the almost-8 years long (7 years, 10 months, 4 weeks and 1 day to be precise) Iran-Iraq war.
The “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL), also known as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), was preceded by the Mujahideen Shura Council and includes Sunni militias such as Jaysh al-Fatiheen, Jund al-Sahaba, Katbiyan Ansar Al-Tawhid wal Sunnah, Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura, and others which aim to establish a Sunni caliphate in Iraq (and later on, in Syria). Established in the early years of the 2004 Iraq War, it pledged formal allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2004 and became known as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” (AQI). During the U.S. invasion of – and presence in – Iraq, the organization claimed a significant presence in the Iraqi governorates of Al Anbar, Ninawa, Kirkuk, and most of Salah ad Din, and parts of Babil, Diyala, and Baghdad; it declared Baqubah as its capital. Even in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, the group has a large presence in the Syrian governorates of Ar-Raqqa, Idlib and Aleppo. Currently, the ISIL poses a major threat to the Iraqi state because of its control over major cities in Anbar provinces: Fallujah is firmly in its control, while Iraqi special forces launched an operation in Al-Bubali village last week in order to put pressure on the ISIL occupation of Ramadi city – the capital of Anbar province – where the Iraqi army and police is clearing the city of Al-Qaeda fighters street by street. The Al-Bubali village lies between Fallujah and Ramadi, two key cities in Anbar that are under siege by Iraqi security forces and their allies from Sunni tribes. Earlier, Iraqi forces could not enter the city of Ramadi because of fear of snipers and heavy weapons in the control of ISIL fighters. Fears of all-out sectarian war have increased since violence broke out in Anbar province, where Al-Qaeda-backed militants and Iraq’s security forces have been battling for control of Fallujah and Ramadi: the violence brings back memories of the bloody fighting at the height of the Iraq war that nearly tore the country apart.
On January 20th, Iraqi forces finally launched an all-out offensive in Ramadi to clear the city of Al-Qaeda militants – according to MSNBC, fierce clashes raged throughout the city on Sunday, January 19th. The Iraqi Interior Ministry has linked the assault in Ramadi to a military effort designed to “destroy terrorism nationwide”; however, a day later, Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Asadi said that Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, another name for ISIL) has “major firepower” and that their weapons are “huge and advanced and, frankly, enough to occupy Baghdad”. Militants booby-trapped houses before pulling back, and approximately 20 policemen and tribesmen allied to the government had been killed on Sunday. On Monday, January 20th – the day the Ramadi offensive was launched – seven bombs hit the capital Baghdad, killing at least 26 people and wounding 67, leading to the above bleak statement from the Deputy Interior Minister. This attack on the Iraqi capital followed six car bombs and one roadside bombon Saturday, which killed at least 19 and wounded another 74. According to NBC’s Alexander Smith, despite the Iraqi push into Ramadi, the ISIL militants and other Sunni, pro-Al-Qaeda outfits control the center of Fallujah – the city which was the scene of pitched battles in 2004 between U.S.-led coalition forces, and Iraqi insurgents along with their Al-Qaeda allies. As the First Battle of Fallujah (Operation Vigilant Resolve) resulted in a stalemate during April-May 2004, coalition forces – supported by a local Iraqi security force – finally took over the city from militants (as opposed to Ba’athists) in December 2004 after some of the heaviest urban combat faced by U.S. Marines in what later became known as the Second Battle of Fallujah (Operation Phantom Fury, also codenamed Operation Al-Fajr). Operation Phantom Fury is cited as the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War, with coalition casualties at 107 and 613 wounded, while estimates of insurgent deaths range from 1,200 to 1,500, with an additional 1,500 captured.
On Wednesday, January 22nd, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said that it was time to clear Al-Qaeda-linked militants out of Fallujah, but set no deadline for any military assault. The same day, armed confrontations and roadside bombs in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on claimed the lives of at least 16 people – including militants who died in a battle with the Iraqi army. Iraqi troops and security forces have set up a loose cordon around the city of Fallujah, which is 50 km (31 miles) west of Baghdad, and have clashed sporadically with insurgents inside, but Maliki has said that community leaders and tribesmen should force ISIL to withdraw in order to “spare Fallujah more bloodshed and destruction”. PM Maliki urged the people of Fallujah to “to take crucial positions on the presence of those dirty people without losses and without sacrifices” and said that “Those criminals are seeking to ignite sectarian strife and to end up with the division of Iraq”.
Maliki faces a parliamentary poll on April 30 with violence in Iraq at its worst since Sunni-Shi’ite killings peaked in 2006-2007, and despite diplomats urging Baghdad to foster political reconciliation to undercut support for militants, the Prime Minister and others have taken a hard line and focused on wide-ranging security operations. This was made obvious by reports on Tuesday, January 21st that Iraq had executed 26 men on charges of terrorism – despite international criticism of the country’s increasing use of capital punishment. On January 22ndAmnesty International reported of an additional 12 secret hangings, bringing the total number of prisoners hanged under terrorism charges to 38. The organization also learnt that on the same day, the presidency’s office ratified around 200 cases of people sentenced to death, paving the way for their executions to be carried out. In Iraq, all judicially confirmed death sentences need to be ratified by the presidency before they can be implemented. Most of those executed were convicted on charges of terrorism under the 2005 Anti-Terrorism Law, which Amnesty International terms as “draconian”.
Three hours after the PM’s statement, helicopter gunships bombarded eastern and northern districts of Fallujah: it was not clear if that was the prelude to wider military action, as helicopters have already been in action on the outskirts of the city. On Tuesday, January 21st, Iraqi air force strikes killed more than 50 militants of various Arab nationalities and destroyed large amounts of ammunition in the western province of Anbar. While people in Sunni-majority Fallujah are hostile to Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government, many fear a full-scale army attack that would echo the two abovementioned fierce U.S. assaults on insurgents in 2004. Tens of thousands of people have already fled the city according to UN officials. The U.N. has also warned of an “exponential rise” in displacement, with over 22,000 having fled their homes in Anbar province.
It is clear the bombings in Iraq – whether in the capital of Baghdad, or in other cities – have been on the rise since December 2013. In late December 2013, the U.S. started sending arms – including Hellfire missiles and low-tech drones – to Iraq in order to curb the Al-Qaeda-led militancy in the country. By early January, it was clear that Al-Qaeda was in control of Ramadi and Fallujah, with the latter more firmly in the militant group’s grip as they had taken control of the city’s police stations and government buildings. By January 04th, it was obvious that Al-Qaeda-linked militants had seized Fallujah and engaged the Iraqi army in pitched battles. Sunni sheik’s leading the “awakening” councils and tribes promised to “take the fight to Al-Qaeda” and defeat them again, as they did in 2006 and 2009 – since January 10th, Iraqi forces and Al-Qaeda linked militants have been involved in fierce clashes in various parts of Anbar province, particularly close to Ramadi and Fallujah cities (this was the day that Iraqi special forces clashed with Al-Qaeda militants and operatives in Al-Bubali village). Only a few days have passed since Iraqi forces have launched an “all-out offensive” against Al-Qaeda militants in Anbar province – where it seems they will first target the group in Ramadi, where it is weaker, and then in Fallujah, where it is still in firm control but surrounded by government forces and tribal militias allied to the state.
As former U.S. ambassador James Jeffrey urges the U.S. to “do more” in Iraq – a typical U.S. demand which does not usually contain specifics, but in this case, Jeffrey calls for more air support, more counter-insurgency training, and imparting knowledge of low intensity warfare in the broader Middle East – CNN’s Michael Holmes wonders whether Iraq is “worse than ever” two years after complete U.S. withdrawal from the country. Jeffrey still concedes that the problem in Iraq is a problem for the U.S. as well – and that America should do more than just train Iraqi forces in Jordan (a signal that the U.S. should put boots on the ground in Iraq again, which they can do legally – unless Senator Rand Paul gets his way and undoes the AUMF legislation that still allows U.S. Presidents to send troops to Iraq – except for the fact that they won’t have legal immunity, which is why they fully withdrew in the first place). If Senators Paul, Wyden and Gillibrand succeed in their attempt to repeal the AUMF, then the Iraq War (and Washington’s Iraq war authorization) will officially and legally come to an end. The Obama White House supports Senator Rand Paul’s move to repeal the AUMF.
The situation in Iraq – as it has evolved since last month, and as it continues to develop – is being closely studied by countries in South and Central Asia: 2014 is the year that the U.S. and NATO will be departing from Afghanistan, and the U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) may well go the way of the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The SOFA was not ratified by Iraq, and all U.S. forces left the country in 2011 (15 days before the Agreement officially expired). Today, Iraq is seeing a return of the Al-Qaeda-led militants in a big way: they control two major Sunni cities in a volatile province, and are presenting themselves as the saviors of the Sunni’s from the Shi’ites who are bent on taking revenge for the Saddam era. This is a particularly dangerous and divisive narrative in a country where sectarian violence can easily engulf the entire nation – Iraq has a Shi’ite majority but a significantly large Sunni minority as well.
The first commonality between Iraq and Afghanistan is they both have parliamentary elections due in April 2014 – Afghanistan’s President Karzai has delayed the ratification of the U.S.-Afghan BSA (despite U.S. pressure to agree to it by February 2014) until the elections take place, after a new legislature and president can ratify the BSA and thus give it more legitimacy. Like the SOFA in Iraq, the BSA is the primary framework for the presence of approximately 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, who will mainly have an “advisory” role and will train Afghan forces, but in certain conditions, may be called in for combat operations (especially in scenarios where special forces are required for combat).
But as the militant (and Al-Qaeda) threat in Iraq came after the U.S. invasion of the country, the threat that Afghanistan may fall into a more severe state of civil war – with the death toll and quantum of terror attacks increasing from what they currently are – during and after 2014 is very real. This is because the U.S. claimed to have achieved total victory against the Taliban in early 2001, but the militant group restarted an insurgency in 2005-06 (with or without Al-Qaeda’s help) and has mostly kept the U.S./NATO-led foreign troops – as well as the indigenous Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) – on their toes for years now. As the U.S. had come to terms with the fact that the Afghan Taliban could not be militarily defeated, they allowed the opening of an “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” office in Doha, Qatar (where the U.S. CENTCOM headquarters is located) and commenced negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. This caused problems between the U.S. and the Karzai-led Afghan state apparatus: the Afghan Taliban refused to acknowledge the Karzai government as the legitimate ruling party of Afghanistan, and called them American puppets. As the Karzai government wanted to be an equal part of the negotiations (if not try to negotiate with the Taliban themselves), the U.S. finally led the talks to a point of stalemate, and the Afghan Taliban walked away from the negotiating table. It was also revealed that the U.S., NATO and the Afghan government were duped by an impostor posing as a senior Afghan Taliban leader; an illustration of how little the West and their established state apparatus in the landlocked country really knows their enemy.
Now, as the continued presence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan beyond 2014 hangs in the doldrums – and there are calls for the U.S. to establish a base in India in addition to its existing permanent base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean – and as NATO nations prepare for their withdrawal (while some have already completed full withdrawal) from Afghanistan, the return of the Taliban to the corridors of power, whether through the polls and ballot, or in a bloody way through bullets and bombs, seems like a reality waiting to come true. Daniel Markey, Council on Foreign Relations’ (CFR) senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, has said that “over the long run (and perhaps much sooner if Washington is unable to negotiate a satisfactory bilateral security agreement with Kabul), maintaining a foothold in landlocked Afghanistan as a means to deal with Pakistan-based security threats is likely to be extraordinarily difficult and costly… In light of Pakistan’s geographic location, India is the obvious US alternative to Afghanistan”. But if the Afghan Taliban come back to power in Kabul, and wipe out the state set up by the U.S. and the West with billions of dollars of funding for over a decade now, the threat to Pakistan (which is facing a deadly terrorist uprising from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan – the TTP – since 2007, in addition to the low-intensity separatist insurgency in Baluchistan – the fifth since 1947) will be much more dire than that to India (which is dealing with a continuing insurgency in the disputed state of Kashmir, and acknowledges that the biggest threat to its national security comes from “Naxalites”: Maoist rebels who control roughly one-third of the country’s eastern and south-eastern areas, which is known as the “Red Corridor” and constitutes 83 districts – out of a total of 640 – over 9 states – out of a total of 28 states and 7 Union territories).
The current state of Iraq – and especially the resurgence of Al-Qaeda led militants who never had a place in Iraqi society before 2004 – is a cause of great concern for Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Iran, and Central Asian states, who will have to deal with similar militant uprisings if the Afghan Taliban sweep away the ANSF and the post-2001 Afghan state and government: this makes the U.S.-Afghan BSA all the more important, even though it is not a firm guarantee that it will ward off the Taliban for good. Since 2012, the Afghan Taliban have launched “Operation Badar” against the ANSF and foreign troops, and notify the media of their successes in different areas of Afghanistan – even areas that they did not control when they were in power during 1994 to 2001 – on an almost-daily basis. If the Afghan Taliban do not directly come to power after 2014, or do not themselves choose a political path to acquire the Afghan presidency and majority in parliament (like the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt, only to be ousted by the military later on), they will definitely continue “Operation Badar” to weaken the resolve of the ANSF and of any foreign nation that continues to station its troops in Afghanistan. And even if the Afghan Taliban choose the path of negotiations, accept the political setup of the country as it is today, and achieve a majority at the ballots which would bring them to power in the parliament and in the presidency, it would be very difficult for the Afghan Army – or the whole of the ANSF, including the police – to launch a coup and remove the Taliban – who are mainly a fighting militia based on tribal loyalties and the centuries-old “Pashtunwali” code – from power in a real sense: if the Taliban were incorporated into the ANSF, the likelihood of such an anti-Taliban coup becoms even less, and would lead to defections if the coup were to take place.
Even if comparisons and correlations are drawn between Iraq and Afghanistan – or even Egypt and Afghanistan – the fact remains that the landlocked Central Asian country presents a unique case, and nothing can be said for certain: in the present, or for the future beyond 2014. That is why even Pakistan has supported the Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process, and is doing all it can to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table – if the Afghan Taliban continue to fight international troops and the ANSF, it will give the TTP all the more reason to oppose the Pakistani state militarily and to continue their terrorist activities throughout Pakistan with the aim of undoing the Constitution – something that General Pervez Musharraf did for a short period (i.e. held the Constitution in abeyance) and is now facing treason charges in a special court – and replacing it with draconian Sharia law imposed by the threat of bullets, bombs, death and execution. Who knows – if the U.S. fails to get Afghanistan to agree to a bilateral security arrangement beyond 2014, the Afghan Taliban may even renew their “friendship” with Al-Qaeda, thereby providing the latter with another base to continue their global jihad and upset the peace, stability, security and social fabric of other countries, Muslim and non-Muslim.
The coming few months, especially until the April elections, will be crucial for Iraq: if Ramadi and Fallujah are not wrested from Al-Qaeda control, then the elections may also be messy (read: bloody) and PM Maliki may find it tough to return to power. Till then, both the U.S. and Afghanistan (President Karzai, as well as those running for President in April 2014) should look very closely at Iraq – as closely as the Pakistani security apparatus (and some enlightened politicians) is studying the situation there.
Zone Asia -PK


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