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The ISIS Crisis

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Courtesy Reuters
Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: The ISIS Crisis
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The New New Jihadist Thing

Meeting the ISIS Challenge

One of the signature beliefs of the George W. Bush administration was that Iraq was a crucial font of radical Sunni jihadism and so had to be attacked as an essential early move in the post-9/11 “war on terror.” At the time, this proposition was dubious. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s links to terror were real but relatively minor ones. As one wag put it, Iraq was low on the list of state sponsors of terror, and terrorism was low on the list of reasons to worry about Saddam’s Iraq. (What professionals considered a much greater worry—Saddam’s covert WMD programs—also turned out to be minor, but that’s a story for another day.)

By toppling the Saddam regime and failing to put anything substantial in its place, however, the Bush administration created the conditions for its fears to be realized, and within a few years radical jihadists were crucial players in the chaos of Iraq’s burgeoning civil war. Order was eventually restored through a combination of local tribal resistance, aggressive U.S. counterterrorism policies, and Washington’s adoption of a new and better-resourced counterinsurgency strategy, and so by the time the last U.S. combat troops left Iraq at the end of 2011, radical Islamist terrorism was once again low on the list of the country’s troubles.

Then three new factors came into play: increasingly inept and sectarian rule by the Shiite-led government, increasing detachment on the part of Washington, and increasing violence in neighboring Syria. Together, these kindled the glowing embers of the left-for-dead Iraqi jihadist movement. Elements of the group formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq resurfaced as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS; gained a foothold in the badlands of eastern Syria; and eventually conquered large swaths of western Iraq to boot, bringing death, destruction, and fanaticism in their wake.

We told this sorry story last summer, in our eBook Endgame in Iraq. Nine months later, with ISIS still on the rampage

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