The Myth of the Caliphate
The Political History of an Idea
The origin story that James Verini tells about his new book, They Will Have to Die Now, is about guilt—his guilt for not having gone to Iraq earlier. On 9/11, in his first newspaper job, he covered the collapse of the Twin Towers. He writes that a couple of years later, he “could have, should have, gone to Iraq but didn’t.” He was, he says, “too scared.”
It’s just as well that Verini waited until 2016 to “face Iraq” and start reporting on what he calls the central American war of our time. For one thing, obviously yet still shockingly, even arriving 13 years late, he didn’t miss it. For another, he eventually learned a key lesson for a reporter: being scared doesn’t make you the wrong person for the job. Verini’s deeply reported, beautifully written first-person account results from many months on an extremely dangerous assignment. To cover the pivotal fight to dislodge the Islamic State, or ISIS, from Mosul, a city of one million to two million people in northern Iraq, he embedded with Iraqi government troops, who, for all the years, money, and lives that Washington spent training them as U.S. proxies, tend to be cheerfully uninterested in basic force-protection measures such as setting perimeters and overwatch points.
Arriving late also means seeing the conflict with fresh eyes. Many American journalists of my generation who shipped out to Central Asia and the Middle East after President George W. Bush’s declaration of the dubiously named “war on terror” are now pushing two decades on the beat. The intervening years have brought distance—even freedom, if one dares use that Iraq-war-tainted word—from the post-9/11 confusion in which “America, in its fear, in its shame,” as Verini writes, attacked Iraq. The original sin of the U.S. invasion and the mistakes of the occupation that we reported on are now, while not beside the point, almost as distant from today as the Vietnam War was from the United States’ first Iraq adventure, in 1990–91.
Verini thus arrives in medias res to a country “whose story,” he writes, “had been entwined with my country’s story for a generation now, for most of my life, so entwined that neither place any longer made sense without the other.” True, although most Americans fail to think much about the war’s effects on their own country. Iraqis do not have that luxury.
In today’s Iraq, American intervention is less an event than a condition, less an alien encounter than a problematic marriage. The Iraqi troops and civilians Verini befriends and profiles have lived lives permeated by the war far more deeply than are those of Americans who have spent entire military careers fighting it. Their generosity in trying to forge mutual understanding with Verini, “a person from the place that had made their lives a hell,” was, he writes, “humanity itself.” At first glance, his book reads like any narrative of life with the troops, full of worm’s-eye details on war’s chaos and boredom and absurdity, with vivid portraits of soldiers and their black humor. But these are Iraqi troops, and Verini intersperses the scenes with historical research from the earliest annals of war—some visible in Mosul’s own archaeological past—to records of more recent episodes that explain why many citizens offered at least passive support to ISIS.
So his account of Iraqis, both soldiers and civilians, feels fresh, and it presents an occasion to examine the broader questions posed by the conflict’s recent events: What works and what doesn’t, after 16 years of attempts by foreigners and locals to pacify Iraq? What happens on the ground as the United States outsources the foot soldiering of its wars? Is ISIS really defeated, or are years of violence in the name of fighting terrorism likely to continue unrolling new, expanding chapters of conflict with that group and others?
As he follows one mostly Muslim army into a war against another, Verini doesn’t bother with tired questions about Islam and whether there is something uniquely pathological about Arabs or Muslims. He does situate the rise of ISIS in age-old atavistic impulses. Not Islamic ones or Middle Eastern ones but human ones—the violence that springs from power struggles, revenge, bloodlust. In the gory battle scenes memorialized in Assyrian friezes in Nineveh, the ancient city that lay near modern-day Mosul, Verini sees parallels to the gruesome photos and videos Iraqis shared by smartphone. “Everyone knew someone who’d been killed on the Internet,” he writes.
Verini seeks to temper the hype about ISIS, and he cuts it down to size, portraying it as just the latest insurgent group to use terrorism as a tool for political goals. He recalls that it has been over a century since jihadism became a vehicle for anticolonialism, reminding readers of the Royal Air Force’s efforts to put down the Iraqi revolt that began in 1920, a movement that, like the rebels who fought the British in Sudan decades earlier, invoked the Almighty against an occupier. “Fifteen years before Guernica,” Verini writes, “the British were bombing unarmed Iraqis.” Nor is ISIS even the first insurgent group to promote an apocalyptic worldview. He mentions the Jewish rebels who fought the Romans in the first centuries BC and AD and ultimately committed mass suicide on Masada.
As Verini notes, many news organizations milked the ISIS story for its “luridness,” yielding shallow coverage “on the same spectrum as the Caliphate’s own blood porn.” (He acknowledges “a few exceptions”; in fact, there are many brave journalists who reported with context and measure.) Some outlets, he muses, may have sought to absolve themselves of their lack of skepticism before the U.S. invasion, as if to say, as he puts it, “See, I knew all along there was something horrible lurking in the desert there.”
But it is instructive to look even more broadly at the successes and failures of writers who have tried to make sense of the chaos consuming Iraq and Syria. Too often, we approach it like the proverbial blind men assessing an elephant: the one at the tail thinks it is like a rope, the one at the leg says it is like a tree, and so on. Each arena of the sprawling conflicts poses its own challenges of access and safety. Few people have seen every aspect from the ground, and no book has satisfyingly pulled it all together. Verini focuses on Iraq and men. A recent book by Azadeh Moaveni looks mainly at women who joined ISIS in Syria.
Yet neither Iraq nor Syria fully makes sense without the other. The details of the hostilities in Syria, where the conflict began not with ISIS but with President Bashar al-Assad’s violent repression of a civilian protest movement, are very different from those of the war in Iraq. At the same time, Iraqis and Syrians share a sense of abandonment and abuse by their governments and the world, and their conflicts have become inseparable. The Bush administration’s misadventure in Iraq was the reason the Obama administration was unable or unwilling to take decisive action to stop atrocities in Syria: the United States was constrained by depleted resources, a war-weary population, the discrediting of its rhetoric about democracy and human rights, and its own undermining of international institutions and multilateralism. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Assad’s weaponization of Syrian extremists to harass American soldiers in Iraq helped seed what became ISIS. Assad later imprisoned some of those same fighters, only to reuse them later on. Early in the Syrian revolt, even as he vacuumed civilian activists and army defectors into his torture dungeons, he released jihadis who went on to lead hardcore militant groups, making it easier for him to claim that the world had to choose between him and “the terrorists.”
Going back further, had the United States not invaded Iraq, the country would almost certainly not have become a breeding ground, and later a sitting duck, for ISIS. In fact, it’s possible to imagine that without the invasion, the uprisings that swept the Arab world beginning in late 2010, or at least the one that swept Syria, would have gone somewhat better. Perhaps—dream for a moment—an Iraqi revolt against Saddam Hussein could have taken root organically, in partnership with the Syrian one. Instead, in the rubble left by invasion, Iraq was riddled with Sunni extremists, who dispatched emissaries across the border into Syria to radicalize the population there. A weak Iraq permeated by Iranian power also made it easy for Iran to recruit legions of Iraqi Shiite militants and dispatch them across the border into Syria to help Assad put down the revolt.
Neither Iraq nor Syria fully makes sense without the other.
There is more to learn on the ground that requires the whole picture. There has yet to be a systematic study of whether the United States’ ordnance has really done better than Assad’s at sorting fighters from civilians, especially since the Trump administration loosened the rules of engagement. There is also a need for a closely observed account of the United States’ messy alliances. The country treats Iran-backed militias as de facto allies in Iraq but as enemies in Syria, where U.S. proxies, in turn, are led by Kurdish groups that Turkey, a fellow NATO member, considers terrorists.
Moreover, combat books can only go so far in documenting the plight of civilians; in Verini’s, anecdotes of officers jauntily disregarding danger, or of the soldiers obscenely taunting one another about their sisters, sometimes blur together or narrowly avoid cheerleading. (I pine for a frontline book by a female serial embedder, such as Jane Arraf, Arwa Damon, or Kathy Gannon, although the Iraqi military lags behind its U.S. counterpart in letting women reporters take equal risks as men.)
To bridge these epistemological gaps, journalists have new tools: social media and other digital communications. However misused these have been, civilians, activists, and rank-and-file fighters, in Syria especially, have turned them into an unprecedented platform to tell the story of their own conflicts in real time, making Syria arguably history’s most documented war. I wish in hindsight that in the early years of the Iraq war, then faceless insurgents and the civilians caught between them and U.S. firepower could have contacted us directly. Yet even in recent years, online communications have not been used as early or as extensively in Iraq, perhaps for as simple a reason as that different teams of reporters typically cover the two countries, and those working in Iraq were not as used to those tools. And in Syria, social media have sometimes obscured important dynamics. Before the 2013 takeover of Raqqa by ISIS and the subsequent beheadings, foreign jihadis heralded the arrival of the group with goofy selfies, making it initially appear to be a buffoonish sideshow in a crowded field of more conventional actors.
In Iraq, however, where ISIS and its predecessors had incubated for years, the group’s rise was plain to see amid Iraq’s political disorder. Journalists saw it, but strained news budgets meant shrinking coverage as the United States, briefly it turned out, withdrew.
Verini does an excellent job of describing the Iraqi leg of the elephant and his starting point: guilt. He assigns much of it to U.S. policies and the leaders in Iraq and elsewhere whom those policies have supported or tolerated. Yes, the United States helped create ISIS, not in the literal way that conspiracy theorists believe but by destabilizing Iraq, ruling it clumsily, and then supporting the scorched-earth, sectarian approach of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Verini reminds readers of how, during the run-up to the invasion, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell elevated the obscure Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would found the group that became ISIS, to a jihadi celebrity by citing him in his famous speech before the UN Security Council. And Verini explains how ISIS exploited the Maliki government’s corruption, bribing or co-opting officials as it raised money, infiltrated institutions, and amassed weapons, even as it denounced graft to gain popularity. By the time ISIS took over Mosul in 2014, the group was the only real alternative to Maliki, and some Moslawis, given their lived experience, decided it was worth a try. Amid their political, security, and economic rationales, one researcher tells Verini, “religious ideology might have been the last point of identification with the Islamic State.”
This observation hits home in the operatic story of two middle-aged, middle-class brothers in a refugee camp who initially welcomed ISIS. Abu Omar’s wife was killed by al Qaeda militants in 2005. His brother Abu Fahad, a former army medic, also lost his wife, who was killed the next year when U.S. and Kurdish troops shot up the family car at a checkpoint. After they beat him, Abu Fahad found his eldest daughter “in the backseat of the car trying to eat shards of window glass”; she had just “watched her mother’s head explode.” “Abu Fahad wasn’t a zealot,” Verini writes. “He wasn’t even particularly devout.” He continues:
But he had watched his country invaded, occupied, turned upon itself; his city degraded from a “paradise,” as he described the Mosul of his youth, to a hell; his wife killed; himself and his family and friends humiliated by soldiers of the army he’d once nursed to health; his children driven mad, denigrated, denied futures. To a man like that, sane as he is, talk of a millenarian utopia, of any utopia, of any improvement of life beyond the malediction it has become, holds promise.
Verini also gives deserved attention to the heavy sacrifices and bravery of the Iraqi forces. Twenty thousand Iraqi troops died between 2014 and 2016 alone. One gunner, known as “SpongeBob,” a nickname bestowed on him by his young son, had earlier survived torture by a Shiite militia, despite being Shiite himself. During the fight for Mosul, he was evaporated by a suicide bomb—recalling, in my mind, a line from the World War II poet Randall Jarrell: “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”
Verini travels mostly with the Counter Terrorism Service, a group of special operations forces that reports to Iraq’s prime minister and that U.S. officials viewed as the most competent and least politicized Iraqi unit. Yet at every turn, he finds the unevenness of twenty-first-century warfare—the same type of disconnect and confusion that leads sophisticated drones to hit wedding parties in Afghanistan and Yemen. The Iraqis working on the ground beneath high-tech U.S. jets carry homemade mortar tubes, forget to take the wrapping off grenade launchers, wear misspelled shoulder patches, and shun body armor. Verini watches them work with Western special forces officers to call in airstrikes from an alarmingly exposed command post, communicating on WhatsApp. Operational security concerns aside, Verini wonders about uncounted civilian casualties. Watching impact clouds bloom across Mosul, he observes that in the Pentagon’s claim of scrupulous precision, “you had to smell horseshit.”
Mosul degraded from a paradise to a hell.
Verini doesn’t dig deeply into this but cites others’ reports: one airstrike said to target an ISIS position during the battle for Mosul killed as many as 150 civilians, according to Amnesty International and local witnesses quoted in several news outlets; a New York Times investigation published in 2017 found that one in five airstrikes by the anti-ISIS coalition resulted in unintended civilian deaths, 31 times the rate the Pentagon claimed. The book also adds to growing evidence that even the best Iraqi units summarily execute prisoners. One of Verini’s most likable characters, a chubby-cheeked major named Hassan, casually admits to one such killing and then shows Verini the body. The episode comes near the end of the book and gets short shrift. I wanted more on how Verini assimilated the execution into his understanding of his frontline companions and on how common such killings were.
They Will Have to Die Now documents the practical application of a popular theory informing much of U.S. policy: that having locals fight wars engenders less resentment. But this doesn’t always hold true. Just like U.S. forces, Iraqis have struggled with the difficulty of saving a city without destroying it, and they have met with similar results. As Verini writes, “The more Moslawis were killed, the more they resented the soldiers, and the more soldiers were killed, the more they resented the Moslawis.” In some ways, the Iraqis’ challenge is worse than the Americans’, since they need to somehow live together, to envision shared citizenship with mortal enemies.
Mosul was recaptured in the summer of 2017, and the city is now in the throes of a slow rebuilding. Today, ISIS has been defeated militarily as a territorial entity and discredited by its misrule among those who gave it a chance as a government. But the political problems that allowed it to gain a foothold haven’t begun to be solved. And although its true believers have been dealt a setback, they are still available as recruits for decentralized attacks in Iraq, Syria, and worldwide.
As for the rest of Iraq, short of real trust, the best hope is the sharing of spoils and power. The country has a semblance of real politics—debate on governance that transcends sect—after the fight against ISIS created at least a partial sense of shared purpose. The absence of violence is a kind of success; in the city of Samarra, for instance, the Shiite militia run by Muqtada al-Sadr, who rose to prominence fighting American troops, is now keeping peace with a mostly Sunni population, partly by offering lucrative business opportunities to local Sunnis. In Syria, however, relative quiet has come through Assad’s wholesale doubling down on repression. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Lebanon’s rickety yet durable system, with sectarian mafias sharing rents a generation after the country’s own civil war ended, somehow passes as a decent outcome. But it depends on perpetuating sectarian mistrust and precludes basic infrastructure investment, let alone a functional state, a shared political or physical public space, or meaningful levers for ordinary citizens to effect change. And that is in a country that is a fraction of the size of Iraq.
What happens on the ground as the United States outsources the foot soldiering of its wars?
More important, instability and extremism will rear their heads in the Middle East as long as its people are denied a voice in how they are governed. The biggest long-term threat in the region is neither ISIS nor Iran but the continued de facto insistence by its own leaders that the path to security and stability is through rule by force. Decades of U.S. policy have implicitly endorsed that view. Washington maintains so-called counterterrorism alliances with despotic rulers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It pursues policies on Israel that, by tolerating the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and adopting an increasingly one-sided approach to negotiations, have enshrined the indefinite occupation of the Palestinian territories. And by supporting or tolerating repressive governments, it has given a green light to the suppression of the very forces in the region—the young and educated and motivated—who briefly had the temerity to believe in and act on the universal ideals of freedom, human rights, and dignity that American rhetoric promoted, only to be crushed. Victory via maximum violence against both militants and civilians is no recipe for stability. What’s worse, the example from Assad and others in the region has offered authoritarians around the world a grisly playbook for how to win. It also spurred a wave of refugees that sent racist identity politics rippling through Europe and the United States.
So Verini is right to talk about an entwined Iraq and America. Indeed, it is not too far a stretch to see versions of Iraqis’ dilemmas within U.S. borders. How can armed fanatics and gunmen, who make common cause in the dark corners of social media and capitalize on its blurring of facts, be stopped? Are Americans facing their own apocalypse, from the climate? How can grievances and divisions be healed in a country, in a world, where people don’t agree on the nature of reality? And after years of fear, what concerns are shared? Who is “them,” and who is “us”?