ISIS and the war in Iraq


Those who brand others as heretics are not generally amenable to the proposition that the heretic deserves a fair hearing. Which is to say: the very idea of a heresy is that it represents a form of belief that must be dealt with by suppression rather than analysis.

Kyle Orton, a young Middle East analyst from England, has just been granted the opportunity to propagate an unthinkable heresy on the op-ed pages of the New York Times: he asserts that ISIS did not come into existence as a result of the war in Iraq but instead that its emergence can be traced to a process of Islamization in Iraq that began in the 1980s.

A kneejerk response comes from Glenn Greenwald:

As someone who so often likes to deploy a lazy guilt-by-association line of attack, Greenwald dismisses the article by branding it as having come from a neocon think tank — that being the Henry Jackson Society — along with an implicit rebuke directed at the New York Times.

Sal Rotman makes an appropriate response:

Indeed, but for Greenwald to make such a critique, he’d probably have to know much more about Iraq’s recent history than he does — so he opts for the easy route of denunciation by branding. Call someone a neocon and it goes without saying — supposedly — than anything they say can be dismissed.

The question as to whether Orton is a neocon (even if one accepts the label being applied to his employer), seems somewhat trivial — unless one is convinced that a neocon is someone whose every utterance is false. Which is to say: unless one views a neocon as a kind of heretic.

The only serious question is whether Orton’s historical analysis is sound — a judgement that many of us are not in a position to make. What many of us can do, however, is assess the coherence of the argument, its plausibility and the extent to which it rings true.

Interestingly, although Greenwald thinks Orton is exonerating the war in Iraq, he apparently missed the fact that Orton views the trend of Islamization in the 1990s as having occured while “Iraqis fell back on their faith for solace under the harsh international sanctions.”

One might argue, therefore, that ISIS was just as much a product of the 1991 Gulf War as it was the 2003 Iraq War — but not wholly a product of either.

Orton writes:

It’s true that disbanding the Iraqi Army after 2003 put professional soldiers at the service of the Sunni insurgency. It’s also true that Al Qaeda in Iraq — the small, foreign-led nucleus of what became the Islamic State — used poorly run American prisons like Camp Bucca to recruit former regime elements. But the significant fact is that those who assumed leadership roles in the Islamic State’s military council had been radicalized earlier, under Mr. Hussein’s regime.

There was never any “Baathist coup” of former regime elements inside the Islamic State, as some analysts assume, because these men had long since abandoned Baathism. They joined Al Qaeda in Iraq early after the invasion as an act of ideological conviction, and when Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership was nearly destroyed in 2008-10, these officers were the last men standing precisely because of their superior counterintelligence and security skills.

It was these Salafized former military intelligence officers — led by Samir al-Khlifawi, also known as Haji Bakr, who had joined the group in 2003 and rose to be the so-called caliph’s deputy, until he was killed in 2014 — who planned the Islamic State’s dramatic expansion into Syria. There, they set up a Saddam Hussein-style authoritarian regime that was the launchpad for the jihadists’ invasion of Iraq in 2014.

From a cursory look at his earlier blog posts, it appears Orton’s analysis is based in part on the research findings of Samuel Helfont, whose PhD dissertation on religion and politics in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was itself based on newly-released records from the Iraqi state and Baath Party. That sounds like a stronger foundation for a thesis than would be provided, for instance, by an individual like “curveball.” It’s certainly worth more careful consideration than for it to simply be dismissed with a tweet.

For those still concerned about which political litmus tests Orton might pass or fail, I would point out that the route he followed in order to recently get hired by the Henry Jackson Society did not seem to be distinctly ideological.

On the “about” page on his blog, Orton writes:

After a misbegotten degree in zoology (biology), I completed a social science Masters in Humanitarian Studies at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine that comprised elements of geopolitics, history, and practical skills in running a humanitarian program, the logical end-point of which would be work with a non-governmental organisation.

I have travelled quite widely, especially in Eastern Europe having been to all of the old Soviet satellite States except Romania, and in the Balkans — Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. I have also been to Turkey and Israel, took part in a voluntary course (teaching) in Kenya, and worked in Lebanon for my Masters on the healthcare system for the Syrian refugees.

Having long been interested in the Arab world, and especially in ways that it might be reformed, I was very interested when the rebellions came to that region at the end of 2010, and followed the course of this “Arab Spring” from its inception. The carnage in Syria and its obvious importance for that whole region have made the subject my primary focus.

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2 thoughts on “ISIS and the war in Iraq

  1. Dieter Heymann

    An accusation of heresy is a double-edged sword in Islam because the punishment for a false accusation is just as severe as punishment for heresy. The new caliph has publicly recognized it.

  2. hquain

    Whatever Orton’s ideological affiliation is or isn’t, he uses a familiar form of argumentation that is often deployed to divert attention from known immediate causes to more distant historical events. I find this somewhat unsettling.

    Step 1. Assert “Of course, A,B, etc..” Implication: if everybody knows it, it can’t be deep.
    Step 2. Then introduce some uncelebrated new fact. Implication: this overrides the others, because not generally known.

    The pretence is that known facts have been acknowledged. In reality, they have been rhetorically discounted.

    My evidence that this technique is being used is adjectival. Orton introduces his new fact after citing the contributory US blunders as known and obvious (“it is true that…. it’s also true that…”} And then comes the move: “But the significant fact is that …” I.e. by implication the others are insignificant, even though absolutely crucial to the outcome. “Significant” has no real definition — it’s more like a bullying tactic, an appeal to authorial authority, designed to wrong foot the reader. Skepticism is warranted.

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