with the news of islamist fighters having taken over mosul finally also reaching the austrian news cycle, the thing concerning me the most is the statements i encounter from people as they comment on the happenings. realizing a substantial lack of knowledge that would enable to halfway understand the complexities on the ground and recalling that i created this blog to be a ‘translator’ of political happenings into the tongue of ‘the common man and woman’, in this post i aim at giving the reader a basic understanding of the situation that will enable him or her to not just consume media coverage but to put it into its respective relation.
1) thinking in a black box
people from european countries, and i am not excluding myself, tend to think in boxes. thereby i do however not refer to judgments of people or the limits of a person’s horizon. the box i am talking about is what is called ‘the black box’ in international relations theory. this term refers to the concept of ‘state’ and it being perceived as the ultimate actor in international relations. and that might be very well true for diplomatics, but the idea that a state is a fixed construct, unchangable and set in stone, is a picture that only recently evolved and comes with the disillusional thinking that the map we can so easily access on google maps today will always look that way.
in order to understand the situation in iraq, we need to open our understanding of a state as a box that only exists in one form, in one size and shape, with one filling an one dimension. it does not. and looking at the broader picture i’d actually argue that this unity is the exception. and it certainly is not the case in iraq.
iraq is a state on the map. yes. but the stateness of iraq stops there. drawn in the great power games of colonizing forces, what is iraq today was nothing more but a geopolitical consideration of great britain, trying to secure its route to india. later it became interesting for its oil and once even for its never really existing weapons of mass destruction. within iraq itself however there is a multi-layered society. the division of the country between sunni, shia and kurds not so much as scratches the surface of the reality beneath. it is these different linkages, ethnical divisions, tribal relations and even border crossing connections that make any real assessment too complicated for the goal of this article. instead, let’s turn the focus back to the state. a state is a defined territory, with people and a government that holds a monopoly of power, according to the austrian theorist georg jellinek and standards of international law today. with the people in iraq being so divided however, there is not one center of power but several. effectively every other person who manages to rally people behind him/her and gets access to money, weapons and a form of legitimacy by claiming a moral right to lead, can enforce a local rule. and what is called ‘the state’ has no capacity to keep these developments down as it lacks political support and the military force to keep insurgents down. differently that expected however, the first factor seems to have more consequences than the later. this is due to the lack of professionality and loyalty of the iraqi forces to the central government. and all the heavy weaponry does not suffice for a lack of loyalty and training of the soldiers in its command. just now as the militians have run over mosul and the news cover scenes of how people from the iraqi army joined their jihadist calls or sold their own weapons as the were fleeing the city, it becomes more than clear how little it means to be a soldier for the iraqi army and how important it is for a military force to find a balance between keeping soldiers without ideology but also loyal even beyond the outlook of a stable salary.
so, to put it in a reader’s digest version:
* the central government in iraq is weak – it lacks legitimacy (as it overrepresents the shia over the sunni part of society)
* the army is useless – sophisticated armory does not make up for a lack of loyalty and purpose for the fight they are supposed to lead against the militias
* iraq is not one state – there is also kurdistan
2) the island in the storm
particularly right now, and who is better to judge than me actually sitting in the kurdish capital as i am typing these words, the kurdish regional government (krg), by kurdish people lovingly and proudly referred to as kurdistan, seems to be more than ever an island of stability in the chaotic storm outside its borders. word to the wise, just because now the news cycle covers it that does not mean that this has not been going on before as well. some estimations even say that the movement started around 2009, but personally i remain at the more common assumption of the isis being a child of the syrian uprising and civil war. however, the assessmet of 2009 is not too far off either as it was in 2008 that the international security forces, most prominently the united states, retrieved their forces from the ground of iraq where they have been stationed since the invasion in 2003. without intending to fingerpoint at the united states at this, it is less their leaving and more their bad job before that that had left iraq in an even worse state than before they ‘freed the people’. this is not to pour out blame, however, as there simply is no magical formula of how to create a black box – a state that is actually functioning so well that one can disregard its internal debates when judging its behavior on an international level. what iraq has taught us scientists specializing in the field though is that a large amount of armory does not keep a country stable and save against insurgencies, and that supporting one group over the other simply because it just so happens to fit more into the personal political or value-related preferences does not particularly help either on a long run; it is inequality that breeds the ground for people to stand up against it. and when some of them are willing to kill and die for that, there you have your security problem.
for kuristan, however, the same invasion, or actually already the gulf war in 1990/91, was a historical opportunity. having fought for a recognition of their people and their territory, that was promised to them in the versailles treaty, as guerilla force against the central, then sunni-run baathist regime, for decades, supporting the united states in their attack on saddam hussein in both wars has given them the time and territory needed to develop what we now know as the krg. the krg officially is a federal region of iraq. that means that it is part of iraq but actually quite autonomous to make decisions. those decisions have to be ok in terms of the iraqi constitution, but within those lines, the kurdish representatives can rule. other federal regions in the world are die bundesländer in austria, die länder in germany, quebeq in canada or any state in the ‘united’ states. however, more than most of these ‘states’, the kurdish region not only has its own government and legislative rule, it also has an army: the peshmerga. what started as a guerilla movement, fighting for the independence of kurdistan, has now become the official armed forces of the regional representation. some internal political issue aside, the peshmerga are not only the pride and joy of the kurdish people but also well equipped and trained. their main task for generations after all was to fight the central government. now, being additionally backed by us-support and training that enlarged their skills from guerilla warfare into a more and more professionalized, ‘classical’ military structure, the peshmerga are considered the best force on the ground. why else would the central government in baghdad now cry out for kurdish support?
and having priorly just pointed out the importance of loyalty within the armed forces at play, the kurdish peshmerga not only are dedicated, by history, ideology and ethnicity, to the kurdish government, in this conflict they have both more to gain and to loose and as such can be expected to be fully dedicated in all their capacities to defend their island of security.
at the point now, even more than before, i believe it is fair to say that, while not internationally recognized, kurdistan is a state within a chaotic desert of statelessness around them.
another reader’s digest version:
* the kurdish regional government is strong, and as long as it stays politically united internally, they have actually more to gain than to lose from the conflict
* the kurdish armed forces, the peshmerga, breath the loyalty that the iraqi army lacks
* more than ever there needs to be a clear differentiation between the kurdish region and iraq around its borders
3) history is written by its winners
having priorly talked about a 101 of how fanatic militias, ideoligical fighter and oh why not use the word we all love the most: ‘terrorists’ come into being, i feel compelled to add another layer of consideration onto the issue at hand; history is written by the winners. and while international media must be thrilled by the prospect of having something new to report – seriously, it has been too silent in syria and ukraine, don’t you think? (sarcasm intended)-, particularly on an always big seller headline like ‘islamist/jihadist militias’, the old saying actually deserves remembering. my intention here is not to defend the militia! it is not to morally accept anything the group has done, but it is also not to judge the rightness of their beliefs. without trying to get into cultural relativism, i just sometimes wonder which word makes the western media consumer shiver more on the soft pillows of his or her couch: militia or islamist? influenced by the biggest pr-smear campaign since the cold war (and surprise surprise the russian-evil-story still sells today – a bad outlook for the islamic world!), everythig related to ‘islamic …’ has been causing grasps of concern in the secular world. it is after all so easy to assume that every terrorist is a muslim and every muslim living in an islamic state is religious. sentences like ‘what do you mean, they drink alcohol?’ just point to the level of ignorance that exist when it comes to this religion and region. suddenly the drinking of alcohol, of all things!, becomes the measurement stick of civilization. and oh no, i already hear someone say, it is also about the way they treat the women – well then i ask you to talk to a woman who has walked through the streets of italy or spain; have fun thinking of reasons of why patriarchy is a solely islamic phenomenon! but of course, even at that, like with most issues, there is many layers to it. just like i am also aware that not every reader is the western passive ignorant i just embellished.
in any case, and in recognition of the many more levels there are to it, i want to recall history: remember the violence used by the great conquerers, the liberation wars of entire continents, the force used to claim what today is known as the united states, the blood shed for the claim to a superior religion in the crusades and to a superior race in the second world war, recall the ‘terrorists’ within europe before we used to associate the word with a turban around the face and ask yourself how this piece of land you call yourself a citizen of has become the way it looks today.
i do not dare to judge the rightness or wrongness of the jihadist claims. not because i do not have an opinion about it but because it is not my place to judge wheter what they believe to be right and worth dying for is right or wrong to me. in the end, it is another one of these issues where any possible answer is a political one and the ‘truth’ will then be decided by whoever ends up writing the history.