Pointing a finger at the United States in relation to the problem of the Islamic State group may sound like anti-imperialistic rhetoric. However, cool-headed analysis of the facts leads inescapably to assigning fundamental responsibility to the U.S. for the emergence of the monster that is frightening the civilized world today. A chain of four links underpins this process.
The First Link
The first link can be traced back to the role played by Washington in the war fought by the Soviets in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. In the words of Ahmed Rashid: “With the active encouragement of the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI, who wanted to turn the Afghan jihad into a global war waged by all Muslim states against the Soviet Union, some 35,000 Muslim radicals from 40 Islamic countries joined Afghanistan’s fight between 1982 and 1992” (“The Taliban: Exporting Extremism,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 1999). For the United States, in effect, the Islamist presence became the ideal containment barrier against communism, and was seen as a buffer state against Soviet expansionism.
Focusing on the short term, Washington actively stimulated the creation of a transnational Islamist jihad, creating a favorable atmosphere for the first great contemporary victory by the Muslim world in a religious war. As Samuel Huntington wrote: “The war left behind an uneasy coalition of Islamist organizations intent on promoting Islam against all non-Muslim forces. It also left a legacy of expert and experienced fighters… [And] elaborate trans-Islam networks of personal and organizational relationships…” (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, New York, 1996, p. 247).
The Second Link
The second link began to materialize when the Pandora’s box opened by the United States poured its demons forth on Sept. 11, 2001. Five fundamental errors were committed in response to this event. The first was not seeing the struggle against Islamist terrorism on its own terms, but treating it as a conventional confrontation between nation states. Instead of focusing on intelligence and international cooperation, they came to see terrorism as an extension of the reach of countries with actual or potential power to support it. In this way, Iraq was introduced into an equation that it was not a part of. The second error was not having enough troops to stabilize the situation [in Iraq] after the victory over Saddam, with the result that the country slipped toward anarchy. The third error was not developing plans for what to do after this victory, within a realistic and well-informed evaluation of the framework that was being played out. This error put into play a dynamic of improvisation based on ignorance of the country’s religious, ethnic and political complexities. The fourth error, a product of the previous one, was disbanding the Iraqi army and firing the government officials linked to the defeated regime; that is to say, every single one of them. The fifth error was emphasizing electoral democracy for a country in which that would inevitably translate into Shiite control. In this way, the Sunni population that had dominated for centuries was brought to its knees, and left at the mercy of a Shiite majority thirsting for revenge.
The Third Link
The third link took shape during the Syrian civil war. The alienation and radicalization of Iraqi Sunnis, resulting from the situation described in the previous link, was transformed into an extraordinary breeding ground for the terrorism that exploded in Syria. Rather than seeing the Assad regime as the lesser of two evils, and as a natural buffer against Islamist terrorism, Washington insisted on framing [the conflict] with a naive perspective of democratization and national reconciliation. In this way, they not only undermined the regime to its core — strengthening the radical Islam it was fighting — but in the process made common cause with some of the Gulf monarchies that were financing Sunni extremism.
The Fourth Link
The fourth link took shape by supporting the regime change in Libya, which resulted in a huge power vacuum just right for Islamist terrorism to fill. In forcing the exit of Gaddafi, who was already thoroughly neutralized and assimilated to the West, the doors were opened to a deeper uncertainty. That failed state has provided an excellent space for the expansion of the Islamic State group outside of its home territory in Iraq and Syria. In this way, a potent base for the projection of power onto neighboring areas was created. Washington can’t be held responsible for the way things are in the Muslim world. Nonetheless, it should be held responsible for its role as sorcerer’s apprentice in the region, unleashing storms that cannot be controlled.