Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

A catastrophe of our own making, and largely ignored

I am a long-time Iraq buff. I contributed to the blog Today in Iraq through most of its existence (it is now today in Afghanistan), and I have followed events in that country closely since then.

The situation right now is appalling. The Islamic State has captured predominantly Christian and Yazidi towns in the north and the inhabitants have fled in panic. (The Yazidi practice a pre-Islamic religion.) The Christians have fled to Kurdistan, while thousands of Yazidi fled to a mountain where they had no food or water. The UN now says that they have been rescued but that at least 40 children died of thirst. Update: It turns out the Yazidis have not been rescued,  but they are receiving airdropped supplies.

IS has captured the Mosul dam, which provides electricity to 3 Iraqi provinces. If the dam is breached, the ensuing flood would destroy Mosul and inundate Baghdad.

So, how did this happen? Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki systematically discriminated against Sunni Arabs, depriving them of government services and jobs, and leadership positions in the military. He replaced competent military leaders with his cronies. The army had a system in which soldiers' pay was given to commanders for distribution, and many soldiers cut deals whereby they would go home, take other jobs, and split their pay with the officer. So, when ISIL swept into Anbar and Ninevah provinces, the Iraqi army collapsed, and Sunni Arab militias joined forces with the Islamists.

The Kurdish peshmerga is a competent fighting force, and they held the dam and protected the Christian and Yazidi towns in the north, simultaneously moving in to territory they coveted for themselves in Kirkuk and environs. But they are lightly armed, and Maliki cut them off from ammunition and military equipment in the possession of the central government. Since Kurdistan lacks sovereignty, they have great difficulty purchasing military goods on their own. So, they ran out of ammunition and were forced to desert the towns they were protecting. They held on at the dam for weeks but were finally overcome. Note that none of this action is inside Kurdistan -- the Iraqi military would ordinarily be responsible for this territory but it is incompetent.

The United States initially supported Maliki's installation as PM, and has continued to support him ever since, despite his outrageous misrule. This is a predictable consequence of invading a country our political and military leaders knew nothing about, smashing the existing order, and grossly mismanaging the restoration.

I don't know a lot about the Islamic State or the socio-cultural forces that produced its genocidal ideology. They appear to have been shaped largely in the crucible of the Syrian civil war and are partly blowback from the Gulf monarchies proxy war with Iran. But there they are, filling the vacuum created by the hubris and evil of Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and their weakling tool George W. Bush. Americans appear not to care about the people of Iraq, but this is our fault and our responsibility. Not sure what to do beyond humanitarian relief, but at least we need to be offering that. And we aren't.

By the way, Americans want to turn away a few thousand children who are seeking refuge here, whereas the much less wealthy people of Jordan, Kurdistan and Turkey are doing their best to house millions of Iraqi and Syrian refugees. That's American exceptionalism for you.

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