, Salem, MA


June 10, 2014

Watson: Current conflicts built on past strife

Americans think of the Iraq War as “over.” Because our country withdrew its soldiers completely at the end of 2011, and because our efforts there at “nation-building” have more or less halted, we naturally have mostly stopped paying attention to Iraq’s condition.

But what is going on there now is terrible, and it illuminates realities and dynamics that characterize lots of societies and conflicts around the world.

In 2007, at the height of the American involvement in Iraq, there were roughly 200,000 U.S. troops and mercenaries there. Those soldiers both trained Iraqi troops and actively fought alongside them. At various times during the war, we fought the Sunnis, the Shiites, Al Qaeda and rogue tribes and militias. It was a complicated war, and the adversaries and alliances were not always static or clear.

Ironically, attempting to impose order on an unnatural, mongrel “country” cobbled together in 1921 by the post-World War I powers, the United States got a clear appreciation for how the inexcusable brutality of Saddam Hussein had a certain horrible, contextual logic to it.

When the U.S. — in a colossal mistake, I believe — attacked Iraq in 2003, it invaded a country that was already full of barely contained resentments and grievances. To oversimplify, a minority Sunni elite ruthlessly controlled a majority population of Shiites and Kurds.

The chaos and civil vacuum created by the war allowed all of the latent ethnic, religious, tribal and criminal divisions within Iraqi society to become visible and openly expressed, often violently. In addition, anti-Americanism, terrorism and Islamism existed (and grew) as ideologies that sometimes overlaid the various sectarian divides.

By 2010, with a variety of means, the U.S. managed to both elicit and force an uneasy quiet in Iraq. Few of the ethnic, religious or governance conflicts were resolved; they were just suppressed.

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