In 1996 I visited Penjwin, an impoverished village in Iraqi Kurdistan close to the Iranian border, where people were trying to make a little money through what must be one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. They would walk through the extensive minefields around the village – laid during the Iran-Iraq War – in search of a particularly lethal Italian-made anti-personnel mine called the Valmara. A Valmara mine is usually buried in the ground, apart from five prongs which project from its top. These prongs, often attached to tripwires, are difficult to detect because they look like dry grass. But if one of them is disturbed a small charge is detonated which makes the Valmara jump into the air to about waist height – where a larger charge explodes and sprays 1200 steel fragments at high velocity in all directions.
‘I defuse the mine with a piece of wire,’ explained Sabir Saleh, a middle-aged villager who went into the minefields every day. ‘Then I unscrew the top and take out the aluminium around the explosives. When I have taken apart six mines I have enough aluminium to sell for 30 dinar to a shop in Penjwin.’ Thirty dinar is about 75p. Over the previous few years he reckoned that he had defused some 2000 Valmaras, earning enough to feed his family of eight. ‘I make enough money to buy food for them, but not enough to buy clothes or anything else,’ he said. Sabir had survived so far, but everybody in the village knew somebody who had been killed by a Valmara or had stepped on a small pressure mine and was missing a foot or the lower part of a leg.
I used to tell this story as an illustration of the resilience of ordinary Kurds in their long struggle against poverty and oppression. For almost a century the Kurds had been savagely treated: first by the British in the 1920s, when ‘Bomber’ Harris, who later led the air war against Germany, carried out air strikes targeting Kurdish towns and villages, and then by Saddam Hussein, whose extermination campaign resulted in the deaths of 180,000 Kurds and the destruction of 3000 villages. Few national liberation movements could match the Kurds’ long record of resistance to foreign rule and dictatorship. After the American overthrow of Saddam in 2003, it at last looked as if they were coming close to de facto independence under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). They had become a crucial component of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, fielded their own army – the peshmerga – and were expanding their oil production. Instead of poverty and military occupation, the five million Kurds in KRG territory experienced an economic boom, with luxury hotels, shopping malls and apartment blocks springing up in Kurdish cities. KRG leaders spoke of Iraqi Kurdistan becoming an oil state and a trading entrepôt with enough money to underpin political independence. They boasted that they had done more in a few years to achieve self-determination thanks to oil than in decades of fighting with Kalashnikovs.
The failure of this dream was sudden and almost total. In 2014 the Kurds came under attack from Islamic State and the price of oil fell. The peshmerga fled even faster than the Iraqi army had a few weeks earlier. Unable to defend itself, the KRG had to appeal to the US and Iran for help. The government today is bankrupt and few of its employees are getting paid (the US agreed in April to pay $415 million for the upkeep of the peshmerga). ‘There are two failed states in Iraq,’ Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish leader, told me soon after disaster struck. ‘One is national in Baghdad and the other is regional in Kurdistan.’
The failure to create a truly independent secular Kurdish state is part of a pattern that has emerged in the Middle East and North Africa over the last 25 years. The history of the KRG is simply a recent and dramatic example. Secular nationalism is an ebbing force. Countries like Egypt, which gained independence sixty years ago when Nasser survived British, French and Israeli attack during the Suez crisis, are once again the dependencies of global or regional powers, a fact underlined earlier this year when Egypt handed over to Saudi Arabia two islands in the Red Sea which it had long held as part of its national territory.
From north-east Nigeria all the way to north-west Pakistan, states are weakening or collapsing. This great diamond-shaped zone – largely Islamic, mostly Arab and containing some of the world’s biggest oil producers – has become a vast battlefield in which seven wars and at least three serious insurgencies are currently raging. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, south-east Turkey, Yemen, Sinai, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, north-east Nigeria and its neighbouring states, including Cameroon, where Boko Haram sends its suicide bombers and death squads, are all affected. Commentators often refer to ‘failed states’, a misleading phrase which conveniently implies that the failure is self-inflicted, and avoids putting any of the blame on external agencies. But it’s important always to identify who did the failing. In fact, direct foreign military intervention led to the final destruction of central government authority in several of these countries – among them Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen – even though they had all been weakened by internal conflict.
A better name for what’s happening in such places might be ‘Somalification’, since Somalia was one of the first victims of this process. In 1991 Somalia’s president, Siad Barre, was overthrown and the country’s central government dissolved. The US sent in troops between 1992 and 1994, in a disastrous intervention largely remembered today for the pictures of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. It disappeared off the media map all the more quickly because, aside from a lack of interest on the part of the rest of the world, reporters were deterred from visiting by the high risk of being murdered or kidnapped. The opposition-held areas of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen would all meet a similar fate.
The year the Somali state disintegrated – 1991 – is significant because it was also, of course, the year the US became the world’s only superpower. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union both had an interest in maintaining global order, because the weakening of some small state might make it possible for the other superpower to install its own allies or sympathisers in power. The Cold War produced conflict but also stability. The Soviet allies ruling Iraq, Syria and Libya couldn’t safely be displaced by the US without the risk of Moscow retaliating by other means. Smaller states took advantage of rivalry between the superpowers to enhance their independence, but the break-up of the Soviet Union meant that this was no longer possible. One of the more rational reasons advanced by Saddam for invading Kuwait in 1990 was that the freedom of manoeuvre of national leaders like himself was about to be severely curtailed.
In later years the absence of a Soviet threat enabled the West and its regional allies to displace leaders they didn’t like – Gaddafi, Saddam – without much concern about who or what would replace them. Humanitarian reasons, and in the case of Iraq a spurious claim about WMD, were given for regime change, but in reality there was an unspoken willingness to let crises in countries like Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen persist for years, on the grounds that trying to end them was more trouble than it was worth. Only with the victories of Islamic State and the creation of a caliphate stretching across western Iraq and eastern Syria in 2014 did the dangers of this policy become plain. And even then there wasn’t much sense of urgency in the West until last year, when IS launched its attacks in Paris and millions of refugees tried desperately to flee to Europe from the warzones and broken economies of the Middle East and North Africa.
It should have been evident by the late 1990s that socialism and secular nationalism had been displaced in Islamic countries by religion as the sole force capable of mobilising people in opposition to foreign or domestic repression. But it wasn’t quite so obvious at the time. I first became conscious of the change during the second Chechen war in 1999. At first it looked like a rerun of the war the Chechens had impressively won against the Russians four years earlier. As the Russians started their advance I flew from Moscow to Grozny to interview the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, who was trying and failing to arrange a truce. We were put up in a former army barracks which seemed to me a likely target for Russian air strikes, but members of the presidential guard were more worried about our being kidnapped by local Islamist fighters, known as the Wahhabi, than they were of Russian bombers. Over the following year, along with the rest of the foreign media, I wrote a series of articles critical of Russian brutality and sympathetic to the Chechens and their doomed fight for self-determination. I tended to see the Wahhabis as parasitic on a genuine national movement rather than central to it. But after a few months I realised I was underestimating the importance of the Islamist fighters and not paying enough attention to their sectarianism, violence and criminality, all of which were alienating other Chechens. There was no doubt that Russian rule was vicious, but it became clear that so too was the alternative. The same would be true in future years of pro and anti-regime forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Ordinary people and political activists in these countries may have been more aware than journalists of what was happening. After the US invasion Iraqis in particular were often cynical about their new rulers. ‘The exiled Iraqis are the exact replica of those who currently govern us,’ an anonymous civil servant told the International Crisis Group in an interview covertly conducted in Baghdad before the war began. He added that the only difference between the two was that the old regime was ‘already satiated since they have been robbing us for the past thirty years. Those who accompany the American troops will be ravenous.’ The remark encapsulated what was going to happen better than any number of articles by me and other reporters in celebration of the opposition. The widespread Iraqi view – that regime change and foreign intervention are simply well-organised looting expeditions – had a lot to be said for it. It also helps explain why the Iraqi governments that succeeded Saddam have never had much credibility in the eyes of Iraqis, whose scepticism is borne out by their record of corruption and gangsterism in office. When the Iraqi army retreated and broke apart after a small IS force attacked Mosul in June 2014, deserting Iraqi troops deserted their prime minister too. One shout went: ‘Die for al-Maliki? Never! Never!’
Corruption is usually presented by observers inside and outside the Middle East and Africa as a reason for state weakness. ‘Corruption,’ John Kerry said in May, ‘is as much of an enemy, because it destroys nation-states, as some of the extremists we are fighting.’ This is certainly true in Iraq, where military officers traditionally buy their jobs with the help of a large loan, which they pay back by diverting the wages for non-existent troops into their own pockets. Checkpoints on roads in Syria and Iraq function like customs posts, with the security personnel manning them – whether from pro or anti-Assad forces – charging every vehicle that passes by. One Iraqi businessman complained to me that he could no longer make a profit because he had to pay a bribe for his containers at every stage of their journey: from the moment they were unloaded at a port near Basra until they finally reached Baghdad. Before the financial and military disasters of 2014 the KRG used to advertise itself as ‘the other Iraq’ but in reality it was just as corrupt and almost as dysfunctional as the rest of the country. An Iraqi official who spent a year trying to reach an agreement on how much the central government in Baghdad should pay for the peshmerga could never find out how many peshmerga there really were – and how much money was being siphoned off.
Denunciations of corruption such as Kerry’s are routine, but they don’t tell us much about the mechanics of corruption, the ways it works to weaken states. Countries that depend on the sale of natural resources suffer from the notorious ‘resource curse’: the state gets paid for the sale of oil, gas or minerals and members of the political elite fight for a share of the revenues. The rest of the population either gets nothing, or benefits from an expensive patronage system through which they are given jobs. Whether republics or monarchies, nominally socialist or free market economies, the Middle East oil states all resemble one another in one significant way: they lack legitimacy in the eyes of their own people, on the grounds that their rulers do nothing to earn the vast revenues on which they gorge. The anonymous civil servant in Baghdad in 2002 who said that all governments were predators looking for loot was voicing a common opinion. The best that the citizens of oil states can expect is a share in the revenues through patronage and client systems, though this buys acquiescence rather than permanent loyalty. Resource-rich countries usually regret going to war or resorting to force against their own people. They may appear strong – they can afford arsenals of modern weapons – but their armies seldom fight very hard. This was true of Iraqi soldiers in Mosul in 2014 and of the Saudi-led coalition of nine Sunni states and local forces that has been fighting in Yemen for more than a year but has so far been unable to capture Sanaa despite total command of the air.
It should be clear to oil state rulers in the region that they have little real political support. But they have always had an exaggerated notion of their own capabilities. King Idris of Libya responded to the news that US oil companies had discovered oil in his country by saying that he would have preferred it if they had discovered water: ‘Water makes men work, oil makes men dream.’ In the years following the jump in oil prices in the early 1970s, the shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein both started to have megalomaniacal dreams: the shah ordered that the Iranian economy should grow by a quarter every year and Saddam launched disastrous wars – against Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. Similar hubris was on display this April when Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of the king and effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, announced an impossibly ambitious plan to end his country’s dependence on oil by 2030.
But the resource curse alone can’t explain the mass extinction of independent nation-states in the Middle East and North Africa, or why extreme Islam became the only ideology capable of mobilising opposition. A former member of the Syrian government told me that just before the protests began in 2011, the Syrian Mukhabarat carried out a confidential survey of the political views held by young Syrians; it found that nationalism and socialism had ‘absolutely no support and only Islam had any appeal’. This is scarcely surprising: the socialist and nationalist authoritarian regimes that came to power in the late 1960s or early 1970s in Syria, Iraq, Libya and beyond had by then all collapsed or turned into police states with a narrow political base. The introduction of the free market and privatisation in countries where political power was monopolised by the ruling family and those around it was invariably a recipe for plundering the state and taking over profitable enterprises. In Syria, a great many people – from farmers to the urban poor – had once benefited from jobs in state enterprises and low prices. But by 2011 Syria was an expensive place to live. Millions of young men had no work and even members of the Mukhabarat in Damascus were trying to survive on salaries of less than $300 a month. When the civil war began it was the poor rural and suburban areas – places where the ruling Baath party once found its support – that became rebel strongholds.
Extreme Islam dominates the armed opposition in six of the seven wars being fought in countries between Pakistan and Nigeria and in two of the three insurgencies: the only exceptions are South Sudan, which doesn’t have a Muslim majority, and south-east Turkey, where the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is fighting the Turkish army. No doubt leftist and progressive movements were weakened by decades of repression, but this doesn’t quite explain their disappearance as a credible force for revolutionary change. It’s easy to see, though, what a powerful influence Saudi-backed Wahhabism has been on mainstream Sunni Islam, preparing the ground for the success of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria. When IS set up its own secondary schools in its newly declared caliphate, it simply brought in the courses taught in Saudi Arabian schools. It may have been in the interest of Bashar al-Assad that armed opposition to his rule should be dominated by IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, since they are international pariahs. Conspiracy theorists may argue that he was secretly hand-in-glove with the extremists or had colluded in their growth, but in practice extreme Islamists became the chief opposition to the regime in almost all these conflicts simply because they fight harder for their cause and have more people who are prepared to die for it. Senior US officials claim that IS is on the retreat but they exaggerate its decline: on 15 May, a government-held gas facility at Taji, north of Baghdad, was destroyed by IS fighters, with no fewer than seven suicide bombers deployed in a small-sized engagement. The same week more than 150 people were killed by IS bombings and shootings in and around Baghdad. In this and other wars communal identity is sectarian or ethnic. Winning independence within a united national state has never been more difficult.