The Skeptics

Why Arab States Have Failed

The recent killing of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, ISIS’s propaganda chief, has been touted as a great success by the countries trying to decimate ISIS capabilities. It was seen as such a great achievement that both the United States and Russia claimed that their air attacks were responsible for his death. The forces ranged against ISIS—the United States, Turkey, the Iraqi government and Shia militias, the Syrian Kurds, Iran, and Russia—have also been chipping away at the territory controlled by ISIS despite the rifts and rivalries among them. According to one estimate, ISIS has lost a quarter of the territory it controlled at the zenith of its success.

However, denigrating ISIS’s capabilities and recapturing lost territory in Syria and Iraq will not solve the problem of anarchy and violence in these countries. The problem underlying the emergence of violent, transnational jihadi forces is the lack of state capacity in these countries. In other words, it is the failure of states to provide adequate security to their populations and to regulate intra-societal interactions in a predictable manner that has provided the space for groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS to flourish in Iraq, Libya and Syria. These groups buy the loyalties of populations that they aspire to control by, among other things, invoking religious militancy. Furthermore, as the ISIS example demonstrates, they set up surrogate state structures to provide a degree of security to people willing to provide them with men and money, in exchange for protection.

The proliferation of sectarian and ethnic rivalries and conflicts in these states can also be traced to the same cause. For, when states fail to perform their primary task—namely, provide security to their populations—individuals and groups look for alternative protection rackets and security providers. Sectarian and ethnic entrepreneurs take over the functions of state agencies, and segments of the citizenry transfer loyalties and resources to them in exchange for protection and security. This also unleashes competition among sectarian and ethnic groups for the limited resources available, and eventually leads to the intensification of inter-sectarian and interethnic conflicts, if not all-out war.

The process of state failure in the Arab world, in its most recent phase, has its roots neither in the Quranic verses flaunted by the jihadis to justify violence nor in the 1,400-year-old history of the divide between the Sunni and Shia, which sectarian entrepreneurs use to justify antagonism toward the “other.” It owes its origins to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was accompanied by a deliberate program aimed at destroying both military and civilian organs of the state, a project euphemistically called de-Baathification. The American invasion by decimating the Iraqi state also let loose forces of radicalism, extremism, jihadism—all interchangeable terms in the current political vocabulary, which are now blamed for the chaos and mayhem in the Middle East. It did so by creating a huge political vacuum into which extremist forces, some of them on the run from Afghanistan, moved in. Thus was created Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which after his death mutated into ISIS.

The vacuum created by the destruction of the Iraqi state was simultaneously filled by rival sectarian groups, and led to the intensification of Shia-Sunni conflict that had lain dormant for decades, if not centuries. The problem was exacerbated by the failure of the post-invasion Iraqi governments to act as neutral arbiters among rival sectarian groups, since these governments were mostly led by Shia sectarian entrepreneurs themselves. Consequently, most Sunnis completely lost faith in the state’s capacity to provide them protection. This spawned not only Sunni tribal militias, but also gave a new lease of life to the remnants of the discredited Baath party. More importantly, it led to the transfer of Sunni support to radical groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, and eventually to its successor ISIS.

Similar patterns became visible in Libya with the fall of the Qaddafi regime, and in Syria with the Assad regime’s loss of control over much of the country. In both cases, as in Iraq, foreign intervention was responsible to a significant degree for state collapse. In the case of Libya, NATO acted as the air arm of the anti-Qaddafi forces, providing the latter critical support that enabled it to overthrow the old regime and begin Libya’s downward spiral into anarchy. It is highly unlikely that Qaddafi would have been overthrown without NATO’s open support for the forces opposed to him. This was confirmed by no less a person than by then U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who, when informed of Qaddafi’s death, famously declared, “We came, we saw, he died.”