Books

Patrick Cockburn
The Age of Jihad

Patrick Cockburn is an Irishman and starts his book with the familiar, but here so appropriate, verse from Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …”

The Middle East didn’t just break open by itself, as Cockburn lays out in devastating detail in this compilation from his reports over two decades. The United States invasion and occupation of Iraq shattered its oppressive order, as well as destroying Iraq itself as a unified country. Killing, destruction and worse oppression have followed.

A veteran of decades in the region, writing for The Independent of London, Cockburn casts a deeply sceptical eye on Western notions that with the application of military force, the region’s nations can be set on a better course. 

The US and Britain embarked on regime change in Iraq with little understanding of the country’s complexity, and as we all know, no preparation for the occupation. In Libya and Syria, a fixation on removing the dictator and unrealistic hopes of a “moderate” opposition have impeded political settlements. 

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US spent billions creating new armies that bolted from a few fanatics with simple weapons and training. Many more billions disappeared from reconstruction budgets, thanks to what one Iraqi calls the “looters in suits”. Cockburn was among the first to spot Daesh forming out of the chaos.

If the Western powers hardly know their enemies, they are deeply naive about their friends. As well as propagating its fundamentalist Wahhabism across the Islamic world, with results we’re seeing in Jakarta, Saudi Arabia has pumped money into jihadist groups to further its fight against Shiite influence, while suppressing them at home. 

After Daesh seized Iraq’s city of Mosul in mid-2014, Sir Richard Dearlove, head of Britain’s MI6 from 1999-2004, said funding from private donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to which authorities may have turned a blind eye, played a central role in the Daesh surge in Iraq’s Sunni regions. “Such things simply do not happen spontaneously,” Dearlove said. Earlier, Hillary Clinton, as US secretary of state, had said the same thing about Saudi financial support for al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba, according to the WikiLeaks cables.

By keeping open its border to recruits joining Daesh one way and Daesh oil exports the other, Turkey also played a double game, supporting proxy wars by al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda offshoot) and Daesh against the Kurds and the Shiites (as represented by Bashar al-Assad), at least until Daesh suicide bombings reached into its own cities. Ankara could have brokered peace in Syria, Cockburn thinks, but miscalculated that Assad would be overthrown by the 2011 uprising. “When this failed to happen, Ankara gave its support to jihadi groups financed by the Gulf monarchies, which included al-Nusra and [Daesh].”

Then there’s the biggest friend of all. “This should be the real charge against Tony Blair’s government – not that it did not understand what was happening in Baghdad, but that it did not take on board the strange happenings in Washington,” Cockburn wrote in 2003 after the invasion. “There is nothing peculiar about Britain supporting the US come what may, since this has been a priority of British foreign policy for nearly a century. But it should have been realised much earlier in London that this US government is very different from, and more dangerous than, any of its predecessors.”

What now in the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump? This book was completed before the US election and before the rebuilt Iraqi army, with critical help from Kurdish and Shiite militias, US special forces and allied air strikes, launched its counterattack on Mosul. It remains to be seen if the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad can apply the lessons of previous misrule that led so many Sunnis to accept Daesh as the lesser evil.

In Syria, Cockburn sees several conflicts tangled together: a popular uprising against dictatorship, sectarian battles between the Sunni majority and Assad’s Alawite regime, the regional Shiite–Sunni struggle, and the reborn strategic competition of Russia and China versus the West, which is saving Assad.

Across the Arab world, the nationalist regimes that seized power half a century ago had turned into “decrepit family dynasties” by 2011 when an incident in Tunisia set off the Arab Spring. By then, regional leadership had shifted to the oil sheikhdoms. “It is one of the peculiarities of the Arab Spring that movements lauded in the West as progressive, secular and democratic very swiftly became dependent for money and later arms on the last theocratic absolute monarchies left on earth,” Cockburn says.

Cockburn is aware of the danger of appearing a “professional pessimist” or “professional Cassandra” but this would be a very gloomy canvas whoever painted it. There are some puzzles he leaves hanging. Why so little attention to Egypt? Why did Saudi Arabia and Turkey abandon the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi? Could Obama, whose 2009 speech in Cairo laid some of the tinder for the Arab Spring, have intervened to cool the confrontations that led to the return of even harsher army rule?

Israel’s thinking would have been interesting to include in the picture, too. Its silence on Syria, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s careful relationship with Vladimir Putin, suggest it was always happier with the devil it knew and managed to keep in its box.

Overall, though, Cockburn’s reportage stands up well, which is here selected but not amended or updated, he says, and avoids the “I told you so” trap. The “first draft of history” is not always wrong: sometimes it shows options that in retrospect seem closed but were still open. With one atrocity following another, we easily lose track and fail to understand why entire communities feel it’s a choice between “the suitcase or the coffin”. A century on from the Anglo-French carve-up of the Ottoman empire, Cockburn can see the regional map being withdrawn and communities separating, possibly with the same mass movements and massacres as the Partition of India.  JF

Verso, 448pp, $31.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 10, 2016 as "Patrick Cockburn, The Age of Jihad". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JF