NORMAN — Afghanistan had an election a few weeks ago. Iraq had one Wednesday. But that is about all that these two countries, both invaded by the United States in the last decade, have in common right now. Afghanistan is moving forward just as rapidly as Iraq is moving backward. It is a telling contrast, and one that should inform the looming decision about a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014.
Iraq is being plunged deeper into the abyss of all-out civil war that it barely avoided in 2007 thanks to President George W. Bush’s troop “surge.” Today, violence is back up to 2008 levels as al-Qaida in Iraq, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has returned from its near-death experience.
ISIS once again controls much of Anbar province, and its fighters regularly set off car bombs that kill scores of innocent people across the Shiite Muslim heartland. ISIS fighters are drawing nearer to Baghdad itself, retaking areas they lost in 2007 and 2008. So perilous has the situation become that the government closed the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad, for fear that it would fall into insurgent hands.
Al-Qaida’s comeback has been enabled by the shortsighted policies of Iraq’s sectarian prime minister, Nouri Maliki, who is now unrestrained by a U.S. military presence. He has targeted senior Sunni Muslim politicians, including former Vice President Tariq Hashimi, for prosecution. He has fired on groups of Sunni demonstrators. And, worst of all, he has welcomed the Shiite militia groups Asaib Ahl Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, both supplied by Iran, who are fighting alongside the overmatched Iraqi security forces against Sunni militants. These militias are held responsible for massacres of Sunnis in towns such as Buhriz, north of Baghdad.
Iraq is now in the midst of a cycle of sectarian violence — with Sunnis murdering Shiites in retaliation for Shiite murders of Sunnis, and vice versa — that leads to the seventh circle of hell into which nations such as Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Syria have previously plunged. There is no obvious escape in sight because, by manipulating Iraq’s sectarian politics, Maliki has managed to solidify Shiite support, which will probably ensure his continuation in office for a third term even as the country collapses. (Only the quasi-independent Kurdish region remains peaceful.)