Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- If our government was surprised this week, when 12,000 troops of the Sunni extremist movement suddenly swept down from the north of Iraq and knocked over cities as big as Mosul as though they were bowling pins, it should certainly not have been.

Yes, it was a shock. When you wake up Monday or Tuesday and see the newspaper headlines bannering "Insurgents March on Baghdad" or "Iraqi Army Take Off Uniforms and Fade Away," you wonder if there's an international 911. But ...

It seems like only yesterday that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were assuring us that "taking Baghdad" would need a mere six months. After we swept away the flowers the grateful Iraqis were pelting us with, their oil wealth would pay for a brief occupation and the "new democratic Iraq." Only then would we give Afghanistan our full attention.

But there is good reason to believe, were you cursed with a skeptical turn of mind, that had we not turned north to Baghdad instead of south to Kabul, that we could have settled our scores with al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan relatively quickly.

In a recent magazine piece, the outstanding New Yorker correspondent Dexter Filkins wrote of how sad it was those first days in Afghanistan when American troops arrived -- and then were reassigned, because of Cheney and Rumsfeld's ego involvement in the wars, to take Iraq. Filkins was convinced that Afghanistan, at that point, could have been won quickly.

Of course, most of the Yankee troops instead got stuck in the swamp of Mesopotamian politics. Afghanistan slipped further away from the center of concern and into Washington's background, until President Obama evacuated all American troops from Iraq two years ago. But by that time, the moment when al-Qaida in Afghanistan could have been identified and destroyed had passed.

So, here we are, 13 years after the horrible jihadi attacks of 9/11 on New York's Twin Towers, and (1) the Iraqi government and army are showing every indication of being overthrown by a post-al-Qaida group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS; (2) any denouement in Afghanistan, on the other hand, looks more and more dangerous and unlikely to be anything other than more of the Iraqi experience; and (3) since ISIS moves across the borders of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Jordan, we may be seeing the first cross-border movement that could result in an Islamic state or, in ancient terms, Caliphate.

In their new e-book "Iraq in Crisis," Sam Khazai and Anthony H. Cordesman, two of the truly superior analysts of these times, write: "ISIS' seizure of Mosul is a major threat to Middle East stability that extends far beyond Iraq. The fall of Mosul highlights the threat posed by Sunni Islamist extremists with past ties to al-Qaida, and the possibility of such groups carving out an extremist enclave in parts of Iraq and Syria. These developments reduce the hope of a moderate rebel force emerging in Syria ..."

The authors also point out the noted corruption and incapacity of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a major reason why the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are taking off their uniforms and fleeing in civilian clothes.

"Maliki's broader corruption and failure to govern has led institutions like the World Bank and U.N. to rank his government as bad as or worse than that of Saddam Hussein. The World Bank ranks Iraq 178th in the world in government accountability, 201st in political stability and violence, 182nd in government effectiveness and 205th in the quality of rule of law," they say.

In short, the "new democracy" of Iraq has all the qualities of an emerging civil war.

The American invasion and occupation there has, rather than create a workable, institutionalized modern state, provided the atmosphere for a more radical post-al-Qaida state.

The most terrible possible outcome would be a falling of the borders of the states now involved in the insurgencies -- Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, even Saudi Arabia -- and a restoration of the Middle Ages' all-Islamic caliphate ruled by a caliph and the Islamic faith. That no longer seems impossible.

Moreover, the new leader of ISIS and its radical Islamist fighters, the mysterious Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is believed to have arisen to power in Iraq as a consequence of resentment of the American occupation. He is said to believe in a "transnational ideology" in a new Islamic state in which he would be the emir. He claims to be a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, which would help enormously in his ambitions.

The White House and Pentagon are struggling with the question of what, if anything, to do? The president has promised new weaponry to al-Maliki, but whether the Iraqi troops could use them is highly questionable.

Meanwhile, things did not turn out the way they were supposed to. Funny, how so seldom they actually do.

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)

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