Peerless on-the-ground reporting lent weight to Patrick Cockburn’s book last year The Rise of Islamic State. Chaos and Caliphate (OR Books, £17, ebook £10), a collection of the journalist’s diaries, is the raw material of one of the sharpest commentators on the global jihadi threat.
The diaries go back to 2001. What can this long-ish view tell us that wasn’t apparent in day to day despatches?
It was not apparent until quite recently that the nine wars now going on between north Pakistan and north west Nigeria – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, south west Turkey, Yemen, Libya, South Sudan, north east Nigeria, Somalia – were part of a post-Cold War pattern in which states that had achieved independence and self-determination were destroyed or weakened by foreign intervention fuelling and exacerbating internal discontents. There is a mix of on-and-off imperial intervention, sectarian war between Shia and Sunni, conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, dictatorship and revolution.
Your golden rule for Iraq is “always forecast the worst possible outcome”. What do you make of Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s claim that Isis will be defeated within a year?
It is very unlikely that Isis will be defeated within a year. The Iraqi army is weak and all the opponents of Isis in Iraq and Syria are very dependent on US and Russian air power. The Kurds do not necessarily want to operate in non-Kurdish areas and they are wary of what will happen if Isis is defeated and foreign powers – notably the US – no longer needs them as an ally and they will be left to the mercy of Turkey. The Syrian army has captured Palmyra from Isis, but Saudis and Gulf monarchies do not want to see Assad win.
Do you support the view that recent military defeats of Isis in Syria and Iraq make it more likely to lash out with atrocities in Europe?
Probably, but I do not think “lash out” is the right word. Isis has always systematically used terrorist attacks on civilians as part of its menu of tactics. One can see this most clearly in Iraq where thousands have died in Isis atrocities, but it usually likes to show strength, defiance and spread fear to counter-balance battlefield losses. Keep in mind also that this is terrorism backed by the resources of a de facto state that has money, expertise and fanatical supporters.
In a 2008 interview you told us Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr was under-estimated by the US and a very cautious man. What do you make of his recent return to the Iraqi fray with a sit-in at the Green Zone?
Muqtada has learned a lot. His stance against a corrupt and dysfunctional government is widely popular. He has used the mass rallies – nobody else could get this number of people into the streets of Baghdad – but has not allowed focus on Green Zone to turn into looting as in 2003. It is hopeful – though early stages – to see potential changes in Iraq not coming from external or military action.
Should the UK commit ground troops to Libya?
No. Look at what has happened before in Iraq and Afghanistan and remember that foreign intervention is always in the interests of the intervening countries, whatever humanitarian motives they claim.
Is Hillary Clinton likely to pursue an enlightened foreign policy with regard to jihadism?
Not much sign of it. She was for invasion of Iraq in 2003, intervention in Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2013. These are very much the actions of the foreign policy establishment in Washington that hasn’t learned or forgotten anything for the last quarter century.