Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Moving Beyond Kindergarten-Level Thinking in War Against ISIL

Part and parcel of the inability to develop meaningful objectives or strategies in our so-called war on ISIL, which I've written about for the last couple of days, is our patent inability to actually think maturely about what some of us old farts still think of as "the real world."  Our response to the French attacks is a classic example of this. ISIS, we are assured by wise commentators in the press, wants to kill everyone. They are "nihilistic" (I can't count how many times I've read that word over the last few days). They kill for the sake of killing.

Um, no. They kill us to achieve strategic objectives. They target the civilians of countries who have been bombing them for months now. That doesn't make it right or even okay. But it does mean that we should be mature enough to reason out what is happening here. We, as countries, decided to go to war against ISIS. That entailed accepting a certain degree of risk of casualties. Bombing a would-be state for a year and then pretending to be surprised when they strike back is just silly.

Still, ISIS may have overreached by attacking Russia and France. (It even makes me wonder whether there is an ISIS central command directing all of this, or just a bunch of factions striking off in all directions, which seems rather more likely.) ISIS survives because of the strategic wedge between Russia and the West. Bombing all of us risks driving us together into a conventional campaign that ISIS cannot survive.

Which is fine and dandy. I won't lose sleep knowing that ISIS, as an organization and a would-be state, has essentially ceased to exist. If that can be achieved. But none of this has addressed the actual problems. And there is no apparent understanding of what the actual problems are, let alone how we might address them.

To wit, our stated goal of defeating ISIS is absurd. ISIS only exists in its present form because of a power vacuum in Syria and Iraq, which are failed states. It follows that if we want to eliminate not just ISIS but the threat of radical Islamist groups emerging within these territories and potentially menacing the West, we must foster states strong enough to put down local insurgencies before they become global problems.

Well that sounds easy enough. But we have no idea how to do that. If we did, we would have already done it in Iraq, and there would be no ISIS. ISIS isn't some new bunch who just rode over the hill. They were there, under other names, in Iraq, fighting the Americans, for years. The Americans eventually left. ISIS didn't. You can fault Obama for driving a stake into the heart of the weak Baghdad regime if you like, but truth be told, it was probably only a matter of time. The American army was the force that was nominally securing Iraq, and you can't realistically occupy a country forever on those terms.

The obvious way to do that in Syria, in contrast, is to support the Syrian regime. But that goes against the original Western war aim of removing the Syrian regime (oops!). Plus, the Syrian government is a client state of Russia and Iran, and a major ally of Hezbollah. Is that really who we want to be backing?

The Western response instead has been to funnel arms and aid to local militias and to the Kurds. In the short term this sounds brilliant: local forces who know the terrain and hate ISIS as much as we do! Of course, some of them also hate the central governments almost as much as ISIS does. The Kurds are not fighting ISIS to protect the Assad regime: they are fighting ISIS because it positions them to take and hold territory for an eventual independent Kurdistan. In short, our short-term goal of defeating ISIS is paid by the long-term price of further destabilizing states that have already failed.

And in the meantime, Western governments are dancing to the tunes of reactionary twits who think orphaned children are a security risk and can't even tell the difference between Sunni and Shia, much less between ISIL and al-Nusra.

Only one thing seems certain: without a much-needed injection of sound strategic reasoning, the West seems poised to lose ground in this conflict whether we destroy ISIS or not. I don't pretend to know the answers to the questions I ask here. In fact, the whole point is, I don't know the answers. If our governments don't know either, we're in trouble.


  1. I think ISIS globally (I use globally loosely, since they are not everywhere), is more like Anonymous than the CIA. They do not have a central command that lone wingnuts check in with, or are directed by. Destroying an organization like that depends upon not making it attractive as a central gathering point to oppose an overwhelming force which can only be fought with distributed resistance.

  2. This is an additional problem which I didn't really address, yes. We appear to have very little idea of the nature of the enemy here.

    Now "we" is a loose term there. Perhaps there is a better idea within some circles of government than there is in the public discussion. If so, however, they ave evidently not seen any need to educate the public.

    The fact that ISIS is attempting to form a state, complete with caliph, suggests some sort of central command structure. On the other hand, how much control does that structure in Iraq/Syria have over cells like the one in Paris (which, according to media reports, was actually based in Brussels?) One can imagine scenarios ranging from total control to zero control.