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Some very welcome news: JM Berger & Jessica Stern

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- forthcoming book announced ]
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JM Berger at Intelwire frames it like this:

ISIS: THE STATE OF TERROR

Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger co-author the forthcoming book, “ISIS: The State of Terror,” from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book, which will debut in early 2015, will examine the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, how it is transforming the nature of extremist movements, and how we should evaluate the threat it presents.

Jessica Stern is a Harvard lecturer on terrorism and the author of the seminal text Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. J.M. Berger is author of the definitive book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy, and editor of Intelwire.com.

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JM also tweeted:

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For another angle on Berger & Stern’s thinking, see their recent joint contribution to a round table at Politico:

A counterterrorism mission—and then some.
By J.M. Berger and Jessica Stern

When the Obama administration sends mixed messages about whether its campaign against the Islamic State insurgent group is war or counterterrorism, there is a reason, if not a good one. As explained by President Obama last week, the United States plans to employ counterterrorism tactics against a standing army currently preoccupied with waging war.

In many ways, our confrontation with the Islamic State is the culmination of 13 years of degraded definitions. Our enemies have evolved considerably since Sept. 11, 2001, and none more than ISIL, which has shed both the name and the sympathies of al Qaeda. The Islamic State excels at communication, and it has succeeded in establishing itself as a uniquely visible avatar of evil that demands a response. But on 9/11, we began a “war on terrorism” that has proven every bit as expansive and ambiguous as the phrase itself implies. It is a symptom of our broken political system that we require the frame of terrorism and the tone of apocalyptic crisis to take even limited action as a government.

Ultimately, it’s hard to escape the feeling that our policies still come from the gut, rather than the head. And ISIL knows exactly how to deliver a punch to the gut, as evidenced by its gruesome hostage beheadings and countless other atrocities. Its brutality and open taunts represent an invitation to war, and many sober strategists now speak of “destroying” the organization.

Bin Laden once said, “All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there.” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of ISIL, may be counting on just that response, and for the same reason—to draw the United States into a war of supreme costs, political, economic and human.

A limited counterterrorism campaign may insulate us from those costs, but it is not likely to be sufficient to accomplish the goals laid out by the president. ISIL is a different enemy from al Qaeda. It has not earned statehood, but it is an army and a culture, and more than a traditional terrorist organization. Limited measures are unlikely to destroy it and might not be enough to end its genocidal ambitions. Our stated goals do not match our intended methods. Something has to give — and it’s probably the goals.

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I reviewed JM’s previous book for Zenpundit, and mentioned Jessica Stern‘s work, which I greatly admire, in my post here, Book Review: JM Berger’s Jihad Joe. Their upcoming collaboration promises us an insightful, foundational, and must-readable analysis — richly nuanced, clearly presented, and avoiding the pitfalls of panicky sensationalism to which so much current reportage is prone.

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Obama rules on Islam, China rules on Reincarnation

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Obama's speech viewed in the light of Beijing Buddhism ]
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Compare and contrast, saith the improbable schoolmaster, this discussion:

with this one:

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But then there’s always force majeure:

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Is that really how it works?

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David, Goliath, and Art Spiegelman

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- contrasting perspectives, asymmetric warfare, and a bible story ]
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Art Spiegelman, the creator of the acclaimed graphic treatment of the Holocaust, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, has now posted a visual DoubleQuote of his own, along with a comment on Israel:

Spiegelman Goliath David

From today’s Jewish Daily Forward article, Art Spiegelman Breaks His Silence on Israel:

Captioned “Perspective in Gaza (The David and Goliath Illusion),” the Biblical-style art image consists of two panels. On the left is a traditional rendering of David facing Goliath. The right-hand panel presents a shrunken Goliath brought closer to the foreground. Using the tricks of size and perspective to make what is surely not an original political point, it’s a clever play on Spiegelman’s life’s work as an illustrator.

Spiegelman’s own comment, accompanying the image on his FaceBook page, reads:

I’ve spent a lifetime trying to NOT think about Israel—deciding it has nothin more to do with me, a diasporist, than the rest of the World’s Bad News on Parade. Israel is like some badly battered child with PTSD who has grown up to batter others.

That’s Spiegelman: I’m not in the business of psychologizing nations, so I won’t comment one way or the other.

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In Koan 1 — Bibi, Walt, and the concept of buffer zones, I asked:

Is Israel best seen as a Goliath towering over the Palestinians, or as a David caught between a swathe of Islamic states and the deep blue Mediterranean sea?

I see some truth in both views, which is why I call the Israeli / Palestinian question a koan.

A while earlier, in Numbers by the numbers: two, I wrote:

The second is that within the asymmetries, it is not uncommon to find a reversal of polarities by which the lesser outsmarts and defeats the greater force. I’m thinking here of David and Goliath as the archetypal version, and of Nigel Howard, in Confrontation Analysis: how to win operations other than war, writing:

the problem of defense in the modern world is the paradoxical one of finding ways for the strong to defeat the weak.

A different aspect of asymmetry emerges when one can think of Israel as both the powerful high-tech occupier of a poorly-equipped and stateless mass of Palestinians, and a tiny emergent Jewish democracy surrounded on all sides (except the sea) by Arab and or Muslim once and future foes… a Goliath seen one way, a David the other…

What’s intriguing here is that in some ways everybody wants to be David, right?

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In an ideal world..

.. but that’s not the world we live in, is it?

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Dabiq issue 3 part 1- Hijrah

Friday, September 5th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a pilgrimage with no return -- IS as the victorious group, the saved sect, the strangers ]
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dabiq 3

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Hijrah is emigration for religious purposes, pilgrimage on a one-way ticket, and the archetypal Hijrah, that which was made by the Prophet and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, gives the Islamic calendar its starting date. The Islamic State has dedicated the third issue of Dabiq to the topic of hijrah, viewed in the shade of the Prophet’s hijrah as the emigration of Muslims from around the world to participate among the forces of the “caliphate” in the final jihad:

Contemplate – may Allah have mercy upon you – the states that existed throughout history, both the Muslim states and the mushrik states. Were any of them established by the emigration of poor strangers from the East and the West, who then gathered in an alien land of war and pledged allegiance to an “unknown” man, in spite of the political, economic, military, media, and intelligence war waged by the nations of the world against their religion, their state, and their hijrah? And in spite of the fact that they did not have any common “nationality,” ethnicity, language, or worldly interests, nor did they have any prior acquaintance!

This phenomenon is something that has never occurred in human history, except in the case of the Islamic State! And nothing like it will ever occur thereafter except in relation to it; and Allah knows best.

and:

But if you were to go to the frontlines of ar-Raqqah, al-Barakah, al-Khayr, Halab, etc., you would find the soldiers and the commanders to be of different colors, languages, and lands: the Najdi, the Jordanian, the Tunisian, the Egyptian, the Somali, the Turk, the Albanian, the Chechen, the Indonesian, the Russian, the European, the American and so on. They left their families and their lands to renew the state of the muwahhidin in Sham, and they had never known each other until they arrived in Sham!

Having stressed the uniqueness of the Islamic State in this way, the writer then makes it clear that this unique event is happening precisely because we are in the tun-up to the final battle:

I have no doubt that this state, which has gathered the bulk of the muhajirin [ie: those who have made hijrah] in Sham and has become the largest collection of muhajirin in the world, is a marvel of history that has only come about to pave the way for al-Malhamah al-Kubra (the grand battle prior to the Hour). And Allah knows best.

and:

And what a tremendous favor it is from Allah to guide one to the Islamic State and grant him companionship with its muhajirin, those who plunge into the malahim (the great battles prior to the Hour)!

Not surprisingly, therefore, significance is given to the location of the Islamic State in Greater Sham. A major section is headed:

Sham is the Land of Malahim

and in it, we read:

Then, these nuzza’ gathered in Sham, the land of malahim and the land of al-Malhamah al-Kubra. Allah’s Messenger (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) has informed of battles that will occur in places within Sham and its vicinity, such as al-Ghutah, Damascus, Dabiq (or al-A’maq), the Euphrates River, and Constantinople (which is near Sham), as well as Baytul-Maqdis (Jerusalem), the gate of Lod, Lake Tiberius, the Jordan River, Mount Sinai, and so on.

The immediately following sentence, as Tim Furnish pointed out, contains the first explicit reference to the Mahdi in an issue of Dabiq:

And he (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) linked this blessed land with many of the events related to al-Masih, al-Mahdi, and the Dajjal.

The following hadith detailing the site of the final battle — compare Har Megiddo in Christian scripture — is then quoted:

Abud-Darda’ (radiyallAhu ‘anh) said that Allah’s Messenger (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “Indeed the camp of the Muslims on the day of al-Malhamah al-Kubra will be in al-Ghutah, next to a city called Damascus, one of the best cities of Sham” [sahih – reported by Imam Ahmad, Abu Dawud, and al-Hakim].

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The group of foreigners from around the world coming to al-Sham is also described as “strangers” — a term with its own reference both to the earliest companions and to the latest among fighters in the final battle:

Ibn Mas’ud (radiyallahu ‘anh) said that the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “Verily Islam began as something strange, and it will return to being something strange as it first began, so glad tidings to the strangers.” Someone asked, “Who are the strangers?” He said, “Those who break off from their tribes” [reported by Imam Ahmad, ad-Darimi, and Ibn Majah, with a sahih isnad].

The earliest Muslims were strange because they were few among their fellow-tribespeople of Mecca, the latest because they are a comparatively small vanguard — favorite term of bin Laden’s — among all those hundreds of millions who today call themselves Muslims — but also and specifically because they come from “strange” lands. There’s even an echo of I Peter 2.9 in the New Testament here:

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light..

Think also of John 15,16:

Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.

And indeed of Israel in the Torah, eg D’varim / Deuteronomy 14.2:

For thou art a holy people unto HaShem thy G-d, and HaShem hath chosen thee to be His own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth.

In all of these verses, the sense of “chosenness” is almost palpable: IS is strumming an ancient and powerful chord here.

But what does it mean, in a specifically Islamic and apocalyptic context, to be “strange” and “chosen” in this way? Another paragraph from Dabiq gives us further insight:

Shaykh Hamid at-Tuwayjiri (rahimahullah), in commenting on some of the narrations about the tribulations and battles in Sham, said, “In these narrations is evidence that the bulk of at-Ta’ifatul-Mansurah (the victorious group) will be in Sham near the end of times, because the Khilafah will be there. They will continue to be there clearly upon the truth until ..

I’ll leave the “until” for later, and simply report some ahadith here that concern the “victorious group” and the “saved sect”:

It was reported from ‘Awf ibn Maalik who said: the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said:

“The Jews were divided into seventy-one sects, one of which is in Paradise and seventy are in the Fire. The Christians were divided into seventy-two sects, seventy-one of which are in the Fire and one is in Paradise. By the One in Whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, my Ummah will be divided into seventy-three sects, one of which will be in Paradise and seventy-two will be in the Fire.” It was said, O Messenger of Allaah, who are they? He said, “Al-Jamaa’ah.” [Sunan Ibn Maajah, no. 3982]

That’s one of numerous variants on the same message. And another hadith connects the “victorious group” specifically with the “saved sect” thus:

They are in this world “The Victorious Group” [at-Taa'ifah al-Mansoorah] and in the hereafter “The Saved Sect”. [al-Firqah an-Naajiyyah]

Furthermore, Muhammad ibn al-Uthaymin, in his Methodology (Minhaaj) of Ahlus-Sunnah wa-l-Jamaa’ah makes the connection with the end times explicit:

There will always be a group of my Ummah victorious upon the truth, until the last of them fight against Ad-Dajjal.

Abu Dawud 3:11, cited in Tafsir Ibn Kathir: (abridged) Vol 9 p.88

The foreign fighters, then, will be strangers because foreigners, strange because they will be few compared to the masses of the indifferent and quiescent, select, victorious, saved, “on the truth” — they will be a “vanguard” and also a “remnant” — participating on the field of battle during the battles leading up to the final great Battle of the End Times.

Again, this is a powerful chord to strike in the hearts of the young, the uncritical — those who got in search of jihad in al-Sham, buying copies of Islam for Dummies before they leave..

So those who left their tribes – the best of Allah’s slaves – rallied together with an imam and a jama’ah upon the path of Ibrahim. They gathered together in the land of malahim shortly before the occurrence of al-Malhamah al-Kubra, announced their enmity and hatred for the cross worshippers, the apostates, their crosses, their borders, and their ballotboxes, and pledged allegiance to the Khilafah, promising to die defending it.

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Hold on, there are two more matters in this first take on Dabiq issue 3 that I’d like to mention, one having to do with faith and the unseen, the other with something not unlike current dispensationalist notions of the Rapture.

As to faith, Dabiq notes:

Allah has praised the believers for their belief in the unseen, as He said, {They believe in the unseen} [Al-Baqarah: 3]. The companions of the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) believed in both what they witnessed and what they could not see, for they believed in Allah and the Day of Judgment without seeing either of them, and they believed in the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) having seen and witnessed him. The revelation would descend [upon him] in their company, and they would see the signs and witness the miracles.

Taking up the comparative mode again, there are echoes here of Hebrews 11.1:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

and John 20.29:

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

It’s my understanding that Muhammad would have been acquainted with Nestorian Christian monks, one of whom predicted his prophethood. Just how their “one person, two natures” theology and / or scriptures may have influenced him (and his teachings on the crucifixion in particular) I don’t know, but would certainly be interested to learn…

So.. Dabiq continues with more in this same line of ahadith, once again tying in the last days of the victorious group with the first days of the Companions and earliest generations of Islam:

The last part of this ummah believes in what the first part of the ummah believed in of the unseen, and believes in what the first part of the ummah believed in as eyewitnesses. This latter belief is their belief in the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), for they do not see the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), and because of that they’ve become the most wondrous people in faith, as reported [in the hadith] of Ibn ‘Abbas (radiyallahu ‘anhuma) that Allah’s Messenger (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, ‘The most wondrous people in faith are a people who come after me and believe in me without having seen me, and they attest to my truthfulness without having seen me. So they are my brothers’ [reported by Imam Ahmad]” [Ma’ani al-Akhbar].

Once again, powerful and ancient memes are given a new and powerful interpretation and application.

The second point has to do with a divine force that lifts the righteous above the fray, so that only those who have earned some measure of divine wrath remain on earth — shades of the Rapture as described in the Left Behind series!

As you may recall, up above, I quoted:

They will continue to be there clearly upon the truth until ..

and said I would pick up the sentence later. The whole sentence reads:

They will continue to be there clearly upon the truth until Allah sends the pleasant breeze and it takes the soul of every person who has faith in his heart, as preceded in the sahih narrations that the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, ‘Until the command of Allah comes while they are upon that [condition]’” [Ithaful-Jama’ah].

This is certainly another strong apocalyptic meme — the physical and / or metaphysical safeguarding of the faithful few in a time of wrath and destruction. And Dabiq hammers it home repeatedly:

In another narration, “So it [the breeze] grasps them under their armpits, taking the soul of every believer and every Muslim. And there will remain the worst of the people, having intercourse as donkeys do [in front of other people as they watch]. So it is upon them that the Hour will be established” [Sahih Muslim].

And in another narration, “Allah will send a cold breeze from the direction of Sham, so no one will remain on the face of the earth with so much as the weight of a mustard seed of goodness or faith in his heart except that it takes him. Even if one of you were to enter into the center of a mountain, the breeze would enter into it, until it takes him. Then there will remain the worst of the people, who have the agility of birds (in their haste to commit evil and satisfy their lusts) and the wits of vicious, predatory animals (in their hostility and oppression of one another). They do not know any good, nor do they denounce any evil” [Sahih Muslim].

This pleasant breeze takes the souls of the believers everywhere on the earth: al-Hijaz, Iraq, Yemen, Sham, and so on. It will be sent forth a number of years after the demise of the Dajjal and the passing away of the Masih ‘Isa (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).

Shaykhul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah (rahimahullah) said, “Islam in the end of times will be more manifest in Sham. [ .. ] So the best of the people on the earth in the end of times will be those who keep to the land of Ibrahim’s hijrah, which is Sham” [Majmu’ul-Fatawa].

I’m not as impressed as others by the supposed “slickness” of the magazine, but the argumentation as illustrated here deserves careful consideration and appropriate rebuttal from qualified scholars.

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That concludes page 10 of this 42 page magazine. Whether I’ll post more on the remaining pages remains to be seen. And no doubt there are strands that I have missed here, which Tim Furnish may address.

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What to do About ISIS? Constructing Strategy, Weighing Options

Friday, August 29th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

ISIS or the Islamic StateCaliphate” is the focus  of a great deal of discussion and demands for action from the United Statesand also inactionfrom many quarters.

What is to be done?

That is a famous question.  In matters of geopolitics and strategy, it is more fitting to begin with “Should something be done?”. We need to define the problem before rushing toward solutions. What is ISIS/ISIL/IS  and does it threaten the United States and American interests?:

An evolving offshoot of al Qaida, ISIS is a more radically takfiri, more ambitious and more impatient  jihadi/irhabi offspring than it’s parent. The so-called Islamic State holds sway over considerable Sunni Arab territory in both Syria and Iraq with a makeshift capital at Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Theologically, ISIS is the most extreme Islamist movement to arise since the GIA near the tail end of their 1990′s insurgency in Algeria, regarding the Shia and less radical Sunnis as apostates, deserving of death.  They have carried out genocidal massacres of Yazidis and Shia prisoners of war, tortured and mutilated prisoners and executed noncombatants and hostages like reporter James Foley. Ominously, ISIS may also be an apocalyptic movement, not merely a radical takfiri one, making it far less risk averse, even brazen, in its offensive operations and more intransigently fanatical on defense.

ISIS has been popularly described as an unholy mixture of “al Qaida, the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis”  and also as a terrorist army” by General David Petraeus. While it is true that their ranks probably contain the cream of the world’s Salafi terrorist-jihadi current, terrorism in the form of assassinations and suicide bombings has only been adjunctive to insurgent tactics and conventional combined arms operations. ISIS has shown impressive small unit discipline, the capacity to engage in maneuver warfare with heavy arms against the Kurds, Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army and rival Syrian rebel groups and even special operations skills. ISIS has moved aggressively on the physical, mental and moral levels of war to amass territory for their “caliphate” and consolidate their power and continues to advance, despite being rebuffed from Irbil by the Kurds and US airpower. ISIS is heavily armed with large quantities of advanced modern American and Russian weapons captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armies and is equally well funded, possessing in addition to significant revenue flows, the control of numerous dams and oilfields. Finally, in addition to their manifold war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, ISIS has also made broad, if vague, threats to strike New York, Chicago and Americans generally.

ISIS in a sense is the dream of jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri come to life and gone from strength to strength. If they do not have al-Suri in their ranks, they have his playbook and do not seem to shrink from employing stratagems and speed to achieve surprise.

Having assessed their capabilities, I think it is reasonable to conclude that ISIS is a threat to American interests because they are destabilizing the region, threatening the security of American allies and are regularly causing a grave humanitarian crisis far beyond the normal exigencies of war. It is less clear that they are a direct threat to the security of United States and to the extent that ISIS terrorism is a threat, it is a  modest one,  though greater to Americans and US facilities overseas. The caveat is that the strength and capabilities of ISIS have already grown faster and qualitatively improved more than any other non-state actor in the last forty years and are on a trajectory of further growth. ISIS is unlikely to be better disposed toward American interests if it grows stronger. CJCS General Dempsey, correctly attempted to convey all of these nuances in his remarks to reporters without overstepping his role into advocating a policy to shape our strategy, which is the responsibility of his civilian superiors.

This brings us to the cardinal weakness in post-Cold War American statesmen – an unwillingness to do the intellectual heavy lifting that connects policy and strategy by making the choice to articulate a realistic vision of political ends that are the desired outcome of a decisive use of military force.  The result of this aversion (which is bipartisan – I am not picking on the Obama administration here) is that a strategy is not formulated, much less executed and the military then attempts to remediate the strategic gap with the sheer awesomeness of its operational art. That does not usually work too well, at least on land, because contemporary American civilian and military leaders also do not like to inflict the kind of horrific mass casualties on the enemy that, even in the absence of a real strategy might still cripple through sheer attrition  the enemy’s will or capacity to fight.  The American elite today, in contrast to the generation of FDR, Eisenhower and Truman, have no stomach for Dresden – but defeating Nazis sometimes requires not just a Dresden, but many of them and worse.

However, let’s assume the best, that the Obama administration will, having learned from Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, construct a strategy to use force to accomplish victory – gaining coherent, specific and realistic political objectives. The President, having refreshingly admitted that there is no strategy at present, has freed up his subordinates to create one rather than digging in and defending the current policy that lacks one. Since the administration and nearly everyone else on Earth agrees that ISIS , in addition to being moral monsters, is a threat to at least some degree. the questions then become:

  • How much of a threat is ISIS to American interests or security?
  • What do we want the political end state to be in the Mideast if/when the threat of ISIS is contained, diminished or destroyed?
  • What is it worth to us to accomplish this outcome in light of our other, competing, American interests, in the region and globally?

Once those important questions are answered, the military leadership will have the proper policy guidance to give the administration the best possible advice on how military force could secure their aims or be used in concert with other elements of national power civilian leaders might wish to employ, such as diplomacy, economic coercion or covert operations. Moving forward without answering these questions is an exercise in flailing about, hoping that using sufficient force opportunistically will cause good geopolitical things to happen.

I will not venture to say how or if administration officials will answer such questions, but there are some broad military options the Pentagon might offer to further a strategy to contend with ISIS. Some suggested possibilities and comments:

These options are not all mutually exclusive and in practice some would blend into others. No option is perfect, cost free or without trade-offs. Attempting to find the strategy with no risks and no hard choices is a policy to engage primarily in ineffectual military gesticulations insufficient to actually change the status quo in Iraq and Syria ( and the eternal default strategy of domestic political consultants and career bureaucrats playing at foreign policy).

DO NOTHING:

Doing nothing, or non-intervention is vastly underrated as a strategy because it is passive. However, most of the greatly feared, worst-case scenarios will fail to materialize as predicted because the actors about whom we harbor grave suspicions usually become bogged down by their own friction, miscalculations, internal politics and chance. This is why calling every foreign menace, great and small, the next “Hitler” has lost much of its charge. Run of the mill tyrants and corrupt dictators simply are not Adolf Hitler and their crappy, semi-developed, countries are not to be equated with turning the industrial heart of Europe into a war machine. Avoiding a needless war of choice is usually the smarter play from an economic and humanitarian standpoint.  The drawback to this option is that every once in a while, the menace really is another Hitler, a Bolshevik Revolution or a less than existential threat that nevertheless, is politically intolerable for numerous good reasons.  ISIS barbarism probably falls into the latter category and doing absolutely nothing becomes risky in the face of a fast-rising aggressor and probably politically untenable at home.

CONTAINMENT:

Containing a threat with a combination of coercion, non-military forms of pressure and  limited uses of armed force short of all-out warfare is designed to prevent further expansion until the adversary loses the will or capacity to remain a threat. This defensive posture was the successful American grand strategy of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and is frequently invoked as a less costly alternative for proposed interventions. Admittedly, the idea of keeping Islamist radicals bottled up in a “Sunnistan” composed of the Syrian desert and northern Iraqi towns until they starve or are overthrown and murdered by locals has a certain charm.

Unfortunately, this option is not likely to work because the underlying analogy is extremely poor.  Containment worked in part because Soviet insistence on maintaining the USSR as a totalitarian “closed system” made them exceptionally vulnerable to Containment’s pressure which allowed them no lasting way to resolve their internal economic and political contradictions. ISIS is not the Soviets and their Caliphate is not a closed system, or even yet, a durable state.  Their jihadi cadres can melt away across borders and new recruits can make their way in, as can contraband, money and information. Physically containing ISIS would do nothing toward discrediting their ideas; more likely, their continued existence in the face of powerful Western and Arab state opposition would validate them.  In any event, sealing off ISIS would require the unstinting, sustained, cooperation of  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states, Turkey, the Assad regime, the Kurds and a large deployment of American troops. This is probably not doable except on a very short term basis as a prelude to a “final offensive” like the one that crushed the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

PROXY WARFARE:

Enlisting foreign local allies, be they loyalist paramilitaries or state military regulars of various countries offers numerous advantages as well as drawbacks. It provides boots on the ground that we can’t afford, while irregulars like Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militiamen would be highly motivated to fight. The Kurds are also (relatively speaking) well disciplined and trained compared to building units by throwing together ragtag tribesmen and down on their luck Iraqi townsmen looking for a paycheck. Adding overwhelming American airpower to the mix would greatly improve the fighting power of irregular light infantry, as was demonstrated recently when Kurdish and Iraqi forces repeled ISIS from Iraq’s largest dam. Proxy warfare offers a fairly decent chance to roll back ISIS but the downside is that proxies also have their own agendas and would range from “mostly but not entirely reliable” (Kurds) to “freebooting death squads” (Shia militias). As in Afghanistan, we would soon find our proxies were also in the pay of Iran and Saudi Arabia and attempting to play one patron off against the other. Recognizing Kurdish independence would most likely be part of the deal (not a bad thing in my view) which would require repudiating a decade of failed nation-building policy in Iraq ( also not a bad thing) and accepting partition.

LIMITED WARFARE: 

Limited warfare is often disdained because it can seldom produce a resounding victory but it is useful in playing to strengths (ex. relying on a robust air campaign) while  limiting exposure to risks and costs.  Overwhelming firepower can be applied selectively to prevent an adversary’s victory and impose punishing costs, eating up their men and material. Limited warfare works best in conjunction with simple and limited political goals and military objectives and poorly with grandiose visions ( like turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy and haven of women’ rights). Limited warfare on land, particular grinding counterinsurgency wars that go on for years on end with no clear stopping point, are very difficult for democracies to sustain politically. The electorate grows weary and the troops come home, often short of a permanent political settlement. The likely preference of the administration, if it chose this option, would be an air campaign coupled with drones, CIA covert action and SOF, working in conjunction with local allies.

MAJOR WARFARE:

For existential threats, go heavy or go home. This is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine in pursuit of a decisive battle that does not merely defeat but crushes the enemy and compels him to submit to our will.  It would be extraordinarily expensive in blood, treasure and opportunity costs as the United states military is ill-prepared to re-deploy the bulk of the Army and Marine Corps to Iraq, supported by carrier groups in the Gulf. It is highly questionable that ISIS, whose fighters number somewhere between 10,000 – 20,000 would stand up and try to fight such an mammoth expedition head-on. They would retreat to Syria and dare us to invade that country also or go underground. It is also dubious that American leaders have the kind of iron-hearted will to fight what Gary Anderson accurately describes as “a combined arms campaign of extermination“. ISIS by contrast, demonstrates daily that it has no such scruples restraining them.

GRAND COALITION:

This differs from the previous option only in that it would bring all or most of the aforementioned armed enemies of ISIS together to corner and annihilate the menace once and for all. It makes eminent strategic sense but the ability to bring together so many incompatible parties and weld them into a coordinated military campaign requires political-diplomatic wizardry on the order of genius to pull off. It also requires a much greater sense of fear of ISIS than even their ghoulish brutality has generated so far to bring together Saudi and Shia, Turk and Kurd, Alawite and Sunni rebel, American and Iranian, as military allies.

The Obama administration faces a difficult dilemma in pondering the problem presented by ISIS. I don’t envy them but their task will grow easier and a resultant strategy more likely successful if they are willing to make ruthless choices in pursuit of bottom-line, clearly-defined American interests.

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