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Of morale, angels and Spartans

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — how sky differs from heaven, and what that means for morale and jihad ]
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SPEC Badr & Spartans

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Okay, that Spartans / Battle of Badr DoubleQuote above is just a teaser, locating us in the general zone of morale..

What I’d really like to offer you here is another Badr-related DoubleQuote, of which the first part comes from Shadi Hamid, speaking about half way through the Charlie Rose show, A conversation about Islam and politics with Reza Aslan, Will McCants, Michael Hanna and Shadi Hamid, which aired on the 14th of this month (full video at the bottom of this post). He said:

We have to take religion seriously, but I worry sometimes, if we focus too much on religion we forget that there’s a political context. That if we want to understand the rise of Isis we can’t understand that without looking at the political vacuum that emerged in Syria. That didn’t happen by itself; there’s a series of policy decisions from the international community that helped contribute to the rise of ISIS.

So I guess the interesting question then is, How does religion interact with these political factors. So we have to bring those different variables into focus and I think we lose some of that, we lose that complexity if we’re just saying Islam is the problem. On the other hand, though .. these terrorists and extremists, they believe that what they’re doing, they’re going to be granted direct entry into Paradise, and that inspiration, motivation, is a very powerful thing that we shouldn’t underestimate. And ideology in this sense is a sort of force multiplier on the battlefield.

All of that seems relevant to me, but it’s his next few phrases I want to DoubleQuote (upper panel, below):

SPEC DQ Shadi Hamid & Quran

And whereas Hamid’s explanation, as befits a Brookings Fellow refers to a belief about Paradise, the Qur’an, as befits sacred scripture, treats the world as though it is thronged not with beliefs but with angels..

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The comparison and contrast between our conntemporary, post-Enlightenment view of “the sky” (in which birds, planes, helicopters, missiles and drones may be found, but no angels, jinn, apsarases or faeries) and that of the world’s various scriptural and mythological “heavens” (in which helicopters and parachutes are generally absent, though angels, demons, gandharvas, apsarases and the rest abound) is one that has long fascinated me — but the two are usually kept distinct. Albrecht Durer will show you angels and demons just above the rural countryside in “heaven” — but you won’t find them in military aviations journals..

It is against that background that I find this piece of artwork about the Ghazwa e-Hind so interesting — it appears to envision both “sky” with its various planes and parachutist (most of the planes a little dated, alas), and “heaven” with its celestial cavalry, occupying the same visual space:

Great Ghazwa Sky meets Heaven

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All this leads me to the question — which would seem to become ever more urgent as we move from textual to visually enhanced modes of communication —

How does one graphically depict morale or esprit de corps?

That’s my question for the day.

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Here, for those who would like to view it in its entirety, is the Charlie Rose show from which Shadi Hamid’s quote above was taken:

Smiley on defeating ideologues

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — with application to today’s tragic massacre in Paris, to IS, AQ, Breivik, whoever ]
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fanatic secret doubt Tinker Tailor
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That’s George Smiley describing Karla‘s fatal flaw, in the crucial scene from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the film version with Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

We are not so very different, you and I. We’ve both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems. Don’t you think it’s time to recognize there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine? Never said a word. Not one word.

And that’s how I know he can be beaten. Because he’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.

The Le Carré book version has it a little differently, FWIW:

And if you want a sermon, Karla is not fireproof, because he’s a fanatic. And one day, if I have anything to do with it, that lack of moderation will be his downfall.

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Bonus: Smiley on symmetry and asymmetry:

Smiley speaks to Karla<, wishing to turn him:

We are not so very different, you and I. We’ve both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems. Don’t you think it’s time to recognize there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine? Never said a word. Not one word.

ISIS and the Crisis in American Statecraft

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

A Facebook friend with an astute comment pointed me toward this Wall Street Journal article by Joe Rago on the mission of General John Allen, USMC  as “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL”. What is a “Special Presidential Envoy” ?

In diplomatic parlance, a special envoy is an official with full powers (a “plenipotentiary”) to conduct negotiations and conclude agreements, but without the protocol rank of ambassador and the ceremonial duties and customary courtesies. A special envoy could get right down to business without wasting time and were often technical experts or seasoned diplomatic “old hands” whom the foreign interlocuter could trust, or at least respect. These were once common appointments but today less so. A “Special Presidential Envoy” is typically something grander – in theory, a trusted fixer or VIP to act as superambassador , a deal-maker or reader of riot acts on behalf of the POTUS. Think FDR sending Harry Hopkins to Stalin or Nixon sending Kissinger secretly to Mao; more recent and less dramatic examples would be General Anthony Zinni, USMC and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.  

In practice, a presidential special envoy could also be much less, the foreign policy equivalent of a national commission in domestic politics; a place to park thorny, no-win, political headaches the POTUS wants to ignore by creating the illusion of action and get them off the front pages. The position is really whatever the President wishes to make of it and how much power and autonomy he cares to delegate and what, if anything, he wishes the Special Envoy to achieve. Finally, these appointments are also a sign the President does not have much confidence or trust in the bureaucracy of the State Department or DoD, or their respective Secretaries, to carry out the administration’s policy. I wager that this is one of the reasons for General Allen’s appointment.

This means that General Allen is more or less stuck with whatever brief he was given, to color within the lines and make the best uses of any carrots or sticks he was allotted ( in this micromanaging administration, probably very little of either). Why was he chosen? Most likely because the United States sending a warfighting Marine general like Allen ( or a high CIA official) will always concentrate the minds of foreigners, particularly in a region where the US has launched three major wars in a quarter century. If not Allen, it would have been someone similar with similar results because the policy and civilian officials to whom they would report would remain the same.

So if things with ISIS and Iraq/Syria  are going poorly – and my take from the article is that they are – the onus is on a pay grade much higher than General Allen’s.

I will comment on a few sections of the interview, but I suggest reading the article in full:

Inside the War Against Islamic State 

Those calamities were interrupted, and now the first beginnings of a comeback may be emerging against the disorder. Among the architects of the progress so far is John Allen, a four-star Marine Corps general who came out of retirement to lead the global campaign against what he calls “one of the darkest forces that any country has ever had to deal with.”

ISIS are definitely an bunch of evil bastards, and letting them take root unmolested is probably a bad idea. That said, they are not ten feet tall. Does anyone imagine ISIS can beat in a stand-up fight, say, the Iranian Army or the Egyptian Army, much less the IDF or (if we dropped the goofy ROE and micromanaging of company and battalion commanders) the USMC? I don’t. And if we really want Allen as an “architect” , make Allen Combatant Commander of CENTCOM.

Gen. Allen is President Obama ’s “special envoy” to the more than 60 nations and groups that have joined a coalition to defeat Islamic State, and there is now reason for optimism, even if not “wild-eyed optimism,” he said in an interview this month in his austere offices somewhere in the corridors of the State Department

Well, in DC where proximity to power is power, sticking General Allen in some broom closet at State instead of, say, in the White House, in the EOB or at least an office near the Secretary of State is how State Department mandarins and the White House staff signal to foreign partners that the Presidential Special Envoy should not be taken too seriously. It’s an intentional slight to General Allen. Not a good sign.

At the Brussels conference, the 60 international partners dedicated themselves to the defeat of Islamic State—also known as ISIS or ISIL, though Gen. Allen prefers the loose Arabic vernacular, Daesh. They formalized a strategy around five common purposes—the military campaign, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters, counterfinance, humanitarian relief and ideological delegitimization.

The fact that there are sixty (!) “partners” (whatever the hell that means) and ISIS is still running slave markets and beheading children denotes an incredible lack of seriousness here when you consider we beat Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy into utter submission in the largest war in the history of the world with barely a third that number.  The best that can be said here is that Allen, in trying to be a herder of cats, got them to graciously agree on letting the US set a reasonable list of open-ended operations and policy priorities.

Gen. Allen cautions that there is hard fighting ahead and victory is difficult to define….

I think my head is going to explode. I’m sure General Allen’s head is too because this means that President Obama and his chief advisers are refusing to define victory by setting a coherent policy and consequently, few of our sixty partners are anxious to do much fighting against ISIS. When you don’t know what victory is and won’t fight, then victory is not hard to define, its impossible to achieve.

At least we are not sending large numbers of troops to fight without defining victory. That would be worse.

Gen. Allen’s assignment is diplomatic; “I just happen to be a general,” he says. He acts as strategist, broker, mediator, fixer and deal-maker across the large and often fractious coalition, managing relationships and organizing the multi-front campaign. “As you can imagine,” he says, “it’s like three-dimensional chess sometimes.”

Or its a sign that our civilian leaders and the bureaucracies they manage are dysfunctional, cynical and incompetent at foreign policy and strategy. But perhaps General Allen will pull off a miracle without armies, authorities or resources.

Unlike its antecedent al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State is something new, “a truly unparalleled threat to the region that we have not seen before.” Al Qaeda in Iraq “did not have the organizational depth, they didn’t have the cohesion that Daesh has exhibited in so many places.” The group has seized territory, dominated population centers and become self-financing—“they’re even talking about generating their own currency.”

But the major difference is that “we’re not just fighting a force, you know, we’re fighting an idea,” Gen. Allen says. Islamic State has created an “image that it is not just an extremist organization, not just a violent terrorist organization, but an image that it is an Islamic proto-state, in essence, the Islamic caliphate.” It is an “image of invincibility and image of an advocate on behalf of the faith of Islam.”

This ideology has proved to be a powerful recruiting engine, especially internationally. About 18,000 foreign nationals have traveled to fight in Iraq or the Syria war, some of them Uighurs or Chechens but many from Western countries like the U.K., Belgium, Australia and the U.S. About 10,000 have joined Islamic State, Gen. Allen says.

“Often these guys have got no military qualifications whatsoever,” he continues. “They just came to the battlefield to be part of something that they found attractive or interesting. So they’re most often the suicide bombers. They are the ones who have undertaken the most horrendous depredations against the local populations. They don’t come out of the Arab world. . . . They don’t have an association with a local population. So doing what people have done to those populations is easier for a foreign fighter.”

Except for the “never seen before” part – we have in fact seen this phenomena in the Islamic world many times before, starting with the Khawarijites, of whom ISIS are just the most recent iteration – this is all largely true.

ISIS, for all its foul brigandage, religious mummery and crypto-Mahdist nonsense is a competent adversary that understands how to connect  in strategy its military operations on the ground with symbolic actions at the moral level of war. Fighting at the moral level of war does not always imply (though it often does) that your side is morally good. Sadly, terror and atrocities under some circumstances can be morally compelling to onlookers and not merely repellent. In a twisted way, there’s a “burning the boats” effect in openly and gleefully committing horrific crimes that will unify and reinforce your own side while daunting your enemies and impressing onlookers with your strength and ruthlessness. Men flocked to Spain to fight for Fascism and Communism. A remarkable 60% of the Nazi Waffen-SS were foreigners, most of whom were volunteers. Ample numbers of Western left-wing intellectuals were abject apologists not only for Stalin and Mao but the Khmer Rouge during the height of its genocide. ISIS atrocities and horror are likewise political crack for certain kinds of minds.

The problem is that none of this should be a surprise to American leaders, if they took their responsibilities seriously.

William Lind and Martin van Creveld were writing about state decline and fourth generation warfare twenty five years ago. We have debated 4Gw, hybrid war, complex war, LIC, terrorism, insurgency, failed states, criminal insurgency and terms more obscure in earnest for over a decade and have wrestled with irregular warfare since John F. Kennedy was president. Yet the USG is no closer to effective policy solutions for irregular threats in 2014 than we were in 1964.

A more hopeful sign is that the new Iraqi government is more stable and multiconfessional after the autocratic sectarian rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His replacement, Haider al-Abadi, has been “very clear that the future of Iraq is for all Iraqis,” Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. He has restored relations with Middle Eastern neighbors and believes in the “devolution of power” across Iraq’s regions, Gen. Allen says. “Maliki believed in the centralization of power.”

So did we. Maliki and Hamid Karzai were originally our creatures. There was at least a bad tradition of centralization in Iraq, but we imposed it in Afghanistan ex nihilo because it suited our bureaucratic convenience and, to be frank, the big government technocratic political beliefs of the kinds of people who become foreign service officers, national security wonks, military officers and NGO workers. Unfortunately, centralization didn’t much suit the Afghans.

Critics of the Obama administration’s Islamic State response argue that the campaign has been too slow and improvisational. In particular, they argue that there is one Iraqi-Syrian theater and thus that Islamic State cannot be contained or defeated in Iraq alone. Without a coherent answer to the Bashar Assad regime, the contagion from this terror haven will continue to spill over.

Gen. Allen argues that the rebels cannot remove Assad from power, and coalition members are “broadly in agreement that Syria cannot be solved by military means. . . . The only rational way to do this is a political outcome, the process of which should be developed through a political-diplomatic track. And at the end of that process, as far as the U.S. is concerned, there is no Bashar al-Assad, he is gone.”

Except without brute force or a willingness to make any significant concessions to the states that back the Assad regime this will never happen. What possible incentive would Assad have to cooperate in his own political (followed by physical) demise?  Our Washington insiders believe that you can refuse to both bargain or fight but still get your way because most of them are originally lawyers and MBAs who are used to prevailing at home by manipulation, deception, secret back room deals and rigged procedures. That works less well in the wider world which rests, under a thin veneer of international law, on the dynamic of Hobbesian political violence.

As ISIS has demonstrated, I might add.

The war against Islamic State will go on long after he returns to private life, Gen. Allen predicts. “We can attack Daesh kinetically, we can constrain it financially, we can solve the human suffering associated with the refugees, but as long as the idea of Daesh remains intact, they have yet to be defeated,” he says. The “conflict-termination aspect of the strategy,” as he puts it, is to “delegitimize Daesh, expose it for what it really is.”

This specific campaign, against this specific enemy, he continues, belongs to a larger intellectual, religious and political movement, what he describes as “the rescue of Islam.” He explains that “I understand the challenges that the Arabs face now in trying to deal with Daesh as an entity, as a clear threat to their states and to their people, but also the threat that Daesh is to their faith.”

While Iraqi and Iranian Shia have ample existentiall motive to fight ISIS. Sunni Muslims find ISIS brutality pretty tolerable, so long as it is far away from them personally and furthermore ISIS religious-theological lunacy is not terribly far removed from the extreme Salafi-Wahhabi version preached and globally proselytized by our good friends, the House of Saud – or exported violently by our other good friends, the Pakistani Army.  Or at least Sunni Muslims are not bothered enough yet by ISIS to pick up arms and fight.

General Allen is doing his best at a herculean task, but American statecraft is broken and seduced by a political culture vested in magical thinking.

Whose black banner is it, anyway? — and the Khawarij

Monday, December 29th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — a flag flapping in the wind, in the mind ]
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You see this flag?

Who flies it?

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The media often call it “the Islamic State flag” these days, and indeed in the photo above, it’s a convoy of IS / Daesh vehicles that’s flying it.

But in the recent 13th issue of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula‘s magazine, Inspire, that same flag is used as an icon for both Mohammad Jawlani, the emir of AQ’s Iraqi branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Mukhtar Abu Zubair, late emir of al-Shabaab — and indeed, it also features in AQAP’s Malahem Media logo:

whose black banner

It is one of the ironies of the age that the image of a black banner featuring the white circular “seal of the Prophet” is flown by both sides in the contentious rivalry between the Islamic State and Al Qaida for leadership in the global jihad .

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And who are the Khawarij today?

Joas Wagemakers, in ‘Seceders’ and ‘Postponers’? — an analysis of the ‘Khawarij’ and ‘Murji’a’ labels in polemical debates between quietist and jihadi-salafis, identifies the central distinctive opinion of the Khawarij thus:

The first of these is the Khawarij’s belief that revolt against Muslim rulers was allowed if they were deemed insufficiently pious. When ‘Ali accepted arbitration with Mu‘awiya, the people later known as Khawarij reportedly shouted ‘judgement is God’s alone’ (la hukm illa li-llah). In the context of that event, this referred to their belief that only God had the authority to arbitrate, not human beings, and that ‘Ali should not have accepted Mu‘awiya’s offer. The slogan later came to represent their broader view that all judgements and rulings should be left to God, thus applying Qur’anic rulings so strictly that they expelled Muslims guilty of major sins from their community and fought them. Because they believed sinful Muslims to be unbelievers (kuffar, singular: kafir), they directly applied passages from the Qur’an pertaining to jihad against non-Muslims to those of their co-religionists who were less than perfectly pious.

Does any of that sound familiar?

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Well and truly trolled, JM!

Black Banners in Sydney 2: on flags and their meanings

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — the history and dwindling significance of a sign ]
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two flags

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In my previous post in this series, Black Banners in Sydney 1: a DoubleQuote in the Wild from Ardeet, I wrote:

The flag in the image from the Lindt cafe is not in fact the Daesh / Islamic State flag, and indeed the hostage-taker appears to have asked for a genuine Daesh / IS flag as one of his demands. The flag shown is a black flag containing the Shahada or Islamic profession of faith in white, and black flags in Islam have a history as war flags dating back to the time of the Prophet himself.

The banners are black, and there are implications.

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First, the black banner was the Prophet’s flag, the raya.

The Islamic Imagery Project at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center lists “Black Flag” under the heading “Warfare Motifs“, saying:

The Black Flag (al-raya) traces its roots to the very beginning of Islam. It was the battle (jihad) flag of the Prophet Muhammad, carried into battle by many of his companions, including his nephew ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. The flag regained prominence in the 8th century with its use by the leader of the Abbasid revolution, Abu Muslim, who led a revolt against the Umayyad clan and its Caliphate. The Umayyads, the ruling establishment of the Islamic world at the time, were seen as greedy, gluttonous, and religiously wayward leaders. The Abbasid revolution, then, was aimed at installing a new, more properly Islamic ruling house that would keep orthodox Islam at the center of its regime. Since then, the image of the black flag has been used as a symbol of religious revolt and battle (i.e. jihad). In Shiite belief, the black flag also evokes expectations about the afterlife. In the contemporary Islamist movement, the black flag is used to symbolize both offensive jihad and the proponents of reestablishing the Islamic Caliphate.

The Abbasids flew black banners, and were therefore known as the musawwids, or “wearers of the black”.

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There are ahadith, considered by the scholar David Cook and others to be Abbasid forgeries, which claim that black banners from the east are a sign of the Mahdi’s coming. One such hadith reads:

If you see the black flags coming from Khurasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice, for this is the army of the Caliph, the Mahdi and no one can stop that army until it reaches Jerusalem.

In Understanding Jihad, Cook writes:

Since Afghanistan, as Khurasan, has powerful resonance with many Muslims because of the messianic expectations focused on that region, this gave the globalist radical Muslims associated with al-Qa’ida under the leadership of Bin Ladin additional moral authority to proclaim jihad and call for the purification of the present Muslim governments and elites.

And as I have said before, Cook notes in his Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature that bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam, made fresh use of this line of messianic tradition and “popularized the position of Afghanistan as the messianic precursor to the future liberation of Palestine” in his book, From Kabul to Jerusalem, while bin Laden refers to finding “a safe base in Khurasan, high in the peaks of the Hindu Kush” in his 1996 Declaration of Jihad.

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There are many variants on the black flag, some of them carrying the Shahada or proclamation of faith, some decorated with the Prophet’s seal, some identifying particular jihadist factions. And while AQ in particular has capitalized on the hadith for recruitment as Ali Soufan detailed in his book The Black Banners, the breakaway “caliphate” use of black banners has been so prominently reported in the media that what used to be termed “the Al-Qaida flag” is now often called “the ISIS” (or “Islamic State”) flag.

It is against that somewhat confused background that we must understand Man Haron Monis’ demand, once he realized that the black flag with Shahada he was forcing hostages to hold in the window of the Lindt café was not the “right” black flag, that he be brought an “Islamic State” black flag – presumably the one with the Prophet’s seal, which had in fact been known as the “Al-Qaeda flag” before Daesh / IS took it up.

I once asked the American jihadist Omar Hammami, late of Al-Shabaab – who used that same black flag with Shahada and Prophetic seal in Somalia – whether their choice of flag referred only to Muhammad’s banner, or to the “black banners of Khorasan” ahadith also? – to which he replied:

the raayah is something general in religion regardless of color, but obviously those hadiths influenced black choice

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I have been harping on the “end times” and specifically Mahdist significance of black banners in the contemporary context for seven years now, and lamenting that so little mention is made of the black banners’ apocalyptic connotations.

For the Islamic State / Daesh, there is no need to question its apocalyptic significance – all five issues to date of their magazine Dabiq have focused on the great “end times” battle to be fought at Dabiq in Syria – a name to compare with Har Megiddo, where the battle of Armageddon will be fought in the equivalent Christian “end times” narrative.

But for some demented guy taking hostages in a café in Sydney?

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It now appears to me that the “meme” of black flags simply meaning “jihadist” is now so wide-spread, that the apocalyptic resonances may no longer be intended when someone picks up such a flag – or photographs it in some new context —

— no more so than the sign of a Che Guevara poster in a college dorm betokens a serious adherent to Marxist revolution.


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