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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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Of impassioned distinctions and lines traced on maps

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- in which the muj from Khorasan talk even more about the erasing of national boundaries than the soldiers of the IS caliphate ]
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Before there were maps, there was terrain, some of it populated, and various populations spoke various languages and identified themselves and each other in various complex ways. And then there were maps.

Heinrich Bunting, world map with Jerusalem at the center, naturally, 1581

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Maps certainly have a logic to them, but it is not always the logic of the populations who actually live, think, and care in the terrain depicted.

In this post, I am going to explore various writings on national boundaries and the recently-announced and mapped caliphate, starting with the mildest, and building in a crescendo to the opinions of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Mujahideen in Khurasan.

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Owen Bennett-Jones writes in The London Review of books:

As for borders, it is no longer outlandish to consider the possibility of an Alawite redoubt in western Syria and of Kurdish self-rule: a de facto independence that would change not only Iraq but also Turkey, Syria and Iran. Israel and the Western powers are already voicing concern about what might happen in Jordan. No doubt they will all resist demands to recognise any attempted changes to national boundaries. But that may lead to a growing divergence between the international system regulating relations between states and the reality on the ground.

This seems a bit pallid to me, for reasons you’ll uderstand when you read a Taliban writer pon the same topic below.

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The topic is also apparently a live one for scholars. The University of Southern California and the Project on Middle East Political Science have just issued a Call for Proposals for participants in their Rethinking Nation and Nationalism Workshop, to be held at USC, February 6, 2015:

The Arab uprisings of 2011 have shown that questions of physical boundaries and national identities long seen as resolved may in fact be open to reconfiguring. Insurgencies spanning Syria and Iraq and the (re)assertion of regionalism in Libya are only the most violent of the processes currently underway challenging long-established physical national frontiers. Embattled regimes have produced new national narratives to legitimate their rule, while sectarian and Islamist movements have taken on new manifestations. Refugee movements triggered by these conflicts and longer-standing processes of migration within, into, and out of the region have led to large communities of nationals established outside the countries of their citizenship.

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Col. Pat Lang, a warrior with a feel for the region — he introduced the study of Arabic at West Point — just today posted On identity and the state in the Middle East, his response to a friend’s off-blog comment:

I think what you (Origin) miss in this is that these countries are not really post Treaty of Westphalia nation-states. They were created by the colonial powers in the image of European countries that more resemble that model. In fact, these Middle East countries are inhabited by disparate groups of people who self-indentify within their group or perhaps withing several groups they belong to. These peoples do not identify with the state in which they live unless they happen to be run it. Thus, the Kurds feel no actual loyalty to the thing the British called “Iraq.” They are quite willing to cooperate with other Sunni people, in this case Sunni Arab tribes who are also indifferent or hostile to the government in Baghdad now that it is run by their ancestral enemies, the Shia Arabs. The Kurds would not lift a finger to help “Iraq” if they were left alone in their mountains. What they yearn for first last and always is Kurdish independence. The same situation exists in Jordan a country that is in essence a “reservation” for Sunni Arabs. It has been that since it was created by the Brits in payment of a World War One obligation to the Hashemits Emir Abdullah. This obligation originated in Abdullah’s support for the British during the war. When Iraq was under Sunni rule Jordan supported Iraq. Shia run “Iraq” means nothing to Jordan. The same this is true around the region.

IS is different from all these states. It does not recognize the legitimacy of the notion of countries at all and seeks a world wide theocratic state beginning in the Middle East.

The mozaic of all these groups that exists on the ground in the Middle East does not fit the boundaries of the Sykes-Picot world created after WW1. Come to grips with that.

Now that’s “getting warmer” as kids say in a game of hide and seek.

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And the Caliphate?

They simply and eloquently bulldoze frontiers:

Residents near the border with Syria, where ISIL has exploited civil war to seize wide tracts of that country’s east, watched militants bulldozing tracks through frontier sand berms – as a prelude to trying to revive a medieval entity straddling both modern states.

The words of their Amirul-Mu’minin Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are quoted in the caliphal magazine Dabiq, issue 1 p. 7:

O Muslims everywhere, glad tidings to you and expect good. Raise your head high, for today – by Allah’s grace – you have a state and Khilafah, which will return your dignity, might, rights, and leadership.

It is a state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers.

It is a Khilafah that gathered the Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shami, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, Maghribi (North African), American, French, German, and Australian. Allah brought their hearts together, and thus, they became brothers by His grace, loving each other for the sake of Allah, standing in a single trench, defending and guarding each other, and sacrificing themselves for one another.

Their blood mixed and became one, under a single flag and goal, in one pavilion, enjoying this blessing, the blessing of faithful brotherhood.

If kings were to taste this blessing, they would abandon their kingdoms and fight over this grace. So all praise and thanks are due to Allah.

and again on p. 8:

Whoever was sleeping must now awaken. Whoever was shocked and amazed must comprehend. The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy and uncover its deviant nature.

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Finally, we come to another set of jihadis who identify themselves in their magazine Azan as the Mujahideen in Khurasan — whose own Amir al-Mumineen is Mulla Umar.

One Muhammad Qasim devotes and entire article to the issue of nation states vs the Ummah in Azan, issue 5 pp 12-15. It is titled Destroying the Country Idol and subheaded:

Consequences of adopting the Nation-State Concept:

• Destruction of Unity
• Creation of Nationalistic Armies

Curiously, the second section focuses on Clausewitz (1832?) rather than Westphalia (1648) — but I’ll leave discussion of that question to our historians.

Qasim begins by quoting two Qur’anic ayat:

Truly! This Ummah of yours is one Ummah, and I am your Lord, so worship Me (Alone). [21:92]

and

hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of Allah (i.e. this Quran), and be not divided among yourselves .. [3:103]

and suggests:

The “nation state” has destroyed the unity of the Ummah and split it into bits and pieces, entirely vulnerable to the plans of the Kuffar. The great Mujahid leader, Shaykh Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri (HA) sums up the Muslim loss in a few impeccable words:

My free and honorable brothers, who are eager to help Islam and liberate Palestine! We must read history and comprehend its lessons. Palestine was lost when the Khilafah fell and we were dominated by secularism and territorial nationalism which has torn us apart and continues to tear us apart.

The body of his article then continues:

One of the fundamental interests of the West and the Zionists, and indeed, one of the necessities of their existence, is that they divide us by spreading the principles of the secular nationalist nation state and homeland among us, so that we become crumbs that they can easily devour. As a result of this ethnic and territorial nationalism, we broke apart after the fall of the Khilafah into more than fifty helpless vassal states.

The reviver of Jihad, Shaykh Abdullah Azzam (RA) said:

Sykes and Picot created borders for us. They said to us, Jordan ends here at ar-Ramtha, and Syria begins after Ar-Ramtha, and Jordan begins after Harat Ammar. And Kuwait? Here it is! The city of Kuwait, the “state” of Kuwait… And the state of Qatar is a single city. And so is the state of Bahrain. And Lebanon? Here it is… the size of a coin. That’s the state of Lebanon. And here is Syria. Listen, this is your land and your birthplace, and love of one’s homeland is part of faith. And so on… And so we have begun to think in an “Islamic way” which is in truth not an Islamic way but rather, a territorial way of thinking daubed with Islam.

The Jordanian in Ar-Ramtha sees the resident of Dara’a [across the Syrian border] being slaughtered in front of him by the Nusayrites; yet, he does not even bat an eyelid, move a muscle, or take an extra heartbeat; nor is he prepared to open the borders. Why? Because Islam ends at Ar-Ramtha; and he has nothing to do with Islam in Dara’a. But when a Jordanian in Al-‘Aqaba winces in pain, you’ll find the same person (from Ar-Ramtha) up in arms, although the distance between Al-‘Aqaba and Ar-Ramtha is more than 600 km, while the difference between al-Ramtha and Dara’a is less than 6 km.

This isn’t an Islamic attitude; this isn’t the attitude of ”Truly! This Ummah of yours is one Ummah, and I am your Lord, so worship Me (Alone).” [21:92]

This isn’t the global outlook of Islam which says:

India is ours and China is ours
And the earth is ours and all is ours
Islam has become our religion
And the entire world is our homeland
The constitution of Allah is our religion
And we have made our hearts its home

All Muslims are united upon true faith in Allah (swt), His Messenger (pbuh) and His Final Book. However, these false lines have been etched upon us on the basis of which entire political, military, economic and cultural institutions have been established that seek division between the Pakistani and the Indian, between the Egyptian and the Turk, between the Chechen and the Uzbek. There is no reality in these divides. As has been emphasized earlier in the article, in Islam, divide between humanity is upon faith, upon love for Allah (swt) and His Messenger (pbuh). So, we as an Ummah must take practical steps to defeat this divided mentality and erase these map lines physically that indoctrinate the Ummah into believing in this false separation.

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It’s impressive iMO to see those whose loyalty is to Mullah Omar publishing in greater detail on this topic than those whose loyalty is to the self-proclaimed caliph of IS. Maybe they’ll submit their article as a proposal for that conference at the University of Southern California, you think?

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DoubleQuotes in the Wild: Iraq Redux?

Friday, August 8th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- noted in passing, hat tip to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who retweeted this from Leo Shane III ]
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Of course, a weak (IMO) argument might be made that “fighting another war in Iraq” involves putting troops on the ground again, not “airstrikes to stop genocide” alone — but at a simple, verbal level I don’t buy it.

So there’s a disconnect, sure — but it’s the kind of disconnect that calls attention to itself — pretty much a statement and its negation. And from a DoubleQuotes / HipBone / Sembl point of view, that’s an intense form of connection, closer for instance than many types of kinship, or cause and effect:

Opposites are closely coupled.

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Yezidis / Yazidis: first gleanings

Friday, August 8th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- piecing together some background on a remarkable and requently misunderstood faith ]
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Philip Kreyenbroek opens his book, Yezidism: its background, observances & textual tradition, with the words:

There is probably no factor that has influenced the perception of Yezidism, both in the Middle East and in the West, as much as the erroneous epithet “devil-worshipper”. In the past, when there was open hostility between the Muslim community and the Yezidis, the epithet probably did more than any theological debate to make it clear to all that the Yezidis were non-Muslims who were not entitled to any protection under Islamic Law. Moreover, it seemed to justify the severe ill-treatment to which they were regularly subjected.

Today, they are under threat of extinction by IS caliphate troops:

See also the final words of the Conflict Antiquities post, The Islamic State has not been able to destroy the Yezidi Shrine of Sherfedin.

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Kreyenbroek continues:

For Western scholars, a genuine academic curiosity about the phenomenon of devil-worship may have been blended with a romantic interest in this secretive but cleanly and friendly group of Oriental ‘pagans’, whose strange cult might contain traces of one or more of the great ancient religions of the Middle East.

This is most unfortunate, since the first emanation from God and leader of the archangels, known to the Yezidis as the Peacock Angel, Melek Taus, (see illustration at the head of this post) resembles Iblis, the fallen archangel who refused to bow before Adam and was banished for his pride in Islamic teachings, but is entirely different from Iblis in that in Yezidi tradition his refusal to bow before Adam follows a divine command and carries no negative connotation. Evil, in Yezidi culture, comes not from the Peacock Angel but from choices made in the hearts of humankind.

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My own special interest is in the varieties of end times theology.

Yezidi eschatology features both a Mehdi, or end times savior identified with the angel Sherfedin, and a Tercal, his “evil opponent” — compare the Dajjal in Islam — described in the Yezidi Qewle Tercal or Hymn of the False Saviour on p. 364 of Philip Kreyenbroek & Khalil J. Rashow, God and Sheikh Adi are perfect: sacred poems and religious narratives from the Yezidi tradition.

Other striking features of Yezidi end times belief include a forty year Sultanate of Jesus in Egypt followed by his death with the Mehdi Sherfedin at Mount Qaf (the earth’s farthest point, beyond which is the realm of the imaginal in Henry Corbin‘s exposition of Iranian sufism), subsequent reigns of Hajuj and Majuj (better known to Bible readers as Gog and Magog), and the purification of the earth by al-Hallaj (the renowned Sufi martyr and subject of Louis Massignon‘s great 3-volume opus) — after which the world will be “smooth as an egg” (Kreyenbroek and Rashow, p 365).

FWIW< the YezidiTruth site contains this much simpler preduction:

Yezidi prophecy maintains that Tawsi Melek will come back to Earth as a peacock or rainbow during a time of intense conflict, poverty, famine and distress on the Earth. He will then transmit some prayers to a holy man, probably a Faqir, who will then take them around the Earth and give them to representatives of all religions

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I’d have run across the Yezidis in Idries Shah‘s book, The Sufis, which I first read in the early 60s, but it was a 2003 article, Ancient religion is on the side of the angels, that made me curious about them, and only the tragic events of the last few days that have finally sent me searching for in-depth materials on this, one of the ealiest known religious traditions, influenced by Sufism yet predating Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam alike…

Kreyenbroek’s two books and Christine Allison‘s The Yezidi Oral Tradition in Iraqi Kurdistan — all hideously expensive — are now on my reading list, and for updates on the situation, I’m following Kreyenbroek @Philipgerrit and Chicago’s Matthew Barber, @Matthew__Barber, reporting from near Mosul, on Twitter.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Yezidism is that it is an essentially oral religion, and thus lacks the central doctrinal authority of a scripture and allows for wide individual divergences in interpretation — fascinating, from the POV of scholars accustomed to scripture-based religions — but I need to dig deeper into Kreyenbroek before saying much more.

I’d welcome additional pointers — historical, theological, and contemporary.

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The Cockroaches of War. And of Jihad

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

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

John Robb had a cool post on the ultra-radical takfiri insurgency ISIS/ISIL and their self-proclaimed SunniCaliphate“, the Islamic Statewhom he gave as an example of “the cockroaches of war”:

ISIS Opens The World’s Biggest Bazaar of Violence

ISIS is a marketplace — a freewheeling bazaar of violence – and it is rapidly expanding.   

So far, it’s been very successful:

  • it operates freely in an area bigger than most countries (and it has lots of oil),
  • it has been attracting the participation of a growing number of organizations and individuals, and
  • it’s financially successful and self-funding (it’s already made billions of $$ from oil, crime, bank robberies, and more).

This success is due to the fact that ISIS isn’t trying to build a “state.”  It’s not a government. 

….This bazaar was built for one purpose:  perpetual expansion and continuous warfare.

To keep things running, ISIS offers a minimalist, decentralized governance.  Day-to-day life is governed by a simple, decentralized rule set: Sharia Law.

Participation is open to everyone willing to live under Sharia and able to expand the bazaar to new areas.

The strategies and tactics ISIS uses are open sourced.  Any group or individual can advance them, as long as they can demonstrate they work.  

Weapons and other technologies needed for war are developed, shared and sold between participants and the pace of development based on previous examples is very quick.

Making money through criminal activity is highly encouraged.  Mercenary work is encouraged.  

Read the whole post here.

ISIS recently captured a town in Lebanon and Iraq’s largest dam, adding to the dams they already control in Syria. More importantly, ISIS fighters outsmarted a Kurdish Peshmerga equivalent of a battalion, using artillery and snipers, to force the Kurds to withdraw from the town of Sinjar where they have begun persecuting the Yezidi minority. This is significant as the fearsome Peshmerga are no pushovers. To put this in perspective, this was a military feat by ISIS that Saddam’s vaunted Republican Guard had great difficulty accomplishing without air support. It also reveals the Kurds may have some deficiencies with their logistics and operational level leadership (allegedly, the Peshmerga ran out of ammunition).

Absurd mummery about “Caliph Ibrahim” aside, as a fighting force and religious-political movement, ISIS has momentum and possesses the initiative. Despite their flamboyant cruelty, ISIS is attracting jihadis to a broken Iraq the way disaffected and radicalized German ex-soldiers swarmed into Freikorps units after the Great War. Reportedly, more British citizens have signed up with ISIS this year than have joined Britain’s territorial Army. Part of the reason is that ISIS, despite its obvious extremism and malevolence, is fighting successfully at the moral and mental levels of war and not merely the physical.

The strategist Colonel John Boyd described the purpose of fighting at the moral level of war as follows:

Essence of moral conflict

Create, exploit, and magnify
• Menace:
Impressions of danger to one’s well
being and survival.

• Uncertainty:
Impressions, or atmosphere,
generated by events that appear
ambiguous, erratic, contradictory,
unfamiliar, chaotic, etc.

• Mistrust:
Atmosphere of doubt and suspicion
that loosens human bonds among
members of an organic whole or
between organic wholes.

•Idea:

Surface, fear, anxiety, and

alienation in order to generate

many non-cooperative centers of
gravity, as well as subvert those
that adversary depends upon,
thereby magnify internal friction.

*Aim:

Destroy moral bonds
that permit an organic
whole to exist

To be a politically attractive force at the grand strategic level while doing morally reprehensible  things at the tactical level on a regular basis is no small strategic feat. Not a unique or impossible one though; both the Nazis and especially the Communists were able to continue to attract credulous Western supporters despite voluminous evidence of crimes against humanity and genocide (Communism still has western apologists in the media and academia). ISIS uses extreme violence but does so strategically with a vision of Caliphate to – 1)  to split Iraqi society into Sunnis vs. everyone else and split Sunnis into those who support ISIS and those who are “apostates” like the Shia, and are deserving of death; and 2) to destroy the Western concept of nation-states, replacing Iraq, Syria, Lebanon with a borderless Caliphate to rule over the Ummah.

The ISIS message is simultaneously highly exclusive (extreme Salafi version of Sharia) as well as wholly universal. This – along with identifying the Shia as the enemy force -allows ISIS to fold in a large array of disaffected, angry, rival Iraqi Sunni factions under the aegis of their movement while still attracting a global swarm of jihadi volunteers.  Compare this with the self-isolating messaging and behavior of HAMAS who, despite fighting the “Zionist enemy” Israel, are thoroughly despised in the region by most of their natural Arab state allies, the Palestinian Authority and even the radical jihadi groups. Nor is HAMAS able to escape moral damage from committing war crimes in the eyes of the international community the way ISIS escapes harm from committing worse ones ( Not only do they escape moral costs, ISIS flips their atrocities into a net positive by terrorizing the potential opposition and looking self-confidently defiant of world opinion in Islamist eyes).

In ISIS, Global Guerrilla strategy is fusing with the penultimate radical jihadi ideology.

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