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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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Book Recommendation: Ancient Religions, Modern Politics

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

[by J. Scott Shipman]

ancient religion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient Religions, Modern Politics, The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective, by Michael Cook

Charles Cameron recently had a post here at Zenpundit, Which is mightier, the pen or the sword?  Frequent commenter T. Greer recommended this volume in the comment section and I ordered immediately. My copy arrived this morning and I had some quiet time and a bit of commuting time to devote to Cook’s introduction and the first few chapters. This is a very good treatment of roots of Islam and how those roots affect today’s political climate. Cook divides the book into three large parts: Identity, Values, and Fundamentalism. The comparative element is his use of Hinduism and Latin American Catholicism when compared in scope and influence to Islam.

Here are a couple of good pull quotes from the Preface:

I should add some cautions about what the book does not do. First though it has a lot to say about the pre-modern world, it does not provide an account of that world for its own sake, and anyone who read the book as if it did would be likely to come away with a seriously distorted picture. This is perhaps particularly so in the Islamic case—and for two reasons. One is that, to put it bluntly, Islamic civilization died quite some time ago, unlike Islam which is very much alive; we will thus be concerned with the wider civilization only when it is relevant to features of the enduring religious heritage. (emphasis added)

Cook’s emphasis on shared identity is one of the best and most cogent descriptions I’ve found:

“…collective identity, particularly those that really matter to people—so much so that they may be willing to die for them. Identities of this kind, like values, can and do change, but they are not, as academic rhetoric would sometimes have it, in constant flux. The reason is simple; like shared currencies, shared identities are the basis of claims that people can make on each other, and without a degree of stability such an identity would be as useless as a hyperinflated currency. So it is not surprising that in the real world collective identities, though not immutable, often prove robust and recalcitrant, at times disconcertingly so.”

In the same comment thread where T. Greer recommended this Ancient Religions, Charles called Cook’s work his opus. Based on the few hours I’ve spent with the volume and the marginalia, Charles was characteristically “spot-on.”

Published in March of this year, this is a new and important title. With any luck, I’ll complete the book and do a more proper review sometime soon.

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DoubleQuotes in DC — and in Hebron, S Africa and Saudi

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

[ Charles Cameron -- anti-semitic? isislamlamophobic? apartheid arguments on buses and street signs, etc ]
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I’ve been tracking how geopolitical arguments are conducted on the sides of buses for a while now [ 1, 2, 3, 4 ], and the latest round brought Pamela Geller out again, this time making the connection between the the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Hitler on the one hand, and the Qur’an on the other:
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I was interested to see whether there was a Muslim bus campaign to counterbalance this, and found this ad, which (it seems to me) preaches to the choir…
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So those two ads make a DoubleQuote in my terms, though they’re too long and thin for my usual DQ format.

**

Okay, but when you go searching, you find things you were not looking for, but that still interest you — and during the searches I made to find those two bus ads, I also ran across this, which looked like a DoubleQuote in the Wild:
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That’s an attempt to distinguish between Israel’s situation and that of South Africa, and following along that trail I cam across two other items of interest. The first combats the frequent assumption that Israel is an apartheid state not by denying it but by suggesting that Saudi Arabia certainly is…
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While the second, in some ways a perfect match for the first, suggests that Israel is indeed running an apartheid system, as demonstrated by the segregation into Jewish and Arab sections of a street in Hebron:
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Part of what interests me in these two shots of roads, however, is that they’re not strictly speaking DoubleQuotes – in each case, we have a single image which serves as a DQ because the division / comparison is already present in the frame of the photo.

In anthro terms, that’s contageous rather than sympatheic linkage — contagious and sympathetic being the two classif forms of magic., one having to do with items in contact with one anoither, the other with objests sharing a likeness. There are also correlattions with CS Peirce‘s ideas of icon, index and symbol, and Korzybski‘s territory and map.

In terms of the theorizing of Hipbone-Sembl thinking, those are interesting correspondences to note.

**

Sources:

  • Islamic Jew hatred
  • We’re sweating April 15
  • Apartheid State / Assieged State
  • Islamic Apartheid
  • Hebron, with distinction marked
  • Hebron, original by Michael Huniewicz
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    A claim that al-Baghdadi is the Dajjal, maybe?

    Sunday, May 11th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- also, the split between AQC and ISIS in a nutshell: rival claims to the title of Amir al-Mu'minin ]
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    A site with the domain name “Horn of Satan” carries this banner at the head of each post.

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    I’m intrigued by an article in today’s Al Arabiya News by Dr Theodore Karasik, Is ISIS bigger than al-Qaeda?, in which he writes:

    Al-Baghdadi has designated himself as a global leader of the jihad fighters in particular and of Muslims in general, and as a herald of the Caliphate. Importantly, al-Baghdadi argues an apocalyptic viewpoint: “One should also beware of the likelihood of a false messiah claimant appearing among them, who would in fact be the Dajjal (Anti-Christ).”

    A mention of the Dajjal in the context of ISIS and al-Baghdadi merits a slightly closer look, so I searched on “One should also beware of the likelihood of a false messiah claimant appearing among them” and found Dr Karasik’s article and three other hits, all of them from the site called Horn of Satan. All three refer to the same post from January 21st 2014 on that site, Self Declared Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of Isis the prophesied false Caliph?

    **

    Dr Karasik’s article appeared to be quoting al-Baghdadi as warning us against the arising of a false messiah, the Dajjal, but the Horn of Satan post appears to have a different slant:

    The Wahhabis usually disregard, downplay and even mock any importance for the lineage of Prophet Muhammed (saw) and they make secular equalitarian arguments against traditionalist Muslims in regards to this. But recently all of a sudden some of the takfiri Wahhabis of ISIS (a savage Khawarij cult group that is slaughtering Muslims in Syria, and made of mostly foreigners like Saudis and other takfiris from foreign countries), have been quite flashy in displaying a long name for their leader “Amir ul-Mu’minin – Abu Bakr Al-Husayni Al-Qurashi Al-Baghdadi”. Praise be to Allah, our Prophet (saw) taught us enough to respond to such false claimants.

    This is then followed by ahadith regarding the Dajjal from two of the major collections, Abu Dawud and Sahih Muslim. Commenting on the first of these in terms of its applicability to al-Baghdadi, the writer says:

    Whether this prophecy refers to him is a speculation although probable. But the meaning contained in it would still apply to him and the likes of him.

    One should also beware of the likelihood of a false messiah claimant appearing among them, who would in fact be the Dajjal (Anti-Christ). These Khawarij at present have their strength in a region between Iraq and Syria, and this is the place from which Dajjal would likely emerge.

    So the remark about “the likelihood of a false messiah claimant appearing among them” is not a warning from al-Baghdadi, as Dr Karasik implies when he introduces it with the phrase “al-Baghdadi argues an apocalyptic viewpoint: followed by a colon. It is a warning about al-Baghdadi as a possible Dajjal and and ISIS as a group from which such a figure might well be expected to arise.

    **

    And why select al-Baghdadi and ISIS or these dubious honors? The Horn of Satan site — which would appear to be the source of the English translation of the quote Dr Karasik uses — explains both the choice of the potential Dajjal…

    But recently all of a sudden some of the takfiri Wahhabis of ISIS (a savage Khawarij cult group that is slaughtering Muslims in Syria, and made of mostly foreigners like Saudis and other takfiris from foreign countries), have been quite flashy in displaying a long name for their leader “Amir ul-Mu’minin – Abu Bakr Al-Husayni Al-Qurashi Al-Baghdadi”

    and the geographic location, suggesting that ISIS might be the group from which the Dajjal would emerge:

    These Khawarij at present have their strength in a region between Iraq and Syria, and this is the place from which Dajjal would likely emerge.

    Here’s the somewhat enigmatic marked-up screengrab from what looks to be a FaceBook page, used in the Horn of Satan post to illustrate the “flashy .. long name” given to al-Baghdadi:

    FWIW, Musa Cerantonio is an Australian convert to Islam with a show on Saudi TV called “Ask the Sheikh, according to a December 2012 MEMRI bio. I suspect his FB page may have been taken down…

    **

    Within jihadist ranks, Mullah Omar of the Taliban was hailed as Amir al-Mu’minin after he donned the cloak, mantle and authority of the Prophet, so to speak — some of the statements I quote in that piece describing the event are a little over the top, and the word “authority” in my title should be read in the metaphoric sense of “mantle”.

    So Al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri regards Mullah Omar as the Amir al-Mu’minin and ISIS gives al-Baghdadi the title — and there in a nutshell you have the split between AQC and ISIS, playing out on a battlefield near you in the fighting between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

    Not that the title doesn’t have other claimants — both King Mohammed VI of Morocco and Sultan Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III of Sokoto are also so styled.

    And the title is more closely related to the Caliphate than to the Mahdi…

    **

    As an aside — a “vending machine living in the clouds”…

    The Horn of Satan site has its own echatological component, which you’ll find in the final post of their series, Answering Muhammed bin Abdul Wahab’s Four Principles of Shirk, titled The Four Principles in Light of End Times Tribulations. It consists mainly of ahadith warning of the coming of the Dajja, with a brief intro para attacking the English language booklet of Muhammad ibn ?Abd al-Wahhab‘s Four Principles, saying:

    It opens the way for the enemies of Islam to attack the foundational doctrines of Islam. It is of the end time’s dajjalic plots that has deluded the modern day khawarij, into making true Muslims appear as polytheists and vice versa, and in making the path to heaven appear as hell and vice versa. It turns God into a vending machine living in the clouds, paving the way for people with such creed to be easily receptacle in taking dajjal as god.

    Also of potential interest — a page titled Educational Curriculum and Sources for Boko Haram (A Wahhabi sub-cult in Nigeria, which hosts extracts from Dr Ahmad Murtada‘s Boko Haram: Its Beginnings, Principles and Activities in Nigeria.

    Enough. And I’m a bit bleary-minded, I hope this makes sense.

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    DQ: Syria/Saudi two way street

    Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- two way street, aka boomerang, aka blowback ]
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    Sources:

  • From Saudi Arabia to Syria: Aaron Zelin, The Saudi Foreign Fighter Presence in Syria
  • From Syria to Saudi Arabia: Asharq al-Awsat, Saudi Arabia arrests first ISIS-related terror cell
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