US Senator John McCain must have missed the memo on jihadist victories in Afghanistan, Syria and now Iraq when he said recently: “The best way to send a message to ISIS is through ordinance dropped on their heads and blowing them to smithereens, blowing them straight to hell where they belong.” As empirically proved, that just isn’t the way to beat the new generation of terrorists.
A United States Marine will tell you: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” A modern jihadist will tell you different: “What kills us makes us stronger.” The explicit warning sign came early in the form of suicide bombers. Then Iraq – where ten years and $1.7 trillion of American military “might” led to a terrorist-run caliphate.
The recruiting narrative, which has been obscenely successful, is “Americans kill Muslims.” So you can’t beat modern jihadists with American bombs, unless you want there to be more jihadists – and if you think you can, the old addage disagrees: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Violence begets violence
Violent jihadism is not a nation; it is a diffuse network and an asymmetrical threat. The Islamic State may be carving out more conventional borders now, but if their country was to be “destroyed”, tens of thousands of fighters would be recruited elsewhere to cause havoc. This is a certainty – you cannot kill an idea, especially one which has proven so “successful”.
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Over more than 30 years US intelligence, military, and economic strategies have failed to destroy violent jihadism. In fact as the US has ramped up spending, this spending has only resulted in a stronger enemy. Every airstrike and civilian death America has ever dealt the Middle East has only fueled the flames. This is now an ideology that is shared by tens of thousands across the world – in Nigeria, in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Saudi Arabia, in Australia, across Europe, and in the US.
Technology has only made this ideology more virulent. The double-edged sword of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook may have brought a flicker of freedom to the region, but social media’s biggest effect has been an accelerating pattern of jihadist recruitment. Propaganda is exquisitely produced and targeted: the British accent behind the masked killer of James Foley was deliberate.
Against all this, we continue to use armies designed for the Cold War that are geared to fight nations, not networks. We continue to bomb despite the menacing precedent of failure. We have not adapted as they have, and we have not learned, as they are doing.
Military analysts have already noted that airstrikes can be effective against rapidly advancing enemy forces, yet when deployed against militants attempting to build a state, in urban centres, the results could be disastrous. Eventually, a bomb will hit a house or a school – and the Islamic State will release a video of dying civilians. Then another will be hit, and so on. As a result of this, as we have seen time and time again, more foreign fighters will rally to the cause.
Ignoring all this, Obama has stuck to the US’ traditional and entirely redundant strategy. He escalated airstrikes immediately after James Foley’s beheading. He’s doing exactly what his killers wanted him to do: overreacting. Immediately, more “special advisers” have been deployed, bombing sorties may soon extend their scope to Syria, and the chorus calling for boots on the ground now includes right-wing heavyweights like Rick Perry, Dick Cheney, and John McCain.
Part of the American public seems already convinced more military action is needed. Pew recently released a poll (conducted before Foley’s death) showing that 54 percent of Americans support airstrikes against militants in Iraq; 71 percent of Republicans seem convinced they should continue and some 57 percent of them are concerned the US will not go far enough to stop the militants.
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The hasty reaction resembles the abandon with which President Bush mounted illegal surveillance programmes, authorised the CIA to use torture, set up Guantanamo Bay, and invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq – all within a heartbeat of the Twin Towers falling.
George Bush told the American people shortly after the 9/11 attacks that “these acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation.”
Obama now sounds eerily similar : “The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.”
He underplays the encyclopedia of American actions that have brought the world to this bloody situation: that for over thirty years, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the US’ vast intelligence and military resources have only made the world less safe – whether it be by blatantly arming jihadists, or by bombing indiscriminately enough to swell their ranks. Without reminding the electorate of this important wider context, it’s far easier to cast Washington as the Hollywood hero.
So we are being presented with a false choice by our leaders – intervene and do the right thing, or let people die. The uncomfortable truth is that we let people die all the time. Obama has not supported the beleaguered Christians of Syria. North Korea, who are supposedly committing terrible crimes against humanity, remain untouched. In Darfur, nothing. Central African Republic: barely a whisper. The conditions for US intervention are never based on how bad the crimes are – they are based on what the US can get out of intervening.
In this case, as White House officials have confirmed, the US has drawn an unofficial red line around Kurdistan. The US wants to retain its last foothold in oil-rich and strategically positioned Iraq. When the Islamic State group turned away from Baghdad and towards Erbil (and conveniently, the Yazidis), Obama suddenly jumped to intervene.
You might argue that this mess was caused by the US, and so is theirs to clean up. Well, the US cannot. All the US has done in the last 30 years, and especially the last decade, is worsen its mess.
It’s time to step back and think, and not give yet more fuel to the violence.
Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK, and international affairs including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest, and dictatorships.