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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Mere Military Action Against ISIS May Not Be Enough

US defense chiefs saying ‘Apocalyptic’ Isis beyond anything we've seen' is bit alarming for two reasons (other than the alarm manifest in the headline itself). The first being, did it take the all pervasive, heavily invested (finance,skill, forfeiture of individual rights) US surveillance mechanism this long to arrive at a conclusion which by now known to anyone who keeps an eye on the situation in MENA region ? Or does it mean the US is once more contemplating a Gulf War like approach to handle this threat ? Although, unlike previous Gulf Wars, this time the US has far more legitimate reasons to intervene. The current state of affairs in Syria-Iraq is a direct fallout of the hare-brained ex-US President's misadventure in 2003 of ouster and execution of Saddam Hussein and destabilization of the entire region in its wake. Some bloggers and commentators seem to blame US for directly or indirectly creating another Frankenstein monster called ISIS, but I believe the US is responsible for creating the horrific mess in Iraq  from which this monster has arisen, but not the monster itself  (its Al-Assad's monster though, Frankenstein or not). Now the billion dollar question is, can US really clean up the mess without leaving behind a bigger mess ?


James Foley before execution ( post-execution pictures are
too disturbing to post here ) 
Obama administration has been reluctant to intervene in Iraq and Syria but after the release of the grizzly  video showing decapitation of the  abducted American journalist James Foley, the US feels compelled to act. But Obama need not repeat mistakes of his predecessor, he can instead rectify. The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and allies with GW Bush's "smoke 'em out" attitude has been far more disastrous than it is seen to be. Abandonment of Iraqi army, inability to set up a robust and inclusive polity and not engaging with ordinary Iraqis led to a chaotic civil war immediately and US continued facing casualties. Attributing all instances of violence to Shia-Sunni schism would be over-simplifying situation. In this context Kurdish rebels provide an interesting case-study. Kurdish militants are always bracketed with Sunni and Shia militants though Kurds are Sunni too but non-Arab Sunnis.  Kurds' primary loyalty is commanded by their ethnicity rather than religious creed.   In fact, one of the most powerful militant group that the Coalition had to face in 2004 onwards was the Mahdi Army led by the popular Shia cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr. So the first insurgent groups in Iraq may have been formed based on their common religious beliefs but capturing power was the sole objective.
Kurdish Female Fighters take oath to fight ISIS. Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims

However, as Chuck Hagel says, the ISIS is an entirely different creature, but it thrives in the same power vacuum that the US left behind and other insurgents occupied. Neither the local administrations nor the US and allies tried to fill this vacuum and take local population into confidence. ISIS has managed to capture large swathes of territories, weapon and vehicles and reportedly is the wealthiest terrorist group becoming "beyond anything we have seen " but it shouldn't be forgotten that it was allowed to grow for petty political reasons. As my previous post explains, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad actually stood to gain from rise of ISIS and it now seems certain, with US allying up with him. Meanwhile, in Iraq, Al-Maliki was busy securing his own position even if it meant large scale persecution of the Sunni population. This policy resulted in the growth of  radical Sunni insurgency at a time when Iraqi army was new and inexperienced enough to withstand assault of battle hardened Jihadists of ISIS many of whom had already fought wars in regions like Chechnya, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, the Balkans and in Iraq itself. ISIS leaders are definitely far more sophisticated in formulating military strategies but the same cannot be said of their administrative capabilities and more importantly their political acumen.

From information available, it seems the core constituents of the group consist of hardcore and experienced Jihadists as well as young indoctrinated members from European countries even . After questionable role of Syrian regime in the rise of ISIS, the terror upstart quickly captured large part of Iraq, overrunning cities like Tikrit and Mosul, the continuous military achievement  attracted thousands of members, especially from other insurgent groups since ISIS seemed to be gaining more than their organisations could aspire to. However, ISIS has also committed mistakes that could reverse its fortune. Its major blunder was declaration of the Caliphate or claiming leadership of more than a billion Muslims worldwide without even bothering to consult or even address them,is an insult to the institution. At the same time, by this very act, it declared itself hostile to every nation in the world but especially Muslim countries, some of which are its neighbors.  Ideologically, ISIS is not much different from Al-Qaeda, both believe in Salafist Jihadism. Reportedly, Al-Qaeda fell out with ISIS because of the latter's extreme brutality (Wikipedia lists AQ as ISIS opponent) as have many other Jihadist groups. But it may well be the difference in approach. VNSEs (Violent non-State Entities) work to erode authority of the state creating an anarchy like situation into which the political wings of these organizations can capture power legitimately and with public support.

Secondly, ISIS seems to pay no heed to the lesson Al-Qaeda learn't the hard way during the sectarian violence from 2004-2011(peaking in 2006) , that the people there are not very comfortable with foreigners  being in charge. In fact, people of the region that ISIS now controls are notorious for their primary loyalty being mostly commanded by clan/tribe rather than to the nation or even Islam. The reason that Al-Qaeda-led insurgency fizzled out was because of the fact that local tribal leaders turned hostile to "foreign fighters" dictating them in all aspects of daily life. They then switched allegiance and fought together with Iraqi army and the US. One must remember that the only industry thriving in the region is the war industry, so it shouldn't surprise one if the unemployed youth take up the gun to feed family. At the same time, the option to feed their family better is likely to wean them back into the mainstream.

Thirdly, if the world leaders really want peace in the middle-east, they need to engage the Muslims rather than their political leaders. For the West it wouldn't be easy since people of the region have lots of misgivings about them, mostly genuine ones. But reaching them through digital media, in mosques, seminars and conferences, to make them think if groups like ISIS have anything to do with Islam. Islam allows/instructs its adherents to fight against persecution but doesn't allow persecution. ISIS members claim to be Sunni Muslims, yet follow the rules of warfare of the period of ignorance rather that of Islam. The first Caliph Abu Bakr laid down the following laws 
O people! I charge you with ten rules; learn them well!
Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy's flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone
 
Even if one were to question authenticity of these laws, it would be impossible to produce evidence of armies of Rashidun Caliphate mutilating the dead, as ISIS soldiers routinely do. How is it that groups who claim to wage jihad, break every rule of Islamic warfare ? (anyone who calls himself Jihadist clearly lacks knowledge of Islam) Most likely it is  because they think in the present situation it doesn't obligate them. Nearly all Islamist terrorist groups are Takfiri groups too. Takfiri is the process of declaring an individual or group as non-believer (kafir)  and excommunicating or executing them. Ordinarily (except Salafist Jihadists) the decision is taken by councils of eminent scholars(Ulema), in very rare instances and not by gun-toting 30-somethings. ISIS intends to wipe out not only non-Muslim communities such as Yazidis but also Shia Muslims as well as Sunni with Sufi affiliation as apostates. But that's not all, they also declare fellow apostasy of Sunnis who differ with them,implying that the entire Muslim population in the world except a handful, have gone back to days of ignorance and cannot be considered Muslims! (In urban lingo- "our way or the morgue"). A Quranic verse (4:94) clearly prohibits from arbitrarily accusing a Muslim of apostasy but as apparent, the Takfiri groups are so devoted to implement Sharia that they violate some of the basic laws of Sharia. Authoritative clergies of Islam have also declared ISIS as Kharijites (or those who went out of the way i.e. left Islam)

So, given the fact that ISIS has made foe out of all its neighbors and the West, it shouldn't be surprising if it is decisively defeated through military means but that would only be period of lull before another group comes up somewhere else in the world, professing the same ideology. It cannot be defeated with weapons alone, they have to be defeated through discourses too. Obama and his Western allies  as well as rulers of MENA need to understand that they have to address some important issues, if we are to prevent future threats. Israel- Palestine issue being one such an important issue to be addressed. The current destruction of Gaza remains  fresh in public memory, ISIS barbarism just couldn't take the same mind-space. The condemnation from other Muslims would have been far more scathing if Israel weren't bombing Gaza. The world leaders should also be more proactive in preventing violence against minority sects, ethnicities. Just eliminating a threat in Iraq-Syria wouldn't be a long term solution, empowering the moderates to occupy the vacuum would be. ISIS is a threat but for Obama it is also an opportunity to seek rapprochement with the Muslim world and get absolved of the original sin made by his predecessor. 

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