The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Why We Can’t Beat ISIS, And Other Imponderables

Last night a plane flew over my home. It didn’t drop any bombs, so I guess I’m safe from Cory Bernardi’s criticism for a while, but what I did notice  was that it had headlights. I’m sure there are excellent reasons for this, but just at that moment I couldn’t think of any. I therefore decided to not think about it any more. Except, of course, at dinner parties, when I fully intend to bring it up as a sardonic comment on the irrationality of the world.

ME: “You know planes have headlights? What the hell for? Isn’t everyone but us so completely stupid!” polite laughter

It occurs to me that this kind of thinking, if you can call it that, is very similar to the way we think about ISIS. What we as the general public really know about ISIS is next to nothing. We have a vague idea that there’s a pretty complex situation on the ground, what with tribes and different kinds of Moslems and a whole bunch of rape and beheading going on. We’re aware that ISIS holds some towns, and may even know the names of those towns, but there is where it usually stops. We accept commentary from the media and from various defence and government officials that say that it’s all just too complicated and all we can do is to make desultory stabs at ISIS cells and leaders with drones and FGA.

But this just isn’t true. When we talk about what can be done, we’re generally not talking about what’s possible, but about what is politically acceptable. The fact of the matter is that ISIS’ territory is loosely held at best. Their military tactics are shambolic, being made up of equal parts of social media based psy-ops campaigns and a focus on keeping recruitment at a higher level than attrition. 130,000 troops, an armoured division and the air assets already on station could probably take the entire territory in question in a matter of months. If we were so minded, we could structure the invasion in such a way that it would drive the enemy through Syria, into the waiting arms of neighbouring allies, thus putting paid to the Assad regime in the process. It should be remembered that a much better defended, similar sized territory was taken with breathtaking speed in the second Gulf War. It’s possible – it’s eminently possible, but what’s unthinkable right now is once again committing to the long, grinding process of military-driven nation-building that has taken so much in time, treasure and lives over the past decade and a half.

The problem is not that we can’t do this, it’s that we don’t want to. This speaks to a shift in public thinking that many see as the end true end of Imperialist thinking in the West. Over the past century we’ve rejected hard, territorial based empires in favour of de facto empires based on influence and hegemony and, now, we seem to be rejecting them in favour of something called ‘soft power’. We think that this represents some kind of advancement or moral improvement in the way that the West deals with the rest of the world, but it really doesn’t. This is apparent through the fact that almost all Western commentary on the current situation still rests on the assumption that the Middle East is a region in which we can and should intervene, which points to the idea that we still feel that we have some kind of ownership over the region. Compare, for example, our deafening silence on the conflict between the two Sudans, or the civil war raging in the Yemen. No, the fact is that deep in the Western mind lie the very same attitudes that informed the British and the Americans back in the immediate post war years. We still see it as our very own territory, we’re just unwilling to go back. It’s a case of forty times bitten, just now becoming shy.

And now is the worst possible moment to become shy. An evil conglomerate of extremists is carving out a new shape for the Middle East that cannot possibly mean anything but bad news for all our interests in the region. In the process of so doing, they are causing one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the last hundred years, one which is threatening to destabilise the EU and playing havoc with the balance of power in the Middle East and North Africa. We could not have picked a worse time to suddenly go ‘hands off’ on the land between the two rivers. And the greater tragedy is yet to come. No sane or informed analysis of the situation can possibly see this situation sorting itself out in a way that is acceptable to us. There are three alternatives, really.

  1. ISIS fizzles itself out, leaving a huge and chaotic power vacuum in the region, ripe for someone even crazier to fulfil. Again.
  2. ISIS firms up its territory, acquires heavier military capabilities and becomes a nation that we have to deal with as a player in the region.
  3. ISIS continues as is and, after an indeterminate period of time, hits the threshold of the amount of human displacement and atrocity that the West is willing to tolerate, and we once again invade the territory.

My big fear is that option three is by far the most likely. Given another decade, as our military commitment is incrementally increased on the back of continuing atrocities and immigration pressures, we are going to reach a tipping point where the public will eventually see that full-scale invasion is the only possible solution. The problem is that, by then, it may very well be exponentially more difficult to effect what could probably be done quite easily today.

Waiting for ‘the people’ to realise what’s at stake and what should be done could be fatal. Our governments need to act decisively now. The opinion of the public, while important, is predicated mainly on ignorance and, most importantly, ignorance of what is actually at stake if the current order in the Middle East is allowed to implode. It’s not just morality that’s at stake here – we in the West are all heavily invested in the fate of the region surrounding the ISIS anomaly – we always have been and always will be. We can’t just give up on the idea of ‘going back in’ just because it’s too difficult to explain why we should. The results of losing out to these lunatics are potentially catastrophic to us.

Sure, it’d be nice to pat ourselves on the back for creating a true post-imperial world, but the reality is that, whether we like it or not, this is going to have to wait. The replacement for the West’s soft, hard or any other kind of power in the Middle East cannot be allowed to be an Islamic State of this kind. The only real choice here is whether we intervene decisively now, or wait until thousands more lives and billions more in treasure have been spent pretending that a limited air campaign and proxy fighters are ever going to be enough to resolve the situation.

Why are defence officials predicting a 20 year conflict? It’s because they know that this covers them for failing to present a real solution in the face of governments that don’t want to hear about the only effective one.

 

Category: Hypocrisy, Politics, Violence

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