As a former soldier who lives with the memories of a year of infantry combat in Iraq, I am alarmed by the rise of ISIS (also known as Daesh), but I am equally alarmed by the lack of significant thought that has been given into what our response should be; in particular from the presidential candidates who were vying to be the decision maker who will have to see us through this crisis. Here in New Hampshire, we heard a uniform message: “As President, I will crush ISIS!”
This conclusion about how to deal with ISIS would perhaps begin to shift if we asked a few pointed questions.
“What Is the Origin of ISIS?”
The United States has served as a major catalyst to the instability that has allowed the rise of ISIS. Over the past 25 years, US involvement in the region has included:
● Sanctions which led to the deaths of over a million Iraqis, (over a half million children)
● Bombing campaigns in Iraq, with occasional breaks of a year or two, are seen by Iraqis as essentially part of one long war
● The arming and funding of radical Syrian rebels opposing Assad, many of whom are now affiliated withISIS
● A withdrawal strategy from Iraq that left much of the country’s infrastructure in shambles
● Serving as the major arms supplier to most regional powers, some of those arms have wound up in the hands of ISIS.
Along with the changes in the World Bank’s policies and a severe drought, violence was an entirely predictable response to a sudden collapse of the quality of life in a country that had, until 2012, been experiencing pretty steady growth and increases in quality of life. Whatever you believe the most important catalysts of the current crisis are, it’s hard to deny that war and CIA intervention have been important catalysts to the development of violent movement in the region.
“What Is Fueling ISIS?”
ISIS and al-Qaeda begin their recruiting narrative with the basic premise that the United States and other Western powers will not allow the Muslim world to exist in peace, and that only violent insurgency (jihad) can stop us. And we have given ample evidence to support this narrative. A trail of dead civilians from our bombing over the last decades in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya (Libya bombings carried out under NATO, not directly by the US) leave a truly shocking body count. I’m sure childhood memories of people like me kicking in doors and pointing guns in the faces of families have been particularly effective recruiting tools among young Iraqi men aged 16 to 25 or so.
“How Can We Remove That Fuel? If, Where and When Can the Use of Military Force Be Helpful?”
External violence, bombs and occupying forces are historically incapable of doing anything but inflaming violent insurgent social movements. Even the Pentagon’s own counterinsurgency doctrine suggests that military force on a level capable of disturbing and countering the growth of ISIS is likely well out of reach for the United States.
Army Gen. David Petraeus and Marine Gen. James Amos hold in the counterinsurgency field manual that, “Defeating such enemies requires a global, strategic response — one that addresses the array of linked resources and conflicts that sustain these movements while tactically addressing the local grievances that feed them.” It also holds that, “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of fifty more insurgents.”
Petraeus and Amos conclude that occupying forces can indeed be helpful, saying, “Twenty counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents is often considered the minimum troop density required for effective COIN [counterinsurgency] operations” and “Insurgencies are protracted by nature. Thus, COIN operations always demand considerable expenditures of time and resources.” In an interview on Fox News, Petraeus later set the minimum time needed for effective counterinsurgency operations at nine or 10 years. A targeted counterinsurgency campaign for that time period in the region currently occupied by ISIS would run over $10 trillion dollars, a cost which, if incurred, would destabilize our economy and lead to severe collapse of the quality of life of the American people.
What Else Can We Do?
We do not need to turn to vastly expensive and likely counterproductive military action to address this problem.
In the short term, there are at least four immediate steps the United States can immediately take:
● Stop the bombing which fuels the recruitment efforts of ISIS
● Cut off the flow of arms and funds to anti-Assad militias that we know are ending up in the hands of ISIS
● Take concrete multinational steps at the United Nations and elsewhere to stop the flow of black market oil and antiquities from the region
● Address the humanitarian and refugee crises that have erupted, ensuring safety, food and water for the desperate innocents caught in this civil war.
In the longer term, some of our options include:
● Imposing a regional arms embargo against all armed actors in Iraq and Syria
● Pressuring regional states to quell the flow of foreign fighters
● Working with the United Nations to bring as many armed actors to the negotiating table as possible to work for a political settlement
● Building regional stability through aid to host communities for Syrian refugees
● Supporting civil society and nonviolent internal resistance.
While there are constructive concrete physical things that can be done, in the end, it is our understanding of the Middle East that must change. War and violence do not lead to peace and tranquility. We must allow another story to arise for the people of Iraq and Syria, one which says that we will give them self-determination and human rights, that the rain of bombs will end and they that can raise their families in peace.
Culturally, I believe this is the place we need to move as a society and in partnership with the rest of the world — not only because it is the only road to avoid the monumental disaster that a ground war with ISIS would prove, but because I have seen the humanity of people in the Middle East, because I know that their children are no less real and no less human than ours, and I know that when an ISIS fighter kisses his child goodbye knowing it could be the last time, he loves them like I love my daughters. I say it because I believe that eventually humanity will win out and ISIS will fizzle.
If the United States wants to play a truly productive role in the eventual deflation and end of ISIS, it is these types of questions we should be asking. We may want to ask other questions too, like:
“How many innocent lives must be lost?”
“How many must go without so we can wage a war with no real chance of a positive outcome?”
“How long will it be before we see another way forward? How long will it take us to learn our lesson, and turn our backs on violence, empowering those in the Middle East who would challenge ISIS the opportunity to lead a shift in culture that will do the same?”
All violent movements end, and in this case, violence perpetrated by the US and NATO has helped create a horrible thing in ISIS, but in the end, it is questions like these about what might make the situation better that should drive discussion, not a nonsensical and ubiquitous talking point. We need to change our own culture that dehumanizes Muslims, and feeds into the narrative that the United States will never allow people in the Middle East self-determination. As A.J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace — peace is the way.”