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Why US Airstrikes Won’t Defeat ISIS

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Vijay Prashad: Renewed US air strikes will plunge Iraq into further chaos while the US and its allies refuse to seek a regional solution to the conflict.


JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. Welcome to this latest edition of The Prashad Report.

We’re now joined by Vijay Prashad. He’s joining us from Northampton, Massachusetts. His most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.

Thank you so much for joining us again, Vijay.


NOOR: So we know you’ve been closely following the ongoing political turmoil in Iraq. Can you give us an update about the latest of what’s happened there?

PRASHAD: Well, there are a series of problems happening in Iraq. One of them has been a longstanding political problem in Baghdad over the government and government formation. The second one is a much more dramatic event, and that is the emergence of the Islamic State is a full-blown insurgency in northern Iraq.

This morning, on August 11, there was a great deal of drama in Baghdad when tanks appeared in the streets of the capital, surrounded the Green Zone, surrounded the residence of the president. And what it appeared was going on was that the prime minister, Mr.Mr.. Nouri al-Maliki, was in some senses putting a coup forward against the constitutional process, because he is under threat of removal as the prime minister of Iraq. By about midday, it was clear that the coup attempt had fizzled—if there ever was a coup attempt.

And once more we’re back to the problem of a major constitutional crisis, because Mr.. Maliki party, which is ruling in coalition, simply doesn’t have enough seats in the legislature to continue by itself. So the president has put forward an alternative candidate for prime minister also from Mr.. Maliki’s party. This is why it’s extremely complicated how the Dawa Party, which is Maliki’s party, but also the party of Mr. Haider Al-Abadi, how this party, the Dawa, is internally divided. It has to—with only 92 seats out of 328, it has to reach out to other parties.

So there is this constitutional mess that’s in Baghdad. You’d think that Baghdad, threatened with all-out war against it from the Islamic State, the political class would unite very quickly and prevent this kind of side-drama when something much more dangerous and much bigger is occurring along the Tigris River.

NOOR: And I wanted to just thank our viewers for sticking with us. We’re having some slight technical difficulties with the connection, but I know our wonderful studio crew is busy at work trying to resolve that. But about what you just alluded to, Vijay, your latest piece in The Hindu, it’s titled “Metastasis of the Islamic State”. And in it you write:

Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the anti-Assad powers, refuse to join a united front with Iran, Iraq and Syria to tackle the IS threat. With absent coordination, the Islamic State will continue to thrive.

Tell us exactly what the threat is and what it means that the regional powers refuse to be united on this front. In your piece, you talk about how the Islamic State has made advances into Lebanon, which have at least been temporarily thwarted. But it continues to expand in Iraq, continues to enjoy a powerful presence in Syria. Now President Obama has said he’s going to step up attacks on it with possible airstrikes, possible direct funding to the Kurds. Tell us exactly the latest, and also if the U.S. support for the Kurds and other airstrikes will do anything without a regional solution.

PRASHAD: Well, the Islamic state is the child of al-Qaeda of Iraq or al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia, which was created in 2004 in reaction to the American invasion of Iraq and the American destruction of the Iraqi state. So it’s in that moment of chaos in Iraq that al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia was born. It was born with foreign fighters. It drew on an enormous amount of anger against the Americans; therefore it increased its support base. And this is its child. I mean, it was then reconstituted as the Islamic State of Iraq. Then it became the Islamic State of Greater Syria and Iraq. And now it’s simply the Islamic State.

But it will not be destroyed by aerial bombardment. I think that’s the first point to make is that the United States, when tackling this group and groups that its allied with, for instance, the Naqshbandi Army, etc., the United States has already been at war with these organizations during the battle of Falluja, in the battles in Ramadi, in the battles of Tal Afar. I mean, U.S. Marines have been fighting them over the last decade before they left Iraq. So it’s very unlikely that from 30,000 feet the Americans are going to be able to cower this very sophisticated and incredibly brave fighting outfit. So this idea that U.S. involvement is somehow going to change the tide of the Islamic State’s progress seems to me a little illusionary.

But what it will do is it will make the fighters go to sleep. They will go underground for a little bit. They’ll wait till things calm down, and then they will reappear, because they are old-fashioned guerrilla fighters. It reminds me a great deal of the war in Chad in 1987, which was also fought from the back of Toyota trucks. Insurgents are very hard to get with this kind of conventional force. So the only forces that have been able to tackle the Islamic State are forces on the ground.

Thus far, in Syria we’ve seen the most sophisticated fight-back against the Islamic State has come from so-called Western Kurdistan, which is a section of northeastern Syria which has essentially been given autonomous control by the Assad government. They’ve essentially made their own country. And they have a fighting force called the YPG, which was trained and equipped by a group that the United States claims is a terrorist organization, and that is the PKK, the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, which is initially based in Turkey, but has been based for many years in Iraq and in Syria. So the PKK, the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, a very sophisticated ground-level guerrilla fighting force, has trained the Syrian-Kurdish Army, and the two of them have been fighting against the Islamic State, both in Syria and now in Iraq. And, in fact, it’s this alliance that was able to get to get to Jabal Sinjar, where this—40,000 years these were essentially trapped on this mountain for almost a week. It was the PKK and the YPG that got to the mountain on the ground first, and they created their own kind of humanitarian corridor and got tens of thousands across the border into Syria. So this is one very important vector of the fight against the Islamic State.

The problem is that Turkey believes that the PKK—and it doesn’t just believe it; it’s true—Turkey sees the PKK as a significant threat to Turkish unity, because the PKK claim a large swathe of Eastern Turkey as Kurdistan, as northern Kurdistan. So what’s going to happen is unless the regional powers recognize on the one side that Kurdistan is a force that is going to appear if indeed they’re leading the fight against the Islamic State. Secondly, they need to figure out that unless they start coordinating their strategy, in the gap of any coordinated strategy the Islamic State is certainly going to continue to grow. And the reason they can’t coordinate strategy is that the neighboring countries of Syria have not yet come to terms with the fact that the Syrian Civil War essentially is really run out of steam, and that if they’re going to continue to put pressure on Syria, it is going to open the door wider for the Islamic State to enjoy a free run in the great Syrian desert that links the cities of Aleppo to Baghdad.

So these kind of approaches, policy approaches towards Syria, towards the Kurdish movement, unless there’s any movement on these these policy approaches, the United States is probably going to keep bombing the IS positions, IS will go to sleep, and in four or five years they will reappear. If you want a sustainable solution, it has to come with better and smarter politics, not bombing from the sky.

NOOR: And, Vijay, is the U.S. position a miscalculation? Or is it deliberate? Is the U.S. possibly benefiting from this instability that we’re seeing throughout the region?

PRASHAD: It’s very hard to say, because it’s hard to say what the endgame is. If the United States’s end game is to bring peace to these countries, well, certainly U.S. policy is not fostering that. And, by the way, it’s quite dangerous. It’s a very bad idea for a military to be delivering humanitarian aid at the same time as it’s bombing. This was the problem, for instance, in Afghanistan, where the United States was bombing and so-called trying to reconstruct the country using the military in both cases. There has to be a clear divide between humanitarian delivery and military force. In this case, when you put them together, it’s very hard for people on the ground to distinguish between who’s bombing them and who is giving them supplies, ’cause then, you see, what will happen is that there will be people on the ground in Iraq who say that the /jɛzdi/ people are collaborating with the Americans, and therefore they’re now even more free game. This is a very dangerous and disturbing thing. The line between humanitarian delivery and military is very important. So it’s hard to know what American strategy is as far as, for instance, the region is concerned.

There has been a discussion: does the United States want to deliberately provoke instability? This might be the case, Jaisal, but it’s very hard to make the case. No government, no responsible government in the world will openly come out and say, we are in favor of creating instability in the world so we can maintain control. On the other hand, over the last ten years, after having destroyed the Iraqi military, the United States government actually did very little to help produce a new military that would be capable of defending Iraq’s unity. Iraq is not capable of aerial bombardment, because it simply does not have an air force. The air force had been destroyed in 2003 and was never really rebuilt. So by not building the capacity of Iraq to maintain its integrity, this also opens the door to instability. So I wouldn’t be comfortable saying that the United States’ policy is to create instability, but I would say that the outcomes of U.S. policy create instability.

NOOR: And the renowned journalist and historian Patrick Cockburn called the Iraqi forces rout something of historic proportions, the fact that they were defeated by these poorly equipped but much battle-hardened ISIS troops, which led to the expanding of the Islamic State and of ISIS. But supporters of President Obama would say, he didn’t get us into this mess in Iraq, but he’s doing everything he can to get us out of it. Final response, Vijay?

PRASHAD: Well, I don’t really care what the supporters of Obama say about this or what and how American politics looks at it, just in narrow terms. If we come back to the question of the so-called rout in Mosul and the rout then in Sinjar and other places, these are different kind of issues to deal with. Here you have a problem. You have a military with no morale, with no clear direction. In the case of the Peshmerga from the Iraqi Kurdistan, they’re poorly paid, they have very bad morale, there is no sense of what they’re doing. It’s a similar problem in Afghanistan. Once an Imperial country destroys the military of a sovereign state, it is not easy to rebuild the military. We’ve seen this in Afghanistan. We’ve seen this now in Iraq. And we’ve seen this in Libya. So the responsibility that the United States bears perhaps is not something that the United States can fix. But I do hope that in future, people in the United States will get so excited about military intervention, will think twice about supporting U.S. bombardment to destroy the armed forces in a country, because once you destroy the armed forces in a country, it’s not going to be easy to rebuild the capacity and morale of that country’s people. It’s not going to be easy to rebuild the state. It’s a very easy—in a day you can can destroy a state; it takes 100 years to build a state.

NOOR: Vijay Prashad, thank you so much for joining us.

PRASHAD: Thank you.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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