It’s been a year since ISIS announced its “caliphate” over an area straddling Iraq and Syria, accelerating its reign of terror and persisting in expanding its reach into the so-called civilized world. The brutality of the rampagers is now a given–the extreme acts of killing, genocide, and systematic rape all featured on social media and intended to be a bullet aimed straight at western sensibilities; offensive clickbait that demands a response, any response.
For months now, noisy armchair warriors have clamored for more bombing and boots on the ground. And after the attacks in Tunisia and the outrageous Dark Ages-inspired killings displayed last week, one might think that we’ve reached the last straw. Boots and bombs, though, are exactly what is on ISIS’ birthday registry. Neither gift should be given; and we would be foolish to the extreme to accelerate American military action.
I don’t speak as a pacifist, nor do I believe that the Obama administration is to be blamed for our current dilemma. And though it is important to ponder why ISIS exists and be mindful of whatever mistakes we’ve made in fighting, I don’t want to deliver any more inspiration to them or stimulate yet more success on their part. While ISIS certainly deserves to be annihilated, the only way that is going to happen is if the people of the region take the lead and we get out of the way.
A year ago, the black flag of ISIS went up in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Less than a month later, that was followed by the June 29 announcement that a caliphate was being established in the lands of Iraq and Syria. The forerunners of the Islamic State IS—aka the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL/ISIS or the Arabic acronym Daesh—were the insurgency fighting in Iraq, and the organization has, in the years since the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, expanded its control over significant areas of both Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been called a militant group, terrorists, extremists, and barbarians, but over the past year, as it has gained and lost territory, it has hardly been set back.
ISIS persists, but not as a state in the way we recognize nation states, and though there is a leader, it is also leaderless in the sense of any other measure than seized power. Thus, ISIS is more an idea than anything else. It might not be an idea we can accept but it is an idea nevertheless. And though it is impossible to reconcile a civilized interpretation of Islam as the idea, ISIS exists just as religious extremists exist everywhere—Jewish, Christian; let’s face it, where there is any ARMY OF GOD. And I say that as someone who believes in God.
One could recount every detestable step of this demon baby and attribute its success to superb organization and coordination (or indeed to our disorganization). One could count up the number of fighters, their attacks, the number of airstrikes in response, the number of villages seized, the number of fighters and civilians killed, the number of truck interdicted, bombs exploded, throats cut. But all of that would miss the central truth: The inability of the Iraqi state to exert control over its own territory and the lack of will on the part of Iraqi soldiers to fight on behalf of their own nation. There are a million political factors at play that divide the Iraqis and make them ineffective, a million reasons why the “Free Syrians,” vetted and trained in the west, are also a hopeless counter and a losing holding pattern. All of these weakness can be recounted and lamented, but the truth is that the splits and failures are symptomatic of deeper weaknesses in the region. And they aren’t disappearing anytime soon. So ISIS grows.
Add to all of this the “international coalition” that fights ISIS. Our Arab partners are not just reluctant to engage ISIS with offensive vigor and commitment—they are unable 900 years into Islam to claim greater credibility and majesty than the fractured religion itself. Instead these states have adopted and resorted to the age-old model of military repression and control; and then the American instrument of airpower in their own anti-ISIS fighting, emulating our airpower-dominated and hands-off way of war (with its special operations adjunct of equivalent superior killers). Jordan in particular exemplifies the dilemma: a militarized secular monarchy stuck in the middle of dozens of competing models of how to organize society; and then when it comes to war, an air force and a special operations elite made over in our graven image. But it is at the same time neither indigenous nor sustainable without American and western supply and backing. In other words, it is obvious that in a much bigger scheme of things that Amman is our proxy. So ISIS grows.
As ISIS rampages over the territories of two failed states—one created in the demise of Saddam Hussein, the other in the smoldering ashes of the Assad regime in Syria—it appears that the only answer is boots on the ground.
In order to have an intelligent discussion of the need for boots on the ground, it is essential to define what it means. In our current lexicon, because there are already American (and allied) special operations forces on the ground, because there already are air spotters working on the ground, and already CIA paramilitaries and other proxies in Syria and Iraq and Jordan and Turkey and elsewhere, boots on the ground has a very specific connotation. It means regular combat troops, boots referring to the standard issue of conventional fighting units, all in hierarchical unison. These boots comes in camps and have logistical lines and need to be mobilized and sustained, even if they are trim and expeditionary. And given that boots on the ground are also public troops, those with yellow ribbons back home, they also are the subject of intense scrutiny, an army that marches on its stomach and those of its families, more effective militarily at taking territory perhaps but also one which can’t quite stomach the kind of fighting and carnage that ISIS so much wants to engage in.
None of that is to say that ISIS couldn’t be defeated on the ground, but a strategy to do so would necessitate many bigger decisions about what to do about the failed states and Islam and the will of the people, which, in the end, sounds a lot like building a western Empire and warring against Islam, both of which are not in the cards and both of which would just breed more of the same.
There are no boots of this type on the ground, or at least no conquering boots. And so the west is engaged in targeting, which has been the vanguard of all of our military action since at least 2003. Target evil anywhere it can be geolocated, wherever it is, to rid the world of all of its enemies. We are stuck in a wanted-dead-or-alive, head-in-a-box, arch-evil assassination scheme, calculating the data of success as if we are getting anywhere other than bigger numbers.
On the other front, we are funneling billions to information whores in their psychological operations and “influence” campaigns against ISIS and extremism. But can’t we just have some information truth for once? Our influence campaign has been worse than a massive failure: ISIS messages seem to resonate even more globally and there seems no limit in the number willing recruits who want to join the cause.
Not understanding ISIS as an idea though, one might think that these recruits are attracted by ISIS or Shariah or indeed even some religious creed when in fact they are attracted by one thing and one thing alone: their hate of the West, their hate of the proxy state, their hatred of subjugation to western ideals and answers, their hate of the anti-Islamic hegemony that they imagine is organized against them.
On the anniversary today, the news media insists on labeling the anti-ISIS actions as “a massive international campaign” but of course it is nothing of the sort. A hair is barely out of place in Washington in fighting ISIS; only the military and intelligence worlds are seized with war. And thus they—our proxy—fights in a vacuum, doing only what they have now learned to do, all the while waiting for some present to be delivered that is going to make a difference and turn the tide. It isn’t going to be boots on the ground, not in an election year. But it is going to be trinkets that look like boots and in that we will just make things worse.
So, Happy Birthday ISIS. I’m not offering congratulations or wishes for anything. You have raped and tortured and executed in the name of purity and religion, appropriating the hand of God in declaring those not worth of living for blasphemy, sorcery, sodomy, narcotics trafficking. May you spend eternity in hell.