Why Getting Rid of the Islamic State as Quickly as Possible is a Good Idea: An Anthropological Perspective

Let’s be under no illusions here – the Western world’s War on Terror is a war on a particularly insidious form of political Islam referred to variously as “Islamist extremism”, “Salafi jihadism”, “violent Wahhabism”, “militant Qutbism”, “takfirism”, “djihadisme” – the list goes on. There are some nuanced differences between these various -isms (just as between Maoism, Marxist-Leninism, Trotskyism et cetera) but at the macro-level, they mean almost the same thing. The ideology is framed around a particular understanding of the Sunni concept of “jihad” (meaning “struggle”) which overlooks the higher meaning of spiritual self-purification (jihad bil-qelb or “jihad of the heart”) referred to by the 11th century Islamic scholar Al-Khatib Al-Baghdadi as “the Greater Jihad” (al-jihad al-akhbar). Whatever the obvious flaws of this ideology it nevertheless has a parasitic relationship with Islam since its adherents base their ideas on a selective understanding of the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Exploiting “the sacred” for (profane*) political purposes is probably as old as religion – we can see this in every religion-inspired war in history.

Despite this, because Islam is one of the world’s great religions, it makes the conduct of a war on a small but virulent strand of the religion an incredibly delicate balancing act which, on the one hand, requires the use of selective violence to eradicate the ideological catalysts of this movement and on the other hand requires political acumen and an astute understanding of the utility of force so as not to alienate non-violent practitioners of Islam.

Up until now, the West’s War on Terror has been a failure and has been probably as beneficial to Al-Qaeda’s message as it has been destructive to the leadership and membership of its various franchises. Up until now, the War on Terror has failed to win the war of ideas against Al-Qaeda, an organisation that in 2001 probably only numbered in the hundreds. It has failed to eliminate the Taliban on the AfPak border and has assisted with the indigenisation of Al-Qaeda’s anti-US rhetoric through various ham-fisted endeavours. Perhaps most crucial of the Western world’s failures in the War on Terror was the rash, destructive and possibly criminal invasion of Iraq, which, in removing a secular Sunni (albeit brutal) dictator from his seat of power in Baghdad created a textbook vacuum of power in which the maelstrom of Sunni-Shia violence began to form.

With today’s Iraq constantly making front-page headlines for the acts of barbaric violence taking place there, Western leaders have found themselves once again in a position of deciding whether or not they should go to war with a new theocratic militant state called “the Islamic State” (also known by an alphabet soup of names including IS, ISIS, ISIL, Da’ish, Al-Dawla). Western populations are rightly worried about this – not least because the last military adventure in Iraq was so disastrous. Iraqis, though I have not conducted recent fieldwork to prove this, are probably similarly worried.

Despite this, just as we should be under no illusions regarding what the War on Terror is about (a fight against a particular form of militant political Islam) we should also be under no illusions about what the invasion of Iraq meant in 2003 and what a limited campaign to destroy the substantive combat capability of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (the Arabic word is Sham which loosely translates as “Greater Syria” to include Lebanon, Palestine and the Transjordan) would mean in 2014. In 2003, an invasion of Saddam’s Iraq meant the toppling of a dictator – true. But it also meant the destruction of existing comparative order, the promotion of regional instability, the exacerbation of ethnic tensions, the greatest propaganda coup Al Qaeda could ever have asked for and the tragic loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in a brutal, avoidable war.

In the Iraq of 2014 however, there is no order, there is no regional stability, the substantive meaning of the ethnic divide (in terms of violence) between Sunni and Shia is possibly the worst it has been in centuries, Al-Qaeda and its newest (and now Daddy-hating) spawn the Islamic State are well ahead in the war of ideas and thousands more lives are being lost every month in the ensuing chaos. Iraq could probably not be in a worse state.

There is the reasonable concern that a Western intervention would not achieve anything or would indeed make the existing problems in Iraq significantly worse. This concern has been enunciated already by several prominent analysts (Hugh White, as usual, being one of them). To be fair, a complete re-occupation of Iraq à la Iraq Round 1 would probably not achieve anything in the long-term except to further alienate the Iraqi population from the American GI Joes once again patrolling through their neighbourhoods even if, in the process, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his cronies are also wiped out.

The solution in Iraq lies not in pumping every conventional resource we have into the campaign but, just like we should have been doing in the first place, by using a combination of political acumen and selective (I dislike the word “surgical” because it rarely is) violence to deliver a crippling blow to the Islamic State.

So how do we deliver this crippling blow? The first thing we must consider before embarking on a rash, ham-fisted campaign against the Islamic State is where does this group’s “centre of gravity” lie? The term “centre of gravity” is the brainchild of the oft-quoted but rarely read (I admit I haven’t read Vom Kriege cover-to-cover in German) military strategist Carl von Clausewitz and then flogged to death by the US Department of Defence and academic types like me. The concept is quite simple however. The strategist identifies the enemy’s “source of power” before identifying a series of critical vulnerabilities that can be used to target this source of power. Once the centre of gravity is hit, the enemy’s mass ceases to be equally-distributed and, as the laws of physics tell us, he loses his balance and “the day” is won. In the case of the Islamic State – its centre of gravity is the (temporary) alliance it has with the Sunni tribes of Iraq against the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad.

This alliance has more than likely come about for two reasons – 1.) because the Sunni of Iraq are largely unhappy with the lack of political representation in Baghdad; 2.) because militants belonging to ISIS and arriving from the Islamist hotbeds of the Syrian conflict (such as Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zour) came into town on the back of heavily-armed technicals and presented a fairly stark choice to everyone concerned.

So what are we to make of this alliance? Is it a true military partnership between peers or simply a “marriage of convenience” between local tribal forces and a globally-minded insurgent group looking for trouble? The answer is that the ISIS-Sunni alliance falls into the latter category. How do I know? Because I have seen it before. Same actors – an Islamist insurgent group and a local tribal nationalist group. One with a global focus, the other with a local focus… and all this on the other side of the world.

When I visited Northern Mali in 2013, I visited on the backend of a French military intervention which had unseated a group of temporarily-unified Tuareg nationalists and foreign djihadistes (I use the French term here to contextually situate my description of the Islamists) who had taken control of the north of Mali. The Tuaregs had wanted to create a new Tuareg state called “Azawad” and the djihadistes wanted to institute an Islamic Caliphate in Maghrebi Africa, exactly as ISIS have now managed to achieve in Iraq and Syria. Most of the djihadistes hailed from Mediterranean Algeria, Morocco and Libya as well as from the Boko Haram-infested parts of Nigeria. They were foreigners. The djihadistes shared little in common with the Tuareg nationalists, just as the masses of foreigners from Sheffield and Western Sydney pouring into the ranks of the Islamic State have little in common with the Sunni tribes with whom they are fighting. Among the djihadistes there were many Tuaregs also, just as among ISIS there are many (perhaps mainly?) Syrians and Iraqis. But because the teachings of the djihadistes contradicted so much with Tuareg cultural traditions (such as, crucially, the playing of music) ultimately djihadisme was an ideology that was foreign and perverse to the majority of the Tuareg population. When the French arrived, the Tuareg turned on the djihadistes and the Islamist experiment in Timbuktu came to an end.

The key lesson to take away here is that foreign ideas take a long time to become “indigenous” and the French military’s rapid retaliation against the djihadistes was crucial in preventing Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s ideology from ever truly taking root. For similar reasons, the reason why the West could not and will never be able to truly unseat the Taliban in Afghanistan is because from the beginning, the insurgency was built on the strength of local ideas and highly “indigenous”. Recruits in the Taliban’s campaign were poppy growers from nearby farms, each Taliban cadre’s objectives were local and the enemy was foreign. That was always a losing battle.

“But what of the Sunni-Shi’a divide?” One might ask. “Haven’t the Sunni tribes sided with the Sunni Islamist group ISIS because they hate the Shi’a government?” One is tempted, when looking at wars in the Middle East to dichotomise and simplify, breaking down what we see in the news as simply another episode in Sunni-Shi’a feuding. Indeed, one might say of Iraq: “the Anbar tribes are Sunni and therefore don’t like the Shi’a-led government and their Iranian and Sadrist friends”. This is not a falsehood per se, but even a macro-sociological truism like “the war in Iraq is ultimately an ethnic conflict” may miss important nuances at play.

As Stathis Kalyvas reminds us with his examination of the logic of violence in the Argolid region of Greece during World War II, local cleavages such as “neighbour” versus “neighbour” are often more important in the production of violence at the local level than master cleavages like “Greek peasant” versus “Nazi occupier”. So what on Earth do Greek peasants have to do with Iraq?

While I profess to the anthropologist’s great shame in having conducted no recent fieldwork in Iraq or Syria (the last time I visited the Middle East proper was in 2011 at the beginning of the Arab “Spring” and haven’t things changed since then?) I would bet based on what I learned from my time in Mali that just as tensions existed at the local level between Tuareg militants and djihadistes the same tensions also exist between Sunni tribes with nostalgic ties to traditional Iraqi culture and foreign jihadis bearing with them the bizarre ideology of a dead, puritanical millionaire from Saudi Arabia. Indeed, while a master cleavage certainly exists between Sunni tribes and the Shi’a government, you can bet that there is also a cleavage between Sunni tribes and out-of-towners with AK-47s and stolen US Humvees telling them to accept the Caliph or die.

In 2008, when the US Army courted Sunni tribes over to its side in its fight against Al-Qaeda (an event, condescendingly, in my opinion referred to as “the Sunni Awakening”), it followed a well-orchestrated military campaign involving the deployment of troops to partner with Sunni tribal coalitions known as “Abna’ AlIraq” or “the Sons of Iraq”. What is not required here is a Sunni “re-Awakening”, because one can be assured that the Sunni tribes are very much awake. What is needed here is a concerted effort from the West to target the Islamic State by attacking its centre of gravity. This can be achieved by partnering with the Sunni tribes using special forces and company-sized conventional assets operating autonomously with individual Sunni political groups, leveraging existing tensions between tribal and jihadist forces to destroy the latter. Local partnering is already happening with the Kurds with recent examples seen in Australia’s arming of the Peshmerga and the US’ partnering with the Iraqi Army. It now needs to happen with the Sunni of Anbar, where this war will be won. The ultimate campaign against Baghdadi would likely culminate with the use of air strikes and some kind of quasi-conventional involvement.

Some Sunni Sheikhs, as this article in Al-Monitor seems to suggest may already be considering an alliance with US.

Now finally to the “why?” Why the rush? If the Islamic State and the Sunni tribes aren’t really that friendly shouldn’t we just let the Sunni do the dirty work for us. If jihadist ideology is not an indigenous ideology than shouldn’t we just wait till the locals expurgate the extremists from Anbar? Firstly, there is the humanitarian argument (which emphasises the current status of the Yazidis, the Christians and the Kurds) used by those banging the war drum. There is much to be said about the merits of ethical frameworks like the UN’s “responsibility to protect” principle but ultimately, to borrow James Brown’s words, we shouldn’t “sprinkle humanitarian dust over public statements” about Iraq.

We need to think critically, dispassionately and ultimately selfishly. So why do we want to defeat the Islamic State in pitched combat alongside swing-voting Sunni tribal militias? Because, without exaggerating, the emergence of this group in Iraq and Syria is the single most dangerous development in the Middle East in the last twenty years (perhaps equal with the US’ 2003 invasion of Iraq). Leaving aside the brutal beheadings, the mass murder and general barbarism – that the Islamic State is now able to effectively communicate its message to a receptive global audience (receptive enough to travel from the UK, Australia and the US to fight for it) is exceptionally worrying. Globalisation presents a unique set of challenges to global stability and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the achievements of the Islamist recruitment drive over the last year. Border security and counter terrorism services in Western nations may be able to prevent terrorist attacks posed by returning foreign fighters with Western passports but the movement of people, goods and weapons in today’s world is fast overtaking the ability of state actors to monitor and control them. I have always disliked the word “threat” as much as I have disliked the weasel word “terrorism” but the Islamic State poses a terrible threat to anyone in the West who shares citizenship with one of its fighters.

There are three reasons why the Islamic State will continue to survive in Iraq unless the West does something about it. The first is that the Shi’a government will not swing the Sunni tribes away from the Islamic State. Why would the Sunni change sides even if the Islamic State’s version of life is a bit radical? Now that the Sunni have some modicum of political representation it seems unlikely they would want to let go of it.

The second reason the IS will survive unless the West does something is the same reason why Al-Qaeda’s “Azawad” survived in Timbuktu until the French arrived. The locals  may have resented the hand-chopping, the burning of musical instruments, the destruction of sacred sites, the banning of smoking but the djihadistes had guns. Fear, as the very strategy of “terrorism” shows, is an effective weapon. Or, as Mao once said: “political power comes out of the barrel of a gun”.

The third reason is that although foreign ideas often find difficulty when embedding into local cultures, ideas are ultimately infectious. This is why we have that thing called “cultural globalisation”. As such, even though a Sunni tribesman might currently have nothing but disdain for the teachings of a foreign jihadi ultimately even repugnant cultural phenomenon can “indigenize” and become popular in exotic locations. Example – the popularity of the Australian soap “Neighbours” overseas.

As an anthropologist, my job is to understand the social and cultural roots of human behaviour, translating cross-cultural anathema into something an English speaker can understand. One of the first things an anthropologist learns in the process of cross-cultural translation is how similar humans can be and how different they can be at the same time. A Songhai tribesman herding goats in Timbuktu and an Iraqi Sunni baking bread in Mosul might seem worlds apart but when Al-Qaeda comes to town to set up an Islamist super-state, the ontological degrees of separation between the two can often disappear, particularly when a gun is waved in one’s face.

The good news is that the war against Islamist extremism will most likely ultimately be won by the West and by the moderate political forces of the Muslim world if only because the strength of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s ideas are so weak, compared with, say, the ostensible equanimity responsible for the allure of Marx’s economic ideas. If even the hordes of Genghis Khan could not conquer the known world and convert the populations of all enemy cities into piles of skulls than it is equally unlikely that the new Caliphate in Mesopotamia will join forces with the “righteous hordes riding out of Khorasan” (a popular image in jihadist discourse which recounts a future invasion of mujahideen out of Central Asia) and convert the rest of the world into its strange, violent and puritanical version of Islam.

In this recent article, Aki Peritz has done well to highlight that the way this war will ultimately be won is by changing the narrative, and he is right. Military solutions are not solutions. Militarily defeating the Islamic State will not end the scourge of Islamist extremism nor will it end Sunni hostility towards the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad. But if we want to be done, once and for all, with Islamist extremism, destroying the Islamic State is a good place to start.

* cf. Durkheim’s “sacred-profane” dichotomy

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4 thoughts on “Why Getting Rid of the Islamic State as Quickly as Possible is a Good Idea: An Anthropological Perspective

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