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Why Military Action Won't Eliminate Terrorism

11/25/2014 05:27 EST | Updated 01/25/2015 05:59 EST
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Syrian woman in the camp for displaced persons in Qatma, Syria (January 2013)

Whenever I turn on the news these days someone is shouting at me. Not me, in particular, but people like me. People who dare to wonder aloud whether a renewed military offensive led by a "coalition of the willing" (and the luke-warm) in Iraq and Syria to combat ISIS is going to work. And by "work," I mean do what is intended, which is to degrade, possibly destroy -- in President Obama's words -- a movement of genocidal militants.

At least most of us can agree on this point: ISIS is not fighting for religious freedom, women's equality and open societies. But spend any amount of time listening to pundits squawk at one another from their questionable perch, and you will be forced into a polarizing narrative. It goes like this: ISIS is a global menace, threatening all and sundry with their ideological spew and subterranean network of explosive vest-wearers. The only way to deal with this problem is to crush it at its source: In Iraq's scarred mountains and wadi towns stretching across the northwest part of the country into Turkey and Syria. Not coincidentally, ISIS territory currently includes a reasonable portion of Iraq's energy pipelines and oil production -- the smuggling of which is thought to be bringing in about $2 million a day.

To these world view subscribers, the choice is clear and stark: This is a battle between just and unjust, between modernity and barbarity, and between freedom and repression. And if your immediate response isn't "Hell yes let's bomb them!", then you must be an apologist hippy who doesn't understand the gravity of the threat, or worse -- a sniveling Chamberlain who is content to let innocent people die. But is it really war's critics who are naive, or its proponents?

The West and its allies are fighting a war in Iraq and along its borders that isn't so much about territory as it is about identity -- about how the Arab world sees itself. It has to do with religion and ethnicity, yes, but it also has to do with competing ideas about Arab nationalism, which extend into often violently opposing views of history, economic systems, royal monopolies and Western interests in the region. It is important to acknowledge, or rather admit, that ISIS didn't take over an area the size of Ireland with an estimated force of 10,000 militants without some degree of both implicit and explicit local support. They aren't camped out in the desert, or we would have taken them all out already. Instead, they are bunked up in apartment buildings and homes, eating locally-prepared food, using our weapons against those who oppose them -- in other words, against "us."

What does this mean? It means that America and its allies might slow ISIS' progression, but we are unlikely to reclaim this territory from them without a sustained, protracted ground assault -- one which, whether fought by Western troops or local armies, will only cause this identity clash to deepen and resentments to fester. The overarching objective is to stall ISIS' advances and that may work here and there during the months that follow. But stalling a militant movement does not equate to solving the problem, and over time can even strengthen their hand when the opposing power is foreign, as the Taliban in Afghanistan have shown.

The uncomfortable truth is that military actions might slow terrorism but can't eradicate it. A major reason for this is that the rule about strength in numbers does not apply: one thousand terrorists can cause a lot of damage, but ten can sometimes cause even more. And in a few years, no matter how heavy their losses, terror groups always manage to rebuild and refinance as long as the ideological drivers are still there.

Groups like ISIS are aided by identifying a common enemy -- us -- and the longer the list of local grievances, the easier it is for them to expand their reach. In Iraq alone, the life cycle of terrorism in the face of military intervention has gone from being non-existent before 2003, to a playground for Al Qaeda and al- Nusra a few years later, to the birth place of ISIS at the ten-year mark -- surely not an encouraging trajectory.

So it is not war's critics who are naive. It is not naive to wonder whether sending arms to proxy fighters with often strident views of their own might backfire, or at least not work as we'd hoped (see: Syria, Libya and Afghanistan). It is not foolish to question whether bombing, backed by some clumsily tied boots on the ground that we can't control, will ever result in a "decisive" victory -- today, tomorrow or even in 20 years.

It is not irresponsible, or in any way treasonous, to suggest that we are keeping some rather uncomfortable company in this mission against ISIS and which might just smack of hypocrisy: Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty, has beheaded 59 people this year. Just last month, the Saudi courts sentenced a popular Shia cleric and outspoken critic of the Royal Family, Nimr al-Nimr, to death. Citizens of Gulf States have also been implicated in the buying of young Syrian refugee girls for forced early marriages, indentured servitude and sexual slavery. And the oil billionaires of these same countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are suspected of providing financial capital to violent Sunni groups aligned with ISIS. Are they participants in the fight against ISIS now because they can't control the Frankenstein they so recklessly and thoughtlessly built, or because the Islam espoused by ISIS is of a somewhat socialist and anti-monarchist nature? We don't really know.

Keep pulling back the curtain, and who is really fighting ISIS where it lies? Hezbollah, Assad's forces, and Kurdish and Shia militia: Groups with very large and finely ground axes. No wonder Turkey hesitated in Kobani -- this is a part of the world where the choice is between enemies and enemies' enemies who are still not friends. And then there's Assad -- the red line crossing, chemical weapons deploying potentate many military hawks wanted to obliterate three years ago. Had America and its allies done that, would all of Syria be an "Islamic State" right now? Do we even know? These are awkward questions no one's keen to answer.

Nevertheless we push ahead, averting our eyes and holding our noses.

The conversation about war cannot be reduced to binary arguments about military action versus doing nothing. There are a myriad of strategies in between, from renewed diplomatic efforts to negotiate a ceasefire in Syria, to accelerating a more politically and economically inclusive Iraq. War crimes were committed and perpetrators must be held to account. These are all options.

Challenging the wisdom of charging into a region the West has shown a reckless propensity to misunderstand is not cowardly -- it is prudent. Innocent people are indeed dying and have already died, but will our bombs "save" them? Probably not. In fact, there's a risk they may accelerate the killing. Asking these questions is not naive. Not asking them is downright foolish.

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