Middle East

How the Terrorists Won

And Other Uplifting Stories from the 21st Century

Hello, Internet. It’s been a while.

Well, let’s get to it.

So, let’s indulge certain world leaders and acknowledge at face value that there is a literal “war” on “terror.” Terror, of course, being a poetic substitution for “terrorism.”

In 2003 the US government released its “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.” In it is outlined the national strategy for “victory” against terrorism. The primary goal is stated as this:

“to stop terrorist attacks against the United States, its citizens, its interests, and our friends and allies around the world and ultimately, to create an international environment inhospitable to terrorists and all those who support them”

According to the report, there are four intermediate objectives required in order to accomplish this.
1. Defeat terrorists
2. Deny them sponsorship and support
3. Diminish the conditions which engender terrorism
4. Defend the security of our interests at home and abroad

Now aside from the clear hard-on for ‘D’s here alliterated, what do you notice 12 years later?
1. Terrorists are more proliferated now than when we invaded Iraq in 2003.
2. Terrorists enjoy increased support from around the world, including from our own alleged allies like Kuwait, as well as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China.
3. The Middle east has become exponentially more unstable, with civil conflict among many states creating prime conditions for breeding more extremism.
4. We have suffered through the Boston Bombing, the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, and numerous terrorist attacks upon our allies in the Middle East and the European Union.

In other words, every single objective of this strategy has failed. I’ve talked previously about how the attack on Iraq itself counter-intuitively encouraged this failure. But Al Queda, too, had a strategy, although of course it was for the advancement of terrorism.

In 2005, Saif al-Adel, al Qaeda’s military commander at the time, revealed Al Queda’s 7-point strategy for the 21st century.
1. “The awakening,” 2000-2003, in which the 9/11 attacks were the first wave. The purpose of this phase was to provoke the US into declaring war on the Muslim world.
2. “Opening Eyes,” 2004-2006, in which Iraq is converted into a hotbed for terrorist activity and an active way-station and base for recruits.
3. “Arising and Standing Up,” 2007-2010, plans for an increase in terrorist activities, especially attacks against more stable Middle eastern nations like Israel and Jordan, with a particular emphasis on Syria.
4. For the years of 2010-2013, Al Queda planned to bring about the end of dictatorial governments in the Middle East, like those of Syria and Egypt, as well as undermining the US economy using cyber-terrorism.
5. Between 2013-2016, Al Queda hopes for a literal establishment of the “Islamic State,” or caliphate, wherein the Western image will be weakened so much that support for Islamic fundamentalism will rise exponentially.
6. From 2016 onwards, the new “Islamic State” will provoke or inflict national violence against “non-believers” in the pursuit of enforcing Muslim beliefs on the entire region.
7. Al Queda foresees victory in 2020, after a two-year war in which the Western world finally admits defeat by the Muslims of the Middle East and, presumably, withdraws totally from both overt and covert capacities.

It’s sobering to remember that this was released in 2005, and had probably been in the works for at least half a decade. While some objectives are, generously, a pipe dream by terrorism defined as Al Queda alone, expanding the objectives to encompass all terrorist activity shows where the organization possessed startling prescience.
1. It goes without saying that the 9/11 attacks worked. The US invaded Afghanistan, and then Iraq, with the predictable result of getting stuck there for more than ten years.
2. Iraq has been completely destabilized, and Al Queda in Iraq, ISIS, and other terrorist organizations which were nonexistent under Saddam’s regime now flourish.
3.-4. Al Queda’s third and fourth phases eerily predict the Arab Spring and ensuing end to, or challenge of, dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, as well as their emphasized focus on Syria, where Al Nusra Front and ISIS (both local outgrowths of Al Queda)  have made significant, well-publicized gains since 2010. The economic defeat of the United States precluded any need for cyber-terrorism, as its own military adventure served the same objective, and with little need for effort on the part of Al Queda.
5. The name of “ISIS”, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is predicted. While the group exists more as a guerrilla force than a government entity, it’s startling to realize that its existence is owed in no small part to the plans and predictions of Al Queda ten years prior. The US’s predictions for Iraq and Afghanistan ten years ago were significantly less astute.
6. Although this phase is planned for the future, there’s already evidence that ISIS’s designs include such activities, and has begun to encourage them.
7. It’s hard to say what exactly will be the case in 2020, but the future isn’t looking particularly bright.

Strategy, independent of tactics, determines the victor in war. Strategy is more than a simple prediction of victory, but a description of the means to achieve victory in terms which can be interpreted broadly, but implemented specifically. As such, there is some leeway in judging the success or failure of each strategy in the Middle East, and around the world.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to say that the strategy of defeating terrorism has had any success. If anything, the US’s means of achieving that goal has actually contributed to its own defeat. Invasions and military actions in the Middle East have inflamed an already unstable region, united opinion against us, and crippled our own economy, which has resulted in an unprecedented rise in terrorism around the world.

For terrorism, US activity has been a boon, as has been the growing animosity to Muslims around the world. Western reactions and backlashes to these activities, exhibited in the rise of right-wing ideology engendered by terrorist activities, increasingly isolates and radicalizes Muslims domestically and abroad. This leads to greater recruitment of terrorists, as more Muslims see solidarity in joining with those who oppose increasingly reactionary Western governments and populations.

This, like the US and the Middle East, like Israel and Palestine, is yet another recursive loop of foreign policy, where so-called enlightened powers play into the most bold-faced and basic guerrilla strategies of extremists without recourse to real international political or economic pressure. Throughout the course of the war on terror, we have framed victory as a mere matter of search-and-destroy, and of exporting our ideas to other countries in an attempt to stabilize in one lifetime what centuries have wrought, as though those countries could not survive without our wisdom or guidance.

The truth that has emerged is that these very strategies bring about more terrorism. And if our war on terror has simply sewn more terror, what can be done? Clearly we need a new strategy. I am sick and tired of seeing these same strategies, the same tactics, used again and again by the United States, in the name of high-minded ideals like freedom and democracy, when in actuality our actions serve only to engender further animosity abroad by representing us in the most myopic and unenlightened possible light.

I have an alternative strategy to propose. It’s not a simple fix, and it is unlikely ever to be implemented, but I believe if we do not significantly change the course of this country, it will be a footnote before long, a tragic tale of the rise and fall of the first, and last, global democracy.

Argo Check Yourself [Bonus]

My last post was not only late, but lame. I’ll admit it. Had a bit of a WordPress-deleting-half-my-draft at the last minute fiasco, half-heartedly rewrote what was lost to try to make my personal Friday 11:59PM deadline, etc, etc. So here’s a bonus.

Last week, Ben Affleck went on Bill Maher, ostensibly to promote some kind of new project he’s part of. Maher brought up one of his favorite topics, which is the inferiority of Islam to “liberal”-ness, and Affleck, putting it gently, made a complete fool of himself. His arguments against Maher were emotive bile and, as Sam Harris phrased  it, “intellectually ridiculous.”

Over the last few days, however, there’s been a small outpouring of public support for Affleck on the internets, and between Affleck and Maher/Harris I can understand why. Beyond his being a popular celebrity, though Affleck provided no rational arguments to back up his anger, his anger was not at all misplaced. Maher and Harris are bigots.

Their argument is essentially this: “liberal” principles, like tolerance, non-violence, and equality cannot conflate with Islam. They are mutually exclusive, because Islam exclusively promotes only intolerance, violence, and inequality, and even if only (“conservatively,” as Harris puts it) 20% of Muslims are “radical,” ultimately, the inherent anti-liberal-ness of Islam marginalizes the potential for any of the remaining moderates to exercise liberal values.

The reason this is bigoted is because it ascribes a religious identity to social and political forces that have evolved from less-than-religious roots, in order to persecute that religious identity. It also completely ignores the social, political, and religious history of the west. Oh, Christianity is bad, Maher and Haris admit, but liberals won’t talk about how bad Islam is, too. However, Christianity is distinctly Western, and by also conflating Liberalism with Westernism (as Maher does) in opposition to a more commonly Eastern religion in Islam which is portrayed as exclusively anti-liberal, the implication is truly, Christianity is bad, but it’s on the side of the west, the side of Liberalism, so Islam is worse.

If you want to find a religious culture where religious fundamentalism is on the rise, where abuse of women is sanctified, where minorities are persecuted… well if you’ve been checking the links, you know where I’m going with this. Look no further than Cold War America.

It was in 1954 that the words “under god” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, largely by the initiative of the Knights of Columbus (a conservative Catholic national fraternity and lobby) and a Presbyterian minister capitalizing on the president’s recent conversion and baptism. America’s identity became inextricable from a conservative, Christian worldview that presented itself as a necessary deterrent to the “Godless Communism” of the Soviet Union. America even had its own version of an Inquisition.

Bible verses have been quoted to justify just about every kind of hate you can imagine, in varying degrees, in support of conservative, or at least decidedly non-liberal, agendas. Christianity has been a rallying cry against everything from bikinis to free speech, and while those practices have hardly ended by today, they reached a particular fever pitch during this period.

Yet, the next ten years saw the birth of modern liberalism in the Civil Rights movement, spearheaded most famously by an ordained Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. King did not only crusade for social justice, but for peace, opposing both Jim Crow and the Vietnam War. He hardly denied his religious roots, fervently quoting bible passages like “turn the other cheek,” and “those who use the sword will die by it.” King’s message was imbued completely with religious references and imagery, and yet his liberal message did not suffer for it. He managed to take the same book used to justify hate and persecution to weave from it a message of peace, love, and equality.

The Bible has everything from “women are forbidden to speak in church” to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In the Torah, God orders the slaughter of women, children, and animals, and yet also forbids murder. These books are so old, so varied, translated in so many ways, that they can be used to justify pretty much anything. Which passages are chosen to justify social and political goals says everything about the person who chooses them, moreso than the religion they ascribe to.

So, now we get back to Maher and Harris. Two educated guys who proclaim to raise the banner of liberalism and casually judge others’ ignorance, have not taken the time to consider that their liberalisms, rooted in Judeo-Christian western history, could possibly have any parallel in the Islamic faiths, which are nothing but violent and intolerant.

“There is no compulsion in religion
“Clear proofs have indeed come to you from your Lord: so whoever sees, it is for his own good; and whoever is blind, it is to his own harm
“And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors

The bigotry here comes from not only maintaining deliberate ignorance against a peoples’ beliefs, but then using that ignorance as a springboard for their own declaration of moral superiority.

Sure, the Quran says some frightening things. But so does the Bible. It also says some nice, friendly things… like the Bible does. But acting like these religious forces exist in a political and social vacuum where they dictate only one inescapable, dogmatic interpretation is simply facile. There have been liberal movements in the Islamic world, similarly spearheaded by religious figures citing inspiration from Islam, bolstered by a synchronicity of changing social and political events. These events are not mere background color to some unyielding pattern of religious zealotry, but demand vast swaths of the tapestry of history.

In their arrogant mode of secularism, atheists like Maher embrace liberalism while willfully ignoring its roots in religion. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Martin Luther, adherents have brought about liberal reforms via their personal interpretation of religious beliefs, and it is in the ensuing dialog over religious values that liberal ideas have taken hold. The very idea that there is an objective ideal of morality comes from religion, and for atheists to decry and judge others on any moral platform, especially by equating religiousness with immorality, is hypocritical and, yes, bigoted.

But whatever. They’re just exercising their free speech, which is their right. And really I’m just aiming at the easiest targets, because people like Maher are merely symptomatic of a larger problem, which is the idea that morality must be enforced by a global power, namely, America.

During the Cold War, was there a giant superpower of a country breathing down America’s back, landing missiles in its cities, inserting commando teams or outright invading it in order to end the zealous rise of religious fundamentalism?

(The USSR certainly tried to stick its fingers in US affairs, but the give and take on that issue was pretty evenly-matched, and very much a matter of literal survival. So, provided you don’t believe in conspiracy theories, no, no one tried doing that.)

Let’s imagine someone had. Let’s say, locked in this struggle with a rival nation, some other, larger, more powerful nation existed and simultaneously tried to exert its moral authority on the United States through social, political, economic, and military pressure. Do you think there’d be some resentment? Maybe a little animosity? Do you think maybe those conservative, fundamental forces might gain even more support against the threat of submission to foreign ideals, while they’re already gaining popular support under threat from their rivals? That it might completely negate or reverse the sort of liberal forces that managed to rise during the 60’s?

The more the allegedly “liberal” antagonize those who do not ascribe to those beliefs, the more they harden the hearts of their opposition with their declarations of moral superiority. If they truly wished to spread liberalism across the world, it would be by demonstrating it through their deeds, not parading it like a crown. The best lead by example, not merely by asserting their authority as “teachers.”

Matthew 23 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
23 Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:
The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law are experts in the Law of Moses. So obey everything they teach you, but don’t do as they do. After all, they say one thing and do something else.
They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. They even make a big show of wearing Scripture verses on their foreheads and arms, and they wear big tassels[a] for everyone to see. They love the best seats at banquets and the front seats in the meeting places. And when they are in the market, they like to have people greet them as their teachers.
But none of you should be called a teacher. You have only one teacher, and all of you are like brothers and sisters. Don’t call anyone on earth your father. All of you have the same Father in heaven. 10 None of you should be called the leader. The Messiah is your only leader. 11 Whoever is the greatest should be the servant of the others. 12 If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored.

Ok, maybe a bit of a stretch. Couldn’t help myself.

Iran: America’s Best Ally in Iraq

Before I begin, gonna get this out of the way; Iran isn’t the best country, let alone a perfect country. Sure, “neither is the United States,” but Iran is even further from perfect than that. That is not to say that they are an immature or backwards country. Iran’s culture and history stretch back thousands of years. They actually were doing pretty well for themselves until the U.S. and Britain decided the country shouldn’t be allowed to keep the revenues from its own oil sales. But that’s another story. The point is, Iran isn’t a cluster of radical Jihadist cells trying to develop a dirty bomb as some would have you believe. Iran is modernizing, urbanizing, and generally working towards a share in the level of economic and technological prosperity enjoyed by most of the Western world.

Iran is also, importantly, fairly stable. There was that famous hiccup a few decades ago (mostly due to the blowback of US intervention), but as the twenty-first century has dragged on through recessions and Arab Springs, Iran has not become increasingly radical and authoritarian, threatening to devolve into revolutionary chaos. It’s slowly, gradually, evolving into a more moderate state.

Again, I will not propose that Iran is or will soon become a beacon of “enlightened” western-style democracy. But in the present situation with ISIS, looking at Iraq (and ways out of it), the United States doesn’t exactly have a buffet of options. It can re-engage militarily, or it can ease the burden onto a regional ally invested in Iraq’s future. Military re-engagement obviously isn’t a solution. If after ten years of military efforts this stuff is still happening, it should be obvious the military option isn’t a solution. We can’t do “nothing,” or at least, it would be morally irresponsible. So who can we ease the burden onto? The only neighbor with the power, regional influence, and a self-interested motivation to effectively aid Iraq is Iran.

It goes without saying that the consequence of the military adventure in Iraq has been… mixed, but I’ll elaborate first to avoid begging the question. One of the worst results of the 2003 invasion was sectarian violence, sparked by members of the Shia majority which, under Saddam, was suppressed by the Sunni minority. After “democracy” was established, the majority Shia not only had the tactical capability, but the historical motivation for aggression upon the Sunni minority. Shia death squads emerged which essentially acted as a state-sanctioned mafia, driving Sunnis out of their cities and homes so that they could be occupied by Shia. Al Queda in Iraq (AQI) gained traction among the Sunni population by exploiting these crimes and posing themselves as the counterweight to Shia aggression. On top of the logistical nightmare of rebuilding a modern, functioning society in Iraq, the US had the profound military challenge of decreasing violence in the country, when it was caused both by terrorists and by sectarian civil warfare. It took ten years for the US to effectively marginalize AQI, and that was largely with the initiative taken by local populations who identified AQI as outsiders invading their country, and fought back.

ISIS itself, by the standards of a conventional military, is not a threat. At most 10,000 strong, it is currently drunk on its success in overrunning weak positions and racing towards Baghdad. This is blitzkrieg maneuvering, on the level of the Third Reich’s opening bid to claim Europe. However, ISIS is still a terror group, not a national army. They do not have the forces or logistical capability to take and hold territory, or to police it as a government authority, for a long period of time. They also have yet to fight a national army of any modern caliber of capability. If they do reach Baghdad, it is the most well-defended city in Iraq, not least of all because it is the seat of government power and authority, and if Iraq’s current ministry understands anything, it’s self-preservation. If ISIS attacks Baghdad, they will trigger a military response that will overwhelm them. In fact, the military response is already beginning. Sooner or later, ISIS will be defeated. That’s when the problem truly begins.

The attempt at conventional maneuver thwarted, ISIS will revert to using guerrilla tactics: infiltrating local populations, using hit-and-fade, sniper attacks, car bombs, all of those things which require few personnel but can cause significant damage. On top of being the serpent’s head which replaces that of AQI, there is also AQI, bloodied but not beaten, and the sectarian divides that continue to exist and fuel both organizations. It is a fantasy to assume military intervention will magically wave all of those factors away when it took ten years to get Iraq to this level of security and stability.

So, let’s look at the other option: sponsoring another nation to help stabilize Iraq. Much of the Middle East, from Egypt to Yemen, is consumed by the final throes of the Arab Spring, or its immediate results (a brutal Arab Summer?). Also, much of the Middle East falls on the Sunni side of Sunni-Shia relations, including ISIS, which predicates much of its justification with the unfair treatment of Sunnis in Iraq, one of few countries in the world with a Shia majority. Also among those countries? Iran.

Iran and Iraq have had a complicated relationship, to put it gently. Iran has done everything from waging war against Iraq to supporting terrorists against its post-Saddam government. That Iran has even considered aiding Iraq is surprising—but not that surprising. Iran recognizes that ISIS is not just a threat to Iraq and Syria (both bordering countries), but to the stability of the entire Middle East. Iraq’s government must be a nightmare to deal with now, but imagine if Iran had to contend with a large, unstable neighbor with large swaths of territory and resources along its border controlled by violently anti-Shia terrorists, when Iran is a mostly-Shia nation. An unstable Iraq is a risk to Iran’s security, economy, and simply any positive expectations for its own future. Whatever happens in Iraq in the long term is an immediate concern for Iran.

Large swaths of Mexico have been commandeered by violent drug cartels. Do you think the US is content to let its large, close southern neighbor fall to chaos? Spoiler alert: no. Is there any end in sight? Not really, but you can bet that at no point will the US give up the effort and hope the problem solves itself. The actions of those drug cartels directly affect the United States, making them a direct threat until they’re successfully marginalized or eliminated. That isn’t going to happen any time soon, so we’re in it for the long haul.

Iran is not an evil villain, content to sit back and watch the Middle East burn. They’re even more concerned with Iraq than we in the US are, because after we finally leave, they’re the ones who have to deal with the consequences. If there are problems (there will be big problems), they will be the only ones left to act on them.

I say, why not seize this opportunity for reconciliation? Iran is moving up in the world, and it’s certainly not thanks to the US. We can continue with a hawkish condemnation of the country for events that, ultimately, we caused, or we can bury the hatchet and move forward, recognize Iran as a legitimate nation, and maybe even formally apologize(?). Their domestic policies are, surely, a concern, but we will not democratize the world in a day, and certainly not by force. China has grown internationally by almost exclusively using a doctrine of what is called “soft power:” political assistance and inclusion extended to other countries to enhance its own reputation. Surprisingly, reaching out to other countries on friendly terms has vastly expanded China’s influence, without them needing to establish extravagant military bases or pummel other parties into submission. I’m not going to say that China’s perfect either, but there’s certainly a lesson to be learned here. The entire mess in Iraq was a result of the assumption that the US knows what’s best; the US’s global position has worsened dramatically as a result. By now it’s clear we need to suck up our pride, recognize we’re not the center of the universe, and treat other countries as equals. Iran’s a good place to start.