How can we stop the Islamic State?
Imagine yourself shaken awake, rushed off to a strategy meeting with your presidential candidate of choice, and told: “Come up with a plan for me to do something about ISIS!” What would you say?
What Hasn’t Worked
You’d need to start with a persuasive review of what hasn’t worked over the past 14-plus years. American actions against terrorism — the Islamic State being just the latest flavor — have flopped on a remarkable scale, yet remain remarkably attractive to our present crew of candidates. (Bernie Sanders might be the only exception, though he supports forming yet another coalition to defeat ISIS.)
Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.
Since the June 2014 start of Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run. Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.” The CIA estimates that the Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 begins.
How about the capture of cities then? Well, the U.S. and its partners have already gone a few rounds when it comes to taking cities. After all, U.S. troops claimed Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, in 2003, only to see the American-trained Iraqi army lose it to ISIS in May 2015, and U.S-trained Iraqi special operations troops backed by U.S. air power retake it (in almost completely destroyed condition) as 2015 ended. As one pundit put it, the destruction and the cost of rebuilding make Ramadi “a victory in the worst possible sense.” Yet the battle cry in Washington and Baghdad remains “On to Mosul!”
Similar “successes” have regularly been invoked when it came to ridding the world of evil tyrants, whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, only to see years of blowback follow. Same for terrorist masterminds, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as minor-minds (Jihadi John in Syria), only to see others pop up and terror outfits spread. The sum of all this activity, 14-plus years of it, has been ever more failed states and ungoverned spaces.
If your candidate needs a what-hasn’t-worked summary statement, it’s simple: everything.
How Dangerous Is Islamic Terrorism for Americans?
To any argument you make to your preferred presidential candidate about what did not “work,” you need to add a sober assessment of the real impact of terrorism on the United States in order to ask the question: Why exactly are we engaged in this war on this scale?
Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11. Argue about the number if you want. In fact, double or triple it and it still adds up to a tragic but undeniable drop in the bucket. To gain some perspective, pick your favorite comparison: number of Americans killed since 9/11 by guns (more than 400,000) or by drunk drivers in 2012 alone (more than 10,000).
And spare us the tired trope about how security measures at our airports and elsewhere have saved us from who knows how many attacks. A recent test by the Department of Homeland’s own Inspector General’s Office showed that 95% of contraband, including weapons and explosives, got through airport screening without being detected. Could it be that there just aren’t as many bad guys out there aiming to take down our country as candidates on the campaign trail would like to imagine?
Or take a look at the National Security Agency’s Fourth Amendment-smothering blanket surveillance. How’d that do against the Boston bombing or the attacks in San Bernardino? There’s no evidence it has ever uncovered a real terror plot against this country.
Islamic terrorism in the United States is less a serious danger than a carefully curated fear.
Introduce Your Candidate to the Real World
You should have your candidate’s attention by now. Time to remind him or her that Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.
So start advising your candidate that a proper response to the Islamic State has to be proportional to the real threat. After all, we have fire departments always on call, but they don’t ride around spraying water on homes 24/7 out of “an abundance of caution.”
We Have to Do Something
So here’s what you might suggest that your candidate do, because you know that s/he will demand to “do something.”
Start by suggesting that, as a society, we take a deep look at ourselves, our leaders, and our media, and stop fanning everyone’s flames. It’s time, among other things, to stop harassing and discriminating against our own Muslim population, only to stand by slack-jawed as a few of them become radicalized, and Washington then blames Twitter. As president, you need to opt out of all this, and dissuade others from buying into it.
As for the Islamic State itself, it can’t survive, never mind fight, without funds. So candidate, it’s time to man/woman up, and go after the real sources of funding.
As long as the U.S. insists on flying air attack sorties (and your candidate may unfortunately need to do so to cover his/her right flank), direct them far more intensely than at present against one of ISIS’s main sources of cash: oil exports. Blow up trucks moving oil. Blow up wellheads in ISIS-dominated areas. Finding targets is not hard. The Russians released reconnaissance photos showing what they claimed were 12,000 trucks loaded with smuggled oil, backed up near the Turkish border.
But remind your candidate that this would not be an expansion of the air war or a shifting from one bombing campaign to a new one. It would be a short-term move, with a defined end point of shutting down the flow of oil. It would only be one part of a far larger effort to shut down ISIS’s sources of funds.
Next, use whatever diplomatic and economic pressure is available to make it clear to whomever in Turkey that it’s time to stop facilitating the flow of that ISIS oil onto the black market. Then wield that same diplomatic and economic pressure to force buyers to stop purchasing it. Some reports suggest that Israel, cut off from most Arab sources of oil, has become a major buyer of ISIS’s supplies. If so, step on some allied toes. C’mon, someone is buying all that black-market black gold.
The same should go for Turkey’s behavior toward ISIS. That would extend from its determination to fight Kurdish forces fighting ISIS to the way it’s allowed jihadis to enter Syria through its territory to the way it’s funneled arms to various extreme Islamic groups in that country. Engage Turkey’s fellow NATO members. Let them do some of the heavy lifting. They have a dog in this fight, too.
And speaking of stepping on allied toes, make it clear to the Saudis and other Sunni Persian Gulf states that they must stop sending money to ISIS. Yes, we’re told that this flow of “donations” comes from private citizens, not the Saudi government or those of its neighbors. Even so, they should be capable of exerting pressure to close the valve. Forget a “no-fly zone” over northern Syria — another fruitless “solution” to the problem of the Islamic State that various presidential candidates are now plugging — and use the international banking system to create a no-flow zone.
You may not be able to stop every buck from reaching ISIS, but most of it will do in a situation where every dollar counts.
Your candidate will obviously then ask you, “What else? There must be more we can do, mustn’t there?”
To this, your answer should be blunt: Get out. Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.
In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.
This is history talking to us.
That Darn History Thing
Sometimes things change visibly at a specific moment: December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, or the morning of September 11, 2001. Sometimes the change is harder to pinpoint, like the start of the social upheaval that, in the U.S., came to be known as “the Sixties.”
In the Middle East after World War I, representatives of the victorious British and French drew up national boundaries without regard for ethnic, sectarian, religious, tribal, resource, or other realities. Their goal was to divvy up the defeated Ottoman Empire. Later, as their imperial systems collapsed, Washington moved in (though rejecting outright colonies for empire by proxy). Secular dictatorships were imposed on the region and supported by the West past their due dates. Any urge toward popular self-government was undermined or destroyed, as with the coup against elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, or the way the Obama administration manipulated the Arab Spring in Egypt, leading to the displacement of a democratically chosen government by a military coup in 2013.
In this larger context, the Islamic State is only a symptom, not the disease. Washington’s problem has been its desire to preserve a collapsing nation-state system at the heart of the Middle East. The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq certainly sped up the process in a particularly disastrous fashion. Twelve years later, there can’t be any question that the tide has turned in the Middle East — forever.
It’s time for the U.S. to stand back and let local actors deal with the present situation. ISIS’s threat to us is actually minimal. Its threat to those in the region is another matter entirely. Without Washington further roiling the situation, it’s a movement whose limits will quickly enough become apparent.
The war with ISIS is, in fact, a struggle of ideas, anti-western and anti-imperialist, suffused with religious feeling. You can’t bomb an idea or a religion away. Whatever Washington may want, much of the Middle East is heading toward non-secular governments, and toward the destruction of the monarchies and the military thugs still trying to preserve updated versions of the post-World War I system. In the process, borders, already dissolving, will sooner or later be redrawn in ways that reflect how people on the ground actually see themselves.
There is little use in questioning whether this is the right or wrong thing because there is little Washington can do to stop it. However, as we should have learned in these last 14 years, there is much it can do to make things far worse than they ever needed to be. The grim question today is simply how long this painful process takes and how high a cost it extracts. To take former President George W. Bush’s phrase and twist it a bit, you’re either with the flow of history or against it.
Initially, Washington’s military withdrawal from the heart of the Middle East will undoubtedly further upset the current precarious balances of power in the region. New vacuums will develop and unsavory characters will rush in. But the U.S. has a long history of either working pragmatically with less than charming figures (think: the Shah of Iran, Anwar Sadat, or Saddam Hussein before he became an enemy) or isolating them. Iran, currently the up-and-coming power in the area absent the United States, will no doubt benefit, but its reentry into the global system is equally inevitable.
And the oil will keep flowing; it has to. The countries of the Middle East have only one mighty export and need to import nearly everything else. You can’t eat oil, so you must sell it, and a large percentage of that oil is already sold to the highest bidder on world markets.
It’s true that, even in the wake of an American withdrawal, the Islamic State might still try to launch Paris-style attacks or encourage San Bernardino-style rampages because, from a recruitment and propaganda point of view, it’s advantageous to have the U.S. and the former colonial powers as your number one enemies. This was something Osama bin Laden realized early on vis-à-vis Washington. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in drawing the U.S. deeply into the quagmire and tricking Washington into doing much of his work for him. But the dangers of such attacks remain limited and can be lived with. As a nation, we survived World War II, decades of potential nuclear annihilation, and scores of threats larger than ISIS. It’s disingenuous to believe terrorism is a greater threat to our survival.
And here’s a simple reality to explain to your candidate: we can’t defend everything, not without losing everything in the process. We can try to lock down airports and federal buildings, but there is no way, nor should there be, to secure every San Bernardino holiday party, every school, and every bus stop. We should, in fact, be ashamed to be such a fear-based society here in the home of the brave. Today, sadly enough, the most salient example of American exceptionalism is being the world’s most scared country. Only in that sense could it be said that the terrorists are “winning” in America.
At this point, your candidate will undoubtedly say: “Wait! Won’t these ideas be hard to sell to the American people? Won’t our allies object?”
And the reply to that, at least for a candidate not convinced that more of the same is the only way to go, might be: “After more than 14 years of the wrong answers and the disasters that followed, do you have anything better to suggest?”
Before he was assassinated by a United States government drone under orders from Obama and in contemptuous disregard for the Bill of Rights, Fifth and Sixth Amendments, Anwar al-Awlaki was an American Citizen.
I have written a fair amount about his death, one small piece of which was picked up by the New York Times Sunday Magazine:
You can bomb a thing into oblivion, but you cannot blow up an idea. An idea can only be defeated by another, better idea. So killing al-Awlaki had no more chance of truly silencing him than turning off the radio and hoping the broadcast never exists elsewhere. In an environment where martyrdom is prized, America might begin to turn around its failures first by creating fewer martyrs.
More on al-Awlaki elsewhere on this blog…
A well-done article in the New York Times reminds us that four years after the United States assassinated American citizen and Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (and his teenage son) in a drone strike, his influence on jihadists is greater than ever.
At the same time, the UK’s Guardian tells us about William Bradford, an assistant law professor at West Point, who argued in a peer-reviewed paper that attacks on Muslim scholars’ homes and offices, Middle Eastern media outlets and Islamic holy sites are legitimate and necessary to “win” the war on terrorism.
Bradford threatens “Islamic holy sites” as part of a war against radicalism. That war ought to be prosecuted vigorously, he wrote, “even if it means great destruction, innumerable enemy casualties, and civilian collateral damage. Other ‘lawful targets’ for the U.S. military in its war on terrorism,” Bradford argues, “include law school facilities, scholars’ home offices and media outlets where they give interviews, all civilian areas, but places where a causal connection between the content disseminated and Islamist crimes incited exist.”
Illustrations of Failure
The two articles illustrate as sharply as can be the failures of America in the last 14 years. Not only has the United States failed to blunt terrorism, Islamic State and radical hegemony, it has made them worse. Indeed, the foreign terror attacks so many Americans live in fear of have morphed into Americans themselves committing terror attacks. That is not progress.
But that’s how the articles in the Times and the Guardian show the WHAT of failure. The WHY is also revealed: terror is an idea, not a thing.
You can bomb a thing into oblivion, but you cannot blow up an idea. An idea can only be defeated by another, better, idea. So killing al-Awlaki had no more chance of truly silencing him than turning off the radio and hoping the broadcast never exists elsewhere. At the same time the U.S. runs social media campaigns claiming we are not at war with Islam, allowing an instructor at America’s military academy to justify attacks on the institutions of Islam simply reinforces the belief around the world that we are indeed trying to destroy a religion.
In an environment where martyrdom is prized, America might begin to turn around its failures first by creating fewer martyrs. In an environment where radicalism and support for groups like Islamic State are fostered by fear that the full weight of the world’s most powerful army is aimed at destroying a way of life, America might want to stop teaching just that doctrine at West Point.
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
Though I spent 24 years working for the State Department as a Consular Officer, charged in part with the issuance and (very rarely) revocation of U.S. passports, there is still room to learn something new: The Government of the United States can, and apparently does, take away passports from American Citizens because “The Secretary of State determines that the applicant’s activities abroad are causing or are likely to cause serious damage to the national security or the foreign policy of the United States.”
If the government feels it is against its interest for you to have a passport and thus the freedom to travel, to depart the United States if you wish to, it will just take it away. The law allows them to do this prospectively, the “or are likely to cause…” part of the law, meaning you don’t need to have done anything. The government just needs to decide that you might.
We learned via a Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Act request that prior to having him and his 16 year old son away blown away via drone in 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton secretly revoked the passport of Anwar al-Awlaki, al Qaeda propagandist and U.S. Citizen. The State Department even tried to invite al-Awlaki into the U.S. Embassy in Yemen so they could hand him a letter announcing the revocation and so that they could encourage him to return to the U.S. to face charges. Six months later (al-Awlaki never dropped by the Embassy, by the way), the U.S. Government simply killed him. Two weeks after that it killed his 16 year old son.
I have been unable to track down many recent examples where the U.S. Government revoked the passport of an American simply because his/her presence abroad bothered– or might bother– the Secretary of State. In fact, the only example I was able to locate was that of infamous ex-CIA officer Phillip Agee, who in the 1970’s exposed CIA officers identities. It was Agee’s case that prompted a Supreme Court review of the Department of State’s ability to revoke passports simply because the government didn’t want you to travel abroad (the Supreme’s upheld the government’s ability to do so based on a 1926 law after lower courts said no. The Court stated that “The right to hold a passport is subordinate to national security and foreign policy considerations.”)
Agee was a naughty boy. According to the Supreme Court:
In 1974, Agee called a press conference in London to announce his “campaign to fight the United States CIA wherever it is operating. He declared his intent “to expose CIA officers and agents and to take the measures necessary to drive them out of the countries where they are operating.” Since 1974, Agee has, by his own assertion, devoted consistent effort to that program, and he has traveled extensively in other countries in order to carry it out. To identify CIA personnel in a particular country, Agee goes to the target country and consults sources in local diplomatic circles whom he knows from his prior service in the United States Government. He recruits collaborators and trains them in clandestine techniques designed to expose the “cover” of CIA employees and sources. Agee and his collaborators have repeatedly and publicly identified individuals and organizations located in foreign countries as undercover CIA agents, employees, or sources. The record reveals that the identifications divulge classified information, violate Agee’s express contract not to make any public statements about Agency matters without prior clearance by the Agency, have prejudiced the ability of the United States to obtain intelligence, and have been followed by episodes of violence against the persons and organizations identified.
In Anwar Al-Awlaki’s case, the Government has not made much of a case (never mind for the passport, remember he was murdered by a drone). In fact, officially, we do not know why al-Awlaki was killed at all, or under what laws or by what decision process. Some reports tie him to the failed idiot underwear bomber, but being part of a failed plot seems not to rise to the usual standard for capital punishment. It is all secret.
The Government of the United States executed one of its own citizens abroad without any form of due process. This is generally seen as a no-no as far as the Bill of Rights goes. The silly old Fifth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees “no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law” and includes no exceptions for war, terrorism, or being a really bad human being.
Could the passport revocation have been simply a ruse, a bureaucratic CYA attempt at providing some sort of illusion of “due process?” Could al-Awlaki’s not dropping by the U.S. Embassy to chat about his passport have been a veiled attempt to justify his killing in that he was thus not able to be arrested? Or was the passport revocation just a simple act of dehumanizing someone to make killing him that much more palatable?
We’ll never know.