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Islamist Terrorism: Who’s to Blame?

It happens after every major terrorist attack by Islamist terrorists in a Western country: the familiar debate about who is really to blame for this phenomenon. One side trots out the weary old trope that the terrorists simply “hate our values”, and other side claims that it’s really the fault of Western governments for sending their troops into Muslim countries.

There’s a national election campaign underway in Britain, so the ghastly Manchester bombing last week has revived this argument. It started when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (who voted against the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the seven-month bombing campaign that overthrew Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011) made a speech in London on Friday.

“Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home,” he said.

In a later clarification, Corbyn added: “A number of people since the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have drawn attention to the links with foreign policy, including (British foreign secretary) Boris Johnson in 2005, two former heads of MI5 (the Security Service), and of course the (parliamentary) Foreign Affairs Select Committee.”

With Labour catching up with the Conservatives in the polls, Prime Minister Teresa May leapt at the chance to twist Corbyn’s words and all but accused him of treason. “Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault….and I want to make something clear to Jeremy Corbyn and to you: there can never be an excuse for terrorism, there can be no excuse for what happened in Manchester.”

Boris Johnson chimed in: “Whatever we do, we can’t follow the logic of the terrorists and start blaming ourselves or our society or our foreign policy. This has been caused not by us – as Jeremy Corbyn would have us believe – it’s been caused by a sick ideology, a perverted version of Islam that hates us and hates our way of life.” It’s the old political trick of deliberately mistaking explanation for justification.

But both sides in this argument are wrong. The“Salafi” extremists who are called “Islamists” in the West (all of them Sunnis, and most of them Arabs) do hate Western values, but that’s not why they go to the trouble of making terrorist attacks on the West. And it’s not because of Western foreign policies either: there were no major Western attacks on the Arab world in the years before the 9/11 atrocity in 2001.

There had been plenty of attacks in the past: the Western conquest of almost all the Arab countries between 1830 and 1918, Western military support for carving a Zionist state out of the Arab world as the European imperial powers were pulling out after 1945, Western military backing for Arab dictators and absolute monarchs ever since.

The West turned against one of those dictators, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, after he invaded Kuwait, but it had the support of most Arab countries when it drove him out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War in 1990-91. And between then and 9/11 the West did nothing much to enrage the Arab world. Indeed, it was even backing the Palestinian-Israeli “peace process”, which looked quite promising at that time.

But there was violence in many Arab countries as Islamist revolutionaries, using terrorist tactics, tried to overthrow the local kings and dictators. Up to 200,000 Arabs were killed in these bloody struggles between 1979 and 2000, but not one of the repressive regimes was overthrown. By the turn of the century it was clear that terrorism against Arab regimes was not working. To win power, the Islamists needed a new strategy.

The man who supplied it was Osama bin Laden. He had missed out on the long terrorist war in the Arab countries because he went to Afghanistan to fight a Soviet invasion in 1979. But in Afghanistan he fought in a war that Islamists actually won: having lost 14,000 dead, the Russians gave up and went home in 1989. The Afghan Islamists (the Taliban) came to power as a result.

Bin Laden realised that this could be a route to power for the Islamists of the Arab world as well: provoke the West to invade Muslim countries, lead the struggle against the Western occupation forces – and when the Western armies finally give up and go home (as they always do in the end) the Islamists will come to power.

That was why he founded al-Qaeda, and 9/11 was intended to sucker the United States into playing the role of infidel invader. Western governments have never recognised this obvious fact because they are too arrogant ever to see themelves as simply the dupes in somebody else’s strategy. Their foreign policy error was to fall for bin Laden’s provocation hook, line and sinker – and they are still falling for it sixteen years later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs .

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Choose a Side: Trump and the Sunni-Shia War

The Sunni-Shia civil wars in Iraq and Syria are both nearing their end, and in both cases the Shias have won – thanks largely to American military help in Iraq’s case, and to a Russian military intervention in Syria. Yet Russia and the United States are not allies in the Middle East. At least not yet.

President Trump may get in bed with the Russians and the Shias eventually, but he doesn’t seem to have given the matter much thought yet. So for the moment US policy follows the line laid down by Barack Obama.

Ex-president Obama was determined not to send American troops into another Middle Eastern war. Even as the Sunni extremists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda under another name) expanded their control in Syria and then seized much of Iraq, Obama restricted the US intervention to training local troops and deploying American air power.

In Iraq the local government’s troops were mostly Shia (as is most of the population), and US support was sufficient without committing American troops to ground combat. The Iraqi army is now in the final stages of reconquering Mosul, Islamic State’s capital in Iraq and an almost entirely Sunni city. Yet there have been no massacres of Sunnis, and only a handful of American casualties.

In Syria, the United States strongly opposed the Shia-dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but it did not fight him. Obama found local allies to wage a ground war against Islamic State in the form of the Syrian Kurds, who are Sunni, but more interested in a separate Kurdish state than a Sunni-ruled Syria.

That collaboration worked well too. With US training and air support, the Syrian Kurds drove Islamic State steadily back, and are now closing in on Raqqa, its capital in Syria. And in all that time, Obama avoided taking sides between Shias and Sunnis in what most Arabs now see as a Shia-Sunni war.

Obama even managed to maintain America’s traditional alliances with Saudi Arabia and Turkey despite the fact that those two countries, both ruled by devout Sunni regimes, were sending money and arms to the extremists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front. He successfully walked a fine line in the Middle East for six whole years.

It’s doubtful that Donald Trump has the skill, knowledge and patience to go on walking that line. His instinct is to treat Iran as America’s most dangerous enemy in the Middle East, which would certainly please Saudi Arabia. But Iran is Russia’s close ally in the Syrian war, and Trump’s instinct is also to get very close to Vladimir Putin.

There’s a similar problem with Turkey. On one hand, Turkey is an important NATO ally and it has now sent its army into Syria, ostensibly to help destroy Islamic State.

On the other hand, Turkey is ruled by the authoritarian and impulsive President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a mini-Trump who sprays abuse at anybody who crosses him (he recently called the Germans “Nazis” and the Dutch “Nazi remnants and fascists”).

In 2015 Erdogan deliberately re-started a war against Turkey’s own Kurdish minority in order to attract right-wing votes and win a close election. Now he has sent the Turkish army into Syria, allegedly to help destroy Islamic State but in fact mainly to smash the embryonic state that the Syrian Kurds have been building across northern Syria. Those Syrian Kurds have been America’s closest allies against Islamic State for years.

There are even Turkish troops in northern Iraq (without permission), and Erdogan has threatened to use them if the Iraqi army abuses Sunni Muslims during the reconquest of Mosul. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replied (in November): “We do not want war with Turkey…but if a confrontation happens we are ready for it.”

Erdogan has gone rogue, and Turkey’s recent, quite fragile reconciliation with Russia is not restraining him. The two countries, together with Iran, are jointly supervising the shaky ceasefire in Syria, but they do not share the same goals and they are not really allies.

Into the midst of all this vicious complexity wanders the boy-man Donald Trump, with his full-spectrum ignorance, short attention-span and shorter temper. His appointee as National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, doubtless advised him to support Turkey’s ambitions, but then it was revealed that Flynn was in the pay of the Turkish government and he had to resign.

If Trump cosies up to the Russians instead, he will have to accept a close relationship with Assad’s brutal regime in Syria (no problem there) and also with Russia’s main ally in the Syrian war, Iran (potentially big problem there). But various latent conflicts are likely to burst into flame as the big civil wars in Iraq and Syria stagger to an end. Trump will have to jump one way or another quite soon.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Erdogan…resign”)

A Tale of Two Cities

Two great sieges are getting underway in the Middle East, one in Mosul in Iraq and the other in Aleppo in Syria. They have a great deal in common, including the fact that the attackers both depend heavily on foreign air power, but they are treated by most international media as though they were completely different events. How similar they are will become clearer with the passage of time.

Sieges of cities, once a major part of warfare, grew rare in the course of the 20th century, mainly because of the rise of air power. You didn’t need to besiege cities any more, because you could just smash them to smithereens from the air: Guernica, Dresden, Hiroshima. But that’s not so easy in the era of instant global media coverage.

Seventy years without a really major war have allowed us to develop a major dislike for killing civilians from the air. Nobody on either side would have been the least bit reluctant to blast Aleppo or Mosul into oblivion in 1945 if it served their strategic purposes, but moral tastes have changed.

They haven’t changed that much, of course, or we would be seeing a horrified rejection of the entire concept of nuclear deterrence, which is based on the threat to extinguish millions or tens of millions of innocent civilian lives if the other side behaves too badly. But when the destruction from the air is piecemeal, with relatively small numbers of identifiable victims, we can get quite upset about it.

Every civilian death from bombing in Iraq and Syria – but not the thousands of other civilian casualties each month — is therefore publicly catalogued and condemned.

The Russians are taking enormous criticism over their bombing of the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo (although the indiscriminate “barrel bombs” are the work of the Syrian air force, not the Russians).

The US air force has been much more careful about its bombing around Mosul so far, but it too will end up having to choose between bombing the city heavily and seeing the Iraqi government’s attack fail.

Both Mosul and eastern Aleppo are Sunni Muslim cities facing an attempted reconquest by Shia-dominated national governments. In both cases the rebel fighters who control the besieged areas are jihadi extremists: Islamic State in Mosul, and the Nusra Front in eastern Aleppo. (In Aleppo, the jihadis number perhaps a thousand out of ten thousand fighters, but they dominate both the fighting and the decision-making.)

In both cases, too, the troops on the government side are divided by ethnic and sectarian differences, and largely unreliable. Which is why, in the end, government victory in both countries depends on foreign air power.

In Aleppo, the troops leading the attack on the ground are mostly Shia militias recruited from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan and paid for by Iran. Actual Syrian army troops have been decimated and exhausted by five years of war, and those who remain are being carefully husbanded. So they wait for the Russians to bomb the defenders to pieces, and just use the troops to mop up afterwards.

In the case of Mosul, the attacking forces are even more varied. The Iraqi government’s regular troops are mostly Shia, and the pro-government militias are entirely Shia and notorious for treating Sunnis badly. Since almost everybody left in Mosul is Sunni, they are terrified of the government’s troops.

The Iraqi govenment has therefore promised that Shia militias will not enter the city, nor will the Kurdish troops that are assisting in the early part of the offensive. What this means, however, is that very few soldiers will actually be fighting once the attack reaches the edge of the city proper.

There will be perhaps 25,000 Iraqi regular army troops in the final assault, of whom maybe half can be relied on to fight. There will be around 5,000 American troops in the area, but they are not allowed to engage in direct combat. And there are about 1,500 Turkish army troops who have been training a Sunni militia north of Mosul (but the government in Baghdad has ordered them to leave).

Islamic State’s five or six thousand fighters have had years to prepare their defences, and street fighting uses up attacking troops very fast. Even “precision” airstrikes in urban areas always mean lots of dead civilians, but central Mosul will not fall unless the United States uses its air force to dig the defenders out.

Even the current advance across relatively open country south and east of Mosul relies on the massive use of air power to keep the attackers’ casualties down. When the troops reach the city limits, the whole operation will stall unless the US government starts serious bombing in the built-up area.

If it does that, then the civilian casualties will be quite similar to those inflicted by the Russian air force in eastern Aleppo. But the Western media will doubtless still find ways to see a huge difference between the two.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 15 . (“They…it”; and “Even…area”)

Who Would ISIS Vote For?

“Hillary Clinton’s weakness while she was Secretary of State has emboldened terrorists all over the world to attack the US, even on our own soil,” wrote Donald Trump on Facebook after the bombing in New York on Saturday. “They are hoping and praying that Hillary Clinton becomes president, that they can continue their savagery and murder.”

Mrs. Clinton replied on Monday by branding the Republican presidential candidate a “recruiting sergeant for the terrorists.” Indeed, in an interview on Israeli television this month, Mrs. Clinton said Islamic State was praying for a Trump victory. There’s clearly a lot of praying going on, but whose victory are the jihadi fanatics really praying FOR?

There’s no point in asking them, because they are likely to lie about it . At least half of them are smart enough to realise that if Islamist extremists openly express a preference for one candidate, American voters will tend to back the other. (Tactical voting is a time-honoured practice, but it does encourage tactical lying.)

Besides, it’s really hard for the opinion pollsters to contact a statistically valid sample of the fighters of Islamic State by phone. We’re going to have to figure out their views without their help – but happily, this is not very hard to do. Their weapon is terrorism, and there is a clear, universally acknowledged doctrine on how that weapon works.

Well, it was universally acknowledged in the 1970s and the 1980s, when the world was littered with revolutionary movements using terrorist methods. The leaders themselves wrote about how terrorism served their goals, and a generation of Western military leaders studied how best to combat it. Unsurprisingly, they came to the same conclusions about how terrorism actually worked – and that it didn’t work very well.

So the revolutionary movements either won (occasionally) or else gradually faded away. The generation of Western military leaders who had actually confronted terrorism and learned how to respond to it got old and retired, and the knowledge was lost.

Some truly stupid things were said and done in the first years after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. “They are attacking us because they hate our values!”, for example, or “We’ll invade Iraq and root them out!” (There were no terrorists in Iraq before the invasion.) But a new generation of Western soldiers has finally grasped how terrorism works. The terrorists themselves, of course, knew it all along.

Three basic facts about terrorism. First, it is the weapon of choice for the weak, because it does not require a large army, sophisticated weapons or a lot of money.

Secondly, without those assets, terrorists must not engage in frontal assaults and stand-up battles against powerful opponents (usually governments) who do have them.

Thirdly, it can therefore only succeed by tricking those more powerful forces into doing things that really serve the terrorists’ purposes.

What is the ultimate goal of Islamic State and similar jihadi groups? Obviously, it is to come to power in various parts of the Muslim world. If they ever manage to become a government they may develop further ambitions (for then they would have a large army and lots of money), but taking power is the crucial first step.

Clearly the terrorists do not have mass support in their own countries, or they would already be in power. In order to build that mass support – it doesn’t have to be majority support, but they do need a lot of people behind them – they need a villain that will push people into their arms.

That villain can be either the government that currently rules the country, or a foreign power that invades the country, but in either case it must be provoked into behaving very badly. Only torture chambers and/or cluster bombs will make the mass of the population so desperate that they turn to the revolutionaries for help.

To get the torture and the bombing going, the target government must become so frightened and enraged that it starts using them on a large scale. That’s what the terrorism is actually for: to make governments over-react and behave very badly. Then the terrorists might actually build enough support to win.

Terrorism is not just blind hatred. It is a technique used by ruthless but intelligent leaders with coherent strategies and clear political goals, and the violence is never “senseless”. Bin Laden’s strategy in carrying out the 9/11 attacks, for example, was to provoke the United States into invading Muslim countries.

It worked, and the invasions gave a huge boost to the popularity of the jihadi movement. Indeed, Islamic State and its clones could never have gained power without those invasions.

All terrorism is a kind of political jiu-jitsu, in which a relatively weak group tries to goad a far stronger force into doing something very big and stupid. Terrorism doesn’t just thrive on over-reaction. It cannot succed without it.

So now ask yourself: which of the American presidential candidates is more likely to over-react to a terrorist provocation?

Okay, so now you know whose victory the terrorists are really praying for.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Well…lost”)