President Obama spoke to the nation this week and pledged to “degrade” the capabilities of ISIS and “destroy” it. It was a strong speech. It was a Presidential speech. But we wish it had been shorter and more succinct. We wish he had simply said ISIS killed two Americans in barbaric brutal fashion and, when you kill Americans, you will hear from America. That’s all he needed to say.
Unfortunately, President Obama needlessly catapulted ISIS into a higher plateau and involved other nations, sometimes called “allies”, in this war. Even his best media friend, Jon Stewart, saw the optics and reality. Stewart looked at the array of “allies” and noticed that it looked like another “crusade” of white Christian nations invading Arab Sunni lands. Stewart also noticed that the only Muslim partners in this American-led “crusade” are Shia Iran, the historic religious enemy of Sunni Muslims, and the Shia-Iraqi forces of Baghdad.
The only potential Sunni ally was non-Arab Turkey which is hated for its colonial history of subjugating Arabs. And Turkey has already refused to allow use of its airbases or supply weapons for attacks against ISIS. If this were not enough, European “allies” like Germany have so far refused to participate in air strikes in ISIS-held Syria. So, within two days of his speech, President Obama is left virtually alone in his “war” against ISIS. We wish he had stood alone out of American pride rather than as a result of unreliable allies.
The declaration of “war” against ISIS has, in our opinion, needlessly elevated ISIS into a position of global Sunni Muslim champion against the world’s superpower. That is a marketing coup for ISIS and makes them stronger especially vis-a-vis Muslim religious leaders who support Arab monarchies & military autocrats.
All President Obama had to do was to promise harsh punishment for barbaric murders of American citizens. This eye-for-an-eye doctrine is simple, accepted in the Middle East, and fulfills the demands of honor. By keeping it so simple, President Obama could have unleashed hell onto Syrian-held ISIS territory and been respected for it in the Arab Sunni world.
1. The Dempsey Reality
General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made it simple on Thursday, August 21, in his joint press conference with Secretary of Defense Hagel:
- “ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad“.
This is reality, cold & hard, pure & simple. Any talk of defeating ISIS is useless unless it takes into account this reality. Air power can damage, it can temporarily contain, but it cannot defeat, let alone destroy ISIS. You are going to need ground forces to get rid of ISIS and bolster anti-ISIS Sunni fighters. Look at the ground reality.
The 20 million Sunni Arabs who reside between Damascus & Baghdad are surrounded on three sides by Shiites, Kurds, & Alawites all enemies of Arab Sunnis. Their ground forces are worse than useless within this Sunni State between Damascus & Baghdad. In fact, as NBC’s veteran reporter Richard Engel kept saying this week, the Sunni Iraqis consider Shia Iraqi army from Baghdad as an enemy and they would rather join ISIS than join Shia Iraqis against ISIS.
So who is left to provide Sunni ground forces? Principally Saudi Arabia. Think of the utter stupidity of involving Saudi Arabian forces in this coalition. Saudi Arabia despises and hates the Shia regime in Baghdad, The Saudis have done everything they can to damage the Baghdadi Shia regime by nurturing & fostering Sunni insurgency against Baghdad. Putting their forces together is the quickest way to launch a regional war between Saudi Arabia & Iraq. And forget about “moderate” Syrian rebels joining in a US war against ISIS. Because the Syrian rebels signed a non-aggression pact with ISIS on Friday, September 12, according to an AFP report via Stratfor.
So what ground forces would be acceptable to all sides – Sunni Iraqis, Shia Iraqis, Kurds, and Alawites? You guessed it – American forces. The only acceptable solution to all sides would be a short term super-surge a la 2006-2007 under General Petraeus. No one in America has any appetite for it because we all know what will happen when the new super-surge US troops leave – deja vu all over again.
2. The Nostalgia for the 1990 coalition
This mess is creating a nostalgia among US policymakers for the 1990 coalition of President Bush (senior). That was a true global coalition with active & enthusiastic participation of Sunni Arab countries. It proved completely successful in its mission of reversing the occupation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein.
But nostalgia for that coalition should not blind us to the huge differences between that situation & the ISIS mess. The conflict between Saddam’s Iraq & Kuwait was an intra-Sunni war. That was not based on religious fervor or religious conflict between Sunnis & Shias. That was purely a material invasion for control of Kuwait’s oil. It was the last clear & moral conflict in the middle east.
But look what it created despite all its positives. Look at the unintended consequences of that successful & morally correct war by the US-UK-Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Kuwait coalition. That coalition triggered the creation of Al Qaida 1.0. The presence of US troops on sacred Saudi soil made Osama Bin Laden, until then a friend & co-warrior of USA, into a sworn enemy of both America & Saudi Arabia.
He left Saudi Arabia for the fertile grounds of Afghanistan and within 5 years of the coalition victory in 1991, the Taleban established their rule in Afghanistan. Five years later, Osama’ sAl Qaida attacked New York on September 11, 2001.
We may not remember these unintended consequences of the 1990 coalition, but Saudi Arabia does and so does every Arab country. No wonder they don’t have any appetite for another coalition against religious Sunni Arabs with America. Read the following quote from the New York Times about U.S. Fight Against ISIS:
- “As a student of terrorism for the last 30 years, I am afraid of that formula of supporting the American effort,” said Diaa Rashwan, a scholar at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies … in Cairo. “It is very dangerous.”
Ask the leaders and people of NonPakistan and they will say the same – that their support of the U.S. war against the Taleban has been dangerous for their regime and has led to instability, insurgency, and economic misery.
3. The Right Balance?
So forget about creating a coalition, either of the willing or the unwilling. The “war” against ISIS will be an American “war” pure and simple. And it needs to be waged with minimum rhetoric for maximum self-interest via optimum dexterity. And that dexterity has to be conceptual, tonal, and military.
- Honor is an important concept. Revenge against killers of your people is mandatory & honorable. The public beheading of American citizens imposes a duty of honor on America to seek revenge & justice via punishing bombings of any and all ISIS formations. Every one in the Middle East gets this, appreciates this, and respects this.
- The core competence & advantage of ISIS is tactical mobility & operational flexibility – a modern version of light cavalry of Salah ad-Din that defeated the crusaders. Unlike Richard Lionheart, the US military can see all movement from the sky. It is relatively easy for the US airforce to detect ISIS convoy movements and destroy them from the air. A static ISIS is an easier battle for Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian armies.
- The finances of ISIS come mainly from revenue from oil fields in Syria. These can be destroyed from the air. These may take years to rebuild and impoverish the region. But a post-ISIS marshall plan can address that later. The immediate goal is to damage ISIS financially.
The reality is that ISIS cannot be destroyed by America using acceptable means. Even defeating ISIS will take years of hard dextrous work without needlessly tasking the patience & pockets of the American people.
4. A Fifty Year War?
That’s not being alarmist at all. Remember Al Qaida came out of the 1990 coalition against Saddam Hussein. So America has already been at war with Al Qaida for 25 years. So we only have 25 more years to go. The duration is not the scary part. What is truly scary is that America hasn’t had a clue about the evolution of this Sunni phenomenon for the past 25 years.
- America celebrated the 1991 victory over Saddam Hussein and imposed further sanctions on his regime for the next decade & more. America knew that Osama’s Al Qaida had moved to Afghanistan & had allied itself with the victorious Taleban. America didn’t care. A complacent careless America was stunned when Osama’s Al Qaida attacked New York on 9/11 from Afghanistan.
- America celebrated the end of the Iraq conflict and the victory over the Sunni insurgents & Al Qaida in Iraq. America’s confident celebration led to the exit from Iraq in 2011. America was utterly careless about what the successors of Iraqi Al Qaida were doing in northwestern Sunni Iraq. A complacent careless America was stunned when ISIS blitzed from Syria into Iraq to take Mosul, rout the Iraqi army and threaten Erbil.
While America was preoccupied with Al Qaida 1.0 in Yemen and Somalia, the Arab Al Qaida mutated into a much more deadly 2.0 form called ISIS. And now America faces a new war all over again. We are confident that America will defeat ISIS or today’s Al Qaida 2.0 form in Iraq & Syria. But that would not vanquish or terminate the Sunni phenomenon. It’s awakening is real and it has taken deep roots all over the world. Either the Sunnis will have to become richer, prosperous and get global honor via their own regimes or the struggle will continue. Since the former seems unlikely at least for the next 10 years, America needs to be alert for the next mutation, whether you call it Al Qaida 3.0 or ISIS 2.0.
Where can Al Qaida 3.0 spring up? We don’t know, of course. But we can take some semi-educated guesses:
- The obvious is back to where Al Qaida began – Afghanistan. The new Afghan non-government is already following the disastrous path blazed by Iraq’s al-Maliki. The presidential election has been hijacked by Pashtun candidate Ghani, the choice of the previous President Karzai. The Tajik candidate Abdullah may be denied the presidency despite having won the election, as he claims. This will lead to simmering discontent in either the Pashtun majority or in the Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara minorities. This is what Ambassador Blackwill had referred to as plan B for a de facto partition of Afghanistan sort of like the 2006 Biden plan for Iraq. Next door sits the world’s 5th largest nuclear arsenal in the hands of an increasingly unstable NonPakistan fighting a Pashtun insurgency. Elements of this Taleban insurgency have already declared loyalty to ISIS. If a more deadly ISIS 2.0 emerges in Af-Pak, that will make today’s ISIS mess feel like child’s play. And to make the Iraq analogy complete, President Obama is still committed to withdrawing the US military from Afghanistan later this year.
- Or we can get back to where Al Qaida really began – in its land of birth called Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia became 90 years old last month. His succession will be determined by the Allegiance Council, a body that is composed of the sons & grandsons of Saudi Arabia’s founder. Since most of the obvious successors have pre-deceased King Abdullah, this succession could be rocky. As it is, this vast family of princelings ruling every region and every aspect of Saudi Arabia eliminates opportunities for the capable, aggressive, and ambitious non-prince Saudis. Is there a more prime opportunity for the next brilliant leader of Al Qaida 3.0? A more deadly ISIS 2.0 that seeks control of Saudi oil fields – can there be a more frightening apparition than that?
These are the two most obvious scenarios the Pentagon and the State Department should be planning for as well as others. For one thing is for sure, defeating today’s ISIS in Iraq & Syria is not the end game, merely another step in the war that began in 1991. That is assuming we can defeat today’s ISIS/Al Qaida 2.0.
Frankly, the Chinese were nuts to wish for “interesting times“. We are beginning to prefer the relative comfort of the 1980s & the predictable Soviet Union.
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