Ratcheting Up the War on the Islamic State

Terrifying thought: If the Islamic State is dismantled, will it be replaced by an even more destructive entity? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Terrifying thought: If the Islamic State is dismantled, will it be replaced by an even more destructive entity? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Pentagon’s announcement on December 1 that the U.S. Special Operations force in Iraq would be expanded did not say how many more troops would be sent. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said only, “There will be more.” There are already 3,500 U.S. soldiers in Iraq assigned to train the Iraqi army attempting to drive ISIS from the Iraqi territory it has captured. According to Carter, the additional troops will conduct raids aimed at capturing or killing ISIS leaders in Iraq, analyze intelligence, identify targets, and work with Iraq’s special forces.

They will also join with Kurdish and Iraqi troops in carrying out raids in Syria. “I think you can expect to see a slow ramp-up of American forces in Iraq and perhaps even in Syria,” a Pentagon official said. U.S. has been bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria for several months with no significant effect.

It seems apparent that President Obama, who has been reluctant to send combat troops to fight ISIS, has either given in to pressure from Republican lawmakers and some Democrats, or has himself become convinced that America’s military involvement is necessary to defeat ISIS. When Carter appeared before the House Armed Services Committee last Monday with General Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he told the committee, “We are at war.”

This was hardly news. Except for a brief period during Jimmy Carter’s single term as president, the U.S. has been continuously at war since shortly after World War II. The U.S. has sent troops to Korea, Indochina, Grenada, Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq; and waged surrogate wars in Africa and Central America, invariably on the side of thuggish rulers and would-be rulers. It is no surprise that the U.S. spends more on the military every year than all other nations combined.

The problem is that the weapons that budget pays for are obsolete when it comes to modern warfare. Nuclear submarines, stealth bombers, F-22 fighters, are of no use against alienated young men and women who can blend into the scenery and who are willing to die if they can take other human beings with them. Having no aim in life other than to kill in behalf of a cause is a powerful weapon in itself.

The word used for their actions is “terrorism,” but in its current usage it makes no sense. If terrorism means indiscriminate killing in behalf of a political goal, surely the bombs and incendiary shells the U. S. uses in its various wars, and the drone strikes that kill women and children as well as the intended victims, are terrorist weapons.

And what other word than terrorist can be applied to “extraordinary rendition,” the practice during the Bush administration of kidnapping suspects and holding them in overseas prisons while subjecting them to torture?

Calling our current enemies “terrorists” only means they don’t wear uniforms and there are no clearly defined areas of combat. The U.S. defeat at the hands of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese despite having dropped 8 million tons of bombs on Indochina between 1965 and 1972, should have been proof that conventional warfare had become obsolete. Bombs and massive troop deployments are no match for fighters dedicated to a cause.

This fact has been proven again in Afghanistan, where after 14 years of war the U.S. has failed to defeat the Taliban, and in Iraq, where new enemies of America have replaced Saddam Hussein. Yet the same methods, the bombing and the deployment of  more U.S. troops, are being used by the U.S. and its allies Britain and France in their effort to combat ISIS. Since the killing in Paris of 130 people in mid-November there has been pressure on Obama to call for more bombing and the deployment of more troops.

Meanwhile ISIS continues to grow. The bombing has failed to dislodge it from Syria, and young men and women continue to join in substantial numbers. Clearly the greatest need now is for an  intensive effort to determine why they are joining and to deal with those reasons. One reason may be the belated desire for payback on the part of young Muslims for the brutal Western interventions in the Middle East, starting in the 19th century with the British and French occupations of North Africa and continuing to the present day with the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Another reason could be the patent anti-Muslim bigotry currently being exhibited in the U.S., not only by Donald Trump but by widespread popular opposition to taking in Syrian refugees. A stepped-up bombing campaign by the West would only add to ISIS’s ranks by intensifying the resentment of the West that already prompts disaffected young people to join. Just as the saturation bombing of German cities by Allied bombers during World War II served to unify Germans instead of turning them against their leaders, increased air strikes could harden loyalty to ISIS. Acts of terrorism would undoubtedly increase.

Fortunately, there are a few voices of reason in the current debate. One is Jeremy Corbyn, head of the British Labour party. As most members of his party in Parliament were voting to support Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to join the U.S. in bombing ISIS, Corbyn spoke out against it. “The absence of credible ground troops,” he said, “the missing diplomatic plan for a Syrian settlement, the failure to address the impact on the terrorist threat or the refugee crisis and civilian casualties — it’s become increasingly clear that the prime minister’s proposals for military action simply do not stack up.”

Words of caution also came from a more unusual source, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who wrote, in part, in his December 2 column: “To sustainably defeat ISIS you need a mutually reinforcing coalition. You need Saudi Arabia and the leading Sunni religious powers to aggressively delegitimize the ISIS Islamist narrative…You need Iran to encourage the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to create a semi-autonomous “Sunnistan” in the areas held by ISIS so they have a political alternative to ISIS.”

The choices, he pointed out, are either a power-sharing political solution that all the parties accept. or an all-out armed effort to crush ISIS followed by an indefinite occupation of the region to see that it doesn’t return. Meanwhile, in the absence of efforts to achieve a political solution, the decision to send a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” against ISIS risks involving the U.S. in a wider war. What if ISIS captures some Americans? What if the commandos are unable to weaken ISIS? And finally, ISIS replaced al Qaeda as a major threat. If the conditions that led to its rise remain unchanged, what even more evil force will replace ISIS?

Rachelle Marshall is a former editor and writer and a member of Mill Valley Seniors for Peace, a Jewish Voice for Peace, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.