Monday, June 08, 2015

The Islamic State and the War that Won't Wait

There is a very good chance that at some point historians will convene a panel titled something to the effect; "Assad as our SOB; the Path not Taken."

The Assad family is what they have always been, no need to state otherwise. If we wanted something better, there was a window for that - but our premature departure from Iraq's Sunni west and our less than tepid support early on of the Syrian rebellion was less then helpful, and help set conditions for what we have now. Our misreading of the false dawn of the Arab Spring just boosted an already growing momentum for expansionist radical Islam.

By not helping and not opposing, we seeme to have only muddled the middle. That line of thought has been around for awhile, but it seems even more an accurate critique. How old is the wisdom? "If you set off to take Vienna; take Vienna." "If you are going to strike at the king, you had better kill him."

Smart words.

Noah Rothman is on to it;
Had America and its willing partners intervened in Syria in 2013 in order to punish the Assad government, it is likely that those nations would have eventually formulated a strategy to contain the remnants of the Assad regime and, by necessity, the Syrian Civil War in Syria.

Even if there were no ground component to that campaign, the weakening of the Syrian regime would have presented anti-Assad rebels a more urgent and tempting target in Damascus than that which lay helpless on the eastern side of the Syrian border with Iraq. For those who contend that the collapse of the Assad regime at Western hands would have resulted in Syria becoming an Islamist-dominated basket case, it appears as though that reality was merely forestalled by two years and Iraq has been lost in the interim.

“The United States refuses to work with Jabhat al-Nusra, regarding it as a band of unrepentant al-Qaeda followers, even though the group is said to receive indirect support from Turkey and Qatar,” Ignatius reported. “U.S. officials weren’t persuaded by an interview broadcast last week by Al Jazeera with al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, in which he offered conciliatory statements toward Syrian minority groups and said his fight isn’t with the United States.”

The catastrophic results of the West’s careless dithering should be evident to any neutral observer today. A suboptimal situation has, in the space of just two years, become a disastrous situation. This should be a lesson to all who gallingly present advocate for a policy of cowardice masquerading as prudence.
The decaying situation in Syria as Assad's forces continue to withdraw - and the only alternative to him in 2015 is the Islamic State, remember that - is being supported by and equally dire facts on the ground in Iraq.

As Max Boot puts it;
The Obama administration is now at a turning point in Iraq. It is roughly at the same place where the US was in Vietnam in 1967 and Iraq in 2006. In all those cases, the falsity of the assumptions under which we had been fighting had been revealed. The question was whether the president would execute a change of strategy. LBJ did not really do that, beyond his ineffectual bombing pauses and refusal to provide 200,000 more reinforcements to Gen. Westmoreland. It was left to Nixon and Gen. Creighton Abrams to transform the US war effort. By contrast, in Iraq in 2007 George W. Bush did execute a transformation of his strategy that rescued a floundering war effort.

Which way will Obama go now? Will he be another Johnson or a Bush? All signs, alas, point to the former. Thus it is particularly appropriate that to show progress (what used to be known as “light at the end of the tunnel”) the administration is now resorting to the discredited body counts of Vietnam days.
Obama is turning in to some twisted mix of both LBJ and Carter? The foreign policy mistakes he is making will result, like Carter, in generations of people doing all they can to try to fix them. 

As with LBJ and Carter, hopefully our nation will be lucky enough to get a President to follow Obama who will, imperfectly, start to repair the damage and halt the decay. If we're lucky.

Is the term "mistake" too strong? Maybe. A fairer term might be "sub-optimal policy decisions" as that is what we are seeing.

I am under no illusions that there is an easy solution to what we are seeing in Syria and Iraq. There are only a series of difficult choices with different risk/payoff equations. By choosing or delaying choosing the path Obama is taking our nation and the region down, there are consequences. Better or worse, they firmly belong to him.

This is Obama's Mideast; we just have to make the best of it. Even if, as some think, Obama is just punting to his follow-on, it is still his.

Back to the Long War. Graeme Wood over at The Atlantic sets a reminder for what we are facing going forward.
We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)

We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohamed Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
. . .
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.
In this battle, we have to do our best to cultivate what friends we have. As those of us who have deployed to or spent years of our life in that part of the world know, this is a culture of aggressive bargaining, respect, face, gesture, and relationships. That is why I am just gobsmacked about what happened below.

Either it was unintentional, in which case President Obama's staff support is dangerously incompetent - or this was intentional, in which case President Obama is, well ... wow ... note the shrug at the end.  An actual ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Ponder it yourself.

In case you aren't in a funk yet, I want to leave you with something to think about over the course of the next week from The Institute for the Study of War; the forecast for what we can expect from ISIS. 

My Operational Planning brothers will like the context; Most Likely and Most Dangerous Courses of Action. Read the whole thing; but here are the maps.

Hat tip B-Daddy.

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