islamic state

Counterinsurgency Math Revisited

When does 32,200 – 60,000 = 109,000? That seemingly inaccurate equation represents the estimated number of Islamist-inspired terrorists when the war on terror began, how many the U.S. has killed since 2015, and the number that fight today. And it begs the question of just how can the terror ranks grow so fast when they’re being depleted so rapidly.

As early as 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hinted at the potential mathematical problem when he asked, “Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” In his memo, Mr. Rumsfeld correctly identified that both sides have a vote: the U.S. can deplete the terror ranks, while the terror groups and their supporters can replenish them.

What Rumsfeld had not yet imagined, however, was the possibility that military force might inadvertently benefit terror recruitment efforts. Specifically, he ignored the blowback a marauding U.S. military might engender among the Muslim world.

In 2009, General Stanley McChrystal pushed the conversation in that direction. He pointed to the counterintuitive aspects of terror recruiting. Calling it “COIN Mathematics,” he laid out his argument. “Let us say that there are 10 [insurgents] in a certain area. Following a military operation, two are killed.  How many insurgents are left?  Traditional mathematics would say that eight would be left, but there may only be two, because six of the living eight may have said, ‘This business of insurgency is becoming dangerous so I am going to do something else.’ There are more likely to be as many as 20, because each one you killed has a brother, father, son and friends, who do not necessarily think that they were killed because they were doing something wrong. It does not matter – you killed them.  Suddenly, then, there may be 20, making the calculus of military operations very different.” 

Though McChrystal did not explicitly connect U.S. military operations to the perceptions of the broader Muslim community, Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, certainly did. Five years before 9/11, bin Laden railed against the presence of the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest sites of Islam. On other occasions he spoke of the “American crusader forces” and “American occupiers.” His recurring theme of grievance centered on the U.S. waging war with Islam. Later, in 2005, al-Zawahiri put an exclamation point on it. In a letter to the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, he reminded him, “The Muslim masses…do not rally except against an outside occupying enemy, especially if the enemy is firstly Jewish, and secondly American.”

Terrorism and the New Domino Theory

Several weeks ago the Defense Department revealed it is seriously considering drone strikes against Islamist terrorists in the Philippines, which would make it the eighth country the United States has bombed in the war on terror. Certainly the terrorists—who have operated in various forms there for over a hundred years—are a threat to Filipinos. They are not, however, a threat to the United States. Why, then, would the United States start bombing?

The answer may lie in the misguided theory driving American thinking about terrorism.

During the Cold War, America’s political leaders subscribed to the domino theory. The theory, whose name comes from a 1954 speech by President Eisenhower, held that if one country fell to communism, then its neighbors would fall next, toppling like dominoes. This fear encouraged U.S. officials to worry about the emergence of communism even in places of little strategic importance.

History reveals that the domino theory was a poor guide to international relations, but its power during the Cold War was real. The United States intervened repeatedly in the Third World, toppling governments and fueling civil conflicts, in order to prevent the spread of communism. Most importantly, the domino theory provided the primary justification for the Vietnam War, which cost the United States almost 60,000 lives and also strained the fabric of American society. Tragically, the irrelevance of the loss of the Vietnam War for American security was not enough to vanquish the domino theory. It continued to motivate American intervention in Central America and elsewhere until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The 9/11 attacks in turn spawned what we might call the pandemic theory. According to this theory, terrorism spreads as the terrorism “contagion” jumps from person to person, oblivious to distance or national borders. Thanks to its viral spread, which can occur via interpersonal contact or online through propaganda and chat rooms, terrorism anywhere in the world is a threat to reach the U.S eventually. As with infectious diseases, even a small outbreak of terrorism in a faraway land can be used to justify extreme responses. The best time to eradicate a disease, after all, is before it gets a foothold and infects a large number of people.

The pandemic theory looks compelling at first glance. But like many popular theories, it is dangerously inaccurate. 

Terrorism News and the 9/11 Anniversary Effect

Terrorism, I have argued previously, has hijacked much of the American foreign policy debate. Regardless of whether we are discussing Iraq, Iran, Libya, Russia, or nuclear weapons, it seems we are really talking about terrorism. But although it feels like we talk about terrorism nonstop these days, we actually talk about it a lot less than we did right after 9/11.

Battling the Islamic State: U.S. Must Focus on its Own Enemies in Future

The so-called Islamic State is losing ground. The liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s third most populous city, may be the Baghdad government’s next objective.

Yet even as the “caliphate” shrinks in the Middle East, Daesh, as the group also is known, is increasing its murderous attacks on Western civilians. Washington’s intervention actually has endangered Americans.

In contrast to al-Qaeda, which always conducted terrorism, ISIS originally focused on creating a caliphate, or quasi-state. Daesh’s territorial designed conflicted with many nations in the Mideast: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Gulf kingdoms.

The Obama administration did not intervene out of necessity: ISIS ignored America. Moreover, the movement faced enemies which collectively had a million men under arms; several possessed sophisticated air forces.

Washington’s concern for those being killed by the Islamic State was real, but casualties lagged well behind the number of deaths in other lands routinely ignored by the U.S. The administration seemed most motivated by the sadistic murder of two Americans who had been captured by ISIS in Syria. Although barbaric, these acts did not justify intervention in another Mideast war.

Tracing the Islamic State’s “Allure”

In a prominent article about Islamic State in the Washington Post over the weekend, Carol Morell and Jody Warrick suggest that, by massacring people in various locales, the group was growing in appeal—or “allure” in the words of the headline writer. How this remarkable process comes about is not explained, nor is evidence given to back it up. It is said to be a conclusion reached by “experts,” but only one of these is quoted in the article, and none of the quotes from him seems to fit, much less support, the article’s conclusion.

There is certainly evidence, much of it noted in other articles in the Post, to suggest that the appeal (or allure) of the vicious group actually is, like the scope of the territory it holds in Syria and Iraq, in severe decline. By 2016, the flow of foreign fighters going to join the group may have dropped by 90 percent over the previous year even as opposition to the group among Arab teens and young adults rose from 60 percent to 80 percent. Any allure the group may have in Iraq certainly fails to register on a poll conducted there in January 2016 in which 99 percent of Shiites and 95 percent of Sunnis express opposition to it. And, according to the FBI, the trend for Americans seeking to join Islamic State is decidedly downward.

Indeed, overall, the Islamic State has followed policies and military approaches that have repeatedly proven to be counterproductive in the extreme in enhancing its “appeal” and/or “allure.” High among these was the utterly mindless webcast beheadings of American hostages in 2014 that turned the United States almost overnight from a wary spectator into a dedicated military opponent.

The Islamic State Creates Killer Caliphate to Eradicate Religious Minorities

ERBIL, IRAQ—Kurdistan in the north of Iraq has become a refuge for Christians and other religious minorities in the midst of the Islamic State’s murderous rampage. The abundant crimes of Daesh, as it also is known, constitute an unprecedented religious war against members of minority faiths who until recently largely lived in peace with their Muslim neighbors.

As ISIS expanded it attacked most everyone, especially Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities. Hence the brutal campaign detailed in the nearly 300-page report, “Genocide against Christians in the Middle East,” issued by the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians, a group which focuses on the Mideast.

The report argued simply: “ISIS is committing genocide” against Christians in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The words of Daesh are clear.

The organization publishes a magazine named Dabiq, the place where the movement expects to destroy the “Crusader army,” meaning Christians. Explained the Islamic State: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted.”

To describe the Islamic State’s crimes in generalities does not adequately communicate the truly horrific nature of its campaign. The NGO Shlomo recorded 1131 Christians murdered between 2003 and 2014 in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, with more than 100 more since then.

Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan of Antioch, Syria believed more than 500 Christians in Iraq and more than 1000 in Syria were killed. The Archbishop of Aleppo, Syria, Jean-Clement Jeanbart, said that hundreds of Christians have been executed or kidnapped in his city and perhaps thousands in Syria as a whole. Others have been slaughtered in Libya and elsewhere.

While widespread murder is the Islamic State’s most odious crime, the group inflicts grievous harm on those it does not kill. Those interviewed for the report cited all manner of bodily harm: “Choking, beatings with guns and electrical cords, mock executions, and withholding of food and water in the extreme heat are commonplace.”

Trump Versus the World

In 2015 we witnessed an astonishing sight: by the end of the year news coverage of Donald Trump in major U.S. newspapers eclipsed coverage of every major world hotspot and the dreaded Islamic State.

 

At the most basic level, this reflects the American tendency to focus on domestic politics during presidential campaigns. Foreign affairs often fade from view as the presidential campaign season heats up and economic and social issues take the fore. But this year foreign policy has in fact been a major focus of the campaign, making this a less powerful effect than in most years.

More importantly, the news flow is a function of Trump’s uncanny ability to set the news agenda. This ability stems only in part from the fact that he holds a commanding lead in the polls. More critical is his tendency to make outrageous statements, tapping into anger and frustration in the electorate, which has not only stimulated outrage and concern on left and right but also discussion about what the Trump phenomenon means beyond the election itself. In December Trump appeared in twice as many stories as both Ted Cruz, his closest competitor in both the polls and coverage, and President Obama. Simply put, Trump is incredibly newsworthy given the way in which American news outlets define news and given the news Americans appear to want.

But less obviously, this pattern also reflects the long-term shrinking of the international news hole in the United States. Since the late 1980s the share of American news devoted to international affairs has shrunk by as much as half in major U.S. newspapers and broadcast television news. With occasional and temporary reversals, this trend has persisted despite increasing globalization, despite constant U.S. military intervention abroad since the early 1990s, and despite 9/11 and the war on terrorism.

With “Friends” Like Saudi Arabia, the United States Doesn’t Need Enemies

One striking feature of the first debate featuring the top tier GOP presidential candidates was how many of them described Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf as “friends” of the United States.  And clearly that is a bipartisan attitude.  Obama administration officials routinely refer to Saudi Arabia as a friend and ally, and one need only recall the infamous photo of President Obama bowing to Saudi King Abdullah to confirm Washington’s devotion to the relationship with Riyadh.

In Search of a Syria Strategy: Event (April 30th)

On April 30th, Cato will host an event exploring the future of the Syrian conflict, with particular emphasis on the role of the United States. Fighting in Syria recently entered its fifth year, and there is no clear end in sight. The conflict has resulted in an estimated 191,000 deaths and has produced more than 9.5 million refugees.

The civil war is chaotic. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of rebel groups currently operating in Syria, many of whom have devoted more time to fighting each other than the regime. Foreign funding and weapons flow freely to all sides. The rise of ISIS and its spread to Iraq, along with the increasing prominence of other extremist groups like al Nusra has further complicated the situation. This map, recently released by the Department of Defense, illustrates some of the complexity:

DoD Map of Syria and Iraq

 

American involvement in Syria was minimal prior to September 2014, when the Obama administration initiated airstrikes to ‘degrade and destroy’ ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This campaign is ongoing, and the United States is also funding and training Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS. 

Countries at Risk, not Fake U.S. Coalition, Should Stop the Islamic State

President Barack Obama is fighting the Islamic State with a coalition without members.  What are allies for?

Washington collects allies like most people collect Facebook friends.  It doesn’t matter if the new “friends” enhance America’s security.  Washington wants more allies.

Yet America’s allies do little for the U.S.  Their view is that Washington’s job is to defend them.  Their job is to be defended by Washington. 

For decades Washington faced down a nuclear-armed power—the Soviet Union and then Russia—to protect the Europeans.  The Europeans did essentially nothing for the U.S. 

After 9/11 several European states contributed to America’s efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Neither invading the latter nor attempting to build a democratic central government in the former made policy sense, but some Europeans sacrificed on behalf of a professed U.S. interest. 

However, Washington quickly repaid the favor, underwriting Britain’s and France’s foolish war in Libya.  Now the Europeans want Washington to save Ukraine and “reassure” countries to the east.  Yet the EU has a larger GDP and population than America. 

With the U.S. now calling for assistance against ISIL, the continent has turned more frigid.  No one seems interested in joining Washington’s air war, even Great Britain.

Washington’s Asian friends are even less helpful.  For decades Japan wouldn’t help U.S. forces, even if they were defending Japan.  That is finally changing, but there still is no good reason Washington to stare down the People’s Republic of China to secure Tokyo’s disputed claim to the Senkaku Islands. 

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