Islamic State: Solutions & Consequences Revised 2/12/16
Some relevant history in the Middle East is a worthwhile starting point in evaluating alternative strategies, tactics and solutions to the challenges of the Islamic State. For decades, Arab governments have engaged in harsh authoritarianism, substantial human rights violations and profound intolerance. The Arab governments provided conditions for Islamic terrorism and the American invasion of Iraq became a catalyst, leading to the significant growth of Islamic terrorism.
President Obama’s stated objective for the US led coalition is to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.” Most strategies for defeating the Islamic State have significant negative consequents, which must be considered in evaluating strategies for solutions. In addition, there must be a plan for what happens after the Islamic State is defeated. Will the Sunni land that the Islamic State has conquered be given back to the non-Sunni governments in Syria and Iraq? Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Iraq, stated, “There is no political architecture that will convince any Sunni over the age of three that he or she has a future with the Iraqi state.” None of the candidates for President from either party have articulated a plan for what happens after the Islamic State is defeated.
Just to keep perspective, it may be useful to remember that none of the five countries with the largest Muslim population are Arab countries and none are in the Middle East. The five are Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria. It is also important to note that the Islamic State is a radical Islamic organization that does not represent the vast majority of Muslims around the world. In fact, the majority of the victims of the Islamic State are Muslims.
Afghanistan is relevant to the discussion of the Middle East. Lawrence Wright, author of Looming Tower and leading expert on al Qaeda, said that in early 2003, al Qaeda had been reduced to 40 to 50 people, including women and children, living in Afghanistan. The United States knew where they were, and, with the necessary resources, could have killed or captured all remaining members. If the US had completed that task, Larry Wright said there would have been no “Global War on Terror.” Instead, the U.S. redeployed assets to Iraq and al Qaeda grew into a multi-national organization with operations in Europe, Asia and Africa in addition to the Middle East. This is an important lesson.
How has the US done in Afghanistan? Today, the Taliban control more of Afghanistan than they did in 2011 when the US invaded.
Prior to the US invasion of Iraq, the number of Islamic terrorist attacks around the world was relatively small. The number of people killed remained under 1,000 per year until the attacks on 9/11/01. (Al Qaeda stated reason for the 9/11 attacks was (1) the US continued maintenance of “temporary” military bases near Mecca and Medina and (2) American support for Israel and corrupt authoritarian dictators in Muslim countries.) After 9/11, the numbers dropped back to under 1,000. Then the combined total surged to more than 23,000 per year by 2007.
In Iraq, Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provision Authority, “de-Baathified” the Iraqi civil and military services, leaving hundreds of thousands of Sunnis without jobs. Some of them formed al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and waged an insurgency against US troops. During the US “surge” in 2007, the Americans enlisted and paid 98,000 Sunnis in what was called the “Awakening.” The Sunnis on the American payroll successfully fought and virtually destroyed AQI.
The US defeat of Saddam Hussein converted Iraq from a Sunni state to a de facto Shiite state. The new Shiite government implemented strong sectarian policies and produced deep-seated Sunni opposition. This government discontinued payment to the Sunnis recruited by the US. This and other anti-Sunni actions fostered the birth of the Islamic State from the ashes of AQI. The conversion of the Iraqi government from Sunni to Shia also dramatically changed the balance of power in the Middle East
Some politicians have argued that results in the Middle East might have been better if President Obama had left some American troops in Iraq. This ignores relevant facts. Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al Maliki wanted the US military out of Iraq so that he could purge the Sunnis from the government and discontinue paying the 98,000 Sunnis recruited for security and paid by the Americans during the “surge.” In addition, Iran, Iraq’s closest ally, threatened to reduce their support of Iraq if any American combat troops remained in the country.
Consequently, the Iraqi Government demanded that the “American invaders” withdraw all troops. The Bush administration negotiated and signed the Status of Forces Agreement on November 17, 2008, which required that all American combat forces be removed from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009 and all combat forces be removed by December 31, 2011.
Politicians take credit for anything that they perceive as “good” that occurs during their watch, even if they had nothing to do with it. Barrack Obama took credit for the American withdrawal from Iraq, but, in fact, he merely executed the Bush Administration’s Status of Forces Agreement. The Iraqi government was unwilling to consider any option and Obama had no choice. When the combat troops left, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced that he had gotten rid of the American invaders. In addition, General David Petraeus recently said (on the Charlie Rose Show) that there is no assurance that keeping American troops in Iraq would have produced a better outcome.
Saudi Arabia is the home to the birthplace of Islam – Mecca and Medina. Most Saudis are Sunnis. Sunnis make up about 85% of Muslims worldwide. The Sunnis are divided into four schools of jurisprudence: Hanafi, Shafii, Maliki, and Hanbali. The Hanbali latter spawned the Wahhabi and Salafi movements in Saudi Arabia. (The Shia also have four schools: Alawi, Twelver, Sevener and Zaydi.)
The dominate minority in Saudi Arabia are Salafis, who are an ultra-conservative religious sect within Sunni Islam. The Royal family is Wahhabi, which is similar to Salafi. Most of the Islamic terrorist groups are Salafi, including al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. These groups have been funded by Saudi families and tribes. It should also be noted that Hezbollah is a Shia terrorist organization funded by Iran.
The Saudis have been the primary sponsors of Islamic terrorism around the world for the last half century. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11 were Saudi citizens. Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen. The Saudis have very active social media sites, which are dominated by radical Islamists. Saudis have funded madrassas around the Islamic world that teach intolerance and Jihadism.
Although frequently referred to as America’s friend, Saudis have values that are very different from Americans. Saudi Arabia is not a democracy. It is not a market economy. The rights of women are severely restricted in Saudi Arabia. (Women have recently been allowed to run for and vote in elections of municipal councils, largely powerless positions.)
Hudud is the most severe and barbaric form of punishments in Islamic countries. It has been abandoned in most Islamic countries, but it still exists in Saudi Arabia. Saudis execute criminals for a wide range of crimes, including apostasy, blasphemy, drug smuggling, homosexual acts and sorcery. Beheading is their primary means of execution, although death by stoning is used for women who commit adultery.
In the summer of 2014, the Islamic State generated extensive publicity when they beheaded five foreign hostages and published these beheadings on social media. During the same period, the Saudis beheaded 19 people, with little publicity or outrage. In 2015, the Saudis executed a record number of people and started 2016 by executing 47 “criminals” including the Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr.
The Islamic State practices the same brand of ultraconservative Islam, including Hudud, with the same penalties for the same crimes as the Saudis. When the Islamic State needed textbooks for school children, they printed and distributed copies of Saudi text books found on-line.
The Saudi government views the Shiite governments in Iran, Iraq and Syria as their primary enemies. Currently, the Saudis are focused on fighting the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen rather that fighting the Islamic State. The Islamic State and Saudi Arabia have nearly identical Wahhabi interpretations of Islam, making it difficult for the Saudis to fight the Islamic State without undermining their own authority.
The Saud family has remained in power for nearly a century, in part, by giving citizens large subsidies instead of political rights. With the significant drop in oil prices, many undertakings have become a drain on their Government. These include the subsidies to citizens, support for Egypt and Pakistan, involvement in Yemen and funding for madrassas and others around the world. Ironically, Jihadists funded by the Saudis may someday destroy the Saudi government.
For 180 years up through WWII, the United State won all of its wars. Then the US failed to win four of the next five wars in which it became engaged. Military solutions have not produced expected outcomes. Instead, they produced unintended consequences.
There were certainly unintended consequences to the invasion of Iraq. Approximately 258,000 Iraqis died in war and 7.8 million were displaced. Iraq became the most anti-American country in the Arab world. The U.S. invasion of Iraq motivated Iran and North Korea to restart their dormant nuclear program. And, the winner of this war, according to most experts including Robert Gates, was Iran. The U.S. removed Iran’s worst enemy, converted Iraq into a close ally of Iran, and turned the country over to Iraqi leaders who were exiles in Iran. Conservative columnist, George Will, called the American invasion of Iraq, “the worst foreign-policy decision in US history.”
Donald Rumsfeld asked, rhetorically, “Are we creating more terrorists than we are killing and capturing?” The answer is that the invasion of Iraq led to a significant increase in the numbers of Islamic Jihadists around the world. The Iraq war will ultimately cost the US more than $2 trillion. . . . The bottom line is that the US must give far more consideration to unintended consequences.
The Sunni/Shia Divide
The Sunni/Shia divide was very combative in the late 7th century. For the next 13 centuries, it was mostly peaceful, with a few notable exceptions. A major divide restarted in 1979 and 1980 with the Iranian Revolution and the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. Today, the Sunni/Shia divide is probably the worst it has been since the 14th century.
The divide between Sunnis and Shias bares some similarity to the divide between Catholics and Protestants during the Christian Reformation. The wars during that divide covered more than 200 years and included two Thirty Years’ Wars, 1618-1648 and 1733-1763. Ultimately, all of these wars between Catholics and Protestants took the lives of an estimated 50 million Europeans. (Some estimates are much higher.) The population of Germany, alone, declined from 20 million to 7 million. . . There are no easy solutions to the religious intolerance in the Sunni/Shia divide.
Alternative Strategies and Tactics
The current American solution is US air strikes. US air strikes may slow and reverse the advancement of the Islamic State, but they will not provide a permanent solution to Islamic terrorism. History has also shown that 162,000 US boots on the ground in Iraq did not solve the problem. Defeating AQI led to the birth of the Islamic State.
Arming Sunni tribes is a popular tactic, but it does not guarantee these tribes will fight for our side. Sunnis distrust Shiite governments in Damascus and Baghdad. Some Sunnis have supported the Islamic State and others may join the Islamic State as the lessor to two evil.
Ambassador Dennis Ross has said that only Sunnis can discredit the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, the largest Sunni state in the Arabian Peninsula, has not engaged the Islamic State militarily in more than nine months through the end of 2015.
Arming the Kurds is another popular tactic among Western nations. Kurds are more secular and tolerant than Arab groups. However, Kurds are more interested in fighting the governments in Damascus, Bagdad and Ankara than fighting the Islamic State. The Kurds want to establish an independent country in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq and possibly Turkey and Iran. Our ally, Turkey, is engaged in a small scale war with Kurdish groups inside Turkey. Consequently, Turkey opposes arming the Kurds who want their own state. In addition, our quasi allies – Iraq and Iran – oppose arming the Kurds for the same reasons.
Arming and training the soldiers of the government in Baghdad is an element of current American and coalition strategy. However, Sunni countries object to bolstering this Shia government, which is likely to reinforce their sectarian policies that alienated their Sunni citizens and contributed to the creation of AQI and its successor, the Islamic State.
Sending in a large contingent of American troops is a strategy supported by some politicians. History in Viet Nam and Iraq has shown that this policy is unlikely to maintain long-term public support. In both cases, it failed to succeed. Sending in a large contingent of American troops has a further downside. It would foster a significant growth in Islamic terrorists around the globe, just as it did when the US invaded Iraq. This would stimulate the growth in terrorist attacks against Americans inside the US and around the globe.
Finally, there is the important and troubling question that politicians have not addressed: What happens after the Islamic State is defeated? Will the land they occupy go back to Syria and Iraq? The governments in both countries have killed many of their own Sunni citizens. History has shown that when one Jihadist group is defeated militarily, as was AQI, it is replaced by a new and worse Jihadist group, such as the Islamic State.
Former UN Ambassador, John Bolton, recommended that a new Sunni state be created. This seems like a better solution than giving back land to Syria and Iraq, but the probability of implementation seems extremely low. It would be opposed by Iraq, Iran, Syria, Russia and Turkey. In addition, Western powers do not have the authority to redraw borders of countries in the Middle East. Historically, the only way that borders have changed is through wars, with winners gaining territory and the losers losing territory.
Nevertheless, redrawing borders by the Arab League (with possibly others participating) is the solution most likely to provide a long-term solution. Redrawing maps was ultimately the solution of the wars of the Christian Reformation. It took more than two centuries and killed about as many Europeans as World War I and World War II combined.
The other solution is for religious tolerance to become imbedded in the laws and customs of the countries in the Middle East. This seems even less probable than redrawing borders without wars. Nevertheless, the United States could tie American support for each country to progress in their religious tolerance. Without changing the harsh authoritarianism, substantial human rights violations and profound intolerance of Middle East governments, it is unreasonable to expect an enduring solution to the Islamic State.
The Islamic State is an Arab problem created by Arabs, led by Arabs and funded by Arabs. The Islamic State requires an Arab solution, not an external solution imposed on the Arab world by the U.S. or any coalition of western countries. The US can provide advice and training, but the solution will require extensive involvement by Arab countries.
For more information, the recent book, “The ISIS Apocalypse,” by William McCants is informative, well written and well documented.