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Weekly Links

By Danny Hirschel-Burns

Daniel Maclise, "The Trial of William Wallace at Westminster," pre-1870. Via wikimedia.

Daniel Maclise, “The Trial of William Wallace at Westminster,” pre-1870. Via wikimedia.

Georgetown professor Charles King writes in the Monkey Cage that the social inertia of Novorossiya, the break-away proto-state in eastern Ukraine, will make it difficult to reintegrate the region. Reporter and photographer Tim Judah has a series of poignant photographs of the destruction wrought by the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In light of recent events in Lesotho, Naunihal Singh writes that even in countries with strong preferences for democracy, coups are still possible because of their elite-driven nature.

David Rothkopf writes on how future American military engagements in the Middle East have become not just conceivable, but thoroughly expected. Also writing in Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko argues the US’ counterterrorism policies have basically always failed to achieve their stated objectives, and air strikes against ISIS will prove no different. Joshua Landis agrees, noting that without a reliable partner on the ground in Syria, Obama is copying Israel’s “mowing the grass” strategy. One country to the east, it seems that even if Iraqi politicians attempt to create a more inclusive state, they’ll face significant resistance from hardline Shia militias. The enemy of these militas, ISIS, has attempted to portray itself as a return to ancient Islam, but it is a thoroughly modern movement. One manifestation of ISIS’ contradictory principals is the circulation of beheading videos, which Jill Sargent Russell argues have had an undue impact on American foreign policy.  Finally, Matthew Barber, who has been on the ground in Iraqi Kurdistan, argues that very limited airstrikes could save thousands of enslaved Yazidi women and girls.

How Mexican drug cartels are using social media for extortion and advertising, and in the process are becoming incredibly resilient organizations.

Armed groups from Sudan to Cameroon, often with cross-border links to each other, are using poaching to fund their activities. One of the countries affected is the Central African Republic, where its UN peacekeeping mission MINUSCA faces enormous challenges. A bit farther to the West, a military analysis of Nigeria shows the state is unprepared for a major Boko Haram assault.

In War on the Rocks, Robert Goldich argues that there is a misguided focus on civilian casualties, and moral indignation prevents conversations from happening on the true nature of war.

Sexual and Ethnic Violence and the Construction of the Islamic State

Guest post by Ariel Ahram

Yazidi women flee ISIS forces in northern Iraq. By Domenico.

Yazidi women flee ISIS forces in northern Iraq. By Domenico.

The protection of women, children, and religious minorities stand prominently among the reasons President Obama offered last week for expanding military action against the Islamic State in Iraq in Syria (ISIS), “They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide.” American presidents have cited similar humanitarian grounds to justify past military interventions. The need to free Afghan women from the Taliban’s yoke was a common a refrain after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Liberating Shi’is and Kurds who had been victimized by Saddam was an expressed goal of the Iraq invasion in 2003. Obama attributed singular malevolence to ISIS, claiming that “in a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality.” A closer look at ISIS’s use of violence reveals that its practices are hardly novel and in fact mimic, to some extent, with broad patterns of state building behavior in the region. Rather than the hallmarks of savagery and barbarity, as senior U.N. officials described the assault on the Yezidis, Shi’is, Christians, and other groups deemed heretical or apostate, the repertoires of sexual and ethnic violence are better seen as part of ISIS’s strategy to enact a particular vision of an Islamic state.

Sexual and ethnic violence, despite often appearing deranged, have an underlying cultural and strategic logic. Drawing on lessons from the Yugoslav civil war and Rwanda in particular, many scholars have pointed out how sexual violence plays a distinctive role in ethno-sectarian conflicts. Serbian forces hatched the Brana Plan in 1990-91 specifically to target Bosnian Muslim women and children, considered the “weak link” of Bosnian society, for sexual violations. Feminist scholars describes these acts as genocidal rape, reasoning that the sexual assaults simultaneously defile the Muslim women, dishonor the Muslim men who were powerless to stop it, augmented Serbia’s own demographic base by impregnating the victim. Yet these explanations capture only part of the story. In Elisabeth Jean Wood’s terms, violence, sexual and otherwise, becomes a practice to which fighters become gradually acclimated to and becomes easier to enact with greater familiarity and alacrity. Examining instances of wartime rape using cross-national statistics and in depth research in Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, and El Salvador, Dara Kay Cohen argues that rape is not distinctive to ethnic (as opposed to non-ethnic) conflicts and often serves non-military purposes. Rape is especially common for armed groups that rely on abducted recruits and those that depend on contraband to fund their operations, where discipline may already be lacking and fighters have low levels of trust. Participation in gang rape may help to build-up unit cohesion.

In the case of ISIS, it is useful to think beyond the context of conflict alone. Unlike many other civil war belligerents, ISIS adamantly and explicitly announces its intention effort to build a state. Just as ISIS’s calculated moves to control hydro-electric installations and exploitation of oil fields for black market smuggling show its attention to controlling resources, ISIS’s sexual and ethnic violence represent as much an undertaking in state-making as in war-making. The power to control or manipulate sexual and ethnic identity is a key component of all state power. In the Middle East, the regulation of sexual relations is often used as a means to create or reinforce ethno-sectarian boundaries.  In the 19th century the Ottoman authorities prohibited marriage between Shi’i men and Sunni women in the provinces of Iraq for fear that Shi’i Iranians were gaining a demographic foothold in the region. Since Islamic law privileges male prerogative over children, the move was meant to block the propagation of Shi’ism within the Ottoman domain. Marriage of Shi’i women to Sunni men was still permitted, since the children of such a union were deemed Sunni. Saddam Hussein took similar measures in the 1970s and 1980s. In late 1970s, in the immediate wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the government moved to deport some 40,000 people deemed to be of “Iranian” (i.e., Shi’i) origins.  Thousands of families were interned in prison or prison camps for months, where they were subject to rape and torture, before being transported to the border. Two years later, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, the government offered a cash reward to Iraqi men married to women “of Iranian origins” to divorce or have their wives deported. The government set out specific incentives to encourage marriage to war widows and increase fertility. There were similar attempts to combine positive inducements and harsh sexual violence to promote the “Arabization” of the Kurdish population. Rape of prisoners was prevalent during the ethnic cleaning of Kurdistan in the late 1980s. State-inflicted sexual violence is less severe but hardly unknown in the “new” Iraq. Sexualized torture was among the many abuses American guards inflicted on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. One of the likely reasons that ISIS chose to clad its American and British beheading victims in orange jumpsuits was specifically to invoke this history. Sexual violence against prisoners continued under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In Syria, sexual violence was similarly endemic well before the rise of ISIS. Reports on Syrian prisons detailed a wide range of sexually abusive practices, including burning genitalia, forcing objects into the rectum, and stripping prisoners naked for public view. In Dara’a, where the first anti-regime protests erupted in 2011, security officials allegedly taunted local families whose sons had been arrested: “Forget your children. If you really want your children, you should make more children. If you don’t know how to make more children, we’ll show you how to do it.” Government forces as well as the state-sponsored Shabiha militia have been implicated a large number of rapes and sexual violations of both men and women during the ongoing civil war.

ISIS’s repertoires of sexual and ethnic violence take three distinct forms. The first is male-on-male sexual violence, including rape. Although this type of sexual violence is actually fairly common in conflicts around the world, data on it are most sketchy, in part because men are not usually thought of as victims and often avoid reporting these incidences. Zainab Hawa Bangura, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq, recorded testimony of ISIS’s sexual attacks on both girls and boys. Moreover, Kurdish and Assyrian sources suggest that ISIS systematically sexually assaults new recruits as part of an initiation. Just as for male-on-female rape, this male-on-male sexual violence, perversely called “marriages,” dishonors the would-be recruit and makes it easier to blackmail him if he were to desert or relent while at the same time building fraternal bonds among the perpetrators.

The second form of sexual violence is female sexual enslavement, comparable to the kind of abductions used by Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. In the last few months there have been multiple reports of ISIS abducting women and girls after executing or driving away men. These acts are justified as a type of permissible conduct toward non-believers who refuse to accede to Muslim control and are probably deemed a form of concubinage. After Kurdish forces re-took the dam above Mosul last month, they found several women inside ISIS compounds who had been bound and raped repeatedly. ISIS’s all-female al-Khansaa brigade is reportedly running brothels filled with captive Yezidi women. These semi-public displays of sexuality in which women are essentially passed from man to man are both declarative and degrading. Linking insult to severe injury, ISIS even provided one victim a cellular phone to call her family and inform them about her fate. The bodies of the conquered are in effect expropriated as sexual and breeding stock, comparable to war booty. Many victims were so psychologically scarred that they fear returning to their own families for fear of bringing shame to them. These forms of sexual violence, then, force conquered peoples into the bottom of the Islamic States’ sexual and sectarian hierarchy. Importantly, though, even such ‘illegitimate’ sexual relationships can yield legitimate kinship bonds. While captive mothers may be apostates and infidels, the children of Muslim father are generally deemed to be Muslims themselves. These children must, at least theoretically, be accorded a position with the community and could indeed be demographic fodder for the Islamic State.

Arranged or enforced marriage, the third form of sexual violence, is very different. Even under duress, marriage solidifies horizontal bonds, ties of peerage and alliance between more or less equals. Of course, arranged marriages have a long history in Europe’s dynastic politics and in Islam. The Prophet Mohammad’s polygamous marriages (particularly to widows) helped to cement consanguine ties among the community of early Muslim believers. Similarly, for ISIS, marriage is meant to be an intra-Muslim engagement. ISIS’s direct forbearer, al-Qaeda in Iraq, sought to arrange unions between its fighters and the daughters of the Anbar tribal sheikhs, with some apparent success in 2003 and 2004. More recently, in Syria, ISIS set up a marriage brokerage to recruit partners for its fighters.  This is not to say that these relationships are necessarily free of coercion—indeed, far from it. One of the reasons tribal leaders joined the U.S.-backed Sunni Awakening in 2006 was their unwillingness to submit their daughters to men they deemed their inferiors. And, of course, we have little inkling about the wishes of the brides themselves. But the symbolic and political valence of marriage, involving reciprocal exchange and obligation instead of expropriation and seizure, is dramatically different than sexual slavery and concubinage. Given the seeming permanence of ISIS foothold along the now defunct Syria-Iraq frontier, marrying into the ISIS fold might be attractive as a way to ensure personal and familial protection. This also helps explain why ISIS why ISIS enforces such stringent seclusion on married or marriageable women. In Mosul, ISIS imposed complete gender segregation on university studies. Alongside its duties as purveyors of sexual slavery, the female Khansaa brigade also acts as a virtue police ensuring women adhere to Islamic codes of modesty.

ISIS’s violence is a heinous crime of war, but also represents a particular form of statecraft. At first glance, it might appear that these practices, though justified by selective interpretations of Islamic law, serve only to satisfy prurient sexual urges. Much like its manipulation of water and oil resources, though, ISIS’s use of sexual and ethnic violence has both ancient and modern antecedents. By selectively reinforcing, creating, and severing ties of kinship, these violent practices can affect bonds of loyalty and obedience far more substantially than the simple distribution of resource rents. If, as Deborah Avant rightfully urges, the U.S. must develop a political as well as military response to ISIS, then it will have to understand the logic and legacies of sexual and ethnic violence, both by ISIS and by the regimes it challenges.

Ariel I. Ahram (@arielahram) is an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs in Alexandria, Va. He is the author of Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State Sponsored Militias (Stanford, 2011).

What Was England Thinking?

By Barbara F. Walter

A sign supporting Scottish independence on the side of the road in South Corriegills, Scotland. By Cams.

A sign supporting Scottish independence on the side of the road in South Corriegills, Scotland. By Cams.

One of the first things you learn in Management 101 is that you don’t bring an issue up for a vote unless you know the outcome and it’s going to be in your favor. The British government clearly missed that lesson. For the last few days I’ve been driving around Scotland. Everywhere you look there are large “YES” signs: on telephone poles, in sheep meadows, on cars, on rock outcroppings in the middle of lakes, on multiple balconies of an apartment building. They outnumber the “No, thanks” signs by at least 20 to 1.

The vote this Thursday for Scottish independence is going to be close, closer than the signs indicate. That’s because many more people will vote “No” than are willing to admit to their neighbors. Still, the vote is too close to call and that makes the U.K. government ‘s decision to allow for the vote so puzzling. Either way, Westminster loses. If the Scots vote for independence, the U.K. loses a third of its territory and becomes a shell of its former self. If the Scots vote against independence, Westminster keeps the territory but with a much more nationalistic and divided population. Management 101 would have said that a vote should never have been allowed on an issue this risky and divisive.

So why did England agree to it? It agreed because it thought it would win by a large margin. A big no vote in Scotland would have silenced the separatists and given Westminster more bargaining power when negotiating with the Scots over such things as North Sea oil. But that’s not going to happen. Instead, the Scots will emerge from Thursday with more bargaining power to demand even greater autonomy even if the referendum is defeated.

Why did England believe it would win? England believed it would win because independence makes no economic sense. Why would the Scots risk financial instability when they already have a fair amount of political autonomy? But this is where Westminster got it wrong. If you’re sitting in London and talking with bankers it’s easy to believe that the referendum will fail. My guess is that Westminster didn’t talk with the average Scot living in Glasgow or Durness or any of the small villages that make up the country. If they had, they would have realized that they were setting themselves up for failure. And setting yourself up for failure is something even a novice manager knows he or she shouldn’t do.

The US Won’t Declare War on ISIS

By Tanisha M. Fazal

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Declaration of War against Japan, December 8, 1941. By Marion Doss.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Declaration of War against Japan, December 8, 1941. By Marion Doss.

Following President Obama’s recent address laying out a strategy deploying airstrikes and advisers to defeat the Islamic State, there has been a flurry of debate regarding Congress’ role in this use of the military. According to an editorial in last Friday’s New York Times, “Congress appears perfectly willing to abdicate one of its most consequential powers: the authority to declare war.”

The Times’ editorial team, as well as many others, misunderstands what it would mean to declare war. States declare war upon each other. Sometimes non-state actors declare war upon states. But we lack a mechanism whereby states could declare war on non-state actors, or even individuals. Although the Constitution (see Article 1, Section 8) does not prohibit declaring war against non-state actors, historically declarations of war have required that both parties be recognized as sovereign entities. If we had a way to declare war on non-state actors, the US might have declared war on Al Qaeda in 2001 or on Saddam Hussein in 2003 (or, perhaps, earlier). But US reticence to intervene in Syria during the height of its ongoing civil war suggests that we will not declare war on Syria, especially given that the interests of the US and the Assad regime are aligned with respect to the goal of defeating ISIS. Iran and Iraq, in what appears to be a new chapter in the “strange bedfellows” annals of international politics, are also allies in this fight.

A major reason states do not declare war upon non-state actors is because doing so would accord these actors the very legitimacy, rights and status that states are fighting to keep them from gaining. We observe this most easily in civil wars, where rebel groups might declare war upon states, but states tend not to reciprocate, instead labeling rebels as criminals or terrorists.

There are other reasons not to expect a US declaration of war against ISIS. As I have shown, all states have pretty much stopped declaring war. The US is no exception – Congress has not declared war since World War II. This decline is not due to a decline in war – there have been plenty of wars and armed conflicts since the Second World War, and the US participated in many of them. Rather, once states issue a formal declaration of war they unequivocally oblige themselves to comply with international humanitarian law. And as the standards of complying with international humanitarian law have risen over time, states appear to be increasingly reluctant to step over the bright line of issuing a formal declaration of war.

What, then, are Congress’ options for exercising its authority over US foreign policy? A more standard approach would be a Congressional authorization for the use of military force. Here, there is precedent for setting a non-state actor as a target, albeit a fairly old one: in 1802, Congress authorized the use of force against Barbary pirates. We should, therefore, hope to see debate in the coming weeks over a Congressional authorization, particularly over whether existing authorizations can be repurposed for the fight against ISIS.

Dissecting Obama’s Four-Point Strategy Against ISIL

By Sara Bjerg Moller

In October 2011, Obama promises all American troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year. By the US Embassy flickr account.

In October 2011, Obama promises all American troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year. By the US Embassy flickr account.

On Wednesday evening, President Obama took to the airwaves to announce his much-awaited strategy for confronting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Here, I share some of my initial reactions to the administration’s proposed strategy. Few, if any, would disagree with the administration’s stated goals of redoubling efforts to improve intelligence, cutting off the group’s funding, stemming the flow of foreign fighters to the West, or providing humanitarian assistance to civilians (the third and fourth parts of the strategy) so I’ll skip these and go straight to the military options outlined by the president.

The first part of the two-pronged military strategy announced by Obama calls for expanding the campaign of airstrikes against ISIL targets in Iraq to (possibly) include targets in Syria. Neither the continuation nor the expansion of the air campaign is likely to have the desired effect of destroying the terrorist organization, however. At most, air strikes can degrade the organization. They cannot defeat it. This is true regardless of whether one looks at the U.S. aerial campaign as an attempt at coercion by denial (in this case, of territory) or as brute force. True, U.S. air power could prevent ISIL from seizing new territory but the group has already reached the natural limits of its expansion having captured most of the Sunni-majority areas of Iraq. Evicting them from the cities they hold through airpower alone will be hard if next-to-impossible given the demonstrated ability of terrorists to hide in plain sight. Moreover, bombing villages and towns will not only lead to collateral damage but could also backfire by increasing ISIL’s support among members of the Sunni population not yet committed.

Second, the president announced he was stepping up support to forces fighting ISIL on the ground by sending an additional 475 service members to Iraq and increasing military assistance to the Syrian opposition. The added troops, whose mission is to help train and support Iraqi and Kurdish forces, will bring the total U.S. military presence in Iraq to around 1,500. However, after a decade of U.S. training and billions in equipment and other support, it is difficult to see how the addition of non-combat personnel will help the Iraqi Army reverse the gains made by the Islamic State in the past six months. The Iraqi Army was far better trained and equipped than the enemy at the start of the summer yet they still ran. Why should we expect Iraqi soldiers to fare better going forward? Although the rules of engagement (ROE) are as yet unclear, as “non-combat advisors,” U.S. troops will be prohibited from fighting alongside the Iraqi security forces. In other words, U.S. soldiers will be put in the difficult position of being unable to enter the firefight, leading to bitter resentment and charges of abandonment on the part of Iraqi soldiers. (To be clear, I don’t believe the president should, or for that matter, would, consider deploying additional U.S. forces. I merely wish to point out that in committing 1,500 non-combat advisors the resources allocated do not align with the strategic aims articulated.) U.S. advisors are unlikely to have the desired effect on the Kurdish forces as well. After months of watching Bagdad fail to guarantee their security the Kurds are more invigorated than ever in their quest for independence, making Kurdish-Iraqi security cooperation all the more challenging.

The Obama administration’s plan to “ramp up” its military assistance to the Syrian opposition is also cause for concern. Rather than comprise one recognizable movement, the Syrian opposition is made up of a hodgepodge of groups and individuals, including the former ally of ISIL, the Al-Nusra Front. Keeping track of many of these rebel groups and their changing allegiances is like a 3-D game of snakes and ladders, except the ladders are slides. All of which is to say that distinguishing friend from foe in Syria today is not a straightforward or easy task. Members of Al-Nusra and ISIL have been fighting each other but could be spurred by the U.S. bombing campaign to reunite and, worse, decide to focus their energies on targeting U.S. personnel and interests in the region or abroad. One unintended consequence of extending the bombing campaign could therefore be to unite groups currently split only by tactics or minor differences in ideology.

As the president acknowledged, ISIL is a problem that can’t be solved by military action. Yet regaining the trust of the Iraqi Sunni population who are the key to ISIL’s defeat is likely to take years if it is even possible at all. In 2007, Sunnis willing to take a chance on American promises of a more inclusive central government and more-equal sharing of land and resources formed the Sons of Iraq/Anbar Awakening Movement and helped reduce violence and reestablish security. Winning their trust a second time might be beyond U.S. capabilities.

What to do about ISIS?: For Starters, Think Political as Well as Military Strategy

Guest post by Deborah Avant

President Obama discusses the situations in Iraq and Syria with Christian religious leaders of the Middle East. By The White House.

President Obama discusses the situations in Iraq and Syria with Christian religious leaders of the Middle East. By The White House.

In looking at what the US – or anyone else – should do about ISIS, the first step should be to understand why it has made the gains it has. So far, it seems that ISIS’s gains have been partly about who ISIS is, partly about how ISIS uses relationships with other groups, and partly about success breeding success.

Who is ISIS?

ISIS is a transnational group, established by a Jordanian but bolstered by a core of savvy former Baathist military leaders who have found purpose in a conservative version of Islam. It aims to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. It is more territorially concrete and less specifically anti-American than al-Qaeda (for more on this, see some useful backgrounders here and here). It has a global recruiting strategy. It has both local and global strategies for gaining resources. And it has the organizational capacity to generate both violent and non-violent collective action.

As Stathis Kalyvas has suggested, it surely makes sense to think of ISIS as a revolutionary actor more than an Islamic actor. But we also might usefully think of it as extreme case of what Clifford Bob calls the “global right wing.” These are groups who react to distasteful elements of globalization with conservative responses, including attempts to turn back the clock (in al-Baghdadi’s case, the aim is to turn back the clock hundreds of years). The global right wing often deploys exclusionary strategies and negative tactics. Sometimes they use violence.

While attacking globalization, however, groups making up the global right wing often make significant use of globalization’s tools. Audrey Cronin wrote an article more than ten years ago arguing that extremist groups (often with religious claims and deadly capacities) were, paradoxically, using the very technologies undergirding globalization to attack it. Indeed, more than a decade ago, such movements were already exploiting information technology to coordinate attacks, recruit attackers, communicate with the like-minded, and attract adherents.

ISIS has proved masterful at this, developing sophisticated recruitment videos aimed differently at recruits in the West compared with recruits from the Middle East. For the western audience, ISIS’s recruitment videos promise self-fulfillment and purpose; they talk about jihad as a cure for the depression inherent in the empty way of living within the West. These videos actually downplay the violence entailed in ISIS’s mission. For the greater Middle East audience, recruitment videos emphasize duty for all Muslims, while highlighting violence and rightful vengeance against the corrupt and abusive regimes of the region. Recruitment strategies have even targeted women, promising them devout jihadi husbands and a chance to live in a true Islamic state.

Thus far, some estimate that it has as many as 12,000 foreign fighters from 81 countries—2,000 of them from Europe and over 100 from the US. Jordan has the highest per capita recruitment, comprising a majority of the reported membership. These recruitment efforts are no doubt aided by a global economy where many young people have little to hope for, and the purpose of global stability increasingly appears tied to crass capitalism gone awry.

ISIS doesn’t just recruit fighters with social media. It tweets, it posts, it blogs, it uses on-line services like JustPost and others, and it makes documentaries. All of these techniques aim not only to win potential adherents, but also to strike fear into broader communities and to communicate its power. By executing American journalists and Lebanese soldiers, ISIS paints itself as an unstoppable power. Perhaps more importantly, it portrays itself as the Islamic voice in global politics, even as it targets other Muslims.

The group has used transnational markets to its advantage in resources – with not only oil and bank robberies but also with looted antiquities, which they have sold on global black markets. Beyond these windfalls, they have implemented a variety of local taxes and funds from Gulf States. Their multi-faceted resource strategy includes extortion, kidnapping, robberies, and smuggling. Although the organization is highly committed to Islam, offering those in its territory the chance to convert or die, it also seems quite pragmatic when in need of resources (e.g. offering escape from religious persecution for a price).

ISIS’s relations with local groups

Even using these sophisticated global tools, ISIS would not have had the success it had without its clever operations vis-à-vis other local groups.

In Syria, ISIS has allowed other rebel groups to bear the brunt of fighting Assad, seizing their territory afterward. It has held increasing swaths of territory in Syria through violence, and it has maintained control over these spaces by creating relative order in the midst of an otherwise anarchic civil war.

In Iraq, ISIS has clearly taken advantage of widespread Sunni disaffection with the corrupt Maliki government. Though the deal that gained Maliki power promised some prominent positions to Sunni leaders, Maliki never followed through on these promises. The perception that the Baghdad government was a seat of Shia cronyism created ample space for former Baathist members of ISIS to convince its Sunni brethren around Mosul to join forces. In a sense, ISIS has created its own “Sunni awakening.” Its dramatic success in Iraq was eerily reflective of the “successful” US surge.

Success breeds success

In its ability to create some order in the chaos of the Syrian war and its dramatic gains in Iraq earlier in the summer, ISIS has demonstrated capacity and organizational acumen. ISIS, more than other extremist groups, looks like it is accomplishing its goals. Widespread communication of its successes is a keystone of its public relations strategy, which draws in adherents by signaling that it is a winning horse worth backing.

Implications for US strategy

Any strategy to undermine ISIS needs to focus on all three of these elements—ISIS as part of the global right wing, its relations with other groups, and the important of tactical successes to its overall narrative. As such, the US strategy unveiled by Obama is wise to focus first on eroding the seeming inevitability of ISIS’s victory. This began earlier in the summer with the rescue of the Yazidis and support for the Kurds in airstrikes, followed by air surveillance in Syria.  Demonstrating that the ISIS train can be stopped is an important first step.

Chipping away at ISIS’s allies in Iraq is the second obvious step.  Here the US and others could take advantage of a potential opening. While the ISIS governance strategy worked better against total anarchy in parts of Syria, it has been less well received in parts of Iraq. Last week the BBC reported that some Sunni tribal leaders have reportedly begun to rethink their interest in the alliance given the extreme nature of ISIS’s demands and ISIS’s refusal to allow much local autonomy in its newly captured territory.

The outline of the US plan focuses on training and equipping the Iraqi army (now that it has a more inclusive Iraqi government). This may potentially include training and arming the Kurds and possibly members of Sunni tribes. The devil will be in the details here. It makes sense to support already strong authority in the region. This will encourage groups leaning against ISIS to stand up to it. But the US’s track record of managing “state-building” efforts while simultaneously engaging with more local forces in Iraq (and Afghanistan) is not particularly good. And the plans for the thornier question about how to combat ISIS in Syria are both less clear and less promising.

The US has done better at managing crises to roll back attacks in the Middle East. It has not been as successful translating these short-run gains into positive steps toward inclusive governance. Furthermore, US anointment in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to leaders with little legitimacy and little attention to US concerns. The last thing the US wants to do is to intervene in a way that pushes the various anti-government rebels in Iraq (and/or Syria) together with ISIS against perceived US puppets. Though less may not be enough, I agree with Joshua Rovner that less is more when it comes to US presence in the Middle East. A broad strategy involving many others is a good idea.  Doing that under the mantle of an American coalition is not.  A plan with the US in a supporting, background role has best chance for long run success.

Beyond that, however, what will the US and its allies do about the malaise upon which al-Baghdadi and others have been able to capitalize? Why have so many Jordanians signed up?  What is it a reaction to? How do people see global society and its impact on their localities?  Do they see dysfunction and corruption? Increasing inequality? Immorality? Lack of purpose?  Where is the mobilization for a positive, alternative vision of inclusive local politics within a stable global society? Messages about global citizenship, human security, and an inclusive global politics seemed to evince more hope in the 1990s – perhaps for good reason. The shreds of a hopeful message visible in parts of the Arab Spring have blown into hiding. The US talks more about how to combat extremism than about what might replace it.  Though some audiences in the US believe that America holds the keys to the future, many across the world do not.

Instead of such an exclusive focus on military strategies and rhetoric about the benefits of living in America, the US needs to think of its broader political strategy. Whether the current strategy toward ISIS leads to a more peaceful and inclusive Middle East will ultimately rest on attention to establishing an inclusive local and global society and, even more importantly, developing capable nonviolent strategies for achieving it.

Deborah Avant is a Professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and the Director of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy.

Why ISIS Wants Its Brutality to Be Public

By Barbara F. Walter

ISIS capture an Iraqi soldier. Screenshot from Syria4YouandMe's video.

ISIS capture an Iraqi soldier. Screenshot from Syria4YouandMe’s video.

ISIS has captured the world’s attention, in part, because it has been so brutal and public. The videos and photos are devastating. Public executions, lashings and amputations in public squares have become commonplace. Last week, ISIS videotaped themselves as they massacred over a thousand ex-Shiite soldiers – most were civilians who had recently joined the Iraqi army and were returning to their homes.

The public nature of this brutality seems self-defeating. Yet I argue that ISIS’s decision to advertise its viciousness is part of a larger intimidation strategy designed to eliminate local resistance. The U.S. needs to understand this strategy in order to counter it effectively.

Public executions are a strategy of social control that are designed to frighten an audience into submission. In an article called the Strategies of Terrorism, Andrew Kydd and I argued that insurgents were likely to publicly assassinate citizens in places were territory is contested and uncertainty exists about who was in charge. In order to gain control over territory (especially Shiite occupied territory), ISIS needs to convince the local population not to fight back. To do this, they must first convince them that (a) any resistance will be punished harshly, and (b) the government is too weak to help them.

But an intimidation strategy is not likely to work under all conditions. It is much more likely to work in areas where control over land is uncertain and contested. This is why it is no surprise that most massacres have taken place in areas along the periphery of ISIS control. In Iraq, ISIS is playing on the doubt that exists that the Iraqi government will be able to hold Shiite areas. Once it is clear that ISIS will not be able to hold this territory (because of air strikes or the enhanced capability of its enemies) then public executions are less likely to intimidate local populations and their use is likely to decline. Greater security then, begets more security and creates local defenses over which ISIS cannot move.

What is ISIS?

Guest post by Jack A. Goldstone

A portrait of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. By Thierry Ehrmann.

A portrait of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. By Thierry Ehrmann.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has emerged as the most terrifying and brutal of extreme jihadist groups (and it’s up against tough competition, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia).

Why have such extreme Islamist groups emerged in so many places in recent years?

Odd as this may sound, it is not because of the appeal of extreme Islam itself. A study of fighters in Syria by Mironova, Mrie, and Whitt found that most fighters join ISIS and similar groups because (1) they want vengeance against the Assad regime and (2) they found from experience that the Islamist groups take the best care of their fighters — caring for the wounded, supporting them in battle, etc. In situations of social breakdown — which are generally NOT caused by the Islamist groups themselves, but by problems of finances, elite divisions, and popular unrest due to oppressive or arbitrary actions by the state – extremists tend to have major advantages.

This has always been the case through the history of revolutions: moderates are usually outflanked, outmaneuvered and out-recruited by radicals; so much so that the triumph of radicals over moderates is a staple of academic work on the trajectory of revolutions, from Crane Brinton to my own.

Why does this occur? In situations of major social breakdown, involving violence, disorder, and the collapse of established institutions, moderates — whose main qualification was usually experience in, and command of, those now-collapsed institutions — simply do not have the resources to establish order, nor do they have the drive and discipline to start from scratch. Instead, they often are equally concerned about how to protect what remains of their position and wealth, and are distrustful of others competing for power.

Radicals, by contrast, start fresh. They draw on the inspiration of their ideological cause, but that is not what matters to others. What matters is that radicals are usually willing to make sacrifices, to embrace all supporters, and to build a new community to pursue their goals. They are the most zealous in pursuit of what people want and need in times of collapse: local order, discipline, a supportive community, and success in attacking perceived enemies.

Radicals thus add organizational power and discipline to their ideological message. It is the former, not the latter, that draws in followers. Yet the ideological message cannot be neglected; as a number of scholars have shown, once radicals are in power, that message shapes their post-revolutionary policies. Extremists in seeking power are often extremists in power, which makes them so dangerous. Moreover, those who initially join radical movements for discipline and community support are often indoctrinated and become convinced supporters of the radical cause.

ISIS is not just a terrorist or jihadist group; it is a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow governments to create a new regime (the Islamic caliphate) that it views as more socially just than the secular dictators it is fighting. The power of such revolutionary radicals should not be underestimated. Both conservatives and moderates in Russia dismissed the Bolsheviks as a small group of terrorists; but in the chaos following World War I they created an expansionist communist state that lasted almost a century.

The rise of ISIS is interwoven with several other conflicts that it did not produce but that have given it the opportunity to thrive: that between Sunnis and other Iraqis for control of Iraq, a conflict that goes back to Saddam Hussein and was heightened by the US invasion and the civil war it unleashed; that between Sunnis and other Syrians for control of Syria, a conflict that goes back to the founding of the Assad dynasty and beyond; and that between Sunnis and Shias for control of the Middle East, a struggle that goes back hundreds of years but has recently been inflamed by struggles among Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Emirates for domination in the region. ISIS feeds off of all of these conflicts, and offers its followers a way to be powerful and secure amidst chaos.

This analysis indicates a three-fold approach is needed to deal with ISIS. First, military reprisals to blunt its success and undermine the feeling of invincibility it has given to its converts. These can only come from forces at least as well-organized and disciplined. However, at present the only such force in the region is the Kurdish peshmerga; but this is a militia without heavy arms or air power and which has no ability to project power beyond the borders of its own enclave in northern Iraq. Thus external forces — the U.S., or NATO — must play a major role.

Second, the civil institutions that provide a power-base for moderate political organizations and their leaders must be rebuilt and given credibility. In Syria, this cannot happen until the Assad regime falls; in Iraq this cannot happen until a post-Maliki government establishes its credibility and effectiveness. And as long as the main supporter of the Iraqi government is Iran, with its policy of seeking a strongly Shia-dominated and anti-Sunni regime in Iraq, no Iraqi government will gain credibility with the Sunnis of Iraq who support ISIS. Given that the Assad regime looks unlikely to topple given its support by Russia and Iran, and that Iran is unlikely to give up its goals to shape a friendly regime next door in Iraq, the prospects for the second step remain poor. This raises a huge strategic question for the U.S. — even if military intervention stops ISIS for now, how can the second phase of putting effective moderate regimes in power that will win supporters away from ISIS be accomplished?

Third, the ongoing Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East is fueling every sort of violent group: Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS, and others. At some point, the global community will have to lean on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to cease their proxy wars and come to an agreement similar to that of 1648 in Europe, which ended the Thirty Years War that capped over a century of religious conflicts: every country can control its religious policy within its own borders, but agrees to stop meddling in religious conflicts in other countries and to respect other countries’ full sovereignty. This may be a distant goal (it took nearly a century in Europe) but is vital if the region is ever to know stable peace.

In sum, America’s hasty retreat from Iraq left much unfinished business, which has now arisen in the form of the radical ISIS threat. To contain that threat will require both a coordinated military response, and the sustained effort to create credible and legitimate government institutions that the U.S. abandoned too soon. It may also require stronger efforts (air strikes similar to those aimed at ISIS) to undermine the Assad regime; as long as Assad remains in power radical jihadis will continue to seek vengeance for the acts he has already committed.

This sounds costly and time-consuming. It is; much as it took an international coalition to bring Napoleon to his Waterloo, it will take an international coalition and sustained effort to bring down radical Islamist movements in the Middle East. Yet the lesson of history is that without this effort, we will see the rise of an increasingly powerful radical jihadist revolutionary state spreading across the entire Middle East. That is the present choice that our past choices have left us.

Jack A. Goldstone is the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Mythbusting the Burden Sharing Problem

By Steve Saideman

The NATO flag and flags of member-states outside the organization's summit in 2009. By Downing Street.

The NATO flag and flags of member-states outside the organization’s summit in 2009. By Downing Street.

Yes, NATO countries do not spend equally on defense. NATO countries varied quite significantly in what they contributed to the efforts of the past–Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. But there are a few basic ideas that need to be addressed.

First, the Canadians and Europeans do bring something to the table–it is not just a US effort with a NATO flag. None of the members of NATO besides the U.S. really had much at stake in Afghanistan. They all showed up, and damn near all of them paid a significant price in blood and treasure. Despite the rhetoric, the various provincial action plans (the Helmand Plan and so on), and all the rest, these countries were there because they were fulfilling what they saw as an Article V commitment–that an attack upon one happened, and that they were obligated by norms, by affinity and by self interest to support that country. They bought that Afghanistan was a response to 9/11. They did not buy Iraq in the same way, although some showed up anyway.

For much of the war, Americans were outnumbered on the Afghanistan battlefields by Canadians and Europeans. Only as Obama surged did the balance of effort tilt. While the U.S. was off starting unnecessary wars, its allies were holding the line more or less.

So, when people ask: will the NATO members show up when needed, the answer is yes. Indeed, whenever the alliance is threatened, the members come together because they are more about the alliance than pretty much anything else–certainly more than Bosnia or Kosovo.

Second, the US spends some of its defense dollars on European security (much of the US defense budget is aimed elsewhere) and provides far more to the alliance than many of the members but IT IS NOT OUT OF ALTRUISM. The US has much at stake in European stability. A few World Wars and a Cold War proved that. So, what the US spends in Europe for European security is due to American interests and not just being a good pal, a sucker to be exploited by the Euros. Much of our prosperity since WWII has been built on North American partnership with Europe. The pivot to Asia was built on the premise that Europe needed less (but still some) American effort. With Russia’s aggression, the pivot will not be quite as significant.

Anyhow, this post is a reaction to the ideas that the allies are completely flaky and that the US is engaged in Europe due to its charitable nature. Neither of these ideas have much of a basis in reality. Yes, I co-wrote a book on how countries varied in their efforts in Afghanistan, but we cannot ignore that they all showed up and the ones that we tend to criticize–the Germans, the French, and the Italians–were among the biggest force providers, bled quite a bit, and got damn near no credit for it.

This post originally appeared on Steve Saideman’s personal blog.

The Reports of War’s Demise Have Been Somewhat Exaggerated

By Tanisha M. Fazal

U.S. army medics carry a wounded soldier onto a waiting Black Hawk helicopter at Combat Outpost Rath in Afghanistan. By the U.S. Department of Defense.

U.S. army medics carry a wounded soldier onto a waiting Black Hawk helicopter in Afghanistan. By the U.S. Department of Defense.

To many, current conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Gaza make the world seem more violent than ever. Proponents of the “declinist theory of war” such as Stephen Pinker and Joshua Goldstein, argue the opposite – that the world is currently enjoying a time of unprecedented relative peace. My new article in International Security may help reconcile these views. The claim that war is on the decline is based primarily on a decline in battle deaths, particularly since 1946. Over this same time period, however, there have been dramatic improvements in medical care in conflict zones. War has become less fatal, but this does not necessarily mean it has become less frequent.

I identify four changes in medical care in conflict zones, all of which increase the odds of survival compared to the past. First, advances in preventive care – from today’s widespread childhood immunizations to better field sanitation – improve the baseline health of combatants. Healthier soldiers are less likely to succumb to disease (and disease, historically, can deplete military forces such that it turns the tide of battle), more likely to survive any wounds sustained and, even, less likely to sustain certain wounds in the first place.

Second, battlefield medicine itself has improved via the availability of anesthetics and antibiotics, which make for more effective surgeries as well as a greater likelihood of avoiding or surviving post-operative infections. Similarly, the return of the tourniquet as part of a general focus on hemostatics appears to have dramatically reduced the percentage of soldiers dying from preventable blood loss.

Third, military evacuation practices have gone from soldiers laying on the ground for weeks waiting for transport by stretchers to mechanized ambulances to medevac helicopters. States invest heavily in military transport for this purpose today; NGOs like the ICRC, however, were at the vanguard of this particular shift. Fourth, soldiers today often wear personal protective equipment (PPE) that shields their heads and trunks – the parts of the body most vulnerable to fatal wounds.

To put some numbers to these changes, consider that historically, the ratio of those wounded to those killed in battle has been 3:1. Today, for countries such as the US, that ratio is closer to 10:1.

One limitation of this argument is that medical advances are enjoyed by the developed world much more so than by the developing world. This caveat is an important one because most wars today are civil wars, and most civil wars occur in the developing world. But even in this relatively unfavorable context, we observe improvements in medical care, with foreign aid-sponsored immunization programs, delivery of care and evacuation by NGOs such as the ICRC and MSF, and even the limited use of protective equipment by groups such as the Free Syrian Army.

These medical advances have several implications for scholarship and policy. Major academic datasets on war and armed conflict typically use a battle death threshold to determine which cases count as wars/armed conflict. This battle death threshold is constant over the time period covered by these datasets. But a conflict that produced 1,000 battle deaths in 1820 will likely produce many fewer overall casualties (where casualties, properly understood, include the dead and wounded) than a conflict with 1,000 battle deaths today. In other words, the events scholars (including this one) are comparing may not be as similar as we think they are.

Improvements in medical care in conflict zones also hold important implications for policy. While the recent VA scandal was surely driven by an aging population of Korean and Vietnam War veterans, it seems at least possible that pressure on the VA system also emerged from unexpectedly large numbers of returned wounded coming home with a new set of injuries and illnesses. The widespread use of personal protective equipment in the US military, for example, has saved many lives, but surviving soldiers are more likely to come home with traumatic brain injuries, severe facial disfigurement, or as amputees. More broadly, our thinking about casualties and the costs of war has tended to focus on the dead rather than the wounded, while the wounded are growing in number. Medical advances in conflict zones are a positive development, but one that will not be fully realized until we recognize that both the wounded and the dead “count” as casualties.

This post originally appeared at the Monkey Cage.


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