Having had little ‘down time’ since the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the earlier one in Afghanistan, Australia is heeding the call-to-arms of our strongest ally to take out the Islamic State. While the scope of the ‘mission’ is as yet limited to air attacks in Iraq and to training local Iraqis and Kurds, history would indicate that this ideal situation (attacking, but little threat of being attacked) will be short-lived.
From advising the South Koreans in the early 1950s, the South Vietnamese in the 1960s, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and the Kurds under Saddam Hussein prior to 2003, conflicts that powerful nations see as vitally important have a way of taking much longer than predicted and necessitating large troop deployments. So don’t be fooled into thinking that the troops will be home by Christmas.
Why? Well for two reasons at least.
Firstly, IS is not likely to remain as a conventional standing army for long. That is, by staying in large groups with heavy weaponry it provides easy targets for airstrikes and they know it. Stay tuned for an announcement in the next 4 months from Obama et al. giving the impression that we’ve ‘defeated’ them. However like the Taliban in Afghanistan, they will decentralise their forces and live amongst the Iraqi and Syrian people as they wage a bloody, street-by-street insurgency that will go on for years. This strategy worked for the Viet Cong against the US, the Mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the Taliban against the US in Afghanistan; I suspect it will continue to work in Iraq.
Secondly, while you may destroy vehicles, buildings, troops and weapons with cruise missiles, you can’t ‘degrade’ or ‘destroy’ an idea. The troops who are currently fighting for that idea? Of course. But as long as the idea is supported and spread, the fighting will continue regardless of whether it is under the banner of the Islamic State or not.
The Islamist ideology espoused by IS, as abhorrent as it appears to us, will not be defeated neither by Super Hornets (or the infamous F-35) nor any other piece of military hardware. The leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may go the way of Osama Bin Laden through a Navy SEAL assassination or drone strike, but the idea which he fights for is not so easily disposed of.
‘But hold on’, I hear you say, ‘surely ideas can be shown to be wrong, unwise, dangerous, or downright stupid? The idea of Communism was destroyed when the Berlin Wall came down wasn’t it? I don’t see many people calling for Communist states now days.’
The idea destroyed in the Cold War was that a Communist state is not only possible, but beneficial for its people. This idea died from the inside as repressed and impoverished Soviets saw the problems with their system of government. In this way, their idea was shown to be false in serious ways. Unfortunately a similar death or destruction for Islamist ideology doesn’t seem likely.
Not all ideas can be tested like Communism was. While you can kill those who believe abhorrent ideas, you can’t destroy an idea which can never be proven false.
Many people living under the harsh requirements of the Islamic State may denounce its ideology as they see the logical and violent conclusion of the group’s ideas. However, being based in religion, where the ultimate reckoning occurs after death, there seems no way of showing that the Islamist ideology is false. IS believe they represent the ‘true’ Islam, and regardless of how many ‘moderates’ say the opposite, this will not convince committed IS followers. Believing that they act according to the will of God, it would take his intervention to correct their thinking. This doesn’t seem likely.
Life under IS may be unpleasant of course, but lacking any more concrete evidence that Islamism is contrary to the ‘true’ dictates of their faith, Islamist movements, will endure in some form for a very long time to come.
In all probability, ebbs and flows in the numbers of supporters will occur. Economic hardship, perceived oppression from governments and other grievances will lead to higher recruitment levels. On the other hand, material wellbeing and the presence of certain freedoms will, I assume, lead to fewer recruits.
Depressing as this may be, it’s better to be prepared for what is likely than dreaming of improbable decisive victories.