Vijay Prashad: What President Obama should not do about ISIS

Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A rational observer of United States intervention in the swath of land that runs from Libya to Afghanistan would come to a simple conclusion: U.S. military action leads to chaos. Examples are legion, but the two most dramatic are Iraq and Libya.

In both cases, the U.S. bombed the state institutions to smithereens. It takes a hundred years to build state institutions. They can be destroyed in an afternoon. The chaos that followed in both countries was the ideal condition for the flotsam of al-Qaida. In Iraq, al-Qaida in Mesopotamia (2004) morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq, and eventually ISIS. In Libya, during the NATO bombardment, radicals in Benghazi created Ansar al-Sharia, which slowly leaned toward al-Qaida’s ideological worldview. In both cases, it was the U.S. bombardment that facilitated the condition for their emergence.

A policy determined to battle al-Qaida on the world stage has ended up with the expansion of al-Qaida. A CIA analyst told me in 2003 that the danger of the heavy-handed war on Afghanistan was that it would simply scatter al-Qaida fighters around the world. “When you smash the mercury hard,” he said, “it will spread around.” This is precisely what occurred, as al-Qaida veterans from their U.S.-backed Afghan jihad against the Soviets, now became anti-American fighters across the planet.

Nothing spread the mercury around like the Iraq War. Most of the ISIS fighters are led by highly skilled battlefield commanders of the former Iraqi army who had been cashiered by the ill-conceived Ba’athification process (to remove all people from state jobs who had been in Saddam Hussein’s party, the Ba’ath). These Ba’ath fighters had been part of the insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and are now the spinal cord for the ISIS as it moves swiftly across Syria and Iraq. Libyan radicals slipped into Syria from Turkey to give ISIS more veterans, whose experience in 2011 matured in the years to come in the wars of northern Syria. They have now turned back home to Libya, where the vortex of chaos is in full evidence.

President Obama is expected to reveal his strategy in remarks Wednesday. His caution so far against a major aerial bombardment of Syria-Iraq is welcome. He is under immense pressure to do something. The idea of “do something” is significant. It typically means aerial bombardment. That would be the worst something for the United States to do.

The best something would be to urge the former Syrian Contact Group (Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) to conceive a regional strategy to de-escalate the war in Syria, urge a unity government in Iraq and put pressure on Turkey to cease its open-door policy for international jihadis. Such a strategy would allow the extremely effective fighters of the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot (YPG) to hold their own in the northern frontiers of ISIS’s land; it would allow the Syrian army confidence to shift its focus from the defense of Damascus to the fight in northern Syria and along the border with Lebanon; it would allow Jordan and Lebanon confidence and funds to shore up their own fragile borders; and it would provide Iraq with the political backing from both Iran and Saudi Arabia to give confidence to a military with no morale.

A regional solution of this nature would be far more effective in curtailing the metastasis of ISIS in the long run. A bombing raid here and there will halt their progress, but ISIS will disperse and return. Chaos is its natural homeland. It is what aerial bombardment produces. The urge to do something always assumes that the savior is to be sent off from Washington, D.C. The image of the blue-jacketed cavalry riding out of the fort to the sound of the bugle is paramount. Other people can do many things, but what they lack is the political space to do what they must do, namely defend their homelands.

It is their homeland to defend. They are eager to do so, but they cannot if the games of powers from far off are bent on division and chaos, the atmosphere that breeds al-Qaida.

Vijay Prashad teaches international studies at Trinity College in Hartford. He will speak Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Cape Cod Lounge in the Student Union at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


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