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Tracking the rise of the Islamic state
The current rise of Islamic extremism is neither a new phenomenon nor a surprising one. A thousand years ago, the Nazari Isma’ili sect (later known as the ‘Assassins’) spread terror during a 200-year campaign, murdering Crusaders and Muslims to further their political ends. Their first leader established a stronghold in north-west Iran where he recruited, radicalised and trained operatives to murder and terrorise according to his political requirement. There are clear parallels with the rise of the Sunni Islamic group al‑Qaida from its strongholds in Afghanistan and its campaigns against both secular and Islamic targets. Thirteen years later, the ‘fellow travellers’ of the Islamic State (IS) dominate a broad swathe of Syria and Iraq with their bastardised version of Wahhabism.
In the modern era, operations by the US and its allies have cost trillions (the US estimates its Global War on Terror (GWOT) cost $3.7 trillion in the decade after 9/11) and have resulted in the deaths in combat zones of over 600,000 civilians and combatants. However, the various theatres of the GWOT are now characterised by failing states and a rise of Islamic extremism, for which the West must bear much of the responsibility.
Despite the many years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither state can be described as stable or democratic, and both interventions are being described, not least by RUSI, as strategic failures. They have been beset by a number of mistakes.
No Clear End-state
As a consequence of the West having no objectives following Saddam’s removal, ill‑conceived policies such as Deba’athification occurred.
Its goal was to remove the Ba’ath Party influence in Iraq’s new political framework. By sacking any public servant with Ba’ath Party membership, the policy dismantled the extant security structure. It moved the former elite to the bottom of the social ladder and removed those competent to provide public services such as electricity, sanitation and governance.
As a consequence, Deba’athification: catalysed the initial insurgency; increased disaffection amongst the general population at the lack of basic services and governance; and hamstrung any indigenous capability to treat either problem.
Similarly, the West’s intervention in Libya allowed militarily weak anti-Gaddifi forces to overthrow a 42-year despotic regime. Once again, no real effort was applied after the intervention to secure an effective security apparatus or to lay locally acceptable foundations for future political institutions. Now, militias have the balance of power, and the democratic government resides in Tobruk due to Tripoli being held by extremists. As neither side is being militarily decisive, Libya is slipping further into instability.
In Syria, the civil war has killed over 200,000. Again, Western intervention did not decisively tip the balance of military power and has only prolonged the conflict. It has also allowed the rise of IS in the spaces not governed by the Syrian state.
Eleven and thirteen years (Iraq and Afghanistan respectively) are very short periods to expect countries with no generational history of democracy to field successful democratic institutions. Previous interventions such as colonial rule in India took generations to achieve a change that can be regarded as long lasting. Iraqi and Afghan democracies remain as elusive as ever.
Despite enormous investments in equipment and training, the Iraqi Army has shown little robustness to deal with internal or external threats, proving wholly incapable to defeat the poorly trained insurgents from IS. This bodes badly for the similarly trained Afghan troops in their expected conflict with the Taliban post US drawdown.
We all view the world through ‘us’-coloured lenses, believing others will behave as we would in their shoes. Western governments are particularly guilty of this bias, expecting those previously ruled by non-democratic models to embrace democracy like a Western audience. As a result, the recent efforts to impose democracies have largely been failures. While in the West dictatorships and other autocratic regimes are viewed with suspicion, they remain a valid model for some parts of the world. Strong autocratic regimes have held otherwise volatile states together for decades. Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya are all examples.
Indeed, the oft-heard cry that Iraq is better off without Saddam is difficult to argue persuasively. For example, it is estimated 800,000 have died in Iraq since 2003, and this figure exceeds the estimates for the whole of Saddam’s 24-year grip on power. ‘Our’ democracy has patently not brought stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, and, without a strong external unifying stimulus in Libya, it is likely to fail there too.
To conclude, Western interventions in the last twenty years have been categorised by: a lack of clear end-state objectives or a viable means to achieve them; a lack of real politick for state structures and government; and a wholly unrealistic timeframe.
As a consequence, most states that have been subject to Western interventions are now ‘anocracies’, the disastrous halfway house between dictatorship and democracy. This chaotic void is when a state is at its most lawless and when groups such as IS flourish.
It is ironic that despite one of the principal aims of the GWOT being to remove such groups, it has in fact made them stronger than ever. These are not smug observations with the benefit of hindsight. These are largely repeated observations from recent and earlier history. There is still much thinking to be done at the grand strategic level.