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Sunday, December 06, 2015

Commentary - Steve Coll ISIS after Paris (and now San Bernadino)

Obviously, Steve Coll, the columnist for The New Yorker, couldn't have anticipated the San Bernadino CA killings and the harm done to innocent people in a community center for people with disabilities, when he wrote "ISIS after Paris" in the November 30, 2015, issue. Yet, just put the addendum "...and San Bernadino" into Coll's narrative and his commentary becomes even more timely than when the article was written.


US Marines can win against ISIS but, "then what"? 

Coll's doesn't provide a hopeful analysis-  in other words......living under the threat of terrorism is not likely to change anytime soon.

He writes:

In the week since the attacks on Paris (addendum...San Bernadino), there has been a great deal of talk about waging war on the Islamic State, but scant clarity about how such a war might succeed.  

In a season when the improvisations of Russia's Vladimir Putin shape geopolitics, and those of Donald Trump shape American politics (Trump has even remarked that Putin is "getting an A" for leadership) it is perhaps unsurprising that public discourse about what comes next has been informed by opportunism and incoherence. Yet, even the sober, often stirring rhetoric of the French President, Francoise Hollande, has often eluded the main problem, which  involves aligning aims with realistic means. 

"France is at war," Hollande told his parliment last week, as French jets struck Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic Stsate's self-declared capital.  He vowed to "eradicate" the organization. But how, and how long will it take?

In 2004, James D. Fearonn, a political scientist at Stanford University, Published a study, "Why Do Some Civil Wars Last So Much  Longer Than Others?", in which he and a colleague analyzed courses of civil wars fought between 1945 and 1999. Some of the findings were intuitive: civil wars end quickly when one side has a decisive military advantage over the other; poor countries with natural resources to expeort often have long internal wars, because whoever controls the resources also controls the national treasury. Other findings were novel, such as the fact that wars following coups d'etat tend to be short.  In another study, "Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War," Fearon and the political scientist David D. Laitin, discovered that, even though the nations with exceptional ethnic pluralism, like Syria and Iraq, lines of conflict may be defined by ethnic identity, pluralism, itself is not a notable predictor of civil war; (rather) poverty is a much more significant factor.  

Rereading these works in light of the infuriating problem of the Islamic State, two discouraging findings stand out In 1945, many civil wars were concluded after about two years.  By 1999, they lasted on average, about sixteen years. And conflicts in which a guerrilla group could finance itselt, by selling contaband drug crops or by smuggling oil, might go on for thirty or forty years. The Revolutioary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, has been around since 1964, sustained in no small part by American cocaine consumption.

The Islamic State is an oil-funded descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a branch of the original Al Qaeda whcih was formed in 1988. According to the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.), (evil) ISIS has at least twenty thousand armed fighters; some estimates put the number much higher. It controls large swaths of terriroty, including major cities, such as Mosul. It is unusualy barbarous, and good at Twitter. Its millenarian ideologyof hatred and extermination poses a threat across borders. Yet, its army and its sanctuary in Iraq and Syria, are not, in a structural sense, exceptional. 

From the American intervention in Somalia, in 1992, through the French intvention in Mali, in 2013, industrialized countries have been able to deploy ground forces to take guerilla-held teritory in about sixty days or less.

The problem is that if they don't then leave, to be replaced by more locally credible yet militarily able forces, they invite frustration, and risk unsustainable casualties and political if not military defeat.

This has been true, even when the guerrilla forces were weak: the Taliban possesses neither planes nor significant anti-aircraft missiles, yet it has fought the United States to a stalemate and the advantage is now shifting in its favor.

If President Obama ordered the Marines into urgent action, they could be waving flags of liberation in Raqqa by New Year's.  But, after taking the region, killing scores of ISIS commanders as well as Syrian civilians, and flushing surviving fighters and international recruits into the broken, ungovened cities of Syria and Iraq's Sunni heartland, then what?  

Without political cooperation from Bashar al_Assad, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shite militias, Turkey, the Al Queda ally Al Nusra, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and others, the Marines (and the French or NATO allies that might assist them) would soon become targets for a mind-bogglingly diverse array of opponents. 

Syrian rebels overhwelmingly regard President Assad's regime as their main enemy, and for good reason: his forces have killed more Syrians than anyone else has.  In the absence of a political agreement with Assad or his removal from ofice, it is impossible to conceive of a Muslim-majority occupation force that would be able and willing to keep the peace after the Marines departed.  

Some may argue that it would be worthwhile, nonetheless, to wipe out the Islamic State on the ground and deal with the fallout later. After Paris, such  an approach may hold emotional appeal. After Afghanistan and Iraq, however, it is not a responible course of action.

Analyses like James Fearon's suggest that there are perhaps two ways to end, or at least to contain, long wars. One is to accept that success will be a long time coming, and to adopt a posture of military and diplomatic patience and persistence. That may yet led to the FARC's disarmament. The other is to negotiate agressively to form international alliances, which will allow for a rapid, decisive use of force on the ground. The European Union activated a mutual defense compactafter the Paris attacks; NATO could broaden the alliance by invoking Article 5 of its treaty, as it did after 9/11. Such coalitions can be switly effective  When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, George H.W. Bush and James Baker pulled together an unexpected miltiary alliance to force his reterat.  In Afghanastan, George W, Bush overthew the Taliban with worldwide support. Both actions elimiated the immedate threat, but neither resolved the targeted country's underlying instability or assured durable international security.  (As a matter of fact, Islamist terorists staged a  murderous raid on a hotel in Mali's capital Bamako, almost three years after the French-led intervention in that conntry.)

Barack Obama has all but ruled out a ground intervention in Syria or Iraq. Instead, last week he promised "an intensificication" of the strategy he is already pursuing.  

Special Forces raids, air strikes, and diplomatic conferences to try to resolve the Syrian war, perhaps by declaring ceasefires or insuring Putin's cooperation.  "A political solution is the only way to end the war in Syria and unite the Syrian peple and the world" aginst the Islamic State, the Pesident said.  Unfortunately, right now, that looks no more realistic than a prolonged Aemrican occupation of Raqqa.  Obama's caution in the Midle East since the ARab Spring is a reminder that there are perhaps as many risks attendant upon inaction as upon action. The dilemmas suggested by Fearson's research won't evaporate, they will be on the deck of Obama's successor.  - Steve Coll.

(One dire possibility not addressed by Steve Coll is, during the process of daunting negotiations, the evil ISIS finds access to more dangerous weapons including whatever Iran might be hiding in their centrifuges. What then?)

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