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If I could push a button and eradicate groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, I would, but I have to qualify that. I am reasonably convinced that when ISIS releases a video or commentary on carrying out mass killings or beheadings or Boko Haram kidnaps hundreds of schoolgirls the information we are receiving here in the United States is essentially reliable, but the fact is that we have been inundated with fabricated news about America’s “enemies” ever since 9/11 if not before. But if it is indeed the case that a handful of extremists are carrying out genuine atrocities, to include forced clitorectomies on the girls and women they capture, the world would be well free of those monsters without any need to devise a pretext called “responsibility to protect” or R2P for short. That the most savage groups characteristically appear to be driven by a belief in some form of divine mandate for their actions also heightens my own desire to extirpate the faux religious impulse that has justified so much killing, but that is a purely personal view.
All of that said, however, the largely emotionally driven willingness to rid our world of mass murderers and sadists has to be measured in terms of viability and vulnerability. A nation state is, after all, not Robocop. The first issue, viability means how does one go about confronting the presumed evildoers even if one is somehow convinced that it must be done and has considerable military force available?
It comes down to the same old problem that has vexed the United States led “global war on terror” ever since 2001, namely how does one fight a third generation war in places where intelligence and logistics will both be poor and where there are numerous political and social subplots that make any intervention a recipe for disaster. Recall that the United States began its twenty-first century crusade based on a desire to destroy al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is still around in spite of the expenditure of some trillions of dollars and the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the process. The obvious answer is that you don’t do it at all by yourself or even by playing a leading role with others because the only way to defeat a local insurgency is to use local resources.
One might reasonably argue that the United States has an actual responsibility to confront ISIS because it helped create the group through its ill-advised invasion of Iraq and its support of a misguided insurgency against the Syrian government. Confronting ISIS currently means working in good faith with Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey to first contain and then defeat the Islamic State. There is no other way to do it. If it means that Washington has to hold its nose while dealing with Damascus and Tehran, then so be it as the potential danger coming from a metastasizing ISIS is more serious than that represented by either Iran or Syria, neither of which actually threatens the US.
If everyone works together the survivability of ISIS will be limited. As it seeks to acquire territory to rule over it ironically becomes more vulnerable as it must defend what it seeks to govern. The armed forces of the three front line states, to include Turkey, outnumber ISIS jihadis by about 300 to one, and that is a conservative estimate that does not include large numbers of paramilitary police and militias. In addition, trained soldiers are able to use weapons and communications that are beyond the ken of militant volunteers, further increasing their advantage. If the political will to confront ISIS can be cobbled together among all the players there is no way the group can survive in its current form.
The situation is similar in Africa, though admittedly the local militaries are not as developed and disciplined as they are in the Middle East. Destroying Boko Haram means engaging the four front line states involved – Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon – in a serious counter-insurgency effort. The United States involved itself in the conflict after the shocking reports of the mass kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls in April but the results have been poor, suggesting that what is needed is a rethink of who the enemy is and what is required to defeat him, if that can be done at all.
The African armies involved in confronting Boko Haram, plagued by corruption and poor leadership, might not be up to the job even given numerical superiority and better weapons. As in Syria-Iraq, defeating Boko Haram is not something that US Army can succeed at unilaterally without resort to massive force and commensurate collateral damage. And even then there is no guarantee that the results would be any better than they have been in Afghanistan and Iraq.
If the White House believes itself compelled to get involved in Africa it must proceed cautiously working with local partners, accepting that a good result might not be achievable. It should reject the blanket principle that it must do what is necessary to protect Nigerian civilians because that kind of amorphous commitment, designed to create a legal fig leaf for intervention, inevitably opens to door to escalation and increased American involvement. It also invites fraud by interested parties to create justifications for greater engagement as occurred in Syria last year when atrocities were manufactured by the insurgents as a justification for missile strikes directed against the government in Damascus.
So what is to be done? In both the Middle East and Africa, Washington can and should provide some leadership and training, limited intelligence, and weaponry suited to the conflict but it should accept that they are not “our” wars that it can any way win fighting as a surrogate for those who are actually most affected.
And the second broad issue is that of America’s own interests and the nature of the threat. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is claiming that ISIS is both “apocalyptic” and “beyond anything we have seen…an imminent threat to everything we have…a 9/11 level threat,” though he is admittedly a bit vague on the details. He has been contradicted somewhat by a more cautious Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey who stated that the group does not yet actively threaten “the homeland.”
Hagel presumably means that Western European and American volunteers serving with ISIS might well be used to stage terror attacks after returning home as ISIS has otherwise no capability to attack the US in any conventional sense. Leading politicians have picked up on the meme, Sen. Lindsey Graham insisting, for example, that ISIS is a “direct threat to our homeland… Mr. President, be honest with the threat we face. They are coming.” Graham’s amigo John McCain likewise claimed “This ISIS is metastasizing throughout the region, and their goal, as they’ve stated openly time after time, is the destruction of the United States of America.” The always bellicose Rep. Peter King also saw a new 9/11 developing, “They [ISIS] have 10 times, 20 times more money than al Qaeda ever had. They have much more weapons than al Qaeda ever had. And ISIS has hundreds of foreign fighters with them, available to come to the United States to attack us.”
This is all nonsense. The ISIS “threat” against the United States is a chimera, in part GOP sniping at Barack Obama but also deliberately contrived by the Administration to support a possible escalation of the latest intervention. It should not be taken seriously. Warnings that foreign jihadis would wreak havoc in the west have been common fare since 9/11 but in reality have not materialized, which means that the threat now is little different in nature than it has been for years.
ISIS does not endanger the United States in any serious way even if a one-off terrorist “lone wolf” incident carried out by a repatriated jihadi volunteer were to take place. And no one is asleep at the switch. US and European intelligence agencies have focused heavily on the threat posed by expat terrorists and are aware of their profile. Security services will be watching for them if they try to return. Meanwhile, ISIS will have its hands full dealing with the problems in its own neighborhood and will not be thinking of exporting its product, particularly if everyone wakes up to the danger and starts working together against it.
Regarding Boko Haram, the Administration has not even attempted to use the argument that the group threatens the US or even its vaguely defined interests in Africa. It has instead fallen back on the R2P formulation, but the question must be asked whether the US should commit American resources and soldiers to a conflict that might not be resolvable or possibly even containable no matter what Washington decides to do? R2P, even interpreted in a positive way, does not designate the United States as the world’s policeman by default in cases where a show of force can in no way effect the outcome, except possibly negatively as was the case in Libya.
So a careful analysis of the current campaign to rid the world of evil leads to two conclusions. First, only countries that are actually impacted by terrorist groups will prove effective at eliminating them because it is their self-interest to do so. The US can assist in that effort but it must never attempt to play the leading role, if only because to do so will be counter-productive, raising legitimate concerns among local people about foreign involvement. Second, Washington must always act in a measured and proportionate fashion, always recognizing that groups active in the Middle East and Africa do not actually threaten the United States in any serious way. Where there is no real threat there is no vital interest at stake and engagement should be commensurate.
Does the White House appreciate those two limitations on its action? Possibly not. The rhetoric coming out of Washington seems to be designed to give the President a free hand in expanding the conflicts. While it is understandable that the Chief Executive should want authority to respond to crises, where there is no effective remedy and no vital interest at stake caution rather than risky posturing and hyperbolic warnings should prevail.