Friday, September 12, 2014

On the Anniversary of September 11, 2001. . . how well have we done?

Today is the anniversary of the Al Queda attack on the United States in 2011.  Thirteen fast years have gone by, and since that day we've conceived of ourselves of being at war with a vague terrorist enemy.  Indeed, at least at one time we conceived ourselves as having defeated that enemy. That concept has taken us into an acknowledged two wars, which I think has been actually three, and we're now involved in a fourth.*

 A soldier of the multi ethic Free Iraqi Forces reunited with his father, in 2003.  He hadn't seen his father in a decade.  A decade later, Iraq is in a civil war, and we're in a war with a self declared Islamic State recalling a an era much older than the history of our nation.  The FIF soldier wears then obsolete U.S desert BDUs and a US armored vest.  U.S. Army Photo by Spec. Tyler Long.

How well have we done in addressing the existential threat?  We should ask ourselves that question now, as we begin to launch off into a forth war, a war which we have no choice but to fight, and which may in fact have been one in which we were in some ways engaged, without our realizing it, prior to that terrible day 13 years ago.  Have we identified the enemy, and what motivates him?  I'm afraid we have in part, but perhaps only in part.

Any nation engaged in a war needs to address the seemingly simple topic of who the enemy actually is.  How does the enemy conceive of themselves?  We would think that this would be self evident, but frequently it is not, and just as frequently one nation conceives of the enemy through a thick filter of its own self perception.

We've been guilty of that many times in the past century.  During World War Two the Italians proved themselves not to be our enemy, as they abandoned their own government and acted in Italy's best interest by abandoning the Fascists.  Even now we hear some people claim that during that same war it wasn't the Germans, but the Nazis, who were our enemy in Germany, even though the evidence is well established that the German people were complicit in Germany's crimes.  During the Vietnam War was our enemy the Communist in the north, or Vietnamese nationalism?  That topic is still debated.  In the present crisis that started thirteen years ago is our enemy Al Queda, or is it something broader and deeper?  Or have we made it somehow broader and deeper through our own errors or omissions, or simply because War Changes Everything?  We should ask these questions now.

Let's start with the clear enemy, Al Queda.  Who and what are they?  Ever since 9/11 we've been repeatedly told that they're an aberrant extremist Islamic movement. Are they? And if so, what do they want and how to they justify it?  Did we take them on in a correct fashion, and have we beaten them?

Well, lets take a closer look.

Al Queda is an Islamic armed movement, to be sure, but that doesn't make it unique.  Even if we only go as far back as the mid 19th Century we can find many other examples of armed Islamic movements, including ones that took on Western powers.  So it would seem that there's some precedent for movements of this type, so merely stating that its an organization of that type doesn't get us where we need to go.  This is particularly the case as in modern times there's been some other very distinct examples of the same thing.  Islamic radicals assassinated Anwar Sadat, and they toppled the Shah of Iran.  Hamas, an offshoot in some ways of groups in Egypt, but also of Shiia fundamentalism in Iran, has continually waged war against Israel for well over a decade. So they've been around for awhile.

Taking a closer look at Al Queda, they're principally an organization of Sunni fundamentalist who were dedicated to the long term proposition of the restoration of a Caliphate such as it existed in early Islamic times, when its territorial extent was larger than that which had been controlled by Rome.  Being lead by educated men, they did not dream of an immediate accomplishment of that goal, which would be impossible, but rather had it as a distant one, in the same way, basically, that mainstream Bolsheviks conceived of a Communist world some day, not right away.  For a short term goal, they wanted to push the United States out of the Arabian Peninsula, which they regarded as an affront to Islam.  Their strategy involved attacking American military assets in the Middle East at first. When this failed, they conceived of, oddly enough, basically the same idea that the Soviets naively had explored as an opening gambit in the event of a Third World War, which was to strike the American financial district in New York City.

What so angered them, we must ask, about the US that it determined to murder innocents in a building and earlier attempted to sink the USS Cole?  Just having troops on the Arabian Peninsula did that. And they were there because we'd gone to the aid of Kuwait when Baathist Iraq attacked and attempted to annex it.

Baathist Iraq was a strictly secular regime, tolerating all religions, or none at all.  It wasn't culturally tolerant, but rather universally culturally repressive.  It was far from a model of democracy, and was more of a model of retained fascism in a way, which oddly enough made it an enemy of Al Queda, who called the Baath Party "the communist", which they weren't.  There was indeed an Iraqi Communist Party, but the Baath Party, like all fascists parties, suppressed it. So one would think that Al Queda would have welcomed the U.S. role in that first fight against Iraq, but it did not.  It abhorred the thought of "infidels" on what it regarded as the holy soil of the Arabian Peninsula.

Or, perhaps, indeed probably, it feared the thought of what a western democratic people would mean to the oppressed population of Saudi Arabia, a region which in antiquity had populations of Christians and Jews, but which was locked up in Sunni fundamentalism under a kingdom.  So, to try to end this affront, it determined to wage a terrorist war against us.

Were those goals and methods consistent with Islam?  We've been repeated told since 9/11 that "Islam is a religion of peace" and that Al Queda is an aberration. And that Al Queda is a de facto aberration is self evident, as most Moslems most places don't act in this fashion. Still, the blanket assertion that this is self evidently contrary to the stated nature of Islam has not really been examined, and it doesn't bear up well upon examination.

The Koran, which is taken by Moslems as the actual words of God, fully advocates the use of violence against non believers in context, with that context seemingly being at least warfare to conquer.  Non Islamic students of the Koran generally hold that the "peaceful" language of the Koran was written before the violent texts, and it can be taken from this that the history of the text follows Mohammed's success in spreading his message violently, which he did.  Early on, Islam had to just hold on as one religion, almost certainly a Gnostic based heresy or a Gnostic influenced new religion, amongst many religions in Mecca, which was tolerant to nearly any religion. Later, as it gained ground, Islam became highly intolerant of other religions with some slight tolerance of Judaism and Christianity, in no small part, probably, as it was a Gnostic heresy based upon them.  Indeed, while Gnosticism had tended to be hostile to some degree against orthodox Christianity (or we could say Catholicism, as the Catholic Church was the only church at the time.  That Islam licensed violence is really indisputable.  Indeed, not only did it license warfare, but the text actually allows Moslem combatants to take the women of their enemies, physically.  Excused as a necessity in the text, reflecting that Islamic fighters were away from their homes, they could use the women acquired with "their strong right arms" and were told now to worry about that creating any progeny.  People tend to turn a blind eye towards this, as its shocking, but that's what it says.  Recent actions by ISIL in doing just that are fully compliant with the Koran.

Al Queda, having aligned itself with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, found it self in an enviable position prior to 9/11.  In the catbirds seat with the support of a regime of Islamic "students" (the meaning of "Taliban") it seemed safe and secure.  It decided to go bold, in an act it through would take down the American economy. It showed itself naive, just as the Soviets had with an earlier secret plan that also would have struck the New York financial district.  And it didn't properly gauge the American reaction. We, of course, went to war there, and largely eliminated it.  But didn't eliminate it completely. And now we find its strain of thought weaving itself through individual Afghans, and it seems somewhat on the rise there.  So, did we achieve our initial aim there?  It would seem we did at least in part, although we also seem ready to quit the fight and leave Afghanistan with no modern institutions, which it has largely lacked since the 1970s at least.  We best rethink this.

We also went into Iraq, and that seems now to be a clear error.

It was frankly a misguided effort to start with. The war in Iraq had nothing at all to do with Al Queda, which despised the Baath regime.  And Al Queda wasn't hte stated aim in any event, but the elimination of chemical weapons we believed held by Iraq and which the Iraqis stupidly wouldn't confirm they lacked.  The Iraqis guessed badly, having been lead to believe that we would not topple the regime as we had not done so in 1990-91 and we hadn't supported the uprising against the regime thereafter.  They failed to appreciate that American administrations, and therefore goals, change at least every eight years.

Defeating the Baath regime proved to be easy, but what we did not anticipate is that the vacuum in the regime's power would be immediately filled by contesting Islamic forces, including Al Queda in Iraq, which is now known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.  With the war against Al Queda in Afghanistan hardly even commenced, Al Queda remained more than powerful enough to support regional splinter groups and it did (and does).  One of these was Al Queda in Iraq, which commenced a guerrilla war against the coalition forces.

Al Queda in Iraq was a bit different than Al Queda.  Fighting successfully in the field against the coalition at first, it came to dream of establishing a Caliphate immediately, not some day.  It, and other local forces, were put down, but it didn't go away.  When the war ended, we supported the establishment of a democratic government in Iraq, which quickly went Shiia against all others, and alienated all the rest of the population over time.

Almost immediately thereafter, the lid seemingly came off of despotic governments all over the middle east, and there were uprising is Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.  Interpreted in the west as nascent democratic movements, only in Libya, with its complicated ethnic and political history, was that more or less true.   Elsewhere, Islamic fundamentalist movements were a strong element in every uprising, seeking to push out an autocratic or military government in favor of an Islamic one.  In Egypt and Tunisia that succeeded, until the armies, the most liberal and westernized institutions in those countries, pushed back, preventing them from becoming second and third Irans.

Then came Syria, about which we've already written.  Ruled by a Baathist government, but controlled by Alawites, the multicultural country was ruled by a strongman but by necessity the government, controlled by a group that Moslems regard as heretical, was tolerant towards all religions.  And the country in fact, like Iraq, was the home to several. Engaged in fighting Islamic militants since the 1990s, it found itself engaged in a civil war in which western pundits naively assumed would necessarily result in a democratic victory, when in fact a Sunni theocracy was the obvious likely outcome.

Out of that, Al Queda in Iraq, seeing its chances expanded, re branded itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Syria) and declared the Caliphate the immediate goal.  In the west its naively believed that its moved beyond Al Queda, but in reality the better evidence is that the local Al Queda in Iraq simply saw its chance to make the long term goal the present one, and effectively evolved into the Al Queda that counts.  It expanded its war into Iraq, and up until our insertion of air power, the western arming of the separatist Kurds, and the Iranian arming of Shiia militias, it came darn close to achieving its goal.

And what is that goal, well as we've already blogged, its the establishment of a Caliphate, and its declared t he Caliph to be in power, and the seat of his power is to be Baghdad.  It's used methods that we have not seen in this scale since Mohammed's own time, that being mass armed violence, and the assault, capture and enslavement of non Moslem women.

So, we must now ask ourselves, is this an Islamic aberration, or is it something that's consistent with the Moslem faith. This question really matters, as determining what war we are fighting, and when it will end, depends entirely on that.  A war ends when the enemy gives up, not when we decide its over.

So the use of violence by Al Queda, and now by ISIL, isn't really an aberration, or is it?  The Koran doesn't license the use of violence against other Moslems. That may be a fine distinction for those who aren't Moslems, but that is also the case.  Here's where Al Queda and its progeny ISIL seem to have gone off the mark.  They both kill a lot of Moslems.  They know doubt are rationalizing it, but that's something that we don't seem to quite have appreciated.  Our enemy is okay with killing most of us, in tehir basic texts, as long as it is based on a religious aim. Killing other Moslems, however, is not Islamic.

We know that by and large, most Moslems most places ignore most of this aspect of their faith.  The Koran does sanction, as we've noted, war, enslavement and assault.  But most Moslems don't do any of that.   Indeed, adherence to this view seems to be largely concentrated amongst Arabs, who initiated the religion in the first place, and radicalized Punjabs and Europeans.  That's something we haven't seemed to really grasp either.  Moslem Indonesians, for example, seem to have little interest in this aspect of their Faith.  Indeed, most Moslems most places certainly don't act on it, assuming that they are even aware of it, which they may in fact not be, as the Koran is regarded as authentic only in the language it was first written in (which Moslems believe to be the direct word of God), Arabic.  Indeed, its' very common for non Arab Moslems to memorize vast tracks of the Koran but have no idea what they are saying, and converts to the faith in the west largely come into it with the highly developed view Christians hold towards the Bible, which does not hold the text to be God's direct words, but rather to be inspired by God.

Indeed, we also know that beyond that, we also have the historical example of Moslems serving in the colonial armed forces of Christian nations, which would cut the opposite way.  Lots of Moslems served in the French Army up into the 1960s. And we can find similar British examples, so there's obviously some nuance to this, somewhere.

But where?

We'd do well to figure it out. But I don't think we've tried very hard, and it would serve us well to do so.  We have seen uprising of Moslem "fundamentalist" dating back to the mid 19th Century at least, or basically any time there were westerners in the Arabian region.  So the call of "fundamentalism" is strong and longly held.  It would not seem to be a call to "fundamentalism" at all, but rather a call towards fundamentals.  A faith that was expanded originally by warfare and which expanded into, and controlled, areas that were majority Christian for centuries thereafter, the faith is used to the idea and based on the idea of armed conflict and conquer.  A return to at least armed conflict is part of its history, and warfare waged by groups hearing that call is often brutal in the extreme.  Even during World War Two Moslem troops in command of the French went on a notorious rampage directed upon Italian women at one point.   But at the same time, we know that most of the time most Moslems remain peaceful and in fact ignore large tenants of their faith.

We also know, or should know, that the entire "moderate Islam" line is a complete fable.  The percentage of Moslems who have a doctrine that has formally adapted to such a view is tiny.  There are those who have, but generally the Hellenized view of Islam fell out of favor, and was regarded as heretical by Moslems, in the Middle Ages. Therefore, while there are many peaceful Moslems, there's no peaceful Moslem theology and those who like to believe their is are living in a fantasy land.

Indeed, the differnce in mainstream Islamic groups is slight, and people who like to point to them as huge are fooling themselves and lack a large doctrinal difference to point to. This does not mean that they get along with each other, but that's more in the nature of human nature than doctrinal difference.  Students of Christianity will note that the Catholic and Orthodox have not always gotten along well, even though they view each others holy orders as fully valid and from the outside those familiar with them are often stunned how close these "two lungs of the church" are.

We do know, however, that nowhere in Islam does it sanction the killing in this fashion of other Moslems. And there, at least, Al Queda and ISIL are clearly outside the Islamic fold.  They seemingly have no problem with that.  ISIL of course mostly limits itself to warfare against Christians, Zoroastrians, and Shiias (where it can site to doctrinal difference, no matter how slight), but that it kills some Sunni Kurds cannot be disputed. 

Have we grasped, therefore, what has occurred and are we prepared to deal with it?

Our war in Afghanistan was necessary, and we won it. But we've done a bad job of securing the peace there, and now we are leaving before it is fully secured.  The Afghanis are not Arabs, and the country has a long history of tolerating all sorts of peoples, including Jews, Communists, and Buddhists.  This is evaporating, or has, and will if we leave too soon.  We haveint' fully done in Al Queda in Central Asia, and we best do that before we leave.  And we should leave Afghanistan intact and functioning, which it isn't yet.

Invading Iraq was, in my view, a mistake.  All over Arabia and North Africa we've totally failed to appreciate the irony that the most western of governments in that region are also the most fascistic. That's icky, but true. They hold to no religion so they do not favor any.  They educate women, and in terms of domestic policies they tend to focus on economics more than anything else. They are like Mussolini's Italy, gross, overblown, blowhards, but making the trains run on time and granting quarter to no other movements, secular or religious. As much as we hate to admit it, over time, these governments would fall of their own accord, but when they did, it would have been because they educated their population, and most  particularly their female population, to the point where that population will not put up with them any longer.

And once women in the region are educated to that extent, they won't put up with the old jihad interpretation of Islam either.  That fact is one that we should appreciate.  Mohamed held that the majority of the population in Hell was female, and the prize for males in Heaven were females. That's an appealing vision to primitive men, stuck in a teenage view of teenage girls, but it has no appeal to educated males and even less appeal to educated women.  It was already being interpreted out of the Koran by Hellenized Islamic theologians before they were put down and condemned as heretical in the Middle Ages. That view will fall out of favor once most women in the Middle East are educated, but we have a long ways to go before that.

In that meantime, we need to be aware that the virtues of "tolerance" and "multi culturalism" are not human instincts, but learned behavior in their entirety.  Intolerance is the human norm and instinct.  In the west, these values are universal because of the long influence of Christianity, and we've imported them to receptive cultures around the globe. We haven't succeeded in exporting them to the Middle East whatsoever, and we're a long ways from doing so. Only in partially Christian Lebanon, Syria and Egypt do these views really have a toehold.  In the closed world of the Arabian Peninsula they have no traction at all.  One of our prime "allies" in that region, Saudi Arabia, is a model of repression, with the door completely closed to religious tolerance and rights for women.

All of these facts we need to acknowledge.  When we take in, in the west, large numbers of immigrants from this region, we take in these views, which will take at least a generation or more to evolve out of those populations.  When we do that we also provide for western youth who live in the any value is a good value, or no value at all, world we've developed since the mid 60s with an attractive option to join something that clearly believes in something, no matter how contrary to our values it may be.  When we look at governments in the region, we need to see what they do on the ground level, not at that the electoral level, even if that means holding our nose and pocketing our hands from time to time.  And where peoples who are more western are ready to carve off of those who are not ready to move forward, such as the Kurds, we need to support them.  Where others remained entrenched in the 7th Century, like Saudi Arabia, we need to back away from them, as they'll fall anyhow, and they in no way support our values.

Most of all, we need to be ready for a long haul with that section of the Arabic and Islamic population that regards this as a Holy War, and which will pop up for time to time for the foreseeable future.  Just because we don't view this as a Holy War doesn't mean they don't, and just because we believe we've won at one one point in time, doesn't mean we have.

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