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This October, the OUP Philosophy team honors al-Kindī (c. 800-870) as their Philosopher of the Month. Known as the “first philosopher of the Arabs,” al-Kindī was one of the most important mathematicians, physicians, astronomers and philosophers of his time.
‘Babylon’ is a name which throughout the centuries has evoked an image of power and wealth and splendour – and decadence. Indeed, in the biblical Book of Revelation, Rome is damned as the ‘Whore of Babylon’ – and thus identified with a city whose image of lust and debauchery persisted and flourished long after the city itself had crumbled into dust. Powerful visual images in later ages, l perpetuate the negative image Babylon acquired in biblical tradition.
What happens when dead bodies crop up where they are not supposed to be? How can this allow us to reflect on how we understand security and insecurity? For example, mass graves can be indicators of crimes against humanity. Recent satellite evidence of mass graves analyzed by Amnesty International outside of Bujumbura has led to a focus on the political violence there, a result of turmoil after Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to seek a third term.
Mass sexual violence against women and girls is a constant in human history. One of these atrocities erupted in August 2014 in ISIS-occupied territory and persists to this day. Mainly targeting women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority, ISIS officially reinstituted sexual slavery.
At its root, Islam is as much a Western religion as are Judaism and Christianity, having emerged from the same geographic and cultural milieu as its predecessors. For centuries we lived at a more or less comfortable distance from one another. Post-colonialism and economic globalization, and the strategic concerns that attended them, have drawn us into an ever-tighter web of inter-relations.
This is one of those books that immediately after you start reading you know you are in the hands of a wonderful writer. Atticus Lish has delivered a delicately savage critique on post-9/11 America and the so-called American Dream in a beautiful love story of an illegal immigrant and an American soldier recently returned from […]
Ashurnasirpal’s palace at Nimrud (Assyrian Kalḫu) was constructed around 865 BCE during a period in which Assyria was slowly becoming the empire that would come to rule most of the Middle East two centuries later. Ashurnasirpal’s palace is among the few Assyrian palaces to have been excavated (more or less) in its entirety. Measuring at least 2 hectares, it must have been one of the largest and most monumental buildings of its time.
Tough girl Ceejay wants to be bad like her older brother who is stationed in Iraq. She takes on anyone, verbally and physically, to prove her ferocity. Friends start reporting to her that they have seen Bobby in town, weeks before he is to be released from duty. Once Ceejay finds him, Bobby has begun to hang out with the local wacko who dodges through the battle zone of the nasty Nogo Gatu and the heroic Yimmies. Bobby makes other strange choices. Ceejay watches with unbelief as her brother and Captain Crazy come to terms with the horrors of war.
Canongate has bought a collection of stories by a US marine and veteran of the Iraq war.
Senior editor Francis Bickmore pre-empted UK and Commonwealth rights to the untitled collection by Phil Klay through by Cathryn Summerhayes at WME on behalf of Eric Simonoff. US rights were pre-empted by Scott Moyers and Andrea Walker at Penguin US.
Outdated goals of war in the 21st century
By Louis René Beres
Even now, when the “fog of war” in Iraq and Afghanistan is likely at its thickest point, our leaders and military commanders still speak in starkly traditional terms. Such ordinary emphases on “victory” and “defeat” belie the profound and critically-nuanced transformations of war presently [...]
The signs are clear. President Barack Obama has nominated two leading skeptics of American military intervention for the most important national security cabinet posts. Meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who would prefer a substantial American residual presence after the last American combat troops have departed in 2014, Obama has signaled that he wants a more rapid transition out of an active combat role (perhaps as soon as this spring, rather than during the summer). The president has also countered a push from his own military advisors to keep a sizable force in Afghanistan indefinitely by agreeing to consider the “zero option” of a complete withdrawal. We appear on the verge of a non-interventionist moment in American politics, when leaders and the general public alike shun major military actions.
Only a decade ago, George W. Bush stood before the graduating class at West Point to proclaim the dawn of a new era in American security policy. Neither deterrence nor containment, he declared, sufficed to deal with the threat posed by “shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend” or with “unbalanced dictators” possessing weapons of mass destruction. “[O]ur security will require all Americans to be forward looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.” This new “Bush Doctrine” would soon be put into effect. In March 2003, the president ordered the US military to invade Iraq to remove one of those “unstable dictators,” Saddam Hussein.
This post-9/11 sense of assertiveness did not last. Long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan discredited the leaders responsible and curbed any popular taste for military intervention on demand. Over the past two years, these reservations have become obvious as other situations arose that might have invited the use of troops just a few years earlier: Obama intervened in Libya but refused to send ground forces; the administration has rejected direct measures in the Syrian civil war such as no-fly zones; and the president refused to be stampeded into bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.
The reaction against frustrating wars follows a familiar historical pattern. In the aftermath of both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Americans expressed a similar reluctance about military intervention. Soon after the 1953 truce that ended the Korean stalemate, the Eisenhower administration faced the prospect of intervention in Indochina, to forestall the collapse of the French position with the pending Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu. As related by Fredrik Logevall in his excellent recent book, Embers of War, both Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were fully prepared to deploy American troops. But they realized that in the backwash from Korea neither the American people nor Congress would countenance unilateral action. Congressional leaders indicated that allies, the British in particular, would need to participate. Unable to secure agreement from British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, Eisenhower and Dulles were thwarted, and decided instead to throw their support behind the new South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.
Another period marked by reluctance to use force followed the Vietnam War. Once the last American troops withdrew in 1973, Congress rejected the possibility they might return, banning intervention in Indochina without explicit legislative approval. Congress also adopted the War Powers Resolution, more significant as a symbolic statement about the wish to avoid being drawn into a protracted military conflict by presidential initiative than as a practical measure to curb presidential bellicosity.
It is no coincidence that Obama’s key foreign and defense policy nominees were shaped by the crucible of Vietnam. Both Chuck Hagel and John Kerry fought in that war and came away with “the same sensibility about the futilities of war.” Their outlook contrasts sharply with that of Obama’s initial first-term selections to run the State Department and the Pentagon: both Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates backed an increased commitment of troops in Afghanistan in 2009. Although Senators Hagel and Kerry supported the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, they became early critics of the war. Hagel has expressed doubts about retaining American troops in Afghanistan or using force against Iran.
Given the present climate, we are unlikely to see a major American military commitment during the next several years. Obama’s choice of Kerry and Hagel reflect his view that, as he put it in the 2012 presidential debate about foreign policy, the time has come for nation-building at home. It will suffice in the short run to hold distant threats at bay. Insofar as possible, the United States will rely on economic sanctions and “light footprint” methods such as drone strikes on suspected terrorists.
If the past is any guide, however, this non-interventionist moment won’t last. The post-Korea and post-Vietnam interludes of reluctance gave way within a decade to a renewed willingness to send American troops into combat. By the mid-1960s, Lyndon Johnson had embraced escalation in Vietnam; Ronald Reagan made his statement through his over-hyped invasion of Grenada to crush its pipsqueak revolutionary regime. The American people backed both decisions.
The return to interventionism will recur because the underlying conditions that invite it have not changed significantly. In the global order, the United States remains the hegemonic power that seeks to preserve stability. We retain a military that is more powerful by several orders of magnitude than any other, and will surely remain so even after the anticipate reductions in defense spending. Psychologically, the American people have long been sensitive to distant threats, and we have shown that we can be stampeded into endorsing military action when a president identifies a danger to our security. (And presidents themselves become vulnerable to charges that they are tolerating American decline whenever a hostile regime comes to power anywhere in the world.)
Those of us who question the American proclivity to resort to the use of force, then, should enjoy the moment.
What an amazing book! This is a firm candidate for my book of the year already and it is beyond doubt the best collection of short stories I have ever read. I literally could not put this book down but at the same time wanted each story to last as long as possible. I went into total procrastination mode today before reading the final story because I was not prepared for this book to end but resistance was futile.
I first read the title story of this collection in last year’s Fire & Forget. It was one of the standout pieces in a standout collection. I knew at the time reading Fire & Forget that the contributors in the collection were destined for big things. And Phil Klay not only reaffirms that but announces himself in a massive way with his first book.
I have blogged a couple of times here that short stories are not usually my thing. Often there is a story I wish there was more of or a story that leaves me unsatisfied. But absolutely every story in Redeployment was spot on. This was writing as close to perfection as I have ever read and I want to read the book again right now.
I am a big reader of war fiction. They are stories I am drawn to, that seem to resonate with me more than any other fiction. What I loved about Phil Klay’s collection was that each story resonated in a different way. One of the unique aspects to Klay’s collection are the different points of view he conveys in his stories. It is impossible for me to highlight one story and I don’t wish to go through each story one by one because that would spoil the magnificent reading experience.
Klay covers stories about soldiers in action and soldiers coming home. Soldiers wounded in action and soldiers haunted by the fact they saw little or no action. We read about a Marine chaplain, a Marine in Mortuary Affairs, a Foreign Affairs officer sent to Iraq to help rebuild. And through all these stories Klay shows the war in all its messy permutations and consequences, the good and the bad, the humanity and the inhumanity. He even explores the art of telling these stories and the different ways stories can be used and told, hidden and untold.
Every story packs an emotional intensity not only rare in short stories but rare in longer fiction too. Imagine the emotional wallop of The Yellow Birds with the frank and brutal insight of Matterhorn distilled into a short story and you get close to the impact each of these stories makes on their own. Put together as a collection and you have something very special that will be read (and should be read) by many long into the future.
O-Dark-Thirty is a literary journal for veterans, current military personnel, and their families. Created by the Veterans Writing Project, it helps those who have served tell their stories — and makes sure those stories are accessible to the rest of us.
For many soldiers, especially those who have served in combat roles, returning to “regular” life brings a new set of challenges. In Paving the Road Back, psychiatrist and Warrior Wellness Unit director Rod “Doc” Deaton gives those who serve our veterans a deeper understanding of the stresses of this transition.
Seldom do our national leaders take time to look meaningfully behind the news. As we now see with considerable clarity, watching the spasms of growing sectarian violence in Iraq, the results can be grievously unfortunate, or even genuinely catastrophic.
Injurious foreign policies ignore certain vital factors. For example, our American national leaders have meticulously examined the presumed facts surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia and the Ukraine, and Israel and the Palestinians, but, just as assiduously, have avoided any deeper considerations of particular kinds of crisis.
We must now therefore inquire: How shall we effectively improve our chances for surviving and prospering on this endangered planet?
This is not a narrow partisan query. The answers should be determined entirely by intellectual effort, not political party or ideology.
More and more, reason discovers itself blocked by a thick “fog of the irrational,” by something inside of us, heavy and dangerous, that yearns not for truth, but rather for dark mystery and immortality. Presciently, German historian Heinrich von Treitschke, cited his compatriot philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in his posthumously published lectures (Politics 1896): “Individual man sees in his own country, the realization of his earthly immortality.”
Nothing has really changed.
U.S. Army Spc. Justin Towe scans his area while on a mission with Iraqi army soldiers from 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division in Al Muradia village, Iraq, March, 13, 2007. Towe is assigned to 4th Platoon, Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway) www.army.mil CC BY 2.0 via The U.S. Army Flickr.
When negotiating the treacherous landscapes of world politics, even in Iraq, generality trumps particulars.
To garner attention, current news organizations choose to focus on tantalizing specifics, e.g., Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, etc. What finally matters most, however, is something more complex: a cultivated capacity for the systematic identification of recurring policy issues and problems.
Naturally, the flesh-and-blood facts concerning war, revolution, riots, despotism, terrorism, and genocide are more captivating to citizens than abstract theories. But the real point of locating specific facts must be a tangible improvement of the human condition. In turn, any civilizational betterment must be contingent on even deeper forms of general human awareness.
Only by exploring the individual cases in world politics (e.g., Iraq) as intersecting parts of a much larger class of cases, can our leaders ever hope to learn something predictive. While seemingly counter-intuitive, it is only by deliberately seeking general explanations that we can ever hope to “fix” the world.
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” lamented the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, and “everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Today’s global harms and instabilities, whether still simmering, or already explosive, are best understood as symptoms of a more generalized worldwide fragility. It is, therefore, unhelpful to our leaders for these symptoms ever to be regarded as merely isolated, discrete, or unique.
One prospective answer concerns the seemingly irremediable incapacity of human beings to find any real meaning and identity within themselves. Typically, in world politics, it is always something other than one’s own Self (the state, the movement, the class, the faith, etc.) that is held sacred. As a result, our species remains stubbornly determined to demarcate preferentially between “us” and “them,” and then, always, to sustain a rigidly segmented universe.
In such a fractionated world, “non-members” (refugees, aliens, “infidels,” “apostates,” etc.) are designated as subordinate and inferior. This fatal designation is the very same lethal inclination that occasioned both world wars and the Holocaust, among other atrocities.
From the beginning, some kind of “tribal” conflict has driven world affairs. Without a clear and persisting sense of an outsider, of an enemy, of a suitably loathsome “other,” whole societies would have felt insufferably lost in the world. Drawing self-worth from membership in the state or the faith or the race (Nietzsche’s “herd”; Freud’s “horde”), people could not hope to satisfy even the most elementary requirements of world peace.
Our progress in technical and scientific realms has no discernible counterpart in cooperative human relations. We can manufacture advanced jet aircraft and send astronauts into space, but before we are allowed to board commercial airline flights, we must first take off our shoes.
How have we managed to blithely scandalize our own creation? Much as we still like to cast ourselves as a “higher” species, the veneer of human society remains razor thin. Terrorism and war are only superficially about politics, diplomacy, or ideology; the most sought after power is always power over death.
The key questions about Iraq have absolutely nothing to do with counter-insurgency or American “boots on the ground.” Until the underlying axes of conflict are understood, all of our current and future war policies will remain utterly beside the point. Indeed, if this had been recognized earlier, few if any American would have been wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although seemingly nonsensical, we must all first learn to pay more attention to our personal feelings of empathy, anxiety, restlessness, and desperation. While these feelings still remain unacknowledged as hidden elements of a wider world politics, they are in fact determinative for international relations.
Oddly enough, we Americans still don’t really understand that national and international life must ultimately be about the individual. In essence, the time for “modernization,” “globalization,” “artificial intelligence,” and even “new information methodologies” is almost over. To survive together, the fragmented residents of this planet must learn to discover an authentic and meaningfully durable human existence, detached from traditional distinctions.
It is only in the vital expressions of a thoroughly re-awakened human spirit that we can learn to recognize what is important for national survival. “Beware, “The man who laughs,” warned the poet Bertolt Brecht, “has simply not yet heard the horrible news.”
Following Iraq and Afghanistan, the enduring barbarisms of life on earth can never be undone by improving global economies, building larger missiles, fashioning new international treaties, spreading democracy, or even by supporting “democratic” revolutions. Inevitably, humankind still lacks a tolerable future, not because we have been too slow to truly learn, but because we have failed to learn what is truly important.
To improve our future foreign policies, to avoid our recurring global misfortunes, we must learn to look behind the news. In so doing, we could acknowledge that the vital root explanations for war, riots, revolution, despotism, terrorism, and genocide are never discoverable in visible political institutions or ideologies. Instead, these explanations lie in the timeless personal needs of individuals.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Professor of International Law at Purdue University. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II, he is the author of ten major books, and many articles, dealing with world politics, law, literature, and philosophy. His most recent publications are in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Atlantic; The Jerusalem Post; U.S. News & World Report.
If you are interested in this subject, you may also be interested in Morality and War: Can War be Just in the Twenty-first Century? by David Fisher. Fisher explores how just war thinking can and should be developed to provide such guidance. His in-depth study examines philosophical challenges to just war thinking, including those posed by moral scepticism and relativism.
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The What Everyone Needs to Know (WENTK) series offers a balanced and authoritative primer on complex current event issues and countries. Written by leading authorities in their given fields, in a concise question-and-answer format, inquiring minds soon learn essential knowledge to engage with the issues that matter today. Starting this July, OUPblog will publish a WENTK blog post monthly.
By James Gelvin
ISIS—now just the “Islamic State” (IS)–is the latest incarnation of the jihadi movement in Iraq. The first incarnation of that movement, Tawhid wal-Jihad, was founded in 2003-4 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi was not an Iraqi: as his name denotes, he came from Zarqa in Jordan. He was responsible for establishing a group affiliated with al-Qaeda in response to the American invasion of Iraq. Over time, this particular group began to evolve as it took on alliances with other jihadi groups, with non-jihadi groups, and as it separated from groups with which it had been aligned. Tawhid wal-Jihad thus evolved into al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had strained relations with “al-Qaeda central.” These strains were caused by the same factors that have created strains between IS and al-Qaeda central. Zarqawi had adopted the tactic of sparking a sectarian war in Iraq by blowing up the Golden Mosque in Samarra, thus instigating Shi’i retaliations against Iraq’s Sunni community, which, in turn, would get mobilized, radicalized, and strike back, joining al-Qaeda’s jihad
What this demonstrates is a long term problem al-Qaeda central has had with its affiliates. Al-Qaeda has always been extraordinarily weak on organization and extraordinarily strong on ideology, which is the glue that holds the organization together.
The ideology of al-Qaeda can be broken down into two parts: First, the Islamic world is at war with a transnational Crusader-Zionist alliance and it is that alliance–the “far enemy”–and not the individual despots who rule the Muslim world–the “near enemy”–which is Islam’s true enemy and which should be the target of al-Qaeda’s jihad. Second, al-Qaeda believes that the state system that has been imposed on the Muslim world was part of a conspiracy hatched by the Crusader-Zionist alliance to keep the Muslim world weak and divided. Therefore, state boundaries are to be ignored.
These two points, then, are the foundation for the al-Qaeda philosophy. It is the philosophy in which Zarqawi believed and it is also the philosophy in which the current head of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, believes as well.
Islamic states (dark green), states where Islam is the official religion (light green), secular states (blue) and other (orange), among countries with Muslim majority. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
We don’t know much about al-Baghdadi. We know his name is a lie–he was not born in Baghdad, as his name denotes, but rather in Samarra. We know he was born in 1971 and has some sort of degree from Baghdad University. We also know he was imprisoned by the Americans in Camp Bucca in Iraq. It may have been there that he was radicalized, or perhaps upon making the acquaintance of al-Zarqawi.
Over time, al-Qaeda in Iraq evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq which, in turn, evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This took place in 2012 when Baghdadi claimed that an already existing al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, was, in fact, part of his organization. This was unacceptable to the head of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. Al-Jawlani took the dispute to Ayman al-Zawahiri who ruled in his favor. Zawahiri declared Jabhat al-Nusra to be the true al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, ordered al-Baghdadi to return to Iraq, and when al-Baghdadi refused al-Zawahiri severed ties with him and his organization.
There is a certain irony in this, inasmuch as Jabhat al-Nusra does not adhere to the al-Qaeda ideology, which is the only thing that holds the organization together. On the other hand, IS, for the most part does, although al-Qaeda purists believe al-Baghdadi jumped the gun when he declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq with himself as caliph—a move that is as likely to split the al-Qaeda/jihadi movement as it is to unify it under a single leader. Whereas al-Baghdadi believes there should be no national boundaries dividing Syria and Iraq, al-Jawlani restricts his group’s activities to Syria. Whereas the goals of al-Baghdadi (and al-Qaeda) are much broader than bringing down an individual despot, Jabhat al-Nusra’s goal is the removal of Bashar al-Assad. And whereas al-Baghdadi (and al-Qaeda) believe in a strict, salafist interpretation of Islamic law, Jabhat al-Nusra has taken a much more temperate position in the territories it controls. The enforcement of a strict interpretation of Islamic law–from the veiling of women to the prohibition of alcohol and cigarettes to the use of hudud punishments and even crucifixions—has made IS extremely unpopular wherever it has established itself in Syria.
The recent strategy of IS has been to reestablish a caliphate, starting with the (oil-rich) territory stretching from Raqqa to as far south in Iraq as they can go. This is a strategy evolved out of al-Qaeda first articulated by Abu Musab al-Suri. For al-Suri (who believed 9/11 was a mistake), al-Qaeda’s next step was to create “emirates” in un-policed frontier areas of the Muslim world from which an al-Qaeda affiliate might “vex and exhaust” the enemy. For al-Qaeda, this would be the intermediate step that will eventually lead to a unification of the entire Muslim world. What would happen next was never made clear—Al-Qaeda has always been more definitive about what it is against rather than what it is for.
IS has demonstrated in the recent period that it is capable of dramatic military moves, particularly when it is assisted by professional military officers, such as the former Baathist officers who planned the attack on Mosul. This represents a potential problem for IS: After all, the jailors are unlikely to remain in a coalition with those they jailed after they accomplish an immediate goal. But this is not the limit of IS’s problems. Mao Zedong once wrote that in order to have an effective guerrilla organization you have to “swim like the fish in the sea”–in other words, you have to make yourself popular with the local inhabitants of an area who you wish to control and who are necessary to feed and protect you. Wherever it has taken over, IS has proved itself to be extraordinarily unpopular. The only reason IS was able to move as rapidly as it did was because the Iraqi army simply melted away rather than risking their lives for the immensely unpopular government of Nouri al-Maliki.
However it scored its victory, it should be remembered that taking territory is very different from holding territory. It should also be remembered that by taking and attempting to hold territory in Iraq, ISIS has concentrated itself and set itself up as a target.
IS has other problems as well. It is fighting on multiple fronts. In Syria, it is battling most of the rest of the opposition movement. It is also a surprisingly small organization–8,000-10,000 fighters (although recent victories might enable it to attract new recruits). The Americans used 80,000 troops in its initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was still unable to control the country. In addition, we should not forget the ease with which the French ousted similar groups from Timbuktu and other areas in northern Mali last year. As battle-hardened as the press claims them to be, groups like IS are no match for a professional army.
Portions of this article ran in a translated interview on Tasnim News.
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Recently the jihadist insurgent group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) underwent a re-branding of sorts when one of its leaders, known by the sobriquet Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was proclaimed caliph by the group’s members. In keeping with the horizonless pretentions that such a title theoretically conveys, the group dropped their geographical focus and embraced a more universalist outlook, settling for the name of the ‘Islamic State’.
As a few observers have noted, the title of caliph comes freighted with a long and complicated history. That history begins in the seventh century AD, when the title was adopted to denote those leaders of the Muslim community who were recognized as the Prophet Muhammad’s “successors”— not prophets themselves of course, but men who were expected, in the Prophet’s absence, to know how to guide the community spiritually as well as politically. Later in the medieval period, classical Islamic political theory sought to carefully define the pool from which caliphs might be drawn and to stipulate specific criteria that a caliph must possess, such as lineage, probity, moral standing and so on. Save for his most ardent followers, Muslims have found al-Baghdadi — with his penchant for Rolex watches and theatrical career reinventions — sorely wanting in such caliphal credentials.
He’s not the only one of course. Over the span of Islamic history, the title of caliph has been adopted by numerous (and sometimes competing) dynasties, rebels, and pretenders. The last ruler to bear the title in any significant way was the Ottoman Abdülmecid II, who lost the title when he was exiled in 1924. And even then it was an honorific supported only by myths of Ottoman legitimacy. But it’s doubtful that al-Baghdadi gives the Ottomans much thought. For he is really tapping into a much more recent dream of reviving the caliphate embraced by various Islamist groups since the early 20th century, who saw it as a precondition for reviving the Muslim community or to combat Western imperialism. Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is thus a modern confection, despite its medieval trappings.
That an Islamic fundamentalist (to use a contested term of its own) like al-Baghdadi should make an appeal to the past to legitimate himself, and that he should do so without any thoughtful reference to Islamic history, is of course the most banal of observations to make about his activities, or about those of any fundamentalist. And perhaps that is the most interesting point about this episode. For the utterly commonplace nature of examples like al-Baghdadi’s clumsy claim to be caliph suggest that Islamic history today is in danger of becoming irrelevant.
Caliph Abdulmecid II, the last Caliph before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This is not because Islamic history has no bearing upon the present Islamic world, but because present-day agendas that make use of that history prefer to cherry-pick, deform, and obliterate the complicated bits to provide easy narratives for their own ends. Al-Baghdadi’s claim, for example, leaps over 1400 years of more nuanced Islamic history in which the institution of the caliphate shaped Muslim lives in diverse ways, and in which regional upstarts had little legitimate claim. But he is hardly alone in avoiding inconvenient truths — contemporary comment on Middle Eastern affairs routinely employs the same strategy.
We can see just such a history-shy approach in coverage of the sectarian conflicts between Shi’i and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites, we are usually told, has its origins in a contest over religious authority in the seventh century between the partisans of the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali and those Muslims who believed the incumbent caliphs of the day were better guides and leaders for the community. And so Shi’ites and Sunnis, we are led to believe, have been fighting ever since. It is as if the past fourteen centuries of history, with its record of coexistence, migrations, imperial designs, and nation-building have no part in the matter, to say nothing of the past century or less of authoritarian regimes, identity-politics, and colonial mischief.
We see the inconvenient truths of Islamic history also being ignored in the widespread discourse of crusading and counter-crusading that occasionally infects comment on contemporary conflicts, as if holy war is the default mode for Muslims fighting non-Muslims or vice-versa. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi can wrap himself in black robes and proclaim himself Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State, when seventh-century conflicts seem like thorough explanations for twenty-first century struggles, or when a terrorist and mass-murderer like the Norwegian Anders Breivik can see himself as a latter-day Knight Templar, then we are sadly living in a world in which the medieval is allowed to seep uncritically into the contemporary as a way to provide easy answers to very complicated problems.
But we should be wary of such easy answers. Syria and Iraq will not be saved by a caliph. And crusaders would have found the motivations of today’s empire-builders sickening. History properly appreciated should instead lead us to acknowledge the specificity, and indeed oddness, of our modern contexts and the complexity of our contemporary motivations. It should, one hopes, lead to that conclusion reached famously by Mark Twain: that history doesn’t repeat itself, even if sometimes it rhymes.
Britain and the United States have been suffering from intervention fatigue. The reason is obvious: our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven far more costly and their results far more mixed and uncertain than we had hoped.
This fatigue manifested itself in almost exactly a year ago, when Britain’s Parliament refused to let the Government offer military support to the U.S. and France in threatening punitive strikes against Syria’s Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. Since then, however, developments in Syria have shown that our choosing not to intervene doesn’t necessarily make the world a safer place. Nor does it mean that distant strife stays away from our shores.
There is reason to suppose that the West’s failure to intervene early in support of the 2011 rebellion against the repressive Assad regime left a vacuum for the jihadists to fill—jihadists whose ranks now include several hundred British citizens.
There’s also some reason to suppose that the West’s failure to support Georgia militarily against Russia in 2008, and to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, has encouraged President Putin to risk at least covert military aggression in Ukraine. I’m not saying that the West should have supported Georgia and punished Assad. I’m merely pointing out that inaction has consequences, too, sometimes bad ones.
Now, however, despite out best efforts to keep out of direct involvement in Syria, we are being drawn in again. The rapid expansion of ‘Islamic State’, involving numerous mass atrocities, has put back on our national desk the question of whether we should intervene militarily to help stop them.
What guidance does the tradition of just war thinking give us in deliberating about military intervention? The first thing to say is that there are different streams in the tradition of just war thinking. In the stream that flows from Michael Walzer, the paradigm of a just war is national self-defence. More coherently, I think, the Christian stream, in which I swim, holds that the paradigm of a just war is the rescue of the innocent from grave injustice. This rescue can take either defensive or aggressive forms. The stipulation that the injustice must be ‘grave’ implies that some kinds of injustice should be borne rather than ended by war. This because war is a destructive and hazardous business, and so shouldn’t be ventured except for very strong reasons.
What qualifies as ‘grave’ injustice, then? In the 16th and 17th centuries just war theorists like Vitoria and Grotius proposed as candidates such inhumane social practices as cannibalism or human sacrifice. International law currently stipulates ‘genocide’. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protest (‘R2P’) would broaden the law to encompass mass atrocity. Let’s suppose that mass atrocity characteristic of a ruling body is just cause for military intervention. Some nevertheless argue, in the light of Iraq and Afghanistan, that intervention is not an appropriate response, because it just ddoesn’twork. Against that conclusion, I call two witnesses, both of whom have served as soldiers, diplomats, and politicians, and have had direct experience of responsibility for nation-building: Paddy Ashdown and Rory Stewart.
Ashdown, the international High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002-6, argues that “[h]igh profile failures like Iraq should not … blind us to the fact that, overall, the success stories outnumber the failures by a wide margin”.
Rory Stewart was the Coalition Provisional Authority’s deputy governor of two provinces of southern Iraq from 2003-4. He approached the task of building a more stable, prosperous Iraq with optimism, but experience brought him disillusion. Nevertheless, Stewart writes that “it is possible to walk the tightrope between the horrors of over-intervention and non-intervention; that there is still a possibility of avoiding the horrors not only of Iraq but also of Rwanda; and that there is a way of approaching intervention that can be good for us and good for the country concerned”.
Notwithstanding that, one lesson from our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan—and indeed from British imperial history—is that successful interventions in foreign places, which go beyond the immediate fending off of indiscriminate slaughter on a massive scale to attempting some kind of political reconstruction, cannot be done quickly or on the cheap.
Here’s where national interest comes in. National interest isn’t necessarily immoral. A national government has a moral duty to look after the well being of its own people and to advance its genuine interests. What’s more, some kind of national interest must be involved if military intervention is to attract popular support, without which intervention is hard, eventually impossible, to sustain. One such interest can be moral integrity. Nations usually care about more than just being safe and fat. Usually they want to believe that they are doing the right thing, and they will tolerate the costs of war—up to a point—in a just cause that looks set to succeed. I have yet to meet a Briton who is not proud of what British troops achieved in Sierra Leone in the year 2000, even though Britain had no material stake in the outcome of that country’s civil war.
It is not unreasonable for them to ask why their sons and daughters should be put in harm’s way.
However, the nation’s interest in its own moral integrity alone will probably not underwrite military intervention that incurs very heavy costs. So other interests—such as national security—are needed to stiffen popular support for a major intervention. It is not unreasonable for a national people to ask why they should bear the burdens of military intervention, especially in remote parts of the world.
It is not unreasonable for them to ask why their sons and daughters should be put in harm’s way. And the answer to those reasonable questions will have to present itself in terms of the nation’s own interests. This brings us back to Syria and Islamic State. Repressive though the Assad regime was and is, and nasty though the civil war is, it probably wasn’t sufficiently in Britain’s national interest to become deeply involved militarily in 2011. The expansion of Islamic State, however, engages our interest in national security more directly, partly because as part of the West we are its declared enemy and partly because some of our own citizens are fighting for it and might bring their jihad back onto our own streets.
We do have a stronger interest, therefore, in taking the risks and bearing the costs of military intervention to stop and to disable Islamic State, and of subsequent political intervention to help create sustainable polities in Syria and Iraq.
The centenary of the capture of Basra offers an opportunity to reflect on the nature and impact of the first Western military intervention in Iraq, nine decades before the city once again became the focal point of British activity in the country between 2003 and 2009. The small-scale operation envisaged by British political and military planners in October 1914 morphed into one of the most protracted military campaigns outside of the European theatre of the Great War. It combined gross initial mismanagement and eventual humiliation with landmark military successes such as the occupation of Baghdad in March 1917 and the first flawed attempt at imposing an external state-building agenda in Iraq. More than 40,000 British and Indian soldiers lost their lives and were commemorated on a memorial displayed prominently near Basra until 1997, when it was moved by order of Saddam Hussein to an isolated desert outpost.
On the evening of 21 November 1914, two gunboats advanced toward Basra with detachments of Indian forces belonging to the 104th Wellesley Rifles and the 117th Mahrattas of 16th Brigade of the Indian Army’s 6th Division. Sent ashore to restore order following the outbreak of looting in the town, the capture of Basra was among the first major British successes in the Great War then entering its fourth month. Two days later, the British flag was raised over the town and a headline in the Daily Mail proclaimed proudly ‘Another Red Patch on the Map.’ Much to the delight of British officers with the Indian force, the English Club was found undisturbed by the looting that took place after the Ottoman withdrawal, and well-stocked with lager beer.
Soon after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, reports had begun to reach British officials in London that the Ottoman Army had started to mobilise in Baghdad and was seizing British property in the city. In fact, the Ottoman Army had started a general mobilisation on 3 August, and three days later the authorities in Baghdad proclaimed martial law, even though the Ottomans did not formally declare war until late-October. By mid-September, Ottoman troops in Basra were preparing defensive positions along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and limited (though unsuccessful) attempts had been made to enlist the major tribal groupings around Baghdad.
The news from Mesopotamia alarmed Sir Edmund Barrow, the Military Secretary at the India Office in London. His office, along with the Government of India, was responsible for the British-protected sheikhdoms of Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Trucial States (today the United Arab Emirates) in the Persian Gulf. Barrow feared the Ottomans’ actions might damage British prestige in the region and sway the loyalty of local tribal sheikhs, upon whose collaboration rested British commercial, political and strategic supremacy in the Gulf. Accordingly, he suggested sending a military force to the Shatt al-Arab at the northern head of the Gulf to repair local prestige and reassure any wavering local allies of British support. Furthermore, it would demonstrate British military might to regional observers, protect the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s installations and pipeline at Abadan on the eastern (Persian) shore of the Gulf, and cover the landing of any reinforcements which might subsequently be required. At this stage, and in striking contrast to the importance that Mesopotamia’s oil potential assumed by 1918, British interests were primarily motivated by issues of prestige, rather than the strategic control of oil-producing areas.
The 16th Indian Brigade sailed from Bombay on 16 October 1914 in a convoy headed to Egypt and then on to France to reinforce Indian troops being sent to the Western Front. However, the Brigade was ordered to detach itself from the convoy and make its way to Bahrain, where it arrived on 23 October. Once there, it encountered unexpectedly stiff local unease at its presence, which forced the 5000 men and 1200 animals to remain on their cramped troopships in hot and oppressive conditions. With the declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire imminent, 16th Brigade sailed northward to the Shatt al-Arab at the head of the Persian Gulf and prepared for an attack on the Faw Peninsula south-east of Basra. At 6am on the morning of 6 November 1914, HMS Odin fired the first shots of the campaign as it bombarded the local Ottoman fort and landed 600 men on the peninsula. The Brigade proceeded to Abadan (in Persian territory) on 9 November, where it disembarked with some difficulty, and, two days later, beat off an Ottoman counter-attack to confirm their foothold.
The British declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire on 5 November 1914 led the British military authorities in India to rapidly dispatch a second infantry brigade (the 18th) to reinforce 16th Brigade. It arrived at Abadan on 14 November. Two days later, the Cabinet in London authorised the capture of Basra on the condition that the Arab political situation and general military conditions were favourable. A sharp engagement took place at Salih on 17 November in a downpour that turned the desert ‘into a veritable sea of mud’ and claimed nearly 500 British and Indian and over 1000 Ottoman casualties. This unexpectedly costly success paved the way for the final advance to Basra, completing the initial objective of what became known as Indian Expeditionary Force D. Even at this formative stage, the seeds of local resistance were being sown as a fatwa issued by the Ottoman Sultan calling for jihad against the British occupiers was read out in every Sunni mosque in Mesopotamia. The Shiite clergy of Najaf were among the first to declare their support in response to an urgent appeal from their counterparts in Basra.
The successful capture of Basra did not lead to a halt in military operations in Mesopotamia. Instead, and largely for reasons of prestige, the campaign expanded rapidly throughout 1915. This left Indian Expeditionary Force D dangerously over-exposed across mutually unsupportable positions and dependent on a supply and transport network that creaked at the seams before breaking down completely early in 1916. Subsequent military operations in Mesopotamia until November 1918 spawned a potent array of political and economic grievances that culminated in the mass uprising against British rule known as the al-Thawra al-‘Iraqiya al-Kubra (the Great Iraqi Revolution) in 1920. A century later, with one-third of Iraq under the control of an Islamic State bent on redrawing the map of the modern Middle East that emerged from the war, the legacy of decisions made during and immediately after the First World War continue to cast their long shadow over the region.
The world has watched as ISIS (ISIL, the “Islamic State”) has moved from being a small but extreme section of the Syrian opposition to a powerful organization in control of a large swath of Iraq and Syria. Even President Obama recently admitted that the US was surprised by the success of ISIS in that region. Why have they been so successful, and why now?
Shadi Hamid, fellow at the Brookings Institution, shares his thoughts.
ISIS is a “revolutionary” organization in a way that al-Qaeda and other like-minded extremist groups never were, and never really wanted to be. The “caliphate” — the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition — might have been an inspiration as well as an aspiration, but it wasn’t actually going to happen in real life. The historical weight of the caliphate, and its symbolic power among even less Islamically-minded Muslims, was simply too much (and not only that, you needed a large enough swath of territory to establish one). ISIS, even if it was destroyed tomorrow morning, will have succeeded in removing the mental block of the “caliphate.” Now, anytime there’s an ungoverned, or ungovernable, space, a militant group will think to itself: should we try to capture a piece of territory and announce our own little emirate? And, well beyond the rarefied realm of extremist groups, ISIS has succeeded in injecting the word “caliphate” back into the public discourse. In Turkey, for example, various writers, while opposing ISIS’s particular version of the caliphate, have been willing to discuss the idea of a caliphate.
In this sense, the question of whether ISIS enjoys much popular support in the Muslim world — it doesn’t — is almost beside the point. ISIS doesn’t need to be popular to be successful. In June, around 800 militants were able to defeat an Iraqi force of 30,000 in Mosul, the country’s second largest city. Ideology, morale, and, crucially, the willingness to die are force multipliers. But ideology can only take you so far without a conducive political environment. ISIS itself was perhaps inevitable, but its rise to prominence was not. It has benefited considerably from the manifest failures of Arab governance, of an outdated regional order, and of an international community that was unwilling to act as Syria descended into savage repression and civil war.
Graeme Wood made an important point in one of the only pieces I’ve read that takes ISIS’s religious inspirations seriously: “ISIS’s meticulous use of language, and its almost pedantic adherence to its own interpretation of Islamic law, have made it a strange enemy, fierce and unyielding but also scholarly and predictable.” This is where ISIS’s aspirations to governance become critical, and where Obama’s description of the group as a “terrorist organization, pure and simple” seems both problematic and detached. Emphasizing the distinctive nature of ISIS — and getting it across — becomes difficult in a public discourse that is very focused on us and dealing with our Iraq demons.
This is part two of a series of articles discussing ISIS. Part one is by Hanin Ghaddar, Lebanese journalist and editor.
Headline image: Iraqi Army on patrol in Mosul, Iraq, February 2008. By Staff Sgt. Jason Robertson. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
David Ignatius of The Washington Post recently highlighted several “positive signs in Afghanistan,” citing progress on the diplomatic front, in relations between India and Pakistan, and on the battlefield itself. Of note, Ignatius stressed how U.S.-led coalition forces had cleared several Taliban strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. The enemy, according to the opinion piece, was “feeling the pressure.” That same day Britain’s former ambassador to Afghanistan condemned General David Petraeus’s tactics as counterproductive and “profoundly wrong.” Denouncing an overemphasis on military action, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles noted that the use of body counts and similar statistics was reminiscent of the Vietnam War and “not conducive to a stable political settlement.”
The allusion to Vietnam, made frequently in the last five years, suggests uncertainty over the true amount of progress being made in Afghanistan today. For nearly a decade Americans in South Vietnam similarly tried in vain to assess progression towards the daunting political-military objective of a stable and independent noncommunist government in Saigon. Military officers and their civilian leaders employed a range of metrics to track success in the myriad political, military, economic, security, and social programs. As early as 1964, analysts were wading through approximately five hundred U.S. and Vietnamese monthly reports in an attempt to appraise the status of the conflict. In the process, the American mission in Vietnam became overwhelmed with data, much of it contradictory and, thus, of dubious value. By war’s end, questions remained over whether the U.S. Army in particular had achieved its goals in Southeast Asia. That debate continues to this day.
The American experience in Vietnam has served—rightfully so—as only an imperfect roadmap for our more current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, all wars are unique. Our recent conflicts, however, do illustrate the continuing challenges of defining progress and success in unconventional wars and of developing a coherent strategy for such wars. It is here that an objective study of Vietnam can offer insights and perspectives into the unresolved problems of measuring what matters most in an environment like Afghanistan. Quantitative statistics often do not tell the whole story as governmental allegiances, population security, and political stability all are highly subjective assessments. As in Vietnam, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have varied from province to province and any broad, centralized appraisals of the war likely miss the finer points of local conditions driving the political and military struggle.
Even in a war without front lines, Americans expect wartime progress to be linear. Effort should equal progress. Progress should lead to victory. The widely contrasting views of David Ignatius and Sherard Cowper-Coles, however, imply a battle is being waged over the very idea of “progress” in Afghanistan today. (Asking if the United States “won” in Iraq would provoke equally opposing responses.) If historical examples can be instructive in any way, the problem of metrics in Vietnam arguably helps illuminate the reasons why gauging wartime progress in Afghanistan has produced such a wide range of opinions. Assessing wars oftentimes is just as difficult as winning them.
Last week the European Court of Human Rights produced a landmark decision in Al-Skeini v. UK, a case dealing with the extraterritorial application of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). What a mouthful of legalese this is, you might think – so let me try to clarify things a bit. The main purpose of human rights treaties like the ECHR is to require the states that sign up to them, say the UK, France or Turkey, to respect such things as the right to life and legal due process, and prohibit the torture, of people living within the UK, France or Turkey.
But what happens when the US detains foreigners on foreign soil (Guantanamo), or kills people in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan with unmanned drones, or a former Russian spy is poisoned in London ostensibly at the orders or with the collusion of the Kremlin? The question that then arises is whether all these individuals have rights under human rights treaties against the US, the UK or Russia, even though the alleged violations of their rights did not take placein the US, the UK or Russia.
This question might appear to be counterintuitive. Human rights are, after all, supposed to be universal—why should it matter whether a state violates a person’s rights by acting within its territory or outside it? At the legal level however it is a matter of treaty interpretation. The scope of application of many major human rights treaties, including the ECHR, is defined by a very similar clause: the persons concerned must fall within the state’s jurisdiction for that person to be able to raise his or her rights against the state.
Courts both international and domestic have produced mounds of conflicting case law on how this is different from the state’s territory, with two main strands of decisions defining ‘jurisdiction’ either in spatial terms, as state control over territory, or in personal terms, as control over individuals, with a number of deviations from these two models in between. These contradictions flow partly from the vagueness of the legal concepts, but, also more importantly from conflicting policy considerations. On one hand, courts want to follow their human rights-friendly impulse and protect the individual affected by extraterritorial state action. On the other, courts fear political fallout, and therefore choose to unduly restrict the extraterritorial application of human rights instruments, often on seemingly completely arbitrary grounds.
The Al-Skeini case with which I started this post is a perfect example of this tension. It concerned six individuals, all killed by British troops in Basra, in UK-occupied southern Iraq. One of them, Baha Mousa, was killed while in custody in a British detention facility after much mistreatment. The five others were killed in varying circumstances by British troops on patrol. Some may even have been killed in justifiable or at least excusable circumstances, but their families wanted the UK to conduct an ECHR-compliant effective investigation into their killings. They thus brought proceedings before the UK courts under the Human Rights Act, claiming that the ECHR applied to the killing of their relatives in Iraq. The House of Lords (now rebranded as the UK Supreme Court) held that only Baha Mousa was protected by the ECHR, as his killing took place in a UK military prison, which (I kid you not) was somehow analogous to an embassy (more on that here). As for the other five, they were held not to have been within the UK’s jurisdiction as the ECHR could generally not apply outside the
By John Tirman
As the U.S. war in Iraq winds down, we are entering a familiar phase, the season of forgetting—forgetting the harsh realities of the war. Mostly we forget the victims of the war, the Iraqi civilians whose lives and society have been devastated by eight years of armed conflict. The act of forgetting is a social and political act, abetted by the American news media. Throughout the war, but especially now, the minimal news we get from Iraq consistently devalues the death toll of Iraqi civilians.