1. It won’t work – and is likely to backfire.
“What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?” muses neoconservative William Kristol. The media debate follows similar lines. Yet in Libya, former MI6 head of counterterrorism Richard Barrett points out, “military intervention without a proper plan to follow up had all sorts of unintended consequences and led to chaos and instability.” “It’s just reaching for a hammer because it is a hammer and it’s to hand,” he adds. Airstrikes “have to have a very clear purpose and objective … I’m not sure we have that”. Instead, we seem to be engaging in “gesture politics”.
As veteran British journalist Jonathan Steele notes, “any kind of major U.S. role in military terms would be a disaster”:
“military strikes by the West are not likely to be effective in the long term. And again, as we’ve seen in many places—Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan—they tend to be counterproductive and only create more recruits for the enemy you’re trying to deal with.”
Air power is of limited use, and can easily do far more harm than good. Obama declares that his drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia will provide the template for his war against ISIS – yet in Yemen, the former US Head of Mission concludes, “the U.S. generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every [Al-Qaeda] operative killed by drones.” As Yemeni democracy and human rights activist Farea Al-Muslimi told a Senate hearing last year:
“I believe in America, and I deeply believe that when Americans truly know about how much pain and suffering U.S. airstrikes have caused, and how they are harming U.S. efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Yemeni people, they will reject this devastating targeted killing program.”
As professor of Middle East history Juan Cole comments: “Once you enter a war, it doesn’t stay limited”, and in fact, “no conflict has ever been quickly brought to an end where US planes have been involved.” By bombing small cities, the US will slaughter civilians, while trained, hardened ISIS guerrillas can avoid the worst by withdrawing or slipping away into back streets. “If ISIS pull back from Mosul, as a result of air strikes, they’re not going to disappear, they’ll still be out there”, Barrett comments. ISIS are known for their skilled and sophisticated propaganda, and will undoubtedly gather and disseminate footage of the ensuing carnage and use it to recruit. The US role itself serves as a recruiting tool, as ISIS can portray themselves as defenders against external aggression. At least as harmful is the US strategic alliance with Israel over Syria – a propaganda gift for self-proclaimed opponents of the “crusader-Zionist conspiracy”. The FBI report an upsurge in ISIS recruits since the US started bombing, and indeed western attacks may be precisely what ISIS want: as Norwegian terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer puts it, “Isis seems to be doing everything it can (short of attacks in the west) to draw the US into the conflict.” In the words of former FBI counterterrorism agent Ali Soufan: “They are trying to suck the west into the war with them. … They want to fight the British and the Americans … to unify the extremists within and diminish any kind of meaningful threat within their support base.”
Perceptions of the US role will work against it. Legally, it must be invited in by the Iraqi government, which has fostered intense anger and violent resistance among the Sunni community by applying indiscriminate violence in defence of sectarian policies. This will foster the belief that the US – as in the last phase of the Iraq war – is acting in concert with Shia and Kurdish forces against Sunnis, in turn defusing internal opposition to ISIS and rallying Sunnis against an external aggressor. As veteran Indepenent journalist Patrick Cockburn notes, Iraq’s Sunnis tend to regard the country’s government as a far greater threat than ISIS.
“By the Sunni community, certainly, it is often regarded as the lesser of two evils. I mean, you know, I have friends in Mosul, which ISIL has controlled for the last three months, and they don’t like ISIS, but they’re truly terrified of the Iraqi army and the Shia militias coming back. The same is true in Syria in towns north of Aleppo that ISIS control and in Raqqa … assuming they’re Sunni. Of course, it’s different if you’re Christian or another religion. If you’re Sunni, then ISIS is difficult to live with, but you stand a better chance of staying alive.”
At the same time, Shia militias threaten to disengage from fighting the Islamic State and attack the US in any ground war. With 2,000 US troops already on the ground in northern Iraq, US officials keeping all options on the table, and the possibility that ISIS captures US personnel – including from downed aircraft – the war could easily escalate. As Barrett notes:
“You start with some air strikes then you have a few more, then we need people down there to tell us where targets are [so] we put special forces in, then they’re in a pickle and they need force protection, before you know it, we’re drawn down this road that has no obvious ending.”
As former State Department official Matthew Hoh comments, Obama
“gave no assurances that Sunni grievances would be addressed nor did he explain how the United States would force the government in Baghdad to make much needed concessions in order to achieve political order. Rather, the reality of what America has pledged to do in Iraq is to assist in Shia subjugation of the Sunnis by U.S. bombing of Sunni villages, towns and cities. The American military will also ensure the Kurds keep the oil fields they seized this summer in Northern Iraq, effectively strangling the Sunnis economically. In turn, the Sunnis, in existential desperation, will give full support to the Islamic State. How this does not bring Iraq back to the violence of 2006, or worse, I do not know.”
2. It threatens endless war.
The New York Times reports:
“Mr. Obama acknowledged that “it will take time to eradicate a cancer” like ISIS, but gave no estimates.”
“This is going to be more than three years,” said former Representative Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, a Republican who was once the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “Confronting ISIS, we may get done with the biggest part of this in three years, but that’s not going to take care of the threat from radical Islam.”
Some are even more pessimistic, as The Washington Post reports:
“We’re not going to see an end to this in our lifetime,” said Charles F. Wald, a retired Air Force general who oversaw the start of the air war in Afghanistan in 2001. Airstrikes and ground operations by allies can degrade the Islamic State and force it to surrender its territorial gains, Wald said. But “there isn’t going to be any time where we all of a sudden can declare victory. This is what the world is going to be like for us for a long time.”
3. It’s illegal.
“Obama’s legal arguments for unilaterally expanding a war expected to last years have shocked even his supporters”, the Guardian’s national security editor reports. In US domestic law, the 1973 War Powers Resolution requires the President to obtain Congress’s blessing if he wants to keep fighting beyond 60 days, while the Constitution gives Congress – not the President – the power to declare war. As in the past, Obama is ducking both obligations, instead relying on the 2001 Authorisation for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which licensed the President to use “necessary and appropriate force” against the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks and anyone that harboured them. But ISIS is not Al-Qaeda – even if the administration, with support from the media, have done everything possible to foster that impression. In fact, attacks on ISIS may strengthen its main rival in Syria, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Thus law professor Ryan Goodman reports a “remarkable consensus of opinion” among diverse legal scholars that the 2001 AUMF does not authorise war against ISIS.
Since it has been invited in by the Iraqi government, under international law the Obama administration may attack ISIS in “collective self-defence”. Yet this hardly licenses Obama’s plan to “destroy” the group. Moreover, the Syrian government has not invited the US into its territory, and is unlikely to do so, while the US states that “We’re not looking for the approval of the Syrian regime” – a statement Goodman describes as “a bit stunning when viewed in light of international law”. Does “collective self-defence” permit the US to extend attacks into Syria? The US says so, claiming that Syria is “unwilling or unable” to tackle ISIS, and that legally this authorises an attack under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Yet in fact, Syria has offered to help tackle ISIS in coordination with the US – though it adds that “Any strike which is not coordinated with the government will be considered as aggression.” Moreover, as jurist Kevin John Heller points out, the International Court of Justice have ruled out the “unwilling or unable” principle three times:
“the ICJ does not accept the standard: the Court has consistently held that Article 51 of the UN Charter limits self-defensive acts against non-state actors to situations in which the non-state actor’s armed attacks are in some way imputable to the state whose territorial sovereignty is being violated. That was the ICJ’s position in Nicaragua, and the Court reaffirmed that position in both the Palestinian Wall advisory opinion and DRC vs. Congo.”
Finally, to be legal, US actions must be limited and proportionate. It is difficult to see how a years-long war to “eradicate” ISIS meets the test of proportionate (collective) self-defence. In fact, its operation is not “defensive” at all: as the Washington Post reports, “Pentagon officials described their altered mission as a shift to offense from defense.”
4. War must be our last resort. It isn’t.
For the US, diplomacy – not war – is the last resort. “The United States seldom resorts to diplomacy in resolving major differences with other states,” notes its former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; instead it engages in “reflexive militarism”. “With regards to Syria,” Matt Hoh points out, “the president did not even attempt to make comments towards a political process to end the fighting and the killing.” As Richard Barrett comments, engaging Saudi Arabia and Iran over Iraq would have “much more impact than flying out and dropping bombs”, and we should focus on “drawing down any sort of public support or community sympathy” for ISIS among the wider population.
Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies has outlined an alternative policy, consisting of “four key diplomatic moves”: first, engage Iran in talks covering all regional crises, and clamp down on the sectarian policies of the Iraqi government; second, engage a broad regional coalition to “use diplomatic power and financial pressures” to tackle ISIS, pushing Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to cut off support to the Syrian fighters; third, engage a broad range of parties, including Russia, in an effort to end the Syrian crisis; fourth, over the longer term pursue a blanket arms embargo and WMD-free Middle East. As Jonathan Steele argues, the US must also cut off the flow of Wahhabi fundamentalist ideology from Saudi Arabia.
5. The US is pursuing its own agenda – and it has nothing to do with human rights or democracy.
Chas Freedman, former US Assistant Secretary of State for Defense for International Security Affairs and Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is scathing on US motives:
“It’s time to stop pretending the United States assigns any real importance to democracy, the rule of law, or human rights in the Middle East. We pay for gross violations of all three by Israel, support their negation in Egypt, and do not interfere in the politics of illiberal monarchies like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Clearly, U.S. policy is almost entirely about interests, not values.”
In Gaza, the US has bankrolled, armed and provided PR and diplomatic cover for its major regional ally’s crimes against humanity. Israel deliberately targeted civilians, using some as human shields, massacred children and families, attacked bomb shelters, obliterated residential areas in revenge attacks, fired on ambulances, targeted medics and journalists, bombed schools, hospitals and mosques, and attacked a university as well as Gaza’s only power plant. In Syria, too, the pro-Western “moderates” Obama will continue to arm and train engage in similar atrocities to ISIS. As the New York Times reported in August, “the Free Syrian Army, a rival group backed by the United States … went on to behead six ISIS fighters … and then posted the photographs on Facebook.” At the same time, human rights groups condemn US ally Saudi Arabia for a “disturbing surge of beheadings” in “particularly egregious” circumstances, including unfair trials and convictions for smuggling and sorcery. The country “continues to execute individuals with appalling regularity and in flagrant disregard of international law standards”, the UN reports, with sentences “imposed following confessions obtained under torture”.
As former US drone operator Brandon Bryant puts it:
“[Obama] calls [ISIS] ‘unique in their brutality,’ but we’ve got prisoners in Guantanamo Bay that haven’t seen the light of fucking day. … We’ve killed children. We’ve killed entire families getting at one or two people. We’ve killed entire weddings or funerals just to get at one or two people.”
“It doesn’t really seem like there’s much of a difference in our military actions versus what they do, other than we justify it because they’re a terrorist group and we’re an official government. … I’m pretty sure that acts of barbarism like we have would be considered acts of terrorism by anyone else in the world.”
As Kenneth M. Pollack of the elite Brookings Institution notes: “It should be obvious that a key consideration for the United States arising from the revived civil war in Iraq is its potential to affect Iraqi oil production.” Iraqi Kurdistan contains a quarter of Iraq’s oil, which would make it the ninth-largest oil producer in the world. It has the “potential to be a world-class hydrocarbon region”, a 2009 State Department cable concludes, with reserves of between 10 and 45 billion barrels – the higher estimate placing it on a par with Libya or Nigeria. “Oil companies are optimistic that the most recent discoveries are just the tip of the iceberg.” As John Cassidy and Steve Coll of the New Yorker point out:
“Obama’s advisers explained to reporters that Erbil holds an American consulate, and that “thousands” of Americans live there. The city has to be defended, they continued, lest ISIS overrun it and threaten American lives. Fair enough, but why are thousands of Americans in Erbil these days? It is not to take in clean mountain air. …
“Obama’s defense of Erbil is effectively the defense of an undeclared Kurdish oil state whose sources of geopolitical appeal—as a long-term, non-Russian supplier of oil and gas to Europe, for example—are best not spoken of in polite or naïve company …”
6. Bombing will create a threat where there is none.
As the New York Times reports:
“In a speech Wednesday morning, Jeh C. Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, said, “We know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present.””
Later that day, Obama acknowledged the same thing. As the Washington Post notes, ISIS “has not been tied to a transnational terror plot”. Indeed “when American counterterrorism officials review the threats to the United States each day, the terror group is not a top concern”, the New York Times reports. “That is because ISIS has no ability to attack inside the United States, American and allied security officials say, and it is not clear to intelligence officials that the group even wants to.”
Yet, as former deputy director at the National Counterterrorism Center Andrew Liepman points out, “It’s pretty clear that upping our involvement in Iraq and Syria makes it more likely that we will be targeted by the people we are attacking”.
As MI6’s former head of counterterrorism Richard Barrett notes, western bombing
“does rather play to the [jihadist] narrative that these bad regimes are being supported by outside powers and, therefore, if you get too close to overthrowing them, the outside powers will come and beat you up.”
As a result, those “going to fight Assad or Maliki are now seeing a broader enemy” in the shape of the west, and the “argument that they could also achieve the same by terrorist attacks in Western countries becomes stronger”. “Their justification will be: ‘If it hadn’t been for air strikes we would be fine, establishing our caliphate … Why did you mess with us? Now we’ll mess with you.’”
7. There are far more reliable ways of using public resources to help people.
According to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone will cost between four and six trillion dollars. This closely echoes the 2011 estimate of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, which puts the cost of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan at around five trillion dollars. Since the World Bank estimates that 2.4 billion people get by on less than the average developing world poverty line of two dollars a day, the war on terror could have placed something like two thousand dollars in the pocket of every person below the poverty line in the developing world.
What did this expenditure achieve instead? One 2007 study put the death toll in Iraq at around 1.2 million; all serious estimates put it at at least several hundred thousand. By the Spring of 2002, a Guardian investigation estimated that the Afghanistan war may have killed between 20,000 and 46,000 people. To this we can add many thousands of casualties in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. The result has been an explosion of armed violence, heightened security threat, and chaos across the Middle East unparalleled in recent memory. It has taken an unfathomable amount of money, in other words, to create a humanitarian catastrophe, and a disaster for global security. We have the option of continuing in the same vein, or – at long last – making a break with this dire record.
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