Are Vicious Islamists the Real Issue?

Strangely for those Middle Eastern and foreign governments that fight ISIS, the more they attack it the greater seem to be its territorial spread and adherents.

The debate about whether “Islamic State” (ISIS), Taliban, or Al-Qaeda are expanding or being contained in Arab lands and Afghanistan is important news in many countries, and deserves a closer look to try to discern the real issues we should be following. This is certainly a topic of constant discussion among foreign policy practitioners and analysts in the United States, where I am spending a few months.

Strangely for those Middle Eastern and foreign governments that fight ISIS, the more they attack it the greater seem to be its territorial spread and adherents. I have recently had opportunities to discuss Middle Eastern issues with Americans who spent time in various official and private capacities in Iraq, and the single greatest reaction I sense among them is a profound and irritated perplexity.

There is surplus perplexity in the United States about why so many people are fighting over there in the Middle East—mirroring our perplexity in the Middle East about why those concerned Americans often are unable to pronounce the names of our countries correctly. There is bountiful perplexity in the United States about why the repeated use of military power for the past quarter century has only resulted in the expansion of Al-Qaeda and Taliban and the birth of ISIS—corresponding to our perplexity in the Middle East about why those same Americans (and their Israeli pals) do not seem to understand the limits of the ability of alien fighters to resolve political issues in foreign lands they occupy, attack and ravage.

So this week President Barack Obama announced the dispatch of small numbers of special operations troops and other technical units to Iraq and Syria to assist in the battle against ISIS, or maybe also against some other foes out there in the fogs of ancient Arab, Kurdish, Yazidi, Alawi, Sunni, Shiite, Turkish, and Iranian landscapes that make it hard to see things clearly sometimes, including, uncomfortably, one’s foes in battle. The press and public sphere routinely discuss whether and how much Al-Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS, and other undesirables are expanding their territory and power in half a dozen countries from Afghanistan to North Africa. Or is it actually a dozen countries? Golly, the precise facts sure are hazy in the realms of the powerful and the perplexed.

And just Monday, we learned that ISIS took control of some small towns in north-western Syria—at a time when ISIS there and everywhere has been under constant military attack by, count ‘em: the world’s two strongest military powers (the U.S. and Russia, that is, U!-S!-A! and a bare-chested, pack-of-wild-bears Mother Russia!), and Iraqi, Kurdish, Syrian government, Syrian rebel, Iranian and assorted occasional Arab Gulf armies and irregulars. So I sympathize with those in faraway lands whose advanced fighter jets and missile systems only seem to result in the expansion of the Islamist barbarians they have targeted—since the 1990s, in some cases.

I suspect we can only draw three conclusions from these conflicting realities. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Taliban are super-human creatures that only expand and recreate the more they are attacked. All those Middle Eastern and foreign armies that are attacking ISIS and pals are not telling us the full truth because they are only hitting them around the edges and not really undermining their core capabilities. Or, as I suspect, six years after the operational emergence of ISIS in Iraq and its re-launch last year as a territorial entity in Syria and Iraq, most of those states fighting ISIS are fighting ghosts and symptoms, without touching the underlying drivers that give birth to these criminal groups.

One such underlying phenomenon is the foreign and local military action by governments that do not seriously address the real reasons why their citizens become desperate from lack of socio-economic and political rights. Some citizens do desperate things, like joining ISIS or risking death to escape to Europe. Others join local corruption and criminal networks, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Yemen that set the world’s gold standard in public-private decadence. Other citizens yet withdraw from the public sphere, and turn inwards to their community, clan, or confessional group for solace and their bare survival needs. All this results in the fragmentation of the state, and the collapse of national integrity.

The worst is yet to come, because tens of millions of Arab kids are out of school; almost half of those in school cannot read, write or do basic math. Those who do graduate cannot find decent work, and those who work cannot earn enough to marry and live a normal life. Tens of millions are displaced from their homes, or exiled as refugees.

The increasingly common image of the Arab World in the world media these days is a dead child, drowned in the Mediterranean—but in fact, that child was already dead in his or her own country, killed by incompetent governments, hollowed economies, and merciless wars by vicious locals and perplexed foreigners.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global