By David Vallance, a second year student from Sydney, reading War Studies and History at King’s College London.
For almost two years now, we in the West have been witnesses to the absolute barbarism of the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. We have all read the stories in the newspapers and online about the beheadings, rapes, mass murders, and burnings, and some with stronger stomachs than me have watched the videos ISIL put out. It is a truly disturbing time we live in; we are used, in our history, to people trying to cover up atrocities – now we have been confronted by a group that revels in sharing their cruelty with the world. What ISIL do is against any ethical code, be it a religious or cultural one, but it is my opinion that because of their awful actions and the visceral emotional effect they have on us, we have lost sight of any appreciably concrete aim to be fighting towards. To say we will “degrade and destroy” ISIL makes for a good sound bite, but not a good policy, as I shall try to explain. ISIL should be destroyed, but in order to achieve that end, we must first decide exactly why they must be destroyed. Not only will that decision colour how we are able to fight them, but it will also determine what comes after their defeat.
In the wake of the most recent United Nations resolution (2249), which has called for vastly increased international cooperation to defeat ISIL, we must critically analyse exactly why we are fighting – and before anyone reading this accuses me of not wanting to help those unfortunates suffering because of ISIL, I am strongly for increasing our military commitment to help stop their atrocities. However, if we do not at least discuss the core reasons for fighting ISIL, we will not be able to develop any concrete aims or end points of our intervention; and with them, we will not be able to have a coherent strategy about how to rebuild the region when (or for the pessimists among you, if) ISIL is defeated.
So, when we step back from all the political posturing, the loud moral indignation of social media, and the slow response of the UN, we see three main arguments as to why we are fighting.
Firstly we have the threat (and in some cases, the reality) of ISIL destabilising and threatening nations around the world – is this why we are fighting, for the interests of nations who have been attacked by the group or have had their interests threatened by them? Some realists would say that this is enough, but does not seem like a good enough explanation.
Next we have the ethical arguments you cannot help but see all over social media, condemning ISIL as not only acting as animals rather than as people, but also perverting a region the majority of whose adherents live in peace to their own violent ends. Are we then fighting a moral war for the survival of a universal ethical code? Again, the idealists of the world will see this as more than enough justification to step up military activity against the group, but again the explanation is not complete.
Finally, we have the justification focusing on the threat ISIL pose to international order in general. Resolution 2249 called the group an “unprecedented threat to international peace and security”, which therefore must be stopped. While I’m sure we would all agree that indeed they must be stopped, but does ISIL really constitute that “unprecedented threat”? I would suggest that the threat it poses is anything but unprecedented. The events of the 11th of September 2001 should be able to tell us that much. Many people cite terrorist activity in countries outside Iraq and Syria, particularly in Nigeria, to counter this, however we must remember that casualties here are so high because of the groups already operating there – of course I am talking about Boko Haram. Where ISIL have no affiliated organisations, there are no more dangerous than their parent group, Al- Qaeda, was in the first decade of the century. If anything, if we judge by casualties, Al-Qaeda have been more destabilising than ISIL outside the Iraq/Syria region. ISIL certainly do pose a credible threat to international peace, but it is not unprecedented, and as such we cannot justify our military action by that point alone.
You only need to look at the Coalition’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan to see how destructive not having coherent war aims can be. On the flip side of that, we can look back in history to the Second World War to see the opposite – the Allied aim to defeat Nazis as opposed to Germany meant that post-war reconstruction not only took place with great efficiency, but was seen as a matter of course. When aims are clouded, it is totally impossible to see past them. Post- war reconstruction in Germany, I believe, have invaluable lessons to teach us, and it is from this example that I base my interpretation of what our aims should be in this current conflict.
All the justifications for war I listed above do not talk about the concrete situation of people on the ground in Iraq and Syria living under ISIL’s rule. Contrary to what many exponents of the moral arguments against the group will tell you, many are able to live decent lives under their rule. In a recent event hosted by the King’s Think Tank – The Future of The Islamic State – panelists from Chatham House and RUSI Qatar explained that in many cases life in occupied Iraqi territory can be better than in areas controlled by the government. Joining the group provides a higher income than generally available elsewhere, and also guarantees that, should you be killed, your family will be provided for. To the many Iraqi’s and Syrians impoverished by war, this has to seem a very attractive prospect. Thus it is not true to say that ISIL hold their territory purely by terror – they are providers as well.
With this in mind, it should be obvious to what end or aims should drive us: the provision of a credible alternative to ISIL by a comprehensive program of not only state, but also nation building.
I make the distinction between the two since our post-conflict experience in Iraq and Syria show that simply creating a vaguely competent administration is not enough; we must also make efforts to foster a sense of national identity. It is my belief that a great draw of ISIL for its members is that it provides, through its ridiculously extreme interpretation of Islam, a incredibly strong sense of identity. If we then consider that the majority of its fighters are young men, this conclusion becomes all the more inescapable – young men, as well as women, all over the world are generally confused and seeking some kind of belonging or direction. We are fortunate in our countries we are able to find other means of being part of something, like student politics, music, or sport, to name just a few examples. Those who end up joining ISIL have had no such opportunities, and so their only option to garner a sense of identity lies in subscribing to and ideology of violence.
This conclusion goes a long to explain the deficiencies in the justifications for fighting ISIL listed above. The national interest argument fails to take conditions for those living on the ground into account, focusing too much on those intervening. Conversely, the moral argument focuses too much on the ethical implication of ISIL’s violence, failing to take into account conditions on the ground in a very different way. The former is too practical with its realist logic and does not address the fundamentals in the region, and the latter has too little practicality about it, simply saying that these things should not happen. Strangely, both of these different approaches to the conflict had the same result – neglecting the material needs of those civilians caught up in the conflict on the ground. This being the fundamental issue that should be addressed in ultimately bringing this conflict to an end, neither of these justification are sufficient, and indeed we should avoid them as much as humanly possible. The threat to international peace and stability argument is essentially the same as the national interest argument, and so suffers from identical deficiencies.
From all this, what we should take away is that it is simply not enough to label ISIL as “evil”. That accomplishes nothing. In fact, it actively stymies our attempts to agree on how to fight the group and how to bring the conflict to an end. We cannot let our passions – though anger at ISIL’s atrocities is certainly justified – rule the day. In a matter as complex as this, our only hope for anything resembling a decent resolution is to approach it critically and keep our heads. For the sake of those suffering in the region, we cannot afford to be ruled by self-interest or emotional politics.