WASHINGTON (CN) – Paris. Brussels. Orlando. Istanbul. Baghdad. Bangladesh. Terror attacks carried out and possibly inspired by the Islamic State group are rising, with no clear end in sight.
Despite the news of success in reducing the area controlled by the agents of terror, the threat to the West has only grown, according to testimony in Congress last week.
“It’s fair to say that the array of terrorist actors around globe is broader, deeper and wider than it has been at any time since 9/11,” National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen told Congress last week.
Aside from GOP criticism of President Obama’s strategy to defeat the Islamic State, Capitol Hill has been otherwise quiet on the use of force to defeat the group. Some lawmakers have called for increased military engagement, but with little public debate about whether U.S. policy is working.
To learn more about why U.S. military strategy has failed to make headway in the battle against groups such as Islamic State, Courthouse News reporter Britain Eakin sat down with Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East analyst with the Washington-based think tank Institute for Policy Studies. [The interview has been condensed.]
You said there is ‘contextual complication’ when thinking about how to fight the Islamic State because it functions as two different kinds of organizations. Can you explain that?
PB: “On the one hand, they’re a traditional if I can use that word terrorist organization that attacks civilian targets, so-called soft targets, all over the place — in the regions where they’re strong and around world,” Bennis said. “They inspire, they collaborate. They also get blamed for things they may well not have anything to do with, like this attack in Nice.”
[Authorities are still looking for answers after dozens died last week on the French Riviera when a Tunisian man drove a truck into a crowd of people watching Bastille Day fireworks.]
“At the same time they’re functioning as a more conventional army, where the goal is to seize and hold territory and control populations. That started to take place in early 2014 when you saw these sweeps across both Iraq and Syria, and they ended up with like a third of the territory of both. It was kind of shocking.”
Even though the army function is more conventional, though, you see problems with traditional military action in Islamic State-held territories?
PB: “To the degree there is success at ‘liberating’ these areas, when you look at Fallujah, when you look at Ramadi Ramadi was an amazingly bad example it leaves behind absolute devastation.”
[In Ramadi, Iraq, fighting destroyed an estimated 80 percent of the city, displacing much of its population of 350,000. The destruction in Fallujah, another Iraqi city, was not at severe, but in both cases, already-weakened populations fled into the desert to escape the fighting. There was no one there to help them.]
“There is no preparation from the governments and militaries that are carrying out this great – you know, isn’t it great we liberated Fallujah – without paying any attention to the people of Fallujah and what was going to happen to them. So there’s this huge contradiction in terms of the humanitarian side, which is in theory what this whole notion of liberation is supposed to be all about.”
With the Iraqi city of Mosul next on the liberation front, what’s next?
PB: “In this poll, 76 percent of the population said, ‘We don’t want to be liberated by the Shi’a-Iraqi militias. We think they’re more dangerous than ISIS.’ So this goes directly to the question of why is ISIS so powerful in the first place? It’s because they don’t fight alone. There’s all these people who think that ISIS is a lesser evil to their own sectarian, dogmatic government, which has been so violent.”
Does liberating Islamic state-held territory at least make the group less viable?
PB: “You don’t kill ISIS when you destroy the city they rule you drive them out. You may kill dozens or scores or hundreds even. But you don’t kill the organization. They go away. They run away, and they pop up somewhere else. So you’re playing whack-a-mole. What we’ve seen in the last year is that, every time there’s a major defeat from ISIS on the ground, you end up very soon after that seeing an escalation in old-style terrorist attacks. So the attack in Paris was right after the so-called liberation of Ramadi. The Istanbul Airport was right after Fallujah. It’s a response to the loss of territory. It’s saying to their followers and to the world, we’re still here. You can’t kill us that way. Because you can’t kill terrorism. You can kill terrorists – mostly you don’t. Mostly you kill about 90 percent are other people not terrorists but you know if you do it long enough and drop enough bombs, you’re going to kill a bunch of terrorists. That doesn’t end terrorism.”
Is there another way?
PB: “Part of the problem is that the alternatives are slow. The nonmilitary solutions take a very long time. They’re not dramatic. They don’t answer the immediate crisis. They don’t look powerful on TV. They don’t make you look strong and tough. And there’s no guarantee that they will work in the short- or even medium-term. In the long-term, they’re probably all that will work. But in the short- and medium-term, they may or may not. And so, on the one hand, you have members of Congress who are like, ‘oh my God, you can’t just we have a crisis today. You’re talking three years down the line.’ And what they have to be reminded of is that their so-called immediate, short-term fixes have not fixed anything either. It hasn’t cut back on terrorism. Terrorism has escalated.”
You’ve said there is a parallel to the U.S. fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan — that the Taliban controls more territory nowthan at any time since 9/11.
PB: “If it’s not working after 15 years including periods of complete occupation with 150,000 U.S. and NATO troops why do they think that keeping 5,000 troops or 10,000 troops is going to do any good? Why do they think it’s going to get any better? It’s time to do something different. And the notion that, well, it’s going to take too long. Yeah, well you’ve been doing the other one for 15 years, and it hasn’t worked yet.”
What are some of the alternatives to military intervention?
PB: “No. 1 is take the lesson from every medical student’s first day. “First do no harm.” The Hippocratic oath. Whatever else you do, don’t kill more people. If you’re going to warn ISIS to stop killing people, stop killing other people in the name of [defeating] ISIS.
No. 2, if you’re serious about no boots on the ground, get the boots off the ground. Get the sneakers off the ground, the special forces and the CIA. Clearly they’re not doing any good. Get them out. They’re inciting; they’re making things worse. You’re building up hopes for some few, and outrage from the vast majority of others who you’re inspiring to more terror. Just get them out.
No. 3. Stop flooding the place with arms. Work toward a real arms embargo on all sides. The U.S. likes to say, well the Russians and the Iranians should stop arming the Assad regime. Well yeah, it’s a terrible regime. They should. But why do we think they’re going to listen to the U.S. when the U.S. is sending arms to everyone and their brother who says they’re against Assad or against ISIS. So stop. Stop sending them more weapons.”
Nos. 4, 5 and 6 all are various kinds of diplomacy. There needs to be the kind of attention, high-level attention and massive amounts of money. Everything that goes into the military now needs to go into the diplomacy. Kerry just spent 12 hours with the Russian foreign minister. Great. Except they were talking about how to do more bombing in Syria. They weren’t talking about how to negotiate over Syria. They have to stop the bombing. Negotiated bombing kills the same number of people or more. It’s not going to do anybody any good. They need to have that level of collaboration on diplomatic stuff.
You’ve said, if the government wanted, there is a way to leverage a country like Saudi Arabia — make them stop arming various factions — because of its status as the biggest purchaser of U.S. arms?
PB: “The U.S. isn’t willing to do that because members of Congress are tied in bed with people from the arms industry who pay huge amounts of money. Hillary Clinton has gotten more money from the arms industry than any other candidate in this election, which is pretty tragic.”
How about past administrations?
PB: The Islamic State is presented as being created when Obama pulled out the troops in 2011. That’s the dominant narrative. Now, there’s a lot of things about ISIS we don’t know, but one thing we do know is how it started, and when it started, and where it started. And it didn’t start somewhere when Obama pulled out the troops. It started when George Bush had 150,000 troops in Iraq in 2004, in a U.S. prison, Camp Bucca. We know who it was, and what they were doing, and you know it was at the time of the Abu Ghraib scandals. So the question of torture was on everybody’s mind.
You say the notion of the Caliphate was not unique to the Islamic State, so what caused the group to split off?
PB: One of the main basic ways that [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al–Baghdadi] and his people split from al-Qaida was to claim this theological split, which then of course became – they took up this notion of identifying other Muslims as insufficiently Muslim and therefore should be killed. And that was a big part of the basis for the split, when the al-Qaida leadership said this is way too violent for us because you’re going after Muslims.
Can you elaborate on the destruction in Ramadi?
PB: ISIS is incredibly destructive, incredibly violent and they destroyed a big chunk of the city. What made it impossible to rebuild was U.S. bombing. Some of them are dropped by the Saudis or someone else. This has been one of the hallmarks of the Obama version of the global war on terror, is that it’s largely invisible because it doesn’t involve large-scale ground troops. Maybe 15,000 total in all the different places. The drone war is a huge piece of Obama’s strategy and that goes on without anyone paying attention because there’s no U.S. casualties.
[The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that coalition airstrikes on Tuesday killed 56 civilians, including 11 children in Syria’s Tokhar area of Manbij.]
How has the drone war affected local populations?
PB: “It’s terrified entire generations of people. I am absolutely positive, I am absolutely confident in saying that the vast majority of people say under the age of 15, plus the vast majority of the adults in these countries, all have some version of PTSD as a result of the constant stress, the constant terror of never knowing when there’s going to be another one. When you hear a plane – is it a bomber, is it a drone? Is it a surveillance drone that’s just circling around? Is it going to drop a bomb? To live with that is something that we can’t even contemplate what that must be like.
In an election year, what do you see on the horizon?
PB: “It looks very bad. At the moment there’s no viable candidate who has any idea of changing the trajectory of U.S policy towards these wars. There are tactical differences more drones and more CIA and less troops on the ground. That’s tinkering around the edges. No one is acknowledging that the military all of the military versions whether it was 150,000 ground troops occupying the country, whether it was establishing a whole new government after wiping out the original one, whether it’s the claim of humanitarian something-or-other, as the centerpiece of it. Whether it’s the drone war, whether it’s special forces, whether it’s counterterrorism or counterinsurgency. None of them have worked. None of them are going to work. And even when we say work, what does that mean? Freedom and democracy for people there? Or freedom from terrorist attack here? Those two things, neither one has been achieved and neither one is very likely. I’m afraid the election is going to bring more of the same from either of the two candidates. It’s very scary.”
What can Americans expect with continued military engagement, or escalation?
PB: “The first thing we can expect is a lot more dead Iraqis and dead Syrians and dead Yemenis and dead Somalis. And a lot more dead people. Probably not a lot more dead Americans. This method keeps Americans mostly out of harm’s way. Keeping Americans out of harm’s way is a very good thing, but not at the price of killing a lot of other civilians, children, old people. That’s not OK. And that’s what we’re looking at. It means that Americans will continue to be seen in all those regions of the world as responsible for these terrible conditions under which people live. We’re already held responsible for the chaos in Iraq, certainly the chaos in Libya. Soon to be the chaos, even more chaos in Syria. And that means some of the people who are so angry at what the U.S. has done will turn violent as well. And that will exacerbate terrorism, it’s not going to end it.”
What’s the national-security risk of the current or escalated U.S. trajectory?
PB: “All of this has made us much more vulnerable because we’re hated. And we’re feared, certainly but we’re feared by people more than governments. And you don’t want people fearing you because then they also get angry when you’re bombing them – what a surprise. And then they turn against you. And some turn to violence. So on the small-scale level, terrorism is real. I’ve never been one to say, ‘Oh, terrorism – you’re more likely to be killed in a car accident.’ Well, of course you are. But that doesn’t make it not a serious threat. But it’s a serious threat to individuals. Not to our society, not to ‘our way of life,’ not to our country. That was also true of 9/11 – 9/11 did not threaten our democracy, 9/12 threatened our democracy when George Bush said that the answer to 9/11 would be to take the world to war. That represented a huge threat to our democracy. And we’ve seen it play out with terrorism more common than ever. And Americans targeted more than ever.”
Do you believe there’s ever an excuse for military force, though?
PB: I’m certainly not taking some moral high ground position and saying nobody should use force ever. I’m not a pacifist. But I think what the U.S. has done making this into a U.S. war, has uniformly made things worse than better across the world.”
Phyllis Bennis is an author and analyst, directing the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is titled, “Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror: A Primer.”
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