To Defeat ISIS?

Species Of War

There are wars of different types, and they are fought for many reasons. Sometimes a war is a local conquest, one tribe or country invading another to plunder and enslave. Historically, most wars appear to be that way recorded as “heroic conquests” or “heroic resistance” by the victor. Wars are expensive. Once started they need to be financed, which can only be done either by plunder or by “the treasury” or a mixture of the two. It’s a fundamental economics problem that sometimes tempers military aggression.

When there is a persistent bone of contention but insufficient finance, wars drag on — as did the Hundred Years War in The Middle Ages between France and England. It was an on-again-off-again territorial dispute between monarchies. Wars that establish empires are usually self-funding if they are prosecuted ruthlessly, and the conquered peoples are thoroughly subjugated. The Romans turned this into an organized economic model — almost into an art form. They made slaves of the people they conquered and eventually made them Romans.

Idealism and Asymmetric Warfare

Nowadays, effective tactics employed by the army that is militarily inferior are referred to as asymmetric warfare. Wars of liberation against occupying armies are usually asymmetric (i.e. guerrilla tactics). They are low cost as long as there’s a ready supply of volunteer combatants. Such wars of liberation are also often driven by an idealism based on nationalism or “freedom.” The idealism is itself a weapon of war that garners support among the general populace against the occupying army.

Idealism can also be regarded as a virus. It infects countries and populations and can become a motive for war. It is frequently argued that “religion causes war” but the reality seems to be more that religious idealism is sometimes used as a weapon of war. This was the case in many European wars between Protestant and Catholic countries — and in various European civil wars that followed the Reformation. It is certainly being used as a weapon by ISIS.

The use of idealism as a psychological weapon has an obvious pay off for recruitment, but in recent decades it has facilitated weaponry itself, in the form of the suicide bomb. This is a new weapon that has changed the nature of warfare and served the tactics of terrorism well.

ISIS and Asymmetry

Some politicians/world leaders have promised to destroy ISIS. This is not going to be easy. The conundrum that ISIS poses is this: you cannot defeat it by destroying its armies or even its leader — although those would be very significant steps. ISIS is highly asymmetric. To completely defeat ISIS it will be necessary to defeat its idealism — and that, unfortunately, has been spread right across the Islamic world.

It may seem amazing, given its utterly brutal and murderous behavior, that ISIS has any “idealistic credibility” at all. In fact, it has almost none outside the Sunni branch of Islam and very little even among the one billion plus Sunni Muslims. Many Sunni Muslims may “yearn for the caliphate” but not what ISIS is offering. However, it was ISIS that opened Pandora’s box.

The hope of establishing a caliphate escaped into the world, and only time and repeated disillusionment will diminish it. It took more than a century for the ideal of communism to die, despite the brutality it engendered and its obvious inability to achieve its much vaunted Utopia anywhere.

I fear it will be the same with the caliphate. The ideal may live a long time.

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