An unfinished business


AS another year comes to a close and the next one begins, official bean counters will again be aggregating the policy gains alongside the losses.

However, the actual dividends of the Western-led campaign against terrorism in general, and the fight against Da’ish (as the Islamic State militant group is now known) in particular, are elusive if not illusory.

In the ultimate analysis, the fight against terrorism is not going well. It is certainly not doing as well as it should or is claimed to be.

But this will not be acknowledged publicly, let alone declared in any press release. Beyond the customary denials, policymakers can infamously overlook their own frailties and failures.

Despite official claims, few actions by Western policymakers have yielded the kind of results against international terrorism that continue to be proclaimed.

Tactically, there are hits and misses on the ground as territory is lost or gained intermittently in Iraq and Syria. Strategically and politically, however, little or nothing has been won definitively or irreversibly against Da’ish.

The fading of al-Qaeda from international headlines has more to do with its own internal atrophy and degeneration and its eclipse by Da’ish than any bombing raids by the United States or its allies. But this is not going to be acknowledged officially either.

Part of the limitations of the US-led approach arises from its own policy culture that straddles both major political parties, even if the approach is more favoured among Republicans than Democrats.

It goes back more than two decades to conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” idea, which lumps good and bad adherents of one faith on one side and does the same for lawful and unlawful nationals of a nation state on the other.

But reality is not so cut and dried; it is seldom just an either-or situation. In the same period, fellow American political scientist Francis Fukuyama offered the “end of history” hypothesis, presumptuously arguing that Western liberal democracy was the ultimate objective of all of human civilisation.

At the time, others around the world begged to differ, among them idealists of various political stripes. These included the legitimate and the illegitimate, the peaceful and the violent.

But these ideologies pressed on in Washington’s leading political circles. Neo-conservatives hastened to apply these thoughts from the comfort and safe distance of George W. Bush’s Oval Office.

They tried to convince themselves and others that the best or only solution was to bomb their enemies into submission and defeat. Thus, aerial sorties drove the Taliban from Kabul and weakened and toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

At times, Huntington’s fatalism and Fukuyama’s Hegelian determinism seemed to hint at the divine nature of their ideologies. Few at the time seemed to notice that their adversaries countered this with their own, equally simplistic brand of inspiration and justification from the allegedly divine.

And so, Osama bin Laden’s al-­Qaeda accentuated the supposed Islamist elements and sentiments of their battle. In time, al-Qaeda was displaced by Da’ish that took the Islamist mantle even further.

That only seemed to prove Huntington’s thesis to right-wing policymakers in the West. Bush’s neo-cons had given a name to their all-out, end-of-times struggle: the Global War On Terror (GWOT).

In this reciprocal build-up of violent angst between the two sides, there would be no middle ground. As Bush himself put it, everyone was “either with us or against us”.

With this headlong rush into apparent disaster, something had to give. The watershed moment came when Bush’s right-wing Republican administration was succeeded by Barack Obama’s, which was then said to be on the left-wing of the Democratic Party.

There would be some differences, but there were also some similarities. Obama dropped the GWOT label and took care not to repeat it.

Involvement in foreign wars would be more selective. But as Obama tried to withdraw from Iraq, he heightened US intervention in Afghanistan.

Later, there would also be intervention in Libya and Syria. And with more reflection before committing “boots on the ground” came a greater and more familiar reliance on bombing targets from the air.

There must be very few policy advisers who still believe that Da’ish can be defeated by bombing runs alone or even principally. Yet this continues, with few and limited options like Special Forces missions and advice and training for local military forces.

Underlying the policy deficiencies is an incomplete or inadequate understanding of how Da’ish works.

UN Security Council Resolution 2249, for example, takes the patchy pretensions to statehood by Da’ish as the elements of a de facto state. Yet its borderless concept, demand for allegiance from the global community of Muslims, and other attributes make “Islamic State” a contradiction in terms.

Although there is consensus on how fighting a terrorist group is an asymmetrical effort, there is still no recognition that the disjuncture goes further.

Recruitment to the ranks is also asymmetrical because nobody outside the administrative reach of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is actually recruited in the way soldiers are recruited by states.

No sympathetic fighter or terrorist sharing the cause really signs up. They only need to commit outrageously terrible things to match the atrocities of Da’ish to become part of its international franchise.

In practice, it is a “progression” from al-Qaeda’s mode of having outside groups declare loyalty to it. The link between the two modes came with Abu Bakr’s predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Da’ish also practises asymmetrical public relations and promotion, or brand marketing. This seems to escape the comprehension of Western leaders most.

Almost everything Western policymakers get up to in their much-touted battle against Da’ish becomes material for Abu Bakr to promote Da’ish to adherents and the curious.

When they should not be broadcasting their intentions or telegraphing their moves ahead of time, they do so. This is immediately seized by Da’ish as further proof of sinister international plots against warriors for the cause, justifying greater efforts against their foes.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been promising more action than he is delivering. Meanwhile, Russia and the West, then Turkey and Russia, get into tussles when they are supposed to be uniting against Da’ish.

These flaws are quickly picked up by Da’ish and turned into motivational videos for the faithful and new recruits. All that was needed was for another Western leader to merge Da’ish with the global community of Muslims, strengthening its cause and multiplying its global constituency.

That has now come with Donald Trump as the Republican presidential frontrunner. Trump’s subliminal message would turn the fight against international terrorism against itself and undermine US society from within, where Islam is the fastest growing religion.

If Da’ish could have its choice of US president to make Washington its prime target, it could not have done more than the Republican right-wing has with Trump.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia.

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