Carwyn Jones also called for a ‘plan’ for dealing with ISIS as a context for deciding on what if any military action should be taken. Again, I entirely agree with that view. A major part of the problems which the world faces in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan is that military intervention took place without any sort of a plan for the longer term.
He didn’t tell us, though, what such a plan might look like. In fairness, I can’t really blame him. Although I’m equally certain that we need a plan, I don’t know what it might look like either. But those of us who want a plan but won’t have much idea of what such a plan might be are far from being alone in the world. The bigger problem is not that no-one really has a plan or knows where to start; it is that some people pretend they have a plan without being able to articulate it, whilst yet others, faced with the frustration of not knowing what to do simply fall back on military action as the ‘solution’.
For what it’s worth, I don’t actually doubt the sincerity of those arguing for a bombing campaign to attack ISIS in Syria as well as in Libya. What I do doubt is the efficacy of that as an approach. It seems to conflate military ‘victory’ with winning a war against an ideology. There is no question in my mind that bombing ISIS can and will degrade their military capability on the ground; there is evidence already that the bombing campaign has helped the non-ISIS groups engaged in the war on the ground to regain territory. But the battle isn’t really about territory at all.
A former director of the CIA was quoted in the Sunday Times as saying that “Their claim is that they are acting out the will of God … and nothing cuts against that narrative more than defeating them.” I’m not sure that that actually displays very much understanding of the mindset behind ISIS, and without understanding their perspective rather better than that, progress is likely to be limited. From their perspective, it isn’t a “claim”; they have an absolutely certain knowledge that they are implementing God’s will. And from that perspective, military losses and setbacks are more likely to be interpreted as God testing their resolve than as a sign that they might be in any way misinterpreting God's will.
Yesterday, Cameron referred to ISIS as a ‘death cult’; others have talked about an ‘ideology of hate’ and used various other similar phrases. It might be good for sound bites, but none of this shows any understanding of just how different a worldview we are dealing with. Name-calling may help to justify sending in the bombers, but it doesn’t do much as a way of countering the ideology.
Over the last week, far too many politicians trying to appear responsible have said that they will “listen to” what Cameron has to say before deciding whether they will support a bombing campaign or not. To an extent, that serves to legitimise the principle; the decision on whether to bomb or not becomes merely a matter of considering the detail. No matter how careful or precise any campaign of bombing is, there will inevitably be civilian casualties. And although the ideology which is the target will end up controlling less territory, it will probably emerge with a strengthened resolve and a more diffuse and even harder-to-tackle structure. Not for the first time, we will end up failing to learn the lesson that the use of military might against an idea never really resolves anything in the long term.