Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Control of territory doesn't defeat an idea

Last week, the First Minister treated us to his views on the question of bombing Syria.  The first point he made – that there is no possibility of negotiation with ISIS - was entirely sound.  At the heart of their worldview is the certainty that they know what God’s will is, and that God wants them to impose his will on others.  It’s hard to see how there can be any scope for negotiating with divine will.
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.


Anonymous said...

Leanne Wood's announcement that she would "listen very carefully" to David Cameron's proposal to bomb a war-torn country surely marks the nadir of Plaid Cymru's long history. She has sunk a long way from her former incarnation as an anti-establishment figure. Her attendance at an anti-fascist rally on the same day as her declaration that she may support mass-murder is enormously hypocritical. Shame on you Leanne Wood.

Anonymous said...

I don't think any member of the Welsh Assembly or Welsh government is paid to pronounce on matters such as UK defence.

It would be a whole lot more helpful if they'd just get on with the job the electorate has asked them to do, namely the running of health, education and local government. Everything else fits elsewhere and their interference is unwelcome and unnecessary.

Otherwise we might as well ask each and every local community councillor in Wales their views on the matter of bombing, too.

Anonymous said...

Steady on anon, Leanne has said she'll 'listen to the case' for british military action against daesh - she's not standing by the runway waving the hawker harriers off.Furthermore what serious political leader wouldnt at least listen to the case for action against ISIS? As there's certainly a good case for coordinated international action against these medieval homicides - an organisation that has carried out acts of 'mass murder' against the kurds, the yazidis, shia and sunni muslims oh and in paris recently.

While her appearance at the protest in Anglesey was consistent with her opposition to british fascism, just as supporting action against the theocratic fascists of ISIS would be. Indeed the welsh left has a proud tradition of confronting fascism at home and abroad.

Pete said...

I don't understand the logic of a situation where millions are fleeing Syria because of the bombs, so the solution is, to bomb Syria.
That being said, I too would want to listen because, like the rest of us, I do not have all the necessary data. All we seem to know, or all that is being fed to us, is:
Daesh is evil.
Daesh is in Syria.
Therefore we must bomb Syria.
What about the rest of the information. For instance:
Where are they getting their funds from? How do we put a stranglehold on their finances? Where are they buying their weaponry? What are the supply routes for those weapons? How can we choke off the supply of weapons?
I don't believe any of this is being discussed and yet it seems to me that isolating their ability to fight would be a far more productive way of defeating them.