‘Only fools will rush into Iraq’ | Hugh White

In the face of the latest rush “to do something” (in this case about the Islamic State), Hugh White provides some sensible counsel.

They should also be reminded there is simply no way to have any real influence over the way that new order evolves with the kind of low-cost low-risk commitments the interventions would involve. As we saw in Libya, campaigns of air strikes can affect what happens on the battlefield, but they confer no control over the political consequences of victory or defeat. Only troops on the ground can do that, and only in immense numbers. So only those willing to commit huge ground forces have any hope of being able to shape the outcome. Anyone else would be better staying away.

Finally, they should be reminded that the terrorist threat posed by Islamic State to western countries such as Australia is best met not by military interventions of the kind that have already been tried and have failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but by the less spectacular but more effective work of intelligence agencies and police forces.

via Intelligence is the key: only fools will rush into Iraq.


41 thoughts on “‘Only fools will rush into Iraq’ | Hugh White

  1. It is such a mess.

    IS reminds me of the sort of problem that groups like the Huns and other similar nomad groups ,such as the Arabs in 800 ad, posed for established states/societies.

  2. Good to see you, John.

    It sure is and you’re probably right about the analogy. Mind you, IS looks far more radical and exclusionary.

    Since they’re in no small part the spawn of “our” previous adventures in the Middle East, it’s not easy to have much confidence in whatever we decide to do next. One thing seems certain; unless the locals manage to put aside their quarrels for long enough to drive any campaign to contain IS, it will fail.

    • ” put aside their quarrels for long enough ” that would provably require them to see IS as some sort of ‘foreign’ interference, which does seem at least possible. IS does look like Islam processed through a European nihilist gangster lens.

      Re air strikes it might help, if they take the form of laser guided,by local men on the ground, yes/no?

      • Many probably do see IS as foreign inspired, and not entirely without reason given the incessant meddling in Syria over the last few years.

        Still, I’m not sure that’s crucial to putting aside their quarrels. If they get scared enough, that might do it on self-preservation grounds alone. Even their “sponsors” (like Saudi Arabia) must be wondering if this Frankenstein will in due course sweep them aside as well.

        Alisdair Crooke wrote a useful backgrounder on ISIS this week:

        “On the one hand, ISIS is deeply Wahhabist. On the other hand, it is ultra radical in a different way. It could be seen essentially as a corrective movement to contemporary Wahhabism.

        ISIS is a “post-Medina” movement: it looks to the actions of the first two Caliphs, rather than the Prophet Muhammad himself, as a source of emulation, and it forcefully denies the Saudis’ claim of authority to rule.”

        As for air strikes, no doubt local spotters (whether truly local or, say, Special Forces) are tremendously useful, perhaps even essential. However, I don’t think air power alone can ever do the job. At best, it’ll be a long and messy business.

  3. Feel that ‘what’ ISIS is, is a hard question. I sort of wonder if they might end up resembling the cult? of assassins?

    As for airstrikes what they can do is make rapid movement and large coordinated offensives very hard, especially in country that is flat and not forested.

    • It certainly is hard to say where they’ll end up. So far, they’ve been tightly disciplined. Whether they sustain that clarity and cohesiveness when more pressure starts to bear down is one of the big questions, I guess.

      No argument. Air strikes can greatly hamper their freedom of movement and action. However, they’ll probably just adapt their tactics: disperse their formations; embed themselves wherever possible amongst local populations; hunker down when needed, and so on.

      In any case, they’re almost certainly deliberately trying to entice western intervention. Not too much, just enough to boost recruitment and sharpen the various sectarian divides.

      • Would guess that they may have roughly reached the limits of their own direct military expansion, therefore they would be looking to recruit people, outside their borders, for operations ?

        Did you see the recent 4 corners on the ‘white widow’, it was striking for the shear lack of any obvious reason as to why a, white, nice middle class, catholic girl from a fairly unremarkable UK town , became a ‘terrorist’ .

  4. Our two comments must have about crossed in midair.

    I don’t know if they have reached limits of that sort, at least not unless efforts to halt them become much more serious and so far, there’s no sign they’re interested in Al Qaeda type franchise operations. Their stated aim of creating and expanding a Caliphate probably has to be taken at face value.

    As I understand things (from those far better informed than me) they’re currently in a consolidation phase, securing the areas they’ve taken and minimising vulnerabilities before any further expansion.

    No, I didn’t see that programme. I guess westerners who travel the jihadi road are looking to fill a hole of some kind. Sometimes just for adventure, perhaps, other times desperately seeking something radical to commit to. I don’t know. Bit worrying, that’s for sure.

  5. Yes, lack of air cover is their greatest weakness and heavy weaponry in particular will probably often be a sitting duck.

    As an answer to this dilemma, some expect IS to adopt a policy of having hostages with them wherever they go. They don’t give a damn about their fate but the west would struggle with this moral dilemma. It would certainly dampen their freedom of action.

    While a functioning state presents more targets most of these will be interwoven with civilians. Damaging IS infrastructure from the air without causing unacceptable civilian casualties won’t be easy, I’d have thought.

    As for spares and so on, the bases they overran were apparently loaded with spares and stores. Maintenance might be trickier although with a lot of ex-Iraqi army people on board maybe it’ll be done reasonably well.

    • Any idea as to how many people have fled the IS controlled area?
      New Statesman recently ran a long piece – on about August 14, can not remember its title (read it in National library while waiting for anne to finish some research ) ,the article made me think that framing the question as-either ‘stand back and watch’, or, ‘march in boots and all’ is not helpful.

  6. Mm
    the two articles- Alisdair Crooke and John Medaille , make me want to dig out some of VS Naipaul’s older essays(that I read decades ago)- I think he sensed something about a undercurrent of self loathing and being , impure, if you were not a true/original Arab Muslim back in the 80s.

    • I can not find my copy of “Among the Believers : a Islamic Journey”

      Following is from a talk Naipaul gave in 1992 : Our Universal Civilization (it is the concluding piece in the compendium “the Writer and the World”) http://www.city-journal.org/article02.php?aid=1597

      ” …I was soon to discover that no colonization had been so thorough as the colonization that had come with the Arab faith. Colonized or defeated peoples can begin to distrust themselves. In the Muslim countries I am talking about, this distrust had all the force of religion. It was an article of the Arab faith that everything before the faith was wrong, misguided, heretical; there was no room in the heart or mind of these believers for their pre-Mohammedan past. So ideas of history here were quite different from ideas of history elsewhere; there was no wish here to go back as far as possible into the past, and to learn as much as possible about the past….”

      “Now, traveling among non-Arab Muslims, I found myself among a colonized people who had been stripped by their faith of all that expanding intellectual life, all the varied life of the mind and senses, the expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world, that I had been growing into on the other side of the world. I was among people whose identity was more or less contained in the faith. I was among people who wished to be pure.”

      Interesting thing is that it seems that this self distrust also applies to some of the Arab Muslims.

  7. Ingolf
    the current issue of New Scientist has a interesting article on Imagination, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329870.400-daydream-believers-is-imagination-our-greatest-skill.html?full=true
    The articles concluding parras on the downside of imagination struck me as quite relevant to the discussion of ‘fundamentalism’ (of any flavor) :

    “So, according to Bloch, the thing that was stirring in our brains 10,000 years ago and that triggered the sudden world domination of our species was a significant upgrade in human imagination to a level that can conceive of the existence of abstract concepts like laws, nationality or religion. Since then, he says, humans have been using their remarkable imaginations to dream up and then create social structures and institutions, including religion, money, laws, nation states, science and much more. That is an amazing feat that may explain why we alone among the creatures on Earth have developed technological civilisations.

    But Bloch suspects there is a subtle downside. The imaginary fabric of human society makes it inherently fragile, he says. “This is only a hunch for now, but I think there are moments when suddenly the arbitrariness of the system appears.” Legalising gay marriage may be one such momentous issue for some people, he suggests.

    “I’m fascinated by the people who have been demonstrating against gay marriage in France,” says Bloch. Talking to them, he found that “what really worried them was this notion that if gay marriage is possible then everything will collapse. What I think is going on is suddenly an awareness of the imaginary nature of the institutions that we live in.””

    • That’s really interesting, John. Although for me the abyss doesn’t loom (in that particular case!), I understand why some people would feel that way.

      More generally, I’ve always thought our imaginative capacity by itself knocks out the determinist (i.e. non-free will) case.

      I can’t read that article (don’t subscribe to New Scientist) but found one entitled “Religion a Figment of Human Imagination” which will give me a bit more background.

      Anyway, thanks.

  8. Of determinist Vs non-determinist, am reminded of what , I am told , Martin Luther said about the Trinity : to ignore the trinity would endanger your spiritual health, but to try and understand it would endanger your mental health.

    PS I think you would enjoy New Scientist for its Feedback page alone, every week it brings reports of self reflexive paradoxes spotted living in the wild and other strange loops , general fruitloopery and reports of things like the railway indicator board that displayed : “the information on this board may be incorrect”

    • Perhaps I’m particularly dense this morning but you’re going to have to help me to see the link between Luther’s (great) saying and the determinist etc.

      Thanks for the New Scientist suggestion. I’ll have a look.

      • Not reducible to a binary true false conclusion , free will vs determinism .
        It is provably too early for strange loops

  9. Ingolf
    In mainstream Christianity the concept : ‘American folk religion heresy ‘ refers to a wide range of modern religious phenomena. At one end the concept covers, the odd soup of varying bits of astrology , homeopathic cures, borrowings from various shamanistic traditions , half digested Buddhist/eastern teachings , faith healing-medicine TV shows so on, that is often what passes for spiritual in these times. And at the other end it also covers the thousands of self taught preachers on the web and cable TV- that each have their fundamental (and often literally ‘heretical’) take on the one true eternal meaning of the Book. Basic to the challenge for mainstream churches ,and the recruiting appeal of these various folk religion teachings is exactly that they are very/radically different to the mainstream ‘outdated/boring faith’ that ‘your parents practice’.

    I have come to feel that IS (and related groups), possibly represents a similar sort of problem/threat for mainstream Islamic groups and their leaders , what do you think?

    PS re the fighting in Kohbani , that sort of house to house fighting is usually pretty costly for the attacker- Would guess that for ISIS to back off would be next to unthinkable,no matter the cost- Is there much info as to how much this symbolically important target has cost IS so far?

  10. Hi John.

    I’m sure you’re right although instead of “outdated / boring” we get something like “corrupt / heretical / oppressive”. In other words, the disaffection is at a whole different level. Visceral, intolerant and highly aggressive.

    As for Kobane, you’re probably also right that they’re too committed to walk away. Their strategic goal there still puzzles me. The only “plausible” one I’ve seen is that part of the goal is to so badly disrupt Kurdish/Turkish relations that they’ll end up busy with their own problems for a long time to come, leaving IS with more freedom to move. Maybe, I don’t know.

    On casualties, FWIW the Syrian Observatory (and Wikipedia, probably using the former’s figures) put the current acknowledged total at about 550 (on both sides, split roughly 2:3 in the defenders’ favour) with unofficial estimates about double that.

    • Thanks,
      would I be right in thinking that the airstrikes must be making resupply (for IS in Korhbani) of both men and materials harder?- they surely must be going through a lot of heavier ammo.

  11. They must be, but perhaps not very much for two reasons.

    To begin with, I’m sure they disguise shipments as much as possible so they look civilian. And, wherever they can, travel together with civilian cover.

    Also, I don’t think coalition efforts to date are all that serious: they still want to remove Assad so their priorities are somewhat divided; Turkey wants to manage IS, not eradicate it, and so tends to be pulling the other way; and, they probably lack high quality spotters to direct the airstrikes.

  12. Would there really be that much in the way of plausible Civilian traffic heading for that city??

    Gather that the Turks see anybody that wants to get rid of Assad as ‘useful’, I think the cure in this case looks far worse.

    As to the significance of Kobani, It does not seem to be of any great strategic significance , apart from being a railway town.

  13. Don’t know but I imagine there must be some. Life has to go on (in a fashion).

    Erdogan (according to some) thinks he can manage (and perhaps eventually co-opt) the movement that IS currently spearheads. Plus the Turkish enmity with the Kurds runs deep and long, I believe.

    At its core, coalition policy is schizophrenic and half-hearted. Plus, after the last decade or two, most leaders are wary of political backlash at home.

    • “Coalition policy is schizophrenic and half-hearted”- so true, but what would you do? I really do not know.
      Re Kobhani, it is sounding like a ‘Verdun’- could grind on for some time . It seems odd that ISIS is diverting so much resources away from other (would have thought more important) areas, and concentrating them on the fringes of a border town in a way that makes them easier to strike at.

      A few years ago I saw a compelling tragic doco on the UK/US lead overthrow of the progressive nationalistic government of Iran in about 1957, in some ways it seems to be as good a date as any to start the history of this mess.

      • It probably is as good a place as any, if only because of its long-term significance.

        Like you, I still don’t see the strategic significance of Khobane. Some believe it’s a fient, covering up for some major planned op. Regardless, it’s probably become a matter of “honour”, one IS doesn’t feel they can afford to walk away from.

        What would I do? FWIW, were the choice mine I wouldn’t have committed to the fight so quickly. Maybe not at all. The Islamic State is more symptom than cause, I think, and trying to destroy it militarily is probably not only destined to fail, but also quite possibly counter-productive. IMO, the peoples of the Middle East must find their own balance, whatever that is, and however messy it gets in the meantime. If we (the west) had left them alone long ago (like pre-1953 for example!) my guess is things would have been far better from their point of view and we wouldn’t have been in the firing line.

        Easy to say from the sidelines, of course. One of the hardest things (in almost anything) is to recognise when it’s time to cut one’s losses, and then actually do it. The temptation is always to have just one more go, to try to recover (or justify) the sunk costs.

        Since we’ve been complicit in creating this unholy mess, humanitarian generosity would be (to my mind) the least we can do. And constructive aid, if and when it became possible to offer it.

    • Current reports are that Khobane is turning into a ‘Stalingrad’ for IS. Taking a city against a defender that has air-power- can blow up any building you do take, with you in it- and a defender that has nowhere to retreat to, is not easy. At same time the idea of a strategic retreat could be hard for IS to swallow.
      Any idea how much of the IS fighting force is tied up with the siege?

      • No, I don’t but probably a decent chunk. Saw a report that IS losses in Kobane are now 600+.

        Interesting quote in a recent Economist article speculating about why a greater effort is being put in by anti-IS forces:

        “And partly it was a realisation that Kobane could be turned into a meatgrinder for jihadists.”

        For the moment at least, it seems to be working.

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