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October 3, 2014

Bombing blind

Because disengaging from the Middle East would just feel wrong.

If you haven’t heard, we’re bombing yet another country in the Middle East. As someone who has long been skeptical of the attitude of politicians with respect to facts, I am especially concerned with the recent political rhetoric concerning Daesh (aka IS/ISIL/ISIS). Senator Lindsey Graham, who sits on the United States Committee on Armed Services, recently argued that Daesh must be dealt with “before we all get killed back here at home,” and President Obama claimed in his address to the nation that despite what it may choose to call itself, “ISIL is … not a state” because it is not internationally recognized and “has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way,” and is not “Islamic” because most of its victims are Muslim and “no religion condones the killing of innocents.” Certainly, Daesh is a horrible organization, but facts are facts, even if the politicians refuse to acknowledge them, so let’s set some things straight.

First, Daesh is a state. It’s not a rag-tag group of rebel fighters, it’s the most successful organization of militants in modern history, which has successfully captured and held land from militarily capable entities including the Kurds, the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, and the Iran-trained and supported Syrian army. Further, Daesh has actually built up its mini-state. It collects taxes, sells electricity, exports oil, and so forth. It’s a government funded by the people, not a terrorist organization funded by a third party.

Second, Daesh is certainly Islamic. While the president finds it convenient to say that Daesh is just interested in killing people—simplistically demonizing the enemy is always a valid strategy when convincing others to follow you into battle—that kind of blindness is what got us executing counter-productive counterterrorism operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place. Motives matter, and what matters to Daesh is establishing a long-term caliphate, a hardline Sunni Islamic state, a goal the group has held consistently for the past eight years. The liberal insistence to avoid painting Islam with a broad brush colored by the Muslims who make the headlines is admirable, but Islam can be just as bloodthirsty as it can be peaceful. To label those who follow our preferred versions of Islam ‘Muslim’ and the rest ‘not Islamic’ ignores the basic truth that Daesh is first and foremost a religious entity, fueled by what they consider Islamic fervor and governed by Shariah law.

Third, Daesh isn’t much of a domestic threat—not really. While the politicians are fear mongering in an attempt to appeal to distressed, less-than-fully-educated voters who are terrified by the beheading videos, the actual experts have a more nuanced perspective. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey—the principal military adviser to the President—has stated that there is no sign that ISIL is engaged in “active plotting against the homeland.” Daesh seizes and maintains territory because they want to build a state, not because they want to harm the U.S. As explained by the former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, the entire playbook of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups is to be mobile and engage in guerrilla warfare, one that Daesh does not follow because of a fundamental difference in objectives, not tactics. If anything, convincing Daesh that its existence is threatened by the U.S.-led coalition will result in revenge-retaliation.

Fourth, it’s not our problem. The main valid concern about Daesh is that with each successive land grab it becomes more capable of potentially acting against our interests,  but the reality is that it has already seized all of the land it can realistically control in the long-term future. The civil war in Syria and the partisan Maliki government in Iraq created a unique opportunity, but the easy victories stop there. To the west of Daesh’s current holdings are Egypt and Syrian President Assad’s military strongholds, to the North is Turkey, to the East is Iran, and to the South is Saudi Arabia. According to a Department of Defense report, Daesh’s army remains relatively low-tech.  They have very few tanks or armored vehicles, and effectively no artillery. Surrounded by countries with secure borders and better-equipped militaries, it is impossible for Daesh to expand further, and similarly difficult to destroy them within their own territory because they are so mobile and easy to supply. Like Iran’s nuclear program, these militant extremists represent a threat that is easier to contain than to defeat.

I could write another thousand words about where we are and how we got here, but the historical punch line is that the U.S. has a mind-bogglingly terrible track record of picking winners and losers in the Middle East. Daesh isn’t a threat, and given the geopolitical realities of the region it will never become one. Considering that fighting Daesh head on puts us on the same side as Assad and Iran, it’s better to let them fight it out. Sacrificing countless American dollars and lives to another multi-year campaign in the Middle East is an expensive price for giving politicians the appearance of faithfully responding to the irrational fears of the less-than-fully educated voter. Maybe with enough facts we’ll decide it’s too high a cost.

David is a second-year in the College majoring in computer science.

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