Tuesday, 26 January 2016

IS struggles with the problem of revolution

For all the talk of the Islamic State (IS) being essentially “al Qaeda 3.0”, a strange thing is happening to the militant group that fails to fit it into the same box alongside Osama bin Laden’s splintered terror group.

US President Barack Obama attracts plenty of criticism for his administration’s military prosecution of the IS crowd. The strategy is called weak, ineffective and over-regulated. Although few people in are calling for US armour brigades manoeuvring in the Iraqi desert, many think the stand-off and uncommitted bombing campaign is insufficient.

Michel Foucault
So too is relying on local Kurdish Peshmerga, Syrian rebels, Iraqi regulars or Shiite militias. If the grand plan is to “degrade and destroy” IS, as Mr Obama has stated, he’s going to need a better strategy. Despite setbacks in late 2015, IS ended the year strong due to Mr Obama’s reticence.

Yet two things should immediately be clear about this criticism. Mr Obama is only the president of the United States. The Republicans might think this role is equivalent to a corporation’s CEO, but it is nothing of the sort. The office of the White House, especially when in control of the Democrats, is best understood as a ceremonial position, not quite as toothless as the modern British monarchy, but similarly weak.

Mr Obama’s anti-IS options are presented to him by civil servants, all of whom are unelected employees of the permanent government. Thousands of such people are involved in running US strategy. The President sometimes signs off ideas, but mostly the system runs autonomously. This process only slows down during a Republican presidency, but that’s probably worth another article.

So a preliminary conclusion about the Islamic State war is that some people in the State Department or Pentagon have assessed the situation and developed a conducive plan. The (entirely possible) alternative is that no one on the Beltway knows what they’re doing. And while that would make some observers smug, this writer isn’t prepared to give up hope just yet.

What, then, are the civil servants and generals seeing? What factors cause them to formulate such a stand-off, uncommitted strategy? Clearly, Mr Obama’s administration has decided to “wait and see” how the situation on the ground develops. This reality deserves some closer attention.

From a geopolitical perspective – and through the lens of the US-led international community’s overarching grand strategy – the IS group from 2014 to mid-2015 represented a usurper threat to the world system. Its goal was to catalyse a new Islamic Caliphate to overrule the nation-state concept in the Middle East. The response of the international community was, of course, the marshalling of military power.

Yet had IS been a true continuation of the al Qaeda project, it would have embraced its decentralised leadership and amorphous terror cells. Instead it made the mistake of standing still, falling into the trap of time and space. It gave itself a quantifiable and time-bound religious goal while choosing a physical city (Raqqa) to call its capital and base of operations.

This would have been the first indication to US planners that they were dealing with a foe very different to al Qaeda. IS was making a mistake. And to paraphrase the French Emperor Napoleon: when your enemy is making a mistake, it is best not to interrupt them.

In explicit terms, the group’s fundamental error is simple: while it thought it was liberating the cities of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, it was actually adopting a much larger burden of municipal administration. Raqqa is home to 200,000 people while Mosul boasts 600,000. The militant’s plan suddenly demanded taking care of these people, so it was forced to play inside a well-known box.

This box was not of the group’s choosing, it is a framework created by Western institutions. IS discovered the constraints of hundreds of thousands of civilians, each with personal lives and occupations. And it therefore turned, unsurprisingly, back to the status quo institutions which existed in the cities prior to occupation: judicial systems, infrastructure, internet, police, commerce, oil pumping, banking, etc.

IS-controlled Raqqa, Syria
That process began quietly in early 2015 when IS increased its call for doctors, engineers and accountants, not just soldiers. They must be Muslim, but it was their skills which were crucial – IS needed administrators. Regardless of the specifics, any revolutionary group wishing to control populations will approach this nearly insurmountable philosophical obstacle. IS has fallen into exactly the same trap.

To understand the obstacle, we need to turn to Michel Foucault once again. The French political philosopher spotted the pivotal transition point many years ago. In a conversation with Maoists, M. Foucault was asked how the victorious revolutionaries should prosecute fairly their bourgeois prisoners. They had torn down the corrupt judicial system and wished to replace it with a more just alternative.

But M. Foucault exposed their faulty thinking. If the Maoist’s ideal was to form a new social structure and avoid falling back under control of the previous system, then whom would they choose to occupy the position of judge in this new court? Obviously none of them would have the skills, so it must naturally be certain members of the bourgeois which did have the skills.

In other words, where they believed they were constructing a new societal framework, the Maoists had never left behind the old framework. And worse, they were about to make the old box stronger by marrying it with the revolution. M. Foucault never offered a truly different alternative for the Maoists, a problem he admitted was precisely the fundamental intellectual obstacle for any revolution.

In 2016, something similar is perhaps happening in the Middle East. In hoping to upturn the status quo, IS quickly reached its intellectual limits. Its core territory is structured around semi-developed cities. Its revenue stream is deeply plugged into the world financial and trading system. And its communications use the internet. None of these are Islamic State ideas, they are all controlled by the institutions invented by the international community.

This is why the US strategy against IS appears so uncommitted. If war is a continuation of politics, then other avenues of politics can achieve the desired results. A good result for the US-led international community is the integration of all people-groups into a common world system. Dropping bombs could work, or an encouragement to naturally bend in the required direction by offering the “neutral” institutions used by the overarching system.

Of course, the real question is whether Washington understands the problem at this level, or whether it truly is on autopilot. But it hardly matters. Either way, the Islamic State is increasingly playing by our rules and it is only a matter of time before it is destroyed or, more appropriately, integrated into the international community. Watch this space.

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