In his recent ASPI paper Peter Leahy provides a bracing warning—that we may be fighting radical Islam for 100 years. Lieutenant General Leahy points out not only the global nature of this threat, but also how it has mutated into a menace that can’t be addressed by military means alone.
To counter this, the general insists politicians need to ‘advance a narrative that explains that radical Islamism and the terrorism it breeds at home and abroad will remain a significant threat for the long-term’. Little to disagree with there.
Brendan Nicholson developed the theme further in an article for The Australian. Searching for comment, Nicholson went to retired Major General Michael Krause, ‘the officer responsible for planning the coalition campaign in Afghanistan’.
‘Absolutely’, Krause was quoted as saying when Leahy’s thesis was put to him. ‘I have seen these people. I know how they think. I know how they fight. There is no compromise possible’.
That’s our job as journalists—to search out ideas and put them before the public. Evaluation is left to commentary, because we’re not equipped to assess the veracity or intellectual credibility of the arguments being put.
Nevertheless, because I was working in the Middle East at the time, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a divergence between the older generals’ views and those of the officers currently engaged in the war. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they’re focused on the here and now.
The story being pushed by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Kabul was, in fact, markedly different. According to senior military officers over there, ‘the government has about as good a chance of success as we can give it’.
‘I’m being very honest now’, a senior officer told me, ‘real progress is being made. The Afghan [military] leadership is not bad, even if it’s not consistently performing as well as we would hope. And after the last election there is real hope on the civilian side as well’.
And ISIL? ‘We need the right strategy’, another commander said. ‘All wars are won through a culmination of tactical actions. Militarily, Iraq is a challenging dynamic—but not a complex one’. I was left in no doubt that kinetic destruction of ISIL is possible. What replaces it is, of course, another matter.
It’s easy, journalistically, to juxtapose those positive comments with Leahy’s depressing thesis and say someone must be wrong. Or perhaps to wonder if they’re talking about different wars. But that’s neither true nor fair. The serving officers admit there’s an ‘ideological dimension’ to this fight that needs to be addressed. Equally, I’m sure the retired officers would admit significant progress is being made in the field. And finally, nobody doubts that without resolving the underlying issues, conflict will continue.
But what are the underlying issues? Are they religious, cultural, ethnic, or something else? What spurs violent extremism?
‘The threat is not only military, it’s also ideological’, says one of today’s commanders. ‘But this is [their] war; they need to solve it. Yes, the Shia-Sunni divide contributes to this fight, but it’s a complex mix. There are multiple lenses that apply. You’re dealing with cultural issues, religious and ethnic ones. Leadership succession and stability concerns; historical and economic problems. You need to view this through multiple lenses to make sense of what’s happening’.
And that’s the crucial issue. Everything’s interlinked. It’s easy to be superficial, searching for elemental causes of the current conflict. A cogent case can be made that the fault line’s religious, revolving around the divide within Islam and with Christianity. Then again, conflicts like those in Afghanistan and Iraq are equally susceptible to dissection as nothing more than ethnic quarrels, or even just individuals struggling for personal power.
Economic issues provoked the Arab Spring. But there’s also a plausible case to be made that it’s all Washington’s fault—after all, the US has decisively mishandled every crisis in the region since 1979.
Let’s play devil’s advocate. Start in Afghanistan. America funded and created the mujahideen as a method of punishing Russia for invading in 1979, but it didn’t attempt to inculcate democratic values among the Taliban. All it wanted was people who’d fight the Soviets. Then, by the time the Taliban took Kabul, America’s interest had turned elsewhere. Sorting out Afghanistan was just too hard. Until the blowback.
1979 was also the year the US-backed Shah of Iran fell to a popular revolution. It wasn’t long before modern weapons were on their way to Iraq as the US supported Saddam Hussein in his conflict with Tehran; then America failed to send him a clear signal not to invade Kuwait; encouraged revolt in the early ‘90’s yet didn’t support it; invaded on a pretext in ‘03 with no plan for what would come next; installed an incompetent administrator; and departed, leaving a bitterly divisive ruler in charge. Should we be surprised that things didn’t turn out well? No religion in any of that.
And that’s why, even though I’ll admit there’s a religious element to this conflict, I’m wary of the idea that this is some type of new, apocalyptic, hundred-year war. I can’t help thinking most people just want to live securely, with an opportunity for their children to have a better life. Those are social problems, not religious ones. Providing a few economic answers may not solve the entire crisis. But it might be a start.
Nic Stuart is a columnist with The Canberra Times. Image courtesy of Flicker user Adam Jones.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly transposed ‘Taliban’ and ‘mujahideen’.