JUST two years ago, it was said the jihadis could conquer Baghdad. Today they are on the run. When it began its assault on Mosul, the Iraqi army said it hoped to liberate the city within two months. Even if that turns out to be somewhat optimistic, few doubt the city will fall. And the battle for Mosul comes shortly after the militant Islamic State group’s defeat in the Syrian city of Dabiq where, needless to say, the prediction of a final, apocalyptic showdown between the forces of good and evil failed to materialise.
Not so long ago, IS attracted international recruits. Today the flow of people out of IS areas is much greater than the flow in.
However, assessments of its strength depend on the timescale you are using. The violent jihadist ideologues have the advantage of thinking not in terms of five-year electoral cycles but as far as a century ahead. They may be on the back foot right now but, taking a longer-term perspective, the establishment of the ‘caliphate’ has shown that restoration of Muslim power is possible.
Jihadist ideologues may think a century ahead.
Before 9/11, the idea of establishing a caliphate would have been almost universally written off as the stuff of fantasy. Today, there are many places where Westerners dare not tread. All over the world people are transfixed by the jihadis’ capacity to reach their cities. It’s not just New York, Paris and London. The Chechens attack Moscow, the Uighurs bomb Beijing and the Pakistani Punjabis mount their raids on Delhi and Mumbai.
So, even if IS is facing setbacks, it is perhaps unsurprising that the ‘caliph’ and his supporters believe that time is on their side. Who is to say, for example, that in the decades ahead the Saudi royal family might not fall? How different would things look then?
The West is struggling to adjust to a sense of relative powerlessness. At the moment it is just firefighting. Even then its campaigns are disjointed. Russia and the US are trying to achieve broadly similar objectives
in Aleppo and Mosul — restoring the sovereignty of controllable, authoritarian, central governments. But with their historic Cold War rivalries coming to the surface, they are failing to confront their common enemy in a coordinated or united manner.
Their problems go deeper. The US failure in Iraq has rendered the big powers reluctant to use their armies. Instead, they back local proxies and deploy less visible special forces and air power to confront Al Qaeda and IS on the front lines of the jihadists’ choosing. Western generals admit this process could go on for decades. In other words, there’s no end in sight.
Some Western strategists propose possible solutions. The former US special envoy to the global coalition against IS, Gen John Allen, has recently been reflecting on how the Arab Spring’s failure laid bare the illegitimacy of various Middle Eastern governments.
He suggested that, to avoid interminable conflict, the West needs to mount a massive aid programme to help these governments address economic, political, social and religious undercurrents, thereby reducing the jihadists’ appeal.
There are, however, reasons to doubt such an approach will work. First, economic pressures and the growth of nationalism (and a rejection of internationalism) in Washington, Moscow and Beijing make it ever less likely that funds will be available for such grandiose schemes. Second, it is not clear that such expenditure would work. By some estimates the US has already spent more on Afghanistan than the Marshall Plan made available to Europe after the Second World War. But the US has little to show for it.
The West tends to see the Middle East’s most important division as being between civil society activists and authoritarian leaders. But, for many, democracy is not the key issue. Jobs are. And numerous people living in the Middle East are engaged in a fissure the West barely sees: sectarianism. Whilst Al Qaeda’s leaders were always alert to the dangers of sectarianism, IS has a different attitude. Deeply rooted in Iraq’s embittered Sunni communities, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has fostered Sunni resentments of Shia power. It means that, as his foreign supporters slink back to their home countries, IS could be reduced from its current, global status to a regional outfit not unlike the Shia militias now arraigned against it.
IS’s sectarianism is a weakness that presents its enemies with an opportunity. Given their lack of viable policy options, the great power politicians in the West, Russia, China and India may be tempted to rely on a highly cynical strategy: reduce the violent jihadist threats to New York, London, Moscow, Beijing and Delhi by allowing or even encouraging the Middle East to become a battleground on which sectarian ideologues fight each other to a standstill. As those who recall the Iran Iraq war may say, it wouldn’t be the first time.
The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.
Published in Dawn October 27th, 2016