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Saturday, June 25th 2016
Thomas McCabe, writing in the Summer 2016 issue of Middle East Quarterly, has thought through the darkest scenario for a long, tough and bloody war against ISIS that is not confined to the Middle East. If there is a "mainstreaming of jihadism . . . considerable portions of the society, especially young males—the "cubs of the Caliphate" — will be indoctrinated to think in jihadist terms . . . that dying in battle . . . against those defined as enemies of Islam is an honorable if not a preferred death.” This means the West “must be prepared to deal with a militarized regime and, to some degree, a population of religious fanatics who will be prepared to die fighting rather than surrender.”
McCable’s essay, “Send Ground Forces to Destroy ISIS?”, took a look back at the brutality of fighting in the Pacific theatre of World War II, when Japanese troops refused to surrender. The long and sobering article deserves full reading, if only to understand the stakes involved in making policy choices about ISIS and Syria.
Because it probes worst-case scenarios, McCabe’s essay is grim but necessary reading for Public Diplomacy specialists. “Information operations will be critical,” he wrote. Here are some more excerpts:
- What was optimistically termed the "Arab spring" has since evolved into what looks like a long and ghastly "jihadist winter," in which ISIS has seized the leading role for a number of reasons:
- Should the West engage ISIS in ground combat at such a time, it must be prepared to deal with a militarized regime and, to some degree, a population of religious fanatics who will be prepared to die fighting rather than surrender.
- ISIS routinely deploys massed suicide bombers. While ISIS appears to prefer that its "martyrs" be volunteers, its combatants can be ordered to undertake "martyrdom" operations as the organization's recruiting campaigns make clear that recruits should come prepared to die.
- This means that should Washington or other Western powers find it necessary to fight a ground war in order to destroy ISIS—at a time when the organization has been given ample time to consolidate and inculcate its jihadist ethos—troops must expect to face a fight to the death against suicidal defenders.
- . . . anyone who considers fighting a consolidated ISIS on the ground, especially in major urban centers, must expect a grim struggle against a dug-in enemy. Troops deployed into such a scenario must work under the assumption that not only enemy combatants but also civilians may intend to kill them or die trying.
- The Islamic State can also be expected to organize masses of people to attack what might be viewed as Westerners' spiritual or moral center of gravity. It will probably use jihadists' extreme violence and willingness to die, as well as a readiness to sacrifice the innocent, to target their opponents' morale and attempt to overwhelm their will to fight.
- Information operations will be critical. If the West fights a ground war with ISIS, it must expect to operate in a virulently hostile media environment where many Muslims and their Western acolytes will be eager to believe that the West is wantonly murdering innocent civilians. At the strategic communication level, the public and troops need advance warning of the nature of the enemy, the war they are facing, and the tactics ISIS routinely uses. It will need to be clear that fighting this kind of war is not the West's preference, but if ISIS decides to fight such a war—with routine use of military and civilian suicide tactics—the West will have no choice but to respond . . . with extensive destruction and likely massive numbers of civilian casualties an inevitable result.
- This kind of warfare will differ dramatically from anything the United States has faced recently. How does one fight not only armies but potentially parts of society that mean it when they say they will fight to the last and are even eager to do so?
- How is it possible to differentiate between combatants and noncombatants when the enemy intends to blur or obliterate the line between the two?
- And perhaps most problematic, how does one wage war against a foe willing to deliberately expend masses of civilians as a combat tactic and whose civilians may actually be willing to die in support of the regime?
- The Western nations will need to update their understanding of totalitarianism and fascism and move it beyond twentieth-century secular ideologies because what is at issue here is deeply intertwined with religion. The West must become reacquainted with the depths of human malevolence and the power of malignant idealism and organized hate.
- Western societies must take seriously an ideology whose adherents embrace mass murder, genocide, and slavery because they believe those practices have been ordained by God. The West also needs to understand individuals and whole societies where religious fanaticism is central to their psychology.
- Above all, the West needs to understand that the jihadists and their ideology are not at the lunatic fringe of Islam but are instead the fanatic core of Islam with deep and enduring roots in the faith's history and thinking, especially in the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. The bottom line is that this enemy is not going to just go away even if Washington or the West eventually destroys the Islamic State.
- A war with ISIS has ample potential to be a long and incredibly nasty war.
- Even if ISIS in its current form is defeated on the battlefield, the aftermath of the conflict will require a comprehensive occupation, a major rebuilding campaign after the fighting, a comprehensive "de-jihadization" of the society, and extensive war crimes trials.
- So, prudence alone demands that Western powers considering action ought to at least start thinking about how to deal with the worst case if it occurs.