In recent months, the war on Al Qaeda and related groups such as the Islamic State (IS) has developed from a political slogan of a handful of leaders to an international effort led by the United States. It is now clear that the war against Islamic jihadism will last many years — if not decades. To hold otherwise is illusory and conducive to strategic blunder.
As sobering, if not dismaying as this is, it offers ideas about how best to conduct the war on Al Qaeda and Islamist jihadists. Paradoxically, looking back upon a war that broke out across Europe a century ago offers insights for defeating Islamic jihadism across the Middle East today.
The long war
Demographic, economic, political and cultural realities make it clear the war will be long.
Over the last quarter century, regional birth rates have soared, owing to relative prosperity and youthful mortality has declined owing to better nutrition and healthcare. This has brought about an immense youth cohort. In most countries, from Morocco to Pakistan, 50 percent or more of the population are below the age of 25. A large number are at prime ages for military activity and will remain so for decades to come.
This cohort faces bleak job prospects for decades. Slumping oil prices have only exacerbated the problem. This is not primarily due to absence of education or confinement to rural life. Many jihadis, from the Afghan war of the eighties to the present, have above-average educations and hale from metropolitan cities. This offers better awareness of world events and proximity to recruitment networks. Looking ahead, it is almost certain that an equally large and frustrated cohort will follow close behind.
This cohort’s energy and resentment cannot be discharged through political participation, leaving tremendous political frustration. In many parts of the region, traditional oligarchies still hold sway and are as loth to share power as ever. Indeed, they are probably more so, as sudden democracy could lead to state paralysis and secessionist movements. Unfortunately, the opportunity to build participatory political systems in countries with large youth populations may have already slipped away.
This cohort runs head on into routine contact with jihadi recruitment networks. Salafi schools, usually funded by Saudi Arabia and staffed by Wahhabi clerics, are found in many parts of the Sunni world. While the curriculum is not an unrelenting call to war, it does preach an austere, militant form of Islam that is hostile to the West and Israel — and at least supportive of armed conflicts in the name of their faith. Pakistan, too, has many such Wahhabi schools. (The West had no quarrel with these schools when the graduates fought Russia’s decade occupations of Afghanistan).
Economics, politics and religion aside (at least partially), there is another force attracting young people to jihad, and that’s the mythic appeal of war. As foreign and incomprehensible as it initially seems, this attraction can be found in most Western countries as well. In centuries past, it prevailed there.
Tens of thousands of veterans of wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria returned home and related tales of great deeds to rapturous young people. As with war stories the world over, factual basis is hardly established, and interest in determining it is almost nil.
The jihadis’ stories resonate with mythic lore and distant histories that speak of the conquests by early warrior bands in the Arabian peninsula, the Middle East, North Africa, and even in Spain and France. The glories of the past inspire young people and strike a powerful contrast with the aftermath of empires lost – corrupt rulers, foreign domination and hopelessness.
Regular armies of the region have offered little inspiration for young people in many centuries. Indeed, they have been sources of embarrassment. Israel’s small forces defeated Arab opponents in every war since 1948. Iran and Iraq fought for eight years without decisive victory. The US overwhelmed the Iraqi army in a matter of days – twice — and its air, ground and sea forces predominate in the Middle East.
Inspiration comes not from national armies, but from determined guerrilla bands of international fighters. Allowing for the exaggeration in most war myths, veterans of these bands boast of defeating the Russians in Afghanistan, the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan and, recently, the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. National armies have been put to flight in Mali, Niger and Nigeria. Other enclaves have been carved out in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, eastern Afghanistan and tribal districts of Pakistan.
Today, the Islamic State and the like present themselves as symbols of new power, past glories, triumph over corrupt rulers and foreign meddlers, heroic adventure, the promise of personal honor and manly satisfaction. Their grisly displays demonstrate their contempt for petty norms, manly audacity, religious supremacy and limitless power. Islamist bands promise something that youths have not seen from their rulers, but have yearned to know since boyhood – victory!
Foreign, aberrant and archaic as war myths may strike Westerners, they had important parallels in Europe and North America. The British had the decades-long legacy of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar and Wellesley’s at Waterloo. The Germans saw national unification come through force of arms directed by Bismarck and Moltke. France had notable successes but also defeats, especially the 1871 defeat at Prussian hands that launched the desire for revenge on the field of battle.
War service was the true test of manhood, a sure way to win the hand of a lady, or less romantically, to come into contact with exotic women. Literature, high and low, abounded with such themes, and European culture in the early nineteenth century propelled its young toward war at least as toward business, right up to the enthusiastic departures for the front in 1914.
Though vestigial aspects remain throughout Western societies, romantic views of war were gravely weakened shortly after the outbreak of the Great War. The long stalemate and appalling casualties undermined the appeal of war. Prewar literature, sentiments and institutions became subjects of harsh criticism and biting satire. Poems, books and the newly born cinema depicted war as senseless and destructive, and those who called their nations to arms as callous and foolhardy.
Rudyard Kipling, who romanticized the thin red line and heroic skirmishes on the Empire’s frontiers, felt quite differently after his son was killed in 1915. He wrote, “If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied.”
Stalemate in the Middle East
The Islamic State, Al Qaeda and related jihadi groups have established control over dozens of pockets across the region. The largest is of course IS’s territory straddling Syria and Iraq. However, significant areas exist in Nigeria, Mali, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
As much as leaders and publics may want to see bold drives into pocket after pocket, this isn’t likely or advisable. A quick defeat will have no impact on the appeal of war, and another crop of recruits will find or establish another pocket somewhere else. Indeed, the appeal will be strengthened by a spirit of revanchism born of another American humiliation.
A more promising strategy is to confront each pocket, encircle it if possible, and engage it in a relentless war of attrition. Do not seek a Waterloo or Sedan – a decisive engagement that humbles one side. Instead, seek a series of Sommes and Verduns – long, costly engagements that wore down the Kaiser’s army. Protracted carnage weakened the appeal of war on the entire continent, until another bloodletting all but eliminated it.
A war of attrition favors the anti-Islamist forces, especially against IS in Iraq. Undoubtedly, IS has the best troops; however, the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmergas, Iranian-trained militias and Sunni tribal bands outnumber the jihadis by a factor of 20 or more. IS troops cannot move and concentrate without being spotted and bombed. A template for this type of battle has already been established in Syria where Kurdish militias, with the help of airstrikes, inflicted serious casualties on IS and forced it to withdraw for the first time. There will be similar engagements around Mosul, Sinjar, Hasakah and the Ayn Al Assad Air Base.
The Great War offers worrisome comparisons, too. We could see an escalation of the instruments of violence, including routine use of chemical weapons. Though anti-Islamist forces enjoy a quantitative edge, this is no guarantee of invulnerability to dispiriting causalities and jarring mutinies.
The Great War brought about the collapse of old monarchies in Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary. It scarcely needs mention that the Middle East today is rife with old monarchies, and that their armies are unlikely to hold up in the face of high casualties if called upon to actually fight someday. And, of course, IS and Al Qaeda will be eager to encourage movements aimed at overthrowing these old monarchies.
The casualties of these engagements will not approach those of the Great War, and even with lower orders of battle, no one should expect Islamist militancy to collapse in four years. The battles in Syria and Iraq will have to be repeated inthe Islamist pockets throughout the region — not for a few years, but more likely for well over a decade. The appeal of war will in time diminish. And youths will wonder if it is, or ever was, sweet and fitting to die for a caliphate.
Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst and author of, The Military Revolution and Political Change, The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of, The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.