June 27, 2017
Rami G. Khouri
The intense speculation globally, especially in the United States, about the fate of Islamic State (ISIS) militants now being flushed out of their former strongholds in Mosul, Raqqa and other parts of Syria-Iraq should prompt us to remember how the world mostly misdiagnosed related events in the Middle East and South Asia in recent decades. Such misdiagnosis led to endless and fruitless warfare, because it has always been — and remains— based on the prevailing political elites’ insistence on living in make-believe worlds of hope, fantasy, and endless speculation, instead of doing the hard work of studying how human beings actually behave, and responding accordingly.
It is natural to wonder: Will ISIS regroup in the eastern Syrian desert? Will its members join Al-Qaeda? Will they go to Mali, Yemen, Sinai, or the Philippines? Will some go to Europe and carry out terror attacks? As we do so, we should also keep in mind that in such exercises we have regularly endured entertaining speculation and misdiagnosis of reality for the past 15 years, since the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq opened up those two countries to endless new forms of violence and national destruction.
I would venture that a prevalent theme in the political-media public spheres since 2001 assumed that Al-Qaeda, ISIS and related groups could be defeated by attacking them in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Libya, and Iraq, carrying out assorted surges and special operations in several lands, and then militarily attacking Al-Qaeda- and ISIS-related groups in Syria-Iraq since 2014. This approach was paralleled by working closely with autocratic elites and governments in the Arab-Asian region to maintain “security” locally, after the U.S. and other foreign armies returned home.
In fact, such prevailing speculation proved consistently wrong for nearly three decades, since Al-Qaeda’s birth in the late 1980s and its first attacks against American targets in the 1990s. The rebirth and current expansion of Al-Qaeda sees it comprising an estimated 40,000 militants in Asia and Africa, which best confirms the failure of those Arab-Asian-Western policies that relied on making war and supporting local autocracies.
For its part, Al-Qaeda spawned ISIS, regrouped, expanded, and has learned important lessons. It applies its jihadi-takfiri-Salafist militancy more effectively now by linking closely with disaffected local groups of citizens in shattered and often war-torn lands, especially Yemen and Syria. (For a short, powerful analysis of this happening now across North Africa, see the work of the Carnegie Endowment’s Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck.)
So will ISIS’ defeat in its major bases see us speculate, scare, and entertain ourselves into another decade of misdiagnosed political conditions that send us into catastrophic wars that lead to more disintegrating countries? In wondering about the fate of ISIS’ followers and their ideas, and how we should respond, the Arab-Asian-Western world should not simply update the three pillars of blind incompetence that defined its policies in recent decades. These three are, simultaneously ignoring the harsh realities and sentiments of hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens, the incompetence of many corrupt and brutal local regimes, and the impact of external powers’ military actions, including by Americans, Israelis, Russians, Iranians, Turks, and Arabs.
ISIS, Al-Qaeda before it, and hundreds of other smaller movements of disgruntled men and women all emerged from and exploited a context of expanding human distress, misery, dehumanization, and helplessness, all of which we can trace in statistics and news stories since the 1980s.
One other point beckons as we wonder where ISIS will go next, recalling that all the speculation about its remaining as a powerful state for many years has proved to be wrong. Al-Qaeda was born and then expanded globally as a response to two major instances of foreign powers militarily dominating, or based in, Islamic lands: the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the Americans in Saudi Arabia and neighboring lands after liberating Kuwait in 1992. Today both the Americans and Russian actively fight military across Syria-Iraq, alongside Turks, Iranians, Kurds, and others supported by half a dozen Arab countries.
At the same time, the Saudi-Emirati-led war with American and British support decimates Yemen; American-coddled Israelis colonize more of Palestine and other Arab lands, and seek alliances in the Gulf; Turkey and Iran make inroads into Arab strategic conditions; and, the civil, political, social, and economic rights and material well-being of a majority of Arab citizens continue to deteriorate in almost every realm of life, except perhaps for the construction of fried chicken franchises, cell phone shops, and shopping malls.
So let’s hope the speculation ends, and instead we acknowledge history’s confirmation that the human and political realities I mentioned above actually will determine what happens next to the mindsets among the 400 million Arabs today, who themselves gave birth to Al-Qaeda, ISIS and many other groups. The Arab citizenry continues to disaggregate into a small minority that lives very comfortably, and a large majority that totters precariously on the edge of poverty, joblessness, illness, death, destruction, displacement, refugeehood, starvation, chemical weapons attacks, or cholera — which have become real daily dangers in many of our countries. This is what we should focus on and try to correct, because this is the dynamic that will determine the future of our region.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global