Lessons from the past

Last week I spied an interesting fact in the New Statesman’s piece on Richard Nixon.

“By March 1970 the US was dropping 130,000 tonnes of bombs every month on North Vietnam, eastern Cambodia and Laos with the aim of disrupting the safe havens used by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Vietcong, and holding back the Khmer Rouge.”

And we all know how well that worked out.

The lessons of the past hang like a spectre over the present.

Almost 2 weeks ago, the US and its Arab partners commenced airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria, and more recently the RAF joined the campaign in the skies over Iraq, so it’s as good a time as any to remind ourselves that air power is not a foreign policy panacea.

Where boots on the ground seem too unwieldy, too risky and counterproductive – as they were in Iraq and Afghanistan – the lure of airstrikes is obvious. And when the target is a group of fanatics who seem intent on inflicting barbarous violence on a diverse array of victims, the public relations blow back is less extreme. Islamic State is not hiding behind children playing on beaches or taking refuge in schools, as Hamas was doing in Gaza.

But wars, even limited ones and maybe especially limited ones, are not won through violence alone. While the US and its allies clearly have superior technology and fire power, it is far from clear whether simply bombing Islamic State would in fact stop them. It didn’t stop the Viet Cong or the Khmer Rouge.

On Sunday, retired general Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, former chief of the defence staff, was quoted in the Sunday Times saying “Ultimately you need a land army to achieve the objectives we’ve set ourselves – all air will do is destroy elements of Isis, it won’t achieve our strategic goal.”

Other commentators have questioned why the west would expect success in Syria when the air campaign has made little progress in Iraq.

Meanwhile heavy fighting goes on in Afghanistan, where the Taliban, where the Taliban are reportedly taking back parts of Helmand Province, including a town that 106 British servicemen and women died fighting for between 2006 and 2010.

And in Pakistan, which has been living through what amounts to a sectarian civil war for several years now, Sunni radicals (often referred to as Deobandi) continue their campaign of murder, mostly unnoticed by the mainstream western press. Shockingly, an explosion on Sunday at a displaced persons camp in North West Pakistan seemed to go totally unreported by Western outlets, despite the death toll climbing to 8 people, including several children.

For the lay observer, it’s extremely hard to find a path through the morass. There is the usual chorus of criticism of the United States (see also British imperialism, Israel), some of it valid, some of it purely knee-jerk.

So let’s go back to the basics. “Politics is war without bloodshed, war is politics with bloodshed,” said Mao Tse-Tung. By Mao’s logic, and the man knew what he was talking about in this arena, air assaults and even boots on the ground will not defeat the Islamic State in Syria/Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Deobandi in Pakistan. Opening up new battle spaces really just opens up more opportunities for the theological gunmen.

What we are witnessing – and what innocent Muslims are being slaughtered for across several continents – is a battle for the future of Islam, outlined in 1992 by British anthropologist and writer on nationalism Ernest Gellner:

“The really central, and perhaps most important, feature of Islam is that it was internally divided into a High Islam of the scholars and the Low Islam of the people…Identification with [high] Islam has played a role very similar to that played by nationalism elsewhere.”

What we are witnessing across Muslim lands is more akin to our Reformation than an East/West clash of civilisations.

Meanwhile, the Europe that was cleaved in the violent spasms that split the Christian faith and power structures 500 years ago has been transformed into a living, breathing experiment in pure actualisation of the self.

That transformation, slowly occurring over several centuries but greatly speeded up since World War Two, has given us rights to self-determination unimaginable to most other times and places in human history – but it has also lead to an ideological and moral incoherence that the more radical and energised sections of radical Sunnism have been exploiting to the hilt.

This messy, bloody convergence of these two realities – one grown of a culture grown complacent and cynical through years of prosperity, and the other gathering strength on the global periphery for half a century and cannily exploiting their outsider status – will not be solved through any military response alone.

  • Gopher

    If you don’t understand the Vietnam War and the use of airpower therein politically and militarily of course it will hang over your blog like a spectre over the present. Secondly its probably me but I cant find a locatable point to the piece. Can airpower destroy ISIS completely? no it can’t! Can airpower remove ISIS from Iraq? Yes it can, provided the various forces in Iraq are actually prepared to fight them and not each other. Should western ground forces be considered? Yes but only to inflict lightening defeats on ISIS concentrations to facilitate local forces to reoccupy territory. Will the wider Muslim brotherhood of nations fight ISIS? I dont know. Are the Muslims divided? Yes but we still got to do something. So in the absence of doing nothing airpower saved the Kurds, Baghdad,relieved towns from certain massacre and liberated strategic infrastructure like Dams. So when we say airpower its not the 150,000 sorties of Rolling Thunder or the 18,000 Sorties of Linebacker it is more akin to the RAF campaign in Somaliland in 1920, though it must be noted an Airco DH9.A even in today’s money only costed a fraction of an F22

  • Michael Henry

    The Vietnamese kicked America that hard back to the States that the only revenge America could take was to make thousands of Vietnam war movies which pretended that America won every battle –

    ” Islamic state is not hiding behind children playing on beaches like Hamas was doing in GAZA ” – how do you hide behind children playing on a beach- this is one of the worst excuses for murder that I have ever read-those were four children blew to bits on a open beach and a writer is making up excuses for the killers-

    ” including a town that 106 British servicemen and women died fighting for between 2006 and 2010 “- those British soldiers were sold out like all the soldiers who died fighting in Afganistan- that’s one country the RAF will not bomb in a hurry again- the Taliban must be ok today –

  • Reader

    While the US and its allies clearly have superior technology and fire power, it is far from clear whether simply bombing Islamic State would in fact stop them.
    Slow them down a bit, certainly. But Jenny, it surely doesn’t require *western* boots on the ground to finish the job – you are far too dismissive of the contribution that Iraq and the Kurds can still make in Iraq at least. And ISIL also have enemies in Syria.

  • Abucs

    If the West limits itself to airstrikes then ISIS will congregate in the cities and towns to make detection more difficult. They also know that the inevitable civilian casualties from such bombing will then encourage an anti-war western media to protest against the bombing.
    In general terms I support Obama’s policy of being as non committed as possible in the ethnic wars of other countries. It just so happens though that the timing for the implementation of that policy couldn’t be worse.
    I disagree with the analogy between current events and the Christian Reformation. The Reformation started as a Catholic protest in northern Germany to Church practices and ended in Royal rebellion of certain states against the authority of the Catholic Church. In short it was the state take-over of Christianity in certain areas.
    What is happening now in the middle east is a civil war between long standing communities backed by the powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The ISIS groups hopes for the Islamic takeover of different states. The exact reversal of the Reformation.
    A problem with Islam is that it is a secular religion. That is, it carries within itself a model of secular law which should be religiously followed, much like the Old Testament Jewish Law of Moses. An additional problem is that the founder and his disciples used violence to implement this secular law and advised followers of Islam to do the same.
    Incorrect modern notions of ‘equality’ can sometimes cause people to look for parallels with Christianity that are not there.

  • Abucs

    I disagree with the analogy between current events and the Christian Reformation. The Reformation started as a Catholic protest in northern Germany to Church practices and ended in Royal rebellion of certain states against the authority of the Catholic Church. In short it was the state take-over of Christianity in certain areas.
    What is happening now in the middle east is a civil war between long standing communities backed by the powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The ISIS groups hopes for the Islamic takeover of different states. The exact reversal of the Reformation.
    A problem with Islam is that it is a secular religion. That is, it carries within itself a model of secular law which should be religiously followed, much like the Old Testament Jewish Law of Moses. An additional problem is that the founder and his disciples used violence to implement this secular law and advised followers of Islam to do the same.
    Incorrect modern notions of ‘equality’ can sometimes cause people to look for parallels with Christianity that are not there.

  • Abucs

    Is it coherent to criticise Israel for killing civilians in bombing strikes but not criticise the ‘new coalition for what will amount to the same thing’? Will the question even by raised?

  • Gopher

    I have my doubts about the current policy, I believe low intensity bombing followed by gradual local advance gives ISIS to much time to evolve their tactics. That coupled with the fragility and diverse nature of the coalition against them means time might not be ones ally. Presently ISIS are fighting fairly much a conventional war on the battlefield with fronts, flanks, supply routes and depots so now would be the time to inflict decisive shocks before they realise the futility of such a strategy and return to brigandage.

    My second concern is the failure of the western forces to come to grips with them on the ground at anytime helps propagates the narrative they are keen to spin that western forces are scared to fight them. This validates their terror tactics of mass shootings, crucifixion and beheading and leads to more extreme measures. The political will has to be found to unleash the lavish air mobile forces to bury that myth, no ground need be held except to let local forces fill the vacum left. Strike hard and and leave before you can say IED. The taking of prisoners and other demonstrable images of victory cannot be underestimated as a tool to undermine ISIS’s credibility. You don’t want to be bogged down in a Fallujah or Gaza you fight when and where you choose.

    Right now Airpower has bought time, war without an achievable political aim is just slaughter, The quicker you get rid of ISIS the clearer that aim will be.

  • Gopher

    A few days pass and the situation is no clearer, the Allies appear to be reticent about using airpower near the Turkish border as Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) battles for survival. Hard to ascertain the actual facts but it seems beyond doubt that ISIS are making a concerted effort to control the border crossings with Turkey to help with logistics and eliminate any threat to the Northern flank of Ar Raqqah. The murder of Allan Henning means the RAF will soon be operating over Syria, though probably not before the decision in an around Kobane is known. It would be tragic since it is a lessons from history thread to have something akin to the failed Warsaw uprising though this time a militarily preventable one on the west’s hands through political indecision. I dont think history will judge the western democracies too kindly if Kobane falls and the certain barbarism follows. With ISIS in the open, fighting conventionally with sixties and seventies era weaponry, now would be an opportune time for ISIS to reap figuratively Harris’s whirlwind and strip them of their “childish delusions”. This is the kind of operation the men have trained for all their careers, its the kind of battle they are equipped to fight and win. Iraq wasn’t, Vietnam wasn’t, both are gone long gone. Kobane still stands for now.