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.