As the horror of the latest ISIL atrocity hits the headlines (the beheading of 18 people, including Peter Kassig, an American medical worker) here are two questions to understand why the western military response to ISIL will, largely, not work.
If you are Canadian can you tell the difference between a French-Canadian and an English-Canadian? If you are British, can you tell the difference between a Scotsman and an Englishman? If you are an American, can you tell the difference between a Texan and someone from Arkansas? If you are a Russian, can you tell the difference between a Ukrainian and a Russian?
Ummmm, probably: but it usually takes at least a thirty-seconds of conversation while you listen to their accent. Even then there will be mistakes, the average person might get it right 80% of the time.
Could you still tell the difference between these groups of people at fifty-meters?
No, not really: the visual differences - clothing, head-gear, body hair – in these societies are more class-based than ethnic. Working-class people tend to dress differently than middle-class people. Those differences in dress are far more striking than regional differences between Québécois and Anglos or Texans and the rest.
Could you tell the difference between these people at three-thousand-five-hundred meters?
Of course not: the idea is a joke.
Yet this is the concept of aerial bombing campaign in an insurgency campaign: that decisions of life and death choices can be meted out accurately at such a distance. When combatants do not often wear conventional military uniforms or drive military vehicles.
Even worse, the people making these life and death decisions are not fellow-countrymen – but as alien to the country as the Japanese are to North America or Europe. They are well-meaning outsiders who have no idea of the different cultures or languages of the people they are bombing.
This is the situation in Iraq and Syria. Quick – say the difference between a Shia and Sunni Muslim living in Fallujah? Okay, now what is the difference between a Sunni and Shia living in downtown Baghdad? Of course the average western cannot tell the difference. The average Iraqi can only tell them apart in the same way we can tell regional differences in our countries.
It gets even worse. Can anyone tell the difference between members of the al-Bu Nimr tribe who are fighting for ISIL, from the members of the al-Bu Nimr tribe who are fighting against them? Add to that list other Anbar tribes like the al-Bu Assaf, al-Jumaili, al-Issawi, al-Jaber, al-Marri, and al-Qaim who are divided between fighting for and against ISIL.
The results of this ignorance were shown starkly in the video that motivated Bradley/Chelsea Manning to give up information to WikiLeaks. An innocent group of men going to a school to drop off their children were bombed by an American drone because some nameless twerp thousands of miles away thought the men were al-Qaeda. Some of their rescuers (trying to drag the children free of the burning wreckage) were also killed. It was an atrocity.
The strategic problem is that when you kill innocent people it causes all kinds of problems: like now their relatives will want to kill you.
Defenders of air strikes will claim that this ignorance of local customs and culture is not a problem. The American and their allies can rely on intelligence gathering. Native Iraqis telling them where ISIL is harbouring their fighters.
If it were only so.
Why do people report their neighbours to the authorities?
Some of the time they do it for honourable reasons – a desire to better their society.
However, much of the time it is for dishonourable reasons – they want to sleep with their neighbour’s wife, they want his land, he plays his music too loud. There have been many, many incidents like this in the long, awful years of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Here is an excerpt from Rory Stewart’s review of Anand Gopal’s excellent new book on Afghanistan:
"Gopal, a Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor reporter, investigates, for example, a US counterterrorist operation in January 2002. US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, had identified two sites as likely “al-Qaeda compounds.” It sent in a Special Forces team by helicopter; the commander, Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, was attacked by an unknown assailant, broke his neck as they fought and then killed him with his pistol; he used his weapon to shoot further adversaries, seized prisoners, and flew out again, like a Hollywood hero.
As Gopal explains, however, the American team did not attack al-Qaeda or even the Taliban. They attacked the offices of two district governors, both of whom were opponents of the Taliban. They shot the guards, handcuffed one district governor in his bed and executed him, scooped up twenty-six prisoners, sent in AC-130 gunships to blow up most of what remained, and left a calling card behind in the wreckage saying “Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc.” Weeks later, having tortured the prisoners, they released them with apologies. It turned out in this case, as in hundreds of others, that an Afghan “ally” had falsely informed the US that his rivals were Taliban in order to have them eliminated. In Gopal’s words:
The toll…: twenty-one pro-American leaders and their employees dead, twenty-six taken prisoner, and a few who could not be accounted for. Not one member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda was among the victims. Instead, in a single thirty-minute stretch the United States had managed to eradicate both of Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies.
Gopal then finds the interview that the US Special Forces commander gave a year and a half later in which he celebrated the derring-do, and recorded that seven of his team were awarded bronze stars, and that he himself received a silver star for gallantry."
(Gopal’s book - No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes - is available here. I strongly strong recommend you buy the book: http://tinyurl.com/k66xcfv. The rest of Rory Stewart’s insightful review is here: http://tinyurl.com/oc3y2mq)
These two questions are not to say that air strikes never work. It is that they work only when the air force can clearly distinguish between the opponents (and my colleagues in Northern Iraq driving in a press convoy were once attacked by the U.S. air force). In the circumstances when the differences between the forces are clear (sieges, trench warfare, etc) then air superiority is absolutely important. However, this is very rarely the case in the current conflict with ISIL.
So if U.S. air strikes don’t work effectively (unless under very restricted circumstances) in combating ISIL – what will work? The thing that has won wars since the time of Alexander the Great: boots on the ground of a tough, well-organized, well-focused force who understands the culture and language of the area and can make intelligent strategic decisions. There are not any of those in Iraq.