Given that it has been politically packaged and sold as a training mission, the Iraq deployment announced yesterday by Prime Minister John Key seemed to be mysteriously short of…actual trainers. Only 16 specialist trainers will be among the 143 strong contingent, which is a mere 15% of the team. The vast majority of those deployed will be otherwise engaged. Some 90 of them will be either defending the trainers, and /or will be carrying out combat duties such as intelligence gathering related to the calling in of air strikes. Some 37 others will be assigned to coalition offices in Baghdad and bases elsewhere in the Middle East – again, presumably in helping to co-ordinate the coalition’s combat activities. The bulk of the New Zealand force will arrive in Iraq in May. Clearly, this is not, primarily, a “training” mission. It is a combat mission that will do some training on the side.
In Parliament yesterday, Key challenged the Opposition “to stand up and be counted” and show some “guts” and support the deployment. Hmmm. How much “guts” does it actually take to send someone else into harm’s way? The Americans have a term for it – chicken hawk – to describe the pen-pushing patriots who are dead keen on their country taking a tough military stance, so long as it is not them, or their sons or their daughters, who are doing the actual fighting.
The other wing of the argument is whether a troop deployment is (a) the only effective way and (b) the appropriate time to combat Islamic State. The millenarian theology of Islamic State – and especially the meaning of the caliphate that it has announced – puts a heavy onus on it to keep on winning territory, and to keep on triumphing over the Crusader forces and thereby validate the divine mission that is central to its recruitment drive. That’s what makes IS so radically different from al-Qaeda, as this excellent Atlantic article makes clear.
Bin Laden’s organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)…. In broad strokes, al-Qaeda acts like an underground political movement, with worldly goals in sight at all times—the expulsion of non-Muslims from the Arabian peninsula, the abolishment of the state of Israel, the end of support for dictatorships in Muslim lands. The Islamic State has its share of worldly concerns (including, in the places it controls, collecting garbage and keeping the water running), but the End of Days is a leitmotif of its propaganda. Bin Laden rarely mentioned the apocalypse, and when he did, he seemed to presume that he would be long dead when the glorious moment of divine come-uppance finally arrived……
That’s the problem facing Islamic State. Depict yourself as the culmination of a millenarian dream, and you have to keep on delivering on it. Setbacks are not possible. Once IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi publicly announced on July 5 2014 that the caliphate had arrived, he set the clock ticking on the Apocalypse. Right now, IS is still making territorial gains in Syria, and the recruitment drive among foreigners keen on martyrdom is still working well. Yet in almost every other respect Islamic State is not doing very well at all. In Iraq, the IS military advance has for now, been halted. Its oil revenues are reportedly drying up. The screws are going on at the UN and elsewhere to try and shut off its sources of financial donations. It is running out of seized weapons and vehicles.
As Joshua Keating pointed out this week in Slate, IS is also running out of high value foreign hostages to ransom or execute on camera. (Only four foreign hostages are now left, out of the 23 that IS once held.) As for foreign outreach… the Charlie Hebdo raid remember, was an al Qaeda operation. Internally, things are little better. Like any conquering force, IS is starting to bog down in the day-to-day business of having to manage the lands it has over-run. The Sunni population that initially saw IS as a deliverance from the hated Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is now finding that life under its harsh rule is, in some respects, worse.
The best analogy for the current situation facing Islamic State is the one Woody Allen used in Annie Hall, to describe romantic relationships.
“A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”
While by no means dead, Islamic State is at risk of coming down with a case of dead shark-itis. As the Atlantic article expressed it:
Every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.”
So is this really the best time for New Zealand to be galloping in to help to rescue Islamic State from the contradictions that may otherwise cause it to collapse from within? Perhaps we would do better to wait it out, and instead expand our diplomatic efforts into shutting off its supply of donations and military logistics. Because what IS really needs right now is a very large battle to unite its flagging legions against a fresh influx of Crusaders. To judge by the rhetoric he is using, Key seems to be more than happy to oblige. In 2015, New Zealand is engaging a threat that is still being defined in 2014 terms, when Islamic State first came up over the horizon. IS is no longer in that happy position. Arguably, now is the time for a holding action against it, not a confrontation. For a divine army, a stalemate is as bad as a defeat.
Unfortunately, the Americans now appear to be intent on the exact opposite approach. Last weekend, Centcom announced plans for a 25,000 strong Iraqi Army onslaught on the city of Mosul in April and May, to retake Iraq’s second largest city from Islamic State. It is a high stakes, high risk strategy. It may smash Islamic State. Yet if the Mosul offensive fails, this will get IS up off its sick bed, and put it back in business big time.
Belatedly, a really good song about a soldier coming home from a war zone….or is he coming home at all? Here’s Iron and Wine’s fine rendition of the New Order song “Love Vigilantes” and yes, you can interpret this song any way you like. But I think it does work best if the narrator is considered to be somewhat less than flesh and blood…