It Takes Two: Airstrikes and Airways

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WASHINGTON — As an English teacher for several years at a private school in Saudi Arabia, I once proposed teaching Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner to a class of 10th grade, mostly wealthy, Saudi boys. Except for the graphic nature of one pivotal scene, the story was perfect: a fast-paced plot with a Muslim protagonist who grows up in both Afghanistan and the United States and is forced to wrestle with various competing strands of his identity.

I was surprised when my supervisor, an experienced, gifted Tunisian educator, told me he thought the book was inappropriate for our students, and not for the reasons I had feared. He said the Taliban had been falsely represented—caricatured—in order to pillory a certain popular, Occidentalist trope of “Islamist extremism.” I have often thought back to that conversation. I now agree that Hosseini dehumanizes the Taliban—and perhaps by implication “extremist” Muslims everywhere—in his characterization of the sadistic, Nazi-sympathizer Assef. Why had it never occurred to me? And so what?

These days American politicians and pundits are busy touting the long-range strike capabilities of the Islamic State, citing vital national security interests as justification for war.  No doubt they have their reasons. And no one can deny the brutal, inhuman atrocities committed by the juggernaut with the black flag. Indeed, no respectable state or institution can support the group’s legitimacy or tolerate its existence. But the rub comes in that next, corollary bit of strategy: namely, just how to “degrade and destroy” a paramilitary force that looks and smells at least as much like an insurgency as it does a global terrorist network. And here’s where a bit of literary criticism may come in handy.

The president has been careful to avoid the grandiloquent rhetoric of his predecessor, who notoriously alienated an otherwise warming regime in Tehran with his “axis of evil” speech in January 2002, and who regularly vilified enemy combatants in categorical terms. Such rhetoric can be effective in mustering morale among the troops or in galvanizing support at home. But as the last tedious decade-and-more has shown us, while coalition troops may prove capable of winning wars, they cannot win whole countries. And so the trillion dollar question remains: how to keep the Islamic State, or similar groups, from growing at the grassroots level?  How to stop playing whack-a-mole?

The strange fact is that for all their savagery, the Islamic State has managed to govern its conquered territory, taking charge of municipal services, schools and other institutions, besides offering a modicum of protection to its (law-abiding, Sunni) citizens. A story just last week reported dozens of Turkish families actually emigrating to the Islamic State in search of a more religious, family-friendly society. The group has experienced to a certain degree the local public support envisioned by Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri in founding Al Qaeda as a precursor to global jihad and the reestablishment of the caliphate. As all the experts seem to acknowledge, this support is largely due to the Iraqi government’s epic and increasingly chronic failure to foster inclusion among its Sunni and Kurdish populations, leaving whole swaths of territory ripe for revolt. But bluster in Baghdad doesn’t explain everything. Fresh recruits are still pouring in.

President Obama must walk a delicate line. He must sell the war on the Islamic State like he means it, while simultaneously engaging in the much less glamorous, less dramatic, but ultimately—in the long term—more decisive strategy of bolstering the broken Iraqi political system, trying to coax Iran into greater international transparency and responsibility, and now arming and training Syrian rebels deemed “moderate.” All Herculean tasks, to be sure, but all tasks which call for a humanizing rather than a demonizing language. The United States cannot afford any longer to be perceived as a crusading nation. The regional quagmire is already too perilous, the historical wounds too deep, too recently salted.

In this vein, I propose, for starters, that “degrading and destroying” the Islamic State cannot be taken to mean annihilating its members, and that our understanding of the Islamic State’s appeal and success be nuanced with a recognition of its insurgent as well as its jihadist aims. The group long ago passed the point of no return and can clearly never be accorded a seat at anyone’s negotiating table. But insofar as it may truly represent the aspirations of some real regional constituency, its platform must be taken seriously in the U.S.-led coalition’s formation and formulation of new political structures moving forward. If “terrorist” in this case becomes merely a synonym for “bogeyman” rather than a designation for a particular type of human pariah, then any such potential salvaging act, post-facto, becomes virtually impossible.

We have witnessed too many years of cyclical violence in the Middle East. The Islamic State offers a political vision many people are finding viable, at least given their options. The United States and its partners must be ready to lead, not just with air strikes, but on the airwaves too—with a story and a vision that Sunnis and Shias, Iraqis and Syrians and Kurds and Turks can all believe in—or else this may end up being another interesting, probably lopsided, but ultimately stupid war, awaiting its next encore.

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