Category Archives: middle east

Military Review: How Daesh Uses Language in the Domain of Religion

Daesh Language

As I alluded to in last week’s look at Lieutenant General Flynn’s Military Review piece on ISISthere was another article in MR that stressed the idea that we must fight ISIS not just militarily, but also fight their ideas and values. This is a theme I’ve seen more and more recently in articles and interviews, and it’s a hard thing to argue against. It’s not likely you will find someone willing to argue that ISIS’ ideology and value system are something to admire. Because of this, when someone says we should fight their values and ideas, it goes unchallenged.

A more important question though, is how? How do we challenge them? And is our goal to persuade them (ISIS) to denounce their own ideals or is it instead an argument towards the masses who might be attracted to their vision and worldview?

In her piece in Military Review titled How Daesh Uses Language in the Domain of ReligionMajor Theresa Ford explores some of the “words and ideas” ISIS uses in their propaganda as they relate to religion.

The article is a good primer on some of the tenets of Islamic theology and history. Unlike others who fall short of saying “how” we are supposed to counter the ISIS narrative, Ford offers “what”; that we should challenge them head-on in their own language and realm. In her conclusion, she writes:

Bombs and bullets alone cannot defeat Daesh. To defeat these terrorists, we must engage them in the domain of deen (religion) where they maintain freedom of movement, and we must counter words with words. We need to use the same weapons, including knowledge of Islam, Islamic history, and language, to defeat them. Unfortunately, U.S. soldiers are seldom, if ever, instructed on the proper use of these weapons, and until they are, Daesh will continue to dominate the domain of deen—its primary source of power.

While it’s refreshing to see someone offer something up in the “what” realm, and as Ford writes, it is indeed rare for US soldiers (or policymakers) to hold an intelligent and working knowledge of Islam, I disagree with the idea of this “head on” approach.

There is nothing wrong with knowing and understanding the theological underpinnings and sources of motivation of the enemy, but to suggest – as many do – that there is a special combination of socio-cultural or religious “hacks” that we can unlock that will turn the tides of the conflict is a fantasy.

This is seen in the oft-cited idea that we don’t call them ISIS but instead use the Anglicized Arabic acronym, Daesh. Ford writes “the group’s leaders consider the world insulting,” and cites an article that attributes this to a group of anonymous Iraqis who fled Mosul – the only source I’ve been able to find for this claim. Over the past year, I’ve seen interviews and articles urging us all to use Daesh because “they hate that.” First, there is scant evidence to suggest they really care – just one anonymous source claiming ISIS would “cut the tongue” out of anyone who used the acronym. Second, even if they did truly hate the acronym, what is the chief goal of urging others to use it in lieu of ISIS or ISIL? The idea that if only we all used a term that made the group angrier would have any effect on how the group operates is a little absurd. I’ve usually seen urging others to use Daesh as more of an attack on others domestically. Those who use Daesh claim to understand the true nature of the threat, whereas the rest don’t quite get it.

Agonizing over what to call them doesn’t do much in terms of halting their military progress in the Middle East or dissuading others from joining them.

Ford argues that “our messaging should expose the abundance of religious fraud in Daesh’s jihadist propaganda, most of which justifies fighting based on religious authorities.” Like most religions, the theological texts and traditions can be interpreted and manipulated to justify many things. Scholars argue over minutiae that can potentially have great meaning. For anyone who has tried to convince someone over the internet that they’re wrong, imagine the chasm that exists between a US-sponsored Islamic theologian and a potential ISIS recruit. Citing hadiths and obscure fatwas will likely not persuade someone from leaving ISIS or another from joining. Trying to engage ISIS in an area where they hold the ideological  high ground is as wise as them trying to engage a US infantry platoon in open combat.

Ford’s most important point is that there is value in understanding the theological underpinning’s of ISIS’ appeal and growth. That understanding should absolutely be integrated into messaging to counter ISIS and dissuade others from joining. Those who are engaged in this important work would be well served by a robust understanding of Islamic history and theology. However, in the same way that the “strategic corporal” often effects events negatively rather than positively, a “strategic messenger” can do the same. US-sponsored theological debates may be more counter-productive than the author suggests.

Lastly, there is a danger in trying to industrialize the understanding of theology for the rapid use in messaging or counter-messaging. It’s something I addressed on this blog back in 2012.  As Andrew Exum writes:

“Plenty of U.S. military officers and troops were inspired by their service in either Iraq or Afghanistan to learn Arabic or Dari and study the peoples of the region. I left the Army in 2004, as a matter of fact, to pursue a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut,” says Andrew Exum, a retired Army captain who now serves as a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “But plenty of other officers and troops began their own amateurish studies of Islam and now, like Lt. Col. Dooley, peddle claims to know the truth about the violence and hatred at the heart of Islam. Pope’s warning that a little learning can be a dangerous thing is certainly relevant here. These hucksters, like the Robert Spencers of the world, know just enough to make themselves sound credible to an uninformed audience and hide their prejudices under a thin layer of amateurish, ideologically motivated scholarship.”

@dongomezjr

On the Iraqi “will to fight”

iso group photo

You may remember the way policy makers and anonymous sources blamed the Iraqi Army’s failure to hold territory in the wake of ISIS’ advances on their lack of a “will to fight.” It was hard, as you can imagine, to figure out how a numerically superior and better equipped professional military could simply wash away when faced with what amounts to a lightly-trained criminal gang. The Iraqi Army had more people, more guns, and were trained by the the best military in the world leading up to their defeats in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul.

Barely hidden in many of the accusations of lacking “will” was the idea that there are impenetrable cultural reasons that explained it.

Or stated another way, Iraqis just don’t have the guts to fight.

Of course, that’s a silly argument since a great number of ISIS fighters are Iraqi, and they don’t seem to have a problem waging effective warfare. Still, it doesn’t stop people from making it.

 

When Mosul fell, there was a great deal of outrage from outsiders over the seeming unwillingness of the Iraqi Army to defend their own territory. Here was the Iraqi Army with the real opportunity to engage ISIS on the battlefield – an opportunity that a lot of arm-chair generals seem to fantasize about – and instead of wrapping their hands around the necks of ISIS’ throats, they ran away.

As someone who researched the nature of Iraqi military service, and spent time in Iraq and watched an entire Army disintegrate overnight, it didn’t seem that strange to me.

Major Adam Scher, a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, also didn’t think it seemed that strange. He tackled the issue in a good article on The Army Press called Collapse of the Iraqi Army’s Will to Fight: A Lack of Motivation, Training, or Force GenerationHe also wrote a shorter piece on the same issue for Task & Purpose back in December.

The thing that Scher does that many do not, is engage his own empathy in an attempt to try to understand why something might actually happen instead of just going for the low-hanging fruit – in this case, “culture.”

Scher writes:

“The Iraqi Army lacks trust in its equipment, training and its soldiers because between 2011, when coalition forces left Iraq, and 2014, when ISIS attacked, the Iraqi Army executed almost no training, effectively recruited no new soldiers, and broke or sold the majority of the military equipment it had acquired between 2004 and 2011.”

And:

“As Iraqi forces tossed their weapons, abandoned their vehicles, and fled the battle, many blamed the Iraqis for a lack of motivation without investigating the myriad administrative and logistical failures that set the conditions for even the bravest fighters to flee the battlefield.”

An even more important point that Scher makes is the proximity of the Iraqi soldier to the battlefield. This is a war that is happening in their own cities and neighborhoods. Soldiers, and even potential soldiers are under the constant and near threat of violence. Army recruiting lines are rich targets for suicide bombers. The severe brutality of ISIS doesn’t need to be recounted here, but imagine what it would be like to join a teetering Iraqi Army facing a vicious, highly motivated group that has no qualms about using just about any techniques necessary to defeat you.

And more importantly, what you might feel if you were joining the Army and leaving your family behind.

On this, Scher writes:

“Another key administrative aspect of the will to fight is the belief that one’s family is protected during the fight and will be taken care of if the soldier makes the ultimate sacrifice. Between 2011 and 2014, Iraqi Army soldiers were not trained in proper first aid or medical evacuation procedures, meaning they had almost no confidence they could survive a battlefield injury, and a lack of a veterans health program means that any soldier who dies in battle effectively economically cripples their family.  ISIS exploits this failed administrative system by specifically targeting family members of the Iraqi military:

“ISIL capitalized on soldiers’ fear that they and their families would be targeted if they fought as rumors spread. Soldiers had little faith in the military’s ability to protect them, their families, or prevent infiltration … reducing [the Iraqi army] to a state where innuendo and psychological operations could push units towards collapse without prolonged direct combat.””

One of the key takeaways of my research on Iraqi military perspectives was that notions about military service are not universal. This is especially true in the Iraqi case, where men drafted into the Iraqi military complained that their youths were wasted. Unlike most Western nations, simply being a member of the military does not garner a person significant social status, and there is usually very little in terms of veterans’ benefits.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Scher that the solution to these problems reside in replicating the American force generation model, his understanding of some of the root causes of the Iraqi collapse is refreshing, especially when so many others are content to simply blame “their culture.”

The Ghost of Iraq

As Samawah train station, April 2003. We just got out B-Bags.

As Samawah train station, April 2003. We just got out B-Bags.

I know I’m particularly biased, but it seems hard to understate the cultural effect the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent first year of occupation (OIF 1) has on the current Army. Many – if not most – of the field grade officers and senior non-commissioned officers I’ve met came of age during “the invasion.” They were there and have stories. They likely joined the Army before 9/11 and were pulled into the GWOT from a different Army. When a war story comes out from that period of time, faces glow and it’s talked about with a hard nostalgia. Shitty field or deployment situations are always compared to the dismal conditions of OIF 1. Often, they’ll pause and reflect on some of the crazy things we did during that invasion and wonder if we could ever do that or experience it again. The consensus is no, but I’m not so sure.

On the other hand, most company grade officers, to include commanders, and junior non-commissioned officers came of age during either the surge in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are more likely to have joined after 9/11, fully knowing that they were getting themselves into a near-certain deployment.

The point of this post isn’t to compare the two, only that as more officers and NCOs who cut their teeth during OIF 1 move into positions of authority, I wonder what – if any – effect this will have on the force.

Some new Middle East blogs, and the Return of the King

jazz-out-abu-baghdadiEarlier this month the Arabist posted a link to the new blog Towards a better worldI’ve been following the blog for the past few weeks and there’s been a lot of good original stuff, links, and analysis for anyone interested in the Middle East.

For those interested in Iraq, check out Niqash, which has been posting more frequently. Their pieces are Iraq-centric and cover things outside of the norm.

I had an old blog called Iraq The Model in my reader and last week a post popped in announcing a new blog. It’s called Today in Mesopotamia and while I’ve haven’t read much into it, it looks promising for Iraq watchers.

Lastly, KABOBfest has made a long-awaited triumphant return. I learned about KABOBfest while studying the Middle East in college. KABOBfest describes itself as “The irreverent, activist, often-inappropriate Arab-American (and others) blog.” It’s a good counter-weight to a lot of the nonsense that gets written about anyone in or around the Middle East/Arab/Muslim world, by mostly non-Middle East/Arab/Muslim people (myself included). They’ve been mostly dormant for the past few years, which is a shame, but I can’t really think of a better time for them to have re-emerged.

@dongomezjr

Desert Wolverines: Living the ‘Red Dawn’ fantasy

Wolverines!

I came across a few good articles challenging some of the common notions of what inspires ISIS fighters and supporters.

The first describes the worldwide phenomenon as more akin to a youth revolt, with Islam as its unifying thread. It’s not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism.

The second discusses the “joy of ISIS.” That is, the general lack of understanding the West has towards recognizing that there is something that draws people to the cause in the first place: meaning, sense of purpose, happiness, joy.

I also revisited this short piece from five years ago on the Islamic State in Iraq (the predecessor to ISIS) where they repurposed the Call of Duty:Black Ops poster for their own propaganda. Youth and fun.

What I enjoyed about these articles is that they’re looking a little deeper at the ISIS phenomenon. The loudest voices I hear scream that it’s the religion that is to blame; it’s a “death cult.” Those voices flame more paranoia and fear which stoke stupid events like burning Qurans, lining streets with pig heads, proudly displaying ‘infidel’ labels, and so on.

Even before ISIS, I had a hard time believing that it was simply religion that inspired the IEDs, snipers, and ambushes I faced in Iraq after the invasion and later just before the surge. I was younger and dumber then, and while it would have been easy to simply say “It’s the religion, stupid!” and cast all of “them” as the other, just a tiny amount of critical thinking said there was something more going on.

Years later, sitting in a room with David Kilcullen, one of the chief advisors to Gen. Petraeus during the surge, I asked him if the chief motivation for some of the insurgents might simply be “the thrill of it?”

“Maybe,” he said.

When you peel back the layers of why young men and women join our own military, you’ll often find they do it for the experience – the thrill. As William Broyles wrote in Why Men Love War, “War offers endless exotic experiences, enough “I couldn’t fucking believe it!’s to last a lifetime.”

Similarly, James Jeffrey, a former British Armor officer describes the thrill this way:

“I defy anyone in a Challenger 2 tank, looking back over the commanders cupola at 20 armored vehicles kicking up curtains of sand, speeding across the smooth desert while enveloped in warm winds as the gunner traverses the turret to test fire the coaxially mounted machine gun, and then claim not to have enjoyed themselves.

One of the most addictive things about being in or around the military is the feeling of being “at the center of the world.” The obsession and interest people have with the military (news, movies, games, literature, etc.) makes it very easy for those who are a part of it to feel unique and a part of something greater. If you’re born in America, you can get close to that center through joining the military.

If joining the military isn’t your thing or isn’t possible, you can get on the same stage simply by joining ISIS. You don’t even have to join, you can just pledge loyalty and get on with it.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, there were some pundits that claimed Saddam was stalling on allowing Weapons of Mass Destruction inspectors, simply because he liked the attention. He liked being on the world stage. If America (and Iran) believed he had WMDs, it made him relevant and important.

Many of my peers in the military love the film Red Dawn, the story of a group of teenagers who find themselves waging a guerrilla war against an invading Soviet force. They call themselves the ‘Wolverines’ after their school mascot. It’s a fantasy, where they get to ambush the invading enemy, steal his weapons to grow more powerful, be the underdog and be the hero.

Invading a country is an odd experience, and when you think about it and talk about it, it doesn’t take long to realize that once you get to the insurgency, the “enemy” might simply be living that Red Dawn fantasy.

The Pashtuns, former Baathists, ISIS fighters – it’s Red Dawn, in reverse.

@dongomezjr

The Post-9/11 Veteran and Middle East Studies

city-college-campus-in-harlem

When people ask me what my major in college was and I tell them Middle East studies, they almost always follow up with “was it because you went to Iraq?”

The answer is yes. That is exactly why.

I remember very clearly, sitting in decrepit telecommunications building in Baghdad sometime during the summer of 2003, scouting for a supposed truck loaded with rockets while having a conversation with a buddy about “what to do when we get out.” It struck me that had we known more about Iraq, the Iraqi people, and the language, we would have had an easier time getting things done there.

So as a pragmatic solution to a complicated problem, I thought it would be good to study the Middle East in college.

When I left the military I dealt with all of the normal transition issues that most veterans face – getting money, dealing with the VA, interacting with civilians, hyper-awareness. On top of that, I jumped head first into the academic world of Middle East Studies, which has its own subculture of norms and biases that are difficult to navigate, even for the most well-adjusted student.

Over the years I’ve had a number of strange experiences as a post-9/11 veteran Middle East Studies student. These often came in the form of anti-military tirades from both professors and students, but sometimes were more intimate interactions. There was the time a graduate student in a class of mine casually dismissed General Petraeus and members of the military as akin to the Nazis; the time a girl in a history class thought only “thirty or something” soldiers had died in the Iraq war; a very uncomfortable exchange with my Middle East Studies professor in Egypt when she learned I had served in Iraq – she visibly became uncomfortable, shifting in her seat and suddenly ending the converation; being asked by a good professor to talk about my Iraq war experience to add color and context to a class, which was probably helpful for them but odd for me. The list goes on.

Six years ago, when we were still knee-deep in Iraq, Middle East Studies scholar Marc Lynch wrote a a couple of articles on the topic (here and here). He was generally optimistic about the idea of veterans pursuing the field.

When they enter academic programs, these veterans will (and already do) bring a great deal of on-the-ground experience to the classroom and to their research. Many will (and do) enter their programs with far more advanced language skills than did earlier generations of students, although perhaps with more familiarity with colloquial spoken dialects than with Modern Standard Arabic (reversing a common traditional pattern). Their point of reference will be (and is) Iraq and the Gulf, not Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or other areas where a great number of current faculty began their encounters with the region. And they will have much greater familiarity and comfort with military and security issues than do many currently in the field.

In my experience, I think that prediction is accurate. As a graduate student, despite wanting to, it was hard to focus on Iraq because of the lack of source material. In the general Middle East Studies literature, Iraq is often left out, its history put on hold due-to-war.

In response to Marc Lynch’s article, commenters posited other points, which I think are also true.

“I wonder if you are not overly sanguine about the likely result of the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I agree that many will have a tremendous amount to offer. But what has tended to bother me is how instrumental some of their perspectives tend to be. I’ve taught many returning vets as a professor at the National War College from 2004 to 2006 and at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program since 1997 (fulltime 1997 to 2004, as an adjunct since). And for every one who has a rich and granular understanding and an ability to put his experience in some sort of broader analytical perspective, I have three who have great experience but whose insights run to: “here’s how to get Arabs (or Afghans) to do what I want.” They have instrumental knowledge, but not necessarily the kind of empathy that is conducive to kind of positive outcome you envisage.

History is, unfortunately, not always kind to the notion that experience as a occupier translates into durable understanding. The Brits had plenty of career colonial administrators and soldier, as did the French. I am not really sure that their often voluminous writings on their areas always holds up well. Will they be mostly Bernard Falls or Rudyard Kiplings?”

Even in my most recent deployment in 2014-2015, the amount of boiling down that occurs when discussing “the Afghan” in terms of how to get him to do this or that based on very old stereotypes and ideas is prevalent – even among highly educated officers and NCOs.

I think there is one interesting aspect of the trends you describe that you didn’t touch in your very thoughtful post on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan joining ME Studies. This is that, given the current generational composition of the professoriate in the field (the senior professors being mainly of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam generations) and the ideological and philosophical views that dominate amongst its membership regarding the US’s role in the world, the bias or prejudice these veterans might face in the classroom is most likely to come from their professors, not their fellow students. Like many folks, I sat through a lot of tirades on US imperialism and perfidy in college classes over the years, as well as many manifestations of the denigration of government service and antimilitary prejudices that pervade US academia overall. I never had a reason to take it personally, and of course US policy should be discussed and debated, but for a veteran it will feel awfully personal. So it’s a challenge faculty should keep in mind, to be more sensitive and thoughtful in their dealings with their students, to recognize the value of students’ experiences and perspectives coming from government service, and to avoid alienating this generation of potentially very rich contributors to the field.”

As the commenters above noted, there is an extra challenge for the veteran navigating Middle East Studies precisely because there is a generally speaking, an anti-imperialist bent in the discourse. That’s not to say that veteran MES students are imperialists, but as I once told a professor who asked, for a veteran who fought in Iraq, whether he agrees with the war or not, he or she left something there, and to hear it casually dismissed as a mistake can feel extremely personal.

Over the years, I’ve only met a handful of other student veterans who pursued Middle East Studies. They almost all followed a similar path to myself, interested in learning more because of their wartime experience. Having been out of school since 2011, I’m not sure how many student veterans took this path. The VA could probable produce the number based on GI Bill date paired with their declared majors.

With both Iraq and Afghanistan significantly scaled down in terms of American military action, I wonder what effect that will have on veterans who leave the service and pursue an education. The Middle East is no more well-understood now than it was six years ago, and with the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the war in Syria, we are no closer to figuring it all out. I finished graduate school in the midst of the Arab Spring, and it was wildly perplexing to students and teachers alike, who spoke in class about long-standing and seemingly intractable dictatorships that were suddenly crumbling. I wonder if current discourse in the classroom is hyper-focused on the contemporary situation. I hope it’s not, because I think understanding “how we got here” is important in figuring out “how to get out of here.”