Tuesday, July 21, 2015

NYT on ISIS: "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Caliphate"

Daily newspapers love deadlines. Deadlines provide an organizing principle, a dividing line, for coverage. There is the build up to the deadline, the result, and then the post-mortem. Elections provide good deadlines, as do high-stakes negotiations.

There has been a bounty of non-election deadlines of late what with the P5+1 countries signing a deal with Iran on its nuclear program (approved yesterday by the United Nations Security Council) and Greece's Syriza-led government capitulating to the Eurogroup demands for even greater austerity.

For the time being no red-flashing deadlines offer themselves up to provide the backbone, the central nervous system, of the daily news. There are the shootings and the rapes, as always, and, in the United States, the perpetual presidential campaign; and then on the distant horizon in September, a juicy deadline convergence is taking shape when Pope Francis brings his anti-capitalist message to the belly of the beast, the U.S. Capitol, where he will address Congress around the same time that its 60-day review of the Iran nuclear deal is up and yet another government shutdown looms over the federal budget.

In days like these when there are no deadlines flashing it is interesting to take note of what stories are being pushed to the top. The top story on the New York Times homepage this morning is Tim Arango's "ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as Tool."

Since ISIS took Ramadi and Palmyra in May, the takfiri jihadi group has not dominated daily news coverage. There are stories about Lone Wolf attacks that are ISIS inspired or a piece about an ISIS commander being blown up in a drone strike, but nothing of the sort that fills the front pages day in and day out.

Today though there is Arango's story, sculpted principally out of quotes from liberal realpolitik academic Stephen Walt and former high-ranking CIA official John McLaughlin, which joins a report by Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt, "ISIS Leader Takes Steps to Ensure Group’s Survival," about the command structure of ISIS.

The shortcoming of both stories, the 900-lb. gorilla in the room that the reporters attempt to ignore, is the extent to which ISIS is a foreign-led proxy force in the sectarian war against Iranian influence in the Greater Middle East.

In the Arango report, the reader is provided, this time from a neorealist perspective, with another explanation of why we might be able to live with ISIS after all. Like the Taliban, the takfiri jihadis are providing honest government. If it is built on a foundation of savage terror -- decapitations, sexual slavery, lashings, dismemberment -- at least the boys from Islamic State don't ask for bribes. Bashar al-Assad created the mess to begin with by fighting a civil war. Here is a sample:
Sunnis in Iraq remain broadly hostile to the Shiite-controlled central government. As for Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has presided over a civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people and basically dislocated half the population.
“Honestly, both are dirty, the regime and Daesh,” said Ahmed, the owner of an antiques shop who recently fled to Raqqa to avoid airstrikes in outlying areas. But the Islamic State, he said, “is more acceptable here in Raqqa.”
Ahmed, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals, has also lived under rule by the Free Syrian Army, or F.S.A., the rebel group that rose up in 2011 to fight the Syrian government. The F.S.A., he said, is “like the regime. They are thieves.”
Under the Islamic State, he said, life can be brutal, but at least it seems more stable for those who can avoid crossing the group’s leaders. “Here they are implementing God’s regulations,” he said. “The killer is killed. The adulterer is stoned. The thief’s hands are cut.”
A similar sentiment helped the Taliban consolidate power two decades ago in Afghanistan: While the Taliban were feared, and their justice was often brutal, they were also respected by many Afghans for standing against corruption and chaos — and they remained firmly in control until the American invasion in 2001.
John E. McLaughlin, who was deputy director of the C.I.A. from 2000 to 2004, said he was recently at a dinner party in Washington at the home of an Australian diplomat when the discussion turned to the threat of the Islamic State.
“It suddenly just occurred to me, if you add everything up, that these guys could win,” he said. It was a controversial notion, he explained, because the group’s graphic brutality, which it showcases to the world in gory videos released through social media, has fed a sense that its demise is inevitable because it is so evil.
“Evil isn’t always defeated,” he said.
What goes unmentioned in this ludicrous retelling is that foreign jihadis funneling into Syria via Turkey (with U.S. knowledge) turned the Arab Spring uprising quickly into a war of occupation. It is similar to Obama's roll out of the P5+1 deal on Iran's nuclear program where, based on his telling, one would think that all terrorism in the region had an Iranian origin. It is an upside down picture of the world.

In the Hubbard and Schmitt story on the command and control structure of ISIS under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi it is clear that, though the reporters seek to emphasize the indigenous nature of ISIS, it is in fact run by foreign fighters. Al-Baghdadi is a religious figurehead:
WASHINGTON — The Islamic State’s reclusive leader has empowered his inner circle of deputies as well as regional commanders in Syria and Iraq with wide-ranging authority, a plan to ensure that if he or other top figures are killed, the organization will quickly adapt and continue fighting, American and Iraqi intelligence officials say.
The officials say the leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delegates authority to his cabinet, or shura council, which includes ministers of war, finance, religious affairs and others. 
The Islamic State’s leadership under Mr. Baghdadi has drawn mainly from two pools: veterans of Al Qaeda in Iraq who survived the insurgency against American forces with battle-tested militant skills, and former Baathist officers under Saddam Hussein with expertise in organization, intelligence and internal security. It is the merger of these two skill sets that has made the organization such a potent force, the officials say.

But equally important to the group’s flexibility has been the power given to Islamic State military commanders, who receive general operating guidelines but have significant autonomy to run their own operations in Iraq and Syria, according to American and Kurdish officials. This means that fighters have limited information about the inner workings of the Islamic State to give up if captured, and that local commanders can be killed and replaced without disrupting the wider organization. Within this hierarchy, Iraqis still hold the top positions, while Tunisians and Saudis hold many religious posts. 
A senior Kurdish security official in northern Iraq and several American officials said that Mr. Baghdadi was very much the top leader and that he was involved in issuing orders across the group’s territories. “While many other group leaders also oversee and manage operations, Baghdadi asserts his role through providing guidance and holding meetings with leadership,” said a senior United States military official with access to classified briefings on the Islamic State. 
But other analysts said Mr. Baghdadi’s religious credibility was more significant than any operational prowess. 
“Baghdadi is to a certain extent a religious figurehead designed to grant an aura of religious legitimacy and respectability to the group’s operations, while the real power brokers are a core of former military and intelligence officials,” said Matthew Henman, managing editor of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.
Kurdish commanders fighting the Islamic State on the ground say certain groups of foreign fighters appear to move like shock troops around territory controlled by the group. 
Before a major Islamic State offensive on the city of Kirkuk early this year, the Kurds began getting reports that a Russian commander had gone there with his own group of fighters, said Polad Talabani, the head of the counterterrorism unit of the Kurdistan regional government.
We could be getting daily coverage of the ongoing Iraqi campaign to retake Anbar Province from ISIS; instead we get more brand-building for ISIS which simultaneously elides the most salient feature of ISIS -- that it depends for its survival on a network of foreign aid and management from Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf monarchies.


  1. Interesting article.

    Off-topic: Don't overlook the surge in anti-Sanders hit pieces by Clinton surrogates. Fast and furious, using tried and true techniques. Between the race-baiting and "old, out of touch what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" screeds, I think this is the Clinton attempt to nip Sanders' appeal in the bud.

    1. The CounterPunch line on Sanders, Bob, which I'm sure you're aware of, is that he is a hopeless militarist who has never seen a war appropriation that he wouldn't vote for. Still, as an opponent to knock Hillary off her pedestal, I think he is a worthwhile candidate, at least in the primary. He did pussyfoot the Netroots Black Lives matter thing, answering in a fashion eerily similar to Clinton. People are so sick of the Democratic establishment though that they willing to stick will him until something better turns up.