"Severed heads on public display are not only acts of medieval nihilism, they are also calculated acts of strategic orchestration"by Robert Fry / August 29, 2014 / Leave a comment
In the late spring of 53 BC, Marcus Lucinius Crassus led seven Roman legions to catastrophe in Mesopotamia. Immobile heavy infantry had no response to the Parthian horse archers who could release their weapons from beyond the range of anything in the Roman inventory. This tactical advantage would later enter the English language: a Parthian Shot signifies the discharge of a missile from an invulnerable platform, often moving away from its target, and it is exactly the problem facing Islamic State (IS) forces today. They may have performed well against more formally constituted enemies like the Syrian or Iraqi armies in ground combat, but contesting airspace with the US Air Force is a challenge of a completely different order of magnitude.
As a result, today’s equivalent of the Parthian Shot is a US drone firing its hellfire missile from 20,000 feet at an IS target. Military technicians would identify this as a definitive example of asymmetric engagement—doing to the enemy what he is unable to do to you. It is an engagement IS cannot win and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia can be relied upon to do the rest.
In many ways this is a return to the Rumsfeld Doctrine first applied in Afghanistan: maximum firepower with a minimum number of boots on the ground, plus willing proxy forces (the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan) and a sprinkling of spooks dispensing cash and military equipment. It is a formula that has limited liability written all over it and was sufficient to scatter the Taliban. It became the new military orthodoxy that informed plans for the invasion of Iraq—where it met its nemesis.
The war in Iraq moved quickly beyond the pseudo-conventional battlefield and into what Rupert Smith, the British soldier and military commentator, has termed a War Amongst the People. In such situations, the asymmetric advantage shifts from the invading forces and to those directing the snipers, IED makers and suicide bombers. This is precisely the situation al Baghdadi will want to re-create in the streets of Mosul and, prospectively, Aleppo. To do this, IS will have to provoke a US strategy of unlimited liability, and that will require more of the sort of atrocity that the West will find intolerable: severed heads on public display are not only acts of medieval nihilism, they are also calculated acts of strategic orchestration. A few bombs detonated in Western capitals would also tilt opinion in liberal democracies towards irrational military decisions.
A number of principles should now guide Western policy. The first is that the crucial battles will not be fought between opposing military forces but between competing narratives. The Islam under Attack script that Osama bin Laden so assiduously developed will be taken up by IS and given manifest form by any Crusader army deployed on the ground. The second is that even in a conflict that appears so extreme, it is the centre ground that will be decisive. It was the improbable blend of secular and conservative Sunni opinion that turned the Iraq campaign against al Qaeda in 2006/7. The savagery of the insurgents isolated secular opinion, but it was probably the challenge to traditional hierarchies that brought the Sunni tribal structures behind a Shia-led government in Baghdad they otherwise despised. That support was lost by Nouri al Maliki’s sectarian policies and must now be re-created by inclusive Big Tent politics in Baghdad. The third and most important principle is that at the end of the first decade of the 30 Years War of our times, any solution is not only a long way off but can only be found from within the region and within the Islamic belief system.
The civil war within Islam is only one of three, maybe four, dimensions of conflict in the Middle East. The wars that attend Israel’s security provide a second and the fallout from the Arab Spring a third. In some places, like Eastern Syria, two of the three conflate in a situation of such local complexity as to deter even the most ardent interventionist.
But it could be much worse. The Geneva Agreement has put a lid on Iranian nuclear ambitions for now, but if Iran again starts to move towards weapon acquisition, Saudi Arabia would respond. This would then require a multi-dimensional deterrence system between the nuclear-armed states of the Middle East and South Asia. It is difficult to think of a more dangerous situation and it is this fourth dimension of conflict that represents the greatest threat to the region and the world.