NATO is the most powerful military organisation ever; the alliance spent over $1 trillion on defence last year, with the USA accounting for the lion’s share. It makes intuitive sense that all these expensive weapons should allow us to defeat poorly equipped groups like ISIS with ease.
But that belief fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the conflict. The fight against ISIS, and radical Islam more generally, cannot be won by force of arms in any meaningful sense. It is all-but impossible to militarily defeat an insurgent group without support from ordinary people on the ground.
ISIS is not an army, nor is it a state, it is a movement, an idea. Insurgencies are hydras; for every militant killed, two more will take up arms. It is foolish to imagine that ISIS fighters, few in number and poorly equipped, could effectively control large swathes of Iraq and Syria without some degree of popular support.
It can be hard to believe people could support such an abhorrent group, but northern Iraq’s majority-Sunni population has little reason to love the Shia-dominated Iraqi government from which they have been excluded. Likewise in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly used chemical weapons against civilian targets, people have little reason to love the regime. ISIS has maintained a semblance of order in the areas under their control and provides a compelling narrative of struggle against the West. We cannot pretend that this is a small group of extremists and that Western troops will be welcomed with open arms by everyone.
To talk of winning ‘hearts and minds’ sounds clichéd, but it is the only way to achieve any kind of lasting resolution to the conflict. This is not a divide that can be solved with external force, lasting peace can only come from the establishment of a genuinely inclusive Iraq; that is not something that can be installed by British and American troops.
Indeed, a military return to Iraq can easily do more harm than good. To say the West has an image problem in the Middle East is something of an understatement. No matter how precise precision weapons are, there will always be collateral damage; there will always be civilian casualties. Killing Iraqi and Syrian children will not diminish support for ISIS, nor spread love for the West. Giving ISIS a clear external enemy to fight against will boost support for the group, who can then claim to be struggling against Western ‘imperialism’. If faced with a choice between America occupiers and ISIS, we should not be surprised if many people choose ISIS. American bombs are the best recruiting sergeant the group could wish for.
Despite our great military strength, the West cannot defeat groups like ISIS by force, and impose freedom at the barrel of a gun. Overcoming this false intuition is one of the greatest challenges facing Western policy makers – it makes so little sense that we can be at once so powerful and yet also so powerless. Failure to understand this paradox is what led George W Bush into Iraq in the first place – it was easy to defeat Saddam Hussein, but building a new Iraq has proven all-but impossible. Eight years occupation following the 2003 invasion has quite plainly failed to create a stable liberal democratic regime that can stand up to threats like ISIS. There is little reason to believe that the return of Western troops can achieve better results now.
We need to accept that military action cannot solve all the world’s problems. The trouble is, when you have hundreds of million-dollar laser-guided precision attack hammers, suddenly all problems start looking like nails. It should surprise us that there are no simple solutions to complex ideological struggles, we cannot pretend that we can bomb and shoot our way to victory. An armed return to Iraq will do more harm than good. Our foreign policy must remain the art of the possible.
PHOTO/ US Air Force