By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
Steve Jobs said that creativity was connecting things. Here are two connections that will help us creatively destroy “Islamic State” (IS). First, an old talk by Bertrand Badie at the American University in Cairo (AUC) on 31 October 2001, entitled “September 11th and the Powerlessness of Power”.
Badie actually argued against a military response to 9/11, explaining that the whole problem with Al-Qaeda was its footloose nature, making it impossible to pin down in this era of anti-Western globalisation. His solution was specifically not to go after Al-Qaeda and to instead transform bin Laden into Leonid Brezhnev, the former Soviet Union leader who presided over Nixon and Kissinger’s détente (easing of tensions) in the 1970s.
During the height of the Cold War, the right wing in the US was furious over the improving relations with the Soviet Union, not realising that opening up the Soviet Bloc to Western aid and investments would actually expose Eastern Europeans and Russians to foreign ideas and international entanglements. It wasn’t long before all those Soviet satellite states were knee-deep in debt, eager to sign separate deals with the West behind each other’s backs. It was also Brezhnev’s generation that wrecked the Soviet Union through corruption, bureaucratic ineptness and the neglect of the Cold War contest. In the UK, there was a running joke about communist leaders dying of heart-attacks and strokes whilst in the middle of meetings. Arabs, too, are very fond of remaining in power until the last minute – or last breath – consequences be damned.
Making Al-Qaeda more territorial would make it easier to isolate and wear down. The important thing for the Americans to realise was that the ‘zones of peace’ versus ‘zones of turmoil’ paradigm was completely wrong thanks to the globalisation of communication and information through satellite TV and Internet. All the military action in the world would not recreate this fake designation.
The second connection comes from a brand new article by James M. Dorsey, “Thinking the Unthinkable: Coming to Grips with Islamic State”.
The argument, which I strongly agree with, is that IS has been able to withstand restrictions on its oil trafficking revenues because it has “proven capable of institutionalising taxation and levies and administering Shari’a justice. Absentee landlords, who receive rents from properties owned in ISIS-controlled territory, report that they receive payments with officially documented taxes deducted by the group’s administration”. The architect for this managerial revolution was a former Baathist military man who “designed in neat diagrams the structure of a future Islamic state divided into provincial councils dominated byintelligence and security services. The plan involved the provision of financial service and the operation of schools, day care centres, media and public transportation”.
This rang a historical bell or two, given the administrative outcomes of the early Muslim conquests with provinces divided into so-called junds or military districts. To quote direct from one of my own AUC power points: “Each jund was divided into five administrative units, each made up of a tribe with their own tribal amir. The soldiers, when in peacetime, lived in the cities, although they were nomadic warriors originally…the social formation that developed out of the Muslim conquests…was only nominally feudal. There was a social pyramid…but it was a very wobbly order at the level of knights and lords because of their tribal loyalties. They also weren’t loyal to their plots of land because they tended to be absentee landlords who lived in the cities. (Bedouins don’t like getting their hands dirty with manual labour!)”.
I’d gleaned this from repeated Arab experiences in Syria and Andalus (Iberia), but also from a book – “The Arab-Islamic Military Tradition” (1984) – by a famous ‘Iraqi’ military historian, Staff Major General Mahmoud Sheet Khattab. The Wali was both the army supreme commander and provincial governor, while the army itself was made up of unruly clansmen and petty officers who treated their troops like their own personal militias.
No wonder slave soldiers were such a fashionable item in Muslim history, dependable warriors you could control, nominally Turkish Mamluks in the East and Saqaliba (technically Slavs) in the West.
That’s the magic solution to pulling “Islamic State” apart. They’ll do it for us since it has the same military-administrative pyramid structure. Provincial governors will turn native and troops won’t be deployed on command from the centre (if there even is one) because the governors won’t risk losing their troops in somebody else’s battles, especially if they’re kinsmen. Slave soldiers or other ‘foreign’ fighters can fill the breach but it won’t be long before they take over the system then destroy it once they start squabbling amongst themselves, on the Mamluk model.
Hence, the Brezhnev option. We need to pursue a ‘defensive’ strategy, not giving ground but not giving the disparate elements that constitute IS a common cause either, as that’s precisely what they want, to lure the Americans back to Iraq and turn the conflict into a pan-Islamic world war or drag in Iranians in for an anti-Shi’a crusade. Denied such opportunities, it won’t be long before they bicker amongst themselves. It’s all a waiting game on our part.
I would also wager that Baathist strategists are feeding the IS leadership’s revolutionary warfare manuals, where the key to success is to ‘avoid’ engaging the enemy. Not to mention to allow the enemy’s massacres (the sectarian lynching in Tikrit) to get you all the Sunni support you need. The West as a whole needs to take a page out of the guerrilla warfare book by, at the very least, getting their media outlets to desist from attacking Islam.
This would deny ISIS another rallying point. Remember that Bin Laden (and Brezhnev) only lived in the era of the coach-potato global village, but IS lives in the far more dangerously interactive world of social media. The zones of turmoil now follow you wherever you’re headed, provided you’ve got a mobile phone, tablet or laptop handy.
Emad El-Din Aysha received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield in the UK and taught, from 2001, at the American University in Cairo. From 2003 he has worked in English-language journalism in Egypt, first at The Egyptian Gazette and now as a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas