Carl von Clausewitz, the author of On War witnessed the brutality of modern warfare. He was present at some of the most critical battles of the Napoleonic Wars and saw first-hand the carnage large groups of armed men and artillery can inflict on one another.
He fought on the side of the Russians at Borodino (1812) where approximately 80,000 men on both sides were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Clausewitz saw the horrific slaughter of French Infantry at the Raevsky Redoubt – a series of earthworks from which a rain of cannon and musket fire scythed down the advancing French troops in grim a precursor to the trench warfare later played out at disparate locations such as Sebastopol (1854-55),Cold Harbour (1864) and the Marne (1914). Later he fought at the lesser known but equally significant battle of Wavre where the Prussian Army blocked French reinforcements from joining Napoleon at Waterloo (1815).
On War, which was published after his death in 1832 is both a theoretical treatise on warfare and rational summary of Clausewitz’s experience of combat. Typically, as in the case of all great thinkers, later academics both military and non-military have misinterpreted or misunderstood Clausewitz in order to justify their various ideological agendas. His most famous aphorism that “war is a continuation of politics through other means” has been removed from its context and used to justify massive public spending on armaments.
Yet one of the most significant and relevant passages from On War is probably the least famous [italics are mine].
Wars must vary with the nature of their motives and of the situation which gives rise to them. The first, the supreme, the most far reaching act of judgement that the statesman and the commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.
Here Clausewitz is talking about the reality of motivation for war rather than the ideological convictions behind those motivations and how that reality should shape the tactics for the successful completion of a war. A further extrapolation being that the resolution of any conflict is dependent on what is real not what its actors desire it to be.
Yet since the end of World War II both the public and western militaries have dwelt in a bubble of non-reality. Since the conclusion of World War II one thousand soldiers and five thousand civilians have been killed per day in regional wars across the world. This is approximately the same number of deaths per diem as during World War II.
There is a public disconnection between the perception of this ongoing death and destruction and the reality of why it is occurring. Part of the blame for this lies with the unofficial covert status of modern warfare as practiced by Western powers. At the time of writing, French troops are embroiled in Mali while American military advisers in Kenya are assisting Kenyan troops in an ongoing fight with Al-Shabbab in Somaliland.
At the same time, troops from Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria with the backing of the American CIA and Britain are pursuing a war with Boko Haram in Nigeria and surrounding states.
In the Middle East, both Saudi Arabia and the United States are locked in a dirty war in Yemen while to the north, Palestinian opposition to US-supported Israeli occupation continues its violent cycle, a conflict that has since 1948 spilled over into Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Syria.
The Syrian Civil War that erupted in 2011 has drawn outside forces into that conflict. There are parallels with the Syrian Civil War and the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 in that outside powers are working to influence the outcome of that conflict. In Syria, Russian, American and Turkish forces and their proxies are vying for control of an area crucial to oil exports and regional trade.
In each of these cases, the root causes of each conflict are environmental and nationalist. Each of the countries listed has suffered from climate change, most notably Syria where a series of failed harvests and the failure of the Assad regime to address food shortages ignited the popular revolt that triggered the recent Civil War.
The nationalist aspects of each conflict are visible in the manifestos of the groups involved. The organisations have different names – ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Quaeda, Al-Shabbab- and while their Islamist principles have been made evident through their many pronouncements on social issues, these groups are at the core, nationalist movements. Just as communism served as a legitimising ideology for nationalist movements in China and Vietnam, and Korea in post-World War II era, Islamism is being used by nationalist groups in Africa and the Middle East to create a sense of philosophical legitimacy.
None of this is to condone the methods employed by ISIS and other groups. It is merely an effort to provide an accurate portrait of these groups that is untainted by the jingoistic descriptions emanating from the Western powers.
Moreover, when the situation is looked at without an ideological lens, what is apparent is that all of the above conflicts are connected. In each case, Western powers and their proxies are fighting to maintain control over regions containing strategic resources.
Leaving aside the dubious ethical reason for the fighting, the ideological convictions at play on all sides are rooted in fantasy. The United States claims to be fighting a war against “terrorism” and against Islamist forces that want to control the world. The reality is that the groups they are fighting are local nationalist movements with an Islamist philosophy. The reality of geopolitics is that even if a group like Al-Shabbab came to power in its locale, it would be limited by both physical geography and ethnic geography. The latter is of crucial importance.
Consider Afghanistan and Vietnam. Even at the height of its power, the Afghan Taliban only controlled eighty percent of the Afghan landmass. They were limited by topography and the ethnic divisions that coalesced around the Northern Alliance, including the Tajiks and the Pamiris.
Similarly, the Domino Theory behind French and US intervention in Vietnam did not stand up to reality when in 1979 the Vietnamese defeated the invading Chinese forces during the Third Indochina War. American assumptions that China would absorb Vietnam ignored the centuries of ethnic rivalries between the two powers that predated Western colonialism.
Regardless of the reader’s stance on the so-call War on Terror, any sensible resolution to the above conflicts can only occur when reality is acknowledged and accepted over ideological agendas. To do otherwise is to deny Clausewitz’s correct assertion that statesmen and commanders neither mistake this war for, nor try to turn it into, something alien to its nature.
Failure to acknowledge that reality will result in the geopolitical, military, economic and political defeat of the West.
There are many reasons why militaries (and the societies that produce them) fail to come to terms with reality and all of these are rooted in ideology. In the case of the United States there exists at a tactical level, an obsession with military technology and equipment. Yet as defeat in Vietnam attested, technology alone does not ensure victory.
Second, there exists a moral dimension to America’s failure to grasp military realities; that being the contradiction of spreading democracy and free markets by armed force. Like the Athenians of the Classical Era, there is a dishonesty at the core of American foreign policy that denies the brutality and larceny that occurs when its military is unleashed against a foreign population.
Third and of primary importance is a religious ideology at entirely at odds with reality. US support for Israel, while ostensibly serving as a pillar of regional control is rooted in a fundamentalist Christian belief that the Final Conflict between the Messiah and the Anti-Christ will occur in Israel. That this belief (best described by the term dispensationalism) is not derived from the Gospel but from the Book of Revelations, – which in itself is derived from the pre-Christian Book of Daniel – and has no basis in physical reality is beside the point. The fact is believers in such abstract nonsense have influenced Western policy towards the Middle East for the last two hundred years. Most notably in the twentieth century was Prime Minister Lloyd George and his colleague Lord Balfour from whose foreign policy helped create the modern state of Israel. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair subscribed to dispensationalism and those beliefs influenced his determination to draw Britain into Gulf War II.
In the United States, dispensationalists have included former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush. Donald Trump’s current energy secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry is a member of the Dominionist Church, a militant Christian grouping that seeks to set-up a Christian nation governed by biblical law. A planned consequence of this would be the criminalization of homosexuality, adultery and public blasphemy to name but a few “biblical crimes”, all of which would carry a death sentence.
That such beliefs are predicated on abstract nonsense does not diminish the fact that these beliefs have profoundly influenced American foreign and domestic policy since the end of World War II. In turn, these beliefs have hindered effective foreign and domestic policy during the same time period. The hardline Anti-Soviet stance adopted by the Christian Right helped precipitate the Cold War.
The dispensationalist support for “regime change” in the Middle East has cost the lives of millions of people and bankrupted the US treasury. These beliefs have had a deleterious effect on the effectiveness of the US military in foreign operations. The US military operates under the illusion that it is a crusading force for good, rather than an occupying army. The inability of US forces to handle the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was evident in its conduct towards civilians, its many war-crimes (Abu Ghraib being the most notorious) and the contrasting success of British forces operating in Basra.
Before these issues can be addressed, there first needs to be a widespread acknowledgement of reality among the citizenry. A capable president with the backing of popular support could do much to deal with these problems. Doing so would not be easy and it would require a great deal of personal courage. However, these issues are not insurmountable. Precedent can be found with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Faced with opposition to the policy of Glasnost and Détente with the US in the 1980’s Gorbachev was able to outmaneuver his critics and his own generals. After Mathias Rust flew his plane over Red Square, Gorbachev used the incident to marginalise the army generals who opposed his reform policies. The result for the world was the aversion of nuclear conflict with the US and the end of the Cold War.
War is as Plato noted, a reality “that exists as if by nature between every city-state.” However a constant state of war as exists in the Western World today undermines the foundations of civilisation. Wars, then while an occasional and unpleasant necessity should therefore be ended as quickly as possible. Instead, the dominant ideologies behind modern Western militarism persist in perpetuating unlimited, endless warfare. These forces must be stopped and controlled through democratic means otherwise they will continue to undermine the moral and economic well-being of society.
Doing so will not be easy. The journalist Chris Hedges compared war to an addictive drug and like addicts western militarists are unable to perceive the damage they are doing to society. There is no easy solution to that addiction but the first step is the acceptance of reality. That requires an informed citizenry rejecting the nonsensical views of ideologues like Karl Rove who once said of the Republican Party “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
Regardless of the cognitive dissonance of Rove and others, the most important lesson of war was best stated by Sun-Tzu: There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.
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Thank you for the exercise in elucidating the manner of conflict we face today. I am quite pleased to see you approach the conceptualization each actor uses to characterize conflict. It is an approach many do not take and you are quite right to highlight the value of an approach.
I’m afraid I must disagree with you, however, when you state that Islamist movements are primarily nationalistic and using Islamic ideology to gain legitimacy. I would counter that the opposite is true. Islamist groups have an Islamic ideological foundation and use nationalism to boost their legitimacy. The distinction becomes clear when looking at the regions in which the groups you point out act, their demographics, and the linkages between the groups.
These groups are not nationalist movements using Islam to gain legitimacy, rather, they are Islamic groups taking advantage of nationalist conflicts. Their aims are not subject to coalescing a polity bound by a national or even ethnic identity under Islamic governance. Rather, they seek to expel any influence that does not support Islamic governance within their region, then expand the influence of Islam as best they can.
ISIS seeks to establish a polity beginning in Iraq and Syria and expanding its borders continuously to bring the rest of the world under the rule of a caliphate. This does not coincide with any national identity; however, the group did take advantage of conflicts arising in nationalist contexts in both Iraq and Syria. Even their name, Islamic State in Iraq and Al Sham, represents a regional vision for establishing a caliphate in lands east of the Mediterranean. This region contains multiple national identities, yet ISIS does not attempt to coalesce around any of them as a binding identity. ISIS also enjoys unprecedented support from foreign fighters, coming from Europe, North America, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Instead, their binding identity rests in their ideology.
ISIS follows a fundamental form of Sunni Islam, combining elements of Wahhabism and Salafism. The distinction between these two schools of belief is quite important when taking a more detailed view of the group, however, for the purposes of this analysis understanding that both schools decry traditional teachings and doctrinal growth found in Islamic schools of thought and prefer a more direct and fundamental understanding of Islam. This religious identification is their binding identity, rather than a nationalist or even ethnic identity.
Boko Haram, while most consider their activity is limited to Nigeria, is active in Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. They are also aligned with ISIS as of March 2015 and before this declaration, they were allegedly cooperating with Al Qaeda. Within Nigeria, they enjoy support from primarily Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups. Despite their appearance as a nationalist movement, they enjoy support and receive leadership from outside of Nigeria and they do not seek to form a polity around Nigerian national identity.
Similarly, Al Qaeda began in Afghanistan and now has branches in multiple regions. The two largest examples are Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who active in Yemen and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb who maintain a presence in Northern Africa. All of these groups, despite having a regional focus, incorporate under the leadership of Al Qaeda central.
Most Interestingly, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursory group to ISIS, was formed as a branch of Al Qaeda in 2006. After disagreements over whether another Al Qaeda affiliated group, Jabhat al Nusra, should remain independent. This caused the split between Al Qaeda and ISIS which has developed into a rivalry.
Al Shabbab comes the closest to resembling a nationalist movement with Islamist characteristics, however, they too fall short of being a nationalist movement. Al Shabbab is active in Somalia and Yemen. Their leadership plans to expand actions to Kenya and Uganda. The group’s leadership has split multiple times for varying reasons, typically having to do with shifting goals and leaders. They are made up of only Somalis, however, the concept of a national identity resulting from this ethnic homogeneity is unlikely. Somaliland, also made up of ethnic Somalis, declared independence in 1991. Somalia is not a useful arena to rely on national identity.
Most importantly, linkages between these groups precludes them from remaining isolated by physical and cultural geography. Except for Al Shabbab, all the groups mentioned have already overcome ethnic geography, enjoying support from multiple ethnicities hailing from diverse regions. Physical geography also does not bind these groups. Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 is the flagship example, but there are others. Al Qaeda, through affiliate organizations, engages in operations on multiple continents. ISIS has a regional affiliate in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, although the strength of the relationship between these two is tenuous. Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS further expands their footprint.
I agree that the West is propagating dubious reasons for action on the international stage. However, this is likely to be deliberate to maintain as much international legitimacy as possible. I disagree that dispensationalism exerts a great amount of influence of Western policy in the Middle East. United States support for Saudi Arabia runs counter to this. If, instead, the United States supports Saudi Arabia to maintain access to resources, then this is evidence that military and civilian leaders understand the reality of the situation regardless of the influence of dispensationalism. Similarly, the Camp David Accords do not have a place in the apocalyptic reasoning of dispensationalism but they make sense if leaders held a rational understanding of the situation.
I posted this on the the complementary piece:
“I had just finished reading Krókowska’s paper on Syria when your pieces were posted, and I had to smile (though the subject is of a gallows humor only) at the Great damage the Great powers have done over the millenia.
Krókowska, Katarzyna. “The Fall of Democracy in Syria.” Perceptions 16, no. 2 (2011): 81. Accessed April 15, 2017. http://search.proquest.com/openview/b3bed48f891a6d89cd6a75b797fe0761/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=237752.”
In sum I think Nicholas may be correct, but only because his focus may be tighter. I think that it is clear that with the fall of the Ottomans, the Arabs began to search for political identity, and that took place long before it was a matter of fundamental religiosity. And when you look at work such as Doumani, I believe we can see the same kind of frustration in the middle east as we saw in southeast asia.
I also think there is ample room to drown betwixt “self-determination” and “nationalism”, though the terms seem to be used indiscriminately and interchangeably …
Doumani, Beshara B. “Rediscovering Ottoman Palestine: Writing Palestinians into History.” Journal of Palestine Studies 21, no. 2 (January 1, 1992): 5–28. Accessed March 15, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2537216.
Hi Nicholas, I appreciate such a comprehensive comment on the article and I felt it merited a comprehensive response. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed such a stimulating comment to one of my articles and I hope that in the future you will continue to offer your insights and opinions.
For the sake of brevity I’ll address some of these points below with verbatim reference to your comments. I agree that Islamism as an ideology has attached itself to nationalist movements in the modern era with some caveats.
You wrote in respect of ISIS that:
Absolutely! Wahhabism and its spiritual father Ibn Tammiya’s doctrines were and are considered heresy in mainstream Islam.
However, I would also argue that the very extremism of Wahhabi and Deobandi ideology is derived from both ideological and ethno-nationalist sentiments.
On that basis I’d like to establish a common term of reference regarding the concept of nationalism, something which I failed to do in the article. Nationalism, throughout history is a fluid concept determined by religious, linguistic and political considerations. In the Middle Ages through to the modern era, disparate ethnic groups could and did acknowledge a shared “national” consciousness with other ethnic groups under a monarchical system, whilst still maintaining separate ethnic identities. Examples of this in the West include the Irish, Scots and Welsh in Plantagenet and Angevin Britain and the Ruthenians, Czechs and Hungarians(and other ethnic groups) under the Austrian (later the Austro-Hungarian) Empire.
In the Middle East, the Ottoman Caliphate encompassed populations of Berbers, Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds as did the Baghdad Caliphate prior and post the Mongol Invasion of 1258. In each of these cases, disparate ethnic groups and their customs were brought together under the aegis of a (mostly) shared religious and political leadership. Therefore there existed a common understanding of a national political identity as well as individual tribal and ethnic identities. In fact the Caliphates most closely resembled modern nation states in this regard.
The type of ethnocentric nationalism that emerged in all these areas from the 18th century onwards was the result of real or perceived external threats. Wahhabism’s spiritual founder was the 13th century Hanbali jurist Ibn Tammiya. Tammiya argued that the Baghdad Caliphate’s destruction by the Mongols was the result of moral and spiritual failure. There was an ethnic component to his extremism, since the Mongols transplanted other ethnic groups into the former caliphate. There was also a further anti -ethnic and religious dimension to his perspective since he argued that Mongol Caliphs (who were Shia) were not true Muslims since they weren’t descended directly from the Prophet’s bloodline. Ibn Tammiya’s 18th century adherent Al-Wahhab belonged to a minority war-like Arab tribe from the Nedj. Placed in the context of the time, Al-Wahhabs extremist views as described in the Book of Unity mirror Ibn Tammiya’s earlier fears of about Mongol-Shia encroachment on Sunni-Arabian territories. Al-Wahhab was aware oof Nader Shah of Persia’s conquests and with these, the increasing military and political power of Shia Islam.
Aggravating Al-Wahhab’s extremism and that of his contemporary the Delhi cleric Shah Waliullah was the increasing military and political influence of European powers in Asia. The fact that the majority of the local populations in the Middle East and India detested Wahhabism and its Indian counterpart does not mean that those movements weren’t any less ethno-nationalist. Without meaning to sound clichéd, the Ku Klux Klan like other White Nationalist movements is both an extremist religious and ethno-nationalist organisation regardless whether or not it enjoys little widespread support among the majority of Christians.
In another comment, Merwyn Ambrose pointed out that fall of the Ottomans exacerbated Arab frustrations. He might have added that Arab nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was encouraged by Germany in order to weaken Britain’s control of the Middle East. Also ethno-nationalist aspirations in the years immediately after World War One worked against a unified Arab state or the rebuilding of the Ottoman Empire since the Turks under Kemal Ataturk were not interested in sharing power with Arabs.
I don’t want to seem like I’m harping on about this, but I believe it important to outline the above in order to address the other points you raised. In that regard I thank you for your patience.
You wrote of ISIS that:
Yes and no.
If we understand a caliphate to be a nation under Islamic law, then these groups are seeking to create a national polity. The ethnic component of this desire becomes evident when we consider the political versus ethnic geography of the Middle East. The modern map of the Middle East was drawn up by the European Powers without reference to ethnic geography. On the basis of that ethnic geography, Iran’s natural borders should include most of what is now Southern Iraq, while Eastern Syria and Northwest and Western Iraq fall under similar natural geography. Straddling the modern polities of Iraq, Iran and Turkey is ethnic Kurdistan. The fact that ISIS (or Daesh) has perpetrated massacres against Shia ethnic groups in the territories it has conquered are acts of ethno-nationalism.
With respect, your next point about ISIS seems to contradict the first. You wrote:
You also argue that:
That analysis marginalises the role of the extreme Iraqi nationalist group the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order who effectively merged with ISIS and formed its vanguard. One of the leading commanders of ISIS and arguably its most powerful military and political leader Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri was a former leader of the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard and a high ranking Baathist. The Baath Party itself was born out of the same internationalist ideologies that produced the European socialist parties and the Communists. That same internationalism is present in ISIS’s rhetoric and is representative of both Baathist and Islamist ideologies. The point being that ISIS is already centred around an Iraqi Arab Sunni nationalist identity already steeped in internationalist/Islamist philosophy.
Which in practice is meaningless in the face of ethnic and political geography. The Baath Party was co-opted by strongmen in both Syria and Iraq, the same way that Lenin and Stalin co-opted the Communist Party in Russia. And just as Soviet Communism was limited by geography and national interests so too is ISIS limited by the same. Italy didn’t fall to the Red Brigades, nor did the French Socialist and Communist Party ally with Moscow. At present Shia militias from southern Iraq have not only held the line against ISIS but have forced it into retreat.
Regarding Boko Haram you wrote:
I am aware of Boko Haram’s activity in Cameroon, Niger and Chad and again refer to my earlier comments about political geography versus ethnic geography. Like that of the Middle East, the political map of Africa was drawn up by European Powers without reference to tribal or ethnic considerations. In that context Boko Haram can be understood as a Muslim tribal reaction to pre-existing rivalry and repression by Nigeria’s dominant Christian tribes. The fact that Boko Haram enjoys support from outside Nigeria can be explained by the presence of Hausa and Fulani groups also present in Niger, Chad and Cameroon. There is also an analogy to be drawn with the Viet Cong in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
Regarding their co-operation with Al-Qaeda… I must confess a tired resignation with that issue. I think there is a tendency of treating the interactions between paramilitary extremist groups as though they are always acting in concert or in service to a monolithic agenda. Upon closer scrutiny, that argument usually falls apart.
There is long history of paramilitary groups co-operating with one another out of mutual interest without sharing identical ideology. During the 1980s the Irish Republican Army fought for and with the PLO in Lebanon in exchange for arms and explosives. The IRA did not become a Muslim nationalist group. The Palestinians did not try to establish a state in the United Kingdom.
The IRA also received support from Libya under Ghaddafi. Again, the IRA did not morph into an organisation pushing an Islamic agenda.
The IRA’s paramilitary rivals in the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the LVF had and continue to have ties with the Ku Klux Klan. All these groups share an anti-Catholic agenda yet the KKK did not seek to have the US rejoin Great Britain, nor did the Unionist paramilitaries don white sheets en masse.
The Loyalist Volunteer Force collaborated with criminal gangs in Southern Ireland to raise funds for weapons to be used against Northern Irish nationalists. The Serb and Croat nationalists who helped arm the Hutu power government that carried out the Rwandan Genocide did not become Hutu or embark on a path of conquest in pursuit of establishing a World Hutu Power Government.
As always whenever ideological organisations come face to face with reality they make compromises and deals with other organisations without necessarily being transformed. Much has been made about co-operation between African and Middle Eastern Islamist groups as if these groups operate in a vacuum. They don’t and never have.
I agree with the first point and disagree with the last. The Somali clans were moving towards a national consensus through the Islamic Courts System prior to the launch of the War on Terror. There are analogies between Somalia and Afghanistan in that when the local clans are allowed to interact without outside (read European-American) influence relations are relatively smooth. The issue of Al-Shabbab’s plans to expand into Kenya and Uganda reflects tribal and religious rivalries that were present long before Europeans arrived in Africa. There exists a similar rivalry between Somalis and Ethiopians.
And finally regarding your last points:
To start with the Camp David Accords came about under President Carter who was not a dispensationalist. Second, securing Israel’s southern flank also coincided with the US desire to maintain access to the Arabian and Persian Gulfs through Suez during the Oil Crisis of the 1970’s. US support for Saudi Arabia serves two purposes. First it ensures US access to Saudi oil-fields. Second it serves as a means of keeping one of Israel’s principle rivals Iran in check. In that sense the Camp David Accords very much serve the apocalyptic reasoning of dispensationalists.
Hopefully by the time you reach this paragraph you haven’t fallen asleep! Please accept my apologies for the length of the reply, but I believe your comments merited a comprehensive reply.
Incidentally the above reply made reference to the Islamic Courts System. What I meant to write was the “Islamic Courts Union”. Apologies for any confusion caused.