Friday, February 19, 2016

Desperation breeds desperation on ISIS


While the American media is drowning in its own self-indulgent addiction to the campaign rhetoric in their presidential race, Reuters and several other international media have reported the fact that in southern Iraq, near the city of Basra, some nuclear material, contained in a box the size of a laptop, was stolen in November, as well as a camera containing radioactive material (the I-192 isotope). Reports note that the location of the theft is some 500 kilometers from the nearest Daesh encampment, in a vain attempt to minimize the risk that the Islamic terrorists might have the material.* Really? We all know that, should ISIS ever gain possession of such material, they would consider such a “find” nothing short of the brass ring. Even if they were not able to generate a nuclear weapon from the use of such material, they could detonate a dirty bomb that would poison an area, once again inflicting their devastation almost without a fingerprint of evidence.

Listening to Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter, being interviewed by Charlie Rose Wednesday night this week on Bloomberg, I was struck by his repetition of the notion, “ISIS will be defeated, we will defeat ISIS....and the President has always agreed whenever we have asked for more resources in that fight....and the President has told us to look for additional opportunities to fight ISIS....and we are all committed to the early defeat of ISIS”....His pleas were a virtual prayer of desperation as he attempts to preside over the United States’ leadership of the coalition whose avowed purpose is to destroy the “cancer” that Carter says starts in Iraq and Syria. However, we also all know, that just like every other cancer tumor, even the most dedicated oncology surgeon, oncology radiologist and oncology treatment specialist and researcher is never able to predict the complete elimination of the disease, unless and until tests many years after treatment demonstrate such a finding. Carter is in the unfortunate and even unenviable position of being caught in a political time warp, selling the campaign to eradicate ISIS in the last year of the Obama presidency, when, as Carter admitted to Rose, Obama wants to leave the slate clear of ISIS in Iraq and Syria for his successor as an important aspect of his legacy.

“Did the Paris attack change the environment for the campaign against ISIS?” asked Rose.

Well, it certainly aroused the Europeans who are now committing additional resources to the fight against ISIS. Even Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are contributing to the fight. All members of the coalition have increased their contribution and participation in the fight against ISIS...was Carter’s response.

Of course, the story of the stolen nuclear material had not broken Wednesday, prior to the Rose interview. In fact, it has not broken, having been suppressed since it actually occurred in November of 2015. What else have the political powers withheld from the public, fearing, naturally, that release of such information would only arouse the most basic and irrepressible fears? Just as in the communication with the patient and the family of a cancer patient, doctors do the situation no good through withholding significant information, whether that information is positive or negative. Unfortunately, politicians, especially those charged with national security and state secrets are not obliged to commit to the same level of disclosure. (And, it is true that there are situations in which public knowledge of specific information would be more dangerous to the public good than repression of that information. And we can only hope that those charged with the making of such decisions to disclose or to withhold, have the kind of maturity and sound judgement that we can trust their decisions are in the best interests not only of the power elite, but of the public good.)

ISIS, unfortunately, does not submit to the historic definitions of what the world has considered “warfare” in the conventional sense. Like the many disease pandemics that are not vulnerable to antibiotics, ISIS represents the kind of disease for which the world has not prepared, has not anticipated, has not built defences against, and has not studied in the war colleges. It is “asymmetrical” in the extreme. It is unpredictable in the extreme. It is ideological, even ‘theological’ in the extreme. It is a force that would traditionally have been dubbed a force from HELL (if there were such a place, and such an archetype.) And yet....

Here we are some 14 years after 9/11 and twenty years after the first attack on New York by Islamic terrorists and we all know that there is no evident de-escalation of the impact of ISIS, or its many iterations, and there seems to be a kind of bet going on, among the major world powers. They are betting that they can keep the ISIS threat from exploding with another or perhaps even several mass attacks before they can decimate the scourge. I am not a betting man, but I would not subscribe to their fantasy.They know more than we on the street know, yet they continue to bomb, and they continue to subvert all ISIS’ attempts to feed itself through black market sales, extortion, kidnapping and underground channels of money presumably via the internet. Individuals who have adopted the ISIS dogma, or who at least seek to appear as loyalists in the cause of Islamic terrorism, including the recent suicide bombings in Turkey attributable to Syrian refugees, form gangs of a few, or act solo, in their perpetration of death and destruction anywhere, everywhere, anytime, and seemingly all the time. Yet, everyday, with every bombing of an ISIS target, the recruitment to their ranks spikes. We are not only not decimating ISIS, we are in fact emboldening ISIS.

Russia, also emboldened by the fog of war, for her part, has considerably muddied the waters in Syria, purportedly in support of Assad, and also purportedly against ISIS,  and stands accused of deliberately targeting hospitals staffed and operated by MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers) killing innocent children, and then denying any responsibility, while accusing the United States. There is even some evidence that links Russia to bombs dropped in Turkey, although those events are still to be prosecuted. And although Obama reportedly speaks on the phone with Putin, in the middle of the night (North American time) and asks him to change course in Sryia, and to stop deceiving the world about his desire to destroy ISIS, he continues unabated, even virtually unchallenged, since he knows, as the rest of us do, that Obama is not going to go to war against Russia, either over Syria or over Ukraine. Stepping up military exercises in the vicinity of Ukraine will not and do not threaten Putin; neither does a late night phone call from the White House over Syria threaten Putin. He, along with his other Middle East ally, Iran, is determined to cause havoc in the region, undermine the west and especially the United States, and proceed to aggrandize  both himself (top priority) and thereby his nation.

Unfortunately, Putin’s complicated interventions can only elevate the temperature of the rhetoric in the presidential campaign in the U.S. And given the pre-adolescent mentality of the American voter, some 30-37% of Republican voters in South Carolina preferring Trump, the most bellicose and the most unpredictable and the most dangerous candidate on the U.S. stump, there is reason, not only to be concerned about the theft of nuclear material in Iraq, but the letting loose of the control of the Pentagon and the nuclear buttons to a potential president like Trump. Extremes do definitely seem to evoke extremes! That is true not only in personal arguments, school-yard combats, political campaigns, and inevitably in macro-conflicts.

Instead of heating up both the military combat and the supporting rhetoric, on all sides of the ISIS fight, as well as on the potentially diplomatic agreement to cease hostilities in Syria, is it not time for the world leaders, from all political stripes, and from all ethnicities and linguistic and cultural backgrounds, to put their best brains to effective use in designing a short-medium and long-term strategy to deal with terrorism, the burgeoning flood of refugees, and the stretching of the physical, political and ethical capacities of too many countries, and bring this scourge to a denoument?

Prosecuting another violent war is an admission that we have run out of other options. Prosecuting another violent war is another episode of the control by the politicians on the right who claim to sacralise the military, as the symbol of national security, and the symbol of military supremacy, and of course, of the strongest democracy in history.

And yet ISIS has demonstrated that this “hymn” to hard power is hollow, in the extreme, that it is at the core of the international self-sabotage that haunts all conversations about what to do about ISIS. Hard power depends on hard propaganda to perpetuate both the loyalty of service personnel and the continuing obeisance of the politicians and the public. The media, for its part, is merely the dispensing pharmaceutical technician, of the mind-numbing yet desperate prayers/propaganda of all the Ashton Carters who are charged with the military defeat of ISIS. Every single candidate for president, from both parties, cannot afford to speak ultimate truth to a desperate electorate who demands more military action against ISIS, that truth being that without a complete overhaul of the thinking that undergirds the military assaults, including the forbidden option of removing the military from the fight, all options are not really on the table.

Desperate people, as do desperate nations, revert to their previously ingrained habits, often habits borne of fear, and of a refusal to admit the depth of that fear, even to admit vulnerability. Desperate parents beat their children; and when they are confronted by those adult children on their reasons and motives, they are mute. The confronting adult child has to insert the only response that is feasible, “I guess you could not talk!” Of course, talking to those who lead ISIS would be hard, even distasteful and ugly in the extreme. And of course, it would take only back channels, out of public view and out of public consciousness, for such talks even to begin. However, spreading killing fields, with both the ISIS motive and the “defeat ISIS coalition” motive can and will only lead to more killing and enhanced escalation of the desperation on both sides. Escalating desperation, of the kind currently demonstrated by Putin, Assad, ISIS, and even the forces now aligned to surgical remove ISIS, will not produce the kind of ‘victory’ that Ashton Carter’s career and historic legacy demand. They may mark time, keep up the public face of hope that we are making progress, that we are ‘cutting off the head’ or crippling their resources, or whatever other reporting headlines can be sold.

North Korea has nuclear weapons and threatens to develop missiles that will carry them to the coast of North America; Iran could easily be developing a nuclear weaspon, (even if less easily that before the recent agreement), and should ISIS get their hands on nuclear fissionable material, who knows what havoc they can and will create through its discharge. Unguarded nuclear material sits ready for the persistent searching eyes and hands of those who would profit from providing such material to thugs like ISIS, as they would from providing chemical weapons to ISIS. We are know that the cauldron called planet earth is less safe and far less secure that those in power would have us believe.

The very fact that this latest report of the theft of nuclear material has not made headlines since it was first noticed in November is not a sign that we know who has the stuff, or that are prepared to let the public know what kind of danger we all face, or that we really know that we can and will defeat ISIS, not only prior to January 20, 2017, when a new president takes the oath of office.

If we are uncertain, that is a kind of truth that our leaders must disclose; their failure to disclose both their fear and their uncertainty is at the heart of our real danger. And the sooner we demand a full accounting, the sooner we will be more able to trust and thereby to commit to whatever measures are necessary to accomplish whatever needs to be done. And that includes talking to the dreaded beasts who control ISIS, and all the other faces of Islamic terrorism.

*UPDATE: February 21, 2016...
Reports now indicate that the missing nuclear material has been found, and is now secured in Iraq. (From the CNN news crawl)

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