The flurry of attacks around the Middle East and other parts of the world in recent months by militants related to the “Islamic State” (ISIS) has sharpened the urgency of figuring out how to defeat ISIS and rid the world of this terror. The continued expansion of Al-Qaeda in parallel with ISIS’ robustness heightens the urgency of implementing a strategy that could minimize the immediate threats from such militant groups, while also allowing the dozens of countries — mostly in Asia and Africa — that are the breeding ground for such fanatical groups to look forward to more normal and peaceful national development.
The recent news from leading Western states is not encouraging in this respect, as the United States, France, the United Kingdom and some of their allies among the world’s industrialized democracies continue to focus heavily on a military response to the ISIS threat. A major global meeting of these countries fighting ISIS is taking place in Paris this week, while a few weeks ago the New York Times revealed that the United States is considering a Pentagon proposal to build up a string of military bases in Africa, Southwest Asia and the Middle East that could be used, “for collecting intelligence and carrying out strikes” against ISIS’ many affiliates across those regions. The bases would serve as hubs for Special Operations troops and intelligence operatives who would conduct counterterrorism missions, creating what the Times quoted Pentagon officials as calling an “enduring” American military presence in these volatile regions.
Say what? An enduring American military presence across the Middle East? And this is supposed to promote stability, peace and security? Please think again, guys, and get some Middle Eastern scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and, especially, historians in the room with you to give you a more accurate analysis of what happens when foreign militaries park themselves long-term in local societies across the global South.
Military force should be used on occasions when it is the most appropriate response to an immediate threat or aggression, such as liberating Kuwait from Iraq’s occupation in 1990. But in this situation of seeking a policy to reduce and ultimately eliminate the threats from ISIS and similar groups, long-term military action anchored in a permanent foreign presence in our region is probably the most nonsensical and counterproductive approach that could be adopted — especially if it does not include a serious mechanism to reform the autocratic, corrupt, unjust, and mostly inefficient security-based governance systems in our region.
We have almost half a century of experience in foreign powers using military means across the Arab-Asian region to ensure their and their local allies’ well-being. Any rational analysis of the actual consequences of such a military-heavy approach to the legitimate triple goals of defeating ISIS, protecting one’s allies, and enhancing one’s own national interests suggests that this policy does not work, as the Al-Qaeda and ISIS experience alone should show.
The main problem is that foreign military actions tend to achieve exactly the opposite of the intended goals. Military assaults against terror groups, resistance movements, and just plain old civilian demonstrators or non-violent rebels — whether carried out by local governments or foreign powers, or both — tend to harden and expand the resolve of those who challenge the states in question. Militarism as the main response to citizen grievances only heightens the sense of humiliation and degradation that sparked citizen protests in the first place; it also tends to widen the circle of aggrieved citizens who join the ranks of those who oppose their militaristic states. Egypt and Bahrain today are ongoing examples of this.