Five Things To Think About Whilst We Pray For Peshawar
Five Things We Need To Think About NOW
The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) justified their attack on army-run school in Peshawar that killed over 140 people, mostly students, as revenge for the on-going military operation in North Waziristan and Khyber Agency. “How can they kill children?” the world wondered. “This is not Islam,” others said. “Maybe the world will unite against terrorism finally,” many declared.
These five points explain why the above declaration will remain wishful thinking.
1. “Terrorism” has no religion
Terrorism is the most vague term I have ever come across. It has been misconstrued to refer to violence carried out by Muslims, as if Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or non-religious terror do not exist. The Isla Vista shootings, the Santa Monica shootings, the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings -- were not acts of terror, but the Boston bombing, or more recently, the Sydney Cafe Siege, were. The difference? The latter two were carried out by perpetrators who happened to be Muslim. They had no links to political groups/terror outfits -- but for some reason, their actions still constitute “acts of terror.”
Let’s stop the hypocrisy. Terrorism has no religion. Violence is condemnable whether carried out by Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists or Atheists.
2. There can be no “Global War Against Terror”
That said, there has been an organised effort to manipulate the teachings of Islam to condone violent action. The fact that no group can agree on what this means proves that it’s nothing but a farce. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (who carried out the deadly Peshawar school attack) are in themselves not a unified faction, with splinter groups all functioning independently. This is one of the main reasons why the peace talks between the TTP and the Pakistani government routinely failed; the so-called central command had the impossible task of imposing their writ on autonomous factions.
The TTP is not the same as the Haqqani network, who though allied with are not the same as the Afghan Taliban, who are not the Al Qaeda, who have in fact denounced the Islamic State. There is a contending Islamic State that has been declared by Boko Haram. The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army, amongst other ideologically motivated groups to contend with.
There can be no global (military) “Fight Against Terrorism” because there is no unified brand of terrorism or militancy. The only solution is in addressing the root causes -- alienation.
3. The flawed strategy in addressing “terrorism”
I woke up this morning to posts, messages and tweets expressing hope that the Peshawar attack can finally serve as a wake up call for the world to tackle terrorism.
I hope so too, but am fairly confident that we will not see that happen. The world’s response to “terrorism” has been through increased military action. The US has bombed it’s seventh country -- Syria -- in the span of six years, using AUMFs that relate to the war on Al Qaeda and the war on Iraq as legal ratifications for doing so. The fact that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Al Qaeda and that Syria is not Iraq doesn’t figure.
The US is also bombing Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, and Somalia. All because of, you guessed it, “terrorism.” The problem with this strategy can be evinced by two examples.
Pakistan is conducting drone strikes in North Waziristan. It was doing so before the Pakistani military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Khyber 1 in North Waziristan and Khyber Agency, respectively. The operations have reportedly targeted close to 1500 militants, and cleared 90 percent of the territory. Civilian casualties have been close to zero.
Sounds like good news? Not entirely.
The problem lies in the definition of the term militant. The US administration assumes that military age males in strike zones are militants, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Further, the local population is considered “guilty by association” and will be defined as a “militant” if they are seen in the company or in the association of a terrorist operative. In February 2012, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that 50 civilians had been killed in strikes during efforts to rescue victims of a previous drone attack; these family members and associates were considered “guilty by association” by the US administration.
“Signature strikes” are also another example of indiscriminate killings being ratified as official policy. Individuals are targeted without any knowledge of their identity, if they are seen in engaging in what is deemed as “suspicious activity.” Suspicious activity is itself very loosely defined, prompting a senior State Department official to note that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.
This perpetuates a cycle of alienation amongst targeted population -- who have lost loved ones to drone strikes and military operations. The US and Pakistani military justify their actions by the death toll of militants, but the local people feel that a lot of this tally is indiscriminate killings. In turn, the US becomes even more unpopular, and the Pakistani government even more illegitimate, in the eyes of the people.
Who gains more support? Those very terrorist that the strikes are targeting, and who have probably crossed over into Afghanistan by now.
The US has begun bombing Iraq, because of the Islamic State. As the Islamic State began gaining ground in northern Iraq, the US and its allies were quick to (and correctly may I add) attribute this rise, in part, to the divisive politics of the Iraqi state. Pressure mounted on Prime Minister Nouri-al-Maliki to resign.
Whilst it is true that Maliki and his Shia dominated administration in Baghdad pursued discriminatory policies, the US, ironically but not surprisingly, played an instrumental role in Maliki’s rise to power in the first place, in addition to consistently supporting Iraq’s divisive politics. This includes siding with the Iraqi government’s military crackdown on Anbar last December and the decision to clamp down on protests in Falluja using the rouse of “anti-terrorism.” Falluja was the first city to fall to IS militants at the beginning of this year.
More importantly, whilst sectarianism is certainly a factor in the rise of IS -- through which the discontent in Iraq has channeled itself -- it is a factor that was not all that important in Iraq prior to the US invasion of 2003. When the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, a need emerged to replace the security vacuum with a new political elite. The main opposition to Hussein at the time were ethno-sectarian parties, and the US brought these factions to power cementing identity politics in the region.
Fanar Haddad, of the Middle East Institute in Singapore, points out that the politicians who came to power post 2003, were not politicians who happened to be Shia, but rather, Shia politicians with a fundamentally Shia-centric ideology and political outlook.
Further, post 2003 institutions came to be organised along sectarian lines. For instance, the Iraq Governance Council, which served as the provisional government of Iraq from July 13, 2003 to June 1, 2004 was formed along ethnic lines -- comprising of 13 Shias, five Sunnis, five Kurds, one Turkmen and one Assyrian.
In today’s Iraq, the Prime Minister is a Shia, the speaker of Parliament a Sunni, and the President a Kurd.
This creation of identity-based politics, paved the way for sectarian identity to become a key political factor. Prior to 2003, although a limited notion of a Shia identity and a Kurdish identity did exist in Iraq, there was no concept of a homogenous Sunni identity. The divisive policies of the Iraqi state -- facilitated by the US -- have paved the way for the emergence of a Sunni identity.
It is this emergence of a Sunni identity rooted in the notion of victimhood, that made the emergence of IS in Iraq possible. The group has existed under various names, first coming into existence in early 2004 as the Jam??at al-Taw??d wa-al-Jih?d, or "The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad" (JTJ). The founding ideology of the group was based on resistance to American intervention in Iraq, with foreign fighters allegedly playing a key role in the establishment of its network. At this point, the group was led by the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
The group soon after swore allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, and changed its name to Tan??m Q??idat al-Jih?d f? Bil?d al-R?fidayn, or "The Organization of Jihad's Base in the Country of the Two Rivers.” At this point, the group came to commonly be known as “Al Qaeda In Iraq” although it never formally went by that name.
In 2006, the group merged with a number of other militant groups, to form the "Mujahideen Shura Council," which later that year, following the death of Zarqawi at the hands of US forces, organised itself into the “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI) or the Dawlat al-?Iraq al-Isl?m?yah. It was in this year that the group made some key advances, securing the Dora neighbourhood in southern Baghdad.
In 2007, it is estimated that the group killed over 2000 civilians, targeting Shias specifically in its onslaught. In June 2006, ISI killed 13 people at a meeting of Al Anbar tribal leaders in Baghdad, saying that the attack was in response to the rape of a Sunni woman by Iraqi police.
In 2009, the group claimed responsibility for the October Baghdad bombings, in which 155 people were killed, and the December Baghdad bombings, wherein 127 people died. The group followed these attacks with a January 2010 bombing that killed 41 people, an April 2010 bombing that killed 42 people, an August 2010 Baghdad bombing, and a December 2010 Church attack. It continued bombings in 2011 and 2012, during which time it began making inroads into Syria. In June 2013, the group attacked prisons at Abu Ghraib and Taji in Iraq, freeing several hundred prisoners.
In Syria the group began consolidating itself the city and province of Raqqa, expanding into northwest areas of the country. In September 2013, the group overran the Syrian town of Azzaz, with the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights labelling the group as the “strongest group in Northern Syria” by November 2013.
As the group expanded from Iraq into Syria -- establishing a stronghold in Ar-Raqqah province -- it renamed itself the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant", or the "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” in 2013, under the supervision of its current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who took over in 2011. The name change was based on the Baghdadi’s intent to merge ISI with the Syria-based Nusra Front. Nusra Front and Al Qaeda leaders immediately rejected the merger.
The group has often been referred to as an Al Qaeda offshoot, but the exact nature of its relations with the Al Qaeda are not clear. In recent months, both groups have made statements disassociating themselves from the other, with ISIL leader Al-Adnani saying, ““the ISIL is not and has never been an offshoot of Al Qaeda.”
When the group captured Mosul in June this year, the international community was taken by surprise at the strength of a relatively unknown Iraqi group. IS’ gains in Iraq are directly linked to its operations in Syria, where it had come to control large swathes of territory in its fight, along with other groups, against Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad.
The advance of anti-government forces in Syria, was made possible in turn, by the United States and allies assistance to Sunni rebels, who share with the US the objective to topple Alawite leader Assad. The US greenlighted Turkish and Saudi aid to anti-Assad rebels, supplied these groups with material and financial assistance, and used the CIA to train rebels at a secret base in Jordan.
This not to suggest that the rebels in Syria present a homogenous group, as there is considerable infighting, with the IS militants facing setbacks at the hands of the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army, for instance. However, affiliations change rapidly, and the IS group -- when it was known as Al Qaeda in Iraq -- had expressed solidarity with the rebels in Syria, following which the US immediately increased aid to anti-Assad forces. The aid began as non-lethal aid, but following a June 2013 White House statement that said there was reason to believe that Assad had been using chemical weapons against rebels, the US decided to extend lethal aid to anti-Assad militias. The total aid given by the US to rebels in Syria, according to USAID figures, amounts to over $1 billion.
For FY 2015, the US Congress is reportedly seeking $2.75 billion in funds to finance its role in the Syrian crisis, of which $1.1 billion is marked for humanitarian aid, $1 billion for regional stabilisation and $500 million for DOD-led arming and training of opposition forces.
The United States’ dual policy -- of complicit support and aggressive resistance, simultaneously -- has shaped the new Middle East, which in turn, is characterised by the factors that are invoked to explain IS’ rise: growing sectarianism, the absence of an Arab governance model, and an emerging security vacuum in the region.
4. History repeats itself
None of this should be surprising though. The Afghan Taliban’s creation and rise can be attributed to US involvement. In a bid to content with the USSR in Afghanistan, the US trained and equipped the Mujahideen -- who eventually organised themselves into the Taliban.
The US is perhaps repeated the same mistake in Syria, where in a bid to topple Assad, it is propping up anti-Assad militias. Like demonstrated above, the IS too, initially benefited from this aid, and groups that are as extremist in their ideology and as brutal in their tactics, continue to receive this support.
5. Extenuating long-term costs for short-term gains
The current strategy, the world over, to deal with militancy extentuates long-term costs for short-term gains. For instance, Nigeria defeated Boko Haram when it killed its leader Mohammed Yusuf. However, since the root causes -- alienation stemming from poverty, lack of education, etc. -- were not addressed, fighters regrouped in 2010 and hit back far more violently, with Boko Haram cementing themselves as biggest security risk in Nigeria.
Similarly, US President Obama had declared the Al Qaeda “defeated.” The result -- the Islamic State. A large number of the Islamic State’s top cadre are former Al Qaeda militants, or former officials in Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Instead of encouraging and undertaking military action, the solution, in part, lies in capacity building, but that’s a whole other article.
Till we see this change in strategy, we can continue issuing condemnations that will lead to nothing.