Chris Bulfinch `18
ISIS has been a very prominent news topic over the past year. The images of violent warfare, masked men wielding assault weapons, and public beheadings are poignantly seared into the public consciousness, largely thanks to up-to-the-minute news reporting via social media and applications from CNN and the New York Times. Many in America feel anxiety over the violence and extremism inherent in movements such as ISIS, yet in many cases are largely unaware of the capability of such organizations to truly damage America or threaten them directly. This misunderstanding has caused many to misperceive ISIS as a much greater threat than they truly are. This fear in turn puts pressure on the United States’ administration to take some form of action—in order to assuage the public’s concerns over ISIS—which can often result in less than ideal policy decisions. In order to clear up misconceptions about the significance and threat of ISIS, as well as to spur discussion about the situation in Iraq and Syria on the whole, Alpha Delta Phi hosted Vijay Prashad, a journalist and professor of international relations here at Trinity. He discussed ISIS’s origins, their influence today, and the Obama Administration’s plans for the region, and succeeded in providing a more clear and concise picture of the situation than most had, and did so in an engaging way that kept the attention of the room.
Professor Prashad opened the lecture by giving an overview of ISIS, beginning with its origins. Many in America see ISIS as a recent development of the last year or two, but the reality is quite different. The group originated in Iraq, and gained power in the wake of the United States’ invasion in 2003. Originally the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), the group had very limited membership and scant resources, operating as a marginal splinter group of al-Qaeda, conducting small-scale terrorist attacks in northern Iraq. In essence, they weren’t particularly significant, notwithstanding the tragic yet small-scale loss of life they had inflicted. They lacked proper military expertise, organization, and discipline, and their capability to be a true threat was negligible as a result. After the United States’ swift and well-documented conquest of the nation in March of 2003, the situation began to change, and the seeds were sown for the current ISIS organization to come into being.
The US took over the reconstruction of Iraq, and one of its first acts was the disbanding of the Iraqi military. This, according to Professor Prashad, was a grave error. Without jobs in a stable regime, and feeling significant animosity towards their Western conquerors, the remnants of the Iraqi military joined the burgeoning ISI. This was a disastrous result for two reasons: first, ISI’s ranks swelled with their new members, increasing their capacity for violence. Secondly, the ex-Iraqi army had considerable military expertise and experience, something that ISI had been conspicuously lacking from its outset. Combine this with the former Iraqi soldiers access to and familiarity with more advanced weapons, and ISI became significantly more dangerous after 2003. The religious fanaticism and expansionist ideals of ISI with the ability and discipline of the remains of Iraq’s military made for a potent combination, the lethality of which we are witnessing today. In a way, the removal of Saddam Hussein allowed the beginnings of ISIS to ferment, though Hussein’s removal was central to US policy at the time.
As ISI began to gain significant traction, the political topography of the Middle East and North African regions began to shift dramatically. The Arab Spring of 2011 brought about the destabilization and regime change of a number of states across the Arab world, a worldwide event that presented ISI with an opportunity to expand its reach. While many of the Arab Spring uprisings were able to be settled quickly and without much bloodshed, the nation of Syria was an outlier, in that the nation descended into a bloody civil war that continues to rage to this day. ISI capitalized on the chaos, sending fighters from their native Iraq into Syria, often through neighboring Turkey. They proceeded to fight alongside the rebels against Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, while simultaneously trying to secure as much territory as possible, exerting their interpretation of Sharia law, and gaining international notoriety and condemnation. They have refashioned themselves as ISIS, and ascended to their ubiquitously known status internationally, and their position as a fixture on headlines in the United States and across the western world.
This is the situation as it sits at the moment. ISIS is not an overnight phenomenon, but rather the result of a process spanning more than a decade. The political, ethnic, and historical factors surrounding ISIS’ development are exceedingly complex, and this complexity makes crafting effective policy for the region difficult. Professor Prashad notes that the Obama Administration doesn’t seem to be taking this complexity into account, and is acting almost to the letter as they have in the past, with bombing campaigns and funding of “the enemy of my enemy”. Professor Prashad believes bombing isn’t an effective way of dealing with ISIS. ISIS doesn’t fight a conventional war, it is a highly mobile organization that fights from pickup trucks on the roads, able to assess their ability and performance in the field, and to retreat if things aren’t going well for them. To this end, bombing only does so much, and in many cases simply sharpens the enemy’s resolve, and increases festering anti-US sentiments in the region. Furthermore, Professor Prashad believes that ISIS’ existence is symptomatic of a larger problem in the region: a lack of job opportunities and political instability.
He illustrated this point by mentioning a young ISIS fighter he talked to during visit he made to the region. The young man said that ISIS was just his job. He had studied engineering at a university in Syria, but when the fighting broke out, he couldn’t find a job, so he turned to ISIS for a living. Professor Prashad says this is hardly a unique story. The political and economic instability of the region has created conditions ideal for such fanaticism to flourish, with many people without options any better than ISIS. The vast majority of ISIS fighters are young people (about college age) who are fighting for what they believe will give them better opportunities. They join ISIS for reasons not so dissimilar to why we choose to go to college: the pursuit of greater opportunity. They see ISIS as the only means to that end – not the best means, but the one that is available. For this reason, no number of bombs will ever be enough to contain the spread of ISIS. We may be able to destroy them militarily, but until there is a fundamental shift in the region, the same systematic problems that created ISIS will just create a new and equally horrific organization. The strategy of arming moderate rebels has little more merit than bombing, by Professor Prashad’s estimation. The US has engaged in such foreign policy before, with questionable results at best. We armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and even Iraq itself in the 1980s, to combat the spread of communism. What rose up with our funding was an even more difficult enemy: religious fundamentalism and instability. Why should we expect, 30 years down the road, that the same foreign policy will yield more desirable results? Professor Prashad recommends a very different course of action. He advocates the United States’ convening the United Nations’ Security Council and talking the issue over in greater depth, so the US can act in a more informed and responsible manner, and not risk remaking the mistakes of the past.
Professor Prashad concluded his lecture with two interesting notions. Firstly, he brought up two summer blockbuster “B movies”, Godzilla and X-Me. He had noticed one major similarity between them; in both, the government is very slow to respond to the (ridiculous) crises of the movies, and often the government doesn’t know how to handle things any better than the people they represent. This insecurity with authority and fear of misunderstood forces are major anxieties of the modern person, and we can see them manifested in the American public’s fearful and somewhat reactionary response to the news about ISIS’ doings. Professor Prashad’s second (and arguably more poignant) concluding thought was to wonder why the death of two American journalists is worth the ire of the civilized world, while the thousands of victims of ISIS’ terror didn’t even merit a byline on American news. He also asked the audience why we were afraid of ISIS.
He explained that the conflict is sufficiently far away and our government is sufficiently adept at anticipating and eliminating threats that we really have nothing to fear from them. As long as there is no ISIS navy or air force, Professor Prashad says, there is no reason to be worried.
Professor Prashad’s talk was illuminating, not only in that it cleared up many misconceptions about ISIS’ origins and their ability to harm us, but also in that it opened up the issue for discussion here on Trinity’s campus. Now we can have a more informed dialogue about the relative merits of different courses of governmental action, as well as having valuable perspective about what is newsworthy, and the nature of hysteria. Hopefully Professor Prashad’s talk can help to mitigate the misinformed fear that has clutched the public consciousness concerning ISIS.