Fighting Against Ourselves
The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. Last week, as the American military began using airstrikes to try to aid in a developing humanitarian crisis erupting in Iraq, this truism became all too apparent once again. The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is currently threatening Kurdish regions in northern Iraq, including the US consulate in Erbil. ISIS is fast gaining infamy for its brutal treatment of religious and ethnic minorities and the installation of Sharia law wherever it holds sway.
The United States has been arming Syrian rebels for some time now in their battle against Assad. Moderate rebel forces have, for the most part, been supplanted by the forces of ISIS in the Syrian civil war, gaining control of significant territory within that country. For his part, Assad has been able to stave off being overthrown by the rebels, despite significant efforts by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US to arm and train the rebels to that end. Threats to mount an American military attack on Syria were defused for the time being by means of an agreement to disarm and turn over Syrian chemical weapons. There was also an attempt by the US to ensure that any weapons given to rebels would be given to moderates rather than jihadists. No such effort was made by the Gulf States.
Since American combat forces ended operations in Iraq, the situation there has never stabilized. The Maliki regime has neither sought nor obtained unity among the various religious and sectarian groups present within the country. Just as under Saddam, one group has exercised all the power to the detriment of the others – the Shiites took over from the Sunnis, with the Kurds more or less autonomous. Sectarian violence has been present to a large degree ever since American troops left, culminating in the recent takeover of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, by ISIS forces. The Iraqi army, such as it exists, has shown little propensity to stand up to the rebel onslaught, resulting in large amounts of Iraqi American-made and supplied military equipment being confiscated by ISIS.
The situation for enclaves of religious minorities in ISIS-controlled areas of both Syria and Iraq is grim. Humanitarian efforts to supply thousands of refugees are ongoing. Christians, Yezidis and Shiites are among those at risk, many of them surrounded by rebels and under tremendous risk to their lives. The Kurds, while willing to fight, are severely underequipped for the task. The Baghdad government is in a shambles, seemingly unable to militarily reclaim the areas already lost to ISIS or to politically ease the pressure.
In no way do I advocate doing nothing in the face of what looks like it could become a slaughter of untold thousands of innocent civilians at the hands of ruthless, bloodthirsty extremists. Humanitarian aid alone will not stop ISIS. American airstrikes, while they may slow down advancing ISIS forces and do tremendous damage to their equipment, cannot do the job of uprooting them from areas they are entrenched, either. Even use of targeted munitions, either from manned aircraft or drones, would not be up to the task. Collateral damage in the form of civilian casualties would be inevitable. Perhaps the path outlined by the President so far is the right one to follow at this point.
What should be obvious to all, however, is that it becomes increasingly tedious for the United States and its alleged allies to be faced with a situation of its own making where it is simultaneously responsible, either directly or indirectly, for arming and training all sides of a brutal military conflict. To say this is unavoidable or unforeseeable is total, unmitigated hogwash. Alarm bells have been going off about this behavior in relation to Libya and Syria ever since the debate began about US intervention in those countries. Neocons in Congress and from past Republican Administrations (most notably former VP Cheney), continue to call for more, not less, military action from our government. It didn’t work in the Cold War or Vietnam and it didn’t work for Bush in Iraq or Afghanistan.
If US citizens are in danger in Iraq, we should should assist them in leaving, as we have in Libya (belatedly). The effort to avert slaughter is imminent, and may require significant US intervention, but can’t depend on US firepower alone. Diplomacy and pressure from other nations must be brought to bear. Surely, if a genocide is in progress, the US is not the only country capable of opposing it. There has been no international support for ISIS’s conduct publicly announced on the world stage of which I am aware. Perhaps our military is in the best position tactically to take swift action that may be necessary in the short term, but if some sort of peacekeeping force is needed, why can’t it be formed internationally under UN auspices, as has been done in many other countries over the years?
Many in the US have been pounding on the drums of war for far too long. Trying to start a war over WMD in places like Iraq (where they didn’t exist) and Iran (where we fear they might soon), rather than using diplomatic means to achieve our stated goals. Why do we have no such reservations when it comes to arming nations or insurgent groups with conventional weaponry? Our leaders destroyed Iraq’s army and felt a responsibility to restore it in order to stabilize the country afterwards. Fine, but what is reprehensible is the shock and awe expressed by our political leadership when it became apparent that the political reality was not capable of responsibly using the means of force we supplied. The people of Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan or any of the myriad other countries we have supplied with advanced or even just small arms weaponry are most often being held hostage by it or killed due to its gross misuse by leaders abusing their authority, if not killed in the crossfire of the resulting civil unrest.
American tax dollars are used constantly to provide conventional weapons to “allies” all over the world – many of whom turn right around and give them to others we find to be not so savory, or who use them to suppress their own people rather than to protect them. The winners in this become the merchants of death who manufacture the weapons and the tyrants who use them to retain undeserved power over the people living under their control but powerless to resist them. The US is not home to all of these arms manufacturers. The Russians and others contribute as well. Arms control needs to involve all kinds of weapons, not just the few that are deemed weapons of mass destruction by the handful of countries which already possess them but don’t want them to spread further. Tanks, anti-aircraft weapons, machine guns, etc. can all be weapons of mass destruction, too. Many of these are in the hands of ISIS right now, obtained fairly easily from the Iraqi army. Produced in the good old USA by good old American capitalist companies for a good profit – and potentially aimed at American aircraft or diplomats.
A similar situation is threatening to arise in Afghanistan when the US pulls out of that country – just as it did when the Soviets left after a similar occupation not so long ago. Who doubts that the Taliban may again emerge as a strong opponent to a corrupt and weak government left behind? Again, the US has spent considerably in the training and arming of the Afghan army, just as it did the Iraqis. What assurance do we have that they will fare any better – or that the people of Afghanistan will be any better off after we leave than they were before we came?
We need to be more judicious in our sales of arms or donations of military aid. We’ve had enough experience of such weapons being used against us by now to not continue to tempt fate and stir up more wars for the profit of those who remain as far removed from their dangers as they possibly can. Possessing huge stores of arms does not make people more safe. If anything, it make for less security – and more senseless killing of innocent people. Reducing arms of all kinds should be a goal, rather than selling as many as you can make to the highest bidder. Weapons of any kind are indiscriminate killers. When properly used, they do not care who pulls the trigger or pushes the button, nor do they know their intended target. As long as this is true, their existence will remain problematic for life on this planet. The fewer in existence to tempt extremists to obtain them and abuse their destructive power the better for us all.
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