War on Terror update: October 27 2019

I’m still in the middle of a very badly needed four day weekend and will be back to regular business on Tuesday. But there was a bit of news this weekend that I figured we could talk about now.

While we’re here, actually, there are a few historical anniversaries we should probably recap:

October 25, 1147: The Siege of Lisbon ends. This siege involved soldiers who had initially set out for the Holy Land to join what we now call the Second Crusade. And speaking of which, this is also the date on which the Second Crusade army of Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III was thoroughly defeated by the Seljuks At the Battle of Dorylaeum, removing it as a potential factor in the crusade. We’ve seen how that eventually turned out.

October 25, 1415: Henry V of England defeats a substantially larger and ostensibly better-armed French army at the Battle of Agincourt. Henry’s army, which was predominantly made up of archers, overwhelmed the French knights and men at arms, who had to charge through a steady hail of arrows across a long, muddy field and were unable to outflank the English army due to Henry’s decision to set up his line with forest terrain on either end. Henry didn’t follow up this victory immediately, but French political unity began to break down and so when Henry did resume his campaign it was against a much weaker French kingdom.

October 25, 1917: The Bolsheviks begin an uprising in Petrograd that would within a day see them overthrown the provisional Russian government of Alexander Kerensky and, after a lengthy civil war, establish communist control over Russia. This is the Old Style (Julian calendar) date of the revolution, which according to the Gregorian calendar actually took place on November 7. But since it’s called the “October Revolution” it doesn’t make much sense to commemorate it in November.

October 26, 1947: Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir signs the Instrument of Accession that brings his state into union with India. When they partitioned India and Pakistan, British colonial authorities decided to leave Kashmir’s fate up to Kashmir. The majority of the region’s population was Muslim, but was divided between those who wanted union with Pakistan and those who wanted independence. The region’s Hindu population supported union with India. Hari Singh was Hindu but initially had a mind to play the two countries off of one another and maintain independence that way. A Pakistani effort to infiltrate militants into Kashmir to force Hari Singh to agree to union with Pakistan worked, sort of—it convinced him that independence was impossible, but as a result he agreed to union with India. Anyway it seems like everything’s worked out pretty well there ever since.

October 27, 1991: Turkmenistan’s independence day

October 27, 2019: Donald Trump announces that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed a day earlier in a US special forces raid in the town of Barisha, in Syria’s Idlib province.

So, yeah, about that.

The first thing to get straight is that it does actually appear that Baghdadi is dead. I mention this only because he’s supposedly been killed a few times previously only to have it later turn out he’d slipped away. But those were all airstrikes and this was a raid involving human beings who were able, presumably, to verify his death.

The second thing to get straight is that while, at this point, there’s nothing to challenge the official US version of events, that Baghdadi’s whereabouts were tracked by Iraqi intelligence, Turkish intelligence, and the Syrian Democratic Forces and that he was actually holed up in northern Idlib province, where he chose to detonate a suicide vest when confronted by US soldiers rather than be taken captive. But there’s also no reason to believe that version of events, either. There are some questions that don’t make sense. Why would Baghdadi seek refuge in Idlib province, populated by a bunch of Syrian rebel groups who have nearly all, at one time or another during the Syrian war, been in conflict with IS? How did he get there from the Syria-Iraq border region where until recently the Iraqi government insisted he was hiding? Did he really blow himself up, or is the suicide vest story on par with the “Osama bin Laden hid behind a woman before the SEALs shot him” tale?

It is to the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden that this incident is being compared, and let’s not forget there are still serious questions about that raid as well. Mostly those questions involve the Pakistani government and whether it really had no foreknowledge of the US attack on bin Laden’s compound or whether it maybe kind of handed bin Laden over to the US. Likewise here there are serious questions about the role Turkey played in this operation and whether the reason the Turks were able to help the US find Baghdadi is because they’ve known where he was this whole time, wink-wink nudge-nudge.

I can’t shed any light on those questions except to note their existence, and to note that I’m not sure it matters. The death of Baghdadi, like the death of bin Laden, is satisfying on a primal level. Although Baghdadi never pulled off a major attack against the US, he’s been a nuisance or worse for several years now, and he’s been a scourge on the people of Iraq and Syria. The organization he created has brought death and misery to untold numbers of people within its “caliphate” as well as in Yemen, Egypt, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Libya, West Africa, and beyond. Humanity is unquestionably better off for his passing. But is it going to make a difference in the 18+ year long “War on Terror”? Probably not.

The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman has already made this argument. Looking back at the killings of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006, bin Laden in 2011, and Baghdadi this weekend, he notes that successive US presidents have been unable to resist the urge to declare victory and yet ultimately nothing changed:

These three fatal milestones all point to the strategic incoherence within a global war that has now lasted an entire generation. No one, neither the Trump administration nor its critics, believes that the so-called Islamic State is finished because al-Baghdadi is dead. As proficient as U.S. special operators have become at manhunting these past 18 years, and as central as manhunting has been during that time, there is no campaign plan, not even a theory, by which the killings of jihadist leaders knit up into a lasting victory. Asking for one would require reckoning with the catastrophic failure represented by a war that only perpetuates itself.

The United States helped create all three of these enemies it later had to hunt down and kill. Bin Laden rose to prominence amid the Afghan Mujahideen, many of whom were armed by the United States because they were fighting the Soviet Union, back when the Soviet Union was The Enemy. Zarqawi rose to prominence in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, back when Saddam Hussein was The Enemy. Baghdadi stands apart somewhat as a product entirely of the War on Terror, when Radical Islam became The Enemy. His rise through the ranks of the Islamic State and its predecessors began after he was detained, either briefly in 2004 or from 2005-2009 depending on which version of his backstory you believe, by the occupying US forces in Iraq. His death won’t affect the War on Terror any more than the other two did, which is to say not at all.

It’s not just that the War on Terror keeps creating bin Ladens and Baghdadis. It’s that at some point, maybe during the Cold War or maybe even before that, the United States lost the ability to function without some Diabolical Enemy against whom it must fight. The Soviets were the ideal Enemy—a true existential threat—but ever since their collapse this country has been flailing about looking for a legitimate replacement. Saddam Hussein? Hardly. Iran? Meh. Islamic terrorism? Briefly intriguing but mostly a bust. Now our intrepid national security establishment is looking to China to provide that thrill of a serious threat (some are even circling back to Russia, the USSR’s successor). This country has no identity anymore except as the Good Guys constantly engaged in battle against the Forces of Evil. That militaristic mindset has quietly (and not so quietly) seeped into just about every facet of American live. Since 9/11, it’s led us into sheer depravity:

So we’ve spent 18 years and counting lashing out at perceived enemies both at home and abroad, and the toll has been, to say the least, appalling. Our thirst for vengeance has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people over the past 18 years, multiple times the number who were killed in the 9/11 attacks. Do we care? Some of us do, but I suspect most of us don’t. Certainly the people who performatively take to social media every year on the anniversary of 9/11 to recount Where They Were and How They Felt on that day (you know who they are) believe that nothing that’s happened since 9/11 could possibly be as horrifying as what they experienced. Which means that, on some level, they believe the lives we’ve taken around the world since then were hundreds of times less valuable, less worthy, than the lives we lost at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It’s not just the death toll. Since 9/11 we’ve arrogated unto ourselves the right to conduct aerial bombing pretty much anywhere we deem necessary. We’ve acquiesced—cheered, even—as our government has erected the most massive and intrusive surveillance network in human history. We’ve thrown people into detention facilities indefinitely, with no intention of honoring their basic human rights. We’ve “tortured some folks,” as Barack Obama once said while he was explaining why he wasn’t going to prosecute the torturers. Most perniciously, we’ve accepted that war is an inevitable and permanent part of our lives, that our government may be fighting an undefined conflict with an undefined enemy with an undefined end goal for the rest of our lives. For the rest of our children’s lives.

How did this happen? The causes are probably innumerable, or at least numerating them would take way too long for a newsletter post. But one big cause has to be the massive security state we built to combat the Soviets and its eternal fight to stay relevant and maintain, or even grow, its size and power. As tends to happen with any large institution, eventually the purpose of this gargantuan military-industrial complex became—as predicted—less about fulfilling its mission (protecting the United States) than about perpetuating itself. That security state suffered a big scare in the 1990s, when the Cold War ended and it began to look like maybe we could (gasp) cut the military budget, and in some ways it panicked. We can’t relax now, was the message, there are too many dangers out there! What about Iraq? Or Iran? Or North Korea? Or al-Qaeda—er, I mean IS? Or Hezbollah? Or crime, drugs, Vladimir Putin, China?

Or migrant children? Better throw them in detention camps just to be safe!

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was just another in a very long line of Existential Threats hyped up to make the United States and its citizenry feel better about the fact that we’re spending upwards of a trillion dollars a year on a military that hasn’t won a war since 1991—we’ve redefined “winning” to mean that we just keep fighting every war indefinitely, go figure—so that it can build fighters that may not be able to fly in the cold and aircraft carriers that may not be seaworthy, although those things should definitely be almost fixed in the next software patch (or the one after that, hopefully) while millions of Americans go uninsured and struggle to escape poverty. And he hasn’t even really been that high on the list of Existential Threats since 2014, when IS reached its high water mark. His death will undoubtedly be a blow for IS, especially considering that the US may also have killed his likeliest successor over the weekend. But it won’t mean the end of IS any more than bin Laden’s death meant the end of al-Qaeda.

More importantly, Baghdadi’s death won’t change anything about this unending parade of villains the US government trots out one after the other. There’s always another Bad Guy waiting to step in to the breach. There has to be, or else how can we possibly justify what the United States has become?