It does not take great powers of prophecy to discern the outcome of the latest U.S. intervention in Syria and Iraq. Soon, ground forces will become more directly involved. Fighting bravely and intelligently, those forces will win many victories, although at a high cost in battle casualties and terrorist outrages. Meanwhile, Islamic State forces only have to stay on the defensive until the patience of the U.S. public becomes exhausted, prompting another undignified American withdrawal in 2016 or 2020. Islamists will then regain power, just as the Taliban will almost certainly do in Afghanistan. Americans will be left scratching their heads seeking to explain another strategic failure.
Actually, American or other Western forces could win such wars very easily, obliterating their enemies to the point where they would never rise again. The problem is that they could do so only by adopting tactics that Americans would find utterly inconceivable and intolerable—in effect, the tactics of Saddam Hussein. Yet without these methods, the West is assuredly destined to lose each and every of its future military encounters in the region. I emphatically do not advocate these brutal methods. Rather, I ask why, if the U.S. does not plan to fight to win, does it become embroiled in these scenarios in the first place?
To illustrate the principles at work, think back to the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi in 2012. Ordinary Libyans were furious at the killing of an American diplomat they respected greatly, and they struck hard at the terror groups involved. With dauntless courage, they stormed the militia bases, evicting many well-armed Islamist fighters. Explaining his fanatical behavior under fire, one of the attackers was quoted as saying “What do I have to fear? I have five brothers!” As in most of the Muslim world, whether in the Middle East, North Africa, or South Asia, people operate from a powerful sense of family or clan loyalty, with an absolute faith that kinsmen will avenge your death or injury. That process of vendetta and escalating violence continues until the family ceases to exist. As a corollary, the guilt of one is the guilt of all. An individual cannot shame himself without harming his wider family.
Through the centuries, that basic fact of collective loyalty and shared responsibility has absolutely shaped the conduct of warfare in the region. It means, for instance, that governments disarmed rivals by taking members of their families as hostages for good behavior. Those hostages were treated decently and honorably, but their fate depended on the continued good conduct of their kinfolk. Governments kept order by deterrence, enforced by the ever-present threat of collective retaliation against the kin-group and the home community of any potential insurgents. As individuals scarcely matter except as components of the organic whole of family and community, nothing prevents avenging the misdeeds of one man on the body of one of his relatives or friends.
Everyone in the region understands the collective principle, which was powerfully in evidence during the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s. If a militia kidnapped one of your kinsmen or friends, you could only save his life if you very quickly grabbed a relative of one of the culprits, and thus began negotiations for a swap. If your kinsman was already dead, then further atrocities could only be pre-empted by swift retaliation against the kidnapper’s family. So you have five brothers? Well, we will track them all down, one by one.
Only slowly did local Beirut fighters realize that the Americans were actually naïve enough not to target the relatives of kidnappers, even when they knew perfectly well who the guilty men were. That insight—the knowledge that you could target those foreigners without risking your brothers or cousins—was what led to the hostage crisis of the Reagan years, which almost brought down the U.S. presidency. The Russians, by the way, enthusiastically played by local rules, retaliating savagely against the brothers and cousins of those who laid hands on one of their own. In consequence, the Russians suffered only one kidnap crisis, before establishing a successful balance of terror.
Once we understand that principle, even the seemingly intractable problem of deterring suicide attacks actually becomes simple. An individual—a Mohammed Atta in New York, a Mohammad Sidique Khan in London—might in his last moments dwell on nothing but the glories awaiting him in Paradise. Why should he hesitate to kill? Matters would be utterly different if he knew that his act would bring ruin to his family and neighbors, to the violent death of all his kinsmen and the extirpation of his bloodline.
A dictatorial regime like Saddam’s had not the slightest problem imposing such a group punishment, and extending it to every woman and child of that family. Western forces have always been far more principled, but even the colonial empires were quite prepared to inflict collective punishments on the towns or villages that produced notorious rebels. When Israeli soldiers today demolish the houses of terrorists’ relatives, they are treading in familiar British footsteps.
Today’s Islamic State pursues an extremist ideology in which there are literally no limits to cruel or outright evil behavior. The only enemy they have to fear is death, and they have been taught to welcome this. Short of introducing some mighty new deterrent factor, conventional military operations against them are wildly unlikely to succeed. Quite the contrary, endemic wars will generate ever more fanatics.
In theory, a recipe does exist for decisively ending the Islamists’ run of victories. Through means of collective and family punishment, which explicitly targets individuals who have done no wrong, governments and armies must introduce a brutal deterrent regime that will even outweigh the massive temptations of martyrdom and an instant road to Paradise.
No U.S. government would ever introduce such a policy, and if it did, it would cease to be anything like a democratic society. The U.S. could only adopt such avowedly terrorist methods following a wrenching national debate about issues of individual and group responsibility, and the targeting of the innocent. Could any U.S. government avowedly take hostages? We would be looking at a fundamental transformation of national character, to something new and hideous. But what other solutions could or would be possible?
Given that U.S. administrations are not going to fight the Islamic State by the only effective means available—and thankfully, they aren’t—why are they engaging in this combat in the first place?
Why start a war when you don’t plan to win it?
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and serves as Co-Director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.