Wednesday, September 17, 2014

ISIS is a physics demonstration in guerrilla form

All you need to know about ISIS from Gary Brecher, the war nerd, over on Pando Daily.  I thought this passage was particularly noteworthy:
It’s amazing how well combat selects for talent. Nothing rewards talent less than a peacetime army, and nothing rewards it faster than an army actually in combat. And irregular forces, which usually suffer something like a 10:1 casualty rate against conventional occupiers, go through a nightmare-quick selection process. 
ISIS went through a lot of commanders before one stuck. He was a product of Islamic schools and US prison camps. He called himself Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, which means exactly nothing except that he’s claiming to be from Baghdad. He got out of prison in 2009 and walked into a leadership vacuum created by an airstrike which killed his predecessor—nothing like airstrikes to make room at the top—and oversaw ISIS’s move away from pressure once again, out of the cities toward the deserts of Anbar Province where Sunni sheikhs maintained strong clan networks. It wasn’t much, but it was a safe base, and that’s something any mixed militia/guerrilla force requires. 
ISIS got its second great break when The Syrian Civil War exploded in 2012. They looked west, across the Anbar deserts, and saw a huge organizational opportunity opening up in Syria. Assad’s troops had abandoned most of Eastern Syria to focus on defending the Alawite heartland along the coast. That vacuum created an opportunity for lots of people: The Syrian Kurds, who occupied a tier along the Turkish border in the northeast; dozens of local mafia/resistance groups, who mobilized to profit from the wide-open borders; and the nucleus of ISIS, who saw a chance to set up a little emirate in this new no-man’s-land in the wastelands of eastern Syria, along the borders with Anbar. 
That’s the key here: ISIS is a physics demonstration in guerrilla form. It began as a Jordanian insurgent group. Jordan was too tough to crack, and the group was under deadly strain until Bush and Cheney gave it new life with the 2003 invasion. It moved into Iraq, first to the north, in Kurdistan, and then, as the pressure grew up there, to the south and west, landing in Anbar. And when a new low-pressure system opened up to the west in Syria, ISIS flowed into it like a rain cloud—right along a natural pathway, the Euphrates River, which flows eastward into Anbar from Syria.
Well worth reading the whole thing.

[NOTE: You may have noticed that this post doesn't have a lot of original content (i.e. it's link spam).  This is because this post is one component of an experiment I'm conducting.  I wanted to submit the original post to Hacker News, but HN requires stories to be submitted with their original headlines.  The original headline for this story was, "The War Nerd: Here’s everything you need to know about 'too extreme for Al Qaeda' I.S.I.S." which I predicted would not get a lot of traction on HN, and I wanted to draw particular attention to the idea that what is going on in the Middle East can be understood in terms of relatively simple principles analogous to the basic laws of physics.  So I'm submitting both this post and the original, with full disclosure, to see what happens.]

[UPDATE: It appears that both submissions are going to fall off the bottom of the HN New page without getting a single upvote.   5 AM may not have been the best time to do this experiment.]


Luke said...

How much have you read about power and its distribution in society and the world, how it gets redistributed, etc.? It strikes me that the only true way to have a democracy is the democratization of power, but that this is a completely unstable system, with people statistically preferring someone else to take care of them and take responsibility, than bear it themselves. This is but a guess on my part so far; I've been reading sociology, psychology, and philosophy, but not so much political theory or actual studies. I am aware of stuff like Noam Chomsky's work on propaganda-fed totalitarianism in democracy, although I've not read any in detail—just a few articles and video lectures. Something that really set me on this line of thinking comes from Charles Taylor's The Malaise of Modernity:

> But there is another kind of loss of freedom, which has also been widely discussed, most memorably by Alexis de Tocqueville. A society in which people end up as the kind of individuals who are "enclosed in their own hearts" is one where few will want to participate actively in self-government. They will prefer to stay at home and enjoy the satisfactions of private life, as long as the government of the day produces the means to these satisfactions and distributes them widely.
> This opens the danger of a new, specifically modern form of despotism, which Tocqueville calls "soft" despotism. It will not be a tyranny of terror and oppression as in the old days. The government will be mild and paternalistic. It may even keep democratic forms, with periodic elections. But in fact, everything will be run by an "immense tutelary power,"[9] over which people will have little control. The only defence against this, Tocqueville thinks, is a vigorous political culture in which participation is valued, at several levels of government and in voluntary associations as well. But the atomism of the self-absorbed individual militates against this.

Jacques Ellul's The Political Illusion has also impacted me, although I've only read a bit of it so far. Elsewhere, Ellul talks about how people want only the illusion of freedom, not actual freedom with its responsibilities.

Ron said...

> How much have you read about power and its distribution in society and the world, how it gets redistributed, etc.?

Not a lot, but I don't think it's rocket science.

> people want only the illusion of freedom, not actual freedom

Yes, for many (perhaps most) people this is clearly true, and it's the main reason demagoguery can be so profitable.

Publius said...

You're likely being too ethical in trying to manipulate the HN headlines. I wonder what the best time to post to HN is - Midnight to 3 AM?

Otherwise I find the war nerd writings quite banal. Power expands into a vacuum. Yawn.
Lesson: don't create vacuums