Archive for the ‘ISIS’ Category


June 14, 2015

This post was originally published on “Reflections on War & Society.” *

Three Afghan girls pose for the camera in the Khowst province of Afghanistan on December 1, 2004, during Operation Enduring Freedom.  (U.S. Marine Corps official photo by Corporal Justin L. Schaeffer, National Archives and Records Administration.)

Three Afghan girls pose for the camera in the Khowst province of Afghanistan on December 1, 2004, during Operation Enduring Freedom.
(U.S. Marine Corps official photo by Corporal Justin L. Schaeffer, National Archives and Records Administration.)

A couple of articles I read recently got me thinking about the long reach of war and how we define casualties. The first is a New York Times article about disabled Afghan veterans struggling against corruption and red tape to get pensions and other government assistance. Some of the men featured in the article needed prosthetic limbs and costly physical therapy that they could not afford without disability payments. One such veteran was Saheb, who lost his left leg to a Taliban land mine and could not pay for a prosthesis on his own. Desperate after learning he did not qualify for a pension because he had served in the Afghan Local Police rather than the national police or army, Saheb sold his 11-year-old daughter, Noor Bibi, into a marriage for the $3,000 he needed to pay for a leg.[1]

The second piece, a commentary on, addresses the debate over whether the world has become more peaceful since the end of World War II. The dispute dates back to the 2011, when psychologist Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was published. Pinker argues that the period since 1945 has been the most peaceful era in human history, and he focuses on statistics indicating that the number of deaths from war has reach a record low. Pinker’s critics have countered that looking solely at recorded casualty numbers is misleading. There are consequences of war that we cannot measure with “big-picture numbers,” as Zack Beauchamp, the author of the Vox piece, notes.[2]

A close up of an Afghan girl from the Pashtun tribe in Kabul, Afghanistan. (National Archives and Records Administration.)

A close up of an Afghan girl from the Pashtun tribe in Kabul, Afghanistan. (National Archives and Records Administration.)

Big-picture statistics don’t count victims like child bride Noor Bibi, a casualty of a long-running civil war in a country where the sale of a prepubescent girl into marriage is an option for a wounded veteran who needs money to pay for a prosthesis because his government won’t help him. Her father, Saheb, might be counted in a casualty list that includes the dead and the wounded, but such statistics fail to recognize the other ways in which war wounds people by transforming life options and paths and forcing families to make decisions that could inflict emotional or physical harm to some members. We don’t hear Noor Bibi’s voice in the New York Times article, but Saheb said she didn’t want to be sold into marriage. She had no choice, Saheb explained, because “in Pashtun society, when the father wants something, the daughter has to give it, even if she is not happy.”[3] The story of Noor Bibi reflects the long reach of war – how it upended the life of an 11-year-old girl who was neither a soldier nor a civilian casualty in the usual sense of the word. Body counts don’t reveal all the indirect casualties of war.

Such casualties take many forms. Last month, I ended my “World Civilizations Since 1500” course with a slide juxtaposing a photograph of ISIS militants with an image of Syrian refugee children. I asked my students to ponder whether the children, hamming it up for the photographer who took their picture, would end up being the next generation of angry, disillusioned, impoverished recruits for ISIS or a similar group. Like Noor Bibi, refugees are casualties of war, and neglected refugee crises can feed back into a conflict, perpetuating a cycle of violence and fighting. Envisioning a world where parts of it are continually at war, where war’s long reach keeps producing casualties of all sorts, makes it difficult to buy Pinker’s argument that we are living in a time of unprecedented peace.

[1] Rod Nordland, “Maimed Defending Afghanistan, Then Neglected,” New York Times, May 2, 2015,

[2] Zack Beauchamp, “This fascinating academic debate has huge implications for the future of world peace,”, May 21, 2015,

[3] “Maimed Defending Afghanistan, Then Neglected.”



September 29, 2014

With pledges of assistance from allies around the world, and the approval of Congress, President Obama has launched a military response to the Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The intervention will include targeted airstrikes and increased humanitarian aid. The president has emphasized that the U.S. will not deploy ground troops to fight IS, although some military leaders, including Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have suggested that defeating IS will eventually require ground forces, be they American or otherwise. U.S. public opinion regarding the president’s plan is mixed. According to poll results published in the New York Times, Americans generally support the use of airstrikes but are wary about another U.S. war in the Middle East. They have good reason to be—in addition to military leaders such as Dempsey, foreign policy analysts and even the president have alluded to this latest war in Iraq being a long one.

What to do after the war does not appear to be part of the conversation. U.S. military strategists and policymakers believe it will be difficult to defeat IS, and they are concerned about the risk of IS remnants morphing into another terrorist group in the aftermath. It seems obvious that the end of IS will not spell the end of Islamic extremism, so what will the U.S. and its global partners, so keen to launch airstrikes, do to neutralize the threat of recurring terrorism after this war ends? What are the political solutions that will prevent the next terrorist group from surfacing?

Since 1945, counterinsurgency has been central to the American way of war as the method for bringing about long-term political change, but it has rarely been successful. In the past decade, the U.S. failed to win enough hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring stability to those places, which is not so much about methods as it is about the foreigners who bring them. As Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, has noted, “Historically, visionary indigenous leaders backed by native populations have been the key to building viable states—not foreigners serving one-year tours of duty, no matter how passionate and skilled they might be.”[1] In the case of building a secure Iraq, Iraqi intellectuals can play a central role. Foreign policy conversations in the U.S. must begin focusing on how local intellectuals can establish a viable state and prevent another extremist group from rising out of the ashes of IS if the U.S. and its allies can destroy it. Looking beyond airstrikes, U.S. policymakers should reach out to groups such as the Initiative of Iraqi Intellectuals for the Unity of Iraq, which for the past few months has been circulating a statement online calling for a UN-supervised conference of reconciliation and a restoration of democratic political institutions by an Iraqi coalition that transcends sectarian lines. The statement blames the U.S. military for creating the current mess in Iraq and calls for international political support rather than force. Neither this group, nor the activism of other Iraqi intellectuals, including a group of university professors who founded a campaign called “Stop the Iraqi Bloodshed,” has received much coverage in the U.S. media, but these may be the groups that can bring lasting political change to Iraq.[2] They appear to be homegrown, not lackeys of the U.S., and they are media- and Internet-savvy. The Initiative of Iraqi Intellectuals for the Unity of Iraq has used blogs to gain attention to its statement, which as of June had 1,300 signatures. Members of Stop the Iraqi Bloodshed have broadcast videos of their demonstrations on YouTube. These are individuals who want political change and an end to civil war, so U.S. diplomats should figure out who they are, what their plans are, and how much support they have from the broader Iraqi population.

Now that the U.S. has widened its war against IS into Syria, Americans must confront the issue of what’s next there, too. In a speech to the United Nations last week, President Obama announced that the U.S. will arm and train moderate forces opposing the Assad government, and he called for a political settlement to end Syria’s civil war. The president said the U.S. is “prepared to engage in that effort,” but how? For now, Assad is allowing American fighter jets into Syrian air space to strike IS, and he has voiced support for U.S.-led air strikes, so is he now an ally? Just one year ago, President Obama was poised to go to war against Syria for Assad’s use of poisonous gas against his citizens. How will President Obama explain the arming of troops fighting Assad while enjoying Assad’s approval of U.S. warplanes over Syria? Who will lead the political settlement President Obama envisions?

As in Iraq, Syrian intellectuals may be the answer. In June, a group of Syrian intellectuals established the Syrian Association for Citizenship and New Culture, which issued a statement calling for an end to extremism and the establishment of democracy and good governance practices.[3] Danny Postel, associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, recently interviewed Syrian activists and intellectuals regarding U.S. military intervention against IS, and he encountered a variety of attitudes from opposition to ambivalence to support. The U.S. media should cover these individuals, and American diplomats should be in conversation with them.[4] President Obama, his advisers, and the U.S. Congress have decided that it is in America’s interest to fight a war against IS, but without a vision for long-term political stability and an alliance with Iraqis who can implement it, airstrikes and humanitarian aid will, at best, offer a pause in a never ending war against groups like IS in the Middle East.

[1] Karl W. Eikenberry, “The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2013,

[2] Shukur Khilkhal, “Iraqi intellectuals start campaigns to end bloodshed,” Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East, Sept. 3, 2014,

[3] “Syrian Intellectuals Establish New Culture Association,” The Syrian Observer, June 2, 2014,

[4] “The War on ISIS: Views From Syrian Activists and Intellectuals,” by Danny Postel, Dissent: A Quarterly of Politics and Culture, Sept. 20, 2014,

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