'Herbicides' of limited use against ISIS
AN IRAQI official recently told me this story: When the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took over Mosul in the summer, the Sunni Islamist fighters in ISIS, many of whom were foreigners, went house to house.
On the homes of Christians they marked "Nassarah", an archaic Arabic term for Christians. But on the homes of Shi'ites they marked "Rafidha", which means "those who reject" the Sunni line of authority as to who should be caliph, or leader of the Muslim community, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
But here's what was interesting, the Iraqi official said the term "Rafidha" was largely unknown in Iraq to describe Shi'ites. It is a term used by Wahhabi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia.
"We did not know this word," he told me. "This is not an Iraqi term."
I was intrigued by this story because it highlighted the degree to which ISIS operates just like an "invasive species" in the world of plants and animals. It is not native to either the Iraqi or Syrian ecosystems. It never before grew in their landscapes.
At times, I find it useful to use the natural world to illuminate trends in geopolitics and globalisation, and this is one of them.
The United States National Arboretum website notes that "invasive plant species thrive where the continuity of a natural ecosystem is breached and are abundant on disturbed sites like construction areas and road cuts. In some situations, these non-native species cause serious ecological disturbances. In the worst cases, invasive plants...ruthlessly choke out other plant life. This puts extreme pressure on native plants and animals, and threatened species may succumb to this pressure. Ultimately, invasive plants alter habitats and reduce biodiversity."
I can't think of a better way to understand ISIS.
It is a coalition. One part consists of Sunni Muslim jihadist fighters from all over the world: Chechnya, Libya, Britain, France, Australia and especially Saudi Arabia.
They spread so far, so fast, despite their relatively small numbers, because the disturbed Iraqi and Syrian societies enabled these foreign Islamists to forge alliances with secular, native-born, Iraqi and Syrian Sunni tribesmen and former Baathist army officers, whose grievances were less religious and more about how Iraq and Syria were governed.
Today, ISIS - the foreigners and locals together - is putting pressure on all of Iraq's and Syria's native species with the avowed goal of reducing the diversity of these once polycultural societies and turning them into bleak, dark, Islamist, Sunni fundamentalist monocultures.
It is easy to see how ISIS spreads. Think about the life of a 50-year-old Iraqi Sunni man from Mosul. He first got drafted to fight in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in 1988. Then he had to fight in the Persian Gulf War I after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Then he lived under a decade of United Nations sanctions that broke Iraq's middle class. Then he had to endure the years of chaos that followed the US invasion, which ended with a corrupt, brutal, pro-Iranian Shi'ite regime in Baghdad led by Nouri Al-Maliki that did all it could to keep Sunnis poor and powerless. This was the fractured political ecosystem in which ISIS found fertile ground.
How do you deal with an invasive species?
The National Arboretum says you should "use systemic herbicides carefully" (President Barack Obama's air war), while also constantly working to strengthen and "preserve healthy native plant habitats" (Mr Obama's effort to forge a national unity government in Baghdad with Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds together).
Generally speaking, though, over the years in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have overspent on herbicides (guns and training) and underinvested in the best bulwark against invasive species (non-corrupt, just governance).
We should be pressing the Iraqi government, which is cash-rich, to focus on delivering to every Iraqi still under its control 24 hours of electricity a day, a job, better schools, more personal security and a sense that no matter what sect they're from, the game is not rigged against them and their voice will count. That is how you strengthen an ecosystem against invasive species.
"It was misgovernance which drove Iraqis to contemplate a relationship with ISIS with the view that it was less detrimental to their interests than their own (Shi'ite-led) government," explained Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment who is a former US adviser in Afghanistan and author of the upcoming Thieves Of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.
The Iraqi army we built was seen by many Iraqi Sunnis "as the enforcer of a kleptocratic network". That army got "sucked dry by the cronies of Al-Maliki so it became a hollow shell that couldn't withstand the first bullet". The goal of ISIS now is to draw us in, get us to bomb Sunni towns and drive the non-ISIS Sunnis away from America and closer to ISIS, "because...ISIS knows it can't survive without the support of these non-ISIS Sunnis", said Ms Chayes.
We always overestimate military training and force, and underestimate what Arabs and Afghans want most: decent and just governance.
Without the latter, there is no way to cultivate real citizens with a will to fight - and without will, there is no training that matters.
Ask any general - or gardener.