Three Strategies to Counter the New Caliphate

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

The key environmental condition explaining the rise of ISIS was the establishment of a metaethnic frontier that resulted from the allied occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011, Peter Turchin argues:

Continued bombardment from the air by the Western powers will perpetuate this frontier. As a historical analogy, it would be like living on a steppe frontier, being constantly raided by horse nomads. It will preserve the evolutionary regime, intense war pressure, that has been selecting for the most ruthless and cohesive groups such as ISIS. Almost certainly such successful groups will adhere to some form of militant Islam since, as I pointed out in 2005, “that is the traditional way in which Islamic societies have responded to challenges from other civilizations.” In other words, pursuing the “middle route” will, in the long run, strengthen the jihadist groups and may even create conditions for their expansion outside Syria and Iraq — for example, into Jordan.

What about all-out war? Back in 2001 the conservative columnist Ann Coulter suggested that “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”

It is clear that, given political will, the U.S. and its allies have the necessary preponderance of military power to defeat ISIS and occupy the territory it currently controls.

Even if Western leaders do not commit to using a massive infantry force of their own troops, the same goal can be accomplished by putting together an effective coalition of all forces currently fighting ISIS. In this case, the “boots on the ground” would be those of the Kurds, the Iraqi Shiite militia and the Syrian army (whether the Assad regime is part of formal coalition or not, it still has to fight ISIS to survive). But, supposing such a military victory is achieved, what comes next? Should we follow Ann Coulter’s advice to “convert them to Christianity”?

In technical terms what she proposed is called “ethnocide” — destruction of a defeated group’s culture, its language or religion (or both), and replacement it with the culture of the victors. In a certain way, Coulter has history on her side. There are innumerable historical (and prehistorical) examples of successful ethnocides. Take the Spanish Reconquista, the centuries-long crusade by Christian states against the Moors in the Iberian peninsula. As a result of population expulsions, a few massacres and forced conversion to Christianity, the Islamic society of Al-Andaluz ceased to exist by early 17th century. Another well-known example of ethnocide was the Albigensian Crusade.

Ethnocide is also the policy that the Islamic State is ruthlessly pursuing in the territories that it controls. So essentially this would involve outdoing the Islamic State in brutality.

Fortunately, we live in a different world, and no responsible Western leader would advocate a policy of ethnocide directed at Sunni Arabs in Mesopotamia.

What this means, however, is that the long-term consequences of decisively defeating ISIS will not be very different from the middle-route policy of using the air power against it. Given the demonstrated inability of state-building by the U.S. in Iraq and elsewhere (for example, Afghanistan), destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will merely create conditions for its replacement by another jihadist group, perhaps an even more capable one. Also, we shouldn’t forget that the Islamic State has “metastasized” far beyond the territory it actually holds. In other words, taking this territory from ISIS will not mean its end as an organization.

That leaves his third strategy, a complete disengagement and withdrawal from the region.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    I think he meant to say “Unfortunately, we live …”

  2. But we have been and are destroying their culture, most notably with porn and Hollywood exports; cf. the role played by Western tv in the fall of the Soviet Union. I have seen this concept most explicitly stated by Joe Huffman, e.g.:

  3. Lucklucky says:

    Sorry, but all those are silly arguments. I mean, is it that difficult to do a bit of strategical thinking based on societal choices in more than 10 years?

    Islamic civilization failed.

    With the fall of the Ottoman Empire came Ottomanism, Western Arabism, and, as an opponent, the Arabs’ courtship with Fascism. With their defeat by the Soviet Union victory in the WW2, the Marxists and Socialists took over of Arab elites. As with all Socialisms, it ended without the “new man” being discovered. What we are seeing in the last 40 years is the collapse of the Arab Socialist cultural bloc in the Middle East. To replace it that society went back to what it knows best: Islam.

    ISIS is just Political Islam. It doesn’t matter if it is called Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram. etc.

    “That leaves his third strategy, a complete disengagement and withdrawal from the region.”


  4. Duke of Qin says:

    I get a laugh every time I see some some Western triumphalist deride Islamic civilization as a failure. It simply exposes the hollowness of their thinking and the misplaced priorities that they value. Evolution selects for virulence and the propagation of life, not the maximalization of individual choice or welfare. Evaluating by the only standard that counts Islamic society is one of the few functional ones left while the West’s slow motion auto-genocide is a catastrophic failure. The long run success and danger of Islam to the West and everyone else really is evident if you look at history more objectively. Islam was rolled back from Spain and Hungary by the 17th century back when Europe was actually strong, but think on what was lost. The entire southern coast of the Mediterranean and everything west of Ctesiphon was the home of Latin and Hellenized Christian civilization. That has now disappeared and will never be seen again. To call Muslims a failed society is to ignore the threat that they pose, akin to the Romans staring north across the Danube and Rhine and seeing starving barbarian scum trying to escape into Roman lands. They weren’t failures but rather hungry wolves.

  5. William Newman says:

    “They weren’t failures but rather hungry wolves.”

    Why stop with offering excuses for Islamic civilization being outcompeted by making metaphorical analogies to wolves? Literal wolves and coyotes and mountain lions and bears still exist, let’s make excuses for them. They have been increasingly tolerated by our somewhat decadent Western civilization. If Western civilization inexorably sinks into sufficiently deep dazed confusion, the wolves and coyotes and mountain lions and bears could feast and multiply and devour us all.[*]

    Or not. There is a high proportion of dazed confusion in Western Civ, sure, and the proportion is probably still growing. But if you want to go all “evolution selects for virulence” you should get more serious and realize that it only takes a proportionally small remnant to survive and thrive and kick ass. Not too many centuries ago the Hispanosphere lost its way in dazed confusion fairly badly, and the Italians and even the French did to a significant extent too. And then? Various mostly northern Europeans and especially English and their colonies picked up the slack to make Western Civ more significant than it had ever been. And not too many millennia ago the Greeks lost their way to some extent, but through their cultural offshoots esp. in Rome they played a significant role in kicking butt throughout the rest of world history. I consider it unlikely that history will continue smoothly for long enough for the trends you see favoring the Muslims (like birthrates) to matter — something like strong AI or all-out WW3 or an unexpected game-changing scientific discovery is likely to upend the system first. But if somehow no such discontinuity occurs, so that history sails smoothly along on current trends, then even a small not-too-dysfunctional remnant of Western Civ would be likely sufficient to stomp Islamic Civ. And even if no such remnant were to persist, then the cultural offshoots (notably in east Asia and/or south Asia) would be likely sufficient to stomp Islamic Civ. Islamic Civ does not seem to be on track to develop the capability to hold its own in modern high-intensity war, and none of its subcultures seem to be either. (Some hybrid like Turkey might, but it’s unclear that it would be Islamic Civ when the dust cleared, any more than modern China is Communist Civ.) It is very unlikely that every single major subculture of Western Civ and every single one of its offshoots will lose that capability, so a lack of that capability will remain a serious limit on the scope of action of fast-breeding not-capable-of-modern-war rivals such as wolves, ants, or crows.

    [*] (See .)

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