Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Frontline: “ISIS in Afghanistan" (WGBH/PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that PBS ran a Frontline documentary that probably proved timelier than it had seemed when they commissioned it: a story about the campaign of Islamic State against both the government and the Taliban in Afghanistan. They were doing this as part of a split show that also covered the Taliban’s presence in Pakistan (which is pretty much old news by now) but I turned it off after the segment on ISIS in Afghanistan because I’d had enough coverage of terror and destruction for a while. I couldn’t help but think throughout this program of Margaret Mead’s famous quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Most people who cite that think of it in terms of a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens trying to do good in the world, but the problem is it applies equally well to small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens who wish to do evil. The Ku Klux Klan, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, Operation Rescue, the Tea Party (the modern one) and ISIS all began as small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens (if one removes the positive value judgment usually attached to the word “thoughtful” and just thinks of it as meaning people who have thought deeply about what they are doing, whether the thoughts are positive or negative) seeking to change the world, and they all accomplished that. For me, the scariest moments of the show were the final words, from Abu Rashid, a former Taliban who defected to al-Qaeda, in which he said, “The garden of the caliphate wants a river of blood from us. Faith and belief demand blood. You must sacrifice to gain eternal life. God will expand this beautiful caliphate everywhere.” Once again we’re in the presence of people like the Nazis and the Communists who want to remake the world no matter how many millions of people’s blood they have to spill in the process — and while ISIS may not seem like a threat at the level of the Nazis or the Communists now, they very well could be, especially if they achieve state power in a country (as they are arguably close to doing in the parts of Iraq and Syria they control) and especially if they achieve state power in a country (like Pakistan, maybe?) that has nuclear weapons.

The Frontline segment on “ISIS in Afghanistan” was the work of expat Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi, who’s previously done other Frontline segments on the Taliban and who this time was reporting on a group of people so sinister, so evil, so vicious they actually make the Taliban look good by comparison. In one interview early in the show Abu Rashid explained that he had a moral duty to switch allegiances from the Taliban to ISIS: “Yes, we were fighting holy war as Taliban. Our holy war was just because there was no caliphate then. But God says when there is a caliphate, you must join the caliphate. There is a caliphate now, so we’ve left the Taliban. We’re fighting holy war under [the] caliph’s leadership.” Of course, some other ex-Taliban who’ve joined ISIS have had more mercenary reasons for the change in allegiance — like ISIS pays better: as Quraishi explained, “The commander told me ISIS offering them $700 per month. Once they join ISIS, they get a normal salary and they can feed their families. Afghanistan is a poor country, and you have to do something, you have to work something, and $700 is a lot in Afghanistan.” He shows an ISIS school where children are trained not only in the justice of jihad but in the use of weapons; they’re given a chance to play with Kalashnikovs, automatic pistols and hand grenades. “What is jihad?” says the teacher in the clip from a class shown in Quraishi’s documentary. “We must implement God’s religion over all people. God says do jihad until intrigue, idolatry and infidelity are gone from the world.” Elsewhere Abu Rashid says, “We want the Islamic system all over the world, and we will fight for it.” ISIS’s recent attacks against Lebanon, Russia (where they blew up an airliner in mid-flight from Cairo to Moscow) and now France have been at once a dramatic change in strategy for them — previously they’d been more like a guerrilla army than a terrorist group, concentrating on holding territory and governing it in Syria and Iraq rather than mounting major attacks against the West (indeed, ISIS broke off from al-Qaeda in Iraq precisely over their belief at the time that 9/11-style attacks on Western targets were ineffective in bringing about the Muslim Caliphate and re-establishing Muslim rule over all the territory between Spain and India, which was ISIS’s stated goal when it was formed) — and a wake-up call for the world that these people are not going to go away.

And what’s more, they’re not a force that can be vanquished by conventional military means — ironically the Paris attack happened on November 13, the very day the U.S. had announced the killing of the ISIS official nicknamed “Jihadi John,” and President Obama had gone on TV to announce that ISIS had been “contained” (which in the history of bad calls ranks right up there with “Dewey Defeats Truman”) — which only underscored that a group like ISIS has a huge “bench.” It’s not dependent on one person, or a handful of people, because it’s recruited enough people that for every one ISIS official or fighter we kill, there will be 10 or more to take his place. And what’s more, every time we send in a drone strike or drop a bomb on a presumed ISIS headquarters, innocent civilians will die, their families will hate us forever and ISIS will have more recruits and more propaganda points with which to recruit them. It’s not clear how ISIS will ever be defeated but it is clear that the kind of retaliation both French and U.S. officials are talking about won’t do it — the clash between ISIS and the Western world is less a “clash of civilizations” (as both ISIS and many of their so-called “Christian” opponents would like to frame it) than a clash of ideals, and if the horrible last century or so of human existence has proved anything, it’s that you only defeat a bad idea with a better idea. It’s not clear at the moment what should be done about ISIS, but it’s clear that the U.S. strategy of trying to keep a three-way war going in Syria — between ISIS, the government of Bashir al-Assad, and the so-called “moderate rebels” (who are in fact an insignificant force; the U.S. recently spent half a billion dollars trying to “train” them and got no more than 128 active battle participants in return) — is utterly insane and the Russians are right when they say the only way to defeat ISIS in Syria is to support, arm and protect the Assad government and its professional, well organized military. Likewise the mutual threat of ISIS is one reason the U.S. should be pursuing more and better relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, who are predominantly Shi’a Muslims and therefore are considered apostates and heretics by the Sunni crazies that make up groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. ISIS has succeeded in the number one task of a terrorist organization — to spread terror — and the more we respond to them by staging bombing raids that kill uninvolved civilians, the more they will gain.

What’s more, they’ve been experts at using the Internet in general and social media in particular — a book on terrorism I read not long ago, by an author who had formerly worked in U.S. counterterrorism and therefore had to keep his name out of the book, said that the Internet is having the same disastrous effect on world peace as the invention of the printing press and its export to Western Europe in the 15th century. His argument is that new technologies for spreading information and ideology often have the opposite effect than the “bringing people together” optimists often think they will: he said that the ability of printers to disseminate information quickly in the 15th century led to hundreds of years of wars between different religious sects and their secular representatives in national leadership that virtually paralyzed Europe, and likewise the rise of the Internet will bring about more world war instead of world peace, as terror organizations like ISIS (which didn’t yet exist when he wrote, but he saw the signs) have a new tool of unprecedented effectiveness in bringing together disaffected young people, mostly but not always from Muslim backgrounds (there’s a provocative article in a recent Los Angeles Times that argues that it’s precisely Britain’s willingness to allow its Muslim immigrants to form their own insular communities and even run their own courts that has immunized the U.K. from the kind of sweeping attack we saw against France, where a tradition of separation of church and state originally designed to keep the Roman Catholic Church from dominating the government has been applied to Muslims and thereby made them feel like they have to choose between Islam and France). It occurred to me while watching the William Morgan documentary that he went to Cuba because that was the game in town for a wanna-be revolutionary in the 1950’s; had he had those feelings of isolation and alienation in the 1930’s, he might well have joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War — and today a person like Morgan might well be high-tailing it to Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan to join ISIS.