On April 8, 2014, al-Baghdadi announced Al-Nusra & Islamic State Iraq were joining forces, and soon unleashed an impressive series of attacks that gained large swaths of Iraqi & Syrian territory (see below). Tied to the seemingly unstoppable progress was the horror of ISIS' fanaticism and cruel behavior towards any non-adherent to their fringe beliefs. Besides fodder for those who believe all Islam is like this, it renewed criticism of how the Iraq War was managed, helped fuel the mass emigration from Iraq & Syria that swamped Europe for a time (and almost dented the US), and provided a key thread of fear and loathing for the 2016 campaign trail.
The threat & ease of spread by ISIS wasn't just do to its methods and persuasion. It relied on the in-fighting of those that might in saner times approach it - in short, they relied on a philosophical vacuum much as they relied on the huge areas of unoccupied desert to make their gains look more impressive.
3 years later (in 3 weeks) we see what happens when Kurds, Shi'ites, Sunnis and any other factions join together to confront a regional pariah. It hasn't been easy - the Caliphate gained land much faster than the slow, plodding effort to retake control. Even back in October there was some feeling that defeat of ISIS could be just a few weeks away - but instead the much more extended re-capture of Mosul has enlightened us to the new realities of lightning war, or its non-existence in a terrain where we worry about civilian life rather than raw advance.
In a way, it's good that things don't look that easy. We get conditioned to think of $600 billion in weapons as a simple path to superiority, when in fact, arms are only 1 aspect of "command and control", and "power to the people" is as essential as a cache of Kalashnikovs. In the old run of movies, a bridge like that over the River Kwai became the final target - these days our bridges multiply - and what we tear down has to soon be built back up. As IEDs earned our respect last decade, car bombs and drones earn our respect this one.
In any case, our alliance- and team-builiding skills have been at the top of our game, even while lost in all the claims and jostling for position. For Iraq and parts of Syria, progress has been measured in both retake of cities and clawing back city blocks. But once the street fighting stops, the map stands to be much changed for the remainder of the battle. Al-Raqqa remains, plus northwest of Mosul, and then on to Palmyra. And thus will end the eastern offensive.
What happens to the west is another issue - a new triad of Syria, Russia and Turkey has emerged, with the Kurds caught in an unenviable position, along with remnants of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and various unaffiliated rebel groups.
But besides the progress on the battlefield, I'm concerned about the issues it brings up for how we hold our proverbial shit together - just as we let 9/11 unhinge us, our stance towards the chaos of war, refugees, immigration, tribalism, et al has left us in a vulnerable state more dangerous than the Caliphate - we've again lost direction - both thinking a sudden setback is the end of the question, but also in coming up with sane metrics and limits for managing change and chaos. Mosul can be a great metaphor tied to Nov 8, 2016.
One of the things I like about the EU is an image of a sane society, with tradeoffs, a calm temper of progress, a lack of drama about change. The Le Pen saga along with some Greek meltdown are about all that drive a concern of what's happening, at least up until Brexit last June. And you might think aside from the hoopla around Scottish independence vote that we could have casually noted and then dismissed the concern around Brexit - something worth fixing but not obsessing over - except for the poison pill involved.
So with the rise of ISIS we learned that it's not that bad, that we can compensate, ally to defeat, restore order, and in other ways hold down the fort. In a matter of 3 years we went from panic to planning & back to control. The voices of hair-on-fire might suggest that any new challenge is a new opportunity to make over-emotional, reality-detached proclamations about what it all means. But if we're going to find the news cycle keeps throwing these momentarily problematic but ultimately overcomeable situations at us, we might as well learn to take a breath and approach with intellect rather than adrenalin. And besides it helping to combat "the other", it also helps us fashion our policies and priorities in line with the real world - to better reflect on what we're pushing as well.
So for now, take a moment to reflect on what 2 years of cooperation and hard work have brought:
And now (soon to be much better):
PS - I'm continually amazed and entranced by this time-lapse from the Korean War some 65 years ago - especially the dark days of September 1950: the amount of whoa shit, what-if, tenuous toehold on a peninsula only to come back to stasis and what's one of the more prosperous and stable and self-correcting (i.e. just threw out its PM this week) democracies today. As FDR noted, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The rest is logistics and mindset.