Reality on the ground is often quite different than what appears in news commentary and even Executive Department briefing papers. This is especially true regarding terrorism in general. The statement has been made that ISIS has been effectively defeated in Syria and that the Taliban has been reduced in strength in Afghanistan. These are the reasons for withdrawing U.S. military forces from these combat areas. Unfortunately, such a definitive circumstance is belied by the reality on the ground.
To begin with, the various organized terrorist groups in the Middle East may have different names and even sponsors, but they all share the same strategic goal. They are all Islamic in character and united in their desire to remove western influence/control from a chosen sector – and, in one form or another, ultimately gain dominance over economic assets such as oil production and sales. Sometimes the real ambition is simply to gain unrestricted power for power’s sake. To complicate things further, the number of “soldiers” in the terrorist organizations is broadly estimated, at best. One of the prime examples of this was an official estimate by Kurdish leadership that ISIS has over one million members. One wonders what the various intelligence agencies make of that, especially when another Kurdish official spokesman said that ISIS had two million members. Of course, the numbers are wildly exaggerated, though they may refer to those people under ISIS suzerainty. The best calculations now run between ten to thirty- thousand fighters. Of course, these estimates may be off by a factor of ten. In any case, there is plenty of room to dispute the claim that “…ISIS is defeated!”
From time to time, the several terrorist organizations compete for regional control of political, military and/or economic assets. Of course, the shared Islamic faith in its several characterizations acts as the basic cohesive element even when ultimately divided by their theocratic structures such as Sunni versus Shia divisions. Thus, the shared Shia characterization generally of Syria and Iran, and the various instruments operating under their aegis, is further divided by internal factors including those ethnic and historic.
Oil production is an important economic target for the otherwise politically aligned groups. A good example of such targeting is the highly valuable oil fields in the Mosul area of northern Iraq. Control of an oil-producing region carries with it political status as well as economic benefit. Sometimes agreements on preserving production capability can be – and are – worked out between all competing elements rather than fighting over the territory that would ultimately end in destruction. Such practical divisions produce mutually beneficial – and even peaceful – evolution if all parties remain satisfied with their share. The problem is that this “deal” doesn’t always survive individual ambitions on the terrorist side. It’s not unlike the “turf” divisions that existed among and between “family” dominated Mafia organizations originally in Sicily and Calabria that later spread externally where Italian and related immigration occurred. Sometimes the Western nations participating in the Middle Eastern conflict do not give enough recognition to these entities.
Tribal connections and traditional family alliances are often the basis of “marriages of convenience” that also act as protection instruments for unified action. What this all adds up to is a self-perpetuating, multi-faceted, para-military capability in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere – often sponsored and supplied by outside interests. It is a process in which all world powers participate to varying degrees at various times. It is obvious therefore that when one external power withdraws from participation in a given sector, that region becomes an automatic target of opportunity for other internal interests and their external partners.
In this regard, if an externally abandoned region (or country) has been a support point (stutzpunkt in German military terms), it becomes a priority target for opposition forces in the multifarious world of terrorist action. Thus, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from one of the Kurdish regions of Syria immediately becomes the focus of aggressive intention of opposition elements determined to gain control of that particular region. If the indigenous forces are not able to defend their positions, they are clearly at risk. It is the simple and terrible logic of conflict in that area of the world today. From the external standpoint the only question that remains is whether that piece of geography and its people are worth the continued involvement of foreign military.
However, similar decisions of continued security commitment exist in other places around the globe. South Korea represents such a commitment and the American negotiations with North Korea are strongly influenced thereby. In truth, the Russians find themselves in the same situation as the Americans. Moscow wants to be able to exert their influence in the Middle East and therefore can’t withdraw from situations and areas to which they have indicated a commitment. Of course, the United States has its own reasons for exerting its influence in places like the Middle East and Africa. The U.S. finds the growing interest and involvement of China in the latter is objectionable, to say the least.
The division of the world into clear lines of nation states and colonies no longer exists. Amalgams such as the European Union have replaced the old political economic borders. In the Middle East there is the blurring of religion, tribalism and ethnicity. The ancient and modern borders are under attack. It’s not the first time such evolution has happened in world history. It’s just more apparent today due to modern communication. The Crusades involved the same area in the Middle East that is in a high state of tension today. It just wasn’t covered by TV networks. One thing has remained the same: If a national power or special interest becomes involved on its own initiative in a tumultuous part of the world, it better be prepared to stay. There is no convenient way to withdraw without at least losing regional and even world status – or worse. It may not be convenient, but it is reality!