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The Endless War

November 18, 2015

What does winning look like?

A few weeks ago on this site I wrote about cultural conceptions of war and how Western strategy and political discourse concerning military conflict are deeply rooted in specifically Western conceptions of what war is. Wars in the Western tradition begin with declarations, are decided on the battlefield between combatants, and end with peace treaties. More generally, the West conceives of war as an aberration, something outside the norm, a violent interregnum between periods of peace that has a well-defined beginning and an end.

A few days ago 132 people were killed in horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. They day before 43 people were killed by a car bomb in Beirut. Twelve days earlier 224 people were killed when a Russian airline was blown up over the Sinai. Paris. Beirut. Ankara. Cairo. Tunis. Nairobi. Boston. Mumbai. London. Amman. Islamabad. Bali. Mombasa. Riyadh. Casablanca. Madrid. New York. Fourteen years after George W. Bush launched what he called the Global War on Terror, thirteen years after Al-Qaida lost their base in Afghanistan, six years after they were largely driven from Iraq, there seems to be no end in sight.

What is our exit strategy? What is our end goal? Are our policies towards the Middle East a recipe for endless foreign wars? What does winning look like?

Do we still expect a surrender moment?

Do we still expect a surrender moment? (source)

These are all questions nearly everyone in the West has asked over the past twelve years, but I think it is important to recognize that they spring from a particularly Western cultural conception of war. We expect this war to end. In the West victory means the guns falling silent on the Western Front. It means Lee and Grant at Appomattox, V-E Day in Potsdam, MacArthur signing papers on the USS Missouri, General Schwarzkopf meeting Iraqi generals in a tent in the desert. Victory has a time and place when the guns fall silent and the enemy agrees to cease to resist.

And yet now it seems that they never do.

ISIS and Al-Qaida (the differences between them are disagreements over tactics, not ideology) have a very different cultural conception of war.

In a review of the philosophy of Jihadist political theorist Sayyid Qutb as part of his 2001 book Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner [translated and abridged here], Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri argued that Qutb’s great contribution was to show that the fundamental issue at stake was whether legitimate authority is derived from God or from men. The will of God as revealed through the Qur’an and the Sharia was for all the world to become Muslim and live according to God’s will. Qutb’s views were deeply rooted in his conception of monotheism and the essential unity of God. God is perfection and truth, and divine revelation in the Qur’an and Sharia are therefore also perfect and true. God is one, so the Ummah must also be one.

The struggle, therefore, was between the forces of Islam and everything else. According to Zawahiri, the duty of the believer is to continue to violently struggle “until Almighty God inherits the earth and those who live on it.” [p. 13]

Sayyid Qutb in prison in Egypt. He was executed on the orders of Gamel Abdel Nasser in 1966 during a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Sayyid Qutb on trial in Egypt. He was executed on the orders of Gamel Abdel Nasser in 1966 during a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. (source)

What this was to look like in practice is illustrated by the 2005 strategic document “The Seven Phases of the Base” penned by Saif al-Adel. He detailed plans to draw the United States into a war in the Middle East in response to a massive terrorist attack, develop the resulting conflict into a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam, bring about the collapse of secular Arab governments, declare a caliphate by 2016, and move into a final showdown with the West to establish the Caliphate’s dominance.

The phase strategy proposed by Adel undergirds another book titled The Management of Savagery, written by Muhammad Khalil al-Hakim under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Naji. By managing savagery Hakim means establishing a government to bring order to the chaos left behind by the collapse of the current nation-states in the Middle East. To bring about their collapse the use of violence and massacres is necessary. Key to the establishment of order is what Hakim calls “the polarization of the Ummah,” that is, “To transform societies into two opposing groups, igniting a violent battle between them whose end is either victory or martyrdom, whose emblem is either glorious war or humiliating peace. One of the two opposing groups is in Paradise and the other is in Hell.” [p. 11-20, 31, 46-47]

Therefore, in Al-Qaida’s formulation (and by extension ISIS as well) all life is a struggle for unity under one God. Violence is a tool used to bring about this unity through pushing people into picking a side, and later by destroying those who are outside the Ummah. Wars do not begin or end, rather, struggle is the normal state of being for true believers, the only ending is the final one, and violence is just a means to achieve this end.

The Challenge for Cultural Heritage Preservation

A major problem facing the preservation of cultural heritage during modern conflicts is that the framework of international law used to support such efforts assumes the Western conception of war.

  • UNESCO, the primary United Nations organization dedicated to protecting cultural heritage, can only work with the governments of its member states.
  • Laws declaring antiquities to be national property and thereby providing legal framework for the repatriation of artifacts assume the existence of states.
  • UNESCO’s own work in Syria has focused on laying the groundwork for postwar recovery. The goal is “restoring social cohesion, stability and sustainable development through the protection and safeguarding of cultural heritage,” which assumes that the war will end in some sort of political settlement which restores a unified Syrian state.

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict is replete with the language of the Westphalian international system:

Article 4.1: “The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect cultural property situated within their own territory as well as within the territory of other High Contracting Parties by refraining from any use of the property and its immediate surroundings or of the appliances in use for its protection for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict.

Article 4.3: “They shall refrain from requisitioning movable cultural property situated in the territory of another High Contracting Party.”

Article 5.1: “Any High Contracting Party in occupation of the whole or part of the territory of another High Contracting Party shall as far as possible support the competent national authorities of the occupied country in safeguarding and preserving its cultural property.”

Article 18.1: “Apart from the provisions which shall take effect in time of peace, the present Convention shall apply in the event of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by, one or more of them.”

Article 28: “The High Contracting Parties undertake to take, within the framework of their ordinary criminal jurisdiction, all necessary steps to prosecute and impose penal or disciplinary sanctions upon those persons, of whatever nationality, who commit or order to be committed a breach of the present Convention.”

Irregular armed forces are only mentioned briefly and it is assumed they will be operating on behalf of a government in exile like the Free French in World War II:

Article 5.3: “Any High Contracting Party whose government is considered their legitimate government by members of a resistance movement, shall, if possible, draw their attention to the obligation to comply with those provisions of the Convention dealing with respect for cultural property.”

The conventions do make an awkward attempt to apply the treaty to persons who do not recognize the authority of their national government that signed the convention, by saying they are bound by it anyways as they are citizens of a state that signed the treaty:

Article 19.1: “In the event of an armed conflict not of an international character occurring within the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as, a minimum, the provisions of the present Convention which relate to respect for cultural property.”

The 1999 Second Protocol added to the 1954 Convention continued in the same vein:

Article 9.1: “Without prejudice to the provisions of Articles 4 and 5 of the Convention, a Party in occupation of the whole or part of the territory of another Party shall prohibit and prevent in relation to the occupied territory: a) any illicit export, other removal or transfer of ownership of cultural property; b) any archaeological excavation, save where this is strictly required to safeguard, record or preserve cultural property.”

Article 9.2: “Any archaeological excavation of, alteration to, or change of use of, cultural property in occupied territory shall, unless circumstances do not permit, be carried out in close co-operation with the competent national authorities of the occupied territory.”

Article 15.2: “Each Party shall adopt such measures as may be necessary to establish as criminal offences under its domestic law the offences set forth in this Article and to make such offences punishable by appropriate penalties.”

Article 16.1: “Each Party shall take the necessary legislative measures to establish its jurisdiction over offences set forth in Article 15 in the following cases: a) when such an offence is committed in the territory of that State; b) when the alleged offender is a national of that State.”

Article 22.1: “This Protocol shall apply in the event of an armed conflict not of an international character, occurring within the territory of one of the Parties.”

Article 22.3: “Nothing in this Protocol shall be invoked for the purpose of affecting the sovereignty of a State or the responsibility of the government, by all legitimate means, to maintain or re-establish law and order in the State or to defend the national unity and territorial integrity of the State.”

Article 22.4: “Nothing in this Protocol shall prejudice the primary jurisdiction of a Party in whose territory an armed conflict not of an international character occurs over the violations set forth in Article 15.”

This past September I attended a conference at Wellesley College on the crisis of destruction in Iraq and Syria. At the conclusion of the conference Dr. Ed Silver spoke of the “frustrated impotence” of each speaker at our inability to do anything about the destruction of antiquities by ISIS.

I submit that some of this frustration may be due to our reliance on old paradigms designed within the context of an international system that is becoming less and less relevant in many parts of the world.

We need to consider new models for cultural heritage preservation that are not predicated on the continuation of the current Westphalian, United Nations-backed international system. We will need to consider unrecognized states, non-hierarchical power structures, open source insurgencies and systematic disruptions. Some of John Robb‘s work on networked resilient communities may be an interesting place to begin.

(Incidentally this is a debate to which scholars of pre-modern societies may have the most to contribute).

The Sykes-Picot imposed international system that has governed the Middle East since World War 1 is fading. Syria and Iraq will never again be the way they were, for twentieth century Arab nationalism is dead and gone. In the long term this sort of systematic instability may envelop the entire international system. Let us consider the future now, that we not be blindsided again.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 23, 2015 2:01 PM

    This is very insightful. And I have been trying to remember the term clash of civilizations for days now. Since I realize that this is what all of this is. Someone predicted this very same situation years ago. My fear is that there will be no end to this.

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