My attempt to channel Tom Clancy, with a bit of Mark Steyn thrown in for good measure, (The Second ISIS War (2015-2024): A Historical Perspective) certainly generated a lot of commentary. It ranged from "who is this idiot" to "fascinating." Actually describing a hypothetical future in which ISIS controls large portions of the world was an interesting intellectual exercise not to mention the fact that pretending to be Tom Clancy was a lot of fun. This week let me take the opportunity to separate fact from fiction in the "ISIS Wars."
The column was written to make three points:
1. The civil wars in Libya and Afghanistan and the growing power of ISIS in each of those countries poses a far greater threat to Europe and the United States than the rise of the Islamic State (for convenience's sake, I am using the term ISIS and Islamic State interchangeably) in Iraq and Syria and the ongoing civil wars there. Not only has ISIS become a major source of violence and instability in each of these countries, but also its brutality is further radicalizing other jihadist groups. In Afghanistan, ISIS' focus has increasingly been an all-out civil war with al-Qaeda. The consequences of ISIS inspired jihadist violence spilling over into the surrounding regions, (North Africa and the Mediterranean area in the case of Libya) and (Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia in the case of Afghanistan) is real. It is already happening. Consider the terrorist incidents in Tunisia and Egypt, not to mention the terrorist attacks in Europe over the last few months. In Pakistan, there has already been a sharp increase in violence against the Shia community there.
This is not conjecture; this is fact. How this situation might evolve from here is anyone's guess (that's the "Clancy" part). I chose to call it the "Second ISIS War" to distinguish it from what is happening in Syria and Iraq. Whether it's called the "Second ISIS War" or something else doesn't matter. What matters is that it is a war, a war that is barely on our radar and one which to date we have largely ignored.
2. The pro-European Union centrist parties, both on the right and on the left, will steadily give ground to the anti-EU parties. The economic problems in the EU's Mediterranean fringe are structural and will weigh on the cohesion of the EU. The Greek debt dilemma is just a metaphor for a far larger problem. The richer members of the EU will find it politically impossible to subsidize these countries. Doing so will only fuel the rise of anti-EU political parties.
The anti-immigration and the anti-EU (read subsidize southern Europe) themes are increasingly merging with a "nationalist agenda" and becoming the core platform of these protest parties. See, for example, the evolution of the National Front in France, (now the third largest political party) under Marine Le Pen. Political extremism is more tolerable in France than it is in Germany (which is still embarrassed by its Nazi past). The political strategy of the National Front is becoming the template for other anti-EU/anti-immigration parties. So far, these parties have been on the fringe, but the trend is unmistakable.
The idea that Europe's "rich" northern states would "abandon" the "poor" Mediterranean states is admittedly hard to believe, but it is not as farfetched as it seems. Especially, if such an agreement was part of a larger deal, with say someone like ISIS or a similar organization, designed to reduce terrorist violence and preserve peace.
At the Munich Conference, in 1938, Great Britain and France were quick to sell out Czechoslovakia to the Nazis in order "to preserve peace for our time." In 1918, twenty years earlier, the likelihood of that event would have been as farfetched, as improbable, as the notion that the northern European states would abandon the EU's Mediterranean states in 2035 in order to "preserve peace for their time." The rise of anti-EU/anti-immigration parties in Europe is political fact. How European politics might evolve over the next 20 years is conjecture, but past history would suggest that the outcome described may not be as farfetched as it would appear.
3. Its brutality notwithstanding, ISIS enjoys a tremendous amount of sympathy/support within the "Arab street." In the fictional account of the "ISIS Wars," much of ISIS's expansion is the result of the voluntary acceptance of its authority by other countries. This is not so farfetched. The record of the expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria underscores the fact that without the support, or at least the acquiescence of the local population, it is hard to see how ISIS could have defeated opponents that were ten times or more their size and better armed to boot.
Moreover, the idea of "conquest" and "invasion" need not necessarily follow the conventional notion of a foreign army arriving on Europe's or America's shore. ISIS didn't start with an act of conquest; it started by simply declaring itself into existence. The actual military conquest came later. Should an ISIS affiliated state emerge in Western Europe or North America, a possible but highly unlikely event, it would not be the result of a conventional invasion but more likely the result of a Muslim community simply declaring that it was now part of ISIS and that it would henceforth operate under Sharia law. The military conflict and expansion, one presumes, would come later. This is after all how ISIS has already been able to expand and develop "franchises" in some two dozen different countries.
This is not so farfetched an idea. Already there are outlying areas of France's cities, including Paris, which police and security forces leave alone. Scores of other European cities, from London to Amsterdam are heading in the same direction. For all practical purposes these are "no go" zones where the Muslim community is left alone to sort out its own affairs and where Sharia law is routinely enforced.
It's impossible to know how these "proto-Islamic polities" will evolve. Unlike the American experience with immigration, however, it is unlikely that they will become socialized into a larger "melting pot" of a national culture. This is new ground -- the future development of these communities is anybody's guess. More importantly, current demographic trends favor the continued growth of these ethnic groups. While still a long way from becoming the majority, over time they will become a greater percentage of the population. As Mark Steyn has pointed out, there is a reason why the most popular name for newborn infants in Europe is Mohammed.
Likewise, I chose to set an ISIS affiliated state in the Midwest, rather than say the East Coast, because there are large Muslim populations/communities in cities like Detroit and Minneapolis. Although these communities are far better integrated and have much more economic opportunity than their European counterparts, how they might evolve and how events in Europe and the Middle East might shape their outlook is unclear. What would happen if a Muslim community in the United States suddenly announced that they were affiliating with the Islamic State? Would such an event be quickly stamped out or tolerated as an example of multicultural political correctness? Admittedly this is pretty farfetched. We are really deep in "Clancy land" here, but it is a question worth asking.
A couple of other points. The idea that "Putin would never stand for this" is grossly misinformed. By 2050, more than half of the population of Russia will be Muslim. In the key 18 to 30 year old male demographic, the core of a nation's military forces, the percentage of Muslims in Russia will be around 70% of the population. Moscow already has the largest Muslim population of any European city, with the exception of Istanbul.
Russia's population peaked some 20 years ago and, a few short-term upticks notwithstanding, has been in a steady decline. Demography is history; falling birth rates and rising mortality will take their toll on Russia. By the end of the twenty-first century, Russia's population will be half of what it is today. See the excellent summary/commentary by noted historian Daniel Pipes on Russian demographic trends and the growth of its Muslim population..
How will Russia deal with these demographic trends? Will it be a civil war, an apartheid-like segregation of its Muslim citizens, or a gradual shrinking to a core Russian state? I opted for the latter. I called it the Khanate of Moscow. Historically, the core Russian state, the place where the relentless rise of Russia began was called the Duchy of Muscovy. Perhaps Russia's destiny is to return to the core of its national roots. "Putin would never stand for it?" Putin isn't going to have a choice.
As far as disbanding the United States Marine Corp, there have been eleven serious attempts to do so since the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Will there be a twelfth? Will it be successful? The idea is certainly not as farfetched as it sounds. Nor is the idea of further reductions in American military forces so improbable. According to Defense News, the Pentagon is already projecting an Army troop level of between 400,000 and 450,000 soldiers in 2019 This is barely above the 400,000 minimum manning levels that the Pentagon argued in 2013, according to USA Today, it would need to successfully fight a war. This is the lowest level of troop strength since 1939. It's hard to believe that the world is much less dangerous today than it was then.
Finally, the idea that as a last resort, as many suggested, we would just "nuke them" is silly. Nuke what exactly, the Syrian Desert, the city of Mosul? Nuclear weapons are singularly useless against a deeply entrenched insurgency, especially one that has shown itself to be as fluid and as adaptable as ISIS. Moreover, regardless of their efficacy, there is simply no political will, thankfully, to ever deploy such weapons of mass destruction.
The rest of the column is admittedly a fanciful exercise in "what if," more the stuff of thrillers or the next Mission Impossible (maybe they'll ask me to help write the script) movie than hard facts. I wasn't always able to connect the dots as much as I wanted. There is only so much you can explain in 2,000 words (that's already double what HP wants from its writers). Still, though the scenario described is improbable, it is well within the realm of possibility.
The future is invariably stranger than we can imagine. A visitor to Germany in 1930 would have been justified in dismissing the Nazi's as the "JV team." A bunch of buffoons holding torchlight parades down Germany's ancient cobble stone streets, espousing a weird ideological mishmash of German nationalism, anti-Semitism, bizarre occult and mystical beliefs and disreputable theories of racial superiority. Mien Kampf, after all, was clearly the work of a lunatic. A decade later, the Nazi's were masters of most of Europe and the SS was building Auschwitz.
In 1979 Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan. The invasion came during a period of relentless Soviet military growth. At the time the rise of Soviet naval capabilities sparked a Pentagon wide debate as to whether a 600 ship US Navy would be sufficient to counter the Soviet threat (today by the way the Navy has half that many ships). The invasion was seen as a possible precursor to the invasion of Baluchistan. That would have placed Soviet troops on the Indian Ocean, just kitty corner from the Persian Gulf and its oil fields. Instead, twelve years later, the Soviet Union had collapsed and the formidable Soviet Navy was rusting at anchor.
The "ISIS Wars" was not an exercise in predicting the future. Nor was it a thinly veiled argument for putting "American boots on the ground." Personally, I think ISIS has become to firmly entrenched to be destroyed by American military power. It was, rather, an exercise in examining the current situation and asking "what if," an examination of how the dots might end up being connected. There are literally hundreds of possible scenarios for how the situation with ISIS might evolve. All are plausible, all of them are highly unlikely, but one of those plausible but highly unlikely scenarios is probably going to be the one that results. Whichever one that is, we are going to have to figure out how to live with it.