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Is the Islamic State Really Such a Psychological Enigma?

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By all means let's mourn together; but let's not be stupid together.

""""""""""""""""""""""""""-Susan Sontag

The costly debacle known as the Iraq War put the US government in a tough spot that's now exacerbated by the rise of the Islamic State in Anbar Province and western Syria.

A recent New York Times story referred to the Islamic State (also ISIS or ISIL) as a "conundrum" -- "a hybrid terrorist organization and a conventional army." The focus of the story was Major General Michael Nagata, who heads something within the Pentagon known as the Strategic Multilayer Assessment. The Times called it an "unofficial brain trust outside the traditional realms of expertise within the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies, in search of fresh ideas and inspiration." Besides this theoretical effort to delve into the psychology of the Islamic State, General Nagata has been assigned by President Obama the practical battlefield task of training local Syrian and Iraqi forces to fight the Islamic State.

Major General Michael Nagata, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at Camp Bucca and the Islamic State leader today by unknown

"We do not understand the movement," General Nagata said of the Islamic State. "And until we do, we are not going to defeat it. We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea." The Islamic State's efforts to reach into places like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and even Afghanistan "is a huge area of concern," said Lisa Monaco, Obama's counterterrorism adviser. CIA Director John Brennan said, "We have to find a way to address some of these factors and conditions that are abetting and allowing these movements to grow."

General Nagata's concern is this: "There is a magnetic attraction to I.S. that is bringing in resources, talent, weapons, etc, to thicken, harden, embolden I.S. in ways that are very alarming." In other words, the Pentagon and the US government are seriously scared of the Islamic State and what it means in the Middle East, North Africa and Southwest Asia. General Nagata, we're told, wants to introduce complexity into the conundrum. Some might say it's a bit late in the game for that. To his credit, the general seems to realize that the Islamic State is playing the US like a fiddle. "They want us to become emotional. They revel in being called murderers when the words are coming from an apostate. They are happy to see us outraged," he says. This suggests that, so far, US belligerence has played right into the hands of the Islamic State, and General Nagata knows it.

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The problem with General Nagata's effort is it fails to include in the analysis the elephant sitting in the room. That elephant is the culpability of the United States of America in fomenting the rise, and the sustaining power, of the Islamic State. Without us, there would be no Islamic State. The disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq started with the criminalization of the ruling Ba'ath Party and the absolute disbanding of the Iraqi military. This stupid decision was further exacerbated by a desperate and ruthless campaign of focused killing in Anbar Province to neutralize the leadership of the Sunni insurgency that -- surprise! -- rose in direct opposition to our invasion and occupation. Our cavalier exhibition of "shock and awe" on Iraqi society ended up turning the keys to the country over to the out-of-power Shiites allied with our worst enemy, Iran. Besides being ill-conceived and dishonest, what we did in Iraq was an incredible insult to Sunnis.

In February 2004, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was captured and held by US forces in the Camp Bucca prison for 10 months; he was released in December. We can only presume he was not treated like a first class citizen. Baghdadi's two deputies are former Iraqi generals stripped of power by Paul Bremer, the Kissinger protegee assigned the role of proconsul in the US invasion and occupation. Other leaders in the Islamic State are Sunni veterans of Saddam's army familiar with Anbar Province.

The point is it's impossible to understand the Islamic State unless one realizes it's an entity fueled by grave resentment and vengeance for the strategically stupid imperial blundering the United States did in Iraq. And since, like Iraq War Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush, the United States never can say it's sorry or admit to any wrong doing, you have to wonder whether all the mysterious psychological talk General Nagata and his experts are sharing with the press is not actually a ruse. It seems disingenuous as long as the Bush's Great Imperial Blunder is not considered in a cause and effect role.

A cursory look at the Middle East, North Africa and Southwest Asia should make it clear that many powerless, struggling elements in that part of the world tend to fall back on ethnic and religious roots as ideological fuel to sustain their struggle. One of the prime functions of religion is to explain the mystery of death, to place one's inevitable death into a larger narrative of meaning. When life reaches rock bottom, religion helps make sense of it all. People in Muslim lands are no different. Religion can be a major motivator for a crusade against oppressive demons. Events like the Iraq War have made us a demon for many. For us in the US, our self-perceived exceptionalism has become a religion.

Virginia Postrel says what General Nagata calls the "magnetic attraction" of the Islamic State can be quite compelling. "The result is a 21st-century Islamic version of the medieval Christian Crusades. Islamic State promises ordinary men adventure, fellowship and religious significance if they fight infidels and heretics in a distant land."

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Full disclosure, for anyone who might think otherwise, I detest ISIS or the Islamic State. Killing and chopping off heads as a way to advance one's interests is repugnant to me. But so is the rash invasion and occupation of a nation that, despite its gangster leader and the embargo, had a lot going for it. Before the Gulf War, Iraq was approaching first world status in some areas. When I was in Baghdad in December 2003, I ran into many educated and sophisticated Iraqis who told me Saddam was, indeed, a monster, but that if you went about your business and stayed out of politics life was good. Our invasion tossed a huge bomb into that state of affairs. We wrecked the place. We turned it from an imperfect nation into a festering wound that's far more dangerous now than it was in early 2003. Actions have consequences.

The Islamic State is, more than anything, a symptom of that grave wound inflicted by the United States on Iraq. General Nagata and his experts no doubt talk realistically about this in secret. It's only a great enigma in the public relations realm. We all know by now that embarrassment is the primary cause for most secrecy. That's true today in spades. Our military institutions now deal with US citizens in two very distinct modes: Secrecy or Public Relations. Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and James Risen work in the no-man's in between those two modes. General Nagata's notion of a great mystery is probably a PR tack. Don't think cause and effect; think mystery. Everybody loves a good mystery.

General Stanley McChrystal, an aerial view of Fallujah in Anbar Province, now known as the Islamic State by unknown

The brilliant Stanley McChrystal, for instance, was a master at straddling this divide. During the Shock & Awe invasion, he was the charming one-star PR officer who gave the daily press briefing. Other talents soon became evident and he shot up the ranks to four stars. He led the deeply secret operation in Anbar Province assigned to lop off the heads of the Sunni insurgency our invasion had flushed out. He turned a sluggish intel operation into a streamlined effort that could analyze laptops, phones and documents obtained in night raids and parlay the information gained into three or four more raids before the sun came up. Many of these raids were to kill leaders of the insurgency. Torture was a tool. Reportedly, men and women wore civilian clothes with no rank and used fictitious names -- all to make accountability difficult to impossible. Before his effort became public it was known among reporters as "the Salvadoran option." Salvadoran for death squads.

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I'm a 68-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and (more...)

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