George W Bush, the United States president, was unequivocal in his response to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaida was a threat to the world and must be destroyed; the Taliban regime in Afghanistan would be terminated; western states should give strong support to the US in its immediate military assaults.
At the time, a handful of analysts in think-tanks such as Oxford Research Group and Focus on the Global South warned against such instant responses. They argued that al-Qaida sought confrontation and that 9/11 had been a provocation with this aim in mind. After all, one superpower had already been humbled in Afghanistan during the 1980s; here was a chance to repeat the action against another, however long it might take.
The regime in Kabul was indeed terminated in a matter of weeks, and in January 2002 - two months after the Taliban had gone - Bush delivered his first state-of-the-union address as president. He extended the war against al-Qaida to a much broader conflict against an “axis of evil”, the immediate enemy being the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. This received rapturous applause.
As war loomed a year later, the rhetoric escalated. The Baghdad regime was declared a threat to the world, in part on account of its alleged possession of missiles loaded with weapons of mass destruction that could be launched in forty-five minutes. Saddam was overthrown within three weeks in March-April 2003; the following month, Bush made his “mission accomplished” speech to great acclaim.
In the event, the war in Afghanistan was to last thirteen years before the US withdrew most of its troops. There may be much more insecurity yet to come (see "Afghanistan: state of insecurity", 31 July 2014). Iraq developed into a bitter eight-year war that cost well over 100,000 lives and is now leading on to a third major confrontation. Al-Qaida may be a shadow of its former self but as an idea it is gaining more potency and fresh recruits. There are evolving movements fired by the idea in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Libya and many other countries; a determined and brutal offshoot, Islamic State (IS), controls substantial territory in Syria and Iraq.
George W Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, insists that Islamic State must be degraded and ultimately destroyed. The war started in earnest with major bombardments on 22-23 September 2014. The one big difference between now and 2001 or 2003 may be that senior military in Washington are saying from the start that this will be a long war stretching over years (see "The thirty-year war, continued", 11 September 2014).
Even so, in spite of presumed war weariness, majority opinion in the US is moving in favour of war. In Britain, prime minister David Cameron is seeking and will likely get cross-party support for UK strike aircraft to join in. Most of the public in the UK was recently assessed as being opposed to direct involvement, but that may change in the face of repeated claims of immediate threat.
The Islamic State view
The air-raids earlier this week were much more substantial than reported in established media outlets. Most were undertaken by the United States, using cruise-missiles, drones, the F-22 stealth-aircraft and other systems from the airforce, navy and marines, with five Arab states playing more of a symbolic support role.
The operations, far more intense than the seven weeks of bombing IS targets in Iraq, hit twenty-two sites in three broad areas across northern Syria. One of the best-informed US journals, Military Times, reports:
“Monday night’s attacks involved about 200 munitions, a defense official said, making it far more intense than the air campaign over Iraq that began Aug. 8, which have rarely targeted more than one or two sites at a time.”
The intensity of the assaults may suggest that IS will be rapidly crippled, but this is very far from the truth. The previous column in this series pointed to the limited impact of the US attacks in Iraq so far (see "Into the third Iraq war", 18 September 2014). There are also numerous reports that, days before being attacked, IS paramilitaries in Raqqa and elsewhere had already dispersed from their bases into the city. Thus, the buildings targeted were largely empty.
In a further revealing analysis, Military Times assesses the impact of the raids in Iraq:
“So far, the strikes have not targeted large urban areas such as Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit, where breaking the extremists’ grip is harder and the risk of civilian casualties is higher. In a sign of their confidence, Islamic State group fighters paraded 30 captured Iraqi soldiers in pickup trucks through the streets of Fallujah on Tuesday, only hours after the coalition strikes across the border in Syria.”
This should not come as a surprise. The core of the Islamic State is formed of determined paramilitaries, many of them combat-trained young men who survived the ugly war fought by US and UK special forces against Iraqi Sunni insurgents during the Iraq war after 2003.
As this new war accelerates, it is wise to assume that Islamic State is not only ready for this but welcomes it. The movement will be particularly pleased that the Pentagon is preparing to deploy an army division headquarters to Iraq, a strong indication that many more troops will be moved there in the coming weeks. The possibility of capturing US military personnel is particularly attractive (see "America and Islamic State: mission creeping?", 21 August 2014).
The longer term
The fact that Washington is in coalition with five Sunni Arab states is not so much irrelevant as to be expected by IS. After all, radical jihadist movements in the Middle East for at least two decades have been opposed to the “near enemy” of autocratic regimes just as much as to the “far enemy” of the United States, these regimes' consistent backer.
For now, Obama will have much domestic support, as will Cameron in the UK, Francois Hollande in France and not forgetting Tony Abbott in Australia. Furthermore, the intensive air assault that will develop in the coming weeks will most certainly give an impression of progress, with the Islamic State reported as being much diminished.
In the short term, though, even the positive spin might not ring true. It is uncertain how IS will react in the next few days, what will happen to the multiple hostages, or whether it will launch diversionary attacks (for example, on the US base that is rapidly building up at Baghdad international airport) or engineer some completely unexpected event.
In any case, it is the longer term that counts. It is all too likely that this war, a couple of years hence, will look every bit as misjudged and futile as the previous two.
Get our weekly email