‘You Cannot Use Military Force to Wipe Out Terrorism’ – CounterSpin interview with Phyllis Bennis on ISIS attacks

Janine Jackson interviewed Phyllis Bennis about ISIS attacks for the July 8, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis: “You can’t be bombing people and at the same time think that you’re going to succeed at ‘persuading’ them.”


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MP3 Link
Janine Jackson: Early in the morning of Sunday, July 3, a truck bomb exploded in a shopping district in Baghdad. Many of the more than 200 people killed were children shopping for new clothes for Eid Al-Fitr. The group ISIS claimed responsibility.

That was two days after militants claiming fealty to ISIS killed 22 people in Dhaka, Bangladesh, after an 11-hour siege on a cafe. It was five days after at least 42 people were killed in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. And it was the day before three separate bomb attacks across Saudi Arabia, including one in the holy city of Medina near a site sacred to Muslims, the mosque where the prophet Mohammed is believed to be buried.

That Americans will have heard more about some of those attacks than others is meaningful, not just because it’s always disheartening and distorting to see some victims presented as more human than others. It’s especially frustrating when the evident aims of an organization include sowing enmity, division and resentment.

But the US response to ISIS fails on levels even more fundamental than a resistance to acknowledging that Muslims are its primary victims. It has to do with what is meant by “fighting” ISIS or “fighting” terrorism to begin with.

Joining us now to help us sort through the issues is Phyllis Bennis. She directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, and is author of, most recently, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. She joins us by phone from D.C.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Phyllis Bennis.

Phyllis Bennis: Great to be with you, Janine.

JJ: I believe something important was lost when media stopped putting “War on Terror” in quotation marks, when they naturalized it. Because if we think of it as a war, and we know the US has the strongest military in the world by far, then it’s impossible to understand, really, why we should feel that this many years into it, we are more vulnerable to terrorist violence than before. How can we make some sense of the current situation with regard to ISIS, where we read that, on the one hand, US and Iraqi forces are “routing” or “pushing back” on the group, and then the same day’s newspaper suggests that attacks by ISIS or its affiliates are increasing?

PB: ISIS has functioned really in two ways, militarily. It’s functioned as a—I suppose the word is “traditional,” although I hate to use the term for that—a traditional, old-fashioned terrorist organization, carrying out bombing attacks, suicide attacks, car bomb attacks and others on largely civilian populations, mainly in its own region around the Middle East and what it calls its caliphate, and in other countries as well, both in the West, in places like Paris and perhaps San Bernardino, as well as in Bangladesh, maybe—although there’s a lot of questions remaining about whether the Bangladesh operation actually had anything to do with ISIS or not. So it’s played the role of a terrorist organization with horrific results.

It has also, in the creation of the so-called caliphate, played the role of what we might consider a conventional army, seizing and holding territory, taking over populations and ruling them with, in this case, an iron, iron fist.

So what we’re seeing now is a causal relationship in response to losses on the ground; in this case, the loss of the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was declared, quote, “liberated” at the end of June by the Iraqi military and its US backers—the US providing the bombs, of course—and the Iraqi Shia militias who fight alongside the Iraqi military. They declared it liberated, they had expelled ISIS from the city, and it was just a few days later that this newest range of bombing attacks began to occur, with the one in Istanbul and then moving to Baghdad, et cetera, as you said, in that bloody set of consequences.

That has happened before. The bombing in Paris, for instance, was very soon after the ISIS forces were expelled from the city of Ramadi. And, of course, on the one hand we hear about the expulsion of ISIS forces as liberation, as a great victory, and certainly it’s a good thing when ISIS no longer is in control of hundreds of thousands of people’s lives, with their terrible violence. But we don’t hear very much about what that, quote, “liberation” actually means. It means, in the case of Ramadi, for instance, that the 350,000 people who once lived there have no city to go back to. Eighty percent of it has been completely demolished, largely by the rounds of US bombing.

It’s bad enough that in the city of Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, which has been under ISIS control for two years now, since 2014, a recent poll just a couple of weeks ago indicated that 76 percent of the population said, we do not want to be, quote, “liberated” by these Shia militias that fight with our government’s military, because we think they are even more violent and sectarian and dangerous to us. Now, that speaks volumes about what ISIS represents in the eyes of many people in the region, which is: a terrible phenomenon, violent, brutal, but maybe not as bad as other forces, some of which are part of, or allied with, the governments that the US has imposed and armed and paid for.

Now, if we take two steps back and look at it more broadly, I think what we see, Janine, is that this set of attacks, whether it was the Istanbul attack, Baghdad, et cetera—all of these are examples, as if we needed any more, of why and how the US policy of military first is failing.

Because you cannot use military force to wipe out terrorism. You can use military force to get rid of opposition military forces in a city somewhere, at enormous cost, as we’ve seen. But what happens is they then pop up somewhere else doing terrible things to a different population, whether it’s in Paris or in San Bernardino or in Baghdad or somewhere else.

JJ: I want to interject one thing about media, which is that the phenomenon that you’re describing, it’s not that it’s unknown. Here’s the New York Times, just a few days ago: “As ISIS Loses Land, It Gains Ground in Overseas Terror.” You have a source acknowledging that, just as you’re describing, the trajectories for the state or the caliphate and for these other incidents of violence around the world, they seem to be going in different directions, but in fact they are not.

But what’s interesting to me is this sentence. “Combatting this evolving, more complex array of threats—attacks loosely inspired by the Islamic state, attacks it directs from afar, and those as in Baghdad that it carries out itself—demands more than just military strikes in Iraq and Syria, American officials acknowledge.” This is the problem, this “more than,” isn’t it?

PB: Yeah. This is something that goes back to long-standing positions taken by the Obama administration and by President Obama himself, who has, ironically, said over and over again, there is no military solution. He said it in regard to the civil war in Syria, he said it in regard to ISIS. He says it over and over again, and each time he says it I want to jump up and cheer.

But then he gets to the next sentence and I sit down again, saying I’m not cheering for this. Because what he says immediately after is the military part isn’t enough, we have to do more. We have to do better diplomacy, we need to do this, this and this.

But the problem is, as long as you’re doing the military, the others don’t work. You can’t be bombing people and at the same time think that you’re going to succeed at, quote, “persuading” them, which is one of the great things the Obama administration has talked about wanting to do, persuading them that ISIS is not their friend. Well, it might be easier to persuade them of that if you weren’t killing them. You know, it’s — there’s something illogical there.

So what we need to focus on is that we don’t need military and other stuff, we need other stuff instead of the military. We need the high-level attention, the hundreds of billions of dollars, all of the focus of official and unofficial Washington, to be focused on nonmilitary reaction, none of which is going to be dramatic, none of which is going to solve the problem overnight. (And we should note that the military stuff hasn’t worked for five years so far, you know? You want to say, well, how’s that going for you?)

But it’s the only thing that has any chance in the longer term of working.

JJ: Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. Find her article “From Paris to Istanbul: More War on Terror Means More Terrorist Attacks” on Foreign Policy in Focus. Phyllis Bennis, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

PB: Thank you, Janine. It’s always a pleasure.




This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.