Monday, May 23, 2016

Are the good guys finally winning the war against extremism?

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After 15 years of non-stop war against the three extremist militias, are the good guys finally winning? The death of the Taliban chief, Mullah Akhtah Mansour, is progress in disrupting the group. He's only the second leader the Taliban has had. Mansour had been in the post for only two years, succeeding the founder, Mullah Omar.

It's also a sign of rising US impatience – the US drone struck Mansour's car while he was driving not in Afghanistan where the war is being fought but in the neighbouring Pakistan, a violation of the territory of Pakistan, a supposed US ally.

Yet, overall, there is evidence that the Taliban overall are in a very strong position. Last October the United Nations concluded that the group was fighting across a wider area of Afghanistan than at any point since the war began in 2001.

And last month, the Taliban mounted a successful attack in the capital, Kabul, against a building run by the National Directorate of Security.

As for IS or Daesh, there are a number of signs of serious progress against the barbarians and their self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Last year, the group lost 14 per cent of the land area under its control, and the "caliphate" shrank by a further 8 per cent in the first three months of this year, according to the US.

The population under Daesh's control has declined from 9 million to 6 million.

And as it has lost land and population, it has lost tax revenue too. Documents turned up by researchers at counter-terrorism journal CTC Sentinel show that Daesh is having trouble paying for its single biggest expense, the wages for its fighters.

As the Guardian reports, even in oil-rich areas, confiscation now represents 40 per cent of Daesh's income. It has been forced to cut the pay it gives foreign fighters who join its ranks.

The Pentagon claims that the number of foreign fighters entering the "caliphate" has fallen by 90 per cent in the past year.

"When I first got here, we were seeing somewhere between 1500 and 2000 foreign fighters entering the fight," said the deputy US operations commander in Baghdad, Major General Peter Gersten. "Now that we've been fighting this enemy for a year, our estimates are down to about 200. And we're actually seeing an increase now in the desertion rates in these fighters. We're seeing a fracture in their morale."

Daesh has suffered a succession of losses in the last eight months. In Syria, it lost the important centre of Shadadi. In Iraq it has lost Sinjar, Ramadi, Hit and the town of Bashir.

Some level of Daesh concern over its retrenchments seems to be indicated by the remarks by the so-called caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who said in comments made public last December: "Don't worry, O Muslims, your state is fine and expanding every day and with every harshness that comes upon it, it spits out the hypocrites and agents and becomes more firm and strong."

As the Iraqi government troops mobilised on the weekend for the assault on Daesh forces holding Fallujah, important because of its location 50km from Baghdad, Daesh spokesmen made similar comments telling followers not to be troubled by any impending loss of territory.

But could their situation be as dire as described by a US military spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, who said that "we've got a foot on his neck but he's still got some fight in him"?

Professor Amin Saikal of ANU says that, if the Iraqi forces can retake Fallujah, it will be an important step in shoring up the precarious position of Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

"The next task would be Mosul, and that is the big prize" with 2 million people at the time Daesh took it, says Saikal, "but al-Abadi is in very deep trouble domestically. His government is dysfunctional and corrupt. Protesters have twice invaded the Green Zone and occupied parliament – he can't get his cabinet through the parliament.

"Even if Daesh is driven out of Fallujah and Mosul, even if they're driven out of Racca in Syria, it's not the end of Daesh – it's not even the beginning of the end.

"They would still be able to wage guerilla war." And the extremists have since expanded into Libya, Sinai, Yemen and Nigeria.

Professor Peter Leahy of the University of Canberra, chief of the Australian army from 2002 to 2008, agrees.

"To say that it's a stalemate" overall against Islamist extremism "would be optimistic. We are seeing pockets of light but no change in the overall situation. I don't see any reduction in the fervour of their ideology.

"If the issue is their ideology, what are we doing to tackle that? Knocking off a few leaders and taking a town like Fallujah are minor victories in a major campaign."

Leahy says that he remains concerned about the forgotten enemy, al-Qaeda. With recent revelations of a much bigger training camp in Afghanstan than any western government thought possible, it's clear that al-Qaeda is rebuilding.

"They're waiting," says Leahy. "I think they're the real enemy."

Overall, says Saikal, "the US and its allies are only dealing with branches, not the roots."

Two years ago, Leahy foresaw a century of struggle. Today he thinks his prediction is still on track.

Peter Hartcher is international editor Sydney Morning Herald

Illustration: John Shakespeare


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