Paul Rogers' Irregular war

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 30.11.16

With the margins of society becoming volatile, revolts from the margins are threatening
peace in the core of society. This is the central thesis of Paul Rogers’ book, “Irregular War:
ISIS and the new threat from the margins,” published by I.B.Tauris in 2016. Rogers is the
Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and Global Security Consultant to the
Oxford Research Group. This opinion piece intends to discuss certain ideas of Rogers
expressed in the book.

On page 4, Rogers writes: “This book ... sees ISIS [or, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of
Iraq and Syria] and related movements [such as al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and the
Taliban] as part of a much wider phenomenon [of the new non-state dynamic of irregular,
asymmetric or hybrid warfare], what might loosely be called ‘revolts from margins’.” On page
5, Rogers asserts that the margins of society are revolting because of two “drivers of
conflict — economic marginalisation and climate change — [which] are exacerbated by two
other factors. One is that a whole raft of welcome improvements in education and literacy is
making far more people aware of their own marginalisation and unwilling to accept it, and
the other is that there is an assumption in the West that security can best be assured, when
other methods fail, by resorting to military responses.” This argument of Rogers could have
been different — even if not flawed — if he had not made three glaring omissions in his

First, while mentioning the origin of Arab Awakening, a term synonymous for political
awakening, Rogers does not mention the role of WikiLeaks at all, as the disclosures caused
widespread politico-economic resentment amongst the Tunisian masses, whether or not
they were educated, weeks before the young fruit and vegetable vendor, Mohamad
Bouazizi, immolated himself in Tunisia on December 17, 2010. Secondly, while mentioning
the origin of the ISIS, Rogers fails to see the role of Abu Ghraib prison, where inmates were
abused physically and sexually, in making Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a staunch reactionary to
the US forces in Iraq, as getting humiliated was counted as the primary cause of the
acidulous reaction. Thirdly, while mentioning the Ba’athist component of the ISIS, Rogers
fails to see the role of Highway 80, the highway of death, which was constructed by the
bombardment done by the U.S. air force on the retreating Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991.
Nevertheless, the last two points indicate that in the foundation of the ISIS, the point of
marginalisation is not convincing since the Ba’athists (i.e. the ex-army officers of Iraq) were
already prowling around waiting for an opportunity to express their anti-U.S. grievances.
The opportunity was provided to them by al-Baghdadi by founding the ISIS in April 2013.
That is why the Ba’athists are a component of the ISIS and not vice versa.

On page 121, Rogers comments on the beginning of the ISIS in these words: “In June 2014,
a force of barely 1,000 paramilitary jihadists easily overran Iraq’s second-largest city of
Mosul, driving out a far larger Iraqi Army and taking control of a vast quantity of vehicles,
weapons and ammunition. Much of this was rapidly moved across north-western Iraq, over
the border into Syria and to the centre of ISIS’s power — the city of Raqqa. [The movement]
led to Western and regional countries recognising that an extreme Islamist group now
controlled substantial territory in the heart of the Middle East, far more than was achieved
by al-Qaeda in the previous two decades”. Here, Rogers has seen the gains of the ISIS in
terms of the expanse of the area occupied. However, Rogers overlooks the fact that the
territory that came under the sway of al-Qaeda was not the planes of the Middle East but
the rugged terrain of Afghanistan for five years, from 1996 to 2001. Secondly, while
comparing with al-Qaeda, Rogers has failed to see that the strength of the ISIS lies in being
on the Arab land compared to al-Qaeda on a foreign Afghan land. Indeed, on the Arab
territories, the ISIS has outmanoeuvred al-Qaeda. Thirdly, there is little common between
the ISIS and the Taliban phenomenon, as just being non-state actors does not make them
similar in all other respects.

Unfortunately, there is a contradiction in the book. On page 122, Rogers writes: “The
culmination of ISIS’s expansion came with the appearance of its leader, Abu Bakr al-
Baghdadi, in a mosque in Mosul on 5 July [2014], and his declaration of an Islamic
Caliphate with himself as its head, stretching initially across substantial parts of Iraq and
Syria but clearly with much greater ambitions.” Here, the projected point is that the aim of
ISIS is to establish an Islamic caliphate which is autocratic in nature. However, on pages
125 and 126, Rogers writes: “[T]he development and chequered history of the Arab
Awakening [in 2011] is the most important in understanding the sudden growth of ISIS…,
with this [i.e. toppling of an autocratic regime] seeming to mark the start of a region-wide
transformation away from autocracy and towards more representative governance.” Here,
Rogers sees the Arab Awakening in the context of yearning for more representative
governance which may be called democracy, and not in the context of an autocratic rule
embedded in the concept of ‘Islamic caliphate’. Taken both paragraphs together — and this
is the recurring phenomenon in the whole book — Rogers fails to establish a link between
the yearning of the Arab youth for having democracy in their countries and the longing of
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or the ISIS to establish an Islamic caliphate based on the caliphate
existing in the medieval age.

Not only is the role of climate change in inciting revolts from the margins irrelevant for the
time being, but the book also does not qualify the claim that economic deprivation enflames
such revolts. The latter is repudiated by the Arab Awakening which necessarily includes
political deprivation to the list of dispossessions. If dots of logic are connected, one finds
that, through the Arab Awakening, the Arab youth yearned originally for democracy to
replace monarchies (or autocracy). Seeing this, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi tried to cash in on
the desire of the Arab youth by founding ISIS in an attempt to sell them the caliphate
system as a substitute for monarchies. Whether or not this strategy swelled the ranks of the
ISIS, one thing is clear: on the Arab land, there is going to be a competition between those
who visualise their future in democracy and those who dream of the caliphate.

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