How should we think about the Caliphate?

September 11 had set the bar very high and it was difficult to see what would count as a spectacular al-Qaida attack in the years that followed; the organisation found that it had to use ever more violence or risk being left out of the headlines. The strategy of escalation finally unravelled in November 2005 when suicide bombers attacked three hotels in Amman. In the space of a few minutes more than fifty people were killed, including several members of a wedding party. The next day there were protests in the streets: the demonstrators condemned the killings and chanted slogans in favour of King Abdullah. Zawahiri drew the obvious conclusion, but other jihadis failed to understand the value of restraint. Every time a jihadi movement has won power it has lost popularity by failing to give the people what they want: peace, security and jobs. In Afghanistan, for instance, the Taliban had considerable public support when it came to power in 1996 after years of civil war: many Afghans were glad of the stability the Taliban offered. But Mullah Omar’s administration was so violent and so little concerned about worldly matters that by 2001 most were pleased to see him go. Other jihadi administrations have faced similar problems. In 2009 the current leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, Mullah Fazlullah, won control of the Swat Valley, just a few hours’ drive from Islamabad. His practice of murdering opponents and leaving their bodies to rot in the main square of the valley’s biggest town, Mingora, so disgusted the local people that they supported an army offensive against the militants. Similar things have happened in North Africa, where no jihadi movement has been able to hold on to power.

The lesson would seem to be that left to their own devices, jihadi administrations fail. There are signs, however, that Baghdadi or at least some of his commanders has begun to appreciate the importance of this issue. In some Syrian towns Isis has managed to restore a degree of normality not just by guaranteeing security through a system of rough justice but also by introducing price controls on basic commodities and even carrying out civic tasks such as issuing car number plates. Free fuel and food – all with Isis branding – are often distributed to the needy. For the moment these attempts to win over local populations are outweighed not only by Baghdadi’s violent methods but also by his insistence on unpopular, religiously inspired rules to do with alcohol, smoking, dress codes and music. But should the Islamic State learn to govern as well as it fights, its support would be greatly enhanced.

For the moment its prospects are undermined by its reliance on fear. But there is another reason to believe that in the long term it isn’t as dangerous as many believe. After Mosul fell, Nouri al-Maliki’s government declared that there were between four and six thousand Isis fighters in Iraq. Others think that was an overestimate. Either way, it’s clear that so few men couldn’t have taken such huge amounts of territory so quickly without help. The fact is that Isis isn’t the single-minded monolith it may seem. It’s the public face of a coalition of ex-jihadis, Baathist military officers and various tribal leaders disillusioned with Maliki’s government. A number of distinct militias have fought alongside Isis.

The Pillars of Arab Despotism

ISIS has captured the world’s attention with a bold new take on the relationship between ideology and governance. Although better known for its gruesome beheadings, the group often advertises its ambitious administrative efforts—including improved electricity, water, and policing—in Raqqa, the Syrian city it now calls the capital of its reestablished caliphate. This investment in institutions marks a striking shift in jihadi strategy, and appears to be rooted in a tract published online in 2004 under the title “Management of Savagery,” by the ideologue Abu Bakr Naji. ISIS now recruits young Arabs online with a curious new blend of messages: you can die in a blaze of glory, and you can live a pleasant life in a well-managed Islamic state.

Iraq: The Outlaw State

The State of the Islamic Caliphate was known until June as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). It has gained notoriety not only as a particularly ruthless and efficient operator among Iraq’s motley militias, a reputation it has extended to Syria since intruding into the neighboring country’s civil war in 2012. It is also the most media-savvy power in either theater. Advertisements such as the Clanking of the Swords series have helped it recruit an unmatched number of jihadist wannabes from around the world. Unlike the others, too, SIC’s ambition is not merely to defend some cause but to seize territory, hold it, and build a full-fledged state of its own.

The SIC captures the headlines, but the group is hardly alone in its viciousness. In recent years Shia gangs have proved no less cruel than such Sunni rivals, one small example being the puritan vigilantes who have regularly and murderously attacked sex workers in Baghdad. The carnage from a raid on a brothel in the district of Zayuna on July 12 included twenty-eight prostitutes and six of their clients. In another incident on July 30, Shia militias in the town of Baaquba, northeast of Baghdad, executed fifteen Sunni men they had earlier kidnapped, strung their corpses on electricity poles, and for several days refused to let medical teams remove them.

Such atrocities represent average daily tolls for violent death in Iraq, where the total of civilian dead since the American invasion of 2003 has almost certainly mounted well beyond 100,000—no one really knows. The postwar sectarian bloodletting reached a flood in 2006–2007, as Shia death squads sought revenge for the bombing of a revered Shia shrine by one of the SIC’s Sunni precursors. Under the impact of ceaseless bombings and tit-for-tat assassinations, Baghdad, once a pixelation of faiths, forcibly rearranged itself into monochrome sectarian blocs divided by grim concrete walls. 

Into the Trenches in Red and Blue

The French army of 1914 was the most snappily dressed in Europe. French infantrymen wore bright red trousers, bright blue coats, and bright red caps. And these were combat uniforms, not just dress uniforms. When, at a parliamentary hearing two years before the war, a reformer had suggested doing away at least with the red trousers, the minister of war shouted him down: “Jamais! Le pantalon rouge c’est la France!

The French were not the only World War I army in love with color. Austro-Hungarian cavalry troopers also went into battle wearing bright red and blue, which they didn’t abandon until 1916, and Scottish infantry had colored tartan bands on their caps. On the uniforms of the colonial troops, too, eye-catching hues abound: red, white, and blue on the Zouaves from French North Africa; gold caps and broad stripes on the red trousers of their French officers; red sashes and high red caps on Moroccan cavalry. Although barely mentioned in most histories of the war, hundreds of thousands of colonial troops were brought to the Western Front by both France and Britain. The great variety of their uniforms constituted a sort of boast about just how much of the world the major colonial powers controlled.

Why such stunning disregard of what would make a soldier so conspicuous a target for an enemy sniper rifle or machine gun? This blitheness about bright colors stemmed from the previous military experience of the Western Front generals—British, French, and German alike—which had been mostly limited to fighting people who lacked sniper rifles or machine guns: poorly-armed rebels against colonial rule in Africa or Asia. The generals knew, of course, that this would no longer hold true for a war in Europe, but there’s always that curious difference between knowing and acting, and never more so than with the military. Huge armies change their ways very slowly. Hundreds of thousands of red-capped French infantry troops and cavalrymen with brilliantly shining breastplates were killed—more than 27,000 died in a single day several weeks after the war began—before new uniforms were distributed to the troops in early 1915.

Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League

It almost feels ridiculous to have to insist that colleges like Harvard are bastions of privilege, where the rich send their children to learn to walk, talk, and think like the rich. Don’t we already know this? They aren’t called elite colleges for nothing. But apparently we like pretending otherwise. We live in a meritocracy, after all.

Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to. It is Penn versus Tufts, not Penn versus Penn State. It doesn’t matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.

Politics without Tusk

Mr Tusk has dominated Poland’s political scene ever since he became prime minister in 2007. In those long years in power he has stamped his authority on PO, and winnowed out any unruly barons who threatened his rule. Underneath the shy demeanour and the winning smile that charmed fellow European leaders is a tough political player.

The two men who co-founded PO with him in 2001 have long since been pushed aside. Rivals who dared challenge him, among them Grzegorz Schetyna, a former deputy prime minister and interior minister and once one of Mr Tusk’s closest friends, have been consigned to the back benches of parliament or ejected from the party.

Ukraine: A Catastrophic Defeat

Rebel-held Luhansk came under a virtual siege, and was heavily shelled by Ukrainian forces, though bizarrely it is still possible to get to the town on a suburban train. Large parts of Donetsk too came under shelling from Ukrainian forces. Some areas have been badly damaged and targeting has been so woefully inaccurate that hundreds of civilians have been killed in the process. The result is that, by August, many ordinary people who did not care that much about who ruled them hated the government in Kiev and Ukraine as a whole.

Then, in the last two weeks of August, everything changed again. The Ukrainians said that regular Russian troops were crossing the border, a contention supported by western intelligence reports. More and more stories are being written in the Russian press too about soldiers killed in action in Ukraine, though the Russian government flatly denies that any regular soldiers—as opposed to volunteers who have come on their own—have crossed the frontier. However not only is there mounting evidence of the presence of regular Russian soldiers but the fact that the military situation has changed so rapidly also suggests the rebels have acquired new strength. Today, Donetsk is a much safer city than it was a few weeks ago. The reason for that is that Ukrainian forces have been pushed back.

Ukraine: A Catastrophic Defeat

At the village of Bezimenne, where you can see the sea from the road, we stopped to ask some people who was manning the next checkpoint and if it was safe. There was a Russian checkpoint at the exit of the village, they said. They could have used “Russian” to mean “rebel,” but in this case the men, who had modern communications equipment and some jeeps of a type which I have not seen elsewhere, did not seem in the mood to chat and ordered us to go. On the other side of the road was a tank, whose cannon was not pointing ahead to the Ukrainians whom we met a few minutes further down the road but out to sea.

As we sped away from the “Russians” we could see a column of black smoke rising from the sea. When we got to the Ukrainian checkpoint the men told us that it was a coastguard cutter that had been hit, they thought by a tank. They were from the Azov Battalion, one of the Ukrainian volunteer militias. On their vehicles and their arm flashes they had the “wolfsangel,” a neo-Nazi symbol, which is their insignia and which tells you much of what you need to know about their background. 

On the road back to Donetsk there is a long straight stretch lined by tall trees. In the distance we could see something. Realizing it was a military convoy, we pulled over and I jumped out. The car leading the convoy of four tanks and three APCs topped with dozens of men screeched to a halt, as did all the cars that were behind us. Armed men jumped out of the car demanding to know what we were doing—one jabbing his fingers at the TV tape on the car. A fat, angry man with gold front teeth demanded our phones. A stocky lady in her fifties sat in the back of their car pointing her sniper rifle out of the window at my colleague a few meters away.

After a few minutes the neat tall man standing in front of me told me to put my hands down and asked me in good English where I was from. He told me he had once lived in Lausanne. As the situation cooled the angry fat man returned our accreditations and passports and the woman still pointing her gun at my female colleague began blowing kisses at her. The fat man got back in his car with our phones but our translator stuck her foot in the door yelling at him to return them, which eventually he did. The entire convoy then juddered back into action.

The tanks looked relatively modern. As they pulled away, a man whose head was sticking out of the hatch at the top of a tank waved at us. His features were central Asian. A large proportion of Russian conscripts are central Asians. The men on top of the APCs looked like locals, but if the tanks were Russian army ones, this could explain the otherwise inexplicable rage of the fat man encountering journalists seeing his convoy.

The Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1978

In his retelling of the summit at Camp David in 1978, which led to the seminal peace treaty between Israel and Egypt after four major wars, Mr Wright displays a sensitive understanding of the region and a fine pen as he sketches in the characters and motivations of the three main players—the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin; Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt; and Jimmy Carter, America’s president. All three, says Mr Wright, “saw themselves as living exemplars of prophetic tradition”. Begin wanted to preserve the Promised Land bequeathed by God to the Jews; Sadat saw himself as the divinely appointed saviour of a downtrodden people; and Mr Carter felt he had been appointed from above to bring peace to the Holy Land.

Perhaps the greatest delight of this book is Mr Wright’s description of some of the secondary figures, such as Hassan el-Tohamy, Egypt’s deputy prime minister, who served as Sadat’s “astrologer, court jester and spiritual guru”. Tohamy claimed to speak to saints and prophets, and even to be able to command his heart to stop beating. A year before Camp David, at a secret meeting in Morocco with Moshe Dayan, Israel’s one-eyed war hero, Tohamy claimed to have secured Israel’s agreement to a complete withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967, a claim that Dayan subsequently rejected. “It is entirely possible that the Middle East peace process was set in motion by the misunderstanding of a madman,” writes Mr Wright.

Jeremy Clarkson on Current Events

I was in Northern Iraq of the world a couple of years ago and it was beautiful. The cities of Dohuk and Erbil were quiet and graceful and the countryside in between had an aura of peace and serenity. And now? People are having their legs chopped off and their shoulders dislocated before being hanged from lampposts. And women and children are apparently being buried alive.

And thousands have been trapped on a mountain, homeless and starving in the savage heat, simply because several hundred years ago someone in their village chose a different religion from someone in the next village.

And what are we doing about all this in the West? The Americans have dropped some bombs on … we’re not quite sure what. The French have sent a couple of hand grenades. And we’re handing out bottles of water, and offering to send a few guns to the Kurds — if they ask for them. And that’s about it.

There seems to be a sense in the West that the days when we could march into the Muslim hinterlands and sort everything out are well and truly over.

I mean, we don’t even have the will these days to secure a field in eastern Ukraine, even though this is a friendly state, in Europe, and the field in question was being held by nothing more terrifying than six greengrocers with AK-47s and a plumber whose head was buried in the instruction manual for a rocket launcher that had a best-before date of 1967.