Thursday, April 25, 2019


I was listening to the radio the other day, and the topic of discussion was whether or not the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had been "defeated." Given the left-leaning politics of the program I was listening to, the consensus seemed to be that it had not been, and President Trump was incorrect in stating that it was.

But missing from the entire conversation was a working definition of what "defeat" meant in this context. Presumably, if "defeat" is a recognizable state, one could compare the current state of ISIS to this, and make a determination. The host and guest of the radio program seemed to presume that a defeated ISIS would be unable to coordinate or launch deadly attacks anywhere. This struck me as a very high standard given the nature of ISIS. But then it occurred me that I didn't really know the definition of ISIS, either.

Despite its designs to create an Islamic Caliphate, ISIS is not a nation-state. And at the same time, it's not, strictly speaking, a separatist movement, in the same way the Catalans in Spain, or the Kurds. But it seems to have greater ambitions than simply being a terrorist organization. And having a concrete idea of what ISIS is, or is not, is also important, because that also bears on what a definition of defeat looks like, and what that means going forward. A defeat of ISIS is not going to look like the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, or the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War; even with the understand that the supposed War on Terror is significantly different from either of those conflicts.

But perhaps this is just a standard feature of conflicts that are political as much or more as they are military, and also have a political component that is important to the combatants, but really isn't about the actual fight. Whether or not ISIS is defeated seems, for many commentators, to be tied to their feelings about the overall competence of the Trump Administration. And in this sense, the overall lack of definition is useful. But it means that it's not really possible to make a determination for oneself as to where things are that should at least roughly line up with how another observer sees it, preventing the public from understanding not only what progress is being made, but what it being progressed towards in the first place.

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