OPINION: Guerrilla movements and proto-states

LONDON (Dawn/ANN) - IS will not completely wither away soon. But as its image fades, its promise of a ‘five-star jihad’ that attracted so many young Muslims from the West will ring increasingly hollow.

As a fragile ceasefire is still holding three weeks after it came into effect, and after the surprise pullout of Russian forces from Syria, the focus has shifted from the militant Islamic State group. For the last couple of years, this malevolent band of killers and rapists had captured headlines around the world, but its exit from centre stage does not mean it has gone away.

Nevertheless, IS has lost 22 per cent of the wide swathe of territory it had captured. Syrian forces are within 5km of Palmyra, the ancient city whose historical Roman and pre-Roman statues and remains were wantonly destroyed by the barbaric jihadi group.

And as a result of the systematic destruction of its oil infrastructure by Russian and American jets, IS has seen a sharp drop in its revenues. Moreover, salaries for its foot soldiers have been slashed by half, and the ‘taxes’ it imposes have risen.

This is often what happens when a guerrilla movement tries to hold territory and acquires the attributes of a proto-state. It runs public services like rubbish collection, and supplies electricity and water. Furthermore, it runs schools and hospitals. All this is in addition to raising and maintaining a large military force. These activities all cost a lot of money, as IS is now discovering.

In the expansionist phase of the movement, revenues are not a problem as more taxable towns come under its control, and it captures assets like oil wells. But as its territory expands, resources needed to hold it all together rise. IS has earned millions of dollars through ransoms paid for the release of foreign hostages and the sale of antiquities. But now its expenditures threaten to outstrip revenues.

And once a terrorist group occupies cities and holds territory, it becomes vulnerable to conventional attacks. Thus, Kurdish forces, backed by American and Russian planes, have been highly effective in stopping IS expansion in the north and north-west of Syria. And its recent military reversals have tarnished its image of a triumphant Islamic army on the march, thus reducing the flow of foreign fighters who had earlier flocked to its banner.

In a sense, this trend parallels a similar trajectory followed by the Taliban when they were in power. Over-stretched and poorly armed, they were easily thrown out by the Northern Alliance, supported by American air power. And while IS still does not yet have to face a ground offensive despite Saudi bluster, it is feeling the heat from covert American Special Forces operations.

Another guerrilla movement that attempted to carve out its own proto-state were the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. After years of a vicious civil war, the Tigers established a capital in Kilinochi, and effectively took over a fourth part of the country in the north and north-east. Here, taxes were collected — often at gunpoint — and an authoritarian regime under the group’s psychopathic leader Prabhakaran controlled the destiny of the unfortunate Tamils living in the area.

The Tamil Tigers were supported by the huge Tamil diaspora, many of whom were forced to donate to the cause because their relatives back home were threatened. The IS, too, has been the beneficiary of donations from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf states.

When the Sri Lankan government under Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to crush the Tigers once and for all, the separatist movement found itself vulnerable to a conventional onslaught from a well-armed, professional army. After months of bitter fighting, the Tigers were squeezed into a small enclave by the sea. Here, shielded by thousands of civilians held at gunpoint, they made their last stand. Despite a foreign outcry, the army pushed on, causing many civilian casualties, but succeeding in finally ending the civil war.

In the tribal areas of Pakistan, too, a wide range of Islamic insurgent groups had managed to establish a proto-state where they controlled the lives of the unfortunate people who lived under their thumbs. These militants feared nothing but American drones, and the writ of the state had ceased to exist.

When the government finally launched its much-delayed assault against the various terror groups that infested Fata (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), it had many targets to attack. And while these killers were adept at slaughtering unarmed, unsuspecting civilians, they were no match for a highly disciplined force like the Pakistan Army. And it certainly had no answers to the strikes carried out by the air force.

In all these cases, it is clear that while terrorist groups and guerrilla forces can be highly effective in carrying out devastating attacks against soft targets, they cannot face modern conventional forces. The exception is when they are backed by another power, and have easy access to sanctuary in neighbouring territory. The Vietcong enjoyed this advantage when fighting the south Vietnamese and American forces, as did the mujahideen combating the Soviets who had invaded Afghanistan.

By contrast, neither the Taliban nor the Tamil Tigers had any external support in their final days in power, and in the case of the latter, they were on an island with no escape route. IS, on the other hand, still enjoys a degree of covert support from a number of Sunni states, according to credible reports. But as the flow of foreign fighters dries up, and its oil revenues continue to fall, it will be hard pressed to boast of one victory after another.

This is not to suggest that IS will completely wither away soon. But as its image fades, its promise of a ‘five-star jihad’ that attracted so many young Muslims from the West will ring increasingly hollow.

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