THE BLOG
09/11/2014 01:38 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

Keeping Extremism at Bay?

It's 2003. George Bush wants to bomb Iraq. We all know that's going to create more terrorism and more chaos. We watch his speech with chills. We don't trust him. My dad says "In the '60s and '70s, a ruler of Iraq couldn't take a dump without being deposed." Saddam brought stability where there was none. We know this.

We know this invasion is not going to end well. Because Al Qaeda's anti-U.S. propaganda is its most effective recruitment strategy. An invasion would just justify that rhetoric. It would be like putting aliens in your backyard and telling you not to believe they exist.

Also in 2001, months before 9/11, a female journalist goes under cover in a burka (the periwinkle blue ghost-like covering used only in Afghanistan) and films the stoning of a woman in a soccer field filled with fans or bystanders or citizens, not sure. There are scant media reports about women dying in their homes. There is this awesome situation that the Taliban creates where they decide that women can't work, and women also can't be treated by male doctors, you know where this is going, women can't get health care. So babies die etc. Yea, okay you remember that awesome moment in human history.

And now there's this new high point in human virtue. ISIL. The chop-heads-off-and-hang-them-out-for-the-neighbors-to-see variety of human movements. These have existed before -- recall 1794 France, 1500s in England, Viking Iceland, Mayans, Aztecs, etc. But its been a while and so every morning we wake up a little with a tinge of nausea, knowing that, yes, this stuff of only the most kitsch movies is now real life. And rightly so, it makes us all feel like something is off in the world.

This group has brought the word evil back into vernacular. Governance-wise the group utilizes a type of fear factor and fascism that is reminiscent of a cult. A VICE documentary shows ISIL patrol call people over to the van to correct their behaviors,

"Your wife's body is too easily seen in her cover. Make sure she wears darker colors," the man in the van proclaims.

It's not been a long time since a fundamentalist group got control over a people and started acting like an intrusive and cruel state. The Taliban patrol would measure beards and if your beard wasn't long enough you could face beatings by a rubber hose. When I lived in Afghanistan in 2003-2004, my young and very sarcastically humored driver in Afghanistan explained to me how he got by during these types of checks. Similar to the ISIL guys, the Taliban used to pull people over for a variety of immodest and un-Islamic behavior, one of which was listening to music. So my driver, 19 years old and hilarious, created a contraption which would have two tape decks, one hidden. He would listen to his music until he was pulled over and then he would switch it to prayers.

These guys, they are more ambitious and more strategic than the Taliban of those days, though. They have had years of fighting the U.S. -- they are in our heads as much (if not more) as we are in theirs -- and they know what is to be gained. They aren't looking for control of a state they want a region, they want a people, a following. Right now, they still have nothing to lose, they don't want things, their families are secondary to their mission, they want to own the minds of people. And they know how. It's not the first time we the human race have seen this, in the past ideologies have taken over the lives of millions for dozens of years. It's not that this ideological extreme won't pass, it will. But this, in the modern age, the age of social media, will shake the conscience of the world and then numb it in a way that could make us forget all the progress that's been made to decrease violence over the last century.

Why do these things continue to pop up? Why do people continue to kill in the name of some larger purpose, whether it be nationalism, god, or justice? There are lots of articles about deradicalizing people, rehabilitating people; give them economic means, companionship and mentoring and much will improve.

But that ignores the whole psychology of a movement and of war. Its a feeling of a tribe, a family, like the feeling people have when they are launching something new, building, innovating, birthing a brainchild, there's a high, a camaraderie, a needlepoint focus, there's energy and determination and there's belief, profound belief in the mission. The confidence of being part of something that's on its way up, something that professes to accept you as you are, something that includes you as part of its ascendance. Add the adrenalin of cheating death. Not sure there's much that can compare to that. And with god on your side, to boot. It's intoxicating. You are right, they are wrong, there is no question about this. Kill them.

This meaning and camaraderie in war is shown in the documentary, Korengal, about a remote American military post in Afghanistan. Men isolated from the world and with only themselves to rely on to fight an enemy, feel most alive and most connected. Many of the men explained that they have never felt as close as they did to anyone as those men. Some said they would go back to this proclaimed "shithole." A few talked about missing and enjoying the firefights the most.

But it doesn't last. There are cracks in the belief system that drive these types of missions. The ISIL mission is much clearer than the one Bush framed for the U.S. In the Korengal documentary one of the men in particular explained how unable he was to convince himself that what he was doing had any positive meaning or purpose, with a sober look in his eyes, he seemed quite clear that actually he didn't need to be there, and didn't need to be killing. This was in stark contrast to the opinion of the sergeant in charge. He was convinced that they were somehow bringing modernity and good to the remote region. Another soldier explained that he wasn't fighting for his country or glory but for his fellow soldiers.

Many who fought for the deeply religiously propagandistic Iran-Iraq war also felt a grand disillusionment years later particularly when the government was unable to care for them once they returned. Fighting for a mission and providing services for citizens are entirely two different capabilities, but with 3 million U.S. dollars a day, ISIL can probably make handouts long enough to continue to hold people's imaginations.

When the democracy protests began to turn sour in Syria, a few years ago, there was the fear that if we didn't get involved, the civil war would spur on new more extreme movements. But the U.S. was too weary. Traveling the Middle East the last four years, all I heard was how much the world lost faith in the U.S. with the invasion of Iraq. Now in Washington all I hear is how little we are intervening in the world. The U.S. is confused, it's apparent, as is the world.

We need to be honest about why we are entering the war. As Steve Coll explains, the reasons for this war are clear and unambiguous. ISIL knows what buttons to push to make it so. But the how is even more complicated. Flying over the northwest region of Afghanistan back in 2003 a soldier explained to me that they struggled to keep up with the Afghans, the U.S. was not well matched with the Taliban. They were more agile and more deft in navigating the terrain than anyone outside could possibly ever be, simply by surviving and training in such dire circumstances. The U.S. had a hard time fighting in Iraq as well, its successes in fighting ISIL have already been as a result of working with a mosaic of skills and competencies found in the Iranians, Kurds, Sunnis and others on the ground.

And then there's the what happens after question, the hardest one. Standing over the old bombed out Buddhas in Bamyan, Afghanistan, I wondered how we would ever be able to help establish enough jobs, education and government to keep extremism at bay. I'm not sure that those are the relevant questions any more. These movements will continue to sprout up. And when they start chopping off heads, the U.S. will either let them fight it out for prolonged years, or get involved in the muck. If it lets them fight it out, and redefine borders and states, it could take dozens of years of atrocities and result in a cruel state. If the U.S. gets involved it will be limited in how much it can assist with the actual fight and the post conflict stability, resulting in a lessened but still existent chaos. On the bright side, at least we've taken off our rose-colored glasses, and that's usually when a third solution arises.