Watching and waiting: tanks outside Kobane, where Islamic State forces are ballting Syrian Kurds. Photo: Ibrahim Erikan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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Islamic State can be beaten

The jihadis are fighting on several fronts in two countries – and reports say that demoralised western recruits are increasingly repulsed by the atrocities they have witnessed.

You have to hand it to Islamic State. It’s not only good at capturing towns and cities, cutting off the heads of its enemies on camera, selling off 14-year-old girls into sexual slavery, carrying out mass executions with the efficiency and enthusiasm of the Reich’s SS Panzer Division and cutting videos to music; it has also managed to persuade us that it can’t be beaten.

“Seemingly unstoppable,” as someone on the BBC’s Today programme described the Islamist group the other day. “The Isil steamroller,” an American news anchor echoed. “There’s nothing to hold them back,” agreed an exhausted Kurd who had just escaped the street fighting in Kobane, on the border between Syria and Turkey, and was interviewed by the massed ranks of the world’s press.

How can you blame them, when our political leaders are queuing up to tell people how effective the Islamic State fighters are, and how useless are the efforts of those who are fighting them?

More than a week ago, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was forecasting the imminent fall of Kobane and warning that air strikes had failed. The Eeyorish US secretary of state scored a particularly encouraging headline: “John Kerry suggests Iran could lead fight against Isil if ‘US fails miserably’ ”. That’s the stuff to give the troops. And here is our own Foreign Secretary, in his best Henry-V-before-Harfleur manner: “We can’t save Kobane from falling to Islamic State, says Philip Hammond”.

Still, the inevitable victory of IS doesn’t look quite so inevitable elsewhere on the two-nation battlefield where it is fighting. In Iraq the other day, only 40 kilometres south-west of Baghdad, I was being driven towards the front line by the commander of the Iraqi national army’s 17th Division in his US-supplied Humvee.

Brigadier Jabbar Karam al-Taee is precisely the kind of officer the new Iraqi government is starting to promote: older, experienced and not necessarily Shia Muslim. Slightly built, with sharp eyes and an ability to charm, he fought the Iranians under Saddam Hussein, and possibly (though I was too tactful to ask him) the western coalition forces in 1991 and 2003.

How, I asked the brigadier over the grinding of the Humvee’s engine, did he rate the IS forces? “Not bad,” he said. “But they aren’t properly trained, and when you start to beat them they run away immediately.”

He should know. Like Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park of Fighter Command in 1940, Jabbar Karam is one of the few people who could lose the war in an afternoon. The 17th Division is all that stands between IS and the south-western approaches to Baghdad. Three weeks ago it took on a sizeable group of IS fighters gathered on the east bank of the Euphrates.

If the Iraqi army had failed, Baghdad would have come under attack and could conceivably have fallen. But an intelligent combination of US air strikes and action by Iraqi ground troops threw the Islamist fighters back across the river. They are still there, and for now they are showing few signs of activity.

 

So why didn’t we hear about the battle for Baghdad, when we have heard so much about the battle for Kobane, a relatively insignificant small town in Syria on the border with Turkey?

It’s mostly a question of access. Turkey is easy to get to, and dozens of journalists and cameramen have gathered on the heights overlooking Kobane to watch the street battles and air strikes. We all know from hour to hour what is happening there.

Baghdad is a lot more problematic to report from. It takes time to get visas, and only a few big news outfits such as the BBC or the New York Times have the infrastructure to protect their staff there.

If you were a newspaper, a magazine or a broadcaster with limited money and resources, you would be much more likely to use the services of one of the brave and adventurous freelance photojournalists who specialise in reporting on the Syrian side of war. You might even send one of your staff people to Turkey. You wouldn’t bother sending them to Baghdad, because it’s much too expensive and requires too great an effort.

For a news organisation working with a limited budget, Kobane is the natural place to report from. But it offers a skewed picture of the fight against Islamic State: in many ways, the picture that IS itself wants to promote.

Kobane provides the world with the impression that IS is advancing everywhere, successfully dealing out the savagery that makes it so terrifying. The only boots on the ground belong to Kurdish fighters, who have not always been particularly effective. The Turkish army could sort out IS in no time flat, but the Turks have a phobia about helping any form of Kurdish resistance, in case it spreads into Turkey itself.

It seems reasonable to assume that President Erdogan would actually welcome it if the Kurdish peshmerga in Kobane got a bloody nose – though they have done far better than he, and the gloomy duo of Kerry and Hammond, seemed to expect.

The reason Erdogan’s tanks have been sitting idly on the hillside overlooking Kobane, like Hitler’s tanks outside Warsaw in 1944, is that he regards the peshmerga as close allies of the PKK, the Kurdish militant organisation that is Turkey’s bête noire. At some point after Kobane falls, if it does, Erdogan’s forces, infinitely tougher and better trained than IS, will no doubt move into Kobane on some pretext or other and take it over.

 

The battle of the River Euphrates, on the Iraqi front, is an altogether different story. After IS forces captured the village of al-Yusufiyah, US air strikes destroyed their heavy gun positions. Iraqi troops moved in fast and winkled IS out, building by building. Soon it was in full retreat, escaping across the Euphrates and destroying the bridges behind it.

The situation is immensely dangerous for the Iraqi government. Anbar province, to the west and north-west of Baghdad, has been increasingly infiltrated by IS fighters. They are not on the ground in particularly large numbers, but there are few government forces around and many of them are too heavily Shia to be effective in a largely Sunni region.

Can IS be beaten there? Senior figures in Baghdad believe it can, if people stop repeating the nervous talk about IS being unstoppable and air strikes not working.

First, it will require a change of attitude. IS has been remarkably effective, but that could be changing. Some of its western volunteers seem to be losing their appetite for the brutality they are witnessing. A new IS training video shows recruits being beaten and bullied and forced to carry out exercises to the accompaniment of live rounds. This works with professional soldiers, but with volunteers, as most of IS’s fighters are, it can be counterproductive.

The hundreds of enthusiasts from western Europe and the US who have joined IS have often (Jihadi John aside) proved rather feeble and lacking in the necessary bloodlust. They are usually restricted to the status of what US soldiers call REMFs (short for “rear-echelon motherf***ers”), doing the cooking and the laundry. From time to time, it seems, foreign volunteers have been suspected of being plants for the western intelligence services. What happens to them after that isn’t known, but it is unlikely to be particularly healthy.

IS has 30,000 men at the very most, and there could well be fewer than that. Given that it is fighting on four or even five fronts across Syria and Iraq, it cannot be considered a big force.

Its strengths are twofold. First, it terrifies its enemies with the ferocity of its tactics, much like the Mongols in the 13th century. The downside of the IS practice of cutting the head off defeated enemies and gouging out their eyes is that it is a huge disincentive to surrender and a positive encouragement to fight to the last bullet. Initially, the Iraqi national army was so terrified by IS that it was paralysed. Now, the officers and men realise they have to fight fiercely if they are to survive.

IS’s second great strength lies in its commanders. Many are Saddam-era Iraqi army officers who used to fight for al-Qaeda and have now moved on to Islamic State. How they get on with wild men such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ferocious self-styled caliph of Islamic State, is unclear.

In the past, because it had captured so many American-made tanks, heavy weapons and missiles from the Iraqi army, IS often made the mistake of fighting out in the open, like a proper army. That cost it dearly in casualties when the US air strikes began. Now, it is acting more like a guerrilla force, and has reduced its losses accordingly.

On the other side, the Iraqi army is improving. Until recently, the sectarian, pro-Shia government under the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, would pack the army with young and inexperienced officers, chosen more for their Shia faith than for their fighting ability. They were easily intimidated by Islamic State’s reputation for aggression, and in June, when IS attacked Mosul, the biggest city in the north of the country, most of the Iraqi army officers there abandoned their men and simply ran for it. After Mosul fell, large numbers of Iraqi soldiers were slaughtered.

However, Iraq has a new prime minister: Haider al-Abadi, an engineer and businessman who lived for years in Britain. He has reversed Maliki’s Shia sectarianism by bringing Sunnis back into the army, and is negotiating with Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq, where IS operates.

If the tribes decide to support the Baghdad government, as they supported the Americans from 2006 in the so-called Sunni Awakening, the Iraqi army stands a good chance of recapturing Mosul. It won’t happen for a few months yet, but Iraqi generals are hopeful they will get it back next year.

Clearing IS out of Mosul and Anbar province certainly won’t be the end of Islamic State, any more than the killing of Osama Bin Laden was the end of al-Qaeda; but just as al-Qaeda no longer seems the threat it once was, IS would start to seem much more vulnerable.

Maybe the next stage for IS will be to bring its horrific, trademark murders to the streets of western towns and cities. Some people, like the former US vice-president Dick Cheney, think it will do worse things than that. Perhaps. But let us hope that this time the United States and other countries choose not to fight IS with its own weapons of torture and brutality.

Contrary to what you see in the television pictures from Kobane, and hear from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Philip Hammond and John Kerry, Islamic State can be beaten.

And it’s even possible that the process has already started.

John Simpson is the world affairs editor of the BBC

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge