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opinion

Dick Cheney, George W. Bush's vice-president, is back in the news defending Central Intelligence Agency torture techniques – except that in his delusional world, waterboarding and the like are not torture techniques. Rather, he calls them "enhanced interrogations" and other euphemisms to cloud the truth.

But then, the Darth Vader of U.S. politics was always distorting the plain meaning of things, as in declaring that Iraq possessed "weapons of mass destruction" to justify the invasion of that country.

That invasion has had lasting effects, none of them positive for Iraq or the region. As Bush-era secretary of state Colin Powell warned: If you break it, you own it. Which is what Iraq has become, a broken state whose weakness and sectarian rivalries invited the Islamic State's formation and its occupation of swaths of territory in that country and neighbouring Syria.

The Islamic State, a murderous Sunni/Salafist extremist group, has everyone in the region lined up against it, which is very much where it wants them.

The United States and its allies, including Canada, are bombing whatever targets they can find, which is somewhat uncomfortable but not seriously threatening to the Islamic State, because the strikes bring the West back into the region without any clear strategy. Years after the Bush-Cheney invasion and President Barack Obama's withdrawal of U.S. troops, America has returned to a broken Iraq, once again misunderstanding the conflict and the enemy.

Unlike al-Qaeda, the Islamic State did not target the West when it began its campaign to occupy territory. As Sunni extremists, they targeted moderate Sunni Muslims, Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Shiites and non-Muslim minorities.

The struggle is essentially a nasty modern manifestation of a very old fight between Shiites and Sunnis, and between different schools of Sunni Islam. In this struggle, the West is hard-pressed to identify with one side, because by doing so it risks inflaming the other.

In theory, the Islamic State should have every interest and country in the region against it. Nearby Arab states Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan should fear the spread of its militancy across their borders. Turkey could not feel comfortable with a Salafist state as neighbour. Iran (and its clients, Hezbollah) could not easily abide such an enemy of Shiism. And, of course, Iraq and Syria would cease to exist as independent countries if the Islamic State were to succeed in implanting itself as a caliphate across their territories.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, these countries are either not involved, lightly involved or doing other things, such as trying to survive, as in the case of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. What should be a combined campaign against the Islamic State is not happening, in part because members of this erstwhile coalition despise each other (Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey and Syria) and in part because the West has once again ridden (sort of) to the rescue.

In part, the West entered the cauldron for humanitarian reasons – to stop or slow down the massacres perpetrated by the Islamic State. But it also arrived (albeit with insufficient force or long-term strategy) because of the televised images of beheaded Western hostages, which made it seem as if the extremists were targeting the West, when in fact, they had other, much more important targets nearer to hand.

That the Islamic State cannot be dislodged by air power alone is a military truism, yet the West and its local allies are pinning their hopes on this strategy, while waiting for ground forces to be trained inside Iraq.

By definition, even if successful, this training will take a long time – much longer than the six months the Canadian government has set as a limit for involvement. So this limit will likely be swept aside in the momentum of events, like the strictures against U.S. ground forces becoming involved.

Last weekend, the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said this struggle will continue until the "roots" of fanaticism are understood and dealt with. That means the fight will be very long and ultimately only "won" by Islamic countries themselves against their mortal enemy, and not, by the way, by military means alone.