Blogs: Paul Pillar
Meager Prospects for the Muslim Counterterrorist Alliance
The Military Impulse and Hysteria Over ISIS
The most that one can say so far about ISIS and the attacks in the West to which it has been “linked” is that it served in some way as an inspiration. Or more accurately, it served as the sort of larger cause on behalf of which even people who are driven by more parochial grievances and inward demons like to be associated as they carry out their violent acts. That observation leaves a big gap in any analysis that tries to show that even the inspirational existence of ISIS and its mini-state in the Middle East makes a difference in terrorist attacks like the one in San Bernardino occurring or not occurring. If the name of ISIS were not invoked as the larger cause, it could easily have been some other name that was. In fact, other names have been invoked by many modern-day radical Sunni Islamists, although ISIS has become over the last two years the preferred brand name for people of that ilk, largely displacing Al-Qaeda in that role. A U.S. official confirmed to the press over the weekend that the male half of the San Bernardino shooting duo had attempted (it is not clear when) to reach out both to the Somalia-based Al-Shabab and to Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
ISIS and its enclave certainly constitute a significant security problem in the Middle East and specifically for Syria and Iraq. But that is a problem distinct from, and should not be conflated with, the countering of terrorist threats in the United States. It would be a big mistake to let a surge of fear about such threats, let alone opportunistic political exploitation of such fear, drive the making of policy on Syria and Iraq.
Any use of military force in that theater ought to be guided instead by lessons from recent experience that are almost too obvious to need restating. One of those lessons is that the toppling or ouster of an undesirable regime or quasi-regime does not necessarily end a security problem but merely marks the start of a new phase of a war. Another is that as long as there is not the will and the consensus among local populations to form a new and stable alternative political order, the resulting disorder only works to the advantage of extremist groups. ISIS was born under a different name in the disorder in Iraq that followed the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime. One of the few places where ISIS appears to have established a satellite presence where it has more of an organizational and not just inspirational connection is in the chaos of Libya since Muammar Gadhafi's regime was toppled with the aid of Western military force.
Another set of lessons concerns how almost any use of U.S. military force in the Middle East starts with two strikes against it in terms of the suspicions and resentments of local populations. Such sentiments were reflected in the negative public reaction by the Abadi government in Iraq to the very modest additional deployment of U.S. special operations forces that was recently announced. The suspicions and resentments are part of the reason why, as President Obama correctly noted in his televised address on Sunday, larger deployments of U.S. forces would only play into the hands of ISIS.
The ISIS pseudo-state contains the seeds of its own destruction. It has neither the economic base, nor the appeal of a better way of life, nor sufficient external support to keep going indefinitely. Dealing with it should not be viewed as a race to crush it before the next terrorist attack in the West, because crushing it will not prevent that attack. The most effective Western policies will stop any more expansion—and it already has stopped—of the ISIS enclave, push it back in places where it is possible to push back, and exert the other kinds of pressures that will help the seeds of destruction to sprout. A picture of a group that is retrenching more than it is advancing will do much to sour the ISIS brand as a lodestar for potential recruits and as a cover for terrorists in the West. As Stephen Biddle and Jacob Shapiro have commented, “In practical terms, what’s possible against the Islamic State is some form of containment or suppression. And that’s essentially what the administration’s current policy amounts to.”
The “war” language has become so de rigueur that President Obama felt obliged to use some of it in his Sunday evening address about terrorism. So far, however, he has wisely avoided most of the very costly and counterproductive ways in which vocabulary and metaphor can slide into military policy, as “war” talk so easily does. He also, just as wisely, has avoided the conflation of attacking an extremist enclave in dusty parts of the Middle East with protecting the American people against terrorism.
Image: Flickr/The 621st Contingency Response Wing/U.S. Air Force