The Real Challenge When It Comes to Destroying the Islamic State

"It’s best to remember that strategy involves more than choices about which weapons are best and who should wield them."

The expert consensus on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has jelled with remarkable rapidity. The vast majority of commentators on this site and others like it concur that the movement is a major threat—not just to Iraq and Syria and their environs, but to the United States and its Western allies as well—and that something needs to be done. TNI’s Robert Merry, among the wisest and most measured voices on international politics, recently called for destroying ISIS.

Once dismissed by President Obama as small beer, ISIS has turned out to be anything but, something the president conceded in his speech to the nation, delivered (not coincidentally) a day before the 13th anniversary (if one can call it that) of 9/11.

ISIS, which has undergone changes in name and mission over the years, originated about a decade ago as an Al Qaeda offshoot enmeshed in post-Saddam Iraq’s Sunni-Shi’a bloodletting. It is now a state within a state (or a “Caliphate”), complete with a “capital” in Raqqa, Syria. The movement controls, or is a formidable presence in, swaths of territory spanning Syria and Iraq.

Estimates of just how many people fight under ISIS’ black banner vary from 10,000 to 31,500; the latter is the CIA’s latest number. Among them are thousands of foreigners from as many as eighty countries, including Western ones. A Swiss government-funded study on the outflow to Syria’s battlefields of men from eleven Western countries used the word “unprecedented” to describe the trend in seven of those countries: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and Australia. Hence the fear that ISIS’ foreign fighters could come home and perpetuate massive acts of terror is not fanciful: some of them have threatened to do just that.

ISIS has used merciless means (including beheadings, posted on the Internet) to cement control over territories, runs an elaborate web-based recruitment and PR campaign (ironic for a movement whose model is the original seventh-century Islamic ummah), and has enlisted former professional soldiers who can fly helicopters and drive tanks.

This is not some Al Qaeda wannabe, which is why there’s wide-ranging agreement that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISIS presents a serious threat, especially if its operations reach the West, which, incidentally, is a risk that will accompany any American-European air campaign against ISIS.

Missing, however, is a comparable consensus on the means and ends of an effective strategy against ISIS—aside from the insistence that another Iraq- and Afghanistan-scale ground war must be ruled out. (In his speech, Mr. Obama made a point of reassuring Americans on that score.)

Drones, used by the United States against Islamic militants in such venues as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, are often touted as the weapon of choice against ISIS. They have proved effective in killing senior leaders of Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Al-Shabaab, but these groups have nevertheless proved remarkably resilient and adept at regeneration. So a drone war against ISIS will be a long war. Unavoidably, it will also kill innocents, tear the fabric of already fragile communities, and fan hatred toward the United States, as it has in Pakistan particularly. These effects have been documented in an extensive, fieldwork-based study by Columbia Law School.

Drones are prized because they permit warfare that does not get American soldiers killed and produce a backlash at home. What drones (and piloted aircraft for that matter) can’t do, though, is take and retain territory. Yet ISIS can’t be defeated without diminishing its domain. If there won’t be (to use the tiresome cliché) American “boots on the ground,” then who will do the fighting and the dying?

No Arab government has volunteered for that assignment, nor has Turkey. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, though terrified by ISIS’ success—it’s a far greater menace to them then to the United States—have said they’ll pass, fearing that a protracted war against fellow Muslims could feed (already-present) terrorism and millenarianism at home.

As for Turkey, ISIS has taken forty-nine Turkish citizens hostage in Mosul, Iraq, including its consul general Ozturk Yilmaz. Moreover, Turks having turned against Ankara’s support for the anti-Assad forces in Syria, President Erdogan is not about to compound his problems by sending troops to battle ISIS.

The favored candidate to fight ISIS appears to be the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), itself a state-within-a-state in Iraq. Its battle-hardened peshmerga appear ready, willing and able to enter the fray, fortified by Western weapons, training and air support; and the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany are equipping them.