What America's ISIS Strategy Is Missing

Tactical shifts alone will fall short without a change of strategy.

It is happening again. In the quest to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, American leaders are coming to realize that more is needed from the United States and its allies. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that the United States is “looking for opportunities to do more, and there will be boots on the ground.” The goal is to “enable” local forces to take back and hold territory taken by the terrorist guerilla group, all in an effort to “intensify [the] war against [the Islamic State].”

Here is the issue: once again, this is tactical creep accompanied by strategic stasis. Helping local forces was the second pillar of Obama’s four-point strategic plan, outlined back in September 2014. Since then, the administration keeps announcing new initiatives that are couched in strategic rhetoric, but are really marginal and cosmetic changes at the tactical level. Recall the announcements of the 450 advisers, thelily pads,” fifty special forces, and then the 200 U.S. commandos. These shifts are small moves to bolster the military fight against ISIS, but they do not change the strategy at all. A strategic shift would put greater emphasis on governance, providing incentives for coalition allies to fully participate in the effort and pursuing all diplomatic angles with actors on the ground, even the unsavory ones.

How to actually change the strategy to take down the Islamic State, if that is truly the desired goal? Start with governance. Right now, “attitudes toward [the Islamic State] are often more favorable than outsiders commonly assume,” according to Mara Rivkin. This is the case because, while the Islamic State is a terrible option for many under its rule, living with the group might be less bad than an unknown alternative. If the United States is serious about changing its strategy, then one of its main objectives should be to provide a viable and effective governance alternative. This is easier said than done. The Islamic State would have to be removed militarily and then outside actors, like the United States, along with its allies and partners, must work closely with whatever civil society is left in the region to rebuild and replace the current governance structure. Water must be potable and readily available, electricity must be consistent and reliable, security must be felt when citizens walk outside their doors, stores must be stocked and, while it seems mundane, the garbage must be picked up. Even a military defeat of the Islamic State will breed resentment if the basic needs of the people are not met. Sadly, governance was not mentioned in President Obama’s strategy rollout, and has not since been included.