How Obama Should Counter the Islamic State

August 29, 2014 Topic: CounterinsurgencyTerrorismMilitary Strategy Region: Iraq

How Obama Should Counter the Islamic State

The Obama administration should look at these recommendations, if it isn't already pursuing them.

When asked by a reporter during an August 21 news conference whether the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (now simply referred to as the Islamic State) is an imminent threat to the national security of the United States, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke in the very clear and blunt the language that he was once known for when he was a senator representing the great state of Nebraska.

“[A]s to the comment about an imminent threat, I think the evidence is pretty clear. When we look at what they did to Mr. Foley, what they threatened to do to all Americans and Europeans, what they are doing now, the—I don't know any other way to describe it other than barbaric. They have no standard of decency, of responsible human behavior, and I think the record's pretty clear on that. So, yes, they are an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it's in Iraq or anywhere else.”

That’s a pretty strong indictment on the Islamic State and the horrendously bankrupt ideology that it represents. But it also happens to be a far more dire assessment than the White House has indicated in its own remarks.

This, of course, is not to suggest that President Barack Obama or his advisers in the National Security Council don’t take the threat of the Islamic State seriously. This is certainly not the case; if it were, the president would not have authorized a selected campaign of U.S. airstrikes on ISIL targets in northern Iraq. Rather, the stark difference in language that the White House and the Pentagon have used to describe the Islamic State suggests that the whole-of-government counterterrorism strategy that Washington is trying to create is still very much in the sausage-making process.

What should that whole-of-government counterterrorism strategy look like? Former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad put forth a series of proposals based on his extensive diplomatic experience in an August 22 article for The National Interest. Think-tankers, columnists, ex-officials, and politicians all have their own opinions, with more aggressive action against ISIL bases in Syria often leading the pack of ideas. Many of the recommendations that have been put on the table, however, tend to be military-centric. The U.S. military certainly has a vital role to play in any anti-ISIL campaign, but as the Obama administration has rightly observed on a number of occasions, there needs to be something beyond the military realm to full grasp the horrific scourge that the Islamic State represents. Politics, economics, and the difficult work of regional and international diplomacy must all be incorporated into any policy if the long-term objective is to track, contain, and eventually degrade the military prowess and capability of the Islamic State. Fortunately, the White House is advocating for precisely that.

At the risk of being called naïve, inexperienced to the intricacies of Arab politics, or an armchair strategizer bloviating from the safety of his own coach, here are a few bullet points that the Obama administration, the U.S. military, the U.S. Foreign Service, and the Treasury Department should at the very least consider during their deliberations. I assume that officials across the U.S. Government are already contemplating some—if not all—of these policy proposals, and would in no way be surprised to learn that the administration is already in the middle of rolling them out to the public. But in any case, here they are:

1. More Arms to U.S Allies: To date, the Pentagon has transferred stockpiles of small arms and ammunition to the peshmerga forces currently defending Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, and the strategically important Mosul Dam. Washington has been assisted in this task by its European allies, with France, Great Britain, Albania, Italy, and several more working alongside the U.S. military in the arming effort. “[W]e are providing a tremendous amount of military assistance to the Peshmerga through the Iraqi security forces,” Hagel said in his August 21 news conference. “[A]s a matter of fact, all year long, we have been accelerated—all the requests made by the Iraqi government for lethal assistance and equipment and we continue to do that.”

Yet, from the view of my living room sofa and based exclusively on the press reports and news releases available to everyone who has a television or computer, the weapons delivered to the Kurds so far have been limited to a very specific military objective: keep the Kurdish capital safe from an ISIL advance, and keep ISIL away from the Mosul Dam. While both of these objectives are certainly worthy ones for the administration to support, they do absolutely nothing to address the sizable portion of territory that ISIL militants hold in other parts of Iraq. Boosting contacts with the Sunni tribes in Anbar, Salahaddin, Ninewa, and Diyala provinces could help address this shortfall.

The primary reasons why the 2007-2008 Sunni Awakening movement succeeded in destroying much of Al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Iraq at the time was because the United States was willing to take some risks in thinking outside-the-box, recognize that Anbar’s tribes had a common interest with the Americans in degrading Al-Qaeda, and work to separate reconcilable elements from the irreconcilable. Some of the very same tribes in Anbar province that were so instrumental in the counterinsurgency campaign six years ago are now asking for similar assistance from the U.S. It may be an optimal time for the administration and the Defense Department to resurrect Awakening, 2.0.

2. Expand the Target List: As of August 27, U.S. Central Command has conducted 101 airstrikes against a variety of ISIL targets, including fixed artillery positions, IED emplacements, Humvees, MRAP’s, trucks, and stationary vehicle convoys. While 101 airstrikes may seem like a sizable number, the ratio whittles down to just over 5 strikes per day since the U.S. intervention began on August 8. Approximately 63 of those operations could be said to have been in support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the vicinity of the Mosul Dam. In pure figures, that means just over 62 percent of the U.S. military operations in Iraq to date have been confined to a strict geographical area of the country.

The Islamic State, however, is not confined to the Mosul Dam. The organization is instead spread across two nations the size of Jordan.

When combined with the ground operations of the Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga, U.S. air power has made incredible inroads in the Sinjar and Mosul area. Thanks to this collaboration, Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers have retaken the Mosul Dam. Why not use this same playbook in support of Iraqi forces in other parts of the country? It would be difficult to believe that President Obama has not discussed such an option with his civilian and military advisers.

3. Build That Regional Coalition: Republicans may sigh whenever President Obama brings this up in a news conference or an interview, but it’s true that the United States cannot resolve the ISIL problem on its own. Absent a complete reversal of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and the re-deployment of tens of thousands of American personnel inside both Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military can only try to contain ISIL and squeeze its activity within a smaller space. This is precisely why Washington needs to leverage its traditional regional alliances, particularly with the Gulf Arab states, and enlist their support for a full-throated counterterrorism effort.

The warped and offensive dogma that the Islamic State represents is just as much of a threat to the national security of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey as it is to the United States. In fact, one can argue that America’s Arab allies have a lot more to worry about, given ISIL’s location in the heart of the Middle East and its intent to unilaterally erase the borders that have existed in the region for nearly a century.

Fortunately, it appears that the Gulf Arab monarchies are finally starting to take ISIL seriously. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz blacklisted ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra as terrorist organizations earlier this spring, and he wrote a royal decree that would send any Saudi who travels to Syria or Iraq for the purpose of waging war a hefty prison sentence. Perhaps due to pressure from the Saudi Government, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz Al al-Sheik, the highest religious authority in the Kingdom, blasted the terrorists of ISIL as enemy number one of the Islamic faith. And in the strongest language from the Saudi royal family to date, the Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom released a statement that is sure to be greeted by Americans and Europeans with open arms: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wants the defeat and destruction of the Islamic State and any other terrorist networks. Terrorist networks are as abhorrent to the government and people of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as they are to the government and peoples of the rest of the world.”

Saudi Arabia’s Gulf allies need to follow its lead, and Washington’s diplomatic corps should do everything in their power to push them in the right direction.