The Real Challenge When It Comes to Destroying the Islamic State

September 16, 2014 Topic: ISISTerrorismCounterinsurgency Region: IraqUnited States

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.

But a military partnership with a non-Arab, albeit overwhelmingly Sunni, minority may not be the smartest move to make against ISIS; the more so because this summer, the KRG seized the opportunity offered by the ISIS military’s advance, and the Iraqi army’s retreat, to occupy oil-rich Kirkuk, whose rightful possession remains hotly contested among Kurds, Sunnis and Turkmen.

Employing as your main fighting force an ethnic group that will provide grist for the adversary’s PR mill is hardly wise. Strategy isn’t just about figuring out how best to apply force; its essence is combining multifarious, mutually reinforcing means to achieve a clear result. If a strategy’s political element is flawed, so will its military component be.

The other candidate is the Iraqi army, improved by Western weapons and training. But an Iraqi military representing what sort of Iraqi state? This question is critical; the single biggest boon for ISIS in Iraq was that the Maliki government, which Washington backed for years, systematically marginalized Sunnis. Unless the United States can induce Haider al-Abadi, Maliki’s successor as prime minister, to change course, ISIS won’t lack for recruits; and no amount of military effort by a better Iraqi army will succeed. But nudging Baghdad toward political inclusiveness won’t be easy. Iraq’s Shi’a are determined to banish forever traditional Sunni domination, and Iran no less so to preserve in Iraq a state run by its fellow Shiites.

Washington’s nominee for fighting ISIS in Syria now appears to be the moderate wing of the anti-Assad forces. Yet this is the smallest, least organized and effective group within the resistance and has its own internal divisions. Moreover, no one has explained convincingly how to guarantee—in a complex battlefield with multiple groups, shifting alliances and not a few radical Islamist groups—that arms funneled to moderates don’t eventually land in the hands of extremists.

The plan for enlisting America’s NATO partners against ISIS also has political problems. The Europeans have no stomach for a ground war against ISIS; but the thinking in Washington and Brussels is that they can help in other ways—for example, training the Iraqi army and providing airpower. But given the refusal of the Arab states and Turkey to join an American-led offensive against ISIS, an American-European partnership risks looking like a campaign waged by Westerners in Arab lands, with assistance from a local non-Arab satrap.

And even were the Arab states prepared to participate, many are repressive and corrupt and have failed to build just societies. Those in the Arab world flocking to ISIS are driven in part by their disgust at such regimes, with which the United States has had long partnerships, despite the liberal values it professes to represent.

What most motivates Western governments to tackle ISIS is the (entirely reasonable) fear that some of the young men leaving their countries to join it will return home and perpetrate terrorist attacks.

But averting such a disaster—which is imperative—requires a nuanced approach. It’s not principally military and therefore lacks a “see, I’m doing something dramatic” quality. Nor will it produce spectacular results comparable to, say, the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Its essence is improved and broader multilateral cooperation aimed at stanching the flow of people and resources to ISIS (and other such groups) and disrupting its systems of recruitment and propaganda—in short, it’s quotidian, unheroic work, but no less significant for that.

True, such efforts are already in place, but ISIS’ rise is an occasion for taking stock of existing initiatives, improving those that have delivered results, jettisoning those that haven’t and devising more that will.

Here, again, politics matters. Some of these measures can, in their implementation, typecast and demonize Muslims in the West and infringe on constitutional rights more generally—for instance, surveillance, travel bans and canceling the citizenship of those holding dual nationality, a measure some European states and Australia are considering.

The overwhelming majority of Western Muslims wish to be part of their countries and have no interest in destroying them. To alienate them in the course of battling a fringe element is to do ISIS’ work for it. Then there is the larger, more complicated task involving the social integration of Muslims. On this front, the United States has done well—not that there’s no room for improvement—and Europe noticeably less so.

The focus now is on who will fight ISIS, with what kinds of armaments and supplied by whom. But it’s best to remember that strategy involves more than choices about which weapons are best and who should wield them. Getting the politics right is essential to avoiding the militarization of strategy.