Interview: Thinking About ISIS in Strategic Terms
Robert C. Jones
It was recently my privilege to conduct an interview as a subject matter expert with the Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA). SMA is led by Hriar “Doc” Cabayan, Ph.D., and is accepted and synchronized by the Joint Staff J-39 has partnered with the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, a body authorized by Congress and based at the State Department, to conduct a series of interviews with experts to explore what the Middle East will look like in 5-15 years. The focus of this interview was ISIS and the current crisis is Syria and Iraq. While the actual interview will be made available by SMA in their official channels, I am providing the answers I prepared in advance for the interview here. The interview was conducted by Ms. Sarah Canna, a principle analyst at NSI.
The positions, insights and thoughts that I am about to share are my own, and in no way reflect the positions of USSOCOM, the US Department of Defense, or the US Department of State.
Canna: In an email you sent Doc (Dr. Hriar Cabayan), you mentioned that the Iraq/Syria conflict is a “populace-based conflict” at heart. Could you explain why that is so, and how that should impact USG strategies and plans?
Jones: When the US devised a political solution for Iraq we assumed the inherent “rightness,” “goodness” and legality of what we offered could overcome the inherent lack of popular legitimacy that any political solution imposed by a foreign power naturally has – not to mention the historic and cultural differences of our two nations. A mix of hubris and naiveté, and the end result was that we gave political power to the Shia (and de facto influence over the region to Iran); we gave a degree of autonomy to the Kurds (but that increased the revolutionary pressure on Turkey from their own restive Kurdish population). This left the Shia and Kurds with something tangible they could place their trust in, but we only offered the Sunni-Arabs money and promises wrapped in a culturally inappropriate package of governance. The money is gone, the promises fell flat, and the one significant population without a chair when the music stopped was the Sunni-Arab populations of Syria and Iraq. While we agonized over how to solve this problem without abandoning our elegant solution, the hard fact is that ISIS emerged and “stole the march” on both AQ and the US. What AQ offered was too slow and theoretical; and what the US offered was too inappropriate. The only one offering a tangible, viable political alternative to the Sunni-Arab populations of the region was ISIS. It is not too late to address this problem, but to simply “defeat” ISIS only removes ISIS governance from the emergent de facto Sunni-Arab state and turns this back into a fragmented mess of competing revolutionary groups; does nothing to address the underlying political driver of revolution; and does much to restore AQs credibility and legitimacy in the region. To get to stability the US must first be willing to abandon our original solution for the region, and frame a new solution that offers a tangible, viable political alternative to Sunni-Arabs that they can actually trust. No small task. But all of that is a bold leap from conventional wisdom, so let me back up a bit and lay some foundation:
I’d like to talk to three broad concepts that I believe are critical to getting to better strategic results in situations like the one we currently face in Syria and Iraq. These are bundled under:
- How we think about problems;
- The position that political conflict within a single system of governance if fundamentally unique from political conflict between two or more such systems;
- And lastly; what all of this means to the United States today.
How we think about problems. We tend to bundle things by how they are tactically similar; I think it is far more productive to disaggregate things by how they are strategically unique. Classic examples of this type of tactical bundling by the US military in the post 9/11 era are “irregular warfare,” “Al Qaeda and its Affiliates and Adherents (AQAA”),” and more recently “Violent Extremist Organization (VEO).” Equally problematic for the US military is that we tend to be very Clausewitzian in our perspectives. We are too quick to classify political conflict as some type of “war” and to then bring a “warfare” solution that seeks to sustain some particular government, defeat the threats to that government, and at the same time enable much of the interagency community to rationalize that this is not a problem they somehow contributed to the creation of, or that they can really get to the business of their portion of the solution until after the military has solved the military problem. While this approach can indeed suppress the symptoms of conflict and create bubbles of artificial stability, once the energy sustaining those bubbles is removed they quickly return to their natural state and instability, illegal competition and conflict resume. The effects of the surge in Iraq and the subsequent rise of ISIS are the most recent example of this effect.
Conflict Within is a different genus and species than Conflict Between. Based on my study and experience, I think we need to consider the very real possibility that political conflict within a single system of governance is fundamentally unique from political conflict between two or more systems of governance. I specifically do not say “state” as a system of governance can be as small as a family or as large as a nation, with many variations, formal and informal, foreign and domestic. In fact, it is not inaccurate to look at the US policy of global leadership in the post-cold war era as the largest example of a “system of governance.” I find Clausewitz’s social trinity of “Government-Army-People” as a helpful simple model of a system. So long as one has leadership, enforcement, an affected population and some defined space where that leadership and enforcement is applied, one has a system of governance. So, I think we do not error when we apply our Clausewitzian instincts when we deal with political conflict between two or more such systems – but that doing so to a political conflict within a single system has proven to be a huge error over and over again, and counterproductive to resolving the root drivers of instability. If conflict within emerges from the grievances of some identity-based population (rather than a coup by some small party seeking power) within a system of governance, it is what I call a “populace-based conflict.” This is the essence of revolutionary insurgency and the tremendous source of strategic energy tapped into by historic revolutionary leaders such as Washington, Lenin, Mao, King and Gandhi – and is also the source of energy that fuels AQ and ISIS today.
What this means to the United States today. This means several things for US strategy and plans. First and foremost it means we have a glaring hole in our understanding of political conflict that we must recognize, discuss, study, and ultimately capture in doctrine and begin to incorporate into our institutional culture. It means we should purge our current doctrine, strategies and plans of strategically dangerous constructs such as the aforementioned Irregular Warfare and AQAA and VEO. If a grouping or name does not suggest a family of solution that applies to everything within that bundle, then it is too superficial and strategically dangerous. After all, our actions tend to follow our words, so when our words are inaccurate, our actions tend to be inappropriate. This is true when we call a government such as that of Iraq “legitimate” and “democratic” when in fact it is fundamentally neither; and also when we throw simplistic tactical bundles around strategic problems and seek to apply a “one size fits all” solution. There are important questions I think we should ask that we currently do not:
- Is this conflict within a single system; between two or more systems; or is it some fusion of the two taking place among the populations in some mix? (At SOCOM we think of this as “within” – “between” – or “among” and roughly matches up with the less strategically useful “continuum of conflict” of State, Hybrid, and non-state conflict employed in the latest National Military Strategy).
- For any particular actor or organization, what is their primary purpose for action, and what is their relationship to the population they operate among?
- For any particular identity-based population with political grievance, how do they feel, and who do they blame?
Armed with the answers to these questions one can begin to understand a conflict and its participants in strategically significant ways that allow one to answer that most critical of Clausewtizian questions: “What kind of conflict am I in”??
These are also questions one must ask continuously as one works to affect a solution, as the answers – and the nature of the conflict - can change as one’s own actions begin to impact the system. Many organizations and individuals lumped under AQAA are more accurately nationalist or regional revolutionary groups (AQAP, AQIM, Al Shabab and Boko Haram to name but 4). These types of problems do not respond well to counter terrorism, or to Counterinsurgency approaches as we currently define and apply them. Equally, a Saudi member of AQAP is a nationalist revolutionary when in KSA or taking physical sanctuary in Yemen – but when he travels to a foreign place to serve as a foreign fighter or to facilitate a Unconventional warfare campaign his status changes along with his purpose for action and relationship to the population he operates among. So, a “terrorist” who one can reasonably to CT against in one situation is no longer a terrorist and demands a very different approach when his situation changes. In short, we must become more sophisticated in our understanding of the problems we seek to address, and more refined in the approaches we apply to those problems. Changing how we think is the first step in that evolution.
Canna: You also say that in order to get to a durable solution, there are two “primary sources of strategic energy” that must be addressed. What are these and how do we go about finding solutions?
Jones: In political conflict between two or more systems of governance I believe the “strategic energy” is a combination of power and interest. In political conflict within a single system of governance I think this energy is best thought of as a combination of power and grievance. In what the US military currently thinks of as “hybrid conflicts” there is typically a fusion of both types of energy at work. Certainly this is true in Syria and Iraq. There are many systems of governance and populations acting on their own distinct and unique strategic energies of power and interest/grievance in this particular conflict.
I believe this strategic energy is fueling two major and distinct dynamics at play in Syria and Iraq. The first of those is the larger Sunni-Shia competition for influence. A major strategic side-effect of the US removal of the Saddam regime in Iraq was that it also removed a fairly stable line of Sunni-Shia competition along the Iraq-Iran border, dropping that line down to the northern borders of Kuwait, KSA, Jordan, and Israel. This extended Shia influence in a manner that Shia in general wish to sustain, and that equally Sunni in general wish to restabilize farther north, perhaps along the Euphrates River. The second dynamic is the increasing belief among Sunni-Arab populations of Syria and Iraq that they have no viable future under the Shia dominated governments in this newly formed Shia band of influence. A wide array of strategic power has been brought to bear by this situation. The US could recognize a Sunni-Arab State that addresses both drivers in one fell swoop (with no need to recognize ISIS as the government of that state in the process, by the way) – or we can cling to those problematic policies and seek to defeat all of the threats to our current political solution for the region.
Distant powers, like Russia and the US perceive interests in this region and have the power to pursue. Non-state systems of governance like AQ and ISIS also see tremendous opportunity to advance their respective interests here and tap into the power of the Sunni-Arab population. Several regional powers, like Turkey, Iran and the KSA all have major interests at stake, and obviously the governments of the two states directly involved. In this “Field of Nightmares,” we built it, and they came.
Population-based strategic energy is equally important and even more diverse and distributed. There are the many diverse Sunni-Arab populations of Syria and Iraq whose rising power relative to the governments over them, coupled with their powerful grievances with those governments that is the core of the revolutionary energy that ISIS and AQ compete for influence with in order to advance their own agendas. There are also the broader global Sunni and Shia populations who perceive powerful interest in either sustaining the current line of competition or in restoring the old one. This, not radical Islamist ideology, is the powerful magnet drawing “foreign fighters” of Sunni and Shia alike into this region. Then there are the identity-based populations within the many state actors involved who have their own grievances with their respective governments. The big ones being the Kurds in Turkey; Shia and Sunni the KSA and in Yemen; but many others as well who all see opportunities for change. Any successful approach to restoring durable stability to the region must take into account all of these sources of energy. To overly focus on “threats” is symptomatic, simplistic, and will either fail completely, or only achieve suppression of the symptoms in a manner that most likely makes the negative energy across this trans-regional system worse.
The Challenge with the current US position is that our policy is to preserve the current line of Shia-Sunni competition that is putting so much state and population-based energy into this system; and also to preserve the government of Iraq that is the primary grievance of the Iraqi Sunnis. To say that we are swimming against a very powerful current is an understatement. The US energy necessary to create and sustain those unnatural conditions far exceeds the potential benefits. Can we compromise to policy ends that are more natural, and therefore both easier to attain and more durable, and still secure US interests in the region? I think the answer is a resounding yes.
By simple analogy, we are attempting a football type defense, which seeks to give no ground and prevent the big play. We are probably better served by more of a martial arts mindset, that channels one’s opponent’s energy in a direction he generally wants to go, but that is least likely to harm our own position. This is the essence of seeking a position of influence across a region, rather than a position of control over a region.
Canna: A recent SME told me that in Iraq, there are three fragments: Shiastan, Kurdistan, and ISIL. This is in opposition to US political discourse that the region is broken into 4 segments: Shiastan, Kurdistan, Sunni Arab tribes, and ISIL. The expert stated that without a viable alternative, the Sunni Arab tribes are already in ISIL’s hands. Do you agree with this assessment? If this is true, then Arab Sunni tribes perhaps can’t be the cornerstone to the US’s effort to defeat ISIL.
Jones: First of all, it is important to note that historically and across cultures, when revolutionary challenges to governance occur, while the grievances against governance may be widely held, the majority of the population will attempt to remain neutral until the dust settles. A classic example of this is the scene in that Clint Eastwood Classic, “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” where the ferry operator sings “Dixie” while transporting Wales across the river, but quickly switches to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” once returning to pick up the Cavalry unit in pursuit. Nowhere is the adage “The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut” more true than being caught in the middle of political revolution.
The US position is heavily biased by our belief that our solution for the region is the correct one; by our inability to empathize with the inherent grievance Sunni-Arabs have with our solution; and perhaps most of all by our misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of AQ and ISIS as independent exploiters of political grievance.
ISIS is not the Sunni-Arab Population. ISIS is best thought of as the government of an emergent, de facto Sunni-Arab state. They stepped up to offer the Sunni-Arabs of Syria and Iraq a tangible, viable political alternative to political conditions perceived as intolerable. Equally ISIS has stepped up to lead the charge to restore stability to the Sunni-Shia line of competition in a location perceived as far less dangerous to Sunnis everywhere than where that line currently exists due to US actions in the region. Increasingly ISIS is also growing in influence with the revolutionary Sunni populations and groups around the region who have grown weary of AQ’s more patient approach. To defeat ISIS most likely fragments the revolutionary insurgencies in Syria and Iraq, but in no way resolves them. It also re-empowers AQ in an “I told you so” kind of way as they point out how their way was the right way all along. I don’t see how that is good for US interests in the region. Also important, is that while ISIS is not the Sunni-Arab population, they come from and their forces are of that population. To attack ISIS can only be perceived as an attack on the Sunni-Arab population itself. Any Sunni-Arabs we seek to recruit are placed in an unwinnable conflict of interests, and are expected to support our interests against those of their own people. In short, we are probably working with opportunists driven more by self-interest than patriotism.
Questions we must ask ourselves are:
- How can the US help restore a more acceptable and durable line of competition between Sunni and Shia?
- How can the US become the champion of the Sunni Arab populations of Syria and Iraq and help to offer and attain for them a more acceptable, viable political alternative?
Our current goals are not acceptable, suitable or feasible with so many powerful sources of strategic energy operating in this current conflict. We need to step back from our preconceived notions of what “right” looks like, and frame new outcomes and approaches that score better in those three tests.
Canna: Should the USG “do nothing” in the region? Some say this is a fight we cannot win or really influence and that we are supporting an unnatural balance in the region. The only way to arrive at a durable solution is for all sides to exhaust themselves before coming to the table.
Jones: “Do nothing” is always an option, and certainly has some merit. I think Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule” is very applicable in this case though, after all, we really are the primary reason this is broken, and probably have a duty to in some way atone for those actions. Actions designed to facilitate a new Sunni-Shia line of competition would be very appropriate and helpful to getting to stability. Along with that, also appropriate are actions designed to help the Sunni Arab populations of Syria and Iraq get to political situations they find more tolerable.
We need to do these things, however, with a full awareness of the limitations of military power. The military can disrupt the worst actors. The military can mitigate the high end of violence against vulnerable populations and critical infrastructure. Most importantly, the military can help create the time and space necessary for civilian leaders across the range of stakeholders to address the changes necessary to facilitate a future stability.
The military cannot, however, “fix” this. At this point, suppressing revolution is unlikely to produce a durable result at reasonable costs. We can, however, help set the conditions for evolving to new political parameters designed to allow a new stability, and ultimately trust, to emerge.
Canna: You highlighted the tension between the USG wanting to drag this conflict where we want it to be versus guide it to where it needs to be. Could you explain what you mean?
Jones: We are overly wed to our solution for the instability caused by our removal of the Saddam regime. We are certain of the rightness of our efforts, and are quick to rationalize away their failure to perform as intended onto external factors. We blame the failures of that solution on the host nation for not working hard enough to make it work or to secure it against challengers; we blame it on the challengers; we blame it on the ideology employed by those challengers – but we are reluctant to admit we misunderstood the problem and applied an inappropriate solution.
I read a piece on strategic culture by Professor Jeannie Johnson that described a unique aspect of American strategic culture that is appropriate to this question. The article described the uniquely American belief that if we just work hard enough, and apply enough resources, we can make anything work. This mindset built our nation, it built the Panama Canal, it drove our approach to WWII, and it put a man on the moon – but it cannot shape the perceptions necessary to make a population believe that the US foreign policies that affect their lives are appropriate, or that the governments we create for, or protect from, an affected population are appropriate. We have a clash of American culture, and an associated “American Way of War” with the types of conflicts we are currently in.
In the Civil War or WWII, - war between two systems of governance, the US approach to war and warfare works. Destroy completely, then lift up and dust off. But in a conflict within a single system of governance, the “we had to destroy the village to save the village” approach we have applied in varying degrees in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan has been strategically out of step with the type of conflicts we were actually in. In Vietnam we deluded ourselves with the Western fiction of “North” and “South” states created by and for the West midway through an ongoing Vietnamese revolutionary movement for independence. In Iraq and Afghanistan we deluded ourselves by our belief that we were liberating people from governance as inherently bad, and offering them new governance that was inherently good. Also problematic is that our doctrine of military phases does not recognize a presumption of resistance insurgency to any intervention; or a presumption of revolutionary insurgency against any government protected or created by our efforts. It should. The nature of those actions drives the nature of the response. But by recognizing this nature, we can plan the character of our actions to mitigate the character and scope of the response.
Canna: If this is a battle for influence, not dirt, how does the USG shift its perspective and objectives in line with the real goal? What is the real goal? Is it stability? And if ISIL is the only one really providing stability, do we work with them? Is there a way for the USG to also help provide stability working with regional partners in competition with ISIL?
Jones: This goes back to recognizing and truly appreciating the difference between political conflict between two or more systems of governance and conflict within a single system.
We report gains and losses in Syria and Iraq as if we were tracking Patton’s progress across France and Germany in WWII. In such conflicts the sum of tactical actions, regardless how poor the strategy, will ultimately add up to strategic success or failure. But the lesson of Hamburger Hill in Vietnam still applies – it does not matter who controls any particular hill, what matters is how our competition for that hill shaped the perceptions of relevant identity-based populations about the systems of governance that affect their lives. The Vietnamese tactical defeat during the Tet Offensive of 1968 sealed their strategic victory in 1975.
This is why a successful drone strike that takes out a top AQ leader can be both a tactical success and a strategic disaster at the same time. How we conduct the mission, and what messages that mission sent to local, regional, global and domestic audiences is far more important than the removal of one problematic actor.
The US is founded upon principles of the right of people everywhere to self-determination of governance and the right and duty to revolution when governance is perceived as fatally flawed. Shifting to influence operations from control operations is consistent with our founding principles, but demands that the US become more agnostic about what type of governance emerges in places where we have interests. So long as we can establish working relationships with those governments, and are not perceived by the populations affected by those governments as being the source of its legitimacy; or as somehow protecting it from having to listen to the concerns of the people affected by it, our interests will be served. This demands we become more of a neutral mediator of best possible compromises in the terms of those who are truly a party to the agreement, rather than being an arbitrator of what we believe is best. That is a significant paradigm shift from our Cold War containment approach - but when there was a perceived common threat (and therefore shared interest), people were more willing to compromise on these types of sovereignty issues. Today, no such perceived threat exists for most. Of note, we see an opposite effect taking place in the Pacific, where US influence is rising on the tide of Chinese power and where partners are more open to compromising on points of sovereignty for their own security that they would not even discuss 10 years ago.
Canna: USG mission is to defeat and degrade ISIL, but by defeating it organizationally, we may be forcing it to evolve into ISIL 2.0—a tougher and harder to beat opponent. What are the implications of an organizationally defeated ISIL for the region?
Jones: A mission to “facilitate regional stability” is probably better for also facilitating our strategic interests in the region. A broader strategic focus provides our senior leaders with much more flexibility and options for success than a narrow focus on any particular threat. If the mission is “defeat ISIL,” we make it very easy to “lose” even though our interests are met. We defined the mission in Vietnam as “defeat North Vietnam” and we failed to do that, but the unified Vietnam that emerged serves very well to block the domino spread of Chinese influence into SEA that drove our intervention to begin with. Imagine the impact on US history if we had supported a liberated, unified Vietnam at the end of WWII? Our relationship with them would be very much like our relationship with Thailand. We missed the inherent opportunity in the strategic energy in the people of Vietnam because we were overly fixated on perceived threat of China. What truly are our interests in Syria and Iraq today? What opportunities are we potentially missing because we did not learn the strategic lessons of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan?
Canna: How do we get to a viable alternative for Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria?
Jones: First, recognize that our diagnosis of the problem and prescribed solution for the region was inappropriate and probably had no feasible approach to make it work.
Second, accept that we do not need to control the outcome to secure our interests, or to avoid appearing weak.
As Thucydides observed, “Of all the manifestations of power, restraint impresses men the most.”