Obama’s Strategy for Defeating ISIS is the Only Viable Option. It Can Work.
On September 10, 2014, President Obama gave a public address outlining his strategy for defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). To the chagrin of some, he couched his objective to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL” in terms of a protracted conflict characterized by limited U.S. commitment over the course of time. While Obama’s chosen path may have disappointed more hawkish critics, his speech reflected a stark political reality. The U.S. is a democracy, and a majority of Americans do not support direct involvement of U.S. ground forces in either Iraq or Syria. Some have argued that the U.S. is entering a fight with one hand tied behind its back. The reality is that, with few exceptions, the U.S. has faced political constraints in every conflict. In the case of ISIL, however, these constraints might prove a blessing in disguise. This paper will argue that the threat posed by ISIL cannot be eradicated in the short term, and the involvement of U.S. ground forces would do little to address the underlying problems that have paved the way for ISIL’s advance thus far. Only sustained, long-term pressure combined with proactive regional engagement will adequately protect U.S. national security interests in this region.
What would a decisive military victory over ISIL look like, specifically in Iraq? Planners might argue over the finer details, but there are certain objectives that would likely be included in any such list. First and foremost, a victory would have to return the sovereignty and control of all Iraqi territory to the central government in Baghdad. The ultimate plan for political power sharing in Iraq could take any number of shapes, but allowing an unelected group to retain any territory that it has seized by force would set a disastrous precedent. Likewise, these unelected groups should be disarmed. Most importantly, heavy weapons would have to be returned to government control so Baghdad could reassert its monopoly as a government on the legitimate use of force. Also, the international hostages and Iraqi citizens held by ISIL would have to be freed.
A decisive military victory over ISIL would need to provide a measure of justice for the crimes committed by this organization on the world stage. It is unlikely that all the leadership of ISIL could be killed or captured in the short-term, but ISIL should not be allowed to retain its current structure of command and control. Key leaders would have to answer for the beheadings of foreign journalists along with their host of other crimes against humanity, and those who escape should be hunted indefinitely as fugitives until they are brought to justice. It would be preferable to try these individuals for their crimes in order to delegitimize their message and avoid producing martyrs. But as with Osama Bin Laden, some might be dangerous or problematic to capture alive.
Finally, a decisive military victory over ISIL in Iraq would not be complete if it did not address the status of ISIL in Syria. Even as coalition aircraft have conducted airstrikes in Syrian territory, the U.S. has continued to avoid taking a firm position on the future disposition of this country which has been locked in a state of civil war since 2011. The eradication of ISIL in Iraq would not prevent it from continuing its role in the Syrian conflict. However, no victory in Iraq could be considered decisive or complete if ISIL retains the capability to return to Iraqi territory in force and recapture territory in the near future. It would also be difficult to free hostages or seek justice against ISIL leaders if the organization is not significantly degraded on the Syrian side of the border as well.
This set of objectives provides a starting point for examining the question of how and when ISIL might ultimately be defeated. While the scope and specifics of the objectives required for a decisive victory are open to debate, this is a reasonable best-case scenario for the goals which military action could achieve in the absence of constraint. It is also important to note that the benefits of such a military victory could prove short-lived if long-term political solutions are not simultaneously realized. It is sometimes easy to forget that the U.S. military achieved a decisive victory over Sadaam Hussein’s forces in 2003. This considerable achievement was overshadowed by the protracted drama of the costly counterinsurgency campaign of the years that followed. This prompts the next question which must be asked. What would a decisive military victory over ISIL fail to achieve, even given this proposed realization of a best possible outcome?
The rapid advancement of ISIL forces in Iraq during 2014 was facilitated largely by a political breakdown in Iraqi governance which would not be rectified by a military campaign. As the Sunni majority in western Iraq lost confidence in, and largely turned against, the central government, they chose another option. In the words of Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman al-Dulaimi, head of the largest Sunni tribe in Iraq,“We can fight Isis [ISIL] and al-Qaeda whenever we want to, but now are fighting for our lands and our tribes. We are not responsible for Isis [ISIL]. Look what has Maliki has done – look at the two million refugees. He has destroyed and killed – and where was the world then?”  This region has not historically been prone to Islamic radicalism, but the tribal bases of power have proven quick to act in their own perceived self-interest. After the fall of Sadaam Hussein, they welcomed Al Qaeda fighters to the region in response to the loss of Sunni influence in the Iraqi government. During the period known as the “Anbar Awakening” from 2006 to 2008, the tribes of Anbar Province then turned against those same foreign fighters because of their arrogance and extremism, and they supported U.S. troops in attacking their former partners. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011, tensions deepened between the Sunni and Shia in Iraq, and these tensions were greatly exacerbated when an Iraqi military raid killed 44 Sunni protestors in April of 2013. In the ensuing cycle of violence, the same tribal forces that had previously helped to stabilize Iraq turned against the government, not in favor of an Islamist agenda, but in what Christian Science Monitor reporter Scott Peterson described as a “revolution against Maliki’s rule.” While ISIL seems to have co-opted this “revolution” almost entirely for its own purposes, a military victory over the forces of ISIL which did not address the grievances of the Sunni population would prove hollow and short-lived.
In more practical terms, a military defeat of ISIL would fail to eradicate the base of fighters from which it draws. Foreign fighters make up only a portion of the ISIL force, currently estimated at up to thirty percent. The Sunni militias and tribal forces constituting the majority of ISIL’s supporters would likely melt back into the population as quickly as they appeared if the fortunes of the organization were reversed. Many of these fighters are disaffected youth with few prospects in peaceful society, especially in the war-torn regions of Iraq and Syria. They have found empowerment and prosperity through their violent pursuits. Providing these individuals with a level of opportunity that would dissuade them from returning to violence might prove costlier than the government in Baghdad can manage. Furthermore, violence breeds violence. In the years since the U.S. invasion in 2003, a generation of Sunni youth has grown up nursing grievances that follow a variety of narratives, but with a common theme of deprivation at the hands of perceived outsiders. ISIS has proven shameless in perpetuating these narratives, even recruiting or coercing school-aged boys to military service and indoctrinating many more.
A military defeat of ISIL would also fail to destroy the international appeal of the Islamist ideology which the organization espouses. Ending the self-proclaimed “Caliphate” of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi would certainly sever a prominent head from the hydra of militant political Islam, and it might help deny extremists a particular safe haven from which to operate. But just as Osama Bin-Laden’s demise failed to defeat the pan-Islamist dream, so would this effort likely fall short. Religion can serve as a powerful mobilizing agent for many of the world populations disillusioned by the forces of globalization and Westernization. The defeat of ISIL would only be one step in the larger campaign against the terrorism promoted by Islamic radicals.
Perhaps most important in terms of shortcomings, a decisive defeat of ISIL in strictly military terms would fail to address the regional dynamics which have allowed this organization to flourish in its current context. ISIL does not exist in a vacuum. This is not simply an Iraqi or even a Syrian insurgency. The Syrian civil war has played out largely as a proxy conflict among competing power bases in the greater Middle East region, and this contest has spilled over into Iraqi soil. The spider web of competing and converging interests defies borders and makes a mockery of any attempt at oversimplification. In the words of the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Muhammad Bin Naif, “We know that ISIS [ISIL] was not randomly formed but rather sponsored by states and organizations that employ all their resources and ill intentions in backing ISIS [ISIL].”
As demonstrated by the cases of Saudi Arabia with Al Qaeda and Pakistan with the Taliban, governments are not monolithic and may choose to fight against a group such as ISIL with one hand while supporting it with the other. Turkey’s reluctance to cooperate in efforts against ISIL serves as a stark demonstration of the different calculus employed by regional actors. Turkish buyers have provided a market for oil smuggled out of ISIL-controlled territories. The Turkish government clearly sees Assad as a greater threat than ISIL, and many suspect that its early-October agreement to join the coalition against ISIL largely reflected an ulterior motive of suppressing Kurdish separatism. If regional interests are not adequately addressed, then even erstwhile allies are likely to undermine any military solution in the long run. This could mean preserving and enabling the defeated rump of ISIL in Syria. It could also mean the fostering of new manifestations of this movement which might prove even more destabilizing in the future.
The next question that this paper will examine is what it would take to defeat ISIS militarily. There is no doubt that with commitment to a full-scale invasion, the U.S. military could route the forces of ISIS and destroy their conventional fighting forces. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 clearly demonstrated that the U.S. military is capable of seizing and holding this terrain. U.S. military operations in Fallujah in 2004, in addition to the southern cities of Karbala and Najaf, demonstrated that conventional forces could prevail against insurgents in large-scale “clear-and-hold” operations targeting entire cities. However, as we have already mentioned, this deployment of U.S. ground forces is not an option because the American people as a whole do not see a clear national interest in this sacrifice. Even if it were an option, its success could require an indefinite commitment in order to ensure that these areas do not fall again into unfriendly control. The U.S. military has already been down this road, spending more than eight years at war in Iraq, with most of it in difficult counter-insurgency operations. In spite of staggering costs, the war failed to resolve the issues preventing Iraq from moving forward as a unified nation.
What of a more limited role for U.S. ground troops? Perhaps the Iraqi forces who were so easily routed by ISIL in recent months would fare better with several brigades of U.S. forces in support. Unfortunately, history is not kind to this argument. U.S. forces throughout the duration of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM were a lightning rod for galvanizing the opposition of both Shia and Sunni malcontents, along with foreign fighters from around the world. Furthermore, the U.S. was clearly instrumental in establishing the Shia-dominated government, led by Nuri Al-Maliki, whose heavy-handed policies sparked the current uprising. If U.S. ground forces were committed, how many would be enough, and how could they avoid the appearance of bias? If the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fail to suffice, the Vietnam conflict provides stark warnings about the dangers of making limited military commitments to a conflict. If the host nation forces do not rise to the challenge, the U.S. is left with three unappealing options: send more troops, fight a losing battle, or cut its losses and pull out.
The primary operational approach used by the U.S. military to regain control of areas overtaken by insurgent forces is the “shape-clear-hold-build-transition framework.” This approach uses U.S. or host-nation ground forces to seize control of specific geographic locations, deny insurgents the ability to operate in these locations, and then build an enduring capacity for local governance and security which allows the military forces to gradually reduce their role over time. Every phase of this approach, with the possible exception of “clear,” is directly contingent upon establishing legitimacy with the local population. If a force cannot establish legitimacy, then its only means of control is coercion. The U.S. military and its coalition partners utilized this framework with varying degrees of success to guide operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the legitimacy of these forces in the eyes of the populace was never fully established in either conflict. It remains to be seen how long it will take the government in Baghdad to field an effective fighting force capable of conducting these types of operations. The larger question is how long it will take them to “shape” the environment by establishing the credible foundations of legitimacy in western Iraq.
If there is good news in this story, it is that Baghdad is not the only player which must compete for legitimacy in the context of this struggle. ISIL currently controls western Iraq (along with a large portion of Syria) through a mixture of coercion and cooption, much like Sadaam Hussein in previous years. However, in spite of recent military victories, the instruments of coercion available to ISIS are far more meager than those enjoyed by Sadaam. In the height of his glory, Sadaam boasted one of the largest militaries in the world, along with impressive internal security services. Sadaam also possessed considerably greater resources with which to reward his power base. ISIL is indeed performing some of the functions of legitimate government, but these services pale in comparison to the damage and disruption their forces are causing in the areas they control. The rewards granted to the “faithful” often come at the expense of their less faithful neighbors. Additionally, in spite of his status as an international pariah, Sadaam Hussein enjoyed a degree of legitimacy that came from being the head of a sovereign state with internationally recognized borders. ISIL is a long way from achieving this status.
ISIL has made impressive efforts to establish and bolster its legitimacy in a short time, but it remains to be seen if this will take root. They have begun to provide basic social services on a selective basis to some of the population. They have taken control of education, enforcing decrees about which textbooks can be used in schools. Their use of social media and other propaganda outlets, as demonstrated by their magazine “Dabiq,” could be described as groundbreaking. The attraction of recruits from Western countries demonstrates the appeal of the group’s message, especially among disaffected Muslim youths. Baghdadi’s declaration of the “Caliphate” further bolsters his image and lays the gauntlet for his opponents. However, it is important to note that all of these actions have taken place after the fact. Baghdadi rose to prominence in a moment of opportunity afforded by the obstinance of Maliki’s government. Legitimacy and expedience are not the same thing. The tribes of western Iraq have shown themselves quick to change sides when it suited them in the past. Their loyalty to religious ideals has also taken a back seat on more than one occasion. In spite of their gains, it is far too early to declare ISIL the winner in a contest of competing legitimacies.
So why might it be a blessing that the U.S. is constrained in its immediate options for dealing with ISIL? First, it will probably take a long time for Baghdad to establish legitimacy with its Sunni constituents, but only the central government of Iraq can do it. Direct interference by the U.S. is likely to undermine the process. If the U.S. were able to jump in and solve this crisis for Baghdad, the Iraqis might also be less inclined to find long-term solutions. Even worse, the presence of U.S. ground forces might once again galvanize Iraqi public opinion against outside “crusaders” and provide ISIL with fuel for its propaganda machine. However, if the government in Baghdad is unable to ever establish effective legitimacy, does this mean that ISIL wins and that the rest of the world will have to accept them as legitimate? Certainly not. As this paper will discuss shortly, the citizens of western Iraq are likely to find ISIL domination unpalatable in the long run. It is far easier to imitate a state than actually build one.
Second, time is not on ISIL’s side. ISIL finances its organization primarily through oil smuggling, hostage ransoms and extortion of local business and commerce. As international pressure increases, these sources are likely to get squeezed. Their ability to operate the captured oil wells in the long-term without outside assistance is questionable at best. Their ability to capture more oil wells can easily be limited, particularly by a force with the benefit of air power. Hostage taking is going to become more difficult as foreigners shun this region or take greater security precautions. While smuggling might be a cottage industry in this region of the world, legitimate commerce is going to feel the squeeze from international pressure and rising security concerns. Some would argue that sanctions don’t work, and you could even point to Iraq under Saddam Hussein as an example. However, ISIL has practical concerns and requires resources to continue both its consolidation and advance. The impressive windfalls experienced in 2014 are likely to prove short-lived.
Third, ISIL occupies terrible real estate. The population centers they control are surrounded primarily by open desert. The lines of communication connecting these centers are vulnerable to monitoring and interdiction from the air. Limitations on water and other natural resources, combined with a lack of industry and infrastructure, make this region dependent upon the outside world. As they expand, they find themselves ringed by nations unfriendly to their vision of the caliphate.
Fourth, ISIL has probably reached the limit of its easy gains. In terms of Iraqi territory, they now abut regions populated by the Shia and the Kurds, neither of which are keen to lose any more ground. The Iranians are particularly interested in checking their advance. ISIL is within striking distance of Baghdad, but taking this city would be no easy feat. Defending Baghdad against a conventional assault would play better to the strengths of supporting international forces than would the mission of retaking ground in a counter-insurgency. In Syria, Asad is giving no ground. ISIL has made a priority of battling their rival opposition groups instead of Asad’s forces. ISIL’s advance has motivated nations previously reluctant to get involved in the Syrian conflict to provide support for their opponents. In terms of weapons and equipment, there are few stockpiles left within easy reach that might be captured. ISIL will be challenged to maintain and operate the equipment that it currently has, and it will find few suppliers of weapons or spare parts outside of illicit channels.
Fifth, ISIL has chosen a path of defiance against the global community and has sown the seeds of its own destruction. Were it not for their insistence on publicizing a string of brazen human rights violations and sounding a worldwide call to Jihad, many Western nations, including the U.S., might still consider the rise of ISIL much the way that it has evaluated the Syrian civil war since 2011 – like an unfortunate development to be managed from a distance without direct intervention. Now, however, nations previously reluctant to intervene are uniting to take action. Even authoritarian regimes like Russia and China are disturbed by ISIL’s separatist agenda and attempts to spread their ideology internationally. Middle Eastern nations have begun to recognize ISIL as an existential threat instead of simply a pawn on their chessboard. It is a remarkable feat when any organization can unite Saudi Arabia and Iran in common cause. In return, ISIL’s defiance has won support and admiration from the fringes of modern society. While these disaffected people and groups present a variety of threats in their own context, their ability to provide meaningful aid to ISIL is very limited.
Lastly, ISIL has chosen to establish its caliphate in a historically unruly area of the world. As previously mentioned, their control over the cities of Anbar Province depends largely upon the acquiescence of tribal leaders whose constituents have little history of support for radical Islam. During the “Anbar Awakening” period, the Sunni tribes of this region showed little patience for foreign fighters pushing their own agendas. With no crusader army to rally against, and finding themselves extorted from within and under siege from without, they are likely to seek a better deal.
But what of the danger that ISIL poses to the U.S. and its interests? ISIL certainly presents a terrorist threat, but are we actually seeing anything new? ISIL’s current situation in Iraq and Syria looks similar in many ways to the symbioses of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan prior to the attacks of 9-11 which spurred the Global War on Terrorism. The U.S. military, in particular, is often criticized for its uncanny ability to focus on the last war at the expense of preparing for the next. In this case, however, ISIL is playing to U.S. strengths gained during previous conflicts. The terrorist threat posed by Islamic radicals is real, and it is dangerous, but the Western world is more prepared than ever to face this scenario. Just like Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or previously in Iraq, ISIL is drawing radicalized Westerners to the jihad. Compared with the past, Western nations have a far greater capability to monitor international travel, especially that of their own citizens. Many of these individuals are doing society a favor by marking themselves to security services around the world. The greatest terrorist threat comes not from the warzone, but from individuals who act alone, out of the watch of security services, motivated by radical ideology. Extremist ideologies of one bent or another have existed throughout human history. ISIL is not the first organization to advocate an extreme form of political Islam. Unfortunately, they will probably not be the last.
At the time of this writing, the U.S. and several of its allies have begun a campaign of air strikes against ISIL targets in both Iraq and Syria. There is little illusion that air power alone will destroy ISIL, and there is no clear vision for when ground forces (from any nation) will begin effective counter-insurgency operations to reclaim lost ground in Iraq. However, as this is seen less as an American campaign and more as an international reaction to a common threat, the world may be witnessing a new paradigm for security cooperation. ISIL is already reacting, reducing its signature on roads and in open areas and hunkering down in the populated regions. This will make them difficult to dislodge, but it will also significantly reduce ISIL’s capacity to expand in terms of territory or influence. As President Obama conceded in his speech, it will take time for this struggle to play out, and the U.S. must lead the world in maintaining pressure on the forces of ISIL. The Iraqi government will have to use this breathing space to make inroads with the Sunni population that it isolated under Maliki. Ultimately, the residents of the ISIL-occupied territories, and their tribal leadership specifically, will have to decide if they enjoy the new life they have chosen for themselves in acquiescing to ISIL domination. The point at which they decide against it will likely mark the end of a caliphate.
As for the future governance structure of Iraq, its people will have to find their own way. Henry Kissinger commented in his most recent book, “European history has shown that unification has never been achieved by primarily administrative procedures. It has required a unifier…” This observation could be applied anywhere in the world, especially Iraq. It took the United States a bloody civil war costing over 600,000 lives to unify as a nation, and success was by no means a foregone conclusion. As seen from the results of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, no amount of U.S. blood or sacrifice has yet proven sufficient to purchase Iraqi cohesion. However, if a U.S.-led coalition can isolate and degrade ISIL, perhaps this will prove to be the defining moment in Iraqi history. Even if the defining moment leads to the partition of Iraq, then U.S. leadership might at least allow the international community to avert the worst possible outcomes of genocide and extremist rule. The U.S. would benefit from a positive outcome.
The opinions expressed by this paper are personal to the author and do not imply Department of Defense endorsement.
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