Rethinking Strategy toward the Islamic State
September 17, 2014
After trying hard to downplay policy in Syria and Iraq, the Obama White House has dived in. The recorded beheadings of two Americans seem to have crystalized a whole new policy approach, creating an open-ended U.S. military commitment against the so-called “Islamic State.” While the new U.S. policy is more than merely a military strategy, it is much more military than it should be. Recalibrating the policy should be an immediate priority of the administration.
Passions following the murders of two Americans allow—and some might say advance—a military response, but the United States and its allies cannot win the battle against the Islamic State militarily. Defeating the organization requires a strategy that stresses diplomacy, intelligence, and economics. There must be a large ideological component, a large law enforcement component, and an even larger political component. These latter tools are not easily visible, and many of them take years to show impact. Over time, though, they present the only path to victory: crippling the organization’s networks, denying the group safe haven, and undermining the conditions that make it attractive to potential recruits.
Instead, the United States seems to have succumbed to the seductions of a campaign with a military focus. After all, the U.S. military can destroy things—with precision and completeness—like no other military in the world, and it can often do it from a safe distance. Further, the United States commands its own military, and the space between deciding and doing is sometimes mere hours. Military attacks feel bold, decisive, and satisfying.
Yet, as an organization, the Islamic State must be delighted with the prospect of confronting a superpower. The imagery of their murders last month is perfect: they can slaughter Americans like sheep. It is all part of a bizarre fantasy of empowerment and efficacy.
What makes the fantasy work is that the Islamic State is its own editor. It broadcasts its victories, not its defeats. Setbacks on the battlefield melt away, and tightly edited sequences omit the squalor and rubble of their daily surroundings.
The Obama administration also should be taking a lesson from Israel’s latest experience in Gaza. There, too, a government used military means to squash an organization with substantial local support. There, too, a guerrilla force committed to asymmetrical warfare proved an elusive target, and more than a thousand innocent civilians lost their lives. Notably, when a New York Times photographer was asked in July why he had no photos of Hamas fighters in Gaza, he said, “We don’t see those fighters. They are operating out of buildings and homes and at night. They are moving around very carefully….If we had access to them, we would be photographing them. I never saw a single device for launching the rockets to Israel. It’s as if they don’t exist.”
The answer is not a reversal of strategy, but rather a recalibration. The first task is to articulate the objectives more clearly: to force the collapse of the Islamic State from within rather than defeat it on the battlefield. Doing so will necessarily require progress toward political settlements to bloody conflicts that have been raging in Iraq and Syria. The fact is, the Islamic State draws support from Sunnis who feel persecuted, betrayed, and scared. In both Iraq and Syria, they fear slaughter, and for some this justifies the slaughter of others. One need not be sympathetic to the Islamic State to appreciate its base of support in the Sunni community. Shaking that support requires providing both protection and a pathway to better livelihoods to millions of Sunnis—including many who have supported the Islamic State, actively or passively, in the past. It requires, perhaps, the opposite of military activity.
The second task is building an effective coalition that binds allies to U.S. strategic goals. Doing so requires being clearer about what end state the current U.S.-led action is seeking to accomplish, and what each country’s role will be in accomplishing it. The Obama administration appears to be accepting an assortment of contributions, which are often fundamentally military and don’t seem to fit especially well together. In fact, the military contributions are but a small piece. More amorphous tasks for allies, such as delegitimizing the ideology of the Islamic State and of radicalism more generally, are vitally important. They feel like more of an afterthought.
Much of what needs to be done will be secret and involve intelligence and law enforcement. Still, surely there are some ways that a country such as Turkey—which has reportedly hosted numerous networks connected to extremist fighters in Syria and Iraq—can signal its support for cracking down on radical fighters. To date, there are few signs among allies either of strategic convergence or of deeper coordination where it matters.
The third part is ensuring that the U.S.-supported rebels fit the appropriate role. In part, arming and equipping them is symbolic for the United States, demonstrating concrete commitment to the cause after a long period of seeming indifference. The perceived lack of U.S. engagement has made it hard for the United States to shape others’ involvement. But it is equally important—for rebels and allies alike—to understand that rebels are there to fight a limited war, not achieve total victory. They need to turn into a group with both the power and credibility to negotiate an end to hostilities.
Fourth is having some vision of how the United States can use this conflict to improve its position with two regional foes, Iran and Syria. It is certainly important not to chase either party, offering concessions for cooperation. At the same time, one could use activities in parallel against the Islamic State to build toward a more positive relationship. Doing so requires all sides to have a stronger conception of the end state that they are seeking.
While the Obama strategy is more than merely a military strategy, it appears militarily focused. The president’s speech on Iraq and Syria focused on military instruments, and it used the language of the military, twice promising to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State. Perhaps the president was seeking to capitalize on the urgency of this month’s murders, and only military instruments seemed urgent enough. As General Martin Dempsey suggested before the Senate, they may beget even more military action. Military instruments are enough to fight, but in this battle, they are not nearly enough to win.
(This essay originally appeared in Middle East Notes and Comment. To subscribe, please contact the CSIS Middle East Program at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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