The War on ISIL: A High-risk Endeavor
September 12, 2014
On Wednesday night, President Obama outlined a four-point strategy to contend with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), the extremist hybrid militia now operating in Iraq and Syria. While formidable, ISIL is only one symptom of an ongoing—often illiberal and violent—revolution against traditional Middle Eastern authority structures. With more disorder on the horizon, the U.S. response to the current ISIL threat may prove to be at the leading edge of serial interventions to come. In advance of Wednesday’s speech, two things were clear: the United States was no longer in a position to defer action against ISIL; yet the choices at its disposal also ranged from bad to worse. Thus, in the end, while the president’s plan is a reasonable approach given conditions, it is also by definition a high-risk proposition. High risk is not an automatic “red light” in this regard. However, as the administration presses forward with its plan of action, it should do so mindful of the inherent hazards that likely stand in the way of durable success. Modesty about what can be done will serve U.S. policymakers well.
Q1: In a nutshell, what is the president’s plan?
A1: Essentially, the president chartered a coalition proxy war against ISIL proceeding along four broad lines of effort, with the lion’s share of the fighting to be accomplished by local Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian forces. Over time, the four lines of effort are intended to combine to degrade ISIL’s capabilities, roll back recent ISIL gains in the north and west of Iraq, and, ultimately, destroy ISIL as a proximate threat to regional order. The first line of effort involves use of U.S. and partner airpower against ISIL forces operating in both Iraq and Syria. The second sees a U.S.-led coalition increasing direct support to local forces currently committed to fighting ISIL on the ground. The president was explicit that this will not include commitment of U.S. ground forces to combat in Iraq or Syria. Local forces involved include those of the Iraqi central government, the Kurdish pesh merga, local Sunni militia forces (referred to in the speech as “national guard” units), and moderate elements of the Syrian opposition operating against both the Bashar al-Assad regime and ISIL. In the third line of effort, the president suggests that the United States and its partners will redouble efforts to prevent ISIL terrorist attacks—presumably, within and outside of Iraq and Syria—by improving intelligence, limiting access to foreign recruits and financial resources, and countering ISIL’s extremist message. Finally, the president intends for the U.S.-led coalition to continue humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations currently under threat from ISIL predations. Consistent with a—to date—light-touch U.S. policy, the president articulated a deliberate and clinical U.S.-led response to ISIL that relies most for its success on an effective coalition of third parties. Therein lies the risk.
Q2: What are the principal risks associated with the president’s approach?
A2: If risk is calculated as the likelihood of failure to meet stated objectives, the administration’s adopted course of action is high risk to be sure. Regardless of what strategy is ultimately adopted, “destroying” an organic regional challenge like ISIL is a very tall order. Specifically, the president’s adopted course has three principal vulnerabilities. From this point forward, any U.S. action should proceed with these in mind.
First, though the effort is ostensibly chartered under the supporting umbrella of a broad U.S.-led coalition, its ultimate success hinges on aligning the competing interests and methods of a diverse and likely unreliable set of state, substate, and nonstate actors. The principal state partner—the weak Iraqi central government—has yet to demonstrate either a willingness to marshal collective national action by uniting its various sectarian communities or consistent tactical prowess combating ISIL in the field. The most important substate or nonstate partners—principally, Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis, as well as the Syrian opposition—are as much at odds with the broader strategic objectives of Iraq’s Shia-dominated government as they are sympathetic to them. And, given that conditions on the ground are as likely to get worse over the near term as they are better, it will be a steep challenge for U.S. and coalition leaders to prevent those differences from coming to the fore to impede or even scuttle progress.
Second, it is likely that the worst of twenty-first-century irregular warfare will emerge on full display as the campaign proceeds. Iraq and Syria are already crucibles for the worst kinds of sectarian behavior. More of the same is liable to emerge as events unfold. In the process, both or, more aptly, all sides of the conflict on the ground are at times likely to employ methods that are counter to U.S. values and counterproductive to a broad-based and durable post-conflict peace. The simple fact that this will all play out in the public sphere via traditional and new-age media almost assures that conflict will accelerate before it subsides. This opens up the very real prospect of horizontal escalation. Thus, preparing for and managing the course and intensity of any escalation will require forethought and active U.S.-led countermeasures.
Finally, with the memories of 9/11 still raw in the American consciousness, any near-term extremist-inspired catastrophe having some direct effect on Americans or core American interests hazards being perceived by some as a failure to do enough, resulting in reflexive American responses that have great potential to undermine the core enterprise. Imagine, for example, a significant terrorist event in the United States or Europe over the next year that has even a tertiary connection to either Iraq or Syria. In this instance, emotion can easily neutralize facts, and ill-designed punitive responses may unhelpfully serve to break an already fragile entente and expand the purpose and scope of the U.S. intervention geometrically.
Q3: How can these risks be mitigated?
A3: To be clear, inaction is far more damaging than flawed action. However, early recognition that a decisive end to the region’s endemic disorder is the unlikeliest outcome of the intended course will steel U.S. leadership for a long, indeterminate period of active conflict management. At this point, halting ISIL’s advance and blunting migration of the conflict to Jordan and the Gulf is a win. Tying ISIL down so as to focus its effort and resources on survival vice offensive action will, at a minimum, provide time and space for the Iraqis to get their house in order and may infuse oxygen into the moderate Syrian opposition. In the end, the more modest goal of containing ISIL and forcing it to burn out is far more achievable than is its definitive annihilation. This requires the U.S.-led coalition to focus first on localizing the ISIL threat, preventing it franchising outside its immediate environ. Throughout, the United States must be prepared to actively contend with sudden changes in regional dynamics—an internal ISIL-like threat to Jordan or the Gulf for example. Conditions in the region have shown a propensity for rapid discontinuous change. Failure to prepare for that prospect would leave U.S. strategy in complete disarray.
Nathan Freier is an associate professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a nonresident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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