Sunday, November 29, 2015

What does it mean to defeat the "Islamic State"? The need for a comprehensive strategy

What does it mean to defeat the organization that calls itself the Islamic State (Da’sh)?  This question has been in the news after Da’sh claimed responsibility for the recent downing of a Russian airliner, bombings in southern Beirut, and attacks in Paris.

This question of defeating the IS has been almost exclusively treated as a military one.  Yet the larger issues surrounding this question have not received the attention they deserve.  Thinking about this issue illustrates that there are at least three levels of “defeating the IS,” only one of which can be subsumed under the idea of military action.

First, it is possible that a coalition comprised of the United States, EU members, and allied Arab states could degrade the IS to the point where its military capabilities were no longer a threat and it lost most if not all of the territory it currently occupies in Iraq and Syria.  However, even from a military perspective, Da’sh would continue to hold power in Libya where it controls the important city of Misurata as well as 150 miles of the Libyan coast.  Indeed, most of Da’sh leaders in Libya are from Syria and Iraq because many high rankling officials have decided to establish Libya as a fallback territory should they lose control of Iraq and/or Syria.

Da’sh also has a powerful affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula, has obtained a vow of loyalty from the Nigerian Boko Haram and appears to making inroads among the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Turkey has a contingent of Dash supporters who also enjoy popularity among certain segments of Saudi youth.

What these observations suggest is that a military defeat of Da’sh in Iraq and Syria – while crucial in the war against the organization – will not accomplish the goal of eliminating it.  This b rings us to the second level of what the coalition of nations which wants to eliminate the Da’sh must take into account, namely the establishment of stable regimes in Syria and Iraq.

If the al-Asad regime is not removed ion Syria and replaced by a broad coalition of political forces and the Shi’i dominated Iraqi government refuses to negotiate with the country’s Sunni Arab political, leaders to establish a new form of inclusive rule, then all bets are off.  The Asad regime, now helped by the Russian military, will, continue to bomb civilian targets and use torture against those it considers enemies or disloyal.  This action is exactly what opened a political-ideological space which the Da’sh has been able to use to recruit.

In Iraq, sectarian rule has become increasingly entrenched since the United States toppled the regime of Saddam Husayn. Sectarianism became le politique du jour under former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, especially after the US helped him retain his position as prime minister in 2010, despite the fact that he came in second in national parliamentary elections.

Maliki’s mistreatment and exclusion of Iraq’s Sunni Arab population and degradation of the Iraqi military were the main reason why the Da’sh was able to seize Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014.  A city of 2 million inhabitants, Mosul’s many banks, provided Da’sh with anywhere from $550,000 to a million dollars in cash.  Its capture of state-of-the-art US weaponry, in and around Mosul, including tanks and MRAPs, significantly enhanced its military capabilities.  

A third level of analysis is the nature of the coalition designed to defeat Da’sh, nominally led by the United States.  I use the term nominally because US policy towards Da’sh has been reactive rather than proactive.  None of the coalition members is committed to a full-on military and diplomatic campaign against Da’sh.  The United Kingdom and France engage in bombing runs but the3 Arab states which initially supported the US effort has since significantly reduced their involvement.

Two of the most powerful militaries in the Middle East belonging to Turkey and Egypt are completely absent from the military campaign.  While Turkey is a NATO member, and finally gave the US permission this year to fly sorties against Da’sh from its Incirlik airbase, Turkey has looked the other way as thousands of youth have travelled from Europe and other countries in the Middle East and crossed its borders into Syria to join the Da’sh, and focused its military efforts against the Kurds in eastern Turkey rather than against the terrorist organization.  Facing its own insurgency in the Sinai, Egypt is totally absent from the campaign.

The Iraqi largely collapsed after the Mosul debacle and what resistance has been mounted by Baghdad government has mostly been that of Shi’i militias which were responsible for preventing the Da’sh from moving further south towards the capital city during the summer and fall of 2014.  These militias have been unable to regain territory in the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle which includes Iraq’s largest province of al-Anbar.  Here there are fears that a militia victory would result in further sectarian violence and that a new struggle would develop over who would rule the province.

The only forces which have fought consistently against the Da’sh are the Kurds of what was formerly northeastern Syria.  Now known as Rojava Autonomous Region, the local YPD government has been able to prevent the Da’sh from moving north from its headquarters in the Syrian city of al-Raqqa.  Its YPG (male) and YPJ (female) forces have fought with tenacity and distinction and been aided by US airdrops and air strikes, much to neighboring Turkey’s chagrin.  
What Turkey fears most as an outcome of the military effort against the Da'sh is an independent Kurdish state in what was northeastern Syria, and demands for more political rights by the 14 million Kurds who live in eastern Turkey

The Pesh Merga forces of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) initially acquitted themselves very poorly against Da’sh forces.  Only this year have the Iraqi Pesh recouped their reputation as skilled fighters as when they recently recaptured the northern city of Sinjar from the Da’sh. 

Nevertheless, the Kurds are lightly armed and were successful due to US air support.  The US is reluctant to provide the Kurds with heavier and more sophisticated weapons for fear of alienating Iraq’s Sunni as well as Shi’i Arab communities.

A huge problem in the myriad political and military calculations which need to be made is the role of Iran.  There is no question that the United States strengthened Iran’s role as a regional power after overthrowing Saddam Husayn Ba’thist regime.  A large number of the Shi’i politicians who the US backed politically after 2003 had close ties with the Islamic Republic and its clerical leadership.

Many of the militias currently fighting Da’sh forces in al-Anbar Province and to the south of Mosul are closely allied with Iran’s Quds Forces forces led by Qasem Suleimani.  Iran’s prominent role in Iraq – politically, economically and now militarily – has created a strategic dilemma for the US in particular which is loath to be seen as allied with Iran in its campaign against the Da’sh.

If the military campaign represents a half-hearted effort and the effort to find local partners in Syria and Iraq who could provide for at least a modicum of political stability is illusive, then there is yet another level of analysis which has been almost completely ignored.  Here I speak about the fertile ground which terrorist organizations from Afghanistan to Syria to Nigeria have used to recruit thousands of gullible youth to their ranks.

After WWII, the United States implemented the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and post-war Japan.  Designed to improve the quality of life of Europeans and thus reduce the appeals of Soviet-sponsored communist parties, the Marshall Plan also rendered the attraction of fascism, whether Nazism or Japanese militarism, nil.

Assuming a military campaign were successful, unless the US took the lead in developing an international effort to rebuild Syria and parts of Iraq which were formally under Da’sh control, the same conditions which made young people susceptible to terrorist narratives would reemerge once again.  In other words, defeating Da’sh militarily would constitute a Pyrrhic victory if youth still have no education, jobs and the populace at large lacks social services.\

Of course, the US does not have the resources which it possessed after WWII to undertake such a reconstruction effort on its own.  Instead, it needs to build an international coalition which includes some of its wealthy allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, the European Union, China, Canada, and other East Asian states such as Japan and South Korea.

As the Marshall Plan demonstrated, it is not enough to address a population’s material needs when an extremist ideology still has traction.  There are still fascists in Germany and Japan but they form a distinct minority of both countries.   While the abject defeat of the Axis in WWII was enough to delegitimize fascism as an ideology, the ideological dynamics associated with the Da’sh are more complex.

Here the US and the international coalition which it has put in place needs not only to defeat an adversary militarily but also the ideas which have attracted youth to its ranks.  Here the US and its allies could take a leaf out of the book of the Indonesian Sunni Muslim organization, Nahdlul Ulama, which has 50 million members.  Under the leadership of former president, the movement has set out to demonstrate the manner in which Da’sh has distorted Islamic theology.

The appropriation of concepts such as al-jihad (which does not connote “holy war”), al-khilafa (caliphate), and kufr (apostasy) by terrorist organizations such as Da’sh, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, Abu Sayyaf, and the Taliban must be combated using a “youth friendly” strategy which employees music, poetry, testimonials of reformed terrorist delivered through sophisticated social media platforms.  The ability to respond to the lies propagated by terrorist groups in a rapid fashion is central to this effort. 

So where does this leave the notion of “defeating the Islamic State”?  This effort must be divided into discrete areas which mobilize resources appropriate to that effort.  This means as military effort must be intensified with more special forces from the West and Arab world who can organize a more effective offense against Da’sh forces in Syria and Iraq.

The US needs to become more aggressive in bombing Da’sh’s oil production facilities and the tankers it uses to transport its oil to the Syrian border where it is smuggled into Turkey.   Turkey needs to be pressured by the US, NATO and the EU to stop allowing Da’sh fighter to be treated in Turkish hospitals and to do much more with its national police and army to try and stem the flow of new fighters across its border into Syria to join Da’sh.  Further, Turkey needs to get serious about interdicting oil which is smuggled from Da’sh controlled oil fields through PVC pipes under the border into its territory.

Second, the United States and it’s the international community need to bring tremendous pressure to bear to remove Bashar al-Asad from power and compel the Iraqi government to pursue a national reconciliation strategy which allows for Sunni Arab political, participation.

These two policies must run in parallel with a meaningful international aid effort which takes its policy cues from the recipients of the aid (and not from a “one size fits all” model developed by Western assistance organizations which often fail to comprehend local needs).  Offering basic and vocational education is key, as is the reduction of government corruption. (Iraq, for example, is 169 of 174 on Transparency International’s list of the world’s most corrupt nation-states). 

The US and Western governments need to develop a much wider range of counter-terrorism strategies which focus less on traditional law enforcement policies than gaining a better understanding of the mid-set, political culture and ideology of those who work to establish and build terrorist organizations.  This means that Western youth need much more training in the appropriate languages and cultures which will allow them to effectively understand the enemy which they face.

Cyber warfare and cyber terrorism, and the use of social; media, need to be much better understood.  As the Da’sh has made clear, much of its success has come from the skills of its film, video, advertisement and social media units which have crafted a mix of visual images and texts to play to the anxieties, fears, anger and boredom of those who later become its recruits.

Those reading this post may feel that the effort proposed here is too grandiose and difficult to successfully implement.  That is correct, defeating the Da’sh and other terrorist groups, in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, will not be easy.

The key is not to see the problem of terrorism as the problem of one country or region but as a global issue which can only be solved through the coordinated efforts of a large number of nation-states, preferable with the active involvement of the United Nations.  International cooperation is a sine qua non for defeating terrorism.  If we consider how fast terrorist organizations have spread their reach since the turn of the 21s t century, time is not on the side of those who support democracy tolerance and religious, political and ethnic pluralism.

As the last month of attacks by the Da'sh and its supporters make clear, “containing” terrorism is no longer an option.