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Seven Flaws In the U.S. Strategy to Counter ISIS

Author:  Clint Watts
September 18, 2014

Seven Flaws In the U.S. Strategy to Counter ISIS

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is derived from Clint Watts’ Ginsburg Lecture delivered at the National Liberty Museum on September 16, 2014.)

The past week’s debate on how to counter ISIS has proven just how effective terrorism is as a tactic for extremist groups.  Two videos showing the beheading of American hostages have provoked the largest U.S. response since the attacks of 9/11, compelling President Obama to hastily gather up a strategy to counter ISIS. Aside from the general confusion over what to call the group, there is even greater disagreement over what to do.  Overall, I don’t disagree with most of the actions the U.S. is taking to counter ISIS, but I am baffled why ISIS, America’s third or fourth most pressing national security concern right now, requires such a reaction.  The lesson for other extremist groups scattered from Morocco to Malaysia is clear – fly a black flag, film an atrocity and post it on the Internet and you too can capture the American media cycle and provoke a U.S. response. 

Aside from my quibbling over the U.S. need to be out front in countering ISIS, it is clear that something needs to be done to counter the rise of the group.  The U.S. actions to counter ISIS to date are not necessarily wrong.  Building up rebels, airstrikes to protect key allies, and working with partners all represent sound actions the U.S. will need to take at one point or another.  As a comprehensive strategy, however, the plan will likely fail from seven fatal flaws presented by the current situation in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. can do whatever it wants to militarily, and probably will, but these apparent weaknesses will prevent any meaningful defeat of ISIS and, in the process of being the global leader to counter ISIS, the U.S. has confirmed the jihadist narrative it so desperately sought to escape in the past decade – the “Far Enemy” propping up “Near Enemy” apostates. (See my post from two weeks ago “Why Does The U.S. Want To Be ISIS ‘Far Enemy’?” for a larger discussion on this issue.)

Seven Flaws in the U.S. Strategy To Counter ISIS

My thesis remains that the “U.S. Can’t Destroy ISIS, Only ISIS Can Destroy ISIS”, but neither my proposal nor the current U.S. plan being put forth, “Airstrikes and Allies” (or maybe “Mitigate and Pray” might be more appropriate), can achieve its goals without addressing seven obvious challenges present in Iraq and Syria (See Figure 1). 

  1. Syrian Civil War – Two years of Syrian civil conflict has created a gapping wound in the Middle East exploiting many religious, regional and international friction points.  A wound left untreated turns into an infection, an infection today known as ISIS.  Fearful of blowback after Qaddafi’s collapse in Libya and mired in the 2012 reelection campaign, the Obama administration accompanied by the West has avoided the Syrian conflict for years allowing ISIS to fester and grow amongst the chaos. The U.S. will be unlikely to defeat ISIS in a meaningful way without developing a strategy for resolving the Syrian conflict.
  2. Turkish Border – Foreign fighters and resources pour into Syria and ultimately ISIS through Turkey.  A strategy of containment and annihilation will not work when there is a gapping hole in the perimeter.  Recent news suggests that the Turks may be deploying up to 50,000 police to seal the border.  But how effective will this be when Turks compromise a large base of support for ISIS and a steady supply of foreign fighters?  
  3. The Double-Edged Sword of Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia quickly signed up as a partner in the U.S. coalition to counter ISIS – a logical and smart move for the Saudis who may be most threatened by hundreds of their citizens helping power ISIS. Saudi Arabia was one of the first to arrest ISIS operatives in their country back in May and is a natural terrorist target for the group. Of course, partnering up with Saudi Arabia affirms al Qaeda’s old narrative for attacking the U.S. – the “Far Enemy (US)” is propping up “Near Enemy (Saudi)” apostates. The current U.S. plan includes sending military trainers to Saudi Arabia , another justification used by Bin Laden for attacking the U.S. dating back to the 1990s.  More importantly, the U.S. plan re-opens the 13-year debate about the tradeoffs encountered with counterterrorism partners. How can the U.S. promote democracy to counter a terror group that beheads people and observes Shari’a law, while partnering with a government that just beheaded dozens of people “according to Shari’a” for offenses that include drug trafficking and sorcery?
  4. Arab Partner Nations – Defeating ISIS will not come without a wide base of support from Arab partners.  However, most Arab countries, to include what might be the United States’ most important ally Jordan, seem reluctant to join forcefully into the coalition for two reasons.  First, these countries have disenfranchised communities that sympathize and even support ISIS with fighters and money.  By joining the U.S. coalition, they are putting themselves at risk domestically.  Second, ISIS’s campaign to date has largely focused on killing Shi’a and countering the Assad regime.  Thus ISIS has become a convenient proxy army for Sunni nations wanting to meet what they see as Iranian (Shi’a) expansion in the region. 
  5. Iran is a bigger adversary to the U.S. than ISIS – By engaging ISIS, the U.S. is simultaneously 1) acting as a proxy air force for Iran whose IRGC has become a line of defense for the Shi’a dominated Iraqi government and 2) becoming the savior for Iran’s regional ally; the Assad regime in Syria.  By destroying ISIS without addressing the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. is rewarding its adversary Iran who bloodied American noses the past decade in Iraq. 
  6. Sunni partners in Iraq – The U.S. must create some lasting stability in the Western and Northern Sunni areas of Iraq if it wants to permanently root out ISIS.  ISIS gains correlate with Sunni disenfranchisement in the so-called democratic system left by the U.S.  The U.S. has noted the need for a more inclusive and representative Iraqi government, but the plan to counter ISIS must go further and regain the buy-in of Sunni leaders in Iraq.
  7. Shi’a Dominated Iraqi Government – The Iraqi government looks to Iran for direction and the U.S. for support, while undermining the country’s new democracy by reinforcing ethnic divisions. Meanwhile, Shi’a divisions of the Iraqi army, despite being numerically superior, refused to fight for Sunni areas of Iraq instead turning tail and retreating only to be executed in mass by ISIS.  The U.S. must address the challenges of the past decade and explore new possibilities for how to stabilize Iraq in terms of both governance and security.

Two Fronts For Defeating ISIS: On-The-Ground and Online

Along with these seven challenges, the U.S. media has made ISIS’s success difficult to understand.  Defeating ISIS requires the U.S. to meet and defeat ISIS both “On-The-Ground” and “Online.”  These two fronts of ISIS aggression though are symbiotic. ISIS’s success building an Islamic state and conducting widespread violence on the ground in Syria and Iraq has empowered their well planned and technically sound media strategy on the Internet.  As seen in Figure 2, ISIS’s increased success leads to greater online support.  Greater online support equals more recruits and more resources for ISIS from their international base of support.  Thus, the U.S. can’t really defeat ISIS online, without degrading ISIS on the ground.  Fortunately, foreign fighter recruits are a fickle bunch. In general, when a terror group begins to fail, recruits tend to decrease and donors start to dry up.  Everyone likes a winner, even terror group supporters. 

ISIS’s two fronts also speak to U.S. interests with regards to defeating ISIS and should shape the amount of effort the U.S. puts into its counterterrorism actions.  ISIS’s on-the-ground success threatens the security of the Middle East and American allies in the region.  ISIS’s online success threatens the U.S. homeland and U.S. personnel abroad.  The U.S. strategy against ISIS will ultimately have two campaigns and countering ISIS online will depend on U.S. success defeating ISIS on-the-ground. 

My next several posts will be a series called “Thoughts On Countering ISIS.” The first in this series actually came out last week – the “Let Them Rot” strategy — which I still contend is the more appropriate approach for defeating ISIS, although it appears the U.S. lacks the patience to execute it.  In the upcoming posts, I’ll try to provide some perspective on how the U.S. can fight the two campaigns against ISIS’s two fronts while addressing the seven challenges I noted above.   

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