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The U.S. Can’t Destroy ISIS, Only ISIS Can Destroy ISIS – The Unfortunate Merits of the “Let Them Rot” Strategy

Author:  Clint Watts
September 8, 2014

The U.S. Can’t Destroy ISIS, Only ISIS Can Destroy ISIS – The Unfortunate Merits of the “Let Them Rot” Strategy

During the early 1990s the Algerian government fought one of the nastiest civil wars in recent history against a broad-based Islamist insurgency.  The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) conducted a brutal insurgent campaign employing vicious terrorist tactics on par with today’s modern menace the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known by the acronyms ISIS, ISIL or IS for Islamic State – you pick the one you like).  GIA attacks were often indiscriminate and violent; involving large civilian massacres – quite ISIS like. While I always reserve extreme caution in endorsing any counterinsurgency or counterterrorism tactic utilized by the Algerian government, there may be one instructive lesson from Algeria’s strategy that we in the West and particularly the U.S. might examine for designing a plan to counter ISIS.

The Algerian government, having already tried extreme brutality and overwhelming force, recognized the need to employ smarter tactics.  Rather than tracking every GIA member to ground and in so doing causing harm to locals and further bolstering GIA’s popular support, the Algerians selectively employed what Luis Martinez, author of The Algerian Civil War 1990-1998, describes as the “Let Them Rot” strategy. The Algerian government, Martinez explains,“sought to avoid human losses for non-strategic zones, but also to lessen the demoralizing effects of the ‘dirty job’ on the troops.” (See pg. 150.) Algerian security services isolated districts with Islamist sympathies leaving the GIA emirs to govern via Islamist law and principles.  Contained by the Algerian security services, GIA emirs employed their extreme practices and quickly alienated the local populace as the district, walled off from the rest of society, crumbled economically.  Over time, the districts and the GIA emirs that ruled them, slowly “rotted” creating conditions favorable for the development of local militias to combat the GIA.  Local businessmen and disillusioned Islamists were re-engaged over time by the Algerian government who offered employment through security positions and opportunities through economic development plans.  In the end, the Algerian government didn’t destroy the GIA in these selected districts, they instead let the GIA defeat itself. 

The last two-week’s of U.S. discussion on ISIS has returned to last decade’s tough talk with calls for “destroying ISIS” and being “stronger” against an ISIS that is wrongly being equated with al Qaeda. ISIS, far more than al Qaeda, seeks the formation of an Islamic state and pursues many enemies of which only one is the U.S. As I discussed last week, the American quest to “destroy” ISIS is misguided.  Western Iraq and Eastern Syria are of lesser strategic value to the U.S. than what is currently transpiring in Ukraine with regards to Russian aggression.  By again plunging head first militarily into Iraq, the U.S. will not only re-confirm the narrative of al Qaeda that we’ve so desperately sought to shake the last ten years, but we will also be providing credibility to ISIS as the next leader of global jihad.  Excessive military engagement will certainly weaken ISIS in the near term, but will likely only guarantee the strengthening of jihadi aggression towards the U.S. in one form or another for the longer term. If the U.S. insists on destroying ISIS, ISIS’s remnants will later become something else, much in the way al Qaeda’s death spiral has spawned ISIS.  But if the U.S. can help ISIS destroy itself, it will be the best chance that jihadi violence can go away in our lifetimes.  If the U.S. truly believes ISIS’s violent ideology to be bankrupt, then why not “Let Them Rot” through a more sophisticated strategy designed to disillusion yet another wave of jihadi foreign fighters to Iraq. 

In conflict, the better force will develop a deliberate strategy around specified objectives and exhibit patience in execution.  (Russia’s recent several-month march into Ukraine might be emblematic of this.) To allow ISIS to defeat itself, the U.S. must show restraint when taunted, not infer defeat from an individual loss (e.g., beheading videos) and instead use its lauded smart power to avoid replaying the same strategic mistakes of the last decade’s regime building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To execute a “Let Them Rot” strategy against ISIS, the U.S. must answer two important questions. 

1. How does the U.S. effectively isolate ISIS to prevent ISIS from gathering its necessary resources for survival and the inevitable exfiltration of foreign fighters conducting international terrorist attacks?

I assume this weekend’s announcement of a nine member coalition represents the first step in isolating ISIS. But a strategy involving isolation won’t work when there is a giant gapping hole in the perimeter called Syria.  The U.S. and the West have avoided the Syrian conflict for two years, essentially permitting the conditions that spawned ISIS.  I’ll be interested to hear how they collectively decide to “degrade” ISIS without truly addressing Syria’s civil war. 

2. How does the U.S. lead a coalition to re-engage disaffected Iraqi and Syrian communities and their leading defectors that are willing to repel ISIS?

The U.S. gave itself great compliments during the 2007 “Surge” for winning the hearts and minds of Sunni tribesmen in areas today dominated by ISIS. To defeat ISIS, the U.S. and its coalition must be prepared to effectively entice defectors in these regions.  Luckily, a current for rejecting ISIS may have already begun to emerge in Mosul

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