Comments on Iraq: Where Do We Go From Here?

On May 18, 2017, FPRI hosted a Main Line Briefing on Iraq: Where Do We Go From Here. The discussion by Denise Natali and Nada Bakos, and moderated by Samuel Helfont, provided an outstanding overview of the challenges facing Iraq after ISIS ceases to be a “state.” However, possibly because of the time constraint, the panelists were unable to discuss two issues in greater depth.

First, both panelists made it clear that the U.S. was not interested in nation building—that the days of the neoconservatives attempting to build Iraq into a reasonably peaceful, reasonably democratic, reasonably prosperous U.S. ally in the Middle East were over. This pronouncement led to an audience question that if the U.S. was not interested in building a new Iraq, then why are we engaged at all? Of course, there are many policy options besides full engagement in Iraq and abandonment. But three options might illustrate the choices.

Full engagement (aka nation building): The U.S. and its allies provide substantial ground forces to defeat ISIS and other insurgent groups as well as help to maintain Iraq’s political and geographic integrity. The U.S. government provides the current Iraqi government with substantial political and diplomatic support. And the U.S. and its allies commit to providing the massive financial support necessary for the reconstruction of post-ISIS Iraq.

Essential interests: The U.S. limits itself to certain essential regional interests. These might include three commitments. First, the U.S. 5th Fleet will keep the Persian Gulf open to peaceful transit. Second, Israel’s security will be guaranteed. Finally, because of the threat of terrorism to the West, the U.S. and its allies will support the anti-ISIS effort with intelligence, communications, training, and special operations forces, but not substantial ground forces. Beyond defending these essential interests, the U.S. disengages from Iraq and the region.

Walk away: In a world where North America is almost energy independent and there is an expectation that oil prices will remain at $60 a barrel or less for the next decade, the U.S. doesn’t “need” Iraq or the rest of the Middle East. Since they still need ME oil, let Asia and Europe deal with its problems.  

Bakos and Natali favored a version of the second option, Essential Interests (listen to conversation beginning at about minute 35:19). In other words, the days of Bush-era full engagement nation building were over. But this raises the question of whether nation building was abandoned because it was impossible or whether the benefit of a democratic and prosperous Iraq who is a strong ally of the U.S. was perceived to be greater than the costs? An argument can be made that by 2008, after a great expenditure of Iraqi and U.S. blood and treasure, Iraq had made substantial progress towards a peaceful democratic future. I was in Baghdad in 2008 and 2009 and was surprised at the changes from three years before. Violence was down sharply, Sunnis and Shi’a were working together to pass legislation in the Council of Representatives, and there was a strong business revival led by the construction industry. However, political, security, and economic progress was stalled by bad policy decisions made by President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki.

Disregarding the progress that had been made, Obama kept his campaign promise of withdrawing all U.S. forces. This premature withdrawal greatly weakened Iraqi security forces and was justified by the failure to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Natali mentioned this lack of a SOFA (39:55) as a reason that future U.S. involvement in Iraq must be limited. However, the lack of a SOFA didn’t prevent Obama from sending hundreds of U.S. troops back to Iraq to aid in the fight against ISIS near the end of his second term, nor did it prevent President Trump from increasing these numbers to over 5,000. Is the failure to agree on a SOFA the true cause of the U.S. withdrawal or just an excuse? Maliki also contributed to the reversal of security progress. He broke his public promises to provide army or police jobs to young Sunnis who had fought al-Qaeda. In addition, he replaced combat tested commanders with persons distinguished only by their personal loyalty to Maliki and their corruption. Just like the cliché, Obama and Maliki snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Second, even if nation building on the scale of post WWII Germany and Japan is possible in Iraq, is it a smart policy? Is the game worth the candle? The panelists predicted that just as al-Qaeda 1.0 was followed by al-Qaeda 2.0 (ISIS), there would be an al-Qaeda 3.0, 4.0, etc. This possibility may shift the advantage from the second option, Essential Interests, to the first option, Full Engagement (aka nation building). Ideally, U.S. full engagement in Iraq would drain the swamp; change the Iraqi political, social, and economic environment so that it will become less likely that another terrorist or insurgent group will arise to threaten the nation and region’s stability. In other words, the U.S. faces a choice. We can choose to accept an enormous short-term expenditure of blood and treasure that will provide a long-term solution to the Iraq crisis or we can choose many decades of dealing with a succession of terrorist or insurgent groups with possibly a greater capacity for attacking our vital interests. And the second choice leads to the possibility that one of these terrorist groups will eventually become capable of hitting Tel Aviv, London, or New York with a weapon of mass destruction. Domestic politics seems to favor the second choice and President Trump is expected to withdraw most/all of U.S. forces from Iraq as soon as ISIS ceases to be a “state.” But the U.S. may be better off in the long term with continued full engagement in that troubled land.

I learned a great deal from the presentations and discussions of Samuel Helfont, Denise Natali, and Nada Bakos. But like many FPRI events, one wishes that the speakers had more time.

 

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An Update from Iraq

I have spent the past week traveling around the Kurdish Region of Iraq conducting research on the behalf of FPRI and the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. For the past two days, IRIS held the Suli Forum. Now in its fifth year, the Suli Forum has emerged as one of the top policy forums in the Middle East. The Forum mostly looked ahead to the strategic landscape facing the region after ISIS. However, we also received updates on the current situation in Mosul from Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, who commands Iraq’s venerable Counter Terrorism Service and thus leads Iraqi counter-ISIS operations. We also heard news about Mosul from the Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider Al-Abadi, various Kurdish Peshmerga Commanders, and a representative from the controversial Popular Mobilization Forces (which have been accused of carrying out a number of atrocities). Many of the views that these figures expressed were challenged by fellow participants and audience members, but the picture that they presented about the current status of the operation to retake Mosul is generally as follows:

Everyone acknowledges, at least tacitly, that the human cost of Iraqi operations to take other cities in the campaign against ISIS has been unacceptable. The military used heavy weapons in densely populated areas. The Popular Mobilization Forces, which consist mostly of Shi‘i militias that were created (or at least reinvigorated) following the ISIS assault on Iraq in 2014, have been undisciplined and unaccountable. Thus, operations to take cities such as Tikrit and Ramadi over the past couple of years nearly destroyed those cities. Had the same tactics been used in the much larger city of Mosul, the result would have been a humanitarian nightmare. Therefore, the Iraqis are attempting a different strategy. Lt. Gen Shaghati insists that no Popular Mobilization Forces have entered the city and that only light weapons are being used (though these points were disputed by some other participants). The Iraqi Army is also applying well-worn counterinsurgency tactics quite effectively for the first time. They are moving slowly to prevent the destruction of infrastructure (the battle for Mosul began in October and it is still ongoing). And the general insisted that civilians in Mosul were his number one priority. He claims that Iraqi forces regularly put their own lives in danger to win the respect and trust of the local population. This required not only new tactics, but also significant changes in the structure of the Army. For example, under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Counter Terrorism Service had been considered a sectarian arm of the Shi‘i led government, but recent reforms have changed its essence. The service now consists of members from all of Iraq’s sects, and if any member openly touts their sectarian identity, they are removed from the unit.

While there are good reasons to be cynical about many of these claims, the operation to liberate the sections of Mosul on the eastern bank of the Tigris River have been much more successful than Iraqi operations in other cities. Over 80 neighborhoods in Mosul are now controlled by the Iraqi Army, though ISIS sleeper cells remain and attacks are still common. Unlike in Tikrit, Fallujah, or Ramadi, the civilians in liberated eastern Mosul have largely remained in their homes and neighborhoods.

These facts mark a real and positive shift in the manner in which the Iraqi military is operating. However, there are still a number of challenges ahead as well as many unanswered questions. The Iraqi Army has yet to liberate Mosul’s old city, which everyone agrees will be much more difficult due to its narrow, winding streets and dense population. Seventy-five percent of Mosul’s population lives in this unliberated part of the city, and it is considered ISIS’s stronghold. One could easily see the Iraqi assault bogging down there. Moreover, some participants challenged the rosy picture of a “clean” operation in eastern Mosul that the Iraqi government and military presented. Some unofficial casualty reports reach into the thousands, and recent stories have leaked claiming that heavy weapons were indeed employed in Mosul, leveling homes and infrastructure (though the government and military deny these claims). Moreover, while the government insists that it takes human rights violations seriously, Lt. Gen Shaghati was only able to provide one instance in which soldiers or militia members were punished for such abuses. Finally, the Yazidis do not feel that the military or the Iraqi government has done enough to find and free the captured Yazidi women who ISIS has been using as sex slaves. One Yazidi leader lamented the fact that thousands of these women were in Mosul and nearby towns, but that rescuing them has not been a priority for the government forces.

So, to sum up, the general feeling here is one of cautious optimism. Most stakeholders seem to believe that the military, while far from perfect, is successfully refining its strategy to fight ISIS. They also believe that the liberation of Mosul, while moving slowly, will ultimately succeed. What will happen in Iraq following that liberation remains a matter of wild conjecture.

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Putting the Battle for Mosul in Context

It has been over two years since the Islamic State sacked the Iraqi city of Mosul and captured much of the Sunni Arab regions in northern and western Iraq. The country remains mired in military conflict and political instability. This week Iraqi forces, with the backing of the American led coalition, are currently fighting to re-take Mosul. They hope that doing so will deliver a serious blow to the Islamic State. However, this battle, while extremely important, will not put an end to the crisis in Iraq or the threat of the Islamic State. To understand why, one must put the battle into its larger political context. In this post, I will try do just that and then attempt to provide a brief look ahead at the short, medium, and long term repercussions for the crisis in Iraq.

 

Iraq is currently divided into three distinct regions: Iraq proper, which is governed by Baghdad; the Kurdish autonomous zone; and the areas controlled by the Islamic State. Militarily, the Iraqi Armed Forces, with significant aid from popular mobilization forces (al-hashd al-sha‘bi), Kurdish Peshmerga, and American-led coalition forces, have been advancing steadily on the Islamic State’s positions. The Islamic State has been losing territory for over a year, and because of coalition air superiority, has not been able to mass forces for a counter-attack since the Spring of 2015. This success has often come at a steep price. While there has been some token Sunni Arab participation in the popular mobilization forces, they are dominated by sectarian, often Iranian-backed, Shi‘i militias. As these forces advance into Sunni Arab territory, they have clashed with the local populations. Human Rights Watch has “documented summary killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and the destruction of homes” by elements of the popular mobilization forces.[1]     

 

The current focus of the combined military operations in Iraq is to re-take the city of Mosul. Theoretically, a military operation to re-take the city is fairly straightforward. However, in practice, it has been delayed for some time because it needs to be carried out in a manner that is consistent with the long-term political goals of a unified Iraq. A military assault that defeats the Islamic State while alienating much of the population or creating a humanitarian crisis will ultimately prove counter-productive. Recent Iraqi campaigns to re-take Sunni Arab cities left them in ruins and displaced most of their populations. Those cities had, at most, a few hundred thousand residents each. Mosul has almost two million residents. Thus, if the Iraqi forces employ their previous tactics in Mosul, they will likely trigger an acute humanitarian crisis. There are also fears that disputed areas liberated by the Kurds will be forced into the Kurdish autonomous region against the will of Arabs and non-Kurdish minorities.

 

American and coalition forces clearly understand this dynamic. In July, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hosted a defense ministers summit and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a parallel foreign ministers summit.[2] In both meetings, representatives of the anti-Islamic State coalition emphasized the importance of post-conflict stabilization and development in Sunni Arab sections of Iraq. By doing so, they hope to reassure Iraq’s Sunni Arabs that they have a place in a united Iraq. These efforts face difficult challenges. Atrocities carried out by Kurdish and Shi‘i militias have had a deep impact on Sunni Arabs in Iraq. Some of the Sunni Arab population in Iraq continues to see Shi‘i and Kurdish forces as greater evils than the Islamic State. It is difficult to determine the extent of this sentiment, but there are some troubling signs. A recent, un-scientific poll conducted by al-Jazeera found that “72 percent of respondents said they supported the Islamic State over the Shia militias in the battle of Fallujah; 84 percent said that the Iranian occupation posed a greater threat than the Islamic State; and 86 percent said the goal of the Fallujah campaign was to consolidate Iranian occupation of Iraq rather than to fight terrorism.”[3] As un-scientific as these numbers may be, if they bear even a passing resemblance to reality, they signal a difficult road ahead. If Iraq’s Sunni Arabs continue to view the Iraqi government as a greater threat than the Islamic State, then retaking Mosul will represent little more than a tactical victory. And the strategic landscape will be ripe for the reemergence of the Islamic State or a similar group in the near future. 

 

Over the long-term, the anti-Islamic State coalition’s goal of convincing Sunni Arabs to support the Iraqi government faces several structural political and economic problems. First, for several centuries, Sunni Arabs formed Iraq’s social, political, and economic elite. In 2003, the American-led invasion of Iraq disrupted the country’s system of rule, leaving Iraq’s Shi‘i majority in control. This created a disparity between the historical positions of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and the possibilities they face under an even semi-democratic Iraq. As a result, they have been ambivalent at best about their prospects under the current regime in Baghdad. That situation will continue to provide openings for groups such as the Islamic State well into the future.

 

The two most widely discussed solutions to this problem are: (1) to de-centralize the government in Iraq, giving the Sunni Arab regions much more autonomy; and (2) to create a power-sharing system in Baghdad that would grant the Sunni Arabs more power. However, Iraq’s main oil fields are in the Shi‘i south and the Kurdish north. Thus, in a decentralized system, Baghdad would have to finance the Sunni Arab regions while agreeing to limit its political control over them. Such an arrangement is unlikely to be popular in non-Sunni Arab regions. Furthermore, since 2003, Iran has worked to install its allies in Baghdad. It has significant influence in many of the most important ministries, including the Ministry of Interior. Because Iran views Iraq as part of a broader regional struggle with Sunni Arab powers, particularly Saudi Arabia, it is likely to block policies that cede power to Sunni Arabs.

 

To put it succinctly, the crisis in Iraq is not going to disappear after the liberation of Mosul and as long as the political and military conflicts in Iraq remain unresolved, Iraq will continue to be a source for terrorism and mass migration. Retaking Mosul is a vital first step in alleviating these problems, but we should be under no illusions that it will end the crisis in Iraq, or that the U.S. can refocus its attention elsewhere.

 

NOTES

[1] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/07/31/iraq-ban-abusive-militias-mosul-operation

[2] http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/war-on-is/2016/07/20/defense-foreign-ministers-plan-next-steps-against-isis/87339754/

[3] http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/63834

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Are You Staying, Or Just Passing Through? The Geopolitics Of Asylum

European politics have been roiled over the past few years by the question of how the EU as a whole and its individual member states should deal with refugees seeking asylum from the ongoing wars throughout the Greater Middle East. Most attention has been focused on the stream of unfortunates coming across Turkey and the Aegean from Afghanistan, Iraq, and especially Syria. Their stories have tugged at European heartstrings, even as some have worried that the crowds of apparent refuges could also include potential terrorists.

Germany in particular has chosen to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s confident proclamation “Wir schaffen das” (We can handle it) has earned her praise from humanitarian groups but also brickbats from analysts and political critics who claim she has undermined national security in quixotic pursuit of moral redemption for the German people’s historical sins.

At the root of the debate has been the question of German and European responsibility for helping the victims of wars on Europe’s periphery—wars in which Europe has been unwilling or unable to take an active role—and the potential danger such migrants pose to European society. Critics of Merkel’s policy point to recent terror attacks as proof of the dangers of unchecked immigration, and argue for robust interdiction and higher fences.  Supporters of a more open policy, such as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor John Shattuck, have argued the opposite, that accepting refugees will allow Europe (and the United States as well) to display their commitment to human rights, counter Islamist assertions that the West is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile to the well-being of Muslims, and thus actually enhance both the reputation and the security of the West. 

So far, neither side in the debate has scored an undisputed victory, and it is unlikely that they will any time soon. But the discussion of migration and asylum, so focused on the actions of European governments, often leaves out the actions of the migrants themselves.  Although one will occasionally see discussions of the need for the refugees and asylum seekers themselves to integrate into European culture, the primary policy question for Europeans has been framed as “do we let them in or not?”

The closer one looks, however, the more one sees that it is not just a matter of who comes in, but how they come and go once they have found asylum, and the political activities they choose to engage in while enjoying the protection of that status.

All of which leads us to the saga of Yahya Badr al-Din al-Houthi. Al-Houthi is a Yemeni activist, the brother of the leader of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, currently involved in a bitter civil conflict with the government of Yemen. That conflict has developed into a proxy war between Shiite Iran (which backs the Houthis) and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, which backs the Yemeni government.

[For those interested in more detail, the conflict in Yemen was the subject of the February 2015 episode of FPRI’s “Geopolitics with Granieri,” which addressed its local, regional, and global complexities.]

Al-Houthi’s exploits have recently been the subject of a two-part summer series in the print edition of the Saudi news magazine Majalla (available in English as well as Arabic). The series highlights the significant questions about German capacity and willingness to hold political refugees to the legal conditions of their stay, and the implications for this case for future asylum policy.

Although even less well known to American audiences than the Syrian Civil War, the war in Yemen has entered its second year with no clear end in sight, and is producing its own flow of displaced refugees. Its wider implications have also increased the significance of Houthi activists abroad. Al-Houthi himself fled Yemen more than a decade ago, and found political asylum in Germany.  Far from staying out of the politics of his homeland, however, al-Houthi has been an active supporter of the rebel cause, appearing on a variety of media outlets (including the Arabic service of Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of the Voice of America), meeting with Iranian representatives and other supporters of the Houthi cause, including Hezbollah, and even traveling back and forth to Yemen to participate in the rebellion.

Such activity stretches the legal meaning of asylum, and poses a difficult political problem for the Germans. There is of course historical precedent for rebel groups and self-styled “governments in exile” to set up shop abroad. Usually, however, such actions depend upon the formal approval of the foreign host. The Germans have extended no such formal support to al-Houthi and his compatriots, but at the same time they have not acted to shut down his behavior either. Either decision would bring political challenges that Berlin appears to prefer to avoid. The resulting ambiguity, however, is not only embarrassing for the German authorities, but also raises uncomfortable questions about the broader responsibility of even the most welcoming governments for the political activities of those whom they chose to shelter.

In this atmosphere of increasing tension about how to deal with the challenge of integrating political migrants and asylum seekers, European policy discussions should include an understanding of this particular case. So far, it offers no satisfying solutions, but many questions well worth pondering.

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What Should We Make Of The Islamic State’s Ramadan Wave Of Violence?

The Islamic State has taken the final week of Ramadan to make a big statement: “We will not go quietly.” In the last seven days the terror group has shown that a “wounded Islamic State is a dangerous Islamic State” lashing out in an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings and other attacks around the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia.

smoke

The Islamic State’s gradual decline in Syria and Iraq has finally brought a long expected shift in the group’s tactics from conventional military operations back towards insurgencies paired with regional and international terror attacks. The Islamic State overtook al Qaeda by declaring a caliphate and has since surpassed their forefathers as a terror group by executing a daily string of directed and networked attacks in six countries while narrowly missing in a seventh.

Here’s a quick recap of the Islamic State’s Ramadan Campaign. (For an explanation of the directed versus networked taxonomy see “Directed, Networked and Inspired: The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda Post Hebdo.” I’m estimating whether these attacks are directed or networked based upon available open source information. These classifications may change as further information arises.)

June 27 to July 5: The Islamic State’s Cascading Terrorism

Success breeds success for the Islamic State and their directed suicide assaults seek to amplify their image, rally their base during a down time, and inspire their supporters to undertake further violence in their name. Here’s what the Islamic State has perpetrated in short order.

Interestingly, only two of the above attacks do not involve a suicide operation – Bangladesh and Malaysia. Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a group connected with the Islamic State, but not a formal wilayat, had until recently only perpetrated targeted sectarian assassinations and this attack appears to not only be a major, violent step forward for the group but also seems more reminiscent of the Paris attacks and other international hostage seizures. Association of the Malaysian grenade attack with the Islamic State would also be a new trend regionally. In both cases, these peripheral attacks in South and Southeast Asia show the lesser capability of these distant Islamic State associates. It’s difficult to tell at this point whether they don’t have the capability to perpetrate suicide bombings or the personnel willing to execute such attacks.

Ultimately, the Islamic State has cascaded its terror attacks striking one target in a different country each day. Will it inspire attacks globally? Only time will tell, but possibly not. Western media has paid short attention to these attacks with the exception of the Istanbul airport. As al Murabitoon and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb learned with its Western African terror campaign post Paris, Western media coverage endures when Westerners are killed in the West, all other attacks have less value.

Here are some other items of note from this past week’s terror campaign.

The Islamic State against all enemies – Muslim, Christian, Shi’a, Sunni, Arab, Western

Some have incorrectly suggested that the Islamic State nimbly focuses its attacks predominately against Westerners or certain audiences. This week’s Islamic State attacks and resulting deaths point to the opposite conclusion: all enemies of the Islamic State are targets and Muslims have suffered the worst. In Saudi Arabia alone, the Islamic State hit near a Western consulate, a Shi’a mosque and a Sunni holy site. Lebanon saw targeting of Christians. Bangladesh brought a focus on Westerners. The Istanbul attack killed mostly Muslims. Yemen and Saudi Arabia saw the Islamic State concentrating on security forces. Each Islamic State affiliate may pick and choose certain targets for local reasons but as an aggregate, no one faith or ethnicity is spared from the Islamic State’s wanton violence.

Islamic State’s Remaining Fighters: Die In Place Or Go Out With A Bang?

The Islamic State lost Fallujah last week and some of its members that tried to escape were pulverized in massive airstrikes. Many Islamic State foreign fighters can’t return home or have no Islamic State affiliate to drift back to. For those homeless foreign fighters, the choice is simple: they can either die in place fighting for a crumbling caliphate or they can go out as martyrs striking their homelands or a regional or international targets. The Islamic State owns the largest number of homeless foreign fighters in history. As the group loses turf, they’ll likely become part of the largest human missile arsenal in history and be directed against any and all soft targets they can reach. This campaign is likely not the end of the Islamic State’s suicide campaign, but only the beginning.

 Foreign Fighters Go As Far As Their Passports Will Take Them

 Last winter, the West suffered from the Islamic State’s decision to allegedly dispatch hundreds of European foreign fighters back to their homelands. Paris and Brussels burned and operatives across a host of European countries were arrested. Western passport holders and those hidden in refugee flows pushed as far as they could to hit high profile soft targets. Turkey struggled for years with foreign fighters passing easily through their borders into Syria and fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia found the country quite permissible, likely facilitating this past week’s Russian-speaking suicide bombers. Richard Engel reported that as many as 35 operatives were recently dispatched into Turkey alone. The Yemeni and Saudi attacks focused more heavily on security forces and were likely perpetrated by Islamic State pledges from their respective countries and possibly a Pakistani. The bottom line: the Islamic State is sending its bombers to the locations where they can achieve the biggest results. They are not in short supply of Western, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, or Russian operatives – expect more suicide attacks in places that al Qaeda only dreamed of reaching.

Strong Counterterrorism Matters: The Islamic State Preys On The Weak

Those countries with stronger counterterrorism and security apparatuses have fared the best this past week. The Saudis, long known for squelching terrorists in their midst, sustained far fewer deaths than other countries hit this week. Iraq, despite years of investment, seems unable to protect itself from suicide attacks with yet another massive suicide bombing. Lebanon and Bangladesh, two locations of rising promise for the Islamic State (see Figure 1), have weaker security environments and local conditions ripe for extremism. The Islamic State will likely learn from this past week and exploit those places where they got the greatest return on their investment.

Is The Islamic State Looking For An Exit Strategy?

In conclusion, the Islamic State’s rapid pace of violence may come at a time when they need to find a new home for the brand. Their caliphate revenues and oil production continue to dry up. They will need to shift to illicit schemes and donations to survive. Successful attacks attract investors: will this latest string of violence bring money? Probably not, but what this rampant violence can do is signal to Islamic State’s central leadership which affiliates are still committed to the Islamic State brand. Affiliates, existing or emerging, may want to carry on the Islamic State’s vision outside of Syria and Iraq. Much like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was for the al Qaeda Central during their downturn, Islamic State Central will need an affiliate to carry the black banner forward or their caliphate experiment will crumble as fast as it was created.

ISIS affiliates Figure 1

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The Local Proxy Problem

On Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined a bold plan to expand the war against ISIS during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS,” Clinton said. “If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them.”

There’s one serious problem with this approach: it is utterly baseless.

Contrary Mrs. Clinton’s assertion, our experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan should lead to the opposite conclusion: relying on local proxies, whether formal as an army we train or informal as a militia that we arm, has a deeply troubled history and so far has resulted in catastrophic battle losses against the enemy. 

In Afghanistan, the army and militias America has spent years building up barely function. From the scourge of “green-on-blue” attacks (whereby Afghan police and soldiers decide to murder their American trainers), to catastrophic combat losses against the Taliban, our local partners have proven wholly inadequate to the task of defeating the Taliban (and al Qaeda, and now ISIS). Furthermore, the Afghan national army has staggeringly low retention, so low that if the U.S. Army were experiencing the same rate it would be a full-blown crisis and the institution would be facing collapse. Lastly, there is the appalling corruption of both the national army but especially the local militias trained in an attempt to implement a locally-led counterinsurgency policy: not only in terms of money and weapons stolen, but in terms of directly implicating the United States in the systematic sexual abuse of children.

Is it any surprise that such a force is unable to hold its ground against a massive Taliban assault? As more details emerge about the horrific air strike against a hospital in Kunduz province, it seems that the Afghans were the ones falsely claiming that it was a Taliban outpost. In our effort to support our local partners, we may have abetted a war crime.

There is a similar story to tell in Iraq. Training the Iraqi national army, and later the Iraqi militias, was the signature counterinsurgency policy of General David Petraeus. From his command in Mosul in 2004 to his command of the entire war effort, training locals to do the heavy lifting was the key to winning the war. Nevermind that the Iraqi Army cost America more than $25 billion and collapsed at the first sign of ISIS in 2014. Nevermind that some of the Iraqi militias we trained were little more than death squads. And nevermind that we flooded Iraq with so many unaccounted-for weapons and so much equipment that ISIS is currently outfitted about as well as the Iraqi army.

How Mrs. Clinton can look at our record and conclude this is an effective way to combat terror is puzzling. In Libya, American attempts to arm a local proxy would up helping al Qaeda, instead. We lost half a billion dollars-worth of weaponry in Yemen, a humiliating disaster which is no longer the successful example officials use to cite as their model for defeating ISIS. Even in Syria, the train-and-equip mission cost $500 million and resulted in “four or five” men able to fight. 

Beyond the practical disasters of relying on local proxies to do our fighting for us is the moral hazard inherent to their use. Relying on local proxies to do our fighting allows us to avoid the risk and responsibility of what happens during the fighting. It is a way for a politician to appear to be doing “something” about a challenge without assuming any political risks in the act of doing so: no “boots on the ground,” no massive deployment, and no dead bodies coming home in flag draped coffins. Proxies allow America to fight wars invisibly, with all of the risk off-loaded onto contractors and anonymous locals.

Proxies also present a serious challenge when their interests are not in exact alignment with ours. In Syria, our proxies care much more about defeating Bashar al-Assad than they do defeating ISIS (this is also why Russia’s assistance mission to Syria has consisted mainly of bombing those proxy groups). It is a logical decision for the Syrians: Assad is responsible for the vast majority of the death and devastation there; the reason ISIS exists in the first place is because of Assad’s brutality. He is the root of all evil in Syria. But toppling Assad is not our immediate goal (even though the President has said it was, at times); defeating ISIS is, and no one is prepared to start a war with Russia and Iran to do so.

Lastly, as Adam Elkus put it, “there is something very unjust and disturbing in the way in which the United States can encourage men to risk their lives under the false hope that Uncle Sam will be with them the whole way.” Because America is never fully committed to our local partners — that is their appeal, after all — the moment it becomes inconvient to do so these proxies are discarded. When America discarded our proxies in Afghanistan, the result was appalling disaster on a scale only now matched by Syria; it created the space for al Qaeda to organize and grow and spread; and it created the horrors that led Afghans to cheer the Taliban’s emergence in 1994. There were seemingly good reasons for using proxies then that mirror the same reasons people find them appealing now: fear of a quagmire, a desire not to directly war against Russia. But that fear does not always result in sound policy, and we’re still left holding the bag in Afghanistan more than 35 years later.

This week, the House of Representatives approved a measure, targeted at Iraq and Syria, that will both restrict the resettlement of war refugees here but will also possibly interfere with the visa program meant to help Iraqis who risked their lives and now face death threats for helping us during the war. These terps, who literally save U.S. lives with their work, are being discarded because, like all other proxies, they have become politically inconvenient.

The unpleasant truth is that there is no substitute for American troops on the ground implementing American policy. Our reliance on proxies is not just immoral and unjust; it has been actively counterproductive and harmed our national interests. Sending in American boots on the ground is a political minefield, as it should be — we should never be flippant or casual about risking our people in war. The decision to send in troops should only match a threat so grave we are willing to put our own people at risk to address it. Does ISIS rise to that level of threat? That is the subject of considerable debate at the moment. But as this debate matures, policymakers should not be given a pass when they send unaccountable militias to do our dirty work for us.

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The Seven Deadly Sins of the Human Terrain System: An Insider’s Perspective

The Human Terrain System (HTS) – a U.S. Army program aimed at helping U.S. and allied military forces understand the people around them in Iraq and Afghanistan – is dead. And anthropologists are dancing ritualistically around its corpse.

The idea behind HTS was simple and promising: embed social scientists with military units and give them the resources to unearth operationally relevant socio-cultural data and findings. Its founders, Dr. Montgomery McFate, an anthropologist by training, and former Army officer Steve Fondacaro stood the program up and served as its leaders and missionaries for its first few years of existence. At the height of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan most ground-holding brigades and special operations units had Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) supported by Human Terrain Analysis Teams (HTATs) at the division level.

So what went wrong? When Tom Vanden Brook broke the story of the death of HTS he focused on fraud, racial and sexual harassment, as well as ethical issues related to the program’s roots in anthropology. His sources for the story, his most recent of several on the program, were a predictably bland statement by an Army spokesman, Dr. Roberto Gonzalez – an anthropologist at San Jose State University who, like many of his disciplinary colleagues, has been a consistent critic of the program, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif), who has waged war against HTS for years.

I was surprised and disappointed that Brook did not dig a little deeper. He did not get any of the hundreds of people who worked for HTS to comment on the record, even though a number of us write for public consumption these days and probably would have been happy to talk to him. He did not reference any of the four major studies (briefly reviewed at e-IR by Michael Davies) that sought to assess the program’s effectiveness. He did not seek out any scholars who have conducted pathbreaking research on HTS, such as Christopher Sims who recently finished his doctoral work at the King’s College London War Studies Department on this very subject.

Instead, Brook went to an anthropologist who had no association with the program (but wrote a stinging critique of it in 2009) and a Member of Congress who is a known foe of the program. He tried to go to the Army and it is unfortunate they did not offer anything substantive.

One cannot get at why HTS failed without looking at all the information at hand. This actually matters because understanding socio-cultural issues in war zones remains an important endeavor. I spoke to several of my former Human Terrain System colleagues, some of whom I did not actually get to know until after I had come home, to identify the seven deadly sins of the program from an insider perspective. What were they?  

  1. Calling it anthropology

One of the program’s founders was McFate – a trained anthropologist who was also involved in developing Field Manual 3-24 on counterinsurgency. When the program started receiving media coverage in 2007 as an anthropological program, the American Anthropological Association was livid. They called it “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise” and launched what amounted to a jihad against HTS.

Anthropology is a valuable academic discipline that has helped to shed light on diverse cultures around the world, however it tends to attract and foster those with opinions on the far left of the political spectrum. At the risk of over-generalizing, Western anthropologists as a group are skeptical of the U.S. military and generally politically opposed to U.S. wars. This is a cultural departure from the earlier history of the discipline, which some say was overly intertwined with imperial projects and ambitions – a legacy that is deeply regretted by many present day scholars of this discipline and feeds their skepticism of many western military operations.

It was therefore no surprise that the American Anthropological Association came after the Human Terrain System with everything they had, even producing a highly critical 73-page report on the program in 2009. But HTS was not an anthropological effort and never should have been called one or defended on that basis. HTS officials spent a great deal of focus trying to “engage” with the anthropological community and make nice. HTS leaders insisted the program was not an intelligence effort (also untrue, as I discuss below) to appease crunchy academics. But that was an unwise and unnecessary effort.

HTS drew on social scientists from a variety of disciplines (not, as some think, primarily because of its rejection by the anthropological community) as well as historians. Field research and ethnography are not the exclusive domains of the anthropologist. And HTS personnel did not even have the time or opportunities to do proper ethnography (as discussed eloquently by David Edwards).

So what were they doing?

  1. Denying it was an intelligence program

HTS leadership constantly denied that it was an intelligence program (read this semi-ridiculous FAQ) to the media, representatives from the anthropological community, and those of us who went through HTS training because someone decided that “intelligence” is a dirty word.

HTS was absolutely an intelligence program and the Army and HTS leaders should have embraced it from the start. All “intelligence” means is information gathered and analyzed at the institutional level to inform decision-making.  What’s more, the program fell under the G2 (“2” indicates “intelligence”) at the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). This U.S. Army budget document called it a “Military Intelligence Program.” As an HTS employee (and Department of the Army civilian), I fell under the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System (DCIPS), as did my HTS colleagues. Many Human Terrain Teams, including my own, worked closely with and were embedded within the intelligence staff sections in the brigades they served. Does that mean we were involved with lethal targeting? No, of course not. But we absolutely collected and analyzed information that informed military operations.

  1. Flawed recruitment

There were generally three types of people who joined HTS. The first were people who believed in a mission (although not necessarily the ones our forces were in Iraq and Afghanistan for) and wanted to contribute to it. The second were people who saw such a deployment as an opportunity for self-actualization, escape, or adventure. The third were people looking to make a buck (HTS was a well-paid gig, even after the program switched from employing contractors to government personnel).

All three categories had their problems. You had special ops-wannabes, a guy who had previously worked in Afghanistan (and got kicked out) but wanted to return solely to get some locals funding to build a doll factory (no joke), another guy who wanted to introduce Christianity in Afghanistan… I could go on.

My job interview for HTS was a joke. It was two ten minute phone interviews and, as far as I know, they followed up on exactly zero of my references. I have no reason to believe that this was not typical, especially once I met some of the people with whom I was in training, to include fantasists and fraudsters who routinely and obviously embellished their experience (many – but not all – of the worst were weeded out during training and did not make it to deployment). Once one made it past this ridiculously low hurdle, we were hired as contractors and told to show up at Ft. Leavenworth, where we would be trained and, eventually, “transitioned” into the ranks of the Department of the Army as civil servants.

What they did not tell us was that this transition process was actually a whole separate job application process. Once we arrived in Leavenworth, we were told we had to apply for the government version of the job and if we did not make it through, we would be sent packing. I accept that they couldn’t just let us into the ranks of government service without some sort of process, but they should have told people ahead of time that this would be the case. People had left their jobs and even sold their homes with the expectation that they had a real job.

As it turns out, the government application process was also absurd (but far more cumbersome) and we were told pretty directly by a Department of the Army civilian official that they would not have the time to check our references. Still, many people were weeded out at this point. Unfortunately, they were often the wrong people. Most Afghan-Americans and Iraqi-Americans in the training program did not make it through this process. One colleague who had done his graduate work at Oxford got turned out at this point because Oxford was not recognized by the Department of the Army (no joke). Some of the wash-out survivors were the most troublesome and the biggest perpetuators of sexual harassment.

Take a breath before you attack the contracting companies that brought in misfits and oversaw an ineffective recruitment process. They were executing the contract as it was written and it was written poorly. True responsibility sits with the Army.  

  1. Awful training and deployment processes

Maybe two weeks of useful training was spread out over five and a half months.  Our training schedules changed on a daily basis, introducing a frustrating element of unpredictability that did not set HTS trainees up for success. We also received way too little language training. And for you taxpayers out there, the entire time we were in training, we were staying in nice hotels, had rental cars provided for us (complete with reimbursed gas), and received per diem on top of our generous salaries.  

Training would have been a great opportunity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of candidates. While efforts were made along these lines, they were ineffectual. One huge missed opportunity was the failure to capitalize on prior in-country experience by U.S. military personnel and civilians in HTS. People with experience in one part of Iraq or Afghanistan should have been enabled to go back to those areas, where they would have had the most value. No efforts were made in that direction. People did not usually know where in Iraq or Afghanistan they were going until a couple weeks before they deployed, which deprived them of a chance to do in-depth research on the provincial and district levels of analysis – which is where HTTs did all their work. 

  1. Deploying personnel who were unprepared to survive in a combat zone

Up until at least late 2010, HTS trainees received no practical training on how to safely use firearms and to survive in combat, despite the fact that many of us would be expected or given the opportunity to carry firearms and get shot at. The official line was we could be trained and certified for these sorts of things downrange by the brigades we were working with – a form of on the job combat training.

One former HTTer conveyed an all-too-common experience to me:

My on the job training in Afghanistan included: riding in an MRAP for the first time; riding in a helicopter for the first time; shooting an M4 and M9 for the first time.  I “qualified” on an M4 at a strong point overlooking an abandoned village by shooting at a house with a suspected sniper inside. Luckily he wasn’t shooting back at the time. The first time I wore NODs [night observation device] was on a night time patrol and I’m lucky I didn’t fall on my face let alone step outside the cleared path. 

Ridiculous, right?

While I had fired rifles and pistols a few times before HTS, I had never been that into guns. While in training, I went to the range with current and former military personnel in my training class who kindly showed me the ropes as well as they could. I also spent a sizeable amount of my own money to fly to the U.S. Shooting Academy in Tulsa, Oklahoma during my pre-deployment leave to take a private class with a former recon Marine on handling and firing a carbine and a pistol.  Luckily, I had an amazing and responsible team leader (an Army reserve officer) who insured once we were in Afghanistan that those of us who wanted to carry firearms (I carried an M9 on most missions) were trained and appropriately equipped to do so.

After my training was complete, HTS started to send its people through more rigorous training at Ft. Polk.

  1. Broken leadership and organizational culture

This is a bit misleading, because to call the HTS organizational culture “broken” implies that it was once whole. It never was. There was a pervasive sense that leadership did not care much for the well-being of the people in the program during training and especially once they were deployed. Sexual harassment was a big problem, both in training and downrange, but it should be noted that this was (and remains) a broader U.S. military problem – not just an HTS problem – yet the fact that accountability mechanisms in HTS were so messed up (and sometimes just absent) made it worse.

  1. Trying to become the COIN poster boys and gals hid the real success stories

The problems of HTS were rooted in the early public narrative on the program, which started with the major media attention it started to receive in 2007. HTS advocates in and out of the Army tried to sell the program as the thing that would make counterinsurgency work. You know those hearts and minds you are trying to win? Well here are the folks that will help you see inside them and tell you what you’ll have to do. This was never a realistic aim and it was rooted in a fundamental misconception of how and why counterinsurgency operations can be successful (read my chapter in this book).

Human Terrain Teams were never going to “fix” counterinsurgency or make it work, but at their best, a functioning team could provide a sharper lens through which their brigades could see their area of operations. The saddest part about the Human Terrain System legacy is that many teams were successful at this (as confirmed by four authoritative studies of the program) and provided real value to their brigades, but this was all lost in the public discourse because so many mistakes were made in recruitment, training, management, and everything else I discuss above.

I am proud of the work I did in Afghanistan on a Human Terrain Team and so are most of my HTS comrades. It is crucial that we understand the seven deadly sins of HTS, but I hope journalists also talk about the good things. They happened too and they matter. 

 

Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. He worked as a U.S. Human Terrain Team social scientist in Helmand province from November 2010 to August 2011. 

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Four Key Drivers For Eroding ISIS

June 15, 2015

Scary ISIS headlines have saturated media outlets in recent months.  They usually come in three varieties: a) ISIS does incredibly awful thing(s) in Syria/Iraq, b) ISIS is unstoppable because of (fill in the blank), or c) the U.S. and the West must do (fill in the blank with every conceivable government option) to defeat ISIS. The international coalition seems unlikely to deploy overwhelming military force to rid the world of the latest awful jihadi group. All coalition partners are up for airstrikes, but no one seeks the dirty work of ridding Syria and Iraq of ISIS in direct military engagement.  Likewise, at least in the West, there remains a complete lack of strategic consensus on what should be done to defeat ISIS. 

A few months back, I offered up an alternative option to boots-on-the-ground; the “Let Them Rot” strategy–i.e., using containment to establish conditions by which ISIS destroys itself from within.  (NB: A forthcoming paper will discuss this in greater depth.)  To this point, it appears that the U.S.-led coalition, either by choice or more by default, is pursuing a modified “Let Them Rot” strategy.  But officials and the public grow impatient while the media reinforces the belief ISIS is the next al Qaeda–a misguided one in my view.  The headlines will lead you to believe that ISIS can only be defeated by a major military campaign. And counterinsurgency proponents are likely drooling for another opportunity to employ their beloved Field Manual 3-24.  But defeating ISIS via external force will be a long battle, and one that perpetuates the jihadi belief that the West denies their vision.  The U.S. should seek to destroy the idea of an Islamic State altogether, and to do that ISIS must fail by its own doings, not from outside forces. The recipe of the the “Let Them Rot” strategy should be followed: contain ISIS advances, starve them of resources, fracture their ranks, and exploit through alternative security arrangements

Analysis of the key drivers pushing forth the advance of ISIS reveals several key points at which the U.S.-led coalition can focus to degrade ISIS over time.  Figure 1 below provides a causal flow diagram showing the relationship of key drivers powering ISIS operations.  Note in the diagram that there are two relationships between entities.  Blue arrows represent direct relationships where an increase in one factor leads to an increase in the subsequent factor.  Red arrows represent where an increase in one factor leads to a decrease in a subsequent factor.  (Bottom Line Up Front: Blue and Red show relationships, not good or bad, plusses or minuses.)  In the diagram, clearly the most important factor is ISIS’s territorial expansion (see circle #1); their ability to sustain the offensive, and the initiative.  The diagram also illustrates multiple feedback loops arising from their territorial expansion to include increases in their global popular support, financing through taxation and global donations, recruitment through social media, and their levels of military resources through the seizure of equipment. Containment of ISIS’s advance should remain the main effort, and I doubt that they can continue to expand much further. 

Second, starving ISIS comes from disrupting one factor more than any other: elimination of oil revenues (see circle #2).  ISIS, as compared to other jihadi groups that have tried to form emirates, developed the capacity to resource themselves years ago.  Their self-resourcing is not only strong, but also diversified.  Oil and taxation provide a dual-pronged financial power base complimented by global donations and illicit revenue schemes which have combined to buoy ISIS over time.  Three of these financial resource streams, however, result in large part from ISIS’s ability to expand and sustain territory. If expansion was halted, these three streams would be constrained.

Starving ISIS of resources thus requires the elimination or degradation of ISIS capitalizing on oil fields in Eastern Syria.  This will put pressure on ISIS to extract more revenues from the local population through taxation and illicit schemes preying on local populations at a time when expansion is no longer viable due to containment.  The U.S. raid on Abu Sayyaf last month has apparently yielded some gains against ISIS and will hopefully be a first step in the elimination of this vital oil resource for ISIS.  How does the U.S. disable the oil fields without destroying the infrastructure and creating an environmental disaster?  Maybe a raid to facilitate a cyber attack, placing malware into the closed network to disable the oil pumping systems. Or maybe a series of raids to disable the equipment of several oil platforms, although this would be tough. Lastly, the coalition could send a militia deep into Eastern Syria to capture the oil fields, but in so doing will be anointing one group as king over all of the others. 

Airstrikes, partner pressure, containment and starvation will ideally bring stress on ISIS disrupting the feedback loops previously created form territorial gains.  Fearful of spies and infiltrators directing airstrikes and providing intelligence for Special Forces raids, ISIS will tighten its security, slowing their operations while further alienating the population.  At the same time, ISIS will ideally become more predatory on the local population and increasingly self-doubting.  At this point, two key fractures may become available for fracturing ISIS.  First, in Iraq, internal starvation of resources paired with a slow and steady advance by Kurdish and Iraqi forces will hopefully incentivize former Baathists and Iraqi Sunnis to break ranks with ISIS to secure their local stake in Sunni territories of Western Iraq (see circle #3).  A representative example of this dynamic was seen with the collapse of Shabaab from clan-oriented defections over the past three years. 

The second important fracture for exploitation is the potential rift between ISIS Iraqi leadership and the global foreign fighter legions that power their ranks (see point #4). To date, young ISIS foreign fighters have had much to celebrate; winning on the battlefield, taking ground and rapidly becoming administrators of governance.  But when battlefield advances end and resources become tight, local ISIS members will compromise their ideological principles to maintain their grip on power.  Resource starvation, much as was seen in Somalia, will cause tensions between the heavily Iraqi-dominated leadership and the global ranks of foreign fighters. 

Examining what is currently underway in the fight against ISIS, it appears that the U.S. is essentially pursuing this strategy.  Despite the media ramping up the American public with a relentless barrage of scary ISIS stories, on the surface it appears the U.S., at least, is pursuing this strategy–they are doing most of what I just outlined.  The trick will be whether they can exploit the fractures described above.  Exploitation will be the hardest step, offering alternatives that fill the void and spread the rifts across Syria and Iraq. 

 

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You Don’t Win Hearts and Minds, You Rent Them – Reigniting Sunni Tribes Against ISIS

In 2008, Americans lauded the great success of ‘The Surge’ – implementation of broad new counterinsurgency doctrine that “Won The Hearts and Minds” of Iraqis, particularly disaffected Sunnis strewn throughout Western Iraq.  “Winning Hearts and Minds”, so we were told, hinged on the “Sunni Awakening”, where Americans would partner with disenfranchised Sunnis on shared goals – defeating jihadi insurgents and ensuring the inclusion of Sunnis in Iraq’s new Shia dominated democratic government.  More importantly, but less discussed in academic propaganda on counterinsurgency, was U.S. funding of the “Sons of Iraq” Sunni militias. The “Sons of Iraq”, as part of the “Sunni Awakening”, were not “won” over solely by the pleasantries of U.S. troops and the great merits of representative democracy. America imported another lesson learned from its own democracy; when you can’t convince someone to support you based solely on the merits of your ideas, you must then pay them to endorse your idea as their own. If you can’t “Win Their Hearts and Minds” then you “Buy Their Hearts and Minds”.  Only now, having withdrawn from Iraq, we Americans realize we neither “Won” nor “Bought” the hearts and minds of Iraqis, we only “Rented” them.

Abandonment of ethnic groups is a signature of U.S. warfare in Iraq – Kurds and Southern Shia in 1991 and the Sunni in 2010.  Since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Sunni hopes of inclusion in the Maliki Iraqi democratic government faded and payments slowed. The “Sons of Iraq” militias went the way of almost all militias throughout history – they sought out new suitors. After helping squash al Qaeda in Iraq and their alter ego the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) by 2009, Sunnis in Western Iraq this year supported, permitted or acquiesced in the reemergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS).

The American strategy to dislodge ISIS suffers one major flaw above all others – a lack of viable ground force options for regaining Sunni dominated areas of western Iraq and eastern Syria. Until recently, U.S. efforts to build up the Free Syrian Army against Assad were restrained and ineffective.  To the east, Sunni militias in Iraq still feel the sting of abandonment after the U.S. withdrawal. 

The lack of viable ground options for securing terrorist safe havens is not a challenge unique to Iraq.  The U.S. faces a similar challenge against jihadist enclaves enmeshed in ungoverned spaces in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and the Sahel to name only a few places. Compounding this problem is American distaste for the downsides of all three ground force options available to secure these safe havens where local militaries continue to fail. (See Figure 1)

  • Large-Scale Military Deployment –  The U.S. military remains the most effective and professional military force in history.  Military deployments allow for complete command and control, accountability and transparency.  But U.S. military deployments cost cash and produce causalities.  Having just exited Iraq and Afghanistan, a large-scale U.S. military deployment, sufficient to displace ISIS, remains unlikely.
  • Military Contractors and Mercenaries – For centuries, countries have paid forces to secure their interests in far off lands. The U.S., at times over the past decade, augmented its operations significantly with short-term help that almost always became a long-term solution. Contractors appear cheaper and provide a layer of protection against the responsibility for mishaps. See Blackwater, Xi, et al., from 2003 to the present. But, Americans sit with unease when it comes to contractors. Buying fighters who may not share the democratic principles and transparency indicative of a nation pushing a freedom agenda around the globe presents persistent legitimacy problems over the long-term.
  • Militias and Paramilitaries – A hallmark of counterinsurgency has been the creation and/or backing of local militias who sit apart from foreign militaries but can more effectively police their local areas at a low cost.  Local militias can navigate both the physical and human terrain of their areas and can sometimes be trusted partners for disenfranchised local populations.  Americans can grow to like militias because they are cheap and provide insulation against the dirty business of counterinsurgency. Militias come with a host of problems as well.  Building a militia is easier than demobilizing one, rarely does a profiting warlord seek to melt back into democratic institutions. Backing militias routinely reinforces tribalism, competition, and warlord politics, unless of course the institution might sustain their patronage (corruption).  Issues of control and accountability quickly arise where militias take the cash and pursue their interests in their own way first, and seek out American objectives second. 

No matter what the solution, the U.S. will need to employ a combination of the three ground force options listed above to disperse ISIS members to other safe havens.  U.S. advisors continue to deploy supporting the Iraqi Army and many military contractors still remain from the last American deployment to Iraq.  The missing piece remains the build up of militias.  Hopefully those crafting the plan to counter ISIS can design a “Renting Hearts and Minds” strategy that secures western Iraq and eastern Syria at the lowest price over the longest duration, accepting that no matter what option is chosen, it will be frought with many downsides. 

“Renting Hearts and Minds” – A Framework

Four factors should be considered for effectively building relationships with Sunni ground force partners in Iraq and Syria

  • Establishing favorable conditions for negotiating with militia partners – As I noted in the “Let Them Rot” strategy a couple months back, the preferred method for building militia partners is to have them seek out U.S. support as much or more than the U.S. seeks their support.  During the ‘Surge’ era, Americans went begging the “Sons of Iraq” to participate – i.e., Sunni tribes held the upper hand.  Today, the conditions may be reversed.  Sunnis are suffering under ISIS harsh reign, the U.S. might be able to keep the upper hand to compel participation with tighter controls or lower costs. 
  • Offering incentives for participation – Americans must provide more than just cash to entice locals to again rise up against ISIS.  In Iraq, Sunnis feel burned by the American withdrawal.  What would incentivize them to fight? Last time, the “Sons of Iraq” got the cash, but never got their place in governance. Possibly a Sunni state would entice them.  But this would require Americans opening up to a three state solution in Iraq, one that has been rebuffed since the 2003 invasion, but appears ever more realistic and necessary moving forward. 
  • Determining the level of control and responsibility for militia actions – Today, the U.S. prefers the “Hear No Evil, See No Evil” militia approach.  But ISIS atrocities have been remarkable.  Surely building Sunni militias in Iraq and Syria will result in monstrous reprisals. We might also expect these Sunni militias to later plot against the Shia dominated Iraqi government, or even worse, metastasize into an anti-American terrorist group.  Americans should brace themselves now for the unintended and unexpected consequences of bartering with Sunni militias in both Syria and Iraq who are in need of support and desired by many suitors with differing agendas.
  • Duration of Support – During the 1980s, the U.S. backed militias in Pakistan that fought against the Soviet Union.  These militias and their safe haven later became the protective layer for al Qaeda.  Americans won’t be able to support Sunni militias forever.  How much are they willing to pay?  How long will they “rent” these militias? And who will start employing these militias when we no longer have use for them?

Building or backing militias in Iraq and Syria will remain a necessity for years to come.  The U.S. must identify its interests in the region, what costs come with employing militias and what will be the obvious downsides of such an approach on the horizon.  Lastly, I’d encourage all those interested in the topic to read “Discussing the Continuities of War and the Future of Warfare” at Small Wars Journal where Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, America’s greatest military tactician, provides his excellent perspective on the challenge of using partners in warfare. 

 

 

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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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