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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Why Assad Must Go

The recent attacks in Paris have underscored the need to defeat the Islamic State and reignited debates over how to do so. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and once again we are hearing that “we may have to hold our noses”[1] and work with people like the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. This is not a new suggestion. Since shortly after American forces began bombing the Islamic State in August 2014, there have been voices suggesting that “the U.S. should help Assad to fight ISIS, the greater evil.”[2] This argument was not strategically sound then, and the events in Paris have not made it so. Western leaders need to avoid appeasing populist demands with strategic blunders.

Proponents of supporting Assad see him as a viable partner in defeating the Islamic State. A hardnosed realist may acknowledge that Assad is unpleasant, but may still be inclined to put aside such messy moral qualms to defeat the Islamic State, which represents a critical security interest. The advantage of this approach seems obvious at first. It combines a credible fighting force on the ground with American air power. This combination has been a winning approach in the past and is generally what Western strategists prefer. The problem with this plan is not its value-free analysis, but rather that it ignores what FPRI’s James Kurth describes as the “realities of the mentalities of the localities.”

The Islamic State originally formed in Iraq. Its subsequent foothold in Syria did not emerge in a vacuum. It resulted from a political context in which Assad’s forces were killing Syrians en masse. Despite Western narratives about the brutality of the Islamic State, the Assad regime is responsible for many more deaths than all Syrian opposition groups (including the Islamic State) combined. Even over the past year, when the Islamic State has been at the apex of its power, the Assad regime has been much more efficient in carrying out atrocities. In the first half of 2015, for example, the regime killed seven times more Syrians than the Islamic State.[3] Assad targets civilians, tortures, and has used chemical weapons against his own people. These circumstances have driven many Syrians to support groups such as the Islamic State, which they view as the only force that is able to stand up to Assad. In other words, Assad is the problem. His continued presence in Syria is the sustenance on which the Islamic State thrives. Any viable solution in the near-term needs to alter this political context by offering a vision of the future for the Syrian people that does not include living under Assad’s yoke. Without such a vision, the political context on the ground will remain the same and groups like the Islamic State will be very difficult to defeat. This has been one of the main obstacles to Western efforts in Syria so far.

Currently, the American-led coalition is targeting the Islamic State with airpower as well as supporting Syrian opposition forces that are fighting the Islamic State on the ground. Some limited special operations forces have also been used in aid and assist missions as well as direct action. These efforts have not been insignificant. According to the latest Department of Defense numbers, the American-led coalition has conducted over eight thousand airstrikes, damaging or destroying over sixteen thousand targets[4] and killing twenty to thirty thousand fighters.[5] This has degraded the Islamic State’s capabilities, but not enough to prevent it from holding large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, or from reaching outside Syria to attack Russian airliners and Parisian concert halls. It has also not stemmed the flow of refugees out of Syria. The biggest obstacle that the American-led coalition has faced is its inability to convince enough Syrians (and Iraqis and foreign fighters) to stop supporting the Islamic State and to instead to join the fight against it. Thus far, the Islamic State has been able to replenish its ranks as fast as the Western-led coalition has been able to deplete them.

The problem is political. Because Syrians are being killed by Assad at much higher rates than they are being killed by the Islamic State, Assad is a much bigger threat to them. Therefore, the current American strategy asks these Syrians to ignore their primary threat (the Assad regime), and instead focus on their secondary threat (the Islamic State). That is a difficult sell and it has not worked thus far. Furthermore, even if the strategy worked and the fighters of the Islamic State were crushed, it would not change the political context in which the Islamic State emerged. As post-surge Iraq showed, if the political context that produces groups such as the Islamic State is not dealt with, similar groups will rise in their place. In other words, the Islamic State should be seen as a symptom of a political context. Fighting the symptom will not kill the disease. Western leaders seeking a way forward after the Paris attacks need to figure out a way to remove Assad without creating further chaos on the ground. That is a tall order, but it is the only way to create a political context in which a lasting peace is possible.



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U.S. Troops in Syria: A Quick Assessment Of The U.S. Strategy To Combat The Islamic State – One Year On

Last week, the White House announced the deployment of a few dozen Special Forces soldiers to Syria. After more than a year of operations and a promise not to put soldiers in harm’s way, the U.S. would seemingly be pushing troops directly into Islamic State (IS) territory.  The announcement comes just days after the U.S. saw its first foreign advisor perish during a raid on an IS prison in Northern Iraq

It’s been nearly a year since the U.S. convened its “Counter ISIL Coalition” and in short, when all was said and done, more has been said than done.   The U.S. State Department and the President’s Special Envoy retired General John Allen have spent more than a year reciting five “lines of effort” for countering the Islamic State, which they continue to refer to as Daesh–a name that hasn’t really caught on the way they hoped it would. Last year, I identified seven obvious flaws that would plague this strategy.  A couple of these flaws have been remedied, but the toughest challenges still remain.  Here’s my short assessment (grade) of progress on these five strategy pillars and those massive hurdles that still remain for defeating IS (See also Figure 1):

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #1 –

Supporting military operations, capacity building, and trainingGrade F

The toughest challenge and most obvious weakness remains the building and deployment of a Sunni force capable of countering IS in Sunni territory. Never has the world witnessed such commitment to a bad Pentagon PowerPoint bullet than the tripling down on creating militias to fight terrorists. The U.S. has tried for a third time in a third country to train and equip an indigenous force. A year of training Syrians yielded roughly one infantry company of troops (100-200) to fight IS who has possibly recruited thousands of foreign fighters in the same time. Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusra quickly displaced this force, referred to as Division 30. If the U.S. were to pursue a  train-and-equip mission again in a fourth country, we will most assuredly know our policy makers to be absolutely mad. 

Since the U.S. can’t build militias to counter IS, they’ll instead have to reinforce existing forces, and this is where things become problematic. The Iraqi Army and its supporting Shiite militias have made intermittent progress against IS, but seem unlikely to make a full recovery of Sunni areas of Iraq. U.S. Special Forces deploying to Syria will back the only element truly capable of gaining ground against IS–the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Y.P.G.).  The Y.P.G. seems capable, but will be seen as occupiers should they invade Arab areas such as IS’s heartland of Raqqa.  U.S. alliance with Y.P.G. also chafes Turkey, an American ally, who fears the rise of Kurdish forces as much or more than IS.  The Arab Syrian Democratic Coalition in Syria represents nothing more than a briefing point–incapable, disorganized remnants of forces previously routed by IS.

Bottom line:  Only Sunni Arabs will want to fight and die for Sunni Arab land in Syria. Kurds and Shia will never be fully invested, and should they win, they’ll be resisted by locals.  Until there are Arab forces capable of countering IS in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, there is no viable U.S. strategy to counter IS. An alternative approach and potentially the only viable solution may be to starve and splinter IS into Sunni Arab sub-groups over time, similar to the method used against al Shabaab in Somalia.  This will take years to achieve.

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #2 –

Stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fightersGrade B

Turkey hasn’t sealed its border entirely, but it has somewhat stemmed the flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Analysts continue amplifying talk of foreign fighter flows heading into Syria.  Many of these fighters have expired in fighting, and many others have begun to defect from IS ranks. 

My current assessment is that the flow of foreign fighters to IS has passed its peak.  The costs associated with getting to Syria have become too high for many potential recruits. Regional affiliates allying with IS in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have created other opportunities for recruits to join an IS affiliate closer to home. Across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, there have been infrequent, but successful attacks coupled with the arrests of IS supporters.  Online, IS networking on social media has been blunted and the fervor amongst its fanboys has reached a steady state.  Surely there will continue to be a trickle of foreign fighters sliding across borders into IS’s ranks, but the flow of fresh extremists no longer appears to be the fire hose it was two years ago. 

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #3 –

Cutting off ISIL/Daesh’s access to financing and fundingGrade C

The U.S. coalition apparently put the brakes on IS external donor funding placing pressure both on Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Banking instructions for wiring funds into IS coffers appear less frequently on social media.  But, slashing IS external funding addresses only a small part of the problem.  IS predominately funds itself through taxation, oil revenues, and black market activities.  Only military defeat and the rolling back of IS territory will undermine their internal resourcing.  Thus line of effort number 1, “supporting military operations” is clearly intertwined with this line of effort number 3.  Luckily, even if the U.S. coalition only sustains its current efforts, IS appears poised to collapse economically according to Jamie Hansen-Lewis and Jacob Shapiro in their recent analysis “Understanding the Daesh Economy”.   

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #4 –

Addressing associated humanitarian relief and crises Grade F

The refugee crisis continues to grow.  A year ago, refugee discussions focused largely on the displacement of civilians to camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.  Today, Syrian refugees flood the Mediterranean Sea and land routes across Europe. Those who’ve decided the Syrian conflict may never end, have given up hope of returning home and now seek other opportunities.  Syrian emigration threatens Europe as droves of refugees resettling in their countries have strained resources and have created isolated immigrant communities that in future years may breed crime and violent extremism.  The conferences and associated working groups for stemming this refugee crisis have begun.  But much like the Syrian civil war, no solution appears available or palatable for an increasingly fractious coalition. 

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #5 –

Exposing ISIL/Daesh’s true nature (ideological delegitimization) – Grade D

Social media campaigns refuting IS have begun.  The United States, United Kingdom, France and others in the future will continue to cast counter IS programming into the social media abyss. IS’s near constant stream of content still drowns out these counternarratives. On the ground in recruitment hotbeds, there seems little success in stemming militancy.  The same failed approaches used to counter al Qaeda extremism last decade are being trotted out against IS.  I guess the logic goes like this: Why invent a new failed approach when the old failed approach works just fine? 

Luckily, disillusioned foreign fighters are fleeing from IS in ways never seen during al Qaeda’s boom years.  Their departure provides a valuable new weapon for creating counter-narratives to IS.  Whether the U.S.-led coalition can take full advantage of these gifts remains to be seen. 

In the U.S., critics have pounded the Obama administration’s weakness in Syria and Iraq. The administration deserves some of this. At times, the U.S. has wanted to lead the charge against IS and then at other times been completely reticent to get involved. The Obama administrations delay to act in many ways may be justified. No one in the U.S. political system, either Republican or Democrat, has clearly identified U.S. interests in Syria or with regards to IS over the longer term. 

The central goal for any IS strategy should be to end the Syrian conflict, but doing so requires bartering with two other adversaries – Russia and Iran.  Simultaneously countering IS and the Assad Regime without deploying overwhelming military force has put the U.S. at odds with all of its allies.  For the U.S. in Syria, there are no good options, and any chosen ‘bad option’ will either anger an ally or enrage an adversary.  Thus the U.S. by default may end up pursuing a strategy I’ve endorsed from the start: “Let Them Rot”.  When you are unsure what to do, it’s often better to do nothing at all or pursue only a limited set of actions.  The U.S. may appear weak from inaction in Syria, but at least we haven’t plunged calamitously into unending conflicts like we did in Iraq and Afghanistan last decade.  General Colin Powell once applied the Pottery Barn rule to Iraq noting, “You break it, you own it.” The U.S. has been negligent in Syria, but not entirely responsible for the conflict.  We didn’t break it, and we don’t own it.  

***Note in this discussion, I, like the U.S. strategy to counter IS, haven’t addressed any of the conflicting nation-state interests that limit any effective and comprehensive strategy. That would require an entirely separate post. 

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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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