June 29 marks the first anniversary of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s announcement of the Caliphate of Islamic State (IS). In response to his announcement and the atrocities IS committed, an international coalition came together to degrade IS from the skies and subsequently train and arm local forces in their fight against the militants.
Success for the international coalition hasn’t followed for three key reasons. Together, these reasons point to an urgent need to shift strategy and break what has become a stalemate.
Limited US motivation
Were this the first Iraq war it had been involved in, the US would have committed substantially greater resources, both diplomatic and military, to respond to the early signs of a growing militant group. But this is the third Iraq war in the last 25 years.
The US is exhausted. More than 1.5 million Americans were deployed to Iraq between 2003 and 2011 – and another one million to Afghanistan. Incredibly, more than a third were deployed more than once. The cost of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is estimated at between US$4 and US$6 trillion, including future costs for health care and veterans support.
This may be contributing to opinion polls that suggest Americans do not agree with a robust intervention this time around. Only 24% support a large number of troops being deployed to Iraq, while 68% prefer either none or a limited number.
Even the economic fundamentals of this war are against further commitment. One of the US’s many motivations for intervention in the first and second Iraq wars was purportedly to secure its energy future. Today, US oil production exceeds that of Saudi Arabia. This reduces the political clamour for action that would otherwise encourage bipartisanship in the US.
The wrong strategy
We regularly hear calls for IS to be eliminated or destroyed, references to it as a terrorist organisation, and calls for boots on the ground to defeat it. These perspectives have clouded judgements and adversely affected the overall strategy.
At its core, IS’s runaway success is not down to its military capability. Rather, it is due to Iraq’s political circumstances. These include the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis, the corruption of a political class and the politicisation of the government.
This environment has created a demand for a new governance structure that protects Sunnis. IS has responded by being overtly against corruption and avoiding the much-despised style of politics associated with democracy in the Middle East by deeming democracy un-Islamic.
This emphasis upon the political rather than the military has been the key to IS’s rise. In focusing on the political, IS has done what no other jihadist group has managed to achieve: successful state-building.
As if guided by the lessons learned during the international community’s most recent state-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, IS’s leaders have successfully focused on the key elements critical to success – building legitimacy, ensuring security and providing basic needs. Undermining IS’s success in each of these should be at the core of any strategy to defeat it.
Although IS emerged from the internal chaos of Syria and Iraq, it is now factoring into the region’s geopolitics as a military force and ideological powerhouse.
While IS lacks overt allies, it receives support as a proxy for the geopolitical ambitions of others. Turkey’s obsession with the defeat of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has benefited IS.
Similarly, the dilemma of arming the rebels fighting against al-Assad, which in turn risks Syria falling to IS, has stumped Western decision-makers. In Iraq, strengthening the hand of Haider al-Abadi’s Shia government to take control of its territory conversely risks furthering the interests of Iran. There are no easy options in the Middle East.
Supporting one course of action will inevitably lead to an outcome vested with its own problems. However, it seems the choice taken by Western countries is incoherent but moral, rather than strategic and pragmatic.
Recognising that there is little likelihood of a concerted US military and diplomatic engagement in the Middle East and acknowledging that IS functions as a state and not a terrorist organisation should lead decision-makers to drop ambitions of defeating IS. Instead, the West should focus on containing IS’s spread and seek a political strategy to weaken it from within.
IS has spread its militant ideology far and wide. There are 35 groups said to be affiliated with IS in 17 countries from as far west as Mali and Algeria, through Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan and India, to Indonesia and Philippines in the east. Stopping the growth of these groups, and eliminating their capacity to finance, recruit and publicise their presence, should be the current priority.
Focusing on Iraq while IS establishes footholds in failed states such as Libya or Yemen will potentially create the same scenario as has occurred in Iraq and Syria: a growing and influential force to be reckoned with. While a rapid defeat of IS in its home territories is now unlikely, the opportunity exists to prevent its ideology from catching on in other countries.
In Iraq, the response should be focused on a carrot-and-stick approach. The stick is continued aerial bombardment alongside ongoing support to Iraqi military troops. The carrot is an enhanced federalism that offers the Sunnis a deal too good to refuse.
Diplomatic pressure on al-Abadi to quickly and forcefully offer Sunnis their own autonomous region could draw away many of the groups that have wavered or even pledged allegiance to IS.