How to degrade and destroy
President Obama has now clarified his goal in the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL): it is to degrade and destroy. His model is what was accomplished against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That should be little comfort to those who live in areas where ISIL operates. A dozen years of war have rendered parts of the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan even more lawless and ungovernable than it was before the US intervened there starting in 2001. But it is fair enough to say that the remnants of Al Qaeda that remain there are little threat to the United States.
What will it take to defeat ISIL?
The military campaign will require a 360 degree effort against ISIL. This means an international coalition that includes not only those NATO members willing to engage but also the security forces of Iraq and Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan as well as Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), all of which are seriously threatened if ISIL is able to consolidate its position inside Iraq and Syria. The precise division of labor will have to be negotiated, but the United States should expect that its bombing of ISIL in both Syria and Iraq is only the tip of the spear. Iraq and the Syrian rebels will need to provide the biggest share of the ground forces. The others should be prepared to attack from the air or provide funding, advice and equipment.
The military campaign against ISIL will go much faster and much better if the mainly Sunni populations in the areas it controls rise against it. This is what enabled the American “surge” in 2006 and 2007 to succeed against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Then it was the Sunni tribes that rebelled and helped the Americans to destroy Al Qaeda. Any serious effort to destroy ISIL will need to make something similar happen now. But it won’t be easy: without boots on the ground, the Americans will be unable to organize or pay for a Sunni “awakening.” The Saudis and UAE have shown little aptitude in this direction, but it is high time they learned how to get what they pay for.
While confronting ISIL militarily, the coalition acting against it will need to weaken its sources of financing and recruitment. This is shadowy work that requires the best efforts of many intelligence agencies working together. The focus on foreign fighters coming from the US and Western Europe may be necessary to prevent their flow back to those places. But most of them appear to be coming from other places and need to be slowed or stopped, whatever their origins. This is an area where the Russians can contribute: Chechnyans play a significant role, as do others from the Caucusus. Rumors of Qatari financing have been rife. It is time to stop any supposedly private contributions going from Doha to ISIL or its supporters.
The toughest issue in dealing with ISIL will be preventing its return to the places where it is militarily defeated. President Obama may think leaving the border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan devoid of effective governance is all right, because eventually Kabul and Islamabad will fill in. But it is going to be a long time before Damascus or Baghdad can govern effectively in the eastern provinces of Syria or the western provinces of Iraq, respectively. If you want to degrade and destroy ISIL there you are going to have to make some provision for governance, justice and public services.
This cannot be done by remote control. Someone is going to need to establish a presence in the areas ISIS currently controls, unless we want to see it go the way of Libya, whose various militias are tearing the country to shreds. In Syria, it might be the moderate revolutionaries, but then they will need protection from Bashar al Asad so long as he rules Damascus. In Iraq, it will likely need to be Sunni Iraqis who take control and govern–initially at least–without much reference to Baghdad. International humanitarian and other assistance in both countries will be vital, unless we want to see them go the way of Libya, where militias are now battling each other for control of the state. The UN or maybe the Arab League had better get ready for big challenges.
Presidents have to deal with the world they are dealt, not the one they prefer. “Degrade and destroy” will take years, not months. Obama would prefer to do retrenchment. Maybe his successor will get the opportunity.