What Obama got wrong on ISIS

President Obama’s recent remarks at the Pentagon on the progress in the fight against ISIS got a lot of things right. He correctly remarked that the battle against ISIS cannot be won militarily, that the U.S. was in danger of pursing a “Whack-a-Mole” strategy in the Middle East, and recognized the dire need for an inclusive government in Iraq and political transition in Syria. He also emphasized that extremist groups come from various ideological and religious backgrounds, despite Muslims often being singled out on this issue. 

However, while he stated that ISIS can’t be defeated militarily, the strategy Obama laid out was on the contrary, though he stopped short of calling the U.S. military campaign “war.” He previously announced that he was sending 450 American troops to Iraq to expand training and support of local forces fighting on the ground. He has since clarified that to mean Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and tribal fighters, and revealed that the U.S. would provide them with equipment such as anti-tank weapons. In Syria, the plan is to further train and equip the moderate opposition.

{mosads}Unfortunately, this plan is doomed to fail. Obama cited alleged successes of over 5,000 U.S. led coalition airstrikes over the last year, but the facts on the ground indicate that ISIS and quasi-governmental militias have only increased their violence and reach in key cities such as Ramadi and Palmyra. Member of Congress and civil society are calling for U.S. officials to consider alternative approaches, which Obama mentioned in passing, to permanently undermine ISIS instead of putting them at bay for a short period of time. Depriving the terrorist group of its finances (beyond oilfields and infrastructure, which are no longer ISIS’s major source of revenue) would be an appropriate place to begin.

ISIS is one of the world’s richest terrorist organizations with billions of dollars at its disposal to continue purchasing weapons and fighters to counter any military ambush against it. It has continued to increase its wealth during the international efforts to destroy it by creating a war economy that diversifies its income and keeps operating costs low. ISIS is now raking in billions through engaging in illicit war activities such as looting (banks, factories, department stores, cultural artifacts), profiteering off of scarce, overpriced basic goods and services (including humanitarian supplies), drug and human trafficking, oil smuggling, extortion and taxation of civilians as the only viable government entity outside of government controlled areas, and high border passage fees. It is likely that a military escalation could lead to an even richer and more powerful ISIS by continuing to create conditions it can exploit.

In spite of financial sanctions and oil embargoes, including the UN Al-Qaida Sanctions List and Security Council Resolutions 2170 (2014), 2178 (2014), and 2199 (2015), international efforts to rein in ISIS’s wealth still leave much to be desired. ISIS continues to traffic oil between Turkey and government controlled areas, amounting to about $2-3 million/day. Wholesalers, smugglers, traders, tribal leaders, tribesmen, local militias, and rebel brigades are all involved in these efforts, making it a much more complex issue than broad sanctions can address. ISIS also still has access to banking services through the Assad regime in Syria, Iraqi government officials, and money remitters working in areas near their territory borders.

Clearly, we must be more strategic in addressing ISIS’s underground financial channels and shifting revenue streams than simply bombing oilfields. There should be increased monitoring of oil smuggling routes , complicit actors, and strict regulation of the formal and informal banking systems in order to end looting and foreign funding. On the ground, high extortion and taxation rates can be mitigated by uplifting and supporting legitimate civil society leaders in the region to help them stand up against ISIS and reclaim their economies and governmental institutions. Finally, as President Obama indicated, social media should be scrutinized, as ISIS has also raised money through that platform.

It is not by accident that ISIS first controls bakeries and schools when they initially take over a city. Physical and mental sustenance are powerful methods of control. But to win hearts and minds and effectively counter this extremist group, the U.S. should not send more weapons and soldiers, but instead prioritize working with the international community to cut financing and build a stronger civil society. These methods make it far more difficult for ISIS to control territory and people than militarized approaches ever will.

Khalid is a Scoville Fellow in Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation Education Fund and is a Certified Public Accountant. Follow her on Twitter @YAmericanMuslim.


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