Going beyond military force to defeat ISIS

I have in this space previously argued that “hearts and minds” approaches to counterrorism and counterinsurgency are superior in many cases to those based on military force, even taking into account the incredible expertise and professionalism of our armed forces. The planned response to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as presented by the president on Sept. 10, places too much emphasis on military force and risks the sort of negative outcome suggested by satirists.

The situation in Iraq and Syria is of course complex, but it has one particularly salient feature: There is a substantial constituency in both countries that views ISIS as preferable to its alternatives and offers the group either tacit or material support. Without this support, ISIS is a collection of terrorists with arms inferior to those of local militaries which has nowhere to hide and no promise of significant expansion. With this support it is a de facto state. The distinction between a nongovernmental actor and one that holds territory like a state is crucial.

Further, the importance of local support to the maintenance of extremism in the region cannot be overstated. We can drop as many bombs on ISIS as we want, even destroy it. It will only reform as another group with the same constituency, just as ISIS formed from al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The problem is not the particular collection of extremists taking up arms, but rather the fact that its constituency views this collection as better than its alternatives. That is not a recipe for stability. As noted elsewhere, ISIS needs a political solution.

{mosads}The president’s proposed plan more or less acknowledges this, as to work it requires that governments in Iraq, and ideally in Syria as well, be more inclusive. Other political solutions also have this character.

They are not wrong. True resource and power-sharing in each country, with guarantees and penalties for compliance failure written into constitutions, would go a long way toward providing ISIS’s constituency with a viable alternative to support of the brutal group. Military force, aided by the local population itself, could then improve the population’s security, enabling it to abandon ISIS.

Yet, beyond the call for such power-sharing to exist, there have been few concrete plans to make it so. It is too easy for elected officials in Baghdad to cater to their own constituencies, who have vivid memories of years of Baathist repression; Syrian President Bashar Assad requires repression to stay in power and has Russian and Iranian support; Iran has little incentive to diminish the power of new allies in Iraq. But without this political change, military force is at best a temporary solution, and potentially very counterproductive.

This leads to my suggestion of initial military non-response. That is, we start by engaging militarily only insofar as necessary to remove threatened populations from the arena and subsequently cease all engagement. It is not as good as true power- and resource-sharing, and it comes with short-term risks of attacks on U.S. interests. But it is a little-considered option that takes advantage of ISIS statehood and past history.

To see how, consider AQI. There were three major drivers of its failure. One, the U.S. engaged with Sunni leaders and offered them concrete incentives to turn their support away from AQI and the insurgency. Two, AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and AQI made gross miscalculations as to the level of inward-directed violence the local Sunni population would support. Three, the coalition provided security for the Sunnis, which was useful after the first two elements occurred. Note that although military force was essential, it was necessary first for the Sunni leadership to view alternatives to AQI and the insurgency as superior.

The same structural factors are in place now with respect to ISIS. Military conquest grants it legitimacy, but at some point it must consolidate its gains. Its constituency prefers it to the alternatives while it expands, but once ISIS looks inward, its brutality toward its own population will increase in salience. At this point, ISIS will be leading a brutal state, attempting to hold sway over a well-armed population with little loyalty to it. Further, it will be a state surrounded by enemies and subject to crippling sanctions. The U.S. and its allies, of course, will make clear that this can change to friendship, positive economic incentives and direct military aid should a rebellion occur.

History suggests that ISIS will not last long under this combination of incentives. Further, the subsequent military action, taken only after the population has turned, will be faster and more effective than a long-term bombing campaign. Finally, the status quo post-ISIS for bargaining over borders, power and resources will be more favorable for lasting peace than the present status quo, lacking as it will the ability of one group to simply ignore the desires of another by virtue of demographic advantage.

And if ISIS chooses to attack U.S. interests in order to keep its constituency focused on external enemies? Well, we have numerous avenues, from sanctions to war, available to combat enemy states. Given ISIS’s lack of powerful allies, comparatively weak military and likely internal instability, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would be far from the most dangerous such state we face. Acknowledging this reality might provide additional cause for ISIS’s constituency to desert it as well.

Siegel is an associate professor of political science at Duke University.

Tags Abu Musab al-Zarqawi al Qaeda in Iraq AQI Bashar Assad Iran Iraq ISIS Islamic State Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Syria

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video