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Conflict Watch: Current Strategy Can Degrade But Cannot Defeat The Islamic State

Defeating ISIS means Western boots on the ground

UPDATE: With U.S. backed coallitons making advances in Mosul (Iraq) and Raqqa (Syria), and Sirte (Libya), with little news of IS expansion elsewhere, it seems like I may have been wrong on the need for a significant force of Western troops to defeat the IS on the battlefield.

I will leave this post up because it still contains important points about the multifaceted approach needed to defeat the IS ideology. But I believe it is important to admit when you are wrong, and in this case I was.

It is commonly accepted that the fight against the Islamic State (IS) is not solely a military fight.  When the U.S. led coalition outlined its plan for combating the group, three main fronts emerged:

  1. Social Media
  2. Financial
  3. Traditional Warfare

Let’s examine how we are doing on each of these fronts, before considering the larger goal of defeating the IS:

Social Media

It is notoriously difficult to police social media sites. Creating an account is free and monitoring content costs money. When an account is shut down, another one pops-up.

The IS has proven itself adept at using social media as both a recruitment tool and as a platform to amplify its message of terror. Good production quality has had the effect of making the group seem more permanent.

Social media sites, understanding the importance of countering the IS message, are stepping up to the plate (perhaps due to the fact that their own infrastructure is being exploited by these groups). One weak spot until recently was Twitter, but a new report shows the company has started to make a stronger effort:

The Islamic State’s English-language reach on Twitter has stalled in recent months amid a stepped-up crackdown against the extremist group’s army of digital proselytizers, who have long relied on the site to recruit and radicalize new adherents, according to a study being released on Thursday.

Twitter Inc (TWTR.N) has long been criticized by government officials for its relatively lax approach to policing content, even as other Silicon Valley companies like Facebook Inc (FB.O) began to more actively police their platforms.

Under intensified pressure from the White House, presidential candidates and some civil society groups, Twitter announced earlier this month it had shut down more than 125,000 terrorism-related accounts since the middle of 2015, most of them linked to the Islamic State group.

In a blog post, the company said that while it only takes down accounts reported by other users it had increased the size of teams monitoring and responding to reports and has decreased its response time “significantly.”

It does not appear social media will become less popular anytime soon. As long as it is a platform that billions of people use, extremist groups will try to use it to further their causes (especially given the success the IS has had).

Therefore, it is the responsibility of social media companies to do everything they can to fight this misuse–it should be a liability issue, a cost of doing business for a very profitable industry.

Financial

Fighting a war and running a “state” are not cheap–the IS has to at least appear to offer some social services and run certain institutions if it wants to claim it is a “state”.

The IS primary revenue streams are selling oil, taxing the people in areas it subjugates, seizing money from banks in those areas, and (to a lesser extent) other illicit activities (selling stolen antiques, ransoming hostages, drug trade, etc).

Recent drops in oil prices and sanctions have helped squeeze the IS finances. But we cannot and are not relying solely on market forces to disrupt the group’s revenue streams:

Air strikes have reduced Islamic State’s ability to extract, refine and transport oil, a major source of revenue that is already suffering from the fall in world prices. Since October the coalition says it has destroyed at least 10 “cash collection points” estimated to contain hundreds of millions of dollars.

U.S. military officials say reports of Islamic State cutting fighters’ wages by up to half are proof that the coalition is putting pressure on the group.

In January, the coalition said air strikes against Islamic State oil facilities had cut the group’s oil revenues by about 30 percent since October, when U.S. defense officials estimate the group was earning about $47 million per month.

[U.S. Army Colonel Steve] Warren said air strikes against Islamic State’s financial infrastructure were “body blows like a shot to the gut”.

“(It) may not knock you out today but over time begins to weaken your knees and cause you to not be able to function the way you’d like to,” he told reporters last week.

It is true there is a limit to what airstrikes can accomplish against the IS without more soldiers on the ground. But airstrikes can be very effective in disrupting oil production and blowing up known cash storage sites. This is an area where the U.S. could expand its efforts more or less unilaterally.

One way to do this could be reconsidering what an acceptable target is. The U.S. led coalition has made an effort to avoid striking areas with expensive infrastructure, in hopes it can be used if wrestled back from the IS. But, as Ramadi has proven, the IS will rig any areas it loses with explosives before it leaves, so perhaps we should rethink trying to spare infrastructure if it means we can make a more significant dent in the IS finances.

What we cannot do is disregard civilian casualties–“carpet bombing” IS held areas is not a viable option. Not only would such a strategy be morally reprehensible, but it would be counter-productive, reinforcing the IS anti-Western message.

Traditional Warfare

In recent months, the IS has lost significant territory in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, the groups practice of rigging areas it loses with explosives makes it very difficult to turn liberated areas back to “normal” (safe for displaced people to return and lead productive lives).

Furthermore, these gains have not always been made in “sustainable” ways. In Syria, the Assad regime has gained much of the territory the IS has lost (although the Kurds, natural allies to the West, have also gained territory). In Iraq, a Shiite dominated government has made advances with the aid of Iranian fighters, risking further alienating Iraq’s Sunni population (which paved the way for the rise of the IS in the first place).

Further curbing the benefit of IS loses in Iraq and Syria is the group’s expansion into Libya, where it has an estimated 6,000 fighters and rising, exploiting the post-Qaddafi power vacuum. The U.S. led coalition has started an aerial campaign against the IS in Libya, but absent a unified Libyan government, it will be difficult to stop the groups expansion.

In Libya’s incredibly important neighbor Tunisia, the freedoms associated the country’s successful democratic transition have created more space for the IS to operate. Ultimately effective pluralistic democratic governance, which respects the human rights of all people, is the only way to defeat the IS. We must provide Tunisia with all the support it needs, to ensure that democratization does not become a tool the IS uses to its advantage in the short-run. 

Degrading AND Defeating the Islamic State

The good news is we have made progress on each of the three main fronts in the fight against IS (Social Media, Financial, Traditional Warfare). The bad news is that while we are able to degrade the IS, we have done so in a way that ignores the underlying factors that led to the groups rise in the first place.

Let’s not downplay the very real benefits of degrading the IS. It limits the groups ability to spread misery and death. It compromises the groups ability to carry out attacks abroad, and reduces the likelihood it will inspire lone-wolf attackers.

But the fight against the IS is expensive, and the longer the group is allowed to operate, the more it’s assertion that it is a “caliphate” becomes the fact on the ground. Moreover, time gives the IS (which has proven itself quite tactical and resilient) room to metastasize and evolve. Imagine if the group connected its Middle Eastern territory with large swaths of Northern Africa, transforming its ideological link to Boko Haram into an actual military alliance? This may seem like an unlikely scenario, but everything the IS has done up until this point has defied the odds against it. 

To avoid perpetual war we must degrade the IS in a way that also attacks the groups underlying message–that there is no viable alternative for Muslims. On this front, much work remains. Governments in Islamic countries should put aside sectarian divides and treat the fight against the IS as the fight for the soul of Islam that it is. Unfortunately, there is little to suggest this will happen anytime soon, a point recently made by political comedian Bill Maher:

“Why don’t they fight their own battles? Why are Muslim armies so useless against ISIS? ISIS isn’t 10 feet tall. There are 20,000 or 30,000 of them. The countries surrounding ISIS have armies totaling 5 million people. So why do we have to be the ones leading the fight? Or be in the fight at all?”

If you consider the countries bordering Iraq and Syria — Iran (with 563,000 armed forces personnel), Jordan (115,500), Kuwait (22,600), Lebanon (80,000), Saudi Arabia (251,500) and Turkey (612,800) — you get a total of 1.6 million.

Add in Iraq (177,600) and Syria (178,000) themselves and that brings the total to 2 million. That’s less than half of Maher’s figure.

When we heard back from Maher’s spokesman, he said the comedian was also including the armies of Bahrain, Egypt, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

If they (reservists) are included as part of a country’s army, the total for those 13 countries Maher wants to include rises to 4.95 million, as Maher said.

If you don’t include the reservists, the number of troops in the countries cited by the comedian only rises to 3.6 million.

Looking at the largest Muslim players, there is little hope in sight. Turkey is more interested in fighting the Kurds–one of the strongest forces against the IS–than the IS itself. Saudi Arabia and Iran are wrapped up in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and are ideologically opposed to pluralism, democracy, and one another. Egypt under Sisi has become increasingly authoritarian, and as a result finds itself consumed by its own terrorist insurgency. Iraq, as mentioned earlier, is relying too heavily on Iranian forces. In Syria, Assad is hoping that with Russian and Iranian support he can knock out all opposition except the IS, completing his “fighting terrorism” narrative and cementing himself in power as he kills indiscriminately. Jordan seems like a true ally in this fight, but it itself is a monarchy that will not fight for democratic values, and even if it would it cannot be expected to take on this fight alone.

It often seems that the IS is everyone’s second biggest concern. The inability to rally a meaningful Pan-Arabic counter-insurgency against the IS is not ideal (and is actually quite sad), but it is a reality we must acknowledge if we are to put together a coalition that CAN end the group’s reign of terror.

To this end, we need more support from those who do share our values. America cannot be the World’s Police, but the world does need a “police force”. Every country that believes in and has benefited from democratic governance and human rights has a role to play. A global coalition (including ground troops) must include all these parties, and be proportionately funded and manned (meaning the U.S. will still have to play a major leadership role).

To some, such a coalition may seem even less likely than a meaningful Pan-Arabic counter-insurgency. But in my mind, corralling support from interdependent allies that share common values and coordinating financing to fairly and sustainably spreads the cost is more achievable than completely changing the behavior of historically adversarial actors.

We need this global coalition not just to defeat the IS, but to prevent the next Syrian Civil War. Global security is at a crossroads and must evolve–prevention is the cheapest way to maintain a peaceful international order. Having an effective deterrent, alongside promoting democracy and human rights, are indispensable elements of preventing conflict.

Global security is a global public good, absent visionary leadership it will be under-invested in, to the detriment of all.

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