war on the rocks

ISIL: Does the US understand the kind of war it is fighting?

September 18, 2014

Does the United States understand what kind of war it is getting into? Maybe not. When it comes to the type of war this is and the reasons America has for fighting it (and, for some, whether or not this constitutes a war) the administration’s confusing message bodes ominous consequences.

In his much-analyzed speech outlining his Administration’s strategy to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the President used the term “counterterrorism” four times. He did not mention “counterinsurgency” once. That’s a bigger problem than you might think. ISIL is a para-military organization that has seized portions of Syria and Iraq. It has subjugated the local population through traumatizing acts of violence like public executions of political officials, religious minorities as well as the mass murder of any opposition forces unlucky enough to be taken alive. ISIL funds its horrific misadventures though donations, extortion and black market oil sales from the rich oil fields it has seized. It has evolved from an underground, clandestine organization to one that can mass forces to seize and then hold and govern territory. This is not terrorism; this is textbook insurgency.

The President knows this. More so, the plan he has described is boiler-plate counter-insurgency. So why is he calling it counterterrorism? Because the President’s authority to attack ISIL is derived from a thirteen-year-old congressional authorization to use military force against the terrorists responsible for the September 11th attacks. This is why his speech overwhelmingly focused on the potential future threat posed by this group rather than the regional threat the group poses now to American interests. Unfortunately for President Obama, these are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the same people that directed the 9/11 attacks. And the argument that they one day could be as dangerous is fallacious because it describes anyone. That could be France one day. If having the potential means and opportunity to launch a major terrorist attack on the United States at some undefinable point in the future is casus belli, we need to steel ourselves for a lifetime of conflict. But the President knows this too and the real reason we are once again at war in the Middle East is because ISIL represents a direct threat to America’s partners and allies in the Middle East. It has destabilized Iraq and further complicated the conflagration that once was Syria. It also threatens other key regional allies like Jordan, which is already struggling with the influx of over 600,000 Syrian refugees.

A majority of Americans believe we need to confront ISIL with military force, especially in the wake of the executions of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. While the videos of those heinous acts are gut-wrenching, they do not lend ISIL the credentials of a terrorist threat like Al Qaeda, circa 2001. While Al Qaeda actively sought for years to attack American targets, ISIL has thrust its men and materiel into a broad insurgent campaign against the regimes in Damascus and Baghdad and competing rebel groups. It is a mistake to act on the consensus of a fearful and misinformed public. The President may be seeking to destroy ISIL for the right reasons, but he has claimed the authority to do so from Congress and the American people for the wrong ones. It is crucial that the administration do the hard work of making Americans understand what ISIL is and why we have chosen to destroy it. President George W. Bush also had broad popular support when he attacked Iraq, because many Americans wrongly believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the September 11th Attacks. Acting on the popular and specious presumption that ISIL is basically the same as Al Qaeda may be expedient for the President now, but when the reality and objective of this conflict becomes irreparably divorced from the popular perception of why we are fighting, it could severely constrain America’s ability to complete the mission. Terrorism is a real and persistent threat but its spirit should not be summoned to rally the support needed to address every threat to America’s global strategic interests. First and foremost, ISIL is an insurgency that threatens the region and our regional partners. This is why we must destroy it and to do so under any other pretense is a grave mistake.

Jonathan Lord is a private sector research analyst in security matters and a graduate of Vassar College and the Georgetown University Security Studies Program.

Image Credit: White House