ISIL Is Contained And That Should Be Good Enough


You wouldn’t know it from the threat inflation (see here and here) by U.S. senior officials and politicians concerning the Islamic State — aka ISIL, ISIS, ISI, and AQI — but this terrorist threat is already successfully contained and poses little immediate or direct threat to American interests in the region or globally.

Yes, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel claimed that ISIL is an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” But let’s evaluate that assertion based on the evidence against the enduring national interests as articulated in the 2010 National Security Strategy.

Oil & Economic prosperity: ISIL has seized control of oil production facilities and is making money from illicit oil smuggling through Turkey, Syria, and Kurdish Iraq. But U.S. interests are primarily tied to the global price of oil and ensuring open access to the rich energy reserves of the region. This combination ensures competitively priced oil that literally fuels global economic growth. Oil prices continue to fall and the U.S. Energy Information Administration has revised its long-range outlook predicting prices “below $100 a barrel until early in the next decade.”

Homeland security: The barbarity of the beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker broadcast in videos viewed across the world have served dual interests of the these terrorists: to inspire fear among the public; and provoke an overreaction by status quo powers. Surveys suggest that (aided by threat exaggerations referred to above) a majority of the American public is convinced that ISIL has the ability to strike targets in the United States. But career-professional security and intelligence experts reviewing the actual evidence have drawn the opposite conclusion. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson earlier this month admitted, “we have no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland of the United States.”  Meanwhile, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, in a speech at the Brookings Institute, stated that ISIL is not capable of carrying out large-scale attacks and noted that the United States is “so much better postured, in so many ways, to see, detect, stop any attack like what we saw on 9/11.”

Now none of these statements mean that there is absolutely no risk of attacks inspired by ISIL or its ilk. As reports from Australia suggest, there will always be a few psychopathic killers who will find perverse inspiration from the hatred and false religion espoused by groups such as ISIL. But the best solutions to these thankfully few and far between threats are essentially defensive: focused intelligence, professional law enforcement, and effective border controls.

International Order & Regional Stability: ISIL has clearly taken advantage of the ungoverned spaces left in the wake of Syria’s bloody civil war. It also has managed to find temporary allies in the alienated Sunni communities of Iraq as a result of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’a sectarian rule in Baghdad. But ISIL has at best some 30,000 fighters mostly equipped with small arms including rifles and a few artillery pieces, although it has been able to add to this arsenal thanks to the vehicles and armaments seized from fleeing U.S. equipped Iraqi forces. They are opposed by a U.S.-equipped and trained Iraqi active frontline military estimated at 271,500 and equipped with main battle tanks, heavy artillery, and armored personnel carriers. Moreover, U.S., Russian, and Iranian fighter aircraft conducting supportive strikes are supporting these Iraqi forces. ISIL simply does not have the military capacity to seriously threaten the larger global or regional order (such as it is in the wake of the Arab uprisings, but that’s for another posting). While ISIL has taken advantage of the chaos in Syria and boiling sectarian tensions in Iraq, it is not the proximate cause for either of these conflicts.

Respect for universal values:  ISIL’s brutality and abusive rule is obviously contrary to the Western liberal values of freedom and basic human dignity. However, the same can be said of virtually any violent criminal or extremist group. For instance, Mexican drug cartels conducted nearly 50 beheadings in a single month, have killed some 55,000, and aside from sharing a lengthy border with the United States, already have a major presence inside the country and have targeted and killed U.S. Customs officials. Why is ISIL’s brutality any more offensive to U.S. values than that of other terrorist or criminal groups?

President Obama: Even in his speech justifying additional U.S. military action against ISIL, President Barack Obama offered a distinctly qualified assessment of the threat from ISIL. Specifically, he asserted that If left unchecked, [ISIL] could pose a growth threat beyond that region, including to the United States.” [emphasis mine] The fact is ISIL is already being actively opposed by numerous actors throughout the region — Kurdish peshmerga, elements of the Iraqi military, Iraqi Shi’a militias, Iran, and Syria. (Including the government, the Free Syrian Army, and other opposition groups, such as ISIL’s fellow Islamist extremist groups. Yes, politics makes for strange bedfellows.) Moreover, Obama’s use of the word “could” itself is an open admission that ISIL is not an immediate threat, but rather one that might emerge over the course of time.

Given all of the above, it’s apparent that a contained ISIL is demonstrably not an immediate threat to vital U.S. national security interests in the region. In an age of fiscal austerity and after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan yielding little in tangible benefits, containment of ISIL is a responsible, feasible, achievable, and entirely sensible American strategic objective.

Little else by the U.S. needs to be done. ISIL has already been effectively contained by its own overreach and the fear it has inspired throughout the region. In military terms, it has reached a culminating point. ISIL’s appeal is limited to disenfranchised Sunni Arab communities that have been marginalized politically and savagely attacked by sectarian Shi’a and Alawite leaders in Baghdad and Damascus. Moreover, the desert area between Iraq and Syria is effectively surrounded by ISIL’s natural and mortal enemies (in the north by Kurds in Syria and Iraq; in the east by Shi’a Iran; in the south by Shi’a Iraqis, and the west by Alawite and Druze Syrian communities). As Tom Friedman and Rami Khouri have recently editorialized, the long-term solution to these violent Islamist extremist groups must come from the Arab societies and governments from which they spring.

Despite this evidence, however, many insist that more must be done by the U.S. government to destroy ISIL. But advocates of this more expansive objective must convincingly answer several questions associated with an approach involving deeper U.S. military engagement.

First and foremost, the United States deployed hundreds of thousands of combat troops who engaged in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade, at a cost of several trillion dollars. In addition, thousands of U.S. servicemen and women were killed, and tens of thousands wounded. Yet these monumental efforts failed to prevent the emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq or its subsequent manifestations including ISIL. What is different about the situation now? Why should anyone expect that this new military campaign involving far fewer military resources will succeed when prior campaigns have failed?

Secondly, how do supporters of a broader U.S. military campaign address the absence of committed, effective, and reliable regional powers willing to stand against ISIL?There is a new prime minister in Baghdad, but he comes from the same sectarian background as Maliki. Do we have evidence he will implement (not just promise) policies that will be substantively more inclusive of Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities? Doesn’t deeper U.S. military commitments in the absence of these concrete reforms actually decrease his incentive to take these difficult political steps?

Moreover, governments bordering ISIL are questionable partners at best. Turkey (out of concerns for its hostages who were being held captive by ISIL in Mosul, and alarmist worries about Kurdish desires for independence being further enabled by increased U.S. military assistance) has openly refused to participate in the U.S. strategy articulated by Obama. Meanwhile, U.S. official policy is to oust Syrian President Bashir al-Assad thereby imposing inherent limitations on the cooperation we are likely to get from this neighboring country. Finally, although it would make perfect sense to cooperate with Iran against Sunni extremist elements such as ISIL, domestic politics and other foreign policy concerns on both sides are already handicapping any joint efforts from this important regional player bordering Iraq. This doesn’t even get into the double games being played by Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia — a country genuinely threatened by ISIL’s religious claims to the caliphate yet at the same time one that is funding and spreading reactionary Wahhabi interpretations of Islam fueling these same extremist groups — and Qatar — a small player punching well above its geopolitical weight, and whose official position is to support radical extremist groups in Syria and elsewhere in the region.

Thirdly, a strategy reliant largely on the exercise of military power risks undermining international and domestic law, to the detriment of U.S. interests. How do advocates of yet another war in the Middle East spearheaded by the United States avoid further damage to the perceived legitimacy of U.S. military actions both here and abroad? Obama has given no indication of whether he will appeal to the U.N. Security Council to gain international support for military action in Syria. Moreover, no such approval is likely given the near-certain opposition from Moscow. The absence of support in the United Nations, however, undermines the legitimacy of U.S. military actions in the eyes of many, to include those from Arab publics on whom we will depend to discredit, isolate, and ultimately destroy violent extremist Islamist groups such as ISIL. U.S. military strikes will also inevitably play into the Islamist narrative that the United States is at war with Islam, swelling the recruiting ranks for ISIL and any subsequent variants.

Perhaps even more importantly, President Obama has not committed to seeking an up or down congressional vote authorizing expanded U.S. military attacks against ISIL. President George H.W. Bush courageously did so in advance of Desert Storm in 1990, successfully securing support in a divided Congress, and as a result, largely united the country and world behind his military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Our national values are indeed our greatest moral strength and have been seriously tarnished by panic-inspired policies in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, including the official sanction and use of torture in interrogations, indefinite detentions without trial, and spying on U.S. citizens by our domestic intelligence agencies. An express congressional authorization (if not a formal declaration of war) for expanded military attacks against ISIL in Iraq and Syria would at least show the world that we comply with U.S. law even during difficult times (when it matters most).

Finally, despite Obama’s sincere desire to divest the country from expensive and “dumb” wars in the Middle East, his decision to launch another preventive war in this region already racked by civil war and rife with sectarian tensions virtually ensures a continuation of America’s forever war. To paraphrase Gen. David Petraeus, can anyone tell us how this ends?


Dr. Christopher Bolan is a Professor of National Security Affairs at The U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are his own.