war on the rocks

The Anti-ISIL strategy: Let’s whack another mole and hope it’s the last

September 24, 2014

A fortnight ago President Obama and his inner circle finally came up with a strategy to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and now we are seeing its fruits as the United States and its Arab allies bomb the group from the air. By being cautious enough to promise that no ground troops will be used in combat, and by being hawkish enough to talk about a sustained campaign that expands into Syria, he seems to have found the perfect political compromise to win congressional and popular support. The “strategy” nevertheless has serious flaws, as many others have argued. Fred and Kimberly Kagan argue that a substantial ground force is necessary to defeat ISIL. Others emphasize that we have clearly not learned anything from the failures to make a lasting positive impact in Iraq and Afghanistan, or that the Syria part of the strategy stands on very shaky ground.

I would nonetheless argue that most of the criticism (as well as the ISIL strategy itself) is really about tactics and not strategy. In a very familiar beltway fashion no one really seems to look at the bigger picture from a strategic or grand strategic perspective. This leads to a number of gaps in the existing debate.

Please – ISIL really isn’t the problem here

While ISIL is an awful, lethal, and regionally destabilizing actor that clearly needs to be dealt with, it is not worthy of its own war against America. ISIL is not “the problem” that needs to be fixed, but rather the symptom of the real problems of the region: which are better described as radicalization, and violence as a consequence of abusive, unaccountable, or simply weak governments, as well as past Western policies and interventions in the region – all of it fuelled by ethnic and religious strife. ISIL, therefore, cannot be treated as a problem in isolation. The ISIL symptom is also not well understood or defined. The Obama administration refuses, publicly at least, to acknowledge the nature of the threat, and refers to the organization as terrorists, and the campaign to defeat it as counterterrorism. Others have more accurately pointed out the classic insurgency nature of ISIL (despite insurgency/counterinsurgency almost being outlawed concepts in DC these days). While Obama’s strategy goes beyond narrow militarily-based counterterrorism by acknowledging the need for major political reform in Iraq, the purpose of those processes do not seem to be aimed at the underlying problems, and instead treat ISIL in isolation. A clear indicator is the fact that several of the “allies” currently participating in the air campaign are in the problem column rather than the solutions one. If the military and political activities planned to defeat ISIL would also be the solutions to the underlying issues and the host of other current and future “symptoms” in the region, the Obama strategy would indeed make sense. However, invading and democratizing Iraq as a solution to the problem of the Middle East did not work particularly well the last time, nor did the attempt to deal with terrorism by invading and transforming Afghanistan.

If ISIL is a symptom – albeit a serious one – the current plan to defeat it can really only be tactical or operational in its effects. Luckily, there are at least two options for making sense of the campaign against ISIL within a larger strategic framework, rather than as an isolated problem.

Option 1: The anti-ISIL strategy as a theater in the war on terror

The first option involves treating the anti-ISIL campaign as a “new-ish” front in the self-proclaimed war on terror. The description of ISIL as a threat to national security that should warrant yet another military campaign that is likely to cause much death and destruction, really only makes sense within the framework of war on terror. The latest iteration describes the war on terror as protecting U.S. Citizens, the U.S. homeland and American interests, disrupting, degrading and defeating al Qaeda, its affiliates and adherents, preventing the fruition of the panoply of concerns governing terrorists and WMDs, eliminating terrorist safe havens, building enduring counterterrorism partnerships and capabilities, degrading the links between al Qaeda, its affiliates and adherents and depriving terrorists of their enabling means. The question then is: how does the campaign to defeat ISIL fit within these larger strategic objectives? So far, each new theatre seems to open a Pandora’s box of new problems, which means that the war on terror is turning into an ever faster and more difficult game of whack-a-mole. The positive references to Yemen and Somalia would indicate that the administration is not even seeing the problem and that they are instead counting terrorist bodies in a Vietnam-like fashion. Well, as Vietnam taught many of us – you can win every battle and still lose the war. Moreover, the international community, including the closest U.S. allies, has always found the logic and conduct of the war on terror unconvincing. Finding partners to share the burden is difficult within this framework. Let us therefore take a look at another option.

Option 2: Dealing with ISIL as regular crisis management and international policing

The second option is to finally declare an end to the folly of a war on terror and instead “desecuritize” these activities into the realm of ordinary policies of international crisis management and policing. Within this framework the threat of ISIL, as well as the turmoil and radicalization of the Muslim world, should not primarily be presented as a threat to the USA, but rather to international security and world order. As a hegemon, the United States should lead the international efforts to manage global security and order. This is also a task at least as worthy as national defense – and probably more effective in terms of achieving national security. However, the global crisis management approach also requires a serious discussion about what acceptable behavior looks like when maintaining order rather than fighting a war. And this can never be an American debate; it must include the broader international community to create a mindful approach that is perceived just and wise by larger global publics. Mindfulness and attentiveness are nevertheless not the strongest American virtues, which is not only exemplified by George W. Bush’s infamous “either you are with us or against us” speech and the “axis of evil” statements, but also by Barack Obama’s ISIL strategy statement emphasizing that: “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are… That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” If that statement works both ways (which it obviously should), the United States is facing a world of pain.

A global management approach must therefore avoid the black and white world of the United States versus its enemies, and instead focus on the role of the United States in promoting, but also avoiding destruction, of the current world order. The erratic and unpredictable U.S. behavior, sometimes involving military interventions to protect “vital national security interest,” sometimes deeply inconsistent in the values and norms it promotes, and often based on who is a “friend and ally” in the failing war on terror is not doing the world any favors. A hegemon that has a dubious and unpredictable moral compass, makes rash decisions, and conducts unpredictable and poorly justified military campaigns-often based on internal political punditry, or social media campaigns such as in the cases of KONY2012 and Boko Haram, in combination with a trigger-happy drone campaign, does not provide a particularly comforting world for anyone – friend or foe.

This type of behavior leads to fear – and not what realists would refer to as the “useful” kind of fear that can be utilized for deterrence and compellence – but rather a confused, jittery, and potentially aggressive fear, not entirely unlike that experienced among the citizens of Ferguson in relation to police enforcement within that community.

Power and leadership

American power and security is not just a reflection of its military capabilities, but also of its perceived legitimacy of leadership. This is not necessarily wishy-washy liberalism, but also a more substantial argument about the cost of protecting U.S. security and maintaining the current world order without a global belief in its relative justice. It is indeed time for the United States to realize that its security is deeply tied to international security and order. The perception of legitimacy does not necessarily come from “nice” or peaceful behavior, restraint, and power sharing. A hard but just, consistent, and more attentive U.S. foreign policy, directed at more than “vital national interests” can be just as legitimate. This nevertheless requires thinking hard about how each action will affect the international perception of the United States, the legitimacy of the international system, and the long-term U.S. ability to lead and maintain its power. It will thereby also require a foreign policy debate that avoids the usual U.S. navel gazing and that instead speaks as if the world is listening (which it obviously is anyway). A discussion about the legality of drones that focuses on the Fifth Amendment and the risk of killing American citizens, or a debate about the legality of the intervention in Iraq and Syria that focuses on the AUMF, may have some validity in the belly bottom fluff, but to the rest of the world it is quite frankly offensive. The United States is leading the world whether it likes to or not, and is always going to be ”damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” It is therefore time to step up to the plate and embrace leadership on a regular basis, and not on an ad hoc basis when it suits America and the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine.

At the end of the day there is no doubt that ISIL needs to be dealt with – even if it is merely a symptom of a larger problem. The questions then are: how it should be done, for what purpose, and using what justifications? Narrow U.S. interests are clearly involved, and there is no shame in that. However, it should not be justified on those grounds, but rather as a campaign to protect vital global interests in maintaining international security and order. For that long-term management endeavor, the United States might also find some real allies rather than the axis of evil that is currently dropping bombs over Syria.


Robert Egnell is Visiting Professor and Director of Teaching in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. His research covers the effectiveness and conduct of stability operations – broadly defined. He is the author (with David Ucko) of Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare (Columbia UP, 2013). You can follow him on twitter at @robertegnell.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery