war on the rocks

Treating the Islamic State as a State

March 3, 2016

Rhetorically, the tendency in the U.S. government is to treat the Islamic State as an insurgent movement rather than a state-like entity. It is often called ISIL — the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — as if the usage of an acronym will cloak the usage of the word “state.” Even when it is called the “Islamic State,” these words are often prefaced with “so-called” or “self-proclaimed” or bracketed with quotation marks. But in the rhetorical effort to delegitimize the Islamic State, we may have missed the very important nuance that it functions more like a state than like an insurgent movement. If we recognize these state-like attributes, even those we normally attribute to a failing state, our methods for dealing with it change from those we would use to fight a non-state actor to those we would use to fight an inter-state war. In the context of this conflict, this would lead to significant changes in the application of U.S. airpower.

To date, the Islamic State has often been treated as if it were an insurgent movement inside a friendly state (Iraq). This leads to an inappropriate application of a counterinsurgency strategy, where damage done to the organization is intentionally limited to avoid a level of collateral damage that would help the Islamic State’s counter-government narrative. The nonsensical use of leaflet bombs to warn oil truck drivers that they were about to come under attack is but one example of a “zero-collateral” strategy that is inappropriate for the adversary. The Islamic State is not so much an insurgency as it is an emerging state, drawing its territory from two neighboring failed states. Until we start treating the Islamic state as a state, with a state’s vulnerabilities, we will remain trapped in inappropriate strategic applications.

The Islamic State

The Islamic State has many attributes of a state. It controls territory, collects taxation, maintains a military force, promulgates and enforces laws and policies, and pays government employees, including fighters. It gathers resources and maintains a budget. It oversees education, issues IDs, and establishes provincial governments. It has a written set of principles for governance. True, it is a government modeled after a criminal enterprise, but this kind of kleptocracy is not uncommon — the existing governments of Afghanistan, Russia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Togo, and Congo are notoriously kleptocratic. The point of the classification is not so much to pass judgment as it is to analyze vulnerabilities. If the Islamic State is functionally a state, it is subject to a state’s pressure points.

The key difference between an insurgency and a functioning government is legitimacy. A government must maintain legitimacy, while an insurgency only has to undermine the government. A developed insurgency may control territory and provide governing functions in areas beyond control of the “official” government. While an insurgency must eventually establish legitimacy in order to transition to a government, U.S. goals do not include the establishment of a functioning government in Islamic State territory. Without this constraint, application of airpower is an investment in entropy. In other words, without having to support a government of limited legitimacy (the Russians and Iranians are doing that), the United States only needs to accelerate the Islamic State’s loss of legitimacy on the local and international stage. If we can deprive the Islamic State of its self-declared caliphate, it will become just another jihadist terrorist organization.

The Islamic State’s claim to have established a long-dormant caliphate is one of the keys to establishing itself as a leader in the Muslim world. Declaration of a caliphate requires geographic boundaries — the caliphate cannot exist without holding territory. If Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the caliph and Islamic State territory a caliphate, then the Islamic State holds a legitimate and historically relevant claim to religious authority as a successor to Prophet Mohammed. If the state unravels — and is clearly seen to unravel — the validity of this claim is strongly undermined, and some of the attraction to foreign fighters may wane.

Pressure Points

Still, the Islamic State is falling far short of its goals to act as a state. It is unable to effectively maintain state services, including infrastructure. Medical care has devolved due to a lack of professional practitioners, equipment, and pharmaceuticals. Electricity is scarce. Oil production has dropped even before deliberate attacks on Islamic State-controlled oil resources. Its education system is practically nonexistent and there is no realistic possibility of economic growth. The population, even those who might have supported the goals of an Islamic state, is increasingly dissatisfied with the oppression of this one in practice.

In the Islamic State’s Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State – 1435AH (trans.), the authors lay out governing and administrative guidelines for the establishment of a unified Sunni caliphate, but also describe the nature of the caliphate’s economic foundation of “secure financial resources”:

This includes oil and gas and what the land possesses including gold as currency that does not deteriorate or decline, as well as trade routes …

The Islamic State’s plans for utilization of resources have no doubt suffered from the collapse of oil prices and the devaluation of gold: Oil has fallen to a third of its mid-2014 price level (when Principles was published) and gold has lost 20 percent of its value over the same time period. While Principles outlines preservation of industry as a priority, Islamic State territory remains among the poorest in Syria and Iraq and contains little industry not associated with agriculture or oil and gas production.

From the perspective of an airpower practitioner, air interdiction combined with limited strategic attack are both classic airpower approaches that can bear fruit. There is no industrial economy to interdict, similar to Japan or Germany, but there are still what John Warden classified as “organic essentials,” critical to maintaining government functions and fighting power. Cash may be an organic essential, because of the lack of any other means to make payments other than barter. It appears that fighter salaries and military expenditures consume two-thirds of the budget, making the money connection critical to the Islamic State’s military power.

Crude oil is necessary as a source of funds, but refined petroleum products are absolutely essential for transportation and some power generation. Electricity underpins some capabilities of the Islamic State, including communications, computer use, and broadcast. Power in the capital of al Raqqah is largely hydroelectric, and it is doubtful if the Islamic State has the technicians available to repair any damage to the substation at Tabqah Dam or any of its high-tension lines. Independence from arms dealers is specifically outlined in Principles, and local arms manufacturing is considered to be a critical element of economic independence. This leads to the conclusion that the flow of arms and ammunition from outside may be a potential interdiction opportunity. The more governmental or military functions that can be starved of resources or destroyed, the more difficult the governing tasks become.

Any air campaign must be accompanied by an intense use of old-school psychological operations, deception, plus agitation and propaganda. Setting the appropriate context for unraveling the Islamic state is important, but it is equally critical that the prevailing narrative changes decisively from the Islamic State ascendant to the Islamic State unraveling. It is not enough for the caliphate to fall — it must be seen to fall. Only then will the psychological and recruiting advantage held by an established caliphate evaporate — until the next credible contender emerges.


Western powers have been unable to advance any viable alternative to the Islamic State: The Syrian opposition is fundamentally too fragmented to allow a single alternative to emerge, and the forces that have held post-Ottoman Syria together have been completely dissipated. The best that airpower can do under these conditions is to weaken the Islamic State by reducing its ability to provide public services, interdicting materiel and monetary flows, and depriving it of a viable oil and gas industry. A best-case scenario would be a disruption of economic, transport, and production functions in Islamic State-occupied areas so severe that they become ungovernable by any technique available to the Islamic State, including the violent oppression that is its domestic hallmark. The reality is that life in such a chaotic zone is going to be even more dangerous and miserable for the civilian occupants, regardless of the proximity of direct combat. If the Islamic State is induced to collapse, some form of local security apparatus will eventually restore itself, but if so, some form of warlordism is the likely outcome. In some areas, the fall of the Islamic State will allow for the Assad government, with Russian help, to reassert control. In other areas, other rebel, Islamist, jihadist or sectarian forces may be able to establish control. Dissolution of Islamic State territory might also assist the Iraqis in reestablishing control of their own territory as Islamic State outposts die on the vine.

The fall of the caliphate is a worthwhile end unto itself. The loss of caliphate status will remove Baghdadi’s position as caliph, which may be more important over the long term than killing him, an outcome that would necessarily generate a successor. In order to establish a caliphate, jihadists must control territory. In order to cause the Islamic State to collapse, and limit its military threat to Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, we must deprive the Islamic State of the tools for maintaining even limited governance, which necessarily renders that territory ungovernable. In the end, the Islamic State will likely still remain a viable terrorist organization, but it may be possible to constrain it to local operations and reduce its global appeal and reach.


Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Col. Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.