US Foreign Policy

Ideas But No Consensus For Long-Term Strategies Against Islamic State

in Program

By Ellen Laipson: 

A somber weariness has settled in across Western democracies in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Defeating and destroying the so-called Islamic State with military force has won broader support. But most realize that the challenge will require a complex set of policy responses, far beyond aerial bombardments to liberate territory controlled by the group in Syria and Iraq. Although there is not yet any consensus about what such a long-term strategy should look like, some new ideas are emerging.

To begin with, the old debate over how to distinguish between the threat posed by al-Qaida and the newer one from the Islamic State has been overtaken by the events in Paris earlier this month. Only a few months ago, some U.S. officials were fretting that they had misallocated resources to al-Qaida, perceiving it as the more established, lethal danger, at a time when it still seemed the Islamic State was more focused on holding Arab territory than confronting the West. The concern was that the U.S. and its European allies had developed an intelligence and military infrastructure that were not a perfect match for the larger danger that the Islamic State has become, first in the Arab heartlands and now in Western capitals.

In his new book, “The New Threat from Islamic Militancy,” Jason Burke provides useful history and context and concludes that the issue is now moot. The two organizations have much in common, have learned from each other, and draw on some of the same demographics for recruitment. But they are also competitive and have some genuine doctrinal disagreements, for example over the creation of an Islamic caliphate, which al-Qaida sees as a long-term goal and the Islamic State is trying to achieve now. In any case, it is clear that the Islamic State is the more modern and sophisticated organization. And while al-Qaida may keep working to mobilize its followers against any Western presence in Muslim lands, the momentum in the rivalry between the two is now with the Islamic State. Given the group’s fearlessness and ambition, it represents a greater challenge for the West.

How then to counter the threat? First, there is the military component. At various international seminars and in press briefings, most Western military leaders express confidence that military force can be effective in pushing back the Islamic State from controlling major towns in Syria and Iraq. In fact, they estimate that the group has lost at least 25 percent of the land it controlled at its peak in the past year. Many insist that it would not take a huge military campaign or much time to liberate other key locations, such as Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, or Raqqa, the small but strategically located town that is essentially the Islamic State’s capital in Syria. But Western powers are still reluctant to commit ground forces to such an operation, due to political misgivings at home and the lack of reliable, committed partners in the host countries.

But while the Paris attacks were a startling and sobering reminder that a military response in distant lands may be necessary, they also highlighted the fact that a military approach will be insufficient to reduce and eventually eliminate the security threat to citizens in democratic countries, not to mention to beleaguered residents of Arab lands. Some now even see the stakes for the West as far greater than day-to-day security: Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution argued in the Wall Street Journal recently that the threat from the Islamic State could threaten the very survival of the European Union, and possibly the liberal world order, if not handled properly.

But if that is the case, and the military component is insufficient to counter the Islamic State on its own, what else must be done? Many grasp conceptually that dimming the group’s appeal to a small but diverse range of young people will require a full spectrum of policy responses, from the overarching need for more-inclusive governance and greater economic opportunity to reforms in education. It will also require attention and a different kind of leadership from families, communities and religious authorities. Not all of this can be coordinated in Western capitals, nor would a big surge of development assistance make an impact quickly enough to turn the tide of the Islamic State’s expansion.

The Economist magazine offered a few specific ideas for further security measures closer to home than the fight on the ground in Syria and Iraq. The European Union will have to revisit its intelligence and security protocols to move the needle a bit more in the direction of controlled access to personal data about people living in or entering the EU. It will also need to revise the Schengen rules and strengthen the ability of police to obtain critical information without time-consuming bureaucratic impediments. In the Middle East, the magazine urges the United Nations to begin working on a peacekeeping force for Syria that would be composed mainly of the large and largely professional armed forces of regional states, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries. And lastly, it argues that ending the political chaos and discord in both Syria and Iraq will require a move to decentralization in both countries. The hope would be to find a balance that maintains a state strong enough to perform its key functions, but creates space to ease the intense ethnic and sectarian strife.

For the United States, the policy mix might vary, although Europe and America are both experiencing an unhealthy and unhelpful conflation of the anxieties over the Islamic State with anti-immigrant sentiment. As politicians play to constituents’ fears, they are actually exacerbating the problem represented by the group and undermining core values of the Western democracies. The only presidential aspirant who has spoken at some length about a long-term approach to the radical extremist threat represented by the Islamic State is Hillary Clinton. In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations 10 days ago, the Democratic frontrunner offered her ideas, which she acknowledged were largely an intensification and acceleration of current administration policy. Two of her three main points can be mentioned without much comment: that Congress should authorize the use of military force for an expanded campaign against the Islamic State to allow the president to send more troops, presumably including ground forces, and that the U.S. should harden its defenses at home.

The meatier part of her proposal is her call to dismantle the Islamic State’s terrorist infrastructure on the ground and online. This vast effort would run the gamut from a robust public diplomacy and strategic communications campaign to counter the group’s ideology of hate, to support for strengthening more-inclusive and more-effective governing institutions. The plan is laudable for its scope and comprehensiveness, but reflects the ambitious and idealistic agenda that candidates often fail to implement once in office, due to resource constraints or a lack of willing partners on the ground.

To highlight some of the thinking about how to counter the Islamic State is not to suggest that there is an easy consensus on any particular strategic plan. Many of the ideas reflect a solid understanding of the crisis of governance and legitimacy that currently haunts the Middle East and provides fertile ground for the Islamic State and other extremists. That crisis, according to many Arab intellectuals, was caused by the humiliating experience of colonialism and more recent Western interventions. It is an irony that thoughtful and well-meaning people today yearn for a more robust and decisive Western intervention now, but also a cautionary tale about whether our tools, military or other, will work to fix this wicked problem.

This piece originally ran in World Politics Review, December 1st, 2015

Photo credit: Prime Minister’s Office via flickr

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