The War on ISIS

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by David Von Drehle,

from TIME Magazine,

As the U.S. and its allies prepare to attack the terrorist group’s stronghold in Iraq, the real challenge is the chaos that could come after.

ISIS is luring the world into a trap. Always troubled, the Middle East faces crisis on all fronts: the Arab Spring in tatters, conflict boiling between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, millions of refugees stranded by the Syrian civil war, Yemen and Libya leaderless, the Sinai breaking from Egyptian control, Iran racked by economic sanctions yet driving a wedge between the U.S. and Israel. ISIS has tentacles in all these troubles. It won’t be easy to pry those tentacles loose without making everything worse.

Which is exactly what ISIS wants: to make matters worse.

Perhaps the best way to think about the ISIS threat is to weigh the power to control vs. the power to inspire. Where the group has control, it is nothing less than a nightmare. Unlike most terrorist organizations, it has sophisticated weapons, captured from arsenals well stocked by the departing Americans. It has many sources of revenue, including a special tax–the jizya–levied on Christians in its territory who hope to be left alone by this new government. ISIS kidnaps for ransom, plunders antiquities and smuggles commodities to market.

But unlike other terrorist organizations, ISIS also has large bills to pay. Much of its money must be plowed into local patronage, experts explain, to shore up support and fulfill Quranic obligations. “Now that they have declared a caliphate,” said Choudary, “that means they are providing food and shelter and facilities like education” to the Sunni faithful in the ISIS domain. Like other Middle East conquerors before it, ISIS may discover that governing territory is harder than winning it.

The ability of ISIS to inspire violence beyond its sphere of control rests with its propaganda arm, though it’s not clear whether ISIS is lighting fires or simply blowing smoke. ISIS is adept at gaming Twitter by using bots and cascading retweets to project an impression of overwhelming support.

“The threat to the homeland resembles what we have seen in Ottawa and Australia and Paris,” says Rhodes, the White House adviser, referring to recent terrorist attacks. That is, “individuals who are either radicalized of their own volition taking up arms to commit those types of acts, or individuals who may have traveled to Iraq and Syria returning to create those kinds of attacks. People with guns or IEDs”–homemade bombs–“carrying out those kinds of attacks. It’s different than 9/11.”

As dangerous as it is to have a terrorist kingdom in the middle of the world’s geopolitical tinderbox, ousting ISIS will be every bit as dangerous. Should the process begin in Mosul, expect a crimson springtime. “Retaking Mosul is going to be like Fallujah on steroids,” says Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute, referring to the two bloody battles in 2004 in the city in western Iraq that resulted in the deaths of more than 100 U.S. soldiers.

President Obama is determined not to put U.S. troops on the front lines. In a letter to members of Congress explaining his views, he wrote, “Local forces, rather than U.S. military forces, should be deployed to conduct such operations.” But can he find enough battle-tested local troops willing to fight and able to win a possible house-to-house struggle? “ISIS is a movement that would be hiding in caves if it did not have a professional cadre of trained, internationally recruited, professional light infantry,” says retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson, who is skeptical of the Pentagon’s plan to train enough local troops to do the job. “They are very good at what they do, and the rabble of Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish militias opposing them–and I include the Iraqi army here–is not going to dislodge them.”

Moreover, unless a strong majority of the liberating troops are Sunnis, the counteroffensive could be self-defeating. Sending a force bristling with Kurdish peshmerga and Shi’ite militias would only strengthen the image of ISIS as saviors of their people.

Though deeply skeptical about another war in the Middle East, Obama came away from a recent meeting at the U.N. more hopeful than before that something can be done. He met with the Shi’ite Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi and representatives from the Sunni leadership of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar. “For all the differences there have been in the region, everybody essentially agreed,” Rhodes says. “For the first time there was a regional alignment that understood that even if there were differences … everybody could essentially agree that this was a group that had crossed into a different area. That’s when I think we had sensed that the regional balance had shifted to the point where this was the one thing everyone in the region could agree on.”

One deeply experienced American observer–retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, former head of Centcom–recently returned from a trip to the Middle East full of similar confidence. Sunni-majority nations in the region “are getting scared,” Zinni says, “and have gotten angry at ISIS’s atrocious behavior.” The general believes that if Obama would commit 10,000 U.S. troops to coordinate the counteroffensive, the others would join in: “A brigade from the UAE, a brigade from Jordan, maybe a brigade or two from Saudi Arabia and a brigade or two from Egypt. We could certainly twist the arms of the Kuwaitis–they owe us anyway–maybe even the Qataris. I think if it starts to form that way, you could even see the French, the Brits, the Belgians and others throw in. Pretty soon, you could have a pretty good force.”

But that pretty good force would be a team of rivals, at best. For example, Egypt’s ambassador to the Arab League recently denounced Qatar as a sponsor of terrorism. Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman recently hosted a group of Islamic scholars with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the leading force in the opposition to Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

nearly all the experts agree. Even if sufficient force is mustered to drive ISIS out of Iraq, al-Baghdadi’s organization will continue to hold territory in war-torn Syria. The ongoing civil war, the ethnic divide and Assad’s ruthless desire to prop up the most radical elements of the Syrian opposition all conspire against any hopes of eradicating ISIS. At the same time, ISIS seeds have been planted in other ungoverned lands, like Libya and the Sinai. “As long as the root problems are not addressed, the Islamic State is not going away,” says Carnegie’s Lund.

There is a deeper issue behind the ISIS ugliness, and there will be no true victory until that issue is dealt with. Civil society is collapsing in large parts of North Africa and the Middle East. The absence of competent government creates mass unemployment–there’s the jobs issue–but it also creates resentment, suspicion, desperation and a sense of victimhood. And this is the nest in which terrorists are hatched.

As tricky as the military piece of the ISIS puzzle may be, it is simple compared with the civil-society piece. The U.S. showed in 1991 and again in 2003 that it knows how to take down enemies in Iraq. What it has never shown an ability to do is leave something better afterward.

Some might say this deeper problem should be left to the countries themselves to solve. But the history of Western interventions in the region has made self-help much harder than it might have been. The very idea of a nation called Iraq was a half-considered Western confection spun in the wake of World War I, and it doomed the region to a century of three competing peoples–Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurd–living miserably under one flag.

This cycle of rash beginnings and unplanned ends may make Americans feel as if decisive action is being taken, but the results are clear: it isn’t working. And ISIS is taunting the world to run the cycle one more time. Put an army on the road to Mosul and let the rest take care of itself.

But that’s a trap. As bad as these people are, there is room for things to get much worse. And they will unless the U.S. and its latest coalition have the discipline at last to think all the way through to the end. The question is not beating ISIS. It’s what comes after that. More than ever, that question needs an answer.

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