Dear ISIS, Welcome to State-building…

ISIS’s public declaration that it has restored the caliphate has been noted as a bold move, potentially changing some elements of their revolutionary calculus.  Even without such a pronouncement, however, rebel groups like ISIS always share some of the same challenges as states do—broadly speaking, both rebels and states are better off if the majority of their residents comply with their demands.  Far from a declaration of outright victory, ISIS’s announcement has simply underscored a number of interrelated challenges that all rebels and states face.

In other words, ISIS now faces the same problems as its enemies.

  1. Factionalization, and disarmament:  The very Sunni militias who facilitated ISIS’s sweep into Iraq may now pose a similar threat to ISIS control as they did to the Iraqi state.  Elements of the Iraqi military scattered in the face of ISIS’s most recent onslaught, due to a variety of factors, including commanders who were incompetent or had other loyalties, and lack of local support.  The strength of the partnership between ISIS and local discontents seems variable at best.  Tension is already showing in these partnerships, which may fracture entirely if ISIS does not undertake serious efforts to solidify these alliances—efforts which may well involve negotiating and compromising around contradictory aims, and tensions between grander ideological goals and local dissatisfactions.
  2. Disarmament: ISIS now faces the same risk as the Iraqi state—erstwhile allies, if left out of the group’s internal processes, or holding different goals or religious/political preferences may resist ISIS control.  Seemingly well aware of this possibility, ISIS is now attempting its own version of DDR (the practice of disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating combatants that often bedevils post-conflict resolution), demanding local fighters swear allegiance to ISIS, and lay down their weapons.
  3. Territorial control: Factionalization also gives ISIS the same challenge of territorial control as the Iraqi state.  The loss of Mosul and other areas of northern Iraq was a political and military setback for the Iraqi state.  Even before the pronouncement, ISIS touted much of its claims to victory in territorial terms, and has certainly sought to retain the control it has gained in Syria.  In Iraq, participation of local Sunni resistance aided ISIS’s territorial sweep.  Loss of local allies may yet cost ISIS some of this control.   After all, many of these local Sunni forces are the same that first joined in resistance to American forces, and welcomed, but then expelled ISIS’s precursor Al Qaeda in Iraq.
  4. Running the caliphate:  As the BBC’s Jim Muir notes, “if the caliphate project is to take root, it will need administrators and experts in many fields, whom Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is clearly hoping will flood to heed his call.”  ISIS has demonstrated some capacity to do this in Syrian cities like Raqqa, where observers note its extensive and coercive reach into residents’ lives.  But as any administrator will tell you, competent technocrats are not necessarily easy to come by.  For ISIS, much may depend on how its declaration of the caliphate is taken among well-qualified individuals elsewhere, and the group’s willingness to engage in the compromise and politicking to build alliances.  It is possible well-qualified personnel may find ISIS’s announcement attractive (augmented by the group’s ability to pay them, at least for now).  But such individuals often bring with them their own political and religious preferences.  If ISIS refuses to compromise, it will be fishing for administrators in a doubly shallow pool of those with sufficient competence and affinity for its particular ideological brand.  Moreover, if ISIS does attract quality personnel, using them for administrative demands means the group cannot simultaneously use their skills in leading or planning attacks to expand or defend ISIS territory.

ISIS’s breathtaking victories and their proclamation that it has reestablished the caliphate have produced widespread alarm.  But this headline-ready proclamation simply emphasizes a wider irony—ISIS’s conquests saddle them with the same challenges of state building as the Iraqi state they’ve pushed back.  The past decade has ample evidence that proclaiming, “mission accomplished” vis-à-vis Iraq does not guarantee success.

ISIS’s success, and the weaknesses of the Iraqi state it highlights, cannot be dismissed.  But neither can their military and media victories indefinitely paper over the hard realties of governance. 

At the moment, ISIS has the advantage of momentum, cash, and an internally dysfunctional adversary.  But it is early days yet, and it remains to be seen how ISIS will fare against these challenges.  It must decide how much it is willing to compromise and negotiate to build robust alliances out of partnerships that may thus far have been more opportunistic.  It must recruit and allocate both financial and personnel resources to managing the territory it holds, and in which its pronounced caliphate resides.  ISIS’s ability to further expand its territories or pose a threat to other states depends in large part on its choices and abilities to address these challenges.