The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) represents a significant failure of U.S. policy. The administration has dispatched nearly 1000 Americans to advise the Iraqi military and protect the U.S. embassy. However, ISIL so far does not pose the sort of security, let alone an existential, threat to America requiring military action.
Although the Baghdad government appears ill‐prepared to regain lost territory, ISIL is unlikely to mount another blitzkrieg. The group may stage terrorist attacks in Baghdad, but lacks the strength necessary to capture Iraq’ capital, let alone gain control of majority‐Shia nation.
In Syria ISIL radicals face simultaneous military challenges from the government, moderate opposition forces, and even slightly less extreme jihadists. Having declared a caliphate, ISIL also has taken on the political responsibilities of government. Overreach may turn the group’s strengths into weaknesses.
Most important, so far, at least, ISIL, unlike al‐Qaeda, has not confronted the U.S. To the extent that the group succeeds in creating a traditional government over a defined piece of geography, it will establish a “return address” for retaliation should it seek to strike America. This suggests a more manageable problem at the moment, at least, than that posed by al‐Qaeda in 2001. Thus, Washington should react circumspectly, avoiding further entanglement where possible in a conflict that already has consumed too many American lives and too many American resources.
Recent experience offer several sobering lessons useful in confronting ISIL’s rise.
Intervention brings unintended, unpredictable, and uncontrollable consequences. Joining such a conflict in such a region is inherently challenging. Some assumptions will be erroneous, some policies will be mistaken, and some outcomes will be unplanned. Ignoring often enormous differences in history, religion, culture, tradition, ethnicity, interest, and more almost guarantees failure. The result usually is to replace one gaggle of problems with other ones of greater magnitude.
Indeed, America’s experience in the Middle East highlights how one intervention almost always begets another. The 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh elevated the Shah to full power, leading to his abusive rule and ouster in 1979. That caused Washington to back Iraq’s Saddam Hussein against Iran. In 1990 Hussein acted as we feared Tehran would act, leading to the first Gulf War and a force deployment in Saudi Arabia, which Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz later acknowledged to be one of Osama bin Laden’s grievances.
The second Gulf War removed Hussein — along with his heavy‐handed suppression of sectarian strife and role as counterweight to Iranian influence. Even had the new government in Baghdad unexpectedly backed a continued U.S. military presence, the latter would not have prevented the sectarian hostilities which are exploding full force today. A dozen years of nation building in Afghanistan may have little enduring impact. As is evident there as well as in the Middle East, Balkans, and elsewhere, hatreds can live for centuries. Barring reconciliation, opined Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 2007, “no amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference.”
America’s interest varies based on the nature of America’s adversaries. Most of those around the world who dislike the U.S. never act on those sentiments. They may lack the desire, opportunity, or means to strike, or fear the consequences of doing so. Deterrence kept Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China in check for decades.
In general, a restrained U.S. response emphasizing overwhelming retaliation, with allies taking responsibility for their security, is the best approach. Intervening in conflicts without direct impact on America and initiating preventive wars where intentions and capabilities are unclear, as against Hussein’s Iraq, risk far more than they gain.
Very different is the threat posed by transnational groups, such as al‐Qaeda, which target America and are almost impossible to deter. Although trade‐offs remain important — for instance, promiscuous and especially misdirected drone strikes may create more enemies than they kill — the potential for attack against America is higher and the need for preemption (which differs from preventive war) is greater. Enemies planning attacks must be incapacitated, whether killed, captured, or debilitated.
So far ISIL’s fighters act more like an irregular military than a terrorist group. In fact, the organization offers social services and religious education, more characteristic of a traditional government. ISIL’s break with al‐Qaeda reflected not only its brutality, but also the latter’s focus on the “far enemy,” that is, the U.S. In contrast, ISIL wanted to become something akin to a “real country,” which means it has less incentive to strike the U.S., since doing so would risk its geopolitical gains.
Of course, ISIL’s character is not immutable. Other Islamic groups, including al‐Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have called for reconciliation. Moreover, ISIL has threatened the U.S. So far, however, these rants appear to be empty boasting, likely intended to deter American involvement. The group has no evident reach beyond the Mideast.
And ISIL will have trouble maintaining its gains. Although the group, with a small but disciplined military force, has grabbed most of Sunni‐dominated Anbar Province, the radicals lack the resources necessary to conquer Iraq or even take Baghdad. The slide toward sectarian strife has strengthened popular Shia resistance. Moreover, the organization’s Iraq success has depended on support of Baathist loyalists and tribal leaders, who are most interested in ending arbitrary arrests and killings, gaining a fairer distribution of national spoils, and winning regional autonomy. Today some Sunnis complain that Maliki is worse that Saddam Hussein.
Few of them appear interested in returning to the 7th century. Groups such as the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq, Ansar al‐Islam, and Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order agree with ISIL on what they are against, not what they are for.
Finally, the last caliphate collapsed a century ago. Sunni extremism is a dubious basis for erasing more traditional political identities and creating a stable nation state in the 21st century. Once ISIL governs territory, it risks going from liberator to oppressor like the Taliban. Indeed, prior radical control — and consequent brutal jihadist behavior — in Iraq helped spark the Sunni Awaking. Clashes between ISIL and other Sunnis already have occurred and some Sunni tribes have assisted the Iraqi army.
U.S. military action almost certainly would result in more costs than benefits. As we’ve seen elsewhere, it’s easier for Americans to get in than get out of wars. The administration has sent Special Forces and Apache helicopters, and is contemplating “targeted, precise military action,” presumably air and drone strikes. Some observers have called for confronting not just ISIL, but also the Baghdad government to force it to broaden its support and demobilize Shiite militias, and Tehran, to limit the latter’s influence and compel the withdrawal of any military units.
However, Washington should have learned the limits of military power, especially when imposed from afar with little public support for what amounts to international social engineering. The more the U.S. attempts to do, the less likely it will do it well. The most serious problem today is that the Iraqi state lacks credibility and will, and the Iraqi military lacks leadership and commitment. These America cannot provide.
Simply inserting military advisers is risky. A classified Pentagon report concluded that only half of Iraq’s army units are capable enough to warrant support. Many also likely were infiltrated by ISIL and other extremists, making U.S. personnel vulnerable to attack, rather like in Afghanistan, with the spate of “green on blue” attacks.
Another possibility is drone strikes against ISIL’s leadership, but such a campaign would require accurate intelligence and targeting, which could not be entrusted to sectarian government forces. Moreover, killing the leaders of ISIL’s earlier incarnations did not break the group. Even more, today ISIL is too big to decapitate.
Airpower has become the preferred panacea to achieve any number of objectives. But ISIL has mixed guerilla with conventional tactics, making it a difficult target. The allies employed some 25,000 strikes on behalf of highly‐motivated opposition forces in Libya and the latter still took several months to triumph in a desert‐oriented campaign. Air attacks might help stop further ISIL advances, but would have limited effectiveness in urban warfare and could not liberate captured cities. Without clear objectives, and objectives achievable by the means chosen, the administration would face pressure to escalate.
Worse, intervening militarily without separating ISIL from other Sunni groups would create another body of enemies. Targeting Sunni areas almost inevitably would mean killing people once allied with Washington against al‐Qaeda — as part of the “Sunni awakening” which was the key to the success of the Bush “surge.” The U.S. would face additional blowback.
Washington loses by giving a blank check to Baghdad or attempting to transform Baghdad. Next to ISIL’s Abu Bakr al‐Baghdadi, the man most responsible for the ongoing debacle is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al‐Maliki. The latter has misgoverned, exacerbated sectarian tensions, and weakened his nation’s governing institutions. Both corruption and repression are rife. Despite security forces numbering a million men, Baghdad has lost control of much of the country. Supporting his government would reward counterproductive behavior which has helped bring his country to near ruin.
The administration long has been pushing Maliki to be more inclusive but such efforts failed in the past. So Washington also has been pushing for his ouster. A long line of politicians would like to replace him, but Iraqis are unlikely to act under American pressure. And even if the effort was successful, his replacement might not be much better. A desire for power tops that for reconciliation among leading Shiites. And Washington would be tied to “its man,” like Maliki, for good or ill.
Moreover, unconditionally backing Baghdad risks foreclosing potential solutions, including some form of federalism or even partition. The Iraqi Humpty Dumpty has fallen off of the wall. The Kurds are moving toward a vote over independence. Sunnis have more in common with their co‐religionists across the border in Syria than with Baghdad’s Shiites. The mainstream Sunnis’ willingness to back ISIL demonstrates the depth of their alienation from Baghdad.
The Sykes‐Picot Agreement was outdated when it was forged nearly a century ago. The U.S. and other interested parties, including Jordan, Israel, Turkey, and Iran, should talk informally about options to defuse the potential sectarian explosion. All reasonable possibilities should be considered.
Tying America to a Shia‐dominated government would prove particularly dangerous if Washington intervened militarily in a sectarian war. As noted earlier, ISIL has succeeded because it has won support from former Baathists and Sunni tribes. The U.S. might deplore their cooperation with ISIL today, but they have done so for reasons entirely unconnected to America. And they hold the key to defeating the group in Iraq.
Backing the Syrian resistance against Bashar al-Assad’s government risks further undermining the Iraqi government and American interests. The civil war in Syria obviously is a humanitarian tragedy, and resolving it would be one way to limit ISIL’s expansion opportunities. But that conflict long has been beyond Washington’s control. The claim that if only the U.S. had given the right measure of support to the right group at the right time a democratic government representing all Syrians would have emerged is dubious: little about American involvement in the Middle East suggests the necessary combination of foresight, skill, knowledge, and luck. In any case, the battle has moved well beyond.
Funding other groups would help contain ISIL only if they focused their efforts on fighting a civil war within a civil war. However, despite intermittent internecine conflict, the opposition’s raison d’etre remains overthrowing the Assad government. These groups won’t do Washington’s bidding if doing so undermines their ultimate objective.
The Damascus government is odious, but not as inimical to U.S. interests as an ISIL “caliphate.” Further weakening the Assad regime increases the opening for ISIL and other jihadist forces. Washington must set priorities. The overthrow of Assad is desirable in theory but, like the ouster of Hussein, may yield unexpectedly bloody consequences in practice.
ISIL is more a problem for America’s friends than for America. Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S. observed that “it is difficult for us to decline offers from other countries that share our perceived danger.” He hoped to press Washington to act to preclude Baghdad’s reliance on other states, such as Iran and Russia. However, the U.S. should encourage other regional powers to act.
Islamic extremism most directly threatens countries in the region. These states, overwhelmingly Muslim other than Israel and Lebanon, possess greater credibility in confronting ISIL. These nations, with the most at stake, should organize against the extremists.
Iraq must convince the group’s Sunni allies that they will get more by cooperating with a reformed government in Baghdad than in reconstructing an ancient caliphate. The outcome may not be precisely to Washington’s liking, but it wouldn’t likely be so even with more direct American intervention.
Hussein’s loss always was going to be Iran’s gain. Under these circumstances, it would be better to have Iran rather than America deeply involved in a burgeoning sectarian conflict. Rather than verbalize its unease and thus demonstrate its impotence, or engage in high level talks and ratify Iran’s role, the Obama administration should quietly ensure that any U.S. actions do not clash with those taken by Tehran.
Turkey has facilitated the flow of extremists into Syria, but recent events, including ISIL’s rise, have tempered Ankara’s enthusiasm for overthrowing the Assad regime. Moreover, Turkey has significant military capabilities and borders both Iraq and Syria.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have been funding and arming extremist opposition forces in Syria. Aid to radical groups such as ISIL is counterproductive both to America and, ultimately, these nations — which are looking to Washington for their defense.
Other countries, including Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon, have an interest in rolling back ISIL’s gains. They all have different capabilities, and the implications of their involvement vary dramatically. However, Washington should encourage them to take action according to their interests and abilities.
U.S. options are limited. ISIL is a bad actor, but not one warranting a direct American military response. Recent experience in the region and beyond demonstrates why war should be a last resort. Indeed, ISIL has grown out of past U.S. policy mistakes. Washington cannot afford to be stampeded into another unnecessary and counterproductive war.
(Adapted from testimony delivered before a joint hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittees on the Middle East and North Africa and Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade on July 15.)