The Fight Against ISIS: A Few (Unorthodox) Points For Discussion

Source: Max Fischer and Zack Beauchamp, “14 Maps that Explain ISIS,” (25 September 2014)

This week has seen a flurry of commentary and discussion about ISIS and the proper way for France and the United States to respond to the attacks in Paris. I find myself repeating a similar set of points in many of these discussions, and thought it would be useful to put them all in one place.

1. Last month we witnessed the deadliest bombing in Turkey’s modern history. A week later, a Russian airliner fell out of the sky into the sands of the Sinai, destroyed by a bomb smuggled into its cargo space. A few weeks later two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a Shi’a neighborhood in Beirut. It was the most destructive terrorist attack the country has seen since the Lebanese civil war ended two decades ago. As with the urban siege in Paris, ISIS (or one of its affiliates) has been implicated in all of these attacks. Over the last two years, ISIS or its affiliates have also claimed responsibility for attacks in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Niger, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Belgium, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Cameroon, Yemen, Nigeria, and the United States. If we expand this to include all attacks inspired by Salafi-Jihadist ideology over the last five years the list of victims includes six NATO member states and all five permanent members of the U.N. security council.

There has not been a time since the Boxer Rebellion where the interests and concerns of so many global powers have been so closely aligned. A truly international coalition could easily be constructed to deal with the threat posed by ISIS.  It is interesting, therefore, to see the path Paris has chosen to build this coalition. France is embedded in three international institutions which it could call on to do this: NATO, the United Nations, and the European Union. President Hollande has decided to go with the last of these, and French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian invoked the mutual defense clause of the Treaty of the European Union in Brussels today. One cannot help but wonder if this decision was prompted by President Obama’s declaration that the attacks in Paris have not changed the United State’s decision making calculus, and that America does not need to change her strategy or basic approach to the conflict:

Thank you, Mr. President. One hundred and twenty-nine people were killed in Paris on Friday night. ISIL claimed responsibility for the massacre, sending the message that they could now target civilians all over the world. The equation has clearly changed. Isn’t it time for your strategy to change? 

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind what we have been doing. We have a military strategy that is putting enormous pressure on ISIL through airstrikes; that has put assistance and training on the ground with Iraqi forces; we’re now working with Syrian forces as well to squeeze ISIL, cut off their supply lines. We’ve been coordinating internationally to reduce their financing capabilities, the oil that they’re trying to ship outside. We are taking strikes against high-value targets — including, most recently, against the individual who was on the video executing civilians who had already been captured, as well as the head of ISIL in Libya. So it’s not just in Iraq and Syria. 

And so, on the military front, we are continuing to accelerate what we do…. So there will be an intensification of the strategy that we put forward, but the strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work. [1]

President Hollande plans to meet with both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin in the coming days to hammer out a joint strategy, so this may change. But at the time of this writing the greatest strategic repercussion of the Paris attacks have been the end of Russia’s pariah status in the halls of the West, with the minimization of America’s role in the region coming in at close second. The latter of these developments may prove temporary; the former is probably permanent.  

2. There has been some misunderstanding of ISIS and the exact threat it poses—both to the West and to the wider course of human civilization. Its physical capacity to plan and execute terrorist attacks in the West is far less important than its vanguard role in Salafi-Jihadist thought generally. An analogy with the revolutions of Mao and Che is an apt one; their success inspired a wave of communist insurgencies that left destruction and misery across the globe. ISIS is doing now what the first Communist revolutionaries did decades ago. ISIS’s mere existence is living proof that Salafi-Jihadist ideology is legitimate. Its exploits show that those who live and die for the Salafi-Jihadist cause can accomplish great and terrible deeds even when the powers of all the world are arrayed against them.  If it is not discredited in the minds of its believers we will see ISIS affiliate insurgencies and lone-wolf attacks for decades to come. As long as ISIS exists as a caliphate in control of physical territory these men and women will believe that history—and God—is on their side. Proving this notion to be the nonsense that it is is the most important thing military force could accomplish.

3. In a related point, the “ideas cannot be bombed” meme must be done away with. I recognize that we are engaged in an ideological contest. Like those who propagate this meme, I also recognize that the bombings, shootings, and stabbings that rock our world are not evidence of some new clash of civilizationsrather, they are the spill-over of a clash within a civilization. Salafi-Jihadists (and their occasional Deobandi-Jihadist counterparts) are doing all in their power to hijack Islamic civilization for their own ends. In some places they are succeeding. But the “ideas cannot be bombed” set seems to miss just how they are doing this. All of ISIS’s propaganda and internet savvy would mean nothing absent the strength of their arms and the length of their conquests. Salafi-Jihadism is an ideology spread by the sword.

An honest review of human history suggests that this is the rule, not the exception. Political ideologies disappear when they are discredited. You must search long and hard to find important political ideals that were discredited by rational argument or rhetorical slight alone. In truth, most ideas die when they fail to provide the boons they promise. Nothing can break an ideological system apart faster than the crushing weight of reality.

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom inspired millions with its millennial ideology. It was discredited when its capital was sacked by imperial forces and its leaders publicly killed. At the turn of the twentieth century China, Japan, and Korea saw vast changes in the shape of their society as the old Neo-Confucian world view that had upheld the old order was discredited by Western power. In Europe both communism and fascism rose to horrific heights because the classical liberalism was discredited by the horrors of the Great War and the heartache of the Great Depression that followed it. The fascist model did not survive the desolation of the premier fascist powers during the Second World War. The mission civilisatrice of the great colonial empires died as Britain and France lost control of their colonial domains. As a global revolutionary force communism withered away because the events that closed the 20th century left it discredited. If Americans do not worry about communist revolutionaries anymore it is because communism was so thoroughly discredited that there is no one left in the world who is willing to pick up arms in its name.

History suggests two models for the destruction of toxic ideologies: defeat and implosion. Communism, protected as it was by a thousand nuclear warheads pointed at American soil, died through implosion. It was a slow death. The ideology ruled for just under a century. In that time it killed tens of millions of people. Pity those who must endure an evil ideology too strong to be defeated. 

Defeat is the other way to kill a way of thought. It is the fastest way ideologies die, and in the long course of history, most common. This should be clear from the sketch above, but if we stretched our analysis back through time we find the same lesson repeated again and again over the centuries. One idea after another has been destroyed by steel, by bullet, and then by bomb.

The Middle East never had the cataclysmic encounter with modernity that convinced its elites to abandon old ideologies, as Northeast Asia, India, and Africa did. Salafi-Jihadism will not disappear unless it is just as forcefully discredited.

4. If your ideal strategy to defeat ISIS (or Salafi-Jihadism generally) involves Westerners, and especially Americans, engaging in a nuanced and culturally aware contest of narratives seamlessly coordinated across all branches of government, then your ideal strategy will fail.

 I recently wrote:

[This is] one of the central problems of policy punditry in 21st century America. It doesn’t pass the StupidProof (TM) test. 

Strategists and analysts often wish American policies were grounded in a sophisticated strategic vision implemented by a cadre of disinterested statesmen who have a nuanced understanding of the world and its doings. This is a fantasy. America is a democracy. Its statesmen must justify their actions to the masses on a set electoral time table. Top level bureaucrats are mostly chosen for partisan reasons. Important foreign policy decisions usually have more to do with value signalling on the domestic stage than a sober assessment of American interests on the international one. Leaders in both the executive and the legislative branches surround themselves with aids and hanger-ons with no special expertise or experience in foreign affairs. For basic economic reasons (which I have explained before), few Americans learn foreign languages. The American media do not care very much about foreign affairs, and the issues they do care about are given attention disproportionate to their import. These journalists, like almost all Americans, are appallingly ignorant of the history, religious traditions, and cultural quirks of foreign peoples. Policy must be filtered through layers of unresponsive bureaucracy, and the various agencies that implement these policies are poorly coordinated. To top if off, senior policy officials do not read books. 

To these enduring elements of American politics we must add the distinctive features of the present moment: a divided, hyper-partisan federal government so severely gridlocked that long term planning is not possible; falling budgets that sharply constrain American activity abroad; and a wild upsurge in populist fervor that focuses political attention inward and demands simplicity from all candidates who wish to win over the masses. 

We may lament these realities, but they are realities. They will not change in the short-term. Some may never change at all. Any successful strategy for America must be a strategy that can be created, sustained, and implemented in this system. No foreign policy too nuanced to be shouted by Donald Trump on the campaign trail or too complex to survive intact as it is passed from one layer of bureaucracy to another can succeed here. Any strategy dependent upon wise and measured leadership at the top or a committee of genius forecasters and planners directing policy from the middle will fail. In short, American policy must be StupidProof. If it cannot be implemented by the inept and uninformed, then it will not be implemented at all. [2]

In the context of this discussion, this means that American leaders and officials should stop declaring takfir. They do not and never will have the cultural knowledge or sectarian authority to engage in eschatological or doctrinal discussions with the Islamic world. None of them are ulama, and they look foolish when they try to play kingmaker among the uluma. 

A corollary to this is that if your preferred strategy to defeat ISIS requires right-wing elements in Europe or the United States to not say (or do) nationalistic, populist, anti-Islamic things, then your preferred strategy will fail.  These people are a part of us. They will be with us in the foreseeable future. Their voices will likely grow stronger in the coming days. This is simply a reality of the current policy environment that must be embraced or worked around.

5. ISIS is unique in that is has given up the advantages of the insurgent in favor of statehood. ISIS has a physical capital. It has a mechanized ground arm. It has an ideology that forces it to defend physical territory. If Western troops were to march on Dabiq tomorrow, they would be met by ISIS troops, or its claims would be fatally discredited. If NATO wanted to wage a set piece land campaign against ISIS, they could, and they would win. The most difficult aspect of such a campaign would be accepting Russian and Iranian help, knowing full well that any post ISIS world will substantially strengthen the position of both.

6. The struggle is what to do when the campaign is over. America and the West came out looking strong after the unparalleled success of the 2003 invasion. This image was tarnished during the insurgency that followed. Time and time again we have shown we are no good  at recasting Near Eastern societies in our image. The common argument that elections and power sharing agreements will be the key to a successful peace process is hard to take seriously in 2015, for we have seen democracy in both Iraq and Libya fall to pieces. The best possible solution I can imagine is political decentralization, letting the Alawites have their piece of Syria, the Kurds theirs (but which of the three fractious Kurdish groups will rule?), and so on. But this will not satisfy the Sunni tribes of Jazira. The most likely scenario is another Iraq style insurgency erupting upon whoever’s armed forces are left to uphold the peace. 

The problem with this is that the last Western power to defeat an Arab insurgency were the Italians back when the fascist tide was rising:

The bad news I have to share with you is that the last time any Western effort to strategically defeat an uprising in the Middle East, meaning crushing it and bringing some sort of lasting peace, was in the early 1930’s, over eighty years ago. The worse news is it was Fascist Italy pacifying its Libyan colony with horrifying force. 

Italy had occupied Libya since 1911-12, when it grabbed it from the ailing Ottoman Empire, and Rome periodically crushed small-scale rebellions there. By the late 1920’s, however, the Italians faced a serious uprising, led by the wily Sheikh Omar Mukhtar, a gifted rebel leader. To crush this revolt, Mussolini dispatched General Rodolfo Graziani with a mandate to exert Fascist control over Libya using all means necessary. This Graziani did, employing armor, artillery, and airplanes, some carrying chemical bombs, to kill everybody moving in rebel-held areas. Moreover, the Italians interned the entire civilian population in many places, some 100,000 people, mainly women and children, of whom forty percent died from disease and malnutrition. Mukhtar was captured by the Italians in 1931, his rebel army having been ground to pieces, and was executed in public. By the next year, Rome had pacified Libya, thanks to outreach to the defeated rebels, and the country was at peace, as it would remain until the Second World War. That many Libyans fought for Fascist Italy against the British in that war says something about Italian acumen in suppressing rebellions — although, needless to add, Graziani is considered a war criminal today, as he certainly was by our current standards. 

Simply put, no Western country today would approve the use of almost any of the methods that Italy applied in Libya. Indeed, as I’ve explained previously, even Putin’s Russia has cleaned up its act in this regard. No state in the 21st century that does not wish to be a global pariah can employ tactics that would actually be effective in suppressing the sorts of uprisings that are now endemic in Iraq, Syria, and Libya — and are likely spreading across the Middle East right now. Unless the fate of one’s country is directly at stake, killing lots of civilians and applying brute force on a massive scale is simply off the table. The sooner we accept this fact, the sooner we can have an honest and reality-based debate about what can be achieved by force of arms in the Middle East. [3]

7.  One possible solution is to organize a punitive expedition. Such an operation would be designed to avenge, destroy, dismantle, and leave desolate. We would go in, break things, and then leave when we were done. This is an old way of warfare. Its success is checkered. It is most viable when the avenging power has the means to return every so often and repeat the process. There is no guarantee an ISIS 2.0 wouldn’t form in the wreckage left behind when coalition forces withdraw (though surely in this case the Kurds and Alawites would be in a stronger position to defend against them), so that option would have to be left on the table if a punitive model were to work.

The other challenge with the punitive model is that it rubs deeply against the grain of modern thought. B.H. Lidell Hart’s claim that “the object in war is a better state of peace[3] has become a bedrock assumption of Western military theory, but it may not be true in this case. In this region there might not be a better state of peace at the end of tunnel, just a less explosive phase of anarchy. We have the power to destroy ISIS and permanently discredit the idea of new armed caliphate arising from the sands of Jazira. We don’t have the power—in the short term, at least—to bring peace and prosperity to the region. But is this really the end goal we should be aiming for? If the public can stomach making a mess of a country and leaving others to clean up the mess, that may be enough. This is essentially what we are doing with airstrikes now, though ineffectually. But somehow  once boots hit the ground the expectations are always greater, and the bar of success for land based operations is always higher. 

This might not bother some countries. France, Russia, and the other victims of ISIS attacks can plausibly claim that they bear no special responsibility for a post-ISIS Near East and thus have no interests there beyond vengeance and destruction. This is harder for the United States to claim, which was instrumental in creating the conditions where groups like ISIS could flourish in the first place.


[1] White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Press Conference by President Obama — Antalya, Turkey“,  (16 November 2015).

T. Greer, “Wanted: A Stupid Proof Strategy For America,” Scholar’s Stage (30 October 2015).

[3] John Schindler, “Why ISIS is Winning,” 20 Committee (14 November 2014).

[4] B.H. Lidell Hart, Strategy, 2nd. ed (New York: Meridian, 1991; or. ed. 1941), p. 336.

Leave a Reply to Bormington Cancel reply


I agree with some of this post, disagree with some. I'd point you to Walt's piece in the current Foreign Affairs ("ISIS as Revolutionary State") for a somewhat different perspective. Ali Khedery has a piece in the same section, advocating a decentralization/self-determination approach to Iraq and Syria, but I only skimmed it.

Air power doesn't work and as for land forces. Well, The US just showed that foreigners fail again and again. The Vietnamese defeated the US without winning any major battles.

IS knows how to do insurgency. They won in Iraq. Why would another ten years for the US army in Syria and Iraq bring success? This time IS has a much better organization and more trained manpower. Western powers have worked diligently at destroying the Syrian government so they are to weak to "occupied" IS's state. Ditto for the Baghdad government.

Also one has to think about the locals support for IS. Are the population living in fear or do they support IS as the best alternative they got.

Containment a la the Soviet Union looks like the winning policy.

@Anon– Quite simply, ISIS has given up the advantages of the insurgent for the benefits of statehood. Vietnam is not the best analogy here.

Yes, IS is a state, but if the core areas aka the Sunni Arab towns & villages are occupied by military forces not supported by the locals then you're back in insurgency mode. Or we can call it resistance movement. The methods are the same.

Road side bombs, ambushes, liquidation of informers & collaborators etc, etc. The same as happened under the Americans. This continues until the foreigners retreat and then you have the IS state back again.

If the locals Sunni Arabs support a IS state as their best option why should they give up on that state just because Kurds or Shiites are back in with troops.

That Poland was divided between Germany & the Soviet Union didn't stop the creation of a Polish resistance movement. IS has much better expertise for such fighting than the Poles did.

Ideas that are defeated in war often do not die. They just go away for a while. Radical Jihadism was defeated at Omdurman in 1898, but it has returned in various forms since then.

Also, Chinese millenarianism didn't die with Hong Xiuquan. His particular version did, but mass movements aimed towards a great transformation of Chinese society continued to occur. Arguably, one eventually succeeded in gaining power.