The failure of the United States and its allies to form a comprehensive strategy in dealing with ISIS will only make the situation more difficult to deal with in the future.
We’re now half way through 2015 and ISIS has shown little sign of crumbling, despite an increased air campaign and the deployment of over 3,000 US troops in non-combat roles. Western efforts at confronting the upstart Islamic Caliphate have instead been defined by hesitation and indecisiveness.
ISIS is an issue for Britain and the West in general for a number of reasons, including the presence of terrorist intent towards the West, threat to the Persian Gulf oil rich states and also because of the moral obligation to support a region – the current state of which is arguably a result of our own actions.
However, as of yet our actions in confronting this ‘terrorist’ organisation – which has grown to encompass much of Iraq and Syria and begun establishing state infrastructure – has been ineffectual. An air campaign by the United States and its allies has failed to deliver a significant blow, drone strikes have killed more innocent people than ISIS affiliates and we are seeing a rise in the number of men and women joining ISIS from the West.
The ramifications of our failures to halt and defeat ISIS can also be tracked to long before 2015. For approximately the past 14 years the West has been locked in conflict in the Middle East and with each passing day ISIS keeps fighting, we are unable to wholly devote our attention and resources in a different direction. This is important as our generation is beginning to mature to a level where we will take the nations’ helm and we would be ill advised to take the reins of an unbroken horse.
Why are we so indecisive? Because we remember.
We remember being bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq. Wars in the Middle East have become extremely unpopular at home and we’re wary of the cost of such campaigns. As a result, these have bred a sense of urgency; it is becoming popular to describe strategy against ISIS as a ‘whack-a-mole’ mentality. We believe that if we kill enough people, drop enough bombs and let the locals clear up, we’ll be ‘home for Christmas’.
However, time and time again, from World War 1 to Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, we took a problem that would require many hard years to fix and tried to tape it up in a couple. Each time this ‘rush job’ approach ended up drawing the wars out longer and making them more costly. Despite this, our national leaders still refuse to commit to a lengthy programme and seem completely blind to the mistakes of the past.
So what is the solution? Is there a strategy that could work?
Well, yes there is. FM-324 is a US field manual dealing with counter insurgency, considering the US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq and compiling a manual of what they learned to be used by future officers. It makes clear the current US strategy of clear, hold and build. Where you clear an area, hold it and develop it in order to ensure its survival both as a part of the legitimate government and as a stable political, economic and social hub. However FM-324 also alludes to the duration of such a campaign, detailing the need to work with the host government and to facilitate positive reform in the nation even if such reform does not embrace your own objectives. In short, what the report outlines is a need for a long, thorough and fair strategy of stabilisation in the region, with the end goal being a strong, independent, secure state that can defend itself against insurgency.
Decorated four star General Stanley McChrystal also weighs in on a possible US strategy to defeat ISIS. He himself is very critical of the ‘whack-a-mole’ air and drone strikes and even of the significance of ISIS. He states that ISIS is a ‘symptom’ of a wider disease gripping the region; poverty, corruption, radicalism, interference from neighbouring states etc. McChrystal argues that the United States needs to take definitive steps in dealing with the wider issues in the middle east to prevent the conditions arising for the creation of a force like ISIS. And that ISIS is merely a symptom of the real problem. McChrystal’s approach then would also be a long term investment, involving cooperation on all levels of government, military, diplomatic, economic etc. In conjunction with a coalition of states all working towards a clearly defined end state. McChrystal follows the creed of famed Prussian General Moltke the Elder who believed a plan never survives first contact and thus focuses on flexibility.
Finally, as Jessica Lewis writes in her report on ISIS, The Islamic State: A Counter-Strategy for a Counter-State, that a strategy to defeat ISIS would need to look to achieve a number of goals. These goals include the undermining of both ISIS’ military dominance by defeating them in the field and their state by destroying essential infrastructure, empower their many enemies to commit a united effort against them and ensure the survival of the Iraqi government as head of a stable state. While Lewis reminds the reader that hers is not a strategy but considerations for a strategy, we see from her observations that a truly effective effort to stop ISIS will take cold, hard commitment. In all three examples of potential strategy the same theme recurs, a need for increased effort. The current ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy does nothing but massage egos.
With this in mind then, one feels bewildered at the lack of decisive judgement our governments are taking. There is a lot of apprehension around the whole affair and no one wants another Iraq war. However: look at it this way. Imagine Iraq as a window in your house; if it’s smashed you need to fix it, but if you put a bag over the hole it won’t hold for long and the problem will resurface again and again and the debris that blows through will build and build.