The president is about to present a strategy for destroying the Islamic State. Too bad it can't be done.
- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
In a national television address on Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama will address the American people and lay out what the White House is touting as a muscular strategy for "degrading and ultimately destroying" the Islamic State, which has captured vast swaths of Iraq and publicly beheaded two American journalists. One problem: That will be literally impossible to do.
The United States has spent more than a decade trying to eliminate al Qaeda, but despite decimating the group, its fugitive leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remains alive and the group’s offshoots operate in Mali, Yemen, Somalia, and a growing list of other countries. Israel has spent decades battling Hezbollah and Hamas, but the groups remain capable of launching large-scale combat operations like this past summer’s Gaza war. Destroying an organization means eradicating it for good, as the Allied powers did to the Nazi party in Germany during World War II, said Christopher Harmer, a former U.S. Navy officer and an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. "If you use the word ‘destroy,’ you’re talking about a comprehensive military and political victory," Harmer said. "And if the mission is to destroy [the Islamic State], what we’re doing now is wholly inadequate."
Destroying the Islamic State, by this definition, would require eradicating or neutralizing its tens of thousands of fighters, kicking them out of the territories that IS holds in Iraq, and depriving the group of its base of operations in Syria, where Obama’s own military advisers have said the fight must turn in order to halt the Islamic State’s advances. The fact that the group has recruited hundreds of fighters with Western passports, as well as its massive stockpile of cash and access to oil revenue, also make it particularly resilient.
The president’s choice of words when he talks about fighting the Islamic State is crucial because it will shape the future of the U.S. military’s intervention in Iraq, which has to date consisted of more than 150 airstrikes carried out in coordination Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces. The strikes have managed to pick off handfuls of Islamic State vehicles — and a steady stream of press releases from U.S. Central Command documents those victories down to the number of Humvees and pickup trucks bombed by the high-tech American warplanes. But the United States hasn’t said how many Islamic State fighters have been killed, and the campaign so far appears not to have made a significant dent in the organization’s ability to move freely in Iraq and Syria or hold onto the major cities it now controls in both countries. As soon as the Islamic State is knocked back in one area, it pops up in another, as it has in recent days at a dam in Haditha, where U.S. planes have once again been bombing the militants. The United States began bombing on Sunday, Sept. 7, to prevent Islamic State fighters from taking control of the dam, which provides fresh water to millions of Iraqis and is the second-largest source of hydroelectric power in Iraq.
Truly destroying the Islamic State would require a major commitment of combat ground forces, but Obama has already said that they won’t come from the United States. So right out of the gate, any strategy based on eliminating the group is hamstrung by the lack of a key ingredient. But destroying the Islamic State would also require a political reconciliation in Iraq to break the group’s alliance with Sunni tribes and Baathists and ideally turn them against the Islamic State. And it arguably requires a regional effort to counter the roots of religious extremism and prevent other militant groups, such as al-Nusra Front, from receiving money, recruiting, and spreading their ideology in the region and in the West.
"It would take an actual strategy to address questions of governance in parts of the world where Islamic extremists now flourish, because you can’t beat something with nothing," said Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute. "You can kill a lot of people, but if all you leave in their place is chaos, then they will come back."
Asked to clarify what the president meant by "destroying" the Islamic State, a White House spokesperson referred to earlier remarks in which Obama said the United States would "degrade" the group’s capabilities and reduce the amount of territory it controls. The administration has been struggling with describing how big a threat the Islamic State actually is, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calling it as sophisticated and dangerous as al Qaeda was before the 9/11 attacks, and Matt Olsen, the country’s top counterterrorism official, saying it’s not that strong and doesn’t pose an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland.
Even if a combined military-political campaign were successful against the Islamic State, history shows that destroying fundamentalist organizations and terrorist networks is exceptionally difficult. Although Obama claims that the United States has "systematically dismantled" al Qaeda in the tribal regions of Pakistan, counterterrorism experts debate whether that’s true, pointing to the fact that Zawahiri is still alive and giving direction to fighters, as well as forming new al Qaeda affiliates, most recently in India. And nearly 13 years after the 9/11 attacks, a sustained military campaign against the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan has failed to destroy the organization. Israel, for its part, has been unable to destroy Hamas and Hezbollah despite the country’s physical proximity to the decades-old militant groups and its ability to deploy one of the most formidable military and intelligence forces on the planet to the fight.
The lesson is clear: Terrorist networks are persistent, and they return to their favored targets again and again. For instance, senior intelligence officials recently said in a briefing with reporters that the al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula poses a serious and growing threat to the U.S. homeland because of its expertise in making bombs using nonmetallic explosives, which make them easier to smuggle onto commercial airliners. The group, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was responsible for a pair of near misses, including an attempt to bomb a commercial airliner over Detroit in 2009 and a plot the following year to hide explosives in printer cartridges.
Perhaps recognizing that his goals may be unachievable, Obama has appeared to ratchet down his rhetoric and lower expectations in the past few days, and he is leaning on other countries to help shoulder the burden of fighting the Islamic State. Speaking at the NATO summit in Wales last week, Obama said, "There’s great conviction that we have to act, as part of the international community, to degrade and ultimately destroy [the Islamic State]." But then in an interview with Chuck Todd of Meet the Press, which aired on Sunday, the word "destroy" was absent from the president’s remarks. "We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We’re going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we’re going to defeat ’em," Obama said.
But even Obama’s top aides acknowledges that an Islamic State defeat won’t be completed on this president’s watch. "It’s going to take time, and it will probably go beyond even this administration to get to the point of defeat," Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken told CNN last week.
If destroying the Islamic State isn’t in the cards, then what about "defeating" it? That’s a narrower and potentially more manageable goal, but it’s still highly ambitious and likely impossible to carry out successfully.
The United States routed al Qaeda in Iraq before withdrawing troops in 2011 — a senior intelligence official said the group was once down to less than 10 percent of its peak strength — but Harmer said the United States didn’t destroy the ideological foundations of the group or ensure that the new government in Iraq, under the leadership of Nouri Al-Maliki, would create a credible and inclusive role for Iraq’s Sunnis. Although the victory against al Qaeda in Iraq was still considerable and hard-won, it required a level of force that the United States is nowhere close to using now, including a large number of combat forces on the ground, the deployment of multiple teams of elite commandos charged with hunting and killing individual militants, airstrikes, and expansive intelligence-gathering efforts from CIA and National Security Agency personnel on the ground in Iraq and thousands more focusing on the country from inside the United States. With crises raging in multiple parts of the world, Obama has no plans to commit remotely as many military and intelligence resources to the new fight.
On one score, Obama appears to be under no illusions: Any fight against the Islamic State will require significant numbers of ground forces from the Iraqi military, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the powerful tribal militias that dot the Sunni heartland of Iraq. "We can support [the Iraqi military] from the air, but ultimately we’re going to need a strong ground game, and we’re also going to need the Sunni tribes in many of these areas to recognize that their future is not with the kind of fanaticism that ISIL represents so that they start taking the fight to ISIL as well," Obama said in Wales last week, using one of the Islamic State’s several acronyms.
Translation: This won’t be the United States’ fight alone. White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday, Sept. 8, "Ultimately we need to get into a position where the United States is not solely responsible for dealing with these kinds of emerging threats.… We want to be able to work closely with partners around the globe, partners who have better knowledge of the local politics, who have better knowledge of the local terrain, who in some cases can prevent some of these situations from becoming so urgent and so severe."
Secretary of State John Kerry, who in August tweeted, "ISIL must be destroyed/will be crushed," has been trying to recruit Middle Eastern countries to contribute forces to the campaign in Iraq. But the size of that contribution remains to be seen. Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters Monday, "Each nation will contribute what it can. We are willing to accept coalition support in whatever form it comes."
But so far, that hasn’t translated into boots on the ground, which will be essential to fighting the Islamic State, regardless of whether the intended goal is its defeat or its destruction.
Gordon Lubold and Kate Brannen contributed reporting.