The Islamic State’s Phase-Four Failure

The Islamic State is learning that it's easier to take ground than it is to hold it. And it's giving the U.S. an opening to change the course of the region.


Since late last year, evidence has been mounting that the Islamic State has reached a point of diminishing returns in controlling the territories it has seized and exploited. Despite a year of military successes, it’s losing popular support. The reasons for this should be all too familiar to those who followed the United States’ military-led adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan — it’s easier to campaign than govern, as the saying goes. And the complexity and scope of post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction — “phase four” in U.S. military parlance — is proving a far greater challenge for the Islamic State than perhaps was originally anticipated. And for the United States and its partners, that could spell an opportunity to not only beat back terrorist insurgencies, but prevent new, even deadlier ones from following in their footsteps.

In many areas where it is claiming a caliphate, for example, the Islamic State (IS) is on the defensive. On April 1, it was ousted from the city of Tikrit by Iraqi security forces. In northeast Syria, Kurdish forces supported by U.S. airstrikes pushed it out of Kobani and are advancing on Raqqa. In a watershed moment in Middle East regional security, Saudi forces are at the forefront of a coalition of at least 10 countries to purge Yemen of Houthi, al Qaeda, and Islamic State insurgents, and perhaps restore order to a country that has had little to no effective governance and civil society.

The March attacks in Tunisia and Yemen claimed by the Islamic State, and its corresponding social media campaign to project a picture of ubiquitous expansion appear to be compensating for signs that the organization may be fraying from within, as Liz Sly, covering IS for the Washington Post, reported.

More than military misfortune, the Islamic State’s recent setbacks come from the collision of their utopian state-building exercises with the pragmatic realities of managing diverse communities. “We’re seeing basically a failure of the central tenet of ISIS ideology, which is to unify people of different origins under the caliphate,” Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told Sly. “This is not working on the ground. It is making them less effective in governing and less effective in military operations.”

The ultimate, if not proximate, cause for this “culminating point” (to wax Clausewitzian) is in the inability to deliver basic public services and the failure to promote a more inclusive sense of civil society — the same sociopolitical and socioeconomic vulnerabilities the extremists exploited to begin with. As Jim Sisco, president of ENODO Global, wrote for Foreign Policy in January, “ISIS was able to immediately fill a void created by the ongoing civil war in Syria and a Shiite dominated Iraq Government that neglected the Sunni tribes.” In doing so, it could “play upon the population’s sympathies” and their disaffection with — in Iraq, at least — a government and army put together under U.S. sponsorship.

But a shallow strategy of winning hearts and minds, as seen before, goes as far as it does deep. By November last year, regional opinion of the Islamic State had already cratered — eight of 10 respondents held a negative view of the Islamic State in a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington. But the same poll, which surveyed 5,100 people in seven countries, also revealed the “Arab Street’s” indiscriminate suspicions of the “hidden hand” of foreign involvement there, including that of the United States. The Islamic State, one should remember, is a foreign franchise more than it is a homegrown one. And it’s caught in its own version of the phase-four time warp.

The seeds of popular discontent are often sown by the invaders themselves. Whether for good or for ill, efforts to replace or rebuild capacity at these critical local levels can reflect the absence of forethought, as in the case of the United States in Iraq, or the presence of malice. “As the jihadists swept through northeastern Syria,” U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) Senior Fellow Robin Wright recalled in the New Yorker at the beginning of December last year, “they seized fire trucks, garbage trucks, ambulances, generators, water tanks, and rescue equipment that had been provided to local councils. The Islamic State’s takeover also put an end to U.S. stipends to pay for local schoolteachers.”

By the end of the year, according to Sly’s reporting, prices for basic goods soared and food and medicine became scarce. In Raqqa, she noted, “water and electricity are available for no more than three or four hours a day, garbage piles up uncollected, and the city’s poor scavenge for scraps on streets crowded with sellers hawking anything they can find.” Much of this has owed to stringent enforcement of prayer hours by IS’s Hesbah religious police, shutting down shops, prohibiting repairs to damaged infrastructure or other needed service delivery.

Rarely has anyone won a war with the population against them. As (retired) Army General Eric Shinseki warned before the war in Iraq: It’s one thing to take the ground; it’s another to hold it. Much as the Germans were in Russia in World War II, IS fighters were first hailed as liberators and not occupiers. But when their true nature manifested in their draconian behavior toward anyone not fitting their narrow notions of collective identity, the locals saw what had come next was worse than what preceded it.

The phase-four fates of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom were due more to the sins of omission than of commission. The U.S. government, in its haste to do in months what takes years, threw billions at hearts-and-minds boondoggles and into ministries yielding corruption, roads to nowhere, and teacher-less schools, among other counterproductive outcomes. The vast waste has led to the current conventional wisdom that development, coded as “nation-building,” doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t, if you don’t do it right.

Part of the problem, as I’ve seen in the Balkans, Iraq, and Africa, is that as the violence breaks out, local professionals and technocrats essential to public services — as well as key civil society leaders — are among the first to flee. But they are not among the first to return, if they ever do. Their stand-ins tend to be a combination of incompetent, criminalized, or corrupted local aspirants, soldiers whose primary job is not public services administration, or foreign civilians who may have the right skills but often for the wrong job and place.

What should be patently obvious by now is that, especially in the struggles of the 21st century, the people are more elemental than governments or armies. And yet U.S. foreign and military assistance remains overwhelmingly programmed and sourced for the first two parts of Clausewitz’s “remarkable trinity,” the military and the government, being more obsessed with national than human security. The United States remains hardly better positioned to address this reality primarily because it has been running the wrong way along the learning curve of peace and security.

Still, the United States is right to play a standoffish, indirect role in military responses to violent extremism. It should do likewise to address the drivers of conflict and instability — but more mindfully as well as seriously.

For starters, it should better manage expectations. As former State Department special advisor on Syria, Frederic C. Hof, told Wright, there is “no magic bullet, and there is no fairy dust” to fix things quickly. Cultural context and playing the long game are paramount. The Western model of individual rights and citizenship in a nation-state does not readily apply. For Arabs, the family is the fundamental unit of identity. Then come clans and tribes. While national identity is “in the public psyche,” a Stratfor analysis read late last year, there’s still a long way to go.

Besides, nations are built from the ground up more than the top down. Just look at America.

Part of the United States fighting extremism in the region means introducing a new dynamic: U.S.-assisted development efforts should look to build peace rather than nations. To correct the nation-building naysayers, the best way to improve governance and civil society is through the bottom-up process of peacebuilding, not top-down state-building. Although it takes much longer and is more uncertain, the costs are far lower and the potential payoffs far greater.

In looking at how the United States might do this, Lebanon might offer a better interim model of governance and civil society to encourage in the fragile and failing parts of the Middle East, rather than federal republics. There, warlords have become national politicians, and government and society barely function to maintain balance among factions, including (rather than excluding) a dormant insurgency in the form of Hezbollah (which, ironically, did a very good phase-four job after the last war there). Lebanon is no Shangri-La, but its relative standard of living, public services performance, and inter-sectarian social and political comity compare well to any other country in the region.

A rule to remember here is that it’s not about us as much as it’s about them. In discussions with U.N. Refugee Agency professionals during a recent trip to Beirut, they told me while it’s important to make sure they are funded, it’s even more important that they render assistance as much as possible by, with, and through legitimate local power structures, as unsavory as some may seem, rather than through parallel pipelines of aid, with the aim of empowering those local pillars.

Their point reminded me of T.E. Lawrence: “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are there to help them, not win it for them.”

In addition to dialing up diplomacy and development, the Obama administration could work more closely with organizations more adept at building peace such as USIP and the Alliance for Peacebuilding, (where I am a senior fellow), instead of nations to channel efforts more appropriately. The Pentagon, in turn, should be sending many more civil affairs advisors to help Saudi-led coalition forces (if they go into Yemen) as well as African partners do a better job at phase four than was done in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially to learn the difficult tasks of transition management from war to peace and from military to civilian control.

Whoever gets to the gaps in governance and civil society “furstest with the mostest,” to paraphrase Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest, will be the true winners in the epic struggles of identity now taking place in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. The current weakening of extremism and the efforts of those closer to them to take them on presents a strategic opportunity for the United States — and more importantly for the slowly emerging nation-states in those regions — to avoid the next phase-four time warp.

If the United States and its partners in these regions do not seize this moment, the consequences of failure from the last decade will pale in comparison to those that could come in the next.


Christopher Holshek, a retired U.S. Army civil affairs colonel, is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and author of Travels with Harley: Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity.