Best Defense

What I learned about destroying ISIS — from being kidnapped by its predecessors

Much of the discussion about the Islamic State (IS) and how to defeat it is a search for answers to the wrong questions. We need to start asking the right questions before we can find a long-term strategy that has a chance of success.


Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally appeared on November 20, 2014.

By Jill Carroll
Best Defense guest columnist

Much of the discussion about the Islamic State (IS) and how to defeat it is a search for answers to the wrong questions. We need to start asking the right questions before we can find a long-term strategy that has a chance of success.

The most important question to ask is: How can Sunni disenfranchisement and fear of persecution be addressed?

This must be the focus of any strategy to create long-term stability that will squeeze out violent extremists. Sunni disenfranchisement and sense of being persecuted or worse by Baghdad, Damascus, and Shiite militias is the primary reason local Sunnis support, or at least tolerate, the brutal, tyrannical Islamic State, aside from simply being terrified into submission.

A strategy to defeat the Islamic State needs to focus on the organization’s greatest strength, the acquiescence of the local population, not just their military and financial capabilities. There are plenty of fissures between the Islamic State and the local population that can be cleaved to break the group’s stranglehold. Fear of the Islamic State itself is the organization’s greatest vulnerability. In Iraq especially, there is a deep hatred for the various, brutal, incarnations of the Islamic State over the last 11 years.  In Syria, civilians have suffered horribly under the Islamic State and three years of war not to mention the numerous rebel groups that would like to see the IS destroyed, if only for their own power-hungry reasons.

A successful strategy must give local Sunnis more than the Islamic State has to offer in order to entice them to turn against the organization.

This leads to the next key question we should be asking: How can the area controlled by the Islamic State be wrested from the group and instead governed in a way that brings security, independence, and economic opportunities for its residents?

We need to look at the area controlled by the Islamic State as a whole, independent Sunni territory, not as fragments of two separate countries. Iraq and Syria will likely never again have their original borders and those living in the area under Islamic State control are very unlikely to agree to be ruled by Baghdad or Damascus again. A new, independent Sunni territory is not the problem. If anything, it’s a more natural demographic outgrowth than anything drawn up by the European powers after World War I. But the fact is it exists and it’s not likely going anywhere, so we need to develop a strategy starting with this new reality.

Our goal must be to destroy the Islamic State on the way to creating stability in the territory it used to control. Clinging to artificial borders that don’t stand a chance of being restored anyway is just getting in the way of finding a long-term solution. In order to prevent another extremist group or groups from simply rising up in the void left by the Islamic State we must identify and then support legitimate tribal or other local leaders in a rebellion against the Islamic State with the incentive being they would have a secure, independent territory at the end of the fighting. Those leaders, with greater legitimacy and constituencies after fighting the extremists and being the distribution points of aid and arms from the U.S. and any allies, could form the basis of a political entity to govern the area. What shape that entity would take — a regional government like Kurdistan, an independent nation, or maybe a federation of tribal powers under a loose national framework like the United Arab Emirates — will require a lot of study and dedication of resources.

But moving this new territory onto a more stable footing where Sunnis feel safe, independent and can provide for their families offers a long-term solution to violent extremism. Carrying out the answers to these questions would be an enormous undertaking. But keeping these overarching goals in mind ensures we develop a strategy that targets the Islamic State where it matters and is guided by the facts on the ground.

Jill Carroll lived and worked in the Middle East for five years, including in Iraq from 2003-2006, as a freelance reporter for various newspapers and as a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor. While working in Baghdad she was kidnapped and held hostage for 11 weeks by Sunni extremists who were part of a precursor group to the Islamic State led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola