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Best Defense

To defeat ISIL, deny it sanctuary and territory — using a Mideast ground force. Also, give up democratizing the region.

ISIL is now the leader of an insurgency in the Muslim world long in the making.



By Richard H. Kohn
Best Defense guest columnist

ISIL is now the leader of an insurgency in the Muslim world long in the making. The proven way to defeat insurgencies is first to deny them a sanctuary, and second, to offer the population of a country experiencing insurgency some viable alternative to the indigenous regime. Both efforts are difficult and time-consuming, so we must act with urgency. 

Defeating ISIL will require denying it control of territory in Syria and Iraq, and outside aid from elsewhere. This cannot be done by western ground forces lest those give credibility to the charge of “crusading” and increase the attractiveness of jihad to disaffected or radicalized youth all over the Muslim world. An international force of Middle Eastern soldiers, backed by western air power, logistics, financing, training, and military advice must be assembled more quickly to complement, and bring to closure, the campaign from the air already underway.

Such a campaign would succeed in establishing control over Syria and western Iraq. But then what? Wouldn’t success scatter ISIL’s adherents; wouldn’t some of its leadership escape? What governance would be put in place over this territory? What about the “sanctuaries” already in place in those countries where sleeper cells are planning attacks similar to those that have occurred in Paris, London, Madrid, Beirut, and elsewhere?

Mopping up the remnants of ISIL would take time, but chased from their present territory, these individuals and small groups would need time and space to mount attacks of the sophistication and planning exhibited in Paris. With the cooperation of police, intelligence, and counter-terrorism agencies across the globe, these jihadists would be hunted down, killed, or incarcerated.

Eliminating their safe places established outside the middle east would take more time, first because they are hidden and second because in the democracies, civil rights and liberties, and the rule of law, must continue to be respected. But scattered in various countries in the West and on other continents, with limited safe spaces to build bombs and train their killers, these groups would be vulnerable to local security forces.

The second challenge, more difficult than the fighting, would be to construct political settlements and governance in former sanctuaries. These would need to be attractive to the local populations and acceptable both to neighboring countries and outside powers currently in the fight.

Imposing or developing western style democratic governance upon these areas is destined to fail. Over a century of such efforts in the wake of European colonialism–in Latin America, Africa, and Asia–has enjoyed only limited and temporary success. The process of negotiation and compromise frequently produces weak, ineffective, and vulnerable governments that fail to meet the needs and aspirations of their populations. Most succumb to dictatorship or tyrants who sack their countries; their only saving grace for the West has been the containment of violence and migration outside their borders, and often that has been merely temporary, as much experience in Africa and the Caribbean has shown.

What is the role for the United States? Leadership. 

Washington and European partners should accelerate the diplomacy to end the Syrian civil war within the next six months. Besides offering douceurs to the various Syrian factions, the Gulf states, Iraq, Egypt, Russia, and Iran, the U.S. should set a deadline for a deal, if nothing else to pressure the participants to compromise and get on with it.

At the same time, the Obama administration should put together the international ground force to invade Syria and western Iraq, with American, European, Russian, and Iranian support, should diplomacy fail. Even if it succeeds, a force will be necessary to occupy the country, establish order, receive returning Syrian refugees, and oversee reconstruction while awaiting a new Syrian government.

That government must emerge from further and even more difficult diplomacy: a compromise among the groups within Syria acceptable to neighbors in the region and the contending outside powers including Russia and Iran. So, too, must diplomacy alter the behavior of the Baghdad government such that Sunni and Kurdish populations share power and see benefits.

The clock is ticking. ISIL’s appetite extends far beyond terror, which is only a strategy or tactic. ISIL’s reach, and dreams, already extend beyond the Middle East, perhaps even to a nuke, everyone’s nightmare. The root of the problem is an insurgency in the Muslim world fueled by a radical ideology that no one has figured out how to counter. The solution is neither another American invasion nor the imposition of western norms and values on Middle East.

The United States possesses neither the patience, resources, nor knowledge to democratize that region or the world. Even if it did, it would fail if it acted alone.

Richard H. Kohn, professor emeritus of history and peace, war, and defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was Chief of Air Force History for the USAF, 1981-1991.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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