Why you should care
Because its terrifying tentacles have spread around the world.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
How can we stop the Islamic State? In this three-part series, taken from excerpts of his testimony before the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee last month, former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin offers a strategic plan of attack. In yesterday’s installment, McLaughlin examined the scourge of the Islamic State. Today, he analyzes the tricky politics at stake — and suggests why we can’t end ISIL without a military strategy.
Any effort to formulate a counter-ISIL strategy has to begin with an appreciation of the realities that confront us.
1. Time matters.
But our timetables keep slipping. We were to have mounted a counteroffensive to retake Mosul in April. We are nowhere on that. The offensive to retake Ramadi stalls repeatedly. We were able to train only a fraction of the 5,000 fighters projected for Syria.
Reports are that ISIL gains about 1,000 new recruits per month, so the beast continues to grow while we ponder strategy. The longer they are in place, the deeper their roots and the more resigned people become to their rule. Every time a decision is put off because the downsides are too uninviting, the next decision only becomes harder. The long, inconclusive debates over creating a “no-fly” safe zone, for example, became vastly more complicated after Russia deployed aircraft into Syria.
2. Reconcile the conflicting interests of larger powers.
Any comprehensive settlement should reconcile the sometimes-conflicting interests of the larger powers.
U.S. interests are multiple and important. At a general level, whether ISIL is defeated will be seen by countries in the region and by our allies as a measure of U.S. leadership. More particularly, there can be little doubt that ISIL will try to mount attacks in the United States like the ones in Paris. We have crucial allies like Israel and Jordan who are directly exposed to ISIL’s danger. And while the U.S. is moving toward energy self-sufficiency, our closest Western allies are not and still depend on stability in the region to assure their energy needs.
Iranian interests center on assuring preeminent influence for Iran and for Shia brethren in an arc running from Tehran to Damascus and encompassing Iraq. At the top of Iran’s list is making sure that Syria’s future evolution permits Iran to support its proxy Hezbollah there and in neighboring Lebanon, as it has for decades.
Russian interests are to assure the existence of some government in Damascus that permits its naval base at Tartus and its ground foothold at Latakia. More broadly, Russia apparently seeks to regain a broadly influential role in the region as part of President Putin’s effort to reassert Russia as a great power globally. Russian diplomacy has been extraordinarily active in the Middle East in recent months, with nearly every major country in the region — ranging from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Jordan, Israel and Turkey — sending senior representatives to Moscow for consultations.
Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf countries, have seemed less seized by the ISIL problem and more focused on their concerns about expanding Iranian influence and its impact in Yemen. An exception is strong U.S. partner Jordan, which is probably most threatened by the ISIL push and most in need of assistance to cope with refugees and defense needs.
The one thing that all of these countries can probably agree on is the undesirability of having another completely collapsed state in the heart of the Middle East. So with Syria heading in that direction, there is probably that narrow room for compromise — something our diplomats can work with in the ongoing Vienna talks.
3. Meet the grievances of the Sunni populations.
Sunni populations make up about 70 percent of Syria and roughly 20 to 25 percent of Iraq. Their experience of exclusion and abuse is the basis of ISIL’s appeal, and progress will not be possible without arrangements that foster their inclusion.
In Iraq, the Shia-dominated government of Haider al-Abadi has put forth a reform program to meet some of these grievances, but it appears stalled and has met strong opposition. Unless this is fixed, the government will never gain the support of Sunnis now living in ISIL-dominated territory, nor will it be able to field security forces committed to battling for a government that all can support. In many ways, this is the heart of the problem we face.
Similarly in Syria, some settlement must be devised that addresses the grievances of Sunnis, who have long been oppressed by Assad’s minority-dominated Alawite regime. Their grievances are the most powerful magnet drawing ISIL adherents to the fight.
4. Recapture substantial territory from ISIL.
This means, particularly, major cities such as Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah, and Raqqa. Until that happens, ISIL will appear invulnerable, powerful and attractive to alienated youth seeking membership in a “caliphate.”
5. Air power will not be enough.
Air power is important: It has killed a fair number of ISIS fighters, has probably disrupted operations and logistics and may have degraded morale. But the Islamic State seem to replace fighters at the same rate they lose them. ISIL combines terrorist and conventional tactics and will have to be confronted on the ground by a more substantial ground force than has been in play up to now.
So what does all this imply about policy? It’s important to say that anything the U.S. settles on will take time — there is no quick fix. And everything I’m going to mention [in the next part] is easy to say but would be complex and difficult to carry out — and we will have to be agile enough to adjust quickly within an overall strategy when things go wrong, as they inevitably do in any war scenario.
A strategy requires knowing the goal you want to achieve and how you are going to get there. In this case, the strategic goal might be phrased as preserving the state system in the Middle East, even if in a different configuration, rolling back ISIL’s territorial gains and destroying it as an organization. It is often said that there is no military solution to the problem, but as important as is the political dimension, it is impossible to imagine a solution to the ISIL problem without a military component.
Check back tomorrow for Part III, McLaughlin’s prescription for a military strategy. For Part I of this series, which explains why ISIL is so dangerous, click here.