Just over a year ago, the Islamic State was forcing itself into the spotlight by seizing towns like Mosul as the Iraqi army scattered into the wind at their approach. In a moment of unguarded honesty, President Obama admitted earlier this week that he still does not have a strategy to defeat the Islamic State. To critics, it was a scandalous confession of his incompetence, but the truth is that the Obama Administration has limited options and the Islamic State is a fluid organization demanding a fluid response.
In terms of military strategy, the Obama Administration’s airstrikes and limited engagement are the actions of a country taking on a support role. Recognizing the US is still recovering from the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, while the Ukraine Crisis and South China Sea Crisis present a far greater threat to America’s vital national security interests, this is an appropriate role.
The truth is that any endgame strategy against the Islamic State will depend on America’s allies, particularly America’s allies in the Middle East. Unfortunately, it has taken a year for those allies to take ownership of the threat to their own regional and national security. In many respects, they are just beginning to come together to battle the Islamic State and they need greater US leadership in all aspects of the anti-terrorism campaign.
Beyond the piecemeal military campaign against the Islamic State, the United States and others are leading the charge to tackle the terrorist group on different fronts. Frankly, no war is won solely by combat. There must also be an effort to cripple an enemy’s logistical and social support structure. Although this aspect of the war is unexciting and easily dismissed as a secondary concern, there must also be a noncombat strategy. The world may not yet even have this strategy, but progress has certainly been made and more can be done.
1. The Islamic State must be deprived of financial and material support. For its part, the US and its regional partners have been working hard to undermine the economy of the Islamic State by cracking down on illegal sales of oil and freezing assets. That said, far more can be done to deprive IS of the resources it needs to fund its military operations and govern the territory it seizes.
Groups like the Islamic State are clever and very skilled when it comes to tapping the economic pipeline of an informal economy. By better understanding, for example, how the Assad government and Iran fund themselves, even when burdened by crippling economic sanctions, the informal economy of the Islamic State can be better understood and addressed.
In many respects, the US likely needs to spend more time engaging Middle Eastern allies in order to better understand how the informal economies of the Middle East actually work as their workings are alien to Western financial experts. More must also be done to prevent the Islamic State from spending the money it amasses, including the "taxes" it collects from locals.
With that in mind, we do not necessarily have to crush the economy of the Islamic State, but we must slow it significantly more. Criminal organizations are businesses. Like all businesses, they can make money and still fail. The goal of financial warfare against the Islamic State must be to force the Islamic State into insolvency by impeding their finances and/or allowing them to over commit and over leverage their organization. Beyond that, how and where the Islamic State spends its money is probably more important.
2. Understanding the reasons why people are attracted to IS can help inhibit their recruitment efforts. Although efforts are being made to address the recruitment of Westerners into the Islamic State, it is difficult for Westerners to understand the mindset of the Islamic State and Middle Easterners. The Islamic State and globalized terrorism, for many, is seen a battle against tyranny, instead of a worse form of tyranny replacing the old.
For many, the Islamic State is seen as a romantic means of reliving the glory days of Islamic history, i.e. the same reason many are attracted to shows like Downton Abbey. Just as followers of people like Adolf Hitler sought to fight back against the oppression of those they identify with the most and give their lives meaning at a time when the Germans felt disempowered, the Islamic State plays on that same human desire.
Meanwhile, outsiders often view the violent reactions of Muslims to seemingly pretty grievances, such as an insult made against their religion, as a form of insanity. Indeed, the worldview of Middle Easterners is very different from that of most Westerners. Where Westerners tend to value individual rights and focus on how events affect them as individuals, the strong cultural/religious identity of Muslims means they tend to interpret global events through their cultural lens and respond to those events based on how they impact the cultural/communal aspects of their lives, i.e. their religion.
Looking at evangelical Christians in the United States, there is a similar dynamic where the individual impact is over shadowed by the impact on the community. Westerners see the world through the eyes of those living in a liberal democracy, i.e. governance that focuses on individual rights; whereas, the mindset of modern Middle Easterners is somewhere between what would have been common a hundred years or so ago and modern day thinking. A similar mentality in regards to violence can still be seen in the West. For example, hillbillies and gangs tend to represent a less civilized, less sheltered/secure element of the American society, so they tend to see violence as more acceptable, even neccessary.
Finally, there needs to be a greater effort to dissuade recruits from joining IS in places like Syria. In other to do that, the United States and its allies must reach out to those who understand the cultures and mindset. From there, Westerners and Middle Easterners must translate the thinking of the local populations into Western terms and Western thinking into Middle Eastern terms; otherwise, the ideals of peaceful coexistence can never be communicated.
3. Finally, there needs to be a far greater effort to undermine the loyalty and social cohesion of the Islamic State. In order to that, the United States and its allies need to offer some benefit and protection for those who wish to leave IS. The world must find the cracks in the Islamic State cult mentality then exploit them. Again, there needs to be cooperation between Westerners who have the ability to strategy on such topics and Middle Easterners who understand the cultures and have boots on the ground.
Clearly, there is no straightforward strategy for defeating the Islamic State while the military strategy continues to change as conditions on the ground dictate. There is, however, a very clear need to improve upon the economic and social engagement strategy needed to defeat the Islamic State.
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