President Obama has promised to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State through a “comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy”. If the group is a terrorist organization like al-Qaeda in Yemen or Pakistan, then the president’s strategy might work. But if the Islamic State represents a larger insurgency against the governments in Baghdad and Damascus, then a strategy focused on airstrikes and a small non-combat advisory effort is bound to disappoint. In fact, it could prove counterproductive.
On one hand, the Islamic State seems like a terrorist group. The killing of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff have been widely interpreted as terrorist acts indicative of the group’s designs against western countries. The attacks were videotaped and clearly intended to attract publicity and incite widespread fear, particularly in Europe and the United States – classic terrorist methods. Islamic State militants have also targeted civilians in large numbers.
Like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State espouses an extreme and apocalyptic ideology that allows for little compromise or negotiation. The group’s leaders routinely speak of an inevitable war between Islamic forces and the west. These statements suggest the group cannot be reconciled, that leaders and core members must instead be captured or killed through raids and airstrikes.
On the other hand, the Islamic State has a record of taking and holding territory, controlling populations, even governing at the local level – just like a classic insurgent group. Its fighters swept into the Sunni areas of western Iraq on a wave of popular disaffection with the central government and have filled the vacuum left by the retreat of the Iraqi state and its security forces.
Islamic State cadres reportedly operate a sophisticated political machine and have sought to win the support of the tribes through a mix of inducements and intimidation. They appear to have succeeded in some areas and are consolidating their power in cities and towns under their control.
These are not the activities of a shadowy terrorist network, but a semi-overt insurgency bent on mobilizing the population against the government. Terrorist groups by most definitions do not seek control over territory and populations. They operate in secret, keep their distance from society and rarely depend on popular support for their survival.
The Islamic State is not a small, covert network of dedicated extremists, but a substantial fighting force with thousands of members. According to recent estimates by the CIA, the group could muster anywhere from 20,000 to 31,500 fighters. Terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda are not capable of that level of mobilization.
The administration’s counterterrorism strategy in the borderlands of Pakistan, focused on raids and drone strikes, proved effective in part because the target was a small network of individuals, many of them outsiders with little support among the population. It was possible to pick off members of al-Qaeda in Pakistan one by one until the network was nearly decimated.
An insurgency with tens of thousands of fighters poses an altogether different challenge. Air strikes will take their toll but will barely dent the organization’s fighting power. Over time, its members will learn to avoid moving in convoys and congregating in large numbers and will seek the cover of urban areas and civilian populations – making air strikes increasingly difficult and risky.
The last decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has yielded many hard-won lessons – chief among them that insurgencies cannot be defeated through military means alone, let alone from the air. It may be possible to eliminate elements of the group’s leadership, but past precedent suggests they will be quickly replaced and that the movement could become more fragmented, extreme, and difficult to reconcile. If airstrikes harm civilians, more of the population could side with the insurgency.
If the Islamic State is to be degraded and destroyed, the Obama administration will have to recognize that the group represents an insurgency of considerable magnitude and expand the current strategy to involve population-centric counterinsurgency, as well as targeted counterterrorism operations, and to address the political factors behind the Islamic State’s rise.
The Iraqi security forces will need to retake key cities, reestablish the writ of the government and reach out to the Sunni tribes to keep the peace. Given the dismal performance of Iraqi forces so far, it seems unlikely they could do it alone without some U.S. forces on the ground in a combat role.
If the American people are not willing to take that step, then containment and rollback may be the next best option. If the Islamic State does not pose an imminent threat to the United States, then it may be possible to contain it to parts of Iraq and Syria while setting the conditions for a negotiated solution.