How can we stop the Islamic State?
Imagine yourself shaken awake, rushed off to a strategy meeting with your presidential candidate of choice, and told: “Come up with a plan for me to do something about ISIS!” What would you say?
What Hasn’t Worked
You’d need to start with a persuasive review of what hasn’t worked over the past 14-plus years. American actions against terrorism—the Islamic State being just the latest flavor—have flopped on a remarkable scale, yet remain remarkably attractive to our present crew of candidates. (Bernie Sanders might be the only exception, though he supports forming yet another coalition to defeat ISIS.)
Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.
Since the June 2014 start of Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run. Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize—this is a “long war.” The CIA estimates that the Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 begins.
How about the capture of cities then? Well, the U.S. and its partners have already gone a few rounds when it comes to taking cities. After all, U.S. troops claimed Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, in 2003, only to see the American-trained Iraqi army lose it to ISIS in May 2015, and U.S-trained Iraqi special operations troops backed by U.S. air power retake it (in almost completely destroyed condition) as 2015 ended. As one pundit put it, the destruction and the cost of rebuilding make Ramadi “a victory in the worst possible sense.” Yet the battle cry in Washington and Baghdad remains “On to Mosul!”
Similar “successes” have regularly been invoked when it came to ridding the world of evil tyrants, whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, only to see years of blowback follow. Same for terrorist masterminds, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as minor-minds (Jihadi John in Syria), only to see others pop up and terror outfits spread. The sum of all this activity, 14-plus years of it, has been ever more failed states and ungoverned spaces.
If your candidate needs a what-hasn’t-worked summary statement, it’s simple: everything.
How Dangerous Is Islamic Terrorism for Americans?
To any argument you make to your preferred presidential candidate about what did not “work,” you need to add a sober assessment of the real impact of terrorism on the United States in order to ask the question: Why exactly are we engaged in this war on this scale?
Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11. Argue about the number if you want. In fact, double or triple it and it still adds up to a tragic but undeniable drop in the bucket. To gain some perspective, pick your favorite comparison: number of Americans killed since 9/11 by guns (more than 400,000) or by drunk drivers in 2012 alone (more than 10,000).
And spare us the tired trope about how security measures at our airports and elsewhere have saved us from who knows how many attacks. A recent test by the Department of Homeland’s own Inspector General’s Office showed that 95 percent of contraband, including weapons and explosives, got through airport screening without being detected. Could it be that there just aren’t as many bad guys out there aiming to take down our country as candidates on the campaign trail would like to imagine?
Or take a look at the National Security Agency’s Fourth Amendment-smothering blanket surveillance. How’d that do against the Boston bombing or the attacks in San Bernardino? There’s no evidence it has ever uncovered a real terror plot against this country.
Islamic terrorism in the United States is less a serious danger than a carefully curated fear.
Introduce Your Candidate to the Real World
You should have your candidate’s attention by now. Time to remind him or her that Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.
So start advising your candidate that a proper response to the Islamic State has to be proportional to the real threat. After all, we have fire departments always on call, but they don’t ride around spraying water on homes 24/7 out of “an abundance of caution.”
We Have to Do Something
So here’s what you might suggest that your candidate do, because you know that s/he will demand to “do something.”
Start by suggesting that, as a society, we take a deep look at ourselves, our leaders, and our media, and stop fanning everyone’s flames. It’s time, among other things, to stop harassing and discriminating against our own Muslim population, only to stand by slack-jawed as a few of them become radicalized and Washington then blames Twitter. As president, you need to opt out of all this, and dissuade others from buying into it.
As for the Islamic State itself, it can’t survive, never mind fight, without funds. So candidate, it’s time to man/woman up, and go after the real sources of funding.
As long as the U.S. insists on flying air attack sorties (and your candidate may unfortunately need to do so to cover his/her right flank), direct them far more intensely than at present against one of ISIS’s main sources of cash: oil exports. Blow up trucks moving oil. Blow up wellheads in ISIS-dominated areas. Finding targets is not hard. The Russians released reconnaissance photos showing what they claimed were 12,000 trucks loaded with smuggled oil, backed up near the Turkish border.
But remind your candidate that this would not be an expansion of the air war or a shifting from one bombing campaign to a new one. It would be a short-term move, with a defined end point of shutting down the flow of oil. It would only be one part of a far larger effort to shut down ISIS’s sources of funds.
Next, use whatever diplomatic and economic pressure is available to make it clear to whomever in Turkey that it’s time to stop facilitating the flow of that ISIS oil onto the black market. Then wield that same diplomatic and economic pressure to force buyers to stop purchasing it. Some reports suggest that Israel, cut off from most Arab sources of oil, has become a major buyer of ISIS’s supplies. If so, step on some allied toes. C’mon, someone is buying all that black-market black gold.
The same should go for Turkey’s behavior toward ISIS. That would extend from its determination to fight Kurdish forces fighting ISIS to the way it’s allowed jihadis to enter Syria through its territory to the way it’s funneled arms to various extreme Islamic groups in that country. Engage Turkey’s fellow NATO members. Let them do some of the heavy lifting. They have a dog in this fight, too.
And speaking of stepping on allied toes, make it clear to the Saudis and other Sunni Persian Gulf states that they must stop sending money to ISIS. Yes, we’re told that this flow of “donations” comes from private citizens, not the Saudi government or those of its neighbors. Even so, they should be capable of exerting pressure to close the valve. Forget a “no-fly zone” over northern Syria — another fruitless “solution” to the problem of the Islamic State that various presidential candidates are now plugging — and use the international banking system to create a no-flow zone.
You may not be able to stop every buck from reaching ISIS, but most of it will do in a situation where every dollar counts.
Your candidate will obviously then ask you, “What else? There must be more we can do, mustn’t there?”
To this, your answer should be blunt: Get out. Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.
In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.
This is history talking to us.
That Darn History Thing
Sometimes things change visibly at a specific moment: December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, or the morning of September 11, 2001. Sometimes the change is harder to pinpoint, like the start of the social upheaval that, in the U.S., came to be known as “the Sixties.”
In the Middle East after World War I, representatives of the victorious British and French drew up national boundaries without regard for ethnic, sectarian, religious, tribal, resource, or other realities. Their goal was to divvy up the defeated Ottoman Empire. Later, as their imperial systems collapsed, Washington moved in (though rejecting outright colonies for empire by proxy). Secular dictatorships were imposed on the region and supported by the West past their due dates. Any urge toward popular self-government was undermined or destroyed, as with the coup against elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, or the way the Obama administration manipulated the Arab Spring in Egypt, leading to the displacement of a democratically chosen government by a military coup in 2013.
In this larger context, the Islamic State is only a symptom, not the disease. Washington’s problem has been its desire to preserve a collapsing nation-state system at the heart of the Middle East. The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq certainly sped up the process in a particularly disastrous fashion. Twelve years later, there can’t be any question that the tide has turned in the Middle East — forever.
It’s time for the U.S. to stand back and let local actors deal with the present situation. ISIS’s threat to us is actually minimal. Its threat to those in the region is another matter entirely. Without Washington further roiling the situation, it’s a movement whose limits will quickly enough become apparent.
The war with ISIS is, in fact, a struggle of ideas, anti-western and anti-imperialist, suffused with religious feeling. You can’t bomb an idea or a religion away. Whatever Washington may want, much of the Middle East is heading toward non-secular governments, and toward the destruction of the monarchies and the military thugs still trying to preserve updated versions of the post-World War I system. In the process, borders, already dissolving, will sooner or later be redrawn in ways that reflect how people on the ground actually see themselves.
There is little use in questioning whether this is the right or wrong thing because there is little Washington can do to stop it. However, as we should have learned in these last 14 years, there is much it can do to make things far worse than they ever needed to be. The grim question today is simply how long this painful process takes and how high a cost it extracts. To take former President George W. Bush’s phrase and twist it a bit, you’re either with the flow of history or against it.
Initially, Washington’s military withdrawal from the heart of the Middle East will undoubtedly further upset the current precarious balances of power in the region. New vacuums will develop and unsavory characters will rush in. But the U.S. has a long history of either working pragmatically with less than charming figures (think: the Shah of Iran, Anwar Sadat, or Saddam Hussein before he became an enemy) or isolating them. Iran, currently the up-and-coming power in the area absent the United States, will no doubt benefit, but its reentry into the global system is equally inevitable.
And the oil will keep flowing; it has to. The countries of the Middle East have only one mighty export and need to import nearly everything else. You can’t eat oil, so you must sell it, and a large percentage of that oil is already sold to the highest bidder on world markets.
It’s true that, even in the wake of an American withdrawal, the Islamic State might still try to launch Paris-style attacks or encourage San Bernardino-style rampages because, from a recruitment and propaganda point of view, it’s advantageous to have the U.S. and the former colonial powers as your number one enemies. This was something Osama bin Laden realized early on vis-à-vis Washington. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in drawing the U.S. deeply into the quagmire and tricking Washington into doing much of his work for him. But the dangers of such attacks remain limited and can be lived with. As a nation, we survived World War II, decades of potential nuclear annihilation, and scores of threats larger than ISIS. It’s disingenuous to believe terrorism is a greater threat to our survival.
And here’s a simple reality to explain to your candidate: we can’t defend everything, not without losing everything in the process. We can try to lock down airports and federal buildings, but there is no way, nor should there be, to secure every San Bernardino holiday party, every school, and every bus stop. We should, in fact, be ashamed to be such a fear-based society here in the home of the brave. Today, sadly enough, the most salient example of American exceptionalism is being the world’s most scared country. Only in that sense could it be said that the terrorists are “winning” in America.
At this point, your candidate will undoubtedly say: “Wait! Won’t these ideas be hard to sell to the American people? Won’t our allies object?”
And the reply to that, at least for a candidate not convinced that more of the same is the only way to go, might be: “After more than 14 years of the wrong answers and the disasters that followed, do you have anything better to suggest?”
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.