What to Do About ISIS? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The Atlantic’s Jackie Lay / Institute for the Study of War

Nothing, a reader essentially says in response to the question posed by Uri:

It’s weird. EVERYTHING I read on the subject starts with the assumption that SOMETHING has to be done about ISIS, and that WE, America, must at least participate in that something. But why? ISIS is not a threat to the U.S., there’s no real compelling interest for U.S. in preserving the Iraqi regime—or even the Iraqi borders. There are regional actors that have a MUCH greater national interest in resisting or rolling up the Islamic State. Turkey, Saudi, Egypt, and Iran all have powerful militaries, and if they aren’t interested in fighting ISIS, I can see no reason why the U.S. should.  

Before we can have any kind of national conversation about WHAT to do about ISIS, we should first arrive at some kind of consensus about WHY we should do anything at all. Yes, they are a particularly bad bunch, but if that’s the basis for deciding who we should go to war against, we’re going to need a much bigger army.

Another reader provides a longer and more detailed response:

Realistically, there are no good options.

We can rule out some for being unworkable or non-viable from a political standpoint. A ground offensive seems to be a non-starter, even though it’s likely the best plan from a pure tactical standpoint. U.S. forces on the ground aren’t politically popular, and local regional forces are too weak or unwilling to make up the gap. If the Turkish Gov-PKK conflict hadn’t broken out, maybe things would be different, but what-ifs can’t save us here.

Likewise, containment is a non-starter. Not because it won’t work, because there is at least some chance it might, and intelligent people like Stephen Walt have argued for it as a viable policy. But because geopolitics makes it an impossible choice. The U.S. would lose too much influence and reputation in the region and internationally by standing aside from a group that is so clearly reviled and hated. Rwanda seems to have taught U.S. policymakers a lesson on trying to stand aside, and for better or worse the U.S. is the world hegemon and a major player in the Middle East.

So that leaves the unfortunate policy we’re already following: a slow effort to wear down the Islamic State while at the same time building up forces or finding proxies to win the ground battle. The U.S. has used YPG units [Syrian Kurdish forces], though they’re been dogged with controversy, and the ISF [Iraqi security forces] and to a lesser extent the Hashid al-Shaabi in Iraq [the militias also known as Popular Mobilization Forces].

None of these are long-term solutions, except the ISF, which I don’t think anyone expects to overpower sectarian militias in the near future. Working to force some sort of political restructuring and settlement in Iraq is a must, because without finding an answer to Sunni discontent, even those proxies won’t be enough. Only Anbar Sunnis can truly retake and hold Anbar. The balance between keeping Baghdad and Erbil happy and empowering Sunnis will be a fine one, and I’m not convinced we’re up to the task. But the path is fairly clear.

The problem with this strategy is that our efforts to degrade capabilities are limited to Iraq and Syria. Even if we make gains in that theatre, and some have been made, the Islamic State is spreading. Affiliate groups from the Sinai to Libya to Yemen have been having success, and maintaining at least some control over territory. So far, U.S. policymakers have been loathe to consider those areas, rationally fearing mission creep, but that risks dumping blood and treasure into Iraq or Syria, only to have them shift their base to another conflict zone. Is the Islamic State less dangerous in Libya than Iraq?

I’m not sure what the answer is for beating the Islamic State. It might well come down to some U.S. ground troops, at least within Iraq. The DoD considers this a long-term problem, and they’re right to do so. But the apparent lack of concern for other Islamic State affiliates suggests to me that the U.S. is getting close to suffering from a dangerously narrow view. The Islamic State is an insurgency linked to Sunni discontent in Iraq and Syria, but it is also an international terrorist group that can function outside the realm of a traditional insurgency. It worries me that U.S. policy seems to be contradicting itself, focusing on either one aspect or the other rather than the whole. We’re focused narrowly on the military aspect of conflict in Iraq and Syria, and to a lesser extent the political aspects, but not addressing the regional issues that underpin the problem.

The so-called Arab Spring failed. Or more broadly, the non-violent portion of it largely failed. This second phase, where most of the world is comfortable supporting Arab autocrats once again and using them to “fight terror,” is providing openings for the Islamic State to expand beyond Iraq and Syria. There won’t be any successful policy if we refuse to address that.