Why the West Shies Away from Fighting Islamic State

The Islamists do not pose much of a threat to the West and should be defeated by other Muslims.

An American F-16 fighter jet takes off from Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, May 23, 2015 (USAF/Joseph Swafford)

After Friday’s deadly terrorist attacks in France, Kuwait and Tunisia, calls to step up the fight against the Islamic State militant group are likely to grow louder.

But absent the occasional lone-wolf attack, the group does not pose an organized threat to the West. Its territorial ambitions — which are unlike those of other Islamic terrorists — more directly menace Western allies in the Middle East.

Even if it was unclear if the group — which controls land in the east of Syria as well the west of Iraq — coordinated all three attacks, its call to jihad (holy war) and the one-year anniversary of its declaration of a caliphate could have inspired the various gunmen involved.

The Islamic State did claim responsibility for a suicide bombing in Kuwait that killed 27 and left more than two hundred Shia Muslims injured. But a shooting in a Tunisian resort town the same day and an attack on a gas factory in Lyon, France did not seem directly related.

The group’s military successes against the Iraqi government have inspired would-be jihadists in the West. In the last year alone, lone radicalized Muslims have staged attacks in Copenhagen, Ottawa and Sydney.

Some argue the West should do more to defeat the militants.

Michael Petrou criticized American president Barack Obama in Canada’s Maclean’s magazine for not believing that defeating the Islamic State is worth the investment and sacrifices involved.

His priority is striking a nuclear deal with Iran. Defeating Islamic State, he says, will take a long time and already his presidency is winding down. He inherited a war in Iraq he didn’t want. So will his successor.

According to The New York Times, American fighter jets carry out around fifteen strikes against the Islamic State per day. That compared to some 800 daily strikes during the 2003 Iraq War.

Planes often return to base without releasing their bombs because pilots cannot identify targets or aren’t given approval to hit them.

Other Western powers don’t carry out attacks in Syria at all because only the Iraqi government has given them to permission to operate in its airspace.

Former intelligence analyst and Naval War College professor John R. Schindler argues that the Islamic State is more dangerous than other militant Islamist organizations, like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, because it combines religious fervor with two elements that are unique to Iraq: Sunni sectarian resentment and the experience of former Saddam Hussein officers.

Many of the self-proclaimed caliphate’s commanders are veterans of the Iraqi military and intelligence services “who know their ground and know how to fight,” according to Schindler.

The group also feeds on Iraqi Sunnis’ dissatisfaction with the way they are governed. The former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was blatantly pro-Shia and purged Sunni officers and officials from the army and state during his eight years in power. The incumbent premier, also a Shia, has promised to do better but the central government in Baghdad is still dominated by members of his sect.

This is not to say that the Islamic State cannot be defeated by less fanatical American troops, writes Schindler. “They would meet the same end that the Japanese did on Okinawa in the spring of 1945.” But the longer the United States and their allies wait before fully committing to the war, the better it will get at conquering and perhaps even governing territory.

Allowing [Islamic State] to become a serious threat to order in the Middle East was foolish. Permitting them to grow into a serious fighting force whose combination of fanaticism and tactical ability can test the skills and resolve of Western militaries is a tragedy because it’s needless.

Aside from the question what the West could have done to “disallow” the Islamic State from undermining the Middle East’s state order — which was crumbling before the group ever came into being — Schindler seems to underestimate the region’s ability to arrest the Islamic State’s ascendancy.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven A. Cook cautions at the National Journal against the typical American inclination to see every problem in the Middle East as one it must solve. The struggle against the Islamic State, he argues, “is a political and theological fight that is largely beyond the United States.”

Washington has a responsibility to help its allies, but the stakes are so high for the local actors that US efforts to influence the trajectory of politics in the region are unlikely to be successful.

Moreover, while Petrou and Schindler are right that America has the capacity to defeat the Islamic State, they never convincingly argue that such an effort would be worth the risks.

Ryan Bohl argues at Geopolitics Made Super that it isn’t. America has the power to destroy the group, he writes, “but is using only measured amounts because the threat doesn’t warrant much more.”

If NATO began a total war on ISIS, it would collapse rapidly and disappear into an underground movement. But that wouldn’t be worth the costs; the only sure way to guarantee they wouldn’t return, or that they wouldn’t be replaced by something worse, would be a long-term, neocolonial occupation of their territory whereby the West would slowly set up the state institutions necessary to keep those kinds of forces at bay. Because the Islamic State has not captured a major city besides Mosul, and because it has yet to replicate its blitzkrieg from last summer, it’s clear that, for now, the cost-effective method of combating ISIS is combining the military strategy with the soft power one.

The Islamic State may be extremely dangerous in the short term but it is unlikely to be around for long.

Bohl points out that its seventh-century ideology marginalizes half the population (women) and values brutality and religious learning over creative thinking and compromise. These aren’t the qualities of a long-term state project.

The American Interest‘s Adam Garfinkle has similarly argued that the Islamic State represents the last hurrah of political Islam and will ultimately destroy itself.

This is the end. It can’t get any more radical, primitivist, delusional, nihilistic and self-destructive. When it crashes and burns, nearly every sentient Muslim will see clearly that Islam, in this distorted militarized form, is certainly not “the answer.”

There is little America can do to speed up the process. But there’s much it can do to stave off the reckoning by inadvertently discrediting modernizers and reformers who would gain little from being seen as puppets of the West.

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