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ISIL, Iraq and Syria: Good Governance is Much More Important than Military Action
It is crucial right now for pastors and laypersons to know Middle East history, Institutional design and maintenance is the key to preventing the resurgence of quasi-states, not military action.
By Zuri Linetsky
On September 10, 2014, President Obama announced a new strategy aimed at “degrading and destroying” ISIL (also known as ISIS and the Islamic State). Ideally, the United States should avoid fighting in Iraq and Syria. Now that that the U.S. has committed itself to bombing Iraq and Syria, however, ISIL and the threat it represents should be placed into a historical context that until now has only sporadically informed U.S. plans.
In 1994 the United States faced a similar Salafi Islamist non-state entity: the Afghan Taliban. (Salafism is a strict interpretation of Islamic theology, as laid out by the Qur’an and the Hadith, wherein life must adhere as closely as possible to the conditions that existed during the religion’s first three generations). ISIL, like the Taliban, is a militant Islamist reaction to failed governance. Examining American-Taliban history can help American leaders understand the threat posed by ISIL, the dangers of trying to defeat the movement outright, as well as the hazards of doing nothing.
The most prudent American course of action with regards to ISIL is to help Iraq address governance issues like economic development, sectarianism, and equal representation. The U.S. and its allies must work with local and regional actors such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to address internal Iraqi issues and provide military as well as diplomatic support. The United States should conduct direct military operations only when absolutely necessary.
ISIL and the Taliban are comparable in several ways. First, both are radical Sunni-Salafi groups; each organization established its own legal system based on strict interpretations of Islam that it used to pacify areas under its control. Second, both developed in failed states and during civil wars. Third, the ascendance of both organizations was violent, rapid, and shocking to the international community. Finally, both groups are primarily interested in acquiring specific territory rather that waging a global jihad, though leaders of both movements have publicly claimed to lead all Muslims.
The Taliban mobilized around Kandahar (south-west Afghanistan) in 1994 due to a breakdown of the state and in reaction to competing forms of poor governance. At the time, at least seven separate “warlord fiefdoms” governed portions of Afghanistan.
The Taliban gained support because it provided respite from the chaos of feuding warlords. The organization offered a brutal but enforceable code of justice and dispute resolution, as well as local political stability. In fact, upon capturing Kandahar, they set up tolls on roads, and patrolled highways to protect supply convoys from Pakistan. The Taliban’s declared aims were to restore peace to Afghanistan, disarm the population, enforce law based on Sharia and defend the Islamic Charter of Afghanistan.
Between 1994 and 1997 the Taliban fundamentally changed the nature of the Afghan state. They created a militant Salafi state that catered almost exclusively to the Sunni population of Afghanistan. In the process they built new governing institutions and created a new legal system based on Sharia law in order to suppress competing forms of governance within the population.
ISIL is also a radical Salafi-Islamist militant group. ISIL evolved out of Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which was founded in 2004 at the outset of the Iraqi insurgency. AQI gained initial support amongst the Sunni tribes of Iraq’s Anbar province, and ex-Ba’athist military personnel. AQI rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) after Zarqawi’s death in 2006.
Due to increasing Sunni tribal support for the U.S.-led state building efforts, and ISI’s extreme civilian victimization in response, the organization was a largely spent force by 2011 with as few as 1,000 fighters left. According to Joel Wig, by 2011 much of the ISI “leadership was dead or in prison [and the]… number of attacks it was able to carry out was way down.”
In January 2012 the new ISI leader, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, sent operatives into Syria to found Jabhat al-Nusra. According to Sarah Birke, al-Baghdadi aimed to create “a new transnational state ruled by sharia law” through violent means. With support from wealthy individuals in Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the popular perception that it was the most aggressive and effective Syrian rebel group, al-Nusra grew into a force of 6,000 to 10,000 men by November 2012.
Al-Baghdadi attempted to merge ISI and al-Nusra in 2013, but al-Nusra’s leader, Mohammed al-Jolani, refused. When al-Qaeda head Ayman Zawahiri ruled that the two groups should remain separate, al-Baghdadi rejected the ruling, rejected Zawahiri’s and al-Qaeda’s leadership, and coopted many al-Nusra fighters into the newly formed ISIL.
ISIL seized control of parts of Syria’s oil production, created a de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria and extended its control to Fallujah and Ramadi in early 2014. It subsequently captured Mosul, U.S.-made arms and vehicles, $429 million in cash from the Mosul central bank, the Mosul Dam and surrounded the cities of Kirkuk and Erbil. ISIL has since lost control of the Dam to Kurdish Peshmerga forces, which have also driven ISIL away from Erbil. The Peshmerga are also holding their ground inside Kirkuk against ISIL positions outside of the city.
Currently, ISIL controls one of Iraq’s largest oil refineries (in Baiji), in addition to other large oil fields. Estimates put ISIL’s strength at between 15,000 and 25,000 fighters, with a daily income of between one and four million dollars from black-market oil sales.
Most important, as Charles C. Caris and Samuel Reynolds have reported, “ISIS has built a holistic system of governance that includes religious, educational, judicial, security, humanitarian, and infrastructure projects.” ISIL generally builds courts when first entering an area, as these are the least foreign to the population, and after militarily consolidating an area, it moves towards stricter religious rule and education. Additionally, ISIL offers humanitarian aid, food-stuffs, as well as water and electricity repair (through its military successes it has acquired the necessary heavy equipment to fix water and power lines).
It is critical to note, however, that this new system of governance is specific to Iraq’s Sunni population. Non-Sunni Muslims, other ethno-religious groups, former government officials and uncooperative Sunnis, are threatened, coerced or killed in an effort to ensure their compliance with ISIL rule. By way of example, ISIL issued an ultimatum to Christians in Mosul: convert, pay a religious tax (jizya), or die. As a result non-Sunni ethnic and religious groups flee areas that have come under ISIL control or are threatened by ISIL.
Sunnis stay in ISIL controlled areas for a variety of reasons. They are scared of being killed by ISIL. But ISIL also seeks to meet compliant Sunnis’ needs in an Iraq that has largely ignored them. Sunnis view the Shi’a dominated Iraqi army with suspicion, and are wary of the Shi’a militias, as well as the American military forces that are helping the state fight ISIL.
In two years, a once spent al-Qaeda has transformed into a quasi-state entity that now governs an area in Syria and Iraq that is the size of Jordan (35,000 square miles). ISIL also sells oil internationally, collects taxes, and provides a system of courts. In short, ISIL is state building in areas where governance is lacking, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately the American approach to dealing with quasi-state entities is, at best, haphazard. After 1989, the U.S. followed Pakistani guidance on all issues relating to the Afghan civil war. Consequently, when Pakistan began to support the Taliban (due to its interest in safe access to Central Asian oil), so did the United States, albeit through Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
American policy towards the Taliban changed in 1997 and 1998. This policy change was a result of two factors: first, the threats that drugs, terrorism, and Islamic fundamentalism emanating from Afghanistan posed to Pakistan. Second, al-Qaeda, to whom the Taliban gave sanctuary, executed twin attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Sudan, in August of 1998.
Similarly, the U.S. failed repeatedly to identify a strategy for dealing with AQI. For several years after the outbreak of the 2004 revolt various tribes in Anbar attempted to work with the U.S. to defeat AQI, but the U.S. dismissed those attempts and did not have the capacity to help even when it acknowledged them. Not until 2007 did the U.S. make common cause with Anbar’s Sunni tribes.
When the U.S.-Sunni alliance in Anbar finally succeeded in rooting out al-Qaeda, however, the U.S. did not secure equal status for Sunnis in the state for which they had fought and died. Anbar Sunnis felt abandoned by both the U.S. and Nuri al-Maliki’s Iraq. Little was done to assist the population when ISIL began to regenerate and prey on this population after the U.S. pulled out of Iraq.
In both Afghanistan and Iraq, then, the U.S. has been unable to develop a coherent strategy for dealing with the quasi-state actors that emerge in failed states. As a consequence the U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001, and the areas under Taliban control are growing. Similarly, since 2003 the U.S. has been fighting in and bombing radical Islamists emanating from western Iraq.
Several factors hurt the American ability to deal with quasi-states. First, American intelligence agencies have never been adept at predicting future threats. In neither Central Asia nor Iraq/Syria does the U.S. have its own reliable human intelligence network. In Afghanistan the U.S. relied largely on Pakistan’s ISI for information.
In Iraq, the best intelligence was actually provided by the U.S. military—not by American intelligence agencies. When the U.S. pulled out of Iraq, much of the local military intelligence network evaporated. Local intelligence provided to the U.S. and the U.K. was ignored. These dual intelligence failures allowed ISIL to grow. It is not clear that these intelligence failures can be or have been remedied.
As well, military operations—such as air strikes—against quasi-state entities are largely ineffective. Traditional military operations, including missile strikes, U.S. special forces raids, and conventional NATO missions failed to eliminate the Taliban or al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, as a direct result of these military operations the Taliban and al-Qaeda reconstituted themselves as insurgent forces that still fight today. A renewed insurgency in Iraq, led by ISIL, is a potential byproduct of ongoing American military operations there.
Neither inaction nor American military action will ultimately destroy ISIL. U.S. airpower may succeed in eliminating ISIL’s heavy armaments and dispersing its forces, but will not eliminate the organization. A clear strategy focused on building Iraq’s capacity for good governance as well as diplomatic support for Iraq buoyed by U.S. military power is necessary to defeat ISIL.
Most critically the U.S. must continue supporting Iraq diplomatically. The U.S. must help build up Iraqi political, economic, and social institutions in order to facilitate good governance. Only functioning and representative institutions can compete with these quasi-state institutions.
There exists a nexus of tribes, clans, Islam, and institutions in Iraq. These structures have overlapped and intermingled with one another since the end of colonial rule in the region. The U.S. must work directly with regional actors that have direct experience with these institutional structures. It must find common ground with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey, among others, and help these actors find common ground with one another. Much as the U.S. did with the Soviet Union during World War II, it must work with erstwhile enemies for the greater good of eliminating ISIL, and through institutional design, ensure that ISIL does not return.
Empowering Iran is viewed in the West as an anathema to U.S. security. However, some measure of communication and coordination with Iran is a necessity. Iran has been working with the Iraqi military as well as Kurdish forces. Iran also has human intelligence and field experience inside Iraq, which is a vital military asset. Moreover, Iran has political and economic interests in Iraq that can help stabilize the state.
Working with Iran in this context may make other U.S.-Iranian interactions, such as discussing Iran’s nuclear program, easier. By working with Iran now, when Iran has a large interest at stake, other nonrelated cooperation may be easier in the future.
The Saudi interest in Iraq—preventing the rise of a threatening and militant Salafi Sunni Caliphate on its northern border (Saudi Arabia practices a different variant of Salafism)—is a spur to that nation to collaborate with Iran against ISIL. As well, the Saudis offer a counterbalance to Shi’a Iran’s influence in Iraq. Saudi backing could push Sunnis in Anbar province to abandon their support for ISIL in favor of a new inclusive government (as they did during the U.S. surge in Iraq in 2007) if they are guaranteed representation in the Iraqi state. Saudi involvement in reworking Iraqi institutions under the newly appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi could help make this happen.
Turkey also has a direct interest in eliminating ISIL is Iraq and Syria. The Syrian civil war has driven over 800,000 Syrian refugees into southwestern Turkey at a cost of over $3 billion since 2011. The conflict is also encroaching on Turkey’s southwestern borders.
However, fighting ISIL poses tough domestic political problems for Turkey. Members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)—an insurgent group that has been fighting against the state for 30 years—are joining the fight in increasing numbers. PKK participation in the fight against ISIL complicates peace talks between Turkey and the PKK, as PKK martial success may increase their negotiating demands. Thus, Turkey, while joining the U.S.-led coalition, has been reticent to take an active role in the anti-Assad and anti-IS fighting.
While the primary focus of the U.S. against ISIS should be rebuilding Iraqi governing institutions, the United States and its collation allies have also begun bombing ISIL and Khorasan strongholds in Syria. The bombing campaign creates a bizarre ad hoc community of interest between Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime and its opponents—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and the U.S.-led collation—against ISIL and other radical Islamist organizations in Syria.
The U.S. is not working directly with Assad or Iran, but there is at least some indirect communication among the three states. Iran’s tacit cooperation with the U.S.-led bombing campaign (and Saudi Arabia’s role in it) is indirectly evidence by the fact that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has not condemned or endorsed the bombing campaign.
The bombing campaign will likely show few results for some time, but it signals a critical point: the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others can cooperate on fighting ISIL. The initial cooperation on bombing Syria may therefore facilitate greater cooperation in the fight against ISIL in Iraq, and more importantly, in the critical task of reconfiguring Iraq’s governing institutions.
Finally, arming the Syrian rebels remains as perilous now as it was at the outset of the Syrian conflict. The U.S. simply does not have the necessary information to pick the “right” groups, if any exist. Moreover, it is unclear that arming the rebels will work, or what will happen if they win. Is a chaotic Syrian without Assad better than his stable and predictable yet repressive state? The U.S. cannot easily answer that question. Bombing and arming Syrian rebels while fighting in Iraq, all the while depending on opaque intelligence information about these groups, adds a level of complexity to an already chaotic military-strategic situation.
After 35 years of experience in dealing with quasi-states, it’s time for the U.S. to heed the lessons it should have learned. Institutional design and maintenance is the key to preventing the resurgence of quasi-states, not military action.
While military might may be helpful in the short-term, quasi-states have demonstrated an ability to adapt to military defeat. In order to root them out better options need to be offered to the population. Baghdad has remained safe from ISIL advances is because the Iraqi state is strongest there; similarly it took a yearlong siege for the Taliban to take Kabul in 1996.
Extending governance from the center of a state towards its periphery and making the state more inclusive, for Sunnis as well as Kurds is the only long-term answer to actually “destroying” the threat from the ISIL quasi-state. For this the U.S. requires local, regional, and international support. The best option for the U.S. in the current conflict is to guide international support, and only deploy military force when absolutely necessary.
Zuri Linetsky is a researcher at The Foundation for Middle East Peace. His primary interest is military strategy in civil wars and insurgencies in the Middle East. On Twitter: @ZuriLinetsky. This article appeared at The American Prospect.
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