The Coalition to Defeat ISIL Convened; the Airstrikes Will Continue Until Morale & Efficacy Improve

In the dozen high profile news stories last week, one you might have missed was the Coalition to Defeat ISIL convened for the first time in two years. Foreign affairs ministers of the 68 member nations arrived in DC to hear the US’ secret plan for winning against ISIL.

Imagine their surprise upon arrival to learn about the electronics ban from 10 Arab countries (including several Coalition members’ home countries; that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were airlifted by US forces behind enemy lines in Raqqa; and then realizing that there was no new plan.

The Trump administration laid out what is largely more of the same — an increase in the Obama administration’s original plan-

1. Launching systematic air strikes;

2. Increasing US support for local forces;

3. Deploying non-combat US special forces;

4. Cooperating on global counterterrorism efforts;

5. Providing humanitarian assistance to displaced civilians

If these seem a bit vague to you, it’s because they are.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered bafflingly incendiary remarks, more in keeping with a minister of war, than of state. In a roughly six page speech, he used the word “kill” ten times, “decimate” eight times and “destroy” eleven times, as in “this terrorist group must be decimated, must be completely killed. And what we have achieved in Iraq is that we forever can destroy and decimate this terrorist group by being allies.”

Tillerson spoke about our allies and the importance of unifying, and then criticized the Iraqi military for corruption. He went on to say, “we are not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction,” and in the very next sentence, said we should all be “equipping the war-torn communities to take the lead in rebuilding their institutions and returning to stability”. Tillerson ended the speech with “I call on everybody in this global coalition to continue the cooperation to decimate Daesh and not contain it — we are able to kill Daesh and destroy it in this final stage.”

But this is the problem with bombastic rhetoric and a “war on terror”; there is no clear HOW and you can’t destroy an idea or tactic. ISIL has ideas, and one tactic they employ is terrorism. A war is made of multiple strategies comprised of multiple tactics. And there must be a multitude of tactics- no movement historically, has ever succeeded without at least two catalysts. Simply stated, can anyone describe ISIL’s intended end goal and why they want it?

One of the least biased (and they all are) explanations came from CNN in 2015:

“ISIS makes no secret of its ultimate ambition:

1. A global caliphate secured through a global war.

2. “remaining and expanding” its existing hold over much of Iraq and Syria.

3. It aims to replace existing, man-made borders, to overcome what it sees as the Shiite “crescent” that has emerged across the Middle East,

4. to take its war — Islam’s war — to Europe and America, and ultimately to lead Muslims toward an apocalyptic battle against the “disbelievers.”

To begin with, a global caliphate is the objective and the global war (really terrorism in this case) is the tactic. But why do they want a caliphate? I’ve made the argument that legitimacy is based in sovereign territoriality. As a non-state actor, ISIL has no mechanism to engage diplomatically in the world- only states can do that, thus, they’ve tried to become a state. They learned from the PLO example, and over time, it is possible they would become more “state-like” and less violent, as the PLO. But with the accelerated rate of change, global war on ideas and technology, this seems less likely.

Again, if legitimacy and a voice can only be obtained through statehood, ISIL will continue to work towards a caliphate. If you recall, Iraq, Syria, and indeed much of the region was re-drawn between the 1920s and 1947 post-colonialism. The current boundaries were drawn irrespective of ethnicity, language, religion- a multitude of identity features. One could easily make the argument that that was unreasonable and ISIL is attempting to right a wrong. To the fourth bullet, there is obviously no reasonable discourse to be had. Whether this is true, or simply the same kind of bombastic rhetoric that helps align a group to a mission or ideology, much like Tillerson’s remarks, is unknowable.

My objective is not to rationalize ISIL’s intent or actions in any way, but to offer a framework of understanding so we can begin to ask the right questions. Doing so, is imperative to forming any kind of cogent strategy.

Thus far, we’ve inadequately adapted to a situation we don’t understand- namely the ideas of ISIL and the identity of ISIL supporters. To get around this fundamental lack of understanding, the coalition has deployed special forces, and while that may be closer to fighting like with like, and the Raqqa battle may be one of the most badass in recent history, it’s still wildly misguided. You cannot kill an idea, a belief, or an identity. Even attempting to, quite often backfires, further coalescing the out-group’s identity. Add insulting coalition allies, and war-mongering speeches with no tangible plan or alignment of strategies, and it’s safe to say they’d have been much better off not convening at all.

While there was “good news” from the convention- a fact sheet prepared by the State Department stating 22.2B USD spent to date, with entirely unprovable statistics on square kilometers recaptured from ISIL, it also completely avoids all mention of the humanitarian costs- as many as 1,000 civilians killed in Mosul alone since it was “liberated”. And yet ISIL still holds portions of Mosul.

Finally, if assume that all territory held by ISIL is regained by the Coalition, we assume we’ve won. We haven’t. ISIL simply goes back to being what it was before it declared and seized a caliphate- a highly independent, highly mobile, highly dangerous force of extreme non-state actors. In many ways, ISIL will be better off this way, without the constraints and responsibilities of a state to provide order, services, security, etc. It was only wanting to play by international rules of legitimacy through territorial sovereignty that the “Islamic State” formed. We’ll have no idea where the enemy is, who they are or when they’ll strike next. What we’ve defined as “success” is actually the ultimate hell.

I’d suggest we start asking the right questions.