Obama’s ISIL Speech Makes One Key Mistake

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Barrack Obama and his foreign policy and indeed there is a lot to like in the approach he lays out in this speech, in particular the focus on governmental reform in Baghdad as a vital counterpart to a military campaign.

However, I have one major issue with how Obama lays out his strategy, namely the passage where he refuses to name the enemy the ‘Islamic State’ (IS), preferring to retain the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL) moniker. Obama states:

ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognised by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organisation, pure and simple, and it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

My concern with his statement here is that in an attempt to de-legitimise the IS (as I shall refer to it herein) the Obama administration might be engaging in self-deception.

Certainly IS does not represent Islam. And certainly it would not fit the Montevideo criteria for statehood under international law — permanent population, defined territory, government and capacity to enter into relations with other states. However, whilst it makes extensive use of terror as a tool, the Islamic State is not a terrorist organisation. They fight largely as a conventional armed group, an entirely different mode of operating to a pure terrorist group like Al Qaeda. And far from slaughtering innocents at random, IS do in fact have a very clear political objective that they are working towards – the establishment of their Islamic Caliphate as an entrenched, functioning state. Failing to recognise that the Islamic State is a very different kind of armed actor to terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda and to not properly consider their political objectives carries the danger of making mistakes when combating them.

Similar concerns have already been outlined by Denis Dragovic of the University of Melbourne here. Dragovic correctly focuses on IS’ fundamental objective of establishing a new state in the Middle East and suggests treating them as a rogue state rather than a terror group. As such the strategy outlined by Dragovic focuses on preventing IS from building the three pillars of a functional state – legitimacy, public security and provision of basic needs by disrupting them. From a functional perspective, I believe that Dragovic is entirely correct in his approach — destroying IS on the battlefield is worthless without being able to win the battle of hearts and minds and disrupt the group’s attempts at state building.

However, I feel that Dragovic’s terminology should be fine tuned. The correct way to see IS is not as a terrorist organisation or a rogue state, but rather as an insurgency. Indeed, IS’ campaign is the quintessential insurgency — the use of violence by an armed group in a contest for political control over territory with an established national government. The correct model for analysing the behaviour of IS and formulating a response is David Kilcullen’s theory of competitive control, which states that, in irregular conflicts, the actor who can best establish a full spectrum normative system of control over the population will prevail in that area. The spectrum of control outlined by Kilcullen covers coercion, persuasion and administration, which are essentially the same as the three pillars of state building described by Dragovic.

While the approach Dragovic offers fits quite well with Kilcullen’s views on counter-insurgency, the terminology we use is important. I believe that Kilcullen’s language of ‘insurgency’ and ‘competitive control’ should be preferred to ‘rogue state’ and ‘weakening the civil pillars of IS’. I fear that calling IS a rogue state may encourage the approach adopted towards other rogue states in the past, that is, a hands off approach of air strikes and sanctions from afar. Though air strikes and choking off human and material flows are integral parts of fighting IS, an insurgency requires an entirely different approach. Furthermore, the term competitive control makes it explicit that it is not enough to disrupt the pillars of IS, but that allied local forces need to actively build their own system of normative control with which to win the population.

I understand that when analysing Obama’s speech we need to bear in mind the audience for which it was written. It is clearly intended for a domestic audience of the general American public, designed to garner domestic support for his policies rather than outline in detail specific military doctrine. However, it is important to be clear in our terminology, because it can affect how we approach a problem. IS is not a terrorist organisation nor a rogue state, it is an insurgency, and we should approach it as such.

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