Can Anyone Actually Do Anything About ISIS?

A Matter letter series between Foreign Affairs deputy managing editor Justin Vogt and managing editor of NOW Hanin Ghaddar

Dear Hanin,

It seems to me that, in trying to figure out what to do about ISIS, we first have to figure out which ISIS we’re discussing.

Perhaps we’re talking about the revolutionary, theocratic/thugocratic proto-state that has seized territory in predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria and has established a self-styled “caliphate” through brutal violence, extortion, slavery, and systematized rape, while also providing financial, logistical, and ideological support to various affiliates — “provinces” of the so-called Islamic State — throughout the Muslim world.

Or maybe we’re referring to an international terrorist organization that in recent months has apparently orchestrated mass-casualty attacks on civilians in Egypt, Lebanon, France, Turkey, and Indonesia.

Or we could have in mind an extremist religious movement that relies on social media to inspire Muslims to kill and maim unbelievers wherever they can, especially in the West, in order to help foment a civilizational struggle that will culminate in an apocalyptic war. (That seems to be the role that ISIS played in the lives of the husband and wife who carried out a terrorist attack in California last December.)

Of course, ISIS is all three of those things. But each of those incarnations poses distinct challenges, and trying address any one of the group’s three facets might actually make it harder to confront the other two.

You could opt to rely mostly on military force, focusing on the fight against the ISIS proto-state on its home turf. But that risks killing the patient to cure the disease, by causing scores of civilian deaths and obliterating major population centers. Indeed, military victories against ISIS have so far proved somewhat pyrrhic. With Western assistance, Iraqi forces have “retaken” a number of cities that had been under ISIS control, including Ramadi. But in every case, the places in question were reduced to rubble in the fighting. (“Homes?” scoffed Jameel, an Iraqi counterterrorism office, when asked by a New York Times reporter how long he thought it would be until Ramadi residents would be able to return to their homes. “There are no homes.”) And if ISIS feels its grip on territory slipping, it might try to shift the momentum by launching more attacks on “soft” targets overseas.

So you could focus on preventing such strikes by stepping up the kind of counterterrorism measures that have become commonplace since the 9/11 attacks in 2001: heightened scrutiny of Muslims, increased surveillance of everyone, covert detentions and interrogations of terrorism suspects. But that might only lend credence to the image of repressive Western powers at war with Islam, which ISIS uses to recruit followers.

So you could prioritize the fight against ISIS’ online propaganda and recruitment. But that might wind up being a waste of time and money, with Western intelligence agencies playing an endless game of Twitter whack-a-mole with hundreds of jihadist wannabes while the most dangerous operatives plot real-life violence.

Still, success against ISIS will require combating the group in all its guises. That will mean doing as much as possible to harm the group without crossing into counterproductivity: to avoid doing “stupid shit,” as U.S. President Barack Obama has put it. That’s the guiding idea behind the Obama administration’s policies towards ISIS (or ISIL, as Obama refers to the group), which grow out of an approach to national security that the White House has dubbed “strategic patience.”

Don’t fall into the terrorist trap. Don’t minimize the suffering ISIS has caused, but don’t exaggerate the threat it poses, either. Basically: don’t overreact.

Obama articulated this view with impressive clarity in his State of the Union address last month. “Over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into [ISIL’s] hands,” he said. “Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages — they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That is the story ISIL wants to tell. That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.”

To my ears, that was one of the wisest remarks about terrorism that any American president has ever made. It pained me to hear how little applause it garnered.

To put Obama’s idea of a limited, level-headed, patient fight against ISIS, the United States has carried out a campaign of airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, tried to rally a coalition to join that effort, attempted to train local forces to take on ISIS, and sent in a small contingent of special-operations forces to conduct raids to capture or kill high-level ISIS leaders. Since the U.S.-led campaign began in earnest last year, ISIS has lost some ground and hasn’t made up for it with new conquests. It has struggled to govern some of the places it controls and has suffered a bit in terms of direct recruitment, as it has become harder for would-be fighters to travel to ISIS territory. But the group hardly seems at risk of being destroyed or defeated.

So, although strategic patience sounds like a smart approach, it raises a question: What exactly is it that we’re waiting for so patiently? Where’s the part where ISIS withers away? Where’s the part where we win?

Obama is wagering that, over time, the various local factions and outside powers that have power and influence in the region will arrive at a political settlement to the Syrian civil war and a solution to the sectarian polarization of Iraq, both of which contributed to the rise of ISIS. That, Obama hopes, will allow for a coordinated fight against ISIS that will leave in place credible authorities who will be able to govern the places that ISIS currently holds and will prove powerful enough to prevent the group from returning. Meanwhile, Obama and his counterparts in other Western countries are counting on their law-enforcement and intelligence agencies to keep their “homelands” safe from ISIS-directed plots and self-starter attacks, perhaps reassured by the fact that such incidents are quite rare considering how easy they are to carry out. (Small comfort, of course, to those who have lost loved ones or who have been injured by such attacks — but true nonetheless.)

Yet it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that, on the contrary, the two main blocs that oppose ISIS but also oppose one another — on one side Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, and on the other side the Western powers, Turkey, the Arab monarchies, the Kurds, and relatively moderate Syrian Sunni rebels that want to remove Assad from power— will not be able to come to an agreement about who should rule in Iraq and Syria and how they should rule. And it’s also perfectly reasonable to assume that ISIS will direct or inspire more mass-casualty attacks far from its base of operations. In other words, a stalemate of sorts seems like a pretty plausible possibility.

The question then becomes: So, who will mess up first? Who will make the big mistake that will shift the equilibrium?

Whose shit will be the stupidest?

Listen to the wild rhetoric of the Republican presidential campaign in the United States and you might guess it will be the American-led side. Consider, for example, some of the ideas the campaign has produced for taking on the ISIS proto-state. “We will carpet bomb them into oblivion,” pledged one candidate, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who won the GOP’s Iowa caucuses earlier this month. “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out,” he added, apparently for humorous effect.

Or take the proposal of another leading Republican contender, Donald Trump, for how to combat ISIS’ international terrorism: “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” In other words, it’s gonna be a terrific clash of civilizations. Our civilizations are gonna clash so much, you’re not gonna believe it. The clash of civilizations is gonna be yooge.

There are aggressive alternatives to Obama’s approach that are less obnoxious than Cruz’s and Trump’s, but they are in some ways just as fantastical. For example, some have pushed for a full-fledged U.S.-led ground war against ISIS — as if the past 14 years had not provided ample evidence that the United States isn’t very good at invading, occupying, and transforming other countries. Others have called for a partition of Iraq and Syria that would give Sunnis their own state and thus an incentive to turn against ISIS — as if the solution to problems created in part by Western powers imposing arbitrary borders on the Middle East a century ago could be solved by Western powers imposing slightly less arbitrary borders today.

But I don’t believe that kind of magical thinking will triumph in the United States or elsewhere, even in the face of more provocations akin to the attacks in California and Paris, and even as viral demagoguery infects the American body politic. I think it’s ISIS that will ultimately screw up.

I take solace from the findings of Audrey Kurth Cronin, a genuine terrorism expert in a world full of phony ones. (I’ve written about Cronin’s work before and edited a piece she published in Foreign Affairs earlier this year.) In 2009, Cronin — a political scientist at George Mason University who used to teach strategy at the U.S. National War College — published an insightful book titled How Terrorism Ends, based on her exhaustive research into the fates of 457 terrorist organizations active since 1968, all over the world. Perhaps her most important findings were that only about five percent of terrorist groups actually achieved their goals and that their average lifespan was only about eight years. As it turns out, Cronin concludes, “killing civilians in terrorist attacks is not a promising means of achieving political ends.”

Cronin also found that terrorist groups have been remarkably good at defeating themselves. Unsurprisingly, it’s really difficult to run a secretive organization driven by extremist views and composed of members who revel in violence. (Would you want to be in charge of such a group?) And then there are the almost inevitable targeting errors that extremists make when they use terrorist tactics against something or someone too close to their own bases of support. ISIS has yet to make many such mistakes. The group has clearly learned from errors it made a decade ago, when it was known as al-Qaida in Iraq, and its brutal tactics and domineering style helped spark the so-called Sunni Awakening, during which tribal forces that had cooperated with (or submitted to) the group turned on it and partnered with the United States. But given ISIS’ voracious appetite for bloodshed and its apocalyptic zeal, it’s hard to imagine it will be able to sustain its self-discipline (such as it is) indefinitely.

And so, although Obama would never say this — and might not even agree with it — my sense is that the true intention of strategic patience is not to pave the way for some deus ex machina that would allow outside powers and rival militias to defeat ISIS, but rather to allow the group to defeat itself.

Many observers, especially Obama supporters, have frequently alluded to that prospect in recent months. But what would it actually look like for ISIS to “defeat itself?”

For ISIS the proto-state, I think it wouldn’t be quite an autodefeat; it would look more like an uprising against a tyrannical but erratic authority. I suspect that what will ultimately topple the ISIS proto-state will not be an international coalition of outside powers and proxy forces armed and trained by those powers, but rather a campaign of subversion and violent insurrection led by the people who now live in ISIS’ grip, who are most intimately familiar with the group’s brutality and who will be the first to know when the group has overreached. It might look something like the Sunni Awakening but with far less outside involvement or assistance.

I realize that scenario might be hard to imagine, given how ISIS rules and how powerless its subjects seem. But for me, it’s less hard to imagine than any of the other alternatives.

As for ISIS the terrorist organization and ISIS the social movement, I see no reason to assume the group will enjoy any more long-term success in those incarnations than did al-Qaida, which only ten years ago seemed like an unstoppable force. As Cronin’s book makes clear (and to paraphrase Lincoln), al-Qaida and groups like it have found out again and again that you can terrorize all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot terrorize all the people all the time. It just doesn’t work in the long run.

Still, I’m acutely aware that my views on this are shaped by the fact that I’m an American living in New York City, working for an American magazine, and spending a lot of time discussing these things with other Americans. So I’m always eager to hear how all this looks from other places, especially the Middle East.

How does what I’m saying strike you? What am I missing?

Best wishes,


Photograph via Getty Images.

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