What we keep forgetting about ISIS

The fight against ISIS has largely been discussed in terms of military strategy with the US led coalition being the centre point. In Iraq, the coalition continues to support on the ground troops with airstrikes and the provision of arms and training to the Iraqi army. In Syria the coalition’s role has been limited to airstrikes after the US abandoned it’s now defunct program of training “moderate” Syrian rebels.

Much of the analysis on the rise of ISIS has also been discussed in pure military terms. The capture of key junction cities on either side of the border, the use of intimidation as a means of establishing and maintaining control, and finally, the ability to sell oil and generate revenue in order to continue bolstering its military capabilities.

What has been left out of this conversation however, is how ISIS actually operates as a state. Be it taxing, imposing its own legal rulings, administration wings of the territories under its control, hospitals, schools and the list goes on and on.

The biggest reason as to why this continues to go unmentioned, lest for propaganda-esque conversations about whether the terrorist organization should be called ISIS or DAESH (which is nothing more but the same acronym put together in the Arabic language), is because any admittance of this notion might be seen as a claim of victory to the self-ascribed state.

This is not to say that a militarily focused approach is not the way to defeat ISIS. By far if any conversation is to be had about how a military intervention can defeat ISIS, that conversation should be about an increased military role for direct stakeholders. However, a military solution on its own fails to address how once defeated, ISIS will not return.

Lessons from Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan holds several parallels to what is happening on the ground now in Iraq. After an invasion, efforts are made to rebuild a government while also heavily investing in the country’s infrastructure. This might seem like a simplistic explanation but is nevertheless a relatively accurate synopsis of the events that unfold.

Of course putting a government together is not a simple task. There are multiple stakeholders, and competing interests revolving around who should be in power, why, and what a government should look like. This shifts the rebuilding conversation from how to best put together an institution that represents it people, to how to best satisfy those that assisted in the overthrow of the previously oppressive regime.

In the case of Afghanistan the removal of the Taliban gave rise to tribal competition, while as the removal of the Ba’th regime in Iraq created sectarian pressure. Neither of these bolster a supportive environments needed for the creation of a balanced democracy with a strong administrative capability or the re-establishment of a national army.

As such, as soon as the US pulled out its troops from Afghanistan, there was a resurgence in Taliban activity.

Rebuilding woes

What was most perplexing about this situation is that the US had also spent billions in rebuilding the Afghani infrastructure, roads, military bases, schools, and airports, to name a few. In essence the US thought it had provided the newly formed Afghani government with the tools it needs to exert its control. Except roads don’t benefit a population where the per capita GDP is at 633 USD, and a central government, as strong as it may be, simply cannot exert its control without a strong administrative wing to support it.

This meant that as soon as the military might of the US was removed, the Taliban was able to easily undermine the states authority in remote areas and re-establish itself as a coercive actor.

What now

The sudden growth of ISIS cannot be discussed in absence of acknowledging the weak administrative abilities of the government before it, irrespective of why these weaknesses existed in the first place. It is only in the presence of weak administration that an organization as brutal as ISIS was able to seep in and establish its dominance as what is effectively a state.

However, the world is united in defeating ISIS, and once this military defeat has been accomplished we must make sure not to repeat past mistakes.

A rebuilding scheme cannot follow the simple steps as that of Afghanistan. And although the economic status of Iraq and Syria vary widely from that of Afghanistan, parallels in governance can easily be made. This makes it imperative that a rebuild is done along with heavy investment in creating a strong administrative presence of any government to come, be it the regaining of territory lost in Iraq, or after quelling the on-going civil war in Syria. Otherwise, it won’t be difficult for an organization that has administratively established itself as well as ISIS to resurge.

Originally published at jadesthinkpad.com on April 10, 2016.

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