Why ISIL Will Fail on Its Own
As a movement, it’s dangerous. But as a state, it’s collapsing. Here’s how to make that work for us.By Eli Berman and Jacob N. Shapiro, Politico.com
November 29, 2015
In the accelerating public discussion of ISIL, it’s easy to become focused on what we don’t know: its elusive leader, its shadowy connections abroad, the gruesome propaganda emanating from somewhere on the Internet. Much about the group suggests a mysterious terrorist entity with an apocalyptic ideology that aspires to strike everywhere, including here in America. Reporting on ISIL is extremely inconsistent, its leaders rarely appear in public and its extensive social media machine makes it hard to tell its propaganda from fact.
Deciding how we think about ISIL is critical to deciding how to fight it. President Obama said he plans to stay the course by intensifying his current policy, which you might call containment plus: contain the group’s expansion in Syria and Iraq, and hasten its demise with steady air strikes and support to regional allies. His critics, meanwhile, call for a range of options, from allowing local forces to defeat the group, to easing the rules of engagement for airstrikes, to deploying U.S. special forces, to a large-scale campaign using 20,000 or more U.S. troops in direct combat ground roles.
Which is right? The answer depends at least in part on what kind of an enemy we think ISIL really is. Is it a tremendously well-resourced terrorist group that controls substantial territory, which it uses to plan attacks, vet operatives and manage a complex financial network? Or is it a fledgling nation-state that sponsors terrorist attacks? If we view ISIL as the former, then containment seems like an odd strategy, since even if contained it could continue to support terrorist attacks. But if we view it as a state, then it looks very different: a desperately poor nation trying to fight a three-front war—Iraq to the East, the Kurds to the North and Syria and other insurgents to the West.
While the uncertainty about ISIL is real, we actually do know a lot about it as a nation. It doesn’t publish statistics or communicate with the United Nations, but it’s definitely a bureaucracy, and a large number of documents from the group have been captured and published. Remote satellite sensing lets us make estimates of the population in its territory, as well as its pre-war economic activity and trends in oil production. And a range of excellent reporting has illuminated many of the group’s day-to-day governance practices.