Experts weigh in (part 5): Is ISIS good at governing?

Will McCants: ISIS-claimed attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Egypt indicate the organization wants to take the fight to its enemies abroad. One reason might be that all is not well in ISIS-land. The nascent state in Syria and Iraq has lost around 25 percent of its territory and tens of thousands of fighters in the year since America and its allies began to their campaign to defeat it. While the state still endures for now, it’s under tremendous pressure because of the costs of ceaseless war.

To explain the troubles ISIS faces at home, we have invited a group of scholars to comment on its governance over the past years and speculate on what they might face in the year ahead. First was Mara Revkin, who examined how opinions towards ISIS have changed since it captured Mosul more than a year ago. Then Aymenn al-Tamimi argued that internal documents show increasing challenges for the Islamic State. Next, Aaron Zelin weighed in with a historical perspective, analyzing the extent to which ISIS has lived up to its own standards of governance. And Kamran Bokhari argued that security—namely defending territory—is the foremost governance objective of ISIS in the short term.

Below is an analysis from Quinn Mecham, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University. He focuses on the need to provide alternative, positive models of governance for the populations living under ISIS control.

Quinn Mecham: The Islamic State group (ISIS), despite clear pretentions to statehood in the form of the “caliphate” it declared in June 2014, does not preside over a particularly successful “state.” It faces numerous challenges from both within and without, challenges that accelerated in 2015 with increasingly systematic airstrikes on ISIS fighters and facilities by numerous external actors. 

However, the governing institutions over which the Islamic State presides currently represent the best approximation of institutionalized governance for the millions of people in Iraq and Syria under its rule. Though international actors unanimously refuse to acknowledge the Islamic State as a legitimate state in the international system, it nevertheless provides many of the functions of a state for those living within its territory. The fulfillment of these state functions is critical to the lives and livelihoods of those governed in territory controlled by the Islamic State. An effective policy to challenge the Islamic State must take the group’s governance agenda into account by constructing appealing alternatives to Islamic State governance rather than simply seeking to undermine it. 

The Islamic State’s ambitious state-building efforts present a challenging policy problem for the array of states now fighting the Islamic State group. France, Britain, Russia, and the United States, among others, regularly articulate the urgent need to destroy the group and they have increasingly acted to do so. Airstrikes that accelerated in the later half of 2015 have put substantial pressure on the Islamic State’s institutions, killing off thousands of Islamic State fighters and destroying a substantial amount of military and economic infrastructure, most notably the capacity to refine and distribute oil resources. Ground operations, such as the one that retook the Iraqi city of Ramadi in December, have also ratcheted up the pressure. 

[I]n addition to degrading the organization, the attacks on ISIS are also degrading the only current form of effective governance for civilians.

While these efforts help fulfill the primary goal of degrading or destroying ISIS by targeting the group’s military and operational infrastructure, they also harm the coalition’s ultimate goal of creating regional stability. This is because, in addition to degrading the organization, the attacks on ISIS are also degrading the only current form of effective governance for civilians, leading to very negative consequences for the populations living under Islamic State rule. As governing capacity is degraded without providing an effective substitute for ISIS governance, many of the coalition’s objectives in the region will become more elusive in the medium term. Additionally, certain aspects of the Islamic State’s state-building goals, which outside groups would like to prevent, may actually be enhanced as a result of the conflict. 

War, what is it good for?

As military pressure mounts on the Islamic State, significant parts of its project are in danger, including its financing, military success, and leadership capacity. However, it is not certain that all aspects of its state capacity will decline. Scholarship on state-building makes it clear that although war can destroy states, it can also help to build them. Although the Islamic State is often viewed externally simply as a rebel group, its domestic state-building agenda follows the historical path of many developing states in that it has benefitted from some of the effects of being at war.

[A]lthough war can destroy states, it can also help to build them.

War helps to build states in a number of ways. First, it creates an environment where the state can much more efficiently extract resources from the population in the form of taxation, military conscription, or extortion. When security is at stake, people are more willing to give up other goods for protection; a state at war also has a high degree of readiness for violence, which can be applied to extract resources from its own people. 

Second, state survival during war requires a high degree of institutional efficiency, including the creation of new bureaucratic structures such as taxation systems, governance mechanisms, information networks, and other institutions designed to control and manage conquered territory. Finally, the pressures of constant warfare for those under threat and on the front lines can also solidify group commitments and strengthen aspects of the military culture, bureaucracy, and ideology that have contributed to the group’s success.

Scaling back

Certainly warfare also can degrade state capacity, and it has done so across Islamic State territory over the past year. Much of that degraded capacity is military in nature, but the process has also reduced state capacity on which civilians directly depend. There is substantial evidence now to suggest that military pressure on the Islamic State group has negatively impacted a variety of core state functions for civilians. While most coalition airstrikes to date have sought to avoid dominantly civilian targets, economic infrastructure has been actively targeted, leading to a significant decline in the resources devoted to civilian concerns.

Compared with only a year ago, the group is now a less effective distributor of resources and has also become more dependent on resource extraction from the populations that it controls. For example, as the group’s revenues from oil and the initial spoils from captured territory have declined, both its social service provision and its ability to pay salaries have severely deteriorated. This is harmful not just because of concerns over civilian protection, but also because it reduces social stability and plays into the group’s narrative that its enemies are making people’s lives much worse. While it is difficult to measure the extent to which civilians blame the group for these new difficulties, a current media crackdown in ISIS territory means that the dominant ISIS narrative of blaming external aggressors is the only one disseminated and likely has significant impact on public opinion.

After airstrikes accelerated in the autumn, an internal Islamic State memo revealed that due to a loss of revenue, the salaries of Islamic State fighters were being cut by a dramatic 50 percent from the original promised payments. These cuts have also affected non-military employees of the Islamic State, spreading to all civil servants. At the same time, the prices for basic goods have been dramatically increasing. Financial infrastructure has also been targeted, making basic economic transactions much harder, while declining soldier salaries make it more likely that those with guns will look to civilian resources to supplement their incomes. Popular policies such as subsidies for bread have been difficult to finance and in some areas under external pressure, essentials such as wheat have become very scarce. This pressure on the food supply impacts civilians in unpredictable ways because the Islamic State has tightly regulated agricultural markets and has failed to allow free market mechanisms to efficiently distribute food resources. 

In the realm of health and education, student registration fees have gone up dramatically while subsidies have declined, scaling back access to a key service designed to systematically socialize students into the ideology of the Islamic State. Professionals are also fleeing Islamic State territory, as exemplified by physicians who have been leaving the Islamic State in large numbers. Despite apparently having significant physical resources for basic medical care, such as vaccinations, the new labor shortage of physicians has made it impossible to keep up regular vaccination schedules within the civilian population. More recently, pressure on obtaining key medical supplies has also increased. 

Two sides of the coin

Attacks on the Islamic State have therefore both strengthened and degraded different components of state capacity. Some aspects of state capacity have actually increased under conditions of war, such as taxation, extortion, conscription, and coercive institutions that control civilians. Military attacks have degraded other aspects of the state, however, such as the resources of ISIS fighters and civil servants, resource distribution capacity, and institutions that support economic development. 

It is not yet clear what these changes in military and state capacity will have on the overall trajectory of Islamic State survival and the stated goal to destroy the Islamic State. While the Islamic State could ultimately be destroyed by a coalition military campaign that proactively takes and governs territory, under the present strategy it is much more likely that the Islamic State will persist and continue to preside over a fragile and increasingly marginal system of governance that is neither good for the group, for the people that live within its territory, or for long-term stability in the Middle East. 

Costs and benefits of a military campaign

This creates a set of difficult policy choices because there are also many good reasons for the military campaign against the Islamic State. The group has demonstrated its capacity and will continue to launch violent attacks on a range of international targets, providing external actors with clear justification to destroy the group’s military capacity in an effort to maintain global security. Likewise, the group’s military success and territorial control are central to its attractiveness to foreign fighters. The ideology that drives the Islamic State depends in part on its continued ability to challenge the current international system. Delivering sustained military defeats is therefore critical to puncturing the group’s apocalyptic narrative of ever greater success and expansion. 

Much of the Islamic State’s domestic control is also maintained through fear, and military defeats confirm in the public imagination that the group can be beaten, from without and potentially from within. Although significant local challenges have not yet materialized, as the Islamic State’s coercive capacity becomes weaker, defections to other groups may occur, and domestic opponents may begin to recalculate their odds of a successful challenge. 

[U]nder the present strategy it is much more likely that the Islamic State will persist and continue to preside over a fragile and increasingly marginal system of governance.

The clear need for military action must, however, be weighed against the serious costs to both civilian populations and to the long-term war effort of harming existing state capacity on which civilians depend. The largely aerial campaign against the Islamic State group has had painful effects on the populations it controls. The reduction of fuel availability, the collapse in salaries, the removal of food and educational subsidies, and the deep insecurity that comes from a constant fear of bombardment has likely done very little to endear civilian populations to the cause of the coalition’s military activity, which is often seen as supporting the Syrian regime. 

Degrading state capacity through military action also feeds into the group’s narrative that both the West and Arab leaders have no concern for Muslim civilians, and that the group is the only possible one that can act as a protector against external enemies. Dozens of recent Islamic State videos paint the anti-ISIS coalition as a Russian, Syrian, Jewish, or U.S. conspiracy designed to harm civilians. While it is difficult to determine the extent of civilian casualties as a result of the campaign to date, the heightened deprivation resulting from the coalition military campaign, coupled with a glaring lack of alternative models of good governance, is unlikely to break the dependence of civilians on the Islamic State. 

Wanted: Alternatives

When one takes the Islamic State’s substantive role in governance into account in formulating a strategy to destroy the group, it becomes increasingly clear that an effective military strategy must be coupled with a much more robust agenda to build alternative governance mechanisms if it is to be successful at permanently displacing the group from its territory. 

Challenging civilian dependence on the Islamic State requires alternative forms of governance that are more appealing to the populations currently governed by the group. Even if the quality of Islamic State governance declines in relative terms, a substantively more appealing option must be available if those currently under the Islamic State’s control will be willing to support it. The great current challenge is to formulate a policy that can meet or exceed the Islamic State’s ability to build governing institutions, not just tear them down. At this point in the tragic narrative, those craving good governance are likely to be much less interested in regime type than in institutions that can provide consistent levels of security, economic growth, and the rule of law.

The great current challenge is to formulate a policy that can meet or exceed the Islamic State’s ability to build governing institutions, not just tear them down.

While the Islamic State adeptly uses theatrical violence and fear to exercise control within its territory, a large portion of its success in maintaining control should also be attributed to the poor alternative options for the populations that reside within it. For many Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, the imaginable alternative models of governance are currently deeply unappealing. These include:

  • re-absorption into the repressive cruelties of the Syrian state, 
  • control by violent and corrupt Syrian rebel groups without a track record of effective governance, 
  • governance by a deeply sectarian, Shiite-dominated Iraqi government that is dependent on ideological sectarian militias to maintain security, or 
  • rule by ethnic Kurdish militias that have a poor reputation for their treatment of Arab communities. 

When compared with these options, the Islamic State group often comes across as more authentic, less corrupt, more committed to the rule of law, and a better provider of state services. Its current basic governance failures, while many, are also increasingly attributable to the effects of the military campaign waged by its enemies. 

Let’s build

Despite its deep, persistent flaws, an alternative, better system of governance is more likely to come from the Iraqi state (in the case of large population centers such as Mosul), or from existing informal tribal governance (in Syria and more rural areas) than it is to come from other sources. The key actions that currently need to be taken are thus two-fold:

  1. First, in territory already reclaimed from the group—such as in the devastated city of Ramadi—the anti-ISIS coalition should extend every effort to distribute needed resources, infuse the economy with ready employment options, reaffirm property rights and judicial institutions, and severely punish those pursuing violent retribution. Unfortunately, little in this direction has been accomplished in the months since the capture of Ramadi, as the rebuilding of civilian infrastructure has been treated as secondary to lingering security concerns. A clear investment of institutional and economic resources that helps to demonstrate the ability to maintain security and equal treatment under the rule of law will send a more powerful signal of the Islamic State’s weakness than the results of an aerial bombing campaign. 
  2. Second, a greater external commitment to support the best in existing institutions within the Iraqi state as well as in areas with the potential for effective non-state tribal governance is a critical investment in the long-term stability of Islamic State territory. In other words, external resources should increasingly focus not just on training and equipping local military allies, but also in supporting high quality civilian institutions of local and regional governance. 

Unfortunately, it takes much longer to build effective state institutions than to destroy them.

Aggressively pursuing a governance strategy will be much more difficult than pursuing an air war against a proto-state without anti-air defenses, but it is a necessary one if the persistent appeal of the group’s state-building project is to be overcome. Because the Islamic State has powerfully distinguished itself from other jihadist competitors through its governance agenda, its support cannot be eliminated through a strategy solely dependent on destroying the governance upon which local populations depend. 

Unfortunately, it takes much longer to build effective state institutions than to destroy them. The faster that a serious, resource-intensive commitment to building alternative governing institutions in areas bordering Islamic State territory begins, the more likely we are to see the group that calls itself the Islamic State lose control of its narrative, its territory, and the civilian support upon which it relies.