The United States needs to bear down on a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS globally in the aftermath of the terrible June 12 tragedy in Orlando, Florida. To be sure, no such effort can reliably prevent all such future attacks. But moments like these require that we reassess and reinvigorate our strategy against a serious, global threat to our nation and our allies.
Some will say that ISIS overachieved here, or that Omar Mateen was more a deranged individual than an ISIS operative, or that recent battlefield progress by the United States and its partners against ISIS in Iraq and Syria will soon lead to the group’s demise. None of these arguments is compelling as a case for complacency. What Mateen did, even if the bloodiest single shooting spree in U.S. history, is entirely repeatable by well-trained individuals with access to weapons like the AR-15. Mateen was perhaps deranged, but he also was apparently pushed over the edge by the allure of joining a broader ISIS-inspired movement that finds legitimacy in doctrines of hate, and takes purpose from creating mass-casualty events in the name of some perverted interpretation of Islam. It could, and probably will, happen again.
Yes, a combination of Iraqi forces, U.S. and coalition airpower, Kurdish fighters, Sunni tribesmen, and Shiite militias has taken back perhaps 40 percent of Iraqi territory and 20 percent of Syrian territory previously held by ISIS. ISIS may have lost up to half its revenue in those two countries as well. But the cities of Raqqa and Mosul remain firmly in ISIS hands. Over the last year or two, moreover, ISIS has deepened its roots from the Sinai Peninsula to Libya, established tentacles from Azerbaijan to Afghanistan and into Southeast Asia, and gained a powerful affiliate in the form of the Boko Haram movement in Nigeria. It may be down, but it is hardly out.
[ISIS] may be down, but it is hardly out.
Mapping the threat
Several crucial aspects of the anti-ISIS campaign are lagging. Country by country, an agenda to address them might be summarized as follows:
Iraq. Here, government-led forces are making headway, but the pace is slow, and most worrisome of all, there is little reason to think that Mosul in particular will be well-governed once it is retaken from ISIS. We need to find a way to increase U.S. leverage in Baghdad to create the kinds of “hold” forces that can lead to a stable peace—as much a political problem as a military one. That may require a larger aid and assistance package from the United States—especially relevant given how much Iraq depends on oil revenue and how much oil prices have fallen.
Syria. Here, the political strategy does not really hold water. Peace talks are moribund; Bashar Assad is on the march, with Russian help. We need to lower our political goals—confederation, with protection of minority rights, may be a more appropriate standard for success. But regardless, we need to step up our game at helping not only Kurdish forces, but moderate Arab forces too. Quite likely, we will need to relax modestly our vetting standards on whom we help, and increase several-fold the number of Americans involved in the training and equipping efforts. Certain types of retaliatory measures against Syrian government aircraft that bomb declared no-go zones may be appropriate as well. Only by moving towards solving the civil war can we properly target the ISIS menace there.
Libya. With the unity government perhaps taking shape, the West now needs to be preparing an intensified aid and training program for a Libyan government force that can gain the strength needed to consolidate control, at least in ISIS-occupied areas in the country’s central coastal regions. This will require perhaps hundreds of Western advisors in the country when the moment is right.
Nigeria. With President Muhammadu Buhari making progress against corruption, it is time for an expanded American assistance program that may even, if Nigerians so request, involve deployment of small mentoring teams to the field to help the army in its fight against Boko Haram.
Afghanistan. President Obama should not make any further reductions in U.S. troop levels for the rest of his presidency, and should allow U.S. commanders considerable flexibility in how they employ airpower there against the Taliban.
The Homefront. ISIS is in fact a three-headed monster—with its core in Iraq and Syria, its various provinces and affiliates (or wilayats) around the broader region, and the global network that binds the pieces together. It is against this global network, both domestically and internationally, that we must double down, for it will be this network that will generate the attacks upon our homelands. Encrypted smart phones have complicated this effort when cells of extremists are actively plotting attacks. But the net effect of technology can still probably help us—if we intensify our pressure on the network through vigilance, rigorous investigations that blend law enforcement and intelligence, and disruptive, timely actions against suspects. New York City, London, and increasingly Paris have done this, but the methods are not yet generalized. This requires aggressive and unequivocal American leadership.
It is against this global network, both domestically and internationally, that we must double down.
These efforts would be significant. Yet none would be enormous. The overseas components, taken together, would involve no more than several thousand additional U.S. personnel and several billion dollars a year in additional aid of various types to groups that are doing the real fighting and dying in common cause with us. We must strike all three heads of this horrific creature, simultaneously and relentlessly. The United States and its coalition partners have made a modest amount of progress against ISIS, but now is a moment to intensify the effort before the next, possibly much worse, attack occurs.