Counterterrorism, Containment, Or Conquest?

Juan Cole argues that containment is the superior strategy for answering the challenge posed by ISIS, noting that “the most effective campaigns in which the US air force has been involved have been more or less defensive”:

A minimalist, defensible position for the US could have been to say that the US will intervene aerially to ensure that Erbil and Baghdad don’t fall, but that recovering the Sunni Arab areas that Nouri al-Maliki had alienated was up to Iraqi politicans and forces. And a minimalist strategy could have simply ignored the Syrian side of the border. It is true that ISIL has a big base in Raqqah and uses its Syrian assets to support its operations in Iraq. But ISIL successes in Iraq were in any case not mainly military but rather political. Since this is so, the military position of ISIL in Syria isn’t really so central to its taking of Mosul, Tikrit, etc. Nor would holding Raqqah help it to hold Mosul if Mosul turned against it.

The US was very good in the Cold War at containing Stalinism but very bad at defeating a guerrilla group like the Vietcong. It was the former that mattered in the end.

He’s right. And I say that not from any ideological position, but simply by observing US policy failure this past decade. To try and do the same thing again when it didn’t work before is the mark of insanity.

Meanwhile, former congresswoman Jane Harman wants to go to war with the ideology of extremism rather than the terror groups themselves:

What’s much more challenging is to confront—and defuse—the ideologies that underpin these groups. The jargon for this is “countering violent extremism” (CVE), a crucial part of the strategy that’s underfunded and hard as all get-out to accomplish. If we lump both al Qaeda and ISIL into one bucket labeled “terror,” we’ll never pull it off.

An example: The State Department recently put out an exceptionally violent video that used some of ISIL’s own promotional materials. The point was to highlight that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s thugs kill Muslims—which is an important point to make. Osama Bin Laden cautioned ISIL’s ancestor, al Qaeda in Iraq, that its slaughter of fellow Muslims made for bad optics. But what might have worked against al Qaeda won’t necessarily work against this new enemy. ISIL glamourizes violence, the notion that its caliphate is worth dying and killing for. The group celebrates death. We need to undermine that pitch with a positive narrative, not amplify its negatives.

Paul Pillar cautions against returning to “war on terror” rhetoric:

Names matter, even if it is not so much the term itself but associated concepts that dominate public discourse and thinking. To the extent that efforts to curb the expansion of ISIS are thought of as War on Terror II, this has unfortunate effects, including the mistaken belief that seizure of territory in the Middle East constitutes a terrorist threat to the United States, and insensitivity to counterproductive effects of the use of military force.

The Obama administration isn’t calling its effort War on Terror II, because it does not want to be seen as copying the approach and the mistakes of its predecessor. Whatever the administration’s motives, eschewing the war metaphor is good for public understanding. What the United States is doing against ISIL is a continuation—albeit more intensively for right now, because of the public alarm—of counterterrorism that has been going on for a long time and, unlike wars, will not end.

And J.M. Berger and Jessica Stern find it “hard to escape the feeling that our policies still come from the gut, rather than the head”:

Bin Laden once said, “All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there.” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of ISIL, may be counting on just that response, and for the same reason—to draw the United States into a war of supreme costs, political, economic and human.

A limited counterterrorism campaign may insulate us from those costs, but it is not likely to be sufficient to accomplish the goals laid out by the president. ISIL is a different enemy from al Qaeda. It has not earned statehood, but it is an army and a culture, and more than a traditional terrorist organization. Limited measures are unlikely to destroy it and might not be enough to end its genocidal ambitions. Our stated goals do not match our intended methods. Something has to give—and it’s probably the goals.