With its meteoric military rise, its leadership, management and financing, the newest terrorist scourge facing the world is ISIS. Operating in what is clearly a political vacuum in northeast Syria and western Iraq and benefitting from the studied indifference of most of the Muslim world, Isis is clearly on a roll.
The chaos in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world is largely the result of a combination of incredibly bad United States military/foreign policy decisions and the concomitant disintegration or destruction of all those elements, both good and bad, that were in place and maintaining order in the region before we invaded Iraq in 2003.
And in the midst of all of this chaos, Americans are coming slowly to the realization that ISIS presents us with real, long run, existential problems and that we probably have absolutely no idea how to deal with this situation at the moment.
Our problem in policy formulation on this issue is also of our own making. It comes as a result of the same horrendous decision to invade Iraq, for that invasion created two new realities for us.
First, it has made more than half of the U.S. population extremely wary about any further military involvement in the Islam. We are war-weary to the extent that virtually no policy proposal for dealing with ISIS has failed to mention the guarantee that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground.
Secondly, that Iraq invasion, coupled with our endless stay in Afghanistan, has virtually guarantees that the re-commitment of American troops in uniform will have a unifying anti-American effect on Muslim populations, even though the radical ISIS is viewed with horror by most of those local populations.
If you doubt that, look first at the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan after 2003 which was driven largely by the fact that when the locals were faced with a choice between foreigners (Americans) and locals, they decided to back their own. Or, look at the way Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, heavily influenced by hostile, unaccepting Shia governments in Baghdad and Tehran, have tolerated, even joined with ISIS in its fight for power. The fact is that, particularly in Islam, given any need to choose between foreigners and locals, it is a rare thing that the foreigners will be favored. All one has to do to understand that is read the history of the region.
So, what are our policy options? The attitudes of both American and Muslim citizens toward the American military establishment, basically rule out the effective reintroduction of U.S. troops into the area, even if we had the necessary resources to do it. Yet, if ISIS is to be neutralized, it will not be done without ground forces. It’s not just the ISIS soldiers, it is the larger question of denying them control of the territory over which they now preside in Iraq and Syria.
Then we have Kurdish and Iraqi troops. The problem there, accepting that they are ill-equipped, ill-trained and relatively ineffective, is that there are historical political reasons to worry about such confrontations. We have ages old Kurdish/Turk frictions. Additionally, any Iraqi army of the future is going to be Shia dominated in a struggle with Sunni ISIS. That scenario bears the strong possibility that a Shia-Sunni conflict ultimately could easily embroil the entire region.
Needing foot soldiers and ruling out all non-Muslims, we are left with the rest of the Muslim world. Note that none of them have so far rushed into the fray against ISIS, either because they are frightened to be seen to do so, because they prefer them to the alternative, or might even actually support them. Why else would the Iraqi Sunnis, who are among the more secular Muslims, support a bloodthirsty bunch of zealots who want to install the most conservatively radical sectarian government imaginable? Perhaps as a counterbalance to Iraqi Shia forces?
We need to keep trying to find Muslims who disagree enough with ISIS to fight against them. Barring such an unlikely find, we need to arm anyone - Kurdish, Iraqi or Shia - who wants to fight against them. We need to keep US military uniforms completely out of the fray, but we might be well-advised to get ready for a protracted, completely covert or clandestine struggle against ISIS which would involve our intelligence resources as well as our black, paramilitary operational capabilities.
Or we can pretend there is not a real threat and wait until they hit us, which, absent meaningful U.S. involvement, they most certainly will do at some point in the future.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East, as Executive Assistant in the Director’s office and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.