Wednesday, February 18, 2015

alternative views on ISIL and Iraq

Two new articles are making me rethink the problems posed by ISIL and the divisions in Iraqi politics.

Audrey Cronin of George Mason University has a provocatively-titled piece for Foreign Affairs, "ISIS is not a terrorist group." What she means is that ISIL is quite different from al Qaeda, and the preferred U.S. strategies of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency won't be effective. Her logic: ISIL is differently motivated than most terrorist groups: it seeks to control territory; already has substantial funding from oil revenues; has an urban power base, not susceptible to drone strikes; has a large, well-controlled military force. It can't be defeated by counter-insurgency, she argues, because Sunni Iraqis have already lost all faith in the Iraqi government. It's not 2006. when the surge was adopted.
But vast differences exist between the situation today and the one that Washington faced in 2006, and the logic of U.S. counterinsurgency does not suit the struggle against ISIS. The United States cannot win the hearts and minds of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, because the Maliki government has already lost them. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has so badly undercut its own political legitimacy that it might be impossible to restore it. Moreover, the United States no longer occupies Iraq. Washington can send in more troops, but it cannot lend legitimacy to a government it no longer controls. ISIS is less an insurgent group fighting against an established government than one party in a conventional civil war between a breakaway territory and a weak central state.
She rules out a large American conventional war against ISIL because public support can't be sustained for it.
Of course, this opens up a third possible approach to ISIS, besides counterterrorism and counterinsurgency: a full-on conventional war against the group, waged with the goal of completely destroying it. Such a war would be folly. After experiencing more than a decade of continuous war, the American public simply would not support the long-term occupation and intense fighting that would be required to obliterate ISIS. The pursuit of a full-fledged military campaign would exhaust U.S. resources and offer little hope of obtaining the objective. Wars pursued at odds with political reality cannot be won. 

The sobering fact is that the United States has no good military options in its fight against ISIS. Neither counterterrorism, nor counterinsurgency, nor conventional warfare is likely to afford Washington a clear-cut victory against the group. For the time being, at least, the policy that best matches ends and means and that has the best chance of securing U.S. interests is one of offensive containment: combining a limited military campaign with a major diplomatic and economic effort to weaken ISIS and align the interests of the many countries that are threatened by the group’s advance.

Another alternative view of Iraqi politics comes from Doug Ollivant, who has military and NSC policy experience in Iraq.Like Cronin, he sees the Iraqi Sunnis as decisively weakened.
The occupation of the Sunni regions of Iraq by ISIL is a cataclysm from which the Sunni will not recover for a generation or more.
He also sees the Kurds as like "just plain Iraq."  Their dreams of independence have been vetoed by Turkey, who also controls their export of oil, and their corrupt politics limits their chances. Ollivant is more hopeful that Iraqi politics will find ways to muddle through, but I was surprised by his pessimistic views of the Kurds and the Sunnis.

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