Fighting ISIS

LAST week a group of retired US generals warned Congress that by disengaging from the region, the US may lose the war against extremists. This is sound advice that President Obama may have heard before.

The US is leaving the region more unstable and less secure than it was before its military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while for Pakistan and Afghanistan, stability and security will now largely depend on how well the Ashraf Ghani administration and Pakistan’s security establishment are able to work together, it is Iraq and Syria where the situation is far more complicated. Only the US as the sole superpower can help resolve this dreadful mess. And more than military power or ‘nation building programmes’, this may be more a job for US diplomacy.

The full-fledged ‘Sunni’ rebellion that Iraq faces today is no less a consequence of premature US disengagement as it is of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s misrule who made sure to completely disenfranchise Iraq’s Sunni population. Building on this disaffection, the Islamic State has overrun the Sunni regions where the Iraqi army units defected without a fight, leaving behind vast arsenals. It has established a ‘caliphate’, a totalitarian ‘state’, over territory larger than Jordan. The perfect storm that created IS would not have been possible without the Syrian civil war, which affords it much strategic depth.

IS has galvanised Salafist fighters and funds from across the world. It has begun to spread its influence to distant Libya and Yemen. It is not strictly an insurgency but a ‘state’ building organisation, whose military council includes well-trained former officers of Saddam Hussain’s disbanded army and intelligence services.

On the other hand, the response against the group has been a patchwork of uncoordinated actions rather than a unified strategy put up by the states of the region. Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, the Kurdish peshmerga militia as well as Russia and countries of Western Europe have divergent interests and mutual mistrust. They are unable to act against this formidable fighting force or check the flow of motivated fighters and its sources of funds. Their national intelligence agencies rarely share information or collaborate. Meanwhile IS has threatened retaliatory attacks if the West gets in its way. Amidst this response paralysis the organisation thrives and grows.

Yet there is a silver lining. The Islamic State is a common threat to all players. It has no state backing; at least not just yet. And this may provide an opening from where US diplomacy could pick up the thread.

Perhaps the most debilitating obstruction to coining a joint strategy is the Saudi-Iranian rivalry; a religious rivalry that extends deep into the vault of Islamic history. The key here lies with the powerful establishments on both sides. A Byzantine challenge for US diplomacy, the Gordian knot as it were, would be to facilitate a détente.

The Islamic State is inimical to the interests of both Iran and Saudi Arabia, to a larger extent than they are to each other. A US-brokered Faustian bargain between these two establishments will leave their respective regimes with more latitude to work with each other towards the common objective. As no less a byproduct it would stall the production of toxic sectarian ferment and bring a windfall to the entire region, especially Pakistan, one of the world’s largest sectarian hotbeds.

The other hugely complicating factor is the Syrian civil war. Russia and Iran will not let the Assad regime in Syria fall anytime soon. And nobody wants to contemplate the mayhem that, in the event, will see extremist factions scrambling for power.

The second best option is for the US, working with Russia and Iran to force President Assad’s hand to widen his regime, maybe even to the extent of a national reconciliation government. In return, he can get two things. A lowered intensity of rebellion against his regime and co-option into the coalition on the war against IS.

Granted, these are staggeringly difficult diplomatic objectives. But with these two big-ticket items in place, the others — precision aerial strikes, Special Forces ground operations, choking the sources of external funds, preventing the recruitment and flow of fighters into the region and undertaking state building — would be relatively easy.

This is not a job the US can get done alone. Washington will serve its own interests by addressing the region’s fault lines and align a broad coalition of states to act together. The war against IS cannot be won by coalition airstrikes alone. Even if the Islamic State unravels, it will go back to insurgency mode. And unless the difficult diplomatic challenges are taken on, the group will keep winning and the apprehensions of the former generals may well prove right.

2015 – Dawn Media Group


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