How to Win
Taking the “State” Out of ISIS

By the blade of its brutal sword, ISIS is working to impose on its territory some semblance of rulership and stability. From the NYT:

[A]s it holds that territory and builds a capacity to govern, the group is transforming into a functioning state that uses extreme violence — terror — as a tool.

That distinction is proving to be more than a matter of perspective for those who live under the Islamic State, which has provided relative stability in a region troubled by war and chaos while filling a vacuum left by failing and corrupt governments that also employed violence — arrest, torture and detention.

While no one is predicting that the Islamic State will become the steward of an accountable, functioning state anytime soon, the group is putting in place the kinds of measures associated with governing: issuing identification cards for residents, promulgating fishing guidelines to preserve stocks, requiring that cars carry tool kits for emergencies. That transition may demand that the West rethink its military-first approach to combating the group.

The article cites the now commonplace opinion (and always the opinion of TAI) that the air war against ISIS isn’t going to do the job of eradicating it. Indeed, in an article in our previous issue of the magazine Howard Gambrill Clark argues exactly that: the air war will help ISIS, not starve it of recruits, for it lends credence to the group’s claims of importance and stokes a desire for revenge and glory among potential followers. Furthermore, ISIS is not a traditional military with bases and generals and such—it is amorphous, moveable, and decentralized, and killing off a few leaders, or even Baghdadi himself, is by no means a crippling blow.

ISIS is no more a traditional state than it is a traditional army, and for precisely the same reason: its fluidity. Yet by embedding itself in local populations it gains strength, including the ability to go to ground when it needs to. Much like the Taliban, Clark notes, ISIS is brutal in putting down rebellions; it knows that it can’t withstand an uprising. That’s the challenge before any effective counter-insurgency strategy of the West—we must “go local” and rely on networks already in place to overthrow the jihadis. As the NYT makes clear, many experts express pessimism about the prospect of dislodging ISIS from two war-torn, Shi’a-governed countries where few alternatives for Sunnis exist. The task is not easy, but acknowledging that the ground, not the air, is where the war begins and ends is a start.

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