Steven Metz |Friday, Nov. 20, 2015
The conflict between the self-declared Islamic State and the civilized world has taken a chilling turn. While the extremists continue to fight both the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and the government of Iraq, they now have also demonstrated a deadly commitment to transnational terrorism. In the past several weeks, the Islamic State has claimed credit for bombings in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Lebanon as well as for downing a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai. It apparently orchestrated Friday’s complex terrorist attack in Paris, attempted ones in Belgium and Germany, and has threatened to unleash terrorism in the United States. Clearly one phase of the conflict with the Islamic State has given way to a new one.
On the other side of the debate, President Barack Obama has indicated that he might consider “intensification” of U.S. airstrikes and support to local forces fighting the Islamic State, but will not effect a major change in course. “We have the right strategy,” he said, “and we’re seeing it through.”
Both of these positions have serious shortcomings. Those in the war camp have not explained how the immense costs in blood and treasure that will be necessary to eradicate the Islamic State will bring commensurate results. They have not explained how they will pay for the massive intervention and the long-term stabilization and reconstruction efforts across several nations that defeating the group will require. Their assumption seems to be that the U.S. military will be able to quickly and easily march into Iraq and Syria to defeat the Islamic State or, even more unrealistically, that increased U.S. bombing will allow Iraqi security forces, Kurdish militias and Syrian rebels to do so. They have not explained what they would do if the Islamic State, once defeated in Iraq, simply moves to another troubled country. Ultimately war advocates seem driven more by the desire to do something different than by any coherent explanation of the strategic costs and benefits.
Obama’s position, meanwhile, rests squarely on the assumption that the predominantly Shiite Iraqi security forces or Kurdish militias are going to go deep into Sunni Arab territory to defeat the Islamic State, or that U.S. airstrikes can somehow convince the group to fold. This is questionable. And even Obama never explains who is going to defeat the group in eastern Syria once it is driven of Iraq.
Yet there is a better way than either a vague, anger-driven war or continued standoff and indirect efforts: a strategy of active containment that reflects the time-tested logic of deterrence. History demonstrates that deterrence works when it threatens something that an aggressor values greatly. Whoever is doing the deterring must have escalation dominance, meaning that they can cause more pain to the aggressor than the aggressor can to them. To make deterrence work, the punishment for aggression must be painful, certain and prompt.
Deterring the Islamic State through active containment requires a strategy based on two simple principles. First, the group cannot be allowed to win control of a nation. That is what the United States is preventing by its support to Iraq, but this is only the first step. Washington and the other nations in the anti-Islamic State coalition need to decide now how they will respond if in the future the extremists seem poised to take over Syria, Libya, Yemen or perhaps Afghanistan. The coalition must demonstrate the capability and will to prevent this.
Second, when the Islamic State undertakes acts of transnational terrorism, it must be punished in a way that is painful, certain and prompt. In response to the Islamic State’s recent wave of transnational terrorism, the United States and its partners must impose unbearable punishment and demonstrate escalation dominance. The ongoing air campaign and support to militias is not enough. Neither would an intensification of it be. This will not cause the Islamic State unbearable pain any more than escalated bombing in Vietnam during the 1960s caused the communists to fold.
For deterrence to work, it must threaten what the Islamic State values the most: its ability to portray itself as a new “caliphate.” In other words, the anti-Islamic State coalition must show that it can end the movement’s control over eastern Syria and western Iraq if it decides to.
This will require a multinational ground force. There is no way around that. Iraqi security forces or Kurdish militias are not going to eradicate the Islamic State or even compel it to back off from transnational terrorism. A large, multinational force must clear Mosul and western Iraq of the Islamic State, perhaps even occupying the group’s “capital” in Raqqa, Syria. But the multinational force should not stay for a prolonged period or attempt to stabilize the region itself. Instead it should turn control over to the Iraqi government as soon as the offensive is completed. Put differently, if the United States is to deter the Islamic State, it must abandon Colin Powell’s insistence that “if you break it, you own it.” The United States cannot stabilize every corner of the world, but it can punish terrorists who become unbearable.
If Baghdad is unable to hold the region once it is clear, and the Islamic State subsequently returns, the United States should accept such an outcome so long as the extremists do not promote transnational terrorism. If they do, the multinational force should intervene, once again sending the message that the Islamic State is only a “caliphate” because the civilized world doesn’t consider it worth bothering to eradicate it entirely.
Ultimately, decisively eradicating the Islamic State is not worth the strategic costs. Deterring it through a robust, muscular and flexible version of containment is. Yet since the end of the Cold War, the concept of containment has been denigrated among American political leaders and security experts largely because of the delusion that “victory” is always attainable if the United States is assertive and stalwart enough. This is emotionally satisfying and sells well to the mass public. But it is false. Containment always has been and always will be a central tool for great powers and civilizations juggling multiple security threats and challenges.
The Islamic State is not a unique phenomenon but simply the latest manifestation of the barbarians that have lurked on the edges of civilization as long as civilization has existed. If it is contained and deterred, it will ultimately fail of its own accord. At that point, the civilized world must be ready to stabilize the political vacuums that gave life to barbarous extremism in the first place.
Steven Metz is the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.