Tonight President Obama will address the nation and unveil his strategy for confronting the violent extremists of ISIS (also called ISIL or Islamic State). While the exact details are not yet known, numerous press reports have made it clear that a central focus of the President’s announcement will be an increased military intervention in Iraq, where we have already launched 150 airstrikes and deployed over 1,100 ground troops over the past few weeks. It is highly likely that the President will also announce that America’s latest military adventure in the Middle East will expand into Syria as well. While the professional punditry will no doubt debate just how many bombs should fall and where, we should be asking ourselves, is American military force really the smartest way to address the threat we face from ISIS?
No. American bombs simply cannot eliminate the threat of ISIS and may indeed make the conflicts in Iraq and Syria worse and harder to solve. Fortunately, we have alternatives, and, while they lack the immediacy of bombing, they are ultimately far more effective in keeping America safe, protecting innocent lives and crippling violent extremists.
At moments like this, we would do well to remember Santayana’s famous adage: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Unfortunately, we do not have to look far back in our history for the lessons of what does and does not work in confronting the kind of brutal, violent extremism we are seeing today in Iraq and Syria. Exactly 10 years ago, America was in the midst of the Iraq War when violent militants in the city of Fallujah captured four American contractors. The brutality of what followed shocked Americans, as these men were tortured, dragged through the streets of Fallujah and strung up from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
America’s outrage and understandable desire to respond to this brutality was met with a massive military offensive, what became known as the first battle of Fallujah. The resulting violence cost dozens of American lives, saw hundreds wounded, and resulted in a stalemate. The insurgents emerged stronger than before the attack. Subsequent rounds of fighting yielded little better (though America did eventually ‘gain control’ of the city) while taking a massive toll on both Iraqi and American lives. Today, a decade later, Fallujah is under the control of ISIS, the successor to the very insurgents we began fighting a decade ago.
The desire to avenge the horrific executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff and to confront the challenges posed by ISIS to the world is understandable. But our experience in Fallujah is a stark reminder that not all problems are solved with bombs and bullets, no matter how powerful the American military may be.
Instead of going back to war in the Middle East, President Obama should announce alternative, and more effective ways to degrade ISIS. Here are a few suggestions:
1) Hit ISIS where it hurts: the wallet
One of ISIS’s main strengths is its unprecedented access to financial resources. All this money allows it to recruit fighters, purchase weapons, and buy the support of local populations. While some of this financing comes from donors, much of it comes from smuggling illegal oil from fields it controls in Iraq and Syria. Ultimately, these fields will need to be retaken by local forces (as the Kurds and Iraqi military have begun to do) but, as we have seen in Afghanistan with our efforts to cut off the Taliban from their opium production and its massive revenues, you cannot address the problem on the supply side alone. Cracking down on Turkish, Iraqi, and other oil dealers who are purchasing the oil on the black market would cut ISIS off from one of its most important revenue streams. Such an effort will require significant international cooperation, hard diplomacy, and likely sanctions, but it could ultimately prove more costly to ISIS than any bomb. Without cutting off the cash flow, ISIS will remain able to replace any weapons we destroy and any militants we kill.
2) Crack down on ISIS’s supply routes and weapons supply
Today, ISIS enjoys something essential to any effective insurgency: the ability to resupply itself. While we often hear about the ability to move supplies between Iraq and Syria, the reality is that ISIS is surrounded on all sides by enemies who can and should do more to cut off its supply routes from the outside. A primary culprit is Turkey, whom America should force to crack down on the flow of fighters and weapons across its border with Syria. While care must be taken to allow the safe passage of humanitarian aid, shutting off ISIS’s access to the outside world is essential in any effort to confront them. We must also crack down on the flow of weapons to other parties in the region. Well intentioned as they may be, arms transfers to Syrian rebels and the Iraqi military have led to ISIS gaining American-made weapons. If we do not shut off access to these supply routes, ISIS will simply replace any weapons that American bombs destroy.
3) Address the underlying political grievances of local populations
By most estimates, ISIS maintains a fighting force of somewhere near 20,000 fighters, yet the Sunni population in which it operates numbers around 25 million. As with all insurgencies, ISIS cannot be defeated as long as they maintain popular support. Iraqi and Syrian grievances with the governments in Baghdad and Damascus are very real and will take years to fully address, yet ending the Syrian civil war and bringing Sunnis back into the Iraqi political process are essential to driving a wedge between ISIS and the local population. In Fallujah, America was eventually able to convince Sunni tribal leaders to turn against militants through a combination of money and political engagement, the so-called Anbar Awakening. Without a similar effort today, American bombs will only drive Sunnis further into the hands of ISIS and their false claims of ‘protection.’
4) Provide humanitarian aid and assistance
The humanitarian toll of the three-year-old civil war and the instability in Iraq is massive. Millions of Iraqis and Syrians are either refugees or internally displaced. The lack of access to food, water, and other essential supplies threatens to cost more lives than any bullets or bombs. While America has been a leader in providing aid and assistance, far more is needed. Countless American allies, who stand ready to support any bombing effort, have failed to provide the type of lifesaving aid that is so desperately needed. Failing to address these needs not only directly costs lives, but also helps to feed further radicalization and instability.
5) Lead a truly multilateral international response
While we have begun to see America lead efforts to bring in international partners to what has been a largely unilateral intervention so far, we must do more to lead a truly multilateral, international response. The challenge posed by foreign fighters with western passports can only be met through cooperation with other countries and international institutions. Our allies like Britain and France must do more to address the underlying issues that have caused so many of their citizens to take up arms with ISIS while also confronting the challenge posed by those fighters when they return home. Similarly, ISIS thrives because of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, which are fueled by foreign interests. Resolving these conflicts ultimately depends on American diplomacy – not American bombs – involving all the parties including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others.