Two months after President Obama launched air strikes in an effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant group known as Islamic State or ISIS, the operation now has a name—”Enduring Resolve”—a reference to the long, difficult task of combating such an amorphous organization.
In an October event at the School of International Service convened by Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence, David Gregory, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed of SIS, Politico’s Susan Glasser, and The Washington Post’s David Ignatius discussed the prospects for the American-led campaign against ISIS and broader U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Moderator David Gregory began the talk by posing the question about how well the war on IS is going.
“It’s going badly. Wars often start badly,” explained Ignatius, reaffirming the need for the U.S. to form a strong coalition with other Arab nations. “Basically, we would have to tell them, ‘You have to put some skin in the game if you want the American help.’”
He also suggested that training CIA-style guerilla fighters in Syria to combat IS might be a more appropriate style campaign than the air bombing one used thus far. Ignatius expressed concern about “whether we are walking into a trap that locks us into the kind of warfare our adversaries want and how can we mitigate that danger.” He was of the firm conviction that Iraq is “as sectarian as ever. It is badly fractured and I do not see a coherent strategy in our policy to pull it together.”
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed framed ISIS in a tribal Islamic context, a topic he wrote a book about: “ISIS has very little to do with Islam. Its members are tribesmen from tribes that have imploded over the last few decades. We all tend to think of this as radical Islam without considering this is tribal Islam which espouses a code that encourages revenge for wrong-doings.”
Akbar Ahmed speaks at Chatham House in 2013. Image by Chatham House, via flickr creative commons
One major distinction he made, however, is that this code has become mutated. Out of the trifecta of bravery, courage, and revenge, revenge is seen as the only thing left. He underlined that the creation of borders that split the tribes in forced ways, fanning the flames of conflict. That conflict is not Islam vs. the West but periphery versus center—societies left on the fringes fighting a central government they perceive as antagonistic to their interests.
Ambassador Ahmed explained that tribal Islam is a militaristic culture and one that is constantly in conflict with Islam itself—for example, tribal Islam eschews the inroads made for women by Islam, such as inheritance rights. “We need to understand the context of these movements and not call them Islamic movements.” In couching the conflict in center vs. periphery, Ahmed also suggested that public opinion in Pakistan, for example, is in favor of strikes against ISIS, whereas public confidence in Iraq has collapsed. He believes that Muslims worldwide support the fight against ISIS and that getting the support of the people is important in forming an alliance.
Susan Glasser spoke a bit more on the policy side of the issue, calling Obama an “extremely reluctant warrior.” “We are seeing a fairly public debate between the President and the generals on strategy. We have a lot of generals saying the war plan will not work, that it is based on false theory, premised on the notion that an air campaign on guys in pick-up trucks.”
All three panelists expressed the opinion that ISIS is an aggressive, flexible, and adapting enemy and that there is tremendous trepidation about entering into yet another quagmire of conflict in the Middle East.
David Ignatius discussed some of ISIS’ tactics, referring to the beheading of people as “their version of shock and awe. The element of raw physical intimidation, of an almost pornographic level of violence, is what is so attention-grabbing.” But he referred to the case of Al Qaeda that had grown so hated because it made so many enemies in fighting a sectarian battle against more than the U.S. “It is not possible to brutalize your way to success.” He explained that ISIS is able to gain wealth by engaging in kidnapping, selling oil, and taking over central bank branches. They also have clever strategies for gaining recruits. In addition to a powerful social media empire, they have the practice of attacking prisons, specifically in Mosul and Ambar, whereupon liberating several thousand prisonersthey gain new fighters from that cadre. “They are really smart in how they plan operations.”
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