Cutting the Caliphate Down to Size

by Ilan Berman
Even short of a large-scale military commitment, the U.S. can contain and reduce the Islamic State.

Is America headed back to Iraq? On August 7, President Obama took the first step in that direction when he authorized the use of air strikes to prevent the further advance of the militant Islamic group once known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) and now known as the Islamic State. Since then, the U.S. military has commenced a limited bombing campaign against Islamic State detachments in northern Iraq and added 130 military advisers to the 300 already stationed in the country.

The decision reflects a stark reality. In recent weeks, the Islamic State has cut a bloody swath across Iraq, capturing and holding territory at an unprecedented rate. As a result, the Washington Post reports, the group “now controls resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations.”

The current effort, however, appears to be as far as the White House is willing to go — at least for the moment. Having staked its political legitimacy on an exit from Iraq, the Obama administration is leery of doing much more. As a result, a true strategy for rolling back the Islamic State’s advance is still sorely lacking. 

But the past decade of conflict in both Iraq and Afghanistan provides at least three broad lessons about how, even short of a large-scale military commitment, the United States can help confront Iraq’s new radicals.

Exploit local pushback. The Bush administration’s much-celebrated “surge” of forces into Iraq in 2007 was widely credited for turning the tide of battle in post-Saddam Iraq. But the surge was only part of the story; America’s military strategy could not have succeeded without a parallel awakening of local Sunni tribes that rejected al-Qaeda’s toxic vision for their country.

The parallels are striking. Back then, the radical worldview of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise and its bloodthirsty leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, helped discredit the organization in the eyes of local Muslims — a crushing intellectual defeat that set the stage for a political and military one. Today, the Islamic State’s tactics — from the imposition of a violent, draconian interpretation of sharia law in areas under its control to a virtual genocide against Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi minorities — are prompting a similar reaction.

There are now signs of broad grassroots opposition to the Islamic State throughout Iraq. These include early efforts at organized Sunni resistance in Niniveh, Salaheddine, Diyala, and Anbar provinces as well as calls for pan-Iraqi unity by top Shiite religious authorities. And, as they were back then, such stirrings can and should be augmented by political and material support from the West, as a way of tipping the scales against Islamic militancy.

Force the expenditure of resources. It is a political truism that statehood tends to be an expensive proposition, requiring deep investments in infrastructure and social services by the party in power. This is perhaps the main reason al-Qaeda has preferred to remain strictly a protest movement, eschewing governance and husbanding its resources.

But the Islamic State appears to have other ideas. The territorial gains made by the group over the past two months are unprecedented and encompass close to a quarter of Iraq’s total territory (as well as substantial parts of neighboring Syria). Yet, rather than consolidate control over its new holdings, it has pushed further still.

Such expansionism can be a double-edged sword, given the finite nature of the Islamic State’s manpower and resources. Consequently, the United States and its allies should be thinking seriously about how best to facilitate the group’s imperial overstretch, from interrupting its supply lines to forcing greater expenditure of precious economic resources.

Empower allies. Having successfully dominated Iraq’s Sunni center, the Islamic State has set its sights on the country’s Kurdish north. There, courageous Kurdish peshmerga forces are now fighting a pitched battle against the movement. More and more, however, it is clear that the Kurdish effort is badly in need of backstopping in the form of war materiel and combat support.

Not long ago, such assistance was well-nigh unthinkable in Washington, given the thorny issue of Kurdish independence. But helping the Kurdish struggle against the Islamic State is decidedly less contentious, which is why the White House already appears to be drifting in that direction.

Nor are the Kurds the only stakeholders in this struggle. The strategic ambitions of the Islamic State extend far beyond Iraq, and the movement now threatens Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Turkey as well. There is now the potential for the creation of a regional “coalition of the willing” committed to the group’s defeat. Through deft diplomacy and steadfast political support, Washington can help make such a union a reality.

For now, America’s military reengagement in Iraq is still limited. Administration officials have intoned that there are no plans for a sustained campaign against the Islamic State. They have reiterated that Iraq’s future “is up to the Iraqis.” That does not mean, however, that it’s too early for America to start thinking about how it can help cut the Islamic State’s growing caliphate down to size.

— Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.