An Unthreatening Storm

JOHN NAGL — The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) was kicked out of Al Qaeda for being too violent. It may soon be kicked out of Iraq, and history.

Three years after the last US soldiers withdrew from Iraq, the country has become a breeding ground for extremist groups, most important of which is ISIS — a group that some experts describe as “perhaps the most extreme and violent franchise of Al Qaeda in the movement’s history.” Yet very little is known about ISIS or its leadership. Without reliable intelligence or modes of information-gathering, how can policymakers address the threats posed by these new groups?

The American intelligence apparatus takes a lot of criticism mostly from people who do not see their products. I had the privilege of serving on the staff of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, seeing intelligence products. I am confident that the decision-makers inside the United States Government know quite a bit about ISIS. Perhaps they do not know as much as they would if the United States still had a troop presence on the ground in an advisory role — which of course was the US objective, one that Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraqi Parliament precluded in what I think even they will now admit was a mistake.

On 3 February 2014 the Washington Post reported that Al Qaeda had “formally dissociated itself from its onetime affiliate in Iraq and Syria.” Does ISIS represent the emergence of a young, new generation of radicals in the region, and what factors have made this divergence from Al Qaeda possible or even preferable to the umbrella organization?

ISIS has made a number of strategic errors, including tying to fight as conventional forces and attempting to hold territory in Fallujah and Ramadi. This policy will almost certainly result in the complete destruction of those forces — they would have been far more effective had they remained fighting as insurgents and terrorists. A great number of the individuals involved in these assaults will be captured rather than killed, and they will almost certainly reveal information about the ISIS leadership, its future plans, and its locations that will prove unhelpful to the organization. For these reasons, the recent attacks — regardless of the new type of threat they pose to the Iraqi state or the region — will almost certainly prove to be a suicidal gesture by ISIS.

It is also fascinating to remember the reasons behind Al Qaeda’s dissociation from ISIS. The umbrella organization regarded ISIS as simply too violent, which is incredibly ironic. A number of radical Islamists have proven themselves to be enormously unpopular in a ruling role because of their very restrictive policies and their excessive use of violence, including against Muslims — a violation of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet. ISIS has fallen into this tendency, making itself increasingly less dangerous and has wasted a real strategic opportunity to assert itself amidst the violence in Syria and unrest in Iraq.

Is ISIS, or any group similar to it, the new face of terror in the region?

As US policymakers and strategists evaluated their efforts against Al Qaeda over the last decade, they have seen enormous effectiveness against “Al Qaeda Central,” which all but ceased to exist as an organization. This is the good news. The bad news is that Al Qaeda has set up franchises in a number of countries, the most dangerous of which is in Yemen, taking the brand name and trading on it. That development is concerning — it is not as much of a concern as Al Qaeda Central, not least because in places like Yemen, the central government has some control, the security forces are dedicated to eradicating these groups. This general problem of Al Qaeda splintering into groups that pose some degree of localized threat — not a strategic threat to the United States — is worrisome, but it is not the same type of threat that was posed a decade ago.

There are other reasons to not panic. In the case of ISIS, the organization appears to do a poor job of learning the lessons of history: what happens to insurgents when they try to take and hold ground prematurely, and what happens when one uses violence indiscriminately, especially against Muslims. ISIS is not looking like it will endure — it will certainly not be in the “Al Qaeda Hall of Fame.” It looks more like a footnote to history. This does not mean it will not kill many innocent people, but this is its stumbling block.

In January 2014, ISIS-affiliated groups took control of Ramadi and parts of Fallujah, in Iraq’s Anbar Province. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s first reaction, however, was not direct military action but rather to call on local tribes to oust the insurgents. How do memories of movements like the Anbar Awakening guide counterinsurgency strategy inside Iraq — are these movements wholly dissimilar from previous iterations, necessitating an equally new counterinsurgency strategy? 

Because there are no American troops inside the country, the Iraqi government must conduct this counterinsurgency campaign alone. It will use any and all of the resources available to it. One of these resources is the tribes. It took the United States a long time to figure out that the Anbar tribes were one of its resources in the fight against Al Qaeda and other Sunni insurgents in the province. The Iraqi government is learning the lessons of history in ways that ISIS is not.

I must also point out that the United States was relatively limited in the amount of indiscriminate violence it could use against insurgents who seized and held ground — it was an outside power, and cared about international public opinion. The world community grants a lot more latitude to sovereign states that use force inside their own borders against insurgent groups. The Iraqi government is far more likely to use force indiscriminately in kicking ISIS out of its territory than the Americans could. The Iraqis do not have the precision weapons or intelligence to use force as precisely as the United States. Maliki thinks it is a whole lot easier to kill ISIS insurgents when they have gathered in one place and put up a flag — like in Ramadi — than it is to rout them from the population. Maliki, although he faces a short-term problem, is confident that this development, like a pimple, will clear up once he squeezed hard enough — and he certainly has the means with which to apply pressure on ISIS.

ISIS was born in the years after the withdrawal of US combat personnel from Iraq. How have the insurgent entities inside the country evolved since 2003, and is the current threat unique from those that faced Baghdad and coalition forces throughout the last decade?

ISIS poses a less significant threat than many other groups since 2003. The Iraqi government is sovereign, it exercises control over its territory, has large, reasonably capable security forces to call upon. There was a time, particularly around the time of the first Battle of Fallujah, when Sunnis and Shias united against the United States. There was no Iraqi government, and there was a real danger of lasting damage to the country’s political future. In spring 2004, the expulsion of US forces was a real possibility in response to the Battle of Fallujah — later these challenges grew into the Sunni-Shia civil war that threatened to split the country and region irreparably. Compared to these obstacles and threats, ISIS is simply not that big of a deal for the Iraqi government.

The organization is relatively unthreatening because it does not represent a significant portion of the population, it is not powerful enough to oppose the government, and mostly because the Iraqi government has significant security forces of its own. It is not going to collapse as a result of pressure from ISIS. That said, Maliki has not done a very good job of reaching out to the Sunnis — a number of them feel disenfranchised, and probably are not as willing to take personal risks to fight against insurgents as they should be and would be if Maliki had played his Sunni relations differently. The recent ISIS attacks are a wake-up call for Maliki to do two things, both of which I believe he will undertake: more effective outreach to the Sunnis, and development  of a closer relationship to the United States.

When American soldiers left Iraq in 2011, Maliki refused to sign a defense treaty with the United States. How is this decision haunting him today?

His government has come back to the United States asking for more security assets to be stationed inside Iraq. He would love to have Apache attack helicopters of his own. Barring that, he would equally love American Apache helicopters that he could call upon to support government-led assaults, for instance. He would love American fixed-wing aircraft to call upon, and American intelligence assets — these are not on the ground because he refused any security agreement.

This deep need for American combat support should be an important lesson for President Karzai in Afghanistan, where ISAF forces are preparing to withdraw. The long-term security arrangement countries like Iraq or Afghanistan need with the United States is one in which the US provides the key high-end assets unavailable to poorer nations. The US does not want to station tens of thousands of soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan for the long-term, but it does want to provide the high-end assets that literally no other country in the world can replicate.

Is such an agreement and support for the Iraqi government possible? The US is selling various weapons systems to the Iraqi government, and will put some technical crew on the ground to provide maintenance and deployment instructions. It would have been a whole lot better for Iraq to have stationed its battalions of Apaches next to an American battalion on the same airbase, and learned from real hands-on experience. There is no way the US will station troops in Iraq ever again — it will sell them hardware, but the Iraqis will be far less effective at maintaining and using these products as they could have been.

This is the Iraqis’ fault. They said no to such an agreement. They will reap the rewards of this decision for decades.

Karzai must heed this warning.

According to many media outlets, ISIS, and its local counterparts, seemingly represent a violently sectarian type of conflict in Iraq, Syria, and other neighboring countries like Lebanon. Is it folly to understand the insurgent activity strictly through the sectarian lens? 

The violence is far more than a sectarian dispute. It is crucial to understand the Sunni-Shia split to make sense of Iraqi politics, but ISIS is a radical subgroup of a sect, and does not speak for that sect as a whole. For students of the region, it is crucial to understand the field on which these conflicts play out, including the specific objectives of individuals and small groups. ISIS is a splinter faction.

Aid from the United States to groups fighting ISIS in Syria is, so far, strictly non-lethal. Yet American allies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been funneling arms and money into the country. How can US policymakers reconcile these regional concerns with its broader strategy?

The problem in Syria is that the so-called moderate groups are now linked to Al Qaeda. There was a window of opportunity when there were true moderates that could have ruled Syria, but it has closed. These individuals, for the most part, are dead. The US does not want Assad to remain in power, but does not prefer the groups fighting against him at this time. There will be a low-grade war in Syria for a number of years, with spillovers like ISIS in Iraq.

It is not at all clear that the intervention of any state other than the United States could prove decisive. What states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and others, are doing is prolonging a low-grade civil war that nobody can win, and through which the entire region destabilizes.

Policymakers saw a not completely dissimilar situation in Bosnia in the 1990s. Europe dithered, and the intervention of the US was decisive in bringing an end to that conflict. There is zero chance the Americans will intervene in Syria. And frankly, the American people do not care very much what happens.

Although stunning, the gains made by ISIS in Iraq — and in Syria, where they have been battling Assad’s forces; the local Al Qaeda franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra; and the remnants of the Free Syrian Army — seem strictly military. Could a franchise like ISIS successfully topple either the Assad or Maliki government, or consolidate the hypothetical military victory into effective political government?

It is possible that ISIS could topple Assad’s government, which is not particularly strong. It is extremely unlikely that it could topple Maliki’s government. There is a public and widespread insurgency against Assad, whereas there is no such parallel in Iraq. ISIS represents a low-grade insurgency with very little public support.

Even in Syria, Assad has the weapon systems and power of a modern state, and clear staying power. Only a coup from inside, I think, could realistically topple his regime.


JOHN NAGL is the former President of the Center for New American Security and the author of the American military’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual. He served in both Iraq Wars, and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army.

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