ISIS: Crush it or bleed it?

Yesterday, I recommended an article by Graeme Wood about ISIS. Wood closely examines ISIS’s ideology which, not surprisingly, turns out to be thoroughly Islamic, though not embraced by most Muslims.

Wood shows that President Obama’s failure to grasp what ISIS is about led to dangerously flawed decisions. He concludes by considering the implications of his analysis for the big question of the moment — how to deal with ISIS going forward.

Wood discusses two approaches to defeating ISIS: (1) sending in thousands of ground troops and (2) “bleeding” ISIS through air strikes and proxy armies, as Wood says we are doing now.

From what I can tell, Wood is politically left of center. However, he doesn’t dismiss large-scale military intervention out of hand:

One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate.

Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding. Former pledges could of course continue to attack the West and behead their enemies, as freelancers. But the propaganda value of the caliphate would disappear, and with it the supposed religious duty to immigrate and serve it.

If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

Wood, however, rejects the large-scale interventionist approach. In part, he rejects it because ISIS wants us to fight it on the ground. This is a non-sequitur.

Wood also contends that, given our track record, we might well botch an intervention. This is a serious argument. It militates against intervention if our “contain ISIS by bleeding it” strategy is viable.

Wood argues that it is:

Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people. . . .

Properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor. As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive. And as more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited: No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like.

As for the threat ISIS poses to the U.S. while it is being “bled,” Wood has this to say:

[ISIS’s] threat to the United States is smaller than its all too frequent conflation with al-Qaeda would suggest. Al-Qaeda’s core is rare among jihadist groups for its focus on the “far enemy” (the West); most jihadist groups’ main concerns lie closer to home.

That’s especially true of the Islamic State, precisely because of its ideology. It sees enemies everywhere around it, and while its leadership wishes ill on the United States, the application of Sharia in the caliphate and the expansion to contiguous lands are paramount. Baghdadi has said as much directly: in November he told his Saudi agents to “deal with the rafida [Shia] first … then al-Sulul [Sunni supporters of the Saudi monarchy] … before the crusaders and their bases.”

The foreign fighters (and their wives and children) have been traveling to the caliphate on one-way tickets: they want to live under true Sharia, and many want martyrdom. Doctrine, recall, requires believers to reside in the caliphate if it is at all possible for them to do so. . . .

This is a credible line of analysis, though Wood acknowledges that it is not without difficulties. I believe Wood overlooks some of the most important ones.

First, he assumes that our air strikes and reliance on proxies are, in fact, bleeding ISIS to a degree that, coupled with proxy armies, will contain it. But is this the case?

Are we killing more fighters than ISIS is recruiting? If, as reports suggests, new recruits continue to swell the ranks of ISIS’s army, then we probably can’t rely on the Kurds to contain the Islamic State. Eventually, they may well be overwhelmed.

Moreover, in Syria, for the most part, we have no proxy army. As for “the Shia,” we are relying here, to an uncomfortable degree, on Iran. Is that wise?

Wood also overlooks the fact that ISIS can expand the reach of its “caliphate” by winning over existing Islamic terrorist groups. This appears to be what has happened in Libya. Until it suffers a devastating defeat, ISIS is likely to be the terrorist group of choice for fighters belonging to less successful outfits. What other group controls a swath of territory approaching ISIS’s? What other group regularly murders dozens of infidels and apostates on camera?

Might a U.S. military intervention be botched? Probably not insofar as routing ISIS is concerned. We had no serious difficulty routing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s forces. Even under President Obama, we can expect success in routing ISIS.

But what happens next? Bret Stephens, in his excellent book America in Retreat, argues that our military interventions should, essentially, be limited to defeating the bad guys, without staying on to oversee governance. I agree in theory.

But as a practical matter in Iraq, can we be confident that, unless we stay on as an occupier, ISIS won’t regroup or morph into some comparably hideous incarnation? And how could we prevent it from regrouping in Syria, where, presumably, we would be hard-pressed to stay on even if we wanted to?

The answer, perhaps, is that we would rely on “proxies” to prevent ISIS’s reemergence. It’s clearly not a fully satisfactory answer, given past experience. However, we are already relying on proxies. And they will stand a better chance of coping with ISIS or its successor if the U.S. has crushed it than they do now, with ISIS entrenched in its caliphate and still seemingly on the roll.