Skip to main content

Fighting the Islamic State

Fighting the Islamic State

by Munir
September 14 05:54 AM
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

PRESIDENT Obama announced a “strategy” to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State (formerly, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) on Sept 10. The announcement came scarcely two weeks after Obama had explained US reluctance to escalate military action against IS by admitting he did not have a strategy to deal with this challenge. He was roundly criticised by US politicians and pundits for his honest admission.

The announced strategy comprises four components: first, systematic air strikes against IS in Iraq , in coordination with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and in Syria if IS there threatens Americans; second, increased support (training, intelligence, equipment) to those fighting “these terrorists”; third, improving counterterrorism capabilities: intelligence, counter-narrative, preventing the flow of Western jihadis and mobilising the international community; and four, continuing humanitarian assistance to civilians and threatened religious groups.

In fact, the announced ‘strategy’ looks very similar to what the US has been doing already for the past several weeks against IS. The two new elements are: the apparent US willingness to attack IS in Syria and the aim of building a broad coalition against it, including the major Arab states and Turkey.

It is not wholly evident why IS has emerged as America’s top military target.

It is not wholly evident why IS has emerged as America’s top military target. The head of US Homeland Security confirmed, before Obama’s speech, that there is “no direct threat from ISIS” to the US. There is no evidence of ISIS plans to attack the US or even the desire to do so. It poses a regional threat and may attack US targets there. The presence of ‘foreign fighters’ (3,000 from Europe and 100 from the US) is a possible future threat when they return home. The official said that the major threat to the US homeland still emanates from Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Thus, superficially, Obama’s new anti-IS priority seems to have been driven purely by domestic considerations: on one hand, the growing criticism of his responses to foreign policy challenges, including IS successes, and, on the other, the higher US public support for action against the group after its brutal beheading of two American journalists.

There is no assurance the Obama “strategy” will be successful, especially without US “boots on the ground”. There may be unintended consequences. Attacking IS may create the very threat it is meant to avoid. It may make Sunni reconciliation within a united Iraq more difficult and enhance Kurdish capabilities to break away from Iraq. Degrading IS would also strengthen the Assad regime in Syria.

Yet, Obama’s ‘strategy’ could become the start of a broader plan to stabilise the region.

The 150-plus US air strikes against IS in Iraq have inevitably brought the US into operational alliance with Iranian military advisers known to be attached with the Iraqi army and Shia militias acting as its auxiliaries. Both the US and Iran have declared that there can be no direct cooperation with the other. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has indeed asserted that IS is an American creation.

But perhaps they protest too much. Iran’s foreign minister declared some months ago that Iran is prepared to cooperate with other parties to end the sectarian conflicts in the region. It is widely known that the US and Iran have held secret talks for several years which enabled them to reach the interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. They also have had quiet contacts in Baghdad.

In exchange for American and Arab cooperation in degrading IS, which poses a threat to Iran’s allies in both Baghdad and Damascus, and a fair agreement regarding its nuclear programme, Tehran could help to ensure an inclusive government in Iraq, broker a political settlement between Assad and moderate insurgent groups in Syria, dampen the Shia opposition to the Sunni regimes in Bahrain and Yemen, restrain Hezbollah’s threat to Israel and end its support to Hamas.

It is possible that at least some aspects of such a ‘bargain’ have been discussed. Such discussions may have encouraged the Obama administration to launch the strategy against IS.

To be successful, the strategy would also require the support of the major Arab states. Saudi Arabia’s initiative to convene a meeting of 10 Arab states and Turkey in Jeddah is significant. Saudi Arabia and the UAE now consider the Muslim Brotherhood and related extremist groups a threat to their own stability and are determined to suppress them. A US strategy which both degrades IS and other Sunni extremist groups, including the Brotherhood, and secures Iran’s cooperation to contain Shia militias and insurgents across the region, would be doubly attractive. In turn, the contribution of these Arab powers would be essential to wean the Sunni tribes in Iraq away from IS and reach a political settlement in Syria.

As yet, Arab support to Obama’s anti-IS strategy is not universal. Egypt has its hands full with putting down the Brotherhood. Jordan fears the backlash from IS which now operates just across its borders with Iraq and Syria. Turkey is worried about the fate of its 49 diplomats captured by IS and averse to reinforcing Kurdish forces, which include the anti-Turkish PKK. Qatar’s closeness to the Brotherhood and other Sunni extremists has complicated its relationships with the US and its GCC neighbours.

A ‘grand bargain’ involving the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia and their respective allies and proxies would be obviously most difficult to construct and consummate. Proxies and puppets are not always easy to control. There is enormous and accumulated mistrust between the principal parties. And the sheer number and complexity of the local, sub-national and regional issues that need to be addressed is daunting.

Unless a comprehensive strategy is pursued, the fight against IS is likely to prove frustrating. Air strikes with ground support from unreliable local forces; eliminating IS’s financial sources and countering its brutal ideology will not be sufficient to destroy it. The legitimate grievances that attract its recruits will have to be addressed. Ultimately, eliminating extremism in the region will require the rapid generation of jobs and economic development.

stake is the present and future stability of the Middle East — a region in the midst of multiple and violent transitions — and its impact on the world order.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, September 14th , 2014

Popular posts from this blog

A historic moment in the Arab world

لحظة تاريخية في العالم العربي
As a democratic revolution led by tech-empowered young people sweeps the Arab world, Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera's director-general, shares a profoundly optimistic view of what's happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and beyond. In the first talk posted online from the TED 2011 conference in California, Khanfar describes the powerful moment when people realised they could step out of their homes and ask for change. "كما ثورة ديمقراطية بقيادة الشباب التكنولوجيا ذات صلاحيات تجتاح العالم العربي ، وضاح خنفر ، الجزيرة المدير العام والأسهم وجهة نظر متفائلة بشكل كبير ما يحدث في مصر وتونس وليبيا وخارجها. وفي اول حديث له نشر على الانترنت من مؤتمر تيد 2011 في ولاية كاليفورنيا ، خنفر يصف لحظة قوية عند الناس أدركت أنها لا يمكن الخروج من منازلهم ونطلب من أجل التغيير." This talk was given on March 1, 2011 in Long Beach, California. TED 2011 is taking place between March 1 and Mar…

Corona & Attitude of Ulema of Pakistan - Point to Ponder

Faith is entirely a personal matter, which cannot be measured or quantified. Anyone who declares to believe in 6 Fundamentals and 5 Pillars of Islam is considered as a Muslim even if he lacks in practice.
 کرونا اور علماء پاکستان کا رویہ - لمحہ فکریہ:پاکستان اس وقت  تک ترقی نہیں کر سکتا  جب تک ہم اس جاہل ، مزہبی انتہا پسند طبقے کی اس زہنیت سےچھٹکارا  نہیں حاصل  کر لیتے جو مساجد ، مذہب کو کنٹرول کرکہ  زیادہ جاہل عوام کو گمراہ  کرتے ہیں۔  اسلام کو ان جہلا کے شکنجے بچایا جانا صروری ہے۔ .....[....]
We find many people looking "more Muslim" than others due to their outlook and activities in display, yet it's not a measuring  tool for their level of faith , which is only known to Allah. However they consider ONLY themselves  to be entitled to  exercise control on religion, which is contested because authenticity of any opinion on religious matter is conditional to the reference and authority from Holy Scripture. 
Allah has not authorized anyone to present their personal opinions …

Kashmir Jihad - Analysis & Options


Kashmir is an incomplete agenda of partition of India. Since 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars on this issue. According to UN resolutions, Kashmiris have to decide their accession to Pakistan or India through impartial plebiscite, which could not take place due to Indian reluctance. Recently, India revoked Article 370 of the Constitution, which granted special autonomous status to Kashmir, it was done to unilaterally integrate occupied Kashmir. This is a violation of the UN resolutions and the Simla bilateral agreement, which demands to maintain status quo until the final settlement. The US and world powers are emphasizing that Kashmir should be resolved bilaterally, though India has refused to hold talks with Pakistan. In the present scenario, while India has turned Kashmir into the largest prison of 9 million people, denying basic human rights and oppressing the Kashmiris' who want freedom from India, Pakistan cannot watch as a silent spec…