Tue, Sep 22, 2015 - Page 9 News List

US needs higher level of sophistication to fight the Islamic State

By Joseph Nye

The Islamic State has captured the world’s attention with gruesome videos of beheadings, wanton destruction of antiquities and skilled use of social media. It has also captured a large part of eastern Syria and western Iraq, proclaimed a caliphate based in Raqqa, Syria, and attracted foreign fighters from around the world.

US President Barack Obama said that the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, must be degraded and ultimately defeated. He has appointed General John Allen to lead a coalition of about 60 nations in the task, relying on airstrikes, special forces and training missions. Some critics want him to send more US troops; others say that the US should settle for a doctrine of containment.

In the current US presidential campaign, some candidates are calling for “boots on the ground.” They are right: Boots are needed. However, the soldiers who wear them should be Sunni Arabs and Turks, not Americans. That says a lot about the nature of the triple threat that the US and its allies now face.

The Islamic State is three things: a transnational terrorist group, a proto-state and a political ideology with religious roots. It grew out of al-Qaeda after the misguided US-led invasion of Iraq; and, like al-Qaeda, it appeals to extremist Sunni Muslims. However, it has gone further by establishing a caliphate and is now a rival to al-Qaeda. Its possession of territory creates the legitimacy and capacity for offensive warfare, which it wages not only against non-Muslims, but also Shiite and Sufi Muslims, who it considers takfir, or not true Islamic monotheists.

The Islamic State extols the purity of 7th-century Islam, but it is extremely adept at using 21st-century media. Its videos and social media channels are effective tools for attracting a minority of Muslims — primarily young people from Europe, the US, Africa and Asia — who are struggling with their identity. Disgruntled, many are drawn to “Sheikh Google,” where Islamic State recruiters wait to prey upon them.

By some estimates, there are more than 25,000 foreign fighters serving in the Islamic State.

The tripartite nature of the Islamic State creates a policy dilemma. On the one hand, it is important to use hard military power to deprive the group of the territory that provides it both sanctuary and legitimacy. However, if the US military footprint is too heavy, the Islamic State’s soft power would be strengthened, thus aiding its global recruiting efforts.

That is why the boots on the ground must be Sunni Muslims. The presence of foreign or Shiite troops reinforces the Islamic State’s claim of being surrounded and challenged by “infidels.” So far, due largely to effective Kurdish forces, who are overwhelmingly Sunni, the Islamic State has lost about 30 percent of the territory it held a year ago. However, deploying additional Sunni infantry requires training, support and time, as well as pressure on Iraq’s Shiite-dominated central government to temper its sectarian approach.

After a debacle in Libya — where the Islamic State supports militias and has announced the creation of three “distant provinces” — Obama is understandably reluctant to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, only to see the Islamic State take control of more territory, accompanied by genocidal atrocities against Syria’s many non-Sunnis.

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