The rise of ISIS and similar Fourth Generation entities poses a conundrum. On the one hand, it is in our interest to uphold the state system, which puts us at odds with non-state forces. On the other hand, direct intervention with U.S. military forces has repeatedly failed. It has often worked to the advantage of the Fourth Generation forces that are our greatest threat, as we saw in Iraq, where there would be no ISIS today if we had not overthrown Saddam.
What we need is a way to act effectively against ISIS and similar entities. We must accept at the outset that America’s favorite military tool, air strikes, will work only in a few situations, and then mostly just at the tactical level. It is important we not be misled by the local success we have attained against ISIS by supporting the Kurdish Peshmerga with air strikes. They only worked because we had an effective force on the ground to support, the terrain was open, and ISIS was sloppy about camouflage, deception and embedding its forces in civilian populations. Similar air strikes are not likely to prove effective in support of the Iraqi army because that army is not competent and ISIS will quickly learn how to protect itself from air attack.
We must also accept the rule that the more obvious the American role is, the less likely we are to succeed at the strategic level. The problem, which I have discussed in previous columns, is that we become Goliath while clever 4GW opponents know how to play David. This is van Creve1d’s “power of weakness,” and it is often decisive in 4GW. Anything we do must have a light footprint. So what might work? The key is to realize that ISIS and many other 4GW entities are loose coalitions of elements that are often in tension with each other. If you press them from outside, you push them together, which makes the entity stronger. What can defeat ISIS and other such non-state opponents is pulling them apart from within by leveraging their internal divisions.
How might this be done? The starting point is intelligence and analysis that enables us to identify the elements of the coalition and the tensions among them. Our intelligence agencies alone are not likely to be able to do this. We will need to turn to other sources of expertise, including academics who specialize in the region, local allies who may personally know some of those on the other side and the intelligence services of international allies, who may know more about a particular place than we do. The Russian intelligence services could be especially useful here; regrettably, our short-sighted policy of hostility toward Russia makes their cooperation unlikely.
Once we have developed an image of the mosaic we face, we must reach inside it with a mixture of promises and threats–mostly promises, many of them involving money–and seek to exacerbate its existing feuds. Entities such as ISIS that, publicly at least, are led by religious fanatics will be especially vulnerable to leveraging of internal differences because many elements of their coalition will loathe the fanatics and the tyranny they impose.
How might we reach inside our opponent? At one time, the CIA was rather good at that. But I fear it is no longer. Over time, it has re-focused on photo intelligence and direct action so much–another Second Generation attempt to reduce war to identifying and putting firepower on targets–that it may not be able to do much else. Our special operations forces are not likely to be better, again because of a recent over-focus on direct action. Both local and international allies may be our best bet. With ISIS, others in the Arab world are likely to have contact with the Baathist elements in ISIS’s coalition, which I think have been decisive in its military success. If the Baathists could be split from the Islamic puritans, ISIS would crumble. That would mean, of course, that the Baath would have to be assured a post-ISIS future, either in a united Iraq (unlikely) or in an independent entity, the equivalent of Kurdistan, for Iraq’s Sunnis.
All of ISIS is not in Iraq; much is in Syria. There the answer to ISIS is much simpler: support the Assad government. It has been doing quite well with Iranian and Russian support, but we could no doubt help. The obstacle, as is so often the case, is the imbecility of the Washington foreign policy establishment. Bleating endlessly about “democracy”–which has worked so well in the Middle East–they will claim they cannot support a “dictator and war criminal“ such as Assad. They are ISIS’s best friend and most effective ally.
The conundrum of having to choose between doing nothing or doing what does not work when faced with 4GW opponents is solvable. It requires capabilities we used to have and allowed to atrophy, but they can be revived, and in the meantime allies can help. Regrettably, nothing can inject the necessary dose of realism into our foreign policy establishment, without which we will continue to avoid what might work while pursuing what is impossible. So long as that establishment endures, 4GW will strengthen and spread.