The rise of Islamic State (IS) across parts of the Middle East has galvanised the international community in a way not seen since September 11. But before a military response is considered, western nations need to ask whether IS has staying power. Its spectacular growth may be hiding a dysfunctional governing apparatus that could quickly self-destruct, weakening any justification for a pre-emptive western military response.
If IS is already headed towards implosion, a military response could hasten its demise. But if a functional state with a growing constituency is emerging, military confrontation with the West will only build its legitimacy and help to mobilise new recruits. Identifying which applies in this case is the key question that decision-makers must determine.
Establishing a functional state will depend upon the militants’ ability to transition the skills gained in fighting wars to those required for governance. In particular, success will be necessary in three areas: establishing public security, delivering basic goods and services and creating a perception of legitimacy.
History tells us these criteria – not democratic niceties, secularism or a moderate hand – will make or break IS.
In recent times, the efforts of Islamic militants to establish public security have had mixed results. The Islamic Courts Union in Somalia, originating from a network of courts that brought order to a war-torn country, was welcomed despite the harsh enforcement of sharia law as it brought stability and a consistent application of law.
Others such as Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq imploded not long after taking control of western Iraq, largely because its brand of violence was wanton. There was no method to his madness. The exhibition of violence that has so appalled the West, as long as it is directed in support of public security, will contribute to IS’s staying power.
As far as the provision of basic needs, the inability of Islamic militants to provide for the people has brought down established groups. Hamas’ 2006 Palestian election win was largely seen as a revolt against the corruption of the ruling Fatah party and its inability to deliver services to Gazans.
However, Gaza’s isolation got the best of Hamas, preventing it from delivering its promised improvements in Gazans’ economic circumstances. As a result, Hamas’ popularity diminished, revived only through bursts of conflict with Israel. Today, Fatah once again is Gaza’s preferred government as Hamas proved itself no better in managing an isolated economy than its predecessors.
Lastly, the legitimacy gained fighting holy wars is often lost as warriors transition to governing and new-found power corrupts. The Taliban in Afghanistan came to power in response to the chaos of a country in disintegration, divided into fiefdoms run by warlords where random threats to life, criminal activity and corruption ruled. Its original proposition to the people was as simple students restoring peace and order.
Less than five years later, the Taliban’s welcome was worn thin. The corruption driven by the opium trade and a perception of being Pakistani puppets undermined its legitimacy.
For IS, anecdotal reports suggest it has succeeded in re-establishing a functional economy with markets and goods available to residents across areas of their control. It has pushed out warlords and profiteers and punished criminals. According to one report, tax officials offer receipts for payments that are less than the bribes previously paid to the Assad regime.
Fundamentalist edicts determining the law may seem antiquated and counterproductive. However, if the perception of purity and holiness is applied, for example to combat corruption – a particularly hated element of life in Iraq and Syria – the results can be very effective. This transition to governing has been made all the more viable with IS’s takeover of Mosul. Its considerable financial resources have made IS one of the richest terrorist organisations in the world.
Snippets of information such as these suggest that IS is likely to last, especially as its power is buttressed by considerable support from Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunni Arabs.
Returning to the three critical factors for a functional state, any direct military involvement would only contribute to strengthening IS’s legitimacy in the eyes of its constituency, while the extreme brand of sharia law is unlikely to create a security vacuum that would weaken public security. The only remaining option to decision-makers is to weaken IS’s ability to monopolise the provision of basic needs to the people.
This option is morally fraught. It impacts those who are passive bystanders swept up in the turmoil of the Middle East rather than the active participants – the militants. But considering the extreme nature of the threat to this and future generations under their rule and those within their reach, as well as IS’s breaches of the most basic and universally held codes of morality, it may well be that in this case, the ends could justify the means.