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Why defeating ISIS with military might is starry eyed idealism

A Syrian refugee flees from ISIS attack. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Just this past weekend of July 4, US-led coalition aircraft targeted the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria. It was one of the “largest deliberate engagements to date,” said a coalition spokesman, and it was executed “to deny [ISIS] the ability to move military capabilities throughout Syria and into Iraq.” The scale of these responses gives a hint both to how concerned we are about such groups–and to how badly we misunderstand how to deal with them.

ISIS–the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”–is the monster of our times, our Grendel. Every pundit, commentator, armchair warrior and presidential candidate, declared and otherwise, claims to have a strategy to defeat them. A steady stream of political statements offering answers to “what do we do about them?” have gotten progressively more hawkish.

Would-be presidents have given us options ranging from bombing ISIS “back to the 7th Century” (Rick Santorum), increasing the number of American troops in the fight (Lindsey Graham), and “look for them, find them and kill them” (Marco Rubio, quoting an action movie).

Bold words…and every one of them will fail, because they are far too idealistic to work in reality. If the candidates want realism, they’ll have to advocate something else: peacebuilding.

“War as utopian idealism” and “peacebuilding as hard-nosed realism” sounds like an absurd joke.

Here’s why it isn’t.

War is just politics by other means

Carl Von Clausewitz, one of history’s foremost military strategists and right at the foundation of American strategic teaching, famously called warfare an “extension of politics by other means.”

What he meant by that is that if military action is going to be successful, it cannot stand alone or direct itself. Unless it grows out of and complements a solid, sustainable political strategy, it will fail.

That was true in his day of formalized warfare; in today’s world, it’s even more critical an insight, because what the world faces in ISIS isn’t a war among uniformed armies and sovereign nations.

This conflict and others like it around the world are rooted in people, not states. It’s rooted in ideology and religion, in sectarian frictions, in political exclusion and social marginalization, in resources and access.

That’s a long list of root causes and conditions that do not respond to force and cannot be bombed out of existence.

In other words, if “defeat ISIS” isn’t couched within a clear, realistic plan to do the human, political, diplomatic and development work necessary to fix the problems that gave it rise, the mission will fail.

In its failure, it will leave behind the seeds of a new threat in fertile soil, just as ISIS itself grew from the roots of al-Qaeda even after the bloom was cut off above.

Peacebuilding, at its heart, means doing the hard work of correctly analyzing the causes and conditions that lead to violence and instability. It means identifying ways of breaking those causes down, and then doing the even harder work of helping to build healthy, resilient social and political structures in their place.

It’s work that’s usually dismissed as an exercise in starry-eyed, utopian idealism by a policy community dominated by the philosophy of nation states and Realpolitik. And yet over the last few years, the fallacy of that dismissal has become increasingly clear.

General James Mattis told Congress flatly that “if you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” General Phipps, former commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan, when asked about peacebuilding outreach to men he’d fought not long before, replied “That’s how wars end… we can’t kill our way out of this.”

The least effective tool against terrorism is war

Serious research centers have arrived at the same conclusion: the RAND Corporation, as far back as 2008, advised that outside military intervention is bar none the least effective way to make terrorist groups go away.

Ending the kind of conflicts we see most often today requires building inclusive governance and rule of law far more than it requires the defeat of a fighting force on the battlefield.

“Peacebuilding” is a broad category of work, which seeks to address the root causes of conflict and instability within populations and systems of governance. In conflicts that involve people more than states, any answer other than this shows a lack of understanding. Beginning now rather than waiting for the battlefield victory is an imperative, because it’s only through this work that the next battle gets less likely.

In fact the battlefield options - however satisfying they may seem in a tactical sense - often cause more trouble than they’re worth. The Saudis are discovering this in their campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, which is entirely military and has no parallel political component, and is having predictably destabilizing consequences.

Shiite fighters launch a rocket towards Islamic State militants on the outskirt of Bayji in Iraq. REUTERS/StringerATE

Yes, building peace is a long process that will take years, perhaps generations; but those years will pass whether or not we recognize the need for a more realistic foreign policy, and the only question is whether in years to come progress has been made, or the war goes on.

The discussion about ISIS, as with many others around the globe, has lost track of realism. Instead of looking at the military as an extension of politics, speakers across the board have begun to look at politics as secondary - something to worry about once the hard work of fighting’s done.

Practical actions for peace-building

What does this look like in practice? Here are four possible actions:

One: The “real battle” here isn’t with ISIS, it’s for the populations they’re trying to sway. There is no understating the power of the following scenario: An American politician saying, in a public forum, “I speak now to all of the population caught up in this fight, be you Sunni, Shiite, Yazidi, Kurd or otherwise, and I say, ‘It’s not just their destruction we have in mind - it’s your survival.

ISIS may prove impossible to talk with, but if we’re indiscriminate and also ignore the population who is looking to the outside world for engagement and help, we’re doing nothing but feeding into the vicious cycle.

Two: Make it clear to the populations concerned that we strive to address the problems they face, not just those symptoms of the problems that we face.

Speaking to the current fight but not the problems that gave rise to it and which will still exist once the smoke clears just comes across as naive and disingenuous. Make a clear statement, for example, that we will not support repressive regimes in exchange for expedient stability, but are prepared for the long haul of achieving stability through unfailing support for the ideals of inclusive good governance that we ourselves hold dear.

Three: My research and personal experience working for organizations in the region as well as many years spent in conflict-affected areas have shown me repeatedly that the real key to peace-building (as with development overall) isn’t “what you do,” it’s “how you do it.”

The most effective “how” is to look past states to see people, and provide incentives to get the population and government alike involved in designing and negotiating their own inclusive way forward - with our support, but not with our direction. Helping to build connectivity between the two - defined through trust, partnership and locally negotiated outcomes - is a powerful programmatic outcome.

It’s also a good working definition of “good governance,” and a more terrifying thought for ISIS than any weaponry can be.

Four: Most of all, recognize that the military neither can nor should be the primary vehicle for American engagement overseas, and reprioritize funding accordingly.

The military is not trained for the jobs that peace-building entails, but USAID, the State Department and most importantly non-governmental organizations, are.

The message we send by prioritizing our own national security agenda while underfunding the agencies whose core mission and skillset is to work with good governance, justice, peace and livelihoods, is that we have no intention of doing more than eradicating symptoms while leaving the causes unchecked.

The military does have its role to play in winning a battle, but if “war” is our only lens, we will see only battlefield solutions to a set of problems that can’t be solved with those. If we want to end the problem, we need to speak to the broad population with those tools that bring life, not death.

At some point an American president will be forced to recognize that fixing problems like the ones in Iraq and Syria is too complicated to sum up in a campaign slogan or sound bite. That’s the hard truth.

The only question is how much in blood, time and treasure will be wasted before this realization hits home.

Getting rid of ISIS and groups like it certainly requires seriousness and a willingness to get hard work done — but that doesn’t just mean preparing to get bloody. It means we need to be realistic and unafraid to say, “Our strategy is to build peace.”

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