The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has come to the forefront of the world's attention in recent months. It has captured a great deal of territory across Syria and Iraq, and has shocked the world with its brutal tactics.
Just last week, information started swirling around that ISIS was planning to attack subways in the United States and Paris, with New York City being a prime target. Not surprisingly, many Americans are quite concerned about the threat these extremists pose.
Truthfully, ISIS is more of a regional threat than anything. This does not mean that it should not be taken seriously, but that we all need to keep things in perspective. Terrorists want to spread fear, and they want people to buy into the hype.
Indeed, terrorism is often defined as "the threat and use of both psychological and physical force in violation of international law, by state and sub-state agencies for strategic and political goals." Terrorists want to scare people into doing things that will benefit them.
The last time the United States did this, it began two costly and miserable wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) that accomplished little and, in many ways, led to the rise of ISIS.
The United States started bombing ISIS back in August, but at that point, the air strikes were limited to Iraq. Now, however, the United States is also bombing ISIS in Syria, which began on September 23.
Correspondingly, there is now a coalition of nations fighting against ISIS.
President Obama stated that the ultimate goal of the United States and its airstrikes is to "degrade and destroy" ISIS. Yet, there is little evidence that this is possible.
The United States cannot destroy ISIS, but with the cooperation of international and regional partners, it can help contain it. Here's why:
You Can't Destroy An Idea
Think about the problem of ISIS like the Vietnam War. During the Cold War, the United States invaded Vietnam because it wanted to stop the spread of what it perceived to be a radical ideal: communism. Similarly, ISIS is a radical threat that the United States wants to eliminate.
Yet, in the end, despite the fact that the United States killed far more North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters than Americans were killed, it lost the Vietnam War. The United States won the battles, but lost the war.
Why? Because it failed to acknowledge the power of an ideology. Furthermore, the United States failed to win over the hearts and minds of both the Vietnamese and many of the American people.
At present, the situation in the Middle East is quite similar. Americans do not support a ground invasion pretty much anywhere in the Middle East, and the United States and Obama are both extremely unpopular in the region. Politically, this fight is not in America's favor. While Americans do support the airstrikes against ISIS, this isn't really a solution to the problem, which we will get into later.
Whenever you attempt to address a political issue with military force, things will undoubtedly get messy. Moreover, history has also shown that terrorist organizations rarely end as a product of military force.
In fact, since 1968, only 20 out of 263 terrorist organizations have been destroyed by military force. Numbers don't lie.
You can kill people, but you can't kill an idea.
Historically, terrorist organizations motivated by religion have a higher rate of survival than organizations motivated by secular politics. As ISIS is driven by a distorted and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, this does not bode very well for those attempting to fight it.
Airstrikes Are A Superficial Solution To A Complex Problem
With airstrikes, a country involves itself in a problem, without ever fully engaging in it. In other words, it's kind of like spraying air freshener over a pile of dog sh*t. Sure, things smell a little bit better, but the sh*t is still there. You have to get your hands dirty to really address the problem.
This is not to say that America should invade Syria and Iraq in order to eradicate ISIS. The United States has learned the hard way that sending boots on the ground into the Middle East often results in long-term commitments and little success.
Moreover, ISIS often operates in heavily-populated areas. Airstrikes are very ineffective in these instances, and typically lead to heavy civilian casualties. This is precisely why the Kurdish troops fighting ISIS have said the American airstrikes have essentially done nothing.
Correspondingly, as Zach Beauchamp of Vox puts it:
There is no magic American bullet that could fix the ISIS problem. Even an intensive, decades-long American ground effort — something that is politically not on the table, anyways — might only make the problem worse. The reason is that ISIS's presence in Iraq and Syria is fundamentally a political problem, not a military one.
Indeed, no amount of military might will solve this problem. It's too complex.
Similarly, both the War in Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq War failed to achieve their ultimate goals. Although, to be fair, the 2003 Iraq War didn't have very many clear goals to begin with.
With that said, the Taliban is still very active, as well is al-Qaeda. Many experts now agree that ISIS is the most radical and wealthiest terrorist organization in history. Thus, if the United States failed to eradicate the Taliban and al-Qaeda, it would be foolish to believe it can destroy ISIS.
Is There A Solution?
Part of the reason ISIS is so strong is due to a steady flow of revenue. If the United States and its allies have any hope of defeating ISIS, they have to cut off its funding. This is crucial.
Likewise, the United States might want to reconsider any strategy that involves training or arming local fighters against ISIS. As it found out with Afghanistan, arms and supplies can fall into the wrong hands.
Most importantly, as learned with the Vietnam War, and the War in Terror in general, the United States must ensure that it has a strong political strategy for addressing ISIS. Simply put, President Obama needs the support of the American public, Congress and the rest of the world in order to degrade these terrorists. This is a complex problem that cannot be solved alone.
Photo Courtesy: VICE ISIS