There are, to be sure, some less infamous but hard-working, credential-stuffed folks suggesting strategies for defeating ISIS. The Kagans — Kimberly and Frederick — along with Jessica D. Lewis published a monograph this month for the Institute for the Study of War. (NRO and TWS have executive summaries.) Professor Robert G. Kaufman has offered a measured proposal. Max Boot, journalist and national-security expert, outlined a proposed strategy in testimony to Congress this summer. Fellows of the Washington Institute, reportedly including retired Marine Corps General John Allen — who has now been tapped to coordinate Obama’s effort in Iraq — will be discussing the strategy to defeat ISIS in a forum to be held on 22 September. Even the Center for American Progress has a strategy for defeating ISIS (although theirs, quite frankly, is more of a checklist of policy priorities than an actual “strategy”).
But there’s no denying people’s eyes glaze over when they’re confronted with the strategy proposals of experts. There’s only so much the average brain can take of core challenges, problem statements, and strategic objectives. Just blow something up, already. Get the job done. We’ll know we’ve defeated ISIS when everything stops moving in the smoking rubble.
Fortunately, “Chelsea” Manning has come out with a proposed strategy for defeating ISIS, which has the merit of dispensing with the boring parts. The Guardian offers it as Manning’s first polemical effort on their Comment is Free opinion page, and I note that it already has over 800 comments.
Manning begins by establishing her professional bona fides:
Based on my experience as an all-source analyst in Iraq during the organization’s relative infancy, Isis cannot be defeated by bombs and bullets – even as the fight is taken to Syria, even if it is conducted by non-Western forces with air support.
She explains what fuels ISIS:
I believe that Isis is fueled precisely by the operational and tactical successes of European and American military force that would be – and have been – used to defeat them. I believe that Isis strategically feeds off the mistakes and vulnerabilities of the very democratic western states they decry. The Islamic State’s center of gravity is, in many ways, the United States, the United Kingdom and those aligned with them in the region.
Attacking ISIS, of course, only makes ISIS stronger:
Attacking Isis directly, by air strikes or special operations forces, is a very tempting option available to policymakers, with immediate (but not always good) results. Unfortunately, when the west fights fire with fire, we feed into a cycle of outrage, recruitment, organizing and even more fighting that goes back decades. This is exactly what happened in Iraq during the height of a civil war in 2006 and 2007, and it can only be expected to occur again.
She mentions her intel credentials again:
Based on my intelligence work in Iraq during that period, I believe that only a very focused and consistent strategy of containment can be effective in reducing the growth and effectiveness of Isis as a threat.
What should be the elements of this strategy of containment? Manning suggests focusing on four areas:
- Counter the narrative in online Isis recruitment videos – including professionally made videos and amateur battle selfies – to avoid, as best as possible, the deliberate propaganda targeting of desperate and disaffected youth. This would rapidly prevent the recruitment of regional and western members.
- Set clear, temporary borders in the region, publicly. This would discourage Isis from taking certain territory where humanitarian crises might be created, or humanitarian efforts impeded.
- Establish an international moratorium on the payment of ransom for hostages, and work in the region to prevent Isis from stealing and taxing historical artifacts and valuable treasures as sources of income, and especially from taking over the oil reserves and refineries in Bayji, Iraq. This would disrupt and prevent Isis from maintaining stable and reliable sources of income.
- Let Isis succeed in setting up a failed “state” – in a contained area and over a long enough period of time to prove itself unpopular and unable to govern. This might begin to discredit the leadership and ideology of Isis for good.
This whole thing will require discipline, however:
Eventually, if they are properly contained, I believe that Isis will not be able to sustain itself on rapid growth alone, and will begin to fracture internally. …
But the world just needs to be disciplined enough to let the Isis fire die out on its own, intervening carefully and avoiding the cyclic trap of “mission creep”. This is certainly a lot to ask for. But Isis is wielding a sharp, heavy and very deadly double-edged sword. Now just wait for them to fall on it.
It would probably be unsporting to point out just what sort of cost would be incurred by Iraqis and Syrians — and who knows what others — while the world disciplined itself to wait for ISIS to fall on its sword. In the final analysis, however, Chelsea Manning’s strategy does have something that sets it apart decisively from the strategies advanced from more conventional quarters. It is very rare for a strategist’s editor to provide this kind of notification about his author (in the staff responses to reader comments):
Just to clarify: the illustration that accompanies the author bio on this piece was made in cooperation with Chelsea Manning, as an artistic representation of how she sees herself.
US Opinion Editor
It is gratifying to see that opinion leaders in an unraveling world are keeping things in perspective.