American Interest

How to Beat ISIS: The President Is Partly Right

Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship

In a contentious press conference, President Obama vowed to stay the course regarding his ISIS policy in the wake of the Paris attacks. The AP reports

President Barack Obama on Monday conceded that the Paris terror attacks were a “terrible and sickening setback” in the fight against the Islamic State, but forcefully dismissed critics who have called for the U.S. to change or expand its military campaign against the extremists.

“The strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that is ultimately is going to work,” Obama said during a news conference at the close of two days of talks with world leaders. “It’s going to take time.”

Both in the United States and abroad, the reaction to the President’s statement has been largely negative. There is a very widespread view that President Obama’s own dilatory leadership style and his refusal to engage seriously in Syria gave ISIS the room it needed to take root and grow. It’s likely that future historians will agree; this president is unlikely to be hailed as a strategic genius by anybody not on his payroll.

Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that President Obama isn’t just blowing smoke when he talks about successes against ISIS. In particular, the strategy of helping the Kurds push ISIS back has led to significant progress on the ground. Just last week, the Kurds cleared ISIS out of Sinjar, and as a result of its military setbacks, ISIS has less access to fresh supplies and recruits coming through Turkey.

This matters. Groups like ISIS depend on two power sources. One is the radical jihadi ideology that now circulates widely among discontented Muslims and rootless young people in the Middle East and elsewhere. The other is the sense of victory and drama. ISIS needs to create wins and excitement to lure new recruits and keep its current fighters loyal and inspired.

The self-styled caliphate isn’t a major military power and has only been able to acquire and hold territory because of state breakdown in Iraq and Syria. For the last few years, ISIS has been following a successful formula: Rapid military gains on the ground led to a huge international profile, which in turn attracted jihadis from all around the globe and established the organization as the new leader of radical Islam. ISIS advertises its success with the pornography of jihad: bloody executions posted on the web, widespread announcements that it is selling captured girls in slave markets, massacres of the “heathen.”

The goal of the terrorists has always been to escape the drab realities of ordinary history and events, to create a kind of magical space—a return to the 7th century, the age of the Prophet, of miracles and legends. Joining the group offered a real life version of a video game.

The problem the jihadis are now facing is that while it is easy to create this kind of illusion in the short term, it is very hard to make it work over the long run. History grinds that kind of illusion down and drags those who tried to sustain it back into the world of real forces, real obstacles, real (as Clausewitz would say) friction.

We’ve seen this before. After 9/11, the great and dramatic attack created a legend, but then al-Qaeda was dragged down, and dogged by its adversaries. The group managed to survive the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, but, despite that, this attrition little-by-little (and sometimes big step-by-big step) damaged the brand. ISIS represented a new approach, and its victorious march across Syria and Iraq electrified the jihadi universe. But now ISIS, too, is beginning to sag.

On the ground these days, ISIS is engaged in a war of inches that will likely test its capacity to the limits, like its (lack of) ability to manage and operate supply lines, for example. The poor training and quality of its fighters will also now matter more. And the absence of dramatic victories, indeed the reality of setbacks and retreats, will reduce the enthusiasm and undercut the morale of current fighters, to say nothing of the impact on potential recruits.

This may be one reason why ISIS has apparently shifted to prioritize attacks like the Paris horror. It likely needs the acts of drama and violence to replace the revolutionary theater that its military advances once gave it. Running wild through the streets, gunning down the crowds in a night club: This is fantasy violence, video games brought into the real world. ISIS is again the coolest of jihadi brands, the cutting edge of the war against the real. The intent is not so much to terrorize the West as to galvanize the faithful.

Understanding ISIS’ methods can help us counter its aims. One key for us: to step up the grim war of attrition against ISIS on the ground. Life for the average ISIS fighter has to become a miserable affair of holing up, getting shot, running out of food, and putting up with bad medical care and low supplies even as the higher-ups live it up in the ruins of Raqqa. That word needs to filter out across the jihadi grapevine. To cut the flow of recruits and funds to ISIS, we must make ISIS look unattractive and weak—drab. If at the same time we work aggressively to reduce its ability to repeat the Paris attacks, ISIS will continue to fade.

This is a way to weaken ISIS, but it won’t solve the problem of jihadi violence. The cultural fugue of the Islamic world will continue to generate new disorders, new radicalisms, new waves of hate and murder. And the stories of the glory days of the Caliphate and legends of ISIS will continue to resonate and inspire new waves of jihad, just as the legend of al-Qaeda did before it.

But defeat hurts—and the more we keep whacking moles, the more discouraged the other moles will be. So the defeat of “terrorism” is a long way off. But the defeat of individual terrorist groups and forms of jihadi ideology, while short of a complete solution to the problem, is good in and of itself, and it contributes to the long term solution: the definitive disillusionment of potential radicals.

This is what we have to teach our enemies and those tempted to join them: disenchantment. There is no magic road back to the 7th century triumphs of Islam. That door is closed. The Islamic world, like the rest of us, must live in the real world of the 21st century.

So President Obama is partly right. The American partnership with the Kurds has inflicted real damage on ISIS. But he’s wrong if he thinks what we have done is enough, or that a few incremental shipments of ammo and MREs will do the trick. The battle against ISIS is one campaign in a long and brutal war. The bloodiest battles and the greatest dangers may still lie ahead.