Edgar B. Tembo: Only a military option will defeat ‘Islamic State’

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THE terrorist atrocities in Paris reinforced the need for governments to develop and implement a coherent plan against “Islamic State”, or ISIL. Along with the kidnapping of Japanese citizens, the brutality and reach of this terror network has remained in national and international headlines.

The West, primarily the United States, currently faces a number of challenges when it comes to neutralising the threat that ISIL poses. An offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), ISIL has its roots in the bloody Fallujah campaigns that followed the recent Iraq conflict. In 2006, following a surge in US forces in the area, AQI were described as “down but not out”.

But ISIL’s success in gaining strategic control of large swathes of both Iraq and Syria is only matched by the recruitment success of at least 31,000 fighters, according to initial CIA estimates.

It’s unclear how many of them are fighting of their own accord. ISIL are known to give captives a choice of converting to their brand of Islam and fighting for them or death.

The remarkable gains they have made have led to numerous reports of volunteers travelling from Western states, including the UK, to support the overarching cause of re-establishing an Islamic Caliphate across northern-Africa, southern Europe and the Middle East.

One would be forgiven for drawing parallels with the US response in Vietnam and that in Iraq over recent months. A hesitant approach has led to a confused and, at times, ill-managed policy toward ISIL. President Obama’s hesitation to send anything beyond “military advisers” and air support to the region is rooted in his election promise to withdraw combat troops from Iraq. With their withdrawal coming at the end of 2011, a return to full, or even limited, combat operations in the region would have significant ramifications.

Another issue affecting the perceived capability of the US armed forces is the desire to not intervene in the Syria conflict. With poorly-organised opposition and further dithering from the West, President Bashir Assad has retained his position, resulting in continued civil war in the country.

When it comes to ISIL, America has stated its intention not to violate Syria’s airspace. The reality has been limited incursions following advance notice by the US. The limited and infrequent nature of these incursions has done little to weaken the strategic foothold of ISIL. In fact it’s afforded them a safe haven from coalition air strikes within the territory of Syria.

Reports from ISIL-held territory are that the group is putting in place the mechanisms of a governing authority. The lack of recognition by the international community means that despite its name – the “Islamic State” – it is not a state.

But could this change? We are at a crucial moment in the potential life cycle of ISIL. If the West takes action to destabilise their strategic foothold, it is reasonable to believe that they will begin a sharp decline within the next 12 to 18 months.

Such action, however, would require the deployment of US, UK and other Western ground forces, serving in a combat role alongside states from the region. That is why David Cameron met the Iranian leader in September 2014, despite continuing tension over Iran’s nuclear aspirations.

Running alongside such a deployment in Iraq would have to be a resolution, perhaps requiring military commitments, to the Syrian conflict. It is not enough to simply push ISIL out of Iraq and into Syria. If the job is going to be done, it needs to be done properly. Recent history, including the premature withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq, has demonstrated this.

The only other option is to instigate a policy of containment. Not allowing ISIL to gain more territory, but at the same time not encroaching upon that which they have acquired. There are multiple issues with such a proposal. Both the Iraqi and Syrian people would not be happy with the idea of giving significant portions of their territory and citizens to a ruthless organisation.

And containment creates an air of legitimacy through the demarcation of ISIL-held territory. Finally, containment requires the deployment of significant military assets to the region, in order to ensure that ISIL expansion is kept in check..

The threat posed by ISIL and its supporters is equal to, if not beyond, that posed by al-Qaida back in 2001. So a response is required. Despite broader views on the wisdom of going into Iraq in 2003, the reality is that it has happened. The withdrawal of forces from the region happened for political reasons, not broader strategic security considerations.

As a result, ISIL has taken advantage of the fragile security situation and established a foothold. And it is a foothold that can only be dislodged through the commitment of significant ground-based military personnel.

Dr. Edgar B. Tembo is a politics lecturer and researcher at Sheffield Hallam University who specialises in terrorism and counter-terrorism strategies.