RAFIA MUSHTAQ KHAN
The terror stigmatized with the acronym ISIS, is enormous. The augmentation of this Sunni extremist militant group in Iraq and Syria has caused global fright by the very idea of its emergence and systematic expansion. It has peculiarly presented US with a unique opportunity to reset the Middle East equation in order to thwart the ISIS juggernaut, to abate the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and to build a new working relationship with Iran.
A coalition of about 62 nations across the globe has been formed to counter the ISIS campaign, which is probably the biggest alliance ever since the US-led Afghanistan invasion in 2001. The US has been carrying out aerial strikes against ISIS since the end of August this year. Recently Obama announced that it would send an additional number of 1500 troops to battle the Sunni radicals claiming to establish caliphate over Iraq and Syria. The question here arises whether using military force the only smartest option to address the existential threat of ISIS? To my understanding the answer is in negative. Military perhaps can curtail but not eliminate the threat of ISIS and may indeed make the conflicts even worse and harder to resolve. Fortunately, we do have alternatives to deal with the crisis, and, while they lack the immediacy yet are far more effective in protecting innocent lives, keeping America safe and effectively crippling violent religious extremists. Military actions will not establish the grounds for political solutions; rather they will prevent those solutions from materializing. Escalating military actions against this violent extremist organization will be more of a futile activity. There is no immediate action that will make ISIS disappear, even if U.S. exerts its military muscle to highest degree as it did in Afghanistan. What we need to understand is that an ideology or an organization can never be solely destroyed through a military assault. Al-Qaeda is the clear manifestation of how even being crippled it still has its roots in a several other countries. A military strike may perhaps bring some short-lived satisfaction, but the policy of revenge always serves as a flawed base for formulating foreign policy, especially when it can bear dangerous consequences.
The desire to avenge the horrific executions of American journalists and the attempt to confront the challenges posed by ISIS to the world is comprehensible. But America must understand that not all problems are solved with arms and ammunitions, no matter how potent the American military might be. Rather than waging a war in the Middle East for all once again, America should opt for alternative means to wipe out ISIS. The main strength of ISIS lies in its unrivaled access to financial capital and resources. This allows the violent group to recruit fighters, procure weapons, and get active support of locals. Much of the finance comes from smuggling illegal oil from fields which are in control of the group. These fields need to be retaken by local forces as an effort to cut off the massive revenues. The Turkish, Iraqi and other oil dealers who purchase the oil on black market must be cracked down; this would cut ISIS off from one of its most important revenue streams. Without cutting off the cash flow, hitting on ISIS will be absolutely useless. Interesting, ISIS is endowed with the ability to resupply itself which is an essential to any effective insurgency. Turkey must be forced to crack down on the surge of fighters and weapons across its border with Syria. If the access to these supply routes is not denied, ISIS will keep on replacing any weapons that Americans destroy.
ISIS roughly holds a militia of about 20,000 fighters and just like all insurgencies; ISIS cannot be defeated as long as they maintain popular support. The grievances of Iraqis and Syrians with their governments are very much real and therefore they must be addressed by including Sunnis back into the Iraqi political process which would drive a wedge between ISIS and the local population. Without such an effort, American strikes would only drift Sunnis further into the hands of ISIS and their false claims of protection.
The instability in Iraq and Syria is massive. Millions of Iraqis and Syrians are either refugees or internally displaced. The inadequacy of food, water, and other essential supplies threatens more lives than any bullets. Failing to address these needs not only cost lives, but also helps to feed further radicalization of youth and unemployed individuals. Besides, U.S must indulge into diplomacy that will work again with Russia. Though there are enormous tensions between the two states over Ukraine but such a diplomatic posture will open up new corridors of cooperation for resolving the ISIS crisis by reclaiming the good relations that were built last year in order to deal with the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Finally, America must keep the door open for negotiations. It may be a farfetched notion for now, but eventually the perpetuity of sustainable peace lies in talks and mediation. The Britain’s experience of Northern Ireland in terms of “Good Friday Agreement” with Irish Republican Army (IRA) bears testimony to that fact that “no talking to terrorists” may be a good slogan, but it always ends up in a deadlock and stalemate situation.
What needs to be highlighted is that ISIS is only one symptom of a deeper problem of the Middle East. Unless the social, cultural and religious drivers of these insurgencies are not properly addressed, there is a strong possibility that such radicalized militant groups might continue to emerge. The region’s many problems require new thinking, and new regional answers altogether. American leadership must show the Middle East how a better future can be achieved by means of religious pluralism, political unity and free-market capitalism.