The United States Needs a New Approach to Defeat ISIL

by Ryan Young

The current U.S. strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant wrongly involves a counterterrorism approach. There needs to be shift in perception of what ISIL currently is and what to do going forward.

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The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also referred to as the Islamic State (ISIS) or Daesh, leapt into the international spotlight when their forces invaded Iraq’s Anbar Province in June 2014. Soon thereafter, a U.S.-led coalition began an extensive airstrike campaign against the Islamic terrorist group. The United States and its allies are also training Iraqi, Kurdish, and Free Syria Army (FSA) forces to fight against ISIL.

The current strategy is similar to those being implemented against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The United States will fund and train indigenous forces to combat these entities while also conducting airstrikes against high-value targets (HVTs). The recent killing of senior al-Shabaab leader Adan Garar in Somalia with a drone strike is a prototypical example. The problem with this approach is that it assumes ISIL is a terrorist group with a decentralized leadership, consisting of cells with varying degrees of autonomy, rather than the pseudo-state it has become. By treating ISIL as if they were simply another Al-Qaeda affiliate, the United States and its allies have deployed an inadequate remedy to deal with a worsening disease.

ISIL may share similarities with Al-Qaeda (it once was a “franchise” group known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq), but in its current form it more closely resembles the Taliban prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. At that point, the Taliban was a militant organization that had seized control of most of the country during the post-Soviet civil war in the mid-1990s. Although only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates gave it formal recognition as a legitimate government, the Taliban controlled a sizable chunk of territory referred to by the group as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda has never truly effectively controlled territory or governed in any substantial way. Their “franchise” known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has come the closest by controlling small villages in Yemen and installing some form of sharia law, but even then it did not maintain consistent control. This simply cannot compare with ISIL’s current control in Raqqa and Mosul, and the Taliban’s former control in Kabul and Kandahar.

The comparison made between ISIL and Al-Qaeda is inaccurate. ISIL may conduct terrorist attacks in urban environments in Iraq against civilian populations in a similar fashion to Al-Qaeda, but it more closely resembles a pseudo-state. Both ISIL and the Taliban have experience acting like fully fledged militaries using maneuver warfare, in addition to small-scale insurgent groups. Unlike Al-Qaeda, they have controlled large forces numbering in the thousands in a single area of operation such as Yemen. The Taliban had an estimated 45,000 fighters before the U.S. invasion; ISIL is estimated to have nearly 30,000 fighters.

The largest similarity between ISIL and the Taliban is their ideological basis for control—security and “justice.” Both have capitalized on local populations’ fundamental desire for consistent security, something previous governing entities had not been able to provide. In Afghanistan, the Taliban were welcomed as leaders because they were seen as good and just Muslims, as opposed to the varying tribal warlords who controlled territories throughout Afghanistan. In Syria and Iraq, ISIL has played the role of “liberator,” saving people from Shia oppression. In reality, however, both groups have enforced security not through fair and just laws or policing, but through brute force. Justice has come in the form of strict sharia law, which has been both ruthless and efficient.

There has been a misperception of what ISIL really is and how to approach the threat it poses. This is most apparent in the airstrikes that the U.S.-led coalition has launched against ISIL, which have predominantly targeted technicals (civilian vehicles modified for combat) and lightly armored vehicles. This differs greatly from the U.S. airstrikes against the Taliban during the initial invasion in 2001 until it fell from power. The U.S. destroyed tanks and fortified positions and technicals, but it also hit Taliban “offices,” power stations, bridges, and communications infrastructure. The United States did not officially consider the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan a state, but it did treat it like one militarily. Beyond airstrikes, U.S. Special Forces operated with local Northern Alliance forces from the outset. These forces served as force multipliers by providing close air support on the frontlines between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban and turned the tide in the fighting.

The United States needs to do something similar to degrade ISIL’s grasp on the territories it holds. It needs to stop thinking in the conventional counterterrorism mindset because ISIL is not currently operating like a terrorist group. The U.S.-led coalition should treat ISIL like the pre-2001 Taliban until they are degraded back to the small terrorist group they once were—and then the United States and others can switch to a more conventional counterterrorism approach. Time is not on the United States’ side. The longer it takes to act with greater force against ISIL, the greater costs the United States and its allies will face down the road.

Photo: EH101/Wikimedia Commons

Ryan Young is Chair for the Combating Terrorism Discussion Group at YPFP. He recently earned his Master’s in International Affairs from Florida State University.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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