Destroying ISIS sounds like a good idea, especially the day after knife-wielding fanatics behead an elderly Catholic priest in Rouen, France – the same place Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake in 1431.
But contrary to what we’ve heard from our political leaders so far, wiping out this radical Islamic terror organization requires a plan, beyond calling it what it is. And ISIS, the James Bond villain-sounding acronym, is only meaningful to us – in the region where they are oppressing, and raping and enslaving many innocents, they are better known as Da’esh.
Destroying Da’esh requires a plan. You can’t do it with a nuclear bomb, can’t do it by carpet-bombing, and can’t do it by subcontracting the problem to the Iranians. In order to destroy Da’esh, ISIS, whatever you call it, there must be an alternative to a bunch of hooded executioners who say they want to go back to the eighth century. And it won’t be the United States, or even some grand coalition (though the French gusto for taking the lead can be easily appreciated) that wipes them out. It will be the people on the ground.
If you look at a map, you can clearly see the territory Da’esh occupies in Iraq and Syria. Even with the fall of Fallujah last month, and the possibility Iraqi forces take back Mosul before the year’s end, there’s still a lot of ground they control. Defeating them for real means you have to take that territory away and do it in a way that they don’t take it back in a year or two. We have a plan for doing precisely this, but to understand why our plan will work, you first need to understand how Da’esh came about in the first place.
Before the so-called Islamic State went on the march in Iraq in the late spring of 2014, the Iraqi government was already fighting a different kind of war: with its own people. Sunnis in Kirkuk and Fallujah has been peacefully protesting the sectarian policies of an Iraqi government that was already taking its own marching orders from Iran. Four years earlier, a secular coalition won national elections, but a newly-inaugurated US President Barack Obama bowed to pressure from Tehran to keep their Islamist toady, Nuri al-Maliki, in power.
Maliki lost little time in consolidating power. Iran’s chief intelligence officer, Qasem Suleimani, became Baghdad’s “grey cardinal,” a permanent presence, and government-authorized death squads swooped into Sunni neighborhoods after midnight with blood-chilling regularity. In a way, it was useful for this Baghdad government to have a dark, sinister Sunni bad-guy. The US-supported “Awakening” movement on the back of the 2007-8 surge had wiped Al Qaeda of Iraq out of the notoriously restive Anbar province, so a new bad guy was needed. Enter Da’esh, stage name ISIS.
Conveniently, Syrian strongman Basher al-Asad also found his own uses for ISIS early in the insurgency movement next door. One day he’s fighting against them, the next he’s fighting with them. Their very existence seems to justify his own tenuous grip on power. But Syria is another story. Eventually Da’esh will have to be destroyed there as well, but unlike Syria, the United States has twice invaded Iraq since 1991, so our leverage there, while fading, is still arguably greater.
The plan for destroying ISIS has to take these facts into account if it is going to work. People on the ground in Fallujah, in Ramadi, and in Mosul need to have a reason to destroy ISIS, and a return to control by the Baghdad government is just another nightmare for these folks. Unfortunately, US policy right now is based entirely on the Baghdad government, and its backers in Iran, winning on the battlefield and then re-asserting the very same sectarian control. This has to change if ISIS is to be defeated. The civilians living under a rule of terror today need to believe that tomorrow might be better if they’re going to fight.
Fourteen years ago, we went to war in Iraq based on intelligence that has since been challenged. The United States removed Saddam Hussein from power, and those who took his place are now content to serve as Iranian satraps. More than 1 million American men and women wore the uniform and served in Iraq over this period. Allowing Fallujah, which Americans twice helped liberate from al Qaeda, be destroyed either by ISIS or a Baghdad government that will always see the people who live there as its enemies, discredits the service of these brave Americans, not to mention the tribal fighters who rose up for their own freedom.
It’s time to move beyond the broken configuration of Iraq, and destroying ISIS requires us to do so. Unlike those post 9/11 days when America’s leaders pinned our hopes on the likes of Ahmed Chalabi, the con artist who delivered the faulty intelligence back then, today no one is asking for a new invasion. Instead, we’re just asking for permission for the folks on the ground to do the right thing. America’s next president should be strong enough to give that permission.
Check us out at www.destroyisis.org, and sign our petition.
Patten is the executive director of the Committee to Destroy ISIS. He has lived in Baghdad and served in the George W. Bush administration.
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