Emergence of Islamic State an embarrassment for national security community

The Islamic State remains a puzzle to U.S. policymakers and analysts.

The United States persists in underestimating the sophistication and savvy of the Islamic State. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The United States persists in underestimating the sophistication and savvy of the Islamic State. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The national security community in the United States and the West neither predicted the Islamic State’s rise, nor has been able to figure out how to halt it. Writes Burak Kadercan at National Interest, the Islamic State has

… constituted a source of embarrassment for the security community…. Consequently, there is little agreement in the security community over the true nature of ISIS and the proper strategy to effectively “degrade and destroy” the organization. Put bluntly, for all the pride that the security community takes in its predictive, explanatory, and prescriptive capabilities, it has failed (with a capital F) over the puzzle that ISIS poses.

Kadercan maintains that policymakers and natsec analysts have bought into three myths. The first:

… that ISIS owes much of its appeal to its “territorial” nature. Therefore, if ISIS begins to lose chunks of territory, its legitimacy will also start falling apart.

The second:

… ISIS needs territorial expansion to remain relevant. Containing ISIS, so the argument goes, will eventually undermine the group’s expansionist ideology.

The third:

… that ISIS could energize its fighters and supporters because it had been able to project an image of invincibility. If this “myth of invincibility” is broken … ISIS will no longer be able to command the loyalties of its supporters or serve as a focal point for global jihad.

Kadercan refutes all three. As for the first, true, the Islamic State is territorial,

… but not in the same way that a modern nation-state is territorial. Modern states legitimize their authority by “fixing” borders and treating them as “impregnable shells.” ISIS’s understanding of territoriality, however, is built more on the notion of “territorial flexibility” [like] the Ottoman Empire [which] neither committed nor recognized set borders, but instead emphasized open frontiers. Such flexibility allowed them to not only galvanize support for almost continuous harassment campaigns on the frontier, but also accommodate strategic retreats and territorial contractions. ISIS operates in a similar fashion. Losing chunks of territory do not necessarily de-legitimize the organization in the same way territorial losses, even marginal ones, would affect a national government.

As for the second:

Second, ISIS’s “propaganda” is expansionist and decidedly bombastic, but its actual sectarian strategy limits its territorial and ideational reach to Sunni-majority areas in Syria and Iraq.

As for the third:

… that ISIS rides on a “myth of invincibility” is itself a myth. … We absolutely have no reason to think that ISIS’s supporters and sympathizers really expect ISIS to continuously withstand and defeat forces that excessively outnumber and outgun the organization.

In fact

… ISIS has built itself a reputation for being a “capable and willing underdog,” not an omnipotent force of nature.

Kadercan’s solutions are too lacking in detail to give much credence, but we owe him a debt for pointing out these myths. Meanwhile, for the United States, constructing the work in progress that is the American response to the Islamic State requires treading a fine line between keeping us from becoming more deeply engaged than we already are in yet another Middle-East war and not turning our backs on another humanitarian nightmare that evokes, if not in numbers, our inaction in response to the Rwanda massacres, which has become a national embarrassment in its own right.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.