TCF World Podcast: Demythologizing ISIS

Posted July 18th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

In TCF World’s inaugural podcast episode, Century Foundation fellows Thanassis Cambanis, Michael Wahid Hanna, Aron Lund, and Sam Heller try to put to rest some of the mythology and exaggerations that have grown up around the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). After three years of power in a self-declared caliphate, ISIS is on the run from Mosul, its capital in Iraq, and is on the verge of defeat in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. Nonetheless, many commentators and U.S. policymakers still contend that ISIS is as powerful as ever, and is winning even while appearing to lose. The Century Foundation’s foreign policy team considers drivers of the Islamic State’s resilience and resurgence, its actual strengths and potential, the impact of territorial losses, and the fragile commitment of some governments to exterminate ISIS.


ISIS was a symptom. State collapse is the disease

Posted July 14th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

An Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services member prays in the Old City of Mosul on July during an ongoing offensive to retake the city from Islamic State group fighters. FADEL SENNA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

The collapse this month of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has been greeted with joy and relief in many quarters, especially among the millions of civilians who directly suffered the extremist group’s rule. Much of the predictable analysis has focused on long-term trends that will continue to trouble the world: the resonance of extremist jihadi messaging, the persistence of sectarian conflict, the difficulty of holding together disparate coalitions like the clumsy behemoth that ousted ISIS from its strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul.

But jihadis and sectarians are not, contrary to popular belief, the most important engines of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar groups. Nor are foreign spy services the primary author of these apocalyptic movements — as many around the world wrongly believe.

No, the most critical factor feeding jihadi movements is the collapse of effective central governments — a trend in which the West, especially the United States, has been complicit.

An overdue alliance of convenience mobilized against the Islamic State three years ago, but only after leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had taken over enough territory to declare statehood. The ISIS caliphate was as much as a state — for as long as it lasted — as many other places in the Middle East. Most of the coalition members detested ISIS, but only the local members from Iraq and Syria whose families were dying or suffering under Islamic State rule were fully invested. For the rest of the anti-ISIS coalition, fighting the caliphate was one of many other priorities.

The glacial, slow-moving, coalition united against ISIS but bound by little else. It is sure to dissolve quickly now that the emergency is over.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the defeat of the ISIS caliphate a “critical milestone,” and Iraqi prime minister Haider Abadi hailed “the failure and the collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood and terrorism” that ISIS had proclaimed from Mosul. Yet even as the partners cheered the defeat of one state, they acknowledged the need to rebuild another one — Iraq — if they want to avoid cyclic repetition of the same conflict. Abadi, like American commanders on the ground, described a daunting task: to unify feuding militias, provide services to long-ignored populations, and perform effective police work — in short, to finally extend a functional state throughout Iraq.

In the years since terrorism has become an American obsession, much attention has focused on the root causes of nihilistic violence. The latest iteration of this vague quest, which attracts billions of dollars in government funding, is “countering violent extremism.” But it’s entirely possible that violent extremists aren’t really the problem at all; they only matter in places where the state is too weak to provide security, or too incoherent to explain why terrorist attacks are merely a crime, rather an existential threat.

Here’s another way to put it: There is no after ISIS, because ISIS isn’t the problem. The collapse of states is.

THE MOST EFFECTIVE INFANTRY troops in the war against ISIS, in fact, come from movements whose long-term aspirations are accelerating the collapse of the state order in the Middle East. To be sure, the key fighting groups — the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, the Shia militias referred to as the Popular Mobilization Units, and the Syrian Kurds from the PKK — are nothing like ISIS. They aspire to political and territorial power without the murderous, nihilistic sectarianism of the Islamic State. At the same time, these groups all profoundly oppose central government in the areas where they live. Some, like the Iraqi peshmerga, want to form a smaller, independent Kurdish republic, even though they are internally divided in a way that promises future strife and civil wars, not harmony. Others, like the Shia militias, want to carve out an autonomous state of their own that functions in the lee of a hobbled central government.

The United States has contributed mightily to this dismal state of affairs. To solve an immediate problem, ISIS, it guaranteed a still-more toxic long-term problem: an ungovernable zone stretching from the Mediterranean to the Zagros Mountains, where death squads, militants and fundamentalists will continue to proliferate.

And as ISIS taught us well, local problems rarely remain local.

The central problem to face after the ISIS caliphate, then, isn’t whether the Islamic State will return or in what form, but when we’re going to tackle the epochal and complex challenge of supporting coherent states in the Middle East. The United States has been a major catalyst of the current entropy and chaos in the Arab world — sometimes through direct destabilizing actions, like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and other times abetting long-term corrosion by backing ineffectual, tyrannical despots who ransack their own states in order to cling to power.

Much of the immediate response to the collapse of the caliphate centers on Sunnis, and is cast in simplifying sectarianism. Can their grievances be better addressed, to stop their ranks from breeding foot soldiers for nihilists? Can Shia partisans slake their thirst for power and share enough of spoils to coopt disenfranchised Sunnis?

There are some important points nested in this type of analysis, but it overlooks one essential fact: Factors like sectarian identity, jihadi extremism, and mafia corruption only become dominant pathologies in areas where the state is no longer fully in control. The Islamic State can claim adherents in dozens of countries. But an Islamic State insurgency only rises to central importance where a failing state has left a vacuum.

The glacial, slow-moving, coalition united against ISIS but bound by little else. It is sure to dissolve quickly now that the emergency is over.

Compare, for example, the ISIS campaign in the Levant, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi established his short-lived state, to the far less potent Islamist insurgency in Egypt. Sure, followers of the Islamic State have murdered civilians, attacked state targets, and created limited mayhem in parts of Egypt — but the Egyptian government and security services remain powerful and as much in control as they ever have been.

State narratives and identity also limit the power of the nihilist narrative. Governments in Iraq and Syria struggle to convince all their citizens that the state functions everywhere and cares for all its citizens. But ISIS attacks on civilians in places like the United Kingdom, France and Egypt, cause consternation but don’t raise questions about the very viability of those states.

The Islamic State is a murderous movement. The existential threat comes not from ISIS but from state failure — a failure that precedes, rather than results from, the rise of violent fundamentalists.

THE ISLAMIC STATE MADE a great fuss about tearing down the old borders drawn by colonial powers. Many groups that otherwise detested ISIS shared the extremists’ distaste for the artificial borders that divided historical neighbors and cobbled together problematic, hard-to-govern entities.

That discussion about viable borders, however, created confusion. Some took the rise of ISIS as evidence that the nation-state itself had entered the final state of eclipse. That view dovetailed with a fascination that grew since the end of the Cold War among some academics and futurists, who believed the global order had transcended the era of states.

In its most breathless incarnation, pop theorists like Parag Khanna celebrated a “nonstate world,” in which states were just one of many players happily competing with free-trade zones, corporations, cities, empires and other levels of organization to maximize utility.

More reserved scholars also concurred that we had entered a post-state era. Some argued that the future held more shared-sovereignty projects, like the European Union, in which states would give up power in exchange for the efficient and humane economies of scale offered by supra-national institutions. Utopian internationalists like Strobe Talbott wrote warmly of a “world government” in which scientific management principles would replace parochial nationalism.

Pessimists agreed that the state was in irreversible decline, but believed something worse would take its place: tribes, militias, unaccountable local strongmen, and predatory companies.

The conflicts since the Cold War point toward a different struggle, between strong and weak states, rather than between states and some mythical nonstate world.

At West Point after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush declared the world had already resolved the struggle against totalitarian ideologies during the 20th century. “America,” Bush said as he unleashed a series of wars that continue 15 years later, “is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.”

A case in point is ISIS, which was in fact enamored and obsessed with a very traditional view of power and statehood; their project wasn’t to erase the state, but to invent a new one.

The nation-state is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back just a few hundred years. But states need not be based on nationalism. In fact, the most resilient and powerful states have often stoutly rejected a nationalist identity, instead embracing an identity based on empire (Britain), geographic scale (the United States), or continuous civilization (China).

“The state continues to be the basic building block of politics. Fragile states don’t diminish that fact,” said Alasdair Roberts, incoming director of the school of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Two years ago, Roberts argued that after brief period of uncertainty, the last few decades had shown that states remained the seat of power, in an essay called “The Nation State: Not Dead Yet.”

In the United States, critics of globalization feared that America was surrendering power and sovereignty to organizations like the World Trade Organization. Roberts says that recent developments, especially since the election of Donald Trump, proved what many politicians had said all along: “We’re delegating authority, and if we want to get it back, we can get it back.”

A strong, functional state might subcontract authority to the United Nations, or to an oil company, if such an arrangement suits the state’s interests. But all across the world, in rich countries and poor, states have quickly reclaimed their prerogatives when they believed their national interests were threatened by a trade agreement or an international court decision.

In our times, the Middle East has been the world’s biggest exporter of militants and destabilizing violence.

But the Middle East is not inherently violent or unstable. States have managed to assert authority and control their territory — although sometimes in savory ways — at many points in modern history. Governments in Turkey, Iran, and Arabian Gulf maintain a monopoly of force and a passable piece, ruling ethnically diverse populations (although with limited political rights for citizens). Flashpoints like Syria and Yemen knew stability for many years during the last generation. State-builders like Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Abdel Nasser reversed periods of decline and fragmentation, showing that it’s possible to bring unity and extend the reach of a bureaucratic state even in unruly and poor places.

We are living with the results of failing states in the Arab world. The best alternative is to see them replaced with functional ones. In some cases, that might mean holding our noses and accepting effective but cruel leaders. In others, it will mean exerting pressure and sometimes using force.

It doesn’t work to waffle, as Obama did when he tepidly supported the Arab uprisings in only some countries, and then just as tepidly stood by some of the dictators who mercilessly crushed popular revolts. It also doesn’t work to confuse tyrants who stay in power while eviscerating the state, like Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam in Iraq, with distasteful rulers who maintain a functioning state and are therefore effective, like the Saudi monarchy.

For the United States, a smart policy requires commitment. We know Bashar Assad will never create a sustainably stable government in Syria, because of his determination to wipe out rather than coopt dissent. Iraq is less straightforward; the United States cannot stand by passively as the state breaks up. But that requires clearly choosing sides: openly support Kurdish secession, and division of Iraq into smaller, ethnic or sectarian states, or openly repudiate the Kurdish drive toward independence and put pressure on Baghdad to extend its writ. The current course of intentional ambiguity only promotes the worst alternative — state decline.

When possible, we ought to promote humane governance. But in all cases we must insist on effective state power. We have seen the alternative in Iraq, where the United States and other guarantor powers, including Iran, let the government in Baghdad decay, only intervening when ISIS took control of nearly one-third of the country.

A state that is both cruel and ineffective is an albatross for the whole global order. If we want to counter violent extremism, we’re going to need a world of effective governance — and for now, the only place that’s likely to come from is strong states.


Only Humane Governance Can Erase Legacy of ISIS

Posted July 12th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Published at The Century Foundation.]

This summer, the Islamic State will probably lose its capitals in Syria and Iraq, and possibly, any hope of surviving as a traditional territorial state. For three years, however, the ISIS caliphate functioned as a state—blood-trenched, appalling, and wildly unpopular—but a state nonetheless.

Its fall certainly doesn’t preclude other jihadi movements from replicating Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s feat in the future. And the Islamic State’s material success highlighted just how awful many other governments in the region are. Too often, Middle Eastern states tolerate rampant torture, repression, surveillance, and rights-stripping; the nihilistic horrors and excesses of ISIS weren’t categorically different, but they took these practices to another level.

With the Islamic State downgraded from contender state to insurgency, we now would do well to ask: What is the best long-term antidote to extremist violence?

The answer might lie not in countering violent extremism, but in investing in strong states. And crucially, our experience with state failure and abusive governance in the Middle East should force us to update our definition of a strong state. It is not, as American policy makers have historically believed, a state ruled by a strongman willing to accept phone calls from Washington.

In actuality, a strong state is one that effectively controls its territory and governs its citizens, providing stability and continuity though humane rule and rights for its citizens. Any state that rules through caprice and violence is inherently unstable, even if it possesses a monopoly of force within its borders. Such are the lessons of the failed and failing states of Arab region, whose erosion has allowed violent extremism to flourish. To significantly reduce extremist ranks, it does not suffice to target individuals. A country has to build (or rebuild) an alternative to authoritarian thuggery: a bureaucratic state and security services that actually provide security rather than repress citizens.

Effective governance means humane governance. Anything else is a short-term fix.

Fighting the Wrong War

There are two things that the West, and primarily the United States, must grapple with in order to reverse the jihadi tide that will continue to lap at its shores long after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Caliphate recedes as a grisly but mercifully short chapter in geopolitical history.

First, we need to embrace robust liberal pluralism as our most potent weapon against the ideology of jihadi nihilism, violence, and intolerance. Over the long haul, the West’s openness, prosperity, and education make for better societies than anything on offer from repressive religious extremists or Middle Eastern despots. Not only should we refrain from apologizing for this characteristic; we ought to tout it as the leading edge in our counter-extremism campaign.

Second, we need to admit that our misguided foreign policy and indiscriminate use of violence in the wars against terror since 9/11 have bred a great deal more outrage, extremism, and terror than they have contained. We might not have created the problem, but we have definitively made it worse. We continue to employ the same fruitless “capture, kill, contain” techniques, to our continued disservice. As a result, the cancer that presented as the “caliphate” will in due course metastasize somewhere else.

The prime candidates for the next outbreak of hypertoxic jihadi extremism are places where the United States, or allies with its support, are creating famine, mass displacement, and wantonly killing civilians—while supposedly pursuing extremists, using the hard-to-monitor blunt weapons of aerial bombing, drones, and special forces.

Such battlefields, sadly, exist today in places that only occasionally draw attention, like Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan, and also in more uniformly ignored war zones in places such as Mali and Nigeria. Declining and eroding states have opened the gates to extremists of all sorts in a long list of poorly governed spaces, including parts of the Sinai, Somalia, South Sudan, Lebanon, and the Philippines.


Embracing Conflict and Despots

By the end of his time in office, President Obama was deploying U.S. special forces simultaneously to 139 countries—that is, two-thirds of all the countries in the world. Not all of those deployments were active conflict zones, but the United States is fighting in undeclared wars in several, including Syria and Yemen. Endless war only serves to weaken states—the very things we need in order to live in a secure world.

The coalition against ISIS relied on nasty alliances of convenience with dictators, authoritarians, and militiamen, many of whom were in thrall to sectarianism and bloodlust. This devil’s bargain is the same principle that guided the Obama administration’s clumsy embrace of the Gulf Cooperation Council monarchs and their war in Yemen, and which drives the Trump administration’s much warmer embrace of Arab despots.

In his debut foreign trip in May, President Trump cast aside any pretense of valuing democracy or decency in our allies. “We must seek partners, not perfection—and to make allies of all who share our goals,” President Trump told the heads of state assembled in Riyadh.

Trump echoed the refrain of the region’s despots, who self-servingly claim that their failing brand of governance is the only alternative to the Islamic State and its imitators.

“Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption,” Trump said. “Wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms—not sudden intervention.”

History might prove him wrong, but he was only saying out loud a view privately shared by many of his White House predecessors. Iran was the only state singled out for doing anything to promote terrorism, as if state policies adopted by American allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, and Egypt, had played no role in abetting violent extremists.

This mistake has become a cornerstone of American foreign policy, repeated over and over again. If unshakeable support for despots provided insurance against runaway violence, today we’d be living in a quiet, peaceful world. It’s not just that devil’s bargains are distasteful and betray our core values; they also don’t work.

Only effective, humanistic states provide an alternative to a governance wasteland that promotes apocalyptic preachers and young people who embrace death in the absence of a sustainable future.

Short-Term Fixes

States in the Middle East and North Africa region are failing. Successful states must exercise their authority over, and elicit loyalty from, a plurality of citizens. Even homogenous states are to a certain degree multiethnic and multisectarian. Difference must be managed, not ignored or suppressed.

Such states have been built before in the Middle East, and have prospered. Even in today’s dark period, there are plenty of states that muster a significant degree of state authority and competence. Egypt, until recently, was an example of how a flawed state could still perform most of its core executive and security functions.

It’s a debatable proposition that authoritarians are the answer. History suggests that sometimes authoritarians can be effective long-term leaders. Their success depends on resources, competence and a commitment to results. Gamal Abdel Nasser was no democratic civil libertarian, but he was genuinely invested in modernizing his country. For decades, he delivered results that seemed to mitigate his authoritarian tendencies. Toward the end of his rule, the balance had shifted—an increasingly erratic and paranoid Nasser presided over a state that stagnated economically and no longer proved capable of securing its borders. Hence a period of domestic paralysis coupled with the catastrophe of the 1967 war.

There are plenty of other examples, ranging from the resurging conflict in southeastern Turkey to flare-ups in rural Tunisia, to suggest that a cloak of stability thrown over incompetent rule and mass repression is only a short-term fix: the simmering violence in every Middle Eastern conflict zone testifies to it.

In the post-colonial Middle East, we mostly see weak states. Policymakers by necessity often focus on the crumbling and collapse, since they cause the biggest problems. But let’s not forget that the reverse is possible. A strong state, an effective state, even a decent state, can be imposed in a country that appears in the grip of anarchy and chaos. It’s happened before and could happen again.

Must a Strong State Be a Just State?

A state that succeeds as a state provides basic security and services. It can be an awful state in many other regards, usually by abusing minorities or withholding political rights, but consolidated states offer continuity, loyalty and a kind of security that’s been in increasingly short supply. (I have written elsewhere about the resilience of the state as the main unit of analysis; here I want to expand on the possibility that only a humane, rights-based state can provide lasting stability.)

The default—the continuing collapse of states in the Middle East—promises more instability. To reverse the poisonous forces ascendant in the Middle East, states must consolidate power and the impose central authority on the full spectrum of militias and political stakeholders. Otherwise, sectarianism, local warlord rule, runaway mafias, and foreign intervention will continue to steer events in places like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

It is possible that a state can succeed without humanism. Saudi Arabia is an excellent test of the proposition. The monarchy offers no pretense of rights, but promises to take good care of its citizens. The most colossal failures in recent times, like Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Moammar Qaddhafi, failed not because of their egregious human rights abuses but because they hollowed out the state apparatus and lost physical control. So it’s possible that a well-executed, abominable police state can indefinitely keep the lid on a population. The popular explosions in Iraq, Syria and Libya, however, suggest that brute-force repression is always a temporary solution.

But for a state to truly thrive, it needs to address the basic needs of its people, which include a modicum of political rights. Otherwise they will not be invested in the state which rules them. We need new, better models of governance, which are inclusive and provide genuine political feedback. They need not look just like Western democracies. Nor, however, can they trample their people’s rights. Citizens in the Middle East, like everywhere else in the world, demand decent treatment from their government, and they expect some say over how they’re ruled. They also have a historical memory of times and places when different identity groups coexisted without violence, as well as when political loyalties came with dividends—and not merely with the threat of reprisal against the disloyal.

The long-term recipe for a Middle East free from the scourge of violent extremists is the same as it is everywhere else: effective rule by states both strong and humane, that recognize pluralism, rule of law, and human rights.