There is no doubt that the takeover of large parts of Iraq and Syria by the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) presents a major security issue for the United States and the entire region. But let's not make the mistake of labeling ISIS a mere terrorist group that can be addressed with the same counter terrorism tools that have been used against al Qaeda and its affiliated groups since bin Laden and his supporters were dislodged from Afghanistan in 2001. In other words, a combination of drones and funding local security forces is not going to do the trick.
ISIS represents a genuine insurgency against the Iraqi government. It has broad-based support in parts of Iraq, which is what has enabled it to capture wide swaths of territory. It is led by radicalized militants, but that does not mean that all those fighting for ISIS share these views. Rather, many of the Sunni insurgents have joined hands with the militants because of their deep hatred for the Shia government that dominates Iraq.
We have seen this movie before. These same Sunnis joined with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion that put the current Shia government in power. For years, the Bush Administration thought it was fighting a bunch of disaffected terrorists that could eventually be overwhelmed by application of U.S. force. That did not work. The insurgency was only broken when the bulk of Sunni fighters were convinced to turn against AQI through direct payoffs to tribal leaders and fighters and U.S. brokered agreements that gave Sunnis a share of political power. It also helped that no one in the Sunni areas could stand living under the brutality and rigidity of AQI rule.
We could not crack the insurgency solely through applying military power in 2006 when there were over 100,000 American troops in Iraq and billions of taxpayer dollars flowing into the country. We certainly won't be able to do so now.
The only way to save Iraq is through a political deal that peels mainstream Sunni support away from ISIS. However, given what Sunnis have experienced under the Maliki government, the price will probably be much higher than it was in 2006. Maliki would have to leave power. The new government would have to be much more inclusive, with genuine power sharing arrangements between Sunni and Shia parties. Sunnis would need to control units within the Army as well.
This may be too high a price for the Shia -- at least at the moment -- which means we are headed for a prolonged civil war. If the Shia want our help, President Obama is absolutely correct to make assistance contingent on reforms designed to bring disaffected Sunnis back into a united Iraq. In the meantime, regional diplomacy involving Iran and Saudi Arabia that deals with both Iraq and Syria and Sunni/Shia tensions in other places should launch to the top of our agenda. Critics claiming that we shouldn't even talk to Iran (the same folks who supported the elimination of Iran's key adversary -- Saddam Hussein) should simply be ignored.
We should surely be on the alert for terrorism leaking out of this conflict directed at the United States, our interests in the region, and our allies. Yet, this will not be like the pre-9/11 years when al Qaeda enjoyed a safe haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to train and prepare plots against us. While it is true that ISIS has threatened to turn its attention to the United States and the West, it will have its hands full with matters in Iraq for quite some time. Not only will the government mount a counter-strike, but ISIS will have plenty of difficulties keeping its coalition together. Moreover, ISIS leaders should have learned from bin Laden's strategic mistake of provoking the United States.
While the headlines from Iraq over the past week are deeply distressing, we cannot lose sight of the fact that they result from long bottled up and unresolved conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East and deep-rooted tribal conflicts that have come to the surface due to the combined impacts of globalization, the Arab uprisings, and the ill-advised U.S. invasion of Iraq. There are very large forces at work.
Our response should recognize the complexity of the situation with a clear eye on our long-term objectives and humility regarding our ability to influence the course of events. One thing, however, is for sure: basing our policies exclusively through the lens of counter terrorism, with the narrow, short-term objective of reducing the possibility of terrorist incidents against us, is likely to worsen the situation and make us even less safe.