Responding to ISIS: Is Multitasking Possible?
Multitasking has become an imperative in our accelerated, modern era. People have to juggle their personal and professional lives 24/7. This is not simple. Sometimes the juggled balls drop to the floor. Politically, faced with the horrific November attacks in Paris, it is difficult to accept the duality that ISIS is both a quasi/state and a global network. It is a military force which controls half the territory of Syria as well as a loose web of global terrorist organizations often aligned with lone wolves around the globe. How to respond to the dual nature of the threat? How to multitask our response?
The Paris attacks have brought closer to home the necessity of dealing directly with those responsible and their role in fostering international terrorism. One can no longer say that we are safe in Europe or North America. The French and Russians have begun bombing raids and François Hollande has sent an aircraft carrier to the region. President Obama, who promised to wind down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been more prudent, saying that the spread of the Islamic State on the ground has been “contained,” and that, according to top aides, “the horrific attacks in France would not alter the president’s reluctance to sharply escalate his campaign against the Islamic State.”
A clear strategy has not been developed beyond military responses including advisors, states of emergency and increased surveillance. Why not? One of the reasons may be a lack of clarity about what exactly is the Islamic State – even its name is sometimes ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and sometimes ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). An expert, under the pen name Anonymous, wrote in the New York Review of Books (NYRB): “It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS.”
Numerous scholars have put forward theories about the nature of the organization. Most helpful in trying to comprehend the phenomenon is Harvard University’s Stephen M. Walt’s description of ISIS as a “revolutionary state.” Within Walt’s description are the two main elements: that of state and that of a revolutionary state.
As a state or quasi/state, ISIS now controls half the territory of Syria in its attempt to establish a caliphate. It has roughly a million of people under its supervision and has manifested many of the qualities of a legitimate government. Within its territory, schools have been opened, hospitals take care of the sick and wounded, taxes are collected, sewage systems installed and power lines have been erected. To pay for this ballooning bureaucracy, hydro-electrical dams are functioning and oil fields are exploited to help finance its governing functions.
This is the ISIS that President Obama claims has been contained. And this is the enemy as a quasi/state that the French and Russians hope to destroy through military force. ISIS as a quasi/state is being fought along traditional strategic lines. It has a territory, and the coalition is trying to unseat it from that territory, or at least to reduce the size of the territory under its control.
But ISIS is more than just a quasi/state. It is also a revolutionary state, trying to spread its doctrine of religious rule through terror across the globe. And, unlike, legitimate, recognized governments, it is trying to spread its message through illegitimate means and illegitimate partners. There is no traditional organization chart of who runs ISIS. Nor are there signed, public documents showing its alliances with other organizations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. ISIS is a horizontal, loose network that is, organizationally, like many modern, decentralized corporations.
The difficulty in confronting ISIS, therefore, is to deal with a traditional army controlling a specific territory while at the same time dealing with a non-traditional enemy fostering terrorism. Confronting ISIS is both a defense and security problem that modern military forces are ill prepared to tackle. Indeed, since the disaster of the Vietnam War, the United States, with the largest military organization in the history of the world, has been woefully unsuccessful in confronting insurgency/terrorist movements.
Can we multitask to stop both the Islamic State and the international terrorism it sponsors? At the conclusion of his article in the NYRB, Anonymous wrote: “But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified, but baffled.” For the moment, that is not enough. There is an imperative for our leaders to work out a strategy to protect us from further attacks like Paris. And, in order to do that, they will have to multitask. They will have to juggle two things at the same time; defeating the Islamic State and stopping its global, revolutionary/terrorist activities.