Thursday, October 30, 2014

Defeating ISIS - Is that the goal?

Why does everyone assume the current strategy regarding ISIS is to destroy them? I’ve heard “analysts” that are shocked that Turkey won’t get more involved in defending Kobani. Others, whether they be politicians or more “analysts”, declaring that the current U.S. air campaign will never fully defeat ISIS. “We simply must commit boots on the ground!” they say.

Geopolitics is cold and pragmatic. It’s never emotional. To quote Robert Strausz-Hupe, nation states are interested in “space and power”. As the German inventors of Geopolitik believed, a nation is either expanding or dying.  It’s a very imperialistic ethos but it’s a game that most of the world’s powers are engaged in. Yes, this includes the largest and most powerful empire the world has ever known...the United States.

So what then is the United States' ISIS strategy? If it’s not to defeat them outright what ulterior motives might be in play here?

Does history provide any kind of reference that we can gain insight from?

As I looked for a historical reference that might help us understand the current ongoing conflict with ISIS I decided to look for other ISIS like groups in the past. I didn’t want to focus on their obsession with establishing a caliphate. Instead I looked throughout history for smaller groups that employed similar tactics in the midst of larger more powerful empires. The use of extreme terror, beheadings, ideological, well funded, etc.

I came across a book of United States diplomatic correspondence from the 1700’s and 1800’s. Thomas Jefferson said this:

“That it was a law, that the first who boarded an enemy’s vessel should have one slave more than his share with the rest, which operated as an incentive to the most desperate valor and enterprise; that it was the practice of their corsairs to bear down upon a ship, for each sailor to take a dagger in each hand and another in his mouth, and leap on board, which so terrified their enemies that very few ever stood against them; that he verily believed the devil assisted his countrymen, for they were almost always successful.”

It was the bolded portion that got my attention the most - which so terrified their enemies that very few ever stood against them”.

Thomas Jefferson was talking about the Barbary Pirates. They were radical Islamists who attacked merchant vessels along the North African Barbary Coast. Today this area encompasses the modern states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Piracy was the main source of income for these nations...and business was good. North Africa sat on the busiest trade route in the world at the time. The Mediterranean Sea trade route saw commerce from every major player in the world. The newest of which was the United States who, after losing protection from The British Navy and later the French Navy, began to see ship after ship fall to the Barbary Pirates. Not only were the U.S. ships and their cargo being seized but their crews were being enslaved as well. Keep in mind that, while this was going on, British and French ships were sailing through the Med unmolested.

Jefferson traveled to London and called an official meeting with the Tripoli Ambassador. He asked him point blank why the Barbary people waged warfare on them. Why did they hate a nation and people that had done nothing to provoke such a reaction? The Ambassador from Tripoli didn’t hesitate in his response:

“The Ambassador answered us, that it was founded on the laws of their Prophet; that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority, were sinners; that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; and that every Mussulman who was slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

You can find similar quotes today from ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS and the Barbary Pirates have so much more in common than people realize. From a geopolitical perspective their goals are/were to dominate a geographic location using terror and ideology as their foreign policy. The Barbary Pirates were operating in between a host of larger more powerful regional players. They played it safe and chose not to attack British and French ships.

From the U.S. State Department:
“The two major European powers, Great Britain and France, found it expedient to encourage the Barbary States’ policy and pay tribute to them, as it allowed their merchant shipping an increased share of the Mediterranean trade, and Barbary leaders chose not to challenge the superior British or French navies.

Prior to independence, American colonists had enjoyed the protection of the British Navy. However, once the United States declared independence, British diplomats were quick to inform the Barbary States that U.S. ships were open to attack. In 1785, Dey Muhammad of Algiers declared war on the United States and captured several American ships. The financially troubled Confederation Government of the United States was unable to raise a navy or the tribute that would protect U.S. ships.”

It wasn’t like there was any secret on the radical ideology that the Barbary Pirates followed. It was widely and publicly known. The British Navy was the most powerful naval force in the history of mankind. Why wouldn’t it eliminate a clearly defined evil threat? Likewise, the French had their own impressive navy. Why did they stand by and watch the Barbary butchery in the most profitable trade zone in the world?

George Washington contemplated the same in a letter he penned from Mount Vernon:
“Mount Vernon, October 10, 1796.
Sir: Your letter of the 5th instant with its enclosure, came to hand by friday's post.
The extracts therein produced both pleasure and pain: the former, at hearing that our citizens are at length released from their unfortunate confinement in Algiers, the latter, to find that others of them have fallen into a similar situation at Tunis, contrary to the truce, and to the arrangement made with Mr. Donaldson.

'Tis difficult to understand precisely what the French government design relative to this Country, from the accounts given by Mr. Monroe.”

Washington’s confusion mirrors that to the confusion the media has regarding ISIS today. Why didn’t the world’s powers of the time (Great Britain and France) simply just remove the threat?
The answer is that the Barbary Pirates were useful. They kept emerging powers in check. That included the United States whose merchant vessels were in direct competition with those from Great Britain and France. The Barbary pirates were a means to an end. Even though they represented an extreme, evil and dangerous ideology. It didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. 

The United States was backed into a corner. They either went to war to eliminate the threat or they suffered the losses and risked bankrupting their new nation. They would end up going to war, and the Marines would add a new line to their hymn.

So again, why is it assumed that the overall strategy is to destroy ISIS?

First of all from the Turkish perspective.

The Turks have been heavily criticized throughout the entire conflict. For not providing military bases to assist coalition strike aircraft, to not defending Kobani, etc.

Turkey is in a very awkward position. They have two immediate geopolitical goals that ISIS helps them achieve. The destruction of the Assad regime in Syria and the degradation of militant Kurds. The latter of which Turkey believes provide assistance to the PKK whom the Turks have labeled a terrorist organization.

The bigger picture reveals a much larger competition between Turkey and the Iranians. The ISIS threat to Assad is also a direct threat to Iranian influence. If Assad was no longer in power Syrian influence could be turned away from Tehran and toward Ankara. For this same reason, you’ll likely never see the other Arab nations fully commit to any kind of meaningful large scale assault.

Even though ISIS poses an eventual threat to Turkey and the rest of the Arab monarchies ISIS provides them all an immediate means to an end.

From the U.S. perspective.

Like Turkey and the Arab monarchies, the United States wants the eventual downfall of the Assad regime. In extension that leads to a smaller sphere of influence for the Iranians.

It’s obvious to everyone that airstrikes alone won’t stop ISIS. That’s not their goal. The airstrikes have two main goals.
  1. The first is to limit and specifically target radical groups that are looking to export terrorism. Groups such as al qaeda or groups within ISIS that want to take jihad away from the Levant region and go global. The United States is hoping to manage the growth of these cells and not allow the region to become a safe haven for terrorist groups to recruit and train in.

  1. The second is to make sure ISIS is pointed in the right direction. That means that they’re attacking Assad, Iranian assets, etc.

Also, like Turkey, the United States is in an awkward position. Taking sides is harder than it appears. Attacking ISIS leads to a stronger Assad which in turn strengthens Iran. Similarly, if the U.S. were to commit to fully supporting Iraq against ISIS the eventual outcome is familiar. A stronger Iranian influence in Iraq. All the current roads lead to a stronger Iran if ISIS were suddenly out of the picture.


Like the Barbary Pirates, ISIS today is a means to an end.The British and French couldn’t endorse the Barbary Pirates and openly support their behavior. To do so would be an endorsement for their radical and evil ideology. However, they had a problem with increased competition in the Mediterranean trade route. The United States was up and coming and their navy may one day be a potential threat. The British and French decided to let the Barbary Pirates operate as long as their geopolitical goals aligned.

ISIS is brutal, horrific and evil. They are the personification of everything we would rise up against to stop. However, we find ourselves in the same position that the British and French were in 1800. With our geopolitical goals aligning along with an extremist group. 

The world’s powers are trying to balance geopolitical motives against morality. Every time ISIS broadcasts another beheading that balance shifts. Eventually society will demand moral action from their governments. Until then, expect the players involved to milk this for all it’s worth.