The Islamic State Stumbles

Last summer, there was widespread hysteria across Official Washington over the seemingly unstoppable expansion of the brutal Islamic State and handwringing over President Obama’s limited military response but the jihadist momentum now shows signs of stalling, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The fortunes of the extreme and violent group known variously as ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State seem to have changed markedly during the past few months. This summer the group was commonly portrayed, amid much alarm, as a relentless juggernaut that was scooping up so much real estate that it was a threat to overrun Baghdad and much else far beyond.

But the progress that was so frightening to follow in maps in the newspaper has stopped. The juggernaut has stalled. There will be endless debate about the causes of this change of momentum, ranging from military measures that the United States has taken to the somewhat more enlightened policies of the Iraqi central government. These and other influences have their effects, but the larger phenomenon of the decline of ISIS, decline not just that has happened so far but is yet to come, can be explained most of all by the group’s own policies and practices.

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed by an Islamic State operative.

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed on Aug. 19, 2014, by an Islamic State operative.

The abhorrent and inhumane methods of the group are a major part of that explanation. Just as we abhor such methods, it should be no surprise that most people in the Middle East abhor them, too. Methods such as the highly publicized killing of individual captives have, besides terrorizing ISIS’s adversaries, increased the prominence of the group and probably impressed would-be foreign recruits by showing that ISIS is the meanest, baddest, and most consequential organization engaged in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

But living under the rule of such a vicious group can be at least as repulsive to the locals as watching it from afar is to us. Such a way of exercising power locally is ultimately not a good way to win support. We saw a similar reaction in an earlier phase of the Iraqi civil war.

It behooves us to learn what we can, as those charged with directly confronting ISIS evidently are trying to do, about the basis for whatever appeal the group does have, and especially about any appealing ideas it offers. The good news is that ISIS offers hardly anything in the way of such ideas. It cannot become an ideological lodestar the way Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa’ida did, because ISIS offers nothing as original as Bin Laden’s idea of hitting the far enemy as a way of getting eventually at despised near enemies.

The appeal of ISIS to its recruits has been based not on ideology but on directly and brutally establishing facts on the ground. The appeal reduces to the principle that everybody loves a winner. But ISIS has stopped winning. It is like a shark that must keep moving forward to survive, but it is not still moving forward.

The establishment by ISIS of a de facto mini-state was widely seen as an accomplishment and a sign of strength, but it also is a vulnerability. If you run a state, you are expected to make the trains run on time, and you will lose popularity if you don’t. ISIS is demonstrating that it lacks the ability to manage a state, and people in the areas it controls, including even Raqqa, Syria, the major city it has held the longest, are suffering from a collapse of public services. Trying to run, however unsuccessfully, the mini-state also represents for the ISIS leadership a drain on attention and resources that might otherwise be used for expansion.

The proclamation of a caliphate, although it has had some value for the group in impressing and attracting foreign recruits, lacks the sanction and recognition that in the eyes of the vast majority of Muslims such a move is supposed to have. Mainstream Muslim scholars and religious authorities have avoided anything that even hints at recognition.

Some fundamentalist Salifis have even likened ISIS and the moves it has made to extremist outcasts at the time of the Prophet. To the extent that the self-styled caliphate is seen more as a usurpation of Muslim aspirations than a fulfillment of them, the proclamation of a caliphate will turn out to be more of a liability than an asset.

When an adversary is hurting his own cause, generally the most effective thing to do is to stand aside and not get in the way. This is true of political debate, civil wars, and many other forms of conflict. The United States cannot get entirely out of the way of this one, insofar as it can do a few things that, tactically and on a piecemeal basis, limit the short-term harm that ISIS inflicts.

But taking a longer-term and more strategic view, which recognizes how ISIS is hurting its own cause, for the United States to do less rather than trying to do more (especially more that is visible and kinetic) is apt to be the wisest course. Injecting new focal points for controversy and collateral damage, on the basis of which ISIS can make new appeals, is apt to slow the process of the group greasing the ramp of its own decline. It also is apt to make the United States more of a direct target of whatever harm the group is still able to inflict.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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9 comments for “The Islamic State Stumbles

  1. Julian
    January 1, 2015 at 11:50

    It’s no surprise that knocking down an empire/government/state is a lot easier than actually running it. I’m pretty sure that destroying the second Death Star in Star Wars Episode VI was the easy part of toppling the Empire ;-)

    Taxes have to be collected, laws enforced, saleries paid, infrastructure maintained and rebuilt, etc. And often those revolutionaries are inept at doing anything apart from fighting. And it’s not like ISIS is brimming with intellectuals, engineers or well-educated civil servants. There’s only so much you can do with a pack of fools who’ve only read one book in their life (and probably not very well).

  2. December 31, 2014 at 17:36

    Excellent contribution. This the reference point when you hear about the decades long effort required to subdue ISIS. The repellant and vicious tactics of this group does alienate the people they seek to rule. The military efforts have provide a block to the rapid advance.
    The remaining problems are, imho, stopping U.S. and its puppets military aid to the “good rebels” in Syria since this is appropriated by the jihadists, including ISIS. Also, stop the stupid policy of toppling Assad and let him finish the job off in Syria.
    To do this, Erdogan’s support of ISIS has to be stopped and the money funding them has to be identified specifically with names/nations attached.

  3. rosemerry
    December 31, 2014 at 17:07

    “The abhorrent and inhumane methods of the group are a major part of that explanation.” This is an amazing statement from an American, given the methods used by his nation’s forces.
    Of course, the whole jihadist movement has been encouraged and helped by the actions of the USA and its “allies”, who should very definitely keep out of the way of events which are not their concern. Don’t mention “9/11” please-even if not a false flag, it could not be considered unexpected or unjustified and nobody has actually been tried and condemned for this crime.

  4. Jym Allyn
    December 31, 2014 at 14:53

    “Follow the money.”

    The Jihadists have more in common with ancient Chinese warlords or criminal gangs than they do with any type of successful social, political, or religious movement.

    Anti-social criminality seems to be more of a bond for ISIS members than religious convictions.

    And because much of their support comes from what they can steal from their victims or from the Sunni Sheiks and “religious leaders,” when those funds become scarce as the price of oil drops, their benefactors can no longer afford to support what is essentially a criminal mob.

    ISIS is an effort doomed to fail, but not soon enough.

  5. paul wichmann
    December 31, 2014 at 14:11

    I have to admit IS being stalled surprises me. Its being nearly defeated, however (still some ways off), will almost certainly give it over to revenge by whatever means possible.
    Super Patriot Act, anyone?

  6. Joe
    December 31, 2014 at 09:46

    A sensible approach. The US certainly was the major cause of recent oppression of Sunni Iraq, and of ISIS anger, and of the inevitable misgovernment of those who would liberate them. The liberation militarism was predictable. Revolutions seldom replace their oppressor with more than slight gains, because their structure and tactics are dictated by those of their oppressor. So the inability of ISIS to govern provides Sunnis the lesson that it’s best role is as a “revolutionary guard” for a moderate Sunni government. If their foreign sponsors can see that, perhaps they will be chastened to assume a purely defensive role.

    If the US does more than establish the boundaries of a Sunni state to include only compatible populations, we are only prolonging the conflict. We should have used diplomacy to limit the role of the militants with assurances that we would support only a moderate government. But the US has become a mad robot controlled by stupid and selfish business gangsters, swinging its sword wildly at objects it does not care to understand, with none of the noble intentions it shouts as propaganda. And very likely those gangsters do not want a successful moderate Sunni state there, and do want further excuses for slaughter and instability to benefit the MIC and Israeli campaign sponsors.

  7. Hillary
    December 30, 2014 at 20:46

    Hard work by the PNAC neocons has been rewarded in getting Arabs to look for a most brutal revenge in horror killings and a war against each other.
    ..
    Just before the Iraq war remember Paul Wolfowitz ( former dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies) famously saying in OPEN testimony that Shia and Sunni relations were good with no problems between them and the US would be welcomed in Iraq with flowers ?
    ..
    BTW will someone please kindly explain why Paul Wolfowitz and his neocon comrades—Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan etc etc. still deserve to be presented as Middle East pundits on TV for their ongoing disaster .
    ..
    neocons got the Iraq invasion (War) all wrong with WMD, the cost of the war , the consequences of the invasion —deaths of nearly 4,500 US service men and women, and over 1,000,000 civilian Iraqis plus the Radioactive Ammunition Fired in Middle East that may claim More Lives Than Hiroshima and Nagasaki …
    http://www.lostscribemedia.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/neocons11.jpg

  8. Hillary
    December 30, 2014 at 18:34

    The hard but successful work by the PNAC neocons to finally get Arabs to kill has proven successful.
    ..
    Remember Paul Wolfowitz ( former dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies) famously saying in OPEN testimony that Shia and Sunni relations were good with no problems between them and the US would be welcomed in Iraq with flowers ?
    ..
    Will someone please kindly explain why Paul Wolfowitz and his neocon comrades—Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan etc etc. still deserve to be presented as Middle East pundits on TV for their ongoing disaster .
    These neocons got the Iraq invasion (War) all wrong with WMD, the cost of the war and the consequences of the invasion —deaths of nearly 4,500 US service men and women, and over 1,000,000 civilian Iraqis and depleted uranium left all over Iraq. ..
    Just how did someone like Wolfowitz manage to advance up the ladder in any administration and why today is he is not in prison as a traitor to the United States ?
    http://dissidentvoice.org/2013/03/on-tenth-anniversary-israel-partisans-behind-iraq-war-still-at-large/

    • Joe
      January 1, 2015 at 14:25

      Wolfowitz installed zionist operatives Feith, Perl, and Wurmer at DIA, CIA, NSA to stovepipe fake “intelligence” to trick the US people into war for bribes and campaign money (see Bamford’s Pretext for War). They and the Bushites are right wing traitors wrapped in the flag, and should be in Club Fed Guantanamo with Cuba as the contractor, unless Iran will pay to recycle them. They deserve recognition by mass media because the oligarchy owns it, and never looks back at its disasters. They look forward to final consolidation of their right wing revolution against democracy, as all true patriots must agree, or perish.

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