The Challenge After ISIS

The Islamic State’s recent setbacks in Iraq and Syria may portend the group’s eventual collapse, but the chaos left behind will present a challenge of a different sort, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

A major deficiency in America’s history of involvement with armed conflict overseas has been inattention to whatever would follow defeat of the bête noire of the moment. The outstanding example is, of course, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, with the promoters of that war being irresponsibly negligent in not seriously considering that the aftermath of deposing the Iraqi regime would be anything other than a stable and democratic polity.

A similar deficiency occurred when the United States followed a European lead in deposing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. When disorder and continued conflict ensue, the wider consequences are invariably bad for U.S. interests and international security. This includes in particular providing fertile ground for extremism and terrorism, as the invasion of Iraq did in giving birth to the group we now know as ISIS.

President Barack Obama in his weekly address on Sept. 13, 2014, vowing to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. (White House Photo)

President Barack Obama in his weekly address on Sept. 13, 2014, vowing to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. (White House Photo)

Much of what applies to the overthrow of regimes applies as well to the defeat of ISIS itself, a non-state actor that has taken control of a chunk of territory and has been trying to function like a state. There are, to be sure, significant differences between true state regimes and ISIS, an ephemeral phenomenon that is especially barbaric and wholly illegitimate and unrecognized.

It would be hard to make a good case for a strategy that centers on leaving ISIS in place indefinitely, while a strong case certainly could be made that we would have been better off today if we hadn’t gone after a regime such as the one in Iraq. But there are similar issues of what comes afterward.

Those issues are going to have to be confronted soon. ISIS is on the run. In Iraq it has lost nearly half of the territory it had gained in its offensive in 2014, and government forces are in the early stage of a campaign to retake Iraq’s second city, Mosul.

In Syria the group recently suffered a major defeat in losing Palmyra to government forces, and it has lost additional ground to other opposition militias in the northwest. Meanwhile reports accumulate of the group’s mounting financial difficulties and problems in trying to administer its mini-state.

Against the backdrop of these favorable developments is continuing uncertainty regarding the “what comes after” question. The U.N.-brokered international diplomacy regarding Syria’s political future will have much to do with resolving that uncertainty. But while the diplomats are still negotiating, fast-moving events on the ground are forcing the issue.

The recent action in and around Palmyra makes it hard to escape the conclusion that the Assad regime will be filling some of the space previously occupied by ISIS. That makes all the more untenable any political formula for Syria that centers around the departure of that regime. Additional setbacks by ISIS in the northwest are adding to the territory on which a variety of contenders in this complicated civil war have their eye.

In Iraq, a similar situation is depicted by Thomas Friedman in a column written during a visit to the north of the country. Friedman quotes the governor of Kirkuk Province as saying, “The problem in Iraq is not ISIS. ISIS is the symptom of mismanagement and sectarianism.” Without further administrative and political changes, “the situation in Iraq could be even worse after” ISIS is defeated.

Friedman further explains the reason: “There is simply no consensus here on how power will be shared in the Sunni areas that ISIS has seized. So if one day you hear that we’ve eliminated the ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and lowered the ISIS flag over Mosul, hold your applause.” The competing aspirations of Kurds and Sunni Arabs are the biggest, but not the only, part of the unresolved conflicts involved.

The marked trend against ISIS, under existing policies of the United States and others, is one reason that the repeated calls for a heavier U.S. military involvement to combat ISIS are unwarranted. Other reasons involve the counterproductive aspects of some attempts to apply U.S. military power against extremism, and the quagmire risks of wading more deeply into a war as complicated as the one in Syria.

The tone of urgency associated with the calls for escalation also have been based on false assumptions about how events in ISIS’s so-called caliphate supposedly relate to international terrorism in the West. There is little evidence of financial or material support, for example, from ISIS central for the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.

Now yet another reason the calls for U.S. military escalation are unwarranted is that even if such escalation were to hasten the demise of ISIS, such hastening would only bring to the fore more quickly some more fundamental problems. For military events on the ground to outrun progress in resolving conflicts and addressing problems of which, as the Iraqi provincial governor noted, ISIS is a symptom would not constitute an improvement as far as international security is concerned.

To the extent that events in Syria and Iraq do have something to do with a threat of terrorism in the West, that threat will depend not so much on how quickly ISIS expires but rather on what is left after its expiration.

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.)

8 comments for “The Challenge After ISIS

  1. April 7, 2016 at 12:44

    US foreign policy is a lie. US domestic policy is a lie. Never trust the US government.

  2. Herman
    April 7, 2016 at 10:55

    ISIS is the product in large part of the chaos created by the regime change decisions made during the senior Bush’s Adminstration in Iraq and by the Obama Administration regarding Syria. Intended and unintended consequences fractured Iraq and very nearly did the same in Syria. Hopefully, Syria can recover and recreate the Syria that existed before “civil” war.

    If there is one over arching policy put in place it should be the restoration of viable states in both Iraq and Syria. This means not only ridding those states of extremists but dealing with the Kurds within the states where they exist, and ending forever the encouraging of the Kurds for an independent state. States must deal with groups fairly, but groups must be subsumed under state umbrellas. A side issue for Syria, of course, is the Golan Heights but first things first.

    Of course, to date, America has done the opposite to serve the interests of its allies in the Middle East and southwest Asia so we can only hope it will come to express greater empathy for the suffering people in the region and our role in their suffering.

  3. Tristan
    April 7, 2016 at 00:19

    I must agree that the U.S. government is more than short sighted regarding its employment of force in the service of supposed national security interests. I submit however that the outcomes, the goals, and the intention of intervention by the U.S., be it by economic or military sanction, is not concerned with what a balanced and thoughtful long term policy might possibly result in (as compromises might have to be made, which in the present American foreign policy lexicon aren’t to be found), but in short term war profiteering by the oligarchs of the U.S., its global vassals and partners .

    In the face of the imbalance of economic interests, spending on war and allowing the nation to be devoured in the service of the war power elites, those same in the U.S. forge ahead unconcerned as those who pay for their adventures are others.

    What now starts to astound me is that many still cling to the idea that what has occurred over the last decades and more is somehow that what the U.S. and NATO have being doing was/is a failure or is somehow successfully unsuccessful. I think not. It is irrelevant what outcomes took/take place on the battlefield or that a school was build in a vacant valley or that freedom of navigation is a provication. Victory is an illusion as the goals of the wars are indefinable. That doesn’t matter anymore in the picture as we old school humans quaintly understand things, as victory isn’t the goal, profit is. Profit. Thus the permanent state of war, where the U.S. and its client states find themselves on a battlefield which is now the entire planet.

    History teaches us again and again that human beings are unable to shake the monkey of greed, and in war profiteering we have seen and continue to see this. Good night moon…

  4. dahoit
    April 6, 2016 at 11:18

    ISUS will never die,as long as the Zionists control our world.
    When all are safe and secure from all alarm,they will disappear.

  5. Call A Spade
    April 6, 2016 at 07:45

    It would be difficult for the US military to defeat itself.

  6. Zachary Smith
    April 5, 2016 at 21:04

    Against the backdrop of these favorable developments is continuing uncertainty regarding the “what comes after” question.

    I’d suggest that this speculation is premature because ISIS isn’t done yet. Today’s Google News has reports about the Empire (or some of its midget servants) giving Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) to the brave Syrian Rebels. They’re going to milk the current run of rebel suckers for as long as they possibly can, for at this stage any additional destruction in Syria is relatively inexpensive.

    Russia was the great savior of Syria during the past few months, and once again, the Empire (or some of its midget servants) is working mighty hard to make sure that nation is too distracted for it to happen again.

    Nagorno-Karabakh has had a very recent flare-up of fighting. Nobody can think of a current motive for either Armenia or Azerbaijan, but a bucketful of large bills could easily induce some local commander to open fire. Unlike Russia, Turkey has a huge interest in something like this happening. As for other midget involvement, I saw a story about a ‘weaponized’ Israeli recon drone crashing into an Armenian bus full of soldiers. If true, one wonders how Azerbaijan happened to have that particular model.

    Chaotic destruction of Muslim nations is going to continue so long as possible and also as much distraction at Russia’s borders as can be possibly managed – count on it!

  7. Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
    April 5, 2016 at 19:32

    And why do you think that the “Israel Firsters” and the “Military-Security-Industrial Complex” care much about what happens after ISIS?! They created it in the first place and will create another one after it. The goal of the War on Terror is just that…..”Endless War”…………That gives Israel (The Sacred Cow) dominance over the Middle East AND gives the Military-Security-Industrial Complex more reasons to milk America (The Cash Cow).

    Here are some references that might help:

    – The Zionist Plan for the Middle East – Israel Shahak

    Phyllis Bennis: Understanding ISIS

    I hope this helps………….

  8. J'hon Doe II
    April 5, 2016 at 18:09

    Paul R. Pillar — A major deficiency in America’s history of involvement with armed conflict overseas has been inattention to whatever would follow defeat of the bête noire of the moment.


    Would an ISIS breakup become
    a dissent into the maelstrom
    for Arab People Groups?

    Our militaristic strategy seems
    to have habitually been
    forms of ‘them’ killing each other.

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