What the Cold War Can Teach Us About Containing ISIL

Editors’ NoteThe following post is the latest installment of “Monday Reflections,” in which a different Just Security editor takes an in-depth look at the big stories from the previous week and/or a look ahead to key developments on the horizon.

Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, met with senior Iraqi officials in Baghdad where he notably left the door open for deploying additional US troops in an effort to defeat ISIL that, he claimed, will likely take years.

Before ISIL can be defeated, it must be contained and the ideological divide during the Cold War serves as a useful starting point for conceiving a containment strategy against ISIL.

There are important differences in the two cases. Foremost being the fact that the US and USSR did not want to go to war. There was always a danger of miscalculation, and there were several events and incidents that could have escalated to war, e.g., the Berlin blockade, the Cuban missile crisis, and the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Despite such calamitous events, the rational actor model prevailed, because both sides became persuaded that accommodation was preferable to mutually assured destruction. Over time, global security was stabilized through greater mutual understanding, and because underlying ideological differences became less relevant.

The cause of militant Islam leaves open no possibility for coexistence with its enemies. In this view, ISIL has taken Islamist extremism in a cult-like direction, unlike predecessor movements, notably, al-Qaeda, that were more traditional and less apocalyptic, in their interpretation of history. Theirs is a nihilistic cause to destroy the world, in order to rebuild a “better” world.

Nonetheless, containment is a useful starting point for devising an effective strategy to defeat ISIL. 

At its core, containment requires an understanding of the adversary’s plans and intentions, applying deterrence, and pursuing a consistent set of actions that denies the enemy the fulfillment of his goals and objectives. As was the case during the Cold War, it will likely take decades for the deep-seated causes of conflict in the Middle East to be resolved. Consequently, the US needs a long-term approach to the problem, one that addresses not only the threat posed by ISIL today, but that takes into account the root causes of Islamist extremism. From the US perspective, an effective containment strategy should coordinate a response across three inter-connected fronts: terrorist threats to US interests; destabilization of the Middle East; and the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from war and displacement of large numbers of people.

What are some fundamental questions that Gen. Dempsey must resolve in his own mind, as he considers recommendations to President Obama on strengthening the US-led coalition to contain ISIL?

Is ISIL a rational actor?

I would argue that ISIL is a rational actor, in the sense the group’s leaders possess a coherent world view that can be articulated and defended, using classical logic and reason. Militant Islam has declared war on the Western model of governance. ISIL’s world view leaves no room for accommodation with the US and its allies. ISIL is a rational actor, but their model is something the world can never accept, because it justifies unlimited terrorism and violence to achieve its ends. ISIL has no interest in competing in a fair fight. There are no rules. No boundaries. The only outcome is victory and defeat. The purpose of ISIL’s war is to destroy the global system: coexistence is excluded by their ideology.  ISIL’s world view cannot be reconciled with western notions of secularity. The group’s medieval, apocalyptic rhetoric of a final confrontation with the US should not be dismissed as being an intimidation tactic, or a recruiting ploy – it is a vision statement. It is not possible to implement ISIL’s “utopian” state without the destruction of the status quo. ISIL rejects all western-sponsored institutions – the corporate-based global financial system, secular society that has separated church and state, and its underlying social liberalism. As far as ISIL is concerned, this is total war – kill or be killed. Thus, the rational end game of containing ISIL requires the complete eradication of the movement.

Is it possible to deter ISIL?

ISIL’s dilemma is that its revolutionary character is not compatible with the movement’s growth, and the consolidation of territory under its control.  To date, much of ISIL’s success stems from the fact the movement moves faster than its adversaries, at the speed of social media. It is not contemplative; it is an action-oriented, image-based movement. ISIL is an instinctive, reactive organism. Like a virus, ISIL has been able to morph unexpectedly, to survive and thrive. ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s conundrum is whether to ride the beast he’s on, or try to tame it. ISIL cannot remain flat and nonlinear indefinitely and still accomplish any meaningful objectives. As the movement assumes the trappings of a state, ISIL will become easier to target. It will become easier to infiltrate spies into the organization. It will become more difficult for ISIL to vet and train new recruits. Personal rivalries and ambitions within the organization will become more evident. ISIL’s enemies will discover vulnerabilities and find ways to encourage the terrorist group to modify their behavior. As it grows larger, ISIL will, by necessity, adopt risk versus benefit analysis in its decision-making. As the lines on the organizational chart become bolder, conventional means of countering ISIL’s moves will become increasingly effective.

Will ISIL be able to maintain its appeal and expand its constituency?

The transition of Islamist extremism from al-Qaeda to ISIL is a worrisome indicator that the grievances that fuel the narrative of Islamist extremists have not been effectively addressed. Islamist extremism’s call to violence appeals to all those who are alienated by the status quo. Even though mainstream Islam has roundly rejected ISIL, there is widespread popular skepticism about what the governing elite has to offer the people. Consequently, in spite of the US’ global war against al-Qaeda, ISIL’s ideology has ushered in a more violent and apocalyptic “jihad” than under earlier generations of jihadis.  While the US tends to see the conflict as a series of discrete battles, ISIL views the war as one long jihad, marked by levels of escalating conflict leading towards an ultimate victory over the US and global order. ISIL traces its lineage to al-Qaeda, even though the group’s actions have brought discredit on the cause that al-Qaeda’s founders embraced.

It is an open question whether ISIL’s more extreme ideology and means of waging war will be accepted or rejected by other extremist groups. Cracks have appeared in ISIL’s inconsistent, internally contradictory ideology.  For example, the group is slaughtering Muslims. ISIL is beheading people who have converted to Islam. For this, and other reasons, ISIL has been excoriated by Islamic leaders, scholars, and theologians throughout the world. Presumably, that will attract thugs and killers, but it will alienate people who aspire to joining a rational, functional society and state, which ISIL holds aspirations to become. In the long run, it is doubtful that ISIL will be able to sustain its legitimacy, even among extremists.

Is US restraint sustainable in the long term, in the face of endless images and stories of innocent people being victimized, tortured, beheaded, slaughtered? How will the US react to ISIL terrorist attacks against US interests, when they occur?

ISIL’s justification of extreme violence lies in necessity to use all means at their disposal to wage war against a vastly superior enemy. The prophesied final battle between Rome and ISIL will represent the fulfillment of ISIL’s vision of the final days of history. With this in mind, it is necessary for ISIL to draw the modern day Rome, the US, into a large ground war in Iraq and Syria. The US must not fall into the trap of responding to ISIL’s efforts to provoke events that help fulfill their ideology and objectives. The US must take care not to over-react to attacks against US interests, when they occur. The US must fight this war on its own terms, and in the interests and values of the civilized world.

Containment of the Soviets worked in spite of all of our differences because it was an orderly chess match where both players reached a mutual agreement of acceptable outcomes. Not so, with this barbaric movement. ISIL sets back the cause of civilization, to the extent the world proves unwilling to confront them. Therefore, the US must assert its rightful role in the world and take on ISIL. In such an existential battle between good and evil, can evil be contained?  Yes, but containment is only a means to one end – the total destruction of ISIL. 

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About the Author(s)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, former Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, former Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorism Center.