Washington still gets it wrong on ISIL

Washington still gets it wrong on ISIL

Attacks at Istanbul’s main airport, which appear to be the work of Islamic State and the Levant (ISIL) are the latest reminder that the United States should not downplay the group’s rudimentary –  yet effective –  tactics.

Since the wave of ISIL suicide bombings in May  American officials have downplayed the strategy as defensive. Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy in the fight against ISIL said the group “returned to suicide bombing” as the area under its control shrank. The American strategy of focusing primarily on the “big picture” recapture of territory seems to push the suicide bombings to the side. “It’s their last card,” stated an Iraqi spokesperson in response to the attacks.

The reality is just the opposite.

A day after the June 26 liberation of Fallujah, car bombs exploded in eastern and southernBaghdad. Two other suicide bombers were killed outside the city. An improvised explosive device exploded in southwest Baghdad a day earlier.

Washington should know better than to underestimate the power of small weapons to shape large events. 
After Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld labeled Iraqi insurgents as “dead enders” in 2003, they began taking a deadly toll of American forces via suicide bombs. It was the 2006 bombing of the Shi’ite al-Askari Golden Mosque that kicked the Iraqi civil war into high gear.To believe suicide bombings represent a weakening of ISIL is a near-total misunderstanding of the hybrid nature of the group; it melds elements of a conventional army and an insurgency. To “win,” one must defeat both versions.

ISIL differs from a traditional insurgency in that it seeks to hold territory. This separates it from al Qaeda, and most other radical groups, and falsely leads the U.S. to believe that retaking strategic cities like Fallujah from ISIL is akin to “defeating” it. 

 However, simultaneously with holding and losing territory, ISIL uses terror and violence to achieve political ends.

ISIL has no aircraft and no significant long-range weapons, making it a very weak conventional army when facing down the combined forces of the U.S. Iran and Iraq in set piece battles. It can, however, use suicide bombs to strike into the very heart of Shi’ite Baghdad (and Syria, Jordan,Yemen, and Turkey – as Tuesday’s bombing reminds us), acting as a strong transnational insurgency.

Violence in the heart of Iraqi Shi’ite neighborhoods empowers hardliners to seek revenge. Core Sunni support for ISIL grows out of the need for protection from a Shi’ite dominated military, which seeks to marginalize if not destroy the Sunnis. Reports of Shi’iteatrocities leaking out of the ruins of Sunni Fallujah are thus significant. Fallujah was largely destroyed in order to “save” it, generating some 85,000 displaced persons, mirroring what happened in Ramadi. Those actions remind many Sunnis of why they supported Islamic State (and al Qaeda before them) in the first place.

Suicide strikes reduce the confidence of the people in their government’s ability to protect them. 

American commanders have already had to talk the Iraqi government out of pulling troops from the field to defend Baghdad, even as roughly half of all Iraqi security forces are already deployed there. This almost guarantees more American soldiers will be needed to take up the slack.

Anything that pulls more American troops into Iraq fits well with the anti-American Islamic State narrative. Few Iraqis are left who imagine the United States can be an honest broker in their country. A State Department report found that one-third of all Iraqis believe the Americans are actually supporting ISIL, while 40 percent are convinced that the United States is trying to destabilize Iraq for its own purposes.

In a country like Turkey, suicide bombings play out in a more complex political environment. Turkey opened its territory to American aircraft conducting bombing runs against Islamic State. Attacks in Turkey may be in response to pressure on the nation to shift its strategy more in line with Western demands. Russia (no friend of ISIL) and Turkey have also recently improved relations; the attack in Istanbul may have been a warning shot reminding Turkey not to get too close.

The suicide bombings – in Turkey and elsewhere – are not desperate or defensive moves. They are not inconsequential, even if their actual numbers decline. They are careful strategy, the well-thought out application of violence by Islamic State. The United States downplays them at great risk.

Peter Van Buren served in the US State Department for 24 years. This abrigded article is taken from Reuters.