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ISIS and the Crisis in American Statecraft

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

A Facebook friend with an astute comment pointed me toward this Wall Street Journal article by Joe Rago on the mission of General John Allen, USMC  as “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL”. What is a “Special Presidential Envoy” ?

In diplomatic parlance, a special envoy is an official with full powers (a “plenipotentiary”) to conduct negotiations and conclude agreements, but without the protocol rank of ambassador and the ceremonial duties and customary courtesies. A special envoy could get right down to business without wasting time and were often technical experts or seasoned diplomatic “old hands” whom the foreign interlocuter could trust, or at least respect. These were once common appointments but today less so. A “Special Presidential Envoy” is typically something grander – in theory, a trusted fixer or VIP to act as superambassador , a deal-maker or reader of riot acts on behalf of the POTUS. Think FDR sending Harry Hopkins to Stalin or Nixon sending Kissinger secretly to Mao; more recent and less dramatic examples would be General Anthony Zinni, USMC and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.  

In practice, a presidential special envoy could also be much less, the foreign policy equivalent of a national commission in domestic politics; a place to park thorny, no-win, political headaches the POTUS wants to ignore by creating the illusion of action and get them off the front pages. The position is really whatever the President wishes to make of it and how much power and autonomy he cares to delegate and what, if anything, he wishes the Special Envoy to achieve. Finally, these appointments are also a sign the President does not have much confidence or trust in the bureaucracy of the State Department or DoD, or their respective Secretaries, to carry out the administration’s policy. I wager that this is one of the reasons for General Allen’s appointment.

This means that General Allen is more or less stuck with whatever brief he was given, to color within the lines and make the best uses of any carrots or sticks he was allotted ( in this micromanaging administration, probably very little of either). Why was he chosen? Most likely because the United States sending a warfighting Marine general like Allen ( or a high CIA official) will always concentrate the minds of foreigners, particularly in a region where the US has launched three major wars in a quarter century. If not Allen, it would have been someone similar with similar results because the policy and civilian officials to whom they would report would remain the same.

So if things with ISIS and Iraq/Syria  are going poorly – and my take from the article is that they are – the onus is on a pay grade much higher than General Allen’s.

I will comment on a few sections of the interview, but I suggest reading the article in full:

Inside the War Against Islamic State 

Those calamities were interrupted, and now the first beginnings of a comeback may be emerging against the disorder. Among the architects of the progress so far is John Allen, a four-star Marine Corps general who came out of retirement to lead the global campaign against what he calls “one of the darkest forces that any country has ever had to deal with.”

ISIS are definitely an bunch of evil bastards, and letting them take root unmolested is probably a bad idea. That said, they are not ten feet tall. Does anyone imagine ISIS can beat in a stand-up fight, say, the Iranian Army or the Egyptian Army, much less the IDF or (if we dropped the goofy ROE and micromanaging of company and battalion commanders) the USMC? I don’t. And if we really want Allen as an “architect” , make Allen Combatant Commander of CENTCOM.

Gen. Allen is President Obama ’s “special envoy” to the more than 60 nations and groups that have joined a coalition to defeat Islamic State, and there is now reason for optimism, even if not “wild-eyed optimism,” he said in an interview this month in his austere offices somewhere in the corridors of the State Department

Well, in DC where proximity to power is power, sticking General Allen in some broom closet at State instead of, say, in the White House, in the EOB or at least an office near the Secretary of State is how State Department mandarins and the White House staff signal to foreign partners that the Presidential Special Envoy should not be taken too seriously. It’s an intentional slight to General Allen. Not a good sign.

At the Brussels conference, the 60 international partners dedicated themselves to the defeat of Islamic State—also known as ISIS or ISIL, though Gen. Allen prefers the loose Arabic vernacular, Daesh. They formalized a strategy around five common purposes—the military campaign, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters, counterfinance, humanitarian relief and ideological delegitimization.

The fact that there are sixty (!) “partners” (whatever the hell that means) and ISIS is still running slave markets and beheading children denotes an incredible lack of seriousness here when you consider we beat Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy into utter submission in the largest war in the history of the world with barely a third that number.  The best that can be said here is that Allen, in trying to be a herder of cats, got them to graciously agree on letting the US set a reasonable list of open-ended operations and policy priorities.

Gen. Allen cautions that there is hard fighting ahead and victory is difficult to define….

I think my head is going to explode. I’m sure General Allen’s head is too because this means that President Obama and his chief advisers are refusing to define victory by setting a coherent policy and consequently, few of our sixty partners are anxious to do much fighting against ISIS. When you don’t know what victory is and won’t fight, then victory is not hard to define, its impossible to achieve.

At least we are not sending large numbers of troops to fight without defining victory. That would be worse.

Gen. Allen’s assignment is diplomatic; “I just happen to be a general,” he says. He acts as strategist, broker, mediator, fixer and deal-maker across the large and often fractious coalition, managing relationships and organizing the multi-front campaign. “As you can imagine,” he says, “it’s like three-dimensional chess sometimes.”

Or its a sign that our civilian leaders and the bureaucracies they manage are dysfunctional, cynical and incompetent at foreign policy and strategy. But perhaps General Allen will pull off a miracle without armies, authorities or resources.

Unlike its antecedent al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State is something new, “a truly unparalleled threat to the region that we have not seen before.” Al Qaeda in Iraq “did not have the organizational depth, they didn’t have the cohesion that Daesh has exhibited in so many places.” The group has seized territory, dominated population centers and become self-financing—“they’re even talking about generating their own currency.”

But the major difference is that “we’re not just fighting a force, you know, we’re fighting an idea,” Gen. Allen says. Islamic State has created an “image that it is not just an extremist organization, not just a violent terrorist organization, but an image that it is an Islamic proto-state, in essence, the Islamic caliphate.” It is an “image of invincibility and image of an advocate on behalf of the faith of Islam.”

This ideology has proved to be a powerful recruiting engine, especially internationally. About 18,000 foreign nationals have traveled to fight in Iraq or the Syria war, some of them Uighurs or Chechens but many from Western countries like the U.K., Belgium, Australia and the U.S. About 10,000 have joined Islamic State, Gen. Allen says.

“Often these guys have got no military qualifications whatsoever,” he continues. “They just came to the battlefield to be part of something that they found attractive or interesting. So they’re most often the suicide bombers. They are the ones who have undertaken the most horrendous depredations against the local populations. They don’t come out of the Arab world. . . . They don’t have an association with a local population. So doing what people have done to those populations is easier for a foreign fighter.”

Except for the “never seen before” part – we have in fact seen this phenomena in the Islamic world many times before, starting with the Khawarijites, of whom ISIS are just the most recent iteration – this is all largely true.

ISIS, for all its foul brigandage, religious mummery and crypto-Mahdist nonsense is a competent adversary that understands how to connect  in strategy its military operations on the ground with symbolic actions at the moral level of war. Fighting at the moral level of war does not always imply (though it often does) that your side is morally good. Sadly, terror and atrocities under some circumstances can be morally compelling to onlookers and not merely repellent. In a twisted way, there’s a “burning the boats” effect in openly and gleefully committing horrific crimes that will unify and reinforce your own side while daunting your enemies and impressing onlookers with your strength and ruthlessness. Men flocked to Spain to fight for Fascism and Communism. A remarkable 60% of the Nazi Waffen-SS were foreigners, most of whom were volunteers. Ample numbers of Western left-wing intellectuals were abject apologists not only for Stalin and Mao but the Khmer Rouge during the height of its genocide. ISIS atrocities and horror are likewise political crack for certain kinds of minds.

The problem is that none of this should be a surprise to American leaders, if they took their responsibilities seriously.

William Lind and Martin van Creveld were writing about state decline and fourth generation warfare twenty five years ago. We have debated 4Gw, hybrid war, complex war, LIC, terrorism, insurgency, failed states, criminal insurgency and terms more obscure in earnest for over a decade and have wrestled with irregular warfare since John F. Kennedy was president. Yet the USG is no closer to effective policy solutions for irregular threats in 2014 than we were in 1964.

A more hopeful sign is that the new Iraqi government is more stable and multiconfessional after the autocratic sectarian rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His replacement, Haider al-Abadi, has been “very clear that the future of Iraq is for all Iraqis,” Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. He has restored relations with Middle Eastern neighbors and believes in the “devolution of power” across Iraq’s regions, Gen. Allen says. “Maliki believed in the centralization of power.”

So did we. Maliki and Hamid Karzai were originally our creatures. There was at least a bad tradition of centralization in Iraq, but we imposed it in Afghanistan ex nihilo because it suited our bureaucratic convenience and, to be frank, the big government technocratic political beliefs of the kinds of people who become foreign service officers, national security wonks, military officers and NGO workers. Unfortunately, centralization didn’t much suit the Afghans.

Critics of the Obama administration’s Islamic State response argue that the campaign has been too slow and improvisational. In particular, they argue that there is one Iraqi-Syrian theater and thus that Islamic State cannot be contained or defeated in Iraq alone. Without a coherent answer to the Bashar Assad regime, the contagion from this terror haven will continue to spill over.

Gen. Allen argues that the rebels cannot remove Assad from power, and coalition members are “broadly in agreement that Syria cannot be solved by military means. . . . The only rational way to do this is a political outcome, the process of which should be developed through a political-diplomatic track. And at the end of that process, as far as the U.S. is concerned, there is no Bashar al-Assad, he is gone.”

Except without brute force or a willingness to make any significant concessions to the states that back the Assad regime this will never happen. What possible incentive would Assad have to cooperate in his own political (followed by physical) demise?  Our Washington insiders believe that you can refuse to both bargain or fight but still get your way because most of them are originally lawyers and MBAs who are used to prevailing at home by manipulation, deception, secret back room deals and rigged procedures. That works less well in the wider world which rests, under a thin veneer of international law, on the dynamic of Hobbesian political violence.

As ISIS has demonstrated, I might add.

The war against Islamic State will go on long after he returns to private life, Gen. Allen predicts. “We can attack Daesh kinetically, we can constrain it financially, we can solve the human suffering associated with the refugees, but as long as the idea of Daesh remains intact, they have yet to be defeated,” he says. The “conflict-termination aspect of the strategy,” as he puts it, is to “delegitimize Daesh, expose it for what it really is.”

This specific campaign, against this specific enemy, he continues, belongs to a larger intellectual, religious and political movement, what he describes as “the rescue of Islam.” He explains that “I understand the challenges that the Arabs face now in trying to deal with Daesh as an entity, as a clear threat to their states and to their people, but also the threat that Daesh is to their faith.”

While Iraqi and Iranian Shia have ample existentiall motive to fight ISIS. Sunni Muslims find ISIS brutality pretty tolerable, so long as it is far away from them personally and furthermore ISIS religious-theological lunacy is not terribly far removed from the extreme Salafi-Wahhabi version preached and globally proselytized by our good friends, the House of Saud – or exported violently by our other good friends, the Pakistani Army.  Or at least Sunni Muslims are not bothered enough yet by ISIS to pick up arms and fight.

General Allen is doing his best at a herculean task, but American statecraft is broken and seduced by a political culture vested in magical thinking.

13 Responses to “ISIS and the Crisis in American Statecraft”

  1. Madhu Says:

    Didn’t President Obama–or Obama partisans–express disappointment in the run-up to the Afghan surge, that he had been outmaneuvered by COIN generals and partisans? Was Gen. Allen generally a member of that larger group? Perhaps this is a way to channel those energies, to keep the “more boots on the ground” lobbyists safely within the process, while away from it.
    The problem is in the rhetoric, disrupt the IS state is fine, but we are not going to destroy it, no matter the number of boots on the ground because of our close alliance with, as Bing West put it in the comments section at SWJ, “our Sunni allies.”

  2. Madhu Says:

    And of course, the obvious point is that IS or ISIS or ISIL is NOT Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, it is a threat, but nothing along those lines. It is chiefly a threat to the region, and our regional allies and adversaries are caught up in their own machinations. Any projected threat to the US is real, but no existential. The resources, then, should match that process.
    Quite surprised by this post.

  3. Madhu Says:

    “but not existential.”
    The American military seems incapable of reforming itself, and so too various retired partisans.

  4. Madhu Says:

    Dry doctor aside; do you see how I keep using the same word, again and again ( Ha Ha)? Partisan? I do that a lot and I often wonder why that should be the case. As an educator, you’ve seen this, reading and writing are not just reading and writing. Different kinds of reading and different kinds of writing. I did better as a child but I knew writing was difficult, even the physical process, I had a kind of mild dysgraphia and felt frustrated by it.
    Sorry, that is the stuff that really interests me, everything to do with medicine, but I don’t often share that around here. Different venues for me for that stuff.

  5. Madhu Says:

    William Lind thinks we should have gifted Afghanistan to Pakistan and said as much at The American Conservative. He thinks it is a force for order. Our military theorists don’t seem to like regional study very much. It shows.
    Kelly Vlahos in The American Conservative quotes a David Igby? and I once listened to a talk of his on CSPAN from 1988 or so. I listened to a lot of those old Afghanistan 1980s talks on YouTube and CSPAN. His predictions were all wrong, of course, in that he said if we gave more military aid to Pakistan then it might turn out like Korea, we’d militarize it into democracy.
    What can you expect from an old Nixonian site. Even Jon Basil Utley’s mother, Freda Utley, got the old “solve Kashmir” line when she visited (in the 50s).
    See, here’s the thing. I do my homework which makes it impossible for me to take a lot of the South Asian or military analysts I have read in the past seriously. They don’t do their homework, or are ideologues and don’t want to know.

  6. Madhu Says:

    So too with the NATOists. Putin’s an old authoritarian, all right, but the NATO flunkies and toadies are more than I can take. I’d rather flip burgers but I guess that is easy when you practice a nice trade like medicine.

  7. Madhu Says:

    And on that note, I’m going to go read medicine which is always beautiful to me. Oh, and reading novels. I deal with the anti library by reading through, like, Penguin Classics or NYRB books. Gives a feeling of order to disorder.
    But seriously, SWJ, TAC, War on the Rocks, The National Interest, National Review, The Nation, etc. Do your friggin homework on SA, okay? Geez. Poor Aparne Pande, she wrote all the stuff Christine Fair is writing now back when Dr. Fair (I like her work) was putting out the Pakistan Army narrative. Guess it would be awkward for DC to go to an Indian born analyst for South Asia, but they have a better track record. Might be part of the reason official DC doesn’t really like them, they embarrass the DC consensus.

  8. carl Says:


    We aren’t going to do the eyeball to eyeball killing of Daesh, the locals are. The best we can do is air support, money, weapons, training and air support (and some of our guys on the ground to facilitate all that, no gettin’ around it).

    It is important that we provide that support, and provide it in a decisive way, now. Not after various study groups reach conclusions, but now. The reason for that is the longer we wait, the stronger they get. And the stronger they get, the more likely they are to win the ongoing war in the Muslim world over which interpretation of Islam to follow, the throat cutting kind or the live and let live kind. They may not be much of an important threat to us now, but the Bolsheviks weren’t a direct threat to the West in 1917 either. They sure as hell were later on. If we don’t kill Daesh dead now, we may regret it greatly in the future.

    I think your antipathy toward “COIN” is a bit of a copout. Our failures go way way beyond scapegoating something so amorphous as that, which is what I think Zen is getting at in this post. Basically, we just don’t know how to really fight a war anymore. Geesh, we even get confused about what winning is. Our problems are bone deep and potentially fatal.

    (As far as fighting small wars go, Galula would be flabbergasted at the type of small war practices that Dakota Meyer described in his book. Driving to a contested village once a week and asking them how security is and what they needed isn’t small war fighting of any kind. It’s just stupid. We seem to be real good at stupid.)

  9. Madhu Says:

    “We aren’t going to do the eyeball to eyeball killing of Daesh, the locals are. The best we can do is air support, money, weapons, training and air support (and some of our guys on the ground to facilitate all that, no gettin’ around it).”
    That’s what I just said: the resources should match the threat. That’s not what some people want, though. They are pushing for more because of military contracts, career advancement, ideology. Convincing suckers like you and me is the first step.
    Behind the scenes, there are factions within the American foreign policy establishment-military and civilian-that want more direct involvement, including in Syria. This is their MO, to create the sense that the US must be involved in all aspects of a complicated conflict, and then to push for more and more resources over time. Congress and the press are the leverage points; these groups lobby congressionals in order to convince them to allocate more money while they work on the American public via their contacts in the press.
    Anyway, I am not going to argue this point with you, but you make many assertions that are just that, assertions. The evidence is simply not there to support your assertions.
    So COIN is amorphous, eh? Just what some of us have been saying for ages.
    The conflict in Afghanistan is a proxy war conducted by the Pakistani security establishment within which a localized insurgency is embedded, in addition to local tribal conflicts and drug running by several parties.
    From day one, the Americans fell into the Pakistani trap of viewing the conflict primarily through the eyes of Pakistani clients, a point of view their security apparatus worked very hard at instilling within the American psyche.
    Gary Schroen in “First In: How Seven CIA officers Opened the War on Terror in Afghanistan,
    “Abdullah felt that this was all Pakistani and Pashtun propaganda aimed at creating a climate wherein the Tajik and other ethnic minorities would be isolated and ignored , allowing a conservative Pashtun government-under strong Pakistani influence-to come to power.”
    You don’t have to take sides in the Pashtun versus anti-Pashtun argument to see that the very skillfully, from the first days, someone like Musharraf helped to create in the eyes of the Americans the idea that the entire conflict in Afghanistan hinged on the most radical elements of the Taliban insurgency, and that only by paying heed to those elements, could conflict be stemmed.
    The COIN generals aren’t stupid, they knew they were dealing with a proxy conflict, they simply thought that if they could blunt the taliban insurgency, they would win out in the proxy conflict, peel off the moderate Taliban, and put Pakistan on the wrong footing.
    They miscalculated and they miscalculated because the misunderstood the trap that they walked into. One reason is that they became fixated on the COIN principles that had seemed to successful to them in Iraq. Paying the Pakistani Army to “do COIN” against its own Pakistani Taliban may have helped improve them tactically in some ways, but all it did was give the Pakistanis leverage over everything, the nature of the conflict, the pace of the conflict, the use of proxies, the use of basing for logistics, bureaucratic buy in from the CIA and other agencies making money off of the Pakistanis, etc.
    It was a trap set from day one, when the Pakistanis convinced Cheney or Bush that in order to use their bases, they needed a Kunduz airlift, the Americans should slow down and wait for the Pashtuns and not let the Northern Alliance forward, etc.
    At any rate, I am not going further with this because it won’t be an intellectually productive conversation for me. I am in a reading mode.
    Be well, carl. And be careful. The propaganda game is very subtle, very hard to see through. See how many guys fall for it, time and time again, over at SWJ?

  10. Madhu Says:

    Gen. Mattis has an interview on YouTube where he says, in response to another question, that the entire ground campaign would not have happened if it were not for the Pakistanis. Unfortunately, the concessions made at the time, partly because of the get-Iran and get-Russia crowds preferring the Pakistanis, put the Pakistanis firmly in the drivers seat. They extracted their assets and probably convinced Bush or Cheney that they could seal Tora Bora. Anyway, the military types all know this, it’s been a waste trying to engage some of them. They mean well, but the fates are cruel. The very characteristics that are the best quality of a military man or woman–loyalty–does not serve them well strategically some times. They fixate on the tactical help given them by others and miss how they are being cultivated.

  11. Madhu Says:

    While I’m at it, go back and read Gary Andersen’s writing at SWJ on Pakistan and Afghanistan, but especially Pakistan. It’s in the realm of fantasy, like his, “let’s fight Assad to fight ISIL,” stuff. Those 4GW are really the tops when it comes to regional scholarship. Hard to believe they get gamed.

  12. Madhu Says:

    This is from a comment I posted at SWJ:

    “I messed up a little in a previous comment. The sequence was this, wasn’t it:
    1. Negotiation logistics through Pakistan in a trade for dropping of sanctions and aid packages.
    2. Permission for the Kunduz airlift from President Bush or Cheney (?, different stories) because
    Musharraf had said he was vulnerable and needed the help.
    To date, the quietness over this in relation to the attention given to Tora Bora is a bit odd. It occurs to me that it might not be a bad thing for various parties if the focus is on Tora Bora.
    In terms of strategic depth, isn’t one aspect falling back with assets, evacuating to a different place to plan a future offensive? If you look at it that way, what do we see in those initial weeks after 9/11?
    Half fighting, half retreating, all in the name of future assets to be used if needed. And information from joint planning from the very beginning? Whether from the top or from “rogues”, either way, from the beginning, the false narratives on South Asia that were a part of the American psyche were major problem.”
    The comment was in response to something I found in an interview in Esquire (by Tom Barnett) on the “Monks of War”. From day one, because of the logistics, the Pakistanis knew what we were going to do. The focus has been so far on threats to the Pakistanis to do our bidding and to Tora Bora, but what is interesting is how many people knew what during the weeks of wrangling to get our troops into the region. All the different allies which brings up the possibility of spying, mischief, lots of interesting stuff to do with the Kunduz airlift. People are pretty quiet about this stuff, although, I am seeing more books and articles along this line.

  13. Madhu Says:

    This is the bit in the Esquire article (interview with General Mattis) that stood out to me:
    ‘ “I said, ‘I want to bring the ships in next to the beach. I want to land stuff across the beach. I have an airstrip nearby where I can fly stuff in and out. I want an intermediate support base where I can put some fuel. And by the way, here is H-hour, D day, and my objective.’ The Pakistanis knew it all three weeks in advance and never revealed one word.” ‘
    A fair number of books and papers are coming out on the very specific planning within this period, examining the military and diplomatic records, interviews with principles, etc. Good work will be done on this in the future, I reckon.

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