Posted by David Curtis on June 23, 2015 in Blog

kilcullen_and_me.pngDavid Curtis is an intern with the Arab American Institute

Last week, David Kilcullen, former senior advisor to General David Petraeus and counterinsurgency expert, spoke at the New America Foundation in an event titled “Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State.” Dr. Kilcullen described the chilling inner workings of ISIL leadership, and the strategy he believes the West should consider in combating the ruthless group.

Any detailed discussion of ISIL will send shudders through a room, but a few features of Kilcullen’s speech were particularly striking – apart from his concluding affirmation that in Syria and Iraq, ISIL is “winning, no doubt."

Audience members were most shocked at Kilcullen’s revelation that ISIL may actually satisfy the four international requirements needed for statehood. As terrifying as it is to admit, Kilcullen may be right: ISIL has taken over about 30% of both Syria and Iraq, controlling a population of around 5 million, has made serious attempts at infrastructure, and only needs the ability to enter into relations with other countries (even North Korea is recognized as a “state”).

Because ISIL indeed functions as a state, the group should be treated as such on the battlefield. It is not enough to incoherently strike ISIL from the air as if it is simply an insurgent group (according to Kilcullen, NATO dropped 25 times more bombs on Yugoslavia in 1999 than the coalition has on ISIL targets so far). Civilians are hostages in ISIL-held cities, and the coalition should focus on destroying the guarded exits on city perimeters to provide safe exit pathways for civilians; services must also be provided on city outskirts for citizens yearning to escape.

Kilcullen’s discussion of ISIL’s secular leadership was equally stunning. Oftentimes, he says, “the religious aren’t calling the shots.” About 30% of ISIL’s leadership comes from Saddam’s Baathist regime, and these secular-minded leaders treat foreign Islamists as “religious idiots,” sending them to the front lines as suicide bombers. 

Is it really true that there are secular Sunnis – and not just religious zealots – who support ISIL? Kilcullen clarified that ISIL’s Baathists are mostly concerned with establishing their own power and wealth, and it therefore doesn’t matter through what gateway they obtain control. In other words, if ISIL is the platform to power, then so be it. Still though, it is baffling to consider that there may be a decent portion of ISIL leaders and commanders who don’t actually believe in the proposed “caliphate.” And while there is hardly any media focus on secular supporters of ISIL, a little research will show that this odd faction does actually exist, and represents a considerable amount of ISIL followers.

Perhaps most fascinating, though, Kilcullen blamed the flood of foreign fighters into the region largely on Western governments’ policies towards Muslim minorities. In his home country of Australia, Kilcullen described how the government has allowed for elder conservative men – who young Muslims cannot identify with – to lead Islamic communities with a degree of sovereignty. Young men and women who may have liberal ideas feel marginalized in their own communities, and think (often mistakenly) that they will feel more at home with an organization like ISIL than with the conservative society that they have grown up with.

Some European countries may be even worse, with foolishly panicked “countering violent extremism” programs only serving to isolate Islamic communities further. It seems that the more fearful a country is of religious extremism, the more likely its citizens are to adopt dangerous and extreme positions – Great Britain and France have made robust attempts at “combating extremism,” and have ironically sent more citizens to fight with ISIL than any other European country.

America should take note. The U.S. is not completely immune to its own citizens being enamored with extremist ideologies, and the mass surveillance of Arabs and Muslims and propagation of Islamophobia do not help the case for democracy and freedom. Arab Americans and American Muslims must be able to feel like part of the community, rather than a marginalized subdivision.

ISIL can be defeated, but it will take more than muddled and uncoordinated airstrikes, and will require astute and prudent policies both at home and abroad.

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