After more than a year of the ‘caliphate’ that daesh has brought to the Middle East, the military campaign continues to progress against an enemy that has shown it is competent at both the tactical and strategic level. While an international coalition is supporting Iraq in the military battle, there are several more fronts on which daesh is not yet engaged on seriously. These are perhaps the more important, as extremist groups have shown an ability to recover from military defeat and reappear many years later, as was the case with the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, the previous name for daesh), Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and also the Taliban. The strategy manual that daesh often relies on, ‘The Management of Savagery’, explicitly states that the battle needs to be violent, prolonged, and on several fronts. Thus the response also needs to take into account how much effort daesh invests in the non-military fronts, and to move beyond the one-dimensional thinking that daesh need only be defeated on the battlefield.
The strategy needed to defeat daesh successfully therefore requires a multi-track approach that acts concurrently and not intermittently. This strategy should address issues of ideology, education, provision of services, economic opportunity, intelligence and security, social reconciliation and cohesion, and political representation. Tackling these issues alongside the military one will allow the Iraqi state to reassert itself and deny daesh the means and space in which it can rebuild, recruit, and re-engage.
It would not be possible for daesh to exist without finding support for its ideology in the Muslim world and in Islamic texts. The works of extremist scholars who propagate violent takfir have been around for centuries and though the majority of Muslims do not hold such views today, it only requires a very small minority to adhere to these views to lead to groups such as daesh forming. In fact, of the 1.6 billion Muslims today, active daesh members only number less than 0.002%, but this small number has caused mayhem in the Middle East in the past year. The works of takfiri scholars are found in most Muslim countries today, and the internet and broadcast media have updated the content for the modern audience. It is illegal in most countries today for the Nazi ideology of Adolf Hitler to be taught or broadcast, yet unfortunately in some Muslim countries we see the similar ideology of takfirism being freely disseminated and in some places propagated by the state itself. Unless the ideology is challenged by the most prominent Muslim scholars, the books and views prevented from being disseminated, and the laws changed to ban takfiri ideology, then if only a very small percentage of Muslims adhere to it, we could see daesh-type groups emerge again in the near future.
At the same time we also need to encourage increased education of Muslims, and not just in Islamic studies, because removing extremist ideology will lead to a gap that needs to be replaced by tolerant and progressive discourse. In several Muslim countries there is poor access to education, and systems that are weak and deficient, denying the next generations the means by which to become better equipped to deal with the modern world. This is the environment in which extremism breeds, and societies that have high quality education have shown to be less violent and more resilient to extremist ideologies. Curriculums must be reformed to emphasise respect for the other and tolerance of opposing views, thus denying the validity of extremist ideology that is totalitarian in nature and seeks to attack all non-conformist views. Schools and universities need to become the place where Muslims are enlightened and taught to love peace, not where they are pushed to accept that violence is a necessity.
In every village, town, and city that daesh has taken over, they have rushed to provide services in order to convince locals that they are capable of acting as a state. In some cases they have been able to provide better services than the government did, thus giving reasons for neutrals to at least not oppose the presence of daesh. The inefficiency of state services gives daesh an opportunity to win over disaffected locals and part of the strategy needs to focus on how the state can better serve and protect its citizens. The areas that are furthers away from the capital should received services equal to it, including electricity and water supply, road maintenance, medical and financial services, and municipal and federal services. The services should be immune to corruption, so that each citizen will have it in their interest to protect the government functions in their area and not allow extremists to attack them. The more a government can do for its citizens, the more loyal those citizens become, and the harder it is for groups like daesh to penetrate areas under government control.
It is a fact the world over that in poor or deprived areas there are far greater numbers of crime than in affluent or middle-income areas. Countries like Iraq and Syria have fallen far behind other Arab countries in terms of economic prosperity, particularly in the GCC, and this gap exposes the non-religious and non-political motivations of local men who join groups like daesh. They want a better chance at economic prosperity and after seeing the lack of it from the government they believe daesh can provide this. Daesh members are well paid, some are given property, their families a pension, and can find themselves in a much better position financially than when under government control. This situation must change, local people must have the opportunity to seek wealth and prosperity as citizens of a civil state, whether through employment or entrepreneurship, otherwise dire circumstances, coupled with some of the issues we have already discussed, will force men into the arms of daesh out of desperation, as has been the case in Iraq.
Since the fall of the previous regime in Iraq the state has not been able to provide security to its citizens. The intelligence services are weak, borders are unsecured, and attacks against civil and security institutions have had a devastating effect on rebuilding efforts. The government must reassert its control on all regions of Iraq, it needs to increase its surveillance and counter-terrorism capabilities, it has to secure its borders quickly (especially with Syria), and better protect its citizens from the car bomb and suicide attacks that continue to plague cities such as Baghdad, despite dozens of checkpoints and large numbers of security forces on the streets. Intelligence gathering needs to be stepped up, along with intelligence sharing, in order to stop terrorist cells being formed before they have a chance to settle into communities. Security has not improved much in Iraq since 2003, and unless the government monopolizes weapons and force, then groups such as daesh will continue to challenge the state and control territory.
Every community in Iraq has suffered from the terrible violence in the past few decades, yet there has been no tangible effort at reconciliation that brings these communities together. There are still Shia only and Sunni only areas (and others), with deep feelings of bitterness in both sides against the perceived oppression by the other. In Iraq today large number of Sunnis hate Shias and vice-versa. As we have already mentioned, only a very small percentage need to feel this way and act on it for groups like daesh to rise. Government efforts at social reconciliation have been minimal so far, largely focusing on keeping communities apart in order to prevent violence, rather than actively working to get them to heal and accept each other. This is a problem that has been tackled by other countries who have seen horrific communal violence, such as Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor, Northern Ireland, and South Africa. In each case, only by getting communities to accept and respect the other were they able to heal and move on, reducing levels of violence significantly. Such an attempt has not yet been made in Iraq, but the rise of daesh has shown that it is an absolute necessity in order to make society impenetrable to extremism.
Finally we must look to improve political representation for all communities in Iraq. While there is a democracy in place, it is far from perfect, and in fact barely functioning. Not only must democratic practices and governance improve, but the actual quality of representation also. Too many politicians in Iraq do a terrible job of representing their constituents, taking care of themselves only while not improving the lives of those who elected them. Iraq is still entrenched in centralism and stifling bureaucracy, consolidating power in the hands of the few, who have shown to be prone to corruption and incompetence. Decentralisation and greater autonomy for the regions should improve representation and assure locals that the officials they elect are indeed working for them. Those who have joined daesh were told that voting is a waste of time as it never improves their situation, it is important to not allow this to become a permanent truth, otherwise we could see a reversal of democracy and a return to autocratic rule. The only solution for a peaceful and progressive Middle East is democracy and the civil state, and groups like daesh realize the danger in allowing this to occur, and so are working hard to prevent it.
Strategy is composed of several steps designed to complement each other in pursuit of the ultimate aim, and daesh has a well-developed one. Iraq also needs one in the fight against daesh, and one that takes into account the factors that allow for daesh to rise and maintain a presence, and not just the military aspect. It is time for Iraq to go beyond the battlefield and rebuild the relationship between citizen and state.