How to defeat Isis: We already have a playbook for beating these extremists

John Hulsman
MUNICH – As the Fourth of July comes and goes, I have been jokingly told by friends that I share a trait found more often in East Asian cultures; that of ancestor worship. One of my sons is named after both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, so fervently do I believe in the civic religion of the American democratic experiment. What would Jefferson – that most optimistic apostle of reason – make of the beyond-the-pale Islamic State (IS) (formerly Isis) which just last week announced the establishment of a caliphate in the desert wastes of eastern Syria and western Iraq?

I think it’s clear he’d tell us to keep our nerve. As Jefferson put it, “How much pain they have cost us, the evils which have never happened.” By emerging seemingly from nowhere and taking extremism to such an extreme (IS crucified eight rival Syrian rebels a few days ago), the IS has mesmerised the world. It is undoubtedly the richest and best-equipped jihadi extremist group on the planet, having stolen up to $500m from banks in Mosul and taken the American-purchased weapons of up to five Iraqi divisions as they scampered south. Sickeningly, it is estimated that IS now has enough arms to equip 200,000 soldiers, far more men than they presently have.

All this alarm is entirely understandable, just as it is certain that most analysts have long underplayed the danger of Sunni radicalism re-emerging, given the Syrian calamity and the feckless incompetence of the al-Maliki regime in Iraq. But perspective is essential here. Intellectually, both the IS and Sunni radicalism are in danger of going from being an understudied second-order problem to being an over-studied second-order problem. There are already grave dangers to IS’s continued viability, from both within and without.

For there is an historical playbook just in front of us that indicates how IS can be combated. An earlier incarnation of the group – Al-Qaeda in Iraq – became the dominant power in Iraq’s western Anbar province in 2006-07, riding an earlier wave of chaos and Shia political intolerance to seize power there.

However, from this high water mark, al-Qaeda in Iraq ran into trouble almost immediately, as it was unable to effectively govern the province. This mixture of administrative incompetence and its savage repression led to a political counter-movement, the Sahwa (Awakening), whereby American counter-insurgency forces allied with indigenous Sunni tribes to rout al-Qaeda. Remarkably quickly, by 2008-2009, al-Qaeda in Iraq had been subdued, with local Sunni tribal leaders taking charge of the vast province.

Bottom line, if the IS leadership (fascinating in its evil as it is) proves itself incapable of governing, Sunni tribal leaders and the remnants of Saddam’s Baathist Party are unlikely to tolerate them for long. While fighting a war on all fronts, the IS must set up a public administration, efficiently collect taxes, provide services, and create institutions on the fly. This is a gargantuan challenge at the best of times, and these certainly are not the best of times in Iraq. Nor does IS (unlike the American founding fathers) have a wealth of administrative experience to draw on. The new caliph of the IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has issued a desperate call for Muslim judges and administrators to immigrate to the new country. Al-Baghdadi rightly knows that, without such expertise, his dream of a caliphate may prove remarkably short-lived.

For the IS now finds itself fighting a war on multiple fronts, across a large expanse of territory (the area the IS controls today amounts to land two times the size of Israel), with a limited number of fighters. The IS has no real response to the air superiority of its enemies, even as the Maliki government has just purchased $500m worth of Russian Sukhoi warplanes. In its almost unimaginable extremism, the IS has somehow managed to array Syria, Russia, Iran, the US, Shia Iraq, and al-Qaeda against it, a mind-boggling list of enemies.

In the end, the IS has only one real thing going for it, the maladroitness of its Iraqi Shia enemies. There will be no new Awakening movement in IS territories if Baghdad continues to suicidally refuse to include more moderate Sunni leaders in the new central government. Washington must not cease pressing on this – both privately and publicly – to pressure Prime Minister Maliki (or whoever follows him) to give in on this central political point. For if this were to come to pass, IS’s days – for all the fascination with its evil – would likely be numbered.

Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and most recently Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again. He is president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (, a global political risk consultancy, and available for corporate speaking and private briefings at

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