With the Obama administration still struggling to develop a plan to gain a lasting advantage against ISIS on the ground in Iraq and Syria, it's no surprise the Republican presidential candidates also found the issue challenging in the most recent debate. Though good ideas were offered, none of the candidates articulated a comprehensive plan, and Donald Trump's proposals ironically would help ISIS.
There are two basic reasons the administration has struggled to formulate a workable strategy. First, unlike terrorist organizations the United States has battled before, ISIS holds territory. It runs cities and population centers. This allows it to hold the levers of power from governing, as it terrorizes countries abroad.
Compare ISIS to al Qaeda. Even at its strongest -- when it carried out the 9/11 attacks -- al Qaeda did not hold territory. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda leaders benefited from a friendly government but were not in government. They were guests of the Taliban hiding in secret training camps and caves.
The reason ISIS is formidable is that it gains strength through governance and control. In Iraq and Syria, it assumes sources of revenue of governments it displaces. It collects taxes and fees for services such as licenses and permits. It also levies a special religious tax, called jizya, on non-Muslim residents. In areas with oil, it controls downstream activity, selling crude or refined product on the black market.
Governing offers other benefits too: ISIS can maintain a totalitarian-like state with limited access to outside information and little ability to resist and challenge it. This also facilitates access to its most important resource -- human capital.
ISIS converts supporters through subversion and violence and indoctrinates youth through control of schools and mosques. Though many ideological adherents have come from outside Iraq and Syria, ISIS will eventually raise armies of believers from the population it governs.
Thus, the United States cannot defeat ISIS by merely hunting its leaders where they hide and bombing training camps. It faces a terrorist state it must overthrow to defeat.
The second and related reason the administration has struggled is that it ruled out sending U.S. combat troops. Thus, it must develop plans for deposing the terrorist state that do not rely upon U.S. troops as an invading force. The only alternative is existing forces on the ground.
The most important of these for regaining the territory still in ISIS hands is moderate Sunni Arabs who not only must conquer ISIS, but step into its shoes and run the areas it holds. The Kurds will help, but cannot govern majority Sunni Arab cities.
A challenge is that moderate Sunni groups in Iraq and Syria are disparate, disorganized, difficult to vet and lack recognized leaders.
What next president needs
The next president needs a comprehensive plan for defeating ISIS that acknowledges these obstacles -- the strength ISIS derives by governing and the steps required in developing moderate Sunni alternatives with legitimacy in areas ISIS controls.
Although none of the Republican candidates offered the details required in the recent debate, some touched upon proposals that would help.
Marco Rubio said ISIS must be defeated with a ground force that rejects the group ideologically. Jeb Bush mentioned his support for a no-fly zone over Syria, which is the type of idea that would provide space to build a moderate Sunni alternative to ISIS in Syria. Ben Carson discussed cutting off supply routes to ISIS in cities like Mosul and Raqqa.
Donald Trump, however, missed the mark. He offered three basic ideas for defeating ISIS: (1) Bomb the hell out of them; (2) Turn off the Internet in areas they control; and (3) Ban Muslims from entering America.
The first is something the United States is already doing effectively. Could we do more airstrikes? Sure, but that alone will not be a game-changer. And his other two ideas play right into ISIS' playbook.
Because ISIS maintains tight control over information in areas it governs, the Internet is a threat. The population can use it to access information from outside and communicate with each other to organize against ISIS. Other oppressive regimes have shut off the Internet to prevent opposition. For instance, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak completely severed Egypt's Internet connection
during the Arab Spring. ISIS understands this, which is why it shut down
private Internet access in Raqqa and other cities it controls. Yet Trump's idea is to help ISIS do it.
Trump also wants to institute a blanket ban on travel to America by non-U.S. citizens who are Muslim. He proposes a religious test for entry that would expressly discriminate against people of Muslim faith.
From its inception, ISIS ideology has been predicated on the myth that the West is at war with Islam. By discriminating against all Muslims, rather than just those affiliated with radical Islamic groups or terrorists, Trump plays into the narrative ISIS is projecting across the Muslim world. ISIS seeks to divide Muslims from the West and recruit those who feel disaffected as a result.
The next president will need to defeat ISIS in the areas it controls and in the minds of Muslims across the world vulnerable to recruitment. This will take a more deft policy than any of the candidates or the Obama administration has been able to put forward thus far.