Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden – From 9/11 to Abbottabad.”
Several high-level terror leaders have been killed in the Middle East
Bergen: Just picking off the leaders of terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda isn't an effective strategy
American counterterrorism officials have had much to celebrate in recent days: the killing of ISIS commander Abu Sayyaf in Syria and the trove of “intel” that was taken from his residence by U.S. special forces; the death of the leader of al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, in a drone strike; and the possible death in Libya of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of a virulent North African jihadist group.
But the leadership of these groups is generally replaceable. Consider the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was the brutal head of al Qaeda in Iraq, the parent organization of ISIS, until he was killed by a U.S. airstrike in Iraq in 2006.
Since then, a number of other leaders from al-Zarqawi’s group have been killed, but that did not prevent from ISIS becoming ISIS – a group that today lords over millions of people and occupies territory in Syria and Iraq that is around the size of the United Kingdom.
To be sure, any counterterrorism campaign that eliminates many leaders of a group can have a real impact – al Qaeda’s core group in Pakistan is a shadow of what it once was, in part, because of a deadly campaign of CIA drone strikes that eliminated many of its leaders and middle managers.
Yet, if we zoom out to the bigger picture, from Libya on the northern coast of Africa to Yemen on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, the spaces in which jihadist militant groups can operate have greatly opened up as a result of the early promise of the Arab Spring turning into the grim reality of the Arab winter. The resulting chaotic conditions and weakened states have proven a boon to ISIS and to al Qaeda and its affiliates:
– In Yemen, al Qaeda has taken advantage of the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Hadi government to seize control of large swaths of southern Yemen, including the country’s fifth largest city, Mukalla.
– In Libya, jihadist groups including ISIS control about a tenth of the country, according to a senior U.S. government official.
– In Syria, al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, the Nusra Front, together with ISIS are now the most powerful groups fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and each control large sections of the country.
– In Iraq, ISIS controls the second largest city, Mosul, and much of Anbar province, which is about a third of the landmass of the country.
What to do about all this is a puzzle because much of Middle East is in the grip of a regional, sectarian civil war fomented by Iran and the Gulf States and is evolving into a Rubik’s Cube-like problem that has no good solution, because when you move one piece of the cube it can create both solutions and a new set of problems simultaneously.
To get a sense of how complex this Rubik’s Cube is: Consider that the United States is training Syrian opposition forces to fight the Iran-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad, while it is also training Iraqi forces of the Iran-backed Iraqi government to fight ISIS. The U.S. therefore is effectively supporting both sides of the wars in Syria and Iraq.
Describing problems is always, of course, much easier than solving them, but here are some ideas that can help the U.S. achieve its strategic goals in the Middle East – dismantling ISIS and al Qaeda and avoiding a long-running sectarian regional civil war:
Curtail the foreign fighter flow
ISIS is taking around 1,000 casualties a month in U.S.-led airstrikes, yet it’s also recruiting around 1,000 “foreign fighters” from around the Muslim world every month, so the military campaign against ISIS is something of a draw.
The U.S. should put pressure on Middle Eastern countries, which supply the bulk of the foreign fighters to the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, to curtail the flow of their nationals traveling to Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia has already made some strides in that direction, but this should also be a priority for other Arab governments.
Let American soldiers go forward
The exact number of U.S. troops in Iraq is not the germane issue right now. It’s the constrictive rules of engagement that have been imposed upon them that prevent them from getting “outside the wire” of the bases that they are assigned to. What is needed are rules of engagement that allow U.S. forward air controllers calling in precise airstrikes as well as U.S. advisers embedded with Iraqi troops on the frontlines. Not only will this help to place more accurate air strikes on ISIS positions, but also Iraqi troops with embedded Americans will have better military advice and the comfort of knowing that they will get close American air support if ISIS threatens them. Right now that isn’t the case.
Step up the air campaign in Syria and Iraq
One of the world’s experts on counterinsurgency, New America fellow David Kilcullen suggests increasing the tempo of of the air campaign. Kilcullen points out that the average rate of coalition air strikes since last August into Syria and Iraq is about 10 per day, while in the successful air campaign against the Serbs in Kosovo in 1999, it was around 250 per day, suggesting that the U.S.-led coalition can still ratchet up the pressure on ISIS significantly.
Resist calls to split Iraq up into Sunnistan, Shiastan and Kurdistan
Iraq is a country where many of its citizens are products of Shia-Sunni marriages and cities like Mosul and Baghdad remain mixtures of many ethnic and religious groups. Trying to separate out Iraq into sectarian and ethnic cantons will only fuel the sectarian passions in Iraq and in the region. The model to avoid, albeit on a larger scale, was the disastrous 1947 partition of India into Muslim- and Hindu-majority states in which 1 million people died.
If the Iran nuclear deal gets done, use it as leverage to show al-Assad the door
Use the goodwill tendered by a deal with Iran to have the Iranians pressure their close ally, al-Assad, to step down, while maintaining much of his regime in place. That way the coalition of Alawites, Christians and other regime supporters will be assured that if al-Assad goes, they won’t have to go down with him and will have a stake in some kind of peace deal, rather than fighting to the death.
Keep pressure on the Saudis not to resume their counterproductive air campaign in Yemen
That campaign had the effect of further fracturing the already-fracturing country, which has benefited al Qaeda.