A Holistic Approach to Defeating the Islamic State
NATO and its allies are insufficiently addressing the Islamic State, which will significantly backlash in the next 10 years. In order to sufficiently tackle this huge threat, we need a more comprehensive approach that addresses not only the Islamic State, in Iraq and Syria, but worldwide. The key to a successful strategy lies in a holistic two-fold approach – using special forces and the establishment of non-democratic governments.
How can we predict today, what will happen or even surprise us tomorrow? This task seems quite impossible, however, it is not. The key to successfully predict the future, in terms of conflict, lies in the understanding of today's complexity. The so-called Islamic State represents that complex issue of today.
When devising security policy, decision-makers often look to confront the direct and seemingly obvious threat. However, we do not think about how our problem is actually connected to other issues, the blind spots, and if our policy could eventually backlash and even worsen the situation?
If we want to defeat the Islamic State (IS), significantly contain the spread of terrorism, and maintain security in the North Atlantic region, attacking IS in Iraq and Syria is the wrong solution. The Islamic State has more than 45 terrorist groups who have pledged allegiance, spread across 2 continents (Asia and Africa) in 20 countries. Furthermore, most of these countries are considered fragile states, which makes it even more possible to establish new IS strongholds. Defeating the Islamic State in only Iraq and Syria will shift the mainstay from Iraq and Syria to one of the remaining 18 weak states. Therefore, a holistic approach is needed to prevent the Islamic State from creating a new stronghold.
In order to realistically prepare NATO, we need a comprehensive NATO-led out of area military mission, in which ground forces are employed simultaneously in all countries in which IS operates from. In this respect, special forces of all NATO member states should be employed to conduct unconventional warfare; chiefly, enabling local regime opponents to coerce, disrupt, and overthrow the regime. In consequence, this strategy enables us to counter terrorism effectively and to strengthen our alliance by collaborating in special operations. Furthermore, we train the local forces to effectively counter violent insurgencies and to maintain peace and stability.
This approach prevents IS from shifting their mainstay in Iraq and Syria to another fragile state from which they continue to operate. Furthermore, this approach weakens IS offshoots and thus separates them rather than unites them. It is also important to underline that the use of ground forces is inevitable, because IS fighters have successfully adapted to air strikes by hiding themselves behind "human shields". Carrying out airstrikes also bears the risk of collateral damage, which can then be used by IS to deteriorate the image of the coalition forces, and establish a positive image about themselves.
Lastly, no military force will defeat ISIS or similar groups in the future unless the conditions that allowed ISIS to spread in the first place are addressed – namely filling the power vacuum. Promoting liberal democracy in the Middle East has proven unsuccessful in the past and will probably prove unsuccessful in the future. Therefore, we must acknowledge governments that are able to maintain security and stability, regardless of being democratic or not. The primary goal must be to fill the power vacuum, after having removed militant Salafi-Jihadist groups from power, by simultaneously excluding similar violent groups from the political sphere. This means that we may have to accept Islamist groups, but only if they do not promote violence. We can only achieve security and stability, if we move away from the reductionist, static, and linear view that democracy is the only solution. We must acknowledge the complexity and implement a non-linear solution which may even mean the implementation of non-democratic governments.
In summary, NATO is currently insufficiently addressing the Islamic State and will hence face a much bigger threat in the next 10 years. To effectively counter this trend, a NATO-led military out of area mission with special forces must be employed, as the current air-strike strategy is insufficiently addressing the problem. Acknowledging complexity is the key to understanding that only a holistic approach ensures security to NATO member states. Furthermore, if we want to completely eradicate the threat posed by the Islamic State, we have to address the power vacuum issue as a second step. In this regard, promoting democracy is the wrong solution, as the past has demonstrated. In order to ensure stability and security in the greater Middle East, we have to move away from the notion that democracy is the only solution. If we have to accept a non-democratic government that ensures security and stability - so be it.
Lorand Bodo is currently finishing his second Masters in Politics with a focus on Governance of Complex Innovative Technological Systems. His main research interests are terrorism/radicalization and systems thinking.
This article has been submitted for category A "Preparing NATO for 2026" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video in the categories B, C, D.
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