Republican and Democratic presidential candidates should be able to agree on one stark foreign policy reality: The tide hasn’t turned in the war against the Islamic State. In the 18 months that the U.S. has been working to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group, it has grown to become a global force that can strike targets in Europe, Asia, Africa and the U.S.
The self-declared “caliphate” that in June 2014 was localized in Iraq and Syria now has nearly 50 affiliates or supporting groups in 21 countries. It has declared 33 “official provinces” in 11 of those countries.
While it has lost about 25 percent of the territory it held at its peak in Iraq and Syria, it has meanwhile established an international presence, on the ground and in cyberspace.
“Follow ISIS and you will see the huge momentum that the group has harnessed across the globe,” says Rita Katz, co-founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, using a common shorthand for the Islamic State. “The government’s first step in fighting ISIS must be to stop dismissively characterizing the jihadists as a mere gang of guys in pickup trucks. It should be called what it is: a threat to global security.”
President Obama and his advisers have talked in recent weeks of stepping up U.S. actions, but intelligence and military officials say the additional steps are limited. The Pentagon has announced a capture/kill special operations force of about 200 soldiers, based in Iraq. But that’s a small fraction of the Joint Special Operations Command force that was deployed there a decade ago to deal with a far smaller insurgent threat from al-Qaida in Iraq.
What seems to engage Obama most is countering the jihadists’ narrative that this is a war between Islam and the West. He made an eloquent presentation of his case for tolerance in a speech this week at a mosque in Baltimore. But there’s little evidence that this message of outreach to Muslims is checking the Islamic State’s growth.
Libya and Indonesia illustrate the group’s new, far-flung reach, and the difficulty for the U.S.-led coalition in containing the growing threat to Europe and Asia.
In Libya, the Islamic State has doubled its presence over the past year to between 5,000 and 6,500 fighters, according to a report Thursday in The New York Times. Opposition forces that might challenge the jihadists are “unreliable, unaccountable, poorly organized and divided by region and tribe,” according to the Times. Similar problems have plagued U.S. efforts to build a strong Sunni opposition in Syria and Iraq.
Secretary of State John Kerry warned this week of the danger to oil-rich areas of Libya: “The last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of oil revenues.” But despite several years of growing U.S. concern about Libya, the American response so far has been feeble.
In Indonesia, the Islamic State mounted a Paris-style terrorist operation Jan. 14. Fighters in Jakarta assaulted a traffic post on a busy downtown street, with bomb blasts occurring in multiple locations near a popular Starbucks. Eight people were killed and more than 20 were wounded.
Asian security officials say the Jakarta attack demonstrates the Islamic State’s appeal in normally quiescent Muslim populations, in such nations as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Indeed, the Indonesian affiliate was the first to swear allegiance after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate in late June 2014 and changed its official name to the Islamic State.
The pace of Islamic State operations, and its propaganda skill, are illustrated by the daily dispatches of its “Al-Bayan” online news service. Each day this week, Al-Bayan announced attacks in at least six different “wilayats,” or regions, of the self-declared state. This week’s announced operations stretched across four countries. Often the targets were Muslim rivals or local security services.
The Islamic State brags about its ability to strike America, too, in the opening pages of the latest issue of its slick online magazine, “Dabiq.” Lauding the San Bernardino bombers who “caught America off-guard,” the magazine warned: “As the American-led Crusaders continue waging war against the [caliphate], more and more Muslims continue demonstrating their willingness to sacrifice everything precious to them.”
How should the United States and its allies combat the Islamic State wisely, without getting bogged down in an endless global land war? That’s the biggest foreign policy issue facing the country. The political discussion so far has been mostly sound bites and speeches, rather than analysis that would lead to sustainable actions. This problem isn’t going away; it’s getting worse.
David Ignatius’ email address is email@example.com.