Way too big of a question for this little blog, so I am going to defer to Graeme Wood, a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly, to provide most of the answer. He has the cover story in the most recent edition, and he was interviewed on NPR two days ago. The interview is about 11 minutes and I suggest listening to that and then if really interested move on to the article, which is hard to digest in one sitting.
Wood makes the case that we misunderstand ISIS when we act as if the phenomenon was a perversion of Islam, as President Obama often does, without admitting it as one of many legitimate interpretations in the Muslim world. They are living out a medieval religious version which envisions an end of days scenario with armies of west and east living out some kind of apocalypse. It is a crazy vision to us, but enthralling to some Muslims. Something they want to be a part of, a glorious Muslim passion play fated to happen.
To me the main question is how does understanding what ISIS wants affect our strategy towards them. One point struck me in reading the piece and that was how important controlling land is to validating their status. Al Queda has largely been an underground operation. Controlling much land has not been their aim.
But the purpose of having a Caliphate is to be able to enforce the pure practice of Sharia law. For ISIS to survive it must control the land it has and gain more to prosper. Otherwise questions arise as to its nature as a true Caliphate. So far so good for them, but a successful strategy of slowly pushing them back should weaken the attraction they have to prospective followers. Who wants to die for a false Caliphate?
The temptation for those in the U. S. who want to crush ISIS at a much faster pace, is to make for a worse situation if thousands of our troops are going to spearhead the attack, justifying ISIS propaganda that we want to destroy Islam, and providing a spur to even more recruits from the Muslim world.
While it may not be a satisfying conclusion, Wood believes: “Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it appears the best of bad military options.”
Wood argues it is in the nature of ISIS’ uncompromisingly brutal ideology to hamstring itself over time. For them, their interpretation of Islam is the only valid interpretation and those not holding it are apostates, which means almost the entire world. While ISIS attracts a flow of Muslim fanatics and/or psychopaths to its cause, it makes more enemies by the day as well, most recently stiffening the nerve of the Jordanian king after burning to death that Jordanian pilot. And then prompting the Egyptian president to call for Muslims to band together to fight ISIS after 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded in Libya.
Of course, in both cases air power was used to wreak revenge on ISIS and what is most needed are more ground troops to retake lost land. Only in Iraq are there many engaged, and that is because much of their land had been overrun by ISIS, but since ISIS wants to control the entire region so as to purify or kill fellow Muslims, eventually the alliance against them should come together out of self-preservation.
BUT IT WILL REMAIN A SLOW PROCESS BECAUSE WHILE MORE AND MORE MUSLIMS COME TO FEAR AND HATE ISIS, THERE ARE SO MANY HISTORICAL POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS FISSURES BETWEEN THEM – BEGINNING WITH THE SUNNI VS. SHIA SPLIT – THAT WORKING TOGETHER WILL REMAIN AN ONGOING DIFFICULTY.
It is the most complicated U. S. military involvement that I can imagine with no precedents that I can think of, so while I believe there is a need for more American troops on the ground in special forces capacities, we must continuously balance our involvement with that of regional powers, so that this will evolve as more of a Muslim vs. Muslim battle, rather than one easily portrayed by ISIS as yet another Christian Crusade.