The Long View of the Counter-ISIL Strategy

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The Long View of the Counter-ISIL Strategy
By: Tracy Onufer

With last month’s one-year anniversary of the U.S. government’s strategy to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, the government’s preferred moniker), there is a growing cacophony of voices questioning why there is not more progress in the White House’s stated goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.” Indeed, although ISIL’s territory in Iraq and Syria shrank by 9.4 percent in the first six months of 2015, ISIL’s presence has grown significantly in other areas of the Middle East and North Africa since mid-2014, particularly in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Afghanistan. Additionally, ISIL is able to replace its casualties with a seemingly never-ending flow of foreign fighters from more than 100 countries, some of whom bring their entire families for the allure of living in the promised caliphate.

What gets lost in the cacophony is that the Counter-ISIL Strategy is not designed to be a quick win or overwhelming “shock and awe” campaign, nor is the onus solely on the United States to defeat ISIL. The strategy is “a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism” effort, “underpinned by a strong coalition of regional and international partners who are willing to commit to this long-term endeavor” (emphasis added). Key elements of the strategy include: bolstering a more inclusive government in Iraq; providing military support to deny ISIL safe-haven in Iraq and Syria; building partner capacity among regional partners; disrupting ISIL’s finances and its ability to draw foreign fighters, which includes countering the group’s propaganda; and providing humanitarian assistance to the region.

In the past year, the United States and its partners have quietly made progress in support of the Counter-ISIL Strategy. More than 60 countries are participating in the military coalition, which includes airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, humanitarian assistance, and training Iraq’s Security Forces. ISIL no longer controls all of Syria’s northern border with Turkey, one of its primary routes for transporting foreign fighters and supplies. Italy, Saudi Arabia, and the United States are jointly leading a coalition to disrupt ISIL’s financial resources, which has forced ISIL to resort to extortion as a primary means of funding. And the United Nations adopted UN Security Council Resolution 2178, which calls on all member states to ensure their legal systems provide for the prosecution of travel for terrorism or related training, along with the financing or facilitation of such activities. Currently, more than 30 countries have strengthened their counterterrorism laws in support of UNSCR 2178.

There is still an immense amount of work to be done in the global effort to defeat ISIL. But the strategy lays a solid framework for the effort, and recognizes that military might alone is not enough to defeat an enemy that eschews the law of armed conflict and revels in committing atrocities against humans and antiquities. The strategy also recognizes that all instruments of national and international power must be brought to bear to have a chance at permanently defeating ISIL.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Lieutenant Colonel Tracy Onufer is an Air Force National Defense Fellow at CSIS in Washington, DC. Other posts by .


  • Curt Spaugh
    December 2, 2015, 5:11 pm  Reply

    Great Insight, tracy. Keep up the good fight! (from an old classmate)

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