By Wayne E. Lee, author of Waging War: Conflict, Culture, and Innovation in World History, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, and currently the Harold K. Johnson Chair of Military History at the US Army War College.
Last week, I wrote about the presidential campaign rhetoric pledging to “carpet bomb” Daesh (ISIS), focusing on what it really means and why it is now generally irrelevant to the problems at hand. Today, I want to return to the present problems in more detail: What can be bombed? To what lasting end? And how has Daesh responded to our bombing thus far?
Always begin with some history. Daesh was born from the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) whose surviving members went to ground during the so-called surge campaign in Iraq from 2007 to 2009. AQI survivors selected new leaders to replace the dead, moved their considerable funds into cyberspace, and awaited their next opportunity. Even as the United States withdrew from Iraq, the civil war in Syria heated up, and the combination of chaos and the sectarian cause of ousting Assad drew in Daesh. It initially funded itself from banked reserves, and then, as it became territorially successful in northern and eastern Syria, it expanded revenue operations into extortion, theft, expropriation of property, antiquities sales, “taxation,” and increasingly, oil production and sale—primarily to the population in Syria. Success in Syria led Daesh to invade western and northern Iraq from January to August 2014 which in turn led to a surge of revenue based on smuggling oilfrom the Ajeel oil fields near Tikrit.
In evaluating Daesh, it helps to lay out the key differences between it and Al-Qaeda. A foundational difference is the former’s insistence that an Islamic state (the caliphate) could and would be achieved in the immediate future, and indeed its leaders formally declared its existence in June 2014. Al-Qaeda had long argued for a future caliphate, but imagined it to be something that would happen much further in the future, for which they were igniting the embers. This difference is important for several reasons. One is that Daesh is now actually a territorial entity, a self-declared state, with its own flag and its own designated sovereign ruler. It controls a large population (somewhere between 3 and 8 million in Iraq and Syria, primarily in large cities), organizes its army into units, collects taxes and enforces law, and notoriously operates a substantial “public affairs” arm via social media. Al-Qaeda was and is a multinational cellular organization, operating from ungoverned spaces, but not in any way dependent on territory or a population base, nor did it mobilize large numbers of fighters. Another difference is that Daesh followers believe they are fulfilling an apocalyptic prophecy and that a final battle will occur when anti-Islam forces are lured into a climactic battle around the city of Dabiq.
All of this is relevant to bombing and presidential campaign rhetoric. What does one bomb to destroy Daesh?