In an event at the School of International Service on October 15 convened by Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence David Gregory, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed of SIS, Politico’s Susan Glasser, and The Washington Post’s David Ignatius discussed the prospects for the American-led campaign against ISIS and broader U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Moderator David Gregory began the discussion by asking how the war on ISIS is going. “It’s going badly. Wars often start badly,” said Ignatius, who underscored the need for the United States to form a strong coalition with other Arab nations. “Basically, we would have to tell them, ‘You have to put some skin in the game if you want American help.’”
Ignatius also suggested that training CIA-style guerilla fighters in Syria to combat ISIS might be more efficient than just the air bombing campaign. Ignatius expressed concern about “whether we are walking into a trap that locks us into the kind of warfare our adversaries want and how can we mitigate that danger.” He believes that Iraq is “as sectarian as ever. It is badly fractured and I do not see a coherent strategy in our policy to pull it together.”
Ahmed framed ISIS in the context of tribal Islam, the subject of his recent book: “ISIS has very little to do with Islam,” he said. “Its members are tribesmen from tribes that have imploded over the last few decades. We all tend to think of this as radical Islam without considering this is tribal Islam, which espouses a code that encourages revenge for wrong-doings.” One distinction he made is that this code has become mutated. Out of the tribal trifecta of “bravery, courage, and revenge,” revenge is the only thing now left. He also noted the creation of borders that split the tribes in forced ways, fanning the flames of conflict. The conflict is not “Islam vs. the West,” he said, but periphery versus center—societies left on the fringes fighting a central government they perceive as antagonistic to their interests.
Glasser spoke about the policy side of the issue, calling Obama an “extremely reluctant warrior.” “We are seeing a fairly public debate between the president and the generals on strategy. We have a lot of generals saying the war plan will not work, that it is based on false theory, premised on the notion of an air campaign on guys in pick-up trucks,” she said
All three panelists noted that ISIS is an aggressive, flexible, and adapting enemy and that there is tremendous trepidation among the American public about entering into yet another quagmire of conflict in the Middle East.
Watch the event video here.