If Wishes Were States
In a recent War on the Rocks piece, Mike Pietrucha called for treating the Islamic State as a state instead of an insurgency. Pietrucha noted that the Islamic State
… controls territory, collects taxation, maintains a military force, promulgates and enforces laws and policies, and pays government employees, including fighters. It gathers resources and maintains a budget. It oversees education, issues IDs, and establishes provincial governments. It has a written set of principles for governance.
The danger in following Pietrucha’s advice is that it would give the Islamic State one of the key traits they are lacking, legitimacy.
Pietrucha is not alone in his assessment. Stephen Walt called the group a “revolutionary state-building organization.” Quinn Mecham acknowledged that the group has many of the qualities of a state and was working to increase its level of “stateness.” Mecham graded the Islamic State according to the categories of the Fragile States Index and found that despite high marks in tax and labor acquisition, the organization performed poorly in managing international relations and promoting economic growth, with only middling grades in defining and regulating citizenship, providing domestic security, and providing social services. The danger Mecham noted is that as institutions stabilize it becomes more difficult to unseat the group without creating additional problems on the ground. Cole Bunzel admitted that the group had a “plausible claim to statehood” calling for efforts to reduce the group to a “paper state.” Will McCants acknowledged that the Islamic State has the “manpower, money, and territory to make a credible claim to be a state.”
Charles Lister was less committal, recently labeling the group a terrorist organization that is seeking to operate as a state. President Obama said of the group, “it is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL (a previous moniker of the Islamic State) is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.” Daniel Byman warned that “calling it a terrorist group … is both true and misleading,” while admitting that it is unclear how well the organization can provide and sustain basic services. Steve Ferenzi noted that “Al Qaeda Does Governance Too,” but no one is suggesting we call them a state.
The definition of what a state is has long been a point of contention in the political sciences. Yuval Shaney, Amichai Cohen, and Tal Mimran suggested measuring the Islamic State against the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. The convention defined four criteria: permanent population, defined territory, an effective government, and a capacity to enter into relations with other states. Shaney, Cohen, and Mimran also examined two other requirements they deemed “customarily raised in relation to an entity seeking recognition as a state”: independence and legitimacy. Despite some hallmarks of effective governance (noted in Meecham’s analysis), the Islamic State meets none of the other criteria. The recent flight of Islamic State leaders to Libya further demonstrates the failure of the group to claim success in any of the other categories. The Islamic State, despite its name is not a state and recognition of the group as such threatens to provide a self-fulfilling prophecy. Providing them that legitimacy would allow for them to shore up population and territory requirements, improve their capacity for governance, and allow for engagement on equal footing with other members of the international community.
If not a state, then what can the international community consider the Islamic State, and how might that label suggest the means to combat the group? Robert Jackson used the term “quasi states” for other developing country governance systems, but that term is loaded because it recognizes sovereignty while admitting that the functions of the state are missing. Zachariah Mampilly suggested the term rebel governance, defining it as the set of “institutions and practices of a rule to regulate the social and political life of civilians by an armed group.”
I believe that Mampilly’s is the most apt description of the group. They are a religious terrorist organization running a rudimentary rebel governance. Seth Jones and Martin Libicki studied religious terrorist organizations from 1968 onward and noted that no religious terrorist group has ever achieved victory. Jones and Libicki warned that military solutions were not the most effective means of countering such groups. Local police and intelligence services were responsible for 73% of the failures of religious terrorist organizations. This suggests an increased role in the fight for the FBI, CIA, and State Department, along with a smaller, supporting role for the US military. Jones and Libicki suggested an increase in the use of regional forces because of the legitimacy they can bring to the conflict and their better understanding of the region. Audrey Kurth Cronin advised striking a balance between counterinsurgency and all-out war through containment and empowering regional powers to defeat the group.
The military does and should have a role to play. Since the group operates as a network of local hubs, it can be most effectively damaged through the destruction of those hubs. William Polk pointed out that that the bulk of success against such terrorists historically has come from harming their ability to recruit and disrupting their warfighting capabilities such as financing and weapons. The recent airstrike against cash warehouses in Iraq is a useful attack on the network itself. Special Forces missions to capture or kill terrorist leaders create a “decapitation effect” which has shown to be effective because it complicates succession and increases mortality rates, but those effects diminish over time, highlighting the importance of concerted efforts now. Daniel Byman warned that such efforts must be exercised judiciously and preferably under civilian review to prevent the erosion of the United States’ legitimacy in the fight.
The Islamic State is not a state and should not be recognized as such. It is a religious terrorist organization operating a rebel governance. The United States, along with its foreign partners must recognize and commit to the legitimacy of Syria and Iraq, giving no credence to the would-be Islamic State. Despite claims to the contrary, the lines drawn by the Sykes-Picot agreement are the reality on the ground and are not likely to collapse. As a terrorist organization, the Islamic State cannot be defeated through military means alone. The effort will require police and intelligence forces in conjunction with regional partners. Humanitarian organizations can help ease the pain of the necessary destruction of Islamic State institutions and minimize their effects on the populace. The international community can help the people caught in the fray while denying the fruits of the group’s desperate grasping at legitimacy. Do not grant the group’s wish of statehood. Statehood must be earned; the Islamic State is not worthy.