ISIL and its allied organisations are already showing themselves to be highly adaptive. In the face of the coalition’s airpower, ISIL personnel are concentrating forces only for brief periods to overcome priority objectives. Now they’re mostly dispersed, often in urban areas and difficult to identify. They’re rallying populations within occupied areas and they’re preparing to open new fronts in the campaign, including propaganda- and terrorist-operations internationally. The Pakistani al Qaeda organisation’s recent pledging of allegiance to ISIL may portend the emergence of an ISIL-inspired coalition that reaches far beyond Syria and Iraq.
The allied counter-offensive certainly needs continuing military pressure to prevent further ISIL territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. The coalition must strengthen the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish Peshmerga and the moderate Syrian opposition. The coalition also needs to intensify measures to cut ISIL funding, personnel reinforcements and other logistic support.
But the central struggle will be the information and political warfare fought in local religious organisations, clans, families and between key individuals. The coalition needs to negotiate new anti-ISIL alliances at the local, national and regional levels. Many types of sophisticated special-forces operations will be needed to bolster those grassroots alliances and undermine ISIL. Islamic organisations and Muslim leaders will have critical parts to play.
None of that will be easy, especially given present divisions and weaknesses in both Syria and Iraq. But because of the adaptive insurgency adopted by ISIL, there’s no other way.
For Australia, that struggle poses several particular challenges. First, we need to understand more clearly the political nature of the struggle. While conventional military capabilities will be useful, they won’t win the conflict. Unconventional operations, community negotiations and alliance building, special financial measures, cyber activities, sophisticated operations in the mass media and other measures will be needed to suffocate this insurgency.
That type of complex political warfare is, however, difficult for Australia and its partners to prosecute. Our national security agencies’ detailed knowledge and understanding of community relationships in most of those areas is not strong, we don’t possess strong personal links to grassroots formal and informal leaders in those areas, we don’t have many people with the relevant language and cultural skills, and we don’t have teams with substantial experience in leading complex political warfare campaigns. In short, our national security systems aren’t well structured to bring the required wide range of political instruments to bear on those complex foreign environments.
Second, we need to appreciate that this sort of conflict can’t be won by directing operations from distant capitals. A unified coalition command is required, separate from US Central Command. It needs to be located adjacent to the main theatre, possess intimate knowledge of local personalities and conditions and be accorded with authority to prosecute operations flexibly. The recent appointment of the highly-capable General John Allen to coordinate US and international activities in the theatre hopefully portends the establishment of an effective coalition command.
Australia can help to create that focused coalition headquarters. We could offer a small cadre of experienced staff to help General Allen marshal the skill-sets his headquarters would require. And we could also play a leading role in securing the active support of other countries, especially those with large Islamic populations in the Indo-Pacific region. Getting a high quality coalition headquarters up and running smoothly is an essential step if the international community’s resources are to be applied to greatest effect.
Third, we need to appreciate that ISIL and affiliate organisations and individuals will seek to extend hostilities to the homelands of coalition partners in new and troubling ways. That’s why the coalition’s campaign to defeat ISIL ideology must be waged intensively not only in Syria and Iraq but in a range of other countries, including at home.
And finally, Australian decision-makers need to maintain a clear sense of strategic perspective. While a strong Australian contribution to the defeat of ISIL is warranted, we need to remember that ISIL is unlikely ever to pose an existential threat to this country.
Australian security planners should not be overly distracted from the much more serious security challenges that appear to be brewing in the Asia-Pacific. In the next 20-30 years, the dramatically-altered power balance in our region is likely to pose far more daunting challenges to this country. So we need to maintain strategic balance and ensure that we sustain our methodical preparations for what some insiders call ‘the main game’.
Ross Babbage is a former official in the Department of Defence and is managing director of Strategy International and founder of the Kokoda Foundation. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.