The daesh puzzle: where to next?
17 Jun 2015|

Daesh continues to rampage, trumpeting its territorial gains and local tactical successes across the Middle East.

How mainstream Islam and the West respond to these gains, will determine whether daesh prospers or is rolled back from its current ‘high tide’.

The recent meeting in Paris of 20 Foreign Ministers is a welcome development and a timely opportunity to consider ‘where to next’ in the response to daesh.

Informed pundits broadly agree on one thing: pulling back or merely maintaining current responses isn’t enough.

What then are the practical options for coalition countries, and how might Australia best play its part?

Daesh remains a cold-blooded and ruthless organisation. But beyond acknowledging this reality, neither its military powers nor the threat it poses should be exaggerated.

Regrettably, much of the focus has been on a sustained elaboration of the misery and gore. More attention has been paid to beltway gossip about cabinet leaks than to the need to enhance our counter-terrorism responses. This is facile and pointless.

To say that daesh is a unique enemy and must be approached differently from others is also superficial. These transnational terrorists are just another ruthless enemy with a clear agenda, but without the civilising limitations imposed by either the rules of law or the conventions of war.

Equally, the elimination of daesh by wholly kinetic means—more planes, bombs and ground forces—is unlikely to resolve the situation. Depending on how increased military action is undertaken or applied, the best outcome now is to reduce and contain the threat. But the complete eradication of daesh is highly improbable.

On a more positive note, daesh like every military force has a centre of gravity—that is, an organisational life force that, if identified and targeted in a sustained manner, can lead to a significant change in circumstances, sometimes surprisingly quickly.

The first part of daesh’s centre of gravity is psychological in nature.

To date, daesh advances have resulted from the combined psychology of terror and allure. In this way, it has frightened all too many of those who should have opposed it and has drawn reinforcements to its cause through social media. The terrorists have won the propaganda war so far.

But whether or not this continues is less clear. The practical realities of war, once experienced, tend to knock the allure and romantic ‘first bloom’ out of even the most ardent and naïve recruits.

That more than a few of them now realise their error and wish to return to former lives in the West indicates this. But, in Australia’s case, we simply must not take them back; to do so is far too risky for all law-abiding Australians. We must be unwavering on this point.

The second part of the terrorist’s centre of gravity is almost certainly economic or financial.

All manner of people lie and deceive, but for the purposes of objective clarity, money and the trail it leaves have a power all their own.

In conjunction with reducing and containing the threat, there must also be a financial strangulation of daesh. The Prime Minister has aptly referred to these terrorists as a ‘death cult,’ but it is also a ‘corporation of death’, requiring millions of dollars to grow and sustain its operations.

The time has come to step up cooperative, global and forensic identification of exactly where and from whom daesh gets its money, and to explore concerted international strategies to strangle their financial ‘life blood’.

Concurrent with the economic strangulation of daesh, there should also be consideration of enhanced kinetic or military action by the Iraqi Government, supported by the West, of the type advocated by ASPI’s Peter Jennings and retired Major General Jim Molan.

Such a strategy doesn’t include the deployment of Australian main force combat units to go head-to-head with daesh. That would be ill-advised and hasn’t been sought by those Middle East governments currently under direct attack.

What’s needed is a small-number of advisor–enabler functions, which can make an enormous qualitative difference to the capabilities of local troops. As someone who deployed on Australia’s first mission to Afghanistan in 2001 and to Southern Iraq in 2005, highly specialised support to the Northern Alliance made a profound difference against the Taliban in 2001–02. It included teams with the capability to quickly integrate western intelligence, targeting and firepower against problems encountered by tactical leaders. The effect on morale and the motivation of local forces to fight has the potential to be a game changer. But the Iraqi Government must first ask and the United States must lead coordination of this additional support.

Concurrent with neutering the daesh financial interests, earnings and donations, such an approach holds the best prospect of containing and reducing the threat they pose.