The Stages of ISIS: Are We Ready for What’s Next?

Photo from PBS

At its birth in 1999, it was called “The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad.” Then, in 2004, it became “The Organization of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia.” Two years later, it became “the Islamic State of Iraq.” Now, it goes by the moniker of ISIS.

Although the group is best known for its rampaging conquest of thousands of square miles of territory in 2014, it has been incarnated in varying forms over the years. In its lifetime, ISIS has gone from an insurgency group to a full-fledged proto-state.

In the last few years, ISIS had actually operated like a government, albeit a savage one — collecting taxes, running court systems and paying civil servants, although some of the funding comes through the Syrian government in Damascus.

These days, with the coalition-backed Iraqi forces reclaiming more and more territory, “Islamic State” is becoming an increasingly unsuitable name.

With the recapture of Mosul by a coalition of Iraqi government troops and Kurdish and Shi’a militias, the validity of ISIS as an actual state is crushed. One would normally say coalition forces are turning back the clock on ISIS, but given their seventh-century views, it might be more apt to say Iraqi special forces and their allies are setting the clock forward.

At this point, the United States has a choice to make on our policy in the Middle East. When this incarnation of Islamic State Group is obliterated, what will we do to deal with whatever succeeds it?

The defeat of the actual territorial caliphate of ISIS does not necessarily mean the defeat of the group. Its earlier incarnations in Iraq were massively battered by U.S. and Iraqi forces in 2010, but social and political conditions allowed it to come roaring back years later.

What we now refer to as ISIS has gone by many shapes and names in the past, and it is only logical to expect that when its territory has been wrested from its hands, bloodied from its butchery, it will slink into the shadows and return to being a borderless, ambiguous terror group as it used to be.

For an organization that has hopped from name to name in the past, we should not take too much solace in the fact that ISIS is marked for imminent destruction; ideas often outlive their names.

And so, we have come to a conundrum that is familiar, yet alien.

On one hand, we are again at the point of deciding whether to get stuck in with our support of the Iraqi government or simply to cut our losses, call it quits, and draw down.

On the other hand, we are now facing this decision under the leadership of a president who has made it abundantly clear he has no interest in fine details and whose views on foreign policy can change on a whim.

Will American policy make smart decisions to prepare for whatever entity follows Islamic State Group? Will we fund cyber-security units to counteract the work of the ISIS supporters online, who disseminate propaganda and encourage followers to acts of violence? Will we have the diplomatic muscle to ensure ties with all of the parties and factions in Iraq and Syria?

Or will the administration carelessly wander into yet another Middle East debacle that spirals out of control over the course of years, due to unpreparedness and lack of strategic planning?

Time will tell, but we should all hope it’s the first option.

First posted as an opinion column in the Greenfield Daily Reporter. The original post can be found here.

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