By George Friedman for Mauldin Economics
Al-Qaida struck the United States on September 11, 2001 in order to pave the way for the caliphate, a multinational Islamic state governed by a caliph.
From Osama Bin Laden’s point of view, the Christian world—as he thought of Euro-American civilization—had made a shambles of the Muslim world. Most Muslim lands had been occupied or controlled by Christians.
After World War I the British and French, in particular, had reshaped these lands to suit them.
They invented new countries that had never existed before like Jordan, Lebanon, and (in their minds) Israel and installed rulers on others, such as the Saudis in the Arabian Peninsula.
After World War II, the United States inherited a world the British had largely created. Where the British were the architects of this world, the Americans became its maintenance men.
Since the Americans were caught up in a Cold War with the Soviets, the Soviets sought to create pro-Soviets as well. A new wave of rulers arose under Soviet tutelage. These were secularists, socialists, and militarists imposing military regimes.
Men like Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Hafez al-Assad in Syria were all Soviet allies. They were despised by Islamists, as were the monarchies allied with the Americans. The secular Arab rulers were simply apostates.
The monarchies, like Saudi Arabia, were corrupt hypocrites—formally Muslim but clinging to the Christians (now the Americans) for power and safety.
Al-Qaida did not yet exist, but there were those who dreamed of reclaiming the lands, expelling the apostates and hypocrites, and creating the caliphate. These men had learned the art of war under American tutelage in Pakistani camps after being recruited by the Saudis.
They believed they had destroyed the Soviets and, as a result, destroyed the Soviet Union. True or not, this is what they believed.
When the Soviet Union fell, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the Saudis asked the American Christians to save them. Men who had fought in Afghanistan held the Saudis in contempt and were enraged by the Americans. To a great extent, the Americans were unaware of the response. The men they had trained for war in Afghanistan now saw the Americans as an obstacle to the caliphate.
This is the soil that gave rise to al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida’s primary goal was to overthrow one of the secular or hypocritical regimes, create a Sharia-based caliphate, and use it as a base for creating a broader, transnational entity.
Al-Qaida actually means “the base” in Arabic.
It had excellent relations in Afghanistan, given the role it played there, but Afghanistan was too backward and geographically isolated to be the caliphate’s capital. It instead became the base where al-Qaida would begin the war.
In al-Qaida’s analysis, the weak and corrupt Islamic regimes could be overthrown, but the Muslim masses were inert, beaten into submission by Europeans and Americans, and convinced of American invincibility. They had no love for the Americans outside of some of the regimes, but saw their cause to be hopeless.
Al-Qaida needed to convince the masses that America was both vulnerable and hostile to Islam. It sought to strike the United States in a way that the Muslim world would take startled note, and that would compel America to go to war in the Muslim world.
Al-Qaida’s experience in Afghanistan convinced it that the United States, caught in a war of attrition regardless of casualties, would eventually withdraw. The September 2001 attacks were meant to draw the Americans into combat but, even more, to convince the Muslim world that Muslims could strike at the heart of America, and then, when the Americans invaded, encourage Muslims to rise up in a long war America couldn’t win.
Part of the strategy worked, part of it didn’t. The attacks did galvanize the Muslim world. The United States showed itself to be Islam’s enemy by invading Afghanistan and later Iraq. The Muslim world saw that Muslims could fight Americans and not suffer defeat like the Jews had defeated the apostate Nasser’s army in 1967.
What did not happen was the essential step. While war raged in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was no uprising elsewhere in the Islamic world. When there were uprisings, as during the Arab Spring, they were put down (Egypt) or left in unending civil war (Syria and Libya). There was no foundation created for the caliphate, and over time American intelligence whittled down al-Qaida.
Others stepped into the vacuum as al-Qaida declined. Their opening occurred in Iraq and Syria. The Arab Spring in 2011 created an uprising against Bashar al-Assad, son of Hafez. Like much of the Arab Spring, the public faces of the protests were secular liberals, but they were unable to overthrow Assad. The resulting chaos and stalemate opened one door to al-Qaida’s heir.
At the same time, the U.S. decision to withdraw from Iraq, first made by George W. Bush and accelerated by Barack Obama, allowed a Shiite government to take power there. This forced their enemies, the Sunnis, back against the wall. Al-Qaida was Sunni and regarded Shiite Iran as an enemy.
The rise of a Shiite government in Baghdad left the Iraqi Sunnis nowhere to go. It was out of this that the Islamic State arose. Syria and especially Iraq were its recruiting office and its battle ground.
Al-Qaida wanted an uprising in an existing country, but IS had a different strategy. Rather than overthrowing an existing government, it decided to create the state in a region that paid no attention to existing borders. Its goal, unlike al-Qaida’s, was to hold territory in which the caliph could rule and from which it could expand and guide the caliphate’s extension into noncontiguous Muslim lands.
The IS goal, therefore, was not to strike at the Americans as al-Qaida did. The 9/11 strikes had done their work. Their job was to create an area ruled under Sharia law with a governmental structure, financial system, welfare system, and the other things a state needs. In addition, and before this, IS had to create a military force that could take and seize land against the weak opposition it would face in Iraq and Syria.
The first step in the Islamic State’s strategy, therefore, was to put the caliphate before everything by taking control of substantial and contiguous territory. IS did this by carrying out a series of extremely competent military operations, seizing Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq as well as Palmyra in Syria. The result was a new state, no less artificial than those countries the British and French created after World War I, and governed from the capital in Raqqa.
In carrying out this operation, IS deliberately created a series of highly publicized atrocities. There were two reasons for this. The first was to intimidate the new Islamic State’s population. This region consisted of a wide variety of groups, many potentially hostile to the new state. The ruthless acts served to make clear to the population that IS was not merely claiming control of the region, but was in sufficient control that it was indifferent to what the outside world thought.
Having fought the Americans, IS knew that apart from special operations teams (the principle threat to IS in both Afghanistan and Iraq) which could not by themselves threaten the existence of IS, the United States took months to deploy forces. IS needed to show not only how ruthless it was, but that it would not be challenged as a result.
The second reason for creating this core was to lure the Americans into attacking it. The United States had grown wary of occupation warfare that required deploying a military force against scattered and persistent guerilla operations.
The Islamic State presented, and was, precisely the type of force the United States should be comfortable attacking. First, it occupied a clearly defined territory. Second, it contained a conventional military force. IS was not a guerilla organization or terrorist group, although it had elements capable of both kinds of operations.
The size of IS’ main military force (a force large enough to seize, occupy, and defend an area as large as some countries in the region) meant it could not be a guerrilla force. It appeared to be a mobile infantry force, moving by foot and truck, armed with infantry weapons as well as some small artillery and anti-tank weapons.
The exact size of IS forces remains a mystery, and that is a testament to its skills at camouflaging its activities from the ground to the electromagnetic sphere. Estimates of the size of its armed and trained force range from 20,000 to 200,000. Based on the extent of its frontiers and the casualties it seems to have taken, I estimate the force at about 100,000.
This, of course, leaves another mystery: where this force was trained—since training even 20,000 is a conspicuous activity. Units must train together to be effective. There are many mysteries about IS for which there is no consensus save educated guesses. We know the extent of its power. We know when this frontier is attacked, the attacker tends to encounter resistance. Beyond that, IS has protected its capabilities professionally.
Given all this, it would appear to be ripe for attack by American forces, which excel at this kind of warfare. That is precisely what IS wants. There has been much talk about IS believing that an apocalyptic battle must take place in order to establish the caliphate. This is a metaphysical concept on which I have no opinion. However, from a political and military point of view, the caliphate must be founded on a decisive battle that forces capitulation from its main enemy. This would convince the US to respect the caliphate and the caliphate’s citizens to respect the power of the state. By this I don’t mean the guerrilla wars in which the conventional force simply withdraws; I mean a battle in which the enemy is defeated in detail.
The Americans prefer conventional attacks with tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. IS engaged and destroyed a Syrian armored brigade with anti-tank weapons. The United States uses air strikes and helicopters. IS may have man-portable surface-to-air missiles (and should have them from whatever source it secured the anti-tank missiles).
IS has a major advantage in one thing: the US is casualty averse. The US has a force operating at a distance for reasons that impact national security but don’t pose a direct threat to the homeland. Therefore, the American appetite for more serious military intervention is extremely limited. IS needs a decisive battle at any cost. Weapons aside, the outcome of this battle matters far more to IS than to the United States, and therefore, IS’ threshold for pain is far higher.
The caliphate, having been established, must now be defended. It must be a territory and not a hideout, it must be coherent and not scattered tracts, and it must be defensible regardless of the cost. Having established its frontiers, the Islamic State intends to use minimal force to defend against minor attacks, as the Syrian Kurds carried out recently.
Most impressive about IS is its ability to retreat, regroup, and strike elsewhere. That is the measure of a military force. For example, the Americans proved themselves at the Battle of the Bulge when having been sent reeling, they regrouped, reinforced and struck back. It is in defeat that I judge a military force, and IS has handled defeat well. But we should also remember that IS will not waste force on marginal threats.
For IS, the main threat will come from the Americans, and therefore, it must preserve the ability to fight U.S. forces. Some point out that IS has been under pressure from all sides. This is because its leaders understand the maxim that he who defends everything defends nothing.
But the Americans have not come. Nor have other enemies like the Iranians or Israelis. Nor for that matter have the Turks. No one wishes to engage IS while it is on the defensive and at its best. There are many reasons, but the heart of the matter is that the battle, if lost, would be devastating for Americans, and if won by them opens the door to occupation warfare, as did the defeat of the Iraqi army in 2003.
IS must hold to save the caliphate now or, if it loses this battle, wait and fight another. And if the Americans don’t come and IS holds its territory, then IS can choose the time and place for its next strategic offensive.
Assuming that IS has 100,000 troops, the US must bring a force of 300,000 to bear under the old (and perhaps obsolete) rule of 3 to 1 on the offensive. It took six months to prepare for Desert Storm and longer for Iraqi Freedom with far fewer troops than 300,000. The terrain is desert, and supply lines will run from ports that have to be secured, along with roads that could be filled with IEDs. For the Americans, the logistics would be as tough as the battle.
Logically, the best course for the United States is not to engage. IS is beginning to realize this and seemingly prefers to force a battle. That is why we are beginning to see terrorist actions flaring in Western countries.
The lesson al-Qaida taught IS is that the Americans have a threshold and that if you cross it, they will react dramatically. Therefore, it appears to me that IS is searching for that threshold and probing to see responses. Attacks like the ones in Paris last month were not in response to French involvement in the region. These attacks are unconnected to that, but are designed to be as terrifying as possible—both in their suddenness and brutality—and compel a response.
It is odd to argue that someone wants to be attacked by the US. But IS needs the attack and also believes it can at least survive and likely defeat the Americans. It is clear that other countries in the region are steering clear of IS, and it is clear that President Obama is doing everything he can to avoid engaging IS on the ground. And it is clear that IS is doing what it can to drag the Americans deeper into the conflict. If the Americans don’t come, and no one else comes, the psychological demonstration might not take place - but the caliphate will exist.
On the whole, IS has the strategic advantage in multiple ways. It behaves in its territory as if it intends to stay a long time.