In an effort to defeat the Islamic State as it continues to acquire significant territorial and financial gains, the United States launched the ‘lily pad’ strategy against ISIS this past week.
The shifting US strategy against ISIS poses three main issues, and presents how “murky” the American strategy has become.
First, employment of the ‘lily pad’ strategy is not nuanced, nor has it proven successful against other terrorist groups in the past. Secondly, this strategy calls for more American troops in Iraq after a 2011 withdrawal. Lastly, it fails to address the organization’s strongest pillar: financing.
New strategy? A successful one?
‘Lily pads’ serve as a tactical advantage that grant American forces proximity to the conflict without direct involvement, and provides support and resources to home governments fighting extremist groups. The establishment of ‘lily pads’ provides access to the forefront should circumstances escalate or should intelligence and resources serve as tactical support for home government operations.
Under the Obama administration, the opening of ‘lily pads’ has amplified as involvement in Asia and Africa has increased. In the case of Iraq, the goal of establishing these outposts is to act as a catalyst for integration of Sunni fighters into the Iraqi Army, which is dominated by Shiites.
However, the United States has employed this strategy before, and it has proven ineffective in combating groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan. There are also questions raised about efficiency of operations if advisors must stay on bases during execution and the risks associated with keeping American advisors on base as live targets in areas where anti-American sentiments run high.
An increase in ‘lily pads’ equates to more troops
Although the Obama administration has insisted on a decrease of American troops in Iraq since 2011, it finds itself being drawn into another war, even in an advisory role.
The launching of ‘lily pads’ throughout the region requires a re-shuffling of already active troops and possible deployment of additional troops in Iraq. Just last week, the administration expressed its intention of expanding the American military footprint in the region. The deployment of more than 450 more U.S. military advisers is meant to provide American troops with a direct advisory role to the Iraqi Army who protects supply lines, towns and infrastructure as they aim to recover Mosul.
While American troops located at these Iraqi-run and managed ‘lily pad’ outposts are not meant to directly engage in ground combat but rather serve as advisors to Iraqi troops and local leaders, should the new base in Anbar Province prove a successful endeavor against ISIS, it would not be a surprise to see the opening of more bases, which would result in additional deployments.
The biggest issue lies not in the politics or risks of increasing troops in Iraq, but how incorporating those additional deployments fails to address the problems that the existing counter terrorism strategy also does not address.
Strategy fails to deteriorate financing
The root of the problem is not grounded in the hypothetical theories that ‘lily pads’ may work against ISIS, but rather that this growing threat is being addressed with outdated American counter-terrorism strategies that fails to tackle ISIS’s financing structure.
Despite continued actions in its territory and falling oil prices, ISIS continues to have access to more than enough revenue and assets to cover its current expenses.
One of the prominent counter-terrorism strategies against militant groups in the Middle East has been depleting and limiting access to oil infrastructure. Although American efforts have continuously targeted oil reserves through numerous airstrikes, Islamic State does not find the core of its financing in its oil refineries.
Experts projected that the group’s so-called dependency would hinder its operations, but that has not been the case thus far. Currently, the $2 million per week in oil revenue does not account for ISIS’s main source of revenue; therefore targeting oil infrastructure simply does not amount to an impactful blow.
ISIS continues to rely heavily on extortion and taxation, currently accounting for more than $1M a day. Salaries of Iraqi government employees are taxed up to 50 percent, adding up to at least $300M last year, while companies may have their contracts and revenue taxed up to 20 percent.
ISIS also has strategically kept its operational costs low by looting military equipment, appropriating land and existing infrastructure, and refraining from investing in services. It’s flexibility makes it different than any other group the United States has faced, changing and transitioning between expanding its territory and launching its terrorist activity in the region.
ISIS does not view losing territory as a loss, nor as a hindrance to their progress. For instance, the loss of ground in Tikrit did not stop ISIS efforts in Iraq and Syria or prevent them from taking other Iraqi cities.
The group’s ability to react quickly and flexibly to falling oil prices and revenue streams, as well as its resourcefulness, has made it a more dangerous and nuanced adversary—one whose operations and organization do not fit the American counter-terrorism mold.
When compared to other terrorist groups that the United States has faced, ISIS has developed a successful model of expenditures to further its cause. Unlike Hamas, for instance, ISIS does not invest most of its money and efforts in human services; rather, most of its investment is direct salaries, police-state institutions, media, courts, and market regulation. Given American air strike capabilities, ISIS has avoided investing in infrastructure, making them a more difficult target.
What does it all mean?
The United States is dealing with a quickly adapting force that has capabilities and resources—something that its counter-terrorism strategy has not adapted to. Although the ‘lily pad’ strategy seems theoretically applicable and effective, the reality is that the costs associated with an increased military footprint may not be the best investment in the region.
With new threats come new approaches and policies that target the growth of extremist groups, which is something the United States has failed to develop. Insofar as the Islamic State continues to strengthen its financing model that cannot be addressed by the current strategy, the more economic, military and human capital will be spent deterring this threat.