US strategy for combatting ISIL

In the growing era of drones and technological warfare, it is simple, from the American perspective, to write off the enormity of unintended civilian casualties as mere collateral damage statistics that scroll by on your news feed. Conversely, to young Sunnis on the ground in Iraq making the decision to back the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or Iraqi security forces, even one death of a friend or family member at the hands of an American bomb will quickly turn them from a potential ally to a guaranteed foe.

This leads us to the second and best-conceived piece of President Obama’s strategy from his speech on Sept. 10. This piece largely outlines the U.S. plan for ground intervention in the fight against ISIL. Obama stated, “We’ll also support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard Units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL’s control.”

The repercussions of this statement are massive. For those unaware, Shia communities represent a population majority in Iraq, though Sunni communities have also held a significant amount of power in Iraqi governance. Similarly, it is these same Sunni communities who make up the majority of ISIL’s fighting force.

The key to destabilizing ISIL in the region is not to eliminate ISIL fighters from the sky in a game of attrition, but rather to convince Sunni communities within Iraq that their interests are better served by inheriting a larger role in the reimagined Iraqi parliament. No easy task, but I think that Sunni communities are not necessarily enamored with the extremist representation of Islamic law imagined by ISIL, but are rather discouraged by a continued Shia dominance of government in Iraq.

A certain amount of cash and parliamentary titles directed toward appropriate Sunni leaders in Iraq would yield a rapid cessation to the advance of ISIL for a fraction of the cost, both financially and in terms of human life. I feel confident making this statement because history is on my side.

Known as the “Anbar Awakening” in late 2006, key Sunni leaders in the most heavily contested provinces of Iraq turned against al-Qaida and began to cooperate with and advocate for U.S. policy. The Anbar Awakening is often overshadowed by the U.S. troop surge in early 2007 as the event that turned the tide of the war in Iraq. But it is the Anbar Awakening, not the U.S. troop surge, that was the true catalyst for change in the Iraq War.

We need a similar awakening strategy that guarantees Sunnis a permanent role in Iraqi governance. Only by degrading ISIL from within, not from above, can the Western world hope to achieve any sort of stability in Iraq and the broader region.