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The violent extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have seized major cities and swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq and are seeking to create a caliphate over the entire Muslim world. The group poses a threat not only to the region but to global security. The battle-hardened forces of ISIL include hundreds of fighters from Europe and Chechnya and even some from the United States. Some of these fighters will likely take their warped ideology and violent skills with them when they return home.

Why then, in the face of this clear and present danger to global security, has the United States not joined with other countries in bringing this matter to the UN Security Council? Isn’t that why the UN was created, to mobilize cooperative action in response to international security threats? The failure to work through the UN diminishes the prospects for building an effective international coalition against ISIL. It reduces the repertroire of potential responses to the crisis and contributes to the atrophy of the UN and of multilateralism in general.

Thirteen years ago, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the response was very different. The Security Council met immediately and adopted a wide range of measures to harness international action against al-Qaeda. Most significant was Security Council Resolution 1373, which required every country to freeze the financial assets of al-Qaeda terrorists and their supporters, deny them travel or safe haven, prevent terrorist recruitment and weapons supply, and cooperate with other countries in information sharing and criminal prosecution. In its response to 9/11, the Council also expanded existing sanctions on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, created new bodies to monitor and assist compliance with counterterrorism measures, and established a wide range of counterterrorism programs that have helped, along with U.S. military pressures, to diminish the global threat from al-Qaeda.

Contrast that robust response to the meager efforts of today. The Security Council Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee recently added names of ISIL leaders to its existing sanctions list, but it has not taken effective action to ensure compliance with those measures. Although ISIL is mercilessly pursuing its aim of creating a terrorist quasi-state in Iraq and Syria, the Council has not met to address the growing threat. It has not adopted new measures to suppress ISIL and cut off its supply of money and recruits. It has not discussed needed diplomatic efforts to encourage more inclusive political governance in Iraq and Syria.

It’s time to mount a vigorous global response commensurate with the magnitude of the threat. Here are some of the diplomatic and political steps the United States and other states might consider through the UN:

  • Impose an arms embargo along with rigorous financial and travel sanctions against the leaders of ISIL and their supporters and prohibit any form of assistance for the organization and its operations. Create a special sanctions committee and panel of experts to facilitate and monitor compliance and to recommend further measures to isolate and suppress the organization.
  • Join with neighboring states in convening an international conference for Iraq, to assess the current security and political challenges facing the country and the region and to develop appropriate diplomatic, political, and if necessary security responses. Work with the government of Iraq to implement the recommended responses.
  • Re-convene the Geneva diplomatic process on Syria, with the full participation of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other neighboring states, to renew the search for a negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war and enhanced security for neighboring states.

The proposed actions are no panacea for peace. UN engagement will not magically resolve the deep crises afflicting Iraq, Syria and the region. More concerted multilateral action can help, however, and at a minimum can heighten global involvement and help to broaden the global alliance against ISIL.

For those who claim that military action is the only response to the extremist threat in Iraq and the region, here are some alternative policy options:

  • Engage with Iran in urging the Maliki regime to adopt more inclusive and equitable power sharing arrangements with the Sunni community. Demand that the regime fulfill pledges made to integrate Sunni leaders into positions of government authority.
  • Make clear to the Maliki government that U.S. military and economic support for Iraq will diminish if the Baghdad government refuses to adopt more inclusive and equitable power sharing arrangements with the Sunni community.
  • Bring the threat posed by ISIS/ISIL to the UN Security Council and seek a united global response that identifies the group as an international terrorist threat to peace and security. Urge the Security Council to impose sanctions and other mandatory international actions to isolate and suppress the extremist group through multilateral action.
  • Work with Iran and other states in the region to return to the Geneva negotiating process that seeks a negotiated end to the civil war in Syria.
  • Continue to provide maximum humanitarian assistance to the millions of refugees who have fled the war in Syria and the spreading conflict in Iraq.

The capture of Mosul by militant Sunni extremist groups is a body blow to the Shia-dominated government of Iraq and marks a significant escalation of the sectarian war that is tearing apart the region. The Iraqi Army, which the United States created as an intended bulwark of security, has crumbled in the face of attacks by the increasingly powerful forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with U.S. weapons and equipment sent to bolster the Iraqi Army now falling into extremist hands.

In the United States, some on the right have used the occasion to criticize the Obama administration for not doing enough to bolster the Baghdad government and for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 (overlooking the fact that the President was elected on a pledge to do precisely that). On the left, critics blame the Bush administration’s 2003 U.S. invasion and emphasize its unintended consequences.

Debates about the past are important but do not address the problem of what can be done now to stem the spread of violence and instability. The United States and other external actors have very few options. Here are some considerations to keep in mind as the debate unfolds.

  • This is a large-scale regional war pitting Sunni and Shia political forces. It is centered in Syria and Iraq but also involves Lebanon and is supported by competing Saudi and Iranian interests. Any lasting solution has to be regional in nature and must address the political interests of all the major factions in an equitable and inclusive manner.
  • Some in Washington have reacted to the crisis by calling on President Obama to send even more arms and military equipment to Iraq, but Baghdad’s sectarian Shia-dominated forces are part of the problem not the solution. Pouring arms into the spreading cauldron of war risks exacerbating the crisis in Iraq.
  • Attempts by the U.S. or other major powers to intervene unilaterally or to impose external military solutions will likely backfire and inflame militant extremism. Security solutions will need to be multilateral in the context of negotiated political settlements.
  • This crisis increasingly poses threats to global security and requires a multilateral diplomatic response. The United States should work through the United Nations (and the Arab League if possible) to propose and support a major global diplomatic initiative. This will require returning to the Geneva process of attempting to find a political solution in Syria, but this time with Iran directly involved and the agenda broadened to include political alternatives in Iraq.

The chances of achieving diplomatic success are slim, but doing nothing is not a realistic option. A fully inclusive international diplomatic process should be attempted and is urgently needed now, before the fires of war and militancy spread further in the region.

The President’s West Point address on national security last week brought mostly skeptical responses. Typical was the New York Times comment that “after five and a half years and dozens of speeches … the trail of Mr. Obama’s pronouncements has grown muddier.”

The President’s decisions may have been inconsistent at times—surging troops in Afghanistan one year only to remove them a couple years later, preparing to bomb Syria one day and negotiating with the regime the next—but through the twists and turns a number of valuable principles have emerged.

Most important is the President’s opposition to major wars of intervention. He won election in 2008 on a vow to remove U.S. troops from Iraq and fulfilled that pledge in 2011. He has now committed to withdrawing the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Ending these wars is a major historic achievement. It’s also a policy widely supported by the American people. Opinion surveys show broad bipartisan support for staying out foreign conflicts.

Some analysts criticize this “minimalist foreign policy.”  The President has indeed been cautious about involvement in Syria and other crises. He recognizes, rightly I believe, that military intervention can backfire and have unintended consequences. Unlike some of his critics, he understands the limitations of American power and is more willing to work with allies.

White House aides have distilled the President’s foreign policy to the phrase “don’t do stupid stuff.” It’s not exactly an elegant expression, but it well describes what has been a major challenge of Obama’s presidency: trying to undo the major foreign policy blunders of the Bush administration.

Obama’s theme is similar to the “do no harm” principle that many in the development assistance community have adopted, based on the classic work of Mary Anderson. It’s a wise philosophy, whether applied to development assistance or military intervention. Avoid making matters worse. International assistance too often benefits corrupt elites rather than people in need. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan produced more insurgency and terrorism, not less.

The President has made progress in ending major wars, but he still believes military force is a viable means of countering terrorism. He has fewer boots on the ground but has increased the number of drone strikes, Special Forces raids, CIA operations, and attacks by U.S.-trained local troops. The policy is ‘minimalist’ in the number of U.S. casualties and the scale of force per episode, but the resort to military means is more frequent.

The limited use of force is no more effective against terrorism than large-scale invasions. The military’s own counter-insurgency manual and the statements of top military commanders acknowledge that military means alone are not sufficient to defeat terrorism.

Finding effective solutions to the continuing threat of violent extremism will require a redirection of American foreign policy far more substantial than what Obama has attempted, a process that will take many years. In the meantime, an approach of avoiding ‘stupid stuff’ may be the best we can hope for, and could provide time for building the public understanding and support necessary for a more substantial turn toward peace.

The recent report of the International Crisis Group (ICG) on the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is bad news for those who believe in a military solution to the conflict. The report offers further evidence that the U.S.-led counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan has been unable to defeat or weaken the Taliban.

For the year 2013, the United Nations has reported an 11% increase in violent attacks and security incidents during the summer months, and a 14% increase in civilian casualties for the year as a whole. The U.S. military claims lowers numbers, but most analysts consider the UN figures more reliable. Unpublished assessments estimate a 15-to-20% increase in violent attacks for 2013, according to the ICG.

Violence appears to have escalated in the early months of 2014 as well. An Oxfam statement, quoted by ICG, reports “clear signs that armed opposition groups have gained ground in rural areas where security responsibilities have been transferred to the [Afghan security forces]. …  Security has deteriorated in some provinces and areas that were previously considered safe.”

Whatever the exact numbers, the trends show continued and probably increased levels of violent insurgency in Afghanistan. Little or no success has been achieved in suppressing what General David Petraeus described in 2011 as “an industrial strength insurgency.”

This after 13 years of U.S. and allied military effort, including the ‘surge’ of American forces under the Obama administration that brought U.S. troop levels to 100,000. This after the buildup of Afghan security forces to an estimated 345,000 troops by January of this year. This after estimated U.S. expenditures in Afghanistan of $641 billion through fiscal year 2013. This after tens of thousands of soldiers, insurgents and civilians have lost their lives.

After all that cost and effort, the Taliban is stronger than ever, and insecurity reigns through much of Afghanistan. That’s how you define failure.

Sarah Kreps and Micah Zenko have written an important piece in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs warning of the dangers to the United States of drone weapons proliferation, and offering sensible proposals for limiting that danger.

Kreps and Zenko emphasize what many others have noted, that the proliferation of weaponized drones in the absence of agreed international rules for controlling their use could have dangerous and destabilizing consequences for U.S. and global security. If other states follow Washington’s approach of launching attacks across borders without authorization or notice, international constraints on the use of force could be weakened.

Other states are likely to be tempted to use these seemingly low-risk weapons beyond recognized war zones in settings where the deployment of ground troops would not be viable, as the United States has done in Yemen and tribal regions of Pakistan,. The availability of drone weaponry lowers the threshold for the use of military force and makes armed conflict more likely.

The United States should act now, before other states have fully developed capabilities, to seek international agreement on limiting the proliferation of armed drones and controlling their use. “Without U.S. leadership,” Kreps and Zenko emphasize, “it will be extremely difficult to get an international coalition to agree on a credible arrangement governing the use of armed drones.”

The authors identify two approaches for preventing the proliferation of drone weapons. The first is for the United States to get its own house in order by establishing fully transparent rules for target selection and permissible uses of these weapons. They recommend the formation of an independent government review panel, perhaps modelled on the Guantanamo Review Task Force and the panel to review the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations.

The proposed review panel could establish policies, as recommended by Human Rights Watch and other legal rights groups last year, disclosing the legal criteria used to identify potential targets, the standards for distinguishing between combatants and civilians, the civilian protection protocols and training given to drone operators, and the standards for post-strike procedures to investigate the legality of strikes and credible reports of civilian harm and where necessary to provide compensation for victims.

Kreps and Zenko also recommend steps to tighten international rules against the export of drone weapons technology. This could be accomplished by expanding and strengthening the restrictions already in place through the Missile Technology Control Regime, or by creating an entirely new proliferation control regime specifically focused on drone systems. This could include the creation of an international regulatory organization tasked with establishing and monitoring global standards for transparency and responsible use of drone systems.

Kudos to Kreps and Zenko for emphasizing the need to establish rules for controlling the use and spread of drone weapons.

In my class this week my students and I discussed the future of Afghanistan. We reviewed a pair of recent remarkable articles in Foreign Affairs about the failure of U.S. policy, written by authors who served as principal architects and managers of that policy, Karl Eikenberry and Stephen Biddle.

Eikenberry was the former U.S. ambassador and senior military commander in Afghanistan. In his article he writes that the assumptions of U.S. policy were “spectacularly incorrect.” The counterinsurgency mission “failed” because of the inability of U.S. and other foreign forces to provide protection for Afghan civilians and because of the absence of any semblance of accountable and effective governance to serve as an alternative to the Taliban and the war lords. Eikenberry confirms what other analysts have argued: in counterinsurgency missions no amount of external military force or financial assistance can compensate for the lack of legitimate governance in the state for which one is supposedly fighting.

Biddle was an advocate of President Obama’s Afghanistan ‘surge’ policy and has been an advisor to U.S. commanders David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. In his essay Biddle assesses the grim prospects for Afghanistan’s future and the limited choices available for U.S. policy. He outlines three options. One is to maintain a limited force in Afghanistan, as currently planned. The result he argues will be a “grinding stalemate” of continued war, paid for by U.S. taxpayers to the tune of at least $20 billion a year. The other options are to withdraw all U.S. forces, facing the inevitable defeat of the U.S. mission now rather than in the future, and to push for a negotiated power sharing agreement between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

When leading military commanders and advisers tell us that our policies have failed, we ought to pay attention. In my view the only viable option in Afghanistan is some combination of Biddle’s alternative options. Withdraw U.S. forces sooner rather than later, and negotiate a power-sharing agreement between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

Most important is the need for a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy, away from military interventionism toward greater support for diplomacy, development and good governance as the key to building peace and stability and overcoming violent extremism.

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