I am firmly in the camp which believes that ISIS, now known as the Islamic State, has overplayed its hand. They’re smart, organized, well-led, and now resource rich but they are also betting everything on a strategy that creates more enemies than allies and which will eventually force many divergent world powers to collaboratively focus their military might at deconstructing whatever the Islamic State attempts to stand up.
Any radical jihadist caliphate, or any significant attempt at one, will soon be returned to its failed state roots. Military hardware, command and control facilities, military barracks, forces on the move, and any industrial capabilities are easy targets for first world armies. We still struggle with nation building but we can deconstruct a state with unparalleled efficiency. This leaves us with the assurance that any imperialistic jihadist caliphate will unquestionably be dismantled if not pounded into fine-grained dust. Unfortunately, that only solves a small part of a much larger problem.
The Islamic State will never be much of state in the traditional sense. You certainly won’t see them tearing up the bobsled track in the 2018 Winter Olympics or chairing a UN committee. Survival, not expansion, will become their primary goal soon enough. But the end result of all of this will almost certainly be intractable chaos – not game winning stabilization. And creating chaos plays to their broader movement’s long game. Deconstructing a state, no matter how fragile, is a massive win for the forces seeking to upend the current world order even if they ultimately lose the big gamble.
The unfortunate truth in all of this is that there is a large and diverse set of forces in the world seeking to subvert the current order. Some of them have clearly defined objectives while others do not. Few of them are in agreement but that’s beside the point. All of them, thanks to technological advances, are radically empowered. The problem is that if these forces continue to march forward with the cheap and easy strategy of destabilization while the rest of the world struggles with the massively expensive and frequently unsuccessful strategies of stabilization something will eventually have to give.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State might ultimately be a footnote in history. I certainly don’t think either one of them will live long in the big scheme of things. But that does not mean that they have not been successful. They have claimed territory, if not for their own cause, for the cause of chaos. In the short term we will defeat them but if we do not learn how to fight a thousand year war, and ultimately tame the chaos, it might not matter.