The collapse this month of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has been greeted with joy and relief in many quarters, especially among the millions of civilians who directly suffered the extremist group’s rule. Much of the predictable analysis has focused on long-term trends that will continue to trouble the world: the resonance of extremist jihadi messaging, the persistence of sectarian conflict, the difficulty of holding together disparate coalitions like the clumsy behemoth that ousted ISIS from its strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul.
But jihadis and sectarians are not, contrary to popular belief, the most important engines of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar groups. Nor are foreign spy services the primary author of these apocalyptic movements — as many around the world wrongly believe.
No, the most critical factor feeding jihadi movements is the collapse of effective central governments — a trend in which the West, especially the United States, has been complicit.
An overdue alliance of convenience mobilized against the Islamic State three years ago, but only after leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had taken over enough territory to declare statehood. The ISIS caliphate was as much as a state — for as long as it lasted — as many other places in the Middle East. Most of the coalition members detested ISIS, but only the local members from Iraq and Syria whose families were dying or suffering under Islamic State rule were fully invested. For the rest of the anti-ISIS coalition, fighting the caliphate was one of many other priorities.
The glacial, slow-moving, coalition united against ISIS but bound by little else. It is sure to dissolve quickly now that the emergency is over.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the defeat of the ISIS caliphate a “critical milestone,” and Iraqi prime minister Haider Abadi hailed “the failure and the collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood and terrorism” that ISIS had proclaimed from Mosul. Yet even as the partners cheered the defeat of one state, they acknowledged the need to rebuild another one — Iraq — if they want to avoid cyclic repetition of the same conflict. Abadi, like American commanders on the ground, described a daunting task: to unify feuding militias, provide services to long-ignored populations, and perform effective police work — in short, to finally extend a functional state throughout Iraq.
In the years since terrorism has become an American obsession, much attention has focused on the root causes of nihilistic violence. The latest iteration of this vague quest, which attracts billions of dollars in government funding, is “countering violent extremism.” But it’s entirely possible that violent extremists aren’t really the problem at all; they only matter in places where the state is too weak to provide security, or too incoherent to explain why terrorist attacks are merely a crime, rather an existential threat.
Here’s another way to put it: There is no after ISIS, because ISIS isn’t the problem. The collapse of states is.
The most effective infantry troops in the war against ISIS, in fact, come from movements whose long-term aspirations are accelerating the collapse of the state order in the Middle East. To be sure, the key fighting groups — the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, the Shia militias referred to as the Popular Mobilization Units, and the Syrian Kurds from the PKK — are nothing like ISIS. They aspire to political and territorial power without the murderous, nihilistic sectarianism of the Islamic State. At the same time, these groups all profoundly oppose central government in the areas where they live. Some, like the Iraqi peshmerga, want to form a smaller, independent Kurdish republic, even though they are internally divided in a way that promises future strife and civil wars, not harmony. Others, like the Shia militias, want to carve out an autonomous state of their own that functions in the lee of a hobbled central government.
The United States has contributed mightily to this dismal state of affairs. To solve an immediate problem, ISIS, it guaranteed a still-more toxic long-term problem: an ungovernable zone stretching from the Mediterranean to the Zagros Mountains, where death squads, militants and fundamentalists will continue to proliferate.
And as ISIS taught us well, local problems rarely remain local.
The central problem to face after the ISIS caliphate, then, isn’t whether the Islamic State will return or in what form, but when we’re going to tackle the epochal and complex challenge of supporting coherent states in the Middle East. The United States has been a major catalyst of the current entropy and chaos in the Arab world — sometimes through direct destabilizing actions, like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and other times abetting long-term corrosion by backing ineffectual, tyrannical despots who ransack their own states in order to cling to power.
Much of the immediate response to the collapse of the caliphate centers on Sunnis, and is cast in simplifying sectarianism. Can their grievances be better addressed, to stop their ranks from breeding foot soldiers for nihilists? Can Shia partisans slake their thirst for power and share enough of spoils to coopt disenfranchised Sunnis?
There are some important points nested in this type of analysis, but it overlooks one essential fact: Factors like sectarian identity, jihadi extremism, and mafia corruption only become dominant pathologies in areas where the state is no longer fully in control. The Islamic State can claim adherents in dozens of countries. But an Islamic State insurgency only rises to central importance where a failing state has left a vacuum.
Compare, for example, the ISIS campaign in the Levant, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi established his short-lived state, to the far less potent Islamist insurgency in Egypt. Sure, followers of the Islamic State have murdered civilians, attacked state targets, and created limited mayhem in parts of Egypt — but the Egyptian government and security services remain powerful and as much in control as they ever have been.
State narratives and identity also limit the power of the nihilist narrative. Governments in Iraq and Syria struggle to convince all their citizens that the state functions everywhere and cares for all its citizens. But ISIS attacks on civilians in places like the United Kingdom, France and Egypt, cause consternation but don’t raise questions about the very viability of those states.
The Islamic State is a murderous movement. The existential threat comes not from ISIS but from state failure — a failure that precedes, rather than results from, the rise of violent fundamentalists.
The Islamic State made a great fuss about tearing down the old borders drawn by colonial powers. Many groups that otherwise detested ISIS shared the extremists’ distaste for the artificial borders that divided historical neighbors and cobbled together problematic, hard-to-govern entities.
That discussion about viable borders, however, created confusion. Some took the rise of ISIS as evidence that the nation-state itself had entered the final state of eclipse. That view dovetailed with a fascination that grew since the end of the Cold War among some academics and futurists, who believed the global order had transcended the era of states.
In its most breathless incarnation, pop theorists like Parag Khanna celebrated a “nonstate world,” in which states were just one of many players happily competing with free-trade zones, corporations, cities, empires and other levels of organization to maximize utility.
More reserved scholars also concurred that we had entered a post-state era. Some argued that the future held more shared-sovereignty projects, like the European Union, in which states would give up power in exchange for the efficient and humane economies of scale offered by supra-national institutions. Utopian internationalists like Strobe Talbott wrote warmly of a “world government” in which scientific management principles would replace parochial nationalism.
Pessimists agreed that the state was in irreversible decline, but believed something worse would take its place: tribes, militias, unaccountable local strongmen, and predatory companies.
The conflicts since the Cold War point toward a different struggle, between strong and weak states, rather than between states and some mythical nonstate world.
At West Point after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush declared the world had already resolved the struggle against totalitarian ideologies during the 20th century. “America,” Bush said as he unleashed a series of wars that continue 15 years later, “is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.”
A case in point is ISIS, which was in fact enamored and obsessed with a very traditional view of power and statehood; their project wasn’t to erase the state, but to invent a new one.
The nation-state is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back just a few hundred years. But states need not be based on nationalism. In fact, the most resilient and powerful states have often stoutly rejected a nationalist identity, instead embracing an identity based on empire (Britain), geographic scale (the United States), or continuous civilization (China).
“The state continues to be the basic building block of politics. Fragile states don’t diminish that fact,” said Alasdair Roberts, incoming director of the school of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Two years ago, Roberts argued that after brief period of uncertainty, the last few decades had shown that states remained the seat of power, in an essay called “The Nation State: Not Dead Yet.”
In the United States, critics of globalization feared that America was surrendering power and sovereignty to organizations like the World Trade Organization. Roberts says that recent developments, especially since the election of Donald Trump, proved what many politicians had said all along: “We’re delegating authority, and if we want to get it back, we can get it back.”
A strong, functional state might subcontract authority to the United Nations, or to an oil company, if such an arrangement suits the state’s interests. But all across the world, in rich countries and poor, states have quickly reclaimed their prerogatives when they believed their national interests were threatened by a trade agreement or an international court decision.
In our times, the Middle East has been the world’s biggest exporter of militants and destabilizing violence.
But the Middle East is not inherently violent or unstable. States have managed to assert authority and control their territory — although sometimes in savory ways — at many points in modern history. Governments in Turkey, Iran, and Arabian Gulf maintain a monopoly of force and a passable piece, ruling ethnically diverse populations (although with limited political rights for citizens). Flashpoints like Syria and Yemen knew stability for many years during the last generation. State-builders like Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Abdel Nasser reversed periods of decline and fragmentation, showing that it’s possible to bring unity and extend the reach of a bureaucratic state even in unruly and poor places.
We are living with the results of failing states in the Arab world. The best alternative is to see them replaced with functional ones. In some cases, that might mean holding our noses and accepting effective but cruel leaders. In others, it will mean exerting pressure and sometimes using force.
It doesn’t work to waffle, as Obama did when he tepidly supported the Arab uprisings in only some countries, and then just as tepidly stood by some of the dictators who mercilessly crushed popular revolts. It also doesn’t work to confuse tyrants who stay in power while eviscerating the state, like Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam in Iraq, with distasteful rulers who maintain a functioning state and are therefore effective, like the Saudi monarchy.
For the United States, a smart policy requires commitment. We know Bashar Assad will never create a sustainably stable government in Syria, because of his determination to wipe out rather than coopt dissent. Iraq is less straightforward; the United States cannot stand by passively as the state breaks up. But that requires clearly choosing sides: openly support Kurdish secession, and division of Iraq into smaller, ethnic or sectarian states, or openly repudiate the Kurdish drive toward independence and put pressure on Baghdad to extend its writ. The current course of intentional ambiguity only promotes the worst alternative — state decline.
When possible, we ought to promote humane governance. But in all cases we must insist on effective state power. We have seen the alternative in Iraq, where the United States and other guarantor powers, including Iran, let the government in Baghdad decay, only intervening when ISIS took control of nearly one-third of the country.
A state that is both cruel and ineffective is an albatross for the whole global order. If we want to counter violent extremism, we’re going to need a world of effective governance — and for now, the only place that’s likely to come from is strong states.
Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.