U.S. President Barack Obama’s four-pronged strategy of air strikes, support to local proxies, defense against the Islamic State’s attacks through intelligence and counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance leaves many unanswered questions. It’s hardly a clear articulation of the sort of long-term, holistic strategy needed to deny the Islamic State the fertile ground it needs to thrive. The approach is fraught with trade-offs, risks, and hidden costs that need to be addressed.

  1. The focus on targeting the Islamic State’s leadership—drawing from what Obama hailed as successful campaigns in Yemen and Somalia—doesn’t create the conditions on the ground for a lasting solution to the movement. High-value leadership targeting through precision strikes carries the risk of collateral casualties and radicalization. And the record shows that militant leadership cadres can reconstitute themselves quickly, making such a strategy akin to a game of Whac-a-Mole.
     
  2. The emphasis on coalitions, while laudable in concept, also carries hidden risks: each of Iraq’s Arab neighbors will be pursuing competing agendas that may run counter to stated U.S. objectives. And the solicitation of Gulf support will come with costs: the United States must be leery of turning a blind eye to the repressive policies of these regimes toward legitimate Islamist opposition groups under the newfound framework of “counterterrorism.”
     
  3. Each of Washington’s local allies against the Islamic State also have their own agendas—the so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition, the Kurdish peshmerga, and the Shia militias. And there’s evidence that each is already using air strikes as convenient cover to advance its own political objectives.
     
  4. Ultimately, Baghdad holds the key to the long term: how power is distributed in the capital’s institutions. Obama cited U.S. support for the devolution of security responsibilities to Sunni tribes as part of the national guard structure for Iraq. But this must be pursued carefully, to avoid setting the conditions for warlordism and militia rule.
     
  5. Finally, the United States shouldn’t focus too much on counterideology—this is an argument without end, and religious factors are probably tangential to the more societal, economic, and political grievances that drive the rank and file, whether they are alienated young Muslims from the West, Anbari tribes, or ex-Baathist officers.

Obama rightfully began his remarks by dismissing the Islamic State’s religious pretensions. The caliphate discourse is the mobilizing vocabulary for something that is ultimately more mundane and worldly: the absence of credible and inclusive institutions that can temper the appeal of toxic sectarian identities and radical religious voices. These are deeply embedded afflictions in the region. Getting rid of the Islamic State will not solve them overnight—and the challenge for U.S. strategy is not making them worse.