If the West wants to contain or rout the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, it will have to rely on local allies in some way. The history of modern war suggests three ways in which such cooperation has previously been problematic.

In a BBC Radio Four interview on 9 October 2014, UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon declared that the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the Middle East ‘can only be won on the ground, but it can also only be won by a home army, not by America or Britain’. According to Fallon, this was the main lesson to be learned from recent Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where occupation by Western forces had ostensibly triggered full-blown insurgencies. By this logic, rather than deploying ground forces, the West should restrict its role to training and supplying local forces and to supporting the latter with airstrikes. In the fight against ISIS, the relevant local players that warrant Western support are the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga forces and moderate Syrian rebel organisations.

Fallon’s assessment illustrates that the West has taken stock of its post-9/11 counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rise of the counter-insurgency paradigm that began with General David Petraeus’s appointment as commanding general of the Multi-National Force–Iraq in 2007 was swiftly followed by a sobering assessment of the West’s pyrrhic victory there, and of Afghanistan’s uncertain future in the wake of the withdrawal of Western security forces.

The West’s reluctance to commit ground troops also reflects the pressures faced by defence planners in an age of austerity: both the UK and the US are implementing far-reaching cuts in their professional armed forces, including cutting their armies by 20%. (Special-forces capabilities, by contrast, will remain unaffected.) Both the US 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and the UK 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) indicated that one way to tackle the resulting manpower shortage would be by extending reserve forces. An alternative solution, albeit one that the QDR and the SDSR acknowledged much less directly, would be increasing reliance on local auxiliaries: local militia and rebel groups that are willing to bear the brunt of the fighting, with Western support in terms of materiel, communications and, possibly, airstrikes. This is the solution that the West has sought to implement in Libya, Syria and Iraq since 2014.

Of course, reliance on local auxiliaries is a phenomenon that long pre-dates the current age of austerity. In the earlier phases of the ‘war on terror’, Western coalitions cooperated with local allies such as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and the peshmerga in Iraq. The enlistment of local Sunni fighters in Iraq between 2006 and 2010 under the framework of the Sons of Iraq (SOI) scheme was seen as a central element of Western forces’ efforts to turn the tide of the Iraqi insurgency and defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq. Given the current financial pressures on the West’s military resources and manpower, the importance of local auxiliaries is likely to increase.

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Sibylle Scheipers is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

August–September 2015

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