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The Islamic State's Strategy Was Years in the Making

"I wonder if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, reads Mao?" That’s what I was thinking in my Istanbul flat yesterday as a series of disturbing reports arrived from next door in northern Iraq. With the Islamic State seizing the Mosul Dam, threatening thousands of Yazidi families with extermination in the Sinjar Mountains, and poised to advance on the Kurdish capital of Erbil, it seemed Abu Bakr had ripped a page out of Mao’s classic 1937 treatise On Guerilla Warfare.

Mao Zedong wrote the book at the outset of the Second Sino-Japanese War, when Japan invaded the Chinese mainland. It was an argument for a new type of struggle, one which he and the Chinese Communists successfully waged for the next eight years. It lays out what has since become widely accepted as the three-phase Maoist model, the gold standard of insurgency.

In phase one, the guerillas earn the population’s support by distributing propaganda and attacking the organs of government. In phase two, escalating attacks are launched against the government’s military forces and vital institutions. And in phase three, conventional warfare and fighting are used to seize cities, overthrow the government, and assume control of the country.

In Thursday night’s address to the nation, President Obama made frequent reference to the Islamic State, calling them “terrorists.” No doubt, their tactics over the past decade have been barbaric—mass executions and beheadings posted on YouTube—but to refer to them simply as “terrorists” negates their very serious political goals: The establishment of a Caliphate straddling present day Iraq and Syria, stretching to the Mediterranean Sea.

If America is serious about disrupting the Islamic State’s agenda, we must first understand it. A less than nuanced understanding of the adversary was one of our great strategic blunders during Vietnam, when the Maoist three-phase model was used effectively against us, culminating in the 1972 Easter Offensive when columns of North Vietnamese regulars invaded South Vietnam, leading to the eventual 1975 fall of Saigon. While American policy makers spoke about “domino theory” and “rolling back communism,” their North Vietnamese counterparts spoke largely in terms of national unity and a long history of intervention and oppression by foreign powers—the Chinese included, despite Mao’s intellectual influence on Ho Chi Minh.

Events are unfolding quickly across Iraq and Syria as the Islamic State asserts itself. A year ago, how many people even knew about the Islamic State, or its link to America’s war in Iraq? Until April 2013, the Islamic State was simply the Islamic State of Iraq, then it became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and it was only a few weeks ago, on June 29, when it reorganized once again, announcing itself as a Caliphate simply known as the Islamic State. This is also when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first video appearance as Caliph Ibrahim Amir al-Mu’minin, Leader of the Faithful.

It seems phase three, conventional warfare, is well underway as the Islamic State’s heavily armed and armored columns sweep through northern Iraq, seizing major cities like Tikrit and significant infrastructure like the Mosul Dam. With Erbil under threat from these columns, as well as Baghdad, it’s not hard to imagine the Islamic State spearheading an offensive similar in scope to North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive of 1972.

As for phases one and two, that was the American war in Iraq.

Even back when Abu Zarqawi was leading Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia nearly a decade ago, the organization’s aim was the establishment of an Islamic nation. Its courtship of Sunni tribal leaders in the wake of the American led invasion adhered to Mao’s idea of phase one operations, and the full-scale insurgency beginning in 2004 also fit within a Maoist construct of phase two operations.

So maybe Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (or Caliph Ibrahim), is reading On Guerilla Warfare, or maybe he’s not, but what seems clear is that he’s got a strategy, one adhering to a pattern that has worked in the past, one that’s facilitated the founding of nations, regardless of whether or not those nations conform to international norms of human rights and basic decency.

As for the American response, there’s been an airdrop of humanitarian supplies to the trapped civilians in the Sinjar Mountains and airstrikes against Islamic State positions near Erbil. Past that, who knows. The Islamic State's advance has been decades in the making, the product of an extremely deliberate strategy; generally, that is something we have been lacking.

Maybe it’s time for us to find another book, and start reading.