Where will the Islamist rampage that is storming across Iraq stop? There is no easy answer to that question.
Carl von Clausewitz, the great 19th century Prussian military theorist, coined the term “culminating point” to describe the moment when an attacking army overreached, stretched itself too thin and became vulnerable to counterattack. Clausewitz was reflecting on Napoleon’s march to Moscow, when the French armies marched to the gates of Moscow only to find that winter weather and overstretched supply lines made them vulnerable to Russian forces, which chased the emperor all the way back to Paris.
When will ISIS overplay its hand? On one hand, it could be a while. ISIS has a a lot going for it, including loads of cash liberated from Iraqi banks, arms left in the field by the Iraqi military and a flood of foreign recruits coming to help.
The Iraqi military isn’t putting up much of a fight. The government can’t get its act together.
Perhaps most importantly, in a part of the world where honors equals power, the newly established caliphate looks like a winner—and that’s a huge psychological and propaganda advantage.
But in declaring itself the supreme power, ISIS risks alienating co-belligerents who might not be interested in swearing allegiance to the usurpers.
Further, reports of widespread atrocities could turn many Sunnis against the interlopers.
At the same time, there are reports of the Saudi government slipping cash to the Sunni tribes and encouraging them to take matters into their own hands.
Additionally, as ISIS presses toward Shia territory, it is bound to hit stiffer resistance.
None of this is to suggest ISIS will collapse like Napoleon’s army. But it may not emerge a big winner either.
Still, there is no cause for calm in Washington. Regardless of the outcome, the flood of foreign fighters into the conflict is bound to trigger another round of transnational terrorist attacks.
It may be impossible to put Iraq back together again, leaving the region mired in endless squabbling, jockeying and conflict.
Syria and Iran are still likely to be the big winners here, and they will continue to cause the U.S. and its regional allies no end of troubles.
The U.S. needs a long-term strategy to deal with these problems. But the White House distracted by trying to deal with the disaster of the day.