What it'll take to defeat ISIS

The air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is showing encouraging gains in disabling the sinews of war, such as command posts and arms caches. Casualties inflicted are harder to determine as ISIS forces had been moved around as soon as air strikes were planned by the United States. But nobody is saying - nor should anyone - that a turn in the campaign is imminent. This is a war of attrition and, in all likelihood, foreign boots will be need on the ground sooner or later.

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has openly contradicted his commander-in-chief on this point, although he clarified after a Senate hearing that use of local forces was more plausible. With or without US soldiers, progress in this war would depend as much on public support as the stamina of prosecuting nations. All the more, civilian deaths from missile strikes should never be treated callously, as in past wars.

What gives the mission its moral strength is the mounting of a cooperative venture that unites Western and Arab nations in a common resolve to confront a malevolent ideology. It can just as easily ebb away if the ISIS advance is not halted after prolonged bombing and ground assaults by Arab or coalition forces, and the extremist group continues to be able to attract fighters from beyond Muslim countries. The one major success thus far actually predated the coalition build-up. This was the recapture with American air support of a dam near Mosul which could have been used by ISIS to flood the Iraqi plain right up to the capital Baghdad.

The US and its Western allies need also to rethink the wisdom of their war narrative that protecting their homeland against ISIS-inspired attacks is what has energised their participation. It could deter countries fearful of reprisals. The mission has to be more than about self-interest, important though the defensive objective is.

Taking on ISIS militarily is not to be treated as an end in itself, as has been laid out by strategists like Gen Dempsey. This echoes the view of Arab thinkers who despair of their societies' slowness to embrace modern ideas as an antidote to manipulative ideologies. Armed intervention will have to be succeeded by a political phase - from seeking an Islamic collegiality in West Asia and the Maghreb, to encouraging a reformation in thought and social organisation in illiberal Gulf monarchies.

Women being discriminated against in education and employment is an economic resource forgone. Restless Arab males would find militant causes of whatever hue less alluring if their countries' economies were developed to provide an outlet for their energies.