Home ISIL The Strategic Potential in Defeating ISIL through Historic Hunting Practices

The Strategic Potential in Defeating ISIL through Historic Hunting Practices

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By Dr. Cynthia Nolan
Faculty Member, National Security Studies at American Military University

The Obama administration announced last week that it would be sharing intelligence with Russia in order to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). A consensus has emerged that the success of this radical Islamic group won’t be good for anyone. Indeed, there is a growing coalition of states willing to work together to fight this common enemy. These states have some common ground in the defeat of ISIL.

Such a consensus is rare in international politics, and if history is any judge that consensus may not last. But in the meantime, John Kerry met with Sergey Lavrov Oct. 7, and they agreed to work together on the ground and at HQ back home. So, what intelligence will they share, exactly?

Intelligence sharing is a tricky endeavor. You must share enough to achieve the political goals — typically set by someone else, of course — while still protecting sources and methods. It is almost unthinkable that crucial and revealing intelligence will be shared. Indeed, this exercise in sharing is more likely an exercise in trust. One can imagine that satellite photos and targeting details are likely candidates for sharing, along with intelligence on mutually threatening individuals and tactical on-the-ground intelligence. Substantively, what is shared may not matter as much as the sharing itself. This exercise builds trust if everyone chooses to work together. It breaks down trust if anyone defects from the game.

Any collaborative arrangement involves trust. You trust that all the other collaborators will go along with you. In the world of international relations theory, this is called a Stag Hunt.

In a Stag Hunt, in the classic description from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two hunters must work together to find food — specifically a stag. Each hunter could work alone to get two rabbits, if he’d like, but a stag is a much more desirable outcome; he just can’t do it alone. So they agree to work together, but each hunter must trust that his partner will follow through on his end of the bargain. The result of the hunt could be a stag for both players if they work together, two rabbits for each player if they work separately, or two rabbits for one player and none for the other.

So, if Russia and the U.S. agree to hunt stags, will each party follow through on the agreement, and what happens if they don’t? Russia has already indicated that they plan to back out of this agreement. Less than a week after the agreement hit the American news, Russian news outlets reported that it was no-go. Thus the Lavrov-Kerry hunting expedition is likely to leave Lavrov with his two rabbits — Syria and Iraq, perhaps. What will Kerry be left with?

Cold War era spheres of influence — or perhaps battles of influence — are at stake. The stag is ISIL in this game. The rabbits are Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and possibly Turkey. If Russia and the U.S. focus on the stag, the rabbits are free to go their own way.

The players in this game are Russia and the U.S., but keep in mind that the U.S. is already playing this game with NATO and various Middle East partners. Do we need Russia? We can play this game without them, but if they aren’t playing Stag Hunt with us, what are they doing? Are they off hunting rabbits on their own? This is an iterated game, and Russia is good at playing a long game. We are not.

Defeating ISIL requires collaboration. States must cooperate and share to get to the most desirable outcome: defeating terrorism. If the Russians defect from the collaboration, we don’t want to end up holding the empty bag. Kerry better brush up on his hunting skills, or maybe he should find a new hunting partner.

About the Author
Dr. Cynthia Nolan is an assistant professor at American Military University. Her research has focused on intelligence oversight in the U.S., but she’s contemplating archery lessons for her next stag hunt.

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