Ahmed Rashid in the New York Review of Books:
Over the last few days, as the United States has stepped up its bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria, it has been hard to escape another reality: the US is still looking for a coherent strategy against the Islamic State. Along with its relentless drive across the deserts of Syria and Iraq, and its continued massacre of civilians and members of endangered minorities, ISIS can now also claim its first victim in Washington with thesacking of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. His departure—prompted in part by divisions with the White House over Syria policy—highlights the deep problems of an air offensive against ISIS that has alienated Arab states and other allies in NATO, even as it has failed to bring tangible results.
The crisis ISIS has created for the West and the Arab world cannot be effectively addressed until there is a broader understanding of what ISIS wants. The first thing we need to recognize is that ISIS is not waging a war against the West. In view of the staggering growth in the number of ISIS’s international recruits—there are now estimated to be some 18,000 foreign fighters from 90 countries—the growing possibility that some who have joined the group may return home to carry out acts of terrorism must be taken seriously. There is also a risk that others who never went to Syria, like the shooter in the Canadian parliament in October, will be inspired by ISIS to carry out such attacks.
In contrast to al-Qaeda, however, ISIS has not made the US and its allies its main target. Where al-Qaeda directed its anger at the “distant enemy,” the United States, ISIS wants to destroy the near enemy, the Arab regimes, first. This is above all a war within Islam: a conflict of Sunni against Shia, but also a war by Sunni extremists against more moderate Muslims—between those who think the Muslim world should be dominated by a single strand of Wahhabism and its extremist offshoot Salafism and those who support a pluralistic vision of Muslim society.