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The rise of the so-called “Islamic State” or IS has been fast and seemingly unstoppable. A combination of factors contributed to its rise; President Obama walking away from Iraq in 2011 and ignoring its demise at the hands of Prime Minister Maliki, and the Syrian civil war. That said; let us not debate the past. We – the United States and the world – find ourselves in a dangerous situation. President Obama unfortunately has not stepped up to lead in the fight against IS and instead attempted to comfort Americans by saying IS hasn’t gained ground and they aren’t an “existential threat” to the United States.
Yes, IS is not an existential threat in that they cannot destroy or seriously damage the U.S. in the same way that an all out war with a world power could.
However IS has attacked us and can force us to alter our way of life and policies to an extent that life becomes fearful and our democratic fabric disappears. Secondly, the politically crafted phrase Obama likes to utter that IS is “contained” may be technically accurate, in the sense that they may not have gained ground in Iraq. Yet that doesn’t matter. IS has gained ground-in cyberspace. Their following has increased and they have the ability to inspire followers all over the worked to act on their behalf.
I imagine IS laughing at the President’s comments about them being contained. The “Islamic State” has achieved something much better than capturing any old fashioned ground to be taken; they tapped into a global movement of not only violent radicals, but also and perhaps worse – the seemingly disaffected, criminal minded, and other mentally maladjusted people.
Even more dangerous is that some of these brainwashed people do not fit a “profile” that one would normally consider to be an IS recruit. These people come from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. This is extremely difficult for law enforcement to track.
The recent IS attacks in Brussels were yet another IS “shock and awe” campaign. This time the President seemed alarmed enough to take further action beyond what is currently underway in Syria. During the same week of the attack in Brussels- Iraq, Turkey, and Nairobi, were also hit by terrorists. The international media has been remiss in giving equal attention to terrorist victims outside of Europe. During this tragic week the two leading Republican Presidential candidates threw mud regarding each other’s wives, and President Obama did the tango on international television. What ever happened to professional and steely-eyed leadership?
The United States is currently reacting to IS, a position one never should never be in during a fight. Recent comments by U.S. Presidential candidates advocating a form of collective punishment of Muslims are first and foremost wrong, and also completely foolish and counterproductive to a counterinsurgency campaign. This type of over reactive fear mongering is exactly what terrorist groups hope to cause with their attacks. It will be much easier for them to recruit disaffected and alienated Muslims-or others caught up in a dragnet- as it reinforces their message of “us against the world” if you will.
Since 9/11 the United States has spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to fight a global war on terrorism. The lessons learned should be incorporated into the current fight against IS. Speaking from my experience in Iraq, what worked was a mostly well-executed counterinsurgency campaign. Simultaneous efforts to get Sunnis to join the United States and the Shiite led government in Iraq to defeat the largely Sunni led insurgency.
IS had its birth in Iraq during the U.S. led war from 2003-2011. While I have much criticized President Obama for poor decisions with regard to Iraq/Syria, one cannot ignore the George W. Bush Administration’s poorly planned and executed occupation of Iraq enabled the insurgency, and Al Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) the precursor to IS to flourish. Yet by 2007 with a COIN strategy fully in place and hard work by U.S. troops and intelligence officers, the insurgency and AQI were defeated.
As mentioned earlier, the U.S. abandonment of Iraq and inaction in Syria allowed AQI to regroup, this time much stronger, smarter and rebranded as the “Islamic State.” In Al Qa’ida’s heyday, Usama Bin Laden would release videotapes that were delivered to news organizations for publishing. Later they developed an online magazine. In comparison, IS has a 24/7 sophisticated marketing department that produces glossy online content and recruitment videos.
In order to render IS globally insignificant, the next U.S. president must lead a global COIN campaign against IS.
COIN operations by nature are multi-pronged, with a kinetic aspect only a part or the overall strategy. While missiles should rain down on IS like thunder, and bullets pierce their skulls, we must not forget that we are in a war against a group that attracts not only radicals, but criminals and other disaffected types. IS seems to have a larger pool to recruit from than did Al Qai’da.
Much like the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The harder part of this fight, the main effort must be a challenge to IS’ ideas and their ability to touch the minds of young people across the world. During the Cold War President Ronald Reagan often spoke of how the message of freedom rang louder than the Communist message. It did. The U.S. did this by being consistent and persistent in our messaging. Radio Free Europe is an example with broadcasted messages to Eastern and Central Europe that countered Communist ideology. In the fight against IS, the U.S. need not consult with Hollywood executives, or any public relations professional for content, we need to talk about American and what makes us different, and special from the rest. A place where Sunni or Shia, can open a business in our free market society and succeeded. A place where their children can attend public school and achieve their dreams. There exists moderate Muslim organizations countering the violent radical ideology that IS, and let’s face it, some of our Gulf Allies promote.
We must also broadcast the horrid violence that IS causes to all people, including Muslims. As with any successful COIN operation, the counterinsurgent must take great pains not to dish out collective punishment or turn the effort into a cultural “us verse them” conflict. This will only strengthen the terrorists and hamper our efforts. One need only look at the initial success in Iraq, the British in Malaya, or in Northern Ireland. These campaigns adopted much of the COIN theory and practice as written by French military officer David Galula, who wrote the bible on COIN strategy. Recent comments by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are not only wrong because they do not embody American values, but practically they are stupid, counterproductive to defeating IS and further plays into IS’s hands. Of course since Trump is Trump, and Ted Cruz probably has not read any book regarding warfare but instead beats his own drum of his own version of religious extremism wrapped in a narrow political ideology. Granted IS is not like other militant groups that may have contested an occupation or attempted to achieve a political goal. IS is no doubt psychotic, and criminal with no coherent or rational goal. They must be dealt with in one way, but the strategy I speak of can work to stop the flow of recruits and diminish their appeal.
Before the next president takes office, President Obama would be wise to launch an international coalition to destroy IS. He can first begin by using his leverage in Iraq to pressure Prime Minister Maliki to be inclusive towards Sunnis in Iraq. Sunnis must feel they have a say in their government in order for them to have something to fight for. Sunni tribes are one of the best bulwarks against IS. Secondly, the Kurds must be trained and equipped in their successful fight against IS. I would even argue that efforts should be made to establish an independent and free Kurdish state. Lastly, after leading in Iraq and what is left of Syria, the U.S. must take the lead in working with our allies, and new partners against IS. We must shake off the dust and act like what are, that beacon of light on the hill.
Mario served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2003-2010. He lated worked as a Counterterrorism policy advisor for the Department of Homeland Security. He currently resides on New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @MarioMangiameli