First it was 1991, then we returned in 2003. Today, it is 2014, and America is again at war in the Middle East–but now it is Syria and not just Iraq.
Despite decades’ worth of analysis followed by military actions, we are, as a nation, making cardinal mistakes once again. Given how different the enemy we face today is, these mistakes will likely have a strategic impact on the safety of all Americans.
In 1991, we deployed US forces to the Middle East to eject the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from the nation of Kuwait, which he had just invaded, and to stop him before he went further and destabilized the whole region.
In 2003, the Bush Administration decided that, after taking down the Taleban government in Afghanistan–which had harbored Osama bin Laden– and destroying Al Qaeda’s camps, Iraq would be next. The reasoning was twofold. Saddam was a brutal dictator and his replacement by a representative government could help stabilize the region. Second, Saddam was in possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) which could potentially be used against US targets. (Let us not open the issue of what happened to those weapons, given that even the United Nations chronicled Saddam’s use of WMD against Iran and even his own citizens, and also that almost every Democrat on Capitol Hill agreed that the evidence indicated that he had not gotten rid of his WMD capabilities.)
Now, America has returned to the region in force, but this time it faces a new type of threat. Not a rogue nation invading its neighbors, nor a fundamentalist government providing sanctuary to jihadist terrorists, but a jihadi threat that is on the verge of capturing a whole country and which has declared the re-establishment of the Caliphate, the theocratic empire of Islam.
Despite our experience with the region and the missions of the last 13 years since the horrific attacks of September 2001, the administration is making five crucial mistakes as it deploys our brave men and women to the war-zone once more:
ISIS – or more correctly: The Islamic State (IS), since it changed its name recently – is not just a terrorist group like Al Qaeda. With the influx of thousands of foreign fighters, the US weapons it has captured, and the obvious charisma of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, IS is now a true insurgency, meaning it controls territory in daylight. In fact, the most recent estimate is that The Islamic State now controls a combined area of Syria and Iraq larger that the landmass of the United Kingdom. In no way it is a “JV team.” As a result the current “counterterrorism” approach of the government will by definition prove inadequate.
Never in the history of modern warfare has an insurgency been defeated by airpower. This is not a state-actor enemy with static targets which can be pummeled from the sky. It is an unconventional threat group which is hyper-mobile. After several days of bombings, IS will simply retreat into areas we cannot target from the air, such as heavily populated towns or cities. Such enemies can be defeated, but only if we use the Foreign Internal Defense (FID) model developed by US Special Forces, the “Green Berets,” under which local ground assets take the fight to the jihadists with a proportionally small number of US units acting as special advisers and providers of unique capabilities and intelligence platforms.
The Islamic State is already in a league all of its own and represents a new level of threat which far exceeds al Qaeda (AQ) and which will not be vanquished by the methods the Bush and Obama administrations have used against AQ.By all measures, IS has outdone al Qaeda. From the number of Westerners it has recruited– including women— to the amount of money it has, to its sophisticated use of social media for propaganda purposes, it has proven itself to be the jihadist movement al Qaeda always dreamt of being but never was.
Treating the Islamic State as the problem misses the central nature of the jihadi threat, the fact that it is global. Whether the group is called ISIS or IS, or it is the al Nusra Front in Syria, or Al Shabaab in North Africa, or Boko Haram in Nigeria, these are all one and the same threat. Every member of each of these groups– and the hundreds of other groups fighting in theaters as dispersed geographically as Chechnya or the Philippines– believes exactly the same thing: that they are the best Muslims, true warriors of Allah, and the West is un-Islamic and must be destroyed so a new theocratic empire of Islam can be re-established and expand to cover the world. Focusing on one threat at a time– al Qaeda, then ISIS, and then the next one– will only mean we will be fighting such groups for decades if not centuries.
Given the last point, it is clear that The Islamic State is simply the manifestation of a problem, not the cause of the problem itself. The disease which links all the aforementioned threat groups – which are symptoms – is the ideology of Global Jihad. It is the narrative of Holy War which unites bin Laden to the Boston Bombers, which unites the Boston Bombers to al Baghdadi. One cannot defeat an ideology with bombing runs. You can’t even destroy it with boots on the ground. The final victory against a totalitarian ideology – as in WWII, or even the Cold War – can only come when one discredits the enemy’s message, when you delegitimize his narrative. Unfortunately, with his recent speech to the United Nations, in which he compared the problems of the Middle East to the shooting of a suspected shoplifter in Ferguson, Missouri, the President once more reinforced the administration line that ideology is irrelevant to the threat we all face today.
To quote a British specialist on Islamist radicalism, writing recently on the utter failure of the British approach to jihadism: “it is also unclear if a state or society can win an ideology-based conflict if it ceases defending, advocating, believing in, and seeking to spread its own ideals.”
Can one win this type of war if you do not believe America is an exceptional nation?
Sebastian Gorka, Ph.D., is the Matthew C. Horner Chair of Military Theory at the Marine Corps University and the National Security and Foreign Affairs Editor for Breitbart News. You can follow him at @SebGorka.
For more on the global threat of radical Islam, please watch Dr. Gorka’s Presentation to the ICT 9/11 World Summit on Counterterrorism: ISIS: Jihad 2.0 below: