U.S. Strategy for al Qaeda and ISIS: It’s Groundhog Day

The current situation in Syria reminds us again that we are failing in our post-9/11 wars. We have accomplished neither the strategic objectives set forth by the Bush administration nor those of the Obama administration. Both administrations have had notable successes and achieved periodic tactical and operational progress, but neither created sustained strategic success. The jury on the current administration is still out, but on the campaign trail the President suggested we can defeat ISIS with military force alone—bombing the *@#! out of them. To put it kindly, this approach misses the mark. America has led a concerted leadership decapitation campaign against both al Qaeda and ISIS for a decade and a half. Such a campaign is necessary, but not sufficient. How much longer will we take this approach before we learn that we are waking up to the same day over and over again?

We must reset our thinking. The first, and most important step, is to admit we have not understood the kind of war we’re in, and we’ve tried to make it something it is not. Then we must read our enemy’s documents and actions to see them as they are:  Al Qaeda, ISIS, and their ilk are waging (and have been from the start) a global revolutionary (and therefore ideological) war, a form of insurgency which is initially local and regional but already has global implications. We have waged, with few exceptions, a counterterrorist war. Our first approach was expansive:  going after the terrorists and the states that sponsored them. Our second approach, the one we’re still using, is minimalist and gradualist:  a combination of precise targeting of key individuals and selected groups coupled with reliance on surrogate ground forces. Neither works because both approaches miscast the enemy. We are waging one kind of war; our enemies are waging another. As long as we stay in this mode, our failure is near guaranteed.

Waging a counter-revolutionary war is complicated and difficult, but this is the task before us. We are not conceptually or organizationally prepared to wage the kind of war we’re in. To move to a better strategic position, we must first create then use a real alliance.

A memorial to the victims of the March 22, 2016 terrorist attacks at the Place de la Bourse in Brussels. (AP photo)

In both the maximalist and minimalist approaches, we’ve treated coalition partners as if they were members of a posse with the U.S as the sheriff. We called the shots; they could join or not. Perhaps this approach made sense in the immediate period following the September 11, 2001 attacks, but the strategic landscape has changed dramatically. Then, it appeared that only the U.S. was under attack. Now, it’s clear: the nations of Europe are also under attack, as are many in the Greater Middle East, and some in Southeast Asia Pacific. The U.S. must lead, but it cannot be the sheriff. The problem begs for a true alliance.

Forming such an alliance will be difficult, but not impossible. Everyone would like a large tent in which all can participate. To actually function, however, the core alliance will have to be smaller with only those nations willing and able to commit to the six actions below. The initial alliance may contain only some of the NATO members, of which Turkey is key; a few of the Middle East and North Africa states; and select nations of the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Over time, as the alliance succeeds, it may grow. The alliance must commit to at least the following six actions.

First, identify a set of common goals and principles that will guide alliance decisions and actions. This task is the most important. Right now the potential alliance has different perspectives on both the problem it faces and the solutions that will work. A properly conducted diplomatic dialogue will not eliminate all differences, but it can reduce them to a point where all can commit to a set of common and achievable goals—from which the alliance can derive military and nonmilitary policies, strategies, and campaigns.

Internationally, nations still live in a somewhat Hobbesian world...The reality is the United Nations is unlikely to sanction transnational actions against the revolutionary enemy we face.

Then the alliance must commit to a set of guiding principles. The legitimacy of the alliance’s transnational actions will derive from these goals and principles. Internationally, nations still live in a somewhat Hobbesian world. We have some international structures, laws, and conventions, but no international government. The reality is the United Nations is unlikely to sanction transnational actions against the revolutionary enemy we face. That leaves action up to individual nations—the alliance. Unilateral action, although sometimes justified, is an insufficient foundation upon which to wage the war we’re in because the enemies we face act transnationally. No unilateral solution will work. An alliance, committed to a set of positive goals and guiding principles, will provide both the legitimacy and the resources necessary to succeed against a common enemy.

Second, create the structures to make decisions, coordinate execution, and adapt as the war unfolds. Collective action requires organizational capacity. The heads of government of at least core alliance members must set the strategic agenda and act as the final decision authority for alliance plans. But plans have to be turning into sufficiently coordinated action. The military and nonmilitary strategies, policies, and campaigns that must be executed over time to achieve alliance goals necessitates a coordinating body or bodies. The alliance needs this execution capacity to assure coherent action and timely adaptation as events unfold. Using existing bureaucracies to wage war will not work. Both Robert Komer’s Vietnam-era monograph, “Bureaucracy Does Its Thing” and Secretary Robert Gates’ book Duty explain why in explicit detail. Bureaucracies do same very well; they do fast and continually dynamic not very well. War is, by its nature, fast and continually dynamic.     

Third, protect the commons and close down the criminal networks that our enemies use. Our enemies use the open transportation, information, fiscal, and commercial commons to their advantage. They create followers, move leaders and operatives, raise and distribute money, buy and distribute arms and ammunition, and supply themselves—all using the global commons and criminal networks. Alliance members must close the commons and criminal networks to our enemies without disrupting normal social and economic life of international life. Closing the commons and criminal networks will require primarily a mix of intelligence sharing and coordinated law enforcement actions. It will also require adopting some new laws and conventions, as well as taking some combined military action.

Fourth, prevent states from falling to the revolutionary enemies. Part of our enemy’s strategy is to depose what they call apostate governments and replace them with fundamentalist regimes that even most Muslims do not support. Then they seek to expand the territories they control to form a caliphate.

A British soldier shakes hand with his Nigerian counterpart during a joint military exercise between Nigerian armed forces, United States, Britain, Netherlands, and Spain in Lagos in 2013 (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP)

The alliance must prevent states from collapsing. Such action is not solely related to building security forces—military and police—in at-risk countries. The alliance must take military or police actions in conjunction with local forces, when necessary. Some of these actions must reduce the already present revolutionary presence within a threatened state. Such operations cannot use merely remote means, for such action does not create durable effects. Furthermore, reduction operations must include correspondingly necessary changes to social, political, security, and economic policies that the revolutionary enemies use to their advantage. The aim is not to create democracies; rather, to increase the legitimacy of the government from the perspective of its citizens, whatever type it is. Without these changes—which must be the main effort—the revolutionary fervor our enemies create is likely to remain and even spread.

Some might believe these kinds of changes are impossible. They will be hard, that’s for sure, but these changes can be made incrementally. Committing to change and starting to change is what’s important. Further, absent this commitment, real progress in the war we’re in will remain elusive. One need only read Ken Pollack's A Path Out of the Desert to see the essential connection between success in the war we’re in and a reform agenda.

Syria may be the hardest nut to crack. It has already collapsed. There’s no resurrecting the Assad government, and no allowing a radical, jihadi revolutionary group to take over. So Syria becomes a special case. Whatever action we take in response to the current situation, however, must be within an eye toward a larger strategy. The lack of a strategic concept—not just in Syria, but in the wider post 9/11 war—is exactly why we have been living a groundhog day existence. The U.S. has an opportunity in this crisis to begin to set conditions for a positive strategic outcome. In fact, reducing the already present threat, improving legitimacy in other states, closing the commons, and shutting down criminal networks will all contribute to creating an environment that will have positive effects in Syria from which a potential resolution may emerge.

A Kurdish sniper, on top of a building in Kobani, Syria. (Bulent Kilic/AFP)

Fifth, eliminate safe havens that threaten alliance members. Safe havens are breeding grounds for enemies. No good can come from allowing them to continue to operate. Alliance air, special operations, and ground forces—again in conjunction with local forces—may be necessary to clear and initially hold these areas before turning them over to local security forces. Once more, eliminating safe havens means more than conducting security operations with remote means that achieve only temporary effects. Moreover, such operations must be followed by improved governance packages—otherwise, “bad guys just return.” Experience over the last 15 years shows how hard coordinated security and governance actions can be. But difficulty does not erase need. If alliance nations don’t figure this out, our future will merely repeat our past—still more groundhog days.

Last, reduce the attractiveness of the revolutionary narrative. Alliance domestic actions are as important as any others in this kind of war. Alliance members themselves must commit to social, political, security, and economic policies that do not make it easy for our enemies to recruit, motivate, or radicalize within their borders. Reducing the attractiveness of the revolutionary narrative is not just an information or spin campaign. It is a campaign of civil and military actions—those described above—that first makes real the values and principles that the alliance stands for and seeks to engender more broadly and secondly demonstrates the fallacies in the revolutionary narrative.

An aggressive counter-narrative campaign begins at home, but doesn’t end there. The information campaign most likely to succeed is one that uses a set of government-private organization partnerships that can actually influence the audiences that the revolutionary either seeks to enlist or encourages to remain on the sidelines.

Creating a real alliance that is able to take these six civil-military actions is a tall order, a daunting one. Sustaining it over time is harder still, but what’s the alternative? Strategic leadership is about getting the right people together to understand the problem at hand, setting in place and sustaining the right processes to act and adapt, and maintaining the focus through to success. And this is what waging war, rather than merely fighting it, is all about. America and its posse has been fighting a war against al Qaeda and ISIS, but not waging a war.

The revolutionaries we face aren’t going away; the problem isn’t going solve itself. The solutions of the past have not worked. More of the same will merely get us where we already are. How many times must we wake up, cut our alarm clock, and see that it’s groundhog day once again? Do we really want to guarantee that those who are 3, 4, or 5 years old today will be fighting this war—like those who were 3, 4, and 5 at the time of 9/11 are doing now? Changes in administration provide an opportunity to change; the question is “will it?”

James M. Dubik, PhD is a professor at the Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.  He recently authored Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory. He retired as a lieutenant general from the U.S. Army in 2008 following his position in Baghdad as Commanding General, Multi-National Security and Transition Command, Iraq and NATO Training Mission, Iraq.

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Header Image: American commandos in the Syrian province of Raqqa. (Getty Images/New York Times)