A Response to "U.S. Strategy for al Qaeda and ISIS: It’s Groundhog Day"

A recent article on The Strategy Bridge by James Dubik suggests U.S. policy on Islamic extremism suffers from Groundhog Day syndrome: endless policy repetition going nowhere. I wholeheartedly agree, but offer a different take on his argument.

Like General Dubik, I draw guidance from Clausewitz’s admonition that the soldier and statesman must understand the nature of the war at hand and not to make of it something alien to its nature. And I certainly concur with the assertion that the counterterrorism focus is misplaced. As the author notes, a more accurate portrayal is that we are seeing a revolutionary ideological war.

But it is my strong sense that we must begin from an altogether different premise. To me, the ideological and theological battle being waged is within the culture of Islam. Islam is, at the most basic level, waging a war against itself, and we would do well to attend to this.

We are watching the unfolding of a war to decide the fate and direction of a deep and intricate faith community within often rigid, controlling, and hidebound political systems. And it is this rigidity of faith and process that sabotages General Dubik’s proposed six-part strategy. My argument comes down to this: we cannot do for anyone what they cannot do for themselves.

Let me offer brief comments on each of his six policy recommendations which urge the creation of a new alliance against revolutionary Islamic extremism.

  1. The author suggests the alliance first identify common goals and principles. When it comes to Muslim majority nations, I fear we cannot and, more critically, they cannot identify common goals, because they cannot answer key faith and policy principles themselves. There are profound questions of governance and belief the Gulf, North Africa, the Levant, and much of the Muslim world have avoided debating for years. The leaders of the alliance General Dubik seeks may all want the problem (ISIS) to go away; they may not want to be threatened; but they have not taken the key intellectual responsibility to address the motivation for violence and the revolution he references. And even if some of the more moderate states indicate an interest in an alliance, the Gulf states may exercise theological pressure to avoid these vexing issues.
  2. The author then recommends the alliance create structures to implement a plan. But we cannot, and they cannot, create such structures because we cannot addressed the issues raised above.
  3. We cannot protect the commons if potential partners do not want to take the actions needed to even define what the commons might be and what support they may want to give to other networks, tribal or financial.
  4. We cannot prevent states from falling into the hands of theological revolutionaries, unless and until the leaders themselves—the elders, intellectual elites, and business leaders—take on the key issues of governance, values, and the role of religion in society and politics. There is a shared belief pattern, a cultural foundation, that leaves these states susceptible to the theological purity of the revolutionary appeal. It is problematic for the West to offer opinions on whether the majority of Muslims reject these revolutionaries. If there is such a majority, though, then Muslims must take the lead themselves and act. If they are not leading on this, we might do best question our own assumptions.
  5. How can we eliminate safe havens, when the nations in the region have difficulty in acting themselves? Their inaction speaks volumes on the nature of this problem. There is a natural desire to provide safety for innocents in war, but the region has not moved to do this. There have been safe havens for ISIS rebels, but the region has not moved to stop this either.
  6. The author asserts that “alliance members 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.” I would argue that this actually states the heart of the problem, because these nations so often preclude open debate on those very policies. Such a discussion—a faith-wide engagement wrestling with Islamic values, contemporary pressures, aspirations, equality, and social justice—would address the author’s challenge, and mark the region’s own contribution to global thought in these areas.

I agree with General Dubik that these problems are not going to solve themselves. But we cannot solve deeply personal and faith-driven problems for others. They go to key tenets of the faith, the deep fear of taking on religion and culture. For many, this era will test the strength of Muslim identity.

With this understanding, our own strategic thought must start with a different premise. This is a profound struggle within Islam, among Muslims. It is being waged within Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, the Gulf, and Africa...and yes, in Iran as well.

Strategy is more than long term operations. Strategy must be grounded on a deep understanding of the issue at hand, to understand the war for what it is.

It is time to listen to Clausewitz.

This is their struggle. It is their region; it is their religion; and these are their children. We need to acknowledge and respect the depth of this challenge. Rightfully we need to allow them to shoulder the burden.

Janet Breslin-Smith is the President of Crosswinds International Consulting and a former Chair of the Department of National Security Strategy and Professor at the National War College in Washington, DC.

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Header Image: Map of the Muslim Population by Percentage in the World (Wikimedia)