Preventing violent extremism is important, and governments need to shift at least some focus from basic incarceration to deradicalization or disengagement. As countries continue to develop a policy on how, and if, they’ll accept returning citizens who lived and fought with Islamic State or other terrorist organizations, they need to be prepared for what happens after.
While future insurgencies may be inevitable, they can be marginalized. It is incumbent upon the international coalition to commit to a sustained presence in Iraq and the freed areas of Syria for years to come. This presence must include substantive improvements to security forces, reconstruction of decimated communities, and reconciliation of Sunni populations at the national level. This effort may take up to a decade, if not longer, the United States must leverage members of the coalition to the greatest extent possible, and policy makers must be made aware of the sobering timeline and costs required.
Over the past year, a primitive type of WarBot has become a formidable battlefield weapon: the small unmanned aerial system. The threat materialized in October 2016 when a drone booby-trapped by the Islamic State killed two Kurdish soldiers. Within a few months, the Islamic State was flying tens of aerial bombardment missions each day, displayed the capability to drop grenades down the hatches of tanks, and reportedly flew up to a dozen aircraft at a time. The threat was so severe that the Mosul offensive nearly stalled.
Suicide Bombing has been the subject of scholarly works and studies in multiple campaigns. For the U.S. military, suicide tactics have been an integral part of the threat environment for well over a decade. Familiarity with the concept generates a bit of complacency, but this is a false familiarity obscuring the reality that suicide bombing has changed in the last decade.
Is it possible to intervene in another nation-state and pushback against the weight of that nation-state’s history? Can the weight of history be sufficiently balanced by intervention, allowing for the creation of enduring conditions that protect the outsider’s strategic interests? Today, the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the constraints on resources and time, probably make this an unattractive policy option. Instead, managing not resolving, the threats that pose risk to strategic interests is probably a more reasonable policy approach. This means accepting that an intervention in the affairs of another nation-state is limited to advise, assist and enable; and that the intervention will be a long-term commitment that works with the grain of history to achieve incremental progress.
Overall, American Power is a policy framework that is easy to read and yet full of substance. It bridges the gap between intellectual and practical policy. And while there is nothing necessarily revolutionary about the framework, it hammers home the United States’ role in the world as a promoter of democracy and the liberal order. I am in agreement with Miller that democracy promotion and the liberal order will always be in the United States’ interests.
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. Islam is, at the most basic level, waging a war against itself, and we would do well to attend to this.
Both ISIS and Russia seek to present themselves as a solution to unbearable problems. If they are simultaneously the cause of those problems, or seek to exacerbate them, that is irrelevant. Especially in the case of ISIS, they believe that if they make life solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short enough, a given population will accept even draconian masters in exchange for peace and stability.
The lives and culture of some of Western literature’s most famous warriors looks just as much like that of today’s violent extremists as it does like today’s professional soldiers. The Iliad’s ability to make a raiding, tribal group whose society differs so greatly from Western values today the protagonists opens the door to improving American understanding of the Islamic State’s fighters. As long as this continues, The Iliad will have a valuable place.
To understand mass violence and devise effective interventions, one must break from the popular notion that mass slaughter is purposeless barbarity. The next time the Islamic State or some other actor perpetrates an act of mass violence during a military campaign, we must ask ourselves what the leadership might hope to gain or achieve, and why decision-makers would allow such insanity. There may be a method to their madness, or an underlying strategic rationality being masked by their barbarity.
It has been some time now since the husband and wife team of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik committed their act of terrorism in San Bernardino, California–a story that has popped back up in the news because of the FBI court case requiring Apple to unlock the couple’s iPhone. In the aftermath, as a way to determine a motive, investigators initially focused on a garbled message on Facebook left by Malik. The message purported to claim an allegiance to Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. This led many in the media–and armchair analysts online–to confirm that the attack was at least inspired by IS. But digging deeper into the lives of Farook and Malik revealed a more al Qaeda-style ideology. The fact that Malik was involved in the shootings suggests more al Qaeda than Islamic State. Why? Because of the roles women play in each organization.
The violence occurring in the Middle East is the result of a revisionist movement, namely the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which seeks to conquer the greater region and expand its caliphate. A group that knows no geographical boundaries, its rapid rise is a symptom of what is widely regarded as the post-Westphalian trend the world has taken. Further, the volatility accompanying years of sectarian division has only been exacerbated by western involvement in the region, a century-old pattern of attempts to dictate the direction of governance dating back to World War I.
The Islamic State group (ISIS) is running up against a wall. As national coalitions take a larger role in the fight against ISIS, the group will become increasingly unable to operate on as large a scale as it has in years past, and it will be pushed out of its previously held territories – its decline may take years or even decades, but it will ultimately decline. But although ISIS may deplete its resources and feel increasing pressure from the international community, its members will not simply disappear as the group loses momentum.
Daesh is now meeting what Clausewitz refers to as friction in war, i.e., those factors that sap the war machine of its vitality. In its drive to establish an Islamic Caliphate, Daesh reached out far and wide to project its influence, overextending its capabilities in the process. The developing stalemate across its fronts could indicate an operational pause to consolidate, or it could simply mean that it is reaching the “diminishing point of the attack.” For an organization that sells itself as a dynamic, maneuver-oriented offensive force, Daesh cannot afford to get locked into a defensive war of attrition.
In the second installment of the original Star Wars trilogy, the main character Luke Skywalker is prompted to enter a cave on the planet Dagobah by his teacher, the venerate warrior Yoda, as part of his training. Luke senses the evil within, and so, he arms himself before proceeding. Yoda, understanding the challenge before his pupil, counsels Luke to leave his weapons behind. Trusting prudence over wisdom, Luke arms himself and plunges into the cave where he is confronted by a manifestation of his nemesis, Darth Vader. Skywalker defeats his foe in a brief saber duel but his moment of victory is interrupted when Darth Vader’s mask disappears to reveal Luke’s visage.
Much has been made of the Obama Administration’s decision to reduce the scope of its train and equip program in Syria. While the decision to dramatically overhaul the failed initiative was certainly correct, its successor seems even less likely to achieve meaningful results. Instead of discussing how best to interact with Syrian rebels, the nation should be discussing what it seeks to gain in doing so. The United States has pursued a confused and reactionary strategy in Syria that has failed to identify a clearly defined goal or objective. In order to assess how the United States can move forward in achieving its regional objectives, it must first define its end goal.
The recent wave of international terror attacks committed by the Islamic State (IS) — in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and France — mark a significant departure from the group’s past strategic approach. For much of its existence, most notably under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS’s overriding priority has been state-building. Localized terrorism in Iraq and Syria, widely used by the organization as it transitioned from an insurgency to a proto-state, has been employed as a method of population control.
Several years ago, during a visit to the U.S. Army War College, I was invited to have lunch with some of its instructors. The school teaches Army officers about strategy and its course offerings (“Civil-Military Relations,” “Peace and Stability Operations,” “Irregular Warfare”) reflect that mandate. So, naturally, the lunch discussion focused on strategy, and how to teach it. While I don’t now recall the exact details of that conversation, a statement by one of the war college’s professors has stayed with me. It brought immediate laughter — and unanimous assent. “Just remember,” he said, “that no matter what the question, the answer is always Clausewitz.”