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.
Seemingly, the group was defeated after the Anbar Awakening and second Gulf War, but the organization waited patiently in the shadows for the right opportunity to strike back and regain relevance. During the interlude following the second Gulf War and the establishment of the caliphate, the group did what it has always done well—survive.
While China has traditionally been threatened by a predominately domestic separatist movement, it appears that the war in Syria and the global influence and attention of the Islamic State has given China’s domestic terror groups the opportunity to expand and network with other groups in China’s regional neighbors.
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.
In this––our final installment––we appeal to each element of the Clausewitzian Trinity to do its part. To remain silent as practitioners of policy and war, we believe, would perpetuate the betrayal of those troops and civilians––American and foreign––who have made the ultimate sacrifice for reasons this country still struggles to articulate.
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 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...We must reset our thinking.
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.
For now, Spain has been lucky. Many of those arrested have been suspected of supporting terrorists rather than plotting their own attacks. The number of arrests by Spanish authorities may indicate they are getting more proficient at identifying and apprehending the threat. However, it would be unwise to believe that is the only case. That a major attack has not happened in Spain since 2004 does not mean there will not be another.
To be successful in the long term against the threat of the Islamic State, the United States should focus its power on undermining the organization’s core appeal. The United States must recognize the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict, which enhances the attraction to the Islamic State as the best Sunni Army in Syria. All U.S. policy decisions must be informed by the need to guarantee the rights and future of Syrian Sunnis, while anticipating increased threats from the growth of jihadi organizations within Syria.
Raqaa is not Munster, Obama is not Waldeck, and the Sunni-Shia face-off is not the Thirty Years’ War. But the comparisons are seductive for a reason, as they help explain a highly complex set of events (like the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, the fight in Iraq and Syria and the execution of a Shia cleric) in terms that we know—or think we know. Put another way, historical analogies are useful (and the Thirty Years’ War analogy is particularly useful), but only so long as we get the history right—when we understand that the Thirty Years’ War had nothing to do with God. It was about power. And that’s true today, in the Middle East.
Carl von Clausewitz, the young Prussian strategist of the Napoleonic age, is a giant in the field of security studies. His seminal work, On War, is widely considered the definitive text in understanding the nature of war. His famous quote, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” is generally considered the cardinal rule for war—it is often quoted and equally often ignored in practice. So, it is unsurprising that contemporary Western strategists and thinkers look towards Clausewitz for answers and insights, but is he the only choice?