We will not be successful on the 21st Century battlefield unless we have a 21st Century plan, a mandate. And I believe it must be “peace through strength.” The enemy we are facing, global Islamic jihadism, understands only strength. We will not have peace without it.
When I ponder the current conflagration in which our nation — actually the world — finds itself, I am reminded of this quote by Sun Tzu, from The Art of War:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
First of all, let’s get one thing straight. We are not in a “War on Terror.” A nation cannot fight a tactic, which is what “terror” is – a means to an end. It would be the same as if we referred to World War II as the “War on the Blitzkrieg” or the”Battle Against the Kamikaze.” In failing to identify the enemy, which some feel is unnecessary, we find ourselves at a clear disadvantage in achieving victory, as Sun Tzu would postulate. As well, when we fail to recognize the global Islamic jihadist movement, we lack the lucid ability to understand the history, goals, and objectives of this enemy who consistently articulates their designs, only to be discarded or dismissed strategically.
So the question becomes how does the United States of America face ISIS, an unlawful enemy combatant on the modern 21st century battlefield? Let us use the quote of Sun Tzu to present a policy direction and solution to engage and defeat not just ISIS – but the global Islamic jihad.
In order to defeat ISIS and the global Islamic jihad movement we must develop strategic imperatives, which, at this time, we lack. By simply stating tactical level tasks from a strategic venue we are deceiving ourselves. It’s quite easy to throw out words like degrade, defeat, destroy and not realize each of those words has a very different definition to a military planner. If we will admit to ourselves who this enemy is and their desire is to control territory, we can begin to assert our understanding of their intent.
Right now, we’re repeating a terrible mistake as we did in Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to come to power and hold territory. Their local movement became allied with the global intentions of Al Qaeda and one Osama bin Laden. The result was not just the establishment of a savage, barbaric 7th century state but also the exportation of a vile ideology rooted in the execution of terrorist activities.
Therefore, the first strategic imperative is to deny the enemy sanctuary. This simply means we must commit to enemy-oriented rather than terrain-oriented operations. We must go where the enemy is seeking to establish its base of operations. Where we have failed to this point is focusing on nation building and not the conduct of simultaneous strike operations. The message we must send to the enemy – whom we must define – is that we will not be deterred from engaging if they seek respite within defined national borders.
Also, let’s be honest. Drones are an asset but not a strategic panacea and certainly not a strategy. Drones are a tool that should be employed at the operational or perhaps even the tactical level. The last thing that we need is a repeat of Vietnam when airstrikes were being approved from the White House. We must employ the greatest advantage we possess which is our strategic mobility – not Whack-A-Mole – but area denial. One of the critical facts we accept about the enemy is that we must be willing to take the fight to them if they do not respect borders and boundaries.
The second strategic imperative to achieve victory against ISIS and the global Islamic jihad is to cut off their flow of men, materiel and resources. We must interdict their lines of communications and support. Any enemy must be able to replenish its ranks and we must find those transit routes and sever them. This is where we must come to understand this is not just about the non-state, non-uniform belligerents, it is also about the nation-states which sponsor them and support their activities. We have to follow the money. At the strategic level, this is where we employ our economic national power to cut off the support to these jihadist groups such as ISIS – but also Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, Al Nusra, Hamas, Hezbollah, Taliban, Al Aqsa Martyrs, Abu Sayyaf, and all the rest. We should work with allies to develop a better system to track the movements of jihadists seeking to enter into designated hot zones, such as the Syrian area of operations, which has become the base of operations for ISIS.
The third strategic imperative involves the second element of national power – information. We must win the information war. Our reticence in the West to castigate an enemy, such as ISIS, in a negative perspective is confounding. Our own media sources spent more resources droning on about Abu Ghraib in Iraq than firmly focusing on who ISIS is and the atrocities of Islamic jihadism. We continue to use the worn out excuse that we do not want to “offend Muslims.” We do not have to do that, but we cannot abdicate the responsibility to win the war against their propaganda. We cannot be successful and victorious against this enemy if we lack the intestinal fortitude to simply declare who they are and what they do as evil.
The last strategic imperative necessary to achieve success against ISIS and the global Islamic jihad is to cordon off the enemy and reduce their sphere of influence. We must shrink the enemy’s territory. Sadly, we are not effective in disallowing the promulgation and proliferation of Islamist ideology. And, mistakenly here in the United States, we are allowing this ideology a base of operations under the guise of freedom of religion, not wanting to recognize when an ideology is in conflict with our fundamental principles and values. Case in point: the continued characterization of Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood as “workplace violence” – when the truth has been uncovered in his trial. If we do not cordon off the exportation of Islamic jihadism, you will have movements, such as ISIS, grow even more widespread.
These four strategic imperatives could translate into operational theater imperatives, as well. We must grasp the concept that we do not have a war in Afghanistan or a war in Iraq. We have combat theaters of operation and those commanders need concise, strategic level guidance in order to develop their own. Ask yourself right now, who is the operational theater commander in the Iraq/Syria AO (area of operations)? When we have clear strategic and operational level imperatives, then we have better guidance to issue to tactical level commanders.