Despite what you hear in the news from the Obama administration and the military, our strategy of conducting infrequent airstrikes and re-taking pockets of Iraq and Syria terrain will only help us achieve short-lived tactical victories.
We will not ultimately and strategically defeat ISIS on our current path. Nearly fifteen years have passed since the United States was attacked on 9/11 by Al Qaeda terrorists.
It has been over eighteen months since its ideological fellow travelers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured a broad swath of Iraq. ISIS continues to add to its recruitment pool of more than thirty-six thousand foreign fighters from approximately eighty different countries – already a formidable coalition.
Given its Internet sophistication and the attraction the group has with vast numbers of potential recruits from among disaffected populations around the globe, ISIS has the realistic potential to eventually swell its ranks of jihadists waging a “holy war” to hundreds of thousands in both the western and eastern hemispheres.
Somewhere along our national journey our political leaders lost the clarity of vision, our military commanders the habits of strategic thought, and our public the determined will to achieve victory.
Already ISIS has expanded well beyond its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, with pledges of allegiance from extremist groups in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Dagestan. ISIS’s intent is to network these islands of extremism into a radical Islamic archipelago, with global ambitions for conquest.
A decade-and-a-half into this conflict we must acknowledge and take seriously not only the fanatical commitment of radical Islamic jihadists and their malevolent long-term intentions toward us, but also the fact that the threat has spread far beyond the Middle East. This shadow now darkens the prospects and threatens the well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the world. The continued forced migration of millions of refugees from the Middle East into the heart of Europe only hints at the mid- and long-term threat ISIS and its global army of jihadists pose.
Put simply, we are still at war with radical Islamic groups and an ideological movement that can’t be ignored nor wished away. We have to face the fact that ISIS and its army of like-minded jihadists are determined to win that war, and believe they are on the path to victory. They may well be right.
That raises two blunt and vital questions that almost never get asked in Washington, D.C. Do we even know how to win wars anymore? Does America still have what it takes? Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that the answers to both those questions are that we probably don’t.
Somewhere along our national journey our political leaders lost the clarity of vision, our military commanders the habits of strategic thought, and our public the determined will to achieve victory. There are times when it almost seems as if the idea of truly winning-- stealing the willingness to continue fighting away from the enemy, and creating a real sense of a victor and a vanquished – has become too politically incorrect. I believe our inability to achieve victory stems mainly from having lost sight as a nation of what it means to win, and of the vital importance of doing so in our own interests.
Losing Our Way
Many factors have led to our current status as a country seemingly perpetually at war, yet rarely victorious. First, because we abandoned a draft military back in the 1970s, the public has lost the personal stake it once had in any political decision to go to war. As a result, many Americans view the all-volunteer force as a mercenary army to be thanked for its service in airports, but without any true appreciation or concern for the real human costs involved in war. Taking their cue from voters, politicians use the all-volunteer force as a policy plaything that they are willing to deploy with only the vaguest objectives, because the perceived political costs of doing so are low. The urgency that used to attend a decision to use military force, and bring operations to a rapid and decisive end, have dissipated.
It is difficult to overstate how this change in U.S. tradition has altered the calculus on the use of military force. Decisions to deploy the all-volunteer force on endless rotations and in the furtherance of vague goals that fall well short of victory have become the norm. Experience has shown that this system of perpetual deployments places an unconscionable burden on our soldiers—particular among the junior ranks and junior non-commissioned officers. Not surprisingly, such policies appear to be a significant factor in the greatly increased number of divorces, collapse of families, and suicides among our returning service members.
Over many years such feckless political guidance and the overly bureaucratic system it has engendered have also affected the mindset of military leaders. Military leaders have been conditioned throughout their careers to accept “wish for the best” strategies and missions usually aimed at maintaining a shaky status quo, or containing as opposed to decisively defeating an enemy.
The Pentagon bureaucracy has evolved a similar intellectual complacency that encourages “protect-my-rice-bowl” tactics and petty interagency jealousies that work against the successful “whole of government” approaches required to achieve lasting victories. This bureaucracy places such a chokehold on how the military operates today that we are now incapable of envisioning, planning and executing a strategy with clear metrics for success. Along the way, a U.S. military organization that once prided itself on strategic acumen and historical understanding of how to fight and win the nation’s wars has devolved into a vast bureaucracy designed to rotate units efficiently in endless deployments that have no clear pathway to victory.
A Path to Victory
The ability to capture the physical and moral high ground in conflict, and hold it long enough to achieve victory, stems mainly from political decisions. The commander-in-chief must have the will to direct the necessary actions.
For their part, our military leaders must be brutally honest in their assessments of what is required to achieve victory, and they should feel morally bound to resist participating in wars with no clear metrics describing a victorious end state. First and foremost, military leaders should stop pretending that we’re winning the current war against ISIS and its affiliates. We are not.
The American people must also be given a more direct stake in the outcome of this global conflict. For example, if the military – including the Reserve and the National Guard through a mandatory call-up – were told to go to war, and that it would not be coming home until that war was won, we would organize and fight much differently than we have done for the past few decades.
We did exactly that when America habitually used to win wars. My father was a World War II veteran; when he deployed to Europe, he wasn’t told he’d be home in four to six months, or after his unit’s first year-long rotation to the European theater was completed. He was simply told by his leaders to go win the war on the European continent – which he and his fellow troops did. My father served proudly as a corporal until the job was done.
Why shouldn’t we do the same today if we are serious about winning the war against ISIS? If our military was directed to go fight that war with the specific understanding that it would be required to stay until the war was won, we would plan and fight much differently than we do today. More urgent and focused planning -- as reflected in reformed policies and procedures that subjugate convenience and efficiency to the imperative of winning – would in my assessment result in wars that would be far less costly than the perpetual funk of endless conflict in which we now find ourselves.
Such a change in mindset would preclude, for example, the construction of large U.S. bases in war zones with all the creature comforts of home, where the chief preoccupation of many forward deployed soldiers is on getting to the on-base Pizza Hut or Burger King. That is an apt metaphor for the unserious attitude that is sadly coming to define the American way of warfighting.
Winning the War of Ideas
To win the war against ISIS, we must defeat it on the battlefield through direct action by recapturing its territory and destroying its physical assets. But we must also attack the value system and moral code ISIS uses to recruit. That means winning the information war, a critical part of the battlespace that we too often cede to our sophisticated enemies. We must refute the excuses that radical Islamists use to justify their actions, and promote an unambiguous alternative value system that stands in stark contrast to the primitive and barbaric dogma that ISIS espouses. A disciplined but positive and imaginative message-based information war would constantly drive home the message that ISIS doctrines are anathema to civilized peoples of any race, nationality, ethnic or religious group.
Just as in the fight against imperialism, fascism and communism, winning the ideological struggle against radical Islamism will be difficult. But winning the war of ideas is necessary to a sustainable victory. ISIS effectively appeals to the deep resentment many young Muslim men in particular feel about being trapped in societies where they have few prospects for upward advancement, or hope of achieving their dreams. Many ISIS foreign fighters are first- or second-generation immigrants or troubled converts who feel an acute sense of alienation, and they long to belong to a cause greater than themselves.
Radical Islamic scholars with an intimate understanding of the sense of grievance and alienation of these vulnerable young Muslim men convince them that the cause of their suffering is the system of modernity promoted by the West in general, and the United States in particular. These skillful scholars entice recruits to join a cause that appears to offer worldly pleasures and adventures, as well as spiritual salvation through jihad.
Though ISIS adherents subscribe to a return to seventh-century values that condone mass murder, the grotesque brutalization of captives, sexual slavery of minority women and children, and the forced subjugation of non-believers, they are not stupid. Quite the opposite, they are true believers who have shown both fanatical zeal and commitment, as well as great skill in manipulating world opinion and outmaneuvering their enemies.
Many ISIS adherents have shown a willingness to die as martyrs for their global cause, the definition of true believers. We thus cannot afford to underestimate our enemies’ intellectual capabilities in pursuing their twisted vision. They are not the junior varsity or second-string team. They are shrewdly waging psychological and physical war with the limited resources at their disposal. Twice in the past decade they have fought the U.S. military – the world’s preeminent fighting force – very nearly to a draw on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Defeating ISIS and its ilk will require not only engaging them directly through force of arms and overwhelming information operations, but also taking decisive steps to cut off the support they receive from both state and non-state actors. Unfortunately, many of these supporters of ISIS and other Islamic extremists groups come from nations that are nominal U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Persian Gulf kingdoms and Pakistan. Convincing them that such extremists groups are ultimately a threat to their own stability will be difficult, and require great diplomatic dexterity and sophistication. We must resist the entrenched bureaucratic mindset, however, that would look the other way at this double-dealing and clandestine support for ISIS and its allies.
As you read these words, the war we are engaged in with ISIS is claiming the lives of innocent people on multiple fronts. The misery and suffering are intense, and the staggering number of atrocities continue to mount in a toll that assaults the collective sense of justice of the civilized world. It is consequently in our best interests, and those of our allies, that this war be brought to an end as soon as possible. We must face the fact that a long war works to the advantage of ISIS. The suffering of people being enslaved, raped, tortured and murdered does not factor into their calculations, nor does the traumatization of impacted societies. ISIS only has one aim: to conquer and compel all people under their dominion to accept their fundamentalist and perverted interpretation of Islam, or die. For them time thus has no meaning. Unless directly confronted, attacked, and decisively defeated, ISIS will continue to do whatever it takes – for as long as it takes – to establish and expand their dreamed of caliphate of tyranny.
When the United States leads a real fighting coalition to defeat ISIS, it will be our right and prerogative to argue the how and why of this war. We can discuss the mistakes made by political and military leaders, the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of the conflict, and hopefully the lessons learned that led to success. But if we lose – and we must admit the real possibility that ISIS will ultimately achieve its goals absent decisive U.S. action – then the narrative of this war will belong to the victors. Because that would be a black day for all of civilization, I say let’s stop just participating in this never-ending conflict and instead win it, once and for all.
Portions of this essay have been adapted from the forthcoming book "The Field of Fight."
Lt. General (Ret.) Michael T. Flynn spent 33 years as an intelligence officer. He served as the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Senior Military Intelligence Officer in the Department of Defense. He is the founder of the Flynn Intel Group, a Commercial, Government, and International consulting firm. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller, co-written with Michael Ledeen, of "The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies" (St. Martin's Press, July 12, 2016).