Last November, shortly after a CIA drone strike killed the infamous Jihadi John in Raqqa, Secretary of State John Kerry got behind the microphones and gleefully pronounced to ISIS that “your days are numbered and you will be defeated.”
Good luck, Mr. Secretary, with your melodramatic and shallow statement made meaningless by subsequent events in San Bernardino, Paris, Brussels, and less publicized ISIS inspired attacks in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Radical Islamist groups such as Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and Abu Sayyaf have blossomed by demonstrating their pledged allegiance to ISIS through horrendous terrorist attacks.
Secretary Kerry’s empty words are now echoed by Donald Trump, who in his long awaited speech on foreign policy stated “And then there’s ISIS. I have a simple message for them. Their days are numbered.” He went on to say “I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how. We must as, a nation, be more unpredictable. But they’re going to be gone. And soon.”
Wishful thinking? I’d say so. Even if Trump becomes our new president, beefs up the military as he has promised, forms stronger alliances with friends in the region, and unleashes our power, however much he may have enhanced it, no amount of effort by our military, our diplomats, or any forged coalitions President Trump could cobble together will ensure that ISIS is “gone”. It’s simply not possible, and that’s the truthful message Americans need to hear and understand.
Students of contemporary terrorism can reflect quickly on the Irish Republican Army. A small number of zealots waged a brutal war against both other Irish nationals and against the British. Between 1969 and 1994 the IRA killed approximately 1,800 people, both in Ireland and England. In a lull since then, an investigation into the assassination of a former IRA leader in 2005 revealed that at least some remnants of the IRA were again operational. Now, earlier this month, a leading UK newspaper published an article claiming that the IRA and ISIS were working together to launch a car bomb campaign against Britain.
Trump’s optimistic pronouncement about the numbered days of ISIS is unsurprising, perhaps spurred by the constant Pentagon P.R. bulletins claiming success against ISIS.
The flow of jihadi recruits has “slowed dramatically” according to a senior Obama general serving in Baghdad. Depending on perspective, that may or may not be a good thing. When radical Islamists travel to Iraq or Syria, they head for the battlefield. Once there they become part of a mass of martyrdom-seeking ISIS soldiers who we can pinpoint, target, and eliminate.
When they don’t travel to the region they stay in their home countries, simmering in jihadi hate, eager to glean inspiration and to learn killing tactics from the internet - to be acted upon whenever they wish. Traveling to the region is not a prerequisite for being a follower of jihad.
As good as some of the news about our achievements over ISIS is, none of it leads to a conclusion that ISIS’s days are numbered. To be sure, over the next few years we will continue to slam them, inflict casualties, deprive them of certain safe havens, deny them the opportunity to run rampant over the plains of Iraq and Syria, and make life miserable for them. But none of that means the end of ISIS is in sight.
A better campaign statement regarding ISIS would be one that’s totally honest with the American people – such as, “ISIS is here and likely to be here for a long time. But we will continue to pursue them in a relentless and unforgiving way.”
A good start might also be within a platform that says “any American found to have any affirmative relationship with ISIS, al-Qaeda, or any other terrorist organization devoted to jihad, killing, or attacking America in any fashion will get a mandatory sentence of not less than 20 years, and possibly more.”
Secondly, we need a policy on the actual Syria, Iraq, and Libya battlefields. One that is similarly relentless and unforgiving. Any ISIS flag, no matter where it flies, should be a target. We shouldn’t have to wait for a platoon of non-combatant military lawyers to fret and anguish as to whether it’s a viable target. We didn’t win World War II because of lawyers. We won because of leaders like General Patton, whose motto was ‘attack, attack, attack’.
The law of unmet expectations is a cruel one. Donald Trump has offered Americans a tall order when he says that ISIS’s days are numbered. Trump will be reviled by the left and much of the international community if he eviscerates the rules of engagement imposed by both Bush and Obama and unleashes the hounds of war. And if he doesn’t, every ISIS attack, here or abroad, will be laid at his feet as a reminder of his hollow words. And those of John Kerry.
Bill Cowan is a retired Marine, Fox News military analyst, and founding member of the Intelligence Support Activity. He has been to Iraq 13 times since U.S. forces withdrew in 2012.