We hear a confusing list of names; ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qada, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamists, Jihadists, Muslims, Islam. According to Presidents Bush and Obama, “Islam is a religion of peace,” and “We are not at war with Islam.” But we have been waging war – of a sort – for fourteen years against various groups all claiming to be fighting for Islam. The latest is ISIS and ISIS claims to be Islamic, and we’re making, depending on your viewpoint a “good | bad | best possible | horrible” deal with an Iran that claims to be Islamic and chants “Death to America!”
So who is the enemy? The answers I read and hear spread across our own political spectrum. On one extreme, Islam is not a problem, “Ismaophobia” is; and ISIS is being ground down. This shades to the opposite extreme where Islam is described as a religion of intolerance, domination and conquest and is the problem and ISIS is winning. These are views of Western pundits and politicians spread across a Western spectrum of cultural and political perspectives. Still, the world is riddled with terrorism, piracy, and active warfare, nearly all of which are instigated by people calling themselves Muslim and claiming to represent “true” Islam.
Where does wishful thinking end and reality begin? Where does bigotry end and reality begin?
The best answer I have found comes from a Muslim who has been in both worlds. These descriptions are taken from his book, “Radical – My Journey out of Islamist Extremism” by Maajid Nawaz, Lyons Press 2013. His descriptions seem generally in accord with impressions gained from other sources. Mr. Nawaz points out that Islam is not monolithic.
“Islam is a religion and its Shari’ah can be compared to Talmudic or Canon law. … There are ancient creedal disputes from which we have the two major denominations of Sunni and Shia, each giving rise to numerous sects within their ranks. … And from a devotional angle, lapsed, traditional, fundamentalist and extremist Muslims have always existed.”
Mr. Nawaz makes a crucial differentiation between Islam, the religion, and Islamism, the ideology.
“Simply defined, Islamism is the desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam over society. … As a political project, Islamism was inspired by the rise of European fascism.”
He also notes that there are two kinds of Islamist groups – political and violent, the former using or exploiting political and cultural systems to advance the goals of Islamism – an example is the Muslim Brotherhood – and the latter using violence to achieve the same ends – an example being ISIS.
While all Islamists call themselves Muslims, not all Muslims are Islamist by a long shot. Although the three centuries of the Spanish Inquisition were not as bloody as a good day for ISIS, we could perhaps draw a comparison. All members of the Spanish Inquisition called themselves Christians but not all Christians supported them by a long shot.
So it would appear that the real enemy is Islamism in the same sense that in WWII the real enemy was Nazism and Japanese Militarism, not the peoples of Germany and Japan. Islamism, then is the thing to be defeated.
The Islamists (both kinds) have two main objectives – the destruction of Western civilization and the takeover of Islam itself, transforming it from a faith into a theocratic-fascist political system that demands absolute loyalty – no denominations allowed. Both objectives are required for their ultimate goal of establishing a global caliphate, eradicating all other forms of government and converting – by any and all means – all the world to their brand of Islam.
A caliphate is a theocratic dictatorship headed by a caliph. A caliph is a political and religious leader who is considered the successor to the prophet Muhammad and his power and authority are absolute. The last caliphate was the Ottoman Empire that collapsed after World War I and was abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924 with the birth of the nation of Turkey. The Islamist movement was born in the wake of the collapse of the last caliphate. Islamists have been active since in multiple guises, expanding from an epicenter focused on Israel.
There are some 1.2 to 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. Although only a small percentage are said support the Islamists’ goals and methods, that works out to some 100 million at least intellectually sympathetic Muslims. Even though the current active fighters number in the mere tens of thousands, clearly their ideas resonate with many more. While being politically correct, western leaders have downplayed the first of the enemy’s objectives and largely overlooked the second.
For leaders on the left, the current timid “strategy” is working and Islam is fine. Among leaders on the right there is a greater belligerence but it is focused on ISIS. But fighting ISIS is a campaign, not a strategy.
So what is a good strategy? A detailed strategy would require expertise most citizens (including me) don’t have but I believe we can look at history (in this case, World War II) for a guide to the elements of a good strategy.
One lesson from that history can best be drawn from one man, General Fox Conner who, in the years between World Wars I and II was a mentor to the future key leaders for WW II – future Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower and whose advice they followed. Connor argued the there were three rules for democracies regarding war. Never fight unless you have to; never fight alone; and never fight for long. A viable strategy should take these rules into account.
Another lesson from that history is that victory requires not just liberating occupied lands, but the destruction of the capacity of the enemy’s ideologies to influence events. This first required the destruction of the enemy’s capacity to wage war and the second to so marginalize surviving adherents to the enemy’s ideologies that they would be anathema to the populations they formerly controlled or influenced.
In WWII, both these goals were achieved, and Germany and Japan emerged to be vital and free and not merely defeated, resentful peoples looking for a future revenge. This suggests that a similar strategic goal is needed to focus a strategy for defeating the Islamist movement; for the only proper goal of war is to remove the original causes of the war.
A third lesson from history is decisiveness. To remove the original causes of a war, particularly an existential war, requires a decisive victory. In WWII that meant the allies went all out to win and to win quickly. Winning quickly was important for two reasons. Tyrannies can force their populations to fight long wars and to continue fighting even when they are sick and tired of it because they can control the information the people get and they can make resistance to the war worse than obedience, but free countries cannot. Free countries can fight only as long as the public’s resolve and will sustain it and history shows that that resolve is not sustained through long wars, especially when there is no clear and immediate existential threat in sight.
So how might these lessons help in defining a strategy for the present war?
Second, recognize and convince the public that it is an existential fight – not just for Western civilization, but for Islam itself. In spite of the fact that Islamists seem to be largely remote and scattered and weak relative to us, they are an existential threat for two reasons. One, their ideology requires them to be, and two, apparent weakness is irrelevant. Just like tiny termites, unless eradicated, they ultimately are fatal to your house. As Senator Marco Rubio said succinctly, “Either we win or they win. There is no middle ground.”
Third, heed the dictum, “Never fight alone.” A true coalition is one where the participant nations fully commit to a set of strategic objectives.
Fourth, recognize that there are two main phases to the war – a force phase and a marginalization phase which may overlap. The force phase destroys the enemy’s capability to fight by destroying his existing forces, their capability to support and replenish their forces and breaking their will to fight. The marginalization phase destroys the ideology by rounding up surviving leaders and devotees and by rebuilding amity and trust between the former belligerent peoples by helping rebuild their lives and economies, ending their fear of or belief in the enemy leadership and their ideology. This also implies that the strategy must incorporate a strong element of psychological warfare.
Thus far in the war on terror, the West has failed miserably in all of these key features necessary to an effective strategy.
After 9/11, the objective given the public, was to “bring to justice” the perpetrators. In Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban and the rout of Al Qada was accomplished brilliantly except in the end game. Because we failed to commit a decisive force, we failed to prevent the effective escape of many Taliban and Al Qada into Pakistan. Again, in Iraq, militarily, the overthrow of Saddam’s regime was accomplished brilliantly, but again we not only failed to commit sufficient force to control the country, but rather than gain control of the defeated Iraqi army to rebuild and reform it, we disbanded it, instantly creating a large pool of potential guerrillas that was soon exploited by the real enemy – Islamists. In addition, what should have been the marginalization and rebuilding phase in both countries became ineffective, bogged down with tangled lines of authority, incompetence, corruption, bureaucracy and waste.
The indecisiveness of our actions since 9/11 and the lack of a clear and compelling overall strategy has caused us to fail to build an effective coalition and we have largely been prosecuting the war alone, violating two of General Connor’s dictums. Especially since abandoning Iraq in 2011, these failures have not only drawn out the war, but have resulted in hundreds of thousands of additional civilian deaths, the displacement of millions and an enemy stronger now than at the beginning. In addition, America especially is seen in the Muslim world less favorably and as weaker and less trustworthy and so we are also losing the battle for minds and for respect.
Besides incorporating the principles of gaining public commitment, recognizing it’s an existential war, properly identifying the enemy, building an effective coalition, and recognizing the two main phases necessary for victory, is it possible without great expertise to flesh out what a viable strategy might look like?
The situation we face is very different from WWII where we had only specific nations to focus on. While there were groups in Great Britain and the U.S. that were sympathetic to Nazism, they were small, the Nazi government couldn’t support them and they quickly faded when war began, in many cases because patriotism trumped political sympathies. Today we face a much more complex enemy requiring more complex and varied strategies. Rather than only three organized nations (Germany, Italy and Japan), we face at least one organized nation – Iran – and possibly others, several failed states, multiple non-state armed forces, supporting organizations spread around the world and growing Muslim communities in the West and world-wide being increasingly and successfully radicalized. So it seems that a viable strategy would include some of the following.
- Knocking Islamic governments out of power or causing them to reform. This may not necessarily require active war and invasion – if strategies can be developed for incentivizing and supporting a population that hates their government to overthrow it or motivate the target government to reform in order to survive.
- Cutting off access to resources the enemy needs. This may mean blockades, bombing of oil fields, cutting off air travel, choking off access to currency, isolating Islamists from non-Muslim support such as Russia, North Korea, and China, etc.
- Destroying the non-state “armies.” It is very likely that the best way to destroy them will be unique in each case but will include destruction of their bases and weaponry, humiliating them in the eyes of the population they’re embedded in and cutting off their ability to replace losses in materiel and people.
- Identifying and removing agents of radicalization and de-radicalizing those already seduced. This will require finding a way to get non-radical Muslims to step up
- Enlisting the larger community of Islam in the war to defeat the Islamism that threatens to destroy it as a faith. This means convincing them that Islamism is incompatible with the faith of Islam. In order to survive as a faith, the Catholic church had to surrender its political and theocratic ambitions in the Catholic reformation several centuries ago. Islam must now do the same.
- This element is not peripheral, but crucial. It would primarily be psychological warfare, but it would also need to key off battlefield success, for part of the wedge would be demonstrating in battle that their holy war is doomed, God is not with them, and joining is but a one way ticket to the grave.
- There are many Muslim advocates for reform, mostly ignored by Western leaders
- Neutralizing pro-Islamist organizations, identifying and removing agents of radicalization and de-radicalizing those already seduced, especially in Muslim communities in the West (the worst attacks in the West since 9/11 have been conducted by home grown jihadists).
- Defeating the Islamists’ strategy of driving a wedge of fear and suspicion, an “us vs. them” mentality between non-Muslims and Muslims in general in order to drive more Muslims into the radicals’ camp. Conceivably, Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entry into the U.S. could be necessary, but blurting it out in public was really bad psychological warfare.
- Leveraging the growing Sunni-Shia divide. This divide originated shortly after Mohammed’s death in a disagreement over who was qualified to be the Caliph – Mohammed’s successor. Both Iran and ISIS are run by Islamists, but Iran is Shia and ISIS is Sunni.
In reading this list it is clear that a great deal of sound intelligence and in depth understanding of the forces and cultures in play will be required to develop them. It should also be clear that the “minimalist” approaches we have tended to take to minimize the impact on the public and any sacrifice they may have to make have been a mistake. Our strategies should be designed like an engineer designs a bridge. If calculations indicate that a beam of a certain strength will carry the load – double it to make sure.
- Recognize the enemy is Islamism. ISIS is but an actor in a much larger drama. Islam the faith is not the enemy, but will become one if Islamists are successful.
- Recognize that the ultimate goal must be the defeat of Islamism and its ideology.
- Recognize that decisiveness is crucial. Tepid approaches invariably increase bloodshed and diminish any gains from the sacrifices.
- Recognize that thus far, the deaths of thousands of Americans, civilian and military, and the maiming of tens of thousands will have been in vain and cannot be redeemed without acting on the first three points.
A final thought. The Islamists’ strategy includes exploiting what they see as weaknesses in Western culture and politics. In particular, Western attitudes about tolerance and diversity, the political correctness that paralyzes discernment, their immigration and welfare policies, and the moral relativism that tends to devalue their own civilization and sap the passion to defend it.
The Islamists are not stupid. They have been quite successful. If they believe these are exploitable weaknesses in the Western nations, then they almost certainly are. How to deal with our own weaknesses and prevent their exploitation is perhaps the most difficult challenge and the most critical.