We won’t win a war with jihadism, but we can sure lose one

One week ago, terrorists attacked multiple locations in Paris, killing 132, and wounding hundreds more.  The Islamic State (IS), which isn’t really a state, regardless of what they call themselves, claimed responsibility, and has since released at least two other videos claiming plans for future attacks in the US.   French President Hollande declared, “We are in a war against terrorism, jihadism, which threatens the whole world.”  While it is an appealing sentiment, and probably necessary to galvanize his nation, declaring armed combat on a tactic, or even an ideology, is absurd on multiple levels.

Just identifying a definable enemy makes the declaration ridiculous.  While IS has at least made identifying them a little more feasible with the creation of a flag and by attempting to occupy and govern territory, IS certainly is not the totality of “terrorism, jihadism,” or the popular term “radical Islam.” The reality is that since President Bush declared a “War on Terror” on September 20th, 2001, we have been engaged in a mostly military campaign against an ideology that isn’t constrained to a nation or specific people group, and has seen mixed results, at best.

Besides the lack of an identifiable enemy, combatting an ideology (radical Islam, or jihadism) or a tactic (terrorism) with military force is illogical from the simple fact that you cannot shoot, bomb, or kill an idea.

The ideology of radical Islam, or jihadism, has proven a formidable foe to military attack.  Since 9/11, this ideology has been under constant assault from the most formidable military force the world has ever known, and much like trying to punch a mist, it seems to give way to force, only to regroup again.  History is replete with failed attempts to defeat an ideology with military force.  Successful examples are rare, and limited.  If one considers the fascism of Nazi Germany an ideology, then the true defeat of the ideology occurred not on the battlefield so much as in the decades of occupation and reconstruction that followed military success, that controlled the culture until a new ideology was formed.  Perhaps more appropriate for this discussion would be consideration of the Cold War defeat of Soviet Communism–which was not won on the battlefield at all.  Fighting against an ideology that is rooted in religion becomes even more difficult, particularly when the religion rewards martyrdom.

Terrorism itself is not constrained to use by jihadists, as the British (Irish Republican Army) and Germans (Red Army Faction) can attest.  Terrorism is a tactic adopted by many different minority groups in an attempt to elevate their cause.

Before all my brothers in arms write me off as a pacifist, let me affirm that there are instances where military force is appropriate, and arguably this one.  But first we need to identify an enemy that can be defeated by military weapons.  As we witnessed in Afghanistan, military force can be successfully applied against a combatant organization such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda.  The Islamic State presents itself as a viable military target–they are a specific group of people who are generally occupying a distinct physical territory.

OK, so we can attack the IS militarily.  Note that this is not the same as warring against terrorism, or jihadism.  Rather, it is attacking the most recent organization representing these concepts. Several questions must be considered before we start loading the C17s.

  • Do we have the national will to engage in this fight?
  • Do we have sufficient international support, or lacking it, are we willing to accept the international opposition?
  • Will battlefield success solve the larger problem?

I could expound on each of these questions for days, and still not adequately cover all the nuances.  Instead, I want to focus on the last one, because it is the key to my assertion that we can’t win a war with jihadism, but we can lose one.  Because the problem isn’t IS; the Islamic State is just the most recent symptom of the true problem.  President Hollande rightly identified the problem as bigger than a belligerent organization; the problem is an ideology that approves of murder, fear, and compulsion to advance its agenda.  Complete military defeat of the Islamic State won’t solve the problem presented by jihadism.  Quite the opposite, it is likely that military success will only serve to reinforce the narrative that helps drive this ideology.

Am I advocating doing nothing, or cowering in fear?  Certainly not.  But before we take action, we should decide what our desired outcomes are, and what actions are feasible to achieve those outcomes, then if we as a nation are willing to fully commit to those actions.  You see, our original goals in Afghanistan and Iraq were achievable, but we did not have the will as a nation to achieve them.  To truly achieve the defeat of jihadism would have required a long-term commitment to the occupation and transformation of those two countries, much as we demonstrated during our post WWII reconstruction of Germany and Japan.  While to many it seems like we’ve been engaged in those countries for a long time, our efforts pale in comparison to our work in Germany and Japan in both duration and level of engagement.  The jihadists were banking on the fact that we would grow weary of our efforts, and would redefine victory in a desire to disengage.

The atrocities committed by IS in Syria and Iraq make most of us want to wipe IS off the planet.  But we aren’t going to do that with airstrikes; it’s going to take conventional and SOF forces on the ground, for years.  That is complicated further in the case of Syria, where we would be trying to destroy a non-state entity in the midst of a civil war in which the national government is supported by Russia and Iran.  Just sorting out the allegiances of the various players can become an insurmountable task.  Do we, as a nation, have the will to take on the war necessary to destroy IS militarily?  I would submit that recent history indicates that we do not.  And anything less than total victory will result in our defeat.

Most importantly–defeating IS won’t solve the root problem.  The root problem is a conflict of ideology, and that conflict is not resolved with military force.  As we learned in the Cold War, military force is necessary to shape the ideological battlefield, but the weapons with which we will win are not operated by armies, and the victory will go to those willing to play the long game.

I’m not saying we don’t engage in this ideological battle.  In fact, I believe we must engage, but we need to know the battle, and we must commit to what it will take to win.  More to follow…

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