When Dante is wavering on his commitment to descend into hell as a necessary step to reach paradise, his guide, the trapped in purgatory poet Virgil admonishes him with the statement that,
“Thy soul attainted is with cowardice,
Which many times a man encumbered so,
It turns him back from honored enterprise,
As false sight doth a beast, when he is shy.”
Perhaps many of our world leaders could use a similar visit and encouragement from Virgil so as to boldly descend into the veritable inferno that will be a requirement to purge the world of the stain of jihadism. The attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The ongoing charnel house in Syria and Iraq. The takedown of a Russian aircraft en-route from the Sinai to St. Petersburg. The recent sensational and coordinated attacks in Paris that revealed the growth in ISIS capabilities in just eleven short months between the Charlie Hebdo attacks in the same city. The lesser publicized but just as horrific attacks in Beirut. The growing cancer that is ISIS has taken credit for all of these and is also metastasizing into Turkey, Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt, among others. All of these factors increasingly indicate that such a crucible of descent is a requirement.
One such world leader, President Obama, has made recent statements that ISIS is being contained. This on top of a justly pilloried statement he made months ago that ISIS was the “jayvee” team. Unfortunately, ISIS is neither a jayvee team (if they ever were, they quickly graduated to varsity) and as the recent events in Paris and Beirut reveal, they are far from being contained. Also of note is that ISIS is not our only problem, as Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Boko Haram are just a few examples of equally evil groups that terrorize in the name of religion. These problems from hell are the war of our time in much the same way communism and fascism were the wars of our forbearers, and they can’t be ignored or wished away in the vain hope that the Atlantic Ocean will keep us safe from harm. In this war, there are no borders or safe havens. The horrific ISIS message no doubt reaches and resonates with thousands of Americans through savvy digital marketing and messaging. The hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrants fleeing and flooding into Europe is not just their problem, but it will soon become the U.S. problem as well as migrants began to hit our shores. In a globally connected world, the U.S. does in fact have strategic interests in a relatively peaceful Middle East. The turning of Turkey to authoritarianism, the growth of Russian and Iranian influence, and the failure of Syria and Iraq as states are hardly good outcomes from the U.S. strategic perspective and for the good of global order and peace. These disruptions are all attributable to the depravations of radical jihad and as such it must not only be contained, but eradicated.
What becomes increasingly clear is that our policy of limited engagement and pullback from Iraq and our lack of ability to lead and support moderate forces in Syria is one that we should deem a failure. We should reverse course and become a forceful leader in a global effort that would have goals ranging from the immediate and tactical defeat of jihad to the long-range reform needed within Middle Eastern and North African countries. On the former, France’s President Francois Hollande is bravely paving a bold path to attacking and destroying ISIS in the places in which they find harbor. Hollande seems to have found the courage and clarity in purpose that Obama lacks when he bluntly indicated that, “It’s an act of war, committed by a terrorist army Daesh (ISIS), an army of Jihadists, against France.” Furthermore, he stated that, “We will lead the fight and we will be ruthless, and we had to be here among the people who were subject to these atrocities because when the terrorists are capable of doing such acts they must know that they will face a France very determined — a France united.” The fact that bombing raids against ISIS began the next day seems to back Hollande’s statements as more than just bluster and is in marked contrast to Obama’s red line in Syria. However, France can’t and should not have to do this alone. Admittedly, the United States has been conducting raids in Iraq and has been supporting Kurdish and Iraqi forces, as evidenced by the recent recapture of Sinjar, a place notable as an important supply line for ISIS between Mosul and Syria as well as for the homeland of the Yazidis, a monotheist faith that predates Islam and which was brutally persecuted by ISIS during the fifteen month occupation.
“We will lead the fight and we will be ruthless, and we had to be here among the people who were subject to these atrocities because when the terrorists are capable of doing such acts they must know that they will face a France very determined — a France united.”
But these token support measures are far from enough. The U.S. must be prepared to lead and participate in a long global war to eradicate these malign forces. We must scrap the pusillanimous notion of, “leading from behind.” This leadership does not have to be 150,000 troop deployments reminiscent of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The most effective and durable approach needs to center around Sunni ground forces. Given the Sunni nature of ISIS, relying more heavily on Shia or foreign/western ground forces will feed into the religious war against the West and martyrdom narrative that ISIS wants to proffer. Thus, Western forces on the ground should be relegated to special forces that guide and direct and help coordinate close air support and artillery for their Middle East forces in which they are embedded. The Allied forces (and I use this term to cover what should be a coalition of the willing that I suspect would include, but not be limited to: U.S., French, British, Canadian, Australian, Dutch, Israeli, Jordanian, Saudi, and Egyptian forces) would have a critical role to play in providing the needed modern warfare sophistication necessary on and off the battlefield, including intelligence, command and control centers, artillery fire, close air support, bombing raids, hostage extraction, and perhaps even most importantly – waging an all-out counter-propaganda war that begins to highlight the battlefield losses of ISIS and the nihilism of their aims. Making ISIS appear to be losers and inevitably doomed will slowly start to impact their recruiting base. To quote the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, following the successful killing of ISIS terrorist Mohammed Emwazi (known as Jihadi John and infamous for his horrific staged executions), “Britain and her allies will not rest until we have defeated this evil terrorist death cult, and the poisonous ideology on which it feeds.” This should serve as the mission of the united Allied forces. It is time to start treating this as a war of eradication, not of containment. In the short-term, this also requires creating the safe-havens within Syria supported by no-fly zones that are needed with which to provide relief from Arab and Kurdish fighting forces while also promoting moderate forms of government within the zones. It also means the acceleration of the recapturing of Mosul.
This war will not be won overnight, so strategic focus on supporting moderate reformers within Islam will be key to ensuring that as ISIS and Al Qaeda are defeated that other hydra heads do not simply grow in its lost place. This will include a nuanced threading of the needle strategy of supporting allies such as Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia while advocating and supporting democratic and human rights reform within those countries. It also includes supporting and advocating reform of Islam itself, as laid out effectively by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in many of her recent writings. With a tactical approach to destroying jihadist forces on the ground coupled with a long-range strategy to reform the societies and faiths that create the conditions for the hate-filled and nihilistic societies to arise in the first place, perhaps we can look forward to the day when these jihadist rampages, much like fascism, Nazism, and communism, are a distant memory of temporary evils that were ultimately overwhelmed by forces of progress, healing, and good.