To defeat ISIS for good, US needs to take the war beyond the battlefield

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We are about to score tremendous tactical victories against ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria. The ISIS, or as the Arabs say, Daesh, strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa are about to fall, with much thanks to Iraqi forces, American advisers and miscellaneous militia units. But this is the beginning of a victory, not its final act.

A brilliant Naval officer, a SEAL with many combat tours, recently told an audience of scholars and practitioners in Washington, D.C., that, when Americans say counterterrorism, what they really mean is counterterrorist actions. We are fixated on the battle, the kinetic fight. The other aspects of counterterrorism — stability operations, propaganda and recruitment, returning foreign fighters, and reconciliation or incarceration — often go unaddressed. To win the war against Daesh, we will have to dive deeper into the non-kinetic tasks.

On the battlefield, the first day-after task will be to mop up and count heads. Defeat is far from destruction in detail, which should be the tactical goal. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of Daesh, was one of the most completely destroyed terrorist groups in history. In a few short years, a handful of its members hid out and reconstituted in the fertile ground of the Syrian civil war. In 2014, re-empowered, a few thousand of them invaded Iraq, bested its Army, and seized a third of Iraq, including Mosul, a city of a few million people.

Daesh fighters are dedicated jihadists. Some will die fighting, but others will try to slip away for the next battle. We have to track them down, cell by cell, and kill or capture them.

Next, we have to turn our attention to governance. Wars begin with political motives, but end with political arrangements. Americans are all about the fight, and often fail to plan adequately for the post-conflict period.

In her new book, “War and the Art of Governance,” Nadia Schadlow reminded us that our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq revealed our “missing middle, the gap between combat and the steps required to achieve stability [and] forge a sustainable outcome.” If we have such plans for Mosul and Raqqa, they are well-kept secrets. 

{mosads}Daesh grew in Syria in a governance vacuum in a spreading civil war. We have to make sure that we don’t provide such a vacuum in Mosul and Raqqa. This will be easier said than done. In Mosul, we will be working through the Iraqi government, much improved, but still not known for its ethnic sensitivity or programmatic efficiency. In Syria, the instrument of defeat may well be Kurdish forces, not native to the Raqqa area and opposed not only by Daesh but also by Turkey to the north. Establishing some sort of stable government there will be extremely difficult. 


If we don’t find a way, we will leave open a back door for the next group of thugs or terrorists who come into view. Leaving the inhabitants of Raqqa to the tender mercies of Iranian or Syrian forces would also be counterproductive, but it will be the most likely outcome if we don’t plan for some sort of governance.

The next big issue after our impending victories is dealing with returning foreign fighters. This is a huge problem. While many scholars have wished away the problem of returning foreign fighters, research by Kim Cragin of the National Defense University has shown that they have spread conflicts, improved terrorist logistics, and made trouble at home, often as so-called “lone wolves.”

More than half of the 30 terrorists involved in the Paris attacks of November 2015 had been foreign fighters in Iraq or Syria. A few of them were deliberately sent back to run the operation that killed over 120 people.

Daesh is capable of simultaneously fighting for the home ground of their caliphate, spreading its tentacles overseas, recruiting for the future and conducting or inspiring terrorist attacks in the West. We have to deal with it on all of those levels.

Cragin reminds us that blocking foreign fighters at home will require intense collaboration among immigration, intelligence, police and military officials. Well-resourced diplomatic efforts must ensure high levels of cooperation on the international level. The continued fusion of all sources of intelligence is also a must if we are to find these needles in a haystack.

Governments must reach out into civil society. Every citizen has a stake in preventing terrorism. Enlisting the support of Muslim clergy and thought leaders is vitally important. The illegitimacy of radical Islamist terrorist activity is a subject best tackled by other Muslims, and not by non-Muslims whose theological observations may be suspect. Similarly, the re-education of penitent, foreign fighters should be possible and led by Muslim thought leaders, here and abroad. 

In a similar vein, we need to step up our war on social media to put out a positive message and to block ISIS recruiting efforts. U.S. government efforts have begun to show progress. This set of government and private sector programs must earn a higher priority in the future. Again, Western Muslims must play a key role in this effort. 

The issue of Daesh’s defeat in Mosul and Raqqa is not a question of if but when. There will be grand celebrations when Mosul and Raqqa fall, but these successes will only mark tactical victories that, in a phrase popularized by David Petraeus, may prove fragile and reversible. To win strategically in those two areas, we will need a solution that includes stable governance, as well attention to the soft features of counterterrorism, at home and abroad. Terrorism begins with an idea; it must end with a better idea.

Joseph J. Collins is director of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. A retired Army colonel, he was the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-2004. The opinions here are his own and not necessarily those of NDU, the Department of Defense, or any other government entity.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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