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ISIS and the anemic west                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Dec/08/2015 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Society, World Watching,

The barbarism of the attacks ISIS inspired attacks in Paris in November of 2015 marks a new low in terror. The attacks were not directed against national symbols or government targets as would be the case in a historical insurgency. Instead, these attacks were clearly designed simply to kill innocent men, women and children in the course of their daily activities. More criminal than insurgent, the murderers did not even bother to issue demands. In the shadow of these horrific events the obvious question is, “what could have been done to prevent this?”

French President Francois Hollande has called the attacks of Friday November 13th an act of war. They were clearly worse for a number of reasons. War has a goal or clearly defined objectives. War is traditionally fought by soldiers against soldiers on behalf of the general population. These acts are more violence as an end in and of itself.

The United States and its partners have already spent nearly $5 billion on over 8000 airstrikes against ISIS targets and are discussing no fly zones, safe havens for refugees and special operations forces on the ground. When the adversary is more criminal than military, it is unclear if any of these are viable strategies.

The details of the attacks are still being ferreted out, but the attacks appear to have been carried out by seven or eight people, some locals, and some outsiders, armed with weapons that are easily obtainable anywhere in the world, coordinated in the sense that they all attacked at about the same time. They chose soft targets that are difficult to defend including cafes and concert halls. This didn't require vast sums of money, complex logistics or great cunning. It just required barbarity and a willingness to die.

It is easy to imagine the likely responses from the West. The war against ISIS will intensify with the United States and France dropping more bombs and flying more drones. There will be heated discussion about sending troops in as well. On the domestic front, laws will quickly be amended to give police more flexibility to monitor and arrest people. Given the news about terrorists posing as refugees it could mean that borders will be closed. Government will spy on communications more intrusively and the voices of concern over privacy will be muffled. History shows this will also inspire a rise in nationalist politicians everywhere along with a general mistrust between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

It's worth asking, what does ISIS want? By most accounts it wants a world divided between Muslims and non-Muslims. Their own propaganda stresses that the West is anti-Muslim. ISIS appears to want to draw Western military forces into the Middle East so they can portray themselves as the crusading army of believers. Most parents will be used to the argument that “I’m right and everyone else is wrong!”

Currently the United States has no defined strategy to defeat ISIS, al Qaeda, or any other radical Islamist group beyond the Presidential phrase “patience.” The measures taken by the Obama administration to this point are reactive, incremental and measured to ensure a minimal personal risk. Efforts to work with regional partners have been halfhearted at best. The reliance on regional partners, including Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia have failed in part because each of these countries appear to desire a different endgame in Syria and Iraq. Without a clear and mutual goal, the best expectation is to periodically shuffle the ISIS territorial boarders a little and proclaim containment during press conferences.

If "winning" against ISIS is defined as the elimination of all suicide attacks, complete security in every city in every nation, a return of refugees to a safer homeland and a gradual reduction of a radical ideology, there are few, if any real solutions that can accomplish this. This is the unfortunate truth when dealing with extremist ideologies. Battling ISIS, and groups of this kind will likely require a more pragmatic approach to garner any long term success.

A military strategy could begin with highly trained western special operations teams performing focused missions on key people and infrastructure. While this does not force a retreat or surrender, it is very disruptive to internal operations. Concurrently, the bigger strategy will need to recognize that there are a series of battles to be fought. ISIS in Syria cannot be a target while ISIS in Iraq is ignored. Similarly, other related groups and geographies cannot be ignored including areas such as Yemen. Advisers and imbedded support troops would be necessary in several theaters, along with an aggressive effort to build up local forces and allies. Waging armed conflict across multiple international borders represents a significant level of complexity and commitment.

Continuing the air campaign, and increase targeting as we gain more intelligence on key targets will also need to be a strategic component moving forward. With the injection of Special Operations force and embedded advisors, the intelligence on the ground driving selection of air based targets should increase and become more reliable.

Too effectively fight ISIS, eventually there will need to be a boots on the ground and a “kick in doors” type campaign. The U.S. and other western countries can train and supply this effort, but the troops need to come from adjoining and regional governments. Until indigenous Arabs are willing to fight ISIS, there can be no real and sustainable result in the region. Regional powers and individuals need to feel vested in maintaining what they have shed blood to accomplish. With a regional commitment, extremism will be limited in its ability to resurface on a large scale.

Accomplishing a mission of this scale will likely include alliances with regional powers whose policies and politics do not completely align with a long term U.S. agenda. Any government, whether strong-arm, or not, is a viable partner as long as the policies are not repressive to their own minority populations. The U.S. has already shown that it is misguided to believe it can create governments in its own image. Nevertheless, insurgent Muslims need to know that they are being attacked by their regional relatives, not just crusading westerners from a distant land who will eventually fold up tents and leave.

While ISIS appears to desire a 7th century caliphate, they use modern weapons, transportation and technology. All of the aforementioned require a continual flow of incoming cash to fund. International resources need to better focus on monitoring, and stopping the fiscal transfers that fund ISIS. In this same realm of fiscal strangulation, ISIS is still pumping oil out of the ground and selling it across the borders of territory they control; this is clearly an oil for cash flow that needs to be shut down. Without the funds to buy bullets and Toyota’s, they will soon struggle to sustain basic food stores. Insurgent fighters, regardless of how motivated will eventually go home if they have to buy or steal their own bullets and food.

Nevertheless, history has already shown that dealing with groups driven by radical ideology through military force is much like playing the arcade game “whack-a-mole.”

But the military element effort is essential, it is not enough to permanently reduce the power or appeal of terrorist groups across the Middle East. Something must take their place. The answer is not to find a new secular dictator or whitewash the old one. Rather, Washington must work to establish safe zones and transitional governments that can eventually take power when the battles subside offering inclusive policies when the acrid smoke of battle passes.

In the wake of the ISIS inspired attacks in Paris some are calling for the west to join hands with dictators such as Bashar al-Assad of Syria. It is understandable that Russia would prop up Bashar al-Assad, he offers the Russian navy one of their very few warm water ports for their navy. Nevertheless, supporting Bashar al-Assad would be similar to a path the United States has already gone down in recent history. The U.S. propped up Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s with intelligence as a proxy against the Iranian’s. By the time Iraq’s military had become the fourth largest in the world, its national leader had grown an ego of similar disproportionate scale.

The attacks in Paris have definitively highlighted the shortcomings of the current anemic western approach to attacking ISIS. While bombs, rockets and drones can effectively disrupt operations, it sends a clear message that the west has no taste for direct combat. Yet, open warfare seems to be what ISIS wants. In an effort to inspire an “us versus them” encounter, they seem to want to create a clash of civilizations. The result would be an apocalyptic world war with the intent of forcing Muslims to choose sides.

The point of terrorism is to provoke the target population to do things they otherwise would not do. This is ultimately the biggest question for the west. Should we turn the other cheek and not be bullied into a fight, or should we give them exactly what they are asking for on a scale they are not prepared for.

ISIS is not merely a regional problem. They clearly advocate mass casualty and thrive on the core doctrine of “assimilation or savagery.” Western targets will continue to be the fruit they are most interested in picking.

Philosophically, the western ideal is that “if we are not terrorized, then their strategy does not work.” Targets such as restaurants, soccer matches and theaters are direct threats to everyday life and show that the ideals of ISIS and their minions has not been contained.

The Obama administration official stance is “patience,” the bombings will eventually lead to the collapse of ISIS. Even if this is true, the first and foremost responsibility of the President and the resources he is given is the safety and security of the American people in their homes.

Eliminating the root causes of ISIS and groups like it is important, but in the short run we need to ensure our on safety and way of life. Trusting in “patience” is not going to get that done.

In his history of the Korean War, historian T. R. Fehrenbach wrote, "Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life -- but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men in the mud." Is this a history lesson our leadership has forgotten, or merely do not have the stomach for?

Clearly, ISIS has declared war on the west manifesting themselves as some kind of apocalyptic death cult seeking a great battle. Why don’t we return the favor giving them the war they desire and let reality intrude on their delusion.

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Richard Zera
A person who can't lead and won't follow makes a dandy roadblock.
 
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