President-elect Trump has promised to destroy ISIS. President Obama is leaving office having had to confront ISIS, and whatever one thinks of his efforts, the results are clear: ISIS remains alive and well.
But before the new regime takes office, some cautionary notes can be taken from the just about to be past one – namely Obama ended up doing a lot of Bush-like activity which he clearly never intended to do upon taking office. And if Trump wants to avoid being the third Administration in succession to sink in the morass of the Middle East, it is essential to first ask what would declaring victory look like.
Part of the challenge is rooted in that ISIS is a brand, inside a religion and not just a terroristic military movement. It is a brand defining radical Islamic rejection of Western values and of the Western way of life.
It is very difficult to defeat a brand but how do you take it off the shelf? How do you make it marginalized? How do you reduce its shelf life?
You define victory as marginalization.
First, you marginalize ISIS in the world of ideas.
ISIS is a brutal force which asserts that only themselves have the right to rule in the Middle East and beyond. We can call them extremist; but that is not enough. We need to engage in the battle of ideas as well for it is Western secularism and tolerance which is the enemy, not “Jews” or “Christians,” Shiites or Sunni; it is about power dominance via exploiting ideological purity and mobilization of the “faithful” to achieve the purity of rule desired by the ISIS leadership and followers.
Information War is a crucial instrument in battling ISIS.
IW is but part of both a strategic vision and a tactical engagement.
There is a word describing German Army doctrine employed in their advance into neutral Belgium in World War II that resonates to this day: “Schrecklichkeit”. The word means “terror” or “frightfulness” a doctrine employed by the advancing German Army to subdue any opposition. ISIS are current truly world-class bad guys, as fanatical as the Khmer Rouge and their Killing Fields. They are using the brutality of the horror of psychological terror as a weapon to their advantage in their 21st Century way of war. This is just like Khmers and the WWII German Army.
In many ways, President-elect Trump is the first Information Warrior elected as President. Turning those skills into shaping IW against ISIS and exposing them for what they are is a crucial challenge, which requires focused attention and funding. Part of the reason for the defeat of the Soviet Union was Radio Free Europe and its key role in fighting against the Imperial Communist Regime. We need to formulate a IW strategy which of course includes an ability to fight with the online forces of ISIS as well.
Second, you marginalize ISIS financially.
A key dimension to a fight to victory is to focus on money and corruption. One of the authors was part of a Congressional Delegation to the Middle East in the late 1990s and met with Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, activist, and scholar, shortly after she had resigned as Palastinian Authority Minister of Higher Education.
Dr. Ashrawi has a PhD from the University of Virginia, and is a Christian whose Physician father was one of the founders of the PLO. She provided a key insight in her breaking with Yasser Arafat over his dictatorial tendencies and the reel of corruption. She pointed out that often Western strategy only focused on the religious dimension involved in the problems of war and peace. In fact, often the total greed and corruption of some Islamic leaders is a major motivational influence to fomenting conflict and positioning themselves for wealth.
Taking her insight into a victory circle can mean not only cutting off ISIS revenue, from their taking over Oil Wells to robbing banks but treat their leaders as a global criminal enterprise in addition to a global terror organization. In doing so the U.S. and Allies need to prioritize on enforcing what is analogous to US RICO and Drug forfeiture asset seizure. So one marker of a victory is the global defunding and seizure of money and assets of those in support of ISIS.
An additional insight into huge corruption inside a theological Islamic-run state was raised during a session held at the Holocaust Museum in the Fall of 2014. The meeting focused on the moral threat from ISIS and one of those who spoke was Sarah Ahmed. Sarah Ahmed is a remarkable persons and a true hero. She is a Muslim assistant to Canon White known as the Vicar of Baghdad. And like Canon White she is in a city, Baghdad, where many are targeted for death because of their religious beliefs. She was fearless in speaking out about the impracticality of having a dominant religious leadership running a nation. Her comments highlighted the role, which Islam can play not just as a religion in the Western sense but as a political vehicle used by some for simply power, and personal greed.
With the new administration focusing on US as a global force for energy self-sufficiency the additional point about money is the growing independence, which the U.S. and many of its allies have against Middle Eastern oil. President-elect Trump clearly has in mind expanding the energy independence of the United States from the Middle East, which expands U.S. options in dealing with the Middle East as well and the ISIS contaminant.
Third, you deploy forces to strike and kill any concentration of ISIS that you can find and kill.
It is impossible to eliminate the presence of ISIS on the face of the earth, but you can certainly provide a constant and vigilant strike force to undercut their concentration of force.
You also make it clear that you will deploy global forces, which will seek out and destroy any concentration of ISIS forces.
Here the new President-elect is significantly added by the expanding capabilities of the US and allied sea bases to show up off short and provide lightening strikes.
Forces can be moved around the point of attack to enhance unpredictability while reducing the vulnerability of needed ground forces by relying on insertion forces, leveraging the sea base.
The kill and you tube video approach of our terrorist opponents becomes a lot more difficult if you can not find the Americans until they descend upon you with intent to kill.
Put bluntly, the new President will have the means to change how the battle is fought which need not repeat the mistakes of the last decade of land wars.
Insertion forces are a key tool set and with the changes in how amphibious task forces operate and with the coming of a whole new capability associated with the USS America, the sea base is adding to its capability for the insertion of force into a vector of assault, destroy and withdraw.
Changing the nature of the force being used against ISIS and reshaping the operational compass against a mobile force which likes to pop up across the region can meet its match – there is no place you can hide that we can not come and find you and kill you.
Fourth, we need to NOT go down the path of nation building and putting Western hostages and Forward Operating Bases and Airbases within easy reach of ISIS terrorists.
Training of friendly forces clearly has a role but not as a thinly disguised large scale presence force which can never win nor go away until defeat is assumed but not declared.
Ramping up the air and seabase operational capabilities – indeed investing in them as well – is crucial not just for the war against ISIS for ramping up relevant capabilities for the deterrence of peer competitors like Russia and China. Investing in ISIS specific operations to the expense of higher end warfighting capabilities is simply a prescription for Russian or Chinese expansion of capabilities vis a vis an America investing in and fighting in an endless “stability” operation as the way to defeat ISIS.
President Trump is part of a pattern of change in the West with a new British Prime Minister in place and a new French President to follow later this year. If it is Fillon, then there will be a community of interest to sort out a new working relationship with Russia. This means in part holding Russia accountable for Syria and for working to end the hemorrhage of refugees from the region.
Fifth, a key element of working for victory over ISIS is coming to terms with Russia in supporting the effort in the Middle East. And Russia may find themselves in a rather uncomfortable position as the Iran problem boils over into confrontation with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Sixth, Israel will certainly be expanding its activities in self-defense and being actively engaged in countering radical Islam, whether of ISIS or Iranian origin. ISIS and Iran are hardly birds of a feather, but the ability to ramp up the air war and sea-based strikes against ISIS will not be lost on Iran. And will reassure Israel that the United States is willing to act decisively in the region.
In the end, a complete victory against ISIS may be impossible, but inflicting a decisive defeat is not. But such a defeat should not come at the cost of bogging down in the stability operations of the Bush years and the airpower trickle campaign of Obama.
Cutting the Gordian knot of endless engagement is crucial; modernizing insertion forces that can strike at any concentrations of ISIS force is crucial as well.
It is about dramatically stopping their influence and impact from a force which claims to be a state and reducing them to an impoverished fleeing band seeking refuge, and having nowhere to go on the globe where they are welcome.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article appeared on Breaking Defense with the title: Is Trump, Information War, Key to Defeating ISIL?