Defeating ISIL Will Take More than Military Might

September 18, 2014

The House Intelligence Committee held a hearing to “Examine Threats Posed by ISIL, al Qaeda and other Islamic Extremists.” The hearing featured three witnesses: Ret. Gen. James Mattis, Amb. Ryan Crocker and Dr. Dafna Rand from the Center for a New American Security.

The witnesses chose to focus their comments on ISIL and President Obama’s strategy to “defeat and degrade” the terrorist organization. The experts and members of Congress spent much of their time focusing on the fact that Obama said he will not put boots on the ground in the new assault against ISIL. During Gen. Mattis’ testimony, he argued: “You just don’t take anything off the table up front.” He went on to say that the U.S. should never reassure the enemy that they won’t have to face the most sophisticated army in the world.

Pro-war pundits continue to make the rounds on news channels and policy panels, echoing Mattis’ comments. The problem is that many of these same pundits are also in-house experts for defense contractors who have significant financial interests in America going to war again. This conflict of interest should be disclosed if we are to have an effective discussion on the most comprehensive strategy for defeating ISIL.

Mattis concluded, “If a brigade of our paratroopers or a battalion landing team of our Marines would strengthen our allies. . . we should do what is necessary with our forces that exist for that very purpose.”  The military lens is predictable but the consequences of the war-only option is not.

The hearing also focused on our expansion of military efforts to fight ISIL in Syria by training and providing weapons to the Assad opposition fighters. The House authorized training and arming of the opposition without offering a larger vision of how the root causes of the conflict would be addressed. The Senate is expected to vote and approve the same bill.

Like the bills being passed by Congress, the hearing disappointedly directed much of its attention to the military approach of defeating ISIL. Degrading ISIL to a nonexistent threat is going to take much more than military might; America’s strategy must look at the bigger picture and tackle this terrorist group’s capabilities and appeal with an all-encompassing socio-political-economic campaign.

Reform, support for civil society, and freedom should fit into the longer-term strategy to fight extremism.  It deals with root causes, not just managing symptoms. Unfortunately, the broad coalition Secretary Kerry is putting together to fight ISIS includes many autocratic governments whose decades old policies of promoting puritanical and extreme views of Islam created the breeding ground for ISIS’ violent extremist ideology. America’s strategy needs to be more sophisticated than just simply relying on military prowess.

What was most surprising from the hearing was the fact that the Committee chose no American Muslims to speak. The missing component in the overall strategy -- which MPAC pointed out last week after the President’s statement -- is that partnership with American Muslims must be a key layer in realizing a comprehensive and effective approach to fighting ISIL. Domestic partnerships play a key role in combatting the ideology of ISIL and preventing more people from joining the militant group. Without it, the Administration is playing into the hands of ISIL’s propaganda, that this latest escapade is merely another chapter in the Crusade against the Muslim world.  Language in this fight is critical to a successful campaign.

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