The ongoing conflict with ISIS/ISIL/the Islamic State (hereafter called Daesh) has attracted attention and interest around the world. Pope Francis has weighed in and it is perhaps surprising that he may have come closest to identifying this conflict as the Third World War. Henry Kissinger reportedly agrees with him. However, there have been few signs that the US government recognizes this as a single global conflict much less any signs of a coherent coordinated strategy that addresses each local conflict and its links to every other local conflict.
This is a war that is very like wars of the past while yet being something different from what we are accustomed to. It is the 21st Century under attack by the 15th Century. It is a war between dogmatic conformity draped in religious trappings claiming for itself the right to impose its beliefs through deadly violence on a modern world that emphasizes diversity, technology, progress, and individual choice. Like the Seven Years War it is taking place on a global scale in terms of reach with a relatively small and localized geographic context. It is and will be fought by complex local alliances, marked by competing interests between politics and faith, and religious differences that result in alliance relationships or are overcome in the interests of the nation states participating – a geopolitical stew worthy of The Thirty Years War.
In Nigeria, the enemy calls itself Boko Haram. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb is active to varying degrees in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, and Tunisia. Al-Shabaab in Somalia was reportedly responsible for the attack on the Nairobi shopping center. Al Qaeda in Yemen is losing fighters to Daesh as are the Taliban in Afghanistan and other groups in Pakistan. The Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines is now also reportedly aligning itself with Daesh. We are confronted simultaneously with disparate enemies at locations spanning half the globe but we appear to be addressing each fight in isolation from the others.
It features full spectrum warfare with combat taking place on open ground, city streets, deep jungles, high mountains, the airspace above all of these places and between them, and in cyberspace. Do not be fooled into thinking that Daesh’s use of our own technology against us makes them modern thinkers. Remember, Marx and Lenin promised that they would hang the last capitalist with the rope he sold them. They doubtless consider it fitting that they will attack us with our own technologies. As to being professional and sophisticated fighters, if you spend enough time on a battlefield and survive, you get good at it. This sophistication and professionalism will not necessarily carry over into other parts of their lives, especially where it might clash with their dogma.
This coalition for the 15th Century shares fighters, resources, and know-how in addition to their shared enemy. They crave for us to identify them as our enemy because it enhances their stature and facilitates their recruiting and fundraising. Whether of allies or enemies, neither coalition will be in unanimous agreement on many of a whole range of issues relating to why we fight, what we are fighting for, what achievements might cap our respective final victories. They don’t need to be in agreement on anything other than who is “we” and who is “them”. As in The Thirty Years War our enemies have in common a number of points of ideological/theological agreement and they agree that we are the enemy, an enemy that must be destroyed even though that is beyond their actual capabilities at the present time. History shows that we ignore this determined threat at our own risk.
All of that said, we need to understand a number of key things about this Third World War.
We are fighting an idea. We can kill its adherents but the idea will survive.
We must adapt our approach, our strategy, to each conflict/theater/locality appropriately while not undermining our efforts in other theaters.
We, not just the US but all of our partners, must recognize that it is all one war and we must cooperatively frame a common strategy accordingly.
The US does not need to put its troops, aircraft, etc. into every single one of these fights.
It does, however, need to make sure that one or more of its local allies are in each and every one of these fights with the fullest possible US support.
We also need to understand that whichever of our partners does put boots on the ground, those troops will eventually come to resent taking all of the risks of ground combat while we take none.
If the only tools in our tool box are hammers, all of our problems begin to look like nails. We need to use resources and take actions beyond the battlefield that will help our local allies shape that battlefield into a desired state.
We need to be able to peel away their supporters by a number of means including seeing that local grievances are addressed.
We need to eliminate (realistically minimize) actions by our own or coalition forces that discourage or drive away our supporters among the populations.
We need to understand and to remember that the war will not end in a way that we can control nor can we dictate the full shape of what comes afterwards.
ADDENDUM: I wanted to add a short comment after attending two more sessions at The Brookings Institution this week that touched on this conflict. I've said for sometime that the US is a status quo power, which in part answers the complaint that we have no national strategy, we are defending the status quo and thus reacting to threats against it. However, while the US sees itself as defending an established international order, there are many nations who see the democratic free market capitalist USA as a revolutionary expansionist power and a threat. And, the international order which the US is defending is not simply a matter of nation states, international organizations, and international institutions, it is a process for how all of these interact with each other. Within this process, a referendum in Scotland - however regrettable it might be - is acceptable. Sending uniformed armed men (and women) onto the territory of an independent sovereign nation in order to overturn the government of that nation or to steal its territory is not acceptable.