Ten moves to defeat ISIS

How to endure and ultimately win the long, difficult war ahead.

Demonstrators carry Islamic State flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq, northwest of Baghdad, June 16, 2014.

By: Irvin Studin Published on Fri Nov 20 2015

The first step in any war, be it conventional or asymmetric or otherwise unusual, is to define victory. What is “victory” over ISIS? Is it the physical elimination of most if not all of the nearly 30,000-strong army currently representing ISIS? Is it containment of this army to a very limited area? Is it extermination of the core leadership of ISIS and affiliated groups? Is it, more ambitiously, political reconstruction of Syria and Iraq, and indeed of much of the broken Middle East? Is it the delegitimation for all times of radical Islam? Or does it consist in the daily churn of counterterrorism, intelligence and police work that aims to perfect the art of protecting physical and human targets outside of the Middle East? All of this needs more thought and greater clarity.

The second step is to adopt a general posture of deep humility. Let us not descend into hysterical claims about the end of times and our own peculiar virtue. We will be more porous in our learning as a result. Only through prudence and continued learning can we adapt our policies and instruments and societies over time for the victory, as we define it.

Third, unless a professed expert has very strong Arabic, his or her analytical claims about radical Islam and Islamic terrorism should be viewed with some degree of skepticism or reserve. There is no way that a non-Arabic speaker, whatever his or her education or title of office, can intimately comprehend the strategies, mindset and internal debates within the ISIS movement. The lesson, of course, is that we need many more Arabic speakers in positions of analytic authority. We don’t have many of these today.

Of course, this means that, fourth, the struggle against ISIS and related groups will be long. If we win, it will not be tomorrow, and it may not be in our lifetime. So we must be patient and begin to think beyond each news or election cycle — and indeed beyond each new terrorist attack.

Fifth, the struggle against ISIS cannot be viewed in isolation from other conflicts in the world. There are three major conflicts in the world today: first, the set of frictions related to the return of China to the centre of world affairs; second, the Russia-West conflict; and third, the general collapse of the Middle East order, including the rise of ISIS. While the China-related frictions are for now manageable, the Middle East order cannot be reconstructed, and ISIS cannot be defeated, without a general reconciliation between Russia and the West. In short, to fix the Middle East, we must first solve the conflict at the heart of Europe.

Sixth, let us know our history much better. ISIS came from somewhere, and the Paris attacks were not “new” — they were anticipated by a number of other spectacular terrorist attacks over the past decade, including in Mumbai and Moscow. If we are more synoptic in our understanding of history, we will be less staccato and frantic in our responses to each new attack — and there will, to be sure, be many more attacks in months and years to come.

Part of this better mastery of history will mean that, seventh, we can come to understand that ISIS is not uniquely interested in us as an enemy in Western civilization. After all, Mumbai and Moscow are decidedly not Western, and most of the catastrophic terrorism in the world still happens not in the West but rather in the Middle East proper — or, more broadly, in West and South and Central Asia.

As a consequence, eighth, we should be very open to non-Western wisdom and logic when it comes to the struggle against ISIS. We must be promiscuous and opportunistic in our learning (and our alliances), adopting the best practices in counterterrorism and ideological warfare not only of North America, but of the Israelis, the Russians, the French, the Germans, and indeed of the many states of the Middle East, virtuous or not.

Ninth, we will not be able to thwart all attacks. Period. Most reasonably open societies in the world, democratic and non-democratic alike, will be affected, including by direct attacks. Even when we begin to prevail in the struggle — and we are far from this — we will endure successful attacks. Let us be calm, resolute and prudent in our response each time. Hysteria and hype are sure signs of an eventual loser in the struggle; patience, cunning and strategy are more consistent with the eventual victor.

Finally, let us realize that, for now, we still live in peaceful times. These are anxious times, yes, and the strategic narrative of this century is still being written. But if great or nuclear powers are not at war with one another (something we should avoid at all costs), the sky has not yet fallen. Let us be proportionate and methodical in our behaviour. Let us be generous, including in opening our doors to those in need, even as we are merciless with our enemies. And let us win.