What Should We Do About DAESH and Why?

Since the three most prolific Outside the Beltway contributors have expressed their views on the war against DAESH over the last few days, I thought I might put my two cents in. James Joyner says that DAESH is winning because we’re overreacting:

A week after the ISIS attacks in Paris, Brussels is on high alert, essentially shutting down the city. The US embassy has advised all US citizens in Belgium to shelter in place and US government personnel are prohibited from traveling to Brussels or Paris. The US Congress has passed, on a bipartisan basis, prohibitive restrictions on taking in refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and the EU is likely to adopt travel restrictions that would undermine the Schengen protocols that are its basis.
It’s entirely possible that these decisions are entirely prudent given intelligence to which our governments are privy and we are not. But they demonstrate, yet again, the lamentable degree to which one successful terrorist attack in a Western city can massively disrupt our lives and cause us to re-examine core principles.

and that President Obama’s course of action has been largely correct:

While I’ve been critical of Obama’s rhetorical excesses—notably his “Assad must go” stance, his “red line” over chemical weapons, and his declaration that a very limited, air-only intervention by the United States would “defeat and ultimately destroy” ISIS—I’ve quibbled with his general policy only at the margins. I’ve shared the assumptions that Kagan attributes to the president. Indeed, like Obama, I downplayed ISIS’ threat the day before the Paris attacks. Whereas he pronounced ISIS “contained,” I declared in a Twitter conversation with Jim Henley that it was “a rather marginal threat to the US,” adding that “Several flu strains have been more menacing.”
Even considering the Paris attacks an attack on the US by virtue of NATO’s Article 5, 168 deaths is hardly an existential threat.

Stephen Taylor remarks:

So while this does not mean we just sit back and take it, it does mean that reality is what is and there is no way to make the world terrorism free. More importantly: a lot of what we do in the face of terrorism (like the current freak-out over refugees, among other reactions) actually can have the effect of incentivizing more terrorism. For terrorism to truly work, there has to be a massive over-reaction.

In those posts and in their comments sections several different views on what should be done have emerged. Some think that President Obama’s course of action is the proper one because it’s his course of action. Some, like James, think the president’s course of action is the proper one if only because they’re concerned about overreacting. One notable commenter argues for a maximalist response to DAESH i.e. a “scorched earth” (literally) policy.

I’d like to propose some rules of thumb to use in identifying the proper course of action. First, we should act in a way consistent with our interests. Not Germany’s, France’s, Israel’s, Iraq’s, or Saudi Arabia’s but our own. If Germany’s interests and U. S. interests are identical, one or the other of the two countries is going about pursuing them in the wrong way. Second, we should not divide the world into friends and enemies so that opposing the actions of those in the enemies list is automatically reckoned to be in our interests regardless of the other merits. Consequently, even if Russia, Syria, and Iran are not our friends, reflexively opposing their actions is not necessarily in our interests.

Third, we should suit means to ends. If the strategic objective is to destroy DAESH, we must employ means capable of doing it. If it is not the strategic objective, we should not say that it is simply because we don’t care to employ the means that would be required. Which takes us to my fourth and last rule of thumb.

We are in desperate need of the president’s enlisting the support of the American people in whatever we do with respect to Syria. If we’re going to destroy DAESH, he needs to get the people behind that goal.

Those considerations drive me to the conclusion that we should be doing nothing in Syria. We shouldn’t supply the radical Islamists who oppose the Syrian government. We shouldn’t be conducting sorties without suitable targets.

Pat Lang thinks that we will inevitably be drawn into unavoidable war with DAESH:

Four of the Paris attack group had entered Europe in the last few months, two on Syrian passports as part of the migration and two on Turkish passports simply traveling within the Schengen area without much trouble. You never know what you don’t know and we don’t know how many others IS has sent toward targets in Europe and North America, especially before the Paris attacks.

PM Trudeau and his political colleagues are going to admit at least 25,000 “Syrian” migrants to Canada in the next few months. There is no possibility that the Canadian authorities will be able to adequately screen that number of people for identity or prior associations. It will anger Canadians here for me to say so but the US/Canada border is a joke. You can walk across it in thousands of places outside the ken of authorities on either side.

The pattern is clear, IS sends in fighters to reinforce local adherents.

IS has announced its intention to attack New York City and Washington, DC.

We should take this statement of intention very seriously.

It might surprise some but if we’re going to fight a war, I agree with the “notable commenter” mentioned above. Our strength is strength. Why fight the enemy’s war?

But I’m also drawn to my inevitable question. So, you’ve removed DAESH. What then?

37 comments… add one
  • Gray Shambler

    Daesh, ISIL, , whatever. You can’t get rid of them. Surely when the French began to bomb Racqa they knew these people had already dispersed. I’m afraid that on this one Obama is right. The intent of the terror attacks is to cause western retaliation against Muslims forcing Muslims to choose to back ISIL, and creating more refugees. Where I differ is I think we should help fund camps to house refugees in place in Turkey, close to their homes where hopefully they can return after the war. Obamas’ zeal to bring 10,000 Syrians here ( is such a small number). I can only see as politics (Rubbing GOP Nose in it).

  • ...

    I largely stand where I did before Paris and the downing of the Russian jetliner: Stand back, and let the Russians aid their allies in Syria. Quietly support them in this, and try to make certain they focus on ALL the radical islamists in Syria. Tell the Russians they might want to consider putting someone more ruthless than Assad Junior in charge. We didn’t have these problems with Assad Senior and the Hama Rules. (Which were pretty fucking scorched earth, even by my standards.)

    What to do with ISIS in Iraq? That is our circus and our monkeys, to an extent, but I’m not sure what we can do other than supply the Kurds (which presents an entirely different set of problems) and let the Iranians help the Shia government in Baghdad. Clearly our training of Iraqi forces proved to be completely ineffectual, so more training doesn’t seem to be in order, and I just don’t know that we can put in ground forces to do anything EFFECTIVE against ISIS.

    Ultimately, my preference for replacing Saddam with another Ba’athist bastard, but one in our pocket, and letting regimes like Assad’s and Qaddafi’s continue would have probably been better, but those were never really options, as our lords and masters (and their lords and masters) prefer constant chaos in the ME for some reason.

    Longer term, we need to be thinking about replacing the House of Saud. They’re maintaining themselves by exporting their problems everywhere else. We need someone in charge of that country more like Daddy Assad, someone that will exterminate his problems instead of gifting them to the world. No, I’ve got no idea how to do that. It’s a shame we don’t have International Communism around any more, as they seemed to be good at training people to run shitholes like Arab countries.

  • ...

    As for Obama’s Syrian policies – what the fuck are those again? Constantly say one thing and then do something else? Fuck up every half-measure by only giving it a quarter of the attention it deserves?

    Obama has been wrong on Syria at every point, so why should we keep doing anything he wants to do?

  • Ken Hoop

    I see the baddies are still blackmailing Russia with more sanctions to dump Assad. Only Russia can save Europe-on its terms.

  • Andy

    The main problem is that national security establishment (and I would include James as a member) can’t seems to see beyond military options. The military component is only one part of any strategy to defeat ISIL (if that’s our goal) and it’s not the most important part. Focusing on that portion as the single, decisive effort will result in failure.

    T. Greer offers some excellent points of discussion in this vein, particularly #6. As we saw in Afghanistan, it’s not sufficient to militarily defeat an enemy. We crushed the Taliban in 2001-2002 but their defeat was not complete thanks to the malfeasance/incompetence of Pakistan (take your pick), which allowed the organization to persist, strengthen and return year after year. The problem of the Pakistani safe-haven is long-identified, not to mention Pakistan’s obvious and long-standing politic and geo-strategic interests there. Our military efforts there cannot succeed regardless of the firepower and operational skill employed.

    For ISIL the establishment proposals, such as they are, suffer from a similar problem – focusing on the military component without sufficient analysis of the big geo-political picture. ISIL doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it has tacit and active support from regional players to include governments. Before any military campaign, that support based must be addressed. A key part of that is determining what happens once the campaign is over. That requires a lot of non-military effort, but it’s an effort that is required for a defeat-ISIL strategy to succeed.

    Unfortunately we don’t seem to have the diplomatic chops and everything we do is mired in domestic political calculations. So we end up with a bunch of dumb proposals that appear tough and play well to domestic audiences, but they lack coherent thought. Nuking Raqqa, continuing the status quo or any of the other proposals put forth by the establishment and elites in this country are not strategies and IMO they should be opposed.

  • Andy
  • Andy, I think that’s blithe but unrealistic. I think the realistic alternatives are a) we become the new Ottoman; b) the people of MENA submit or die (in the tens of millions); c) we learn to put up with episodic terrorist attacks with mass casualties; d) we convert MENA into a sort of Islamist theme park (terrorists get a one-way ticket; nobody comes out; all trips in are one-way); e) we figuratively build a wall that cuts us off from the rest of the world.

    I don’t think we’re tough enough for (a) or (b) or maybe (d). Consequently, I think that (c) is probably the most likely.

  • Except for one thing I think that Foust’s comments are about right. The exception is that I don’t think the intervention in Libya was high-minded. I think it was a combination of stupidity, arrogance, and wanting to hang out with the cool kids. Maybe that is highmindedness by Washington standards.

  • PD Shaw

    Taylor hits his stride with (a) the excluded middle fallacy (terrorism cannot be completely eliminated), (b) generalization (a lot of what we do), and (c) third-cause fallacy (freaking out over refugees and other _reactions_ to terrorism cause terrorism). There is no substance here.

  • steve

    No matter what we do, we need to accept that there is no 100% successful solution available. Aiming for 100% security is the kind of thing that leads to us invading other countries for no good reason. Anyway, while I have been pushing for us to have minimal involvement, there may be some value in depriving IS of their “caliphate”. If we decide to do this we should work with Russia and Iran. Forget the Israelis and Saudis. Forget about the moderates that mostly don’t exist.

    Even if we do get rid of the IS held land, and even if that reduces their influence, I don’t see that making jihadists go away. I think they will still mostly concentrate on the ME and only attack here occasionally, but we can certainly improve our intel capabilities and work better with our allies.


  • steve:

    I think that the path to accepting a less-than-perfect solution lies in process—who makes the decisions, how, and why. That’s part of my point. The president isn’t helping by heaping scorn on anyone who disagrees with him.

    It might help if our elites had a little more skin in the game. It’s pretty blithe of a man who’s surrounded by bodyguards 24 hours a day to say that the risk is acceptably low. If it’s acceptably low, why not start housing Syrian refugees in the White House? Or the big empty house in Hyde Park? Or another big, empty house in Chappaqua, New York or yet another in Georgetown?

    The answer, of course, is that while the risk may be small there is a risk.

  • Andy

    Dave, just be clear I wasn’t posing that as a realistic alternative, just- well – lamenting all the circumstances which prevent even the discussion of alternatives.

  • michael reynolds

    We have a gigantic, absurdly powerful and dominant military force backed by the richest nation on earth. We have the power to annihilate virtually all human life. Or, if we chose, we could raise a 10 million strong army, equip it and deploy it anywhere in the ME.

    They have local raiders and terrorists.

    And our brilliant strategy – going back at least to Ronald Reagan – is to play tit-for-tat games while hoping that they get tired of ‘raiding’ our territory. And any given ‘they’ might well get tired, or be fragmented, or be overcome by some other faction. But the problem with terrorism is that it’s like dynamite: once discovered, it’s there, a tool anyone can use. So there can always be a new ‘they’ using terrorism against us.

    We have three choices:

    1) Accept Paris as the new norm.
    2) Turn ourselves into a police state.
    3) Go postal.

    1 and 2 hurt us. They destroy our notions of civilization. They will lead to more anti-Muslim feeling in the West. The West will become less free, more nativist, with fear feeding fear in a downward spiral that ends with ethnic cleansing. You think that’s too dire? Listen to Trump, LePen, Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage. There was ethnic cleansing in Europe not 25 years ago, let alone 70 years ago.

    The problem with Option 1 (Dave’s C above) is that we won’t accept it. Some will, others won’t, and we’ll have a politics split between, “Lie back and enjoy it,” and “Send ’em all back to the ME.” In order for us to indulge our liberal open-mindedness we have first to preserve our liberal society. And if you think the West will simply tolerate terrorism indefinitely, you’re out of your mind. The reaction is already building.

    So in the end we’ll have two choices, not three: We either harm ourselves and our civilization, or we raise the price so high that no foreign state, no foreign civilization, will take the risk of harboring terrorists.

    Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have between them a population of almost 200 million in round numbers. The Saudis and the Emirates have plenty of money, plenty of young men, and we are happy to sell them all the tanks and planes they need. They could clean out ISIS in six weeks. They don’t, because they are not sufficiently afraid, and because they’ve used us as mercenaries and have failed to build within their countries societies capable of serious military effort.

    But if the price of terror was a city wiped out? With the threat of more? I suspect the Saudis would open the bank and the Turks would do the necessary. It’s good to be loved, better to be feared.

    If we could credibly tell the regional powers, especially the Turks, that a major ISIS attack in the US would mean Raqqa disappearing 48 hours later, the Turks might just decide to roll some tanks across the border and take care of their business before we do.

  • Michael:

    I don’t know whether it would surprise you that I largely agree with you. I think our elites have decided to accept the end of our civilization meekly. Bizarrely, if we just turned our Jacksonians loose in a few years there would be no Middle Eastern population to worry about turning into terrorists.

    I think the “theme park” idea above is actually the best and most satisfactory to all sides. We get what we want (including the preservation of our principles) the radical Islamists get what they want. I just don’t think we’re tough-minded enough for it.

    They don’t, because they are not sufficiently afraid, and because they’ve used us as mercenaries and have failed to build within their countries societies capable of serious military effort.

    I think it’s actually a little more complicated than that. The reason I wouldn’t expect much from the Saudis is that it would require something too much like manual labor—not worthy of a gentlemen. They’re fine with flying jets and dropping bombs. They won’t do ground work and the Pakistanis have turned down their requests for grunts flat.

  • michael reynolds

    Actually, it does not surprise me.

    You’re a no-bullshit thinker. I don’t always agree with where you end up, but you have the ability to think ruthlessly, filters removed. Few people do. Most people are prisoners of their presuppositions, their education, their social group, etc… They “think” with their emotions. They want the answer to be X so they twist logic and ignore facts to achieve X.

    This how civilizations fail. Slippers going down and boots going up.

  • steve

    Going postal is likely to work against a nation state. I don’t see it working against jihadist groups. They are more than happy to sacrifice other people. I would expect that nuking Raqqa means a lot more jihadists showing up from every other Muslim country in the world. We aren’t fighting Japan or Germany. Since a lot of these recruits come from London, Brussels and Paris, do we nuke them also?


  • Andy


    I see a few problems with your analysis:

    1. #3 is the surest way to #2. Throughout our history we’ve come closest to a police state when we are “going postal.” So the choice between #2 and #3 is a false one.

    2. No doubt we have a lot of resources and firepower. No doubt we could, as you suggested, nuke Raqqa or even all of ISIS territory. We could, in theory, raise a huge army and invade. However, costs must be considered, effects must be considered – not only on the region, but on our national psyche. If we are willing to nuke a tens-of-thousands of civilians in order to be “strong” and kill a couple thousand terrorists, then we might as well throw all ideals and aspirations in a bag and become the fourth reich. Being “strong,” as you’ve defined it here and at OTB is surely a path to #2.

    But let’s try a little though experiment – would our war in Afghanistan have turned out differently if we’d nuked Kabul or Kandahar at the start? Perhaps we weren’t ruthless enough? Read up on the Soviet campaign in the 1980’s.

    3. You underestimate the will and overestimate the capabilities of Saudi and the gulf states. For the former, there is nothing we could do to put the fear in them to force them to do what you suggest. Historically, nations and political communities are rarely coerced into fighting wars they have little interest in fighting. Saudi is not about to engage in what would be a Sunni civil war that would benefit Iran and Shia’s. On the latter, Saudi and the Gulf States are paper tigers – lots of pretty equipment and lots of theoretical manpower that don’t equate to military capability. Turkey has adequate military capabilities, but they have no desire to take on ISIL either and we can’t force them anymore than we can force the Arabs.

    To summarize it’s a mistake to equate military capability with strength. War is a political activity, conducted by political communities for political ends. Simplistic calculations of relative military strength aren’t decisive WRT outcomes.

    Secondly, fear is a poor motivator for the collective action you think is possible. Nuking a city or any similar radical move will not make the Turks and Arabs cower enough to take on ISIL. In reality, the opposite would happen. Again, history is a good guide.

    Third, if there was actually the political will to nuke a city (or whatever equivalent) as a response to ISIS then this country would be finished as a republic.

  • Andy
  • TastyBits

    ISIS as a military organization gaining and holding ground is different from ISIS as a terrorist organization.

    Military organizations can only be defeated by taking and controlling ground, and if not by you, it must be by an ally, friend, or client. The only ground troops able to take and control ground against ISIS are unacceptable to the US, and therefore, the US either must commit the ground troops or cease the fantasy.

    Terrorist organisations operate in the shadows, and they must be fought and defeated in the shadows. The terrorists can never win. By doing the minimum, they will lose by attrition. They have a natural limit to their size. If they become too large, they cannot remain in the shadows, and they become vulnerable. If they use a cell network for security, it becomes harder to manage as it gets larger. (No cell can know about any other cell.)

    The US and other advanced countries actually “own” the shadows. In order to implement terrorist missions, they must plan, train, equip, and execute. This takes communication, travel, money, and training, and many of these are conducted over existing electronic networks. If they change to manual methods, they still risk the couriers being captured. A suitcase full of cash tends to attract attention.

    Before the NYT started printing these programs, the Bush Administration had built an international web that would catch various ping, and it was coordinated with many countries who might not publicly be friendly towards the US. (A spider detects vibrations on its web, and it is the same principle.) As the terrorist networks were identified, the interrogation methods would become more sophisticated. (You use information to get information, and with more information, you can get more.)

    The drone program is one piece of it, and in the case of ISIS, the oil refineries and tanker trucks would definitely be targets. Training camps or other physical locations could also be targeted.

    The one piece missing was the human intel, and the most accurate is inserting assets into the organization. This is also the most dangerous because if they are caught, they will have the most intel.

    I am amazed that anybody would find nuking a city to be acceptable but dunking somebody’s under water or shoving a feeding tube shoved up their ass to be unacceptable.

    The idea that Muslims are the only group that become terrorist at the smallest slight is ludicrous. The Japanese had two atomic bombs dropped on them, and they surrendered. The Japanese are one of the strongest willed people, and if they surrendered, I doubt any substantial number of Muslims are going to be asking for a second demonstration.

    I will state again that I do not have a problem with killing people (including innocents) and blowing up things (including nukes), but it is probably not the best solution. Espionage, clandestine, and covert methods are what will take down the terrorist networks. It requires neither a military nor a criminal solution. It requires an espionage solution with military and criminal where appropriate.

    We won the Cold War without getting into a shooting match with the USSR, and I think they were a little more capable than the terrorists.

  • TastyBits


    To summarize it’s a mistake to equate military capability with strength. War is a political activity, conducted by political communities for political ends. Simplistic calculations of relative military strength aren’t decisive WRT outcomes.

    I thought your whole comment was good, but I think this was the most salient point.

  • The Japanese had two atomic bombs dropped on them, and they surrendered.

    The Japanese surrendered because they had a top-down system and the emperor told them to. The situation with Arabs is not comparable. Some will surrender and some won’t.

  • michael reynolds

    then we might as well throw all ideals and aspirations in a bag and become the fourth reich.

    No, actually, we’d be acting like FDR and Harry Truman.

    The Japanese killed 2500 people at Pearl Harbor. Our retaliation – just the strategic bombing campaign – killed according the very lowest estimates, 250,000. Some estimates go as high as 900,000, but at a minimum we killed 100 Japanese civilians for every dead soldier or civilian at Pearl Harbor.

    So, actually, I’m channeling the president who ranks consistently in the top 3 US presidents, a Democratic party saint.

    And I’m channeling elements of MAD – US policy under various presidents of both parties.

  • A couple of observations based on the comments above if you don’t mind:

    First, we are NOT fighting ‘terror’ or terrorist entities. Terrorism is a tactic, as I pointed out in a recent article of mine, and one that has been commonly used throughout history with the object of lessening both an enemy’s will and ability to conduct warfare. Whenever someone mentions ‘combating terrorists’ bahblahblah, I just shake my head and long to punch out George W. Bush for popularizing the term ‘war on terror.’

    What we’re fighting is not just ISIs but an ideology called Islamic fascism (or ishkabibble if you prefer). There’s nothing ISIS, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban or any of the other players are doing that isn’t sanctified in the Qu’ran. That doesn’t mean we’re at war with all Muslims. Many of them manage to do some extreme cherry picking to live decent, peaceful lives. But the religion itself is violent, particularly (but unfortunately not only) the Islamist, Saudi -financed wahabi brand we and the EUrines have been allowing them to export to our shores for two and a half decades.

    Like it or not, we’re at war with a significant portion of Islam and until we face that and wage this war as it needs to be waged, we’ll keep fumbling like we have for the last decade and a half. And we may be defeated.

    Comparing this with the Cold War is a lousy analogy in my opinion, one that ignores that Sunni and Shi’ite Islamic fascists think differently than we do. The Soviets were evil, but they were also rational actors with knowledge that a war with America could only end one way.

    You can’t say that about people who think killing non-Muslims is a holy act and a sure way to ‘paradise.’ Again, it’s the ideology that has to be disgraced and defeated, so that Muslims who have been supporting jihad against the West take a good look at the consequences and make some different decisions

    What happened in Paris was not a random ‘terrorist’ act but tactical and well planned. ISIS has been under air attacks by France, the US every so often when Obama’s in the mood, even Canada before they elected a part-time dance instructor as their PM. The message ISIS conveyed is simple – ‘Your cities and people are vulnerable too.’
    Winston Churchill circa 1940 would have understood that quite well.

    And the French got the message, since their ‘response’ to the Paris attack was a half-assed air attack which dropped a mere 20, count ’em 20 bombs on Rakkah, none of which did any damage.

    So what’s the solution? I suggest a number of them at the above link for use at home and abroad if America is really serious about actually fighting and winning this war. Of course, we do have a major leadership problem which needs to be solved somehow.

  • TastyBits

    Chemical drugs are not living organisms, and plants are not sentient beings. Drugs cannot take and control territory, and drugs have never ruled a country. Yet, the “terror is a tactic” crowd seem to have no problem understanding what is meant by the War on Drugs.

    Temperature variations are the physics of heat (energy) transfer between bodies, and here we have the use of the phrase Cold War. I doubt this means some thermodynamic conflict that is studied in the Physics Department of a university, but I could be wrong.

    Since some people are too dense to grasp the concept, here it is. There are groups of people who want to foist their agenda and ideology on others, but instead of doing it peacefully or violently against the primary targets, they use violence against unrelated targets – terrorist tactics.

    These groups are not limited to Islamic extremists, but at this time, they are the overwhelming majority. Whether Islam is a peaceful religion or not, something is wrong, and if anybody can fix it, it must be Muslims. We understand that if they are moving, it is on a geological timescale.

    That is not even a thumbnail sketch. A fully formed concept requires a fully developed metaphysical and epistemological basis, and the logic must be sound. Although, an existing framework could be used.

    Most people would rather the shorthand version – “War on Terror”. Those who complain also prefer the shorthand version, but they like to bitch every time they use it. Here is an idea: Stop using anything with terror in it, and begin writing a f*cking thesis each time.

    Yeah, that’s what I thought.

    As far as fighting the Islamist terrorist organisations using tanks and artillery, good luck. You can fight the conventional military branch of the organization, and you may defeat it. That leaves the remaining organizations without military branches free to do what they want to do, but I am sure it feels good.

    Terrorists are not ten foot tall super monsters. They are vulnerable, very vulnerable, but you need to go after their weaknesses. You need to not be afraid to get your hands dirty exploiting those weaknesses, and if you have to crack open a few skulls, so be it.

    As with any criminal, they knew or should have known it was part of the game, and if you cannot take a broken skull, stay out of the game.

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