Strategy needed to combat ISIS

January 13, 2016

We are all know how wrong President Obama was when he used the term “JV team” to refer to the resurgent al Qaeda group in Iraq in a January 2014 interview, after it overtook Iraqi security forces in Fallujah. He elaborated, “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

The president was wrong then and he continues to mischaracterize the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and misjudge its capabilities even today. 

The issue is that the Obama administration does not fundamentally understand the nature of the global Islamic extremist threat, and its policies are ill-equipped to deal with it. Reactionary policies to specific threats as they emerge, such as ISIS, do not work. We need a larger strategy to combat Islamic extremist groups worldwide.

Following the president’s statement, when ISIS demonstrated the threat it posed both to Middle East regional stability and to Western countries’ national security, the administration began to combat ISIS on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Operation Inherent Resolve has launched airstrikes on ISIS targets and provided air support to local forces combating ISIS. It seems that this “JV team” has become the U.S.’s public enemy No. 1, at the expense of our efforts to battle the former “varsity” team: al Qaeda.

Despite the president’s claims during the 2012 campaign that “al Qaeda has been decimated,” it remains a serious threat to the U.S. homeland. In no way has it relinquished its intentions to harm the United States and its citizens. Its affiliate groups are resurgent across the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. They are taking advantage of deteriorating security situations to consolidate control and establish bases from which to launch future operations.

In Afghanistan, U.S. airstrikes destroyed two massive al Qaeda training camps in Kandahar this past October. U.S. military officials described it as the largest al Qaeda training facility they had seen over the course of the U.S.’s 14-year campaign in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, has been consolidating territory along Syria’s western corridor. Its presence adds a layer of complexity to Syria’s post-civil war environment that cannot be ignored during conversations about Syria’s future.

The war against Islamic extremism will be long. They are in it for the long haul, which means that we have to be also. We should be empowering our intelligence community and military commanders to address these emerging threats now — not just in Iraq and Syria but wherever the Islamic extremist threat exists, be it ISIS, al Qaeda or any other radical terrorist group. Focusing on defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria is only one battle in this larger war. The sooner we realize that, the more effective our strategy to combat our enemies will be.

The United States has the most capable military in the world. We have the best intelligence agencies. The resources to win this war are at our disposal. But capabilities mean nothing without a deliberate strategy to employ them. ISIS was able to grow because the Obama administration stuck its head in the sand rather than address the emerging problem. We should learn from these mistakes, not repeat them. Our lack of policy to address the Islamic extremist threat demonstrates so far we have not.

We need a plan.

A former undercover CIA officer, Hurd has represented Texas’s 23rd Congressional District since 2015. He sits on the Homeland Security, and the Oversight and Government Reform committees.