Defeating ISIS: Does History Teach Anything?


ISIS fighters


If America was able to annihilate both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, whose armies numbered in the millions, why can we not defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) whose force is less than 50,000?


ISIS is the most vicious jihadist army in the world that’s hunkered down in parts of Syria and Iraq.  It came to control sections of both countries during the chaos of  civil war. ISIS rules by pure terror. Women are little more than slaves.  It exports mass murderers into Europe. It drowns gay people in steel cages or throws them off buildings. Public amputations and beheadings. Why is it still here?


President Obama had a plan to “degrade and destroy ISIS.” President Trump says he will wipe them out completely. Others propose massive bombing campaigns to end the Islamic State once and for all.


It’s frustrating that the blood and treasure of the most powerful nation on earth, aided by willing allies, have not brought them down. Why not?


General George Washington understood

ISIS is made up of mobile bands of armed guerrillas that live and move among civilians. Who else used this strategy? American colonists in the Revolutionary War. Such a strategy is nearly impossible to beat.


Irregular warfare by American patriots defeated the British Empire in 1781. Soviet partisans inflicted great damage to Germans in Russia in World War Two. Vietcong guerrillas with decrepit rifles prevailed over the US military that had jets, bombers and tanks. Afghan mujahideen ground down the Soviets in the mountains of Asia and are doing the same to Americans today.


History’s answer: guerrillas win by not losing. Especially when they will be rewarded for dying for their cause, a twisted perversion of Islam. George Washington knew that so long as his men were in the field conducting operations, Britain simply could not win, could not close the deal. Colonial forces may have been bleeding, starving, freezing and retreating, but their miserable condition wasn’t the decisive factor.


What mattered was that they persisted. So long as the Continental army was still kicking, Britain could not win. And if Britain could not win, eventually it must lose. (It is astounding that the British captured and occupied Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Savannah and Charleston during a war they lost.) And consider the imbalance of power! Britain had a global navy of powerful battleships. Washington had a few rowboats. And Washington won.


But: We have much better weaponry than the terrorists do and much better than the British did in their day. That should make the difference.


Two words: “civilian casualties.”


Tough questions for our leaders



ISIS soldiers live and hide among civilians, and so far our government has been reluctant to attack their territory full force because there are innocent people there. America is morally reluctant to drop bombs on unarmed non-combatants. That is as it should be.


During the election campaign, Donald Trump promised to bomb the crap out of ISIS. Now that he is president, he may order such a campaign. Is it wise to do this? Can it work? Is this what we want as a citizenry?


We can bomb ISIS to smithereens if we want to. But just consider the price. American bombs paid for by American taxpayers–you and me–are incinerating innocent civilians. Experience shows that when civilians are killed or harmed, each one has relatives and friends who are so angry at America that they might join the jihadist cause themselves. It’s like mowing the lawn. It grows back. Unless you destroy the roots.


What to do about terrorists that deliberately use innocent civilians as “human shields”? Israel has faced this problem in battling PLO fighters. What to do when they put an anti-aircraft guns on the roof of a hospital or school?  It’s a monstrous thing to do, to shoot at your foe while hiding behind a child. Remember that the evil do not care how much suffering they inflict on others. How should a moral nation respond to terrorists who would use human shields?


It’s a visceral question and there is no easy answer.



What are ways that work?


There are some things we can do to bring the fight to ISIS while sparing civilians.


  • Use technology-like drones. Computer and laser guided bombs are surgically accurate. Boots on the ground may not be needed.


  • Infiltrate them. The best way to break any criminal organization is to infiltrate them. Get someone on the inside. Based on real time intelligence, just find out where they sleep and deliver a Hellfire missile.


  • Enlist ISIS defectors to tell their story. It’s not some Islamist utopia, it’s a living hell. Telling this story will reduce the ISIS flow of manpower.


  • Work to establish that what ISIS is doing is against Islam. Encourage clerics to convince Muslims not to be seduced by ISIS ideology. For example, family members can keep an eye out for relatives who seem to be radicalizing through social media.


ISIS can be decimated without America losing its national character as a people who do not inflict suffering on the innocent.


The great test in the Age of Terror is, how can we stop the scourge of Islamic terrorism without throwing away what makes our society worth protecting in the first place?


It’s gut check time for everybody.



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