Destroy, Defeat or Minimize the Islamic State?
During World War II, Germany, Italy and Japan had definitive links between their respective armed forces, governments and ideologies. Most believe that the defeat of the German, Italian and Japanese armed forces began a chain of events that led to the destruction of their government and ideology. But were these ideologies really destroyed? In early 2015, nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, a simple internet search brings you to websites that attempt to advance Nazism, note the rise of Facism and describe modern-day Japan debating its identity while reflecting upon the actions it took during World War II.
Rather than saying that these ideologies were destroyed, I submit that while the German, Italian and Japanese armed forces were defeated and their governments destroyed, their ideologies were only minimized. To illustrate the effort required to minimize an ideology, between 1941 and 1945 the United States had 16,112,566 military members, of which 405,399 died (291,557 in battle), and 670,846 were wounded. If the combined efforts of the United States and its Allies during World War II were unable to destroy a set of ideologies, why then does the Coalition assembled against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and their political leaders, think that they can "degrade and ultimately destroy" or "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIL with significantly less commitment than World War II?
Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States national security lexicon related to threats posed by violent extremist ideologies has been dominated by language describing lofty but unachievable goals. Over 13 years ago, President George W. Bush planned to direct every resource he had to the destruction and defeat of Al Qaeda. Despite this public pronouncement, and the blood and treasure expended since, Al Qaeda continues to exist. Today Al Qaeda influences organizations like the Nusra Front that recently captured the Syrian city of Idlib, and plans to rule it according to Islamic Sharia law. President Obama's strategy originally called for ISIL to be destroyed, but that was later changed and the strategy now uses the word defeat. After more than a decade of war against violent extremist ideologies, it is time for the United States to reevaluate its national security lexicon. Though words like defeat and destroy resonate with constituents who yearn for a beginning, a middle and an end to hostilities, and to others looking for the United States to talk tough, they establish expectations that rarely become reality. With this as background, how can the United States evolve its national security lexicon to realistically describe its objectives with regards to ISIL?
Unlike the enemies the United States and its Allies faced in World War II, ISIL is both a regional threat with an armed force and a government, as well as a global terrorist threat. Similar to the enemies the United States and its Allies faced in World War II, even if you defeat ISIL's armed force and destroy it's government, the ideology will still exist, albeit in a minimized form. Regionally, ISIL's armed forces in Iraq and Syria should be defeated and its government destroyed. Following this, some former ISIL members can be demobilized, rehabilitated and reintegrated into society while others will likely be dealt with by a justice system of some kind. Globally, the enduring effort will be to minimize the ISIL narrative to negatively impact its ability to recruit new members and to keep ISIL members separated from the materiel they need to mount major operations. The ISIL terrorist threat will continue to exist and be addressed through a combination of intelligence, law enforcement and small scale, highly specialized military activities.
As the threats posed by violent extremist ideologies persist, the United States national security lexicon must be a flexible suite of words that establishes realistic expectations. Words like destroy and defeat have value but are most appropriate for things that can be physically touched. Words like minimize and manage also have value, and when battling a violent extremist ideology, are the keys to enduring success.