President Obama recently announced he is seeking authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against the jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Despite the fact that Washington has already launched "2,000 coalition airstrikes," the joint resolution does propose to limit engagement to three years and repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq. Thus far, however, U.S. engagement with ISIS has been symptomatic – strategic airstrikes, the deployment of 475 American military advisors, and the training and equipping of Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga troops – all military options that do not address the root nature of the problem. The fundamental questions are: what produces and sustains an extremist ideology? How does someone become radicalized to the point where she/he is willing to commit acts of extreme brutality, not only the beheadings of humanitarian workers and journalists; but more importantly, entertain a morbid fascination with apocalypse and a theocratic vision that predicts the final fight occurring in Dabiq? What is so alluring about this counter vision to Western modernity?
These are the central questions the U.S. has been unable to answer since the Islamic State seized Mosul last June. Yet until the Obama Administration and U.S. intelligence community address these underlying issues, ISIS will not be defeated. In other words, the method for "degrading and destroying" ISIS is not strategic airstrikes or proxy warfare. Rather, it first requires rethinking U.S. complicity in producing the very enemies who now terrorize and threaten to kill the surrounding population of Shias, Kurds, and Yazidis (among others). This is not a partisan endeavor. Understanding how the failures of U.S. nation-building created the preconditions for extremism, in the form of Islamic terrorism, is a serious and necessary task. Andrew Thompson and Jeremi Suri, for example, suggest the American detention center at Camp Bucca played a decisive role in uniting the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with his top officials. These prisons served as "virtual terrorist universities," in their words, and while Thompson and Suri do not examine the employment of torture, it is safe to say that mistreatment in any form only strengthened these new bonds.
The history of U.S. nation-building, however, should not be confined to Iraq; there are earlier precedents in U.S. foreign policy where occupation lead to analogous outcomes. The Iraq and Vietnam War, in particular, share unsettling similarities that should unnerve any U.S. policy maker. In both cases, the U.S. waged a proxy-war that then turned into a full occupation with ground troops; in both cases, the U.S. fought an ideological insurgency that viewed its struggle as a war against American/Western imperialism; in both cases, the presence of American troops only produced more regional instability with high civilian causalities (the Iraq Body Count places civilian deaths between 134,996-152,324 and the British Medical Journal estimates 3.8 million Vietnamese deaths). In both cases, protracted troop presence did not "degrade and destroy" insurgents, but instead signaled the miscalculated strength of U.S. forces to craft states in its own image. Of course there are also notable differences: the North Vietnamese were motivated by ardent nationalism; ISIS is striving for a caliphate, an expansionist, Islamic state unrestricted by the international system. Yet the ghosts of Vietnam and its failures for U.S. nation-building did not serve as warning signs for U.S. policy makers in 2003. But these lessons can inform our current actions against ISIS.
Thus, when President Obama promotes training internal Iraqi and Kurdish forces, an idea that dates to President Nixon and his Vietnamization scheme for "training and equipping" the South Vietnamese to fight the North Vietnamese, the fall of Mosul in 2014 should remind us of the fall of Saigon in 1975. In Vietnam, after U.S. troops departed in 1975, following nearly twenty years of military engagement traceable to a 1956 Military Assistance Advisor Group, the North Vietnamese Army defeated the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, a military force created and funded by the United States. In June 2014, 350,000 Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts at the sign of impending ISIS fighters, discarding their uniforms and equipment, even after the Iraqi government spent $41.6 billion on this force. If the training and equipping of internal Iraqi forces failed under President Bush last year, why is President Obama pursuing this strategy now? Do the same delusions that guided President Nixon forty years ago now guide President Obama and his policies against the Islamic State?
The U.S. needs to face the harsh truth: military action (from special forces units to drone strikes) has not effectively eliminated Islamic fundamentalism in the world, but spurred new hatred and membership. The celebrated assassination of Osama Bin Laden has not won the "war on the terror"; on the contrary, it created a power vacuum now being fulfilled by ISIS.
Jack R. Werner is a graduating senior at The College of New Jersey. He has a pending publication in the TCNJ Journal of Student Scholarship and works with Amnesty International in his spare time. He blogs at http.interpretationsofthepresent.wordpress.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.