The new American bombing campaign against the self-named Islamic State in northern Iraq and the humanitarian mission to rescue thousands of Yezidis trapped on Mount Sinjar has raised an important question among Middle East watchers and military strategists: What is America's comprehensive strategy to eliminate the threat of violent radicalism spreading across the region and promising to export itself throughout the world?
Our best opportunity to implement a comprehensive strategy against this threat was within a roughly two year window that finally closed in early-to-mid 2013 with the rise of Jabhat Al Nusra (Al Qaeda's official branch in Syria), the arrival of ISIS on that battlefield (an Al Qaeda splinter group formerly called ISI and presently IS), and the military coup that jailed Egypt's first democratically elected leader, Muhammad Morsi.
"Jihadis began flooding the Muslim Internet"
Morsi had many faults, and whether he should have been overthrown or not is still a matter of contentious debate, but as soon as General Sisi appeared on state TV announcing Morsi's absence, jihadis began flooding the Muslim Internet with many iterations of one simple message: We told you so. Memes went viral showing a red X over a ballot box and a green check mark next to a bullet. “Change can only come by steel—there is no peaceful alternative.” In today's Middle East, it's become extremely difficult to argue with that logic.
We have to support everyone's right to pursue the type of society they want to live in through peaceful and ethical means. People often point to the Gaza Strip and use it as an example for why it’s unwise to allow Islamists to participate in elections. Actually, Bush was wrong to push for Hamas to run in Palestinian elections not because they're Islamists but because they first did not renounce terrorist tactics. Purposefully targeting civilians to induce fear and political results is the most basic definition of terrorism, and those who won't renounce it should not be allowed to run in elections. But those who do renounce it should be welcome to participate, and America should also vigorously stand up for equal human rights to prevent elected officials from abusing their power.
Being a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq war, I confused a lot of people when I booked a ticket to Cairo on January 26, 2011, flew the same day, landed on the 27th, and participated in Egypt's first day of rage/million man march on Friday, January 28. But this was something I had been waiting to do for more than two years.
Before I went to Egypt for the first time a few months after my military service ended in 2008, I read an article in Wired Magazine about the April 6th Youth Movement and its leader, Ahmed Maher, who eventually became one of the leading forces behind the 2011 revolution.
In December 2008 I sent Ahmed Maher a short message on Facebook letting him know he had my support as well as many like-minded people's support in America, and he sent an appreciative reply saying he thinks he will need it soon.
"I confused a lot of people when I booked a ticket to Cairo on January 26"
I visited friends in Egypt three different times between 2008 and 2010 before I returned in 2011 for the revolution, and it was easy to see how the youth were languishing under Mubarak's corrupt police and nepotistic political/business class. I went to Egypt in 2011 and got shot at with everyone else in Tahrir Square the evening of the 28th to keep my word to Ahmed Maher and to help my Egyptian friends have the real democracy and equal rights they all wanted. I also wanted to support people's efforts to seek political change nonviolently. Would Al Qaeda and its splinter group IS be worse off today if the democratic experiment in Egypt succeeded? Most likely. Does Morsi share some blame for its failure? Yes.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
Now Ahmed Maher, the founder of the group that helped instigate the revolution that indirectly led to Sisi's presidency, is serving a three year prison sentence for “unauthorized protesting” and he seems to have gotten a good deal in Sisi's Egypt, considering one judge sentenced over a thousand Morsi supporters to death in two swift mass trials. All of this and much more, and US Secretary of State John Kerry still praises Egypt's path to democracy. Meanwhile, the region which was so inspired by Egypt and Tunisia's revolutions is mostly in flames as the United States tries to disengage.
In the beginning of the Arab Spring, the United States took many steps that inspired hope throughout much of the Middle East—pressuring its ally Hosni Mubarak to step down, helping NATO end Qadhafi's slaughter within the same year it started, and offering moral support for other protesters struggling for democracy and human rights. But these turned out to be half-measures that eventually led to disappointment, and widespread feelings of abandonment. It appears like the Obama administration knew that the Arab Spring needed significant aid, but lacked the will to support it.
I served two tours in the Iraqi city of Ramadi between 2005 and 2007, and I witnessed first-hand how with the promise of strong support, local people can very effectively counter this violent radicalism. In 2005 and 2006, Ramadi was considered the most dangerous city on earth, and in 2007 it was suddenly the most peaceful place in Iraq outside of the Kurdistan region. After what I had been through in Ramadi in 2005 and 2006, I thought I would die when we got orders to return in 2007. Surprisingly, it turned into the best year of my life, and I credit the Sons of Iraq who rose up against ISI with saving my life and the lives of countless others.
Now those heroes are being persecuted by the government we left in Baghdad and slaughtered in mass executions by the enemy we together drove into the desert just a few years ago. Now the democratic activists we supported in 2011 are being massacred in Syria by both the government and the Al Qaeda groups we left nursing their wounds as we withdrew from Iraq.
The potential Yezidi genocide is one massacre we're not going to let happen. The Iraqi Kurds can still count on us after 23 years of friendship and support. America is no longer dumb enough or remotely willing to try to fight another ground war in the Middle East, but there are many people throughout the region IS occupies who have been consistently begging for the support to fight back against what is now more of a state than an insurgency—IS. We cannot ask people to fight our battles for us, but we also cannot turn down people who are begging for our help so they can save their own lives and homes.
"I served two tours in the Iraqi city of Ramadi between 2005 and 2007"
Helping the Kurds protect their homeland and rescue thousands who are at risk of genocide is a really good start to dealing with IS. Because we were invited by the Iraqi government, we have a legal mandate to fly over Iraq and carry out this mission there, but in much of the rest of the region, we do not have as clear of a legal mandate to bomb IS targets. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, which Congress passed shortly after September 11, 2001, could be interpreted to allow strikes against IS beyond Iraq, because it gives the president a Congressional mandate to go after those responsible for the September 11 attacks and anyone who harbors them.
For now, we should be ramping up efforts to support everyone across the region fighting to save their lives and homes from IS and similar organizations and militias with a general three phase approach. Phase one: clearly offer the population support with attacks on the enemy's most threatening front lines and command centers and spreading information about who the enemy is and what the fight against them aims for, as well as inspiring and supporting insincere IS members to desert. Phase two: while increasing the tempo of attacks, keeping them on their back legs, strengthen defensive measures for civilians against terrorist attacks. And phase three: once IS and its likes are being overrun, establish rule of law—not rule by law, where leaders make laws to preserve their power and protect themselves from the consequences of violating laws. Equal human rights and vital infrastructure is necessary to immunize societies from this threat in the future.
Helping communities and nations who have been at war or under dictatorship for generations transition to peaceful rule of law will be a very long commitment. Historically, America has indirectly caused many of its problems because of a lack of commitment, like not following up in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, not leaving enough support elements in Iraq to prevent the political chaos that led to spiraling violence, and not doing more to stop bloodshed in the Arab Spring after offering so much support for peaceful activists in the beginning.
No one can afford for America to shirk this new commitment of helping local people defend themselves and live as equals under the rule of law—not the people in the region facing genocide, nor the people all over the world in danger of the violence groups like IS are promising to export.