On Sept. 11, 2001, our nation suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. Almost 3000 Americans were killed. In the aftermath, as the nation mourned, our entire defense establishment was effectively paralyzed. Mired in bureaucracy and wedded to a ponderous, logistics-heavy way of waging war, it found itself incapable of mounting an effective, rapid response.
And so for one brief, shining moment we were free to act flexibly and creatively. The result was perhaps the most brilliant military campaign waged by the United States since the Second World War. In a matter of months a relative handful of CIA operators and Special Forces personnel with support from Afghan allies and U.S. Air Force crushed the Taliban, destroyed al-Qaida’s safe haven, and removed any immediate threat of further terrorist attacks.
And then the bureaucracy came to life. What had been a tight, focused, unconventional response morphed into an open-ended nation-building debacle, which costs thousands of lives and untold billions of dollars.
In the summer of 2002 I, along with seven other officers from CIA entered Northern Iraq hunting for a terrorist compound where work was being done on weapons of mass destruction. Within a matter of weeks we had acquired reams of actionable intelligence on an al-Qaida affiliated extremist force, which would later become known as al-Qaida in Iraq. We then proposed leveraging Kurdish forces for a quick military assault on this group, which would have effectively eliminated it from the face of the earth.
It was not to be.
The Washington bureaucracy was in full force again. Mission creep had set in. We had lost focus on the fight with al-Qaida and were already giving priority to plans to take down Saddam.
All plans to attack the terrorists clustered along the Iraq-Iran border in Northern Iraq were shelved. When an assault did take place nine months later, it was too late. The punch had been telegraphed, and all high-value targets had slipped away into Iran and safety. We paid heavily in the years afterward for our failure to act quickly and decisively and to maintain our focus on the primary threat.
Now we are confronted with ISIS. This radical Islamic group has seized control of large portions of Syria and Iraq and made no secret of its intention to carry the fight to us. It is clear we must respond, but we seem at a loss as to how to do so. We have handfuls of military personnel on the ground, and airstrikes are in progress but we seem powerless to do more. We behave as if our only options are to either continue limited airstrikes or to commit large numbers of ground troops to an open ended, poorly defined campaign.
We have another option. It does not require inventing a new form of warfare. It does not require the development of new technology. It requires only that we allow ourselves to wage the type of asymmetric warfare perhaps only we at this point in history are capable of waging.
Ever since the Second World War, Washington and the United States military have been fixated by the idea of winning conflicts by virtue of massive logistical preparation and the mobilization of huge financial and physical assets. There is a time and a place for that, but it is not in this kind of conflict.
Nor can we afford to continue to indulge the kind of mission creep and nation-building mindset that we brought to Afghanistan. We went to that nation to hunt down and kill terrorists; years later we are still there, building schools, paving roads, and trying desperately to turn a poverty-stricken, war-torn nation into Switzerland in Central Asia.
The answer to ISIS is to maintain focus on our primary objective and to leverage our advantages. There are any number of people on the ground in Syria and Iraq who share our desire to destroy ISIS. The Shia regard ISIS as an existential threat. The Kurds consider them a mortal danger. Even moderate Sunnis who have no desire to live in a mad jihadist state wish the fighters of ISIS dead.
Work with them all. That means sending in intelligence personnel and Special Forces. It means supplying arms and money. It means providing air support. All with one tight focus, to hunt down and destroy the barbarians who are threatening to drag the Middle East back into the Dark Ages.
It will cost us nothing compared to what we have spent over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not come without casualties, but the cost in American blood as well will be minimal. Keep the bureaucracy at bay. Let the men and women who understand unconventional warfare do what they do best. Avoid mission creep.
Charles S. Faddis, President of Orion Strategic Services, LLC, is a former CIA operations officer with 20 years of experience in the conduct of intelligence operations in the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe. He is the senior intelligence editor for AND Magazine and a contributor to a wide variety of counterterrorism and homeland security journals. His nonfiction works include "Operation Hotel California," a history of the actions of his team inside Iraq from 2002 to 2003, "Willful Neglect," an examination of homeland security, and "Beyond Repair," an argument for intelligence reform. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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