Staying The Course Is Not An Option

T. Mark McCurley Former Drone Pilot
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In the days following the horrific Islamic extremist attacks against innocents in Paris, the world’s capitols changed their landmarks to reflect the blue, white and red of France. All except one. The White House remained dark while the rest of the world stood in solidarity with our stricken ally.

Days later, world leaders gathered at the G-20 summit to observe a moment of silence in honor of the Paris victims. All except one. The president was late. He missed it.

This hardly seems surprising considering the United States’ laughable strategy against ISIS. After all, for the past seven years, America has been under attack within its borders, and to date, the administration could not be bothered to acknowledge the root cause – terrorism.

Before I retired from the military, I served as the Chief of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Operations at the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). I was there when the commander, Gen. Austin, announced the president’s strategy to stop ISIS’s advance on Baghdad: “Conduct ISR.”

That was it.

Just watch.

Oh, we did deploy a Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team (FAST) to defend the embassy and international airport in Baghdad, but that was about it.

The bulk of the war effort would center on flooding the country with unmanned aircraft with strict rules not to carry weapons. We weren’t there to defend; we were there to watch the train wreck. That, and stay out of Iran’s way as their troops rushed to the defense.

It saddens me that Iran is more willing to defend their arch enemy than the United States is to support an ally.

But, it also highlights the lack of strategy over the past seventeen months that led to the tragedy in Paris. Four thoughts come to mind to remedy this situation.

First, we must define the enemy. The American left needs to finally acknowledge who has been fighting us for almost 25 years. It is not politically insensitive to call a spade a spade. The enemy is Islamic extremism.

Islamic extremism poses the single greatest threat to human civilization, eclipsing all others in brutality, inhumanity and indiscrimination. The Daesh target and murder thousands of Christians for the faith. Muslims too have been ravaged by their barbarity. Israel is an island all but abandoned by the world.

Until we understand the enemy and what they believe, we can’t further a cogent strategy. Understanding starts with acknowledging them.

Secondly, we must establish a clear, concise objective. Without it, the military and other government agencies have no direction with which to plan. “Conduct ISR,” fails on every level and it is time to remedy that.

You cannot simply play defense in a war of this magnitude. You cannot just sit back and wait for the problem to go away. To stay the course, as the president intimated, is irresponsible while our allies revisit their strategies and even form new coalitions without us.

The president must establish a clear statement outlining his aim to defeat ISIS and then he must unshackle the military to allow them to properly combat the enemy. Military planners learned the lessons of limited warfare in Vietnam. Constrictive Rules of Engagement (ROE) shackled the Army and resulted in far more casualties than necessary.

The administration levied similar restrictions in Iraq and Afghanistan, preventing troops from defending themselves before they were hit and even court-martialing Sgt 1st Class Charles Martland for preventing the rape of a young boy.

Over 75 percent of the casualties suffered in Afghanistan occurred after Obama curtailed operations with additional ROE.

Thirdly, engagement in support of the objectives must be a priority.

I’m not saying open dialog with the terrorists. Fanatics and extremists are not open to intelligent conversation. They would rather press their point with violence.

Instead, we need to engage with regional nations.

The military can’t hide in their bases. We’ve closed everything in the U.S. and abroad to a point where we no longer interact with local populations. This is especially critical in the Middle East. All the nations in the region need to meet our troops and get to know them. It is through these non-combat meetings that the seeds of mutual understanding and friendship are sown.

Bush built a coalition of 65 nations to assist in the war against terrorism, many of which were Arab or Islamic. That coalition withered from neglect after 2008.

Rebuild it.

The State Department must engage with the world through forums like the UN, NATO, and the League of Arab Nations to encourage dialog and to foster a sense of world membership where we as partners fight against this evil together. Jimmy Carter and the Camp David Accords are a shining example of how engagement can stabilize the region.

Now is not the time for gimmick diplomacy but a genuine effort to build a solid coalition spanning cultures and regions.

Fourth, the president must engage in direct action.

In 2008, Al Qaeda was effectively non-combat capable. Iraq was almost stable and Afghanistan was quiet. Special forces dominated the fight against the terror organization and effectively used the Predator unmanned aircraft to disrupt their networks and deny their mobility. Their effectiveness is reflected in the fears Bin Laden expressed in letters to his lieutenants.

The years since have seen the focus shift from capturing networks and killing leaders to targeting mid-ranking terrorists. The networks have gone to ground undetected and untracked. The tactic enabled a greater mobility to the orphaned networks that led to the resurgence of Al Qaeda and its spread throughout the Middle East and Africa.

The premature withdrawal from Iraq created a power vacuum that enabled ISIS, formerly known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, to regain a foothold and threaten the region. Their unchecked depredations created a refugee crisis not seen since World War II.

The European Union is slowly coming to terms with this as they frantically work to secure their borders. ISIS members easily slip into the EU while posing as Syrian refugees. Once in, they can infiltrate anywhere within the member states and strike. The U.S. southern border is no better and deserves attention.

The lack of a stringent vetting process for refugees or effective border security only serves to encourage future attacks. What is to stop an attack on U.S. soil by allowing refugees here without verifying their true identities?

To slow, or even prevent further attacks from happening, the allies must directly and forcefully engage the enemy. That means bombing them and then following up with ground troops to root the enemy out.

Yes, I am tired of war. It is one reason why I retired. I would rather not deploy more troops anywhere. Even so, we cannot stop the fight now because to do so is to lose more than a war.

Fighting rages on four continents inciting suggestions of another world war. Is it not time to acknowledge ISIS for what they are, join the world community and fight for our mutual survival?

Lt. Col. T. Mark McCurley, a retired Air Force pilot and former human intelligence operator, flew remotely piloted aircraft for over a decade and was the squadron commander of the mission that killed American terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki. He is the author of the memoir,Hunter Killer: Inside America’s Unmanned Air War.