To understand the current landscape of the Middle East, we must examine the series of events that have moved its countries to what seems to be the verge of chaos. The rise of ISIS in Iraq and a new president of Afghanistan who prefers the company of Pakistan’s leadership to our own seem to, on the surface, paint a saddening picture of failure on our part to stabilize the region. The news on television or video clips on the Internet reflect a stark reality that the war is lost, that all the efforts of the men and women in the United States military have failed, and  all the while, we flushed billions of dollars down the drain.

The problem with all of this is that we have misidentified our enemies as organized armies or hostile states. Conventional wisdom dictates that to fight another country, we gather our military might and meet our enemy on the field of battle, face to face, and shoot it out until the winner comes out with the most men left alive. Picture Revolutionary War soldiers: Americans facing a line of British soldiers, the men in front taking a knee and firing in a volley, stepping forward to claim more and more of the battlefield.  This is how a conventional war is fought.

Today is not much different. We land troops, fight it out, and build a base—the equivalent of moving the battle line forward. If we were fighting a conventional war, this would have moved along marvelously. The problem is that our enemy is not a total hostile state. Instead, we should view them for what they are: ideological social movements. The Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS are all fighting to gain power and to influence a general population to live under their belief system. We are the enemy to these organizations because our way of life fundamentally differs from theirs.

Our answer to this problem is to send our fighting units to eradicate the enemy of our way of life. The term “War of Ideas” is often used by the State Department to describe the war between our two different ideologies—i.e. Western vs. Islam. The State Department has even laid out a plan to extend influence over these regions and undermine the influence of the hostile forces gaining power over the people.

The problem is, when the war started, we sent our troops—including all our SOF units—and learned that they were highly effective at inflicting damage upon our enemy. It looks good on TV to see terrorists getting turned to dust by Specter gunships. It looks even better when some hardcore military helmet-cam footage gets leaked and we get to see him entering and clearing a room in high-resolution feed. It gets votes, and for a time, unites us as a country.

It’s much simpler to give our enemy a face and idolize the hero that killed him than try to explain that our current enemy is the reflection of thousands of years of political and sociological turmoil. It is easier to think of the Taliban and ISIS as new threats rather than old ones that have seen success in Syria, Iran, and Africa, and have successfully resisted some of the mightiest armies in the world from Russia to England. The former seems simple to fix; the later seems like an exercise in futility.

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This in mind, we must also remember that everything has a shelf life. Politicians most of all. As public support for the GWOT atrophied, it was left to be fought by our brave men and women who had to endure multiple year-long deployments. SOF soldiers racked up deployments well into the double digits. All the while, our enemy grew in strength and numbers, patiently waiting for our troops to pull out so that they could pounce again with a social-media blitz that could rival that of any start-up tech company.

Just as our enemy in Iraq has rebranded itself into ISIS, and as the Taliban rebrand themselves into a legitimate governmental agency during its meetings with the Afghan government in peace talks, it’s time for the United States to rebrand its presence in the Middle East.

In an era where the general sentiment among America is to cut our losses and run, it should be considered that now is the time to regain our original initiative from the start of the Global War on Terror (GWOT): to curb threats on American soil. By entering a phase of containment in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we let time dictate who our next targets will be.

With U.S. troops out of Iraq, ISIS has been allowed to display its organizational and tactical prowess. Moving across the country with the ferocity of the Mongols, ISIS has feasted on the riches of Iraq by emptying bank vaults and looting with minimal resistance, but the further their reach stretches across the country, the more limited the wealth they have stolen will seem. This will inevitably lead to a split within ISIS as infighting over resources grows. The  result will be the surfacing of two main characters within this civil war.

As this new leadership begins to show its face in their attempts to gain support for their faction, our ability to track them will increase. ISIS will, in fact, be handing us our targets in the next phase of the GWOT.

Enter the drones to take the head off the snake. These factions losing their leadership will result in chaos and infighting as they struggle to sustain themselves. History has taught us time and time again that it is relatively easy to conquer, but the task of maintaining an empire requires much more skill. As ISIS attempts to maintain its foothold of control, any progress they make in developing infrastructure to rule will present our next targets. If an airstrike is not efficient, then it will be time for our next greatest military asset.

Enter SOF units. As this instability increases and as the infighting grows, it will be up to Special Operations units to conduct clandestine missions that will enable the infighting and make resources even scarcer. Their purpose will not to be engage ISIS directly, but to hit targets that will prevent them from emplacing any system of control.

As ISIS grows more strapped for resources and begins to shift its focus from growing its influence to maintaining control, the opportunity will arise for our Special Operations units to plant seeds of dissent among the population of Iraq.

Victor Hugo wrote, “One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas.”

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This will begin the next phase of the war on terror on the Iraqi front. It will be to appeal to the small middle class of Iraq. All revolutions start with a middle class grown organically from its own population. The main effort of our intelligence agencies will be to gather signal intelligence so that drones will have targets, and to locate any Iraqi-born U.S. citizens that would be willing to return to their homeland and start a grassroots movement for a more progressive Iraq. The United States needs to find individuals to do this work for their people—not by collusion or coercion, but by locating people who have the same ideological belief system of the United States and aiding them in organizing the middle class of Iraq.

This process will take time, but the limited scope of operations will be reduce budget concerns. There will be no field of direct battle; all missions will be conducted by the highest-trained soldiers we have in our arsenal, which will limit casualties. Drones operating under the loose restrictions created for them will be the driving force behind our war effort, maintaining the legality of the containment efforts. There will simply be no need to flex military muscle when patience will allow human nature to take care of that for us.

(Featured Image Courtesy: The Intercept)