The Islamic State, the West, and 21st-Century War

An F-117 Nighthawk engages it's target and drops a GBU-28 guided bomb unit during the 'live-fire' weapons testing mission COMBAT HAMMER, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

by James A. Russell

The collective outrage and sorrow in the West surrounding the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris tell us many things, but nothing we didn’t already know about the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and its followers. More interesting is what the reactions in the West tell us about ourselves and our misguided conceptions of 21st-century war against our Islamic extremist adversaries.

The only surprising thing about the IS attack in Paris is that we were in any way surprised by it. Bodies litter the landscape in the wake of IS stretching from the towns, villages, and cities of Iraq and Syria to Libya, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the deserts of Egypt with the downed Russian airplane.

The Paris attacks could have happened in any of the major Western cities, including the United States. IS seeks a social and political revolution and, like many groups before it, is prepared to use all means at its disposal to achieve its ends.

But we already knew this.

The West’s “Limited” Wars

The grieving citizens of Paris and around the world would do well to remember that it was the United States and its Western allies that picked the fight with IS. It was not the other way around.

IS started out with local objectives, joining with rivals to battle for political power and authority amid the wreckage of Iraq and Syria. We decided that we did not want them to win that struggle, and our air forces have been dropping bombs on IS every day for the last year, a “war” that regrettably few of us realized was actually underway.

The publics in Western states whose airplanes are dropping bombs on IS remain largely disconnected from the Middle East’s wars. Despite paying for the bombs the airplanes that are raining down in Iraq and Syria, public involvement mostly consists of viewing gun camera footage on the Internet and the nightly news.

We in the West regard our limited policing operations in the Middle East as, well, limited. Those being bombed do not share this disinterested detachment. IS knew it was at war. It was under no illusions about the nature of the struggle as our bombs exploded among them, leaving their own trail of death and destruction.

Did we expect IS and its sympathizers to simply stand idly by as we collectively blasted away at them from 10,000 feet wherever and whenever we wanted? Did the political leadership in the West explain to its citizenry that those being bombed might start shooting back? Most disturbing, did the citizens of the Western democracies demand hard answers from their politicians when the bombs started flying? The answer to these questions tells us a lot about ourselves. Our leaders never explained the risks and never told the public what might happen—in part because no explanations were sought by the people.

The Past as Prologue

The post-World War II era serves as a searing and deadly reminder of the bloody struggles for independence around the world as the West was slowly but surely driven from its colonial domains. In the end, the Western democracies realized that the costs of holding on to their imperial lands were greater than they were prepared to pay. A disorderly and bloody retreat followed.

The West’s retreat from its colonies, however, did not mean the end of military interventions in the developing world. Our misguided aerial policing campaign in the Middle East represents only the latest in a long list of ill-advised interventions in the region’s politics. The United States and its Western allies can’t dodge partial responsibility for the four civil wars now underway in the Middle East that have fractured the lives of a generation of families driven from their homes.

Many believed that the revolution in military affairs and the rise of the special forces bureaucratic empire in the United States provided a way out of the conundrum of fighting limited wars against adversaries that did not regard the wars as limited. A new generation of more accurate weapons coupled with an expanded and expensive trained cadre of Special Forces offered the promise of low-cost, high-payoff returns to the problem of military interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The United States led the proverbial charge in trying out these new ideas of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq over 15 years, believing that new weapons imaginatively applied on the battlefield with new tactics could solve the perplexing problem of fighting these limited wars. America’s retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan recalls the retreat of the European powers from their overseas empires following World War II, unable to militarily defeat their enemies on the battlefield and wearying of the wars’ mounting costs. The United States discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan that clever tactics, new weapons, and better troops did not drive our enemies from the field and achieve the sought-after victory.

Hands Off?

Yet the lessons of these wars today seem lost on those calling for a more muscular and militarized response to the IS attacks in Paris. More bombs will certainly rain down on IS, but to what end? Our solution to the Rubik’s cube of the developing world’s political disputes – namely, military intervention – has precipitated or aggravated the resulting civil wars. The Middle East today serves as reminder of this central lesson.

The unfortunate reality is that the West cannot militarily defeat IS unless it is prepared to rethink its conceptions of limited war and the costs it is prepared to pay to secure victory. A few more airplanes with accurate bombs and detachments of Special Forces aren’t going to cut it.

At the end of World War II, the United States had over 10 million men and women under arms – an effort necessary to save the world from fascism. Along with our Western allies, the United States could expand our armies in an attempt to conquer and occupy the parts of the Middle East controlled by IS. But does anyone really believe that such a course of action would be worth it?

In the end, we are left with a dissatisfying conclusion to the problem of militant Islamic extremism in the Middle East. The peoples of the region must choose their own political future and decide what kinds of governments will rule them. We cannot make that choice for them, however much we might want to. In the meantime, maybe it’s best to let the region’s actors settle the political arguments among themselves, and then we’ll simply have to deal with whoever wins.

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. About thirty years ago, a then-professor at the National Defense University wrote a “Primer on Terrorism,” which traced assymetiric warfare/terrorism from the Roman Empire into the end of the 20th Century. Its bottom line, as I remember it, was that terrorism and counter-terrorism virtually always produce still more terrorism and counter-terrorism. The author wrote of Roman legions crossing the Rhine to attack Germanic tribes mounting what Rome declared to be terrorist raids on the west side of the river. The Legions used mercenary soldiers, and in the end withdrew in defeat.
    Russell seems here to suggest that that our destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq gave rise to ex-Baath guerrilla warfare, and the post-Arab Spring effort to oust Assad led to the rise of DAESH/isis. His logic suggests that all-out warfare against DAESH will give rise to some new terrorist entity.
    That’s all well and good, but it leaves one with the question of how to proceed in the face of the current threat.

  2. “The peoples of the region must choose their own political future and decide what kinds of governments will rule them.” sounds like wishful thinking. people of syria said we dont want assad. what happend? the west supported the people’s will to have a better and more free life. assad and his security forces tried to crush the will of the people which caused the death of over a quarter million people ( on both sides) with over 4 million refugees. a few persian gulf countries funded more and more extremist militants, including isis to fight assad with russia and iran supporting assad and now there is a civil war.
    the author now believes that the west should leave this chaos to the people of syria, because the west came out in support of the people who could not defeat assad militarily?

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