In the Vietnam War, General Westmoreland defined victory as gaining the momentum of a “cross-over point,” which he defined as the attrition (read killing) of enemy forces at a greater pace than their rate of recruitment. In so doing, the “romance of guerrillas,” as Davids slaying Goliaths, would dissolve, thereby enabling the pursuit of the ultimate goal of “Winning the Hearts And Minds” (WHAM) of the people. In Vietnam, neither of these goals was achieved.
In Iraq, on the other hand, with the recapture of Mosul in mid-July by Iraqi forces, generously assisted by the American military, the cross-over point of an irreversible momentum over ISIS has been accomplished. According to the recent Congressional testimony by Gen. Tony Thomas, the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, from the ISIS capture of Mosul in 2014 to present, it has recruited 60,000-70,000 foreign fighters. Until 2016, despite suffering an average of 1,000 casualties per month, ISIS recruited more than 1,000 new fighters as replacements. But since then, with its same average number of casualties, ISIS’ average monthly replacement rate has plummeted to a paltry 200 a month. This has been accompanied by other losses. At one point after ISIS’ capture of Mosul (Iraq’s second largest city), ISIS held sway over 6 million Iraqis living in one-third of the national territory. With the fall of Mosul, ISIS’ control has shrunk to 1 million Iraqis in one-tenth of Iraqi territory. Overall in Iraq and Syria, ISIS forces are now down to about 15,000.
For ISIS, politically, the impact of this momentum has been devastating. Different from other Islamic terrorist groups, like al-Qaida, ISIS seeks to establish a territorial state. On July 4, 2014, ISIS raised its black flag over the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, a celebrated 12th century symbol of the revered Abbasid Caliphate, after a lightning attack and capture of the city. In declaring the revival of this caliphate, ISIS’ leader declared its victory over 60,000 Iraqi Army defenders as equal to the Prophet Mohammed’s decisive triumph in the 627 A.D. Battle of the Trench over pagan Arabs trying to annihilate Islam. When Iraqi troops recaptured Mosul, rather than face the humiliation of seeing the Iraqi flag fly again over the al-Nuri mosque, ISIS blew up the mosque on June 24. In so doing, ISIS effectively detonated a suicide vest to its dream of restoring the ancient Abbasid caliphate. The romance is over.
What remains is “Winning the Hearts and Minds” of disaffected Islamic youth from the jihadi path of terrorism. This will come from socioeconomic integration and theological transformation. Regarding the former, a concerted outreach to populations plagued by chronic unemployment and under education must be a priority of all national governments.
The more intractable, but pivotal, challenge is the theological one. This will take time, and will have to come from a global multiplication of stories like this one:
In my classes at Saint Louis University from 2010 to 2012, I had a student from Afghanistan. When he took my “Introduction to International Relations,” he railed against an international system dominated by the Christian West that suppressed Muslims worldwide. Later, in my Asian politics class, he ranted against the legacy of British colonialism.
As a senior, he enrolled in my capstone seminar on “The Politics of the Future.” When we first considered “the future in the past,” he was true to his own past. However, when we turned to the section on values, he became uncharacteristically silent. The course’s major paper required each student to present an achievable domestic and global political system based on his or her cherished value, with an operative principle to achieve it. Breaking his silence, this student came to my office to express his agony: Try as he would, he could not build any future based on resentment. Resentment, he conceded, drew its fuel from the past. The future, he had come to conclude, must flow from a new energy. The paper he turned in surprised me. The value he had chosen was “love,” operated by mutual respect. Sometime later, I asked him what happened. He confessed that the self-examination he undertook to write the paper caused him to convert to Sufism — the branch of Islam that preaches a loving devotion to Allah.
Radical Islamic terrorism, and other forms of violence, will finally dissolve when the adherents of all faiths bend their respective knees to the love of Jesus, the blessings of JHWH, the release of Rama, the compassion of Buddha and the mercy of Allah.