war on the rocks

Wars of Ideas: From the Taliban to the Islamic State

January 6, 2016

With the re-taking of Ramadi, a difficult year in the history of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seems to have ended on a high note with a tentative victory. Perhaps now President Obama’s hope that the American public recognize his national security team’s efforts as forceful, appropriate, and effective can be realized.

At the end of last month, Obama bemoaned the fact that people’s judgments about progress in the war on ISIL were being formed without full awareness or understanding of progress on the ground. To address this information gap, the last few weeks of 2015 saw a flurry of administration activity to get out the word about Obama’s strategy to counter the Islamic State.

Not unexpectedly, these public affairs efforts are bringing attacks from prominent critics of the administration, most volubly from Republican candidates for the presidency. They assert that the problem is not about public relations, and insist that a more muscular strategy and the capabilities to match are needed.

However, the candidate who is (perhaps inadvertently) highlighting the most significant omission in the president’s strategy to fight ISIL is not a Republican.

Hillary Clinton, in one of her earliest explications of a “360-degree strategy” to defeat the Islamic State, outlines three lines of effort: a robust campaign in Syria and Iraq, attacks on the supporting infrastructure that have allowed ISIL to sustain its activities in the region and beyond, and a hardening of our defenses at home.

Her remarks are notable for the balance that she strikes between steps that must be taken to address the immediate threat in Syria and Iraq (not dissimilar in tone and substance from those proposed by administration officials and critics alike) and measures to bring about an enduring and global victory against the Islamic State (lost in the more frantic comments of those who are offering ideas on quick, forceful solutions). Clinton’s belief in the importance of the long game is summed up neatly in her observation that “we are in a contest of ideas against an ideology of hate, and we have to win.”

Is the importance of a war of ideas fought against extremist ideologies getting short shrift in the discussion about a strategy to defeat the Islamic State? There are certainly distinguished analysts and experienced practitioners who are calling for us to pay more attention to what ultimately may prove to be the most critical part of such a strategy.

In a comprehensive article on countering ISIL, noted military theorist Huba Wass de Czege highlights the importance of waging a war of ideas. He notes that a critical determinant of victory in ISIL-held territories will be success in a struggle for “legitimacy to govern, make laws, and enforce them” that must take place between ISIL and “the alternative that will follow.” He then argues that, by extension, a meaningful global victory over extremism will also depend on the outcome of the contest of legitimacy between

the forces of modernity and the remaining wide spread remnants, offspring, and cousins of this movement [ISIL]. Winning these future struggles will also require framing them as the fanatical against the reasonable, the civilized against the barbarian, the lawful against the lawless, and the modern against the medieval.

For those who prefer a warfighter’s views on the critical role that the war of ideas can play in the fight against the Islamic State, Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently offered his tips for fighting terrorists: the importance of creating “a network to fight a [terrorist] network”; the need to go beyond decapitation strategies; and the critical role that facilitators, financiers, logisticians, and other enablers play in terrorist groups and the importance of defeating them. Saving the best for last, McChrystal stressed that to be successful against the Islamic State it is critical “to go after the idea that makes people want to be part of it.”

But is it really possible to fight against an idea? If so, how? How do we tell if we are winning a war of ideas?

Perhaps a look at where we have tried this before, what went right and what did not, and lessons that can be applied to the current fight against ISIL might be instructive.

In late 2003, the headquarters of the 25th Infantry Division (Light) prepared the division for its first deployment since the Vietnam War. Lt. Gen. David Barno, at that time the commander of the Combined Forces Command, Afghanistan (and now one of the authors of the Strategic Outpost series at War on the Rocks), visited the Tropic Lightning division leadership. His purpose was to explain the strategy that he had recently developed for fighting the Taliban. His explanation was elegant in its simplicity, drawn for us on one sheet of butcher paper. He started with two semicircular arrows, running in opposite directions, tip to tail. The top arrow was labeled “Security”; the one underneath “Reconstruction.”

Because we were about to become Gen. Barno’s operational headquarters in Afghanistan, the discussion of the relationship between security and reconstruction was familiar. Establishing security in that nation would enable the effort to rebuild vital infrastructure, support the growth of an economy that had been devastated by years of war, and give the Afghans a chance to strengthen the institutions of governance. In turn, a successful reconstruction effort would help set the conditions for more effective security operations, establishing what could be conceptualized as a “virtuous cycle.”

All of this was consistent with what we had been reading and studying about emerging counterinsurgency doctrine. But the next (and last) addition to his model was something we had not thought much about. Straight between the “security” and “reconstruction” arcs, Gen. Barno drew a third arrow in bold — meant to signify the fundamental importance of the final component of the strategy — and labeled it “Extend the reach of the central government.”

His amplifying comments made it clear how we were to leverage this effort to wage a war against the Taliban’s “big idea” that was aimed directly at the fledgling Afghan central government. In their narrative, the government’s halting steps to hit its stride were signs of hopeless incompetence, willful neglect, and rapacious corruption. The international coalition was essentially a foreign mercenary force invited into the country to ensure that those in power would stay there. The Taliban had been effective in preaching this story to the Afghan people, the net effect being that the government in Kabul was viewed by many in the population as being just as foreign — and threatening — as the occupying armies that were supporting it.

Fighting this idea would involve three major mutually reinforcing efforts: building the capacity of Afghan government institutions to provide for their people, supporting projects to improve the quality of life of the Afghan population, and ultimately convincing the majority of Afghans that their government and national institutions offered a preferable alternative vision of the future.

At the outset, it was clear to us that this approach to winning the war of ideas would involve a prolonged undertaking requiring the active participation of a wide array of U.S., coalition, and Afghan organizations. However, we had not yet predicted or confronted either the resistance to reform in key portions of the Afghan government or the challenges posed by the diversion of U.S. attention and resources to Iraq, which was just becoming a major issue for us at that point in 2004. As a result, we cannot claim to have set the course for winning the war of ideas in Afghanistan as we had intended. But there are significant takeaways from our experience at that time in the history of the Afghan war (2004–5) that can inform our current plan to fight ISIL if we are to make a war of ideas part of our strategy.

Simplicity is a Lie

It is important to identify the big ideas that are fundamental to the existence of an extremist movement or organization like the Taliban or Islamic State, but it is dangerous to oversimplify. Throughout the war in Afghanistan, we have regularly made the mistake of assuming that armed resistance has been the result of some coherent, uniform set of precepts that can be defined as “Taliban ideology,” which is often conflated with Sharia or Islamic fundamentalism. But the causes of that insurgency are far more complex. It is far more accurate to describe what drives the Taliban insurgency in terms of what they are against (in their view, a corrupt, overreaching, foreign governing authority in areas that have been traditionally ruled by local authorities) than what they are actually for. Similarly, it is a mistake to believe we have done all of the thinking that needs to be done about the Islamic State’s “idea” and conclude that it can be summed up as some notion of a “caliphate.” Calling to mind the advice of Gen. McChrystal, we would do well to understand what is drawing fighters to ISIL (or why they are sticking with it) and develop our understanding of its ideas based on that. To that point, there was a recent poll done on a small group of current and former ISIL fighters to determine why they had joined the group. About half of the responses collected could be tied to the idea of a caliphate (e.g., “jihad” or “Muslim belonging”). But the other half reported unrelated reasons (e.g., money, desire to protect Sunnis who are being attacked in Syria and Iraq).

The Human Terrain is Decisive

In the classic conception of war, battles are often fought over terrain that will lend advantage to one side over its enemy. In the war of ideas, the perception of populations is the critical terrain. In Afghanistan our war of ideas hinged on understanding the “human terrain.” Some of our most successful kinetic operations in Afghanistan were based on gains that came because of the support of the local, non-combatant population (e.g., intelligence acquired, material or fighting support lent, other cooperation secured).

Analyzing the terrain of perception to support a successful fight against ISIL’s idea is probably a more complex proposition. But it must start with a clear understanding of target populations and how their perceptions are being formed. Currently, ISIL appears to be shaping its messages to focus on the perceptions of three major groups — to encourage potential recruits and add to the stream of incoming foreign fighters; to inspire hardcore jihadis to either continue the fight in Syria and Iraq or to take action abroad; and to appeal to “fence-sitters” in ISIL-occupied territories whose cooperation (or at least tolerance) is required for the group to maintain control in occupied areas. A successful war of ideas waged against ISIL will most likely mean accepting battle in all three of these “areas of operation” and developing tailored countervailing messages for each that are backed up by convincing actions.

Bind Moral and Geographical Factors Together

In warfare it is important to understand the relationship between what might be described in Clausewitzian terms as “moral” versus “geographical” factors. Winning the war of ideas is inextricably tied to establishing the superiority of “the spirit and other moral qualities of an army” over those of the enemy. There is certainly a connection between seizing and holding physical terrain (“commanding positions, mountains, rivers, woods and roads” to which Clausewitz might now add “cities”) and prevailing in the moral domain.

Recently, there has been much discussion about the best way to attack the Islamic State as a physical entity, on the theory that “rolling them back” on the ground may take the luster from their ideas. And it is probably true that the fervor of some of the Islamic State’s adherents will cool if the group continues to lose battles. But it is a mistake to assume that the destruction of ISIL’s idea will inevitably follow as its currently occupied territories are taken back. A counter-ISIL strategy that is based on the assumption that a lasting victory can be won by recapturing cities that they currently hold ignores the broad appeal of the idea of ISIL to a wide array of fighters: those die-hard jihadis who are actually seeking an apocalyptic last battle; the citizens of a city like Mosul who are loyal to the Islamic State’s forces who are there because they prefer ISIL rule to the alternative that they believe the Iraqi central government offers; Sunnis who have joined the group exactly because they see such attacks on ISIL and its territories as part of a larger campaign against their particular way of practicing Islam. The central idea of the Taliban held strong appeal to many Afghans who had grown weary of the malfeasance, fecklessness, and occasional brutality of the government in Kabul despite the fact that for many years the Taliban failed to exercise physical control over any major city or district in that country. Gen. McChrystal’s message about the relationship between offering alternatives that have appeal and ultimate success in a war of ideas was at least in part shaped by his experience in Afghanistan.

Fighting the War of Ideas in 2016

In the coming year, it is very likely that there will be more good news coming out of Iraq and Syria about victories on the ground against the Islamic State. After all, they are not a particularly effective fighting force, and with the coalition lined up against them growing in strength, numbers, and (at least for now) determination, there could very well be more good news than bad this year about territory retaken, leaders eliminated, numbers of fighters killed, and so on.

But it is also more likely than not that if these gains are achieved without due regard to how to fight the idea of the Islamic State, they will be far more hard-won, more time-consuming, and costlier than they need to be. And it is virtually certain that until the idea of the Islamic State is defeated, the group’s hold in the region and globally is unlikely to be loosened in any meaningful or lasting way.


General Eric T. Olson (U.S. Army, retired) was the commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division (Light) from 2002 to 2005. From 2004 to 2005, he also served as the commander of Combined/Joint Task Force-76 in Afghanistan.