Taking the Surge Global in the Age of Facebook

This op-ed originally appeared in the Army Press. Read more here.

By Capt. Robert Cohen
September 9, 2016

APOJ 16-36
The war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its affiliates is the first war fought in the age of Facebook and Twitter. This new strategic environment means that the actions and comments of ordinary citizens or politicians everywhere—Muslims in Raqqa, Christians in Iowa, and everyone in between—have unprecedented military significance because of their potential impact on the global ideological contest. As actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have made clear, victory over radical Islamic insurgencies depends on winning the battle for the hearts and minds of local civilians, where the most persuasive arguments are economic development, political inclusion, cultural respect, dignity, and reliable safety. Militaries cannot and should not have to achieve these objectives alone.

However, faced with a global Islamist insurgency, the United States government and its political system continue to put forth military-heavy policies which advance these strategic objectives haphazardly. Decried by some as “Whack-a-mole” or reactionary,1
military-heavy policies tend to focus on killing fundamentalists or dismantling networks while complementary policies to alleviate radicalism’s root causes—lack of dignity and economic opportunity in the Muslim world—receive considerably less funding and enduring commitment.

To avoid continual repeats of the bloody and painful disappointments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, the United States and its allies must change their approach to this global ideological insurgency. They must meet this threat with global counterinsurgency, which has never been needed before. In an age when civilizations are simultaneously clashing and intertwining, this will require new strategies, tactics, and unprecedentedly large-scale thinking grounded in proven counterinsurgency doctrine.

Undertaking this change in strategy will require three key constituencies—militaries, civilian government agencies, and ordinary civilians–to participate in defeating the root causes of the new global insurgency. These constituencies also must adapt to a novel technological and strategic environment, in which a Quran-burning pastor in Florida can trigger religious riots in Afghan villages, or Danish cartoons spur fundamentalism in the Nigerian Sahel. Fighting an ideological war in the age of Facebook brings new considerations, which inform the difficult but essential task of taking counterinsurgency global. The United States and its citizens must also demonstrate the generational
commitment that won the Cold War, recognizing that there is no quick fix for a problem that started with the rise of Wahhabi puritanism in the 1700s as a response to the declining Ottoman Empire.

Otherwise, terrorism will continue to metastasize, all three groups will suffer, and uniformed service members will continue to be sent on
strategically vain missions.

“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
– Winston Churchill