- - Monday, December 1, 2014


The distribution of the most recent video of a Westerner murdered by Islamic State, or ISIS, militants should serve as a stark reminder of the threat we face in the Middle East. The execution by beheading of American aid worker Peter Kassig makes it very clear that the fight must continue.

In spite of President Obama’s tough talk that ISIS would be “degraded and destroyed,” the insurgent force grows only more emboldened by the West’s minimalist response to its aggression in Iraq and Syria.

The killing of Kassig, who served as a U.S. Army Ranger before dedicating himself to humanitarian aid efforts, struck a particular chord for me. Like Kassig, I was a U.S. Army Ranger-qualified infantry officer, in my case leading a combat platoon in Afghanistan in 2006-2007 before combat injuries ended my service.

In close-quarters firefights with Taliban insurgents on repeated occasions, my men and I could see the long knives hanging from our enemy’s belts. We had no illusions as to what purpose those weapons were intended to serve—the beheading of captured U.S. soldier perhaps the ultimate prize for a Taliban fighter. To this day, I still have periodic nightmares in which my men and I fall into enemy hands and meet that darkest of fates.

The video of Kassig’s killing—the fifth such record distributed in recent months—underscores ISIS’s brutality. Obama’s condemnation of the murder as “an act of pure evil by a terrorist group that the world rightly associates with inhumanity” was accurate and appropriate.

But the gulf between the president’s eloquent words and his actions in confronting ISIS could not be wider. Nearly three months after the president pledged the destruction of the militant army, the sense of deep commitment is lacking. In fact, Obama seems far more comfortable waging war against his partisan opposites in the U.S. Congress than in confronting the “pure evil” of ISIS.

That’s why we have the minimalist strategy we currently are pursuing in the Middle East, in which the president promises “no boots on the ground,” while dispatching military advisers to work with the Iraqi army and Kurdish fighters, and relies on targeted air strikes to attack ISIS positions and assets.

Unfortunately, these tactics will almost certainly prove insufficient. ISIS has already had some success in adapting their tactics to avoid air strikes, in part by melting into civilian populations.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has approved nearly 3,000 U.S. military personnel to advise in Iraq, making a mockery of his own declaration not to send troops. He’s sent roughly the same number of troops to Africa to combat the Ebola virus. It’s a reflection of the president’s misguided priorities that a primarily charitable public health mission rates a comparable troop commitment to what he sends to confront the forces of “pure evil.”

All the while, ISIS continues to find new recruits, including many young men and women from the west who are drawn to the movement’s jihadi purpose. Many of these will return to the United States, France, Great Britain and other western nations thoroughly radicalized, and will then pose a long-term threat at home.

And ISIS will continue to expand in the Middle East unless confronted—in fact, it’s already happening. A November 18 CNN report detailed the movement’s westward progress as ISIS sympathizers have taken control of the Libyan city of Derna, population 100,000, where the ISIS flag flies over public buildings and the football stadium has been converted as a site for public executions. Does that sound like a movement in decline?

Failing to neutralize ISIS now will have serious ramifications in the future as their movement gains territory, gathers more adherents and spreads its poisonous ideology more broadly.

Most combat veterans, myself included, will tell you that to fight in a war is a terrible thing. But the only thing worse than fighting a war is to wage a half-hearted strategy that serves only to embolden those who have dedicated themselves to the path of chaos and destruction.

That is the approach the Obama administration and our allies have chosen in Iraq and Syria—an approach that needs to be revised before we find ourselves facing a much more serious threat.

Sean Parnell, senior adviser to Concerned Veterans for America, is a retired U.S. Army Airborne Ranger who served in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, and the author of “Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan.”

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