What Washington Doesn’t Get about ISIS (Or Is It ISIL?)

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At the end of Thursday’s hearing last week by the House Armed Services Committee examining the US strategy towards ISIS, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey declared, “We’ve got our assets focused like a laser beam on learning more about this enemy.” Amidst all of the logistical and operational talk, it was a refreshing and significant declaration—and an admission that the United States does not know nearly enough.

It is this basic confusion about the nature of ISIS that is putting Washington in danger of failing yet again in the Middle East. The United States seems to have ignored the famous definition of insanity, which is to make the same mistake again and again and hope for a different result. America has within the last few years gone into countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen to fight against Muslim tribal groups. In each case, these societies are currently in chaos and the groups that were the target of the Americans continue to play havoc and spread violence. The new player, which calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is yet another example of a tribal group now involved in a direct military confrontation with the United States and its allies.

Events last week pointed up the need to better understand the nature of the enemy if the United States is to win its new war in the Middle East. After Iraqi officials reported that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been wounded in a US airstrike, he apparently emerged in an audio recording Thursday calling for new "volcanoes of jihad" all over the world. A moment of possible triumph appeared to turn into another recruiting opportunity for the jihadists. Another report suggested that ISIS had formed an alliance with a faction of al Qaeda in Syria.

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