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GailForce: Have Presidential Candidates Proposed Anything New In The Fight Against Terrorism?

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Getty Images)

With respect to the broader issue of my critics…I think that when you listen to what they actually have to say, what they’re proposing, most of the time, when pressed, they describe things that we’re already doing. Maybe they’re not aware that we’re already doing them. Some of them seem to think that if I were just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing, that that would make a difference—because that seems to be the only thing that they’re doing, is talking as if they’re tough. But I haven’t seen particular strategies that they would suggest that would make a real difference.

President Obama speaking at a Press Conference in Turkey on November 16, 2015

Last week both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush gave major talks outlining their respective plans for defeating terrorists. Those two presidential candidates’ views will be my focus for this blog. In a recent article in the Washington Post, the author noted that with the exception of both candidates calling for no fly zones, “overall the candidates and the president are talking about doing basically the same three things to fight the Islamic State: airstrikes, bolstering local forces, getting the world on the same page.”

I think that’s too broad a generalization and does not get at the heart of all the issues. As a Veteran and retired intelligence professional, when I sit down and listen to what each candidate has to say on national security issues, I’m looking for the answer to two questions. First, does the candidate really understand the depth of the problem and related issues? Second, what are their proposed solutions and third are they feasible?

Do the candidates understand the scope of the problem?

In 2012, at the request of the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, the Department of Defense published Decade of War Volume I Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations. The purpose was to ensure we learned the lessons from the previous decade of war. The first lesson learned discussed was “a failure to recognize, acknowledge, and accurately define the operational environment led to a mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions, and goals. The operational environment encompasses not only the threat but also the physical, informational, social, cultural, religious, and economic elements of the environment.” Bottom line is: if you don’t get that right, then the strategy you develop won’t work.

Jeb Bush says “Despite elaborate efforts by the administration to avoid even calling it by name, one of the very gravest threats we face today comes from radical Islamic terrorists.” I don’t dispute that but how do you explain the fact that there have been many reports that former members of Saddam Hussein’s Army now make up a lot of the military leadership and intelligence positions within ISIS? Why is that?

Clinton seems to have a better understanding of the complexity of the issues, pointing out that under former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s regime the Sunnis tribes were betrayed and forgotten. She feels that if we are going to win on the ground, we need to bring the Sunnis back on board. Bush also stresses the need to bring the Sunnis on board, but says the problem was caused by the premature withdrawal of U.S. Forces leaving a void that ISIS filled. I agree with Bush that the U.S. withdrawal was a mistake but wonder: if Maliki’s regime had been more inclusive, would the end result have been the same?

I participated in a Department of Defense media program that gave me the opportunity to receive briefings and ask questions to many of the senior Generals involved in the training of Iraqi military forces. One question I asked concerned the Iraqi sectarian issues. Using our own history as an example, I said as long as northern military forces occupied the south after the Civil War, African Americans were able to integrate into southern society, holding government offices and positions. As soon as the troops left, white southerners enacted Jim Crow laws which restricted the freedom of the former slaves. It was not till 100 years later that a lot of the problems caused by these laws were addressed and reversed. What were the chances that the sectarian issues in Iraq between different ethnic and religious groups would prevent them from having an effective and inclusive government? I would pose the same question today to the Presidential candidates.

As the recent attack against an hotel in Mali by a group associated with al-Qaeda reminds us, it is not just ISIS nor is the conflict confined to just Iraq and Syria. Addressing the topic in their annual posture statement, United States Africa Command reported:

The network of al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents continues to exploit Africa’s under-governed regions and porous borders to train and conduct attacks. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is expanding its presence in North Africa. Terrorists with allegiances to multiple groups are expanding their collaboration in recruitment, financing, training, and operations, both within Africa and transregionally.

In its recently released 2015 Global Terrorism Index, the Institute for Economics and Peace stated that the Nigerian based group Boko Haram, which declared allegiance to ISIS in March of this year, was the most deadly terrorist group. “The country witnessed the largest increase in terrorist deaths ever recorded by any country, increasing by over 300 per cent to 7,512 fatalities.”

The “so what” factor for me is that over two million Nigerians have been displaced internally because of the actions of Boko Harum. Another 175,000 have sought refuge in neighboring Chad, Niger, and Cameron. The UN says they’re critically short of funding needed to provide assistance. Are we witnessing the development of another major refugee crisis? Is it not better to destroy and/or neutralize terrorist groups rather than have another large number of people feel the only solution is to seek refugee status and to move to another country?

In her talk, Hillary Clinton stressed that this was a worldwide fight and required a worldwide solution. Two statements stood out for me:

Now, let’s be clear about what we’re facing. Beyond Paris in recent days, we’ve seen deadly terrorist attacks in Nigeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, and a Russian civilian airline destroyed over the Sinai. At the heart of today’s new landscape of terror is ISIS. They persecute religious and ethnic minorities; kidnap and behead civilians; murder children. They systematically enslave, torture and rape women and girls…

But we have learned that we can score victories over terrorist leaders and networks, only to face metastasizing threats down the road, so we also have to play and win the long game. We should pursue a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, one that embeds our mission against ISIS within a broader struggle against radical jihadism that is bigger than any one group, whether it’s Al Qaida or ISIS or some other network.

Looking at Jeb Bush’s views expressed in his talk last week at The Citadel and his recent remarks at the Reagan Presidential Library, he says it’s a worldwide problem yet his proposed solutions only address two problem areas: “My strategy meets the unique circumstances in each of the two countries, Iraq and Syria, in which ISIS now has territory.”

He speaks of the importance of allies but again with the exception of Egypt and Tunisia, he only mentions countries in the Middle East:

In all of this, the United States must engage with friends and allies, and lead again in that vital region. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the most populous Arab country and the wealthiest, are important partners of the United States. Those relationships have been badly mishandled by this administration. Both countries are key to a better-coordinated regional effort against terrorism. We need to restore trust, and work more closely with them against common threats. We have very capable partners, likewise, in the United Arab Emirates, who are willing and able to take the fight to the extremists. We have a moderate and quite formidable leader in King Abdullah of Jordan. We have an ally in the new democratic government in Tunisia, and a fragile democracy in Lebanon—nations that are both under assault by radicals and terrorists. Across the region, responsible governments need no persuading of what the moment requires.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton remarked:

We’ve had a lot of conversation about ISIS in the last week, let’s not forget al-Qaeda. They still have the most sophisticated bombmakers, ambitious plotters and active affiliates in places like Yemen and North Africa, so we can’t just focus on Iraq and Syria, we need to intensify our counter—our counterterrorism efforts on a wider scope.

What are their proposed solutions and are they feasible?

Again Jeb Bush’s strategy solutions focus on Iraq and Syria. For Iraq he is proposing the following actions:
– Support the Iraqi forces
– Consistent air power to support local ground forces
– Give current forces greater range of action
– Provide more support to the Kurds
– Diplomatic strategy for enduring political stability in Iraq

For Syria he proposes:
– A coordinated international effort is required to give Syria’s moderate forces the upper hand
– Expand and improve the recruitment and training of Syrian opposition fighters
– Establish multiple safe zones in Syria
– Along with partners create an expanding no fly zone to prevent more crimes by the regime

For me, he left unanswered how he would fight terrorism in other regions of the world.

Hillary Clinton’s strategy has three main elements:
– Defeat ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East.
– Disrupt and dismantle the growing terrorist infrastructure that facilitates the flow of fighters, financing, arms, and propaganda around the world.
– Harden our defenses and those of our allies against external and homegrown threats.

For each of these points, she provides a great deal of detail. At least for now her more thorough and detailed views seem to be winning over support. A Washington Post/ABC news poll indicated voters find her more trusted on handling the terrorism issue than her Republican rivals.

Clinton also stressed the importance of both political parties working together to defeat terrorism:

When New York was attacked on 9/11, we had a Republican president, a Republican governor and a Republican mayor, and I worked with all of them. We pulled together and put partisanship aside to rebuild our city and protect our country.

In his Reagan Library talk Bush stated:

Who can seriously argue that America and our friends are safer today than in 2009, when the President and Secretary Clinton—the storied ‘team of rivals’—took office? So eager to be the history-makers, they failed to be the peacemakers. It was a case of blind haste to get out, and to call the tragic consequences somebody else’s problem. Rushing away from danger can be every bit as unwise as rushing into danger, and the costs have been grievous.

I’m a firm believer in lessons learned but there is a lot of blame to go around. I think many would argue that Congressional gridlock and its bad relationship with the President has had a major negative impact on national security policy. I’ve blogged before about the toll sequestration has taken on our military forces.

Have Presidential Candidates Proposed Anything New In The Fight Against Terrorism?

President Obama has been steadfast in his refusal to put large numbers of U.S. ground forces in the fight. Both Bush and Clinton advocate using ground forces in coordination with Iraqi and moderate Syrian Forces; but Clinton also stresses the need “to move simultaneously toward a political solution to the civil war that paves the way for a new government with new leadership, and to encourage more Syrians to take on ISIS as well”. Both candidates also advocate establishing no fly zones something President Obama has also resisted.

I’m an avid football fan. One of the mantras the experts always say is defense wins championships. During my time in the military, the mantra was: you can’t win a war with out putting troops on the ground. I agree. As to the feasibility of Clinton and Bush’s proposals, I’m not sold on an approach that relies heavily on local forces to fight terrorism. I still believe the best approach is establishment of an organization like NATO but focused on fighting terrorism. It would also have a standing rapid deployment force made up of coalition members that could be called upon when needed. If I were Queen for a day, I would add that concept to both of their strategies.

Again my views are my own. I think I’ll end here.



Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on