Twenty minutes. That was all it took for Islamic State terrorists to unleash a series of coordinated strikes that devastated a nation and shocked the conscience of the entire world. Glued to our television sets in the United States, we looked on in horror at scenes of chaos and bloodshed that shattered the lives of so many in Paris.
Make no mistake about it: We are at war. It is not a war against an opposing nation. The Islamic State is not a sovereign in the territorial sense but is a sick and twisted ideology that seeks to engulf the region and turn back the clock to the Dark Ages. We must ask ourselves, how do we defeat an evil state of consciousness? What are the best approaches?
The Obama administration has proposed a largely political, containment-based solution that is fraught with risks, including coordinating with the Russians and Iranians to win back Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq. The problem with this strategy is that neither of these nations is a trustworthy ally; legitimizing them would lead only to further destabilization. Empowering Russia would only embolden Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Doing business with the Iranians encourages their ambitions to control the territory from Iran’s eastern border to the Mediterranean, threatening our allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia.
To lead this fight, the United States must dramatically increase its efforts to appeal directly to the moderate Kurds, Syrians and Iraqis. We must convince them that the Islamic State poses a fundamental threat to their existence. And we must equip them with the means to convey that message to their people. This will require a multi-pronged communications strategy that leverages our strengths in media production and messaging, combined with cutting off traditional access routes to social media for radical Islamist groups.
We have in place both the technical and legal capabilities to prohibit the widespread dissemination of hate-based propaganda disguised as religious teaching. We can monitor social media by expanding the search algorithms already in place to safeguard against inappropriate behavior, including religious hate speech. Once flagged, we can notify platform providers and encourage them to censor communications (and block users) that violate the terms of constructive discourse. The hacker group Anonymous has already provided a model for accomplishing this. We should use every tool at our disposal to root out and destroy the global online recruitment efforts of these extremist organizations. We must not allow their macabre murder videos and threats to be promoted anywhere.
The Islamic State is on the offensive, and we must do more to counter their fighters and eviscerate their infrastructure. But this also means identifying and cutting off their sources of supply and funding - namely the oil fields along Syria’s eastern border. We need to either destroy the fields with airstrikes or take them and hold them with a coalition of local (Iraqi, Turkish and Kurdish) ground troops and Western military advisers and Special Operations forces. The United States can lead the way in developing a political framework and military strategy that enables this to happen. Ongoing military and economic development assistance to these nations would have to be tied to their cooperation in securing the Syrian oil fields.
We also need enhanced security on our borders. We need to take additional steps to ensure that terrorists from the Middle East do not infiltrate and use refugee status to slip into the United States, which is among the countries that the Islamic State wants desperately to strike directly. But it can’t simply end with defending our borders. As a leader in the fight against Islamist extremism, the United States has certain responsibilities toward the millions of Syrians and Iraqis who have been terrorized by the Islamic State.
While we should not open U.S. borders to refugees at this time, we should encourage the establishment of sanctuary zones in the contested areas of Iraq and Syria. These zones would be administered and controlled by local moderate forces, with financial support and military coordination provided by Western countries. This would not involve a significant on-the-ground presence of Western armies. But we would provide humanitarian aid in the form of shelter, food, water and medical care to fleeing refugees.
The containment strategy currently employed by the Obama administration has simply not addressed the huge power vacuum created by the abdication of U.S. leadership in the region since U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011. Instead, the situation has gotten far worse than we could have imagined.
Now, more than ever, the United States must be willing to lead the free world. We need to restore America’s standing by winning over the hearts and minds of populations affected by radical Islamist violence. And to do that we need to create a winning strategy to dismantle and destroy the Islamic State while planting seeds for a more peaceful, healthy and cohesive society in the war-torn regions of the Middle East.
Carson is a 2016 Republican candidate for president.