On Jan. 21, our first business-man president will sit down at his desk in the Oval Office and look out at the world around him. In addition to jump-starting the economy, repatriating lost American jobs and other ambitious goals, President-elect Donald Trump has promised to come up with a plan in the first 30 days to destroy the Islamic State group. To do so, he will have to break a few rules or at least change the way we think about winning wars.
As we speak, Iraqi forces claim to have recaptured 50 percent of Mosul, but what does this particular battle mean within the context of the war on terror? Many of course say that Mosul is the last stronghold of ISIS in Iraq, and this is undoubtedly true. Yet, the concept of territorial gains is a twentieth century, somewhat anachronistic notion. In World War II, orders were disseminated through coded communications or by courier, and war-fighting capability was enabled by munitions, armor, ships or airplanes. The world was an infrastructure-centric place. To stop the Nazis, it was primarily a question of destroying their ability to continue fighting. Bombs and bullets were the preferred means to that end.
But what of ISIS? The militant group's weapon of choice is a perverse and apocalyptic vision of the world and its place within it. To propagate its corrupting influence, it needs only the internet and disaffected populations receptive to its worldview. While we have made significant gains on the battlefield — killing many of its leaders, destroying weapons caches and disrupting supply lines — we have done little to disable ISIS' ability to recruit followers, or ultimately, target western societies.
Trump can "bomb the s--t out of 'em", but in the end that will not make us more secure nor is this an effective strategy for all the other disaffected groups that will surely spring up in the years ahead. Of course, it is important to remember that ISIS is by no means the only entity that wishes us harm. There are certainly more conventional actors that are plotting our downfall, but the ebbs and flows of geopolitics keeps the world order in a generally stable condition. Even rogue nations like North Korea operate within a set of known motivations and conditions that can be monitored and, to an extent, managed. ISIS, and other radical terrorist organizations, are not governed by the same immutable laws of conduct.
To make matters worse, our world is changing in ways that are both hard to control and predict. Technology is advancing rapidly, and information in general is only a few clicks away. What will the defeat of ISIS entail in a world where ideas (including bad ones) move at the speed of light and are accessible to anyone, anywhere?
It is open-source information that ISIS is working to obtain chemical and other types of weapons of mass destruction. They are experimenting with other disruptive technologies, too. Combine some of these things and you have the ingredients for capabilities with the potential for catastrophic impact. We risk much if we think a quick win in Mosul or the Middle East in general will keep us safe.
For Trump’s plan to be successful, he must certainly defeat ISIS on the battlefield, but the problem goes much deeper than that. The ultimate goal of ISIS is to create an Islamic caliphate. If that fails, as it seems it might, they will surely shift focus in an attempt to exact revenge. Given the US role in opposing ISIS' worldview and its predilection for death and destruction, the group will undoubtedly target the West with renewed vigor. As a result, defeating ISIS on the battlefield will simply create a new problem here at home. With this in mind, we must re-energize our homeland defense. We are arguably relatively good at this; after all, we are told numerous attacks have been prevented. However, being relatively good is not enough. A single lapse in our diligence has the potential to cause untold economic and social damage, possibly undercutting the public’s confidence in our ability to recover. Such an outcome would have unpredictable consequences and must be avoided.
In a world where the enemy is diffuse and the tools to wreak havoc are ubiquitous, the best (and maybe only) recourse is to marshal our vast strategic advantage in data collection, synthesis and interpretation to stay ahead of developments on the ground. The intelligence community has many tools at its disposal and routinely collects information on the whereabouts of known antagonists, terrorism incidents, cellphone usage, transactional records and many other types of "metadata". Sophisticated algorithms vet new information in light of what is already known and look for patterns of concern.
Yet, even this approach is too slow. Systems that point to troubling developments after they happen are by definition reactionary. What we need are systems that can get out in front of the adversary and his planning cycle — that are anticipatory in nature. Anticipatory defense will rely on artificial intelligence to predict with accuracy based on imperfect information outcomes before they happen. The country’s leading science and technology labs and the defense industrial base need to revitalize their research programs to make this a reality. The Department of Defense spends a great deal of money on tools designed to fight 20th century enemies — and we need to continue to worry about these sorts of adversaries.
However, enemies can prevail in war in ways that are less direct or traditional. We need to develop tools that will provide us with the information overmatch necessary to prevent attacks that have the potential to disrupt or destabilize our society. Artificial intelligence as applied to data curation and exploitation has the best chance of leveling the playing field. Thirty days may be enough to figure out what to do about ISIS on the battlefields of the Middle East, but Trump would be wise to think about the endgame.
John Walker leads Navigant's Defense and National Security Advisory practice. He works with defense primes and government agencies in strategic, technology and operational domains.