In the U.S. Navy, we say that every sailor is a firefighter.
That’s because when a fire breaks out on a ship at sea — a real threat given the combustible mixture of fuel, ammunition, electrical circuits and stored supplies — the entire crew is trained to step up and douse it.
It’s not like you can just walk across the street and let the blaze burn itself out. I have fought fires several times, and here is the most important lesson: Never underestimate the power of a fire to “re-flash.”
If you put out the initial flames but leave smoldering material, there is a high possibility of it leaping back to life. Navy protocol is to set a watch of sailors prepared to go back into action if a re-flash occurs. This is also the right way to look at the Islamic State at the moment.
Over the past several years and under two presidential administrations, U.S. and allied forces have taken away at least 95 percent of ISIS’ terrain.
But without a re-flash watch, there is a real chance of the group reviving itself.
Someone who knows this well is the head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joe Votel, a career special forces operator who has led the fight since 2016.
“If the major actors and their proxies become embroiled in a competition for influence in Syria,” he told Congress recently, “this may create space for ISIS remnants or other terrorist groups to reform or reconstitute.”
He echoed the view of former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned after President Trump’s foolish declaration of a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
It’s not just physical territory that’s a concern. ISIS remains very capable in the digital realm. It has used social media with savvy to bring in recruits, raise money and set up a command-and-control network. It continues to launch terrorist attacks globally, including the deadly bombing last month of a cathedral in the southern Philippines.
Bear in mind that today’s Islamic State grew out of the collapse of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, and the ill-advised pullout of all U.S. troops in 2011 without leaving in place a contingent to ensure a stable transition.
You can drop a plumb line from that precipitate departure and today’s virulent and still dangerous ISIS in Syria. Why repeat that mistake?
What would an effective re-flash watch look like? First, contra Trump, it would mean keeping 7,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops across Iraq and Syria for special operations, intelligence-gathering and supporting regional allies — especially Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. needs to reinvigorate the global coalition against the Islamic State, which is losing momentum with the resignation of the U.S. special envoy, Brett McGurk, who departed in Mattis’ wake.
The Pentagon should put new emphasis on interagency cooperation with the intelligence agencies, the State Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency — all of which bring different tools to the fight. And while the U.S. Cyber Command is doing its utmost to protect networks, it needs to go on the offensive.
The U.S. military must also think more coherently about private-public cooperation.
This includes working with partners such as the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent, and educational nongovernmental groups — as it did in providing humanitarian assistance and “medical diplomacy” in Latin America and the Caribbean when I headed the U.S. Southern Command.
And, above all, getting cooperation from the tech firms and large social networks that Islamic State has used so cleverly.
Even Google, which has at times leaned away from cooperating with the Defense Department, has been very effective in countering violent extremism with projects generated through its Jigsaw tech incubator (formerly known as Google Ideas).
One redirects potential extremists to more benign websites, for example. But big tech companies as a group could do far more.
Finally, the U.S. and its coalition allies would be wise not to be excessively triumphalist or to claim “victory” over ISIS.
All should take pride in the progress made against this relentless and implacable foe — but the job is far from over.
—James Stavridis is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO.