David Swan
7 min readNov 19, 2015


“So David, what should we do about ISIS?”

As a member of the US Military, a lot of people ask me my opinion on matters of foreign policy. Lately, the most common question is “What should we do about ISIS?” It’s a hard question. Mainly because there aren’t any good answers. Despite what you may hear blathered during Presidential debates or see over simplified by stupid Facebook memes these days, it is incredibly complex. Allow me to address the three most common recommendations I’m seeing in my Facebook feed.

OPTION 1: “Screw that place, why do we even bother? Let them fix their own countries.” This option can also be masked in a more passive form by saying, “War and violence only makes it worse! We need to show them love and compassion with butterflies and unicorns and puppies and kittens!”

PROBLEM: ISIS grows in strength and spreads beyond middle-east. Thousands of people get slaughtered like sheep. Refugee crisis ensues. See current events in Europe.

OPTION 2: “Nuke ’em all, and turn the middle-east into a glass parking lot!”

PROBLEM: Millions of innocent people die. Muslims all over the world turn against us. More radicals, more killing, and the cycle continues indefinitely.

OPTION 3: “Send in 100,000 troops and kick their asses! ‘Merica!”

PROBLEM: We’ve tried this before. It starts out great, but ends horribly. Tactically speaking, it’s relatively easy to hunt down an enemy and kill them. The US Military is good at that … like, the best actually. I’m confident that we could invade, occupy, and end the violence in Syria … for as long as we are there. The problem lies in what we do next. We have an abysmal record in the game of “Nation Building” and “Regime Change” in the middle-east. There is a long list of reasons for that. Here are a few.

REASON 1: Flawed alliances with national leaders.

No long-term strategy to defeat Islamic terrorism will succeed without a solid alliance with the leadership of ALL middle-eastern countries. Unfortunately, each alliance comes with a host of serious problems that undermine progress. Arab Muslim “leaders” tend to play both sides, many are wildly corrupt, they are unwilling to work across the Sunni/Shia divide, and they commit almost as many human rights atrocities as the enemy. Time and time again, we have been burned and our good will has been taken advantage of. Whether our support is in the form of military aid, humanitarian relief, or economic support … it rarely produces the fruit necessary for long term success.

REASON 2: People in the middle east do not work well together on a large scale, politically or militarily.

I’ve come to be very disappointed in the culture as a whole and have extremely low expectations of what they can accomplish in the middle-east on a broad scale beyond the village or tribal level. They are so much more selfish and self-sabotaging than any other culture I’ve come across in my life. Until you’ve seen the organizational dysfunction up close with these people, you really have no idea how bad it is. Additionally, they tend view democracy, cooperation, and inclusion as weaknesses that are to be exploited in order to overthrow and take charge. This is why leaders in the middle-east have historically been ruthless and iron fisted. It’s the only way to suppress the next rebellion.

Maybe a large part of the problem is the lack of national pride or national identity. Most Arab’s sense of identity and loyalty exists primarily in smaller, local, or religious entities … tribes, villages, mosques, Sunni, Shia, etc. Many don’t care about being “Iraqi” or “Syrian” or “Afghani.” So why would they work together with the next village over to fight ISIS? “We may both hate ISIS, but those guys are Sunni’s and they killed my donkey 5 years ago, so I’m not working with them. I’ll worry about my people, and they can worry about theirs.”

REASON 3: The truly decent people among them are passive.

The most decent people among them, in my experience, are also the most passive. They are too afraid to even speak out against the radicals, let alone fight them. They are compassionate, loving people … and they get slaughtered like sheep, their children become sex slaves (girls and boys), and their commitment to non-violence makes them irrelevant.

REASON 4: The US Military is tired of this.

It is an understatement to say that we, as members of the military, are frustrated by what seems to be an unwillingness by Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians to organize, work together, fight, and protect their own people/land. We have spent over a decade trying to train their soldiers using the most professional military in the world and equip them with the best gear money can buy. However, when faced with a real threat, most of the “good guys” seem to drop their weapons, abandon their post, and negate the years of training that they have been provided. I cannot tell you how much it pisses me off to see those ISIS guys driving around Mosul in the armored HMMWV’s (hummers) with .50 caliber machine guns mounted to them — the ones that we gave the Iraqi Army to fight with. No amount of training and weaponry is good enough to defeat even the smallest army without the intrinsic sense of duty to protect your fellow countryman from tyranny. Running from a threat is not something we are familiar with as Americans, so forgive us if we don’t rush back in with 100,000 troops because this is beginning to feel like a waste of time, money, and precious American blood.

The whole thing is incredibly discouraging. My entire professional career has been focused on this problem, and short of divine intervention (dangerous words, I know), I see little hope for a long term solution.

So what do we do? Seriously… what?

One thing that seems to at least slow terrorist networks down is the drone program. Surveying electronic communications to uncover terrorist plots, tracking down the leaders through local informants, and taking them out before their plan gains momentum. Unfortunately, it’s a never ending cycle because each strike produces more propaganda, more images of “infidels bombing our lands, killing our people” that get used to warp the minds of toddlers that are being taught nothing other than to desire to kill westerners for the glory of Allah.

What about homeland defense?

It’s a true statement that there are currently radicalized Islamists residing within the United States. Some are US citizens that have become “bedroom radicals” inspired by internet propaganda. Others are immigrants slipping through the cracks of national intelligence. The challenge is determining when they actually become a terrorist. Most would agree it’s when you commit an act of terrorism. But must we wait for this to happen before acting? Are YouTube views, web browser history, text messages, and email traffic enough to call someone a terrorist? A common strategy used by the CIA for the last few years is to find these guys on the internet, and “recruit them” to commit an attack. The agents work undercover to develop a relationship with the potential terrorist, convince them to perpetrate an attack, then equip them with a fake bomb. They take the scenario all the way to the point of detonation before they make an arrest. It works pretty well, but it’s incredibly slow, requires a lot of man power, and is like finding a needle in a haystack. Not to mention that it borders on entrapment.

But Congress basically wiped their ass with the Constitution when they passed the Patriot Act, right?

Any government’s primary responsibility … far ahead of health care, marriage rights, research grants, regulating commerce, etc … is to protect its citizens. Without proper electronic surveillance, it is impossible to protect us from this particular enemy. Personally, I don’t worry too much about any Orwellian over-reaching by our government. There may be some mistakes from time to time, but generally, that type of behavior is pervasive in monarchies where paranoia of being overthrown runs high (Russia, Iran, North Korea). As a nation that changes leadership every few years by law, nobody gets too comfortable in their job anyway. It’s worth noting that Congress recently successfully walked back parts of the Patriot Act that were deemed excessive. I believe this proved that we have the maturity and wherewithal as a country to tailor our surveillance needs based on the current threat situation.

In conclusion, I’m not smart enough to know what exactly to do. I apologize if you kept reading all the way to the end of this article hoping I would eventually lay it out in a digestible “3-step plan.” I do know that the answer is incredibly complex and lies somewhere between doing nothing and full scale invasion/occupation. We must remember that the primary goal of ISIS and other terrorist groups is to cause fear and panic in order to instigate global chaos. We cannot allow them the satisfaction. We must continue to live our lives, do the things that make us happy, and love our neighbors as ourselves.



David Swan

I have thoughts about stuff. Sometimes I write them down.