Best Defense

Dubik’s response: Tom, I see some big problems with trying to contain ISIS

Re-containment. I do not believe one can contain remotely. Nor do I believe that one can contain solely by raids and reliance on indigenous forces.


General Dubik is one of those people who are so thoughtful that when I disagree with them, I wonder what I am missing. So I asked him about containment. He replied:

“Re-containment. I do not believe one can contain remotely. Nor do I believe that one can contain solely by raids and reliance on indigenous forces. I think the last number of years has seen that the result of these approaches has been an expansion of the territory that our enemies have controlled or threatened. So I do believe that some U.S. and Coalition troops — beyond just trainers — will be necessary. I certainly do NOT  believe that we must “redo the surge” all over the place, but the self-imposed, a-priori “no boots on the ground” policy is strategic folly.

During the time we “contained” the Soviet Union, for example, we did it with both military and non-military means employed in a variety of ways. In some places, many boots-on-the-ground were necessary. So I think we should have at least open minds as we go forward. (I’m not equating the USSR with AQ, ISIS, and their ilk; rather, I’m just pointing out that containing an enemy whose intent is to conquer and control land requires the employment of ground forces.)

I also believe that there’s a bit of conceptual work to be done with respect to containment as a strategy toward AQ, ISIS, and their ilk. We should not just assume containment will work because we want it to. We should be asking some very tough questions: In what ways can they be contained and exactly how would that containment we executed and adapted as they learn how to avoid our approaches? In what ways are they not “containable,” and what are our mitigating strategies, if any, in these areas? How will we +coordinate the military and non-military aspects of the containment a strategy — domestically and within a coalition? We’ve not demonstrated much proficiency in this regard so far?  What is the fiscal analysis associated with containment? A containment strategy is, by its nature, a strategy of exhaustion. It rests upon the assumption that we can “wear down” and “outlast” the enemy. Can we? The Cold War is illustrative. Containing AQ, ISIS, et al, will be different, of course, but will a containment strategy actually be “cost effective,” or is this just another problem we will kick down the road for others to solve later? Also, contain where? AQ and ISIS are already a global presence — Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, elsewhere in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Europe, the United States. So whatever containment strategy we would adopt must recognize this reality.

Personally, I think it would be wiser to  have an offensive rather than defensive mindset, regardless of the strategy we ultimately adopt, and not overestimate our enemy’s “contain ability,” and underestimate their resiliency and adaptability.

Once we answer these questions, we’ll know better if containment will actually work in this case.”

Photo credit: Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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