I was disturbed a few days ago in reading reports that the U.S, State and Defense Departments were trying to bolster their success against ISIS, saying that coalition bombings in Iraq and Syria had halted momentum, had killed a significant number of ISIS fighters (6000 was the number being bandied about), and that that included a significant percentage of ISIS battlefield leadership. I noted, with a mixed reaction of disgust and humor, that the Pentagon Spokesman, RADM John Kirby was going out of his way to say that the Defense Department wasn’t keeping a body count; instead it was a tally, as though that somehow made things better. 

My overwhelming reaction was that, once again, the U.S. was going to misjudge and misplay our approach to Islamic Extremism.

We continue to believe that this is a “war on terrorism” where the Department of Defense is in the lead, rather than just a component, albeit critical, of a larger whole.

A few days later, I took some comfort in hearing words from the Secretary of State, John Kerry, at the World Economic Forum at Davos. He noted that the fight against violent extremism will continue for decades unless the root causes of despair and hopelessness are addressed. As he explained:

 “Ultimately, this fight is not going to be decided on the battlefield. The outcome is going to be determined in classrooms, workplaces, houses of worship, community centers, urban street corners, in the perceptions and the thoughts of individuals, and the ways in which those perceptions are created.” 

He is absolutely correct.  The question is whether the U.S., and the world, is up to the task.

I question this because I have watched for decades decisions that have been more stick than carrot, more isolation than engagement, which have had unintended consequences that we rarely kept track of or addressed unless they had a direct impact on the original purpose of the actions. 

I find that engagement — not isolation — is critical in most situations.

I believe this is true regarding Islamic extremism, especially at this juncture (we are already coming to this issue late), and must involve more than governments.  I’m not suggesting that there is a peaceful solution to ISIS expansionism.  I am saying that changing the dynamics of the effect of extremism will require engagement that prevents this ideology from infecting the next generation, wherever they are and whatever their religious beliefs.

I am reminded of a conversation that is as vivid today as it was then, and will always stick with me.  It was a conversation that I was included in at the beginning of September, 2001, (just days before 9/11) with then President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf.  As part of a Congressional delegation, we traveled to Pakistan to discuss the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the relationships between Pakistan and these organizations and individuals.  At the beginning of the conversation, Musharraf talked about what he was trying to do in Pakistan, especially related to freedom of the press and the advancement of women through education.  He admitted that there was a long way to go, and that he was hampered by cultural and religious ideologies; something that he believed the West didn’t really understand nor appreciated.  His belief was based on his first-hand experience with Americans, especially the U.S. military.  And here’s the part that really sticks with me.

In the context of our concerns about rising Islamic extremism, he talked about what he considered the dire, unintended consequences of the sanctions placed on Pakistan (and India) in 1998 after nuclear testing .  The issue he focused on was the cessation of military-to-military contact.  As a former military general, he fondly remembered the opportunities he had to go to U.S. military schools and to interact with U.S. military officers to develop a better understanding of what a professional military was in relation to a democracy and to a people, of management and leadership, and of developing friendships, even though ideologies may be vastly different. 

He opined that his major problem, and that of the U.S. (although we hadn’t realized it yet), was that since the sanctions, all of the current military leadership — who had the experiences he had with the West — were retiring.  The next generation of junior officers who were now moving into leadership roles did not have these experiences and had little, if any, actual contact with the U.S. military at all.  Their frame of reference was formed by a negative opinion of the United States because of the sanctions and the hardship it placed on their families, and an unflattering description of America and Western values along with a growing, relentless message of Islamic extremism that these young officers heard daily in the mosques.  There was no counterweight to this message for a young military officer, because he had no contact with a U.S. military officer his age or at all. As he said, shaking his head:

“We have both lost a generation. And for that, I’m afraid there will be dire consequences for me in leading this country and for you as extremism grows.”

Some will argue that Musharraf was just playing to his audience in an attempt to get the sanctions lifted.  Certainly, that was the reason for raising the issue in the first place.  That said, having been in the room and seen his reaction and the emotion that went into the message,

I firmly believe that Musharraf foresaw the impact of the rising Islamic extremist movement on a larger scale and in terms that the U.S. did not understand nor appreciate at the time. 

I note that the Bush Administration waived the sanctions post-9/11 when Pakistan became a critical ally in our efforts against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  This was a decision of convenience in the wake of crisis — something we do regularly, it seems — rather than as a result of understanding of the real impact of the rise of Islamic extremism.

Since that time, our approaches have been based in defensive (military) or judicial terms, against an enemy that we could tangibly describe as we would with a nation state, for the sake of justice. We have yet to understand or appreciate the need for engagement to give those who will easily adopt the extremist ideology a different reference point, especially among youth. That is something that governments cannot do effectively alone.  Secretary Kerry’s comments suggest a dawning of the importance of something other than a “tally.” 

The overriding question is whether we now understand how we, as Christians, Muslims, Jews — as people — need to engage or help support it? 

For us, engagement is at the heart of 72 Africa.