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To Win the War on Terror, We Must Win the War of Ideas

02/20/2015 01:36 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

What is ISIS?

This time a year ago, most Americans wouldn't have been able to answer that question. Today, the Islamic State group dominates the news headlines through its terrorist actions across the Middle East and in European countries such as France and Denmark.

The sudden ascendancy of a group that, 12 months ago, had yet to pervade the nation's subconscious offers a chilling reminder of just how rapidly threats to our national security can change. It also signals just how challenging it can be to develop a coherent, comprehensive and, most importantly, effective counterterrorism strategy that ensures the safety of Americans and stays a step ahead of those who wish to do us terrible harm.

Just last week, President Barack Obama asked Congress to formally authorize the use of military force in the war against ISIS. In doing so, he boldly declared that ISIS is "going to lose," while adding, "our coalition is strong, our cause is just, and our mission will succeed."

In making his case for additional war powers, the president was, in essence, recapitulating the current threat posed by a group of extremists that he said is on the defensive. Indeed, ISIS has recently experienced some setbacks. The progress the once-rampant group had been making in Iraq has faltered. It isn't the rapidly expanding force that it once was.

Additionally, while ISIS clearly possesses the ability to inspire and lead people, there appears to be little indication that the group has either the plans or the ability to attack the continental U.S.

That said, ISIS has risen to the top of the world's major terrorist organizations, and it has demonstrated an ability to control territories, raise money, set up a system of governance and build at least some rudimentary institutions. While it's not developing allies or relationships with other nations, ISIS has also shown that it can monopolize power over certain areas, even if it's had a mixed record in terms of delivering services, such as sanitation and education.

Clearly then, the unpredictable danger posed by terrorism has not subsided. The fact that terrorism is becoming increasingly decentralized makes dealing with it even more difficult. While ISIS has become the major terrorist group, it is one of many groups engaged in deadly activities, including al-Qaeda.

The question now is: Can we roll ISIS back? To do so, we need a more comprehensive approach and a unity of effort that fully engages the president, Congress, our military and intelligence capabilities, and our allies around the world.

Without doubt, we have experienced considerable success in the fight against terror. Almost weekly we hear of top terrorist leaders being removed by our drone and other anti-terrorism strikes. Yet somehow the terrorists seem to recover quickly and keep coming. Our attacks, while effective, haven't quite quelled the terrorists' momentum, which is reflected by the numbers of members and new recruits. In 2001, by one estimate, we identified about 300 al-Qaeda members and affiliates worldwide. In 2015, there are more than 30,000 al-Qaeda fighters in Syria alone.

We should not forget the successes we've had in the fight against terror. At the same time, surveying the current landscape suggests that the U.S. and its allies need to up their games considerably in dealing with ISIS and other terrorist groups.

Upping our game will require that we focus more intently on several critical components of our counterterrorism policy. Among those components is intelligence. Because it can prevent attacks, intelligence is everyone's favorite weapon in the fight against terrorism.

Simply put, even the smallest amount of information, combined with other bits of information, can prevent a massive attack. However, gathering meaningful intelligence has become an increasingly formidable task, since, once again, we're not dealing with a single state. We're faced with a diffuse threat and groups that continue to evolve, spread out and decentralize. ISIS is expanding beyond Syria and Iraq to Libya, Egypt, Algeria and other countries.

We also have to develop our partners. We have more than 60 partners across the world, but the challenge has been convincing those partners to put troops on the ground and engage in difficult tasks, such as trying to recapture Mosul in Iraq, the largest city (over a million people) currently controlled by ISIS.

We sought to develop a fighting force in Syria to counter Islamic terrorism there, but that effort thus far has been ineffective. The new Houthi rebels who have taken over in Yemen might serve as a natural partner against al-Qaeda, yet they have a history of harboring fierce anti-American sentiment. In short, in a part of the world where alliances are constantly shifting, finding willing and able partners is a complicated endeavor.

In seeking additional war powers authority from Congress, President Obama has made it clear that more military engagements might be in our future. What he still has yet to make clear, however, is what those engagements might look like -- can we truly defeat ISIS without putting troops on the ground? -- And what end result we can expect. Is it to "degrade and destroy" ISIS as he previously indicated? Or is it to "dislodge," which he offered in his remarks last week? Perhaps the semantics aren't significant here, but my reading is that they probably are, and, if so, we are lowering our goal.

Everyone agrees that to defeat ISIS we need combat forces on the ground. Our airstrikes, training and logistical and intelligence assistance are necessary but not sufficient. A major gap in our counterterrorism strategy is the absence of combat forces, and the question is where do they come from?

It's important to note that any counterterrorism strategy we develop will rely on Americans' resilience to terrorism. That is, can we take a punch and come back? We must understand that what we're not dealing with an existential threat. ISIS and al-Qaeda are not going to take over the U.S., but they are going to hit us and our allies when and where they can. We should expect further attacks.

Right now, these groups' focus is on the Middle East, but they have shown the ability to strike in Europe. And while they don't seem to have the operational capacity to strike at our borders, we know they're determined to come at us.

There's another piece to the puzzle of creating an effective counterterrorism policy, and it represents a sizeable element that doesn't always fit squarely with other considerations such as border security, military strikes and intelligence gathering. It's a different kind of war -- a war of ideas -- that will ultimately determine the success or failure of the fight we are engaged in.

Until last week, the president had said he wants to "degrade and destroy" ISIS. Degrading represents an achievable goal, a goal toward which we've made considerable progress. But the destroying objective will be extremely difficult to achieve.

It may be possible to destroy the people who make up ISIS, but dismantling the ideology -- as we did with Nazism, fascism and, to a certain extent, communism -- requires a long-term, generation-spanning commitment.

It also takes a counter ideology. Americans have a powerful story to share, but we haven't always done a great job of telling it. What we have to offer is prosperity, freedom, less repressive governance and more opportunity. That's a powerful message. Belatedly we are ramping up our efforts to counter ISIS propaganda, but we have much still to do.

Here we must ask ourselves: Why has ISIS become such a threat? And how has it done so well in recruiting new members, especially young people?

Many of the young men who turn to terrorism do so because they have lost hope and are angry and frustrated, often because they have had to face extreme poverty, oppression, political obstruction and a lack of educational and employment opportunities. But what often incites them is American military intervention.

While airstrikes may be our best and most effective response against threats, we must understand the downside of our use of force. We may hit the bad guys, but invariably we cause so-called collateral damage that creates a powerful backlash and further fuels the ability of terrorist groups to recruit new members.

To win the war on terror, we need a multifaceted counterterrorism strategy that uses all of the tools of American power. Military power is absolutely necessary, but it is insufficient. In the end, we will only defeat terror if we win the war of ideas. And winning that war means sharpening our message -- one of freedom, hope and opportunity.

Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.