When General David H. Petraeus tasked General H.R. McMaster in 2010 to lead a Task Force to study and then attack corruption in Afghanistan, he tacitly acknowledged the new and different nature of 21st Century threats -- a nexus of transnational criminal organizations, kleptocratic warlords and states, and terrorists.
The U.S. Strategy to Combat Organized Crime describes these converging threats to National Security as "associations of individuals who operate transnationally for the purpose of obtaining power, influence, monetary and/or commercial gains, wholly or in part by illegal means, while protecting their activities through a pattern of corruption and/or violence."
Despite shrill voices motivated by fear, profit or political gain that seek to exaggerate the ISIL threat, at its core ISIL is more a transnational criminal organization than it is a more traditional military. Make no mistake. ISIL's strength and ability to threaten both regional and global stability is a disciplined and professional chain of command, able to communicate both clandestinely and through popular propaganda, and direct targeted violence against their enemies.
Officers from several nations in the region confided to this author the wisdom of President Obama's slow, deliberate, careful and calculating strategy. "The situation is very complicated," they warned. The enemy (ISIL) does not have the "ethics of war" and are indiscriminate in their use of violence, suggesting that their public face is more like criminals than soldiers. The first question to ask, they said, is "who is supporting them?" The answer, according to officials in the U.S. Intelligence Community, is wealthy private interests in Sunni Arab Gulf states, particularly Qatar and Kuwait. These same interests are also funding al Nusra, and al Qaeda-affiliated groups. Less clear, however, is why, and what they hope to gain from these "investments."
Muslim military officers tactfully warned that if America rushes in without knowing who are our friends, who are our enemies, and most importantly, who are the "frenemies" who pretend to be friends to gain some local or private advantage, America and her Allies risk being manipulated and deceived in support of local or regional -- not American -- interests.
Muslim officers said that President Obama correctly identified that "ISIL is not Islamic." The words Muslim military officers repeatedly used to describe ISIL are "corrupt" and "criminal." None called them "Islamic." The racist Arab-Salafist agenda of ISIL bears as much a relation to Islam as American racist "Christian Identity" or neo-nazi agendas do to Christianity.
Available evidence suggests Sunni Arab "investors" have more political and economic interests in ISIL than religious. The core of Iraqi military officers who form ISIL -- as opposed to the more public face provided by the popular figurehead Abu Bakr al-Bagdahdi -- moved into organized crime in Mosul in 2005 after the Iraqi army was unceremoniously disbanded in 2003.
This should have come as no surprise to the U.S., Muslim officers said. "What did you expect them to do?" These men (officers from the disbanded Iraqi Army) survived in Saddam Hussein's regime. They thrived on corruption, more like skilled and savvy criminals with military training than what the west sees as professional Soldiers.
From revenue of about $70,000 per month in 2005, the "mafia" that evolved into ISIL, now has earnings estimated at up to $3 million per day -- a good return on any investment. Their largest source of cash stems from oil smuggling along the Turkish border, where ISIL is providing economic "stimulus" by selling oil at about 25 percent of the going international rate.
ISIL leaders have savvy and connections in the black market of international finance and money laundering gained while supporting the "oil for food" scandal under Saddam Hussein. The real intelligence needed to understand what is going on in the region is not targets for the U.S. Air Force, but the type of financial intelligence General Petraeus tasked General McMaster to find in Afghanistan in 2010.
Whether you follow the military admonishment of German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, the Oriental insights of Sun Tzu, or military advise found in Holy Scriptures, victory, we are told, will go to those who best understand the truth of the motives and intent of friend and foe alike.
Cynical or pragmatic leaders in the region will extract as much profit from this conflict as they can before America grows tired of throwing American treasure and resources into a new money pit. A lesson Arab Sheiks, but not the American Congress, may have learned from Pakistani businessmen who grew fat and prosperous from U.S. dollars spent fighting the Taliban.
Abraham Lincoln put this ancient wisdom in more American terms: The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.
Hotheaded Salafist jihadis will die deceptively "glorious" deaths for the price of the rice and bullets the ISIL paymasters dole out to them. But when the dust settles, the publicity shy leaders who really run ISIL will fade back to their tribes and villages with the spoils of this war, whether in gold, diamonds, Arab Hawala, or numbered Swiss bank accounts.