“Bin Laden would be very pleased with the current progress of his ideas and agenda,” said Bruce Hoffman, speaking at the Jamestown Foundation’s Ninth Annual Terrorism Conference in Washington last month. “The situation in the Middle East is worse than ever,” he added, “with ISIS new ability to actually hold territory. Be prepared for a long war.” Hoffman, director of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service’s Center for Security Studies, led off several speakers with varied expertise on the different nations involved.

His talk was followed by Bruce Riedel, author of several books on strategy, and a 30-year veteran of the CIA and National Security Council. The past Arab political system of kings, dictators, and police states was discredited and breaking down, he explained, with no viable new system in sight. Riedel said U.S. Arab allies were highly conflicted about al-Qaeda and ISIS, referring to Saudi and Gulf State funding for the Taliban and ISIS and Turkey’s open border for terrorist recruits. The absolutely worst strategy for America would be to turn the war into one between the West and Islam, he said, noting that terrorists now have a dozen bases of operations compared to the one with which Bin Laden started. Monitoring returning terrorists to Europe was intensely costly, Riedel noted, as it requires some 12 to 24 policemen to mount 24-hour surveillance for each man or woman.

More American “boots on the ground” was opposed by the next speaker, David Kilcullen, CEO of Caerus Associates. His experience includes years with Australian counter insurgency forces in the Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Kilcullen argued that the war could not be won with American ground forces, but only with nationalist, anti-ISIS Muslims with U.S. support. He said the conscious and successful policy of ISIS-instigated American bombing was the way to bring in new Islamist recruits and that “significant” numbers of volunteers were arriving from Central Asia, not just from Europe.

The next panel included Pavel Baev, an analyst for Jamestown’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, former Russian intelligence staffer, now a fellow with Brookings Institution and author of many writings on conflict and terrorism. Baev said that Putin’s policies were motivated by his own fear of being overthrown. He argued that good relations with Turkey were far more important for Russia than its support for the Syrian government.

Vladimir van Wilgenburg, another Jamestown scholar and specialist on Kurdistan, explained that many of the Kurdish fighters in Syria came from Turkey, and that their “war objective” was to pursue Kurdish interests, not necessarily American ones. He said that there was much conflict and “huge differences” between and among the different Kurdish groups, with the PKK wanting independence from Turkey and the Peshmerga looking to gain new territory out of Iraq and Syria for a Kurdish nation. Yet their soldiers are not being paid as Iraq’s government withheld monies from the sale of Kurdish oil.

Ahmed A.S. Hashim, a professor from Singapore, explained the theoretical foundations of ISIS and reasons for its strategy of savagery in an article he submitted. He explained how Sunnis still blame the Shia for once aiding the Mongols to sack Baghdad during the 13th century.

Michael W.S. Ryan, a Jamestown Senior Fellow and formerly CIA and State Department, explained that neither al-Qaeda nor ISIS were focused on “end times” theology as they are sometimes accused. He said that ISIS was following classic insurgency strategy: first creating chaos by weakening and discrediting police and military forces, so that the populace would support any new leaders who could provide security and safety, after which it tried to become a regular state holding territory.

Jacob Zenn, an expert on Boku Haram, the ISIS affiliate in Africa, showed how ISIS is expanding into other African nations. He said that their next objective would be fomenting violence in Southeast Asia.

General Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency, was the keynote speaker, and provided many interesting observations. He said the breaking up of Middle East nations was “tectonic,” that ISIS was challenging the whole concept of nation states. He compared the Muslim world’s current chaos to the 30 Years War in Europe. (A recent report in the Washington Post shows a broad picture of what is actually happening on the battlefields.)

Hayden observed that “American foreign policy was largely indifferent to its effects on the ground” in the Muslim world. He compared air power without ground power to casual sex—acting without commitment—saying that it was “merely mowing the grass.” ISIS, originally not thought of as a threat to America, Hayden explained, is now a threat to Europe and even could cause American military conflict with Russia. He said that America should instead take the fight to the enemy (presumably meaning invade Syria) rather than giving up our civil freedoms by becoming a garrison security state. America is “less safe” than five years ago, he concluded.  

Hayden also addressed targeting by drones. He said the CIA was aware of the risk of blowback and that every killing of innocent civilians was based on three levels of threat. Killing less important enemies would be aborted if there was risk of killing innocents as well, however for high value leadership targets the (collateral damage) killing of nearby innocents was considered a consequence of war.

Yet none of the speakers proposed a truly alternative policy, such as that developed by TAC’s William Lind, who has urged that Washington adopt a defensive instead of offensive posture, stopping its aggressive interventions. Rather we should let the Arab conflicts play themselves out. Lind argues that we should maintain a presence, but instead employ a policy of “offshore balancing,” very well explained by Christopher Layne and TAC’s new national editor, Benjamin Schwartz, somewhat the way the British did when their empire was in its prime.

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.