The strategy of "Winning hearts and minds" has remained a common factor in the "Global War on Terror" initiated by the Bush Doctrine as well as President Obama’s endeavors abroad.  However, the US strategy to counter Al-Qaeda and contain the growth of the Islamic State (ISIS) has largely challenged the concept of “winning hearts and minds”. The extensive use of American air power to attack the Al-Qaeda cells in Yemen and Pakistan, as well as the ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria have faced serious criticisms. Owing to more than a decade long wars fought in Iraq and Afghanistanwhich cost the US billions of dollars and also the lives of thousands, the Obama administration seems to be unwilling to adopt any counterterrorism strategy in the region that involves the deployment of ground troops. This strategy which restricts the US involvement to aerial strikes is largely accepted by the American public. However, confining itself to air attack alone deeply ruptures most of the values that the United States has stood for throughout history.


The use of air strikes including attack drones against targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who are seen as allies in the GWOT, have brought significant criticisms against the US. For instance, in Pakistan, the US led drone strikes in North Waziristan’s region bordering Afghanistan in 2013 to kill the suspected terrorists of the Haqqani network led to the death of at least 17 civilians and wounded many more. This has resulted in the Pakistani government’s condemnation and the general public’s anger against the US actions.In Afghanistan, there have been instancesof the former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai pleading to the US forces to prevent civilians including children being killed as part of the operations, and the British officers in Helmand demanding the US unit to vacate since their bomb strikes were destroying the efforts to win Afghan hearts and minds. Thus, the US commitment to the use of air power alone in the region is potentially seen as a failure of the war on terror.A similar flaw is also being exposed in the fight against ISIS. In order to counter ISIS, the US led coalition including Saudi, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Jordan carried out aerial bombings in several targets in Iraq and Syria, which resulted in civilian casualties.This is further creating counterproductive results by strengthening the ISIS cause.The ramifications of the scenario where Sunni Arab civilians are killed by Sunni Arab state forces themselves, on the Sunni Arab public’s perception of the fight against ISIS, perhaps may not have been significantly foreseen by the US.


One of the primary solutions for this persistent problemin the fight against terror is more active and direct participation of and co-ordination among intelligence agencies. The lack of human intelligence has been hindering the US from successfullytargeting and executing the terrorists, creating enormous civilian casualties in the process. America’s sourcing of human intelligence depends heavily on local informers in such target regions,as well as liaising with local intelligence agencies. This is the reason why the US continues to work with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) even after Osama Bin Laden was discovered a short distance away from the Pakistani military establishment in Islamabad.After the US has shut down its embassy in Syria, the only means for gathering intelligence from within the country is through its regional allies or with the help of the members of the ‘Five Eyes’ community, whom the US trusts deeply. The CIA has been trying its best to acquire information from the Syrian refugees in the surrounding countries, but this certainly cannot compensate for the closure of its stations inside Syria.The US must capitalize on the capabilities of the local agencies like Israeli ShmonehMa’atayim, the Turkish General Staff (TGS-J2), and Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID) in gathering intelligence across Iraq and Syria. Jordan has made priceless contributions in US’ pursuit of Al-Qaeda in the region and can be a reliable partner in the fight against ISIS.


Therefore, at a time when the US is determined not to compromise the lives of Americans for the sake of the region’s security, intelligence liaison is the most viable option to ensure security and also enhance its interests in the region.An added advantage for spy craft in the absence of extensive aerial attacks is the access to pocket litter. The CIA has made wonders with whateverlimited pocket litter obtained from drone attacked sites that provide very less information.With the gathered pocket litter and liaising quickly with the local authorities, the US can eliminate terrorists before they shift their bases and regroup.At the same time, winning hearts and minds by drifting away from the use of air strikes is indispensable for the US if it wants to generate strategic intelligence assets in the region. The CIA realizes the need for more paid assets in the region, but also needs to understand that money alone cannot buy the locals. The US needs to draw lessons from its past in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan where air strikes have led to the US being accused of human rights violations and the overall failure of achieving the stated objectives in a legal manner. While the US owes the airstrike strategy to the large number of military casualties previously, it must understand that the failure of the troops is largely attributed to faulty intelligence, which in turn relates to the lack of assistance from the local populace.


The US must realize that the ISIS is a prototype nation with all mechanisms in place. The ISIS provides citizens of occupied territories with subsidies on food and oil, healthcare and child vaccination, charity and loans for development purposes, and moreoverruns a steady economy comprising of oil and gas sales with taxation. In such a scenario, if the US intends to gain an overall victory over the ISIS, it needs to do so by gaining support of the local dwellers, which cannot happen through airstrikes alone. As civilian casualties increase, more fertile grounds are created for the growth of ISIS. The US must attract local clerics who can go beyond their sectarian affiliations and interpret the proper and peaceful interpretations of Islam, contrary to the one propagated by the extremists. The Obama administration has already undertaken such mechanisms back home to educate the youth of the peaceful nature of Islam. If such mechanisms need to be implemented in the problematic zones, the support of local clerics is highly indispensable.


However, having analysed the voids in the strategy adopted by the Obama administration, it is interesting to note that the success level in Iraq has been considerably high, while still abiding by the idea of ‘no boots on ground’. Unlike in Syria, the US has deployed 1400 personnel in Iraqas advisors to the Kurdish fightersalong with provision of adequate military aid. The Kurdish fighters have been successful in keeping the ISIS at bay, and all of this has been germinating under the watch of the Iraqi security forces. Notwithstanding, this is yet to be applied in the Syrian case. The US has been cautious and slow in terms of dealing with Syria. The situation in Syria has three forces fighting each other, namely, the Free Syrian Army, ISIS and President Bashar al-Assad’s army. The scanty non-lethal support that the US is providing the rebels to oppose the Syrian regime has not been sufficient to either counter the ISIS or bring down Assad due to its untimely and minimal nature. The US needs to further strengthen the Free Syrian Army and other rebels in Syria by adequately training the fighters, however keeping in mind the risk of defections.


The United States must re-evaluate its strategy and engage itself more assertivelyin the West Asian region, if not by deploying troops, through intelligence liaisons and training local militaries. With every air strike led by the US, the terrorist cells have been going deeper underground. Further, there are concerns that continued airstrikes on ISIS will force them into the big cities which will make counter insurgency operations harder as it will face greater civilian casualties. The US must look for areas to accommodate its allies at the strategic level itself and not just at the tactic level to keep them on board. The US must also consider the sensitivities of the local populace as it is not in America’s interest for its regional allies to face domestic unrest due to actions carried out on its behalf. The Obama administration might have found domestic public support at home, for not deploying boots on ground. But it has to be remembered that it is the same public which has been critical of the former administrations for their airstrikes in Vietnam.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.