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“Are they dead that speak louder than we can speak, and a more universal language? Are they dead that yet act?”

Sebastian Junger, a journalist and documentary film-maker who spent a year in Afghanistan embedded with a platoon in the Korengal Valley (once considered the deadliest valley in the country) made an important observation about war. He said that “the core reality of war isn’t that you might get killed out there, it’s that you’re guaranteed to lose your brothers.”

That is a reality that I have seen, and it’s one that I revisited last week as I traveled to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan to meet with leaders in the region about what can be done to combat terrorism and create political and governmental stability in the Middle East. During the second leg of the trip, we visited the Kandahar Province, and being there with my feet on the ground took me back to a visit to the same region some years ago. I had been visiting Camp Leatherneck in the Kandahar Province with Lt. Gen. David Berger and Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus when I received word that a young Marine had been killed earlier in the day during engagement with members of the Taliban. He was going home. Together, with his brothers-in-arms, I huddled in the back of a C-130 cargo plane to mourn and honor the fallen as his dignified transfer from Afghanistan to Dover Air Force Base began. Being there for that and watching as those Marines paid, with precision and grace, their final respects to a brother was one of the most humbling experiences of my life as a public servant.

That’s why it is so important, as we push forward with efforts to combat and destroy ISIS in the Middle East, for us to remember what is at stake. A sloppy or loose strategy that isn’t properly resourced doesn’t just mean that ISIS gains tactical and strategic strength, it means that American lives are unnecessarily lost.  

On Tuesday, the House Armed Service Committee held a hearing about our overall strategy for combatting terrorism in Syria and Iraq, and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that the United States, at the invitation of the Iraqi government, will deploy special operations troops to conduct raids in Iraq and Syria and is looking for opportunities to “expand” U.S. special operations in Syria. Carter said a new “specialized expeditionary targeting force" will be sent to Iraq and "will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture.” But if history has taught us anything, it is that putting troops on the ground without a comprehensive, well-resourced strategy is not a plan for their safety or for our military success. We need a ground presence to gain and hold territory, but without other strategic components and cooperation from our partners in the region, that is not enough.

At the same time, the major Arab powers that have been identified as essential in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq are pulling out. Fewer than 12 of the 65 “coalition” nations assembled to fight ISIS are offering any significant support to the campaign. And General Joseph Dunford confirmed Tuesday that ISIS has not, as President Obama has claimed, been contained nor have they been contained since 2010. Now is the time for the United States to step up and be a leader and to be at the forefront so that our allies have the confidence to make a commitment to defeat global terrorism.

At home and abroad, we cannot needlessly sacrifice more American lives to ISIS’s deadly campaign against the people and values of the United States and the West. We have to do more, and we have to do it in a measured and intentional way.


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