Strategies for dealing with ISIS
Sep 10, 2014
September 10, 2014
Number 09/14 #02
With US President Obama scheduled to make a speech overnight detailing his strategy for dealing with the spread of ISIS (the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) – and having recently signed up some Middle Eastern and Western allies – this Update is devoted to expert advice about what a successful strategy for dealing with this problem from the US and its allies might look like.
The first entry comes from former senior US Air Force commander David Deptula, who argues too much of the debate on ISIS until now has been focused on means – such as boots on the ground, air power, sea power. Instead, he suggests the need to set strategic objectives and then match the means to the objectives – which he argues, based on the characteristics of ISIS, should be “1) halt any further expansion of IS influence in the region of Iraq and Syria; 2) paralyze IS leadership, command, and control elements, and 3) render IS operations ineffective.” He then draws from past examples – especially Desert Storm in Iraq in 1991 and the 2003 mission to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan – to explain how this can be accomplished against ISIS today, relying primarily on air power initially, though he also recommends a new UN Security Council resolution to provide legitimacy for a coalition action. For the rest of his analysis, CLICK HERE.
Another discussion of strategy against ISIS from a retired senior US military commander comes from Robert H. Scales, the former commandant of the U.S. Army War College. Scales also draws on history to provide his prescription, but his version transits from the tactics developed by Patton in World War II to more recent efforts in Afghanistan under Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which expands use of special forces to cripple non-state actors by killing off a “middle-management layer of leaders, communicators, transporters, financiers, technicians and enforcers.” He also stresses the importance of aerial drones in this sort of warfare and makes a pitch for their employment to be vastly expanded. For how Scales applies these insights to the ISIS crisis, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Washington Institute scholar Michael Singh argues that ISIS is a danger on three levels and each level needs a different strategy to counter it. These three levels are its threat to Middle East states, its role as a magnet for foreign recruits from around the world, and its potential role in organising or inspiring terrorism in the US or other Western states. While Singh thinks the Obama Administration is today working on a reasonable strategy to deal with first and most urgent strategic threat from ISIS within Iraq, he warns that without a new seriousness in tackling the problem of Syria, where ISIS has its home base, it cannot ultimately succeed. For Singh’s important argument in full, CLICK HERE. Also, Washington Institute colleague and former Obama advisor Dennis Ross made a similar case that Syria must be a part of strategy against ISIS, while Matthew Levitt made the case recently that military intervention against ISIS, though risky, is the “least bad option” available at the moment.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Jonathan Spyer offers some excellent insights into ISIS resilience in the face of some recent military setbacks, and also discusses the Kurdish battle with ISIS.
- Also commenting on the Kurds, and especially their internal divisions as the affect battle with ISIS is Michael Rubin. Rubin also argued that a key to any strategy against ISIS must be starving their finances.
- Former Middle East mediator Aaron David Miller argues that ISIS’s spread will negatively impact prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
- Israeli academics Tal Koren and Gabi Siboni look at ISIS in cyberspace. Plus, Israeli academic Yoel Guzansky on the ISIS threat to the Persian Gulf States.
- Three interesting pieces on why Western Muslims join groups like ISIS, from Jonah Goldberg, Michael Ledeen and Tim Stanley.
- The Wall Street Journal offers a video detailing what is known about ISIS’s command and governance structures.
- Reports that Israeli troops saved Irish peacekeepers during the recent Nusa-front takeover of the Golan border – here and here.
- Isi Leibler calls for more realism from Israelis in assessing the results of the recent Gaza conflict.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Ahron Shapiro reports from the front line of the recent Gaza conflict – the Israeli border town of Sderot.
- Gabrielle Debinski offers up a map essential to understanding the recent controversy over an Israel decision to declare 400 hectares in Gush Etzion “state land.”
By David Deptula
Breaking Defense, September 05, 2014 at 12:07 PM
Those who oppose ISIL — the so-called “Islamic State” – must grasp the fact that no amount of kinetic force will make up for an inadequate plan to crush it. American power, both within and without the battlespace, will only be realized when power is guided by a comprehensive, coherent and realistic strategy.
To date, much of the public discussion is focused on means — vice the ways and ends — of the use of force. In discussions of military campaigns, many often focus on the tools through which operations are prosecuted: elements like boots on the ground, air power, or sea power. However, such assessments ignore the strategic principles that guide their use.
Looking at the present set of circumstances in Iraq, current US objectives are tactical at best, and center on protecting American outposts and conducting humanitarian relief. American aircrews are striking a very limited set of targets to facilitate these objectives. This is a far different mission set than what is called for to render IS ineffective.
The self-proclaimed “Islamic State (IS)” presents the world with a moral crisis. IS cannot be reasoned with— they must be terminated. So let’s define that as our desired strategic end state and move forward rapidly to create a coalition, and a campaign plan that will succeed in accomplishing that. The operational objectives are 1) halt any further expansion of IS influence in the region of Iraq and Syria; 2) paralyze IS leadership, command, and control elements, and 3) render IS operations ineffective.
To accomplish these objectives we need to begin with an aggressive air campaign — where airpower is applied like a thunderstorm, not a drizzle; 24/7 constant over-watch, with force used against every move of IS forces and personnel. We’ve done this before — Desert Storm where the opening 24 hours witnessed over 2.500 aircraft missions focused on a simultaneous attack across the breadth and depth of the entire country of Iraq—an attack from which Saddam Hussein’s forces never recovered. IS won’t require that level of effort.
A more applicable analogy is the dramatically successful first three months of OEF where the United States provided airpower that in conjunction with indigenous forces on the ground—the Northern Alliance—allowing us to meet our critical national security objectives in less than 90 days. That combination resulted in the removal of the Taliban Regime; the establishment of a government friendly to the United States, and the elimination of the Al Qaeda terrorist training camps. We should have departed Afghanistan at that time with a warning of a return engagement if needed.
The initial attacks of “Operation Restore Stability” don’t need U.S. boots on the ground—that’s exactly what IS has stated they want as that would introduce a vulnerability that has dogged us in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We didn’t have U.S. ground forces engaged for the first 40 days of the 43-day Desert Storm campaign, nor the Kosovo campaign, nor many during the first campaign of OEF where we were dramatically successful.
Boots on the ground are not required to conduct effective airstrikes. Today, virtually every combat aircraft brings some degree of precision intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to the fight, allowing airmen the ability to find, fix, and finish a target without ground assistance. In some circumstances ground-based ISR may be of use, but it is not required to halt IS from further movement, or to begin 24/7 operations to paralyze them. We need to project power — not vulnerability — and that’s what airpower is tailor-made to do.
If the President chooses to expand US involvement in the region, it should not be to prop up a new Iraqi regime; we should be the leader of an international coalition sanctioned by the United Nations to negate IS. Where has the United Nations been during the revelation of the moral crisis of IS? In April 1991 they passed United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 that:
- Condemns the repression of the Iraqi civilian population;
- Demands Iraq end its repression, and respect the human and political rights of all Iraqi citizens;
- Insists Iraq allow immediate access to international humanitarian organizations to all in need of assistance;
- Requests UN to pursue humanitarian efforts…[for] the Iraqi civilian population and in particular the Kurdish population suffering from the repression inflicted by the Iraqi authorities;
- Demands that Iraq cooperate with the UN to these ends.
It takes less than a minute to replace “Iraq” with “IS” so let’s do it, vote and move on. That resolution provided the rationale for the first no-fly zone. That no-fly zone — originally Operation Provide Comfort, and later Operation Northern Watch — defined how airpower fundamentally changed the military calculus between the Kurds and Saddam, and as a result changed the political calculus of Iraq. It was the connection between Northern Watch and the Kurds that resulted in “Kurdistan” doing so well relative to the rest of Iraq.
The success of “Operation Restore Stability” will hinge upon the strategy developed to guide the application of national power. Whether using airpower or any other tool, our civilian leadership and operational commanders must consider their involvement from a robust ends, ways, and means perspective.
Are the desired end results realistically achievable? Do they overreach what is necessary for our security or commit our forces to vaguely defined long-term objectives? What combination of force will best secure desired results, while minimizing the projection of vulnerability and liability? Is there sufficient capacity and will to pursue the strategy until objectives are met? Answering these questions is far from simple, but the results will spell the difference between success and failure.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Deptula, (Ret.), was the offensive air campaign planner for Operation Desert Storm; the Joint Task Force Commander for Operation Northern Watch; and the Commander of the Combined Air Operations Center for the opening phase of Operation Enduring Freedom. He is the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors.
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President Obama may be developing a strategy to confront the apocalyptic horrors of the Islamic State, but he already has a method, a gift of sorts from soldiers who have been fighting similar enemies for more than a decade.
To understand, consider some history: George S. Patton’s method of war, the one that defeated the Wehrmacht in the European theater in World War II, consisted of a mechanized war doctrine stolen from the Germans, plus a uniquely American skill for applying air- and land-delivered firepower in support of tanks on the move. Patton’s method would be perfected during future U.S. and Israeli conflicts, culminating in the “Great Wheel” envelopment of Saddam Hussein’s army in Desert Storm in 1991 and the march to Baghdad in 2003.
Over time, however, enemies learn and adapt. Eventually, Patton’s method was successfully challenged in Lebanon, by Hezbollah’s anti-tank missiles, and in Iraq, by al-Qaeda’s improvised explosive devices.
Enter a new prophet, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former head of the U.S. Special Operations Command. Over the past 20 years, McChrystal and his teams have developed another uniquely American method of war by substituting skill, information and precision for mass, maneuver and weight of shell. We first watched the McChrystal method at work in Afghanistan following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when small Special Forces units and the Afghan Northern Alliance teamed to destroy the Taliban using precision strikes delivered from aircraft high overhead.
But the secret of this new method is in people, not technology. McChrystal’s success proves that small units of superbly selected, trained, educated, led and bonded soldiers can kill much larger aggregations of enemy while holding the deaths of friendly forces and innocent civilians to a minimum.
Make no mistake, the McChrystal method is about killing, but it is killing of a different sort. The president has lamented the “whack-a-mole” nature of battling insurgents and militants. But whack-a-mole tactics work when the moles are enemies who occupy critical positions within terrorist networks, when they are essentially a middle-management layer of leaders, communicators, transporters, financiers, technicians and enforcers.
In many ways, the McChrystal method is the opposite of shock and awe. It is often painfully deliberate, fed as it is by the patient collection of intelligence wrung from sources as disparate as informants and the big ears of the National Security Agency. Nothing happens without repetitive, realistic planning and rehearsals. No operation goes down without involving many layers of “enablers.” Intelligence officers feed information constantly to teams as they move to the fight. Armed and unarmed drones feed video of enemy movements. Some of the killing is done up close, to be sure, but most comes from precision aerial weapons that obliterate the enemy in the dead of night.
The day will inevitably come when the McChrystal method is employed against the Islamic State. But crushing the group will require a scaling-up of the method, never attempted before. The Islamic State is huge, and, sadly, the men and machines necessary to do the job are too few and have been terribly overused. To succeed, the McChrystal method will have to be cloned to a degree as yet unimagined within the Defense Department.
Obstacles to this are many. The Special Operations Command could be the most intractable enemy of replicating the approach. It argues that such elite forces can be made only in small batches. Truth is, there are more than enough men to fully expand the McChrystal method if some Army and Marine close-combat forces were repurposed. Of course, such a transformation would take time. Building a conventional “elite” force would require a ruthless culling of the ranks to allow only the best and brightest to be selected, trained and bonded together in a manner proven by decades of success in the special operations community.
There are equipment issues as well. The Special Operations Command makes its own materiel — and its stuff is much better than what is carried by conventional forces. A means must be found to transfer and proliferate the superior weapons, sensors, radios, body armor, helicopters and vehicles to these newly created “conventional” special operators.
Drones are the modern equivalent of Patton’s tanks, and we simply have too few. The shortage is due in large part to the reluctance of the air services to embrace the need for unmanned, “unblinking eyes” positioned permanently over any ground forces in harm’s way. The Air Force and Navy must be made to expand their fleets of drones tenfold or more.
The Islamic State cannot be defeated by diplomacy, sanctions, coalitions or political maneuverings. Its fighters must eventually be killed in large numbers, and Americans will never allow large conventional military forces to take them on. The butcher’s bill would simply be too large. The only sure means for defeating the group is with a renewed, expanded and overwhelming legion of capable special fighters who have learned through painful trial and error how to do the job.
Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.Back to Top
Foreign Policy, September 5, 2014
To defeat the jihadist group and address the instability it has caused, the United States will need to follow up on its good first steps in Iraq and get serious about Syria.
Public debate in Washington is heavily focused at the moment on the threat posed by the self-styled Islamic State (IS) terrorist militia operating in Iraq and Syria. But IS in fact poses not one but three distinct threats, each of which demands its own strategy.
First, and perhaps most immediately, it has destabilized a broad swath of the Middle East, threatening not just Syria and Iraq but also Lebanon, Jordan, and others. Second, the Islamic State has served as a magnet for perhaps 12,000 foreign fighters so far, including many from the West who may one day return home to plot self-directed attacks. Finally, IS has restored the American public’s attention to the alarming possibility of a large-scale, organized attack on Americans and U.S. facilities overseas, or even the United States proper.
When it comes to an attack on the homeland by IS, the intelligence community cautions that it lacks credible evidence of any active such plot for now. This could of course change, and IS’s evident capabilities, resources, and aspirations — it is challenging al Qaeda for dominance of the global jihadist community, and is interested in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes — counsel vigilance.
But as National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen recently observed, it is important to recognize that whether or not IS is plotting attacks against the West, it is just one part of a global jihadist community populated by other organizations which certainly are engaged in such plotting. For all the talk of having al Qaeda and its ilk on the run, the threat of terrorism is likely to be a persistent one that will require a long-term strategy to identify and thwart threats, wherever they emanate from, while protecting the civil liberties that Americans cherish.
The threat of foreign fighters is not new — young men traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s, Iraq in the 2000s, and other smaller conflicts in between to wage war. But it appears to have become more acute with IS’s rise due to the group’s battlefield successes, media savvy, and wealth. The foreign fighters who flock to fight with IS or seek safe haven in the territories it controls will one day disperse, perhaps destabilizing other countries in the region. The Western passport-holders among them, along with “homegrown” extremists merely inspired by IS, may seek to carry out attacks at home which are inspired but not necessarily directed by the group.
This threat is one that we unfortunately have long experience in addressing. It calls for a multifaceted strategy of challenging extremist ideology and countering the radicalization of young men — which takes place not only in person but also online — targeting financiers and other facilitators, and disrupting the actual flow of fighters to and from conflict zones in cooperation with the countries that border them.
The threat IS poses to our interests in the Middle East is perhaps the most immediate and challenging presented by the group. But the Islamic State is not 10 feet tall — it is a challenge we can surmount. It has benefited from the weakness and disorganization of its adversaries, has thrived in the ungoverned hinterlands created by Syria’s civil war, and has been the direct beneficiary of international inattention to Iraq and Baghdad’s parochial misrule. It has also had years to shape the battlefield, operating actively for the past three years out of the headlines.
As the Washington Institute’s Michael Knights has written, IS also has military weaknesses — it depends on mobility, is ill-suited to the defensive, and the same terror it uses to cow opponents leaves it largely bereft of allies. With the right approach, IS can be defeated. But just as addressing the multifaceted threat posed by IS requires more than simply smashing its paramilitary units, stabilizing Iraq and Syria will need to go beyond defeating ISIL.
In Iraq, President Obama appears to have finally arrived at a strategy. Initially, he withheld the use of force to incentivize politicians in Baghdad to end their squabbling, but underestimated the depth of their divisions and the speed of IS’s advance. When the United States finally decided to wield diplomacy and force together, however, things started to move — former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped aside, IS’s advance was stanched, and allies began to join U.S. efforts.
While there is a long way to go in Iraq and more force may ultimately be required, these are good first steps. But both defeating IS and addressing instability in the region will require the United States also to finally get serious about Syria, an enormous problem that we have failed to adequately address for the past three and a half years. If we do not, Syria will not only offer IS strategic depth, but offer safe haven to terrorists and bleed instability across regional borders.
The president is right when he says he needs a strategy for Syria — not just for rolling back IS there, but for changing the dynamics that drive the conflict and creating conditions for the country’s stabilization. The puzzle, however, is not in devising such a strategy — many analysts and officials have offered their proposals over the past three years — but in why the administration did not long ago settle upon one and begin carrying it out.
Such a strategy will require not only airstrikes on IS, but support for the responsible Syrian opposition, including Syrian Kurds, increased pressure on the Assad regime — which has killed far more than IS using tactics no less brutal, even if it is less eager to publicize them — and outreach and assurances to Syria’s minorities, many of whom have supported Assad and who understandably fear sectarian vengeance should his regime fall. These steps would be aimed at stabilizing areas of Syria under the opposition’s control and putting the Syrian conflict on a path toward resolution.
Each of these steps has been advocated at one point or another by President Obama’s own advisors, and together they constitute an approach toward our strategic and humanitarian imperatives that the president should embrace. And while he should insist that allies shoulder their share of the burden, he cannot draw their support until he has articulated a plan for them to rally behind and is able to present them with concrete requests for contributions.
Because of the way that IS marries at least three significant threats to U.S. interests, defeating it is a sound objective and urgent priority. But it is those threats, not just the organization, on which we must be focused. And while they may be mitigated, and IS defeated, with the help of air strikes, such strikes alone will not end the threat of terrorism, or the instability plaguing Iraq and Syria. That will require us to wield a range of policy tools in complementary fashion and, most of all, sustained attention and commitment to a region that is tempting to turn away from — given the seemingly intractable challenges it presents — but which remains vital to our global interests.
Michael Singh is managing director of The Washington Institute.