How New Strategy to Defeat ISIS Can Work

By Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.
President Obama has called for a strategy to confront the insurgency fomented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. His stated objectives are to degrade and destroy the group.  

Although, this goal sounds reasonable on the surface, the president’s language does not provide sufficient criteria to formulate military objectives.  How does one know when “degrade” has been achieved? “Destroy” offers a more complete political objective, but it still is a bit non-specific. For instance, is “destroy” only fully accomplished when all ISIS members have been captured, killed or scattered?  

If ISIS were to relocate its command structure and some surviving fighters to Northwest Pakistan, would we have accomplished our objective to degrade and destroy?

A great example of a political objective with a clear supporting military objective was the first Gulf War. The political objective was to evict the Iraqi Army from Kuwait and return Kuwait to the Kuwaitis. It was thus clear to all when those objectives were obtained and when the war was over. The present objectives are not as definitive, but sufficient for now to plan a military campaign that will most certainly encompass attacks on ISIS leadership, command centers, military formations, vehicles, arms and supply points.  

The problem will be knowing when it is over. And depending on how it plays out, that end might not be apparent early on. Remember the enemy has a vote, and we have signaled our intentions early, so he will be already making adjustments, and some of them will surprise us. An intense, sustained campaign that rapidly weakens ISIS leadership at the start will be the best way to have an early indication of success.

We are discovering lately that ISIS forces have grown from the originally estimated 10,000 to 20,000 to more than 30,000. And we already know they are well supplied, well financed, well organized and an effective fighting organization, especially against the Iraqi Army. The surprise has been its effectiveness against the Kurdish Peshmerga. One wonders whether the Iraqi Army can rise to the challenge. The Peshmerga should see success if it is given extensive air support and increased firepower and mobility — better than we have supplied to date.

ISIS is ensconced in Mosul and other cities, so it will be necessary to dig them out. Read that as allied ground forces and precise air attacks. The strategy the president has adopted combines U.S. air power with ground advisors and coordinators. Some Washington wags are urging the deployment of more U.S. ground troops, while many are resisting that notion. Recall the strategy postulates air attacks to support partner ground forces. But the question remains of how many U.S. forces will be on the ground, in what role, and how will they be folded into allied troops.  

Some believe that will take thousands of U.S. troops, not the hundreds deployed today. The
concern is mission creep if the campaign becomes extended. The president previously sent 175 advisors, and announced 475 additional personnel will go to Iraq. That number is almost certainly going to grow a bit, but the United States needs to make clear that the burden on the ground will fall on allied forces. Retired Air Force Gen. Mike Hayden for one thinks it could be a long duration affair if it is conducted like campaigns in Yemen and Somalia, and that U.S. forces on the ground might approach 5,000. If that is a possibility, all the more reason to step up the intensity at the beginning of this fight.

ISIS is not only positioned in Iraq, but also has fairly secure positions within Syria, a potential safe haven. This necessitates that attacks within Syria and Iraq be executed simultaneously.

How can this campaign play out to a successful outcome and what are the risks? If one thinks back to the Kosovo campaign 15 years ago, and our use of air power against Serbia, we can discern a successful model. Recall that the Kosovars had the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Initially, the Serbs had superiority in firepower and mobility on the ground. It was an unequal fight.  U.S. airpower focused on attacks against infrastructure — bridges, supply and command centers — but also against Serb mobility and firepower assets.  

Even when we were able to do great damage to infrastructure, such as destroy the Sava River Bridge, the fight continued. But when our attacks on Serb forces began to reduce their mobility and firepower, the balance on the ground began to even up. The KLA had always been tough fighters, but were unable to compete against superior mobility and firepower. Once the Serb advantage in these two areas was leveled out, the KLA began to have real success against Serb ground forces. And when it became apparent that the Serb Army was facing the looming prospect of severe reverses and perhaps destruction, the war came to a quick close.

U.S. intelligence finding and identifying Serb forces, U.S. tactical aircraft aggressively attacking and reducing their capability, and the KLA successfully pressing their new advantages on the ground resulted in a quick end to this fight. The same combination can be successfully applied to the campaign against ISIS. U.S. intelligence assets can identify leadership locations, command centers, supply points and fielded forces. And U.S. air assets can mount an intense campaign that should be combined with aggressive ground operations by the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army. If properly coordinated, success could well be had in a shorter time than imagined.

Short, intense and quick should be the objective. U.S. ground advisors can be most effective at identifying appropriate targets, coordinating operations, and in some cases, overseeing air attacks for troops in contact or in close proximity. Keep in mind, however, that interdiction attacks — on leadership, command and supply centers, and on moving forces — will not need this kind of close coordination.

A well-planned operation though, still has many risks, a number of which are outside the control of the United States. One is how much support can we expect from allies. So far, some European nations seem lukewarm to this adventure, and our friends in the region aren’t exactly stepping up. Another is how the Iraqi Army gears up. If all the years of training and billions of dollars of equipment have not served to make them a determined fighting force, it is hard to see how the United States can buck them up in the short term for the fight that is now beginning.

A protracted affair will be in no one’s interest. The bad guys are in it for the long haul. The United States has proved that although it has been in Iraq for many years, we want it over. ISIS is a real danger to the United States and to the stability in a part of the world important to us. We need to go at it hard from the beginning and not slacken effort if we receive some bad surprises.  And they are sure to come.  

We should be in it all the way and determined to prevail, as they say, “In it, to win it.”

Topics: Counterinsurgency, International

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