Pentagon Official: What It Will Take To Win The War Against The Islamic State

Joseph Miller Contributor
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Joseph Miller is the pen name for a ranking Department of Defense official with a background in U.S. special operations and combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked in strategic planning.

What follows in the paragraphs below is what it will take to actually win the War against the Islamic State. Yes, war. It is going to be costly, time intensive, and involves U.S. forces on the ground partnering with local forces in Iraq and Syria. It would not have come to this if President Barack Obama had acted earlier, but that’s where we find ourselves at the moment, so there is no point in assessing what could have been.

The idea of placing U.S. forces in harm’s way again, even in a limited capacity, is contentious to say the least, but if ISIS poses a direct threat to U.S. national security (which it does), then the United States must do what is necessary to protect her interests at home and abroad. If we are going to take this fight on, then we should do what is necessary to win — anything short of that trivializes the sacrifices of those who we send to fight and, possibly, die for our nation. (MILLER: Obama’s Current Strategy Is Doomed To Fail)

While there are many issues with the strategy Obama laid out on Wednesday night, the first one that must be addressed is the goals of the strategy. We have yet to “destroy” al-Qaida or its affiliates, even with hundreds of thousands of U.S. forces on the ground fighting in the Middle East, though we have significantly degraded their capacity to conduct terrorist attacks. As long as “destroy” remains the end goal of the president’s strategy, it will never succeed. You cannot destroy an ideology. Our goals will have to be revised to read defeat ISIS’s military capability and degrade its capacity to commit acts of terrorism.

The second major issue is the way we will fight the Islamic State. It cannot be limited to a “counter-terrorism campaign,” as articulated by the president and Secretary of State John Kerry. While it will involve a counter-terrorism aspect to protect the U.S. homeland and national security interests abroad from acts of terrorism, it must also simultaneously include two separate and distinct military campaigns to defeat the Islamic State’s forces seeking to overthrow the governments in Baghdad and Damascus. The Islamic State’s forces are armed and move, communicate, and fight like a conventional military fighting force, and must be engaged as such. (MILLER: The Facts Are In, And Obama’s Policy Is A Direct Danger To The United States)

The counter-terrorism campaign in the War against the Islamic State must be waged by the whole of the United States government in partnership with her allies abroad in the same manner in which the U.S. has waged its campaign against al-Qaida. In that sense, the U.S. will be taking on an additional adversary, though the processes and means by which the U.S. will prosecute the Islamic State’s terrorist organization will remain largely the same as for al-Qaida. The goal of this campaign would be to prevent the Islamic State from conducting terrorist attacks against the United States and her allies and interests abroad.

The first military campaign in the War against the Islamic State should place in Iraq. There, the U.S. military will have to partner on the ground with Iraqi forces in a foreign internal defense, or FID, mission to degrade and subsequently defeat the Islamic State’s forces. In Iraq, the Islamic State is employing terrorist tactics against civilians, but that is not its primary goal. What the Islamic State seeks is to overthrow the Iraqi government through military means and conventional combat. That is a military strategy, not a terrorist strategy. At the moment, the group must be treated and fought as an insurgent group with significant military capacity. That is a war, whether Kerry wants to call it that or not.

The second military campaign must take place in Syria. This is by far the more difficult of the two, as it will have two fronts. Despite the president’s desire to find a political solution to the Syrian Civil War, it remains unlikely that Bashar al-Assad will step down. That means the U.S. military and its proxy on the ground (the Free Syrian Army) will be forced to address not only ISIS’s military capability, but also the Syrian military that remains loyal to Assad. The U.S. will have to either dissuade the Syrian military from taking action, or strike them should they attempt to target the Free Syrian Army. If not, the U.S will never be able to build a viable ground force proxy in Syria to carry out the Syrian campaign in the War against the Islamic State. The United States must be prepared to engage the Syrian military. (MILLER: Iraq A Symptom Of Larger Obama Failure — Syria)

Since the United States cannot partner with Assad, given his war crimes, the U.S. will be forced to make a decision about leaving Assad in place or removing him. Neither is a particularly good or palatable option. Syria lacks the social, political, and cultural institutions required to support a healthy, functioning democracy, and is currently in a state of chaos. However, allowing the civil war to rage on only provides the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups a base of operations from which they can attack the U.S., so the conflict must be resolved sooner rather than later.

By increasing our support to the Free Syrian Army, we are increasing the chances that they will overthrow Assad, and yet we have no viable post-Assad governance and reconstruction plan for Syria. Nor does there appear to be a credible government in waiting to take over after Assad falls. It’s eerily similar to the Bush administration’s lack of planning for a post-Saddam Iraq. History is repeating itself. If the decision is made to overthrow Assad, the State Department and other government agencies must move quickly to engage in the political warfare and planning necessary to ensure a stable post-Assad transition to democracy.

To wage these two military campaigns in the War against the Islamic State, the president is going to have to accept that the plan to use air power in support of Iraqi army and Free Syrian Army rebel ground forces will require a significant number of embedded U.S. special forces soldiers. This is the same strategy used in Afghanistan in the months following 9/11. We refer to the concept of embedding special forces with rebel or insurgent groups as unconventional warfare. It is impossible for either the Iraqis or the Free Syrian Army to coordinate and direct U.S. airstrikes against a terrorist army numbered around 30,000 without U.S. forces embedded with them. It simply cannot work. Additionally, more U.S. forces will be required to conduct the intelligence collection and targeting in order to facilitate U.S. strikes. Once again, that is why this is a war and should be treated as such. (MILLER: Special Forces, Not #Hashtags, Mr. President)

If we fail to embed U.S. forces to coordinate strikes, we will have a very difficult time achieving the ends that the president seeks. That is not to say we should go it alone. The president is right to seek the involvement of allied and regional powers. The U.S. must exercise all of its influence that it has left to ensure that we are not the only ones engaging in the fight. The tepid response the Obama administration has received from allies in the region thus far must not stand. They have just as much to lose as the United States does. For almost a half a century, the United States has served as the military stabilizing force in both Europe and the Middle East. Many nations whose security is also threatened by Islamic State have prospered under this U.S. military security blanket. It’s time for those states to return the favor and commit to the use of military force.

If a plan for a comprehensive war against our enemies is followed, the United States can win this conflict. If not, the violence will only continue and intensify. Your move, Mr. President.