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Defeating the Abu Bakr al Baghdadi Gang: A Realistic Strategy
Huba Wass de Czege
Independent Military Theorist [i]
The militant religious cult led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has become more than the scourge of Iraq and Syria, where it is expropriating property, killing civilians, raping and forcing captured women into sexual slavery, and beheading foreigners. The Abu Bakr al Baghdadi Gang (BG), as I prefer to call it, has “gone to war” with the civilized world – using spectacular slaughter to political ends. The civilized powers must respond, but how? The strategy of the American coalition to “degrade, disrupt and defeat ” it, and to “defend the allied homelands” from terrorist attacks directed or inspired by this rapacious criminal gang is near-sighted, half-hearted, unsophisticated and most likely to result in an ugly, dangerous, expensive and enduring stalemate. Defenses designed to threaten attackers with near certain death do not deter those who welcome it. And offensives dependent mainly on inflicting losses on an enemy leave crucial decisions of whether and when to quit murdering, looting and enslaving to fanatics. Even when such defenses and offenses are combined, they perpetuate, rather than conclude, war. We can, and must, do better than respond with measures that satisfy only near-term political pressures to “do something.”
But there is no easy road forward. First, al Baghdadi and his gang will win if those who oppose them continue to refer to this criminal enterprise by the descriptive names they apply to themselves, whether in English or Arabic. Doing so advertises their aspirations and assists their propaganda. They chose to frame their “caliphate” as the vanguard of the titanic end-times struggle of the religious pure against the wayward and decadent. We should, instead, speak and think of this as a conflict of the lawful against the lawless, the fanatical against the reasonable, the modern against the medieval, and the civilized against the barbarian. To draw a line between the Muslim, or Sunni Muslim, world community and all others is wrong and the height of folly, when the lawful, reasonable, modern, and civilized among them are the main object of BG “jihad.” These millions of Muslims have the most to lose in this struggle. And the vast majority among them who are Sunni can exert the greatest leverage against them.
Second, we must realize that Al Baghdadi and his gang of lawless cutthroats will win if we, and all of our allies, cannot destroy his organization in place; apprehend and bring to trial its criminal leaders, followers, and supporters; and leave behind stable, functioning, and extremist-resistant indigenous communities under a political regime their citizens consider legitimate. And we must lay down a useful precedent for similar challenges in the future. No lesser goals are worthy of a civilized world. And no lesser goals are practical.
Third, America must formulate, adopt, and advance the goals stated above and a realistic core strategy to achieve them. This article will explain why and how.
Fourth, America will need a vigorous grand strategy of creative incentives to form a political alliance of the right combination of powers to implement it and resolve the many dilemmas of present national policies that stand in the way. This article will outline the essentials.
Finally, America and its allies must understand that this will require a strong “whole of government” commitment by a large alliance of the “civilized” powers in the Middle East and around the globe. This means visionary politics and dogged diplomacy to lay down the political foundation upon which to build the future of the communities now occupied by BG. It means a coordinated allied military assault in all the dimensions that matter, sufficiently strong to achieve decisive results in minimum time, in which the required tasks are accomplished by the powers best suited. It also means having in place a parallel international effort of coordinated police work, prosecutors, courts, and prisons. Equally important will be a coordinated and parallel allied effort in the wake of operations to establish legitimate local governing bodies to secure the community, facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid, guide allied efforts to jump-start local economies, and, thus, rebuild viable and safe communities in short order. And to be better prepared for the likely rise of offspring and cousins of this movement the allies must provide a useful precedent of legitimating logic and judicial procedures for similar transnational challenges in the future.
To defeat our efforts to achieve these goals, BG only needs to survive the current angry, shortsighted, overly militaristic, and half-measures of the civilized powers. So far, they have.
There is only one global power capable of convincing the relevant powers, especially those in the BG neighborhood, to join a coalition committed to a realistic strategy. So far, America has not.
This is the third revision[ii] of a work I began in the spring of 2014 when the American administration began serious thinking and planning for a campaign in Iraq and Syria against this group. This version expands, refines and updates my earlier thinking on this subject.
On Preconceived Schemes and Knee-Jerk Responses
Our current “counter terrorism”[iii] approach has undeniably degraded and disrupted the Abu Bakr al Baghdadi Gang (BG). But this degraded and disrupted, even besieged, “caliphate” has been able to increase its recruitment and the number and ferocity of its attacks abroad. We should be impressed by the simple efficiency of their tactics and the brilliance of their strategy. It seems that al Baghdadi, or his subordinate leaders in Raqqa need only suggest broad objectives, provide a little guidance and support, and small parties of pre-positioned followers willingly offer up their lives to wreak havoc in our modern civilized societies. Our efforts at detection and defense will continue to foil many such attempts, but our best efforts will continue to fail to prevent many others.
Their fighters, both in their occupied territories and abroad, are far from equivalent in skills, training, and equipment to the professional soldiers, sailors and airmen of modern states deployed against them. Yet inexpensive and simple weapons and tactics produce impressive global results that add up to a potent strategy for imposing huge psychological, material and political costs on the advanced nations of the world, and retard development in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. In contrast our very expensive sophisticated weapons and tactics appear impressive to us, but add up to stalemate on a global scale and no strategy for moving forward.
In the wake of murderous attacks on North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) homelands, citizens are urging their politicians to respond. This is a natural reaction, and politicians react by doing the first vigorous thing that comes to mind and they have the means to do. The immediate response has been to intensify the pace and number of air strikes and commando raids that constitute the current “counter terrorism strategy” of the allied effort.
Some in NATO Europe may want to replicate the strategy and tactics of the Kosovo Air War – bombing the cities of al Baghdadi’s criminal occupation, such as Raqqa. Forcing Serbia to withdraw their forces from Kosovo is not the same as causing these fanatics to stop committing crimes; to give up control of the Syrian and Iraqi territories they forcibly and illegally hold, and to surrender or face the destruction in place of their “army” of thugs. Those politicians who advocate this response should also remember that the pace of airstrikes NATO could muster during the 78 day Kosovo Air War will be extremely difficult to match far away from home and without the larger Air Forces and well stocked nearby airbases available at that time.[iv] Not only that, but the cost of each airplane’s flight to and from the target from distant air craft carriers or airbases, and that of the sophisticated munitions expended, is staggering[v] in comparison to the cost of just one terrorist mission in Europe, Asia or North America. Others may want to replicate the NATO air campaign to remove the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. They should think instead about the chaos left behind in that country after the Gaddafi regime was “destroyed.” Not even a ten-fold increase in intensity of “counter terrorism” or “Air War” tactics can defeat the so-called “caliphate,” and leave behind an acceptable result. Instead a strategy comprised of such tactics can cost dearly without “destroying” the situation that gave birth to the BG, especially when these tactics transform formerly prosperous villages, towns and cities into uninhabitable moonscapes and send former occupants fleeing. But an interim campaign of well planned and precise airstrikes and raids by outside powers can complement, and prepare the way for, a more complete strategy to follow.
The civilized global and regional powers can win (achieve the above mentioned quartet of goals) if they act in concert through a realistic core strategy aimed at these mutually supportive goals. After all, they are states with millions of citizens and vast resources. None of them need to make this effort their top priority. They need only elevate these aims sufficiently high, among their many other interests, to counter balance the very high priority Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his relatively small number of fervent and focused followers (no more than 150,000) place on their own apocalyptic vision of a final end-time war ahead of a messianic redemption, in which the planet is burned to ash. Compared to slowing climate change this is a very small undertaking, if addressed intelligently. If not, such criminal fanaticism will engulf the Middle East; worsen the flow of refugees from the hell they and we create by the current mode of fighting. And acts of politically motivated spectacular slaughter will continue to regularly punctuate otherwise civilized life around the globe.
What I have in mind is nothing like the two wars against Saddam Hussein. It is more like the war against the Afghan Taliban in late 2001 where local forces on the ground where assisted by US and Allied special and air forces. But where the Taliban was able to escape into the wild country of Afghanistan and the sanctuaries of Pakistan, the BG must be corralled. And where the Taliban was able to return to contest control of various villages, towns, and cities, these would be secured and defended by armed, able and trusted locals with keen incentives to keep the BG out. And finally, while the Taliban was driven out, they never decisively lost the struggle for the legitimacy to govern, especially in the Pashtu inhabited towns and villages some distance removed from Kabul. In fact, a major shortcoming of the strategies for the US and allied interventions of the last decade and one-half, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, was that most strategizing and planning was devoted to destroying an intolerable status quo by fighting, and very little was devoted to the politics, judicial processes and economics of constructing the favorable one to follow. That is not just unwise, it is unconscionable.
The Heart of the Matter
This situation is so complex that it is easy to lose focus. One must find, isolate, and take aim at the heart of the matter. The aspect of the situation making the summer 2014 status quo intolerable enough to trigger the original American and allied intervention was the rule of al Baghdadi’s militant group across great parts of Syria and Iraq, and the threat of this 7th century model of governance spreading further, if not checked at its origin. (A number of smaller scale BG colonies are cropping up elsewhere.) As such a regime swells in territory and membership, not only Middle Eastern, Afghan and North African populations will be at risk, but also those of modern industrialized nations across the globe. In other words, the problem caused by al Baghdadi’s militant group should, from the beginning, have been recognized to be, not a Syrian or Iraqi problem, but an international problem. And it needed an international perspective to resolve it, one that exploits common interests and overcomes, mitigates, or resolves differences, of which there are many. Recent events, such as Russia’s active intervention in support of the Syrian Ba’athist government, have only underscored this reality.
Moreover, BG is, both structurally and in terms of its aims and methods, significantly different than Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda does not need to control territory to exist. It only needs to promote and work toward a foreordained future caliphate. To be what it is, this group needs to control territory and to rule a population by strict Sharia law, on the 7th century model prescribed by the Prophet Mohammed in Koranic scriptures. And that territory needs to expand. It draws a growing stream of immigrants to that territory by offering a place for those who wish to live under such rule, and a regime that rigorously enforces such laws. It particularly attracts from abroad young, unemployed, unfulfilled, single Sunni Muslim men, and new converts to Islam, who feel victimized by local circumstances and fall prey to the vigorous and manly image the movement portrays on modern media. Within Syria and Iraq, it attracts Sunni’s who feel victimized by the Shia and Alawite dominated regimes that now rule their home countries. This movement also provides a cause that pursues concrete near-term objectives within the current generation rather than the more distant ones Al Qaeda followers pursue across many generations. And that cause, succinctly expressed, is to defend, sustain, and expand a place and a regime that rules according to the prophet Mohammed’s 7th century vision in every respect and actively seeks to bring about the final apocalyptic end-time war in the near term. Finally, because the Prophet has foreordained the ends they pursue, the leaders and fighters of this movement are emboldened to take great risks. This boldness, and the successes they have achieved, combines to attract action-oriented adherents from abroad. Breaking this success-fueled pattern of boldness is one key to their defeat.
One difficulty for the largely modern-minded international community is that this fanatical cult does not advocate a “perversion” of Koranic scriptures. It adheres to a strict interpretation of un-ambiguous prophetic passages of the holy book. And, like other believers of the Muslim faith, its members believe the Prophet Mohammed faithfully recorded the true word of Allah. What religious splits exist between this cult’s orthodoxy and most other Sunni Muslim authorities (including Salafists of any stripe) is over methods and timing - gentler methods of the struggle now and a later foreordained caliphate. As a result, it will be difficult to drive a wedge, solely on the grounds of religious principle, between them and other Sunni Muslim believers, including moderate ones and many of Assad’s other opponents in Syria.[vi] It is particularly unhelpful for Western leaders to argue that BG’s orthodoxy is “perverse.” That is framing our conflict with BG as if it were over religion. There are more effective wedge issues than points of religious orthodoxy. For instance, I cannot think of one Cold War debate between Marxist and Capitalist authorities ever bearing fruit! Communist regimes were not transformed or brought down by converting true believers. That happened when average citizens and rulers became convinced that rule based on such beliefs could not deliver the modern life they wanted. What convinced them was hard evidence of a more bounteous life in the West, and not words.
I prefer framing the conflict with BG, not as war (certainly not holy war), but as the fanatical against the reasonable, the civilized against the barbarian, the modern against the medieval, and the lawful against the lawless. I don’t honor BG fighters as holy warriors. The operations against them are not “war.” They are primarily “police actions” by legitimate authorities to bring criminals to justice. (They will necessarily include applications of military force and fighting in villages, towns and cities to apprehend BG fighters occupying them. Although the term “police action” was applied to the Korean War, that military intervention was war.)
The majority of Arab Sunnis have rationalized their religion with modern life and sensibilities regarding law and order. I believe they would be more trusting and cooperating allies if outside powers re-framed the combined operations against BG the way I have.
Beyond that, I think it is a colossal failure of clear thinking for politicians to use the word “war” to garner support for bringing mass murderers to justice. And it is equally unwise to choose the logic of war to combat crime.
War is the last resort for settling existential issues between states. War legalizes killing the enemy by the regular[vii] soldiers of a state in the name of collective objectives. And reciprocally, vanquished enemy soldiers are not held individually accountable for the soldiers they have killed for the aims of the state, only if there is evidence to implicate them in the murder of civilians. War ends when the enemy state quits. Causing the enemy to quit is far more difficult than most people think, especially when the enemy is not a state. If there is no enemy state with which to “make peace,” the war continues “under ground.” (This is what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq when the Taliban and Ba’athist regimes collapsed.)
Holding individuals accountable for acts all modern states have designated as crimes follows a different set of rules. All states have made murder illegal; therefore it is a crime everywhere. BG members who have murdered abroad have been either killed while committing the crime; killed resisting arrest; or apprehended, jailed, tried, and punished within some system of justice. This ends the process of holding individuals accountable for a crime.
It takes strength and discipline to follow this logic. The reward for doing so is respect for the laws and legitimacy in the eyes of citizens at home and abroad. Weak states cannot maintain the discipline of the process, are tempted into legal short cuts, and suffer loss of respect and legitimacy at home and abroad.
A “police action” to bring the leaders and henchmen of a murderous criminal gang to justice would have the strength of a united and large alliance of states. But it would need to combine the resources of their systems of justice to do it, and share the responsibility. This problem needs an international legal perspective to resolve it.
Another major difficulty for the distant international community to understanding is how to make strategic sense of the relevant territory occupied by BG and adjacent to it. It is easy to see place names, political boundaries, transportation infrastructures, and river lines that demark the territory on a map. But it is more difficult, and more important to understand how the large number of small groups fighting BG and the Syrian government relate to the territory and the tribal communities. An understanding of the history of the people on this land, and their present circumstances, is vital to formulating a sound strategy. It was three years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that a map of tribal distribution became available.
Another major difficulty to overcome is how to get the neighboring Turks, Iraqi Shia, Syrian Alawites and Christians, and Sunni Jordanians, Saudi Arabians, and Qataris to act in concert on any effective strategy to destroy al Baghdadi’s organization in place; apprehend and bring to trial its criminal leaders, followers and supporters; and leave behind stable, functioning, and extremist resistant indigenous communities under a political regime their citizens consider legitimate. The Turks need strong incentives to abandon their suppression of the Kurds and team up with them instead. The Iraqi Shia need strong incentives to share power with Kurds and Sunnis and to permit the Sunni majority provinces as much autonomy as the Kurdish ones have acquired. The Syrian Alawites, Shia and Christians need strong incentives to share power and national resources with Sunnis in the central government, and to allow provinces and districts more self government.
The flow of immigrants into Europe, and the potential for expanding terrorism there, gives the Europeans a strong incentive to offer help and demand solutions. Normally, modes of self-government are strictly internal national concerns, but, in this case, the international community has a strong interest in imposing measures designed to achieve the above mentioned trinity of goals: destroy BG organization in place; apprehend and bring to trial its criminal leaders, followers, and supporters; and leave behind stable, functioning, and extremist-resistant indigenous communities under a political regime their citizens consider legitimate.
On Custom Designing Strategies And Their Tactics
In his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence describes how, during World War I, he conceived of the unique core strategy for combining the fighting potential of the Arab tribes to assist the British Army defeat the Ottoman Army in what is today Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. The British had in mind an Arab Army, patterned after their own. What proved successful instead was a tailor-made way of organizing indigenous fighting forces, command structures and logistics. Not only that, but while European weapons were useful, European fighting tactics were not. Lawrence and his Arab allies adapted tactics to the strategy and the local situation. The details of what Lawrence and the Arabs then did to defeat the Ottoman Turks is less interesting than the mode of thinking that created their governing strategy and implementing tactics. What follows is how I have adapted to the current situation how T.E Lawrence thought about his problematic situation in this region one hundred years ago.[viii]
In the rational pursuit of vital interests in any human undertaking, the design of concrete actions to pursue them must subordinate to a conceptual strategic design based on a well-researched theory of the specific situation. Any such theory will be based on a combination of hard data and educated guesses about what those data mean. The underlying research must encompass not only the historic sweep of similar cases (history does not repeat, it educates), but it must also examine the peculiarities and differences of the present situation compared to any that came before. Finally, because of the differences between the present case and those of the past, it must adapt, rather than adopt, past practices. What results from such inquiry and contemplation is a rough but useful strategic framework that can be adapted as learning occurs. At the core of such a framework is a theory of the situation at the very heart of the matter and a strategy for resolving it – a core strategy. Other secondary aspects of the situation are accounted for separately in supporting strategies. Having an explicit consensus among allies on a core strategy aligns costly allied operations.
Such a core strategy should drive the design of tactics and supporting strategies. To my way of thinking, strategies are logical schemes for achieving broad conceptual ends employing conceptual ways and means along several lines of effort. Complex human affairs are usually resolved when a cluster of related, but sometimes very different, conceptual ends are pursued sequentially or in parallel. Tactics are the practical schemes for achieving concrete ends employing concrete ways and means.
As in the past, we have based this intervention to “degrade, disrupt and defeat” this militant movement, on theories of the situation that are, at best, under-informed and always behind the times, basing our action on ends, ways and means derived from old thinking. Under informed because much that is relevant is hidden from view. Behind the times because situations involving humans are always evolving. And old thinking because no two situations are ever the same.
Military force becomes military power only when its application causes humans to react as intended. The purpose of any extended military campaign is to affect the choices and behaviors of specific sets of humans within that dynamic and interactive situation of human complexity.
It is the duty of military professionals to conceive of military strategies (conceptual schemes for applying power in a particular situation) with a high probability of causing specific and relevant humans to react as intended.
One way of evading that duty is to report physical tactical activity and its product as progress. During the Vietnam War progress was famously measured and reported by “body count.” Today it is often measured and reported by the number of strikes and raids and their immediate physical product – things destroyed, and fighters or leaders killed or captured.
Another way of evading that duty is to construct strategies from collections of doctrinally enshrined off-the-shelf tactics. Today the favored collections of experience based tactical "best practices" are labeled Counter Insurgency (COIN) and Counter Terrorism (CT) strategies. COIN and CT are not strategies, and there is no wisdom in constructing strategies from a collection of off-the-shelf tactical “best practices.” That's reversing the more effective thought process.
Making headway in any extended military endeavor designed to achieve such aims requires periodically making both conceptual choices of how to understand the always-opaque objective situation and practical choices of how to take concrete action to improve it. Progress is measured by evidence of intended changes in human choices and behaviors. And this evidence, while vital, is far more difficult to obtain than progress toward achieving the objectives of tactical actions.
The viability of strategies inherently expires as key circumstances of the situation evolve. Thus strategies require periodic revision, as a matter of course. Leaders must allow for this inevitability.
My own enquiries along this line have led me to the following core strategy for accomplishing the vital and very difficult tasks at the heart of the current crisis. And from the logic of that core strategy emerge the ends of grand strategic lines of effort. And from those emerges the logic of a grand strategy. And, in the other direction, the core strategy also governs the logic of the unique tactics required to make progress.
Summarizing The Core Strategy
Changing any intolerable status quo in human affairs into an acceptable one is ambitious. A useful core strategy needs to be specific about ends, ways and means. For instance, there is nothing ambiguous about destroying BG in place; apprehending and bringing to trial its criminal leaders, followers, and supporters; leaving behind stable, functioning, and extremist-resistant indigenous communities under a political regime their citizens consider legitimate; and laying down a useful precedent for similar challenges in the future. To achieving such complex ends, a useful core strategy must be designed along multiple lines of operations. In this case I suggest four distinct major lines of effort. Each of these can be described clearly in one short paragraph of simple declaratory sentences.
The first line of operations is the struggle over the legitimacy to govern, make laws, and enforce them within the BG occupied territory. It is between Al Baghdadi’s group and the alternative that will follow. Winning this struggle requires creating stable, functioning, and extremist resistant indigenous communities under a political regime the people living in these communities consider legitimate.
The second is to defend the occupied populations in Syria and Iraq from the “armed propaganda” of the violent BG militants during the fighting for each community and afterwards. Winning along this line of effort requires a very disciplined interim political and security regime to provide immediate security.
The third is the offensive effort to destroy BG in place by defeating and capturing its fighters and arresting its agents and officials town-by-town and village-by-village. Winning along this line of effort would require two operational branches. A strong NATO effort is needed to choke off all sustenance from abroad and to destroy all internal logistical and command capability. And a strong and disciplined Sunni Arab led and NATO supported force is needed to destroy the “terrorist army” and its weapons; prevent the escape of its members to organize anew elsewhere; and to retain the moral high ground and legitimacy in the process.
The fourth line of effort is to design, build, and legitimate in global eyes, the judicial processes required for this “police action.” This BG problem needs an international legal perspective to resolve it. How the alliance incarcerates, prosecutes and brings BG leaders and other criminal members to trial matters greatly. Not only is legitimacy an important facet of this strategy, but also it will remain so for the future worldwide struggle between and the forces of modernity and the remaining wide spread remnants, offspring, and cousins of this movement. Winning these future struggles will also require framing them as the fanatical against the reasonable, the civilized against the barbarian, the lawful against the lawless, and the modern against the medieval. As important as expeditious and fair disposition of cases is for the success of this “police action, setting a precedent for transparent, impartial and efficient judicial processes for future multi-national “police actions” will provide a great advantage. There is no doubt that large, sophisticated, well-organized, and violent transnational criminal organizations, whether motivated by greed or power, lie in our future.
The power of this strategy derives from synergy among the four major lines of effort, but a weakness in one cannot be compensated by the strength of another. In my mind, all four lines of effort are equally important, parallel, and mutually supporting. But I have deliberately bracketed the two fighting efforts between the legitimizing ones. And I have separated the fighting for keeping the people safe from the fighting against BG, because the logic of their fighting differs. I have separated the struggle for internal legitimacy from the struggle for external legitimacy for the same reason. The power to transform intentions into desired outcomes along each of these lines of effort depends on finding and applying an effective causal logic unique to this situation, which is the subject of the following paragraphs.
Winning the Local Legitimacy to Govern
Legitimacy is granted from below not imposed from above. The populations of these communities will be impressed by actions, not promises. An effective interim local replacement regime must be operational immediately in the aftermath of town-by-town and village-by-village fighting. How these communities will fit into a stable Syria or Iraq must be agreed among the intervening powers and the governments of Syria and Iraq from the start. And to meet the principal aim of this line of effort, there must be credible plans and funding to reconstruct economically viable villages, towns and cities in former BG occupied territories. And this work must start as soon as inhabited places are secure.
Any ruler relies on the support of the people for protection, intelligence, supplies, funds, and recruits. They also rely on public support to legitimate the power to apprehend, and bring criminals to trial and punishment. And, no government of outsiders imposed from above will be stable, extremist resistant, and functional in this situation.
Liberators, even if they are not outsiders, will have to win the people’s allegiance away from BG. The support of the people is partly coerced through conquest. But many people of these territories chose to live there rather than under the rule of either the Syrian or Iraqi governments because they are better served by BG justice, public safety, and social services than by their former rulers. Some have immigrated there from neighboring provinces for the same reasons. Some would rather risk the deprivations and dangers of emigration to a country of strangers. Many endure BG rule for the sake of being at home and with family. Some become believers in the BG orthodoxy and cause when they are shown scriptural justification. Some immigrants arrive in these territories from abroad already converted to the BG orthodoxy and cause. While some may regret their choice as they experience the “caliphate” first hand, it would be a mistake to assume that it will be easy selling any post-BG regime to a harried and often disappointed people on both sided of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
There are some obvious mistakes to avoid. In the Afghan and Iraqi interventions we saw how quickly the relief of liberation from one oppressive regime can turn into dissatisfaction with the regime of a foreign liberator. Differences in nationality are not all that makes a foreigner. Iraqis and Syrians of a different religion and ethnicity will be judged “foreign” in the communities they liberate.
Also, there is no such thing as “ungoverned space” except when it is unpopulated. Some form of governance takes shape organically, and armed violent groups will either impose their form of order, or influence the existing one to their advantage.
People will favor indigenous governors over foreign ones. This is why foreigners have such difficulty establishing legitimate rule over indigenous people. To the extent BG is seen as foreign, and the replacement regime as indigenous, the better the result.
If a force comprised of allied “foreigners” is necessary to remove fighters from occupied communities and neighborhoods, the allied fighting force must shortly move on to the next fight and an interim indigenous political and security regime must take its place to organize, resource, and develop a functioning community under an acceptable and permanent indigenous governance. It would be unrealistic to expect Sunni communities in Anbar province, for instance, to accept as “indigenous” a Shia militia from anywhere else in Iraq. Likewise the successful relief of Kobani in Syria can be credited as much, or more, to the ethnic affinity of the Kurdish fighters on the ground to the citizens of the town than to the increased allied air support these fighters received.
At present, on the Iraq side of the border, US policy is to recover Iraqi towns and villages to Iraqi sovereign control. If T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) were to organize this effort he would insist, and I would agree, on a bottom up approach -- first creating stable, functioning, and extremist resistant indigenous communities under a local political regime they consider legitimate. Lawrence would give members of the nearby Sunni Arab community a visible leading role in this line of effort. (He would probably try to enlist the Saudi rulers to organize and lead this effort.) In some local communities this leadership and public face would be Kurdish, Turkoman, Yazidi, or whatever combination of indigenous people mirrors the community. Others, who would stay out of these communities, could provide important support and backing. In order to be operational for the community immediately in the aftermath of the fighting, he would insist that an effective interim replacement regime be organized town-by-town and village-by-village before the fighting begins.
He would not try to install Western model governance. He would point out that there is no useful objective standard for governance, only a relative one. The governance of the replacement regime and its agencies must be better in the eyes of the people than the previous alternative.
He would then install a layer of autonomy between these communities and centralized nationalistic governance. And when they are incorporated into national political structures, they would have a voice in the government. How this will be done should be of vital interest to all of the allies, and cannot be left undetermined for later resolution. All this would be spelled out in treaty form before this phase of the allied intervention began.
Lawrence would not need to ask permission of the Ba’athist regime to operate on the Syrian side of the border. He would only need to confer with the Russians, informing them of his plans, and of his intentions to install air defenses there. He would then separate the territory still held by the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al Assad from the territories controlled by the various opposition groups.
To do that, he would enlist the government of Jordan to organize the defense of these communities, and the militias operating in and from them, into a self-defense alliance of mutual support. (Lawrence and the Jordanians would probably vet these militias based on the extremity of their actions rather than on their beliefs.) He would then urge the Jordanians, with NATO nation backing and support, to establish “all of government” aid and liaison parties specifically designed to meet the needs of these communities. (The alliance would then have the leverage to bargain with the Ba’athist regime over the future geography and government of Syria.)
This territory could then be used to stage operations against BG occupied villages, towns and cities. A similar bottom up approach, as employed on the Iraqi side of the border, would then ensue -- first creating stable, functioning, and extremist resistant indigenous communities under a local political regime they consider legitimate.
Simultaneously to the above, Lawrence would then try to negotiate a cease-fire with the Ba’athists. If the Ba’athists refused, he would entrench the militias along the line of militia controlled territories and enhance air and ground defenses with NATO support.
Russia could be helpful. Lawrence would offer them the opportunity to fully join the alliance against BG if they deliver a Ba’athist ceasefire with the militias, and a treaty guaranteeing a reasonable level of autonomy to the territories held by BG and the various Sunni, Turkoman, and Kurdish militias. Having accomplished this, Russia would not feel obligated to defend Assad’s regime from the militias, only from BG attacks. And their air operations could then be fully integrated into those of NATO forces.
If Russia cannot, or will not, then they will be a problem for the alliance. Russian air operations against BG may remain semi-independent and unpredictable. Without a ceasefire, Russia would need to be prepared to defend Ba’athist territory. And they could also strengthen Assad’s bargaining power within a rump Syria.
However, the alliance can still meet it’s goal of “leaving behind stable, functioning, and extremist-resistant indigenous communities under a political regime their citizens consider legitimate,” by other means. These Sunni majority provinces can become independent or be joined to Jordan.
Defending the Population from “Armed Propaganda”
Once again, if T.E. Lawrence were to organize this effort he would insist, and I would agree, that removing BG without immediately securing the aftermath is a wasted effort because the “cancer” would otherwise return. A fearful and exposed population is lost to whoever attempts to govern next. Liberated communities need immediate protection from stay-behind BG elements and re-infiltration of BG fighters and agents.
Violent movements like BG extort intelligence, recruits, money, support, and compliance through fear, threat and cruel example – for example the numerous public beheadings that have been reported under BG rule. Without these enablers, violent movements wither. Once security and governing elements of BG are driven out of the communities they occupy, they will attempt to leave covert cells behind, or re-infiltrate them later. The proverbial “three men and one knife” in an otherwise unarmed community can control the people. The antidote is around-the-clock security, which is costly in manpower and difficult to emplace from the outside and is best done from inside out and bottom up, with motivated and trusted self-defense forces.
It would be the primary task of the interim political and security regimes to provide immediate security, to discover and arrest covert indigenous BG cells, and to recruit and train a competent and trustworthy indigenous self-defense force. Our community by community liberation plans would not only address removing BG control but would also plan for an interim political regime and a disciplined interim security force that rapidly is phased out as a permanent local force under local civilian control replaces it.
Because an interim security force must be immediately capable of discovering and arresting covert indigenous BG cells, a force, even a very professional one, of foreign NATO soldiers would not be our choice for this role. Neither would the community trust a very disciplined force of occupying Shia Arabs. Nor would they trust any undisciplined force capable of imposing a tyranny of their own. Best qualified would be disciplined members of Sunni Arabs tribes at least familiar to the people of the communities. Next best would be elite Sunni Arab units of neighboring powers. And, they must immediately begin to recruit and train a competent and trustworthy indigenous self-defense force.
Because this line of effort is also the most expensive in terms of trained and armed manpower, there is really no other alternative than local recruitment. Some studies based on rare historical successes in similar unstable situations have judged the price to be no less than 20 security personnel per 1,000 citizens.[ix] And doing this takes advantage of old-fashioned social and political structures to build local security forces.
It is possible to avoid the mistakes of the “Sunni Awakening” and “Son’s of Iraq” model of several years ago. The Sunni Awakening of 2007 emerged unexpectedly. The US military command in Iraq took advantage of the willingness of Sunni tribal leaders to ally with US forces against Al Qaeda led insurgents in their home provinces in exchange for arms, pay and promises of power sharing in the central government. A force of nearly 80,000 Sunni fighters made up the “Sons of Iraq” by 2011. The Shia leaders of the government were frightened by the prospect of a nationwide “Sunni Army.” As US forces left, so did the money to pay them. Iraqi promises to integrate them into the Armed Forces never materialized, and neither did promises of the Shia to share power with the Sunni.
This strategy proposes a fundamentally different model of local recruitment and political control. First, the local indigenous regimes that finally replace BG in the occupied communities emerge from the bottom up, as communities are “liberated.” Second, the local security force they form and recruit (with outside assistance as described earlier) is automatically subordinated to whatever indigenous governmental structures evolve from the bottom-up.
Lawrence and I would facilitate a bottom up evolution of political and security regimes on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. (This is more like the model of governmental evolution between 1775 and 1785 in America, and the opposite of what happened during the period of the French revolution – governance evolved there from Paris outward and down. The post-Ba’athist Iraqi regime also was reorganized from Baghdad outward and down – a strategic mistake.)
As proposed at the local community level, interim political and security regimes are planned and prepared ahead of time for every district and province. They are activated in the wake of the fighting, as they can begin to influence matters.
The interim security forces assigned at these levels are tailored to the specific needs of the situation. Here would be allied back-up reaction forces, and units with heavier weapons, transportation and support. Once local political regimes are able to appoint responsive representatives, they send them to the next higher level of government. Interim regimes and security forces melt away as indigenous ones take hold.
We should have learned in Afghanistan, and Iraq, that the key to regime change is not knocking down the undesirable one but quickly filling the power vacuum that follows regime collapse before the legitimacy of a “liberator,” in many eyes, becomes the illegitimacy of an occupier, in all eyes. Foreign “liberators,” even when they are cousins, can fill that vacuum only temporarily. They must waste no time gaining control of population centers, and commencing effective governance and security infrastructure building. The sooner “good enough” indigenous governing bodies and security forces replace foreigners the better the result, and the quicker and the more visible the draw-down of strangers the happier the indigenous community is to see them go and the more pleased people who sent them there are to welcome them home.
Fighting and Defeating the “Terrorist Army”
Thus, if T.E. Lawrence were to organize this effort he would insist, and I would agree, that keeping people safe and getting them on the side of peace under a legitimate local government is not enough, but being able to promise and deliver safety and legitimate alternative rule is an advantage in the fight to defeat the al Baghdadi regime and its “terrorist army.” As Lawrence and his Arab allies did one hundred years ago, this mission will need a tailor-made way of organizing indigenous and foreign fighting forces, command structures and logistics. And, as then, they will need to adapt tactics learned earlier and elsewhere to the present strategy and the local situation.
Lawrence would make three relevant observations about the object of this effort. First, to be what it is, BG needs to promote and work toward a foreordained future caliphate. Thus, it needs to rule populated territory, and that territory needs to expand. BG will fight fanatically for every community and willingly take losses to retain populated ground, using brutal tactics, shielding itself among innocent civilians, and starving the population to remain well fed. Leaders and fighters of this movement are emboldened to take great risks because the Prophet has foreordained their success. This boldness, and the successes they have achieved, combines to attract action-oriented adherents from abroad. Breaking this success-fueled pattern of boldness, stemming the flow of reinforcements from abroad, containing and steadily reversing their territorial expansion are all key to their defeat.
Second, and equally defining of their identity, this movement (small compared to the forces the rest of the world could, and should, array against them) places a high priority on their own apocalyptic vision of a final end-time war ahead of a messianic redemption. Lawrence would ask, if they seek to bring about the final apocalyptic end-time war, not figuratively and some day, but literally and in the near term, how would they (the forces of virtue) stage this show down with us (Satan’s corrupt and decadent minions of non-believers)? If what they, and al Qaeda, have done is demonstrate micro versions of the apocalypse in New York, Washington, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Beirut, Paris, elsewhere, and, more recently, in San Bernardino, then how do they intend to stage the main event? It is possible to over-think this. If a micro version of the apocalypse were the martyrdom of a small number of foot soldiers to kill hundreds, would they not be willing to martyr tens of thousands of them (and the citizens of the communities they rule) in exchange for hundreds of thousands of their assailants.
Third, when put like this, only fools would volunteer to assault the communities of the “caliphate.” But the wise strategist would exploit some inherent asymmetric vulnerabilities of this “terrorist army.” The geography of the “caliphate” the BG army needs to defend is one. They will have difficulty controlling the sandy and rocky empty space between the communities they need to defend. The connecting transportation links between them will also be difficult to defend and easy to interdict. The long and populated Euphrates valley is vulnerable to flanking and dissecting attacks. The size of the “terrorist army” relative to the size and distribution of the population centers it needs to defend is another. And they will have difficulty moving forces from one threat to another, once serious ground operations threaten multiple communities at once. And as every tyrant knows, the attentions of his army must divide between the enemy beyond the gates and the enemy within. Finally, they rule millions, with little opposition. But when they no longer appear invincible, and when the population senses a better alternative than being sacrificed for a fanatical cause, how will they maintain control?
Thus Lawrence would conclude that its “terrorist army” is the heart of the movement led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It is the instrument of territorial control and expansion and for defeating Satan’s minions. Because its members welcome death, and because defenses designed to threaten attackers with near certain death do not deter them, they have repeatedly frightened away ill trained and unconfident Iraqi and Syrian troops many times their number. Trained, confident and disciplined soldiers can reduce this “terrorist army’s” strength and effectiveness; reverse this pattern of success; and confound their expectations of an apocalyptic end-times battle by disciplined and skilled fighting.
But an offensive against it, dependent mainly on inflicting losses on it from the air and by raiding, will not cause its leaders and members to quit. Such fighting methods leave crucial decisions of whether and when to quit murdering, looting and enslaving to fanatical leaders and fighters, prolonging the fighting, and inciting more of the people to support them. When the civilian populations suffer heavy casualties from air bombardment, the survivors will become enraged and join the defense.[x]
To defeat this “army” Lawrence would confront it with a two-armed approach, both focused and discriminating, so that the lives and property of the people BG has enslaved and impoverished are preserved. Retaining the moral high ground and legitimacy in the process is crucial to success. Together these two arms combine to enforce its destruction in place and prevent its escape to organize anew elsewhere.
One arm of this offensive will choke off all sustenance from abroad, and also destroy all of its internal logistics and internal command infrastructure. The first task will require external internationally coordinated police work. The second task will require internal military destruction, raiding and interdiction. While planning and executing the latter, it will be important to limit collateral damage to economic infrastructures needed to restore viable communities and their economies in the aftermath of fighting.
The second arm of this offensive enforces the in-place destruction of this “terrorist army” and its weapons and prevents the escape of its members to organize anew elsewhere. This option-eliminating and constricting arm includes: systematic encirclement of separate communities to reduce them piecemeal; simultaneous attacks from multiple directions to divide the “terrorist army’s” fighting efforts; closing borders to escaping or reinforcing fighters and leaders; and relentless pursuit into sanctuaries to eliminate safe havens. It also plans and controls operations to constrict, and then stop, all forms of organized motorized movement throughout the “caliphate” except that allowed to provide humanitarian relief, medical evacuation, and authorized civilian traffic. It also shuts down all “terrorist army” support functions to include: the flow of information and orders among leaders; and arms, ammunition, and food for its fighters. It shuts down all BG income generating functions throughout these communities, (such as: taxation; extortion; and smuggling – especially of expropriated oil) and, most of all, the in-flow of immigrants and recruits.
The mission of destroying this “terrorist Army” in place, and preventing the escape of its members, will require a Sunni Arab led, and NATO supported, command. It will need to fight systematically for villages, towns, and cities, and perform the various supporting tasks outlined above. Therefore, it must train up for disciplined fighting, and for success at this specific mission. And this combat force must be large enough to threaten the “terrorist army” from multiple directions and in all relevant dimensions. When these soldiers go into combat they must believe in their cause, their comrades, and their skills.
In principle, this command will allocate tasks to the ally best suited to the mission. Its Sunni Arab assault brigades attach NATO liaison and advisory teams and indigenous military police detachments. To every three Sunni Arab brigades within an allied assault division, Americans and other NATO members can provide a reinforcing combat brigade of four mobile and armor protected battalions augmented with intelligence, artillery, engineers, aviation, and logistics. The mission of this complement of foreigners is to reinforce and support the requests of the Sunni Arab brigades leading the fight for the communities. These reinforcing NATO units would position in easily defensible terrain outside populated areas but within supporting distance of the assault brigades they reinforce.
Lawrence would suggest, and I would agree, that forces be marshaled, trained, and rehearsed months ahead of commitment and outside the combat zone. It will take time to build up such a force. And during their preparations they need to be beyond reach of spoiling attacks. Teamwork and mutual trust is important within multi-national combined assault forces. When ready, these forces assault Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s forces from multiple directions nearly simultaneously, depriving the “terrorist army” the ability to mass fighters against sequential threats.
When the combined assault divisions described above attack the detachments of the “terrorist army” in encircled communities, the method of clearing them of gang members reduces in microcosm to the method of clearing one room. The present method is to guess which rooms the enemy occupies and then to bomb them, hoping the guess is correct and no innocents are killed or hurt. This was also a choice for young American commanders between 2005 and 2007, when the mission was clearing out the earlier version of this gang of cutthroats from Fallujah and Ramadi. These commanders chose to clear thousands of rooms with squads of soldiers or marines.[xi] The leaders and members of these squads chose to fight within the legal strictures of international laws of armed conflict, accepting risk and exercising “due care” for civilian casualties. Advantageous conditions for accomplishing this task were set.
At some point in the defense of a besieged community, the population will realize that their “protectors” are their jailers, and willing to sacrifice their lives. Non-combatants anywhere are clever, bold and inventive when warned of danger and allowed to escape. Thus, fewer civilians are likely to be in the room when the squad enters.
Meanwhile, prior tactics have insured that the armed gangsters in the room are sleep deprived, hungry, ill equipped and low on ammunition. The squad’s mission then is to capture those who quit fighting and to kill those who won’t. Squads of Sunni Arab soldiers must now perform this mission. Americans can train, advise, support and reinforce.
If al Baghdadi is willing to martyr the lives of tens of thousands of his fighters in defense of his “caliphate,” then this approach will give him that opportunity, but it will not grant him the results he desires. A well-trained and disciplined allied army to execute it will confound his expectations. Many of his fighters may choose to fight to their death, as rooms are systematically cleared in the fighting, but the victors’ losses will be light in comparison. And most of the people of the community will escape being “sacrificed” in the fighting.
Captured BG fighters and leaders are now handed over to the forward detachments of the legal system we will discuss next. Having “cleared” this community the assaulting forces move on refit and prepare for the next mission, while the community designated interim replacement political and security regime immediately begins to organize, resource, and develop a functioning community under acceptable and permanent indigenous governance. Other forces seal borders and prevent escape to sanctuaries. Still others follow to provide reserves and support. All of them win firefights quickly and decisively through preparation and training, and use disciplined fighting practices designed to avoid casualties and unnecessary collateral damage.
Winning Global Popular Legitimacy Against Transnational Terrorists and Criminals
Having in place a parallel international effort of coordinated police work, prosecutors, courts, and prisons will be essential to defeating this criminal movement. As BG gangsters and suspected collaborators are captured in the operations described above, they are immediately turned over to detachments of Sunni Arab police operating within the specialized Combined Assault Divisions. From there investigators, prosecutors and jailers prepare cases against them and hold them for trial. How the alliance handles the incarceration, prosecution and trials of BG leaders and other criminal members will certainly affect the success of the present global campaign against BG, and the stability of the aftermath in the communities they have ruled. Old precedents will fail in this case. (In an earlier section I have explained why it is unwise to choose the logic of war to combat crime.[xii]) And new ones need to be established to follow in future cases of a similar kind.
Up to this point in the description of this strategy, there is little to distinguish the fighting of a “police action” from the fighting of a war. The difference, if any, is that the object of the fighting during a police action is to overcome the violent resistance to capture and bring individual criminals to trial. During war, the two sides fight primarily to cause the other side to quit. The objects of war have always been to impose outcomes on a collective polity, even before modern states existed. The object of a police action is to hold individuals accountable for crimes they have committed, when normal “policing” doesn’t work -- especially when criminals band together in great enough strength to challenge the power of the state to stop their crimes and punish them. But more importantly in this case, the transfer of captives is from a military organization that captured them to the organs of a system of justice.
And also up to this point, the soldiers engaged in ridding the world of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s movement have fought and captured the resisting movement members, as they would have the leaders and soldiers of any state at war with the state they serve. If the capture was done according to the international laws governing the means and methods of war, how much more stringent would be the laws governing the capture of armed criminals in a shootout with police in Paris or San Bernardino? None. The suspected criminal captured by the police would be tried in a civil court for resisting arrest, murder or attempted murder while doing so, and also for any prior crimes that can be proven. The enemy soldier, on the other hand, would not be tried for defending himself, even if he has killed while he did. But, if he had committed wanton murder against non-combatants, a military tribunal would try him for war crimes. So, in our case of Abu Baker al Baghdadi’s captured associates, what would be the advantage of choosing to call them “enemy combatants,” a category in the gray area between being a soldier and a gangster?
This is what the US Government chose to do with members of al Qaeda captured in Afghanistan after the mass murder by twenty Al Qaeda Members on September 11th, 2001. American authorities chose to “go to war” with a violent movement that wasn’t a state and lacked a fixed permanent address. And, as a consequence of that choice, could label al Qaeda captives “enemy combatants.”
Creating this category provided two perceived conveniences. Captive “enemy combatants” could be treated as prisoners of war, kept in military prisons, and interrogated more conveniently for intelligence. Military tribunals patterned after the post-WWII War Crimes Tribunals could be used to hear their cases. And, elusive al Qaeda senior operatives could be assassinated when found, if a Federal Judge reviewed the cases against them and judged them sufficient. “Common” criminals can’t be held in military prisons and can’t just be assassinated.
Were these conveniences really advantageous? America’s strategists should abandon this strategy for two reasons: it isn’t working; and it’s an impediment to moving on to a strategy that will.
The strategy isn’t working because responsible military professionals and their political masters are again evading their duty to craft sound strategy as they have historically by confusing successful tactics with strategic progress. Officials responsible for defeating these movements take refuge in doctrinally enshrined tactical "best practices" to justify the present strategy. They also report the results of tactics as progress toward strategic ends, such as “body count” was during the Vietnam War. Today we hear reports of killed or captured terrorists and their leaders and of destroyed weapons and installations, rather than measures of how such tactical results combined to cause desired changes in the size, scope and activities of the remaining movement.
The record of America’s military prisons and tribunals, as well as its unilateral and uncoordinated assassination attempts in foreign countries (especially when there has been collateral damage) has de-legitimized its fight against al Qaeda, especially in the region we now need allies the most, the Middle East and Pakistan. For example, already in August 2014 the Grand Mufti of Sunni Islam in Egypt, Shawqi Allam, denounced al Baghdadi’s movement as "an extremist and bloody group” that “poses a danger to Islam and Muslims, tarnishing its image as well as shedding blood and spreading corruption." He also added that they “give an opportunity for those who seek to harm us, to destroy us and interfere in our affairs with the (pretext of a) call to fight terrorism." This, clearly, is not an open invitation for Americans to solve this problem for the Muslim people. It would be helpful to shift the discussion with the Sunni Muslim community from intolerable “extremism” within their religion to intolerable crimes and criminals, whatever the religion, and how such criminals can be apprehended and brought to justice.
There is precedent in plain sight. In other cases, both in America and abroad, al Qaeda terrorists were successfully treated as criminals, held in civilian jails, interrogated, and tried in civilian courts, all within the existing laws of the countries that had jurisdiction in the case.
Modern states do not tolerate crimes, no matter what the motivation. They allow people to be passionate about religion, but they draw the line when passion leads to crime. Some Americans Christians may be passionate about what abortion clinics do, but their religious beliefs do not absolve them of burning down these clinics or killing the doctors who staff them. Some Muslims in Middle Eastern countries may be passionate about the invasion of their way of life by Western Culture, but their religious beliefs do not absolve them, in the eyes of most of their fellow citizens, from killing or injuring those who are attracted to it.
We should shift the discussion with the Sunni Muslim community from intolerable “extremism” within their religion to the commission of intolerable crimes against a broader civilized community we share. Then the kind of police action I describe here appears more legitimate from all relevant perspectives – that of the people in the communities al Baghdadi rules, the people in the region who will fight his “terrorist army,” and the people outside the region who will support that fight. It is for the first two of these groups to reconcile universal modern laws about murder looting, and enslaving with ancient and revered Koranic scripture. We in the third group and all of our allies of the second should instead be concerned about the legitimacy of our own conduct.
Where BG fighters may claim to be regulated by 7th century Koranic scriptures, the conduct of all allied fighters must be as regulated by international law. When BG fighters bear arms and use them, in modern eyes everywhere, they become common criminals, not even “war criminals.” The modern legal logic is this: when BG fighters are captured, they are arrested, tried by legitimate authorities, and punished for their crimes according to the laws of the country where they committed them or under international law. The alliance must decide the particulars of the incarceration, prosecution and trials of BG leaders and other criminal members. And a robust and just judicial system must be ready when BG captives are caught. In principle, legitimate international authorities, the nations who bore the costs of capture, and the people who have been oppressed by BG, must together judge the prisons and courts legitimate.
Ridding the world of this scourge will require more than the wishful thinking and half-measures that took America to War in Afghanistan and Iraq. It will require deep commitment, not only by Americans, but it will also require the commitment of a broad coalition to share the burdens and carry it out. Most of all, it will require clear and realistic thinking about warfare in the modern age.
By current means and methods the global struggle with al-Qaeda inspired movements, such as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s gang, will continue into the foreseeable future. Both they and we will keep learning and adapting. American leaders should learn that the strategy of defending the homeland, while waging an old fashioned war of attrition abroad is a formula for perpetual warfare. This strategy can “degrade,” and “disrupt” but not “defeat”. We have yet to see the effects of an option-eliminating, constricting, peace-enforcing offensive strategy of “defeat” anywhere. What America must learn to do is to shift the framing of the problem from being a matter of religious beliefs, and thus outlawing and condemning the “extreme” beliefs of one religion in particular, to being a matter of outlawing, condemning, stopping and punishing violent crimes of powerful gang members. And then learn to shape the global strategy and lead a global effort based on the logic of the “quartet” outlined above. This will mean leading while remaining mostly in the background, as the main struggle is fought “by, with, and through” Muslim allies to create stable, functioning, and extremist resistant indigenous communities.
The task, as described here, is immense. If it is undertaken, it will take time and resources. Politicians eager to please the public will either support the current Counter Terrorism (CT) “strategy” in some form or intensity or, if they agree that ground operations are necessary, they will down play the risks of taking on this mission and allocate too little to the effort.
This tendency of political calculation reflects the present public’s expectation that it should be able to vent its emotions and not pay the entry fee. A feature of post-Vietnam military interventions by Americans and their Western allies has been freedom from the normal privations a society accepts as a consequence of war. In the modern industrialized countries of the world, like America, small well-paid professional Armed Forces insure that casualties are limited to the small circle of family and friends of the volunteers who serve in combat. Not even the privations formerly meted out by the mandatory “guns versus butter” trade-off are felt due to robust and growing economies, and the ability to finance budget deficits.
There is no safe, scientific way to estimate troop requirements. In this case it is foolish, even reckless, to economize. The larger the force, the more easily it can divide to attack multiple places at once and fix in place the limited number of fighters al Baghdadi can muster. It is better and safer to over-estimate the initial force requirement and send troops home as soon as they are not needed, than to start the intervention short-handed. There will be fewer casualties and quicker mission accomplishment. The reverse is a certain formula for high casualties and a lengthy war.
There will be great temptations to compromise the principles of this strategy in execution. While keeping people safe and getting them on the side of peace under a legitimate local government is not enough to defeat BG’s “terrorist army,” without the leverage these parallel efforts provide, the sacrifices required to defeat it might be in vain. And none of these aims can be achieved without allied unity, disciplined execution and an enabling grand strategy.
[i] Huba Wass de Czege, Brigadier General, USA Ret., an independent military theorist, is a veteran of ground combat in Vietnam, and command at all levels through brigade and assistant division command. He founded the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, KS. As a special strategic policy assistant to the NATO SACREUR and Secretary General, he helped formulate the strategy to end the Cold War.
[ii] The first version was entitled “On ‘Ridding the World’ of ‘The Islamic State.’” It circulated in August 2014 among acquaintances in military planning circles. The second was published in Parameters, 44(4) Winter 2014-15, p 63, entitled “Defeating The Islamic State: A Commentary on a Core Strategy.”
[iii] Counter Terrorism is a doctrine of tactical operating methods, as is Counter Insurgency. Neither constitutes a strategy. Designing a strategy around a menu of capabilities and practices is proceeding the wrong way around.
[iv] NATO's bombing campaign lasted from 24 March to 11 June 1999, involving up to 1,000 aircraft operating mainly from bases in Italy and aircraft carriers stationed in the Adriatic. Tomahawk cruise missiles were also extensively used, fired from aircraft, ships, and submarines. With the exception of Greece, all NATO members were involved to some degree. Over the ten weeks of the conflict, NATO aircraft flew over 38,000 combat missions.
[v] We spend millions daily in military and police operations against BG and al Qaeda or their ilk. We launch aircraft from aircraft carriers and bases so distant that we need to refuel the strike aircraft coming and going to distant targets. And the munitions they carry on each flight are expensive and precise. But our ability to locate targets worthy of the expense is hampered by lack of good targeting intelligence.
[vi] I would like to acknowledge the comments of Dr. Alice Butler-Smith of the School of Advanced Military Studies on the August 2014 draft. Also see Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic (March 2015). Also see Audrey Kurth Cronin, “ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group,” Foreign Affairs 94, no. 2 (March/April 2015): 87-98.
[vii] Then term “regular” stems from “regulated” by international law and reciprocal practices observed by states. During the war of 1812, American soldiers took offense when the British called and treated them as “irregulars.”
[viii] While Lawrence and his book have been inspirational for studying insurrections and how to put them down, his lessons are more universal. He describes how, through a close and critical examination of what he knew about the situation, he created a structured logical mental conception — a theory about the situation and how to gain advantage within that unique setting — so that tactical planning and tactical action could proceed on a sound footing.
[ix] James T. Quinlivan, “Force Requirements in Stability Operations,” Parameters 25, no. 4 (Winter
1995-96): 59-69. Also see Huba Wass de Czege, “On Policing The Frontiers of Freedom,” Army 56,
No. 7 (July 2006): 14-22.
[x] Huba Wass de Czege, “Military Power, the Core Tasks of a Prudent Strategy, and the Army We Need,” Strategic Studies Institute, August 6, 2014, http://www.StrategicStudiesInstitute.army.mil/index.cfm/articles/Military-Power-Core-Tasks-of-Prudent-Strategy/2014/08/06.
[xi] 9 to 12 members to a squad.
[xii] See section entitled “The Heart of the Matter” page 4 to page 7.