Small Wars Journal

Former US Commanders Take Increasingly Dim View of War on ISIS

Thu, 09/01/2016 - 11:37am

Former US Commanders Take Increasingly Dim View of War on ISIS by Mark Thompson, Time Magazine

It’s a most peculiar war: rarely has the U.S. been killing so many while risking so few. The U.S. is beating ISIS handily, judging by Vietnam’s body-count metric. The total number of ISIS battlefield deaths claimed by U.S. officials has jumped, from 6,000 in January 2015 to 45,000 last month—a bloodbath for an enemy force estimated to number about 30,000. Three U.S. troops have died. That’s an eye-watering U.S.-to-ISIS “kill ratio” of 15,000-to-1. “We’ve got good momentum going,” General Joseph Votel, chief of U.S. Central Command, who is overseeing the war, said Tuesday. “We are really into the heart of the caliphate.”

But some of his predecessors disagree. James Mattis, a retired Marine general who commanded Central Command from 2010 to 2013, says the war on ISIS is “unguided by a sustained policy or sound strategy [and is] replete with half-measures.” Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine four-star who held the same post from 1997 to 2000, says he doesn’t think he could do so today. “I don’t want to be part of a strategy that in my heart of hearts I know is going to fail,” he says. “It’s a bad strategy, it’s the wrong strategy, and maybe I would tell the President that he would be better served to find somebody who believes in it, whoever that idiot may be.”

Day after day, American warplanes, sometimes joined by allies, have been attacking individual ISIS targets, down to backhoes and foxholes. ISIS has lost 40% of its Iraqi territory, the Pentagon says, and 5% in Syria. It doesn’t seem to have lost any of the terrain it has staked out on the internet. That’s slow progress by a 27-state military alliance against a two-year-old rump state…

Read on.


Bill C.

Sun, 09/11/2016 - 5:00pm

In reply to by CBCalif


As per your thoughts above and especially the following:

"We would have spent many less trillions of dollars and lost less thousands of soldiers had we concentrated on defensive measures and an accompanying raiding and attacking policy rather than allowing an enemy’s vote to lead us to one strategic failure after another while helping our National Debt substantially increase."

Should we agree, then, that the "much less of almost everything" strategy/approach -- that we have been discussing above and below (and which appears to be the strategy/approach adopted by President Obama?) -- that this such strategy/approach:

a. Is, in fact, 180 degrees in the opposite direction from the "much more of almost everything" strategy/approach (costing, as you note, trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in just one decade) adopted by President Bush after 9/11? And, that this such "much less of almost everything" strategy/approach (adopted by President Obama?), thus,

b. Meets most or all of your suggested criteria above? This, in that it:

1. Is, year-on-year, exceptionally cheaper (in blood, money and other treasure)? And, thus, is the more sustainable strategy/policy needed to see us through over the necessary long-term? A strategy/approach which, in fact,

2. Is significantly based (as you suggest) on defense, raiding, attacking, etc.? (This, rather than on invasion, large scale ground troop operations and nation-building as per President Bush). And, as you suggest:

3. Is, thus, a strategy/approach that finds us not fighting on terms dictated to us by our enemies? (As was the case with President Bush and his falling into the "political attrition" trap set for us by AQ?)

Bottom Line:

Bush Jr.'s imprudent adoption -- based on faulty "universal values" thinking -- of his, unsustainable, "more of almost everything" strategy/approach (invasion, use of significant ground troops, nation-building); this, we now know, played directly into our enemy/ies' hand.

Obama, in stark contrast when he comes on board, adopts the exceptionally less costly, and thus much more sustainable, "much less of almost everything" strategy/approach.

This "much less of almost everything" strategy/approach (based on, as you suggest [1] defense, raiding, etc. and [2] not playing into the enemy's hand); this, such strategy/approach providing that -- over the necessary long term (we no longer expect the enemy to, overnight, "give up," "go home" and/or "change") -- we can stay in the fight as long as is necessary. This, to protect our country, our citizenry and our other interests.

(Which, we believe, can only be ultimately provided for at such time as these outlying states, and their societies, have been transformed more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.)


Sun, 09/11/2016 - 2:30pm

In reply to by Bill C.

While an enemy may get a vote, that doesn’t mean that their vote should ever be the deciding factor on how we are to proceed; otherwise one gets involved in a conflict on another’s terms, not one’s own terms. To often that expression “the enemy gets a vote” means the enemy gets a majority vote and thus decides how we are to proceed. And that is precisely how the Bush Administration proceeded and led this country into multi-trillion-dollar costly unending wars and conflicts with opponents not posing an existential threat to our national existence or way of life.

The multiple $Trillions spent on 15 years of conflict have not improved our strategic situation, but has worsened it. Instead of focusing on defensive measures -- as we only in part have, we have put most of our resources into invasions, interventions, and occupations fighting against peoples that did not attack this land and thus created geo-political situations that have enabled the spreading and enlargement of anti-Western terrorist activity. Our aggressive stance has also accomplished the same geo-political disruptions in the Middle East and in other areas of the globe.

That is what happens when the enemy gets a vote and American political and military leadership are guided in their future actions by that vote, reacting angrily using the Trump philosophy, they attacked me – I counter attack without thinking about the costs and potential results. They are all in the same boat, just some utter the same objective and flawed reasoning using more seemingly professional terminology – the benefit of giving presentations.

We would have spent many less trillions of dollars and lost less thousands of soldiers had we concentrated on defensive measures and an accompanying raiding and attacking policy rather than allowing an enemy’s vote to lead us to one strategic failure after another while helping our National Debt substantially increase.

The unfortunate costs of 9/11 “pales” (was significantly little) in comparison to those massive costs we have expended in the 15 years since achieving not only little, but instead strengthening our “Radical Islamic” Terrorist opponents.

Bill C.

Thu, 09/08/2016 - 5:56pm

In reply to by CBCalif

Edited and added to from my initial effort:


Re: The population of the United States, the presidential candidates and/or the Nation's executive -- today and/or tomorrow -- and as per any, or all, of their calls for "an end to these endless wars,"

Re: These such entities -- and as per their such expressed wants, needs and desires -- what are your thoughts and understanding as to the fact that "the enemy gets a vote" on these such matters?

One is reminded that George W. Bush, in his first presidential campaign, ran on a similar (and highly popular I believe?) very modest/conservative foreign policy platform; one which, specifically, criticized the Clinton-Gore Administration for (a) being too interventionist and for (b) being engaged in nation-building.

But once Bush Jr. gets into office, and 9/11 happens (to wit: the enemy gets a vote), Bush Jr. (and, indeed, the American people as a whole?) -- realizing the error in his/their ways -- reverse course and embark upon an exceptionally interventionist, and indeed nation-building-centric, foreign policy. Herein, the "about-face" understanding became that we had done -- re: intervention, nation-building, etc. -- not too much during the Clinton years but, indeed, too little?

Food for thought -- for all concerned?

Potential Bottom Line:

a. If, indeed, "only the dead have seen the end of war,"

b. Then, it follows, that the living must find a way to -- sustainably -- engage and prevail in such wars. Herein, I suggest that

c. The "much less of almost everything" strategy appears to do this. (Few people today, I believe, are clamoring for our air, special and other forces -- who are primarily engaged in these fights currently -- to come home. Nor do I see anyone suggesting that the much-lesser costs -- incurred in these few forces deployment -- are too high, are resources not well-spent or are resources that should be expended toward some other priority/ies.)

Thus, "opting out" of these endless wars -- and as per your thoughts above?

Very little savings but, potentially, and as per 9/11, ungodly cost.

And, in fact, "opting out" is simply not an option.

Why? Because, as we certainly know now, "the enemy always gets a vote."

To Bill C:

Somehow I put this in the wrong place

The Less of Everything Strategy is rational and logical if "... we believe that the future security and prosperity of the U.S./the West actually depends upon the spreading, throughout the Rest of the World, of our unusual and unique way of life, our unusual and unique way of governance and our unusual and unique values, attitudes and beliefs," with "we" being the elite running this country at the moment or a sufficient number of them. Although I am not sure I would include the current President in that "we." Thus, his continued support for the small scale military commitments in a number of places must be for some other reason -- or demonstrate his lack of political courage.

And, as a thought, if one were to have a conscript force that would be one thing, but to send them to fight somewhere is of a much different political nature than only using members of volunteer units -- be they part of a draft based or volunteer military.

However, the current eco-political environment / the political attitude of the people of a land is a factor in any strategy for obvious reasons. Accordingly, the most potentially disruptive element (in this country) to a strategy of small scale protracted warfare (i.e. without end) is coming to life -- because a substantial number of people in this country are suffering from truly poor economic conditions (i.e. insufficient jobs,low number of hours worked availability, and reduced wages) and they are beginning to politically coalesce under a number of aspiring political leaders. Political leaders raising the banner of political revolt against the spending of trillions for long wars rather than at home providing employment, etc. Its been one pillar of the Sanders, Jill Stein, maybe the Libertarian Party, and actually in Trump's campaign. While Trump wants a larger military, he does not want to continue these endless wars for financial reasons. He needs the money to be spent elsewhere. Clinton may or may not be an exception, but if she is there is a significant probability she will be a one term President -- if some Democrat can leverage the above growing anti-war costs attitude of many of the economic underclass in this land -- or she may end up with a hostile Congress that will refuse to support such an effort -- at least in the Budget they pass, presuming the Democrats have control of one or both Houses of Congress.

What appears to be a growing political contention in this land with our continuing low grade warfare is going to be interesting to observe. Perhaps I am wrong, or perhaps some event will change the political trend in the U.S., but I believe if no meaningful event forces a change in the political environment -- the Nation's executive will soon call and end to the endless wars.

That doesn't mean that the"Less of Everything" strategic approach strategy isn't a logical one, it would imply mean that protracted effort in today's eco-political environment in the U.S. clashes with many members of our voting population's concern about its costs -- given their searching for political funding to be used to alleviate their economic difficulties -- and the costs of wars seemingly never won are a magnet for their attention. Maybe that can be redirected by substantially taxing the very wealthy and using that funding for infrastructure jobs on a large scale. Perhaps unfair because so much of the cost came from the unnecessary Strategic debacle resulting from the truly unnecessary Iraq Invasion. But, the currents of eco-political situation are driving the nation in a different direction then our continuing conflicts-- regardless of their costs.

Bill C.

Tue, 09/06/2016 - 5:15pm

In reply to by CBCalif

The "less of everything strategy" -- as I have outlined it above -- is not based on the availability of, nor is it dependent upon I believe, a volunteer military.

Rather, the adoption of a "less of everything" strategy is based upon:

a. A much more powerful "imperial"/"expansionist" (and now much more-realistic rather than much more-idealistic) nation

b. Accepting that to accomplish its mission (in our case, of transforming, against their will [note the "realism" here] much less powerful outlying states and societies more along modern western lines) that

c. This will require the ability to stay on the field of battle (against those who are resisting transformation) and fight on there over the long-term/indefinitely; this so that the mission -- over this now-accepted much longer term and in the face of this now-accepted significant resistance -- can ultimately be achieved/accomplished.

Note that while this approach may, indeed, "cost of trillions of dollars, etc.," that -- via the "less of almost everything" strategy outlined above -- these costs will be spread over many decades. This, allowing that this approach, over these many decades, becomes much more, politically and fiscally, sustainable.

Whereas, the "more of almost everything" strategy, which finds the "expansionist"/"imperial" nation being required to incur these similar costs (thousands in blood, trillions in dollars, etc.) within, more or less, a single decade (to wit: as per Vietnam back then and as per the Greater Middle East recently); these such expenditures of "treasure," obviously, and as per our such recent experiences, cannot -- politically and/or fiscally, etc. -- be sustained over the necessary long-term (i.e., for many decades).

Potential Bottom Line:


a. Your "soft power"/"universal values," etc., fantasies have been proven wrong. (Which suggested that your "transformative" objectives could be achieved quickly, easily, cheaply and mostly by the populations concerned.) And once your fiscal, etc., "ass," accordingly, has been handed to you,


b. You must, of necessity, adopt a strategy (for example: the "less of almost everything" strategy outlined above) which allows that (1) you might pursue your "transformative" objective, (2) in the face of the now-accepted clear and significant resistance, (3) over a much longer term. (This, I suggest, whether one has/depends upon a volunteer military or not.)

Herein, a "much less of almost everything" approach/strategy being designed to, shall we say, "fit this exact bill" (see "b" immediately above)?

(Note: The alternative suggestion -- that we simply abandon our "expansionist" designs and "transformative" missions re: outlying states and societies -- this today is considered to be a non-option. This, given that we believe that the future security and prosperity of the U.S./the West actually depends upon the spreading, throughout the Rest of the World, of our unusual and unique way of life, our unusual and unique way of governance and our unusual and unique values, attitudes and beliefs.)


Mon, 09/05/2016 - 4:49am

In reply to by Bill C.

Interesting approach -- this less of everything strategic approach, which is based on the volunteer military -- thus a group that many cheer on, but in which few participate and fewer truly care about except on Armed Forces day. It is sort of (maybe without intent) based on how the British controlled their colonies. A very small number of British Soldiers and a lot of Colonial Forces. In a sense for some years it worked for them -- but only because they took money from their colonies. We do not do that -- instead we simply pay and pay and pay and ....

And, thus, from a national perspective, the less of everything strategy has cost the Nation how many trillions of dollars? How many Nations over time have collapsed, gone from being at the top of some period and then tumbled down effectively because they went broke? Less of everything for an inordinate amount of time will break a country with a modern economy, especially the way we manage it. And, I am not an advocate of taking the resources of a foreign land, nor am I an advocate of military interventions -- certainly not protracted ones.

When we have finally emptied the Treasury, can't afford to borrow more due to insurmountable interest payments, and have all our production in China and Mexico and thus we obtain no business nor worker income taxes of substantive value -- the Taliban, etc. will still be there, be steady, and going strong. They will out last us because their life style is easy to sustain. China, Russia, and probably Iran are watching with amusement. They have a really long term focus. They know that at the rate our Army and Navy are shrinking -- we'll be lucky to sustain a less of everything strategy let alone pay for it, and soon we will be unable to even threaten to compete militarily with them. Our forever ongoing interventions, even with a less of everything strategic approach, combined with the mismanagement of our economy will (figuratively speaking) do to us (to our ability to project power, etc. what the costs of the Cold War did to the Soviet Union.

The distinction between the strategy employed in the Vietnam War then (the "more of almost everything" strategy?) and the strategy being employed in the Greater Middle East now (for the most part, the "less of almost everything" strategy?) would appear to be that:

a. Our "more of almost everything" strategy, used in Vietnam, looks to have PLAYED INTO our enemies' "political attrition" strategy hand. Herein, providing that the significant losses that we would incur (blood, treasure, political capital, international reputation and support, public and politician support at home) -- via such a strategy and over time -- could not be sustained. This, providing that we:

1. Would have to leave the field of battle -- and the fight -- before the mission could be accomplished. And, ultimately, providing that we:

2. Would have to hand over these populations, and their lands, to our enemies.

b. Whereas our, now, for the most part, "less of almost everything" strategy, that we appear to be employing in the Greater Middle East today, this such strategy looks to be designed to DEFEAT our current enemies' "political attrition" strategy. Herein, and in stark contrast to our "more of almost everything" strategy noted for Vietnam War above, our "less of almost everything" strategy looks to ensure that we will not -- over time -- incur anything near such significant losses as those that we suffered in the Vietnam War. (Again: blood, treasure, political capital, international reputation and support, public and politician support.) This providing that:

1. We might, THIS TIME -- and via this "less of everything" strategy -- be able to stay on the field of battle, and fight on there indefinitely, and until such time as the mission is accomplished. This, in turn, providing that:

2. We might, THIS TIME, not have to hand over these populations, and/or their lands, to our enemies.

Possible/Potential Bottom Line:

Immediate and decisive result? The winning of great battles?

Really not what our enemies' -- overall -- "political attrition" strategy either envisions or is designed to achieve.

And, likewise, not our "anti/counter-political-attrition" strategy! (This, specifically, being what the American people, the pundits, the retired generals, etc., need to understand?)

Rather, both parties seek -- via their respective strategies -- to outlast the other; this, by retaining the support of their respective populations, and that of their allies and potential allies, over the significant term of this new "long war."

(A war in which [a] the much more-powerful nations of the U.S./the West seek to transform the Greater Middle East -- and elsewhere -- more along modern western lines and [b] much weaker elements within the Greater Middle East -- and elsewhere -- seek to prevent this such transformation from happening/from occurring/from being realized?)

According to our own recorded count, which pales in comparison to that published by the North Vietnamese, we were responsible for the deaths of at least a million Vietnamese – and didn’t we once “pacify” most of South Vietnam when General Abrams was MACV. We certainly flew a large number of sorties over South and North Vietnam and dropped some rather large tonnage of bombs. We won didn’t we, just like we’ll win against ISIS – just keep those numbers coming – data counts in these types of wars, ask the loser Giap. He did loose, didn’t he.

It would be rather impressive to see an American General or Flag Officer actually turn down a command (which would end their career) because he (or now she) believes the strategy in place would fail. Given that with the exception of Gulf Wat I, Grenada, and the Panama Canal – almost every other military intervention we attempted strategically failed if that became the norm that would mean that the number of Flag Officers would drop radically. Oh, the side benefits.

All the dark humor aside, it is refreshing to hear even former Generals tell the truth and acknowledge that the Nation is on the course, once again, of strategic failure.