The Coming War with the Caliphate
Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his vision of an Islamic caliphate transcending traditional international borders is becoming a reality in the form of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS has transformed itself from a terror group into a viable proto-state with a civil governance arm and a regular army capable of taking and holding cities and defeating the conventional armies of established nation-states. Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi has declared ISIS a Caliphate with himself as Caliph. This new proto-nation is every bit as dangerous to United States security as was the original al Qaeda infestation in Afghanistan. It now has a former Iraqi chemical weapons production facility and a number of fighters who have U.S. passports. We will have to fight them eventually. That war will not come under this administration, and if it does, any action taken will likely be some feckless combination of airstrikes and halfhearted aid to the Iraqi government; that would be throwing good money after bad at this point.
When that war comes it should not be a counterinsurgency or a series of pinprick counterterrorist strikes merely designed to take out the leadership of ISIS. The capabilities of the new Caliphate have gone far beyond mere insurgency or terrorism. If the Caliphate is to be defeated, it will require a series of ground actions using large combined arms forces to destroy the conventional military forces in the areas where they have gained control. I am not suggesting a refight of the ground war in Iraq. This is not about helping Maliki who has made his own bed, nor is it about helping either the Syrian rebels or the Assad regime in Syria. Those are other sets of issues. The coming war will be about naked U.S. self- interest and eliminating a threat before it coalesces enough to attack us in our homeland. If we buy the Iraqis time to get their act together or help the Syrian moderate rebels by eliminating extremists in the Syrian anti-Assad ranks, it would be icing on the cake, but destroying ISIS' conventional military capability would be the primary objective.
Why are ground forces needed? Although the armed forces of the new born Caliphate are experienced regulars, they are largely composed of light infantry that can easily blend into the Sunni population. Al Baghdadi knows that tanks and armored vehicles are easy targets for U.S. airpower and will largely eschew them. Armored vehicles are also hard to maintain; at this stage in its development ISIS forces don't need them. It will take boots on the ground to root out the foreign fighters from the civilian population; an indiscriminant air bombing campaign would make permanent enemies of the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria that the Islamist forces of the caliphate have infested.
What would such a campaign look like? Each fight would resemble the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, but with one major difference. Once the areas where the conventional military power of the Caliphate are eliminated; we leave. The Syrians and Iraqis will have to sort out the aftermath. We tried nation building and it didn't work. Once the Caliphate's conventional military capability to project power and governance institutions have been eliminated, the organization formally known as ISIS will revert back to the status of a non-state terrorist organization.
When will such a campaign be feasible? Probably not under this administration unless Baghdadi and his minions do something so egregious that even Barak Obama cannot ignore it; and even then his administration's response would probably be ineffectual if past performance, or lack thereof, in any indication. It would be better if action is postponed until an administration with some concept of how to effectively employ military strategy comes along. In this, time is on our side for two reasons. First, jihadist movements tend to turn inward on themselves over time and fight over the spoils once there are spoils worth coveting. Al Qaeda central has already disowned al Baghdadi and the nationalist fissures among the fighters who make up the Caliphate's military arm have agendas of their own will eventually become restless as will the Sunni populations that have welcomed them as liberators from Shiite dominated governments in Damascus and Baghdad.
A second Caliphate vulnerability that can be exploited is now that they have taken territory the Jihadists have to govern. This means fixed governance and security sites that become fixed targets. Time will also sour the subject Sunnis on the strict imposition of Sharia law. Military theorist William Lind has long advocated letting insurgents win and govern for a while. His theory is that, at least we'll know where they are.