The Islamic State, and the “Army in Being”
President Obama’s strategy for containing and eventually destroying the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria calls for a slow but constant blend of political, economic, and military pressure on the jihadist entity over the course of years. It resembles General Winfield Scott’s proposed Anaconda Strategy at the beginning of the American Civil War. Scott’s plan was logical, but involved a long war; however, in the American fashion, there was pressure to end the war quickly by taking the Confederacy’s capital at Richmond, or for a war winning great battle. Consequently, Americans on both sides got an unwanted long war anyway. General Lee kept the Confederacy alive for four years by maintaining an “army in being”; he knew that the north could not win while the Army of Northern Virginia remained in the field. Ironically, although Lee lost due to Grant’s eventual strategy of annihilation, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his caliphate have a much better chance of winning with an army in being than did Lee. However, equally ironically, we have an excellent chance of destroying the Islamic State quickly by using Grant’s strategy which was finally adopted two years late; but we must do it soon and quickly with an overwhelming combination of air and ground force. If there is no army, the caliphate dies.
During the Civil War, the Confederacy won most of the early battles against largely inept Union generals, but Union troops always fought hard. With every battle, Lee lost men and equipment that were very difficult for the southern cause to replace. As time passed, the southern side became increasingly weak while northern power grew. Lee’s army in being was bleeding to death with each battle, whether won or lost.
The situation of the Islamic State is the reverse of the Confederacy because it is not fighting the determined Union Army of 1861-5; for the last seven months, it has faced rag tag Syrian rebels, the under-armed and undertrained Kurds, and the woeful Iraqi Army as well as a wholly inadequate and unfocused American led coalition air campaign. Al Baghdadi’s army has not only suffered minimal losses, but it gains strength every day from an influx of foreign Muslim volunteers and external money as it appears to be the only Islamic force in decades capable of standing up against the American-led west. The commanders of the Islamic State also have learned a lesson Lee never did. At Antietam and Gettysburg, Lee reinforced failure when his original plans were stymied. Al Baghdadi and his commanders have thus far been smart enough to know when to fold; when they run into strong opposition in places where American airpower can catch their soldiers in the open, they break off the attack and look for weaker spots to renew it. The jihadists did this at Kobane, the Haditha dam site, and the Baji oil refinery. Military professionals call this approach Maneuver Warfare, and the Islamic State is very good at it.
Most westerners are appalled by the brutality of the al Baghdadi’s self- styled caliphate, but Sunni Muslims, to include whole families, are flocking to the Islamic State in droves. These people have widely seen themselves as being disrespected by western society and their own elite rulers in the Middle East region, and they are glorying in Baghdadi’s success at thumbing his nose at the American superpower and its ineffectual regional allies. Given the tepid American military responses, the Islamic State will gain power as long as its army remains in existence and casualties are relatively low except among elite assault troops; and it will continue to thrive spawning franchises in Africa and Asia.
There is certainly unhappiness among the unwilling local subjects of the nascent Islamic State, but enthusiastic foreign fighters and technocrats streaming in get special privileges. They are willing to overlook the incompetence of the State’s administration and increasingly poor delivery of services for the romance and adventure of being a part of caliphate while its more unwilling citizens are ruthlessly suppressed.
If we don’t end the romance quickly and decisively, there is a very good chance that the entire world will realize too late how existential a threat that democracy and western civilization faces from Islamic State and its jihadist allies. Like Hitler in his early days, al Baghdadi has made his plans for world conquest and genocide clear. Most in the west viewed Hitler as a regional loon until too late. We need to destroy the Islamic State army sooner than later.