Small Wars Journal

The Islamic State, and the “Army in Being”

Wed, 01/07/2015 - 6:33pm

The Islamic State, and the “Army in Being”

Gary Anderson

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.


The brief summary of the strategic problems facing the Northern and Southern Armies in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War is well stated. The Northern forces, of course, faced the far more difficult task – that of invading and subduing a rather large area under rebellion -- requiring a massive logistics effort, the need to control large forces on the move, and the courage to implement a strategic approach with many unknowns and risks.

When the military has a country with the resources necessary for a long and costly war – and a political leadership plus popular support willing to expend what it takes to succeed in a conflict, a war’s protracted nature is merely one of its features – not a liability to necessarily be avoided. During both World War II and the American Civil War this nation viewed itself as facing an existential threat to its existence and was willing to pay the price in both lives lost and in the redirection of its economy to those struggles. In fact, one might even claim that the employment levels at home that accompanied those struggles was a positive feature – no matter how cold sounding an analysis.

The nature of a war, homeland politics, and the economic condition of a warring nation are intertwined. And, the latter two of those factors eventually dictate the outcome of the former. That relationship and process is often forgotten by the U.S. Military’s Officer Corps, or they fail to recognize its reality when planning campaigns. And, even when remembered, Generals and Flag Officers believe they can later convince the executive to extend their mission. At least with the current President, that approach will not work, as we are observing in Afghanistan.

Regardless of pronouncements from some or many, the majority of the Nation’s politicians and people simply do not view the activities of ISIS and their military successes in the Sunni Areas of the Middle East as an existential threat to the safety and future of this country, despite ISIS’s barbaric behavior. After more than a decade of being involved in Middle Eastern hostilities, this country is tired of costly military conflicts. Americans have observed their government spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure projects in Iraq and Afghanistan – while simultaneously watching and economically suffering as almost 6 million of its higher paying manufacturing jobs disappeared – primarily being outsourced to Asia and seen almost 2 million construction jobs being lost after the economy crashed in 2008. At the current claimed rate of hiring in both the above areas, it would take two or three decades to replace those lost jobs. Unlike during the Civil War and World War II, the population of this country has suffered economically while watching its nation’s funds being poured into Iraq and Afghanistan. Money that could have been spent in America employing millions – or so the working class voters believe.

When President Reagan increased the U.S. Military, everything that was produced for that expansion was manufactured (by law) in this country, from hats through missiles. Numerous hundreds of thousands were employed in the Defense Industry creating economic booms in the areas in which they resided – not so today. Therefore, "protracted" foreign conflicts are viewed as an economic liability for the average member of the "voting" American Working Class – thus for a growing number of politicians.

How often have we entered into a conflict since World War II expecting to easily defeat some supposed rag tag force and found ourselves bogged down in a long and costly effort? If we deploy conventional military forces into the Sunni areas in which ISIS is fighting will we find ourselves once again mired in the quicksand of a protracted guerrilla war? We will earn the ire of the Middle Eastern Sunnis, whom are not going to support that effort if it in any way aids the Shiites, regardless of any anti-ISIS pronouncements they are currently making.

Recall, if one will, that this country failed in Vietnam and then suffered another debacle in Lebanon in 1982, after which the "Conservative Republican" Reagan administration totally overhauled the military, de facto implemented the Powell Doctrine, and simply walked away from Middle Eastern conflicts then occurring.

Instead of risking setting that course of action in play once again, perhaps it is time for new strategic thinking on the part of all concerned. Perhaps it is time to aside the belief that the strategic objective in every conflict is to win a decisive victory, to force one’s political will on one’s enemy. Could there be more creative and less costly ways to shape the conduct of a war so that its progress produces results beneficial, or at least are not costly, to the West while minimizing its risk to our societies.

Through the use of Air Power and military advisers we have secured the oil producing areas once placed at risk by the advance of the ISIS forces. While it is true that ISIS seemingly continues its barbaric treatment of many in its occupied area, that is not an issue which should produce a military response by the U.S. We cannot be the police force for the world, and its people will not appreciate it. We (IMO) need to allow the course of events in other areas of the world to proceed as they may, and intervene on as small a scale as possible to protect what are deemed to be the strategic national interests of this country or (perhaps) of the West in general. Most of those strategic national interests will be economic in nature.

If we deem it necessary to intervene, our first course should be to provide military equipment and supplies, advisory assistance, and Air Power to any threatened party we deem to have interests of comparable value with ours. These efforts could be accompanied by the use of Special Operations activities backed up, if needed, by Ranger Battalions or the like. If the ISIS forces appear to be advancing too far over a given period for our liking, then Air Power can be temporarily employed to deal them a conventional set back – that is the reason for which we have B-52’s and their 50,000 pound bomb loads. The latter would be a temporary use of air power, again to temporarily shape the battlefield – not in an attempt to win the ever fleeting decisive victory.

If we allow ISIS and the like to keep fighting against those so-called allies we (seemingly) support, arm, and equip that fighting can be of a sustained nature. Accordingly, ISIS will spend most of their concentration, time, and effort fighting against their Arab Shiite opponent rather than concentrating on this country and the West. Most of the cost for fighting ISIS and the Sunni’s will be borne by the Iranians, Hezbollah, and others supporting the other side. And, it is hard to believe that Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari funds are not finding their way into Sunni hands in the anti-Shiite Caliphate. We might at times to have the arms we provide paid for by the oil rich nations of that area.

The old way of invade, occupy, change governments, install a government of our liking, and attempt to convince the people our social and cultural standards are the better alternative has (once again) run its course. It is politically unpopular and one ignores that reality at one's risk. Maybe, it is time to try a new strategic approach.

Every strategic approach carries risk, but continuing to argue for intervening in the Middle East in the form of a large scale ground effort is (IMO) a political risk not worth taking, and one that will lead to dire political consequences for the military.

Just my thoughts and observations.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 01/12/2015 - 1:05pm

Appears the IS has a great hacking team--they hacked CENTCOM's Twitter account.

U.S. Central Command


U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) has just been hacked by #ISIS supporters - posting names of operatives

Given the # of hours annually all DoD affiliates are force-fed cybersecurity mindmush, incl re passwords, the @CENTCOM hack is inexcusable.

Bill C.

Mon, 01/12/2015 - 6:28pm

In reply to by Ilsa van den Broeck


Interestingly enough:

a. Those places throughout the world, where you are LEAST LIKELY to have to watch "Americans wandering around," are those places where abject poverty is MOST LIKELY to be a present. Many of these more dangerous places -- where you do not have to see Americans, Europeans, etc., wandering around -- are to be found in the least modern and least western areas of what is called the Global South.

b. In stark contrast, those places throughout the world where you are MOST LIKELY to have watch Americans/Westerners wandering around; these are the places where abject poverty is not present or is extremely limited. These more safe and prosperous places -- where you may indeed get sick at looking at Americans/Europeans -- these places are to be found in what is known as the Global North.

There are exceptions, of course, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where the Global North generally, and the Americans and Europeans specifically, have taken on the job of transforming these states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

This, so that the Americans, Europeans and other people of the Global North may, indeed, gain the opportunity to walk around in these countries more freely, more safely and in much greater numbers.

Thus, our desire to be able to walk around these other countries more freely, more safely and in greater numbers (and, thereby, to do much more business there), this is the very reason why "our culture is attacking theirs."

And it is the very reason why they are attempting to form a separate state -- and/or otherwise find ways to not have to look at, and deal with, Westerners.

Since we have considered the American Civil War as an example, then we might look to how the American Southerners, once they were defeated, had to look at a great many more Northerners than they ever had before. One example of such "foreigners" that, after the American Civil War, the American Southerners had to watch wander around, were the "carpetbaggers." ( )

Hope this helps.

Ilsa van den Broeck

Mon, 01/12/2015 - 1:52pm

In reply to by Bill C.

you missed the last sentence in my post "and were not stuck watching the Americans wander around their lands".
I dont think it is JUST abject poverty. I DO think that is part of it though. as is our culture "attacking" theirs.

Bill C.

Sun, 01/11/2015 - 8:08pm

In reply to by Ilsa van den Broeck


If I may suggest:

Probably not be a good idea to "drink the kool aid" re: this "root cause = abject poverty" argument.

In this regard, note that in the example that COL Anderson and I have been using, to wit: the American Civil War, the issue and cause for war:

a. Has absolutely nothing to do with "abject poverty."

b. And has everything to do with:

1. One side (the American North in this case) wishing to transform and assimilate the other side (to wit: the American South). And

2. The other side (the American South in this case) attempting to preclude/prevent this from happening -- by trying to become a separate sovereign state.

This is much the same case today, I suggest, re:

a. The "West's" efforts to transform and assimilate other states and societies and

b. Certain individuals and groups attempting to prevent this from happening via a somewhat similar, shall we say, "Westphalian strategy." (The effort to form the Caliphate/the Islamic State to be understood in these terms.)

To sum up:

In order to adopt an appropriate strategy and, thereby, to realize the desired results, the Global North, today, must understand the problem in much the same way that the American North, during our Civil War, understood the problem then.


a. Not as a problem of poverty, per se (more of an effect rather than a cause). But, rather,

b. As a problem of different and clashing values, attitudes and beliefs; a problem of different and clashing ways of life, ways of governance, etc.; and a problem of different and clashing wants, needs and desires.


a. Much as these differences of the American South stood in the way of where the American North wanted to go in the mid-19th Century.

b. Likewise today do these differences in values, attitudes, beliefs, etc., -- somewhat common to the "Global South" -- stand in the way of where the "Global North" wants to go today.

With this understanding of the problem, to now decide what to do and how to do it.

Ilsa van den Broeck

Fri, 01/09/2015 - 7:55pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Agreed, mostly. I am just not sure that A) he/they warrant comparison to hitler, and B) if they have have the economic and logistical weight to keep at their current pace.
ISIS needs to be destroyed, sooner rather than later. I am not sure putting U.S. ground troops in to the fray is the wise or correct action. proxies can do the job with less anger.
We really should be looking at root causes and not the finished product. If we solve the root causes (abject poverty, etc, etc) then we wont have to fight ISIS, they will have no reason to exist... Think of it this way, those technocrats and foreigners that keep the caliphate running, would they be there if they were educated, had a good job, and were not stuck watching the Americans wander around their lands? no...

Bill C.

Fri, 01/09/2015 - 12:25pm

Let us consider the problem from a "whack a mole" perspective; which suggests that the degrading/destruction of the ISIL "mole" -- much like the degrading/destruction of the AQ "mole" -- will not solve the underlying problem and will, instead, only allow for a more dedicated, more capable and more dangerous "mole" to emerge.

Now let us emphatically state that the underlying problem is:

a. The West's determination to convert and transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines and

b. The fact that there are states and societies, and individuals and groups, who are unwilling -- and/or simply unable -- to make such a transition.

Thus, the Caliphate/the Islamic State, for example, to be viewed as:

1. A perceived ways and means.

2. For certain of those opposed to western transformation and assimilation.

3. To achieve legitimacy with the international system -- for themselves and for their cause.

4. And/or to otherwise become more capable of resisting unwanted Western transformation/assimilation.

Within these clear parameters -- and re: the "whack a mole" concept suggested in my first paragraph above -- to now consider COL Anderson's suggestions; for example: his thoughts on destroying the Islamic State Army sooner rather than later.

(Note: I like COL Anderson's comparison to the American Civil War here; wherein, much like today:

a. The conflict stemmed from the aggressive efforts of one side [the American North in that case] to transform and assimilate the other side [to wit: the American South] and

b. How the other side [the American South in this case] sought to better resist and prevent such unwanted transformation/assimilation by a somewhat similar, shall we say, "Westphalian" strategy?)

Ilsa van den Broeck

Thu, 01/08/2015 - 7:35pm

Colonel Anderson,
I would like ask a couple of questions:
A) Unlike hitler in Germany, al Baghdadi's ISIL has zero industrial power, no ability to produce weapons of war at all. how will it create anything but a network of terror attacks with what amounts to light cavalry in foreign built vehicles?
B) His movement seems to have advanced to Mao's third stage of guerrilla warfare faster than it's ability to keep pace with arms and equipment. Wont a first world air force (killing irreplaceable vehicles, equipment and cadre) and a third world militia with similar skill sets, morale and equipment such as the Kurds be enough to cripple them, and keep them from being anything other than yet another terror threat, of which the main players of ISIL would be doing elsewhere if not in ISIL?