Small Wars Journal

The War on Islamic State

The War on Islamic State by Julian E. Barnes, Stephen Fidler, Gordon Lubold and Philip Shishkin, Wall Street Journal

The Paris attacks and the downing of a Russian airliner have heightened determination in Moscow, Paris and Washington to defeat Islamic State, a challenge easier said than done.

Many strategists say military advances will show little progress unless more work is done to eliminate the militant group’s financing, counter its propaganda and cut a diplomatic deal among world powers on Syrian rule.

For military planners, destroying the terrorist group’s headquarters and crippling its fighting force is a relatively simple assignment, say strategists: It would require some 40,000 troops, air support and two months of fighting.

The problem is what do to after taking responsibility for won territory. With the recent experience of Afghanistan and Iraq, that is a job no Western leader wants. Many officials, especially in Europe, believe a full-scale military response would help Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, by broadcasting an image of Westerners seizing Arab lands, attracting more followers to the militants’ cause…

Read on.


Bill C.

Wed, 11/25/2015 - 11:55am

I will get to "The War Against the Islamic State" in a moment, but first a necessary explanation:

The way that we might better understand what we are doing, and why and how we were doing it, is to adopt a title for our operations and articles which encompasses -- much as "containment" did during the Old Cold War -- our New/Reverse Cold War "expansionist" goals of today.

This would allow us to better understand why, for example:

a. The enemies of the Soviet Union/the communists -- back when they were doing "expansion" during the Old Cold War,

b. Why these would become the exact same enemies that the U.S./the West faces -- re: its expansionist objectives in our New/Reverse Cold War of today.

(In both case "a" and case "b" above, the enemies of the "expansionist" powers were/are [1] great nations -- bent on "containing" their "expansionist" great power rival and [2] the conservative elements of various lesser states and societies -- bent on retaining/regaining their traditional way of life, traditional way of governance, etc.)

By acknowledging the facts outlined above, one can come to understand why:

a. In the Old Cold War of yesterday, the U.S./the West, then doing "containment," would often stand with certain "oppressive" dictators/rulers/regimes -- and with the conservative elements of various states and societies. And understand why:

b. In today's New/Reverse Cold War, our contemporary great nation opponents, who are now doing "containment" re: our "expansionist" designs might, likewise, stand with certain "oppressive" dictators/rulers/regimes -- and cosy up to/court the conservative elements of various states and societies.

With this New/Reverse Cold War explanation before us, one can, I believe, now better understand:

a. Our "War on the Islamic State" (the Islamic State stands directly in the way of our expansionist designs/hinders our progressing other countries more along modern western political, economic and social lines)? And, re: such a war, why:

b. Our "containing" great nation rivals might say (much as we did during the Old Cold War?) that certain of their "oppressive" dictators/rulers/regimes "must stay?"

(Thus, to see that I challenge Putin's suggestion, that his primary focus is on -- and that he is actually at war with primarily -- the Islamic State.)


Wed, 11/25/2015 - 4:38pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Seeking regional stability (the more difficult task, IMO!) rather than defeating ISIS also implies we can, politically and culturally, come to an accommodation. In it's current form, I don't see that as possible. I also question that ISIS can become more moderate without losing its identity. That's the weakness of tying identity to ideology. (Before Bill C jumps on me: the identity of the U.S. is not tied to ideology -- it's tied to the tenants and rules laid down in the Constitution. Which is how we survive with multiple ideologies in play.)

Defeat may not require war, although diplomacy is difficult without the political and cultural accommodation mentioned above. Certainly reconciliation will not happen without it. ISIS is not an existential threat, and we've lived with regional instability for a long time, so our engagement isn't a necessity, but I don't see an intermediate outcome.

Bill C.

Wed, 11/25/2015 - 3:03pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

"We are so often like a company commander who:"

a. "Takes his unit for a run" (embarks upon a political objective) but

b. "Selects a distance too far" (the transformation of outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines),

c. "A pace too fast" (to be done -- via "universal values" and "the overwhelming appeal of our way of life" -- immediately/overnight) and

d. "A course too difficult (let's start with the Greater Middle East; specifically, Iraq and Afghanistan!) and, then,

e. "Proceeds to fall out of his own run" (returns home with the mission undone and the troops [the American public] demoralized). This, resulting in (added by me here)

f. His/her troops (the American public) no longer having faith in either (1) the wisdom and/or capabilities of their (national) leaders or (2) the wisdom of the mission (however rationally it might be modified/suggested/articulated in the near-term future).

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 11/25/2015 - 2:38pm

In reply to by Warlock

It may be necessary, true. But equally true we may find "stable enough" someday with some variant of ISIS still in existence; or we may by supporting formation of a Sunni homeland succeed in separating the Sunni Arab population from their current ISIS governance in favor of more moderate governance; or ISIS may become more moderate, or moderate elements of ISIS may break away to become part of the emergent solution.

Point being, if we frame success as "defeat X" we blind ourselves to opportunities, we put up obstacles to reconciliation, we convince ourselves this is a war problem that demands a war solution, and we set ourselves up for strategic loss if at some point in the future for whatever reason we decide to step away from the problem and ISIS is still standing.

One should not frame a problem in a way that increases the likelihood of failure, or that makes otherwise potential solutions politically untenable. We are so often like a company commander who takes his unit for a run, but selects a distance too far, a pace too fast, and a course too difficult - and then proceeds to fall out of his own run. We need to pick a wiser plan up front, and be willing to modify it as necessary once we come into contact with reality.



Wed, 11/25/2015 - 12:00pm

<blockquote>Drop "defeat ISIS" as the campaign focus and adopt a much more realistic, practical, flexible, interest-focused objective of "facilitate reasonable stability in Syria and Iraq.</blockquote>
Not sure this is possible without defeating ISIS -- at least not without destroying the nascent country they're forming -- and it sacrifices a fairly clear objective for the difficult to define "reasonable stability". Reasonable stability in Syria means abandoning the ill-advised insistence on Assad's departure -- Russia and Iran are firmly behind him, so all we're doing there is prolonging misery.

Facilitating a controlled partition of Iraq the only way to insure stability there, since the different factions don't seem to be interested in cooperation. It's not a two-way split,'s three-way, because there's not much lost love between the Kurds and the Arab Sunnis, even though they share a faith. And the pre-ISIS demographic distribution places most of the major oil fields in Shiite and Kurdish Iraq. Short of turning the Euphrates valley into an agricultural powerhouse (not likely), that leaves Sunni Arab Iraq resource-poor and land-locked. Pity...left intact, Iraq would have a great deal of potential.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 11/25/2015 - 2:37pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

I don't think we face an ideological threat - I think more accurately we face a threat employing an ideological approach. There is a significant difference.

There is no need to defeat ISIS ideology, as it will fade naturally into more moderate tones once the political drivers of insurgent energy they rely upon are addressed among the population(s) they rely upon. Radical messages are necessary for radical missions, so most insurgent ideology is beyond the pale in that regard. We need to focus on the problem, as it is one we have tremendous ability to address, and focus less on those who exploit the energy generated by the problem to their advantage.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 11/25/2015 - 8:17am

Military actions in history have never destroyed and or eliminated an ideology--simply cannot be done. Even Nazism/fascism/communism still survives.

Our own problem is 9/11--we are so tied up in knots that we do not recognize that yes even Is might in fact have some valid gripes about US FP.

Right now outside of the classical Sunni Shia open conflict we have the issue of Sykes-Picot and the pencil drawn artificial borders after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and WW1.

The fighting inside Iraq and Syria is in the process of redrawing those borders and Robert is correct there must be a viable region that can encompass a viable Sunni State.

But concerning IS until we are fully willing to fully understand their info war statements and we are fully ready to push back 24 x 7 365 on that messaging we will never throttle back the IS recruitment nor address the "ideology".

It is an abject statement of failure by the US that the very social media developed in the US by US companies is being so misused by all users of UW which right now is Russia, China, Iran and IS and the US responds with a whimper to that misuse.

In a "ideological conflict" info war is so critical and who controls the narrative controls that particular battlespace.

We do not even try and that is sad statement.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 11/25/2015 - 6:09am

Top three things the West should do strategically about ISIS:

1. Drop "defeat ISIS" as the campaign focus and adopt a much more realistic, practical, flexible, interest-focused objective of "facilitate reasonable stability in Syria and Iraq."

2. Partnered with Iran and Saudi Arabia commit to establishing a new line of Shia - Sunni competition (Probably along the Euphrates River).

3. Dedicate ourselves to the creation of some form of autonomous Sunni homeland carved from the former states of Syria and Iraq.

Lastly, recognize the limitations of a military role in implementing any strategy in a situation like this. There is no pure military solution, nor a case where we must defeat some threat first, and either attempt to restore the status quo, or announce a new policy after. Policy must be clear, focused on the true problem at hand, and announced first.

The military can mitigate and disrupt the high end of violence; create time and space for civilian governance to do their jobs; and provide the understanding, influence and relationships necessary to help inform and facilitate resolution.