Small Wars Journal

What the Islamic State Learned From the US About Fighting a War

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 9:17am

What the Islamic State Learned From the US About Fighting a War by Brian Castner, Washington Post

We’re caught in a revenge cycle with a death cult, and it’s redefining modern warfare.

The horrific murder of journalist James Foley is case in point. Once, hitting targets of opportunity or instituting a propaganda campaign were peripheral to massed armies killing each other in trenches and cities and jungles. To win, one country crushed another’s will to fight by destroying the widest possible number of targets: fleets, soldiers, cities.

No more. After a century and a half of industrial anonymous bloodshed, the individual is key. The Islamic State attacked America when it killed Foley, without a bomb or mass slaughter…

Read on.



Thu, 08/28/2014 - 2:12am

In reply to by Bill M.

Yes!! re-read Warden and then do what he says, which is start with a peace plan and then a campaign plan, and then an Air force plan and then and only then should we begin to pick targets. Until that is established we are just engaging in activity with know guiding principle(s).

Bill M.

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 6:21pm

In reply to by slapout9

What do we target Slap? Just re-read Warden and he said in situations like this each individual is a strategic entity onto himself so there are no systems to target. This is very much 4GW in the information age as defined by its advocates, and we still haven't determined a strategy for managing it. It is going to be with us for a long time most likely, and we can't afford sustained large military operations (the ruin of many countries throughout time), so I think the way we have been managing it is probably the way we'll continue to do it. Build partner capacity (normally doesn't work), when the problem rises to crisis level employ SOF and air power to beat it down, maintain a robust intelligence network to detect and disrupt threats to the homeland. Continue to work on the grand strategy for ultimately getting this threat in the box. As for targeting, what aren't we targeting that we should be that will make a difference?


Wed, 08/27/2014 - 4:10pm

It is a good article from the standpoint that it raises questions about what to target and our failure to do so, or rather our political will to do so. These types of organizations choose targets that are very personal and emotional not really so much that they are individual, although that is often the type of target that will suit their goal.

It is like the 4GW people have been saying for some time War will become personal the difference between soldier and civilian will disappear.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 3:11pm

Perhaps one of the worst enemies to face is one that is a learning organization.

Move Forward

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 11:28am

<blockquote>Here’s what’s new. The enemies we’re fighting – al-Qaeda affiliates, the Taliban, the Islamic State – have learned to be equally selective in reverse. In 2007, at the height of the surge in Iraq, IED-disarming bomb technicians were seven times more likely to be killed in combat than average soldiers. As the surge progressed, and even as the death rate stabilized or even decreased overall, it doubled for bomb techs. Similar ratios played out during the surge in Afghanistan.

This can’t be explained by contrasting the relevant danger in any particular job; plenty of soldiers walk and drive in minefields. Rather, an increasing percentage of IEDs were designed not for mass casualties, but rather to give the trigger-man maximum control over who he killed. And killing bomb techs eliminated specialists.</blockquote>This Washington Post article is refreshing insofar as its author was an Air Force EOD leader who served for nearly a decade to include some of the worst times in Iraq in 2005-2006. I had never previously seen those stats on EOD death rates.

His initial sentence about being "selective" was referencing that coalition night raids, network attacks, and UAS/RPA have targeted individuals over the past dozen years often foregoing "fair share" distribution of originally far scarcer ISR assets for massing in support of particular operations in line with the F3EAD process.

However, a possible explanation for EOD death rates increasing while that of the rank and file stabilized or decreased was the introduction of up-armored HMMWVs and eventually MRAPs/M-ATVs and double V-hull Strykers. Dogs and mine detectors/jammers along with better training, to include by Castner himself as a contractor, also no doubt contributed to the downturn in Soldier/Marine IED deaths.

Finally, when aerostats and towers began to appear in Afghanistan along with greater numbers of "fair share" tactically-oriented UAS/RPA, the opportunity to spot IED emplacers through long-term surveillance improved. An IED spotted is an IED that potentially kills an EOD specialist sent to disarm it. Small EOD robots no doubt have had great success in reducing those rates and experiments with robots that lead patrols may set off future IEDs without exposing EOD personnel to danger. That, JLTV, unmanned resupply vehicles, and mine rollers will reduce trends of mass casualty IEDs killing many troops in vehicles, however, smaller IEDs designed to kill/maim individual dismounts in Afghanistan exemplifies a remaining problem.

<blockquote>Other high-value targets within the U.S. military saw a similar increase in their casualty rate. The “green on blue” attacks in Afghanistan (shootings by local soldiers on their supposed NATO allies) allowed insurgents to target individuals, like Major General Harold Greene, the highest ranking officer killed in the war. In Jake Tapper’s book “The Outpost,” the story of the counter-insurgency campaign in Nuristan province, only one remote-controlled IED ever appears, and it is used specifically to assassinate Captain Rob Yllescas, killed because he was so adept at befriending the local elders.</blockquote>This observation seems less an attempt to kill key U.S. leaders and more about exploiting infrequent opportunities to inflict casualties on us in the most horrific way possible. The safeguards developed against IEDs coupled with improvements in body armor mean that insurgents must exploit near-guaranteed suicide attacks on targets of opportunity that inflict the most psychological damage to the forces as a whole.

The Jake Tapper book reference also reflects a transition over time from the "100 man Shura" of earlier U.S. leaders that improved local Nuristani relations, that spiraled downward as projects never coalesced and were canceled and more foreign fighters suppressed good relations. The greater amount of patrolling by earlier leadership under leaders like CPT Yllescas and sniper-killed SSG Fritsche (who the OP above Keating was named after) evolved into a siege mentality of holding up in COP Keating and using less mortar reconnaissance by fire in response to sniper attacks.

During the battle of COP Keating itself, several of the dead were killed by snipers almost immediately after exiting structures indicating potentially greater skills than typical of local Taliban. In addition gunfire killed several others after they took shelter in up-armored HMMWVs for too long who subsequently were targeted while attempting to flee the HMMWV. RPGs and heavy machine gun fire also took out HMMWVs and their stand-to weapons.

This last point about snipers and RPGs would seem to dispute Rant Corp's contention that we need longer tours for SF/SOF and CIA operatives. CPT Yllesca's targeting seems indicative of what would befall any long-term successful leadership if tours were too long. We also see in other SF/SOF leaders the beginnings of the "Apocalypse Now" and "Stockholm" syndromes of getting too close to their "captors" if they stay too long in one spot. Those who become so engrossed in a local population are likely to lose track of the larger picture. ALP/VSO solutions that temporarily safeguard local populations may not be a long term solution relative to national security forces. After all, do we see U.S. police encouraging local vigilantes and volunteer police forces? We see reserve police officers but they are embedded amongst experienced full-timers, not the primary force.

Beyond that, I know that Rant Corp and ground guys are enamored by what the Mark I eyeball can see. The problem is the Soldier/Marine eyeball can only see so far from a low-ground perspective and can be in only so many locations, often temporarily at that. If it stays too long, a bullet may enter that eyeball or it may be blown up in an IED attack following one patrol too many. That sounds and is harsh but it embodies the reality that local ground-based reconnaissance and surveillance has severe limitations. The Mark I eyeball also has trouble seeing at night, particularly the tell-tale signs of IEDs even when NVDs are employed. The same eyeball used to monitor a video EO/IR screen of an aerostat, sensor tower, or UAS/RPA can be a more persistent ISR asset to reduce vulnerability while watching the battlefield and safeguarding the population.