Defeating Baghdadi: The War We Don’t Want But Will Have to Fight
FRAMING THE PROBLEM. With fires still burning in the Pentagon and a smoking hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood in 2001, former President Bush decided to invade al Qaeda's sanctuary in Afghanistan and deny that staging base to that group. Whatever failings one might attribute to the Bush administration, al Qaeda never successfully launched another strike on the US homeland from Afghanistan. The Bush administration realized that the threat could not be eliminated by aerial bombardment alone. Today, a group that even al Qaeda thinks is extreme, has established its own sanctuary in eastern Syria as well as north and western Iraq. The Islamic State of al Bakr Baghdadi makes no secret of its plans to punish infidels in Europe and the United States. Why then, does the current administration think that airpower alone will deal with the threat? The answer is that the American people believe they have had enough of war. Until the Islamic State begins sending its European and American passport holders home to shoot up shopping malls, airport ticket lobbies, and elementary schools; Americans won't know what real war is. The reality is that only American boots on the ground can destroy the conventional military power of the self described caliphate and the sanctuary it gives to those who mean to attack our homeland. If we do not destroy the conventional war making capability of the Islamic state to hold ground and provide terrorist sanctuaries, we will suffer the consequences.
A Political or Military Solution? It has become fashionable to say that there are no military solutions to insurgencies. That may be true, but the threat posed by the Islamic Sate is not an insurgency in the sense of the word that we have come to understand. Baghdadi's army is a skilled and professional light infantry force that uses infiltration when it can and frontal attack when it thinks the conditions are right. It is capable of using rockets and mortars as fire support, but it also uses information operations in the form of grisly social media images as a supporting arm to terrify and disorient its enemies. When its commanders choose, the army of the Islamic State is capable of blending in with urban and village populations to shield itself from airpower as it is extremely difficult to tell fighters from innocents from thousands of feet in the air.
Center of Gravity. The military force of the Islamic State is a close to being a conventional army as any unconventional force can get. Until that hard core cadre of professional jihadist light infantry is destroyed, it will remain Baghdadi's center of gravity. Without it, the Islamic State cannot hold ground, and it becomes a mere traveling band of terrorists. Until then, it should be treated as a regular army subject to destruction; that will require real war, not counterinsurgency. Its auxiliaries of convenience may be tribal sheiks and Baathist insurgents, but they will soon be eliminated as the jihadists tighten their stranglehold on the areas that they control. These Sunnis who were abused by the Maliki regime are "useful idiots" to be eliminated by the Islamic State once they are no longer needed.
Key Vulnerability. The brutality and absolute adherence to their perverse version of Sharia Law is quickly wearing thin on the occupied Iraqi and Syrian populations that the would-be caliphate holds subject. The population is also the key to pointing out who the foreign jihadists are and where they are located in each city and village they currently occupy. The jihadists failure to win the support of the population will be their critical vulnerability if a viable military force ever comes to eradicate the infestation with infantry on the ground. Therein lies the rub. Who will be the exterminator for the jihadist infestation?
Containment or Destruction? The Obama administration's strategy, if there is one, seems to be containment. The problem with containment is that it implies that we are willing to accept the existence of the enemy until he poses an existential threat. This is why we tolerated the Taliban/al Qaeda alliance until September 11, 2001. Destruction means by the joint military definition, "to render an enemy force unusable unless totally rebuilt". By that definition, we need to destroy the conventional combat power that allows the sanctuary for terrorist activity that Baghdadi has created. Until we do that, no American anywhere is safe. Mr. Foley's recent brutal murder was merely low hanging fruit for the Islamic State; that is what he wants to do to western civilization as we know it.
The Need for Combat Troops on the Ground. Until Americans and friends of Americans with tanks, armored vehicles, and counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs) go back into places like Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, and their Syrian counterpart cities; the Islamic State will remain an existential threat; not just to the region, but to our homeland. Airpower in this situation is cosmetic surgery. Ground combat is chemotherapy or perhaps even amputation. This is not a popular thing to say, but it needs to be said.
WHAT WOULD A COMBINED ARMS CAMPAIGN OF EXTERMINATION LOOK LIKE? Each major population area occupied by the jihadists will likely take the equivalent of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (a four battalion regiment of tanks and infantry supported by air and logistics) to destroy the Islamic State's combat capability. It might be the same unit moving city to city, but it would be better to have two converging units to prevent retreat. One would move east from Baghdadi's strongholds in Syria and one would move north to liberate Mosul and then west to clear Iraq's Anbar province with a link up at the old Iraq-Syria border. This pincer movement would resemble a miniature reenactment of the destruction of the Germany army in World War II. Make no mistake, it would be bloody business on both sides.
Shaping the Battle Space. Although this is a kinetic problem, there is a definite need to strategically and politically prepare for the battles to be fought. Baghdadi filled a political vacuum in the Sunni majority areas of Syria and Iraq by portraying himself a champion against Shiite and Alawite (a Shiite offshoot) oppression in Iraq and Syria respectively. If we do not prop up a legitimate moderate opposition to the Assad regime in Syria and demand a regime inclusive of all Sunnis in Iraq, this problem will fester for decades. If we cannot accomplish those political objectives the present ineffectual military containment policy will be the best we can do, and it will likely fail.
End State. If we do what is proposed here, the best end state we can hope for is not Nirvana by any means. It would have three components:
The first would be a shattered Islamic State's conventional military capability that could not hold a sanctuary area for future terrorist attacks and whose financial capabilities are crippled.
Second, would be legitimate moderate armed resistance to the Assad regime in Syria which might be able to reach an accommodation on reform that would allow power sharing in the government. The near term fall of the Assad regime is probably a pipe dream at this point.
Finally, an Iraqi federal government where Sunnis and Shiites can share power. We may have reached a point where the Kurds go their own way, but they would probably be economically better of in some kind of partnership with Iraq for resource sharing. That is something the Kurds and Arab Iraqis need to sort out for themselves.
None of the above is likely given the venality of politics in the region; the real end state is likely to be messier. However, an outcome that sees the caliphate "wanna-be" eliminated as a major player is better than the alternatives.
NOWHERE TO HIDE. The picture I have painted here is grim. As stated earlier, the American people may believe that they are sick of war and the Middle East, but the reality is that the vast majority have never seen war; they are merely tired of hearing about it. What most Americans fail to realize is that their mere existence is an affront to radical jihadists. Our very lifestyle is repugnant to them. There is no negotiating, nor is there any escaping. In this case, Leon Trotsky was correct when he stated that; "you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an Adjunct Professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.