Small Wars Journal

On ISIS: The Reality of the 21st Century Battlefield

Mon, 04/18/2016 - 2:28am

On ISIS: The Reality of the 21st Century Battlefield

M.G. Petranick


This paper discusses in varying detail the realities of the twenty-first-century battlefield environment. Unless practiced by large nation-states against each other, conventional warfare is a dying platform by which asymmetric warfare and terrorism have replaced the conventional warfare dynamic. Asymmetric warfare is defined as the blurring of the lines between politics, economics, combatants, civilians, and their context in the prosecution of war on an ever changing battlefield. Inclusive in this dynamic is cyber, communications, terrorism, the use of civilians as human shields and as both offensive and defensive weapons.

Fourth generation warfare, as asymmetrical warfare has come to be known, is not new. It has existed in every war since the dawn of man. What is different is the total application of asymmetric components on a battlefield as a means to fight. The population-centric model, as espoused by the United States Army and Marine Corps, has now made it into the lexicon of air operations in Iraq, a segment of war prosecution it was never designed for. As a result, the Air Force has been subjected to mission paralysis and ultimately, mission failure.[1]

David Galula gave future military commanders guidance, not hard and fast rules. Rules of engagement have come to favor the enemy, and if the reality of war does not return to those in command, the United States may never win another war.  


History teaches, but the world ignores. In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s built their Third Reich in violation of the Versailles treaty. The world did nothing and paid for it with World War II. The Islamic State is on the ascension and the world ignores. Various reasons are given, as were given in the 1930s. World leaders have said, “It is someone else’s problem,” or, “the American people are war fatigued,” matching just two of the reasons given that allowed Hitler to build.

If it were possible to conduct diplomacy with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), would the United States, the United Nations, and the Syrian and Iraqi people do so if it meant the possibility of a true, verifiable, and trusted peace? Or, are the transgressions and insults committed against both the Syrian and Iraqi people too extreme to consider the possibility of peace? Career diplomats would consider such a proposal for that paradigm, the construction and implementation of achieving peace, their life’s work.

Understanding the enemy is the first and foremost endeavor that must be undertaken to address them on the battlefield. In Afghanistan, a country where the United States military has spent fourteen years, understanding the population, the different tribes, and the political reality in establishing a Western democracy proved a difficult and elusive task.

With the Islamic State there is no diplomacy; there are no economic or social reforms to address the root causes that invite Sunni Muslims to join and assist the Islamic State in their ascension. Appointed and career officials with the United States government and the military have stated that “disenfranchised” youth are drawn to ISIS because of the failed social and economic structures from which the youth emanate. This belief is a community organizing talking point that is both naïve and without foundation.

Those who wield power to subjugate, to commit atrocities in the name of their god, deny human rights, murder POWs, homosexuals, non-believers, and “infidels,” threaten and extort the innocent; understand but one dynamic, sheer unadulterated power. 

War has always been considered a last resort and the result of failed diplomacy when men could not or would not come to an acceptable diplomatic conclusion. This is the centuries-old Westphalian ideal. ISIS has one goal, to rule the world under the auspices of a Caliphate and anyone or nation which stands in their way will be eradicated. Diplomacy, assessing why Islamic State fighters are “disenfranchised,” providing jobs and education to thwart those who desire to join the Islamic State because they do not fit into society are not options to end the strife.

The existence of ISIS provides a sectarian group a “home” in which Sunnis can relish newly-found power, wealth, a sense of belonging, and, the ability to change the world according to their religious beliefs.  The issues that lie within the Sunni-Shia dynamic date back 1400 years, and the modern conflict between the sects is not based in religion, but in obtaining and controlling power. It is also a modern day blood feud, which makes the conflict all the more dangerous. For 1400 years, the overall relationship narrative had been found in pluralism, tolerance, and accommodation and was not a conflict of continued animosity.[2]

Iraq, the modern nation-state, was established by Western powers after the First World War where Sunnis, Shia, Kurd, Jew, Christian, and other religious groups have coexisted and intertwined for centuries before Western influence.[3] After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Shia, the most prominent sect, sought to control the country under the auspices of Nouri al-Maliki, who removed Sunnis from leadership positions in the government and the armed services. Although, ISIS would have become an issue whether or not Sunni or Shia maintained the controlling power in Iraq; the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is at its core, a radical terrorist organization.

History has demonstrated that demented men care little in the processes of peace and diplomacy. They seek to overpower and reign despite potential diplomatic avenues that may be open to them. Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin, and Alexander the Great are examples of men who either attempted to conquer their known world or achieve absolute power. Hitler sought to punish and vanquish European countries for the subjugation of Germany and the economic hardships endured by its people after World War I. It was no coincidence that in 1940, France was forced to sign the terms of surrender in the same train car in which Germany surrendered at the conclusion of World War I.

ISIS leadership follows in the vein of Hitler, seeking to subjugate land and peoples, bring disenfranchised Sunnis into the fold, establish a sovereign state, and wield absolute power from their established Caliphate. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, referred to in this paper as the Islamic State (IS), has changed the Westphalian theory of statecraft and war as a diplomatic tool. The Westphalian model came from a revolution that established the modern state and provided a definition of state sovereignty as the “supreme authority within a territory.”[4]

The Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648 ending the Thirty Years War. The major powers of Spain, France, Sweden, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire set forth agreements to respect territorial sovereignty. The Westphalian Treaty influenced the concept of sovereign statehood across Europe and was the basis for future international law.[5]

Modern day national sovereignty has become a blurred ideation across the Middle East. While there is a belief that the Westphalian model is a myth, contrived through history, there is little doubt that the nation-state structure emanated from the Westphalian treaty.[6]

The United States Military

The United States military is grounded in the theories of Antoine-Henri Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz. Both theorists are more alike in their ideology of war than they are separated by those who identify themselves as “Jominian” or “Clausewitzian.” The differences between the two men lie in how each viewed historical concepts of politics and war. Jomini’s approach is in the simple terms of science and technology versus Clausewitz’s  philosophical “spirit of the age” and the dialectical interaction of diverse factors-erroneous information, excitement, fear, and the changing face of battle in the fog of war.[7] The US military utilizes both philosophies in training, logistics, developing new weapons systems, equipping its force, and developing doctrine.

In addition, and in a nod to Clausewitz, the US Army practices Auftragstaktik (mission-type tactics), which promotes “individual initiative, independent decision making, and thinking leaders reaching tactical decisions on their own accord.”[8] Simply, junior officers and non-commissioned officers are expected to lead and change the tactics and methods of battle in response to changing battlefield conditions in order to achieve the mission objective. 

The concept of nation-state armies is predicated on the Westphalian idea of state sovereignty, ownership, and control. As such, military force has been used to impress the will of the state over another state. IS represents the obverse of the United States military, but because of their fanatical religious belief, a fanaticism demonstrated in their attacks and subsequent dealings with innocents and prisoners of war, IS has demonstrated that it is capable and dangerous on the battlefield. The IS hallmark, installed on the battlefield, is to sow terror so that opposing forces feel fear and doubt their ability.

In 2001, United States Army doctrine revolved around state on state conflict and was set concretely in a conventional war dynamic. Conventional war tactics marked the initial US effort in Afghanistan, but in short order asymmetric war components became the pre-eminent warfighting application. In 2003 Iraq, the Iraqi Army and the vaunted Republican Guard proved to be a hollow fighting force (A reality repeated with the Iraqi army when IS invaded Iraq in 2014). Instead, the Fedayeen Saddam, a 30,000 man “ghost force,” proved to be a far superior foe than the Iraqi army.

US Military and Counterinsurgency Doctrine

Because of the changing war dynamic in both Afghanistan and Iraq, General David Petraeus saw the need to codify US Army doctrine concerning insurgency and guerilla fighting. In 2006, with the assistance of several academic contributors, Petraeus published US Army Field Manual FM3-24 Counterinsurgency. In the post-Vietnam world, the study of insurgencies and guerilla tactics became off-limits for the army. The staff at the Army’s Special Operations School went so far as to throw out any and all manuals and information on counterinsurgent tactics gleaned from Vietnam.[9] According to Lt. Col. John Nagl, one of FM3-24s authors, “After Vietnam we purged ourselves of everything that had to do with irregular warfare or insurgency, because it had to do with how we lost that war. In hindsight, that was a bad decision.”[10] FM3-24 was grounded in history and took facts and experiences from the Maoist revolution in China, the experiences of David Galula in Algeria pertaining to his successful implementation of counterinsurgent tactics in his area of operation, and the British effort in 1949 Malaya. Based on these experiences, Petraeus and his cohort developed a population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine.

Nagl noted in the forward to Army Field Manual FM3-24 Counterinsurgency, that the “American Army of 2003 was organized, designed, trained, and equipped to defeat another conventional army; indeed, it had no peer in that arena.”[11]  Petraeus and Nagl proceeded to change that quotient in producing an entirely new manual to address insurgencies and “small wars.” However, critics called the manual far too academic (what did they expect from academics?), assigned the term “lovey-dovey” to it, and bemoaned the fact that it gave elevated status to civilian efforts and placed too little emphasis on military force.[12]

The fact is, any counterinsurgent effort is a standalone endeavor. While the military may endorse a general doctrinal theory, every insurgency is as different as the country in which it takes place, and the people involved. The application of specific doctrinal authorities should be considered on a case by case basis. The Islamic State does not represent a population-centric formula because many Sunnis do not support IS. However, it was left to the Shia-led government in Iraq to include the Sunni population and negate any influence IS exerted; this did not happen.

The US would not have to win the “hearts and minds” of the people. The Islamic State practices an Islamic belief system that is foreign to most Sunnis, and it has been noted that virtually all Muslims reject the Islamic State’s view of Islam. The Islamic State’s foundation comes from a political belief and not a subversive religious belief.[13]

FM3-24 warned that Counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts were a slow, labor-intensive endeavor, and very expensive in lives and in the cost of fighting, which did not necessarily associate “slow, labor-intensive, and expensive” with combat.[14] The laborious and expensive COIN components included civil action, or, winning the hearts and minds, rebuilding infrastructure, and internal protection and security, which included the equipping and training of a new army or security force, and nation-building.

Effective counterinsurgency operations are shaped by timely, relevant, tailored, predictive, accurate, and reliable intelligence, gathered and analyzed at the lowest possible level and disseminated throughout the force.[15] However, this is a paradigm that is never met in full and is more often than not a hindrance to effective operations because time is usually critical. Restrictive rules of engagement have nullified effective military operations and have hindered US action against IS in Iraq.

In contrast to the early insurgent tactics, IS eschewed social and political mobilization dynamics espoused by FM3-24 in both Syria and Iraq, and has solely focused on the military paradigm while garnering support, both forced and voluntary, from the Sunni population.

FM3-24 arrived too late to be an effective tool in Iraq and saw limited applicational success in Afghanistan, and as such, with the realities and experiences taken from that COIN effort, FM 3-24 was re-evaluated, rewritten, and released as FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 C1 on June 2, 2014. The revision utilized case studies from counterinsurgencies in Sri Lanka, the Philippine “Huk” rebellion, Vietnam, and El Salvador. A counterinsurgent campaign missing from the narrative was the American effort and success during the Philippine insurrection from 1899-1913. After ten years of stagnation and morass in fighting the insurgency, newly appointed military governor General John J. Pershing successfully defeated the Filipino “Irreconcilables” by utilizing both military force and civilian cooperation programs.

Present day counterinsurgency experts base their analysis, planning, and execution of counterinsurgent tactics on winning the “hearts and minds” of the indigenous. FM3-24 was also based on, and relied heavily on, a population-centric approach. This was in direct relation to Mao’s people-centric philosophy of garnering support from rural farmers. David Galula studied Mao and posited his “four laws” on counterinsurgency as an answer to the military, political, and social parameters he believed dominated insurgent warfare.[16]

However, Martin van Creveld had advised; “Throw any and all literature and thinking on counterinsurgency, counter-guerrilla, counterterrorism, and the like out the window. Most of the doctrine was of little value since it was written by the losing side.”[17] Van Creveld identified “time” as the key factor in counterinsurgency. He also identified two crucial methods in counterinsurgency. The first method relies on gathering “superb intelligence” within the region of operation, its people, and the insurgency. The second method involved fielding a counterinsurgent force that demonstrated high professionalism, confidence, training, and discipline.[18] A professional well-trained counterinsurgent force would be validated through Scott Fitzsimmons research into the Angola and Sierra Leone counterinsurgent models.

Lorenzo Zambernardi, an Italian academic, believed that there were three goals to counterinsurgency and that in addressing an insurgency, one of the goals must be sacrificed to achieve the other two.  Zambernardi stated that it was impossible to achieve “force protection, the separation between enemy combatants and noncombatants, and the physical elimination of the insurgency without sacrifice.”[19] This is the “trilemma,” the unholy trinity, and it is not possible to achieve all three. In the end, Zambernardi stated that in protecting the population, which is crucial to defeating an insurgency, the intervening military force would have to be sacrificed, thereby losing political and domestic support.[20] This theory, that “the intervening military force would have to be sacrificed,” related directly to Afghanistan. 

A highly proficient, trained, and disciplined mercenary force was the subject of the book Mercenaries in Asymmetric Conflicts by Scott Fitzsimmons. In the book, Fitzsimmons addressed the paradox of how a small, outmanned, outgunned, but highly trained and disciplined mercenary force could defeat a much larger insurgent army. Fitzsimmons used the private military company Executive Outcomes as the subject for his study.[21] He introduced and utilized the Normative Theory of Military Performance and the Neorealist Combat Balance Theory to qualify, quantify, and answer the question.[22] However, the Blackwater-Iraq debacle did nothing to validate private military companies in combat. In truth, Blackwater was tasked with an impossible mission and had no business operating in a combat zone.

Mercenaries in Asymmetric Conflicts should be required reading for those who study counterinsurgent tactics. However, state-sponsored armies and their cottage industry of academics are loathed to study or consider the efforts of mercenary forces and what could be learned from their experiences no matter their success. Executive Outcomes demonstrated success in fighting both the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Angola and Sierra Leone respectively. They used counterinsurgent components gleaned from 32 Battalion and Koevoet, two South African special operations groups.

Nation-states abide by the rules and laws governing the prosecution of a war. Nation-state armies wear signifying uniforms, perform at a professional level, follow strict disciplinary codes of conduct, and adhere to the rules governing war laid down by the Geneva Convention.

Historically, mercenaries have not followed and are not required to follow any legal structure in fighting a war. Mercenary forces depend on the moral and ethical attitudes of their leadership in prosecuting actions. However, insurgents and terrorists follow the dictate that “anything goes” with both the force they are fighting and the civilian population in which they subjugate, and these actions are directly attributable to preserving the insurgency.

The truth is this, there may be insurgencies that are impossible to win. There is one known fact in counterinsurgency; if a counterinsurgent campaign becomes unpopular, politicized, as in Afghanistan, or economically untenable, then the outcome languishes in doubt and may be doomed. Political correctness and expediency have never won a war. And, the leadership of the host country may contradict the method and goals of the nation-state army fighting their battles.

In codifying counterinsurgency in FM3-24, the United States military has made the unconventional conventional. Field commanders must have the authority to change “doctrine” in the middle of a conflict as David Galula did in Algeria. Thinking outside the box is a hallmark of insurgencies, and any counterinsurgent effort must follow suit. Field commanders understand their environment and learn how to fight the enemy successfully, and are the least politically driven in the officer corps.

As one moves up into the Pentagon, the military becomes a political animal as was evidenced in the comment made by General Martin Dempsey to the Senate Arms Services committee in September 2015.  In response a question from Senator Ted Cruze on destroying ISIS, Dempsey stated “We cannot destroy ISIS until we change the underlying conditions on the ground that make young men in poverty susceptible to extremism.”[23] A clear political talking point put out by the White House and State Department.[24]

David Galula changed the dynamics in addressing insurgencies, however, what is not known is if the insurgents were truly pacified, or if they simply left Galula’s operational area to find an easier area to threaten and dominate. How would have Galula’s operational tactics fared if applied to the entire country? After all, France lost Algeria.

The “Long War” is a 21st-century term applied to combating terrorism and insurgencies. While the fight against terrorism is truly a “long war,” mainly due to its innate structure of sudden and stealthy attacks within a population and the long and laborious journey to combat it, insurgencies and guerilla warfare cannot be assigned the “long war” moniker. The United States military spent thirteen years in Afghanistan without a clear mandate or path to victory.

Victory and winning the war in Afghanistan was the goal of the US military, however, as time and a failed approach to the changing insurgent problem nullified victory, the plan changed to containment, allowing for the US military to train, equip, and field the Afghan National Army. However, as American forces drew down and left Afghanistan, tribal leaders, villages, and the common Afghani took up arms to fight the Taliban, a move Karzai and the US failed to consider.[25]

Among other dynamics, political considerations and interference by Hamid Karzai effectively prevented the destruction of the Taliban. Afghanistan is in limbo, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are waiting for US military advisors to withdraw completely. Also, it was noted that in early 2015, IS had moved into the Afghan theater to expand the fight.[26]

Combating an insurgency has a “half-life” of just a few years. A change in political leadership, the spiraling monetary cost, different political ideologies on prosecuting the war and confronting terrorism, and “war-weariness” from the American public makes long-term counterinsurgency operations a perishable endeavor.

The War in Afghanistan took on the atmosphere of a nine to five job, every day saw repetitive operations, population interdiction, movement by day, hunkered down by night. Clear a road by day, only to have it re-mined by the Taliban at night. The Green Beret stated it would not retread the policies and operations of the Vietnam War, which proved to be more difficult than thought. The Green Beret established forward fire bases, only to have the Taliban watch every move, catalog every operational feature, map patrol grids and movements, and plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to intercept patrols.

The border with Pakistan could not be secured, and funding and support from Pakistan, and other sources was not addressed. And, safe haven in Pakistan ensured continued and uninterrupted Taliban and al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan.

Truly unconventional thinking was frowned upon, as in the case of Jim Gant, a Green Beret commander who instructed his troops to “go native; to dress like, live like and, if necessary, die like the locals.”[27]

In 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted the drop in civilian deaths was directly attributable to a seventy-five percent rise in coalition and Afghan force casualties.[28] This fact represents confirmation of Zambernardi’s “sacrifice of force” theory within the trilemma of counterinsurgency. In putting their hopes in the Afghan National Army, both the US and Afghan governments failed to protect the rural people. In response, the rural villages and militias armed themselves for protection and took the fight directly to the Taliban.[29]

Within the Islamic State’s Syrian and Iraqi territory, the United States must never give IS the opening to create an insurgency as the US military witnessed in Afghanistan. Military intervention must be fast, hard, all-encompassing, unrelenting, and driven to win. 

The mistakes witnessed in Afghanistan cannot be repeated with the Islamic State, although, two features in fighting an insurgency are already in evidence, the failure to deny funding to the Islamic State, and inadequate intelligence.

The Intelligence Void

The state of US human intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities within the Middle East have proven to be woefully inadequate. This is partly due to the surge in signals intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities. After all, many of the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership have been identified using SIGINT and killed by drone attack. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has put its efforts into the drone program. The CIA has demonstrated a high level of resourcefulness and proficiency in killing terrorists. According to Michael Hirsh, the CIA “may simply be much better than the military at killing people in a targeted, precise way—and, above all, at ensuring the bad guys they’re getting are really bad guys.”[30] However, US military and civilian Intel agencies had encountered difficulty in monitoring encrypted online IS communications.[31]

According to the Washington Post, the 2013 black-ops budget for covert operations was $2.6 billion dollars while the budget for the human HUMINT side was $2.3 billion dollars.[32] Clearly, the CIA has emphasized their paramilitary role over their once vaunted espionage activities. There have been discussions to turn over the drone program to the Pentagon and allow the military to direct the program. However, what may be lost are the time-sensitive requirements between Intel gathering and action. Tracking terrorist targets is a minute-to-minute endeavor. With the program established at the CIA, the time from Intel acquisition to action is exceptionally short and has proven to be quite effective.

The Intel void comes from the killing of Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State leadership. The US loses a vast amount of Intel by killing instead of capturing and interrogating. The CIA needs to return to HUMINT as the focus within its mandate. HUMINT is the most important of any of the intelligence disciplines. HUMINT is expensive, it is extraordinarily time intensive and is highly dangerous. It can take years, if not decades to properly cultivate an asset in a target organization. This specialty has been lost and must be regained to defeat any enemy successfully. And, when the US engages IS on the battlefield, and they will, HUMINT will make the difference in adequate mission planning, US lives lost, and force protection.

Penetration into Iraqi and Syrian populations is a tertiary Intel effort and the easiest to achieve; penetration into the IS “army” is a secondary effort and far more difficult to achieve, penetration into IS leadership is a primary goal, but nearly impossible. IS has demonstrated successful compartmentalization proficiencies to protect operations and its leadership. It is not al-Baghdadi making the all-encompassing strategic decisions, but a host of competent and trusted confidants.  While the media trumpeted the death of Abu Sayyaf at the hands of US special operators, the reality indicates that IS leadership maintains a depth chart of three to four men deep at every position. It was the Intel obtained in the raid that was the real treasure, but capturing Sayyef would have been the real coup. 

The Islamic State

The Islamic State is an insurgency and terror organization not seen by the likes of man since the Mongols, Genghis Khan and the Celts of Britain. When the United States completed its troop withdrawal in 2011, al-Qaeda Iraq (AQI) was led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi assumed command of AQI in 2006 when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US bombing raid.[33] Baghdadi took AQI from a largely foreign force to a localized Iraqi operation. In recruiting localized members, the “Sons of Iraq” focused their efforts to Iraq without interference from other al-Qaeda affiliates and Osama bin Laden.[34] Baghdadi eschewed al-Qaeda affiliation, and his group became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

Al-Baghdadi enhanced Zarqawi’s tactics. The Shia remained the focus of his aggression, but al-Baghdadi began to attack Iraqi checkpoints, police and military compounds, and recruiting stations. Former Sunnis who had been in the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein flocked to the new entity, which gave the organization the flavor of a structured force and left behind the identity of a rag-tag militant force. Baghdadi now had a formidable force at his disposal and expanded his operations into Syria. Baghdadi took advantage of the secular uprising against Bashar al-Assad and in the confusion of multiple insurgent groups was able to conceal IS growth.[35]

The Islamic State does not represent a traditional insurgent model. The population, including moderate and peace loving Sunnis, are subjugated by IS and do not provide unmitigated support to the IS cause. There is no doubt that there are Sunnis who support IS, but this comes from their disenfranchisement by Baghdad over the last twelve years. They enjoy the power and security accorded by the Islamic State.

In addressing the Islamic State, the United States Army cannot apply counterinsurgent tactics as a wholly independent endeavor. A war against IS would be a hybrid war, partially conventional and partially a counterinsurgency operation. In the eyes of the Islamic State, a war against western powers would take on the premise of a religious war, not because it would take on the ghosts of the Crusades, but because IS believes they are fighting a holy war, a war to establish a Caliphate, and any person or entity who opposes them, including Muslims, would be  considered an infidel, and the enemy. IS believes they are on a religious mission based on their fanatical Islamic belief. Religion is quite possibly the strongest motivation for war, and in prosecuting their “war,” IS believes that any action, no matter how egregious as viewed by the civilized world, is condoned by their god.

Voices from the Islamic State

IS has sought to establish a nation-state, a Caliphate, through terror and attack, eschewing any form of diplomacy, and they have taken the mantle of terrorist and crafted an enhanced progeny of a terrorist state. The Taliban succeeded in this endeavor in Afghanistan. However, IS has moved beyond the Taliban’s effort in creating a Caliphate; investing a Caliph in Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and installing a radical Sunni Islamic government with all the trappings of a functioning society.[36] IS has installed an infrastructure that includes a postal service, tax structure, and civil offices in Ar-Raqqah and occupied Iraqi cities. According to one IS fighter, “You look only at the executions. But every war has its executions, its traitors, its spies.”[37] The IS member continued, “We set up soup kitchens, we rebuilt schools, hospitals, we restored water and electricity, we paid for food and fuel. While the UN wasn't even able to deliver humanitarian aid, we were vaccinating children against polio.”[38]

And, from a handyman turned IS fighter who worked at the Carlton Hotel in Aleppo, Syria; “On May 8 (the day the Carlton Hotel was bombed), I was celebrating. For all my life, I've been a servant to scum who earned lots of money just through kinship, friendship, bribes. That was Syria. My mother died from a cancer that we couldn't afford to treat…those guys were living in luxury without ever working; Assad is only a fragment of the problem. That's why I joined ISIS. We want a different society. A society where you don't waste on wine and whores the resources you need to treat the sick.”[39]

In expanding on IS ideology, the rebel fighter stated the Islamic State’s thoughts on the Middle East. “Look at Egypt. Look at the way it ended for Muslims who cast their vote for deposed President Mohammed Morsi and believed in your democracy, in your lies. Democracy doesn't exist. Do you think you are free? The West is ruled by banks, not by parliaments, and you know that. You know that you're just a pawn, except you have no courage. You think of yourself, your job, your house…because you know you have no power. But fortunately, the jihad has started. Islam will get to you and bring you freedom.”[40]

These views of these IS fighters represent the views of the majority of IS members and is but one component on the path to understanding the enemy. An insurgency, a terrorist movement, is succeeding in establishing a sovereign country by taking land and people by force to establish their vision of a theocratic state. The Islamic State does not adhere to any war convention, and unlike those states that govern by accepted moral and ethical mandates, the Islamic State is not concerned with international law or human rights.

According to Newsweek and multiple additional outlets, the Islamic State is profiting between one and two million dollars a day from the sale of oil. In November 2014, Newsweek reported that the Islamic State was selling oil at the cut rate bargain of forty dollars per barrel on the black market and through nefarious sources.[41] IS had used the funds to purchase weapons, pay its fighters, and support its civilian infrastructure of eight million people.[42]  The Islamic State is actively seeking weapons that have a far more powerful and technologically advanced profile. Should IS take possession of advanced shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles, American air supremacy would suffer.

According to Treasury Department Undersecretary David S. Cohen, IS does not “depend principally on moving money across international borders,” but “obtains the vast majority of its revenues from local criminal and terrorist activities.”[43] This presents a formidable obstacle for the US Treasury, which is accustomed to pursuing enemies by pressuring established banks to expose their criminal clients. IS use of middlemen across the Middle East to smuggle cash in and out of its territory, in addition to employing decades-old smugglers’ routes, makes the group especially hard to track.

The Islamic State has established a vast and lucrative financial portfolio to support both civil and military operations. Their revenue streams are highly localized and come from a myriad of sources. According to Masrour Barzani, head of Kurdish Intelligence and the Kurdistan Regional Security Council, the cash flow into IS may be as much as six million dollars a day.[44]

The Islamic State is primarily funded through seized energy assets, and Iraq is home to the fifth-largest oil reserves in the world. IS also extracts its income from private donors, heavy taxation on its subjugated population, ransom from kidnapping, extortion, the sale of human organs taken from POWs and the Shia population, seized bank accounts from captured towns, and, if they do not destroy the historical vestiges of Iraq and Syria, they plunder the antiquities housed in museums and archeological sites.[45] In addition, the Islamic State is reported to be providing Europe with half of its heroin supply.[46] For all intent and purposes, the Islamic State is a global crime syndicate. [47] Sunnis who live in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, Persian Gulf royalty, the wealthy, and businessmen across the world have funded the Islamic State. It is unfortunate because according to al-Baghdadi, Saudi Arabia’s wealth does not belong to the Royal Family, but to the Caliphate and Allah, and IS will take it.

On the relics, antiquities, and art IS has destroyed, Abdulamir al-Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist specializing in Mesopotamia at the State University of New York at Stony Brook stated, “We’re talking about the destruction of humankind back to the beginning of humankind.”[48]

Demographics and Soldiers

In September 2014, the Central Intelligence Agency estimated IS fighters at 20,000 to 31,500 strong. According to a senior Kurdish leader from the same reference point in time, he estimated that IS fielded up to 200,000 fighters based simply on the expanse of land and urban centers IS controlled.[49] And, it has been reported that the Islamic State is recruiting up to 1,000 fighters or more every month.[50] In addressing the Islamic State as a fighting force, John Nagl stated in an October 2014 article that an American force of 15,000 to 20,000 warfighters would be needed to defeat IS.[51] This number may be considered erroneous, and as each passing day and week are counted, obsolete. A 2015 United Nations report indicated a “70 percent increase in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq in the last nine months. And, the report stated that during the same period, 25,000 fighters have been traveling to jihadi conflicts from more than 100 countries.”[52]

The United States maintains hegemony in the study and application of research and science for the battlefield. When IS first entered the battlefield, they were a loosely organized and trained rag-tag fighting force. Over the last three years, IS has changed this dynamic to field highly trained and disciplined soldiers. IS has avoided the establishment of formal training camps to prevent attack or bombing. However, as part of the IS movement to construct a Caliphate, they have established a military university and training institution at Deir Az-Zour, in northern Syria.[53]

Nation-states have long sponsored and encouraged academic involvement in constructing policies and doctrine in armed forces tactics. The Islamic State has taken this road, predominately assessing and teaching the ways of Western armies in order to confront them on the battlefield. In addition, the Islamic State utilizes combat procedures long shunned by professional standing armed forces. Their combat theory involves the premise that anything goes to achieve their ends, and terror is perfectly acceptable.

Insurgency and counterinsurgency operations rarely involve direct fire en-masse, and the great equalizer, the Achilles heel for the United States military in prosecuting operations, lay in the civilian population within the confines of the battlefield. The Islamic State understands this “moral fault” (a terrorist credo) and will use civilians as weapons on the battlefield.

Training is the lynchpin to a high functioning military force. In both Iraq wars, US tank crews were at the peak of their game simply because of an intense and adaptive training regimen. Tank operations are a team effort, whether comprised of four men in an Abrams M1-A2 or within the interactions between tanks, infantry, and air support. Seconds count, and intensive training provides for a highly coordinated operational efficiency. Sequestration has begun to degrade the US military across the board, not only in force structure and material availability but in training. 

The accepted ratio of three attackers to one defender has held up over time. The 3:1 ratio cannot be attributed to any single point or individual in history, and is simply an accepted parameter. Lanchester’s Law[54] and the accepted 3:1 combat ratio can be seen in the overwhelming force diametric used by both General Franks and Schwarzkopf in the two Gulf Wars. In general, while US intelligence had a good handle on opponent numbers, the performance quality and actual numbers in defensive capability were unknown. In the 1990 Gulf War, it was reported that the coalition fielded 956,000 troops in the Iraqi theater of operations, in both combat and support, and of that amount, seventy-three percent were from the United States.[55] In the 2003 Gulf War, the coalition fielded just over 370,000 combat troops including 70,000 Iraqi Kurds and Peshmerga fighters.[56]

Islamic State Fighters

Islamic State soldiers and fighters are patient but tenacious in their tactics. The organization attacks when it is ready and does not react to what may be perceived as failure by outside sources, such as the loss of Tikrit. They lost Tikrit but gained Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. According to James Meek, an American operative who tracked IS and observed them in a retreat in an earlier battle, “IS soldiers did not ‘bug out,’ but tactically withdrew from an area; they were professional, well trained, motivated, and equipped.”[57] And he stated, “These aren't the same guys we fought in Operation Enduring Freedom who would just scatter when you dropped a bomb near them.”[58] IS troops were noted to push out as far as possible in their advance and were fully prepared to pull back upon encountering airstrikes near Erbil. IS understood the ebb and flow of combat and were “fine with it,” fully prepared to hold their ground once they pulled back.[59]

Meek reported that a second US official with combat experience noted they were incredible fighters. “ISIS teams in many places use special operations tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs),” he stated they were beyond a terrorist group, beyond a rabble or grouping of fighters; “they marry ideology and a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess.”[60] IS projects a terror that precedes them on the battlefield, which caused poorly trained, motivated and disciplined Iraqi troops to flee. “They are tremendously well-funded,” he said, “representing a force beyond anything that we’ve seen.”[61] As in any non-state actor army, there is a core of dedicated fighters, then there are those who fight for different reasons. Money is a motivator for some, and for those IS fighters who decide to abandon the battlefield and the Caliphate; execution sends a clear message.[62]

In 2012, IS fighters and their leadership were trained by US military assets in Jordan.[63] Both Reuters, and Der Spiegel corroborated the story.[64] This effort took place to train fighters to fight against the forces of Bashir Assad early in the Syrian civil war. Now, these very same fighters are on the battlefield spreading evil and killing Iraqi innocents. And, those fighters and their leaders who were trained by Americans have in turn, trained additional fighters, adopting American tactics reinforced by US military doctrinal manuals available on the internet.

According to Ramesh Thakur, board member of the George Soros neo-leftist Global Center for Responsibility to Protect contended, “the demonstration of the limits to U.S. and NATO power in Iraq and Afghanistan has left many less fearful of ‘superior’ Western power.”[65] Thakur also noted “A much-needed global moral rebalancing is in train.”[66] Apparently, Soros and his group believe that IS, a group of murdering and raping thugs, are filling the void in some global sovereignty initiative. The history of the Western power dynamic was driven by an administration with a core belief system and a foundation in moral righteousness, an understanding of the global situation, and future threats. Ronald Reagan demonstrated this paradigm during his presidency.

The Islamic State is building a professional army utilizing professional tactics. IS publishes an annual report on its operations and from these reports patterns emerge on its operational protocols. IS in Syria is separate from operations in Iraq, the IS area of influence is far too large and contains wildly different terrains, demographic themes, social contexts, and military goals. However, it becomes obvious that IS uses a central command and control structure that influences each Iraqi province or “wilyat” differently based on desired objectives.

Command and control are compartmentalized in “cells” which involves a prescribed number of provinces. The Islamic State is not stagnant in its prosecution of battlefield environments. Changing needs in each province resulted in changed tactics. Suicide attacks have replaced scaled attacks; small unit incursions, assassinations, and targeted attacks have been introduced as the situation requires. Also, to emphasize terror, civilians in authority positions are routinely rounded up and murdered. IS prefers beheading and incineration, but massed shootings have also taken place.[67]

The Islamic State is supported by a minority of Iraqi Sunnis. Once the Shia took over control of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Shia carried out a program of “de-Baathification.” Tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs were fired from their government jobs; they fired teachers and those in the civil structure. Shiite clients then assumed the jobs once held by competent Sunnis. The Iraqi army was especially hard hit by this supremacism and has caused the army to become a hollow force.

The Shia shuttered state-owned industries while never replacing the economic infrastructure. A number of Iraqi Sunnis have been ignored, first by the Sunni Baathists, and more recently, by the controlling Shia sect within the Iraqi government. IS presents a shift in that paradigm and offers power to a sect that has been disenfranchised and downtrodden.[68] The Islamic State frames the extreme violence it perpetrates as a “religious cleansing,” promising to wipe out the Shia Imams and believers from the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.[69]

In addition, IS desires to take Medina and Mecca and restore a “true” Islamic belief system replacing an Islamic religious system they view as corrupt. The clarity, simplicity, and conservative conventions practiced by IS appeals to the poor Sunni, who desire law and order.[70] Also, IS promises economic revitalization to the rural Sunni, and Sunnis were pushed out of the government and the military by Noori al-Maliki. Sunni fighters who fought during the Awakening were denied employment access to the security forces and faced unemployment, to the point that many have turned to IS.[71]

Islamic state leadership has learned from its mistakes and the mistakes made by the Taliban and al-Qaeda in its command, control, and communications structure. Understanding that cell phone usage means a visit from a drone and a hellfire missile, IS has turned to couriers and a “down-line” communication system comprised of human sources to pass messages.[72] Also, IS maintains a large intelligence network built within the Sunni community. Additionally, since real-time communication is traceable and, therefore, dangerous, IS has utilized coded messages passed via radio, television broadcasts (Mosul and Fallujah), and social media to down-line recipients.

Every day the United States does not fully engage IS leads to its strengthening and expansion. Military leaders and those who advise the military understand that air power alone cannot be effective in defeating IS, and degradation from airstrikes produces minimal effect. Ground troops are the answer. However, how should the United States military attack and defeat IS? In utilizing a small force, the defeat of IS would be in serious doubt. It would require a revamp of US military thinking and policy. As demonstrated in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military had become a politically correct entity, concerned more about how they were and are  thought of by the local population and the folks back home. To the detriment of US troops, a bastardized political lens has become attached to military operations.

A Less Than Ferocious Military

After September 11, 2001, Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor, advised the Bush administration that they must remember the US military was trained for one job; that they were a lethal killing machine, they were not designed for nation building, they were not designed for disaster relief, they were not designed for humanitarian gestures of any kind, and they had one purpose, any use outside that purpose would dilute their usefulness.[73]

The reality of war forgotten by the military and civilian leadership is that war is a terrible, gruesome, bloody endeavor. War is grievously mean, indiscriminate, unforgiving, and civilians are wounded, maimed, and killed. The military has adopted the belief that modern munitions are designed to protect innocents, and collateral damage can and should be kept to a minimum. Modern battlefield tactics put civilians and their safety first and foremost in any attack planning. In fact, air strikes in Iraq have been called off because it was not possible to ensure civilian absence at the target site. Rules of engagement have been prescribed to where the overriding concern is civilian injury and death. The protection of civilians has become of paramount importance, and therefore, rules of engagement are designed to favor the enemy, and to potentially sacrifice American soldiers.

This is one leg of Zambernardi’s trilemma, when avoiding civilian casualties becomes the overriding battlefield concern, and the rules of engagement favor the enemy instead of US soldiers. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai put the lives of US troops in direct harm’s way by demanding strict rules of engagement. As noted in FM3-24, cooperation between the host country and the US military is an imperative. Karzai refused to sign the status of forces agreement until assured by President Obama that civilian homes would not be targeted in any way.[74]

In September 2009, the Battle of Ganjgal in Afghanistan’s Kunar province provided an example in which both American and Afghani troops were killed as a direct result of related a restrictive and failed rules of engagement policy. Army Captain William Swenson called his superiors repeatedly for airstrikes against 150 advancing Taliban fighters. However, there was a concern that the airstrikes may hit a building that housed “friendlies.” As a result, five out of the thirteen US soldiers involved in the firefight were killed, and the Afghan army lost eight soldiers before the airstrikes were hesitantly approved.[75]

Additionally, according to another soldier involved in the same firefight, a building that housed women was also used by the Taliban to fire rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons while command refused to target the building. Putting civilians above the lives of US soldiers cannot and should not be allowed or tolerated.  If these types of restrictive engagements are instituted in the fight against IS, needless loss of American or coalition forces lives will occur, and the war could very well be lost.[76] In Afghanistan, the protection of civilians became the overriding theme while the sacrifice of American troops became acceptable, a component of the in counterinsurgent operations. Reminiscent of Vietnam, political correctness and gerrymandering from the White House interfered negatively with combat operations.[77]

As late as May 2015 in Iraq, US Air Force pilots reported that the rules of engagement were so restrictive in getting approval for a target that most targets were lost and eighty percent of the total number of sorties, a pathetic fourteen per day, returned with ordinance on the wings.[78] The sortie count in the First Gulf War counted in at 1,125 per day. In Kosovo, the sortie count counted in at 135 a day. In present day Iraq, it is the aforementioned fourteen sorties a day.[79] Seventy-five percent of all air missions are unfulfilled, and the absence of forward air controllers in Iraq nullifies any air effort and precludes protecting civilians.

According to a senior Pentagon official, “Our threshold for civilian casualties and collateral damage is low. We don’t want to own this fight. We have reliable partners on the ground.”[80] In failing to “take it” to IS for fear of alienating the population, the US military is killing more of the population as IS runs rampant in Syria and Iraq torturing and killing for any one of 100 reasons, or no reason at all.

Air power is not contributing to the fight, and “reliable partners on the ground” is a highly questionable statement. Population centric counterinsurgency was designed to garner support from the indigenous peoples. In assigning the population-centric counterinsurgency model to air power, the US military has suffered mission paralysis. This paradigm is a dangerous realm in the application of military assets. Mission paralysis leads to battlefield paralysis and eventually, any offensive action, even to a theater-wide level, would come to a standstill, as pointedly evident in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

The Pentagon official explained further on Senator Duncan Hunter’s call to arm the Sunni tribes, “[the plan] doesn’t take into account the presence of Iran inside Iraq right now… there could be unintended consequences and restore a sectarian war.”[81] This is a sectarian war, and Iran understands that fact which is why they have joined the fight, to further the sectarian conflict and to have full access and control in Baghdad. In fact, Turkey has suddenly agreed to hit IS and has adulterated the opportunity to attack their long time foe, the Kurds. The “red line” which was cast aside by the US administration in regards to Syrian chemical and biological weapons has now come full circle as IS has reportedly used those same weapons on Kurdish forces.[82]

The US put their faith and trust in both the Iraqi Army and the Afghan National Army. To this date, the Iraqi Army has failed on the battlefield, and Afghan villagers and militia have armed to fight the Taliban; a move the US rejected. The feeble, short sited, adulterated position on the Iraqi conflict, perpetrated by the White House and embraced by the Pentagon, explains why the US may not win any present or future war.

Restrictive and stifling rules of engagement violate the concept of Auftragstaktik and introduces the very command bureaucracy it was trying to remove from the battlefield. Real time decision making must be left to those on the ground and in the air who are involved in the heat of battle. Waiting for a command decision to fire or not to fire, or the approval of air support has, and will in the future, cost American soldiers their lives.

Population-centric warfare was born from the counterinsurgency methods used by David Galula in Algeria. Galula found success by supporting the local population, intertwining with them, and winning the hearts and minds of the indigenous people. Population-centric warfare was never intended for use in conventional operations. It was never designed for, nor thought of for air operations. This ideology has been adopted by every service branch and will minimalize any operational effort in confronting an enemy. IS should not be thought of any differently than the Iraqi Army, the Republican Guard, or any conventional army.

The Battlefield

Degrading an insurgency or state-sponsored army is the first thought in the minds of military leadership. In the 2003 Iraq War, the “shock and awe” campaign was designed to decapitate the Iraqi command and control system. There exist a number of successful practices, as put forth in Field Manual FM3-24. Iraq and Syria today take on the complexion of a conventional war paradigm over an insurgency. However, denial of funding to the insurgency should be a crucial component in operational degradation. So far, the US military has been involved in limited air attacks against verifiable positions and targets of opportunity with underwhelming effect.

The US military should be focusing their efforts on denying IS the profits from oil production. It is simply not possible to destroy the Syrian or Iraqi oil fields as the environmental disaster would be unforgivable. However, oil from the production wells must be moved through a distribution network of pipelines and holding tanks to supply the product to refineries, natural gas compressor stations, or oil export terminals. These should be the targets for American airpower. It is not necessary to shut down well production, shut down the means by which the oil is stored, transported, and refined. In the end, any offensive operation against IS will undoubtedly force the terrorists to ignite the oil fields.

A fully applied counterinsurgency approach to fighting IS would be a losing tactic. While components of counterinsurgency would surely be applied on the battlefield, a force appropriate army, led by armor and air power would have to be brought to bear against the Islamic State. The initial Middle Eastern blitzkrieg attack was formulated by both Norman Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks in the 1993 and 2003 Iraq incursions respectively. The same type of battle plan may be witnessed again in any future Iraq action. However, it is inevitable that IS soldiers would meld into the population, and here is where the dangers of counterinsurgency abound. This is where the population-centric model would come into play; working with the population in rooting out IS soldiers and sympathizers.

The US would own the open expanses of the desert. However, IS troops would tactically withdraw to the urban areas, fortify, and take hostages and human shields. Mosul, Al-Wafa, and Fallujah would once again become urban killing zones. Urban fighting does not favor the attacker. American casualties would be extraordinary high as IS fighters are ruthless and fanatical; while American soldiers would try to protect and save civilians, IS troops would use them as shields and kill them as needed to further their objectives.

IS would recruit any and all males, females, adults, elderly and children who could fire a weapon or wear a suicide vest. In most cases, the “recruiting” would come at the tip of an AK-47. Therefore, U.S. troops would face women and children, which may cause some troops to pause in engagements, endangering their lives or the lives of their comrades.

IS would not limit their options due to civilian on the battlefield or casualties, in fact, understanding the US military’s position on the subject IS would, on a daily basis, propagandize civilian deaths as a means to turn pan-ethnic Arabs against the war and the United States. IS would not hesitate to kill their people from within the Sunni population and blame the US to achieve a false morality. IS has a penchant for painting its civil buildings black, so, in attacking these specific buildings, US air strikes would run the risk of hitting hospitals, schools, nurseries, and other civilian centers that would allow IS to turn the world against the military effort.

Additionally, IS would use Sunni men, women, and children as human shields in an attempt to negate any tactical offensive. Fighting IS in total would be a no win situation in the protection of civilians. With that understanding, the United States would have to prosecute the war as a lethal fighting force understanding that civilian casualties are the terrible cost of war, a position no leader, civilian or military, is willing to accept.


Egypt, Jordan, and more recently Saudi Arabia, have requested the United States take the lead in the fight against IS. The current administration has noted that it would like to see the Arab states lead the fight. However, the U.S. has been slow or completely absent in providing arms and support for the Arab states to take that lead. It is doubtful that this is being done covertly as Jordan, Egypt, and the Peshmerga continue to request arms.

The US has failed to arm the Peshmerga over fears that it may offend and anger Turkey while the Peshmerga offer a true counter to IS and are exceptionally loyal to Western interests. Turkey provides a seaport and airfields that allow the US access and presence in the region and airbases to operate from; the US is unwilling to lose Turkey as an “ally.” Only when “an opportunity” presented itself have the Turks given the US permission and have joined the fight; as a way to attack the Kurds. Here is where we see the US administration played by a country with an ulterior motive.

Turkey has been accused of assisting IS directly, if not by their tacit complacency in sitting on the sidelines.[83] In addition, all arms and supplies are funneled through Baghdad, which is then to provide those materials to the Kurds. However, this does not happen; the materials are kept by Baghdad for their utilization, even though the Kurds have demonstrated their superiority on the battlefield. It is quite possible that in fully supporting the Kurds in Iraq with arms, training, air support, armor support, and heavy weapons, the Kurds would take the advantage on the battlefield and win.

The United States set the leadership precedent dating back to World War II. The Marshall Plan introduced U.S. leadership to Europe after the war, and the United States led the fight against Soviet communism and aggression by forging a policy of containment. The United States has led in the political, economic, and military arenas. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) may have had many members, but there was no doubt the membership followed the U.S., which made it clear that the US was NATO.

The current administration has cobbled together a ghost “coalition” to provide woefully inadequate airstrikes against IS, so, it would be natural for the Arab states to expect leadership on the ground. In truth, the US is the only country capable of leading any coalition against IS. The US has the military leadership, organizational structure, expertise, infrastructure, and tradecraft understanding to lead, as the country has done for more than a half-century.

Failure by the United States to engage in the regoin has allowed Russia to enter the warzone not to attack the Islamic State, but to attack those forces friendly to the United States and at odds with Assad. In addition, Russia must protect Assad and the one military friendly sea port it maintains on the Mediterranean.   

However, the White House has called for those who have never led, who do not have the personnel, expertise, political dynamics, logistical fortitude, or infrastructure to lead, to take the mantle away from a world power which has for seventy-five years led the world.

The vacuum created in US leadership has allowed Iran in-roads into Iraq as they have teamed with the Shia militia in taking back Tikrit. IS was not concerned about losing Tikrit, their focus is far broader, so if IS lost Tikrit, it is because it may fit their narrative for the future. The Islamic State assessed the Iraqi Shia militia, their capabilities, fortitude, and tactics, and the assistance given by their compatriot Iranian “advisors.”

The militias included the Badr Organization and Kitaeb Hezbollah, an identified terrorist group.[84] Falih al-Essawi, deputy head of Anbar’s provincial council stated that “I was the first ally of the United States in Anbar, but the big man lied and said Ramadi wouldn’t fall.”[85] Those in the Anbar province had two choices, ally with the US, or the Tehran backed militias. As Essawi lamented, “We chose America, we chose a strong country, but we were wrong.”[86]

The White House has stated, in naïve legacy protecting terms, that the Islamic State is Iraq’s fight.[87] If that is the case, then how is Iraq to deal with IS in Syria? How can they manage IS within their country? The White House position further opens the door to full Iranian involvement, and the great unknown is how Iran may increase its presence and leadership with not only the Shia militia but with Baghdad and the Iraqi army.

The Reality

The US does not need a large ground force, however, a core force would be necessary to augment Arab forces. Arab forces need an outside agent skilled in logistics and strategy to lead the force into combat. Prosecuting the battle plan has but one chance so American forces must lead on the battlefield. This would be leadership not so much from the front of an attack, but leadership when the fog of war appears.

Ideally, an offensive against IS would come on four fronts, the Peshmerga from the North, the US and Iraqi forces from the East, and Saudi Arabian, Jordanian, and Egyptian forces from the South, in full coordination with US military leaders. Those Arab nations, with assistance from willing partners such as the UAE, would be better suited to enter Syria and bring the battlefront to IS-Syria with US leadership, logistical, intelligence, and air support. The fourth front would come from air and sea operations off the coast of Lebanon and Syria.

In an alternative view, some may suggest clearing IS from Iraq and pushing them back to Syria, insulating and sealing the border, forcing Bashir Assad to fight IS. However, any fight against IS must be in full measure with no quarter given. There must be no chance that the Islamic State be allowed to reconstitute itself or seek haven in Syria because of politically correct ideals or political expediency in achieving stated goals.

IS prisoners of war, once interrogated for intelligence, should be turned over to the Arab forces for disposition. In sweeping across the desert, much in the vein of Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the US would force IS into urban areas. There exist a multitude of choices in addressing urban conflict. The most undesirable would be to enter a town like Fallujah using urban counterinsurgent tactics and going door to door to root out IS fighters. Islamic State soldiers are not the Fedayeen Saddam; they are far more ruthless and better trained than any insurgent force encountered during OIF. And as time marches on, IS will continue to put highly trained and radically determined hard-core fighters onto the battlefield. It is a certainty that IS fighters would blend into the population and continue fighting as true insurgents.

IS has read the American playbook on the execution of urban combat and counterinsurgency operations. They understand military tactics and American unwillingness to prosecute combat if civilians may be jeopardized. This is war at its worst, using civilians as weapons. There is the possibility that American and Arab forces could surround an urban area and deprive the inhabitants of the necessities of life. However, the lack of water and food would affect the civilian population far more than IS soldiers, disease would run rampant, and eventually, daily, gruesome, civilian executions would occur to extort US and coalition forces. Additionally, it is not logistically possible to isolate a city like Mosul which has a population of over one million. A city the size of Mosul would have to be compartmentalized and taken in sections.

Urban combat, specifically building clearing operations, is the most dangerous activity for the offensive soldier, and this is where IS would utilize defilade crossfire, booby traps, suiciders, and civilians as shields.

The United States must take the moral and ethical high ground against IS, who, as the Pope indicated, represented pure evil. These are the words one would expect to hear from a political leader, not a religious one. The moral and ethical high ground means fighting an entity so evil that al-Qaeda has forsaken them. Prosecuting a “just war” would give the US and coalition forces the moral and ethical foundation to obliterate the worst humanity has to offer. In doing so, military leaders will be faced with putting American troops in harm’s way by assuming the role of civilian savior. In taking the fight to any Western army, IS will line the battle front with civilians knowing that this strategy will help defeat the Americans. 

IS understand that civilians represent the Achilles heel in American thought and will fully exploit it from day one of the attack. US leaders cannot jeopardize the lives of American soldiers in order to protect civilians. However, this is the tactic espoused in the Trilemma of Counterinsurgency as the most effective counterinsurgent method. In reality, any civilians in front of the Islamic State war machine would be in jeopardy if not facing death, a harsh reality in a harsh world. American troops taken prisoner by IS would face interrogation, paraded on social media for propaganda use; then murdered in any one of 100 diabolical ways, including the ancient method of being drawn and quartered. This is a war against a fanatical force, and its application against IS must be brutally applied.

The Islamic State has the luxury of a single-minded focus in what they are attempting to do. They are not plagued with political correctness or expediency, public and media scrutiny, or worry on civilian casualties. These realities are solely owned by the United States and may ensure failure. In the end, the soldiers of the Islamic state would fight for their fanatical religious belief, owing allegiance to the Caliphate and Allah. The United States military is a professional force with over 220 years of methodological and doctrinational history. However, for the US Army and Marine Corps, it would come down to four-man fire teams breaching urban dwellings and clearing the enemy in the most dangerous type of combat.[88]


Although used in gaming, hypotheticals are rarely included in a serious discussion on war and tactics. However, one can look back in history and apply a hypothetical to past events as an endeavor to stimulate conversation. So, what if, on June 4th, 1944, Erwin Rommel had prepared, as part of his defense, the application of civilians as a defensive wall on Omaha and Utah Beaches. What if the German 352nd Infantry Division, the defenders at Omaha Beach, forced hundreds or thousands of French citizens to line up on the beaches and directly in the line of fire. In following current military policy of not bringing harm to civilians, in “winning the hearts and minds,” the D-Day landings would not have taken place. The same question could then be applied to the bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and the Coventry Blitz perpetrated by the Nazis.  

This paradigm may take place in Iraq and Syria. As it was, the breakout from Omaha beach took six weeks, and for those six weeks, the invasion teetered on failure.[89] Would it have been correct to harm thousands to save millions? Population-centric warfare has taken on a life of its own; it appears that in overstressing population dynamics, it has become an unstoppable policy, and could very well derail any incursion into Iraq and Syria to destroy IS, and does not bode well for any future conflict.

Civilians die in war; a population-centric approach tries to save as many as possible, sometimes costing American soldiers their lives. However, in the overall scheme, trying to save a few may doom the many. However, how many innocents have died because the United States has refused to become invested in fighting evil?

According to President Obama, Afghanistan was a war of necessity while IS in Iraq would be a war of choice.[90] At some point in the future, the war in Iraq against IS will become a necessity.

End Notes

[1] See endnote 74.

[2] Murtuza Hussein, “The myth of the 1,400 year Sunni-Shia war,” Al Jazeera, (July 9, 2013), retrieved from

[3] Stephen Ferrell, “Baghdad Jews Have Become a Fearful Few,” The New York Times, (June 1, 2008), retrieved from

A little as fifty years ago, the Jewish population in Iraq was noted to be 130,000. In 2008, there were very few left, not enough to perform rituals requiring ten men.

[4] Daniel Philpott, “Sovereignty: An Introduction and Brief History,” Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 48, No. 2, (1995), 357.

[5] Henry Kissinger, Introduction and Chapter 1, in World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, (London: Allen Lane, 2014).

[6] G. Evans, J. Newnham, The Dictionary of World Politics: A Reference Guide to Concepts, Ideas and Institutions, (New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1991), 501.

[7] Christopher Bassford, “Jomini and Clausewitz: Their Interaction,” 23rd Meeting of the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe at Georgia State University, (February 26, 1993), Retrieved from

[8] David M. Keithly, Stephen P. Ferris, “Auftragstaktik, or Directive Control, in Joint and Combined Operations,” Parameters, (Autumn, 1999), 118.

[9] John Perdue, The War of All the People: The Nexus of Latin American Radicalism and Middle Eastern Terrorism, (Chapel Hill: Potomac Books, 2012), xii. 

[10] John Nagl, Forward, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM3-24. The United States Army and United States Marine Corps, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Richard Landes, “Short Review of FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency Manual,” The Augean Stables, (November 2008), retrieved from

[13] Zack Beauchamp, “The 9 biggest myths about ISIS: Myth #2: People support ISIS because they like its radical form of Islam,” VOX, (October 1, 2014), retrieved from

[14] Stephen Biddle, “The New U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual as Political Science and Political Praxis,” Perspectives on Politics. Vol. 6/No. 2, (June, 2008), 348, retrieved from

[15] Joint Publication 3-24, Counterinsurgency, October 5, Joint Staff, Washington, DC, J-7-JEDD, CDRUSJFCOM, Suffolk, VA//JT10, October 9, 2009, xv. 

[16] David Galula, Pacification in Algeria: 1956-1958, (Santa Monica: The Rand Corporation, 2006), retrieved from

Galula’s four laws: 1. The aim of the war is to gain the support of the population rather than control of territory. 2. Most of the population will be neutral in the conflict; support of the masses can be obtained with the help of an active friendly minority. 3. Support of the population may be lost. The population must be efficiently protected to allow it to cooperate without fear of retribution by the opposite party. 4. Order enforcement should be done progressively by removing or driving away armed opponents, then gaining support of the population, and eventually strengthening positions by building infrastructure and setting long-term relationships with the population. This must be done area by area, using a pacified territory as a basis of operation to conquer a neighboring area.

[17] Martin Van Creveld, The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, (New York: Ballantine, 2008), 268.

[18] Ibid., 226-227.

[19] Lorenzo Zambernardi, “Counterinsurgency's Impossible Trilemma,” The Washington Quarterly, 33:3, (July 2010), 22.

[20] Ibid., 24.

[21] Scott Fitzsimmons, Mercenaries in Asymmetric Conflicts, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).  

[22] Ibid., 11-46.

[23] Melanie Hunter, “Cruz: ‘Solution to ISIS Is Not Expanded Medicaid in Iraq,’” CNS News, February 11, 2015, retrieved from

[24] David Martosko, “State Department STILL under fire after spoke person doubles down on 'jobs' for jihadis – not 'killing them' – and says it's 'too nuanced an argument for some,'” The Daily Mail, February 18, 2015, retrieved from

[25] Carlotta Gall, “Afghan Villagers Take On Taliban in Their Heartland,” The New York Times, (March 20, 2013), retrieved from

Ben Farmer, “Armed uprising against Taliban forces insurgents from 50 Afghan villages,” The UK Telegraph, (August 14, 2012), retrieved from

[26] Avaneesh Pandey, “ISIS In Afghanistan, Says Senior Army Official; Militants Have ‘Raised Black Flags’ In Southern Provinces,” International Business Times, (January 19 2015), retrieved from

[27] James Gordon Meek, “Green Beret: ‘Going Native’ Was the Real Reason I Was Pushed Out,” ABC News, (July 3, 2014). Retrieved from

[28] Lorenzo Zambernardi, “Counterinsurgency's Impossible Trilemma,” 28.

[29] Ben Farmer, “Armed uprising against Taliban forces insurgents from 50 Afghan villages,”

[30] Michael Hirsh, “Is the CIA Better Than the Military at Drone Killings?” National Review, (February 25, 2014), retrieved from

[31] Catherine Herridge, “US officials warn no way to monitor ISIS’ online encrypted messages,” Foxnews, The Associated Press, (June 03, 2015), retrieved from

[32] $52.6 billion: The Black Budget, The Washington Post, (n.d.), retrieved from

[33] Bobby Ghosh, “ISIS: A Short History: The terrorist group's evolution from fervid fantasy to death cult,” The Atlantic, (Aug 14 2014), retrieved from

[34] The Sons of Iraq was a name assigned to a group of Iraqi Sunni’s affiliated with al-Qaeda. While these tribesmen had fought against the US, David Petraeus saw an opportunity in the death al-Zarqawi in recruiting the local tribesmen during the Sunni Awakening. These Sunnis believed that in joining the US they would be forgiven their previous sins and share in the government power structure. The awakening was a brilliant move in that it set up an insurgency within an insurgency.

[35] Bobby Ghosh “ISIS: A Short History: The terrorist group's evolution from fervid fantasy to death cult.”

[36] Kyle Shideler, “Don't Call it a Caliphate, Yet: ISIS May Run Afoul of Islamic Law,” Breitbart News, (July 1, 2014), retrieved from

[37] Francesca Borri, “Behind the black flag: current, former ISIS fighters speak.” Al-Monitor, (June 23, 2014), retrieved from

[38] Francesca Borri, “Behind the black flag: current, former ISIS fighters speak.”

[39] Ibid.

[40] Francesca Borri, “Behind the black flag: current, former ISIS fighters speak.”

[41] Polly Mosendz, “How Much Does ISIS Make on Selling Oil?” Newsweek, (November 10,

2014), retrieved from

[42] Janine di Giovanni , Leah McGrath Goodman , and Damien Sharkov, “How Does ISIS Fund Its Reign of Terror?” Newsweek, (November 6, 2014), retrieved from

[43] Karen DeYoung, “Islamic State was making $1 million a day from oil sales before airstrikes began,” The Washington Post, (October 23, 2014), retrieved from

[44] “Blood Money: How Isis makes up to €4.5m a day,” Irish Examiner, (November 22, 2014), retrieved from

[45] Heather Pringle, “ISIS Cashing in on Looted Antiquities to Fuel Iraq Insurgency,” National Geographic, (June 27, 2014). Retrieved from

[46] Ibid.

[47] Mathew Blake, “Blood money: How ISIS is selling human organs harvested from living hostages and its own dead soldiers to fund terror across the Middle East,” The Daily Mail, (December 19, 2014), retrieved from

[48] Madeline Grant, “Head of UNESCO Accuses ISIS of Trying to 'Delete' Civilisations,”Newsweek, (November 14, 2014), retrieved from

[49] Patrick Cockburn, “War with Isis: Islamic militants have army of 200,000, claims senior Kurdish leader,” The Independent, (November 16, 2014), retrieved from

[50] Eric Schmitt, & Michael S. Schmidt, “West Struggles to Halt Flow of Citizens to War Zones,” The New York Times, (January 13, 2015), retrieved from

[52] “White House: US won't be ‘responsible’ for ‘security situation’ in Iraq,”, Associated Press, May 28, 2015, retrieved from

[53] Malia Zimmerman, “Commencing jihad: ISIS posts photos of military graduation,” (March 30, 2015), retrieved from

[54] In 1916, Frederick Lanchester devised a series of mathematical differential equations that demonstrated the power relationship between opposing forces. His Linear Law had to do with ancient combat. His Square Law deals with modern combat and stand-off munitions and the attrition that could be witnessed in enfilade fire. It was born from trench warfare. Does not pertain to irregular warfare.

[55] Lawrence Freedman, and Efraim Karsh. The Gulf Conflict 1990–1991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

[56] Fact Sheet: Iraqi War, Pearson Education System, Retrieved from

[57] James Gordon Meek, “ISIS an ‘Incredible’ Fighting Force, US Special Ops Sources Say,” ABC News, (August 25, 2014), retrieved from

[58] Ibid.

[59] James Gordon Meek, “ISIS an ‘Incredible’ Fighting Force, US Special Ops Sources Say.”

[60] Ibid.

[61] James Gordon Meek, “ISIS an ‘Incredible’ Fighting Force, US Special Ops Sources Say.”

[62] “100 foreign fighters executed by ISIS for trying to quit – report,”, December 22, 2014,

[63] Aaron Klein, “Mideast war in March?” World News Daily, (February 24, 2012), retrieved from

[64] “Americans are training Syria rebels in Jordan,” Reuters, as published in Der Spiegel, (Mar 10, 2013), retrieved from

[65] Aaron Klein, “Mideast war in March?”

[66] Ibid.

[67] Human Rights group claims 2,600 Syrians executed by ISIS, Foxnews, Jun. 05, 2015, retrieved from

[68] Lucy Fisher, “Why is there Sunni Arab support for Isis in Iraq?” New Statesmen, (August 15, 2014), retrieved from

[69] Ibid.

[70] Lucy Fisher, “Why is there Sunni Arab support for Isis in Iraq?”

[71] Ibid.

[72] Philip Giraldi, “How ISIS Evades the CIA,” The American Conservative, (July 23, 2014), retrieved from,

From early history using couriers, a down-line communication system is comprised of compartmentalized human resources responsible for the passage of INTEL and messages in a daisy chain system. A decidedly low tech endeavor.  

[73] Condoleezza Rice, “Promoting the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 1, (January/February 2000), retrieved from

[74] Rowan Scarborough, “Shades of Vietnam: Spike in U.S. troop deaths tied to stricter rules of engagement,” The Washington Times, (December 5, 2013), Retrieved from

[75] Ibid.

[76] Rowan Scarborough, “Shades of Vietnam: Spike in U.S. troop deaths tied to stricter rules of engagement.”

[77] Vali Nasr, “The Inside Story of How the White House Let Diplomacy Fail in Afghanistan: My time in the Obama administration turned out to be a deeply disillusioning experience,” Foreign Policy, (March 4, 2013), retrieved from

[78] Lucas Thomlinson, “US military pilots complain hands tied in ‘frustrating’ fight against ISIS,” Foxnews.Com, (May 28, 2015), retrieved from

[79] Ibid.

[80] Lucas Thomlinson, “US military pilots complain hands tied in ‘frustrating’ fight against ISIS.”

[81] Ibid.

[82] Adam Entous, “Islamic State Suspected of Using Chemical Weapon, U.S. Says,” The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2015, Retrieved from

[83] “Turkey Supports and Provides Protection to Islamic State (ISIS): Witnesses,” Global Research, (December 01, 2014), retrieved from

[84] Loveday Morris, “Pro-Iran militias take upper hand after U.S.-backed forces crumble in Anbar,” The Washington Post, May 30, 2015, retrieved from

[85] Ibid.

[86] Loveday Morris, “Pro-Iran militias take upper hand after U.S.-backed forces crumble in Anbar.”

[87] “White House: US won't be ‘responsible’ for ‘security situation’ in Iraq,”, May 28, 2015, retrieved from

[88] “Combined Arms Operations in Urban Terrain,” FM3-06.11, Army Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures, ATTP 3-06.11, (Washington: United States Army, June, 2011), xii, retrieved from

[89] Mark Grimsley, “What If the Omaha Beach Landing Had Failed?” HistoryNet, (3/4/2013), retrieved from

[90] Ibid., 25.


About the Author(s)

Michael Petranick has a master’s degree in history, military studies/asymmetric warfare, and is ABD in a Public Policy and Administration PHD with a specialty in terrorism.



Tue, 04/19/2016 - 11:49am

In reply to by cjkirkpatrick

I have also had a great deal of trouble finding an security studies perspectives on ISIS, but there is a lot of work on area studies about the organization. I would recommend Joel Wing and his blog. If you scroll through the archives there is huge amount of information on ISIS doctrine, ideology, goals, and warfare tactics. Link included:


Mon, 04/18/2016 - 9:29am

I have read hundreds (thousands?) of articles about ISIS. The general trend is that they are unique, new, mysterious, incomprehensible, irrational, etc. Another common theme is an attempt to orient or align their actions/decisions to a Clausewitzian or other western model of military theory/strategy.

You know what I don't see? Any effort to understand ISIS as such. It's not like they don't produce material. There is a dozen issues of Dabiq (in English), one can read the Management of Savagery in English, and there are thousands of open source documents (translated and in Arabic) that can be referenced. Instead we lapse to facile analogies like ISIS=Hitler or ISIS=nihilists, etc.