In his news conference on Monday, President Barack Obama laid down a gauntlet. Just two days after the Islamic State took credit for the recent deadly attacks in Paris, he challenged his critics to come up with alternatives to what he’s already doing to fight the Islamic State.
The president defended his current policy of airstrikes, training and supplying allies, diplomacy and limited ground troops. And he insisted that his critics, except for those who advocate large-scale troop deployment, tend to “describe things that we’re already doing. … I haven’t seen particular strategies that they would suggest that would make a real difference.”
Since then, a handful of 2016 candidates have presented their own ISIL plans, insisting of course that their strategies would indeed make a real difference. But pressed for specifics, many candidates admit that they’d have to consult the military experts once in office.
And so Politico Magazine decided to consult these military experts too, asking them to take Obama up on his challenge: Barring sending in 50,000 troops, what specifically should the administration be doing differently in terms of the tactical and strategic response to ISIL, and how would it make a difference? Here’s what they had to say.
Contain. Reduce. Silence.
By: Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, U.S. Army (ret.), managing director for the VetVoice Foundation
Recent critiques of Obama administration policy in Syria are remarkable in their lack of imagination. They are almost exclusively calls for more military action, and, to use an expression that the American military considers derogatory, for more “boots on the ground.” (The men and women I served with and my active duty family members should not be referred to as “boots on the ground.”)
Syria is NOT a vital national interest for the United States. This drives a resource-constrained approach to combat in and around Syria and accepts a patient, rational military response to dealing with the Syrian civil war.
In fact, the Obama administration’s current policy at the tactical military level is reasonable. U.S. capacity to provide key combat multipliers (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) as well as logistics and air power is superb and needed. And our current policy of enlisting ground forces from our regional allies like Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and available Syrian forces is consistent with our level of national interest.
Our tactical (military) game is on track, if slowly, to contain ISIL geographically and to reduce its footprint. Contain. Reduce.
What our current Syria policy lacks is an effective operational and strategic campaign plan that addresses the economic, political and communications lines of operation.
Current engagement by the secretary of state with world leaders with significant or vital interests in the region must accelerate. All actors with an interest in the outcome must be invited to an aggressive diplomatic process, regardless of past conflicts.
That includes Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
And we must up our game when it comes to the cyber fight. The ability ISIL displays in publications like Dabiq, its use of Twitter and other social media mechanisms demand that the United States and its allies ditch the small cell at the State Department and develop a robust cyber capacity that can shut down ISIL’s use of the cyber global commons or limit its effectiveness, all while continuing to reap intelligence value. ISIL is winning the messaging war, which is stunning. The West has the most brilliant message on the planet, yet fails to make its case, often to its own youth.
Finally, the ISIL economic arm must be identified and shut down. We must drive them to a pure cash economic system, removing all ability to move money and assets electronically. The tactical bombing of oil infrastructure is interesting; stopping the flow of money at the strategic and operational level is critical.
We are roughly on track militarily but seriously behind in the application of the diplomatic, economic and information operations components of national power.
Seize the narrative high ground
By: Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
ISIL is a hydra-headed monster. It’s both an army that holds territory in Iraq and Syria and an idea, one that metastasizes online and on social media across the globe. We have to get both the kinetics and the counternarrative right. We don’t dedicate enough resources on either front.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has come up with a better sales pitch than any terrorist mastermind in recent memory. In a region crippled by bad governance, sectarianism and endemic corruption, he offers purpose and community. He’s already drawn thousands to his “caliphate” in the Levant; hundreds more are looking to join, including dozens of young men and women in the United States. Our messaging war hasn’t kept up with ISIL’s Twitter bots and gurus, its glossy publications, its multimedia productions. We have yet to mobilize either the right tech or the right voices—defectors, imams and credible Muslim voices—to penetrate their echo chamber.
Our policies also feed recruitment. The failure to close the prison at Guantánamo is a black mark on our moral leadership, a talking point for jihadist PR around the globe—and especially for ISIL, which likes to dress its captives in black hoods and orange jumpsuits. And when politicians call for the United States to admit only Christian refugees—a proposal as dumb as it is unconstitutional—they reinforce the radical Islamists’ argument that the West will never truly accept Muslims.
Seizing the narrative high ground is necessary and urgent—but not sufficient. We still lack credibility on the ground. Syrians targeted by Baghdadi’s chlorine shells or Assad’s barrel bombs see occasional American airstrikes, but few trust us to follow up. There will be no movement on the ground until we change that impression. The urgent step should be to establish safe zones, using our air power (supported by targeters and advisers on the ground) to create space for suffering Sunnis. Next, involve them in the diplomatic process. Negotiations on Syria’s political transition need ramping up—emphasizing full Sunni participation in an elected government.
Remember: ‘Defeating ISIL’ is just part of the solution
By: Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, U.S. Army (ret.)
We are not winning the war against Islamist fundamentalism. The attacks in Beirut and Paris and the bombing of the Russian plane prove that our enemies have not been weakened despite 14 years of war and billions of dollars spent, hundreds of “high value targets” and thousands of others killed, thousands of our own casualties, tens of thousands of civilians dead or wounded, and hundreds of thousands of refugees spread throughout the world. We have had some successes, but neither the expansive strategy of the former Bush administration nor the minimalist approach of the Obama administration has worked.
The stated objective of the Obama administration is to defeat Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. We are nowhere near achieving that objective, and the objective itself reveals one of the core problems: “Defeat” is a tactical, military objective. We have no strategic, political objective—at least none that is known in the public sphere. War is an instrumental activity, not an end in itself. Its utility comes from how it contributes to a larger, durable political arrangement that might be called “a better peace.”
No single nation can succeed against the global revolutionary movement Al Qaeda and ISIL represent. We need a real coalition. So far, our approach has been more like a posse of the Old West following a sheriff—a militarized approach to a political problem. Real coalitions wage wars; they don’t just fight them. That is, real coalitions are political entities formed around common principles and political aims. They empower themselves to create common intelligence; common security—military and police; and common political, fiscal, and informational strategies and policies appropriate to the kind of war they face. And they create co-ordinative bodies that execute and adapt the decisions that they make, domestically and transnationally.
The recent ISIL attacks must galvanize America to lead a real coalition and start waging war.
Straighten out our rhetoric
By: Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress
It would make a real difference in President Barack Obama’s approach to dealing with the threat from the Islamic State if he were more careful and more explicit with his own statements in addressing the dangers of ISIL and what the United States is already doing to grind it down. ISIL is a significant threat not only to its region, but to the world. It is not a “JV team.” And the current U.S.-led approach is greater than mere “containment,” as Obama has called it, though less than swift and sure destruction, as Will McCants has pointed out.
In effect, Obama is pursuing a strangulation strategy. However, Obama needs to intensify the strangulation impact on ISIL by increasing the amount of bombing in the region. The strikes this week on ISIL’s oil infrastructure, cutting off a major source of its revenue, is a good start. The United States does have boots on the ground, in combat, in both Iraq and Syria. These brave men and women are not merely advising and assisting, but are actually going out on dangerous missions with the troops they have trained, as well as calling in airstrikes from the ground. Obama should make greater use of the ability of U.S. ground controllers to call in strikes.
Finally, Obama needs to acknowledge that Bashar Assad does not have to go in order for the international coalition to undermine ISIL. ISIL is the main problem for the United States, not Assad. We need to get a political solution to the Syrian civil war as soon as possible, so that the world can focus on ISIL rather than on competing regional strategic aims. If Obama straightens out his rhetoric, he will demonstrate to his supporters, and his critics, that his strategy is in fact making a difference.
Ditch Saudi Arabia. Choose the Kurds.
By: Winslow Wheeler, former director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight
The central theme of the critics of Obama’s actions in Syria—including from our let’s-all-be-politicians media—is that his policy has been insufficiently stupid, that it must be immeasurably more stupid. “Boots on the ground” (what a disgusting characterization of infantry combat) and bombing from drones and multi-role and heavy bombers as a methodology to effect regime change in alien lands is exactly how we got to where we are.
These geniuses want to simply accelerate the process; we already know too well what will be the result.
If you want to actually unravel ISIL, rather than score points in our broken domestic political system, we might start where ISIL gets an essential part of its moral and physical backing: that would be Saudi Arabia and much of the Persian Gulf. Step No. 1 would be to publicly acknowledge that role and embargoing any further arms sales (both sales agreements and all deliveries) to those radical Muslim satrapies. (No oil from them; no revenues from us.)
To satisfy the blood lust of war lovers, such as Sen. John McCain and his fellow travelers in the Republican presidential circus and Hillary Clinton, if the Obama administration were ever to reverse the ever-increasing recklessness the neoconservatives and neoliberals have produced, it might want to consider giving much more real military aid and political support to the only actor in Syria, Iraq and Iran that has demonstrated a willingness to fight and die for a cause they believe in and is not totally repugnant to a forgotten tradition of American popular support for legitimate self-determination: the Kurds.
Unlike the nonexistent moderate opposition in Syria and the faux Iraqi Army, the Kurds don’t need anyone else to do their fighting on the ground for them, but fulsome employment of close (repeat close) air support from several squadrons of the only aircraft capable to effectively performing it, the A-10 and its American pilots, would result in more dead ISIL fighters than anything Obama or his cat-callers in Congress and the presidential hustings have ever accomplished or ever would accomplish. Of course, like breaking with Saudi Arabia, aiding the Kurds, which should include advocating an independent Kurdish homeland, will require a complete upturning of current policies and elite “wisdom.”
Finally, we need to attempt to undo some of the chaos we have built in the Middle East (and our ISIL recruiting) by taking real action to help the refugees we have created in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere. That will require both billions of dollars and a commitment to protect, feed, house and uplift these people. The term “safe zones” does no justice to the material and moral effort this will require, but the carnival barker Donald Trump is at least on the right track.
In sum, we need the intellect and the moral courage to radically change our thinking and our behavior.
Organize a ground force. Stay to fight.
By: Kori Schake, research fellow at the Hoover Institution
Starting with a troop ceiling is already buying trouble: We should always start a military campaign with the political end state we want to achieve. There are lots of permutations of military force to consider once political leaders have clear objectives that are actually achievable by military force. The right political end state is eliminating ISIL control of any territory in Syria or Iraq.
Achieving that will require organizing a ground force to take that territory. After the United States’ abandonment of Iraq and the red line President Barack Obama drew in Syria, we will not have the luxury of providing only the military enablers or advisers: Our credibility is so diminished that others will not believe we’ll stay the course unless we’re standing—fighting—right next to them. So we’ll have to be a visible part of that fight for others to coalesce.
But we don’t have to be the only or even the main part of the ground force. Countries in the region need to be recruited to the cause, and American units paired up with them. Give everybody a job they can succeed at; ensure they aren’t exposed without American military might at the ready.
The more demanding part of the problem is political: dealing with Assad, Putin and Iran. Assad should be told to withdraw into Alawite territory any military forces he doesn’t want targeted. Russia ought to be conceded its military base at Tartus and visible role in the fight as part of the coalition. Iran should be marginalized because its sectarianism has delegitimized them with Syrians.
To stanch the flow of migrants and take pressure off Turkey and Jordan, we should establish safe areas for refugees inside Syria. The right model is Provide Comfort from 1991, in which we committed to the long-term protection of Kurdish northern Iraq, giving it time to grow a political leadership.
Worries about what comes after Assad are legitimate; we need to identify who will govern if a cease-fire can be established. A United Nations high representative would be the best choice for the near term, working locally rather than building a centralized government. Robert Ford would be a great choice.
Take a page from the World War II playbook
By: John Arquilla, professor in the special operations program at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School
To use an anatomical analogy, the Islamic State is composed of several major organs—urban areas of concentrated presence—supplied with their lifeblood by narrow, vein-like links along roads. Which means that ISIL fighters, in a tactical sense, control very little of the territory under their putative rule.
This opens up a tremendous opportunity to establish strongholds deep in the heart of the Islamic State from which to raid supply lines and ISIL outposts. Doing so will greatly hasten ISIL’s collapse—causing “cardiac arrest,” if you will—and should take only a few thousand troops, at most. American Rangers, France’s Légion Etrangère, and the British Special Air Service—all especially galvanized in the wake of the Paris attacks—might finally end the nonsensical aversion to having “boots on the ground.”
The model for this initiative is the Chindits (from chinthé, a mythical lion-like creature)—the relative handful of British, Nepalese and Burmese troops who fought for extended periods far behind Japanese lines in Burma during World War II. They drew support from American Air Commandos, whose lineal descendants can perform similarly for a new generation of Chindits today. How effective were the first Chindits? While the Allies debated their value, Japanese generals who tried to deal with them affirmed in official postwar testimonies that the Chindit raids from their strongholds “led to the total abandonment of Northern Burma.”
I suggest that the counter-ISIL coalition establish two such strongholds, both in Iraq, where ISIL presence looks like something of an hourglass, with Rawa in the narrow middle. In the northern half, operations could be set up somewhere near the middle of a triangle formed by Shahadi in the west, Sharqa in the east and Rawa as the base point. The southern stronghold would retain Rawa as its tip, and position forces within the triangle it forms with Rutba to the southwest and Ramadi to the southeast. From these positions the new Chindits could raid at will, and would greatly enhance the effectiveness of Iraqi government forces, Kurdish pesh merga fighters and allied air power.
The ghost of Orde Wingate, father of the first Chindits, smiles in anticipation.
Unleash American air power
By: Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap, U.S. Air Force (ret.)
American air power needs to be unleashed, but so far the air effort has been amazingly anemic. During 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, 6,613 bombs were dropped per day. Against ISIL? As of last July, only 43. To defeat ISIL, every one of their fighters should know the stark terror that death from above is coming for them, but that hasn’t happened yet.
It is mind-boggling that the secretary of defense is only now considering loosening the rules of engagement. How many civilians have died because of the unnecessary political constraints that have allowed ISIL fighters to live on unmolested and wreak havoc upon the helpless? Let’s not forget that the law of war prohibits only “excessive” civilian casualties in relation to the military advantage anticipated; it doesn’t require “zero” civilian losses.
Even under constrained rules of engagement, much more could have been done. As just one example, consider that DoD is now touting air attacks against ISIL tanker trucks, which are key to the oil sales that have long been the primary source of ISIL funding. Those attacks were conducted, we are told, with virtually no civilian casualties.
But why attack only now? The fact is that even under constraints such airstrikes could have been conducted months ago had the military leadership been more imaginative and aggressive. It is heartbreaking to think of all the civilian suffering that might have been avoided had we gone after those trucks , and strangled the money flow to ISIL.
True, a long-term solution involves political agreements and more, but the mission in the near term needs to be killing or capturing ISIL fighters. Given that their numbers are estimated to be around 30,000 to 40,000, that is a formidable task, but not an impossible one. The physical destruction of that size force is hardly unknown in the annals of military history.
By: POLITICO Magazine