Eliminating the “head of the snake” does not defeat an enemy, despite recent comments to that effect made by former Lt. Col. (USMC) Oliver North in a Fox News discussion/commentary regarding ISIL/ISIS. A constant and direct assault on the body destroys the heart and will of an opponent. In World War I, WWII, Desert Storm, OEF, and OIF (in the latter two we screwed up the end game, but that’s a different conversation), victory was achieved by defeating the core of the opposing force, then working our way to the top. This is not unlike competition in the ring.
I have followed boxing for as long as I can remember, and there is nothing more exciting than the spectacular knockout that may occur at any moment. Mike Tyson, in his prime, was as exciting and destructive as any fighter in history. Yet, if we look back at many of his victories, most of the knockouts followed vicious shots to the body. Liver, ribs, chest, and arms were all center mass targets. A dedicated body attack may not get many points from the judges, but it is unquestionably felt and recognized by the opponent, who must lower his hands—creating an exposure. Attacking the main body of an enemy during war is not dissimilar, and allows for all the varied skill sets of our special warfare, aviation, conventional, and intelligence operators and analysts to come to the battlefield. All these skills are needed to stop the aggression of ISIS.
Our current tactics against ISIS demonstrate a focus to use air support efforts to hit strategic targets. These targets represent the hope of the U.S. that they are locations of ISIS leaders or perhaps even Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself. They also represent the political wish of a spectacular knockout, yet this is not the case. The body of ISIS will continue to fight, recruit, and attack. The head will be replaced and a new motivation will result. With the body intact, the fight continues. This is a 15-round fight (yes, true championship boxing matches went 15 rounds), and our coalition has yet to throw a single body punch.
In order to hit the body of this enemy, we must have a capable and dedicated ground force with a plan to hit ISIS where it hurts. We’re swinging for the head and missing. By using SOF, we can eliminate the mid-level fighters, disrupt communications, and interrupt the flow of weapons and personnel, including recruitment tactics. ISIS will have to replace these lost mid-level assets, and that requires communication, which leads to exposure. We hit them again and repeat this cycle until the will to fight is lost. The head cannot lead if there is no body.