Before taking any potential action taken against ISIS, the president has to consider both international and domestic American politics. He also has to weigh the consequences of any action considered against taking no action at all. Before looking at potential uses of military force against ISIS, it is worthwhile looking at the requisite considerations prior to even reaching that point.
One of the quirks of democratic governments is that, unlike dictatorships, the presidents of free nations have to make direct appeals to their citizens and garner public support for their actions. Deep into Obama’s second term, his administration has displayed a schizophrenic foreign policy that seeks to defer decisions on any and all international crises. Essentially, the Obama administration is “kicking the can down the road” for the next administration. The crisis in Iraq and Syria has now reached a breaking point, however, and kicking the can is more unpopular than picking it up and doing something with it.
Indeed, failure to take action against ISIS at this juncture will result in consequences almost too horrifying to contemplate. The humanitarian crisis, which ISIS has created, already stretches across Kurdistan, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. ISIS has created more than three million refugees. It has killed and executed civilians, including men, women, and children, on a scale that can legitimately be described as genocide. ISIS has sexually enslaved women and girls as young as nine. The human rights crisis in the region has spiraled out of control.
Refusing to take action against ISIS will ensure that it continues to capture territory across the Middle East. As ISIS grows in strength with each successful battle, it will set up the infrastructure of something resembling a functional state. That is to say, it will become a self-funded organization making millions of dollars from oil revenue. Left unchecked, it is hard to say how powerful it could become. The dream of a pan-Islamic caliphate is most certainly beyond its reach; however, it could carve out a very large swath of the Middle East for its empire.
Perhaps the most frightening scenario is if ISIS is able to capture Baghdad and unseat what is left of a functional Iraqi government, and then heads south to Saudi Arabia. If ISIS were to capture the two most holy sites of the Islamic faith, Mecca and Medina, the entire Middle East might very well implode.
In order to take military action against ISIS, Obama has been slowly warming the U.S. public toward the inevitable reality of troops on the ground in Iraq (once again) and in Syria. As early as 2012, the Pentagon spun up the 75th Ranger Regiment for a short-notice deployment to Syria in order to secure weapons of mass destruction sites. The president was preparing for a direct military confrontation with Assad’s forces, but for reasons not completely known, the attack was called off. Considering the amount of weight the administration places on public opinion polls, and the fact that we were in the middle of Obama’s reelection campaign, it seems likely that the president did not feel he had enough public support for the action at that time.
As the ISIS threat continued to grow throughout 2013 and 2014, Obama spoke publicly about military options in dealing with it. First, he mentioned providing weapons to the Kurds, then supplying training and advisers to the Iraqi government, and finally he escalated to air strikes. As of this writing in late October 2014, the notion of an overt U.S. military presence on the ground is already being dangled in front of the American consciousness.
Obama is waiting to gain sufficient popular support for the war against ISIS. Once he has it, he will use American military force to directly combat ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq.
With the campaign to sensitize the American public to another war in Iraq under way, the administration also has to consider the international scene. Any action taken in the world against America or American interests is considered a win by adversarial nations, namely, Russia and China. These two nations have openly helped the Assad regime, but more frightening is the question of to what extent they have also helped ISIS, in the same way the CIA helps other “causes” globally. An American military engagement against ISIS may well turn into a proxy war between global powers.
America must build an international coalition against ISIS. Yes, we could “go it alone,” but the war will appear, and will actually be, more legitimate with a coalition of partners who want to see the destruction of ISIS. This coalition will have the most clout if it includes not only Western nations but Arab and predominantly Muslim nations as well. The September 2014 air campaign was the trial balloon for a larger and more robust coalition force to be set up at a future date.
Time magazine reported that “the U.S. was accompanied by five Arab nations in the strikes, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Those nations all participated in, or supported, the strikes.” These are some of the same countries in which private donors send financial support to ISIS. However, that does not mean these governments, and affluent individuals within these nations, don’t want to see ISIS destroyed as much as America does.
This leaves the question of Iran’s attitude toward an overt U.S. military engagement against ISIS. ISIS can and will be dealt with, during or after the Obama administration—the threat cannot be ignored forever. But perhaps the more important question than how to defeat ISIS is the relationship between America and Iran over the long term. Despite the great antagonism between Iran and America dating back to the 1970s, President Obama recently had a historic phone conversation with Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani. This was the first time the leaders of Iran and the United States had spoken directly since 1979, when diplomatic relations were officially terminated.
It appears that the antagonism between these two states is not going away anytime soon, but with Secretary of State John Kerry openly talking about being willing to work with Iran against ISIS, these overtures represent political signaling. Although unlikely, a joint Iran–United States coalition against ISIS would be historic and could pave the way for a normalization of relations between the two countries.
In any case, Iran is a predominantly Shi’a nation and ISIS is a Sunni terrorist group that wants to install a caliphate across the Middle East, giving Iran plenty of reason to want to see it destroyed. Using back-channel communication, the United States and Iran will probably hammer out an agreement that placates Iran and ensures that it will sit out and take no action against America during the fight on the ground, even if an overt joint operation between the two countries is out of the question.
With the political background leading up to military action covered, it’s time to look at some potential actions in addition to the ones we spoke of in the previous chapter.
Gulf War 3
As it dawns upon U.S. policy makers that they have underestimated the ISIS threat, it becomes clear that a full-on military engagement, including U.S. troops on the ground, is inevitable if we want to secure a decisive victory. It has also become clear that we cannot fight the war only in Iraq; to do so would grant the enemy a safe haven in Syria. Our experiences in Vietnam where the NVA and VC were able to stage out of adjacent Laos and Cambodia have taught us that we cannot attack ISIS in one place but not another. More recent experience with the Taliban operating out of Pakistan to attack our troops in Afghanistan confirms that.
A third Gulf War is unlikely to involve the same type of shock and awe as the first did, and we probably won’t see Abrams tanks rolling across the desert. However, we will see American armored vehicles, infantry soldiers, transport and attack aircraft, and Special Operations Forces deployed in a combined arms effort against ISIS.
This type of war would largely combine mechanized infantry, light infantry, and Special Operations in tandem with U.S. air power. Our sources within the U.S. Special Ops community tell us that units are already mobilizing for action. Unfortunately, Turkey is unlikely to allow U.S. forces to stage out of its country; however, bases in Kurdistan and Iraq will be sufficient. Special Forces teams would work alongside Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi Special Operations units, which they trained during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Meanwhile, Rangers, Marines, and conventional infantry units would provide the hammer while fighter jets and attack helicopters provide the anvil.
Make no mistake, this campaign will not look like other recent U.S. military engagements. Hunting down high-value targets with a small strike force in the back alleys of Iraq, as was done in 2005–2009, will be largely a thing of the past. This campaign will look more like a blitzkrieg. ISIS forces are likely to collapse quickly under a sustained American military assault. U.S. and coalition forces will want to seize the initiative as this happens.
Once an opening appears in ISIS’s defenses, the U.S. military will seek to exploit it and push through as fast as possible. That said, fighting in urban terrain is dangerous. These battles take place in what the military calls “nonpermissive” environments. These are not cities that have some civilians living in them, but rather cities that are outright controlled by enemy forces. This means that a repeat of the scenario when the Marine Corps assaulted Fallujah in 2004 is highly likely.
U.S. forces know this and will attempt to shape the battlefield so as to mitigate the need for Stalingrad-style battles, but some will happen regardless of the best efforts of military planners and intelligence professionals.
We will also seek to eliminate the source of ISIS’s funding. This is already under way as the U.S.-led coalition bombs ISIS-held oil refineries in Syria. These economic warfare aspects of the campaign will have to escalate to include eliminating “charity” funding from abroad as well.
In short, this option would involve a lighting-fast campaign across Iraq and Syria that General Patton would have respected.
The Special Operations Option
If Obama is unable to generate the necessary public support for Gulf War 3, then he is likely to opt for a low-visibility, low-profile mission that will remain at least partially out of the headlines and keep U.S. casualties to a minimum. This would mean deploying Special Operations teams that can call on air support as needed.
Before Special Operations missions take place, operational preparation of the battlefield (OPB) must be completed. This has been under way for some time, although the effort has been hampered by interservice rivalry between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) primary intelligence-gathering unit, the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA). Quite a feud has developed between the two, including the CIA sabotaging at least one ISA operation that was to assess the viability of the Free Syrian Army as a possible partner force.
Other shaping operations have been under way as well, including attempted hostage rescue missions conducted by JSOC operators staging out of a nearby country and flying in via helicopter. This operations will likely escalate, whether Obama chooses the Gulf War option or the Special Forces option, as either effort will require OPB to set the conditions for success.
However, if Special Operations gets the nod to take the lead in this campaign, then JSOC is likely to escalate its operations into Syria in a effort to assassinate ISIS leaders, rescue American hostages, conduct reconnaissance for other SOF units, and sabotage ISIS logistical and leadership nodes.
Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets) will conduct unconventional warfare alongside their host-nation counterparts, consisting mostly of peshmerga and ISOF units. In the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Special Forces teams did exactly this mission. Working by, with, and through indigenous forces, U.S. Special Forces will be likely to push ISIS from both the south and the east, driving it back toward Syria.
With the Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) heavily engaged in foreign internal defense in Afghanistan over the last several years, it is likely that MARSOC will be brought in to do the same mission as Special Forces; however, there is bound to be some consternation over this within Special Forces command.
The 75th Ranger Regiment may be called upon to conduct combat parachute jumps as it did in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Combat jumps can serve as a vertical envelopment of enemy forces, surrounding them and catching them by surprise—prior to eliminating them, of course. Rangers can also capture key strategic sites such as airfields for follow-on U.S. forces to land on and deploy from. This sort of rapid combat operation could see Rangers securing a airfield and follow-on light infantry and mechanized infantry coming in right behind them to steamroll ISIS positions in a surprise night attack.
The Rangers could be deployed in another manner as well. In OIF and OEF, Rangers jumped into largely abandoned enemy compounds. The purpose was public relations, to show the world that America means business. The combat jumps were recorded on video and then broadcast on network television again and again.
Other direct-action units, like the Special Forces Commander’s In-Extremis Force teams, SEAL Team 6, and Delta Force, are also likely to be deployed in this conflict and it is likely that all of these Special Ops units will compete fiercely for the opportunity to engage the targets they favor.
The Mercenary “Contractor” Option
If Obama cannot find sufficient public support for a campaign against ISIS, or if another conflict heats up elsewhere in the world, such as in Ukraine, then the administration may have to conserve military resources and/or reroute them to Eastern Europe. In this case, action against ISIS could be done via proxy forces.
This would most likely also involve a small contingent of Special Operations soldiers, who would remain in safe areas and manage specific aspects of the campaign. If they were used as advisers, they would probably be placed under the auspices of the CIA for those deployments, allowing the president to claim that America does not have “troops on the ground.”
The actual intelligence work would be conducted by freelance contractors hired for this task, as they have done all over the world throughout the War on Terror. The fighting itself would be carried out by contracted parties within Iraq and by so-called third-country nationals. Iraqi militias would be funded by the United States. These forces could be drawn from the Shi’a population, which is opposed the Sunni ISIS movement, and also from oppressed groups like the Yezidi, who are itching for some payback after ISIS slaughtered them in their home of Sinjar.
One Yezidi source told SOFREP that if America provided them with guns and other war matériel, he could have fifty thousand Yezidi men ready to take up arms and fight at the snap of his fingers.
Using mercenaries to fight our war has its pros and cons, of course. Without U.S. airpower or professional soldiers doing the fighting, this type of campaign would take years to be successful, with numerous setbacks along the way. The usual discomfort with the use of private military companies would rear its head in the press, and we could expect the entire effort to be demonized by the international community.
Governments tend to freak out when private military companies are used as instruments of foreign policy or, in some cases, changing foreign policy without the oversight of their government. On the positive side, this would keep American casualties to a minimum, maybe even zero.
The worst-case scenario is a full-blown war erupting in both the Middle East and Eastern Europe. If America fully commits to both wars, this would allow other actors around the world to take advantage of the situation while the U.S. military is distracted elsewhere. This would be the ideal time for China to makes moves on the Senkaku Islands or even on Taiwan. For that reason, we may employ mercenaries to deal with ISIS to keep some U.S. forces in reserve.
As stated, a U.S.-led war against ISIS will not look like the Special Operations missions that General Stanley McChrystal led as JSOC commander in Iraq in years past. However, as in any military campaign, killing or capturing enemy leaders will still be a component of the over all operation.
Hostage Rescue Missions
The first propaganda film, featuring the murder of journalist James Foley by a British ISIS fighter, carried the threat of more to come. Videos followed, showing the beheadings of Steven Sotloff, another freelance journalist; David Cawthorne Haines, a former British soldier who did security work for aid organizations; French mountain climber Hervé Gourdel; and Alan Henning, a British taxi driver who volunteered to deliver aid to Syrian citizens. The pattern seems to be that every several weeks another hostage is executed.
ISIS is attempting to use these Western hostages as collateral, threatening and carrying out the killings if U.S. air strikes against ISIS continue, a signal by the terrorist organization to hijack U.S. foreign policy via asymmetrical means. As the world’s only remaining superpower, with the ability to project military force around the globe, the United States is a hard target to deter. Perhaps no nation in the world can square off against America with conventional military forces. However, terrorism exploits America’s weak spots. By kidnapping Americans and holding them hostage on the world stage, terrorists can also hold U.S. foreign policy hostage.
This form of political terrorism was in full swing during the ’1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Terrorists would hijack an aircraft filled with civilians and then demand the release of prisoners, a withdrawal of occupational forces, or whatever other political ends they wanted to achieve. In SOFREP’s interview with Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a national security adviser during the Reagan administration, he stated he believes that our counterterrorism tactics at that time were particularly aggressive and successfully mitigated the threat of this form of terrorism. But with that success, terrorist organizations changed their tactics as well.
Political terrorism transformed into religious terrorism. No longer were hostages taken and demands made. Instead, suicide attacks were launched. This included suicide bombings, most notably the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda and its offshoot organizations, such as the Islamic State of Iraq, took hostages but made no demands. They beheaded the hostages and made snuff videos of the executions to intimidate people.
The reality is that political terrorism never truly went away and the threat has persisted. Every execution of American (or any) hostages is ultimately a political act, but these executions did not come with policy demands, did not involve a ticking clock or ransom money, and they were not prolonged events that took place in front of the media, as did aircraft hijackings and the Iran hostage crisis. Nonetheless, Americans being taken hostage for whatever purpose is a profound asymmetrical threat to the United States, and in order to combat it the units that make up JSOC conduct extensive training as well as performing actual hostage rescue operations throughout the Global War on Terror. The failed mission to rescue James Foley is the most recent example.
Dalton Fury provides a fictional example in his novel Black Site, where captured Delta Force operators are held hostage by Al Qaeda in Pakistan. The hostages are moved around to deter the CIA’s drone strike program; in essence, the American prisoners are used as human shields in a manner that manipulates how the CIA assassinates Al Qaeda leaders. With the release of pictures, we know that Bowe Bergdahl was, at least for a short time, with Badruddin Haqqani, senior commander of the Haqqani network, an insurgency group in Afghanistan with ties to Al Qaeda. Was Bergdahl used in the manner that Fury describes in his fiction? There is no way to know, but the opportunity to manipulate American foreign policy and military force is always present. What we can be certain of is that in our negotiations to recover Bergdahl, the United States must have sacrificed significant political capital in order to secure his release.
ISIS’s horrifying execution videos clearly demonstrate that ISIS is using American hostages differently from Al Qaeda, ISI, AQI, and a number of other groups. Unlike religious terrorism, which uses vicious executions to intimidate overseas Muslims and Americans alike, ISIS is attempting to use them as political leverage. If this continues over the long term, which we expect, it will create a political and military crisis for the United States, as well as for other countries whose citizens are murdered.
As the beheadings continue, the U.S. government will only be further humiliated and the situation is about to get even uglier. One of the other Americans reported to us held by ISIS is a young female aid worker who has not been publicly named.
What does this mean for America, in particular the Special Operations community, when and if we go to war with ISIS? Our two units prepared for hostage rescues in denied environments, SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force, won’t be hurting for work even as our war in Afghanistan dwindles and eventually ends.
America often laments its own short attention span and comments on how our postgame follow-up is woefully deficient. After we withdrew from South Vietnam, the Communists took over. After we shut down our covert operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the country descended into chaos and eventually the Taliban took control. After we withdrew from Iraq, the Maliki government’s ineptness and corruption practically handed much of the country to ISIS on a silver platter.
Before embarking on any new military adventure, the U.S. government needs to devote at least as much time planning for the postwar environment as they do for the war itself. This is the lesson we should have learned a long time ago, but instead we keep repeating the same mistakes. Military planners, the CIA, the State Department, and other agencies need to ask themselves not only what postwar Iraq and Syria will look like but also what they would like them to look like. A new way of thinking and a definitive approach are needed.
Players whom we want running these countries should be moved around the chessboard before, during, and after the military campaign. Humanitarian aid should be planned and budgeted for, because ISIS has wreaked havoc upon the regions under its control. The U.S. government also needs to consider the wider geopolitical picture. If we go in and smash ISIS, what power structures will fill the vacuum? The Assad regime? The Iranian Revolutionary Guards? The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)? If we want to avoid Gulf War 4 ten or twenty years down the line, than we need to ensure that reasonable, rational people with actual political experience fill the void left in our wake.
One of the postwar issues that will not go away is the movement toward Kurdish independence from Iraq. Kurdish nationalism has its roots in the Ottoman Empire, and has been gaining strength for more than a century. The government of Iraq has proved itself ineffective and unviable. As hard as America tried to hold Iraq together as an actual state, the reality is that it isn’t a state but rather a collection of tribes and sects that are at each other’s throats. Considering the fact that Kurdistan is, and will be, a great ally in a volatile region, we should consider abandoning the fictional nation of Iraq as it currently exists and work with the Kurds to prepare them for their independence and entry into the United Nations.
Although difficult to achieve, the United States should also consider brokering a historic alliance between the Yezidi minority group in northwest Iraq with the Kurds and the ethnic Turkmen in the north. This would go a long way toward achieving stability in this region.
Along with this issue, we must also consider the postwar role of the PKK. Listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, the Kurdish Workers’ Party has secured a great deal of legitimacy through its active and fierce opposition to ISIS throughout Iraq and Syria. It has fought the enemy tooth and nail, and in once instance, three fighters who were out of ammunition even launched a suicide attack against ISIS tanks, blowing up the tanks along with themselves in the process.
The problem is that the PKK does not see only ISIS as its enemy. With war fighting as its source of credibility, it also wants to fight the Assad regime, the government of Kurdistan, the Turkish government and, it seems, nearly anyone else who is not a party member. This will cause serious problems in a postwar Iraq. Bringing the PKK into the political mainstream and incorporating it into the Kurdish government will be difficult if not impossible. Lines of communication should be opened between the U.S. government and the PKK sooner rather than later. Its members may have conducted terrorist attacks in Turkey, but they are political actors, not irrational jihadists, so there may be an opportunity for reconciliation sometime in the future.
The government of Iraq is a mess. One of the biggest contributing factors to the spread of ISIS in Iraq is the ineptitude of the Iraqi government. Every three Iraqis seem to have their own political party, the government in ineffective and corrupt, and has no legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people, or in the eyes of the world. Iraqi military forces that were fighting ISIS did not all retreat as they did in Mosul. In fact, many stood their ground until the bitter end. But with the corrupt government failing to provide its own troops with food, water, gasoline, and bullets, they could hold out for only so long.
Frankly, considering the mess that the GOI has created, even a CIA-installed puppet government seems preferable.
Another wild card in all of this is Iran. Will Iran and its proxies sweep in to take advantage of American success against ISIS and fill the power vacuum? Will Iran help ISIS kill American soldiers as they did during previous deployments of U.S. forces to Iraq? What will be Iran’s disposition via its proxies such as Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon after the war is over? This are questions that the Pentagon and the CIA should be seeking to answer now, not the day after the war against ISIS is won.
With that, the United States must also consider what ISIS survivors will do after the war, as well as other Islamist groups. A strategic defeat of ISIS is not a death blow for radical Islam, and there is no reason for us to be surprised if (or, more likely, when) ISIS reemerges in some form or another Islamist group takes center stage and begins conducting terrorist attacks against whatever government or governments are put into place in the liberated regions. This is the same conundrum U.S. forces faced after the “liberation” of Iraq in 2003. This time around, it is critical that we do not repeat the same mistake. America must have a plan for a post-ISIS Iraq and Syria in order to consolidate gains.