ISIS: Strategy and Action
For over two years now, we’ve heard the many names of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant spoken on the nightly news. We’ve become familiar with the acronyms of Daesh, ISIS, ISIL, and IS, all of which refer to the same organization. We receive regular updates on their activities, primarily in Iraq and Syria. Many casual viewers are also likely able to recognize their now infamous black and white standard.
While recent atrocities committed on our very soil has brought increased attention to this organization, many of us don’t seem to be well-acquainted with just who and what they are. Certainly we have a name, a flag, and some sort of understanding that they’re extremists. Yet we often confuse them with terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. Such associations and vague notions belie the true nature of this group. They are without question the most dangerous extremist group in operation.
ISIS is far from the scattered group of jihadist terrorists that defines Al-Qaeda. While ISIS has extended its tentacles into portions of North Africa and even Egypt, the epicenter of this group rests in a near 21,000 square mile area spread across northern Iraq and northwestern Syria. In approximately one year this band of former Al-Qaeda subordinates managed to capture an area of two nations roughly equivalent in size of West Virginia or Croatia.
What makes ISIS so terribly dangerous is that they’ve grown and evolved at an exceptionally alarming rate. They are by no means a ragtag band of insurgents bound by some sort of perverse, yet simple desire to kill westerners.
No, their ambitions are far grander in scale, so much so that they found horrendous terrorist organizations such as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda’s ideological motivations to be unacceptably soft.
In June of 2014, ISIS declared itself as a caliphate, which means that the organization asserts its religious, political, and military authority not only over the people that have fallen under its direct control, but over the whole of the Muslim world. As an extremist Wahabi organization, ISIS adheres strictly to Sharia Law, which translates into fierce intolerance of: women, minorities, and adherents of different faiths and ideologies. Through its perverted ideology, ISIS has instituted practices resulting in the manufacture of child soldiers and suicide bombers. It has instituted the widespread kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of children. ISIS has made it official policy to indiscriminately exterminate all those who oppose it. ISIS routinely burns, beheads, shoots, bludgeons, buries alive, and crucifies opponents, suspected opponents, minorities, and accused apostates. It’s not unlike heinous regimes encountered in the 20th century.
The images of ISIS militants beheading civilians including women and children, summarily executing scores of young males and placing them in mass graves, bodies ranging from the elderly to the toddler callously strewn into piles as if they were garbage, are numerous. They’re in vivid and graphic color and provide undeniable evidence of the horrors this group is responsible for. These images are shockingly reminiscent of the mass execution of Jews at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, and the beheadings of civilians and enemy combatants alike by the Imperial Japanese Army during that very same conflict.
There was a reason that in the wake of the atrocities of World War II, the United Nations and its Security Council was established. Tens of millions of innocent people perished as the world attempted to appease and negotiate with steadfastly intolerant and murderous regimes. Quite simply, rationality cannot be understood by the patently irrational. The only means by which this campaign of intimidation and murder can be stopped is through the use of force, history has taught us this lesson time and time again.
While previously we were often exposed to the horrific images of a journalist or aid worker suffering a gruesome execution at the hands of ISIS, I fear that it’s not until now that the true magnitude of ISIS’s barbarism has crept into our collective consciousness. ISIS is an organization that in its first four months of aggression killed or wounded well over 20,000 civilians and has turned 3.2 million people into refugees, issues which have now struck home.
Global peacekeeping is a collective responsibility and it’s time to act. The swift and forceful intervention against ISIS is an international security necessity. It cannot be argued that ISIS does not represent a grave threat to the national interests of each and every country that sits on the UN Security Council. It cannot be argued that the existence of ISIS does not lead to the indoctrination of future generations, thereby contributing to a never ending cycle of hostility and instability in the affected region. It cannot be argued that ISIS has not committed acts of terrorism and has violated human rights on a massive scale, and that it actively encourages its affiliates to attack civilians abroad.
Since the commencement of hostilities under their own unique banner in service to the caliphate in the summer of 2014, ISIS has been able to muster up to 31,500 fighters in its center of operations. This is a total fighting force that exceeds the size of several western European nations’ militaries. At the center of this extraordinary feat is a robust propaganda machine that is exceptionally effective, having lured approximately 250 unstable and disillusioned Americans to take up arms in their name. Worse yet, ISIS has proven itself to be not only capable of holding its own against the military forces of Iraq, Syria, and the Kurds, but has exhibited incredible resiliency, continuing to retain its territory even in the face of coalition airstrikes.
ISIS is the single greatest destabilizing force in the Middle East. It poses not only a direct threat to the recently rebuilt Iraq, nearly causing the fall of its government, but has exacerbated the destruction and loss of life in Syria and it also poses immediate threats to U.S. allies in the region such as Jordan. The festering wounds caused by the persistent existence of ISIS has already led to a drastic increase in regional tensions, which will undoubtedly create voids which ISIS can exploit to further destabilize the region and extend their reign of tyranny.
To be sure, our policies in the region clearly indicate that the existence of ISIS poses a threat to our national security, yet to date our increasingly progressive interventionist policies toward combating this threat have failed. Our first policy initiative was to fight via regional proxy, which proved ineffective. Following that, we formed a coalition with the hopes of launching an air campaign that could cripple ISIS and allow regional forces to root them out, which again proved ineffective. We later intensified our contribution to the air campaign, again with the same result. Our new policy is to maintain an intensive air campaign, while placing great reliance on special operations forces. If the world is to be rid of such a barbaric regime, it’s clear that there’s a need for the western military powers to intervene in a more forceful and decisive way. No longer can we hold onto the hope that airpower alone or airpower in support of regionally-produced ground forces and western Special Forces can defeat ISIS. The ugly reality is that crushing ISIS will require an influx of conventional western troops as well as airpower and special operations forces.
While the resolution of such a threat through the means of direct diplomacy is ideal, a murderous organization such as ISIS is utterly immune to any negotiation that reduces their power or hinders their ambitions. The next best option is to embrace diplomacy as a means to foster a regional alliance. However, such initiatives have failed, and there is little persuasive evidence to suggest that additional political maneuvering within the region will result in the creation of a cohesive and sizeable regional force capable of eliminating ISIS.
The final tool at our disposal is direct military action, however, our attempts at this through the use of airstrikes and special operations forces have failed as well. While we implement a strategy that targets organizational leaders, one not entirely dissimilar from our legal strategy when countering large organized crime syndicates, we fail to realize that these organizations are not snakes and that removing the head will not necessarily result in the death of the body. These organizations are not snakes, but hydras.
While we may be able to target and eliminate leaders of ISIS, a bevy of replacements stands at the ready to take the reins. While a strategy that disrupts the central command structure of an organization may have been successful with a terrorist group such as Al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization composed of a multitude of dispersed cells reliant on direction and logistical support from a central command structure, that same strategy may very well not work on ISIS. The latter purports itself to be a state which necessitates the acquisition and control of territory, therefore it is highly concentrated, which has allowed it to exercise considerable operational capability through its numerical strength and density.
The reality is that organizational identity of ISIS is closer to that of the Taliban than Al-Qaeda, as such, a more intensive strategy is required if the threat is to be neutralized, one capable of destroying the whole of the membership as well as the leadership. Continued reliance on airstrikes will only increase civilian casualties and prolong the suffering that fosters an environment conducive to the promulgation of extremism. Additionally, special operations forces themselves, while incredibly successful in conducting raids, are a numerically limited resource not immune to overextension and exhaustion.
When dealing with a widespread and comprehensive insurgency such as ISIS, pacification through force is unfortunately required. This necessitates the use of conventional forces in addition to coordinated airstrikes and Special Forces operations. This will require door-to-door fighting that clears occupied territory of the bulk of organized ISIS fighters, before utilizing more covert means to eliminate the clandestine remnants. It will require a post-operational occupation by capable conventional forces to both prevent a resurgence and provide an environment of security that fosters stability and limits the growth of extremism.
Now as Americans, we are reluctant to enter volatile conflicts abroad. We’re generally opposed to risking the lives of our service men and women, and rightfully so. However, combating ISIS is a cause worthy of that risk. This is a cause that extends beyond regional stabilization, the constructs of geo-politics, or even the safeguarding of national interests. The West, led by the world’s sole superpower, the United States, needs to take direct action for the most basic and powerful of reasons, to protect the innocent. This is not a religious matter, nor is it a conflict between the Middle East and the West, but rather it’s the epitome of a universal moral duty. As the strong, we must protect the weak. ISIS has proven itself to be an organization capable of perpetrating untold depravity and evil. We can no longer avert our eyes from the ISIS-caused heinousness, and no decent person can look at the images of butchery and unmitigated savagery committed by ISIS and say that we have no duty to stop the slaughter.