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How to Defeat ISIL
U.S. policymakers must commit themselves clearly to containing, disrupting, and defeating it.

F/A-18 Hornets on the flight deck of USS George H.W. Bush (U.S. Navy)

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Bing West

By pulling our forces out of Iraq in 2011, Mr. Obama claimed, he “ended the war.” Three years later, the winner of that war is a barbarous Islamist army that has seized the northern half of Iraq, threatening both Kurdistan and Baghdad. An alarmed Iraqi parliament has just elected a new prime minister, opening the door for American assistance. 

So what should we do? The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, has suggested that we “initially contain, eventually disrupt, and finally defeat [the Islamists] over time.” Notice that the general used the word “defeat.”

What is necessary to put flesh on Dempsey’s objectives? First, both parties in Congress must agree that this Islamist army is a mortal threat to America’s core values and must be destroyed. General James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has testified that ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, poses a potential threat to the homeland. The phrase “potential threat” is fraught with ambiguity. Until catastrophe occurs, many will argue that ISIL is a murderous religious cult confined within regional geographic boundaries. That was how Mr. Clinton viewed Osama bin Laden before 9/11. If the commander-in-chief does not perceive a mortal threat and if the press grossly underreports the persecution of Christians and other minorities, then the public will see no reason for our military to become heavily involved.

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With the Obama administration, nothing is ever what it was or may be in the future. There is no constancy. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has described the threat in terms of “some of the most brutal, barbaric forces we’ve ever seen in the world today, and a force, ISIL, and others that is an ideology that’s connected to an army, and it’s a force and a dimension that the world has never seen before like we have seen it now.” The Visigoths, Attila, and Tamerlane have a new rival. Obviously this new scourge upon mankind must be destroyed.

But wait: Then Mr. Hagel delivered the punch line. “I recommended to the president, and the president has authorized me, to go ahead and send about 130 new assessment-team members.” Mr. Hagel is holding the rest of our force in reserve in case the Martians attack. One hundred thirty assessors are sufficient to deal with “the most barbaric forces we’ve ever seen.”

We have to get serious about this: Does the U.S. view the Islamist army as a threat that must be destroyed by American force of arms, or not?

Second, to contain, disrupt, and defeat ISIL, our policymakers and generals must view themselves as virtual warriors. War is the act of killing until the enemy is defeated. During his seven-month tour in Afghanistan, a Marine grunt takes one million steps on patrol, never knowing when he will be blown up. His goal is to kill the enemy and to finish every firefight standing on the enemy’s position. That image of implacable violence should be seared in the policymaker’s mind. It is the gritty foundation of policy. The Marine goes forward to kill or die. If the policymaker is not as deadly serious, then don’t send the grunt.

Four years ago, the White House changed the goal from “defeat” to “degrade” the Taliban. That rightly drove a gap between our troops and the high command. Our resolute warriors were dying for an objective that irresolute generals and policymakers couldn’t define. In his memoir, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote that “the president’s heart wasn’t in the mission.” In place of a goal, Mr. Obama pledged a date; before he left office in 2016, the last American soldier would leave Afghanistan. Whatever happened to defeating the enemy?

As war author Karl Marlantes has written, don’t treat a human life as a bargaining chip, unless you are willing to be that chip. Too many policymakers and generals think of violence, if they think of it at all, as a negotiating tool.

“The enemy gets a vote,” said a senior defense official. “If they stop, we stop. If they attack we bring down the hammer.”

Bombing should not be the opening gambit in a game of bridge or whist. The president has already imposed boundaries on himself. This is exactly the wrong strategy. By linking air strikes to one humanitarian gesture, the president has made it more difficult, if not impossible, for him later to say, “An Islamist fundamentalist state must be defeated, and America will bomb and otherwise aid beleaguered states until that happens.” 

The public’s sense of war-wariness is not due to financial or personal sacrifice. It is due to the correct feeling that our leadership does not want to be involved in war. “If they stop, we stop.” The deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan seemed like Groundhog Day, with the fighting accomplishing no goal. Similarly, America is drifting toward a decade of war-jaw with an Islamic state in the center of the Middle East.

The public will be supportive if — and only if — our political and military leadership display the warrior resolve to destroy the Islamist army. If you go to war, kill the opponent. Crush his body and spirit until he is destroyed or submits to your goals.

Several practical steps follow from such resolve:

Publicly declare the goals of contain, disrupt, and defeat. No backing away. Defeat is the operative word.

Launch air strikes continuously and implacably. As a combat grunt with experience in three wars, I never imagined that our air power would develop to its current level of detail and accuracy. One enemy with a rifle outdoors, day or night, is a clear target, as is any armed vehicle. No army can move its logistics and munitions if our air is ready to pounce. Air is America’s weapon — distant, invulnerable, and deadly.

Establish one airbase and supply depot in Kurdistan and another outside Baghdad — 7,000 American military at each base, to include close air-controllers and advisers. There will be occasional American casualties. Assign disruption tactics to the CIA and special forces; both have deep ties to the Sunni tribes.


USS George H.W. Bush
JUNE, 2014: As the security situation in Iraq continues to degrade, the Pentagon has moved the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush to the Persian Gulf, putting it in a position to intervene if needed. Here’s a look at the firepower aboard George H.W. Bush.
The George H.W. Bush was recently stationed in the North Arabian Sea, and her movement into the Persian Gulf signals the seriousness of the situation on the ground in Iraq. Pictured, an F/A-18 Super Hornet lands on George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Joshua Card)
The George H.W. Bush is being joined by the guided-missile destroyer USS Truxtun (pictured) and the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea. Both ships bring a potent Tomahawk cruise missile strike capability. Pictured, George H.W. Bush with Truxtun (left) and Philippine Sea during a previous deployment.
Ahe amphibious dock ship USS Mesa Verde has recently arrived in the region as well, adding a rapidly deployable Marine Corps contingent to the task force.
THE “AVENGER”: Commissioned in 2009 and first deployed in 2011, the George H.W. Bush is the last of the Nimitz-class super carriers. As the flagship of the Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 2, she commands a flotilla of other surface ships in addition to her air arsenal.
The ship takes her name from the 41st president, who served as a naval aviator during WWII, where he was shot down during a mission in the Pacific theater. Pictured, Bush visits his namesake ship during training exercises.
Powered by two nuclear reactors, George H.W. Bush’s top speed exceeds 30 knots. A typical crew complement consists of around 6,000 officers, sailors and Marines.
Everything about the Bush is super-sized, including the things you can’t see. Beneath the waves, the Bush is propelled by four 21-foot wide propellers, each weighing 30 tons, and two rudders each weighing 50 tons.
George H.W. Bush’s main offensive punch come from the four strike fighter squadrons of Carrier Air Wing Eight, accounting for 40 to 50 combat aircraft on board. Pictured, two F/A-18 Hornets with Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-87 (the “Golden Warriors”) above George H.W. Bush.
Strike fighter squadrons VFA-15 (the “Valions”) and VFA-87 (the “Golden Warriors”) fly the F/A-18C/A Hornet. Pictured, an F/A-18C Hornet with VFA-15 launches from the flight deck. (Photo: Seaman Kevin J. Steinberg)
Strike fighter squadrons VFA-31 (the “Tomcatters”) and VFA-213 (the “Black Lions”) fly the larger F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Pictured, an F/A-18F Super Hornet with VFA-213 leaps into the air. (Photo: Petty Officer Second Class Gregory N. Juday)
George H.W. Bush also carries four EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare planes and E-2C Hawkeye early-warning and combat-control aircraft, along with other support and transport squadrons. Pictured, sailors prep an EA-6B Prowler aircraft with Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-129 for launch. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Timothy Walter)
An E-2C Hawkeye with Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 120 lands aboard George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Seaman Kevin J. Steinberg)
An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator completed an autonomous arrested landing on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush in July, 2013, marking a major milestone in the development of the new jet-powered Navy drone. (Photo: Alan Radecki for Northrop Grumman)
FLIGHT OPERATIONS: Officers and crew on the bridge of USS George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Timothy Walter)
An F/A-18E Super Hornet with VFA-31 lands aboard George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Stephens).
An F/A-18C Hornet with VFA-15 approaches the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush for a landing behind an F/A-18 Hornet with VFA-87 undergoing maintenance. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Nicholas Hall)
An F/18-A Hornet with VFA-87 (the “Golden Warriors”) lands on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Robert Burck)
An F/A-18F Super Hornet with VFA-213 (the “Black Lions”) approaches for a landing on George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Timothy Walter)
An F/A-18F Super Hornet with VFA-213 lands on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Kevin J. Steinberg)
Captain Daniel Dwyer, deputy commander of Carrier Air Wing 8, makes his 1,000th carrier landing as he lands aboard George H.W. Bush in an F/A-18A+ Hornet with VFA-87 in 2011. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Billy Ho)
Lieutenant Commander Timothy Myers with VFA-31 gives a thumbs-up after landing his F/A-18E Super Hornet aboard George H.W. Bush in 2010. (Photo: Daniel Moore)
ON THE FLIGHT DECK: A shooter signals an F/A-18F Super Hornet with VFA-213 to launch on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Daniel Moore)
An air department sailor directs an F/A-18C Hornet assigned to VFA-15 on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Brent Thacker)
An F/A-18F Super Hornet with Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-213 (the “Black Lions”) launches from the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Stephens)
A sailor assigned to the air department of George H.W. Bush guides an F/A-18F Super Hornet with VFA-213 to a catapult. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Nicholas Hall)
Sailors prepare to launch an F/A-18C Hornet with VFA-15 aboard George H.W. Bush. The painting on this Hornet identifies it as a “CAG bird” flown by the air group’s commanding officer. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Kasey Krall)
An air department sailor directs an F/A-18E Super Hornet with VFA-31 on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Daniel Moore)
Sailors assigned to VFA-87 (the “Golden Warriors”) attach ordnance to an F/A-18A Hornet on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Joshua Card)
Sailors with VFA-31 (the “Tomcatters”) load ordnance onto an F/A-18E Super Hornet aboard George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Stephens)
Aviation Ordnanceman Airman August Moss inspects training ordnance aboard George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Gregory Wilhelmi)
Sailors move an aircraft fuel tank on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Stephens)
Sailors direct an EA-6B Prowler with VAQ-134 on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Lieutenant Juan Guerra)
Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Second Class Steven Lily directs an MH-53E Sea Dragon on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Kevin J. Steinberg)
Sailors board an MV-22 Osprey from the Marine Tiltrotor Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron VMX-22 on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Kevin J. Steinberg)
Sailors transit the flight deck on George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Kevin J. Steinberg)
An F/A-18 Super Hornet comes to a stop on the arresting wire on the fligh deck of George H.W. Bush. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Stephens/Released)
Sailors conduct flight operations aboard George H.W. Bush. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian Stephens/Released)
Flight deck personnel direct an F/A-18F Super Hornet with VFA-213 on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. Bush. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Nicholas Hall)
An F/A-18C Hornet with VFA-15 takes off from the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Lieutenant Juan Guerra)
An F/A-18 Super Hornet with VFA-213 stands ready on the flight deck of George H.W. Bush. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Joshua K. Horton)
Updated: Aug. 15, 2014

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