How to Defeat ISIL

by Bing West
U.S. policymakers must commit themselves clearly to containing, disrupting, and defeating it.

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.

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.

No Iranian plane flies over Iraqi airspace to supply its fighters in Syria and Lebanon.

Gradually permit Kurdistan to become a de facto sovereign state.

Retire the pledge to pull out of Afghanistan by 2016. Retain a residual force. Afghanistan will remain a mess. That’s better at low cost — say, $10 billion a year — than the global disgrace of handing victory to the Islamist Taliban.

Expand air strikes and unconventional warfare into Syria when the political timing is right.

Move immediately to drive a hard bargain with the new Iraqi prime minister. Make him choose between two clear options: an Iran that, having no air power, will treat next-door Iraq as a vassal state, and a United States with overpowering air and a border 6,000 miles away.

Air will accomplish General Dempsey’s first two objectives: contain and disrupt. Between 1991 and 2003, three U.S. presidents maintained air patrols as part of the sanctions against Iraq, flying about 100,000 sorties annually for twelve years. Routine strikes, with no American casualties, generate little news.

Settle in for the long haul, at least another decade. General Dempsey’s third objective, defeat the Islamists, requires Muslim ground forces to push the Islamists out of Iraq and Syria.

Why? Because Secretary of State Kerry has vociferously insisted that no American combat troops will be placed on the ground. Engineers, air controllers, special forces, etc. as well as grunts are combat troops. This rules out eyes on the ground to direct our air — a significant drawback. It rules out any systematic pushing back of the Islamist army as the Taliban and al-Qaeda were pushed back in Afghanistan in 2001 by our special-forces teams on horseback, equipped with ground-to-air radios. It sends a terrible message to the Army and Marines, informing them that everything they may have learned over the last 15 years about fighting insurgents without uniforms among the people counts for nothing, because this administration will not again employ ground forces.

What option is left? We can offer to train Kurds and Iraqi soldiers in some third countries. If we do, we should make it contingent on an agreement that we will dismiss all poor leaders and that if they are placed back in command we will pull all aid from that command. Even if we do that, it strains credibility to envision the reconstitution of the Shiite Iraqi army with the spirit and commanders to drive ISIL from the Sunni lands within, say, the next five years. The odds are that ISIL will be defeated only when degraded by American air to the point that the Sunni tribes, aided by CIA and special forces, drive them out.

Now, here’s the rub. The new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has already said that if U.S. air won’t help, then Iranian air will be substituted. That’s a bluff; Iran’s air force is skimpy and unskilled. But Abadi will play Iran off against America. The Iranians have killed our soldiers. They are inserting forces inside Baghdad to control the Iraqi high command. They tried to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C. They are a heavyweight geopolitical enemy.

We must drive a firm bargain with the new Iraqi prime minister. This is a tough task, because Iran is his supporter. However, it is our air that protects his country. In return, as the administration has insisted for years, Iranian aircraft cannot continue to overfly Iraq. Nor can the Iranians have troops and advisers on Iraqi soil. In response, Iran will threaten not to sign the ambiguous nuclear agreement Mr. Obama desperately needs as a token triumph in international affairs. That may be too high a price for the administration to pay.  

In sum, there are two options. The first is to temporize and hope for the best. Mr. Obama has already authorized a few air strikes, while promising we will not get “dragged into fighting another war.” One newspaper has called this “a military middle road.” Nonsense. Temporizing is taking a road without knowing where it leads.

Admittedly, episodic strikes do provide a tactical dodge, allowing Mr. Obama to run out his time as commander-in-chief. The radical Shiite theocracy in Iran has been contained for 35 years; similarly, a Sunni theocracy including parts of Iraq and Syria may also remain contained. It is not irrational for Mr. Obama to do the minimum, while keeping his fingers crossed. After all, the cornerstone of his foreign policy is that he extracted America from the wars President George H. W. Bush initiated — and, more broadly, from the martial activism of America in the post–World War II era.

The argument, however, for defeating ISIL is precisely that we have benefited from the post–World War II rules that are undergirded by American military power. If we recede into a regional-actor role, becoming the Brazil of North America, the rules will change to our disadvantage. The clearest danger is that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, confronted by Iranian Shiite theocrats and now Sunni Islamists, will acquire nuclear weapons. That confers nightmarish instability on our children.

So the second and more prudent option is to implement Dempsey’s three objectives: contain, disrupt, and defeat the Islamist army. Our air power provides the leverage to contain and disrupt; to defeat the Islamists will require Muslim ground forces, a very long-term proposition. With either option, we’re playing defense. Only Muslims can forge their own positive narrative, reconciling their faith with tolerance for others and embracing education as the basis for material progress on this earth. Muslim leaders have failed their people.

Whatever we do, we have to stop hanging our heads. No more apologies. The Islamists are barbarians. In one of his Rambo movies, actor Sylvester Stallone is asked to go back to Vietnam. He replies, “Do we get to win this time?” We need to reprise that American warrior spirit.

— Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written six books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His latest is One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War