National Security & Defense

A New Strategic Blueprint for Defeating the Islamic State

U.S. Marines at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, May 2015. (Photo: USMC)

“O soldiers of the Islamic State, continue to harvest the soldiers. Erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere. Light the earth with fire upon all the [apostate rulers], their soldiers, and supporters. Carry on in your path, as you are the strong by Allah’s permission. Carry on, as you are the superior. Carry on, as you are the victorious — God willing.” 

— Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, November 2014

As that audio message affirmed, the caliph of the Islamic State has grand ambitions to transform the world. The Islamic State’s strategy reflects this agenda: Slaughtering or enslaving all who do not yield — Christian, Yazidi, atheist, Shiite Muslim, and Sunni Muslim alike — it wants a world in which there is one master, a few servants, and many slaves.

And today, believing that its many victories prove that its cause is ordained to prevail, and advertising that narrative to magnetize other jihadists, the Islamic State is growing in reach, power, and audacity. Metastasizing from Iraq and Syria, the fanatics now find organized armed support in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, and elsewhere. Indeed, in Europe, ISIS minions are stretching Western-intelligence human-surveillance teams to the breaking point.

And it’s obvious – at least to most people outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — that America needs a new strategy. But that’s an easy observation to make; what’s harder is to decide what a better U.S. strategy against the Islamic State would require. As I see it, two major evolutions are necessary.

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One: We need a new strategic outlook. The central problem with America’s current strategy against the Islamic State is President Obama’s underlying assumption that American disengagement will force Middle Eastern political conciliation. This is a fallacy. The Middle East isn’t a “Game of Thrones” in which a Daenerys-style leader can rise from the ashes to forge social cohesion. Instead, as I’ve noted before, unrestrained by an absent America, the sectarian wildfire is burning the little oxygen of political moderation that still remains. And as paranoia grows, Middle Eastern politics is collapsing into a total war between Sunni Salafi jihadism and expansionist Shiite Khomeinism. Add nuclear weapons to that mix, and we have a problem, This is the hard reality. And to face up to it, President Obama must urgently engage American power with a new strategic approach.

First, he must stop pretending that Iranian-supported militias will win Iraq’s liberation from the Islamic State. Because that’s not their agenda: These militias pursue the Islamic State’s displacement to promote the domination of Iranian influence. Doubt that? Just look at Iran’s antics in Lebanon. Through the Lebanese Hezbollah and its own activities, Iran has warped Lebanese democracy to a form of popular rule . . . subject to Iranian car bombs.

President Obama has given Iran every indication that he is willing to cede Iraq to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Still, the Middle East is complicated. And that means it’s unfair to say that Lebanon can’t offer some positive lessons for strategy. In fact, Lebanon’s relative peace now (compared with the 1980s) proves that political compromise is possible even amid immense hatred. Yet, as with Lebanon, durable compromise requires that destabilizing actors first be deterred. Why does Iran tolerate a relative peace in Lebanon? Because it knows it might lose out in another civil war. Iran must be forced to a similar conclusion in Iran and Syria.

Sadly, so far, President Obama has given Iran every indication that he is willing to cede Iraq to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. He’s even refused to seriously arm the moderate Sunni tribes of Anbar, Iraq, and Deir ez-Zor, Syria, to fight ISIS. Because he feared Iran’s reaction to a U.S. arming of those tribes, Mr. Obama has abandoned them to a binary existential choice between the power-drill torturers of Iranian militias and ISIS fanaticism, and thus burned an opportunity to redress the deep political disenfranchisement many Sunnis feel under the Iraqi government.

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Unfortunately, any serious new strategic outlook also requires another challenging but unavoidable task: the pursuit of Bashar Assad’s removal from power. Until that happens, the swamp rats of  Salafi jihadism will continue to breed. Yet, whatever White House talking points might claim, this shift needn’t involve the deployment of American divisions into Syria. Were President Obama to use American air power to carve out a protection zone in northern Syria — which admittedly would be complicated — Turkey might well deploy a significant ground-force component to effect Assad’s defeat and lay the groundwork for a hard-nosed regional understanding with Iran. Herein lies the broader end-game concern, As Jim Reese, CNN global-affairs analyst and CEO of the international-security firm TigerSwan, explained it to me: “Ultimately, there are two possible outcomes here. The Saudis, the Iraqis, and the Iranians are going to have to look at each other across the table and figure out a tough compromise, or Iraq should expect to be caught in a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

The simple point is that unless President Obama is willing to compel tough, even if covert, compromises between state actors driving the conflicts in Iraq and Syria — whether Assad, Iran, the Saudis, or others — the conflicts in both nations will continue to worsen. And the political aftershocks will continue to spread far beyond those lands.

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Two: We need a new military strategy. The administration’s underlying premise for kinetic military operations — that U.S. air power will enable Iraqi forces and Iranian-supported militias to defeat the Islamic State — is a patent delusion. That alliance lacks the capacity to effectively push ISIS out of its urban fortresses. Moreover, aside from a few contested areas, ISIS now has basic control of the highways that link Palmyra to Deir-ez-Zor city, to Raqqa and Al Qa’im, and across Anbar to Ramadi. This is control of great strategic consequence. After all, Palmyra is near Damascus and Ramadi is near Baghdad. And while Iran will never let Baghdad fall, the closer ISIS gets to Baghdad the more indispensable to Iraq the military power of Iran becomes. As a corollary, ISIS near-Baghdad operations indirectly strengthen Iranian sectarian-driven political power — in turn, fueling the conflict.

The U.S. urgently needs a ground-force component that can support Iraqi forces and, in some cases, launch unilateral ground operations.

Facing this reality, the U.S. urgently needs a ground-force component that can support Iraqi forces and, in some cases, launch unilateral ground operations. Such unilateral operations might, for example, involve surprise interdictions of ISIS convoys traveling along major highways and attritional kill/capture operations against ISIS compounds.

The big question, of course, is: How large a force would this entail?

And the answer is: not necessarily that large. Based on the U.S. experience against al-Qaeda in Iraq, three Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)/CIA paramilitary squadrons and an attached Ranger battalion — alongside such enabling forces as logistics, aviation, and intelligence — would afford the U.S. a small but significant direct-action capability for limited-scale operations. These operations could begin to push ISIS off-balance and pare back the strategic initiative while avoiding a large U.S. combat footprint. Far more important, however, such a tangible, physical display of American resolve (perception is immensely important in the Middle East) would encourage our wavering Sunni Arab allies to support U.S. strategy pursuing eventual political reconciliation, instead of their own sectarian agendas in fear of Iran.

RELATED: Iraq’s Decline into Chaos Traces Back to 2011, Not 2003 

This binding of kinetic military power and political strategy is immensely important. At present, lacking confidence in President Obama in the belief that he’s either profoundly delusional or, in regard to Assad’s chlorine fetish, proudly impotent, the Sunni monarchies are fueling the fires of regional chaos through politicized sectarianism.

JSOC ground forces would give the U.S. the ability to collect valuable intelligence to assess evolving battlefield situations and to target ISIS at unpredictable moments of opportunity.

Still, even if President Obama deploys U.S. ground forces in concerted operations, he’ll also have to break his subjugation of military strategy to domestic populism. In the last few weeks, we’ve had two fantastic windows into the Obama administration’s military strategy against ISIS. First, its use of Special Operations Forces as PR props. At present, the JSOC is rarely employed on direct-action operations against ISIS — but when it is, the administration is always quick to leak that news, regardless of the consequences for operational security. And while we mustn’t ignore the complexity and risk of these missions, President Obama is neglecting a strategic tool that could be employed to far greater effect. JSOC ground forces would give the U.S. the ability to collect valuable intelligence (something we need to do a lot more of) to assess evolving battlefield situations and to target ISIS at unpredictable moments of opportunity. The JSOC is well positioned to support more elite units of the Iraqi army in embedded operations against entrenched ISIS positions. Using U.S. operators to call in air strikes for Iraqi forces would directly support the administration’s air-centric campaign strategy. Against moving targets, air power isn’t terribly useful without human direction from the ground: ISIS fighters don’t tend to stand in the middle of open fields with air-visible signs that say “Bomb me.” Having JSOC on the ground would make a big difference.

We’ve also had another window into the Obama administration’s defective strategy: The stupid 22-hour air-strike story that circulated last week. After an ISIS fighter not-so-cleverly decided to publicize his unit’s position on social media, the U.S. Air Force bombed it. Now, while most people celebrated this action as an amusing anecdote of U.S. military supremacy, in fact it was nothing of the sort. Instead of concealing its targeting intelligence, the military inexplicably decided to advertise its methodology. Moreover, it took 22 hours to launch the attack. That might seem like a short period, but not when you consider how the U.S. military defeated the Islamic State’s precursor organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq: by fusing intelligence cells with direct-action units and turning the targeting cycle into a matter of two or three hours — in some cases much less, and certainly less than 22. But don’t blame the military here, blame their political masters — because the strike likely took 22 hours due to the restrictive rules of engagement the White House has imposed.

In terms of military strategy, the White House’s PR obsession is totally ludicrous. Just imagine if Nimitz had called up Yamamoto shortly before the Battle of Midway to tell him that the U.S. had broken his codes, but that he shouldn’t panic too much because U.S. Navy bureaucracy would take days to respond to any Japanese countermoves. Albeit at a lesser strategic level, that’s basically what President Obama’s team is doing here. It’s the continuation of public relations by other means.

This delusion speaks to a final military imperative: The Obama administration must get real about the global nature of this struggle.

#related#To counter the Islamic State’s growing success in recruiting followers around the world, the U.S. must do far more to counter the zealots wherever they emerged. Even if it does so only with limited platforms — such as drones — the U.S. must ensure that the Islamic State flag morphs from its present condition as a jihadist banner of ordained glory (and excitement) into a toxic symbol for the walking dead. As Vince Tumminello, a former reconnaissance Marine, put it to me, “The U.S. is very good at playing whack-a-mole, and in this instance, we must continue to use these methods to snuff out local terrorist organizations.”

Ultimately, however, the truth is obvious: America must defeat the Islamic State. The urgency of that cause isn’t defined simply by the political abyss into which the Middle East is now descending. Unless its demise comes sooner rather than later, the Islamic State is very likely to attempt attacks on the U.S. homeland.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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