The White House Must Change its ISIS Strategy

It is becoming clear that the American-led international coalition and its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria alone are not going to defeat ISIS. The U.S. government, its Western allies, and its Middle East partners, thus far, are against deploying ground troops to Iraq. The New Iraqi Army, a Shiite dominated organisation, has shown itself unwilling or incapable of defending Sunni-dominated western provinces. None of the parties concerned will commit soldiers to face ISIS, despite their acts of unspeakable violence and depravity. Current U.S. policy is against any military action in Iraq that does not come from the air, including firm support for non-conventional ground forces. The results thus far speak for themselves.


Coming Back to Bite Us

Scholars and security professionals have long been on the fence regarding the wisdom of supporting local non-conventional or conventional forces through military and security assistance programs. Many question if there is any tangible benefit in supporting friendly dictatorships, not to mention the intangible negative effects of supporting such systems. The same goes for supporting revolutionary forces, who at times topple an old adversary only to become a new one. Most recently, the Obama administration’s hesitancy to support opposition forces on the ground in Syria appears to have been heavily influenced by a CIA study that U.S. support for insurgent forces, specifically considering South American examples, has historically had little return.

However, this study, as many others which have covered the subject, does not provide satisfyinganswers. There are many factors which must be taken into account, such as the stage in the fight at which assistance begins, the speed and concentration of assistance, and the morale, local support, and battle momentum behind the supported forces. Nonetheless, current American policy is that the U.S. will only support military force in Iraq and Syria which it can apply itself directly and from the air or in the form of advice from military advisers. In fairness, it worked against Qaddafi in Libya.

As Clausewitz wrote, tactics is the use of troops to win battles. Strategy is winning war by winning battles. If America does not want to use its troops, it will not win battles. Therefore, it will not win the war. You cannot win a war you do not actually fight.

One of the main supporting veins of this type of thinking is that U.S. advisory and material assistance to foreign forces—conventional or non-conventional—can and does come back to bite us. The botched Bay of Pigs invasion made Castro paranoid about another attempt so he asked Khrushchev to place nuclear missiles on Cuba. U.S. and British involvement in the toppling of Mossadeq in Iran to be replaced by the Shah created the chasm that exists since the 1979 revolution. America supported Saddam Hussein against Iran and later went to war against him—twice. The U.S. supported Afghan mujaheddin and other fighters, such as Osama bin Laden, in their fight against the Soviets and they turned into al Qaeda and the Taliban we are still fighting today.


Comparing Apples to Oranges

However, basing decisions today on whether or not to intervene in foreign conflicts on America’s track record of success or failure in Cold War actions is comparing apples to oranges and leaves out what broader concerns drove those decisions to take action.

There are two ways to win a contest: Win by competing or, alternatively, make sure the other guy cannot win (and winning by default). The first option generally involves a head-on battle. The second involves careful planning, probing, deception, and even “dirty tricks”—espionage, sabotage, and proxy wars. During the Cold War, a head-on contest between the U.S. and USSR would have meant nuclear war, something out of the question for both sides.

The U.S. had to show up to every dirty match of the Cold War. If it did not, its enemy—the Soviet Union—would. Anywhere America did not show up, the enemy would win by default. And vice versa. Causing the Soviet Union to expend vast amounts of economic and political capital—which it did not have—was the long term strategy of the United States. It worked. Necessarily, this involved a Realist policy calculation of America becoming involved in places where and with people who, in better times with better options, it would have been better to stay away from.

It is correct that America married itself to brutal dictators and repressive regimes and kept them in power. Its track record of winning these battles and their follow on effects is mixed. However, it was a strategy that meant while some battles were won and some lost, every further battle meant the U.S. and its allies were moving closer to eventually winning the war with Soviet Union. We were winning even when we were losing. It worked. But we did do harm to do a greater good.


Americas Strategic Challenges Today

The Cold War is over and has been for a while. What kind of world is America facing today? As JCS Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey puts it, the situation is “2, 2, 2 and 1”: Two heavyweights—Russia and China; two middleweights—Iran and North Korea; two non-states—al Qaeda affiliates and organised crime networks; and, one system—the cyber domain. It is no longer a bipolar world. Instead, we have a multipolar world with different foes competing at different levels in different places—all of which, however, in sum, means a bigger total problem for the U.S. than any of its opponents.

Since our strategic calculation is no longer based on the single concern of defeating the Soviet Union, the question is actually simpler: Do we want to defeat ISIS? If so, the U.S. canunlike against the USSRtake the direct route to victory by openly confronting them militarily. America certainly has the capability. ISIS is, by all measures, certainly deserving of a resounding defeat. However, Americas leaders lack the will. America also has the capability to support local actors on the ground to engage ISIS in Iraq. However, it lacks the will to do this as well.

Clausewitz differentiated between tactics and strategy thus: “Tactics is the use of troops to win battles; strategy is the use of battles to win at war.” America’s tactics in the fight against ISIS, thus far, have been a poor showing. It does not, in fact, want to use troops at all, only airstrikes. Though it is killing ISIS fighters from the air, destroying their equipment, and degrading them in other ways, they remain in control of western Iraq and eastern Syria. America’s side is not winning the battles.

Perhaps it will, eventually. The calculation is that the U.S. and its allies will “degrade and defeat” ISIS through attrition over time—eliminating their troops and capabilities steadily from the air until they collapse. However, if this does not happen before they, say, take Baghdad or before they achieve other major victories, this timeline may continue to extend—and with more foreign fighters flocking to join them. Will America’s will to deploy ground troops be any greater then? Many American strategists also believed that with superior tactics, troops, and equipment they would defeat North Vietnamese communists over time. Perhaps they could have. But America and its leaders lacked the will to continue such a fight then as well. That is to say victory using such a strategy against such an enemy is not guaranteed.


A War Which Cannot Be Won Without Fighting It

It is hard to picture a scenario in these circumstances in which America will win this war without winning the battles. The longer ISIS exists, the longer its propaganda machine will continue to poison alienated, vulnerable minds internationally—as the Ottawa attack shows. The longer it exists, the more Shiites, Sunni resisters, Kurds, and non-Muslim minority groups will be murdered. American policy currently considers the downside of having to send American ground troops back into Iraq greater. American policy also considers the downside of providing material aid to local ground forces greater. It may come back to bite us.

However, is the prospect of ISIS continuing to exist, continuing to murder and enslave, continuing to disrupt regional stability, continuing to provide a calling and safe haven for Islamic extremism, continuing to prolong a Syrian civil war, and continuing to block the progress of a re-emerging Iraq any lesser an evil? The current U.S. strategy against ISIS seems to be doomed to lead, at best, to an eventual victory after yet another prolonged and indecisive Middle East intervention, with the same problems returning in another form a few years down the road. After all, ISIS itself is also the same problem popping up again. Remember, much of the early ISIS infrastructure was based around the former al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) the U.S. previously fought in Western Iraq.

Strange enough, this is a fight America can win if it takes the enemy head on with military force. For once, the enemy is using massed ground forces with columns of vehicles and even armor. Yet America lacks the will to do so. This is a war we can win, but have decided not to. If America is unwilling to commit ground forces and unwilling to support local forces to fight ISIS, then bombing them seems to be a waste of effort, other than to perhaps assuage our consciences. America should perhaps refrain from acting at all in Iraq and Syria and simply focus its efforts on Gen. Dempsey’s “heavyweights”, its touted “Pivot to Asia”, regroup from its weak showing against Russia in Ukraine, or focus on its nuclear negotiations with Iran and North Korea. It is better not to waste time, focus, and effort.

One of the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq is to fully commit to victory with sufficient focus, effort, material support and troop levels to assure victory or do not act at all. Middling solutions have cost us much in blood and treasure over the last dozen years. Against ISIS, America is, once again, taking a middling approach bound to be prolonged and indecisive.

As Clausewitz wrote, tactics is the use of troops to win battles. Strategy is winning war by winning battles. If America does not want to use its troops, it will not win battles. Therefore, it will not win the war. You cannot win a war you do not actually fight.


[Photo: Flickr CC: Peter Stevens]


Chris Miller is a U.S. Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient following two tours in Baghdad, Iraq and has worked as a military contractor in the Middle East. His work currently focuses on strategic studies. His interests are CBRN, military and veterans issues, the Cold War, and international security affairs.



  1. Mike M. 4 November, 2014 at 15:23 Reply

    Where would we be sending troops and then what type are we sending? Iraq perhaps, but certainly you’re aren’t suggesting we send troops to Syria? The problem here is we’re attacking targets across two borders and while we have the Kurds in Iraq to support, what ground forces are we really supporting in Syria? We haven’t picked a side in over three years, who are we supporting now. We’re essentially doing Assad’s work for him by attacking any extremists within Syria’s borders, without really providing any material support to the Free Syrian Army.

    If we haven’t already then we need to provide the Peshmerga with anything they need so they can hold their territory at least. We need to pressure the Iraqi Army to get involved in their own affairs, and if they are unwilling or incapable, then they need to go to the UN and ask for support and/or ask the neighboring countries to provide support.

    The last thing we (The U.S.) wants to do is deploy ground forces to the region again, when these countries are unwilling to help themselves.

    If the current airstrikes are not working, then perhaps it is time to step up the campaign and go all in if the enemy is as you say massing their forces, then that should provide plenty of targets for air strikes

    I think we need to be willing to accept some collateral damage and it’s time to bring in the bombers and/or cruise missiles and add close air support to aid the Peshmerga and any SOF we have embedded with them.

    Priority #1 needs to be to cut off ISIS financing which means either destroying or recapturing any oil/gas fields that they now hold. If no one is willing to send in ground forces to secure those (Iraqi Army) then that should be an easy add to the air targeting list. We need to destroy the facility and any surrounding roads/rail into the area.

    Surely we need to focus on driving them out of Iraq first and securing Iraq and any Kurdish held territory before worrying about Syria. If we can contain them in Syria, then it becomes easier to control the borders and then the International Community can also put more pressure on Assad.

  2. Aaron Alston 5 November, 2014 at 01:26 Reply

    Strange enough, this is a fight America can win if it takes the enemy head on with military force. For once, the enemy is using massed ground forces with columns of vehicles and even armor. Yet America lacks the will to do so.

    This is a war we can win, but have decided not to.

    This is so wrong. The United States didn’t defeat ISIS after 8 years in Iraq. We didn’t defeat the Taliban after 12 years in Afghanistan. We didn’t defeat the Vietcong after 20 years in Vietnam. The Iraqi people, the Afghani people, and the Vietnamese people are ISIS, the Taliban, and the Vietcong. If not an outright majority a significant number agree with these groups.

    Why do you think if we just had a few more years and a few more boots on the ground that this war can be won? Quite literally no line of evidence supports this.

    Why would a democratic president ,who rightly called the Iraq War stupid in 2003, would commit to further stupidity.

  3. Raymond Lee Moser 5 November, 2014 at 16:30 Reply

    So, if our Sunni Middle East “allies” won’t use their troops for “boots on the ground” the USA should sacrifice its treasure and blood to fight for them? Pardon me.

  4. NSR 5 November, 2014 at 21:37 Reply

    First I will commend you on your service and on your medal…

    I am from India and worked for long time in space and defense areas and also I have a son is a SWO – Nuclear in Navy. I have few words of wisdom for you to consider.

    Since the advent of Islam, it is at war with all other religions (Christians, Jews, Hindus, Budhists, etc) and also with the sub-faiths (Shites, Ahmedias, Alawites, etc)…These wars will not end until Islam gets rid of words and practices like infidels and Jihad…
    Muslims are not happy in the lands they are in majority neither they are happy in the land of minority and never will be because it is based on violence – they spread their numbers and religions by killing males and absorbing the girls and women for procreation…This is what happened all over world and now happening in Iraq and Syria…

    There are about 16000 ISIL fighters and majority of them came from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Algeria, Middle East, Morocco, etc
    Also, in Iraq, the Shites does not want a political solution because they want to rule like Saddam and they did for last 8 years…

    Now Iraqis and all the Arabs does not fight them or put their boots on the ground and we spilled enough blood and money and terrible situation economically….
    Sir,, for what reason do you want to put our boots on the ground? To protect Shites? Sunnis? Kurds?

    How do you intend to support another war? The dollars are neither falling from sky nor trees.

    They do not even give aid to long term unemployed like me and why would I want to support an endless war that only goes away with Iraqis finding a political solution and then fighting for their country.

    The reason for all these wars in Middle East is the violent Wahabi faith practiced by Saudis and their sheiks and bankrolling ISIL…They need to fight the monster they have created…not us…

    Thank you.

    Narotham S. Reddy, Ph. D. E. E.

  5. Ronald grinter 6 November, 2014 at 14:08 Reply

    No more boots on the ground, just good intelligence where the training grounds are and command centers, the Military knows what to do.

  6. Pedro Perez 19 November, 2014 at 15:43 Reply

    Defeating ISIS, in the short term, appears not to be the declared strategy,instead to “degrade it”,and buy time in order to empower Abadi and give irak’s goverment space to regroup militarily and politically and engage the sunnis to resist in Irak ,and to manipulate all these actors:IRAN,IRAKI GOV,SAUDI,under pressure to fracture Irak into independent “territories”.Defeating ISIS in Syria is not the declared objective.Instead it is to sit Assad loyalists , FSA and Kurds to finally defeat jihadists.The question of defeating ISIS is an open undefined part of this equation and appears to be a work in progress.This is a simplistic yet obvious reality that can only be executed under duress as pressure mounts on these actors to accept us solutions or deal with ISIS ALONE.

  7. Pedro Perez 20 November, 2014 at 15:11 Reply

    The paralell war is more complex and incorporates Russia,UN,Assad,Iran and Egypt backing a peace agreement that will leave Assad in power with some powerless political figure heads vs the Us ,Saudi,EU group wich includes Egypt that is forced to play both hands.Defeating ISIS is a side issue of capital importance or a central component of this war between Russia,Iran on one side and US,EU on the other.We have just begun the fight.Who is winning?

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