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Where is the ISIS Strategy?

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By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comments about banning all Muslim’s from the U.S. has set off a media firestorm, as coverage has entirely been on his bombastic and fiery statements. As the focus has been on his assertions, missing from this debate is a strategy for defeating ISIS.

On Saturday, President Barack Obama stated that “our men and women in uniform are stepping up the campaign to destroy ISIS. Our airstrikes are hitting ISIL harder than ever, in Iraq and Syria. We’re taking out more of their fighters and leaders, their weapons, their oil tankers. Our Special Operations Forces are on the ground—because we’re going to hunt down these terrorists wherever they try to hide. In recent weeks, our strikes have taken out the ISIL finance chief, a terrorist leader in Somalia and the ISIS leader in Libya. Our message to these killers is simple—we will find you, and justice will be done.”

On Monday, the president traveled to the Pentagon to review the military strategy against ISIS, after his meeting the President touted the success the U.S. is having against the Islamic State by laying out what has been destroyed and who has been killed. Ironically this has symbolism to the way the Vietnam War was handled, prosecuted, and conveyed to the American public, until the Tet Offensive of 1968 showed a completely different dichotomy.

Throughout the president’s remarks after his meeting with his national security and Pentagon leadership, Obama laid out nothing new and still left many wondering what his strategy is to defeat ISIS.

One must first begin to ask what is the political aim the U.S. is trying to achieve in Syria, Iraq, and for that matter the broader Middle East? ISIS is only one of the systemic problems plaguing the region, after the “Arab Spring” removed many of the autocratic leaders who held power for decades.

The president needs to understand a couple of the axioms articulated by Clausewitz, in his famous treatise “War is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means.” What political strategy does the president want the military to accomplish with regard to the degrading and destruction of ISIS?

The American Enterprise Institute reported last Monday the United States faces significant strategic challenges. American leaders still have not recognized the nature of this war and have a dangerous misconception of the threat. At the same time, our global position is materially worse than it was just three years ago. We have fewer allies, fewer capable partners, fewer forward bases, fewer available resources, and fewer forces to deal with the threat. The policies that the United States have adopted to confront al Qaeda and other extremists are also reactive, rather than proactive, ceding initiative to the extremists. All these developments create the perception that the United States is no longer winning the fight against al Qaeda and ISIS.

In his remarks the president stated, “I’ve asked Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to go to the Middle East — he’ll depart right after this press briefing — to work with our coalition partners on securing more military contributions to this fight.”

The president needs to understand that Secretary Carter will have a difficult time gaining any support from the Sunni Arabs, as they see Syria President Bashar Hafez al-Assad as the problem and want him removed first. The Sunni Arabs will not contribute any forces in defeating ISIS while Assad is being supported by his Shiite patron in Iran.

The bombing campaign which begun last September has failed to degrade and destroy ISIS, and hours before the Paris attack President Obama stated that ISIS was contained. This statement has been refuted by the president’s own national security team.

Last Wednesday, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary Ash Carter, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, both were asked is ISIS contained and both answered No!

In their testimony both gave mixed messages as to what the political strategy the U.S. is conducting inside Syria and Iraq, and the broader Middle East. The president keeps articulating the removal of Assad from power but has never mentioned how this is to be accomplished. How does the president plan on leveraging the Sunni Arabs or the Sunni tribes inside Iraq?

Republicans keep pressing for wider use of the military, but they themselves have never stated what the political goals beyond destroying ISIS are, and never mention, along with the president, who replaces the Islamic state once it’s defeated on the battlefield?

Another axiom articulated by Clausewitz is, “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.”

What are the objectives; what are the strategic goals; are they clear and concise; so far this has been extremely ambiguous. Many in the military are unclear what are the political aims the president wants to pursue, and complain about inference from the White House as it relates to military operational strategy.

Far too often the rules of engagement on the conduct of the war are far too restrictive and ambiguous, forcing many U.S. aircraft to return to their base without dropping their ordinance. It was only last month at the U.S. bombed ISIS oil trucks, but first after having to drop leaflets, warning of impending air strike, to avoid civilian casualties. These restrictions are reminiscent of the Vietnam War.

Mark Perry, penned an article titled, “What Would Clausewitz Do?” “If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains,” Clausewitz wrote, “the first will gain the upper hand.” For a growing number of senior U.S. military officers, and particularly for those devotees of the Prussian’s masterpiece, the escalation marked by the Paris attacks requires a shift in U.S. strategy to seize the initiative: to hit them, and relentlessly, before they hit us. Inevitably, and ultimately, such a decision will test not only ISIS’s will to resist — it will test ours.”

The final axiom Clausewitz articulated was, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking.”

Into what type of conflict is the U.S. entering is it purely a conventional war or is it unconventional, or a combination of both?

This is crucial to understanding the war in which the U.S. is to be engaged, as the military learned all too well in both Iraq and Afghanistan, by embarking in one kind of war, then facing an entirely different kind of warfare once hostilities commenced.

Instead of focusing on the bellicose rhetoric of Donald Trump, the focus should be on what is the political strategy to defeat ISIS, what is the U.S. trying to achieve, and finally, what type of warfare is the U.S. embarking on? All the candidates running for president need to be questioned on this, this includes the president, and Trump!

The threat from ISIS is a serious threat to the United States, and needs to be taken seriously and not diverge into bombastic over the top rhetoric devoid of any real substance.

The country deserves better.

Note: The opinions and comments stated in the preceding article, and views expressed by any contributor to In Homeland Security, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or employees.

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