Talk is Cheap

09.15.14 9:45 AM ET

Airstrikes Against ISIS Are Tactics. Here's a Strategy

A U.S. Army officer with plenty of on-the-ground experience suggests the talking heads think through the consequences of their calls to action.

We’ve heard a lot lately about a “strategy” to take on the barbarous horde of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. At a White House briefing on August 28, President Barack Obama remarked that “we don’t have a strategy yet” and that as “our strategy develops we will consult with Congress.” Last week the President announced that we now have a “comprehensive strategy.” His critics, meanwhile, had been declaring for weeks that they were sure what should be done. Their talking-head “strategy,” expressed on countless cable news and radio talk shows, was “airstrikes,” and virtually nothing else. As it turned out, item one on the president’s four point plan was “a systematic campaign of airstrikes.” Many of those same critics were gratified.

As a soldier who’s spent a fair amount of time on the ground in conflict zones, I find this popular focus on the power of Hellfire missiles and precision bombing a little disconcerting. What many of the talking heads who’ve filled the airwaves since the savage murders of American journalist James Foley (then Steven Sotloff, and this weekend, British aid worker David Haines) apparently fail to understand is that tactics are not strategy. Without first establishing the latter, they advocate a tactic in the dark that, even if successfully attained, could worsen the situation with perverse consequences.

One especially memorable commentator to encourage bombing ISIS was the editor of the Weekly Standard, William Kristol. Appearing on the Laura Ingraham radio show on August 26, the conservative critic gave his expert opinion on how to deal with ISIS. “You know, why don't we just [bomb them]?” he advised.  “We know where ISIS is. What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there.”  

Regrettably, the application of “airstrikes” and other instruments of lethal military power in the United States has become a favorite tool of statecraft: just shoot ’em and see what happens. Maybe if more of these advocates had spent a little more time in combat zones to see the terminal end of these strikes, they might have a better understanding of what is and isn’t possible.  I have seen the on-the-ground results of many airstrikes, as well as the impact it had (or didn’t have) on the enemy. TV personalities often give very little consideration to what happens after the dust settles from the strike.

For example, what would happen if the President took Mr. Kristol’s advice and bombed targets “for a few weeks” and then waited just to “see what happens”?  The first few iterations of air sorties would have a good chance of taking out numerous ISIS vehicles and personnel.  But in short order ISIS would adjust its methods of operation to disguise vehicle movements, reposition troops and embed command and control centers more deeply into civilian areas, becoming indistinguishable from the civil population.  

Now, despite having successfully destroyed a few targets, we would have pushed the enemy deeper underground, hardened his resolve, and seen his troops burrow in like ticks among the innocent residents of the cities he occupies. Further targeting from the air becomes next to impossible without killing noncombatants or sending in ground troops to flush the fighters out. Unless the President will entertain deepening American engagement by deploying ground combat units to root ISIS members out of their dug-in positions, house-by-house – decidedly not recommended – those successful bombing runs will have led to dismal failure.

To better understand the difference between strategy and tactics, let’s look at one possible scenario the United States could use to deal with ISIS, including identification of the desired strategic outcome and a description of the diplomatic actions, military assets, and tactics necessary to achieve it.  

The first order of business would be to bring justice to those responsible for these murders of American citizens.  As such, withering punitive military strikes would be unleashed to destroy key ISIS command and control nodes, equipment, and personnel. These targets would be selected for the pain and difficulty they would inflict on the ISIS leadership. They will discover the steep price they pay for killing American citizens.   

To protect American and allied interests in and around ISIS, the United States would design and lead an aggressive regional diplomatic campaign to first isolate, and over time defeat this group of thugs; the military would play a supporting role.  To accomplish this objective, the United States would isolate ISIS economically, financially, and geographically, while eroding its support from within.   

To accomplish this strategic objective, the U.S. should: 

1) Work with the states around and near ISIS territory for the purpose of closing the borders leading into and out of ISIS areas including those in Syria as well as Iraq, thus depriving the jihadists of materiel that could support military operations;

2) use aggressive border control to pin ISIS to its current positions;

3) at the same time, separate ISIS from its external financial and material support;

4) conduct a social media campaign that truthfully exposes the grotesque nature of ISIS ideology in ++terms that would-be jihadists can understand;

5) conduct a sustained humanitarian aid effort to ensure the people currently under ISIS bondage will survive; and

6) institute a coalition-supported “no-go zone” between ISIS territory and that of friendly nations.  If ISIS vehicles or ground personnel venture into this zone, they will be destroyed. 

In short, we would make it clear to the world and the potential recruits that ISIS has fatally overstepped its capabilities. Faced with the stark reality that they have isolated themselves physically, diplomatically, and morally from the rest of their own region, unable to repair broken equipment, provide fuel for their vehicles, unable to replace expended ammunition, and incapable of performing even the basic functions of a state, it will be clear to all both inside and outside the blockade: ISIS is a regime of losers whose singular accomplishment has been butchering the defenseless, and the impoverishment of the civil populations under its domination.

By containing ISIS within a shriveled territory, this strategy would condemn its fighters to sit in the unforgiving heat of Iraqi and Syrian deserts, no longer able to conduct or sustain offensive military action.  The United States and its allies would not fight on the enemy’s terms. Instead, we would deprive him of any ability to engage us; any ISIS terrorists who attempt to venture into the “no-go zone,” day or night, good weather or bad, would be annihilated. Deprived of an enemy to fight, isolated from the rest of the world, ISIS may well try to strike out with terrorist attacks in the Arab, European and American heartlands. These can be countered with good intelligence work – as al Qaeda’s efforts have been blocked for many years. Eventually, ISIS will collapse as a coherent and effective force.  As that process begins, it is likely town after town, city after city will begin turning on the ISIS forces, finally ending this faux caliphate. Ultimately, then, it will be ISIS itself which is the agent of its own destruction. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and represent neither the views of the Department of Defense nor the United States Army.