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Atlantic Council ISIS War Game Reflects Real World Policy

Undated photo of ISIS militants

Undated photo of ISIS militants

“Goldilocks plus”—not too hot, not too cold—was the way retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright described the approach of the United States is using in confronting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS or ISIL) in a war game set up by the Atlantic Council.

It is very similar to the approach the Obama administration is using.

Speaking Thursday at the council’s Washington offices, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs said the United States and its allies in the region and in Europe need to understand that “this is generational warfare” and “ISIS is but one player” in the long-term struggle.

The scenario presented to the war-game players was this: Suppose the Islamic State successfully took Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad and was able to carry out a successful attack on an encampment where American casualties were high, but fewer than 100.

The choices for the United States, its allies in the Middle East and Europe: Double down on a commitment of force; cut and run; or forge a middle course. There were war game players for each group, for ISIS, as well as for Iran, Syria and Russia.

Frederick Kempe, chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council and a player, said, “No one [on the American side or its allies] wanted to withdraw,” but all were wary of a major military involvement.

Julianne Smith, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a player on the ISIS team, said it exuded “a high level of confidence” throughout. The team believed “time was on its side” and was aware of its options in case of escalation. “We have strategic patience.”

Cartwright said the United States in the game was “confident in our military capability” but fell short of truly leading the allies or bringing its full weight—diplomacy, economic, etc.—to bear on the situation. “What do those tools look like?”

“The interests of the different parties make it difficult to have a coherent approach” to the situation existing in territory controlled by ISIS for example, Cartwright said the creation of a “no-fly zone” to protect refugees raises questions about borders across the region and may even add to the refugee problem by sending more people into that zone because they believe it is safer there.

The greatest vulnerability to success in countering the ISIS was Iraq’s government, Kempe said. Cartwright said that in developing a long-range strategy for Iraq there needed to be areas in which benefits are seen quickly by Iraqis—using American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to help defend critical infrastructure so the power stays on and water flows.

“You [the United States and allies] may want to look” at Syria, Iran and Russia for help in confronting the Islamic State, Smith said.

Bilal Saab, who organized the game, said, “ISIS will self-destruct” over time, but “this organization will not go quietly into the night.” It has had success in recruiting foreign fighters, propagandizing and inspiring Islamists in countries other than Syria and Iraq to acts of violence in its name.

Smith said even if the ISIS does self-destruct, the question really is “How long can the Iraqi government hang on?”

By using words such as degrade and destroy to describe what the United States is doing against the ISIS, Cartwright said, America “risks losing focus on long-term goals.”

Kempe agreed. “Now we’ve got plentiful tactics,” but no overall strategy

When asked at the very end the very real question of whether Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, will be retaken this spring, Cartwright quickly said, “Maybe”—a statement the others agreed with.