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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.

  • Jim Valle

    Before sending large numbers of US troops to Viet Nam Pentagon strategists and RAND scholars war gamed the pending military campaign and concluded we could not win. The fatal flaw was that the “other side” could always bring in more fighters to replace any amount of casualties we might inflict. The Johnson Administration ignored these findings and went ahead anyway. I’m just sayin…………………..

    • TomD

      OK. General Matthew Ridgeway did a study in the 1950’s that showed victory was possible, at the cost of 2 million Americans stationed in South Vietnam for 20 years. President Eisenhower read the report (remember, he was trained to write such things himself) and basically said “No thanks…”

      Then again, a [North] Vietnamese official at a USNI conference about ten years ago stated that they would have lost had we cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1965 with our troops. Did the RAND study include this option and the tactics necessary to implement it, or was it limited to evaluating the Johnson administration’s actual strategy and tactics? Since the actual strategy was based on flawed premises regarding Laos it is hard to state that victory was completely impossible.

      The actual U.S. tactics involved garrisoning the Marines near the DMZ and turning the Army loose in the rest of the county. One wonders what would have happened if we did the reverse. Suppose the Army built a ten lane highway from Da Nang all the way to Thailand with deforested and mined buffer zones and defended this line of communication and transit with Arc Light raids and it’s own organic forces? Suppose the Marines were turned loose in the rest of the country in accordance with their small wars doctrine? Suppose the CIA had gone to Sihanouk and outbid the North Vietnamese bribes that allowed arms to be shipped to their forces through the Gulf of Siam? It’s fairly easy to imagine an American victory in Vietnam, perhaps even with a smaller cost in lives than the actual conflict. What is hard to imagine is what we would have done with that victory: after all, our victory in WW2 created the atmosphere of pride and arrogance that led Johnson, his advisors, and the public to think we could win in Vietnam with a flawed strategy. Perhaps a victory in Vietnam would have only postponed a defeat to a latter day and location.

      So the question is, do these ISIL games also reflect flawed premises? Considering that ISIL arose thanks to the current U.S. policy regarding Syria, it is likely that our current premises are flawed.

      • tpharwell

        Yes. The Premise is that the game is against ISIS. It is not. It is against Iran. My post above explores this problem.
        Very interesting and thought-provoking discussion of flawed war aims in Vietnam. There is a parallel. The half-hearted nature of the commitment to the war at the highest levels. Johnson was failed by his advisors, principally, McNamara, who underestimated the scale of the enterprise and were biased. They must not have read Ridgeway’s report. He thus got in over his head, and his options were constrained by the mood of the American public.
        Came Nixon promising bombing would solve everything, and the people we less unhappy, for a while. When that did not work, it was “let us out of here”.
        All of this is in stark contrast to the performance of Union troops at Gettysburg, who fought like their lives depended on it, which of course, they did.
        Concerning your speculation, I believe Khe San is about as far as US commanders were willing to go in the effort to take the war to the enemy. That was not far off the road.
        Pity that Truman had the French Foreign Legion ferried back in 1945.

  • tpharwell

    Dear Mr. Grady,
    The problem with most war games is the rules by which they are bound. Billy Mitchell pointed that out when he had his crews dive bomb the Ostfreisland. In the case of the recent US v. ISIS war game conducted by the Atlantic Council, the problem manifests itself in the arbitrarily restricted categories of allowable responses to ISIS advances propounded for the game, to wit:

    “Double Down”
    “Cut and run”
    “Middle course”.

    This list is missing something. And what it is missing just happens to be the most strategically important option for response which team USA would possess. That would be…

    “To reevaluate what we are trying to do, why, and how we are trying to go about doing it, in order to determine whether a different set of goals and methods might better serve US and allied interests, and act accordingly to alter the nature of the contest and the rules by which it is bound.”

    For short, let us call this the “Never change a winning game; always change a losing game” alternative.

    The absence of this alternative from the list of options allowed by the Atlantic Council renders this game fatally artificial and uninformative. The whole point of the exercise was to consider what the US might do differently. Yet, essentially, the list of options permits nothing more than a symmetrical statement of possible end results: ie, “win, lose, draw”, that negatively reflect ISIS war aims. There is little important meaning to be found in such words as “double up”. And the choice of alternatives presented by the list from which it is taken ignores the most important advantage that the US has over ISIS, which is its adaptive flexibility. It has the freedom and the means to change its war aims, and the means by which it sets about to achieve them; whereas ISIS does not. Like the Boxers, ISIS is a suicidal mass movement with one compulsive goal in mind and one solution for how to achieve it, which is: to kill and create chaos. It is a militaristic Johnny-One-Note, lacking even the foresight and flexibility of a slave revolt. Cf. English Peasant revolts of the Middle Ages.

    If the US were serious about defeating ISIS, it would focus its efforts in Syria. Iraq is a lost cause. It is hopeless. This, the war game has shown by highlighting the flat-footedness of our forces there. But Syria is quite another matter, and quite a more threatening one to our allies. ISIS can be driven out of Syria by bringing an end to the Syrian civil war. And by defeating ISIS, and restoring Syria to the control of a government acceptable to the US and its allies, it can also eventually be defeated in Iraq.

    The defeat of ISIS in Syria would require the elimination of the Assad regime. That would mean confronting Iranian and Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war. And that in turn would mean altering our military and diplomatic objectives in the Middle East. It would mean placing all of these objectives ahead of our current priority, which is not elimination of ISIS, but rather, obtaining an arms limitation agreement with Iran.

    At this time, the US is merely trying to keep a lid on ISIS while it negotiates with Iran. Defeat is not the goal. Peace with Iran is. By reversing these prioritities, team USA can turn the tables on ISIS and eventually eliminate or scatter its forces. But that would mean pulling our carrier group out of the Persian Gulf, and repositioning it off the coast of Lebanon. It would mean coordinating our policies with Turkey, reinforcing Turkish defenses, and incidentally gaining use of Incerlik. And it would mean blocking Russian and Iranian arms shipments to Syria.

    By altering course in this fashion, team USA could suppress ISIS and hopefully in time bring peace to the Middle East. If it fails to make this correction, it will achieve nothing besides an agreement on centrifuges with Iran. Sectarian war will continue in Iraq and Syria for years to come. If Iranian forces, Hezbollah, and Shiite militias eventually defeat ISIS, then Iran will gain control over the region, and this in turn will lead to confrontation with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

    To avoid this stalemate, change the war objectives – for the better. Fly from the MED. Pacify Syria.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Tyler P. Harwell
    New London, NH

    Your correspondent is a retired country lawyer from New Hampshire, and a member of the U.S. Naval Institute.

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